52 weeks – 30 June, 2013

BOOK

Loitering with IntentRead Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent. Spark’s books are odd, though usually delightfully so. Loitering with Intent is high on the quirky index but has a well-thought-out structure that gives you the sense of more layers than meet the eye.

Fleur Talbot, one of Spark’s no-nonsense heroines, finds a secretarial job in post-war London working for the Autobiographical Association under the apparently benevolent dictatorship of Sir Quentin Oliver. The Association is a collection of eccentric characters whose nascent memoirs are in the possession of Sir Quentin (who “insists on complete frankness“). Fleur is quite comfortable polishing the memoirs as well as transcribing them:

Not only had I read Sir Quentin’s fabulous lists of Who was Who among them, but I had also read the first chapters of their pathetic memoirs, and through typing them up and emphatically touching them up I think I had begun to consider them inventions of my own, based on the original inventions of Sir Quentin. Now these people whose qualities he had built up to be distinguished, even to the last rarity, came into the study that calm and sunny October afternoon with evident trepidation.

Sir Quentin dashed and flitted around the room, arranging them in chairs and clucking, and occasionally introducing me to them. “Sir Eric—my new and I may say very reliable secretary Miss Talbot, no relation it appears to the branch of that family to which your dear wife belongs.”

Sir Eric was a small, timid man. He shook hands all round in a furtive way. I supposed rightly that he was the Sir Eric Findlay, K.B.E., a sugar-refining merchant whose memoirs, like the others, had not yet got further than Chapter I: Nursery Days. The main character was Nanny. I had livened it up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents’ absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver.

Fleur knows right away that she will have some disagreements with Sir Quentin’s housekeeper. Beryl, Mrs. Tims (according to Sir Quentin’s observation of the niceties), or Mrs. Beryl Tims, as she prefers, is protective of Sir Quentin, annoyed by his mother, Edwina, and rather hostile to Fleur. Fleur categorizes her as the English Rose type, which is apparently not a compliment.

In her spare time, Fleur is working on her novel, Warrender Chase. As the novel progresses, Fleur finds that its events are being reflected in the lives of the members of the Autobiographical Association. This sinister development goes along with a feeling that Sir Quentin, Beryl Tims and Dottie (the wife of Fleur’s sometime lover) are working together to prevent Warrender Chase from being published.

As a “woman and a writer in the twentieth century,” and a rather independent-thinking character, Fleur manages eventually to outwit them all and to become a published author.

TV SERIES

The Bletchley CircleThe Bletchley Circle is a three-part series, made for ITV and airing in 2012. Again, it’s about women with minds of their own living in an era when there were fewer opportunities for them to flourish (none of the comedy of Loitering with Intent, though).

The four women of the Bletchley Circle were code breakers during the Second World War. After the war, they—in the main—returned to occupations more traditional for women. Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), the central character, becomes a full-time wife and mother. However, when a serial killer preys on women the group reunites to resurrect their dormant skills in an attempt to find the murderer. Each woman brings a particular quality. Susan is the main discerner of patterns; Lucy (Sophie Rundle) has photographic recall; Millie (Rachael Stirling) is the mathematical one, and Jean (Julie Graham) has connections and can obtain confidential information.

The emphasis on finding patterns makes sense and foreshadows the geographic profiling and psychological profiling used in police work today. Of course, Susan’s initial approach to the police with her findings is discouraging.  Attitudes of the era could be very patronizing. The women have to take matters into their own hands and take risks before the killer is finally found.

FOOD

Earnest Ice CreamEarnest Ice Cream (earnesticecream.com) is simply the best. I am currently enjoying Maple Walnut, Whisky Hazelnut, and Pumpkin Pie in rotation. The store is on Fraser Street in Vancouver at East 24th Avenue.

52 weeks – 23 June, 2013

Book

The Testament of Mary - coverRead The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín. The concept is compelling: in her old age, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hounded by two groups of people—some, including the Romans and the Elders, who want her silenced in case she contributes to the growing legends about her son and some, her keepers who are writing the Gospels, who want her to tell stories about her son’s divinity.

Mary isn’t willing to be pushed either way.  She thinks all the son-of-God chatter is nonsense. In her view, her son’s disciples were a group of losers:

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said …  My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.

Mary relates in a puzzled, angry way the various events that led to people’s believing that her son was the son of God. In her view, things got twisted, embroidered, exaggerated. She doesn’t understand how some of the supposed miracles came to happen and she often just sounds exhausted.

Towards the end of the book, Mary talks about the crucifixion. Related by a mother, it could hardly not be a harrowing story but in addition Tóibín seems to catch the very nature of evil through the quiet words of the witness.

AUDIO BOOK

Our Kind of Traitor - coverListened to Our Kind of Traitor on audio. It was very well read by Robin Sachs who, sadly, died earlier this year. (Having now listened to a few dozen audio books, I’ve become aware of how important it is to have a good voice to narrate the books: minimal accent, clear and crisp narration, no oddities of pronunciation. Robin Sachs was one of the best.)

As John Le Carré is one of the best of his kind. As an author of novels of intrigue, I don’t think he has an equal. His early spy novels were classics of their era; in recent years his work has had to be updated to reflect the changing world, but he retains an unparalleled ability to reflect the moral complexity around us.

In Our Kind of Traitor, two young English people on holiday in Antigua meet up with with Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, known as Dima. A hearty, overwhelming bear of a man, Dima worms his way into a sort of friendship with Perry and Gail while playing tennis with Perry and pressing hospitality on them both. He then asks them to help him get in touch with the English secret service to facilitate his move to London with his family in exchange for the rich variety of information he has amassed in his time as “Russia’s number one money launderer.”

The book takes its time setting up the background and fleshing out the characters. Perry and Gail are the least interesting, although we get to hear a lot about their lives. More nuanced are the characters of Hector Meredith and Luke Weaver, the intelligence officers who work on the case. There is a sense of growing menace and despair at the uphill work they have to do to put together a plan. The conflicting loyalties and dubious morality of the grey, faceless men that Hector has to work with are all too convincingly portrayed. You watch as greed for political power or influence or money create a climate where the unthinkable becomes banal reality. You know it is not going to end well but you’re unable to look away.

TV SERIES

BroadchurchBroadchurch, an eight-episode BBC TV series starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller. This series, set in a village on the Dorset coast, is the compelling story of a child’s murder and the subsequent investigation that involves and damages the whole community.  Ellie Miller is the heart of the series, having a person-next-door quality that makes her character utterly believable. She is deeply affected by the murder as she is a close friend of Beth and Mark Latimer, whose son Danny has been killed. Ellie believes that her son Tom is the victim’s best friend, although it later becomes clear that their relationship is much more complex than that.

As with all the best murder mysteries, everyone in the community has something to hide. Their prevarications and suspicious behaviour may hold important clues—or may just lead to dead ends.  Ellie is annoyed that DI Hardy has been brought in to lead the investigation since she believes the job was promised to her. Compounding her annoyance, Hardy obviously has personal problems that are having an impact on his ability to do the job. For his part, Hardy is annoyed that Miller can’t set her personal feelings aside.

The identity of the murderer only becomes obvious close to the end of the series. As the truth sinks in in the final episode, the actors have some harrowing scenes that ring true. And the murderer has a motive that is not easily classified—there is an ambiguity about it. The series is an impressive achievement.

Postscript: Since US television cannot leave well enough alone, Fox will be developing an American version of Broadchurch, to air in 2014-15.

Food

Heirloom tomato tartHeirloom tomato tart at Provence Restaurant in Point Grey, Vancouver. Eating on the patio, shielded from the street by hanging baskets. A perfect summer evening!

52 weeks – 9 June, 2013

Book

The Falls - coverThe Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates.

I had not read any Joyce Carol Oates for years, so it was a delight to find this book. The world she describes is realistic but comes from a fresh perspective. Her people are original creations. There are flaws, but never enough to take away from the overall accomplishment.

Newly married Ariah Erskine wakes in her Niagara Falls honeymoon bed to discover her husband of one day missing. She carries on a vigil for a week, becoming known as the Widow Bride of the Falls. But eventually Gilbert’s body is found and she has to accept his death.

Ariah changes over the time period of the book, which runs from 1950 to 1978. At the beginning, she is a shy, awkward music teacher in her late 20s, the daughter of the Reverend Littrell. She agrees to marry Gilbert largely out of a desire to relinquish spinsterhood.

After she is widowed, she remarries and discovers a sensual, passionate side to her nature. She is blissfully happy with her husband and children. But her early fears and superstitions are always there in the background: she knows that one day this second husband will also leave her.

In the third phase of Ariah’s life, painful experiences cause her to retreat from the world. She goes to great lengths to keep her family away from outside harm. Although we see a lot of the unfolding story from her perspective, we are aware that she often sees only what she wants to see. She never examines her own behaviour critically. Some chapters are written from other points of view and they help round out the picture.

Ariah is the most intriguing person in the book, though perhaps not a particularly likeable one. Her three children are all initially hindered by their mother’s fierce, smothering love, but they all eventually find their way around her into their own lives.

The story of Ariah and her family would stand on its own. But there is a whole second story woven into The Falls—that of Love Canal, based on fact.

In the sixties, the area around Niagara Falls became known for its concentration of chemical factories. Carelessness about disposing of toxic waste (if not outright criminal negligence) caused a spike in miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and more in the population living in the area that became known as Love Canal. Initially, residents’ concerns were met with resistance and denial but, eventually, after reporters began to investigate and public attention focused on the situation, there was a major court case and a settlement. The US government declared a federal health emergency in 1978. Residents were relocated and received compensation.

In The Falls, Ariah’s second husband, lawyer Dirk Burnaby, takes on the case in the late sixties—but he loses as a result of coverups and corruption and his career is destroyed.

Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional characters work well in this slightly altered universe and the history of Love Canal is a compelling, if depressing, part of recent history.

Thing

A Mind to KillA Mind to Kill is a television series made in Wales and filmed in both Welsh and English. Philip Madoc is Detective Chief Inspector Noel Bain.

Having been born in Wales definitely added to my enjoyment of this series. The accents, the often bleak landscapes of small towns, the familiar colloquialisms, all added to an experience of—well, not quite nostalgia but something related. The series is set in the 1990s, but there is something about small Welsh towns that takes you back in time; attitudes and social mores don’t change as fast as they do in cities.

Bain, a widower, has an on-again, off-again relationship with the pathologist, Margaret Edwards (Sharon Morgan). He has a loving but strained relationship with his daughter Hannah.

The feel of the series is oddly uneven; there are some episodes clearly written and directed by different people. But the supporting cast is strong: Gillian Elisa and Geraint Lewis are very good as detectives and Sharon Morgan is well cast as Bain’s independent and acerbic love interest.

Food

Patio diningLunch on the patio. Eating outside is one of the great pleasures of early summer. Various things from the Greek section of the deli taste so good in the open air. I should really have been drinking retsina, but it’s hard to resist the charm of something sparkling and pink.

52 weeks – 2 June, 2013

Inspector Beck booksI’m reading through the mystery novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, set in Sweden and written between 1965 and 1975. The earlier ones are a bit dated (the term “nymphomaniac” now seems dredged up from antiquity) and the authors’ Marxist beliefs are sometimes editorially inserted without sublety. But the books are fundamentally very well-written police procedurals. Ahead of their time in terms of gritty realism when first released, they are still well worth reading today.

The novels’ Detective Martin Beck (later promoted to Inspector) is an early version of a now classic character: a decent, driven, homicide investigator whose private life is sacrificed to his job. At the beginning, he is married with two young children. Later in the novels, he divorces and has a turbulent but essentially loving relationship with his grown daughter.  Yes—Beck was around before Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender. Beck leads a team of colleagues who are all well-drawn and believable, complete with individual quirks and flaws.

One of the things the Beck novels excel at is the background details of the characters’ day-to-day lives and their social structures. These details add to the stories’ realism (you can’t make this stuff up) and also create wry social commentary about the complex institutions humans create. At the beginning of Roseanna, a canal has begun to clog up and boats are having a hard time getting through:

… It wasn’t hard to see that something had to be done. As early as May, the Canal Company requisitioned a dredging machine from the Engineering Board. The papers were passed from one perplexed civil servant to another and finally remitted to the Swedish National Shipping and Navigation Administration. The Shipping and Navigation Administration thought that the work should be done by one of the Civil Engineering Board’s bucket dredging machines.  But the Civil Engineering Board found that the Shipping and Navigation Administration had control over bucket dredging machines and in desperation made an appeal to the Harbor Commission in Norrköping, which immediately returned the papers to the Shipping and Navigation Administration, which remitted them to the Civil Engineering Board, at which point someone picked up the telephone and dialed an engineer who knew all about bucket dredging machines.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were a smart, politically aware couple who decided to write ten books in ten years. They wrote alternating chapters. And their plan was that the books would hold up a mirror to the problem of increasing violence in Swedish society—a reflection and a warning. Their novels succeeded in gaining an audience in a small way at first and in increasing numbers over the decades since. Whether anyone heeded their warnings about the worsening social problems is hard to say.

TV SERIES

OutHere is another period piece: this one from England, a decade later. The six-episode television series Out was made in 1978. Frank Ross (Tom Bell) is out of prison after an eight-year sentence and is looking for the person who grassed on him.

The clothing and hair styles can only be described as wonderfully seventies. The dialogue can be hard to follow, as it’s full of the jargon of the era used by people who make their living through crime, ranging from petty to significant, and who survive by their street smarts. You can follow the meaning of conversations by the context, though it makes you realize how fast language changes and how difficult it can be to understand subcultures.

Outside of the gang and associates, Detective Inspector Bryce (Norman Rodway) is waiting until Frank makes a mistake, so that he can put him back inside. But the viewer’s sympathies are with Frank, if with anyone—we’re not sure that Bryce’s motives are pure.

Women are relegated to secondary roles. It is a man’s world where male activities are the important ones, leaving the women to wait around and accept offhand treatment. Frank’s lover Anne (Lynn Farleigh) is an unsatisfactory character who appears to have no life independent of a man and there is no obvious chemistry between her and Frank, even in the sort-of-love-scenes.  Frank’s wife Eve (Victoria Fairbrother) is mentally ill and is in a home. It’s not clear what this adds to the story, other than some unresolved complexity.

Watch this for the late seventies feel and the awareness of moral grey areas, less common when this series was made.

Food

Dessert at Cotto: Lemon Pannacotta. A work of art on the plate, with a variety of textures on the palate—the smooth tartness of the pannacotta, the yielding crunch of the pistachios, the shattering crunch of the thin butterscotch cookie shard, the melt-in-the-month meringue with a lemon cream filling. And more! This is many desserts in one.

52 weeks – 25 May, 2013

Book

Ground-BeneathThe Ground Beneath her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. I listened to it on CD. I wanted to like this novel, and I remained interested through the early parts set in Bombay—but in the end I thought it was too self-indulgent and uncontrolled to be successful.

It’s a long saga of a book and therefore many, many CDs. About six disks before the end, I was seriously flagging but I decided, having got that far, to finish it. But over the last few disks I found myself many times shouting at the CD player, “That’s it! That’s an ending! No more!” But, no: on and on the story went, Rushdie seemingly unable to finish it.

Based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara is a sort of love story. It’s set against the world of rock music from the fifties to the nineties. Rock musicians and their music are referenced constantly through the story—some with their real names, some with composite names that sound like a person or a song you ought to know. The story is narrated by Rai, their friend and a rival for Vina’s love.

One of the many twists on reality is that Ormus makes rock music before anyone else:

And music, popular music, was the key that unlocked the door for them, the key to magic lands.

In India it’s often said that the music I’m talking about is precisely one of those viruses with which the almighty West has infected the East, one of the great weapons of cultural imperialism, against which all right-minded persons must fight and fight again. Why then offer up paeans to cultural traitors like Ormus Cama, who betrayed his roots and spent his pathetic lifetime pouring the trash of America into our children’s ears? Why raise low culture so high, and glorify what is base? Why defend impurity, that vice, as if it were a virtue?

This is what Ormus and Vina always claimed, never wavering for a moment: that the genius of Ormus Cama did not emerge in response to, or in imitation of, America; that his early music, the music he heard in his head during his unsinging childhood years, was not of the West, except in the sense that the West was in Bombay from the beginning, impure old Bombay where West, East, North and South had always been scrambled, like codes, like eggs, and so Westernness was a legitimate part of Ormus, a Bombay part, inseparable from the rest of him.

It was an amazing proposition: that the music came to Ormus before it ever visited the Sun Records studio or the Brill building or the Cavern Club. That he was the one who heard it first. Rock music, the music of the city, of the present, which crossed all frontiers, which belonged equally to everyone—but to my generation most of all because it was born when we were children, it spent its adolescence in our teenage years, it became adult when we did, growing paunchy and bald right along with us: this was the music that was first revealed to a Parsi Indian boy named Ormus Cama who heard all the songs in advance, two years, eight months and twenty-eight days before anyone else.

How could such a thing happen?

It’s an appealing idea and of course you can get swept up in the hypnotic magic of Rushdie’s way with words. The problem with this book for me is that I eventually got tired of the magic realism, alternative reality, in-love-with-language style because there seemed no end to it. Here is a paragraph in which the essential meaning is almost lost by the many parenthetical embroideries:

We must wait a little longer for the answer, until Ormus Cama has returned home from the record store, stunned by joy (because of his meeting with that under-age nymphet, Vina Apsara) and horror (because of his discovery of the “theft” of his secret music by Jesse Parker, Jack Haley’s Meteors, and sundry other quiffed and finger-snapping Yanks). The answer cannot be given until Ormus has first encountered his inquisitive matchmaker of a mother, who is anxious to know how things went with “dear Persis, such an able girl, with so many good qualities, so dutiful, so well-educated, such good marks in her Matric and Senior Cambridge, and quite pretty in a way, don’t you think so, Ormus dear,” to which perfunctory encomium he makes no reply other than a shrug. Then he must lounge lazily through the dining room, past the decrepit old domestic servant pretending to polish the silver candelabrum on the sideboard, Gieve, the kleptomaniac head bearer, whom his father took on from the departed William Methwold, and who now bears the title of “butler,” thanks to Sir Darius’s fondness for Lord Emsworth’s immortal Beach, and who has been very, very slowly stealing the family silver for years…

Yes, it’s a delicious wallow and yes, it’s entertaining—and for a while that is enough.

Rock lyrics occur many times, but they lose power without their musical accompaniment and in their unadorned state they are sometimes so banal that they serve to undermine the power of the story rather than accentuate it.

I believe that Rushdie would have been better served by his publisher if he had been assigned a more ruthless editor. His rich facility with language, plays on words, literary references, poetic ramblings, philosophical lectures, history lessons—both real and fictional—are wonderful in moderate doses, but they need to be reigned in. The embroideries on and tangential outgrowths of the central plot should be minimized. The complexities of the characters—oops, I’m doing it myself. I’ll stop now.

TV series

The NewsroomThe Newsroom, by Ken Finkleman. This Canadian TV series was originally  broadcast on CBC. There are three seasons and a two hour TV movie. So far, I’ve watched seasons 1 and 2.

It’s a darkly funny series, with the main character George Findlay (Ken Finkleman) and the anchor Jim Walcott (Peter Keleghan) demonstrating varying degrees of incompetence. George is self-obsessed, duplicitous and cunning. Jim is completely unaware of what is going on in the world but he presents a slick, smiling front for the news program.

Karen (played by Karen Hines) is the voice of wisdom, good taste and integrity, though she manages to inject some wonderful deadpan comedy into her scenes with George.

George’s sidekicks, different people in season 1 and season 2, are an ongoing support group who listen to his often outlandish ideas with only a slight widening of the eyes or a hesitant repetition of the main points to reflect the sane person’s response to George’s views. My current favourite is Matt (Matt Watts). His eyes flicker behind his glasses as he appears to process George’s latest and decide how to respond to it.

At the end of season 2, there are four episodes done documentary style. These bear a strong resemblance to The Office, the hilarious original British version created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

I haven’t yet watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the US newsroom drama series that premiered in 2012. It sounds as though it leans more to drama than comedy, though it might be an interesting contrast in styles.

Food

BottlesEarly evening light coming through the wine bottles stored and displayed at Arms Reach Bistro in Deep Cove.

52 weeks – 12 May, 2013

Book

A Widow for One Year-coverA Widow for One Year, by John Irving. I listened to it on CD while driving. A huge book in print, it translated to 20 CDs. That’s a lot of car trips. Although I got impatient with Irving’s repetitiveness at times, overall it was a great experience in which to immerse myself.  His characters are quirky enough to be real and the situations they get into are labyrinthine but always entertaining. His books are lengthy, rambling sagas with all kinds of sideways diversions and embellishments.

Ruth Cole, the daughter of Ted and Marion Cole, was conceived as a replacement for the two brothers she never knew, who were killed in a car accident years before she was born. Marion never gets over the loss of her two sons and is unable to get close to her young daughter.

Ted Cole is a writer of rather scary children’s books: even the title of The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls makes me think of children’s nightmares. Even worse, The Sound of Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound has a mole “twice the size of a child, but half the size of most adults. This mole walked upright, like a man, and so he was called the moleman. He wore baggy pants, which hid his tail, and old tennis shoes that helped him to be quick and quiet.” And this mole likes to take little girls back to his lair.

Ted is also a tireless womanizer. He hires the teenage Eddie O’Hare as an assistant during the summer that Ruth is four. We are told that Ted hopes Eddie will be more than an assistant to Marion; in fact, he hopes that Eddie will make up for his neglect of her.

Marion initially views Eddie like another son, but eventually they become lovers. The days and weeks during which this situation develops has a dreamlike quality: the feeling of the endless summers of childhood.

Irving’s winding, convoluted sentences add to that feeling of being on a summer vacation.  You can relax into this book and take time to understand the nuances of each situation. His paragraphs tend to be repetitive, meandering, referring back to earlier times, foreshadowing events later in the novel, and making quite sure the reader understands all the details and subleties:

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any “presence” she detected in either her mother or her father—and that, after her mother had abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer—for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photos had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memories, she was forced to imagine them.

It can be quite hypnotic, especially when you’re listening to it as an audio book.

My main caveat is that sometimes all the detail, the repeated words and reminders of past events combine to give me the feeling that there will be a test later and I will have to remember everything—but I ended up adapting to and accepting the style. Overall, it’s a very satisfying book.

TV Series

Wendell Pierce in TremeTreme is a television series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who previously collaborated on The Wire. It is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It follows the lives of residents of the Treme neighbourhood as they try to rebuild their homes. Some are trying to find out what happened to relatives who have disappeared; some are trying to obtain assistance to rebuild. But along with the suffering goes an appetite for life—for good food, for parades and parties, and of course for music.

Music is huge in Treme, with lots of traditional and newer music in every episode. Wendell Pierce, who played a cop in The Wire, is Antoine Batiste, a trombonist who lives with his second wife (although he still has a roving eye). Every episode has scenes of second-line parades or street musicians or people dancing along with the music in bars (sometimes all three).  Many real-life musicians play cameos. Sometimes Treme indulges them a little too much, introducing them by name with excessive amounts of awe. Sometimes, dare I say it, there is too much music in an episode to the detriment of the story arc.

Police corruption is a major theme. Melissa Leo, as lawyer Toni Bernette, struggles to work with the better cops and expose others. Given the general atmosphere, you aren’t sure that even the good cops are entirely pure.

But the heart of Treme is about the community’s love of New Orleans. The residents go through painful struggles trying to rebuild their lives. They have to deal with loss, with bureaucracy and with those out to turn a quick profit, but still they love the place and its traditions.

Treme isn’t as good as The Wire—it isn’t as tight and coherent, but it’s an entertaining and often thoughtful series that seems pretty authentic.

Food

Tarte aux AbricotsTarte aux Abricots at the Le Panier bakery in Seattle. Melt in the mouth flaky pastry, sweet-tart glazed apricots. Magnificent.

52 weeks – 28 April, 2013

Book

This Is How You Lose Her-coverThis is How you Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. I heard great thing about Diaz’ award-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was keen to read This is How You Lose Her. But it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped. Yunior, the main character, is a swaggering, macho man who tells stories of his many lovers. The litany of his conquests and his infidelities quickly becomes tiresome. Somewhere inside the posturing is a more rounded character but his better qualities are not obvious enough. We’re told that he becomes a college professor and an author, though the qualities those roles would require are also hidden.

The most affecting stories are those involving his family, especially his older brother, Rafa. The two-way alienation of the immigrant family in the big North American city is conveyed well. Even as man of mature years, Junior is still stopped by the police because he looks suspicious.

The book is peppered with Spanish phrases and I wasn’t patient enough to plough through all of them. Of course, you can intuit what a lot of them mean from the context, but it still makes the book less accessible than it could have been.

When it works, though, the style flows well.

I must have been smoking dust, because I thought we were fine those first couple of days. Sure, staying locked up in my abuelo’s house bored Magda to tears, she even said so—I’m bored, Yunior—but I’d warned her about the obligatory Visit with Abuelo. I thought she wouldn’t mind; she’s normally mad cool with the viejitos. But she didn’t say much to him. Just fidgeted in the heat and drank fifteen bottles of water. Point is, we were out of the capital and on a guagua to the interior before the second day had even begun. The landscapes were superfly—even though there was a drought on and the whole campo, even the houses, was covered in that red dust. There I was. Pointing out all the shit that had changed since the year before. The new Pizzarelli and the little plastic bags of water the tigueritos were selling. Even kicked the historicals. This is where Trujillo and his Marine pals slaughtered the gavilleros, here’s where the Jefe used to take his girls, here’s where Balaguer sold his soul to the Devil. And Magda seemed to be enjoying herself. Nodded her head. Talked back a little. What can I tell you? I thought we were on a positive vibe.

Movie

Party-Animals-title-screenParty Animals, a 2007 BBC TV series. Sadly, the series was cancelled after eight episodes; however, it ends at a point that is dramatically satisfactory.

The party animals are a group of mainly young people who are involved in party politics as researchers, lobbyists and Members of Parliament. There are backroom deals, affairs, betrayals, and plenty of insights into how government works. Although you have to keep in mind that it’s a dramatization that takes liberties, viewers who have read newspapers will not be surprised at the things purported to take place behind the scenes. Ashika Chandrimani (Shelley Conn) is having an affair with her boss James Northcote (Patrick Baladi) while she is being lured away from her job and groomed for political stardom. Researcher Danny Foster (Matt Smith) works for a clever but troubled and frequently ungrateful MP (Jo Porter, played by Raquel Cassidy). He struggles with his unrequited passion for his officemate, Kirsty MacKenzie (Andrea Riseborough).

Food

Scallops-ChickpeaFriesSeared scallops, chickpea fries and roasted brussels sprouts at Pidgin. It sounds like an odd combination but is surprisingly harmonious.