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 – 24 March, 2013

Book

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi - coverMy Tango with Barbara Strozzi, by Russell Hoban: a quirky little novel that Hoban followers will love. Me? Not so much. It held a lot of promise: Phil Ockerman, gloomy over the reviews of his latest book and uneasy about Pluto coming over his Sagittarian ascendant, visits the Royal Academy and falls for the image of Barbara Strozzi, a seventeenth-century Venetian singer and composer. He has a transcendent moment:

Perhaps I fainted, I don’t know. I didn’t fall down, but it was a Road-to-Damascus kind of thing. A girl of twelve or thirteen and her mother approached as I stood there. ‘That man has an erection,’ said the girl.

‘Nonsense,’ said the mother as they moved on. ‘It’s probably his iPod.”

There was music in that look — not her own lamentate but something more coarse and sexual and a rhythm of controlled passion. I don’t know the dances of Guardi’s time and Strozzi’s, but for me the music and the dance became tango.

Barbara StrozziNaturally, following this, Phil enrolls in the Saturday evening beginners’ tango class in the basement of St. James’s church in Clerkenwell. There he meets Bertha Strunk, who seems to resemble Barbara Strozzi, and they begin a passionate but troubled relationship.

To this point and for a couple more chapters I was finding this all very funny: the combination of bizarre situations with meandering disquisitions on music and art was appealing. But it all starts to get odder and more difficult to follow and, after a couple more chapters, I would have abandoned it if it weren’t for the fact that this was a book club choice and so duty required that I finish it. There was too much about astrology and, really, too much of everything, resulting in a shapeless whole. The sentences, even paragraphs and pages, are often beautiful:

The carriage was full of young people and vernal expectation but I am a November sort of person, and I thought of the big rain that always comes in November to leave the trees black and bare the next morning and the ground covered with brown leaves.

But there is a haphazardness and lack of cohesiveness about the whole book that didn’t work for me.

TELEVISION

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIIIWatched The Tudors, the TV mini-series about the court of King Henry VIII. It is well done, although some of the historical facts as we know them have been modified to suit some of the sideline plots.

Casting must have been more than the usual challenge, since we all have pictures of these figures built up from our history books and other book and screenplay treatments. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the sensuality and arrogance that suits my picture of the king, although I imagine Henry to be physically taller and broader. I think Maria Doyle Kennedy is perfect as Catherine of Aragon: kind, devout, regal in a good way, and tragic as she senses Henry drawing away from her. And Sam Neill could not be better as the ruthless Cardinal Wolsey.

There is all that we have come to expect from this epic story: rich surroundings, pageantry, intrigue, betrayals, lust and violence. It’s a visual feast.

Food

Tofu TeriyakiTofu Teriyaki at Sushi Bella on Lonsdale in North Vancouver. Sushi Bella is a lively, noisy place with creative expressions of sushi and other Japanese dishes. My Lady Mango Roll (avocado, beets, and yam tempura roll with mango salsa) was a lot more delicious and less confused than it sounds. The Tofu Teriyaki was good but too much for me: it could have served three or four people. Go with a crowd.

52 weeks – 10 February, 2013

Book

Hitch-22 coverHitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens. Oh, I do love Christopher Hitchens’ work and miss the thrill of seeing a new article by him. (He died in 2011.) In this memoir, you get a compelling, if incomplete, account of Hitchens’ life and views. It was published in 2010.

Hitch, love him or hate him, was a brilliant intellectual. He took thoughtful but passionate positions on many hot topics (he was an atheist, a Marxist who later came to hold some conservative beliefs, a naturalized American who supported his country’s interventionist foreign policies); he was a defiantly articulate man who appeared to revel in taking controversial stances — not that I think he did it for effect but he obviously enjoyed pitting wits against worthy opponents. In his ability to deflate pomposity and dissect muddled thinking, he reminds me of the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes.

A friend of Salman Rushdie, he stood by him during Rushdie’s years in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie for alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses:

I sat with him through some of the other humiliations whereby he was offered a shameful deal by the British authorities and the religious bullies whom they (still) like to promote by recognizing them as “negotiators.” If Salman might perhaps undertake some sort of grovel, it was insinuated, if he might care to disown his own work and make a profession of faith, things might possibly arrange themselves, or be arranged. It was additionally put to him, by the pliant and sinuous men of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office, that if he declined this magnanimous offer he might be protracting the misery of the Western hostages who were then being held, by Iranian-paid kidnappers, in filthy secret dungeons in Lebanon. So that Salman, who had done nothing except read and write, was to be declared the hostage of the hostages. The life of the torturer and the blackmailer is always made that little bit easier—not to say more enjoyable—by the ability to offer his victim what looks like a “choice.”

In these times where politics, the abuse of power, and well-meaning liberalism often obscure common sense, we are much the poorer for losing Hitch’s fearless voice. I don’t think he was always right, but I admire his willingness to stand up and be counted.

TV SERIES

The Pillars of the EarthWatched the television series The Pillars of the Earth, based on a book by Ken Follett. Here is WIkipedia’s plot summary, giving the political background:

After the sinking of the White Ship [..] King Henry I of England is left without a clear heir, and The Anarchy begins upon his death. Two candidates (Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois and Henry’s daughter Maud) present their claims, build their armies, and fight for the throne. Ambitious nobles and churchmen take sides, hoping to gain advantages.

The story is set largely in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge.Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) finds work there rebuilding a cathedral that has been destroyed by fire. Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) obtains from the King the right to take stone from a nearby quarry for the cathedral.

There are some great characters. As Bishop Waleran Bigod, Ian McShane combines a veneer of holiness with ruthless ambition. Ellen (Natalia Wörner) is a wise woman who becomes Tom’s lover after his wife dies, though she is reputed to be a witch. Her son, Jack (Eddie Redmayne) has a talent for sculpting in stone and seems to have inherited some of his mother’s unexplained talents. Aliena (Hayley Atwell), daughter of the Earl of Shiring, is a strong woman who supports both herself and her brother by selling fleece after their father Earl Bartholomew (Donald Sutherland) is imprisoned. Lady Regan Hamleigh (Sarah Parish) is an evil schemer with no redeeming qualities at all and a most unhealthy relationship with her son William (Donald Oakes).

The series provides a certain amount of historical fact and period detail, which seems to be well done though the special effects rely rather heavily on spurting blood during the battle scenes and executions. But one of the most interesting things for me was the building of the cathedral — you get some lessons in medieval architecture.. There are a few false moves as Tom works out the structure but eventually he creates a building that will inspire piety in generations to come.

If you liked The Borgias, you will probably like The Pillars of the Earth.

Food

BreakfastBreakfast in the dining car on the Amtrak between Vancouver, BC, and Seattle, WA. This was Snoqualmie Falls Oatmeal. There is something very appealing about the novelty of perching at the counter with your coffee, your oatmeal and your newspaper, glancing up from time to time to see the changing views flashing by outside.

52 weeks – 16 December, 2012

Television mini-series

Romola Garai as EmmaSaw Emma, a TV mini-series from 2009, with Romola Garai in the leading role. I have lost count of the number of times Jane Austen novels have been dramatized in the last couple of decades, since Jane Austen became newly marketable, but in fact the last two Emmas were back in 1996: the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and the TV movie with Kate Beckinsale.

This one: well worth watching, though with some flaws. In general, Romola Garai portrays the charming but exasperating Emma well, though Emma’s behaviour at the Box Hill picnic seems like a complete personality change rather than the momentary lapse of propriety that I think it ought to be. Similarly I found Rupert Evans, as Frank Churchill, so immature and moody that it is hard to imagine how Emma could have been attracted to him, even briefly.

Michael Gambon teeters on the edge of caricature as Mr. Woodhouse (perhaps it’s hard not to), but manages to keep the character on track as a neurotic but loving father.  Jonny Lee Miller is a very good Mr. Knightley.

Overall, I’d recommend it to lovers of Austen who, like me, can usually find endless delight in debating the nuances of how the characters are portrayed — we get to compare them to both the text of the book and the images in our heads.

Food

Crab CakesThe crab and shrimp cakes with roasted corn salsa and garlic aioli at the Water Street Café in Gastown. I am a creature of habit when I find perfect restaurant dishes and this is one I have returned for many times.

Music

The Laudate SingersA Baroque Christmas with The Laudate Singers at St. Andrew’s. The program featured Charpentier’s Te Deum and Messe de Minuit. The choir was joined by instrumentalists Nancy DiNovo, Paul Luchkow, Ray Nurse, Natalie Mackie, Christopher Bagan and Kris Kwapis.

The concert opened with Mouret’s Premiere Suite de Symphonies. The Rondeau is familiar from its association with Masterpiece Music, but how rewarding it was to hear a different interpretation with a lovely, sprightly/stately bounce that made me listen to it anew.

The Messe de Minuit and Te Deum were beautifully sung, with Mark Donnelly’s pure countertenor as an added delight.