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.

52 weeks – 21 April, 2013

Book

LifeAfterLifeLife After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has once more gone off in a different direction with this novel. What a talented writer she is.

In Life After Life, Ursula experiences many variations on a life, as the clock continually gets reset. Think of the countless times in every life where a chance occurrence or a choice—even the tiny choices like turning left or right, leaving on schedule or five minutes later—may have enormous consequences. Ursula is born in 1910 and dies at birth—or maybe the doctor gets there in time and she doesn’t die. She moves to Germany and marries a German in the mid-thirties, or perhaps not. She marries a man in England who seems protective of her, or perhaps she has a premonition that he is not as nice as he seems. Tragedy strikes many times. By living her life over again, Ursula avoids many of these tragedies. But she can’t avoid all of them forever.

Through Ursula’s eyes, we see historical events and changing social attitudes as the twentieth century unwinds. This gives Atkinson the chance to describe characters with her usual light touch: a few words of description, a little dialogue, and we have a whole person before us.

It’s hard to pick a favourite section. The scenes of the London Blitz bring home with stunning force the real horror of that time—but those awful experiences are interspersed with the somewhat comic, somewhat boring routine that any stage of life may become:

Her fellow wardens were a mixed bunch. Miss Woolf, a retired hospital matron, was the senior warden. Thin and straight as a poker, her iron-grey hair in a neat bun, she came with a natural authority. Then there was her deputy, the aforesaid Mr Durkin, Mr Simms, who worked for the Ministry of Supply, and Mr Palmer, who was a bank manager. The latter two men had fought in the last war and were too old for this one (Mr Durkin had been ‘medically exempt,’ he said defensively.) Then there was Mr Armitage who was an opera singer and as there were no operas to sing in any more he kept them entertained with his renditions of ‘La donna é mobile’ and ‘Largo al factotum.’ ‘Just the popular arias,’ he confided to Ursula. ‘Most people don’t like anything challenging.’

They were all part-time volunteers, apart from Miss Woolf, who was paid and full-time and took her duties very seriously. She subjected them to rigorous drills and made sure they did their training—in anti-gas procedures, in extinguishing incendiaries, how to enter burning buildings, load stretchers, make splints, bandage limbs. She questioned them on the contents of the manuals that she made them read and she was very keen on them learning to label bodies, both alive and dead, so that they could be sent off like parcels to the hospital or the mortuary with all the correct information attached. They had done several exercises out in the open where they had acted out a mock raid. (‘Play-acting,’ Mr Bullock scoffed, failing to get into the spirit of things. Ursula played a casualty twice, once having to feign a broken leg and on another occasion complete unconsciousness. Another time she had been on the ‘other side’ and as a warden had had to deal with Mr Armitage simulating someone in hysterical shock. She supposed it was his experience on stage that enabled him to give such an unnervingly authentic performance. It was quite hard to persuade him out of character at the end of the exercise.

It’s one of Atkinson’s many gifts that she can create these stolid everyday characters and this ordinary situation, can introduce tragedy into it, and can then rewind the tape and go off in another direction—and it never palls. You immediately become immersed in the alternative life.  I didn’t want the book to end.

TV SERIES

Inspector LewisAfter a suitable period of mourning for Inspector Morse and an initial feeling that Lewis alone couldn’t hold my interest, I capitulated and so am now catching up on the Inspector Lewis series. I watch the episodes out of order (which generally doesn’t seem to matter). Just seen: Dark Matter, the third episode of Season III.

With the departure of Morse, Lewis (Kevin Whateley) has developed some more depth as a character but the best part of the series is the interplay between Lewis and Inspector Hathaway (Laurence Fox). This time, it’s the junior partner, Hathaway, who brings the combination of erudition, social niceties, and inner melancholy that was formerly Morse’s role. Lewis is the no-nonsense, working-class policeman who doesn’t have much time to spend on poetry, philosophy, or people’s psychological complexity. But just maybe there is more to him than meets the eye. He has certainly developed an interest in some classical music, perhaps in part due to his romantic interest in the clarinet-playing pathologist, Dr. Laura Hobson.

Dark Matter has the usual overly complex plot that has to be wrapped up within 90 minutes. There is a murder, the victim being the Master of Gresham College at Oxford University. There is a discipline—astronomy this time, affairs, blackmail, dons and students behaving suspiciously—all the usual mix. I enjoy the atmosphere and am quite prepared to ignore any holes in the plot.

Food

Seared tunaBarbecued tuna at Osaka Sushi in Deep Cove. It could be a delicious start to dinner or it could be dinner all by itself. The only thing that can make it better is to drink both hot sake and cold beer with it.

52 weeks – 13 January, 2013

Book

Sweet Tooth - cover

I consider Ian McEwan, like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, to be a clever but cold writer — though I enjoy and appreciate his work.

Furthermore, McEwan has written about some pretty nasty subjects (not in the same league as Edward St. Aubyn, though). But in his recent books he seems to have softened — Solar was unusually warm for him (that was not intended as a pun), although of course the main character of that novel is not a particularly nice person.

McEwan also likes to play intellectual games with his readers. I still have not forgiven him for the twist in Atonement: I was completely taken in by Briony’s version of later events and at the end of the book felt as though I had been gullible and the author had been dishonest.

Anyway, all those caveats aside: in Sweet Tooth, the time and place was familiar to me. I worked for some Civil Service departments in Britain in the seventies and, of particular relevance to this book, I worked in Hong Kong for an outpost of General Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), a rather secretive organization. Sweet Tooth vividly brought back the memory of grim, grey offices and the grim, grey, middle-aged male officers within them: the rules, written and unwritten, the protocol, the old boys’ network and the sexism that persisted in the secret service long after the regular government offices became places of equal opportunity.

Serena Frome is an attractive young mathematician who is recruited for the secret service by her middle-aged lover, Tony Canning:

I didn’t cancel my appointment with MI5. I had nothing else in my life now, and with Lucy’s affairs settled for the moment, even the Bishop was encouraging about my career prospects in Health and Social Security … I went to my interview in Great Marlborough Street, on the western edge of Soho. I waited on a hard chair set down for me by a mutely disapproving secretary in a dim corridor with a concrete floor. I don’t think I’d ever been in such a depressing building. Along from where I sat was a row of iron-framed windows formed out of the sort of bubbled glass bricks I associated with basements. But it was the dirt, inside and out, not the bricks, that deterred the light.

The descriptions of London in the seventies feel right to me. It was a depressing time:

Late October brought the annual rite of putting back the clocks, tightening the lid of darkness over our afternoons, lowering the nation’s mood further. November began with another cold snap and it rained most days. Everyone was speaking of  ‘the crisis.’ Government presses were printing petrol rationing coupons. There had been nothing like this since the last war. The general sense was that we were heading for something nasty but hard to foresee, impossible to avoid. There was a suspicion that the ‘social fabric’ was about to unravel, though no one really knew what this would entail …

I revived my newspaper habit. It was the opinion pages that drew me, the complaints and laments, known in the trade, so I’d learned, as why-oh-why pieces. As in, why-oh-why did university intellectuals cheer on the carnage wrought by the Provisional IRA and romanticise the Angry Brigade and the Red Army faction? Our empire and our victory in the Second World War haunted and accused us, but why-oh-why must we stagnate among the ruins of our former greatness? Crime rates were soaring, everyday courtesies declining, the streets filthy, our economy and morale broken, our living standards below those of communist East Germany, and we stood divided, truculent and irrelevant.

After she has been observed, vetted, and found suitable, Serena is given an assignment that fits right into the battle-of-the-hearts-and-minds government propaganda efforts of the day: she is to offer financial support on behalf of a fake cultural foundation to a young author whose writing is brilliant, provocative and, importantly, politically right-leaning. The anti-communist attitudes were not as wildly over the top as were American attitudes in the seventies, but they are there.

The operation is called Sweet Tooth. The view of Serena’s masters is that the organization has no need to try to influence the author — they have already determined what his ideas are through his body of work to date and are content to sit back and let him write, without his knowing that he is, in a sense, writing on their behalf.

Serena sets the operation in motion and recruits the selected writer, Tom Haley. After working with him, she falls in love with him and begins an affair. The dilemma then becomes whether, or maybe when, she will confess her background to Tom, lose her job, and take a chance on whether they still have a future together.

But this is Ian McEwan, so it is not quite so straightforward. You get novels within this novel, of course. But there is a little more to it than that.

I believe McEwan is at his best when immersing himself in the kinds of telling details that conjure up the time and place he’s writing about. He also, of course, has a talent for describing a place, creating a mood — and then pulling back the curtain to surprise you:

The moon was higher now and the touch of frost on the grass was light, even more tasteful than our mother’s efforts with the spray can. The cathedral, lit from the inside, looked isolated and displaced, like a stranded ocean liner. From a distance we heard a ponderous organ introducing ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ and then the congregation gamely belting it out. It sounded like a good crowd, and I was glad for my father’s sake. But grown-ups singing in ragged unironic unison about angels … I experienced a sudden lurch in my heart, as though I’d looked over a cliff edge into emptiness. I believed in nothing much — not carols, not even rock music.

TV SERIES

Shaun Evans as Inspector MorseWow! Just when I thought I would never see another episode of Inspector Morse (the police procedural series based on books by Colin Dexter and starring John Thaw), along comes  a prequel! And, although that word strikes fear into the heart of any critical television watcher, this one didn’t put a foot wrong.

Shaun Evans does a fine job of playing the young Detective Constable Morse. Morse has dropped out of Oxford before completing his degree  owing to a love affair that went wrong. He has had a spell in the Army. Now he is in the police force — though, as with the other milieux, he does not completely fit.

A nice combination of hesitancy and assertiveness, Evans does all the things that a young Morse would do: he stays late at the office instead of going to the pub with his colleagues; he spends too much time alone listening to music and not enough time with other people; he gets emotionally attached to unavailable women, and seems pathologically unable to stay away even when they are involved in a case he is working on; he jumps to conclusions too early. At the beginning of the pilot he doesn’t drink but after an unfortunate experience observing an autopsy he is convinced to down a beer to settle his stomach. He has no car but he gets to drive his boss’s Jaguar and we may infer that this is the beginning of another lifelong affiliation.

There is of course the usual rather silly portrayal of Oxford post-grads and professors: they are unfailingly aloof and snobbish and they tend to gaze off into the distance a lot and recite poetry. One must ignore them and concentrate on the character of Morse.

I am looking forward to future episodes.

Food

Curried Lentil SoupCurried Lentil and Spinach soup at the Outpost Café on Fraser Street in Vancouver. Delicious, warming and healthy: perfect January fare.