52 weeks – 27 January, 2013

Book

The Gift of Rain - coverThe Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng. Oh dear: a book that I could not get very far into, although I tried more than once. Excerpts that may indicate why I couldn’t read it:

His eyes glittered, throbbed with a cosmic energy that seemed to reach into mine.

***

At the end of the meal, she held up her wineglass and made a graceful gesture to the island. “To Endo-San,” she said softly. I nodded, “To Endo-San.”

“Listen,” she said. “Do you hear him?”

I closed my eyes and, yes, I heard him. I heard him breathe. I smiled wanly. “He’s always here, Michiko. That’s why, wherever I go, I always yearn to return.”

***

And that is the point of life itself, I whisper into the night, hoping my grandfather has heard me.

***

I will say no more about the quality of the writing. Maybe I get too easily irritated by people saying things “stiffly” or “softly” or having their eyes “harden.”

For me, the plot had too much in the way of pseudo-Eastern mysticism with far too many martial arts scenes and heavily meaningful silences.

Bizarrely, this was on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2007.

THEATRE

Rhinoceros. Actor Matt Reznek; Photographer Tim Matheson

Rhinoceros. Actor: Matt Reznek. Photographer: Tim Matheson.

A production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Telus Studio Theatre (in the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of BC). The intimate space of the Telus Studio Theatre was the perfect setting for this Theatre-of-the-Absurd play, in which, gradually, the citizens of a small French town all turn into rhinoceroses until only the main character is left. Actors move in the shadows around the spaces behind and between the seats on the three tiers of seating, adding to the sense of growing menace.

Ionesco’s vision of a world in which the things you take for grated are slowly withdrawn until you are the only one left is disturbing but hardly one that any viewer could see without relating to it. Things that have happened in our lifetimes or the recent past, where a new regime has swept away all certainty — not to mention all humanity — come flooding in as soon as you start to think about it. Ionesco said that it was an anti-Nazi play, but also “an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are none the less serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies.”

Heavy ideas, but the play is not without humour and all aspects were done well. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin, an MFA Directing candidate in UBC’s Theatre and Film department, the production was highly professional.

Food

20130125-DessertsSome desserts suitable for a Robbie Burns Day celebration — that is to say, desserts that call for a fine single malt as an accompaniment. In the foreground, Chocolate Whiskey Cake, which of course has a decent amount of good whisky in it. Other main ingredients are butter, chocolate, and coffee.

The dish in the back is an Apple Cranachan, involving poached apples, whisky, cream, honey, and oats. This can only be described as food of the gods.

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52 weeks – 6 January, 2012

Books

The Patrick Melrose novels - cpverThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn: for me, a difficult read. This volume brings together four novellas, portraying various stages of Patrick Melrose’s life. In Never Mind, Patrick is a five-year-old boy, mentally and physically abused by his father and emotionally neglected by his mother. As a young man in Bad News, he is a heroin addict who is celebrating his father’s death by swerving dangerously close to his own. In Some Hope, he has survived to become a fairly happy adult, married and with a son. In Mother’s Milk, he is in his forties and has two sons but is estranged from his wife. He is unhappily facilitating his mother’s wishes to give the family home in Provence to a dubious New Age group and to end her own life.

The novellas are semi-autobiographical. St. Aubyn was sexually abused by his father when he was a child and he was (not surprisingly?) a heroin addict as a young man. The first two parts of the book were extremely painful reading and I wondered whether it was worth enduring. St. Aubyn is undoubtedly a brilliant writer, but the brilliance is cold and bitter. There is a highly caustic wit that lightens the mood from time to time and leavens some of the more painful scenes, but it is the kind of cutting humour more likely to generate a grimace than a laugh — such as when Patrick is carrying his father’s ashes around New York in Bad News:

By the time he reached Sixty-first Street, Patrick realized that it was the first time he had been alone with his father for more than ten minutes without being buggered, hit, or insulted. The poor man had had to confine himself to blows and insults for the last fourteen years, and insults alone for the last six.
The tragedy of old age, when a man is too weak to hit his own child. No wonder he had died. Even his rudeness had been flagging towards the end, and he had been forced to introduce a note of repulsive self-pity to ward off any counterattack.

The background of the stories is the decadent, parasitic sub-culture that exists among some members of Britain’s upper classes, with visits from both snobby Euro-trash and a few middle class people who don’t know how to behave in the rarefied atmosphere they’ve strayed into. Princess Margaret makes a convincing appearance at a house party in Some Hope.

One of the things that helped me get through the last two books was seeing events from the point of view of Patrick’s sons, Robert and Thomas: they are versions of Patrick, bright and precocious as you would expect, who have not experienced the horrors of his upbringing.

embellishmentAt Last was published at the end of 2012. It promises to bring the series to an end with the death of Patrick’s mother.

THEATRE

Grim and FischerSaw Grim & Fischer by the Wonderheads at the Cultch. I could not have imagined how many changes of expression are possible without words and with full face masks. All the nuances are conveyed with a tilt of the head and a subtle shift of the body, helped by lighting and music. The story is of an aging woman who is visited by the Grim Reaper; she is not ready to go and she employs all kinds of stalling tactics.

The Wonderheads, from Portland, Oregon, are actors Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix. Braidwood is also the mask maker.

FoodGranville Island Pasta

A walk through Granville Island Market is always a feast for the senses. Choice fruits and vegetables, meat and glistening fresh seafood, delicatessens, patissiers, chocolatiers — it is hard to resist coming home with enough food to feed an army.

52 weeks – 25 November, 2012

Play

Saw the remarkable Miriam Margolyes in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (“The Cultch”). She is 71, full of energy, and chameleon-like as she moves seamlessly from character to character. She concentrates mainly on women, as the title implies, and they range from the well-known (Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham) to the obscure (the dwarf manicurist from David Copperfield, Miss Mowcher). Her face and voice change in an instant: her ability to rapidly switch between the pomposity of the beadle Mr. Bumble and the dreadful coyness of the workhouse matron, Mrs. Corney, in their unlikely courtship scene from Oliver Twist brings the house down. She had the audience completely in her hands.

Margolyes has a great look for character acting. Her resume is extensive, from live theatre to movies to voicing animations. You might recognize her as Professor Pomona Sprout from the Harry Potter movies or you might remember seeing her as Madame Morrible in the London or New York performances of Wicked, or in one of the many movies she’s been in.

Food

Chickpea fries from Storm Crow Tavern, the very-Commercial-Drive place where you can drink beer and wine, play board games,  and order appetizers or mains, all at a flat rate of $6! I would happily pay twice as much for the slightly spicy, crisp on the outside, soft but textured on the inside, chickpea fries.

Music

The Kay Meek performing arts centre in West Vancouver is a beautifully designed facility of two theatre spaces. The location of the centre is slightly obscure, which may add to its charm and it didn’t seem to daunt the audience for Tafelmusik’s Galileo Project: The Music of the Spheres last week.

Astronomical images are projected onto a round screen at the back of the stage. The performers move around the stage and into the auditorium, so that you feel part of the music.  The video, below, makes the performers whirl in space, but it’s hardly necessary to add these special effects since Tafelmusik is able to project that sort of celestial mystery and joy through their music:

52 weeks – 18 November, 2012

Book

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson: a memoir of Samuelsson’s life to date, with lots of details about food, from the simplest to the most complex dishes, and much to interest chefs and diners.

Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted by a Swedish family after their mother died of tuberculosis. He had a happy family life growing up in Sweden and decided to become a chef, at least in part because of a love of food passed on by his thrifty and down-to-earth grandmother. It appears to have been a long, hard struggle to get to where he is today, since the professional kitchen is a tough place where you have to slave for many years to reach higher levels. Additionally, many kitchens initially rejected the very idea of a black chef. After years of struggle, he has finally become a celebrity chef who has cooked for President Obama; he has won awards, has his own TV show, and now owns his own restaurant, Red Rooster.

You learn the basic details of Samuelsson’s life, but there is a core of unknowability that prevents you from getting to know the real person. There are details about what he did but few insights into why. Dwight Garner, in The New York Times, says:

There’s a strong undercurrent of loneliness in “Yes, Chef.” In part this is because, he says, blacks are “shamefully underrepresented at the high end of the business.” When bad things happen, like the time the voluble and unhinged British chef Gordon Ramsay used a racial insult to describe him, he felt he had few people to turn to for support. That loneliness is a part of Mr. Samuelsson’s reserve. We get close, but not too close, to him in this memoir. There’s always a bit of distance.

Finding a comfortable identity had to be challenging for Samuelsson. He is a black man with a white man’s upbringing. He now lives in New York although his Ethiopian roots, rediscovered later in life, exert a powerful influence. His cooking now attempts to meld Ethiopian and Swedish flavours and techniques with food that appeals to hip New Yorkers from the Upper West Side and Upper East Side as well as his adopted Harlem neighbourhood.

His choice of a place to live was based on finding a place where he fits in, albeit as part of a group of outsiders:

So much of what drew me to New York was the chance to blend in, to not stand out for once because of the color of my skin. In my personal life, I found a chosen family. On the subway and streets, I found my deepest, truest community. I was still playing soccer on the weekend with other Swedish expats. We called our team Blatte United because we were a multicultural tribe of guys who had all grown up as outsiders, in one way or another: our patois of Swedish, English, and soccer slang felt as good on my tongue as a cold beer at the end of a long, hot shift.

Food

The chicken caesar salad, nicely deconstructed. Served at Faubourg, my new favourite bakery café in Kerrisdale. The romaine leaves are coated lightly with dressing and threaded through the hole in a piece of toast that stands upright on the plate. A sliced chicken breast sits to the side on top of the missing piece of toast.

Afterwards, of course, you would choose something heavenly from the pastry counter, such as the lemon tart.

Play

The Number 14, at the Waterfront Theatre. The play (by the Axis Theatre company) was on its twentieth anniversary run. It seemed completely current, sharply observed, very physical, and very funny. The characters wear a variety of masks that allow six actors to take on the dozens of recognizable personalities of the bus riders.

It’s beautifully choreographed, and the actors deserve all kinds of admiration for their playing of multiple characters, their polished timing and impressive acrobatics.

52 weeks – 28 October, 2012

Book

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.  I started out listening to this on CD and ended up by reading the book — it’s always interesting to compare the two experiences. Sunil Malhotra reads with a wonderful Anglo-Indian accent, which provides extra background atmosphere. One oddity of that accent is that the letter P sounds like B and C sounds like G, among other characteristics. So it wasn’t until I finally read the printed page that I realized the twins’ mother was Sister Mary Joseph Praise, not Braise.

Early in the story, the twins’ mother goes into labour at Missing Hospital in Ethiopia, where she works. Nobody had known she was pregnant and the shock and disbelief surrounding this news contribute to fatal delays in treatment. So, despite the belated efforts of the hospital staff, Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies giving birth to the twins, named Marion and Shiva. Their father, the surgeon Thomas Stone, arrives too late to save her and consequently bitterly resents and abandons his sons.

The story thereafter is seen mainly through the eyes of Marion, the first-born twin. The twins are raised by two doctors from the hospital, Hema and Ghosh. Inevitably, both boys show aptitude for medicine and learn from their parents.

The book is rich with the drama of village life and family life, the practice of medicine in a country where conditions are often primitive, and later the politics and bloodshed of Ethiopia during the reign and overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Medical conditions and operations are described in detail, providing an intriguing look at human anatomy, the things that can go wrong with it, and the things that doctors and surgeons can do to repair it. Marion’s early matter-of-fact acceptance of these things and his growing fascination with the medical life unfold through much of the story.

There was only one thing I found less than believable. In this setting it’s inevitable that the topic of female genital mutilation should be raised, but it seemed unlikely that it would have been done to this particular character in this particular circumstance.

Aside from that quibble, I was under the spell of this book, completely enthralled by the writing. Verghese’s understanding of human quirks and human frailty is impressive. He makes you care about the twists in the lives of the twins and those in their circle. You enter their world and don’t want to leave it.

Food

I spent a much-needed few days away at Whistler: walks in the fresh, chilled air, reading and catching up on movies I’d missed, and enjoying lots of good food and drink.

I had this beautiful beet salad at Araxi. If you are in the Whistler area in October next year, check to see if they are doing the special October tasting menu. I am not a fan of huge plates of anything, so I love multi-course tasting menus: lots of different flavours and textures, beautifully presented and the opportunity to try several things instead of having to pick one or two. This was the second course in a dinner of smoked Roma tomato soup, mushroom risotto, ricotta gnocchi, and poached pear.

Play

Cozy Catastrophe by Theatre Melee/Rumble Productions at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre: “a dark comedy about ordinary folks bound together by extraordinary circumstance.”

My companion and I sat down and looked at the program. We were confused. Did we really buy tickets for something described as a zombie-apocalypse play? We bought tickets for the 2012-2013 play season back in spring or summer, so maybe we had just forgotten what we chose. Or maybe we thought it would be suitable for the week before Hallowe’en.

Well, it turned out to be a lot of fun. I agree with Plank Magazine’s “Unabashedly, hilariously gross.” Four strangers sheltering in a warehouse after some global disaster, the flashes and explosions of which continue to echo throughout, are trying to decide what to do. They consider applying the lessons of their lives so far. Make a two-column list of their needs and what they have on hand? Consider eating each other if and when the time comes? Repopulate the earth? Their deadpan demeanour works really well.

We laughed throughout the whole thing. It was a light, fun start to the play season.

52 weeks – July 15, 2012

Book

The Road to Lichfield, by Penelope Lively. A portrait of the life of a forty-year-old woman during the year that her father is dying. She has a mid-life crisis and she discovers that her father had a secret. The story is simple but beautifully done and the intermittent chapters from the point of view of the father are haunting. Memories of his life are mixed with a slow descent into a dreamlike world as he gradually slips away.

Anne drives from Cuxing to Lichfield every week to visit her father:

She drove north again, the next day, through kaleidoscopic weather. The landscape blazed in sunlight, or sulked beneath leaden clouds. When it was not raining, the wet road shone as a mirror image of the sky. She was distracted by the beauty of it, removed from the purpose of the journey so that sometimes she seemed to be travelling simply for the sake of moving like this along gleaming roads, between towns and villages that existed only as names on signs.

Food

The halibut and chips on a seafront patio at White Rock, after walking by the sea.

Play

King John at Bard on the Beach. Not the best BOTB I have been to. There were not enough nuances in the acting: characters weren’t sufficiently differentiated and shouted at each other too much. Rage can often be conveyed more effectively in a quiet voice.

There was one wonderful piece of staging when the young Arthur (Lucas Gustafson) jumps to his death from the castle walls. Standing on scaffolding, he leaps and is caught by the hands of many hooded people standing below. They then toss him in the air and he tumbles a couple of times, conveying a twisting fall. At the same time, you hear his disembodied recorded voice saying

Oh me! my uncle’s spirit is in these stones: —

Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!

It’s a chilling moment that rounds off an excellent performance by the young actor.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot


Saw Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as part of the Tremors Festival at the Cultch. It’s directed by Stephen Drover. The play deserved the wildly enthusiastic audience who saw it on Tuesday night. It is wickedly funny and yet all the timeless themes of love and betrayal, truth and forgiveness are given their due.

Judas Iscariot is on trial for his betrayal of Christ. The action takes place in a courtroom in Purgatory with modern dress and a brilliant, simple set. The actors were almost all outstanding, so it’s a bit silly trying to list all the stellar performances: Kevin McNulty as the judge, Katharine Venour and Marcus Youssef as the lawyers, Dawn Petten as Mother Teresa, Carl Kennedy as Pontius Pilate, and Michael Kopsa as Satan had me laughing so much that I missed some of the words and I vainly tried to remember some of the punchier lines. (The preliminary material says, “Strongest possible language warning.”) Ron Reed has a deceptively simple monologue as a remorseful Butch Honeywell that was note perfect.

The language is the real star in this production; the language of the street and of the courtroom — word meant to heal and words meant to wound. Because the witty script with its deadly verbal duelling keeps you on the edge of your seat, the scene at the end with Jesus and Judas is a bit of an anticlimax. Jesus actually uses the word “verily,” which struck a false note. Drawn-out piety is less appealing than rapid-fire profanity — to this shallow theatre-goer, anyway.