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 – 19 May, 2013

Book

Love Anthony-coverLove Anthony, by Lisa Genova. Genova is the author of Still Alice, a book about a woman developing Alzheimer’s disease and Left Neglected, about a woman with a brain injury.

Love Anthony takes on autism. I think it’s an extremely successful novel in its own right, in addition to shedding light on an often misunderstood medical  condition (which seems to be Genova’s chosen niche). Alternating chapters tell the stories of Olivia and Beth and then we also get chapters from the point of view of Anthony, Olivia’s son. As far as I with my limited knowledge of autism can tell, Anthony is a realistic creation. The chapters from his point of view describe the behaviour that we observe in autistic people and Genova makes some well-educated guesses at how the mind behind the behaviour works. For Anthony, order and calm are critically important. The clash between his world and the well-meaning attempts from people outside it to connect with him are poignant. But Olivia and Beth are also rounded characters with lives that intersect with Anthony’s in different ways.

MOVIE

Take This Waltz-PosterTake This Waltz, directed by Sarah Polley—her second directing stint after Away From Her.

The story is based on a far from unusual situation: Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married five years and she becomes attracted to Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist neighbour. The film transcends the simple plot because the characters are offbeat and the situations are quirky.

Michelle Williams gives a great performance as a woman who is happy and comfortable in her relationship with Lou but is sometimes aware that something is missing in her life, a common enough situation. Then she is blindsided by a sudden, uncontrollable passion for Daniel. We in the audience watch as she struggles with her mixed emotions. We know she is eventually going to succumb, and we know it’s not going to end well.

The music works well. Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time is perfect as a background to the big, noisy, family party. You will not get The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star out of your head for a long time. And Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz provides the melancholy, dreamy feel that is ideal for the montage in Daniel’s apartment, whether the scenes are intended as things that actually happen or as Margot’s anticipation of the life she will live.

I never understood the movie’s colour palette: saturated red, yellow and turquoise, but it and the old-style houses of Toronto’s Little Portugal district create a retro feel.

The supporting cast—Lou’s big, noisy family—is strong, especially Sarah SIlverman as Lou’s sister.

Food

Blueberry pancakesBlueberry pancakes for Mothers’ Day. Served, as is traditional in our household, with sausages, maple syrup, whipped cream, and fruit. This year, bourbon-infused maple syrup was also an option.

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 – 4 May, 2013

Book

Lean-InI was horrified to hear that one of my book clubs had chosen to read Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, currently the chief operating officer of Facebook. I assumed that it would be a book telling women how to make it in the corporate world—and since that world is not one that attracts me at all, I didn’t think I would get anything out of reading a how-to manual.

Fortunately, the book offers more than that. It does give women readers tips for making it in the corporate world but it places this in a larger context, demonstrating that there are still systemic obstacles in the way of ambitious women—and it comes up with practical suggestions for change.

Sandberg is, refreshingly, willing to describe herself as a feminist (I get tired of people who believe that feminism is all about hating men or demanding more than half the pie—there are many varieties and degrees of feminism but the value embraced by most is equality of opportunity), though initially she thought, like many people, that feminism was no longer relevant to her:

I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventies had done all the hard work of achieving equality for my generation. And yet, if anyone had called me a feminist, I would have quickly corrected that notion. This reaction is prevalent even today, according to sociologist Marianne Cooper … In her 2011 article, “The New F-Word,” Marianne wrote about college English professor Michele Elam, who observed something strange in her Introduction to Feminist Studies course. Even though her students were interested enough in gender equality to take an entire class on the subject, “very few felt comfortable using the word ‘feminism.'”

Sandberg believes that women need to take leadership roles in all walks of life before we can have a fairer world. “Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world … Of 190 heads of state, nine are women.” To create a world where women who want to do so can make it to the top, she recommends three ways to move forward: sit at the table; make your partner a real partner; and don’t leave before you leave. To hear the thinking behind these pieces of advice, listen to her TED talk.

Music/Spoken Word

Shane KoyczanShane Koyczan and the Short Story Long performing at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. Shane Koyczan is a slam poet. You may well have heard his definition of what it means to be Canadian at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games (“We Are More”). Or you might have heard or seen his “To This Day” anti-bullying video.

Koyczan’s band, Short Story Long, is stellar. I particularly loved the harmonies singer and pianist Olivia Mennell provided behind many of the poems. Maiya Robbie, Jordie Robinson, and Jesse Lee round out an accomplished quartet.

Here is the To This Day video:

Food

Crabbie's Ginger BeerCrabbie’s ginger beer, the perfect warm weather accompaniment to crackers and cheese on the patio.

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 – 14 April, 2013

Book

Her Majest's Spymaster - coverHer Majesty’s Spymaster, by Stephen Budiansky. The concept of the book is interesting: it’s the life of Sir Francis Walsingham during the period he was mired in the intrigues surrounding Elizabeth I. The book is full of well-supported historical details of codes cracked, plots foiled, double agents managed, and perpetrators brought to justice (the fast and ruthless justice of the sort meted out in that period, anyway). Walsingham prospered in spite of the difficulties of supporting a ruler as capricious as Elizabeth, who did not always act on good advice and who never wanted to be seen making unpopular decisions.

I didn’t find it an easy book to read: partly because of the not-entirely-chronological structure and partly because of the density of detail. However, it helps a lot with an understanding of this period of English history. Walsingham is described as the first spymaster — maybe we can think of him as the head of an early combination of MI5 and MI6.

Movie

The Game-posterThe Game: a movie from 1997. It’s escapist fun. Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an investment banker in his late forties: driven, married to his work, and clearly not having any fun. His younger brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a 48th birthday present: a gift certificate for a game. Sceptical and dismissive at first, van Orton eventually goes to the company headquarters of Consumer Recreation Services to redeem the voucher. Here you have to start suspending disbelief, as he endures lengthy psychological questionnaires and undergoes a physical examination, all without knowing what it is for.

Then the game begins: strange things start to happen in his life. Again, you question whether you’re willing to invest some belief in the story. At this point, you will either eject the disk and do something else or settle back with a beverage and tell your analytical side to take a break. If you’re willing to do that, you may find it an enjoyable movie. There are gaping holes in the plot but the visuals are well done, the supporting actors are strong, and there are some interesting twists along the way.

Food

Pastries at Thomas HaasCoffee and pastries on the patio at Thomas Haas on Broadway in Vancouver. Each year, the first few times you eat outside on a sunny spring day make the months of grey skies and rain recede rapidly into dim memories.