52 weeks – 3 February, 2013

Book

MaggieO'Farrell book - coverMaggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I didn’t know anything about this author when the book was chosen by one of the book clubs to which I belong. O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has written four previous novels.

The Hand That First Held Mine is two stories told in alternating chapters. Lexie Sinclair is a rebellious young woman growing up in Britain in the post-war years who, tired of her stifling family life at home, runs away to London. In present-day London, Elina and Ted have their first child. Both of them go through crises in the weeks and months following the birth.

Elina has had a traumatic time post-birth. Ted and she seem disconnected from the world and each other:

He stares at the postcard, the red line that bisects the blue triangle, that towers over the black shape crouched in the corner. He’d seen the painting as it emerged on the canvas. He wasn’t supposed to have seen it — she didn’t like anyone to see her work before she deemed it finished — but he’d peered through the window of her studio when he’d known she wasn’t looking. It was his way of keeping up with what went on inside her head. He’d seen it hang on the wall of her gallery, he’d watched the red dot go up beside it at the private view and the glow on her face as she saw this. And now it hung in the house of a music producer and Ted often wondered if the man loved it as much as he should, if it was hung in the right way, in the right light.

Four days ago, she’d almost died.

The thought has a physical effect on him. One of disorientation and nausea, like seasickness or looking down from a high building. He has to lean his head in his hands and breathe deeply, and he feels the earlier tears crowding into his throat.

Lexie also has a baby, though she has an easier time of it. And the father is less involved:

He laid the flowers on the bed, on top of Lexie’s feet. He said, “A boy. How marvellous. How are you?’

Lexie said, ‘We’re fine.’

She saw him smile, lean towards her. ‘Congratulations, sweetie, very well done,’ he said and kissed her cheek. Then he sank into a chair. ‘Although I’m a tiny bit cross,’ he said, ‘that you didn’t call me straight away. You poor darling, coming in here on your own. Very naughty of you.’ He treated her to one of his deep, intimate smiles. ‘I sent a telegram to my mother. She’ll be delighted. She’ll be looking out the family christening robe as we speak.’

You would probably guess that something will tie the two parts together. It isn’t clear until well into the two stories how they will be related and the connection is foggier because of a plot development in the present-day story that in the end goes nowhere. But the stories are compelling. As with other novels having this structure, I get a little annoyed every time I’m abruptly taken away from Lexie’s world and plunged back into that of Elina and Ted; then I get caught up in the present-day world and annoyed when the chapter ends and I’m back in 1950s Soho. But the annoyance is only momentary until I am once more absorbed. So I plan to look for more novels by this author.

Music

garnier-louis-xivListened to “Fire & Finesse”: A Royal Concert — Cantatas & Chamber Music from the Time of the Sun King. Violinist Marc Destrubé, harpsichordist Jacques Ogg, and gambist Natalie Mackie were joined by soprano Catherine Webster.

Instead of a photo of the performers, I am posting this detail from a painting by Jean Garnier —  “Portrait of Louis XIV surrounded by musical instruments, flowers and fruit” (1672), as I think it embodies the rich, stately, feel of the period that was in turn captured by this concert. This was another in the series of joyful, intimate concerts at the Kay Meek Centre presented by Early Music Vancouver.

Food

TartsRhubarb tarts and butter tarts made by a friend. They have the perfect ratio of filling to pastry. The filling is not too sweet. These are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea at any time of day.

52 weeks – 20 January, 2013

Book

The Marriage Plot - coverThe Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s been a while since Middlesex, Eugenides’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about the life of a Greek man with intersex characteristics. The Marriage Plot is another big novel. It follows the lives of three characters for a year or two as they graduate from university and figure out what to do next.

At Brown University, Madeleine has studied the marriage plot in the work of Austen and other early novelists. Leonard has done biology and philosophy. Mitchell has discovered religion. The next chapter of their lives begins with the big question: what to do after graduation? Through their struggles to define themselves and find their places, Eugenides gives us the world in 1982 in microcosm. And the mating dance is of course part of the coming of age story: as with the marriage plot in more traditional novels, there is a triangle: Mitchell loves Madeleine; Madeleine loves Leonard.

Time and place and social mores are captured perfectly in Eugenides’ clear prose. Here is Providence on the morning of the graduation ceremonies:

Early June, Providence, Rhode Island, the sun up for almost two hours already, lighting up the pale bay and the smokestacks of the Narragansett Electric factory, rising like the sun on the Brown University seal emblazoned on all the pennants and banners draped up over campus, a sun with a sagacious face, representing knowledge. But this sun — the one over Providence — was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope to the squadrons of parents, who’d been soaked and frozen all weekend, that the unseasonable weather might not ruin the day’s festivities.

And here are the students in a semiotics class, sizing each other up:

Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of the ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans.  A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy’s face — it was like a baby’s that had grown whiskers — and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he’d shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.  She was relieved, therefore, when a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots showed up and took the empty seat next to her. He had a cup of take-out coffee.

Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar.

The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.” When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.

Music

Sylvain BergeronAn afternoon of violas da gamba, lute, and tenor voice in Perchance to Dreame: The Golden Age of English Music at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre. Gambists (as I now know to call them) Susie Napper and  Margaret Little and lute player Sylvain Bergeron produced some beautiful, stately music, along with tenor Charles Daniels.

In the intimate setting of the small studio theatre, members of the audience get to study the appearance of the musicians as well as listen to them. Each of the musicians in this concert was interesting to look at, but Sylvain Bergeron might have been designed as the perfect lutenist. He is tall, slim, and aristocratic-looking with silver hair and a noble profile. I admit this added to my pleasure in the concert …

Food

Chocolate cream cupThis was the heavenly dessert with a very long name  (Valrhona Manjari Dark Chocolate Cream Cup with Marzipan and Brandied Black Cherries Cherry Compote) that nicely finished off a Dine Out Vancouver menu at the Dockside Restaurant on Granville Island. For my appetizer I had Dungeness Crab and Corn Bisque, with a rich, densely flavourful seafood base. For the main course, I went for the vegetarian option: Grilled Leek and Carrot Wrapped Quinoa Butternut Squash and Almond Hash. With asparagus and shallots on yellow tomato coulis. Absolutely delicious, with a great mix of textures.

52 weeks – 23 December, 2012

Book

Bring up the BodiesRead Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, a sequel to her stunning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall. It’s another rich experience: once again, you are completely immersed in the intrigues of the court of Henry VIII. The books follow consecutive segments of the career of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly-born but clever and ambitious man who becomes the king’s chief adviser. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell assists with both the annulment of the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the establishment of the doctrine of royal supremacy over the church, concurrent with the Protestant Reformation — these drastic measures being necessary to support the King in his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. In Bring up the Bodies, Anne has disappointed the King in providing him with only a daughter instead of the male heir he so passionately desires. Cromwell assists the King to get rid of Anne so that he can marry Jane Seymour.

It’s a great strength of the book that you see all the events through Cromwell’s eyes. You see them with the emotional immediacy of a novel while absorbing the feel of the period: historical facts are presented within a richly textured narrative that makes you feel you are there, living in this complex world.

Cromwell is hardly a likeable character but he is a man well suited to his times: cunning, pragmatic and flexible, with the mind of a lawyer. He understands Henry and his skill in fulfilling Henry’s wishes has enabled him to profit well from the association. He continues to accumulate money, goods and power.

No fee attached to the post of Secretary. The scope of the job is ill-defined and this suits him; whereas the Lord Chancellor has his circumscribed role, Mr Secretary can inquire into any office of state or corner of government. He has letters from throughout the shires, asking him to arbitrate in land disputes or lend his name to some stranger’s cause. People he doesn’t know send him tittle-tattle about their neighbours, monks send accounts of disloyal words spoken by their superiors, priests sift for him the utterances of their bishops. The affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear, and so plural are his offices under the Crown that the great business of England, parchment and roll awaiting stamp and signet, is pushed or pulled across his desk, to himself or from himself. His petitioners send him malmsey and muscatel, geldings, game and gold; gifts and grants and warrants, lucky charms and spells. This has been going on since first he came into the king’s favour. He is rich.

And naturally, envy follows. His enemies dig out what they can, about his early life. ‘So, I went down to Putney,’ Gardiner had said. ‘Or, to be accurate, I sent a man. They said down there, who’d have thought that Put-an-edge-on-it would have risen so high? We all thought he’d be hanged by now.’

Despite his many ill-wishers, Cromwell manages well by depending on his intelligence and quick thinking, and he is somewhat insulated from the insults and posturing of his enemies at court by the King’s regard. The King, though, has a mercurial temperament so Cromwell can never relax his guard.

The swift and ruthless destruction of Anne Boleyn and her five supposed lovers is chilling. They are interrogated by Cromwell, but there is no real way out. They are in the way and they must be removed.

Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton, and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.

This is another remarkable book from Hilary Mantel and I am looking forward to the third in the trilogy.

Food

Heirloom saladA happy contrast to rich Christmas fare, this salad at Heirloom Vegetarian restaurant on South Granville is satisfying and a complete meal. With pear, hazelnuts, fennel, roasted Brussels sprouts, and an “orange blossom” vinaigrette — there’s a flavour in the dressing that I couldn’t pin down, but it was delicious — I could eat here a lot and would never miss meat or fish.

Music

Festive Bach CantatasDecember is a special month for music, and choral concerts are my favourite way to get into the Christmas mood. This was Festive Bach Cantatas for Christmas, featuring Marc Destrubé and Early Music Vancouver’s Bach Cantata Project Players, soprano Shannon Mercer, alto Laura Pudwell, tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Sumner Thompson. An afternoon of glorious music in the spectacular Chan Centre with a happily receptive audience — a great way to get that goodwill to all men feeling.

52 weeks – 21 October, 2012

Book

My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain. This is a novel written after Are You Somebody?, the first volume of her memoirs. But O’Faolain puts her whole self into everything she writes, fictional or autobiographical, so her passionate personality comes through on every page.

The protagonist, Kathleen de Burca, shares some characteristics with O’Faolain, but she is a fully realized character in her own right  — vital, troubled, talented, sensual, and self-destructive. Kathleen has a love-hate relationship with Ireland, comes from a dysfunctional family, and is searching for love and meaning in life following the death of her close colleague and best friend. She returns to Ireland after many years in exile to research a scandal — an affair in the 1850s between an Irish groom and the young wife of an English landlord  — with a view to writing a book about it. Chapters alternating between Kathleen’s present day life and her changing versions of Marianne Talbot’s life illustrate the universal desire for love and show how little we may know of others’ lives.

Food

On these misty, grey mornings, fruit is not the answer. I recently discovered Bonne Maman’s Chestnut Spread. It’s the perfect consistency to spread on multi-grain toast and brings that autumnal feeling to breakfast. Cherry or plum preserves are optional but a good cup of coffee is a requirement.

Music

Early Music Vancouver’s fall and winter season has begun. It and the other 2012-2013 series of plays and concerts provide great consolation on dark, wet evenings at this time of year.

Tanya Tomkins played two of Bach’s Cello Suites on a baroque cello at the Jazz Cellar last week. She is a wonderful musician and also a lively and entertaining speaker. She played Suites 1 and 4 as planned but left out Suite 5 owing to a shoulder injury.  The extra time was filled by her talking about some of the ways early instruments are different from modern ones and how they influence a musician’s playing: strings of gut or gut wrapped with metal instead of all metal, lower string tension (and tuning at A415), a lighter and differently shaped bow. Delivered by someone else, this could be dry material; with Tomkins’ sparkling delivery, and with Early Music’s characteristically receptive audience, it was fun.

Give me baroque music, thoughtfully played, in such an intimate setting, and winter can go on for ever.