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.

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52 weeks – 30 December, 2012

Book

Flight Behavior coverHaving enjoyed The Lacuna so much back in September, I was keen to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. The setting and the characters are entirely different, but once again you are quickly immersed in a believable world. This time, Kingsolver gives us  the lives of poor farm families living in her native Appalachia (specifically, rural Tennessee) and the life-changing disruptions they experience after the outside world descends on them.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living a stifling life with her unimaginative husband Cub and their two children. Cub is willing to have his life controlled by his parents Bear and Hester; Dellarobia is less so but she goes with the flow for a number of years until she can no longer tolerate it.

In the early chapters, Dellarobia’s day-to-day life is pieced together like a quilt: childcare, work on the farm, dealing with her sharp-tongued mother-in-law, finding bargains at the outlet and second-time-around stores.  She finds Cub’s slowness and his acceptance of the limitations of their lives frustrating. Her one relief is getting together with her friend from high school, Dovey:

Dovey lived ten minutes away in a duplex owned by her brother in what passed for suburban Feathertown. This morning, she’d helped Dellarobia knock off a pile of year-end tax documents and two loads of laundry, with more to go, plus the deconstruction of the weird Christmas tree, which made the kids whiny …

Suddenly, Cub was at the back door, calling out from the kitchen. “Hon, do you know where my keys are at?”

Dellarobia bugged her eyes at the mirror. “No more sex till he quits ending every sentence with a preposition.”

Dovey crooned, “Do you know where my truck keys are at, bitch?”

“What’s funny?” he asked from the bedroom doorway. His face was unreadable, backlit as he was from the bright living room, but Dellarobia could see in his posture the reluctance to enter their zone. Cub was a little afraid of Dovey and herself in tandem, a fact she felt bad about but would never change. Their communal disloyalties were like medicine: bitter and measured, life-prolonging.

“You going over to Bear and Hester’s?” she asked. His key ring was on the dresser. She reached to toss them and he caught them out of the air one-handed, chank. He was surprisingly coordinated for someone who moved through the world as if underwater.

Dellarobia is the first to witness a fiery miracle that turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies changing their overwintering habitat owing to changes attributed to global warming. She seizes the opportunity to learn when scientists arrive on their doorstep and the biologist, Ovid Byron, puts her to work. He also, not surprisingly, starts to figure largely in her fantasies.

Kingsolver’s Author’s Note gives us information about the facts that inspired the background of the novel:

In February 2010, an unprecedented rainfall brought down mudslides and catastrophic flooding on the Mexican mountain town of Angangueo. Thirty people were killed and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. To outsiders, the town was mainly known as the entry point for visitors to the spectacular colonies of monarch butterflies that overwinter nearby. The town is rebuilding, and the entire migratory population of North American monarchs still returns every autumn to the same mountaintops in central Mexico. The sudden relocation of these overwintering colonies to southern Appalachia is a fictional event that has occurred only in the pages of this novel.

Solar coverCoincidentally, the next book to hand also has global warming as a background theme — Solar, by Ian McEwan.

McEwan’s characters are often unlikeable but the richness of detail makes them three-dimensional and believable. Michael Beard is a physicist: he is a womanizer, a Nobel Prize winner, overweight, amoral, quick-witted. After becoming the head of the National Centre for Renewable Energy on the outskirts of Reading in England, Beard is coasting. He is sidetracked into concentrating on wind turbines for domestic use, although he is not excited about the project. He is resentful that his post-docs do not seem as respectful as they should be:

In all this time, not one of the six post-docs moved on to a better-paid job at Caltech or MIT. In a field crammed with prodigies of all sorts, their CVs were exceptional. For a long while Beard, who always had face-recognition problems, especially with men, could not, or chose not to, tell them apart. They ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight and all stood above six feet. Two had ponytails, four had identical rimless glasses, two were called Mike, two had Scots accents, three wore coloured string around their wrists, all wore faded jeans and trainers and tracksuit tops …

And none of these young men appeared as much in awe of Michael Beard, Nobel laureate, as he thought they should. Clearly, they knew of his work, but in meetings they referred to it in passing, parenthetically, in a dismissive mumble, as though it had long been superseded, when in fact the opposite was true, the Beard-Einstein Conflation was in all the textbooks, unassailable, experimentally robust …

But it was worse than that. Some of the physics which they took for granted was unfamiliar to him. When he looked it up at home, he was irritated by the length and complexity of the calculations. He liked to think he was an old hand and knew his way around string theory and its major variants. But these days there were simply too many add-ons and modifications.

After a series of events including a domestic tragedy, Beard starts to use the work of one of the post-docs as his own. It’s all about solar energy now, specifically photosynthesis, and Beard works towards putting on a convincing demonstration in New Mexico. But past events, a lifetime of making bad health choices, and a lifetime of making bad choices in his private life are coming back to haunt him. It’s an entertaining read, with some compelling and convincing scientific background and lots of examples of the ways in which humans mess up for reasons of greed.

Food

Raspberry macaronsThe most heavenly sweet treats I have had lately are the macarons from Thomas Haas. It’s hard to pick a favourite flavour, but I think raspberry is the current front runner. Intense raspberry butter cream sandwiched between light almond meringues — a blissful combination.

Movie

Broken Wings DVD coverBroken Wings is an Israeli-made movie about a family coming to grips with the loss of its husband and father. The mother, Dafna, works hard at a local hospital and unintentionally neglects her children. The older son, Yair, has dropped out and spends his days wandering around town in a mouse costume, presumably being paid to advertize a restaurant. 17-year-old Maya is a singer/composer. She hopes to get a hearing from a talent scout but is constantly being called on to look after her younger siblings, Ido and Bahr. The family is deeply dysfunctional and it seems inevitable that disaster will strike again soon.

It takes a close brush with tragedy to change anything, but the family does cohere better by the end of the film.

Refreshingly, the characters are ordinary-looking, with an absence of Hollywood glitz and veneer. There is an attraction between Dafna (Orly Silbersatz Banai) and Dr. Valentin Friedman (Vladimir Friedman) and it appears they may share more of a relationship in the future but  there is no speedy romance — again, non-Hollywood, which is all to the good.