Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Wow.  Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and an amazing story. 

The fuku have cursed his family for at least three generations, bringing incredible pain and suffering that starts under the "kleptocracy" of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in the 40's.  DR decades later is still corrupt, a place of terrible violence in the canefields.

Oscar's curse is to be obese, to suffer unrequited love, and potentially die a virgin - this is no laughing matter and brings him to the edge of suicide more than once.  His tenacity is fierce, he keeps trying.   This is no happily-ever-after love story, but in the end he does succeed, "So this is what everybody's always talking about!  Diablo!  If I'd only known.  The beauty! The beauty!"

Echoes of Marquez and Llosa, with liberal Spanish peppered throughout.

"It sounds like the most unlikely load of jiringonza on this side of the Sierra Madre."

Context speaks volumes, but still  a translation/phrasebook at the back of the book would have made it a bit more accessible.  Jian Ghomeshi asked Diaz about this and he was unapologetic, saying if people want to know they can go and find out for themselves.  If I had read an eBook connected to the Internet, I could have linked back and forth between Babblefish, maybe even getting the pronunciation, and flaunt the phrases español.

Luncheon of the Boating Party -2

Some of my favourite characters in this book were the beverages:  wine, champagne, cassis, pear brandy, burgundy, and Armagnac:

Charles raised his glass to look at it.  "A fine mahogany color with an amber surface."  He brought it to his nose to smell the montant, the strongest aromas.  "An abundant nose, not for the faint of heart."  He swirled it gently and watched it coat the glass.  He raised it again for the second nose, the full bouquet.  "Vanilla, plum, and spices."

Charles waited until everyone had enjoyed the aromas.  "The perfect sip is always the first."

"You're wrong, Angele said.  "The perfect sip is the one you're sipping."

"With a long, deep aftertaste of prunes," Raoul said.  "A far sight better than your young brandy in that country cask, you'll have to admit."
.... "D'accord."

Painting is Renoir's Lunch at the Restaraunt Fournaise (1875).  Another scene of conviviality, wine, food, and boating.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Luncheon of the Boating Party

Susan Vreeland paints a tale that revolves around the Renoir masterpiece, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”  After all the heavy lit I’ve been reading lately this was a welcome confection. 
Along the way I learned some interesting background about Impressionism, Paris in 1880, and sailing on The Seine. 

If the author's interpretation is to be believed, it was criticism from Zola that drove Renoir to attempt this ambitious portrait of fourteen:
"If one is too easily contented, if one sells sketches that are hardly dry, one loses the taste for works based on long and thoughtful preparation.  The real misfortune is that no artist among the Impressionists has achieved powerfully and definitely the new formula which, scattered through their works, they all offer in glimpses... The man of genius has not yet arisen. We seek in vain the masterpiece that is to lay down the formula... they remain inferior to what they undertake; they stammer without being able to find the words."
Ouch!  And this about Renior, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Degas, Cezanne, Caillebotte, Morisot.

The story takes place over the two month period it took to create the masterpiece, with background stories of the characters that sit as models.  The amazing luncheons they enjoy over 8 weeks of Sundays are described in mouth-watering detail:  salmon with mushrooms and dill baked in brioche bread; rabbit stew; crepes. After the light loses its magic, there is usually sailing or rowing to be done.

The cover of the book is the painting itself, and I found myself constantly flipping back and forth to study the characters and brushstrokes as I read about them in the text. 

As the painting takes shape and colour, each detail is brought to life:  how the red poppies came to be on the brim of one hat;  the awning waving in the breeze, the sailboats in the background.
“The sly, soft eyes of this one tipping her head coquettishly, the archness of her smile.  And the pert little nose of that one, her petulance, absorbed in her dog but knowing that Gustave is adoring her.  The feline charm of this one looking through the glass.  And the black gloves to this one’s ears, forcing us to speculate what she doesn’t want to hear.” ...and Gustave’s hand lines up with Angele’s, the woman looking at him... and the two hands on the chair of the right, the titillation of that.”...
“the luscious still life.  The face in the glass is far lovelier than Vermeer’s attempt.  The young woman loving her little dog - you’re quoting Fragonard there.  And the langor of the one leaning on the railing is pure Ingres.  You’ve given the masters a rebirth in Impressionist style and subject.”  (p 419-420)
Consider all the academic prose and art criticism the painting has inspired. Indeed, “a picture is worth a thousand words”..... or more....

Monday, October 25, 2010


Suddenly is published ten years after the Giller award-winning novel, A Good House.

In some ways it must be a bit of a curse for a first novel to win the Giller and be published to such critical acclaim.  Alice Munro's praise is quoted on the book's cover:"You keep finding more and more satisfaction in the unshowy craft, the unique vision of this writer who can tell you hard truths, hopefully."
It is only with family and friends by her side scratched out.  And peacefully, bravely, ready to meet her maker, all scratched out.  And then the word he was left with.  Suddenly. (p.235)
Thus the title is born.  Yet how could it truly be called suddenly, when people are taking shifts watching someone they love being consumed by terminal cancer?

Burnard's technical skill is displayed in this novel without question. Pages and pages of the novel are spent witnessing the horrible suffering that resides in mundane details like sponge baths, haircuts, meals...  I'd like to say it makes the memories of times past more poignant, and it does, but I also felt a bit manipulated.
The ragged pounding in his chest, a hammer, a claw hammer, is new and it is not what any man would call love.  He looks at her parched mouth and at her chest, as hard and flat and cold as a boy's, and at the weak expansion and shallow collapse of her lungs, that mock breathing.  Sheet or no sheet, he can see the body's ruin, the wasting and the bruising and the pale rubbery scars.
He doesn't care.  She could be inside out, he wouldn't care.
And then like a fearful boy put to a test that he has in fact prepared for, he is able to say the thing he should say.
"Love you, Babe," he tells her.  "More now."
(p. 194)
The Book Babes were in general consensus about the beautifully written prose.  Many of us  found the constant shifting difficult to follow.  There were a lot of paragraphs read and re-read to re-establish the person, the time, or the event that had occurred.  

This novel was a bit like a fugue, the way it weaves back and forward through time and points of view.  Sometimes two or three different time frames and perspectives within as many paragraphs. The journals kept over the years were a useful device to travel in and out of time,  through sickness and health, decades-long friendships, marriage, divorce, affairs.

Paragraphs with odd little twists that cause you to pause and re-read, like:
And Gus too wanted Kate protected from the world, from men and from herself, because when she was living at home with her mother there had been a bit of trouble.   Two guys once, smuggling up late at night to her room, their snorts of laughter giving them away and then their outrageous condoms offered to Kate's mother as evidence of their common sense.  And sixteen year-old Kate both laughing and enraged.  And strong.  And pounding her mother into the bed. (p. 109)
The book was not short on irony but the use of  humour was spare.  The only instance that comes to mind is near the end of the book, when "She Loves You," by the Beatles, is played at the funeral service, chosen by the daughter because she remembered her mother saying it would make a great funeral song.  "I’m not sure your mother intended that every single one of her words should be remembered,” her brother comments wryly. (p.284)

Friends that were held together through the web of association learn new ways to be with each other in the world.  The husband begins dating, with no interest in living in solitude.  Life goes on.  

Friday, October 22, 2010

Full Hunter's Moon - October

Well, it's a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
'Neath the cover of October skies

And all the leaves on the trees are fallin'
To the sound of the breezes that blow
An' I'm trying to please to the callin'
Of your heart strings that play soft and low

 full lyrics to the Van Morrison classic

painting on right is from Robin Nash gallery

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Environmental Floral Design

wooly thyme, Autumn Joy
and hens & chicks in my garden
Some people just have the knack, it seems.  Mary Audia is one of them, and is famous in this district for her talents.  At the District 5 Horticultural meeting she gave a workshop on environmental floral design that was inspiring.

She used plants in her arrangements that I often overlook in my own backyard:  the purple sedum, a big hellabore leaf, hosta, geranium, eunomous, euphorbia, bergenia, cedar, barberry....

The Ikenobo philosophy nicely aligns with environmental design:
  • seasonal plants, locally grown
  • slight imperfections are acceptable, even desirable, especially if they 'speak to the season',  like a hosta leaf yellow with autumn colour or with a pinprick hole...
  • materials kept to a minimum

I ended up taking home the arrangement and container on the left (complete with kenzin).  The scent of lily is strong, but not too overpowering.

There was another fun design concocted from a scooped out pumpkin, and then filled with orange glads and dahlias (ornamental kale or cabbage, and mums could be equally striking).

What's not environmentally friendly comes as no surprise:  pesticides; floral foam (it's  non-biodegradable and full of toxins like formaldehyde); and transporting exotic flowers long distances, which produces carbon emissions.

So why not choose plants grown locally?  Or better yet, from your own backyard?  The only problem with taking cuttings from the garden is just that - well, you are taking cuttings from the garden.  One less bloom to admire.

Alex put his cactus in among the marigolds. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

This be the verse

Now, this is the second book in a row I've come across a reference to Philip Larkin's poem, committed to my memory in adolescence.  Apparently it's stuck with others, too:  

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
   They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
   And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
   By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
   And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
   It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
   And don't have any kids yourself.
--Philip Larkin

Books that mention it are:
  • Suddenly, by Bonnie Burnard
  • Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo
The image turned up in the google image search for 'they fuck you up, your mom and dad' at this poetry blog

October skies

View of the bluffs from the boat on Sunday.  Hope this was not the last trip out of the season.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Garden Day!

Fall colours at the TBG
It was the Horticulture Society District Five meeting today.

Spent a wonderful day devoted to things botanical.

In the morning I made a bird feeder out of a teacup and learned about environmental floral design.  In the afternoon,  heard about the history and importance of the Oak Ridges Moraine.  Lots to blog about in the coming days....

In between I wandered about and snapped happily away at all the different plants and colour combinations.  The euphorbia's silver foliage was stunning at the foot of the scarlet maple tree.  I saw a bergenia blooming... I thought that was only for spring!  And of course, the tall grasses, dancing in the afternoon sun.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


On Thanksgiving Day the mid-October sun was warm.

It was a perfect day to plant some tulip bulbs for next spring, in thanksgiving for the seasons past and yet to come...

I think I might make this part of my annual  thanksgiving ritual!

'Little Beauty' (4" early spring bloom)
Pulchella Eastern Star 
(6"  mid-spring bloom)

'Happy Generation'  (20" mid-spring bloom) 
from the Royal Horticultural Society Collection

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alan Bergman & Gene Bertoncini

Hugh's Room was hosting a Jazz.FM91 Songwriters Series with Alan Bergman & Gene Bertoncini; this would be Bergman's only Canadian stop on the tour.

Bergman made a point to talk about Norman Jewison's appreciation of music and song in film, and was deferential to  Kevin Jewison (Norman's cinematographer son), who was sitting in the audience. Apparently the lyrics in the song 'Windmills of your mind" for the Thomas Crowne Affair (1968) so perturbed a certain singer he wanted them all changed, but Jewison Senior insisted not a syllable be touched.

Great backstories.  Like how the song, What are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life, was written.  The Director Richard Brooks came to Bergman with an assignment.  Compose a song that would play in the beginning of the movie with young lovers deeply in love; and then play later in the film, after the two had been long-married and the husband had become a workaholic and the wife an alcoholic.  Not a note or word could change, yet the song would have to suit the mood for both states.  Michel Legrand wrote the melody and Bergman and his wife Marilyn wrote the lyrics.  The film? The Happy Ending is not well-remembered, but the song itself  was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and continues to be a standard. 

It was a long night, and Alan had given it his best.  When people rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation, he didn't have it in him to do an encore.  But then, he is 85. 

Bertoncini accompanied Bergman.  He was born in 1937 and still entertained as a jazz guitar virtuoso.

To see two old men celebrating music and song adds a whole different layer to the lyrics and music.  The love songs seem to have a different shimmer, a new depth.

I saw Cab Calloway in his 80s, Stephan Grapelli in his late 70s, and Frank in his early 80s and they all gave memorable performances.

Still, I wasn't expecting Bergman to be 85, and was a bit shocked when he came on stage.  He settled in comfortably and started singing in the nonchalant way songwriters have.... they know they aren't singers, but want to share the music.  And share he did, interesting backstories and tidbits about songs...  Like how 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers' started as a 45 second television theme, or how Frank Sinatra always called him 'kid' even when he was in his 60s.  His wife Marilyn was in the audience as well.  imdb shows the two have been married since 1958.  In this interview on YouTube you can see he is still smitten.

And here is Alan singing the tune What are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life. 

(this is an odd little video... it has breathtaking photos of Italy, Venice, France and then an older couple interspersed... on a cruise ship... wait.... is that Brilliance of the Seas?  It looks familiar!  lol).

Monday, October 11, 2010

October Sail

Admiring the fall colours on the bluffs from the boat...

Sailing on a warm October afternoon...


Candied Yams and Cranberry Casserole

What's the difference between a yam and a sweet porato?  A yam is a yam.
A sweet potato by any other name would taste as sweet...  or would it?
The yam, on the left, is often mistaken for a sweet potato, at right. Yams have darker flesh and taste sweeter, though both can be used for casseroles, mashed like potatoes, or julienned for fries -- to name a few ideas. Bakersfield Express
Believe it or not, scientists claim these two are not biologically related.  If you want more Vitamin A, choose a sweet potato; for more vitamin C, fibre,  B12 and potassium, pick the yam. Both are relatively low in calories and have no fat.

The yams, and this recipe, came in my 'Organics Delivered' box.  This was the first time that I prepared yams in a slow cooker, but it definitely won't be  the last,.  The flavour was intense.

I prepared these at the club, putting the yams in the cooker before we pushed out for an afternoon sail.  When we returned 6 hours later, the meal only needed a few finishing touches.  Happily there was enough to share with other members enjoying their late dinners. 

This is a beautifully colourful dish - orange and red to match the colours of fall. 

Candied Yams and Cranberry Casserole

Ready in 1-5 hours depending on how you choose to cook the yams.
(Serves 6)

6 medium yams or sweet potatoes
1/2 cup of butter
3/4 cup of light brown sugar
2 cups of fresh or frozen cranberries
1 teaspoon of salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup walnuts
I added fresh ginger, freshly ground cinnamon, and yellow golden sultana raisins. 

  1. Wash the yams or potatoes; drain but do not dry.  Option A:  Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours.  This takes longer but retains more flavour.  Option B:  Steam yams until you can easily pierce them with a fork, 20-40 minutes.
  2. Peel and cut yams into quarters.  Place in casserole.
  3. In medium saucepan, melt butter; add sugar, cranberries, walnuts, salt and pepper and chosen spices.  Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until cranberries pop and sugar dissolves.
  4. Pour saucepan mix over yams in casserole dish.
  5. Cover and bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Schnabel's canvas is at least three stories high
"Is physicality even a word?"

"Well, why not?  If it isn't, it should be."

It hit me when we were at the gallery looking at Julian Schnabel's huge canvases of surfers and again in his bullfighting series.  Just the sheer, physical, selfish pleasure of the artist to be in the moment, blind to their audience.  I could imagine Schnabel's extreme reach and the will required to leave those marks.

It made my fingertips tingle when looking at Hesse, Goodwin and Martin At Work.  In Martin's meditative series, 'Work Ethic,'  12 white canvases, which on close inspection are anything BUT blank space.  The textures teased into being in the table-sized sculptures of Goodwin and Hesse.  Art not a fleeting, external idea but a physical response.

Then off we go to listen to Autorickshaw at Hugh's room. The exotic fusion of Indian scales and improvisational jazz.  In the middle of it all, a tabla lesson.  Did you know a tabla student will spend months just vocalizing the sounds, before the teacher allows them to tap and flutter the complicated beats against the skin of the drums?  The player manifests the music only after they have internalized the sound.  One of the compositions featured the tabla, with the singer vocalizing the tabla sounds, and the bass guitar echoing the syntax.  Amazing!  Sample an entire Autorickshaw  concert at CBC On Demand.