Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Gone Girl (the book)

Yes, I know, y’all read this three years ago, when it was new and hot. But I just finished it. So cast your mind back…

(But if you not have read it (or seen the movie] yet: Spoilers ahead.)

Gone Girl coverWhat it’s about, basically

Nick Dunne’s beautiful wife Amy disappears on their anniversary date. The house shows signs of a struggle, but almost in a staged way. The police have to consider Nick a suspect.

What I liked

This was an awesome vacation read. It was very gripping, the plot’s twists and turns continually holding my interest. A perfect way to while away the hours on the sun deck.

But I also found the narrative structure very intriguing. Despite the fact that the story was being told in the first person by Nick—we still weren’t getting the whole story. He was keeping secrets not only from the police, but from us, the readers.

This (along with some of the movie publicity, I must admit) becomes a clue that we should possibly also doubt Amy’s diary entries that intersperse Nick’s telling of her disappearance in the first part of the novel. Who can you trust?

What I had some issues with

The story’s structure is such that we’re supposed to find some equivalencies between Amy and Nick, I think, but, but… Amy is a murderous, vengeful psychopath. Nick is a bit flawed and weak.

Of course, Amy’s extremes made for this very enthralling plot—but it was very extreme.

About that ending

I talked to a number of people about this book and the movie. A lot of people hated the ending. A few people thought it was just right. But love it or hate it, one thing they had in common was: They couldn’t quite remember what the ending was. Only their feelings about it. Curious.

Well, at this point, I can still remember the ending, and I wasn’t crazy about it. It seemed a rather odd choice. And yet I wasn’t sure how I would have preferred that it end. I was briefly determined to see the movie, as I had somehow got in my head that it ended differently than the book, and I was curious to see an alternative. But further research dashed my hopes: It has the  exact same ending, apparently.

Guess I’ll wait to see the movie when I forget the ending, as that seems an inevitable occurrence…

What the book says about marriage

I’ve heard this “it’s an indictment of marriage” theory, but frankly, I don’t think this book says anything about marriage in general. Heck, given the narrative structure, we don’t even learn about Nick and Amy’s specific marriage. Not really. We only find out about it through a lying diary and the fog of memory (his and hers). It’s all past tense, and at a very tense time for both!

Really, I think, the only lesson you can take is: Try not to marry a murderous psychopath.

Can we blame Amy’s parents?

This was another theory i’d heard before reading the book, and then I kept waiting for Amy’s parents to do so or say something that would give a hint as to how they had turned her into what she was, but… Bupkus. Sure, they weren’t perfect. She was an only child, they literally elevated her to “Amazing Amy” status through a series of books they wrote, but not every spoiled kid turns into this.

It’s probably best not to try to find deep meaning in a fun vacation read. Even one written with such skill.


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To breed or not to breed (redux)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedA new book is out called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It seems to be getting a lot of buzz (and selling pretty well).

I have not read it, so can’t comment on its contents. As one of this selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed tribe, however, it did surprise me a bit that my choice remains of such interest. Or still be so hard to understand.

Mind, I had my own phase of reading a number of books on this subject—looking for kindred spirits, I guess. Some years ago I wrote a review of three of them. I got quite a bit of feedback on it, which was very unusual for content on a personal website. Thought I might repost the reviews now. It’s only very lightly edited from how it appeared then.


Despite the declining birth rate, it’s still considered odd for a heterosexual couple to not have children. The default is to have children (preferably two, one of each sex), and if you don’t, you’re expected to explain why. But if you’re going to go just on logic, there isn’t much reason to have children. We no longer need them to help on the farm, and there’s no guarantee they’ll take care of us when we’re old. Better to build up good RRSP savings.

No, the decision to have children is all about emotions, no logic. People want them. And when they have them, they love them, and can’t imagine life without them.

I guess. I wouldn’t know, would I? But I can say that my reasons for not going there are also mostly emotional. I just don’t want children. I can’t really say why I don’t; I just don’t. Never have. Have never heard the biological clock ticking; have never looked at children with an aching wish they were my own. Apparently this is unusual, especially for women.

This is why I tend to be drawn to artistic artifacts that reflect how I feel (or don’t feel, I suppose). Such as the following three books, all of which I’ve read (or listened to) in the past year. Warning that some of my comments may spoil the two fiction books.

We Need to Talk about Kevin coverLionel Shriver (a woman) wrote the fictional We Need to Talk about Kevin as her way of working through the question of whether she should have children. The book is told in the voice of a woman, Eva K., who never wanted children, but acquiesed because she knew her beloved husband would never be happy without them.

To say that the child, Kevin, does not turn out well is an understatement: After a difficult childhood, he becomes a high school mass murderer. The question is, how much of that violence and anger was genetic (nature), and how much is due to Eva’s admitted reluctance to becoming a mother (nurture)? With the whole story told for her point of view, looking back with the knowledge of how her son has turned out, Eva is not a completely reliable narrator. For example, she sees willfulness even in the newborn Kevin, who seems to be inconsolable with her but quiet and happy as soon as her husband comes home.

Shriver is a skillful writer and, despite the darkness of the novel, I found it a compelling read. I couldn’t help but feel enormous sympathy for the narrator as she dealt with her husband’s fervent desire for a child, his over-protectiveness during her pregnancy, her reluctance to push during childbirth, her disappointment at how their lives changed to accommodate the child. Apparently much of this material has also struck a chord with women who weren’t reluctant mothers but still struggle with these issues. (Motherhood is hard. Or so I’ve heard.)

Of course, the novel takes it to an extreme. Taking an abnormally long time to be toilet trained or wantonly destroying prized possessions may not be that unusual, but school murder and somehow contributing to your sister losing an eye to corrosive chemicals—well, those are pretty rare events.

The sister. Yes, an interesting turn Shriver’s novel takes is that Eva decides that another child is needed. Her husband, noting the difficult relationship she has with Kevin, is completely against this. Eva tricks him into impregnation. The second child couldn’t be a greater contrast to Kevin, and Eva finds she has no difficulty loving her.

Her relationship with her husband, however, gets strained beyond repair. He, of course, accepts his daughter, but can’t get beyond Eva coldness toward her son. They agree to separate after the school year, but the murder intervenes.

Eva addresses all of the writing is to her husband; the whole novel is in the form of letters he never responds to. (We find out why near the end of the book.) While she claims to love him always and unconditionally, and greatly mourns his loss, I felt strangely unsympathetic toward him. Eva really felt that she saw Kevin as he really was, while Kevin just put on a happy act for his father. Seeing the whole story through her eyes, it was hard for me not to feel some contempt for this apparently wilful blindness, and to not quite get why Eva loved her husband so much. Whether that aspect is a failure of writing or just my personal issues, I’m not sure.

(Postscript: After writing the novel, Ms. Shriver shows to remain childless.)

Baby Proof coverMuch lighter and different in approach is Baby Proof by Emily Griffin, a mother of two. Griffin wanted to explore the conflict between a couple who didn’t agree on whether to have children, and she wanted the woman to be the reluctant one. It’s another first-person novel, though not in the form of letters this time.

The main character, Claudia, has always felt that she didn’t want children. She had resigned herself to the fact that this might mean she would never have a husband, either, until she met Ben, who shares her views. They wed, and all is well for the first couple of years, until Ben changes his mind and tries to change hers. Their arguments grow increasingly heated until they decide that divorce is the only answer. But neither ends up being that happy in divorce, either.

In this novel, the deck really seemed to be stacked against Claudia, who didn’t seem to have anyone in her life who understood her point of view. Ben changed his mind about kids then kept demanding reasons why she wouldn’t have any, just so he could shoot them down. Claudia runs to her friend Jess, who would have a family herself if only she could find Mr. Right, only to be once again pressed to come up with reasons for not having children. Then there is her one sister who is desperately undergoing fertility treatments, and her other sister with the two great kids.

Honestly. For a novel about being childfree, it felt oppressively child-full.

The resolution was also somewhat unsatisfying. Where Kevin ended on a small yet plausible ray of hope (believe it or not), Baby Proof has Claudia deciding that Ben is her soul mate, and that if she must have a baby to keep him, so be it. Meantime, unbeknowst to her, Ben is also resolving that she is more important to him than a child. In the end, they are back together, and she’s still on birth control, but she’s wavering about it.

Child Free and Loving It! coverPerhaps Claudia needed to read some of the testimonials in Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It! In this non-fiction collection, the married but childfree by choice Defago examines the issues around the question of whether to have children: over-population, the environment, work, life as a couple, obnoxious parents. I didn’t find much of this information all that startling or new (though some might). But what I did find particularly interesting were the personal testimonials.

Under cover of anonymity, she got comments from people content with their decision to have or not to have children, but also those who had them but regretted it. In some cases, they’d had their doubts before, but went ahead to please their partners. In other cases, they hadn’t given the matter that much thought, then been overwhelmed by the reality. These people tended to emphasize that while they loved their children, they still felt their lives would have been better without them. And this wasn’t just from new (stressed) parents, but also from those with older children and teenagers and some looking back from a very welcome empty nest.

These sorts of sentiments are very rarely expressed, but important to hear, I think. While it may be sad to regret not having children, how much sadder to regret having them!


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Experiencing pop culture in a time of grief

When someone you love dies, blogging about pop culture, news, travel, and food drops off the priority list.

Doesn’t mean that these trivialities drop our of your life, though. Just that your relationship to them changes, at least for a time.

Music

You know, if you break my heart I’ll go
But I’ll be back again
‘Cause I told you once before good-bye
And I came back again

Music is an emotional mindfield, isn’t it? I don’t think The Beatles “I’ll Be Back” would make anyone’s list of saddest songs ever, but on a day of bad news, I couldn’t handle it. I frantically searched through my playlists for safer havens. I finally settled on “High Energy”, a gathering of uptempo rock and dance numbers, generally with pleasingly dumb lyrics. I stayed locked on that for about a week and a half, ‘til it finally seemed just too incongruous. (Then I switched to Classical.)

Adam Lambert’s excellent album Trespassing was just the sort of uptempo music I needed for a time

Food

I was interested to discover that I still got hungry, still wanted to cook, was still able to eat. Because certain forms of stress and worry make that difficult for me. But not this one, this situation with a known but sad outcome. While  I didn’t eat more, or drink more—I didn’t find comfort in that—I still enjoyed the routine of preparing and eating meals.

I certainly became a distracted cook, though. Leaving the milk out on the counter, putting the vinegar in the wrong pantry, forgetting to start the timer. Like the energy of pushing the sadness away enough to follow a recipe was not leaving enough mental space to remember anything that wasn’t written down.

Things are now improving on that front.

Movies and TV

While actually going out to a movie seemed like too much effort, watching stuff on TV was an appealing distraction. Since I don’t watch much medical stuff anyway, there wasn’t much I felt I had to avoid. Howard’s mother died on Big Bang Theory (as the actress had in real life), but it was handled with a light touch and didn’t set me off. In picking HBO movies, I decided to skip Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow for now, given its premise of the lead character dying over and over. I instead watched and quite appreciated the comedic In a World, one of the more overtly feminist movies I’ve seen in a long time. Recommended.

In a World trailer

News

The human interest stories—little boys lost in the snow, Oliver Sack’s terminal cancer diagnosis—were best avoided for a while, but I still found the theatre of politics a surprisingly useful distraction. Especially in Twitter form (about the length of my attention span, at times). I couldn’t truly dig up my own personal outrage at some of what was going on, but I could still appreciate and retweet other people’s. #StopC51 and all that.

Books

Cover of Being MortalSo just a few days before all this my book club had selected Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as our next book. It’s about getting older and end of life care, and how the medical profession has been dealing with it, and how it should.

Of course, there were days I wasn’t up to reading much of anything at all, but when I did feel up to it, I did read this, I seriously doubt I would have selected this particular book if left to my own druthers, but I feel it was in some ways helpful. It’s an excellent book, anyway, and much of it was more abstract and factual, which appealed to my logical side. Stories did become more personal and touching later in the book, but that was later in this whole saga for me too and—I don’t think it made anything worse. It certainly presented a number of scenarios I’m so glad my loved one never went through.


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Easter is all about… fine dining?

That’s not right, is it? The foods of Easter are homey ham and scalloped potatoes and cheap chocolate. Good Friday is fish. Restaurants are not full to bursting for Easter; in fact, some close for the holiday.

So I’m not sure how we came to mark the start of Easter weekend by going out to not one but two of the area’s finest restaurants. It was as spur of the moment as can be for places that require reservations.

First up, Thursday night before the long weekend, was Verses. We just… Hadn’t been there in a while. We’d hoped to have one final crack at their fine fall / winter menu, but we were just too late for that. Upside was: First crack at their fine spring / summer menu.

The place was fairly quiet this Thursday night, and being there just felt nice. As restorative as a visit to the spa.

A celebration of food!

A lovely place to be after a busy work week

We were hungry, and it was a bit difficult deciding what to choose on the new menu, most of which sounded delicious. Jean made it easy on himself appetizer-wise by going for his standby foie gras, this time served with “saffron, vanilla waffle, slow poached orange supremes, and Vin Cotto”.

Foie Gras, The most sinful food!

Le foie gras

And I suppose I also went for the somewhat habitual: They usually have some kind of seafood trio as an appetizer, which I usually can’t resist. This time it was scallops:

Sake Kombu cured on arame salad in toasted sesame rice wine vinaigrette
Ceviche, layered with pico de gallo and avocado croutons
Fennel wrapped pan seared on champagne vinegar dressed fennel fronds

Scallop Tasting

Why have scallops one way when you can have them three ways?

Jean favored the tart ceviche style; I thought it was hard to beat the traditional pan seared, but we both agreed the avocado croutons were just the coolest!

We had a heck of a time selecting our wine, partly because I somehow wanted white despite have selected duck as my main course. But we finally settled on a very lovely French Gewurtz. It arrived just after our appetizers, which may be a first (for this restaurant)! (And by after I mean, like, 30 seconds after.)

Lovely Gewürztraminer and Andrew

Andrew suggested this wine

It certainly suited Jean’s main course of three kinds of seafood: tempura shrimp with aioli, grilled octopus salad, and crab and lobster cannelloni with mushrooms and broccoli.

Seafood

Why have one kind of seafood when you can have four?

The octopus salad had a pleasant smoky taste and very nice texture. The cannelloni were rich and delicious. But perhaps the best were the crispy shrimp, which did not suffer the fate that large shrimp often seem to, of ending up kind of tasteless.

My main was seared duck breast served with a mole sauce. The duck was perfectly prepared, and I loved the chocolate  spiciness of the mole, served in its own mound. The dish was called Duck Duck Goose, and the goose was in the form of a quesadilla, which was crispy and rich. The sides were “dirty” rice—wild rice with black beans—and a Brussels sprout slaw.

We resolved to share a dessert, a plan that was complicated a bit when we didn’t agree on which one. Finally Jean just agreed to go with my choice, the maple mousse.

Maple Desert

Maple mousse

Of course, this wasn’t just maple mousse in a little dish. It was served in delicious dark chocolate, and accented with a fleur de sel tuile and caramel “dust” that tasted rather like the inside of those Crunchie bars. Everything was quite exquisite.

The Friday outing came about because Langdon Hall somehow put me back on their email list, though I haven’t been there in years. And the email mentioned they were doing an oyster and wine tasting on Good Friday, in Wilk’s Bar. Wilk’s Bar is the somewhat less formal, and somewhat less expensive, dining area at this luxury hotel. We didn’t have any particular plans for the holiday Friday, and most things were closed, so trying that out seemed like a nice afternoon outing.

We didn’t want to have another full three-course meal, but we figured that three oysters likely wouldn’t be enough to sustain us til dinner, either. So we each went with another appetizer. I ordered the squash soup with morels, duck confit, and foie gras. Jean ordered the terrine. We received the 2 oz servings of the white wines that were to suit the three oysters to come: a very dry Chablis, a good sparkling Reisling from Tawse winery, and a delicious oaky Chardonnay.

A flight of wine: Chablis, Oaked Chardonay, Tawse Sparkling -> Perfect for Oysters

Why have just one kind of wine when you can have three?

And then we waited. The warm bread basket served with butter made in-house topped with sea salt helped, but it still seemed a long wait for just soup and paté.

When the food did arrive, it came with apologies for the delay; clearly something had gone awry. And they were forgiven when we tasted everything. Hmm. Some of the best examples of squash soup and terrine ever.

Terrine doe Foie Gras - excellent!

Yay! The food is here!

The rest of the meal proceeded at the expected pace. The three kinds of oysters—raw, crispy, and baked—were each just amazingly delicious, and it was fun to have a matching wine for each.

Oyster Trio: Raw, Baked, Fried.  Best Oysters I've had in decades!

Oyster trio. (It’s high time I drop the “why have one” “joke”)

And we again indulged in dessert: One each this time! Jean had the so-called “ice cream sandwich” while I went with cranberry fritters and “hot chocolate”, which turned out to be warm chocolate mousse. And yes, I dipped the fritters.

Icecream Sandwich like no other!

Walnut ice cream and daquoise

The least pleasant part of these types of meals—paying the bill—wasn’t quite as bad this day. They gave us the desserts on the house to compensate for the delay in serving our appetizers.

On Saturday, we gathered with extended family. Interestingly, that was also more of gourmet Easter dinner than one might expect: baked lamb, two kinds of potatoes (neither scalloped, exactly), French green beans, asparagus and mushrooms. And fancy chocolate mousse pastries for dessert, along with fruit salad.

The food was delicious. And the company was even better.


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Movie reviews: Philomena and Beginners

***½ Philomena (November 2013) – Theatre

PHilomena posterJudi Dench, Steve Coogan. A cynical reporter agrees to help the elderly Philomena locate her son, who was taken from her by the church when she was a teenager.

She says: A rather delightful movie about a pretty appalling subject. The interaction between the cynical, worldly, atheist reporter Martin and the sentimental, parochial, and still-Christian Philomena is wonderful. Especially those moments when you—along with Martin—realize that Philomena is not as naive as you might think.

Their journey together to discover what happened to Philomena’s son after he was taken from her from the convent she was sent to as pregnant teenager is full of twists that I didn’t see coming. It’s all based on a true story, and it doesn’t cast the Irish Catholic church in a particularly good light.

He says: It was terrible what happened to her! It all made me so angry!

But it was nice that I wasn’t bored by the movie.

**½ Beginners (November 2011) – Rental

Beginners posterEwan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent. After meeting a woman he connects with, artist Oliver thinks back on his Dad’s last few years of life as an out gay man.

She says: This movie plays with time a lot, flashing back to Oliver’s last few months with his Dad, who was dying of cancer but determined to live to the full to the end; to the period before when his Dad first came out as a gay man, after the death of Oliver’s mother; and to key moments of his childhood. In present time, Oliver is trying to negotiate a new relationship with the unpredictable but insightful Anna. Both Oliver and Anna have a history of failed relationships, of not being able to see them through. Oliver uses the memories of his Dad’s life as a lesson in how to change.

So, it’s a pretty arty. But the performances are great, the actors have good chemistry, and I enjoyed the journey.

He says: I didn’t understand that movie. Not my thing.


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We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather

Compared with people spending Christmas in unheated, unlit homes or stuck in airports, I can’t really complain about our Christmas travel.

We had more time this year, and therefore decided to drive north, figuring we could then adjust our own itinerary as weather demanded rather than be dependent on the airline’s.

We left the weekend of the ice storm, after the smaller Friday night one ended, before the bigger Saturday one started. The roads weren’t fantastic at the start of that trip, and some bits were quite foggy. So it was slow, but we didn’t really have any problems. Eventually we drove out of the storm zone and were driving on bare pavement. We even got a bit of sun.

We decided to lay over in North Bay despite their predicted 25 cm of snow the next day. The usual 4.5 hour drive took us 6 hours, so it was nice to have a break. We also quite enjoyed our first dinner at Churchill’s, a restaurant listed in Where to Eat in Canada. It’s an older place with a warm atmosphere and an impressive wine list. We enjoyed a bottle of Malbec with appetizers of gnochi and asparagus, and calamari and tomato, both excellent. For mains I had the roast duck with potatoes and salad, while Jean had wagu (a type of beef) ribs. I found the duck a little overdone, but everything else was good. For dessert, I had three tastings of creme brulee (coconut, chocolate and sambuca, and maple), while Jean had a Greek-style dessert.

Dessert at Churchill's

Dessert at Churchill’s

The next day it was back on the road, indeed in snow. It was fairly blowy not long after taking off, but it gradually lessened as we moved north, and finally ended completely. Back to driving on pavement.

Timmins was cold this year. Highs of -20C, maybe -18C most of the time we were there. Dropping to -30 something overnight. Nevertheless, we did get out to do stuff. We went snow shoeing one day; by far the worst part was putting on the snowshoes in the windy parking lot. Once on the trails, it was actually fine. (Of course, we were well bundled up.) We went for a decent length walk the next day, and survived.

It finally warmed up some on Christmas day, to -11 or so—balmy! But with the hustle and bustle of visitors that day, I barely got outside.

Mostly anyway, we were spending time with family indoors, at somebody’s house or another’s. Always nice to celebrate together.

Me at Christmas

Not sure my family wants their photos posted here, so won’t, but here’s me…

Part of the indoor entertainment at my parents’ is watching the activity at the outdoor bird feeder. Northern birds have such nice colors! Jean spent one morning gathering pictures of them. I wish I could remember all of their names, as Dad reported them to me. (Even when it comes to birds, I’m bad with names.)

Woodpecker preparing to eat

This large woodpecker is too big to just perch on the edge of the feeder

Woodpecker at feeder

So he (or she) has to hang on from underneath, balance with the tail, and reach in for the peanuts

Blue jay at feeder

This smaller bird (blue jay?) has it easier

Bird flying to feeder

Action shot! Love this one

(Our drive back was largely unremarkable, weather-wise. One brief bit of blowing snow, and that’s all.)

 

 


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One wedding and a funeral

“Welcome to your day of mixed emotions,” said my uncle. As happens occasionally in life, I was attending both a funeral, and a wedding, in one day.

The two events weren’t as different as one might have thought.

* Both began with a ceremony that took place place in a Catholic church.
* Perhaps unexpectedly, really both ceremonies featured a mix of laughter, tears, solemnity, and smiles.
* Attendees to both wore their Sunday best (though it was a Saturday).
* A meal followed both. (Though only the wedding featured an open bar and DJ dancing.)

And both ended up being at least partly on the theme of the importance of a good marriage (pray, eat, love, I guess). My cousins gave a loving and eloquent eulogy to their father, that included these words:

“My father had a message to men that he wanted to pass along. Don’t be too proud to tell your wife how much her love and care means to you. Don’t wait to express yourself.”

And my niece, whose wedding party included two stepsisters along with her biological sister, included this tribute to her new in-laws:

“And thank you for serving as a great example of a successful marriage. Because while my parents passed along a lot of values to me, the value of marriage wasn’t one of them.”

In the famous words of Kelso, “Ooh, burn.”

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