Cultureguru's Weblog

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


Leave a comment

Moving through the stages

It was rather heartening that as Ontario moved more and more regions to stage 2 of reopening, that cases continued to trend downward. In stage 2, restaurants could serve food and drinks on outdoor patios; one could get haircuts, manicures, and tattoos (but not facials); and malls could open their doors.

Now areas are moving into stage 3: indoor dining (with spaced tables and occupancy limits); bars (!!!)—though only seated, no dancing, live music only behind plexiglass; gyms; and facials (for those who care, which isn’t me). Indoor limits increased to 50, not counting staff. And the case trend? Has become a bit of a roller-coaster.

No doubt this is all rather trickier than the earliest stage of, basically, hiding in your basement.

The mood

I called last summer my “lost summer”, as I spent so much of it battling anxiety and depression, and therefore struggling to really enjoy anything—or even leave the house. This summer, of course, there are so many external reasons it’s hard (or at least unwise) to leave the house.

But weirdly, my mood is so much better this summer. (Mind you, the cat conflicts were really stressing me out last summer, and now my cats are super happy to be getting so much attention. Maybe all I really need is contented pets.)

Not that I’m super cheery all the time. And of course, early on, I was definitely battling anxiety. Like anyone else, I was scared of getting the disease, and virus seemed to lurk everywhere. Now I’m not thinking about it as much–though I still have the occasional, vivid, coronavirus-related bad dream about finding myself in crowds of maskless people.

And I certainly have cranky days on a semi-regular basis. The difficulty in acquiring goods–slow and unreliable Canada Post delivery, shortages, the need to preorder everything, limited store hours–definitely put me in a bad mood at time. And at some points, I was getting super irritated with the government response: that for too long not enough tests were being done, that the testing criteria was too restricted, that contact tracing wasn’t happening fast enough, that the province wasn’t taking a regional approach to reopening.

But on both counts (goods and governance) thing have improving. I still get the crankies, just not quite as often or for as long.

Gratitude can help with these things. Thank God I’m not going through these troubled times while in a dark pit of despair and fear.

Travel

And, getting away can help too. After a few stay-cations, we hoped to go somewhere for our July vacation, albeit within this province. At least it’s a big province!

But planning it was tricky. The final regions of the province had just moved into stage 2, with no indication when stage 3 would happen. We’d think of places, like Manitoulin Island, then find they didn’t particular want visitors or, like Tobermory, that their hotels were priced such that well, maybe they didn’t want visitors, either. Restaurant-wise, we’d be limited to patios and takeout.

So it became mostly a family-visiting trip, but as the drive to Timmins is long, we added a stop in Orillia on the way up, and a stop in Sudbury via Muskoka on the way back.

Hotels

Jean’s Mom was quite suspicious of hotels, doubting they could possibly be kept clean enough. I was considerably less worried. As we’re learning, it’s not so much surfaces that are the issue, but people (and their moist breath). Hotels aren’t particularly crowded these days, and of course, you get a room of your own.

Thinking we might be eating takeout in them, we decided to upscale our rooms a bit and get a suite. This proved a bit disappointing in Orillia, where we stayed at the Stone Gate Inn. Certainly the room was big enough, with the extra kitchen and living room we wanted. But it also seemed a bit old and shaby. And covid protocols there meant no coffee maker, no dishes at all (not even wrapped plastic cup), no complimentary newspaper. While I believe these items were available upon request, it was kind of odd.

The complimentary breakfast was handled by having us call in the night before with what we wanted and what time. The next morning, they’d call when it was ready, and we’d go to the lobby and pick it up to bring back to our room to eat. That, we actually liked–preferable to the usual buffet breakfast!

But in general, we were happier with the Sudbury Homewood Suites by Hilton. The suite there was basically the same size and layout, but just a bit newer and shinier. (They made a point of noting that the TV remotes had been sanitized.) And, it included a coffee maker, dishes, and newspaper. Whether that was because we were there on the first day of stage 3 or just a difference with that hotel chain, I dunno.

There we could have eaten breakfast in the dining room (turned out to be the first day of stage 3), but we decided to just bring it to our room anyway. It was a pick up your own food deal, but with everything cold individually wrapped, and hot options served by staff wearing gloves and mask, and not via a common utensil.

Restaurants

We had been thinking of just doing takeout in Orillia, but the uninspiring hotel room, combined with the fact that patio menus looked more interesting than takeout ones (for the same restaurant, I mean) led us to eat at a restaurant for the first time since March.

Oh my God, it was so great.

We had fine weather for our two suppers there, so that made outdoor patios appealing. We ate early the first night, and thus were able to grab the last available table at Rustica Pizza Vino. (Then they had to get our contact information, just in case.) I did feel that the tables were nicely spaced, and the breeze was comforting. We had to look at the menu online, on our phones. All the waitstaff wore masks.

So we weren’t feeling especially stressed as we were served wine, and very fresh salad, and tasty pasta, then dessert (affogato!). It was glorious.

The next night, at The Common Stove, was even better. (We made a reservation the day prior.) They used an alley between buildings as their “patio”, putting a covering over it with lights, that actually gave it a really nice atmosphere! They had quite a creative menu that was delicious, from starter to dessert.

Eating out for the first time since March. Table service, I’ve missed you so.

In Sudbury, we made patio reservations at another Italian place, Verdicchio Ristorante. Our Timmins friends were wondering what said patio would be like, given that the restaurant was located in more of an industrial mall. But they had also done a lovely job of fencing off a patio area, adorning it with vines and grapes. We enjoyed the food and wine here as well.

A lovely patio in a parking lot

We’re now inspired to finally try a local patio as well. (Think we’ll still hold off on indoor dining for now.)

Answering the call

The pandemic also spotlighted the fact that when all restaurants close, it becomes really tricky to meet certain biological needs while traveling. On this trip, things had opened up enough that it wasn’t too much of an issue, but I still wanted highlight:

  • The truly lovely facilities available at the Scout Valley Loop Trail site in Orillia. (Pretty nice walking there, as well.)
  • The remarkably good facilities at a little restaurant in White River, just outside Sudbury. This stop allowed us to enjoy our hike on the AY Jackson trail.
Falls at the AY Jackson trail

Shopping

In Orillia, we did another thing we hadn’t really done since March: Casually browse through some stores for fun. It was a Monday, and none of the stores were busy—in fact, we were generally the only customers. As well, Orillia’s new mask bylaw had just come into effect. So it felt pretty comfortable. I got a nice new pair of walking shoes, and some earrings from a really cool art store.

A social circle

Timmins, we had to conclude, was looking kind of sad, and we weren’t particularly enticed to either shop nor dine out. But of course, that stop was mostly about seeing people.

Ontario has this guideline about creating a “social circle” of up to 10 people that you agree to be close contacts with. No one’s to belong to more than one social circle. Well-intentioned, but kind of complicated, and also impractical for large, geographically distributed families. So we have not formed any formal “social circle”, but are just winging it.

We did visit indoors with my Dad and Jean’s Mom, but avoided hugging–though I don’t know how much sense that made. We visited with the brothers (mine and Jean’s) mostly outdoors. We visited with friends in their outdoor gazebo–though they thought it was absurd (and hilarious) that we brought own beverages. We did visit the interior of Jean’s sister’s house in Sudbury (but still no hugging!). And on the way home, we stopped in to see my sister and family at their rented cottage in Muskoka, mostly hanging outdoors.

Rented cottage living…

It’s going on two weeks now, and everyone seems to have survived these encounters.

Of masks and men

As we were traveling, masks were becoming mandatory in more and more communities in Ontario—even in northern ones, where I had figured the low case incidence and less crowding would cause them to give it a pass. But as in Orillia, we arrived in Sudbury just in time for their mask bylaw, and in Timmins it was to go into effect the following week.

Sign in Orillia (with its own sense of justice)

The provincial government’s approach of being all in favor of face masks but requiring every city and town in the province to decide for themselves whether to make them mandatory is bizarre. Super inefficient, for one thing. And obviously leading to each place in the province having their own little twist on the mask mandate, even if they’re only five minutes apart. Some examples off the top of my head:

  • Toronto has no enforcement. Waterloo Region has fines up to $1000.
  • In Sudbury, you only need masks if moving inside a restaurant. In Waterloo, you need to wear them on restaurant patios as well, until seated.
  • In Toronto, until recently, you had to wear masks on the municipal subway and buses, but not on the provincial Go trains and buses they connect to.
  • A number of work places are not covered by the Waterloo bylaw, including day cares (for the workers, not the children).
  • In Guelph, stores and restaurants themselves have to enforce the mask mandate. In Waterloo, it’s enforced by the municipality.

It’s just all muddled and stupid and confusing. But, at least most places seem to be getting there, and best I can tell, compliance is reasonably good.

Reading list

Libraries reopened, sort of, a few weeks before we left, and I decided to acquire physical material (book books) before leaving. You have to reserve what you want online, then go pick it up. At my local library, for some reason, it’s a drive-through pickup. I’m not a fan. It was quite a line-up of cars, making it slow, and all that idling is not environmental. At the pick-up spot, you called to give your library card number. The loan was then brought out and placed in the trunk, in a paper bag, with a note assuring that the book had been “quarantined” for at least 72 hours prior.

A bit excessive, maybe? And I’m still left wondering how someone without a car (or a cell phone) is supposed to borrow books. (Normally, I walk there myself.)

I also borrowed a few items from the Kitchener Public Library, and that pickup process was much better. Go in on foot (limits on the numbers, but there was only other person there when I arrived), wearing a mask, hand over your card to the employee behind the plexiglass, and your books are brought out to a table. Faster and less carbon emission-y.

With both libraries, items are now checked out for six weeks rather than three–very good for me.

But I’m making good progress on all of them. From Kitchener, I got a series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 10 comics. I’d been rewatching a lot of Buffy lo these many weeks, but as it was moving along into Season 5, I stopped, feeling that I just didn’t want to get into [Spoiler alert!] Joyce dying, then Buffy dying…

But in Season 10 Buffy comics (I learned via Google alert), Buffy and Spike finally have the mature, loving, healthy romantic relationship they never quite around to on the actual series. I then learned (via Google searching) that these comics are out of print and rather impossible to purchase anywhere at a reasonable price. So I was rather pleased the library came to my rescue!

Spuffy smoochies!

From Waterloo I acquired Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time, but I’m finding it especially interesting now–likely more than I would have before last summer. Because it’s about how she uncharacteristically responded to some work stressors with a severe bout of anxiety and depression. In between describing what was happening with her fairly public career as a Globe and Mail columnist, she provides research into the nature, cause, treatment of, and prevalence of depression. Some really good stuff on a topic I didn’t know as well as I thought I did.


2 Comments

So instead, I’m writing about “Little Women”

I haven’t blogged in ages because I keep thinking that I should write something personal and insightful. But when I start trying to do that, I just get bogged down. I don’t want to seem preachy, I don’t know how much I want to reveal–I just don’t enjoy it.

So chuck it. Let’s talk about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.


I work at a tech company, and before the Christmas break, the chatter was all about Star Wars. Who would see it when, how many times, in what format, and at which theatre. So much excitement.

… Which I couldn’t share, ’cause I didn’t care. I did see the first two in this new Skywalker set. I thought the first one was too much of a rehash of the original Star Wars. I found the second better, more interesting. But this one, somehow, really seemed primarily aimed at the super-fans (who are legion). I’m sure it’s an entertaining enough movie. But I’m in no hurry to see it.

When I first saw the trailer for the new Little Women, I wasn’t sure it was necessary, given that the 1994 version was so good. I was intrigued, though, by the near suggestion that maybe Jo… Doesn’t get married?

And then all the amazing reviews started coming out, so I started really anticipating its release. I had visions of seeing it at the VIP theatre–lounging in my comfy chair, being served appetizers and wine–but then realized that while it was playing at that theatre, it wasn’t in the VIP room. (Not with stupid Star Wars hogging a bunch of those screens.) So instead we trundled off to see it at on a regular screen at a regular theatre, with regular seats and not even any popcorn, because the lineup to get that was too long. (Stupid Star Wars.)

Jean’s been watching a bunch of women-centred shows with me lately: TV series Fleabag (which he loved), the movie Girls Trip (which he did not; must agree it was pretty stupid), and the movie Booksmart (I liked this one more as it progressed; he remained unmoved by the main characters).

With Little Women, he loved the cinematography and found the characters interesting, if not always likable. He’s never read the book and doesn’t remember the 1994 Little Women (which we saw together), so the story was all new to him. He declared he wished there was more plot. (Does Fleabag really have any more plot, though?) And he kept mixing up the actors playing Beth and Amy (declaring they looked too much alike), which made for a certain amount of story confusion, as you might imagine.

Me, I read the book multiple times in my youth, so it was all about seeing how the famous scenes were interpreted this time. And the unique approach here is that much of the story is told in flash-back form, as the movie begins with Jo in New York, meeting Professor Bhaer. As events occur in that time line, she thinks back on moments from her youth.

It’s kind of an exhilarating way of presenting it, as those of us who are familiar with the story are also, basically, looking back on those scenes with nostalgia. Giving away Christmas dinner to the Hummels. Getting in trouble over pickled limes. Oh right, the ice skating accident. Beth and her piano. The burnt dress. The burnt dress. The burnt stories! (So much burning!)

The movie just skitters along at a contemporary pace, moving across scenes before we can get bored with them, but without seeming rushed.

The actors are all terrific. Among the famous are Saiorse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Timothy Chalumet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Not previously known to me were Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, which I assume contributed to Jean’s confusing the two of them. They stood up among this cast, with Pugh doing an especially great job with Amu. And I would note that both actors had startlingly rich, deep voices, which was really striking (to me; Jean claimed to not have noticed).

But does Jo marry? (Spoiler alert, I guess?) That’s the thing: it’s not clear. By that point in the story, Jo is working on a novel called Little Women, based on her life. She is discussing the fate of the fictional Jo with her editor, he of the opinion that women characters must end up either married or dead. There is a scene of Jo and Professor Bhaer kissing in the rain. But did that really happen or is it just written into the novel…?

Brilliant.

This Vox article–The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic–gives a great take on Little Women‘s “marriage problem”: that it’s hopelessly unsatisfying that Jo ends up with Professor Bhaer (especially the way he’s described in the novel) while Amy gets Laurie. Apart from making Jo’s marital status ambiguous, Gerwin makes the Laurie / Amy partnership much more palatable partly by, as the article says, spelling the economic reality for women at that time.

Sorry, Star Wars fan, for dumping on your movie, which I haven’t even seen. Just a joke. I do hope you enjoyed it. Because I do understand loving something in your childhood / teenagehood and wanting to see it re-created on-screen. Only for me, that something is a novel about four young women in the time period of the American Civil War.


Leave a comment

Finding fiction

A tip on reading more books that I’ve found useful is to just embrace having more than one on the go at a time. Prevents any one book from feeling like a slog that is stopping you from moving on to your new, shiny books.

Personally I aim to have at least one fiction and one non-fiction book in progress. Non-fiction isn’t so hard to line up—just go with subjects I’m interested in. Fiction is tougher. I now see why so many people love genres of fiction: makes it easier if your aim is to have a bunch of mysteries, romances, or sci fi novels at the ready.

But if your genre is, basically, General Fiction? Quite a bit tougher to narrow that down. I seek inspiration everywhere.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Source: Spotted it in a book store (but later bought the ebook)

A love story, of sorts, between an eccentric owner of record store—as in LPs, at the time when everybody was buying CDs (and maybe cassettes)—and a mysterious young woman who swooned outside the shop one day. She claims to know nothing about music. He agrees to teach her about it.

That’s the best part of this book, to me—the in-depth discussions of great exemplars of different types of music: jazz, rock, classical, R&B… Makes you want to rush out and listen to what’s being discussed. Fortunately, the book comes with a Spotify playlist:

I do not know what the book’s main character would have thought of Spotify…

An American Marriage by Tayah Jones

Source: Barack Obama recommendation

A novel about a recently married couple in which the husband is wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. The wife has no doubt of her husband’s innocence; nonetheless, he faces a long incarceration away from her. How do you manage that?

Much of the novel is told as a series of letters. The story does not proceed on a predictable path, but it is plausible one. Thanks, Obama.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Source: Kobo (ebook seller) recommendation

A work of fiction built around the story of a young woman who has an affair with the older, married, male Senator she’s an intern for. Shades of Monica Lewinski, yes, though that affair is mentioned in the novel as the news that drives her own story out of the headlines.

What’s interesting is that the story is told exclusively from the point of view of the women involved: the intern, her mother, her daughter (the story covers many years), and the Senator’s wife. And you’re not always sure who is who, at least not right away. I loved the approach and really got caught up in this novel.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Source: New York Times best books of 2018

This one didn’t work out!

The novel is in three parts. The first two seem unrelated. The third is supposed to bring them together. I read the first part, about a love affair between a young woman and much older man (a writer). They were interesting characters, but they didn’t really do much. There wasn’t much plot happening.

Before proceeding, I look into other reviews. They said that the second part was less interesting than the first, and that the supposed connection you find out about in the third is tenuous, maybe unfathomable. So, I gave up on this one.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

Source: Recommendation from The Washington Post

Cassandra Bowden, a flight attendant and a binge drinker, wakes from drunken stupor to find that the man she spent the night in Dubai with has been murdered. What to do?

If there’s one genre I do tend to return to, it’s the thriller, and this one is somewhat reminiscent of The Girl on the Train. Unlike that novel, however, it’s clear early on in this story that Cassandra did not murder her lover. But her lack of memory about what happened complicates her situation. And her frequently poor judgment often makes things worse.

This was a pretty fun read. I got it as a library ebook and had to binge read through the last parts because someone else had put a hold on it and I wanted to know how it ended.

Non-fiction

I’ve been in a bit of a rut here, of musician bios.

Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite is Roger Daltrey’s breezy, easy-reading autobiography. You can tell that it was built from Roger telling his story to the writer he worked with, who assembled the pieces into a coherent narrative.

It is an interesting story, starting in the deprivations of post-war London and continuing up to closing out the Olympic Games, making a triumphant return to Hyde Park, and nearly dying of viral meningitis. With many entertaining anecdotes on the way, from Keith Moon’s antics to the many women in his life (and a number of surprise children) to The Who’s financial challenges and musical triumphs.

I can recommend this one as being appealing even to more casual fans of The Who, as Jean and I listened to the audiobook version (read by Roger Daltrey) and Jean was approving. He had a much higher opinion of Mr. Daltrey by the end of reading this than he had going in.

Unlike with Roger Daltrey’s book, which I preordered and read pretty promptly, this one has been sitting on the bookshelf for a while. I ended up quite enjoying it, though.

This Ray Davies’ second autobiography. Though it does some moving back and forth in time, it’s told in a much more straightforward fashion than his first, which employed a faux, third-party narrator. Here, Ray just writes his own story, focusing on The Kinks relationship with America, and therefore covering the period starting in the early 1970s when the band’s work ban was lifted. It includes the whole 1980s “arena rock” period during which I discovered The Kinks and became a fan, so was of particular interest.

Ray discusses some of his relationships he was in during this time, but with considerable discretion, so if you’re hoping for dirt on his volatile relationship with Chrissie Hynde, you’ll be disappointed. It’s mostly about the music, the band, and his uneasy relationship with the US itself—culminating in his shooting by a mugger in New Orleans. Getting shot is no joke, it turns out…

Another book with a soundtrack (yes, there’s also a Part 1; I just prefer Part 2)


2 Comments

Meditation

Many years ago I read (at least some of) Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. The point that stayed with me all this time is that if you’re not really fully present and engaged with the now, you’re not really living.

Which doesn’t mean that I am always, or even particularly frequently, fully engaged with the present. I am a hopelessly plan-y person, which makes for a lot of thinking ahead! But I at least had that idea, in the back of my mind, that if you’re going to do a thing, you do that thing, you focus on it, and you really appreciate it. And at least occasionally, I would actually do that.

Kabat-Zinn’s technique for getting better at being present and mindful was (and still is) meditation. That practice, I never adopted. I think I tried a few times, but it never stuck.

silhouette of man at daytime

This is not me. (Photo by Prasanth Inturi on Pexels.com.)

Jump ahead to January 2018. TV journalist Dan Harris is the guest on The Daily Show, talking about his new book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. A lot of people are interested in trying meditation, he says, but think they don’t have the time. His pitch to them? Five to ten minutes, he says—that’s enough. Don’t even have five minutes? One minute will do.

Then he adds that it’s nothing complicated, that it doesn’t require wearing of yoga pants and becoming a mystic, and that you’re not failing if you don’t manage to clear your head. The attempt to clear your head is what matters.

I finally bought the book this spring, and after a few bouts of anxiety left me wishing I had some better coping techniques, this summer I actually read it.

After an introduction to what meditation is and what its benefits are, the book is divided up into chapters based on people’s excuses for not doing it. I thought I’d only have to read the first two: “I can’t do this” and “I don’t have time for this.” Then when I actually started trying it, it was a bit uncomfortable, so I figured I should also read the third chapter: “People might think I’m weird.” (What’s actually weird? That so many people find being alone with their thoughts so off-putting they are actually willing to give themselves electric shocks as a distraction.)

In the end, I found something of value in each chapter, even the ones that appeared to have nothing to do with me: “Meditation is self-indulgent”—as if I have any trouble with self-indulgence. Or, “If I get too happy, I’ll lose my edge”. Yep, that’s me all right, miserable and edgy, and wanting to stay that way!

But the “self-indulgent” chapter included tips for if you thought you maybe had the opposite problem (of perhaps being a little selfish), and the “edge” chapter included some great techniques from managing worries (the “Is this useful?” mantra).

Furthermore, the book was just more interesting and fun to read than I expected from a “self-help” type. There was a running story-line of going on a meditation tour and trying to gain recruits. Meditation techniques are not “one size fits all”, it turns out.

But did the book work? Yes, absolutely, in that for the first time in my life, I am meditating regularly. (Turns out that my office has a meditation room! Who knew?)

And am I now 10% happier? Is the meditation itself working? Well, that’s hard to say. The whole thing is subtle (the promise is about a 10% happiness increase, not a complete transformation of your entire outlook) and the effects take time. At first it just seemed weird and a bit pointless. Now, sometimes I actually look forward to it. I can’t say for sure, yet, whether I’m developing better long-term coping strategies. But maybe?

Quote-2.jpg


Leave a comment

My relationship with the Globe and Mail is dysfunctional

I do think that, in these times, it’s important to support the newspaper industry financially, if you can afford to. This might seem crazy, when so much news is available for free online—and there’s certainly an argument that news companies haven’t been that smart in making so much of it available free online. But, we need to support real journalists. Those who hold politicians to account. Who spend months on investigative stories. Who fact check. Who provide the background details on that “click-bait” headline. Someone needs to help pay for all that—or we’ll lose it.

coffee magazine

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

However, there is really no need to subscribe to as many newspapers as I do. Most of these subscriptions, I acquired at some great deal, but these deals gradually expire, I have to start rethinking some of these relationships.

Long-time companion: My local paper

If you’re looking to subscribe to one newspaper, your local paper is a good one to consider. For one thing, if you even have one, you’re lucky—just ask Guelph. And there have been studies that closures of local newspaper increase the cost of local government: no more watchdogs.

But you don’t have to think of your subscription as a charity donation; it is actually a source of useful information—who’s running for office in your town; local perspectives and comments on national and international stories (example: Greg Mercer’s great investigative work on Doug Ford’s shoddy treatment of former Kitchener MPP Michael Harris, later picked up by The Toronto Star); upcoming and ongoing constructions projects; festivals and other events; stores and restaurants opening, closing, moving, and expanding; and updates on when the heck those Ion trains are going to get here. The New York Times is great, but it ain’t going to cover any of that stuff.

Conestogo River at sunset!

Wondering where this lovely neighbourhood trail is? Your local paper might tell you.

Plus, an e-subscription to my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, is pretty cheap. For just under $8 a month, you get unlimited access to the website and a full replica of the print edition in a handy Android or IOs app. It’s also a nice, I think, that The Record is not a Postmedia publication, meaning it doesn’t run obligatory corporate editorials (that just happen to have a right-wing slant). The Record is owned by the TorStar, who allow the local staff to set their own editorial direction.

Cheap date: The Washington Post

So, this is how they lured me in: They said subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll give you full website and Washington Post app access for six month. And I said, OK. And it turned out their newsletter was kind of interesting, and I was reading a bunch of their articles (Trump era! You can’t look away!), and when the six months was up they said, how about you give us $20 (US) and then you can keep getting the newsletter and having full website / app access for a year. And I said, OK.

postThen the year was up, and I was like, oh my God, what is my price going to jump to now? But it didn’t jump at all (except to the extent that the Canadian dollar fell); it was still just $20 US for another year. Or about $2 Cnd. a month. Which, I can totally afford, so I’m keeping it, because—you can’t look away!

Weekly gentleman caller: The Toronto Star

Though this is soon to change, the Toronto Star doesn’t currently have a online paywall, so my subscription is an old-timey one, to the paper version, but on Sundays only. And at this point, I’m still getting it at half price.

It is kind of nice to get a paper copy (in limited quantities), and I do usually get it read (though not necessarily all on Sunday). I’m also wondering if this small subscription will provide some access once the paywall does go up. So I’ll hang on to this for now to see what happens.

Toronto Star special project: Daniel Dale keeps track of every false claim Donald Trump makes. (Maybe they should do Doug Ford also?)

Glamour boy: The New York Times

Yes, this is the prestige paper, but the thing that stands out to me about The New York Times is that its online experience is just head and shoulders above everybody else’s. Their long-form stories are interactive and gorgeous. For example, though it broke my heart:  Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

losing-earth.png

“Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario…”

You can seamlessly link to the responsive and attractive New York Times app from browsers and social media. As a subscriber, you can “set aside” any story for safe-keeping or later reading, something I’m now constantly expecting from all other papers! But alas, no one else has it. (Thanks goodness for Pocket.)

And if you like cooking? A vast collection of recipes is available, auto-organized, to which you can add external sources. And even get it all printed up (for a small extra fee). If you want the “full paper replica” experiences, that’s available, too. And though it’s not my thing, the crossword experience is apparently incredible as well.

recipes-nytimes.png

The lovely (and far less depressing) cooking section of the New York Times

I had this subscription for a year at 60% off, and the full monthly price ($22; they let you pay in Canadian) is now a bit of a shock. Cheaper subscription are available—and even freeloaders aren’t completely cut off. So I’ll have to do some research on how much glamour I really need in my life.

Dysfunctional relationship: The Globe and Mail

If you think The New York Times is a bit pricey… Meet the Globe and Mail. I have the cheapest possible subscription, but now that this 60% off discount has expired, we’re talking $27 a month. That’s just to read stuff on the website—no amazing app, no replica of the full paper, no home delivery, nothing much extra other than… Report on Business magazine.

So I keep breaking up with The Globe and Mail. Which is always painful—because it requires a phone call, of course, no handy Cancel button. And the cancellation request is never immediately accepted. No, they first try to lure or guilt you into staying, but if you succumb, you know you’re just putting off the pain to a later date.

But even when I succeed in ending the relationship, I often find myself lured back. Because for all the frustrations with this publication:

They do have some very good columnists, and they do invest in long-form investigative pieces more so than any other Canadian newspaper. A prime examples is the Unfounded series that Robin Doolittle worked on for 20 months, revealing that an incredible percentage of reported sexual assaults were being dismissed as “unfounded”, or without merit. It’s a rare case of a newspaper story leading to nation-wide changes in policing.

unfounded-rates-fall.png

There’s also the simple fact that a lot of Globe and Mail stories are “subscriber-only”, period. While there are ways around this (you can get the Globe digital replica free from the library, for example), they are not  as convenient as just clicking and reading the story. But what price convenience? That’s what I have to decide.


Leave a comment

I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.