Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

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Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

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The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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Sounds of 2016

My opinion of this year’s top music? That I probably didn’t hear most of it. Last year, under Adam Lambert’s Spotify / Twitter guidance, I actually heard a fair amount of the top 40. This year Adam had other priorities (tours, movies, TV shows), so I reverted to more typical behaviour for someone my age, and listened more to older stuff.

Still, some audio releases of 2016 managed to grab my attention.

Albums

The Hamilton Mixtape

We went to New York this year, but did not see Hamilton, the Broadway musical. I tried for tickets, but without really knowing much about the play, other than that it was super-p0pular. We did see the New York Library exhibit about Alexander Hamilton’s life, however, and it certainly was a colourful. So on my return, I finally listened the musical soundtrack, and really liked it. I definitely got into the story line, and a lot of the songs are just catchy. They’re not all hip-hop, but I liked those ones, too, generally.

So The Hamilton Mixtape, a collection of covers, re-imaginings, and out-takes from the musical, was the only album I got my hands on the day it came out. It did not disappoint. It just highlights why this story of someone from so long ago resonates today.

Favorite track: “It’s Quiet Uptown” by Kelly Clarkson, though it always makes me weepie

People are already weeping over Lin-Manul Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape

Carly Rae Jepsen: E*MO*TION Side B

It actually took me a few listens to really get into the original E*MO*TION album, but I had no such trouble with Side B. Why these particular tracks didn’t make the original cut is a mystery, as they seem as strong as those.

Favourite track: “The One”

The Queen Extravaganza: A Night at the Apollo Hammersmith Live

The Queen Extravaganza are the officially sanctioned Queen tribute band, and on this outing they tackle the entirety of A Night at the Opera—something the original band never did. The do an impressive job of it. And then we get some other Queen hits.

What’s particularly striking about this band, though, is just how much singer Marc Martel sounds like Freddie Mercury. You’d occasionally swear this is a new recording by him, which is a mix of awesome and weird. The album is not available for streaming, but must be acquired from Pledge Music.

Favourite track: “The Prophet’s Song”. I dare you to not be impressed by it.

Queen Extravaganza – Seven Seas of Rhye – Live at the Apollo Hammersmith

Alysha Brilla: Human

Not every song is a home run, but this is an uplifting, positive release from this hometown artist.

Favourite track: Bigger Than That (“You put up a wall, but I’ll climb it like a cat. Cause I am bigger than that.”)

(David Bowie’s Blackstar is also worth noting, but you all knew that already.)

Songs

You’ll notice a prevalence of artists of a certain vintage here…

  • Bonnie Raitt: Need You Tonight—Sexy cover of this INXS song
  • Beyoncé: Formation
  • Roger Daltrey: Let My Love Open the Door—Who singer takes on this great Pete Townshend solo track, for charity
  • Brits 2016 Bowie Tribute, featuring Lorde—Fantastic job
  • Paul Simon: Wristband—So funny . Rest of the album is rather good, too.
  • Tanya Tagaq: Rape Me—Haunting cover of the Nrvana song. Her album has made many “best of the year” lists, but I haven’t listened to it all yet.
  • Lady Gaga: Grigio Girls

And I also liked everything Adam Lambert released this year:

  • The two dance track collaborations: “Can’t Go Home” with Steve Aoki and “Broken” with Tritonal
  • The cover of George Michael’s “Faith”
  • His Rocky Horror songs; Hot Patootie (Bless My Soul) and Science Fiction
  • And his single, performed on American Idol and featured in numerous sports broadcasts: “Welcome to the Show”

Gorgeous official video for Welcome to the Show

Concerts

Did pretty well with live shows this year, and since I blogged about each at the time, I don’t have it go on about them again. In order of greatness:

  1. Adam Lambert: Original High Tour (Berlin, Germany)
  2. Tanya Tagaq, Intersections concert with KW Symphony (Kitchener, Canada)
  3. The Who: Who Hits 50 tour (Toronto, Canada)
  4. Alysha Brilla: Album release party (Waterloo, Canada)

(You know it’s quite the year if on my favourite bands of all time is third!)

Via semi-legal webcast, I also enjoyed the Queen + Adam Lambert Rock in Lisboa, and by totally legal national broadcast, the Tragically Hip’s last show of their tour.

Podcasts

It didn’t occur to me to compile a list of particularly good podcasts, but I did spend part of the Christmas break working through Wired’s recommendations. Good list, though I have concluded I’m not really a fan of fiction podcasts, even if well done.

Audiobooks

trevor-noah-book-born-a-crime-stories-from-a-south-african-childhoodEasy, because I only finished one (not enough road trips this year): Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. This book has been well-reviewed and I can assure you, it’s deserved. His life is fascinating, and he tells it well.

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa, during the Apartheid era, of a black mother and a white father. Their relationship was illegal; hence, “born a crime”. He spent much of his early childhood indoors. When out with either of his parents, a ruse was necessary. He’d walk with a lighter-skinned friend of his mother’s, and his mother pretended to be maid. He walked across the street from his father.

Apartheid ending just changed the complications of figuring out where he fit in.

Though it’s his life story (and does not include the tale of how he became a successful comedian in South Africa, and ultimately star of The Daily Show), his mother is the real star here. What amazing woman, to be so strong and independent in a society that gave her no training or support for being so.

Noah does narrate the book himself (unabridged) and does a great job of it. It’s fun hearing him read out the various African languages and to get the proper pronunciation of everything. It wasn’t a very easy life, but as comedians will, he pulls many funny moments out of it nonetheless. One of the best things I heard this year.

 


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Huawei Honor 8 and Kobo Aura One

Because Canada is backward in terms of cell phone service, I experience the wonders of unlimited data only when I travel. (Within Canada, even if I were willing to pay for unlimited data, no one would sell it to me. Not in my province, Canada’s most populous.) So while in New York, back in October, we wandered the streets with my Nexus and a Roam mobility SIM card, confident we could Google Map, museum-narrate, and Open Table to our heart’s plan.

And indeed, the cell service phone service was fine. The phone itself, however, was not. It was a bit of an aged device, and it kept doing Weird Stuff. Mysteriously battery draining. Locking. Randomly rebooting.

Enter Huawei

So when I saw the Huawai Honor 8 on sale ($50 US off) at B&H in New York, I could not resist. And I did not even know, when I made that decision, that when shopping in person at B&H, they thrown in a bunch of other stuff free. So I left the store not only with my new phone, but a case for it, an SD card, premium over-the-ear headphones and a leather case for those, and some mini photography accessories (those, I handed over to Jean).

The Honor 8 is a generally well-reviewed phone, with specs that, apparently, put it nearly up there with iPhones and Google Pixels that cost twice as much (or more). The only real criticism I’ve read is that of Android purists, who object to Huawei’s practice of modifying the interface to make it look more like an iPhone. (They do this to please customers in their main market, China.) That doesn’t overly bother me, since it still basically acts like an Android—including the ability to customize it yourself to make it more Android-like.

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As a light cell phone user, it’s more phone than I need, really, and some of its features—such as the apparently great camera (Jean was amazed that it came with an aperture setting)—are somewhat wasted on me. Still, I’m quite happy with it overall.

The good

The size and look. While it has a somewhat bigger screen than the Nexus 4, it’s still very slim, very light, and so fits quite nicely in the hand. It also has this attractive glass backing (so glad my free case was transparent) and a beautiful collection of photos that appear on the lock screen.

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Until I got an Honor 8, I thought I didn’t care how my cell phone looked. Turns out I do.

Battery life. It charges quickly, and holds a charge well. As a light user, all I do is plug it in for about 10 to 15 minutes each morning for more than enough juice for the day. While I haven’t tested this, I suspect I could go three, four days on a single charge.

Performance. Responsive, responsive. Every app I’ve tried loads quickly, smoothly—unless there’s some problem with the app itself.

Gorgeous screen. So sharp and clear. Text is easy to read, despite the screen size. Pictures look fantastic.

Fingerprint sensor. Easy to set up, and now I can unlock it with my finger. And get the notification bar down by sliding my finger the sensor. (I can’t quite get the hang of the double-tap to launch my calendar, though.)

Maintenance notifications. It warns me if an app is consuming a lot of resources, which is particularly appreciated when on data. It weekly (you can adjust timing) prompts me to clean up cache, to keep things humming. And although this was annoying at first, you must individually allow app notifications. I now realize the benefits of not being bothered by apps I don’t care so much about.

Storage: It has a lot (32 GB), even without the extra SD card. I’m using only a small fraction now, but nice to know that much more is available.

The bad

Too tempting. It’s new, and it’s fun, and now I’m going slightly over my small data allocation just about every month. (Once because I clicked a YouTube link without realizing what it was, which—even though I shut it down as quickly as I could—was immediately followed by a text from my cell phone provider that I’d already reached 50% usage. That’s the downside of responsiveness!)

Yet another connector. It requires a USB-C, which isn’t all bad: It’s two-sided, and has therefore put an end to my struggles to get the mini-USB inserted right side up. But it does mean that full collection of devices requires not one, not two, not three, but six different types of connectors!

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Connectors for, respectively, cell phone, eReader, small tablet, foot pedal, large tablet, iPod classic #maybeIhaveTooManyDevices

Kobo Aura One

Unlike with the cell phone, I wasn’t a smart shopper of this device at all. Instead, I was one of those silly “early adopters” who tried to get my hands on it as quickly as possible, and therefore (of course) at full price.

And it wasn’t easy. This eReader also generated many good reviews, and at launch, simply didn’t produce enough devices to meet the demand. Stores had no stock, so I ordered online, but it was back-ordered, then delayed from that. I ended up getting it just days before the New York trip, at which point a search for a case proved equally fruitless. It’s not a standard size, so only the “official” one would do. I went most of the trip without one, and managed to avoid dropping it. On the last day in Montreal, I found and bought a case at Best Buy.

At full price. Of course.

And how is it? It’s fine. It’s an eReader, so it doesn’t do anything more exciting than let you load and read books. But it is a step up from my previous Kobo (which Jean has inherited).

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The good

Screen. It’s slightly bigger than the usual eReader, but not so big that it’s awkward. It’s still a thin, light device you can manage with one hand. And the bigger size means less frequent page turning. And it’s definitely sharper than the old eReader.

Back-lighting. It automatically adjusts to the amount of light in the room, and also to the time of day, screening out more and more blue light as it gets later. You can override anything of this if you want, but I find it works well. And since I do read a lot in bed, I appreciate anything that potentially aids in good sleep.

Waterproof. Though I have yet to immerse in the tub, apparently I can.

Speed. It’s truly amazing how quickly new books are downloaded onto this device.

Library ebook borrowing integration. My local library is part of the Overdrive ebook borrowing program (most North American libraries are), and now that I’ve set up my Kobo with my library card number and separate Overdrive login, I can very easily load library books onto the device. No more having to do that on the PC using Adobe Book Manager.

When “shopping” for ebooks on this device, I get the Kobo store buying option of course, but if my library does have it available, I can borrow it right then, or put it on hold. The book loads like any other, but expires at the end of the loan period, leaving a preview version behind. I used this, for example, to borrow a Montreal travel book for the trip.

Storage: It also has a lot (and I’m also using only a small fraction of it at this time).

The bad

Typing. It’s just no fun typing on this thing. No auto-correct. Not that responsive. Fortunately, being an eReader, typing is definitely a secondary activity. But still, hate when I have to do it.

Battery life. Honestly, it’s still excellent, far exceeding any cell phone or tablet. It will last weeks. Just not quite as many weeks as the old eReader. You have to pay for that extra processing power somehow.

Pocket integration. I do use Pocket, but I log in via Google, and that simply doesn’t work on the Kobo. I apparently need a dedicated Pocket account, but how do I do that without losing all the articles already saved? So I’ve yet to figure out how I might access my Pocket articles on this device.

Huawei Honor 8 at B&H

Kobo Aura One at Indigo


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Carry on

Rainbow Rowell’s novel Carry On has an unusual genesis.

412xh9uvpbl-_ac_ul115_It originated in one of her previous novels, Fangirl, in which the main character, Cath, is obsessed with a Harry Potter-like series of books about a teenage magician named Simon Snow. So obsessed that Cath writes a lot of fan fiction about it. Cath’s big goal is to write her own version of the final Simon Snow book—in the form of a long story she calls Carry On—before the official book is released.

So Fangirl contains supposed “excerpts” of the “official” Simon Snow books, along with bits of Carry On along with other Simon fan fiction Cath has written over the years.

And Carry On is Rainbow’s Rowell own take on these characters; that is, she’s not attempting to write it in the voice of Cath.

As it was somewhat whimsically chosen as our book club selection, I had the rare opportunity of comparing my reaction to it with that of two people who, unlike me, had not read Fangirl.

In the beginning

Carry On cover

Carry On is written with the assumption that you have read the previous six books (that don’t really exist). It doesn’t fully explain this world; it refers to previous battles and other characters without extensive elaboration.

This, I was somewhat expecting. My friends were not, and were initially somewhat mystified by it.

All of us, however, shared the “holy shades of Harry Potter” syndrome in that the beginning really seems like the start of any Harry Potter novel, with Harry—sorry, Simon—having a miserable, lonely summer among the “Normals”, then having some adversity in trying to get to his private school for magic people. There we find his smart friend Penelope, the great Mage who runs the school, the eccentric gardener Ebb, mortal enemy Baz, and so on. All so Harry Potter-ish, it’s quite distracting.

The plot thickens

Fortunately, as the novel continues, it diverges enough and develops the characters sufficiently that you do stop mentally matching them up with JK Rowling equivalents and just enjoy the story on its own merits. We all found the plot engaging enough and quite appreciated the storyteller’s humour. For example, one of my favorite bits is that Penelope’s roommate is literally a pixie (named Trixie) who is indeed, quite manic!

The book’s use of spells was also very interesting (see A linguist live-tweets Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On). The idea is that spells are based on English idioms, sayings, poems. The spells can gain or lose potency over time as the phrase itself become more or less popular in the vernacular. So those good with words tend to be more powerful.

Song lyrics can be particularly magical, and of special delight was that this song played a key role in the plot:

 

(On an unrelated note, the Bohemian Rhapsody Reinterpreted video, featuring ballet dancers, a choir, and a string quartet accompanying Queen, is awesome:

)

Spoilers for those who haven’t read Fangirl:

Continue reading


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About my last post

I’ve admittedly had some relapses in my “ignore the election” resolve, but the previous post was actually written before said resolution. I sent it as a letter to the editor, but it appears it’s been rejected. As I actually spent a lot of time writing that sucker (takes so much longer to write less!), I just wanted it published somewhere!

(And by the way, Braid used the exact same line to avoid an all-candidates debate on Science held at University of Waterloo.)

Still, sorry for adding to the discussion of topic that I know Canadians are tired of, and non-Canadian don’t give a fig about. (But just for the record, progressive Canadians: Please do get out and vote!)

And frankly, though voiced in a bit of jokey way in my “shit’s making me crazy” post, it’s pathetically absolutely true that my mental health degrades when I pay too much attention to politics. It literally sucks the joy out of my life. And I can’t write about something without thinking about it.

So it’s time this blog got back to the admittedly trivial topics that actually make me happy to ponder.

Starting with a poll in which none of the results could be depressing.


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#Elxn42: This shit’s making me crazy

This shit’s making me crazy
The way you nullify what’s in my head
You say one thing, do another
And argue that’s not what you did
Your way’s making me mental
How you filter as skewed interpret
I swear you won’t be happy til
I am bound in a straight jacket

— Alanis Morissette, “Straightjacket”

So, it’s that part of the Canadian federal election where everything seems stupid and awful, we semi-hate everyone now, and when will it be over?!!

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.

Fortunately, I was able to decide who to vote for in the early and considerably less awful part of this extra-long campaign. And I’m not even primarily voting against something.

On balance, I just found that I like the Liberal platform the best. Things like, banning taxpayer-paid government ads (much as we’ll all miss those “Canada Action Plan” ads). And making the Senate non-partisan (one they’ve already walked the talk on). And, amending the Access to Information Act so it actually provides access to information. Ending omnibus bills. Trying to make Question Period better (it can hardly be worse). And yes, legalizing marijuana.

I also found Trudeau the most appealing leader overall. He’s shown more passion and boldness than the others. And I’m not concerned about his competence to govern.

As well, I am really impressed with the Waterloo Liberal candidate, Bardish Chagger. She’s smart, well-spoken, experienced in working in federal government. And she’s bound and determined to vote for Waterloo interests first, her party second. “I’d like to meet the person who succeeds in telling me what to do”, she said, credibly, at the debate I attended.

So good luck Ms. Chagger!

But I hope you’ll excuse while I now do my best to ignore the rest of the campaign. Because it’s not that I’m not interested. It’s just that me being interested has the unfortunate side-effect of me starting really care what happens. And I have no control over what happens—what politicians do and say, how the media reports it, and ultimately, how everyone else votes.

And that shit makes me crazy (then angry, scared, and finally kind of depressed and hopeless). I need off this emotional roller-coaster.

So bye-bye news radio, hello iTunes. See ya Macleans; the new Entertainment Weekly is in. Watch a leader’s debate? Are you kidding me? It’s the fall TV season! (Plus, I just discovered iZombie and Mozart in the Jungle on Shomi. Seriously, so fun.) Political bios? Not when I have a fresh copy of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance.

Now, Twitter remains a minefield. And I’m not ready to give that up, but I guess I can mute / unfollow a few politicos until November or so, eh?

By then, hopefully this will no longer be my anthem:

Straightjacket on YouTube


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Station Eleven

Station Eleven cover

This summer’s vacation read was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It also happens to be the 2015 One Book, One Community selection for Waterloo region this year.

I was taken in by this novel pretty much from the get-go (the get-go being pre-vacation). It takes place in the not-so-distant future where a killer flu has wiped out 99% of humanity, with quite a few more dying in the resulting chaos as the world’s infrastructure crumbles in the absence of its caretakers—networks, fuel stations, the electrical grid…

Cheery, huh?

But it isn’t entirely depressing, as the novel moves back and forth through time, to the days of the epidemic, yes, but also before that, and up to 20 years afterward. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out how these characters were connected, finding out the origin of mysterious events in the future timeline.

Shakespeare plays a prominent role. The center point of the novel is a Toronto production of King Lear, an unorthodox production featuring children. We learn how the starring actor became famous and get to know his wives. We find that one of the children in the play, a survivor, years later joins a traveling Symphony who bring music and iambic pentameter to the various settlements. Travels that are not without peril.

The book, as one critic said, makes you wistful for our current world. To the post-epidemic young, electricity, running hot water, the Internet, and flying machines all seem unimaginable wonders. One of my favorite lines:

None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.

I finished the novel on the drive home, and so as not to be rude, I brought Jean up to date via synopsis, then read the last third aloud to him. He got as caught up in it as I had. (Nevertheless, I would recommend reading the entire thing.)

Bonus: This is how Emily St. John Mandel edited Station Eleven.


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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.