Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Giving Thanks

A couple of weekends ago it was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. There was much to be grateful for.

On Saturday the sun was shining. As a volunteer, I was a guest at a volunteer-appreciation brunch... ahhhh, to be served a delicious meal not-too-early on a weekend morning was such a treat. The company was wonderful, and then it was on to...

The first meeting of the One-Off, Six-Meeting, Limited-Edition Jane Austen Book Club of Toronto! Then three of us waddled to dinner, in a late celebration of two of our birthdays. Lobster mac and cheese. Oh boy. Then we saw Captain Phillips... more on that later. What a day of pleasure.

So... Sunday morning I had planned another sort of day. My mother and I got together and, for both our homes, washed the windows, flipped mattresses, changed mattress covers, put away air conditioners and cleaned. And it was rainy... a perfect day to do it!

Monday dawned sunny, beautifully sunny, with amazing celestial light streaming in the just-cleaned windows. I revelled in my being at home, pottering, reading, until heading out for dinner with parents and friends, so no one had to cook or wash up. This year, I needed that. It felt good. I was just bursting with thankfulness... so very lucky.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some Reading

The old reading mojo is in full force. I enjoyed late summer days reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, where Tom Hanks Robert Langdon chases all over Washington, DC in search of something or other. Such fun! Perfect beach reading.

Then I ploughed through Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven, an epic account of the lives of two castrati. I was caught up in the fantastic detail and compelling portraits of two very different men, whose lives intertwine. I came to care for these characters so much.

The Picture of Dorian Grey was a sort of one-off book club project for the cottage trip. We all read it. We discussed it. I think the feelings were mutual. The purple prose, the epigram-laden pages, became a bit too much. What I loved in the brief but sentimental stories by Wilde that I read as a child, don't translate so well for me as an adult.

Now, it's Jane Austen time, as I'm reading not only all six novels, but some supporting material too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Few Grateful Moments

~ I sat for a long time recently, in a sort of dream, my fingers idly stroking the wilting creamy petals of a vase of roses.

~ A while ago I slipped in a massive and ungraceful fashion on a large, invisible puddle in the supermarket. I literally went flying and came down - bang! - on my right hip. I had a couple of bruises and waited with bated breath for my body to start screaming in pain the next day, or the next. It never happened. I'm seriously grateful for still being pretty bouncy.

~ While shopping with my mum, we saw a stroller out of which peeked a pair of very tiny baby feet. Not so tiny as to be newborn with its shrivelled, wrinkly pinkness; these feet were probably a month old, with that pillowy chubbiness, yet still very small. At the end of those tiny pin-cushion puffy feet were teeny tiny toes, wiggling in slow motion, as though being stirred by a gentle breeze. Each toe was like a perfect small pearl. I recalled this hysterical Onion feature, as we both remarked on how nibblable those little toes were.

~ I was called back for a re-do of my first mammogram ever. Gulp. I thought of this clip. I had the re-do, then I had to wait for an ultrasound. I was told that the results would be sent to my gyno in a few days. But after my prolonged ultrasound, the technician asked me to wait while she showed the results to a doctor. I lay there ready for the worst. I lay there a long time, bargaining with God and making plans for the inevitable. Then I was told... I WAS OK!!! I felt a little... like this. Given my family history, cancer is likely to get me at some point... but not just yet!

~ Yellow leaves are falling everywhere, and the city is aglow with them

~ A year of neighbourhood reconstruction (mainly streets and sidewalks) and the noise of rattling windows at home and at work isn't over yet, but when it is - wow, everything will look fantastic! We have the PanAm games to thank for this... Toronto wants to look its best and as my 'hood is very near the athletes new accommodations, my neighbours and I are benefitting. So are the paving contractors!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Perhaps Something for Everyone

Some film...

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One in, 2008)

"I'm twelve, but I've been twelve a long time." (Lina Leandersson as Eli)

The terrors of childhood are felt sharply in this Swedish film about a 12-year-old boy whose new neighbour is a young vampire girl. It's a hell of a life: his parents are divorced, he's being bullied cruelly at school, and he's living through a seemingly endless Swedish winter in an ugly suburban apartment block. His new friend is having a bad time of it too, and wreaking some bloody havoc. Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2011) directs the young actors in natural and heartbreaking performances. There's some appropriate but tough-to-take gruesomeness. But this film is so worth catching.

Captain Phillips (2013)

"Someone give this guy a hug!" (BPG)

Based on a true story, Tom Hanks plays a freighter captain whose vessel is boarded by Somali pirates. You've probably heard how gripping it is, and it is... with a relentless soundtrack and a gritty, realistic look. I was warned I might not enjoy it, with my vertigo and all, seeing as they're bobbing on the ocean the entire time. Weirdly it wasn't a problem, and I was moved and thrilled, ultimately saddened for all the characters. /// SPOILER WARNING! /// The pirates themselves were ultimately tragic, victims themselves of despots, even though I wanted to throttle them. But my lasting feeling was - for God's sake - couldn't someone put their arms around Captain Phillips at the end? The guy in the rescue boat? The medic on the carrier? Come on!!!

Elysium (2013)

"I really need to see Blue Jasmine." (BPG)

The premise was pretty cool, and the special effects were great. I'll see Matt Damon in anything. That's the good part. The not so good part: Jodie Foster, who has always been excellent, maybe had something interesting in mind, but it turns out to be the worst acting job I've seen in a long time. I'm not sure what her accent was... I thought, well, perhaps it's some futuristic mid-Atlantic, French-accented thing. It didn't work for me. Plot holes... lots of them. A drawn-out ending that had me writhing in my seat. But like I said: Matt Damon.

Some television...

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

This excellent series is having its North American television premiere on TCM. Irish film maker Mark Cousins is behind this very personal and compelling story of film. Instead of using a professional voice over artist, he narrates the series himself, in a lulling dreamy Ulster accent. At first it took me by surprise, but I'm quite addicted to it now. This documentary is a real work of art, and tells the story not just of western cinema, but cinema all over the world. If you are fascinated by film, this is for you.

The Walking Dead (2013)

The first episode of season four exceeded all my expectations. I've become used to the rather slow, two-hour set up episodes that start each Mad Men season, and I was expecting something of the same here. Instead I was pinned to the sofa in horror as this clever, terrifying, thoughtful and gruesome episode made me wonder if I could handle any more. Let's see how I manage next Sunday. As for Talking Dead, the post-show round up seems a bit long now at an hour. I'd rather they went back to half an hour but lost some of the unnecessaries, like the poll.

Some theatre...

Schiller's Mary Stuart has been one of the big Stratford Festival hits this year. Added performances meant we managed to get in, which I'm so happy about as all the fuss was well deserved. The play is a great read (I first read it when the Canadian Opera Company did Maria Stuarda a few seasons ago). It came to life in full force with a cast of Stratford favourites: powerhouses Seana McKenna as Queen Elizabeth, Lucy Peacock as Mary Stuart and a great supporting case including Ben Carlson, Geraint Wyn Davies, and Brian Dennehy. The stage sizzled through the magnificent royal cat fight and I couldn't have asked for anything more... except for the awfulness of the seating in the Tom Patterson Theatre. Each year I try and avoid this venue, not for the stage which is a thrust stage and works well, but for the terrible audience conditions. As this isn't a theatre year round (it's a badminton court at other times I think), it has temporary bleacher type seating, and regular chairs, not flip-up theatre chairs, so there's no getting in or out of your row unless your whole row is ready to leave. How no-one has not toppled into a lower row and broken their neck is beyond me. The other two stages are fantastic of course, it's just this one venue I try and skirt... but when the offering is as good as Mary Stuart... I go along with it. Grrr.

Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit played at the Avon, at which I'd seen Tommy a couple of weeks earlier. We had great seats, about fifth row centre, and it was a Sunday matinee on a grey, rainy afternoon. Nothing could have been more charming than to settle into those seats and be swept up in the silly, sunny goings on in a beautiful English country house which is about to be shaken up - literally - by an wacky medium and a saucy spirit. As happens in a large festival company, scheduling dictates that actors often work together in two or three different shows in a season, so Seana McKenna, so magnficently glamorous and dangerous as Qieen Elizabeth the night before, was a wonderfully goofy and eccentric Madame Arcati, the medium who is about to discover how good her powers are. Ben Carlson, the previous night's conniving Lord Burleigh, was Charles, the master of the house, and James Blendick, Paulet in Mary Stuart, was an unsuspecting guest at dinner.

Funny aside: I've told my friend M how several years ago I was at the ballet when I sat in front of some very small, old ladies. They were concerned at my height and told me "Honey, we can't see past your head - you're blocking the WHOLE STAGE!" I felt this was slightly exaggerated but slumped down in my seat, at which point they both patted one of my shoulders and thanked me. On this occasion, we took our excellent seats and I heard a husband behind me say to his wife, "Do you want to switch seats with me again?" M nearly burst out laughing, and - to diffuse the hysterical laughter bubbling up in me -  I turned and said, "It's okay, I know I'm tall and have a big head... I'll slump a bit." They were very sweet and somewhat embarrassed. We all had a good laugh and later they assured me they had seen the whole thing. On both occasions I had been seated near the front where - traditionally - seats are not sloped, so it does make seeing past heads tricky. And in case you're wondering, no my head is not that big, I mean, it's not like I'm encephalitic or something!

On a side note...

There comes an interesting point in life where there are experiences you don't need to go through again. I have to admit, one of those is seeing Handel's Messiah. It's beautiful and it's long. But I don't have the attention span for long, static performances... HOWEVER, that all changed when I heard that this blog's favourite small, rogue opera compay, Against the Grain, is performing it this December. The performers will sing from memory. There's a choreographer. They claim that this isn't your grandma's Messiah but that she would love it too. It's restricted to people 19 and older (I think it has something to do with the drinking allowed onsite). 'Nuff said. If it's anything like anything like this fantastic group has done before, I have to see it. Read more here. Tickets are still available.

Some opera...

That preamble was my set up for the Canadian Opera Company's production of La Bohème. The connection is that Bohème is one of those pieces I've seen many, many, many times. Do I need to see it again? Well... in this case, yes. Conductor Carlo Rizzi made it sound like I'd never heard it before - fresh and energetic and romantic and lush. More so than I'd ever heard. The cast were perfectly cast, young, talented. Director John Caird made it all very real. I shed copious tears, those hot, splashing tears that scald your cheeks. Ahhh... it felt good, as only a great opera can. And tickets are still available for this one too, but there are only two weeks left of performances.

Peter Grimes, as mentioned here, also a must-see.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The One-Off, Six-Meeting, Limited-Edition Jane Austen Book Club of Toronto

Many years ago I belonged to a book club, and - for a very short while - to two. When I left, I was ready for a break, ready to read only what I wanted, when I wanted. I remember devouring some fantastic, embossed-cover, beach-quality trash in the few months that followed.

This summer, I was surprised to realize that I'd never actually read a Jane Austen novel. I've seen so many filmed versions, and have a beautiful set of the novels that my dad gave me years ago, so I was quite certain this wasn't the case.

Okay, it's the case. Inspired by this book, I sent out the word to a few friends, and then, with some friends of friends along for the ride, started the Jane Austen Book Club! It's a temporary feature as we'll read all six novels, one every two months, giving us a year of Austen pleasure and conversation.

Our first meeting was last Saturday, at L'Espresso Bar Mercurio. There are nine of us in all, so there's lots of opinions to be shared. The novel was Northanger Abbey and I think it can be universally acknowledged to be the slightest of her six complete novels. I was amazed at how very witty Austen is, and how very observant as to the ways of people, especially - in this case - young women. A few days before our meeting I was standing in line at Tim Horton's and I overheard two teenage girls talking. It was all very "OMG I can't believe she said that to him. I swear to God I was going to die. There's no fucking way, and... no I mean it - OMG totally." Etc. It was just like Catherine and Isabella... nothing has changed. Teenage girls will still swing madly from extreme to extreme, dying one minute, in ecstacy the next. I remember it, and I just love how Jane Austen captured it. One of the party had even read Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, the gothic thriller that inspired Jane Austen and her heroine's vivid imagination. And now we're onto hopefully more intriguing material with Sense and Sensibility.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Another Stratford Weekend

One visit wasn't enough this fall, so I headed back to Stratford for two more plays, a lot of good food, in the best company. I'd always wanted to stay in the As You Like It Motel because... well, I hardly need to spell it out: it's called As You Like It! How sweetly saucy is that? It's an older establishment, spotless and so friendly. As You Like It - we'll be back, because it is... exactly how we like it!

Down the Street Bar and Restaurant is a popular hangout, but we were lucky to arrive for lunch a bit late, only to eat the BEST BURGER EVER. I can't say enough!

We visited Gerard Brender à Brandis's studio. Gerard is always fascinating to talk to - a charming and talented man, one of Canada's most accomplished wood engravers.

Okay, I'd eaten downstairs at Pazzo's before, where they have their delicious pizza ovens, but this time we ate upstairs in the more up-market taverna, sat in big leather wing chairs, in perfect comfort. We shared the most buttery, dripping bruschetta, laden with crab meat. M had the delicious lobster bisque and I had pasta. We didn't want to move... ever. The current plan is to move to Stratford so we can eat at Pazzo's EVERY Friday night.

We bought the official bags of swan food and had fun with the swans and quackies on Lake Victoria. The black swans are from Australia. There are heaps of white swans, and we saw two grey teenage swans (I guess). The one in the middle was very boldly interested in my swan food. Oh haiiiiii.

 And remember the cats of Watson's Bazaar? They're all still alive, a little fatter, but two of the four now live elsewhere as apparently they were being a little naughty... not the sort of behaviour that goes down well in a china shop. And speaking of china, I could go mad in this place! So much lovely stuff to buy! P.S. The website says "Come visit our cats!"

As for the plays we saw? More on that in another post.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Peter Grimes and Silas Marner

"Eh, my precious child, the blessing was mine. If you hadn't been sent to save me, I should ha' gone to the grave in my misery."

From Silas Marner by George Eliot

"I've seen in stars the life that we might share:
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore,
A fair white doorstep, and a woman's care.
But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown."

From the libretto of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes by Montagu Slater, based on a part of George Crabbe's poem, The Borough

I did two things recently: I read George Eliot's novel Silas Marner and I saw a performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

What can I say about George Eliot, but that she is one of my favourite authors, for her expressiveness, her understanding of the human spirit, and for her gentle wit and unhurried story telling.

Peter Grimes is not my favourite opera, but I love Benjamin Britten's music and this production, directed by the brilliant Neil Armfield, starred Ben Heppner as Grimes, in a truly great performance, presented by the Canadian Opera Company through the month of October (yes, you can still catch this excellent production!).

It got me thinking about the protagonists, Grimes and Marner. They're similar in many ways. Both men are embittered loners, haunted by wrongs done to them, isolated and full of anger. Both have a female character nearby who wishes to reach out and help. Into each of their lives comes a child. From here in the stories differ greatly.


Grimes the fisherman has had one boy apprentice die in his care. He takes another from the workhouse. Ellen, the schoolteacher, yearns to help him care for the child, and both dream of making a family together. But Peter cannot consider it until he has made his fortune, and so, he drives himself and his young charge relentlessly. Ellen, seeking to bring some tenderness into both his life and that of the boy, tries to persuade him to ease up on the child, to treat him... as a child. Grimes won't have it, and strikes her angrily. The villagers, already suspicious and angry, set out to hunt him down. He unwisely chooses to go out fishing once more with his apprentice, and the boy dies in an accident. Well... and please forgive my glibness as well as my paraphrasing... but to lose one apprentice may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two is unacceptable. Grimes is persuaded to take a small boat out to sea and sink it before the mob gets to him. There are glimpses in him of potential tenderness, reflections of how Ellen has treated the boy, but in his growing madness I can't help but wonder at where everything went horribly wrong. How a small, underfed, unloved workhouse child can fail to melt a heart is a mystery to most of us. Grimes is a rough brute, but also a victim. His final action truly does feel like the only course left open to him.

For Silas Marner, embittered and driven also to make a fortune, weaving is his whole life. Short-sighted and bent-over, he works tirelessly at his loom, slowly amassing a pile of gold which he keeps hidden in his cottage. It's stolen from him by an unseen thief. Silas's grief is primal. All he's lived for his miserly life is gone. But not long after - to make a long story short - he finds a baby girl who has toddled into his cottage on a winter's night. Her mother has died, and Silas, at first bewildered by the baby's golden curls, sees her, in his almost-blind way, as a replacement for his lost gold. But Eppie, as he calls her, is much more precious than that. And with the kind friendship of a married neighbour, Dolly Winthrop, he raises Eppie with all the devotion a natural parent could give, as she raises him from that twisted, lonely life, to a love-filled existence. It's such a heart-warming story. There are twists and turns I won't go into here, but it has a happy ending, the very best.

Is Silas Marner more idealistic and romanticized than Peter Grimes? Absolutely. They are very different takes on the human condition, and both worth embracing and considering. It's my very good fortune to have experienced both.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Recent Pics

Rather like this sweet corgi, I enjoyed having things on my head. The green hat was for a fantastic Havana-inspired "Lime and Linen" party. So many lovely things to look at and eat. Again, like Diner en Blanc, if you give people a colour direction, it makes for some amazing visuals. I had to buy the boater for this summer as it looks saucy and was on sale for $11!

My 'hood is getting better each day. So much construction is driving us all slightly nuts, but it'll be amazing when Front Street is resurfaced and the recent condos are done.

I dulled the drilling noises with flowers.

A fabulous woman knitted me socks for my birthday!

A local wine shop showed some wit.

Diner en Blanc

My camera and I were once again not great friends on the evening of Diner en Blanc, so there aren't a lot of pics, but it was a fun evening. This was last year, where I describe how it all works. This year, 1600 people gathered for a night of good food, great company and gorgeous white outfits.

I approached Rene Falcon of Urban Hats and she made me a lovely fascinator for the evening. It's light and voluminous. Rene is a charming woman who is often to be found in the St. Lawrence Market with her glamorous hats, fascinators and cocktail hats. Need a special event piece? I recommend Rene!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Damp Day, Much Music

Two weekends ago, I spent a rainy day trip in Stratford, one of my favourite cities in the world. Well, it was rainy on the way, but then dried up and cooled off. I got in with lots of time to see the Stratford Festival's Fiddler on the Roof in the Festival Theatre, a very good production of a very dated piece that is so very much of its time (1964). I won't need to see it again.

Then, I was off to a concert of music that was once mostly lost, but is timeless in its appeal and virtuosity. Yes, this blog's favourite chamber music group, the ARC Ensemble, was giving a performance as part of the Stratford Festival's Forum program. The concert, "Music Suppressed in Fascist Italy," featured three pieces by Jewish-Italian composers: String Quartet No. 1 (Vittorio Rieti), Piano Quintet No. 1 (Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco) and Pavana (Aldo Finzi). Between the pieces, actor Sam Moses (the Rabbi in Fiddler) read excerpts from "October 16, 1943" by Giacomo Debenedetti, an account of the night the Rome ghetto was raided by the Gestapo and when many Italians were shipped off to Auschwitz. The playing was full of energy and panache and I particularly loved the Castelnuovo-Tedesco which - excuse my coarseness - seemed to have everything in it, including the kitchen sink. The whole program was unmissable.

THEN... I hared back across town in good time to see an evening performance of Pete Townshend's Tommy. I saw Des McAnuff's production 20 years ago, and this was a new one of his. Ah, what can I say... I love great rock. The first chord nearly killed me. It fell while the lights were still up. I did worry that the older gentleman next to me might have keeled over. He didn't. It was LOUD. I could have used earplugs and still heard it perfectly well. Damn, I sound middle-aged. But actually I remember having the same reaction 20 years ago. What the hell - it was fantastic.

I've Been Eating

Jim Gaffigan is very funny on the subject of photography and food.

Yeah, whatever, here are some food pics!

Some of my healthy lunches that I take to work... then the first lamb shank of the season (at Fionn MacCools), cooking the first leg of lamb of the fall, Betsy's chewy ginger cookies (damn)...

... then Lee Chen's pulled pork bao in the middle of an epic shopping trip, breakfast on Sunday, chocolate cupcakes (the day my Braun Multimix gave up the ghost), and a gorgeous sandwich at Wawa Grub in Stratford.