Sunday, August 28, 2016

from the ground up

I have been walking increasingly larger swaths of my neighbourhood this summer, not exactly first thing in the morning, but as soon as I am sufficiently caffeinated. Part of my rationale for foregoing the basement exercise equipment (aka torture chamber) in favour of outdoor exercise is that winter will be here soon enough so I had better enjoy the ice-free sidewalks while I can, and the other part is that it's getting tougher with each passing year to maintain my workout regime without injury or burnout. Walking may not get my heart rate soaring and leave me dripping in sweat, but it's much easier to distract myself. I look for landscaping ideas while I walk. 

Now that the interior renos are largely complete and the siding is finished, the yard is starting to show its age and its limitations. We plan to do a complete overhaul in the spring, the whole shebang - fence, patio, retaining walls, sidewalks. We are even going to demolish the cute little playhouse that nobody ever used and now exists just to store a hockey net, a little red wagon, and a whole lot of spider webs. Cute it may be - even though it is basically non-functional and a little fally-downy - but it also takes up considerable space in our tiny backyard. But other than a vague notion of tall grasses, washed pebbles and slate stepping stones, I have no idea of what to replace it with.

Hence the walking. It's the best way to compile ideas, to check out what others have done, and what will and won't work for our house and yard. My neck gets almost as good a workout during my walks as my legs do, what with the gawking and the swivelling from side to side. Some may call it snooping, but I call it research.

There have been a lot of commercial landscapers doing work all around our neighbourhood this summer and I always stop and chat to them. It's not unusual for me to come home with a mittful of business cards. They are quite accommodating, often inviting me into the yard to take a look at what they have done, seemingly not put off by the old lady in mismatched socks, no makeup and a fright-wig of bed-head. 

Come winter, I will break out the graph paper and pencil sharpener and plan my future urban oasis. Comfy seating will be a given.

Monday, July 18, 2016

harvester birds and cottage sports

Cormorants, they are called, but we have dubbed them harvester birds. Like a giant combine moving slowly across a wheat field, they cross the lake in a single massive line, scooping up all the small fish that get caught in their avian dragnet.

The lake, famed for its trout fishing, has lately been plagued with perch - a lesser fish amongst anglers - who compete with the prized rainbows and browns for food. It will be interesting to see what effect the sudden appearance of dozens of these cormorants will have on the area's ecosystem. Nature is an opportunist.

On land, we have upped the cottage gamesmanship, trying out the new archery set with great glee and more enthusiasm than skill, until we lost all but one of the arrows. We combed the grass around the target over and over again, looking for the arrows that went astray, but they were gone. We can only assume that they were shot so deeply into the ground (which has a slight rise to it), that future archeologists will marvel over the hunting and gathering culture that populated this very specific area of the central continental basin. 

The spousal unit recently found a portable ping pong game, to help keep us sane on those rainy days or - as is more likely in this area - those days when the incessant winds threaten our very humanity. It's not only far less clunky than the air hockey game that we have tucked into a closet, but it's way more active. The trick is learning how to hold back on your delivery, though. It's far too easy to send the ball pinging off the kitchen cabinets and ponging across the entire cottage when you forget and smash it back at your opponent. 
  
 


The cat, not surprisingly, is not a fan. 


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

greetings, summer

When spring goes all El Nino on you and replaces those May snowstorms with barefootedness, the first day of summer feels a little anticlimactic. I'm not complaining, mind you. In fact, I could easily get used to a summer that lasts well beyond the standard eight weeks.

Now I just need to get that Clonomatic 6000 up and running so that I can do everything that I want to do this summer. Anybody got a spare flux capacitor they could lend me?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

life as a time bomb

 The past several weeks have been a bit of a blur, figuratively at first, but ultimately in quite a literal sense. The recent discovery, during a routine eye examination, of a schisis in my left retina and a small hole in my right, along with strict instructions to avoid any straining or heavy lifting, have left me feeling slightly invalid and more than a little paranoid. Suffice it to say that I am glad that we carried all that living room furniture up and down stairs (and then back again) before the diagnosis.

Following the completion of The Great Siding Replacement of 2016 at the end of April, we tagged along with my sister and her husband out to Vancouver, for a bit of a family reunion and to cheer on my brother-in-law as he ran his gajillionth marathon. They drove, we flew. Come to think of it, that flight would also have been nixed by my optometrist had my diagnosis come sooner.

My sis and brother-in-law stayed with us for a couple of days on their drive out to the coast and gamely put up with living in the midst of a renovation zone. The siding was complete at this point, but since we had moved all the furniture out of the living room to prepare for the installation of hardwood floors, things were a bit cozy. We toured them around East Village, where I realized that years of writing about the area's development have turned me into some sort of maniacal tour guide. Later we squeezed in a quick reunion with our niece, whom we haven't seen in decades and who, it turns out, lives a couple of blocks away from us. Shameful, I know; long, convoluted story.

In Vancouver, we shared some of our favourite haunts and hung out with the Offspring. My sister, in turn, shared the illness that she had picked up from her grandsons. Turns out she is quite an effective vector, as we were sick for weeks. And we never get sick.

But despite the throat razor blades, we had a blast, especially since they switched hotels to stay at ours. I was particularly impressed with our resident marathoner, who spent the day walking the seawall and wandering through Stanley Park with us after running a half-marathon in respectable time earlier that morning.

We returned home to a living room with hardwood floor instead of the old cat-pukey, wine-stained carpet. Obviously, there was simply no way we could put the old ass-numbing futon back into that room; it was time for a grown-up couch. We were feeling so grown-up, in fact, that we bought a white one. How ill-advised that may have been will be determined after the first dinner party.

It was during the post-renovation deep cleaning (down on my knees, scrubbing the floor) that I missed my initial eye exam. Being excessively hausfrauy may not kill you, but it may just make you go blind.

After a great deal of should I stay or should I going, I did eventually get the green light from the eye surgeon to make the trek across the prairies to the lake place, with the proviso that I seek immediate medical attention if my retinas start to detach. I never did have to test out the rural Manitoba medical system, thankfully, but the anticipated long days of lounging on the deck were not exactly in the cards. A week of gale-force winds, that only abated long enough at night to allow the mosquitoes to take over, ensured that I did a lot of reading. And eating. And Sudoku. 

We did have one gloriously calm evening that allowed me to photograph the Spousal Unit testing out his home-tied flies.

In a couple of days, I will see the eye surgeon and find out what comes next. Regardless of any surgical intervention, I don't expect I will be allowed to exercise for a while, so I may have to go shopping for some bigger pants. And I have some podcasts (aka TV for blind people) lined up, just in case.

 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

south of Olha

I watch a flock of pelicans, some two dozen strong, lift and freefall across the waters of the lake. Something about the physics of flight - a half-remembered discourse on wind-shear and turbulence - comes back to me. As massive as they are, these big white birds are as unperturbed by the incessant wind as we landlocked bipeds are buffeted by it.


The prevailing southeasterly is their ribbon of highway. Wingtip to wingtip they curlicue, rising and soaring with the up-gusts, swooping low and skimming the choppy surface with the down-drafts. Wordlessly, perfectly choreographed, in innate unison, the flock coasts as a single being. Meanwhile, on land, we strain against the gusts and struggle to even talk to each other over the gale forces.

A remarkable bird is the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its belly can. It can hold in its beak enough food for a week, but I really don’t know how the hell it can.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

scaffolding

When there is scaffolding around your house, you tend to stay away from the windows. To maneuvre the delicate etiquette between hired and hiring, you quickly learn the Venn diagram of who owns what space. You both avoid accidental eye contact through the kitchen window.

When there is scaffolding around your house, you open doors slowly. You look up, down, left, right, and back up again.

You go out every morning to talk about the weather and to offer coffee, but you pee with the blinds closed.

Monday, April 18, 2016

up for air

There is absolutely no excuse for my lack of blogging over the past month, but that won't stop me from trying.

Excuse number one: Work. I just finished up a major assignment for the magazine work that I do. With the exception of one or two days, I have been writing every single day for a month. I had very few words left at the end of the day. Certainly none that made any sense. 

Excuse number two: Renovations. With the woodpeckers and the Northern Flickers declaring victory in the decades-long battle for our cedar siding, we finally threw up our hands, talked to our banker, and called our contractor. Technically this should not have prevented me from blogging, of course, but I was distracted.

I am looking forward to reading all the wordy gems that you have been writing recently. And to adding a few words of my own. Now that I have some words left at the end of the day.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

birds: 1, humans: 0

We liked having the house ripped apart so much during last year's renovations that we are doing it again.

This year's strategy continues the campaign of gross carpet slash and burn that we started last year, this year in the living room/dining room. Without having to bisect the house by blocking off three sets of stairs for hardwood installation like we did last year, this should be relatively straight-forward. The Dexter kill room tarping should be kept to a minimum.

Also on the previously planned agenda is the construction of a back deck to tie together the piecemeal cement blocks, shale and half-dead grass that currently define the area. We will be able to move the patio furniture to a nicely shaded area so that we don't have to spend alfresco dinners huddled under the meagre protection of a sun-bleached umbrella, squinting against the glare off the glass table.

In addition to these previously spreadsheeted campaigns, there is another - significantly more substantial - reno that we have recently decided that we need to address. It is one, alas, that signifies an air battle lost. After many years of skirmish with the local avian community, we have thrown in the white flag and will be replacing our cedar siding with something that birds don't eat. Vinyl, likely.

What used to be a March to October annoyance of birds hammering at the house has become year-round. The last few winters we haven't had a good solid deep freeze to scare house-eating birds further south, so the attack on our abode has been relentless.    

Yes, we have tried all the tricks, but none of them have made any difference. We surrender. I wonder if we can get some local birding community to sponsor the job?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

hiatus interruptus

With the drying up of the local economy in recent months, so too has much of my paid work. I haven't minded having the extra time, to be honest, to tackle the list of home improvement schemes that I have imposed upon myself (and others). Things have been painted, rooms have been rearranged, no longer needed crap has been given away by the truckload. Dozens of Disney movies on VHS, anyone? I have even gotten into the luxurious habit of reading a bit in the afternoons and accompanying the recently retired one to matinees at our local cheap seat movie theatre.

That all ends now, though, with a recent batch of new assignments (first one due tomorrow) and the promise/threat of an avalanche of same just around the corner.

Now, I just need to relearn how to write.
 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

brotherhood of the travelling gun

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

I have been hearing rumours that The Sisters Brothers is scheduled to be made into a film, with John C. Reilly playing the part of the narrator, Eli Brothers. I am glad for this. Not only does pretty much everything that John C. Reilly touches turn into gold, but he closely fits the mental image that I had of Eli. I am counting on the filmmakers not to muck it up.

The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two assassins-for-hire who travel from Oregon to California during the height of the gold rush to carry out a hit on a prospector. Charlie is impetuous and brutal, Eli is introverted and has a certain sweetness to him, despite the fact that he has no problems murdering people. The novel is at times gory, at other times touching, and it is woven throughout with generous strands of dry humour.

The Sisters Brothers is inventive in its scope - a darkly comic western noir - and its sparsely worded pacing fit the genre perfectly. I will admit that it took me a couple of chapters (they are very short chapters) to appreciate the narrative voice and to understand why everyone seemed to love this book so much. But once I did, I was hooked.

I could easily have kept reading, had the book been twice as long, and it would take very little prompting to entice me to revisit the world of the Sisters Brothers, be it in a film, a reread, or (dare I hope?) a sequel someday.

The Sisters Brothers has won a mitt-full of literary awards, and for good reason. You should read it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

if you squint just wrong

Sometimes my favourite photos happen by accident. 

While peering through the view-finder to get a better angle to photograph something else entirely, I noticed that a collision of overhead lights had doubled up to make the shadows cast by the camera in my hands look sort of otherworldly. Or at the very least, like a fabric pattern left over from the 60's.

I think it swings.

In other - more linky - news, I'd like to offer up some of my recently published scribblings:

In the latest edition of Latent Image, my short story called The Handbook of Facultative Morphology.

On the National Music Centre website, two articles about the new exhibition spaces - Amped Up Exhibitions at Studio Bell and Behind the Scenes: Developing NMC's Exhibitions. 

May you always see the good in the weird.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

some assembly required

I don't bake very often, other than around Christmas, because:
(a) I would just eat it, and
(b) you pretty much have to follow a recipe while baking, and I like to think of recipes as mere suggestions.

I'm not good at following formulas - too many flashbacks to Biochem 235. With cooking, I can make stuff up and it usually tastes pretty good, and if it doesn't, I can usually figure out how to fix it. Not so with baking.

Until today.

I had an almost full container of ricotta that I wanted to use up and have been thinking for a while about making the Spousal Unit (aka the Resident Macaroon Aficionado) some coconut macaroons. So I threw the ricotta together with a bit of crushed pineapple that I had in the freezer and some icing sugar and almond extract, with the idea of making macaroon balls. The mess tasted fine but was not in any way rollable. And, not containing any chocolate, it wasn't worthy of eating with a spoon.

So I figured I would turn it into a cake. Not able to find any suitable ricotta-coconut-pineapple cake recipes on the interwebz, I figured I would just make a white cake and incorporate the mess into it.

But I discovered that all the white cake recipes on the internet start with Take one box of white cake mix ...

What the what? If you are using a cake mix, why would you even bother to post a recipe? It's on the side of the ding-dang box. That's not baking; that's paper shuffling.

But from somewhere in the recesses of my tiny brain I pulled out enough cake chemistry data to remember that you have to cream together butter, sugar, eggs and flour (with baking powder and salt mixed into it) at a roughly 1:1 ratio. 

I alternated adding the dry ingredients with the pineapple-coconut-ricotta mess (more latent cake chemistry knowledge), threw it into a greased pan and baked it for about half an hour. Oh, and I tossed in a bit more almond extract and also some lime juice, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Turns out it was a darn good idea. Turns out you can hack a cake recipe after all. Especially when you slather it with a lime-coconut buttercream icing.

Who wants to come over for dessert?

Friday, January 29, 2016

a story a day brings Santa to my yard

2015 Short Story Advent Calendar
- compiled by Michael Hingston

This is a brilliant idea for an advent calendar, for those of us who would rather read than choke down some cheap dollar store chocolate. The brainchild of Edmonton author Michael Hingston, the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar is a collection of 24 stories and one bonus novella, featuring Canadian and international authors. Many of the stories have never been published before and they were all handpicked by Hingston for inclusion into this compendium.

The advent calendar aspect (besides the concept of reading one story per day) comes from the fact that each story is individually sealed, with no identifying marks as to the title or even the author. So each day brings a literary surprise.

The cover of each booklet was designed by graphic artist Natalie Olsen and features simply a number which corresponds with the day of the month on which you are meant to read the story. But look carefully and you will find that the number is drawn in such a way as to give you a hint about what happens in the story. I found myself observing a little ritual of pouring over the cover, speculating about its contents, before carefully unsealing that day's story.

The stories come nestled in a solid cardboard box, reminiscent of the ones that hold the question cards in Trivial Pursuit or Cards Against Humanity, and the package looks quite attractive sitting on your coffee table or under your Christmas tree, waiting for you to read the next one.

I found it hard to find time to sit down and read first thing every morning and started falling behind. Eventually, though, I realized that late afternoon worked better for me, and that had the added bonus of letting me swap the accompanying cup of coffee for a wee snort of Christmas port. Port and short stories are my new favourite combination.

I loved both the concept and the beautiful design of the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar and I hope that 2016 brings another edition.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sin City: the good, the bad, the ugly

Las Vegas is a polarizing place; you either love it or hate it. I definitely did not love it.

Everything in Vegas, it seems, is fake. Fake volcanoes, fake Eiffel towers, fake Statues of Liberty. Even the grass is made of plastic. I did, however, get very excited when I spotted a stand of what I think were real trees...

I understand the whole mirage-in-the-desert concept upon which Las Vegas is built. I get that. I realize that there is a certain allure to playing make-believe with pretend glamour and reproductions of exotic locales that you may never get to in real life. I realize that a lot of people find escape in Vegas' excess, in its over-the-top tacky architecture and in those elusive pipe dreams of instant wealth that define the city

But I didn't realize, before our trip there last week, just how pervasive that I will have fun even if it kills me mindset is. And I never really realized how ultimately sad and desperate that mindset is. Just ask all those people with oxygen tanks, smoking and feeding slot machines for hours on end, how glamorous their Las Vegas lifestyle is.

That said, rant done, there were some things that I really enjoyed in Vegas. Behold then, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly list:

The Good:

The Continental Cup of Curling
On site and a five minute walk from our hotel room to our arena seats, this was four great days of curling featuring the very best curlers in the world, ending with a right-down-to-the-wire photo finish. 

The National Atomic Testing Museum
Fascinating display of the political, scientific and cultural history of the atomic arms race, including the astonishingly naive atomic testing that took place in the Nevada desert. Set up your lawn chair and watch the mushroom cloud!

Don't bother with the add-on Area 51 exhibition, though. It's pretty hokey and not terribly well done.

Casa di Amore
Billing itself as "Vegas the way it used to be" this old-timey neighbourhood Italian diner - far off the Strip - has wonderful food, throwback jazz singers providing dinner entertainment, and a cozy community feeling. More people kept arriving and they just kept bringing in more chairs. The highlight was when the band announced the 70th anniversary of a couple dining with their family. As the singer crooned a Sinatra tune just for them, the 90-year-old couple got up and danced together. We all clapped and got teary.

As if that's not enough, Casa di Amore will drive you home in a limo, for free. And they gave me a tee-shirt because I ordered the cannoli!

The Bad:

Cigarette Smoke
Smoking is allowed indoors in Las Vegas, at least in the casino areas. And there are very few indoor areas that are not casinos. It was disgusting and stinky and my eyes burned the entire time.

Gambling Overkill
I naively assumed that our hotel would have a normal hotel layout - front desk, lobby, some restaurants and services - and then have the obligatory casino in a room to the side. But no. The casino IS the hotel. You walk into the front door and are immediately assaulted by rows of slots machines all pinging away, lights flashing through the cigarette haze. Sure, there is no smoking in the restaurants, but they are all open to the casino, so it doesn't matter a tinker's damn. Anywhere you go in Vegas, you must pass through a casino to get there.

Plastic Carnival
I found the facade and the fakery, especially along The Strip, to be really disheartening and exhausting. It was like day six of the Calgary Stampede crammed into Disney World and stuffed into the Playboy Mansion. All the worst of society in one place.

The Ugly:

The myriad of seriously unhealthy looking people, many with walkers and the odd oxygen tank, wheezing their way through the casinos. 

Chain-smoking zombies endlessly feeding the machines, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the flashing colours, pausing only to order another drink.

Low rollers wandering from machine to machine, sucking on a beer, at 8:00 AM.

The layer of sadness and desperation that seems to have settled over the fragile veneer of merry-making.
 

---

I wouldn't mind seeing some other areas of Nevada. I would love to see some desert tortoises, those atomic test sites, and some of the sandstone buttresses that have been shaped by wind and time. 

But I will bypass Las Vegas.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

just for one day

On the day David Bowie died, I woke up with chest pains. 

I spent the better part of the morning chewing low dose aspirin and checking Web MD. There is no particularly good time for it, of course, but two days before you are set to head south of the border for a week likely ranks right up there for Worst Possible Timing for a Suspected Heart Attack. Especially after the icon you have always considered to be immortal has just died.

As the morning progressed and the pains didn't manifest any further, I stopped blaming the fact that I had unwisely polished off the last of the Christmas chocolates the night before. I had, it seems, merely pulled a muscle while sleeping. 

I have never been a good sleeper, and as the aches and pains and twitchy legs of encroaching old age start to pile up, I have become somewhat of a nocturnal thrasher. It was bound to happen, I guess, especially since the cat (aka The Immovable Object) has taken to lying on my left arm and chest while I read in bed. I sometimes drift off while reading and wake up to a dead left arm, thinking that a stroke has finally taken me.

But for now, I survive and am excited to be heading stateside tomorrow to celebrate the Spousal Unit's retirement. I shall put on my red shoes and dance the blues.   

Sunday, January 03, 2016

to binge is human, to list ... also human

As we crest into January, I am stepping back from my normal practice of listing top music of the past year. I didn't really listen to a lot of new music in 2015, nor did I go to that many concerts.

But being an unrepentant list-maker, I have to rank something to commemorate the turning of the calendar. And while I may not have listened to much in 2015, I sure did binge-watch. And DAMN if there weren't some great series to eye-guzzle on the old Netflix this past year!

Here, then, are my favourite Netflix series that invaded my chesterfield nest in 2015:

1.  The Bridge

I pretty much had to toss a coin to decide between the first and second ranked shows, but in the end this Danish-Swedish co-production featuring a mesmerizing Asperger-ish police detective took the honours. The series begins with the discovery of a corpse in the middle of the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, placed precisely on the border. The Bridge is rivetting, at times cringe-inducing, and over way too soon.

2.  Luther

British crime drama featuring the eminently watchable Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, a brilliant, but self-destructive, investigator. I especially loved the twisted thrust and parry between Luther and his equally brilliant nemesis Alice Morgan. 

3.  The Fall

Here again, numbers three, four and five were neck and neck in their ability to hold me hostage on the couch and destroy my blink reflex. I pretty much had to draw straws here. 

The Fall is an elegant and terrifying psychological murder drama set in Belfast. Gillian Anderson is Stella Gibson, brought in from the Metropolitan Police to act as DSI. She proves without a doubt that Scully is all grown up and still not taking any shit from anybody.

4.  The Killing

I would love to see the original Danish series, because nobody does murder like the Scandinavians, but this American adaptation is utterly gripping. Set in one of my favourite cities, the moody rain-drenched Seattle, it's filmed largely in Vancouver, so there is the added fun of looking for recognizable landmarks. A few too many red herrings were thrown into season one, but the tension between the two damaged police investigators means all is forgiven.

5.  Broadchurch

Equal parts charming and heart-wrenching, Broadchurch is set in a close-knit English coastal town, where the murder of a young boy threatens to tear apart the threads of the community. Not being a Whovian, I didn't realize at first the significance of David Tennant playing the role of the taciturn inspector from away who takes over the investigation. But his snarling Scottish brogue soon had me convinced.

6.  Dicte

Evidently I hold Scandinavian tv series to higher standards than I do North American ones, because I was quite shocked to realize that this Danish show is actually a little formulaic. Despite its "plucky lady reporter solves crimes" stereotype, however, Dicte is really very charming. I liked the characters, the friendships, the laid-back sexuality and easygoing partner-swapping. Heck, I even liked dancing to the cheesy theme music.

7.  Wallander

Again, I would love to see the original series, but this British remake of a Swedish crime drama is really good. I appreciate that they maintained the Swedish setting, instead of trying to wedge it into Sussex or California, even though it is a little disconcerting to have all the Swedes speak with British accents. Damned enthralling show, though.

8.  Lilyhammer

NYC mobster turns witness and gets relocated to Norway to protect him from retaliation. Need I say more? A light-hearted, hilarious fish-out-of-water series.

9.  Death in Paradise

Another fish-out-of-water, in a different ocean. A British police inspector, who only wants a decent cup of tea and a nice beef roast on Sundays, is transferred to a small Caribbean island. He hates it. The Spousal Unit refers to this show as "our generation's Matlock". The beaches are pristine and the murders are squeaky-clean and solved at the end of each episode. It's utter escapism.
--

Evidently, I did a lot of Netflixing in 2015. With River, Narcos and Hinterland queued up on the old viewing machine, I see no reason to change anything for 2016.

What have you been eye-guzzling? Any recommendations? 

Monday, December 28, 2015

beautiful dystopia

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

This may very well be one of my favourite books of the year. Weeks after finishing Station Eleven, I still find myself thinking about the world that Emily St. John Mandel has created within its pages and of the people who inhabit them. I keep wanting to return to that world where wonder exists in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds, where existence is so much more than just survival.

On a snowy night in Toronto, famed stage and screen actor Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack onstage in the middle of a performance of King Lear. Despite the CPR administered by audience member Jeevan Chaudhary - a former paparazzo, now an EMS responder - Leander dies in front of his young protege, child actor Kirsten Raymonde. 

That same night, though, the tragedy unfolding in the theatre is overshadowed by a deadly flu that has arrived in the city on a trans-Atlantic flight. Quickly, hospitals are overwhelmed, people begin to die, and the world goes dark.

Fifteen years after the Georgian flu has wiped out 99% of the world's population, Kirsten Raymonde is an actor in The Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who traverse the Great Lakes area performing Shakespeare in the small isolated settlements that dot the region. 

Station Eleven moves back and forth through the decades, from the post-apocalyptic world of the roving performers, to Arthur Leander's early years and rise to fame, and back to that fateful night in Toronto when Jeevan Chaudhary - cautioned by a call from a friend who is an Emergency Room doctor - barricades himself in his brother's highrise apartment and watches the lights of the city die.

The novel unfolds through the eyes of Raymonde, Chaudhary, Leander, as well as Leander's wives and friends. Slowly, the threads from their individual stories, separated by time, geography and circumstance, weave into a single strand.

Mandel is a gifted storyteller. She eloquently meters out the growing fear and ominous realization of that first night. She melds the survival instinct and resiliency that has become a critical part of life by Year 15 post-pandemic with a sense of wonder and a basic human need to elevate existence to something higher than food and shelter. Everyday occurrences of the past - like pressing a button that connects you to someone else on the other side of the world or the light that comes on when a refrigerator door is opened - have become things of legend, stories passed among those too young to really remember when these things were reality. There are even rumours of the existence of a Museum of Civilization in an airport terminal somewhere.

Through her weaving of timelines and stories within stories, Emily St. John Mandel gradually pieces together seemingly scattered tales into one beautifully interconnected work. 

Definitely recommended. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

solstication

Soon, kiddies, soon, the daylight will return. Infinitesimally at first, a few seconds gained at sunset, but lost again at sunrise.

But slowly, slowly, as we burn more candles and watch our stockpile of winter socks dwindle in the drawer, until we have no choice but to pull on the flimsy cotton anklets and declare it spring, the sun will wrench itself free of the frozen horizon. The corner will turn and this winter solstice day - an agonizing 8 hours and 39 minutes shorter than its summer counterpart - will be but a chilly memory.

In the meantime, please pass the shortbread.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

commence the advent

I've accepted the fact that the Advent calendar that I remember from my childhood will remain only a memory. 

For years I tried to find one just like it - a streetscape of an old German city centre at twilight, sparkling windows looking out over a main street where St. Nicholas is trailed by adoring young uns. St. Nicholas (no Coca Cola Santa Claus here) had just the right combination of German sternness and begrudging generosity. I spent way too much time gazing at those lighted shop windows, wondering what life was like in the apartments above those shops. There was just the right amount of glitter sparkling through windows that opened to reveal modest offerings of teddy bears and spinning tops. There were no cartoon figures or crappy chocolate.

This was one classy Advent calendar. Or, at least that's how I remember it.

I've given up trying to reproduce the magic. It belonged to another time. But I did recently stumble upon a lovely box of Advent calendar short stories. So I think I will start a whole new tradition. What better way to go through the darkness of December than escaping into a short story every day?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

probably not first

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a track record of creating vast, deep and fully realized worlds, particularly in her eerily dystopian novels. She falls a little short in The Heart Goes Last, though.

The story is based on a compelling premise: a secure walled community thriving in a post-apocalyptic world, where every inhabitant is guaranteed a comfortable existence and full employment. For six months of the year. For the other six months, they swap places with their counterparts in the community's prison and become the inmates.

Stu and Charmaine have been living in their car since losing their house in the global economic collapse, trying increasingly desperately to scratch out a living. They are understandably thrilled to be invited to join the community, until they start to realize the insidious secrets that lie behind its success.

The Heart Goes Last doesn't quite work for me, because it seems to go for flippancy over depth, and because, frankly, I didn't really like Stu and Charmaine very much. I don't always have to be best buddies with a character in order to enjoy their importance in a book, but in Stu and Charmaine's case, they are also not terribly bright. And while I appreciate how challenging it must have been for Atwood to write using voices of dim and rather shallow characters, it made me long to spend time with some of Atwood's more thoughtful literary characters. 

The Heart Goes Last is an entertaining read, but not necessarily one that would give someone new to the Atwood-osphere a good sense of master storyteller's true brilliance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

qujannamiik very much, music



Have a seat, take a load off, get comfy and indulge in a little clickety-clicking. Come along to Canada's far north, via my latest National Music Centre article, a Canadian Bands You Should Know feature on the high-octane Iqaluit band, The Jerry Cans. They'll have you singing, clapping, air fiddling, foot stomping and throat singing along.

Guaranteed.