Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow

My Favourite Book of 2016


A Gentleman in Moscow

Rules of Civility was Amor Towles' awesome debut novel. This time Towles has really surpassed himself with A Gentleman in Moscow. As a now-definite Amor Towles fan, I heartily encourage you to read this stand-alone novel. (Then go back and read Rules of Civility)

Set in the Metropol Hotel in central Moscow, and taking place between 1922 and 1954, through the years of the Depression, the second World War and the Cold War, A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of former (fictional) aristocrat, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who has been sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in the hotel where he has been living, a grand hotel in the style of those great hotels of world-class cities. Demoted from his suite of rooms to a closet-sized room in an attic space he makes a life for himself with considerable aplomb and surprisingly good humour, for the next 32 years. 

Towles' writing is skilled and impeccable, although in a slightly formal style befitting the period of which he's writing. It is by turns charming, erudite and suspenseful. The characters inhabiting the hotel and the novel with the Count contribute to the action in a way that makes this a hard book to put down. 

Looking for a good book to read? A Gentleman in Moscow. Yes!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Destination: Asheville, North Carolina

Here's a great destination: lots to do, with a vibrant arts and culture community, fantastic Blue Mountain scenery, great outdoor activities such as hiking, zip-lining, and kayaking, and a ton of great places to eat in all price brackets with an emphasis on locally grown food. Asheville has that southern charm but with a liberal slant. The folks at Lonely Planet agree:

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Monday, December 26, 2016

Child Prodigy

I was browsing YouTube and just discovered 5-year old Evan Le from California. He posted this on his YouTube channel on Dec. 20, 2016. He also has a website where you can watch him perform the Mozart Concerto #8 in C Major (with cadenza) with a full orchestra. It comes as no surprise to learn that Evan is already winning competitions in the 12 and under category.



I cut and pasted the following from his website because it's so amazing: 

ABOUT EVAN

Evan Le (officially Evan Duy Quoc Le) was born on May 31, 2011 in Torrance, California.
Born to Vietnamese parents who do not have any background in music, Evan’s musical journey was not initiated.
It just so happened that Evan’s older brother, Brandon — who was around five at the time — wanted to buy a toy keyboard and was granted his wish. When the boys opened the toy to play Brandon pressed the keys randomly and loudly. To the contrary, Evan — who was two and a half years old — pressed the keys one by one with pauses in between, and listened intently to the sounds coming from the toy. He then pressed the keys again, but this time he turned to his dad and asked “What do you call this?” after pressing each key.
When Evan’s love for music became too apparent, the toy keyboard was replaced by an electric piano. Almost immediately he became obsessed with the piano and spent much time playing it. By the time Evan was three, he was able to listen to simple nursery rhymes and play very similar tunes on the piano, at first with one hand and then with both.
In December of 2014 Evan received his first piano lesson at VRMA from Ms. Tuong Van Nguyen. He is currently under the tutelage of Miss Claudia Yun Xi (La Palma, CA, USA).
Besides having perfect pitch, Evan reads and memorizes music pieces incredibly fast. In addition, his ability to compose has amazed his teachers.
Evan likes to go to local parks, theme parks, and children’s museums. His hobbies include playing chess and building with Lego blocks.
His favorite subject is Math. It’s a common occurrence for Evan to thank his mom/dad when they give him a packet of math problems to solve; Evan is always eager and ready to learn.
Above all else, Evan loves to compose. Even before he started piano lessons, he would come to the piano many times during the day and play his own tunes with both hands. Whenever he wanted to show his piano skills to others he always insisted on playing his own music rather than music pieces he’s learned. This passion to create continues to this day!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nutshell and Behind Closed Doors

Nutshell  29437949

Since this unlikely pair of books both revolve around murder plots and I just happened to read them back-to-back, I'm reviewing them together. There are some interesting likenesses and differences.

The main similarity is that both are murder plots. In Nutshell there is an observer of the planning. In Behind Closed Doors, the prospective murderer plots alone.

The main protagonist of Nutshell is an unnamed fetus with remarkably adult observations and thoughts about the intrigue around him/her. 

The main character of Behind Closed Doors is a young woman who finds herself in a terrifying situation with the man who has tricked her into marriage and she has to find a way to save both herself and her mentally challenged younger sister. The author, B.A. Paris has a blockbuster of a first novel. You might read this book in one sitting - it's that good.

Both storylines are riveting - I could hardly put either book down. Behind Closed Doors is what you would call a quick read - all about the desperate housewife and whether she will find a way to safety. Nutshell, on the other hand, is more of a book to savour. The writing is clever, the words are carefully chosen and the syntax is intricate. Multiple award-winning English author, Ian McEwan is an experienced master craftsman. Nutshell is a treat to read, but take your time and enjoy the subtleties. 

Do the murders come to fruition? Aha....that would be telling!

Final similarities: 

Neither book is believable. It IS fiction. 

Both enjoyable reading? Absolutely!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Jesse

Jesse not only has his own YouTube channel, but also his own Instagram and Facebook accounts. The modern dog!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches

A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches

A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches is another of those quirky cookbooks that seem to be becoming more common - i.e. cookbook writers are using clever writing and intriguing titles to attract potential readers/buyers. 

The author, Tyler Kord, is the chef-owner of No. 7 Sub Shops in NYC. No surprise that I had never heard of this sandwich shop, but if I ever visit the Big Apple, I'll surely look for one, just to taste some of this creativity.

The recipes in this book are all unusual - not your basic Club Sandwich, that's for sure. For example, the book randomly fell open at this page: 

Sandwiches Fall Apart makes 4 precious sandwiches using curry chicken salad, avocado, iceberg lettuce, fried squid and lime segments. 

Sound interesting? 

Other sandwiches feature Roast Beef (Don't Cry for Me Argentina), Sausages (The Empire Strikes Back), Meatloaf, (Hot Patootie), Cauliflower, Asparagus and Seafood. 

Chef Kord is a self-confessed broccoli fanatic and he doesn't disappoint in this cookbook. We are invited to try Broccoli Classic, using roasted broccoli, ricotta salata, lychee muchim, pine nuts and fried shallots to create 4 large subs.  The photograph looks awesome. 

How about Sympathy for the Devil, a stinky but beautiful veggie burger with avocado blue cheese and roasted onions.

The cookbook also helpfully supplies recipes for many sandwich extras, things like Pickled Red Onions, Roasted Onions, Grape and Celery Salad, Pho Mayo, Jicama SaladPico de Lettuce, Fried Squid, Fried Tofu and so on. 

Two other interesting things about A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches:
  1. The foreword has been written by Emma Straub, a relatively well-known author (The Vacationers) who has crafted a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Chef Kord. 
  2. There are a series of illustrations, one at the beginning of each chapter by William Wegman, an artist and photographer who is otherwise very well-known for his series of Weimaraner photographs. 
So....lots of reasons to bring this book home from the library or sneak a peek at it in the bookstore. You might even be inspired to create a fantastic sandwich.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Trails, An Exploration

On Trails

On Trails, An Exploration, Robert Moor

This non-fiction book jumped out at me as I was walking past the “New Books” Shelf at the library one morning. On Trails, An Exploration seemed like a no-brainer borrow for somebody who loves walking and who considers and appreciates walking as a metaphor for life. I grabbed it and signed it out.

Disclaimer: I am more of a walker than a hiker. I do not stay overnight on a trail. I do not carry vast pounds of supplies – tent, sleeping mat and bag, or food other than snacks or lunch. No shovels or axes. I do not claim to be one of the fraternity of hikers of the sort that relish in months-long end-to-end experiences or who give each other nicknames by which they are identified on the trail. I guess I am for the most part in my daily life, a road walker and on holidays, a day-hiker. But I’m still interested in wilderness hiking: I really enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of her walk on the Pacific Coast Trail. I suppose if I could start life over, wilderness hiking might become part of that second life.   

The author of On Trails, journalist Robert Moor, nickname Spaceman is an avid hiker. He has hiked all over the world – USA, Morocco, Argentina, Mexico, Burma, Newfoundland and other parts of Canada etc., but it was during an early-in-life end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and beyond to Newfoundland that he had the epiphany that a book about trails would be interesting to pursue as a hiker, as a thinker and writer and for a reader.

I really loved this book. It’s interesting to wonder how Moor decided to organize the chapters – he could have organized it around geographic locations or chronologically, or according to his hiking experience, or even by degree of difficulty or length or elevation. What he chose to do was to organize by smallest to largest which, at the same time, ended up being from earliest- to most recently-built trails.

So the first chapter is devoted to the minute fossil trails, from almost microscopic to the size of a pencil that were created by some of the earliest creatures that existed in pre-history, ocean-dwelling molluscs that left minuscule trails barely observable and found now in of all places, the rocky coasts of southeastern Newfoundland, Canada.

From there, the chapters graduate in turn to trails created by increasingly larger creatures and moving along in pre-history to modern times. There are ant trails and caterpillar trails, each with unique characteristics, then, trails followed for centuries by grazing species such as gnus, oryxes, kudus, waterbucks, rhinos and elephants. There are trails created, followed, maintained and improved by early indigenous peoples, long before the arrival of Europeans. Eventually, we arrive at modern trails, often a result of joining up earlier trails with newly created sections. Moor volunteered on a trail-building team and is able to give us some insight into just how much planning goes into creating a trail in the 21st century such that it will look like it has always existed while, at the same time, preserving habitat and allowing hikers a reasonable route that they will not feel moved to improve upon.

Robert Moor has done his research and his book is filled with interesting facts along with personal hiking anecdotes. He introduces us to the experts, from scientists to hikers themselves. The writing is superb. I was blown away just by insights in the prologue. Early in Moor recognizes the paradox around hiking trails. One relishes the freedom of setting out on a trail, the whole day in front, a marvellous feeling. At the same time, the hiker’s options are limited (freedom thereby limited) to following a single pathway in order to arrive at the selected destination.

Though we may set off on a trail alone, at our own pace, to our own schedule, we are dependent on others who have walked the same way before, imagining, planning, building and maintaining the trail.


“A trail sleekens to its end. An explorer finds a worthwhile destination; then every walker who follows that trail makes it a little better.”

Hikers and walkers will enjoy this book.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Pis Saro, Tattoo Artist

Pis Saro is a Ukrainian tattoo artist with an interesting name who creates stunning botanical tattoos, both temporary and permanent.

A few examples of her work: all photographs by Pis Saro. Wouldn't they be lovely for a special occasion?


Pissaro, tattoo artist - the vandallist (12)

PisSaro_03

PisSaro

PisSaro_01

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hold a Baby in the Palm of Your Hand

Camille Allen is a Canadian artist specializing in baby sculptures: surprisingly lifelike miniature newborn babies. 




These tiny works of art are painstakingly crafted from polymer clay and resin and are available for sale on the sculptor's website: Camille Allen



Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

Jump

This pair of videos is too funny not to share. The first is a Christmas ad for a UK department store, featuring Buster the boxer. The second video, a parody of the first.

Enjoy if you haven't already seen them.




Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mnozil Brass

Don/Dad sent this video to me last month and I decided it needed to be on Some Favourite Things. Mnozil Brass, an Austrian brass septet
has been around since 1992 and is known for concerts which are a mix of music and slapstick. This video is such fun to watch. Amazing feet.




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Homegoing

Homegoing


I loved this book! Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanian-born and American-raised woman with an undeniable skill in story-telling. Homegoing is her debut novel.

Homegoing is a sweeping family saga starting in the mid-18th century Africa and ending in the modern day United States. It follows the lives and fates through eight successive generations of two half-sisters, in alternating chapters between the two threads. The half-sisters, Esi and Efffia were unknown to each other. Effia was married off to an Englishman and stayed in Ghana. Esi was captured in a Gold Coast slave round-up and shipped off to the United States. 

The author has created what amounts to linked short stories for the characters in each generation, snapshot-type stories that are historically synched and brutally honest. Some of these unforgettable characters were themselves involved in the slave trade. Some abandoned their own children. With glimpses of despair, evil and joy throughout, the reader experiences both a sense of inevitability and a sense of possibility. 

This novel will be compared to Alex Haley's Roots and Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. We should read them all.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

In Our Own Backyard

Every time I go for a walk I keep my eye out and my iPhone handy for interesting things. So imagine my surprise last Monday as we were working away in the backyard trying to reduce the size of our monster spreading juniper when we spotted what looked like a grey plastic bag hung up on a branch of one of the flowering crabapple trees. 



That just goes to show you that there is so much plastic blowing around in nature that a grey blob in the tree immediately brought to mind a plastic bag. 

Not a wasp nest. 

Which is exactly what it is. How did that thing grow so fast and never get noticed? Especially when it can clearly be seen from our back windows? Obviously, the leaves sheltered it from view until they parted ways with the tree a week or so ago. 


It's so high up in the tree I'm not sure we could have done much anyway. I think it's there for the duration. Although it was warm and sunny when I took the photos I never saw a sign of a wasp. But my mind is imagining just how many wasps a nest that size could hold. Pollinators, right? All part of a healthy ecosystem....

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Remembrance Day 2016

Poppies: Weeping Window

Remember the installation of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London in 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of WWI? 

For 2016 the ceramic poppies, each dedicated to a Commonwealth life lost in WWI, have been moved to Caernarfon Castle in North Wales to commemorate these lives and prompt an ongoing dialogue around the legacy of World War I. 

The display will be in place until Nov. 20, 2016. Tickets are needed.

Meanwhile, at home, in Canada, there is a virtual poppy drop, nightly between Oct. 28 and Nov. 11, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Each poppy dropped represents one of Canada's 117,000 fallen soldiers.


Pause and Remember


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Under The Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Two books I devoured and loved as a kid were Treasure Island and Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. What wonderful tales they are! I remember wondering how on earth this Scottish author could possibly know all these amazing things about ships and pirates, buried treasures and deserted islands. What I didn’t know then was that RLS came from a family of lighthouse builders. 

Note: See The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst (on my list of "read soon")

Image result

RLS's grandfather, father and uncle were all engineers and they built many of the lighthouses off the coast of Scotland, many in seemingly impossible locations. RLS had the sea in his blood but although expected to follow in this great family business, he sought his life’s work in the business of writing, a huge disappointment to his father, to be sure.

Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a fictionalized biography of the author RLS. (Horan’s previous book, Loving Frank was similarly a fictionalized biography of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) Horan has really found her niche with these enhanced life stories. She has done her research – read various biographies, personal diaries and correspondence to and from family and friends – and is able to use direct quotes from these sources while filling in the spaces with imagined events and dialogue. The resulting novel is a convincing portrait of a real person from history.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky opens with an account of RLS’s eventual American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, 10 years his senior, who has left her serially unfaithful husband in California and sailed to Belgium with her three young children. The first part of the story centres around Fanny and her resourcefulness through difficult times until she ends up with the elder two of her children, daughter, Bella and son, Sammy (sadly, the youngest son, Hervey died earlier in Paris of scrofulous TB) in Grez-sur-Loing, a French resort town well-known among the artist community. It is here that she encounters the Stevenson brothers – Bob and his cousin, the writer, R. Louis and their friends. Louis falls immediately for Fanny. 

Eventually, Fanny secures a divorce and marries Louis. Throughout the rest of his life, she is his right hand, pulling him through many serious illnesses and encouraging his writing efforts, all while nursing her own artistic aspirations. Unfortunately, RLS, who suffered from a very severe hemorrhagic lung condition throughout his life, was a frequent visitor to death’s door. Fanny nursed him, fought for him and moved around the world with him in an attempt to find a place to live that was agreeable for his lungs: Switzerland, the south of France, the south of England, California and eventually island-hopping in the South Seas. Each time Stevenson set sail his health improved dramatically while Fanny suffered terribly from sea sickness. Each time they settled somewhere on land Fanny’s health improved and Louis went downhill again.

Finally, Fanny, Louis and Fanny’s two (adult by this time) children and even at times Maggie Stevenson, Louis' widowed mother found a happy medium and a fulfilling life for all of them in Samoa where they lived for several years and that is where RLS eventually died, though not from his lung problem but from a sudden stroke at age 44. He is buried at the top of Mt. Vaea in his beloved Samoa

One of the fascinating parts of reading about the Stevensons' lives was to learn of the interaction between them and their contemporaries - people like Thomas Hardy, William Henley and Henry James and the art critic, Sydney Colvin. A shout-out to those who have read Molokai by Alan Brennert: during his travels, Stevenson visited the leper colony there shortly after the passing of Father Damien.  

Nancy Horan’s account of Louis and Fanny’s real-life adventures between 1875 and 1894 is so interesting. They were a busy passionate couple with a thirst for wellness and art. With each partner having strong personalities, they didn’t always agree but in the end they were a firm support for each other during illness and tough times. When you think about it, we often don't really know that much about the people in our own lives, so it was a wonderful privilege to look through a window into this family's private life. 



Fictional Stevenson: 
When he looked back on his own career, he thought the only real genius he possessed as a writer was pure doggedness. He had written propped up in bed, lying down, with scorching fevers and shivering chills, between coughs and hemorrhages, through bouts of scrivener’s cramp that rendered his right hand a useless red claw.


If craggy coastlines treacherous with submerged rocks had been the ground where his ancestors proved their valor, the sickbed had been his battlefield. Any honor he’d won had been earned there. Yet what good had it been?

******

In the end, what really matters? Only kindness. Only making somebody a little happier for your presence.

Very last words for the real Robert Louis Stevenson, a requiem that he wrote in hopes of having it inscribed on his tomb, which it is. Louis loved the Samoans and was, in turn, well beloved by them. This poem, converted to Samoan language in song, is still sung there to this day.


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live and gladly die, 
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.


Note:

An added synchronicity: Just by chance, I presently have a book home from the library and have just read the opening few pages:

The Last Bookaneer, by Matthew Pearl

The Last Bookaneer

It's a fictional account of literary thieves/pirates in the late 19th century who intersect with Robert Louis Stevenson during his final days in Samoa as he struggles to complete a new novel. I'm sure it will be extra interesting for anyone who has read Under the Wide and Starry Sky.





Thursday, November 3, 2016

Artificial Reef

Artificial reefs, a relatively recent activity in places around the world, often involve either the leaving of shipwrecks in place or the intentional explosion of derelict ships to sink them into the bottom of the ocean. 


Image result for artificial reef in Halifax harbour

These structures apparently kill two birds with one stone, providing habitat for sea life - plants and animals - at the same time as providing a guilt-free way of ridding ourselves of unwanted stuff.

A number of  years ago a similar project was undertaken in Halifax harbour when large concrete balls, each weighing in the range of 1000 kg. were lowered onto the seabed.

These reef balls allow marine organisms a structure on which to attach. They act as a base on which artificial reefs can be built.

The reef balls, in different sizes, are made of pH-neutral concrete and estimated to have a  lifetime of 500 years. Some are hollow and some are ledged, providing different ways for wildlife to gain access and for water currents to eddy around them. The balls are placed in 5 to 10 metres of water - relatively shallow, so accessible by sunlight. 


Image result for artificial reef in Halifax harbour


As shown here, algae have appropriated the concrete balls and marine habitat is well on the way to restoration. The project in Halifax harbour was financed largely by a donation from Irving Shipbuilding after they were awarded a contract to expand a shipyard.

The artificial reef project is being promoted and installed throughout parts of Atlantic Canada in hopes of making these coastal areas more friendly to marine wildlife. More information about reef balls: HERE and video HERE
 
Why do I have the niggling worry, though, that our parents and grandparents had the similar lofty ideas about providing habitat back in the day when sinking empty tin cans, broken bed frames and old stoves in the lake? 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Happy Halloween!

Have a Devilish good time!


Watch this video if you haven't already....


While we're at it if you like a good ventriloquist, here's another:


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Before the Flood

This important movie about climate change will be launched on 
Sunday, October 30, 2016
National Geographic Channel and YouTube




Thursday, October 27, 2016

Go in the Glow

Ok, this might be a bit spooky, but since it's almost Halloween, I'll share it here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Water Bottle Tossing

Have you heard of the newest kid fad? Water Bottle Flipping. No need to buy expensive toys for your kids - just hand them a water bottle. The noise might drive you to drink (something other than water) though. 




Thursday, October 13, 2016

Road Construction

Cottage season has ended for another year. We are back home and connected to wifi again - Yay! So I thought I'd post these pics of the road our neighbour to the east decided was necessary for his access. It travels mostly on our property and involved quite a few days of large machinery and tree-felling, rock-moving, brush-clearing, grading etc. In other words, it was pretty noisy. 

This was the view looking up from the Journey parking spot.



The digger is sitting in the area where our new (extra) parking spot is since the first one has become part of the new road.


This photo with the tail of my car peeking out is looking toward the cottage just at the point where the single extra parking spot used to be which is now where the new road diverges to the right toward the neighbour. 

Here's another shot angled eastward down the new road.


And here is the new parking spot just up the hill from our regular parking area. See that big rock? - piece of cake for the machinery they had.

 The road construction was finished by the Thursday before Thanksgiving, for which we gave thanks! This large roller was parked in our second extra lot over the weekend. They picked it up first thing Tuesday morning.

In this next photo, I was walking east toward the neighbour's parking area. You can see where the new road joins up with it, heading up the hill. And it's quite a hill! We question whether or not it's a usable incline for vehicles. Time will tell I guess.

I decided to walk up the hill. In this photo it doesn't look all that steep, does it? Trust me - it's very steep! Those ruts you can see were made by the only vehicle that has attempted the climb - a construction worker's heavy-duty AWD pick-up. I noticed that the guys did a great job cleaning up all the fallen wood and brush.


The road is really quite short. At the top of the hill, it curves around, still upward to the original road.



The road crew broke our phone line twice. The first break was quickly patched. The second break was more serious, requiring Bell to string a wire and support cable between the 3 poles between the neighbour to the west and us. The guys in this truck arrived on Wednesday, just as we were thinking we were ready to lock up and head home with all our stuff.