Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Under Construction

This story begins with a seemingly straightforward clog in my shower drain. Its resistance to Draino and the absence of my handyman-in-residence, prompted me to call a plumber and my accidental renovation was born. Sadly the culprit was not a gob of slimy hair, but rather the roots from my Portuguese laurel tree infiltrated into the decaying joints of my sewer main.  All of a sudden my $200 service call had snowballed into thousands of dollars of work, and I was sitting at my kitchen table clutching a work order, dying of sticker shock and uncertain how I could possibly explain this problem to my blissfully unaware significant other. There I sat, all alone, confronted with a problem that all homeowners dread, the unexpected blindside of an expensive renovation that I had to go forward with.

Further complicating the issue, my sewer main runs right underneath my porch, and any excavation would necessitate the demolition of it. Luckily my porch could have been knocked over by a strong gust of wind, rotted and soon to be deemed a little hazardous. With the world's cutest, most petit backhoe, the excavator ripped through my front garden, digging a trench system, which, if nothing else, prevented unwanted religious groups and charities from bothering me for at least a month. My lovely lilac tree and cedars became collateral damage, but the masonry surrounding the porch remained intact. 
While my chequebook was out, we thought that we might as well renovate the basement at the same time. I will save the basement renovation details for another post, as the twists and turns of that tale are far to extensive for this one post. This huge project takes up a lot of my mental energy, free time and we somehow managed to complete half of it without killing one another, a trades person or the bank.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kitchen Nightmares UK

I read an article a few months ago about how the over-saturation of Gordon Ramsey has led to his downfall as a television personality. With Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Masterchef and Masterchef Junior, FOX's fall lineup featured more than its fair share of the foul-mouthed Scot. I personally enjoy Ramsey, and feel that chefs who serve raw chicken deserve the dressing down that only he can dish out. 

If, like me, you truly find Chef Ramsey entertaining, then the British version of Kitchen Nightmares is definitely worthwhile television viewing.  It used to be available on both American and Canadian Netflix, but now it can only be seen on American Netflix. Originally, I began watching the British version because I liked the American show and was simply curious.  Immediately I was blown away by the difference.  Firstly, the British show is narrated by Ramsey rather than the voiceover person who works on Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares US. I feel this adds more authenticity to Ramsey's observations, and his remarks to restaurant staff and owners are even more unfiltered than the US show. As a fan of British slang, I love listening to him admonish one young chef for "taking the piss" and another for having "lost the plot". After viewing the British version, one can see Ramsey self-editing for American audiences, and I prefer his more acerbic, rapid fire delivery.  Also, the focus of the show is more on the food rather than the emotional drama. Family-run restaurants are often the venues for extreme tension where there is financial hardship, but I think that it is handled more tastefully in Britain.  

Over the course of one weekend, we devoured all five seasons (British seasons are shorter thankfully). If you are thinking of trying Kitchen Nightmares UK on for size, then there are a few episodes which are not to be missed.  Firstly, Season 1 Episode 1 featuring Bonaparte's Restaurant is a great place to start.  With a clueless 21 year-old chef and a confusing theme, the restaurant is out of touch with what the community wants. Secondly, Season 2 Episode 7, Oscar's is a must-see, not because it is particularly entertaining, but it deals with alcoholism in the kitchen in a way that none of the US shows have in the past. Though it has been brought to the forefront by the writing of Anthony Bourdain, substance abuse in the kitchen has not been addressed in any other Ramsey show that I can recall. The third episode that I would recommend is Season 5 Episode 1 which features Sheffield restaurant The Runaway Girl. This episode is full of emotional turmoil with the palpable frustration of a chef handcuffed by an owner who doesn't know anything about the restaurant business. There are several riveting scenes, where the chef voices his concerns and releases the anger that has built up over the years.  

These three episodes are some of my personal favourites, but there are many more worthy of mention.  So if you like Gordon Ramsey, and are frustrated with the path that he has gone down with the canned reality show music and cheesy voiceovers, then consider Kitchen Nightmares UK.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Taking the Plunge

Over the years, I thought about purchasing an e-reader off and on, with my healthy skepticism of the new technology ultimately causing me to wait. With most gadgets, I like to sit back and allow the manufacturers to work out all the kinks before plunking down my hard earned money. I like the tactile aspect of reading, and I didn't want to invest in a device that I would only occasionally, or would put my technologically challenged self to the test.  

After doing my research, thinking about my reading habits and entering into the dreaded Kindle/Kobo debate, I bought a Kobo Glo in July.  Though I considered getting a model like the Kobo Arc and/or Kindle Fire which are a sort of tablet/e-reader hybrid, I ended up ruling them out.  For me personally,  I read at night before bed, or to cure my insomnia, so the Kobo Glo was the ideal choice for me; it is side-lit and allows me to read without disturbing my bedmate.  The Kindle equivalent is the Kindle Paperwhite and I opted not to purchase it, because of the fact that I could not access public library eBooks with it.  Aside from literary classics that are available for free, most of the eBooks on my Kobo were borrowed from the library.  The way that the public library accomplishes this is by allowing patrons to upload DRM, or temporary files to their devices and these files are inaccessible after their due dates.  This works well for me, as I am a bit of a fickle reader and the concept of a deadline motivates me to finish books.  

With about six months of use, I am now used to the features of the Kobo Glo and its convenience.  The custom fonts, lighting and reading stats are my particular favourites. Though I still read books from my own library, rather than fully converting to eBooks, the ability to travel with it easily and slip it in my purse is a huge plus.  Another thing to consider when buying an e-reader is the necessity of a case.  Luckily for me, Best Buy had a deal and my e-reader came with a complimentary case (a $39.99 value!) and I saw similar deals when I was shopping around.  When you think about the beating the screen would take loose in a purse or backpack, paying an extra twenty dollars for a cheap cover is a really good idea.  If you have to pay for it at all.  The other factor with regard to e-readers is that most libraries now have programs where patrons can check out e-readers in the same manner as borrowing books.  That way a reader can test drive a particular model (in Canada these would be Kobo e-readers) and get a flavour of whether this technology will work for them.  Though it certainly took a lot of time and convincing, my Kobo has been a pleasant surprise!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan

If you know me personally or have read a few of my blog posts in the past, then you may know about my pitbull/staffordshire terrier mix named Onyx.  Her and I teamed up in February, and, for the most part, it has been a match made in heaven. Though our personalities are compatible, I struggled with my role as alpha female and often lost my cool in the face of any insubordination on her part.

In order to give me a better understanding of how to approach dog behavioural issues, I bit the bullet and read Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan.  For all those unfamiliar with his methods, the basic gist is that a dog owner must look within to find the root causes of dog misbehaviour.  Rather than a trainer taking a dog out of its environment and "fixing" it, Millan encourages owners to analyze what they are doing wrong in their daily interactions, or the energy that they are projecting while handling their dogs.  For me, the biggest problem I deal with, is the fact that my dog will not come when I call her in the yard. When this occurs, I vacillate from being frantic to frustrated which only serves to make her more indifferent to my commands.  In addition to this, she had a tendency to become overprotective of me in the yard, to the point where any passerby would encounter a barking Onyx who would run back and forth guarding her territory.  

I must confess that Onyx still ignores me while we are in the yard, unless I happen to be holding a favourite toy.  The territorial behaviour has gone by the wayside and I think that some of the techniques that I learned from Cesar Millan have helped quite a bit.  He presents step by step instructions about how to approach everyday situations that dog owners face and gives easy to follow examples.  Right away I changed my pre-walk ritual so that the walk is a calm time and I am in control of the leash.  In the past, my dog used her strength to walk me, track prey and sniff constantly while walking in front of me the whole time.  She will now walk behind or beside me throughout the walk and accepts corrections when she starts tracking animals, or stops too often to sniff.  With these changes, which have not taken long to implement, my morning walk is now more of a zen experience and even my partner has noticed the difference in Onyx's behaviour. 

For those even contemplating dog ownership, I think it is important to assess whether or not a constant commitment to self assessment and behaviour modification is for them. Some people are just not able to look at what energy they are projecting to their animals, but for everyone else, Millan's techniques are a good place to start.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

After The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, I needed to read something a little lighter in subject matter and stumbled across The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.  It is the story of two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are hired guns for a mysterious man called The Commodore. As such, they are given the task of hunting down a man named Herman Kermit Warm, who allegedly stole something from The Commodore.  In order to find this man, they are to rendezvous with an associate named Mr. Morris in San Francisco. 

Without giving away the action or revealing the plot, let's just say that things do not go as planned and the two brothers run into unforeseen obstacles. There also exists tension between Eli and Charlie, as Charlie is motivated to pursue more work for The Commodore and harbours ambitions of one day becoming a boss himself.  Eli, however, sees the work as a means to an end, and would like nothing more than to settle down and become a shopkeeper.  The brothers' story is told in the same framework as epic tales like The Odyssey and also has a bit of a Quentin Tarantino quality to it, with its unapologetic violence and dark sense of humour. There are many comic moments scattered throughout the story and they make light of what could be very dramatic showdowns.  DeWitt also refrains from adding a lot of unnecessary historical details which take the focus away from the story, and are ultimately forgotten by the reader.

I think that there are so many works of fiction which are focused on dark subject matter that it is refreshing to find a well-written book that features humour so prominently. Sometimes I believe that authors run out of creative ways to tell a story and instead wish to engage their audience by writing plots of unrelenting tragedy.  The Sisters Brothers shows how a well-crafted comedic novel can garner critical acclaim while providing a unique reading experience.      

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

I had a break-in in my house late last year, and the thief (among other things) stole all of my customer membership cards and my library card.  I recently replaced my library card and got a little carried away with borrowing books, as I tend to do when I haven't graced the stacks in a long time.

One of the books that I borrowed was The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, a much anticipated work following the success of her previous novel, The Birth House. For those not familiar with The Birth House, it is a work revolving around a midwife who is practising in a small Nova Scotia town around the time where more clinical obstetrics are being introduced. This clash between the modern and the more traditional, holistic approach is the main storyline of The Birth House. Normally I wouldn't have even mentioned the author's prior work, but in this case I made an exception, due to the fact that gynaecological medicine features prominently in The Virgin Cure as well. It is set in 1870's New York where the protagonist, Moth, is a twelve year old girl who considers prostitution to be an inevitable consequence of the poverty that she faces. 

When Moth is recruited by a madam, she comes in contact with a physician called Dr. Sadie who provides confirmation of virginity to pimps and madams and treats the women of the sex industry who have fallen prey to disease.  Dr. Sadie makes many attempts to dissuade Moth from going down the same path as many of her patients and offers a number of times to rescue her, but Moth is steadfast in her desire to become a prostitute. Moth views selling her body as the only way for her to gain true independence and material wealth and is naive about the physical and psychological effects this decision may have on her. I felt put off by Moth stubbornness and unwillingness to accept Dr. Sadie's perfectly decent offers to provide her with a home, education and safety from a cruel industry. As I was reading The Virgin Cure, it became increasingly difficult for me to relate to any of the characters, though the storyline was compelling. 

I would like to take a moment to discuss the ending of the book, while doing my best not to spoil it.  During Canada Reads 2013, Charlotte Gray made a very valid point about how when she is a judge for literary awards, she likes to analyse the ending of a book, because there is often a feeling that a writer is just trying to wrap things up and is at a loss as to how to go about it.  Ever since I heard her say it, Charlotte Gray's opinion on epilogues has stuck in my brain and changed the way that I view novels as they draw to an end. It's like those television shows that try to convey drama by having characters give each other meaningful looks to the soundtrack of a OneRepublic song. I believe that The Virgin Cure suffers from this problem in a way that really clouds my opinion of the quality of the novel overall.  Maybe it is just a preference that I have for novels that end suddenly without a tidy bow summarizing what happens to all of the key characters.  

Though Ami McKay is a talented writer, The Virgin Cure is not the work that best highlights her skills, but I look forward to seeing what she will produce in future.            

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

I was in a rut where I would start a book, read about 50 pages, and then lose interest.  If there is something that is more deserving of my preoccupation, a book that fails to capture and hold my attention tends to be a casualty.  After a couple of these books, I went with a sure thing, Hilary Mantel's novel Bring
Up the BodiesThe reason why I was so confident that I could finish this book without the stumbling blocks that I have faced in the recent past, is the subject matter of the book and the intriguing point of view of a familiar narrator.  Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to the Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall, and takes place in Henry the Eighth's reign through the eyes of his Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell.  Wolf Hall features the rise of Anne Boleyn and Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Henry's growing affection for Jane Seymour and the ultimate fall of Anne Boleyn. 

I enjoyed the narration of Thomas Cromwell in the first book and this second novel did not disappoint. Firstly, I am of the belief that there are way too many novels set in the Tudor era which feature a female narrator. The market is crawling with them due to the success of authors like Philippa Gregory, and I am a little sick of hearing from the women who surrounded Henry. Cromwell is in a more fascinating position as the most powerful bureaucrat in the country and right-hand man to Henry during some tumultuous years. His most intriguing quality is that though he is an influential figure, his humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith often cause him to be both the ultimate insider and total outsider at Court. Whenever an issue arises for the king, Cromwell employs intelligence, cunning and thuggery, and simply gets the job done.  This approach, particularly from someone of low origins, causes Cromwell to have more enemies among the courtiers and there is a sense throughout the novel that Cromwell is aware of the riskiness of the path that he is walking, and has a feeling that one day, he too will be the subject of the king's wrath. Thomas Cromwell is a bit of an unlikely hero, based on the fact that he has remained neglected by historians, but Mantel seems to view their oversight in her favour as an author of fiction.

One of my favourite lines in the book comes in the Author's Note where Mantel discusses her challenges with regard to the story cutting out of certain characters and the role of Jane Rochford. Aside from those points, she asks the reader to view her novel as "a proposal" of how the events unfolded. I like this approach, because I think it is the right way to think about historical fiction, where authors use varying degrees of fictionalization when it comes to political figures and events.  Tudor England, with its constant drama, has provided a lot of fodder for novels, and it is a subject matter that I keep coming back to out of a morbid fascination. I know that the story of Thomas Cromwell is not over and I look forward to another stellar sequel, and will confess that Bring Up the Bodies has been hanging around on my nightstand even though I finished the book over a week ago.  The characters have stayed with me in a way that they rarely do, and the book that I am currently reading has suffered the neglect of a good book hangover.