Reading 2013

Another year, some more great books (see also 2011, 2012).

Fiction

fiction

Cathedral, Raymond Carver – Always wanted to read Carver; Junot Díaz suggested this one in a recent interview. Some of the best short stories I’ve read in ages. Modern Chekhov, etc., sure. But they’re also slow-burning page-turners—and after all, isn’t that a large part of the point of reading? I can’t say that they always preserve a kind of dignity in the everyday-or-worse characters; but they make them real and mundane in a way that’s extremely compelling and fascinating and believable. But beyond that, it’s the interactions between people that shine: it’s almost a relief to be shown that what can be most important are these encounters, whether in crisis situations or not. I read this from Carver: Collected Stories, and look forward to reading more.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller – Good and sometimes great writing; insightful, suspenseful, pensive, and with three-dimensional characters. And it’s a page-turner. I don’t care how many post-apocalyptic books have been written blah blah blah; does it really matter? Anyway, I haven’t read many, but I think this stands on its own, and the situation is ultimately a framework, a platform for characters (mostly Hig) trying to understand themselves and their motivations. Beautifully done, in my humble opinion. A great summer read—but I say that partly because I read it in the summer, I suppose.

Tenth of December, George Saunders – Saunders draws you in with surprising humour and squeezes, simultaneously. In less capable hands, some of these portrayals might have come across as condescending; but there’s enough insight, not to mention familiarity, to push things forward in a sympathetic way and towards ends which render the details just that. The reader feels inside these heads and incorporates a complete internal consistency. Entertaining and enlightening.

Levels of Life, Julian Barnes – An unusual premise, to say the least: the history of ballooning leading into the loss of a spouse. But it’s pulled off beautifully. Barnes has become one of my favourite writers.

Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat – It’s a beautiful arc, but at a point—specifically, through some of the chapter “Di Mwen, Tell Me”—the writing falls apart a bit. But overall it made me want to read some of Danticat’s earlier books.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan – For some reason I read this over a longer span of time, more like a series of related short stories—which I’ve heard argued they really are; but I’d like to go back to it and make the character connections more concrete. Even as short stories, though, I found the book sharp and entertaining.

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers – Some reviews I’ve read are I believe over-thinking things. This is a novel about a character that is perhaps not likeable, but at the same time maybe it exposes some fears that there’s more of him in us than we feel comfortable with. I thought Alan was developed quite well. It’s important to remember that we’re restricted to his world view—not, perhaps, an unreliable narrator, but one who is somewhat aware of his naïveté and has lost confidence as a result—and that the language is his, and what we can see of politics and Saudi Arabia is from his point of view. He’s self-aware in his unawareness, and that’s pulled off pretty well. It’s an easy read, a lightweight book in many ways perhaps, and the ending is perfunctory. But I think Eggers made an uninteresting type into an interesting centrepiece, if not exactly a protagonist.

After the Quake, Haruki Murakami – I didn’t take notes and honestly can’t remember much about this book. Maybe that says something.

Non-Fiction

nonfiction

Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens – More than any other writer, I think, reading Hitchens feels like being engaged in conversation: one after which I feel sharper, and speak and writer better. I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but this one is distinct because he was such an interesting guy, so ultimately a lot of the book is not directly about him. The chapter “Mesopotamia from Both Sides” is particularly brilliant, providing more context and explanation for Hitch’s “support” of the second Iraq war, and reducing it to the personal in an incredibly affecting way through the story of Mark Daily.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer – No single volume of course can completely (and impartially) distill the tone and direction of a country like the United States over the course of several decades. But this gives a strong impression of a wide range of some very American characters through their fascinating stories. The only Writers Fest event I attended this year was an interview with Packer, and it was great.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg – Due to “the rising status of women, the growth of cities, the development of communications technologies, and the expansion of the life course,” many—most—of us are now living alone. I didn’t need convincing (I live alone and cannot imagine ever cohabiting again), but thought this would be an interesting read. It was, although there was I think too much emphasis on the elderly. It’s a new area, so the author has actually done a pretty good job of pulling together anecdotes from various cultures and countries (pointing out once again, among other things, how backwards and behind we are in terms of social policy compared with the Scandinavian countries). I bristled every time he described the appearance of a woman interview subject, though; I don’t think I’m misremembering or miscounting in believing that he didn’t do so to the same extent with the males. Perhaps my biggest lesson from this book is that I should plan to live close to my daughter when I’m older. Ultimately it’s one of those books that probably could have been shorter by half, perhaps comprising a series of interesting articles. But if you’re interested in the topic, it’s a worthwhile read.

Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks – I didn’t enjoy this as much of some of Sacks’ other books: the chapters are organized around types of hallucinations, with patient stories sprinkled throughout, whereas I really enjoyed the expanded case studies of, for example, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Still, lots of fascinating material here; the author always makes one think about one’s own perception. If you like his books, there’s no reason to skip this one.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains, Chuck Klosterman – My initial review for this book was going to be: “Merely clever.” But then as I got further I started to think it wasn’t even very clever; and it isn’t funny. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed a couple of Klosterman’s earlier books. Here are a couple of quick examples: “Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but then we ran out of things that were necessary. The postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don’t really ‘need’ anything new, so we only create what we want.” If he’s trying to be funny with this sort of end-of-history thinking, he isn’t succeeding. But I don’t think he’s trying to be funny here. Do I need to give examples? I’m not going to bother. Or this sentence: “He refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it.” WHAT?! The book is full of this kind of thing. It would be head-scratching if it was worth scratching one’s head about. But it isn’t.

How Should a Person Be?Sheila Heti – It’s hard to rate this book. It feels like an early draft of something else; the question is whether that something would ever be any good. I tend to think not. I suppose that the main problem is that the narrator is for the most part so incredibly unlikable. Narcissism doesn’t really describe it; perhaps vacant and spoiled do. To be sure, there are a few decent moments; but they’re buried. For me the book and the author were made all the worse for apparently completely misunderstanding one of the nicest moments in The Little Prince.

Movies 2013

I didn’t see as many movies this year as I usually do (see 2010, 2011, 2012). The reason: Breaking Bad (see below) which, multiplying its 62 episodes by 48 minutes, is the equivalent of about twenty-eight (28) 1.75-hour films.

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Upstream Color (trailer): Nine years after the amazing Primer, one of my favourite sci-fi movies, director/actor/composer/etc. Shane Carruth does it again. If only every movie could be so engaging, puzzling, and thought-provoking. I’ve seen it again, read articles, and am currently watching it a third time, carefully, in twenty-minute doses. I’m not sure it can really be described: perhaps the atmosphere of The Tree of Life and the intrigue of Stalker? Just see it.

upstreamcolor

All Is Lost (trailer): Harrowing, maybe partly because I was feeling a bit out to sea myself when I saw it, but it’s a great almost-wordless performance by Robert Redford (in contrast to George Clooney’s yabbering in the similarly-themed Gravity—see below). It draws you in and onto the sea with the unnamed man.

allislost

Before Midnight (trailer): I haven’t seen the prior instalments in this series, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). No matter—this stands alone as a brilliantly talky movie with surprising and subtle revelations about friendship and marriage. Both Hawke and Delpy are great.

beforemidnight

Captain Phillips (trailer): I’ve never liked Tom Hanks, and/or the movies he’s acted in. Although I’m not as sure that this quite deserves my four-star rating overall, Hanks’ incredibly affecting scene at the end puts it over the top: one of the most emotionally impactful things I saw this year, following a relentlessly tense—and believable—hour and a half or so.

captainphillips

Breaking Bad: Not a movie, but then I don’t watch television and I saw this at my own pace and without ads, which made it seem more like a series of films. I don’t watch television because of advertisements and quality. Breaking Bad, at least via Netflix on my iPad, didn’t have those issues; but it definitely reminded me of the third reason I don’t own a television: time commitment. I don’t regret the time I spent here, but it did cost me a number of movies in the theatre this year: there’s only so much video I can take. At any rate, despite a couple of weak episodes, this was an incredibly consistent long piece ultimately dealing with many forms of ambiguity. It was not (usually) broken into neat little episodes, and I often found myself watching from midway through one episode to most of the way through the next, without noticing or having troubles picking up the next time. The last “half season” was pretty brilliant—with the arguable exception of the last episode (see for instance Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the New Yorker, The Closure-Happy “Breaking Bad” Finale). Will I watch another series? Probably not. But it was fun to be in on the cultural phenomenon of the moment, and the VIFF interview session with series creator Vince Gilligan, on the eve of the finale, was one of my favourite live events of the year.

breakingbadwalt

breakingbadjesse

 

★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

12 Years a Slave (trailer): It was great. And yet. Was it the music? There was something that distracted or diminished the film. Was it the usually good Brad Pitt, whose character didn’t quite gel? Was it editing? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll watch it again some time to try to pick it apart a bit better.

Safety Not Guaranteed (trailer): I was casting about on Netflix and found this great little movie. It’s funny and poignant and sometimes surprising: a film about some young journalists from Seattle pursuing a story about a fellow who posts an ad looking for a time travel companion.

Blue Jasmine (trailer): Essentially a tour de force by Cate Blanchett, but also Woody Allen seems to have been stronger again recently.

Europa Report (trailer): Most underrated? Much sci-fi seems to be totally unrealistic and/or over-the-top. I read somewhere that NASA consulted on this. It shows in the more measured, and therefore realistic and suspenseful, tone.

Gravity (trailer): Like a roller coaster ride. Incredible visuals. There were just three problems: George Clooney’s inane chatter; some religious bullshit; and—sigh—sound in space.

Philomena (trailer): About what you’d expect, but in a good way. Some complained it was anti-Catholic. I say: more, please.

Nebraska (trailer): Saw this at VIFF. Sure, Bruce Dern was great. But overall it felt slightly slight; and I didn’t like being so obviously expected to laugh at some of the characters—this wasn’t gracefully done.

Chinese Take-Away (trailer): Funny and affecting indie film about a couple of guys who can’t speak each others’ language, searching.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these

Oldeuboi (trailer): I watched this 2003 original on Netflix as the reviews of this year’s remake made me curious. It was often quite watchable, but ultimately over the top.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (trailer): Yes, well done again. But I’ve had enough of these all-evil characters, Khan or not: I hate superhero movies and this hovers dangerously close. I want an exploration/aliens film next time out with this franchise (and perhaps that word is itself damning).

Rap is War (trailer): Another VIFF film; didn’t see enough this year. Interesting documentary on an underground Cuban rap outfit; would have been better if it had been shorter.

★★½ – Credit for effort

Camera Shy (trailer): IMDB: “This dark comedy follows a corrupt city councilman whose life spins out of control after a mysterious cameraman begins terrorizing him.” Kind of amusing, and not an awful film, but ultimately a sort of amateur proof-of-concept effort.

★★ – Please promise me you won’t see even if you’re curious

The Conjuring: The worst movie I’ve seen in a long while; I haven’t seen many horror films, but this seemed to be an amateur re-hashing of the few that I have. Fortunately my friend had free tickets. Boring, often-awful acting, and docked an extra star for claiming to be based on a “true” story. Anyone in the audience who took the laugh-out-loud claims in the title cards at face value should not be allowed to vote. Or at least to see movies.

The Place Beyond the Pines: What a dreadful movie. By turns maudlin, amateurish, boring, and improbable, it was at times laugh-out-loud awful–particularly when Gosling was playing Gosling parodying Gosling in Drive. And then it turned into a made-for-TV movie.

Predators (2010): Why on earth did I watch this? I must have been drunk. I have to be more careful with Netflix. Laughably awful.

Event Horizon (1997): Another unintentionally horrific sci-fi. I don’t understand why the production crew and actors would persevere when it should have been obvious that they were working on a stinker. Acting, dialog, and especially premise were terrible.

Nelson Mandela

Many of those expressing grief forget, or ignore, or don’t realize, that Mandela was different in at least one important way from Gandhi, to whom he seems at least this week superficially and inevitably compared. Madiba refused to renounce the use of violence. Good for him. Partly as a result, he was able to achieve what he did, without resorting to violence.

Gandhi, too, has been misrepresented and misunderstood. Reading the excellent Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, I realized for the first time the mixed results he achieved: among many other things, he failed at what was arguably his most important mission, keeping India united.

My father now regards Mandela as one of his heroes. And yet, I recall my dad telling me while Mandela was still at Robben Island that he would have taken the same action that the white South African government had, as Mandela had threatened them. And we have a Canadian MP who called Mandela a “terrorist,” and apparently still considers him as such.

It’s quite easy with hindsight, when so much has been achieved, to join the throngs of praise and believe that we were all and always on the side of justice. But the really important thing is to recognize when change has not yet occurred, and to have the courage to back those who are sacrificing for it in advance. Who deserves our attention and support right now?

iOS Weather Apps for Vancouver

I was nipping across Carrall Street for a guilty pleasure the other night and ran into the fellow who’s helped out at Glory Food Market since years before I moved into the neighbourhood. I suppose we were both feeling unimaginitive, as Oscar Wilde may or may not have thought, or at least said, but he said he doubted he’d be able to go for a cycle that evening, as he had the night before when he had been caught in rain. I said I thought he was safe in that respect, and he replied, you never know. Actually, you do, I said.

Well, almost. Thanks to a nifty weather service called Forecast, one can, on their iPhone or other device, get a very specific prediction of precipitation for the next hour :

forecast

I have found this aspect of the service to be fairly accurate. Overall, however, my experience with Forecast, and iOS weather apps in general, has been fraught. As a result I’ve turned into something of a weather app junkie. It seems a lot of others have as well, and the field is crowded. But it seems particularly difficult for most of them to get things right. For me, at the simplest level this means the ability to tell me accurately whether or not I need to carry an umbrella for the day. This is an important question in Vancouver for much of the year, and it is surprising how often most of the apps get it wrong, in my experience—and entirely anecdotally, but consistently enough over the course of a couple of years to be quite noticeable.

It is also surprising how tempting it is to try to live with the apps that sport a nifty user experience, or at least a beautiful data display. Weather apps are not usually “deep,” or I’m normally only interested in the initial display which purports to answer my basic question above; so interaction design—behaviour—is usually not bad, or not central. (I have quickly discarded those apps where it has been.) I have always been particular about the design of software, down to their icons: I am even loathe to ugly up my Springboard (or Dock) with anything but the best-finessed set of pixels. Luckily, I’ve found that there is generally a good correlation between the quality of  app design and  functionality.

Except for weather apps, or the predictions they provide for Vancouver. There are some nicely designed entrants, like Yahoo! Weather (although it has a lousy icon):

yahooweather

Unfortunately this app, along with almost all the others, cannot seem reliably to predict rain, and it doesn’t really matter how lovely an app looks if it doesn’t work. There is the Apple Weather app: it is easy to look at and I think it has been unfairly maligned, as it in my experience no less accurate than most of the others:

iosweatherapp

The Weather Network app seems to be among the most popular with people I’ve surveyed informally; unfortunately, along with suffering from the same general inaccuracy as the others, it looks a bit cartoonish:

weathernetwork

There have been others, many others, with which I’ve experienced more or less the same results: being caught without an umbrella; or strolling through sunshine with one that has been reduced to functioning as a cane.

So I was excited when Forecast became available in Canada. It doesn’t look half bad, and it is easy to pick up and use its gesture-based interface (I like the little bouncy hint that’s displayed when it is first opened):

forecastfullscreen

Forecast is “backed by a wide range of data sources, which are aggregated together statistically to provide the most accurate forecast possible for a given location.” (There are other apps, like Weathertron, which use the same consolidated data.)

forecastchart

Unfortunately, I’ve found that an average of wrong tends to be wrong. (It’s interesting to ponder why the inaccuracy. I have a colleague who told me a few years back he had a meteorologist friend who claimed that many of the weather services use computer modelling, rather than a meteorologist, to predict the Vancouver weather. Whether or why this would be the case, I don’t know.)

So I’ve been coming back again and again to the one app that seems to be able to answer my umbrella question most consistently. It is called Atmosphérique Pro, and while it and its icon are not the best of the lot, it is as far as I can tell the only weather app that uses, or uses exclusively, Environment Canada as its data source.

atmospheriquepro

As another Vancouver “winter” approaches, I’ll keep Atmosphérique Pro on the first page of my Springboard, and continue to cast around for alternatives. If there’s a weather app you depend on, please leave a comment.

Marijuana tickets and peculiar Canadians

What a peculiar bunch of people we have in power here in Canada.

Peter MacKay says the government is “protecting families” from marijuana. What does he mean by this, exactly? Are stoned hordes gathering on the suburban streets to bash down white picket fences? Are “families” some sort of incubator of pretend 1950s-type, perfectly behaved (read: boring) people? Does he have a clue that there are “more one-person households (3,673,305) than couple households with children (3,524,915)” in this country (Stats Canada)? Does this mean that he thinks the majority of Canadians are weed-smoking violent criminals from whom the rest need protection? Or that the majority of households don’t need “protection” from the rampaging stoners?

Then Jim Chu, Vancouver Police Chief and the President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, claims he had “not seen” the stories on Justin Trudeau’s “admission” (big fucking deal) of pot use. What planet is he living on? Does he read the news?

And what’s with The Globe and Mail? They report this shit with a straight face. No questions asked, apparently.

Gastown Buskers

The city seems to be pretty strict in enforcing the requirement for a busking license—I’ve known pretty good musicians who have been shut down—except, it seems, in Gastown, where I moved in early 2010. The “musicians” who play outside my building are enough to induce a trance, or the development of OCD.

In 2010-11, there was a rhythmless saxophone player who repeated a couple of be-bop riffs ad nauseam. His utter lack of meter was admittedly sort of fascinating: way, way beyond rubato, the beat seemed truly random, arguably unreproducible by anyone who can count.

In 2011-12, we had an accordion player—he seems to have graduated to other areas of the downtown; I’ve passed him on Granville and near Waterfront Station recently—who played the same couple of tunes over and over and over.

In summer 2013, there have been two regulars.

First is a fellow on clarinet who plays short phrases from “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” (What would the Duke think of that?) He seems also to have a vague recollection of some Gershwin. I think. It’s hard to tell. “Noodling” is a good word for it. And again, if there is a meter, I cannot detect it.

onlyjustbegun

Worse, if that is even possible (and oh yes, it is), there a guy with a recorder who repeats the same five-note figure for hours. Hours. Five notes. I am not kidding. The busking conditions and guidelines state that there is a one-hour maximum: “After 60 minutes, you must move to a different location at least one full block away.” They should add a maximum for the number of identical phrases played within a two-minute span.

Obviously at least some of these people are mentally challenged; I’ve approached the recorder player, with plans to offer him twenty dollars if he will pack up for the night, and have received nonsensical responses. His loss. But having to close my windows or play Nine Inch Nails in order to drown out this sanity-challenging stuff is not  fun, and has become less so. Maybe these characters do have licenses; but I doubt it, and they don’t seem to be on display, as is required by the city.

I don’t think I’ve once heard anyone decent play on the street here. I’m not sure there’s anything to be done other than try to enjoy what might eventually be remembered as one of the last quirky things about the neighbourhood. At least we don’t have to listen to aspiring beat-boxers, I guess.

Tongli Rocks, the best desktop picture ever

I’m particular about the appearance of my computer, and a good desktop picture (also known as “wallpaper”) is essential not only for aesthetics, but for contrast and readability. Over the years I’ve searched a fair bit for pictures that fit my criteria. I think a good image must:

  • be generally dark in tone, no only to aid in readability of the textual labels of  desktop items, but also to provide contrast and framing for application windows;
  • look good at the edges, which is usually all I can see of the picture;
  • be beautiful in and of itself.

I’ve made a number of my own over the years; NASA’s high resolution pictures of Mars and Saturn in particular can make great desktop pictures. But there is one image that, in my opinion, tops them all. It is called Tongli Rocks. Here it is:

tonglirocks

The description says simply, “A completely unedited photo taken of rocks in a garden in Tongli, China.”

I believe I first found this image at InterfaceLIFT, which at the time was called Xicons. I keep coming back to it. Unfortunately, its useful life is about to come to an end, at least for me: this year I expect to replace my display, which is 1920×1200, with something quite a bit larger. 1920x1200is the highest resolution of this image I’ve been able to find.

InterfaceLIFT lists “Amaus Design,” as the creator of the picture, and links to amausdesign.com, which no longer exists. Looking at archive.org, there’s a copy of amausdesign.com from September 16, 2008 and it’s apparent from the few pages in the archive that the owner of the site was a David Ward in Melbourne. I’ve done a couple of quick searches but have not been able to find a Mr. Ward who is obviously the right person.

So my search resumes. Perhaps one day I’ll travel to Tongli and try to find the gardens. More likely I’ll go out to the Nitobe (Japanese) Garden at UBC and see if I can get a similar effect.

Oregon July 2013

Back from a week driving mostly through Oregon; I’ve long put off exploring Highway 101 and visiting Portland. I really love our part of the world and believe it’s unfairly dismissed; I would honestly rather be on our cool, wet coast than sweating it out in the tropics.

After a two-hour border wait, left I5 and drove Route 12 to the coast. Bypassed Aberdeen via Route 107, a quiet wooded drive that reaches 101 which eventually hits the coast. It was a muted foggy evening and crossing the Columbia was beautiful in early twilight. Eventually got to Cannon Beach—longest drive of the trip, even excluding the border boredom. It was dark but the outline of Haystack Rock was visible and the rush of ocean a welcome sound.

Next day started overcast but beautiful.

haystack

The sky cleared and I rode Waffle, a gentle old Belgian (get it? <groan>) from Sea Ranch Stables, north on the beach.

waffle

After some sleuthing, found Newmans at 988, a well-hidden contrast to the greasy spoons on the main drag (the shops were nice, though; Cannon Beach is what Sechelt could have been rather than a crass big-box centre, sigh). Besides great service—sat outside and had wine and bread forty-five minutes before opening—they prepared a great vegan meal for me. Excellent food, and a nice little room.

In the evening, rented a tricycle and cycled many miles south on the beach. It was magical: a beautiful evening, birds, sand, waves, and a few people, including a photographer and his dog taking pictures of gulls circling over their sea stack.

trike

southcannonpanorama

cannonbeach

cannonsunset

It’s difficult to convey how beautiful this place is; the photos only jog the memory. It’s worth the trip.

On to Newport the next day, with some beautiful sights along the coast.

devilscauldron

oswaldwestpanorama

Newport was a nice little town; not as beautiful as Cannon Beach, but the dunes at the beach were something I’d never seen before.

newportdunes

Drove down the coast a bit further the next day to Devils Churn and Thor’s Well at Cape Perpetua. (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how in such an insanely religious country the most beautiful natural features are named after “the devil” while destructive forces such as hurricanes are “acts of ‘god'”.) Actually got right up close to this fascinating feature—a little nerve-wracking as the tide was coming in, but worth the risk.

thorswell

Left the coast and drove the quiet and beautiful Route 20 and up through Willamette Valley wine country—unfortunately a little too late in the day for many tastings, but Firesteed kindly re-opened and I bought some nice Pinot Noir and a good Riesling from them.

On to Portland and the Ace Hotel. This is hands down the coolest place I’ve ever stayed. Amazing atmosphere, inventive hip old-timey décor, and good service.

meace1

ace

Reading The Dog Stars, a great book, in 207, a “standard back room“:

meace2

Visited the Portland Japanese Garden, which was lovely. I love Japanese Maples.

portlandjapanesegarden

mounthood

Bought some wine at Vinopolis: all Pinot Noir, all Willamette Valley, recommended by the helpful staff:

See my CellarTracker account, where I’ll post tasting notes as I work through these.

Second great meal of the trip was at Portobello Vegan Trattoria. I had Beet Tartare (roasted beets, carrot aioli, and capers with cashew cheese and baguette) and Portobello Roast (portobello roast, creamed kale, polenta, sundries tomato jam, roasted garlic cashew cream), accompanied by 2009 Cana’s Feast Pinot Noir. Lemon-Thyme Cheesecake for dessert (pistachio crust, lemon thyme cashew-coconut cheesecake, raspberry coulis). An excellent dinner.

But Powell’s Books was the highlight of this visit. I posted to Facebook, “There are approximately a trillion books here. All interesting. I am never leaving.” The place really requires days to appreciate. Bought a few: Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King; Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat; David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (I guess I’m in a comic mood); and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which I’d not heard of but looks interesting.

That was pretty much it: spent a night in Seattle on the way home, and ate—twice!—at Plum Bistro, my favourite. Vegan grilled peach pancakes, yum!

plumpancakes

And of course an obligatory trip to The Elliott Bay Book Company, which while not nearly as massive as Powell’s is certainly no less inspiring. I picked up Neal Stephenson’s Some Remarks on sale.

The only sour note of the trip was upon returning: the !@#$ Canadian Border Services Agency levied a “provincial liquor mark-up fee” and other miscellaneous bullshit charges which amounted to over 88% (!!!) of the value of seven of the nine bottles I brought back—they allowed me to claim the two most expensive. I knew I’d pay something, but this is ridiculous. I am even more steamed now about the antiquated, Prohibition-era alcohol policies in BC, that results in our having probably the most expensive wine prices anywhere. A couple of years ago I wrote Jenny Kwan, my MLA, about the issue and received a non-answer. I generally agree with the NDP, but I expect the BC “Liberals” will be more likely to show progress here. I’ll write the Minister of Justice, who appears to be responsible for the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch. I am left-leaning, and I really don’t mind paying taxes, but I feel that drinkers, and wine enthusiasts in particular, are being penalized for reasons I can’t fathom—probably history and inertia. See Free the Wine in BC for some good information.

At any rate, it was a great trip. I really was able to leave work behind completely for the first time in probably a year. Now, with Monday morning looming, I have to try to remember what it is I do for a living.

Movies 2012

Here’s a list of the movies I saw this past year, sorted by rating (and within each rating, the chronological order in which I saw them).

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Piña (trailer): Stunning. See it. See it. I’m not even a casual dance fan–well, maybe I am now. Human motion and music and meaning. Absolutely lovely. Perhaps the best application of 3D I’ve seen, though that’s not saying much in terms of quality (Avatar, ugh) or quantity. It worked here some of the time: though i realized that its otherworldliness may come from all objects, foreground and background, being in focus. I’m not a stickler for realism, though; this is just another medium. Anyway, would be interesting to see it flat. But overall, highly recommended. I got lost in its worlds and stories and sounds and beauty.I want to see it again, and that’s very rare for me.

pina

Amour (trailer): So many movies just won’t take the time necessary to portray a life. This one does. Sad and harrowing, it gives the sense of gradual loss and all the space—and yes, loneliness—of growing old. I saw this at VIFF.

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The Hunt (trailer): I thought this was brilliant because it could be seen from both sides: Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas seemed at times an ambiguous figure even though we knew the real story—indeed how we might all doubt him. It really centres around his performance, and it’s a great one. Another VIFF film.

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The Master (trailer): The brilliant acting almost overshadowed everything else. I could not stop simply watching Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think there will be a lot to pick up on second watching. I think that the general acquiescence to a mad and cultish figure was riveting and believable.

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Celebration Day (trailer): I don’t listen to “classic rock.” But I grew up on Led Zeppelin; a friend and I were talking about seeing their 1980 tour, which was scuttled on John Bonham‘s death (his son Jason fills in on drums here). The band regrouped for one night five years ago, and that concert is documented in this film. While I thought the performances were generally brilliant—Kashmir in particular—I was particularly struck by a couple of other things. First, the film proves that musicianship, even rock musicianship, does not or need not decline with age: these guys were about sixty here and they’re sounding better than ever. Second, I now agree with Plant’s decision not to have extended this performance into a tour. These felt like last performances to  me: while I don’t enjoy listening to this music regularly, as it’s so overplayed, I cannot imagine what it would be like to sing it. A time and place, nicely visited here but that can now be lovingly put away.

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Holy Motors (trailer): Another film I want to re-watch. There’s been a lot of discussion about what it all means, and my knowledge of film history isn’t strong enough to pick up the references. But it was purely entertaining and intriguing. Give me this over superheroes any day.

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★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

  • Shame (trailer): Depicts well something I’m tempted to say would be very difficult to do: the declination of pleasure to obsession to compulsion. No joy, but no particular sadness either, until it has consequences, which here may be set up a little too obviously. Still, recommended.
  • Monseir Lazhar (trailer): Surprisingly less than the sum of its parts. On paper a lovely, human story; but it didn’t deliver quite the impact that might have been expectedâ??or at least that I did. Kudos for not going over the top, but it didn’t quite reach the  top, either: a delicate balance between subtle and slight. Worth seeing, though, for several excellent performances.
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (trailer): Immediately bought the book and read through to fill in some blanks and inconsistencies that I suspect we’re lost in the translation from novel to screen–unless I was having an off night. The usual objections to the rich American family that doesn’t seem ever to go to work, but overall an effective, harrowing story of parental bewilderment: those who have not been through it (parenthood, that is) may be scared off; those who have, like me, will recognize and perhaps shudder despite the degree of strife. Very engaging and full of effective tension; Tilda Swinton is great as usual.
  • A Separation (trailer): Interesting cultural limitations and twists on a Western–or is that just human contemporary–situation and setting. Some loose ends: the wife’s story wasn’t fully developed, I didn’t think. But a minor qualm. Just the right developing ambiguity and the central figure of the daughter Termeh was brilliantly written and played. Recommended.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trailer): Not as good as the original Swedish movie of 2009, though it probably had better music. Probably should get an award for best trailer, though. Watched this on my iPad.
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (trailer): Perhaps not the most obvious movie for a vegan, but the care and artistry of this guy are inspiring. I would eat his food if I had the chance.
  • Moonrise Kingdom (trailer): Wes Anderson nuttiness. A tonne of fun.
  • Monsters (trailer): Surprisingly affecting sci-fi, proving you just don’t need big-budget special effects to succeed.
  • Coast Modern (site): alternately inspiring—West Coast architecture is home—and depressing: I won’t ever have a home anything like these. Very nicely done.
  • Pearl Jam 20 (trailer): I stopped listening a few years ago, though one of their recent Vancouver concerts was a lot of fun. I took a look at this partly out of curiosity after reading Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. It’s tempting to see Pearl Jam as a salvage job for the Seattle scene. Workmanlike and dependable; though not really “grunge,” if that even means anything. Watched on iPad.
  • Take This Waltz (trailer): Rising and falling of lust and love. I like Sarah Polley‘s films. Watched on iPad.
  • Life of Pi (trailer): I haven’t read the book. The movie was visually stunning, but was screwed up by nonsensical (is there any other kind?) religious mumbo-jumbo; and the current-day scenes were really weak.
  • Sleepwalk with Me (trailer): Mike Birbiglia is a funny guy. But this movie is mostly a rehash of material you will have heard if you’re a This American Life fan. Given that these were old jokes to me—perhaps I should have known from the title—it’s hard for me to judge how well they work in this medium. Given also that many of the stories seem to have arisen from Birbiglia’s actual experience, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here, unless he’s continued to have more crazy experiences. Still, worth seeing if you haven’t heard his routines. Watched on iPad.
  • Argo (trailer): As good as Hollywood gets, probably. Docked half a star for offending Canadians (not to mention Iranians, probably) and for the writers failing to take thirty seconds to Google the take-off speed of a 747: it’s about 160-180 miles per hour, so police cars couldn’t keep up.
  • Django Unchained: (trailer): Like Inglourious Basterds, a mixed bag. A lot of what Tarantino does seems just to be to use violence to string together scenes in support of some admittedly good writing (not to mention great acting). I wish he’d try a different kind of film. I actually thought that Django had the weakest Tarantino scene ever—the prattle about the pre-KKK masks. Not funny: just really dim. I was surprised.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these