Clear, pale gold in the glass. Clean, medium intensity apple, stone fruit, and mineral aromas. Off-dry verging on medium sweet; high acidity and medium bodied, with a nicely balanced apricot, citrus, and an appealing minerality. Medium length with a nice lemony-sweet finish. 20% alcohol. Straightforward but enjoyable; overall good, and one of the better Mosel-style Rieslings I’ve had from British Columbia; recommended. $20 at Swirl Wine Store. See Ruby Blues Winery.
In the glass this is clear, almost-deep ruby with a hint of purple. Nose is a clean, medium intensity black cherry and spice with a background of burnt oak and earthiness. Dry, medium acidity, and more tannins that I might have expected, with a medium body. In the mouth the black fruit again dominates, along with spice and oak; some plum notes, and a bit of heat from the 14.5% alcohol. Medium finish. Not terribly complex, but nicely balanced; an appealing drink, overall good. This was a gift from my father, so I’m not sure of price; around $22 I believe, from Kitsilano Wine Cellar. See Terranoble Wine of Chile, and the winemaker’s technical sheet (PDF).
Clear, pale lemon-gold appearance. Clean, medium intensity nose of grapefruit, ripe bananas and apple, and floral aromas. Dry, high acidity, and medium bodied; the tropical fruits really come out on the palate and there’s a hint of residual sugar along with apple, citrus, and a touch of white pepper. Nice balance, and good length; a bit of bite from the 13.9% alcohol. A very nice drink; recommended.
I’m drinking this with Crunchy Protein Salad from Big Vegan.
Clear, medium ruby with a slight garnet/tawny rim. Medium intensity nose of cherry and wet earth, oak. Dry, medium acidity, medium body, low tannins. Dull-ish flavours of undistinguished red fruit, with some slight vegetal notes. Short finish. 12.5% alcohol. OK, but quite undistinguished; disappointing. This was a gift from my father, so I don’t know the price. See Maison Roche de Bellene.
Clear, pale silver-straw in the glass. Clean, intense tropical fruits on the nose—grapefruit with lime—and a grassiness, almost a dry sage like some of the Okanagan wines have from time to time, along with a hint of the typical NZ green capsicum aroma. Dry, very dry, with high acidity of course, and a medium body. Citrus, citrus, citrus, mostly lemon, on the palate, with more grapefruit, with that hint of the original fruit sugars. Medium length with a finish of more of the same. 13% alcohol. A straightforward wine but I do recommend this one as it delivers the best of this particular ilk at a reasonable price point ($26 at Kitsilano Wine Cellar). See Giesen Wines.
Drinking this with another straightforward staple, Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux from Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine by Bryant Terry.
Clear, pale-plus lemon-gold in the glass. Clean, medium intensity floral-perfume aroma with a background of apple and mineral. Dry, high acidity, and light-plus body. The palate doesn’t reflect the nose, and is dominated by sharp minerality and lemon. Medium finish with lingering acidity. 12% alcohol. Straightforward and an enjoyable enough Alsatian Riesling, but a bit one-dimensional for the price—$42 at Crosstown.
I went to Costco the other day with a friend; I’d found myself there previously, once or twice, in similar circumstances. There was something about the place beyond the obvious that had kept me away. The obvious being, first, that it has an almost religious-military bent about requiring “membership,” and one isn’t even allowed to go in to see whether it might be worth signing up, membership carrying a fairly hefty $55 annual fee. Is the freedom to go into a retail store to decide whether you’re going to make a purchase not a basic right of consumption? Although I once got into a bit of an argument with one of the “bouncers” about this illogical policy—don’t, or can’t, they check for membership when and if you actually buy something?—this barrier was circumvented pretty simply, by turning around and entering through the exit, which in size is closer to a delivery bay entrance than a regular set of retail doors.
Another aspect of the lack of appeal for me is the obvious, and arguably crass, mass consumption represented by the place. Even in the middle of the city—there is a Costco nestled underground, or under roads and condos, near the sports palaces in Vancouver—it seems an oasis of suburbia. American suburbia. Everything is oversized; the enormous shopping carts make me feel like I’m a child pushing a regulation-sized cart (children’s carts not having been available as long ago as when I was that young). Often-large people driving large vehicles pile in enormous quantities of stuff that they probably don’t need, or at least I can’t fathom needing myself. It’s one of those places like London Drugs: who actually buys all this stuff, and how did anyone even come up with the idea of producing it? At any rate, being single I can’t imagine ever requiring the quantities offered: even if they do have a good deal on organic quinoa, I’m not sure how to calculate when I might get through four kilograms of it. Not to mention the membership surcharge which, if you’re not spending a lot of your money there, does increase the cost of everything beyond the sticker prices. I guess that’s the point.
But what struck me this time was the apparent mood of the shoppers. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they were interested in what they were doing, let alone happy. There was a universal glumness, a grey lifeless cast to the proceedings. I shop mostly at Whole Foods, and there’s a striking difference. I wonder if this is because Whole Foods shoppers are wealthier, healthier, or—perhaps partly as a result of both—not coming down from a sugar high. I am not sure, but can say that it is an interesting, even engaging place to be: there is such a range of appealing and sometimes even exotic foods there, that cooking becomes an adventure, even—or especially—for a vegan like me. Costco doesn’t even have many of my staples, from tempeh to collard greens; it’s mostly pre-packaged and processed foods. Although Whole Foods is not as expensive as some people claim—Nesters in Gastown is far pricier, for instance—it seems to me that cost is beside the point, to an extent, if you’re not being wasteful and you can shop in an environment that doesn’t feel like a Soviet-era Russian warehouse. But then I’m willing to pay something for experience. I do this with technology and art and music and books, too. Think usability, venue, typography and paper stock; think Munro’s or Elliot Bay versus Chapters; Apple Store as compared to, say, NCIX. When you’re buying retail goods, the environment and service are part of the product: it’s called customer experience. Why should shopping feel like you’re procuring for your squad in a big, unhappy army?
I got through a good varied crop of fiction and non-fiction this past year. Here are some of the highlights and other notables.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. This was my favourite novel of the year. The ambiguities of theme, plot, and characterization provided by an unreliable narrator were conveyed brilliantly (I had fun reading through some online discussion forums on the book). A story of reflection and re-appraisal and revelation, and a page-turner.
The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje. Not at the level of, say, In the Skin of a Lion, but a solid coming-of-age story. The present-day scenes perhaps tie things up too neatly in a way that’s not really necessary; the entire story on the boat has a lot of insight not only into childhood but also a sense of how this might extrapolate into later life.
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan. I thought I would pick up the Governor General’s Award-winning book this year. It’s a great story of jazz music, the stirrings of war, and like the two previous books, memory and coming of age. The author takes her time with harrowing scenes and sharp characters, and a couple of the settings—in particular a closed and darkened club in Berlin, in 1939, where the core scenes of the novel are set—are almost characters in themselves, perhaps similar to how Ondaatje works them into his books.
Tinkers, Paul Harding. Having enjoyed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last year, I bought this 2010 Pulitzer winner. A dying man recalls his life and his father; simultaneously ethereal and keenly observant, it’s a journey back and forth through time and lives that ultimately makes some sense of them; and the reconnection at novel’s end strengthens and ties things up in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Non-Fiction, Biography, Memoir
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick. There is so much in this book I’m not sure how to provide an overview that does it justice; and I have to re-read it—it’s difficult to absorb it all the first time through. It’s fascinating overall, and important information for the modern age: so much context that we’re missing or take for granted. From Ada Lovelace to Claude Shannon to Kurt Gödel, from the origins of writing—Gleick argues, interestingly, that the written word is the origin of consciousness, of thinking—to the first dictionaries, through the telegraph and finally information overload; from Dawkins‘ memes (the genetics of ideas) to a seeming grab bag of mathematical and other concepts that nonetheless tie everything together to make sense of what information is, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all of us who live within, produce, and are information.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson. Since I was young I’ve been fascinated by Ancient Egypt. On a trip to the Metroplitan Museum of Art in 2008 I spent enough time in their Egyptian collection that I realized this hadn’t changed, but my knowledge was sketchy at best. I happened upon this book at City Lights in San Francisco, and overall it was just what I was looking for. I have several minor criticisms, although these may disappear somewhat on a re-reading. It seemed to me that some of the stories of the common Egyptian were lost a little bit as the book moved through the centuries. Perhaps related, the focus on the “dark side” of pharaonic culture seemed to become more implicit than explicit later in the book. I would have enjoyed more maps showing the later dynasties and in particular the centres of the Late and Ptolemaic Periods. Finally, it may be my failing but I found myself having to remind myself of the vast sweep of time represented by the history. It is perhaps more difficult to fathom in the modern world, where more cultural change happens in decades than apparently did over millennia in ancient Egypt.
Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. It can be a bit repetitive, but the basic insight here—that monogamy is not our natural state of sexual being—is supported not only by (repeated) references to Bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, but everything from sexual cultures that work but that we wouldn’t recognize, like the Musuo, a matrilineal culture in southwest China, to an argument that the shape of the penis evolved to remove other men’s sperm from women. In a sense it demystifies sex,which we are wont to mystify, by reviewing and speculating on its social and biological history. A fascinating and eye-opening read.
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon. A wonderful, very emotional and very conscious review of manhood (but it’s not just for men), life, and family. “Wondrous, wise and beautiful,” as the New York Times review (linked from the title here) observes.
The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks. Another engaging collection of stories of insight via cognitive and physical impairment, this time with a focus on vision and a personal story: Sacks lost his binocular vision as the result of cancer. His own account is insightful and full of detail. If you like Sacks’ books, this is another good one; if you’re not familiar with them this is as good a place as any to start, though I still recall enjoying in particular An Anthropologist on Mars—perhaps, though, because it was because it was the first of his books I read.
Life, Keith Richards. A great voice. The book is a bit scattershot, with the first third riveting not only for its relating the hard work in musical woodshedding and getting the Stones off the ground, but for Richards’ perspective on growing up in postwar England. The middle bit is almost all heroin, and the story of the music drops away after Exile on Main Street (as it arguably did in quality as well). The last bit is basically human interest, and it is endearing. Overall, one gets a sense—and this is from the man himself, of course, but one can read between the lines—that behind the swagger there is a real gentleman, and a keenly intelligent and observant one.
Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Jobs’ death was a big event in the tech year, and though of course I didn’t know the man he obviously had a significant impact on me not only via Apple’s products, which I’ve used since my first Apple ][+, but in my profession as well: Jobs is arguably the most successful interaction designer of all time. So I raced through this book as soon as it was available. In fact I did a bit of an experiment with it: I bought the print edition as well as the iBooks version. I found that I liked the paper at home, but having it available on my iPad was great when I wanted to read a bit at lunch; and particularly my iPhone if I was standing in line somewhere. I wish that publishers would include a soft copy with the hardcover purchase; I want both.
But to the content of Steve Jobs. I’ve obviously been following Jobs, and Apple, very closely for a long time, so I was chomping at the bit for some insight on the period since Jobs returned to Apple fifteen years ago. To be sure, there are some stories here that I hadn’t heard before. But overall, the book is a big disappointment. It feels rushed, and Isaacson didn’t do a lot of investigative work: he just took Jobs’ word at face value. There’s too much to go into here, but I agree almost completely with John Siracusa‘s detailed criticisms of the book in two Hypercritical podcasts: The Wrong Guy (as in, Jobs picked the wrong guy to write his biography); and The Scorpion and the Frog. If you’re at all interested in Jobs, you owe it to yourself to listen to these discussions. The definitive book on Jobs, and on Apple during this era, has yet to be written. (Isaacson has made noises that he is going to revise and expand the book, perhaps aware that these criticisms are valid ones.)
Arguably, Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t finish this—I may never read every single essay—but Hitchens’ writing is so learned and entertaining, and just damned readable—that I wonder why people watch television instead of burying their noses in this sort of thing. It’s a shame he died before his time.
Here’s a list of the movies I saw this past year, sorted by rating (and within rating, just the chronological order in which I saw them). In 2011 I mostly gave up on Hollywood, so I didn’t see as many films as in 2010 as I was sometimes too lazy to walk to Vancity Theatre or Pacific Cinémathèque!
★★★★★ – All-Time Best Movies
2001: a space odyssey, 1968 (trailer): The Granville 7 showed this just once in August and I almost missed it. I hadn’t seen it in a theatre for decades. A movie about the evolution of intelligence, and one of the best ever made in any genre. Doesn’t seem to lose any of its impact over time. I used to wonder why no one seems ever to have attempted anything like it, but when you think about it it’s obvious. Stunning.
★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year
Small Town Murder Songs (trailer): Underrated outside the indie circuit, this film, very Canadian in a good way, sports a solid story arc supported by a stunning soundtrack and an excellent ensemble. Reminiscent of Cohen Brothers and perhaps Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake: Not conceived as a movie, perhaps, but I saw all the videos, by Seamus Murphy, presented together at the Vancity Theatre. An already striking record becomes absolutely devastating. The best popular music can still amaze, and these are brilliant pieces of video art. There’s no trailer, but a good sample video would be In the Dark Places, perhaps my favourite track from the album.
Stalker, 1979 (trailer): Not for the meek or easily “bored,” that’s for sure. There is no good way of explaining this movie: it is an exploration that spares no expense in the service of time or “entertainment.” It’s essentially a journey to a mythical place of magic promise and what happens to three people—a guide (the Stalker) and his two charges—along the way. Science fiction/philosophy. Incredibly engaging and absolutely fascinating. I have to see it again.
Melancholia (trailer): I hated a couple of Lars von Trier’s movies of 10-15 years ago (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark—though the latter was due partly to my aversion to Bjork) enough that I’d avoided seeing anything since. (I won’t get into his stupid Nazi comments at Cannes.) But this is a masterpiece of characterization, puzzlement, and sci-fi dread done right: simultaneously a bang and a desperate whimper.
Café de flore (trailer): Another movie I have to see again: there’s more here than meets the eye; or maybe I was just too dense to fully grok all the connections the first time through. Even without fully being onside with any supernatural bullshit, this is a great exploration of dealing with just being adrift. And maybe found again, but you’re never really sure.
★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing
- Blue Valentine (trailer): Excellent tracing of a marriage breakdown.
- Biutiful (trailer): Slightly disappointing, but I always like Iñárritu‘s style.
- Win Win (trailer): Great character study. The year’s best closing titles music—The National: Think You Can Wait.
- Bill Cunningham New York (trailer): Endearing character. Ultimately I’m just not that interested in fashion, so it probably didn’t have the impact it would for those who are.
- The Miles Davis Story (trailer): Felt a bit cobbled together, which of course it was. But with Miles’ music, there’s a certain quality that is achieved by default.
- 180º South (trailer): Inspiring adventure movie. I’ve always wanted to go to South America. Perhaps not precisely in this way, but it has its pull.
- Pianomania (trailer): Fascinating exploration of piano selection, tuning, and repair; but what really makes it stand out is some of the performances.
- Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (trailer): Slightly disappointing, perhaps because some of the religion and politics wasn’t of as much interest to me as the—sometimes resulting and related—music. Which is amazing.
- Drive (trailer): A stylish, ripping crime yarn.
- Andrew Bird: Fever Year (site): The best music documentary I saw last year. Bird really is brilliant, and this was well put together. I can’t wait to see him when he comes to Vancouver this year.
- The Descendants (trailer): Represents much of what I think is wrong with Hollywood. Despite its quality, it has a children’s storybook feel: everything is spelled out very carefully, and there are no real subtleties, nothing to think about. I grant it an extra half star for George Clooney’s surprisingly powerful performance in the final hospital scene, in which he says farewell to his comatose and terminal wife, who had been cheating on him.
- The Artist (trailer): Similar to The Descendants, very straightforward. But also very well put together, and you have to credit all the actors for their silent performances, which must have been very demanding.
★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these
- Source Code (trailer): Fell flat as a sort of sci-fi Groundhog Day, perhaps because even within its genre it simply wasn’t believable.
- Foo Fighters: Back and Forth (trailer): The first film I rented on my iPad. It’s a shallow and uncritical overview of the band’s history, as it’s told by the band. I’m not sure why I have an occasional attraction to their music. Perhaps it’s what Pitchfork said: the Foo Fighters are “excellent at being mainstream.”
- Die Stille for Bach (The Silence Before Bach) (scene): Manages, somehow, to make Bach boring, despite a few good performances.
- Take Shelter (trailer): Docked half a star for its pat ambiguous final scene. Good performances but it falls apart a bit.