The Amazing Abtronic

Tucked away in an inconspicuous shelf, I found a shiny grey plastic case with blue lettering on it: ‘Abtronic: The Future of Fitness’.

The Amazing AbtronicHow did I come to own this miracle device? Or even bring it with me from various places that I’ve lived over the years. It might be fifteen years old!

A little history then. My father was not an active man. He tried, over the years, to exercise, but I have a photo of him as a baby where he has the chubbiest cheeks and is really a little heavy already. It seemed written into this genes.

He played badminton at one time, and after that, what I remember most is that he would buy a different exercise machine every few years, depending on what was popular. There was the exercise bike, then the mini-trampoline (which I loved) and then a rowing machine. In the last decade of his life, there was even Wii Fit. He would step on and off the Balance Board. Its its perky cartoon voice would even say how heavy he was.

What he liked to do most, really, was lie back in his Lazy-Boy chair (a series of one or two of them over the years; these lasted a long time), read the newspaper and watch TV. With particular ingenuity, late in life he managed to combine watching TV with occasional exercise. The exercise bike was the one machine that did not come and go. After many years when Mom got sick of the shouting dramatics of professional wrestling which Dad had watched since childhood (and had changed much over time), he would be banished to the basement to the second TV where he would watch it at the same time as exercise.

I can’t quite figure out the exact dated but what I remember was a fairly long Christmas holiday in Hawaii. Hawaii is where my mom was born and where my brother Tom and his family live, having moved into Grandma’s old beachside house after she’d died.

It was a long enough holiday that I kept seeing ads on TV for the Abtronic: a belt that would send electrical pulses to your stomach, making it contract as if you were doing an exercise. The pitch was that it was easy, compact and you could do it anytime, for example, while watching TV. It was not expensive, perhaps $50.

This, I thought, was perfect for Dad.

I asked him if he’d seen the ads and then tried to gauge his opinion, if he thought it would be a good idea, if he might use it.

On Christmas morning, I opened up a gift addressed to me from Dad. Inside was the Abtronic.

I had talked about it so much that he had thought I was hinting for him to buy one for me.

He opened up a gift from me. I had bought one for him as well.

Did it work? No.

Did we try it? Yes.

It required that you’d smear a water-based gel on the back of it so that the electrical pulses would go from the little mechanism to your stomach. It felt uncomfortable and strange, these tiny shocks and contractions. I justified it to myself saying that it could supplement my doing other abdominal exercises, and exercising in general.

The Kit

But really, it was ridiculous. Why would I as a young, fit person try some silly unproven technology rather than do a few sit-ups?  I’d have to chalk it up to family loyalty: our love of gadgets, our search for a quick fix, and the hope that we could get exercise without actually doing it! Also, a bit of folkloric belief in magic, not so different from grandma’s prayer beads that were in a wooden bowl, not far from us at any time that Christmas.

So, goodbye Abtronic. In the garbage you go. If I’d tried to use it in the last decade it would most likely have given me a hernia, an electric shock or both. I salute your preposterous sales pitch, bow down to how you convinced us to buy not one, but two of you at the same time, and I allow us our trespasses, nonsensical and embarrassing family particularities that make us who we are.

P.S. Does anyone want my Wii and Wii Fit?

Posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Family | Leave a comment

Hotel Review: Auberge Florida, Castera-Verduzan, France

IMG_2151Auberge Florida

2 Rue du Lac, 32410 Castera-Verduzan, France
 

You would not guess from the humble exterior of this restaurant that inside are two rooms for guests, and that the experience offered would be one of a luxury get-away. I would recommend it without reservation for a romantic getaway, which you can combine with an amazing meal at the restaurant and some lovely sightseeing in the area, whether the lovely small towns of St Puy, Jegun and Monluc (where you should load up on liqueur, armagnac and wine from the chateaux) or the bustling capital of Gers, Auch.

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We found our way to this restaurant from a random travel article I found in the New York Times extolling the delights of Gers, a quieter and humbler version of more visited areas like the Dordogne or Aquitaine, awash in Armagnac (one of my favourite drinks ever) and Foie-Gras (with apologies to those who are uncomfortable with Foie-Gras but I really love it…).

Part of its charm is its story, Baptiste, the son who lived in Paris for 12 years, working in luxury fashion, returning to his hometown and family to help his parents modernise a long-running traditional restaurant. With the peak tourist season really only lasting during August, Baptiste felt the restaurant too large, and convinced his parents to let him turn the top floor into two rooms of accommodation.

IMG_2147Our room was the “spa” room because of a large jacuzzi in one of its rooms. The fun starts right from the entrance, with astroturf, an explosion of decorative butterflies on the wall, and a cage rather than a wardrobe for hanging clothes and a security locker.

The bedroom, with high ceilings, had a super-comfortable bed and pillows with linen sheets which felt lovely and cool and made us wonder who has to iron them.

IMG_2149There was some extremely stylish furniture and a basket of fresh fruit. The toilet room, with a small selection of books and toy figures, with obvious personal meaning for the owners, is equipped with a Japanese toilet, one of those ones that washes, dries and warms…

IMG_2150The bathroom had an amazing shower, stylish and contemporary fittings, two big white bathrobes in the drawer, samples of local toothpaste (the area is apparently famous not only for its thermal baths to take care of your skin and health, but for taking care of your dental hygiene) and Aesop products, a luxury Australian brand. Oh, and there was a nice selection of magazines and our own little patio area. IMG_2152

For one night, the cost was 160 Euros (230 Australian dollars), which, if you’re splitting the cost with your partner, comes to a cool 80 Euros each. An intimate luxury experience like this in Australia would cost at least double this, if not more.

Plus, it felt like a very personal experience, that the room was a labour of love for Baptiste who has tried to make every detail perfect, and every product and furnishing of the highest quality. Breakfast was delivered to our room in a basket and on the patio, we ate croissants and pain chocolat, fresh local yoghurt with a lovely fresh fruit compote, fresh orange juice, coffee (each in our own individual thermos) and today’s international edition of the New York Times. IMG_2156

I thought with our magnificent experience at Chateau de Lalande near Perigueux, that that would be my best review of this trip. But with my specialised taste for a truly individual experience combined with very affordable luxury, I really loved our night at Le Florida. Tell me if you ever have the chance to go.

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Restaurant Review: Cafe Paci

I’ve found a new favourite restaurant in Sydney and it’s name is Paci. Café Paci opened in August 2013 in the site of the old Cafe Pacifico. It’s witty that the Finnish chef Pasi simply shortened the name of the previous restaurant into a homophone for his own name. It’s meant to be a ‘pop-up’ restaurant but when have restaurants stopped popping up and are permanent?

So, why I’m thrilled by this restaurant by this restaurant: Each course was inventive, surprising and delicious and didn’t really taste like anything else I’d had before. It reminded me of some of the culinary highlights of last year’s Scandinavian trip. The food was very rich but not heavy. Dairy products were used. There was a focus on just a few ideas done well in each dish: Corn. Goat. Carrot. It made me think about the individual ingredients used.

And: it was ridiculously good value. $85pp (without grog) for a nine-course menu. It felt at a much higher-price point than that.

I didn’t take photos of everything… but almost. The ‘snacks’ were wafer-thin crisp pieces of pear, a sashimi fish with a layer of lard, and grilled thin radicchio leaves with raspberry powder. Really!

snacks... I didn’t take a photo of the ‘Pomelo, blue swimmer crab, dill and vadouvan (I had to look this up, it’s a French-influenced Indian spice mix)’ but I loved the delicate teardrops of pomelo and their textural contrast to the crab.

I also didn’t get a photo of the goat tartar, with a great tartare sauce (again the homonym, it must be his thing…) and kale. Who would have thought that raw goat would taste so good?

The cauliflower, squid rice and anchovy butter was rich and flavourful without being too much. Beautiful colours as you can imagine.

Photato

Above was my favourite dish of the night though not universally liked by everyone at our table. I thought it was super-creative to interpret the ingredients of a Vietnamese classic dish, a bowl of Pho, in a different, dry version. The layer of wagyu beef here covers thin noodles made out of potato, slightly crunchy. A bit of enoki mushrooms, lemon. Mmm. Very more-ish.

Desserts were just as engaging. A beautiful liquorice cake with carrot mousse covered in yoghurt. Comes as a little white cloud and then reveals it’s pretty colours once you dig in.

carrot.

I couldn’t get over how pretty this one was: wafers of apple, white better, cocoa and malt, architecturally arranged over rye ice cream.

Cafe Paci5Cafe Paci4

Gorgeous from all angles.

Finally, fairy floss (or cotton candy) with the flavours of corn and butter… matched with a tiny piece of pork crackle and pork and fennel. Completely unexpected. Teased with the idea that it would be savoury but it was mostly sweet.

dessert

And there’s another reason why this place won my fancy. If you’ll remember from my review of Momofuku restaurant, anywhere that serves pork as a dessert gets my badge of honour.

A final word: the restaurant is all painted in the same shade of grey. Behind the bar looms a large portrait of a man with a moustache, his eyes, the outline of his hair appearing barely. But the rest: tables, chairs, walls and floor are grey. It’s a bit disconcerting and reminded me of the minimalist white kitchen that Eddy ordered in Absolutely Fabulous and then even she didn’t like it…

That white kitchen

So my recommendation. Don’t wear grey. The waiters (all of whom were charming and personable) may not be able to find you after you sit down.

But do go and eat at this wonderful restaurant.

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My Dad’s Lawyer

At my mom’s 80th birthday, I ended up sitting next to my Dad’s old lawyer, let’s call him Uncle Kasra, an Indian-Canadian man of Farsi background with a beautiful wife and two dynamic daughters, who we saw from time to time when we were growing up. Kasra has a rich voice, slightly foreign. It’s not that there’s an accent, it’s that there’s a melody to it, charming and engaging that was unlike other Canadian voices that I knew.

He told a funny story. A woman had owned a dress shop in my father’s building, below his offices. It had flooded. He and his business partner, who we treated as family, and know as Uncle George, sat face to face with Kasra. ‘How much damage was there?’. But they wouldn’t say. Or rather danced around the truth. Finally, he forced it out of them. It had caused considerable damage. She sued them.

There seems to have been no discussion on some assessment of damage and offering to fairly pay for it. Business for Dad was a game. It was a game to figure out how to pay less taxes, a game to find out if there were ways to beat the system. His favourite phrase, written at the base of a small statue of a bespectacled man with lawyerly hair curls, was “Sue the Bastards”.

Sue The Bastards Attorney Figurine Berrie 1970

In the court proceedings, the woman apparently decided to cosy up to Kasra. She thought she could ‘wiggle-waggle’ her way into a better position. But why would Kasra ever betray his clients for a bit of that? He played along, and gave her information. She fired her lawyer! Why would she do that? She obviously that that she had an inside track with Kasra and would come out on top. The case continued. Kasra delayed the proceedings as much as possible.

After two years, he was pleased to inform her: the time limit for her claim was no longer valid.

Could she call her old lawyer?

Of course.

She called the lawyer that she had fired nearly two years before. He informed her: after two years, her claim was no longer valid.

If she had kept her lawyer and not tried to get more and more funds, she would have received five, maybe seven thousand dollars. Instead, she got nothing.

Completely true, Kasra told me.

It’s a lovely fable. Portraying my father and his business partner as slightly mischievous children. A wanton woman failing in her attempts to use feminine guiles in the service of greed. The authority of law. The collusion of men. The friendship of men.

Kasra told me two other anecdotes. One, that Dad used to pack bottles of alcohol into his briefcase and bring it out at business lunches, is a terrifc image but doesn’t have enough detail to spin out further.

But the anecdote was about how they met.

He was introduced to my father in 1967 while working at a law firm. The other lawyers warned him: this one doesn’t pay his bills. Get a deposit up front.

That’s what Kasra then requested of my father, who then raised hell with Kasra’s boss, who managed to placate both sides and say, let’s do this as an act of faith among all of us.

But what Kasra discovered was something else: it was not that my father did not pay his bills, it was that he would only pay his bills if happy.

And with Kasra, happy he was. After Kasra sent an invoice to Dad, he received a phone call, father’s infamous low gruff voice barking at him. ‘It’s about your invoice,’ he said.

What had he done? Kasra was frightened, this intimidating man who had a bad reputation with the other lawyers.

‘You’re charging too little,’ my father told him. ‘I won’t pay until you charge more.’

‘He made me,’ Kasra told me.

Since Dad was always suing someone or being sued, he brought lots of business to Kasra. But more, whenever a client would come into my father’s notary business, or to do a real estate deal, Dad would say, ‘You have McGillicuddy as a lawyer? Why would you do that? I have the best lawyer in town. Kasra is who you need to see.’

The only coda that I’ll add to this tale is that in my teenage years and into my young adulthood, I suddenly discovered the many prejudices the world had against South Asians. In Vancouver, racism against the Sikh community was strong. In other locations, there were broad brushstrokes drawn about various Indian immigrants as poor or untrustworthy.

It was always a strange shock to me through most of my life, this racism. I realise in retrospect that I was surprised not just by the plain stupidity of pit, it was that through Uncle Kasra and his family, I’d actually gotten an opposite stereotype. I grew up believing thought that all Indians would be as sophisticated, charming and intelligent as Uncle Kasra, recounter of stories, friend of my father.

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Australian culture: the Hills Hoist

While rotating clothes lines attached to a heavy metal pole stuck in your backyard have been around in Australia since the turn of the 20th century, it was a bloke named Lance Hill who made his model in Adelaide in 1945 and then expanded production so successfully that like ‘xerox’ and ‘kleenex’, his brand name became synonymous with the rather more wordy description ‘height-adjustable rotary clothes line’.

I first heard the phrase after arriving in Australia, and it seems that the legendary Hills Hoist is much more than a way to dry clothes, but a representation of a vision of Australia itself, the backyards of the 50s and 60s, backyard BBQs, family and childhood.

Check out this lovely photo essay that I found here while looking for a free photo to post. And hopefully Hills won’t mind me copying the photo above since it helps advertise their product

Anyways, this is just to copy what Wikipedia has to say about the Hills Hoist, since it feels to me that while possibly perfectly authentic, it also feels irreverent enough that it might not stay up forever. Or with some sort of disclaimer:

The Hills Hoist is also commonly used in Australian drinking culture with the smashing game “Goon of Fortune”. Goon of Fortune combines two of Australia’s most revered creations, the Hills Hoist and cask wine. Four sacks of cask wine, more commonly referred to as “goon,” are attached to the end of each cross beam. The contestants then rotate the clothes line while chanting their favourite goon song. When the clothes line stops the closest contestant takes a long drink of the wine, 10 seconds is the norm. For the “Goon of Fortune” to be authentic there must be a combination of 3 types of cask wine: Fruity Lexia, White and Red. The fourth sack is can be either of the three however contestants prefer the saying, “Fruity Lexia makes you sexier!” and thus Fruity Lexia is the goon of choice. The winner of the game is the last one standing or the last not to vomit. A beer bong may be used in place of the usual 10 second drink if the other contestants feel that participant is failing to drink enough and therefore cheating (usually foreigners unaccustomed to Australian amounts of alcohol).

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The Current Lists: 2014 (Books, Concerts, Shows)

Aha. New organisational system for 2014…

I’ve organised the old lists into separate archival posts either by the year, or before that…

This year, I’ll just keep updating this post until it’s time to start a new post for 2015.

Concerts and Shows

  • Sarah Blasko and Appleonia, Heavenly Sounds series, January. Those women, they can sing. Hot and stuffy church venue though, a little unbearable.
  • The National, Sydney Opera House Forecourt, January. I saw them at the Enmore three years ago, a great show, and perhaps with more energy being in a smaller venue with louder volume (I understand they weren’t able to play very loudly at the Opera House what with sound restrictions). But with the crescent moon, a perfect Sydney night, the Opera House, lit in a glorious blue and then mysterious yellow behind us, a fantastic set of video projects behind them and a new album to add to their oeuvre, and I liked it even better. We were standing in a great position and there was room around to move. I was rapt.
  • Falsettos, Darlinghurst/Eternity Theatre, February. Review up on this website.
  • Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre, February. Amazing lead actress, imaginative staging, some hit songs and some dated material.
  • The Drowsy Chaperone, Hayes Theatre, March. What a fun, silly show. And how do these small shows manage to get so much talent? The young actors graduating from WAAPA, NIDA and the likes. Is this the Glee effect or something? Ten years ago, I went to amateur productions that usually had a few better actors and some terrible ones and ho hum direction. Now, there are semi-professional shows bursting at the seams with talent, it seems every month! The two young leads here, Hilary Cole and Brett O’Neill, have such sweet voices and great acting chops. 
  • Baths, Oxford Art Factory, March.
  • Bernadette Peters, Theatre Royal, April. See review here on my website.
  • Iron & Wine, Sydney Opera House, April.
  • Strictly Ballroom, Star City, May. Wow, was this a train wreck. Not unenjoyable but has so much work to do to be a good show. 
  • Midlake, Sydney Opera House, May.
  • Nils Frahm, Sydney Opera House, May. I stumbled upon this guy through Spotify and predicted it would be a good concert. But what a concert it was. A mad piano genius, using techniques I’d never seen before, the music was engaging, beautiful, dynamic and sad, and he himself was a fun performer, in one sock (for his electronic pedals) and one shoe (for the piano pedal). Check him out if you haven’t heard of him.
  • James Vincent McMorrow, Sydney Opera House, May. I really like McMorrow’s amazing falsetto and he put on a great show. His opening act, Gossling, an Australian woman was a great discovery too.
  • Pet Shop Boys, Carriageworks, June. Superb show, great music and an intimate venue. Woohoo.
  • Lloyd Cole, the Basement, June. There were moments in the show that brought me back to the teenager that, for whatever reason, thought that ‘Lost Weekend’ and ‘Perfect Skin’ were the coolest songs ever. This juxtaposed now with the thought that poor Lloyd has been performing the same songs for 25 years and is now making jokes about his aging jowls and how audience members no longer have to check on their babysitters, because their older kids are old enough to babysit the younger ones…

Books

What I’m currently reading in 2014

  • Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners (short fiction)
  • Spencer and Schenker’s The Fast Diet Recipe Book (recipes/food/health)

Read!

  • Luke Fischer’s Paths of Flight (poetry): Quiet and painterly, I’m not sure I’ve come across this voice in my forays into Australian poetry, the first-person philosopher with references to artists, philosophers and writers of old, poems mostly set in nature, travel or deep in reverie.
  • Margaret Atwood’s Postitron (episodic e-book fiction): Ah Peg. Canada’s gift to world literature doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, either in output or chutzpah. While the themes of these three short novellas cover similar territory as her other dystopic futures, they are still fun and imaginative to read, and not repetitive. It felt to me like she was having fun writing to this genre, doing mini-recaps in each one in case someone has not read all three, and then leaving us waiting… for more.
  • Camilla Gibb’s Mouthing the Words
  • Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. See review here on my website.
  • Alice Munro’s Dear Life

Movies

Hmm, have never kept a list of movies but… why not see how it goes?

  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Philomena
  • American Hustle
  • Frozen
  • Dallas Buyer’s Club

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New tasty treat: Tsukemen

I love trying new food, and was intrigued by the menu item ‘Tsukemen’ at Ramen Zundo, a small Japanese restaurant tucked into the row of quick eateries on the ground floor of World Square.

I’ve tried cold soba noodles, light and delicate, that you dip into a salty broth (as introduced to me by my sister-in-law and brother) but I’ve not encountered cold ramen noodles to be dipped into a heavier, hot sauce.

Tsukemen

 

Being a sucker for Japanese curry, that’s the sauce I ordered, and the dish really was very good: chewy, fresh noodles and the thick soul-food comfort of the curry sauce.

Some dude named Jeong has given a fun recount of eating tsukemen in Japan and I loved reading that Ramen Zundo’s owners Hiroki and Masako make these delicious ramen noodles themselves:

Sally Webb in the Good Food Guide describes that ‘Hiroki, who learnt to make noodles in Japan, uses a blend of premium Australian flours to create a texture that’s silky but firm to the bite and ”catches” the soup.’

It sounds like the regular ramen here is pretty spectacular so I shall try to get back here sometime soon.

Who’s ready for ramen?

Posted in Food n' Grog, Sydney | 1 Comment

Why I Write Songs: “Red Shoes”

“Red Shoes” was written in November 2006. I’d had a rough day with a first world problem, trying to settle on my first property purchase and it made everything feel out of whack: Would it happen? When would I be able to move out of where I was living?

I remember seeing a guy with fantastic red shoes – this was long before the recent trend of crazy bright-coloured trainers – and the song came to me, pretty much right away: a cry for help (“take away my blues”) but at the same time making fun of my drama and melancholy.

Who knows how quickly it came to me the analogy of Dorothy clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together to take her home? It certainly makes the song more, ahem, gay.

I think it’s a sweet little song, and perfectly appropriate to be the first song in a long time to post a video of. Hopefully, another one will be forthcoming in not too long a time. I’ve wanted for ages to put up new videos of my backlog of unrecorded songs. What a difference today’s technology makes. The iPhone camera video is of so much better quality than what I used in the past. I can edit videos easily with iMovie and integrate the video  into a blog post. Easy peasy.

So, no excuses. I don’t need them to be perfect, but on the other hand, I’ll need to practise them up and… memorize them, as in previous videos, I find it terribly distracting that my eyes are switching back and forth between the lyrics and the video.

In the meantime, here are the lyrics for “Red Shoes” below.

Give me some red shoes, take away my blues
Give me a clear sky, Give me an alibi
Take away gravity, give me some levity
Give me a top hat, give me some of that
 
Whether’s it’s cheap or quite costly
I will freely share
If I took something that is not mine
I will put it back there
 
Give me some red shoes, give me a long snooze,
Give me a benediction, loan me an electrician
Grant me a safe passage, toss me a red cabbage
Give me a rough average… of your sums
 
I’ve been trying to not keep count
How many heavy days
I’ve had enough experience
To know we go through phases
 
Of how many things can go wrong
How many stones in the road
How many bends, how many curves and detours
Can this way hold?
If there are too many types of the devil,
Will my patience fold?
 
Give me some red shoes, take away my blues
Give me a clear sky, Give me an alibi
Take away gravity, give me some levity
Give me a top hat, give me some of that
 
Give me some red shoes…red shoes… red shoes…

 

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Book Review: Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position

How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary PositionHow to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position by Tabish Khair

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book review is never objective but when I know the person who has written it, it becomes less so. Not that I would be untruthful, exaggerate or overpraise on account of a friendship. It’s just impossible to separate the experience of reading from the friendship or the knowledge of the writer.

This felt particularly true while reading Tabish Khair’s fabulously titled How to fight Islamist terror from the missionary position. Tabish and I met at a Danish folk high school, me on a year abroad from university, and Tabish, as a journalist and writer… my memory fails me of how he also ended up in that small quirky international gathering of young people, Danes who wanted to practice their English and the stranger group, a ragtag assortment of foreigners all with some tie to or interest in Denmark or Scandinavia.

We bonded over writing, and I remember his gentle wit and intelligence and some shared bottles of red wine. Tabish fell in love and ended up staying in Denmark. I saw him a number of years after the college, and then a long break until seeing him in October of last year. It was great to reconnect, which lead to him sending me the American version of this novel. But the visit was also somewhat unsatisfying. How do you catch up over so many years, share the twists and turns of one’s life? There wasn’t enough time.

Reading this novel gave me what I’d missed. His story is of three South Asian men living in Arhus in Denmark: the narrator, a measured and thoughtful English literature professor of Pakistani origin, his good friend Ravi, with movie star looks and wealth, and their housemate Karim, also Indian, a devout Muslim and taxi driver.

Their interactions and stories tell me about South Asian men living in Denmark, about Danish society, about dating, and about understandings or misunderstandings across cultures, language and religion, wrapped expertly with marvellous storytelling and playful commentary on gender roles, politics and society.

I often read books to enter into new worlds, and the university setting of a not universally known Danish city with characters I was unfamiliar with, engaged me. Rather than the common trope of an immigrant family in the West, the men in this story are simply living their adult lives, in a culture they were not born to.

Depicting three characters extremely different from each other in culture, philosophy and belief, but who could all be stereotyped with the same brushstroke in certain circumstances, is not done heavy-handedly but makes its point. The narrative effortlessly switches between themes: a jab at ‘Eng List types’, defining tolerance, the negotiations of dating a single mother, questions of Islam, many observations of Danish culture, and the ebbs and flows of both romances and friendships.

It told me a unique story of what my old friend Tabish has been thinking and observing over years living in Denmark and teaching at the university, with parts that felt like an in-joke for friends such as the characters’ visit to Elsinore, the location of our college, or the chapter called ‘Great Claus and Little Claus’ which is how we differentiated between the two Clauses at our college.

Reading back these paragraphs above, they don’t seem to capture how much I enjoyed the book. It really is funny and engaging but also matched with a depth and breadth of thought.

I’m curious how it will be received by others. I’d love it to be a blockbuster! But I’d guess that the setting is neither familiar enough nor exotic enough for some readers, and the big event of the book, hinted at compellingly through the novel, is not as explosive as I thought it might be. There’s a subtlety to the storytelling that may not be appreciated by readers looking for bigger bangs and cheaper thrills. Still, it’s been now published in the USA and the UK with rumours of a film version. I recommend reading the book not only to get ahead of the curve, but for the enjoyment of a wonderful novel.

Now, I think this is an appropriate time to sign off and websurf to find out what other readers think of the book. It’s a pleasure to sometimes come to a book completely fresh and then explore what chatter is out there. Excuse me.

[Postscript: very pleased to read rave reviews of the book in the Huffington Post, Slate, the New Republic and reader reviews on Goodreads.]

View all my reviews

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Bernadette Peters in Concert, Sydney, Australia

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Bernadette Peters is touring Australia and dropped by the Theatre Royal for three nights as part of her concert tour. We vascillated at first about going (revoke our show queen passports!) but grabbed seats for an additional show that was added on a Friday night (after she’d performed Wednesday and Thursday).

I remember Bernadette Peters from television as a kid, but it was after I arrived in London in the last 90s that I heard her name, spoken breathlessly by show queens. She’d returned to the stage and had particularly made a mark in Sondheim’s shows ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and then originating the role of the Witch in ‘Into the Woods’. Aside from seeing videos, I’ve seen her twice on stage. Firstly, in an odd version of ‘Gypsy’ which  I wasn’t wild about, and was sort of bummed out that I hadn’t chosen to instead see Vanessa Williams in ‘Into the Woods’. Then, in ‘A Little Night Music’, I remember a stunning performance and finally understanding what the song ‘Send in the Clowns’ was about, both in terms of the character it was sung by as well as the emotion behind it.

Seeing her at the Theatre Royal was a bit of a thrill, and also felt like a privilege. I’ve always found this particular theatre rather downtrodden, with a strange eclectic mix of shows. It’s certainly not the Sydney Opera House. But in this context, with pretty good seats, and a small venue, it felt particularly intimate. I seem to recall the NYC theatres I saw her in before as massive…

It also felt very old-fashioned, in not a bad way, from the romantic Rogers and Hammerstein songs to the ancient musical director with fantastic thick white hair, from the drummer who was one of the Mouseketeers and the small Australian orchestra to Peters’s spectacular sparkly lavender dress that looked like it could have been on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction with a high slit right up the centre, but was far too well made for that.

I myself am hoping that I have the same energy and verve at 66 years old, though there are few people of any age that matches Peters’s va-va-voom, the famous tight red curls, sultry voice and curvaceous figure. The voice, of course, is the most important, and with such range, a bit of fun and quite a few delicate musical choices, she sang a whole range of show tunes made famous by her and others. I found ‘Johanna’ from Sweeney Todd and ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ from Follies particularly lovely, loved her renditions of two Peter Allen songs, as well as the way she used them to connect to her audience, and ‘Send in the Clowns’ was as lovely as the first time I’d heard it from her. ‘Being Alive’ was unexpected (for me) as an encore; it was fun to hear her sing ‘Children will listen’ from Into the Woods. She’s a consummate entertainer and performer, and knows just the right amount of patter and how to connect to the audience, though the weird routine about trying to sell one of her country houses was… unappealing.

I’d think we would be in the minority to admit that we didn’t necessarily feel touched by the performances. To me, it feels like she’s one of the most fabulous actors around and can add all of the right parts of emotions to each part of a song, a word or a note that adds up to a spectacular rendition, but the songs are performed rather than felt. But I did feel a warm fuzzy feeling with her closer, a lullaby that she’d unusually written herself.

The other conclusion I came to during the concert was that Australian audiences are rather unsophisticated. Or is it this bad all around the world? A couple behind me would start talking as soon as the applause started but wouldn’t manage to shut up again before the next song started. A chirpy woman next to S. was clearly trying not to sing aloud along with Bernadette, but couldn’t help herself. I often feel during concerts and movies like people feel they’re in their lounge rooms, chattering away with no concept that there are OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM. You could drive a person crazy, indeed.

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