2019 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies, TV

(A work in progress…)

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors, the Enmore Theatre. See review here.
  • Jane Siberry in concert at the Camelot Lounge, Sydney.
  • Jane Siberry hosting Songwriters in the Round at the Estonian House, Sydney.
  • Bent Burlesque, Seymour Centre
  • Confessions of a Mormon Boy, Giant Dwarf.
  • West Side Story, Handa Opera: A classic musical, maybe my favourite, on a huge stage, colourful, with beautiful singing and acting and dancing. Loved it.
  • Heaven and earth: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Art Gallery of NSW.
  • Jonsi and Alex: Riceboy Sleeps, Sydney Opera House: It’s such a complex work, built up with so many sounds and layers, I never expected to see it performed live. I found it incredible.
  • John Grant, with Brendan McLean, special guest, the Metro.
  • Once, Darlinghurst Theatre.
  • Love is a Drag, Tim Draxl, Sydney Cabaret Festival.
  • Reuben Kaye, Sydney Cabaret Festival. Shockingly funny, filthy, witty AND he greeted each of us to the theatre with a hug. Uh-mazing.
  • Kim David Smith, Kim Sings Kylie, Sydney Cabaret Festival.
  • Caroline, or Change. Hayes Theatre: There were some great moments in the musical and wonderful performances, but I found it confusing. There were also some terrible moments (clichéd) and not a lot happens. I expected more from Kushner and Tesori.
  • Sydney Contemporary 2019: To be able to wander around the see some of the world’s best contemporary art while sipping a negroni. Unbeatable.
  • Jandamarra – Sing for the Country, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
  • HMS Pinafore, Hayes Theatre.

Books

  • Lily Brett’s New York (essays). My review here.
  • André Aciman’s Call me by your name (fiction). My review here.
  • Ali Smith’s How to be Both (fiction). My review here.
  • Chris Somerville’s We are not the same anymore (short fiction)
  • Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (fiction)
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (fiction). My review here.
  • Daniel Arsand’s The Lovers (fiction)
  • Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble (fiction)
  • David Foenkinos’ Delicacy (fiction). My review here.
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (fiction)

Movies

  • Three Identical Strangers: A pretty interesting documentary about some terrible incidents (triplets, as well as twins, separated for scientific observation).
  • Roma: The kind of film that if it were an arthouse film, I’d be raving about to tell friends, but since it’s the possible best picture at the Oscars, I think, ‘Is this overhyped?’ It has beautiful scenes yet at times almost seemed too simple and rambling to me.
  • Brooklyn: Finally caught this, on Netflix. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful film, a meditation on living between cultures and countries, and Saoirse Ronan has this luminous beauty and charisma, a bit like Cate Blanchett.
  • A Star is Born: I’m not sure why this film didn’t grab me. I did like Lady Gaga’s performance, very natural, and found something interesting about Bradley Cooper’s character that he created in his voice and mannerisms, but its treatment of the themes of creativity, fame and jealous relationships was all a bit expected.
  • Isn’t it Romantic?: I have a soft spot for Rebel Wilson, and thought this movie fluff was a fine way to pass a weeknight in front of Netflix.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: From the director of Moonlight, this was an interesting mix of romance and social history with beautiful acting (and people) and a soundtrack to die for. I found the pace a little slow and would have cut half an hour but I really did like it.
  • Shazam!: Hmm, top film in the USA right now and most of the critics loved it, with a few outliers. I just couldn’t find my way into the story, there are some good bits, but it was too juvenile before it descended into the regular smash ’em ups of regular superhero films.
  • Avengers: Infinity Wars: I had to catch up before seeing the big finale and I have to say I thought it was pretty good. The fight scenes make sense (unlike those of Shazam!): they generally had a logic of what the powers were and how they could be used. It’s fun to see such big actors playing … superheroes.
  • Avengers: Endgame: Likewise, I appreciated the slow, quiet start, the attempt to create emotional bonds with the audience but without overdoing it, and with good moments of comedy (Chris Hemsworth really does a good job with this). It was LONG with a LOT HAPPENING but enjoyable.
  • Rocketman: I liked this, maybe even more than Bohemian Rhapsody. It was fantastical in the right sort of ways.
  • Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts: Possibly only for fans of Rupaul’s Drag Race. I think Trixie is very talented and very watchable and engaging: but it delved so little into what made him tick. The film was not as smart and deep as its subject.
  • Nae Pasaran: Astonishing Scottish accents and a surprisingly uplifting film about Chilean solidarity from the Scottish workers at the Rolls Royce factory in the 70s. Much more engaging than it sounds!
  • The Farewell: I found this film touching and engaging. Star performances by Awkwafina and the woman playing her grandmother. Even though my Chinese cultural background is different to the one in the movie, I found so much of it relatable.
  • Late Night: My standards drop while on a plane (i.e. I just want to be entertained) but I was really entertained by this. Gently tackling racism and sexism on late-night TV and comedy in movie form, the performances, by Emma Thompson and others, brought the material, already fine, up a notch. 
  • Deadpool: A surprisingly funny superhero film with rhythm and verve.
  • Fighting with my Family: An amiable story about the true-life rise of the British wrestler Paige to the ranks of the WWE.
  • Booksmart: I wanted to like this more than I did, but it was amiable. Whether a stereotype of an American high school, a send-up or a celebration, I just don’t relate to it.
  • Almodovar’s Pain and Glory: Remember when his films were about labyrinths of passion and how sex and death can be seen to combine (Matador). Or about the law of desire? Now, his main theme was about his bad back and his body’s ailments. God, I feel old.

Television

  • RuPaul’s Drag Race, All Stars, Season 4: A pretty weird season and I’d agree with the internet chatter. A weird ending with the double-crowning, chosen from pre-filmed clips.
  • Marvelous Mrs. Maizel, Season 1: Binge-watched on a long, plane ride. Enjoyable. The critics LOVE this show, but strangely, I couldn’t then get past the first episodes of Season 2.
  • Bron/Broen, Season 4: How I loved this show. The character Saga is unforgettable and I was captivated every time she was on the screen. But her counterpart Henrik was also fantastic, and the crazy puzzle plot, with all its red herrings, was enjoyable.
  • Tidying up with Marie Kondo, Season 1: I was fascinated about the cultural reception to this show, too much hostility I thought from those who didn’t like it, which had racial overtones. I myself loved it.
  • The Good Place, Season 3: I love this show.
  • My Brilliant Friend: It was great to watch this TV adaptation after the first of Elena Ferrante’s books in her Neapolitan series, which I loved so much. A very different experience, seeing what is imagined come to life, but mostly successful to me.
  • The Umbrella Academy: Husband liked this quite a bit, it just didn’t come together for me. The motivations of … everyone were simplistic and cartoonish. 
  • Project Runway S17: Loving the return of this season to watch talented fashion designers at work. I thought at the start it was a bit awkward with the new team but was willing to see how it went. By the end, I was convinced: they really did a good job on this, focusing on the fashion and talent (and not interpersonal drama) and the cast all fell into a really nice groove.
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race S11: Too many queens, too loud: have I overdosed on RPDR? In the end, I thought it was a really weak season for watching.
  • Survivor S38: I am not digging the ‘Edge of Extinction’ concept, combined with the returning players schtick; it’s thrown off the rhythm of the show and I still don’t ‘know’ the tribe members.
  • Leaving Neverland: A deeply disturbing documentary and I find it so hard to comprehend people watching these men and their families speak, and imagining that they made it up.
  • Killing Eve, Season 2: Some strange plot turns here. Husband thought it was even better than Season 1; I’m not so sure. Still: love the two leads and the style.
  • Game of Thrones, Season 8: Is it really over? We couldn’t help but watch it and there really was some amazing TV. But it felt rushed over all, with various huh? moments (and not in a good way).
  • Blown Away: A reality TV competion about glass-blowing? Awesome.
  • Stranger Things, Season 4: Hmm. Didn’t love this season, but watched it anyways.
  • Tales of the City: As an old fan of the books, I found it touching to revisit the characters and meet some new ones. Like the books, this isn’t high art: more of an engaging soap opera with characters that I have affection for. Lovely moments though, and the flashback episode was stunning.
  • Australian Survivor, Season 4: There is something in the Australian narrative that loves the theme of this and last season: Champions vs Contenders. It allows Australians to indulge in their idolation of sports stars, and the theme of the underdog at the same time. I hate it. It’s a boring and false narrative (contestants don’t care whether a champion or contender wins, they just want to win individually). But I still watch!
  • Handmaid’s Tale, Season 3: Ups and downs. As always, beautiful and striking images, yet I wasn’t sure about the script at times, where the characters didn’t act as I thought they would.
  • Fleabag, Season 1: Dark, dark, dark, this comedy. Original and outlandish and engaging.
  • Survivor S39: A fun concept but people are getting blindsided in a way that feels kind of random. I am waiting for it to kick in.
  • Drag Race Thailand: Wow. What a weird show. It really was an interesting cultural experience, a window into Thai culture and Thai drag, and very particular, using traditional materials for challenges, referencing national celebrities and ideas. The judges were trying to get more attention than the contestants. I need a break before I watch Season 2 of it.
  • Rupaul’s Drag Race UK: Just started watching it. Seems fun.
  • Queer Eye, Season 3, and Queer Eye in Japan: What’s not to love?
  • The Good Place, Season 4: Hurrah. A last season to tie things up. I wonder what they’ll do?

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Roman Food Diary: Capo de Faro, Travestere

 My last chance for a meal in Rome before beginning a driving holiday: My AirBNB host recommended this place, saying the pasta was great, and referencing the house specialty: the democratic rigatoni.

When I arrived, just past 12.30pm, there was one table of staff or owners or something on the side, and no waiter in sight. I approached them, and comically, as I’ve come to expect from the Romans, they all sort of shrugged, rolled their eyes, and inclined their heads towards the poor sucker who was supposed to help me out. He readied to get up, realised that his pants were undone (or his fly was down or something). He turned away from me, adjusted himself, then turned back and indicated, how can I help you?

I asked if I could sit outside, and he simply indicated, yes, choose anywhere you want, and he was then replaced by a portly waiter, properly dressed for the job, and unRomanly polite.

In any case, macaroni and cheese (Kraft dinner) was a feature of both my childhood and my university days, so I have a fondness for it. This may be the original Italian version, rich and creamy and cheesy, with al dente rigatoni (handmade, I hope) and a sort of crisp bacon sort of addition. Along with a glass of house white, this was a lovely last lunch for me in Rome. Hey, it’s not gourmet food, but as its name implies, it’s democratic: I’d guess it would appeal to a huge amount of people. It did to me.

Capo de Fero Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Travel tips: BagBNB, Luggage Hero and Luggage Storage

What is the world coming to? Do they still use that phrase? It used to be that this was said in a negative way, i.e. what crazy negative thing has happened in the present that makes you wonder how the world got this way? But I think of it, in this case, as: Wow! How did the world come to this?

What I’m talking about is luggage storage. In some cities, you can store luggage at train stations or the airport, but last year, while in Rome, and wanting to store a bag for a day, so I could do some sightseeing, I remember that it was so complicated that I gave up.

This year, needing to store a bag for a day, I looked up luggage storage, and instead discovered an entirely new model. Instead of a place with storage lockers, there are now apps that match up the consumer to various locations that have agreed to store luggage. It’s cheap and easy. Luggage Hero at https://app.luggagehero.com was the first app I found. They seem to charge 1 euro an hour, but a 2 euro handling charge, to a maximum of 8 euros.

Then I found a competitor, https://bagbnb.com, which at 5 euros was a better deal. And boy, was it easy. The app told me the closest place to drop my bags off, I paid online and followed Google Maps to the address, a 6 minute walk from my AirBNB (which I had to check out of) and located conveniently for when I wanted to pick up my bags before heading off to rent a car and start our Italian driving holiday.

The storage place was a tabacherria, an Italian store that sells tobacco and bus tickets (and now vaping supplies) (though I understand that different types of stores or hotels or maybe even private individuals can sign up to offer this service). The friendly fellow at the counter, checked my information, had me sign a waiver, and then put my bag in the back of the store. I picked it up 8 hours later. So easy!

Over many decades, in many countries, I recall memories of finding baggage storage lockers in airports and train stations, of forking out money or sweet-talking hotels or hostels to leave luggage a little longer, of seeing how much you can fit in a locker, of trying to getting the right coins to put in the lockers, and of rushing to get to places before they closed for the day. But what is the world coming to? These new apps seem very useful for this age, wherever they are operating, and as long as you can sign onto the internet, they work well!

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Sydney Food Diary: Ume Burger, Barangaroo

It was a choice for us between Belle’s Hot Chicken and Ume Burger, and since Ume Burger had chicken burgers (but Belle’s didn’t have anything Japanese), we went for Ume Burger! I opted for the special of the day, which was a tonkatsu curry theme: mayonnaise with Japanese curry flavour and a thick patty of meat, pork mince I was presuming. To tell the truth, I couldn’t really tell that there was a curry flavour.

Similarly, my friends enjoyed their burgers but wondered what was Japanese about them. It was pretty subtle really. But the fries were tasty and crisp, and the food was tasty, and the Kirin beer went well with the burgers, so it’s a nice, casual option among the more expensive restaurants on this strip.

Ume Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Roman Food Diary: Sora Margherita and Le Mani in Pasta

I arrived in Rome at 6.30am, got myself into Travestere a few hours later, and then my kind AirBNB host allowed me to check in at 10.30am. But she still had to clean the apartment, so I went out for a wander.

I hadn’t expected to be ready for lunch, considering that they feed you on the plane constantly and at unnatural hours. But I got a pang of hunger around noon, and knew I shouldn’t be back at the AirBNB until about 1pm, so why not stop for lunch at a favourite restaurant?

It was quiet. The first time I came, I remember sort of fighting to get in, arriving when it opened for dinner, and assertively getting myself on a wait list of some sort. But now, even though the restaurants around the corner, on the main thoroughfare, are quite busy, it feels hidden. My favourite waitress of times past wasn’t there: a short feisty waitress who made me laugh with her tough love.

I couldn’t resist the Jewish artichoke, deep fried so the leaves are crisp like potato chips, soaked in oil, and of course the heart, rich and savoury. I’m not sure I’ve tried their agnoletti before, somewhat crudely formed and filled with ground meat, with a light cacio y pepe sauce (I think I should have also gotten it with a dollop of ricotta). As before, I found the food simple and delicious and the atmosphere charming. It seems from the reviews that the locals aren’t as happy with the place as before: that the quality of the food has gone down or something, but I like it and will always be grateful for Nihan’s recommendation to come here!

Sora Margherita Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Similarly, Le Mani in Pasta was a recommendation from James. And the other times I’ve come, it was hard to get in, and also usually requires a reservation. But my school classmate, Costanza, kindly made the reservation for me, and it was late (9.30pm!) so it seemed possible to get in at this time.

The thing is, it would be much better to come with other people, to be able to split some dishes. I simply couldn’t order more than a pasta dish, which is a bit of a shame. And the other thing is that the special pastas all are only served for two people. And while I managed to convince them the last times to make me a special portion (porcini mushroom and truffles; anchovies and pecorino), this time I opted to try a sedani pasta (a bit bigger than maccheroni), these were smooth (lisce) rather than furrowed (rigati) with amatriciana. The pasta was beautiful and al dente and slightly thick, and the sauce: well, tomato sauce, cheese (pecorino?) and guanciale (pig cheek) is a pretty magical combination.

I washed it down with a frascati, which is apparently a Roman white wine. It was fruity and punchy with some body, a surprisingly good match for the richness of the pasta. The meal didn’t knock me out as much as previously, but jet lag was coming on and I only ordered the one dish.

At both places, I was amused by the Roman routine: the tables are so close together that after a period of polite distance, soon you can hear neighbours talking to each other, commenting on the food, asking each other about their travel itineraries, one Italian fellow was even pouring a glass of extra wine for a young Thai student at the table next to him.

It’s very charming and convivial. For some reason, I feel compelled to comment that in the day’s wandering, I kept seeing people in groups  wearing matching tags around their necks, or all following the same tour guides, led by a colourful cloth on a stick. I myself would find group tours a less charming thing to do than finding a neighbourhood gem like this.

My waiter saw himself caught in a photo I was taking of the interiors and came up to get a welfie, which I’m rather pleased about. As usual, while I’m linking these reviews to Zomato, the food review site, Zomato continues to annoy me. It doesn’t count reviews for the same restaurant, even a year apart (I think it’s very reasonable to update reviews semi-regularly; a lot can happen in a year) and any photos with people in it, they won’t put up on the restaurant’s listing (only in your personal feed). I imagine there’s some sort of privacy restrictions going on, but to me, food is such a social experience, I want to see the people eating at a restaurant. I want to have my photo of me and the waiter be considered an authentic representation of the restaurant.

I finished with an amaro (an obsession for me while in Italy, and for three euros, how can you not?) and wandered off, and as before, I find the street particularly charming, all aglow, a hot September night in Rome. God, I love this city.

Le Mani in Pasta Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death ForetoldChronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Published in 1981, the year before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this book is slim. But I remember hearing about it, and wondered how it could be lauded so much, in comparison to One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in a Time of Cholera, with their grandiose and sweeping narratives.

But though we don’t get to know the many characters in this book as well as in his longer novels, the stories of love, honour and fate are no less powerful because of it. Each sentence is captivating. Each of his characters, drawn at times in brushstrokes, undoubtedly have a history of their own that could be told in a separate novel.

And the way the narrative is told and retold, circles back on itself, reveals insights and then surprises: it is a magical thing. I almost feel like I should not read anything else for a while and let this book seep into my consciousness, or else just start reading it again from the beginning.

View all my reviews

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Drinking in Sydney: Dulcies, Kings Cross

So, my friend John says, he says, there’s a night at a bar in Kings Cross where the theme is that they show slides from other people’s family holidays. Bad holiday snaps.

It’s an amusing idea, and an amusing bar, and I was surprised to find it right downstairs in the middle of the Kings Cross strip.

Also, there is some excellent neon in the loos, but for some reason, the photo didn’t transfer to this blog post and now I’m overseas and can’t access it. I’ll try to include it later.

The thing is that the drink prices are a few dollars too high, for everything, from cocktails to wine and beer so I wonder how long the place will last.

And the music, purposely cool, was 50s rock and roll sung in other languages, Spanish and then Japanese. I knew I was supposed to find it groovy but found it really annoying and we didn’t stay for a second drink.

But I’d still give it another try, particularly to drag a visitor from out of town to a bar that’s actually on the famous Kings Cross strip. Hopefully, they’ll still be showing the same slides, but the music will be better.

Dulcie's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Soi 25 Thai Restaurant, Darlinghurst

This to me seems a high form of bravery. Soi 25, a new Thai restaurant in Darlinghurst, has taken over the space of the old Darlinghurst branch of Spice I Am. I don’t know why Spice I Am closed up there, but considering it is one of the most lauded of Thai restaurants in Sydney, Soi 25 has some rather large boots to fill.

Actually, here’s a wonderful article on SBS about Australia’s love affair with Thai food. It seems that chef Sujet Saenkham might just be aiming for a quieter life. Running a restaurant is difficult!

So, we’ll see how Soi 25 does. For a casual catch-up with a friend, John, it was great. Impressive gold walls, the staff trying hard to please. We liked all the dishes though the most impressive one, a soft pork bone rib in Chiang Mai curry with a tomato and pork mince dip, I somehow managed to not get a photo of.

The betel leaf prawns were particularly yummy, as were the grilled lamb cutlets. They serve sticky rice (which I love…). We also had deep fried calamari AND crispy fried chicken wings.

I also had the cocktail of the house, a slightly blue concoction which was pleasant enough (cocktail prices are a bit cheaper than in Surry Hills). Three appetizers and two mains were a bit too much to eat, in the end. I was overfilled!

Soi 25 Thai Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen, Chatswood

I don’t know Taiwanese cuisine very well. I’ve heard about the famous beef noodle soup, that seems to be gaining in popularity these days, and the other dishes seem familiar, but I’m still a bit foggy: so it was good to be out with some experts and get a good selection of representative dishes, at this casual eatery in Chatswood.

Some of the dishes weren’t so different than the Cantonese food I grew up with. I guess it’s a bit spicier and some of the flavours and textures are different. We don’t have the yummy fried chicken. I’d be having wonton with my noodles and beef.

I quite like this cold dish of pressed beancurd; I’m more used to it in a stewed or braised form, Mom would serve it with pork belly. And the eggplant dish is more savoury and spicy outside of Canton, I believe. It’s always a favourite dish when I’ve stumbled across it at Chinese restaurants specialising in dumplings and food from what I think of as Northern China or Mainland China, but actually is probably most parts outside of Canton.

At the same time, eating being an experience linked to memory, emotion and nostalgia, the dishes are unfamiliar enough that they don’t give me that spark, which makes me realise that many of my favourite Cantonese dishes, which I probably rave about too much to friends, probably taste quite plain to others, instead of this powerful experience of childhood and home that I get when I eat them.

Who’s a fan of Taiwanese food? And what’s your favourite Taiwanese restaurant in Sydney? Leave your comments below!

Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Song Kitchen, CBD

As far as I can tell, this humble restaurant is part of the Song Hotels, which is the new name for the YWCA hotels. Well, not so new now, I think.

So you’d think that a YWCA restaurant, and a hotel restaurant, might not be so good, but the Zomato ratings has it at the top of all the restaurants in the vicinity.

So it was a good choice to take my friend from out of town for lunch. It’s got a nice open, light and airy vibe to it. The service was welcoming and professional. My crab benedict was DEE-licious. And my friend liked her smashed avocado on toast, though found the pea shoots a little difficult to eat (though pretty).

I’m impressed that it’s doing so well and is so well-liked. I’ll have to try it out for dinner.

Song Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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