Category Archives: Reviews

Thursday Special: Vodou

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This was an exhibition that was new to me at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The warning that part of the exhibition might cause discomfort or surprise spurred my curiosity to take a look. As it turned out, it was a thought-provoking and educational display on the origin, history and the practice of Vodou.

Vodou came to the New World from West Africa and took root in Haiti blending with local religious beliefs. The first group of exhibits were artifacts inspired by Vodou. On display was a Vodou shrine in the size of a small closet where Vodou could be practiced at home.

A wall was dedicated to the time-line of Vodou in Haiti, where colonizers who were Catholics denounced Vodou as superstition and considered it to be evil and barbaric. This drove Vodouists into clandestine practice and they formed their secret societies.

A central belief in Vodou is the interconnection of the spiritual world after death and the world we live in. This is achieved through Lwa, which are special spirits also manifesting the presence of the Great Met (the Vodou god). Lwa can appear in many shapes and forms. This one is an example:

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Vodouists communicates more easily with Lwa and when they do, they enter into a state commonly known as “possession”. The vodouists do not suffer and they return to their own selves afterwards.

On display were drums and artifacts used in special ceremonies and a video played the dancing, chanting and trance-like condition of vodouists to the rhythm of drums.

The exhibits looked more menacing towards the end of the exhibition, as they represented the darkness of persecution by the colonists and the struggle by vodouists for freedom and independence . Vodou also became synonymous with the fight against slavery at the time.

Haiti became independent in 1804 and Vodou was officially recognized in Haiti in 2003.

One of the goals of the exhibition was to dispel the notion that Vodou was associated with curses and the popular image of a Vodou doll that people poke with needles. In this exhibition, I saw a lot of parallel between Vodou and many other indigenous folk beliefs all over the world. Believers were persecuted in the name of religion by colonizers or invaders in human history. It is unfortunate that political domination is linked hand in hand with the attempt to eradicate the collective meanings of a culture that has become the subordinate. Would it not be a better world if we were more tolerant of differences?

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For more Thursday Specials this week, please visit Paul’s blog Lost in Translation.jupiter-widget_text

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O-O-O Challenge: Opalla’s Overindulgence in Ottawa

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First of all, my gratitude to Frizztext for the inspiration to write this post about Opalla in Ottawa in his comment to my recent post, and I take it as an invitation to submit to his O-O-O Challenge. Nonetheless, I take credit for the “overindulgence”.

It was a working holiday. There was no time for haute cuisine, even though there was plenty in the Canadian capital. Whether it was the meetings and workshops that drained calories or the cooler Fall air outside, I craved for comfortable food. Interestingly my companions felt the same.

One night we ate The Manx near downtown (Elgin and Gladstone).  We were at the pub around 5:30 p.m. and was lucky to find the last table. It certainly was a busy pub the entire time we were there. My attention was captured by the picture frames on the wall.

There were others that read “I bought this because my friend was the artist”, “Ikea print”, and so on. Fun!

The food came in generous helping and was delicious. My pork chop had been brined in ale and was presented with a beautiful baby arugula salad and maple parsnip mash. It went very well with the pale ale I ordered. I finished all my food.

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My companions each ordered from the daily special menu and had pork chop and penne respectively. They were very happy too with their food.

The Manx, 370 Elgin Street, Ottawa.

The Manx on Urbanspoon

Another pub we went on this trip was Mill Street Brew Pub. near Parliament Hill. I had been there before and liked its location near the river. The building was converted from an old mill.

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On this occasion, the quality of the food also lived up to my expectation. I had a tourtiere made with pork, elk and veal prepared with veal stock and Mill Street stock ale. It was very flavourful. I ate up the last pea on my plate.

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My friend who ordered the steak was also very pleased with the helping and the taste. The fish and chips for my other friend was disappointing though, because both the fish and the chips were dry. (To be honest, when it comes to fish and chips, I would put my vote on the British fish and chips any time.)

The beer was nice, and Mill Street Brewery produced many house brands. I chose one infused with green tea and I liked it.

Mill Street Brew Pub, 555 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

The pub food on both nights was hearty and satisfying. My food cravings were curbed, but I had overindulged.  My workout could come later, I told myself.

Mill Street Brew Pub on Urbanspoon

Book Club Review: Beach Strip, John Lawrence Reynolds

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POSSIBLE SPOILER

I have a chance to read Beach Strip by John Lawrence Reynolds through the book club of my local library branch, which is in support of the One Book One Burlington Event this Fall.  Our discussion surrounds some of the questions prepared by the librarians, with insight from a member who has taken part in the initial shortlisting of the book.

Most of us know where the Beach Strip is as a local landmark in Burlington and some of us have walked along it, including myself. (This is another reason why I read this book, because of the familiarity of the setting.) If you have been following my blog, you may wonder if I have an obsession about this area–the beach walk, the waves and the lift bridge. I tell my group that as I am reading the book, the scenery appears vividly in my mind’s eyes, even though I walk along the strip only in daylight and the crime in the book takes place at night. I figure out roughly where the author refers to as the first crime scene, and know exactly the location of an unexpected twist in the plot in which Josie Marshall walks on the lift bridge, looks at the guard on duty in the tower and throws the ashes of her husband in the canal. After that she walks on to discover a dead body, whose head is missing! I have not gone back to Beach Trail and the Burlington Canal Lift Bridge by myself since reading the gory details. Honestly, I need some company here.

When it comes to the plot, we have a perceptive remark that every ingredient one wants for a crime story is here. There is more than one murder, and the cops play a key role. There is more: Sex, flirtation, violence, a gangster boss, a suspected pervert, filial piety, sibling rivalry, extra-marital relationship and police corruption. Reynolds must be having fun with his canvas of the book, and puts a dab of this character and that character, as well as the various themes, viola! We are wondering whether with all these catchy ingredients the film right of a TV movie may be forthcoming.

The biggest misgiving we all have is the characterization of Josie Marshall, whose husband Gabe, a police detective, is found dead on the Beach Strip outside their house.  Josie does not believe that Gabe has committed suicide, as the police has told her. She takes it upon herself to find the murderer. There are too many inconsistencies. One moment Josie is grieving her loss and crying that she is feeling weak, but the next moment she is charging around talking to people and functioning like a cool and balanced-headed detective. Then she is in Vancouver with her sister, spent after all her experience. Next she is on a flight, calling and emailing all the people she wants to see to expose the murderer. This is all within three weeks of losing her husband. Mind you, she has seen at least two dead bodies in this short time. She appears like Super Woman.

The most upsetting part for us, all being female readers, is the stereotype of a woman’s strength to be her sexual appeal. It is only too superficial to see Josie deliberately wearing a tight top and a short pencil skirt when she visits the gangster boss. Reynolds says that he is experimenting with a female protagonist in this novel and when he tries to get into the head of the Josie Marshall,  it seems that it still comes from a male perspective. Anyhow, Reynolds will be appearing in an event to talk about his book. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.

The book is an interesting read, but likely not Reynold’s best. We think that it is selected for One Book One Burlington more because the setting is a local attraction, and Reynolds is a Burlington resident.  It is also easy to fit in other activities for this “one book one community” event which is gaining popular support in  the province.

Thursday Special: Serendipity (A New Tea House in Burlington)

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The quotation of Henry James on a chalk board greets me and my friend when we enter Serendipity Tea House in Burlington, Ontario. It helps to dispel our frustration after driving around the block twice before we can locate this place.

My friend and I make the impromptu decision to have afternoon tea. We have heard about a new tea house and decide to look for it. Just as it is named, Serendipity Tea House is our serendipitous find. I want to make this post my Thursday Special (hosted by Paula) for this week.

We feel quite comfortable in this small café with clean white table cloth and fine table settings.

The lunch crowd has left and we have a quiet time before other customers for afternoon tea arrive. The menu offers many choices for tea, and a lot in the fashionable category like green tea, white tea, herbal and caffeine free. I am a traditionalist, and so I only have English Breakfast Tea, Darjeeling and Earl Grey to choose from. My friend and I both settle for Darjeeling.

We also order the Classic Tea. It was a gorgeous presentation of sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries.  The cucumber sandwich is a real delight. The scones are warm and served with clotted cream.

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My friend and I chat over our tea for almost two hours. There is classical music in the background, the genre I like.  We feel we have our privacy even with other customers around in this quaint tea house. I had afternoon tea which was very enjoyable in a bigger hotel earlier this year; yet if I had to make a choice, I would come back to Serendipity.

POSTSCRIPT:  Serendipity Tea House has an entrance address: 477 John Street, Burlington, Ontario which is different from their postal address.

Serendipity Tea House on Urbanspoon

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Symphony of A Thousand at the Brott Music Festival

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is also known as the Symphony of a Thousand. Although there is no absolute requirement to have a thousand musicians to perform the piece, it certainly requires a considerably big orchestra and a choir to produce the desired musical force. The National Academy Orchestra (NAO) chose this piece to be the grand finale of their season at the Brott Music Festival. This was an ambitious project and I was among the audience to support the NAO in this performance at Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario.

In this composition, Mahler departed from the conventional form and divided the symphony in only two parts. He composed his music to the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”) in Part I and for Part II, the words came from the closing scene (Act V, Scene 7) of Goethe’s Faust. I knew neither Latin nor German, and so I was delighted to  receive a copy of the words with English translation with my programme notes.

The first part featured Apprentice Conductor Brandan Hagan, who led the orchestra and the combined Arcady Singers and Junior Arcady Singers to a powerful and convincing performance. The baton was handed over to Maestro Boris Brott after the intermission. Maestro Brott guided the audience in a journey through the penitent and the mystical passages to the climax of the symphony. The brass instruments blared and thus announced the triumph of the human spirit and salvation (of Faust’s and all humankind) made possible by a woman’s love.

The vocal parts were beautifully sang by the soloists. The sopranos made it look easy when they sustained their parts in high range with superb tonal control, and all the voices, particularly the tenor, performed brilliantly over the might of the orchestra and choirs.

It was a dazzling musical feast with an orchestra about 100 strong and two hundred members in the choirs. The NAO brought back some of their graduates and the leadership came from professional musicians who took the principal parts. Concertmaster was Mark Skazinetsky, Associate Concertmaster with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Existing NAO members were undoubtedly mentored by a superb team. Although Mahler acknowledged that this was his “biggest” work, he never endorsed the number “a thousand”. I whole-heartedly enjoyed what I experienced with the NAO this evening.

I also liked the departure from the black attire orchestral members normally wore during performances. Female musicians wore colourful evening dresses which enlivened the mood. (They did the same when they played the Brandenburg Concerti.) After all, Mahler’s Symphony 8 rejoiced in the enlightenment of the human soul, and definitely it was not the most sombre and saddest of his symphonies. Besides, this was a summer music festival–Why not brighten our world with some colours?

The last note brought the audience immediately to a standing ovation. It was said that when Symphony 8 was first performed, the audience applauded for almost half an hour. This record had yet to be matched, but the NAO, the Arcady Singers and the Junior Choir were on their feet for over five minutes while the audience brought the conductor and soloists back on stage for three or four curtain calls. The NAO rounded up another triumphant season.

POSTSCRIPT

When I want to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, this is my favourite YouTube clip, because Leonard Bernstein is one of my favourite conductors.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSYEOLwVfU8

House of Gourmet: A Chinatown Staple

Have you had the experience of walking aimlessly in town looking for a place to eat? This was what happened to me and my family in Chinatown on Spadina Street in Toronto recently. There were so many Chinese restaurants and we did not come here often enough to have a restaurant to always go to. What saved us was the rule of thumb that never failed: only go to a place to eat if there are a lot of people there. We peeped inside the House of Gourmet and this was what we saw:

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“This is safe to go in,” said my husband. Unlike some busy restaurants where we had to wait indefinitely for someone to show us where to sit, we were ushered to our table promptly, and the waiter came with the tea and the menu.

Another rule of thumb I use when I go for a Chinese meal is to pick what I do not normally make at home. For the four of us we ordered steamed eel with garlic and black bean sauce, stir fry neck of pig, roast duck and stir fried vegetables (tong choi) with bean curd.

The complimentary soup of the day, melon soup, was tasty, and so were the dishes we ordered. The eels were served steaming hot and the neck of pig was stir fried to perfection, bringing out the texture of the meat that it was known for. The skin of the roast duck was crispy and the meat tender. The vegetables were freshly in season. We enjoyed the food with plain rice and were utterly content.

When we left the restaurant, we were aware of its traditional setup with the take-out counter, where one could buy barbecue pork, roast pork and roast duck on one side and the open kitchen preparing noodles and dumplings on the other.

I shall feel comfortable to return to the House of Gourmet next time I look for a restaurant in Chinatown or to buy take-out. I may even consider it to be my Chinatown staple.

The House of Gourmet, 484 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

House of Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Book Club Review: The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes

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It was my turn to host the book club and I had chosen Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of An Ending. When I read the book last year, prior to my decision that it would be my book club pick, I came to the last but two pages, and the ending took me by surprise. I said to myself, “Did I miss something?” and I re-read the book–it was only 150 pages long. I then decided that it would be the book I would share with my friends.

Later I came across a review by Geoff Mak, who commented that “The Sense of An Ending has gained itself a reputation for being the novel you must read twice”, and the director of the 2012 Man Booker Prize did so as well. It was very good to know that I was not alone.

At our book club meeting, I first asked my friends whether they found the ending a surprise and unanimously, nobody expected the twist, although one or two suspected that it might not be a straightforward ending. Our discussion quite naturally moved to  the mystery aspect of the book. We thought that Tony Webster was unreliable as a narrator.  He was forced to re-walk and rewrite his life history with he inheritance of the diary that belonged to his friend Adrian through the mother of his ex-girl friend Veronica. Adrian committed suicide after they finished school and parted ways. Even then, how much could he remember events of forty years ago, let alone recall them accurately? As one book club member opined, our memory was what we wanted to remember.

Not only that, a few of us echoed what Veronica kept commenting about Tony that he “just did not get it”, although we could not figure out what he did not get, because that would solve the puzzle regarding his relationship with Veronica, Adrian and Sarah Ford (Veronica’s mother).  We felt we had to accept the fact that this was Tony Webster, resigned and somewhat unable to understand relationship issues, struggling to remember what happened in his younger days. With our all-female member book club, we even ventured into generalizing that this could be a male perspective. As for Tony, the book gave the impression that he was constantly lost and uncertain about himself. Margaret, Tony’s ex-wife, continued to be his counsel and confidante.  We speculated that his weekend at Veronica’s home was significant, but our interpretations differed. One wondered about the imagery of Sarah flipping the egg and throwing it away, and its implication.  Another person read more into Veronica’s asking her brother Jack whether “this one (Tony) would do”.

The personality of Veronica did not appeal to us. Tony warned Adrian that she was “damaged goods”, but her personal history was sketchy in the book. She was spiteful after she had slept with Tony, and that was also after they had broken up. I wondered what the story would be like if Veronica was writing it.

It seemed that Tony had almost forgotten the vicious letter he wrote to Adrian, after Adrian told Tony about him and Veronica. He wanted to find out why Adrian had committed suicide. Veronica told him that the money bequeathed to him by her mother was “blood money”. However, the ending did not help us, who were trying to play sleuth. After all, Sarah Ford’s letter to Tony mentioned that Adrian died happy.

We were very involved in our discussion, and everybody attempted to create a version of exactly what had happened. This little book spanned Tony Webster’s life time from youth to retirement age, yet what was not written– except that he got married and then divorced– in between did not seem to matter. He was an ordinary fellow trying to make sense of his life.

Julian Barnes adeptly wove the class discussion of history into the theme of his book. It was Adrian who said, ” We need to know the history of the historian I order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” (p.13). With Tony, who seemed uncertain at times about what exactly happened in his life, the irony rang home.

One thing was certain. Several book club members decided to re-read the book. Our discussion actually continued into the next day, when one person sent out an email giving yet another interpretation of what had happened in the plot. I could not be more pleased.