The Secret in Their Eyes

•January 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I love a great book written by a South American. I don’t know what it is about South American literature, but I have been in love with it since getting my hands on my first Isabel Allende book. While not a particularly drama-prone person myself, I find myself sucked into these Latin worlds of romance, drama, supernatural occurrences and loss. While no one speaks  of actual spectres in The Secret in Their Eyes, there are certainly ghosts that linger in the minds of the characters. Ghosts of love ones lost, ghosts of hated ones lost, all informing the actions of our protagonist.

Eduardo Sacheri anchors his tale in present-day Buenos Aires with trips back to the 1970’s via the lead character’s memory as he writes his book about the rape and murder of a young, married woman – a case he dealt with many years ago when he worked as a clerk for the Buenos Aires court. For reasons he will explore and explain as he writes his novel, he finds himself especially drawn to this case when it arrives on his desk. He meets the grief-stricken husband and feels compelled to go above and beyond for him, to bring him peace. Concurrently, he battles his intense feelings for Irene Hornos: a woman he loves almost at first sight and for whom he will carry a thiry-year torch.

Touching on Argentina’s dirty war, Sacheri weaves together a story that touches the heart without stomping on it. You sympathize with Benjamin  but fall short of pitying or resenting him. He is an ordinary man faced with extraordinary circumstances. He behaves as you feel you would, lending the necessary air of credibility to the surreal situation. Other characters, too, behave as you might expect. While the author does a good job of creating likable, realistic protagonists and antagonists, I thought the twists were too predictable. There are set ups that one can spot ahead of their reveals. Had they not been fashioned as surprises, I think the reveals would have been more successful. It was clear Sacheri was looking for a “beat” in the book and while that was achieved, I think it loses some of its power as it seemed too obvious.

Overall, I did enjoy The Secret in Their Eyes. It was a relatively quick read with characters that, for the most part, felt three-dimensional and relatable. It could very easily have been an excruciatingly dark book but Sacheri has a deft hand at finding lighter moments. I will look forward to seeing what literary projects will arrive next!

Want to read a snippet of The Secret in Their Eyes? Sure you do! Click here to check it out.

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A Little Home Cookin’

•September 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Once again, the Hot Biscuit has contributed mightily to my food world! She stumbled upon The Kitchen Reader and knew I needed to check it out. A site dedicated to reviewing books about food? Sign me up! This month’s pick was Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking…

A few things became crystal clear as I read Cooking:

1. Colwin was a good writer with a gift for telling charming, funny stories;
2. She had great insights into late-bloomer cooks and what they want to achieve;
3. That this book was definitely written in the 80’s. Some of those recipes? They practically have crimped hair and acid washed jeans.

Home Cooking
 is a great, fast read that touches on many topics but succeeds at its highest level when the author simply tells stories of how she arrived at certain recipes, especially when she first began to cook in her tiny apartment. I got many hearty chuckles at tales of dinners gone hilariously awry and nodded along at her assessment of those who came to cooking later in life. I didn’t start really cooking until my 20s and when I fell into the classic trap of trying to do too much at once. Fortunately for me, I have very patient friends and family who were kind enough to keep encouraging me! Colwin’s descriptions of meant-well-but-failed dinners hit home in a very personal way for me and, I’m sure, to many others. I kind of wish I’d read this book before my culinary journey started – I might have avoided some minor culinary…missteps.

Where Home Cooking occasionally lost me was its pretentiousness. There are a few passages that had me rolling my eyes. For example, I can most definitely say that I have never felt a deep desire to cook up stuffed veal or paté-stuffed chicken. Have I wanted to make fancy dinners? Sure. The assertion that “every” cook wants to make the above dishes, however, was a bit much. Maybe a product of the times, maybe a product of the author’s opinion but either way I felt that there was a condescending tone that occasionally crept through.

Having said that, I felt that Cooking was packed with some great stories and broadcast  important messages: that nothing ventured means nothing gained. It’s okay – and expected – to make mistakes in the kitchen. That your friends will forgive you your “crispy around the edges” fish that stayed in the pan longer than you intended.  Try new things and be creative! You never know what amazing recipe or technique you’ll stumble upon in your next kitchen adventure.

What year is this? Where am I?

•September 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I logged in to my Twitter account this morning and saw that someone named “Wayne Simmonds” was trending.  The name seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. I clicked on the link and up popped a screen announcing and denouncing what happened to Mr. Simmonds at a pre-season game last night held in London, ON. As I read posts and articles, I felt my blood run cold. While skating toward the goalie taking the first shot of the shootout, someone threw a banana in his path. Wayne Simmonds is a black man. Let me repeat: someone – in 2011 Canada – threw a banana in the path of a black man.

I’d like to say right now that I do not believe that everyone in a smaller city is racist, nor do I believe that everyone is perfect. I do believe, however, that all people deserve the same rights and that NO ONE is of lesser standing in our world due to race, gender or sexual preference. It truly and honestly boggles my mind when stories like this surface. Who in their right mind thinks, “Hey, there’s gonna be a black guy playing at the game I’m going to tonight. I’m gonna show him what I think and bring a banana to the rink to throw at him.”? Hey, asshole: choke on your fucking banana.

Simmonds reaction was cool, calm, collected and, to me, heartbreaking: “I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact I’m black,” the Toronto native said. “I certainly hope not. When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.” How do we live in a world where this is someone’s attitude? It’s a mature stance, unquestionably; but it’s enraging to know that someone “expects” racist attitudes. He grew up in my hometown and I’m ashamed to think that he has adopted this mindset to cope with ignorance and hatred. As a woman, I have most certainly encountered many sexist people and my instinct is to teach first, squish into the ground later. Same goes for anyone who spews racist bullshit rhetoric around me, though I must admit this drives me more insane than sexism (whether it should or not).

There are a number of questions I have with respect to this incident: what was it, exactly, that was going through this buffoon’s mind when s/he left the trailer that day? What did the fans around him/her do? Were they his/her friends? Did they cheer? Did they sit silently, twiddling their thumbs? Were they as horrified as they should have been? Did they say ANYTHING to this person? Did anyone come forward to officials to report this?

We have an answer to that last question already and it’s a resounding, disappointing, maddening, vile no. No one seems to have done a damned thing. That says even more than this situation, I think, than the person who threw the banana. Turning a blind eye to this contemptible racist behaviour does nothing to solve a problem that, incredibly, is still prevalent in 2011.

I am not naive enough to think that racism has been abolished.  I am a perpetual idealist and optimist, though, which is why when something this despicable happens I am truly shocked. I read several accounts of this story wherein the perpetrator is labelled, “a fan.” Frankly, this is a knock on real fans. I have written before about my views fandom and while I certainly don’t agree with booing the home team, it’s an understandable and typical reaction. This? This person shouldn’t have the privilege of being called a “fan.” This person is a blight on real fans and, more importantly, on society at large.

Wanna Save Some Money? Sure You Do.

•August 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Hi, folks!

Consider this a PSA of sorts for those who love to go out for dinner and wouldn’t mind saving a few bucks on said dinner! I came across a site last week called DiningDateNight that offers great deals for higher end restaurants. It’s not a “daily deal” type of concept; instead, a new restaurant gets added each Wednesday you get 30% off your entire bill. And you choose from the entire menu. Thus far, I’ve seen offers for Splendido, L’Unita & Mildred’s Temple Kitchen. Um, yes, please. The offers are for non-peak hours but that’s it for limitations: put $10 down for the deal and you’re good to go.

Is the $10 worth it? Well, here’s a bill from Simple Bistro which illustrates how much you can actually save:

I’ve read a few reviews of people who’ve used the service and so far, so good. The restaurant takes the reservation directly, so the 30% will be automatically removed. No fuss, no muss, as they say. So click HERE give it a whirl if you’re so inclined and let me know what you think!

Adventures in Belize: Day Seven – A Day to Reflect

•July 29, 2011 • 2 Comments

A full week into our trip, we were kind of craving a “down” day: a little time to just chill out without travel or commitments or..well, anything really. We slept in til nearly 10, just making it down for breakfast. Having been spoiled in both Caye Caulker and San Pedro, we were equal parts disheartened and amused to see what the hotel provided as “breakfast.” There was an omelette station run by the grouchiest Belizean lady we had ever; but, J decided to take his chances with her, despite the fact that she looked like she’d do worse than spit in his breakfast. I opted for some slightly questionable pancakes, fruit and sausages. At least the pancakes weren’t overcooked, which is much more than I can say for J’s eggs. But food is food and there was – importantly – coffee.

We went for a wander around the hotel property. The piers provided an unobstructed view of the sea and much company in the form of multitudes

Flocking together

of birds. We had thought about going for a swim, but the pool was under renovation. Natch! So we spent much of the day just lounging around, eating leftover Chinese food from the night before and anticipating one of the major reasons we had come to Belize when we did: the 96th birthday of J’s great aunt. I met her for the first time five or six years ago and instantly took a great liking to her. She wasn’t able to travel to Toronto for our wedding back in 2008 for health reasons, so it’d been quite a while since we’d all seen each other.

We’d been handed the menu the day before and placed our order. This party was no small gathering: nearly 30 people over three generations were coming and the restaurant needed to be prepared. I saw that whole snapper was on the menu and I couldn’t resist. I’d never had a whole fish before and if I was ever going to have one, this seemed like the time.

We headed over to my in-laws’ house from the hotel, only a 5 minute walk. Still, Belize City is a city in which you want to keep your wits about you. We passed through a taxi stand and J made a new friend – one that I had to physically remove from J. “OH no you don’t. We’re outta here.” Ladies, if you’re travelling in Belize City with a man, he will be the one that gets accosted. Be confident, grab your man and keep walking. Worked for me both times.  But I digress! Upon arriving at the house, we promptly hopped into the minivan cab that pulled up at the door. (Lessons learned – no more clown car antics for us.)  The restaurant was across town, right on the water which afforded beautiful views for everyone. The birthday girl sat down in the middle and we all piled in around her.

With the birthday girl!

Then…the food came out. J ordered a conch ceviche as an appetizer. What arrived was a veritable mountain of delicious, fresh, spicy ceviche. Fortunately, he was nice enough to share and those in the immediate vicinity feasted. With the lone exception of J’s cousin’s ceviche, it was by far the best I’ve ever had. The drinks flowed and the volume at the table was dialed up a few notches. (Not that anyone at the table was all that quiet to begin with, really.) That is until the food arrived: then it was radio silence. My fish arrived and I was flummoxed initially by how to eat it. After struggling a little with the bones, I looked across the table at my father-in-law who was deftly pulling away the flesh with his fork. J and I wondered if he or my mother-in-law would eat the fish heads. Happily for me (because I didn’t really want to see it), they refrained, but I did have that song stuck in my head…

Typical Belize Deliciousness

The meals demolished, it was time for the cake which was fully decked out with a “96” candle. J’s great aunt seemed quite pleased with not only the cake, but being surrounded by friends and family from far and wide!  People burst out into song, one of the great nieces assigned herself as the designated photographer and we all sat and talked long into the night. On the way back home, we passed by what looked like a seriously fun street far/concert and it was agreed that Belize City could use more events like that to bring its citizens together.

Bellies full, we headed back up to our hotel room but paused as we came out of the elevator. Somehow we’d missed how spectacular Belize City could look at night from our vantage point:

Water for Elephants

•July 21, 2011 • 4 Comments

I had avoided Water for Elephants for a while for my usual “it’s-too-popular-how-good-can-it-be?” reasoning. Several friends told me I was missing out and that I ought to just read the thing already. That it was beautiful, well-written and maybe not exactly what I expect. They were right.

I was completely swept up by this love story that spans the decades. Not a mushy, sappy book by any means, Elephants manages to avoid the pitfalls of a typical romance novel by introducing us to characters who are grounded in the reality of their situation. Yes, it’s fantastical – not many of us have experienced the life of someone in a travelling circus during the Depression – but, as a reader, you are able to immerse yourself in the dusty, hot details that make the story come to life.

When we first meet Jacob Jankowski, he is unhappily residing in a nursing home. The book switches between the present in the home and Jacob’s past, travelling with an also-ran Barnum & Bailey’s circus across the US. There he meets any number of fascinating characters, some of whom have his best interest at heart and some whom you wonder if they have any heart at all. Of these people, it is the beautiful rider Marlena and her husband, the volatile head trainer August, that have the most direct impact on his life.  But they are not the only important characters: Rosie, the elephant, also plays a major role in Jacob’s life.

Love triangles abound in this book and the author does a lovely job of making the conventional a little less so. There are so many people in this book with whom the reader can identify, though it is through Jacob’s eyes we see this world of poverty, transience, magic, love and heartbreak. The major plot points are by turns uplifting, shattering, funny and heartbreaking. Having now read it, it’s no surprise why it’s done so well and why Hollywood came knocking. (I opted not to see the movie as I wasn’t sure it could do justice the world that Gruen painted.)

If you haven’t picked this book up already, I highly recommend you do. It’s a fast read about a fascinating microcosm of society. It might make you want to run away and join the circus…

Here’s a link to have a peek at the book!

Adventures in Belize: Day Six – Hitting the Road, Avoiding the Trees

•June 17, 2011 • 1 Comment

After the world’s worst sleep, we dragged ourselves out of bed for a day that promised much adventure. We were to be picked up by family and taken to a national park to go…ziplining! When J and I first decided to to go Belize, this was the thing I insisted upon doing. I’d seen photos of friends flying through the jungles and it looked beyond fun. So, I mentioned this to my mother-in-law who set the whole thing up for us!

J’s cousin (once removed? Twice? I can’t keep track) swung by our place around 10am with her youngest daughter and friend in tow. J, my father-in-law who decided to come along with us, and I hopped into her car: J’s dad in front with his niece, J & I climbed in the back with the daughter, and the friend…well, it’s a good thing she’s teeny as she ended up sitting the hatchback’s  “trunk” on top of the cooler. We hit the open road, excited to be swinging through the trees! It didn’t hurt that, about half an hour into the journey there, the question, “Eh…anyone wanna beer?” arose. I only know one answer to that question and happily ignored the fact that it was 10:30 in the morning. This was living, my friends.

We arrived at the park to find that there was some ridiculous per-person fee just to enter the park, nevermind the fact that only two of us would be partaking in any activities therein. But one of the great lessons I learned while in Belize is never to underestimate the women there. J’s cousin simply ignored the man attempting to collect the money entirely, drove in and parked. I stayed in the car while J and his dad negotiated the price for ziplining (another lesson I learned: white girl hides in the car so the Belizians can work their bargaining magic). Price assured, J and I were off to fly among the Belizian tree tops!

Our very kind, patient guides strapped us in and assured us that the safety system was equipped to handle up to 700lbs. With one final tug on the carabiners, we started our climb, joined by four others. Hearts pounding, we  listened carefully to the fairly simple instructions: left hand on the rope in front of you, right hand on the line above and BEHIND you. (Importantly, you do NOT want to put your right hand above in front as it will result in immediate hand-choppage. That lesson has been imprinted on my brain forever and ever.) If and when you want to slow down, just pull on the rope with your right hand. Don’t worry, they said, we’ll let you know when to start slowing down and we’ll let you know how each of the seven runs will go. And with that? We hooked on to the first zip and off we went!

First run...not so scary.

First run done and LOVED it. Couldn’t wait to do the next ones! Clearly, the first wasn’t meant to be too intimidating so that folks could get used to the feeling – and the idea – of ziplining. But then we were off to the next rounds and THEY were wicked. High up among the lush, green tree tops of the jungle, soaring above the ground…oh yeah, I could’ve done that all day.

That's more like it.

High on endorphins (no, really: just endorphins. It was only one beer.), we finished up the last run and walked back to the family who were happily spending time eating and catching up. “How’d it go?” J’s dad asked. “OHMIGOD! THATWASSOSOFUN!ICAN’TWAITTODOITAGAIN!WHATABLAST!” was my calm, measured response. “Okay, okay. Since that was so much fun, did you want to do the cave tubing? I mean, we’re here and when else would you get to do this?” An excellent point, we decided. Price negotiated again, J and I took off with our own personal cave tubing guide – no giant groups of people with whom we’d be competing for space, just the three of us trekking through the jungle with inflatable tube rafts on our backs.

It took us about 20 minutes to arrive at the beginning of the cave, wading through cold, clear streams; hiking up tree-lined hills; asking our guide questions about himself and Belize while simultaneously raving about how much we were loving it.  Upon reaching the desired spot, we slipped on the miner’s lights over our heads, tossed our tubes in the water and jumped in after them (which felt AMAZING, as it was the typical 30 degrees plus that day). We had the choice of (hand) paddling ourselves through the cave system or linking ourselves together and getting dragged along by the guide. Uh, no thanks: we can paddle ourselves.

Off we went into the cave system, marveling at what nature, when left alone, can do. It was absolutely beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen. Smooth cave walls were punctuated by upside down pillars, jutting out in random formations. We “oohed” and “aahed”, listening for our guide’s helpful instructions to, “lift your butt up….NOW!” so we didn’t scrape ourselves in the shallower parts.  Then we hit the sinkhole and I greatly regretted not having any film left in the underwater camera. The shafts of light pouring into the cave illuminated a beautiful waterfall and the juxtaposition of the lush greenery and blue sky with the stark brown and orange walls was breathtaking. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Once the cave system finished, we careened down the river, avoiding felled trees and giggling at the others who were all unnaturally linked together. (We’re mean, what can I tell you?) We eventually returned to the bank at which we’d started and found our family there, having a wonderful time playing at the riverside. J and I ran back to return our tubes and grab some lunch at the surprisingly delicious buffet. Fried and stewed chicken, fresh johnny cakes, coleslaw…all inhaled at record pace. All that adventuring had clearly worked up an appetite!

Back into the car we piled. J & I passed out fairly quickly to the sounds of a debate as to whether or not we should take the bus part way home or not. Happily, that argument seemed to have been quashed by J’s cousin who was more than willing to take us back to the house.  A good thing, too, as we were going out with her older daughter later that night and we barely had the energy to stand up, let alone navigate the Belizian transit system. Additionally,  a hotel room had been arranged for that night by family members who took pity on us,  so we could get some precious, precious sleeeeeeeeeeeep. We quickly packed up our stuff and J’s cousin drove us to the hotel. Three cheers for Anna!

We unpacked, napped, had a quick shower then it was back out the door with J’s awesome cousin, S. She took us for shockingly good Chinese food at a restaurant half a block from where my in-laws were staying.  I must tell you, it was really, really, really good and the portions were massive. We couldn’t even come close to finishing our meals, so we packed them up  and headed to a bar by the river. We sat outside, drank Belikins at a picnic table and laughed our heads off well into the night. Exhausted, we all crashed at the hotel and lemme tell ya, it was just about the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.