Barcelona was my favourite city on our trip. Not only did we have an amazing penthouse apartment while we were there, but we were also in the heart of everything. We were a few blocks away from La Rambla (the huge main pedestrian thoroughfare), steps from the Paral-lel subway station, and walking distance to Barceloneta.
Barcelona felt like a city you could explore on foot whereas Paris was worth visiting via the Hop on Hop off bus. I have a ton of favourite moments from our four days (Sunday, May 27 to Thursday, May 31).
360 View from Our Flat
Walking La Rambla
Catalan Architecture: A great mix of old and new buildings
Gaudi’s influence is everywhere. Mosaic rooftops, nature-inspired benches and street tiles, magical perspectives
Usually built in a spiral pattern with seafood in the centre and radiating out to fruit drinks, dried fruit and nuts and chocolates.
Our last honeymoon celebration was drinking a bottle of sparkling wine left for us by our host with a lunch picnic we gathered from Boqueria market.
Pentacost Celebrations in Barceloneta
Can Maño: tiny fish shop
Cascada Fountain in Parc de la Ciutadella
Statue of Columbus. The new world is over there.
Catedral de Barcelona
And, of course, the Gaudi architecture was my absolute favourite. I’ll have to do a post on that specifically.
This post is a bit out of order because I haven’t told you yet about our amazing bike trip along the Canal du Midi with Darren and Julie. But I’m longingly thinking of Barcelona this morning so I thought I’d share how we got there.
Friday, May 25
Friday is flower market day in Beziers so Julie, James and I set off in the morning for the market and a coffee.
Just after lunch we headed out for Casa Pairal in Collioure, which is a small beach resort town along the Mediterrean.
After our first swim of the year in the ocean, we had a lovely dinner at a restaurant Julie recommended. The chef was Japanese and each dish was a delightful morsel, wonderfully presented.
Walking around Collioure at night was warm and reminded me of hot summer evenings in Manitoba.
The next morning we had a swim, breakfast in the garden, where we enjoyed croissants, jam, fruit, ham and eggs. Then we set off for Figueres, Spain.
Figueres is the home of the Dali Museum, which was our afternoon stop. What a place!
The main entrance and building itself is remarkable with huge Mother Goose eggs and golden sculptures. Then inside the front entrance is a look into the atrium.
The most remarkable thing about Dali’s work is the number of different medium he experimented with, plus the number of different senses he put into play with moving parts, optical illusions, sound, scent and I’m sure taste was in there somewhere.
Post museum visit, we had a quick bite to eat then were on the road to Mataro, which is about 30 minutes outside Barcelona. Although there are three city beaches in Barcelona, I’d read that Mataro was more spectacular.
The Ibis hotel where we stayed is on the edge of the action, the far edge. There was a big street festival going on during our first night and also a circus so we wandered through the streets into the downtown looking for a place to have dinner.
The funny thing for North Americans in France and Spain is finding somewhere that will feed you between 6 and 9 pm. Most restaurants are closed or don’t do dinner service until 8:30 or 9. We did find a butcher shop with a lunch menu and back garden who was also serving tapas and drinks.
Between my beginner Spanish, the waiter’s Catelan and some show and tell, I was able to order us some amazing tapas. My favourites were these little fried sausages and breaded balls of meat.
There are a ton of unique tasting proscuitto.
Sunday, May 27
Since it was our last day on the road before hitting Barcelona, where we stayed put for 4 nights, James and I went for some beach time in the morning, had a terrible breakfast/lunch in the fast-food joint of our hotel, then made our way into Barcelona.
We dropped our car off at the airport and took the Aerobus into the city, jumped on a subway and arrived at our totally sweet penthouse apartment.
We found a great inn near Orange called Bastide des Princes that is run by a master chef and his wife. We’d hoped to stay two nights but they only had availability for one night so we decided to take it anyway.
The door knocker
The inn is along a lovely country road and in the middle of fields. It’s charming to say the least, just like the owners.
While James and I were having a small picnic in the garden, Annie came out and let us know that the couple set to arrive the following day had some misfortune and were no longer able to come so if we still wanted the room for two nights, she’d be happy to accommodate us. Hooray!
This was wonderful news for us because the kitchen is closed on Monday, which meant that if we weren’t staying the extra night on Tuesday, we’d be unable to enjoy the fantastic creations of her husband. The menu is set each day depending on what is fresh and available in the garden and from the market.
Check out these old vines.
For our first night we asked them to recommend a good foodie place for us to have dinner, and we had a fantastic recommendation, which did require a bit of scouting! Fido can thank Google maps for that $50 data checkin.
I’ll have to update this post with the name of the other restaurant when I find the business card because it was James’ favourite meal.
The following day we borrowed a map from our hosts and did another excellent loop drive, where we stopped and wandered through several little villages.
In Vaison-la-Romaine or Séguret (maybe), we walked up to some ruins at the top of a hill and enjoyed a beautiful view of the countryside.
The route from Vaison to Suzette is a little climb, which means that the viewpoints are even more frequent and spectacular than the loop route near Grasse. In addition there are caves for wine tasting everywhere, and everything tastes amazing.
That night we had dinner in the restaurant, which was magical and my favourite meal of our entire trip.
We started with a glass of sparkling wine, then moved on to this bottle of red, which I’d happily have again and again.
I really should have taken a photo of each course because the next dish was always trumping the last. This is my favourite way to eat, small plates throughout the evening with a great bottle(s) of wine.
I can still taste this dessert. The fruite mousse was delightful, but the white chocolate cheesecake with the whipped mint-chocolate hardened around it was the ultimate taste combo for me.
It was sad to leave our little kitchen breakfast table the next morning, but also happy because we were on our way to see Darren and Julie in Argeliers.
The Red House is the latest novel by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. The novels are getting more and more experimental and deeper into the psyche of the characters. In some ways A Spot of Bother and The Red House remind me of Martin Amis novels in that we get a low-class to middle-class view of the British and the protagonists are losers in some way, and continue to be losers even at the end of the novel.
In The Red House we have a brother and sister, Richard and Angela, who’ve drifted apart but are reunited after the death of their mother. Richard, who is younger and more successful—a doctor, albeit with a lawsuit pending—has invited his sister and her unemployed husband and three children on holiday. Richard also has his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa in tow. Louisa seems to be the least developed character. She’s initially presented as the trophy wife who is amenable to everything and everyone. She has a small triumph in confronting Richard midway through the book but otherwise isn’t as developed as her daughter, who is beautiful outside but not inside, Alex the athletic son, Daisy the Christian, Benjy the little kid, Angela the self-proclaimed underachiever who is losing a grip on reality or Dominic the weak father. But then again, the novel really isn’t about anyone.
The crazy thing about this book is that the perspective shifts, almost at every paragraph, from one character to the next. This is a bit of a challenge in the beginning because on top of the shifting perspective, some of the characters are reading books so you get their interior monologue as they read.
Overall, the book was enjoyable but not my favourite Haddon novel, which still remains Curious Incident. Regardless, if you’re a Haddon fan, then give this one a go. Like Spot of Bother, it’s not an uplifting ending but it’s not depressing either.
On Saturday, May 12th James and I flew from Amsterdam to Nice. Our plan was to have lunch in Nice and wander around then drive to Grasse, where we had rented a little cottage. We left the Amsterdam flat at 5 am so by the time we arrived in Nice, we really just wanted to get to Grasse and have a nap. So we decided to forego our lunch plans and arrived in Grasse in the early afternoon.
We were a bit lost. It was analog maps and the compass on my iPhone guiding us, especially since the French are pretty relaxed when it comes to signage. At one point we stopped at a McDonald’s that was advertising free wifi in order to get our barings. It ended up that the McDonald’s was on a roundabout and our guesthouse was straight across that very roundabout.
We stayed at Mas des Romarins, which is walking distance from two perfumeries and 45-60 minutes walk from the town of Grasse.
After a nice little nap, we ventured out into the warm afternoon and trekked uphill to the town. Right at the top of the hill is Molinard, a little history of perfume museum with old bottles and photos and a small factory tour below. We wandered around there, then stopped at a creperie for a bite to eat.
The town was a quaint little village with windy streets and little stalls selling lavender and rose products. Overall I was disappointed in Grasse because I was hoping for more insights into the perfume industry and I was keen to see the rose fields where Channel grows their special stock. Alas, the internet (in French and English) was not helpful in getting us sorted out.
We did do one of the tours though, just to look around.
Thankfully I discovered a loop road and we planned our adventure for the following day.
Sunday, May 13
After a lovely breakfast we drove off to Valbonne, which is a typical Provence town.
There was a huge garage-sale event happening in one of the parking lots so we walked around there, then stopped at a butcher and vegetable stand to collect some lunch items.
Then we took to the road, driving passed Chateauneuf-Grasse to Gourdon. The road was absolutely spectacular and Gourdon is tucked up at the top of a mountain.
In Gourdon James stumbled upon a confectioner who was only too happy to chat us up about his son’s visit to America, French politics, the art of making nougat and the perfume fields around Gourdon.
Since it was afternoon, the roses would be already picked, but after having a sip of orange blossom liquor from their private stock, we decided to see one of the fields anyway.
It’s not really that hard to find beautiful roses.
In May, the orange blossoms are scenting the air more so than the roses.
From Gourdon we travelled eastward to Tourres-sur-Loup and Vence. We stopped at the Florian confectionery and visited La Colle-sur-Loup where there village was celebrating Rose Festival. Then it was back to Valbonne for a nice dinner.
The Florian confectionery had a lovely garden with roses and orange blossoms.
In Colle sur Loup is where we encountered the Rose Festival with traditional dancing, sweets and roses bushes of every kind for sale.
Monday, May 14
Our host Claire made us a lovely breakfast in the garden and chatted to us about the jasmine growing and orange blossoms. By the time we left we had a small flower and herb garden of clippings in our car, which made for a fragrant journey to Chateauneuf-du-pape.
We also stopped at a few of the perfume factories to poke around. They are rather touristy but it was still fun to see the old stills.
Wednesday, May 9 James and I boarded the train in Paris. The Mobilism conference was on in Amsterdam and we were going. Technically James was going and I was to amuse myself. I did have a great set of recommendations from friends so I was nonplussed about it.
First, train travel in the EU is spectacular. We travelled 300 km per hour and zipped along the French countryside, fired our way through Belgium and bingo-bango arrived in Amsterdam in just over 3 hours. No borders, no “security theatre” as James likes to say, and no drama.
The Dutch enjoyed our company from May 9-12 then we flew off to Nice, France.
So about that Amsterdam visit.
May 9: We walked around Amsterdam that afternoon and evening. Amsterdam’s downtown streets radiate out in a stoke with the cross streets alternating with canals. It’s really quite a lovely city.
I was interested in going to Amsterdam but it wasn’t on my original list of honeymoon plans so I’m glad it was blissful.
The weather was a bit better than Paris, which had been grey and then cold and rainy. At least Amsterdam’s air was refreshing and everything was green and blue as opposed to beige in Paris. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Paris. But Amsterdam felt wonderful.
One of my wishes was to have great Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I’d been to Indonesia and enjoyed Dutch chocolate sprinkles on my food so I figured that Amsterdam would have brought back the best of Indonesia. Indeed they did!
We had a delicious dinner at Kantjil & de Tijger. Our choice was a rijsttafel, which is a number of dishes to share. Our palates enjoyed 13 dishes.
I was feeling much better after my Parisienne broth and dry bread diet but still not 100%. Thankfully our apartment in Amsterdam made it worth it to stay indoors and relax. We had an upstairs flat in one of the canal houses on Keizersgracht (#684). The front-half of the entire floor.
This meant a beautiful view out the front of the canal from our sitting room.
A nice table for breakfast.
A day bed. A full-size bedroom with a small washer/dryer tucked away in a closet.
A super cute kitchen. And a small bathroom off the back of the kitchen.
Totally lovely. And Maud, our landlady, brought me fresh bread and breadfast foods. I quite happily read my book and lazed away my afternoons.
There is a ton of style in Amsterdam and great touches with the clothes and interior design. We even noticed a ton of graphic designers and ad/marketing agencies. Perhaps Boxcar Marketing needs a European office?
During the adventurous parts of my days, I went to the Anne Frank house. I think many people forget that Anne was from Amsterdam. It was sad to see the tiny attic rooms and to think about those families hiding there and being afraid. It choked me up to see Anne’s walls still with some of her movie star postcards plastered to the wall. Most affecting were the pencil marks charting Anne and her sister’s heights. Anne was my height. Taller than I’d imagined, especially because she was so young.
At the end of the tour is a video series. One is of a neighbourhood girl who knew Anne and saw her in the concentration camp when Anne believed she’d lost everyone. She didn’t know that her father was still alive. The neighbour believed that if Anne had known then perhaps she would have fought to continue. The other was Otto Frank talking about Anne and how close they were, yet he never suspected she had these thoughts that she was recording in her diary. He knew she had a diary because she made him promise not to look at it and to lock it up in his safe every night. One of his striking comments was that they got along well and reading the diary made him feel like this was not the Anne he knew. He ended with a caution to parents that you never really know your children, regardless of how close you feel to them. I wonder if the discrepancy between the Anne he knew and the Anne in the diary made it easier for him to edit and publish the book.
After my tragic exploration of Anne’s quarters I sought out the sunshine of Vodelpark. I did think of renting a bicycle because they are everywhere in Amsterdam, but walking meant I could look more closely at things and enjoy my time ambling around vs. watching for traffic.
On our last night, James was finally free from the conference and we walked around the streets again and settled in at Cafe George for a delicious dinner.
Basic plotline: Gold is about the upcoming London Olympics and 3 British cyclists who are vying for a spot on the podium. But just as Little Bee wasn’t about immigration, Gold isn’t about the Olympics.
Chris Cleave throws readers his usual twists and turns, giving us Kate and Zoe, two driven athletes who are friends and competitors and Jack, Kate’s husband, and I can’t tell you any more otherwise it spoils the surprises, but all three are world-class cyclists.
You can practically feel the blood pumping in these woman’s legs as they fight for every finish—and fight through every part of their friendship as well. In some ways the novel is about humanizing the athletes we admire and cheer for in the Olympics and the messed up ways that they must be determined to win. Zoe is certainly the extreme example here. With no family ties and no friends aside from Kate, Zoe is the headstrong, angry, determined, single-focussed athlete, whereas Kate is a mother, a wife, and a gentle menace on the track. Jack is Jack. There’s never any doubt that he’s going to win, but even his heartbreaks show that life is about more than winning medals.
Gold is another outstanding novel by Chris Cleave.
Published by Bond Street Books, Doubleday Canada See it on Amazon.ca
James and I are on the great honeymoon that happens in multiple parts:
Nice / Grasse / Chateauneuf du pape
Collioure / Mataro
We landed in Paris on Thursday, May 3rd for 5 days in the city of lights, the city of love, the city of all-things-wonderful like croissants, cafe au laits, steak et frites and macarons. Sadly it wasn’t all to be.
The metro from the airport to the 3rd arrondissement was pretty easy, but we got out at Les Halles and the mall where the metro stops is a zoo. The construction outside the mall makes finding a taxi even more of a challenge. Those feats accomplished, we arrived at our apartment but no one was there to meet us and James’ phone wouldn’t pick up a signal. Sometimes travel is hard and you have to remember that there are croissants and cafe au lait in your future and this small inconvenience, despite your 24 hours plus of awakeness, is no big deal.
We had a small dejeuner at Cafe Charlot, right around the corner from our home-to-be. I had an awesome tomato, mozza, pesto salad. The tomatoes were skinned and perhaps even stewed then cooled? Something magical happened to them anyway. It was excellent people watching, if you could keep your eyes open. Our host met us at 2 pm (we’d left Vancouver at noon the day before and Paris is 9 hours ahead so about 5 am YVR time we were finally in for a little nap).
After a brief slumber we tried to get on local time by going outside in the sun for a nice walk, grabbing a picnic from Rue Bretagne, which is right around the corner from our small Parisian apartment. We took cheese, bread, sausage and apples down to pont Neuf, which is a bridge to Ile de la Cité, where the Notre Dame is located. Wow is Notre Dame ever cool. On the point of the island is a little park with benches and we listened to some university students playing guitar, watched the locals smoking and enjoying the sunset and the occasional tourist meander by accidentally. It was lovely, and our first (albeit partial view) of the Eiffel Tower.
Then I was sick for two days.
I doubt it was our picnic as the likely culprit was a pepperoni stick that I’d eaten on the plane under questionable circumstances. James was an excellent caregiver, but it did mean that I spent two days in bed while James spent one day closely monitoring me and the next wandering the ancient book market by himself. Trooper. I asked for a full report and photos as I’d barely been out of the neighbourhood.
My bout of illness meant a revised sightseeing plan for Paris. I was still pretty weak so cycling or walking the city wasn’t yet in the cards, nor was standing in long lineups. We decided to do the Hop on Hop off tour so that we could get a lay of the land quickly and at least get to see the outside of all the marvellous sites, even if we just stayed on the bus.
Our apartment was actually close to Republique metro station, which is also near the Montmartre route for the tour so we jumped on the bus and saw immediately Porte St Denis and Porte St Martin, which are big arches like the Arc de Triomphe (smaller of course but still impressive). We got out at the Paris Opera, which is a stunning building with huge gold statues on top. Our hope was to transfer to the Grand Tour line as that is the one that goes by the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and all the big sites. No luck. We didn’t remember to check the route number and ended up getting on another Montmartre bus.
So up to the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur for us. The bus doesn’t actually go up the hill but we did on foot power, after stopping at a biscuit shop to gather a sugary snack for later. If I could have eaten cookies at this point, we probably would have bought just one and been done with it, but I was feeling sucky about not yet having any Paris treats. Sacre Coeur is actually a pretty young church in comparison to the other attractions like Notre Dame. It’s gleaming white and you can certainly pick it out from a number of spots in Paris once you know where to look.
Montmartre metro station
The famous photo of the escalier du Montmartre are also off this church so we went down those and explored a small portion of the neighbourhood, had some water and got back on the bus. Remember I wasn’t feeling 100% so there was less exploring than we would have done otherwise. Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est are two famous rail stations that we passed by next, each one more impressive than the last. Paris itself is a museum. The architecture is amazing and it’s fascinating just to gawk around from the heights of the double decker bus.
Our second attempt to switch lines was successful and we zipped by the Louvre and the throngs of people lined up to get in, then it was off along the Champ-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is actually pretty impressive so we got out to walk around the park and peer up at the cool ironwork. There was only one tram going up that day so we had to forego the visit to the top, but that was ok. We had a rather mediocre dinner in Marais (our neighbourhood).
Day two of the tour we zipped around the Bastille and St. Germaine. Then did a little walkabout. I was feeling much better. Next up was dinner at a very cute pizza place in our neighbourhood. It was called Biochet or something like that and was delicious.
Last day in Paris was dedicated to some perfume shopping. I bought two from Nicohai and I’ll let my perfume friends guess which one. Then I bought a nice ring for my mom for Mother’s Day and met up with James to go for lunch at the amazing Comptoir Gastronomie (thank you Siobhan and Chris for the great recommendation). After more walkabouts and a bike ride along Canal St Martin, we returned to our ‘hood for dinner at a wine bar called Le Barav.
May 9 we navigated our way through the metro system to Gare du Nord and the Thalys rail station to take our 300-mile-an-hour ride to Amsterdam for Mobilism 2012. The train is excellent and a great way to travel in the EU. No customs, airport lineups, stress. It was smooth, smooth, smooth. And Amsterdam is lovely, and perfect for another post later.
* No good croissants
* Great graffiti
* Rue Bretagne and Enfant Rouge is a great spot for food shopping
* One the last day some random guy running through the street with a bouquet gave me a rose.
* Biking St Martin was the highlight
* The Mona Lisa is worth seeing, even if you’ve seen all the reproductions
* Picnicking on the Seine at pont Neuf was excellent and an indication that getting off the main drags is required
* Notre Dame is monstrous
* Yelp restaurant recos are worth reviewing
* There are lots of men in coloured jeans
I absolutely loved this book. Every woman (and man) who loves Mad Men should read Mad Women by Jane Maas, which is about what it was actually like to be in advertising in the 60s. Jane Maas has great insights here because she began her career at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter in 1964 and climbed the ladder to creative director and agency officer. The book offers a ton of little stories and tidbits on what it was like to work at the agency and with David Ogilvy. Maas also ran her own agency, was a Matrix Award winner and an Advertising Woman of the Year, and if you have no idea who she is, think about the I Love New York campaign. Maas was the director of the campaign and shepherded it to greatness.
Mad Women is a book of anecdotes about Maas, the agencies of the 60s, career women and what’s accurate (and less so) in the tv series Mad Men. I thought the book was hilarious and intriguing. I mean it is a bit of bragging, but so what. Peggy Olson is a ringer for Maas, who rose through the ranks based on merits and managed some rather large accounts. The book is well written and if you’re at all interested in storytelling, it’s like having lunch with Maas and shooting the shit about the golden days of advertising.
The big takeaways: Career women seem to have all the same challenges today that they did in the 60s, although perhaps the discrepancies between men and women are more muted today than they were in the 60s. And advertising campaigns and their behind-the-scenes battles are pretty much the same.
Maas references a ton of great campaigns and the women behind them. For example, Clairol’s hair coloring. Coloring your hair in the 60s was a topic more personal than sex, mostly because only showgirls and hookers colored their hair. The woman behind Clairol’s “Does she ... or doesn’t she?” slogan was Shirley Polykoff.
I Love New York is one of the most famous ad campaigns in history and many people claim to be the creator, but Maas was the liaison between the agency and the governor, the Department of Commerce, the state legislature, the regional tourism offices, the League of New York Theaters, the Statue of Liberty, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Rockettes, the White House, and the Olympic Committee.
Mad Men: True or False
Was there much sex in the office? Joan Lipton, one of the grandes dames of advertising says “of course people were partaking, but you have to understand that at the time I was married, had a three-year-old child, and was living in Connecticut. In her interview Maas suggests then that Lipton was aware then of the sexual activity. “Aware?” Joan sniffed. “Heavens, I partook.”
Was there that much drinking? One account man complains to Jane, “it’s not at all realistic. We never drank in the morning.” Seems that it was customary to go out for lunch/liquid lunch most days. “We’d then have wine during lunch and a Rusty Nail (a combination of whisky and Drambuie) or Stinger (a lethal concoction of white creme de menthe and brandy) to finish. Then — unbelievably — we’d all go back to our offices at about 2pm to work.”
From an Adage interview: Do you think Mad Men is accurate in its portrayal of women? Maas says “Yes, I do. For instance, Peggy Olson has a career path very similar to mine; she started off as a secretary and then got to writing copy by pleading, and then writing copy on nights and weekends until finally she was promoted to a copywriter. Still, a lot of her ideas are met with poo poo because the men think they know better. I think that’s very realistic in terms of how women copywriters were treated in those days—they were only allowed to work on certain types of products like baby food and things like that.”
The smoking: Maas recounts, “just an hour after my daughter Kate was born, a nurse brought this tiny 5lb infant to my hospital bed and I remember cradling her in one arm and smoking a cigarette with the other hand.”
The hats are missing: Women copywriters wore a hat all day long. It was a badge that signaled your position above the typing pool.
Stuff I Learned
1967: The teamwork school of creativity where the copywriters and art directors come up with ideas together was a new Doyle Dane Bernbach concept only recently implemented by agencies. Bill Bernbach decreed that at his agency, copywriters and art directors must work together on all advertising—even radio scripts. Maas, “We hear that at DDB some art directors can’t even draw. Imagine.”
The Schools of Advertising:
Doyle Dane school: tell it like it is, avoid hyperbole, have a little fun with the products. Ads like “Think small” for Volkswagen. “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Jewish rye,” for a bakery in Brooklyn ... and “We’re only #2. We try harder” for Avis.
David Ogilvy school: persuasive ads that often have long headlines and a lot of copy, packed with facts. One of DO’s most famous headlines was for Rolls-Royce, “the visual was simply a sleek photo of a car. The headline said: ‘At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.’”
Ted Bates school: “hard-hitting, hard-selling advertising that drives the message home with powerful visuals and taglines repeated over and over. Hammers pounding on an animated head for Anacin; stomach acid bursting into flames for Tums. When people talk about how irritating advertising can be, it’s usually this kind of work they have in mind.”
Gene Grayson is a school unto himself. “He specializes in mnemonic devices—usually a visual effect that helps the consumer remember your brand and what it stands for. For Maxim freeze-dried coffee he created the slogan ‘Turns every cup in your house into a percolator.’”
Among Others by Jo Walton is a novel that got a lot of attention online and positive reviews. So much so that I thought I’d missed out and secured myself a copy. My basic summary is that it’s a novel written from the perspective of a 15-year-old Welsh girl in stream-of-consciousness diary entries. She extremely well read, especially in SF, and she can see fairies (unverified until the end when her boyfriend is also able to see them) and she uses magic sparingly to form protection charms against her witch mother (the witch status is also unverified until the end when mom throws fiery darts at our fearless narrator).
My issue with this book is that it’s a fantasy novel that’s not quite fantasy. It’s a British school girl novel, that’s not quite that either. And it’s a standalone novel (as far as I can tell) that reads like the middle book in a 3-book series. The best part of Among Others is that it compiles a fabulous list of science fiction and fantasy novels.
The book reviews and blurb quotes I think are overly effusive, and something that Mor (our narrator) rallies against when encountering a new book with title blurbs comparing the work to “Tolkien at his best.”
Among Others is about the love of reading, the magic of libraries and the reality that sometimes the world feels like it’s full of magic that you don’t quite understand and can’t quite control. I liked it, but it’s not a favourite and I disagree with all the rave reviews.
The Book of Lost Fragrances: A Novel of Suspense peaked my interest because one of the main characters is a niche perfumer. Plus part of the promotional campaign included receiving a sample of a perfume mentioned in the book and there’s nothing I love more than a perfume sample. (Although, I never did receive a sample.)
MJ Rose is a well-known author and she does a great job researching her subjects. There were lots of little perfume factoids in the novel that were woven pretty nicely into the storyline.
The story is a mystery. Jac and Robbie are siblings and heirs to the L’Etoile line. Robbie is a practicing perfumer and Jac, who has the better nose, has left the business to pursue her career as a reality tv host of a show on mythology.
Robbie discovers an ancient Egyptian clay pot of perfume that he believes is a memory tool created by a L’Etoile ancestor. Jac—who regularly on her show finds proof of myths—refuses to believe the mythology of the L’Etoile ancestors developing a scent that would aid in memory, let alone provide insights into past lives.
But Robbie wholeheartedly believes this to be true, and as a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, he wants to gift the clay pot of perfume to the Dalai Lama.
Chinese mobsters determined to prevent that transaction plus a famous psychologist who treats children suffering from past-life experiences are both independently seeking the memory tool. So when a dead man ends up in the L’Etoile workshop and Robbie is no where to be seen, it’s left to Jac to sniff out the truth.
I certainly liked this book because of the perfume references but this type of mystery isn’t my favourite genre. It lacks the refinement of Louise Penny’s A Trick of Light, which I greatly enjoyed. But, it was still a pretty fun read.
I recently read The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club and was deeply impressed with JJ Lee’s ability to weave his personal story with the history of menswear. In books where there are two parallel stories, I often find that they do run parallel and I favour one over the other, but here the two are interconnected in a way that moves both stories along nicely.
The Measure of a Man is great for women readers who are interested in a memoir about family relationships as well as curious about men’s fashion. JJ offers lots of little insights into why certain buttons are buttoned or not buttoned and where women go wrong in “helping” men with their wardrobe. And it’s great for men who might be drawn to the sartorial education provided in the pages but also curious about how the suit makes the man and how the anxieties of trying to measure up or measure yourself against your father are faced in this particular story.
The opening of this memoir is a great setup to the story. Perhaps it’s because JJ Lee is so practiced at telling this story. He tailored it first to be a radio documentary and also a series of talks, including this one I attended at Interesting Vancouver.
Just like the suit JJ is breaking down and restructuring, the memories of his father are like suit seams being sewn and ripped and sewn again.
The Meaning of a Man
As the suit has evolved over the last four centuries — moving from the tailcoat and morning coat (both short in the front and long in the back) to the long-skirted frock coat (imagine Abraham Lincoln) to the lounge suit (essentially our modern-day suit) — it has accumulated layers of meaning, signifying different things to different people at different times. The suit has baggage. It carries the weight of male history and shifting ideas of manhood and fatherhood, success and failure, class and beauty.
From birthday suit to funeral suit, Lee uses his father’s suit to talk about what makes a man, specifically what made his father who he is and what makes JJ Lee who he is today.
During our Vancouver Sun live chat on March 16, JJ said:
It’s a weird book in some ways. Many people see it a fashion book and others see it as a family memoir but I suppose my point was the sartorial lessons are part of the male relationship and that it has its echoes through history.
Early on in the story, JJ Lee introduces readers to his father, who was raised by grandparents in Sherbrooke, married young and became a successful restaurant owner. JJ’s father worked hard for his place in the world. “Even then he liked clothes and was searching for how clothes could make the man. I see his ambition.”
But things bottom out for the Lee family when JJ’s father starts drinking too much, starts abusing his wife and the children, and then loses the house after a series of failed business ventures.
As we get deeper into the book, Lee’s nerve to tackle the suit matches the determination he’s mustered to tackle the memories of his father. And they are not at all good.
I’ve burrowed the blade deep enough into the seam to begin cutting the threads, which offer the same meaty resistance as when I slide a knife through the joint of a chicken thigh. Inside I find more of the alarming spewing guts of the suit: thin wafters of synthetic material are stacked to make the shoulder pad.
The suit might look good to the non-tailor, but a true tailor can see its faults. The sloppiness. The falsities trumped up so that together they appear to be greater than they are. The suit offers a wonderful metaphor for JJ’s memories of his father.
But it’s not a dower read. For example, in cutting out the bad in the suit, JJ makes a novice mistake. He’s taken out the shoulder padding and restitched the sleeves to the suit only to discover, “my head looks enormous.”
There’s an absurdity to the childhood memories that needs to be massaged into something more mature, something less distorted.
The Scent of a Man
Scent plays a strong role in JJ’s story. The suit itself smells of vanilla, cigarettes, and sweat. JJ Lee describes having a visceral reaction, a flood of memory. Perhaps my interest in perfume sold me on Measure of a Man.
In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes, ‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’
On trying to gather pieces of knowledge and stitch them together, JJ says:
I will map its terrain; lapels, notches, side pockets, buttons, sleeves, die seams, and vents will be its features. Some I will alter. Others I will leave along. And maybe, like a construction crew trying to get a job done in Jerusalem, I will stumble upon the ruins of my father and they will tell me something about out downfall, the tumult he brought upon himself, our family, and me.
Lee is not cut out to be a tailor but he’s a good storyteller.
During his first foray as apprentice with Bill Wong of Modernize Tailors (still operating in Vancouver), JJ Lee is instructed to sew a set of parallel lines then turn the material around 90 degrees and stop the machine when he reaches a line. Bill quickly shoos JJ off the machine and in expert fashion writes “JJ Learn to Sew” in perfect cursive over-stitching. I love it.
Much of the sartorial education JJ shares with us in the book is on the history of the suit, the right way to wear a suit and the prominence or decline of particular suit designs.
For example, a true tailor will call the turning of the lapel from the inside out the “roll.” Done properly, labels don’t fold, they roll out, blooming like a flower petal. “They are wool labia opening out with an irresistible lushness”. It’s fascinating to think of the suit, with its start as a suit of armour, having a feminine opening, which is usually adorn with phallic shaped tie.
So lets talk about manly men! JJ recounts The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and how it was also a debut of The Beatles iconic suits. The strong diagonals of the lapels, the shirt collars, the narrow ties that matched the dynamism and energy of the music and the men themselves. JJ has a way of making fashion iconic just in his recollections of sartorial moments in history.
Midway through we’re introduced to a series of famous tailors, including David Wilkes, who is an anomaly because he went to school to be a tailor. Raised in Dartmouth, NS, David wanted to be a tailor since he was fourteen. He enrolled in Dalhousie’s costume design program then after graduating continued to apprentice through autodidactic means using manuscripts and works from as early as the 1700s. (Darren: Sounds like something you’d do.)
In addition, there’s Hedi Slimane who in 1997 became the head designer for Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line for men called Rive Gauche and moved men’s fashion from the Armani cut (big and blousey in the front with the tight bottom in back) to the narrow shoulders and slimmed down cut of today.
And each of these tailors and suit designs play into JJ’s recollections of what was in his father’s wardrobe and how his father sized him up and found him wanting, and how JJ sized up his father and found him wanting as well.
What’s in the closet comes out in JJ’s tales of abuse at the hands of his drunken father but the memoir doesn’t end on a sour note. JJ uses architect Robert Venturi’s criticism of modern architecture in his 1966 work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture to suggest that he too can adopt a “Both And” perspective. Venturi’s Both And phenomenon suggested that a building detail could be both good and awkward, big and little, closed and open, continuous and articulated ...
My father’s suit can be my Mannerist edifice. It will remain Both-And. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be something of my father that is also for me.
Suits are like bras
Part way through JJ’s explanation of the lost approach men take to the suit, I realized that this is much like approach many women take to bra shopping.
JJ reminisces about how a man used to take his a son to a tailor for his first suit. Through the fitting, the boy learned about the shape of lapels, the cut of the jacket, the collar, and what worked for him. Without this early lesson, he is lost to find his fit later in life.
Seems much like girls going for their first bra fitting. This was likewise a more formal affair than it is today, which is probably why so many women wear bras that are ill-fitting and, like a suit gone wrong, look terrible to the trained eye.
Stitching It All Together
As we near the end of the exploration of the suit, and fathers and sons, JJ realizes that the suit is what it is. That the suit can be Both And is an acceptance of his relationship with his father and an understanding that the measure of a man does not have to be against his father.
I like that the story ends with JJ Lee completing the suit. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, surely you too were hoping for a happy ending.
There is only the circle made by a tailor’s hand as he quietly pulls the thread that connects all the parts together.
A fantastic job, well done JJ Lee. Oh, and JJ says to watch for red jeans, they’re going to be all the rage.
Macaron Day (Jour du Macaron) is celebrated on March 20 and I will be nibbling on macarons from French Made.
Macaron Day celebrates my favourite dessert. The sweet meringue goodness of macarons, in particular passionfruit, is the way to my heart (take note husband). My favourite macarons are from MacarOn Cafe in New York and I was very excited to get their little macaron book for Christmas.
Macaron is a French confection that was started by Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé in association with the Relais Desserts in 1995 and Macaron Day is celebrated around the world, including Toronto and New York City, and now Vancouver. Today’s the day to visit Thierry Cafe and French Made.
Open any page of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and you’re in for a treat. The novel vacillates between poignant then hilarious moments in a way that kept me flipping the pages in a race to the end. I’m ready to start again. The Sisters Brothers is such a pleasurable read.
Oregon City, 1851
I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it wasn’t as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.
The same way that the film True Grit was casual yet brutal, poetic yet slap-stick, so too is The Sisters Brothers. It’s a challenge to the conventional western, and, as Chad Pelley aptly says, “deWitt’s tale of two outlaw brothers challenged conventional CanLit to a duel in 2011, and it won.”
Yes it won big.
Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, plus shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize
Back cover quotes often seem empty to me but Esquire nails it by saying “Thrilling ... A lushly voiced picaresque story ... A kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”
The Sisters Brothers is a new frontier you must cross. I promise you there is gold at the end of this stream! I often give away my books as I’m not one to re-read, but The Sisters Brothers is a novel I must own. It’s also the one I’ll be giving away as gifts this year.
Even in Canada, a “free country” by many standards, there are restrictions, policies and social snubbing that we should question.
Author Lawrence Hill is honoured this year on the basis of his reasoned and eloquent response to Dutch activist Roy Groenburg who objected to the use of the word “negro” in the Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes and threatened to burn the book (which he did in June 2011).
Lawrence Hill offered to speak with Roy Groenburg and also wrote an op-ed piece in The Toronto Star.
Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books…
For those who followed the story, you may recall that New Yorker blogger Ian Crouch compared the story to a similar incident where Florida pastor Terry Jones torched a copy of the Koran. Crouch notes that the two cases are similar in that their publicity stunts used the same tactic to attract attention.
I’ve never understood the power of burning a book or a country’s flag. Why do people do this? Why does rational, political discourse devolve into disrespect? I suppose because one party decides to be irrational, to make assumptions. In the case of The Book of Negroes, it appears that Groenburg didn’t even read the book because he was so incensed by the title.
In Hill’s op-ed piece, he notes that The Book of Negroes is published in the USA, Australia and New Zealand as Someone Knows My Name.
Are we really this fragile? There’s no policy or restriction in US publishing that would require this title difference but somewhere in the publishing process it was deemed necessary. The social snub won out. How unimaginative.
The title The Book of Negroes is drawn from that of a 1783 historical document, which lists the names of Black Loyalists who, having fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, were to be transported to Nova Scotia.
Surely the novel promises to be a transformative, or at least informative, read? As part of Hill’s response, he says:
Rather than flinching from a document that addresses the history of African people, Mr. Groenberg and his followers should put down their matches, respect freedom of speech, and enter into a civil conversation about slavery, freedom and contemporary language. On that subject, Canadians and the Dutch have much to learn from each other.
To me the most wonderful thing about books is people’s passion for them. The freedom to read should never be taken for granted. This is why I celebrate Freedom to Read Week, which encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.
Spend some time in the upcoming week considering what books are available and why in your school, library, or office. Think about your reading materials: books, newspapers, magazines and websites. Even consider the stories you watch on television or hear on the radio.
And now think about Bill C-30 and what the government’s proposed initiative to enhance internet surveillance means to our freedoms. If the police and government can have unrestricted access to our email communications, for example, how does that play out in terms of what an investigative journalist will be able to research, his or her access to sources, the ability to unmask issues of public concern? This is only one example of how such a policy could have unintended (or intended) effects on your access to information.
Challenge the complacency of those who say these measures make us more secure. More important, read more about both sides of the debate and make an informed opinion.
Freedom to Read Week is about recognizing our right to read, write, speak and publish freely, which includes speaking out against challenges to these freedoms.