Sunday, December 28, 2008

Las vegetales

My sister in law gave me a cookbook for Christmas. A particularly challenging present as it’s called Las Vegetales en la Cocina Cubana – Vegetables in Cuban Cooking – and I don’t know the names of vegetables in Spanish. So I have been looking up words in my dictionary, and I can now tell you:

Esta noche, voy a hacer un estofado de lentejas con col y maiz, un pimiento rojo, las tomates maduras, y algunas zanahorias.
(Tonight, I’m going to make lentil stew with cabbage and corn, a red pepper, ripe tomatoes and some carrots.)

My brother gave me the perfect music to accompany my Spanish lesson: A las cinco en el Astoria by La Oreja de Van Gogh. La Oreja de Van Gogh is a Latin Grammy-winning Spanish pop group. There is so much energy and happiness in their music; I want to dance when I hear their music.

Favourite Books of 2008

I read over 140 books in 2008. Here are some that I really enjoyed and would highly recommend.

How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman – A very interesting insight into how doctors think and how you can communicate more effectively with them. I found it helpful.

Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson – Britain has always had strong ties with Germany, and the upper classes in particular really didn’t want to enter into a second world war. So the British government, headed by Chamberlain, tried very hard to appease Hitler and stay at peace. A group of young MPs saw things differently, and they brought Churchill to power and made sure that England did go to war with Germany. An interesting insight into British politics in the 30s and 40s.

Farthing, Jo Walton – This book is a mystery, but it provides a disturbing picture of what life could have been like in Britain if the country had not gone to war.

The Scent Trail, Celia Lyttleton – The author designs her own perfume and then travels to each of the countries where the different elements of her scent are grown and harvested – iris root in Italy, roses in Turkey, jasmine in India, frankincense in Yemen, etc.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken : a search for food and family, Laura Schenone – History is so often portrayed as a dry list of dates and rulers. But it is really the story of people – how they live, how they work, their dreams and desires. The Scent Trail explores culture and industry. The Lost Ravioli Recipes looks at a family which immigrated to the United States from Italy, its roots in Italy and how it maintained elements of its culture in North America.

The Widow Clicquot: the story of a champagne empire and the woman who ruled it, Tilar J. Mazzeo – The history of women often goes unrecorded, and the author had to piece together fragments of information about the woman who initiated the Clicquot champagne business. It’s an interesting look at life after the French revolution and conducting international trade while Europe is at war.

I’ll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French peasant who made it the world’s most popular wine, Rudolph Chelminski – Walk into any liquor store, and you can buy wine with Georges Duboeuf’s name on the bottle. But like Clicquot, he established his business from scratch. He was honest; he was innovative; and he was proud of his product.

To Cork or not to Cork, George Taber – This is history again, in this case the evolution of closures for wine bottles. The author describes the cork manufacturing businesses in Portugal, introduces the reader to innovative wine producers in New Zealand and Australia who wholeheartedly adopt screw caps, and other producers who develop artificial corks.

Lady Macbeth, Susan Fraser King – Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as cruel and heartless. King provides a more sympathetic interpretation of the story providing background on inheritance and the ties binding different Scottish nobles together and forcing them apart.

Hunting and Gathering, Anna Gavalda – Translated from the French, this novel introduces a fascinating assortment of people with all their fears and anxieties. Together they create a community to help and support each other. It’s a heart-warming book that left me feeling very optimistic about human nature.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows – Through a series of letters, the authors introduce a diverse set of characters on the island of Guernsey as it is recovering from occupation during World War II. They also introduce an author and her publisher. I was delightfully surprised that the authors could create such solid characters and such a compelling story within the framework of a series of letters. I wished the book would never end.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis – With the help of a time machine, a group of people go back in time to look for artifacts from Coventry Cathedral before it was bombed. It’s a very funny book and provides an outsiders’ perspective on a past culture. The book partially reenacts Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of a dog), an account of a boating trip down the Thames published in 1889. There are some very funny portrayals of absent-minded Oxford professors.

Un Lun Dun, China Mieville – Again, an alternate universe as some young children travel between present-day London and Un-London. The author has an amazingly fertile imagination, and his alternate version of London takes elements of the real city and transforms them into something completely different. It’s very clever and fun to read.

Roar of the Butterflies, Reginald Hill – This book centres around one of Hill’s lesser-known characters, Joe Sixsmith. Joe is black and overweight and lives in Luton, England. He stumbles over solutions and is certainly no Sherlock Holmes – but he’s very lovable.

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker – This is a idealized version of life in small-town Dordogne as the locals make wine from green walnuts and try to outwit the agricultural inspectors from the European Union. It’s not realistic, but it’s very pleasant – especially if you’re a francophile.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Moral Certitude

I’ve just finished reading The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why abstinence matters to the religious right by Jessica Warner. What fascinates me is the North American belief that we can control our lives and our destiny and the rigid thinking that leads us to believe we know what is best for other people.

The temperance movement in the United States started in the northeast and was tied into evangelical Christianity. If you followed all the rules and lived a 'pure' life, you could be saved. Purity started with abstaining from alcohol. But if alcohol was bad, then coffee and tea, which also stimulated the brain, weren’t acceptable either. Some groups outlawed meat and sugar (the origin of the Seventh Day Adventists). And sex was highly questionable and best avoided, even within marriage, except for procreation.

And it wasn’t enough to restrain from partaking in these substances or activities yourself. You also had to protect other people, and the only way to do that was by removing temptation. So it was your responsibility to prohibit alcohol so that working class men wouldn’t get drunk and beat their wives and live in poverty. (Of course, it was also helpful that this removed responsibility for poverty from decision makers and business owners.)

The British never adopted this line of thinking. Instead, they were strongly influenced by John Stuart Mill who advocated showing respect for a wide array of points of view – “only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.” He also believed it was wrong to impose your morality on another person. The temperance movement in England supported local bans or limited drinking hours but not outright prohibition. And it was far weaker and less successful than in North America.

Elements of evangelicalism survive today. Americans still seem to believe that they must save the world by going to war, and there is a strong movement advocating against sex before marriage. Some of the fervour for saving the world has now moved to the left with animal rights movements and feminist crusades against pornography.

My first difficulty with the evangelical perspective of moral certitude is why must we deny ourselves pleasure? What is wrong with enjoying life? And secondly, why are North Americans so uncomfortable with ambiguity and more than one opinion? And why are they so sure that they are right and that other people should do what they’re told?

My open mindedness does become a little fuzzy when discussing vegetarianism. I am a vegetarian for a variety of moral, health and economic reasons. I’ve never tried to dictate to other people – you’re perfectly welcome to eat steak in front of me (though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t discuss how nice and bloody it was). However, I do believe that factory farming is morally wrong and endangers human health. I do believe it’s wrong for North Americans to gorge on junk food while so many people are starving to death around the world. Perhaps I should be more of an activist. And perhaps I should toe the line more firmly in my own life – I buy recycled toilet paper, but I still use paper Kleenex. And I don’t buy 100% organic food because of the cost.

In the end, I support John Stuart Mill. It is highly unlikely that there is one single right answer. We should welcome debate as it will generate new ideas. And hopefully out of all those ideas will emerge some solutions – or partial solutions.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Place Within: Rediscovering India by M.G. Vassanji

M.G. Vassanji and his parents and grandparents lived and worked in East Africa. He now lives in Canada but welcomed an opportunity to travel in India, the land of his ancestors. A Place Within: Rediscovering India talks about his sense of coming home but still observes the country as an outsider. He is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and he’s horrified by the religious violence that can erupt in India. But unlike North Americans, he’s at home in a poor, crowded country. He looks back at the country’s long, long history of being invaded again and again and the diverse mix of people and religions and cultures this has created in India. It’s a fascinating look at a very complex country.

I also feel very much at home with his perspective. I was born in Africa of British parents. I have spent roughly half my life in Saskatoon, but the rest of my life has been spent wandering. I’ve lived in four Canadian provinces and spent 2 ½ years in France. Sometimes I envy people who have lived their whole lives in one place. They are so rooted and appear to have such a strong sense of belonging. And yet sometimes they have a very narrow outlook on life. My hairdresser in Slocan had a husband who worked at the local saw mill. The only future she could envisage for her sons was to also work at the mill. The girls in my Slocan Brownie group all wanted to be hairdressers because that was the only career option for women that they were familiar with. I’m sure the auto workers and their families in Detroit and Windsor have a similarly narrow perspective.

I was astonished to read that 60% of Canadians opposed the NDP/Liberal coalition. Why? Was it just too different, too unexpected? So many other countries have coalition governments, but how many Canadians are aware of European or New Zealand politics?

I’ve also been a vegetarian for 25 years and was gardening organically and reading books about the environment long before it was popular.

It can be lonely living outside the mainstream of society, and it’s often confusing because there are no clear cut blacks and whites. But it’s also very exciting because I can think for myself and make my own decisions without being limited by society’s mandates.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Blooms

Winter has definitely arrived in Canada. It's -45 with wind chill in Saskatoon, and Vancouver and Victoria have had snow. But indoors, my amaryllis is in bloom. What a joyful sight.