This is Where I Leave You

Book titles like this always intrigue me. Who’s speaking? Where is “this”? Who’s being left? Who does the leaving? (don’t worry, no spoilers in this review!)

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I’m glad I read this book by Jonathan Tropper even though it’s quite different from my norm. It’s crass, comic, and tragic all at the same time. And so wryly observant.

Judd Foxman is a recently cuckolded husband, 34 years old. He catches his beautiful wife of ten years cheating on him with his macho boss. We meet him at rock bottom, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s basement, when he learns from his older sister Wendy that their dad died. The Foxmans are Jewish and though their dad didn’t believe in God, he wanted the family to sit shiva.

So Judd, Wendy, and their other brothers Paul and Phillip reconvene at their mother’s home with their partners to mourn for seven days.

Judd, of course, goes alone. He says in one of his acute one-liners that are scattered throughout the book, “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”

Even though it’s apparent that their dad’s dying request for them to sit shiva is a plot device to get all the members of this highly dysfunctional family together for seven days to sort through their crap, it works. Or you don’t care if it really works because getting such damaged, emotionally repressed, and large personalities all in one room leads to some hilarious and healing moments. And also a lot of sex, brawls, and reopened wounds (both literally and figuratively).

Here’s an example of a passage that had me laughing out loud:

Serena, Wendy’s baby girl, screams like she’s been stabbed. We can all hear her in amplified stereo as we eat lunch, thanks to the high-tech baby monitor Wendy has set up on the table in the front hall, but Wendy doesn’t seem at all inclined to go upstairs and quiet the baby. “We’re Letting Her Cry,” she announces, like it’s a movement they’ve joined. If they’re letting her cry anyway, I don’t really see the point of the baby monitor, but that’s just one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a complete person.

There are times I laughed even though I didn’t really want to because the comedy in the book comes from a sad place. Each of the Foxman children is mourning, not so much their dad,  but where their own lives have (or haven’t) taken them—bad decisions they made, accidents they had no control over, love that feels “completely useless,” or just the relentless passing of time that takes you from the innocence of childhood to the murky quagmire of adulthood, ready or not.

There’s something about coming home that digs all of this up. At the end of the seven days, which equals the end of the book, each character leaves the Foxman home with varying degrees of difference to how they entered it. (As an aside, I think the book’s title works in a number of ways, including the narrator talking to the reader).

I enjoy stories of families and I think that’s why I liked This is Where I Leave You so much. All the Foxmans were so believably messed up and so believably human. And you really want everything to turn out okay for them.

In an interview on The Hollywood Reporter, the journalist asks author Jonathan Tropper, “What do you hope viewers take away from This is Where I Leave You?”

Tropper responds:

It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

Calgary – An Olympic Wonderland

After Roughing it in the Bush for several days, the second part of our Albertan vacation took us to a few different cities, of which the biggest was Calgary, a place I had never been to apart from the airport.

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The Bow River with a lovely pedestrian bridge that connects to downtown

One of my good friends lives there and she gave me an excellent tour, beginning with downtown.

Stephen Avenue was by far the most vibrant street, offering plenty of restaurants, shopping, entertainment venues, and public art. It’s described as “Calgary’s historic pedestrian mall” on this Calgary Downtown website, and I liked walking on a street that cars don’t have access to.

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Pedestrians line up to cross Stephen Avenue

In the pic above, you may be able to see some cone-shaped steel structures between the buildings in the distance that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. They’re called the Galleria Trees and they were installed between Bankers Hall and the Home Oil Tower in 2000 to break up the wind tunnel that these two buildings created. There are 10 of them in total. I like that they have a functional use and yet they serve a double purpose as public art. They have since been equipped with an audio system to play music and with LED lighting for special events.

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Looking up at the Galleria Trees

Because the Rio Olympics were going on while I was there, the City had put up a gigantic screen on Stephen Avenue with couches and chairs for the public to enjoy the Olympic action, and I thought that was the coolest thing (Vancouver, take notice!)

I was definitely in the Olympic spirit, and so my friend indulged my interest to see all of the major venues when Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. We dipped our feet into the Olympic Plaza downtown where the medal ceremonies took place.

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Olympic Plaza-turned-waterpark during the summer

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Also near the Plaza are these eye-catching orange pipes listing all 100 parks in Calgary, with different heights according to their age (the taller, the older).

The artists (IBI/Landplan) said this about their artwork titled Centennial Grove installation:

Drawing on the imagery of the native prairie landscape of aspen groves and grasslands and in a celebration of the 100 anniversary of the City of Calgary Parks, the installation symbolizes 100 trunks of aspen trees nestled in grassland.

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Speaking of public artwork, it’s hard to miss this mesh face in front of the distinctive Bow Building (Calgary’s tallest tower) that, together, create probably the two biggest/most distinctive markers to the city’s urban landscape. Wonderland is the name of the large white sculpture made of painted stainless steel, standing 12 metres high, designed by internationally-renowned Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.

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The Bow Building

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Walking into the Wonderland of the artist’s imagination

I like what Christopher Hume says about the two entrances on either side of the girl’s neck in The Star:

Had these entrances not been included, which would traditionally have been the case, our relationship with the piece would be different. Wonderland would have remained a fascinating object that lay forever just beyond our reach.

But because we can enter into the artist’s head, and peer at the world from the inside out, we are able to “possess” the work, or at least, view things from its point of view.

Indeed. I had never been inside someone’s head before.

We eventually left downtown to explore the other Olympic venues, such as the Olympic Oval at University of Calgary.

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It was a little strange to see speedskaters in the middle of summer!

Outside the Oval is the torch that was lit in 1988—quite a stark contrast from the elaborate ones made these days. I told my friend it was rather underwhelming but as she reminded me, “Things were simpler back then.” And it got the job done.

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We took a quick peek at Canada Olympic Park where you can ride the Skyline Luge down the hill like a go-kart, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for this so will hope to catch it on our next visit.

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Apart from finding Calgary extremely spread out and rather disjointed as a city, I enjoyed touring around the downtown part especially, seeing the buildings and bridges and some waterfront/running areas along the Bow. Their public art scene seems to be strong and, compared to Vancouver, there were far more public squares/plazas/seating areas like the one below that integrate well with the landscape and foster a dynamic street culture (though no one was sitting there as we walked by!)

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Roughing it in the Bush

My last post was from a book I read right before going on a camping trip and, seeing that I have very little experience camping myself, it tickled my funny bone.

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Fortunately my experience camping 5 nights in Jasper National Park was much, much better than Elfrieda’s in All My Puny Sorrows. This massive park in Alberta offers breathtaking views of the Canadian Rockies, along with countless glacier-fed rivers and lakes. Every bend in the road offers yet another magnificent photo op, making even a mediocre photographer’s work look golden.

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One of my favourite lakes – Medicine Lake

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Our group camped in Wabasso campground which had proper washrooms but no showers, so I had to shower in rivers and lakes for the first time. Seeing that they’re glacier-fed, these were the coldest showers I’d ever had but luckily we had great weather so the dip wasn’t as shocking as it could have been.

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Maligne Lake is popular for canoe and kayak rentals. I swam instead.

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View from my spot in Maligne Lake

My biggest fear was encountering bears. I soon had to get over that because literally less than five minutes into arriving in the park, we see a bear on the side of the road and then when we get to our campsite, the person signing us in says, “Just to warn you, there are a lot of bears here.” I almost had a panic attack but thank God the only ones we saw were from the side of the road, and they didn’t visit me in nightmares either (which did happen the other time I went camping).

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Anyone know what kind of bear this is?

The gigantic river that runs through a large part of the park is the Athabasca River. Our campsite backed onto it and it became the evening lullaby that replaced the sirens and traffic I am used to in Vancouver.

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morning mist on the Athabasca

Given the Artist likes to fly fish, we found a few rivers for him to cast a line while I sat on the side and read. (He didn’t catch much, but any day where he’s in a river is a good day for him).

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Maligne River between Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake

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Fiddle River near the entrance/exit of the park on the Alberta side

We did a lot of driving in our little Toyota Yaris that clocked the longest trip of its life. In particular, we wanted to drive the Icefields Parkway that leads to the stunning Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields and continues on to Banff National Park. The route is renowned for being one of the most scenic drives in the world. I’d have to agree.

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The Endless Chain ridge

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One of the glaciers on the approach to Athabasca Glacier

Stunning waterfalls are also part of the route:

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The mist coming off the powerful Athabasca Falls creates this low-hanging rainbow

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Sunwapta Falls

The Athabasca Glacier used to extend much closer to the highway but has receded dramatically over the past 125 years. This is the “toe of the glacier”, the furthest point you can walk to if you’re not on a guided tour that actually takes you on the ice.

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Athabasca Glacier

We also climbed a bit of Mount Edith Cavell, a very recognizable peak with its stripes of snow, named after an English nurse who was executed by the Germans during WWI.

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A view of Angel Glacier and its pond at Edith Cavell

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Looking back along the Edith Cavell hike

Some other wildlife we saw:

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By the end of our stay, I was saturated with campfire smell that took at least three real showers to remove, but I felt rather proud of myself for roughing it in the bush for multiple days and for enjoying it, too! I may have been deprived of camping as a child but who’s to say I can’t learn to like it as an adult?

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In Anticipation of Camping

from All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews:

We spent the whole time, it seemed, setting everything up and then tearing it all down. My sister, Elfrieda, said it wasn’t really life—it was like being in a mental hospital where everyone walked around with the sole purpose of surviving and conserving energy, it was like being in a refugee camp, it was a halfway house for recovering neurotics, it was this and that, she didn’t like camping—and our mother said well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of things. Paris would do that too, said Elf, or LSD, and our mother said c’mon, the point is we’re all together, let’s cook our weiners.

AMPS

At the Audain (Again)

The best art exhibit I’ve seen this summer is the current one at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler—Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and I remember feeling a little disappointed when I realized it wasn’t going to work out make it there on my Maritimes trip in 2014. So when I heard that 75 paintings were travelling to Whistler for this temporary exhibit (I believe it was the only stop in BC), there was no way I was going to miss it. And it did not disappoint.

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The description of the exhibit reads:

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2009. The focus of the exhibition is the Gallery’s founder William Maxwell Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and the artists he collected and cultivated, who in turn influenced the passion he had for collecting. 75 paintings are presented by world-renowned artists, such as Cranach, Copley, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds, Romney, Sargent, Sisley, Turner and Freud; and by prominent historical Canadian artists, such as Krieghoff, Morrice, Carr, Milne, Gagnon, and members of the Group of Seven. A highlight of the exhibition is Salvador Dali’s monumental painting Santiago El Grande.

I spent a lot of time in this exhibit. There were so many paintings in so many styles  (e.g. Realism, Impressionism, Romanticism, Surrealism) and from different time periods. There were also quite a lot of “stars” whose work I had never seen in person until now: Dalí, Gainsborough, Sargent, Delacroix—the list goes on.

Here are some highlights (and I apologize for my crappy camera phone):

This is one of the first works you see when you walk in. Lots of symbolism going on in this surrealist painting (the description is helpful at pointing out things I would have otherwise missed). The Catholic Church and nuclear physics were big influences on Dalí.

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Salvadaor Felipe Jacinto Dali, Santiago El Grande, 1957.

This is considered one of Gainsborough‘s most brilliant full-length portraits:

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Thomas Gainsborough, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Nugent, 1764.

When I first saw this painting below, I thought, “Now there’s a woman you don’t want to mess with.” Helena Rubinstein apparently created one of the first worldwide beauty brands and was the world’s first female self-made millionaire. She looks the part. The description reads, Although she was only five feet tall, the cosmetic magnate is shown from a low viewpoint and with her left arm held to her hip, which serves to enhance her strong and dominant personality.

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Graham Vivian Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein, 1957.

I remember learning about Eugène Boudin in a French Impressionism art course in university. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and one was one of the first French landscape painters to paint en plein air (outside). He taught Monet.

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Eugène Boudin, Personnages sur la plage, before 1898.

The Impressionism works were my favourite. Alfred Sisley was a founding member of the Impressionist movement and, something new I learned from the description, he was the only Englishman among the French Impressionists. His seascape shows the rugged beauty of Wales:

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Alfred Sisley, La falaise de Penarth, le soir-temps orageux, 1897.

A painter of dramatic scenes, I learned Eugène Delacroix, a leader of French Romanticism, was often inspired by the writings of Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare as subjects for his art.

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Eugène Delacrois, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking, 1850.

This next one stood out to me because the style was so different than anything else in the exhibit—almost cartoon-like characters, or as the description calls it, “matchstick figures go[ing] about their everyday life.” This is a scene in Northern England that highlights the sense of alienation that often accompanies urban life.

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Laurence Stephen Lowry, Industrial View, Lancashire, 1956

This large and dreamlike painting was done by William Turner, English Romantic landscape painter and forerunner to the Impressionists.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fountain of Indolence, 1834.

Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, worked in a hyper-realist style. I spent a while trying to figure out what was going on in this painting, the man in shadow, the woman somewhere else. Even though the title is “Hotel Bedroom,” I keep wanting to call it “Hospital Bedroom.”

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Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954.

The exhibit had several Group of Seven paintings depicting their signature Canadian landscapes, but I was more drawn to this inner city portrait that you don’t often see from them. Indeed, the description states: When [Harris] settled in Toronto in 1910, he turned his attention to making drawings and paintings of dilapidated old houses and working-class shacks in the city’s fringe area, a theme which is unique within the work of the Group of Seven.

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Lawren Stewart Harris, Morning, c. 1921.

And my favourite one in the whole show, hands down, is this one below. Those blues! Those golds! Those reflections of rocks in the water! The picture doesn’t do it nowhere near justice nor gives you a sense of the large panoramic size it actually is, but believe me, it is incredible. I always associate Sargent‘s name with portraiture (and apparently he was the highest paid portrait painter in the world for some time), but by 1907 he announced his intention to retire from portraiture as a business, which he referred to as a pimp’s profession, and devoted more of his time to landscape painting. I’m glad he did so the world has this:

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John Singer Sargent, San Vigilio, Lake Garda, 1913.

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is on until September 11. I highly recommend going to see it!

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The lovely “treehouse”space on the 2nd floor

Celebration of Light

Last night I was among the 500,000 people estimated who swarmed to English Bay to watch the Honda Celebration of Light fireworks by the Disney team representing the USA.

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Except I didn’t watch them from the ground. Thanks to very generous friends, I watched them from this apartment building.

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It was a perfect view. There were almost as many boats as people.

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We ventured down while waiting for the show to begin so we could experience the crowds.

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Around 9pm, two fireboats circled around the barge, showing off their impressive water cannons for some pre-show entertainment.

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Once the sun had set, it started to look like Christmas lights on the water with all the boats out there.

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And then at 10pm, the sky lit up with the magic of fireworks set to iconic Disney songs. We sang along to “Under the Sea,” “Let it Go,” “The Circle of Life,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the Disney theme song). They also played the Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars theme songs.

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The fireworks didn’t make shapes of Disney characters (no Mickey Mouse or castles in the air) but there were some new things I hadn’t seen before. I loved these gold ones that, once erupted, turned to glistening sponges that lingered in the sky.

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It was a fabulous night and a great way to finish the month of July.

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