Monday, February 23, 2015

Bury Your Dead

I love Louise Penny's detective series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set in the quaint and charming village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In Bury Your Dead, the action shifts to Quebec City. Gamache, guilt-ridden after a misjudgement that led to death of an officer, is visiting his old mentor, retired and living in Quebec.

A murder takes place in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, a venerable institution  founded in 1824, and now the last refuge of Quebec's diminished Anglophone community, and Gamache gets involved in the case. In fact, three cases unfold over the course of the book.

There's something particularly fascinating about reading a book set in a locale you're visiting. It seemed that every time we ate in a restaurant in Quebec, just a few pages later, we'd read about it in the pages of this book. We ate across the street from the murdered man's home, and sought out the Lit and His, as it's called, down a narrow lane, just a couple of blocks from where my father used to work. The Lit and His is a beautiful old building, as you can see in this picture.

Literary and Historical Society

Add this to my list of Louise Penny favourities.

Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:
Non Fiction:
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring

Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor

Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the Poison, Bad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the Koryo, Hidden Moon, Bamboo and Blood, The Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The Redeemer, The Redbreast, Nemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic Chill, Hypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
The Janissary Tree

Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question
When the Devil Holds the Candle

Friday, February 20, 2015


So what do people do to keep warm during Carnaval in Quebec? What are they drinking at all those outdoor fires? Caribou, the official drink of Quebec's Winter Carnaval, that's what.

And why do you think Bonhomme, the official mascot of the Carnaval, has that big smile on his face? Caribou, that's what.

If you want to try this at home, here's the recipe. Serve it warm or cold.

  • 3 oz. vodka
  • 3 oz. brandy
  • 12 ½ oz. Canadian sherry
  • 12 ½ oz. Canadian port

It sounds pretty gross - until you're sitting in some bleachers waiting for a parade to start in the icebox of a Quebec winter, and a friendly volunteer offers you a glass. It sort of grows on you. :-)

You can also buy this concoction in a bottle.


The Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur
Udaipur - a dream city built around a number of artificial lakes, with a dream hotel, the Lake Palace seemingly 'floating' in the middle of Lake Pichola (it's actually built on an island.) We were greeted (and security checked) on shore and handed to a canopied craft to take us to the hotel. There we were greeted by a distinguished man with a luxurious moustache to escort us to the hotel under a highly decorated Indian umbrella.
As we walked to the front door, I was showered with sweetly-swelling rose petals. This happened at the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, another Taj hotel, so perhaps this is standard for their properties. Despite its staginess, I loved it; I laughingly protested once when leaving that I hadn't got the full treatment on the way out, and the imposing gentlemen rushed to my side with the umbrella ever afterward.

Lake Pichola was full, due to this year's spectacularly good monsoon. As little as two years ago, due to several years of bad monsoons, the lake was completely empty. It would have been a crashing disappointment to arrive at this fabled locale to find the lake not there. Our room had a lovely oriel window, with comfortable cushions - I called it 'my' window although we did fit in two people at times - which overhung the lake and was a beguiling place to loll in comfort gazing over the lake at the main palace.

Udaipur Palace
The Maharanas of Udaipur built several beautiful palaces here. Their main palace is the second biggest palace in India. Part of it is now a museum, part a hotel and the newest part is the residence of the current Maharana. Its massive presence dominated the shoreline view from the hotel. I have included some pictures of pretty parts of the palace.

The Lake Palace was once the Summer Palace. Though just a couple of minutes boat ride from the shore, it picked up cooler winds in the summer heat. And at the crest of a nearby hill, we could see the Monsoon Palace, more comfortable during the rainy season, pictured at left.

On our boat trip around the lake, we made a stop to tour the so-called Party Palace, the scene of special receptions and parties in the old days. The current Maharana is a consummate businessman and now runs this as a hotel, and also rents it out for parties and weddings. Apparently Bollywood stars like to fly in for special occasions here.

As the room key is put in the slot on arrival (like European hotels, indian hotels sensibly turn off the power when you're out of the room and putting the key into the slot signifies you're 'home'), the TV automatically starts running a video and the sonorous voice of a stately man with a full beard and mustache greets you. It is the current Maharana welcoming you and describing his hotels under Taj management along with a bit about their history and background.
In the previous post I described the wonderful service we've received from our tour company and the hotels. Granted, this is an impression formed about people who are being paid to serve us. But people everywhere have been unfailingly pleasant.

I accidentally intruded on a photo a man was taking of his wife. I apologized but was invited to become officially part of the photo.

We took a fascinating walk through the Jaipur market yesterday, but not the part catering to tourists, but rather the part where residents shop, with plastic chairs, rope, mattresses, kids clothes, all sorts of shampoo in single serving envelopes, lots of spices, and wonderful fruit and vegetable stands. Everyone smiled at us a lot, well knowing we were not potential customers. My husband struck up several conversations with shopkeepers and everyone was delighted to have a chat with these foreigners.

People just seem to be pleasant here.

I've included some photos here of the market. Note the colourful vegetable stands and the bright drums and the hanging rows of 'single serving' shampoo and other products. (I remember reading in business publications what a breakthrough it was when western companies finally 'got it' that these sizes were the only ones affordable to Indian masses). Doesn't that computer shop do just everything? One thing that really got me was the advertisement for electronic stock trading in the ATM kiosk tucked into the traditional marketplace.

A new definition of service

The service in India has been over the top. Our guides have told us that Indians are taught to render utmost respect to parents, teachers and guests. 'Guests are golden', as he says. At the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, they said they wanted us to feel like a Maharajah and Maharanee - after all, we were staying in the palace of a Maharajah.

At every hotel on arrival a bevy of hotel staff will gather, to present flowers, to offer cold drinks and cold cloths, and to mark our foreheads with an auspicious mark. At the Rambaugh Palace, an impressive gentleman with a vast flowing mustache escorted me from the car with an ornate ( antique?) umbrella to the stairs; as I walked up the stairs, a lovely lady in a sari was throwing beautifully scented rose petals over my head.

 Flowers are a constant theme. Every lobby will have flowers, or elaborately arranged flower petals, floating on water in shallow bowls, often with lit candles at night. At the Rambaugh Palace one afternoon, I heard music and went outside to see a band playing, trumpets and drums, a man dancing with a horse body hanging from him(in bare feet on black pavement) and a line- up of hotel staff in the driveway to greet a woman arriving in the hotel's antique car. I couldn't determine if she was a celebrity, or had maybe just booked a more majestic room. One evening, there was a performance on the patio.

Everyone has a constant eye on you, to see if there is anything they can do to help. At breakfast one day, I gazed yearningly at the Cambazola on the cheese board. One of the hovering waiters offered to cut a slice but I explained I didn't dare eat cheese (lactose intolerance) just before going out touring. Lo and behold, when we returned, there was the Cambozola, crackers and dates in the room. My iPad charger gave out in Jaipur and the hotel lent me a charger. As we were leaving at nine there were no stores open to buy a new one, since the stores open at 11. The upshot was I left with their charger which they would replace later. Good problem solving. The woman who did this had a delightful personality and was one of the most attractive women I have ever seen. After a quick photo, I whisked my husband away from her !!!

At an Indian hotel, You don't walk up to a desk to check in. Oh no, you are escorted to a nice seating area to fill in the registration form. (In one hotel, we even filled in registration form in our room). And, of course, someone escorts you to your room. This was true even in the fairly modest hotel we stayed in at Varanasi, so it's not just limited to the outrageously gorgeous hotels that have been the norm.

A buffet is not self-serve in India, at least not in the hotels we are staying in. After your plate is loaded, someone will rush to your side to carry it to the table. Items are also passed while you are sitting.

When you say thank you for these services, or for the driver always opening the door for you, the response is "It is my duty". Our van is stocked with cold drinks and snacks; when passing drinks to us, they are always presented on a small silver tray, as with other things in the hotels.

I have high hopes that my husband is taking careful notes about this assiduous service. Of course, he is probably hoping I am the one taking notes!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mon Pays, C'est l'Hiver

Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver
My country is not a country, it's winter

Gilles Vigneault's* lyrics have always resonated deeply for me, and never more than after our recent visit to Quebec City. Winter is my favourite season. Gazing over a pure white blanket of snow glistening in the sunlight lifts my spirits.  Cozying up by a fire while fluffy snow gently falls outside soothes my soul. Walking in a blizzard is completely exhilarating. And there's no more pleasant sound than the gentle swish of skis on crisp new snow.

Ice slide on Dufferin Terrace

As a Quebec City girl, I remember the pre-salt days when you could have a sleigh ride through Quebec's snow-covered streets. And I remember my terror as a kid hurtling down the big slide on Dufferin Terrace. Nothing's changed; they're still screaming down the ice trenches where the toboggans run. (It's higher and scarier than this picture captures!)

If you care for more peaceful enjoyment of winter, you can cross country ski on the groomed trail around the 100 acre Plains of Abraham park, which overlooks the magnificent St. Lawrence. Or simply walk along those paths.

While I was rather disappointed in the dull snow sculptures at Carnaval (I remember being dazzled as a kid), I was really taken with the vast array of winter outdoor activities at the Carnaval site: a miniature ice slide modelled on the Dufferin Terrace one, sliding on inner tubes, taking a dog sled ride or a sleigh ride, learning to snowboard, skating with Bonhomme, ice fishing in a small pond and having your trout cooked for you on the spot, having a soak in an outdoor hot tub, bumper cars on ice, outdoor bars and grills with benches and warm-up fires, and a sugar shack. All the Carnaval activities were testimony to how much fun you can have outdoors in winter.

In case you don't know what happens at a sugar shack, let me tell you it's diabolically sweet. You boil maple syrup until it's treacly thick, then pour it over snow, let it sit a while until it starts to harden, roll it up on a stick and eat. Heaven.

Why are people such wusses about winter?

I have a theory; people feel cold because their brains tell them to.

My special scale for measuring temperature ranges from balmy, to pleasant, refreshing, brisk, cool, cold, very cold, bitterly cold, and frigid. Psychologically, I think people start to consider that it's very cold, when the temperature dips below zero. In the 'old days' of the Farenheit scale, this meant people didn't start to acknowledge it was very cold until the temperature hit what is now -18 in Celsius. So we all used to take temperatures between 0 and -18C in our stride, thinking it was merely cold because they were all positive temperatures in Farenheit. Now that they're negative temperatures, people's brains tell them it's very cold. This would be an excellent study subject for behavioural scientists to see if this theory has any merit.

As you get to what even I would admit was a bitterly cold day, like the -30C on the day of the canoe races (see a report on that here), even that feels colder, because it would have been a 'balmy' -22 in Fahrenheit. Then, to make it worse, we've invented the concept of windchill. So that day of the canoe races was announced as -42C with the windchill. No wonder people felt justified in calling it frigid!

Maybe we could just rename winter temperatures, dress warmly and start enjoying. 

*Although I am adamantly anti-separatist, I can admire the poetry and songs of that ardent separatist Vigneault.

What's in a description? Apple

In a recent Tech Crunch article about the decline of Google, its products and its ethics, I fell in love with this phrase to describe Apple :

A gorgeous velvet glove enclosing an exquisitely sleek titanium fist.

Other posts on words:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lunacy on the St. Lawrence

It's winter in Québec. It's bitterly cold (-30C), grey and overcast, with a biting wind of 40-50 km/hour. The temperature is -42 with the windchill.  We're on a ferry moored on the Quebec shore, ready to watch the annual canoe race that's a highlight of the Québec Winter Carnival. That's the St. Lawrence River, looking across to distant Lévis.

The river is cluttered with floating ice. Doesn't that look inviting for a canoe race?

 Apparently so for 260 lunatics in 52 canoes (4 rowers in each boat plus a paddling coxswain in the rear) who are going to race across the St. Lawrence and back. There is a 'professional' category, regular category(many with mixed boats) and a women's category. The top group will do it twice - yes, you heard that right, they'll cross the river four times. What a way to spend an afternoon! As you can see, the river looks even less inviting up close.

Here's how it goes: you enter the river off to our left, paddle up to the marker buoy hanging off our ferry, continue upstream, then turn to cross the river. You have to paddle upstream because there's a hefty current moving from right to left in that picture.

Oops.  Here's the lead canoe - and they're running into ice.
What do you do now? Well, you just leap out of that canoe onto the ice, and run as fast as you can hauling your canoe, until you hit open water again. Jump in at the last minute, making sure you don't fall in, and start rowing like crazy again.

It was pretty cold just standing on the deck of the ferry. I felt as if I would lose some fingers to frostbite as I took these photos. I can't imagine being out on the river.

Here's a picture of some further pictures of the canoe race.
A couple of boats on the ice

It gets pretty crowded

Sometimes even chaotic

There were some great pictures in the Quebec daily Le Soleil: