Monday, 31 December 2012

Best of 2012

As usual, here's my 'best of the year' list. Again, some of the items below are quite dated, but I read/saw it this year). Compared to the 2011 list, I seem to be a lot less discerning:
  • Films: Social Network, Hunger Games, Woody Allen (documentary), Skyfall
  • Books: Sisters Brothers, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, first half of The Night Circus, Life of Pi, Anna Karenina
  • Poetry: None this year
  • TV: Mad Men S5, Veep S1, Brothers and Sisters (All 5 seasons. Don't ask), Great British Bake Off S3, Girls S1, Never Mind the Buzzcocks
  • Exhibitions/Events: Da Vinci paintings exhibition at National Gallery, Hajj exhibition at British Museum, Circus Show at Roundhouse, Edvard Munch/Chagall/Magritte etc at Sotheby's, Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, Henley Regatta, Invisible exhibition at Hayward Gallery, Matilda the Musical, Yoko Ono at Serpentine Gallery, Trampoline in Missisauga, London Olympics, Cirque du Soleil - Amaluna, letterpress workshop, Festival of the Nerd tour, Anish Kapoor at Lisson Gallery, Photography and Art exhibition at National Gallery, World Press Photo 2012 at Southbank, Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour, Wildlife Photography 2012, 
  • Concerts: Chris Ogden (guitarist) live, Joshua Bell at Barbican, Norah Jones at Southbank, Metric concert
  • Comedy: Sarah Millican live, Austentatious improv, Ross Noble Mindblender Tour 
  • Places: Village Voice bookshop in Paris, Musee Orangerie in Paris, TS Eliot`s grave, West Bay, Southall Gurdwara, Piano Bar in Kensington, Blenheim Palace gardens, City Lights in San Francisco, streetcars in SF, Sausalito, Muir Woods, Getty Center in Los Angeles, Salisbury cathedral, All Soul's College, Mount Olympus in N. Greece, Alexander the Great's family tombs, Halkidiki Beaches (nr Thessaloniki)
  • Food/Beverage: Sakura in London, Polidor in Paris, Le Loir dans la Théière in Paris, Comptoir Libanais in London, Kazbar in Oxford, Huffkins in Cheltenham, Princi in London, Cote Brasserie in London, Island Bar & Restaurant in London, Wahaca, burgers at Byron, tacos in Mission area in San Francisco, Ice cream (Harry Slocombe etc) in San Francisco, #2 tripadvisor spot at Lymington, The Trout in Oxford, Guu in Toronto, Cote Brasserie
  • Food Special mentions (these are not the 'best' but they are very good, I visit them over and over again): Kowloon Bakery London, Jens Cafe, Bangkok House in Oxford, Ed Diner's milkshakes, Tim Horton's iced capp in Canada, Branca in Oxford
Low points:
  • Books: Second half of The Night Circus, 
  • TV: New Girl after the first few episodes, 
  • Films: Cafe de Flore, Dark Knight Rises 
  • Food: Zizzi's
Have a happy and safe new year! 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

What: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
Location: Sadler's Wells

I love Matthew Bourne ballets (see my old review of Cinderella). They never have a dull moment, and they are always highly entertaining. Earlier this year, I went to his Early Adventures show, and he went on stage afterwards to talk to the audience. It turns out that he attends *every* single show of his own work (if he can help it), so that he can study how audiences react to his choreography. Amazing! I can see why his ballets are such successes.

So anyway, I went to the sold out show of Sleeping Beauty at Sadler's Wells, and the ballet lives up to expectations. 

This is Sleeping Beauty with the original Tchaikovsky score, but with a big Bourne-style twist. There's the usual gender changes (male/female reversals) and the added contemporary humour, but there's a bigger transformation still. It might have been a big mistake for me to not read the full description of the show carefully: billed as Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, it says
We meet our heroine, Aurora, at her Christening, when fairies and vampires fed the gothic imagination, before the story moves forward a century to the modern day.  
Since I didn't read this beforehand, you can imagine my confusion when the fairy godmother (or godfather rather) started biting the neck of one of the protagonists.

[Spoiler alert, although you can guess this easily ...]

I also didn't understand how the hero who you meet 100 years ago can still be alive 100 years later to save the sleeping princess (in the original ballet, the hero only appears 100 years later to save the day), but now it all makes sense if you realize that the hero turned into a vampire! I thought I caught a lot of different allusions, like Phantom of the Opera, or Grimms ... but maybe the allusions were really just to Bram Stoker and Anne Rice or Twilight films.

I am not entirely sure the idea of fairy vampires really work (vampires shouldn't really have wings!), but the dancers won me over: they were very captivating and evocative. Beautiful sets and costumes. I love Bourne's sense of humour ... there's a very funny use of puppetry to make young Aurora (well, baby) come alive.

The one thing I didn't really like is the set for the final scene, when the story fast forwards 100 years later to 'Last Night'. 'Last Night' is set in a nightclub that reminds you of really cheesy 80s music and awful flourescent lighting. Yuck. I can't stand it. However, it was in this scene that my absolute favourite bit of the Tchaikovsky score came on: if you have watched Disney's version of Sleeping Beauty, you would have heard the creepy tune as evil Maleficent's theme tune. If you've seen the original ballet (not the Bourne version), you would have known it as the Puss in Boots theme:

The music's absolutely creepy and it's fantastic! Bourne used it well by totally removing the 3rd act of the original ballet and using the music as part of the tense dungeon/nightclub scene (when the hero in disguise tries to rescue his heroine).

Also, can I just reiterate that it is a great move to remove the 3rd act? I've been to the Royal Ballet to see this (note above youtube clip), and the 1st act is when Aurora's young, 2nd act is when she's asleep and the prince comes and rescues her (without much obstacles, which is quite disappointing) and the 3rd act is ALL about their wedding and different fairytale characters dancing tributes for them. How utterly boring and strange to have the 'happily ever after' last a third of the performance.

Anyway, none of that in Bourne's ballet. He got a huge ovation at the end, and it really is well deserved. Go see it!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Hot Chocolate Review: Montezuma No. 5 Mint

Brand: Montezuma's No. 5 Mint Drinking Chocolate
Score: 7.5 / 10

Where to get it: Montezuma website or stores

This is long overdue, but I've been meaning to write up some reviews of hot chocolate brands. I live in a household that values hot chocolate above all (by 'all', I mean coffee and tea), and we have quite a collection. 

I am going to try and review every hot chocolate brand that we have previously enjoyed (or will enjoy if we come across a new brand), and perhaps also share with you some of hot chocolate cafe recommendations. 

There is no real reason why I'm starting off with Montezuma.

So first off: Montezuma No. 5 Mint Chocolate

Dark chocolate - yum! And with peppermint too. This mix blends in well and is very smooth, with a good aftertaste. It comes in chocolate flakes, and you basically have to heat your milk hot enough to get the flakes to melt. We recommend microwaving a cup of milk for 2 minutes, then stir the flakes in. 

Usually, hot chocolate that comes as flakes means that they can be charged at a more expensive rate, but at £6.29 for 300g, it's quite reasonable. Packaging is quite slick too: you get a bag of the mix with a resealable top. Convenient! Verdict: 7.5/10

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ross Noble: Mindblender

What: Ross Noble's Mindblender Tour 
Locations: Touring around UK and rest of world

Ross Noble performing live is quite something. Unlike other comedians like Eddie Izzard or Bill Bailey who have a pretty strict script/sketch to follow, Ross' show seems a lot more improvisatory than anything else. He spends a lot of time interacting with the audience, mocking the ones he can hear and see, and inviting hecklers to join in and contribute to the performance.

This adds a lot of excitment as you never know what you'll get, but it's quite a risky thing too, as Ross also likes going on tangents and just say whatever he can think of. And he thinks of pretty random things. From stories about his 'human child' to milking cows. From mocking a phelgmatic man to doing a song and dance about demons and The Exorcist. And from responding to the heckler to Schrödinger's cat.

They're all great, but right near the beginning, he started poking fun at a man with a crutch, which ... led to jokes about the Paralympics, and when he tried to apologise if he offended anyone in any way, a lady at the back of the theatre shouted really loudly that it was really extremely offensive to make fun of disabled people. It got the room quite tense for a long time after that. I knew that he would get in trouble right when he went off on a tangent about the games, even if he was doing it in good humour.

My friend didn't enjoy it after that, which was a shame, but I thought there were still a lot of brilliant moments. Some of his jokes were clearly planned in advance, like on the au courant topics of Fifty Shades and Jimmy Savile (the Savile sketch he did had a fantastic impersonation of Eddie Izzard. It was possible my favourite part of the show). He did a really interesting time-space continuum trick as well as his finale (which I won`t reveal here, but suffice to say, it had something to do with the mind of a jelly). Also his impersonation of the whispering Batman and the muffled Baine was absolutely spot on.

Although he`s not always so PC, I still love his humour: it's really quirky and unusual, and so for that, I'd recommend this tour.

PS: I just read this review, and it turns out I was wrong. Schrödinger's cat is a pre-planned joke!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Anna Karenina, Part 2 of 2

Title: Anna Karenina, Part 2 of 2
Author: Leo

Back to Book #13, Anna Karenina. It's actually a bit unfair that I wrote Part 1 of my comments when I've read over 75% of the book, but actually the last 120 pages are quite interesting and different.

Spoilers alert. Please don't read on if you don't want to know the ending. 

Near the end, Anna Karenina takes on a strange persona - more and more characters find her incredibly beautiful and bewitching, and she feels very different in personality. I find myself hating her more and more and yet strangely attracted to her as well. What a monster! Actually, by the very last few pages of her point of view, I just really couldn't stand her anymore. She's unwanted by society, she loses a lot of things (status, family, respect, etc) and rightly, she should feel upset. For the better part of the novel, she manages to hang on to her dignity. At the very end though, she turns incredibly delusional, becomes highly jealous of her partner's every action and distorts reality to the point where I can't even sympathize with her plight anymore.

Needless to say, Anna does not have a happy ending. What is strange is that even at the end of her life, when you think she has finally chosen her fate, she is robbed of that self-agency ... she wavers between wanting to end her life and not wanting to, and right when she's supposed to make a decision ... well ... the decision was made for her. Tolstoy is so cruel!

My interpretation of the book has been highly shaped by the book's preface ... there I learned that in the midst of writing this novel (over the span of a few years), Tolstoy's world view changed from atheistic (or agnostic?) to one controlled by religious angst. As you can imagine, Tolstoy started off writing the novel with plenty of sympathy for his heroine, a woman who decides to put love above family and religion, but by the end, he can't understand her perspective anymore, and have to make up ridiculous, irrational thoughts for Anna to justify her actions. It makes me a bit annoyed.

So, is Anna Karenina still a great novel? Yes, for the majority of the book, I really enjoyed following every single character's thoughts and actions. Tolstoy is a great master ... my only impossible wish is: what if he finished writing the novel in one year, instead of four? What if! Would Anna be living happily ever after?

I still recommend this book to everyone who can put aside a huge chunk of time for reading ... it only took me two months to finish.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Anna Karenina, Part 1 of 2

Title: Anna Karenina, Part 1 of 2
Author: Leo

For lucky Book #13, I'm going to talk about Anna Karenina. I'm more than halfway through Tolstoy's epic, but since this book really is massive, it's probably prudent to write about it in two separate entries. 

What can I say about Anna K? Well, the first is that I have been meaning to read this book for ages. It's been on my list since school, but obviously, other (shorter) books got in the way of our relationship. With all the film advertisements going on this year about Anna K though, plus the fact that I now own an e-reader and no longer have the excuse that it's 'too heavy' to travel around with Anna K, I finally decided take the plunge.

And is it worth it so far? 


This is cheesy, but the more you read this book, the more it grow on you. It's definitely not an instant gratification: you need to invest a lot of time and energy to sit still and read it. But once you get started, the more you read about each character, the more you empathize with their point of view. And even though you discover that each character is very flawed, each in their own unique way, they are all perspectives that you can understand and get to know deeply. 
You say that everything is very simple and interesting
it makes me feel very wistful, like reading a great
                                                          Russian novel does
from Yesterday Down at the Canal, Frank O'Hara, 1961
I think I read it at a right time in my life, when I have more of an understanding about the human psyche. It is so fascinating to read these Tolstoy characters constantly changing their minds, constantly loving and hating their lovers and families, constantly behaving in contradictory ways and misunderstanding each other ... and it's just all so real. What I like about it is that even though it was written in the 1870s, the worries, the fears, and the joys are still very much the same 150 years later.

A few other notes for now: 
  • Wikipedia just informed me that Anna Karenina started as a newspaper serial. That's why it's so long ... just like Dickens!
  • the Russian names are not too hard to follow. I remember Crime & Punishment being a lot more confusing, and even though you meet a lot of characters in Anna K, it's still quite easy to recognize each person. Perhaps this is due to the good translation. 
  • this book is like Joyce's Ulysses, in that it's an encyclopedia, covering all sorts of topics from farming techniques to current philosophies to pedagogy to history ... fascinating!
  • I actually enjoy the other storyline more than Anna Karenina's storyline. Yes, everyone knows the ending to Anna K, but no one ever talks about Levin, who is the other main character. I love his point of view! He's so quaint, so cute and awkward, so unsociable, so idealistic yet practical ...
  • other people have commented on the 'floating' omniscient narration ... it's really funny reading the point of view of random people, and not only that, of dogs and children's perspectives. Very humourous.

Part 2 will follow once I finish the book.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cirque du Soleil: Amaluna

What: Cirque du Soleil, Amaluna
Locations: touring
Canada, USA ... and probably worldwide soon

I'm not a newbie to the world of Cirque du Soleil, so I went to see the Amaluna show without too high an expectation, but boy was it good. As usual, Canada's best known circus group Cirque du Soleil performs with just the barest of storylines to hold all the different acrobatic acts together.

Amaluna is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but with the added twist of focusing on women. For the first time ever, there are more women cast members than men (in fact, 70% of the cast are females). I took my family to see it and they much preferred the show without referring to the plot.  

But despite the lack of a good narrative, the show is outstanding. I love circuses of all types, and my whole family does too (some of us have been to circus school training for a very short time!) ... and the thing that strikes us the most is watching the mind-blowing feats that human bodies can do so smoothly, sinuously and most of all, so effortlessly! There are trampoline acts, highwire balancing acts, pole acts, aerial silks, unicycles, juggling, balancing etc, and all the performers make each movement look so easy to do, even though they're very hard. 

In a lot of circus shows, performers try to do the most 'impressive' acts to audience members that are none the wiser, and most of the time they would stick to technically easy yet visually impressive moves. However, with Cirque du Soleil, they don't just try to wow you with one visual stunt after visual stunt: they actually execute incredibly difficult techniques perfectly! My juggler/unicycling friend was very pleased to see the main juggler in this show perform with five, even six balls, and doing really fantastic stunts. On top of that, the twin unicyclists are incredible, they could spin on the spot and next to each other in intricate swirls, all done in very, very fast movements. Very impressive! 

My personal favourites are the lead male and female characters' own specialties: the female does body-twisting dives and bends inside a fish-bowl like tank, and the male climbs up and down a pole like it's a walk in the park.

Amaluna is a travelling show, so they set up temporary circus tents like they would back in the 1800s. Very old school, very intimate, so even with the cheapest seats (where we sat), you would get pretty good views.

My only negative point would be the music. I found it too loud and overwhelming, full of blasting rock sequences and I much prefer if the music is softer, more delicate (i.e. rather the violin than the electric guitar). But then again, the bursts of visual and audio splendour are the signature styles for this very conspicuous circus troupe. 

If you've never seen Cirque du Soleil, you should start with this one, and if you're a seasoned attendee, you should still give this a try.  

PS: we also recently saw circus show Cantina's performance in London, UK. It has a very different aesthetic from Cirque du Soleil: more old-style french, bohemian/burlesque. The show's already over, so I won't write a review now.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Oxford's Cooking

Where to get the best salad: Oxford's Cooking
Oxford, OX2 6HA

This place is absolutely delicious. The first time I went, a friend took me there for lunch, and back then it was called Woodstock Rd Deli. I was really impressed with the freshness of the food. The only thing that was disappointing was the price: you pay by weight, so if you ordered a particularly heavy salad, there goes your pocket money. So the second time I went, I picked the lightest of salads to beat the system.

Anyhow, since then, they have changed hands (I think), and renamed themselves as Oxford's Cooking. Still the same layout, a cozy little kitchen setting with lots of little treats and kitchen gifts you can buy, but also a long counter full of flavourful vegetarian salads. They also serve hot foods with meat and other options, but so far, there has been no point trying those because their salads are stunning. 

If I can make these types of salads at home, I'd definitely turn vegetarian! They now charge by the number of salad types you order, for example £3.50 for 3 types of salads in a takeaway box, so that's way more reasonable than in the past. It's a hefty little box: you get various salads to choose from. Lentils and broccoli to mozzarella balls (they're huge!) and roasted tomatoes, butternut squash crisps and many other fresh options, like couscous, quinoa, etc. 

When you finish choosing, you are also given the option of some roasted sunflower seeds, which is free and makes a perfection addition to the little box of goodness. 

It turns out they're the sister branch to Alpha Bar, which is located in the Oxford Covered Market. I'll have to try that place out, although it seems quite similar.

PS: According to another review, they are also very good with gluten-free or lactose-free choices.

PPS: Since I wrote this up, I've heard they are renovating yet again. They're re-opening on 14 Sep. I'll have to check out their new look soon.  

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Matilda the Musical

Event: Matilda the Musical
Cambridge Theatre, London

By popular demand, I've decided to write another post related to Roald Dahl. In the last three years since Ways to Read began, the most popular post has been (and still is, surprisingly) the one about Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

So anyway: the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel Matilda is very funny. Even my friend, who doesn't enjoy musicals usually, really liked this one. Cambridge Theatre is not a bad venue, though some of the higher (aka cheap) seats are quite steep and not for the faint of heart.

The story is about a smart little girl who's not appreciated by her family. She attends a school that has a lovely teacher but a horrid and evil headmistress. The music is great and the lyrics are sharp and humourous, all thanks to Tim Minchin. I don't always like his style of quirky/black comedy but in Matilda, there's a good combination of dark humour and a childlike sense of hope. This is important since this musical is primarily aimed at children. 

We went to a Sunday matinee, and about 80% of the audience are children. That can get slightly annoying when they start whining, kicking the seat in front, or singing along off tune ... but it adds an extra layer of irony because the musical starts off with spoiled schoolchildren on stage singing about how great (and spoiled) they are ... and the children in the audience sing along. Ha. 

The songs are quite catchy. I'd say the style is rather like the Wicked musical - very jarring at times but it works in this context. My favourite numbers are 'Miracle', 'When I Grow Up' (see top clip), and 'School Song' (above), which cleverly incorporates the ABCs into the song. The stage setup is also very creative and I particularly liked the scene changes and use of space.

Is it well-adapted? Yes! The storyline changes slightly to accommodate the parallel backstory of another character other than Matilda, but in order to keep the suspence, Tim Minchin creatively made Matilda imagine a fairytale that eventually turned out to be true. I can't say anymore because I don't want to spoil the story in case you haven't read the book (or seen the film). 

The tickets are constantly sold out well in advance, so I'd advise booking at least two months ahead. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Yoko Ono - To the Light

Event: Yoko Ono - To the Light
Location: Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park

Yoko Ono is an interesting figure: people either love her or hate her. I think that if you only consider her in light of John Lennon, then of course you might not see her favourably, but as an individual performance artist and as someone that influences others artistically, she is quite phenomenal. 

I saw a huge Yoko Ono retrospective about a decade ago at the AGO, and really fell in love with her quirky, minimalist style. A lot of her artworks are so pared down that you don't really see anything. All you see is a piece of paper with words written on it, but what the words get the viewer to do is infinite. 

According to legend, Lennon saw Ono's Ceiling Painting (right), climbed up the ladder to see the painting that said 'YES!' and fell in love with her. I find that idea very beautiful.

Anyway, Ono makes the viewer work for their pleasure. For example, she uses a lot of words to accompany her art: in The Pointedness (below), there's a glass ball on display and the words 'This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corners of the room in your mind.'

Is this bullshit? Or is something really interesting going on? It's for you to decide, but for me, I really like the fact that she uses the viewer's power of imagination to complete the artwork, even if, in real life, you can't really make the statement come true. A sphere will never have a point simply by definition of being a sphere. 

The exhibition is free, and Serpentine Gallery is a lovely gallery.  Now that Olympic is over, it'll be easier to find the exhibition (the crowd control routes during the Games made the walk really frustrating). 

PS: next door is the annual temporary Serpentine Pavilion, and this year, the designer/architect is Ai Weiwei. Quite an interesting structure, but I think I preferred previous versions more. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

All is Song & The Still Point

Title: All is Song
Author: Samantha Harvey

For Book #11, I'm going to talk about something classier and more literary. The first time I heard of Samantha Harvey was on the Culture Show in 2011. Five judges (or so) sat there debating about the best debut novelists of the year, and Harvey was one of them.

Her first book was The Wilderness, and it was a stunning novel about someone losing their life to Alzheimer's. Actually, this is shocking, but in my memory I mixed up The Wilderness with The Still Point, which is yet another beautiful novel. I also highly recommend that one! In fact, that will be Book #12). So ... it turns out I forgot what Harvey's first book was about. Oops. Anyway, I still remember her as a fantastic writer, and the book was a bittersweet story that felt entirely too real.

Now All is Song is not dissimilar: it is about Leonard and William, two middle-aged brothers, both still grappling with the meaning of life in different ways, but one of them is very much like a modern-day Socrates. William is a frustrating character to like simply because he questions everything around him to the point where you lose sense of the original question. The book is deeply philosophical, and it brings to memory all the things I used to read and learn in philosophy classes. Or in the Matrix: if you can see that the world is lying to you, would you rather live in the lie, or see the real truth? The red pill or the blue pill? Ok, so the book is totally not sci-fi, but it deals with the same issues about how complacent most human beings are with the world, how we just accept statements as facts just because it's what the majority of people thinks, and not because it's the absolute truth. 

All is Song is beautifully written. The narrative moves very slowly, but this is not an action-driven story, it's a thought-driven one. 

I thought that overall, The Wilderness was better (simply because I like the ending more), but this book is a good second novel. I can't wait to see what else is up Harvey's sleeves.


Author: Amy Sackville

I probably mixed up Harvey with Sackville because they were both first-time novelists. But my review is a bit different for this one ...
Read this book. Yes, read it! The Still Point is an inter-generational story about an arctic explorer who disappears on an exploration and leaves his young wife behind, and a modern-day tale about a slowly-disintegrating marriage. This is not a synopsis that would usually interest me, but it's so achingly and beautifully told that you definitely must read it if you like literary fiction. 
I read it one summer for a book club (I think), and in the heat of the summer, I felt the freezing cold depths of winter as described by Amy Sackville when she writes about the explorer stuck in the icy Arctic with no resources and almost no hope. That, I think, is a major sign that the book is amazing, as it gave me feelings and thoughts that I otherwise would not be able to have. 

The modern-day story is also equally well-written. You can feel the winter of the two character's marriage too, and the two stories meld together intelligently. Read it to understand what I'm trying to say!

PS: both the books have beautiful covers, don't you agree? 

PPS: Blogger's really annoying. I don't understand how 'normal' Arial can sometimes be one font size, and sometimes another. I've tried my best to stick to one font size for all posts, but it seems like it's not always up to me to decide font size! Sorry.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Trout & The Red Lion (sister pubs)

Where to eat at a patio: The Trout 
Oxford, OX2 8PN

[Took photos of all the food but haven't had time to upload yet ... will upload soon]

I'm going to start with The Trout first, because it has to be the best patio experience I've had (that I can recall) in the UK. Ok, so it rains half the time over here, which isn't conducive to positive outdoor dining experiences, but we lucked out. We originally wanted to drive out to another award-winning pub in the 'heart' of the Cotswolds, but firstly, it was a bit far, and also, their lunch menu wasn't exciting our tastebuds. 

I then remembered The Trout. We've already accidentally been to The Perch, which is another pub by Port Meadows (see my review here), and the ambience was lovely on a hot spring afternoon. The Trout, in comparison, stood out even more so. The quaint little pub (well, it's not so little when you saunter in, but it seems a bit small from the outside) sits right next to the river, with a beautiful bridge, plenty of outdoor seats, and a mini waterfall. 

The Trout is absolutely beautiful to visit. We originally had a last minute reservation inside the pub, which is nice and cozy enough, but seeing that the sun was out, we decided to risk sitting outside. 

Now that I've raved enough about the atmosphere, let's talk about the food. In one word, I'd sum it up by saying: stunning! They're known for their seafood, and I had the most delectable pan-fried scallops of the day as appetizer (with a beautiful roast tomato tapenade & balsamic vinegar), followed by a very very delightful main of linguini with prawns, chorizo, sweet chilli, crab. I frequently order this dish because my friend doesn't like seafood, so I don't get to cook it much, and this is one of the best renditions of the chorizo/prawns/linguini combo I've had ever! (I am in fact going to compare it to The Trout's sister pub version of the same dish later...) 

My friend had a perfectly cooked chargrilled asparagus with poached egg (I wasn't allowed to share so you'll have to trust him), and a really lovely spaghetti carbonara. It was extremely rich and creamy, but it wasn't too much so that you can't finish the meal and feel good. 

We ended the meal by sharing a white chocolate creme brulee - perfect! The meal was a bit pricy, about 50 quids including alcohol, but we stayed there for a good two and a half hours or more, and wandered around the Wolvercote area a bit (very picturesque!) so it was worth it. 

Highly recommended, especially if the weather is sunny, or else, it would probably make for a lovely cozy pub to go to in the deepest of winters. 


Where to grab a bite: The Red Lion
Location: Central Oxford
Unfortunately, The Red Lion pales in comparison to The Trout. I generally enjoy The Red Lion, having been there a few times for drinks, and for an odd meal here and there. The pub is nicely decorated, very nicely lit and with interesting wall decors. The food is quite good, but very shortly after eating at The Trout, I then discovered that they are actually sister pubs, and then eating there ... well, it made it too easy to compare the two. 
I didn't consciously order the same dish, but it turns out I really do like ordering tiger prawns linguini with a bit of spice to it. At The Red Lion, it was decent, but I really loved the Trout's, so this one wasn't as good. It wasn't as sweet, didn't have as good an aftertaste ... 

Everyone else liked their dishes though. One bad thing was the service - we had a really talkative waiter who forgot some of our orders. That's fine, but one of us had to leave quite early and we didn't exactly want to dawdle. 

The redeemable factor here was their desserts. In fact, just the dessert I ordered. Their chocolate brownie was divine. I really mean this (and this means a lot, given that I have quite a sweet tooth). It was rich and melts in your mouth, drizzled with a lovely dark chocolate sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. Perfect. 

So I'd still go to the Red Lion, especially as it's smack in the centre of town so it's easy to get to ... but if you can make a bit of an effort, do go to The Trout instead! 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I Love Metric!

Location: 2012 Tour around the World 

I can't get enough of Metric. For over ten years, I've been in love with all the bands that had some relation to Broken Social Scene: this included the famous Feist, Stars and the awesome band that I'm now going to rave about, Metric.

While Feist is more folksy and Stars is more pop-like, Metric is full rock-n'-roll. They really put on a good live show, and there's not a moment where it's boring or uninteresting, even if they turn acoustic. 
If you've never heard of them, check out Black Sheep, the theme song from the indie film Scott Pilgrim, which is definitely rocked out. 

Yes, so there might be a reason why I'm biased towards all the bolded bands & films above, as they are all CANADIAN! Haha. However, I don't know anyone who has ever listened to Metric and not liked them. So there you go.

They were playing quite a lot of shows across the UK last month, and I caught their last show. They looked a bit worn out (the very sexy lead singer Emily Haines, who usually chats with the crowd comfortably, was rather silent as she just focussed on singing her heart out), but the energy was still very high, and everyone was singing along to their old anthems Help I'm Alive, Stadium Love, and Monster Hospital
They sang quite a lot from their new album too (Synthetica) and the good thing was that they released their whole album online way ahead of the tour, so lots of us were able to hum or at least bob along to the music. Their CD is really whacky - all the lyrics are printed backwards, and the case includes a mirrored sheet so that you can then 'read' the lyrics from the reflective sheet. Crazy!

If you want to hear more, listen to my Top 3 Metric songs: Empty (below), Poster of a Girl and Gimme Sympathy

Woody Allen: A Documentary

Title: Woody Allen: A Documentary
Where to watch: Selected Theatres in UK

'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.'
The title gives it all away - Woody Allen: A Documentary is a film that's focussed entirely on Woody Allen. It naturally starts off from when he was young, and then leads into how he made it into the comedy scene, how he became a regular figure on tv talk shows, and ultimately, how he ended up on the big screen. 

I love Woody, especially his classics Manhattan, Annie Hall ... and yes, though the most recent Woody film I've seen was a tad cheesy (Midnight In Paris), it was still very, very enjoyable and definitely worth two hours of your life. 

Ok, so he has had a few big flops, but you've got to admire his career that has lasted over four decades; his jokes are still just as self-deprecating and relevant as it was in the 60s. Woody is a famously solipsistic man, and in this film you can see him constantly battling with the meaning of life in a very philosophical, psychoanalytical, and occasionally theological way. 

Everyone knows he is not without controversies and the film touches on that aspect lightly. Though the film pays tribute to Woody's inspirations (including one of my favourite directors, Fellini), it seems a bit of an oversight to not deal with Groucho Marx's influence over Woody. Overall, it's not a very critical film, more a movie directed by a big Woody fan. 

Ah well, still, if you're the least bit interested in Woody's films and how they came about, then it's interesting to watch this documentary. 

'My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.'

Monday, 11 June 2012

Fitzbillies (café) & Café de Flore (film)

Where to Snack: Fitzbillies 
Cambridge, CB2 1RG
We were in Cambridge for a wedding, but before we left the next day, we made sure to try out Fitzbillies. There's been quite a lot of hype around it since it re-opened, so we wanted to see if it lived up to expectations. 

The first thing I found out when we got there was that 'no one' had ever gone into Fitzbillies before it shut down. Everyone in Cambridge knew it existed for a very long time, and had heard about its signature Chelsea buns, but no one (at least, not the student population) ever passed through its front doors. 

Well, the clientele now is packed full with young people and young families! So they have turned it around. The decor is clean, simple yet friendly, and their Chelsea buns are lovely. I have never had one before: I'd say it tastes like a Cinnabon, except with less cinnamon and sugar. It was still quite sweet though, so I'd recommend sharing a bun with someone. 

Their hot chocolate, by the way, is creamy and very good quality. As for their lunch menu, I really liked my 'lunch salad', which consisted of nice green salad with rabbit and beetroot and other sorts of yummy things (yummy means I can't remember what the ingredients were), but the other friends all thought their food was overpriced. At £7.10, I thought my salad was quite perfect. I also have never had rabbit before, so it was a nice little adventure trying out the meat. 

Lastly, just before we left, we also took away some ice cream, and boy was it good. It's not as amazing as some of the gelati I've had in my lifetime, but it's very creamy and rich, and our chocolate and raspberry & cream scoops complemented each other perfectly. We even took it down to the river and sat under the sun to watch the punters go by. 

I would definitely recommend going for tea at Fitzbillies, but perhaps skip the lunch fare if you think it's not affordable. Everything tasted good though.


Title: Café de Flore
Where to watch: Selected Theatres in UK

Café de Flore is a very enigmatic film. I went to see it because the same director directed one of my favourite Canadian films of all time: C.R.A.Z.Y. That film is utterly mind-blowing for all sorts of reasons (the psychedelic use of music with Pink Floyd & Rolling Stones - great soundtrack!, beautiful & creative shots, surreal slow-mo scenes, great acting...) 

Anyway, I was hoping to get another film like that with this, but nope. Read a review here. The film has two storylines slowly converging into one, but the final conclusion was not really satisfactory. It felt more like a 'whaaaa?' than an 'ohhhhh!' (if you get what I mean). 

A lot of Jean-Marc Valleé's signature tropes were present: music of various genres were highlighted, good slow-mo sections, underwater shots, and beautiful young actors. His auteuristic style worked more or less, but occasionally I'd think that he's doing the same old trick because people loved it in C.R.A.Z.Y. For example, Pink Floyd again?! Can he not pick another band, or even another song, to feature? 

One interesting fact: you'd think that the film title refers to the café made famous by Sartre, de Beauvoir and the likes, but actually it refers to a song. Oh another tidbit: this director made Young Victoria! I haven't watched that yet but it had some good reviews.  

There's some moving acting in Café de Flore - Vanessa Paradis is in the cast - but overall, I wouldn't suggest anyone see it. Please go see C.R.A.Z.Y. instead!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey (Trilogy)

Author: EL James

Why is the word-of-mouth hit Fifty Shades Trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) so popular? Most critics give credit to the rise of e-readers and their ability to allow for discreet reading. The plotline's not great, the heroine and hero lack character development.

Fifty Shades feels more like a fanfiction story than an original one, and indeed, after a bit of quick research, I found out the series started life as a piece of Twilight fanfiction. You can see the resemblance to Twilight in the brooding, secretive older man who has a dark, twisted past, and a submissive young lady who gets acquainted with the 'dark' side of life and discovers her 'inner goddess' along the way...

More than three friends have recommended the book to me (most of them in publishing actually!), so there must be something compelling about the novels. I guess the dark, racy nature of the story makes for an exciting page-turner.

The critics have given it mixed reviews. Some US states even banned the books from libraries. You should read it anyway, to see what it's all about. You can't escape from it really, they're about to turn it into a Hollywood film!  

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bookstart: Share 20 books in 2012 & Kurt Vonnegut

Location: Anywhere you're near a book!

Joining well-known faces such as Gruffalo author (and Children's Laureate) Julia Donaldson and War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, I've recently made a pledge (and a silly balloon on my Twitter profile) to a great cause: to share 20 books in 2012.

This is part of a Bookstart campaign to get everyone to share books with their families and friends. Bookstart itself is aimed at helping children start reading, but hey, you can share books not just with children. This is what they recommend:

How can you share 20 books?
  • reading picture books with your own children or other members of your family at bedtime or at anytime!
  • reading to a group of children in a school or a library
  • joining a reading group
  • recommending books to your friends
  • posting a book review on a website.
I'm probably just going to do the latter two. In previous entries, I've already shared with you the wonders of The Hunger Games, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Diana Athill's STET, TS Eliot's Four Quartet & Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach... so it's really easy to continue onwards writing reviews about another dozen or so books for the rest of this year. 

So for Book #7, I will talk about Slaughterhouse Five


Author: Kurt Vonnegut

First of all, it is embarrassing to admit that I only read Slaughterhouse Five recently (over Easter holidays). Secondly, I have always thought that Slaughterhouse Five is about a group of children solving mysteries.

Yes, I mixed it up with The Famous Five, haha!

So naturally, I didn't really like it when I started reading, as it defied my expectation: why did the narrative launch immediately into a discussion about the representation of World War 2 (and in particular, the Dresden episode)? Where are the kids? Where's the mystery?

I started to like it by the end of chapter 1. It's very metafictional, with the author going on about how he's going to write about his war experiences authentically and correctly. He's very self-deprecating: 
I've finished my war book now. The next one I wrote is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: [...]
He does indeed give away the last sentence of his book, right in the first chapter. Very Joycean; very biblical.

Anyway, so the 2nd chapter brings us into this fictional account of Billy Pilgrim. That story itself is hard to appreciate, I think because the main character Billy is so difficult to like: he's quite pathetic, bad things happen to him but he doesn't try to change his situation much. He is a Cassandra-like creature, but the things he can foretell sound ridiculous. I really didn't like Billy Pilgrim, but the metafictional aspects of the story are awesome, where the I or me appears in the narrative as the 'author'. That is quite fun and unexpected. And I'm a huge sucker for metafiction.

Another quirky bit in the book is that whenever someone dies, or if someone talks about death (and this happens quite often!), the line 'So it goes' follows right after. This technique doesn't get old, and it's quite a funny yet resigned way of dealing with death.

Overall, the book is worth a read. It is actually ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. In any case, if you must read only one satire on the world war, you should skip this one and pick up Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Catch-22 is quite lengthy, but it's absolutely a laugh-out-loud kind of novel.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

TS Eliot & Ian McEwan

This has been a surprisingly literary weekend. We didn't set out to do anything other than have a relaxing Easter break, perhaps drive around the countryside and to the coast. We stayed in Yeovil, which isn't a spectacular town, but ended up having a nice cup of chai tea and a scrumptious raspberry & chocolate tart at the Pear Tree in the nearby town Sherbone. Someone wrote a review of what to do in Sherbone and recommended the Pear Tree (and also managed to slag off Yeovil, but I don't blame him). 

On the same day, we drove to East Coker, which turned out to be part of TS Eliot's famous poem the Four Quartets. I absolutely love Burnt Norton, the first part of the Four Quartets, so I'm embarrassed to say I didn't recognise the significance of East Coker until I saw his plaque inside the church. My favourite lines from Four Quartets: 
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Isn't it beautiful? I fell in love with this section of the poem at the same time as reading Borges' short stories, and Borges' fiction primarily wrestled with the astounding idea that in art or literature, fiction and non-fiction (truth and lies) are given equal status. Only in literature can you follow the path you did not take, and learn what could have happened. Anyway. 

East Coker turns out to be Eliot's grandfather's home, and the Eliot family has ties to this village for centuries back. TS Eliot was born in the States, but he ended up becoming a British citizen. He lived in London for most of his life: when he visited East Coker though, he decided to have his ashes buried there. Quite poignant. There's a plaque dedicated to him inside the church, with part of his poem inked on it: 
In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.

Title: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

After a lazy lunch today, we took off towards Bridport and Beaminster. We were told the two towns are quite picturesque, and decided to drive down to the coast. Bridport is small, quiet (especially on Easter Sunday), but it has a lovely cultural scene going on there: signs with the latest Bridport Film Festival, lots of used bookstores, cute pubs with book club evenings... We spent a nice afternoon chilling out at Beach & Barnicott, a lovely Grade II listed bar & restaurant. It is very comfortable, except that the ceiling started leaking while we were drinking Green & Blacks hot chocolate and devouring a moist carrot cake. Turns out the kitchen employees were draining their sinks, and yes, the water goes down through the ceiling and onto us (well, almost). Anyway, other than that incident, the pub was very relaxing and we had a nice time compiling a strange list of things we are good at (inspired by this book).

We then drove a few minutes more to West Bay and walked along the beach, which turns out to be next door to Chesil Beach! Chesil Beach, made famous by Ian McEwan's novella. I am the biggest fan of McEwan (at least, almost everything after The Child In Time), so it was really fortunate to accidentally find the setting of one of his stories. It was a bit chilly, but the walk by the beach and the Jurassic cliffs nearby are really astounding and dramatic - you can kind of picture dinosaurs seeing the same cliffs when they once roamed the earth. 

Anyway, I hope you all had a lovely long (and literary) weekend as well!