Sunday, June 6, 2010

Springtime in Ottawa - May 2010

Wow, May just flashed by! I don't know if it's because I've been busy, or because of the great weather. May is my favourite month of the year in Ottawa, and I appreciated it all the more for having been away for the past two years and knowing that I may well be away for the next two. This is the time of year when I remember why I love Ottawa so much: when it's gotten warm, but not quite excruciatingly hot; when everything's turned green; when the flowers have bloomed and the birds have come back and baby animals are being born. It's the time of year for getting out of the house again and going for long walks by the river and marvelling at just how truly lovely this city can be. This is how I remember Ottawa whenever I'm away from it!

My buddy from the Netherlands came here on vacation, and she stayed with me for a weekend. I enjoyed seeing her again, and the chance it gave me to play tour guide in my home town. I took her to as many must-see attractions as I could: the Museum of Civilization, the War Museum, the Tulip Festival, along the river and the canal, and around the Parliament Buildings. I hadn't been to the Musée since I was in university, and I'm quite impressed with what they've done with the Canada Hall. They've created a section to represent each of Canada's regions, and added a gallery of notable Canadian personalities. Being Dutch, my buddy didn't find the Tulip Festival and talk of Canada's close relationship with Holland to be anything new, but she did confirm for me that Canadians are still remembered as liberators throughout the Netherlands. We had beautiful weather most of the time, which was great for just walking around and taking pictures. I think she had a good time here, and she also left with a definite impression of what Ottawans get up to on Friday nights: swing dancing!

Now that I've been accepted to the JET Programme, I've started having orientation seminars and training. I have to give the Programme credit; they seem quite serious about getting their recruits ready for life in Japan. We had a couple of TESOL training classes, which were pretty much review for me, but I still found them helpful. Now we've started Japanese lessons. We only get six classes, but at least they'll give us a start on the language, and we also have a textbook to work through. They're also giving us a lot of information about Japanese culture and school life. Gradually, the notion that I'm actually going to be living and working in Japan for a year is becoming more real.

I mentioned that my church choir, which I'd joined back in January, was taking a break. This month I have some semi-good news. The choir has started singing again on Sundays, but we're only singing the regular hymns with the congregation, and we aren't doing rehearsals. The vegetable garden is continuing to grow. We had baby spinach early in the month, but none of the other plants has produced food yet. And I've discovered the secret to getting more books read in a given period of time: read shorter books!

In the news, the U.K. has had an election, ousting Gordon Brown and returning the Conservatives to power. There's a terrific oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling thousands of barrels of petrol into the water and endangering the livelihoods of local animals and people. It's horrible to think about the environmental damage; the only way there could be a good side to this would be if it inspired the world to develop cleaner sources of energy, and to stop relying on fossil fuels. South Korea has broken off relations with its northern counterpart after the latter was accused of sinking an R.o.K. boat. I find it hard to believe that North Korea would do anything so stupid as to deliberately alienate its southern neighbour, but then, the D.R.K. is famous for its inscrutability and bloody-mindedness. Who knows why it does anything?

Movies I've seen this month:

– Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of the Mikado. A fairly conventional story (famous artists in a creative slump are suddenly inspired to create a new work, which goes on to become a beloved masterpiece), padded with a surprising number of sub-plots and asides that add a great deal to the realism, but rather take away from the flow of the narrative. (Three stars)

– IMAX movie about sea creatures. Like all documentaries about the ocean, it's fun to watch. Unfortunately, we sat too close to the screen, making the 3D effects go a bit wonky.

Bright Star
– Cute teen romance that just happens to be set in the nineteenth century and have John Keats as one of its protagonists. I was strangely impressed with this film, which offers the most restrained, un-spectacular, and, ultimately, realistic portrayal of young love I've ever seen in a movie. Unfortunately, that's all to say that it's really rather slow-paced and dull. (Three stars)

– Gritty and disturbing Italian film about organised crime in Naples. Along similar lines to Los olvidados, or City of God, but very slow moving and anti-spectacular. Makes one appreciate why "Va' fa Napoli!" is an Italian curse. (Three and a half stars)

Up In the Air
– Another smart and timely comedy-drama by the director of Thank You for Smoking and Juno. I enjoyed it, but didn't find it nearly as brilliant as the previous two. (Three stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

Jeeves & Wooster
(Season 3) – The continuing adventures of a gentlemanly gentleman's gentleman and his "mentally negligible" but "golden-hearted" employer. This time, half the episodes take place in New York, but the stories still proceed in basically the same vein. There are some amusing moments (Bertie getting into a fight with some brown paper and treacle), but I can't help thinking that the show would be several times better if they cut out all those annoying plot bits and renamed it "Silly Songs with an Upper-Class Twit and His Valet".

(Season 1) – They have come to Earth with the promise of peace, an alien race known as the Tael-… er, the V. But there are those who resist these "alien compan-"… I mean, uh, "visitors". Okay, so comparisons with Earth: Final Conflict are inevitable, and the most appealing thing about V was its potential to succeed where that brilliant but horribly mismanaged series had failed to tell an interesting and morally complex story about first contact between humans and a superior alien race. Unfortunately, that means I've been easily disappointed by all the ways in which V differs from E:FC, but I'll try not to let that cloud my review too much.

Actually, I think even without the comparisons I would have found this show disappointing. The characters are flat and clichéd: the angry teenager, the concerned mother, the conflicted priest, the unprincipled mercenary, the manipulative villain. The aliens are all absurdly altruistic or laughably callous. They have cheesy, '60s B-movie-style debates in which they either extol the virtue or scorn the depravity of "human emotion", without scrutinising the issue or elucidating their own motivational system. Despite the potential of the premise, all the ground it covers feels well-trodden. I'll keep watching it if it comes back for a second season, but I won't be too broken up if it doesn't.

Books I've read this month:

Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson – Travelogue about one man backpacking around Britain. The writing style is too subjective for the book to be really useful as a travel guide, but it does make me think that one of these days I should try backpacking around Britain myself.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll – I've started on something of a re-reading-the-children's-classics binge, and I thought it had been far too long since I'd read this most vitally brilliant of English master-works. And it is, you know. If there are two books that every speaker and student of the English language should read, they are this book and its sequel. They're just chock-full of plays on the English language, characters so singular they have become ingrained in our culture, and a wonderfully zany sense of humour.

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There
by Lewis Carroll – I actually like this book even better than its predecessor. It has a more structured narrative while, paradoxically, coming much closer to capturing the logic of a dream. It also contains the famous "Jabberwocky" poem and the chapter on Humpty Dumpty, my absolute favourite of all the Wonderland characters. It's only the end that I find rather weak, in contrast to the first book where the ending is the best part. By the way, if you, like me, were wondering, they're pronounced "guy-re" and "ghim-ble", not "jai-re" and "jim-ble".

by Terry Pratchett – How am I only now discovering the Discworld books? I'm really getting quite into them. They may not be strong on structure or narrative coherence, but I appreciate the humour, the satire, and the imagination. The last two books have even had happy endings!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C. S. Lewis – Historically my favourite of the Narnia books. I didn't like it as much as I remembered, but towards the end I recaptured the sense of wonder I felt reading it as a child. I also decided that with some sections expanded, one could make a decent film out of it, although I'm not optimistic about the movie that's in production.