Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Christmas Playlist

It's long seemed strange to me that, with such a surfeit of good Christmas carols and songs available (in sharp contrast to Channukah, which only has one song and not a particularly good one), radio stations and shopping malls persist in just playing Walking In A Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bell Rock, Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, and Drummer Boy over and over again until everyone wants to throw up. With breaks for annoying kid's music like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.

No wonder some people wind up feeling grinchy. So as a public service, I have decided to offer a list of underplayed Christmas songs. Each song title is linked so that you can buy the MP3 download if you choose, although granted that could get a little expensive....

Oh, who am I kidding? You're all using Bit Torrent to download pirated copies, and nothing I say is going to change that. Go ahead, then, acquire these songs in whatever way you prefer and download them to your player. Then, when the repetition of the well-worn standards gets to be too much, you can pop your earbuds in, have an escape and remind yourself that Christmas music, as well as Christmas itself, need not suck.


  • Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)
    Oh, you can get the English version if you want. But isn't it more fun to listen to the original, in medieval Latin?*
  • Three Ships
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
    This and the previous are good sing-along songs because they have a ton of verses that are all sung to the same tune, and so are easy to learn. Why not print out the lyrics and go caroling?
  • Hark The Herald Angels Sing
  • Ding Dong Merrily On High
    Aside from the tune, what I like about this carol are the bizarre lyrics. Isn't it great that something written back in the nineteenth century includes, "Yo, yo, yo,"? It's like primitive hip-hop. Plus there's Latin in this one too. Hosanna in excelsis!
  • Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree)
    Again, listening in the original German is more fun.


  • Mary's Boy Child
    Just in case you were confused and thought Mary had a girl.
  • Petit Papa Noël
    As far as I'm aware, this hasn't been translated into English, but if it has... you know it... it's more fun to listen to in the original French. Come on. Broaden yourself culturally.
  • Santa Baby
    There aren't enough sultry Christmas songs, don't you think? Here's one. Much better than the insipid I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
  • Welcome Christmas
    Yes, from the cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But it's a good tune. Why not a good tune, from a toon?


  • 2000 Miles by The Pretenders
    My favourite Christmas rock song. I think I've heard it on the radio all of twice.
  • A Mistress for Christmas by AC/DC
    Who the hell would want a hippopotamos for Christmas? What for? Imagine how it would destroy your house, and how much you'd have to feed it. The AC/DC boys have more sense. I have never heard this song played on the radio, much less in a mall. Why on earth not? If there were more Heavy Metal Christmas music blasting out of the speakers at this time of year (which is to say, if there were any at all), the world would be a better place. Really. Just think what a great antidote it would make for all the sickly sweet stuff on offer at this time of year.

    This song is off The Razor's Edge album, and shockingly, HMV Digital does not have that album, and therefore does not have the original version of the song. What better proof of how underappreciated it is? So no link for this one.

  • A Wonderful Christmas Time by Paul McCartney
    This one gets less airtime than Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon. That's why it's on the list.

And that's my list. If you think I've missed out a worthwhile and underplayed Christmas song or carol, please comment below. Heavy metal or hip-hop offerings particularly appreciated.

* Medieval Latin is not genuine Latin. It is a creation of the Christian church, coming after true Latin had died. There is a tendency to use different verb forms, but more importantly, the pronunciation is altogether different, which is to say wrong. You see, nobody had invented the gramophone yet, so medieval speakers were unable to determine how Latin was actually pronounced. Scholars eventually were able to recover some (who knows how much?) of the correct pronunciation through the study of poetry (i.e. which vowel sounds were long and which were short), and spelling (for example, Caius and Gaius are alternate spellings of the same name, which shows that c's and g's were hard, not soft). But that must have happened post-medieval times.

One of the big medieval errors was to change the short terminal e into a long e (as in, Et tu, Bruté? Caesar never said it like that). Another was to pronounce every syllable. The ancient Romans didn't do that. They elided adjacent vowel sounds. The sad result of this error of the medievals is that you can't sing Adeste Fideles with classical Latin pronunciation even if you want to; with the elisions in place, it won't scan. I know—I've tried. (I majored in Classics at university.) Back

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dumb Things People Say: Stop Grossing Me Out!

When I wrote my last word on this subject, Dumb Things People Say: The Mangling of Popular Expressions, I didn't anticipate that I would one day write a sequel. I should have. People do say an overabundance of stupid things, after all, and there is not one category of ill-conceived speech but several. This particular one puts the "gory" in "category."

WARNING: The following contains images of violence, as well as the most notorious and versatile four-letter word in the English language. If you have delicate sensibilities... then I don't know how you manage in modern society, and I sympathize. Oh, and you read on at your own risk.

You wouldn't expect to find an image of horrifying bloodiness in a discussion of the best science fiction and fantasy books of the year, would you? I certainly didn't. But in Genreville's blog post on the subject, Rose Fox states that Daryl Gregory's short story collection Unpossible "blew my head off and then dumped cold water down the bleeding stump of my neck. Fortunately that’s how I like it. "

No Rose, you wouldn't like that. I admit that once your head was actually off, you wouldn't mind the cold water being poured down your neck, because you'd be too dead to feel it or care one way or another. But I maintain that if somebody came at you with any instrument of decapitation, explosive or otherwise, you'd put up a vigorous argument, even if that somebody was as talented a writer as Daryl Gregory.

I'm normally a fan of Genreville, and I sincerely believe that that metaphor was not Rose Fox's finest moment.

Do people think about what they're saying? Do they picture in their minds the thing they are describing, really picture it in something other than an oh-look-Wile-E.-Cayote-is-alive-again-after-falling-off-that-cliff cartoonish sort of way? I'm sure they must not, because if they did, they would never post something like that on their blogs. They might say it in conversation—and be sorry an instant afterwards. But writing and posting takes more premeditation.

I can't help myself. When somebody talks of chopping off a head and pouring water down the stump, I immediately picture just that, and I don't enjoy it one bit. I have a vivid imagination. I know that not everybody does. It surprises me that somebody so lacking in that area that she can comfortably speak about pouring cold water down bloody neck-stumps, gets much out of reading novels. It's a wonderment.

As is the concept of skull-fucking. So many questions arise. Why would you want to? Where exactly would you insert your penis?* The ear hole? The eye socket? What sort of pleasure could you possibly get out of such an activity, other than the vengeful, twisted satisfaction of degrading your enemy's remains? And finally, just how much would you have to hate somebody to want to do this to them?

Exotic as it sounds, skull-fucking has apparently become a part of the common discourse. I first encountered it maybe sixteen, seventeen years back. I was in a fit of pique over the bug-ridden unusability of a piece of Microsoft software (some things don't change). I don't remember what I typed into the search engine (this was pre-Google. Imagine! I think my favourite search engine at the time was Infoseek); probably something like "Microsoft sucks." Up came a link to, "Fucking the skull of Microsoft." Curiosity overcame repulsion, and I clicked. I was sorry I did. It was an illustration, you see. Since then, skull-fucking has become sufficiently socially acceptable that Jon Stewart sometimes mentions it in an offhand way on The Daily Show.

Likewise, Steven Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, often invites his interview guests to "rip me a new one." Considering that this is short for "rip me a new asshole," isn't it amazing that this expression has become an acceptable part of polite discourse? Just think about the implications. Think about what is involved. Unless you'd rather not. I think I'd rather not. It's much more horrible than skull-fucking, which, after all, can only take place once the victim is mercifully dead, probably for a long time (unless the perpetrator is so eager to begin the ritual that he uses artificial means to remove the flesh from the bones).

It seems to me that any culture in which such grotesqueries are so casually bandied about is one that has become extraordinarily numbed and hardened to images of violence. How did that happen? If, in fact, it happened. I'm sure some would argue that it's a normal part of the human condition. But this is a discussion worthy of a whole other blog post, one which I will probably write soon. For now, back to the topic at hand: things people say.

At my old job, my coworkers and I once got into a discussion about the internet acronym WTF. I probably don't have to tell you what this means, since you know the internet well or you wouldn't be reading this, but just in case (and because I like my naughty words typed out in full): it stands for What The Fuck. My coworker found it strange that the average internet user thinks it's perfectly polite to type this, even in forums where they'd never use the full four-letter word. He quoted a comedian as saying,"Now you've made me think of that word. I don't want that word in my head!"

I don't mind that word in my head, but there are any number of blood-soaked images I don't want in my head. I would appreciate it if the young people of today could keep them to themselves.

* I don't mean to be sexist in my assumption that a penis must be involved in skull-fucking, and I hope I haven't offended any young women who want equality in the realm of doing disgusting things. It's simply that I believe—perhaps wrongly, and feel free to correct me if I err—that if a vulva rather than a penis was involved, the activity would be called something else. Skull-humping, perhaps. Back

† Actually, that's not my final question. My final question is, Is this something that a great novel or short story collection might do to Rose's skull after blowing it off its neck? Just asking. Back

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dumb Things I Read in the Saturday Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2011

The masses demanded, so they got. Well, one mass anyway. At first, it was looking like I wasn't going to get any material. The articles were all reasonably intelligent, or at least not outwardly idiotic. I turned to the Style section, which can usually be counted on to serve up something stupid. It's the Style section; isn't that what it's for? There's Chris Nuttal-Smith, right on the third page. I remember the time some guy wrote in to say he liked top hats and wanted to bring them back into fashion. Naturally Chris had to nip this kind of dangerous fashion dissension in the bud, so he got out the big guns (I picture an haute couture gun, perhaps with feathers hanging from it, unless they're not in fashion this year) and informed the reader that HE was not someone who could bring back the top hat and he'd better not even think of wearing one in public unless he wanted to make a fool of himself.

Of course not. A lowly citizen can't bring back the top hat. You need someone like Karl Lagerfeld, someone who already has a design house and is respected in the field. If Lagerfeld put on a top hat on one of his models, it would be heralded as revolutionary, everybody would be wearing one, and then the reader would be permitted his top hat. But put on a top hat when Lagerfeld hasn't done it yet, and you're just an ass.

Not being a fashion victim, I thought that was pretty stupid, and I expected to enjoy more, similarly stupid pronouncements. But this time, Chris was tackling the question of middle-aged people wearing clothes meant for young people. He nixed it, of course. "Cheap casual clothes are simply not flattering on imperfect men: This is why tailored suits are one's greatest support in old age. The same principle is true for women," he argues, and... I agree with him.* Apparently, if I wanted stylish stupidity, I'd have to dig deeper.

So I did, but page after page, I wasn't finding stupidity. Some perfectly credible furniture, a recipe, a piece about wines: all reasonable stuff. Hideous clothing on the two-page spread for Paris Fashion Week, but that's visual. I needed stupidity in print.

Just when I thought all was lost, I found it. Page 18. Katrina Onstad's column, entitled: Swedish for emasculated baby-men. First sentence:

It has been said that there is no greater test of a relationship than navigating the life-altering choice between a Krunst and a Gertllos throw rug.

And we have a winner. Thank you, Katrina Onstad! You have maintained G&M's vital stupidity quotient. Hear that, everybody? No greater test of relationships than shopping for a throw rug, so forget degenerative diseases and child rearing; they're insignificant.

OK, you could argue that she was being tongue in cheek, but I'm not so sure. The scary thing about the Globe and Mail is the peek it gives into this alien world of Toronto upper-middle classness where things that nobody else gives a shit about, like where to go to eat weird extruded, foam-covered nouvelle cuisine or which thousand-dollar handbag to buy, acquire a quasi-mystical, fetishistic significance. If you are the kind of person who cares about such things, then maybe throw-rug shopping really is the greatest relationship challenge you expect to face.

But perhaps I should get to the point. Katrina was very upset because IKEA had the temerity to try to rescue men from the pain of shopping. In a location in Sydney, Australia, they have installed Manland, a room that men can hang out in while they wait for their wives to finish shopping. It is said to contain entertainments such as foosball and hot dogs. As a Torontonian with no real problems, Katrina is deeply offended by this proposal.

"The set of assumptions behind Manland doesn't flatter either sex," she claims. "Once again, here comes the baby-man meme, wherein men are unable and unwilling to participate in the rote side of domestic life." Leaving aside the implication that all ideas are now "memes," whether or not they originated on the Internet, isn't it interesting that women are the ones who get to decide what constitutes "participation in domestic life"? One could argue that women don't adequately participate in the garbage-removal and snow-shovelling side of domestic life. Once they've been together a year or two, couples invariably and naturally split up tasks according to the inclinations and abilities of each spouse. Somehow that's never a problem until some woman says it is. I never heard a man say that a woman's not pulling her weight in the coupledom arena unless she's walked alongside him while he pushed the lawnmower, so it's not clear to me why men should have to shop with their wives if they find it a genuinely painful experience.

And they do. I can't count the number of times I've been in a store and seen a man sitting in a chair outside the women's changing room with a dead look in his eyes. One glance, and I know he's gone well beyond boredom. He hit boredom after the first half-hour. Now his brain has shut down. Ladies, if you love your man, why would you want to put him through this?

Mind you, that's clothes shopping. I think furniture shopping probably induces a fair bit of male unhappiness as well, but at least a sofa doesn't have to be tried on. If any store needs a Manland, it's a clothing store. Still, IKEA is to be commended for its innovation, and clothing stores may well follow suit.

There's more to Katrina's argument. "To be a man..." she claims, "is to participate fully in your relationship and muster up a civil opinion on a bath mat from time to time. Manland is a country populated by the lowest forms of manhood: the whiner who can't even put aside his own (adolescent) proclivities for an hour to help his wife carry a Shrompfken - one that he's probably going to enjoy sleeping on himself." In other words, a woman can't manage the shopping-at-IKEA task herself because there are two things she needs from her man: an opinion and help carrying things.

All right, I can accept that a woman might value her husband's input while shopping... for real furniture. You know, something major, like a dining room table or a sofa. Not a bath mat. A BATH MAT, Katrina? Are you kidding me? You need your husband's opinion on a bath mat?

I can't imagine why you would care about something so insignificant as which precise bath mat your spouse decided to bring home, unless you're a middle-class Torontonian, in which case I suppose it's a matter of crucial importance.

But yes, for larger purchases, your spouse's input might be desirable. Fine, but you need to be aware that compromise is a two-way street. That is, it means something other than what Katrina seems to think it means: Man does everything woman tells him to do. Compromise may mean, for example, that the woman moves through IKEA and makes purchasing decisions more quickly than she would like to. Contrary to popular belief, men are quite capable of shopping... at their pace. They know what they want, they go in, they get it, they leave. Done. What makes men miserable is the lingering that women like to indulge in.

As for the Shrompfken-carrying business, Manland is still in the store, meaning the man is still available to do whatever carrying is required. You only need to carry from the store to the car or bus. While you're in the store, you have the cart.

Katrina further claims, I can't help but suspect dishonestly, that women are being altruistic when they shop: "Perhaps there are those whose perfect Saturday includes Swedish meatballs and picture frames, but I suspect that almost no one actually wants to go to IKEA, regardless of gender." Really? That's news to me, because I love IKEA. I have ever since it was first introduced in Montreal. I loved the tyranny of the little maze you had to walk through when you went into the furniture section. There was a little gap you could squeeze through if you knew where it was, thereby skipping to the end, but to fully appreciate the IKEA experience was to walk the whole thing, seeing everything from living room sets to kitchens in the order that the designers intended. We have too much choice in our society, and studies have shown that that makes us unhappy. I appreciate the IKEA genius who took away not only our choice of where to wander but also rejected the alienating warehouse look of the average big box store in favour of a cozier, more human-sized maze. And you can even get Swedish meatballs at the end, in lieu of the traditional piece of cheese.

I'm not the only one either. I know that because Cristina Perissinotto once wrote a fabulous poem about how much she loves IKEA (I have no idea if she published it, unfortunately). [UPDATE (2011/11/16): Cristina herself has informed me that the IKEA poem can be read in her poetry collection Exhale, Exhale by Guernica Editions. Buy a copy at Book Depository and get free shipping.]

Angry as she is, Katrina is not afraid to toss in thoroughly spurious arguments if she thinks it will win her her point. "I look forward to my pedicure room at Rona," she says sarcastically, but since when do men make their wives come to the hardware store with them?

The arguments just get more spurious as she goes on. A few tweaks, and suddenly this is some sort of feminist, political issue. Comparing Manland to the newly-popular man caves, she decides that these phenomena mean that men are feeling "elbowed aside," and having invented the problem, rushes to undermine it. All of a sudden, she's quoting statistics ("in 2010, less than 30 per cent of Canadian MPs were female"), after which she declares snidely, "it's a touch difficult to see 'invisibility' as a male issue."

Invisibility? Lack of female MPs? I thought we were talking about men shopping at IKEA.

Still, man caves are an interesting subject, one that hardly helps her argument. They may be partly about retreating from the world and indulging in entertainments such as XBox and foosball, but they're also about a man having a space that he can decorate precisely as he wants to (even Katrina admits as much, with her fleeting reference to "an electric guitar as wall art"). That implies that the rest of the house is the woman's domain, where she holds sway and decorates as she sees fit. It is difficult to reconcile such a vision with Katrina's assertion that women value the male opinion on decor, even on such items as the lowly bath mat. One might rather be tempted to conclude that there is truth in the stereotype that a woman wants a man's opinion on decor as long as it jibes with her own, all the while reserving the right to summarily dismiss deviating opinions. If this is what men are experiencing, no wonder they'd rather hang out at Manland, or in the man cave, than join their wives in the IKEA maze. I suspect that Katrina—poor, furious Katrina—has no one to blame but herself.

* Actually, reading this statement over, I realize it merits mockery as well, for the claim that "tailored suits are one's greatest support in old age." Hello? What about walkers? Canes? Medicare? He would have done better to word that differently, but G&M columnists appear to be like Tinkerbell, unable to hold more than one thing in their heads at a time, and so the rest of the world is forgotten as they make wild overstatements to support their arguments pertaining to whatever trivial topic they happen to be discussing. Back

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Genre" is not a Synonym for "Formulaic": a rant

[I]f you haven't had a life, and therefore have nothing to write about, don't worry unduly; this guarantees your dreary novels will be reviewed positively in all the posh papers, because posh papers are staffed exclusively by graduates who haven't had a life and therefore don't realise you're writing about nothing, or if they do realise it, rather approve of it. (This is called 'non-genre fiction', and, contrary to popular belief, it is much more profitable than popular fiction, because it is subsidised by taxes stolen from the working classes.) ~Mat Coward, in Success... and How to Avoid It.

The Globe and Mail from Saturday, Sept. 10 has an article in its Books section called Why Fiction is Good For You. Psychologist and fiction writer Keith Oatley claims that reading fiction makes you more empathetic. Sounds interesting, right? And to an extent, it is, although Oatley’s oftentimes bizarre ways of expressing himself don't improve the reading experience (at one point he says, "It is not that one puts bread into a toaster and makes toast."). For me, the article was spoiled, as is many a promising work of fiction, by the ending. The third paragraph from the bottom reads: "For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary and genre fiction."

Instant raising of the hackles. Mind you, I have no way of knowing whether Oatley himself chose to use the words "genre" and "literary" or whether he spoke more intelligently. That is not revealed in the direct quotes which follow:

"You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. […] You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person."

"Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind."

And that’s all fair enough, as long as one doesn’t pointlessly slam genre. Writer Kate Taylor continues to make an ass of herself by ending the article as follows:

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that’s art.


I have often thought of doing a series of blog posts that would be collectively called Dumb Things I Read in the Saturday Globe and Mail. I can usually rely on reading at least one stupid thing in every issue. The only thing that’s stopped me is, it takes me a week or two to get through an entire Saturday Globe and Mail, which would result in the posts being embarrassingly out of date. However, genre-bashing never goes out of style among the snobigensia, and apparently, neither do bad metaphors. So although this post has a different title, it could also be considered number 0 in my possible new series: Dumb Things I Read in the Globe and Mail.

It has already been pointed out ample times, mostly by fans, that genre fiction does not have to be superficial and formulaic, that it can in fact contain character development and whatever else you might expect to find in quality fiction. No matter how many times it’s said, it won’t penetrate the heads of those who don’t want to hear it. This selfsame article sings the praises of Jane Austen, a blatant genre writer who never wrote anything that wasn’t a romance. Snobs don’t want to think of Austen as a genre writer, though she clearly was, as it would interfere with their negative perception of genre fiction. So reality must be ignored.

This post is not yet another genre fiction apology. Rather, I want to make the opposite point: not that genre fiction doesn't have to be formulaic, but that literary fiction often is.

While the term "literary fiction" is generally understood to simply mean good-quality fiction, when one has read enough literary magazines and novels, it becomes clear that literary fiction, is, in fact, itself a genre. After all, it has clearly-defined rules. One of those rules is that it not be what is traditionally known as genre (ironic, isn’t it?). Other rules of the literary fiction genre include:

  • It needn't have any sort of satisfying ending.
  • The writing style should be "lyrical," that is, poetic.
  • A shovelful of symbolism is always good.
  • Also good is a recurring image, shoehorned in to create a feeling of "resonance." The image may be symbolic, though it doesn’t have to be. (For a particularly obnoxious example, read The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy.)
  • If the story lacks both symbolism and recurring, resonant images, it can still be considered literary if it adheres to the other rules and is a slice-of-life vignette of the sort that gives reviewers the opportunity to use adjectives like "stark" and "gritty."

What is formulaic fiction? It is fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre. These rules or guidelines do have their uses. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn't know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn't know where to shelve it. But an important part of art is breaking the rules, and to the degree that the author fails to do that, art is compromised. Just as a writer working on a thriller may say to himself at a certain point, "It's been a while since that last car chase; I'd better stick in another one," the literary writer may worry that there aren't enough deeply meaningful symbols in his lyrical story and he'd better work in some more.

This strict adherence to rules is why a lot of literary fiction sucks, and when literary fiction sucks, it sucks worse than most traditional genre fiction possibly can. Why? Because whatever else it may be lacking, genre fiction has to be at least entertaining. The market demands it. By contrast, literary fiction need not be; indeed, if you are enough of a snob, entertainment value may actually be a drawback because it detracts from the "seriousness" of the piece. (Snobs like to refer to short stories and poetry as "pieces." If you would like to make it in certain literary circles, be sure to refer often to your "piece." But make sure you are in the right circle or people may think you have a gun.)

I fear this discussion has become a little confusing, and not just because of the gun remark. After all, "genre" normally refers to certain specific genres that are considered genre (romance, science fiction, mystery and so on), while I am claiming that something normally thought to be outside genre (literary fiction) is actually a genre as well. I’m trying to make the distinction clear by referring to what is normally thought of as genre (romance, science fiction, mystery and so on) as traditional genre (meaning what is traditionally considered genre), while referring to fiction that follows the rules outlined above as the genre of literary fiction. So, having defined my terminology, I will sum up by saying that while some traditional genre fiction may be formulaic at times, it is also the case that the genre known as literary fiction is often, in its own way, formulaic as well, and boring to boot.

Clear as mud?

Mind you, I’m not saying that all literary fiction sucks. Just that too much of it does. And while I’ll read good-quality literary fiction, when I can find it, which is not often, I prefer good quality science fiction, fantasy fiction, mystery or horror (would any brave snob like to step forward and claim that Edgar Allen Poe is formulaic and low-quality?). But not western. Even though western is a genre and I identify as a genre fan, I don’t generally care for westerns (although the movie High Noon was quite good). Also not romance, except Jane Austen, who, romance writer though she was, is in a class of her own.

Perhaps we need a better vocabulary to discuss these things. That is to say, less misleading, less freighted with prejudice, and more accurate. What do you think? I think throwing out the meaningless expression "genre fiction" would be a good start.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Radical Restaurant Proposal

How about bringing me what I ordered? And nothing else?

Today I met a friend for lunch at a restaurant. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad... very carefully. No croutons. Dressing on the side. I thought that should have done it. I mean, I know what goes into a Caesar salad. But the salad arrived with two big slices of garlic bread sitting on top.

Expressing my surprise, I picked off the offending slabs and explained to the waitress that I neither wanted the bread nor could eat it, since I have celiac disease. An agonizingly drawn-out conversation followed.

"Should I have them make you a new salad?"

"I don't think that's necessary. I hate to waste food."

"Are you sure you'll be OK?"

"I don't think I'm so sensitive that one breadcrumb is going to affect me."

"But it might be better to be safe..."

"It sounds like you'll feel more comfortable if you make me a new salad."

"No, this is for you..."

And on, and on. Finally I persuaded her that the salad was all right for me to eat, and handed her the bread. I like to dump pieces of bread right in the hands of serving people. They seem reluctant to touch it. Maybe they don't want to get butter on their hands. But what do they expect me to do with it? Leave it in a heap on the table? Perhaps make it into an impromptu centrepiece?

Before the waitress left, she told me that in the future, I should always tell my server about any allergies I have before ordering.

"She's right," I said to my lunch companion. "I should." I wondered why it is I'm reluctant to do so. Perhaps it's a desire to avoid that scarlet letter feeling, that public declaration of oneself as a sickly oddball. But something else was bothering me. I thought I'd ordered pretty carefully, and somehow it wasn't enough. Why did I feel as though the waitress, indeed the entire restaurant business, is somehow trying to fob its responsibilities off on me?

Later that day, I figured it out. I'm tired of restaurants serving me food that I didn't ask for and don't want. Is this such a radical notion: serve me what I ordered, and not what I didn't order?

I don't think I'm merely being whiny. It's true that I don't enjoy the necessity of giving a spiel on my digestive health to the wait staff every time I eat out. But in fact, this is not just an allergy problem. Once, I ordered chili at Boston Pizza and it arrived with cheese all over it. I didn't want cheese. Nothing in the menu said that the chili came with cheese. I could not have avoided this situation by discussing my allergies with the waitress, since I have no dairy allergy.

I didn't send the chili back. I carefully scooped off the cheese and deposited it on the side of my plate.* As I said earlier, I don't like to waste food. Also, I think today's prevailing restaurant climate may have affected me. I felt as if the situation was my responsibility because I hadn't read the cook's mind all the way from the dining hall. I had failed to anticipate that he might put unrequested cheese on my chili.

Ketchup can also be a problem. It's an oddly popular condiment, so restaurants tend to assume you want it. Many wait people will slap a ketchup squeeze bottle on your table as soon as you put in an order, whereas if you prefer vinegar on your fries, you have to ask. I don't mind the ketchup squeeze bottle, but I hate it when a little ketchup-filled plastic tub appears on the side of my plate with my meal because I know that every ounce of it is going to end up untouched in the garbage, along with the once-unused plastic tub. All waste, which could have been avoided if only they'd asked.

And what happened to asking? Remember when wait staff used to ask you questions? "Fries or baked potato? White or brown toast?" Some of the higher-end restaurants, like Swiss Chalet, still do this. But many don't. I think this may have to do with the newish trend of dropping by your table after you've received the food and asking something like, "How's everything tasting?" or "Is there anything else I can get you?" Perhaps wait staff decided that there are only so many questions they can deal with having to ask, and if they had to ask these post-order questions, then the pre-order questions had to go.

Well, I don't think this is a worthwhile trade-off. The pre-order questions are more important. Rather than abandon pre-order questions in favour of the repetitious and potentially disruptive "Can I get you anything else?," restaurants should provide patrons with some sort of signalling device they can use to let the wait staff know when they need something. I have long thought it would be great if restaurant tables each came equipped with a little flagpole and flag that you could raise when you needed service. This would be easier for the customers and easier for the staff. Further, the flags could add to the overall design motif. They could be brightly coloured, or styled to match the room decor. Restaurateurs, please feel free to use this idea without giving me credit. The joy I may one day feel upon walking into a restaurant and seeing a mini-flagpole on each table will be reward enough for me.

If you don't want to ask questions and you don't want to equip the tables with flagpoles, why not print on the menu everything that comes with the dish by default? Then at least people like me will be in a position to specify what we want and don't want on our plates. We won't have to wrack our brains to work out every surprise ingredient the cook might decide, on some crazy, onion-fume-influenced whim, to plunk on top of the meal.

I know I can't change the world. I can't make restaurants stop serving me things I didn't ask for. So I resolve from this day forward to tell wait staff that I have celiac disease. Frankly, I doubt it will solve the problem. I fully expect that at some future date, I will order by saying, "I have celiac disease. I can't have any wheat. So I'll have the chicken Caesar salad, no croutons, dressing on the side." And the salad will STILL show up with garlic bread on top. And the waitress will be all like, "Oops, garlic bread has wheat in it." Because waitresses aren't paid to think. If they were, they might wonder why a person who didn't want croutons would want garlic bread, which is, after all, a larger chunk of the same exact thing.

So I'm quite sure that the scenario I've described will eventually come to pass. But when it does, I'll be able to send the food back with a clear conscience. Likewise, my other resolution is to return any dishes that come with unexpected cheese on top. Yes, there will be food waste, and no, I won't be the one responsible.

* When my husband proofread this, he suggested I could dump the cheese into the waitress's hand, the way I did with the bread. I thought this amusing enough to share, although I want to make it clear that I do not advocate waitress abuse of any kind. [back]

† I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Here, Swiss Chalet is one of the higher-end restaurants. [back]

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Make Gluten-Free Bread: a Quick Primer and Three Recipes

Gluten, that super-long protein string that gives wheat bread its delectable fluffiness, can also make some people sick. In celiac disease, the consumption of gluten creates an immune reaction in the intestines and flattens the villi, the little hairlike things that are responsible for absorbing nutrients. No villi, no nutrient absorption. You can see how that would not be a good thing, but it gets worse. People who have celiac disease but continue to eat gluten are at increased risk for colon cancer and type I diabetes. So if you have this condition, it's really important to lay off the gluten.

An interesting fact about gluten: no human being can digest it. That's right: even if you're not celiac or gluten-sensitive, you're not breaking the stuff down. Not being birds, we're not designed to eat grains. It's just that in most people, the little strings sit around quietly in the intestine not causing trouble, while in a minority of people, the intestine gets fed up with the alien presence and launches an immune system attack.

So what to do if you belong to this minority? Whether we're designed to eat grains or not, most of us don't want to give up eating pizza and sandwiches.

The trick is to find another substance that will bind your dough together the way that gluten does. Two types of ingredient that will have this effect are gums (xanthan, guar, etc.) and eggs. In most cases, you'll need to add either a gum or some eggs to your dough, or the resulting bread will crumble to bits, and that's a pain when you're trying to butter it. (For the one exception I know of to this rule, see socca bread. That's a flatbread though.)

Most gluten-free recipes also include some sort of starch, typically a mixture of some of the following: potato, corn, tapioca and arrowroot starch. Starch lightens up the bread so it can rise higher. It is not a requirement though, as we'll see later.

As for the flour, a blend of flours are typically used. One popular flour in gluten-free recipes is garbanzo-fava flour, a mixture of chick pea flour and fava flour. This flour, often referred to as garfava for short, is said to rise well. Rice flour is commonly used as the base flour. Buckwheat is sometimes added for extra fibre. Sorghum flour, from the seeds of a grasslike grain, is added for flavour, as it has a natural sweetness.

This is about all I know about gluten-free flour blending, which appears to me as an arcane science akin to alchemy. Still, I say, don't be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is that you'll have to throw out a loaf of bread. And most of the time it isn't that bad. At the least you can usually turn it into breadcrumbs and bread fish with it, or make it into turkey stuffing.

But maybe you don't want to bake. Baking is a lot of work. You might want to go to the supermarket and buy a gluten-free bread in a bag, premade. Fair enough, but there a couple of things you should know:

  • Most store-bought gluten-free bread is disgusting. It's like chewing on a mattress, only with less flavour.
  • Most store-bought gluten-free bread is very low in fibre, because it is made primarily out of white rice flour*. This goes a long way towards explaining its lack of flavour as well.

That said, I do know of a great gluten-free bread mix that you can buy in a supermarket. It's not a premade bread, so you still have to do some work, but it's worth it. It's better than any other gluten-free bread I've tried. It's Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread. The name sounds boastful, I know, but they're telling the truth.

If you're just starting out with gluten-free baking, you may be reluctant to go out and purchase a weird and freaky ingredient like xanthan gum. I know I was. So try the following two recipes, which can be made without it. They also don't contain any starch. The third and final recipe is a more traditional, gummy, starchy, gluten-free bread recipe; basically, it's my attempt to duplicate Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread, and I think I didn't do too bad a job of it, if I do say so myself.

Recipe #1: Rolls

This recipe is really passover rolls with gluten-free flour taking the place of the matzoh meal. You see, during Passover, in commemoration of the escape from Egypt when the Jews had to make a quick snack before fleeing, leavened bread is forbidden. That means no yeast or baking soda. However, Jews have a long history of getting around the letter of the law while doing what they want: witness that string that Hassidim put around their neighbourhoods during Shabbos. So naturally they found a way to make rolls light and fluffy without yeast or baking soda. It just takes a lot of eggs.

This recipe is adapted from the recipe for passover rolls in Second Helpings, Please! Revised edition. Mt. Sinai chapter #1091, B'nai B'rith Women, Montreal, Canada.

  • 2 cups gluten-free flour (whatever kind you want: I used 1 cup brown rice flour and 1 cupbuckwheat flour. If you like it sweet, throw in some coconut flour)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 4 eggs

Combine dry ingredients. Bring oil and water to a boil and add to dry ingredients. Mix. Beat in eggs one at a time. Let stand for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a cookie sheet.

Oil or wet your hands so that the dough won't stick, and shape rolls. Place on cookie sheet. Bake for 1 hour or until brown.

The resulting rolls are nice and crispy, and surprisingly puffed up inside. Now, you may be concerned about using such a lot of eggs. I find you can reduce it to three eggs and still get good results. Just replace the missing egg with 1/4 cup of water. You can also replace as many eggs as you like with egg white, for a lower-cholesterol roll.

Recipe #2: Socca

This recipe is from Mediterranean Light: Delicious Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine by Martha Rose Shulman. Shulman does great cookbooks.

  • 2/3 cup chick pea flour
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil

Beat together the flour, salt and water with a whisk or blender until there are no lumps. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Now, some timing issues. The oven has to preheat for 30 minutes, but the pan has to heat up for 15 minutes. So as soon as you've got your batter beaten up, turn the oven to 475 degrees F, then set a timer for 15 minutes. Oil a pan with the olive oil; a 12-inch pizza pan will do nicely. When the timer goes off, stick the pan in the oven and set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off again, yank the hot pan out of the oven (don't forget your oven mitt!) and pour in the batter. Put it in the upper third of the oven. Shulman says to bake for five minutes, then turn the oven to broil and broil for 3 to 4 minutes. I don't think I bother to do this. It's been a while since I made this bread, but I think I probably just bake it for 8 or 9 minutes.

Full disclosure: the reason I don't make this bread often is because it's wildly addictive and I ate myself sick on it the last time.

Recipe #3: Sandwich Bread

As I said above, this is my attempt to make something similar to Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread.

  • 1 1/4 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/4 cup fava flour (or: replace the above with 1 1/2 garfava flour)
  • 1/2 cup sorghum flour
  • 1 cup starch (I don't think it matters terribly which one you use. To get closest to Bob's recipe, try 1/2 cup potato starch, 1/2 cup minus 1 tbsp. Corn starch and 1 tbsp. Tapioca starch)
  • 1 tbsp. Xanthan gum
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Salt
  • 2 1/4 tsp. Yeast
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. Maple syrup
  • 1 beaten egg + egg whites to 3/4 cup
  • 1 tsp. Cider vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1 2/3 cup water

Warm up the water. I like to put it in the microwave for about half a minute. It should be about bath temperature, not so hot that you can't comfortably wiggle a finger in it. Add the yeast, stir and let sit 5 to 10 minutes while you blend the rest of the dry ingredients together. Mix the eggs, egg whites, maple syrup, cider vinegar and oil in a separate bowl. When the yeast is ready, add to the wet ingredients and then mix the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until well blended. Bob's Red Mill actually says to use an electric mixer, but I find a fork adequate to the task.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Oil a loaf pan and pour in the batter. Smooth out the top with a rubber spatula. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 20 minutes. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes. Bread is done when it makes a hollow sound when you tap it. Let it cool in the pan for 20 minutes before removing and cooling all the way on a rack.


  • Egg-free version: You can reduce or remove the eggs by substituting water. One egg is equal to about 1/4 cup of water. If you remove all eggs, you should also up the xanthan gum by a teaspoon.
  • Starch-free version: Starch is not essential to gluten-free baking. It is just used because people are accustomed to light and airy baked goods. You can substitute the starch with the same amount of brown rice flour.
  • Egg-free, starch-free version: You can do both the substitutions described above at the same time. However, the result is not as tasty, in my opinion. It might be worth replacing some of the egg with apple sauce, although I haven't tried this myself.

Rest assured that all suggested substitutions (aside from the apple sauce one) have been tested in Vivian's kitchen have have been found to give acceptable to delicious results.

Further Reading

The best gluten-free cookbook I have found so far is unquestionably Babycakes by Erin McKenna. It's more dessert-centred, featuring cup cakes, cakes, muffins and pies, but there is also a chapter on tea breads (breads made with baking powder rather than yeast). All recipes are scrumptious. On top of all that, Erin goes to some lengths to make her desserts as healthful as possible; most are sweetened without sugar. Note that not all recipes in the book are gluten-free; some call for spelt flour.

* Can I just say something here? Why does white rice flour exist? Why does white rice exist? Why doesn't everybody just eat brown rice? Is it part of that self-destructive human condition that also leads to the existence of movies like Jackass 3D? What I find particularly weird about white rice flour is that even brown rice, really, doesn't have much fibre. It's a lot lower in fibre than rye or even wheat. So if you find fibre that unappealing, brown rice should be fine. [back]
Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of Among Others by Jo Walton

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's such a lot wrong with this novel it's hard to know where to start. On the one hand, it's easy to read, even though I got to a point where I was thinking, enough with the shopping excursions and book purchases, have something happen already! Morwenna's sad situation, her out-of-place feeling at school and her struggles with her handicap (something the author herself obviously has an intimate knowledge of) are all movingly detailed. And I like the idea of a daughter having to face an evil magical mother. Usually in fantasy fiction, it's a son contending with an evil father. As well, there is an attempt to imagine how magic might work in the real world that we're all familiar with, through coincidence and such, and that gives the story a verisimilitude that's appealing.

Now that I've got the positive aspects out of the way, let's look at the shortcomings. There is so much talk of science fiction in this novel, including specific authors and books, that it can feel at times more like a recommended reading list than a novel. I found myself thinking of a statement in Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want to Write: "You cannot move people by a second-hand infection" (p. 119, Graywolf Press paperback edition). In other words, when Heinlein, Zelazny, Le Guin et al wrote the books that Jo Walton loved so, that was art, but when she wrote a book that was eighty percent, "Squee! SF is so great! I love Heinlein and Zelazny and Le Guin! Squee!" that was not art.

Another problem is that the most climatic event in the heroine's life happened before the novel begins. That put me off balance. I kept wondering, are we ever going to get a detailed description of what happened? (The answer is no.) I also wondered, why didn't she just write a novel about that event? Maybe it would have been more interesting.

Since novels need climaxes, another climax has to happen, and compared to what has gone before, it feels anticlimactic. The worst part of this anticlimactic climax, maybe the worst part of the book, is that it violates the laws of magic that Walton took such pains to establish beforehand! All through the novel she's telling us, "Magic is always deniable," and then at the very apex of the plot, gives us a thoroughly undeniable piece of magic, with no explanation. What happened there? Was the ending rushed? I don't know, but it's a boner of major proportions. (Hey, Morwenna's a horny teenage girl. Why not throw in a double entendre?)

In summary, it's another one of the most wildly overrated books around. There appear to be a lot of those. Why is that?

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dumb Things People Say: the Mangling of Popular Expressions

Language is for communication. Isn't that obvious? It shouldn't even need to be said. But in fact, it is popular these days to use language for something other than communication. Marketingspeak is meant to lull the reader's brain to sleep with babble that means little, yet is somehow comforting. Meetingspeak and Scholarspeak are meant to make the speaker sound intelligent through the use of polysyllabic, imprecise words that do not make their meaning anywhere near as clear as shorter, simpler words would have done. It appears that as a society, we have largely abandoned the idea that our sentences should make sense. So when common expressions get mangled over time and become nonsense, who's to remark upon it? Other than me, that is.

The language is always changing, of course, and these changes do not always result in nonsense. The word "foundering" has largely been abandoned for the similar-sounding "floundering." Foundering made more sense, but floundering is not altogether nonsensical. One pictures a flounder, out of water, desperately flopping around. On the other hand, when people talk about "flaunting the rules," that's ridiculous, as if rules were a party dress a girl wanted to show off. (The correct word is "flout.")

I, for one, think that language should be used for communication, and hope to turn people back to the path of correct speech through the use of judicious mockery, and, where desirable, cartoons. Here we go.

I could care less

People used to say, "I couldn't care less." It meant they cared very little indeed, or not at all. Now they often say, "I could care less." This should mean that they care somewhat, since it would be possible for them to care less. It could even mean that they do care a fair bit. Yet it is meant to imply a lack of caring, just like the original expression, despite the fact that that's not what the words are saying. This is why people who use this expression tend to sound like idiots.

Party hardy

I am pretty sure that this expression started out as "party hearty," with a t. But in North America, t's tend to be pronounced as d's, so that "party hearty" and "party hardy" sound the same. And in a society where sense is not expected, it doesn't matter that "party hearty" means "to party with gusto" and "party hardy" means, one can only suppose, "to party in difficult, inclement conditions." So when the expression got written down, "party hardy," whimsically nonsensical and having one letter fewer, won the day.

One could argue that, strictly speaking, the expression should not even be "party hearty" but "party heartily." But that wouldn't rhyme. Mangling grammar a little in order to achieve a rhyme may be an acceptable exercise of poetic license, especially where common expressions are concerned.

Saying "literally" when you really mean "figuratively"

Global News did this. "The eyes of the world are literally on Iran," the broadcaster said. No, the eyes of the world are figuratively on Iran.

If worst comes to worst

If worst comes to worst, then nothing's changed, right? You started out with worst, and you ended with worst. Nothing's happened, so while things might be at their absolute worst, at least they haven't gotten any worse. Not that they could, when they started out at their very worst to begin with. You can't get worse than worst.

If worse comes to worst. That's the expression, OK people? Really, a better expression would be, "if bad comes to worse." Maybe that's what the expression used to be, and people didn't think that was strong enough. But at least, "if worse comes to worst" makes some kind of sense. Things got worse, and then they got as bad as they possibly could—the worst. "Worst comes to worst," on the other hand, makes no sense at all.

If you think [fill in blank], you've got another thing coming

Another thing! You've got a thing coming. I love that. It's so idiotic, it's good. And no less an intellectual than Susie Bright used this expression (in her article about Camille Paglia: "If you think Pat Buchanan calls up Hurricane Camille for strategy sessions, you've got another thing coming"*). Et tu, Susie! What is this thing, exactly, why is it coming, and where is it coming from? Is it not a mystery?

Think. You've got another think coming. Doesn't that make more sense? Of course it does. So do, please. Think before you speak. Ask yourself if what you are about to say makes sense. Think. We'll all be better off for it.

* "Camille Anonymous," San Francisco Review of Books (January/February 1993).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review of Rut by Scott Phillips

RutRut by Scott Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is set in a near-future dystopian United States. Climate change, pollution and peak oil have all taken their toll on a small town in Colorado. Once a popular tourist destination but now dying, its only visitor is a young biologist, come to study the local frogs. Although frog populations are declining worldwide, frogs are flourishing near this town. However, effluent from a mining operation is having an odd effect on some frogs, leaving them stuck in the tadpole stage; they'll grow up to a foot long, but remain legless, a fate that parallels that of many of the town men, who are missing legs from all the wars they've served in, and a boy named Cole, who's seventeen years old but looks eleven. Like the frogs, his development has been stunted by his environment.

Although this is definitely science fiction, it's not a fast-paced novel with emphasis on action and thrills. Rather, it focuses on the everyday lives of the townspeople and how they react to the arrival of the newcomer. One might classify this as literary fiction, but that doesn't mean it doesn't go anywhere; this ain't The Shipping News. To the contrary, the ending is explosive... and I don't just mean that figuratively. While it's not a page-turner, if you stick with it until the end, it will stick with you.

In fact, I was a little sad to have to give away my copy. This is a Concord Free Press book, which means you get a copy for free but you have to give a donation to a charity of your choice, then pass the book on so that someone else can do the same. So if you want to read it, you can either ask Concord for a free copy (they have a form for that purpose on their web site), wait until somebody gives you their copy, or wait until the novel becomes available from a traditional publisher and buy it. Take your pick.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Hobbit by Théâtre Sans Fil: Not That Great, Really

Sometimes, when you take in something that's famous or has been heavily praised, and it doesn't live up to your expectations, it's hard to admit that to yourself. You want to like it, because you think you should. After all, everybody else seems to. I experienced this recently in the context of the puppet show The Hobbit by Montreal-based troupe Théâtre Sans Fil. (I daresay that if you're going to be mediocre, it's a good idea to aim your work at children, who tend to accept things the way they are and don't have extensive critical faculties.)

It was therefore lucky for me that I happened to sit down next to a certain acquaintance. Fredericton is like that. You can decide on the spur of the moment to go to the theatre by yourself, find your way to your reserved seat, and discover that you're right next to someone you know. The city is just that small.

This particular someone is the most upbeat, positive, easily-delighted human being on the planet. She loves everything. For example, I saw she had a Kobo ereader with her in the theatrre. "Oh, I have one too!" I exclaimed. "Do you love it?" was her response. And I felt duty-bound to say, "Uh, yeah," even though, really, I just like it.

But when the show was over, she said, "Well, that was fun." Ouch! Coming from her, that's some pretty damning criticism. So I feel justified in my conclusion that despite its having toured all over Europe, Asia, etc., Théâtre Sans Fil's puppet show is not that great. My friend didn't love it.

The strong point of the production has got to be the puppets, some of which are spectacular. Gandalf and the elves flounce and glitter in their flowing finery. Bilbo, on the other hand, is kind of unattractive. I wondered if his face had been copied from that ugly animated version of The Hobbit. I also wondered why he had green hair.

Another aspect of the Bilbo puppet that I found somewhat distressing is that he never got to use his legs. They just dangled. Is that world-class puppetry? Honestly. With most of the characters, this wasn't a concern because they didn't have legs. Gandalf, the elves and the dwarves were all robe people. But there's Bilbo with an obvious pair of legs and he's swishing around like a seahorse.

I should probably mention here that Théâtre Sans Fil, which means Theatre Without a String, lives up to its name: the puppets are not manipulated from above with string; instead, the puppeteers stand behind the puppets, shrouded in black, and manipulate them directly. It's the same principle that works so well in the Famous People Players shows. Indeed, Théâtre Sans Fil also makes use of ultra-violet light, and the puppets can be seen to glow in moments of low light. It all works to great effect in dark scenes, such as the one in Mirkwood Forest. Indeed, that scene is the highlight of the show. When Bilbo loses contact with the dwarves, glowing filaments appear and spin themselves into spider webs as we watch. Glowing spiders make an appearance soon afterwards, and they're pretty neat too, although they tend to cluster together in suspiciously human shapes.

In well-lit scenes, which, bizarrely, constitute most of the show, the illusion is ruined by the clear sight of people in hoods behind the puppets. One is at a loss to explain such unprofessionalism. Why did they choose to beam lights all over the puppeteers during most of the scenes? Didn't they check how it would look beforehand?

Mind you, this gaffe did add an interesting element to the dwarf puppetry. Most of the dwarves in The Hobbit are fairly anonymous and interchangeable, as suggested by their rhyming names: Fili and Kili, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur,and so forth. In tacit acknowledgement of this fact, the puppeteers often lined up a row of dwarf puppets on a pole or rod of some kind and waved it back and forth, making it look as if the dwarves were playing see-saw in the park. Well, when you could see the puppeteer's heads sticking out from behind the waving dwarf-row, which was most of the time, it looked as if there were extra, black-hooded dwarves behind the first row. Like mirrors in a dining hall, it made the dwarf entourage appear bigger than it was. Definitely what you want when you're going up against a fire-breathing dragon.

But back to Bilbo's limp legs. When doing this kind of puppeteering, it is a simple matter to control the legs, more so than with marionette puppeteering I should think. All one needs are sticks connecting each leg of the puppeteer to the corresponding leg of the puppet. Indeed, this was done with the trolls, who had legs, and Gollum, who also had huge feet and was one of the most appealing personages in the show. Yet Bilbo, the main character over whom one would expect more care to be taken, was left dangling, literally.

With the exception of Bilbo and his legs, most of the production design effort went into the puppets. The set was exceedingly sparse, consisting mostly of Bilbo's front door and a couple of big wooden things that looked like boxes with jointed lids. These two boxes were moved around to be made into everything: Bilbo's table, hills, cave openings and so on. Sometimes this worked out better than at other times. In particular, things became odd and confusing as Bilbo wandered around looking for food before running into the trolls. He approached a box, hovered over its open lid, ineffectual legs flapping, and when he got to the other side, the lid apparently tried to close on him, but he managed to wiggle out of the way. I wracked my brain trying to figure out what this alien landscape was supposed to represent. I don't recall troll country being described that way in the book.

In addition to Bilbo's leg handicap, fortunately compensated for by his hovering abilities, Bilbo is haunted by two oppressive forces that follow him around: irritating music and excessive narration. The music is the sort of relentlessly peppy stuff that gets foisted on kids. Maybe they like it; I don't know, but like it or hate it, it sometimes makes the narration difficult to hear.

As for the narration, I realize that if you want to condense a novel with a complex plot into a puppet show that lasts an hour and a half, you're probably going to have to narrate something. But you ought to refrain from narrating things that could be better expressed in dialogue. The tendency to overnarrate got underway fairly early on and worsened as the show continued. Near the end, practically everything was narrated. Thorin Oakenshield's rage at having the Arkenstone withheld from him as well as his eventual conciliation is all dispatched in one sentence. They seemed in a raging hurry to get the play over with so that everybody could go home.

Earlier I mentioned the dragon, Smaug. The Smaug puppet is a fine one, decked out in glowing ultraviolet reds and greens. Ironically, its failing is its lack of flaw. Smaug is supposed to have a vulnerable, bare spot on his left breast. This is mentioned no less than three times in the play, once by the narrator, once by Bilbo, and once by a helpful bird. Furthermore, Bard of Laketown stabs at it with a sword. (In the book, he uses an arrow, but I suppose that's difficult to pull off with puppets.)

But where is this bare spot? Nowhere to be seen, and I think this may be the stupidest oversight of the whole sadly mediocre puppet show. It would have been so simple a matter to, say, glue or sew a piece of black felt onto the left underside of the puppet. It would have shown up so well against the ultraviolet colours. But they didn't. Why didn't they? Why did they allow this confusing inconsistency to stand? My guess is that they didn't give a crap. After all, if they were interested in or capable of attention to detail, I wouldn't have found so many details to pick on and the whole production would have been much more enjoyable.

In conclusion, while some spectacular performers and troupes have emerged from Montreal, Théâtre Sans Fil is not one of them. At the end of the play, the senior member of the troupe announced that they are working on a puppet version of Weaveworld by Clive Barker. I expect it will be similarly mediocre. But the puppets will look great.