St Vincent at NXNE

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I’ve just returned from seeing St. Vincent out in the open, for free, at Yonge and Dundas Square right in the city. It’s part of the extravaganza that is North by Northeast (NXNE). She was preceded by Swans.

The array of artists is bewildering. It seems like the entire music world has converged on Toronto – and nobody’s complaining!

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I love St. Vincent’s music more and more. It’s taut and sexy and sophisticated, but made full-blooded with licks of electric guitar. She did an impressive solo on stage, and peppered the set with mysterious monologues about childhood games. What a stunner.

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Trampoline Hall

How do you find out what’s good to see and do in a new city? Surprise surprise, I’m using the internet. The internet pointed me to Trampoline Hall, a regular event started by Sheila Heti, the Toronto writer who now works on the great magazine The Believer. I’d heard of Sheila but not of Trampoline Hall. It seemed too exclusive an event not to be awesome – the night was already sold out and I apparently had to get to the venue a few hours early and secure a place in the line for rush tickets.

So I went to The Garrison on Dundas St West and got myself the ticket.

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Isn’t it lovely?

People, mostly young and literary-looking, were very excited about the whole thing, and rushed in to get a good seat. I was very excited about the program.

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Don’t forget your glasses

The programs and stage designs are organised by different people for each event. The program (as in, the curation of the night and also the paper form of it) was this time put together by Becky Johnson, and the stage design was by her improv group The Sufferettes. It consisted of pantyhose with all manner of objects stuffed down them. It was excellent.

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At Trampoline Hall, people give lectures. They are not allowed to be experts on the topic but they obviously do plenty of research, because a key requirement is being able to answer a whole lot of follow-up questions. David Dineen-Porter told us about the “Northern Vowel Shift”, which was really fascinating. Did you know that regional accents are diverging around the world? And that American broadcast media speaks in its own accent entirely? No, neither did I!

Kalpna Patel told spoke with excitement about the extravaganza that is the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and Freddie Rivas gave a heartstringy account of a childhood lacking in material wealth, but not in love and laughter.

I get the impression that there are plenty of spoken-word events happening in Toronto. These people know what they’re doing. But Trampoline Hall is part comedy night, part public-speaking contest and, by putting its speakers on the spot, part performance art. The atmosphere was beginning-of-the-week festive and I met a whole bunch of interesting folks. It was the perfect introduction to a city full of thinkers that is about to burst into life for the summer. See you next time, Trampoline Hall.

Eat up, baby – Food reviews for infants

(I put this review and video together last October for The M Word, an online magazine about pregnancy and birth.)

We’ve all eaten baby food, right? The problem is that it was a long time ago. Lucie Robson made The M Word team sit down with some little spoons and jars to taste some different baby foods, and advise mini connoisseurs on what is good for their tastebuds and bellies.

You can watch some of the best reactions of my reviewers and fellow The M Word reporters in this video. We hope you get a laugh out of it – we certainly did!

Round 1

Reviewing three brands of mushy baby food. All these baby foods contain all-natural ingredients. We gave them individual scores out of five.  

Organic Bubs Blueberry, Banana and Quinoa – $1.98 Photo: Lucie Robson

The verdict: One reporter “really likes it” and would “eat it at home.” It’s a bit sour, and you might be able to picture a baby screwing up their little face, but we have all seen the YouTube video that proves how cute it would be.

Rafferty’s Garden Blueberries, Banana and Apple (+ nothing else!) – $1.82 Photo: Lucie Robson

The verdict: “It smells vanilla-ry, like a dessert!” Seems more natural than the other purple food, although it has a tangy aftertaste. It seems to have real banana. A good choice.

Ella’s Kitchen Spinach, Apple and Swedes – $1.99 Photo: Lucie Robson

The verdict: Not good. “It was as bad as I expected from the smell, but keeps getting worse!” Some tasters complained of a bad aftertaste, and that the food looks dark greeny-brown, like something very unsavoury indeed. “I would never inflict this on my child!”

Conclusions: The food that mixed savoury and sweet elements was not at all delicious. But babies can’t live on sweet food alone, can they? Do they even like it? This study from May 2012 might suggest otherwise.

Round 2

Comparing two banana custards from Heinz: “Simply,” which contains no additives, and the regular “Smooth” banana custard. Reviewers are blindfolded.

Heinz Simply Custard with Banana, without additives ($1.89), and Heinz Smooth Custard with Banana ($1.27) Photo: Lucie Robson

Three out of four reviewers, some with flecks of custard on their jackets (sorry) thought that the “simply” custard was the one laced with additives and sugar. This contradicts the suggestion of the labelling. One reviewer suggested that the “smooth” custard had hints of pistachio. Both custards were deemed to be on the yummy side. One reviewer took the rest of the jar home to eat later!

So why the confusion? A look at the back of both packets shows almost identical ingredients listed. Water, full cream milk, sugar, cornflour, unsalted butter, banana (in almost identical proportions – 1.5% for theSimply, 1.7% for the Smooth), cream and natural flavours. So, mother, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s worth making a switch.

The verdict: Reviewers can’t tell the difference on taste alone.

Round 3

Heinz Apple Custard versus Only Organic Apple Custard. Can blindfolded reporters tell the difference between fancy organic and (comparatively) el cheapo baby foods? 

Only Organic Apple Custard ($1.35) and Heinz Apple Custard ($1.27). Photo: Lucie Robson

By now my lovely guinea pigs were turning against me for shoving little spoons of mushy food into their mouths. But this test was enlightening: three out of four reviewers correctly identified the organic apple custard. These eaters much preferred the organic option – it was nicer, more creamy with a better texture, and did not “taste manufactured.” The unfortunate competition was labelled by one taste-tester as being “like toothpaste”. Delicious.

The verdict: Only Organic wins, and actually tastes “organic” too.

Round 4

Taste testing Farex Rice Cereal ($2.19), and Bellamy’s Organic Baby Rice ($3.77).  

Bellamy’s Organic Baby Rice ($3.77) and Farex Baby Rice Cereal ($2.19). Photo: Lucie Robson

Here we come to the most exciting part of our taste-testing. By “most exciting”, I mean “most unappetising”. We decided to blind taste-test two popular rice cereals: the standard Farex brand ($2.19), and the more upmarket Bellamy’s Organic baby rice ($3.77). I am not sure how different these two products can be, considering that the main ingredients are rice and water. And more water in a mug, the way that I prepared it for my subjects. There was no discernible difference in taste or texture (unfortunately) between these two cereals. Comments such as “it tastes like cardboard”, “I think cardboard would actually taste nicer”, “yuck yuck yuck” and “Lucie, did you feed us Clag glue by mistake?” speak volumes. Sorry, babies. It won’t be long until you have teeth.

The verdict: We’re sure it’s good for you, baby. But that’s all.

Our Conclusion:

From an M Word reporter: “I’m not a fan of baby food.”

By  Lucie Robson

Please note: All prices were obtained from a local Coles Supermarket and are indicative only.

What everybody is reading

So last week I finished this fine tome – about two years after everybody else.

 

Freedom is dense with details about its characters that might seem superfluous at the time of reading but in retrospect contribute to the richness of their portrayal. The most tragic and funny of tragedy and comedy co-exist in this book and frequently in the same setting. The importance of its title is not fully graspable until you’re finished reading it, and if Freedom was not an option it could have easily been called This American Life, if, you know, that was not taken either. Jonathan Franzen illustrates the irony and extremes inherent in the modern tapestry of America through characters who experience suburban non-bliss, love, hate and absurdity. I’m always impressed when a writer can capture single moments with clarity, so allow me to quote from a memorable page (523):

“Then they wandered up Sixth Avenue like a couple drunk beyond caring what anyone thought of them, like red-handed murderers, Connie bra-less and wanton and attracting male stares, Joey in a state of testosterone heedlessness in which, if anyone had challenged him, he would have thrown a punch for the sheer joy of it. He was taking the step that needed to be taken, the step he’d been wanting to take since the first time his parents had said no to him. The fifty-block walk uptown with Connie, in a baking welter of honking cabs and filthy sidewalks, felt as long as his entire life before it.”

So in the wake of finishing Freedom I have decided to tackle this bad boy.

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Or more appropriately, this bad girl. I feel like I have reached the point of young adult life where I can attempt a Russian classic with no ulterior motive, i.e. just wanting to look smart. So with clear eyes and full heart I have approached Anna Karenina. There is also the incentive to finish it before the latest film adaptation comes out. I have to admit, the trailer is full of swooning and corset-ripping and despair and ecstasy, and I love that stuff. I always feel a particular anxiety when a film is coming out that is based on a book that I haven’t read yet. It’s too bad that I didn’t read The Great Gatsby in Year 12 because now I have to add that to the list, and as far as I know, there is no new film adaptation of Brave New World in the works. On the other hand, I strolled into Life of Pi with my head held high.

But there is no time to waste, because this is the work ahead of me (before I am allowing myself to go on Book Depository again).

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GIRLS – All about the new episode.

Spoiler Alert!

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“I used to just like every guy who liked me*,” says Hannah to her handsome new not-date, explaining why she wants to be “rational” about “all this”, i.e. now she is in control of her life and doesn’t want to screw everything up. But of course that’s not true, because we’re all young and indecisive and becoming a grownup is one big mess. It’s all about secrets, ill-defined relationships, awkward parties and the impossible pain of breaking up or not being a genius. And we wouldn’t have it any other way, or at least that’s how it seems Girls and that’s why we all love it.

Shoshanna is learning to deal with the guy who deflowered her but didn’t want to be her boyfriend – a rite of passage, no? “You hurt my feelings but I can deal with it because I have my big-girl pants on.” Marnie gets fired and her mum tells her that she looks 30 years old. What a kick in the guts! And also the perfect insult to be levelled at a character in Girls because its entire landscape is lit up by the particular sad glow of being in your 20s and not knowing what to do about it. (All the people who know what I’m talking about should read this.)

I had to wait until the second-last scene to see the return of my favourite Girl Jessa. All you haters hear me out – to me, she’s the most complex, feisty, unashamed-but-actually-scared character and her continual triumph over banality reminds me of a few different women who I have known in my life. She’s still with her new surprise husband, and presumably they have just returned from their honeymoon. Of course I’m expecting their marriage to play out and end with hilarity and strangely defined anguish.

So it’s all happening again! The episodes are much too short and I know there won’t be enough of them, but I’m happy to see Girls return. If just for great lines like these:

-“Our lives are so entwined.”

-“Like, you’ve met his whole family?”

-“No, like he pays for everything.”

*Me too.

Lucie’s pick of podcasts

These are the episodes of Top of the Pods, hosted by Robbie Buck, that I produced and scripted at Radio National. The show was great fun and producing basically meant listening to lots of podcasts from around the world and choosing the best ones to play. In these travels I found a multitude of fantastic pods which I will take the time here to recommend.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/topofthepods/may-22/3945902

In this show:

The Bike Show with Jack Thurston. All about the culture and counter-culture of cycling.

PRI’s Talking Travel. This is a discontinued podcast but was a little gem for people (like me) who wish they were on a continuous round-the-world trip.

For history buffs The History of Rome podcast is a cool find. Many episodes are long and very detailed but this episode, about Roman weddings, was a little slice of ordinary life from the ancients.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/topofthepods/october-23—halloween2c-florence-nightingale/4228376

In this show:

Spycast, from the International Spy Museum in the US. I was extremely pleased to come across this one. Spy tales, but more nuanced than 007, and actually true.

Londonist Out Loud. I am really not in love with London, but I do like the idea of a rambling tour through the city, with plenty of encountered with local characters. This episode is actually about the life of Florence Nightingale, a very intriguing lady.

SBS Kitchen Conversations. Do you want to know what the Ancient Greeks ate for breakfast? (Hint: yes!)

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/topofthepods/all-about-food/4166544

My all-time favourite episode. Nobody else had produced a show full of food podcasts so I went ahead and did it.

In this show:

Sporkful! Laugh-out-loud, ridiculously detailed tales from the table/couch/picnic rug, or wherever you might find yourself stuffing your face.

Eat Feed, about how food features in, and triggers, memories. A heart-warming, tear-jerking listen.

Kitchen Sync, from Edible Communities, a massive and detailed collection of podcasts about the politics of food production, recipes and everything else to do with our obsession with food.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/topofthepods/decoder-ring2c-servants2c-brazil/4126698

In this show:

The epitome of style and substance, the Decoder Ring Theatre crew from Toronto, Canada create radio drama with an air of mystery and a good sense of the absurd.

The History Chicks are an awesome pair of gals who tell street-level stories from the feminine past. This episode is about the inside of a mansion in the Gilded Age (post-Civil War America).

For little bites of goodness check out Deutsche Welle’s Pulse series. In fact, there are so many different podcasts on DW that it would warrant a few days to check out all of them.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/topofthepods/skype-love2c-madame-rachel-and-spies/4019362 

In this show:

Ahhhhh!!!!! RTE’s Doc On One had me almost crying like a baby. LOVE. IS. REAL.

More pods to check out, including ones that couldn’t go on the show:

The Moth – fairly amazing spoken-word performances, recorded and podcasted

Caustic Soda – glimpses of the dark side of pop culture, from a bunch of cool dudes in Canada

The Truth – radio lovers will know that The Truth needs no introduction

And if you are new to the world of pods, you can’t go past this old chestnut.