December 24, 2010

Island of the Human Heart

This travel book by a young Canadian woman named Laurie Gough is a sizzling and thought-provoking read. It's mostly about some months she spent on the Fijiian Island of Taveuni, but she intersperses the Taveuni chapters with descriptions of her other travels to places like Malaysia, New Zealand and Italy.

She travels all over the world for years, doing odd jobs (teaching English, working in restaurants) to pay her way and going home at times in between. This woman is fearless and almost infinitely tolerant of inconveniences, a thing I find fascinating because I'm the opposite (in the inconvenience department.) She sleeps rolled up tightly in a rug from which there is no escape until someone unrolls you in the morning. She sleeps in the same bed with a mumbling old grandmother and travels on hot trains where she's delighted to have a cooling spray on her face when she leans out of the window until she notices later that mothers hold their babies out the window to pee.

As a risk-taker, Gough gets into trouble from time to time. I was mesmerized by her various encounters with what she characterizes as Evil. My friend Florentine recently wrote in a paper about travel: "What one 'sees' is never just about the discovery of the foreign, but always also about homegrown fears and fantasies – so much so that travel literature has been characterized as 'a particularly authentic way of self description.'"
Gough doesn't shy away from such self description. Although she considers Taveuni as close to paradise as she can imagine, her values on such things as women's rights and telling the truth clash with those of the Islanders and eventually lead to her being asked to leave the island, at about same time as she's ready to leave.

She ends the book with an important thought about making the most of today: "Life isn't a prelude to something bigger. There is no prelude. Just life itself - right here."

December 16, 2010

The Dolce Vita Diaries

This is a book in one of my favourite genres - well, maybe it's not a formal genre category but Lucy and I sure think it is - the "Americans or Brits move to Tuscany or Provence, buy an old wrecked monastery, turn it into a gorgeous house and cook fabulous food" kind of book. Maybe I could work a little harder at developing a more concise-sounding category for that. Anyway, we and I suppose millions of others, have read literally dozens of these books and are always on the lookout for more, so I was delighted to find The Dolce Vita Diaries in the library. The book is written by Cathy Rogers with recipes interspersed by her husband Jason.

It is true to formula in many ways: This is a fairly well-to-do couple who had successful careers in LA and London, but who had a dream to own an olive grove in Italy. They began to go there on holidays and soon found the place they wanted in Le Marche region, about two-thirds of the way up the east side of the boot of Italy, a much less commercialized region than Tuscany. Their place had 900 old olive trees which they began to prune, eventually turning the farm into a thriving business in which you can adopt one of their trees and get your share of olive oil from that grove. People come to visit "their" tree. The business is called
Nudo, which means "naked" in Italian, reflecting the purity and simplicity of their product.

There are some nice twists on the formula. Cathy Rogers is a good writer with a natural, unpretentious style and best of all, she's reflective about the pros and cons of the move they made. They miss the conveniences, sociability and liveliness of the city, and their business provided them, at least at first, with a lot more work for a lot less money than they were used to. There's a bit of tension as to whether they'll stay. The best parts of the story are about their Italian neighbours and all the unique customs, like taking two hours for lunch, and having a two-hour conversation after dinner about the pros and cons of the pizza crust you've just eaten. The recipes are great too - some super simple and a few more complicated, but they give you good ideas about how to work with herbs and olive oil and vegetables in your own kitchen. In the midst of reading this, I made myself a pizza for lunch, using a few of the tips I was reading about and it was an excellent pizza.

If you like reading about rural life in Italy, I highly recommend this book.

December 9, 2010

The Bean Trees

This novel was Barbara Kingsolver's first book. I get tripped up like this once in a while, looking for a book to buy in an airport or something, and seeing this brand new snazzy-looking paperback by an author I really like, snapping it up and then finding it was their first book ever, written 21 years ago as this one was. I know, one has only to look on the copyright page but I just don't always.

Anyway, it's not that Kingsolver's first book disappointed me. It reminded me a lot of Miriam Toews's The Flying Troutmans, which my friend Joerg said he had to read to the end because, like watching a train wreck, you have to see what happens. Like the Troutmans, the heroine of The Bean Trees is a young single mom finding her way in the world, in this case by working in a tire shop and learning how to parent a baby that was set in her car by a desperate woman who couldn't care for her dead sister's child. Bean Trees, like Troutmans, also includes an epic cross-country trip which solves a great problem. It's a pleasant read with some food for thought, especially regarding refugees and immigration.

Of Kingsolver's other books I've read only two: Poisonwood Bible, which I found complex and riveting, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle which was a big eye-opener for me this summer regarding local food. Both books are deep and wide, whereas The Bean Trees is just a good, light read, the beginnings of the excellent writer Kingsolver has since become.

December 7, 2010

Tales of a Pioneer Journalist

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.

Robert Service had that right. Tales of a Pioneer Journalist is the kind of book it's great to read once in a while to remind ourselves that we live in highly civilized times in Canada compared to, say, 150 years ago. These stories were written by David Williams Higgins about incidents he was involved in or wrote about as a newspaperman in Victoria and Yale BC around the 1850s. This was the time of the Cariboo gold rush and Victoria was little more than a collection of hastily slapped-together wooden structures along the muddy road (Wharf Street) between them and the harbour. Thousands of travellers stopped en route to the gold fields or on the way back to San Francisco, often either flat broke and desperate or flush with bags of gold nuggets which they spent in some bizarre ways.

There were few women and children but those few generally had it pretty rough. One woman disguised herself as a man so she could live in a mining camp closer to her husband only to have her cover blown when she went into labour. Another woman who was also having a baby sent her husband, a reformed alcoholic, out to get a doctor. He got waylaid at the bar for a few drinks, and returned home two or three days later to find his wife and baby frozen on the floor.

Add fires and duels, murders and tragic drownings of hundreds aboard creaky steamers, lawlessness and love and some hilarity and - well, this book pretty well kept me spellbound and I could hardly believe it took place in now-elegant Victoria where I bought this book. At Munro's Book Store, of course, which is hands down my favourite bookstore anywhere. Whoever buys for Munro's must have exactly my taste because I usually want every single book I see there.

December 1, 2010

Growing Pains: An Autobiography

What I knew about Emily Carr up to now was what I learned from reading The Book of Small several years ago. That book was a reminiscence about her childhood in Victoria. This one portrays her life as an artist, beginning with her many years of training in San Francisco, London and Paris.

Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by an unsympathetic older sister, and given the means to study by the administrator of her parents' estate. These were years of struggle for her, both personally and artistically - she battled loneliness, poor accommodations and lessons that were too often indoors when she longed to be out. Still she felt it a huge privilege to be studying art and worked so hard that her health was broken and she was on the verge of death more than once.

I had vaguely thought she must have been a prim Victorian matron who happened to begin to paint. She was anything but. Rebellious from childhood, she carried that alternative spirit with her to her studies and was ferociously committed to her work. She got almost no support for her art in BC until much later in her career. In fact, every time she showed any of her work at home, she was mocked for the unique post-impressionist style she'd developed. She tried to teach art, but found it hard to make a living, and eventually she turned to taking in boarders and raising dogs.

A series of fortuitous events brought her to the attention of the Group of Seven, especially of Lawren Harris, who took her under his wing, displayed her work in the East, renewed her enthusiasm for painting and encouraged her to write when she could no longer paint.

I found this book much more difficult to read than The Book of Small, although I was fascinated by it and the subject matter was much more interesting to me. Small is lyrical; this book is much rawer, reflecting the extreme eccentricity and often irritation and anger of its author.

I bought Growing Pains in Victoria a few weeks ago, and while driving near Beacon Hill, where the Carrs lived, saw a sign that said "Emily Carr House." But it was before I'd read the book, and we were tired, so we didn't go, even though we must have been only a block or two away. Now I want badly to see it. I would also like to read Carr's other book, called Klee Wyck, based on her relationship with the coastal aboriginal people.

November 25, 2010

The Small Bachelor

The more stressed I get the more likely I am to have to read either Sophie Kinsella (Shopaholic) or P.G. Wodehouse. I skulk up to the counter at the used book store ("Psst, do you wanna buy an "A"?) and ask sotto voce if they have any P.G. Wodehouse, and of course they always do as I'm not the only one with this embarrassing addiction. Like Kinsella, Wodehouse makes me giggle and that's worth a lot sometimes.

The Small Bachelor differs from some of the others in Wodehouse's long list of publications in that it's set in New York instead of in England, but the rest of the elements are familiar. There's romance, everyone of interest is really wealthy, the hero is awkward but extremely nice and the heroine is smart and sweet. To keep them apart there are any number of ridiculous obstacles all solved at the end. The beauty of Wodehouse is in the wry commentary (" A lover..will see sweetness and light in almost everything, but George Finch, despite his most earnest endeavours, had been compelled to draw the line at Mrs. Waddington") and hilariously exaggerated description ("Mr. Waddington's eyes were now protruding to such a dangerous extent that a sharp jerk would have caused them to drop off.") Sometimes I cannot believe the time Wodehouse takes to describe the tiniest detail but the cumulative effect is very funny to me, and being the incorrigible Anglophile I am just adds to the fun.

Wodehouse is not for everyone, but sometime when you need a laugh, pick up one of his books and give it a try.

November 22, 2010

National Broadcast Orchestra

We attended the second in our Community Concert series last Thursday, featuring the National Broadcast Orchestra (formerly the CBC Orchestra) and violinist Jonathan Crow. Both were fantastic. Crow grew up in Prince George, had a music degree from McGill by 19, and now teaches music at McGill and performs around the world.

The orchestra played a Haydn symphony and then Crow joined them for some Mozart and Beethoven. The second half of the program was modern Canadian music, with the world premieres of two Galaxy prize-winning compositions. The Galaxy prize is for young Canadian composers and the Grand Prize Work was very complex and beautiful while the second prize was just way out there in left field, a piece without rhythm or melody but just a series of "sound structures" which then disintegrated for the next structure to be built up. I was pretty tired, so the conductor's careful explanation of what to listen for didn't help me much, but Gerald said he could follow.

The highlight of the program for me was Cameron Wilson's "Canadian Seasons for Violin and Orchestra." It was also a premiere, and an amazing showcase for Crow's talents. The composer was a young violinist in the orchestra who spoke briefly before the music was played, saying he really liked this piece and felt it was one of the first times his musical "voice" had really been heard. Knowing a little of what Jeremy went through this summer composing his "Summerland Suite" made this young composer's journey feel very personal to me.

November 21, 2010

Poems and Readings for Funerals

Of all the books I would have never thought I'd buy, this one might head the list. But in the last two sad weeks since Marj died, I've done a lot of thinking about what one says at a time like this. Among the things that were said, I could relate best to the poem Daryl read at the wake - a version of W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" (Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone/Silence the pianos and with muffled drum/Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/ Scribbling on the sky the message She Is Dead.) This last not dissimilar to Ezra's comment: "Marj is dead, dead, dead."

"Funeral Blues" is one of the poems in Poems and Readings for Funerals edited by Julia Watson, and there are some other good ones in this collection too. One of them, called "Gone from my Sight," describes a sailboat disappearing over the horizon as we watch from the shore. For us she is gone, but the poet says she is "just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side/ and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me, not in her." Marj always seemed larger than life, and I like to think that she still is.

I also liked "Live your Life" by Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee Nation (1768 - 1813.) One of the best of all is also the oldest in the book, by a Chinese poet of the 6th century B.C., called "All things pass." The first two lines are "All things pass/A sunrise does not last all morning." It's a philosophy of life I've been trying to grasp for years. As a child and young adult, I had the idea that life was all about building things to get to a point of satisfaction and success, but now I see more that each life has its arc, like the apparent arc of the sun each day. It rises and sets and meanwhile shines on what it may.

Anyway, I'm glad I bought the book. It illustrates the wide spectrum of people's reactions to death and it may give me some words with which to commemorate someone else's passing some day.

November 20, 2010

Okanagan Odyssey

I just finished reading this beautiful book by Don Gayton, an ecologist and writer who lives in Summerland. Okanagan Odyssey, subtitled "Journeys through Terrain, Terroir and Culture," takes us on a tour of the Okanagan from south to north. Gayton reflects knowledgeably about the terrain and takes wine pairing a step further by positing wine triplings for the various Okanagan ecologies he explores.

In fact, I would say he does wine quadrupling, putting together a simple wine grown in the territory he's discussing with local foods and some suitable reading for his often solitary dinners. For instance, his exploration of Lake Okanagan's Rattlesnake Island leads him to writings about the Lebanese entrepreneur Eddy Haymour who tried to develop it. He makes some lamb kebabs and adds a Muscat wine from Naramata (muscat being a grape with Near Eastern origins) to celebrate this quirky corner of the Okanagan.

One of the best ideas I've taken away from the book is the concept of placemaking - that in order for a place truly to be home, you need to understand the geography around it. Gayton says he feels uncomfortable when people say, "Oh, you're so lucky to be living in the Okanagan." He says he doesn't like putting one bioregion above another, and that merely because we move somewhere doesn't mean any of its cachet becomes ours. "Mere association with a place does not transform our lives," he says. "The Okanagan is not a trophy wife." The better we understand where we live, the more likely we are to live wisely and honour our surroundings.

Gayton is engaging and natural both in person and in his writing - the serious covers of his books belie the funniness within. Previously I'd read his Interwoven Wild, which is mostly about the ecology of his own yard. I learned a lot from it, especially not to plant tulips starkly in the middle of nowhere but to give them a home near a shrub, around or under something, an idea that has made a lovely difference in my spring garden. Gayton (and my children) also inspired me to compost food waste, a venture which, after just seven months, has been really successful. We've got some nice compost happening. I think everyone who has a yard should compost their own food waste - a normal little thing we can do to preserve, sustain and even enhance our environment.

November 3, 2010

Wherever You Go There You Are

This book by Jon Kabat-Zinn is subtitled "Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life." Ryan recommended it to me this summer. One of the best ideas I got from reading it is that your thoughts aren't reality- they're just thoughts. This idea really puts things in perspective for me and gives me a good reason not to take myself (at least my thoughts) too seriously.

The author explains a lot about mindfulness - being in the present. He says remaining in the present (which is his definition of meditation) frees your thoughts from the "tyranny of the past and the future." I could really relate to that - I judge things a lot by how they were before or worry about what might happen next. He points out that while of course the past is real and has consequences, all we really have to work with is the present, so we may as well focus on it.

He gives some good pointers on how to do that. One of them is not to multi-task. For a while I tried not to read while having lunch. I looked around, enjoyed the day, and paid more attention to my food. To keep your mind from racing around, Kabat-Zinn advises focusing on the sights and sounds around you, or just on your breath going in and out of your body. I've tried this at night when I'm lying awake and sometimes it actually puts me to sleep. I also have heard some cool things, like pinecones falling.

Considering I'm remembering all this from having read the book a few months ago, it surprises me that I didn't finish reading it. It's not a light or entertaining read, but it has some ideas that are really sticking with me and that give a whole new meaning to the word "practice." My brain falls easily into old habits.

October 27, 2010

A Woman's World

Do I read mostly books by and about women? I guess so. Maybe as this blog unfolds I'll know for sure. About a month ago I picked up A Woman's World at the library. This is one of the Travellers' Tales series. I've read quite a few in that series - I can't really remember which but according to my usual habits, they'd be Tuscany, Provence, India, Ireland, Cuba, Italy and Greece, and I know I read one about the Equator. They are always books of true stories written by travellers, and there are actually nine in the series that are written entirely by women about their travels.

It's pretty rare for me to be reading a book for a month, but A Woman's World and most of the Travellers' Tales books really lend themselves to that sort of leisurely pace. They're rich in detail and the quality of writing is outstanding, often with stories by well-known travel writers like Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux. There are about 45 stories in this particular book.

My favourite was by Jan Haag about a walk she took in California's Salinas Valley. She got very hot and thirsty and thought about the travellers of long ago - how they were greeted so eagerly and offered hospitality and their stories were listened to with such interest - and she wished for a miracle like that. And it happened, in a most interesting way.

There are other great stories, about a couple trekking in Bhutan and finding a unique peace in a remote village, a twenty-year-old girl finishing a two-year solo sailing trip around the world and encountering a horrendous storm, a mom and daughter who go back to Mexico to visit the place where their father/grandpa was shot half a century before, and many more.

If you like travelling, even vicariously by armchair, be sure to pick up some Travellers' Tales sooner or later.

October 14, 2010

the day i ate whatever I wanted

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Berg - I think she's a really good writer in the vein of Anne Tyler, whom I used to read a lot. The latest Elizabeth Berg book I read was the day i ate watever i wanted And Other Small Acts of Liberation. It's a book of short stories, fiction, about women break an unhealthy or problematic pattern in their lives with a "small act of liberation." In the title story, the protagonist has been on a wicked diet and has been doing quite well,but she decides she's had it, buys a whole box of doughnuts and tucks into them, and splurges a few more times that day. Her husband's been on the same diet but much more disciplined which really bugs her. The ending is sooo redemptive. I loved almost every story in this book.

October 3, 2010

Rhapsody in Blue

The first community concert of our fall series featured pianist Sara Davis Buechner. She played a Haydn sonata and another Sonata by a contemporary of Haydn's named Dussek, neither of which grabbed me particularly but then after the intermission she played The Cocktail Suite by Dana Suesse who also wrote "You ought to be in pictures" and other famous songs. I loved this whole suite; the four parts were named after cocktails - Old-Fashioned, champagne, Bacardi and Manhattan and the music was playful and challenging at the same time. I'm not that familiar with cocktails, except for champagne and that one was about as perfect a musical description of champagne as I could imagine. She saved the best for the last: George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which pretty well transported me and tapped into my huge love of what I call show tunes, and most of the rest of the audience must have liked it too because at the end she got a big standing ovation and even some whistles and cheers from the almost entirely over-60 audience of about 900 community concert ticket holders. Buechner is very dry and funny and she's great in her teaching mode too, sharing all kinds of music history to give context to the pieces she's playing.

September 22, 2010

Half Broke Horses

This week I read Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. She wrote The Glass Castle, the true story of her childhood and one of my favourite books. If you haven't read it yet, and you liked, for instance, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, then get The Glass Castle.

Walls calls Half Broke Horses a "true life novel." This mixture of genres didn't work very well for me. The story is about her maternal grandmother Lily, who grew up and lived most of her life in the ranchlands of Arizona. She was a very strong, outspoken woman who packed a pistol which she didn't mind using, and was as comfortable in the classroom as playing poker or wrestling steers. Well, maybe not wrestling steers - I don't know if they did that. In spite of the whole book being about cattle ranching and the cowboy life, it's not a lifestyle that interests me much so I didn't really get it. And I didn't really get Lily, except as a girl. As a woman she never sprang to life for me - she made too many crazy moves for me to be able to relate to her. She lost job after job because of her rashness and rebelliousness. I felt sorry for her husband and yet the book implies that they got along well and he was patient with her.

Half Broke Horses really helped me understand Lily's daughter Rose Mary, Jeannette's mother, a fascinating figure in The Glass Castle. Half Broke Horses, through Lily's (fictional) first person narration, describes Rose Mary from her birth to her marriage and a very little bit beyond. Lily seems constantly (and inexplicably) surprised that her daughter turns out to be a bit of a hellion. Walls wrote Half Broke Horses from extensive interviews with her mother.

The book was well enough written that it held my interest, and it has a gorgeous cover, but there is something about it that didn't ring quite true for me - a letdown after the searing realism of The Glass Castle.