December 30, 2012

An Okanagan History: The Diaries of Roger John Sugars, 1911-1919

This lovely book chronicles eight years in the life of Roger John Sugars, who lived with his parents at Fintry on the west side of Okanagan Lake through his teenage years. Sugars was only 14 years old in 1911, and yet the diaries are beautifully written with the concision of a mature naturalist. Rogers had an apparently insatiable curiosity about trees, birds, animals, weather, the lake, watersheds, and geology. He had access to books which he seemed to know backwards and forwards, and even sent updates to the authors sometimes, e.g. about a certain conifer he found growing outside of the range mentioned in the book. This guy had a amazing brain for numbers, measurements, details of all kinds, and a great ear for the dialects of the various colourful characters who populated Fintry at the time.

The diaries chronicle a time in our valley of which I'd until now only heard bits and pieces. We spent some time at Fintry this past summer and it's now a park, with some residences just outside the park to the south. But in 1911, there wasn't even a road to Fintry - from anywhere. The remnant of the old Hudson's Bay Trail passed the Sugars ranch, but the trail, which had carried furs during the fur trade era and prospectors during the Gold Rush, was little used by then. All supplies and communication with the outside world came by steamers like the SS Sicamous, now a lakeside museum in Penticton.

Roger's father John had been a scholar with a Master's degree in the classics and a good job in England, but he married an adventurous woman who convinced him to pull up stakes and move to Canada. At Fintry John made a living at whatever he could - roadbuilding, fishing, hunting, working in the orchards, lumbering - and Roger worked alongside him.

 In 1917 Roger joined the armed forces as a forester and was shipped to Europe for the last two years of the war. When he returned, he moved to Salmon Arm, farmed there for a while, then eventually became an insurance salesman.

One of the most interesting things in the book for me is the foreword by his daughter, in which she says:

According to his diaries, he was a fine woodsman, a hunter, a horseman and a builder. He was capable of inventing useful articles and doing a hard day's manual labour. He brought none of those skills to his married life. His ability to run a farm and a store were left in Salmon Arm. His army experiences were never discussed with us, but were described in his diary. We knew our father as a top notch salesman, a perfect gentleman with impeccable dress, a well-liked friend to many with a marvelous sense of humour, a soft hearted dad and a total loss at fixing anything whatever in our home.

This really freaks me out! These two pictures don't match at all. The diaries depict an absolutely intrepid, fearless young man, very strong and capable and infinitely curious about nature. His daughter's description of him doesn't seem to be about the same person. The war stands between these two pictures, and maybe that's a clue to this strange dissonance.

In any case, I loved the diaries - thanks to Jeremy who ferreted this book out of the library. It's well written and sheds a lot of light on the early years of the 19th century in the Okanagan. I learned, for example, that the wide open meadow on the West Side that we see from Kelowna and call "Stocks Meadow" was settled in the early 1900s by the Stocks family. This is good to know and their story will add a whole new dimension for me now when I look at that meadow.

One local reviewer said the Sugars diaries are the "Sunshine Sketches of the Okanagan." I wouldn't have thought of them exactly that way, but they are really good, and deserve the sharp eye of a good editor (me!) to make this edition even better.

I'll Mature When I'm Dead by Dave Barry

This hilarious book deserves at least a passing mention here. I used to read everything I could get my hands on by Dave Barry, then after a while it seemed as though he was recycling the same old kinds of jokes, just with different topics or characters. Sample joke: "What would you say if I told you that, since the year 2000, [Miami's] overall rate of violent crime is down 17.3 percent and crime against tourists is down by 36.8 percent. If you would say, 'You are totally making these numbers up,' you would be correct. But I'm pretty sure things are better." Sample joke #2 (based on his favourite technique, exaggeration): his wife, a typical woman according to him, gives "gifts and/or thoughtful cards for virtually every occasion including the onset of daylight saving time."

We saw Dave Barry live a few years ago in Florida, and we did thoroughly enjoy the evening, but I had that seem feeling - that I'd heard most of it before. Barry has always been heavy on bathroom, sex and nose-picking jokes; these were all featured in the standup routine too, and this apparently hasn't changed, hence the title of this 2010 book.

 But the book has some pretty original stuff in it. It's a series of chapters that don't really hang together, including a hilarious young adult melodrama ("Stewart and Sven moved their heads vertically up and down in nods of agreement"), and the story of how he tried to write a screenplay about mutant chickens with a friend (and notes from that effort: "Mark notices there are chickens in the street, giving him the eye."). To me the funniest chapter was the first one, on the well-worn topic of the differences between men and women. My favourite sentence: "A typical woman's brain is swarming, night and day, with vague feelings of guilt caused by the nagging worry that somebody, somewhere in her vast complex network of family and friends needs more nurturing."

Good for a giggle and a even few guffaws if you're nimble enough to skip the off-colour parts.

December 9, 2012

Kelowna Community Chorus

I went to another pre-Christmas event last night which was so much fun. It was a three-set evening kicked off by a 4-piece group called "The Early Music Band," then songs by beautiful young classical singer Stephanie Nakagawa, and finally a set by the Kelowna Community Chorus, which was the reason I'd come.

The highlight of the evening for me was The Early Music Band, because during their set I had a completely out-of-control fit of giggling such as I haven't had in a decade or more. Bless their hearts, I give them full credit for being up there, and you're not seeing me in any sort of band - I know how hard it is, but they did miss a few notes, and I'd invited Brenda so maybe I was a little tense wanting it to be good, so when the guitarist lost his music pages in the middle of a song and had to go scrambling around to gather them, I just completely lost it - quietly, but nevertheless completely. I was shaking and snuffling, and Brenda was hissing "Dianne, you can't do this" in my ear, being pretty close to the line herself and having had a similar experience with her friend Terry once in which they had to walk out in disgrace. I was madly trying to recite "I wandered lonely as a cloud" in my mind, but it kept slipping away as I'd start giggling again, and finally, finally, they finished their set and I was slowly able to pull myself back together.

Stephanie Nakagawa was truly amazing, smashing in a strapless black ruffled ballgown and a fabulous voice with great dramatic flair. Accompanied by the very accomplished Ursula Pidgeon, she sang some Mozart, Schumann and Puccini, but the highlights for me were "O Holy Night," "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, and the best of all, a comic piece called "Art Is Calling for Me" from a 1911 operetta called The Enchantress. It intrigues me no end all the fun and lovely art there is in the world that I've never even heard of. This young woman is working on her doctorate of music in voice, and one wonders where she might go with talent like this. Although I'm no expert, I had a sense that we could be seeing some history in the making.

I sang in the Kelowna Community Chorus years ago, and was considering it again, so thought I'd go hear what and how they're singing nowadays. It's a 100-member non-auditioned choir directed by Leroy Wiens and he has certainly done a beautiful job with this random assortment of community members who just want to sing. They sang melodic and fairly complicated versions of Christmas songs, with a particularly beautiful and meaningful adaptation of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and a lively and lovely "Mr. Santa." Maybe I'd like to have heard a little more punch and volume, but with a choir of this size and with many untrained singers, getting a great, relaxed and mellow tone is quite an achievement and Leroy knows what he's doing.

December 8, 2012

The Spice Necklace: A Food-Lover's Caribbean Adventure

This book is a great follow-up to Ann Vanderhoof's An Embarrassment of Mangoes which I'd read and enjoyed some time ago. Both books are about years the author and her husband spent sailing around the Caribbean, and especially about the foods they discovered and learned to cook.

I admired the book immensely for its diligent focus and beautiful organization. The chapters really hang together, with themes like chocolate, spices, cocktails, seafood, foods eaten at Carnival, Christmas, etc. yet they are so well-written and varied, with trips to the various islands woven in, that I never got to thinking, "That's enough about chocolate." Well, OK, bad example.

It is a travel book and it does get you excited about visiting the islands of the West Indies, but more than that, it's a book about people and above all, about the food they cook and enjoy. Vanderhoof and her husband are sociable; they get to know people on the islands, visit them in their homes, and especially learn to cook their food. Every chapter ends with three or four or more mouth-watering recipes. I cooked two of them, and both were good, although the chicken one (with onions, tomatoes, chutney, peanuts, cilantro, coconut milk, lots of garlic, etc.) called for whole chicken pieces, so it was greasy, and next time I'd adapt it and use my usual boneless skinless.

True to its title, the book is an amazing chronicle of spices of all kinds, inspiring me to kick it up a notch with my seasonings. Fresh-ground nutmeg, which I have never used, is often featured, along with limes, ginger, cilantro, lots of hot peppers, and even surprisingly, curry, from the islands' multicultural past and present.

The author's website reflects the relaxed and happy tone of the book and includes gorgeous photos of her Caribbean adventures and even a few recipes.

A Good Talk

 Brenda and I were sitting around early this fall talking about the importance of community and our need to get together with a group of some sort to share ideas. We had only a vague idea what this might look like. Our idea was based somewhat on the care groups we used to have when we were part of a church, but it was not specifically spiritual needs we were thinking of. We thought of care, conversation, and community and decided to run the idea by some of our friends. The response was positive, so we set a date for November.

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, and so, apparently, does good conversation. I read A Good Talk by Daniel Menaker in preparation for this group and among many other interesting things, I learned that good conversation between friends raises the level of the hormone oxytocin in your body, increasing a feeling of bonding, empathy and wellbeing similar to what happens in sex, breastfeeding, and affectionate touch. Conversation is good for you.

We had invited about 7 women, of whom only 3 came the first evening, making 5 of us at Brenda's house. It was what I would call a wonderful evening and everyone there seemed to agree. A Good Talk  emphasized the importance of "aimlessness" in good conversation as opposed to having a strict agenda which can become business, foster competition and kill caring and community. I was the designated leader for that evening and I suppressed as best I could my natural tendency towards achievement and focus. At the same time, I wanted the time to be meaningful - I have so little interest in sustained small talk. The dynamic among that small group was excellent, with the conversation flowing easily and courteously back and forth. We introduced ourselves, and a theme of "why do we move and what is home?" emerged.

At the end of the evening, each of us said what we would hope for a group like this, and when Holly said, "I'd like intelligent conversation," my spirit soared. I suggested that the art of conversation could be our next topic, and Janice suggested "Sound and Silence" for January. We decided we'd meet 5 times in total, on the first Tuesday of every month between November and March. Then we could reinvent or restart the group if there was a will to continue in fall.

The December meeting was just as good or even better than the November one. Seven women came, and conversation once again flowed deeply and evenly. I'd handed out quotations from A Good Talk on slips to each person and told them they could fit them into the conversation if they saw a suitable place. This worked! Everyone had lots of their own thoughts about conversation and the ideas on the papers seamlessly merged into the discussion ("OK! Listen to this!"). There was a lot of laughter and for me, a feeling of being exactly in the right place at the right time.

December 7, 2012

Minds and Music

Last week I went to the first of a three-concert series at UBCO called "The Year of the Guitar." It's part of a program called Minds and Music envisioned and run by a philosophy professor at the university, a free concert/lecture series so far funded only for this year, from what I could gather.

What an absolutely lovely afternoon. This first concert/lecture featured guitarist Alan Rinehart, the husband of my new friend Janice whom I met at the beach this fall. Alan spoke very knowledgeably about the early history of the guitar in Spanish music, and showed us four different guitars built by his friend to the historic specifications of peak periods for guitar music between 1500 and about 1850. In between, he played music from these periods on his own concert guitar, beautiful and restful and thought-provoking all at the same time.

Just as with Romanza the week before, I went into this pretty grey, but came out feeling all mellow and happy and artsy. The event was held in the University Centre's airy ballroom, which has lots of tall windows overlooking the campus and a beautiful  feature wall of different woods. There was an amazing buffet with all sorts of appetizers and drinks, all free.

Alan is playing and teaching again in Concert #2 of the series, featuring Spanish guitar music of the modern period, from 1850 to the present. This one happens at the same place on January 23, 2013, and the third concert features guitarist musician Daniel Bolshoy of UBC, on March 8. I don't want to miss either of them, and hope to take at least one or two of my friends with me next time.

November 27, 2012


Lucky me. I was invited to a concert at the Mary Irwin Theatre last weekend featuring Romanza, the West Coast's very own "three tenors." These young classically trained tenors entertained us royally with their beautiful voices and engaging personalities. They were having fun, and so were we.

My favourite was Ken Lavigne, of whom one reviewer said, "It only takes a moment for tenor Ken Lavigne to sing a single note, and the whole dreary day has changed." This was certainly true for me; I came to the theatre under a cloud of sadness for various reasons but within a few songs I was smiling and after a few more, laughing out loud.

The trio started with classical arias, love songs in Italian, like "O Sole Mio." But soon they were interspersing it with more lighthearted stuff including an absolutely hilarious costumed (think ridiculous large sombrero, chaps with dark suits peeking out) "Rawhide." They swept us into the intermission with the most glorious version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" you could imagine.

In the second half, Christmas-themed, the highlight for me by far was Elvis's "Blue Christmas" by Lavigne, once again in full costume, looking and sounding like nothing but The King himself, except better. "O Holy Night" and "The Prayer" and other carols rounded out a wonderful, very classy pre-Christmas evening of great singing.  

November 24, 2012

A Beautiful Mind

The three weeks since I last posted is exactly how long it took me to read A Beautiful Mind. I calculated that it has something like 200,000 words, most of them hard. But it's a spellbinding book, divided into 5 main sections and 50 chapters with carefully adhered to and well-thought-out themes, and this made it readable for me. Barely.

Although I'd seen the movie and know the basic story, the biography is grippingly thorough and I basically kept reading to see what would happen next. The whole 20-chapter first section, subtitled "A Beautiful Mind," describes the first 25 or so years of John Nash's life, and the mathematics he did at MIT and Princeton. The next three sections describe his descent into madness and his long sojourn there. And the last section relates his amazing return to rationality.

What surprised me most is that Nash rarely did his homework. His incredible insights came in intuitive flashes, and then he would begin the long process of proving them mathematically, often after relentlessly pestering colleagues for the backgrounds of problems he was working on, rather than studying the literature. This isn't to say he didn't work. He did, constantly - thinking, thinking as he paced the hallways, and calculating for hours, weeks, sometimes years, on a problem that intrigued him, and that he had determined from careful inquiry was important enough to bother with.

Never was such a beautiful mind (one of his colleagues said this about him - "he has a beautiful mind,") encased in such a complex and often downright unpleasant personality. He was competitive, scheming, and petty, and an extreme penny-pincher. Arrogant doesn't begin to describe him. At one point he is quoted as saying something like "There are three true geniuses in mathematics today, me and ___ and ___, and I am probably the best." He would put students and colleagues down mercilessly: "I can't believe you're asking me that! What a stupid question! Don't you know anything?"

This would pretty well disqualify the average person from good society, but Nash's genius was so extreme that he kept on being accepted to a certain extent, although people found his bizarre behaviour highly uncomfortable. Even when his schizophrenia progressed to such an extent that most people were afraid of him, he retained champions who allowed him to hang around Princeton, kept finding funding for him, and tried to get him the best medical care.

I learned a little bit from this book about mathematics (not that there weren't many explanations, I just didn't get them), something about game theory (for which Nash won his Nobel Prize), and a lot about genius and mental illness. A riveting book, researched almost beyond a point I can comprehend, and beautifully written.

November 2, 2012

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

To say that the author of this strange travel book is misanthropic is an understatement. She is a traveller who would rather stay home, dislikes a lot of what she does and sees, but nevertheless describes it quite beautifully, and the realness is refreshing.

The theme of the book is her attempt to be in a very still place. She describes three trips - one to New Zealand for an author's conference after which she attempts a retreat to a remote corner of the country, but finds mostly other tourists. The second trip is a two-month stay at a cottage in Somerset, England. This is better but her cottage is attached to the Farmer's house and her efforts to be alone are foiled by the Farmer (she capitalizes this and never gives a name) who worries about her. Her third trip is to visit the Sami people in Lapland in the dead of winter. She thinks in the endless darkness she might find the peace and quiet she's looking for.

I'm a lot different character than the author (she likes to stay in, I love to be out, she likes inaction, I like action), but I could deeply relate to some of her feelings. I like being alone too, and I like her definition of it:

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something, is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned.[This is my dream exactly] A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead.

Diski is very funny, never more so than when she's describing her thoughts, or lack thereof. Although she prefers to stay indoors, she constantly thinks she should be wandering the moors and thinking, as all good authors do. They suggest, she says, that the busyness of their lives and thoughts covers up a profound inner complexity of being which silence and stillness brings into the open. For me, on the other hand, all the complexity of my outerness appears to be covering up is an inherent lack of inner person.

Years ago a friend told me she resented her children because they disrupted her thoughts. I said that never happened to me. She said, "Well, what do you think about when you're peeling potatoes?" I said I didn't know, and later checked it out. I was thinking about peeling potatoes. Diski says she waits for her thoughts to come, but really there was only: what kind of day is it? Rainy? Sunny? Windy? Mmm. The horses are there, or not there. The sheep are near by in an upper field or not to be seen. My body warm or in need of warming. Tea? Hungry?

That made me laugh out loud, as did quite a few other descriptions in this  quirky book. The three sections don't really hang together, and in the end Diski spends a lot of time on the culture of the native Laplanders. What I like is her honesty and humanness that allow me to laugh at this crazy world and at myself and feel OK because I'm not even as introverted as she is.

October 31, 2012

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

I keep being astounded at how many good books there are in the world. I got this biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay from the library after a friend sent me this snippet of verse by her :

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
I thought it sounded a bit arrogant and began to wonder what sort of woman had written it. I had always pictured Edna St. Vincent Millay as an emotional and slightly chubby older woman, I guess because of "God's World," which I liked but which seemed old-fashioned to me. Millay was actually barely 20 when she wrote that poem, an undergraduate at Vassar, wild and crazy, wafer-thin, hauntingly beautiful (according to admirers although the pictures don't exactly bear that out) and already famous at that age.

At 512 densely written and heavily researched pages, the book took me over a week to read, but I could hardly wait to get to it every night. This is the same author who wrote the wildly successful Zelda in the 1970s about that other famous "flapper." The writing is a densely stitched patchwork of letters, first person interviews, news clippings of the day and family memories. One of the best things about it is that many whole poems are included, in the context of when and why and how they were written.

My thoughts about the writing being old-fashioned weren't entirely off base. Millay did write in styles - sonnets, epics, ballads, plays - that harkened back to an earlier era, while many of her contemporaries, T.S. Eliot, e.e.cummings, et al, had gone on to more modern forms.

Millay's life was, by most standards, an unbelievably chaotic one. I will not say more in case you want to read more about her. Savage Beauty is a mesmerizing story of one woman's fame, utter disinterest in most social conventions, and extreme dedication to her craft.

Dave Cooks the Turkey by Stuart McLean

I got this 20-minute read from the library as a tiny red hardcover: apparently lots of people want to have a copy to read at Christmas. Personally I think the end of October is a fine time to read it - I wouldn't want to cast a pall over Christmas Day with this hilarious but almost dystopian story.

Dave and Morley, the familiar couple from the Vinyl Cafe, have agreed that Dave will take charge of the turkey for Christmas dinner. Belatedly he realizes that this includes buying the turkey. On a wild goose (turkey) chase in the wee hours of Christmas morning, he finally scores a dubious-looking bird at a convenience store and it gets a lot worse from there.

For me the funniest part of the story is Morley's diatribe in which she compares a mother's holiday duties to a runaway train. I can relate to that. Even though the desire for elaborate holidays may have long faded for the rest of the family, I can still feel that runaway train bearing down on me as every holiday approaches, especially Christmas. I alternately laughed and cringed as I read this story.

October 23, 2012

A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson

This book is subtitled "Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman," a record of a year in which the author separated from her husband and lived in their cottage on Cape Cod.

While it's not an outstanding book, it was close enough to home for me to find it really interesting. Anderson writes honestly about the issues that matter to a lot of women: what she wants from her husband, how to make ends meet, how to get her weight down, how to relate well to her adult children. She also wrestles with deeper issues, like who she is and what she wants out of life.

There's a great underlying sadness, but also beautiful passages describing swimming, sunsets, times at the seashore, and time alone. Anderson writes unromanticized descriptions of the nearby fishing village, and the jobs she takes there, at the fish market, clamming, especially when her hot water heater breaks and she doesn't have the 20% down that her plumber needs to do the installation.

She doesn't pull any punches regarding her relationship with her husband. The foreword says he read all the chapters as they were written and offered advice, and if so, he's a brave man.

The book got me reflecting about the importance of taking time to think, to be separate, regroup. Some good friends (and sisters) have been talking to me about finding my own truth, and this is really what the author's retreat year was about. I haven't figured out how I might do this, but maybe I've made a few small steps. The book shows me that although it might be lonely and inconvenient, it could also be immensely rewarding to offer yourself this gift of time to ponder life, rediscover who you are and just rest.

North Shore Celtic Ensemble

We walked out of our first community concert of the season with big smiles and light hearts. The North Shore Celtic Ensemble is a group of young (teenagers, maybe 16 - 18) musicians from North Vancouver, mostly fiddlers, who showcased a lot of talent but also a lot of joy.

The Ensemble consisted of about 22 violins, a flute (or something like that) drums, and keyboard. The music was complex and lively, mostly Celtic style, and much of it composed or arranged by Ensemble leaders.

The Ensemble's purpose is to "inspire kids to explore who they are as musicians, to push themselves artistically and to come into their own as socially conscious and community-minded individuals." Mission statements often sound like well-meaning words, but from watching these kids, I felt this one was really coming true. They looked inspired, confident, and happy, and they got their audience feeling that way too. While very much individuals, moving and responding to the music in different ways, they still produced music that was completely unified, and they played the entire two-hour concert without sheet music. The informal atmosphere, solos, and a little bit of singing and dancing made the whole evening more like a ceilidh than a concert. What fun.   

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber

This novel has everything I like in a good read - a little bit of history, lots of art, fine writing and a great plot. Besides which it's quite long so it lasts a few nights.

The premise is that the artist participates in a scientific study that unexpectedly sends him back to the 17th century or at least puts him into the body or mind of the famous painter Velazquez. He begins to paint like Velazquez. His family life is chaos, and he gets involved with shady dealings. You're never quite sure exactly what's happening in what dimension, but it's a really good uncertainty that keeps you guessing and reading. I highly recommend this for quality escapist entertainment!

September 30, 2012

Watercolour Sketching

I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend Cynthia last week to the quarterly opening at the Kelowna Art Gallery. The featured artist was John Hartman, an Ontario painter who took a week to drive through the Columbia River basin, making fast watercolour sketches of the landscape as he went, like this one of Nelson, BC.

He made 30 paintings, all the same size, about 9 x 12". Cynthia and I loved them, watching a video of Hartman at work, and joking that "we could do that!"

It's harder than it looks. I was inspired to try my hand, while at the same time fulfilling an item on my bucket list, which was to go up to Kettle Valley one sunny afternoon and paint. There are two benches there with little tables in front of them - just perfect. It was a glorious afternoon and I had so much fun and gained new respect for John Hartman. But hey, it was just my first try. I bet I could get better at this.

Hartman didn't do any colour mixing at all. Because he worked quickly outdoors, he just dabbed away directly from his watercolour box, getting some colour variation by overpainting once in a while, but mostly the pictures all have the same 8 - 12 colours and they look great together.

I decided to pay little attention to colour - hence the purple mountains. This watercolour sketching method, working fast with no preliminary drawing, takes the pressure off trying to be perfect. Even though my scene looks a bit like palm trees by the Nile river rather than the park at Kettle Valley, I'm pretty excited about doing more of this, and taking a break from the watercolour portraits I've been working on lately.

You can see Hartman's paintings at the Kelowna Art Gallery for the next three months.

Update: I tried another one (left) looking out over the valley from Thornhaven the other day. Too much fun.

Kurelek's Vision of Canada

This is a picture book of a selection of William Kurelek's art, with much descriptive material written by Kurelek himself for a show at  an Oshawa art gallery. But the book also includes an excellent essay by the curator Joan Murray, which held some very interesting insights for me into who this man really was.

I always thought of Kurelek as primarily a pastoral painter who recorded scenes of farm life on the prairies, and he was that, but his main goal as a painter was to engage his audiences in deep thinking about spiritual principles. Kurelek converted to Catholicism in his 20s and became passionate about his belief that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and that the only hope for salvation is God. Besides farm scenes, the book includes many dark and disturbing images - funerals, a barn burned down, a metaphorical crucifixion in a field because of anger.

Joan Murray takes an unflinching view of Kurelek's art. She says there is "Much to hate" and that Kurelek had an "unformed sense of picture making" and a terrible sense of colour, with a few later exceptions. His characters are simplistic, often with hackneyed expressions and looking "as though they have no bones."  Kurelek was largely self-taught and admitted that what rules and techniques he did learn, he liked to flout. For instance, he had no trouble with dividing a canvas exactly in half.

I love Kurelek's folksy style and would love to do what he did, driving around the countryside and recording everyday scenes with a paintbrush.

Cover Letter Queen by Carol Caron

I'm particularly proud of my sister for writing and publishing her first book, Cover Letter Queen. Several hundred copies have already been sold, and the book has been on McNally Robinson's bestseller list.

I helped a little bit, early on, with the editing, and found myself so intrigued that I'm sure at times I forgot my editing duties entirely while I chuckled my way through a section. I thought Carol did a particularly good job of the parts that included "Johnny." The book is fictionalized, but I know quite well the man on whom this character is based and I thought she just nailed it with him.

The timing is great - the book moves along briskly, taking a wry look at the sixty-some jobs the main character has held in her lifetime. In spite of taking a hilarious look at why she applied for each job, how she got it, what she did and why she quit, Cover Letter Queen never falls into anything even close to a monotonous rhythm. You will laugh, you will squirm at times, and most of all you'll keep reading to try to figure out what makes the protagonist tick and what she'll be up to next. Whatever she does, I hope she keeps writing. I'm looking forward to the next book already.

You can get more info or buy at

August 25, 2012

Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally

This interesting account is written in alternating chapters by partners Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, the Vancouver creators of the 100-Mile Diet. The book was first published as The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.

Smith and Mackinnon took a year to eat only food that had been grown or raised within 100 miles of their home. They blogged about their experiences and the blog went viral or whatever happens when a blog really catches on - people all over the country and around the world began clicking in within a month or two. The book, written in 2007, was a bestseller in Canada and won a prize for non-fiction.

It compares well to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Same idea - live for a year on local foods. Kingsolver's book had an edge of glamour and celebrity, while this one by contrast is very humble. Smith and Mackinnon's quest is intensely personal, and hard on their relationship. They're not well off and are content with little. They ate a lot of potatoes and eggs.

But they also found delicious food they hadn't used before, ranging from greens in the wild to all kinds of shellfish from the shore to exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables at nearby farms and markets. They are mostly vegetarian, and they were pretty strict with themselves. They allowed themselves to use what they already had in the house, and if they were invited out or travelling, they ate what was offered or available. Their most difficult quest in the Lower Mainland was for grain - it took them seven months to identify a grower, and during those seven months they sorely missed their bread and pancakes and tortillas. When the year was up, they mostly kept to their diet, finding they just liked it better. They put back a few favourites like lemons, rice, and beer. Their second winter was easier because they'd frozen or canned lots of produce the summer before.  

The book is overloaded with history and philosophy, which sometimes seems forced. But in general the writing is natural and real. It's pretty raw; Kingsolver's book was so "pretty" that it really inspired me to try to find more local food. This story is quite a hard one, likely more realistic to what most of us experience when we move towards local eating: more work, more preserving, missing familiar food, lots of searching, and when you do find local food, it's often more expensive.

But Smith and Mackinnon attest to what we've also found to be true. Local food is fresher and tastier and supporting a local farmer rather than a multinational is almost as satisfying as eating the food. 

August 3, 2012

A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

Anyone who's from Winnipeg and enjoys the theatre should definitely read A Fiery Soul. John Hirsch came to Winnipeg from Hungary as a war orphan at the age of 17. All his family either died at Auschwitz or were killed in the war. His early upbringing near Budapest was a culturally rich one and he transplanted some of that richness to Winnipeg, becoming a founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre and an early director at Rainbow Stage in the late 50s and 60s.

Both these theatres were formative in my life - we were taken to them as children and they kickstarted my lifelong love of drama. I saw Fiddler on the Roof at Rainbow Stage at least 40 years ago, and it feels like yesterday. Hirsch believed in educating about drama, and wherever he worked in Canada and the U.S. in the course of his eminent career, he encouraged the teaching component of the theatre company. I took Ryan to drama lessons in Winnipeg when he was 10 or 12, and also once invited a group of actors from MTC to work with the cast of Scapino and teach us commedia del arte. So many southern Manitobans have benefitted from the seeds sown by John Hirsch.

Hirsch also directed for many years at Stratford in Ontario, for CBC, on Broadway, in California and eventually around the world. He was energetic, alternative, wildly creative and intense, ruffling many feathers along the way.

This book, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, is incredibly detailed, describing the writing, budget, casting, scenery, special effects, interpersonal relationships, reviews, and audience reception of most of the 120 or so plays Hirsch directed in his life. But it's also intensely personal, never losing sight of its fascinating central figure, and I enjoyed it all. I think I had nurtured an idea that I knew a lot of plays, but realized after reading this, that I have read or seen only a handful. So many plays, so little time!

July 19, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A very good summer read! The gentle title of this novel doesn't say much about it - it's a spellbinder (I took that word off the back cover) set in the Amazon jungle and there's hardly a dull or gentle moment in it.

The characters are mostly doctors who work for an American pharmaceutical company. As the story opens, a report comes to the company that one of their researchers has died in Brazil, and the company sends another researcher to find out the circumstances of his death and to report on the elusive and reclusive head researcher and the progress of the project.

The stunning thing about this book is its character development. "Well-rounded" doesn't begin to describe almost every character in the book. Some books I read right through to the end still trying to figure out who was who, but in this book there's no doubt. There are at least seven or eight highly distinctive main characters, and they're far from caricatures. Each has many facets and surprises, all fitting in believably into a fascinating and human whole.

The advertising on the book makes much of a previous novel, Bel Canto, which I will try to get, and Patchett has apparently written at least seven other books.

July 4, 2012

The Olive Route by Carol Drinkwater

This is a very beautiful book by a writer who is passionate about olive trees. It sounds like an odd passion and by the time I reached page 320 of this fairly fat book, it still seemed odd, but I kind of "got it" and even found myself excited about her next discovery of a 4,000-year-old olive tree or an ancient olive press depicted on a Roman coin.

The author takes a tour around the Mediterranean, searching out the history of olive cultivation and the effect it had on the culture and economy of the area over the millenia. She herself has an olive farm in Provence, and her trip takes her through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Malta, Tunisia (fascinating), Libya, Greece, Crete, and finally she comes almost full circle to Israel, where she stands and looks over no man's land to Lebanon, but of course can't cross over to complete the circle because the border is closed.

She does a lot of speculating - there are a lot more questions than answers. This is not a truly political, historical or archaeological book but it delves into all those areas. The highlight of reading it for me was really the travel writing aspect. She writes beautifully, in my humble opinion. Normally with this level of detail I'd do some skimming and scanning, but with this book I found myself going back and reading paragraphs twice because I liked them so much.

Of one man she meets, she says, "He...had longish dark hair that hung like a fringe from his bald pate. His left eye was permanently closed as though locked in calculation. He looked as though someone had pressed on the top of his head with a heavy weight and squashed him." But after she's talked to him for a few hours, her summary is, "He had a dishevelled appearance, yet his fingernails were immaculately manicured and I had the feeling that, like his artwork, the inner man was impeccable, precise in thought and detail." She writes equally lovely descriptions of other people, nature and the villages and cities she travels through. She strikes me as a mature person who is realistic about some of the considerable hardships she encounters, but foregoes moaning about them. The book rings true.

I was delighted and amazed to see that she has written three other books about her life in Provence: The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, and The Olive Harvest. I thought Lucy and I had long ago discovered every one of these, but apparently not. Good reading ahead!

June 15, 2012

Unless by Carol Shields

This is an uneven novel that nevertheless had great power for me. It's the story of an oldest daughter who suddenly and mysteriously leaves her loving family to sit silently begging on a street corner in a nearby city. The story is told in the first person by the mother, who narrates the unspeakable grief of losing a child in any way.

I call the novel uneven because Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize among many other prizes for The Stone Diaries, takes the liberty of some philosophical rabbit trails that left me skipping parts at times. Nevertheless, her characters come alive, the plot kept me reading and the theme is a strong one. Her belief is that her daughter checked out because it had somehow come to her that our society leaves women powerless.

The most poignant parts of the book (besides the descriptions of how the other two daughters respond) are the letters the mother writes to various authors and public figures who feature only men (or maybe one women - how did she get in there?) in their work or projects. The letters are scathing, in a hilarious and gently Canadian kind of way, but the humour doesn't detract from the deadly serious nature of their message.

Besides short stories, plays and poems, Shields wrote ten novels. The only one (besides Unless of course) that I remember reading is Larry's Party, which I moderately enjoyed. Based on this novel, I'll revisit The Stone Diaries and try a few others on the list.

June 12, 2012

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

I really enjoyed this latest book by Miriam Toews. I did myself the favour of buying it (in paperback) because it's a very pretty book, and I'm not sorry I have it. Miriam (I guess I call her by her first name because Marj did) is entertaining as always. Once again she has an off-the-wall heroine, this time a young Mennonite woman whose family moved from Manitoba to Mexico when she was about 12. As a result, she speaks Low German, English and Spanish, and gets herself a job as a translator on a movie that is being shot near her rural home.

The complicating factor is her father, an abusive, violent, hardline conservative who tries to control her life and with whom she shares a bitter secret. Her younger sister Aggie is the other very complex and very funny character. As with The Flying Troutmans, this is a hardscrabble, rough and raw group of characters that figures out a way to make things work.

What will keep you reading is Toews's metaphors, wry humor and unexpected take on almost everything. In one scene Aggie has found a stash of Irma's baby clothes and is holding the tiny garments up to her one by one while Irma is milking cows. One expects sentiment, but instead Aggie says, "Wow, this is ugly," of one little item, and Irma responds, "You wore it too."

The other most intriguing thing is learning to know Irma. Like the heroine of A Complicated Kindness, Irma is wise beyond her years, but unlike Nomi, Irma has been really poorly educated and because of her terrible upbringing, lacks all confidence. Watching her grab her life and run with it is just plain fascinating.

I think Miriam Toews has done it again. Irma Voth may not win the Giller but it is beautifully crafted and I'll be happy to lend it to whoever would like to read it.

June 6, 2012

Tuesday Night and my Words are all Gone

A defeated silence hangs over
 our dinner, our walk, our going to bed.
I see that my words
have consumed me, storm-tossed,
And in a half-eaten way,
they have sustained me too,
Given me hope and goals.

Giving up the struggle
has left me hanging like a limp sail.
Was there only the one wind
driving me along?

While I stand still the days fly by
May into June, yet even they
are hardly more than words
that also end.

May 16, 2012

Changing my Mind by Margaret Trudeau

Margaret Trudeau, former wife of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, spent much of her life, including much of her time at 24 Sussex Drive, in profound misery. She suffers from bipolar disorder.

Although I have read some things about bipolar disorder, this book was an eye-opener for me in that for the first time, after reading it, I feel as though I might faintly understand how "painful, terrifying, lonely and confusing" life is for a person who has to struggle with the disease. This is not about signs and symptoms and medication and coping and how to talk to people in the throes of a manic phase. It's about a real person for whom life is so infinitely much more difficult because of their illness.

Trudeau's life has mostly been on the public stage and this in some ways made things infinitely worse for her because of stigma of mental illness (even greater in the 70s and 80s when she was most in the public eye), the constant scrutiny of the press and what often amounted to mockery of her ideas and behaviour. But her relative wealth and celebrity and supportive families also eased the way for her, providing her with the best possible care (shockingly basic and inadequate most of the time) and always ensuring her a safe landing pad when she did come out of hospital. But all this eminence didn't help much to relieve her endless emotional pain, and it shook me to realize how much harder it is for those without all the resources she had.

Now nearing her mid-60s, Trudeau feels that the illness is finally under control and she can be truly happy for the first time in her adult life. Her healing came about when she accepted that she had the illness and that she needed help in managing it. Medications have improved and she's taking what she needs and being monitored. She's realized that marijuana triggers manic episodes - she was a heavy user. She went through lots of cognitive therapy, a process that she says literally "changed her mind," teaching her to think in new ways. She writes, "I felt clean, shorn, coached in new ways of looking at life, not avoiding pain but confronting it, not overreacting but listening, not closing myself away but examining why I found certain things so hard and hurtful."

The book made me feel like getting active and joining all the many voices who are already out there fighting for a better deal, more understanding and better resources for those with mental health problems.

April 7, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

The April 2012 Canadian Geographic has this beautiful article about the Grasslands National Park, which the writer calls one of the world's last great quiet places. The article follows Gordon Hempton, a sound artist/acoustic ecologist, who was hired by Parks Canada and Tourism Saskatchewan to conduct a sound survey - the first of its kind in a Canadian national park.

Hempton is an American, and he looks for quiet places all over the world. His goal is to record 15 minutes of natural grassland silence without any manmade sounds - It seems such a modest goal! I read it twice to be sure I had read right. But it's a goal he has not been able to achieve in U.S. grasslands, with its network of highways and railways and the ever present jets overhead.

The article describes the grassland in glorious detail: it has 60 different kinds of grasses and many birds and animals whose early morning conversations Hempton records with his very high-end microphones at 3:30 a.m.

Grasslands is also an official dark-sky preserve, the biggest in Canada until Jasper National Park also gained dark sky status last year. The idea of quiet areas receiving a similar designation is just beginning to filter into the parks system. I love this concept. Sometimes when we go snowshoeing in Joe Rich it is quiet like that, but on the weekends there are often snowmobiles roaring all around - not that they don't also have a right to be there, but it makes for a completely different experience.

March 1, 2012

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A. J. Jacobs

My New Year's resolution to read less is slowly crumbling in these dark damp days of late winter. I have succumbed regularly in these past few weeks to my favourite drug - easy reading, funny books. The Guinea Pig Diaries qualifies admirably in that category.
The subtitle of this fairly ridiculous book is "My Life as an Experiment." A. J. Jacobs is the author who also wrote The Know-It-All (in which he took a year to read the Encyclopedia Britannica right through) and The Year of Living Biblically. He's the master of experiential or immersion journalism and in this third book he describes nine different immersion experiments ranging from a day to a month long. He tries such things as impersonating a beautiful woman, being completely honest in everything, outsourcing all his daily tasks overseas, "uni-tasking" (as opposed to multi-tasking) and spending a month doing everything his wife tells him to.

It truly is ridiculous but it's funny too, and in the course of his experiments he comes to some profound insights about life and people. In between he reflects on how his experiments have changed him, and they have, especially his year of living according to the Bible, which he says has left a permanent habit of thankfulness with him, and although not a believer per se, he prays a prayer of thankfulness every day, sometimes many, and is teaching his children to do the same.

One of the most fascinating things he uncovers in his "Rationality Project" (Chapter 5) is a monstrous list of about 56 cognitive biases that affect the way we think about things. For instance, the "Self-serving Bias" lets us attribute our successes to internal factors but our failures to situational factors beyond our control. So you got an A because you worked hard but if you got an F it was because the teacher didn't like you. Because of the Romeo bias, men generally overestimate women's sexual interest in them. The Lake Wobegon Effect (Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average") makes us think we're smarter and more virtuous than we actually are.

I was reading pretty fast, so I'm not sure which of these he's making up (e.g. the IKEA effect, where the harder it is to put something together, the more value you attribute to it), but they all make sense to me anyway. I see Jacobs has a new book coming out in April called Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. I'll look forward to reading it. 

February 27, 2012

Metamorphosis by David Suzuki

This is Suzuki's 1987 biography, written when he was about 50 years old. I read it years ago, but now re-read it, skipping only the very detailed parts about the years he spent studying fruit flies.

I found it an intriguing book for a number of reasons. Every resident of B.C., at least, should read it for its highly personal account of the consequences of the Japanese internment during World War II. Suzuki was a young lad when he and his family were abruptly uprooted and forcibly moved to the Kootenays, losing everything they owned. I had not realized (but Suzuki explains it very clearly) that after the war, the Japanese were not really welcome to go back to Vancouver. They were pressured in every which way (and most of them bowed to this pressure as they had little choice) to move east instead. Suzuki's family landed up in Ontario where some of their relatives had gone. It is a story of terrible shame for Canadians, not least because as the Prime Minister admitted in the midst of the evacuation, not one single incident of a Japanese Canadian being a threat to Canada's security had ever been documented. 

Suzuki also writes knowledgeably about academic life and in particular the life of a passionate scientist, and the costs to his family of his dedication to his work. It's a bit discombobulating at times as he documents, with disconcerting honesty and humility,  his own arrogance as a young husband and academic.

The other part I found quite interesting is his inside look at the workings of the CBC, how it's funded and how the politics of being employed there worked (and didn't work) for him. 

Suzuki was the keynote speaker at a teacher's conference I was at in Vancouver in 1988, shortly after the book was written. It was great - he gave the speech his all; there was no sense that this was just another duty for him. 

All in all, this is a good read. I see David Suzuki as an important part of my Canadian cultural heritage. He's a thoughtful man who is willing to change his mind and he has changed a lot in the past 25 years. In 2006, he published another autobiography about the years after 1987, called  David Suzuki: The Autobiography. It was his 43rd -  and, he said, his last - book. I'll be interested to read it.

February 24, 2012

Jan Lisiecki, Pianist

The third of our community concert series for this season was an amazing evening. I felt awed at the virtuosity of this 16-year-old Canadian pianist - truly felt as though I was in the presence of genius. At 60 myself, 16 just seems astoundingly young to have so much understanding and so many notes in one slight teenage body. His playing seemed other-worldly to me, unearthly, like water flowing endlessly down some hillside in heaven.

Back in the day, we used to say of some of our local pianists, "He (or she) has a nice touch." I don't know if that's still a descriptor for pianists, but Lisiecki's "touch" seemed to me sublime. He taught us carefully and formally (without a mic) before each piece what the significance of the piece had been to the composer and what we should listen for. But then when he sat down and began to play (after a long "centering" silence) everything seemed to become almost impossibly light. Not that he couldn't be forceful - he could rock the loud parts - but even there I could barely sense a whisper of effort. It was as though the keys and the instrument and his fingers and brain were all one.

I've been awed before by the skill of very good pianists, but usually have a sense of practise, practise and lots of effort and professionalism and experience, and although I have no doubt that Jan Lisiecki practises as much as anyone, all I could think of when he was playing was that it was some kind of miracle.

He chose beautiful pieces, starting each half of the program with a short and simple Bach Prelude and Fugue and then "lettin' her rip" with Beethoven, Liszt and Mendelssohn and finishing off the concert with 12 Etudes by Chopin. My favourite of the concert was Variations Sieriuses, Op. 54 in D Minor by Mendelssohn. This was divided into three parts called (approximately) Lament, Light (or Lightness) and Sigh. All beautiful.

We felt absolutely blessed to have been able to hear and see this young man play. He has played all around the world and for the Queen, and I think only the quick work of community concert chair Yvonne Topf, when she first saw him on CBC two years ago, brought him out to Kelowna on a snowy February night to play for 800 grey-haired patrons. I fear for his schedule - besides many concerts, he is studying for a Bachelor of Music in Toronto - but he seems very calm and maybe this is just what he loves to do. Lucky us.