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.