October 13, 2014

A Diamond in the Desert by Jo Tatchell

Subtitled "Behind the scenes in the world's richest city," this is a book about Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest state of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is both a state and the name of its major city, a sister city to Dubai, which is only a two-hour drive away.

The average net worth of the 430,000 citizens of Abu Dhabi in 2008-09 when this book was written was $17 million. The author points out that not everyone is this wealthy, but the people of Abu Dhabi are generally very comfortable, and many of them are wealthy beyond imagination.

Tatchell grew up in Abu Dhabi with expatriate, consultant parents, and now has returned to see an amazing shift from the nomadic culture of the past to a vibrant and very ambitious city. The wealth comes at an enormous cost. She describes the moral abyss of a generation of wealthy young Abu Dhabians who reach ever lower in their boredom and cynicism. The state is highly regulated, with both laws and an unspoken culture that prohibit criticism. A fascinating book.

October 10, 2014

Running for the Hills: Growing up on my Mother's Sheep Farm in Wales by Horatio Clare

This is a gorgeously written biography. Before he was born, Horatio Clare's parents bought a sheep farm in Wales as sort of a hobby farm/retreat from their jobs as journalists in London. His mother fell in love with the farm, but his father didn't. Eventually she and their two sons stayed at the farm, at the cost of her marriage.

The struggles were tremendous - the house was a wreck, she was an impractical and horribly messy but very outgoing and popular farmer, and there was never enough money. But the descriptions of the natural beauty of the countryside are amazing, Dylan Thomas-style, and the sheep, even to a non-animal-lover like myself, are appealing, sometimes pathetic, sometimes hilarious characters all by themselves, bringing to mind James Herriot's tales, set in a similar landscape.

The author skilfully sharpens the focus on the dynamics between his parents, and on the picture of his father, mirroring a child's growing awareness of what's really going on, and whose fault it might be (both, in this case.)

I looked forward to this book every night and was sad when it ended. I hope he has written some more.

Under the Spell of the Yukon by Enid Mallory

A well-written and highly personal biography of Robert Service. Although I'm not a huge fan of his poetry, who can resist a rousing recitation of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee," poems with which my friend Wendy has occasionally regaled our writer's group.

The author persistently tries to get at who this man was - what made him tick. Service was an odd combination of rather shy bank clerk and absolutely crazy adventurer. He mostly got his poems from listening to people's stories, first in Scotland where he was born, then in California and the American Midwest, then on Vancouver Island and finally in the Yukon where he arrived just at the tail end of the gold rush and wrote his most famous works.

He became wealthy enough to live off the royalties from his books of poems, and it was during his early retirement that he took a bizarre trip from Edmonton north through the NWT and finally entering Yukon from the far north. It was a trip that most natives said could not be done, and that he would die if he tried it alone. He survived, gleaning further material for his poetry.

I really liked this book. It is fast-paced, and has lots of nice sharp pictures. It's inspirational because although he was kind of a bland guy, his work was anything but.

April 22, 2014

My Life on Eart and Elsewhere by R. Murray Shafer

I quite enjoyed this very quirky autobiography of Canadian composer and dramatist Murray Shafer. I'd never heard of him before (probably embarrassing to admit, but I just hadn't) but he apparently was quite well-known and has won a number of honorary doctorates and awards, including the Order of Canada in 2013. It's a good read, reminiscent for me of the biography of John Hirsch I read some time ago, in that it's a revealing insider look at the Canadian arts scene over the past half century.

I suppose "avant-garde" would describe Shafer's work. He wrote modern music for orchestras and voice - operas/musicals that were so difficult artistically that some of them were never staged at all, and others only once. He drew complicated mythological pictures to illustrate his works, which were rooted in the mythologies of cultures ranging from North American First Nations to Greek to Japanese to Inca. Shafer worked in many universities and schools, teaching the lessons of "soundscape" to students. He sometimes worked with towns or cities to stage massive dramatic and musical festivals, with thousands of local participants in scores of venues throughout the town.

I didn't really like the main character very much. He seemed prickly, cocky, confrontational and judgmental. From the outside, his personal life looked like a mess. He left his first wife weeping on the floor because he'd found someone younger and prettier. Then he left that woman too, (she was also devastated) for his third relationship, but took his second partner back for a time when the third woman was busy in Europe with her work and another partner. He admits to feeling terrible about these things and never writes a word of criticism about any of the women. But loyalty was obviously not his strong point.

On the other hand he was wildly creative and passionate, and I was fascinated by the arc of a career that leaped from one new project to another, each one upping the ante on the last for bizarreness. He got commissions from various Canadian symphonies throughout his career, some perhaps because of the requirements of Canada Arts Council grants.

His main success seemed to have been in his soundscape teaching, and it was also in this that the book most resonated with me. I've become more aware of the sounds around me since I read it, and more appreciative of the very serene soundscape of my own little piece of paradise here on Caldwell Street.

April 13, 2014

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlman

When I see that I haven't posted since last October, I feel as though I've been in some kind of gap in the time-space continuum. I have read books, but maybe not very good ones or maybe I just haven't had the bandwidth to post about them.

This was a really good book, by a young Austrian writer. He fictionalizes the lives of 19th century explorer/scientist Alexander Humboldt (the Humboldt current) and brilliant mathematician Carl Gauss. The novel revolves around their meeting at a conference, with Gauss a hilariously reluctant participant because he just wanted to stay home, whereas Humboldt traveled all around the world.

There are a lot of interesting ideas about the nature of genius, curiosity, measurement, and how new things are discovered. The author draws fascinating pictures of life in the 19th century, almost unbelievably harsh.

I haven't yet looked up the lives of these two men on Wikipedia, but I'll be interested to do so to see how much of the book is true. This book would make a fabulous movie if it hasn't already been made into one. I couldn't put it down. It's smart and funny.