Monday, January 30, 2012

The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

Image from amazon

Like Dr. Vincent Lam, Vancouver emergency room physician Daniel Kalla has another life as a novelist. His latest book, The Far Side of the Sky, is a page turner. A sequel is in the works.

A departure from medical thrillers with titles like Pandemic, this novel portrays believable characters against a background of history that took place between 1938 and 1942. when his brother is murdered by the Nazis on KristallnachViennese surgeon Franz Adler flees to Chine with his remaining family and some fellow Jews.

Franz and his family find Shanghai divided into concessions controlled by British, French and Japanese, as well as Chinese and Eurasians. He joins a Jewish community that established itself a century before, and begins work in two hospitals.

But the progress of war rapidly changes the fortunes of the city's inhabitants. As a stateless refugee, Dr. Franz Adler gets some unusual medical assignments. Among the patients he is asked to treat are a Nazi sympathizer and a general of the Imperial Japanese army.

Long since widowed, and with a crippled daughter to raise, Franz tends to ignore women until he meets Nurse Sun Yi Mah. Overcoming many obstacles, they find love and a deep emotional trust. Newly married, he is suddenly snatched from the arms of his beloved "Sunny" and thrown into a Japanese prison. Blackmail and secret messages raise the stakes higher.

The Far Side of the Sky (2011, HarperCollins) is an educational and entertaining read. I could hardly put it down and many duties were neglected till I finished it. Kalla has done a fine job.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Consumerism Part 2: Selling insecurity

Image from stonybrook

After the sale and promotion of products came the sale of ideas, abstract concepts. And the ideas that make consumers most willing to part from their cash are fear and insecurity.

Enter insurance. First it was for simple things: to replace stolen items or a lost home or have a damaged car repaired. When the market was flooded with basic insurance, new insurable perils had to be developed. And they were.

Mortgage insurance, okay, but insurance on credit card debt? On the possibility that the washing machine will break down? It's a few years since Lloyds of London insured Betty Grable's legs for a million. A famous body part needing coverage today is the butt of Jennifer Lopez, rumoured to be insured for a billion. Now that's inflation.

Insecurity has sold a lot of cosmetics; deodorant comes immediately to mind. Today that same insecurity is supporting an epidemic of plastic surgeries designed to enhance appearance and minimize individual difference. Originally developed to correct scars following injuries, plastic surgery is now routinely used to "improve" people, and there are plenty of customers, now that we've been programmed to believe we aren't good enough.

The idea of self-protection fuels the security business, which has exploded in the last few years. Media focus on crime encourages us to fear becoming victims. That makes us sitting ducks for the sale of building alarms, car alarms, and surveillance cameras.

The ethos of consumerism, the belief that life is about getting more stuff, has spread to every corner of the globe. Cultures are homogenized through the forced arbitration of tastes by huge multinationals. The consumer view of life also runs counter to environmental responsibility and rational stewardship of resources.

We need to question this ethos. It's time consumers rebelled. One way to start would be to stop throwing away perfectly good stuff and replacing it by the latest version just because it's new.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Consumerism Part 1 Stuff

It's a step along the path of consumerism, that strange ethos that is so pervasive it's in the air we breathe, invisible. Even while we waste resources moving stuff around the planet in ever more ludicrous ways.

Importing food is one thing if it doesn't grow locally. I appreciate having oranges, which grow nowhere near my home. But pears from Peru? Green peas from China? Those must come by air; they're too perishable to last long enough for a ship journey.

And what about the current pipeline plans? Here's the idea. Dig up oil in Alberta, pipe it to Prince Rupert, then burn more oil and risk spills by sending this petroleum by tanker to China, so the Chinese can use it to manufacture more stuff to send back by freighter, burning more fossil fuels. That's prosperity, or so we're told.

To make this formula work, we have to believe we need more stuff, and we've been trained accordingly. A brilliant development in this propaganda exercise was the warehouse store. Just last week I found a quart of lemon juice in the back of the cupboard, last of a linked trio that we bought at Costco and long since expired.

Now our lives are so filled with stuff that we have nowhere to put it. Another product saves the day. Storage systems. Then there were the "free gifts." (Are there really gifts that are not free?) But now there is so much stuff, people are no longer excited by free stuff.

Free newspapers, for instance. On my daily commute, I run the gauntlet past the purveyors of these rags, passing an average of five on the morning commute alone. They whip their papers in front of my face as I try to slip by. I feel like a hockey forward, trying to deke past an implacable defense. The goal is the station entrance or exit.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Circus mysteries

Photo: Handlebar Moustache from dipity

"Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls...We are here today to tie this young lady to the cross." A hush fell on the crowd, and the voice paused dramatically before continuing:

"and if she fails to get away, at the count of 1, 2, 3...
each and every one of you, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
will get into this show free."

I remember the exact words from the mouth of a circus man with a black handlebar moustache. I was twelve years old, thrilled that the circus had come to town. Along with the rest of the crowd, I was filled with anticipation. My mind reeled at the possibilities. How could the woman untie herself from all these ropes in the count of three?

If she didn't, would we really get in free? My mind was calculating the costs of unforeseen options. Would I now have enough to buy a hot dog and some cotton candy after going on the Ferris wheel? At the time I had no inkling of its history: the ride was invented by George Ferris and first used at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

I haven't been to the circus since a Mexican circus came to Surrey Place when my daughter was young enough to enjoy it, but I just watched a film called The Butterfly Circus. This short movie has a story of quite another sort, one definitely worth thinking about. The link was passed along by the Brain Guy, Terry Small.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What music and words evoke

My husband's iphone is set to Folk Alley to provide some background music to assist my breakfast preparations. "Hello ruby in the dust." The lyrics break in as I crack eggs into the pan, and I re-enter my teen years in a small northern town, hear soaring music in a cavernous empty building, "the Centre," where we hung out.

"Ruby in the dust" is not the first line. What's the title and who's singing? I know it was Hello something in the something. But what?

I drizzle hot water from the kettle, grind on some salt and pepper and add a sprinkling of paprika. Then I pop the lid on the pan and push down the whole grain toast sitting ready in the toaster. It's all in the timing.

Now I have it. The slow and mournful voice is Neil Young. "Hello Cowgirl in the Sand." I'm still back in the hometown Community Centre listening to Crosbie, Stills Nash and Young. I see it in my mind's eye, this time the shabby exterior. I'd left town by the time it burned down.

Suddenly my aging adult self knows something my teenage incarnation didn't. That building was a quonset hut, left over from when troops were briefly stationed in town. In 1969 World War II, called "the war," was only twenty-four years in the past.

Now a quarter century seems all too brief.

The eggs are done. I grab a plate and arrange the freshly popped toast, then lift the steaming eggs from the pan and slide them aboard the hot steaming slices. Perfection.

Dad once told me that in the diners of the dirty thirties, when someone ordered two poached eggs on toast with the yolks broken, the waiter would call to the cook, "Adam and Eve on a raft. Wreck 'em." Today I've left the egg yolks beautifully whole.

Serving this food, I feel a welling of gratitude for these simple things: food and loved ones to feed, a long series of fascinating experiences to remember, and the power of music to evoke those memories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shared walls: the GG and the "Vandoos" at Quebec

In the wall of the fortress of Old Quebec, overlooking the river and the city, the Governor General of Canada maintains a second residence. It is here that Awards Ceremonies are held for  recipients of the Order of Canada.

Within these same fortified walls, the historic Royal Vingt-Deuxieme Regiment is quartered. Originally called the 22e bataillon (French-Canadian), it was created in October 1914 and arrived in Belgium in 1915, the only active to serve French-speaking regiment in the Canadian Corps to serve on the front.

Thousands of Quebeckers have served in the "Van Doos," in combat and peacekeeping missions and abroad as well as at home.

Although nobody is allowed inside the walls of Quebec unaccompanied, there are guided tours for those interested in learning more about the history of Canada's oldest city, the former capital of Lower Canada. Those who tour the GG's residence are allowed to stand on the balcony and gaze across the St. Lawrence at the city skyline, dominated, of course, by the historic Chateau Frontenac.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Snowy view, quiet work and food gathering instinct

Last night I was writing on deadline while it snowed. Made a leisurely start in the morning. By dinner time, I knew I was in trouble time wise.

Still thought I'd be done by around midnight. Not even close. Slogged on, pulling an all-nighter. First in a very long time.

Towards the last, I woke from a momentary doze to see that my fingers had kept typing while my eyes were closed. Bulldozed the gibberish with the backspace key, pressed on.

New snow was falling, and I kept wanting it to be morning so I could see it. 7 am, still dark. 7:30, still dark. Ah, finally finished. 7:45 am. My weary eyes gazed from bed to the window, saw snow, slept.

When I woke warm sun had melted the snow from the trees. Great. Good weather for going out to get this opus bound at the printers. Wanted to go to and walk the beach in snow, but duty called. The opus was going nowhere without a quick edit.

Late afternoon, I ventured out, bought produce at EE Farms after the printer. The grocery instinct had kicked in. Snow does that to me. Produce dealt with, I hit IGA.

Last big snowfall, I beat the weather by listening to the inner promptings of my good gathering instinct.  Arrived home with a carload of groceries just before the snow fell. For a few days, nothing much moved. Certainly not our car with its summer tires.

It was Christmas holidays, and we stayed home. Did crosswords, board games, jigsaws. Didn't run out of a single food item. When we finally had to get milk, we dressed in our snow clothes, walked to the grocery store and took a taxi home with a load of food.

Like small-town childhood winters, shopping at the Co-op. It's a nice feeling, being snowed in. Especially when you have plenty of food on hand. Cocoa, parsnips, barley for soup. Winter stuff.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blood Brothers one more time

Poster for the original run at the Lyric

Though it's nearly two weeks since we saw Blood Brothers at the Arts Club on Granville Island, the memory of that great production remains fresh.

This tragicomic musical was created originally as a school play in 1981 for the Merseyside Young People's Theatre. Blood Brothers, by Liverpudlian Willy Russell, was first performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983. From there it went on to become one of the longest-running musicals in London's West End.

When I first saw it in 2008, it had clocked over 20 years. A wealthy childless woman persuades her poor housekeeper, newly abandoned by her husband, to give her one of her newborn twins to raise. Though both mothers forbid it, the boys become friends.

In the second act, their lives diverge. While Eddie goes to university, Mickey starts work after a shotgun wedding to Linda, a girl Eddie is also sweet on. Class difference sunders friendship when a layoff from hia factory job pushes Mickey to the edge; his life spirals out of control before the brothers learn, too late, that they're twins.

Having enjoyed the show so much in London, I knew I had to see the Arts Club version, even though a part of me feared it might disappoint. It didn't. My daughter and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Terra C. MacLeod was a lovely Mrs. Johnstone, mother of the twins. Shane Snow realistically played Mickey, the rough and tumble housing estate boy, and Adam Charles was a creditable Eddie, fortunate to be raised on the right side of the tracks.

The supporting cast played well, and the songs were funny, poignant, and rousing. This Arts Club Production was also enhanced by the chilling and prophetic narration of John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Entelechy, exogamy, effrontery

According to, the concept of entelechy dates back to Artistotle. Philosophically speaking, entelechy describes the condition of having one's essence fully realized. Entelechy is realization or actuality as opposed to potentiality. It is also a vital force or agent that directs growth and life, pushing organisms towards the natural fulfillment of their potential.

Exogamy is marriage outside of one's immediate social group, normally determined, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, by kinship, rather than class, religion or ethnicity. Social sanctions against this practice vary, and include disapproval, ostracism or in some cases even death.

Effrontery is impertinence, impudence or insolence. Using a more formal manner, this word conveys the sentiment expressed by the common exclamations What a nerve, Of all the nerve, or simply The nerve!

For those who prefer less formal synonyms, we have brass, cheek, and gall. All three may be combined in a traditional Newfoundland expression of outrage: The nerve, the cheek and the gall of him! These forms are originally derived from British and Irish usage.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word comes from Medieval Latin, by way of French, and can be translated as shamelessness.

What I love about the juxtaposition of these words is how three nouns with wildly divergent meanings are united by an identical pattern of syllable and stress. Thus can the rhythm of language be enjoyed quite apart from its meaning.

As I pointed out with another lovely trio of words over a year ago.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blue-tiled roofs of Japan

Photo: Carol Tulpar

When I first came to Vancouver many years ago, tiled roofs were a rarity. Now there are many: mostly red and gray.

Red tiled roofs on white buildings against blue sky evoke the Mediterranean countries. Blue roof tiles are relatively rare.

The first time I saw blue tiled roofs was from the rain-dappled windows the the Shinkansen, the bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Along with the view of Mt. Fuji at sunset from outside Yokohama, the memory of those blue roofs passing by the train window is one of the lushest images I carry of the Japanese countryside.

When I saw this blue-tiled roof in White Rock, I had to photograph it, for the sake of the memories it called up.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cellphone etiquette question

The scene was a washroom at my workplace. I was contentedly washing my coffee cup at the sink and thought I was alone in the two-stall bathroom.

Then I heard a voice and half-turned: was someone talking to me? No, the voice was coming from inside the stall. Sound effects of the other business normally carried out there. Surely she would have hung up by now, I told myself.

No, the voice chatted calmly on. Time for the flush. Would she hang up now? She didn't. Only when she emerged and I stepped aside to let her use the single sink did she say goodbye to whoever she was talking to.

This got me wondering. As cell phones proliferate, who decides the protocol? What rules are evolving around the proper etiquette for their use?

Also, is there anywhere where they aren't used?

My experience in the washroom would suggest not. And what does this tell us about society?

Hmmm. Interesting...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year -- Old (but fun) Obsession

Book cover for Corduroy Mansions photo by Mike Johnson, Reading Group Center (Knopf 2009)

Rounding out my trio (or more) of rants in support of the adverb -- much assailed of late -- seems to me a good way to start off the year. After this, I promise not to mention the A-word again. Well, not for a year or so, anyway.

Today I feel bound to point out that none other than gentle storytelling philosopher Alexander McCall Smith is a user.

In Corduroy Mansions, William is riding in the taxi he's hired to bring home the dog he's just acquired. Freddie de lay Hay, a Pimlico terrier, is unemployed. He's been laid off as a sniffer dog at Heathrow -- part of a failed attempt at equal opportunity for female sniffer dogs--but that's another story.

In the cab, William has mixed feelings about the responsibility he's just taken on. He wants to think, but the the taxi driver wants to talk. Thus William employs a tried and true recipe for launching the cabbie on a monologue so he can get back to mulling over his own thoughts. He asks what the taxi driver thinks of the government.

"This question," explains the narrator, "tends to offer them the maximum opportunity to express themselves in monologue, or alternatively, it gives them the impression that the fare is a secret sympathiser with the Government and therefore not to be engaged in conversation." (p 80.)

The next paragraph goes on to explain other uses William has of the technique of asking "just the right question to inhibit conversation," for instance, when one attends "cocktail parties, where one might quite reasonably wish to stand, or sit, and not be pestered by other guests seeking to make small talk..." (80-1)

On the following page, we are told that when William reached over to fasten the seat belt around Freddie, "the dog barked encouragingly." Three adverbs, three pages. Actually, quite is also an adverb, so the count is four.

With this I rest my case that the adverb is alive and well. Readers who wish to consult earlier comments on adverb use by Diana Gabaldon, Bob Mayer and Jennie Cruisie, and Dick Francis can click here. Readers may also like to see how American writer Christopher Buckley employs them.

Using a couple of the best himself, none other than Arthur Plotnik (author of Spunk and Bite, Random House 2007) supports my pro-adverb position in the comments here.