Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Orient Express

Picture: Easy Travel Net

This famous and luxurious train journey from Paris to Istanbul takes a leisurely six days and five nights. Enroute, the traveller spends a day and a night in Budapest and the same in Bucharest, then rejoins the train for the last leg to the shore of the Bosporus.

Each year at the end of August, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express train departs Gare de l'est bound for Sirkeci Station in Istanbul. Rates for 2013 will be $19,000 USD per person based on shared occupancy of a suite cabin.

L'Expres d'Orient, or the Orient Express was a steam train that made its first journey in 1883. According to "The truth behind the legend," the last true descendant of that train, EuroNight 469, left Strasbourg for Vienna on the night of December 13, 2009, officially ending the use of the name Orient Express on European timetables. Regularly scheduled runs had lasted for 126 years.

A main reason for the great fame of the Orient Express was, of course, Agatha Christie's novel, and the related movies. In 2010, Murder on the Orient Express was filmed again, once more starring David Suchet as the inimitably moustached Hercule Poirot.

Christie's highly original tale reflects a heinous historic crime. In March 1932, the first son of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh was snatched from the family home and a ransom was demanded.

The 1974 movie, with a brilliant cast including Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Lauren Bacall, left a strong impression. The performance of the redoubtable Wendy Hiller as the Princess Dragomiroff was a highlight for me. Spitting out her criticism of someone wearing what she considers to be too much cologne, she states, "When I say drenched, I mean drenched."

The train is drenched in the atmosphere of the 1930s, a heady but paradoxical mixture of luxury and comfort, offset by mystery and violence. The contrast between the very wealthy and their humble servants is bridged in the film by a common purpose of violence, unveiled in a dramatic ending by the foolproof "little grey cells" of Christie's Belgian detective.

To anyone who finds my comments too revelatory, be assured that book or movie will not be enjoyed the less for knowing or suspecting the final revelation.

Agatha Christie was a pioneer, both of a genre, and within the genre she invented. A unique feature of this tale is that the featured crime literally doesn't get off the train. It goes unreported and unpunished, even though the perpetrators are known. In this special case, the community judges the killers by a moral law that accepts revenge as a justification for murder.

No doubt it is largely this story, with its unusual perspective on justice, that has kept the legend of the Orient Express mythology alive, and with it the era, as portrayed by Dame Agatha, OBE.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin

Photo: Hotels TV blog, Edinburgh

John Rebus may have retired to Exit Music (Orion, 2007), but his creator, Ian Rankin, definitely has not. On the contrary, he's embarked on a new series. The Complaints (Orion 2009) is a fun and readable police procedural set once again in Edinburgh.

In the world of spies, ex-Green Beret author Robert Doherty (aka Bob Mayer) raises the question in Bodyguard of Lies (Forge 2005). Who minds the minders?

As imagined by Ian Rankin tn the more mundane realm of law enforcement, this question takes other forms. Who polices the police? Or in The Complaints, this might be better framed as "Who complains about the Complaints?"

In Rankin's first Inspector Fox novel, the job of doing surveillance on a fellow officer falls to Investigator Malcolm Fox, who serves in the PSU, the Professional Standards Unit, a subset of the Complaints and Conduct office of the Lothian and Borders Police.

As the story opens, Fox and his colleagues, jocularly nicknamed the Rubber Heels or the Dark Side, have just completed a gruelling investigation into the unsavoury machinations of a crooked law enforcement officer. Foxy, as his fellows call him, is summoned to another department, CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection department, known to fellow cops as the Chop Shop.

Receiving his new assignment from Officer Annie Inglis, the middle aged and divorced Fox finds her far more attractive than the work he's expected to do. Inglis asks him to investigate Jamie Breck, an up-and-coming young officer who is, she tells him, involved in an online child porn site.

But Fox feels something is fishy. His view is confirmed when his sister's ruffian boyfriend turns up murdered -- and Jamie Fox is put in charge of the investigation. In his usual fashion, Rankin leads the reader on a merry chase, complete with the twists and turns of Fox's days in Edinburgh.

As Fox is forced into contact with suspect Jamie Breck, we follow his tame life as a dry alcoholic, then as his visits to his elderly father in a nursing home, and worries about his grieving sister, who drinks a bit. It's hard not to wonder, as Fox does, whether Jamie suspects he's being investigated.

After a series of nimble twists and turns, we wind up somewhere quite unexpected. True to form,  Rankin continues to cleverly derail reader expectations up to the very end.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Solstice Art by Tessa Fenger

This Mythos painting by the talented Tessa Fenger is one of a collection of large oils currently on display at the Solstice Cafe at 529 Pandora Avenue.

The show opened on March 17 and it will be there for a month.

Tessa also does smaller, highly detailed work that is very beautiful. Posters, cards and T-shirts are available with her Mythos designs.

Some images of her drawings and paintings can be seen here, and some earlier works can be seen on Tessa's Flickr site.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring at Abkhazi Gardens in Victoria

Photo: detail and vista in Abkhazi, Carol Tulpar
During World War II, both Peggy and her future husband, Prince Abkhazi, were prisoners of war.

Peggy Pemberton, born in Shanghai to British parents in 1905 and orphaned at an early age, was adopted and raised in England. Travelling with her stepmother, she met the exiled Georgian prince Nicholas Abkhazi in Paris.

The couple were separated when Peggy returned to Shanghai with her adoptive mother. Mrs. Pemberton, a widow, died in 1938, leaving her daughter financially independent. Between 1943 and 1945, Peggy was interned by the Japanese in Lunghua prison camp. At the same time, Nicolas was imprisoned in Germany.

After the war, Peggy moved to Victoria and married Prince Nicholas Abkhazi. Together they planned and established the gorgeous Abkhazi Gardens at their home on the corner of Fairfield Avenue and Foul Bay Road. Nicolas died in 1987 and Peggy in 1994. Today The Land Conservancy owns the property. The rhododendron garden is described on the University of Victoria website as "internationally renowned."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Room, by Emma Donohue

Cover image from HarperCollins

As the book opens, we meet Jack, age five. He seems happy, though he's never been outdoors, never talked to anyone except his mother, never had a haircut. The story is told in Jack's voice, a believable mixture of big words and childish concepts. He speaks of Room with fond familiarity.

Jack's Ma has been held by a kidnapper for seven years. Alone in Room (HarperCollins 2010), she has given birth to her son, created a life for him, and kept him out of the sight of Old Nick, Jack's rapist father and their jailer. Ma has tried to escape, but the skylight is completely unbreakable. Digging under Room, she was blocked by the metal mesh her cunning captor installed there.

Now she puts all her energy in keeping Jack safe and healthy. Once a week under cover of darkness, Old Nick brings them food. Each day they have their meals and brush their teeth. While Nick is at work, the two race around their small prison in a game called Exercise. Then they stand up on the bed to see out the skylight and have Scream.

But things are about to change. Old Nick has been laid off and mother and son no longer have the freedom of movement and voice they enjoyed during the hours when he was at work. When something angers him, he turns off the electricity for four days, and brings no food. Inaction is dangerous now; they must get out.

Ma has to explain to Jack about the real world outside Room, where they are going. Ma knows she must devise a means to escape, which she does, with Jack's help. Their one-shot bid for freedom takes every ounce of courage they have.

Knowing it was about a mother and son kept under lock and key by a nasty kidnapper, I avoided Emma Donohue's book, feared it would be too harrowing. Once I picked it up, I couldn't stop reading. The story is beautifully told in the voice of the five-year-old narrator, as delightful a protagonist as any novelist has ever imagined.

No wonder this novel by Emma Donohue was nominated for the Man Booker and Orange Prize, and won the Hughes Irish Novel of the Year as well as the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, The Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and other prizes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Child in Time, by Ian MacEwan

Image from Richmond Hill Public Library

Stephen and Julie live through the worst nightmare possible: their young daughter is snatched and they wait in hope and uncertainty, unable to learn her fate.

The devastation of loss hits the husband and wife in different ways, and they are torn apart as each tries to come to terms with the absence of their beloved child.

For a time, Stephen retreats into drink and solitude. Then, after accosting a child he has mistakenly convinced himself is his daughter, he pulls himself together. He starts to work again, takes up an exercise routine, and begins studying Arabic poetry and calligraphy.

In an attempt to come to terms with the ghastly interruption to motherhood, Julie has moved away to a country cottage. In spite of their estrangement, Stephen visits his wife.

En route to her home, he becomes involved in a minor mystery that involves old bicycles at the pub, but does not share this experience with his wife. Later, he visits his aging parents, and while his father is on a rare outing, he unexpectedly learns of the reaction of his mother when she first became aware of her unplanned pregnancy with her son, in circumstances that were far from ideal.

Meanwhile, Stephen and Julie's friend Charles Dark and his wife Thelma, a quantum physicist, have mysteriously gone off to live in the country. Charles has dropped out of a promising political career, and until Stephen visits the couple in their new circumstances, he finds this inexplicable. However, this visit unearths yet another mystery.

The book was first published in 1987 by Jonathan Cape and won the Whitbread Novel Award. The story takes place during the Thatcher years, and the fictional Prime Minister of a very dystopic government comes into it too. Disappointed that Charles has left politics and left London, the PM pumps Stephen, even bringing a team of MI5 functionaries to search his apartment for a reason that is never entirely clear.

Incredibly, with all these developments, McEwan manages to pulls the reader away from the bald fact of the opening tragedy. The author spins a series of mysterious entanglements between past and present, somehow tied in with the realities of Thelma Dark's quantum physics.

Thus when Thelma summons Stephen with an urgent phone call and the Charles story reaches a climax, the reader is doubly surprised to see this side plot quickly resolved and followed by an astonishing and satisfying closure of the original story line.

While I was listening to the CD version of McEwan's novel, (Harper Collins, read by Anton Lesser), I imagined the author having some of the qualities of the character Stephen. Perhaps he too seeks out train seats where he is least likely to be joined or spoken to, and keeps a handful of banknotes in a blank notebook in his desk drawer, to be used in case of emergency.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Image from Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey is the polite and dutiful daughter of a widowed mother, and the admiring younger sibling of the beautiful Rose. The setting is shortly after World War II in the Irish town of Enniskorthy.

Living with her mother and sister, Eilis finishes her accounting course but cannot find a proper job. She starts work as a shop assistant to the snobbish Miss Kelly, who gives her only one day a week of work and pays her a pittance.

When an Irish priest visits from Brooklyn, Eilis's life is changed forever. Her mother and Rose arrange her emigration, making plans with Father Flood, who organizes a job and a place to stay.

Though Eilis does not wish to leave Enniskorthy, it is impossible for her to express her feelings to her mother or to Rose, whose purpose is to give her a great chance. In fact, by emigrating, Eilis knows she is sacrificing Rose's chance to do so. Their brothers are working in Liverpool and Mammy has never been left alone.

Young, inexperienced and socialized to refrain from showing disobedience, ingratitude or inner conflict, Eilis goes off to Brooklyn to begin work in a department store. Quiet and introverted, she is obliged to stay in Mrs. Kehoe's boarding house, enduring the gossip and bickering of the landlady and the other boarders as best she can.

When a wave of homesickness hits, Eilis goes to night school and completes a credential in book- keeping. She meets a professor whom she admires and she also meets an Italian boy, Tony. In the same way that she has drifted into her new life, she drifts into agreeing to marry Tony, in part out of an inability to say no or be impolite.

Bad news from home forces Eilis to put her American life on hold and return to Enniskorthy, where nobody has been told about Tony. Delighted to have her daughter home, Mrs. Lacey quietly engineers things. Eilis falls back into the familiar life she had before Brooklyn, and lives in a state of indecision, dreaming and drift, apparently going along with her mother's plans.

 She finds a temporary job where she can use her bookkeeping skills. Then she allows herself to be maneuvered into the company of a nice local boy. Eilis puts off her return date to Brooklyn, stops writing to her boy friend in America and fails to re-book her passage on the ship.

Of course this state of suspension between two lives cannot last. The unpleasant Miss Kelly is the agent who connects Eilis's present behaviour and her American life back in Brooklyn. In fact, she goes so far as to threaten Eilis, who must then face the necessity of making her difficult choice.

Anyone who has ever left one country and created a life somewhere else can sympathize with the protagonist. The longer she is away from New York, the less real it seems. Still, for Eilis, there is no escaping the consequences of her choices, even though so many of the decisions that set the course of her life have been taken by others.

Eilis is young and inexperienced but intelligent. While her outer life is dutiful and polite, inwardly she lives a life rich with solitary imaginings. Her courage is strong, even though it has been curtailed by the society that has nurtured her: the time, place and circumstances.

This poignant and suspenseful novel (Scribner 2009) was produced as a talking book by Blackstone Audio. It is beautifully read by Kirsten Potter. Author Colm Toibin is interviewed on NPR here.

Note December 2015: Brooklyn is now a wonderful movie. Written by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, it stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. After its first showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, it is now in local theatres.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Buffy Sainte Marie: music for body, mind and soul

Image of Buffy from the National Post

Sunday night Buffy Sainte Marie performed in Chilliwack. The last time I'd seen her live was at the Orpheum, circa 1969. After the concert, I huddled in the rain until a tiny woman in a dark cape and platform shoes emerged from the hall. Ebony hair hung all down her back and gleamed in the light above the stage door as she bent her head to sign our programs. Still in her twenties, the creator of "The Universal Soldier" was already an international star.

Last night this smiling woman sparkled and danced onto the stage. Backed up by a great three-man aboriginal band, her rich voice unchanged, she opened with a bluesy classic, "The Piney Wood Hills." Her lyrics plumbed my memory and "Country Girl Again" evoked the homesickness I felt for the north when I first came to the city.

An outspoken aboriginal woman, Buffy was blacklisted in the US during the Johnson administration and her songs disappeared from the air. "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee," referred to the jailing of Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement. "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" was first released in 1964. The woman bard's subjects include substance abuse and environmental degradation, as well as spiritual connection, happiness and celebrating the survival of our ancestors. She tells stories too, and speaks positively of human achievements.

This lively Cree woman is an amazingly versatile musician whose work has been sung by many famous people. She wrote the well-known pop song "Up Where we Belong" and was part of the famous children's show Sesame Street. Sometimes, she sings her beautiful love song "Until it's Time for You to Go," and other times, she plays her mouth bow, and "Cripple Creek," just for fun.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Map that Changed the World, by Simon Winchester

Image from Simon Winchester

I've just finished Simon Winchester's wonderful book The Map that Changed the World (2001, HarperPerennial). Winchester carries the reader back into nineteenth century London, when science was exploding and Geology was absolutely new.

By the time Smith's geological map was hung in Burlington House in 1815, scientists and society had begun to question a dogma of the time. It was no longer a given that the world had been created by God on Monday, October 23, 4004 BC, whole and complete with all the creatures that had ever lived. (p 12)

While such a religious axiom held sway, how could fossils exist? It would be blasphemous to think that these once-live creatures had become extinct; the notion seemed to suggest that God might have made mistakes.

As well as religion, class and money also counted for a great deal in the society of the time; ironically, establishing the science of geology was an insufficient qualification to get William Smith invited to join the Geological Society of London.

That honour was reserved for wealthy amateur geologists and collectors, most of whose scientific work apparently took place in their armchairs. Indeed, the more plush members of the Society seem to have given scant consideration to inviting the originator of their science to join the club.

In fact, as Winchester reveals, it was a founding member, the well-heeled George Bellas Greenough, who not only infamously plagiarized Smith's map, but arranged the publication of his version of the stolen work in such a manner as to undercut the sales of Smith's smaller maps and hasten his financial ruin.

Eventually, however, the old guard at the society made way for a new generation. Greenough's plagiarism was exposed, and Smith received formal recognition for his great contributions to geology. The following generation fared better: Smith's nephew, John Phillips, who learned geology first with his uncle, was able to practice it at Oxford.

Like an engrossing novel, the book opens with Smith being released from debtor's prison in London and leaving for Yorkshire in disgust, impecunious and accompanied by his mentally unstable wife. Winchester's story is filled with fascinating details of strata and fossils and stone. Reading Winchester's warm geological portrait, I saw again in memory the charming villages of glowing Cotswold stone that I visited last in 1978: Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaugter, Moreton-in-Marsh, Bourton-by-the-Water.

Through the meticulous research and the writer's engaging voice, the reader witnesses Smith's early years of canal building, when he first noticed the pattern of the strata. We intuit Smith's passion for geology as we follow his muddy and uncomfortable travels around the country, collecting fossils and cataloging their places in the geological layers.

An Oxford-trained geologist, Winchester gives a compelling description of map Smith created with so much labour and for so little reward; it is remarkably similar. he says, to those produced by teams of geologists today. As a result of reading this book, I definitely plan to see Smith's Geological Map. I hope also to have the opportunity to see some of "Strata" Smith's wonderful collection of fossils at the London Natural History Museum.

At the end of Winchester's book, he reveals William Smith's new legacy, brought to fruition by enthusiastic readers of Winchester's book. The Museum in Scarborough, amazingly, was restored by their energetic efforts. Before publication, this cylindrical building, designed by Smith to display his fossils in the order of the earth's strata where they were found, was falling into decay. Thanks to much effort by inspired readers, in May 2008, the Rotunda was reopened as the William Smith Museum of British Geology.

My desire to devour the words of Simon Winchester was originally evoked by a newspaper interview I read many years ago. The image of his his plimsolls melting under him as he trekked across the heat of a volcanic island stayed with me, and his book Krakatoa (2003 HarperPerennial) made me determined to read anything and everything he writes.

By an interesting coincidence, my daily commute was recently livened by the audio version of Tracy Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures (paperback HarperCollins 2010), which features the great fossil collector, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis.

Along with the Oxford eccentric William Buckland, Anning comes into Winchester's book. Like Smith, Anning received limited support and recognition while she lived; she too was born to the lower classes. Earning her living by digging for fossils on the beach, she had to live with the fact that people with deeper pockets and better connections were quite unashamed to buy her astonishing finds for a pittance and carry them away.