Monday, December 31, 2012

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Book cover photo: National Post

Recently I've been reading a lot about Bletchley Park, and earlier this year I visited it.  Somehow I didn't imagine that in 1972 Britain the recruiting would still be going on, with young recruits signing the Official Secrets Act, promising to reveal nothing about their work in the shadow world of spying.

The induction of a young woman into MI5 is how master novelist Ian McEwan begins his story. When she begins her work for the security service, Serena is twenty-one, green and hurting from an affair with the middle-aged Tony Canning, a married Cambridge professor.

The affair with Tony takes place in a cottage near Bury St. Edmonds, close to where the novelist Angus Wilson lived -- he served in Bletchley Park and later taught at the University of East Anglia, where Ian McEwan took his Master's degree. I couldn't help wondering whether the cottage where Tony Canning conducts his affair with the lovely Serena might be based on the cottage where Wilson lived, and where he and his partner Tony Garrett were visited by many of Wilson's students as well as fellow literary luminati.

After her initial stint as a low-level secretary (at the time, females did the dog work and couldn't be agents), the task taken on by this Cambridge-educated mathematics graduate proves highly unusual. Turns out it's her voracious reading habit and knowledge of books that MI5 is after. The Cold War continues, and plans are afoot to win the ideo-cultural struggle by alleviating the notoriously uncertain financial lives of certain secretly chosen writers, so they can produce work that is a credit to our side in the propaganda war. 

The big story questions all centre on young Serena's love life. Counting the man she doesn't realize is a homosexual, this gorgeous young blonde races through four paramours. As the plot moves forward, readers wonder. Why would Tony Canning stage a breakup over a domestic detail, thus ending a satisfying secret affair with a beautiful woman many years his junior? As for colleague Max Greatorex: when Serena gets over her crush and moves him along, would he lose his MI5-style cool, and do something foolish, vengeful or worse?

Up-and-coming author Tom Haley, beyond the most basic due diligence, does not ask questions about why he should be chosen. Serena relies on the old idea of ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies. After all, what novelist would ask questions when some obscure artistic organization seeks him out to hand over a fat cheque every month for the next three years so he can live the dream of focusing on his art?

This book has a comic flavour; there are elements of the ridiculous throughout, interspersed with deftly handled literary criticism and allusions to various elements of history that are all too dark and all too real. I loved Max Greatorex's speech to "his" author in which he explains that "any institution, any organization eventually becomes a dominion, self-contained, competitive, driven by its own logic and bent on survival and on extending its territory."

A favourite remembered image is the one of Angus Wilson, one moment urbane in his white suit and lavender bow tie, then turning puce in the face and threatening to rough up an agent who tries to interfere with the work of the arts organization he heads. McEwan must have had fun with that scene. One almost sees the 'camp' Wilson; with his penchant for sharp comedy, he was probably laughing from the other side, even as McEwan typed.

Another rich but understated comic vein: Serena is the obedient daughter of a bishop and she has majored in Maths at Cambridge, rather than her beloved subject, English literature. After signing the Official Secrets Act, she falls into an affair with someone in whose life her employer is secretly dabbling. Either she expects to get away with it, or she's just too immature and naive to face up to the danger for both of them.

A colleague leaves the security service to sell beds, and Tom Haley is the bright young author chosen to receive the stipend. He is meant to make communism look bad, but fails to produce what MI5 secretly hopes for but only vaguely requests.

The story is set during the early seventies against the background of Irish terrorists, the crippling miners' strike and the energy crisis. Tom gets a publisher before he's quite ready to go to press, and ends up handing in a lightweight and incompletely edited dystopia about the fall of the energy-glugging west, for which he nonetheless receives the prestigious Austen prize.

The author of many respected books including the recent Solar, McEwan is a brilliant plotter, and of course there are surprises to the very end. The novel is a good read and a satisfying send-up of government secrecy and MI5's real and bizarre relationship to fiction writing. Truth may be almost as strange as fiction in the case of this book, but even a dedicated researcher can't be absolutely sure -- so much of the information required for a rational assessment is still classified.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jigsaw success

Photo by Marco

A Sisyphean task, it still has to be done each Christmas.

In this jigsaw, The Canadian travels through the Southern Rockies, with the observation car, The Banff Park, in the lead.

Assembling this puzzle brought the usual feeling of satisfaction, as well as evoking memories of a train ride from a long time ago.

In 1958, I was a child looking through the train window in wonder, seeing the Rockies for the first time. For that young girl, the journey from the flat Alberta prairie to the mountainous Skeena Valley was a geographic marvel. I still remember the rocking and creaking of the train as I lay in the small snug world of the upper berth.

I've had a fondness for trains ever since.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mystery solved!

Photo CT 2012

The clues to the mystery are the bag of potatoes, the wig, the rope, and the bloodied oar. And of course, the red herring, which in this case is a literal fish, wrapped in brown paper.

The victim was the psychiatrist, or so Robert George of the SFPD tells us. In a short booklet that comes with the puzzle, he also shares transcripts of his interviews with three suspects, all of whom are obsessed with the movies of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

Did we solve the crime? Almost. We figured it all out except for the final twist. It was like watching a Hitchcock movie.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Raffia angel, neighbours and Hitchcock jigsaw

Photo from Helen Mirren's website

Christmas means family, and neighbours, and angels. In fact, our dearest neighbours just gave us a lovely raffia angel to stand outside the front door. When Pinky also handed me a Christmas jigsaw, I remembered a conversation we had in the summer, to the effect that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without these puzzles.

We have others -- a Renoir repro and a painting of a vintage CPR train. Not too much more vintage than me, actually. It looks awfully like the train we rode on when I was eight years old and we moved to BC from Alberta.

But the piece de resistance, jigsaw-wise, is the one our daughter brought from Edmonton: an Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Jigsaw. You read the story first, then use the clues to assemble the puzzle.

Having just seen the wonderful movie, Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins and  Helen Mirren, we are ready for that one. I have the coffee table cleared and ready. The season opens tomorrow, Boxing Day.

We've had some fine jigsaws in the past -- a 3-D building one, the Rosetta Stone, and even a wolf-shaped puzzle painted in with a winter scene of wolves in the forest.

One more sleep. Then, let the puzzling begin!

Monday, December 24, 2012

All Clear, by Connie Willis

Book cover photo from Goodreads

Well, maybe not quite clear, at least sometimes. This second part of the time travel story that begins with Blackout involves a dizzying array of contingencies.

Of course, my occasional moments of confusion may be related to the fact that I listened to the two cds in reverse order. Unintentionally, of course.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and was sad to finally say farewell to Polly, Eileen, Stephen, Paige and others. I was also pleased to be reunited with a character who kept a promise, and to discover that an aging man had more allies and less to worry about than he, and the reader, had thought.

And I learned a lot more details about the war, especially the Blitz. I especially enjoyed the bits about the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park, as part of my novel under construction is set there.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas dress for Evy

Photo: newly shortened Christmas dress for Evy.

Today I hand-hemmed a fancy Christmas dress for four- year-old Evy. I was with my friend while she shopped for her granddaughter. She expressed regret that this one was too long for Evy, I volunteered to shorten it.

Sitting by the Christmas tree with needle and thread mined rich veins of memory.

First, Christmas dresses and little girls. When our daughter was this age, we got her a fancy Christmas dress in red with black velvet trim and a crinoline skirt. She was mighty pleased, and I took a lovely picture of her wearing it with the new ice skates Santa brought her the same year.

Next, hand sewing. Until a few years ago, I used to sew a lot, and was willing and able to do finishing work by hand. Now I do most sewing, including hems, with my old Bernina sewing machine. But the skirt of this dress was cut on the bias, and I had to gather the top part of the hem, iron it down and then do the stitching by hand. A lesson in patience, and memory.

Finally, Evelyn. When I was a child, I adored the name Evelyn, and in fact, the first doll clothes I ever made were for my doll Evy. Once Evelyn was a very popular name; now it is less common. At least until a few years ago, Vancouver had an Evelyn club for women who shared that name.

May Evy enjoy the Christmas season in her fancy dress, not only this year, but next, when her Mom will be able to let it down, because I turned up the extra fabric rather than cutting it off.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Slush, "snumps" and "slush bombs"

I know all about slush (see yesterday's post), and I've been familiar with the "snumps" so elegantly named by Michael Enright and Jane (whose last name I can't recall) on a CBC program a few years ago. Snumps (snow lumps) are the dirty blobs of snow that fall behind cars as the temperature rises. They are formed when the fresh snow comes unstuck from the metal of the wheel wells.

But slush bombs? They seem to be a new weapon. The story on the front page of The Vancouver Sun, complete with video, reports that  these 'slush bombs' endangered drivers and damaged vehicles. This happened yesterday on the new $3 billion Port Mann Bridge during the first snowfall of the year. Lumps of ice rained down from the cables, smashing windshields and mirrors, even crashing through a sunroof to injure someone.

This is weird. We have other suspension bridges in the area -- notably the Lions Gate, built in 1937. No ice bombs fell on it. And we also have the huge Alex Fraser Bridge, much newer and longer that the one across the First Narrows, and it too seemed to be slush bomb-free.

To add insult to injury, commuters had just started paying tolls for this newly completed and much-touted crossing of the Fraser. Then yesterday it proved to be a minefield (mines from above).

The builders of the bridge are throwing up their hands, using a modern paraphrase of the Act of God argument: the conditions were rare, and it could happen to any man-made structure.

Only it didn't. It just happened on the New Port Mann. Even though the whole region had more or less the same weather. Maybe those soaring post-modern cables are too numerous or too steep.

Meanwhile, the story made the Globe and Mail too. Engineers are looking at ways to stop the bridge hail from happening again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Photo: slush on green crosswalk

Vancouver snow can have many phases in a single day. Morning revealed the delight of fresh snow, an equal and forgiving cover of all things. Snow rarely lasts here, but slush can look clean and beautiful, as it does on this green crosswalk.

The next phase is water. As the temperature rises, the melting snow can't move down the storm drains fast enough. Downtown, slushy lakes formed at the curbs. Too wide to jump over, they obliged me to wade. Even though I sprayed my winter boots thoroughly in the summer, they soon began to take on water. By the time I got home, they were soaked through.

Right: At VCC Clark Skytrain Station, a puddle forms on the bricks as the soft snow turns to water.

By tomorrow morning, most if not all of this snowfall will be gone.

We will recall only its transient innocent whiteness, an interval confirming the arrival of winter.

It will be back to business as usual for a Vancouver winter: rainy grey skies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Life is not meant to be an adrenalin bath

Not sure how it happened, but somehow society has normalized the adrenalin rush as a way of life. Must get here, must get there, make this phone call, send this email. Make more money, then spend it on gadgets that keep us busy all the time.

People are overbooked, and the frantic pace of life has led to an epidemic of sleep deprivation. The US Centre for Disease Control has called this a public health epidemic, and a UK study says lack of sleep has now begun affecting children. On top of that, many if not most have poor diets, as revealed by the proliferation of fast food outlets and overweight people, as well as the evolution of grocery store shelves towards more ready-to-eat foods. For many people, normal habits like cooking meals at home, sleeping eight hours, and taking walks after dinner now seem impossible.

I know Vancouver doesn't handle snow very well, but I hope that tonight the promised snowstorm will come. Maybe it will encourage us to look around, breathe, walk in the winter wonderland. Most importantly, it might make people slow down, accept a slightly less frantic pace than usual, at least for the few hours until it melts again.

I hope that my readers will make it a priority to take care of themselves this coming Christmas holiday. Turn off the cell phone and computer for awhile. Sleep in, cook at home, play outside and take the time to relax and just chill. Even a short period of midwinter stillness will begin to mend frazzled nerves, make us whole again.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Stalking the winter solstice, but light will return

The winter solstice is only three days away. Each day the light is less, and we stay at home near our brightly lit Christmas tree. These are days for making warming stews and drinking hot chocolate.

I look forward to the annual jigsaw puzzle time that is coming. After we've eaten the big turkey dinner I cook each Christmas for the family, I go into a state of total relaxation. That's when I like to hunker down over a jigsaw puzzle.

Nobody cooks for a couple of days; we all relax into our favourite activities, and as tummies dictate, we make turkey pickle cranberry sandwiches or simply enjoy a warmed up plate of leftovers.

Today I finished work for the term, and we held a luncheon party to celebrate our outgoing department head.  Except for the office cleanup, which I plan to do on Wednesday, the term's work is done.

As I have nothing terribly pressing to do tomorrow, will stay home, cook my stuffed eggplants, and then lie back on the sofa and finish reading the latest Anne Perry mystery. Every so often I will look up at the gorgeously lit Christmas tree, and pet the cat if he deigns to come and lie on my lap. Absolute bliss.

The jigsaw, however, is not allowed out till Boxing Day for the very good reason that I will become totally engrossed and pore over it for hours every day. While others rush around to the Boxing Day sales that have sprung up in recent years, I reach back to an older tradition. When I was a kid, that was when we went skating, played with our new toys, and read our new books, and yes, started a jigsaw puzzle.

The joy of my jigsaw downtime is very precious. It can only happen in that very special week between Christmas and New Years, when everything seems to stop for a few days of home, family and rest, before things gear up again in the New Year.

This is 2012, but I'm not concerned about the end-of-the-world predictions based on the Mayan calendar. Such predictions of doom have a long history. For some reason, such ideas seem to appeal to the human psyche.

When I was at university in the late sixties, two friends and I agreed to meet at the Tower of London on March 15, 1984, an earlier occasion when the world was supposed to end.  Even at the time, we thought it was more of a laugh than a threat. Of course, we were young; 1984 seemed a long way off.

Late in 1999, when Y2K was considered a serious threat, a friend told me he decided not to send his wife and children on a holiday to Cuba because he feared that the airline computers would crash and prevent them from returning. A systems analyst himself, my friend had to work, so he couldn't go with his family to Cuba and take his chances.

Y2K turned out to be mainly a marketing opportunity. Everyone had to get a new computer, or hire someone to fix their old one so it wouldn't crash.

Like Sam Dwyer, I prefer to see the Mayan end of the world prophecy as another in a long series of false alarms. I hope and believe that humans are evolving. Next year, we'll once again have a chance to make a new start. We can work harder to appreciate our blessings, and treat our families, our neighbours and our planet better than ever before.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My continuing education

As another term winds down, with all but the final paperwork done, I am left thinking once again about how my work as an educator provides such an education for me.

This term, from the research reports alone, I was treated to new insights about lots of things -- from Galapagos turtles to the undersea earthquake that triggered the 1970 snow and mudslide that buried the Peruvian village of Ancash, to the history that led up to Iran's nationalizing the country's oil resources.

Factual information is by no means all I learn. From my students with their rich variation of languages and cultures, I am constantly faced with other thought patterns, other ways of looking at the world.

My classroom is a microcosm of contemporary multicultural society, and I notice, term by term, how culture evolves. Right now I'm observing in real time how people develop ever more facility in using digital devices, especially smartphones. It has to be said that many of the younger students are becoming overly dependent on them.

Technologies come and go, but it remains a real privilege to work with students from around the world, to talk with them and coach them and learn from them, both directly and indirectly, about a myriad of things.

Now another class has ended; people who spent nearly four months sitting cheek by jowl are now scattering to go their separate ways. Many, of course, will move to another class at the college, but the classmates will change next term.

Though I'm still not using a smartphone myself, when the next class convenes in the New Year, we'll be working in an upgraded "smart classroom." I hope the students and I don't get too carried away with delegating our smarts to machines.

As an educator, I am of the view that we should define ourselves not by what we own, but what we know, how well we think and what we can do to serve the world we share.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Enter -- the Dragon, or There be dragons

Photo: Dragon fruit at Two EE's Farm, Surrey

Welcome to the dragon! The scary voice was a chilling invitation to ride the rollercoaster at the PNE. This kid size ride has been defunct since 2003.

When my daughter was little, I don't know how many times I rode the rattletrap thing at her side. We used to enjoy the voice -- an invitation to thrills and chills -- in my case, more than the ride. (I did find courage to ride the big roller coaster once -- but that's another story.)

I have been thinking of dragons recently -- they are mythical animals, and yet they exist in so many cultures, and are intertwined with a variety of stories and symbolic meanings.

In Vancouver, one tends to think first of the Chinese dragon in all its variety. Symbolizing the emperor, this mythical animal is featured in the Chinese Zodiac. Here in Vancouver it can be seen in the annual Chinese New Year parade, during the Dragon Boat Festival, and of course, on the backs of silk kimonos in the shops of Chinatown.

From the British Isles, we hear of the English patron St. George killing a dragon, and from Ireland, we know of the Celtic dragon, as painted on the boat of Michael D'Alton, which is the office of the School of Bio-energy Healing.

Dragons can also be found in the mythology of Greece, Iran, India and various European countries. A very small lizard found in Indonesia bears a strong resemblance to a dragon. Dragons are also found in Japan, and I'm sure this listing of dragon culture is not exhaustive.

What are dragons really. and where do they come from? Perhaps they refer to some collective memories we have of the dinosaur age -- as those are the animals they most resemble.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The last time slides by

We're trying to figure out how to get rid of our old skis, and that's got me thinking. Sometimes when we do something for the last time, it just slides by. We don't realize till much later.

I loved skiing but can't remember the last time I went, but I do remember a few memorable ski moments. Like when on Mount Baker, I accidentally dropped a pole from the chair lift. Was delighted to see someone ski by and pick it up, assuming he'd return it to the bottom of the chair. Not at all. I heard all about him later. Apparently he had a cabin on the mountain, and collected lost poles for his guests.

Then there was the time on Mount Seymour with an ESL class. I was feeling brave, and watching others ski over a perfect-sized bump, I decided I too could get some air time. A French-Canadian fellow coached me along. "That was good," he encouraged after my first try. "But next time, hopen your eyes!"

When I was nearly six months pregnant, I insisted my husband learn to ski. Once the baby came, I argued, we'll be too busy. It was now or never and we headed for Whistler. We were on the Pony Trail, an easy green run, when I fell. It was a gentle plop into soft snow, with no harm done. But I couldn't get up, because my centre of gravity was changed. My husband had to ski over and haul me to my feet. A good ski lesson for a first day out on the slopes.

We got our daughter on skis early, and she skiied between his legs till she could go on her own. We had several enjoyable family holidays skiing together, till she decided in her teens that she needed to try a snowboard.

On one of the last ski holidays, I remember, when we returned to the condo after a day of skiing, I was exhausted. Just one more run, I cajoled, and we rode up on those last precious runs of the chairlift. Home and dry, we got out of our wet ski clothes, all leaned against the bolster of the bed to watch a little TV. I could hear my husband and daughter talking, but their voices were fading. In seconds, I was sound asleep.

I woke some time later and heard them in the kitchen making dinner. Maybe I'm getting too old for this, I thought, and quickly put the thought away. But looking back now, I wonder if that could have been the last time. Might have been, but I'm not sure. The last time slid by without my noticing.

How clearly I remember buying those Rossignol Meribel skis. New, not second hand. Bliss. I used the money from a small inheritance that an aunt left me. First, a washer and dryer -- the first set I owned. Then the skis, and all the gear to go with them.

The washer and dryer lasted well; they even moved house with us once. But they're long gone. Not surprising when you consider that it's probably thirty years since I bought the machines, and the skis. During my skiing phase, I replaced the boots and bindings, but the skis are still in the garage.

They won't be there much longer. My skiing days are probably over; if not, I'll rent skis. Meanwhile, Salud! to my Rossis. I loved them well.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The time between

On the last day of class, I am dropped off at the station in darkness. Though I board later than usual -- it is after seven -- beyond the lights of the platform, dawn has not yet broken.

Once on the train, I settle in my single seat and position my pack on my knee and against the metal post, so I can prop up my book.

When I get off at Commercial-Broadway, the sky shows that it is morning, but the weather is dingy and grey. I yawn as I descend the escalator and turn toward the bus stop. I am not yet fully alert, still inside my head, still thinking of the book I've been reading.

In order to leave the station, I have to run the gauntlet of arms pressing newspapers on me: Metro! 24 Hours! the reflective-vested hawkers call, in a variety of accents. Some step into my path and push the papers toward my chest, while others thrust them nearly into my face. I dodge them all.

Vancouver Sun? I've had a paid subscription for that one since long before the Internet obliged the publishers to make it available for free. I read it over breakfast an hour ago -- at least the headlines and comics. 

Sliding safely past the last newspaper waver, the one who tries daily to block my path, I wonder: Can't these people sense the meaning of the body language of others? With my head down and my hands in my pockets, do they really think that jumping into my path and waving papers will alter my decision to decline them:?

This is the time between home and work, the time when I am still not fully awake. But as I get geographically closer to my work place, the body gears up. I step into the line for the front door of the Number 99, idly glance into the window of the drug store and think how much larger are the stuffed toys of today compared to the ones we played with when I was a kid.

One 99 B Line has filled and departed. For the moment, there is no bus in sight, but I know it won't be longer than a couple of minutes. I gaze up into the grey sky, and directly above me, two black birds fly over. It's going to be a happy day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Book cover photo, Dan Ariely

I loved Stuart Sutherland's book on human irrationality and have been intrigued by this subject ever since. So when one of my students presented this one to the class, I immediately went out and bought a copy.

Author Dan Ariely, Director of eRationality at MIT, writes in a lighthearted style, but his book is packed with facts. And it behooves us to pay attention to our human propensities for making irrational decisions.

For one thing, experts in marketing and other forms of propaganda routinely use this knowledge to exploit us.

For another, we all contain both Jekyll and Hyde (originally two opposing sides of one character in a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, these two human personae were recently featured in a musical at the Kennedy Center.) The implications of having both a Jekyll and a Hyde side means that as Jekyll, we calmly believe ourselves to be rational and predictable. In states of high arousal, Hyde proves we're not.

As the experiments done by Ariely and others suggest, we are quite unable to predict in which direction and how dramatically our inner Mr. Hyde side might deviate from our outer Dr. Jekyll.

A third great value that can be gleaned from this work is learning about the human tendency to put things off till the last possible moment. Based on his experimental results, Ariely makes some useful suggestions for combating procrastination, and reports how real college students have managed to wrestle with it.

Finally, the author connects the human behaviour demonstrated in his experiments with larger issues of social policy. In view of what this writer and his fellow social scientists have discovered, many routinely used policies make little or no sense.

The clash he describes between business and social norms shows up the backwardness of certain  contemporary business policies as well.

A fascinating read, this book is playful but informative. The author's willingness to speculate on possible ways of doing many things differently is another added value.

As well as being basic reading for consumers, this is a must-read for students, any anyone running a business or working for a government or charity. In other words, anyone at all who needs to know more about human behaviour should read it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Once again raising a glass to a departed colleague

Sunday I attended the memorial celebration of my former colleague Miriam Bennett. Then the Divisional Chair, and later a colleague in College Preparatory English, Miriam hired me to work at the college on a snowy December day, more years ago than I care to count. We worked together for many years afterwards, and though we did not become close friends, we enjoyed a cordial collegial relationship.

Miriam retired about ten years ago, and around the same time, was found by her son, born while she was very young and put up for adoption in the U.S. Mark spoke at the event, and his words were inspiring and heartwarming. After all those years of mother and son each imagining what the other was like, they met and bonded and found themselves in many ways to be "like two peas in a pod." Thus Miriam enjoyed the life of a mother and grandmother, in spite of the early trauma of giving up her child.

Often when people pass away, one finds out a great deal more about their accomplishments, and for me this was the case with Miriam. I was surprised to learn that she had lived in Amsterdam, Bucharest, and Monte Carlo, as well as Brussels, Montreal, and Vancouver. And I was most impressed to discover that she spoke eight languages and visited eighty countries. I was also touched by the lovely poems her husband Robert wrote about her in 2005 and 2006, after many years of marriage.

My colleague had a lot of interests, and she knew a lot of people. Yesterday, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music was packed as mourners gathered to raise a glass in her memory. Miriam died in October, and this was a celebration of her life. There were musical numbers from Ain't Misbehavin' and Jacques Brel is Alive and Well, interspersed with reminiscences from a couple of close family members. Bill Millerd of the Arts Club Theatre also described his first meeting with Miriam, who was later on the board of the theatre. The formal program ended with a rendition of Brel's If we Only Have Love, with Erin Palm singing, and Steven Greenfeild on the piano.

Miriam Bennett was an enthusiastic and accomplished woman who contributed much to education and the arts, and enjoyed life to the full. She was a lovely soul and will be missed by many, most especially by those who gathered yesterday to pay their respects to her memory -- a life well-lived.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Cover photo: Mary Robinette Kowal

After meeting the author at the SIWC, I took this book out of the library and began to read it. It begins in Jane Austen fashion, as a novel of manners, and we soon meet the protagonist and her sister. Jane is plain, though artistic, and the golden-haired Melody, ten years younger, is a beautiful flirt.

At first I was put off by the magic realist element. Kowal has invented a new art form for ladies and gentlemen of quality and means. Though she lacks suitors, Jane is a skilled practitioner of this art. She pulls glamour from the ether, folds, braids and manipulates it. In this way, she can create magical illusions that give an extra dimension of decor to her surroundings and thrill onlookers.

Mr. Dunkirk is the charming neighbour whom Jane admires, even though she thinks he has eyes only for Melody. Meanwhile, she befriends his sister Bess, who suffers dark moods. Having begun as a light romantic fantasy, the tale begins to darken. When first Bess and then Mr. Dunkirk confide their explosive secrets in Jane, she finds herself in a cruel dilemma.

Meanwhile, another talented glamuralist, Mr. Vincent, is exploited by Jane and Melody's snobbish neighbours to the point of exhaustion; in the middle of a glamour demonstration, he collapses from exhaustion and falls ill. Jane must think fast, but even her quick decisive action is not guaranteed to save his life.

There is also trouble between the sisters -- Melody refuses to admit to her older and more level-headed sister that she has a secret beau, and goes off in the night to meet him in the garden maze. Fearful for her sister's reputation and well-being, Jane follows, and what she learns there propels her into an immediate and drastic action that she couldn't find more distasteful.

The darker side of the society stands revealed. Middle aged women with grown children have nothing to do, and nothing to discuss but their ailments. A dishonourable man is willing to marry any woman with money to exploit her wealth. A dark secret is exposed: an honourable man has defended the woman in his care and his family's honour, but by an act of vengeful violence. More violence threatens as the tension builds.

Filled with dramatic action, the final compelling section of the book exposes the complete vulnerability of the women in this society. At the same time, it shows how our protagonist works her way through the maze of constricting social mores that govern her, and find the courage to choose happiness where she knows she can, in spite of the unconventional nature of her decision.

I almost put this book aside after a few pages, thinking it was just a light romance. Luckily, I decided to keep reading and found it was much more. Kowal pulls the reader in with the sure touch of a puppeteer (she is one, as well as being a writer).

With her imitation of Jane Austen's style, she scarcely puts a foot wrong. To top off the pleasure of reading, there are moments of delightful Austenesque comedy, such as the portrayal of Jane's father when she gets engaged. With his thumbs tucked in his waistcoat, the author tells us, he "looked far too innocent for his own good."

The book was published in 2010 by Tor. Its author is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy writers of America, and at the time of publication was on the board of directors of that organization.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Three Marriages by David Whyte

Photo from Institute of Noetic Sciences

As Doris Lessing said, the right book has a way of  "insinuating itself into your hands" at the right moment.

That happened for me with The Three Marriages, by David Whyte. I had bought the book several months ago, and it was in plain view, lying around with a dozen other books in various piles, waiting to be read.

After reading Whyte's earlier book, The Heart Aroused, I still had a clear memory of the unique intuitions of this author, known in some circles as the poet of the workplace. I was certain I would enjoy this recent opus too, with its intriguing title.

And indeed, as I read through his narrative about the marriage to one's partner, one's work, and oneself, something deep inside clicked into place. I was profoundly reassured by Whyte's insights into the mysterious aspects of life. Reading his work renewed my faith.

To illustrate the way the marriages are intertwined, the author talks about the lives of three intriguing individuals. All had to challenge the great difficulties life presented and yet all managed to work out their commitment to the three marriages.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen and Pema Chodron seem to be vastly different characters; yet the lives of all three are suitable examples of how we face our sorrows and still manage the life- affirming commitment to our partners, our true work, and ourselves.

The book was also full of fascinating anecdotes from Whyte's own life, and sprinkled with examples of his wonderful poetry. I noticed with pleasure that it was dedicated to the late John O'Donohue, an author for whom I hold the greatest admiration.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Winter morning sky

Photo: VCC in early morning

Now the leaves have finally fallen from the trees along Broadway.

The hues of this morning sky proclaim the arrival of winter.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Umbrella graveyard

Photo: corpse of dead umbrella abandoned near Broadway and Clark

Where do umbrellas go to die? Like elephants, do they have their own secret graveyards?

This one collapsed on the street, defeated perhaps when the wind rose and turned it inside out.

How sad that after giving faithful service it was left on the street for strangers to step around.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Southbank info session for Surrey writers Dec 8

Mark your calendars for Saturday if you are interested in the info session for Southbank Writers' Program at SFU. At its name suggests, this summer program for writers is held on the south side of the river. Our location is the new Surrey City Centre Library, a lovely facility located conveniently close to Surrey Central Station.

And there's plenty of parking available for those do live on this side of the river. So if you're tired of crossing bridges to attend writing events and programs, you just might want to check this out.

Time: 10:30 am
Place: Room 405 City Centre Library, Surrey

 Photo: City of Surrey

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wintry whitecaps at White Rock

The Pacific is less calm than usual, but sunlight gleams through heavy cloud to light the water as a brisk wind drives white caps toward the beach.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prairie Giant Tommy Douglas

Photo: Canadian Health Coalition

Prairie Giant is a dramatization of the life story of Tommy Douglas. It was published after Canadians voted in a CBC poll (2006) that Tommy Douglas was the greatest Canadian.

His courage was unwavering, and his achievements were legendary. The list of firsts among his policies at the end of the film is an eye-opener, even for those, like myself, who thought they knew quite a lot about Tommy Douglas.

His political life began in the Dirty Thirties in the town of Weyburn. He died in Ottawa aged 81, after 5 consecutive mandates as CCF, Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Premier of Saskatchewan and 17 years as federal leader of the NDP, a party formed when the CCF joined with labour unions.

In many ways, the apparently insignificant province of Saskatchewan is Canada. So many of the ideas we have come to associate with our historic liberal democratic and egalitarian ideals came from there: universal medicare, old age pensions, co-ops, government auto insurance, government support for the arts, and much more.

As for the policies that expressed these ideas, most were envisioned first by the remarkable politician Tommy Douglas. A Baptist minister, he was galvanized into running for office by his times: the terrible hardships suffered by farmers during the dirty thirties, and then being a helpless witness to the brutal violence practiced on coal miners in Estevan when in 1931 they went on strike to demand a living wage.

When Douglas saw how the RCMP stood by and watched the strikers beaten or worse, he took up an invitation to run for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the CCF. With the vigorous support of his wife Irma, he succeeded against astonishing odds, not only to get elected, but to carry out the revolutionary policies he had promised to the people of Saskatchewan.

To do so, he had to do battle with Boston bankers, federal and provincial Liberals, and even the doctors of Saskatchewan, who went on strike when Medicare was passed, and did their best to turn the tide of public opinion against the CCF and their "communist" policies.

For anyone who is interested in how Canada has evolved into the country we know today, this is a film well worth watching: for the excitement and drama, as well as the education in our history.

Both in his life and following his death in 1986, Tommy Douglas was heaped with honours. IIn his original home riding of Weyburn, a statue was unveiled in 2010. Schools, stamps, and art centres are among the places named after him. In our region, the public library in Burnaby bears his name. His legacy continues to be discussed among Canadians.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Shelly Fralic celebrates The Vancouver Sun

The face of Shelley Fralic is of course familiar to me, since I see it every morning in the paper. But I was surprised when she said I looked familiar.

"Where do I know you from?"

I was mystified. Told her the closest I had been to her was when she gave an address to the Editors' Association of Canada, and I was in the audience.

At Black Bond Books in Surrey, she was signing copies of her book, Making Headlines, I00 Years of The Vancouver Sun (2012), when I approached the counter.

There was a lull in the lineup so we chatted briefly about her recent Christmas Stocking story. I asked her to inscribe and sign my book, and took a card out of my pocket to show her the spelling.

"Oh, you're a writer."

"Well, I'm definitely allowed to call myself a writer now," I said, surprised that I felt no inner qualm or cringe as the words left my mouth. "I just finished a draft of my novel."

To my delight, Shelley looked pleased. "Have you got a publisher yet?"

"Not yet."

"What's it about?" she asked, and I began to talk about my theme, family secrets against a background of national secrets. Just then, her mobile rang, and she excused herself to answer. Some uncertainty about whether what she had written in someone's book had been what they wanted inscribed.

"Well, let me know when it's published," she said.

How very kind, I thought as I walked away. And remembered, we never did figure where we'd met before.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Boar's Head Madrigal Dinner in Surrey

Photo: Page with candle guides diners to feasting room.

The host bids the diners enter the banqueting hall, and the Lyric Singers greet their arrival with a rousing rendition of The Gloucestershire Wassail. At the door, each guest is given a cup of wassail, warmed apple cider with cinnamon, and servers come round to refill the cups.

Once the guests are settled, a ceremonial lighting of the Christ Candle follows. Then two bearers parade the boar's head round the room for all to see.

Beneath the medieval wall banner, the Lyric Singers raise their voices in song, along with featured guests, both men and children.

Dinner is served in courses, with songs between. The menu begins with soup and bread, then salad is served. The main course is roast pork with gravy and traditional winter vegetables.

The audience is asked to join in the singing of familiar carols. Before dessert is brought out, an attendant in medieval garb parades the flaming pudding through the banqueting hall.

Below: Servers rest after their labours.

The feast winds down as young pages come round to collect donations for the food bank, and feasters remember others who may be hungry and in need.

The sated revellers sing along to Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the choir sings We Wish You a Merry Christmas and banqueters are trumpeted from the hall.

This event, "The Boar's Head Dinner, A Medieval Madrigal Feast of  Food and Song," was presented by Bethany-Newton United Church and Lyric Singers. Those who attended hope the tradition will continue.

Boar's head dinners date back to the middle ages and possibly earlier, to pagan times. Or the tradition of the Boar's Head dinner originated at Queen's College Oxford, says an apocryphal story of a student who encountered a wild boar while reading Aristotle in the forest.

When the boar attacked, the quick-thinking reader defended himself by thrusting the volume into the mouth of the charging animal, who promptly choked on it. More likely a clever Oxonian joke than a real event, this tale has nevertheless survived to be told at the annual Boar's Head dinner at Queen's College.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

After Nanowrimo, a rest before editing

For me the issue wasn't generating the 50,000 words. I had those, in half a dozen half-drafts and numerous folders, each containing a mishmash of scenes.

The task I set myself to do under the discipline of Nanowrimo, the annual National Novel Writing Month, was to herd those words into a coherent whole.

I had to look at my separate story threads and weave them together in a way that would generate interest and make sense for the reader. With a month of steady work behind me, I verified my count late yesterday evening: one coherent draft of 62,318 words. Yay!!!

As I saved copies of that draft, I told myself I'd take a week off writing. But I woke up this morning with more scenes. Yesterday I knew that certain scenes were insufficiently woven into the plot, and this morning I woke up with ideas for scenes that would fix that.

Last night, I went to bed thinking I wouldn't have to work on the novel for a week, and could relax into other writing projects. But I woke with a few heretofore missing plot elements that motivate Rose, as they combine to test her to the limit of her resiliency.

It seems my draft is unfinished after all. Now I must write those scenes and figure out where they fit in. This step at least is certain, for which I am thankful. The challenge of writing a novel is that there is no map. Many experienced writers have said it: for each new work, that map must be created from scratch.

After incorporating these new scenes, I will put the draft away for awhile. A little bit of distance will allow me to return to it fresh. I'll try to imagine that someone else has written it, that I am reading with an eye to editing.

The first stage of revision will mean looking at the story scene by scene, and moving scenes around to make sure they are presented in the best possible order. The goal here is to create and maintain reader interest.

Once this is done, I will read the whole draft aloud to myself to make sure it sounds right. Anything that jars the ear will have to be examined and altered as I attend to the music and rhythm of my words and sentences.

When I come to the final edit, I will look at the whole story sentence by sentence. Every word and every punctuation mark must earn its place. Anything that is not essential will be cut. After this, the novel will be ready to offer to a trusted first reader for feedback.

Nanowrimo is fantastic, because writers need deadlines. Getting my first complete rough draft together this past month has emboldened me to hope I can have a final draft done before the Surrey Writers' International Conference in October 2013.

There is a profound symmetry about the timing. Though I finished The Writer"s Studio at SFU a year ago, Wednesday evening is the formal grad ceremony for our cohort. I have a novel drafted; I am truly a writer now.