Tuesday, December 31, 2013

George prepares to ring in the New Year

George is off to a New Year's party, and by the look of the mickey in his pocket, he's planning to tie one on.

As for the hat, it's battered even before the evening begins.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Whole lot of birds helped with this puzzle

This is a Charles Wysocki painting, with a lot of strange birds in it. It was pretty challenging, what with all the grass and stones, but the birds definitely helped.

This one took only two days; the other took three. But then for the Speckled Band puzzle, we didn't have a picture to work from.

The third and last of this season is a Renoir. I'm looking forward to that, but first, a well-earned day of rest doing other things.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Most singular case, Watson

The first puzzle of the season was based on a Sherlock Holmes case, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Some oddities here. If the room is that of Dr. Grimsby Roylott, as the top hat, safe, and pipe suggest, then why is there a woman's shawl on his chair? Also, what is that pair of spectacles doing on the floor? And why is the lantern in this room? Roylott's step-daughter Helen was the one who used it to signal Holmes and Watson the coast was clear.

But that's just the picture. An even stranger anomaly is the missing piece. In all my years of puzzling, I've never seen this before. Not only that but an extra piece, which is an almost duplicate of another piece, as shown below. What exactly happened at the jigsaw puzzle factory?  A comedian? A careless packer? A disgruntled employee? 'Tis a mystery indeed.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Car window reflects bare branches

The winter sunlight is rather weak.

Still, it's strong enough to reflect the beauty of the bare branches above in the window of this parked car on East Broadway.

The picture doesn't do it justice, but if you look carefully, you can see the branches reflected on the left side of the window.

Seen live, it was like a reflection in a clear pool.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Grandview-Woodland houses

Old Grandview-Woodland is a neighbourhood full of beautiful houses, many surrounded by lush mature gardens. Still looking good for another green Christmas.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas to all in carols

Here are some of my favourite Christmas carols:

"Once in Royal David's City" is sung with incomparable beauty by a boys' choir at King's College Cambridge.

"Angels we Have Heard on High" (in Latin here) and "Here we Come a Wassailing" are two golden classics.

"The Huron Carol"  can be heard here in Wendat (or Huron) as well as French and English.

"Joy to the World" and "Carol of the Bells" are lovely too. Choir leader extraordinaire Grenville Jones and The Silver Ring Choir of Bath sing these beautifully on a Christmas CD I got at their concert in Vancouver a few years back.

So many carols to recall. "Il est ne le divin enfant" is another great favourite, sung here by Siouxie and the Banshees. Then there is "The Holly and the Ivy," which harks back to the middle ages and earlier, alluding to the apparent magical properties of the plants that remained green through the darkest days of winter.

A bit of the history of the history of carols and the custom of carolling can be seen here

Favourite local choirs include the hundred-strong Vancouver Welsh Men's Choir (whose members are from all over, not just Wales), the Lyric Singers (of Boar's Head Madrigal Dinner fame) and Marcus Moseley's incredible Chorale.

One New Year's resolution already made: next year I'm joining a choir.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Amaryllis promise fulfilled

The long-awaited amaryllis turned out to be a surprise.

Instead of being dark pink or red, as expected, it came out white tinged with very pale pink.

Just a reminder that life is not always as expected, but it's important to embrace what we get and see the beauty in that.

May all enjoy the peace and beauty of the Christmas season.

Monday, December 23, 2013

People's Co-op Bookstore ready for the Toonie Bin

Perhaps this settles the matter about how to spell toonie. Not twonie.

This bookstore is an old Vancouver institution. It seems to me that back in the sixties, People's Co-op Bookstore was once located on Pender.

That would be near the venerable and famous antiquarian book dealer Macleod's Books, which was written up in 2011 in Macleans.

But I might be wrong. This current location on Commercial has long been People's home.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Narcissus blooms in defiance of deep midwinter

In the dead of winter, fragrant narcissus burst into bloom with the promise that the light will return.

These flowers are small and humble, except for their amazing scent. Yet the source of the name, from a Greek myth, evokes powerful imagery.

Narcissus was the boy who made the wood nymph Echo suffer so much from her unrequited love for him that she died of grief.

Deciding to give the vain boy a taste of his own medicine, the gods caused him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. The indifferent reflection spurned him as he had Echo.

Today we evoke this scene when we say someone is narcissistic. Indeed, psychology has named narcissism, a personality disorder, after this young man of myth.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Soft snow covers everything

The fresh white of new snow brings silence and newness to the winter solstice, the shortest day.

It reminds us to enter the Christmas season of quiet reflection and the joys of home and family.

The snow also shows us when animals like coyotes have passed, revealing their clear tracks.

And this weather invites us to go outside to walk and play in the short-lived wonderland of south coast snow, before it melts and turns to rain.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Glorious sunset between full moon and winter solstice

On White Rock Beach, a heavy bank of cloud retreats in time to show the setting sun, and a gull sits on a rock to enjoy the gorgeous colours as they are reflected in the clouds and sea.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson

Image from Peter Robinson's Official website

Listening to this book was quite a surprise to one accustomed to reading one Inspector Banks novel after the other.

A successful movie score composer, protagonist Chris Lowndes has plenty of money. His son and daughter have grown up. His American wife is dead, and he's writing her a piano concerto.

Hoping to come to terms with his grief over the loss of his beloved Laura, Chris leaves California and returns to his native Yorkshire to take up residence in a house he has never seen.

Located in a remote Yorkshire dale, Kilnsgate House, purchased by long distance arrangements, seems to welcome him. So does red-haired Heather, the real estate agent who arranged the sale.

Along with the mystery, this novel has snippets of history from WWII and the Cold War. Scenes take place from Yorkshire to London to rural France, to Cape Town. And that's just in the present time frame. Indirectly, we get to Santa Monica, Minneapolis and even the infamous secret military facility of Porton Down.

The Grace Fox we get to know from her wartime journals, kept during her service as a member of Queen Alexandra Nursing Corps does not seem to jibe with the one who was later hanged for poisoning her doctor husband.

Along with the protagonist, the reader keeps wondering why someone who did so much to save lives in Singapore and Malaya and Normandy would kill her husband Ernest.

As Lowndes manages to track down more of the story of Grace, he has a few secrets of his own to come to terms with. This gives the reader the double payoff of a surprise ending for him as well as the solution to the mysterious conundrum of Grace Fox.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rose Ross brings my baby brother home from the hospital

I remember watching our neighbour, Rose, carry my brother in to the farm house. The snow was deep and drifted; the only things that were not white were a few fence posts that protruded above the silent sea of unremitting white.

The door opened and Rose stepped from the car into the fresh-fallen snow, decisively planting her delicate high-heeled boots with their swinging pompoms. They sank in the snow until only her slender legs were visible.

The driveway had not been cleared, but Rose plunged bravely forward, the bundled baby in her arms. Her slim-waisted coat was bottle green, with the wide fur collar that was fashionable then. An elegant winter hat was perched on her soft brown curls.

As she approached, I saw that she was smiling. Though her husband Clayton drank as heavily as Dad and the other war vet farmers in the area, Rose seemed to view their excesses with a humorous forbearance I couldn't help but admire. But I must have noticed that much later.

At the time of this memory, I was only two. I don't recall what my new brother looked like. I have no idea whether my mother got out of the car before or after her kind neighbour, or what look Dad had on his face when he came to the door to greet them.

Yet how well I remember the ineffably beautiful Rose.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Commuter selfie

Having chanced upon the concept by accidentally discovering the reversing feature of her camera phone, this Sky Train commuter takes a selfie in the form of a reflection in the plexiglass panel by the door of the train.

What is a selfie? Why, a picture taken of and by oneself, of course.

This newly minted word was recently named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Amaryllis promise

Any day now, the Christmas amaryllis will burst into bloom. The one in the photo below represents the Huntingdon Society Amaryllis Campaign.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Off the rack outfits at Build a Bear

I used to tailor for a bear called George, seen here relaxing in a casual business suit on his bed at the Bye the Way B & B in Ottawa.

These days the clutch is slipping on my ancient Bernina, and I haven't time or patience to sew.

Luckily for me, Build a Bear now sells clothes and more, from soccer boots to bathing suits.

Today, to shop for a bear called Dr. Barry, I ventured into Metrotown, a veritable temple of consumerism I've avoided for years.

At Build a Bear, I knew I'd see something suitable, and sure enough, my luck was in. Dr. Barry now has a full set of scrubs to wear in the operating theater, and an X-ray to consult before he operates.

Merry Christmas, Barry. I hope you'll have time for a few rounds of golf during the holidays. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas poinsettia glory

These days 99 Nursery in Surrey is a veritable sea of Christmas flowers. The poinsettia, a tender native of the hotter regions of Mexico, is a symbol of Christmas. Each year it comes in a more stunning array of colours. Here, though, it needs protection from the cold.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas reflections in the round

Two weeks ago, it was still warm enough to sit out on the patio at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

On a winter afternoon, this green globe contained a perfect reflection of Robson Square. Meanwhile, the Christmas elf stood half-hidden in the grass beneath,

I sat beneath this bulb enjoying food and a hot drink outdoors, and marveled at the mildness of our winter days.

Below, skaters in Robson Square, with its round dome.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Winter light as the solstice approaches

Just a few days ago, cold winter light made shadows sharp and crisp on this city neighbourhood of venerable trees.

Now a light dusting of snow has softened earth and sky, and the sharp cold has given way to milder temperatures.

The kids who were playing hockey on the Serpentine Fen yesterday will have to find an indoor rink for their game.

It's winter in Vancouver, and that means thaws and mild weather as well as occasional frost and snow.

The skaters below are near Ely, in Cambridgeshire, but the view is much the same. Photo from The Daily Mail.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Early sky full of snow was a tease but we have it now

Ten days ago, this spectacular winter morning sky promised snow, but didn't deliver it -- except to the mountain tops. Now the first snow is on the ground. Just enough to look beautiful without tying up traffic, and just enough to dust the top of the palm at 99 Nursery, below.

The Christmas season is officially open.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Befriending winter blues

"Make friends with the colour blue," said poet David Whyte at Point Grey United Church last Saturday.

Indeed, on a chilly winter afternoon, what could be more beautiful then these peerless blues of sky and mountains and sea, or sky alone?


Monday, December 9, 2013

Beautiful houses of old Point Grey

Representing a variety of traditional Vancouiver styles, historic Point Grey houses bask in the winter sunshine.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Architecture of a past Point Grey

This lovely church,West Point Grey United, absorbs winter sunshine in the late afternoon.

Though it is a thriving part of the community where it stands, its wood interior and stained glass evoke past times.

The cultural ideas that underpinned such buildings are already receding from view as communities evolve in new directions.

David Whyte in Vancouver

David Whyte image from his website

For David Whyte, the lived art of poetry teaches us how spirituality is a bodily experience. Poetry is ancient: Whyte mentioned the Irish Druidic tradition that goes back 5000 years. Poetry is not lucrative; it's impressive that this itinerant bard earns his living sharing the power of the spoken word.

To stay engaged with the mystery of life, says Whyte, we must "ask the beautiful questions." As pilgrims on our human path, we need to be touched by the extreme beauty in the outer world; this "elicits internal symmetry." Whyte illustrated this idea by quoting Wordsworth's "The Prelude," a Shakespearian sonnet, and a 13th century Japanese teacher of Zen, who expressed the same idea, which when translated, sounds something like this:

"If you find and name the world, this is illusion.
If the world finds you, this is enlightenment."

David Whyte spoke of marriage, with its symbolic purposes, as outlined in his wonderful book The Three Marriages: Re-imagining Work, Self and Relationship (2009 Riverhead). To enter into a marriage is to invite the certainty that your heart will be broken; this is necessary to make it grow.

Marriages, parenting and friendships are based on forgiveness, he said, and emphasized the value of having "a good healthy circle of friendship to sustain us." We must make friends not only with people but with the landscape, "the colour blue," and even our troubles. Heartbreak, even in a semantic sense, "is intimately connected to courage."

Whyte also spoke of work, encouraging us to keep our eyes on what draws and deepens us, and of prayer, calling it "talking to the Other." He cautions in his much-loved and much quoted line "how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next." (River Flow: New and Selected Poems.)

Life is mysterious but simple. The way to re-engage with the beautiful conversation is to stop having the one we are having now, to be in silence. Engaging with the larger questions of who we are and why we are here, we ask, "How, in this moment, can I become the ancestor of my future happiness?"

Like the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who call one another simply, Peregrino, Pilgrim, we must give up the "conversational identity" to return to our essence. And we must consider another question. How invitational are we in our interactions with others, especially those we love?

We should also allow ourselves much more mercy in those moments when we moult, shed our old skins, enter a new stage. Doubt comes through the ego, which tries to protect us, as it is bound by its nature to do. Yet the heart knows, and we can uncover that knowledge by reviving what Whyte refers to as "the beautiful conversation."

I sat in the balcony, and so did not see David Whyte at close range until the end of the day. Saw only his shock of dark hair, greying at the sides, cut long around his ears in the fashion of his native country. He spoke of how we are formed by the landscape, the weather, the voices of our childhood. His haircut, along with his words, echo his native Yorkshire, as well as his ancestral Ireland.  

While others waited at the end to have books signed, my books and CDs were in the car. Still, I felt moved to see this poet at close range, and to ask him a question. When my turn came I looked into his dark brown eyes, and asked if he ever had resistance to writing.

"I don't much, these days," he said, and then sensing my disappointment almost before I felt it, he added, "but I remember it."

"And how did you handle it?"

These eyes now shone from their nest of aging lines with a glint of humour. "Well, you write about the resistance." With that simple conversational exchange, I felt the message of the day land in me and I walked away quiet and satisfied.

As I approached the car, I thought about how my day had been bracketed by natural beauty and mystery. In the morning, I saw a wild coyote. As it paused on the sidewalk ahead to scratch itself, I first mistook it for a dog. Then, it looked at me briefly and I saw the eyes were wild; it loped away on feet so light they barely seemed to touch the earth.

The sun was nearly setting as I walked past the ranks of huge trees that line the streets of old Point Grey; beyond, the city lay distant and shining, the sky pink, and the sea my friend, the colour blue.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Healing through stories?

Image from William Carlos Williams site. "The poem springs from the half spoken words of the patient," says the plaque. This great American poet was a physician.

In our time, interesting parallels connect the works of three doctor novelists. Dr. Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul and spent his boyhood in Afghanistan. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns portray courage in the face of suffering by Afghan people over the past thirty years of war and occupation.

Dr. Vincent Lam is descended from ethnic Chinese who lived through the Vietnam war. His recent novel, The Headmaster's Wager, is set at the time of the Tet Offensive. In writing it, he drew from the real life experience of his grandfather, who had left China for Vietnam long before the war broke out.

Dr. Daniel Kalla has written two connected novels about Jews fleeing Europe for Japanese-occupied Shanghai after Europeans turned against them on Kristallnacht, just before WWII. His novel The Far Side of the Sky came out in 2011 and was followed this year by Rising Sun, Falling Shadow. Both were published by HarperCollins.

All three of these doctor novelists portray the pain of people who have been displaced and whose lives have been made chaotic by war. All three also deal with themes of feudal culture, as well as ethnic identity and the damage done by xenophobic bias.

The three men's medical careers have followed different tracks, however. Hosseini used to get up at 4:30 to write, and then go to work at his medical practice. However, as he explained to Marsha Lederman in his recent Vancouver appearance, he stopped practicing medicine once his storytelling career was launched. When his patients began to talk more about his novels than about their medical conditions, he thought it was time to turn his full attention to his first calling: healing through stories.

Lam, on the other hand, has kept his day job as an emergency physician in a Toronto hospital, and also does some teaching at the U of T. In a reading from The Headmaster's Wager at the Surrey Central Library in the summer, he explained that he loves both jobs but keeps them separate. On the days he treats patients, he does not write, and conversely, when he does write, he devotes entire days exclusively to that pursuit.

Kalla, who heads the emergency team at a downtown Vancouver hospital, also continues to practice medicine and write. Like Lam (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, 2006, made into a film series),  he was inspired to write by the 2003 SARS crisis, in Kalla's case a thriller called Pandemic. He is also an assistant clinical professor at UBC, his medical alma mater. He devotes time to public speaking on various topics too.

Clearly, at least for these three writers, there is some sort of connection between stories and healing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Khaled Hosseini speaks in Vancouver

Image of Khaled Hosseini from NPR

Last night at St. Andrews Wesley church, Khaled Hosseini was interviewed by Globe and Mail's Western Arts Correspondent, Marsha Lederman.

The evening began with a brief reading from Hosseini's latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed (Viking 2013).

The passage he chose concerned a walk taken by a pair of teenage twin girls through their home village in Afghanistan in the late 1940s. One girl is beautiful and she knows it; the other is unattractive, and resigned to not being noticed. On this particular walk, though, she is shocked to discover something new about her sister.

A California-trained medical doctor who has lived in the US since he was a teen, Hosseini was catapulted into his true calling as a storyteller by a short news item. When he heard that the Taliban intended to ban kite flying, he went to his computer. As he began to write his way into the vivid memories of his early life flying kites with his friends in Kabul, he was unaware that the novel was already taking shape in his mind. Later, as he worked on it, he rose at 4:30 each morning "to see what would happen next."

It's always fascinating to hear about a writer's creative process, and reassuring too, for others who engage in the mysterious process of story-making. In response to Lederman's question about how he "knew" a woman's feelings about aging, Hosseini replied that by spending time with his characters through successive drafts, he "gets to know their essence," understanding them so deeply that "gender is no longer an issue."

Like many other writers including Diana Gabaldon, he avoided censoring or over-considering his story by telling himself and sincerely believing that it would never be published. Hosseini also thinks the timing of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center was a historic factor that helped generate interest in his novel, then half-completed.

Indeed, he chillingly recalled how one agent he approached told him books about Afghanistan were already passe. This agent was following the sabre-rattling towards Iraq, and told Hosseini that books from there would be the next thing.

When a high school teacher asked him a question about the symbolism of kites in his work, he said what any serious author or reader would: since each individual reader brings a unique history and sensibility to the work, there are many valid answers to such questions beyond what the writer himself may be aware of while writing.

"Writers write books and give them to [readers], so they can tell them what they're about," he said. I was also delighted and astonished to hear him speak of plates spinning in the air as he described the novel writing process. Recently, thinking about my own work, I have been using that same metaphor;  I take this coincidence as a touchstone to help me hold my courage and finish the book.

When asked about the negative emotions -- shame, dislocation, survivor guilt -- that gave rise to his writing, Hosseini says he is glad to have been able to use these to motivate him to finish his stories and to find ways to help the Afghan people who have been "born in the wrong time and place."
With earnings from his meteoric success as an author, Hosseini has established a charitable foundation to help the women and children of Afghanistan.

While The Kite Runner reveals the violent breach of innocent friendship between two boys, Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, portrays the lives of two Afghan women buffeted by feudal mores and internecine struggles. Determined to survive, and to protect their children, the two friends find strength in each other.

Unlike two other contemporary Canadian doctor authors, Daniel Calla and Vincent Lam, Hosseini no longer practices medicine. He now focuses his energies on healing through stories. It was wonderful to hear him speak and read in Vancouver last night.

Christmas Lights on St. Paul's Hospital

Downtown is a veritable sea of Christmas lights, with St Paul's Hospital on Burrard in the forefront of the display.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gingerbread houses at the Hyatt Hotel

One of the signs of Christmas is the arrival at the Hyatt Hotel of Gingerbread Lane, the annual display of gingerbread houses (and more elaborate buildings of the same cake).

Sometimes less is more, as in the case of this trio of gingerbread cabins.

The wall decor is ornate, but otherwise they have a classical plainness. The little trees are nice too.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blurred horizon line

The pier at White Rock.

It was one of those days when the line between sea and sky is almost invisible.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

Cover image from JJ Lee website

This memoir delivers the deep satisfaction of a good read. It is funny, poignant and informative. Whether the image is of Oscar Wilde, Georgio Armani, King Edward VIII or Beau Brummell, I'll never look at a man's suit in the same way again.

The author fascinates us with the suit's history, contemporary variations, and symbolism, as well as how to accessorize it. He even advises readers which front coat buttons to fasten.

With my trusted guide, a journalist, architect, designer and aspiring tailor, I got to experience things a woman never could in real life. For instance, while listening in on JJ's man-to-man chat with the master tailors of Savile Row, I learned precisely what is meant by a bespoke suit, along with the ins and outs of a recent court case that hinged on that definition.

The thread that binds the book together is the story of a practical project: the author, who lost his father to alcoholism, is trying to make over his Dad's last remaining suit so that he can wear it.

He hopes that through this process, he can find his own way forward and regain some of the sense of a father-and-son bond he sorely missed as a child. In remaking the suit to fit him, he uncovers and deconstructs his father's life history, gains a mature perspective, and forgives past wrongs.

As part of his quest, JJ Lee apprentices himself to Vancouver master tailor Bill Wong, who in his eighties is still working happily in a tailor shop that opened a hundred years ago. Through their long and close association, Bill becomes a father figure, and helps JJ find some of the lost parts of himself.

Though it has some harrowing, even tragic scenes, the multi-layered story of JJ's tailoring quest is truly heartwarming, and the writer's fresh and vigorous prose is a joy to read.

Meanwhile, master coat-maker Bill Wong stitches coats at Modernize Tailors, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. (Another tailor in the shop specializes in pants.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Children of Air India by Renee Saklikar

Renee Saklikar image from Royal City Record

Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections was launched yesterday in the town where Renee Saklikar grew up, practiced law, and heard the news that her Aunt and Uncle had been killed on Air India flight 182.

Hosted by New Westminster Poet Laureate Candice James, the event took place in the Back Room of the Heritage Grill on Columbia Street.

The room was packed and the crowd listened rapt as Saklikar read from her work. Before reading, this woman, wife, lawyer and niece of some of the lost ones, thanked the audience for being there to witness, from a poetic perspective, her meditations on the tangled memories of the deliberate sabotage of an airplane load of travelers in June 1985.

The book, she says, chose her, insisted on being written by her, even though she felt unequal to the task. It is not easy to speak of the notorious murder of 329 people, "82 of them children under 13," as she reminded us. The one most of the the killers got away with.

The questions raised by this poet and this work are difficult and troublesome and of great consequence. What does it mean to live in a society where a belated and bungled and costly judicial process fails to call anyone to account for the mass murder of a routine planeload of travelers? How are we all, as members of this society, implicated in that dreadful history?

The poet does not rant or complain or judge. Instead, she patiently researches many documents about this real event. She writes in response to her findings, shows us her images, asks us to consider them. And with each one presented, she reminds us "Another version of this moment exists."

Let us witness with her; let us opens our eyes, ears, hearts; stop to consider, to face, to remember.
(Nightwood Editions, 2013)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Alice Munro -- Canada's first literary Nobel Laureate

Photo from CBC

Upon first reading Alice Munro's first short story collection, Who do you think you are, I was left with a feeling of discomfort that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Could it be related to the fact that that was exactly the question my mother asked me as I negotiated my way through the rebellious teen years?

Mom's follow-up question was also a classic of its time, "The Queen of Sheba?" She left no space between the two questions for me to sass her back.

Reading, I wanted to ask the Munro the same question. How dare she expose these flawed country women who were so uncomfortably close to the flawed women I knew? I was very young.

Since her early work, the deft delivery of the discomfort of home truths about the ordinary lives of ordinary women has remained a Munro hallmark. Over time, it grew on me; I began to understand it.

The lives of ordinary women were "not a subject," an Oxford lecturer once told me. Or so she was told by her male colleagues at The New Statesman in the 1960s when she proposed to write a feature on them. Now Alice Munro has been recognized for her unique contribution to literary life.

"Proper thing," some of my ordinary female ancestors would say of Munro's Nobel Prize for Literature. This summation would be punctuated with a crisp nod. I hear those now-dead voices pronouncing on this award, and I feel their comforting solidarity. I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

How the Light gets in -- will Inspector Gamache find a way to make that happen?

Cover Image from Louise Penny website

During this wonderful series of mysteries, author Louise Penny has moved the main players forward, forming them into deep and memorable characters.

Each novel has its own murder mystery, and the threads keep coming back to the tiny village of Three Pines, near Montreal. Now there's more.

This ninth novel in the series refines the already well-drawn characters further, as they slog through issues that continue to plague them from one book to the next.

But Penny has upped the ante plot-wise too, parlaying the mystery genre into a mystery/thriller with incredibly high stakes. His wife is out of town, and most of his old allies  have fallen away, but Chief Inspector Armand Gamache continues to pursue the chimera of some terrible and longstanding corruption in high places.

I'm listening to the CD series in the car, so I look forward to my next drive, even my next commute. On returning home, I find it hard to tear myself away from the story and get out of the car. Good thing the winter weather here is not as cold as it is in Quebec.

There's only one thing that worries me. What if this book is the last of the series? I've come to love Gamache and Reine Marie, Beauvoir and Lacoste, Clara and Myna and Olivier and Gabri. I sure hope this isn't the last of them, but if it is, I have a back-up plan. I'll go through the stories again in the form of the TV movies.

Louise Penny is a wonderful writer who balances her dark plots with the integrity, humanity and humour of her protagonists. She even has advice and encouragement for aspiring writers.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Three Souls by Janie Chang

Cover image from HarperCollins

In the summer, I was out of town and missed the launch of the historical novel Three Souls (HarperCollins 2013) by Vancouver author Janie Chang.

When the story opens in the small Chinese city of Pingyu in 1935, Leiyin is dead. For reasons she can't understand, she's been detained between realms. Though this world remains visible, she cannot participate in it.

Her companions in exile are her yin soul (romantic), her yang soul (disapproving), and her hun soul (philosophical and far-seeing).

Leiyin looks back on her life and tries to understand why the afterlife is closed to her. For rebelling against her father's dictums, she was punished by being married off to a simple man from a small town. This crushed her hopes of both a university education and the love of the revolutioinary poet Hanchin, a communist she met at a political lecture her father had forbidden her to attend.

She is deeply unhappy about being married off, but over time, she comes to accept her situation and find joy in the family she does have, rather than the romantic love she dreamed of with Hanchin. But when he comes back into her life as a political fugitive, she is tempted into rash actions, then crushed by disillusionment when she learns she's been used. 

Amid the political turmoil of pre-revolutionary China, Leiyin's impulsive passions have put her loved ones at risk, and she must find a way to remedy this. Before she can leave the shadow world, she must look deep into her own heart and find forgiveness, generosity and redemption.

Meanwhile, between worlds with her three souls, Leiyin discovers that she can communicate with those who remain in the world she's had to leave behind. Difficult and frustrating though this is, she must find a way to complete her unfinished tasks.

Loosely based on family stories the author heard many times in childhood, this book is a great read. I couldn't put it down, and neither could friends who read it. Way to go, Janie!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson

Cover Image from Peter Robinson's official website

In Number 18 of the Inspector Banks series, Peter Robinson begins with a murder-suicide between two class-crossing gay men, and slowly begins to weave in suggestions that this case is tied in with the past of one of the men, Lawrence Silbert, who used to work for MI6.

Narrated by Simon Prebble, this story projects a dark atmosphere on the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales, and brings Inspector Banks ever closer to dangerous information he can reveal neither to his current lady friend, nor his trusted fellow officer, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbott.

In a break from the usual heavy plot line, Annie's colleague DI Winsome Jackman shares a few good scenes with Annie and gets the best of some petty criminals. Of course, she gets chewed out later by Chief Superintendent Gervase for risking her neck.

Meanwhile, when Chief Superintendent Gervase seems too willing to bow to pressure from the Chief Constable to close the case, Banks is suspicious he suspects that her boss is in thrall to political higher-ups. Naturally Gervase doesn't want this dangerous idea bandied about.

Constitutionally unable to accept gag orders or simple solutions, Banks continues to pursue the truth, even when doing so comes at great professional and personal cost. He also continues to resort to alcohol to help him cope with the dangerous and unshareable information that comes into his hands.

Silbert and Hardcastle are dead, but Banks pursues his "Othello theory," pressing a suspect for more information about exactly how the deaths happened. Then just as things seem to be looking up, more tragedy hits from a totally unexpected direction.

It's another fast moving thriller from master of suspense Peter Robsinson. And with a new twist: when this one is over, the reader gets the feeling it's not really over. Along with Inspector Alan Banks, we await further developments.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Stranger in the Family by Robert Barnard

Book cover image from Amazon

Robert Barnard was an award-winning novelist well-known for his skill at plot-twisting "cosy" mysteries. A graduate of Balliol, he lived in Australia and Norway, published forty books, some under a nom de plume. He died in Leeds in September, aged 76.

This tale revolves around the identity of an adopted protagonist who finds out from his mother on her deathbed that he's not who he thought he was.

Kit was adopted when he was three and grew up as an only child in a happy home. His father, a Glasgow newspaper editor, was one of the Jewish children rescued from Nazi Germany by Kindertransport just before the war. His mother was a professor of Art History. 

After his mother's deathbed revelation that he is adopted, Kit follows her instructions and discovers the name and address of his birth family in Leeds.

Kit winds up his mother's affairs, then takes a break from his studies at the University and leaves the family home he now owns in Glasgow to go to Leeds in search of his birth parents.

His mother's greeting is lukewarm, and Kit soon realizes she's keeping something from him.  One of his newly discovered brothers is downright hostile to him, and his birth father, a Leeds lawyer now divorced, out of touch with his family, and suffering from Alzheimer's, has an altogether darker history Kit could have dreamed. That shadow implicates Kit's mother as well.

As it happens, the respectable and loving home provided by Kit's adopted parents comes from people with connections to the Sicilian Mafia.

In short, this novel sets a few old ideas on their ear. Blood does not tell, nor is it thicker than water. The apple falls a very far from the tree and nurture overcomes nature in the child-rearing stakes.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A talented but half-forgotten mystery writer, Josephine Tey

Cover image from the Arrow edition, 2002, from dooyoo

Josephine Tey was a nom de plume for this writer, as was Gordon Daviot. Born in Scotland as Elizabeth Mackintosh, she died in 1950.  Her series detective was Alan Grant.

Protagonist Grant spends this very original novel lying in bed recovering from broken bones sustained in a fall through a trapdoor, presumably while on another case.

As Inspector Grant lies in the hospital, with only two very different but equally strict nurses and a few visitors for company, he begins to sink into boredom.

Neither the theatrical gossip of his actress friend Marta nor the new but sadly uninteresting books she brings engage his attention. It is only when she comes up with the idea of bringing along a few posters of faces for him to gaze at that Grant's mind clicks into gear.

Gazing at the portrait of Richard III and showing it to the few others who come to his room,  he becomes intrigued when the face is perceived by the various people to be that of a judge, a polio victim, and a man with an unhealthy liver. Nobody sees the classic villain of history.

Marta provides a second boon for Grant's recovery in the form of the "wooly lamb," a curly-haired American scholar called Brent, who is whiling away his time doing research at the British Museum while his girl friend acts in a West End play.

With Grant as theorist, and Brent as researcher, the two-man team uncovers what Grant dubs (after a similar Welsh propaganda exercise) a Tonypandy, a massive misrepresentation of history by historians. The team uncovers the incredible fictions that were cooked up to whitewash other nasty historical characters and make Richard III, quite inaccurately, into a hunchbacked villain.

As for the old story of Richard killing the princes in the tower, some good research into primary source documents (by ordinary people of the time with no axes to grind) proves he cannot possibly have done it.

Josephine Tey demonstrates a knowledge of U.K. history. Against the context of the Welsh Tonypandy affair, her detective learns of a similar Scottish incident: putative martyrdom that was no such thing. Yet the monument stands and the story keeps being passed down, even after it's been proven to be another case of a dramatic historical misrepresentation.

As well as being a good read, this book is an impressive display of deconstructing history, long before this activity and the attendant word deconstruction entered the lexicon through academe.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Unusual seasonal bouquets

Featuring amaryllis and peonies along with seasonal berries and salal, this dramatic bouquet graced the central table in the reception area for Christmas at Hycroft.

Seen at the same event, this graceful arrangement also featured cotton bolls, along with orchids and other exotic blooms.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Winter bliss: magazines, crosswords, mysteries, cocoa

At this time of year, a cup of cocoa is the right drink to accompany a crossword puzzle.

The same warming beverage is also a suitable accompaniment to a spell of magazine reading, or perhaps a mystery novel, like this one by the delightful Josephine Tey.