Friday, June 28, 2013

Enemy Coast Ahead

Cover shot from Google Books

A year into the war, bomber pilot Guy Gibson tells us he still finds the night sky to be "very, very big."

The bombers go out nightly. Sometimes they find their targets, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes their planes and equipment work right, and sometimes they don't. On one night of heavy cloud, Gibson tells us, they "wandered all around England looking for a flare path."

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the pilots must wait while "the boffins complete the trials" of their new weapons.

Flying is nerve-wracking but so is waiting around. Like other night flying pilots, Gibson has trouble sleeping. The pilots and crew wait, they fly, they come home to Scampton for bacon and eggs and coffee before they sleep.

When they return from a raid, sometimes their fellows are wounded or missing, and sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they actually witness the crashing planes of those who fail to return, and sometimes they don't.

Whenever the bomber pilots get a chance, they drink and party. A couple of times, Gibson unmasks his headlights to see his way home from the pub in a nearby village. He gets away with it the first time, but the second time he doesn't. He is made to pay a fine for his infraction.

One by one, the others in his squadron are picked off. Among the pilots, navigators and gunners he knew and flew with, Guy Gibson is the only man left alive.

Within the RAF, there is strong rivalry between the bomber pilots, called "bus drivers," and the much more glamorous fighters. Gibson finds himself transferred to another aerodrome where he will join a fighter squadron. After first cold shouldering him, they accept him as one of their own.

In 1943, with all his night flying experience, Guy Gibson is asked to form his own special squadron for an especially secret mission. As his handpicked bomber crews fly low over water and drop fake bombs, they have no knowledge of what awaits them when the few short weeks of training are over.

In the event, this is the squadron that will go down in history as the Dam Busters, after they drop the bouncing bombs especially designed for the purpose of destroying the Eder and Mohne Dams. The mission succeeds. Though he losses are heavy (eight aircraft and fifty-three men), two dams are breached and a huge wall of water goes thundering down the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland of Germany.

Guy Gibson's eye witness account of his life as a bomber and fighter pilot in WWII is wonderfully wirtten. It reports salient details and evokes the time in ways that only a first-hand witness can do.

This book was originally published in 1944 and re-issued in 1946 and 1976. Based on the book and using the title The Dam Busters, a film starring Michael Redgrave was made in 1955.

Sadly, Wing-Commander Guy Gibson did not survive the war. He was shot down and killed over Holland in a bombing raid in September 1944.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Found: one faux Visa card

 Image from businessinsider

One of myout-of-town guests found it outside Winners at Surrey City Centre. To save worry, time, and expense for the owner, she picked it up, hoping to be able to return it quickly.

As all Visa cards do, it had a phone number on the back and I called. It rang and rang and nobody answered. We went online and got another number for Scotia, and phoned in.

When I explained that someone had dropped a Visa card and we were trying to return it to the owner, the Scotia Bank rep asked for the number, and punched it in.

"Not ours," he said with finality.

I was mystified. "But it has Scotia Bank written right across the front."

"It may be from a foreign country," said the clerk. "Let me do a quick search."

He was soon back on the line.

"That card is definitely not a Scotia card, and it is definitely a compromised card."

"What should we do?"

"You can destroy it," he said, "or you can drop it off at the bank."

The incident had already taken up enough time. "We'll cut it up," I told him.

"Would you do me a favour?" he asked. "Call the TD Bank and tell them. It's their card." He gave me the telephone number and I called.

Before cutting up the card, we examined it closely. Indeed, it did look a little different from a real one, but the differences weren't obvious by any means.

Later my friend told me that years ago, when she worked for British Rail, people who found stolen or phony cards were automatically given rewards. From fifty to a couple of hundred pounds.

That was then; this is now.

Now credit cards are as common as dandelions in the lawn, and fraud seems much more routine.

Sad, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Cover Image from Vaddey Ratner

Over a thousand years ago under the Khmer Empire, the Angkor Wat Temple was built in Cambodia. Today this Asian landmark is an international tourist mecca and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This week, Kristin Gelineau of Associated Press reported some exciting news about Angkor Wat: the Australian Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that with the aid of airborne laser technology, a large urban complex around the temple has been found beneath the jungle.

In 1975, a group of socialist revolutionaries called the Khmer Rouge overthrew the monarchy and took over the country. Vaddey Ratner was an eye witness to this revolution and her first novel is based on the Cambodian Revolution.

Though this author writes from a child's point of view without maintaining the simple vocabulary of the child's voice, she is very good with description. Her portrayal of the history of her birth country is graphic and unforgettable. 

Five-year-old Raami dreams of the death of the gardener before it happens. Later, as a refugee, when she sees the rickety canoe that will take her family and their bundles of simple possessions down the river, she "swallows and feels the whole river rushing down [her] throat." 

Raami has had polio, and she wears a leg brace that she has always hated. A young revolutionary soldier forces her father to take it off her and throw it in the river. "The Organization will cure her," he says. But Raami suddenly wants to have the hated brace back.

One of the strange ironies of this story of loss concerns her father's socialist poetry: when the communists take over, this is one of the many things he must leave behind.

Since this debut novel was published last year, it has been nominated for many prizes including New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and Kirkus Review Best Fiction of 2012.

This year it's a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway prize and an Indies Choice. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Zills or finger cymbals

Image of Afghani finger cymbals from Tribal Bellydance

Finger cymbals, also known by their Turkish name, zills, are used to create musical accompaniment for belly dancing.

The Tribal Bellydance website recommends that prospective zill buyers should choose good quality instruments at least 2" wide with sturdy 1/4" elastic.

These little instruments are made of metal. Plenty of cheap ones are available, but a dancer is well-advised to choose good quality zills that have an appealing sound.

Monday, June 24, 2013



The dictionary definition of castanets says they are made of wood, carved and hollowed, and usually used by Spanish dancers.

Associated with flamenco dancing, they are worn on thumb and forefinger and struck together to make clacking sounds.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daff, Duff or Tar

This type of frame drum is used from the Sudan through North Africa across the Middle East and is called a daff, duff, or tar (from the Arabic.)

Single-headed with a narrow edge, the shape resembles that of a shallow pan. Faisal Zedan demonstrates his percussion work on a tar here.

Karim Nagi plays a similar drum called a duff, and Pejman Hadadi talks here about how to play the daf.

Frame drums are ancient instruments that are generally associated with Islamic culture, although drums of similar shape and design are also found in Japan, Ireland and Russia. A European version is the tambourine.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Photo from BC Ukulele

Whenever I hear a ukelele, I remember a song called Blue Hawaii, sung by a young man named Elvis Presley. There was a movie too.

But that was then; this is now. These days, there's a group of young Montreal musicians calling themselves Blue Hawaii. They use female harmonies, moog synthesizers, guitars and drums, but no ukeleles.

"Dreams come true in Blue Hawaii," and the ukes are audible in the background. The instrument comes in four types, all slightly different sizes, the Tenor, Concert, Soprano and Baritone.

According to Curt Sheller, the ukelele was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese labourers in the late 1800s, and the Hawaiians adopted it, and gave it the name we know it by now. In the Hawaiian language, the word ukelele means jumping flea.

Still, there is something charming about this small neat stringed instrument.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Rain stick

Image of a Chilean rainstick from Mother Goose Time

The rain stick is made by filling a hollow chunk of cactus stem with small stones or beans. The internal fibers of the stem slow the movement of beads from one end to the other and create a soft musical sound like running water.

In this video, a musician demonstrates how he uses different rain sticks to lay down tracks that accompany the songs he is working on.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Penny whistle

Image: the Whistle and Drum

In my memory, the penny whistle  is associated with the wave of Irish music that hit North America in the sixties. Here's The Mason's Apron, a reel played on the tin whistle.

It was played by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem to accompany their immensely popular Irish traditional songs.

Tin whistles, as they are also called, can be found in South Africa too, and other parts of the world as well.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Image: Encyclopedia of Appalachia

Bob Dylan used to wear one of these on a rack around his neck so he could blow on it between the stanzas of his lonesome ballads and protest songs.

I had one too -- a Hohner like the one in the picture, but I never mastered playing anything but the most rudimentary melodies on it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kalimba or Thumb piano

This image of a San style Thumb piano comes from Toronto Dowsers

The kalimba, with its Bantu name, is the descendant of an ancient African instrument called an mbira, which may date back to the civilization of Great Zimbabwe.

Thumb pianos are held in both hands and played with the thumbs. The hand position resembles the hold and operation used by the young with smart phones.

The first time I heard this instrument played was in the early seventies in Central Africa Imports on West Fourth Avenue. I lived only a couple of blocks away, and used to come to Tom and Alvina's shop to look at the Makonde sculptures and colorful clothing and also to smell the exotic oils of patchouli, frangipani and sandalwood.

Tom used to work for the National Museum of Tanzania. I loved listening to his stories and enjoyed hearing him play various thumb pianos he had brought back with him.

His wife Alvina used to take orders for daishikis and loose shirts made from wonderful cloth she had acquired while living abroad: Dutch Java prints and striped Indian cottons. To defray the cost of a top-of-the-line Bernina sewing machine I'd just bought, I offered to do some of the sewing.

Over time, Alvina and I formed a strong bond of friendship that lasted through Tom's death shortly after they retired to Salt Spring Island to her own passing when she was in her eighties. By then I knew her very well.

Every time I hear a thumb piano, I remember Tom, and the many hours I spent in the shop. These small and simple instruments are amazingly versatile. Here is a delightful kalimba solo by SaReGaMa.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bongo drums

Image from get-tuned

Bongo drums date back to nineteenth century Cuba, and before that to Africa. They consist of a pair of drums joined at the hip, if a drum can be said to have a hip.

As in humans or animals, the relative sizes of the "sexes" differ. The female drum or hembra is larger and the male or macho is smaller.

To maintain a good sound, the hembra tuned to a lower pitch than the macho. Leather drum heads need to be maintained; when they get dry, a small amount of lanolin or almond oil can be rubbed in. Nowadays some drums have synthetic heads, but purists still consider that while animal skin heads require more careful maintenance, they make better sounds.

To hear a virtuoso play bongos, go here.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Annual CAA Literary Awards

Two Solitudes, by Hugh Maclennan, was the 1945 winner of the Governor General's Literary Awards. It originally sold a remarkable 47,000 copies (John Meier, McMaster U) and has been re-issued many times since.

As part of the annual Canadian Authors' Association conference, the Literary Awards were announced on Saturday night in Orillia, Ontario, the hometown of Stephen Leacock, who was a professor of mathematics at McGill University as well as Canada's most beloved writer of comedy. Leacock was also a founding member of the CAA.

Last night, the Fiction Award went to Christopher Meades. His novel, The Last Hiccup (ECW Press) beat out the work of fellow-nominees Tricia Dower, Stoney River (Penguin), and Vincent Lam's latest, The Headmaster's Wager, reviewed here in Quill and Quire.

The poetry prize went to Newfoundlander Don McKay for Paradoxides (McClelland and Stewart). Fellow contenders were Julie Bruck (Monkey Ranch) and Emily McGiffin (Between Dusk and Night).

Two young writers, Jay Bahadur and Claire Battershill, share the 2013 prize for emerging writers. Battershill recently won a CBC prize for her short story "Circus", and the young journalist Bahadur wrote a book called The Pirates of Somalia (Random House).

Congratulations to all.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Charangos and pan pipes

Charango and pan pipe photos from

Which traditional Andean instrument is descended from the Quechua people's ancestors -- the Inca?

The answer is the pan pipes, not the charango, which is a small ukelele-like instrument made with an armadillo shell.

Originating in Peru, these instruments are now used in nearby countries. Often accompanied by drums and flutes, they create the typical Andean sounds.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Image from uludag sozluk

The Anatolian saz is a long-necked Turkish lute that traces its ancestry back to Sumeria and Babylonia. It is most likely descended from the Kopuz, an earlier instrument that had a leather body and strings of hair.

In the 15th century, metal strings were added to the ancestral instrument; however, the added stress caused by this innovation implied another change: the soft leather body now had to be replaced by a wooden one.

Earlier forms of the saz were brought into battle for protection and carried by dervishes. The instrument is related to the Greek bouzouki and the Arabic oud, of which the ancestors date back to the Uruk period of ancient Mesopotamia or even earlier.

Turkish musician Salman Kilicaslan sings and accompanies himself on the saz in this video.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


And speaking of Ravi Shankar, which I was yesterday, we come to the sitar, an instrument made world-famous by this musician.

Sitar photo from Pakrashi Harmonium.

The sitar is believed to have developed in the 1700s when the Mughal (Moghul) Empire was collapsing. According to Yellow Bell Music, it has Persian and South Indian influences, and uses the resonant bridge of an instrument called the Tampura.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


This West African raft zither, made around 1935, has ten strings. It is located in the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota. Various African raft zithers, often accompanied by voice, can be heard here.

The zither is widely played in eastern Europe: Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Germany and Austria. This complex concert zither played by Lotte Landl has 38 strings, of which she uses only 28. It also has two possible tunings. In this video, Ms. Landl explains the tuning options and how her instrument is played.

There are also Chinese and Korean zithers, and of course, the Indian one played by Ravi Shankar.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Traditional Irish Harp

Trinity College harp photo from website of Alison Vardy 

The Irish harp is a lovely and ancient instrument. According to Susanna Duffy, the Irish harp, with its history parallel to that of the Irish people, was the "dispenser of sorrow, gladness, and rest."

These early small Celtic harps were made of bog wood in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The one in the photo may be seen at Trinity College Dublin, and it's close Scottish relative, the Queen Mary harp, is kept in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Aeolian Lute

Photo by Tim Manning

An Aeolian lute is a stringed instrument. Played by the wind, it is referred to in The Odyssey by the ancient Greek poet Homer.

The Aeolian lute or lyre was also a symbol favoured by the Romantic poets, in particular Samuel T. Coleridge, who refers to it in a poem called "Dejection: an Ode."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Retirements, music and soul

Irish style pub in Saratoga Springs, New York

In contemporary society, we witness the attenuation of meaningful rituals, and one of these is raising our voices together in song. Having grown up in the sixties, when we carried our guitars and sang everywhere, I miss that.

Loss requires ritual, and so does a change of state. After long years of service, retirees need and deserve to be ritually helped forward into their next stage of life. People love to be sung to, and they love to sing along. This personal kind of music lubricates the passage through change.

The retirement celebration I attended on Friday night was for four colleagues with whom I worked for over twenty years. We've been a tight group of baby boomers in our workplace, and it was sad for those who have not yet retired to think we would not see these work friends in our hallways again.

Strangely, as one moves between phases of life, loss brings its own blessings. In this case, the loss of four dear and familiar afforded us the satisfaction of planning and carrying out a ritual celebration to mark the border between the working state and the retired one.

A fellow wordsmith and I took it upon ourselves to create songs -- familiar tunes, altered lyrics -- to recall some of the remarkable history we shared with these departing colleagues. In the afternoon before the dinner, we practiced and prepared for our performance.

Only to discover that the "room" that had been booked for the party at the back of a noisy and boisterous restaurant was little more than an alcove. At first we feared it would be impossible for the lyrics over which we had laboured would be largely inaudible.

But we wanted to deliver our personal songs to the people we wrote them for, and we found a way. Seating our departing colleagues directly in front of us on chairs while the others gathered round behind them meant all could enjoy our invented lyrics and our a capella singing. We began with a ballad, addressing each of them in turn with memories that spanned many long years.

After our songs, others gave limericks they had created, as well as spontaneous memories and tributes. We then closed with a traditional Irish song. The Parting Glass is a benediction that follows the last drink of an evening. Our version was altered (always allowed with folk songs) and a bit lighter than that of the famous slow, sad version of the Clancy Brothers.

And so my dear colleagues, Mary Jane, Herbert, Dave and Jack, you have been ritually celebrated and sung into your next stage.

"Good night and joy be with you all."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

Cover photo The Telegraph

Our protagonist runs along the streets of New York and worries: about his bills, his unfulfilled potential, his family responsibilities. He crosses the Brooklyn Bridge and we follow, down one street and up the next, as with him, we experience poverty and human suffering in graphic and smelly detail.

With striking parallels to author Michael Thomas, our narrator is of mixed race, black, native American and white (Irish). He's a brilliant scholar, a construction labourer, a former college athlete, a Harvard dropout, a former teacher of freshman English, a dry alcoholic, a father of three.

As we run with him, we see through his eyes another jogger, a car accident, a woman outside a liquor store, desperate for a beer. When our man breaks his last ten to buy one we hold our breath. Don't drink that! Sigh with relief when he gives it to her.

This narrator has enough on his mind, trying to earn money for urgent bills, looking for a home so his wife and kids can come back from staying with her mother, so he can have a home again, instead of staying in the summer-vacated room of a wealthy friend's kid.

Then there's 911 to add to the growing burden of his thoughts. Why, he wonders, do people reductively dichotomize, why do "the leaders call to the dead...say the dead call out for retribution...Genocide wrapped in some rationalization that someone is owed something. The continued body count, millenia old and miles long."

He also reflects on growing up post-King, remembering misfit childhood friends who have gone off the rails and recalling the "disastrous" attempt at bussing. In a beautiful and elegiac tone, he meditates on his life, "It's a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment, especially when...the visionaries are all gone. No more DuBois. Nor more Locke. No more Gandhi. No more King." He doesn't blame the liberals. But he can't reach them, nor they him.

In the world inhabited by this complex and tragic man, we are told, talent and potential are irrelevant in the end, and the only thing that matters is winning big. No doubt this view is influenced by his combined sense of responsibility and failure, of being middle-aged and not living up to some standard he had set for himself. And we grieve with him for his father, who "groans from the crypt of memory."

Our man feels helpless to meet the needs of his children, or to bridge the gap of history and experience between himself and his white patrician wife. Unlike her husband, he tells us, Claire is not vexed by the presence of other people, "even those she dislikes...she has the ability to make them feel good--when she smiles at them, gives them her approval with all that Anglican highness."

This powerful book has huge vision, beautifully drawn characters, profound human tragedy, even flashes of humour, as when the girl at Starbuck's slides over his large black "with six ice cubes dropped in on top to take the coffee out of the lawsuit temperature range."

It was published by Grove/Atlantic Press in 2007 in their Black Cat imprint, and named as one of the year's ten best by the New York Times Book Review. In 2009 it won the Impac Dublin Literary Award.

According to Larry Rochter's interview at the time that prize was announced, Thomas had other books planned. I for one can hardly wait to read more of his work.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Miraculous avocado materialization

Avocado picture from
The other day I went to the grocery store and bought avocados.

"If you want use your points," the cashier told me, "you'll get one avocado free."

"Okay," I said. But when I got home, only one avocado came out of the grocery bag.

I thought it must've rolled out into the trunk of the car, and went to check, but it wasn't there. So I went back to the store and explained that they'd taken my points, but I hadn't got my free avocado. I asked for another, and they gave me one.

Three days later, I was watering the garden when an avocado rolled across the sidewalk and hopped over the hose. I scratched my head. If it had been there earlier, I would definitely have seen it.

Only one explanation. Miraculous avocado materialization.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wheelbarrow in the rain

Here's the wheelbarrow in the rain. Only the chickens are missing.

William Carlos Williams saw a similar view of a wet wheelbarrow and wrote a famous and much- discussed poem about it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Few Late Roses and em, perhaps a few too many adverbs?

Image from

As I have said on this blog before, I do not sympathize with the rabid wing of the anti-adverb lobby. Still, this author uses a lot of them -- some might say too many.

Her favourite is "shortly." Not as in "See you shortly," meaning soon; confusingly (sic), she uses the word to describe how people speak, as in, "Thanks," he said shortly.

A relentless stream of adverbs fell like rain on my inner ear. At times, their proliferation added an unintended touch of comedy, but this did not stop me enjoying Doughty's work, and I went on to enjoy other Anne Doughty works: A Girl Names Rosie, and The Hamiltons of Ballydown.

Both these novels portray shockingly mean mothers. I tried to believe in these antagonists, but found it hard to credit that mothers could be so cruel and unsympathetic with their daughters. What made them like that? Doughty doesn't develop them into complex characters, or use their point of view, so the reader can only guess. Ever the naughty reader who looks for autobiographical threads in fiction, I couldn't help but wonder if Doughty had unresolved issues with her own mum.

In any case, she portrays Ireland beautifully, both the historical version and the contemporary one. In The Hamiltons of Ballydown, a sick woman's delirium is a doorway to another time and place, allowing her to tune in to the feelings of the displaced and dispossessed people of the British Isles -- Scottish, Irish, and English -- as they went on to the New World and displaced the native peoples in turn.

Undoubtedly, (don't mind me -- just doffing her an adverb) Doughty is good at using telling details to express setting and character. Her stories reveal her preoccupation with problems related to class, poverty and conservative feudal cultures -- universal themes.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hose sprinkler camouflage

Camouflage. Animals do it and plants do it.

But who knew a mechanical device could blend in so well as to be almost invisible?

The sprinkler on the end of the hose is almost exactly the same colour as the falling rhododendron petals. That makes it darn hard to see.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book timing, Orwell and Burma

Image from naderlibrary

When it comes to reading books that others recommend, I usually follow a general rule of thumb. Once three people with similar reading tastes recommend it, I read it.

But this book only took two. For two reasons. One, Orwell is such a brilliant writer. Two, I heard about it twice on the same day.

When you consider that this book was published in 1934, the odds against that are enormous.

This is how it happened. My nephew and his girl friend visited after a long trip through Southeast Asia, and they were talking about Burmese Days, which they'd read on the trip.

After we had dinner, they went to sleep off the jet lag and I went to Southbank. The Writer's Craft was given by TWS Director Wayde Compton. and I was there to meet the students, listen and learn.

Wayde was talking about George Orwell's famous essay on language, and he mentioned this very book. It hadn't been more than two hours since Lee and Kenysha had been talking about it.

"Our next trip will be to India and Burma," they informed me.

So of course I had to request it. I've been to the library twice to pick it up, getting there both times just a hair after closing. Third time should be lucky.

Then I'll have to read it, along with the twenty or thirty other books that are right at the front of my reading queue.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Backyard bunnies

For the past few days, I've been seeing bunnies in the garden. They sit on the grass and nibble as I watch.

Even looking through the window, I can't get close. Their perceptions are so sensitive that at the slightest hint of noise or movement, they hop off to a safer distance to re-commence their grazing.

I wonder what they make of the cat.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Calla Lily at night

Showy in the daytime, this creamy white calla lily is spectacular against the velvet dark. Though white is the classical colour, these gorgeous flowers also come in pink, purple and bronze.

It came to my garden in the strangest way. I happened to be outside the Newton Library in the fall when the gardeners were lifting and dividing the clumps.

Another woman was eyeing the growing pile. "What are you going to do with those?"

"We have to throw them away," said the girl gardener, with evident regret. "Unless you want some?"

She did want some, and emboldened, I asked for some too. Last year I divided them and they are doing splendidly.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tulip shadow at night

As well as being gorgeous by day, a gardens can provide surprising night views. This is the shadow of a late mauve tulip, cast across a low wall and a recently repaired sidewalk.