Thursday, July 31, 2014

Visited by the symbol of peace

Jackie Carter strokes the grey dove that flew into the house through the open french doors while she was visiting.

Below right, the bird perches on the patio table before flying away.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Cover Image from Indie Bound

With this latest in the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency Series, Alexander McCall Smith has done it again.

He's tackled human failings from the small and irritating to the large and serious, and still left his readers feeling uplifted. Mma Ramotswe experiences self-doubt and has a good cry, Mr. JLB Matekoni decides to become more a more modern husband, and Grace and Phuti have a son.

On the agency front, the women find that the damage caused by rumours can be offset when two former enemies faces the reality of their part in a quarrel and are willing to forgive each other. In this novel, by a judicious choice not to act, it is even possible to curtail damage already caused by shame and secrecy.

Meanwhile, grateful for each other and for their own richly satisfying lives, detectives Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi deepen their friendship and come to a new professional arrangement.

Grace Makutski, her heart stretched open by motherhood, even allows the immature but besotted Charlie to hold her baby. There is hope for him yet, and for once, Mma Makutsi refrains from criticizing. Beyond insisting he wash the grease off his hands before handling the baby, of course.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rich flavour and aroma of raspberry memories

Oh the joys of summer fruit. Raspberries remind me of the imminent birth of my lovely daughter, who arrived in the midst of the fragrant season of jam-making.

I nursed her beneath the shade and scent of a large wisteria and then we laid her to sleep on her quilt on the grass in the garden. That blanket was a blue and red design, made by a friend.

The house, meanwhile, was fragrant with the smell of raspberry jam cooking.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Enjoying our own back yard -- White Rock beach

Located on the beach in front of the White Rock Museum and Archives, this sundial is inscribed with the words Riverside Foundry Inc. One such foundry exists in Ontario. I wonder if it came from there.

The shadow cast by the photographer is a further clue to the time already shown, mid-afternoon.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Art on White Rock Beach

Observed from the railroad grade above, a bird flies over a spontaneous display of art on White Rock beach.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The beauty of the falling light

After spending a lot of time away from home earlier in the year, I was struck by the beauty of how the light falls through these sheer curtains into our house.

Beyond the window, a flower bed is dimly visible, and beyond it, a rather unkempt lawn.

Oh the joys of simple beautiful things. When we stop to look at them, that is.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

Cover image from the publisher, Dundurn (2014)

Like Margaret Lawrence before her, and indeed like the character Letty herself, Audrey Thomas was married to a man who set out to work in Africa, and jumped at the chance of the adventure, and presumably the rich vein of material it would bring to her writing.

Thomas visited the Cape Coast Castle while on holiday, during a long ago sojourn in Ghana. Attracted by the mystery of the real woman, she made a "mental note" for the story she wrote forty years later.

This composting time was all to the good, I think. Basing the plot on the life of Captain and Mrs. Maclean, she has produced a chilling mystery, written with real originality and style.

Many years ago on the recommendation of a friend, I read some early works of Audrey Thomas. Her short stories read like memoirs, and I found Mrs. Blood long and not very compelling.

The current novel book is clearly fiction, and as good fiction should, it raises a host of thorny social, psychological and moral questions. Also, I heard this very engaging author speak and read, along with Brian Payton (The Wind is not a River) and Kim Fu (For Today I am a Boy) at Hal Wake's Vancouver Writer's Fest Incite author series at VPL a couple of months ago.

Finding the living voice of Audrey Thomas compelling, I decided there and then to read Local Customs. A good decision. This book proved to be a clear-eyes portrayal of nineteenth century colonial attitudes, and a portrait of the imagined poet Letty, a woman ahead of her time and dead before time.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kate Atkinson, writer of astonishing range and virtuosity

Image from The Quirky Bookworm

Kate Atkinson's historical novel, Life after Life, is told with artistry and vision. Skipping back and forth across the twentieth century, the author invents various lives for Ursula Todd, a British child born to a privileged country family on the eve of WWI.

Each of Ursula's completely absorbing and believable hinge moments has profound implications for her future life. Is she raped on her sixteenth birthday by a brutish friend of her unsavoury elder brother, or does she fight him off?

Does she appear when her brother Teddy's darling Nancy needs her most, or does she miss the chance of being at the right place at the right time? Does she marry and stay on in Germany after she visits a friend in Berlin in 1933?

Does she work at the War Office? Volunteer for the Home guard? Does she allow the temporary consolation of alcohol to lead her down a destructive life path? Does she enter into an ill-advised and disastrous marriage to the brutish man who picks her up when she falls down in the street?

And so on. Each of these questions is answered variously by the author, who thus reveals the impact on our lives of small moments of choice and chance that take us along one path even as they completely obscure other possibilities from view.

Started Early, Took my Dog is equally brilliant in an entirely different way. With ironic nods to the crime and mystery genre, this book astounds with its two plots, both involving ex-peace officers unable to find personal peace in their lives. Tracy Waterhouse and Jackson Brodie both show their compassion for the underdog (in one case literally) by serious post-retirement breaches of the law they once upheld.

There is a poetic symmetry to the parallel plots, and a true inevitability about how these two stories interact.

Kate Atkinson is one of those writers whose every work I will be seeking out to read, confident that the experience will be full of wonderful exotic surprises. Paradoxically, at the same time these novels hold profound echoes with real life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Khaled Hosseini's favourite book

 Book cover image from the Guardian

When novelist Khaled Hosseini visited Vancouver last December, he read from his work, talked about his writing and then answered questions from the audience.

Somebody asked him to name his favourite book, always a poser for anyone who reads. So many he could name, he said. After a moment's thought, he came up with a book by American writer Ben Fountain, called Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

This is a tragicomic story of a young soldier called Billy Lynn, briefly home from his duty fighting with the American mission in Iraq.  Although it happened before the novel opens, the reader soon learns how Billy got into the army. He got a little carried away trying to protect his sister from a bad hat boyfriend.

When the story opens, Billy and his fellow soldiers from Bravo are on a tour of the US with a film maker who is hoping to make a movie about a recent battle in Iraq where the soldiers of Bravo lost a couple of men and Billy, by virtue of killing "the enemy," became a hero.

This nineteen-year-old Texan protagonist may be poor and uneducated, but he isn't stupid. Along with his comrades, he gives his best to the filmmaker who is planning for a movie, hopes for a moment of reconciliation with his self-centred father, and wants the best for his harassed mother and his sister Kathryn. She feels bitter about the car accident that caused her to leave college and undergo a lot of plastic surgery on her face. She also feels guilty that she caused Billy to end up in the army, however indirectly and unintentionally. That's why she puts him in touch with a group that is encouraging soldiers not to go back to the war.

In his short break from active service, Billy also falls in love with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. They exchange a few heated caresses when he encounters her at the half-time of the game.

Will Billy get his girl? And what will he do about the war opposers? Will he join them, or stay with his band of brothers? We're with Billy in his strange and sometimes hilarious circumstances. And we're also with him in his thought processes, every step of the way.

This book is a portrait, profoundly troubling but not entirely unsympathetic, of the more bizarre aspects of contemporary consumer driven America and Americans.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Educated rabbita the University of Alberta

Large eared Snowshoe hare grazes at U of A

Found mostly in every province of Canada, Snowshoe hares change their coats to white in winter in order to blend in with the background. They are more active at night.

These "rabbits" have large muscular hind legs, and have been seen using them to reach up to scratch behind their own ears.

Monday, July 21, 2014

That changing prairie sky

Driving in central Alberta, you may not see mountains, but you see sky. Weather systems pass in front and on both sides across the wide horizon across the flat landscape.

Left: Highway 14 east of Edmonton

Below: Cloud banks over U of A parking lots, Edmonton

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sod houses were easily built shelters for early settlers

Following Canada's Homestead Act of 1872, eager settlers came to the prairies, glad of the chance to acquire farmland and willing to work hard for a better life.

For many, the first home was a simple sod hut like this one, located at the Ukrainian Village between Edmonton and Vegreville, Alberta.

Inside, there would be a small bed, a stove, a table and a little bit of storage space for the few belongings that this first generation of immigrant farmers possessed.

Living in these simple shelters, they broke land and planted gardens to help them survive those first harsh winters in the new land. When the basic shelters were ready, the settlers worked in bees and helped one another to build homes and barns. Often, the men went away to work on the railway or some other labouring job in order to earn cash to pay for the many supplies that were necessary to build a life and put down roots.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reconstructed Ukrainian Pioneer Village near Edmonton

To create the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village on Highway 16 east of Edmonton, buildings were brought from various places to build what appears to be a real historic working Ukrainian settlement.

Left: Statue of early Ukrainian settlers

Right: Very early Orthodox church with bell outside.

Traditional Ukrainian house (left), hayrick (right)

Friday, July 18, 2014

U of A historic "knitted" brick buildings

These buildings stand out for their decorative brick. On the Aboriginal Student Council building, left, even the chimney is adorned with an elaborate pattern.

Like academic buildings on many campuses, they carry historic references to their Oxbridge ancestors.

A similarly elaborate brick design on Keble College Oxford has earned it the epithet "the fair isle jersey"among the locals.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Old St. Stephen's College dates back to the early days at U of A

St. Stephen's College is part of U of A history. Originally a Methodist College with a residence included, it served in that role between 1911 and 1927.

In later phases, the building served as a residence for nurses, army personnel and male students. It was also used by the Alberta government as an administrative office from which to manage provincial heritage sites.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rutherford House redolent of Alberta and U of A history

Rutherford House at the U of A is a Provincial Historic site.
Located on the grounds of the University and flanked by lovely gardens, this former home of Alberta's first Premier, Alexander C. Rutherford, once had views across a clear-cut campus site and a new downtown virtually denuded of trees. From their front windows, the Rutherfords could see the Legislative Building on the far bank of the river.

Today the situation of the house is very different. The riverside is clothed in lush trees; so is the University. This is in great part thanks to this early family, who established an annual tree planting tradition.

Right: proud graduate with new Master's degree poses on the steps after partaking of tea in Rutherford House.

A.C. Rutherford was born and educated in Ontario. He came west to Edmonton when it was still part of the Northwest Territories. As well as serving as the new Province's first Premier, he helped found the University of Alberta in 1906.

With his wife Mattie, he began a tradition that continues to this day: the Founder's Day Tea to celebrate new grads. He also encouraged students to borrow books from his personal library, where he used to seed books with prizes of dollar bills. Much of this library is housed today in the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the U of A.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

End of Steel Park

The CPR was the first railway that linked east and west. It was completed in 1885 and passed through Calgary and on to Vancouver.

Meanwhile, the CNR, a second more northerly line, connected Edmonton and Prince Rupert.

A short spur also connected Edmonton and Calgary, This park in Old Strathcona, on Edmonton's south side, commemorates that old connection between Alberta's two largest cities.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sea Lions show off for the crowd in West Edmonton Mall

For frequent rewards of fish and out of fondness and loyalty to the trainer, the sea lions at West Edmonton Mall are willing to play and perform for the crowd.

It's a thrill to be able to get so close to these fascinating creatures, to watch how they interact and behave. They're so obviously intelligent.

I wonder what they think about how the humans in WEM interact and behave.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chief Crowfoot statue occupies a niche in Alberta Legislature

Crowfoot was a nineteenth century native leader who led his people through the desperately hard transitional phase brought about by the colonial and nation building era.

He was born to the Blood tribe near Belly River in southern Alberta, and grew up with the Blackfoot people, among whom he became an orator and a chief.

Chief Crowfoot cooperated with the Treaty 7 negotiations in 1877 and kept his people out of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Invited by Sir John A. Macdonald to Ottawa in 1886, he was prevented by ill health from travelling east.

This statue occupies a niche in the Alberta Legislature. In and around Calgary, a transit station, many businesses, a glacier and a neighbourhood bear his name.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Edmontonians frolic in public fountains

On a hot June day, Edmontonians celebrate summer by plunging into the city's public fountains. Left, waders and plungers enjoy the pool in front of the provincial legislature, the "Ledge."

Below right, bathers enjoy getting wet in the fountain at Sir Winston Churchill Square.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mysterious palms grow in the Rotunda of the Alberta Legislature

The tour guide who walked us around the Alberta Legislature had a lot of lore to share about the building and the people associated with it, but she told us that nobody knows how these palm trees got started growing in the Rotunda.

Who put the palms in the "Ledge," as Albertans call it, is a mystery. There is no record of who planted the palms up there or when or why.
Meanwhile, though, they continue to thrive.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Marble interior of the "Ledge" Rotunda

The Alberta Legislature (nicknamed the "Ledge" by Edmontonians), is made of gorgeous marble.

 Right, a visitor admires the soaring rotunda of the provincial legislative assembly.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

High Level Bridge streetcar in Edmonton

Recent Edmontonian settlers pose by streetcar

On a hot June day, the High Level Bridge streetcar carried us across the deep gorge of the North Saskatchewan River from Old Strathcona on the south side to downtown Edmonton.

We strolled past the flowering plums and lilacs, past historic buildings, bracketing our jaunt with farm markets on both sides of the river.

An early dinner on the patio of the Sherlock Holmes Pub was interrupted by our flight indoors as dark clouds threatened. When it rains in Edmonton, those who don't take shelter get wet fast. Fortunately, the rain doesn't usually last more than a few minutes. In no time, it's sunny again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Image from Fiction Writers Review

"He did not know if she was a lens to forget the past or a fog to obscure the future."

Such language is typical of Michael Ondaatje, who published poetry before he got his novels into print. Much as I love this author's evocative lines, I was left feeling unsatisfied after listening to Divisadero. Too many divisions there to hold my interest till the very end.

In the beginning, I cared deeply about Anna and Claire and Coop. The father figure became real and almost sympathetic when he happened upon the lovers. I waited through the book for closure to this original story. For me, it never came.

The scenes in France went on at great length and in great depth, yet they did not seem to connect satisfactorily. This tangent divided from and outgrew the original tale. 

Important dramatic questions remained unanswered. Does Coop meet the stepfather who beat him? What happens after the three are reunited? Do the gamblers kill Bridget? The list goes on.

I love this writer's other work. His first novel, In the Skin of a Lion, is a work of staggering genius; indeed. I've never understood why it's never been made into a movie. It would be easily as gripping as The English Patient. Anil's Ghost and The Cat's Table were different from the previous two, each wonderful in its own way.

I felt the stories that inspired Divisadero lacked sufficient scope to allow the characters to arrive at a certain closure, and to reward the reader with a hint of the "moral solace" we seek in fiction.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Grave of revolutionary journalist commands view of Irish Sea

The grave of Sean Etchingham commands a good view of the Irish sea.

A journalist and a volunteer leader in the Easter Rising of 1916, Etchingham was the Gorey branch Chair of Sinn Fein who became Minister of Fisheries in the independent  government.

He was also the first Republican Chairman of the Wexford County Council. He died at Courtown Harbour in 1923.

At the time of his death, he was only 53 years of age. His comrades later erected this stone for him in "tribute to his lifelong devotion to the cause of Irish freedom." It was unveiled in 1944 by Eamon de Valera, who had been first president of the Dail in 1919.                          

Sunday, July 6, 2014

This magic land of fairies

Ireland is a place of fairies. On this tree, people have tied cloths in order to receive their favours. Perhaps one needs a love charm, or has a wart the fairies can cause to disappear. Many Irish mounds, dales and glades suggest the subtle presence of small unseen beings.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fish and chip shop art suggests mixed message

In the coastal Irish Sea town of Gorey, this fish looks not only pleased with himself, but quite relaxed and calm.

The fact is, he's on the wall of a fish and chip shop.

Something here doesn't compute.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Horses at Work

Many of the narrow country roads of Ireland are flanked by high hedges and completely devoid of shoulders.

However, the speed limit is usually 80 km/h, so the horses that may cross need special consideration.

Cattle, too, wander into the roads, and drivers must stop and wait for them, as we had to, with this trio of cows.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Horse and Jockey Hotel

The name of this Tipperary hotel is irresistible. So were the pastries we enjoyed with a delicious pot of tea we drank seated on comfy sofas by the fireplace in the lobby.

Before leaving, I wandered around and looked at the horse and racing memorabilia, as well as the James Joyce plaque and a framed copy of the signed 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Both may be seen below.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Birthday, Canada -- whatever you are

On this your birthday (or should I say our birthday?), I have a question for my country. Just what are you, Canada?

Are you the geography of this vast and varied nation, fourth largest on earth, possessor of some of the world's largest islands, some of which are virtually uninhabited?

Are you the history of the dizzying array of first nations who, before the Europeans came, occupied this land that stretches its coastlines across three oceans?

How are you still tied to the cultures of the old European colonizing nations, England and France, as well as the early Irish of Montreal, the early Scots of the Red River Colony, early Metis of Saskatchewan and Alberta?

How has your history been influenced by groups like the Ukrainians, Norwegians, Mennonites, Czechs and others who established so many of the early farms on the Canadian prairies? 

How were you formed by the Icelanders who settled in Manitoba, or the Finns who organized unions in the Ontario woods? What did the outport Newfoundlanders contribute to our society?

How did the Acadians influence the nation we are today, descended as they were from the friends, neighbours and relatives of those early Nova Scotia farmers deported to Louisiana during the colonial wars, destined to become the 'Cajuns?

How strongly was the nation formed by events in Saskatchewan, the province where the visionary leader Tommy Douglas and his government nurtured so many ideas that became known as Canadian?

Then there is Quebec and the other pockets of French Canada. Mes chers Quebecois, habitants "originaux," qu'est-ce que c'est que vous souviens?

Yes, Canada, all of this is part of you. You are an improbable band of ethnic and cultural groups, tied together, however loosely, by a liberal ideal that goes back further than the date of nationhood.

A multi-faceted collection of peoples, this nation has evolved steadily over our history. Americans of more communitarian temperament continue to drift north across 49, and more individualistic Canadians find find homes south of the "medicine line."

Loosely tied together from east to west by Highway 1, which connects Victoria (left) with Cape Spear (right), the easternmost point of the North American continent, you are also joined to the Arctic Ocean port of Tuktoyaktuk by the North Klondike and Dempster Highways. Happy Birthday to this unlikely conglomeration of ideologies, ethnic heritages and spectacular geographic wealth that is Canada, and to all of us who call it home.