Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Partisan's Daughter, by Louis de Bernieres

Image from the Telegraph

Chris, a lonely pharmaceutical salesman "young enough to feel young, but old enough to feel left out," is bored with his wife and conventional life. During a momentary loss of self-control, he has a chance encounter with a young Serbian woman called Roza, whom he initially mistakes for a prostitute.

Some weeks after giving her a lift home, he succumbs to the urge to respond to a casual invitation to "come for coffee some time." As they listen to the "Bob Dylan upstairs" and chat in front of the gas fire, Chris gazes at enormous holes in the plaster and exposed wiring -- "that maroon-coloured plaited stuff that must have predated the war." It's the seventies, and he's thinking wryly about the passing fads of youth he has already witnessed. "The only thing more pitiful than a middle-aged punk is a white Rastafarian."

Host and guest descend to the basement, past gaps in the floorboards and a missing stair. Roza makes coffee on an ancient cooker streaked with "solidified splotches of antediluvian fat." She begins to relate her past, interspersing its violence and pathos with vicious twists of humour.

Chris listens, nursing a forlorn hope that they will make love. But Roza offers only coffee and stories, beginning with her early life as a partisan's daughter and her education as a good communist. Deliberately perhaps, she confuses him with her trials as an illegal immigrant in London, being a "bad girl" and working as a "hostess."

"I don't exist," she explains, then casually describes the Archway factions, who "truly despised each other." At the meetings of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Marxist Group and more, says Roza, "everyone knew that half of the people at the meetings were from the British secret services...just spying on each other."

Back in Yugoslavia, her partisan father originally fought for the royalist faction. He "didn't give a damn about the King," but liked the drills and polishing. He "defected to the communists when he was supposed to be taking part in an attack on them." When Roza lists the groups she hates, Chris is shocked. He disapproves of hatred, as "unmanageable;" it "takes up too much emotion."

As Roza's tales grow darker, Chris grows ever more obsessed. While his own daughter grows into a teenager, he listens to the partisan's daughter, despises his own life for being normal and boring, and thinks, "You can be ignorant and stupid and go through your whole life without encountering any evidence against the hypothesis that you're a genius." Still, he wonders how much of what Roza relates is true, and speculates about her motives for playing him the way she does.

Speaking as a Serb, Roza says, "we get depressed, drink slivovica, and try to kill ourselves with cigarettes." In a black mood, she expresses impatience with her mother's Old Testament religion. She "can take it when some politician says we've got to go out and kill people," but God "ought to know better."

As Roza's stories wind down, she finally exposes her deep wounds to Chris. He feels jealous as she expresses her regret that she left a man who loved her because "I didn't feel good enough...I wouldn't be able to accept anyone who was stupid enough to accept me." But after this visit, she sends her friend away with hope, saying she has something special to tell him next time they meet.

A week later, Chris, who usually avoids alcohol because he hates "the feeling of being out of control," shows up at Roza's door in the middle of the night, drunk on Greek brandy.

Much later, as a widower remembering his middle-aged attempt at adventure, Chris shows a humorous combination of spite and insight. He recalls how his old flame would kiss him on both cheeks, something the British didn't do back then, though "everyone's gone Continental now, and you even kiss your mortal enemy."  And he compares Roza to a Labour politician of the time, "a toff who approved of the common people as long as she didn't have to mix with them."

As for himself, he reports that though he misses his wife now that she'd dead, he's "still the kind of man who doesn't go to prostitutes." He would love to spend more time with his grown daughter, but he does not want to be a burden on her. As for Roza, he still "can't work out why she chose" him in the first place. Why, he wonders, "did she take it as a matter of course that she was entitled to appropriate" his life and "waste it?" He's still not certain of the meaning of the note Roza left him, the only memento he has of their time together, but he has a glimmering, at last.

Louis De Bernieres has expressed the very different voices of the two solitary individuals: both Chris and Roza sound sure sure and true.

(Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter bouquet at White Rock Library

White Rock Library is closed for the Easter weekend, but those who come by to return books through the slot or check the hours of opening are greeted by a delightful array of spring flowers.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

Image from Charles Belfoure

Author Charles Belfoure has used his architectural training and knowledge to construct a tense and gripping tale of a man caught up in the bizarre milieu of wartime Paris.

In the Nazi occupied city, "normal" life goes on. But loyalties are divided; deception and betrayal are commonplace. After his return from the Maginot Line, Lucien Bernard is broke and  unemployed when a strange opportunity comes his way. Now he can use his architectural creativity to earn enough to escape his embarrassing dependence on his wife.

Reluctantly, he agrees to accept a single secret and dangerous but well-paid commission. However, the job turns out to be just the initial step in a series of life-altering decisions that take him ever further along a dangerous knife edge.

Lucien changes as he is drawn deeper into matters he would have infinitely preferred to avoid. Initially a vain and conventional man, he begins to undergo a spiritual transformation when he comes face to face with the consequences of failure at what he's been telling himself is simply a game of architectural cat and mouse he's been playing against the Gestapo.

Squeezed from all sides by his Nazi colleagues, the unnamed Jews he's been helping to hide, and a pair of ruffians from the French resistance, Lucien is even called upon to help destroy his own creation. He agrees to this, as he has accepted other terrible necessities. Such is the cost of his growing identity as a righteous man. No longer motivated by greed, pleasure and vanity, the Paris architect now consciously chooses to risk his life "because it [is] the right thing to do."

As his situation shifts and changes, Lucien's wife leaves him, as does his mistress. When he falls for Bette, a fashion designer, at first he simply hopes the "lucky break" of meeting her can "take his mind off his a sword of Damocles hanging by a thread above his head, ready to drop at any second." But their involvement proves deep and satisfying. For the first time, Lucien experiences a profound connection with a woman he respects. The lovers are now allies, and with help from an unexpected quarter, they decide to leave Paris and cross the border into Switzerland with the three Jewish orphans they've been hiding. The big question is whether they'll manage to escape in time.

(Sourcebooks: Napierville, Illinois, 2013)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Scrubbed porch and fox trot tulips

Forsythias are a sign of spring, and they look even better after the deck and table are scrubbed clean. Fox trot tulips, nursery grown, add a bright touch. As soon as the rain stops, we'll bring up the umbrella and chairs. Looking forward to sitting outside!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Shadowy Branches

Bare branches cast life-like shadows across the wall and door of the garage.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Colourful journey

According to the online routing information, the fancy markers I ordered online are going to be delivered today. I looked at the full tracking history follow their progress and found evidence of a fascinating journey. 

The markers were born and subsequently picked up in Rock Island, Illinois, where they bounced around FedEx facilities before heading off to Chicago. I assume they took in a turn around Wrigley Field before heading off for Independence, Kentucky.

From Independence, they went to Erlanger, renewed their passport, and charged forth into the Great Canadian North, landing in Mississauga. A quick dip in Lake Ontario preceded a short hop over to Winnipeg, before they finally made their way to Edmonton. What a trip!

Magnolia memories

Pink magnolia blossoms brighten a grey-white spring sky. After growing up in colder climates, I came to Vancouver at seventeen and felt I was in the tropics.

In first year French at UBC, we studied the Sophocles tragedy Antigone by Jean Anouilh. When I read a scene with two characters sitting beneath a tree with magnolia petals falling on their shoulders, I recognized the word magnolia from English. I had never seen the flowers -- wouldn't have expected to see them north of New Orleans.

When I asked a local classmate what magnolias looked like, she waved her hand airily toward the gardens. "Oh, there are loads of them growing around here. They bloom in early spring." As for the play, all I remember now is how it transported me to that magic land, magnolia country.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Image from author website

Charles Duhigg unveils the habit loop: cue, routine and reward. This process may seem to enslave us, but studies show we can diagnose our habits and change them.

On a societal level, he attributes to the power of habit the King's Cross fire of 1987, the dramatic change of Alcoa's fortunes under a new manager, the wild success of Starbucks, the Mongomery bus boycott and the shameful past record of the error-ridden Rhode Island Hospital.

Some stories are inspiring, others downright hair-raising. Chillingly, Target uses algorithms on shopper data to identify pregnant customers in order to recruit them as long term buyers of everything in the shop.

After relating the tragic individual stories of a compulsive gambler and a sleepwalking murderer, the author waxes philosophical, tackling questions of free will and personal responsibility. He cites the life path of the great philosopher William James to illustrate how individuals can choose to alter their habits, and thus, their destiny.

This is a truly engaging book, well-researched and also practical. Along with a staggering list of research sources, Duhigg includes a guide for readers to implement what they've learned, and alter their own habits. He talks about his book on You-Tube here.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Canadian Authors Vancouver hosts Toronto agent Sam Hiyate

Last night the founder of the unique boutique agency The Rights Factory visited Canadian Authors Vancouver to explain what agents need and expect from authors in order to help them sell their work.

Well-connected in Toronto, London and New York, Sam Hiyate is full of tales about the arcane world of publishing. Predicting which books will succeed is a gamble, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much money publishers keep invested in author advances. A strange twist: When Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy) had not completed his current opus in ten years, his publisher took the unprecedented step of asking for the advance back. His agent got the money from other publishers to pay the first one off, and Seth is now contracted to them.

My favourite publishing story concerned David Gilmour's The Film Club, a book his agent says he "made him write," promising that he could sell that story to get him into print. Once it was out, Gilmour's earlier work would be easier to publish. The book became an international success, and Sam recalled how he jumped on his bicycle to ride over and surprise his client with his first three figure royalty cheque from hot sales in Germany. The book also did well in Brazil.

Sam has recently established an online literary community called Don't Talk to me About Love, where readers, writers and agents can connect online. On Sunday at Harbour Centre, he is offering a full day course in conjunction with SFU publishing experts. Writers will learn the top reasons why manuscripts never make it out of the slush pile, as well as best practices in building an online presence and more about the latest in the evolution of publishing.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Broken daffodils bring joy and memory

Saturday as I walked in the park, I was shocked and saddened at the sight of these beheaded blooms.

Deviating from my path, I picked up the sheared blossoms, carried them home and put them in water.

What joy when the deep yellow one floating in the bowl sent out a waft of daffodil fragrance, evoking in an instant the innocent and balmy spring of my first year at UBC.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Naturalized crocuses embrace tree roots

Once crocuses get loose in a garden or park, you never know where they'll show up next. Makes you wonder -- how did the tiny corms creep in so close to these enormous trunks? A small miracle.