Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cosy home lit by winter light

I love the way the winter light falls in our cosy house, and I am deeply grateful for the comforting closeness of family and home, enjoyed in the slow season of solstice.



Friday, December 30, 2016

Train puzzle challenging in spite of fewer pieces

The train was easy, and so was the smoke. The fence in the foreground wasn't bad, nor were the distant mountains.

But those trees! Very difficult. They made a 750 piece puzzle almost as time consuming as one with a thousand pieces.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Jigsaw season in full swing with idyllic waterside home


This painting by Randy Van Beek made a good puzzle. With 1000 pieces compared to the previous one's 1500, it was nevertheless a challenge to complete.

Every jigsaw is different, though, and this one had really weird shaped pieces that made it easier than it might have been otherwise.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We found this view of Portofino so delightful that we decided to track down a print. We've already decided where we'll hang it.

Artist Wendy Shaefer-Miles and her husband Kevin paint on a farm in Wisconsin. They'll ship the print and my hubby will frame it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Remembrance, by Alistair MacLeod

Three generations of men, all called David MacDonald. Two stand waiting for the third. During this pause of preparation for the ceremony of Remembrance Day, all reflect on the history that has brought them here.

They are Cape Bretoners, descendants of those who came from the Scottish Highlands, where as the eldest David, a WWII veteran remembers, "young men like himself had always gone to war because of their history and their geography, but most of all because they were poor."

This grandfather, now nearly ninety, had married at a young age, then gone to war to support his wife and the child they conceived. When he realized that her infrequent letters were written by someone else, it occurred to him belatedly to wonder "whether his wife was literate."

A war-time rifle, now an unlicensed firearm, both kills and saves the son who is not his son. Regretting and not regretting the impulse that led him to buy this gun, the eldest David reflects that "a lot happened because of the war." From the grandson's perspective, his elders are like "adjacent trees that do not touch but share the same root system."

This third David, the one coming from far-off Toronto, is not a war veteran, but a city veterinarian. He knows that as usual, his grandfather will joke that "we vets must stick together." As he makes the long drive toward where the men of his lineage await him, he reflects that "Although unwanted kittens are euthanized, some 'teacup dogs' are valued at $40,000. There is a great love out there for life of the right kind, and for some, great care is given."

As it has done before, the spare and haunting prose of Alistair MacLeod spoke to me in some deep place as yet unhealed. "In the darkness of this Remembrance Day, I will go to stand with the David MacDonalds." These simple words brought tears to my eyes.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, by Alan Bradley

Created by Alan Bradley, the charming post-war English sleuth Flavia de Luce keeps coming across murders. Only 11, she tends to ask different questions than "men in wrinkled suits with a whiff of handcuffs and the river about them."

This story takes place at Christmas. In London on a research mission, Flavia walks along Oxford Street indulging her imagination. Passing jostling shoppers whose faces are filled "with a kind of happy gloom," she half-expects to see Dante, or "even old Odysseus himself, trudging along the pavement with a gift-wrapped rocking horse on his shoulder."

Chemistry is one of many subjects that interest Flavia, and she's good at. Though she "preens" over her "chemical acuity," she's also aware that, in her "dowdy overcoat," she appears "more like a street musician than a first-rate chemical mind."

The youngest de Luce sister also has a philosophical bent which causes her to wonder, for instance, "How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?" Travelling on the train, she reflects that "Railway travel always makes you think of the past, as if this beast of steam and steel, which is carrying you forward into some unknown future, causes your memories to travel backwards, at an equal speed, in the other direction."

Though her judgments of others can be harsh, she finds room for forbearance, as for poor Carla, who "could not help it that she was nauseating: the kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge." Flavia understands what motivates others to lie, and can detect when a woman is using a false name, perhaps because she has "more than once... appended a parasitic Sabina" to her own name, "usually as a subtle warning shot to someone who has infringed" upon her dignity.

When questioning a witness, she aims for a manner that is "hard-boiled but friendly." However, she understands that it is unfair of her to question her friend Cynthia too closely, since "a vicar's wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships."

Towards the end of her adventures, although the young detective is certain that she "had solved a crime," she dutifully gives Inspector Hewitt a full account of her discoveries. When she pedals off on Gladys, her bicycle, there's family business to take care of. More surprises are in store for this irresistibly charming character.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd is the latest Flavia de Luce book, but the one I read first. Now I must discover the Canadian connection. Why was she exiled from her English country house in Bishop's Lacey to attend Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto, and why was she evicted from the school and sent back? To find out, I must read As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar

A Libyan businessman resettles his family in Cairo; before long, he vanishes. The realization that he was behind a revolt against Muammar Gaddafi's regime is a burden added to the shock of his disappearance. Years pass; letters come from a Libyan prison, then stop. A son attends school in England, grows up, becomes a writer.

In poetic and elegiac prose, Hisham Matar describes the psychological toll taken by a quarter century of uncertainty about his father's fate. Just when he begins to accept the death, he is hooked back in by a slender thread of hope.

Along with the problematic disappearance, the book deals with the theme of exile, a condition faced by many. This writer's long-delayed return visit to Libya poses another threat: the loss of "a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from people and places I love."

The state he describes is in-betweenness, an inability either to leave or to return. Like so many others, he has tried without success "to cure himself of his country." He recalls how Naguib Mahfouz warned against the risk of leaving the homeland, lest this act should hollow out the exile, sever his "connections to the source." Grief is a persistent virus, and Matar comes to envy those who can attend the funerals of their loved ones.

The descriptions of place are vivid and evocative. His first impression of England, visited at age ten, was that the narrow and deep lanes that made him feel "as if the earth were folding us in." Libya is vastly different. As a child in Tripoli, he remembers the first time he saw a sheep slaughtered. It "kicked furiously, snorting for air," as "the blood poured out black and thick like date syrup," and "small translucent bubbles grew and burst around its mouth." The boy clapped his hands "beside its wide-open eye," hoping to awaken the animal, cried when he could not.

As a middle-aged man finally returning to visit his home country, he describes the desert sky, "the last light stretched long, and yet as bright as the skin of a ripe orange." The scattered trees that grow along the roadway look "feeble and fragile as they lean in the direction of the wind." He is assailed by half-forgotten memories evoked by "the shape of a neck, an expression in the eyes, an intonation in the voice." His past is like "a severed limb."

The description of Benghazi, with its Arabic and Italian Corniches and large Catholic Cathedral, hints at Libya's turbulent history. Occupied by ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, the nation lived more recently under Ottoman rule. It was annexed by Italy under Mussolini, and brutally savaged by fighting during the Second World War. The era that followed the oil finds have brought continuing chaos to this country of "unfinished buildings," where Matar feels that light is "shut out" of the houses, "like other things from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news." 

Much of the book is devoted to descriptions of the enormous but inconclusive efforts of Matar and his brother to find out what happened to their father. "Guilt," he discovers, is "exile's eternal companion," and "stains every departure." Yet in spite of the memoirist's inability to learn the facts about his father's end, or to fully come to terms with their uncertain relationship, the writer has moved past the "young man's emotions" of hatred and anger. Ultimately, he has come to believe that "the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light."

Hisham Matar's third book, The Return was awarded the Man Booker Prize.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Snow conceals flaws, reveals a mysterious gateway

Before the snow, I never noticed this mysterious little hole, even though every day we look towards the bush at the back of the garden.

Could it be the entrance to a gathering place for fairies? They might choose to allow us a glimpse of the entrance to their hideout, but only on snowy days.

Perhaps they want to remind us of their presence, while making sure we don't snoop around their doorway.

It won't be a problem. What now resembles an obvious hole will vanish with the snow.

The year's first snowfall always evokes mystery and wonder.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Garden tree lit by reflected light

Before the rain came, the smoke tree was decked with pure white snow. Before closing the drapes, we saw how the Christmas tree lights shone through the window, creating the illusion that the tree outside was also hung with lights.





Monday, December 19, 2016

Shifting moods of snow as morning light grows stronger

First came the dawn, then the morning light.


Then the sun came out and lit the trees with magical winter light, waning in the late afternoon.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas mystery

These displaced items are chocolate-filled bread rolls, made with croissant dough. But how did they get under this tree on a New Westminster sidewalk?

You may well ask. I did, and came up with several possible answers.

1. Santa's reindeer lost them over the side them while doing a practice run with the sleigh.

2. Hungry birds dropped these heavy food items.

3. Angry squirrels threw them down on passers-by.

Take your pick, or make up your own explanation.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

We create our reality: here's a small demonstration of that

It happened again! Or o I told myself. The jigsaw was complete, but like once before, the last piece didn't fit.

Or so I told myself. Actually, I'd overlooked another gap, and the final piece did fit. The missing Portofino piece will probably turn up between the sofa cushions or on the rug.

It wasn't another case of the wrong piece after all. Just my mind seeking patterns where there were none.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Do not say we have nothing, by Madeleine Thien

The novel Do Not Say we Have Nothing, by Vancouver-born Madeleine Thien, garnered immediate acclaim at home and abroad. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction, as well as being shortlisted for the Man Booker and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie medal.

The combination of scenes from modern China reveals the effect of revolution on generations and individuals. Thien paints on a wide canvas, from the early days of the the People's Republic to the 1989 crescendo of protests centred on Tiananmen Square. It began with a few students kneeling on the steps, asking to discuss their written requests. Why did nobody respond? One character says that allowing the students to summon them from the palace would have lost the Party the upper hand.

These fast-spreading protests, and the brutal suppression that ended them, form the finale of a series of incredible disruptions faced by Thien's characters as they try to survive the bizarre and desperate political dangers of late 20th Century China. In the presence of actual historical figures, over the years of coping, they escape and return, are killed, die and commit suicide.

When 1959 brings famine, the future pianist Kai helplessly watches his parents starve. Meanwhile, village cadres block letters to distant family who might otherwise help, and anyone caught trying to leave is arrested and punished. Escaping to Shanghai as the only survivor of his family, Kai sees it as a paradise, "a different planet," where nothing is known of the famine and ruin.

Revolutionary logic beggars belief. Kai justifiably wonders why, when the talented concert pianist Fou Ts'ong "has married the daughter of Yehudi Menuhin," and "plays the piano from London to Berlin," his parents are denounced as "bourgeois elements." The party line, revealed on posters, is clear, "If the father is a hero, so is the son! If the father is a counter-revolutionary, the son must be a son of a bitch!"

The cadres of the revolutionary government seem to believe that their bombastic logic and violent attacks serve "the People." Meanwhile, many die from the brutal abuses of the Red Guards, and most others are cowed into false and ridiculous self-criticisms. Yet one Professor fearlessly speaks out, believing he is politically untouchable because his brothers and wife died the deaths of revolutionary heroes at the hands of the Kuomintang and the Japanese. When overzealous Red Guards denounce him on television, he chastises them for telling shameful lies. His persecutors are shocked into silence by having their own weapons defiantly turned against them, and the screen goes blank.

Meanwhile, the radio announces that a group of counter-revolutionary bourgeois elements have "sneaked into the Party," which so far has seen through only some of them. The threat hangs implicit in the announcement that certain others not yet caught "are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors."

Squeezed against his fellow-musician on a bus, the composer Sparrow reflects on the Party's interdiction against love "that serves the individual before the people" as a "betrayal" of the revolution. In Shanghai, ration lineups wind around corners and disappear "into the horizon." While many starve and suffer, cigarettes, cognac, and White Rabbit candies become "the new currency of the Republic."

The talented violinist Zhuli, a child exploring a field while her parents work, discovers and enters an underground room full of books. With dire consequences. Her parents are taken away to labour and "re-education" camps as counter-revolutionaries. Delivered to her aunt and uncle's house, she falls asleep remembering her mother's tears and how her parents "had been roped together as if they were oxen." As her young mind struggles to come to terms with the banishment of her parents, she wonders if she herself could have "opened the door to the demons who barged in." Later, as she thinks about why she too has been denounced by a fellow student at the Conservatory of Music, she decides that "the very existence of a violin soloist is counter to the times."

An old man reminisces about the fact that when Chairman Mao Tse-Tung launched "his brightest campaign," Comrade Glass Eye asked to have his mother politically rehabilitated, realizing too late the futility of this hope. He even bought gifts for her, knowing that was a bourgeois action. In retrospect, he comments wryly that he "should better have argued that Emperor Hirohito and Chiang Kai-shek deserved a villa in France, paid for by the Communist Party of China."

In a Beijing hutong, while the radios in all the apartments blare out the same government propaganda, two teenage girls come and go carrying buckets of water, and giggle together as they wash dishes in a communal area. While Yiwen encourages Ai-ming to come to Tiananmen Square, Ai-ming's father is summoned to receive a phone call. Since the only telephone is in somebody's living room, no conversation is ever private. Neighbours openly eavesdrop as Kai asks Sparrow to get an exist visa and meet him in Hong Kong, vainly hoping the two can play music together again.

Amid the story's bewildering and tragic upheavals, some moments of humour arise. One Zen joke shared by Yiwen and Zhuli concerns the Buddhist birthday card that says "Not thinking of you." In a remote village, Christian missionaries arrive and set up a shop and school along with their church. Instead of tuition fees, they ask for vegetables, grain, and labour from their new converts. Meanwhile, the country folk observe that their god seems to be "a well-fed baby from Tianjin." Carried "in the the arms of an empress," he is admired as "a cheerful god of prosperity."

Well-researched fiction often provides fascinating details about real history, and I learned much from this book. It was disappointing to learn of  the failure of Canada to grant amnesty to student demonstrators from Tiananmen, although the US did so. Before reading this book, I was unaware that Mao's contemporary, Joseph Stalin, accused the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev of formalism, and had his compositions banned.

I was intrigued by certain details about the Chinese language: "time is vertical," with last year being described as "the year above." Accordingly, the day before yesterday is "in front," while the day after tomorrow is "behind,' and future generations are described as the ones behind. Chinese conveys the image of being propelled into the future while one's back is turned. Indeed, this seems a suitable metaphor for the history of China in the last half of the 20th Century.

Indeed, this book contains wealth besides the profound multi-generational, multi-family story that unspools within it. My mind is still spinning at the thought of the "day-to-day insincerity which was a normal part of everyday life," and with Ai-Ming's hope that by the time of the examinations, "the content of her thoughts would be permissible." My ears are is still ringing with the loud and relentless propaganda from the loudspeakers in the streets. And my heart aches for the many people who were sent to labour camps and denied even "the right to raise their own children."  

The closest I've been to China is pre-1997 Hong Kong, but Thien's book afforded fascinating glimpses of this vast country during past and recent decades. All in all, it was an amazing read. I share the author's faith that one day it will be read, uncensored, in China.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Remembering a furry friend

Professor Plum was with us for sixteen years. He's been gone for eighteen months. Yesterday, for a brief moment, I thought I glimpsed him, then realized it was the shadow of my hair falling across my vision. Our feline buddy loved snow.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Night visitors can't have been reindeer

Last night, two four-footed visitors crept along beside the house, climbed the steps and crossed the deck.

I deduced this from the telltale tracks in the snow. Could the visitors have been Santa's reindeer, out on a practice run? Maybe Donner and Blitzen got separated from the others.

Then again, could those tracks belong to Rudolph. He's always out in front. Two sets of tracks: who was with him?

No, I decided, too small to belong to Santa's team of heavy haulers. Besides, it's a bit early for them to come around.

On taking a closer look, I decided the tracks must have been left by a pair of raccoons.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

American Empress?

Image from maritime matters

She's a lovely ship, but the name sounds wrong, even un-American. That nation can lay no claim to historic empresses. Indeed, its basic identity as an egalitarian democracy means it takes pride in having no truck with aristocrats.

So why are the ships of this riverboat cruise line called queens and empresses?

It it's meant to work as subliminal advertising, it doesn't. Just sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Two days of contrast in the garden

The two pictures are of the same flowers, taken one day apart.

Top view: December 4.

Bottom view: December 5.

A lot can change in a single day.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cloud shadows over Grouse Mountain

Vancouver has many moods. I took this one a couple of weeks ago, when the front half of Grouse was lit by sunshine, while the back was shaded by clouds.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Depression glassware?

Depression glass seems as strange description, but these kitchen items were named after the era in which they were produced. The Great Depression, a ten-year economic slump that began when the stock market crashed in 1929, was also called the Dirty Thirties in Canada, where it coincided with a devastating drought.

This dish is one of a few surviving items from my mother's kitchen, and now it's cracked. Not sure it's depression glassware, but the thought of not using it at Christmas is a bit depressing.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Reporters take their lumps in the basement of the BC Legislature

In the Legislative Press Gallery in Victoria, journalists and politicians have to take their lumps. Cartoon detail on bottom photo. Well, you know what I mean.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Inspiring words from TWS Readers at Cottage Bistro


Last night at Cottage Bistro, the SFU TWS Reading community inspired a lively audience. Left, co-host Diana Joy adjusts microphone for the featured readerJanie Chang, whose new book, Dragon Springs Road, launches January 2017. "I want to be a fox," says her seven-year-old protagonist. "Change me into a fox."

Appearing in the order listed, the lines below are from the work of Valerie Chalker Whitfield, Erica Evelyn Simmonds, Christine Hayvice, Culleen Bryant, Angela Kenyon, Christina Myers, and Ingrid Rose.

The lines below were heard by the audience:

All bodies are welcome here.

I told her I thought she did a good job, proud of using my tact.

The wig got passed around...I had one of those styrofoam heads in my car.

God is a laughing Bedouin.

I'm constantly given indications, but I'm always unprepared.

Stand up. Find the clothes. Go downstairs. Start a load.

Left wing factions cacophonous in my ear.