Monday, April 24, 2017

Platonic solids associated with 4 elements

Image from mathspadilla

Mathematics and philosophy have long been intertwined. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was also a mathematical thinker.

He conceived the idea that these five convex and symmetrical polyhedrons with equivalent faces, the only ones that could exist, were the building blocks of the universe. That's why they're called the Platonic solids.

The Story of Math, a film by Oxford math prof Marcus du Sautoy, mentions the connection between these figures and the old idea of the four basic elements. These elements in turn connect with the chakras. Earth (Root chakra) is represented by the cube and Water (Sacral chakra) by the 20-sided isocahedron. The octahedron or Fire element relates to the Solar Plexus chakra and the tetrahedron Air to the Heart chakra. The fifth solid, the dodecahedron, is a twelve-sided figure associated with a fifth element, Spirit or Ether.

It is interesting to note that yogic tradition also teaches of five elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether. Traditional Chinese medicine postulates five elements as well: Earth, Metal, Wood, Fire and Water.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hypatia of Alexandria -- early female mathematician

In ancient Alexandria, Hypatia was killed rather than appreciated for her mathematical and astronomical skills. The daughter of Theon, another mathematician, Hypatia became the head of the Platonist School at Alexandria in about 400 CE, where she taught mathematics and the philosophy of Neoplatonism, emphasizing Plotinus, who said reality lay beyond human comprehension.

Some Christians studied with Hypatia, but others saw  her emphasis on science and learning as pagan, and therefore anathema. Unfortunately, by befriending the Roman Prefect Orestes, she got caught up in a political power struggle before (St.) Cyril became Patriarch of  Alexandria. She was killed by a mob in 415.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Writing follows tidying up

Image from sources of insight

Ivan Coyote said it years ago: "I can't write in a messy house; I have to tidy up first." At the time, my office was a bit of a mess, so I had a vested interest in not fully attending to this. Now with the office clean and organized, I'm attuned to the essential clear desk top (oak not screen). Never begin a new task without it. Two simple cures for those sticky notes that keep trying to pile up on my desk. File the info and schedule the tasks.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Val McDermid: a writing woman of many parts

Image from the independent

Before reading The Skeleton Road, I associated mystery writer Val McDermid with simple Scottish noir. I've now discovered that her work is much more wide-ranging. In this opus, she paints -- some would say skewers -- Oxford University in a way that reveals a more than passing association with her alma mater. The "skeleton" murder goes back to the Balkan wars, connecting to an Oxford professor of human geography who built her career on time spent in a besieged Dubrovnik.

After the war ends, lawyers and others work tirelessly to bring war criminals to justice at the Hague. But in the aftermath of such bloody civil strife, how can a neutral justice system repair the damage? What happens when cycles of vengeance become self-perpetuating? What about the war criminals who got away?

Having witnessed Balkan horrors first-hand, how can academics and seekers of impartial justice remain separate from this history? Can they remain coldly pragmatic enough to lay charges where evidence can be obtained, hope for convictions, and then get on with their lives? Even Scottish detective Karen Pirie, working on an eight-year-old murder, is deeply affected by the war story that led to what turns out to be a revenge killing, though not pure revenge. Personal ambition, sexual jealousy and ego come into it too.

McDermid's novelistic creation reflects the complexity of how we live in society. No person, group or nation can stand above or apart from another. We are all tarred by various forms of chauvinism, tainted by the history of our innumerable warring tribes, both within and without.

From this book, I moved on to a masterpiece of another sort. Splinter the Silence features detective Carol Jordan and psychological profiler Dr. Tony Hill, two damaged souls who still come down on the side of right. This novel portrays the contemporary issue of cyber-bullying. In this case, it's bad enough to lead three high profile women to kill themselves. But could the apparent suicides be murders? Are they connected to the deaths of prostitutes who are being bumped off at the same time?

McDermid's fictional world can be harsh. Though characters like Jason "the Mint" provide a welcome relief and counterpoint, the author's troubled but deeply sympathetic protagonists implicate the reader in a dark world. I can't decide whether the author's determination to educate readers in the seamy side of life is salubrious, or just morbid. Meanwhile, I keep reading.

In emotional evocation, McDermid's work reminds me of the work of Anosh Irani, After reading Irani's The Song of Kahunsha on a cruise, I dropped it like a hot coal in the ship's library. Splinter the Silence was another of those books I was glad I read, but relieved to finish. I couldn't wait to get it out of the house and back to the library.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A pain in the neck called writer's block

Image from etsy

Five months since my novel query. Time to follow up. I brooded on the wording, prepared to polish those crucial early pages once more. This time, I'd send her an even more honed version. Next day I woke with a stiff, sore neck.

"Aha!" I said to the pain, "I'm onto you." On other occasions, the fear of getting it down had caused chest and leg pains. "This won't stop me," I told myself ominously. But I still had to see my naturopath for treatment.

I'm writing again now. Query on the query goes today. It sure is nice to have my neck back.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kevin Spenst hosts Canadian Authors' Poetry Panel

Wednesday at the Alliance for Arts and Culture, Canadian Authors-Metro Vancouver celebrated a Night of Verse. Host poet Kevin Spenst (right) calls Kevan Cameron, aka "Scruffmouth the Scribe" (left), "a force for dub and diligence to the spoken word." Adele Barclay is "a force of poetic benevolence and dreamtime surrealism." Rob Taylor (left below) is "a force for poetical organizations on the page and across the country." Added Spenst, "What fun it was being able to help promote these great talents." See below:

Photo credits: Group shot by Margo Bates, other photos by Kevin Spenst

Evocative lines heard during the presentation:

A.B. "to make maple syrup from autumn" and "the ink of your letters is so like you I don't need to read them."

K.C. "Scruffmouth" "buzzer rang like a wrong answer on a quiz show" News flash! Kevan has been chosen for the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Oxford University this coming July.

R.T. "hammers woke me today" and "have to go before you start hoovering"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Habit of Secrecy: another revision complete

A final round of edits complete. Final until a publisher takes the novel, that is. Afterwards, the editing process will start all over again. Meanwhile, it's a great relief to have finished this round.

I'm now turning to the task of putting in the Shakespeare lines at the beginning of each chapter.

All are from his sonnets, Miraculously, I was able to find appropriate lines to head 58 chapters without looking further afield.

Besides the plays, Shakespeare published 154 love sonnets. Some of his best-known lines come from these. We use them in daily speech, or see them as book titles, not always realizing that Will the bard was their original creator.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pile driver seen and felt from car

Waiting at a left exit off Highway 91 south, I needed a green light to turn onto 72nd. Across the freeway, a pile driver was pounding posts into the earth. Each time the piston hit, the hollow whump caused the car to shake. Years ago in the old gravel Scott Road parking lot, I first felt the vibration of a pile driver. Then too it seemed an implacable attack by rough humans on Mother Earth.

Friday, April 7, 2017

White Rock gale and burned-out Cosmos

We had brief glimpses of sunshine this week. Spring flowers are finally blooming. Today, Gander staggers under the weight of spring snow. White Rock is blowing a gale. Last night, Cosmos, Marine Drive's signature Greek restaurant, was damaged by a fire that started upstairs.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

East Vancouver high school girls and boys rock at robotics

Image from

Today the Vancouver Sun reported that three "cool and nerdy" teams of high school students from Gladstone Secondary School in East Vancouver are heading to the Robotics World Championships in Kentucky this month.

Last year, an all-girl team from Gladstone earned the honour of coming sixth in the world. Go, girls of robotic expertise! In 2012, mixed Gladstone teams took first and second in international competitions.

At Gladstone, 80 students from Grade 9 up are studying robotics. In their lab, Robo Dojo, the kids have built 17 robots this year.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy

Might the entire universe be "written" in the language of equations? British mathematician G.H. Hardy pointed out that while languages die, mathematical ideas live on.

Certainly, mathematical problems and solutions have long horizons. At the Sorbonne in 1900, David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians of his age, set out a list of 23 problems he thought should be explored in the coming century. By 2000, all were solved but the Reimann Hypothesis, which "seeks to understand the most fundamental objects in mathematics -- prime numbers."

Princeton mathematician Enrico Bombieri played an April Fool prank on his colleagues in 1997. On the website of the International Congress of Mathematicians, he announced that "Holy Grail" of mathematics had been proved.

However, in 2000, along with six new problems for the 21st century, the Reimann Hypothesis was offered once more to challenge mathematicians. This time the solver would earn both glory and money -- a million per problem.

Solving the puzzle of the primes would change mathematics, and the world. It is thanks to the inscrutable unpredictability of prime numbers that e-business thrives. Carl Friedrich Gauss died in 1855, but the calculator clocks he invented, with their faces bearing "more hours than there are atoms in the observable universe," are vital to the security of online transactions today. In the age of internet commerce, "advances in the most obscure or abstract corners of the mathematical world now have to potential to bring business to its knees."

Prime numbers remain deeply mysterious in spite of all the work that has gone into unmasking them. One early effort was made by Erastothenes, who developed a mathematical "sieve" to eliminate numbers that could not be primes.

Marcus du Sautoy's book is full of astonishing and fascinating details. Where else could you learn about the sex of numbers in ancient Chinese thought? The 22,000-year-old Ishango bone from equatorial Africa, with its ancient markings of prime numbers? The fact that the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid was the father of mathematical proof?

Math history also includes such stories as the miraculous WWII salvation of French mathematician Andre Weil. Leaving France in 1939 for Finland, he hoped to avoid the war and go on to America, where he could continue doing mathematics. But he wrote letters full of equations to Russian mathematicians, and the Finns took him for a spy. On the eve of his planned execution, the chief of police happened to mention his presence in prison to a Finnish mathematician, who pleaded successfully for deportation rather than death.

Returning to France, Weil was jailed for desertion. However, during this period of incarceration, he produced a promising new line of thought that promised progress on the Reimann Hypothesis. He published from prison, and fellow-mathematician Cartan testified at his trial. Weil's 5-year sentence was commuted when he agreed to go into the army. Luckily, it turned out. Shortly after, the Germans advanced on Rouen and all prisoners were shot. A second lucky escape. He did eventually get to to Princeton, the Mecca for fleeing mathematical Europeans during WWII.

New mathematical ideas begin with hunches and intuitions: the first sketch of the idea is called a conjecture. Later it becomes a hypothesis. Only when the new idea can be proven is it promoted to the status of a theorem.

Then there's the old question of pure versus applied mathematics. While academics remained true to the pure abstract beauty of the science they studied for its own sake, the industrial revolution pushed mathematical development into applied forms to serve industry. In 1789, Napoleon founded the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, to focus on the "needs of the state," hydraulics and ballistics for the war machine.

On the other hand, pure mathematics "has the ability to unite people across political and historic boundaries." The author quotes Julia Robinson's description of the unifying bond between mathematicians, 'a nation of our own without distinction of race creed, sex, age or even time (the mathematicians of the past and of the future are our colleagues too) -- all dedicated to the most beautiful of the arts and sciences.'

In this fascinating romp through centuries of mathematics, author Marcus du Sautoy says that "The primary drive of the mathematician's existence is to find patterns, to discover and explain the rules underlying nature, and to predict what will happen next." When it comes to prime numbers, though, those patterns and predictions have yet to be uncovered or explained.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Queen's handbag

Image from caspian media

Though the sight of her delving into it is rare, the Queen is never seen without her handbag. Ever wonder why?

I doubt she carries a cellphone, and I'm sure she doesn't need house keys or ID. So what does she carry? According to Lauren Smith, Queen Elizabeth's purse contains a mirror, mints, lipstick and reading glasses. And a few pounds on Sundays, for the church collection plate.

The purse has another essential function: to signal her staff. When she wants to end an interaction, she moves it from one hand to the other. If the bag goes on the floor, she's letting her lady-in-waiting know it's time to rescue her from a conversation she prefers not to pursue.

Monday, April 3, 2017

I Shall not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming

It's not the latest Claire Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery, just the last one I read. But the order of reading them doesn't matter. Julia Spencer-Fleming is one of those authors that make you want to read everything she writes, in any order.

I love this writer for her use of language, whether she's describing a setting, or using puns, jokes, and double entendre in fresh and believable dialogue.

Clare experiences spring in Miller's Kill as "the scent of apple and thick May grass rising over the tinny smell of cars baking in the sunshine," and lawyer Geoff Burns in a snit stomps off "like a pint-size Godzilla looking for Tokyo."

When Karen Burns overhears Hugh make a witty and flirtatious comment to Clare, the Reverend tells her to ignore him, saying "He's only a few Internet sites away from complete deviancy."

Lois, the church secretary, teases Clare about leaving her new boyfriend "kicking his heels" while she danced all night with Chief Van Alstyne, then follows her blushing employer from the room, "smiling like the owner of a dumb dog who has just learned a new trick."

Clare, as usual, gets mixed up with criminal elements -- two of the villains are nicknamed Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber. Forced to confront an ex-con on a mountain top, she decides to play it crazy. "Are you a druglord?" she asks the con, trying to "sound like a teenybopper meeting a member of he latest boy band."

The best lines are not always funny. I loved this description of Amado, the young farm labourer, as against his better judgment, he falls for the sister of some local gangsters: "He could have resisted her bare skin, but her naked faith broke him."

Like Russ and Clare, Spencer-Fleming is concerned about social conflict. She writes eloquently of the plight of Latino farm labourers in the US. Amado, a Mexican, is worried because his fellow labourers are illegal. As soon as it finds out, a government agency is poised to deport these young men as criminals or terrorists. He is "tired of the patron relying on him, and the men looking to him, and the weight of responsibility, to his brother in this country, and to their family at home."

In this book, Deputy Chief Lyle McCaulay gets one of the really crucial lines. Trying to comfort Clare for quarreling while Russ, who now lies unconscious in hospital, Lyle tells the Reverend, "We don't have near enough time on this earth, and what we do have, we fritter away acting like damn fools."

It's a salutary reminder to focus on what matters. And that, in life as in the novel, is the love we share.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Daffodils, finally

We've had the rainiest March since 1937, giving new meaning to our epithet, the Wet Coast. It's been so cold that spring flowers are much later than usual. Today brought some welcome hours of sunshine. The past week has finally seen a few magnolias open, and an occasional cherry tree in bloom. Welcomg spring!

We're lucky. In Quebec City last week, water was running waist deep in the lower town. A recent windstorm in Newfoundland blew roofs off buildings. My heart goes out to the people of Peru and Colombia, devastated by flooding.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pursued by a wild mustang of memory

Once upon a time, I drove a Mustang. It was much like this, but a slightly earlier model. It was green too, but a green less appealing than this one. It was also less well-maintained. Front-heavy and back-light, it was hard to handle in snow. One year I nearly spun it out on the road to the Blackcomb parking lot, then brand new.

While I was parked on Broadway, this one pulled up behind my current car, a Mazda sedan. Seeing the galloping pony logo evoked memories of trips in my long-ago frisky horse.

It may be consumer-driven, short-sighted, even corrupt and foolish to define ourselves by what products we buy. That said, I must add that no car company, ever, has topped the Mustang logo.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Church of choral song

St. John's Anglican Church in Shaughnessy is of the same vintage as I am, but the building already seems to belong to a long past era.

On Tuesday, April 4, at 7:30 the Willan Choir will sing different versions of Stabat Mater, by Scarlatti and Verdi at this lovely church.

The Vancouver Community College Chamber choir will add their own numbers and join us in in the finale, singing Vivaldi's uplifting Gloria.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Willan choir concert with V4C for April 4 at St. John's Church

Choir leader Patricia Plumley directs The Willan and VCC Chamber Choirs at the tech rehearsal for our upcoming concert at St. John's Anglican Church Granville and Nanton.

The church has fabulous acoustics and the choirs have worked hard. To hear both choirs perform works by Scarlatti, Verdi and Vivaldi, be at the church by 7:30 pm on Tues, Apr 4.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Musical instruments for rent at VPL

Need to borrow a banjo, bongos, ukelele, harp, guitar? The Vancouver Public Library has all of these and more. Loaner instruments can be signed out by library patrons who can't afford their own instruments, or who, for other reasons, are not ready to invest in them.

At Long and McQuade, bongo drums cost $60 and up.
Banjos range between $400 and a couple of thousand. A cheap acoustic guitar can be had for a couple of hundred. Good ones sell for thousands.

Donation to the library is a great way to recycle gently used instruments that remain behind after their owners grow up and leave home. Borrowing instruments from VPL is very popular -- many place holds on them, as the instrument catalogue shows.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Agricultural ambience at Abbotsford Airport

Surrounded by farms, the Abbotsford Airport is flanked by the Tradex (Fraser Valley Trade and Exhibition Centre).

So is this terminal decor a permanent objet d'art in keeping with the agricultural theme? Or a random piece of machinery brought over from a Tradex farm show?

It's been seven years since my last visit to the airport -- we were escaping the Olympics by flying to Mexico. I don't recall this spanking new piece of farm machinery being on display in 2010.

It may look rustic, but this airport is easily accessible to the communities on the south side of the Fraser. Just think Hamilton, not Toronto as your landing place if you're headed for Ontario.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Deborah Campbell: A Disappearance in Damascus; an appearance in South Surrey

Thursday evening Aldergrove-born journalist Deborah Campbell returned to her home turf in the Fraser Valley. Hosted by Semiahmoo Arts, she discussed her book, A Disappearance in Damascus.

Upon arriving in the Syrian city to report on the devastation and the flood of war refugees flowing from Iraq after the 2003 invasion, she made contact with a "fixer," an Iraqi woman who worked tirelessly for the refugee community in "Little Baghdad." Ahlam was a strategic connector who helped get news out by introducing local people to journalists from BBC, Al Jazeera, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

The book tells the story of how the fearless Ahlam was spied on, followed and finally snatched, in front of Deborah Campbell's eyes. Fearing that her journalistic digging is at least in part responsible for Ahlam's disappearance, she risks her own safety in an effort to find her friend.

When another journalist asks her to leave after sleeping one night in her Damascus apartment, Campbell realizes that "Trouble is a contagious disease."

Fluent in Arabic, and with years of experience living in several Middle Eastern countries, Deborah Campbell feels a profound attachment to this part of the world. She finds it heartbreaking to see how as "proxy wars" flood the region with weapons, the violence escalates.

Before 2003, said Campbell, there was no Al Quaida in Iraq. She also revealed the dire long-term consequences of disbanding of the Iraqi army. When militarily trained men, deprived of employment and hope, were thrown together with a few religious fanatics in an American-run prison, all had plenty of time to air their grievances. The founding of ISIS was the result.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ian Gill: No News is Bad News

Yesterday Ian Gill, writer, filmmaker, and veteran journalist, spoke in a full Simon Fraser University lecture theatre with an engaged crowd of concerned media observers. As his book title suggests, journalism is in trouble. Fortunately, as the subtitle What Comes Next suggests, there's some good news.

Lies and disinformation are not new, says Gill, and the situation is complicated. The the trend of newspaper ownership being concentrated into ever fewer hands is a problem that goes back fifty years. Unfortunately, the progress of this unhealthy trend has been unimpeded, in spite of a series of Royal Commissions. Of course, the internet continues to alter the journalistic landscape. In Canada, an astonishing 64% of ad revenue goes to Google and Facebook, while Postmedia gets only about 3%. The Globe and Mail gets a paltry .7%.

Big newspaper conglomerates, says Gill, focus solely on making money. They do not serve readers by promoting public discourse and engagement but push the agendas of their shareholders.

To become relevant again, journals have to do better than trying to replicate online what they've historically done on paper. Newspapers are in a bad way. Those that have lost the trust of their readers, Gill opines, should be allowed to die "with as much dignity as they can muster." We need more robust forms of journalism to take up the slack.

A new model, discourse journalism, is something Ian Gill is currently experimenting with. That is, when he is not working with Ecotrust Canada, or teaching as an adjunct professor at SFU on environmental subjects.

Gill proved an able and amusing speaker. Though he didn't sugar coat the bad news about the nation's current media problems, he left his audience with reason to hope.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Musical dog enjoys choir practice

Last night, this doggie fan of choral music added a few yips to the chorus. He had his human hold him so he could receive the admiration of the singers during break.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seems the Zamboni cut itself

Spring is not quite here yet, but the last pile of snow in the parking lot of the Newton Library is well camouflaged by dirt.

At the back of the North Surrey Rec Centre, the snow scraped off the rink by the Zamboni was pristine -- except for the mysterious red stuff.

What happened? Maybe all that scraping gave the Zamboni an owie, and it bled onto the snow it was removing. Hope Zambo has health insurance, and got prompt maintenance.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Image from Julia Spencer-Fleming

Like In the Bleak Midwinter, this mystery portrays life in the small town of Miller's Kill, New York. Sparks fly between married police chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopalian priest Claire Fegusson, and the author serves up plenty of bons mots and double entendre.

The image suggested by the title sounds off putting and gory, but the line is unrelated to the plot. It's from a hymn about redemption by William Cowper, an English poet who died in 1800.

Claire is ex-military, and she was past the the first flush of youth before receiving her priestly calling. In this book, she drinks enough cocktails to make her tiddly. She also gets to fly a helicopter.

Fortunately, three or four kir royales aren't enough to take away the sharpness of this unusual woman's mind. Nor does the attempt to sabotage the chopper she's about to take up on a rescue mission succeed quite as well as the saboteur had hoped.

In the final scene, Russ and Claire walk borrowed dogs, using every ounce of self-control to keep their hands off each other. Suggesting they go back, he comments, "There's a storm coming."

Yes there is. A perfect storm of mysteries by an author who has put her unique stamp on the genre. Reverend Claire encourages her congregation to stand against injustice in their church and their town. In the same way, her creator, Julia Spencer-Fleming, uses ordinary good folk to fight the prejudice, controversy and violence of contemporary America, creating plots that are courageous, intelligent and believable.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A powerful storytelling voice has left us: Rest in Peace, Richard Wagamese

Image from cbc

It's mysterious how often the people who have endured the greatest suffering are the ones who learn to be the most loving, and give the greatest gifts to the world. We've just lost such a man, one of Canada's most amazing storytellers.

Richard Wagamese survived childhood in a residential school, periods of addiction and homelessness, and alienation from his son.

Before completing his 61 years on earth, he faced his darkest memories, eschewed bitterness and developed the loving wisdom to advise, "Walk gently on the earth and do no harm."

I first heard Richard Wagamese in 2010 at CanWrite! in Victoria. With the most minimal prompts from the audience, he created and shared a spellbinding oral story. Since then I have been inspired by his books and I've posted a number of times about his work.

Something Wagamese often said: in the end, all we are is our stories. As Wagamese's character Saul Indian Horse tells us, "If we want to live at peace with ourselves," we must tell them.

And when our last tale is told, "We become eternal by being held in memory's loving arms." As you are held, from this day forward, Richard Wagamese.

A recent Shelagh Rogers interview with Richard Wagamese is here.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Southbank in Surrey - the season approaches

Southbank 2016 at Surrey City Centre Library

Today the information session for Southbank 2017 took place on campus at SFU Surrey. Now entering its sixth year, this Creative Writing summer intensive is a great place for writers to meet, work and create community.

Along with colleagues Claire de Boer and Renee Sarojini Saklikar, Surrey's first Poet Laureate, I'm proud and grateful to have been a Southbank writing mentor from the beginning. Looking forward to a great summer of writing.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Simon Choa Johnston speaks to Canadian Authors Vancouver

Image from

Last evening, Canadian Authors-Metro Vancouver hosted Simon Johnston. Known in the Vancouver area and across Canada as an award winning playwright and artistic director, he recently retired from the theatre to become a novelist.

Choa Johnston's first novel, The House of Wives, made the Globe and Mail bestseller list a week after being published in summer 2016. Now in its second printing, the book is also selling well in India and Hong Kong, where the story is set.

A truly fascinating aspect of this historical saga is its basis in the author's family history. A Sephardic Jewish ancestor made a fortune in Calcutta when the opium trade was at its height. His second marriage in Hong Kong became a family secret.

From childhood, Simon carried questions about his forbears. After his mother's death, among her ephemera, he found the beginnings of a compelling trail of clues. While researching this, he felt a strong impulse to tell the family saga as fiction, and had a hunch about how to make that work.

Simon Choa Johnston was a delightful presenter. The audience of Canadian Authors members and guests enjoyed every aspect of the talk, from his description of his research to his spontaneous forays into theatrical humour.

When I read this book last August, I blogged about it here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jax the wrinkle dog awaits his shampoo at the salon

Sue, Jax's human, has a home salon. Every day, he watches her doing people's hair.

He knows that the first part of the ritual is to sit in the special chair by the sink and get a nice shampoo.

All the ladies get it, so why not him too? The way to make it happen, he figures, is to get up in the chair.

"Okay Mum. Ready when you are. Just glancing out the window here, and keeping an eye on the cat."

But Sue just shakes her head, remarking to a client, "He thinks he's human too."

Just so you know, Jax. It could be a long wait.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Intrepid crocuses bloom amid snow

They're smaller than usual, but they know this is their season, and they're venturing to bloom.

Even though day after day, they get covered by new layers of wet and sticky snow.

Isn't nature wonderful?

Let's be like the crocus when it comes to blooming: relentless and unstoppable.

Let's raise our bright heads like these flowers, no matter the external conditions. That way, each of us can be an inspiration to all.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

Image from HarperCollins

Jialing is a zazhong with a missing Chinese mother and an unknown European father. In early twentieth-century Shanghai, society expects her to be a prostitute, as her mother, an accomplished musician, was forced to do. Instead, she is fortunate to be taken as a bond servant by the Yang family. First, the daughter of the house befriends her. Then, a minor miracle affords her the chance of obtaining some education.

At a mission school, Jialing learns English, but her ability to translate is no use when she tries to find work. A Women's Bank has opened in Shanghai, but she cannot seek a job there either. The lowly status of Eurasians causes both Chinese and Caucasian women to shrink from her, and encourages men to view her as a lowly whore.

As her eighteenth birthday nears, Jialing looks desperately for a way to survive after the Yang family have finished with her. She is overjoyed when she lands a job as a nanny for a foreign woman. Then, on the day her duties are to begin, the offer is withdrawn, in obvious deference to the social prejudice against "her kind." Now the young woman has no option but to place herself under the protection of a married man.

Meanwhile, an unlikely ally has watched over her since she was found as a child in the abandoned Western Residence of the Yang family home. The spirit woman Fox has been companion and friend, comforter, teacher and helper. As Jialing faces the dilemmas of womanhood, she realizes the value of Fox's friendship and the power of the mysterious secret the two have shared.

Fox remains steadfast as Jialing travels the hard road of experience toward forgiveness, self-trust, and understanding. Still, when circumstances force the human woman to make the hardest decision of her life, she feels unprepared. Before taking a leap of faith, she must apply the lessons she has learned, as well as all she instinctively knows.

Set against the turbulent background of WWI-era Shanghai, this is the story of one woman's struggle for dignity and self-determination in a society with no compunction about denying her both. In our own time, Janie Chang's second novel holds a deep resonance. Many readers can relate to this timeless depiction of a woman determined to gain some control over her destiny.

In the real world, comparable stories are still taking place. Usually, women are the ones who face the harshest societal constraints, but this is not always the case. Reading this novel, I was reminded of the memoir of South African comedian Trevor Noah. With a Xhosa mother and Swiss father, he grew up under Apartheid, a system designed to curtail the opportunities of people with racially mixed backgrounds, as well as those with black skin.

Once more, Janie Chang has written a book that engrosses the reader with its depth of historical, moral and spiritual insight. It's a satisfying story and a book for our times.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Belfast Girls Canadian premiere in White Rock

Image from Peninsula Productions

Recently developed at the National Theatre in London, Jaki McCarrick's powerful play had its Canadian Premiere in White Rock this week and will go on to Vancouver mid-month.

Peninsula Productions Artistic Director Wendy Bollard has done a great job of realizing this story, based on the history of orphan girls shipped from their famine-ravaged homeland to Australia under a government plan. The Orphan Emigration Scheme was devised by the 3rd Earl Grey, British Secretary of State for the Colonies. [the tea was named after his father, the 2nd Earl Grey.]

Between 1848 and 1850, over 4000 women and girls were sent abroad. Some were orphans; others had been abandoned by families unable to feed them. Landlords who financed the workhouses were glad to reduce the number of their charges.

The play is showing at the Coast Capital Playhouse in White Rock until March 11. From March 15 to 18 it will play at the Cultch in Vancouver. A feature film is currently under development as well.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Image from amazon

The subtitle is Stories from a South African Childhood. Good thing they're true: you couldn't make this stuff up. This audio memoir lands the listener in the midst of the bizarre and illogical world of Apartheid.

The best thing about these astonishing, terrifying and sometimes hilarious stories is the voice of Trevor Noah. The second best is his portrayal of his mother. A big fan of Jesus and a regular at Black Church, White Church and Coloured Church, she knows right from wrong. The regime is wrong, so she doesn't feel obliged to follow its rules. More importantly, she understands how it operates.

Against staggering odds, Trevor's mom did more than survive. She consciously educated her son to break the historic cycle of repression and violence he was born into. And that's just one of the miracles in this inspiring book.

Trevor Noah is an internationally celebrated comedian. Last month, he featured in Vancouver at the Just For Laughs Festival. For those who can't get to see him on one of his live tours, his memoir is widely available and his shows can now be seen on Netflix.

I feel sure he's the only performer who has had an angry policeman shoot his monitor to death in a Soweto street, killing the attached computer in the process. Just one of the many weird turning points in Trevor Noah's amazing life.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Resolute Desk and the Northwest Passage

Image from feelguide

The history of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office is rooted in the Canadian North. The desk upon which President Obama was criticized for resting his feet was given by Prince Charles's ancestor Queen Victoria to then U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Two desks in Buckingham Palace were made from the same wood.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out from England with two ships in search of the Northwest Passage. In those days, it was normal for an Arctic expedition to take three or four years. There was no Panama Canal, so Franklin had to sail around Cape Horn. He restocked his ships with water and supplies in Hawaii before turning north toward the hoped-for passage. Though years passed with no word, confirmation that all the men had perished was a long time in coming.

Meanwhile, many ships sailed out to try to learn the fate of the Franklin expedition. In 1852, HMS Resolute was one of a group of five sent out on this assignment. Four of these ships froze into the ice and had to be abandoned. The Resolute was one.

A year later, an American whaler from Connecticut came upon HMS Resolute off Baffin Island, where it had arrived after it come free of the ice and drifted 1200 miles. After boarding the ship and determining that it had been abandoned, Captain Buddington towed it back to New York. The U.S. government had it refitted at a Brooklyn shipyard, and in a sensational gesture, sailed it across the Atlantic and returned it to the British Crown.

Confirmation of the death of Franklin's entire crew reached London, and the search was called off. HMS Resolute returned to regular naval service. In 1879, it was finally decommissioned and broken up. Queen Victoria had three desks made from the ship's timbers, and one of these was given to the U.S. President as a memorial to the "courtesy and loving kindness" of America's return of the ship twenty years earlier.  Here's a closeup of the desk and the wording of the plaque.

The small settlement of Resolute, in Nunavut, was named in honour of the ship. Brian Payton's 2010 book The Ice Passage uncovered more of the related history of the search for the Northwest Passage. After his publication, the remains of the Investigator, one of the ships that searched for Franklin, was found off Banks Island, now nearly bare of snow and ice. Royal Naval records at Greenwich reveal that in 1845, one ship was frozen in place at a 45 degree angle for many months. Then, open water came only for a few weeks in August.

On Monday night at the SFU Community Summit, Nunavut native and spokeswoman for polar peoples, Sheila Watt-Cloutier expressed concern that in the rush to use the opening Northwest Passage for oil tankers and to exploit the mineral wealth of the melting north, the Inuit people and culture will be forgotten and dismissed yet again.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SFU - always something new

Photo: Patricia Chochol

"Who Needs Canada?" Audience members at SFU's fifth Public Summit were invited to fill out these post cards. Simple but brilliant. Besides Water drinkers, other good answers included Decency, Salmon, Our friends to the south, Marginalized groups, and Polar bears.

Musqueam artist Shane Point opened the evening by requesting that we join hands and open our hearts and minds to each other and the wisdom the evening could provide.

Panelist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and defender of polar people and author of The Right to Be Cold, spoke eloquently about the need to see our environmental challenges in human terms, and expressed her confidence that once people understand the human costs of ignoring climate change, they will do the right thing.

Moderated by Laura Lynch, the panel also included Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo. Canada is respected for human rights internationally, he said, but we're still somewhat parochial at home While elsewhere, applicants are chosen for international experience, our immigrant job seekers are frustrated by demands for local experience. Our nation does not have a corner on virtue.

Ottawa academic Roland Paris said that our democratic ideals of respecting the Rule of Law and democratic institutions are "bred in the bone" of Canadians. Yet he also expressed concern that we are not immune from the current tide of world pressures pushing against this mode of life.

Shuvaloy Majumdar, Munk Fellow at the McDonald-Laurier Institute, believes that as the world changes with "blinding speed," other nations look to Canada for leadership. He sees the major current threats to world security as Europopulism, predatory states, and overall democratic contraction around the world.

The panel was followed by moderated audience discussion groups. Our small circle brought a wide range of responses to the question of how Canada can do better at championing human rights internationally. We have work to do to integrate marginalized people here in Canada, said some. We must consider what we can do as individuals, said others, and not expect the government to do it all for us. While one young man expressed bitter disillusionment about what he perceived as the university selling out to corporate interests, another spoke of how we must each work at creating peace within ourselves, so that we can experience it in our communities.

On the far side of the circle sat the thoughtful and soft-spoken social worker and women's rights activist, Patsy George. On the lapel of her red vest with its appliqued Inukshuk, I think I glimpsed her well-deserved Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia pins.

Well done, SFU. Definitely a worthwhile evening, this left me with food for thought and reason to hope. Lots more events coming up at the Community Summit between now and March 8.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Four actors, four chairs and the willing suspension of disbelief

Image from Samuel French

The flamboyant Noel Coward (1899-1973), using what Time called his "cheek and chic, pose and poise," penned fifty plays and another dozen works of musical theatre. Along with many other fans, I have often laughed at the zany antics and clever dialogue of  his characters.

Yesterday, at the Surrey Naked Stage production Noel Coward in Two Keys, I saw him in a new light. The first play was standard comic fare. Then came A Song at Twilight. Serious and dramatic, Coward's final play brought the audience to its feet in a storm of applause.

The readings were done by four actors on four chairs. Except in pairs when speaking, they kept their backs to the audience. Conveying the story through facial expression and voice, they used no props and never rose from their chairs.

It's amazing how the human mind is primed for story. The most minimal cues of voice and words are all we need to enter the rich world of story. Feeling with the actors, we can laugh and cry, shake our heads and sigh.

I was twelve when a troupe of travelling Shakespearean players came to our town. Wearing black tights and leotards, they set up a handful of black-painted plywood boxes as a stage. As I recall, a silver paper crown was their only prop. That day as I watched them perform, my lifelong passion for live theatre was born.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Late winter on Burnaby Mountain

This recent sunny view from Burnaby Mountain has been followed by another snowfall in Surrey.

Spring bulbs seem undeterred by the unusual cold and repeated snow, however.

Parking the car in the slushy driveway last night, I glimpsed a clump of daffodil spikes three inches high. Snowdrops and crocuses are blooming too, pushing bravely through the dregs of snow.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dr Ghosh, the Three L's and Cutting for Stone

Image from Publishers Weekly

Not long ago, in Medalta pottery museum, I saw dishes ordered by Ethiopia's last emperor. Abraham Verghese's absorbing historical novel portrays a hospital in multi-ethnic Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. Colourful details include an ornery woodstove nicknamed Mussolini.

Besides the civil strife during and after Selassie's reign, this story tackles larger themes questions. How should I live my life, and what part does destiny play? Narrator Dr. Marion Stone's answer emulates the ideas of his beloved stepfather and admired mentor, Dr. Ghosh. The three Ls of life are love, learning and legacy.

Another pesky issue the book raises is the tension between the search for individual identity, and the need to live in community with those who are sometimes very different. Like Dr. Hema, the mother in the story, we all think we'll "have years to figure out the meaning of life." And yet.

We all need an occasional reminder to open our hearts and forgive those we think have wronged us. In Stone's case, those he is sure have betrayed him are first the father who abandoned him, then his identical twin brother Shiva and the first woman he falls in love with. Eventually, Marion is able to overcome the resentments he carries and return to wholeness. Experience and suffering have taught him a profound lesson: "the world turns on our every action and our every omission."

Friday, February 24, 2017

Three kinds of snowbirds

What's a snowbird? A well-heeled retiree who flees the snow to winter in the sunny south? A stunt pilot of the crack Air Force team? A bird, a winter bunting like in the Anne Murray song? I thought "snowbird" when I saw the naturally formed sculpture below. See the bird's profile bottom left? Black eye, black beak.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Outside the Langley air museum, planes routinely take off and land


While visitors swarm over the planes in and around Hangar 3, outside the fence, the airport continues normal operations.

A small plane zooms along the runway, passing two others parked along the side as it prepares to lift off.