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As wildfires rage through this extraordinarily dry summer, I find myself considering the role of the front line emergency personnel. Fighting fires requires an exceptional ability to manage personal fears and safety while combating one of Natures’ fiercest forces for the noble protection of property, personnel, and animals (livestock and wildlife). In our mountainous terrain here in British Columbia, there is a particular reliance on the Smoke Jumper – a fighter of remote wildfires who is deployed to the front line by parachute. I know I can say we are all immensely grateful to those who dedicate themselves to these risky battles.  Our gratitude should extend to the firefighters’ loved ones who support them and share the real threat of great personal loss as accidents occur.

Uncommon characters faced with perilous adventures are tried and true elements of a good read. A number of books have been written, fiction and memoir, giving us an opportunity to learn more about the life of a Smoke Jumper. Whether you wish to read the personal accounts or visit the scene through a beach bag novel, one of these should help you empathize with the wildfire warriors working so hard for us all this summer.

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Nicholas Evans of The Horse Whisperer fame has written a novel featuring Smoke Jumping characters based in Montana. Evans brings his documentary writing experience to all of his novels and his thorough research provides an element of authenticity. You’ll reliably find romance and personal growth in the stories too, of course.

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Smokejumper is a memoir by a “Top Gun” of the airborne firefighting fraternity. Based in our neighbouring Cascade Mountain Range, Jason Ramos shares a very personal account of the fiery front lines including insight into the rigours of the training and the psychological preparation and toll. Along with co-writer Julian Smith, he shares descriptions of actual harrowing and adrenaline charged experiences.

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Another memoir but from a slightly different perspective. This was highly recommended by Seattle’s Elliot Bay Book Company. Philip Connors writes beautifully and shares his very personal account of summers spent on lookout for wildfires in remote New Mexico. Here’s a link to an essay he wrote on the topic in The Paris Review so you can gather a sense of his prose.

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And back to the novel … a Nora Roberts thriller probably belongs in every dusty beach bag. Here’s one on point, also featuring Montana scenery and, this time, a female firefighter as protagonist and romantic lead.

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Somewhere in my travels through the world wide web, I came upon an image of a painting by Karin Jurick.  I was smitten. Her use of such vivid colour and the ability to capture moments of pure relaxation delighted me. As I explored more of Karin’s work, I noted a commitment to featuring readers. She does it so well, I simply had to share with you. Learn more about Karin here on her Bio page. Karin also writes a daily blog, A Painting Today – the Results of the Life of a Paintaholic. Tune in and enjoy her prolific talents. Meanwhile, I do hope you are savouring moments like those featured in Karin’s work.

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Summer Books 2015!

June 8, 2015

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(Art by Suejean Rim)

Well, fancy meeting you here! Longtime readers of this blog will know that a few times during the last five and a half years, this writer has gone AWOL. Poof! Thanks to the encouragement of a number of devoted supporters, I’m back. And back with the annual summer reading list!

In the past, some of you have taken this list to heart and committed to working your way through all the titles over summer vacation. Others have used it as a general guide and randomly tried a title here and there. A few have bookmarked the entry until being called upon to offer a Book Club selection. This list is for ALL of you. Here’s hoping there are some gems in here – I’ll be reading right along with you. We can compare notes. Click on the covers to be taken to websites which will offer you more details. The recipe for this booklist involved a few doses of exotic locales, a dash of good humour, a pinch of creative thinking, and a wee bit of visiting with interesting characters. Here’s hoping we can cook up a summer of great reading …

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Three to Bookmark

September 24, 2014

Three favourite authors are set to release new books and I am taking note. Looking out at the first truly rainy day in some time, it seems like a perfect time to sink into a cozy chair and settle in with some of the great Fall releases hitting the shelves. Let us know what you’re looking forward to reading!

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I enjoyed this one ….                       so am looking forward to this one.

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I enjoyed this one ….                     so am looking forward to this one.

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I enjoyed this one ….                       so am looking forward to this one.

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Wouldn’t you love to perch upon one of these literarily-themed benches? If you’re visiting London, England this summer you can indeed take a seat.  In fact, you’ll have a choice from among fifty benches positioned throughout the city. The benches will be auctioned off for the benefit of the National Literacy Trust in October 2014. This special event was planned to “celebrate reading for enjoyment” and, in so doing, also show off some of the wonderful artistic talent and strong literary heritage of the city. To read more about this endeavour and to get a glimpse of all the benches, click here. I think visiting the benches in person or even just pictorially will inspire us all to pick up an old, favourite read. Have you been able to guess the titles represented above?

Four different Books About Town Book Bench trails have been established: The Bloomsbury, The City, Greenwich, and Riverside. Relevant literary works in bench form have been positioned along each path. If you would like to vicariously travel a route, then visit one of the map pages.

Souvenir posters are also available for purchase through the travel map and bookstore, Stanford’s:

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Zoot and Sandy

July 10, 2014

I always love making a special discovery and then being able to share it with all of you. I am particularly charmed by this find and hope you will be too. Zoot and Sandy are the lovely critters you see perched so amiably next to one another in the image below. Their creator, one Bobby Stevenson, writes beautifully evocative prose and poetry in a creative writing forum called ReadWave (another new discovery!)

And so, allow me to introduce to you, Zoot and Sandy and The Universe.

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Sandy the elephant and Zoot the dog were, without doubt, the best of pals in the whole wide world. They loved to sit by the river and watch time floating passed (sic) their little seat.

“Looks like another great day,” said Zoot.

“It’s always a great day,” agreed Sandy. “Tell me something pal, what do you see when you look in the mirror?” Asked the elephant.

“Usually I notice that the paint in the wall behind me needs painting, that’s what I see. To be honest it annoys me,” said the dog.

“Anything else?” Asked Sandy in a real curious manner as elephants tended to do.

“Well I see me.”

“Aha!” Shouted Sandy.

“What? What have I said?” Questioned the dog, feeling as if he must have put his paw in it once again.

“You see what you think is yourself. What your brain tells you to see.”

“So you’re saying, that I ain’t a dog?” Asked Zoot.

“Of course you’re a dog, Zoot and if you don’t mind me saying, the best dog I’ve ever met. But you don’t see what I see.”

“Cause you see an elephant when you look in your mirror,” said Zoot smugly.

“I grant you that point, but when I look at you, I see you through an elephant’s brain and it won’t be what you see through a dog’s brain.”

“Is there a point to all of this?” Asked a perplexed Zoot.

“I’m just saying that we judge folks on what we see, and we sometimes think that they are wrong when all the time it’s just the way our brain is warping everything that makes us see them differently.”

“So we don’t really stand a chance at being fair, is that what you’re saying Sandy?”

“I’m just saying that you have to make allowances. I make allowances for you being a dog, just as you make allowances for me being perfect,” said Sandy with the biggest elephant grin.

“Oh I make allowances for you, that’s for sure,” said Zoot.

“Meaning what?” Asked a curious elephant.

“Meaning that you are much bigger than me and sometimes when you sit on the bench real hard, I shoot up several feet. Twice I’ve landed in the sea.”

“And I make allowances for you, Zoot when you get in to one of those ‘chasing your tail’ things.”

“I do it because it’s fun, Sandy.”

“Exactly Zoot. You see a wild thing that needs to be chased and I just see a dog’s tail. Beautiful as it is. No one sees the universe the same. Some people look at those birds and wonder where they’re headed. Some look at them and wonder what they’d taste like with some potatoes and some just look at them in wonder.”

“So what do we do, Sandy?”

“We make allowances for everyone and everything.”

And with that Zoot and Sandy just stared at the universe and saw different things.”

~ Written by Bobby Stevenson

If you want to spend a little more time with these pals you can read about Zoot and Sandy discussing Happiness here.

 

Dear Mr. Harper …

April 17, 2014

Sometimes I struggle to select a blog post topic, usually due to an excess rather than a dearth of ideas. And sometimes, like today, a most wonderful subject simply lands in my in-box!

After reading the e-mail message (from my boys’ high school English teacher) and its contents, I was reminded of my own high school English teachers and their roles in inspiring my interest in, and love for, engaging with the written word. I imagine many of you share a similar experience. What an influential role those teachers have!

Today, a high school teacher and a politician share a refreshing devotion to instilling a love for reading in young minds. Ms. Gin, the English teacher we are fortunate to have teaching the boys in our family, began a project with her students which involved connecting with none other than our country’s Prime Minister. The e-mail I received this morning was Ms. Gin’s update on this project. Read on and enjoy! (Original letters are followed by text for easier reading)

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Dear Mr. Harper:

Over the summer, I came upon a book about books: 101 Letters to a Prime Minister, by Canadian writer Yann Martel. As a high school English teacher, I often find myself in a predicament similar to Mr. Martel’s but instead of wondering about what kind of literature piques the mind of our country’s leader, my concern lies in our country’s youth. What books are of particular importance in shaping the next generation of adults, the next wave of thinkers and leaders?

Inspired by Mr. Martel’s steadfast, albeit, one-sided book club, I asked my grade 11s at St. George’s School a similar question: If you were to recommend a book to our Prime Minister, what book would you put forth?

Our discussions were so rich and enthusiastic that I knew I had stumbled upon a “teachable moment.” What is enclosed in this envelope is a collection of letters from a coterie of energetic, astute and passionate young minds. They have spent a good deal of the past three weeks brainstorming, writing, editing, and sharing their book recommendations. More than anything they hope you will take their painstaking compositions seriously.

While it is widely known that Mr. Martel never received a personal reply from you, my two classes of grade 11s are hopeful that you will not only take the time to peruse their letters, but that you will also honour their work with a reply of your own.

Happy reading.

Ms. Sandra Gin

English Teacher

Letter-from-Stephen-Harper1Letter-from-Stephen-Harper1   Dear Ms. Gin,

Thank you for sharing the letters from your Grade Eleven English classes. They clearly demonstrate that a love of reading is alive and well in Canadian schools.

I would like to extend my congratulations on your efforts to promote literacy among your young charges. We are fortunate to have dedicated mentors in our nation’s classrooms.

My love of reading was also nurtured at an early age by teachers passionate about the written word. Reading opened up a tremendous window on the world for me, as it has for your students. The local public libraries near my childhood home were places of wonder and exploration.

My late father, Joseph Harris Harper, was an avid researcher and historian. He produced two studies for the Canadian Military of his day – “Old Colours Never Die” and “A Source of Pride”. I credit him for instilling my passion for history. Books, of course, have been an integral part of pursuing this great interest.

As your students will be aware, 2015 will mark the bicentennial of the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. Author Richard Gwyn has written an outstanding two volume biography which I would highly recommend to your students. The Man Who Made Us and Nation Maker present Sir John A’s compelling story with great skill. Canadians are in his debt.

On a more personal note, I would like to share a story with your students. In August of 2012, I had a speaking engagement in Amherst, Nova Scotia, on the grounds of the local high school. I was graciously accorded the school’s library as my temporary office. It is not often that one has an entire library at one’s disposal, and I was compelled to peruse the selection of reading materials on hand.

To my delight, a book entitled Here Stays Good Yorkshire, written by Will R. Bird, was prominently displayed. This historical novel tells the story of hearty immigrants who came to Canada from Yorkshire in the 18th century. My ancestor, Christopher Harper, was part of this early wave of immigrants, and I was deeply moved by this imagined account of experiences that would have been similar to his own.

If I were to offer one piece of advice to your students, who are obviously bright and engaged, I would strongly encourage them to continue reading, both for edification, and for pleasure. And to any budding young authors, I would reiterate that reading voraciously is the best preparation for writing of any kind. I found this to be true when writing my own book, A Great Game. I have enclosed a signed copy for your school library.

In closing, it is my hope that your students will follow in your fine example, and encourage younger students to take up this most fulfilling pursuit.

Sincerely, Stephen Harper

The Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.

Prime Minister of Canada

Books mentioned in this exchange:

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Playtime with Proust

April 12, 2014

Quizzes have long been a source of social entertainment, from parlour games in the times of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde to present day airport lounge diversions in the pages of Cosmo. One, long-standing in popularity, has come to be known as the Proust Questionnaire and is determined to honestly reveal the character traits and interests of its participant. Though the questionnaire takes the name of Marcel Proust, he was an enthusiastic and witty test-taker rather than the actual creator.

The Proust Questionnaire has come to be used in modern times by a number of talk show hosts, famously by James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio who asks each guest to complete an adapted version at the end of his or her interview. CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter also poses a few of the questions to its guest Writers.

Since 1993, the last page of each issue of Vanity Fair magazine has been devoted to The Proust Questionnaire featuring a different celebrity’s responses each time. The best of these pages were collected into a book by VF editor Graydon Carter. Great reading entertainment! You can also link to the magazine’s Proust page here and read a few samples.

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So are you intrigued enough now to want to answer your own Proust Questionnaire? Here it is!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your greatest fear?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Which living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest extravagance?
What is your current state of mind?
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Which living person do you most despise?
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
When and where were you happiest?
Which talent would you most like to have?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Where would you most like to live?
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
What is your favorite occupation?
What is your most marked characteristic?
What do you most value in your friends?
Who are your favorite writers?
Who is your hero of fiction?
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Who are your heroes in real life?
What are your favorite names?
What is it that you most dislike?
What is your greatest regret?
How would you like to die?
What is your motto?

I just discovered the charming work of Last Lemon. They are clearly book lovers and create all sorts of groovy illustrations with smart phrasing attached. I know you’ll have fun discovering them for yourselves. (Last Lemon home page) Here are a few of my favourites: 6e8ab9fb7d6c46731a516aa25f579914.jpg

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And my ultimate favourite, for obvious reasons …

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Many years ago, I spent a summer working in a shop. During the inevitable quiet times, my co-workers and I needed to get innovative in order to avoid debilitating boredom. (It only took so many minutes to tidy the shelves. Clearly it wasn’t a book shop or boredom would NEVER have set in!)  One of our preferred pastimes was to entertain one another by making up stories about the people walking by the window; the more outlandish the tale we could muster, the better! It was clear to us everyone had a unique story. Now imagine collecting images of the people who pass and learning their real stories. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who began a project whereby he intended to simply archive 10,000 photos of people in the city of New York. After a period of time he began to also record the brief conversations he shared with his subjects. Brandon’s gentle kindness and the way he clearly relishes the time he spends with each subject creates lovely moments. And stories … such stories! Poignant, funny, thought-provoking, disturbing, romantic, cheeky … all united in their human-ness. Brandon uploaded the images and, understandably, an enormous following gathered. His blog can be found here at Humans of New York.

The blog beget the book, such a beautiful book …

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For a glimpse into Brandon’s story, here’s a clip: