Saturday, August 30, 2014

Gift Books


Do you give books as gifts?  This post on The Passive Voice estimates that 9 million fewer  books were given as gifts in 2013 in the U.K.   Did you receive a  book as a gift last year?  In the past, I would buy books for my children to give as birthday presents when invited to a friend's birthday party.   This would inevitably be over their objections as they were of the firm belief that the latest plastic action hero figure was infinitely preferable.  I would expound on the virtues of books, not to mention their longevity but I have doubts as to my persuasive powers.   Usually, I would let them choose a second gift; children's books were $5 or less in those days.

Gift cards to large chain bookstores like Chapters are popular choices for thank you gifts and honorariums for guest speakers or workshop facilitators when a Starbucks card was deemed 'not enough'.  At least  recipients could make their own choice and these days large books stores have many non-book items for sale including cosmetics and towels.

I would hesitate to rely on the bestseller list in choosing a gift book.  Have a look at the current top ten and consider whether one would fit your gift giving objectives.   You might offend someone.   The recipient might wonder whether you were sending a subliminal message with your choice.

Many people have e-readers and might not be happy to receive a physical book after they spent several painful afternoons purging their collection.   A paperback book seems insubstantial somehow;  a throwaway item and hardcover books are usually more than $30.00.   If it is a reference book or something that will be re-read annually the money would be well spent but for a one-time read that may not even be finished, perhaps not.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Staying Connected

Nowadays, staying connected usually implies by means of cell phone, e-mail, Skype, Face Time, Facebook or some other invention of the Internet age.  Not so long ago handwritten letters were the norm, with telegrams reserved for emergencies.  No one wanted to get one of those.

When was the last time you wrote or received a handwritten letter from a friend or relative?  Can't remember?   Me neither.   That's probably why I'm not in a hurry to go to  our mailbox. Mostly bills.  But a letter, written a hundred or two hundred years ago, kept a tenuous link alive in an era when travel across oceans or continents took weeks or months.  I've read some interesting vignettes on this topic over the years that have stayed with me.   It was the custom in the past the write letters in a small horizontal script with lines closely spaced.   Sent infrequently, it was necessary to include as much information as possible to the loved one. After filling both sides of the page with text, the writer turned the paper and continued writing horizontally over the previous words.   Every scrap of space counted.

I've also read of another custom of considerably less volubility at a time when the recipient of the letter paid the postage, not the sender.   The impoverished settler would go to the local post office or greet the mail carrier at the  front door of the one room sod house.   Practice required that the addressee  be allowed to hold and look at the letter before deciding to pay the prescribed fee - one cent - to gain permanent possession.   In the tale, an  explanation was offered  for declining the letter:  The letter was from his sister as could be seen from the return address which also confirmed she was still living at the same location.   The fact that she was writing a letter in a clear hand showed that she was alive and well.   That was all her brother needed to know and in fact the envelope was empty.  I suppose a penny was a lot to pay.  

At least there was still a connection.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grey Dystopia

A still from 'The Book of Eli'

The other evening I watched a bit of the dystopian movie, The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington, based on a script by Gary Whitta.     The main character, Eli,  guided by voices in his head, had been searching for a particular book, the last remaining copy of the Bible.  There had been a nuclear apocalypse thirty years earlier and every other Bible had been burned.   It seemed to me that the movie had been filmed with a hazy grey filter;  there was almost no colour and no vegetation.  I had to wonder how people lived and was surprised that after thirty years civilization hadn't progressed further.  Some scenes were 'Wild West' saloon type scenarios.   Lawlessness was rampant and the main way to survive appeared to be robbery and cannibalism.   No attempt was made to re-create any sort of civil society. But perhaps I stopped watching too soon.  

Because I have written dystopian novels, I'm interested in this subject matter.   I soon realized that the main character was an expert swordsman and the body count accumulated.   Somehow Eli obtained a vehicle with gasoline, even though it is my understanding that gasoline becomes unstable and unusable after a year.   I won't go into the rest of the plot as I only watched maybe twenty minutes although I've read a summary on Wikipedia.

I have seen documentaries on Chernobyl, the site of a major nuclear accident almost thirty years ago, and the vegetation and animal life is thriving although or perhaps because people are not allowed in the area. 

Chernobyl site, National Geographic photo

Writing this post sent me down internet paths looking for other dystopian novels I have read.   Lucifer's Hammer is a similar post-apocalyptic situation after a comet strikes the earth.   The way society survives and evolves, in small communities fighting off looters, seems similar to me to One Second After.    Then there's The Handmaid's Tale, the Tripod trilogy,  The City and the Stars . . .  There are many ways a world can fall apart and many methods of survival.
                                                 * * * 

I'll be on vacation blog hiatus until August 27th.  See you then!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Necessary Expense


While I was purchasing funds at the currency exchange--six different types--I remembered to get some American one dollar bills.   New and unwrinkled ones.   I had recalled and been reminded in my pre-trip readings of the necessity of having funds on hand for payment in public washrooms.   American one dollar bills seem to be the universal currency for this, at least for travellers, and other currencies seem to start at higher denominations.    There may be a lesser charge in the local currency known to those who reside in the country but that would mean obtaining coins somewhere.  

Public washrooms are free in Canada and, I believe, in the United States.  There are many gas stations if you are in your car.  I recall from my childhood an attempt in various locales to recoup expenses by charging  ten cents per stall use.   Women would circumvent this by holding open the door for the next in line in department store or airport toilets.   I even recall a little ditty, which I won't repeat here, which involved somehow feeling 'broken-hearted' because the fee had been paid paid but the singer didn't end up needing the facility.  The local government passed a by-law to ban charging for toilets.

There's a book, replete with photographs, called something like Toilets of the World  and if you want to skip the reading there's a calendar.   I've seen many washrooms in my travels.   I recall one place in Italy where the requisite payment resulted in the attendant handing me three squares of toilet paper in exchange as I waited in line.  You learned to save restaurant napkins.  There was a seemingly large outdoor facility at a spice farm in Zanzibar with a twenty foot by twenty foot reed fence encircling  a small block placed in the centre of the ground with a small hole drilled in the middle.   No toilet paper.

In New Zealand there are toilets placed on street corners that appear to be grey stucco on the outside but once inside the walls appear transparent.  Something like this:

I could see my family waiting patiently outside but I kept telling myself they couldn't see me.   I was told the purpose was to prevent drug users from shooting up inside.   Another location had a large sliding door--almost half the width of the circular facility--which would slide open after a certain interval, I believe it was ten minutes.   This was to prevent people from sleeping in the toilet overnight.  In many parts of the world, the toilet consists of a hole in the tiling or concrete, with or without two painted foot outlines on either side.  

Some public toilets have a smiling attendant, usually seen with a large bucket and mop.   Often they speak a language I don't but their little dish with coins communicates the message sufficiently.   One place I recall had one charge for the toilet and an additional one if you wished to wash your hands.

Like the toll bridges I wrote about recently, pay toilets are another example of user fees.  The Toilet Guru will give you more information than you ever thought possible on this universally necessary topic.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guilty Pleasures

I was never of those mothers that parroted:  Eat up your dinner;   there are starving children in China. ...'      I get the impression China is very prosperous now compared to the Cultural Revolution days but that's probably just the few.    Lately, there have been local outcries to tax real estate purchases by wealthy overseas buyers; overseas being the code word for wealthy Chinese buyers.   Vancouver is considered a safe haven for monetary fortunes.   Perhaps keeping  funds at home engenders envy and who knows where that leads.

When I visited Versailles in my youth I was awestruck.   It's just so opulent, so over the top luxurious.   The Hall of  Mirrors there seemed unbelievable to my nineteen year old eyes.  I wanted to be Marie Antoinette,  I longed to live royally in that decadent splendor.

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Next month I will be visiting the Hemitage in St. Petersburg,  named Leningrad until 1991.   I'm told it rivals Versailles or perhaps exceeds it in opulence.   Many people have this destination on their bucket list.  I'm sure it won't disappoint but somehow my thoughts now are meandering  more to wondering how many peasants and farmers went hungry or half clothed to provide all that excess.  I now tend to take my pleasure in natural wonders and beauties, especially when they are available for all to enjoy.  

The Hemitage, St. Petersburg

Maybe they used the same decorator.

Saturday, July 26, 2014



Returns.   Many, if not most, people want there to be the ability to return an unsatisfactory item.   I do.  Amazon has built their reputation on allowing returns on almost everything, including e-books.   Most people wouldn't think of returning a book purchased in a bookstore, probably thinking it wasn't possible.   Even if the story turned out to be most unsatisfactory, you made your choice and you're stuck with it.   Can you imagine trying to convince the cashier at Chapters or Barnes and Noble that you just couldn't relate to the main character and you want your money back.

University textbooks, wildly overpriced sometimes at up to two hundred dollars, come shrink-wrapped.   Once the wrapping is off, you're stuck.  There are concerns you might sneak into your father's office and photocopy every page overnight before attempting to return it to your university's bookstore the next day.   Tsk, tsk.

Periodically, this topic will come up on writer sites like the Writers' Cafe at the Kindle Boards.   Authors gnash their teeth at serial returners who work their way through an e-book series, downloading book by book, returning each one for a refund.   Some have bragged about their practice to others in public forums and advise others to emulate them.   Saves money, right?   And it's so anonymous and easy.

Authors rightly complain that they might accept the first return in a series as legitimate:   the person just didn't care for their style of writing, for example.   But to go on and read and return  the next and the next for up to twelve books is simply beyond the pale.  But complaints to Amazon go unheeded until the returns reach a certain amount, known only to Amazon, and then the person receives a notice that they are cut-off from further returns.

The outraged writer who is the victim of the serial returner  seeks advice from those who have been at it longer only to be told to accept a certain percentage of returns as part of the cost of doing business.   I have read suggestions that purchasers should be advised that once their e-readers record that they have passed the quarter or half way point in a book, no returns should be possible.   That's a thought.

I have to admire the ingenuity of the manufacturer/designer of a line of ladies wear who plainly states on Amazon, right below the product description that:


Wednesday, July 23, 2014



The metropolitan area in which I reside was this year bestowed the dubious honour of having the most congested traffic in North America.  I would venture to guess that having the mildest climate in Canada as well as one of the least developed rapid transit systems would be contributing factors.  

An impressive  bridge with large golden eagle statues adorning the entrances  was constructed in 2009 over the river that splits the Metro Vancouver area into two sections.  It joins a half dozen other bridges spanning the Fraser River.   As seems to be the trend, it is a toll bridge and for an occasional user who hasn't registered with the system the charge is now $4.20.   That would be one way.     A return trip will leave the traveller  poorer by $8.40.   There is a saving if you register your vehicle and even more if you obtain a transponder for the system.   To no one's surprise, except the developers of the bridge, toll revenues have been less than anticipated.   People have changed their habits, perhaps even their residences or place of work to avoid this expense.   After all, regular five day a week commuters are paying around $1,500 annually.  It seems the bridge will require ongoing government subsidies for the next twenty- five years.

Golden Ear Bridge Eagle #2 for the Golden Ear Bridge, Vancouver, B.C.,by: Bernie Jestrabek-Hart and assisted byPattie Young

But, interesting as this is--while not surprising--what caught my attention in a recent radio interview was the information provided that the bridge was designed to have a hundred year lifespan.   A hundred years!    I assumed that transporter technology, a la Star Trek, would have taken over by then.   Will people, long after you and I are departed from this planet, still be moving about in that most inefficient, expensive, polluting mode of transportation known as the car?     

With this interview still in my recent memory banks, I watched a pseudo-documentary on television attempting to depict the effect on our world during the days, months and years after oil ran out.   It wasn't a pretty picture.   The shocking part was how unprepared governments and people were and how devastating the transition period was.  Somehow, a hundred year predictions are blithely made in the face of obvious contradictory evidence yet little preparation seems to be made for a much more likelier reality occurring in the coming decades.