Sunday, 30 December 2007

A Good Way to End 2007: Another Tourtière Recipe

Here’s another recipe for tourtiére which might be good for New Year’s Eve. It is much easier than the Lac Saint-Jean style tourtière, but it is still good.

1. Enough pie dough for a two crust pie

(A good recipe is:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
½ cup canola or other mild oil
¼ cup water
Mix together and roll out between sheets of waxed paper to make top and bottom crusts for an 8 or 9 inch pie

2. Filling

.75 kilo ground pork

1 large chopped onion

¾ cup water

Herbs to taste—2 tsp sage or rosemary or a combination, a clove of garlic chopped, 1 tsp salt, pepper

Boil pork, onion and water with herbs until the pork is cooked and crumbly.

Let stand so that any excess fat can be skimmed off

Add about ¾ cup of bread or other crumbs—enough to soak up the moisture in the meat mixture.

Put into pastry shell, cover with remaining pastry, Bake at 400 F for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with green tomato relish (chow-chow)

Recipe clipped from The Gazette years ago and modified after suggestions from friends and trial and error.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Saturday Photo: Winter Wonderland

The forecast is for more snow, but actually it hasn't been bad this week. The temperatures hovered slightly under freezing, so walking has been a pleasure, now that the worst of the snow left by the two storms early in December has been cleaned up. The city of Montreal now estimates the cost at $20 million, or a tenth of the snow clearing budget for the year.

But it is undeniably lovely, even cozy, to have snow up to the windowsills if you can stay comfortably inside, as our neighbors across the street did until the last storm was over. Why go out when you don't have to?

Getting the Most from the Sun's Energy: New Ways, and a Warning about Taking Vitamin D

Still more snow in the forecast, but it’s clear that the days are already getting longer. Time to think of other things, like the energy reaching the earth from our friendly neighborhood star.

With the exception of nuclear and geothermal power, every bit of energy expended on earth ultimately comes from the Sun. When we burn coal and petroleum, we are simply using that energy laid down in fossilized plants millions of years ago. The trick for our future will be to find ways to capture the sun’s energy immediately or to store it for further use.

Some notes from the front:

The sun beating down on many ponds last summer created ideal conditions for blue green algae blooms, but some researchers think the fast-growing organisms show promise as commercially-viable precursors to fuels, the Associated Press reports in The Globe and Mail.

Wind is basically just air moving from areas of one temperature to another as the sun heats the earth. The New York Times’s Home and Garden section reports on homeowners in more or less urban areas who are installing wind turbines on the their property to generate electricity, sometime to the annoyance of their neighbors.

European countries and Japan are already far along the path toward replacing diesel made from petroleum to biodiesel made from renewable resources like canola (also called rapeseed.) The Globe and Mail reports that a Japanese company has just bought a large interest in a canola seed crushing plant in Saskatchewan. On the other, John Miller in The Wall Street Journal writes that several European countries have a glut of biodiesel from canola at the moment. He notes that the incentives to use the oil seed for fuel has driven up the price, just as the use of corn to make ethanol in the US has sent corn prices up.

Some promising ideas, but we’re not there yet, are we? Conservation has to be part of the equation.

And by the way, don’t forget to take your Vitamin D these short days, particularly if your skin is dark. There just isn't enough sunlight in northern latitudes for your body to produce enough of this essential substance.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Tourtière, shepherd's pie and reasonable accommodation

Our favourite specialist in 18th century New France, Emmanuel Nivon, gave us a little lesson on the origins of tourtière over the holiday, by the way. We had polished off the potato sausage and sil, (Swedish pickled herring) and gone on to gâteau mocha, the excellent, multi-layered cream, coffee and chocolate cake that Sophie makes from her grand’maman Jacqueline Mercier’s recipe.

There are those who say that tourtière takes its name from the tourte or passenger pigeon once used in the meat pie that is a staple of Quebec and French Canadian holiday food. But that’s not so, Emmanuel said: it comes from the round pan, the tourte, in which the pie was made. The Dictionnaire étytmologique de la langue française agrees: it says that tourtière, which it dates from 1573, has its origins in the Latin vulgate torta, as in round bread or torta panis.

There are as many recipes for tourtière there are Quebec families, but oddly, it did not win the competition for the “national dish” of Quebec, which Le Devoir recently conducted. That prize went to what is called here pâté chinois, or shepherd’s pie.

My first reaction to this story was: this has to be a joke! Think of the hilarious dinner party the London bachelor girl Bridget Jones gave featuring shepherd’s pie. But if Le Devoir’s experts are serious, the fact that the mixture of mashed potatoes, ground meat and corn won is evidence that Quebec has been accommodating reasonably all kinds of culinary and other influences for a long time.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

And a Happy Boxing Day, Too!

Today is Boxing Day in Canada, a very civilized holiday even if its origins are rather feudal. The story is that it was the day when the minions came around to collect their Chritsmas due from the lord of the manor. Now some people rush out to after-Christmas sales, but I think that's a waste of a perfectly good excuse to relax after all the Dec. 24 and 25 festivities. It is chance to sit around and enjoy the after-effects of Christmas, read the books received, listen to the music, and nibble at the left-overs.

So, enjoy yourself, while I go into the living room where the cat will join me for a nice afternoon's read.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Merry Christmas from the Soderstroms

Best wishes for the best holiday season ever from all of us.

Lee and Mary

And if you want to know more about our year, check out the holiday blog.

A Québécois classic for le Réveillon de Noël

When we arrived in Montreal many years ago, we brought with us holiday traditions from the US. In short order, though, we realized that our Québécois friends here did things in different and delightful ways.

The classic Québec celebration is a réveillon, a party that begins in early evening and continues until late at night. These days it may include going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but not necessarily. What is a constant is good food and fellowship.

We had no family here, so for many years we celebrated with other American expats on Christmas Day. Over the years though, Christmas Eve has become more important. Lee’s family used to have a horrible dish called lutfisk, but when I found it impossible to find here (it takes cod preserved in quick lime) I began to make the much better Swedish potato sausage his mother often served on Christmas day. But I want to share a real Québec recipe for a réveillon: la tourtière du Lac Saint-Jean. I make it every year at least once during the holiday season. It cooks all afternoon, and makes the house smell wonderful. And it feeds a crowd—just what you need when you are part of a famille nombreuse as they say here.

La tourtière du Lac Saint-Jean de Mme Gravel de Chicoutimi
(courtesy of Éric Gravel and Donna Duseigne)

Enough pie crust for three ordinary pies
A large roaster or similar deep, oblong oven-safe pot with a lid

1 1/2 pounds pork, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
1 1/2 pounds beef, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
3 onions cut in the same size cube
5 potatoes cut in the same size cube
2 tsp each, salt and pepper
2-3 cups chicken bouillon (cut back on salt if bouillon is salty)

Back in the old days the meats would have been things hunted: duck, moose, deer and so on. Feel free to use some game as replacement if you have it.

Line pot with pie crust, rolled relatively thick, making sure that the lid will be able to fit.
Put meat and vegetables, add enough good chicken bouillon to cover the meat. Top with remaining pie crust. Bake uncovered in 375 F oven for an hour. Cover with lid and reduce heat to 225 F for 4 to 5 hours. You may have to adjust heat so that the tourtière continues to bubble a little, but the crust around the edge doesn't burn. Serve with green tomato relish, also called chow chow.

There are other several other kinds of tourtière, and perhaps I’ll post another for New Year’s.

Saturday Photo: The Flowers of the Solstice

Today is the winter solstice, and the light will be returning soon. Of course, if your house is shaded by leaves in summer, it is likely that your house plants have been enjoying a boost of solar energy for the last little while.

My house plants have two growth spurts. One comes in the spring, when the days are well and truly becoming longer. The other arrives in late fall and early winter when the leaves are finally off the trees and the sunny, even if cold, weather arrives. This is the point when it is important to fertilize plants, because with the increased intensity of light (even if its duration is short) they will want to grow. I've had good luck in getting number of house plants to bloom nicely in the winter, including hibiscus and oranges.

Does the heart good to see the flowers when the weather is wintery. And this year, the plants should get an added input of light because with the mountains of white outside, the light coming through the windows on sunny days will be even more intense than usual.

The Phoenicians and Vikings As Globalization Pioneers: The Story of Saffron

Globalization is a recent term, but it’s clear that that the world has been interconnected by trade for a long time. This came home to me this week when my friend Carol Greene sent me this great picture of the Cornish saffron bread she and her husband make at Christmas a couple of days after I posted my story about the Swedish saffron buns we make for St. Lucia’s Day, December 13.

"This is the batch Frank made this morning. He has already given away (or we have eaten) all of the other two batches. This is almost the essence of Christmas for us, and the connection is my Cornish heritage,” she wrote on Monday. “I used to enjoy thinking that saffron got to Cornwall from a ship of the Spanish Armada which was wrecked, but I have been disabused of this notion. The connection apparently goes back much earlier to the Phoenicians who traded it when they came to Cornwall for its tin. 'The Phoenicians dedicated saffron cakes to the goddess, Astarte, a mystique that may well have appealed to the Cornish.' 'Saffron refreshes the spirits, and is good against fainting fits and the palpitation of the heart'" she quotes from Saffron and Currants: A Cornish Heritage Cookbook by Susan Pellowe.

Just how saffron became a staple in festive Scandinavian bakery is story not quite as old. The Normans (“north men”) spent a lot of time between the 9th and 12 centuries roaming the seas. Some were pirates: the word “Viking” comes from the Norse “vik” or bay so a Viking was one who lurks there. Others were traders and colonists, going west into what is now Russia, east across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and North America, and south as far as the Mediterranean. Sicily was ruled by Vikings for more than 100 years, whence the importation of the virgin martyr St. Lucia to become a symbol of light on the darkest days of the year (her name day at the time was about the solstice.) Saffron was imported during the same great trading period, and the lovely yellow it gives to baked goods probably reminded people of the sun.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Nutcracker: An Evolving Tradition, a Continuing Pleasure

Late afternoon in the concourse of Place des Arts in downtown Montreal. For the moment there is a lull in the foot traffic headed toward the Métro, the box office, the shops. Two televisions are showing videos of the Grands Ballets canadiens’ production of The Nutcracker, with the King of Candy cavorting around as Clara and her prince arrive in the Land of Snow. Tchaikovsky’s music rollicks over the echoing feet and, from the outside, the roar of snow removing equipment on St. Catherine Street.

Two small girls stand in front of the TVs, one watching each. Next to them are their mothers, holding extra hats and gloves as well as shopping bags. All four are entranced by the music, the colour and the movement. Visions of—well, if not sugarplums, then princes and beautiful dresses and little girls whom everyone loves—dance in their heads.

The GBC’s Nutcracker is a family tradition for us. Lee and I went even before we had kids, and we took Elin for the first time when she was four. Lukas joined us when he reached the same age: he was delighted by the cannon blast when the mice and the toy soldiers fought, but then fell asleep. Both of them tried out to be enfants de la fête during their ballet years: Elin got a call-back and Lukas, who might have been chosen, decided at 8 that he wanted to concentrate on his hockey.

This year the two girls who share the role of Clara symbolize the new Quebec. One, 11 year old Mariya Kyrychenko, was born in Ukraine and only came to Montreal when she was 6. The other, Eden Solomon who is also 11, is the offspring of a Canadian mother and an Eritrean father. Quite fitting in this time when Quebec is doing some navel gazing through a commission on “reasonable accommodation” in light of Quebec’s changing demographics.

This Sunday afternoon we'll all be at the Nutcracker, the kids' significant others included. It will start the holidays officially, and then, just to do something different, we’ll go out for a Vietnamese and Chinese supper in Chinatown which is just a few blocks away. No special efforts at reasonable accommodation required to enjoy such an abundance of good things.

Publicity photo of Callye Robinson by John Hall
Taken from the GBC's website with thanks.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Good News, Bad News the Day after Montreal's Real Car-less Day

Yesterday was traffic Hell, one of the worst rush hours in memory. Or so said the traffic reporters this morning. Things went well on Monday in the wake of the second big snow storm in two week because people either stayed home or took public transit, but on Tuesday it was gridlock city. At 3:30 p.m., after 20 minutes on a nearly immobilized bus on Park Avenue, I saw that a woman was walking faster than the bus was crawling, so I got out and walked too. When I caught up with her, we both laughed at how much better time we were making on foot.

Yet there was some good transit news yesterday: Quebec Transport Minister Julie Boulet and Joël Gauthier, head of the regional transport authority (the Agence métropolitaine de transport or AGM) announced contracts for 160 new double decker train cars to be built by Bombardier’s La Pocatière plant. The $136 million investment will serve Montreal’s suburban commuter train lines: with the first cars scheduled to be delivered in 2009.

The AGM has seen its ridership go up by 120 per cent over the last 10 years, in spite of the fact that its 193 cars are at least 40 years old. Currently about 65,000 passengers take AGM train during rush hours, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who take buses and the Métro (the STM—Société de transport de Montréal—records more than 2.2 million trips a day.)

The new train cars, however, will be (maybe ironically) a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Report from the Snow-filled Streets of Montreal: A Real Carless Day

The schools were out yesterday, exams at McGill University were even postponed, and many people obviously didn’t go to work, or took public transportation. With the second storm leaving more than 30 cm of snow on the city in two weeks, it was not weather for cars—if you could find them. As I walked around yesterday afternoon I saw a number of cars completely covered by snow with their despairing owners, shovels in hand, trying to dig them out.

Downtown was crowded, though. Many must have had the same thought I did—there won’t be anyone shopping so now’s the time. Coming back, the bus was packed, but it moved along quickly because there was so lititle traffic.

This morning the traffic reporter kept saying how much worse conditions were than yesterday. The roads were clearer—snow removal crews have been working overtime, literally—but schools were back in session and the impromptu holiday was over. The bridges were blocked by 6:30 a.m. and coming in from the off-island northern suburbs drivers reported even longer times than usual.

There are definite advantages to going carless, it seems to me.

Monday, 17 December 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name Department: Lawrence Hill's New Novel Gets a Name Change in the US

What’s in a Name?

Someone Knows My Name or The Book of Negroes: Lawrence Hill’s new novel has different titles in the US and Canada for reasons that say a lot about each country and its history.

The book is a first person narrative by Aminata Diallo (also called Meena Dee,) a woman who was captured by slavers in what is now Mali about 1745. Her story takes her across the Atlantic to the Carolinas, north to New York in the time of the American Revolution,, to Nova Scotia, across the Atlantic again to Sierra Leone and then to England in time for the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807. A person of great intelligence and resourcefulness, she is hired by the retiring British forces at the end of the Revolution to keep a register of the 3,000 slaves the British Loyalists owned, called the Book of Negroes.

Hill’s book was on the long list for Canada’s Giller Prize this fall, and was chosen as part of several “best of 2007” lists. But you won’t find it anywhere in the US as The Book of Negroes. His publishers there got much negative feedback on the title. Too academic, and also—worse—Negro is now considered a derogatory term there. (It isn’t the preferred term in Canada, but the negative connotations are not as strong.)

“Language evolves,” Hill says, adding that his own father—a “proud African-American” born in 1923—used “Negro” as his term of choice. The younger Hill came up with the new title which has several references in the book, as well as echoing James Baldwin’s novel from the 1950s, Nobody Knows My Name.

Whatever you call the book, though, Hill’s novel is a moving, fascinating read. Definitely recommended by the Atwater Library’s book discussion group which found much to say about it when its members met last week.

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Violets of Usambara and Brian Mulroney

It’s done, except for reading the page proofs! Yesterday afternoon Marc Côté, head of Cormorant Books , called with the last questions about editing The Violets of Usambara. There weren’t many: associate editor Blake Sproule and I had thrashed out almost everything the week before. What remained were things like the spelling of “tuque” or “toque” and whether “would not, could not” sounded too much like a rhyme from Dr. Suess. So the book will be out early-ish next spring, after nearly 10 years of work.

A most apropos coincidence: I was listening to the 4:30 news on CBC radio when the phone rang. The top story was Brian Mulroney’s testimony before the Ethics Committee of the House of Commons on his dealings with Karlheinz Shreiber, and the $300,000 (or maybe $275,000) that the former Prime Minister received in cash from the German-Canadian businessman. Thomas Brossard, the Canadian politician who goes missing in Burundi in my novel, was one of Mulroney’s stalwarts, and whether or not he was involved in some shady deals is a major element in the story.

Thomas Brossard is pure invention, of course.

Does life follow art, or art follow life?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Saturday Photo: The Snow Keeps Snowing

The snow keeps coming down. Last week we alternated between very cold and clear weather--minus 13 C as the high--and days with temperatures near freezing but with snow. The last of the mountains left by the really big storm the week before that are finally cleared away

Last night the Durochères, a reading group of friends mostly from our street, got together for our annual holiday potluck dinner. We hold it in the apartment of a neighbor who now lives in a highrise on Sherbrooke St. and it was good to be able to find a parking place since the streets were reasonably cleared. But we're supposed to get another 30 cm or so on Sunday. This is shaping up to be a winter for those who love skiing, skating and walking in winter wonderlands.

The Durochères vote on what book read during the year is their favourite and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (in its French translation L'Équilibre du monde) won. More about book lists next weeks.

St. Lucia's Day: Another Festival of Lights for a Dark Season

Today is St. Lucia’s Day, the Sicilian virgin martyr who is celebrated in Scandanavia with candles and special baking. Given the way the Julian calendar was skewed at the time the Norse country became Christian in the 11th century, it’s easy to say how this festival of light could be conflated with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year was about Dec. 13 then.

Here’s the recipe for Luciasbrod or Safronsbrod that I make every year. It is not an old Soderstrom tradition, but something we started after we got married (my name was McGowan, we eat oatmeal and most of us drink Scotch, not aquavit.) The recipe has been adapted over the years from one I found in advertising for flour. When the kids were in elementary school I took the dough to school several times to do a workshop on baking and astronomy (you can pass on a lot of information about the sun, the earth's orbit and inclination, length of day, and the different calendars. while you're supervising kids rolling the dough between their palms.)

Safransbrod, Lucia buns, Nisse buns, Luciakitti

3 tsp. dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup scalded milk
good pinch saffron
1/4 cup butter
l tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
4-5 cups flour
l/3 cup mixed, diced candied fruit
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped almonds

Put yeast in warm water to dissolve. Heat milk with saffron and butter. Let cool after butter melts. Mix with yeast, sugar, salt, eggs and lemon rind. Add about half of flour and mix until stiff dough is formed add fruit, raisins and nuts. Turn out on floured surface and knead, adding flour as necessary until a smooth, elastic dough is formed (about 10 minutes.) Let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Punch down, then divide into l6 equal pieces. Roll each out until long and skinny, Form an S bun. Let rise again until double. Bake at 375 F. for 12-15 minutes until light brown.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Radio Canada Puts Classical Music on the Net

Now available at a computer near you: classical music from Radio Canada!

Radio Canada’s Espace musique—the equivalent of CBC’s Radio 2—has begun promoting a new service on the Radio Can website called Espace classique which is billed as an alternative to Espace musique’s new, varied musical programming which, everyone agrees, shortchanges classical music.

Supposedly all you have to do is go to the Radio Can website, follow the links, and you’ll end up with a choice of three kinds of programming, called Zen, Vitamine, and Noël. At least that was what France Davoine, the programming director, told the press this week, but I was unable to get any further than a rather nice Deutche Grammaphon recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. Perhaps this is just a temporary glitch: the site was launched last September, but wasn’t publicized. The current media attention here is supposed to draw attention to a new feature: the site now offers the chance to download works recorded for Radio Can, beginning a free one of pianist Louis Lortie playing Liszt

But, as Christopher Huss notes in the Le Devoir, Espace musique is broadcasting less and less classical music. Is this an adequate substitute? I really don’t think so, either for listeners or for Canada’s fantastic serious music world.

Don’t be surprised if Radio 2 begins a similar service though. The dumbing down of music programming was first tried out at Radio Canada 18 months before the big changes last spring at CBC’s Radio 2.

Note: it will be interesting to follow the ratings of CBC/Radio Can programming over the next several months. All parts of the Radio Can service in Montreal showed a jump in the last BBM rating, covering the fall. Can't imagine what this means without subscribing to BBM and getting the stats for individual programs.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

News from Burundi: Refugees Are Going Home, Perhaps

Refugee crises all too often go on and on. Early this month, Burundian and Tanzanian officials as well as UN representatives sat down to talk about the 120,000 refugees from Burundi’s ethnic troubles still living in refugee camps in Tanzania. According to the UN news agency IRIN, more 40,000 were repatriated in 2007, bringing to 430,000 the number returned to their home country since 2001.

That was the year when a difficult and still only partially-completed peace process was begun in this country in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. Trouble between Tutsis and the Hutu majority flared in 1993, a year before the genocide which saw about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in neighboring Rwanda. While the bloodshed was never as violent in Burundi as in Rwanda, the country is only slowly recovering.

The vast majority (79 per cent) of Burundians remaining in refugee camps in Tanzania do not want to return home, according to a study released at the meeting. Tanzania wants to close the five remaining camps by next June: six were cut in 2007.

Another 218,000 Burundians have been in Tanzania since 1972 when they fled during another period of ethnic conflict. They have permanent refugee status and have been considered self sufficient since 1985.

And you thought your life was difficult?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Smog Alert in Montreal: Another Argument for Getting People out of Their Cars

Smog alert this morning! The temperature is -10 C, and the sky is overcast which is far different from the smog alerts of my Southern California childhood. Then smog settled in with hot days and still air, but the alerts have two things in common: temperature inversion layers and too many cars.

When I woke up this morning, the traffic reporter on Radio-Can was talking about how the bridges leading into Montreal were already blocked at 5:45 a.m. Traffic has been horrible for the last week in the aftermath of a big snow, and you’d think that people would take public transportation more, or at least car pool. Probably there has been some of that, but not enough. Certainly not enough to stop thousands of cars from idling as they lurch their way across bridges and along auto routes.

Vehicles aren’t supposed to idle more than three minutes in Montreal. The regulation is not very well observed, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now ways have to be found to get people to work and school in vehicles other than private autos. If not the situation will get worse, and rush hour begin earlier and end later.

What does that do to people's lives?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Saturday Photo: It's Snow Removal Time

It's snow removal time. The storm that stalled for 36 hours over Montreal this week dropped between 38 and 45 cm (15.9 and 17.7 inches) depending on the neighborhood. City crews did the east side of our street Wednesday morning and in the wee hours of Thursday. The bill for plowing and removing the snow from this storm will run to about $17 million on the island of Montreal, with about $130 million budgeted for the whole season.

The snow is knee deep, quite beautiful, and extremely early. When I was shoveling in back on Tuesday, a woman came cross country skiing down the lane, and Wednesday afternoon I saw other people carrying their skis, headed back from skiing on Mount Royal. Thursday I had to go out in the car, and wished I hadn't, because getting around on foot really hasn't been a problem since sidewalks get cleared first in densely settled neighborhoods. Driving--and particularly parking--is much more complicated. We've got several things to do this weekend, but luckily all of them can be done by public transportation or shank's mare.

Another reason for living in the centre of the city.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: La Grande Guignolée and Society's Responsibilities

Yesterday was the “Grande guignolée,” the massive charity drive sponsored by nearly all the media outlets in Quebec. More than $260,000 were collected in Montreal, along with the equivalent of about 3600 Christmas baskets of food and household items. It’s quite an event—radio and television personalities on streetcorners all over town, and bicycle rides and with favourite columnists and the like being raffled off by newspapers. Last year the campaign—whose name is inspired by a medieval tradition of troubadors going from house to house singing and collecting charity—raised more than $2 million throughout the province between Dec. 1 and the Feast of Kings, Jan.6.

As Françoise David, one of the spokespersons for the left wing party Québec Solidaire, says, nobody is against the Guignolée. How can you, when it obviously provides needed funds for charitable causes? But it is hardly enough. The danger with these short term projects is double: it’s easy to forget people with problems the rest of the year, and having given, it’s easy to forget that society as a whole has a long term stake in getting to the root of those problems. Good social programs, an adequate minimum wage, full employment, government help for women’s shelters, good public schools: we need to push for things like these even more vigorously than we scratch to find a little change for once-a-year charity drives.

By the way, the guignolée tradition shows up in Ste. Geneviève, Missouri, not far from St. Louis, as charitable pub crawl on New Year's Eve. The website compares it to "wassailing," and it also resembles the Mummers of Newfoundland and Ireland.

The poor seem always to be with us, alas. Faut ça change! as they say here. We oughta do something about it.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Home Stretch for The Violets of Usambara

What you see here is the cover of my new novel The Violets of Usambara will be--perhaps. The publisher Cormorant Books is getting ready to print its spring catalogue, and this is the design I think they've decided on, with some possible small adjustments. Certainly, I like it because it's visually arresting and hints at both the beauty and the darkness of the story.

That being said, today I'm reading the manuscript after it has been corrected by the copy editor, who also has suggested some tweaking here and there. Haven't got very far, but obviously he's done a conscientious job.

To refresh your memory, here's a teaser:
April, 1997: A Canadian politician goes missing in Burundi while investigating refugee camps after the genocide in Rwanda. Back in Montreal his wife waits for news and tries to help friends caught up in a money laundering scheme. A suspenseful story that brings up a host of political, personal and spiritual questions.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Fall-out from War: Genes and Good News in Iran

The cashier stopped checking out my order yesterday to look at the photograph accompanying a bizarre story in The Globe and Mail I was buying. It seems a bright Toronto girl recently won free high speed internet access while her father, out on bail in a terrorism case, has been denied unsupervised communication with the outside world.

“Look at her eyes,” the cashier said, pointing to Mahmoud Jaballah’s wife, whose gray eyes were the only thing showing in her veiled face. The cashier looked at me with a puzzled look on her own face.

Hmm, I thought, just like those famous National Geographic photos of an Afghan girl with startling green eyes. “Well, you know,” I said, “people get around. There were a lot of armies marching back and forth in the Middle East. Armies leave babies sometimes. Who knows where those genes came from.”

The cashier laughed. Her own broad face with dark, slanting eyes looked Chinese to me, but I couldn’t be sure.

“I have a friend whose family came from Scotland way back and she’s got that epicanthic fold on her eyelids,” I added. “You never know what happened in the past.”

The young woman laughed again, and began to check out the next customer. “You never know,” she repeated.

And that is probably just as well, given our troubled history of invasions and war. The pain and sorrow is hidden in the background, happily only showing itself in quiet times in charms, stories, and tale-tell inheritance. In my own family, my father, a black Scot, was in demand for “first stepping” on New Year’s Day, since to have someone with dark hair and dark eyes be the first to cross the threshold in a new year was considered good luck. I wondered what might lie behind the custom until I realized that it might symbolize a wish not to have Viking marauders attack in the coming year.

All this is by way of preface for the bit of good news which came out this week: that US intelligence says Iran quit working on atomic weapons three years ago. That, in itself, is good news, but what is even better news is that the US has had to admit that. Maybe we will be spared another horrendous military adventure in that part of the world. Better, by far, to make love, not war. Better yet for that love to be reciprocal, not forcibly taken.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

My Aching Back Department: the Coldest Winter in Years Has Started

Last week Environment Canada announced that this winter should be the coldest in a good 15 years. Doesn’t seem to gibe with global warming at face value, but one of the scenarios turning up as meteorologists play with their models is for more severe weather everywhere.

Melting ice caps could also play havoc with the Gulf Stream, which keeps Northern Europe cities much warmer than the cities with the same latitude on the North American continent: Montreal at 45’31” north is almost exactly the same latitude as Milan’s 45’27” north, but it gets much colder here than it does in the Italian city. If the Gulf Stream is diminished or rerouted the result might be a much colder Europe.

But changes in the Gulf Stream have nothing to do what we may be up against, Dave Phillips of Environment Canada said in predicting a return to “normal” winters. Colder water temperatures in the Pacific—La Nina effect—are what’s to blame, apparently.

Whatever the cause, it certainly seems that winter has begun with a vengeance. Montreal broke records yesterday with nearly 30 cm (12 inches) of snow falling, and more is due today. Schools closed down, even the inner city Commission scolaire de Montréal which practically never closes because of snow.

Oh yes: the reason this is being posted later than usual is because it took me more than two hours to clean the walks and the snow in front of the garage...


Monday, 3 December 2007

Does Energy Efficiency Mean More Energy Used in the Long Run?

Does saving energy actually lead to using more of it? Sounds counter-intuitive, but last week analysts for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce World Money report released a study which suggests that that might be the case.

Going back as far as the 19th century, when energy saving inventions like the Bessemer method of making steel actually led to increases in steel production that outstripped any energy saving, the report suggests the energy efficiencies are counter balanced by greater consumption that wipe out all savings. The more fuel efficient automobiles that were produced following the energy crunch of the 1970s led to a short term decrease in energy consumption, they point out, but 30 years down the road, the shift to gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks has resulted in more gasoline being used than ever. (One amazing statistic: the report says the light trucks are now the “vehicle of choice” for American families.)

Other incentives must be found to keep people from squandering any energy efficiencies industry might come up with, the report says. Easier said than done voluntarily. Are we going to have to undergo a fundamental shift in our economic paradigm so that frugal becomes fashionable? Or will we have to wait until we need gas rationing to take the problem out of our hands?

For a reminder of what the 1970s were like, visit the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s new show Sorry Out of Gas, which looks at the crisis and how architects responded.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Saturday Photo: December 1? It Must Be Time for Christmas Cactus

The end of the year is fast approaching, and my Christmas cactus is in bloom. Or rather, one of them is. I have two, one of which blooms before the other. The second has set buds and I’ll bring it up to the sunlight soon.

The plants are quite old: the first was a cutting from a neighbor at least 15 years ago, and the second my sister and her family gave us as a present perhaps 8 years ago. They’ve bloomed every year, and now I think I’ve got the trick down pat.

At first I followed Thalasso Cruso’s advice, which is to put them in a dark closet without water for the month of October and then bring them out into a sunny window. But then I learned that in the wild they bloom in response to length of day, the way chrysanthemums do. Now I wait as long as possible to bring them in: this year it was the third week in October since we didn’t have frost before then. One plant was ready to bloom at that point, but I stalled it by putting it in a room with less sunlight for a week or so. By the first of November it was bursting into bloom, though. The flowers were riotous for nearly three weeks, and a couple remain even now.

Next week I’ll switch plants, bringing the second one up from the basement to the living room. The first I'll put in a sunny window in a bedroom where electric light is on infrequently. Last year, it bloomed a second time, responding, I guess, to the length of day it perceived through the window.

They are lovely plants, whether they bloom once or twice, with their flowers that look like miniature fireworks displays.

Île Charron: Deal Is off, But How Much Is the Land Worth?

It looks like a condo development on the Ile Charron in the middle of the St. Lawrence south of Montreal is off—and some interesting questions arise as to what the would-be developer actually paid a fortune for the 20.6 hectares next to a provincial park.

In a short press release on Friday, Le Groupe Cholette announced that it is withdrawing from the agreement in principle it had with Luc Poirier, who had bought the land for $6 million about a year ago. Poirier talked grandly of selling the land in question to the group for $130 million, and of eco-friendly highrises he and the group would build there. The response from citizens was quick: a petition with 20,000 signatures protesting the development prompted the provincial government to put a development freeze on the land in mid-November. According to Le Devoir, Michel Cholette, president of the group, said in the press release that he has no intention of building a residential development amid such controversy.

No mention of sale prices was made, apparently.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Christmas, Stuart Robertson's New Book, and Dépanneurs

Mary, the post mistress at the Canada Post outlet in Mile End, was putting cardboard boxes together when I went by the other day. The little post office is in the Delphi, her family’s stationery store/newstand/dépanneur, the Quebec name for convenience store. (To be “en panne” is to be stopped by some small problem, so dépanneur means the place where your little problems are solved. It's sometimes shortened to "dep" by Anglophones, another measure of how languages shift when they live side by side.) She’s a small, lively woman with sparkling black eyes who keeps everything humming along efficiently.

“Lots of people bring everything in and wrap their parcels here,” she says, wielding one of those things that dispense transparent packing tape. “It’s a lot easier if things are all ready for them.”

“Christmas?” I asked.

“Christmas,” she chortled. “Have you got everything ready yet?”

Silly question, but it made me realize that I’m going to have to start giving the holiday some thought. The only thing I know for sure is that there are several people around who would love to receive Stuart Robertson’s new book Organic Gardening (Véhicule Press.)

Stuart has had a column in the Montreal Gazette for years, and for much of that time has also been a combination traffic, gardening and environment reporter for CBC 1 here. The book is his first one---another on container gardening is due out next spring—and by all accounts it is both informative and fun to read.

By the way, when I asked Mary, she said she was “about half ready” for Christmas. Now, that’s a woman who does it right.

For more about the Delphi, see Marian Ackerman’s story about Mile-End in last weekend's Gazette.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Henry Perowne, Henri Pirenne, Jane Jacobs, and the Middle Eastern Wars

Reading Jane Jacobs can lead you many places, but I never expected her Dark Age Ahead to take me to a possible solution to a literary problem that has been bothering me since last spring when the Atwater Library book discussion group I lead read Saturday by Ian McEwan.

Henry Perowne is the hero of the novel which takes place February 15, 2003, the day of international protest against the approaching war in Iraq. As he wakes early that morning he sees a plane in flames approaching Heathrow Airport, and the vision shadows everything that happens to him. In the end he and his family survive an attack as the world readies for war. It is a gripping tale, full of incident with many interesting things to say about life and, not incidentally, literature.

McEwan seems to have very carefully worked out the details of the book. Even the poem which saves his daughter from rape and worse—"Dover Beach" by Mathew Arnold—appears chosen for its message as well as its popularity. But the hero’s name stands out for its absence of significance. How strange, I thought at the time, annoyed that it seemed to resonate with something which I couldn’t put my finger on. I even spent a couple of hours trying possible permutations of the letters in Henry Perowne to see if I could come up with an interesting anagram.

No luck.

But then in rereading the Jacobs book, I came across her discussion of Henri Pirenne, (1862-1935) a Belgian historian and Orientalist. He is best known, it seems for the Pirenne Thesis which argues that the ancient world ended and the Middle Ages began following the establishment of Muslim control over the Mediterranean Sea.

According to Pirenne, Jacobs writes, that Dark Age started to move toward light when the “ poor, backward European cities...began trading with one another again and, indirectly through Venice, with the Middle East and Asia.” This, of course, falls right in with Jacobs’s thoughts about the economies of cities, but it also has interesting resonances with what is happening now. Is our current increased awareness of what is going on in the Muslim world an end or a beginning?

I have been trying to find a forum on which to ask McEwan if the choice of Perowne’s name is one of those symbols writers sometimes drop into their work for their own pleasure, or if it is pure coincidence. The former I suspect, and if I find out I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Far from a Million, But, Hey!, It's Nice Anyway: Green City Is Optioned

For decades now at least once a week my husband has come home and asked “Well, did you get any movie contracts for a million bucks?’ The answer was always a laugh, because the kind of things I write usually aren’t interesting to the people who make movies. Oh, once long ago when Alliance Atlantis was trolling for possibilities a producer asked to see my second novel, Endangered Species, and four years ago a woman in television talked about interesting a drama series in one of the stories in The Truth Is.

But long ago I resigned myself to stating my piece and making my place with words alone.

That’s why it is such a pleasant surprise to have Green City: People, Places and Urban Places optioned by Tina Hahn of Symmetree Media. She’s hoping to make one or more television programs from the book. Details are still vague, nothing is promised but, would you believe!, the papers are signed and the cheque—a quite small one, but still a cheque—has arrived.

My thanks to Simon Dardick of Véhicule Press, who spent so much time negotiating the deal.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Jane Jacobs, Sub Prime Mortgages and Housing for Everyone

For the last ten days I’ve been rereading Jane Jacobs’s books, as I go into the home stretch on my next own book, Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Streets. Right now I’m about halfway through Jacobs's last one Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004. In it she spends a lot of time worrying about the state of North American families, so many of whom are finding it hard to buy or rent decent housing. By the 1980s she says that the discrepancy between median family income and median house price had “slipped seriously out of whack.” Ninety percent of families could not afford to buy a “median” house. “It took only two people to produce children, but on average two by themselves could no longer afford to purchase or rent shelter for them,” she wrote.

What would she say about the sub prime mortgage crisis that has rocked US financial markets in recent months? She would be appalled, I imagine, but she probably also would understand just what motivated families to go so deep over their heads as they attempted to house themselves.

Keeping the whole financial house of cards from crumbling is a great problem currently, but of longer term concern is how to provide housing for ordinary folks, particularly housing which doesn’t involve more urban sprawl and increased reliance on the automobile. This is a problem that I hope to address in the Haussmann/Jacobs book, but so far it is very slow going.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Cars, Tar Sands, and Traffic Tragedies: Part of Our Urban Crisis

Elizabeth Kolbert has had two good stories about our petroleum madness in recent issues of The New Yorker. The first, “Unconventional Crude,” is a muck-raking look at the tar sands development in Alberta and the second is "Running on Fumes,” a review of two books about just how problematic the desire for private automobiles among the growing middle classes of India and China is going to be. Once again she shows us the severity of our problems as a world society, and while not offering solutions, shows pathways which might be worth following in our collective march toward either extinction or a better organized life.

Somehow we are going to have to get out of our cars, but it’s not going to be easy. Certainly the young—many of whose parents moved out of the city toward “better” suburban areas for their sake—are sorely tempted by the car cult. Two accidents in Canada in the last few weeks underscore this problem. The first was the death near Montreal of little Bianca Leduc, struck down in her babysitter’s yard by two guys horsing around in cars. The second involved three teenagers, none of whom were old enough to drive legally. Two were killed in the crash of a car driven by a 14 year old who had just legally bought the car. Both accidents occurred in the far fringes of suburbia, where there is little or no public transit.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Griffintown Project: Check This Out

Plans were announced this week for a major development in Griffintown, in old southwest industrial area of Montreal. For an interesting and very pertinent reflection on the project see A. J. Kandy's comments on Urbanphoto.

It is ironic that this plan is being announced as Radio-Canada (the French language CBC) has begun talking about redeveloping its parking lot around the Maison de Radio-Canada broadcast centre, and selling off the tower for condo development. Some 35 years ago a neighborhood not unlike Griffontown was razed to build the center. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Saturday Photo: Not a Partridge in a Pear Tree, But Snow!

Tuesday winter began, with snow and wind. After a warm fall the trees have been tardy in shedding their leaves, and the pear trees in our little back yard still have theirs. I had planned on doing the last garden cleanup today, raking up the last of the leaves, cutting back the asters that I'd let go to seed and sprinkling all the other seeds that I'd saved from rudebackia and other plants when I began the clean up earlier.

But it snowed more during the week, and there now are about three inches of snow on the ground with the temperature hovering around -9 C this morning. The forecast is for temperatures above freezing early in the week, so perhaps I can do all the last minute work later.

The leaves still are clinging tenaciously to the pear trees, though: the picture was taken on Tuesday and there has been little change, aside from the deeper snow. No partridges so far, although a flocklet of migrating somethings descended on the grape (festooned on the garage in the left of the photo) and stripped it of all the grapes that remained.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Sex, Youth and Health Care Systems

Contraception is going to cost more for many American college students, now that a special arrangement that mandated lower prices for contraceptive methods sold through college and university health centers has ended. The New York Times carried the story yesterday, with the headline: “Colleges Shaken by Soaring Cost of Birth Control.”

The price jump is something that young women who have cell phones and latte habits can afford, the story quotes some observers saying. Could be, but couple that with the statistics on teenage pregnancy in the United States and Canada, and a good case can be made for discounting contraceptives for all young women.

In Canada a young woman of whatever age has access to free health care without going through her parents insurer or even telling them. She finds a doctor or clinic, makes an appointment and presents herself with her health care card, issued by the province. She may have to pay for any contraceptive drug prescribed (although in Quebec she’ll be covered by one for or another of obligatory insurance,) but the price is likely to be less than in the US because drug prices generally are lower here.

Other factors are at work too, but the end result in Canada is a teen birth/abortion rate that is less than half that of the US. In an article in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality last May, researchers reported that the birth/abortion rate for women under 20 in Canada was 26.6 per 1000 in 2003 while that in the U.S. it was 66.2 per 1000.

Every child should be a wanted child. When is the US going to get the message? Stories like this should also be a warning to Canadians that we must defend what we've got.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

More roads for Montreal: Who Will Profit?

Le Devoir’s environmental reporter has hit the jackpot this week. In stories on Tuesday and Wednesday he raised more serious questions about a controversial freeway extension and bridge leading north from Montreal, Autoroute 25 and today he’s blown the cover on Macquarie Group, the Australia-based firm which appears to be the major player in the consortium that will own the stretch of roadway.

Wednesday Francoeur reported that significant details including the name of the project promoter were blacked out of the contract for a Public Private Partnership before it was presented to the provincial legislative assembly in October. Tuesday he had an analysis of the basic idea of a the PPP, done by Pierre Hamel, a professor at the Unversité de Québec research think tank, (l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique) showing that no money will be saved by building the road this way. Today's story shows that Macquarie, operating through its North American affiliates and some apparently indepedent Quebec firms, will build and then own the autoroute extension for 35 years.

This last news is something that didn't surprise me because when the story of the PPP broke in September, I remember a reference to Macquarie being Australian on the English-language website promoting the project. When I checked last night the reference had disappeared, but apparently I wasn't the only one because at the time Jean Catudal's The Trucking Blog asked some pointed questions about which flag would fly over the bridge

The city of Montreal is decidedly lukewarm to the idea of the extension, arguing what’s needed is more public transportation, not more highways leading in to the city. The current Liberal government (not very liberal at all in many respects) is pushing the PPP idea for what seem to be ideological reasons.

At the same time the city has just announced improvements to another entrance to the city, the nine kilometer long Notre Dame Boulevard, which will be widened to become a “green urban boulevard friendly to public transit, bicycles and pedestrians,”

We shall see what we shall see.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Letters to the World: Jessica Mitford, Gertrude Bell and Blogging

Letters, even edited letters, tell so much about a person. Thinking in anticipatory pleasure about reading Jessica Mitford’s letters, I’m reminded of discovering Gertrude Bell’s correspondence. Babylon plays a big role in my last book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, so I went prowling through the stacks at various libraries to see what I could find relating to its excavation. Some of the most interesting commentary came in accounts of Mesopotamia at the turn of the 20th century by Gertrude Bell, that intrepid traveller and the woman who drew the lines on the map creating Iraq. Then I stumbled on her letters, edited by her step mother and published in 1927 shortly after her death. Such a window on the complicated world of a woman who could not go out in London un-chaperoned but who travelled by horse and camel all over the Middle East and beyond! Several biographies have been written about her in the last few years, but none does her justice the way her own letters do.

We are unlikely to get future collections of letters showing such wide-ranging interests and well considered observations. When people travel today they send home e-mails or they call. Who takes the time to write a careful account of an incident when the gist of it can immediately be relayed thousands of kilometers away? Family dramas occur in real time, and rare are the letters sent to explain a position in a family fight.

Probably the nearest thing to the kind of conversations people used to have by letter is what happens in some blogs. Opinions are expressed, observations elaborated upon, ideas tried out in cyberspace. The big difference is that one writes not for a specific person, but for some ideal friend who is interested in what one is thinking, and who—most importantly—will let one have his or her say without interruption.

Try doing that by cell phone

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Sweet Dreams, Doris Lessing, and Old Lefties

Reading takes you many places: last week I started Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream and was taken at how it caught certain parts of the excitement of the 1960s. However, as I read on I became annoyed by Lessing’s stereotypic presentation of unrepentant Old Lefties, and their slow change into militants for all the wrong causes.

Her worst example (or best, depending on how you look at it) is Johnny Lennox, her heroine’s first husband, who was never a good Communist (he lied about fighting in the Spanish Civil War,) treated his lovely, generous mother badly, and ends his life, washed up in the spare room in his mother’s old house. He stands for all that is wrong with doctrinaire positions, and Lessing has nothing but contempt for him and for the men who led post-Independence Africa. (The book appears to end just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, so she’s silent on what has happened in South Africa since.)

A writer should never have to apologize for his or her characters’ lives, but, if he or she is writing realistic fiction, must make those lives believable. Lessing paints her people with such a broad brush, though, that several of them seem no more than caricatures. I recognized the Africa she wrote about, as well as some of the incidents, but I regret very much linking this book to our Old Lefty friend Marge Franz, who has never given up her passion for setting wrongs right while living a life filled with decency.

Marge was a great friend of Jessica Mitford: back in our Berkeley days she lent me Mitford’s terrific memoir Hons and Rebels and arranged for me to do an interview with her. It seems she also ended up being Mitford’s literary executor for her letters. And that brings me to my next reading: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Sussman (Knopf, 2006.) Thomas Mallon says in his New Yorker review: “A week spent with her letters makes everybody else seem a bore.” It will be, I hope, an antidote to the rancor found in Lessing’s novel.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Île Charron Development Blocked but is the Developer All That Unhappy?

Developer Luc Poirier just learned that the Quebec government is going to block development of 20 hectares on the Île Charron in the middle of the St. Lawrence south of Montreal, but he probably isn’t too unhappy.

In this morning’s Le Devoir he protests that construction of 2500 condo units he is proposing will eventually go ahead, despite the fact that on the weekend environment minister Line Beauchamp put a four year freeze on the land which at the moment adjoins the provincial park formed by several islands. But even if the development is stillborn, he just made more than 2000 per cent profit on the land he bought a year ago for $6 million: he sold the parcel recently for $130 million. And while the title has transferred, he appears to be working for the new owners, the Groupe Cholette.

The land in question lies between one part of the archipelago which already has a hotel and a major highway on it and a gem of a natural reserve, full of wildlife, walking and bicycle trails and inlets which are marvelous of kayaks and canoes. Nearly 20,000 signatures were collected earlier this fall protesting Poirier’s plan, and without doubt that is what the provincial government is responding to.

Poirier is talking about high-rise development in order to get densities that would at once be profitable and not take up too much of the undeveloped land. Initially I thought he might have something, but after further reflection, it seems to me that what he is proposing is far too small to make the kind of “neighborhood” businesses (grocery store, hairdresser, etc.) he says he’d include work. You need at least 10,000 people for that, and 2500 luxury units would likely have nor more than 6,000. In other words, he’s trotted out the New Urbanism to create another Old Suburb in a setting that should be kept for all to enjoy.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Saturday Photo: Thoughts of Springtime in Paris As Winter Begins

Snow in the Eastern Townships, Quebec City, on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence: winter is settling in, even if it’s only cold here this morning. I saw one car with snow on it, but obviously it had driven in from somewhere else.

Nevertheless, when winter comes, can spring be far behind? We’ve begun talking about going to Paris again next spring. What a fine prospect! We did no travelling last summer, and it is time to do something exciting.

In that spirit, the Saturday photos are pictures I took during our last trip, when I was walking around the 5e arrondissement, looking at the marvelous way gardens are hidden behind the walls of Paris. The first shot is one I took through the grillwork guarding the entrance to an interior courtyard. A man came out as I was pressed up against the gate and asked what I was doing. When I explained he invited me inside, and the second photo is what I found—a well-cared-for garden, an island of greenery in the center of a city whose population density is extremely high. Here’s a link to the Google satellite map of the neighborhood and you can see just how green it is.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Dreams, Strange and Sweet: Books about Communism, Lessons about Bird Watching and Life

It has been a couple of weeks since Doris Lessing was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Since I have't read her for some time, this seems an appropriate moment to take a look again at her work. My friend Ann Charney suggested The Sweetest Dream, which she said was a fine work, combining political and social history with a family drama.

So I embarked. The book begins in the early 1960s when Frances Lennox, writer, actress and ex-wife of Communist icon Johnny Lennox, holds open house in London for a group of young people while she struggles to get her sons raised and keep her mother-in-law happy. Communism has become a terrible, shameful disaster, the Cold War is raging, and somehow Frances has to keep everything afloat.

As I read I said to myself: I know these people. No matter that I was in London only once, but, as Frances finds when she gets a letter from another woman in the American South who held a similar open house for Civil Rights workers, there were women all over the world providing similar safe harbours for young people in the 1960s.

We were in Berkeley then, and our friend Marge was a similar figure. Among many other things, she introduced us to bird watching, and taught me a lesson about how to deal with the police. On our first bird watching expedition, Marge took us up to a levee along the Sacramento River. The car was wandering a bit, going rather slow, stopping whenever she spied something interesting in the water or in the air. Then suddenly we realized that a California Highway Patrolman was right behind, ready to put on his flashers and pull us over. The carload of young would-be radicals sweated a bit—the cops were not well looked upon in our circles—but Marge stopped and rolled down the window. “Hello, officer,” she said in her Alabama drawl, “beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

The officer was charmed, and told her very nicely that she should be more careful when driving and bird watching. She agreed, and waved cheerfully after him when he drove away without giving her a ticket. The four of us in the car exhaled—I don’t think we realized we were holding our breath—and Steve asked her how she could be so nonchalant with a cop. “Never hurts to be nice to them when you can,” she answered, as she reached for her binoculars again. “You never know when it might be useful to have a friend on the other side of the barricades.” She stopped the car again: “Look at that! Is it a merganser?”

Haven’t finished Lessing’s book—the last week has been very busy—but I’m looking forward to taking it up again tonight. When I’m through I think I’ll re-read another book about old Lefties and their triumphs and disillusionments: The Strangest Dream by Montreal writer Merrily Weisbord.

You gotta have a dream, you know.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Department of: That's Progress? Eco-Plastic Shopping Bags Cause Problems

Don't forget your canvas shopping bags when you run errands today. They're a lot more environmentally friendly than many of those "eco-plastic" sacks some merchants have started to use as they "go green."

Today's Le Devoir has a story which indicates just how problematic plastic shopping bags are. Some supposedly biodegradable ones can cause grave problems when recycled using current methods, since the chemicals which cause their decomposition can also degrade new plastics made from the recycled bags.

The information comes from an advance copy of a report by the Centre de recherche industrielle du Québec (CRIQ, or the Centre for Indutrial Research of Quebec) obtained by newspaper’s excellent environmental writer Louis-Gilles Francoeur. In it several different kinds of “environmentally friendly” plastic bags are reviewed. The best studied were those made by EPI, a Vancouver-based company that uses an additive called TDPA (Totally Degradable Plasstic Additive.) It causes no problems when mixed with other plastics for recycling and has the added advantage of decomposing in 90 to 120 days when mixed with garbage at landfill sites.

When the whole CRIQ report is made public, I’ll post links. In the meantime remember that it will take several hundred years for regular plastic shopping bags to degrade in a landfill site. That’s why London, England—among other small cities—are considering outright bans on their use. Strong canvas bags are by far the best thing to use for carrying home the bacon, and whatever you else you buy.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

News from Burundi, Rwanda's Non-Identical Twin

The tortuous road toward peace and reconstruction in Burundi took a step forward last week—or maybe not. First Deputy President Martin Nduwimana resigned November 7, saying that he “did not want to be an obstacle to peace.”

Pierre Claver Nahimana, a leading member of parliament for the opposition Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) told IRIN, the UN’s information agency, that he hoped the government will now have enough power and capacity to speed up negotiations...but also rein in paramilitary groups who are robbing and killing innocent civilians.”

But Nduwayo Gaspard, a political analyst and university lecturer, is not so optimistic, the IRIN reports. The resignation will not change anything since deputy presidents have no real power, he said.

This sounds arcane if you haven’t been following the political life of this non-identical twin to Rwanda in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. Burundi went through 13 years of civil war which was not as bloody as the 1994 explosion of violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. For the last five years it has been inching toward a government where both ethnic groups will work together under a plan mediated by Nelson Mandela. Troops from other African countries played peacekeeper during the first part of the effort. If Burundi eventually does succeed, it may become an example to the rest of the continent of Africans solving African problems.

I went to Burundi six years ago to research a novel I wanted to write, The Violets of Usambara. Since then I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what I saw and to read about that country in particular and Africa in general. (The book will finally be published next spring by Cormorant Books: in fact I’m supposed to send my final revisions to the publisher tomorrow.) I’m beginning to think that Paul Theroux was right in his book Black Star Safari, which he more recently reworked into an op ed piece for The New York Times: “Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for.”

Photo: Bujumbura, October, 2001

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Well, we now know that Stephen Harper doesn’t read all the correspondence addressed to him. That he has secretaries and aides that go through his mail is to be expected, but as we’ve seen this week in the Schreiber-Mulroney affair, there appear to be some letters that he should read which he doesn’t.

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi and fervent believer in the importance of literature, must be shaking his head over this turn of events. Last spring he began sending Prime Minister Harper a short book every two weeks because he thought the PM could use some good bedtime reading. Martel had participated in a Canada Council tribute where Harper seemed to be too busy to pay attention. The PM needed more “stillness,” and the right book might help with that, he thought.

Martel got a brief letter of acknowledgement for that book, but he’s continued to send books every two weeks with no further response. It’s been a while since I looked at the list, and I was surprised to see the collection has grown to 16. Each is accompanied by a little essay on why the book was chosen which in itself is an interesting meditation. (See why Martel sent Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons for example: there's a fine political message there.) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was sent Oct. 1, Le Petit prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Oct.15, and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson (signed by the author) October 29.

As for the most recent, I almost didn’t believe my eyes. It is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, sent yesterday, November 12, the day Harper avowed he never saw the letter from Schreiber sent to the PM’s office that mentions him.

Want to wager if Martel will get an acknowledgement of this gift?

Monday, 12 November 2007

Remembering the Right Lessons about War

Some 30,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill yesterday to commemorate Remembrance Day. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is, of course, the anniversary of the end of World War I, but it has become an occasion to honour the men and women who have served in the military since. The size of the crowd is disturbing. Canada is mired in an adventure in Afghanistan which is undermining the principles governing Canadian military policy since the 1960s—that is, participation on the world scene as peace keepers. Let us hope that—as the NDP's Jack Layton and the Liberal’s Stéphane Dion indicated yesterday—support for Canadian forces does not mean support for the policies which has led to their deployment in Kandahar province.

We came to Canada in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I was very surprised to see young people wearing the red poppy of Remembrance. In Berkeley, where we’d both studied, nobody but ancient right wing warmongers wore poppies, but what I didn’t realize then was the immense role Canada’s participation in WWI played in building national identity. Sixty-two thousand Canadian military were killed in WWI, from a population eight million, and 600,000 men were in uniform, or about 20 per cent of the pre-war work force. I haven’t yet been able to buy a poppy in November, but I can now understand the pride of Canadians at the difference small nation made then, and in WWII.

But we must beware of what is going on in Afghanistan now. Having signed up for service in 2001 when it looked like something constructive could be accomplished against the Taliban, Canada appears no longer to have clear idea of what it should be doing to make peace, and rebuild the country.

Note: last year CBC radio began Afghanada, a weekly half hour radio drama series about Canadian forces in Afghanistan. So far it has avoided the trap of blind patriotism. Instead it presents gripping (and often funny) episodes about what’s going down there. Definitely worth a listen: Broadcast Times: Wednesdays at 11:00 p.m. (11:30 NT) and Fridays at 11:30 a.m. (12:00 NT) on CBC Radio One.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Saturday Photo: The Last of the Leaves

Leaves have been clinging to the trees in Montreal longer than usual this year, but I think we've just about reached the end. Friends say that north of the city in the Laurentians the trees have been bare for three weeks. In town, however--perhaps because it's been warmer in the city, or perhaps because, when October rains ended a long dry summer, the trees were stimulated to keep going--leaves have been slow to turn colour and slower to fall.

Last weekend I raked up five big bags of maple leaves in front (so much from two trees on a lot 25 feet wide!) and this weekend I'll have at least that much again. In back the pears--always the last to turn--have some yellow and orange leaves, so it may be next weekend before they're all on the ground.

I used to compost all the leaves, but when the pears developed fire blight I stopped saving their leaves. Now with tar spot on the maples everything will go out for the city pick-up. We're told they'll be composted properly so the fungus which causes the diseases are killed, which is something you really can't do at home. One thing is certain: planting the same kind of trees everywhere presents problems. On my walks I've noted that tar spot is much less present on maples where oaks and other trees are interspersed in the urban forest.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Wine from Pasco: Time Marches on

My uncle Paul used to tell how Italian immigrant farmers in the Walla Walla Valley of south eastern Washington State used to make good wine for themselves. He came of age during Prohibition when alcoholic beverages were illegal in the US, and young people drank whatever they could get their hands on. The wine, he always said, was so much better than anything else that, long before most Americans discovered the pleasures of wine, he sought it out because the local stuff had given him a hint of what fine wine might be. For years the Christmas card from him and Caroline, his wife, always contained a couple of bills with the instructions to “buy some good wine.”

I’ve often wondered what he would make of the excellent wines now being made around Walla Walla and in the Columbia River Valley. Last night my husband arrived home with a bottle of Gordon Brothers 2003 Syrah to drink for my birthday. He’d found it at our neighborhood liquor store, the Société des alcools du Québec, which always has a good selection of European and Australian wine but doesn’t often have much from the western US. He’d never heard of the winery but what sold him was the notation on the back that Gordon Brothers’ postal address is in Pasco.

When I was born my parents were living in Pasco: my father was working for the US Army Engineers at Hanford, and my mother had gone home to Walla Walla--about 60 miles away--to have me. It was wartime and what was going on in that corner of the country was the deepest secret. Only when the first atomic bomb was tested in July, 1945, did the world learn what the secret was: plutonium. The problems unleashed by the work done there are still with us, unfortunately.

Time marches on, though, and, happily, some of the paths time takes are more agreeable than those toward war and destruction. The wine we drank last night was rich, fruity, and great accompaniment to garlic chicken. That it came from near where I was born made it particularly appropriate for a birthday. Of course, my Dad would have never given house room to garlic chicken--with the exception of baked Walla Walla sweet onions, he hated any dish with either garlic or onions--but the fact that both are staples of ordinary North American cooking now is another bit of progress, I think.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

On Beauty and Words

It was a varied group last night at the Atwater Library: youngish, oldish, white, black and brown. The participants in the informal book discussion group I lead there agreed however: On Beauty by Zadie Smith is a pleasure to read and the starting point for much reflection.

The wildly-succesful novel has more than enough plot and characters to keep you turning paages, but at the heart of the book are several potentially aridly intellectual matters. Among them is the difficulty of dealing with beauty in words. How do we define it? How do we react to it? Is physical beauty enough? Only one of the characters—Howard Belsey—rants academically about these questons, and the end of the book (we decided) demonstrates how inadequate Belsey’s verbosity is when appreciating real beauty. For a book which pointedly renders hommage to E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, this ending seems strangely uncommented upon.

I’d read the book a couple of years ago, and found Smith’s depiction of her middle-aged characters absolutely spot-on. They were so good, in fact, that I wondered if she wasn’t a closet woman-of-a-certain-age. Then my daughter, who like Smith just turned 32, saw the book lying around the house, and commented on how much she liked it. When I asked whether Smith had got the young people right too, Elin said she had. The two young women last night agreed.

If you haven’t read On Beauty, do. Just make sure you’ve got several evenings free for reading, though, because you’re going to want to keep going to you’re finished.

Next week at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont we’ll be talking about Neil Bissoondath’s La clameur des tenèbres (the French translation of The Unyielding Clamour of the Night), another fine novel although much more troubling than On Beauty. Next month at Atwater, it will be Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Climate Change Department: Snow on Mont Royal, and the Florida Everglades

This morning the traffic person on Radio Canada’s morning show gleefully exclaimed: “There’s snow on Mont Royal!”

Groans could be heard in the background, and the snow didn’t last long—there was none when I reached the top about 45 minutes later—but I was pleased. My birthday is tomorrow and in the decades we’ve lived in Montreal, not a November 8 has passed without at least a few snow flakes having fallen. Even last year, when snow did not come to stay until after Christmas, a dusting of snow covered the ground one morning at the end of October. For snow not to fall by now would be—for me at least—the absolute proof that major climate change had reached us. This morning’s flakes are like a small reprieve.

As it happens there is another bit of hope in this morning’s New York Times: the US House of Representatives has overturned the veto George W. Bush slapped on an omnibus water project bill last Friday. The $23,2 billion bill had been the result of bi-partisan study of many water resources problems, including the destruction of the Florida everglades, but Bush called it a pork barrel, full of projects for everyone.

One of the major problems the bill addresses is the destruction of the Florida everglades. The “river of grass” which once ran through the center of the state is on the way to disappearance because of encroachment by development and diversion of waterways. No houses would be demolished, but ways may be found to conserve water better.

Pogo, the legendary possum created by Walt Kelly and who lived in the Okenofee swamp for several decades in the mid-20th century, might be pleased. More likely, though—once he saw that the bill does not address the root cause of Florida’s water problems, the suburbanization of the region-- he would repeat what he said many times; “We have met the enemy and he is us”?

Such a great summing up, and the inspiration for the title of my collection of short stories, Finding the Enemy (Oberon, 1997.)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Here's Hoping the Surprise at CBC/Radio Canada Means Pleasant Surprises in Programming

The CBC/Radio-Canada got a new president and CEO yesterday, Hubert Lacroix. A Montreal corporate lawyer, he is an “unknown,” in The Globe and Mail’s opinion: certainly his appointment was a surprise since the betting money had been on Sylvain Lafrance, head of Radio-Canada’s television section. Lacroix’s media experience appears limited to serving on the boards of a couple of media companies, commenting on basketball for Radio-Canada during three Olympic games as well as appearing occasionally on a weekly radio sports show.

He professes great commitment to the public broadcaster: "I listen to it, I watch it, I use its services,” he told the Globe and Mail. “It has had relevancy in my life since I was a kid, and I really believe in it becoming a stronger independent presence in the country. It's the only place where we can protect our culture. It has a role. It has a purpose."

That is an encouraging statement. Under the Richard Rabinovitch, the last president, much programming was dumbed down in a mis-guided effort to cut costs and to appeal to wider audience. Not only was that an insult to the intelligence of Canadians, it has not proved very effective as ratings have not improved as they were expected to do.

Under Lacroix’s watch, what is needed is a recognition that the CBC/Radio Canada is a national treasure and one of the things that makes Canada different from its neighbor to the South. Will that recognition come about? Given the commitment of the Stephen Harper government to greater integration with the US, I’m not counting on it. Would that Lacroix, the surprise appointment, give us pleasant surprises when it comes to quality too!

Note: it is just possible that listeners can make a difference in CBC programming. Earlier this fall I railed against the changes which appeared to be taking place at Saturday Afternoon at the Opera—and is seems that many others did too. The format of the program has been restored more or less, and Bill Richardson—whose talents are many—now has a rather good classical music program on Sunday afternoons. Check it out.