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.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Traffic Tragedy is Fall-Out from Urban Sprawl

So moving to the suburbs is the best thing for the kids, eh?

Eighteen year old Brandon Pardi and a 17 year old friend spent the weekend in jail. Last Wednesday, the afternoon of Halloween, the two of them—each driving separate vehicles—were involved in a collision which sent their cars ricocheting onto a nearby lawn where three year old Bianca Leduc was helping her babysitter put up Halloween decorations. The moppet was killed and the two young men have been charged with criminal negligence and dangerous driving. Pardi has a bail hearing Tuesday, and the other boy, whose name is protected because he is a minor—also has a hearing in juvenile court Tuesday.

As you might imagine, the accident has been lamented loudly. Officials on Ile Perrot, the suburban community (Population: 10,221 in 2006) west of Montreal where it occurred, are decrying the lack of police presence. Speeding is a huge problem, but there aren't enough police to crack down. The area’s population has increased 25 per cent in the last 10 years, but the number of officers patrolling hasn’t gone up, they say.

A sad situation. But there is another aspect that nobody has mentioned to my knowledge: the dependence of people in Ile Perrot on automobiles which sets the stage for traffic tragedy. You can to take a commuter train to Montreal (the same line that goes to Beaconsfield) but it does not run frequently, and there is no bus service on Ile Perrot itself. Neither young Pardi and his friend had been driving very long—Pardi had only a learner’s permit, in fact--yet they needed cars to do just about anything in their spread-out neighborhood. When we build communities like this one we should not be surprised when tragedies happen.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Saturday Photo: Last Flowers, and Tar Spot on Maples

The leaves are almost all off the trees, and today is the day to rake them up. The tall spikes of boneset and goldenrod have to be cut back too, as do the straggly stalks of the other plants that grow in my Darwinian garden whose names I have forgotten.

This year I must be more careful with my raking because the maples have tar spot disease. It apparently doesn't really hurt the trees, but they look terrible from mid-September on as big black splotches of fungus like tar spots disfigure the leaves. There is no effective cure, but the fungus overwinters in the fallen leaves, and then infests the trees during damp, cool spring weather. Supposedly getting rid of all fallen leaves will cut down on the chances of bad tar spot next year.

The photo is of the last flowers in Parc Joyce, where earlier this week I found ginkgos ready to harvest.

Fighting in Burundi: A Sort of Success Story

Fighting between factions in the last remaining rebel group in Burundi was reported last week. Several hundred people were forced to flee their village when forces of the Front national de libération attacked a breakaway group which wants to take part in implementation of a ceasefire agreement initially arrived at in 2006. Government officials reported that there were no casualties in this latest skirmish.

The situation is undoubtedly more complex than one single paragraph can convey, yet it is more than those North Americans and Europeans who follow events in the Great Lakes Region of Africa will find in conventional media. Partly that is—as IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports-- because Burundi “is experiencing a period of relative calm after more than a decade of political conflict and civil war. The country held its first successful post-war democratic elections in August 2005.” Not much blood has been shed lately, that is, so not much attention has been paid by the outside world.

The IRIN country profile continues: “However, the cumulative impact of extremely low living standards and a continuous deterioration in social and economic conditions means at least half the estimated 7.5 million inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day."

Nevertheless I find this news encouraging as I plunge into the final rewrite of my novel The Violets of Usambara. It takes place in 1997 when conflict between Tutsis and Hutus had resulted in other African nations placing an embargo on Burundi in an attempt to bring the ethnic groups to peace negotiations. To some extent those pan-African efforts—which had Nelson Mandela as chief negotiator-- have worked, and therein may lie hope for the future of the continent

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Living the Hundred Mile Diet: Bread Made from Locally Grown Organic Wheat Now Available in Montreal

The walls have gone up at the Jean Talon market for the winter. From May until near the end of October, producers from the Montreal region sell their fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers in outside stands at the market. But this is Quebec after all and it is supposed to be cold for five months of the year, so about now moveable partitions are put up in the central area where about 25 kiosks operate during the winter. When I was there on Tuesday, only the pumpkin and squash merchant was still outside, and he is scheduled to close this weekend.

Locally produced root vegetables, apples, other storage crops and eggs will still be available, but for the next several months it will be harder to eat locally even when shopping at a farmers’ market.

Harder, that is, for everything, except bread. Première Moisson, a local chain of excellent bakeries producing 350,000 loaves of bread a week, has recently announced that it will be using nothing but organically grown wheat from Quebec hence forward. “We're very proud to be supporting local farmers and easing the environmental burden by not using flour that travels great distances," Première Moisson founder and president Liliane Colpron told the Montreal Gazette.

A step in the right direction, and not one that is hard for the consumer to take: Première Moisson’s baguettes are excellent, and available fresh daily at many groceries, as well as at the chain’s 16 shops.

Photo: The gorgeous squashes at the Jean Talon market, with the sign for the Première Moisson bakery in the background.