Monday 31 March 2008

The Walkable City and Signs of Spring

Short post today: I’m supposed to give Simon Dardick at Véhicule Press the complete version of my next book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Street and Beyond this afternoon. Well, the notes, bibliography and photo list won’t be ready by 3:30 p.m. when I’m supposed to go by his office, but the text is pretty well finished. It was a hard book to write, but I’m beginning to think I maybe have a good fix on it. More later, of course.

But first a couple of signs of spring: our house has a “flat” roof, that is it slopes toward a central drain which carries away rain and melt water. The drain runs through the middle of the house to meet the sewer pipes in the basement, which means that this time of year as the snow on the roof begins to melt there is a constant burble of water. Sounds a bit like a stream, and is a sure sign of spring.

And, believe it or not, despite the snow banks which are still four feet high in front, the edges have begun to retreat so that a little of the ground is showing. Right near the front steps one sturdy snowdrop has already thrust its head out! Good to see!

Sunday 30 March 2008

The CBC Ad in Saturday's Globe and Mail:Paying Big Bucks to Convince Us We Don't Know What's Good for Us

The CBC just dropped about $30,000 trying to convince us how cool their new Radio Two programming will be. Saturday's Globe and Mail included a full page colour ad in the Review section, touting the changes with a list of industry types who think the gutting of serious music programming is a good thing. According to the Globe's rate card, the most advantageous rate is $11.71 a line for that placement, and a full page runs 1600 lines. That comes to $18,736, to which $9,228 in colour charges must be added, plus an undetermined amount for putting the ad together.

This ad comes a day after the CBC Vancouver Orchestra was axed for "budget" reasons. Come on, who do they think they're fooling? There's money to push this stuff, but not for good programming? Nonsense. I'm not sure how they do their accounting, but $30,000 would pay for recording a live chamber music concert certainly, or several of weeks of good programming from a radio host who knows something about music.

As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in the same edition, the CBC has only one mandate: "to treat its audience intelligently." Neither the programming changes nor the advertising campaign does this. There is no one from the serious music world listed as supporting the new programming: does the CBC brass think that no one is going to notice this?

Check out the CBC Save Classical Music FaceBook page. Send some e-mails:

Saturday 29 March 2008

Saturday Photo: African Violets and The Violets of Usambara

The ancestral African Violets were first collected in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania in the 1890s. Since then they've become everybody's favourite houseplant, grown by people all over the world.

I've often grown them, but have been unsuccessful in getting them to rebloom after their intitial splendour. This year, however, I was able to coax three plants ino blooming. A combination of a mild fertilizer and winter sunshine brought on the buds, I think. But I'm not sure: I'll have to wait to see if it works next year.

That the plants are blooming now is a very happy coincidence. My novel The Violets of Usambara whose heroine loves the plants has just been published. We had the first launch on Tuesday, which was great fun--lots of friends, and Marc Côté, the publisher of Cormorant Books, was there to introduce Hélène Dorion (whose Days of Sands was also being launched), her translator Jonathan Kaplansky and me.

Wednesday we'll have a second launch, this time for my novel alone, at a bookstore in the Mile End district of Montreal, where part of the book takes place (the rest is in Burundi.) If you're nearby, it would be a pleasure to meet you:

7 p.m., Wednesday, April 2, at Librairie L'écume des jours, 125 St. Viateur West.

And if you want to order it, tell you bookseller the ISBN number is 978-1-897151-25-9 and that Cormorant Books are distributed by the University of Toronto Press. and Chapters/Indigo says it's available for pre-order, while doesn't have it listed yet, but hopefully that will be corrected soon.

Note from Valentine's Day 2009: There's a new reading guide available for The Violets: Click here to find it.

Friday 28 March 2008

CBC Axes Vancouver Orchestra: Just Another Nail in the Coffin of Serious Music?

The CBC Vancouver Orchestra will be no more, following the end of its fall season next November. It is the last radio orchestra on the continent, and it was felled by budget cuts, according to Jennifer McGuire, executive director of CBC English Radio. The money saved could be used more efficiently by spending it on other CBC Radio 2 musical programs, she said on the CBC website. "The commitment we're making is that our job is to find new ways of working with musical organizations out there to make sure that innovative and creative Canadian music still gets on CBC Radio."

That might be true. When the orchestra was formed 70 years ago there was no Vancouver Symphony nor were there dynamic university music programs. Now, it could be argued, the CBC could indeed get more bang for our bucks by supporting these other groups. The fear is, of course, that the CBC will fritter away the money saved on its silly re-structuring of programming. It is significant the McGuire appears not to have mentioned classical music specifically when she talked about using the money saved on “innovative and creative” music.

What she should be required to do is to show where the money will go, and just how the CBC will preserve the heritage of serious music that the CBC Vancouver Orchestra helped establish.

And a couple of musical notes from Montreal: On Good Friday we heard an absolutely marvelous performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. It looked like it was being recorded: not to be missed when it is broadcast.

April 12 the orchestra and choirs of the McGill University music school will give Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Église Saint-Jean Baptiste. Tickets are only $10: 514 398-4547. Definitely worth putting on your calendar if you are near Montreal.

Thursday 27 March 2008

ERDC Annual General Meeting: The Fight Continues

Last night was the annual general meeting of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee, a group which more than ten years ago took the first steps toward a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit against the publishers of The Gazette for copyright infringement of freelancers’ work dating back to 1985.

February 25-27 the Honourable Justice Eva Petras heard our request for class action authorization, and last night our lawyer Me Mireille Goulet gave a rundown on what she and the other side (now consisting of Montreal Gazette Group, CanWest Global Communications, Hollinger Canadian Publishing Holdings, CanWest Interactive, Southam and Southam Business Communications, Infomart Dialog and Cedrom-SNI) argued. David Homel, our class representative, was there too, as were several other stalwarts who attended the proceedings to show their solidarity.

We also elected a new executive. The previous members all wanted to continue and were re-elected unanimously so Ron Diamond will be treasurer; Jack Ruttan, secretary; and Ann Charney, Peter McFarlane, Stuart Robertson and Merrily Weisbord will continue as members-at-large, with myself as president. Tracy Arial and Julia Gedeon, who have been involved from the beginning, have also agreed to be members-at-large.

Me Goulet told us that we are not likely to get a decision on the class action authorization before the end of the summer: the judge has six months to study the case and render her verdict. But well before that we will launching a fund raising campaign to compensate Me Goulet. She’s been working without compensation for five years, and while she’ll get a percentage of the judgment when we get one, that may be a long time coming. So stay tuned for more about the campaign. We’ll have an announcement in a few weeks time.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Stop Before You Switch Your Light Bulbs: Fluorescent Bulbs May Actually Increase Green House Gas Emissions, Depending on Where You Live

That’s it, we’re not switching to fluorescent light bulbs.

A new report by researchers at the University of Toronto “To Switch or not to Switch : A Critical Analysis of Canada’s Ban on Incandescent Light Bulbs” indicates that using the low-heat bulbs will actually do more harm than good in a places, like Quebec, where electricity comes from “clean” sources. That’s because the heat from the old-fashioned bulbs adds marginally to the warming of the dwelling, decreasing the need to heat. The effect may be small, but the researchers say at least three Canadian provinces will actually increase their carbon footprint if their residents make the big switch.

Where electricity is generated by coal, the situation is different, the researchers agree.

Ever since the Harper government said it was going to ban incandescent bulbs in Canada by 2012, I’ve been complaining. In their current configuration they provide disagreeable light. A ban on the old fashioned kind of bulb doesn’t do anything about more important ways to save energy and cut down green house gas emissions, such as boosting public transportation and retrofitting buildings to conserve heat.

In the story in La Presse which reported the researchers' findings, little mention is made of what the effect might be in summer time when incandescent bulbs add to the ambient heat, thus possibly increasing the need for air conditioning. Maybe then the advice of my grandmother would apply though: she always said it was much cooler to sit in the dark on a summer night than under a light. Must make a comparison if summer ever comes again!

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Why Obama and Clinton Must Not Fight Each Other to the Bitter End

Somewhere in the basement we have a Dukakis poster saved from the 1988 US presidential election. Actually it was the one used in the California primary that year, and I traded an Ed Broadbent/NDP poster for it when we were visiting in Fresno. That was when I was deeply involved in the NDP here, and I’d taken Broadbent posters with me in order to have an excuse to go in and talk to the Democrats. It was the middle of June and Dukakis had just won California, ensuring the nomination. But to my enormous surprise, his office was being packed up and stored until after the Democratic convention in August.

I remember telling my husband how stupid I thought that was: even if everyone was tired after a hard-fought primary campaign, they’d be much better off to keep things going at least on a minimal basis in order not to lose momentum. It was a recipe for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

That is what I fear may happen this time with the Democrats. Hillary Clinton has just committed two terrible gaffes: not commenting at greater length on the underlying sentiments Barack Obama expressed in his excellent speech last week , and mis-remembering conditions when she went to Bosnia as an emissary for Bill during the troubles there. The latter is perhaps understandable: Bosnia was a scary place in 1996, and her memories might easily have grown starker with the passage of time. The first gaffe is more serious. What Obama raised is “an important topic,” she said, before launching into an interesting but considerably more prosaic speech about Iraq and infrastructure.

To my knowledge she has not gone further than that, which just won’t cut it in my opinion. Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, may think the same. It is not an accident, I’m sure, that he came out for Obama a couple of days afterward.

Along with the Dukakis and Broadbent posters hidden away next to the camping equipment we haven’t used in several years, we have one other poster from the 1988 campaign. That’s the one for Jesse Jackson which I also traded for that June. This time it was in the Los Angeles airport and the young woman decked out in Jackson buttons was still campaigning for what seemed a lost cause. Unlike the two other campaign posters now hidden away, I’ve had the Jackson poster pinned up in the guest bedroom for years. Keeping the faith, I guess. Waiting for a sea change in American society.

Which might just have been accomplished.

I’ve still got some questions about Obama’s economic policy and his plan for health care, but it’s looking like he’s the person to lead the United States toward positive change on a lot of fronts. What is absolutely essential is that he and the Clintons make peace in the very near future so they can fight and beat John McCain and the Republicans. The future of the whole world is at stake.

Monday 24 March 2008

Holidays for Everyone: A Proposal for Reasonable Accommodation

Today is Easter Monday, which is a holiday in Canada as is Good Friday. The legacy of a time when the country was overwhelmingly Christian and Quebec was almost completely Catholic, the two holidays today give ammunition to all groups who want their own religious holidays recognized. To recognize Christian festivals is all right, but if you do you must recognize the festivals of others, it seems to me. That is what “reasonable accommodation”—a phrase that has been receiving a lot air time in Quebec for the last year or so—means.

But what would happen if we changed all our legal holidays to ones which are purely secular? There are several already in both Canada and the US: Thanksgiving, Labour Day, a holiday near the end of May with various names, Patriotic celebrations in June and July, a day off in February in many places. Perhaps we should add a solstice/new year combination in December and a spring festival near the vernal equinox. This would not mean that various religions wouldn’t be able to mark their special festivals (including permission for taking a day or two off on very important days,) but that our societies would include everyone in officially sanctioned celebrations.

We are countries of immigrants, and we must not allow ourselves to be caught in a sectarian framework that no longer reflects who we are.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Saturday Photo: Spring Flowers for a Frosty Spring

No, these are not tulips growing in my garden, but some hothouse ones given us by a nice little old lady for whom we shovel snow. We'd do it anyway--our parents grew old a long distance from us and had to count on the kindness of strangers, so we figure turn about is only fair play--but she does know exactly what pleases us.

And what could be nicer on this frosty third day of spring 2008 but spring flowers. There was some melting around here, but Quebec City has now passed the 500 cm snow mark--deep as a diving pool, more than 15 feet--while traffic for 200 kilometers on the main road on the lower shore of the St. Lawrence going toward the Gaspé peninsula has been closed because of another storm.

What a winter! Do enjoy the holiday though, be it Easter or (a little late) Navrus and Purim.

Friday 21 March 2008

Notes from the Writing Game: The Violets of Usambara Arrives! (Or Should it Be "Arrive?)

The first books arrived about 4:30 p.m. yesterday, and I can’t say how relieved I was. We’re having the first launch of The Violets of Usambara next Tuesday (6 p.m., Paragraphe Books, Sherbrooke and McGill College) but when I talked to the publisher’s office a couple of days ago, the books hadn’t arrived from the printer. I had visions of the incredible Marc Côté, Cormorant’s soul, getting on the train from Toronto next week with several boxes of late-arriving books. But it appears that all is well.

Yes, all is well. I feel particularly good about the quote that Antanas Sileika, a fine writer himself and head of the Humber College creative writing program, gave us to put on the jacket cover:

“Mary Soderstrom’s Violets of Usambara is a moving novel that explores the possibility of redemption in a morally complex world. Cutting between Canada and tension-filled Burundi, it has echoes of Graham Greene both in setting and tone, but it is above all Soderstrom’s intelligent investigation of power and its absence and love over the lifetime of a marriage.”

It is so nice when people you respect understand what you’re trying to do.

Thursday 20 March 2008

First Day of Spring? More Snow and Something to Make You Laugh

Quebec City is getting 35 cm of snow today, and, although there was some melting yesterday, we've supposed to receive a little more today too. The first day of spring, and the snow banks are still 7 feet high in the back yard!

So to celebrate here's something that may make you laugh:

Three blondes, an American, a German and a Canadian, die and find themselves before St. Peter at the pearly gates.

He tells them that before he can let them into heaven that they must explain the significance of Easter.

The blonde American says: “Easter is a big party when you eat turkey and chocolate and drink too much.”

“Nooooooo,” St. Peter cries and sends her to hell.

The blonde German says: “At Easter we celebrate the birth of Jesus and exchange gifts.”

“Nooooooo, not at all,” St. Peter cries and send her to hell.

The blonde Canadian says: “Easter is a Christian festival which usually coincides with Passover. Jesus was betrayed by Judas, then he was crucified and died. Then he was put in a big cave which was closed by a big rock.”

St. Peter is very pleased. “That’s right. Very good.”

But then the Canadian continues: “Each year since then the rock is rolled away from the entrance to the cave and Jesus comes out. If he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of hockey.”

And St. Peter faints…

Courtesy of Élisabeth Humblot. My translation.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Ice, Books, and Ian McEwan's Beaches on the Fifth Anniversary of the Start of the Current Iraq War

I had hoped to have some interesting feedback to share from one of my book groups on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. This group, which was started in the late 1960s and has been meeting every two weeks with much the same cast of characters ever since, discussed the short novel last night. I was really looking forward to learning what the others thought about the connection between “On Dover Beach” in Saturday and the setting for this book. The poem by Mathew Arnold, you’ll remember, saves Henry Perowne’s family from a crazy agressor. But Chesil Beach, in which the sea's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" is distantly heard , is the scene of a couple’s first, disastrous night together. No “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another! ” in this story.

The weather and the automobile did me in, however. I had forgotten to check to see if the garage door was free—it freezes up frequently when there is a little thaw and melt water drips off the roof, only to freeze at night. It took me 15 minutes on my hands and knees to chip away at the bottom to get the door open, and then when I tried to start the car nothing happened. Of course, it had sat there for nearly three weeks (February 28, I think) when I last used it to run errands and had it washed at the car wash. Lee thinks that maybe some water froze on wires to the starter motor (the car lights went on, indicating the battery is still good) but there’s not much you can do about that when you’re half an hour late already.

So I missed the meeting. Damn! Maybe in two week’s time the weather will be more clement.

In the meantime, though, a word to note the fifth anniversary of the starting of the current Iraq war. Saturday takes place on the international day of protest the month before the US and "the coalition of the willing" began the war. Perhaps a further quote from "Dover Beach" is appropriate.

"..the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Tuesday 18 March 2008

White Stuff And Green Business: Recycled Paper Company Has a Good and Bad Week

The last few days have been good ones and bad ones for Quebec paper company Cascades. Part of the roof on its sorting facility north of Montreal collapsed a week ago because of snow accumulation, But the “green” company got a boost Monday when the Globe and Mail reported that its paper towels were recently found to be the only product among 1,018 supposedly ecologically correct items made by many companies that wasn’t fudging green credentials.

The Globe’s story said that TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. checked out products sold in big box stores against their claims, and only Cascades was telling it straight. According to the story, Cascades was begun in the 1950s when Antonio Lemaire found himself blacklisted for union organizing in a textile plant. To make a living he turned to recuperating industrial and municipal waste, in effect recycling long before the practice became the thing to do. A half century later, his son Alain directs a company that is poised to break into larger markets, the Globe’s story said.

Cascades recorded a small profit in the last quarter of 2007, much better than it had done in the same period the year before. Its products include toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, wipers, and a line of fine papers. For a complete list of products and outlets, check out the website.

As for the problems caused by damage to the plant, the company is assuring customers that it will be business more or less as usual. Sure hope so: it would be too bad if all that white stuff did in what appears to be a green enterprise worthy of encouragement.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Cheesy? Not at All. Some Favourite Cheeses Take Center Stage

A friend visiting from Vancouver laughed last week that she’d never seen people take cheese as seriously as the ones she’d shared a meal with last weekend in Montreal. “Two plates of different cheeses and an hour of conversation about where they came from and what they tasted like,” she said. “Come on. Isn’t that a bit much?”

Well, not really if you like cheese. One of the interesting things about Quebec agricultural policy was a decision about 20 years ago to increase the value added to milk production by starting a fine cheese industry. Farmers were sent to France to study, loans were available to buy equipment. Promotion campaigns were begun. The result is a very fine bunch of cheeses, ranging from old classics like Cheddar and Oka, to excellent raw goat milk cheese.

All the talk about cheese inspired Lee and me to indulge our taste for fine cheeses by having a meal on Friday (a day I’m home late) of homemade tomato soup with a spread of cheese. Delicious! And there was enough for dinner Saturday, and lunch on Sunday.

Current favourites:
Four year old Gouda from Holland
Époisses from France
Bouc émissaire from Quebec

Two favourite cheese shops: Hamel at the Jean Talon Market and Yannick, fromagerie d’exception, in our neighborhood.

Friday 14 March 2008

Saturday Photo: The Fun Side of a Heavy Subject

Snow can be heavy stuff. The roof collapsed on a grocery warehouse in the Laurentians this week, killing three women. Today a man and his daughter in the Beauce region barely escaped when the snow load was too much for their roof. And all the kids in the Commission scolaire de Montréal were sent home at 10 a.m. Friday morning because of fears that the roofs of several schools were carrying dangerously heavy snow loads.
Crews will clear the roofs over the weekend "as a precaution," school officials say.

We're approaching snowfall records all over eastern Canada. In Montreal that's 383 cm, set in 1970-71, and only about 30 cm less than what we've received so far this season. With snowfall possible until late April we might make it. In the meantime, people are busy clearing snow from roofs, particularly in the mountains which didn't get the periods of thaw which melted some snow in Montreal.

But snow is fun, too, and the parks have been full of sledders and cross country skiers.

Department of "What Are They Smoking at the CBC?": Russell Smith's Modest Proposal

“No classical? Then kill Radio 2 and get it over with” Russell Smith said it well in Thursday’s Globe and Mail. “…the point of having a government-funded radio station is not to garner the largest possible audience; if that were the goal, and that goal were attained, such a station would be commercially viable and no longer in need of government support. I also assume that art and intellectual inquiry can sometimes be challenging and demanding of intense concentration, and that they are naturally not always going to attract lucrative audience, and that this does not make them any less valuable, which is why governments in enlightened countries support them and provide access to them.”

He ends: “..furthermore, a radio station that is indistinguishable from commercial stations--other than by its fanatical niceness—will have no reason to receive government support. why not just shut it down already?”

Right on! as we used to say.

If you want to read the whole version of the column, here's the link. You'll have to pay $4.95 to read it unless you're a Globe subscriber, however. I’d like to think that Smith will get a portion of that, but I’m pretty sure he won't. The Globe has been requiring its freelance writers to sign over their electronic rights for some time. Unlike the screenwriters of the Writers’ Guild of America, print writers get next to nothing even though they provide a substantial portion of the content for print and electronic versions of newspapers and magazines. But that’s another topic.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Hoarse, but Happy: Report on a Day Filled with Talk about Books

Yesterday I think I talked more than I ever have. Teachers and broadcasters will scoff at the four hours of class and hour and a half of book discussion I did: nothing unusual for them, I imagine. But I’ve never taught, and I’ve only come lately to leading book discussions. Until four years ago, my stock in trade was getting other people to talk—the old reporter’s task—not talking myself.

But yesterday I’d been invited to give three sessions at Cégep Brébeuf on Green City. It’s being used in an advanced English class, as the jump-off point for a research and writing project about the cities I consider in the book. The young people are Francophone, by and large, and aged from about 17 to 19. (Cégeps come after 11 years of elementary and secondary school in Québec: there are two year programs for kids who plan on going to university, and three year trade programs.) Their questions were interesting, and I enjoyed answering them. It was nice also to be able to invite them to the launch of The Violets of Usambara because there is a Brébeuf connection: the main male character Thomas Brossard, a Franco-American from Boston, spent a year boarding in Brébeuf’s high school program while his parents were divorcing.

Then last night the Atwater Book Club talked about Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. This is the third time I’ve led a discussion about it, and there is a great deal to talk about. I came home hoarse, but wound-up because the group always has such interesting observations. They got invites to the book launch too, of course.

And for anyone who might be interested, there will be two launches:

The publisher Cormorant Books is
sponsoring one

6 p.m. Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Paragraphe Books

2220 McGill College Avenue (corner of Sherbrooke Street)

The English translation of Hélène Dorion's latest book, Days of Sand (translated by Jonathan Kaplansky) will also be feted.

Then there will be one for Violets alone in Mile End (where a good deal of the action takes place) at

7 p.m. Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Librairie L’écume des jours
125, Saint-Viateur West
(corner of Waverley)

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Rohinton Mistry Is a Class Act

Rohinton Mistry is a class act: Les Durochères got a letter from him Tuesday, thanking them for awarding him the Prix des Durochères for 2007 to his novel A Fine Balance.

You’ve probably never heard of the prize which comes with no money attached. It’s given each year by our neighborhood book group (most of us live or lived on Durocher avenue) to the best book we’ve read and discussed that year. We choose the winner at a supper in December when there is much laughter, good food and wine as well as some serious talk about books. We consider the 10 books we’ve read during the year (we meet once a month except in July and August.) The books read are frequently in French (8 of us are Francophones, and two are Anglophones) but our taste is eclectic to say the least. Once the winner is chosen one of us writes to him or her with the news about the Prix des Durochères, and we wait to see if we get a reply.

To date we’ve received three letters: Robertson Davies the year we picked The Deptford Trilogy, Yann Martel for Life of Pi, and Mistry. The year we read Blindness by Jose Saramaago one of our number was at the Guadalajara book fair when he was and she presented that year’s letter to him. In the cases when we’ve had responses, I think the writer has been charmed by being read and appreciated by women who have read their work in another language.

The letter from Mistry will go in the archives that one of our number began on a whim shortly after we started. Now more than 20 years later, we’ve collected many photos, a couple of menus, these letters, and memories of books well worth reading.

Griffintown Project: Including Larger Apartments for Families--and Boomers--in the Mix

More hearings on the Griffintown redevelopment project last night: it seems so many people want to speak that two more evenings of public hearings are planned.

Among the new things brought up are the lack of feasibilities for families—no provision for a school, few green spaces, not many apartments that would be large enough for the archetypal family of four, let alone a larger family.

The points remind me of the discussion that went on during the redevelopment of Vancouver’s Expo 86 lands. There the private developer was required to provide a certain number of subsidized housing units and two and three bedroom units. The result has been an astounding growth in the number of families in the area, with the result that the Elsie Roy elementary school was opened in 2005, the first in 30 years in the centre city. It was enough for The New York Times to pay attention: "Spurring Urban Growth in Vancouver, One Family at a Time "

Mixing ages in a neighborhood is as healthy as mixing uses. What should also be remembered that three bedroom apartments are very attractive to couples of a certain age who are looking to sell a larger house. Right now most new quality condos have only two bedrooms, although they might have two or even two and a half luxurious baths. But active and well-off retirees may want a bedroom for the grandkids when they come to visit, plus two other rooms that can be master bedroom and home office. Or—and this is the great secret of older couples—his and her bedrooms. The fires may still burn, but if one of the lovers snores, afterwards they may want to spend the night in separate rooms. No developers seem to realize this, although with Boomers aging, the market is bound to grow.

Monday 10 March 2008

Burundi Food Production Shows Modest Improvement, but Half the Population Goes Hungry

Sobering thought: Burundi’s population has grown 33 per cent since 1988, but food production has dropped 41 per cent. The figures appear in a report prepared jointly by Burundi's Ministry of Agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), following a joint assessment in January.

Things improved slightly during the last harvest—up 2 per cent over the previous year’s—but still 600,000 of the nation’s 8 million citizens will need food aid since there is a shortfall of 486,000 tonnes of grain. A third of the population consumed only 1,400 kilo-calories per person per day while fully half of all households had what the report called “adequate, consumption in terms of quality, quantity and diversity.”

Nevertheless there is some good news. “Concerted efforts by the government and FAO…led to a gradual improvement of cassava production, a revival of large-scale gardening as a source of food and income for vulnerable households and a better banana and sweet potato crop,” the report adds. It also calls for “sustained donor support” for the country, which is” emerging from more than a decade of civil strife.’

Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, is the scene for part of my new novel The Violets of Usambara. That we are in the middle of planning a couple of book launch events where there will be good wine and tasty nibblies is almost embarrassing when considered against the background of this report. But that is, of course, one of the concerns of the book: what is the right thing to do, and can we undo what has been done in the past?

Friday 7 March 2008

Saturday Photo: Icicles Are Signs of Spring

It will all melt.

Have no fear. Environment Canada said today that spring will probably be cool, but no mention was made of spring not coming at all.

Another storm is forecast for this weekend, but on Friday the temperature got well above freezing and the snow began to melt in the sun. Icicles like these only form when the weather is getting warmer. They are, paradoxically, a sign that winter will not last forever.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Islam in Indiana, Wimples on Woman's Day:A Book and a Video to Recommend

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf was the book for one of my book groups this week. I had to miss it, and I’m sorry because I’m sure the discussion was lively.

The author, now a professor of literature at the University of Arkansas, has written a first person story about one young Muslim woman raised in Indiana and her complex relationship with the US, Islam and her own essence. She says that she wanted to call it Henna’ed Hoosiers, but that the publisher said that wouldn’t cut it. Maybe, but it gives some idea of the complexity of the story and the long journey the narrator makes.

It reminded me of Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, a book which won many awards when it was published in Canada a couple of years ago. It has the same clear-eyed regard for a closed and intense religion (Toews comes from Mennonite background) where love, anger and rejection are all mixed up together in a good story.

Definitely worth reading if you’d like to know more about Muslims in North America, and people of faith in general.

Also definitely worth a look is a video that morphs faces of women from art. The link was sent to me as a Woman’s Day Greeting, which seems to me very appropriate. It’s also available on YouTube, but I like this one better because you’re not distracted by extraneous visuals. (And do you see a similarity between some of the headgear worn by these lovely ladies, and the hidjab? Plus ça change etc.)

Wednesday 5 March 2008

March Roars In: Maybe We'll Have a White Easter

Wednesday Quebec City received its 400th centimeter of snow this season, a fitting milestone in its 400th anniversary year. In Montreal we haven't had as much--only about three meters or something like 9.5 feet--but this is turning out to be a record-beating year.

I took the picture last Sunday, a beautiful mild day with blue skies and much sunshine. Lee had just finished cleaning up after the last snowfall, and the snow banks are nearly as tall as he is: you can get some idea when you realize that the fence is at least seven feet high.

Then it began to snow again, with an accumulation of about 20 cm and much wind. The drifts look to be knee deep, but I haven't gone out to check. If it weren't for the fact that we get our oil deliveries in back, I think I'd try to talk Lee into just letting things as they are until the thaw. It is early March, after all. Spring is only a little more than two weeks away!

Department of "What Are They Smoking at the CBC?": Radio Two to Be Dumb-downed further

There had been a short story in Monday’s Globe and Mail saying that Jurgen Gothe was calling it a day after 23 years on CBC Radio Two (and its predecessor,) and that Disc Drive will be deleted in another putsch on what is supposed to be Canada’s premiere music network.

Then on the 6 p.m. radio news (Radio One, of course, since Radio Two no longer has news broadcasts worth the name) Eli Glasner reported on the official announcement: Radio Two daytime programming will be revamped. He added that audience figures following the last shake-up—which changed evening programming—had not been followed by increased audience share.

Why am I not surprised? Far too much of what Radio Two is now offering is nothing that you can’t find other places. It would appear that we almost lost Saturday Afternoon at the Opera to “Opera’s Greatest Hits” or some such last fall. At least that’s the way the first of Bill Richardson’s programs went. Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed, Bill was given a chance to do some excellent interviews, and we still have real operas.

The news release says that the CBC is looking for new program ideas. Maybe I ought to come up with one. What about this: let’s showcase the hundreds of excellent serious musicians in this country! Let’s give the same kind of coverage to new classical music that Jian Gomeshi gives to new pop music! Hell, let’s be as proud of our musicians as we are of our literary superstars like Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel. We've got it, let's flaunt it!

Now if only the CBC would get the message...

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Needed: Marching Orders for Afghanistan

March 4, the only day of the year that is a command. Not a bad day to talk about the wars again.

Prince Harry is back from them, looking not at all like either Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh playing Prince Hal. A nice looking, well-built young man who may be a good junior officer but seems no more thoughtful than most 23 year olds I have known. That is, of course, why countries try to get their soldiers young, when they are still foolhardy and seducible,.

The news also speaks of another young man whose homecoming will be quite different. Trooper Michael Hayakaze of Lord Strathcona's Horse regiment based in Edmonton was killed Sunday by the blast from a roadside bomb. He was the 79th Canadian soldier kill in Afghanistan. A shame.

Maybe the command for today should be: March home.

Monday 3 March 2008

Cuba and Castro: The Story Is More Complicated Than Americans Think

A ghost on the cover of The New Yorker this week, or rather the outline of Fidel Castro in smoke, to commemorate his announcement that he is stepping down.

I remember the Spanish class when our teacher Mr. Frankel practically cried, he was so happy that Batista had been overthrown. His wife was Cuban, and her family had suffered under the dictator. When Castro and his friends took over, Mr. Frankel was sure times would get better.

There’s no way of telling what happened to his wife’s family—he would be in his 80s by now, and after I left to go to university I came back only a few times. But certainly the saga of Cuba has been something to watch with interest. In Canada we’ve had a good vantage point too: there is no trade embargo here, Cuban dairy cows are descendants of Quebec cattle, Havana is a favourite winter get-away destination.

Lately, as I’ve been researching The Walkable City, I’ve learned about the way Cubans responded to the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s by making a jump into green, urban agriculture that may teach us all a lot about what can be done on not much land with recycling of waste and careful cultivation. And, as it happens, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a big exhibit of Cuban art right now which has been getting rave reviews.

But as Castro fades to black I found these links to a very unusual look at Cuba today: two short programs about Havana produced last summer by Al Jazeerah’s English service. Check them out if you like dancing…and surprises.

Saturday 1 March 2008

Saturday Photo: Skiing and Skyline in Montreal

One of the pleasures of living in a city geared to winter is the way people combine winter sports with ordinary life. Mont Royal Park has about 10 kilometers of cross country ski trails in the middle of the city. On nice afternoons these lengthening days, a steady stream of people head for the trails.

That's the downtown skyline in the background, and this year there is even more snow (the picture was taken about a year ago when we had far less than the current record snowfall.) A sunny, cold late winter day is hard to beat.

And the bicycle? Well, an increasing number of people ride all winter, although I've yet to see anyone balancing skis while riding a bike through traffic.