Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Royal Reading That Even Anti-Monarchists Can Love: Alan Bennet's The Uncommon Reader

The book last night at the book group was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. For once the discussion was a free-for-all with no one leading, but everyone contributing because all had read it with delight.

The premise is that the Queen stumbles upon the City of Westminster traveling library while walking the dogs. The animals bark their heads off at the van and Her Majesty, noblesse oblige, must apologize to the driver/librarian. The only other patron is Norman, a young man who works in the palace’s kitchen.

“Oh,” says Her Majesty. “Do you have much time for reading?”
“Not really, ma’am.”
“I’m the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.”

So begins the Queen’s initiation to reading for pleasure which leads her very far a field indeed. Bennet portrays her as an intelligent, observant woman who for various reasons never uncovered the delights of letting one’s curiosity lead one wherever the printed word tempts one. This causes great problems for her entourage until in the end she is ready to put aside reading for writing, which has even greater repercussions.

Bennet chronicles Her Majesty’s growing discernment, and the reader either nods in agreement with her judgment or silently objects--not aloud, of course: one never objects so crassly to what the Monarch says. That’s part of the joke because, of course the reader is so much more knowledgeable about books than One is.

The only quibble in the book group came from the anti-Monarchists among us. Their initial reaction was: who wants to read about the Queen, really? But as in the ad for the kosher bakery, you don’t have to be Monarchist to love Bennet’s book. I started it during a long wait for a doctor’s appointment, and ended up staying in the waiting room after the appointment in order to finish.

It would be interesting to know if One has read it, and what She thought.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Green Grass, Pesticides and Spring: Revery and Rain Are What's Needed to Provide a Small Savannah Fix

Overnight the grass is green! After 10 days of unseasonably lovely weather, trees and bushes around here were leafing out, but the grass in most places remained sere and sparse until this morning. The difference was a day of steady rain, it would appear. Suddenly the streets are lined with achingly green lawns and the parks look absolutely delectable.

The lift our spirits get from green grass is probably hard wired into our brains. Back in the eons when we were evolving on the East African savannah, short cropped green grass meant grazing animals that would be good hunting. Water would be nearby too, and so would various roots and other plants for gathering. Our ancestors who preferred that kind of landscape fared better than people who didn’t, and so left more descendants. The landscape preference is as innate as is that of birds who can tell from the air what lake, marshland or grove would be good for nesting. We of course can override that preference and choose other kinds of landscapes to live in, but the fact that people all over the world strive to reproduce that savannah landscape on a small scale is eloquent evidence of how we are shaped by what was good for our ancestors as we evolved.

For a good analysis of what that desire for green grass has meant in North America, check out “The Grassman - Can John Greenlee do away with the lawn?” by Wade Graham that appeared more than 10 years ago in The New Yorker. Since then, efforts have begun to spread to undo some of the ravages of lawns where green grass isn’t appropriate. Quebec outlawed the domestic use of pesticides and herbicides a couple of years ago, while Ontario has just announced it will be doing the same.

As for our own small garden: I dug up the lawn over a couple of summers, beginning more than 15 years ago. That was when I began to get static from the designated lawnmowers, who were becoming raging adolescents at the time. The annuals which replaced the grass are more interesting anyway, and provide a constantly changing landscape of flowers and interesting levaes. What’s left of the grass is a small arc in the back which I can mow in five minutes. The patch is just enough to provide a small savannah fix, as in the Emily Dickinson poem:

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few. “

Monday, 28 April 2008

Six Good Books While Waiting for the Top Ten

What are my ten favourite books? That’s a question I’ve been asked as part of promotional activity for The Violets of Usambara. There will be more about that later, but in the meantime I’ve been trying to come up with the list.. At the moment I’m rereading The Yacoubian Building by Alaa El Aswany because I’m leading a discussion on it at the Kirkland library on Wednesday. Delightful, and probably would make a Top 100 list, but it’s not the absolute best.

Here are few others that won’t make the cut either, but which should be recommended.

Most influential throughout my life: Little Women by Louise May Alcott. The first chapter book I ever read—took me three months when I was in second grade—but the moral questions it raises, its proto-feminism, and the way the story plays out against the background of the Civil War marked me indelibly.

Most moral but also sexiest: Get on Top by David Homel. The Messiah is a woman from the American South and she just can’t get enough. Serious, but you might not notice from the rollicking beginning.

Most troubling: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. The war in Viet Nam, much drugs and sex, some rock and roll.

Three from the mid-20th century that are essential to understanding Canada:

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) by Gabrielle Roy
These two were recommended to me during our first winter in Montreal by Joanne Burgess who was teaching English at McGill then. Must reads if you want to know the background to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, she said. She was right.

But The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler also is required reading for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in Montreal and how it played out against the larger solitudes.

And that’s enough for this morning. I’ll have to do some more thinking. Will report back later.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Saturday Photo: Elin and Her Viola da gamba

The house is put back together--plants moved back in from outside, chairs folded and ready to return to friends, table back in place and all that. Last night our daughter Elin and Tina Chancey, gambist extraordinaire from Washington, DC, gave a house concert here. On the program was an eclectic mix of music, from improvisations on 14th century madrigals to Bartok folk tunes.

Elin, who's played with many groups North America and in Europe, decided a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn more about improvisation. After a very structured musical education (B.Music from McGill, the equivalent of a masters from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague) she wanted to explore music as it has been played both informally and in concert by musicians over the ages. Part of her exploration was with Tina, who specializes in American traditional music but plays many other kinds: Elin got a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts which allowed her to do three intensive sessions with Tina over the last year, culminating in a visit by Tina to Montreal. This morning Tina is giving a workshop for string players of various sorts at the Maison Smith on Mount Royal, but last night it was our pleasure to host them as they performed.

Our house isn't large, but it does have the living-dining room combination common in row houses, so we set up about 30 chairs, benches and stools and put the musicians (recorder player Laura Osterlund joined them for two pieces) at the end of the room in the bay window. The concert was a great, and the concert-goers all interesting musicians or melomanes: in short, great fun.

The viola da gamba, Elin tells us, was an instrument designed for small spaces, intimate concerts, real "chamber music." It lost out to the cello when music moved to bigger concert halls, but in the last 25 years has begun to find a modern public.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Griffintown Project: City of Montreal and Developer Agree on Plan to Drastically Remake Historical Industrial Sector

The plans have changed somewhat—some more “affordable” and subsidized housing units, promises of green construction, a larger contribution to construction of a tramway—but the drawing retains the major elements of the Griffintown development agreed upon by the city of Montreal and Devimco, the developer, and announced Thursday.

Sunday, however, supporters of keeping the historical former industrial area from major change will hold a funeral march to mourn the death of what was a unique part of Montreal. They contend that the area could have been revitalized without massive razing of buildings and major changes to the street layout, one of the first grid plans in North America.

But after months of discussions it looks like nothing can stop Devimco from putting up several large high-rise buildings, a retail area the size of a major shopping center, and rejigging a number of streets. Even economic bad times shouldn’t be a problem, Devimco’s co-president Serge Goulet said at a press conference. The project will take years to complete which means that the business cycle should be on an up tick when Griffintown comes on stream, and, besides, there’s always room for a “Category A” development, he said.

Maybe. There still are very worrying things about the plans, including the 4,000 parking places which are part of the commercial sector of the development. Who is going to use them? What will be the effect on local traffic patterns? And what will be the effect on existing retail in Montreal’s central shopping district, not far away?

Another danger is that Devimco, having wrung concessions on zoning from the city and other promises, will build the shopping center and parking structures and then quit. Much of the residential and office development will go on top of that space, and it would be all to easy to plead bad economic times or lack of success to wiggle out of commitments to building housing.

Mixed retail, residential and commercial uses in a dense urban context are what our cities need. Griffintown as currently approved may be bad for the neighborhood but it would be a catastrophe for Montreal if Devimco were to cherry-pick the most profitable parts of the plan and plead poverty when it comes to rest.

To be continued...

Image: From the Save Griffintown pool, and created by Daniel Arbour & Associates to illustrate the Village Griffintown proposal.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Butterfly Effect: Flowers, Bikes Thrown in Rivers and Google

There’s a counter on this blog which tells me how many people look at it and roughly where they come from and what track leads them here. (Can’t tell who you are though, so don’t worry about giving away the secret that you stop here occasionally.) About half the visitors are looking for the blog itself, but many others arrive through the most circuitous routes.

This morning my eye was caught by a Google search from somewhere in India which wanted links for “flowers thrown in river.” A most poetic idea, and one, I think, that is part of Hindu mourning rites. When I was in Kochi three years ago working on Green City, I stopped at flower vendors near temples to buy garlands for my rather bare hotel room. Long chains of marigolds and jasmine are apparently used in worship, although I must admit I didn’t investigate any further than to ask if it would be appropriate to buy ones for secular purposes. The vendor didn’t understand me, but an older woman who spoke excellent English saw what I was trying to do, and told me that it was perfectly all right. There ensued one of those delightful conversations that you sometimes encounter when travelling: where was I from? Did she live nearby? Children? Grandchildren? And have a lovely day!

I expect that the Google search was prompted by someone wanting to know more about customs, but of course I can’t be sure. What I do know is that the links the search turned up are a lateral thinker's joy. The first is from the Czech Republic: “Flowers thrown in Vltava to mark International Day of Roma.” Hundreds of daffodils were thrown into the river April 4 to mark the connection between the people we in North America usually call Gypsies and India, which is where it seems they migrated long ago.

The second link is completely different: “Bike thrown into river as vandals go on rampage,” a story datelined last week from a small town in the UK where crime cannot be that big a problem. The third is a link to a 1997 baseball story from Virginia: “ATHLETE OF THE WEEK: CODY FLOWERS: NANSEMOND RIVER PITCHER DRIVES BATTERS CRAZY AND STRIKES THEM OUT”

My post from yesterday comes in at the bottom of the first 10 links. Google picked up “Flowers” and "Thrown" from that post about Earth Day, plus “River” in a story from the February archives, “Time and the River Flowing.” I’d love to know what the person who spent a few minutes looking around on my blog thought both of it and of the chance that led him or her to it.

Currently I’m trying to get started on a new fiction project, which involves reflecting on the role that chance and its avatar, the Butterfly Effect, have on our lives. What kind of ripples does a tossed stone make in a pond? How far do the effects of flowers thrown in rivers travel?

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory II: What Robbie Burns Might Say to Clinton and Obama

John McCain’s job this election campaign keeps getting easier and easier. The Clintons and Barack Obama will continue to slug it out for at least another six weeks, spending money and shedding credibility as they fight for the Democratic nomination. I had hoped that Democrats in Pennsylvania would send a decisive message of some sort, but with a 10 per cent lead in Tuesday’s primary, Hillary isn’t going to give up yet.

We should not be surprised. Bill Clinton scrabbled his way up on the strength of his intelligence, charm and ambition. Hillary, whatever you think of her, is a woman who never let small stuff get in the way when she believed something merited her support. Their persistence and devotion (yes, that’s the word I’d use) to some decent goals is not to be either deprecated nor underestimated. They did not accomplish what they have by giving up.

But as Lee said as we checked the first returns from Pennsylvania last night, if you were a believer in conspiracy theories you could say that Obama and Clinton were set up to tear themselves apart so the Republicans would have a cake walk to the White House.

More likely this intra-party warfare was unintentional. I’m tempted to say something about the “law of unintended consequences” which has a nice ring about it. But doing a little looking around I can find no serious exposition of such a law: the first reference I can find is in paper written in 2004 about the sanctions against Iran which led to blockage of relief money after disastrous earthquakes there: "Law of Unintended Consequences: US Sanctions and Iran’s Hardliners" by Mehrdad Valibeig.

The idea, however, is as old as the hills, or at least as the Scottish poet Robert Burns. In a poem addressing a field mouse whose cozy nest had been destroyed by a farmer, he wrote that the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. True enough, and in the last stanza he could be talking about the current situation:

“Still thou art blest (he says to the mouse,) compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"

Me too.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Flowers and Trash for Earth Day--with Some Chicken Thrown in Too

Earth Day, and for today at least, the earth seems sweet and loving. Temperatures above normal, leaves begining to show on the bushes, daffodils in bloom in front. This picture was taken last week, before the last of the snow melted in front, but the snowdrops are still there, accompanied by other green shoots and the first of the scilla.

Some interesting environmental news:

The Chantecler chicken has been saved from extinction, Le Devoir reports. Developed over the decades by Quebec farmers, the variety just about disappeared as agriculture moved toward more standardized breeds and ways of raising the birds. But after a long campaign by those who love the variety and what it represents, farmers will now be able to raise the chicken commerically.

On the other hand, the big garbage dumps north east of Montreal which were supposed to be filled and closed by May, will be able to operate another year, accepting trash from the Montreal region. Le Devoir quotes environmentalists as deploring that this "emergency" prolongation was necessary because Montreal is 10 years behind when it comes to recycling and reducing trash.

Monday, 21 April 2008

A Little Bragging, if You Don't Mind Too Much...

This weekend the first of the reviews for The Violets of Usambara arrived. When you write a book you always await them with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. In fact I find that usually I have to take a deep breath before I start to read because I'm never sure what I'm going to find.

But this time the news is pretty good. The two reviews are from the Montreal Review of Books, a quarterly publication devoted to books by English-language Quebec writers and books published by English language publishers here, and the Sun Times in Ontario.

Danielle LaFrance wrote the MRB review. saying “Soderstrom’s writing is tense and subtle, often using repetitive wordplay and seamless flashbacks to navigate through time and place” with a tone that “is a steady inhalation until it reaches an unbearable breathlessness.” (MRB articles are archived on-line, but this one appears not to have been put up yet. I’ll add the link when it is.)

Andrew Armitage likes the book even more, it seems. He writes: “Her new novel … is a beautifully written, moving piece of literature that has risen to the top of my best picks for '08.” He adds: “The Violets of Usambara juxtaposes the world of Quebec politics with the breakdown of an African nation, caught up in the horrors of genocide and tribal warfare. Anchored by a tensely constructed plot, it is both a richly rewarding read and a novel that should be sought out by lovers of well-crafted fiction.”

All of that makes me feel pretty good. Now to wait for reviews in the bigger papers….

BTW I revamped my website which had become very hard to change since the system I was using couldn’t support French accents and required ASCII characters—a real drag. Check it out.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Saturday Photo: The Outremont Library's Tenth Birthday

The muncipal library in this inner city suburb actually began in 1949, but until 1998, it was housed in totally inadequate space that once had been a church. The new building--constructed after a 14 year fight by les Ami(e)s de la bibliothèque-- opened its doors March 31, 1998, and has been bursting with activity ever since. It now bears the name Robert Bourassa, after a former premier of Quebec who lived in Outremont for decades.

Yesterday morning I spent a very pleasant hour talking about the campaign for the library with people who had been involved and people who have enjoyed the facility since. The occasion was the announcement of a week of anniversary activities from May 4-10 which include activities for every age group. Among them are a Friday jamboree for teenagers, book discussions in retirement residences and a talk by noted French writer and pedagogue Daniel Pennac.

One of the things I am most pleased with in my life is the role I played in getting the new facility. Along with several other library lovers like Lorraine Patoine, Cécile Gagnon, Gratia O'Leary and Josette Michaud, to name only a few, I attended city council meetings monthly for years, passed petitions, visited local schools to enlist their support and lobbied local officials. Every time I go to the library, however, to see it full of people I am so pleased that we perservered.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Bagging Some Rays: New Solar Technologies Store Sun's Heat, Not Solar-generated Electricity

The sun is shining brightly as only it can when it’s climbing higher and higher in the sky each day and when there are no leaves on the trees yet. Yesterday it was positively balmy outside, and the snow is finally gone from the front. The big snow piles in back are retreating too.

The power of the sun was underscored in an interesting story in Tuesday’s New York Times Science section. Two new technnolgies for storing energy from the sun show great promise. Both overcome the difficulties of trying to store electricity in batteries by storing solar-genereated heat instead. One uses a sophisticated system of mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a tower containing salt which can be heated to very high temperatures without reaching high pressure. The molten salt retains heat for long periods. The stored heat energy can be drawn upon to generate electricity with steam turbines. The other method focuses the sun’s rays on miles of black coated tubes which also act as heat sinks.

The Times reports that Google is backing a small start-up, eSolar, which uses the tower model, with the aim of “making renewable electricity for less than the price of coal=fired power.” A similar power tower had been built in the Central Valley of California in the 1990s, but was abandoned even though it was running well because natural gas prices dropped, making the new energy uncompetitive. But, the Times quotes one of the princples involved, “nobody cared about global warming and we weren’t killing people in Iraq” then.

The situation is different today, so solar power may soon have its place in the sun, so to speak.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Future of Mount Royal--Spring, and What Happens in the Years to Come

Wednesday, April 23, is the date when the Office de consultation publique hears submissions from groups on a plan for the future of Mount Royal. People who care about the mountain—that three-peaked hill that dominates the island of Montreal—can also fill out an on-line questionnaire about what they think should happen to the park lands and green spaces as well as the surrounding area. If you care about the future of this unique feature of Montreal’s urban space, do take time to fill it out.

I walked up in Mount Royal Cemetery this morning. It’s been a while since I did my full hour long walk up there because during the thaw when temperatures drop at night, the paths and roadways are often dangerous sheets of ice in the morning since the melt water freezes over night. Much snow remains and I did not see any yellow colt’s foot, the first flower to bloom up there usually, but it is clear that this long winter is drawing to a close. What a pleasure to have such a good place to walk so close to the heart of the city!

While working on The Walkable City, I spent much time thinking about formal green spaces in cities. Unless former industrial or port lands can be salvaged and converted, there is not much chance to make parks in the center of good, walkable city. That is why whatever green space was set aside as a city grew is particularly important for the quality of life of city dwellers. The mountain is a irreplaceable, and must be protected so that we all can enjoy it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

A Year of Reading Dangerously: Yann Martel's "What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Program Marks Its First Anniversay, Alas!

Yes, it has been busy chez nous, and I missed commenting on the anniversary of Yann Martel’s campaign to provide Prime Minister Stephen Harper with reading material. You’ll remember that last spring Martel participated in a ceremony for the Canada Council for the Arts at which Harper appeared very harried. Martel started sending a short book every two weeks in order to give Harper some good bedtime reading and a few moments of “stillness” at the end of the day.

A year later, Martel has received one letter of acknowledgement from the PM’s office, while the Prime Minister has been the beneficiary of a very interesting reading program, along with 26 letters explaining Martel’s choices, each an essay on literature, politics and life worth reading for its own merits.

For the birthday of Martel’s campaign, he sent Harper Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, an instance where “if art can redeem, here is redemption.” Two weeks before that, the choice was a play, The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi by Larry Tremblay. Most recently—the choice beginning Martel’s second year—last Monday Martel sent To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

Martel’s tally of Stephen Harper’s new library:

14 novels
3 collections of poetry
3 plays
4 books of non-fiction
4 children's books, and
1 graphic novel,

written (or, in one case, edited) by:
1 Russian
6 Britons
7 Canadians (including 1 Québécois)
1 Indian
4 French
1 Colombian
2 Swedes
3 Americans
1 German
1 Czech
1 Italian, and
1 Irish,
of whom:
16 were men
10 were women, with
2 books authored by both sexes, and
1 book authored by writers of unknown sex (though
Martel says his “guess is that the Bhagavad Gita was written by men)”

Quite a good list, and one worth consulting when you’re looking for something interesting to read.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Freedom of the Press Doesn't Mean Getting News for Free: Newspapers' Finances, the Blogosphere and the Need to Pay Reporters

The March 31 New Yorker (I know, I know, but I’m behind because I was so busy for a while) has a very interesting essay on the future of the newspaper. Eric Alterman details the financial woes of newspapers in a time of declining readership and economic downturn, and reflects on the idea that internet blogs may play in informing the people in the future.

This is an essay that merits reading more than once and then thinking about, because its implications for democratic society are great. But one thing jumps out at me: with few exceptions, much of the information being circulated on the Web comes from unpaid reporters. While it is all very well and good for people to spend great chunks of their lives keeping Wikipedia honest or following their city council or writing up their garden experiments, uncovering the truth is far too important to leave to amateurs. Some way must be found to compensate people who are willing to devote their lives to telling it like it is, which means first of all discovering what “it” is. The process of research and discovery is time-consuming, often difficult and sometimes dangerous--too much to ask of volunteers on a regular, boringly daily basis.

Not incidentally, I’m writing this as journalists at Le Monde, one of the world’s most respected newspapers, begin a strike to protest massive cuts proposed to the newsroom. The newspaper lost 20 million euros in 2007 and has accumulated debts of 150 million euros, according to The Guardian. Not a pleasant situation to be in, but one that may become increasingly common.

Monday, 14 April 2008

How The CBC Ought to Do It: Concert Gives Voice to Great Music and Great Singers from Medieval, Renaissance and Jazz Traditions

We had a taste of what could happen if the CBC really was serious about giving voice to different kind of music being produced in Canada. Sunday night the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM), the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) and jazz singer Karen Young gave a terrific performance of music written between the 1300s and 25 years ago.

The theme was Eclectic Paths/Passages The concert began with a Requiem by medieval composer Johannes Ockeghem and ended with Karen Young, two soloists from SMAM’s excellent choir, a bassist and percussionist doing jazz riffs on music by Guillaume de Machaut from about 1360. In between were two pieces by Quebec composer Claude Vivier who died at 35 in 1983.

If the CBC were to broadcast more things like this concert which bring together different tendencies and traditions, I don’t think anyone would complain. We heard excellent performers throw themselves into interesting music, illuminating points in common and glorious differences. But was the CBC there? No.

Nor was it there for a stirring performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, done by the McGill music faculty. As Christopher Huss said in Le Devoir this morning, this is a work that should be done more often. Too bad the rest of the country won’t be able to hear this fine version.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Saturday Photo: Scilla in Chicago and Signs of Spring in Montreal

This was taken just a year ago in Garfield Park in Chicago when the lawns were awash in blue scilla flowers. It'll be another couple of weeks before the lovely little flowers bloom in our front yard, although the snowdrops have been up for a week. The snow banks remain, and wet snow is forecast for late this afternoon. Quebec City is supposed to get another six inches.

But where the snow has melted I raked up leaves yesterday. Last fall I had intended to rake once more, but the first snows of November came and stayed. The leaves underneath are squished up and appear on the way to become good mulch, but since the maples have been infested with tar sport the last couple of years, perhaps cleaning up before the fungus can start propogating this spring will make protect the trees somewhat.

BTW, I spent a good quarter of an hour searching for a connection between the lovely blue flower and the monster Scylla who with Charybides guarded straits through which Ulysses had to pass. There is a link: Scylla (or Skylla) originally was a river goddess who protected the earth and green things in Etruscan mythyology but was morphed into a sea monster by the Greeks and Romans. But the transfer is a reminder of how one group's protector can be another group's ogre. That, however, is too dismal a thought at a time when we are searching for signs of spring.

How about these? I saw my first flock of geese this spring, honking their way north yesterday morning, and this morning at least a half dozen robins were out.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Department of "Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society:" Don't "De-politicize" Rate Hikes

Another report commissioned by the Quebec government is in, and rather quickly dismissed. This one studied the fees charged for public services, ranging from roads through day car through electricity rates charged by Hydro Québec. In short, the commissioners were for higher rates, including indexation of increases for post-secondary education tuition, day care fees (Quebec has a large network of day care centers which charge $7 a day currently) and electricity rates. This would “de-politicize” setting rates, the commission said.

Of course, setting up the day care system, building a large and accessible higher education network and making Quebec’s hydroelectric resources a public good were all political decisions—and good ones. Any changes in them should be discussed, because programs like these lie at the heart of the enormous advances Quebec has made in the 45 years since the Quiet Revolution began.

But Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget, who is noted for her rather conservative economic and social ideas, knows a hot potato when she sees one, and said this kind of massive change in rates for services was “not on her radar.” That’s good, but now that the report is in and the shock is registered, she may well come back with changes nevertheless. Raising day care and post-secondary fees sound a lot less drastic when they are all a government proposes in the face of recommendations that it do much more.

There are situations where “let the user pay” is a good principle, water use above a certain level, for example. But that’s an entirely different kind of discussion which we won’t get into today.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Sri Lanka: Imagined Worlds from Neil Bissoondath and Arthur C. Clarke

Convergences are among the most interesting of life’s quirks. Last summer when I made up the reading list for the Atwater Library book discussion group I included Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamour of the Night simply because I thought it a very good book. The story concerns a young man from a "good" family who goes off to teach school in a village in the south of his civil war-torn country. As an evocation of a tropical landscape and an exploration of the complicated circumstances that lead to horrendous inter-ethnic conflict, it has no parallel. The hero, Arun, is an extremely understandable and attractive young man, and his slow involvement in local causes is convincing—and frightening. While Bissoondath takes pains to say that his story takes place in an imagined place, the similarities with Sri Lanka are striking.

The discussion last night was animated, aided not a little by one of our regulars who left Sri Lanka in the 1960s, but who still has close contacts. Afterwards he showed me photocopies of articles about his own sister’s death: she was killed in the 1970s in an incident involving Indian peacekeepers. The pain and the irony live on in his eyes today.

There was no mention of the death of Arthur C. Clarke last night, however. The great science fiction master died last month on the island where he has lived more or less continuously since the mid-1950s. For him, Sri Lanka was an escape—from English winters, he told the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel in an interview rebroadcast recently, but also, it would seem from what Clarke found ordinary. Always one to look beyond the frontiers of time and space (he brought us the original 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all) he found in the beauty of the place a kind of alternate universe. How involved he was in Sri Lankan politics, I have no idea. But it is clear that one man’s paradise can be another man’s hell.

Interesting to think of Arun and the characters from 2001 meeting in whatever space might be reserved for dead people from fiction, with Clarke looking in to make a comment or two. Bissoondath, happily, is still very much in this world, and next fall Cormorant will bring out a new book from him. Something to look forward to in this complicated, far-from-perfect world.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Two-tiered Highway System Ahead? Report Calls for Major Expenses on Bridges

No fewer than 25 of the 135 bridges which Quebec’s transport ministry has been examining in the last few months will have to be torn down and replaced, La Presse reports this morning. Over the weekend the ministry “discreetly” released its study and recommendations, the newspaper says.

The thorough look at concrete bridges follows a major investigation of the spectacular collapse of a highway overpass north of Montreal in 2006. Five people were killed and six injured. The commission of inquiry which followed concluded that this type of concrete bridge can develop dangerous cracks during Quebec’s freeze and thaw climatic cycle if not properly reinforced. The province’s 1100 bridges of this type were surveyed, of which 135 were targeted for more complete study because of their age (the overpass had been built in 1970) and their apparent condition.

La Presse says the cost of replacement and repair has not be determined, but adds that most of the work will be done in 2008. It should be remembered, though, that Quebec has earmarked $1.7 billion for roadwork over the next fiscal year, but one of its major projects will be a public-private partnership to construct a new toll bridge linking the island of Montreal to an expressway north of the city.

We are likely to see more and more of bad news about highway infrastructure, followed by frenzied projects to insure highways safety. The great period of highway construction in North America began at the end of World War II and ended in most places in the 1980s. This means that highway infrastructure is aging fast, particularly in places where governments trying to cut taxes and/or deficits cut corners on maintenance instead.

James Howard Kunstler in his gloomy The Long Emergency writes that we are not going to have the resources to do the upkeep on this infrastructure. Naomi Klein in her somewhat more hopeful The Shock Doctrine says that influential elements in society—“disaster capitalists,” she calls them—will seize the opportunity to privatize everything to the advantage of the rich.

I read both books as I researched my next project, The Walkable City, and the best I can say at this point is that we are going to have to be very vigilant in the next little while. If we are not careful, we will end up with crumbling roads for the many (the public network) and well-maintained private expressways for the few, thus giving new meaning to the idea of a multi-level highway.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

More “What Are They Smoking at the CBC?" Department: New BBM Figures Show Classical Stations Doing Well

The Bureau of Broadcast Measurement stats for the first quarter of 2008 were released yesterday, and I don’t see anything in the ones from Montreal and Toronto that indicates Canadians don’t like classical music, or that dumbing down increases listenership.

In Toronto, the all classical station CFMX had 2.6 per cent of the market, while Radio Two had 1.9. In Montreal, among French listeners, the all classical CJPX had 4.4 per cent, and Espace Musique (Radio Can’s equivalent of Radio Two), 3.2. Among Anglophone listeners, CJPX had 3.4 (the highest of any French station among Anglos by far) and Radio Two, 3.7. There's an audience for classical music out there, it seems to me.

Another interesting thing in Montreal is that Radio-Can’s equivalent to Radio One, la Première chaine, leads all other radio stations in over all listeners, at 14.7 per cent. Its programming in generally more intelligent that Radio One, and its morning slot (5:30-8:30 a.m., C’est bien meilleur le matin) has 20.3 per cent, hot on the heels of the front runner (also a relatively intelligent, news and current events show) with 21.3 per cent. The Montreal stats come from a survey of 5200 listeners during eight weeks in January and February.

Like many others who wrote to Hubert Lacroix, the new CBC president, protesting the changes, I got an e-mail yesterday, explaining (supposedly) what is going on. One of the things he says is: “In fact, according to the latest BBM survey only 3.1 per cent of Canadians who listen to radio tune in to this network.” Perhaps that is true: the BBM figures you can get for free don’t seem to have nationwide stats. But when you look how the competition fares when it presents serious music programming, the conclusions to draw are not the ones the CBC has.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Department of Time Travel: Visiting Joan of Arc's France

As part of the preparations for the trip we’re going to take to France in May, we rented The Messenger, a film about Joan of Arc on Saturday. It was shelved with the French films at the local art video store, and so we were a bit surprised to discover that it was in English with John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman in prominent roles. A lot of blood too, and rather light on the historical context, but 130 minutes which passed quickly.

And of course we started poking around to find out just what the real story was. I went riffling through the Shakespeare to discover what I suspected: that Henry V takes place slightly before Joan’s amazing rallying of the French forces. Two of my most memorable movie experiences have been seeing two versions of that play, one directed by Kenneth Branagh (1989) and the other by Laurence Olivier (1944.) Both are masterfully done, and both show how the time in which a play is produced or a movie is made influences how the story is told.

A story like Joan's with its various interpretations underlines the point that what you see depends up on where you sit. That is a lesson which bears remembering at all times, not just when trying to figure out what happened in the century before the Age of Exploration began.

This week I've got find a book or two that will help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the period. One thing I think we’ll not do, though, is go looking for the video game Jeanne d'Arc. According to one review, the game uses historical characters and then gives them magical powers. Wasn’t that what Joan thought she was doing anyway?

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Saturday Photo: Book Launches and Other Frivolity

If you guessed that the picture this week is of me, you're right. It was taken at one of the two book launches for The Violets of Usambara. We had a lot of fun, met many old friends, talked books and sold a few of them too.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about Violets, its genesis, and the neighborhood in which part of it takes place at the Mile End Library, 3 p.m., 5424 Park, Montreal. The talk is sponsored by Mile End Memories, a local organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the neighborhood's heritage. If you're around it would be lovely to meet you.

Photo courtesy of Muslim Harji

Right on, Graham Harrop! Cartoonist Weighs in on Radio Two Gutting

Can't find a link to this anywhere, so anyone concerned about the future of Radio Two should go looking for a copy of the Friday, April 4 Globe and Mail. In it, cartoonist Graham Harrop has a great cartoon. A disk jockey type is in a radio studio, which has "CBC Radio Two" on the wall. "Ok, another request--this one involving a long, long walk off a shor pier," he's saying. The comment at the bottom says " It was becoming more and more apparent that Radio Two listeners did not embrace the shift from classical music."

Bravo, Harrop!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Thanks to My Friends in Burundi: Making Contact after All These Years

One of the things that is nice about finishing a book project is thanking the people who helped you with it. Through one of the those things that start out bad but end up good—on the trip to Burundi to research my book The Violets of Usambara my credit cards were stolen in Holland and I had to miss my scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi—I meet a Burundais businessmen on my flight from Nairobi to Bujumbura. He and his family were extremely hospitable and his daughter, who worked for an NGO based on Montreal’s South Shore, showed me around the city most graciously. I would never have seen as much, had they not taken me in hand.

For a couple of years after I got back—the trip was in 2001, and the book has taken this long to reach its final state—we corresponded by e-mail. At some point she changed her address, though, and we lost contact. But this week, the NGO helped me get in touch with her. I was happy to learn that things are going well with her family. She and her husband have built a new house, although he no longer has his cattle, which when I was there he had recently brought down from the hills. Not profitable, she said, but I can imagine that, given the way her husband spoke lovingly of the animals, it must have been a hard decision to make.

At any rate, I sent off copies of The Violets of Usambara to them yesterday. They figure, of course, in my note of thanks at the end of the book to people who came to my aid during the writing of it.

As for the business about having my pocket picked in The Hague, I’ve wondered about that many times. You just never know when things are going to turn out much better than you expect. I suppose that’s true in reverse, that sometimes are worse than you think. But maybe it’s best to withhold judgment. “Woe is me” never got a project completed, for sure.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Flowers in Winter: Should One Feel Eco-guilty or Just Enjoy Them?

A friend brought me flowers at my book launch the other day—a lovely gesture, but she said as she offered them to me that she hadn’t thought how politically incorrect it was to buy flowers this time of year in this climate. All that air freight and exploitation of workers in Third World countries and everything.

Flowers are among my favourite things, and I was extremely pleased with her thought. But as I changed the water and cut back the wilted ones this morning, I wondered just how concerned anyone who believes in living as locally as possible should be when it comes to buying flowers from afar.

Certainly in summer when the market gardens around Montreal bring in their flowers, buying them at the Jean Talon Market for example, seems to me to be a great way to encourage local producers. Like the delicious Savoura tomatoes grown in Quebec greenhouses—including a new complex heated in part by biogas from a solid waste dump—this is the kind of living locally that I support completely.

And as for flowers this time of year? Well, what I’ve turned up is a little sketchy, but it seems to depend on where you live and where the flowers come from. A study in the UK last year showed that wintertime roses from Kenya had a smaller carbon footprint than those grown in greenhouses in Holland. Extrapolating that to Canada and the northern US is next to impossible at this point, but it’s a topic I’ll keep my eye on. The February 25 New Yorker has an interesting story by Michael Spector about the subject, but it has no easy answers either.

More later, perhaps.

In the meantime, the flowers are lovely.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Literary Prizes (Like Life Perhaps?) Are a Crap Shoot: Thoughts on Anne Enright's The Gathering

Anne Enright’s The Gathering was the book for discussion last night, and the talk was heated. This novel of the New Ireland is told by Veronica Hegarty, a most unreliable narrator, as her family gathers for the funeral of her brother Liam. The pair were extraordinarily close in a family in which nine others who lived to adulthood (one died, mysteriously, as a toddler and their mother had seven miscarriages.) But Liam has killed himself by walking into the sea off Brighton, and it is a time to consider ghosts, and things not quite remembered, or events that might just possibly have happened but one can’t be sure.

Celia Bussey who presented the book had a series of reviews, must laudatory, which became increasingly positive as Enright’s book was first on the Man Booker long list, then on its short list, and finally the winner for 2007. Our verdict was mixed, and the question arose several times: was it really the book that merited the £50,000 prize last year?

Who’s to say? My only feeling, having served on a couple of juries (although for competitions light years less prestigious than the Man Booker) is that there is no accounting for taste, and that the most important thing is that juries be changed every year. Having said that I was extremely pleased to see that Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (in the US Somebody Knows My Name) has recently won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, and therefore goes on the world competition. It and Mary Novik’s Conceit were the two best Canadian novels I read last year, and Larry’s is up there among my all time favourites. Yet while both he and Novik made the ScotiaBank Giller Prize long list, he hadn’t won anything until the Commonwealth regional prize.

Go figure.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Obama, Clinton, and the CBC: Fishes and Wishes

Two important headlines this morning:

Clinton and Obama Agree to Draw Straws: Campaign against McCain Begins in Earnest


CBC to Showcase Good Music: Classical Component Gets Boost

Of course, it is April Fool’s Day, and I don’t expect either headline to be realized, more's the pity.

As for the picture of the fossil fish’s rear half: that’s in honour of what the French call April Fool’s Day, Poisson d’avril. There are various explanations for this. The sun is entering the fish sign Pisces for one. Another goes back to the 16th century when in 1564 French king Charles IX decided to switch the start of the new year from April 1 to January 1. The tradition was to exchange presents at the new year, then, and despite the change, many continued to do so on April 1. In time the little presents became jokes, including fish cut out of paper and stuck on the back of some unsuspecting soul. My children thought it was hysterical to sneak up on me the morning of April Fool’s and tape a construction paper fish to my back. They then yelled Poisson d’avril! when I discovered it.

This fish is a gift from my daughter for a Mother’s Day when she was an adolescent. Her class went to some science jamboree, where a club of amateur geologist had a kiosk selling fossils. Her friends thought she was nuts to buy it for me. I think it’s great though.

But then I still hold out hope that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination will be decided before what passes for the progressive half the US tears itself apart in the nomination fight, and that the CBC brass will come to their senses and remember what their mandate is.