Saturday, 31 July 2010

Saturday Photo: Alfred Joyce's Garden

Alfred Joyce was a Montreal businessman who made his fortune in sweet things in the late 19th and early 20th century--he's listed as being a "confectioner" in most of the directories. At some point he acquired a nice piece of land in what is now Outremont and built a house which he surrounded by lovely gardens.

Today they're Parc Joyce, with tennis courts, a playground for small children, two of the oldest gingkos in Montreal and great places to sit and enjoy summer days.
This year someone also had the bright idea of planting an outcropping of rock with impatiens--quite lovely.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Hoping to Go Viral: Marketing Books with Movie-like Trailers

Okay, so the book pages of newspapers are practically non-existent any more: what can a writer or a publisher do to get the word out about a new novel? It would seem that some, at least, are turning to You Tube with the idea that a slick, cinema-quality trailer will attract readers.

I became aware of this a few months ago when I stumbled on Véhicule Press's promotional video for Avi Friedman's book A Place in Mind - The Search for Authenticity, but clearly it's an idea that is making the rounds. This morning I got an email from Cormorant Press with a taste of what is coming from them this season. While messing around with the links, I stumbled across some of the trailers the house has prepared to promote its list. Below you'll find two of the more interesting.

Doing this must cost a fair bit: the videos look fully professional, and my guess is they cost about as much as the advance the novelists in question received. I suppose this is money well spent, if they sell a lot of books, but I can imagine that whether or not a trailer is made to promote a book will soon become one of the things that writers will have to negotiate along with other contract clauses.

The trailer for Underground by June Hutton:

and for Elise Moser's Because I Have Loved and Hidden It, which is quite different

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Mount Royal, Molson Stadium, and Montreal's Endangered Green Space: After the Fact Is Too Late

How to keep Mount Royal from being nibbled away? That's a big question, particularly when people don't seem to get upset until after the fact. This morning Radio Canada carried a story about several groups which have denounced how McGill's Molson Stadium, where the Alouette football team plays, has been enlarged. Among them is Heritage Montreal which at its annual general meeting in June deplored the way the new construction--particularly the high bleachers--deviate from approved plans.

In a resolution passed then, the group said that even though visual simulations and assurances by the developer that the project would "respect and integrate into the heritage landscape of the mountain," this was not done. It called on the provincial government and the City of Montreal to explain publicly how the "permanent damage to this heritage landscape" could be carried out with their authorisation and financial assistance, as well as what they intend to do about this blot on the landscape.

In the future, "independent and scientific verifications of visual simulations supplied for any project which may affect the integrity and presence of Mount Royal" should be required, the resolution said.

Of course, that's a big part of the problem: there are few people who know how to read plans presented, and it's hard to get people fired up to demand changes to plans which they don't understand. Lee was always skeptical about the idea of enlarging the stadium, which nestles up against the mountain, and as soon as he saw the big cranes being put into place, he was sure we were being had again. You aren't building a small, unobtrusive set of bleachers when you need cranes 15 stories high. But either the watchdogs didn't notice, or didn't care.

The same thing, more or less, happened when the nearby intersection of Park and Pine avenues was redesigned a few years ago. Helen Fotopolous, the city council member with the environmental dossier at the time, insisted that there actually would be more square meters of green space when the dust settled. The roads on the proposed plans wouldn't be open to traffic, all would be cool, she said.

It's no accident, I'm sure, that one of the roads put in then now services the stadium. As for getting more green-space, well, it's a near thing--and it's clear that much of the "reclaimed" space is not suitable for leisure activities. Who's going to have a picnic or play Frisbee in the triangle piece that figures in the green space tally?

Photos: New stadium from Canadian Press, Park/Pine interchange from SpacingMontreal. The stadium is just to the left at the bottom of the photo.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Russian-French PPP Threatens Moscow Forest: Protests Which Are a Lot Harder Than Pulling Weeds.

Yesterday the post was about citizen environmental action--pulling up ragweed before it gets to the point where the city would mow it--and today Radio Can had an interview with a Canadian journalist in Moscow whose been following citizen protests there about cutting down a forest. Talk about a much harder way to block development which is detrimental to the environment!

The story concerns a stretch of a new Moscow to St. Petersburg highway that would run through a forest on the outskirts of the Russian city. Although the Khimki Forest is supposed to be protected and no construction permits have been issued, workers began cutting down trees about 10 days ago.

Protesters have been camping out in the forest, despite the fact that several have been roughed up and arrested. Last week about 100 masked men reportedly invaded their encampment and threatened them with death. When police arrived they did nothing to the invaders, but detained a couple of dozen protesters as well as two journalists.

The whole highway will cost about 8 billion Euros, and will be financed in part of international agencies like the World Bank. A contract was signed July 27 with a consortium, including the French company Vinci Concessions, that would build the road in a private public partnership. Well, we all know how efficient those PPPs are turning out to be in Canada; that is, not all.

The watchdog group CEE Bankwatch, based in Prague, reports that "Groups argue that routing the motorway through the Khimki Forest, a popular respite area for local residents in the polluted and densely populated region and home to elks, boars and other animals, is unnecessary as a straighter route variant exists that would most likely cost less." And, not surprisingly, they caution that the whole situation is rife with opportunity for graft.

Here's the link to an on-line petition calling on international financial institutions to call the project to order. Seems to me this is the least those of us over here who question PPPs in our own bailwick and decry environmental destruction around us can do.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Getting Rid of Ragweed: Hand-Pulling Seems to Pay Off in the Champs des Possibles

Ragweed season is upon us, but the pesky allergy-causing weed may not be so big a problem in the neighborhood this year because of an interesting initiative by the folks who are trying to reclaim disused land along the railroad tracks for an urban park.

You'll remember that the group Champs des possibles and others from Mile End have installed behives and done some guerilla gardening in the space, which was recently acquired by the City of Montreal.

Last year the area was mowed just about now, in an attempt to cut back the ragweed before the plants began sending their wind-born pollen everywhere. A mass of other flowers also disappeared--chicory, Queen Anne's lace, golden rod, clover--along with the noxious weeds. To head off a similar event this year, three weeks ago volunteers spread out and hand-pulled nearly all the ragweed in the area. They aimed to leave about 10 per cent of the plants, since a variety of insects feed on them and birds you'd like to have around feed on the bugs.

This morning I walked through the fields to check things out. The flowers were there in force, but I saw very little ragweed--mostly along a couple of meter-wide paths that had been mowed. It appears to be a very interesting project. Certainly, the bees which were buzzing around the hive seemed content to have such a wide variety of flowers.

Photo: Ragweed from the University of Massachusetts. Note the inconspicuous flower, which means that pollen is spread by the wind, not insects or birds. It's the tiny size of the pollen grains that cause the problem as they get inhaled and irritate.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Best Kind of Summer Weather: Would That It Last Until September

The light this morning is magnificent.

We're a little more than a month after the summer solstice which means the sun is somewhat lower in the sky. It shines through the leaves of the trees, which are probably at their most luxuriant. A month before the solstice, their leaves were much smaller and the play of green and light was much less striking.

The wind is blowing too--not very hard but enough to make the leaves and their shadows dance. The nearly constant rustle also masks some annoying noises of summer, like air conditioners, although so far today no one should need air conditioning.

Perfect weather! Full moon (or nearly) last night too! And to top things off, we seem to have the neighborhood almost to ourselves, as this week and last are the Great Quebec Summer Vacation, the period when construction, garment and several other industries close down.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Saturday Photo: Make Way for Ducklings

One of the surprising things about living in this city is how much wild life there is. I don't mean what happens after dark in the trendier neighborhoods--although certainly those who want to walk on the wild side will find what they seek there--but animals who make their homes where we make ours.

A case in point is two families of ducks who are raising their young this year in Outremont's Pratt Park. Maybe they've been there before, but this is the first year I've noticed. Lee saw them before I did, and counted one brood of seven ducklings and another of five in the thoroughly tamed ponds and streams of this less-than-an-acre park. When I took these pictures a couple of weeks ago, the young were still having trouble clambering out over the rocks lining the ponds, but they were seemingly thriving on the pond grass and whatever growing in the recirculating water.

Then they seemed to disappear, and we feared the worst since a number of predators live in close proximity--cats, racoons, humans. But this week they were back, looking even healthier. Along with the buzzing of night hawks in the twilight, they are symbols of the tenacity of life in urban settings.

Memo to Philosopher Kings and Great Leaders: If You Want to Get Things Done, Cut the Corruption

Le Devoir and Bloomberg Businessweek carry have a curious story about East Africa today. According to a survey by Transparency-International-Kenya, Burundi ranks first among the five countries in the region when it comes to corruption.

Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi recently began operating as a "single market with one set of regulations with an ultimate goal of creating a federation," the Bloomberg story notes. But "corruption in East Africa will hinder the progress of a five-nation bloc to form a single market and increase investment."

Sounds pretty bad. Some 10,505 in the five countries responded to a random household survey, and in Burundi 36 percent said they had been asked for a bribe by a public official, in Uganda, 33 per cent' in Kenya, 31.9 per cent (down from 45 percent when the survey did not include Burundi or Rwanda); in Tanzania, 28.6 per cent; and in Rwanda, the anti-corruption champ, only 6.6 per cent.

Tranparency International is a Berlin-based worldwide agency that apparently has been around for about a decade and a half. Its stated mission is to challenge the idea that corruption is inevitable, and it publishes annual reports measuring corruption in various countries. I must admit I had never heard of it before, but certainly its reports bear looking for. Last year's figures can be found here: worldwide, New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland got the best ratings in 2009, while Canada came in 8th of the 180 nations measured. (Note that the index runs from 1 to 10, with 10 being the least corrupt, and don't use the scale used in the East African survey.)

All this reminds me of a conversation I had with an academic in Singapore ten years ago when I started traveling for my non-fiction books. He said the reason why Harry Lee and his gang were able to make such sweeping changes with such little protest in the island nation was because there was a perception that practically no corruption was involved. People were moved into new housing, transportation was built, big changes were put into effect, but the individuals in charge were not doing it for their own personal benefit, so cynicism about their motives did not get in the way of acceptance.

Honesty would appear to be the best policy when it comes to getting things done.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Making Contact Electronically: Some Blasts from the Past

Time out today for a reflection on the way that the internet brings people closer together.

No, I'm not talking about FaceBook and Twitter party invitations, which in some cases seem to work amazingly well. On one of the first nice Friday afternoons this year, I was amazed to see hundreds of teenagers headed for Jeanne Mance Park in central Montreal, carrying things to eat and drink. It wasn't anything organized in advance, but the result of someone having the bright idea of suggesting a gathering would be a great thing. Apparently it was: no trouble, no sweat. but considerable surprise from municipal officials who didn't expect troops of young people hanging out that afternoon following an idea that went viral.

But there also are the sites that hook people up who may have shared experiences years ago, as well as e-mail searches that turn up old friends. Lee recently was contacted by one of his buddies from elementary and junior high school, and they've been enjoying catching up on their divergent histories. We also showed a friend of the old friend around Montreal several weeks ago since she was coming to town on a cruise.

And then there is a FaceBook page from my old neighborhood, started by James Sperber, a guy a decade younger than I who is also a physician. Very interesting to see pix of Point Loma and Ocean Beach. Although I left long ago and have been back infrequently, the places remain in my memory. My novel-before-last--After Surfing Ocean Beach--is rooted there. Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, which will be published by Véhicule Press in the fall, also owes considerable to the experience of growing up in a place where tuna fishermen and their families of Portuguese descent showed just how big the world is.

Maybe this says something about the way that things you encounter as a teenager--be they a park in Montreal, sports fields in Fresno (as in Lee's case) or the ocean of San Diego--stay with you all your life.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

And While We're Talking about Universities, Seems Things Aren't Any Better in the UK and in UT, Well, Take a Look

As noted yesterday, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young Univesity in Provo, UT sounds like a pretty great place to study.

But just how much that video cost to make would be an interesting question to ask. On reflection I wonder how much concern about university profitability lies behind its genesis. As noted last spring, universities in North America are doing some pretty funny things to cut costs, raise profiles, and attract funds. My concern then was McGill University's plan to charge $30,000 for a new MBA program, which is clearly outside the rules for government-funded universities in Quebec. Also in question was the way that the Université de Montréal, which now has something like 30 per cent of its undergraduate classes taught by part-time staff, was being stingy during contract talks with part-time profs.

But it seems that the idea of the university as a place for serious thought which may seem to have no immediate pecuniary benefit now extends to the cradle of English-language higher education. In an interesting essay in the April 8 New York Review of Book, Anthony F. Grafton deplores the "disgrace" of British universities.

"British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy," he writes. "Universities become great by investing for the long term. You choose the best scholars and teachers you can and give them the resources and the time to think problems through...

"Accept the short term as your standard—support only what students want to study right now and outside agencies want to fund right now—and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most in twenty years are often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship—like Slow Food—is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way. The British used to know that, but now they’ve streaked by us on the way to the other extreme."

Things are only going to get worse under the new Conservative government, he warned even before the British elections. He closes: "The language of “impact” and “investment” is heard in the land. In Iowa, in Nevada, and in other places there’s talk of closing humanities departments. If you start hearing newspeak about “sustainable excellence clusters,” watch out. We’ll be following the British down the short road to McDonald’s."

The same could be said for many Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto which is considering shutting down the Centre for Comparative Literature, founded by Canadian intellectual icon Northrop Frye.

Pretty depressing, eh?

In the meantime, take a look at what some students to in the BYU library for real:

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

More on the Cool Libraries: Stephen Jones from Brigham Young University--Yes, Really, A Black(ish) Man from Utah

Thanks again to George Murray at Bookninja for showing me the light. This time it's a promo for the library at Brigham Young University in Utah done by Stephen Jones, an incredible stand up comic. I havaen't been able to find out if he's Mormon or not, but apparently he's HUGE at Humor U, a comedy club there.

Monday, 19 July 2010

So That's What Stephen Harper Wants to Do: Privatize What StatsCan Does

Maxime Bernier, that great upholder of morals and correctness, gave a new (and maybe the most important) reason for the Conservatives decision not to make 20 per cent of Canadians fill out a long census form. Speaking to the Canadian Press, he told researchers to go do the research themselves.

"If some special interest group wants data on Canadians, they can do that, they can pay for that and they can do it," Bernier was quoted as saying . "But we're not there to please special interest groups. We're there for the silent majority of Canadians." Who, it should be noted, have not complained very loudly about having to fill out the form, no matter what the Tories say: there have been a total of three formal complaints in the last two census cycles.

In other words, what Stephen Harper and his friends want to do is privatize data collection. That's completely in keeping with Conservative ideology: the only things worth spending public money on are shows of force. Things like fighter jets ($9 billion for purchase, plus several billion over the next few years for maintenance), security for G8 and G20 meetings ($2 billion in 2010) and prisons ($650 million in 2009-2011.)

Who will benefit from the decision to axe the compulsary aspect of the long form? Why, maybe the government's friends in the polling industry. Seems Harper doesn't do much without paying for a poll. That includes, I imagine, slashing budgets for a wide variety of groups concerned about civil society and those very research funds that might pay for universities to fill the data gap in the future.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Saturday Photo: Outremont Community Garden Threatened by Development

Here's another community garden: the picture was taken through the fence that surrounds the one in Outremont. The garden was started at least 20 years ago, well before the little suburb surrounded by Montreal was incorporated into the greater city in 2002.

Tucked in between the railroad lines--yes, the same ones that run through Mile End--and Outremont's sports fields and rink, the land wasn't very promising at first. But through a lot of work by citizens and some help from the municipality, the garden has taken on an interesting form. The plots aren't as carefully marked out as the ones in Montreal's other community gardens, but a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers are grown. The gardeners have also cooperated in planting shrubs like gooseberries as well as perennials around the edge.

But the railroad yards are going to be developed into a new health science campus for the Université de Montréal, with quite a bit of upscale housing included. There will be parks and space for another community garden, but at the moment the plans show the land this garden grows on to be slated for housing. The gardeners have protested but it remains to be seen if they will prevail: they don't want to throw away all the years they enriched the soil and planted things that survive our winters..

Friday, 16 July 2010

Census and Creationism: Same Attitude of "Don't Confuse Me with the Facts"

The highest number of Canadians who believe in Creationism is found just where the largest fossil fuel deposits in the country are found, according to an Angus-Reid poll of Canadians, Americans and Brits reported in reported in Le Devoir this morning,

In Quebec only 17 per cent said they believed in Creationism, while in the Prairies the percentages were considerably higher: 31 per cent in Alberta and 39 per cent in Sasketchewan and Manitoba. As Le Devoir points out, the presence of fossilized plant life from millions of years ago in the form of natural gas and oil sands seems not to have had a very large effect on the beliefs of Prairie residents.

By way of comparison, 66 per cent of Quebecers believed that Darwin had it right compared to 61 per cent of Canadians as a whole, 35 per cent of Americans, and 68 per cent of Brits. (The option "don't know" accounts for the percentages not adding up to 100.)

It's no accident that this "don't confuse me with the facts" attitude is so strong exactly in the region where the current Conservative government's power is strongest. Ten days ago the Conservative government quietly annunced that filling out the long form census questionnaire will not longer be required for the one in five Canadian households selected at random to do so. When asked about the change, Stephen Harper's boys said it was a response to "privacy" concerns.

Since then a wide range of academic, community, religious and other groups have protested loudly. The information is extremely valuable for all sorts of reasons, and not making responses mandatory threatens to bias the results. What is more, Le Devoir reported earlier, the number of complaints filed about being required to fill out the form is very small: 33 in 1991 in the country as a whole, 16 in 1996, one in 2001 and two in 2006.

So what's the big deal? A lot, it would seem, if you don't want to know what is going on. It's an attitude completely consistent with thinking that some deity created oil expressly for humans to use.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

US Unemployed Get 26 Weeks of Insurance While Canadians Get up to 50: One Part of the Stimulus Package That Makes a Difference

Nothing like visitors from the US for serious conversations about what's happening economically: Lee and my cousin's husband spent a lot of time thrashing out the problems during their visit here. I, however, didn't have much time to think about things other than having fun, so this morning's story in Le Devoir about the problems facing the US economy hit me full in the face. (The dispatch is from Agence France Presse, and I haven't been able to find it in an English paper which is a shame.)

In short, the story says the stagnating US economy is making Ben Bernacke and others consider advising more stimulus money. Unemployment was down slightly in June to 9.5 per cent, due to the "discouraged worker" effect. That is, there were 125,000 fewer jobs than the month previously, but there also were fewer people looking for work so, largely because they've given up.

Two weeks ago Nobel Laureat Paul Krugman called for continued stimulus in order to forestall the Third Depression. He commented last week as Americans were celebrating Independence Day on the criminal way US legislators decided to "punish the unemployed" by not agreeing to extend the period of unemployment insurance eligibility before they went on summer vacation. The average length of unemployment in the US is now 35 weeks, but benefits run out after 26 weeks. Can you imagine what that means for the families involved--and also for the families working produce the goods and services consumed by their fellow citizens.

By way of contrast, consider the Canadian case: our June unemployment rate was down to 7.9 per cent, below 8 per cent for the first time since January 2009. This is all the more striking because over the last three decades Canada's unemployment rate has been consistently higher than that of the US, for reasons that are unclear. What is clear that when Stephen Harper's feet were held to the fire, a stimulus package was passed in March 2009 which worked better than the one in the US. This included an extension of the length of employment insurance eligibility from 45 to 50 weeks, among other things.

I'd like to think the APF story is right, that Krugman's words and the bad news about what is happening has gotten through to Bernacke at the Fed and others who call the shots in the US. We'll be watching closely in the next few days. The take home lesson: people can't buy things when they don't have money.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Annals of Climate Change: Air Conditioning Feels Good

Quote of the day: "After each heat wave you experience without air conditioning, you automatically add fifty years to your age." From Anne Chudobiak. So what does that make me? Pushing the millennium mark? Glad to retreat to AC this afternoon, even though the morning was lovely.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Vacation at Home: We Show off Our City

Much fun today: we walked around the Plateau Montréal, showing off the city, and then went on the Jardin botanique de Montréal. It is one of my most favourite places in the whole world. Definitely worth a visit when your are in this territory.

Our guests were particularly taken with the Chinese Garden.

Monday, 12 July 2010

More Music While We Have Fun with Our Visitors

The Portuguese group Divino Sospiro (The Divine Sigh) plays lovely baroque music, much of it by Portuguese composers. This is a recent addition to their YouTube file. Elin's friend Miguel Jalôto is the guy playing the harpsoichord.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Saturday Photo:Walla Walla Winter Sunset for a Summer Day

Snowy scenes aren't very appropriate this time of year, I guess, but we've have visitors from Walla Walla,WA, and this is the one lovely picture that I have of the region where I was born.

This is from a Christmas card done a few years ago by Penny Chawell. Rather nice, I think.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Lee and I will go show our visitors around Montreal.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Heat's Broken, Thunder Storm, Just Might Get Some Work Done Now

In order to celebrate the (temporary maybe) end of the heat wave with a big thunder storm, here's a nice bit of choral rain by the Slovenian group, Perpetuum Jazzile. The end is a little kitschy but you can't have anything. Now back to work while I'm still wet from getting got in the storm

But if you're feeling like taking it easy until the storm is over, here's their recording of the South African national anthem. Rather appropriate as the FIFA World Cup enters its last round of matches.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

This Morning Straight from India: Lime Soda

Work continues on Making Waves, so this post will be brief--but interesting.

Kim Reine and Boaz Berney, friends of Elin's who have become our friends too, have returned to India for a few weeks. They're both musicians and lovers of off-the-beaten track travel. During their last trip two years ago they visited Kerala, which I fell in love with when researching Green City. I followed their travel avidly on their blog Lime Soda, and was overjoyed this morning to find that Boaz had posted a notice on FaceBook that they'd resumed their chronicles. Here's a taste:

"While debating whether or not to come to India, we reminisced about all the things we missed about it. While trying to let practicality reign, we also came up with a list of all the things we weren't as fond of. Neither list was short, but we will share some of the highlights with you.
We will start with the smells. For everyone, India is an olfactory adventure, it's just that not everyone likes it. Landing in Mumbai, your nose is hit by the undeniable presence of the world's largest slum. We don't want to know what exactly it is, but for us this smell says "welcome to Mumbai". What we dearly missed is the way the streets smell when you go out for your breakfast first thing in the morning - a combination of incense, cooking fires and great food, with dark undertones of open sewage, rotting banana leaves and diesel fumes. It's a unique mix, and believe us, we really did miss it."

For more, click here. Their posts from their previous trip are worth reading too, as are the handful of dispatches they've posted since they moved to Montreal about a year ago.

Photos by Boaz Berney and Kimberly Reine.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Books and Libraries: A Few of My Favourite Things

Simon Dardick of Véhicule Press has just sent me back his comments on Making Waves, my book about the Portuguese and their continuing legacy around the world. The book is due out in September, which means that I've got a very short time to go over his thoughts and to make the necessary changes. That also means a very short post today, so here you are, courtesy of George Murray and Bookninja:

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Summertime and the Living Is Hot!

Cicadas singing this morning: a sure sign of hot summer weather. The heat is pressing down outside, and I'm extremely glad we put in one of those split system air conditioners a few years ago. The air exchanger sits high on the wall at the top of the stairs and rains cool air downward. Must remember to shut the door to the basement, so the coolness doesn't all collect there, and the corners of the top floor bedrooms ar never as cool as the entrance on the first floor, but it has meant I can work throughout the summer. Probably not as enivronmentally friendly as no AC at all, but 1) electricity is generated by hydro power here, so the carbon footprint is less than elsewhere, 2) keeping cool in the city means we aren't tempted to go back and forth to the country which uses both gas and produces greenhouse gases, and 3) we try to use it responsibly. That is, we turn it off when we go to bed, and then in the night when the air outside has grown as cool as the house, we open some windows to change the atmosphere. As soon as the sun is on the front of the house we shut windows and curtains, and I don't cook except in the early morning, if I can avoid it.

And, damn, there days when I find my eco-consciousness fraying. This morning, for example, when it was hotter outside than in by 9 a.m. I am now sitting, wondering at what point I should shut all the windows and curtains.

Soon, soon, soon...

Monday, 5 July 2010

Girls from Good Families, and the Stories They Write: Jhumpa Lahiri and Anita Rau Badami

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth kept me up reading over the weekend, and this despite the fact that I'd read four of the eight stories previously in The New Yorker. The book continues to explore a circle of character types she has written about before: upper middle-class, educated Indians and their children living in the United States. Full of carefully-observed detail, the stories present the dramas that resonate with those of many of the people who read The New Yorker. Children succeed or fail disastrously, parents die, love comes or does not: there must be tens of thousands of intelligent readers who can sympathize with Lahiri's people.

Politics, societal conflict, even professional and intellectual struggles are largely absent from this world, and as I read I found myself comparing the stories with Anita Rau Badami's three novels, particularly her last one Can You Hear the Night Bird Call? Badami was born and educated in India, unlike Lahiri who is North-American born, but many of her characters come from the same world as Lahiri's. Her people also sometimes feel caught between two worlds, and they try to make good lives for themselves, too.

A major--and telling difference--is the way the Badami wants to understand how her characters fit into a world much larger than the one of intimate relationships which Lahiri almost always favours. Night Bird is the best example of this, because its three women characters are caught up in Hindu-Sikh conflicts that permeate a good part of Indian politics, and spill over tragically into North America. At the heart--and the end--of the novel is the Air India disaster, which until 9/11 had the unhappy distinction of being the world's most fatal civilian terrorist attack.

Outside events only intrude into Lahiri's stories once: Unaccustomed Earth contains a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It seems Lahiri is a little uncomfortable about that even. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she told one interviewer. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it." Better to turn to non-fiction for accounts of events, she said: "that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in (my) book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”"

I would say it most definitely is okay. In fact, the reference is masterfully set in context, and opens up Lahiri's fictional world so that it resonates far beyond the lives of her well-brought up characters. In the future, I hope she continues to tell us stories about how the people she imagines fit into a world wider than one of good schools, deadly but well-managed illness and love which sometimes is arranged and sometimes is not.

And the word is that Badami will have a book out soon: I'm looking forward that one a lot.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Saturday Photo: Garden on the St. Lawrence Main

St. Lawrence boulevard was a major industrial and commercial street in the 20th century. Today many of the buildings have been recycled into restaurants, shops and, in some cases, condos as the stretch between Pine on the Plateau and Bernard in Mile End is gentrified.

But there always have been residential buildings. This one, set between combination workshop/stores must have been there for 75 years. It's possible it once was an outbuilding for a structure that fronted flush on the street like its neighbors, and was torn down for some reason. The garden has thrived for the several decades I've lived not far away, however, and last week it was doing very well once again.

A word about the street name: until well into the 19th century the city limits of Montreal were further to the south, and this area was called the St. Lawrence suburb. This street was its main street, and over time as the city crept northward, it began to be known as the St. Lawrence Main, or The Main. As such, it appears in the fiction of Mordecai Richler and other Montreal writers.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Some Interesting Views of Cities from Avi Friedman

Avi Friedman's new book gives an absorbing look at a number of cities and their places. Great shots of the Jean Talon Market in Montreal too.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Some Thoughts of Canada Day: Forces More Powerful than Nations

Just as I was finishing John LeCarré's thriller Absolute Friends, comes the news of the arrest of 10 people, apparently Russian spies in deep, deep cover. The book is vintage LeCarré: Ted Mundy, a Brit sucked into the spying game through student protests of the 1960s becomes life-long friends with Sasha, a stunted German radical student. For years they pass secrets back and forth across the Iron Curtain, but when the Soviet Union breaks up they lose contact with each other since their services seem no longer to be wanted. But three or four years into the Second Iraqi War they meet up again, with Sasha playing recruiter for a shadowy movement that aims to change the world.

All is not what it seems, of course, and the end is extremely complicated. It's a pretty grim look at the way certain, mostly extra-governmental powers control the world. When I put it aside, I shook my head in admiration at LeCarré's invention. But, I thought, while this kind of shenanigans may have gone on during the World Wars and the Cold War, what LeCarré paints must be passé.

I was wrong, it seems. The New York Times reports that the suspects picked up all had been undercover for years. They were supposed to be looking for various kinds of sensitive information, but there weren't many secrets for them to send back, it seems. Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser write: "The assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web. And none of the 11 people accused in the case face charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow, American officials said."

This makes one wonder if the Russians got tired of supporting the whole structure, and so allowed the FBI to pick them up. I doubt if I would have thought that, had I not just finished Absolute Friends, but certainly LeCarré suggests that in the spy game, if what you're doing is not profitable for your handlers, you're strung up for the dogs to take down.

Apparently one of the couples arrested was pretending to be Canadian. The Globe and Mail reports a former KGB general saying that Canada has been a favoured point of departure for Russian (and before that Soviet) espionage forays in to the US. That may have been because Canada was seen as being slightly less uptight about the Cold War, or because small differences in accent and comportment could always be put down to "Canadian-ness."

I wonder, though, if the current swing to the right in Canadian politics hasn't made pretending to be Canadian less attractive for Russian spies, and that might have contributed to their cover being blown. We'll probably never know. What is clear, however, is that there are forces in the world that are bigger than individual nations, as the difficulty in getting BP and other oil companies to be responsible attests. And it is in contemplating these facts that LeCarré's book becomes truly scary.