Saturday, 31 March 2012

Saturday Photo: More Signs of Spring

When I was in Brazil a few years ago, I was told that the bougainvillea was called "primavera", or spring. Haven't been able to track that down--most of the translation sites give buganvilea as the Portuguese term--but certainly this spring for the first time in years my bougainvillea is blooming.

The climbing vine is one of the few things that my mother was able to grow in San Diego and I've always had a great affection for its paper-like flowers. The plant in the front window is doing wonderfully this year, for reasons that escape me.

More ordinary are the leaves which have appeared on the fig tree that I winter in the basement. Amazing, it starts to set out leaf buds in early March even though there is not much difference from season to season in the light levels and temperature. I brought the plan upstairs two weeks ago, and now the leaves of lovely and green in the window.

Outside the near summer temperatures of a week ago have gone back to below freezing, but still some of the early flowers are in bloom. The crocuses next door are jaunty and colourfull as they wait for the real spring to arrive.

Friday, 30 March 2012

More Thoughts on the Novel Versus Cable Series: Four Writers and The Hunger Games

The Globe and Mail's television guy John Doyle, as noted earlier, claims that cable series (he particularly mentions Mad Men, have surpassed novels in story telling excellence and in fidelity of rendering time and place.

That has not gone unnoticed: the newspaper yesterday asked four writers to give their opinion, which is, as you might imagine, mixed.

Globe columnist Russel Banks also jumped into the fray. He starts his essay with the "twitterversy" that arose recently from teens who'd just seen The Hunger Games and were shocked that"two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were black. These viewers had read the young-adult sci-fi book by Suzanne Collins, and felt that they knew the characters. Although Rue is described as having “dark brown skin” in one line (and Thresh as “the same dark skin as Rue”), they somehow missed that, and they made it through the whole book thinking that Rue and Thresh looked just like them. The fidelity of the film to the book actually enraged viewers in this case.

"The racism in the tweets is quite open and automatic, and reminds even the hippest among us of why unfiltered, instant, totally democratic expression of emotion is not always the most progressive thing to hope for.

"But just as interesting is what it shows us about how people read novels. They don’t retain physical descriptions of people, for one. We fill in the blanks when we read fiction: We do the set decoration, we do the casting. We all make, in reading, our own film of the book, and the fictitious worlds we imagine – that is, rewrite – tend to have similarities to our own."

And that is only one of the delights of fiction and the printed word. You, the reader, are part of the equation. It's not the same with television.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Protest against Fee Hikes in Montreal, and Jeanne Was There

Because I was in Toronto a week ago I missed the amazing demonstration against tuition fee hikes. Elin, Lukas, Sophie and various friends were there, though. So was Jeanne who marched along, beat time to the drums and by all accounts had a great time.

Here's a great time lapse video of what it looked like, courtesy of friends of Elin. The protests continue. I skirted one yesterday afternoon, and today there are supposed to be four different demonstrations. So far it's a stand off....

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Back to Short Stories: The Dubliners Is the Best

Now that the NDP convention is over and the manuscript for River Music has been delivered, I'm back working on the collection of short stories I got a grant to write last summer. Some of what I have so far is all right, but in order to hoone my critical skills, I'm going back and reading the stories I've written in the past, and short stories by some masters.

The Dubliners by James Joyce is one of them. My favourite among the 14 stories is the last, The Dead, in which all the wisdom and sorrow of the world are encapsulated in a Christmas party. Made in a musical (!), it also was translated to the screen by John Huston in one of my favourite movies too.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Cable Series Tell Stories Better Than Novels? A Mad Idea

John Doyle had a column on Monday that should interest anyone who cares about fiction. As he points out, he's not one of your TV critics who never read a book, but a pretty well educated man (BA and MA from University College, Dublin, the latter in Anglo-Irish studies.) And he contends, using Mad Men as an example, that "cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time."

Whew! That's a pretty big claim. I should admit in recent years that I haven't been watching television except for news. Life is too short to sit in front of the box. When I want a story I read one, in part because books (even in e book form) are so portable. You can catch a couple of incidents while you're on the Metro or the bus, or while you're waiting for the coffee to be ready, or stretched out in bed. If you fall asleep in the latter, you can go back immediately to where you left off: the book is always there and you can read and re-read something that interests or puzzles you.

Doyle says: The novel’s rise as the principal literary form, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, depended on twin virtues transcending mere storytelling or entertainment – its sociological importance and psychological depth. Typically, important novels offered a portrait of social distinctions, social groupings and social values. And, typically, the focus on one central character or a small group of people allowed for insight into how people feel, react, change and grow." The cable series, he says, does that better today than any other medium.

Hmmm. Better than movies? Better than creative non-fiction? Better than novels like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom? I have my doubts.

Doyle talks about a Canadian writer who made snobby remarks about a review he had written of a novel some time ago. Literary snobbism is a fact, but good stories are being told in print or its computerized equivalent today and will be for a long time, I suspect.

Muito Obrigada! Lovely Welcome in Toronto for My Presentation

Muito obrigada to all who came to my presentation in Toronto last week on my book about the Portuguese and their descendants around the world, Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure. It was great fun to meet you. Professora Manuela Marujo of the University of Toronto also made me blush with the nice things she said about the book. Do hope those who bought it will find it interesting.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Saturday Photo: Tom Mulcair in 24 Sussex Drive, Not Stornoway

It was quite a weekend. After the delays in voting due to a cyberattack, our man Thomas Mulcair was elected to the NDP leadership.

But the ever-creative youth team spent the time between rounds of voting making buttons (the demand was intense!) and building a small city on the floor of the convention city. Here's where they'd like to see Mr. Mulcair: at 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the Prime Minister.

Just realized that he could move to Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the official opposition. Will be interesting to see if he and Catherine do that.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Signing Off for Few Days: Going to Politic and Promote in Toronto

Thursday morning very early I'm taking the train to Toronto for several very good reasons.

1. I'm giving a presentation on Making Waves: The Continuing Portoguese Adventure at 5:30 pm. Thursday at the Centro de Língua Portuguesa Camões (800 Lansdowne).

2. Friday morning I'm going to hand over the latest version of River Music to a possible publisher.


3. Friday and Saturday I'll be at the NDP Leadership Convention. Go Tom!

A most interesting few days coming up!

ERDC Annual General Meeting: Maybe the Last One?

All right, boys and girls of the print media: next Tuesday the Electronic Rights Defence Committee will holds its annual general meeting to elect officers and to review progress in our long-standing class action against The Gazette and its successors over theft of electronic rights.

The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 27 in the auditorium of the Atwater Library, 1200 Atwater, Montreal, near the Atwater Metro station. All are welcome.

It's possible that this will be the last AGM, since we have settled with just about every defendant and should, with any luck, proceed soon to distribution.

Spring Will Not Be A Little Late This Year, and Hasn't Been For Some Time

Snow drops again! They're out in front, which is in contrast to the date the ones in the photo appeared. The pix was taken April 22, 2008, and the snow was just melting. Now there is practically no snow left in town, a month ahead of usual.

The New York Times has an interesting story about the way that spring is coming earlier and earlier in North America. The average date for the start of the growing season across the US is three days earlier than it was 40 years ago.

People around here have been profitting from the lovely weather by sitting outdoors and even starting to garden. But there such unusual early heat can have terrible effects. A spokesman from the Jardin botanique de Montréal told Radio Can this morning that, should the temperature drop to several degrees below freezing, buds and new leaves that are already out could be destroyed, could literally explode as the moisture in them freezes and expands.

A terrible thought, on that might prompt another round of Sangria or white wine drunk on the terrace in order to forget....

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Reading Solar When the Weather's Gone Wacky

The weather is exceptional, spookily so. Ian McEwean's novel Solar is excellent reading for such a time. The hero (and I use the term advisedly) is a physicist Michael Beard who for complicated reasons because deeply involved in reseaching alternate energy sources, specifically solar power.

Beard is fat, grasping, unpleasant, and very funny. Creating him was a way for McEwan to talk about a depressingly serious subject, climate change, and not have the reader gag after 15 pages on an overdose of apple pie and mother's milk.

Thete's a lesson here to all writers: don't let your characters carry your message if you want the message to be received. Have them struggle with it as wel as their character faults. The result is a much better read than polemical fiction, and may actually reach people beyond the circle of the alrady-convinced.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Country Needs Mulcair, and Ed Broadbent Once Realized That

Manon Corneiller in today's Le Devoir is excellent on Ed Broadbent and Tom Mulcair. The NDP's grand old man was one of those (along with Brian Topp) who wanted to make the party a "big tent" one, inviting Mulcair to join. Now that they've been successful, they're upset. I don't doubt there will be fights about principle in the future, but for the sake of the soul of the country we need a strong force to counter right, and Mulcair is the man to lead it,

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Saturday Photo: Sunny Day in a Spring That Is Coming on Fast

This is a weekend of demonstrations and parades. Not only is it St. Patrick's weekend--and Montreal is the home to the second oldest St. Pat's parade in North America and has been going continuously since 1824--but students are demonstrating against hikes in tuition fees.

One of the biggest parks in the city was filled with students and their families Sunday afternoon to protest the tuition changes. Of course, it helped that the weather has been absolutely gorgeous--almost scarily so. Here's a shot of a neighborhood park in Mile End, where kids were enjoying the afternoon even though the swings weren't up, the grass and trees were far from being green, and a little snow lingered in the shadows.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Halal and Running around Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut off

A mini-controversy is brewing in Quebec over the fact that a number of chicken processing plants are now killing poultry in a way that conforms with Muslim strictures of halal meat. This involves cutting the birds' throats, and the abbatoirs which do it say there is nothing in the method that is any different from the way chickens were killed decades ago. No reason not to use the method, they argue, since it doesn't cause any more suffering for the beast and produces a tasty product.

But, critics say, the chickens aren't all labelled as halal, which misleads the consumer who may not want to buy birds that are "muslim." There's been much back and forth in the media about this, with some good points being raised by people who say that the controversy perhaps should be about the way we raise chickens in big factory farms.

Those who worry about this should remember the way chickens were killed back in the good old days. I remember my grandmother, who had a couple of dozen of layers, would occasionally pull one from the chicken house and then drag it to the stump in the backyard where she'd hold it down with one hand and chop off its head with an ax held in the other.

The chicken would run around, headless, and I, beastly child that I was, would rejoice. Not only would we have fried chicken soon (one of the few things my grandmother cooked well) but we had one less of the dreadful beasts who pecked at children when they were supposed to be feeding them.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? I can't imagine what Jeanne would do were I to dispatch a bird in front of her. But I think the comparison illustrates the disconnect between what we eat, and the way it gets to our table. Those who protest over unwittingly buying halal might do a lot more good if they looked into how the un-halal things they eat are produced.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

When Religion Permeates Life, It's the Devil to Pay, or Why Thinking about Destiny Can Get You in Trouble

Sadly, we seem to be seeing more and more religion in public life these days. I don't mean references to a moral code such as "do under to others as you would have them do unto you" which underlies the teachings of most religous systems, but the intrusion and imposition of onbe group's values on others.

The rise of Rick Santorum in the US is one example, but there are echoes in the systematic way the Harper Conservatives are attacking efforts to gather facts and test hypotheses. (The latest, reports Le Devoir this morning, is the attempt to gut parts of the legislation governing the fishery.)

It is against this background that the Atwater Library book discussion group took on Thornton Wilder's The Bridge at San Luis Rey last night. The premise is relatively simple: five people perish in the collapse of a bridge over a chasm in Peru. The year is 1714, and a monk decides to investigate the lives of the victims and compare them with the lives of people who survive. His conclusion: that the good die young, because they are gathered in by God.

Whether the reader comes to that conclusion is another question, and clearly last night there was much difference of opinion. A healthy difference, I'd say, which is where the rise of public religion becomes problematical. When religious belief becomes public policy we all suffer. The extreme case is seen in the novel, where the monk is burned along with his book because his interpretation of events do not jibe with the precepts of the Inquisition.

Here's a trailer for the film made from the novel:

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Snowdrops, Because We're Getting There

No, they're not open yet, but the shoots are definitely above ground. Makes me feel good to see them.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A Visit to Egypt Via The Mistress of Nothing: This Is Book Talk Week.

I'm still on a bit of a high from the great discussion we had last night at the Pierrefons Libraray about Kate Pullinger's Mistress of Nothing. The novel won the Governor General's prize for literature in 2009, beating out Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness and Michael Crummey's Galore, among other books.

The book is an historical novel, told in the first person by a lady's maid, who goes with her employer, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, to Egypt in the 1860s in hopes that the hot, dry climate will cure Lady Duff Gordon's tuberculosis. Much of the description is directly inspired by the lady's letters home which became bestsellers. But the story revolves about the situation the maid finds herself in: pregnant by the lady's Egyptian factotum and then cast out by the noblewoman, who feels betrayed or is enviious, or perhaps both.

A book that is to be recommended by those who like a well-researched novel that is really evocative of the period, as well as those who like a story about courage.

The other books this week will be Le sourire de la petite juive by Abla Farhoud this evening in Outremont, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder at the Atwater Library and Rosa Candida by Audur Ava Òlafsdottèr at the Kirkland Library. Should be fun.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Another Great Woman Passes: Madeleine Parent Dies at 93

A week ago in the run up to International Women's Day, I mentioned Lea Roback as a great example. Today I'd like to mark the passing of her great friend Madeleine Parent, with whom she walked on many picket lines and spoke at many meetings.

Here's an interview with her done by Amir Khadir, who doesn't too badly defending good causes either, by the way.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Saturday Photo: Spring Afternoon Sun

Time changes this weekend, another milestone in our trip around the year. This means that it will remain light until well after suppertime, and that the afternoon sun will cast blue shadows on what snow remains.

It is very nice to be out, even though walking in the parks is difficult since the paths are either covered in ice or covered with mud.

Another example of having to take the good with the not-so-good.

Friday, 9 March 2012

What's Wrong with this Picture: Rio Tinto Locks out Workers and Hydro Quebec Must Buy the Electricity That Isn't Being Used

Aluminum is made from electricity and bauxite. The former ingredient is by far the most important, aud since bauxite is more easily transported than electricity, big aluminum foundries are built where electricity is cheap.

That's why Rio Tinto Alcan (just Alcan before its recent purchase by the Anglo-Australian mining giant) has some of its biggest plants in the Saguenay Fjord where there is a lot of water for producing electricity. Quebec governments of all stripes have encouraged this for decades, but just how much support they've given recently has only just come out.

Rio Tinto has locked out its workers for nearly two months in a classic labour dispute. Interestingly enough, this production hiatus comes when aluminum companies are reducing stocks in order to raise prices. That probably is questionable, but what is more worrying is the fact that under secret agreements arranged in recent years between Hydro Québec and the company, excess electricity produced by the aluminum company's dams MUST be bought by Hydro Québec whether or not it is needed.

Le Devoir estimates that the utility was forced to by at least $15 million in February, and if the lockout continues, the bill could run to $175 million. In other words,the utility is helping to finance the cost of the lockout, which isn't such a bad thing for the aluminum company anyway. But it sure isn't good for the rest of us.

Photo: Alcan's power dam facilities at Alma

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Remembering Lea Roback on International Women's Day

One of my heros has always been Lea Roback, a Quebec feminist and union militant, who died at 97 in 2000. A film was made about her life which is exceedingly hard to find, Des Lumières dans la grande noirceur, but is worth ferreting out. She is an example of what tenacity and principles can accomplish, and I like to think about her when I get discouraged.

Lukas and Sophie have just announced that they're expecting a baby in early September. If it's a girl, they're planning on naming her Léa. What a great way to pay tribute to this remarkable woman's memory!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Great Weekend Coming up in Toronto March 22-24: NDP and Making Waves (Or Should It Be, the NDP Makes Waves?)

For those of you in Toronto Thursday March 22, please come to a presentation of Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure at the Centro de Lingua Portuguesa Camões at 5:30 p.m. (800 Landsdowne)

The next two days I'll be at the NDP Leadership Convention, rooting for Thomas Mulcair, the only candidate who might be able to counter Stephen Harper.

Should be a marvelous trip.

The picture, by the way, was taken on my trip to Portugal a couple of years ago, and shows the view across the Tagus from the Torre de Belém, from which hundreds of Portuguese ships sailed over 500 years.

Monday, 5 March 2012

C'est la neige qui fonde: The Waters of March in the Northern Hemisphere

This is one of my favourites songs, one I always turn to this time of year. It was written for the Brazilian March, which is the season of rain that comes after the summer, but here of course, the "saison des pluies" is that of spring and melting snow.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Saturday Photo: Snow People with a Short Life Expectancy

We've had a nice snowfalls in the last week, and it actually looks invitingly winterish outside.

But we're scheduled to have some quite warm weather over the last next few couple of days, and the snowpeople, so lovingly made by the young, and not so young, are likely to disappear.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Don't Answer that Call: A Robocall Poster

This would be hilarious, if it weren't so sad.
The poster's by Matthew Cope: good work!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Why Girls Are Important: Films, Sex Ratios, and Unrest

One of the things that struck me when I was in Shanghai five years ago was the number of adolescent boys on school outings. I knew, of course, that there are a lot of "missing" girls, because Chinese parents for more than a generation have been trying to get around the government's one child policy to insure they have a son.

Who's going to marry them? I remember thinking. This is a recipe for social disaster, to say nothing about the trouble that's going to come down the line when there are so many fewer women to have children. Men without women are notoriously more volatile than married men, and far easier to recruit for dangerous work, including the military. According to a Forbes article, some changes may be coming in China, but they will be too late for the young men of today who may never find a mate.

Of course, China isn't the only country where a premium is put on male births. India is one, and I wager that there are a lot of Europeans and North Americans who, while they wouldn't terminate a pregnancy because the baby was a girl, are hoping for a boy. (One of the things I love about my son in law Emmanuel, BTW, is the way he was completely delighted to announce after Jeanne's birth that she was a girl.)

As International Women's Day approaches, here are two videos to fuel your reflection on the subject. The first is the trailer for a documentary about the "missing" girls, and the second is the testimony of a Chinese woman who wanted a boy, but wouldn't trade her girl now for anything.