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Archive for the ‘Canadiana’ Category

For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (especially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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hetty-dorvalMy first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.  It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.

The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents.  For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating.  When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too.  “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out.  And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:

He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’.  Father stopped short there.  Apparently he could have said more.  In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself.  But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.

Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris.  Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation.  By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.

It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton.  Apparently, these appeal to many other readers.  Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur?  Regardless, it is a minor quibble.  Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured.  A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!

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I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre.  Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics.  In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.

Never Sleep Three in a BedNever Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses.  Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.

Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers.  We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank.  There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex.  When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:

The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered.  He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before.  Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations.  I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime.  He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’

I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets.  I have never been so terrified of anything in my life.  Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.

Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories.  His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent.  In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers).  With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level.  An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working.  None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place.  In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.

Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices.  Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty.  These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis.  No.  This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.

The Night We Stole the Mountie's CarThe Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen.   As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego.  He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager).  It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.

The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego.  There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople.  When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were.  He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:

Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic.  Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education.  It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough.  It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework.  Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports.  Not enough discipline; too much conformity.  Education is a hot topic in the news media.  On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education.  It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.

In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it.  Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen.  But nobody cared.  When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”

Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it.  But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.

What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing.  These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices.  Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer.  Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):

We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play.  And I discovered a most horrible truth.  My lines were terrible.  Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous.  Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.

Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures.  There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can)  to help support their parents and siblings.  For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:

Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war.  Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight.  Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels.  They had a chance to prove their worth.  The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.

My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan.  Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative.  Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government.  He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.

In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today.  When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.”  He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.”  Plus ça change…

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I harbour a great affection for Stuart McLean, writer and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café.  I love listening to his radio show and am always excited when he releases a new book so it was with pleasure I picked up The Vinyl Café Notebooks at my local library.  Unlike McLean’s other Vinyl Café books, which focus on the lives and friends of one family, this is a collection of short essays written over fifteen years with no real focus. McLean discusses summer jobs and curling, Bob Dylan and W.O. Mitchell…anything and everything, really.  And it is delightful.  Warm and thoughtful, McLean is just as engaging in print as he is on air and, as always, his encouraging but never cloying glass-half-full view of the world is the perfect antidote to the prevailing cynicism we are surrounded by:

It is not said enough, so I’ll say it again: the world is a good place, full of good people, and when we act out of that, when we act out of hope, and optimism, and faith in our fellow human, we act out of our best selves, and we are capable of doing great things, and of contributing to the greater good.

Hope and optimism are not synonymous with naivety.  We should be looking to the future with flinty and steely eyes, for sure, but they should be wide open with hope, not squinting in fear. (p. 147)

The book is divided into vaguely thematic sections (Notes from Home, Calendar Notes, Notes from the Neighbourhood, etc) including one entitled Reader’s Notes, full of bookish musings or encounters.  There’s a wonderful piece entitled “The Island of No Adults” about an eight-year old girl who, having read one of those children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton where the children are off having adventures with no adults in sight, decides to run away to a neighbouring town to become a waitress.  As you do.  And I love how he describes a reader’s relationship with his or her bookshelf:

A bookshelf is a highly personal thing, and often the books on it bristle with emotional connections that no one would ever guess.  There are the old friends that you put on the shelf and return to often, acquaintances that sit there for years, untouched; there are the ones that slip away and are forgotten, and those that seem to wander off on their own accord, yet remain, ghostlike, to haunt the library, like an old lover, with feelings of regret, or sorrow, or confusion.  These are the books you think of from time to time and wonder what became of them, and if you would have anything to say to one another if you were in touch again.  (p. 208)

I also really loved how personal this book was, how close you feel to McLean while reading it.  Honestly, I didn’t know that much about him beforehand, about his background or family, his likes or dislikes, and everything I learned while reading this, I liked.  Particularly his affection, which I share, for always taking the long way round.  I’ve never met a logging road I don’t prefer to a highway, a dirt road that wasn’t more appealing than a paved one, and it only seems right that McLean, whose radio show has provided the soundtrack for many of my road trip adventures, feels the same:

Before I can go further, you should know this about me: if we were in a car together, you and I, and you were driving and we came to one of those moments where you pulled over and looked at me uncertainly, and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?  Left?  Or right?’ I would, reflexively and consistently, choose the back road.  Fast roads bore me.  I like it when roads are winding and narrow, and there are places you can stop that don’t feel like the place where you stopped two hours ago.  I like the slow way.  (p 219)

But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the entire book was a bit entitled “Parliament Hill”, describing a trip McLean took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, originally with the intention of viewing two of the rather unique items in the Parliamentary Library (a cake baked more than thirty years ago for the library’s one hundredth anniversary and an inkwell used at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864).  The trip quickly becomes about more than that, as McLean explores the building and encounters some very small, very touching aspects of its history.  I love Ottawa as I love few other places in this world and I remain in awe of the Parliament Buildings, for all they have witnessed, all they represent, and all they can be.  I have quoted this essay at length (quite the typing exercise!), wanting so much to share what had touched me so much:

If you have never been to the Parliament Buildings, the best way to walk into the Centre Block is to imagine yourself walking into a cathedral.  It is all limestone marble and gothic arches, bathed in the soft light of a setting sun, or as the parliamentarians would have us believe, I am certain, an approaching dawn.  You wouldn’t be surprised as you walked around to spot a red-cloaked bishop padding down one of the corridors, or I wouldn’t.  Like one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, Parliament is all history and tradition.

I wandered into the Centre Block, into the Rotunda, and then down the Hall of Honour heading to the Library of Parliament.        

Before I got there, however, I was drawn to another corridor – one that the public isn’t supposed to use.  It is reserved for members who want to slip out the back door of Parliament when they are trying to avoid people like me.  And there, tucked away in a small alcove, I stumbled on a sculpture, a small bust by the great French artist and father of modern sculpture Auguste Renoir. 

To Canada, read the plaque on the pedestal, whose sons shed their blood to safeguard world freedom.

The plaque is signed, from grateful France.

I am moved by grand gestures made with modesty.  By small, determined things.

On I went, and soon enough came to the library, where Irene Brown, the librarian on duty, told me with obvious disappointment that the cake I had been sent to see had begun to crumble and was no longer on display.  The inkwell was gone too.  It was in storage. 

Irene was soon joined by her colleague, a librarian named Louis, and with the spontaneous enthusiasm typical of librarians everywhere, they soon enough had set aside their work and joined me in mine. 

‘We could show you our favourite book,’ said Irene.

‘What book is that?’ I asked.

‘It was sent to Canada by Queen Victoria,’ said Irene. ‘After the death of her husband.’

‘Yes,’ says Louis.  ‘It is a collection of the Prince Consort’s speeches.  It is inscribed in the Queen’s hand.’

‘What does the inscription say?’ I asked.

‘To the library of Parliament,’ said Louis.

‘From a heartbroken widow,’ added Irene.

I passed a pleasant hour in the library before saying by goodbyes and continuing my wanderings.

I headed up to the top floor, the sixth floor, to the parliamentary restaurant, which I have always wanted to see.  The maitre d’, a woman named Margueritte, welcomed me just as graciously as the librarians had.

‘That table there,’ she said, pointing at an alcove near the door, ‘is reserved for the prime ministerThat alcove is for Conservative members, that one for Liberals, and that is where the NDP gather.’

Then, sensing my interest, she said, ‘Would you like to see the New Zealand Room?’

She took me to the back of the restaurant and into a small and elegant dining room with a table that would sit a dozen, but not one more.

‘It is paneled with wood sent by New Zealand after the Centre Block burned to the ground in 1916,’ she said.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there under the green copper roof of Parliament, in that modest dining room with its magnificent view of the Ottawa River, that I had my little epiphany.

One hundred years ago New Zealand was pretty much on the far side of the moon as far as Canada was concerned.  And vice versa.  Yet, in 1916 someone in New Zealand heard that our Parliament Buildings had burned to the ground, and they responded to that news in such an odd and yet peculiarly appropriate way.

They sent wood.  To Canada, of all places.  As if wood was something Canada was lacking.  And someone here received that gift with the respect with which it was given.  And those two small acts of respect had served the greater good.

And it occurred to me, as I stood there all these years later, in what is now known as the New Zealand Room, that we have lost our understanding of that sort of respect.

In its place we have developed an impulse for cynicism.  Too quickly we look at our politics and our politicians as if everything was easy to figure out; as if compromises didn’t have to be made; as if you can always say exactly what you mean; as if a thoughtful person can’t reflect on something and then change his or her mind; as if the business of governing isn’t complicated.

Cynicism is an easy place to pitch a tent.  And it is worth remembering, when we are tempted by that soft and undemanding clearing in the forest, that there are more noble campsites.

Parliament has been, and could still be, the best of us.  And, I would put forward, it behooves us to embrace that possibility, to admit to that possibility, to own that possibility and, most importantly, to expect it.  These are important days.  This is an important place.  We owe it many things.  Our passions, our commitments, our truths and, yes, our respect.  The broken-hearted QueenVictoria showed that when she signed and sent that book in the memory of her husband.  Auguste Renoir showed it as he fashioned that sculpture for all of France.  Those New Zealanders showed it as they bundled together their little shipment of wood.  Those librarians show it as they guard that inkwell still.  And so should we, each one of us, as we come together in our todays and our tomorrows, to consider, as best we can, the great questions of our times.

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I’m afraid that Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, while much praised by other, far more knowledgeable reviewers of graphic novels, left me cold.  Graphic novels aren’t my thing.  I have enjoyed a few – I’ve been particularly delighted by Guy Delisle’s graphic memoirs – but more often than not I find the medium jarring and ill-suited to tell a story that might otherwise have captivated me.  And this story, sketched out in the barest possible terms, had all the potential to be a gripping one. 

Individually, each panel is striking.  The graphics articulately express the tension that pervades the novel.  Everything is restrained and stark except for the paintings in the museum.  These are recreated in extravagant detail.  The famous subjects bend and curve and emote, breathing life into characters’ otherwise restrained existence.  But the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.   

I went into this book knowing it had a Canadian heroine (Ila) and was set in wartime Paris where museum and gallery curators were working to ‘misplace’ items from their collections before they could be handed over to the Nazi occupiers.  I’m not sure I came out of the reading knowing all that much more, which was so frustrating!  Ila’s conflicted relationship with Rolf Hauptmann – by turns her lover, her interrogator, and her rival – seems so intriguing.  I want to know more about them, I want a full book devoted to their personal interactions.  Instead I get a few lines of incredibly restrained dialogue.  I want that novel and I want it now.  Doesn’t that sound like a book you would read?  

While I’m glad that I tried another graphic novel, this wasn’t a particularly successful reading experience for me.  There’s simply too much story – or rather, the promise of a story – for such a slim, minimalist volume.

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It’s rather trendy these days to be deeply interested in your food and its origins, to want to know where and how it was grown, even by whom, or, better yet, to do the growing yourself.  I am absolutely a fan of this new agro-consciousness.  Bring on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, almost anything by the prolific but obnoxious Mr. Pollan, and dozens of new titles seemingly every month.  In the 20th Century, we learned how to feed the world’s growing population with the advancements of the Green Revolution.  In the 21st, our challenge is to continue to feed all 6.7 billion of us (or whatever the number is these days) but to do so in a sustainable manner, conserving resources.  In Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat by Sarah Elton, Elton explains the issue in her introduction:

The way we eat today is not sustainable.  In the years since the Second World War, we have industrialized the practice of farming around the world and created a polluting food system that is dependent on fossil fuels.  On the farm, we use machines powered by oil and gas, instead of human muscle and horses, to work the land and to irrigate it too.  The good news is that technology has allowed farmers to reap high returns per hour of labour they spend in the fields, which has meant a huge improvement in standard of living of all of us.  We’ve been freed as a society from the drudgery and poverty of subsistence farming that was the reality of life for so many Canadians over the centuries.  A farmer today is able to produce, per hour of labour, 350 times more than a First Nations farmer would have on the same North American soils.  To live free from subsistence farming is undeniably a good thing.  However, to support this way of farming, we use natural gas to make fertilizer to treat the soil so we can plant the vast monocultures – only one crop planted over acres and acres – that epitomizes large-scale agriculture.  These monocrops are more susceptible to pests, so we then make pesticides from oil to kill the insects.  Then we continue to use our precious resources to irrigate, transport, and process the crops. (P. 11-12)

Elton has written as fascinating survey of agriculture in Canada at the start of the Twenty First Century that is refreshingly reasonable and well-balanced.  Divided into two equally fascinating sections, the first dealing with the rural farmers, the second with consumers in the city, Elton managers to remain optimistic as she considers the struggles both groups face in the name of sustainable agriculture.  The farming section is, as was to be expected, the most depressing.  Most farmers in Canada are nearing or past retirement age with no children to succeed them on family farms often mired in debt.  Profit, if there is any, is usually minute, a lesson I learned well at University: my housemate started an agro-tourism business on his family farm while in high school and within two years it was generating more revenue than the cattle business they’d been running for generations.  It’s sad that farmers, so vital to our survival, can’t make a decent wage but then it’s a global market and the reality is you’re competing for supermarket contracts with overseas producers who pay their labour pennies a day.  What I loved was that Elton’s answer to this question – not so much hers as the farmers she interviews – wasn’t to subsidize farmers; it was to find new ways of distributing the yield and cutting out the middlemen who push the wholesale costs down so low.  Farmers’ markets, local co-op stands or shops, CSA boxes, agreements between farmers and city restaurants…there are so many creative and productive options available that have been successful all across the country, in some cases for decades.   

Elton also takes on the myth of food miles, the belief that eating something that was grown close to where you bought it is more efficient than eating something that was produced further away and shipped in because of the energy consumed in the transportation.  I absolutely agree that it’s more intelligent to eat a carrot or a potato grown near you than one shipped in from California or Idaho.  But are we going to give up eating bananas, or any number of delicious fruits, vegetables, and spices that have become a normal part of our diet over the last decades because we can’t grow them in our harsh climate?   Elton takes a wonderfully level-headed approach to the question: 

We don’t have to abandon coffee, chocolate and spices to support a new food system.  Rather, the ideal of a strong local food economy is to eat good, healthy food that is produced with the least environmental impact.  This usually means food that is produced nearby, but includes imports that are produced and transported sustainably. (P. 15)

Growing bananas in South America and shipping them north makes infinitely more sense than trying to replicate the South American climate in greenhouses across Canada.  The focus, really, should be not on eating what is produced locally but what is produced and transported efficiently.  In some cases that will mean eating what is local, in others what is imported:

Despite the prevalent belief that food grown closer to where it is eaten is better for the environment, food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.  In fact, it can often take fewer kilocalories to grow food and ship it great distances to where it is eaten than it takes for a local farmer to truck food to a nearby market.  Because local doesn’t trump sustainable, the way we grow our food in Canada therefore must change too. (P. 14)

I thoroughly enjoyed Locavore. While I found the first section of the book the most fascinating, the second half dealing with city dwellers was equally well done, though I haven’t discussed it much here.  Given that this is a topic I’ve been interested in for years (mostly because it was one that interested my family – both of my father’s sets of grandparents were farmers and at university he was a rural land use major) it’s not a surprise that I was so engaged throughout the book.  However, it’s also a book that I would not hesitate to pass on to my only vaguely interested friends – both Canadian and foreign, since the issues facing Canada are the same ones facing most Western nations.  Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.  Indeed, I am certain that at least one person I know will probably receive this for Christmas!  

And, for anyone wondering how we can move forward towards a more sustainable model, here’s Elton’s conclusion:

On the farm, we need to move towards a holistic understanding of agriculture that takes its cues from nature, supports biodiversity and relies less and less on fossil fuels.  Farmers must make a living wage and be respected for their work, something achieved by rehumanizing the food chain and connecting farmers with consumers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture while at the same time developing new supply chains for institutions such as universities and hospitals.  When devising our new food system, we need not dwell on the past and replicate subsistence agriculture.  Instead, we can push forward to fashion something new and innovative, using our technology and our imagination to design energy-efficient greenhouses and other novel ways of producing food.

In the city, we need to grow some of what we eat and figure out how to incorporate food production into the metropolis.  By connecting with the food chain, and eating well, we will be more likely to experience a cultural shift and watch a gastronomy of place take hold. (P. 209)

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