Monday, September 28, 2015

metal angels and sunshine in Verdun, Sept 2015

This morning a friend sent me these two side-by-side photos. They so perfectly match my mood. I've finished going through the copy edits of my new novel, Five Roses, which makes me feel... both angelic and corroded as weathered metal? And I'm looking down the sightline of another marker. Time for us Libras to go sit in the sun.

I regret that I can't get the pictures beside each other but there's only so long I have patience for fiddling with the computer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

the blog hasn't died / editing a novel

The blog has been neglected but it hasn't died. I will get back to it. For the last while I've been very busy editing this next novel, Five Roses.

Sure, I've already revised and edited and revised again. Multiply that a few more times. But this stage of working with an editor always brings new questions.  Not to mention the tiny, little copy editing marks that question the placement of words and commas.

This is when I discover that grammatical niceties aren't as intuitive as I'd hoped. Well, no, not intuitive as in an involuntary reflex, but intuitive as in acquired at brain-marrow level after five decades of being a voracious reader. Shouldn't I simply know by now? Seems not.

So I discover that there's a difference between "hanged" and "hung"--which I need to know for this novel because there's a hanging.

I already know the difference between "farther" and "further". I had to work with a copy editor once who believed "further" sounded more posh than "farther", and changed all mine to "further". Fine, I thought. From now on, I'll use "further". I assumed it was like "ago" and "earlier". There's nothing wrong with writing "a year ago" but some writers/editors feel it's more elegant to write "a year earlier". (Which sounds needlessly fussy to my ears, but I am steeped in fairy tales where "long ago" is an existential pre-condition.)  Then I had another piece of writing returned from a copy editor with all the "furthers" changed to "farthers". I finally pulled a tome of GRAMMAR off the shelf and discovered--guess what?--that it's not a question of taste. There's a rule! "Farther" is for physical distance. "Further" is the abstract concept. Perhaps you think that I, as a writer, should already have known that but I didn't. Nor, for that matter, did these copy editors who were paid to know it.

This last read-through should be the last before Five Roses goes to the design people. It is so exasperating, because even after having read these sentences so bloody often already, I'm still seeing bits that make me groan. Groan = swearing. Did I really write, "The bus window was so clouded with dirt she couldn't tell if the moon shone"?  Seriously???? A meteorological adjective in a sentence where I already have the moon? Not to mention that "clouded" is namby-pamby gloss on the state of some Montreal bus windows.

Anyhow, I should be working...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

a society of many stripes and hues

It is wonderful to live in Canada where we have the opportunity to come into contact with so many cultures. There is different music and dance, the influence of different literatures and art, exposure to different social moeurs, different ways of dressing, different foods. How restrictive and narrow-minded it would be to close oneself off and live in a world that is only familiar.

I delight in the differences that are available in our society. One particular aspect is FOOD. I've heard it said--don't know if it's true--that a person could eat out every night for a year in Montreal and every night enjoy a different cuisine. For sure, there's a lot. I worked for many years at a hospital with people of various ethnic backgrounds, and was able to sample dishes that were Filipino, Trinidadian, Rumanian, Pakistani, Greek, Haitian, Lebanese, Eritrean, Russian, Bajan, Argentinian, etc. A couple of times, when we weren't busy, someone would pull up an image of a fruit or vegetable on the computer to tell us what it was called in their country. Breadfruit, for example, had many different names and uses. Avocado can be served either sweet or savoury.

It was an honour for me to learn how to make dhalpuri roti from my sister-in-law's mother.

Holidays are times when food takes on special importance. Coming from a western Christian tradition, I'm familiar with Christmas desserts. Note that I, too, am a child of immigrants from elsewhere, so I didn't eat the standard shortbread cookies that are often served in Canada among Anglo families. At our house our mother and her German friend got together a few weeks before Christmas to do the Weihnachtsbäckerei. These are many different kinds of cookies either layered with apricot jam and dipped in chocolate, or formed in an S-shape and glazed with lemon icing, or made with ground hazelnuts and rum, or topped with an almond half, or rolled in black pepper... In our house, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we didn't ham and turkey; we gorged ourselves on Austrian cookies.

As an adult, I've sometimes baked Austrian cookies from the old cookbook my mother brought from Austria when she came to Canada. The cookbook belonged to her mother before her. In the cookbook, one woman makes a check mark next to the recipes she likes. The other makes a cross. Rarely do they like the same one. The recipes themselves pre-date electric mixers and stoves, so the instructions call for beating egg whites for 45 minutes until stiff (with a fork), and to bake cookies at middle heat in the wood stove. 

Fact is, I don't care much for sweets and I don't get excited about Austrian Christmas cookies. R does, but when I make them, he inevitably observes that they aren't as good as my mother's. My feeling about nostalgia is that it's best left alone. Let him remember. 

The Christmas dessert which I do really like is the UK version of fruitcake. Ideally it's made almost a year ahead of Christmas. It's dense and dark and chock-a-block delicious, filled with chopped, dried fruit and nuts, drizzled every two months with brandy or rum, and wrapped tightly again. After a year of this loving, boozy treatment, the nuts have softened, and the cake and dried fruit have melded. 

However, I'm not that organized to make Christmas cakes a full year ahead, which is why mine tend to crumble rather than slice. The earliest I can manage is September. Last week I bought a kilo of dried fruit and almost a kilo of pecans and almonds. I bought all fresh spices which is another September ritual. Baked the cakes last night.  

In my roundabout way I'm saying that I believe living in Canada can only be a richer experience if we welcome many cultures--and we have the space and the means, so I don't understand why our government is making such a piss-poor showing during this time of world crisis. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Five Roses / Dundurn Press 2016

In 2016 I will be publishing a new novel, Five Roses, with Dundurn Press in Toronto.

The novel is not about flowers, though one of the characters is called Rose.

The title has to do with the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign which is a landmark on the south-west horizon of Montreal. From 1954 to 1977 the sign included the word FLOUR which was removed in 1977 in accordance with Quebec language laws.

I'm not writing about flour mills either, though the fact that industry once thrived in south-west Montreal is a significant factor. I am a little fascinated with abandoned industrial complexes.

Here's the sign as seen from Pointe St-Charles where the novel is set. It's an inner-city neighbourhood being gentrified as I write. The neighbour a few doors down just had her brick redone. From another direction I can hear floors being sanded. Another neighbour is gutting the ground floor of his duplex. My novel takes place in the early 2000s when the process of gentrification in The Pointe was gearing up. For better or worse.

The setting of abandonment and appropriation reflects the loss and recovery the characters in the novel experience. A sister kills herself, a baby is lost, a mother dies. I'm giving nothing away here. These events have already happened. I want to know how the characters move on after a suicide, a lost baby, a death. There's no such thing as ghosts and yet. A house stands empty for a year. Two boys eat from a can of ravioli. One woman shows another how to fashion a rose out of marzipan. A loom is rescued. A baby howls with hunger. A chickadee pecks bagel crumbs from a young woman's hand. A man spies through gaps in a wooden fence. Rooms in an old house get a fresh coat of paint. There's cycling by the St. Lawrence River, a game of strip poker in a basement, a man practising fishing in the grass, a large orange cat. A woman climbs a rope ladder up the tower of a derelict factory.

I've tried not to overdo the number of times that characters notice the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign in the sky, but I've been interested in the sign since before I moved to the Pointe. I have a FIVE ROSES T-shirt. If I had a cellphone, I would get a FIVE ROSES cellphone cover. Are there FIVE ROSES lighters? FIVE ROSES jeans? Does someone have an old FIVE ROSES burlap flour sack?

That's a photocopy of an illustration in a 1940s cookbook my mother-in-law had. When I first saw it, I knew I wanted a copy. It was long enough ago that I had a hard time finding a place that made colour photocopies. At the time I didn't know what I meant to write about it, but I knew I would.

Not so long ago a friend sent me this in the mail.

It's the back of a Five Roses cookbook that she found at a farmer's market in Victoria, BC. The cookbook dates from 1962.

There are recipes for Whipped Cream Topping for Pies. (Silly me, I never knew I needed a recipe for that.)
Croquettes with this enticing description: "Five Roses Croquettes, with their crisp brown deliciousness, are a delightful food."
Witches Bonnets. This is a dessert and that's how it's written. No apostrophe.
Supper Snack--to be made with "White Sauce No. 2".

Monday, August 24, 2015

Litter I See / Literacy

My good friend, Carin, is hosting this interesting blog project to promote awareness of litter and literacy.

To that end, she has invited writers to contribute a piece as suggested to them by a photo of litter they've either taken themselves or she will provide. There is unfortunately so much litter to choose from. Plastic trailed across fences, smeared along street curbs, tossed onto side walks, in the forest, on a shoreline...

I am honoured to join the illustrious littermates with "pureed frog".

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

how about walking 300 k in the Prairies?

Here in Montreal we go for walks by the river. I know him as Matthew, but I see he goes by Matt when he returns to the landscape whence he hails.
After doing more well-known pilgrimages in Spain, Norway, and Ireland--and elsewhere--Matt decided to walk 300 k through the plains of south-west Saskatchewan along what's known as the North West Mounted Police Trail.

I'm proud of him for having walked it. I walk daily and always feel that's a way of being where I am in the landscape, by which I also mean urban landscape. I like to get from A to B on my own two feet, even if it takes more time. I have strong memories of places I've visited because I've seen them slowly--at the pace of walking.

To see the landscape and where Matt and his pilgrims walked, see this fine short video (15 min) by George Tsougrianis, broadcast by Swift Current & Area news.

To read more about Matt's walk, read his excellent blog entries for July, 2015 at

I believe the photo of the rainbow was taken by Bishop Don.

Monday, August 10, 2015

the hoax of beta blockers

I was reading an intelligent, insightful, and funny essay by Meghan Tifft in The Atlantic on the writer's dilemma about going public. It's called "An Introverted Writer's Lament".  

In essence, for myself, I agree with Tifft. I do what I do best alone in a room with a closed door. Yet, in the current marketing climate, writers are also expected to become a personality. They must leave their pages and rooms to stand in front of a crowd and sound charming and witty about the book they've written, writing in general, their cat or dog, how they feel about adverbs, where they grew up, whether they like writing in the morning or at night, whether they use a fountain pen or computer.

Like Meghan Tifft, I'm not saying I'm against that. I understand that readers who enjoy a book might well want to know what the author looks and sounds like. I do my best to take part too.  

However, there was a line in Tifft's essay which I've heard several times now and which I still don't understand. She refers to the ways in which writers attempt to deal with the "blitzed nerves and staggering bowels" that overwhelm them at the prospect of speaking in public. "We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation."

What is this thing with beta blockers? I've had writers tell me they take them to calm their anxiety about appearing in public. 

I take beta blockers. I take them twice a day--and have been doing so for over ten years for medical reasons. I wish I didn't have to take them because I don't like the side effects. However, since I take them, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that beta blockers have never ever EVER reduced my anxiety (when I'm anxious), nor kept me from perspiring in an embarrassing way (if I'm embarrassed enough to be perspiring). 

Taking beta blockers only slows down your heartbeat. If you are truly anxious, slowing down your heartbeat does not affect your anxiety. Why would it? Anxiety does not come from the heart. The notion that the heart is the seat of the emotions was debunked some while ago.

Or are writers so suggestible that they believe slowing down their heartbeat will make them less nervous? Huh.

Here's a link to the article in The Atlantic