Category Archives: Books

Winter Light

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight

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I Am Not Your Negro

The question you have to ask yourself, White America needs to ask itself: Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place? ~ James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro

In a neighbouring village more English than England and whiter than white, I found Agatha Christie’s book in the stacks of the church’s charity book sale. I was shocked to a degree commensurate with my liberal leanings. Then I bought it for a dollar. Continue reading I Am Not Your Negro

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More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

Refugee Blues was published by writer and poet W.H. Auden in 1939, at the start of World War II.

It’s safe to say not much has changed and, perhaps, it never will if war and hatred continue to be our modus operandi. The million dollar question is this: Are we doomed as humans to this destructive cycle of scapegoatism and righteous indignation? Or is there truly a possibility – a probability – for something else?

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Continue reading More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

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“Too fancy and ingenious”: Children’s Books by Adult Writers

Reading to children is inextricably intertwined with the idea of home, comfort and love. These five children’s books by authors better known for their adult writing, are available in first edition form from Peter Harrington, London’s leading rare book firm. And because we all love a good backstory, the home lives of the authors prove as interesting as the books themselves. 

This piece is reproduced with permission from its author, Rachel Chanter, and Peter Harrington Rare Books Continue reading “Too fancy and ingenious”: Children’s Books by Adult Writers

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William Goyen: The House of Breath

…and then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was drenched and frozen; and walked upon a park that seemed like the very pasture of Hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls. I came out and felt alone and lost in the world with no home to go home to and felt robbed of everything I never had but dreamt of and hoped to have; and mocked by others’ midnight victory and my own eternal failure, un-named by nameless agony and stripped of all my history, I was betrayed again.

…then I was standing against the wet, cold wall of this building in the park and I slid down against the wet wall, wanting to die, squatting there in the dark….

…and I melted down like the gingerbread man that ran and ran and melted as he ran.

…I began to name over and over in my memory every beautiful and loved image I ever had, to name and praise them over and over like a rosary….It was like a procession through the rooms of the house, saying, now this is the hall and there is the bottled ship and the seashell, this is the breezeway…and here is the map in the kitchen…  

          ~Extract from The House of Breath, 1949 Continue reading William Goyen: The House of Breath

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Homing

There is human time and there is wild time. When I was a child in the north woods, before I learned there were four seasons to a year, I thought there were dozens: the time of nighttime thunderstorm, heat lightning time, bonfires-in-the-woods time, blood-on-the-snow time, the times of ice trees, bowing trees, crying trees, shimmering trees, breaded trees, waving-at-the-tops-only trees, and trees-drop-their babies time. I loved the seasons of diamond snow, steaming snow, squeaking snow, and even dirty snow and stone snow, for these meant the time of flower blossoms on the river was coming.

These seasons were like important and holy visitors and each sent its harbingers: pinecones open, pinecones closed, the smell of leaf rot, the smell of rain coming, crackling hair, lank hair, bushy hair, doors loose, doors tight, doors that won’t shut at all, windowpanes covered with ice-hair, windowpanes covered with wet petals, windowpanes covered with yellow pollen, windowpanes pecked with sap gum. And our own skin had its cycles too: parched sweaty, gritty, sunburned, soft.

~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves

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LeBreton Flats: An Acre of Time

LeBreton Flats: An Acre of TimeDear Phil:

It was my pleasure to meet you for coffee and finally put my hands on An Acre of Time, a history of LeBreton Flats. I wasn’t kidding when I said I discovered you in the most random of ways, a mention buried in the comments section of a review of a book of historical maps of New York:

An Acre of Time

Truth is, I know more about the history of New York City than I do about Ottawa, my home for the past 17 years.  The busyness of daily life chisels away the exoticism and mystery of a place until it seems hardly worthy of further notice. But Ottawa is a city no less worthy nor interesting than any other if one is willing to dive deeply into the layers of story.

Understanding history, beyond the party trick of reciting dates and names, is complicated. It requires a tipping point of fundamental knowledge, which is quickly crowded by a multiplicity of interpretations and points-of-view. It demands a persistent curiosity to move beyond the scratched surfaces of people long dead, places drawn and quartered and events interpreted by subjective bystanders. Then there’s the question of where to begin.

You weave a story of an acre of land, lying below Parliament Hill and bounded by the Ottawa River, from when it lay drowned by an ancient sea – and whales swam overhead – to when it dried out, greened up, and peopled out, the first settling over millennia, the rest arriving in a frantic blink of an eye. The acre was chopped down, carved up, built-on and, finally, stripped bare of its community and left to die, a brownfield fifty years thus.

In the beginning you invite readers to  “Leave where you are and come stand beside me” and in that line lies the strength of your story. It is engaging, intimate, contextual and readable narrative non-fiction whose scope and scale is kept in check by the birds-eye view from your first-person roost.  Anyone who’s read Canadian history will recognize the thematics of conflict we’ve grown to know and love: English vs. French, colonials vs. First Nations, Canada vs. America, land vs. money, power vs. ideals, government vs. the people,  locals vs. immigrants, and community vs. urban renewal. Herculean subjects all, but still you propel the story forward.

The first point you make abundantly clear is this: Make no mistake, it is always about the land.

The story [of the acre] comes to us from letters and recorded speeches of men now dead, so we can never ask the first person what the real story was. Besides, there is no such thing as the real story.
Between 1599 and 1633 [French explorer Samuel de] Champlain will cross the Atlantic twenty-nine times, averaging just over two months per crossing - five years of his life spent commuting. If professions have lineages, Champlain's leads down 400 years to the astronauts in the Apollo moon missions. On behalf of an imperial power....he went to the edge of a frontier and extended it...a 'terranaut'
But there was a vital difference between his job description and that of the modern astronauts. The frontier Champlain was contracted to explore was already inhabited.

The frontier Champlain was contracted to explore was already inhabited.

As with any Eden, the acre will be for one last time lush, fecund, and unspoiled. Land that defies the word ‘undiscovered’,  that has supported woodland peoples since the beginning in a “constant and massive presence for over twenty centuries” had been ‘found.’  With one fell swoop, everything changed.

...the acre is be a construction site of organic architecture, bustling with ingenuity and survival, reproduction and extinction. Skylines will grow, forest fires will level those, and new skylines will rise in their place...The settling of the acre by generations of flora will proceed unhindered until, to be precise, 1818, when the lordly trees will feel the first predator: a man with an axe.
Here comes a biped with an ability to adapt that is frightening. It combines a limitless curiosity with the skill of manufacture...a brain that grasps solutions and hands that can grasp anything...a prodigious memory, and it very much enjoys breeding. It is determined, sooner or later, to go everywhere and, once there, to stay.
Progress had arrived, and progress is a train with no reverse gear.

You tell us “the written history of Canada is a book that starts only five centuries ago.” Unfortunately whatever bones lie in whichever ground bear little weight compared to the stroke of the pen. What can be recorded in a ledger – and conversely legally bought and sold – is what matters. But King George III’s proclamation of 1763 – a written proclamation, a promise to protect native land –  didn’t help much, did it? And when the land registry books were inscribed, the Algonquins were left out.  Clearly, pen and paper do not serve everyone equally.

But, as you’ve said, it’s all about the land, land that was arguably never ceded, never traded away for a “…few goods… [that] are soon worn out and gone.”

They came and kept coming and this latter-day inundation overwhelmed: French, English, Loyalists, American entrepreneurs, European migrants and land speculators, looking to make their fortune first on fish and furs then on timber and free land. They aimed to leave their mark.

Place names...let history know who has passed this way...Landlords, as they arrive, mark their territory not by leaving scent on a tree, but by changing the title of the ground the tree stands on.
When they took over management of new land in their rash of colonization, the British exported the doctrine of enclosure. An unwitting recruit, the acre lost much of its spiritual wealth and respect in the process. Its essence no longer lay in its ability to provide food for a native family, but was inherent in its surface area and its proximity to a waterfall. It was primarily this latter virtue that first bestowed on the acre its market value.

When land is transformed into real-estate, the phases shifts from its natural gifts to its commercial potential; from greenery to greenbacks.

Fast forward a hundred and fifty years. LeBreton Flats is very much alive, a mixed-use blue collar neighbourhood, yes, but no slum. Interesting and homely, but not aesthetically pleasing in a Rockcliffe kind of way, it is deemed unworthy to lie below Parliament Hill and so it must be expunged.

Cities have always been cannibalistic. They eat large chunks of their own pasts, chewing up landscapes and buildings and regurgitating them. This municipal mastication implies a kind of hunger, the hunger to replace then with now, to recycle stale visions of a city with fresh ones.
What happened to the acre in the 1960's was the result of a steamrolling civic vision. It is perhaps the premier example in the country of the haste to reach glory, to be world-class, overwhelming a parochial sense of community.
Canada got its own [Washington] District of Columbia. With the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill as the centre pole, the National Capital Region was staked out like a groundsheet, nine hundred square miles on either side of the river. The fiefdoms within it, the cities and villages, kept their mayors and their councils, but chains were rattled. A higher authority, the National Capital Commission, had been turned on, with the ultimate right to expropriate.
"Owning" land is a myth. Ownership of part of the earth's crust is really no more than leasing, with the option to sell to lease. Expropriation is always possible, by an act of government or an act of violence. In the acre's case, Chapter 106 of the Expropriation Act of 1952 gave sanction to the unhousing of the 2,800 people who lived and worked on the Flats.
...as of May 1964, "the Commission has been able to demolish seventy-five buildings, which may contain as many as twenty-five families, out of a total of 215, and the balance are being removed as quickly as possible." He went not to say: "As is characteristic of local residential districts, when about 40% of the properties are vacated, the occupants of the balance of the housing leave voluntarily. This seems to be caused by the break-up of the social community and the remaining homes, due to their proximity to vacated housing which is subject to vandalism and to other annoyances. As a result, most of the occupants of residential properties in the Le Breton Flats have now left."

LeBreton Flats

After expropriation and demolition the acre began its “second childhood.” It reverted back to crown land, a tabula rasa, begging the questions: Who is its rightful owner? And what is its highest and best use?

Fast forward another fifty and we’re on the eve of approvals implementing a Phase 2 development vision for the site. For the record, Phil, I’m partial to your vision of an urban forest and park. I have spent my fair share of time in Stanley Park and Central Park and can’t imagine either city without its timeless green.

I look forward to our acre walkabout and luncheon as soon as the weather shifts from bitter cold to bearable. I hope you still have the giant measuring rod you used to mark out the acre, way back when, because there are pictures to be taken besides having much to discuss.

I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Kindest regards,

Andrea

*********

Further reading:

Fields of Vision by Phil Jenkins

Riversong by Phil Jenkins

Beneath My Feet by Phil Jenkins

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William H. Whyte, People-Watcher

William H. Whyte (October 1, 1917 — January 12, 1999) was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher.1

While working with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969, Whyte began to use direct observation to describe behavior in urban settings. Employing still cameras, movie cameras, and notebooks, Whyte described the substance of urban public life in an objective and measurable way.2

He not only proved that the street-level social activity of people could be quantified, but upended the popular wisdom of the time that people-space and street-space were incompatible. He described the street as “the river of life” and people-watching its principle activity. He identified seven elements that seed a space for lively activity:

Sittable spaces – Must be comfortable (right height and width) and offer a variety of fixed and movable options, including walls, stairs, double-sided benches and individual chairs

The street – Spaces have proximity and good connection to, the street

The sun – Can be direct or reflective; it’s about access to ‘light’

Food – Include carts, cafes, or snack bars; people who eat attract more people

Water – Accessibility to rivers, ponds, and interactive water features create welcoming, social spaces

Trees – Create a defined canopy; open to the action but also intimate

Triangulation – Things, actions, or activities that act as magnets to bring people together e.g. art installations, buskers, skating rinks, dance floors; performers provide a connection between strangers and acquaintances; art has “a kind of Venturi affect”, stimulating pedestrian flow and attracting people.

While focussed on urban spaces, his observations are equally applicable to suburbs, small towns and villages. Whyte emphasized the need for appropriate scale and condensed public spaces for these types of low-density areas.

My own village, founded in 1793, has transformed from wilderness to frontier wagon-stop, through sustainable, working village, and eventually into a bedroom community when the railroad passed it by. A few years ago our general store, the last vestige of business and street life, closed. No more Friday night ice cream cones or random conversations between neighbours and strangers who stopped by for milk, smokes or directions. One less reason for the cyclists, snowmobilers, hikers and tourists to stick around and add their energy into the local mix. One more nail in the coffin of vitality. What an element of food and triangulation wouldn’t do for an otherwise lovely place.

In 1979, Whyte released his documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in cooperation with the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) and the following year published a book of the same name. Retro style aside, the human behaviour in the film remains relevant and his warm narrative style brings the lessons to life.

Further reading:

Whyte, William H., The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces 

Project for Public Spaces

Parks By (And For) the People

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  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Whyte 

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Whyte 

The Inconvenient Indian

On the Canadian and American policies of forced removal and relocations – and re-relocations – of First Nations peoples from their own treaty-protected lands:

Moving Indians around the continent was like redecorating a very large house. The Cherokee can no longer stay in the living room. Put them in the second bedroom. The Mi’kmaq are taking up too much space in the kitchen. Move them to the laundry. The Seminoles can go from the master bedroom into the sunroom, and lean the Songhees against the wall in the upstairs hallway. We’ll see if that works. For the time being, the Ojibway, the Seneca, the Metis and the Inuit can be stored in the shed behind the garage. And what the hell are we going to do with the Blackfoot, the Mohawk, the Arapaho, and the Piaute?

Do we have any garbage bags left?

– Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, pg. 97

The Inconvenient Indian

Further reading/listening:

Thomas King on The Inconvenient Indian – Q on CBC

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Winnipeg: Stuck in the Middle

A couple of days ago I posted a piece trumpeting Winnipeg’s virtues and shortly after this appeared:

Of course I dove into winnipeglovehate.com, and discovered the book Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, photographed and written by the dynamic duo of Bryan Scott and Bartley Kives.

Thanks to the miracle of strangers on the internet and a benevolent Husband who made a run to McNally Robinson bookstore before hitting the airport, I had this book in my hands within hours of hearing about it.

Doug Holmes wasn’t kidding when he said the site (and even more so the book) “demonstrates exactly what you discuss.”  Call it synchronicity, a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a case of great minds thinking alike, or, more likely, we three are siblings separated at birth, but the zeitgeist of my 500-word essay – that Winnipeg feels like New York used to feel before it went and got all gentrified – is uncannily similar to that of their bookBut enough about me.

Wow, I say to Stuck in the Middle. Double-wow. It’s at once coffee table book, travelogue, history lesson, secret diary, social commentary, treasure map, love story, and Huck Finn adventure drawn from a place that everyone loves to hate. It nails the three things I look for in the finest non-fiction: The text is smart, lively, pointed and funny/mouthy sassy the kind of sassy that might warrant a sock in the jaw in certain kinds of mixed company; the photos are technically and creatively excellent, moving portraits of the uncommonly common; and it fills in knowledge gaps and sends me off in hitherto unknown directions.

Some of the things I discovered as a result of this book (spoiler alert!): feet James Avenue datum; salami shoulder; Tagalog is the second most widely spoken language, behind English, ahead of French; giant stone heads on appliances; the visibility of the high-water mark on buildings; surface parking is both ugly and intimidating; Garbage Hill; the influence of prominent New York architects; and how to win friends and influence people with a stellar grasp of flood-related vocabulary.

Click here for a list of retailers.

Hoping I can convince Bryan and Bartley to swap lunch for a walk around the city next time I’m in town….

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