"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Desire Lines Giveaway Ends: Congrats to the Winners!

In a little under a week 212 people entered the Goodreads Giveaway of Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography.  Congratulations to Erin  of Mississauga On and Kristin  of Bismark, ND who were chosen by the Goodreads elves to receive the two copies available.

The books were put in the mail  Monday morning, in hopes that they'll get them in time for Christmas. (Good chance for Erin, but I don't know about Kristin, given the weather conditions.)

Christmas Reading: The Dead from James Joyce's The Dubliners

When it comes to holiday reading your thoughts might not go immediately to a story with a title like "The Dead." But this last story in James Joyce's The Dubliners is a perfect antidote to too much artificial good cheer.

The events take place one evening during the end of year holidays at a party given by two maiden aunts.  There is a certain amount of holiday greeting exchanged, quite a bit of drinking on the part of the gentlemen, political discussion that nearly veers out of control, and the realization  by Gabriel Conroy that his wife Greta, although she has been a good wife to him, had a love before him.

Anyone who has found family gatherings far from simple events will sympathize with the ambiguous relations among the characters.  We do not always like those closest to us, even though we may love them deeply.  Learning how to live with that web of emotions and expectations is very hard.  Yet we do it, as Joyce understood.

The story was made into an excellent film by John Huston about 30 years ago.  Worth seeing on some holiday night when you're sick of Miracle on 34th Street and The Grinch.

Friday, December 13, 2013

While We Wait for Home Delivery to End: A Novel about the Postman's Raound.

Here's a delightful book that should be read while we wait for Canada post to cut out home delivery.  (In case you missed, the Crown Corporation has just announcd that it will be doing away with home mail delivery over the next five years.) 

While opposition organizes to this really stupid idea: take a look at  Quebec writer Denis Thériault's short novel  The Postman's Rounds.  It takes place a few years ago when the postman actually delivered the mail and was a part of everyone's life. 

And another Canada Post-book connection.  withdrawn its permanent stamps, of course, because they want to boost the price of letter mail.
I went looking for stamps featuring Marie-Louise Gay's children's books for our Christmas mailings to discover that there were none. 

Win a Book You Might Want to Cover with Brown Paper!

Three days left to enter the Goodreads Giveaway for Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography.

Enter to win a copy of a book that two people this have told me they've covered with brown paper because they felt funny reading it on public transportation!  Quite a feat for an old lady writer like me.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Elites, Inheritance of Power and Leadership

The recent interest in Nelson Mandela's life make me think of two  books about colonalist methods.  In both : Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe the newcomers look for promising young men with the idea of winning them over and making them local leaders who are friendly to the colonizers. 

Mandela, I learned this week, was sent to boarding school in late adolesence, when he "was being groomed to become a chief."  His subsequent career was not what was expected of him, to say the least.  But the fact that he was tapped for great things, being the son of a family of the elite, is not surprising.  Co-opting a ruling group is something that colonializers and conquerers have done for epochs.

Geraldine Brooks's novel tells the story of the first Wamponoag native to graduate from Harvard College in the mid-17th century.  The son of the most powerful man in his group of Native Americans, he agreed to be educated in the school set up expressly to claim young natives for the Christian God.  His purpose was, as Brooks tells it, the better to counter the influence of the newcomers by understanding what they stood for.  In  the end he dies before he can do anything, and his people are first decimated by disease, and then pushed to the edge of history and power: it was 346 years before anothet Wamponoag graduated from Harvard.

The Achebe book is a classic of modern African literature.  The main character does not embrace European ways, but all around him, there are those who are seduced by Christianity, led by men from families that had been on the edges of power.

In neither of these cases are the heroes  "rice Christians," who joined the newcomers in order to be fed in times of famine,  Rather, they are men who in "ordinary," pre-colonial times would have led their people.  Mandela was extraordinary in breaking out of the mold, and the world is a better place for that.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Amazon Basin and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

This was taken in Puerto Maldonado, on the Rio Madre de Deus in the Amazon basin.  The  bustling little city (population about 140,000) is where you used to have to take a ferry across the river to continue west into the Amazon.

But now a new bridge links the two sides, making it possible to go ride on reasonably good road from the Pacific coast of Peru, across Brazil and on to the Atlantic.

Travelling the highway was one of the reasons I went to South America a few weeks ago.  A trip like that makes you think about many things, including  new understanding of books you read a long time ago. 

One of these is Luis Supelveda's delightful The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.  The thumbnail plot outline is: "In a remote river town deep in the Ecuadoran jungle, Antonio Jos Bolvar seeks refuge in amorous novels. But tourists and opportunists are making inroads into the area, and the balance of nature is making a dangerous shift."

Well, yes, that's what I remember.  But there's much more to it, including a character who is a teeth-pullling dentist and who removes all the teeth of a gold-hunter on a bet.  The description is chillingly funny, but it turns out that there's an allegorical twist, since the Brazilian national hero who pioneered settlement of the hinterland is called Tiradentes, the tooth-puller. 

Sepulveda is a Chilean left wing activist in addition to being a playwright and novelist, and was a good friend of Chico Mendes, a Brazilian from a few miles east of Puerto Maldonado.  Mendes was assasinated 25 years ago for leading a revolt of rubber tappers and protesting the rape of the Amazon.  When you realize that, this charming little story--which can be read as tribute to the power of fiction to transport--becomes much more serious.  It even can be read as the reverse of what it appears on the surface--that is, as a call to action, instead of an elegy for escape.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Day of Some Sadness: Nelson Mandela Leaves Us, and the Anniversary of the Polytéchnique Massacre

 I had intended to share this even before the news of Nelson Mandela's demise came out.  Today is, after all, the 24th anniversary of the killing of 14 young women at the Université de Montréal's École polytéchnique.  Most of them at the time were not yet 24, all of them were never able to show what they could do to help the world.

Their deaths, and what the tragedy said about the place of women in this world, has haunted me.  It took me a long time to write this story, and maybe it comes close to what I want to say.

(Taken from Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography)

The monument to the young women is not far from the site of
the massacre, just off the university campus. Every December
Lise goes there even though it often is snowing and always is
cold. There are benches around the edge of the park, and a
path down the middle with several granite blocks on either
side. Arcing away from each granite block is a low curve of
stone with what might be letters engraved on it. A bronze
plaque with a date is set in the earth at each place. The last
date is always 1989, but what is on the granite varies.

It took Lise two visits before she deciphered the meaning.
Each block is sliced in such a way that the shadow of a letter
can be seen: A, or M or B.... Then as you stare, the pattern of
dark and light, high and low, can be seen as letters, spelling
out the name of one of the girls. There and not there. In the
earth, but not.

Lise had the quote ready the first time she went underground:
“In France in the old days, women worked the mines, and the
men liked it. Check it out: Germinal by Zola, pages 56 and
after.” That might shut the guys up if they complained about
women underground being bad luck. But even if it didn’t, she
couldn’t let them stop her. As one of Lise’s friends from
engineering school said, men can be real pains in the butt,
God love ’em.

Getting ready to go underground on the tour for new hires
at LG-2, she put on jeans, a hard hat and steel-toed work
boots like everybody else. What she hadn’t expected was the
brass token the clerk handed her as she signed the registry at
the entrance to the access tunnel.

“Make sure the number is recorded right, then put it in
your pocket,” he said. “It’d be too bad if the chaplain ended
up calling the wrong family.”
“You mean when the whole thing collapses and our bodies
are mangled beyond recognition?” she asked, grinning, being
a good sport.

“Yeah, or when there’s an accidental explosion when
they’re transporting the dynamite, or the ventilation system
catches fire or....” He allowed himself a small chuckle.

“Wouldn’t want to upset our little sweetheart’s Maman and

“Sweetheart,” she repeated, hoping her face did not register
the sudden anger that engulfed her. Daniel was always telling
her to cool it, she was the only female in this group of new
engineering hires at the James Bay project, she should just be
glad about that. But still....

“Don’t let him bother you,” their guide said to her quietly
when she had moved up to the front of the group. “He’s a
fossil. He doesn’t realize how times are changing.”

She heard a snort of laughter from the driver of the electric
train that would take them 140 metres below to where the
turbines would go in LG-2’s power house.

“Ten years ago you wouldn’t have been allowed inside the
building,” he said.

“And aren’t you glad that times have changed,” she shot
back, flashing him her brightest smile. Then before she could
see how he took that, she climbed in a seat well back in the
first open car. No-one came to sit next to her, though. Oh
come on, she thought, are all these guys afraid of me? So much
for a scientific education.

But then their guide climbed in beside her. “It will be
formidable,” he said, as if to reassure her.

She nodded. “Without a doubt.”

The three little mini-trains started up, rolling nearly
soundlessly down the access tunnel. It sloped downward at an
eight per cent pitch—enough to drop sufficiently over the
kilometre-long trajectory to reach the working level, but not
too steep for larger vehicles hauling rubble out from the
blasting. But there’d be no explosions that day. “When we’ve
got company, we’re on our best behaviour,” the guide said.

“We’d have safety problems if we had outsiders running
around when the dynamiters were at work.”

The rock walls slipped past, changing a little in colour as
they descended. But the rock was solid granite, the hardest,
most stable stuff on the planet, part of the Canadian shield,
older than the hills, literally. Aside from the voices of the men
and the hum of the electric motors, it was quiet for most of the
way. Only when they looped back did the sound of the work
crews reach them.

The noise grew louder and louder until they came to open
space where the great machine-room of the power plant would
go. There it was deafening, as the equipment backed up and
moved forward, scraping up the debris from the last blast,
drilling at the edges, smoothing them, getting ready for the
blasts that would come later and the workers attacked the
belly of the earth.

When the dam was finished, the great hall would be big
enough to hold two Chartres cathedrals, their guide said when
they’d stopped and got out to look around. He had to yell over
the ambient noise, which echoed against the rock face. So far
about three quarters of the rock had been excavated, they had
another three months more, but by the end of the year
everything should be ready for the first switch to be pulled
and the turbines to roll.

“And will we have a party then,” the guide shouted to
them. “We’ll all be proud, so proud.”

Probably, Lise allowed herself to think. Certainly there were
a lot of people buying into the James Bay. She was skeptical,
but here she was anyway, signed on to help master the waters
of a corner of the globe bigger than some respectable

It was then that she saw the writing on the wall. Right in
front of her, off to the side: a door painted on the rock so
cleverly it looked almost real. Sortie d’urgence, it said: emergency
exit. Hundreds of metres under the surface of the earth: there
was no way out, of course. A joke, of course. If something
happened they’d have to leave the way they came. There’d be
an elevator later, steps too, but for now this was a construction
site where fear was supposed to be checked at the time you
picked up your brass.

So she made a point of not being afraid. She was in for the long
haul. She did good on that first assignment, and on the next,
and the next. She married Daniel, they formed a team. Most of
the time she was like one of the guys, she pulled her weight,
and all the other clichés. She didn’t even explode when it was
expected that she do the cooking when she and Daniel were
invited to spend a long weekend at a hunting lodge owned by
a construction company. Later she wondered what she would
have done if they’d wanted her to cook a deer, had one been
unlucky enough to be shot by them.

Years passed. The world changed a bit. She was no longer
the only female in her department. Women got elected to
government, girls began to take more and more places in
university classes. Lise didn’t call herself a feminist. The
important thing was to concentrate on doing what she had to
accomplish very, very well.

Then she was in Chicago, on a routine consulting trip for a
consortium putting together a bid on a hydro project in India.
Daniel was holding down the fort at home: they had a
housekeeper, the kids had their activities, he could referee as
well as she could, that was a matter of principle with them.

The hydro project planners wanted to take her out to
dinner, but she’d had enough for one day because they’d want
to continue their discussions, and already they’d asked more
than she expected. She had her professional pride, they
weren’t going to get advice at bargain rates just because she
was a Canadian woman, as if a woman’s ideas were worth less
than a man’s.

So she ate in a coffee shop across the street from the hotel,
an unpretentious place, the sort of restaurant that doesn’t stay
open late in Chicago’s downtown. Nobody was on the street at
6 pm, a cold wind blew, it was wicked winter weather already
even if it was only early December.

Coming back she was delayed five minutes by an encounter
with one of the Indian engineers who also was staying in the
hotel, and was obviously at loose ends. Had she eaten? Did she
want to have a meal with him? Oh, well, in that case, what
about a drink? Didn’t she think there is a major problem in
the plan for the powerhouse?

No, she said. No, if he wanted to talk, they could meet in
the morning before the next session. But now she had work to
do, thank you very much.

There was a message when she got back to her hotel room,
however. She looked at the clock: 7.30 pm, 8.30 pm at home.
Her first thought was: a problem with either one of the kids or
the next project Daniel was working on. But the voice wasn’t
the one she expected: it was her boss, back in Montreal.

“Maybe you’ve already heard,” he said. “I told your
husband that I’d make sure you knew. You really have to look
at the news. Something terrible has happened to those

She fumbled with the buttons, trying to listen to the
message again. But when she couldn’t get more than another
round of press this and thats, she put down the telephone and
reached for the tv remote control, her hands shaking.

The regular news was over so she started flicking through
the channels. CNN might have something about a breaking
story with engineers. Or maybe not. Maybe it would be easiest
just to call home....

No, there it was. Pictures of police ambulances and yellow
danger tape surrounding what looked like…no, it was…the
entrance to the engineering school, the place she’d studied,
the building where she taught the occasional course now. She
stood there for a moment, her finger still ready to push onward
through the channels, as if by switching to another one she
would leave this, whatever it was, behind. The voices were
hard to understand. An announcer was saying something in
English, but behind him she heard the French of home.

The phone rang, and she picked it up, just as the camera
lingered on dark splashes on the cement entrance way. Then
it swung around to show police officers and Urgence Santé
workers pushing the doors shut on an ambulance. The lights
on its top started pulsing.

She didn’t say anything, just watched. “Lise,” her boss said,
“have you looked at the tv yet? They’ve killed a half dozen,
they’re saying now. All girls. Nice young women, student

He continued but she stopped listening. “No,” she said.
“No.” She hung up the telephone very carefully, so quietly
that he probably didn’t even know she was no longer there.

Then she sat on the edge of the bed and watched the part of
the drama she was allowed to see unfold.

She was ashamed at being fascinated. The only death she’d
been close to was that of a crane operator that first season at
James Bay. He’d been crushed by rock when one of the loads
shifted, and she held his hand while they waited for transport
to arrive. He stared up at her, his eyes drifting in and out of
focus. Once he made little kissing sounds at her and she
supposed he thought she was his wife or girlfriend. But when
no woman claimed his body, and a search of the records
turned up no family, she knew that for a brief moment she
must have represented something entirely different. All the
women in the world, maybe. As, it appeared, those girls did to
the crazy young man who killed them.

Daniel met her at the airport. He saw her first, then he was
heading toward her, he was enveloping her in his arms the
way he had not done in a very long time.

“You’re safe,” he whispered in her ear. “You’re here.”

“Of course,” she said. Of course she’d been safe, she’d
always been safe. If he’d asked, she would have told him that
believing that was a matter of principle, it formed the bedrock
of her soul.

But now every December she goes to the monument, and sits
on one of the benches even though it often is snowing and
always is cold. Sometimes she thinks about the massacres that
occur on other campuses. This one prompted a tightening of
gun control laws locally but had no wider impact in a world
filled with violence.

Five years ago she finally read Germinal all the way
through—not just to page 58 but all 577 pages—and she
knows that the women in the French mines, like the men,
lived terrible, brutish lives, and working there was no feminist
triumph. So sometimes she thinks about that.

Always she remembers that she has been much luckier than
these young women, now underground. There was no
emergency exit for them. Their brass, their confidence, could
not protect them. But they are still with us.

Note: Fourteen young women were killed on 6 December 1989 at
l’École polytéchnique of the Université de Montréal by a lone gunman,
Marc Lépine.
They were:
• Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
• Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
• Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
• Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
• Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
• Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
• Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École
Polytechnique’s finance department
• Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
• Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
• Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
• Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
• Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
• Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
• Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More Geography and Where You Can Get Desire Lines Today...

Still getting my act together after my return from South America--this is the view from the Estrada do Pacifico, not far from a 4,725 meter pass in the Andes.  Great scenery!  Fascinating geography!

Which brings up Desire Lines: Stories  of Love and Geography.    I just checked and Drawn and Quarterly (211 Bernard West, Mile End) and Librairie Paragraphe (2220 McGill College Ave, Downtown Montreal)  both have copies.  Neither Amazon nor Chapters/Indigo have it available on line, though, but if you really want a copy before Christmas, I'll see that you get one.  Send me an email at msoder@aei.ca.

Note on 5/12/2013: Judith Warne at Librairie Clio in Pointe Claire--Plaza Pointe Claire, 245N boul. St Jean, Pointe-Claire, QC-- also says she has copies. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Bridge at San Luis Rey

I'm back from my trip to South America, and getting my notes and photographs in order.  The book I keep thinking about is Thornton Wilder's The Bridge at San Luis Rey, the story of an investigation of the collapse of a suspension bridge in the Andes in the 17th century. 

I'll return with more thoughts about it, but in the meantime, here's my picture of a water course that the Inkas channeled in Cuzco maybe 500 years ago