Thursday, December 18, 2008

dancing mice

in honour of the season: the very first Nutcracker ballet was danced on this day in 1892. the holiday classic was reluctantly composed by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky as a commission, based on an original Hoffmann story.

no one can quite agree who choreographed the original ballet, though the first costumes (above), by Ivan Vsevolozhsky look lovely. the piece debuted in St. Petersburg at the gorgeous Mariinsky Theatre... sugar plum fairies & wee child mice have been dancing ever since.

(this is Konstantin Ivanov's original set design for Act II)

Friday, December 12, 2008

what is stephen harper reading...

author Yann Martel has been sending our Prime Minister a book every two weeks, for a year and a half. i knew about the project, but i didn't realize that each book has been accompanied by a letter, describing why Martel thinks Harper might find the book relevant to his current days.

the letters give a very clear picture of how the current Canadian government is undercutting the arts. which i suppose makes it unsurprising that Martel has only received one perfunctory official reply, through this 16-month ongoing project.

to peruse the letters, and perhaps add some books to your holiday reading list, visit Martel's site. or click on the photograph to go to his most recent letter to our leader...

(a small note: as Martel currently lives in Saskatoon, i've put a photograph of that city in winter here, taken by Stu. so, please imagine the books in Martel's list being mailed from here.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Final schedule for Cineforum?

Loved & loathed Toronto cinema guru Reg Hartt may have to close his Cineforum...because the landlord's son is trying to sell the building. Is this the end of the city's favourite eccentric screening location?

It just looks like an ordinary Toronto streetscene...but behind the blue door is Reg Hartt's bizarrely perfect Cineforum. For more about the micro-cinema, read my recent posting for blogTO.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

today canada stepped away from the version of itself that i want to believe in. in ottawa today we were treated to an ugly man making ugly choices, setting up a very ugly precedent of proroguing parliament. notice that one of the synonyms of "prorogue" is "to render ineffective". so now we have a suspended elected body that can't make any decisions until the end of january. good thing none of the maple trees have any leaves left; they'd turn instantly black in disgust.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

waiting at the AGO

i stood in line for a while last weekend to see the newly-opened interior of Frank Gerhy's Art Gallery of Ontario revamp. and while i didn't get in (the line was tooooooo long!), i was thrilled to see how many people turned out to visit the new art gallery. considering Gerhy grew up in a nearby neighbourhood, i thought it was especially appropriate that so many people brought their kids to see the new space.i can't think of a better use for a Henry Moore sculpture! this is Two Large Forms, installed in 1974, created 1966-1969.

update: for an amazing shot of the new AGO at sunset, see Scott Norsworthy's photo on this blogTO entry.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

rocket fuel in mexico city

being a poetic type, i love seeking out literary cafes when i'm travelling. and Mexico City didn't disappoint. two vied for my top favourite historic coffeehouse was the Cafe Habana, opened in 1954; the decor doesn't seem to have changed at all since then, and the coffee seems to have only gotten stronger with age.

the big diner-style cafe is conveniently located near the newspaper district, so it has always been popular with journalist types, editors, and poets, as well as musicians, dropping by for late-night rocket-fuel. the story goes that even Che Guevara dropped in here. these days, the serving staff also has to contend with tourists who can't speak me. they're very patient about our charades. the pictured tart is a very solid flan, which goes beautifully with their incredibly-strong cafe con leche.

my second nominee of perfect cafe in Mexico City is the Cafebreria in Polanco...the name says it all: a multi-storey coffeehouse that's also a bookshop, with a bit of cinema thrown in. yes, it's one of those trendy places that is trying very very hard, kind of the opposite of the Habana, but it works--the lighting & space is lovely, there are people curled up in armchairs & leaning across tables arguing with each other & madly typing on laptops, and everywhere, there are piles of wonderful-looking books & magazines. i didn't have my camera, so you'll just have to imagine it. or better yet, drop in...

for a more on the literati of Mexico city, and the great Habana coffeehouse, click here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


yes, winter is around the corner...for an instant there were suspiciously white frozen flecks flying by on the wind outside my window. looks like the very beginning of snow; the dog & i had better prepare our winter wardrobes...


Luis Soriano runs a mobile lending library across miles of rural Columbia...transporting the books on the backs of his two faithful donkeys, Alfa & Beto. i noticed his wonderful story in the NYTimes today, because of their spiffy headline: "Acclaimed Colombian Institution Has 4,800 Books and 10 Legs".

the article includes some wonderful photographs by Scott Dalton. for more background, The Washington Post covered this story in 2005 (you can read it here). i'm glad to discover that Soriano is still at it, despite the hardships of covering very rocky terrain during Columbia's on-going strife.

with all the predictions of the book's demise, and alongside constant PEN reports of the banning of books & suppression of writers, it does the heart good to know that books continue to change people's lives, despite the odds.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

the bazaar of the bizarre

...and no, i'm not referring to last week's election...this lovely sunny Sunday, i spent time wandering through a gothic fair (skeleton-patterned tophat, anyone?) organized by the Royal Sarcophagus Society. the fair included a great deal of goth clothing (skeleton-patterned tophat, anyone?) and all sorts of accoutrements...including some lovely hand-made ouija boards for sale, by the duo who organize ghost walks in Hamilton.

however i feel about actual hauntings, i do agree with Haunted Hamilton's mandate of promoting historic buildings in the Hamilton area--it's a town that has wonderful historic neighbourhoods, and if it takes ghosts to get people to notice the buildings, hey, bring on the ghosts...

the Bazaar of the Bizarre was perfect preparation for the next item on this afternoon's agenda: watching the ritualistic annual Toronto zombie walk at Trinity-Bellwoods inexplicable event where locals dress up as zombies

& dress their dogs & children up, too

then stagger from this park, parade along Queen and up Bathurst, before finishing at the Bloor Street Cinema to watch zombie movies. it makes for irresistible street theatre.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

get out there & vote, people!

to any Canadians reading all know that Tuesday is election day. so vote, already.

and if you're worried about splitting the Left vote, examine the polls for your particular riding here, find out which political turkey is running where, and vote strategically. consider how tasty next year's Thanksgiving meal might be if we get an (even if ever-so-slightly) pro-arts & pro-environment government...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

1 million ordinary Canadians

that's the estimate for how many people were out for Nuit Blanche in Toronto. proof that despite what our Prime Minister thinks, "ordinary" people will stay up all night long to walk around in cold weather to admire art. to laugh & think & admire & discuss--all the things that art facilitates. and the result was a truly great cross-city street party (though TTC transit, as usual, fell down on the job). a few photos of my faves here:

...the fantastic Day of the Dead skulls by Roger Hupman, showing at the Gladstone (here he is--and a more charming maker of skulls you could not meet). to see these in details, visit his site.

and i also LOVED Knit Cafe's window of knitted architecture

how anyone ever managed to knit replicas of Honest Ed's & the Gladstone Hotel, I do not know...
and this chess-piece grey thing that is several feet high is actually a very fine version of the CN Tower, for those of you who have never been to Toronto!)

Friday, September 26, 2008


a month in France...where i've been slacking on the blog, largely because my main internet access has been the wireless in a horse racing bar in a tiny Burgundian town. i rather like the off-track betting bar--it's filled with every possible character in town, and serves a decent hot chocolate. but now it's time to return to the real world. i'm in Paris for the weekend, and heading back to Toronto soon.

and to welcome me back to Canada, i see that our fabulous Prime Minister--not content with simply cutting the entire international touring budget for Canadian performers--has now announced that ordinary people don't care about the arts. i would like to be surprised & appalled that he's said such a thing--because he is so wrong. but really, i'm disappointed that he thinks this is a politically savvy thing to say--because our Prime Minister does nothing, truly nothing, unless he thinks it is going to win him votes.

does Harper mean artists aren't ordinary? so does he think scientists are ordinary? are plumbers? are people who work at an off-track betting bar ordinary? because in Burgundy, the horse racing bar is named for a Jacque Brel movie, the bar is filled with posters for music and performances in this tiny town, and the place has always had a free Linux computer, for people to stay in touch with the bigger picture.

so i guess the real question might be: what the hell does our Prime Minister think is ordinary? does he think that Canadians are completely unlike other nationalities and that we are absolutely divorced from the arts?

fortunately, before i start gnashing my teeth about this, there's Margaret Atwood's excellent articulate defense of why the "ordinary" person IS interested in the arts, and why some politicians have a desire to suppress that interest, in yesterday's Globe & Mail. Here is the link, in case you missed it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Northern Lighthouse Board

at night, i like to walk past this building on George Street in Edinburgh; its very own miniature lighthouse blinks through the midnight hours:the lighthouse & specially-designed flag mark the head office of the Northern Lighthouse Board, which operates 209 lighthouses & a slew of other Scottish navigational devices (beacons, buoys, and a nifty webcam that looks from Scotland towards if the Irish ever decide to invade by sea, they'll be spotted...)

i like the spiffy Daniel Buren stripes on this Orkney lighthouse. but for true lighthouse fans, a trip to Fraserburgh is essential--there's a new lighthouse museum up there which includes the oldest lighthouse built on mainland Scotland.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the ha-ha

a ha-ha is kind of landscaping fence, a combination of wall and ditch to keep animals from wandering onto the lawn. it's also the title of a very smart book of poetry by David Kirby--and it's through his poems that i first learned that the ha-ha wasn't a joke but a landscaping device. it's fun just to type the thing...ha-ha...apparently they became popular in the 1700s.

i'd never seen one until i walked by the Scottish palace of Holyrood the other day:

technically, this ha-ha is keeping the unsightly cars and parking strip out of sight from the palace, so that the view can roll towards Arthur's Seat without interruption. odd that this isn't used more often!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Greyfriars Bobby

the theatre space where Whiskey Bars plays ever night happens to be just down the street from the most-photographed statue in all of Scotland: Greyfriars Bobby. it's a statue of a dog, apparently a Skye Terrier (though he looks a bit of a mutt, to me). he was owned by John Gray, who was a night watchman for the police--a job that would be much improved by the constant companionship of a loyal little dog! the name Bobby is pretty typical for a police dog--"bobby" is slang for cop, after all.

Bobby is famous because he guarded the grave of his dead master for 14 years...from 1858 to 1872, spending his days by the grave, coming out of the cemetery only for meals. apparently people would stand around Greyfriars churchyard at lunchtime, to watch the little dog trot out for his midday meal, provided by the nearby restaurant. during the colder parts of the winter, the ownerless dog was taken in by nearby houses, which overlook the churchyard.

so Bobby is remembered for his great fidelity, and though the Scots couldn't bring themselves to bury a dog in consecrated ground, when the terrier died, they gave him a beautiful statue on the street, and a grave at the entrance to the churchyard. what i like about the story isn't the statue so much as the dog's gravesite...because to this day, people leave sticks on his grave. because after all, what would a dog like? flowers are irrelevant...but sticks, now that's something a dog can appreciate. even dog ghosts probably like playing fetch.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Edinburgh coffeehouse: Black Medicine

continuing on the literary city theme...stopped in at Black Medicine coffeehouse yesterday for a respite from the teeming rain & realized that it is across the street from my favourite Edinburgh plaque:
also Black Medicine is one of the many cafes where J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potters...pretty well every decent coffeehouse in town makes this claim. it seems very appropriate that she invented the Potter world here, with the brooding antique streets of the Old Town, the looming castle on high, the gothic Scott monument and innumerable kirks. and i'm very glad she didn't spend her time writing in Starbucks...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

literary booze: Sheep's Heid

the oldest pub in Scotland is the Sheep's Heid, in a village called Duddingston just outside Edinburgh. it's a fifteen-minute drive, but it's way more traditional to take the walking trail out of town, around the large rocky outcropping known as Arthur's Seat, strolling through the heather to reach the pub. this is the route that Robert Louis Stevenson used to take, to get to the pub, as did Sir Walter Scott...and who knows, maybe Robert Burns, too, since the pub seems to have been around since 1360, and Burns wasn't a man to stay away from a good pub...

yesterday, the weather was half-way decent (almost no rain at all) & the views during the walk were spectacular. lots of rabbits racing around, so it was a good thing the pub is known for its haggis, not for its roast rabbit. along with the famed haggis, the pub has many sheep-related doodahs, including a stuffed sheephead with double horns (very weird looking), myriad cast metal sheep, a few sheep paintings, and a replica of the famous original "sheep's heid", which was actually a sheep-head snuffbox, presented to the pub by James VI after he'd had a particularly good time playing skittles in the backyard.

the skittles alley is still there, but the sheep's heid snuffbox is only a replica--the inn's landlord had to sell the darn thing in the late 1800s to pay his bills. fortunately, the haggis is still marvellous, the bar oozes atmosphere, and there's lots of beer, so we settled into a table near the lovely horseshoe-shaped bar and talked about Stevenson's travels. for a man of ill health, he certainly got around, to France, across the US, to Hawaii, to Samoa... he wrote "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

tonight, at midnight, I'm going to see a theatrical presentation of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.'s a pouring dark evening out there, so it couldn't be more appropriate! (no wonder Stevenson wanted to travel!)

Sunday, August 10, 2008


...ten days already in the very literary, very rainy, Scottish capital. i'm exhausted but exhiliarated to be here--the Edinburgh Fringe Festival includes over 2000 different shows (theatre, music, name it). it's the biggest, most intense theatre festival in the world--and i'm lucky to be stage-managing the wonderful show "Whiskey Bars" every night at the Vault.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Belle Gardner's library (dead people's books)

through Lauren Elkin's blog about life in Paris, i discovered a marvellous virtual bookshelf: the "I see dead people's books" catalogue at Library Thing.

i was immediately intrigued by Isabella Stewart Gardner's book list. she's such a fascinating character - she lived from 1840-1924; her art expert friend Bernard Berenson said she "live[d] at a rate of intensity and with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy." like some of Berenson's art opinions, many of tales told of her are probably untrue, but Belle loved art & artists, threw wonderful parties, and opened a phenomenal museum so that the public could enjoy her passion for collecting.

i'm intrigued by the breadth of her reading list...i do hope she read them all..for she had a copy of Francois Villon's ribald poems, a life of Sappho, the Decameron (she liked the medievals, by the looks of it), alongside a housekeeping book once used by Benjamin Franklin and James I's own copy of Francis Bacon's essays. one heck of a bookshelf, indeed. someday, i would love to read one of these books while sitting here in the courtyard of her museum in Boston...

"Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."
- Belle Stewart Gardner

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stampede: horses & tipis

i finally have time to put up some photos from this year's Calgary Stampede. it was cool but beautiful on the afternoon of this tipi-raising contest.

it was really interesting & i had a lovely time, though i was reminded of a Globe & Mail quote from a Mohawk woman who was sent to residential school in the 1970s...she said her experience wasn't as abusive as many people's, and funnily enough she was even taught some traditional skills. like how to raise a tipi. which she found interesting, though peculiar, considering that Mohawk tradition has nothing to do with nomadic tipis. at least in Calgary, Northern Plains and Blackfoot tipis are in context!

this being the Stampede, there were lots of great horses...including this Paint Horse with her young sleeping foal, and the lovely chocolate-coloured Canadian horse and colt:

yes, this is actually the official Canadian horse. really it looks like the classic NorthWest Mounted Police horse, the kind of horse you expect to see in the RCMP musical ride.

the NorthWest history made me think of the Klondike. and at a bar around the corner from where I was staying, there was this Yukon-inspired new drink to try:

ugh. unfortunately, it was really really awful. i think moonshine brewed in an old Mountie's boot would have a better personality.

Friday, July 11, 2008

dinner at Frontenac House

sometimes i think my amazing publishers, Rose & David Scollard of Frontenac House, run a writers' bed & breakfast alongside their press. whenever i'm in Calgary, there are writers dropping by for dinner, new books being delivered, guests arriving with bottles of wine & suitcases in tow, conversations that last late into the night, reviews being dissected out on the back deck, new promotional ploys plotted, more books brought out...and in the morning, Rose always manages to rustle up some eggs for whoever has spent the night on their couch.

this month, they're launching their first art book, Breathing Stone: Contemporary Haida Argillite Sculpture, and it is GORGEOUS. next week, there's an event on the 19th at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


just got to Calgary for the Stampede...and discovered that the Banff Centre for the Arts is celebrating its 75th anniversary. i have great memories of working on my upcoming novel, Rats of Las Vegas, at the Banff Writing Studio two years ago...having a chance to work in such an encouraging, exciting, and special atmosphere was such an amazing gift. so a BIG tip of the hat & happy 75th! to the Centre.

love for sale

a sidewalk artist at a recent Toronto street fair:

and true to their practical Big Smoke roots, Toronto residents were chucking most of their spare change towards the lunch hat...but love was a close runner-up.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Betancourt free

a bit of good news for a change...six and a half years after being taken hostage by Farc rebels, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt is finally free.

here's the BBC report

Saturday, June 21, 2008

BIG and the underpass

just home from BIG, the Bloor Improvement Group's new street festival. i thought the name might be a titch overambitious, but in fact no, the festival IS really big, stretching from Christie Pits park all the way to Lansdowne, with shiatsu massage, art for kids, drumming circles, you name it...

i wanted to check out BIG because of a new art project just west of Lansdowne: the bleak south side of that underpass on Bloor is sporting a whole new look, thanks to Toronto artist Richard Mongiat. The Underpass Project is sponsored by the City of Toronto's Clean & Beautiful committee, but Mongiat's 400-foot minimalist mural is very different from the super-bright "cover-ups" i'm used to seeing in city murals.

Mongiat originally conceived the concept for the Dupont underpass, but he was convinced by local artist & activist Dyan Marie (of DIG IN) to connect with the BIG festival project. The change in location meant that Mongiat had to throw away his original idea. "These frames," he says, pointing to the raised rectangles within the wall, "set up the design elements. I needed a visual throughline, a thoroughfare." He found his inspiration in the barren trunks of winter trees. "Like this neighbourhood," he says, "dormant but coming to life. So I've included close-ups of buds and flowering."

There are four visual elements at play here: three from Mongiat--grey tree trunks, white wallpaper-style sworls, and close-ups of spring buds--and a fourth, surprisingly active element--the worn concrete of the underpass itself. "By keeping my work muted, black, white, grey, the wall really came through," says Mongiat with pride. "Now, the weather, the rain stains become part of the design. The wall comes alive." i think it's a fine metaphor for the place of artists in struggling parts of the city--not for art to paint over the history here, but to augment what's already in place, to contribute & open up further dialogue.

Friday, June 20, 2008

reading at Art Bar

the Art Bar series is the longest-continually-running poetry series in Toronto, and this week i was thrilled to read there alongside James Deahl, who read some truly heartbreakingly beautiful recent works, and Pier Georgio di Cicco, the city's current poet laureate. what's especially exciting about the Art Bar is that the writers present diverse approaches to poetry, there's no one type or genre, and the open mic is often quality stuff (a good place to strut stuff that's in progress, or generally warm up to the idea of taking poetry seriously.)
i was lucky to have a supportive crowd & a lovely host, Pauline. so thanks, Art Bar people, and cheers to all the friends & strangers who showed up to encourage me (& to buy books, which keeps my publisher happy...!)

Monday, June 16, 2008


June 16th is the day commemorated by James Joyce in his masterpiece Ulysses, and in odd pockets around the world, every year, on this date, there are excerpts read, interpretations discussed, drinks drunk, and offal eaten. in Toronto, it was a gorgeous morning at the Beaches--the Bloomsday Festival committee over here set up a wonderful series of locations, good actors, and they even loaned hats to ill-prepared audience members (like me).

why did Joyce choose June 16th for his character Leopold Bloom's peregrinations? apparently because that's the day that Joyce's muse & wife Nora Barnacle first agreed to meet for a date.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ah, the weekend

the nice thing about living near the intersection of Queen West & Spadina is that you just never know what will happen next: for instance, Saturday's rather inexplicable naked bike ride. no idea what the purpose was, but it did make me think that bicycling might be one of those activities that just makes more sense with clothes on...

(for once, i was happy to take a photo with a mcdonald's as a backdrop!)

Friday, June 13, 2008

i want an accoustic cloak

it should look kind of like a Darth Vader cape...and whenever i'm stuck on a train or aeroplane, overhearing someone's really irritating/intimate conversation, i'll throw on my accoustic cloak with a flourish...i'm not making it up! really! the technology is coming! they haven't quite gotten it down to a cool black plastic cape yet...but i can dream, right?

Friday, June 06, 2008

bees on rooftops

just when all the news about bees seems focused on their declining numbers, there's a bright buzz newly-installed on the rooftop of the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto. the hotel already has a well-established herb & vegetable garden up there on the 34th floor, but this week, executive chef David Garcelon added three beehives, in collaboration with the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative.

urban living is no problem for bees--the bugs can forage over 6km in a single day, so they'll have lots of nourishing options along the waterfront & over on Toronto island. and by the autumn harvest, they're expected to have produced up to 1400 small jars (yes, 1400!)...which should be ample to drizzle into Garcelon's salads, soups, and sweets in the hotel restaurants downstairs.
(hotels, parks, and the opera house, have been hosting beehives for several years in Paris, but this is really great progress for Toronto!)

and in other buzz...Bremner Duthie has just launched his superb collection of Kurt Weill songs on CD Baby...check out details here

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Le Smoking Forever

another reason why i love Paris...because when Yves Saint Laurent, fashion maestro, died on Sunday at age 71 after a battle with brain cancer, tributes poured in from the president, and of course from Sarko's model wife Carla Bruni (who once catwalked for Saint Laurent), and from the Culture Minister...i love the fact that fashion is a crucial part of French culture, and that culture is recognized as a crucial aspect of life.

Saint Laurent was born in Algeria; when he was only 19, he was designing for the house of Dior & took over the house at 21, when his mentor suddenly died of a heart attack. soon Saint Laurent struck out on his own...creating perfumes, dressing 70s party people, & 80s power people, & 90s actresses, & on & on, generally being gorgeously difficult & very much himself.
Pierre Berge, his long-time business partner, called him a libertarian & an anarchist (another reason i love Paris: these terms are actually compliments). with Saint Laurent gone, it seems like the spirit of crazy party 70s are finally gone forever. the only answer is to put on our very best tuxedo suits & slink down Sherbrooke Street to Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts for the retrospective that runs until September...