Books and Tea

Books. Tea. Cats. Scribbling.

The Our Lady of Grace Mural in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood.

Summer Wanderings: Montreal

This summer, I did what everyone else seems to be doing, and I went travelling. On multiple trips, even! And we didn’t catch Covid-19 or Monkeypox either time!

The first one was to see my sister in Montreal for Canada Day. This was one of the first times she and brother-in-law have had guests over since moving to the city right when the pandemic started.

Myself, I last visited Montreal over a decade ago, and, my memories of that trip having faded, I was struck with a sense of jealousy over its dedication to not making itself a sucky place to live. Multiple mixed-income neighbourhoods! An abundance of missing-middle housing types, like lowrises and duplexes! Huge public murals! A functioning subway system! (Toronto could never.) Technically, I don’t live in Toronto anymore, but I am aware of its shortcomings.

We lucked out with the weather: sunny, hot, humid — perfect for outdoor dining. My sister and Mr. BooksAndTea were witness to me making a pilgrimage by shopping at Camellia Sinensis, the grand-daddy of fancy tea shops in Canada, and author of a decent reference book about the subject.

The Camellia Sinensis storefront, near Jean Talon market. The store was considerably smaller than expected.

We packed a lot into that one long weekend: seeing Jean Talon market, getting luscious things for breakfast at a local bakery, eating dumplings, touring the McGill University campus, shopping at Argo Bookshop, walking along the Old Port waterfront, setting foot in Librarie Drawn and Quarterly, watching a short film about the history of Quebec projected against the wall of a multi-story building at night… truly magical stuff.

We closed off the trip on Monday by visiting St. Viateur to get some authentic Montreal-style bagels fresh from the oven and then eating poutine at a hole-in-the wall diner. Looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Growing Things and the Smell of Spring

“That’s fresh air,” she said. “Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it. That’s what Dickon does when he’s lying on the moor. He says he feels it in his veins and it makes him strong and he feels as if he could live forever and ever. Breathe it and breathe it.”

She was only repeating what Dickon had told her, but she caught Colin’s fancy.

“’Forever and ever’! Does it make him feel like that?” he said, and he did as she told him, drawing in long deep breaths over and over again until he felt that something quite new and delightful was happening to him.


I took a walk around the park over lunch today, and realized things were perfect. Not just the sky — blue, with wispy clouds — and not just the trees — branches waving in the breeze, sunlight glinting off the leaves — but the smell.

Even through my mask, I could smell the smell of good green stuff, of things growing and living and making the world happen. Cedar mulch. Grass cuttings decaying in the sun. Wind. The resinous, incense-like scent of golden currant bushes. I eventually took the mask off, secure in the solitude around me, and continued walking towards the community garden, breathing in and breathing in.

It’s hard for me to get over the satisfaction of seeing this in the distance and realizing I’m part of it. And then, coming closer to my plot and seeing all the plants I can identify, and all the ones I can’t.

The tomato and pepper seedlings have shot up like rockets since I first planted them about a month ago. Some of the tomatoes have gotten so tall that I’m going to stake them tomorrow. Some of the peppers are starting to bloom. Even the lone pumpkin seedling that was struggling after transplantation is making a go of it! And there are masses and masses of dill. I harvested handfuls last week and have barely made a dent. I will need to find a way to use it all up, but I can highly recommend this recipe for maple, mustard and dill chicken. (Bonus: You can tweak the marinade and turn it into a great dressing for pasta salad.)

The first few weeks of June are also when Russian olive trees are at their most fragrant. Their smell is almost impossible for me to describe, floral and sweet and powdery and fresh like rain. If someone could bottle that smell, I would buy it. I’d daub it on my wrists and neck in the wintertime, to remind myself that the seasons will change eventually.

They will change. But right now, I’m happy with the light and the smell of late spring, and the promise of pumpkins and carrots and tomatoes.

Steerswomen and Social Contracts

Way back in 2016, I read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. I’d heard about it through word of mouth from a friend, and had no idea when I started that it was the first in a series of books. I also had no idea, musing over those first pages, that it would swiftly become one of the books I recommend most to my friends, along with The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

In my initial review, I was struck most by the book’s casual, unforced feminism, as well as its exploration of the value of knowledge:

Some books pay lip service to the Bechdel Test. The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein takes that well-worn idea, expands it, and tailors it into a compelling mix of fantasy and sci-fi that feels intelligent, sharp, and yet as comfortable as an old leather coat.

Bel and Rowan are fascinating, complex characters with an easy inteprlay, and the central question that The Steerswoman engages with is surprisingly multifaceted: who is allowed to control knowledge? How is it categorized, and how does control over it benefit or hinder society?

I have since read all the available sequels, and earlier this month finished the most recent one, The Language of Power, which came out in 2004. What’s interesting is that the books continually analyze this question from several perspectives. We see multiple cultures, we learn about them and how they interact, and we see how they value knowledge equally but share it in different ways.

For instance, the order of steerswomen fastidiously document everything. While they share knowledge across communities as best they can, they still have centralized archives where every steerswoman’s recordings are transcribed.

The Outskirters are secretive about their culture to Inner Lands inhabitants, but they value bravery and fighting prowess. Most importantly, while some Outskirters like Bel are literate, their knowledge is heavily based on oral traditions. They recite the names of their forebears when inducting new members into a tribe, and when Bel realizes that she needs to unite the Outskirters against an external threat, she composes an epic poem. She travels from tribe to tribe to recite the poem and gain their support for the potential battles that are to come. In the process, she becomes the closest thing to a single unifying leader that the Outskirters have ever had.

These two cultures lie in contrast to the wizards. Wizards, in this world, hoard knowledge. They have magic, but they don’t share it with anyone, and even people who manage to enter their ranks by showing promise are treated as outsiders — it appears that you really have to be born into the wizarding community to be taken seriously, even if you have innate talent.

However, the other way that wizards set themselves apart in this world is their lack of regard for the social contract. The series’ chief antagonist, Slado, is implied to be a sociopath. Almost every other wizard we encounter throughout the series shows either disdain for the common folk around them or a casual, unthinking willingness to inflict harm on others.

This is made even more more remarkable when you remember the social contract built around steerswomen. They travel the land and research both everything and everyone. There are only two iron rules: if you ask a steerswoman a question, she must answer your question truthfully, and if she asks you, you must also be truthful. If you deny information or tell lies, then you’ll be put under a ban, under which no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again in the future.

This is a rule that everyone upholds without question. People contemplate the prospect of being denied a steerswoman’s knowledge with dread. But consider: this is a world without mass automated knowledge or travel. Everything — trade goods, information and people alike — moves at the speed of horses, ships, carts, or feet.

So theoretically, it’s entirely possible for someone to invoke the ban, and then travel far enough to a new place where no one knows the ban is in effect. Steerswomen are few, and itinerant. It’s possible that not even every member of the order knows who is under a ban and who is not. However, no one in their culture takes advantage of this fact! No one even considers the difficulty of sharing knowledge as a potential loophole for getting around the social contract that the steerswomen have put in place.

And this is the thing I have found so astounding after reading The Language of Power. Despite all the wonderful praise this series gets for its understanding of the scientific method, and even for its implicit commentary on violence in fantasy narratives, what strikes me right now, so fresh upon reading it earlier this month, is that the characters we care about succeed because they live in a world with a strong social contract. And the wizards, in their hubris, have no idea that their continual use of rule through fear is starting to backfire on them.

Or, in one of the most famous quotes from Discworld, courtesy of Granny Weatherwax:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”

Terry Pratchet, Carpe Jugulum

In The Language of Power, Rowan travels to the city of Donner to find out what happened when a previous wizard there died over 40 years before. She goes there on the slimmest of possible leads, but she thinks that the facts surrounding this wizard’s death could lead her to Slado, and thus potentially to the truth surrounding his plans to destroy the Outskirters.

At first, when she approaches the townsfolk of Donner, they’re hesitant, and she gets only cursory answers. But as she keeps tugging on different strings and taking part in town life, people open up to her. The more they open up to her, the more pieces she fits together, and with her uncanny powers of recall, she’s able to remember names and streets and events in a way that grudgingly gains the townpeople’s respect. But in between, she’s not too proud to shovel manure in an orchard, or sing a ballad in an inn, or express delight in a potter’s drawings and delicate teapots.

It is this simple pleasure that Rowan takes in the presence and skills of other people that saves her, time and time again. When the current wizard confronts the people of Donner at a local inn about the rumours that there’s been a steerswoman sticking her nose into his business, they keep her identity secret from him, even though both she and the wizard are in the same room while it’s happening.

In the end, when Rowan and her allies learn more about wizardly machinations (in both the metaphorical and engineering sense), the town decides to help her out even further by engaging in a collective mission to make the next local wizard’s life a living hell. Even after losing friends, even after knowing what a threat Rowan is to their town, they decide to help her.

That’s the power of a social contract when everyone respects each other and values each other. And I really want to see more fantasy books that display that sort of communal thinking.

The Day After Pi Day

Yesterday was Pi Day. In the Before Times, I celebrated it by bringing pies to the office for my coworkers to share. I’d send out emails to entire departments telling them that pies — pecan, apple, strawberry rhubarb, whatever I managed to find at the grocery store that morning or the night before — were free for the taking in the kitchen.

This is the first time since the pandemic started where Pi Day wasn’t on a weekend, so the absence of that office ritual was particularly noticeable. Before, Pi Day was one of my weird, lovable quirks. Former coworkers used to message me on Facebook and say how much they thought of me on Pi Day. Hell, my own mother called me yesterday morning to wish me a good one! I may not miss commuting, but I do miss seeing people and doing something nice and community-building and unexpected for them.

Yesterday, I sublimated all of this energy into baking the best damn pie possible for Mr. BooksandTea and myself to share. And my god, did I put a lot of effort into it. The recipe required roasted butternut squash and caramelized onions, so I started the prep on Saturday. Saturday! Caramelizing half a dozen onions to get a bare cup-and-a-half of savoury-sweet onion goodness! And then I made the pie crust on Sunday night and let it rest until Monday afternoon.

I don’t regret it because the results were truly, scandalously delicious — I made things even more decadent by replacing the feta cheese in the recipe with goat’s cheese, and also added in some crumbled bacon. But god, was it a lot of work.

A slice of savoury butternut squash pie on a white plate.
Look at this beautiful thing. Look at it!

Still, I miss sharing it with more people. I miss sending my coworkers silly pie jokes and having people come to my desk with little plates and utensils smeared with bright fruit filling. It’s not quite the same sitting at home and trying to celebrate things over Slack.

A long, thin community garden plot with plenty of freshly-planted seedlings.

2021 Gardening

One of the things that gave me a tremendous amount of joy last year was taking part in my local community garden. The whole thing was quite happenstance — I joined the waiting list in early 2020, but I didn’t hear anything about it until I received a phone call out of the blue at the end of May last year. There was a garden plot available, they said, and did I want it? Oh, and I had only 2 hours to make a decision, after which they would call the next person on the list.

The next 2 hours, as my former coworkers can attest, were frantic. I knew nothing about gardening. I had no idea how big the garden plot was. I had barely any tools. Was it a good idea for me to juggle this among all my other responsibilities? Could I share the plot with someone else? My mother said no. My aunt, who lives a short drive away, also declined. Maybe I could rope in the wife of my high school friend who lives only a 5-minute walk away? (Reader, I actually did! She’s super awesome. We worked on it the whole summer together and soon we’re going to look at seed catalogues for the upcoming season.)

Despite the logistical hurdles, I said yes! And so, a few days later, with all the paperwork signed and a partner in gardening crime, I set to work!

First, I persuaded my mother and aunt to help me clean up the plot. There was a large patch of lettuce amid all the weeds, plus some dill and onions sprinkled throughout.

Then, for the next few weeks, it was a steady routine of watering everything by hand every other day. My garden partner went to a nursery and bought scads of seedlings to plant. I don’t think I can remember them all, but there were strawberries, green onions, carrots, kale, marigolds, cucumbers, sunflowers, basil, lemon balm, and sage, among other things.

In the first weeks after taking over the plot, the lettuce grew so profusely that we couldn’t eat it all before it bolted.

Taking the produce home and cooking with it was intensely satisfying. It felt like I was the Barefoot Contessa — though, as Mr. BooksandTea likes to note, I was actually wearing socks most of the time.

More than that, though, it was the sense that I was actually contributing to something. I met my fellow gardeners and learned their names. We traded produce from our different with each other. People gave me free zucchinis out of the goodness of their hearts. I harvested extra produce and set it aside for delivery to the local food bank.

This was a pleasant but stark contrast from 2020. Months after the pandemic set in, novelty of working from home wore off. It was easy to sit inside 24/7 and spend hours playing Animal Crossing and Hades or catching up on DS9.

But last year, because of the garden, I had a reason to go out. In the mornings, I’d put on some janky shorts or yoga pants, walk to the garden plot with tools in hand, do some watering and weeding, then walk back home, shower, and start work. It felt nice carrying home bags of cucumbers, dill, tomatoes, and dirty spades.

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