Montreal Reads: Serafim and Claire by Mark Lavorato

SerafimandClaireSerafim and Claire is a story about two people trying to escape the rigid social mores of the past to find passion in their single-minded pursuit of art. Claire flees the servitude of working for a rich Anglo family to dance on the stages of Montreal’s burlesque theatres, where she’s sure she’ll get noticed and swept away to glittering Hollywood or New York.

Serafim leaves Portugal to escape the stratified social circles that have shut the door against his misplaced ardour for an aristocratic young woman. He takes his portable Leica camera with him as he sails for a new world where people will surely appreciate the value of his candid action shots over stiffly composed portraiture.

But neither Claire nor Serafim can pursue the pure aesthetism of their art in the social roil of 1920s Montreal—they are buffeted on all sides by the realities of the post-war city. Sexual violence, Italian fascism, women’s suffrage, English-French tensions, abortion politics, police corruption, and poverty swirl around them, demanding their attention. Perhaps they could rise above it all with one daring scheme, but will their scheme cost them everything?

Montreal landmarks in Serafim and Claire: the Golden Square Mile, the red-light district

Mark Lavorato, grew up in the Canadian prairies, but as an adult he has travelled and lived in countries throughout Central and North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. He now lives in Montreal with his wife. In addition to being the author of several volumes of fiction and poetry, Lavorato is also a photographer, a passion he caught while researching the character of Serafim. 

Lavorato on Montreal in the 1920s: “They were letting loose and it was this kind of party town. Of course, prohibition was happening in the United States in the 1920s and that meant there were huge trainloads of citizens who would come up from New York, Philadelphia, Boston just for the weekend to be able to party legally here in this…sinful city…. The politics were even more corrupt than they are now—there was free-flowing money and there were all kind of scams to make that money because of this strange mix of legal sin and illegal sin. And in this kind of naive time, there were also these incredibly naive idealists who came out of the swath of immigrants who were in the city, and they were proponents of big new ideas….”¹

Next up: Ru by Kim Thúy



1 Lavorato, Mark. “Historic Montreal in Fact and Fiction.” Ideas. CBC, 2014.


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Coarse vs. Course

Lexical Vexations

coarse 1. adj. of a thick gauge; 2. adj. rough; 3. adj. unrefined, crude (of a person).

course 1. n. a path or route followed by people or things; 2. n. a series of classes on a topic of study; 3. n. an established procedure or approach to something; 4. n. a part of a meal; 5. v. to follow a path from one point to another.

Words in the Wild: The small terrier with the coarse hair ran along the course of the river in search of the main course of his evening meal. Meanwhile his coarse owner yelled at the man teaching the canine obedience course, demanding to know what course of action she should take to correct her coursing dog.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Chow’ter, v. to grumble like a child or frog.

Word in the Wild: Amitav chowtered at his roommate after she accidentally put his 2014 tax slips through the shredder.

This fun word is obsolete, but let’s not let that stop us from using it anyway. Its etymology is unknown, though chowter is similar to chowre, and chowre may come from the word jower, and both of those words mean much the same thing as chowter. Enlightening, no?

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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Montreal Reads: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

NikolskiIn Nikolski Montreal is a migratory hub, a city where nomads wind up, at least for a time. They carry their histories with them, mapping their routes and their roots as they go. Joyce leaves the fishing village of Tête-à-la-Baleine, Quebec, to become a pirate… Noah arrives from the Canadian prairies to study (even if there is no program in International Roaming at the university)… And, following the needle of a broken compass, the sights of an unnamed bookseller reach far beyond the confines of his shop. Each of these wayfarers follows a different path, yet, like three separate books held together in one volume, they’re bound together. Nikolski  has won a number of literary awards in both its original French and translated English editions.

Montreal landmarks in Nikolski: Jean-Talon Market, Dante Park, Little Italy, rue St-Laurent, rue Guy

NicholasDicknerNicolas Dickner, novelist and short story writer, was born in Rivière-du-Loup. He’s travelled in Latin America and Europe, but ultimately returned to Quebec and now lives in Montreal with his family. Dickner discussed the Montreal of Nikolski with Hannah Sung from the CBC Book Club: “Like most North American cities, we don’t feel like Montreal is a historic city, but what I discovered […] is that there is indeed a story […] lots of remains of those former skins of Montreal, but you have to look in a different way.”¹

Next up: Serafim and Claire by Mark Lavorato.



1 CBC Books. “Nicholas Dickner on Montreal.”

Photo credit: Damien D.


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Montreal Reads: Cockroach by Rawi Hage

952130-gfCockroach unfolds during a bitter Montreal winter. Its narrator, despite his de facto membership in a community of exiles, is utterly isolated and both fearful and desirous of human ties. As a master thief, he ties himself instead to people’s effects, using them to read the people he cannot trust. He skirts the edges of neighbourhoods, friendships, and drains, trying to stay warm and remain undetected. The story shifts back and forth between the narrator’s mainly nocturnal fossicking on chilly Montreal streets and remembrances of his troubled life in Lebanon. At first the narrator’s self-exile and suspicions make him seem alien and unknowable, but by deftly imperceptible turns Hage reveals a mind and heart as knowable as any other…which is to say barely knowable at all.

Montreal landmarks in Cockroach: the mountain, Old Port, rue St-Laurent, Côte-des-Neiges, Chinatown, Notre-Dame Basilica, Outremont

Rawi Hage grew up in Lebanon and Cyprus before moving to New York City and finally Montreal: he “arrived in the winter in the suburbs of Montreal and it was a bit of a shock.”1 At first Hage found the city to be remote and very different from New York, but once he began studying, the city grew on him considerably. During a recent stay as writer in residence at the Vancouver Public Library, Hage said, “I must confess that my first love will always be Montreal. It is home to me. I’m a true Montrealer…”1

Next up: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner.



1 Sherlock, Tracy. “Q&A: Rawi Hage on how driving a taxi inspired his writing — ‘A chamber for intimacies, lies, tension.’” Vancouver Sun, August 29, 2013.

Photo credit: Luigi Novi


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Reading Project: Montreal Reads

Montreal Reads

My usual rules for pleasure reading are few. In fact, I may have only one “rule” for reading, which is that I must have variety.

I like to routinely switch from one genre to another, from one setting to another, from one century to another (I have a particular soft spot for unselfconsciously florid conduct manuals from the 18th century). I read nonfiction about all sorts of things under the sun (most recently an account of the decoding of Linear B and a fun little book on astronomy). I like to read books by authors from around the world, books by and about people with disabilities, books representing diverse voices and experiences. I like graphic novels and plays and novels (and at least one pop-up book I read aloud every time someone under three foot tall comes to visit—it’s freaking hilarious).

But, this year, I’ve decided to embark on a bona fide reading project—as a relative newcomer to Montreal, I’ve decided to get to know the literary side of the city by reading books by Montreal writers or books set in Montreal…and often both. Still, I must have my variety, so my reading list includes all sorts of different books, which is clearly a good thing since there’s at least one version of Montreal for every Montrealer who’s ever lived here.

First up: Cockroach by Rawi Hage.


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English: The Language Is A-Changing

There seems to be an ever present anxiety that the English language is on the edge of some catastrophe. But never fear, it’s held up just fine to the technological upheavals of the printing press, radio and cable TV, and it will weather blogs, podcasts and YouTube, as well.

This isn’t to say that the language isn’t changing (it’s always been changing), just that change is what allows language to let us say what we need to say, and say it in an interesting way. Three cheers for an evolving language!

If your fears still need allaying, check out my review of Txting: The gr8 db8 or this video of Stephen Fry discussing the evolution of language or Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language or this excellent documentary featuring renowned authors and linguistics Tom Chatfield, David Crystal, Robert McCrum, Fiona McPherson and Simon Horobin:

English 3.0 from Joe Gilbert on Vimeo.

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Palate vs. Palette vs. Pallet

Lexical Vexations

Palette and Pallet and Palatepalate 1. n . the top or roof of the mouth; 2. n. one’s sense of taste.

palette 1. n. an easily held flat surface on which an artist mixes paints; 2. n. a range of available colours.

pallet 1. n. a straw-filled mattress, a temporary (and often uncomfortable) bed; 2. n. a sturdy, usually wood, surface on which goods can be stored and transported.

Words in the Wild: Felix stood on a stack of pallets to reach the top corner of his canvas. He leaned too far and overbalanced, accidentally flicking paint from his palette onto his palate. Luckily the colour was a tasty lemon yellow.

I see these words sneaking into each others’ places fairly often. Sadly I don’t have any helpful mnemonics for you this time—the only way I know to keep these ones straight is to look them up if you’re not sure. If you have a trick for remembering these words, please let us know in the comments.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Ba’bery, n. playthings for a child.

Word in the Wild: Receiving nothing but blank looks from her nephews after she asked them to clear the living room of their babery and detritus, Celine tried again: “For pity’s sake, clean up your toys and junk!”

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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