16 January 2018

Resuming Richard Rohmer: A Plea for Help

Four years ago this month, I set out to read every book ever written by Richard Rohmer.

It wasn't my idea.

My old pal Chris Kelly came up with the challenge, mutual old pal Stanley Whyte joined in, and we were off. Not only were we going to read Rohmer's entire bibliography, we were going to do it within the year!

We're still at it.

Our mistake was that we remembered Rohmer's years as a bestselling author, but ignored the decades in which he was not. We'd assumed his books would be plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Why, mere days before we began, I picked up his 1989 thriller Red Arctic for a buck in a Perth, Ontario bookstore.

What I failed to recognize is that it was the first copy I'd ever seen. I haven't come across another since. I didn't know that Red Arctic had come and gone in only one printing, and had never made it to paperback. As a kid, Rohmer mass markets were everywhere. I bought mine at the second closest drug store to my home, but I could've just as easily bought them at the closest. It has been over three decades since Rohmer was last published in mass market.

Rohmer's Ultimatum was the bestselling Canadian novel of 1973, but my local library doesn't have a copy; in fact, the St Marys Public Library doesn't have anything by Richard Rohmer. Its helpful staff did all they could in providing inter-library loans.

Stanley had access to slim holdings offered by McGill and Concordia, but these only went so far. He resorted to ordering one book directly from the publisher. It took several months to arrive.

Chris, who lives in California, had the hardest time of it.

Despite the challenges, we tackled sixteen titles in our first year, and wrote about each in a blog: Reading Richard Rohmer. Visitors will see that we slowed to eight in the second year. In year three, we tackled two: Raleigh on the Rocks and Ultimatum 2. Last year, our reading was Rohmerless.

I began 2018 determined to finish reading Richard Rohmer. We're four books shy:
  • Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board (1965)
  • The Royal Commission on Book Publishing (1972)
  • The Building of the CN Tower (2011)
  • The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre [sic] (2012)
The first two are held at the University of Western Ontario's D.B. Weldon Library. As reference material, they're not to be checked out, but I'm willing to suffer as many hours as it takes in that butt-ugly, brutalist building.

Such is my willpower and dedication that I plan to read all four, despite reservations concerning Rohmer's authorship of Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board and The Royal Commission on Book Publishing. Sure, they appear in his bibliographies, but like Rohmer's claims about taking Rommel out of the Second World War, I have doubts that he played so great a role.

I look forward to being proven wrong.

Remarkably, the most recent titles are more difficult to find than half-century-old government reports. After many, many months, I've finally managed to get my hands on The Building of the CN Tower, but The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre is proving even more elusive. And so, I ask anyone with a copy to contact me.


Four years is an awfully long time.

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08 January 2018

A Winter's Tale of a Dry Summer

'Nemesis Wins'
Grant Allen
Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual
London: Haddon, 1894

I often start the New Year with something by Grant Allen. Something to do with the letter A, I suppose, or that his work dominates the top shelf of the bookcase. Whatever the reason, Allen's "Nemesis Wins," which arrived by post late December, seemed a good way to kick off 2018. A short story, it appeared in the advert-heavy 1894 edition of Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual...  and then never again. This fleeting appearance in print had me expecting little, and I was neither surprised nor disappointed.

"Nemesis Wins" starts as a love story, but ends in murder and devastation on a massive scale. The two lovers at the centre emerge unscathed and, one concludes, oblivious as to what actually transpired.

To think it all might've been avoided had it not been for the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

Education, particularly that of women, often plays a role in Allen's fiction; here it serves to open young Miriam Stanley to all kinds of possibilities, not the least of which is a life with handsome Jim Sladen. The two come from very different backgrounds; Jim is a gamekeeper for Squire Ponsonby of Hurtwood, while Miriam is the daughter of Septerius Stanley, king of the West Surrey gypsies. The relationship between the two lovers is the stuff of local gossip – gamekeepers and gypsy families being typically at odds. The worst of it, from Septerius's point of view, is that Jim is honest, and is known to refuse bribes. The gypsy king, who has done a stints for poaching in the past, and is in the habit of cutting gorse on the common for his horses, believes he'll soon be forced to move the royal van.

He seeks temporary respite from his problems at the local inn, where the chief topic of conversation is the state of the heath. "Been powerful hot o' late," says Sam Walters, the broom-maker. "Heather's dry as tinder. Surprisin' if Squire Ponsonby's heath don't get lighted somehow." Talk next turns to gamekeeper Jim, and speculation as why he hasn't arrived to raise a pint or two. Sam Walters and "half-wit" Dick know the answer, having seen Jim on his way to meet Miriam. Septerius is enraged, but not so much that he can't formulate a plan that will see the common go up in flames, Dick framed, and result in Jim's dismissal.

"Nemesis Wins" is a slight story, but opening mention of the "school-board and its fixed stern eye even on gypsie lasses" had me curious. Minutes after finishing, I was deep into reading about the Romany and the history of education in the British Isles... which is how I came to know everything worth knowing about the Elementary Education Act.

Ultimately, like the Winter Annual's advertisements, "Nemesis Wins" is one of those things made more interesting by the passage of time.

There's hope for me yet.

Object and Access: A 114-page paperbound book, loaded with illustrations and adverts. Allen's story takes up roughly four two-columned pages. I first spotted this copy at an online auction this past summer, and then kicked myself for forgetting to bid. Fortunately, it reappeared a few months later as a sale item. I paid US$4.88.

The University of Toronto has a copy. It can be read online here through the Internet Archive.

02 January 2018

10 Best Book Buys of 2017 (one of which was a gift)

Last year was meant to be one of great austerity. By rights, the 2017 edition of this annual list should be the weakest yet. There were few trips to used bookstores, and mere minutes – not hours – were spent panning for gold at outdoor dollar carts. And yet, comparing the year's haul to those of  2014, 2015, and 2016, I think 2017 was the best ever. The riches were such that the copy of Frank L. Packard's The Big Shot above failed to make the cut. Hell, I couldn't even settle on the list until after the the year was over. Here be the shiniest nuggets:

The Shapes that Creep
Margerie Bonner
New York: Scribners,

The debut novel by Hollywood actress and BC beach squatter Mrs Malcolm Lowry. The jacket describes it as a "combination of murder, astrology, hidden-treasure, and cryptography – with the wild and romantic coast of Vancouver as its colourful background."

The House of Temptation
Veros Carleton [pseud.
   Amy Cox]
Ottawa: Graphic, 1931

A roman à clef set amongst Ottawa's wealthy and powerful. If it is anything like Madge Macbeth's The Land of Afternoon, also published by Graphic, I'm in for a real treat.

A Social Departure
Sara Jeanette Duncan
New York: Appleton,

It says nothing good about this country that I was able to buy a Very Fine first edition of this novel for $12.50.

The Cannon's Mouth
Wilfred Heighington
Toronto: Forward, 1943

One of the few Canadian Great War novels by a veteran of the conflict.  This was a birthday gift from my friend James Calhoun, the foremost historian of Canadian military literature, I didn't know The Cannon's Mouth existed until it arrived in the post.
Maria Chapdelaine
Louis Hémon [trans.
   W.H. Blake]
New York: Macmillan,

My fifth copy of Hémon's big book, I uncovered this on one of Attic Books' dollar carts. Inscribed by American college prof Carl Y. Connor, who provided an intro and notes, it serves as a reminder of the popularity this novel once enjoyed south of the border.
Wives and Lovers
Margaret Millar
New York: Random
   House, 1954

I'd long been interested in Millar non-mysteries, but could never afford them. Syndicate Books' Complete Millar finally granted me access. Wives and Lovers ended up being the best novel I read in 2017. Researching my review, I stumbled upon this first edition offered online at US$3.98.

A Voice is Calling
Eric Cecil Morris
Montreal: B.D. Simpson,

A clerk living a mundane life in mid-20th-century Gaspé finds himself transported through time and space when playing the organ of his local church. J.S. Bach serves as tour guide to 18th-century Leipzig!

Lust Planet
Olin Ross [pseud. W.E.D.
Hollywood: International
     Publications, 1962

Canada's most prolific novelist, Ross made most of his money writing romances and Dark Shadows TV tie-ins. Lust Planet is his second and last "adults only" novel. Ribald, it's the subject of my column in the next issue of Canadian Notes & Queries.

Hot Star
Robert W. Tracy [pseud.
   Alvin Schwartz]
New York: Arco, 1952

Following Touchable, further titillation from a writer who seems destined to be remembered as the creator of Bizarro Superman. I'm guessing Hot Star wouldn't have passed the Comics Code Authority.

Phyllis Brett Young
London: W.H. Allen, 1964

I've been meaning to read Phyllis Brett Young for some time, and everything I know about this novel tells me that it is the place to start. "The jacket reminds me of Hitchcock," says my wife. I agree.

Note: Author of Psyche, not Psycho.

A year of austerity? Who am I kidding? That edition of Packard's The Big Shot was the second of two bought in 2017.

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01 January 2018

Agnes Maule Machar's New Year's Wish (& mine)

'To know the love of Christ, that passeth knowledge.' 
               To know by surest inner sight
                    The love that ‘passeth being known’;
               To know that this, the Infinite,
                    Is yet for evermore our own: 
               As gentle as the falling dew,
                    Stronger than mightiest waves are strong,
               New, as each opening day is new
                    Old as the eternal years are long!  
               Wider than heaven’s blue above
                    The stars that most remotely shine;
               Nearer than human looks of love
                    That are but gleams of the Divine. 
               To know that love, most tender, true,
                    Closer than earthly ties most dear—
               This be the blessing ever new
                    To gladden this and every year.

A Happy New Year to all! 

Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear.

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31 December 2017

Bliss Carman's New Year's Rockin' Eve

          The air is pulsing as with crowding wings.
          Migrant Ideals and valiant-hearted Dreams,
          The Heavenly vanguard of eternity,
          Muster to cross the frontier of new days.
          A brave unhasting company, they throng
          Out of old years with life’s immortal zest,—
          In gleaming panoply of seraphim
          Advance these dauntless heralds of all good.
          ‘Tis midnight hour. The clanging bells break forth.
          The march of man has crossed the boundary
          Into another year. Close up the ranks!
          Our ancients bid, fare on! New Year, Salute!
          The promise of the past is on your knees.
          The glory of all time is unto God.
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30 December 2017

My Favourite Read of 2017?

Not Wives and Lovers, the best novel. Not Frustration, the worst. Not Dan Hill's self-flagellating Comeback, the strangest. No, my favourite and most memorable read this year was Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth. Ian McGillis posed the question and I answered, with explanation, in the Montreal Gazette.

Kaie Kellough, Sean Michaels, Sina Queyras, Heather O'Neill, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Jack Todd, and Kathleen Winter chime in with theirs.

Read all about it here:

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27 December 2017

A Scarytale of Old York

The Gerrard Street Mystery
John Charles Dent
Constance Bay: Three Bats, 2017
32 pages

A Christmas gift read on Christmas Day, "The Gerrard Street Mystery" is one of the very few Christmas ghost stories to come out of Victorian Canada. You'll get no argument from me if you disagree. There is a ghost, but the holiday is mentioned only briefly. Though the climax takes place in December 1861, the narrator and hero misses Christmas Day itself because he is unconscious.

The title story of The Gerrard Street Mystery and Other Weird Tales, issued in 1888 by Rose Publishing, this is, of course, the work of a dead man. I've always found it interesting that the book was put together within weeks of his funeral. Why the rush? There couldn't have been much hunger for such a thing; John Charles Dent was not known as a writer of fiction, but as a journalist historian, and biographer. Prior to that, he'd been a lawyer, which may account for the legal-sounding start to this weird tale:
My name is William Francis Furlong. My occupation is that of a commission merchant, and my place of business is on St. Paul Street, in the City of Montreal. I have resided in Montreal ever since shortly after my marriage, in 1862, to my cousin, Alice Playter, of Toronto.
William gives a brief, dry account of his early life – stained by the loss of his parents – in order to explain how it was that he came to be raised by his uncle, Richard Yardington, a prominent Toronto businessman. Cousin Alice, was not so unfortunate in that she lost only her mother. However, as her father is a man of "dissipated habits," she too was taken into Uncle Richard's care. As the years pass, William's "childish attachment" to Alice ripens to "tender affection," and the two become engaged. Though their uncle shares nothing of "the prejudice entertained by many people against marriage between cousins," he is a firm believer that his male ward should demonstrate the ability to provide. Thus, William embarks for Australia, so as to better oversee his business interests.

Four years pass, during which William amasses a respectable return. Uncle Richard writes calling him home. William responds that obligations will prevent a return for a further six months, but his business wraps up early, and he is soon on a ship sailing from Melbourne. No use in writing Uncle Richard or Alice of course; he'd likely arrive in Toronto on the same day as his letter.

Mystery in "The Gerrard Street Mystery" begins en route when William, on a lark, asks whether there might be something for him in General Delivery at the main post office in Boston's Merchant's Exchange Building.

He is gobsmacked to discover that there is!

The letter is from Uncle Richard*:

How could affectionate Uncle Richard have known that his ward would be in Boston? Why would he think that William might ask for a letter at General Delivery? How could Uncle Richard have known he'd be home for Christmas? Most of all, what sorrow has befallen beloved Alice?

Answering these questions would only spoil the story. Instead, I'll borrow a page from my friend J.F. Norris of Pretty Sinister in sharing three things I learned in reading the story:

William returns to Toronto via the mid-day express from Hamilton. As his train arrives at Union Station, he spots Uncle Richard in the Waiting Room. Until then, I had no idea that Union Station of 1861 was so very, very small.

Not to be outdone by Boston, the main Toronto post office also figures. Though it no longer serves to carry Her Majesty's mail, the building still stands. Today, it's most famous as the building from which convicted criminal Conrad Black removed his famous 13 file boxes.

A fleeting reference to the book The Debatable Land Between This World and the Next (1871) introduced me to the Scottish-American social reformer and spiritualist Robert Dale Owen. Much of the rest of the Christmas Day was spent dipping in and out of his other work. In The Policy of Emancipation (1863) I found these words, reproduced from 23 September 1862 letter Owen sent to President Lincoln:
In days when the public safety is imminently threatened, and the fate of a nation may hang upon a single act, we owe frank speech, above all other men, to him who is highest in authority.
A wise man was Mr Owen.

Here's wishing us all a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Object and Access: A very attractive chapbook, letterpress printed in 10pt Baskerville on Reich Savoy paper. Issued in an edition of thirty-five, it was a Christmas gift from Three Bats' publisher Jason Byers.
* This image from the very poor microform copy of The Gerrard Street Mystery and Other Weird Tales available at the Internet Archive.

25 December 2017

Great War Christmas Verse from a Century Past

Lens, France
25 December 1917
A poem by Arthur Stringer from the December 1917 issue of Maclean's.

Christmas Bells in War Time 
                  From spire and tower, in silvery tune,
                       The chimes like birds take flight.
                  Where that golden boat, the moon,
                       Drifts slowly down the night.                     
                  Aloud, alert, alone they cease
                       And wake these midnight bells,
                  Proclaiming, through their calmer, Peace
                       Where Peace no longer dwells.                    
                  Yet chime by chime, like homing birds,
                       They float, soar up, recede,
                  A gust of old-time gladdening words
                       That back to Sorrow lead.                    
                  For as we listen, bell by bell,
                       They bring about us here
                  Our hotly dead who sleep so well
                       We dare not dream them near.                    
                  So be still blithe, O Bells, and gay.
                       Since through the old glad sound
                  Our dead come home this Christmas Day
                       From grave strewn Flanders' ground!

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