16 January 2017

A Quiet, Mildly Depressing Depression-Era Debut

Irene Baird
Philadelphia/Toronto: Lippincott, 1937

A first novel, the discovery that this copy is a fourth impression surprised me no end. I knew Irene Baird for Waste Heritage – once part of the Laurentian Library – but John meant nothing to me. And yet, in the excellent Introduction to the current University of Ottawa Press edition of the former Colin Hill informs that John was an international bestseller. The Lippincott was followed by other editions in the UK and Australia, leading me to think that – eight decades later – John continues to hold title as Baird's best selling book.

The Globe & Mail
5 November 1937
No pun intended.

I don't quite understand its popularity because this sort of novel has never appealed to me. John takes place in rural British Columbia, but this city boy has never been much interested in stories with country settings. I also don't care much for novels in which nothing really happens. Huysmans' À Rebours is not for me. Even Baird's title – my middle name – is a bit of a bore.

John is John Dorey, a perfectly nice Englishman who passes up partnership in the family woollen mills for a simple life on the BC coast. He purchases ten acres, clears same, and farms; for a time, he delivers the rural mail. John has a horse that is killed by a nasty neighbour, though nothing of significance results from the crime. A developer makes an offer  for his land, but this is rejected. The most significant event in John's life is a fleeting encounter with a younger married woman. John falls for her, though not so much as a kiss is exchanged.

John is a character study. The man under examination is, as I say, perfectly nice; I'd want him is a neighbour, but would never think to invite him over. John is given to philosophizing. At the urging of his closest friend, the local doctor, he tries his hand at putting his thoughts down on paper:
Book-writing didn't come like the knack of judging a good horse, or training a fine dog till she all but spoke her thoughts. Ideas were not tangible like soil, to pick up and weigh between the fingers. It was a will-o'-the-wispbusiness, writing – though it was strange, too, from the look of their pictures, what unlikely people excelled at it!
It's a fine book – Baird's, not John's – but it isn't for me. That said, I do recommend it to anyone who might enjoy this passage:
An eagle, far up, planed serenely by, bent on its eyrie. From the cedar close to the house, an owl awakened – tuk–tuk–tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk— Who knew how many were its notes? Another owl fro the bush on the opposite side of the road answered: the first of ghostly night messages. The frogs would join in before long.
     He yawned deeply. There was nothing like the sublime afterglow of bodily fatigue. Even the mind refused to disturb a body so perfectly spent.
Again, this is not for me, though I can almost sense the attraction.

Singing frogs might have helped.

"It's a wonder to me you never married. You're a queer chap."
     John flushed.

Lord Tweedsmuir, of course, being Buchan. John Buchan.

Object: A well-constructed 235-page hardcover bound in brown cloth. My copy, which once belonged to a woman named Anne Marshall, was rescued four years ago from books left unsold at the end of our local public library book sale. It lacks the rather busy, uninteresting dust jacket.

Access: The Lippincott was followed by British (Collins, 1937) and Australian (Angus & Robertson, 1938) editions. A Swedish translation, also titled John, was published in 1938 by Medén.

Held by most Canadian university libraries. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec stands alone amongst those serving the public.

A dozen copies are listed for sale online. At eight dollars, the cheapest, a "Good" Lippincott copy, is described thusly: "May not look good on your bookcase after reading and probably not suitable as a present unless hard to find elsewhere." Hmm...

The best of the lot is an inscribed Lippincott first. Price: C$55. Suitable as a present, I suggest.

02 January 2017

The Trudeau Papers: Bang!

The Trudeau Papers
Ian Adams
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971
Thucydides wrote that Themistocles' greatness lay in the fact that he realized Athens was not immortal. I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; but, if it is going to go, let it go with a bang rather than a whimper. 
— Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 30 March 1988
Beginning our sesquicentennial year with a novel imaging Canada's demise might be an odd choice were it not for the deafening roar heard from south of our border. How long before the first major fuck-up of the Trump presidency? I'm betting on this month.

The fuck-up described in this debut novel is monumental. The CIA manages to recruit a brilliant Red Army computer analyst, tasks him with testing the security of the Soviet's "fail-safe computer firing program", and then forgets he ever existed.

Bureaucracy is to blame, which isn't to say that there aren't benefits to be had.

Two SS-9s head for American bases in Montana and North Dakota, and the Soviets can do nothing to stop them. Their Premier alerts the President of the United States of the situation, but is unable to convince him that it is all a mistake. Fortunately, Trump the President knows nothing of the Bible and so cannot recall the quotation used in the nuclear code ("Unto God would I commit my cause." – Job 5:8). Unfortunately – for Canada – the U.S. Strategic Missile Command manages to intercept both missiles, resulting in nuclear explosions above Edmonton and southern Saskatchewan.

One million people die.

Within two weeks, the number triples. It grows exponentially as children succumb to leukaemia, their elders shed skin and hair, and Canadians of all ages are sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange.

After the Prime Minister's plane goes down on a return flight from Washington, the United States takes advantage of misplaced Soviet guilt. Its military moves north on the pretence of securing American-owned industry, while right-wing vigilantes with ties to the CIA take to the streets. Bookstore owners are beaten, and left-leaning student leaders are strung up on the rafters of Varsity Stadium.

Were it not so dense, I'd consider this 108-page "Novel by Ian Adams" a novella; were it not so complex, I might be dismissive. The Trudeau Papers is a remarkable and unusual novel. Its title is explained by narrator Alan Jarvis, a former journalist who has been entrusted by fellow members of the resistance to record what has happened since the two SS-9s exploded:
The name seemed to evoke a collective sense of grim irony. Personally, I think there title is unimportant, considering the enormity of what has taken place, and how much of it has been documented. The rather vague explanation for the choice was that as one of the last democratically elected prime ministers, his name symbolized the end of a nation. So be it.
The "vague explanation" works well. Jarvis himself was once a former CIA operative – and it could be that he is still. Nothing in The Trudeau Papers is cut and dry; nothing is black and white. I came to trust him, but not so much that I won't understand your distrust.

The Trudeau Papers takes place sometime after 1975... but when?

And so, on this second day of our sesquicentennial year, a new question arises: Which Trudeau?

Addendum: This post is the second – after my review of Richard Rohmer's Triad – to include the Trudeau quote above. Again, is it not incredible that we once had a prime minister who could speak about Thucydides on Themistocles?

Object and access: A slim novel in orange boards with uncredited dust-jacket, I bought my copy twenty-seven years ago at S.W. Welch in Montreal. Price: $1.00. Eighteen years earlier, this very same copy was a Christmas gift from journalist Peter C. Newman to John Payne. I'm guessing that this is the same John Payne who once served as an adviser to future PM John Turner (and not the man who starred opposite Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street).

It appears there was no a second printing. Remarkably, there has never been a paperback edition.

Ranging at prices between US$3.48 and $17.54, eight copies are listed for sale online. Condition is not a factor.

01 January 2017

'The New Year comes white-winged, unstained, a star...'

Century-old jingoism to begin a New Year by Minnie Henrietta Bethune Hallowell Bowen (1861-1942) of Sherbrooke, Quebec, from John W. Garvin's anthology Canadian Poems of the Great War (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918). During the conflict, Mrs Bowen served as President of the Sherbrooke Patriotic Association.


Canada's National Service

          The New Year comes white-winged, unstained, a star
               Loosed from God's hand across a world of night!
          What thoughts await its coming from afar?
               What deeds shall quicken in its unknown light?

          All Time is God's — to give and to withhold!
               To men the power is given to use or waste —
          To turn the passing splendour into gold,
               Lasting and beautiful — or bid it haste.

          Dearer than jewels — bought with holiest blood —
               Are these few months God-given to our hand
          By Him whose might held back the threatening flood
               There at the Marne, that we might arm and stand.

          The grey tide swells apace — the nations fall
               Before its pitiless, embracing lust!
          Here at the threshold of another year —
               Still with God's gift of time — we face our trust!

          The bells are ringing in the quivering towers —
               The chimes are calling over glistening snow.
          The year is dawning in its awful powers —
               The hours are coming and the hours must go!

          These few, small days may be the last that wait
               On our decision! Riven ears may know
          The iron thunders of approaching Fate
               That closes Mercy's door and arms the Foe.

          Dear blood, outpoured for love of God and Man,
               Has drenched the far-off altar with its red,
          And heavenly fire that through the trenches ran
               Has wrapped the lives that suffered in our stead.

          How can we give enough — since they have died?
               Since they have lived — shall we not greatly live
          And know in life or death with holy pride
               No wealth of service is too much to give?

          The Call to Service! ringing loud and clear
               Beats in the angel pinions overhead —
          Still time is given that deadened ears may hear
               Before the final word of doom is said.

          Work! for humanity's sublimest goal!
               Fight! in a cause too great to be denied!
          Hear! for the Dead are speaking to your soul!
               Wake! for God calls the Nation to His side!

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31 December 2016

'The year is dead, for Death slays even time...'

Verse for the day from the 1935 revised edition of Our Canadian Literature, an anthology of verse selected by the poet's friends Bliss Carman and Lorne Pierce.

A Happy New Year to all!

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27 December 2016

The Ten Best Book Buys of a Very Bad Year

An annus horribulus, the death of David Bowie ten days in cast a pall that just wouldn't lift. These have been days of loss and unwelcome surprises, and November 8 killed all hopes for a better New Year.

The evening before the American election, the great Leonard Cohen died. I'd found his Flowers for Hitler a week earlier, squeezed between neglected books in a sidewalk dollar cart. Storm clouds were just about to burst. It's a first edition, but the condition is not the best; booksellers would describe it as a "reading copy." I'm all for reading copies. Books are meant to be read, as this one clearly has. My favourite purchase of 2016, this is how I choose to remember the year... rescuing a book from the rain.

This was the year my collection of Canadian literature took over the ninth of our nine bookcases.

You always knew there was more than one dusty bookcase, right?

Foreign authors have been relegated to the attic, though some sit in the basement of the St Marys Public Library awaiting the semi-annual Book Sale. Anyone looking for a century-old set of Conrad will find themselves in luck this spring.


Yes, this proved a particularly good year for buying books, despite an increasingly tightening budget. Case in point: the first American edition of Hilda Wade: A Woman of Tenacity of Purpose pictured above. Typically priced comfortably in the three digits, I paid US$6.00 after winning it in an online auction. With ninety-eight illustrations by Gordon Browne, I don't exaggerate in describing it as one of the most beautiful in my collection.

What follows are the eight other favourite acquisitions. You'll note that some weren't book buys but gifts. Given my name, you'll understand that I'm drawn to alliteration.

Linnet: A Romance
Grant Allen
New York: New Amsterdam, 1900

"Allen's last substantial novel," writes biographer Peter Morton. I first learned of this work while researching my first book, Character Parts, and have been hoping to score a copy ever since. Another online auction victory, I won this first American edition for US$16.00.

Black Feather
Benge Atlee
New York: Scribners, 1939

Atlee served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Great War. In civilian life, he served as Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Dalhousie. His only novel, this was a gift from James Calhoun, my collaborator on the reissue of Peregrine Acland's All Else Is Folly.
Josie of Montreal
Florian Delorme
Montreal: Bodero, 1967

Despite the (implied) success of Aprés-Ski, I had no idea this fine example of "ADULT READING" existed until it was given me by author Fraser Sutherland.

Note: A volume in the Aphrodite Collection.

The Midnight Queen
Mrs May Agnes Fleming
New York: Hurst, [n.d.]

One of the three books I'm urging publishers consider returning to print, The Midnight Queen is the one of the most entertaining novels I've read since beginning this exploration. It's no small wonder that Mrs Fleming (1840-1880) was our first bestselling author. You can read my review here.
Edith Percival; Or, Her Heart or Her Hand?
May Agnes Fleming
New York: Street and Smith, [n.d.]

A later edition – perhaps the last – of Mrs Fleming's 1893 bestseller... But wait, didn't she die in 1880? Is it really hers?  This is one of five Street & Smith Flemings won for US$1.99 each on eBay. Mine were the only bids.

Legends of My People the Great Ojibway
Norval Morrisseau
Toronto: Ryerson, 1965

Bought for a dollar earlier this month at the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store. Signed by the artist.

A book I'll be handing down to my daughter.

Dust and Ashes
A.C. Stewart
n.p.: Published by the Author, 1910

A curious collection of verse. Regular readers will remember Stewart's "On the Drowning of a French-Canadian Laborer", which I shared this past Labour Day.

A gift from booksellers Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson of Brown & Dickson in London, Ontario.

The Silver Poppy
Arthur Stringer
New York: Appleton, 1903

I thought I was pretty much done with collecting Stringer, but then spotted this first edition of his debut at London's Attic Books. Price: $10.

The scan doesn't do it justice.

Those poppies really shine.

Let us all work to make 2017 a better year.

I myself resolve to kick harder against the pricks.

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21 December 2016

A 1980s Duddy Kravitz?

I Lost It All in Montreal
Donna Steinberg
New York: Avon, 1983
Mordecai Richler. Philip Roth. Move over. 
— Thomas Schnurmacher, The Gazette, 31 July 1982
The hype began many months before this novel's release; there were radio spots and a number of pieces in the Gazette. It was through the latter that I learned of an I Lost It All in Montreal t-shirt. I never saw one, nor did any of my friends. We were all entering Concordia, which Donna Steinberg had also attended. I Lost It All in Montreal, then titled Don't Pack Me a Sandwich, had been her master's thesis. This was seven years before alumnus Nino Ricci earned a GG for Lives of the Saints.

Donna Steinberg
The Gazette, 26 February 1983
Steinberg was admirably open. In interviews, she revealed that the reception to her thesis had been lukewarm, while McClelland & Stewart had rejected it outright. Avon had been receptive, but had wanted a new title.

We teens rolled our eyes, all the while envying her success. A cocky lot, we felt no need to read it. We were sure we had this novel pegged. As it turns out, we were very nearly right.

I Lost It All in Montreal is another story of a sheltered, spoiled young woman who falls for fantasy, encounters reality, and emerges a strong, independent person. The young woman here is Shayna Pearl Fine, a self-described Jewish Princess who lives with her parents in their 14-room Hampstead house. At twenty-three, Shayna is still a virgin, though she does have a boyfriend in Stanley Drabkin, "B. Comm. (Bachelor of Commerce), B.C.L. (Bachelor of Common Law), C.M. (Certified Mensch)". We open on a scene in which Stanley appears at the Fine home having made no small secret of his intent to propose. Shayna's mother is pleased, but the prospective bride is horrified:
     "Propose as in m-m-marriage?"
     "I'm willing to bet my life on it."
     "M-m-marriage as in 'Till Death Us Do Part'?"
     "Knock wood," she banged the cupboard door.
Shayna has much she wants to accomplish before marriage. Besides, balding, loafer-wearing Stanley is far, far from her ideal man: Kris Kristofferson.

On the way to the restaurant at which he plans to pop the question, Stanley takes Shayna to see Peter Simon Freeman and the Extinct Species Band at the Cock 'n' Bull. And why not? They're "Canada's answer to the Eagles". Sure, it's not exactly Stanley's scene, but Peter Simon Freeman is a client.
It was love at first sight.
     The moment Peter Simon Freeman walked out onto the stage in his faded jean shirt and skin-tight beige Levis, I fell head over heals in love with him.
So begins "Knight Rider," the second of the novel's five parts. Shayna treats Stanley like crap and flirts with Peter. Early the next morning, the musician shocks the Fine parents by picking up their daughter on his Norton Commando. That same morning, Shayna loses her virginity to Peter in his McGill Ghetto flat.

Then, it's off to L.A.!

No, not Shayna, but Peter and his band. They fly west and south to record their debut album, while, she returns to her job writing filler for the Cote Saint Luc Weekly Register (read: The Suburban). Given that Shayna and Peter shared little more than a one morning stand, I didn't expect that she'd ever hear from him again.

I was wrong. A telegram is quick to follow:

A telegram? In the 'eighties? The nineteen-eighties? Oh, why not... telegrams are easier to share and can be reread, whereas phone calls cannot.

Shayna pretty much decides to "TAKE A CHANCE," while best friend and personal blow job instructress Jo Ann Pecker suggests that things might be moving just a little too fast.

Who am I to disagree with Jo Ann Pecker?

A twenty-something loses her virginity to a man she just met, while that man looks to shack up with a woman with whom he hasn't yet spent a day. And then they do. No novel has moved at such a pace since Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street.

Five months prior to the novel's release, Thomas Schnurmacher wrote: "I Lost It All in Montreal is as inspired and controversial a reflection of Jewish life in Montreal in the 1980s as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was in 1959."

I can't say this is an inspired work. I remember no controversy. Which isn't to say that I'm not still envious.

The worst sex scene in Canadian literature?: I Lost It All in Montreal features several contenders, beginning with the one in which Shayna masturbates in the Fine family's sunken marble bathtub.

The five-page scene in which Shayna has sex for the first time is worthy of consideration, but it pales beside the one in which Shayna pleasures Peter whilst his five-year-old son, Nicky, and much older drummer, Bozo, watch television in the adjoining room. I present the scene in full. Consider yourself forewarned.

A shame that the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award was ten years in the future.

Trivia: I Lost It All in Montreal is the fourth novel in this exploration of CanLit's forgotten, suppressed and neglected to feature a character who is a gynaecologist.

Object: A 262-page mass market paperback. The last three pages are taken up by ads for Anton Myrer's A Green Desire, Joyce Maynard's Baby Love, and A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail Godwin.

The cover illustration (uncredited) does not depict at Norton Commando.

Access: Curiously, Concordia University has no copy, though you will find it at McGill, Memorial, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and Library and Archives Canada.

On 26 February 1983, one month after publication, the Gazette reported a second printing. I've yet to see a copy. Used copies of the first edition are listed for sale online at prices stretching from US$4 to US$16.85.

Remarkably, a French translation, Ça s'est passé à Montréal, was published in 1987 by Éditions le Jour.

The motorcycle on the cover is not a Norton Commando. The man should have a beard. The woman should be wearing Calvin Klein jeans and a Geoffrey Beene top.

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