15 September 2014

An Invalid Amazon Customer Review (and others)

Three reviews by Amazon customer Lamppu. I have problems with the first, disagree wholeheartedly with the second, and have no opinion on the third. 

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12 September 2014

University Professor Writes Roman à Clef Roman

Fasting Friar
Edward McCourt
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963

Fasting Friar is a novel about the halls of academe and the politics therein, but I read it just the same.  The premise intrigued: Paul Ettinger, a professor at a nondescript prairie university, publishes a racy roman à clef about a professor at a nondescript prairie university. Titled The Proud and the Passionate, it raises the ire of the president, the board and fellow professor Walter Ackroyd. Not one week after publication, rumours swirl that Ettinger is about to be sacked.

Ackroyd, not Ettinger, is the protagonist of the novel – by which I mean Fasting Friar. A solitary Milton scholar whose reputation far exceeds that of the university, Ackroyd takes pleasure in the thought that the budding novelist might be on the way out. He's long considered Ettinger a disgrace, dismissing the popular professor as a showman, a "sloop-minded snapper-up of unconsidered trifles… let loose in a classroom to wreak destruction upon the intellect." To Ackroyd, The Proud and the Passionate is irrefutable evidence that Ettinger simply lacks the intellect and good judgement expected of his position.

The faculty begin to rally in defence of Ettinger, pressuring Ackroyd, their most esteemed member, to join the struggle. The asocial professor emerges from behind his office door, and is forced to recognize the assault on the very ideals that have been at the centre of his life's work. By degrees, Ackroyd becomes Ettinger's greatest champion, even as his dislike for the man grows.

McCourt himself was a professor, teaching at the University of Saskatchewan from 1944 until his death in 1972. Very much a forgotten figure, before coming upon this novel I knew him only as the author of Music at the Close and The Wooden Sword, two of New Canadian Library's abandoned titles. The former won Ryerson's All-Canada Fiction Award, which, as noted elsewhere, means nothing. McCourt published six novels in total, Fasting Friar being the last. Three more followed, but failed to find publishers.

Given all this, I went into Fasting Friar expecting little. What I found was one of the most interesting and enjoyable reads of the year. It's a complex, yet taut novel written by a sure hand.

Shows what I know.

Trivia: In 1965, Fasting Friar was adapted for television, consuming four episodes of the CBC series Serial. The 7 April 1965 edition of the Gazette reports that the "principal role" is played by Michael Sarrizin. At twenty-four, I'd have thought he'd be far too young. Other newspaper articles describe Peter Donat as the star. IMDb has no entry on the production.

Object: A 222-page hardcover in dark blue boards. Sadly, the dust jacket illustration is uncredited. I bought my copy in Montreal just last month. Price: $9.50.

Access: The public libraries of Calgary and Edmonton serve, as do twenty-five of our university libraries (University of Saskatchewan included).

The novel sold somewhere in the area of three hundred copies. Six are currently listed for sale online, all but one being Very Good or better. At US$40, the one to buy is signed by the author. The others are listed at between US$20 and US$37.

Improbably, Macdonald published a UK edition as The Ettinger Affair (1963). A true rarity, one lone copy is listed online at £6.99.

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08 September 2014

A Coupla Canadian Copycats

Carnival of Love [Mardi Gras Madness]
Anthony Scott
New York: Red Circle, 1949
Cover by Ray Johnson
Carnival of Love [Mardi Gras Madness]
Anthony Scott
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950
Cover by Syd Dyke
The Glass Ladder
Paul W. Fairman
New York: Handi-Books, 1950
Cover artist unknown
The Glass Ladder
Paul W. Fairman
Toronto: Harlequin, 1951
Cover artist unknown

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06 September 2014

George-Étienne Cartier at 200

Such a young country. I'm still kind of a kid – really – and yet I remember Canada's centennial celebrations. So, it makes no sense – not really – that today, 6 September 1919, should mark the 200th birthday of George-Étienne Cartier. Yet it does.

A son of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, one hundred years after his birth, one hundred years ago today, saw the dedication of the most glorious monument in the Dominion.

The program for the unveiling, a two-hour affair, includes Benjamin Sulte's "La Statue de Cartier" and "The Statue of Cartier" by Gustavus William Wicksteed, both dating back to the 1885 installation of the statue on Parliament Hill. I think William-Athanse Baker's tribute to Cartier would've been more appropriate.

from George-Étienne Cartier
Benjamin Sulte
Montreal: G. Ducharme, 1919
Two hours. Imagine. Charles Joseph Doherty, Robert Borden's Minister of Justice spoke. What can we expect today from Peter Mackay?

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02 September 2014

Margaret Millar's Great Toronto Murder Mystery

The Iron Gates
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1960

Boris Karloff thought this was a great mystery and so do I. Does that convince? What if I add Anthony Boucher and Louis Untermeyer?

Margaret Millar's sixth mystery, The Iron Gates was the one that really made her. With its sales, she bought a house in Santa Barbara, sharing it with husband Kenneth, far from the cold of Canadian winters past.

The novel begins at the season's first snowfall, in the expansive Toronto home of gynaecologist Andrew Morrow, wife Lucille, daughter Polly, son Martin, and Edith, the doctor's spinster sister. Snow aside, the day promises to be memorable as Polly's fiancé, Lt Giles Frome, will be meeting the Morrow family for the first time. What does he encounter? Edith, for one, who insists on making a speech as he walks in the door:
She blushed and gave Giles an embarrassed and apologetic smile. "I know how sentimental that sounds but I think it's true, we are a happy family. Of course we have our lapses. Polly is invariably rude and Martin's high spirits are a trial…"
     "And Edith gets maudlin," Polly said.
     "Oh, I do not," Edith said. "And Andrew can never find anything and then gets cross, don't you, Andrew?"
     "I may become justifiably irritated," Andrew said, "but never cross."
     "As for Lucille…"
Yes, what about Lucille? Stepmother to Polly and Martin, they've never really warmed to her. Lucille had once been a neighbour and friend of their mother. In fact, the first Mrs Morrow was returning from a visit with Lucille when she was killed by an axe murderer. Her bloodied body was found the next day in High Park. The scene of the unsolved crime is laid-out in what is perhaps the least helpful of all Dell mapbacks:

Giles Frome never has the opportunity to develop his own feelings about Lucille because the lady vanishes the very next day. Late that afternoon, a shabby little man appears at the front door with a small package for Lucille. Annie, the most eager of the Morrow help, carries it up to her mistress's room. Moments later, there's a scream. Annie races back. From the other side of the locked door Lucille orders her away. Annie does as she's told, but returns a few minutes later to find her mistress gone.

Enter Inspector Bascombe, Sergeant D'Arcy and, finally, Inspector Sands, all of the Toronto Police.  It's the experienced Sands, veteran of Millar's Wall of Eyes, who tracks the missing woman to the Lakeview Hotel. Now quite mad, Lucille is whisked off to an asylum, the ambulance passing the slumped figure of the shabby little man, dead in the alley of a morphine overdose.

In 1945, the year The Iron Gates was first published, Warner Brothers bought the rights and hired Millar to work on the screenplay. The role of Lucille was offered to Bette Davis, who turned it down for reasons that would spoil in the sharing. Barbara Stanwyck committed, but nothing came of it. This may be just as well. To quote the first edition dust jacket, The Iron Gates is a "psychological thriller". Much of what makes the novel so very good has to do with the depiction of Lucille's less than lucid thoughts. We've all seen just how difficult it is to adapt these sorts of things to the screen. That said, I think, I couldn't help but think of David Cronenberg, particularly his brilliant adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, when reading passages like this:
The fat pink sugar bowl was passed. Lucille would not touch it, its flesh was too pink, too perfect. Not real flesh at all, she thought, but she knew it was because she could see it breathing.
     Miss Eustace's spoon clanged against the grans of sugar. "One or two?"
     "There. Stir it up before you drink it. No, dear, stir it up first."
     She picked up her spoon, dreading the feel of it. Everything was alive, everything hurt. She was hurting the spoon, and though it looked stupid and inert it was hurting her in return, digging into her fingers.
     "Not so hard, Mrs. Morrow"
     Round the cup the spoon dashed in fury and pain, stirring up the hot muddy waves and all the little alive things. She swallowed them, in triumph because she had won, and in despair, because, swallowed and out of sight, they would take vengeance on her.
     Everything was alive. The floor that hurt your shoes that hurt your feet. The napkin that touched your dress that pressed against your thighs. Pain everywhere.
     No privacy. You could never be alone. You always had to touch things and have them touch you. 
Cronenberg is a Toronto boy, and this is very much a Toronto novel. You don't have to be very familiar with the city to recognize the department store in which Polly and her fiancé shop as Eaton's. The Arcadian Court, the Savarin Tavern and the White Spot (site of the city's first gangland murder) all receive mention. Giles takes out a room at the at the ill-famed Ford Hotel.

The Iron Gates is a great mystery. I don't mean to suggest that it isn't flawed; the mystery surrounding the first Mrs Morrow's murder unravels in an unlikely manner.

That's it.

The Iron Gates is a Great Mystery. Remember, Boris Karloff thought so.

He had his own comic book, you know.

Trivia: The second novel I've read in three months to feature a Toronto gynaecologist.

Object: A squat, 222-page mass market paperback. My copy, the second Dell edition, is blessed with a cover that is superior to the first:

It follows The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Red House Mystery as #26 in the Dell Great Mystery Library.

Access: A rare find in academic libraries. Public library patrons who live outside Toronto are entirely out of luck.

Though long out of print – the last was a 1999 Thorndike large print edition – there are plenty of used copies out there. The 1945 Random House first in Near Fine condition can be had for as little as US$60. Those on modest budgets may want to consider one the numerous mass market editions from Dell (1948 & 1960), Penguin (as Taste of Fears, 1962 & 1984), Avon (1974) and International Polygonics (1987).

Toronto publishers take note: There has never been a Canadian edition.

The novel has enjoyed numerous translations: French (Un doigt de folie), Dutch (De poort van de angst), German (Sendbote des Teufels, a/k/a Das eiserne Tor), Italian (Sapore di paura), Spanish (Las puertas de hierro), Catalan (Amb la por al cos), Japanese (鉄の門), Estonian (Raudvärav) and Finnish (Rautaportti).

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01 September 2014

Labour Day Verse for "All Good Workers"

The dedication in The Workshops and Other Poems, the only volume of verse by Florence Nightingale Horner Sherk (1857-1930), otherwise known as "Gay Page".  James Hardy Sherk (1887-1975), a lawyer, was the poet's only surviving child. 

from The Thunder Bay Historical Society: Eighth Annual Report (1917)
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