19 May 2015

CBC's Awful List, Radio-Canada's Disheartening List and Perhaps the Best Book List I've Ever Seen



It's been nearly a year since CBC Books unveiled its crummy 100 NOVELS THAT MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE CANADIAN. Don't know about you, but I feel pretty much the same about my citizenship.

CBC Books' 100 Novels list was as poorly conceived as it was presented. Writing here last July, I dismissed it as a grab bag of recent novels peppered with a few CanLit course mainstays. Given the claim that "everything from cultural impact and critical reception to reader response" was considered, I wondered how it could be that Anne of Green Gables and The Tin Flute were not included. There were other omissions, of course, but none nearly so glaring.

A week later, CBC Books issued a patch – CBC Books 100: Bonus 10* – featuring Anne of Green GablesThe Tin Flute and eight other recommendations "from passionate readers all over the world":


Also included was this short note: "one of the most popular suggestions was the great Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro. We think Alice is one of the greatest Canadian writers to ever hold a pen, but this list is reserved for novels only."

And so a decades-old debate comes to an end. You lose Mary Rubio. You too, Coral Ann Howels. Lives of Girls and Women isn't a novel, it's a collection of short stories. Yes, this list is reserved for novels only… except that they then added Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf.

CBC Books hasn't fixed that gaffe – not yet anyway. Nothing but silence has followed the end of that note on Munro:
Celebrate Alice by checking out all our coverage of her life and legacy and stay tuned – we may have more 100 lists up our sleeves.
God, I hope not.


Now Radio-Canada, has weighed in with its own list, Les incontournables, 100 Canadian books to read once in your lifetime. (I suggest that at least once is what's meant). The best that can be said is that it's not as bad a list. Les incontournables shares all the faults of CBC Books' 100 Novels, but to lesser degrees. Where the former includes fourteen English-language titles, the latter has six in French. Those figures alone signal that neither list is to be taken seriously. Both share an even greater flaw in that they rely so heavily on recent works. Most of the titles found on the 2014 CBC Books list were published between 2000 and 2013. Yes, most... just let that sink in for a moment. The new Radio-Canada list includes 41 titles published between 2000 and 2014 – including Jean-François Lépine's Sur la ligne de feu, which was released all of seven months ago. To borrow from Jean-Louis Lessard's comments on Les incontournables, il faut laisser le temps faire son oeuvre.


Has it all been worth it? Yes and no. CBC Books' 100 Novels was meant to "start a dialogue", but the only comments I heard were from friends who expressed surprise at how few they'd read. Les incontournables, on the other hand, seems to have inspired M Lessard to produce Liste des œuvres québécoises importants. His criteria: the quality of the work, cultural or social impact, the representativeness of the time and influence. It's about as perfect and well-considered as any book list I've ever seen; anyone looking to read the essential works of French-speaking Quebec will find no better.

An observation and query to close this rant: Where Les incontournables includes titles that are out of print, all of CBC Books' 100 Novels – including the Bonus 10 – are in print. Surely this isn't a coincidence. And what are we to make of the fact that nearly every one is currently published by a foreign-owned house?

McClelland & Stewart is owned by Bertelsmann. The CBC is in decline. Suddenly, I'm not feeling so proud.

* Curiously, the list itself was rebranded as "CBC Books 100: Novels that make you proud to be Canadian".
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18 May 2015

Victoria Day Verse from Victoria



An ode to the city, a tribute to Her Late Majesty, but more than anything a pitch to tourists, Victoria the Beautiful (self-published, 1917) is one of only two poems I've been able to find by city resident Levi Houghton (d. 1918). The other, My Trip Through the Rockies (self-published, 1917), is interesting for its use of the words "mount" and "mountain" – forty-four appearances in 83 lines.

Here he rhymes "Nature's splendour" with "say I'll mend her".

Enjoy!
VICTORIA THE BEAUTIFUL 
                    Canada's vast and myriad acres, —
                         Central prairies wheat's domain, —
                    Ancient cities of th' Atlantic, —
                         All have share in praise's strain.
                    But of thou,—Dominion's fairest.
                         Brightest, sceniest, beauteous spot.
                    Those who chant of other places.
                         These are they who know thee not.
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    Honoured name on British tongue, —
                         She who dignified the Throne,
                    Left a name, 'twill last as long,
                         Long as thou dost bear her own!
                    City thou, — Dominion's Queen.
                         Regal true in Nature's splendour;
                    None like thee can e'er be seen, —
                         None can say I'll mend her.
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    O, this City, all that's fair:
                         Thy boulevards beyond compare,
                    Trees of every shade and hue, —
                         Chestnut, maple, lilac, yew.
                    Rustic scenes and shady bowers.
                         City of roses, city of flowers!
                    Hollies green, some variegated, —
                         Glorious England here translated!
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    England's beauty known so wide;
                          (Surely thou art England's sister-twin,)
                    Truly thou art dignified,
                         Fair without and fair within!
                    Old Ocean laps thy numerous Bays,
                         Bright Sol bedecks thy Parks,
                    With emerald green thy winding ways.
                         Call forth extolled remarks!
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    Rocky headlands, sandy beaches;
                         Mounts aspire to meet the sun;
                    Nature loving thou dost teach us,
                         Whilst we round with motors run.
                    Gnarled old oaks and Douglas pine,
                         Gardens grand delights our fill,
                    But who can yet compare design
                         With the broom on Beacon Hill!
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    O'er the Straits of Juan de Fuca,
                         Olympic stately mountains see, —
                    Delighting visiting onlooker,
                         And he hails the sight with glee!
                    Cousin Sam's in thousands coming
                         Year by year to see thy glory,
                    And he ne'er forgets his roaming, —
                         Tells abroad thy wondrous story!
                                                                                VICTORIA! 
                    For 'round thee he's been a-hunting
                         Cougar, bear, and deer and moose,
                    Likewise also gone a-fishing.
                         All his business cares cut loose.
                    Oak Bay Links, and those of Colwood,
                         Reached he these by street-car ride;
                    Boating, bathing, tennis, billiard,
                         All these pleasures, — more beside!
                                                                                VICTORIA!
                    Mild's the clime, and summer not too hot;
                         'Tis minus Zero of the prairie;
                    Come and visit this blest spot,
                         Come yourself and bring dear Mary.
                    Come in Winter, come in Spring,
                         Come in Summer, Autumn too,
                    And when you come this song you'll sing:
                         "Victoria the whole year through!"
                                                                                VICTORIA!

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11 May 2015

What's Going on with The Plouffe Family?



The Plouffe Family [Les Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Mary Finch]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1950

The Plouffe Family is out of print. How can that be?

Lemelin's original, Les Plouffe, is one of the cornerstones in our literature. A bestseller upon publication, it was quickly adapted to radio and in 1953 inspired La famille Plouffe, Radio-Canada's very first television series. An English-language version featuring the very same actors began broadcasting the following year. There was also a miniseries and a feature film that cleaned up at the 1982 Genies.


My mother loved La famille Plouffe, but because she was drawn to wholesome, sentimental fare – The Sound of Music was her favourite film – I developed preconceived notions. These were cast aside when reading The Town Below, the translation of Lemelin's first novel. Both dark and funny, what it said about party politics, sexual morays and the influence of the Church in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec surprised and delighted. The Plouffe Family didn't quite have the same effect, but only because I'd read the author's debut.

The Plouffe family – les Plouffe – live in St-Sauveur, the working class quarter that lies in the shadow of Quebec City's upper town. Six in number, they fill a flat. Théophile, the father, rests on his laurels as a champion of an otherwise forgotten cycling event. Mother Josephine cooks, bakes, cleans and dreams of her heroine Joan of Arc. The four Plouffe children – Cécile, Napoléon, Ovide and Guillaume – live at home, despite the fact that most are well into adulthood.

Nineteen-year-old Guillaume was a late surprise.

Though not immediately apparent, The Plouffe Family is quite a dark novel. The first section – there are four, plus Epilogue – concerns itself largely with middle son Ovide's pursuit of Rita Toulouse, a co-worker in the local boot factory. On their first date they watch young Guillaume defeat the local rings champion. The second has Ovide trying to win her heart by performing selections from Pagliacci in the Plouffe sitting room. Rita disappears during a scene change. She ends up being felt up by Guillaume in a secluded strawberry patch.

Ovide abandons the chase, but only temporarily. His is just one part of a family drama set during a time of rising turmoil. Théophile loses his job after refusing to put out banners during the 1939 royal visit. A half-hearted strike is overshadowed by war, Guillaume signs with the Cincinnati Reds, Napoléon falls for a tubercular servant girl and Cécile's love for her former boyfriend reaches a sudden, tragic conclusion. Riveting and just a bit titillating, set during years of national turmoil, it's easy to understand how it was that La famille Plouffe worked so well on television.

In 1975, a quarter century after it was first published, Mary Finch's translation was added to the New Canadian Library. Is this not a bit curious? After all, The Town Below had been welcomed into the series fourteen years earlier. No one can deny that The Plouffe Family had much greater public recognition.

In 1985, McClelland and Stewart printed a new edition that used a still from the film.

I remember that second NCL cover, and blame it for reinforcing my preconceptions. The Plouffe Family is no lighthearted romp. There is comedy, some verging on slapstick, but for the most part the humour is black. Darkness pervades and brightness falls, as captured in this scene from the film.


The New Canadian Library never made up for that 'eighties cover; The Plouffe Family was dropped in the great purge that took place with the launch of the ugly 1988 series redesign.

I had no idea until I started writing this piece.

The Plouffe Family is out of print. Again, how can that be?


Object: A nicely constructed hardcover in mustard coloured cloth. The first English-language edition, my copy was purchased in 1993 at Montreal's Westcott Books. Price: $4.95.

Access: Copies of Les Plouffe are easily obtained. First published in 1948 by Bélisle, Stanké is its current publisher.

Copies of the English-language translation may be found at Bibliothèques de Montréal, Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec, Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Parliament; after that we're limited to our academic libraries. This is one of those uncommon instances in which the Toronto Public Library disappoints.

There's some good news in that the old New Canadian Library editions come cheap. Pay no more than five dollars. But forget them, these are the ones you'll want:
  • A Very Good signed copy of the first English-language edition is offered by Winnipeg's Greenfield Books. US$10.

  • A Very Good copy of the uncommon British first edition published in 1952 by Jonathan Cape. Listed by Victoria bookseller Dale Cournoyer at US$20, it's by far the most attractive in the novel's 67-year history.
Don't believe me about that 1952 Jonathan Cape edition? Well, here's an image, shamelessly lifted from Dale Cournoyer's Abebooks listing.


I'm betting it won't be available for long.

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06 May 2015

Thirteen for '15… what's left of it, anyway



A pile of books – beloved underdogs all – recommended by writers polled by Partisan magazine. I'm honoured to have been one.

My selection, Margaret Millar's An Air That Kills, won't come as much of a surprise to regular readers. You know how I'm always going on about her writing. If not An Air That Kills it would've been Vanish in an Instant or Wall of Eyes or The Iron Gates or Beast in View or… But no, with action alternating between Toronto and cottage country, An Air That Kills makes most sense. Summer approaches. Besides, I think it's her best novel.

The Partisan list, numbering thirteen, has some old favourites; I see others deserving reconsideration. I'll be reading them all over the next few months – including the four I don't know at all.

How come no one told me about Jonathan Goldstein's novel?

Anyway, here's the list. I'm presenting it in order of publication for no other reason than it places my selection first, but you'd do better to read the actual Partisan piece.

An Air That Kills – Margaret Millar
Recommended by Brian Busby

From a Seaside Town – Norman Levine
Recommended by Nathan Whitlock

Pandora – Sylvia Fraser
Recommended by Mark Sampson

Dancing Nightly in the Tavern – Mark Anthony Jarman
Recommended by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Onyx John – Trevor Ferguson
Recommended by Andrew Hood

The Republic of Love – Carol Shields
Recommended by Joel Yanofsky

Wigger – Lawrence Braithwaite
Recommended by Derek McCormack

Paradise, Piece by Piece – Molly Peacock
Recommended by Guillaume Morissette

Lenny Bruce is Dead – Jonathan Goldstein
Recommended by Ian McGillis

A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry – Ian McGillis
Recommended by Andrew Steinmetz

HA! – Gordon Sheppard
Recommended by Dimitri Nasrallah

The Darren Effect – Libby Creelman
Recommended by Saleema Nawaz

Lighthouse Island – Paulette Jiles
Recommended by Michael Winter


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01 May 2015

May Day and the Promise of May



Verse for May Day by "Gay Page", Florence Nightingale Horner Sherk. Like last year's, this is drawn from The Workshops and Other Poems, her lone volume, published in 1919 by the Fort William Times-Journal.

A complex woman was Mrs Sherk. In Victoria's time, when women rarely advanced beyond the position of teacher, she became principal of Fort William's Ogden School. In 1907, she reinvented herself as a journalist, became one of the earliest members of Canadian Women's Press Club, and yet was a fervent anti-suffragist.


I'd not heard of Florence Nightingale Horner Sherk until two years ago when I rescued her book, a library discard, just as it was about to be tossed, stripped and pulped. It has since provided hours of enjoyment.

Well, an hour, anyway. It's a very slim book.

The poetess pairs her May Day poem, "May Day", with a photograph titled "The Promise of May".



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30 April 2015

The Murder of George Brown: He Died with Grit



I could not let National Poetry Month pass without presenting verse by James Gay, Poet Laureate of Canada (self-proclaimed) and Master of All Poets (self-proclaimed, I guess). One of his longer poems, this concerns the tragic death of George Brown.

Not much attention is paid Brown these days, but he once held great sway as unofficial leader of the federal  Liberal Party and editor of the Toronto Globe. Such was his stature that three of the Four Jameses wrote verse about the man. James MacRae, who lived and died in a house not a five minute walk from mine, believed Liberals to be in league with Satan.

It would be inappropriate to quote his verse here.

The Ingersoll James – James McIntyre – wasn't so partisan. His 1884 poem 'Departed Statesman" features these lines:
George Brown, thou man of renown,
Confederation you did crown;
You now are all free from the strife
The wrangle and jangle of political life.
Though I've seen it described as such, Brown's death was not a political assassination. What happened was this: On 25 March 1880, George Bennett, a drunk and disgruntled former employee, walked into the Globe offices demanding a certificate recognizing past service. Brown, who did not know his visitor, suggested he see the foreman. Bennett pulled out a gun. One presumes he meant to shoot his former employer in the chest or head, but Brown pushed down his assailant's arm. The bullet entered the editor's right thigh.

Look up, way up, to the dramatic illustration at the top of this post. Between Bennet's feet you'll see that artist Henri Julien has titled his work "Attempted assassination of George Brown, Toronto". The engraving was published in the 10 April 1880 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News, a little over two weeks after the incident. At the time, Brown was reported to be recovering nicely.

He wasn't. Gangrene set in. One hundred and thirty-five years ago this week he was struggling for life.

Sadly, Brown ended up another victim of those long-drawn-out nineteenth-century assassinations. American readers will remember that President James Garfield hung on for nearly twelve weeks after he was shot.

Brown managed only eight.

I've made you wait enough.

Here it is, our Poet Laureate's tribute:

ON THE HONOURABLE G. BROWN
Poor George Brown is gone at last,
O'er his wound could not surpass;
His politics we don't mind a bit,
Knowing well he died with grit.
Politics with man are no disgrace,
When kept in their proper place;
The best politics ever man possessed
Are truth, honesty, and his mind at rest.
A party man may act civil;
He cannot please God and the devil.
In this poem you may well understand,
No happiness for a party man;
If he wants to enjoy a happy mind.
He must live in peace with all mankind.
I give it to all in my straightforward way—
As the motto of your poet, James Gay.
When on this earth George done his best,
I hope he now has found his rest.
No more wrangle and jangle of political life.

"The Late Hon. George Brown"
James L. Weston
Canadian Illustrated News, 15 May 1880

27 April 2015

Ross Macdonald's Monster Thriller Horror Theatre



A follow-up to last week's post on The Three Roads by Kenneth Millar (a/k/a Ross Macdonald), here I offer speculation and scattered thoughts on an adaptation I've never seen:

Straight to video, but without enough momentum to make it to DVD. I'm guessing I've missed my opportunity to see Deadly Companion. True, there are used VHS copies for sale out there, but who can be bothered? Besides, I can't figure out how to connect our old VCR to the Samsung.

Deadly Companion was a tax shelter film. "Based on the novel 'The 3 Roads' [sic] by Ross MacDonald [sic]", it was offered up by the same Toronto production company that gave us Nothing Personal, a romcom starring Donald Sutherland/Suzanne Somers.


Screenwriter Thomas Hedley (Flashdance) appears to have taken a good number of liberties with his source material. Here's John Candy as John, a character not found in the novel.


And here's John doing lines of coke.


Fellow SCTV cast members Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Dave Thomas also feature, but it's Candy who shares top billing in the 1994 VHS release.

He gets less than two minutes screen time.

I feel particularly bad for the late Michael Sarrazin – cast as Michael Taylor (Bret Taylor in the novel), he's owed top billing. This earlier video package, issued under the original title, seems a tad more fair:


The adaptation brings things into the 'eighties by having Taylor shed his Second World War naval uniform for a journalist's trench coat. Here he's traumatized not by a Japanese kamikazes, but by Middle Eastern terrorists in aviator sunglasses.


Like the Taylor of The Three Roads, Michael must also deal with the murder of his young wife Lorraine. She's given life here – fleetingly – by Pita Oliver, an actress best remembered for having survived Prom Night.


Of course, she's not so lucky here.


Pita Oliver is billed twenty-fifth in the film's IMDb listing. This too seems unfair; after all, the solution to her character's murder is key to Macdonald's plot. The Three Roads positions Larry Hopkins (Anthony Perkins) as prime suspect, but I'm not sure about Deadly Companion. Here we see an encounter between Taylor and Hopkins.


In what I take to be a later scene, the two are involved in a dust-up.


Taylor also takes on Dellassandro (Al Waxman). Same camera angle.


Waxman's character doesn't feature in the book, nor do any of the five played by the SCTV cast. Fourth-billed Howard Duff portrays some guy named Lester Harlen. He's not in the book either.

The film has Hopkins shooting Harlen though a doorway…


…allowing Perkins to do his thing.

Leonard Maltin's review runs two sentences: "Confusing, annoying thriller with mentally tortured photojournalist Sarrazin attempting to track down his wife's murderer. Sarrizan is his usual bland self; Clark is wasted." The few souls bothering to weigh in at IMDb appear to agree:
This murder/mystery makes little sense.
– sgt619-1
The film simply does not make sense even after seeing it twice
– cfc_can
In "Double Negative Developing" (The Globe & Mail, 10 February 1979), critic Jay Scott suggests chaos on the set. He quotes actress Susan Clark on the script:
"This is one of the things that's in progress, so it's a big question mark. The three writers [Hedley, Janis Allen, Charles Dennis] seem to be coming from three different places. We have improvised; the locations have stayed the same and so has the intent of the individual scenes but…"
The ellipses are Clark's… Or are they Scott's?

The Globe & Mail, 10 February 1979
I was hundreds of kilometres away in high school when all this was going on, and yet I realize, all these decades later, that I'm just one degree of separation from several of the key players in this drama.

Who can be bothered.

Forget it, Jake, it's Hogtown.

The Globe & Mail, 2 May 1979
A bonus:


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