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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12 December 2016

The Year's Best Books in Review – A.D. 2016; Featuring Three Titles Deserving Resurrection

Still more than two weeks left in the year, but not too early for this list. Given my schedule these days, I know the book I'm reading right now will be the last finished before the ball drops in Times Square. I also know that it won't make the grade.

What's the book? I'll let that remain a mystery, though the sharp-eyed will spot it amongst other 2016 reads pictured above.

This year, I reviewed twenty-seven books – here and in the pages of Canadian Notes & Queries. That's just three more than in 2015, and yet I had a much harder time deciding on the three most deserving of a return to print. These are they:

The Midnight Queen
May Agnes Fleming

Who'd have thought this 19th-century novel of the Plague Year, would be such good fun. It's a fast-paced, crazy ride featuring a masked medium, a killer dwarf, long-lost siblings, and highwaymen and whores playing at being aristocrats. It's also quite well written.

There Are Victories
Charles Yale Harrison

An ambitious, daring novel by the man who gave us Generals Die in Bed. Set in Montreal and New York, this isn't a war novel, though it does deal with its devastating effects. Flawed, but brilliant, the novel's scarcity adds to the need for reissue.

For My Country [Pour la patrie: roman du XXe siecle]
Jules-Paul Tardivel

In this 1895 novel, Satan looks to secure his hold on the Dominion of Canada, only to be thwarted by divine intervention and something resembling a fax machine. The original French remains in print, but not this 1975 translation by Sheila Fischman.

Regular readers know that nearly every Margaret Millar I read is recommended for republication. This year, I read only one of the Grand Master's novels: Do Evil in Return. It would've made the list had it not been announced for republication as part of Syndicate Books' Complete Margaret Millar. Look for it in March.

Three books reviewed here this year are currently in print:

The Man from Glengarry
Ralph Connor [pseud. Charles W. Gordon]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009
Olive Pratt Raynor [pseud. Grant Allen]
Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2003
The Cashier [Alexandre Chenevert]
Gabrielle Roy [trans. Harry Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010
I helped usher two titles back into print this year, both as part of Véhicule's Ricochet Books series:

Gambling With Fire
David Montrose
[Charles Ross Graham]

The fourth and final David Montrose novel. Here private investigator Russell Teed, hero of the first three, is replaced by the displaced Franz Loebek, a once wealthy Austrian aristocrat caught up in Montreal's illegal gambling racket.
The Keys of My Prison
Frances Shelley Wees

In the 2015 edition of the Year's Best Books in Review I made reference to a book I was hoping to revive. "If successful, it'll be back in print by this time next year," I wrote. The Keys of My Prison is that book. A novel of domestic suspense set in Toronto, it should appeal to fans of Margaret Millar...

And on that note, as might be expected, praise this year goes to New York's Syndicate Books for The Complete Margaret Millar. The Master at Her Zenith  and Legendary Novels of Suspense, the first two volumes in the seven-volume set are now housed in the bookcase. The next, The Tom Aragon Novels, is scheduled for release on the tenth of January.

Great way to start the new year.

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05 December 2016

The Season's Best Books in Review — A.D. 1916

The Globe, 2 December 1916
The 2016 Globe 100 was published last week. As with any other, one could quibble with this year's list – whither John Metcalf's The Museum at the End of the World? – but it's really quite good. I was pleased to see Kathy Page's The Two of Us and Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell. The Party Wall, Lazer Lederhendler's translation of Catherine Leroux's Mur mitoyen, was also welcome. And then there's Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, though that was pretty much a given.

An embarrassment of riches.

How far we've come.

Consider "THE SEASON'S BEST BOOKS IN REVIEW" above, published a century ago in the very same newspaper. It begins on a fairly upbeat note:
The third year of the war finds no appreciable diminution in the output of books. The demand for good reading grows apace, although publishers are in difficulties over the increased cost of production. One result of the paper shortage across the border is the growing tendency to place orders for printing and binding in Canada. The examples of workmanship recently turned out by Canadian printers show what this country may yet accomplish in the production of books.
The downer comes with the next paragraph:
Canadian fiction is still in a stagnant condition. The attractions of the American market have proved too strong as yet to admit the development of a Canadian school of novelists.
Take heart, our poets are being recognized south of the border:
In a New York publisher's circular the following appeared: "Canadians or Americans? In 'Canadian Poets and Poetry,'* an anthology collected by John Garvin and recently published by Stokes, the verse of Bliss Carman and Arthur Stringer along with that of Roberts and more generally recognized Canadians somewhat surprise the average reader who thinks these poets are native Americans. It is true, however, that Arthur Stringer's birthplace is Fredericton, New Brunswick, and his A.B. [sic] is from the university there, while Carman was born in Ontario and educated at the Universities of Toronto and Oxford."
Though the copywriter has confused Stringer and Carman – the former is the Ontario boy and Oxford man – this is just the sort of recognition that makes glowing hearts glow. The anonymous Globe reviewer – William Arthur Deacon, I'm betting – fans the flames in writing that the war has brought "a renaissance of Canadian poetry," as exemplified by Canon Scott's In the Battle Silences and Rhymes of a Red Cross Man by Robert W. Service (the lone book I own on the list).

Meanwhile, on the home front, "Canada is discovering fresh talent. Two gifted writers have attracted notice in the past year – Robert Norwood and Norah M. Holland."

Being somewhat familiar with his verse, I dismissed Robert Norwood. I couldn't do the same with Norah M. Holland because I'd never heard of her. Imagine my surprise in learning that Miss Holland, a native of Collingwood, Ontario, was a cousin of Yeats.

Spun-yarn and Spindrift
Norah M. Holland
Toronto: Dent, 1918
"THE SEASON'S BEST BOOKS IN REVIEW" features no books by Holland because she had none. The intrigued waited two years before publication of Spun-yarn and Spindrift, the first of her two collections. Even without Holland, our poets dominate the 1916 list; nine if the twenty volumes of verse listed are at least kinda Canadian:
Canadian Poets* – John Garvin, ed.
In the Battle Silences – F.G. Scott
Rhymes of a Red Cross Man – Robert W. Service
The Witch of Endor – Robert Norwood
The Watchman and Other Poems – L.M, Montgomery
Maple Leaf Men and Other War Gleanings – Rose E. Sharland
Lundy's Lane and Other Poems – Duncan Campbell Scott
Rambles of a Canadian Naturalist – S.T. Wood
The Lamp of Poor Souls and Other Poems – Marjorie Pickthall
I read nothing into the misspelling of Miss Pickthall's Christian name (nor the brevity of the review).

There are 127 best books in "THE SEASON'S BEST BOOKS IN REVIEW", thirty-six of which are Canadian. Stephen Leacock leads the very short of list of Canadian fiction with Further Foolishness. The Secret Trails by Charles G.D. Roberts, H.A. Cody's Rob of the Lost Patrol, and Marshall Saunders' The Wandering Dog follow. Though I've not read the last, I like to think it served as inspiration for The Littlest Hobo.

We writers of non-fiction aren't particularly well represented. Ten more volumes of the sketchy Chronicles of Canada series feature, as does R. Burton Deane's Mounted Police Life in Canada (a book I helped return to print – briefly – fifteen years ago). Much is made about William Boyd's With a Field Ambulance in Ypres, which I really should've read... but haven't.

Still more is made of the fact that the year saw not one but two biographies of Sir Charles Tupper.

Of course, we all remember Tupper as our sixth prime minister. He served for 59 days.

Not a single one of the Canadian books on the 1916 Globe list is in print today.

Not a single one.

* In Canada, the anthology was published as Canadian Poets (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916).

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