27 July 2012

Harper Hockey Book Watch: Year Nine, Day 39

Summertime and the living is busy... so busy that it wasn't until this past weekend that I finally got around to reading the annual Fall Preview issue of Quill & Quire, "Canada's Magazine of Book News and Reviews". Such riches! A new collection from Alice Munro, a memoir from Neil Young and – ahem – a selection of John Glassco's letters edited by yours truly.

Yes, riches, but I couldn't help but feel let down. Where, I wondered, was the prime minister's hockey book?

True, he's been promising the thing for years, but last December Mr Harper let it be known that it was finished and a 2012 pub date had been set. The news came courtesy of Jane Taber, who ended a Globe & Mail fluff piece about her invitation to 24 Sussex for "a Christmas drink" thusly: "Finally, there is a publishing date for the long-talked about and much-anticipated prime ministerial tome one [sic] hockey history. Mr. Harper said that after writing for 15 minutes every day for eight years, the book will hit the shelves next year."

Tonda MacCharles, who was also invited for a cup of Christmas cheer, reported something similar in the Toronto Star... and the rest chased the puck:

In fact, there was no publication date, nor was there a publisher. What's more, the PMO soon revealed that the dedicated Mr Harper was still setting aside fifteen minutes each day to write his book.

And so, I sighed... and reminded myself that the prime minister first told us he'd finish the book in 2006.

Then, on 25 February, my rolling eyes were drawn to a Toronto Star story that the book had "sparked a bidding war among major Canadian publishers." What's more, Bruce Westwood of Westwood Creative Artists had confirmed that in just six days the prime minister would choose the winner.

Since then... crickets.

No publisher stepped forward in triumph, Westwood has issued no press releases, and the media appear wholly disinterested. Not one outlet, Quill & Quire included, has remarked on the fact that "the long-talked about and much-anticipated prime ministerial tome" was not on any publisher's fall list.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party website has it that our prime minister is still writing away:

One hopes that this year's Christmas tipple will yield more info. Until then, I leave you with these words from sportswriter Stephen Harper:
I meet with many world leaders and representatives of foreign governments and invariably the subject comes up. Many have observed to me that we Canadians are seen as generally a pretty modest, quiet, unassuming-type people – but they notice with Canadians that when the subject of hockey comes up we get very loud and start waving our arms around. It's a bit of a standing joke.*
* From the prime minister's Foreword to How Hockey Explains Canada by Paul Henderson and Jim Prime, published in 2011 by Triumph Books of Chicago, Illinois. There is no Canadian publisher. 
Related posts:

23 July 2012

Graphic Film, Graphic Novel

David Cronenberg; illustrated by Sean Scoffield
Toronto: Key Porter, 1999

For nearly two decades, The Dead Zone stood as my favourite Cronenburg film – then along came Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. The Toronto filmmaker has been going from strength to strength this millennium, encouraging me to catch up on everything I'd missed.

Last week it was eXistenZ, Cronenberg's fin de siècle nightmare about gamers, the gaming industry and Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish. One of the director's body horror films, the title refers to a new game system contained in a disease-prone pod that is in fact "an animal grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA." You play by inserting a 12-foot UmbyCord of "twisted, translucent, blue and red veiny vessels" into your spine through a permanent Metaflesh bioport.

Steve Jobs would've called this a "shit design".

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, the designer behind eXistenZ. A "game-pod goddess", she's just begun leading her fawning followers through a test when things appear to go very, very wrong. First, an assassin tries to kill her with a gun made of flesh and bone (she takes a tooth in the shoulder), then she's saddled with timid Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who is not only an ineffective bodyguard but an UmbyCord virgin.

I knew something of what to expect from eXistenZ through this odd book, which is as far as I'm aware the only graphic novel made from a Canadian film. Purchased back in April 1999, it did a disservice in  discouraging me from taking a trip to the cinema. Where on screen eXistenZ is disorienting in its depth, on thin paper it's just confusing.
Illustrator Scott Scoffield takes the film's murky look and renders it black, at times obscuring vital detail. His panels look like stills that have been manipulated with a paint-simulation filter. Who knows, maybe they were. The dialogue is all here, but the acting is absent. Faces float, washed-out and emotionless in the darkness.

There is no drama.

Don't get me wrong – as a film, eXistenZ is not a triumph – but it is worth seeing.

Warning: Not for the squeamish.

Better yet, see Cronenberg's A History of Violence, which – interestingly – was adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel of the same name.

Warning: There will be violence.

Did that need saying?

Object: A slim paperback – 111 pp – containing the graphic novel, an uncredited interview with Cronenberg, an uncredited essay on his films and a Glossary (uncredited).

Access: My copy, signed by Messrs Cronenburg and Scoffield, was purchased new for $24.95 back in the spring of 1999 at Toronto's TheatreBooks. "Very scarce thus", claims an online bookseller (who offers two copies). I'm not so sure. I remember plucking mine from a teetering stack of signed copies. In fact, half of the fourteen currently listed online are signed by both men; prices range from US$40 to US$98 (condition is not a factor). Unsigned, "as new" copies begin at US$4.09.

17 July 2012

Talking Montreal Noir with Nigel Beale

Audio of my recent interview with Nigel Beale can be found here. Lots of talk about Brian Moore, Ted Allan, News Stand Library, Véhicule's Ricochet Books series and more!

14 July 2012

Celebrating the Northrop Frye Centenary

Herman Northrop Frye
(14 July 1912 - 23 January 1991)

The great man in conversation with historian Ramsay Cook, broadcast 3 September 1973.

13 July 2012

Teasing the Private Dick

A pithy, yet passionate passage from David Montrose's The Body on Mount Royal (Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1953):
I noticed she was wearing a zippered dress. I turned those thoughts over in my mind for a little while and decided it might be a good idea for me to go get into a cold shower right away.
   Lila said, with a teasing grin, “There was another reason why I came around. I was afraid the demonstration the other night maybe wasn’t convincing.”
   I swallowed hard. “Demonstration?”
   “About the foam rubber,” she said. “Remember?” Her hand travelled slowly up to the neck of her dress. She unzipped.
   It was away too late for the shower.
   “See?” she said proudly, and she could be proud.
   This time there was no possibility of doubt. Because there was no brassiere.
   A few minutes later she said, “Well, my golly! You might take off that old gun belt!”
Now that's romance... Harlequin romance.

Related post:

09 July 2012

The Unpleasant End of Russell Teed

The Body on Mount Royal
David Montrose [pseud. Charles Ross Graham]
Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1953

First the good news: our private dick is back to drinking beer. The bad news is that he's hitting the hard stuff more than ever.

What happened? When we first met Russell Teed, back in The Crime on Cote des Neiges (1951), he specialized in investigating corporate embezzlement and fraud. A son of privilege, known for his discretion, Teed's introduction to Montreal's seamy and seedy came when he was hired to look into the husband of a childhood friend. A year later in Murder Over Dorval, the private detective who had once taken such pains to present his services as "private investigatory", returned as a self-described "skip-chaser... an eye, a Humphrey Bogart role." The corporate jobs were pretty much gone, and while Teed told us then that he was "sober, sensible, and not given to impulse", we could see that wasn't at all true. Things are much worse in The Body on Mount Royal; Teed can't even go a few blocks to meet a friend for drinks without having to stop in at a tavern en route.

"Don't walk alone at night on Mount Royal," narrator Teed advises the reader, "a big, brave friend of mine looked awful funny without his wallet, wristwatch, glasses, pants, and false teeth." The ramblings of a barfly? Can't say I've ever had a problem myself. Never mind. A body is found on Mount Royal, but as Teed discovers, the murder is not a mugging gone wrong. The Body on Mount Royal is set in the united underworld of blackmail and illegal gambling. The mysterious Montrose seems to have been quite familiar with the latter – it fuels Gambling with Fire, his fourth and final novel – yet I found myself less interested in barbotte and craps than with the women in Teed's life.

In previous outings the dick was crazed in his infatuations; here he's unhinged. The first woman to attract Teed's attention is Elena Giotto, "a tall girl, with a surface coolness that made you feel you should approach her with a gift, begging acceptance." Hours after their first fleeting encounter, he meets Lila, Elena's doppelgänger. She'll do in bed, but it's Elena he really wants.

And it's Elena he gets.

And following the sad model set by men everywhere, once he's won Elena Teed decides that it's Lila he really wants.

I've spoiled things a bit, though I rush to add that the above reveals nothing of the mystery in The Body on Mount Royal. That said, those intending to read the book are warned that the following will spoil:

In the final two pages, Elena takes a bullet by throwing herself between Teed and an assailant. She dies. The assailant's head is split open by an axe-weilding Lila. He dies. Teed then empties a clip into the assailant's face as payback for those he'd killed: a blackmailer, a blackmailee, some innocent girl who got caught up in it all... but not Elena, the woman who loved him, the woman who saved his life, the woman who lies dead at his feet.

As I say, unhinged.

Lila then takes Teed's arm and suggests they take a trip to Bermuda.

Yes, unhinged.

The Body on Mount Royal is the final Russell Teed mystery. It's a wonder that he made it that far.

I'm betting he died of drink.

Trivia: The Body on Mount Royal is the only Montreal noir novel to mention the Aldred Building, the most noirish-looking structure in the city.

Full disclosure: I'm Consulting Editor for Véhicule Press' Ricochet Books series, of which this title is soon to be a part.

Object: A cheaply produced, poorly constructed mass market, it is blessed with my very favourite Harlequin cover. Yes, I like it even more than To Please the Doctor and Doctor in Bondage.

Though the clothes are all wrong, that would be Lila on the cover. The bottle – also wrong – should look something like the one pictured above. By the way, the man clutching his head counts as the only image of Teed.

Access: The Body on Mount Royal enjoyed just a single printing. One lonely copy is on offer online, and it sure ain't pretty: "Moderate spine slant, moderate edgewear, an unfortunate full-length vertical crease to front cover, a couple of other creases to front cover, the usual Harlequin tanning. Quite scarce. Good to Very Good." I'll agree that it's quite scarce, but can a copy so described be "Good to Very Good"? Price: US$75 (plus US$12 shipping).

Library patrons will find copies at Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, the University of Calgary and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book LIbrary at the University of Toronto.

Related posts:
Teasing the Private Dick

05 July 2012

An Atlantic Canada Steampunk Fantasy

The Chignecto Ship Railway
H.G.C. Ketchum
Boston: Damrell & Upham, [1893]

The current Canadian edition of Reader's Digest features a piece I wrote about some of this country's great unrealized projects. Toronto's Vimy Circle, the Chateau Prince Rupert and Jean Drapeau's 325-metre-tall concrete celery stalk figure, as do Thomas Mawson's plans to recast cow town Calgary in the City Beautiful style, but the Chignecto Ship Railway ranks as my favourite.

The dream of New Brunswick engineer H.G.C. Ketchum, the whole venture seems like the work of a madman today, yet it received government backing, millions of dollars in investment from British businessmen and was once held up as a model that would be emulated the world over.

In Ketchum's dream, ocean-going ships would be raised from the Bay of Fundy, transported along a 27-kilometre double-tracked railway, then gently lowered into the Northumberland Strait.

And vice versa.

The pitch for what was to have been the world's first ship railway is all here in this booklet Ketchum wrote for the 1893 World's Columbian Water Commerce Congress. A desperate document, it was produced at a time when the project was in great jeopardy. You see, the most incredible aspect of this impossible dream is that the money ran out within weeks of completion.

It wouldn't be right to retell the whole sad, tragic story here – buy the magazine – but I spoil nothing in saying that the effort failed. The Chignecto Ship Railway died – and with it the whole idea of ship railways. Ketchum knew one could not live without the other, writing:
The safe transit of a ship in cargo across the Isthmus of Chignecto will be the signal for many other ship railway schemes to begin construction. The Tehuantepec, the Panama, the Cape Cod, the Ontario and Michigan isthmuses will be vanquished by this means; and various obstructions can be overcome and short cuts made in different parts of the world.

That passage is one of the most interesting in The Chignecto Ship Railway. The booklet is the work of an engineer doing his darndest to attract investors: bland prose is peppered with facts, figures and dollar signs. Visual aids would've helped.

Ketchum might have done well in turning to fellow New Brunswicker Charles G.D. Roberts. who had written about the project with great enthusiasm in the August 1890 edition of Cosmopolitan. The next year, Roberts painted a lovely scene in his Canadian Guide-Book:
When it is completed a line of steamers will run between St John and Charlottetown and the traveler will have the novel experience of watching from his vessel's decks a lovely landscape of meadows and orchards unroll below him as he moves slowly across the isthmus. The sensation will be unique, as this is the world's only ship railway.
I'd have paid good money to take that cruise.

Object and Access: A nondescript booklet, The Chignecto Ship Railway should not be confused with Ketchum's The Chignecto Ship Railway: Will It Pay? (1887), The Chignecto Ship Railway: The Substitute for the Baie Verte Canal (1892), Ship Transportation and the Chignecto Ship Railway (1892) and a handful of other similarly titled publications issued in support of the project. The others have been picked over by print on demand vultures, but only our old friends at Bibliolife have spotted this one. "We believe this work is culturally important and have elected to bring the book back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide", they tell us. Bibliolife will happily sell you a copy of this 12-page public domain booklet for $15.50 (postage & handling not included).

Or you could just read it gratis here.


A scale model of Jean Drapeau's 325-metre concrete celery stalk
(otherwise known as the Monument Paris-Montréal).

04 July 2012

America's Canada and Ours

Richard Ford
New York: Ecco, 2012
Richard Ford
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2012
Giving lie to that old saw that books with green covers don't sell.

02 July 2012

When Poets Ruled; Or, Never Mind the Novelists

For my poet friends, these observations from Canada 1962:
A striking feature of Canadian letters in recent years has been the consistently high level of Canadian poetry. Although the poet's audience was often not large, he was at least assured of publication in one of the many literary magazines of the country where his work would receive discriminating critical attention. Too often, however, such limited circulation was the most that could be expected. More recently a growing interest among a wider reading public has made possible the publication of a number of volumes of poetry, some of which have achieved minor commercial successes.
A comprehensive picture of Canadian poetry was made available to readers during 1961 by the appearance of the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Several other important collections also appeared during the year, including Leonard Cohen's The Spice Box of Earth, River Among Rocks by Ralph Gustafson, The Devil's Picture Book by Daryl Hine and Irving Layton's collection of stories and poems, The Swinging Flesh. The Governor General's Award for poetry in English for 1960 went to Margaret Avison for Winter Sun and Other Poems, her first published collection. Poetry in French Canada is no less important and vital as was amply illustrated in the Oxford Book. Among the most widely known of the younger poets are Alan Grandbois, Rina Lasnier and Anne Hébert. The latter received the Governor General's Award for French Poetry for her book Poèmes
Canadian fiction is perhaps somewhat less vigorous.

01 July 2012

The Greater Canada of 1962

Canada 1962: The Official Handbook of Present Conditions
   and Recent Progress
Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1962

I missed the better part of 1962; by the time I showed up at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Marilyn Monroe and William Faulkner were gone and E.E. Cummings looked in rough shape. I wasn't a reader then, of course, but had I been this handbook would've provided a good introduction to the land of my birth. This is Canada as it was just before I came to know it, a country in which bookmobiles rode the rails,

a personable young woman might find employment as a bus hostess,

and mothers and daughters bought groceries from vending machines.

The Grocerette never caught on, but I don't imagine that it's failure was recorded in subsequent handbooks – challenging enough just keeping up with the successes. In 1962, Canada was undergoing great change, as reflected in the caption accompanying this photograph of my hometown.  

Our cities were changing so quickly that it seemed pointless to include new buildings; better to feature models of those under construction. Here's Place des Arts, which would be built to a similar, yet superior design:

And here are the new offices of the Toronto Telegram and Sudbury Star:

While the Telegram is long gone, the Star hangs on. A year ago, the Star building "that once bustled with a library and an archiving service, a press and a pre-press operation, a distribution centre and warehouse, the largest newsroom in Northern Ontario and a full complement of sales agents, circulators and office support staff" was put up for sale. There have been no takers.

Stray tears drawn through nostalgia can blind. In the Canada of 1962, homosexual acts were criminal, employers could pay a woman less than a man for equal work, and Native Canadians had only just won the right to vote in federal elections. Yet that Canada was moving forward; building more than just skyscrapers, concert halls and newspaper offices, it was investing in institutions, education and services. All comes into focus with this photograph:

The uniformed man pictured is a food inspector. While the country's population has almost doubled since 1962, fewer people hold his position today. This year alone, our Minister of Agriculture, comedian Gerry Ritz, a man who finds humour in death from listeriosis, will be overseeing the dismissal of 308 people from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Ours is a contracting Canada. The self-described "Harper Government" would have us believe that we can no longer afford the services and protections offered under the record surpluses of previous governments not ten years past. As these Conservatives run up record deficits, the advantages they themselves enjoyed, the programs from which they themselves benefitted, are being stripped from my generation and denied the next.

We are a smaller country now.

Object: A very well-constructed, remarkably heavy trade-size paperback printed on glossy paper with tipped in fold-out map of the dominion. The cover was a commissioned piece by Kiakshuk.

Access: It  should come as no surprise that Canada 1962, a five-decade-old reference book, has disappeared from our public libraries. Those looking to add it to their own collection should be happy to learn that Very Good copies of the paperback begin at seven dollars. The uncommon, bland hardcover edition is yours for forty bucks.