26 December 2015

Ten of the Best: Spanking Good Book Buys of 2015

Early morning on Boxing Day and I'm lying comfortably in bed. My late mother is to thank. She taught that there is something unseemly in leaving family Christmas dinner to wait overnight for the chance at a $9.99 blu-ray player at Best Buy.

Because I'm done with buying books for this year, the time has come to present my ten favourite acquisitions, beginning with the 1907 Routledge edition of The Clockmaker pictured above. Bought for a buck a couple go months back, the series title, "Half-forgotten Books", did attract.

Half-forgotten books are what this blog is all about… the three-quarters-forgotten and entirely forgotten, too. What follow are the nine others:

The British Barbarians
Grant Allen
London: Lane, 1895

A second printing of Allen's second biggest book, this one has slowly risen to the top of the pile on my night table. The oldest addition to my collection this year – our literature is still so very young – I won this for one pound in an ebay auction. Shipping charges tempered the victory.

Kalee's Shrine
Grant Allen
New York: New         Amsterdam, [1897]

Another Allen. One hundred and sixteen years after his death, books by this son of Kingston are becoming scarce, so I was pleased to get this one for just US$4.99. I understand it takes place primarily on the East Anglian coast and features an oculist.

The New Front Line
Hubert Evans
Toronto: Macmillan, 1927

A gift from James Calhoun, with whom I collaborated in writing the Introduction to Peregrine Acland's Great War novel All Else is Folly. I'm embarrassed to reveal – and reveal I must – that I was unaware Evans too had served in the conflict.

Hath Not a Jew…
A.M. Klein
New York: Behrman's         Jewish Book House,         1940

The first edition of the first book by the first great poet of Jewish Montreal, I found this for a dollar.

King of Egypt, King of              Dreams
Gwendolyn MacEwen
Toronto: Macmillan, 1971

The poet's novel of ancient Egypt and Akhenaton, I came across this copy – inscribed by MacEwen – whilst volunteering at our local library's book sale. In the words of the immortal Lou Reed, "you're going to reap just what you sow."

The Three Roads
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dell, [n.d.]

I purchased this first paperback edition at London's Attic Books, a very pleasant walk from the University of Western Ontario, at which Millar studied English literature.

The Damned and the          Destroyed
Kenneth Orvis
London: Dobson, 1962

A second novel from a Montreal writer who seems entirely forgotten. I'd never heard of him, and yet Orvis was published internationally and managed to limp on into the 'eighties. See: Over and Under the Table: The Anatomy of an Alcoholic (Montreal: Optimum, 1985).

A Japanese Nightingale
Onoto Watanna [pseud              Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper, 1901

Another second novel, this one written by the most accomplished member of Montreal's remarkable Eaton family. A true joy to hold and behold, I purchased my copy just two months ago at Attic Books.

The Keys of My Prison
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1956

This Millaresque mystery set amongst the privileged of Toronto is a great read. My pristine first English edition, purchased from a bookseller in Lewes, adds to the delight. Seeing something older than myself in such fine form brings hope for the New Year.

And on that note… A Happy New Year to one and all!

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25 December 2015

Timely Verse from Christmas a Century Past

The Globe, 25 December 1915

                    Christmas chimes across the snow,
                         Can you ring the old refrain
                         When the world is seared with pain,
                    When the lights of joy burn low?
                    Lovely chimes across the snow,
                         Ring: May Peace be born again! 
                    Hearts that ache amidst the mirth,
                         Can we sing the songs of cheer?
                         Those who sang with us last year
                    Strive afar on alien earth.
                    All our songs are little worth,
                         Broken, faltering, thrilled with fear. 
                    Yet for thought space finds no bar;
                         Seas may part, but not divide;
                         Brothers, sons, our Country s pride,
                    Now we send our greeting far;
                    Lo, we set our love, a star
                         In your skies this Christmas-tide!

A Christmas poem by Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, sister of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, from Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited by John W. Garvin (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918).

A Merry Christmas to all!

Related posts:

20 December 2015

Romance and the Psychopath's Daughter

No Pattern for Life
Frances Shelley Wees
The Star Weekly, 11 December 1955

Not so much novel as novella, No Pattern for Life came and went sixty years ago this month, never to see print again. It pains me to write that this is no great loss. Frances Shelley Wees'  mystery The Keys of My Prison, ranks amongst the year's best finds. This is the most disappointing.

The Star Weekly did its best to position No Pattern for Life as a Christmas story – 'twas the season, after all – but the action extends well into the following spring. That said, the story does open on a Christmasy scene: Melinda Elliott, she of the deftly moving hands, decorates mistletoe with bright red ribbon.

See above.

Widowed Sarah Chalmers sits looking on, "absently knitting a white nylon sweater" and passing judgement. Roommates, the two not only share a flat but work together at a Toronto radio station. Their boss, George Johnson, is basically Jack Kent Cooke. And because Johnson is Cooke, he has divorced Agnes, his wife of twenty years, to marry vivacious young Melinda. Sarah doesn't approve.

Good question. Johnson is a balding businessman suffering a mid-life crisis – there's nothing more to him than that. Melinda's fascination has everything to do with his wealth and the many gifts it provides. The first chapter brings a mink coat, but before Melinda can don her dead apparel she trips over Christmas presents and flies face first into the edge of an open door. The story's greatest action – decorating the mistletoe comes a close second – it leads to an operation for a detached retina. The months of convalescence that follow allow Melinda time to contemplate life and reconsider her betrothal.

Priggish busybody Sarah seeks to provide moral guidance while dodging dinner invitations from Jim Malone, Melinda's eye surgeon. Here's a coincidence: not only did Jim and his wife Kitty attend university with Sarah and her dead husband Dick, but he just happens to have grown up in the very same small town as Melinda. Courtesy of Jim, Sarah learns of her roommate's kinfolk:
"I can't imagine how she would get into your orbit. Sarah, With her father and mother, and what must have been her upbringing."
     "That sounds pretty serious."
     "Well… the father, Emmett… he got killed finally, we heard, in some disreputable way – in prison, I think – was a psychopath."
A strong believer in nature over nurture, Sarah determines that her roommate "hasn't got a chance". It's not Melinda's fault, of course, rather her "heritage", which Sarah judges to be "low, cheap, degraded, weak, degenerating." How comfortable she feels in the newfound knowledge that she shares a flat with a psychopath's daughter is left unexplored.

Sadly, No Pattern for Life is no "Murder-Mystery". Given the choices, I'd say it's more "Marriage Problem" than "Romance", though not one marriage features amongst its main characters. The Johnsons' union has ended in divorce. Doctor Jim's marriage to Kitty endured until her untimely passing. As mentioned, Sarah's Dick is dead.

And then we have a secret marriage. At nineteen, Melinda married Bill Blake, of the Toronto Graham-Blakes, but it ended badly because of the bride's frequent, unexplained disappearances from the family home.

As you're unlikely to read No Pattern for Life – copies are scarce and it is not recommended – I'll complete the tale:

Sarah has been declining Jim's invitations because she doesn't know that Kitty died in childbirth a decade earlier. Upon learning the sad news she lays her hand on his and declares her love.

See below.

Melinda visits her grandparents' graves, reads some very complimentary things written on the headstones, and determines that she doesn't really come from such bad stock. Sarah agrees. We learn that Melinda had disappeared from the Graham-Blake home to care for the alcoholic, drug-addicted mother of whom she dared not speak.

Conveniently, Bill Blake returns to the scene because he just can't get over Melinda.

Melinda breaks off her engagement with George, sending the jilted fiancé off in search of his ex-wife. He finds Agnes looking "as she had years and years ago, when they were young." The stress of the divorce had caused a loss of thirty or so pounds in excess weight, so he pleads with her to take him back.

She does.

Lord knows why.

I guess she finds him fascinating.

Favourite passage:

Most boring passage:

Object and Access: Sixteen-pages, fifteen of which feature the novel. The final page is given over to American cartoonist Harry Weinert's "Vignettes of Life". This week's theme: Babysitters.

Anyone looking to read No Pattern for Life is directed to our best reference libraries. That said, old Star Weeky novels do show up from time to time. I pulled mine from a stack being sold by a London bookstore. Price: $4.98.

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13 December 2015

Kenneth Millar at 100; Ross Macdonald at 59

Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald: A Checklist
Compiled by Matthew J. Brucolli
Introduction by Kenneth Millar
Detroit: Gale, 1971

Kenneth Millar was born one hundred years ago today. The first recognition of the anniversary I saw came this past May when Linwood Barclay reviewed the new Ross Macdonald Library of America collection for the Globe & Mail.

Library of America. And why not? After all, Millar was born in Los Gatos, California. His Canadian parents returned to their home and native land a few months later, marking the beginning of a confusing childhood that included a variety of addresses and living arrangements in Vancouver, Kitchener, Wiarton, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat. Kitchener is key. He returned repeatedly to the Southern Ontario city, and as a child lived there longer than another other. It was in Kitchener that he first met and fell for fellow Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute student Margaret Sturm. In 1931, their respective short story debuts were published in The Grumbler, the school's literary magazine. His, "The South Sea Soup Co.", suffered a printer's error: "Ken Miller".

After graduation, Millar attended Waterloo College (now the University of Waterloo), the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto. He married Margaret, who had dropped out to become a writer. And she did… they both did. Ken sold stories, poems and reviews to Saturday Night, but Margaret Millar was the first to publish a novel: The Invisible Worm (1941). The year after publication, the couple moved to Ann Arbor, where Ken had accepted a fellowship at the University of Michigan. Visits aside, the Millars never returned to Canada, settling instead in Santa Barbara, some 450 kilometres south of Ken's birthplace.

Measuring such things is a fool's game, but I think it safe to say that Millar is much more American than, say, Vladimir Nabokov, whose work is also included in the Library of America. Millar saw himself as both Canadian and American, and considered his greatest character to be the same.

I make a deal about of Millar's early years – again – because we Canadians don't. Three years ago, I had to convince the folks at The Canadian Encyclopedia that he was worthy of an entry.

Margaret, too.

The greatest value in Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald: A Checklist lies not in the checklist itself, now very much out of date, but in Millar's seven-page Introduction. Here he provides a rather distorted account of that very messy childhood, and the long, agonizing attempts to capture same in "Winter Solstice", an abandoned autobiographical novel. The struggle went on for years, unresolved until "transformed and simplified into a kind of legend, in The Galton Case."

His favourite novel and I still haven't read it.

I've gone over every page in this slim volume, from Matthew J. Brucolli's Compiler's Note ("This checklist is not a bibliography…"), through Kenneth Millar's Introduction ("Having a bibliography put together is in some ways like being psychoanalyzed…"), to the checklist bibliography checklist itself. Introduction aside, the best of it is found in the images.

The end papers are pretty great, though I do wish they were in colour.

(cliquez pour agrandir)
The title pages, also reproduced, provide a nice reflection of the author's decade-long transition from Kenneth Millar to Ross Macdonald:

Millar was just fifty-five when this checklist was published. No one could have known that his career was in its final years. He managed just two more novels before Alzheimer's began taking its toll. Some of the best things about the book are reproduced manuscript pages – five in all – providing glimpses of a keen mind at work… the keen mind that was lost.

(cliquez pour agrandir)
(cliquez pour agrandir)

I'd happily read entire Millar novels this way, beginning with "Winter Solstice". Next Library of America volume, perhaps.

Object and Access: Eighty-six pages in black boards, issued sans dust jacket. I bought my copy two years ago at a London bookstore, a pleasant stroll from the University of Western Ontario. Price: $6.99.

Copies are held by Western and fourteen other Canadian universities. The Toronto Public Library also comes through; Library and Archives Canada does not.

Fifteen copies are listed for sale online, all but one ranging in price from US$12.50 to US$90. Condition is not a factor. The fifteenth, the exception, is inscribed by Millar to his lawyer Harris Seed, and features laid-in "a bookmark issued by the publisher that prints a poem by the author that also bears his holograph signature in ink." Clearly, the copy to present during this season of gift giving. Price: US$1250.

Related post:

09 December 2015

The Year's Best Books in Review — A.D. 2015; Featuring Three Books Deserving Resurrection

Yes, the year's best books in review… the best reviewed here, anyway. These past twelve months haven't been the most active at the Dusty Bookcase. Truth be told, I'd planned on closing up shop last January – and even wrote a post to that effect – but then I heard from readers asking me to go on. I felt the love and returned on Valentine's Day.

And so, this casual exploration continues, if more casually. Between this blog and my column in Canadian Notes & Queries I managed to review twenty-four books this year. That's not nothing, right?

Of the twenty-four, I see four worthy of a return to print, but tradition dictates that I choose three:

The Plouffe Family [Les Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Mary Finch]

Roger Lemelin's 1948 best seller spawned an excellent film and our two most popular early television series. A monumental work of cultural and historical importance, I still find it hard to believe the translation is no longer in print.

The Fiend
Margaret Millar

A remarkable novel that dares centre on a sympathetic portrayal of a registered sex offender. That I read no other Millars this year is likely the reason only one of her novels features on this list. In 2012, the Kitchener native took all three spots.

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale
Frank L. Packard

Intricate and cleverly-woven adventures starring the Jimmie Dale – bored playboy by day, crime-fighting Gray Seal by night. Enormously influential and surprisingly entertaining.

I'm right now at work at reviving the unnamed fourth. If successful, it'll be back in print by this time next year. If not, my heart will be broken and I will never speak of it again.

In what must be a record, three of the novels covered here this past year are currently in print:

Roger Lemelin [trans. Samuel Putnam]
Toronto: Dundurn, 2013

Ross Macdonald [pseud Kenneth Millar]
New York: Black Lizard, 2011

Douglas Sanderson
Eureka, CA: Stark House, 2015

I may as well add that The Damned and the Destroyed, Kenneth Orvis's "Relentless Story of the Hell of Drug Addiction", is right now available as an ebook from Prologue Books.

I was involved with three reissues this year, all titles in the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series:

The Mayor of Côte St. Paul
Ronald J. Cooke

A novel about a young writer working for a crime boss in Depression-era Montreal. Is his motivation the need for material? Money? A dame? All three, it seems. I wrote the Introduction.

Hot Freeze
Douglas Sanderson

The first Mike Garfin thriller sees the disgraced former RCMP officer immersed in Montreal's drug trade. My favourite Canadian post-war noir novel, ow could I not write this Introduction, too?

Blondes Are My Trouble
Douglas Sanderson

The second Mike Garfin thriller. This time the private dick does battle with violent men pushing women into prostitution. The Introduction is by J.F. Norris of Pretty Sinister Books.

Praise this year goes to Wilfrid Laurier University Press and the Early Canadian Literature series edited by Benjamin Lefebvre. Dedicated to returning rare texts to print, there have been six titles to date, the most recent being Frederick Niven's The Flying Years with Afterword by Alison Calder.

Wilfrid Laurier University Press offers a 25% discount on online orders. Amazon and Indigo don't come close to matching those prices.

It's on my Christmas wish list.

Related posts:

07 December 2015

The Season's Best Books in Review — A.D. 1915; Featuring the Best Canadian Book Ever Published

The influence of the war upon the literary taste of the public is strikingly illustrated by the increasing demand for more serious books.
The Globe, 4 December 1915

Can the same be said for our time of war? I'm not so sure, though "The Globe 100: The Best Books of 2015", published last Saturday, assures me that this year's list is "smarter than ever."

Ah, the hubris of the living.

The Great War was heading towards its second Christmas when the Globe published its review of the 143 best books of 1915. Most are pretty much forgotten – The Heart of Philura, anyone? – though some, like W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, live on. Canadians don't fair too poorly, taking thirty-two spots. Sadly, our survival rate isn't any better.

Consider The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, Beckles Willson's authorized biography of the man who co-founded the Canadian Pacific Railway and once held controlling shares in the Hudson's Bay Company. The Globe informs: "Based upon a mass of material, this record introduces documents which throw new light upon noted transactions in the Northwest."

New light upon noted transactions in the Northwest!

Hold me back.

The advertisement from publisher Cassel,featured on the bottom right of the page announces the title as "THE BOOK OF THE YEAR". Lest you question that claim, consider this: The Globe included the book even though it had not yet been published.

Competition comes in the form of In Pastures Green by farmer, poet and – it needs be noted – Globe contributor Peter McArthur. "Mr. McArthur is among those who have promoted the Dominion to full literary responsibility", sayeth the Globe. "We wisely rejoice in the products of our farms, but there is no more sustaining or enduring product of the farm at Ekfrid than 'In Pastures Green.'"

J.M. Dent and Sons' advert for In Pastures Green more than trumps the one for The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal:

Sustaining and enduring In Pastures Green has been out of print for nearly seven decades. Of the thirty-two Canadian titles, only two are in print today: Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, described here as the third volume in the "Anne Trilogy", and Winnifred Eaton's Me: A Book of Remembrance. "A much-talked of account of the life of a working girl who is 'up against it' nearly all the time. A sensational revelation of real life", says the Globe.

I've still not made time for Me. In fact, after all these years of the Dusty Bookcase –  here and at Canadian Notes & Queries –  I've yet to review a single book from 1915. Curious… I've covered several from each of the surrounding years. Perhaps it has something to do with this, as noted by the Globe in its introduction to the list:

The hell that is war.

02 December 2015

Whatever Happened to Jimmie Dale?

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale
Frank L. Packard
Toronto: Copp Clark, 1917

This is my fourth Packard. Put in context, that's like tackling John Buchan's Witch Wood, Castle Gay and Sick Heart River before getting to The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is the real entry point to Packard; it's his best-known book, his best-selling work and it introduces his most popular character. As with Buchan and Richard Hannay, Packard returned to his hero repeatedly throughout his career.

Jimmie Dale owes everything to his late father, who made millions manufacturing the finest safes money could buy. You might say that the fortune came through protecting those of others. Jimmie himself dabbled in sketching and writing before turning to breaking and entering. Donning a black silk mask, he'd sneak into the expansive homes of New York's well-to-do, crack open their safes, and affix a diamond-shaped grey seal in place of a carte de visite. Nothing would be taken – Jimmie has never wanted for anything – the thrill was payment enough.

One night, all went horribly wrong. Jimmie's secret identity as the "Gray Seal" was discovered by a mysterious, unseen woman who threatened to expose him unless he turned his talents toward combatting crime. The millionaire playboy did just that – resulting in even greater thrills.

There are comparisons to be made. Jimmie Dale follows Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel by some ten years, though I would argue that he's had a far greater influence. For one, the Gray Seal's adventures take place in a contemporary setting, not some fanciful, idealized past. There's a gritty reality in the depictions of New York's impoverished and its criminal class, aided I think by the access Packard was granted to NYPD stakeouts and raids. Then there is the Sanctuary, a secret lair in which Jimmie transforms into Larry the Bat, to all appearances a down-and-out cocaine addict who moves through the city's underworld. As both Larry and the Gray Seal, Jimmie wears a wide leather belt holding the tools of his crime fighting trade.

Walter Gibson acknowledged his debt to Packard in creating the Shadow. That Batman co-creator Bob Kane never said a thing is unsurprising.

Walt Disney was a great Gray Seal fan, and would re-enact scenes from the adventures before his staff. Here's a photo of Uncle Walt with a copy of Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder (1930) on his desk. In 1952, Disney purchased the television rights to the adventures and tried to interest NBC in a series. Too dark, it seems. Wade Sampson's excellent article "Walt Disney aka the Gray Seal"  has more on the failed pitch.

I'm making a lot of the Disney connection because The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is even better suited for television today. The novel's structure owes much to the fact that it initially appeared in serialization. The first part, "The Man in the Case", details ten intricate and brilliantly executed adventures, each instigated by the mysterious woman. It's episodic, yet there is character development and an overarching narrative. The second part, "The Woman in the Case", consists of one long adventure in which the mystery of the mysterious woman is finally solved.

The mystery the reader is left with is how such an influential character can be so forgotten. Why has there been no revival? How is it that The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is out of print? Most of all, why did it take me so long to get around to reading it?

Gray? Grey?: I've used both here: one for the character and one for his calling card. A fellow Montrealer, I expect Packard was brought up to use "grey", but he was a pro who would've known to use "gray" when writing for the American market. Interestingly, the author anglicized the Gray Seal's adventures for British publication. Four years ago, a generous reader sent me these comparisons of the American and British versions:

Jimmie? Jimmy?: From the earliest days, publishers have struggled with the hero's name.

I've encountered two different editions published as The Adventures of Jimmy Dale, though the texts of each had Jimmie as "Jimmie".

Didn't buy either.

Big mistake.

Bloomers: Mark Abley published a very good piece on these unintentional double entendres a few months back in the Gazette, noting amongst other things that the meaning of "ejaculation" has changed  over time. The word and its variations appear eleven times in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale.

This is a very fine bloomer:
"Ah!" – it came in a fierce little ejaculation from Jimmie Dale.
But it is outdone by what is the best bloomer I've read all year:
A chorus of ejaculations rose from the reporters, while their pencils worked furiously.
Curiously, the word features just once in the second Grey Seal novel, The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1919):
"Oh, colonel!" There was mingled delight and hesitation in her ejaculation.
Motion Picture News, 30 June 1917
Trivia: In 1917, the novel was adapted and brought to the silent screen as Jimmy Dale, Alias "The Grey Seal", a sixteen-part serial. Forgotten actor and director E.K. Lincoln featured in the title role. All sixteen episodes are considered lost. Appropriate, don't you think?

Object: A 468-page hardcover, my jacket-less first Canadian edition was purchased for $20.00 this past summer. It's horribly beat-up, but the money went to charity.

Access: Copies can be found at Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, the Toronto Public Library and pretty much every one of our universities.

Long in the public domain, inept print on demand vultures like Nabu and "Kessinger Publishing [sic]" have really moved in on this one. As always, they are to be ignored. You can always read it for free online here at the Internet Archive.

Plenty of old copies are being offered online for as little as six American dollars. At US$150 the one to buy is a Very Good copy of the Copp Clark edition in Very Good jacket being offered by a bookseller in Milton, Ontario.

I know of two translations – Irish (Tuille de eachtraí Shéamuis Uí Dhuibhir) and Spanish (Aventuras de Jim Dale) – though I suspect there are more.