22 January 2017

The Dusty Bookcase in August

Today marks the ninth anniversary of The Dusty Bookcase, a good day to recognize what the sharp-eyed have already spotted. This coming August will see publication of The Dusty Bookcase: A Journey Through Canada's Forgotten, Neglected and Suppressed Writing, a collection of new essays and newly revised writing from this blog and my regular column in Canadian Notes & Queries. I'm proud to say that the publisher is none other than Biblioasis, which provides this fine description:
Largely drawn from his columns for Canadian Notes & Queries and entries in his popular blog by the same name, Brian Busby’s The Dusty Bookcase explores the fascinating world of Canada’s lesser-known literary efforts: works that suffered censorship, critical neglect, or brilliant yet fleeting notoriety. These rare and quirky totems of Canadiana, collected over the last three decades, form a travel diary of sorts – yet one without maps. Covering more than 250 books, peppered with observations on the writing and publishing scenes, Busby’s work explores our cultural past, questioning why certain works are celebrated and others ignored. Brilliantly illustrated with covers and ephemera related to the titles discussed, The Dusty Bookcase draws much needed attention to unknown writing worthy of our attention, and some of our acclaim.
I'd like to thank publisher Dan Wells and editor Emily Donaldson for their faith in this collection. I'd also like to thank the many readers, writers and booksellers who have shared my enthusiasm during this eight-year journey without maps. Rest assured, it will continue.

How could it not?

16 January 2017

A Quiet, Mildly Depressing Depression-Era Debut

Irene Baird
Philadelphia/Toronto: Lippincott, 1937

A first novel, the discovery that this copy is a fourth impression surprised me no end. I knew Irene Baird for Waste Heritage – once part of the Laurentian Library – but John meant nothing to me. And yet, in the excellent Introduction to the current University of Ottawa Press edition of the former Colin Hill informs that John was an international bestseller. The Lippincott was followed by other editions in the UK and Australia, leading me to think that – eight decades later – John continues to hold title as Baird's best selling book.

The Globe & Mail
5 November 1937
No pun intended.

I don't quite understand its popularity because this sort of novel has never appealed to me. John takes place in rural British Columbia, but this city boy has never been much interested in stories with country settings. I also don't care much for novels in which nothing really happens. Huysmans' À Rebours is not for me. Even Baird's title – my middle name – is a bit of a bore.

John is John Dorey, a perfectly nice Englishman who passes up partnership in the family woollen mills for a simple life on the BC coast. He purchases ten acres, clears same, and farms; for a time, he delivers the rural mail. John has a horse that is killed by a nasty neighbour, though nothing of significance results from the crime. A developer makes an offer  for his land, but this is rejected. The most significant event in John's life is a fleeting encounter with a younger married woman. John falls for her, though not so much as a kiss is exchanged.

John is a character study. The man under examination is, as I say, perfectly nice; I'd want him is a neighbour, but would never think to invite him over. John is given to philosophizing. At the urging of his closest friend, the local doctor, he tries his hand at putting his thoughts down on paper:
Book-writing didn't come like the knack of judging a good horse, or training a fine dog till she all but spoke her thoughts. Ideas were not tangible like soil, to pick up and weigh between the fingers. It was a will-o'-the-wispbusiness, writing – though it was strange, too, from the look of their pictures, what unlikely people excelled at it!
It's a fine book – Baird's, not John's – but it isn't for me. That said, I do recommend it to anyone who might enjoy this passage:
An eagle, far up, planed serenely by, bent on its eyrie. From the cedar close to the house, an owl awakened – tuk–tuk–tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk— Who knew how many were its notes? Another owl fro the bush on the opposite side of the road answered: the first of ghostly night messages. The frogs would join in before long.
     He yawned deeply. There was nothing like the sublime afterglow of bodily fatigue. Even the mind refused to disturb a body so perfectly spent.
Again, this is not for me, though I can almost sense the attraction.

Singing frogs might have helped.

"It's a wonder to me you never married. You're a queer chap."
     John flushed.

Lord Tweedsmuir, of course, being Buchan. John Buchan.

Object: A well-constructed 235-page hardcover bound in brown cloth. My copy, which once belonged to a woman named Anne Marshall, was rescued four years ago from books left unsold at the end of our local public library book sale. It lacks the rather busy, uninteresting dust jacket.

Access: The Lippincott was followed by British (Collins, 1937) and Australian (Angus & Robertson, 1938) editions. A Swedish translation, also titled John, was published in 1938 by Medén.

Held by most Canadian university libraries. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec stands alone amongst those serving the public.

A dozen copies are listed for sale online. At eight dollars, the cheapest, a "Good" Lippincott copy, is described thusly: "May not look good on your bookcase after reading and probably not suitable as a present unless hard to find elsewhere." Hmm...

The best of the lot is an inscribed Lippincott first. Price: C$55. Suitable as a present, I suggest.

02 January 2017

The Trudeau Papers: Bang!

The Trudeau Papers
Ian Adams
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971
Thucydides wrote that Themistocles' greatness lay in the fact that he realized Athens was not immortal. I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; but, if it is going to go, let it go with a bang rather than a whimper. 
— Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 30 March 1988
Beginning our sesquicentennial year with a novel imaging Canada's demise might be an odd choice were it not for the deafening roar heard from south of our border. How long before the first major fuck-up of the Trump presidency? I'm betting on this month.

The fuck-up described in this debut novel is monumental. The CIA manages to recruit a brilliant Red Army computer analyst, tasks him with testing the security of the Soviet's "fail-safe computer firing program", and then forgets he ever existed.

Bureaucracy is to blame, which isn't to say that there aren't benefits to be had.

Two SS-9s head for American bases in Montana and North Dakota, and the Soviets can do nothing to stop them. Their Premier alerts the President of the United States of the situation, but is unable to convince him that it is all a mistake. Fortunately, Trump the President knows nothing of the Bible and so cannot recall the quotation used in the nuclear code ("Unto God would I commit my cause." – Job 5:8). Unfortunately – for Canada – the U.S. Strategic Missile Command manages to intercept both missiles, resulting in nuclear explosions above Edmonton and southern Saskatchewan.

One million people die.

Within two weeks, the number triples. It grows exponentially as children succumb to leukaemia, their elders shed skin and hair, and Canadians of all ages are sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange.

After the Prime Minister's plane goes down on a return flight from Washington, the United States takes advantage of misplaced Soviet guilt. Its military moves north on the pretence of securing American-owned industry, while right-wing vigilantes with ties to the CIA take to the streets. Bookstore owners are beaten, and left-leaning student leaders are strung up on the rafters of Varsity Stadium.

Were it not so dense, I'd consider this 108-page "Novel by Ian Adams" a novella; were it not so complex, I might be dismissive. The Trudeau Papers is a remarkable and unusual novel. Its title is explained by narrator Alan Jarvis, a former journalist who has been entrusted by fellow members of the resistance to record what has happened since the two SS-9s exploded:
The name seemed to evoke a collective sense of grim irony. Personally, I think there title is unimportant, considering the enormity of what has taken place, and how much of it has been documented. The rather vague explanation for the choice was that as one of the last democratically elected prime ministers, his name symbolized the end of a nation. So be it.
The "vague explanation" works well. Jarvis himself was once a former CIA operative – and it could be that he is still. Nothing in The Trudeau Papers is cut and dry; nothing is black and white. I came to trust him, but not so much that I won't understand your distrust.

The Trudeau Papers takes place sometime after 1975... but when?

And so, on this second day of our sesquicentennial year, a new question arises: Which Trudeau?

Addendum: This post is the second – after my review of Richard Rohmer's Triad – to include the Trudeau quote above. Again, is it not incredible that we once had a prime minister who could speak about Thucydides on Themistocles?

Object and access: A slim novel in orange boards with uncredited dust-jacket, I bought my copy twenty-seven years ago at S.W. Welch in Montreal. Price: $1.00. Eighteen years earlier, this very same copy was a Christmas gift from journalist Peter C. Newman to John Payne. I'm guessing that this is the same John Payne who once served as an adviser to future PM John Turner (and not the man who starred opposite Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street).

It appears there was no a second printing. Remarkably, there has never been a paperback edition.

Ranging at prices between US$3.48 and $17.54, eight copies are listed for sale online. Condition is not a factor.

01 January 2017

'The New Year comes white-winged, unstained, a star...'

Century-old jingoism to begin a New Year by Minnie Henrietta Bethune Hallowell Bowen (1861-1942) of Sherbrooke, Quebec, from John W. Garvin's anthology Canadian Poems of the Great War (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918). During the conflict, Mrs Bowen served as President of the Sherbrooke Patriotic Association.


Canada's National Service

          The New Year comes white-winged, unstained, a star
               Loosed from God's hand across a world of night!
          What thoughts await its coming from afar?
               What deeds shall quicken in its unknown light?

          All Time is God's — to give and to withhold!
               To men the power is given to use or waste —
          To turn the passing splendour into gold,
               Lasting and beautiful — or bid it haste.

          Dearer than jewels — bought with holiest blood —
               Are these few months God-given to our hand
          By Him whose might held back the threatening flood
               There at the Marne, that we might arm and stand.

          The grey tide swells apace — the nations fall
               Before its pitiless, embracing lust!
          Here at the threshold of another year —
               Still with God's gift of time — we face our trust!

          The bells are ringing in the quivering towers —
               The chimes are calling over glistening snow.
          The year is dawning in its awful powers —
               The hours are coming and the hours must go!

          These few, small days may be the last that wait
               On our decision! Riven ears may know
          The iron thunders of approaching Fate
               That closes Mercy's door and arms the Foe.

          Dear blood, outpoured for love of God and Man,
               Has drenched the far-off altar with its red,
          And heavenly fire that through the trenches ran
               Has wrapped the lives that suffered in our stead.

          How can we give enough — since they have died?
               Since they have lived — shall we not greatly live
          And know in life or death with holy pride
               No wealth of service is too much to give?

          The Call to Service! ringing loud and clear
               Beats in the angel pinions overhead —
          Still time is given that deadened ears may hear
               Before the final word of doom is said.

          Work! for humanity's sublimest goal!
               Fight! in a cause too great to be denied!
          Hear! for the Dead are speaking to your soul!
               Wake! for God calls the Nation to His side!

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