30 July 2018

The Dustiest Bookcase: G is for Gotlieb

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).
They're in storage as we build our new home.
Patience, please.

O Master Caliban!
Phyllis Gotlieb
New York: Harper & Row, 1976
244 pages

A childhood enthusiasm, I gave up on science fiction at about the time this book was published, which pretty much explains how it is that I had no idea Phyllis Gotlieb wrote sci-fi novels. Before coming across a copy of her first, Sunburst, at last fall's Friends of the St Marys Public Library book sale. I knew her only as a poet. I've never read her verse, but the fact that it had been published by Oxford University Press holds considerable weight.

O Master Caliban! was Gotlieb's third novel. I found this pristine, seemingly unread first edition one cold January day at Attic Books. The price - $3.00 - encouraged purchase, but I hesitated after reading the first sentence of the front flap:
Esther, an intelligent, articulate, motherly gibbon; Yigal, a large, grumpy white goat who talks; and Sven, a moody young man with four arms, are the protagonists of this fast-paced and delightful novel.
Oh, dear.

I bought it just the same, but can't bring myself to start in on the thing. The cover of the 1979 Seal mass market paperback all but guarantees I never will.

23 July 2018

The Promise of a Man, a Mother in So Much Pain

Isabel Mackay
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1926
307 pages

The author's final novel, published two years before her death, Blencarrow begins in a sunny, lighthearted manner:
Euan Cameron, aged twelve, sat upon the fence and bent a darkling eye upon his father at the woodpile. The woodpile was in the Cameron's back yard, and the Camerons' back yard was in Blencarrow, and Blencarrow was a small, but exceedingly important, town somewhere around. So now you know exactly where Euan sat.
Do not be deceived. Blencarrow fits in with Mackay's other novels: The House of Windows (1912), dealing with child abduction and worker exploitation; Up the Hill and Over (1917), about mental illness and drug addiction; and The Window-Gazer (1921), in which post-traumatic stress disorder and racism figure.

(I've yet to read Mackay's 1919 novel Mist of Morning.)

Named after the fictitious town in which the action is set (see: Woodstock, Ontario), Blencarrow focusses on four children as they grow into adulthood. Euan is the least interesting. I blame his family.
 The worst that can be said about the Camerons is that grim patriarch Andrew finds no contentment in his achievements. Contrast Euan's home life with that of best friend Garry, who is being raised in the Anglican manse by a benevolent uncle, Reverend James Dwight, and housekeeper Mrs Binns. Garry's mother is dead; there's no mention of his father. Euan and Garry's sometime friend Conway de Beck – Con-of-the-Woods – lives with his aunt, a Theosophist, who is something of an outcast in Blencarrow. Con doesn't care; he's happier in the woods, hence the nickname.

All three boys are attracted to Kathrine Fenwell. She isn't the prettiest girl in Blencarrow – that would be her sister, Gilda – but she has by far the strongest character. Kathrine needs this as the daughter of the town drunk. Owing to his good looks and pedigree, Blencarrow had once considered her father, Gilbert Fenwell, a man of great promise. Shortly after the death of his own father, the respected Colonel Fenwell, Gilbert took his healthy inheritance to the big cities, where he invested in "Big Business." He married Kathrine's mother, Lucia, and began construction of what was to have been the grandest house in all of Blencarrow:
It was not so much a house as a half-house, the front half benign-existent save as a tracing on a blue-print. The back half, arrested abruptly in its normal growth, had remained fixed, as by some strange enchantment, in all the ugliness of outraged proportion. At first, scaffolds had decorated it, but, bit by bit, the scaffolding had disappeared and nothing had taken its place. No steps below, no eaves above, broke the wide flatness of is face. The front door was not properly a front door, but a door leading into a hallway that was not there. The windows were not windows really, but glassed-in entrances to dining-rooms and drawing-rooms – which lived and had their being in a fourth dimension.
The lengthy description, one of my favourite Mackay passages, ends:
It stood well back in its neglected garden, the ghost of something once new and fresh and promising, On its strange, flat face was a negation of all hope. It was a house which had given itself up.
     Blencarrow had given it up also. While the scaffolding still stood, Blencarrow had pointed it out to strangers as "the unfinished Fenwell place." But this they did no longer, for a thing which never will be finished is the most finished thing of all.
The odd appearance of Gilbert Fenwell's house, "the town's only curiosity," serves as a reminder that Big Business "wiped him off the financial map as a child rubs out a name on a plate." Work stopped,
The Globe & Mail
14 December 1926
 and he returned to Blencarrow as a man who had left his money and promise behind: "Gilbert Fenwell, as a possibility, had ceased to be, but Gilbert Fenwell, as an actuality, lived on."

If only he hadn't.

Gilbert doesn't figure nearly so much in Blencarrow as Kathrine, Euan, Garry, and Con-of-the Woods, but his influence on the plot is greater. As a young child, Gilda is sent away to live with her aunt after having being beaten by Gilbert. Her forehead bears a scar that she hides with her long red hair. He takes his failings out on his family. He beats Lucia. He beats Kathrine. His poison is pervasive. All too real, I can't think of another character like him this early in our literature, nor can I think of anything similar to this exchange between Kathrine and her mother:
"Gilda doesn't care for anyone in any way – except you, of course," she added hastily, as she saw the tightening of her mother's face.
     Lucia laid down her sewing. Into her eyes had come the strange blank look which Kathrine had grown to dread.
     "No," she said softly. "You can't have it both ways. If Gilda cares for no one, why would she care for me? And that is justice, too. I hated her you see."
     "You hated Gilda?" – in wonderment.
     Lucia nodded. "Before she was born I hated her. I would have denied her life if I could. I had come to hate life so! To pass it on seemed a horrible thing... horror... all horror –" 
A remarkable passage in a remarkable novel, it leads me to ask again how it is that we've forgotten Isabel Mackay.

Bloomer: As in life, there's humour to be found in even the darkest of tales. Blencarrow is no exception. Its plot is governed by effects wrought of domestic violence, and yet there are chapters reminiscent of Stephen Leacock. My favourite involves the decision of the Presbyterian Ladies' Affiliated Societies of Mariposa Blencarrow to organize a "Festival of Nations." However, the greatest laugh comes in the form of a bloomer found on the ninety-fifth page. This occurs as young Garry begins religious studies with the goal of becoming a celibate Anglican clergyman like his Uncle James. In this pursuit, he finds a role model in Prof Adam Harmon, leading to this, um, exchange, which begins with Harmon's words of advice:
"Keep your mind clear as long as it is clear... Fill it with the spiritual things you love. Hold fast through everything to the decision you have made. Nothing can conquer you – except yourself."
     "Oh, I think I've got myself well in hand," said Garry cheerfully.
Object and Access: A bland green hardcover sans dust jacket (which I've never seen), as far as I know it's the only MacKay book to be attributed to "Isabel Mackay" and not "Isabel Ecclestone Mackay." I purchased my copy in 2013 from bookseller Grant Thiesen. Price: US$7.99. In reading it, I came across this bonus:

The Thomas Allen edition was a split-run with Houghton Mifflin. It appears there were no others. Blencarrow can be found at Library and Archives Canada and sixteen of our university libraries. The Woodstock Public Library excluded, Canada's public libraries fail us.

Related posts:

16 July 2018

The Dustiest Bookcase: F is for Fulford

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).
They're in storage as we build our new home.
Patience, please.

Right Now Would Be a Good Time to Cut My Throat
Paul Fulford
Richmond Hill, ON: Pocket, [1972]

The debut novel by Paul Fulford – commonly, "Paul A. Fulford" – about whom I know next to nothing. True, the book's author bio consumes the back cover, but can it be trusted?

Fulford is described as a magazine editor without identifying the publication. He's said to have written magazine articles, but I've yet to find one. Brochures? Speeches? Haven't most of us written these at one time or another?

Fulford is a subject of further research, which is not to say it hasn't begun. I've managed to track down a copy of Should a Scotsman Take Off His Kilt When He Meets a Lady?, published in 1969 by Young & McCarthy.

It was the publisher's only book.

I've also found seven letters Fulford wrote to the Globe & Mail, the earliest (26 March 1965) concerning a crosswalk accident that involved Toronto's Chief of Police. Others focus on problems with parking at the Canadian National Exhibition, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin's 1971 Ottawa visit, the Oak Island Mystery, and humorist and columnist Richard Needham (whom Fulford criticizes as unfunny and lazy). The last, published in 6 January 1973, deals with dogs:

Never mind.

Given Fulford's association with Pocket Books, an American mass market branch plant, this letter published on 6 August 1971, is by far the most interesting:

As far as I've been able to determine, Fulford wrote just one paid piece for the Globe & Mail, "Can Penguins Show How To Solve the Generation Gap" (16 March 1971), an op-ed in which he's described as "a supply teacher at Forest Hill Junior High."

It's every bit as funny as Needham.

Barman, labourer, teacher, farmhand, I don't doubt that Fulford had been them all. Initially, I was dismissive about the claim that written of movie scripts, "Unproduced," I'd thought, until I came across a "Paul Fulford" as one of four screenwriters credited in the 1971 Canadian prison drama "I'm Going to Get You... Elliott Boy" (aka Caged Men Plus One Woman).

"Featuring today's bright young stars Ross Stephenson and Maureen McGill," according to the trailer, "this story was torn from today's headlines and actually filmed inside the walls of a modern and active penitentiary." "It seems a rip-off of John Herbert's 1967 play Fortune and Men's Eyes, which happened to have been released as a feature film in the very same month.

I wonder what happened to bright young stars Ross Stephenson and Maureen McGill, just as I wonder what became of Paul A. Fulford. As far as I can tell, he published only one more book, Who's Got the Bastard Pope [sic] (Markham, ON: PaperJacks, 1978). Surprisingly uncommon, I've been looking for it for years, but this small image spotted online is the closest I've got:

As for Fulford being married to a writer named Dorothy Parker... Well, you can't make that stuff up.

09 July 2018

Red Set: The History of Gang of Four is Launched!

I'm honoured to have been invited to interview author Jim Dooley at the Canadian launch of Red Set: A History of Gang of Four, published by Repeater Books.

Jim's an old friend.

The band is an old favourite.

Because I'm old, I was around to take some of the photos in the book.

It'll all go down in the nation's capital:
Black Squirrel Books and Espresso Bar
1073 Bank Street
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Ottawa friends and readers, please come by.
No weak men in the books at home!
Related posts:

05 July 2018

The Great Canadian Lesbian Pulp Novel?

Sadly, no; but I think my expectation was justified. See if you don't agree. Here's the beginning of my review, which was posted yesterday on the Canadian Notes & Queries website:

Strange Desires [?]
Alan Malston [?]
Toronto: News Stand Library. 1949
160 pages
The title of this novel is either Strange Desires or Strange Desire. It doesn't matter which because "Strange" is key. Anyone familiar with post-war paperbacks will recognize the word as code for "lesbian" fiction. Delicate lingerie, gentle caresses, and tender kisses will feature. An insecure, vulnerable, and somewhat unstable young woman (more often than not a blonde) will likely be seduced by a confident, slightly older woman (usually brunette). The young woman will become increasingly insecure, vulnerable, and unstable as a result, until finding safe harbour in the arms of a man. The slightly older brunette may or may not commit suicide. 
Those unfamiliar with that code word in 1949 would’ve been aided by the cover pitch: “WHAT MAN COULD SATISFY HER — STRANGE DESIRES.” But for the truly dim-witted, everything is laid out in the back cover copy: 
Adele was sophisticated, spoiled and reckless, and her inspired strip dance performed with a snake as partner set men's blood pounding and women's tongues to wagging. Her inseparable female companion seemingly did not quench Adele's desire for the conquest of men and for the one man in particular who seemed capable of resisting every trick and every charm.
Am I right or am I right?

Before wasting good money on tracking down a copy, you'll want to read the rest of the review:
Weird, But Not Really Strange
Note: Not to be confused with...

Strange Desire
Wayne Wallace
Hollywood: Brandon House, 1965
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01 July 2018

Laura Salverson's 'For Canada' for Canada Day

A poem – and prayer – by Laura Salverson, from Wayside Gleams, her only collection of verse, published in 1925 by McClelland & Stewart.

For Canada 
               Grant us, O Lord, within the coming year.
               Some vision of our noble destiny... 
*  *  *  * 
               Give unto us the strength to face anew
               Adversity and sorrows... or again
               Good fortune, with that valiant humbleness
               Which ever marks a depth of inward grace;
               Grant us, we pray, sincere, courageous hearts.
               Wide sympathies, with minds that seek to see
               In giving joy, and pride in honest toil,
               In beauty, truth, and good for all mankind;
               For every race, for every land, we pray;
               Lift them, O God, from out enthralling thought
               And prejudice, that they, directing, find
               Thy presence manifest on land and sea.
               But last, O Lord, for this is our Canada
               We crave Thy blessing and eternal aid;
               Keep her fair soul unflinching, aye, and true
               That she, among the nations, may arise.
               Made string with the greatness from the fount within,
               Imbued with love that knows not any death,
               This gracious land, so young, so little tried.
               O'er-shadow her with Thy own righteousness.
               That she may stand a New Jerusalem
               Where man, by giving much, may gather more;
               Where thy same speech and creed of kindliness
               At last take root to flourish far and wide,
               Till thereon in very truth become
               The citadel of justice on earth.  
*  *  *  * 
               Grant us, O Lord, within the coming year,
               The vision of our final destiny —
               A nation worthy of her ancient dead —
               A fabric perfected from deathless dreams.
In 2014, I bought this first and only edition of Wayside Gleams for one dollar. The dust jacket features an advert for eight other McClelland & Stewart books.

I haven't read one.

How 'bout you?

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