24 September 2018

The Return of John Buell's Four Days

John Buell is Montreal's most unjustly neglected novelist, and this is his most unjustly neglected novel. Four Days is so strong a work that it alone caused Edmund Wilson to declare Buell one of Canada's foremost writers. Beginning with the 1962 Farrar, Straus & Culahy, the novel enjoyed several editions and translations, then slipped out of print in the early 'nineties.

No more.

This week sees its return, following The Pyx, John Buell's debut novel, as the thirteenth Ricochet Book published by Véhicule Press. Montreal writer Trevor Ferguson, also known by his "John Farrow" pen name, provides a new foreword. As Ricochet series editor, I'm proud to have worked with publishers Simon Dardick and Nancy Marrelli in returning Four Days to print.

I first wrote about Four Days in this 2011 Dusty Bookcase review:
Four Days in Darkest Quebec
It is one of Canada's greatest novels.

Edmund Wilson would agree.

John Buell
1927 - 2013
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17 September 2018

The Dustiest Bookcase: J is for Jacob

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.

One Third of a Bill: Five Short Canadian Plays
Fred Jacob
Toronto: Macmillan, 1925
140 pages

The tenth anniversary of this blog is less than four months away, so how is it that I haven't reviewed a single play? I was, after all, a child star. My involvement in the theatre stretches back to the second grade,when I played Big Billy Goat in a touring production (we once performed at a neighbouring elementary school) of Three Billy Goat's Gruff. In all modesty, I think I earned the role because I had the deepest voice of all the boys.

It hasn't changed since.

Had I not spotted its subtitle, Five Canadian Short Plays, I wouldn't have bought One Third of a Bill. Fred Jacob's name meant nothing to me. Though he once served as dramatic and literary editor of the Mail & Empire, he doesn't feature in The Canadian Encylopedia or W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature demonstrates its superiority in devoting a portion of a sentence to the man under the entry "Novels in English: 1920 to 1940":
There were also Victor Lauriston's Inglorious Milton (1934), a mock epic of small-town literati, and the first two novels by Fred Jacob (1882-1926) [sic] of a planned (but never completed) four-part satire of Canadian life in the first quarter of the twentieth-century: Day Before Yesterday (1925) about the decline of upper-class domination in a small Ontario town, and Peevee (1928), about the posturing and affectations of a rising middle class.
I've since learned that the small town in Day Before Yesterday was modelled on Elora, Ontario, in which Jacob was born and raised. A roman à clef, it didn't go down well with the locals, as reflected in this online listing from Thunder Bay's Letters Bookshop:
Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1925. Hardcover. Condition: Very good plus. 1st Edition. 320pp; gilt black filled cloth, lacking jacket; 197 x 131 x 41 mm. The author's controversial second book, the introductory novel in a projected series of four studies of 19th-century rural Ontario communities; preceded the same year, by a collection of plays. A native of Elora, Fred Jacob (1882-1928), lacrosse afficianado, was employed as a Toronto Mail & Empire sports writer at the time of publication. Perceiving the story to be uncomplimentary to their forefathers, residents back home erupted in a torrent of condemnation for book & author alike, which inevitably led to less than favourable reviews. The author had nearly completed the somewhat redeeming second volume, PeeVee (1928), at the time of his untimely demise. Ink inscription on ffe, dated Jan 31st, 1926. Light wear to boards; with a touch of waterstain to a portion of the book-block at upper tip. Exceedingly scarce.
Exceeding scarce is right!

The copy described above is one of only two listed for sale online. Unsurprisingly, the Wellington County Library, which serves Elora, doesn't have a copy (or any other Jacob title). Seems a candidate for acquisition. Here's the link to the Letters Bookshop listing:
Day Before Yesterday
Incidentally, Letters gets right what The Oxford Companion gets wrong: the year of Jacob's death. Here's how the sad event was reported in the Mail & Empire:

The Mail & Empire
7 June 1928

16 September 2018

The Reverend Cody Cover Cavalcade

On this sunny Sunday, the third post concerning Reverend H.A. Cody this month, all part of an effort to atone for ignoring the man these past fifty years. Of his twenty-five tomes, I've read only The Girl at Bullet Lake, reviewed here last week.

I'm not entirely adverse to reading another. Any suggestions?

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature doesn't much help, nor does W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. The dust jacket of The Girl at Bullet Lake offers eight suggestions. I've narrowed them down to three:

Under Sealed Orders
New York: Doran, 1917
"Mystery and intrigue in connection with a water-power scheme."

Not to be confused with the wonderfully entertaining Grant Allen novel of the same name.

The Touch of Abner
New York: Doran, 1919
"An amusing story of love and adventure."

The spiciest title in the reverend's bibliography.

The Master Revenge
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1927
"A big, kindly-hearted, beloved man suffers for another's crime."

I'm guessing that crime has something to do with handsaws.

Has anyone else read Cody?

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12 September 2018

'Strangely Entangled in the Threads of Love'

The Girl at Bullet Lake
H.A. Cody
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1933
304 pages

Nine years ago, I suggested that Isabel Ecclestone Mackay's Up the Hill and Over features "the most improbable coincidence in all of Canadian literature." I haven't changed my opinion – not yet, at least – but I will say, without reservation, that H.A. Cody's The Girl at Bullet River has more coincidences than any novel I've ever read. The first comes in the first scene, in which protagonist Robert Rutledge's doctor prescribes rest and relaxation away from the big city:
“Bullet Lake will do you fine. And there is a snug house on the shore, known as ‘Bullet House.’ It is not a very poetical name, I admit, but that will make no difference, Si Acres will charge you something, but it will be worth it. There is excellent fishing there, too.”
      “Where is this wonderful paradise, doctor?”
      “It is not far away, only a few miles back from the river at Glengrow. You surely must know the place.”
     “I know Glengrow, for my sister lives there.”
There follows a steady stream of improbabilities. Their number is so great that they consume much of my review of The Girl at Bullet Lake, likely the first in 85 years, which was posted today at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. You can read it here:
Little More Than Coincidence
C'est gratuit!

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10 September 2018

The Dustiest Bookcase: I is for Irwin

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.

Kak, The Copper Eskimo
Vilhjalmur Stefanson and Violet Irwin
New York: Macmillan, 1924
253 pages

Yes, I is for Irwin... and not for Stefansson. My reason for buying this book has everything to do with her and nothing to do with him. To be honest, I'm not much interested in Kak, the Copper Eskimo – I bought it because I saw it. The Violet Irwin book I really want to read is her first novel, The Human Desire (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1913). I've never come across a copy and have never read a review. All I know about The Human Desire comes from advertisements for the 1919 Hollywood adaptation.

Silent films took great liberties with source material. I don't know how faithful Hollywood's 1919 Human Desire was to Irwin's novel, but I'm interested in finding out.

The McGill Daily
10 October 1919
I've seen dozens of films at The Imperial – my favourites being The King of Comedy and After Hours – sadly, I was seven decades too late for Human Desire.

Fun fact: Kak, the Copper Eskimo was never adopted by Hollywood, but it was translated into Yiddish: Ḳeḳ - der ḳleyner esḳimos (Ṿilne : Naye yidishe shul, 1939). The only copy of which I know is held in New York at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research.

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04 September 2018

Familiar to Hundreds (including Mike Myers?)

Doors of the Night
Frank L. Packard
Toronto: Copp Clark, 1922
297 pages

The hero of this novel is a young man named Billy Kane. Raised a son of wealth – or so he thought – on the death of his father Billy learns that the family fortune has been long since spent. Happily, he secures a position as personal secretary to David Ellsworth, a known collector of rubies and one of Manhattan's richest men. Billy enjoys his work, but is concerned about his employer's generosity toward the less fortunate. It isn't that Billy doesn't believe in charity, rather that he's suspicious about those to whom Ellsworth gives money. Antonio Lavarto is a case in point:
The man was a pitiful looking object enough – one of those mendicants commonly designated in the vernacular as a "flopper." His legs were twisted under him in contorted angles at the knees, and his means of locomotion consisted in lifting himself up on the palms of his hands and swaying himself painfully along a foot or so at a time.
Despite his best efforts, Billy hasn't been able to get anything on Laverto... that is, until the night Ellsworth asks him to deliver a gift of $2000 to the flopper's flat. Billy finds evidence that Laverto is indeed a fraud, but doesn't feel all that good about it; Ellsworth likes to think the best of people, and there's no pleasure to be found in proving the old man wrong.

Billy never has an opportunity to tell his employer about Lavarto. He returns from his errand to find Ellsworth has been murdered, the
ruby collection gone, and that he, Billy Kane, has been framed. Billy manages to elude the awaiting lawmen, but is shot in his escape. On the run, losing blood, he's mistaken for Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat, a kingpin of the criminal underworld. He regains his strength, then sets the Rat's gang off in search of the missing rubies. Billy's thinking is that in solving the Ellsworth murder and the mystery of the missing gems he will be able to clear his name. However, his plan is complicated by the appearance of a mysterious "Woman in Black," who seems to have something over the Rat. This means Billy must bend to her will.

What does she want?

She wants him to fight crime, of course.

Readers of Packard will find much of this familiar. Let's begin with Billy Kane, a name that bears some similarity to Jimmie Dale, alias the Gray Seal, the author's greatest hero. Like Billy, Jimmie was raised in comfort. Both take on the personas of disreputable men. Billy becomes a crimefighter because he's blackmailed by a mysterious woman, as is Jimmie.  Even the flopper, a minor character, is familiar.

The first flopper I've ever encountered was in Packard's 1911 novel The Miracle Man. Like Lavarto, he's a fraud who only pretends to be "crippled." Played by Lon Cheney in the film adaptation, this earlier flopper is so great a character that he's mentioned on the cover of the Hodder & Stoughton paper edition:

H&S used the "Good it's a PACKARD [sic]" tag on several of its reissues. And why not? Packard was remarkably consistent. The bulk of his literary output has New York as a setting. It's a city with an underworld the Montrealer knew well, thanks in part to the NYPD, who allowed him to accompany them on raids. Manhattan is invariably divided into luxurious mansions of men like poor David Ellsworth and the squalor of rag shops, opium dens, dive bars, and cramped tenements in which members of the criminal class reign. In Doors of the Night they have names like Gypsy Joe, Red Vallon, Shaky Liz, the Cadger, and Whitey Jack.

"Good it's a PACKARD."

Doors of the Night is as good a place as any other to start reading Packard. This alone speaks to his talent.

Trivia: The most clever of all criminal schemes involves a character known as the Cherub, who spends two weeks pretending to be the grandson of a Shaky Liz. On the evening when the crime is to be committed, he has this to say:

I'd thought that diss originated with Wayne's World. Apparently not.

Trivia II: The quote on the cover of the the H&S paper edition of The Miracle Man doesn't appear in the novel, though something very similar is said by Helena to "gentleman crook and high- class, polished con-man" Doc Madison:
"Doc," she said, "it – it isn’t fair. It’s a shame – he can’t fight back."

Object and Access: A 297-page hardcover, mine is a copy of the first (and only) Canadian edition. It was purchased six years ago at London's Attic Books. Price: $10. Like Copp Clark's, the first American edition (Doran) and first British edition (Hodder & Stoughton) were also published in 1922. A cheap A.L. Burt edition followed. The last Doors of the Night saw print in the US was in 1931 as one of the Gray Seal editions (above) published by Doubleday Doran. The Hodder & Stoughton paper edition appears to date from about the same time.

Doors of the Night first appeared as a serial in The Popular Magazine (20 September - 7 December 1918).

The novel is held in one edition or another by Library and Archives Canada and twenty-two of our academic libraries.

Fifteen copies are listed for sale online, ranging from US$5.23 (a Fair A.L. Burt copy w/o jacket) to US$110.00 (a Very Good Doran 1st).

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01 September 2018

Words on Writing for a Labour Day Weekend

Bookseller & Stationer, February 1910
A brief passage from H.A. Cody's 1933 novel The Girl at Bullet Lake. Here Augustus Rockbridge, editor of the Pretensia Daily Echo tells his wife about contributor Robert Rutledge:
"He is a clever writer, and we have used several of his articles. They have been most favorably received and copied by other papers. But confound him, he had the impudence to ask me to pay for his stuff."
     "He did! Isn't that unusual?"
     "Quite. To have his articles published in the Echo should be pay enough. It gives a young writer a publicity he could not otherwise obtain."
Plus ça change...