26 December 2019

The Very Best Reads of a Very Strange Year

It's been a disorienting and disruptive year. The home we'd expected to build on the banks of the Rideau became entangled in red tape, an inept survey, and a tardy Official Plan. In our impatience, we left our rental and bought an existing house a ten-minute drive south. We may just stay. If we do, an extension is in order. I'm writing this on a desk at the dead end of a cramped second storey hallway.

All this is shared by way of explanation. I reviewed only twenty books here and in my Canadian Notes & Queries 'Dusty Bookcase' column. Should that number be boosted to twenty-three? Three of the books were reread and reviewed in translated, abridged, and dumbed down editions.

Yes, a strange year... made doubly so by the fact that so very many of the books reviewed are currently available. Selecting the three most deserving of a return to print  an annual tradition – should've been challenging, but was in fact quite easy:

The Arch-Satirist
Frances de Wolfe
Boston: Lothrop, Lee &
   Shepard, 1910

This story of a spinster and her young, beautiful, gifted, bohemian, drug-addled half-brother poet is the most intriguing novel read this year. Set in Montreal's Square Mile, is it a roman à clef? I'm of that city, but not that society, so cannot say with any certainty.
M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees
New York: Doubleday,


A wealthy young widow moves to a bedroom community hoping to solve the murder of her cheating husband. This is post-war domestic suspense of the highest order. I'd long put off reading M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty because of its title, despite strong reviews from 65 years ago. My mistake.

The Ravine
Kendal Young
     [Phyllis Brett Young]
London: W.H. Allen, 1962

The lone thriller by the author of The Torontonians and PsycheThe Ravine disturbed more than any other novel. Two  girls are assaulted – one dies  in a mid-sized New England town. Their art teacher, a woman struggling with her younger sister's disappearance, sets out to entrap the monster. 

The keen-eyed will have noted that The Ravine does not feature in the stack of books at the top of this post. My copy is currently in Montreal, where it's being used to reset a new edition as the fifteenth Ricochet Book.

Amy Lavender Harris will be writing a foreword. Look for it this coming May.

Of the books reviewed, those in print are:

A succès de scandal when first published in 1895, The Woman Who Did is Grant Allen's most famous book. It doesn't rank amongst the best of the fifteen Allen novels I've read to date, but I found it quite moving. Recommended. It's currently available in a Broadview Press edition.

The Black Donnellys is pulpmaster Thomas P. Kelley's most enduring book; as such, it seems the natural place to start. Originally published in 1954 by Harlequin, this semi-fictional true crime title been in and out of print with all sorts of other publishers. The most recent edition, published by Darling Terrace, appeared last year.

Experiment in Springtime (1947) is the first Margaret Millar novel to be considered outside the mystery genre. Still, you'd almost think a body will appear. See if you don't agree. The novel can be found in Dawn of Domestic Suspense, the second volume in Syndicate Books' Collected Millar

The Listening Walls (1952) ranks amongst the weakest of the Millars I've read to date, which is not to say it isn't recommended. The 1975 bastardization by George McMillin is not. It's the last novel featured in The Master at Her Zenith, the third volume in The Collected Millar.

I read two versions of Margaret Saunders' Beautiful Joe in this year. The first, the "New and Revised Edition," was published during the author's lifetime; the second, Whitman's "Modern Abridged Edition," was not. The original 1894 edition is one of the best selling Canadian novels of all time. One hundred and fifteen year later, it's available in print from Broadview and Formac.

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal by American Michael Howard proved a worthy prequel to Frank L. Packard's Gray Seal adventures. Published by the author, it's available through Amazon.

This year, as series editor for Ricochet Books, I was involved in reviving The Damned and the Destroyed, Kenneth Orvis's 1962 novel set in Montreal's illicit drug trade. My efforts in uncovering the author's true identity and history form the introduction.

Praise this year goes to House of Anansi's 'A List' for keeping alive important Canadian books that have escaped Bertelsmann's claws. It is the true inheritor of Malcolm Ross's vision.

And now, as tradition dictates, resolutions for the new year:
  • My 2018 resolution to read more books by women has proven a success in that exactly fifty percent of books read and reviewed here and at CNQ were penned by female authors. I resolve to stay the course.
  • My 2018 resolution to read more French-language books might seem a failure; the only one discussed here was Le dernier voyage, a translation of Eric Cecil Morris's A Voice is Calling. I don't feel at all bad because I've been reading a good number of French-language texts in researching my next book. Still, I'm hoping to read and review more here in the New Year.
  • At the end of last year's survey, I resolved to complete one of the two books I'm currently writing. I did not. For shame! How about 2020?
  • Finally, I plan on doing something different with the blog next year by focusing exclusively on authors whose books have never before featured. What? No Grant  Allen? No Margaret Millar? No Basil King? As if 2019 wasn't strange enough.
Bonne année! 

Addendum: As if the year wasn't strange enough, I've come to the conclusion that Arthur Stringer's debut novel, The Silver Poppy, should be one of the three books most deserving a return to print.

But which one should it replace?

21 December 2019

The Globe 100 One Hundred Years Ago: Poets are Struck Dumb and Capitalism Proves Embarrassing

The Globe, 6 December 1919

Last month, the Globe & Mail published 'The Globe 100', its annual list of the year's best books.

Why the hurry?

One hundred years ago, the best books were announced in December. The number of 1919 titles ‐ 247 in total ‐ hints at a particularly healthy harvest, though there's not much in the way of celebration. The list's introduction recognizes the "serious aspect" of then-recent titles being added to bookshelves: "One might have expected after the anguish of the war a reaction towards the amusing and frivolous, but in war's wake comes the necessity of reconstruction." So many new books deal with "the world-wide feeling of unrest":
The obligation, cheerfully assumed, of providing for the welfare of half a million returned soldiers has forced upon people an interest in every angle of the labor which many of them never felt before. This has been accentuated by a series of embarrassing strikes, and also the labor conferences in Ottawa and in Washington.
Must say, "embarrassing" is not the adjective I would've used.

The Winnipeg Tribune
9 June 1919
I'll add that novels like Bertrand W. Sinclair's entertaining and troubling The Hidden Places (Toronto: Ryerson, 1922) lead me to question whether the obligation of providing for the welfare of returned soldiers was "cheerfully assumed."

As if labour troubles weren't bad enough, the Armistice has had a devastating effect on Canadian verse.

"The coming of peace did not bring such a chorus as might have been expected," notes the Globe. "Peace came on the poets so suddenly that it struck them dumb." In this, no country suffered a greater silence than Canada. It dominated the list of best poetry books in 1918 Globe – eight of thirteen titles – but in 1919 is reduced to just two volumes: Canadian Singers and Their Songs, an anthology compiled by Edward S. Caswell; and Flint and Feather, the complete poems of the late Pauline Johnson.

It gets worse. Flint and Feather was first published in 1912.

The fiction list isn't nearly so affected. Its 104 titles is dominated by foreigners Robert W. Chambers, John Galsworthy, Joseph Hocking, Anthony Hope, Peter B. Kyne, Compton McKenzie, Kathleen Norris, Sax Rohmer, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Booth Tarkington, and Francis Brett Young, but within we find sixteen novels by Canadian authors:
The Touch of Abner - H.A. Cody
Sky Pilot in No Man's Land - Ralph Connor
The Heart of Cherry McBain - Douglas Durkin
On the Swan River - Hulbert Footner
The Substitute Millionaire - Hulbert Footner
Bulldog Carney - W.A. Fraser
In Orchard Glen - Marian Keith
Mist of Morning - Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Janet of Kootenay - Evah McKowan
Rainbow Valley - L.M. Montgomery
Polly Masson - William H. Moore
The Lady of the Crossing - Frederick Niven
Joan at Halfway - Grace McLeod Rogers
Sister Woman - J.S. Sime
Burned Bridges- Bertrand W. Sinclair
The Man Who Couldn't Sleep - Arthur Stringer
The Girl of O.K. Valley - Robert Watson
I've long been on the hunt for Stringer's The Man Who Couldn't Sleep. The brief description provided by the Globe encourages a doubling of my efforts:

I'll also be on the lookout for Polly Masson by William H. Moore, a novel described as "propaganda of a praise-worthy kind... designed to bring about a better state of feeling between English and French-speaking Canadians."

Future Governor General John Buchan's Mr. Standfast appears twice.

Guess they really liked it.

Should I have counted Mr. Standfast as a Canadian book? As it stands, the country claims just fifteen percent of the fiction titles. On the other hand, Canada dominates in "Economic" (a category that doesn't feature in previous Globe lists):
On Labor problems Canadians have made valuable contributions, "Labor and Humanity" by Hon. Mackenzie King has reached its fourth edition and has been made a textbook at Harvard University. Prof. MacIver of the University of Toronto, Prof. Leacock of McGill and Dr. Lavell, formerly of Queen's appear prominently his year among those who have helped to create a better understanding of labor and reconstruction.
Industry and Humanity, the Right Honourable Mackenzie King's newest book, is the first in a list of fifteen. Other titles by Canadians include:
Production and Taxation in Canada - W.C. Good
The Canadian Commonwealth - Agnes C. Laut
The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice - Stephen Leacock
Labor in the Changing World - R.M. MacIver
Bridging the Chasm - Percival F. Morley
I wondered about The Canadian Commonwealth and The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. Turns out that I don't own either. I do have copies of The Heart of Cherry McBainBurned BridgesIn Orchard GlenBulldog Carney, and Sky Pilot in No Man's Land.

Chances are I'll read them before Production and Taxation in Canada. 

Related posts:

06 December 2019

The Twenty Best Book Buys of 2019

Never has there been a year like this. I visited few used bookstores, ignored library book sales, spent no more than a couple of hours perusing online offerings, and yet somehow came up with the greatest haul of my fifty-something years.

The riches were so many and so great that the pristine copy of Wilson MacDonald's Out of the Wilderness pictured above was overshadowed. Fellow collectors will envy me for owning a scarce, unsigned copy – though it does bear the signature of previous owner Healey Willan. I'm assuming it came from the composer's library. It is now part of mine.

Because this has been such an extraordinary year, my annual ten best buys list has been expanded to twenty. As has been so often the case, I begin with Grant Allen:

An Army Doctor's
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck &
   Sons, [1893]

With A Terrible Inheritance, this ranks as one of the very worst Grant Allen books I've ever read. But, oh, isn't it attractive! After winning this copy in an online auction, I came upon a second. I'm offering it to the first person who expresses interest.

The Incidental Bishop
Grant Allen
New York: Appleton, 1898

If the opinion of Allen biographer Peter Morton is anything to go by – and it is – this novel of a young Canadian caught up in the slave trade will disappoint. The Incidental Bishop is longer than An Army Doctor's Romance, and is considerably less attractive, but I won't let that dissuade me from giving it a try.

Heart Songs
Jean Blewett
Toronto: Morag, 1898

The first of the poet's four volumes of verse, this second edition is inscribed. Blewett's verse has featured on this blog many times ( 'Queen Victoria', 'Easter Dawn', 'Thanksgiving Song', 'Thanksgiving Prayer'). This collection promises further riches.

A Strange Manuscript
   Found in a Copper
James de Mille
New York: Harper &
   Bros, 1888

A "lost civilization" novel read thirty-six years ago in my very first Canadian literature course. Does the fact that I've read nothing more by its author mean anything?

The Wooing of
Onoto Watanna
   [Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper &
   Bros, 1902

Eaton's third novel, penned in the early days of her ill-fated first marriage to Bertand Babcock. Academics suggest that he helped in its composition. They're probably right, which is not to say she wasn't better off without him.

The Heart of Hyacinth
Onoto Watanna
   [Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper &
   Bros, 1904

My obsession with the Eatons continues. They were the most remarkable and unusual family in Victorian Montreal. I fear my soul will not rest until someone writes a proper account of their trials and accomplishments.
Waste No Tears
Javis Warwick
   [Hugh Garner]
Toronto: News Stand
   Library, 1949

The Governor General's Award-winning writer's "novel about the Abortion Racket." Five years ago I helped return Waste No Tears to print as part of the Ricochet series, but had ever so much as seen a copy of the scarce News Stand Library edition.

Les songes en équilibre
Anne Hébert
Westmount, QC: Éditions
   de l'arbre, 1942

Anne Hebert's first book, this copy is inscribed by her loving father, poet and literary critic Maurice Hébert:

À mes chers amis Monsieur et Madam Bandwell, ce livre d'une petite canadienne que j'aime beaucoup.

Le temps des hommes
André Langevin
Montreal: Le Cercle du
   livre du France, 1956

Poussière sur la ville and Une Chaîne dans le parc are two of the best novels I've ever read. They're also the only two Langevin novels that are available in translation. I'm looking forward to tackling this one. Signed by the author.

Marge Macbeth
New York: Henry
   Waterson, 1927

The fourth novel by the Ottawa writer whose scandalous roman à clef The Land of Afternoon (1927) so entertained five years ago. The main character in this one is a writer!

The Poems and Essays
   of John J. MacDonald
John J. MacDonald
Ottawa: Ru-Mi-Lou,

Better known as "James MacRae," youngest of the Four Jameses, my interest in this poet began when we moved to St Marys, Ontario, in which he twice lived. I spent more than a decade hunting for a book – any book – by the man. This year, I found one.

Beast in View
Margaret Millar
London: Gollancz, 1955

The first UK edition of the novel for which Millar won the 1956 Edgar Award. James Bridges' 1964 television adaptation is recommended; Robert Glass's 1986 perversion is not.

Queen Kong
James Moffat [James Moffatt]
London: Everest, 1977

A novelization of a movie I've found unwatchable. This was yet another money job from a man better remembered as the celebrated skinhead novelist "Richard Allen". Featuring eight glossy pages of stills!

Flora Lyndsay; Or,
   Passages in an Eventful
Mrs. Moodie
New York: De Witt &
   Davenport, [1854]

Now seems a good time to confess that I've never read one of Mrs Moodie's novels. On the other had, I've read two or three essays on Flora Lyndsay. The novel features in my first book, Character Parts, as a result.

The Three Marys
Frederick Niven
London: Collins: 1935

Forgotten Frederick Niven's twenty-first novel (I think). For the reason laid out here, chances are I'll never read this tragic story of an acclaimed portrait painter and his three lady loves. The book makes the list because I like the way it looks and remember the thrill of uncovering it in a dank antique store in rural Ontario .

Wacousta; or, The
John Richardson
Montreal: John Lovell,

The fourth and earliest edition I own. Will 2020 be the year I finally read this novel of the War of 1812?

Probably not.

Hardscrabble; or, The
   Fall of Chicago
Major Richardson
New York: Pollard &
   Moss, 1888

A later edition of John Richardson's 1850 novel of the Siege of Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812. Though popular in its day – and for years thereafter – the work didn't save Richardson from death through malnutrition.

By a Way She Knew Not
Margaret M. Robertson
London: Hodder &
   Stoughton, 1883

The penultimate novel by the woman who gave us Christie Redfern's Troubles, the teariest work in all of Canadian literature. Robertson scholar Lorraine McMullen considers By a Way She Knew Not the author's very best novel. I'm betting she's right.

A Romance of Toronto
Mrs. Annie G. Savigny
Toronto: William Briggs,

A Victorian novel "FOUNDED ON FACT" by a woman whose previous books include An Allegory on Gossip.

How could I resist!

Hamilton and Other Poems
William A. Stephens
Toronto: Rogers &
   Thompson, 1840

Included here because it is now the oldest book of Canadian verse I own. In Anxious Allegiances: Legitimizing Identity in the Early Canadian Long Poem (McGill-Queen's, 1997), Dr C.D. Mazoff dismisses the "Hamilton" as "rather poorly written." Here's hoping he's wrong.

The Days of Their Youth
Alan Sullivan
New York: Century,

One of several Sullivans purchased that had once been part of the man's personal library. This novel is particularly interesting in that it has a pencilled notation by the author. Some unknown hand went after it with an eraser, but I bet I can discover what it says.

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01 December 2019

'The Drunkard's Fate' by Teetotal John Imrie

In this month of December, with its festivities and excesses, let us pause to consider this verse from Sacred Songs, Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems by John Imrie (1846-1902). A subscription salesman for the Canadian Presbyterian turned printer, the poet published the work in 1886 through his firm Imrie & Graham. 28 Colbourne Street, Toronto.
      For the drunkard there's no such place as "home,"
      Though over the face of the earth he roam,
      Till Death shall unfetter the drink-bound slave,
      And he findeth "rest" in the silent grave;
      His untimely death — "the wages of sin," —
      Satan's reward for the worship of Gin!
      He gave up his wife and his children dear
      For the drink which he thought his heart could cheer;
      But the more he drank the lower he sank,
      From the highest grade to the lowest rank.
      Till for shame, his name a bye-word became,
      And he lost for ever his once fair name: —
      For the pleasure of drink, which he loved so well,
      He barter'd his soul to the lowest hell!

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