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
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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  1. Always fun reading about your rare finds, Brian. I have stopped going to library sales myself. Sadly, the online browsing is still something of a mania and compulsion and I bought way too many books last year. Many of them I spent lots of money on, meaning on individual titles not collectively.

    Once upon a time when I was addicted to book hunting antique malls were a favorite stop of mine. I completely understand the thrill of finding that Niven book in "a dank antique store in rural Ontario." Years ago I found a copy of the Photoplay edition of Lon Chaney's lost film London after Midnight in an antique mall in some podunk in Indiana. At the time it was extremely scarce with less than ten copies offered for sale, most offered with the ultra rare DJ. Because the movie has been lost for decades the stills inside the book are just as valuable to movie fans and collectors as the DJ. Plus the novelization of the script is all we know of the movie. It's a true collector's item for both bibliophiles and movieholics. The book had not been priced and when I had to inquire how much they were asking for it I was worried I was going to be overcharged by the booth's owner. It turned out the owner knew nothing about books, movies or the collectible nature of Photoplay editions. After a cursory examination and a speedy paging through she said: "How about five dollars?" I said calmly, "Fair enough," paid and left. On the way out I was giddily jumping for joy inside. An internet search of that genuinely rare book will reveal to anyone why, at the absurd price of five bucks, I should be charged with grand larceny.

    1. In my experience, Ontario antique malls and stores stock books as an afterthought, usually in some ill-lit nook at the back of the store. There's no rhyme or reason, and few titles would match any adult's definition of "old". Tom Clancy novels abound. Whatever is old, seems priced according to age - the older it is, the higher the price. And so, a high school reader from the 'thirties will be priced in the thirties. A 19th-century edition of Gilbert Parker might set you back $40. Hell, one the aforementioned Clancys will at least ten dollars. On the plus side, it takes no more than a casual glance to determine whether investigation is worth one's time.

      Your story of London After Midnight is wonderful. Not quite the same thing, but you're reminding me of my purchase, at a church rummage sale, of an old copy of The Sun Also Rises. This was in my teens, before I became a collector. Because I already had a copy of the novel, I hesitated. In the end, I decided to pay the 50¢ that was being asked. A nice lady at the cash let it go for 25¢ because it was so old. A few years later, after having been bitten by the collecting bug, I realized what I had was a first edition, first state.

      If I ever sell it, I will make a substantial donation to that church.

  2. Great post Brian. I hereby express interest in An Army Doctor's Romance!

    1. It's yours, Nigel. Email your mailing address when you get a chance. Happy to see it going to a home where it will be appreciated.

  3. An Army Doctor’s Romance looks like a fascinating object. I’m the second to express interest, which makes me the first loser, but I do know a number of army doctors if that counts for anything. Never romanced any of them though.

    1. Never thought I'd come across another copy, David. To think the two were found within months of each other. I'll keep you in mind if I find another. Hey, stranger things have happened.

  4. A bunch of great finds & even better comments on them! The cover of An Army Doctor's Romance is very cool, but nevertheless I'm not expressing an interest in it... ;-)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, reese. Must say I feel I've been particularly blessed this year.

  5. Interesting to see "Les Songes en équilibre here" just as I was reading its publication history in Marie-Andrée Lamontagne's biography of Anne Hébert. Apparently her doting father handed out copies inscribed like yours to everyone he met, whereas Hébert herself never allowed the book to be reprinted in her life time.

    1. Being the proud papa of a poet myself, I see Maurice Hébert as a kindred spirit. I wonder, did Anne Hébert come to see Les Songes en équilibre as substandard? I must read the new biography. I've heard such good things.

  6. Hi Brian - I always enjoy your posts! I was very interested to note that three of the titles you highlighted have a connection to the ill-fated Graphic Publishers of Ottawa. I have been collecting them forever and it is not often that they receive attention.
    The first is Out of the Wilderness, the only Graphic to go into more than two printings (6 as Graphic and at least three subsequently); the second is Shackles, which was first published by Graphic in 1926; the third is James Macdonald's Poems and Essays, published by Ru-Mi-Lou, the vanity press arm of Graphic. It is a very difficult title to find - you are very fortunate to have one. I am still looking after nearly forty years!

    1. Mike, thank you for the kind words - and for the information. Although fascinated by Graphic, I've not really taken time to explore the story of the press. I had no idea that Out of the Wildness had done so well. The Willan copy is a third Graphic printing. It joins a first printing I'd already owned (signed, of course).

      Shackles was part of a much larger purchase. A bit of a surprise, I brought it home thinking that it was a Graphic book. I hadn't known that there had been an American edition.

      I couldn't believe my luck with the MacDonald. My hunt only began in 2008, but the years had produced not so much as a scent. I don't expect I'll find the poet's two other titles, but this find does give one hope. It'll eventually end up in the St Marys Public Library or the St Marys Museum, neither of which have anything by the man.

    2. I'm happy to hear there are others still interested in Graphic. My treasure from them (maybe) is a broadside from McElhinney's 'Morning in the Marsh'. Seems to have been done as a New Years greeting from the author.

    3. I buy them when I see them, and yet have read only two: William Arthur Deacon's The Four Jameses and Marge Macbeth's The Land of Afternoon. That was years ago. Why did I stop? They both rank amongst my favourites read for this blog.

      Not too late to add "read some Graphics" to my New Year's resolution, I think.

  7. Diana Birchall wrote a book about her "bad grandma" - "Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton" in 2001. There are details at Amazon. Diana is a Jane Austen scholar and has published in the style of Jane Austen to great effect.

    1. Onoto Watanna is recommended, as is Karen E.H. Skinazi's writing on the author (particularly, the remarkably thorough introduction to Marion: The Story of an Artist's Model). I'm still hoping that someone will tackle the story of the entire Eaton family.