26 December 2020

The Very Best Reads of a Plague Year

Not one week into 2020, I met a physician friend for dinner at Sidedoor in Ottawa's ByWard Market. Over too many drinks, he told me of his concerns about a virus sweeping through China's Hubei province. I'd seen a bit about it on the CBC and had noticed headlines in the Globe & Mail, but didn't take the threat nearly so seriously. Again, too many drinks. Eleven months later, we've just spent our first Christmas apart from our daughter. Parents and a grandparent, who live well within driving distance, were kept at bay. To think that in last year's 'Best Reads' I described 2019 as "a very strange year."

Here's to better times.

I reviewed twenty-one titles here and in the pages of Canadian Notes & Queries this year. Tradition dictates that I suggest three most deserving of a return to print. Easily done:

The New Front Line
Hubert Evans
Toronto: Macmillan, 1927

The first novel by a writer remembered – when he is remembered – for Mist on the River (1954). Here Evans draws upon his own experiences as a returning Great War veteran who rejects the city and its commerce for a healthier life in rural British Columbia. The love of a good woman figures.

Perilous Passage
Arthur Mayse
New York: Pocket, 1950

West Coast rural noir written by a transplanted Manitoban, this tale of two teens confronting a drug cartel brought back such memories. Nothing to do with battling crooks, you understand, rather being young. I was caught up in Joe and Devvy's adventure and romance. I'm betting you will be, too.

Alan Sullivan
London J.M. Dent, 1914

The first book I read this year, and the first of the author's thirty-something novels, Blantyre—Alien has grown on me. A story as strange as its title, it concerns a medical doctor, his wife, and their disintegrating marriage. I found interest in its depiction of Toronto the Good  

Two books I reviewed this year are currently in print:

The lone book revisited this year, I first read Not for Every Eye, Glen Shortliffe's translation of Gerard Bessette's Le libraire (1960), as a very young  man in in the summer of '85. I found I liked it more in middle age because my more seasoned self better understood narrator and protagonist Hervé Jodoin. An essential text for anyone interested in censorship as depicted in fiction or the dark days of Duplessis' Quebec. Not For Every Eye is available through Exile Editions

Does Armand Durand count? I read Mrs Leprohon's 1868 novel in a 19th-century French translation by J.-A. Genaud. The original is in print as part of the Borealis Press Early Canadian Women's Series. My French is so very weak that it took months for me to get through the novel. I wonder whether spending all that time with the Durand family contributed in some way to my concern for their trials.  

Two of the three novels selected last year as "most deserving of a return to print" did just that! I'm proud to say that I played a hand in both:

I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees
Montreal, Véhicule, 2020

Following The Keys of My Prison, this is the second Wees novel I've helped revive. I'm torn as to which I prefer. In this 1954 tale of domestic suspense, a widow relocates to post-war suburban Toronto in an attempt to solve her husband's murder. Martinis and harried businessmen figure. Patti Abbott was good enough to provide the introduction.

The Ravine
Phyllis Brett Young
Montreal, Véhicule, 2020

First published in 1962 under the nom de plume Kendal Young, The Ravine was Phyllis Brett Young's only thriller. Remarkably, it remains the only one of her novels to have been adapted to the screen. Don't bother with the film, read the book. The introduction is by Amy Lavender Harris.

Praise this year goes to Mary Chapman and the ever-expanding Winnifred Eaton Archive. This online site provides a remarkable wealth of material concerning the groundbreaking Asian-Canadian author of Marion and "Cattle", amongst other novels. Of late, I've become increasingly interested in Eaton's Hollywood years. The Archive somehow satisfies while fuelling my desire for more. Do visit!

And now, the resolutions:

I've got three book projects on the go, but will be doubling down on telling the awful story of Maria Monk. As a result, fewer titles will be reviewed here next year. I'll be filling the gaps by reviving 'The Dustiest Bookcase.' Seasoned readers may remember it as a series of short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

Oh... and as always, I resolve to keep kicking against the pricks.

Wishing everyone a Happier and Healthier New Year! Bonne année! 

Related posts:

24 December 2020

'Old Lady Christmas Shopping' by Edna Jaques

Edna Jaques, Poet Laureate of the Home, as captured by J.W. Tetlow for the 1 September 1951 issue of Maclean's magazine. This poem comes from Back-Door Neighbors (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1946).

21 December 2020

Best Books of 1920: Beware the Bolshevik Poets

The Globe, 4 December 1920
The 1920 Globe round-up of the year's best books was published on the first Saturday of that December. Twenty-four months had passed since the Armistice, and the introduction takes pains to position the conflict in the past:

This bold pronouncement follows:

The war has passed into history and even the "aftermath" is over.
Sure, but a good many titles concerning the Great War feature, and a new category makes its debut:

No, the conflict is still very much felt. Loss and sacrifice continue to inspire poetry, such as Our Absent Hero by Mrs Durie, the widow of Capt William Arthur Peel Durie.

Captain Durie died at Passchendaele on 29 December 1917 in an effort rescue wounded comrades in No Man's Land. 

Capt William Arthur Peel Durie
1881 - 1917

Another of the newspaper's poetry selections, J. Lewis Mulligan's The Beckoning Skyline and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1920), includes fifteen pieces of verse inspired by the war.

The 1920 Globe list recognizes a total of seven Canadian books of poetry, the others being:
               Acanthus and Wild Grape - F.O. Call
               Leaves on the Wind - Rev D.A. Casey
               Apple Blossoms - Carrie Wetmore McColl
               Lady Latour - Rev W.I. Morse
               Rhymes of a Northland - Hugh L. Warren
This is something of a return to form. Where in 1918, the paper gave notice to eight Canadian volumes of verse, the 1919 list featured all of two (one of which, Pauline Johnson's Flint and Feather, had been published seven years earlier).

As is so often the case in the paper's annual book list, the "Poetry" section brings columns of comment, much if it designed to distance we Canadians from our American cousins:
We usually write in metre and dislike poetical as well as other kinds of Bolshevism. It is merely the affectation of free verse that makes American 'poetry' more distinctive – or notorious – than Canadian. It is a cheap substitute for originality.
   There has been a great deal more verse published this year than appears in the publishers' lists. Nearly all of it has been printed at the authors' expense, and it has been circulated largely 'among friends.' This practice is not to be despised or discouraged, unless it raises false hopes in authors who have merely the faculty of rhyming without possessing poetical talent or literary judgement.
There are 264 titles in the 1920 Globe list, fifty-three of which are Canadian. Just six of the fifty-three – all novels, no poetry – feature in my library:

Going by the Globe, 1920 was as good year for the country's novelists and short story writers; twenty of the 114 fiction titles are Canadian:
          Aleta Dey - Francis M Beynon
          The La Chance Mine Mystery - S. Carleton
          Glen of the High North - H.A. Cody
          Sheila and Others - Winifred Cotter
          The Conquering Hero - Murray Gibbon
          Eyes of the Law - Ethel Penman Hope
          Daisy Herself - Will E. Ingersoll
          The Luck of the Mounted - Sgt Ralph Kendall
          The Thread of Flame - Basil King
          A Son of Courage - Archie P. McKishale
          Graydon of the Windermere - Evan McKowan
          Every Man for Himself - Hopkins Moorhouse
          The Forging of the Pikes - Anson North
          No Defence - Gilbert Parker
          Poor Man's Rock - Bertrand W. Sinclair
          Dennison Grant - Robert Stead
          The Prairie Mother - Arthur Stringer
          The Rapids - Alan Sullivan
          The Viking Blood - Frederick William Wallace
          Stronger Than His Sea - Robert Watson
For the first time, the newspaper lumps together Canadian fiction, though it errs in failing to recognize Basil King, Prince Edward Island's second bestselling author, as a fellow countryman. The Thread of Flame, Rev King's sixteenth novel, is listed with This Side of Paradise under the heading "By Other Authors."

I've read all of two of the twenty. The Thread of Flame ranks as my favourite King novel after The Empty Sack. The other, Hopkins Moorhouse's Every Man for Himself didn't make so much of an impression. I found it even less interesting than described: 

Of the remaining novels, The Prairie Mother was reprinted for a decade or so. In 1972, Alan Sullivan's The Rapids enjoyed a brief second life with the University of Toronto Press. It can' be argued that the most enduring Canadian novel of 1920 is Aleta Dey, which was revived in 1988 as a Virago Modern Classic. It remains in print to this day in a Broadview Press edition.

This country fares much worse in other categories. Where in 1919, Canadian authors took six of the coveted "Economics" titles, the 1920 showing amounts to A Study of Canadian Immigration by Prof W.G. Smith and Occupations for Trained Women in Canada by Mrs Vincent Massey. If forced to choose, I guess I'd read the latter. It might be interesting to see what advice Mrs Massey, daughter of Sir George Robert Parkin, wife of one of Canada's most privileged men — a future Governor General, no less — might have for the working woman.

The Canadian titles in the "Historical" category are a touch more tempting:
Hydro-Electric Development in Ontario - E.B. Biggar
The Cross-Bearers of the Sanguenay - Very Rev W.R. Harris
The Evolution of the Oil Industry - Victor Ross
The Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt - O. D. Skelton
The Life and Work of Sir William Van Horne - W. Vaughan
A new edition of Katherine Hale's biography of Father Lacombe and a revised edition of George H. Locke's When Canada was New France. also feature, but the real standout is George T. Denison's Recollections of a Police Magistrate, which is deemed "our outstanding Canadian book of the year."

This is something new; the Globe had never before made such a pronouncement. Here's its description:

I haven't yet cracked open Recollections of a Police Magistrate — copies begin at $245 — but it can be read for free here thanks to the Internet Archive,

I prefer paper, myself.

Consider me old fashioned.

Tempted as I am to leave it there, this being 2020, I can't help but note that the 1920 Globe list — like those of 1918 and 1919 — features not so much a passing reference to the Spanish Flu.

Not one mention,

Not one book.

14 December 2020

The Dusty Bookcase Christmas Gift List

A trying year all around, right? The Westons have been making out like bandits while we've been obsessing over our PC Optimum points balances. If any good has come out of this pandemic, it's found in communities coming together. Our family isn't alone in choosing to buy our meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, jams, and honey directly from local farmers.

Take that, Galen Weston!

While we have no local book publishers in Merrickville, Ontario, our household has become even more focussed in spending its money on titles published by Canadian houses. And so, for the first time in Dusty Bookcase history, I present a list of Christmas gift recommendations, beginning with limited editions offered by Biblioasis. The pride of Windsor, the publisher has this year been offering attractive  numbered and signed hardcovers of some of its most recent titles.

I took out a subscription myself, and then found myself spoiled by all sorts of additional treats, like this collection of Indie Bookseller Trading Cards.

No fool I, my package of cards remains unopened. Imagine how much it'll be worth in 2040!

The most recent limited edition, Jason Gruriel's Forgotten Words, was accompanied by advance reader's copies of Randy Boyagoda's Original Prin and Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto. Also included was this brilliant chapbook:

Take that, Jeff Bezos!

Give a loved one a subscription, if you can. If you've got more or less to spare, the rest of this inaugural Dusty Bookcase Christmas Gift List is as follows:

They Have Bodies
Barney Allen
Ottawa: University of
   Ottawa Press

The literary debut by a novelist I've suggested is Canada's strangest. First published by Macaulay in 1929, I'd been on the hunt for an affordable copy for years. At $29.95, this reissue is a steal. Gregory Betts' informative introduction and notes made me feel I'd really got away with something.

Swallowed [L’Avalée des
Réjean Ducharme [trans
   Madeleine Stratford]
Montreal: Véhicule

L’Avalée des avalés was taught in my Québecoise wife's high school, but not mine; this anglo-Montrealer was well into his thirties before he'd so much as heard of it. The greatest French Canadian novel of the 'sixties is here in the hands of one of our most talented translators.

Hearing More Voices:
   Women in Print and on
   the Air, 1914-1960
Peggy Lynn Kelly & Carole
Ottawa: Tecumseh

A study of unjustly neglected English Canadian women novelists, short story writers, humorists, historians, journalists, and broadcasters, including Dusty Bookcase favourites Edna Jaques and Isabel Ecclestone Mackay.
The Complete Adventures
   of Jimmie Dale, Volume
Frank L. Packard
[np: Michael Howard]

The second in Michael Howard's series of annotated Gray Seal adventures, this volume covers The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale and Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue. It all leads me to wonder why the Gray Seal hasn't made it to television. Walt Disney would agree.

07 December 2020

Ten Best Book Buys of 2020 (& Three Great Gifts)

In years to come – presuming they come – I expect I'll look upon this beat-up copy of Arthur Beverley Baxter's The Blower of Bubbles with great affection. I do now. Published in 1920 by McClelland & Stewart, the book is neither rare nor valuable, yet it is this year's most memorable find. It was purchased at the Bookworm in Perth, Ontario, not long after lockdown restrictions had been lifted. Three months had passed since I'd last visited a bookstore. After all that time, I'd have gladly paid for admission.

As might be expected, most of the books added to the bookcase this strange year were bought online. You'll see I was particularly drawn to signed copies – something to do with the daily reminders of mortality, I suppose.

What follows are the nine other titles in this year's top ten. 

An African Millionaire
Grant Allen
New York: Edward Arnold,

The first American edition, this isn't the best of copies – I am not a wealthy man – but at US$27.00 it was a great find. Responding to my review of Allen's The Woman Who Did, a friend suggested that An African Millionaire is the author's better-known book. Perhaps, but is it as good?

Mon cadavre au Canada
   [Hot Freeze]
Martin Brett [Douglas
   Sanderson; trans Bruno
Paris: Gallimard, 1955

The French translation of our greatest post-war noir novel. The story is abridged and Bruno Martin is clumsy, but that didn't stop me from also buying Estocade au Canada, his translation of Sanderson's A Dum-Dum for the President.

Pascal Berthiaume

Francis DesRoches
Quebec: Elite, 1932

A novel brought to my attention by Jean-Louis Lessard of Laurentiana. His review of this short novel of romance and small town politics intrigued. I was not disappointed!

Signed by the author.

Married, Yet No Wife;
   Or, Told in the Twilight
Mary Agnes Fleming
New York: Street &
   Smith, [c. 1916]

A fragile paperback published during the Wilson administration, it crumbles to the touch. The nineteenth-century Carleton editions hold up better, but I do like that cover. The title, which predates same-sex marriage in Canada by more than a century, intrigues.


Fred Jacob
Toronto: Macmillan, 1928

Bland boards, lacking dust jacket – please tell me one has survived – and still this ranks as one of my favourite finds. I've been meaning to read poor Fred Jacob for ages. The first sentence grabbed me: "In the Hortop family, innovation was looked upon as something to be combated."

The Twenty-first Burr

Victor Lauriston
Toronto: McClelland &
   Stewart, 1922

An early Canadian mystery, this is Lauriston's only novel. Amongst his other books are A Century of Milling, 1848-1948: the story of the T.H. Taylor Company Limited, Chatham, Ontario and Blue Flame of Service: A History of Union Gas Company and the Natural Gas Industry in Southwestern Ontario. Inscribed by the author.

Mine Inheritance

Frederick Niven
Toronto: Dent, 1945

Niven never had much of a profile, so how is it that Mine Inheritance, of which I'd never heard, was once abridged and edited as a school text? This copy, found in an Ottawa bookstore, came from the library of Henry C. Miller, founder of the legendary Graphic Publishers.

The Devastator

Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-
   Merrill, 1944

The last of Stringer's forty-four novels, I purchased this on a whim, sight unseen, from an online bookseller located in author's birthplace (Chatham, Ontario). Hollywood figures, as it did in the life of the author. Will you look at that cover! Signed by Stringer!

Phyllis Brett Young
Toronto: Longmans, 1959

The first edition of the author's first novel –  signed by the author, with a gift inscription from her mother – how this ended up in a Wallingford, Oxfordshire bookshop is anyone's guess. It has now been repatriated. I made the purchase while working on the Ricochet reissue of The Ravine, Phyllis Brett Young's only thriller.

Three generous souls sent books which, had they not been gifts, would have been considered amongst the year's best buys:

   Atomic Plot
Joe Holliday
Toronto: Allen,

Of the fourteen Dale of the Mounted books, this is the one I'd most wanted to read. I mentioned as much when reviewing Dale of the Mounted: Atlantic Assignment. Chris Otto of Papergreat heard my wish.

CAW-CAW Ballads

Wilson MacDonald
Toronto: The Author, 1930

Number 449 in this "AUTHOR'S EDITION, WHICH IS LIMITED, NUMBERED AND AUTOGRAPHED." The poet inscribed this copy to Healey Willan. A gift from Fiona Smith, does this go in my MacDonald collection or my Willan collection? I can't decide!

The Private War of
   Jacket Coates
Herbert Fairly Wood
Toronto: Longmans,

A gift from old pal James Calhoun, who worked with me in returning Peregrine Acland's All Else is Folly to print. The Private War of Jacket Coates is Canada's only novel of the Korean War. How is it that there was only one? And why is he title so bad? I aim to find out.

There's more to my purchase of Arthur Beverley Baxter's The Blower of Bubbles. On that day I was in Perth for the celebration of the 101st birthday of André Hissink, my grandfather.

A man born in 1919, in the midst of the Spanish Flu pandemic, two months after his 101st birthday he came down with COVID-19... and he beat it.

Here's hoping I share those genes.

Here's hoping you all are safe and well.

Related posts:

02 December 2020

Nazis Threaten from Beyond the Grave!

The Sleeping Bomb
James Moffatt
London: New English Library, 1970
125 pages

Jim used to say, "It's a business, it's the way I make my money, and I can live this way. I mean, people who write hardbacks can take a very, very long time to write them, which is very nice if you've got a good income behind you. Jim didn't have. I mean, he simply wrote to live, and he enjoyed doing it.
— Derry Moffatt, 1996 
The Sleeping Bomb appeared at news agents a few months after the author's pseudonymously published Skinhead. I wonder whether Moffatt knew by that time that he'd scored a smash hit. Skinhead was easily his biggest seller, spawning Suedehead (1971), Boot Boys (1972) Skinhead Escapes (1972) Skinhead Girls (1972), Top Gear Skin (1973) Trouble for Skinhead (1973) Skinhead Farewell (1974), and Dragon Skins (1975).

Even today, a half-century later, skinheads hold Skinhead and its sequels in high regard.

The Sleeping Bomb is a lesser work. Bereft of braces and Doc Martins, it begins on the other side of the pond – beneath the Hudson River, to be exact – with the discovery of a thirty-year-old one-man Nazi submarine during the construction of a new tunnel linking New York and New Jersey.

CIA agent Paul Henderson is assigned the case.

Why the CIA?

I have a theory – which is mine – that Moffatt knew he was out of his element when it came to responsibilities, jurisdictions, command structures, and the like. For this reason, he sets the novel in not-so-distant 1975, a year in which the armed forces of Canada, the United States, Mexican, and the United Kingdom fall under the centralized authority of the North Atlantic Defence Alliance. Intelligence agencies are being unified in a similar manner, which explains how Henderson ends up working under a Brit named Silas Manners

Not Silas Marner.

Not Miss Manners.

Because the sub is armed and booby-trapped, its hull cannot be breached. Dials, some broken, indicate that it contains a time bomb that is set to explode at some point in 1975. Whether government, intelligence or military, no one knows just  just what will happen, but everyone is sure it'll be really, really bad. 

The situation is so dire that I wondered why Henderson and Manner were left on their own to figure it all out. Restructuring, perhaps. As in any Richard Rohmer novel, the pair spend a good amount of time flying from place to place in an effort to get to the bottom of things. In their travels, they learn that the sub carries a "parasitic bomb" which will kill everyone within an area amounting to 250,000 square kilometres. 

The Americans published The Sleeping Bomb as The Cambri Plot. I mention this because because Cambri  – "Project Cambri" – is referenced a couple of times early in the novel.

Sure seems important. The ABC Movie of the Week President of the United States has a conniption when Paul Henderson let's slip that he's heard about it:
"WHAT!! Where did you hear that name, Henderson?"
   Paul wished to hell he'd kept his big mouth shut. "In General Herschfeld's office, sir. I overheard it when I paid a visit to him..."
   "Have you mentioned this to your colleagues?"
   "No, sir!"
   "Thank God!" The president's heavy breathing could be heard clearly.
Project Cambri involves rockets that can land on a pinprick. Their purpose is to carry documents and diplomats that might otherwise be intercepted by the Soviets.

That Project Cambri – note: not "The Cambri Plot" – is barely mentioned must have seemed strange to American readers. It vanishes in the early pages, only to reappear as the climax approaches. With three pages to go, I was interrupted by Kiefer, our nine-month-old Schnauzer. We played, and then went for a long walk.

As we made our way along our lonely rural road, I thought of everything that was wrong with the novel. I wondered whether visitors to East Germany were never searched. I tried to imagine Henderson piloting a locomotive across several hundred meters of railway ties, and then managing to get it back in the tracks.

Yeah, that happens.

More incredible was the Nazi plan, which involves planting a time bomb during the dying days of the Second World War and then waiting, waiting, waiting... The detonation, thirty years later, is intended to both bring about the reunification of a country that hadn't yet been divided and bring the world to its knees. Why not just set the bomb off in 1945? Why not kill millions and threaten millions more? Wouldn't that have brought the war to a sudden end? Wouldn't that have given Hitler the upper hand?

I'll never understand Nazis; James Moffatt's Nazis included.

Favourite passage: "CRAAAAASH! Wood splintered, flew in every direction. CRUUUUMP!"

Trivia I: New English Library's cover copy (below) was clearly written by someone who had not read the novel. The bomb would cover 250,000 square miles, not one thousand.

No neo-Nazis figure.             

Trivia II: Silas Manners reappears in Moffatt's Justice for a Dead Spy (London: New English Library, 1971).

Object: A slim, cheap mass market paperback. The novel itself is followed by three pages of adverts for other New English Library books.

Isn't this tempting!

Access: The Sleeping Bomb enjoyed one lone printing. Five copies are listed for sale online at prices ranging from £3.95 to £6.19. Condition isn't much of a factor.

The Cambri Plot was published in 1973 by Belmont Tower. Copies of that edition range from US$4.10 to US$55.42.

The novel last appeared as a Spanish translation, La Vengganza de Hitler, "una novela escalofriante," published in Mexico City in 1974 by Novaro.

Whether academic or public, not one copy of any is held by a Canadian library.