Open Air Bookfairs, Gay Archives, National Libraries & Michel Tremblay

Literary Tourist in Montreal

I don’t like identity politics. And I especially don’t like it when it intrudes on literature. I don’t care what colour or gender or sexual orientation or shape or size an author is, so long as his/her/their writing is good. That said, I think everybody should have the opportunity to tell their story, and that there should be plenty of places available for these stories to be told, read, discovered. Finally, while I think that readers and publishers should look all over the place for the best writing they can find, quality – a loaded term I realize – should be at the root of all decisions about what to read or who to publish – more so than content, or who or what the author is or isn’t. If the content or story is about the gay or trans or African-American or ‘dis’abled experience, and it’s well told – namely that it impels me to keep reading and helps me to better understand that experience – I’m good.

With this in mind, I went to the LGBT Open Air Bookfair recently on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. What a happy time it was. I chatted with these folks at

at FIERTE, learned that there’s a gay archive in Montreal

which is home to hundreds of photographs and posters and community newsletters that document the history and struggles of homosexuals in the city, and I saw these books, produced by a gay publishing house

The army was here.

Everyone seemed to be in a grand mood. Some were in really good shape,

others strutted

their stuff.

These guys really got dressed up for the occasion.

But, despite being billed as a ‘book fair,’ there weren’t, to be honest, that many books on display at the event. I wanted to see more. So, after a slow stroll up and down the booth-line boulevard, I decided, since it was only a block or two away, to drop in on the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec.

I asked one of the librarians to name me some of Quebec’s best known authors and publishers. Michel Tremblay of course, and Dany Laferrière. I’d heard of them. Nicholas Dickner? No. But his novel Nikolski did ring a bell. It won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English translation, and the 2010 edition of Canada Reads. I’d seen the cover before quite often.

,

There was Roland Giguere, the poet/publisher of Erta Books. The librarian also named Boreal, L’homme and Lémeac as some of the better known Quebec book publishers. So plenty of potential Biblio File interview topics and candidates here in Montreal (in fact, I’ve already interviewed Michel Tremblay, so please stay tuned).

Not that I haven’t already done some groundwork. Several years ago I interviewed Simon Dardick about his venerable Montreal-based English language Vehicule Press. You can listen here

and more recently, Ashley Obscura, co-founder of the nascent Metatron Press. She’d just moved into new office space when I met her.

Now that we’re on the topic of Montreal and libraries, I should mention the McGill Rare Books Library where I’ve been spending some pleasant hours recently, reading Robert Reid’s five volume memoir.

Robert Reid Memoir

I always feel good after spending time with Robert, so full of life he is. Still printing in his nineties out in Vancouver. And yes, I interviewed him once too. Listen here

Another draw of the McGill Library is that each week several doors down the folks working on the annual McGill Book Fair, put out several boxes of old books that they figure aren’t good enough to sell. You’d be surprised at what you can pick up here…for free.

Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster

Literary Tourist in Bordeaux, France

After strolling around Montaigne’s chateau

Montaigne wife tower, chateau, bordeaux
His wife apparently lived in the tower at the end, a long way from Montaigne’s study.

and eating royally on the run in St. Emilion,

we headed for Bordeaux. Since we were staying on the outskirts, I took the bus downtown. The first thing I spotted was this giant column, supported by a spectacular chariot

guarded by this arrogant rooster.


If his name isn’t Napoleon it should be.

I started walking in the direction of the Mollat Bookstore that publisher Heloise D’Ormesson had recommended I visit (at 15 rue Vital-Carles). It’s the oldest independent bookstore in France, and one of the biggest. It’s been in business, in the same family, since the 1890s and it’s located on the site of the last house that philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu lived in. I found it easily enough. When I arrived I figured I’d try to meet the owner, Denis Mollat. Turned out he was due to show up in 45 minutes, so I asked where all the charming little dying-to-be photographed ‘libraries’ were at,  and was told to visit a nearby side street. Here’s what I found:


This is no longer a bookshop, but the old sign’s still here so it counts. I love the lettering, and the colour of the paint.


The owner here wouldn’t let me take his photograph, but he did give me his latest catalogue.

After reaching the end of the rue I found myself à côté de Continue reading “Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster”

Fear, Loathing and Literary Tourism in Las Vegas

Literary Tourist in Las Vegas

The Globe and Mail ran a piece a while back on literary travel for the stay-at-home vacationer, getting well-known authors to recommend books that evoke various parts of Canada.

All very well, but, we don’t stay at home here; we believe that if you can, experiencing place in tandem with relevant, related reading, is the way to go.

To wit: when we went to ‘Sin City’ a few years ago, I checked out the bookstores, of course, but I also read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and tracked down some of the locales mentioned in it.

Circus Circus for example.

Here’s one of the best passages in the novel:

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos…but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange Country-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet sisters from San Diego…so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine’s neck…both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”

It’s a light, fast moving read, funnier than expected, and surprisingly thought-provoking – largely because as a literary tourist on the scene, you get face-to-face with these American Dream seekers that Thompson so successfully lampoons…complete with Southward angled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, glazed eyes, Depends tight around their groins, and coins flowing from their pockets into insatiable fruit-buttoned machines, flushing money down the toilet bowl.

Mind boggling really. More fucked up than anyone on drugs could ever be. Knowing the odds are stacked against them. Playing anyway.

***

One way to start off the day in Vegas is with a good breakfast at The Bellagio. Food is excellent, the options plentiful, and the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby as you head into the restaurant, is gorgeous.

There are a surprising number of decent used bookshops in Vegas, starting with Bauman Rare Books located nearby in the Palazzo’s high-end shopping mall – which makes sense given that Bauman owns the high-end of the book market – the shop is more special collections library than anything else, except here, of course, you can buy the books! As then manager Rebecca Romney explained (this goes back a few years, she’s now with Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, and just so you know, what she has to say hasn’t dated at bit. It’s good, timeless advice), Bauman specializes in high-spot literature – typically the ‘best’ work by the best authors in the best condition. As a result you can expect big ticket prices, but you can also expect that the books will hold their value.

Listen to our conversation here:

Moving off The Strip, other shops in town worth visiting include the Amber Unicorn with its enormous cook book selection, Plaza Books (Update: It’s closed. Now online only), Greyhound’s Books (out of business), and the spacious Dead Poet Books (also out of business). All are clean, well organized affairs, and all offer interesting stock. Toward mid-afternoon I hit Academy Fine Books (doesn’t appear to be in business anymore…I’m going to start crying now). It’s located across the road from this heavenly creature

who looks down benignly on the now empty (and sketchy), aptly named Blue Angel Motel. Academy is decidedly disorganized, and as such, more of a treasure hunt than the other stores. Turned out to be my favourite. I pulled out this desirable E. McKnight Hauffer cover

for $10 (later printing, unfortunately, but still a lovely find. And yes, appears that it too is out of business. So much for the surprising number of used bookstores now. Looks like it’s time for another visit to survey the carnage).

Depending upon how bagged you are from all the browsing, you might want to check out Las Vegas Shakespeare. It hosts and produces an interesting lineup of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year (okay this is getting ridiculous. Seems like it too is closed). The studio is located across the road from the Neon Museum, (not closed)

another place worth visiting.

***

I came to literary tourism through the doors of a used bookstore. Via the hunt. And yet, book shopping represents just one of many ways in. One of the most popular, is, as I say, through the pages of a novel. In Fear and Loathing the two lead characters check into The Mint Hotel and Casino.

after booting it from L.A. to Vegas in their rented, drug-laden convertible. Hunter S. Thompson puts it much better: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.”

The Mint sadly is no longer, or at least its name has gone. The place is now known as Binion’s. It’s seen better days. Like when big crowds were still tight around the crap tables. “Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”

So, I called them up and got a tour of the hotel part of what is now a casino complex. Turns out it, the tower, has been closed, awaiting renovation, for some four years now. Nonetheless, we traipsed up in un-airconditioned heat to the 12th and 18th floors, in search of rooms 1221 and 1850. No such luck. Neither exist. We did however visit the 5th floor and a double bedded room that more than likely served as sauce for Thompson’s meatball imagination. We also hit the rooftop patio, complete with empty swimming pool, and a great view of several other buildings that would have been around in the late 60s.

From Binion’s I hi-balled it across town to the Special Collections Library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about gambling and the history of ‘Sin City’. “ UNLV Special Collections houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” Collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.

I talked gambling with former director now Head of Exhibits (now Curator) Peter Michel. Listen here to our conversation:

After our conversation I pulled the files on The Mint, ‘the tallest building’ in Nevada at the time, and saw how it looked shortly after it went up, how they promoted it, and what they stirred their drinks with. I also got to play with a First Edition of Fear (see above).

How did this physical framing of the book affect my experience of it? Rather positively I’d say. Bringing it out into the real world has certainly made both events – the reading, and the visiting – more distinctly memorable. There’s a thrill attached to seeing in real life what you’ve first encountered in your imagination – even if the two don’t always match. Extending my encounter with the book was fun, a continuation, an excursion, a kind of treasure hunt, in a way, which takes us back to the start, searching for things – books in one case, deeper understanding in the other – trying to impose order on the chaos.

Connecting with Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Statue (4503030408).jpg
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin

I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deeply empathic passages, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:

“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to in it. With this in mind, Dublin would be a pretty good starting point.   Dublin is one of 28 Cities of Literature around the world. It’s filled with all sorts of literary things to do and places to visit, including  Oscar Wilde House  and The Oscar Wilde Collection at Trinity College’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.

Visit the Cary Graphic Arts Collection in Rochester, New York

Location: Rochester Institute of Technology
Author(s): Frederick Ghoudy, Ismar David, Hermann Zapf.
Hours: Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–12 p.m., 1 p.m.–5 p.m. Other times by appointment
Focus: Book Design, Graphic Design, Typeface Design, Bookbinding, printer’s manuals, typography, typeface specimens, calligraphy, great books of the printer’s art
Terms: A call ahead is preferred

The Cary Collection is one of the U.S.’s premier libraries on graphic communication history and practices. The original collection of 2,300 volumes was assembled by the New York City businessman Melbert B. Cary, Jr. during the 1920s and 1930s. Cary was director of Continental Type Founders Association (a type-importing agency), a former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and proprietor of the private Press of the Woolly Whale.  His professional and personal interests in printing led him to collect printer’s manuals and type specimens, as well as great books of the printer’s art.  In 1969, the Cary Collection was presented to RIT by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust as a memorial to Mr. Cary, together with funds to support the use and growth of the collection. Today the library houses some 40,000 volumes and a growing number of manuscripts and correspondence collections.

While the collection’s original strengths continue to be an important focus, other aspects of graphic arts history have also been developed. For example, the Cary Collection is committed to building comprehensive primary and secondary resources on the development of the alphabet and writing systems, early book formats and manuscripts, calligraphy, the development of typefaces and their manufacturing technologies, the history and practice of papermaking, typography and book design, printing and illustration processes, bookbinding, posters, and artists’ books.

Though many of the volumes in the library are rare, the Cary Collection has maintained, from the beginning, a policy of liberal access for all students and especially those enrolled in the RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.

The Cary Collection also manages the Graphic Design Archive, comprised of some 36 archives documenting the work of important 20th-century Modernist graphic designers, and has been aggressively acquiring examples of avant-garde book typography.