Ryerson, Canadian Book Publishing, Libido and Plucked Chickens

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens

where my eldest daughter was scheduled to cross the stage the next day, a graduate of this program. This is why I was here; but naturally I’d lined up a few Biblio File interviews to wile away the spare time.

The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).

It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.

Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis

where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.

***

David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told this podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. Listen to the fireworks here if you like

We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.

Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College where sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the Profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.

After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.

Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic,’also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’

To be continued…

Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones

Literary Tourist in Wales

Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.

The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.

She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.

I caught up with her at Morgans hotel in Swansea, Thomas’s home town, to talk about poet and place. Listen here:

I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.

He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.

Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,

the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:

***

Unfortunately we couldn’t fit Gregynog Hall,

where the press’s books are printed, into our Welsh itinerary. So I decided Continue reading “Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones”

Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

It was a tough trek. Way longer than I expected – from the American University of Paris to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine. I was lugging my laptop too, and the books Daniel Medin had given me after our conversation about translation, plus this

Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Predictably I wasn’t on time for my interview with its editor, Krista Halverson. It wasn’t that I was winded, or, despite the heat, sweating too much; no, I was annoyed because I was unnecessarily late. Krista quickly shooed this funk away, assuring me that she hadn’t noticed, inviting me to join her for a beverage at the store’s adjacent cafe (there on the left,  all dressed in white).

Yes, Shakespeare & Co. has its own cafe now! – a luxury that long-time owner George Whitman could only covet. The store, and cafe, are now owned by his daughter Sylvia –  as in Beach – who I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately for me, she was off on maternity leave, nurturing the next generation of bibliophiles.

I ordered an espresso, Krista chose some sort of energizing berry-carrot concoction. Of course that’s what I should have had – being hot and tired and late and all. We moved to the outdoor patio to plot out how our conversation would go. Krista couldn’t finish her drink and offered me what remained – looked like half the glass. Perfect.

She showed me through the shop, which, thanks to various adjacent rooms and apartments coming on the market and being bought or rented at different times , really does

resemble a rabbit warren.

You need to pay attention to details if you want to get the full bookstore experience. Floor tiles

overhead signs, biblical

and otherwise

(City Lights in San Francisco is a sister store, and sports a Shakespeare &Co. sign above its door), and I really liked this window full of flowers

We even stopped in on some young Continue reading “Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris”

Salem Massachusetts Before and After

Literary Tourist in Salem

This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.

We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.

Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot

Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery

where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,

beside which you can

Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.

It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.

Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.

For presentation alone however: Most memorable!

Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.

Bookshop, Salem

I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.

***

While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,

dog motiffed

coffeehouse. The service was spirited

as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,

Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”

For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.