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.

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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…

Apricot Pie, Michel de Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, St. Emilion and gourmet to go

Literary Tourist near Bordeaux, France

Did you know that Transat flies Bordeaux – Montreal direct? We did, and so decided to avoid the Paris crush by driving from Le Mans, where we were staying, through Chateauroux where my wife’s uncle and aunt live, along to Angoulême, host, every January, to the world’s third largest comic book convention; from here we scooted over to Michel de Montaigne’s Chateau, and finally, into Bordeaux where I visited the oldest, and arguably biggest, independent bookshop in France.

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It was some hot. How hot? Let’s just say we didn’t see any escargot sunning themselves on the sidewalks. It would have been lethal. Luckily Robert had rigged up a garden hose shower in the back yard


Caroline et Robert

and in the shade of some nearby trees it was possible to enjoy, in relative comfort, his chilled red wine, a selection of his choice barbequed meats, and his wife Martine’s delicious apricot pie-like, clafoutis-type desert.

It cooled off a bit over night (the outside temperature that is) so the drive to Angoulême wasn’t as stifling as the one to Chatalroux had been the day before (the a/c in our Enterprise rental car was on the fritz). We arrived in time for a late lunch. Just in time, in fact, for the hostess at the first restaurant on the square where we’d parked, to tell us there was no more food, we’d have to try next door. Yes, they could accommodate us, but we were lucky. The last ones fed.

Most French restaurants outside of Paris stop serving lunch at around 2pm. Despite the inconvenience I kind of like this practice; says something about the quality of the food. Good that it’s not available around the clock like it is in North America. Judging from the glee with which ours delivered her dispiriting news, it’s clear that at least some waiters over here do get a perverse pleasure in telling people, especially Americans, to get lost. But I’m being too harsh. Generally speaking the demeanor of French hospitality toward English speaking tourists has improved markedly over the past ten years.

I wanted to see Angoulême’s comic strip museum, ground-zero for the International Comics Festival that has taken place here every year since 1974. More than 200,000 attend annually; venues are spread out around the city. The Festival is known for the important prizes that it hands out. Unfortunately the place was closed (on Mondays). I did however get a photo

and along the way found evidence of Angoulême’s commitment to comics. Its street-names are displayed in cartoon speech bubbles

There’s also a 4,5 meter high obelisk that’s been erected in front of the train station in honour of Astérix scriptwriter René Goscinny. On it you’ll find memorable lines from the comic strip including “Strange guys, those Romans!”

From Angoulême we went Bergerac, which, I figured, had to have something to do with Cyrano. Turns out it didn’t. Seems like neither the real guy, nor the fictional guy ever stepped foot in Bergerac. The only connection is this opportunistic statue

Cyrano, statue

Still, it offered the opportunity to think about Edmond Rostand and his play, published in 1897. It describes Cyrano’s love for the beautiful Roxanne, whom he woos on behalf of his handsomer, less articulate friend Christian. Cyrano was first performed at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris in 1897, and in English in the United States in 1898. Its translation that year introduced the word “panache” into the English language. Anthony Burgess, among others, also translated the play. There have been numerous adaptations of Cyrano, among the best-known are the 1950 American film starring José Ferrer and the 1990 French-Hungarian film starring Gérard Depardieu.

From Bergerac, with its half timbered houses, we went to our hotel which looked, for a heart-stopping hour, like it might not be able to offer internet service. Luckily it kicked in after we got back from a run to the supermarché. The following morning we headed out to famed essayist Michel de Montaigne’s Château. It’s beautifully situated.


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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.

San Francisco and The Arion Press here we come

The Arion Press was founded in San Francisco in 1974 by Andrew Hoyem growing out of a partnership he had with Robert Grabhorn using the Grabhorn Press‘s famed collection of metal type. Arion has published more than 100 fine press books, many of which are illustrated with prints by prominent artists.

Each year the press publishes three or four “exquisite” books in editions of 400 copies or less. Titles over the years have included Moby Dick, a lectern edition of the Bible, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Other books include treatments of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Emily Dickinson, novels by Samuel Beckett, H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf. and plays by Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Edward Albee and Arthur Miller. These books are highly collectible.

Hoyem was born in 1935. He is an accomplished printer, a published poet, and an exhibited artist. His Arion Press, named after the Greek poet known in myth for having been kidnapped by pirates and miraculous rescued by dolphins, has been called America’s “leading publisher of fine-press books.” The concepts for all Arion publications originate with Hoyem, who chooses literary texts, commissions new work from writers and artists he admires, and designs the books, including their bindings and typography.

Many rank Hoyem’s edition of Moby Dick among the greatest American fine-press books ever published. His most ambitious project, the Folio Bible, took several years to complete. This is likely to be the last Bible ever to be printed from metal type.

In 1989 Arion acquired Mackenzie & Harris, “the oldest and largest remaining type foundry in the United States, established with equipment displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.” In 2000 Hoyem founded the nonprofit Grabhorn Institute to “help preserve and continue the operation of one of the last integrated facilities for type-founding, letterpress printing, and bookbinding, developing it as a living museum and educational and cultural center, open to the public, with a gallery and tours as well as an apprenticeship program.”

I’ll be in San Francisco next month. I plan to visit the Arion Press, where I’ll enjoy the privilege of interviewing Mr. Hoyem for The Biblio File podcast. I’m pumped. Stay tuned!

Fancy a Poldark pilgrimage?

If you’re a fan of Poldark, the series of historical novels by Winston Graham (published from 1945 to 1953 and continued from 1973 to 2002),  and/or the subsequent BBC telly series, you’ll enjoy this gorgeous spread of photos highlighting various real-life Cornwall locations that are featured in the books and on the screen. There’s also a book, also written by Graham that you can buy: a  lavishly illustrated companion to the novels that was reissued to coincide with the TV show. (If you’re interested in the faithfulness of the TV series to the books, or the books to the reality, you might like to read this intriguing take on the topic).

If this isn’t enough,  Visit Cornwall has a map, and some typically lush travel lingo to go with it that encourages us to “Go behind the scenes and discover the glistening blue waters, lush countryside and craggy cliffs that have sashayed from the background to become the lead Poldark star across the first three series. We think they’re even better in real-life than they are on screen!”

Hungry for more? Try The Poldark Cookery Book, wherein you’ll find a recipe for one of my very favourite dishes:  the cornish pasty ( be sure to enjoy with a pint of West Country cider!). The cookbook is “filled with the food that would have been enjoyed by Ross Poldark and Demelza in the eighteenth century, this recipe book is the perfect present for the Poldark super-fan.”

For more of what you’ll need to know before you go, drop by the Visit Cornwall website. Oh, and if you’re a book collector, there’s currently a set of all twelve first editions available online for US$8500