Albany for the Writers, Cooperstown for the Books

I ‘d been browsing Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer with some pleasure, and noticed, after conducting one of my regular panoramic literary event scans covering a circular territory – centre in Montreal, circumference a 3 1/2 hour drive away – that she was scheduled to speak in a few days time right out on the edge of the circle, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. 

The Skidmore readings are connected to the New York State Writers Institute, at SUNY in nearby Albany. Together they draw some impressive talent, so I’m very attentive to what goes down there. In fact, today, Salman Rushdie happens to be on deck. 

Time was limited. I put in a couple of calls, but predictably wasn’t able to tee up a Biblio File interview with Francine. Still, I was interested enough to jump in the car and drive down. I’d overnight near the college and drive to a bookstore in Cooperstown the next morning, July 4th. I’d dropped in on it years ago, but the visit was rushed, and I’ve harboured a desire to return ever since. 

On the way down to Skidmore I listened to a podcast called Think Again. The guest was Martin Amis. There was some interesting talk about Joyce – 25% of Ulysses is brilliant, says Amis, the rest, not so much. He’s read about a third of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest ( I flamed out at a quarter). He is respectful, and says DFW’s essays are good (agreed), especially the ones on tennis, but suggests that his fiction burns up the reader’s good will very quickly. Too quickly, unless of course you’re young and love the challenge of reading brain-crampingly boring text. When the podcast host, Jason Gots, offers up that he’s “enraptured” by Wallace’s digressions, I have trouble suspending my disbelief. When Part ll of the podcast comes on and the discussion turns to AI, it was all I could do not to change the channel. I never turn Amis off, but this was too much. 

Another thing that bothered me was Jason’s frequent outbursts of nervous, paradoxical laughter. Amis does his best to talk through it, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the seriousness of the whole enterprise. 

I should perhaps come clean here. Prior to driving down to Albany I’d been organizing a trip to New York, lining up various book people to interview. I was keen to talk to Amis. Have been for some time. Probably since I read London Fields. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author responsible for bringing Nicola Six into the world. So I fired off an email to his agent Andrew Wylie. “No,” was his firm response.  Not a hard, final no, just no this time round. The prospect might brighten closer to when his next big ‘baggy’ novel hits the shelves. 

So this “no” was ringing in my ears, at the same time I sat jealously listening to the jarring hyena laughter and the inanity AI novel writing.

After arriving at Skidmore I walked the campus a bit

found the classroom, and took a seat close to the stage. I wasn’t in the most sanguine mood. The talks weren’t terribly enlightening. Both participants made a point of repeatedly referring to “my students.” Once the floor opened up for questions I asked Francine what differentiated her book from How to Read a Book, written by a ‘dead white guy’ more than fifty years ago. Few seemed to have heard of Mortimer Adler. Basically he advocated close reading, which is pretty well what Francine does in her book, along with providing some engaging exegesis. 

More women, was the obvious answer. That’s pretty well it. I should add that although my question was presented provocatively, the intent was to facilitate her making this point. 

As the tents were folding a robust, busty young tatooed student glided past me and said “I’m looking forward to the day you’re a dead white male,” missing entirely the philanthropic nature of my question. 

A couple of items to note about nearby Albany: McGeary’s Irish pub in Clinton Square has an excellent happy hour where good, large stiff drinks are poured. Plus Herman Melville’s childhood home – a pink building – stands right next to it! Speaking of buildings,  check these out 

They’re right down town, part of a complex of state government buildings called The Empire State Plaza. It was built between 1965 and 1976 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. There’s a major public collection of 1960s and 1970s monumental abstract artworks on permanent display throughout the site. Plus there’s a performing arts center. The supervising architect was Wallace Harrison.

And final note: a year or so ago we were in town and I decided to check out the book section at a local thrift store. Damned if I didn’t find a 7th printing of the British Faber paperback edition of Anna Burns’s Booker-winning novel Milkman on the shelf!

AnnaBurnsMilkmanBookCover.jpg

 

Next morning I headed off to Cooperstown, NY, home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful sunny day that brightened the already colourful surroundings. 

But I wasn’t here for the Hall, or for my name engraved for free on a bat

or for the baseball gear. Not even the dogs, although I did dunk a couple for lunch. 

No, I was here for the books, and Willis Monie Books had loads of them to offer at sparkling good prices. How good? Well check out the pile I bought ( mostly publishers’ histories). I think Willis was pleased. 

This hog print also spoke loudly to me

as did a number of dust jackets from the forties and fifties, on books all priced at under $10, including a striking one by Milton Glaser, and this beauty published by Faber. Had to buy it. 

After wobbling out of the store with my pile, I was greeted by this

actually, my first encounter with it was after the breakfast I’d enjoyed at this diner across the street. I’d decided to squeeze out all the good in a bad situation by leaving the car parked where it was for the day. Still, I couldn’t believe that the town would ticket me on July 4th. How damned unpatriotic.  

Margaret Atwood, Literary Tourist in Kingston

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario

A Biblio File podcast interview, in which: I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also about: the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing – all of which took place at the Kingston Writers Festival 

several years ago, a wonderful literary celebration that occurs every September in the city of wind turbines 

…of my (and now my youngest daughter’s) alma mater, Queen’s University 

with its Jordon Special Collections Library, full of Lorne Pierce’s Canadiana,

…of Berry and Peterson’s bookshop, where I regularly visit John and Richard to get the latest and hottest antiquarian book gossip

and learn stuff about books etc., like for example that important early editions of Canadian Forum magazine are worth diddly-squat.

…of Morrison’s where I used to go 30-odd years ago for hungover breakfasts (now I hear from famed Canadian book designer Laurie Lewis [ listen to our conversation about her time at the University of Toronto Press with Allan Fleming here]

that it’s not the ‘go to’ place anymore, Peter’s on Princess is, but still this is a pretty damned good photo so I’m leaving it in anyway)

…of the Belvedere Hotel

where I once met my hero, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee who signed about 25 of my/his first editions and after my yammering on for about 10 of the signatures I suddenly shut up, realizing that I don’t know J.M from Adam, and what the fuck am I trying to do here anyway? Convince myself that there is some sort of relationship when in fact there’s nothing? And why am I so obsessed with signed firsts editions anyway…

…of Chez Piggy where I’ve spent some stellar evenings shooting the breeze with friends about airy concepts out on the back patio, and

…of Pat Grew my best friend, and the best math teacher in the world. Okay don’t take my word for it.

Buenos Aires Biblio File Backstory

Literary Tourist in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires was on sale. It was such a great deal, we couldn’t afford not to go. 

So who was I going to interview? I called on my go-to-guy in matters publishing and international, Richard Charkin. Richard has held many important positions during his long, distinguished career in publishing, including, quite recently, President of the International Publishers Association. He was bound to know some interesting book-types in BA. 

I met Richard through an entertaining blog he used to write about 10 years ago. I’ve interviewed him twice since. Once about ‘great’ publishers, here, once about mother elephants and cod

I’ve called upon Richard often for help with The Biblio File podcast. He’s always come through. And he did again, this time with Ana Maria Cabanellas. He also recommended this restaurant, Los Pinos

where the waiters illustrate every day why Argentinians are so good at pouring wine. 

They’d be fired if they did this here.

The trip got off to a good start when I found a huge bottle of Martini Rosso for $15 at the duty-free. After a relatively bump-free flight we settled into an Airbnb in the Palermo district – barrio – of Buenos Aires. Very leafy; filled with coffee shops, bars and tiny fruit and veggie shops (holes in the wall really) in front of which people line up 24-7 it seemed. And no wonder. A big bag of oranges went for peanuts, so we enjoyed fresh juice, squeezed by me, by-hand, every morning. 

I had one interview lined up, and needed more. So I tried a long-shot. I’d interviewed Margaret Atwood at the Kingston Writers Festival several years back about Literary Tourism in Ontario (and Boston). Listen here. Alberto Manguel was also at the event, on the marquis. For sure they knew each-other. And for sure he knew Buenos Aires. One thing led to another, and  thanks to Alberto I landed interviews with famed short story writer Lilliana Heker – Shakespearean in her ability to render veiled critiques of repressive regimes – and detective novelist Guillermo Martinez. Thanks to Alberto I also met the publisher Adriana Hidalgo. She was a little too shy (or smart) to be taped or photographed, but what a lovely woman. And what a lovely children’s catalogue

First thing on the second day’s to-do list was to get bus/subway cards. They were on sale at the tourism office, located next to a busy, pedestrian un-friendly roundabout, between a planetarium and this

I joked with our decidedly friendly tourism ambassador

that it must be difficult to stare at a horse’s ass all day long.

From here we made our way across town to Guillermo Martinez’s place. He’s best known for his 2003 novel, The Oxford Murders. It won the Planeta Prize and was adapted into a film in 2008 starring John Hurt and Elija Wood. Guillermo knew about Oxford because after getting his PhD he worked there for two years on a post-doc at the Mathematical Institute. Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview I headed up to the main drag. On it, along the way to the subway station, I encountered these

The design, or cake or something, must have significance here in Argentina because I saw them all over the place. Still, I held off stuffing any in my mouth, because not ten steps from our apartment building,

there was this ice-cream shop. Plus I was dying to sit in that chair. 

The next day I ventured downtown, past this overworked city employee, to visit Alberto Casares Antiquarian & Modern Books at Suipacha 521. Borges used to browse and buy and hang-out here. Here’s a shelf of his first editions.

Upstairs there was another full shelf, this one containing a complete run of Victoria Ocampo’s Sur (pronounced ‘sore’) magazine. Here’s numero-uno 

Victoria lived in a beautiful villa that you can visit on the outskirts of BA, about 30 Km from downtown. It’s now owned by UNESCO

After Casares I strolled over a few streets to Poema 20. The place smelled strongly of mildew but the books seemed to be in decent enough condition. I spotted a first edition of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. It was marked “450” which I initially thought represented pesos. The clerk quickly set me straight. I asked if they had any Grete Stern photography books, but we couldn’t find any, so I ventured across the street, to a surprisingly warm reception. 

I was greeted at the door of Libreria Helena de Buenos Aires by Renato Garcia.

As is my wont, I asked him about well-known book designers. We went back into his office and he showed me this book,   

singling out master printer Francisco Colombo (who printed that first issue of Sur seen above), and master typographer Raúl Mario Rosarivo. He also brought out an early edition of Don Segundo Sombre, an important Argentinian novel by Ricardo Güiraldes. The protagonist is a gaucho, just as he is in José Hernández’s famed poem ‘Martín Fierro’. 

Then this dude showed up, intent on obscuring my entire scope of vision, 

He looked like he wouldn’t go down without a scrap, so I withdrew gracefully, thanking Renato for his hospitality. Next stop was Grupo Claridad‘s offices in Belgrano to talk to Ana Maria Cabanellas one of the “50 most influential people in publishing in the Spanish Language.” 

Listen to our conversation about book publishing in Argentina here:

Next morning –  a brilliant, sunny one – we jumped on the bus to El Caminito, a little quartier filled with colourfully painted buildings (okay, shacks ). Before I knew it I was being summonsed 

Who wouldn’t obey? Innocently, I thought she wanted me to participate in some sort of tango demonstration. Suddenly her co-conspirator whipped out the camera…they wanted money of course. It had nothing to do with my looks, or dancing prowess. Crest-fallen, I made my way over to the nearest beer/tavern to take the edge off. Here I was shown how it’s really done. 

Early that afternoon, following some excellent street meat, I taxied over to El Ateneo – the theatre of books –  where I tried unsuccessfully to artfully Instagram this Margaret Atwood book.

After some number of attempts, I gave up in frustration, dousing it (the frustration) with an espresso at the cafe on centre stage. Next it was over to Liliana Heker’s place. She is a very brave woman who, unlike many authors,  stayed in Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ to combat its repressive regime. It was a privilege to interview her. Just listen to the power of her voice. 

Outside her apartment I encountered this pig

I guess this is more of a mural, but Buenos Aires is celebrated for its graffiti. Here, for example is Mafalda, a tribute to the hugely popular comic book character created here in 1964 by Quino. 

The following morning we visited MALBA

Highlight for me was Grete Stern‘s psyched-out photographs, and this  caption line on the wall: “Books of photographs were the maximum expression of Buenos Aires [in the fifties] as the great city of South America.”

Which is not to say that this dude in his underwear wasn’t pretty appealing too

What really struck home with this museum though is how influential modern European art was around the world. Many of the works here were blatant knock-offs, but always with a slight difference – assuming the local character. 

We walked a ways, out of the museum, and over to the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Looked all over for her, but could only find Victoria, which really was just fine

Then it was off to Falena Bookstore and Wine Bar near another cemetery, and Kit Maude, who provides a must-listen-to guide for the Literary Tourist intent on visiting Buenos Aires, here:

Toward the end of the afternoon I taxied over to the National Library.

 


to see the exhibition. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let me in. One day strike. Just today. Borges thought it (the building) was a monstrosity. 

Being the Second part of my Southern Ontario Book Safari

Literary Tourist in Southern Ontario, Canada

I arrived at Rod and Joanne’s place in Welland, Ontario just in time for supper (there’s a name for people who do this: smellfeasts); and a delicious one it was at that.

Rod (Morris) and I worked together very successfully throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s in the feature news distribution and magazine contract publishing business(es). As Sir Stanley Unwin put it in his book, The Truth About Publishing, “Publishing is an unusually difficult occupation. It is at once an art, a craft, and a business, for which a curious and unusual combination of qualifications is desirable.” This holds as true for magazines as it does for books.

Early on I knew that Rod possessed the right qualifications. He is a great magazine publisher, and I’m lucky to call him a friend.

I love Rod as much as anything, for his fluffy french-toast – a substantial helping of which I consumed the next morning. Then it was out the door, into downtown Welland, and over to the home of one of Canada’s most knowledgeable, respected antiquarian book dealers.

I carted in a box of books I’d reserved especially for Steven’s eagle-eye, along with my newly acquired Powell novels, purchased here

Now here’s the thing – because they appear later on in the Dance to the Music of Time series – after it had become popular – my volumes aren’t as scarce as the ones preceding them. Not that they aren’t worth anything; they are: $50 – $75 each. Problem is, Steven and most other dealers, will only give me 20-25% of this amount (in Steve’s case, paid out in cash). In other words, about $15 each – which is roughly what I paid for them in the first place. While there might be a little profit here, it’s hardly worth all the effort.

I resolved to hold on to them – to play custodian for a while – and try my luck elsewhere, perhaps in the States where I’ll benefit from the exchange rate and the fact that they don’t see British editions down there all that often.

With this business out of the way, Steven and I got to rapping about his passion for finding and identifying lost Canadian literature – books that few others know about. It’s a fascinating project. You can learn more about it by listening to our conversation here:

From Steven and Welland I hit Continue reading “Being the Second part of my Southern Ontario Book Safari”

What’s so exciting about London, Stratford, and Hamilton, Ontario?

Literary Tourist tours Ontario, Canada

The adventure began in my book-filled storage cave in Ottawa. This picture was taken after twelve boxes full were removed and crammed into my car. A local bookseller, Bill Cameron, had told me about Attic Books several years ago.

I’d already carted a van-load of books down Highway 401 to London, Ontario, where Attic is located, and gotten what I thought was a reasonable deal for them ( I always go with trade). Owner Marvin Post likes to move books – buys and sells lots of them – turnover is good for business he says. What I love is that he doesn’t just cock his nose, sniff at your offerings and deign only to take a handful. No. Marvin – depending upon what you bring him of course – will take a whole whack: ten boxes worth this time round. Now granted, my books were pretty good, but most booksellers just wont do what Marvin does.

I arrived late. It’d taken two hours just to get from one frikin end of Toronto to the other on the clogged highway. Luckily I’d downloaded a bunch of book-centric podcasts – including some episodes of Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Co, (she’s one top-drawer interviewer). Of the many I listened to that afternoon, perhaps the best was with Diana Athill. Absolutely delightful. Listen here. She talks of Andre Deutsch, and of her experience publishing books over many decades. So glad I bought a signed copy of her Life Class a few years ago (from Dan Mozersky) (she died recently at the age of 101)

And the episode on Simone de Beauvior? Riveting

When we’d finally unloaded the car and the books had been priced,

it was closing time, so Marvin and I Continue reading “What’s so exciting about London, Stratford, and Hamilton, Ontario?”