Archive for August, 2010

“The Klondike Quest”

Toward the end of a Value Village trip a couple of months ago I found a copy of The Klondike Quest, and although the dust jacket and binding were both a bit beaten up, it’s a nice collection of photos to have around, so I decided to grab it. The text is by Pierre Berton and the design by Frank Newfeld (former art director and VP at McClelland & Stewart, Alligator Pie illustrator extraordinaire and more recently author of a memoir, Drawing on Type, also on my to-read list). Barbara Sears did the photo research and although I don’t know anything else about her, photo research is task I have recently discovered I loathe and it must have been a monster job for this book, so she gets special mention here. I haven’t read it all the way through, but it’s in my bedside stack and I like paging through the photos when I’m between books or too tired for a proper before-bed read.

The town where I grew up was on the Gold Rush Trail and I was kind of weary of the subject by the time I moved away for university. Or weary, at least, of the various efforts to resuscitate its allure for the tourist market. Efforts which included planting gold-painted boulders and plywood cancan dancers on the town’s outskirts. You get the idea. I’ve more or less made peace with the tackiness but it took me a long while to regain any appetite for books or movies to do with that era. However, in addition to The Klondike Quest, I have also lately begun watching the HBO show Deadwood, which aired a few years ago. Along with the period costumes and grit, which are their own draw I suppose, the show has exceptional dialogue. A far cry from the script used in the reenactments (oh yes, there were those too) put on every summer in our fair village. Printing enthusiasts will also appreciate the scenes that take place in the shop of the town’s newspaper publisher and job printer A. W. Merrick (one of the handful of characters based on real people, in case you feel like diving down that rabbit hole).

So things have been right pioneering around here lately. But it’s still hot and I do intend to get back to the remainder of the summer book club list before the season’s out. Just you wait.


The other day I came across an essay by American poet Tony Hoagland, called “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” It originally appeared in a 2006 issue of Poetry magazine, and is available on their website. Well worth reading if you’re interested in some of the current debate about what might characterize (at least a part of) the current poetic era.

I’ve been mulling the question of narrative in poetry for a good while now, both in relation to my own work and in my reading of other poets. My own work tends to fall really naturally into a “Once upon a time” kind of lilt, and in the face of a lot of the more associative, less “I” driven work being published lately, I’ve often felt compelled to rethink my inclinations. Do I write this way because it comes naturally or because I’m too lazy or not a strong enough poet to jog myself out of it? The conclusion I’ve come to is that at this point, anyway, this is the position from which the work I’m happiest with comes, and that if the things I find myself interested in writing about present themselves as stories then my job is to try to shape the strongest narratives I can, rather than try to bash them into ghazal-like series of sideways glances. (Both the ghazals and the glances being entirely respectable modes, but decidedly not mine.)

Noah Richler’s beach reads

Speaking (as I was last post) about books and place, I’ve been following the Globe and Mail‘s “My Books, My Place” series for the last several weeks. Some are more interesting takes on the pairing than others. Lisa Moore’s this weekend was a goody, I thought. And last weekend I was delighted to see Fredericton author Allan Donaldson’s first novel Maclean (2005) perched on a dozing Noah Richler’s chest as one of his beach reads. You can find the article here. This spring I had the pleasure of working with Allan on his new novel, a literary mystery called The Case Against Owen Williams, which is at the printer now and will launch next month. Full book description can be found here.

“Islands of Books,” and the book book sub-genre

I am officially playing hooky from book club. It’s been two weeks now and although I have technically started Infinite Jest and it does indeed appear to be worth reading, I can’t seem to commit to carting its bulk around the apartment for the two or three weeks it will realistically require. Today I turned to the ultimate antidote: a book about reading (Anne Fadiman, Alberto Manguel-style). I’ve been trying to decide how similar this activity is to, say, a football player watching old game tapes in the off-season, and have decided the player would have to be at least up off the couch occasionally, perhaps rehearsing a throw or two. But there might be beer and chips on hand as well. I like book books for compiling new lists of things to read, for getting my bearings in a particular region’s literary output, or as a prompt to finally open a classic I’ve been sort of vaguely pretending to have a cursory knowledge of. There can, though, I think, be too much of this good thing, and generally by the time I’ve finished a book book I’m ready to get back into the deep end, take the training wheels off, what have you. I find the worst examples from this sub-genre can occasionally wind up feeling a bit precious, proclaiming a love for books over and over again without really sparking an interest on the part of the reader-once-removed for any of the books apparently loved.

Lawrence Clark Powell’s Islands of Books is not one these worst, however. The fifteen essays in it cover Powell’s extensive research on the work of D. H. Lawrence, as well as Melville, Whitman, Durrell, and his immersion in the California and Southwest literary landscape. Although I haven’t read all of the books he discusses, what I really appreciate is the emphasis he puts on the places he was when he first read each book, and his descriptions of how each location continues to inform his later returns to the work. This is something I’ve always found fascinating, because your location can have very little to do with the reading material, but it gets so firmly lodged in memories of it that it becomes a second layer of setting. I remember in my last year of university taking a Shakespeare class that turned out to have a fairly ambitious syllabus. One of my housemates wasn’t home all that often and I did a lot of the reading in the hammock he had strung up in his room. I’m actually a little surprised still that the hammock was able to support both me and that giant forest-green Norton anthology. Some of those plays – Julius Caesar, Coriolanus – for me will always be set as much in the courtyards and squares Shakespeare supplied as in the diamond pattern of the string at the foot end of Jason’s hammock. Powell gets that and he, I think quite rightly, makes something more of it than a passing anecdote.

Islands of Books was one of my Benson, AZ, finds from last fall (I think you can actually see in the photo I’ve posted where my sweaty paw discoloured a bit of the uncoated cover stock. It was a hot one.) The book is a beauty design-wise. It’s a 1991 reprint of the 1951 original, and was published by Dawson’s Book Shop in Los Angeles. It was typeset by Ward Ritchie, who I’ve previously had trouble finding much information about online, but lo, my latest search has just turned up another book published by Dawson’s, all about Ritchie’s design and print work, available to order from the Oak Knoll website. I’ll have to go tell my credit card the bad news. Really, how can I be expected to keep up with a prescribed reading list when stumbling down rabbit holes is so much more exciting?

Intra-curricular reading

After finishing up with The Count last week, I wolfed down a pair of books purchased at the same time (and that were looking pretty tempting by the time old Edmund had finished meting out the last of his many vile plots): Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill and The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller by Betsy Burton. One is about a job I do and love, and the other about a job I think I’d like and hope to try sometime later in this lifetime.

Stet had been recommended by a fellow editor at a small publishing house and as soon as I started it I understood why he’d recommended it. It was uncanny how similar aspects of Athill’s early working experience were to my own and probably to those of many other employees in the small publishing world. The first half is dedicated to her time with Andre Deutsch (British publishers of Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, Norman Mailer, and many famous others), the second half to her relationships with several of the authors she worked with over the years. Well worth reading if you’ve done any editing or if you’ve ever been curious about the process.

The King’s English is a bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, established in the late seventies and still going fairly strong, I believe. Burton discusses the conversation that launched the shop, their first orders to publishers, and their more recent struggle to survive the big box and internet onslaught. The book also dovetails neatly with my Southwest fascination because of its location. The shop has hosted readings and signings by Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, Tony Hillerman, among others, and there is a great chapter devoted to the regional scene. Although I found Burton’s voice a little punchy in places, on the whole the book was a heartening read for someone like me who will readily admit to possessing very little in the way of business sense but has always fantasized about owning a bookshop. (Then again, I suppose to someone less optimistic about the industry it might just as well read as a treatise on why such a venture should be avoided entirely.)