Friday, February 19, 2010

Henning Mankell: The Man From Beijing

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell (New York: Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. 368pp.

Mankell's new book has been sitting on a wooden chair in a corner for a couple of weeks. The bold white type on red background of the cover quietly reminding me of its prescence each time I pass. I knew if I started to read the book, I would have to put other books aside for awhile. Well, the time has come. Here is the book trailer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Morbid Callaghan and Earle Turvey

A recent post at the interesting blog The Dusty Bookcase concerning the New Canadian Library series reminded me of an incident only last week. My wife was telling me she wanted to reread the novel Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham and wondered if we had a copy. I believed I had two hardcover copies somewhere, but I knew I had a paperback copy in the New Canadian Library series and knew precisely where it was. A little while later she called me and asked me to look at the cover of this paperback issue. I duly looked at the cover but couldn't see anything unusual other than the drab brown abstract image. Look at her name, she prompted. Again, I didn't see anything unusual. Look at the spelling, she added. Then I understood. The author's first name was spelled "Gwenthalyn."

My wife has a keen eye when it comes to misspellings, typos and such. She constantly finds them in newspapers, magazines, and perhaps most often in restaurant menus. Some of them can be fairly amusing. To get an author's name wrong on the cover of a book, however, doesn't seem amusing. You have to wonder how many copies were printed with that error. This printing is the 4th, dated 1970. Perhaps this error is well-known to collectors of the series.

Who knows, there may be a plethora of misspellings out there. Maybe I should be looking for The Nymph and the Lamb by Thomas H. Raddall, Birney by Earle Turvey, As For Me and My Mouse by Sinclair Ross, or Such is My Beloved by Morbid Callaghan. I sort of like that last one.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Montreal Book Shops No. 3: Nebula (and William Gibson and Sting)

My memory seems a bit nebulous at times, but I definitely remember lining up on St. Mathieu Street in Montreal in front of the specialty bookshop, Nebula to buy William Gibson's new book, Virtual Light (released September 1993) and to have the pleasure of having it signed by him. Befitting the name of the bookshop, it was a grey overcast, cool--possibly cold--misty day of showers. At the time, I was busy working two jobs and attending university courses most nights, so I can't quite remember the exact date, but I think it was sometime in October of 1993.

The bookshop was in one of the older attractive stone row houses on St. Mathieu, west side, just down from de Maisonneuve Boulevard, huddled in the shadow of a high rise block of no memorable feature. I seem to recall that these old houses, though commercialized, still retained a fair amount of their gingerbread architectural detail in 1993. Using Google Street View today, the section of the street appears slightly different, the buildings have been modernized and the architectural details removed for the most part. There is an interesting restaurant, Pho Nguyen, in the address of the of old bookstore. Also interesting, the police station across the street, a building whose walls must have absorbed much stress, distress and anxiety, is now a commercial building with a company called BattleNet.24, an Internet café. An all night cyber café in an old police station. There must be some form of Gibsonian irony there.

The Book Signing:
Joining the line on the sidewalk outside in the rain, bumping umbrellas and trying not to poke some passing pedestrian's eye out--pedestrians bereft of comprehension of what could possibly draw people to line up in the rain--I found myself moving step by step as the line made its way slowly into the warmth of the upstairs shop. The bookstore was quaint, but cramped for space. William Gibson was seated at a table of modest dimension. He had a pen in his left hand. It looked promising. Thank god no beverages were involved. The line shifted forward like an assembly line for quality control. Murmur of small talk wafted backwards, voiced pleasantries with charming undertones. Perhaps a trill of light nervous laughter. The pressure to come up with something witty or urbane mounted within me. All of a sudden it felt quite warm. With the wet furled umbrella hanging over my left forearm, I advanced like some minion approaching his lordship with the latest telegram on a small silver tray, or a waiter with the soup of the day. I humbly mumbled a greeting and handed him the book. I recall he had a most discerning eye as we exchanged eye contact. I doubt mine was as discerning. He signed the half-title with panache, and finished by placing an audible period, or dot, in the middle of the "O" of his last name, closed the book and handed it to me. I duly thanked him and moved on allowing those behind their opportunity. I believe he said thanks for waiting in the rain, but whether it was to me or a friend who accompanied me, I can't recall.

I think it was one of the few specific book signings I had attended up to that date. I generally hesitate when it comes to asking authors for a signature. I remember a Martin Amis reading at the Centaur Theatre in old Montreal a few years later but I hesitated at approaching him in the lobby after his droll one-man performance. It takes a certain moxy to approach authors cold. I believe I would feel more at ease with a serendipitous meeting. Like spilling a drink on their suede shoes or something.

Looking at William Gibson's signature now, I realise I had forgotten that he had also underlined the "O" with three lines, creating an ideograph or logogram of some interest. A casual search of the Internet for his signature reveals examples of variation. Some are just plain W.M.Gibson. Some have a little circle within the "O" of his last name. I did come across a youtube video of him signing a book and I could see him underline the defining letter three times. There may be other variations. For the number of books he must have signed over the span of his writing career, variations must breath life into his well worn letters, and allow for a wider expression of his personality and character.

The bookshop Nebula, later moved to 1832 St. Catherine Street, the south side, (now an interesting Korean Restaurant called Towa) a larger space, but of infinitely less charm and interest, and here they continued to offer an excellent choice of science fiction, fantasy, crime, graphic novels, and magazines. Hard times must have hit them, for I then remember that it moved into the back of Mélange Magic bookstore for awhile. Then in the summer of 2000 it closed shop. Their letter of goodbye can be found here.

It is not quite a defunct bookshop as it continues in, dare I say with no disrespect, a nebulous form on-line.

Thinking about the year 1993, it certainly helps to jog the memory with music. The stream of popular hits that played in the shops and on the radio were probably dominated by Duran Duran, The Cranberries, Pet Shop Boys, U2 and perhaps overwhelmingly by certain songs by Sting off his Ten Summoner's Tales, especially Fields of Gold. For me, Sting's Fields of Gold dominates the year. The song and William Gibson's Virtual Light are connected in a an unusual juxtaposition, the pastoral romantic and a world of subtopian redeemers, their very substance seemingly at opposite poles, but spun together in a dance of time and place.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Montreal Bookshops No. 2: Defunct Part 1: Huis Clos / No Exit

Defunct is an odd word. Not a word that one would hear bandied about in the press these days. A bit old-fashioned, a bit dusty, unlikely to come up in everyday conversation. A word edging its way towards a glossary of archaic words perhaps. It is a strong, ham-fisted type of word with that stiff ended "ct". Looking it up in the OED, I have to say I like Coleridge's usage: "This ghost of a defunct absurdity." This figurative use is quite appealing and breathes life into the word--no irony intended--and is perhaps the future for such words for it seems to retain a usefulness for poetry and the pulpit. Perhaps a rock band could incorporate the word into their name, The Defunct Wallabees, or the Defunctives. In a song, it could be rhymed with adjunct, something a defunct Noel Coward could pull off. Then again, it would work well in a rap song.

As an owner of a defunct bookshop myself--well, at least in the brick and mortar type, for I still sell on-line, check out the sidebar for the links--I feel a certain affiliation with bookshops that have called it a day. Some lasted many, many years, while others had a brief existence. It seems appropriate that the first defunct bookshop I will discuss was called Huis Clos / No Exit.

Huis Clos / No Exit

This secondhand bookshop I remember being at 3636 St. Laurent, the west side, just up from Prince Arthur. It was in operation in the mid-1980s (83-86?). A fairly open space that had previously been Salamander Shoe Shop for many years. If I remember correctly, there was a set of stairs to bring you up to an open area literature section overlooking the shop below and I still have a sharp visual memory of passing on half a dozen hardcover copies of the collected works of Arthur Hugh Clough in what I think was a modern Oxford edition. I hesitated at the price, and when I went back to buy a copy, the shop had closed. One of many regrets of a book collector with limited means and wavering resolve.

Near by was the Androgyny Alternatives Bookstore at 3642 St. Laurent, which actually moved into the Huis Clos / No Exit address once they closed down. The bookmark pictured above, complete with stylised drama masks and barbed wire, lists the shop at 4318 St. Laurent, but I have no memory of ever visiting that location, and strangely enough, I cannot locate a listing for the shop at that address in the street directories.

Of course the name of the shop comes from the play by Jean Paul Sartre. No doubt someone uttered the phrase, "L'enfer, c'est les autres" but I never heard the words spoken, although I may have thought them if scooped by another buyer. I do recall, however, that one of the owner's siblings used to be in the shop from time to time, and they were heavily into the Boy George Culture Club look of the day. (As I type these words, I can hear that Karma Chameleon song.) There was a quirky vibe to the shop. I guess it was the mix of Culture Club fashion, existentialist homage, the proximity to the alternative bookstore and being on a street which was trending nicely upwards. The book selection was quite good as well.

note: As to the Coleridge quote, it comes from his 1809 essay On the Errors of Party Spirit: or Extremes Meet in his periodical The Friend. The subscribers of the day were apparently irked by the obscurity of some of these essays, though as Richard Holmes writes in his biography Coleridge: Darker Reflections, "Within its Amazonian jungle of tangled, unparagraphed, discursive prose, lay limpid pools of story-telling, criticism, memoir-writing and philosophic reflection." And perhaps a defunct word or two.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Penguin Books Ephemera Addendum: the Penguin Donkey

This specially designed penguin bookshelf unit called the Penguin Donkey MK 2, certainly seems a retro piece today. Probably collectible if one survived from the early 1960s. As the advertising insert states, "this helpful creature" was designed by Ernest Race, and was 16" high by 21" long. The size seems rather small. Could one possibly place a table lamp, a decanter, coffee cups or drinks on the "Donkeytop"? So it says. Also holds 90 Penguin paperbacks and your Guardian Newspaper. I can see it sitting on white high pile carpet beside an orange molded chair and an interesting floor lamp designed by Achille Castiglioni.

The Isokon Design Company began in the 1930s and re-emerged in the 1990s. If you can't find a 1963 Penguin Donkey at the local thrift shop, you can always purchase a new version of the Penguin Donkey. Not quite my style, but I can appreciate the design even if I can't appreciate the new price.