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Archive for March, 2012

March 31st, 2012 • Posted in On Politics

Moore delivers less for Canadian book Culture

Just so we don’t leave the wrong impression here – during my recent visit to Library and Archives Canada the service that I received was,  contrary to the building’s structure and use, outstanding.

Upon arriving I was immediately assigned someone to talk to about what I was after – together we identified various documents, and ordered them up – I’d see them in 48 hours. It was then recommended I talk to an official archivist, with whom we were able to book an appointment; I met her that same afternoon.

The service, then, is excellent.

The problem is the structure: both organizational – with its misplaced emphasis on digitization – and physical. About half of what I was interested in was located on the fifth floor of the building, where renovations scheduled to last for an undetermined duration are currently underway. Other material seemed to be in limbo – somewhere in the process of being catalogued…or something – despite the items being 50-some years old, and having been at the institution for much more than a decade.

Library and Archives Canada has just taken a 10 per cent cut to its budget thanks to Culture Minister James Moore and his boss Stephen Harper. Given that, save for the CBC, it’s one of the worst hit agencies in government, one can only surmise that the preservation of book knowledge – and use of and learning from  original source documents – isn’t high on the Harper agenda. Sure, Moore may have saved the venerable, and essential, Canada Council and other national museums from major cuts, but he’s no friend of the bibliophile, or book scholar.

Perhaps this is an example of Harper’s small mindedness – he’s been the butt of Yann Martel’s condescending letter-campaign (one which drew him as a cagey, ill-read,  unbred philistine), and target of a to-date less than successful Canadian Association of University Teachers effort to ‘Save Libarary and Archives Canada.’ Perhaps this is payback;  a provocation that if responded to with any volume, can very simply be brushed aside with the simplistic line that ‘in these tough times,’ jobs and lives take precedence over old books and dusty documents.

This easy argument will play well with many Canadians. The sad thing is that for those of us who value the past and believe that it should be publicly celebrated and shared – it’s not true.

One of the roles of a minister is to champion the causes of his or her constituents. With Moore we have less champion, than


March 30th, 2012 • Posted in On The Book

Orchard Songs: One of my all-time favourite title pages

March 29th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

How Canada’s National Library stacks up against others around the World








March 28th, 2012 • Posted in Wicked Quotes

Good, Bad and Ugly in the latest issue of CNQ magazine

I like CNQ magazine.  Each issue is filled with lots of good Canadian literary grist to sift through, as well as a bit of chaff.

Kerry Clare’s fractious, picayne and largely (save for one oddly isolated line of praise) wrong-headed review of David Gilmour’s The Perfect Order of Things, for example.

I won’t waste time engaging with it, rather, I’ll follow Martin Amis’s dictum –  ”You proceed by quotation.  Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue ” Here is but a smattering of the ample proof available, which supports the contention that David Gilmour’s  novel is, contrary to Clare‘s baseless pronouncements,  a spectacularly worthwhile read:

“The two of us puttered home under the stars, the lake motionless and warm as soup.”
“He had an enormous, uncircumcised unit; it looked like a giant worm and I had an uncomfortable sensation that he found his own nakedness arousing.”

“I started down the driveway just as I used to after a summer dance, the moon sinister between the tree branches.”

“I was seventeen, I thought of nothing for very long, except what I wanted.”

“Moving beyond the city limits, we gathered speed and rushed along a brown, wet highway. Flat fields on either side. The sun sulking in the clouds.”

“The best thing about being successful,” a friend once told me, “is that you get to tell everybody to fuck off”

“Your body remembers failures more easily than success. I don’t know why that is, but it does. And when you put it – your body – back in the same physical places where it once wilted, where it once suffered blows to the heart and blows to the vanity, sometimes, most of the time actually, your body forgets all the things that have happened in the interim and thinks the bad old days are still here.”

On inheritance: “It allowed me – or so I thought- to not do the one thing that would have made me happy. To work. To get my head out of my rear end and do something. But I didn’t know that then and I blamed my unhappiness on other things: the search for love, unpublished poetry, the silence of God, cigarettes, cruelty to animals, ugly people, the way my street looked when the sun went behind a cloud.”

“It’s a cruel observation, but if you can’t do something for people, they don’t have much time for you.”

“When I turned off the light at night I was aware of something lying on top of me. Failure. “

“Like the young Andre Gide, I was furious that the world would not credit me for the work I assumed I would eventually produce. “

“It was a non-place, and you could only be on the outside of it.”

And this is just a light cull from the first fifty-odd pages of what is clearly – evidently you might say – one of the funniest, most elegantly crafted, thought-provoking, eminently readable novels to come out of Canada ‘in a long time’.

March 28th, 2012 • Posted in Authors and Books

Guerilla Q&A with Charles Foran: On Mordecai Richler and Montreal

My latest piece, for Guerilla magazine’s first national edition:

Introduction and interview by Nigel Beale

Fiction relies on place to render itself life-like. Place, as American writer Eudora Welty once put it, serves as “the proving ground of what happened, who’s here, and who’s coming.”

Fiction helps us to understand history and country by evoking what it was like to live and breathe in past places and times. It creates in us a sense of oneness with those who may in the past have lived in the space we now occupy, or experienced the kind of challenges we now encounter.

And that’s why we’re focussing on it here. We want to pay homage to a writer who was able, perhaps more than any other, to make us feel what it  felt like to live at the centre of a complex, vital Canadian city.

Mordecai Richler was one of Canada’s greatest storytellers. He was this because of the indelible stamp that a neighbourhood in the city of Montreal left upon him. His need to inventory it produced some of our greatest literature. Montreal is the place where, as Adam Gopnik puts it, “[Richler’s] experience spoke most eagerly to his imagination.”

Given that telling “on-the-ground” stories about place is a key reason for Guerilla’s existence, I thought it fit that we question Charles Foran on the topic. In writing Modecai, The Life and Times (a book that has had more awards bestowed on it than any other in the history of Canadian publishing), Foran spends a good deal of his time and talent telling the story of Mordecai Richler, and how he embodies what we consider so essential.

Charles Foran (photo © James Lahey, 2010 )

Nigel Beale: Richler was a person of notable contradictions: a Jew accused of being anti-Semitic; an ‘un-Canadian’ Canadian; a dutiful son who hated his mother. How do you think this kind of ‘definition by opposition’ played out in relation to Montreal, the city in which he grew up?
Charles Foran: Richler’s ardor for Montreal was, by comparison with the complexity of his relationships with other great forces in his life—Judaism, Canada, his family—fairly straightforward. It was the only city in Canada he took seriously. Montreal was ‘grown up,’ mature in its appetites and secure, at the best of times, in its self-regard. It had a big personality, and its inner dynamics, including, if not especially, the emergence of a more forceful and demanding French dimension, pleased him.

And displeased him, no?
Except, that is, yes, when the city—and by extension Quebec itself; I’m not sure he thought all that much about the rest of the province—succumbed to what Richler believed were provincial, second-rate instincts. He thought Quebec nationalism to be essential as a cultural movement but absurd as a political one, especially when manifested in the sign laws. He refused to grant it validity, and decided those inclinations inside Quebec/Montreal were undermining what was, otherwise, a fine place to live. By the end of his life—and it is a pity he died only 5 years after the second referendum, when Montreal was just starting to ‘recover’—he was certain the blows had been fatal. About this, I’m happy to declare, he was wrong.

How is he perceived in Quebec?
There may never be agreement. To some he remains a champion, a hero, for his outspokenness and courage. For many Quebecers, however, Mordecai Richler is a stand-in for a vanished ‘ruling class,’ someone who secretly longed for the city where the French knew their place, and didn’t make noise about their rights, linguistic and otherwise. And still others, even admirers, wonder if he really understood how the city was evolving. Regardless, Montreal was his beloved hometown, and he fought hard for it.

It’s clear from your book that ‘place’ figured large in the shaping of Richler’s life and writing. Why do you think this was the case?
Interestingly, for a man desperate to get out of Montreal at age 19, and who lived for 20 years in London, and thereafter travelled extensively, he was at heart a ‘home boy,’ in both his work and his life. He trusted himself most as a novelist when the terrain was ‘his’ Montreal, that mythiopic village of five or six streets in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood, and even once he expanded the canvas to include Westmount and the Townships, he was still tracking Jews who had risen up out of his urban village.

Wilenksky’s on Fairmount Avenue West was key to Richler’s urban village. (Nigel Beale photo)

Why the allegiance?
In part, it had to do with his instincts as a writer: write what you know, what you’ve heard, seen, tasted. As well, his childhood in that remarkable Montreal was vivid and full of shaping incident, and in contrast with other writers who ‘flee’ such bonds, he soon realized it was his material, his canvas, and would provide a lifetime of stories. He even forced his family to return from England to ensure, more or less, that he wouldn’t lose his feeling for the ground beneath his feet. He never wanted to live in the ‘his’ fictional village, but he wanted, needed, it to be nearby.

One of the truly impressive achievements of your book, I think, is the powerful sense of place you’re able to conjure, and communicate to the reader. Teeming multi-ethnic life on the streets of Montreal; those cool, hip, sophisticated Hampstead dinner parties; the camaraderie and late night carousing in Ibiza. Could you explain the process by which you were able so successfully in your writing to convey this sense of what it must have been like to live in these places?
Part I of the biography is a sensory portrait of Richler’s Montreal. As per my previous answer, this urban village, a kind of transplanted shtetl, was fundamental to his work, and remained at the core of his character. I wanted the reader to experience it almost as he would have as a boy; to be immersed in tactile details, the ones that stick to your identity and self-image as much as does your family name.

As such, in the early chapters Richler is simply a kid, one small figure among many, moving those streets, and as his perspective widens out into his adolescent and then teenage years, so does the ‘city’ around him. The approach, I recognize, is quite novelistic, and could be taken as a bit presumptuous from a biography.

How do you defend this?
90% of the details in the first section are taken from Richler’s writing, mostly his non-fiction. It is a clever crib, an homage to the brilliance of his memories and imaginings that also serves, I hope, to provide a singular immersion in a time and place, one that will help make the rest of the “life and times” more intelligible, and perhaps worthy of empathy.

I find it interesting that for most of their lives Mordecai and his brother were estranged. Avrum in fact doesn’t live in Montreal … he lives in Newfoundland … is the city not big enough for the two of them; is there a relationship between mother and place?
The Richler brothers suffered for the sins not only of their mother, Lily Rosenberg, but the culture that produced her. She was an unhappy woman in part because so many of her natural inclinations had been thwarted by her religion’s strictures, and she took out her unhappiness, and perhaps some deeper mental disturbance, on her hapless husband and innocent boys.
Unhappy households inflict damage on everyone under their roof. No one is spared. Avrum and Mordecai didn’t know exactly why they were never close as adults, and a real shock in researching the biography was that I ended up having news for Avrum, who is indeed alive and well in St. John’s, that helped explain, a little, the course of his own adult life. Though I’ve talked about it in public, and written about it, I’ll admit that even now, 15 months after the book was published, I hesitate to relay the details of “what happened” on St. Urbain Street, and its fallout. It invariably sounds lurid and sordid, when it is mostly tragic and sad.

When I was five my British parents moved, with my brother and me, back to England, where we lived for the next seven years. As a result I can’t really relate to a deep-rooted love of one place, or connection with a single part of the world. I suspect this is how some or all of Mordecai’s children may feel, in contrast to their father. How important a role do you think a sense of rootedness—a knowledge of and connection with one place —plays in determining a writer’s ability to capture what is essentially universal? In short, in his capacity to write a great novel?

Great novels take every form, and though it is a truism that a powerful sense of place often informs novels we consider enduring, it isn’t necessary. The need to feel the ground beneath one’s feet, to paraphrase myself (and, in turn, to lift from an Osip Mandelstam poem), is certainly essential to writing good fiction. But does that ground have to be the earth of one’s childhood? Richler thought so, and often quoted his friend Brian Moore’s belief that a writer’s sensibility, or world view, is formed by the age of 18. (Another reason I devoted so much space in the biography to the place where he spent his first 18 years.) I’m not so sure the ground must be hometown, so to speak. I just think the novelist must believe that town, that place, that “country,” to be a major character in the fiction, and write it accordingly.

“ … as eloquent as any book on the subject of Mordecai Richler and Montreal could ever be is the tombstone monument eventually placed by Florence on the grave on the east slope of Rose Hill, Mount Royal. RICHLER, the pink granite tomb reads. Below that, on the right: MORDECAI 1931-2001; on the left, FLORENCE 1929 -, the space for the date still empty. Above the names is a carving of a stack of books. Along the bottom is part of the addendum that Richler had scribbled in his final weeks when he requested a single burial plot for himself and his wife:

So that eventually we may lie beside each other in death as we did so happily in life.

Across from the stone, Florence Richler has had a bench installed, and a mulberry tree planted.

Hard to find a more powerful incentive to visit the grave of an author! Am I right in thinking that the ‘place’ most important to Richler, was beside Florence in Montreal?
A private ‘eureka’ moment in writing the biography came when Florence Richler told me about her own childhood. Despite having the appearance and manners, and even a trace of the accent, of a British aristocrat, Florence is from Pointe St-Charles, a working-class Irish/Scottish/English neighborhood in inner city Montreal. An orphan, she was raised by an English couple and later developed a close relationship with a rare Jewish family in the Pointe, as it is still called. She was, in other words, from the same town, the same era, the same economic background, as her husband. Once this sunk in, I was able to better appreciate the ‘dare’ they took together as a young couple, the degree to which both of them wished and even needed to create a sense of family that wasn’t about blood, but was instead about friendship, loyalty, and shared values. Knowing about Florence’s childhood also helped me understand their deep connection, one that transcended both his often-difficult character, and their temperamental differences.
Indeed, they wish to lie together in death as they did so happily in life. This wish, expressed by Richler in an addendum to his will, is carved onto their tomb, with the ‘closing date’ for Florence, I am happy to report, still pending. The first time she took me to see the burial site, overlooking ‘his’ urban village from the perch of Mount Royal, I had an inkling that I had a great love story to tell. Unfolding that story, doing justice to its passion and singularity, became a big part of what I wished to achieve with Mordecai. And yes, this too is another tale about that remarkable, complex city-state of Montreal.

(Nigel Beale photo)

March 28th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Schedule your celebrity sightings at the 2012 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Sponsored Post

Avid book lovers and worms, publishers and booksellers are, everywhere, readying for the 17th edition of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books  April 21st to 22nd.

One of the largest annual literary gatherings on the U.S.’s west coast, the Festival will take place on campus at the University of Southern California (USC). It promises this year to be even grander than last, which greeted over a million attendees.

Established in 1996, the Festival’s goal has remained the same ever since: to “bring together the people who create books with the people who love to read them.” Over the years the program has expanded to a point where now over 300 exhibitor booths offer everything from storytelling and cooking demonstrations to poetry readings.

Events include book talks and author panel discussions, and there’s an enormous list of guest speakers appearing on the Festival’s center stage, including high profile entertainment and sports celebrities.

Some of those scheduled to appear include Broadway and motion picture actress Julie Andrews, Florence Henderson  star of TV’s “The Brady Bunch, ” and Henry Winkler “The Fonz,” from “Happy Days” who has since become a producer/director and children’s book author.  He’ll be promoting the seventeenth book in a series called “Hank Zipzer,” co-authored with Lin Oliver, titledA Brand-New Me!”

Former TV talk show hostess and actress, Ricki Lake will also be on-hand to discuss her latest book, “Never Say Never – Finding a Life That Fits.”  From the sports world former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard will discuss his book, “The Big Fight My Life In and Out of the Ring.” And famed basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presents his latest, “What Color is my World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors.”

Something, you might say, for everyone here.

Planning the trip:

Location of venue: University of Southern California, at the intersection of Exposition Blvd and S Figueroa St, Los Angeles

For accommodation in Los Angeles or near the USC campus visit Los Angeles Hotels

Getting to the LA Book Festival:

By Shuttle Bus: Target provides free shuttles that will run continuously. Known as the Bullseye Bus, it will run between Union Station, Los Angeles Convention Center and USC.

By Metro: The Red, Purple, Gold lines stop at Union Station. Take the free Bullseye Bus to USC.

The Blue Line heads to the Pico/Convention Center stop. Pick up the Bullseye Bus there.

By Dash: The DASH “F” line reaches the USC campus.

March 28th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Tourism

The Archbishop of Canterbury on Literary Tourism

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Literary Tourism in Wales:

“…(This) is a brilliant imaginative venture to which I wish every possible success…Literary tourism…(is about)…trying to get in touch with what it is that makes somebody’s imagination grasp what is not yet there and somehow, mysteriously, add to what is there by their own imaginative response…(This is) not a luxury or some elitist kind of response to the arts, it is about re-discovering a credible, political and social humanity…”

Check out all the literary adventures that are planned for Wales in 2012 here.

March 27th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Australia spends 33 percent more per capita than Canada on National Library

Treasury Board estimates here, put Library and Archives Canada expenditures  for 2011-2012 at $113 million.  Similar estimates out of Australia put expenditures on its National Library at $117 million. Australia has a population of 22 million. Canada has a population of 34 million. Australia then spends 33% more per capita than Canada spends to “maintain and develop a national collection of library material [and] make library material in the national collection available”.

Australia also has this building:

Canada has this:

March 27th, 2012 • Posted in Literary Destinations

Library of Congress puts Library and Archives Canada to shame

Further to recent posts about the lack of real displays and/or exhibits offered at/by Library and Archives Canada, here is a list of what you can currently see at the Library of Congress:

Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship

Graphic Arts Galleries, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
March 20–September 15, 2012

Offers an opportunity to deepen understanding of Japanese cultural, intellectual, and social life while celebrating the Washington cherry blossoms as symbols of the enduring friendship between the people of Japan and the United States. Coincides with the city-wide centennial celebration of the 1912 gift.

Politics and the Dancing Body

Performing Arts Reading Room, First Floor, James Madison Building
February 16–July 28, 2012

Explores how American choreographers between World War I through the Cold War realized this vision, using dance to celebrate American culture, to voice social protest, and to raise social consciousness.

Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture

Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
June 11, 2010–Ongoing

Politicians and entertainers have dominated public life in America for much of the twentieth century. Members of both professions have found their worlds increasingly entangled. The exhibition explores some of these entanglements, focusing on the careers of Bob Hope and other entertainers who were involved in the political climate of their times. Explore artifacts that represent an array of viewpoints on the interplay of politics and entertainment in American public life.

Thomas Jefferson’s Library

Southwest Pavilion, Second Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
April 11, 2008–Ongoing

Take a trip through a re-created version of Jefferson’s library, which assembles 6,487 volumes that founded the Library of Congress, and learn how one of America’s greatest thinkers was inspired through the world of books.

Exploring the Early Americas

Northwest Gallery, Second Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
December 12, 2007–Ongoing

Examine indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and Europeans, and the resulting changes caused by the meeting of the two worlds, which features selections from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. This exhibit also features Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map of the world—the first on which the word “America” appears.

Creating the United States

Southwest Gallery, Second Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
April 11, 2008–Ongoing

Gain insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self-governing country. Participate in the process and delve into historic drafts of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, and John Beckley’s Bill of Rights.

Earth As Art 3: A Landsat Perspective

Geography and Map Corridor, Basement, James Madison Building
May 31, 2011–May 31, 2012

Showcases Landsat 7 images created by the United States Geological Survey. Since 1972, Landsat satellites have collected from space information about Earth’s continents and coastal areas. The images on display are actual digital photographs of the Earth, created by printing visible and infrared data in colors visible to the human eye.

Herblock Gallery

Graphic Arts Galleries, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
March 18, 2011–Ongoing

The Herblock Gallery celebrates the work of editorial cartoonist Herbert L. Block—better known as “Herblock”—with an ongoing display of ten original drawings, to change every six months, drawn from the Library’s extensive Herbert L. Block Collection.

Swann Gallery

Graphic Arts Galleries, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
March 18, 2011–Ongoing

The Swann Gallery introduces visitors to the fascinating world of caricatures, political cartoons, comics, animation art, graphic novels and illustrations. A permanent memorial exhibition features fifteen facsimiles of treasured cartoons from the Swann and other cartoon collections, which represent the broad range of holdings in the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress Bibles Collection

Great Hall East, First Floor Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
April 11, 2008–Ongoing

Explore the significance of two monumental Bibles that face each other in the Library’s Great Hall—the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible. Through an interactive presentation, examine pages from these Bibles and learn about sixteen selected Bibles from the Library’s collections.

Here to Stay: The Legacy of George and Ira Gershwin

Gershwin Gallery, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
December 11, 2008–Ongoing

Experience the glamour and sophistication of the 1920s and 1930s in this permanent tribute to the brothers who helped provide a musical background to the period. The exhibition contains a wealth of materials that provide insight into their careers and personalities, including manuscript and printed music, lyric sheets and librettos, personal and business correspondence, photographs, paintings, and drawings, all from the Gershwin Collection in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, the world’s preeminent resource for materials about the Gershwins.


At Library and Archives Canada?


March 23rd, 2012 • Posted in On The Book

The Low Esteem in which Canada holds the book (Part 2 of 3)

Let’s look at the value  Canada’s federal government attaches to sharing with Canadians important historical source documents and works of the imagination, in comparison to other culturally significant objects and artifacts. Here’s  a look at the National Gallery of Canada’s sculpture garden:

and one of its many lovely picture galleries:

Here’s a shot of the Museum of Civilization’s Grand Hall, a vast, spectacular venue for the presentation of First Nations’ cultural artifacts

And the War Museum’s spaceous quarters filled with weaponry and tributes to the sacrifices made

by everyday Canadians who fought to make the world a safer place.

Nothing wrong with this. Quite the contrary.  But it does, when you consider what passes for exhibition space at Library and Archives Canada,


rather strikingly illustrate the relative importance this country assigns to honouring the book.