01 September 2014

Labour Day Verse for "All Good Workers"




The dedication in The Workshops and Other Poems, the only volume of verse by Florence Nightingale Horner Sherk (1857-1930), otherwise known as "Gay Page".  James Hardy Sherk (1887-1975), a lawyer, was the poet's only surviving child. 

from The Thunder Bay Historical Society: Eighth Annual Report (1917)
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27 August 2014

The Long November in Late August



"Mysterious" is the word I used when first describing James Benson Nablo. This was four years ago. I'd just finished The Long November and I had questions:
  • How did a man who had never published anything bolt out of the gate with a novel from a major house?
  • Given its commercial success, why is The Long November Nablo's only book?
  • Why did the flurry of editions and printings of The Long November come to such an abrupt end?
It was my good fortune that my initial post on The Long November drew the attention of Nancy Nablo Vichert, James Benson Nablo's daughter. Had it not been for her, I'd have never known the answers. The mysterious Mister Nablo now seems less so now, but there remains much more to uncover about his all too short life. His Hollywood years hold promise of more riches.


Today, sixty-four years after the last edition, The Long November is again available as the latest in the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series. I think it's worth a read. But then I would say that – I was the guy who suggested that it be reprinted in the first place. You'll find the answers to the question posed above in my Introduction.

Look, there aren't many novels out there that take place in Cataract City (read: Niagara Falls), Moreland Lake (read: Kirkland Lake) and Toronto (read: Toronto). This one is the real deal.

Write what you know.

Nablo wrote about rumrunning because he'd been a rumrunner, he wrote about mining because he'd been a miner, and he wrote about women because he had known more than a few. The Long November is a rough novel; back in 1946 its language offended a whole lot of people. If talk of "shacking up", "suck-holing"  and "being screwed without being kissed" offend, this isn't the book for you.

Stronger eggs and skirts will find The Long November just the thing for fin d'été. You Yanks will have to wait for autumn.

Den Lange November
James Benson Nablo [trans. Henning Kehler]
Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk, 1948

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23 August 2014

The Angels of Mons at 100


The Angels of Mons, R. Crowhurst, c.1920
This day marks the centenary of perhaps the most extraordinary event in the Great War. The setting was Mons, Belgium, site of the first major struggle between British and German forces. The latter outnumbered the former by a factor of two to one, yet all the King's men proved victorious. They did so with the aid of angels. Or were they veterans of the Battle of Agincourt called down from heaven? Did St George lead the charge? Joan of Arc? Maybe it was the archangel Michael.


Gothic master Arthur Machen argued against all of the above, citing his supernatural fantasy "The Bowmen", not divine intervention, as the source the legend. His convincing and highly entertaining Introduction to The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915) should have prevented things like this piece of reportage from the 10 August 1915 Globe:


Got that? An unnamed man received a letter from his unidentified sister recounting a conversation with a certain Miss M, who had told the man's sister that an undisclosed friend told her about seeing angels. Later, another anonymous man told her that he too had seen angels.

Now, before you and Jan Harold Brunvand discount this story, I point out that the man who received the letter was "one of the most prominent citizens in Toronto", and that Miss M. was "daughter of the canon". The canon? Which canon? Why, Reverend Canon M., of course.

Lest you doubt an anonymous man's word about something written to his sister by a woman who was told something by someone and someone else, allow me to present this article about an unnamed preacher, who on alluded to the words of an unidentified soldier as reported by an unknown nurse. Ye of little faith are advised to consider that this featured in a sermon that was delivered somewhere at some point:

The Globe, 11 April 1916
A year and a half later, on 2 October 1917, the newspaper reported on another sermon. This time the clergyman was named:


Reverend Gustave Adolf Kuhring was several thousand of kilometres from the scene of battle, so relied on his powers of oratory in delivering a chilling account of the British advance as led by St George, his horsemen and his archers:
A German officer later taken prisoner asked:—
       "Who were those men with the bows and arrows? We tried to get their leader, the one on the white horse, but couldn't hit him."
       "It is sworn by numerous witnesses," said Mr. Kuhring, "that when the British came to examine the bodies of the dead, by far the larger number of them had no wounds on their bodies."
A century later, we're still looking for those testimonies, and that of the "nurse who had been brought into contact with one of the soldiers from the battle [sic] of Mons." In their absence, I recommend "The Angel of Mons" by Ethel Ursula Foran.

The Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914
Like Rev Kuhring, Montreal poet Ethel Ursula Foran was a believer; unlike Rev Kuhring, her faith was not blind. "The Angel of Mons" is the longest poems in her debut collection, Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams (Beauchemin, 1922). A piece of juvenilia, the date of composition is unknown. The poet was thirteen years old on the day of the battle.

THE ANGEL OF MONS
(A legend of the Great War of 1914-1918.
The Great War that Napoleon in exile foretold
O'er the nations of Europe like a tidal-wave roll'd—
Crumbling Crowns into dust, snapping Sceptres in twain,
Shaking Thrones to earth to ne'er rise again,
Scattering armies of might, burning humbler homes,
Laying low in the dust spires, temples and domes,
Bringing death and grim ruin in its terrible wake
Until half of all Europe was a blood-crimsoned lake.
The fires of destruction blazed fierce on each shore,
All sounds were drowned out in the thundering roar
Of cannon, of rifle, of bomb and of shell,
Turning heavenly peace into furious hell.
While Death in all forms stalked over the world,
And its blood-stained banners were fiercely unfurled.
There were terrors untold in the Teutons' advance
Which rallied the forces of Britain and France.
It was thus in the midst of that world-shaking strife,
A struggle intense to save Liberty's life,
That the darkness of night was lit into a glow,
In the heavens above, in the valleys below,
When the flashing of shells, as they rushed through the sky,
To the thundering guns of the trench made reply,
When the "curtain of fire" cast its blaze o'er the plain,
And the soil was deep-drenched with torrents of rain,
When the signals of death rushed over the sky
And the hovering aeros inter circled on high,
When each trench was at once a shelter and tomb,
As the spirits of life and death met in the gloom,
Whence eager eyes watched for a move or a sign
To reveal the fate of their much-harassed line;
The sentinels on duty gazed anxious afar
For a hint of the fight in the trenches of war.
All through the long night as the Germans advance,
Sharp vigils are kept by both Britain and France.
Not a man at the front has a moment's repose.
No watcher dare sleep though his aching eyes close.
'Twas thus, 'midst the shreaks of a furious night,
A vision appeared over Mons' naming height, —
A something that seem'd supernatural to all —
A something that thousands of soldiers recall.
Was it a spirit of Hope or a spirit of Doom
That arose on their sight amidst stygean gloom?
What is it that the watcher with night-glass there cons?
They call it, who saw it, "The Angel of Mons." 
The soldiers of France, looking out of the dark,
Thought they saw on the hills Saint Joan of Arc,
Clad in armour of silver, with a sabre of gold,
Advancing to lead them as she did of old
 They claimed that the vision so wondrous to see
Was a heavenly sign of a grand victory;
And strong grew each heart that was growing faint,
As they thought they were fighting 'neath the eye of their Saint 
The soldiers of Britain saw the vision as well;
That wonderful tale these brave fellows tell
Just as ghost-stories are told with lowering breath,
For they feared such a vision far more than death.
Then one whispered the word, in a moment of awe,
It was England's Saint George that the whole army saw.
The courage at once revived in each breast,
Of victory's wave they were now on the crest —
They declared that the War was now rightly begun —
And would end with the crush of the barbaric Hun. 
The Belgians beheld Saint Michael the Great
In the vision of Mons, like a signal of Fate,
As he drove the dark legions from Heaven above.
So his power and his justice again he will prove
By leading the ranks that are fighting for Right.
By commanding once more against soldiers of Might.
It could not be other than the Archangel there
That appeared like a spectre, in the sulphurous air;
His invincible sword he unsheathes as of yore,
He will fight for God as he once fought before,
And the hosts of dark evil will again be hurl'd
From the face of the earth clear out of the world:
Such the Belgians thought was that vision so bright
That appeared above Mons in the depths of the night.
Be Michael, or George or Joan the Saint
That appeared over Mons amidst glimmering faint,
Like a spectre let loose from the region of ghosts,
Sent to cheer on to glory fair Liberty's hosts,
The Angel of Mons was a harbinger true
Of the victory the Allies eventually knew.
It may be a legend, or it may be a fact —
With the spirits of Power it may be a pact —
Or it may be a phantom of some horrible dream —
Or it may be of God a forerunning gleam;
But the Angel of Mons was the polar star
Of many a hero in that terrible war. 
It is said that soldiers, like sailors, are all
Superstitious and fear the supernatural;
They see spirits in trees and ghosts on the waves,
The dead in shrouds coming out of their graves,
They shudder to think of the spirits that walk,
And the beasts that like human beings oft talk.
It is likely that all the things that they dread —
Be they the living or be they the dead —
Arose to their fancy as on Mons' grim height
They witnessed the vision upon that dread night.
But one thing is certain and all question defies,
That Angel brought victory to the Allies.

18 August 2014

The Return of the Amazon Customer Review



Okay, so they never went away – but they did from this blog. I had a grand old time a few years back tearing strips off homophobes, book burners, prudes, egotists, and those who think they know something about history and geography.

I wonder why I stopped. Too much fun? I do remember thinking that change was coming. After the Orlando Figes scandal, how could it not? No responsible retailer would allow its customers to be so grossly misled.

Sure enough, 2012 saw Amazon deleting all sorts of customer reviews. “My sister’s and best friend’s reviews were removed from my books,” sniffed self-published author M. E. Franco. “They happen to be two of my biggest fans.”

Now, there's a coincidence.

How many reviews did Amazon delete? The company was mum. Writing in the New York TimesDavid Streitfeld described the exercise as a "sweeping hazy purge". Neither friend nor family to M.E. Franco, I noticed nothing.

Then came 2013, a busy year in which Amazon's customer reviews cropped up in a trio of otherwise unrelated Canadian news stories.


The first concerned the resignation of Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence, who had been caught plagiarizing all sorts of things including – improbably – an Amazon customer review. Might it have been one by educator Rudy Patudy? Reporters were not so specific.


The Spence scandal was followed closely by a hysterical, media-created controversy over a print on demand publisher's sexy blonde Anne Shirley. Then came Stephen King, who just happened to give his latest the same title as a very fine 2006 graphic novel by Emily Schulz.


This in turn led to all sorts of nastiness from semi-literate folks who purchased the wrong book in error:


Good souls worked to repair the damage:


The author endured it all, recording her experience on a blog and coming out a winner with a refurbished MacBook Air for her suffering.

The current year had been much more quiet until I began receiving emails from a publisher encouraging me to ask family and friends to post reviews of my "books" on Amazon.

Before continuing, I want to make one thing clear: I have no books with this publisher. I have no book with this publisher. That said, I did play some small role in one tome's journey to print. This modest effort has resulted in messages such as these:
If you/your family and friends are unfamiliar with posting online reviews, we have included some guidelines below. Online reviews are a great way for authors and readers to interact online. Reviews are critical to both publishers and readers alike, and many consumers rely on these opinions when making purchases on Amazon. 
Lord knows this is anything but the golden age of publishing. I wish the publisher well. I wish the book well; it deserves to by widely read. But I cannot call on family and friends to plant online reviews. I cannot ask them to laud something they haven't read or encourage them to think better of a book because of some small connection to yours truly. Amazon customer reviews are unreliable and ill-informed as it is. Who wants to be part of that mess.


More anon.

13 August 2014

Richard Rohmer Recycles (Again)



Starmageddon
Richard Rohmer
Toronto: Irwin, 1986

Starmageddon takes place in a future past. We know this because the Office of the Vice-President of the United States is held by a woman. The president calls her a bitch, primarily because she never supported Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. It's the year 2000, seventeen years have passed since The Gipper initiated the program and – glory be – the thing works! Doesn't the VP have mud on her face!

Time, 4 April 1983
When an American general insults the South Koreans, the lady vice-president is sent off to do damage control. Air Force One has been booked by the Secretary of State, meaning she and her staff have to travel on a commercial airliner. Seats are booked on a 747 that will follow the very same route taken in 1983 by doomed Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

What could go wrong?

Plenty.

The captain is distracted by the vice-president, another pilot is distracted by the hot purser, and the first officer is legally blind. As a result, the wrong coordinates are entered into the navigation system and the 747 flies over a site where the Soviet Union is at that very moment testing its own strategic defence system.

Well, you can imagine.


Starmageddon is the twelfth book tackled as part of the Reading Richard Rohmer project. By now, I've come to expect a fair amount of self-plagiarism in the author's books. For the most part, this takes the form of passages, speeches, chapters and fictitious documents lifted from previous novels. Separation Twothe most egregious act of self-plagiarism in Canadian literature, is the most extreme example.

Starmageddon is something else altogether. Here Rohmer lifts and tweaks page after page from Massacre 747, his 1984 book on the Korean Air Lines disaster. Behold, fiction born of non-fiction:
Like a lumbering elephant, Flight 315 began to move down runway fourteen, accelerating rapidly toward the computer-precalculated speed of 196 miles per hour. When the speed was reached, the co-pilot called out "rotation"and the captain, both hands now on the wheel of the control column, hauled back smoothly and strongly. Instantly, the nose rotated up into the climb position, and the enormous aircraft, 196 feet between its blinking wingtip lights and 232 feet between nose and tail, leapt gracefully up into the black night. It was 2:02 on the morning of August 29.
— Starmageddon 
Like a lumbering elephant, Flight 007 began to move down runway 31L, accelerating rapidly toward the computer-precalculated speed at which the co-pilot would call for rotation. When the rotation came, the captain, both hands now on the wheel on the control column, hauled back smoothly and strongly. Instantly, the nose came up into the climb position, and the enormous aircraft, 196 feet between its blinking wingtip lights and 232 feet between nose and tail, leapt gracefully up into the black night. It was 12:24 on the morning of September 1.
— Massacre 747
August 29, not September 1. The flight and runway numbers are different, too. Again, Starmageddon is set in the future; albeit a future in which the lessons of Flight 007 are forgotten. Oh, people still remember the disaster, its a real topic of conversation, but that doesn't prevent this from happening:
At 5:53 the Soviet pilot reported: "804. I have executed the launch."
       In one second the lights of the rockets, as burning propellants thrust the missiles ever faster toward the target, had become mere pinpoints in the distance. The rockets headed unerringly for the brilliant navigation lights and the red rotating beacons of the target.
       Pilot 804 knew this his heart-seeking missile, if functioning properly, would have locked onto one go the river of intense heat that the target's huge engines pouring out into the frigid high-altitude air.
— Starmageddon 
At 18:26:20 the Soviet pilot reported: "805. I have executed the launch."
     In one second the lights of the rockets, as burning propellants thrust the missiles ever supersonically faster toward the target, had become mere pinpoints in the distance. The rockets headed unerringly for the brilliant navigation lights and the red rotating beacons of the target.
       The fighter pilot knew this his heart-seeking missile, if functioning properly, would have "locked on" to one go the target's huge engines pouring out a river of intense heat into the frigid high-altitude air.
Massacre 747
One can understand Rohmer's temptation; Massacre 747 is one hell of a book, and it contains some of his very best writing:
The mortally wounded 747 cut through the night sky, illuminating it for miles around. With only one wing it slowly began to roll. It was like a comet. Its long, distinctive humplike cockpit and nose thrust ahead and clear of the ball of flame as if trying to run away, to avoid being consumed. Inside the roiling fire all was being engulfed or spit out by the explosion into the icy air. Bodies were torn apart. Blankets, luggage, seats, toys – everything movable or ripped away from floors and ceilings at the rear of the massive aircraft – were spewed out the hole where the tail had been.
— Massacre 747 
The flaming and mortally wounded 747 cut through the night sky, illuminating it for miles around. With only one wing, it slowly began to roll. Its long, distinctive humplike cockpit and nose thrust ahead and clear of the ball of flame, as if trying to avoid being consumed. Inside, the roiling fire engulfed all that was not spit out into the icy air by the explosion. Bodies were torn apart. Blankets, luggage, seats, toys – everything that was movable or had been ripped away from floors and ceilings at the rear of the massive fuselage – were spewed out the hole where the tail had been.
— Starmageddon
Who wouldn't want to revisit those images. Besides, it gave opportunity to fix that awkward sentence about the roiling fire.

Did anyone notice?

Books in Canada, May 1986
John Gellner, who wrote glowing reviews of both books for the Globe & Mail, didn't mention the self-plagiarism; as editor of the Canadian Defence Quarterly, you'd think he'd have noticed. But what interests me more is Irwin, which was then in its death throes. Did anyone there know that large portions of their big fiction offering where copied from a book being sold by a rival publisher?

Best sentence:
Pieces of the shattered engine blade penetrated the thin fuselage skin like a knife through gossamer.
— Starmageddon 
Pieces of the shattered engine blade penetrated the thin fuselage skin like a knife through gossamer.
— Massacre 747
Object: A 241-page hardcover in blue binding. The cover art by Peter Mossman reminds me of the very worst albums sold during my time at Sam the Record Man (1983-85).

Access: At eight, I count more copies in public libraries than academic libraries.

The hardcover first edition – there was no second printing – is Less common is the mass market paperback. The only cover image I can find (right) comes courtesy of Toronto bookseller David Harris, who offers his copy for all of two dollars.

Worth every penny.

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