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On the literary road, in Ontario

May 11, 2014

I’m back from my North American trip and, as you can tell, didn’t find much time to post while I was there. It was a packed three and a half weeks, catching up with our daughter, sightseeing, and meeting people, many of whom I’d got to know via online reading groups. I didn’t find much time (or, indeed, energy) to read, but would like to share some literary tidbits from our trip.

Chapters Indigo Bookshop

Canadian authors stand, Chapters Indigo, Eaton Centre, Toronto

I had hoped to check out a local independent bookshop or two but things – including weather that didn’t encourage meandering – conspired against me, so the only bookshop I visited in the end was a chain, Chapters Indigo. I was intrigued to see how much it had diversified into all sorts of products, including personal and household goods. I guess this is how a bookshop survives these days. My main aim in visiting was, of course, to check out Canadian authors. Unfortunately the shop, while fine in its way, was just like a chain. The staff did their best but were not really able to provide the sort of advice I wanted, like, you know, the names of Canadian authors besides the well-known ones like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They had a lot of the latter’s books, the willing sales assistant said, since she’d just won the Pulitzer! I didn’t bother to correct him but simply smiled, because he had done his best –  and then I noticed that we were actually standing next to a little display stand of just what we were looking for, that is, a stand in which all the books were tagged “Canadian author” and were all new authors to me! I was attracted to Circus, a book of short stories by Claire Battershill, but didn’t buy it then. Instead, I bought a book by another author I know, Margaret Laurence, for Ma Gums.

Toronto Book Awards

photo 2 croppedAnd then, quite serendipitously on the same day, my daughter and I were walking down Queen Street West and walked right over plaques embedded in the pavement for the Toronto Book Awards Authors Walk of Fame. The awards were established by the City of Toronto in 1974 and are awarded each year for the year’s best fiction or non-fiction book or books “that are evocative of Toronto”. All shortlisted authors receive $1000, with the winning author receiving an extra $10000.

I was intrigued to see that one of the winners of the first award – in the early years there were often multiple winners – was William Kurelek whose art we’d come across at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the book he won for is called O Toronto which contained his series of paintings of Toronto. The other two inaugural winners were historian Desmond Morton’s Mayor Howland and novelist Richard Wright’s In the middle of a life. I have his best known work, Clara Callan, on my TBR pile.

William Campbell

We visited Toronto’s historic Campbell House, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell from 1822 until he died in 1834. His Georgian-style house is the oldest surviving building from the original town of York, but the reason I am including him here is that he presided in 1826 over the trial of the rioters who destroyed William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press on which he printed his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The house museum suggests the case is a significant early test for freedom of the press in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become a politician, and in 1834, the first mayor of the new city of Toronto (as York was renamed when it was incorporated).

Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival theatre, Stratford

This festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespearean and then Shakespeare Festival, is, according to Wikipedia, an internationally-recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to October in Stratford, which is about 2-hours drive west of Toronto. It’s a very pretty little town, on the Avon River, and has a replica Globe Theatre. I was intrigued to discover yet another Shakespeare based or inspired festival. They seem to abound, and Wikipedia has quite a list of them. Many, like this one, don’t  focus exclusively on Shakespeare but his works form their backbone. Daughter Gums has been a keen attendee over the last two years of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and several of my online reading group friends love the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But back to Stratford. I was given a beautiful coffee table book, Robert Cushman’s Fifty seasons at Stratford, by Emmy whom I met for the first time on this trip but have “known” for many years through online reading groups. The book is organised chronologically with each chapter named for that period’s artistic director. And, it has an introduction by another Canadian author I’ve read, Timothy Findley, who acted at the very first festival at Stratford in 1953. The first director was Tyrone Guthrie, and some of the actors Findley worked alongside were Alex Guinness, Irene Worth and Douglas Campbell. This was clearly no amateur undertaking! Cushman, in his preface, mentions that another Canadian novelist (I’ve read), Robertson Davies, had played a role in establishing the Festival, had been on its board, and had written about its early history. This is a gorgeously produced book, with an excellent index and a chronological list at the back of every play performed at the festival from 1953 to 2002.

… and now, with jet lag making its presence felt, that is about all I have for you tonight, but at least I have given you a taste of some of the things that have occupied my mind over the past three weeks or so.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2014 6:47 am

    Well, Whispering Gums, you’ve set me a challenge. Glad you’re rereading Margaret Laurence – I think she’s wonderful. But you may be interested to know if you didn’t already that there is real Toronto-centric domination in Canadian lit and the western writers rarely get a look in . So much so that when I was in BC we couldn’t even get a Pen centre going because Toronto Pen wouldn’t support it. My memory is fading but here are some authors from the westerly neck of the woods that might interest : MAC Farrant , Pauline Holdstock, Kathy Page, Margaret Thompson, Susan Musgrave , Patrick Lane, Rudy Weibe, Douglas Coupland of course, Wayne Chu? Madeleine Thien.. I’m sure I’ve omitted many but these are a start . And if you’re in BC again you could check out the book called Reading the Peninsula that I edited, with quite a reasonable contribution by an unknown writer called Charlotte Biscay. Happy reading !

    • May 12, 2014 4:17 pm

      Charlotte Biscay eh? It think I’ve heard of her … who knows if I’ll get to beautiful BC again, but if I do, I’ll check her out!

      But, I must say I wasn’t really aware of the Toronto-centric domination of Canadian Literature. I realised as I was preparing for the trip and writing this post that I’d read more Canadian writers than I’d realised but I hadn’t fully taken in where they were all from. I realise now that some of the others I haven’t named – like Mordecai Richler and Alistair McLeod – are also easterners. The American born Carol Shields, though, as I recollect lived on the west didn’t she? I’m ashamed to say I’ve heard of very few of those names you give, so thank you for that.

      Thanks as always for your useful contribution, Sara. Why on earth would one writers’ group not support the establishment of another one on the other side of the country? That’s really rather distressing to hear – for what reason? Power?

      • May 12, 2014 4:59 pm

        Carol Shields was based in Winnipeg but moved to Victoria while I was living there and I met her briefly. She was only there a couple of years, maybe not even that, before she died. Interestingly, her untimely death was front page news all around the country as well as the first item on the tv news. Hard to imagine something comparable happening here in Oz, though maybe that’s changing. Hope so. Rudy Weibe and Margaret Laurence also hailed from the west , I think also Manitoba.

  2. May 12, 2014 8:17 am

    Your report accepted, Mrs Gums. [grin] Enjoyed, even !

  3. May 12, 2014 8:24 am

    Interesting trip. I remember in high school we went to Stratford as a school excursion to see a Shakespeare play though I struggle to remember which one it was. I know Christopher Plummer was in it which was enough to excite us in the 60’s. Enjoy your Canadian authors.

    • May 12, 2014 4:26 pm

      Thanks Pam … yes, the book mentions Plummer quite frequently. Sounds like he was a great supporter/contributor too. My best Shakespearean memory is (was?) seeing Judi Dench in Australia with the Royal Shakespearean Company. As I recollect she starred in Twelfth Night, and may also have been in The Winter’s Tale. Special memories eh?

  4. May 12, 2014 11:41 am

    Oh, Sara’s comment about the Toronto-centricity of Canadian lit makes my heart hurt! We have the same issue at Today’s Parent—I will ‘fess up that too much of our focus is on the East Coast, and we are often rapped on the knuckles by our readers for this. When I’m trying to find people to interview for stories, though, it’s really hard to say “Looking for a parent with an experience of […] WHO ISN’T FROM ONTARIO” without offending the Ontario folks at the same time! 😛 Not an excuse, though. Just an observation!

    Signed,
    Daughter Gums.

    • May 12, 2014 4:20 pm

      It reminds me Hannah, of similar feelings in Australia between east and west. It’s always a challenge even in our distance-reduced world, it seems.

  5. May 12, 2014 2:21 pm

    Maybe Geist could help, Hannah.

    • May 12, 2014 4:22 pm

      I had to look that up Sara … I assume you mean the magazine from Vancouver? Looks interesting and a survivor of the lit mag minefield?

  6. May 13, 2014 5:52 am

    Welcome home! I had to laugh at the irony of the bookseller not knowing the names of any but the most famous Canadian authors and then you turning around to see a display of Canadian authors! At least someone in the store knew, too bad it wasn’t the person helping you! Love the author’s walk of fame!

  7. Lithe lianas permalink
    May 13, 2014 1:25 pm

    Ma Gums has already dipped into Margaret Laurence and is appreciating Laurence’s ability to quickly establish character and atmosphere.

    • May 13, 2014 1:27 pm

      Oh that’s great to hear Lithe Lianas aka Ma Gums … I remember liking The stone angel so hoped it would be good.

  8. Brad permalink
    May 14, 2014 9:03 pm

    Seems you had a great trip. I think Stratford Festival is definitely one of the best literature fests ever. It’s simply awesome.

    • May 14, 2014 10:00 pm

      You’ve been there Brad? It certainly sounds like a great Festival – including picnics by the river! And yes, we did indeed have a great trip. Superficial of course given we had only 2 weeks in the region, but we managed a good variety in our sightseeing I think.

  9. May 15, 2014 3:57 pm

    First, I must apologize for the negligence (ignorance is too harsh a word, albeit maybe more apt) of the Chapters-Indigo store clerk. Pulitzer? Our neighbour to the south would be proud.

    As an Albertan, may I offer a list of writers from the Prairie Provinces (AB, Sask., Manitoba). Since you mentioned William Kurelek, he was born in Alberta, but soon moved to Ontario during the Depression. Other more well-known writers from the Prairies include W. O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen The Wind), W. P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe, later adapted into the movie Field of Dreams) Aritha Van Herk (Judith), Robert Kroetsch (Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait), Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Rudy Wiebe (The Discovery of Strangers), Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness), David Bergen (The Time In Between)… And most recently, the memoir A House In The Sky is written by an Albertan, Amanda Lindhout, an engrossing read.

    I’ve enjoyed reading about your Canadian travels. The next time I head to Toronto, I must drive to the Stratford Festival. I’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon in England but have not been to the Stratford in my own country. 😉

    • May 15, 2014 4:55 pm

      Oh thanks Arti for all those suggestions. I didn’t know Martel lived in Alberta. The rest of the names are all pretty new to me. How very embarrassing. I’m starting to see Sara’s point re the dominance of the east, certainly in what has made it over here to the other side of the world!

      • May 15, 2014 11:41 pm

        These are writers from any of the three Prairie Provinces. Martel lives in Sask. A House In The Sky is an engrossing real life account. I highly recommend it. I can even imagine who would be great for the film adaptation: Kathryn Bigelow directing Jessica Chastain.

  10. August 7, 2014 10:53 am

    Sorry it took me a few days to get back to you! You likely thought I was lost on my bicycle. 🙂 At any rate I agree that here in Canada there are very few independent book stores left and yes having the big chains sell soup to nuts is a survival tactic. Looks like you had a lovely time in Canada. Hope you can visit Alberta one day. 🙂

    • August 7, 2014 2:35 pm

      Oh no,,Sue, I understood how busy things can get. I’m actually chuffed you came back.

      The same thing is happening here with book shops. Some still survive. Even some of the chains here have gone.

      You never know, we may get to Alberta properly one day.

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