Robert Wilkie, who passed away last month, had a number of titles at Key Porter Books, including treasurer, executive vice-president and chief operating officer. I have an old memo from Anna Porter listing Bob’s responsibilities after he returned in 1989 from an unhappy sabbatical with a start-up publishing company. The list begins with “all day-to-day operations of Key Porter,” and progresses through “personnel management,” “operation and supervision of the warehouse” and “all purchasing” to “final signature on estimate sheet and print-run approval,” “approval of all invoices and expense reports” and “keeping records of staff review dates, vacations and sick days.” He was, in other words, indispensable. However, I, and many others who were with the company in the mid-1980s, remember him chiefly for Friday afternoons, when Bob would call a halt to the madness and invite all staff to join him in the boardroom to chat and share a bottle or two of wine.
He was a tall and rather distinguished-looking man, grey-haired in all the years I knew him, with the remnants of a Scottish burr in his locution and the kind of congenial social graces that make all comers feel comfortable. He had apprenticed in Scotland as a printer’s compositor, which is to say that he had worked in a printing plant in the age of metal type, and consequently he had a fine, critical eye not just for typographical errors, but also for more exotic infelicities involving kerning and letter spacing. He was scrupulous, too, in checking running heads, which, before computers automated page setup, were apt to go awry in second pages and beyond. And, yes, in addition to his other duties, Bob liked nothing better than to relax by proofing pages before they went to press.
He once had worked for Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born entrepreneur who became a minor British press baron in the late 1980s, owner of the London Daily Mirror, among other titles. He was controversial even then: attacked by the press and frequently attacking them in turn, famous for his litigiousness. Later, it emerged, that he was a large-scale crook who bilked the Mirror Group employee pension fund of some ₤440 million in an attempt to cover debts of more than ₤1 billion. Maxwell disappeared mysteriously from his yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean in 1991. Bob, however, had nothing but fond memories of Maxwell, whom he remembered as an amusing raconteur and generous employer. I wish I could remember the stories Bob told to reinforce the portrait, but, of course, too many years have passed and I can’t.
Bob was known for his memos, which often were characterized either by wry humour or, on occasion, exasperation. He hated messiness and was apt to be cross about the condition of the kitchen. Inevitably, given the frequently straitened condition of the company’s finances, he kept a close eye on office expenses. The profligate use of couriers was a recurrent topic of his circulars. He was responsible, too, for office machinery. One memo begins with the now quaint pronouncement: “I was amazed in my survey to find how many of you were not even aware that we had a Telex in the office.” (I, as it happened, was one who knew: on my first days in the company I was given, in lieu of an office, a confined space between cardboard boxes in the windowless storeroom where the Telex machine was located. Its intermittent chatter was just one of the annoyances I endured.) Bob’s memo outlined how Telex messages would thenceforward be routed through a third-party after he had disposed of it. Change comes so suddenly now, I doubt that the machine was missed for long.
I do, however, miss Bob. Key Porter was a crazy place to work in those years, when Anna was the imperious buccaneer of Canadian book publishing, and Phyllis Bruce, editorial director, her exquisite, diligent foil. The company was chronically understaffed but enormously productive. Somehow we churned out as many as fifty titles a year and yet, with no backlist to speak of, and constantly borrowing against next year’s bestseller (too often next year’s remainder), we laboured always with the subliminal suspicion that the bailiff at any moment would batter down the door.
Those Friday afternoons in the boardroom, when Bob Wilkie broke out the wine and settled contentedly in the chair at the head of the table, were an essential interlude of cheerful serenity. They rarely became bitching sessions. We just talked. And, for a few moments, listening to Bob’s stories, we could pretend that book publishing was the civilized occupation we all had imagined it would be.
I’ve been working my way through Mary Janigan’s new book, Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark (Knopf, $32). Janigan, a journalist-turned-historian, traces western alienation back to its pre-Confederation beginnings. Although occasionally enlivened by stirring tales of immigrants battling the elements and ill-fortune on the cold, hard prairie, the narrative focuses on inter-provincial infighting, mainly through descriptions of meetings and paraphrased letters whose authors are really, really pissed off. In other words, Janigan’s book offers implicit support for the well established perception that Canadian history is a bore. Worse than that: it promotes a depressing theme to the effect that we are essentially a federation of jealous neighbours, incessantly whining that the other guys are getting more than their share. So far, only Louis Riel comes across with a scintilla of nobility, in his case it’s marred by bad judgment (not to mention the voice of God). I can only hope it gets better. I’ll keep plugging away.
It’s the night the race for the White House finally ends. (The temptation to add “thank god” is irresistible. Done.) Early returns suggest that Obama might take Florida but it’s too early to call. I’m leafing through notes I made back in September when David Frum made an appearance at the Toronto Public Library. He was there to pitch his novel, Patriots, to a packed house. Alison Smith, the CBC correspondent, introduced him. She called him thoughtful, provocative and gentlemanly. As it turned out, she was right.
He was on a book tour but a good part of the audience was less interested in his novel than in his political insights. Frum, after all, was one of George W’s speechwriters, infamous author of the phrase “axis of evil,” and a defrocked high priest of the Republican Party (forced to resign from right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute). He knows a thing or two about the American right. Indeed, the novel comes (metaphorically speaking) as a kind of bitter Dear John letter at the end of a long and loving correspondence with his former Republican Party-girl paramour, now tragically besotted with a ruthless libertarian hedge fund magnate. Or something like that. Not that Frum described the book in precisely those terms.
What he said was that some stuff is too strange for fiction and some stuff is too true for journalism. Only satire would suffice.
Florida, as I write, is still leaning slightly to Obama. This would be a coup. Virginia appears to be going the other way.
How could Romney be doing so well? Frum’s comments on the Mittster were hardly flattering. Romney’s virtue, according to Frum, was his competence. He recalled Rudolf Giuliani’s backhanded compliment, that Romney would have made the greatest secretary of transportation of all time. But Romney wanted desperately to be president. (This was obvious.) Frum lamented that Romney had capitulated to the Tea Party—he had been “remoulded and remade” by the forces of the radical right. “The feeling out there that he is inauthentic,” said Frum, “is true.”
“It takes an enormous amount of presence of mind to be consciously hypocritical,” he added. Energy, one supposes, that might have been put to better use.
Frum had intriguing things to say about the women’s vote. (Intriguing, that is, as a reflection of Republican thinking.) He said that women are uninterested in the part of politics that is a substitute for the NFL. Women, he said, don’t watch the news shows; they don’t like the conflict style of politics;they prefer a consensus approach. Too bad for the Republicans who are so enamoured of conflict. He also noted that married and unmarried women were different from each other. Republicans depend on the support of married women because they are less dependent on the state.
Meanwhile, as I write, more than 80 per cent of the vote having been counted in Florida, the two candidates are separated by a statistical hair. Wolf Blitzer is thrilled.
At the end of his talk at the Toronto Public Library, Frum declared that he would still vote for Romney. Something about the business of America being business and Obama having no sympathy for entrepreneurs. For a lover spurned, Frum showed admirable devotion to his first love. Perhaps when the votes all have been counted, they can be reconciled.
The Globe and Mail‘s Saturday book section continues to mystify. What exactly is its intended constituency? Why is it the way it is? Week in and week out, it resembles nothing so much as the sad provincial simulacrum of a distant, much envied metropolitan journal. Admittedly, the identity of the great sun around which it traces its tiny arc is not always clear: doubtless it has in mind either the Times of New York or the Times of London, but the G&M seems unable to decide which star’s blazing light to oh-so-feebly reflect. This week, at least, the more venerable star has triumphed.
The Globe‘s lead review is given over to Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson, mayor of that city, and an undoubted character. The reviewer is one Ashley Prime, identified as Deputy Consul-General of the British Consulate-General in Toronto – “and a native Londoner.” So: a British book by a British writer, reviewed by a temporarily transplanted British diplomat. And this is how Canada’s purported paper of record serves its constituency? Gosh, ma! We might almost be sitting in London reading a real newspaper!
And there, on the same page of the book section with adorable, mop-haired Boris, sits a tiny two-sentence review by H.J. Kirchhoff of Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be? The second sentence is particularly mystifying. Kirchhoff writes: “Heti’s book is creating enormous buzz in Canada and abroad.”
Absolutely no indication is offered by the G&M as to why, in its view, the buzz has erupted. No opinion on whether we should regard this “enormous buzz” with approval or detestation. There’s something a bit sniffy in the phrasing though. Is the implication that we’ve become so used to Canadian novelists generating buzz that the Globe can look on with condescending indifference when others make a fuss? Or is it, perhaps, beneath the dignity of the Globe to get caught up in the conversation? Heti is not, after all, the mayor of London.
I’m not even going to get into the fact that a full page in the four-page book section is devoted to publication of another of L.M. Montgomery’s journals. (Can you bear the excitement?) If I were Sheila Heti, I’d be pissed.
He’ll talk to just about anybody. He has interviewed doctors who worked among the Montagnards in the Central Highlands. He has interviewed pilots who flew secret missions for the CIA. He has interviewed the helicopter jockeys who gave Nixon his last ride from the White House to San Clemente. He has interviewed Pat Sajak, the “Wheel of Fortune” MC, who turns out to have been a real-life counterpart of the Robin Williams character in the film, Good Morning, Vietnam! He has interviewed Vietnamese veterans who fought for the communists. He has even interviewed some of the Canadians – by his conservative estimate there were ten thousand of them – who fought in the war for Uncle Sam.
Yablonka also has sought the company of the reporters and photographers who covered the war. Perhaps he feels a bond with them because he’s a journalist and photographer himself. In his conversations with Nick Ut and Catherine Leroy, for example, the reader senses affection as well as respect.
Nick Ut’s story is a dramatic one. His brother was on assignment for the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press when he was killed in a firefight in the Mekong Delta. His sister-in-law urged Horst Faas, the AP photo chief, to hire Nick in her husband’s place: the family desperately needed the income. Faas balked at the idea. Nick was in his mid-teens, too young to be exposed to the risks assumed by reporters. Faas did, however, agree to employ the boy in the darkroom – where he thrived. Read the rest of this entry »
My book for young readers, Canada’s Wars: An Illustrated History, didn’t win the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine Award on Tuesday. It was nominated. Nice things were said about it. Didn’t win.
The OLA’s program, Forest of Reading, assigns a tree to each age group, ranging from tykes to teens. White Pine is for the oldest group, 11 to 14, I think. Volunteer librarians and teachers read through piles of newly published books and come up with a shortlist for each age group. Actually, two shortlists: one for fiction, the other for non. When the lists are announced, teachers across the province encourage their students to read the books selected for their age group and then vote for their favorite, which gets the award. It’s a genius program.
For the students, part of the incentive to participate is a day off school. The OLA takes over Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, buses in kids by the thousand and encourages them to rub shoulders with the writers whose books they have been reading. Some authors hold workshops. All are given the opportunity to do signings. And for each award there’s a ceremony at the Westjet Stage where the authors are marched in beneath a banner, introduced by a young person, and generally feted and cheered. Then the winners, fiction and non, are announced.
Part of the brilliance of the concept is the way books are selected: there’s something for everyone. Among the contenders for the White Pine non-fiction award this year were a graphic memoir, a hockey book, the biography of an addict, the autobiography of a comedian (Russell Peters), a polemic about the environment, a collection of true-adventure stories, an upbeat self-help manual and a collection of inspirational vignettes drawn from everyday life.
All tastes are catered to, from celebrity follower to sports fan to science nerd and everyone else. And that, clearly, is the point. The OLA’s motivation is not to give a boost to authors’ egos. (Though it’s entirely possible that they get a kick out of watching authors bask in all that manufactured adulation.) The real point is to get as many kids as possible to pick up and read a book. And, from the evidence at Harbourfront, they’re succeeding admirably.
At the other end of the stage from where I was sitting, someone won the award for fiction. I was sitting beside the ultimate winner of the non-fiction prize. Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome, is a charming guy who had the audience roaring their appreciation for the young woman who introduced his book. You have to admire a man who can manage a crowd like that. The rest of us cheered too.
I didn’t win. But did.
In Almost There,* Curtis Gillespie is working partly in a genre that stems from a particular strain of newspaper writing. I associate it most strongly with the late Gary Lautens, whose decades-long stint as a columnist with the Toronto Star must have established some kind of record. It was carried on for a while in the same newspaper by Linwood Barclay before he became a famously accomplished writer of detective novels. Stuart McLean’s stories about the adventures of Dave and Morley share some of the genre’s main features—including the tight cast of characters and the everyday nature of the plots—but the columns written by Lautens and Barclay were based firmly on real-life incidents. McLean’s stories are pure fiction.
At their best, too, the newspaper columns had an edge to them, while McLean’s tales tend to be treacly.
In the Lautens newspaper genre, the narrator-protagonist typically is a middle-aged man—the columnist—and the main characters are members of his immediate family. He’s a bit of a doofus but good-hearted. His spouse is smart, practical and long-suffering. Their kids get up to all kinds of hijinks, but nothing that can’t be sorted out with help from mom, a friend or a local elder. It is essential, however, that the dad be flawed: if he can’t laugh at himself (and invite the reader to join in his laughter) then the column gets swamped by unendurable smugness. There’s almost nothing more irritating than someone else’s adorable family. Read the rest of this entry »