Announcing A New Show At Niagara-on-the-Lake

For many years the legendary Toronto musician Atis Bankas has run the summer festival of Music Niagara, in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To my surprise and delight, Atis recently saw one of my shows and said, “Let’s turn it into a musical!”

So, on Tuesday, August 7, at 7.30 in The Market Room, in the Court House Theatre in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can see an exciting new version of “150 Years of Canadian Literature”.

Instead of the usual power-point show, where authors from each decade are introduced with a very short burst of recorded music, in this show I’ll be joined on-stage by the distinguished pianist Daisy Leung. We’ll still have works of Canadian art appearing on the screen, and I’ll still talk about the selected authors against the brilliant caricatures by Anthony Jenkins. But there will be lots of music, ranging from Quebec folk-tunes to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and we’ll hear the versatile Daisy playing everything from Oscar Peterson to Leonard Cohen.

It should be fun. I’d be delighted if you could arrange to come for an evening in the former capital of Upper Canada, and enjoy what Daisy and I create…..and I promise not to dance!

Please tell your friends. The more, the merrier.

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PHILIP ROTH IS GONE FOR GOOD. SORT OF…

You may have missed two recent tributes to Philip Roth, who died last week.
One is in The New Yorker, by the novelist ALI SMITH. She learned to her surprise that she and this admired older gentleman both swam in the same New York pool. When she consulted him about how to keep your mind active while swimming boring lengths, up and down, up and down, he told her that he made a point of fixing on a specific year, then recalling everything he could about it. He would tackle not only the events in his own life during that year, but in the city, the state, the country, the literary world, and the world at large.
Ali Smith tells us that he swam long distances, much faster than she did, and learned from him that his recipe for a mental workout also seemed to produce good results.
As the outdoor swimming season begins in much of Canada, I’m happy to pass this idea along.

Meanwhile, I hope that you read the National Post cartoon on May 24 by my friend GARY CLEMENT. It’s an 8-panel piece that runs for half a page, headed “Goodbye, Philip Roth.” The sub-heading says simply “True Story.”
I’ve been in touch with Gary to congratulate him, but complained that it strains the reader’s belief that his encounter with Philip Roth took place “on Columbus Ave., of all places”.
He swears that it’s true.
Gary and his wife and son were in New York when they saw an older man sitting quietly alone outside a coffee shop. Gary says “OMIGOD! It’s Philip Roth!”
Urged to go and say hi, Gary objects “YOU CAN’T JUST SAY HI TO A GUY LIKE PHILIP ROTH! HE’S A GOD OF WRITING! AN IMMORTAL!”
The family goes off for a hamburger.
Then, in mid-burger, Gary abandons his family, runs back, and blurts out “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Roth but I just wanted to tell you how much your writing means to me.”

The story unfolds as you would hope.

“Turns out.. he was a real kibbitzer.”
Roth:”Normally when this sort of thing happens, people offer me a little cash.”

Gary:”I only have Canadian money.”

Roth:” I’ll take a cheque.”

Gary recalls: “It was like talking to my Dad!”

To Gary’s surprise, Philip Roth wanted to know more about him.

Roth:” What do you do in Canada?”
Gary:” I’m a cartoonist.”

Roth:” From this you make a living?”

At the end, “Finally it was time to go.

Gary:”I look forward to your next book…any hints?”

Roth: “I can’t say. I’m just READING books now.”

The superb True Story ends with Gary’s words: “Shortly after that, Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. And now, he’s gone for good. Sort of…”

A lovely memory of Philip Roth late in his life. I wonder if his hair was wet.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE RUSSELL , AND TOM WOLFE

CHARLIE RUSSELL, who died on May 7 in Calgary, grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. His father was Andy Russell, the unforgettable mountain man who was my friend. I once tried to sum up Andy’s life by saying that he had been “a trapper, cowboy, bronco-buster, trail guide, grizzly hunter, nature photographer and film-maker, lecturer, and fighter for the environment.”
His books, including Grizzly Country, Horns In The High Country, The High West. The Rockies, along with the later books that I published (The Canadian Cowboy, The Life of a River, and Memoirs of a Mountain Man) were hugely successful.
They meant that young Charlie and his brothers grew up on horseback , roaming through the Rockies from near Waterton Lakes through into B.C.. On foot, they were at home in the mountains. “My boys grew up able to climb like mountain goats”, Andy records in one of his books, with an alarming photo to prove it.
Charlie, naturally, drifted into the same sort of life, mixing ranching in the foothills with escorting tourists through wild, high places. And he became fascinated by grizzly bears.
He inherited that interest from Andy. I remember once visiting ” The Hawk’s Nest”. the Russell ranch in Alberta south of Pincher Creek, near Waterton. As we looked east , away from the Rockies, we could see three ( no, four!) grizzlies coming in our direction. Andy was not worried. In his life, by standing firm and “talking to” advancing bears that were charging– planning to kill him — he had faced down 23 grizzly charges.
Charlie developed great respect for grizzlies, and decided to get to know them better.
A trip with his father and his brother Dick to study , and to make a documentary about, a white sub-species of black bears on the BC coast on Princess Royal Island led to an astonishing discovery. They could never get near to any bear…..unless they left their guns behind. Charlie told The Edmonton Journal that eventually “The three of us came to the conclusion that the bears could sense that we were not a threat, that somehow they realized that without a gun, we would do them no harm.”
Charlie’s curiosity, and his belief that even grizzly bears were natural friends to humans led him in search of bears unspoiled by harsh contact with hunters. He found them in Russia, in the eastern Pacific section called Kamchatka. After much negotiation with Russian authorities, in 1996 Charlie flew in with his home-built plane, accompanied by his partner, the photographer Maureen Enns.
The result was a remarkable 2002 book, GRIZZLY HEART: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka. It was laced with photos of Charlie swimming with a bear friend. or walking with them, or fly fishing with a bear at his shoulder,watching, waiting eagerly for a fish to bite.
The New York Times wrote that “His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters…..”
He once told an Australian newspaper “A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal so fearful that people can feel brave about killing it.”
The Kamchatka experiment ended with hunters breaking in while Charlie was back in Canada, and slaughtering the bears who had become his friends.
A personal note: When Jane and I stayed at The Hawk’s Nest a few years ago, we were charmed to find that friendship was still being extended by Charlie and his brother John and his wife Valerie to nearby bears. Outside the house was a bird bath. Right beside it was a bear bath. When we tip-toed out in the morning we were disappointed (and relieved) to find that no bear was there, relaxing happily in the big bath!

TOM WOLFE was another friend who died recently. His death in New York received a lot of attention, which is appropriate, because through his own writing, and his editing of important books like The New Journalism, he had a huge impact on writing and writers in many countries.
I knew him a little , and admired him a lot. I especially liked his work on Marshall McLuhan (“What If He’s Right?”). I’ve enjoyed telling the story of Marshall being taken to a strip club by mischief-inspired friends who wanted to see how this devoutly Catholic scholar would react. Tom reported that Marshall gazed at the spectacle thoughtfully, and then said “Ah, yes. She’s wearing us!”
Once I took Tom out for a speaking engagement at York University, York had been constructed in the 1960s at the very edge of Toronto, so was surrounded by a very bare landscape.
Tom gazed out at it and said, mildly, in the Southern accent that he retained even after his Ph.D. years at Yale, “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”

REMEMBERING MAVIS GALLANT

My old friend Mavis died in Paris four years ago today. Her books, of course, live on. If anyone doesn’t know her work, please tell them to read HOME TRUTHS (which won the Governor-general’s Award in 1982) or the SELECTED STORIES. 1996,
But any of her books will show her genius, and will demonstrate why other writers admire her so much. From the U.S. Fran Lebowitz perhaps put it best : “The irrefutable master of the short story in English, Mavis Gallant has, among her colleagues, many admirers but no peer. She is the standout. She is the standard-bearer. She is the standard.”
Now Mavis is at the centre of a literary storm raging in American waters. To put it briefly (and I will write a fuller account) a younger American writer has been accused of stealing from one of Mavis’s classic stories, “The Ice wagon Going Down The Street”.
The New Yorker published that story in 1963. In January this year the same magazine (which had a huge role in shaping Mavis’s career) published a “new” story by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.
In a furious letter of protest to the magazine the well-known author Francine Prose claims that Shepard’s story about Pakistani immigrants in Connecticut is very closely modelled on Mavis’s story about Canadians in Geneva.
And the debate exploded, which I’ll describe later
There may be a welcome result from this unwelcome incident. It may remind many readers of the pleasures of reading Mavis.

A NEW SHOW is now in preparation, and I’ll be in Montreal in April (on the 5th) and in Quebec City on (May 8). My presentations are deliberately rare in the depths of winter, when travel is difficult. Many more events will be in spring and summer, and in Fall we’ll be in the Maritimes.

BUT THERE WILL BE A VERSION OF “ACROSS CANADA BY STORY” IN TORONTO THIS WEEK. The host is the East York Historical Society, at the S. Walter Stewart Library, at 170 Memorial Park Avenue (near Coxwell and Mortimer). The time is 2pm, on WEDNESDAY, 21 February. It would be nice to see you there.

My big project right now is my PODCAST, a decade-by-decade look at Canada’s Greatest Storytellers, from 1867 to today. Watch this space!

TWO STORIES YOU NEED TO SEE

If you, my very literate friends, have the smug sense that things are much better here than south of the border, in President Trump’s America, two stories surfaced today that you should see. And think about.
The first is a story in the December 7 Globe and Mail, by Jessica Leeder headed “Pulp non-fiction debate divides Nova Scotia town.”
The opening paragraph sums up the story : “Nova Scotia-born author Joan Baxter was to spend last Saturday signing copies of her new book about a local pulp mill’s fraught environmental history in Pictou County when Northern Pulp drafted a letter to Coles and its parent company, Indigo Books & Music Inc.”
” Calling the journalistic take insulting and offensive, the letter warned the bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., there would be consequences for the event…”
As a result of these threatened consequences, a spokeswoman for Indigo said that “a number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel” the planned event. The cancellation came , ostensibly, from concerns that customers’ “joyful and safe experience” in the store might be compromised.

So, there you have it. Big, local company turns on a local bookstore, encourages its employees to make trouble ( although the company spokeswoman told us that “employees were not encouraged to take any physical action in protest”) and Coles/ Indigo backs down, and the book signing event is off.

An important freedom of speech issue, I would say.

As it happens, I know New Glasgow, and I know Pictou, and the looming Indonesian-owned pulp mill that dominates the town, in every sense. They are such bad corporate citizens that local resident Paul Sobey (who knows something about responsible corporate citizenship) has lent his name to protests against their environmental actions, all duly recounted in my friend Silver Donald Cameron’s film”Defenders of the Dawn”.

The reconstructed version of “The Hector”, the ship that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia, behind picturesque bagpipers, lies opposite the mill. Sadly, The Hector is closed to the public, still awaiting refurbishment. If any Nova Scotia friends has good news here, I would be glad to hear it.

THE SECOND IMPORTANT STORY is to be found on the front page of The Toronto Star today. Ainslie Cruickshank’s story is headed: “Music teacher  sues board for defamation over song” The sub-heading reads: “School performance of folk song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ leads to claims of racism and a lawsuit”.

The story opens: ” A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — ”Land of the Silver Birch”–was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist”.”

The story is hard to summarise , so you might wish to read it for yourself. It’s especially hard for me to summarise , because THIS IS PERSONAL. In my latest show, taking us through Canadian Storytellers From 1867, decade by decade, I begin with a burst of popular Canadian music from the time. For the 1890s I proudly use “Land of the Silver Birch’, the lyrics written by Pauline Johnson in that decade, and sung by a more recent voice.

And here is what the geniuses behind that email “following concerns from parents about the song” said about Pauline Johnson’s poem. Emphasis mine :”WHILE ITS LYRICS ARE NOT OVERTLY RACIST…THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SONG IS RACIST.”

How do I begin to deal with that? We can look at the song itself, familiar to generations of Canadian kids around campfires. They happily sang about “Blue lake and rocky shore”. Then many of them peered nervously into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of a “mighty moose” wandering at will.

Great  stuff. A fine, historical folksong. I hope the kids sang it well at the concert.

But “racist”? This brings us to Pauline Johnson, whom I’m delighted to include in my show. She was born in Brantford, and went to high school there with my selected storyteller, Sara Jeannette Duncan. Later, when Sara became The Globe’s first woman writer ( protected by the male nom-de-plume”Garth Grafton”) she published an interview with her interesting friend Pauline. And “interesting” is an under-statement. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief, while her mother was English. Pauline drew on both sides of her inheritance. In time , she made her living with a literary act on-stage. In the first half, before the Intermission, she dressed and performed as a Mohawk princess, with poems like “The Song My Paddle Sings”. In the second half she became her mother’s very modern daughter.

Audiences far and wide loved it, as she toured North America and Europe . When she retired to the West Coast, her book Legends of Vancouver, became a great success. In 1913 her funeral in Vancouver was the largest in the city’s history.

“The historical context of the song is racist.” Utter nonsense. I’m proud to have it in my show.

A GREAT HONOUR FOR MY FIRST BOOK

Here is what Terry  Fallis entered, at Kobo’s request, to celebrate Canada Day this year. Look at the authors he chose :– Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Donald Jack………and Douglas Gibson!
Read on.

5 books that say “Canada”

Posted by Terry Fallis June  30, 2017
Fallis Terry_2008_cr. Tim Fallis

1. The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies captures small town life in Canada as only one who grew up in several small towns could. With its gentle humour, brilliant sentences, and captivating storytelling, this, to me, is a supremely Canadian tale.

2. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

This fine novel tells the story of three generations of the Gursky family and cuts a broad swath through the country’s history and geography. Any story that includes a plane crash, rum-running, and the Franklin Expedition puts a check mark in the “Canadian” box.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Few stories capture the distinctly Canadian humour, tone, and sensibility as well as Anne of Green Gables. While the musical may now be more popular than the book, it’s well worth revisiting the L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a few laughs, a few tears and a dollop of national pride.

4. Three Cheers for Me by Donald Jack

If you want to read a hilarious novel that captures the Canadian role in the Great War through the eyes of an oblivious horse-faced farm boy from Eastern Ontario (and who doesn’t?), I give you Three Cheers for Me. Written by the three-time Leacock Medal winning Donald Jack, this is a comic masterpiece, and oh so Canadian.

5. Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Canadian writers have played a profound role in shaping how we view our own country. The history of Canadian literature is a critical strand running through the history of Canada. Why not read about some wonderful Canadian storytellers in a fantastic book by Douglas Gibson, an editor and publisher who has worked with some of Canada’s most influential writers including Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and W.O. Mitchell? You’ll thank me.

Terry Fallis is a Canadian author and two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, winning in 2008 for his debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, and in 2015 for No Relation. To date, all five of his published books have been shortlisted for the award.

COMMENTARY

You can imagine how thrilled I am to be in this company. I have strong links with all of the other four authors.

I edited many ROBERTSON DAVIES books, starting with World of Wonders, the third in the trilogy started by Fifth Business. It is, of course, a superb book, and features in my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS.

I knew MORDECAI RICHLER well, although I never edited his work. He, too, features in my new STORYTELLERS show, where he and I feud as his weary letters begin  “Gibson, Gibson”. Much of the excellent Solomon Gursky book is set in Magog, around the corner from my beloved North Hatley in the Eastern Townships.

Like every Canadian publisher, I published several of LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY’S books, including Anne of Green Gables,( with an “E”). I talk about her in the STORYTELLERS show, noting that it was her Emily of New Moon that set young Alice Munro off on a writing career.

DONALD JACK is a great hidden comic genius. He  brought out  Three Cheers For Me in 1962, and its Wodehousian treatment of Bartholomew Bandy’s adventures among the horrors of Flanders Fields raised many eyebrows. When he brought me a second volume in 1972 ( entitled That’s Me In The Middle), I reshuffled the new book and Three Cheers For Me, so that they became part of  a continuing series.  Don generously signed the 1972 edition of Three Cheers For Me  with the words “For the originator of The Bandy Papers, Douglas Gibson”, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find him included here by Terry.

As for DOUGLAS GIBSON, words fail. But if anyone reading this has not yet read Stories About Storytellers, I hope you’ll see if  you agree with Terry’s generous assessment.

Remembering Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.

It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”.  Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.

Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.

“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.

Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……

The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell.  Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.

For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”

After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.

As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend.  I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.

The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.