The World by Bill Gaston is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering Gaston. I was first introduced to his work when I was at Raincoast and I’ve followed his career but haven’t really dipped into his books. Too bad I waited!
The World is both the title of this novel and the title of a novel in the book, written by Hal, one of the main characters. Hal has Alzheimer’s and is in a home and we don’t really get to his story until the final third of the book, but he is introduced early. The book begins with the sad life of Stuart Price who is a high-school shops teacher, recently retired. Stuart is split from his wife and has poured his energies into paying off his mortgage. Indeed he has just paid it off in a lump sum and, in burning the mortgage papers on his deck, burns the place down. Oh Stuart. To add insult to injury, he has forgotten to pay his insurance premium.
Stuart’s meltdown, or rather burndown, takes him on the road. Whether he’s running away or running to somewhere is questionable. He’s swiftly decided to drive his ancient Datsun from BC to Ontario in order to visit his long-lost friend Mel who is dying of cancer. It happens that his insurance company HQ is in Toronto and he wants to plead his case in person.
Stuart is hilarious, and a bit insane, so his third of the novel is pretty funny. The middle section begins with Mel bailing Stuart out of jail and continues from her perspective. It’s a bit dire in comparison to Stuart’s tragedy, but really it’s just another personal crisis from a different perspective. With Mel, we also finally meet Hal, author of The World which is about a leper colony on D’Arcy Island. Hal is quite the character and he and Stuart together are certainly a pair of looney tunes.
We’re going to be discussing Bill Gaston’s The World for the next couple of weeks in The Vancouver Sun so I’ll save my thoughts for that.
In the meantime, check out this gushing review in the National Post.
The World by Bill Gaston
Published by Hamish Hamilton
A melancholic love story
The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson is a series of short, interconnected love stories set before and after World War I in Paris. The most prominent storyline is of Emile Notre-Dame, thinnest baker in Paris and his wife Immacolata, who have a son Octavio. Both father and son cannot read but are amazing storytellers and Boulangerie Notre-Dame becomes rather infamous among its regular patrons who come for the buttery croissants and baguettes but also for the stories.
The bakery occupied the ground floor of a narrow flatiron building known throughout the neighbourhood as the cake-slice. As far back as anyone could remember the letters above its windows, in their carved wooden flourishes, had spelled out:
BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME
the N having long since vanished.
The story of the N’s disappearance is a regular request from the bakery’s patrons, the most fantastical version being about thieves who spread across France stealing Ns and the most favourite being that of Napolean stealing the N himself.
The love of books is another thread through the story. Despite not being able to read, Octavio is a regular buyer from a book stall near the Louvre. For both Octavio and the bookstall owner, books have a special meaning, and lead to friendships and relationships.
CS Richardson has crafted a very fine story indeed. His cast of characters each contribute to the overarching story while having their own backstories as well. Emile, Immacolata, and Octavio run the bakery as I mentioned. Then there’s the fashion designers Pascal Normand and his wife Celeste, who hide their daughter Isabeau from view because of a facial scar from an unfortunate childhood accident. And we have three generations of the Fournier family who own the bookstall. On top of that, there’s a blind watchmaker, a starving portrait artist and Madame Lafrouche whose husband Alphonse gifts Emile The Arabian Nights which becomes the first book in Octavio’s collection and eventually makes it into the hands of Isabeau.
I was first introduced to CS Richardson from my publishing ties. Richardson is an award-winning cover designer for Random House and his first novel The End of the Alphabet was my favourite book in 2008. The Emperor of Paris is a strong contender for 2013.
Documentary: SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER)
Book: Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon
In 2010 filmmakers Faythe Levine, coauthor of Handmade Nation, and Sam Macon began documenting the dedicated practitioners of hand-painted signs, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features stories and photographs of more than 25 sign painters working in cities throughout the United States.
The Canadian premiere of the Sign Painters documentary that accompanies the book will be in Vancouver on June 7th and 8th at the Rio Theatre. Get tickets ($20) and additional information.
Draw Your Own Alphabets
Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, and Make Your Own
Little Book of Lettering
Another great sign maker: glass & mirrors
April is national poetry month and I thought that I’d celebrate by re-reading some of the poetry collections on my shelves.
Excerpt: “at night cooley listens” published in Sunfall by Dennis Cooley (Anansi, 978-0-88784-580-2)
at night cooley listens to his body
an answering service he bends over now
the day’s over the day’s messages
the rest of the day he does not listen
does not pay it much attention, his neglect shameful
cooley knows he shld do better shld take it out more often
show it a little more affection
once the noise of the day drops like shoes untied away
every night when the tired switch clicks night on
the body becomes importunate spouse
it’s about time you listened to me
you self-centred bastard the body says you barely listen
the body rehearses a long list of grievances, sniffling
there are violins
Dennis Cooley is one of my all-time favourite poets. I find his poems to be flamboyant and a little crazy. Some of them are incredibly heartfelt, while others use tone and timing to turn otherwise casual observations into challenges or wisecracks. He’s the only poet I keep coming back to. Others I enjoy and soon forget whereas I’ll eagerly read, and re-read, Cooley. This poem in particular makes me giddy in the same way that episodes of Seinfeld do.
Excerpt: “Wolf Tree” by Alison Calder published in Wolf Tree (Coteau Books: 978-1-55050-359-3)
The wolf tree’s arms reach out
in a question that is also an answer,
as we seek another name for what we have.
The tree embraces us in its branches,
holds the buds of our tender dreams.
What happened, it says, what happened
to the farm grown over, the buildings
sagging into slope-shouldered grayness.
The wild comes back, as lilacs
explode over the woodshed,
irises and roses bloom beside
Alison Calder’s whole collection of poems is wonderful to read, in particular because each poem offers a wonderful balance of dream and reality. I also like her poems because many are set on the prairies. Calder grew up in Saskatoon and I first met her at the University of Manitoba where she was teaching CanLit and creative writing. I’ve admired her work ever since and perhaps became a fan of prairie poets because of her and Dennis Cooley, along with David Arnason, Robert Kroetsch and newer poets like Alexis Kienlen. I enjoyed the “bee” poems in her recent collection 13.
Poem: “The Home Inspection” by Jamie Sharpe published in Animal Husbandry Today (ECW, 978-1-177041-106-7)
Before I even step
into this house
let me point out
Those leaves on
that there bush
were new in spring;
given it’s late July
I’d say they have
two months tops.
I doubt they’re
Jamie Sharpe is new to me, and I appreciate that he sent me a copy of this collection of poems because I’ve been enjoying exploring it. Like the poems above, Sharpe’s poems are accessible while still being lyrical. It’s a great collection.
What poems strike your fancy? If you’re keen to share, consider checking out the poetry contest on 49thShelf.com for a chance to win a prize package of new Canadian poetry.
I joined author Annabel Lyon in a live chat today as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club.
Annabel Lyon is the author of The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl.
Annabel Lyon’s Books on Amazon
Here are a few highlights from the chat with Annabel Lyon on The Sweet Girl
On how The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl work together
I was really drawn to Aristotle first and foremost, his intellect, and then I was stuck with the fact that he happened to be an ancient Greek - it was the philosophy that drew me first, the history second. But after I finished writing The Golden Mean, I knew my project was only half-finished. That was such a male book, but I wanted to look at the female world also.
Tips on writing dialogue
always, always, always read it aloud. That’s my first instruction to students. If it doesn’t sound natural aloud, it’s not going to read like natural dialogue. I also encourage students to make the dialogue do the work, and not rely on what are known as dialogue tags (she shouted menacingly, that kind of thing). Those are like stage directions, and for me they dilute the power of the line itself. And finally, in historical fiction, make sure your characters still sound like real people. I don’t think “Zounds, my liege, thou hast verily captured it” is nearly as good as “You got it,” even if you’re working with ancient characters.
In response to my question about routine in writing (whether for fiction, or in my case business writing)
Thanks for your question about routine, Monique. I’m not a big believer in the Romantic image of the writer—alone, suffering, pirate blouse in a garret somewhere, waiting for the muse. It’s a job, and I treat it like a job: dress professionally, go to the office, do your work. You wouldn’t procrastinate relentlessly if you were a lawyer or doctor or drywaller or barrista, and you shouldn’t let yourself do that as a writer, either. I like to compare creative writing to journalism, partly because my dad was a journalist, but partly also because there’s a huge overlap between the skill sets. A good non-fiction sentence and a good fiction sentence have a lot in common. A good opening to a short story and a good lede in a news story are playing on a lot of the same principles. And, similarly, I believe strongly that good creative writing can be taught, just as journalism can be taught. Inspiration, no, but craft, yes.
On factual references in the novel, in particular midwifery and stillbirths being buried with puppies
The puppies: yes, this was something I learned about on my trip to Greece. I was fortunate to travel with a university class from Carleton and U Winnipeg (I made friends with some academics, who let me tag along), and one of the things we got to do was learn about the work of Maria Liston, who teaches at Waterloo and also works at the American School in Athens. I joke that she could be the star of CSI: Ancient Athens, because her work focuses on things like bone remains. She can look at a bone and tell you what it is, how the person died, etc. She told us about her research into the remains of babies found in wells with puppies, and concluded that these were drops midwives used for babies who hadn’t survived. The puppies were one of those touches that was so bittersweet: awful, and yet you could imagine someone grieving the baby’s death and (in their belief system) wanting to send something cuddly with them, to keep them company. You can’t invent this stuff! And of course, as a fiction writer, you can’t pass it up either. I got her permission to use this.
On why I included The Sweet Girl in my Shoebox Project for Shelters package
Related to Golden Mean as a male world and The Sweet Girl as a female world, I’m participating in The Shoebox Project this year (final dropoff day is Monday!), where you put together a shoebox of gifts that are delivered to women in shelters. I felt that Pythias’ story was a good survival story, or at least showed how you need to keep your wits about you even when the world seems against you. So it’s included in my shoebox. http://www.shoeboxproject.com/
If you’re looking for a great gift this season for a reader then I highly recommend The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl. A combo pack or singles.
Annabel Lyon’s website
Published by Random House
Media outlets are reporting that two of the big six publishers have merged.
It’s interesting to see the coverage, in particular the Canadian opinions of the merger. What we have are two of the publishing industries biggest players forming one super publisher, Penguin Random House.
Realistically both were already owned by international media giants Bertelsmann (Random) and Pearson (Penguin). The new super publisher is “super” because it merges the publishing divisions and imprints across North America, Latin America, the UK, Australia & New Zealand, India, South Africa and operations in China and Spain. Wow.
The media reports, likely from the merger press releases, are spinning this as a fight against the dominance of Amazon. The idea being that a larger entity can play ball better with the dominant retail vendor. Even though Random House is quite advanced in terms of their digital publishing and data savvy, and Penguin is advanced in terms of innovative digital publishing and brand recognition, we still have two publishers (now one) against a data and technology machine. I’m not sure what people are expecting can be leveraged here. Nor why they think that their publishing buddy, if they are successful in playing better with Amazon are somehow going to open the door for smaller publishers.
My take is good for Penguin and Random House. I hope they don’t spin their wheels trying to consolidate operations and create efficiencies that likely don’t exist.
My concern would be for authors and agents and the diminishing diversity of established publishers because I do still believe publishers have a lot of valuable industry knowledge not yet earned by innovative publishing startups. We’ll see how merged these operations and imprints become but I suspect there will be reductions.
My advice to all publishers is to look closely at the skills Amazon has developed since the late 90s and catch up as quickly as possible. Look at your direct to consumer marketing, look at your brand experience, look at your website usability, look at your purchase funnels, go mobile, get your head around the data, stop looking at what other publishers are doing and look at the leaders in b2c retailer/ecommerce, assess your products, find your audience, find the budgets, hire the right staff and doggedly seek the winners. (I know you think you’re doing that, but if you step way back and take a look at you vs. them, you’ll see the difference.)
As Joe Wikert says, ‘Instead of just merging I’d rather see one of the big six stand up like this small publisher and say “we’ve walked on eggshells for far too long…it’s time for us to get serious about building that direct channel and not worry about how our existing channel partners will react.”’ (TOC.OReilly.com)
Dennis Johnson of Melville House has a good review of the media reports on the Penguin Random House merger.
Posted by Monique at 09:21 AM.
Book Publisher •
If you’re looking for that blockbuster summer read, it’s here! The latest in the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny arrived in stores on August 28.
The Beautiful Mystery
Buy on Amazon
More details at Raincoast Books
No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. They grow vegetables, they tend chickens, they make chocolate. And they sing. Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”
But when the renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery’s massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec. There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony. One of the brothers, in this life of prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder. As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors. Before finding the killer, before restoring peace, the Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in between.
Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache delivers again and again. Traditional mystery fans will like the whodunit plot, but those who have a literary bend like me will appreciate the well-written dialogue and excellent story arch.
Indeed, it is a page turner, but Louise Penny’s prowess is in delivering fallible heroes in a way that still makes us cheer. I’m speaking of course of Inspector Gamache, but also of Lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is suffering from an addiction to painkillers.
The evil twist, beyond the murder at hand, is the psychological foul play used by the police force’s headman who has it out for Gamache and his team. I won’t tell you any more about what happens here because it is all too irksome.
For a book set in a monastery with an ancient secret to hide, this novel sure is illuminating. I 100% am in love with Louise Penny’s Inspector, the village of Three Pines and this awesome series.
If you haven’t read Louise Penny, I really liked A Trick of Light, which seems like a natural place to start before getting into The Beautiful Mystery—this is book 8 in the series. There is so much revealed in book 8 that I wouldn’t want you to start here. If you have the time and aren’t itching to read The Beautiful Mystery right this minute (which you should actually), then read the full series. It does not disappoint.
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is also available as an audio book
Listen to an audio clip
And if you’re in Vancouver, Louise Penny is at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on Oct 20.
The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty reminded me a little bit of The Paris Wife. The book opens in 1922 during a summer in Wichita when not much is happening for Ms Cora Carlisle. Both her sons are grown and moved away, her husband’s successful law practice keeps him busy and Cora is idling away her time. What seems like an adventure is presented to her: chaperon 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City for her dance audition.
Cora, of course, has her own private reason for making the trip, and it’s not just boredom. We quickly find out that Cora was orphaned in New York and was sent out on an orphan train to be adopted by willing parents, who have since died. Her plan is to accompany Louise and seek out her birth parents. The orphanage has already refused to provide that information by mail, but Cora is optimistic.
The part of the story that reminds me of The Paris Wife is the insights into the 1920s. It was a time of transition where skirt lengths (above the ankle) were still shocking and girls were coached that no man would want to marry an unwrapped piece of candy. At the same time homosexuality, the bob haircut, jazz and other shocking disregards for convention (like black and white people sitting side by side in the same theatre) were part of daily life in a bustling metropolis like NYC.
Cora takes all the shocks in stride, in particular the difficulties posed by Louise’s free-spirit attitude, and really finds her own place in the world. She goes by to Wichita with quite a backbone.
The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty
Published by Riverhead Books (Penguin Canada)
Available in hardcover on amazon.ca
Book Of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale was recommended to me by my friend Rachael. I was keen to read it because when I worked at Raincoast we had distributed some of Shannon Hale’s previous titles.
The story opens with Dashti becoming a maid to Lady Saren and promptly being locked up in a tower with her for seven years. Saren’s father, in a rage, has bricked her up into the tower because she has refused to marry an evil lord from a neighbouring realm. Instead she is in love with Tegas, a more gentle lord, and another neighbour.
This love is rather tenuous though and Lady Saren insists that Dashti speak to Tegas when he sneaks into the tower and knocks at their locked door. Of course, Dashti complies, falls in love with Tegas, has to fight for her safety when evil Lord Khasar later shows up at the door, fends for herself and Lady Saren when they manage to escape and then sets them up, under a disguise, in Tegas’ own household.
Dashti is a heroine in the classic sense and a terrier in a modern sense.
Hale’s tale is pulled from a long-forgotten Grimm’s tale, but she adds her own twists and interpretations. Overall it’s a great teen read, and good for adults looking for light fantasy and easy, compelling reading.
The Red House is the latest novel by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. The novels are getting more and more experimental and deeper into the psyche of the characters. In some ways A Spot of Bother and The Red House remind me of Martin Amis novels in that we get a low-class to middle-class view of the British and the protagonists are losers in some way, and continue to be losers even at the end of the novel.
In The Red House we have a brother and sister, Richard and Angela, who’ve drifted apart but are reunited after the death of their mother. Richard, who is younger and more successful—a doctor, albeit with a lawsuit pending—has invited his sister and her unemployed husband and three children on holiday. Richard also has his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa in tow. Louisa seems to be the least developed character. She’s initially presented as the trophy wife who is amenable to everything and everyone. She has a small triumph in confronting Richard midway through the book but otherwise isn’t as developed as her daughter, who is beautiful outside but not inside, Alex the athletic son, Daisy the Christian, Benjy the little kid, Angela the self-proclaimed underachiever who is losing a grip on reality or Dominic the weak father. But then again, the novel really isn’t about anyone.
The crazy thing about this book is that the perspective shifts, almost at every paragraph, from one character to the next. This is a bit of a challenge in the beginning because on top of the shifting perspective, some of the characters are reading books so you get their interior monologue as they read.
Overall, the book was enjoyable but not my favourite Haddon novel, which still remains Curious Incident. Regardless, if you’re a Haddon fan, then give this one a go. Like Spot of Bother, it’s not an uplifting ending but it’s not depressing either.
The Red House by Mark Haddon is published by Doubleday Canada.
I absolutely loved this book. Every woman (and man) who loves Mad Men should read Mad Women by Jane Maas, which is about what it was actually like to be in advertising in the 60s. Jane Maas has great insights here because she began her career at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter in 1964 and climbed the ladder to creative director and agency officer. The book offers a ton of little stories and tidbits on what it was like to work at the agency and with David Ogilvy. Maas also ran her own agency, was a Matrix Award winner and an Advertising Woman of the Year, and if you have no idea who she is, think about the I Love New York campaign. Maas was the director of the campaign and shepherded it to greatness.
Mad Women is a book of anecdotes about Maas, the agencies of the 60s, career women and what’s accurate (and less so) in the tv series Mad Men. I thought the book was hilarious and intriguing. I mean it is a bit of bragging, but so what. Peggy Olson is a ringer for Maas, who rose through the ranks based on merits and managed some rather large accounts. The book is well written and if you’re at all interested in storytelling, it’s like having lunch with Maas and shooting the shit about the golden days of advertising.
The big takeaways: Career women seem to have all the same challenges today that they did in the 60s, although perhaps the discrepancies between men and women are more muted today than they were in the 60s. And advertising campaigns and their behind-the-scenes battles are pretty much the same.
Maas references a ton of great campaigns and the women behind them. For example, Clairol’s hair coloring. Coloring your hair in the 60s was a topic more personal than sex, mostly because only showgirls and hookers colored their hair. The woman behind Clairol’s “Does she ... or doesn’t she?” slogan was Shirley Polykoff.
I Love New York is one of the most famous ad campaigns in history and many people claim to be the creator, but Maas was the liaison between the agency and the governor, the Department of Commerce, the state legislature, the regional tourism offices, the League of New York Theaters, the Statue of Liberty, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Rockettes, the White House, and the Olympic Committee.
Mad Men: True or False
Was there much sex in the office? Joan Lipton, one of the grandes dames of advertising says “of course people were partaking, but you have to understand that at the time I was married, had a three-year-old child, and was living in Connecticut. In her interview Maas suggests then that Lipton was aware then of the sexual activity. “Aware?” Joan sniffed. “Heavens, I partook.”
Was there that much drinking? One account man complains to Jane, “it’s not at all realistic. We never drank in the morning.” Seems that it was customary to go out for lunch/liquid lunch most days. “We’d then have wine during lunch and a Rusty Nail (a combination of whisky and Drambuie) or Stinger (a lethal concoction of white creme de menthe and brandy) to finish. Then — unbelievably — we’d all go back to our offices at about 2pm to work.”
From an Adage interview: Do you think Mad Men is accurate in its portrayal of women? Maas says “Yes, I do. For instance, Peggy Olson has a career path very similar to mine; she started off as a secretary and then got to writing copy by pleading, and then writing copy on nights and weekends until finally she was promoted to a copywriter. Still, a lot of her ideas are met with poo poo because the men think they know better. I think that’s very realistic in terms of how women copywriters were treated in those days—they were only allowed to work on certain types of products like baby food and things like that.”
The smoking: Maas recounts, “just an hour after my daughter Kate was born, a nurse brought this tiny 5lb infant to my hospital bed and I remember cradling her in one arm and smoking a cigarette with the other hand.”
The hats are missing: Women copywriters wore a hat all day long. It was a badge that signaled your position above the typing pool.
Stuff I Learned
1967: The teamwork school of creativity where the copywriters and art directors come up with ideas together was a new Doyle Dane Bernbach concept only recently implemented by agencies. Bill Bernbach decreed that at his agency, copywriters and art directors must work together on all advertising—even radio scripts. Maas, “We hear that at DDB some art directors can’t even draw. Imagine.”
The Schools of Advertising:
Doyle Dane school: tell it like it is, avoid hyperbole, have a little fun with the products. Ads like “Think small” for Volkswagen. “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Jewish rye,” for a bakery in Brooklyn ... and “We’re only #2. We try harder” for Avis.
David Ogilvy school: persuasive ads that often have long headlines and a lot of copy, packed with facts. One of DO’s most famous headlines was for Rolls-Royce, “the visual was simply a sleek photo of a car. The headline said: ‘At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.’”
Ted Bates school: “hard-hitting, hard-selling advertising that drives the message home with powerful visuals and taglines repeated over and over. Hammers pounding on an animated head for Anacin; stomach acid bursting into flames for Tums. When people talk about how irritating advertising can be, it’s usually this kind of work they have in mind.”
Gene Grayson is a school unto himself. “He specializes in mnemonic devices—usually a visual effect that helps the consumer remember your brand and what it stands for. For Maxim freeze-dried coffee he created the slogan ‘Turns every cup in your house into a percolator.’”
To whet your appetite for mad women, listen to The Age of Persuasion on the great women of advertising. And do read Mad Women one. Totally fun and worth the ride.
Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ‘60s and Beyond by Jane Maas
Published by St. Martin’s Press
I recently read The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club and was deeply impressed with JJ Lee’s ability to weave his personal story with the history of menswear. In books where there are two parallel stories, I often find that they do run parallel and I favour one over the other, but here the two are interconnected in a way that moves both stories along nicely.
The Measure of a Man is great for women readers who are interested in a memoir about family relationships as well as curious about men’s fashion. JJ offers lots of little insights into why certain buttons are buttoned or not buttoned and where women go wrong in “helping” men with their wardrobe. And it’s great for men who might be drawn to the sartorial education provided in the pages but also curious about how the suit makes the man and how the anxieties of trying to measure up or measure yourself against your father are faced in this particular story.
The opening of this memoir is a great setup to the story. Perhaps it’s because JJ Lee is so practiced at telling this story. He tailored it first to be a radio documentary and also a series of talks, including this one I attended at Interesting Vancouver.
JJ Lee @Interesting Vancouver 2010 from Interesting Vancouver on Vimeo.
Just like the suit JJ is breaking down and restructuring, the memories of his father are like suit seams being sewn and ripped and sewn again.
The Meaning of a Man
As the suit has evolved over the last four centuries — moving from the tailcoat and morning coat (both short in the front and long in the back) to the long-skirted frock coat (imagine Abraham Lincoln) to the lounge suit (essentially our modern-day suit) — it has accumulated layers of meaning, signifying different things to different people at different times. The suit has baggage. It carries the weight of male history and shifting ideas of manhood and fatherhood, success and failure, class and beauty.
From birthday suit to funeral suit, Lee uses his father’s suit to talk about what makes a man, specifically what made his father who he is and what makes JJ Lee who he is today.
During our Vancouver Sun live chat on March 16, JJ said:
It’s a weird book in some ways. Many people see it a fashion book and others see it as a family memoir but I suppose my point was the sartorial lessons are part of the male relationship and that it has its echoes through history.
Early on in the story, JJ Lee introduces readers to his father, who was raised by grandparents in Sherbrooke, married young and became a successful restaurant owner. JJ’s father worked hard for his place in the world. “Even then he liked clothes and was searching for how clothes could make the man. I see his ambition.”
But things bottom out for the Lee family when JJ’s father starts drinking too much, starts abusing his wife and the children, and then loses the house after a series of failed business ventures.
As we get deeper into the book, Lee’s nerve to tackle the suit matches the determination he’s mustered to tackle the memories of his father. And they are not at all good.
I’ve burrowed the blade deep enough into the seam to begin cutting the threads, which offer the same meaty resistance as when I slide a knife through the joint of a chicken thigh. Inside I find more of the alarming spewing guts of the suit: thin wafters of synthetic material are stacked to make the shoulder pad.
The suit might look good to the non-tailor, but a true tailor can see its faults. The sloppiness. The falsities trumped up so that together they appear to be greater than they are. The suit offers a wonderful metaphor for JJ’s memories of his father.
But it’s not a dower read. For example, in cutting out the bad in the suit, JJ makes a novice mistake. He’s taken out the shoulder padding and restitched the sleeves to the suit only to discover, “my head looks enormous.”
There’s an absurdity to the childhood memories that needs to be massaged into something more mature, something less distorted.
The Scent of a Man
Scent plays a strong role in JJ’s story. The suit itself smells of vanilla, cigarettes, and sweat. JJ Lee describes having a visceral reaction, a flood of memory. Perhaps my interest in perfume sold me on Measure of a Man.
In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes, ‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’
On trying to gather pieces of knowledge and stitch them together, JJ says:
I will map its terrain; lapels, notches, side pockets, buttons, sleeves, die seams, and vents will be its features. Some I will alter. Others I will leave along. And maybe, like a construction crew trying to get a job done in Jerusalem, I will stumble upon the ruins of my father and they will tell me something about out downfall, the tumult he brought upon himself, our family, and me.
Lee is not cut out to be a tailor but he’s a good storyteller.
During his first foray as apprentice with Bill Wong of Modernize Tailors (still operating in Vancouver), JJ Lee is instructed to sew a set of parallel lines then turn the material around 90 degrees and stop the machine when he reaches a line. Bill quickly shoos JJ off the machine and in expert fashion writes “JJ Learn to Sew” in perfect cursive over-stitching. I love it.
Much of the sartorial education JJ shares with us in the book is on the history of the suit, the right way to wear a suit and the prominence or decline of particular suit designs.
For example, a true tailor will call the turning of the lapel from the inside out the “roll.” Done properly, labels don’t fold, they roll out, blooming like a flower petal. “They are wool labia opening out with an irresistible lushness”. It’s fascinating to think of the suit, with its start as a suit of armour, having a feminine opening, which is usually adorn with phallic shaped tie.
So lets talk about manly men! JJ recounts The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and how it was also a debut of The Beatles iconic suits. The strong diagonals of the lapels, the shirt collars, the narrow ties that matched the dynamism and energy of the music and the men themselves. JJ has a way of making fashion iconic just in his recollections of sartorial moments in history.
Midway through we’re introduced to a series of famous tailors, including David Wilkes, who is an anomaly because he went to school to be a tailor. Raised in Dartmouth, NS, David wanted to be a tailor since he was fourteen. He enrolled in Dalhousie’s costume design program then after graduating continued to apprentice through autodidactic means using manuscripts and works from as early as the 1700s. (Darren: Sounds like something you’d do.)
In addition, there’s Hedi Slimane who in 1997 became the head designer for Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line for men called Rive Gauche and moved men’s fashion from the Armani cut (big and blousey in the front with the tight bottom in back) to the narrow shoulders and slimmed down cut of today.
And each of these tailors and suit designs play into JJ’s recollections of what was in his father’s wardrobe and how his father sized him up and found him wanting, and how JJ sized up his father and found him wanting as well.
What’s in the closet comes out in JJ’s tales of abuse at the hands of his drunken father but the memoir doesn’t end on a sour note. JJ uses architect Robert Venturi’s criticism of modern architecture in his 1966 work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture to suggest that he too can adopt a “Both And” perspective. Venturi’s Both And phenomenon suggested that a building detail could be both good and awkward, big and little, closed and open, continuous and articulated ...
My father’s suit can be my Mannerist edifice. It will remain Both-And. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be something of my father that is also for me.
Suits are like bras
Part way through JJ’s explanation of the lost approach men take to the suit, I realized that this is much like approach many women take to bra shopping.
JJ reminisces about how a man used to take his a son to a tailor for his first suit. Through the fitting, the boy learned about the shape of lapels, the cut of the jacket, the collar, and what worked for him. Without this early lesson, he is lost to find his fit later in life.
Seems much like girls going for their first bra fitting. This was likewise a more formal affair than it is today, which is probably why so many women wear bras that are ill-fitting and, like a suit gone wrong, look terrible to the trained eye.
Stitching It All Together
As we near the end of the exploration of the suit, and fathers and sons, JJ realizes that the suit is what it is. That the suit can be Both And is an acceptance of his relationship with his father and an understanding that the measure of a man does not have to be against his father.
I like that the story ends with JJ Lee completing the suit. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, surely you too were hoping for a happy ending.
There is only the circle made by a tailor’s hand as he quietly pulls the thread that connects all the parts together.
A fantastic job, well done JJ Lee. Oh, and JJ says to watch for red jeans, they’re going to be all the rage.
Open any page of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and you’re in for a treat. The novel vacillates between poignant then hilarious moments in a way that kept me flipping the pages in a race to the end. I’m ready to start again. The Sisters Brothers is such a pleasurable read.
Oregon City, 1851
I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it wasn’t as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.
The same way that the film True Grit was casual yet brutal, poetic yet slap-stick, so too is The Sisters Brothers. It’s a challenge to the conventional western, and, as Chad Pelley aptly says, “deWitt’s tale of two outlaw brothers challenged conventional CanLit to a duel in 2011, and it won.”
Yes it won big.
Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, plus shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize
Back cover quotes often seem empty to me but Esquire nails it by saying “Thrilling ... A lushly voiced picaresque story ... A kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”
The Sisters Brothers is a new frontier you must cross. I promise you there is gold at the end of this stream! I often give away my books as I’m not one to re-read, but The Sisters Brothers is a novel I must own. It’s also the one I’ll be giving away as gifts this year.
Published by House of Anansi. Buy it here.
The Sisters Brothers on Amazon.ca
The Magician King by Lev Grossman is hilarious. Following The Magicians, The Magician King picks up where it left off. The Fillorian Kings & Queens, Eliot, Janet, Quentin and Julia, are aimlessly enjoying the riches of Fillory. Quentin in particular is a tad bored by their royal status, which involves lounging, drinking and indulging in reckless games and overeating. This is the problem really. Quentin is bored. He’s looking for an adventure. After two years as king of Fillory, he’s got a little paunch and a bout of kingly aspirations to rule something or conquer the unexpected or to find some thrill in the routine that is now his day.
In case a memory spell has been cast upon you, the quartet are mere mortals who’ve come to rule Fillory via Brakesbill College (for wizardry) and a subsequent series of adventures much like an adult version of The Chronicles of Narnia.
What I love about Grossman’s writing is that it’s fantasy with questions. In Harry Potter and the Narnia books, the characters just accept that this is magic and it is what it is. But Grossman’s characters comment upon it. “Two years as a king of Fillory and he (Quentin) was still shit at horseback riding” ... “The news that real dragons lived in rivers, and didn’t go thundering around the countryside setting trees on fire, had come as a disappointment to him” ... and then journeying to the underworld “it wasn’t a perfect system—every time he got up a decent head of speed he would get stuck and have to scooch again, his butt squeaking loudly in the pitch-black.”
There’s something more real about characters that would comment on the world around them, and the descriptions of magic are visceral. Grossman describes the smell of casting a spell and the wonkiness of magic cast by those untrained, or the differences between old magic and newer magic. Old magic usually had any obvious bugs or loopholes worked out long ago, for example, you could expect that if you had a key that it would fit into an invisible lock even if you were on a moving ship vs. standing still on land.
I hope Lev Grossman continues to write this series. I won’t spoil the ending but I’m left with an intake of breath and wondering “now what?”
Oh, and Grossman’s novels always have me dreaming in magic, just like Harry Potter. It flips a switch in my brain, like when you ski hard all day and then dream of skiing.
Chuck Klosterman has quite the reputation in my house. His novel Downtown Owl fast became a favourite and Eating the Dinosaur is one of the few books that I want to re-read over and over again.
The Visible Man falls somewhere in the range of Downtown Owl and If Minds Had Toes. The novel is philosophical in the way of If Minds Had Toes but quirky and strange like Downtown Owl.
The novel opens with Victoria Vick’s letter to the editor along with the submission of the final draft of her manuscript. The reader soon discovers that Vick’s ms is about a strange incident between her and her patient Y_____. Vick is a licensed therapist and the manuscript, which we are about to read, is a compilation of transcripts of phone, email and in-person sessions she’s had with a very strange man who, over the course of their sessions, reveals that he worked on a relatively secret government project to construct an invisibility suit. Y_____ is currently using the suit for his own “investigative” research into how humans behave when they are utterly alone. Through various means he gains access to their homes and observes them. His goal with the therapy sessions is to remove doubt or guilt that he believes society would like him to feel about these acts.
A ton of things are very wrong with the scenarios presented but Victoria goes along with it, assuming at first that Y____ is highly delusional. Then she’s suckered in. In some ways it’s like the stoner philosophical arguments you overhear and are unable to pull away from because you remember from your high school English studies that the Shakespearian fool speaks the truth. (Or, maybe that’s just me.)
According to this National Post review, The Visible Man is a fictional spin-off from the Eating the Dinosaur essay on voyeurism (titled “Through A Glass, Blindly”). In both, Klosterman explores whether we are most ourselves when no one’s watching.
I’m off now to swing pillows wildly around the room to make sure I’m alone. Just acting normal. PKS. Post Klosterman Syndrome.