Posts Tagged ‘Essays’

fast fast fast relief pierre berton 1Fast Fast Fast Relief by Pierre Berton ~ 1962. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Hardcover. 185 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Pierre Berton, Canadian popular historian extraordinaire, began his career as a prolific and well-regarded newspaper columnist. After reading and enjoying an earlier collection of his newspaper articles, 1959’s Just Add Water and Stir , I was happy to acquire a similar 1962 collection. It has lived up to expectation, in providing a widely varied, and, for the most part, smoothly readable collection of serious essays, biographical sketches, social commentary, and satirical fabrications.

Highlights of the collection to me were a series of short, completely serious, “current affairs” articles highlighting social injustices, a number of lyrical essays describing the joys of country life, and a rather goofy collection of humorous short-short stories, extra-heavy on the satire. Of these last, The Waiting Room (Wesbrook Frayme, car racing ace, dies in a crash, gets to Heaven and is shocked to find out that his widow has married twice again; his wife and her other two spouses all appear to confound Wesbrook’s assumptions about his marriage and his wife’s mourning process) and Shakespeare Revises a Play (the Bard of Avon has his work worked over in a most Hollywood-like manner; in his first draft of Hamlet, Ophelia is thirty-two, and the ending involves lovers wandering off hand-in-hand into the sunset; the producer and director have other ideas), are particularly delightful.

A collection worthy of keeping on the night table for dipping into; an ideal guest room book for your fellow Canadian avid readers, especially those appreciative of Berton’s wry, thought-provoking, and occasionally just-plain-silly and boisterous tone.

All in all, over forty short pieces, plus an extensive and most interesting foreword by the author. Comic cartoon-like illustrations by George Feyer are an added touch.

Pure vintage Canadiana, and a good reminder of why Pierre Berton was so highly regarded for so many decades. His more than competent journalistic work brilliantly foretells his subsequent success as a writer of popularly accessible historical books.

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hi, there! gregory clark 001Hi, There! by Gregory Clark ~ 1963. This edition: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6026-9. 228 pages.

My rating: 9/10. There is absolutely nothing to dislike – well, aside from, if one wants to get really nit-picky, the odd era-typical comment, such as Mr. Clark referring to his wife and presumably at least one daughter in a paternally misogynistic way as “my women” – and much to like.

This was one of my father’s books; I remember buying him other Gregory Clark titles as birthday and Father’s Day gifts; I am now wondering just where those might have ended up, as Hi, There! has piqued my interest; I’d happily read more of these pleasant (though possibly just a bit dramatized) memoirs.

These are short, 4 to 5 page, mostly humorous, meticulously well-written anecdotes and essays on various low-key topics, from winter driving (a truly Canadian focus of interest) to neighbourhood feuds to amusing encounters with all sorts of people, including a carload of bank robbers disguised as a wedding party.

Gregory Clark has a stellar backstory as an extremely well-regarded journalist. He was the recipient of both the Order of the British Empire and the Order of Canada for his war reporting, as well as receiving the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for his collection entitled War Stories.

From The Canadian Journalism Foundation biography:

Greg Clark – Journalist 1892-1977

It was once said that in the years leading into the Second World War, more Canadians would recognize Greg Clark on the street than the prime minister or the movie hero of the day.

During the 1930s, Greg Clark was the most widely read writer in Canada, crafting features for the Star Weekly with cartoonist Jimmie Frise. His popularity continued through the late 1940s and into the early 1960s as a writer and most notably back-page columnist, for Weekend Magazine.

Nineteen books of Greg Clark’s writings, ranging from everyday life to the horrors of war, have been published. His output of stories about real people living real lives was phenomenal.

Craig Ballantyne, editorial director of Weekend Magazine, once described Clark as “a man so Canadian that no other land could possibly have produced him.” [Ernest] Hemingway, in 1920, called him the best writer at the Toronto Star.

Clark entered journalism in 1911 at the Toronto Star, where he worked for 34 years before joining the Montreal Standard, which later developed into Weekend Magazine.

He is often remembered as a columnist, but his feature and column work had been forged by years of front-page reporting. He covered the Moose River mining disaster, royal coronations, papal coronations, the death of FDR, and the founding of the UN, to name a few. He was a [frequently frontline] war correspondent in World War II, after serving in WWI, which he entered as a private and left as a major.

His contributions to journalism are many, but his most important is what his work can show other journalists about storytelling excellence. All Clark’s writings, from columns to hard front-page news, are guides to how journalists should tell stories that interest and inform readers.

His writings are real life with human touches. They have been described as “rapid, full of rhythm, unimpeded by digression.” His work was positive in the darkest situations, while still laying out the full facts and describing reality. This is an approach worth study in a time when the public feels journalism is far too negative…

More glowing biographies are here:

4th Canadian Mounted Rifles – Biography of Capt. Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark. Perhaps now a forgotten author in this new century? Fellow Canadians, remember the name for your used book store explorations; you might be very well pleased to make his acquaintance.

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a reading diary alberto manguelA Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books by Alberto Manguel ~ 2004. This edition: Knopf, 2004. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-676-97590-9. 253 pages.

My rating: After a certain amount of consideration, 7.5/10.

Now this is a book about books which I would be happy to have on the keeper shelf. It caught my eye during a library browse, and, after standing in the aisle and reading most of the entry regarding Kipling’s Kim, I decided it was worth an even deeper investigation. I was not disappointed.

Alberto Manguel is an Argentine-born writer, anthologist, editor, and translator. He spent his early years in Israel, where his father served as the Argentine ambassador, then back to Argentina, and, once his schooling was completed, working and living in England, France and Tahiti. He moved to Canada in 1982, eventually acquiring Canadian citizenship, though he continues to travel widely, and also maintains a home in rural France.

A Reading Diary is a vanity project of sorts, but a worthwhile one. It consists of the jottings kept over the course of a year as Manguel rereads some of his most treasured books.

It occurred to me that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for the sake of balance, that there should be a little of everything. (Since I’m nothing if not an eclectic reader, this wasn’t too difficult to accomplish.)

What has resulted is a book rich with references both everyday and arcane, from the note that the cat is nestled in a towel-lined box looking out at the rain, to the mention of the death of a friend and a reflection on the transience of all things dear to us, to the sombre discussion of the tragedy of the World Trade Centre destruction only a few years earlier, and the subsequent war in Iraq, to warm memories of golden childhood hours spent reading some of the same books that feature in this Diary.

The books chosen are:

  • June ~ The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • July ~ The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
  • August ~ Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • September ~ Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand
  • October ~ The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • November ~ Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • December ~ The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • January ~ Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • February ~ The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
  • March ~ The Pillow-Book by Sei Shonagon
  • April ~ Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  • May ~ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Having only read a few of the books on the list – The Island of Dr. Moreau, Kim, The Sign of Four, The Wind in the Willows, and Don Quixote –  I wondered if I would be completely lost trying to read the chapters concerning the ones new to me, several of which I had never heard of before. As it turned out, this was not at all the case. A Reading Diary is not about the books as much as it is about the thoughts and connections they trigger. Manguel has such a broad experience and so much to say that everything he comes up with is fascinating even though one strains to fit it into the context of a book one hasn’t read.

Open this book up anywhere at random and perfectly crafted snippets of prose rise from the page. Here are some completely random samples.

Perhaps, in order for a book to attract us, it must establish between our experience and that of the fiction – between the two imaginations, ours and that on the page – a link of coincidences.

A brilliant touch: the woman who stains Kim’s skin to darken his colour “for protection” in the great Game (thereby changing his outer identity) is blind.

Contentment requires a certain lack of curiousity.

I feel uncomfortable having other people’s books at home. I want either to steal them or to return them immediately. There is something of the visitor who outstays his welcome in borrowed books. Reading them and knowing that they don’t belong to me gives me the feeling of something unfinished, half-enjoyed. This is also true of library books.

Brilliant sunshine, crisp cold. My neighbour comes over with a gift of fresh eggs and stays for twenty minutes discussing the conflict in Iraq. How strange for an Iraqi farmer half a world away, if he were to know that his fate is the subject of conversation here, in a small, almost invisible French village.

A few days after the tragedy, I heard of someone who had been trapped that morning inside a bookstore close to the World Trade Center. Since there was nothing to do but wait for the dust to settle, he kept on browsing through the books, in the midst of the sirens and the screams. Chateaubriand notes that, during the chaos of the French Revolution, a Breton poet just arrived in Paris asked to be taken on a tour of Versailles. “There are people,” Chateaubriand comments, “who, while empires collapse, visit fountains and gardens.”

My only disappointment, and the reason the book lost a few points with me, is the degree to which Alberto Manguel magnificently name-drops and occasionally pontificates on how dismally uneducated the hoi polloi is compared to him and his intellectually elite cronies. As he makes little effort to pander to those of a less broad experience, I think he might also have left out the occasional thinly veiled sneering. The book will ultimately find its own audience, though its readers may not all be quite what Manguel expects. I must admit my own feelings were bruised by a comment (which I did not bookmark and now, quickly browsing, cannot find) regarding the ignorance of those who only read in English. That would certainly be me, and how many others?

This one complaint aside, A Reading Diary is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a deeply intellectual book lover, and a prolific and eclectic writer and reader.

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the strangers next door edith iglauerThe Strangers Next Door by Edith Iglauer ~ 1991. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-054-6. 303 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for her subjects – every one truly fascinating. Discounted heavily for the writing style, which I found frequently rather flat. I’m going to give this one a 7.5/10 overall. 10 for content, 5 for style. Worth a look; maybe you’ll find her easier reading than I did. Her topics are worth exploring.

Would I re-read it? Sure, bits and pieces of it. I wouldn’t tackle it cover to cover again, though. Once was enough for many of the articles, though I’m glad I read what Iglauer had to say. I find her prose hard to absorb – it certainly doesn’t “flow”, being more earnest than sparkling – and it’s a lot of work maintaining concentration, though she covers her subjects extremely thoroughly.

I hesitate to say too thoroughly, because I do believe that her tenacious peering into the heart of each of her topics is what enables her to include so many esoteric and absolutely fascinating details. I do wish that she had just a little more flair in her delivery, though.

Edith Iglauer was alive and well – though showing her age a wee bit, at 93 – and still actively writing the occasional article for Geist magazine in 2012. She was living in her own home with her third husband Frank on the B.C. Coast. Here is a vignette featuring Edith and Frank, by Ted Bishop. An inspiring note: Edith and Frank’s combined age was 189 at the time of the article, and they were both very much “with it” in every conceivable way, barring a few physical infirmities related to their age, like bad knees and failing hearing.


Edith Iglauer is an American journalist with a long and varied history of being present during some very interesting times indeed. Born in Ohio in 1917, she decided while in college that she wanted to become a journalist, and persistently pursued that goal until she achieved it. Unable to stomach the requirements of a newspaper reporter’s job – she jibbed at inquiring of grieving parents as to how they felt about their young son’s tragic death earlier the same day – she was advised that free-lance writing might be her forte. Over the next fifty years Edith pursued interesting stories and people, meticulously researching them and becoming intimately familiar with every aspect of her subjects. Her work was published in leading periodicals of the time, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic Monthly, Maclean’s, and many others.

The Strangers Next Door is a retrospective look at her long career, including excerpts from key articles and also her books, with added reflections as to how she came to write the pieces, and anecdotes about her subjects.

Several successful and well regarded books grew out of her articles and experiences, most with Canadian settings and themes. Edith travelled widely through Canada, found the country fascinating, and made her home permanently in British Columbia in the early 1970s, though she retained her American citizenship.

From the Introduction to The Strangers Next Door:

Looking over the pieces I have written, I realize that I have been like someone with family in two countries, attempting to acquaint them with one another. I am not just an American journalist writing in Canada for Americans, but a Canadian journalist writing about America for Canadan as well. Both countries, I have discoverd, still regard their neighbors across our common border as “the strangers next door”, and like any concerned relative, I want them to know and respect one another as much as I do.

The Strangers Next Door covers a broad range of topics.

From the 1940s, articles on:

  • Marian Anderson
  • Working in the radio-newsroom of the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., which included weekly chats with Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • A posting as a post-World War II correspondent in Yugoslavia, during the rise of Marshal Tito
  • The UN Builds Its Home, 1947

From the 1960s, 70s and 80s:

  • The Mounted Men – an indepth look at the training of police horses and mounted policemen in New York City, 1962. (My favourite article in this book.)
  • The Biggest Foundation, 1972. The building of the World Trade Centre complex in New York.
  • Inuit Journey, 1963-1979. The development of Inuit co-operatives for the production and marketing of arts and handicrafts.
  • Baker Lake Art, 1964. A unique style of Inuit art from a remote corner of the Northwest Territories.
  • The Beautiful Day, 1966. A biographical short story inspired by Edith’s father’s death, published in The New Yorker.
  • Denison’s Ice Road, 1975. The article about the men and machines involved in winter-time road building and trucking across a frozen Arctic lake which grew into a bestselling book, and the inspiration for the current “reality” television series, Ice Road Truckers.
  • Don Snowden, 1929-1984. The detailed obituary of a man who worked to alleviate the poverty and hardships faced by Canadian Inuit peoples by helping them develop and profit from their unique skills and knowledge.
  • Prime Minister, 1969. A first-hand look at what makes Pierre Trudeau tick. Eight days travelling with the Prime Minister and countless hours of background research and interviews resulted in this indepth Profile.
  • The Strangers Next Door, 1973. An essay about Canada, for American readers.
  • “Capi” Blanchet. The mysterious author, M. Wylie Blanchet, of a British Columbia classic, the memoir The Curve of Time is researched and profiled for The Rainforest Chronicles # 8.
  • Seven Stones, 1979. A profile of British Columbia architect Arthur Erickson, the man who planned the University of British Columbia campus, and so many more unique structures . This grew into the 1981 book of the same title.
  • Hubert Evans, 1980. Another profile, this one of the esteemed B.C. writer and poet.
  • Bill Reid, 1982. A profile on the iconic Haida carver and goldsmith.
  • Bella Coola, 1975. Anecdotes of a visit to the fjord-side village, unlikely gem of the BC coast.
  • Fishing with John, 1987. An excerpt from the book. In 1974 Edith met and eventually married BC commercial fisherman John Daly. Their happy partnership ended with John’s sudden death only four years later. Fishing with John is Edith’s memorial, started while John was alive as a book about the salmon fishing way of life on the BC coast, and eventually becoming a personal saga.

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Midnight on the Desert: chapters of autobiography by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937. This edition: Readers’ Union & William Heinemann Ltd., 1940. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.


I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.

First, the “set-up”.

Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.

The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.

The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.

I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)

… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …

… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …

.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…

That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.

Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction – are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.

And Priestley goes on:

But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.

… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned – and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …

Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.

Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.

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just add water and stir pierre berton 001Just Add Water and Stir by Pierre Berton ~ 1959. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Paperback. 221 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.


Here’s another well-read paperback from my late father’s bookshelves, boxed up and brought home six years ago as my just-widowed, elderly mother was preparing to downsize from a huge, rambling three-story house to a much smaller bungalow. Both homes, incidentally, were built in their entirety by my father, who was a foundation-to-roof master carpenter, among his other jack-of-all-trades and master-of-many accomplishments and interests.

One of his interests was books. Dad did love to read, and I like to think that this collection of mostly humorous, often over-the-top satirical, sometimes sincerely thoughtful short essays made him smile as they did me when I finally read this briskly paced book over the course of this potentially dreary day spent recovering from a brief bout with the latest flu bug.

Being a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks, used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions and crude drawings …

So says the front page, and it describes the ensuing contents well. Most of these short pieces appeared as columns in the Toronto Daily Star in the 1950s, and they are definitely indicative of the time in which they were written. As a cynically humorous portrait of the era, this book is an excellent little period piece, but it’s an enjoyable read even for those of us not familiar at first hand with the context of some of the references. Berton’s opinionated prose is seldom dull, and the shortness of each entry makes it good for dip-into reading as well. I read the whole thing in one go, and that likely wasn’t such a great idea, as I’m now feeling a bit light-headed, but I’ll blame that on my current bug as much as on the flippant nature of my reading matter.

The book is arranged into groupings of similarly themed articles and essays. These can be read in order, or sampled at will.

Five Modern Fables ~ Pure over-the-top satire starts us off. Berton skewers modern advertising techniques and ploys in his first three fables, lampoons the vicious cycle of competitive Christmas card lists, and ends with a cautionary tale about not heeding the omens and building too close to the volcano.

Seven Men and a Girl ~ Brief character portraits of eight people Berton met and interviewed: Ex-convict John Brown, pianist Glenn Gould, aviator Russ Baker, evangelist-turned-politician Charles Templeton, Canadian Communist Joe Salsberg, poet and writer Robert Service, entertainer Milton Berle, and call girl Jacqueline (no last name given).A Woman of "Vogue"

The Wayward Periodical Press ~ “Six periodical publications deserving of comment” – Vogue, Time, Mayfair, Playboy (and the rest of the Bosom Books), Mad, and Justice. What an interesting combination of companions these are. Vogue is, well, Vogue, and it apparently hasn’t changed much at all.

My favourite magazine, next to Screen Stars and Mad, is Vogue. The day it appears, I rush eagerly to the newsstand and, with the help of a couple of weightlifters, lug it off to my den. For sheer escape reading it beats the old Blue Fairy Book hollow. It chronicles a world so foreign and unreal that I would not believe it existed, if there weren’t photographs to prove it.

The women who grace Vogue’s pages are like no women I have ever known. I have tried to sketch one or two of them here, but my brush does not do them justice for their absolute and utter sexlessness defies reproduction. If they came from a far corner of the solar system they could not be more different than the blousy creatures one finds romping through Esquire and Playboy.

Am I all wet in my theory that a bosom craze is sweeping the country? In Vogue, there isn’t a bosom in a carload. These women are all eyes and cheekbones, and they do something with their necks that I haven’t seen since Leona, the Giraffe Girl, went into retirement.

At the end of the neck one finds a face that has overtones of Buchenwald about it – chalk-white and haggard, Vogue women do not have noses, only nostrils. Their eyes are enormous and decadent, their lips are thin and solemn. Their hair is always quite odd. They are shown thrust forward in inscrutable positions that suggest some curious doe-like animal at feeding time.

Time sets off a passionate diatribe in defense of Canadian content in “Canadian” versions of American magazines; Mayfair is a “high society” periodical seething with anachronistic class consciousness. Playboy and the rest of the “men’s magazines” are investigated as to the number and degrees of exposure of female body parts posed artistically for masculine delectation; Berton claims to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

The Cult of the Bosom has now reached its zenith in this continent, as a glance at any newsstand will show. In the seventeen magazines I examined, there were 503 photographs of well-endowed young women displaying their endowments.

In 125 of these photographs, many of them in glowing colour, the young ladies’ torsos were entirely exposed. In the remaining 378 photographs there was a certain roguish attempt at concealment.

I did not bother to count any photographs of women dressed for the street, because there were so few.

I did not bother to count any photographs of flat-chested young women, because here were none.

I did, however, make a count of the numbers of photographs of women with no pants on. There were sixty of them.

Mad magazine receives an enthusiastic nod of approval, for the “sophistication of the humour”, while Justice, an arcane periodical dedicated to the practices of sadomasochism and corporal “discipline”, garners strong words of scorn.

The Broadcasting Arts ~ Television and radio – including the already-venerable C.B.C. – come in for their turn in Berton’s critical spotlight.

Verse, Blank and Otherwise ~ Several parodies in verse of current events of the time. The Sixty-Five Days of Christmas struck a modern chord, though nowadays it would need to be retitled The Ninety Days of Christmas to approach a closer accuracy!

Christmas began last Tuesday
Just three days after Hallowe’en,
By which time the big emporiums,
Having disposed of the comic ghosts and candy pumpkins
And having burned all the second-hand witches,
Replaced them with more seasonal symbols:
A reindeer with a crimson nose,
A talking snowman and a terribly cute bear,
Fifty-seven varieties of Santa Claus,
And here and there, an inconspicuous plastic replica of the Christ-child,
Entirely non-denominational.

Intemperate Recipes ~ A plea for a return to real cooking versus the pre-packaged growing norm in the titular Just Add Water and Stir, and a heartfelt rant against instant coffee, obviously a newly popular abomination in Berton’s world. Plus four quite decent-sounding recipes – or, more accurately, anecdotal instruction pieces on how to best prepare these Berton standbys – Tomato Soup, Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash, and Clam Chowder. Pierre Berton in the kitchen – what a grand thought!

The Passing Show ~ A satire from the viewpoint of the future, and musings on the status significance of offices and office furnishing, smoking, and divorce. Shopping for a Coffin is thought-provoking and quite serious, while Several Openings for Novels will make the aspiring writer nod in rueful recognition. A few more observations – paying to be published, the confusion of children’s toy assembly instructions, and a modern Red Riding Hood round out this section.

Certain Vagrant Opinions ~ Full rant mode! On Dick and Jane (Berton is against), On Advertising and the Press, On Racial Origins (none of the government’s business), On Thought Control (shades of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four), and most passionately, On Flags and Anthem and On Modern Torture (prison reform), which is the most serious piece of the lot, and describes an execution by hanging which Berton was assigned to attend as a young reporter.

Some Old Nostalgias ~ Memoirs, 1927 to 1941, of Berton’s earlier days. Fascinating and charmingly written.

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Departures and Arrivals by Eric Newby ~ 1999. This edition: The Lyons Press, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58576-224-4. 192 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Some decent essays but not enough of them to swing the balance between “fair” and “very good” reading. A lot of reciting of railway schedules, and short, out of context snippets about trips which blurred together after a while. Travel writing “lite”. I expected more from this writer.


A few essays into this book I was thinking to myself, “Okay, these are obviously excerpts from other works. Where’s the reference page?” Looking through the front and back material, there was no indication that this was the case; it apparently is a stand-alone collection of (mostly) travel tales and short reminiscences of the writer’s earlier life.

There is no context given more many of the trips referenced, which I found disconcerting. “Flying into Coober Pedy…” Yes – okay – so you’re in Australia – but WHY are you there? What bigger trip is this part of? And aside from discovering that opal miners like to be paid in cash, and certain of them have a fondness for personal architecture such as a revolving bed surrounded by mirrors, what other memorable things did you find there that we, your readers, might be interested in?

Though there are well-written, interesting, and amusing passages, the whole thing feels like a selection of truncated pages from a personal journal, bits and pieces of information jotted down in transit to aid in later memory of the trip. Perhaps it is, worked up with a minimum of added information.

I suspect this is a book which was commissioned and published on the strength of the author’s earlier, and much stronger, efforts. A case of selling the name, not the content.

It was readable, but  vaguely unsatisfying. One to borrow from the library for light diversion, hotel room reading on a road trip (which is how I’ve just experienced it), but I’m not left with an urge to rush out to buy it. Not recommended, unless you come by it for a bargain basement price.

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Odd Lots: Seasonal Notes of a City Gardener by Thomas C. Cooper ~ 1995. This edition: Henry Holt, 1995. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-8050-3741-1. 218 pages.

My rating: 5/10. I felt rather brutal giving this rating, because the author writes well, sometimes exceedingly so, and his subject matter is dear to my heart. But somehow this book just didn’t feel like a “keeper” – I had to push myself quite firmly to go on with it after the third chapter or so, and as I did so I found myself skimming much too much, between the bits worth slowing down for and more deeply savouring.


This book of twelve monthly themed garden essays began life as editorials in Horticulture magazine. Thomas Cooper is a passionate and literate gardener, and he writes a perfectly readable style of prose, but for the most part there was nothing here to really stick with this particular reader. A pleasant one-way conversation. I mentally nodded and smiled, while one half of my mind was appreciating Cooper’s thoughts on peonies, mulch and the joys of examining a crocus at child’s eye level. The other half – well – it was thinking about my own garden much of the time, or the progress of the dinner roast, or how I really need to sweep down the cobwebs on the ceiling fan. Oops, bad sign.

This review from Kirkus says it well:

A devoted gardener offers a meandering collection of brief essays that may hold some charm for others of the same ilk.

As the editor of Horticulture magazine, Cooper contributes a regular column whose intent, he says, is “to capture the world in and around a garden.” This translates into fragmentary and scattered musings, mainly about his own backyard gardens in Massachusetts, so don’t look for practical assistance or even the occasional clever idea here. Although the columns are not dated or presented chronologically (for example, the reader sees Cooper’s daughter age eccentrically from three to two to six), they are grouped by month. January finds the author poring over nursery catalogs and drafting resolutions (“Stop accepting plants as gifts, no mater how tempting . . . just imagine they are offering a tray of zucchini seedlings”), while by April he is yearning for a spiffier potting shed and delighting over the arrival of packages from mail-order nurseries. A number of columns are little more than the verbal equivalent of puttering, but then, as Cooper says, gardeners do “raise puttering to the state of high art.” Occasionally, pieces that were written to be read one at a time are diminished by being crowded together: Although July’s articles on water and watering, musing on a watering can, noting the desirability of an efficient soaker hose, and admonishing readers to learn from water shortages out West are separated by forays into other matters, they lose some of their effect when read within the space of half an hour.

This one is for people who nod sagely at the line, “There is only so much Geranium endressii one person can handle,” and whose hours not spent in the garden are spent talking about being in the garden.

What else can I say? Good effort, nice production, but just a titch more miss than hit, at least in this garden veteran’s opinion. And yes, I did read many of T.C.C.’s columns in Horticulture during his 22-year stint as editor which ended in 2001, and enjoyed them in a mild way, as one does when reading the editorial as a sort of appetizer for the much anticipated main course of the longer articles to come.

Tom Cooper knows his stuff, and can turn a neat phrase, and in his time at the helm he oversaw a marvelous gardening magazine, my prized back-issue collection of which I frequently re-read. But when it comes right down to it, I can’t in good conscience wholeheartedly recommend this book. I truly wish I could – it’s that close.

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The Fields of Noon by Sheila Burnford ~ 1964. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1964. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This quiet, elegant, and often very funny book is one I keep  in my ‘favourites’ collection, and regularly reread with great enjoyment.

The Fields of Noon is a memorable collection of autobiographical essays by Scottish-born Canadian writer Sheila Burnford, better known for her bestselling fictional book The Incredible Journey, a story of two dogs and a Siamese cat who together embark on a 300-mile journey through the northern Ontario wilderness. Disneyfied and popularized, The Incredible Journey might be dismissed without further attention by the discerning reader, but it was intended to be an adult book, was based on actual pets of the Burnford family, and is quite a lovely little piece of work with its own merit. Ignore the sentimental movies, please! (Perhaps I should re-read and review The Incredible Journey as an entry into the 2012-13 Canadian Book Challenge …)

Sheila Burnford, if these highly personal essays are any indication, must have been a fascinating woman to know; her writerly voice is warm and intimate, highly intelligent and self-deprecatingly humorous.

To give you a taste of the tone of this collection, here is an excerpt from the essay Time Out of Mind, concerning Sheila’s interest in archaeology and anthropology, and her subsequent attempts to learn the art of flint-knapping.

The first story I ever remember having read to me was Robinson Crusoe, and later I read and reread it myself, starting again at the beginning the moment it was finished, just like painting the Forth bridge. The Swiss Family Robinson was even better; not the shortened version so often found today but a wonderfully fat volume, profusely illustrated and complete in every last moralization (and every gruesome detail of poor Grizzle’s demise in the folds of the boa constrictor and subsequent mastication; five hours from ear to hoof – Papa Robinson timed it; children were apparently credited with stronger stomachs in those days) and its pages crammed with useful tidbits of information on how to improve one’s lot and live more graciously on desert islands. I used to spend hours daydreaming of starting from scratch on my island utopia and putting all this practical information to the test. Thanks to Mr. Robinson, that bottomless well of How To Do It lore, I knew how to make a Unique Machine for boiling whale blubber; I could construct a sun or sand clock, train ostriches, open oysters and manufacture sago; if a sturgeon had been caught in my coconut fiber fishnet I knew just how to make isinglass windows from its bladder. I could even – and as I write I feel the urge to do so – make waterproof boots (beloved, familiar gumboots), with a clay mold, taken from my sand-filled socks, then painted over with layers of latex tapped from the nearest rubber tree. It would have been a luckless Man Friday who made his imprint on my solitary sands, for I would have been a fearful bore to live with: like Papa Robinson, one innocent question would have released a pedantic torrent of information.

This childhood preoccupation with carving out an existence by my own unaided efforts used to end, invariably, I remember, with that baffled, mind-boggling feeling that used to overcome me – and still does – when staring up at a cloudless blue sky and trying to make my small limited mind grasp that the blue is a void, endless infinity, nothing, not even omega. For, sooner or later, a fearful nagging doubt insinuated itself into every castaway installment of my self-told story: What if one did not have a knife, or a goat, or a gun to start with? Or, worse still, had not read Swiss Family Robinson? How on earth did one go about forging steel for that most necessary knife (what, for that matter, was steel?), substitute for a goat, manufacture a gun, or any kind of weapon?


  • Canadian Spring – a trip with an artist friend to an isolated lakeside cabin during spring ice break-up.
  • Walking: Its Cause, Duration and Effect – reflections on a Scottish childhood spent largely out-of-doors.
  • The Peaceful Pursuit – the joys and occasional pitfalls of wild mushroom hunting.
  • Confessions of a Noisemaker – how to shed one’s vocal inhibitions while accompanied on a solitary expedition by a patient dog and four inflatable duck decoys.
  • Time Out of Mind – the deceptively steep learning curve of the paleolithic flint-knapper.
  • Inclinations to Fish – the consideration of large bodies of water as primarily “fish containers”, and the joys of a lifetime of attempting to bring those fish to shore.
  • Tom – a touching ode to a feral tom cat.
  • With Claud Beneath the Bough… – caring for a solitary canary.
  • Pas Devant le Chien – a sober-minded dog becomes firmly convinced that an electric heater contains a small, living inhabitant.
  • William – the last day of life and the death of a beloved bull terrier.

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