The Book

Imagining Toronto book cover

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, fall 2010) is available at most bookstores and online through Mansfield Press, Amazon or Chapters.

Imagining Toronto was shortlisted for the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the Award of Merit, the highest honour given to a book at the 2011 Heritage Toronto Awards.

Upcoming Events

25-26 February 2012: "Going Native: Reclaiming Aboriginal Identity in Toronto Literature," “Landscapes of Difference, Espaces de Difference, Raume der Differenz” conference (Session: The Politcs of Place: Urban Sites of Contestation), Canadian Studies Association in German-speaking countries (GKS). Grainau, Germany.

Thursday 15 March 2012: Guest lecture, "The Imagined City," ARC 120, Contemporary Architecture. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto; Isabel Bader Theatre, 9:45-11:00 am.

Wednesday 4 April 2012: "Representing Toronto: Mapping the Role of the Artist in the Contemporary City. Panel discussion. Presented by Koffler Gallery in partnership with Diaspora Dialogues. 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 503; 7:00 pm.

Sunday 22 April 2012: Reading from Acts of Salvage at the Draft Reading Series. Details TBA.

Thursday 3 May 2012: "Literary Bodies." Panel discussion as part of Bodies in the City, a symposium of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

Thursday 17 May 2012: "Imagining Toronto the Wild" at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Inaugural lecture of the TBG's new HortiCULTURE salon series.

Recent Events

Tuesday 18 October 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: Will the Real Cabbagetown Please Stand Up?: Regent Park, St. Jamestown and Cabbagetown in the Literary Imagination. Parliament Branch (269 Gerrard St. E.)

Saturday 1 October 2011, 2:00-3:30 pm: The Masseys and the Masses: Social and Spatial Ascendency in Rosedale and Forest Hill. Forest Hill Branch (700 Eglinton Ave. W.)

Tuesday 27 September 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: From Streetcar Suburb to Multicultural Community: Riverdale in the Literary Imagination. Riverdale Branch, Toronto Public Library (370 Broadview Ave.)

Click here for past events.

GEOG 4280 Week 4: The City of Neighbourhoods

Slides for today’s class are accessible here: 2011-2012 Week 4 slides GEOG 4280 The City of Neighbourhoods

Link: “We define ourselves by our neighbourhoods”

Link: Neighbourhood map of Toronto (Toronto Star)
Link: “Shrinking middle class makes Toronto a city of socio-economic extremes” (Globe & Mail)
Link: “Toronto increasingly becoming a city of vertical poverty” (Globe & Mail)
Link: “Vertical Poverty” study (United Way)
Link: “The Three Cities Within Toronto” (Hulchanski; .pdf)
Link: “Poverty by Postal Code” (United Way of Toronto)
Link: Invisible City (NFB film, 2010)

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GEOG 4280 Week 3: Toronto the Wild

This week in the Imagining Toronto course we’ll explore some of the ways culture and nature intersect in the imagined city. We’ll look in particular at the ravines, the lakeshore and Toronto islands; we’ll also consider the complicated relationship city-dwellers have with the wildlife — raccoons, pigeons, coyotes — living in our midst.

Literary texts we’ll consider will include Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (1996) and Alyssa York’s Fauna (2010).

Slides for today’s class are available here: 2011-2012 Week 3 slides GEOG 4280 Toronto the Wild

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GEOG 4280 Week 2: The City as Text

The Imagining Toronto course begins with the premise that literary texts — novels, stories, poems, memoirs and plays — tell us as much about place (and in particular urban space) as other tools more conventionally used in geographical research, such as mapping and demographic analyses and policy tools. It argues, further, that literary texts tell us things about places that we are unable to discover or unwilling to acknowledge in the normal course of our lives and work.

In the iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion (McClelland & Stewart, 1987) Michael Ondaatje writes,

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales are a kind of charting.

Similarly, essayist Jonathan Raban remarks in his remarkable book Soft City (1974; 1988) that

The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.

Ondaatje remind us that the cities we live in are made not merely of brick and mortar — or bureaucracy and money — but are equally the invention of our memories and imaginations. We realize that our cities unfold not only in the building but  in the telling of them.

Slides for today’s class are accessible here: 2011-2012 Week 2 slides GEOG 4280 The City as Text

 

 

 

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Welcome to the Imagining Toronto Course!

Welcome to the Imagining Toronto course (GEOG 4280 3.0), running for the sixth year in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada!

The syllabus and reading list for this year’s course are available here.

Lecture slides, handouts and links are accessible here.

This year the course will revolve around two principal texts:

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010)

and

Dionne Brand’s Toronto novel What We All Long For (Knopf, 2006).

In addition, students are expected to read any three books from the following list:

Anderson, Gordon Stewart, 2006. The Toronto You Are Leaving. Untroubled Heart.

 Clarke, Austin, 2008. More. Thomas Allen.

 Dixon, Sean, 2010. The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn. Coach House.

 Doctor, Farzana, 2011. Six Metres of Pavement. Dundurn.

 Downie, Glen, 2011. Local News. Wolsak & Wynn.

 Garner, Hugh, 1968. Cabbagetown. Toronto: Ryerson. [available in multiple editions]

 Helwig, Maggie, 2008. Girls Fall Down. Coach House.

 Maharaj, Rabindranath, 2010. The Amazing Absorbing Boy. Knopf.

 Michaels, Anne, 1996. Fugitive Pieces. McClelland & Stewart.

 Ondaatje, Michael, 11987. In The Skin of a Lion. McClelland & Stewart.

 Vassanji, M.G., 1991. No New Land. McClelland & Stewart.

 Young, Phyllis Brett, [1960] 2007. The Torontonians. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Please note that the principal texts are available at the York University Bookstore; additional works may easily be purchased directly from their publishers (links provided above), at any local, independent bookstore (e.g., Type Books or Book City) or online via Chapters/Indigo or Amazon. Second-hand copies are also easily available through AbeBooksBiblio or Alibris (for faster delivery of second-hand books ordered online, choose a local seller).

If you are a York student trying to register for the course, please note that it is currently full. More slots may open up n the coming weeks, so please feel welcome to contact me at alharris [at] yorku [dot] ca for further information.

If you are a member of the general public interested in the course, please feel welcome to join in electronically. Course materials will be posted online (see links above) and you should feel encouraged to read any or all of the books listed on the syllabus.

Update: Please note that the classroom location has been changed to N120 Ross Building — a move that will open up a couple of more spaces for students wishing to enrol.

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Non-Fiction Writers Take Note

Desk Cat Companion brings the Occupy movement to the Imagining Canada project.

I’m not a big follower of writing guides, which tend to be pedantic, oriented toward novice novelists and too generic (or specific) to be helpful to anyone who actually writes. As numerous writers have pointed out, there are as many ways to write as there are books: the only real trick is to actually produce one. Still, occasionally good advice surfaces and becomes worth sharing.

Earlier today book blogger and legal/literary scholar Kate Sutherland posted a link to Steve Silberman’s Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. Silberman, an award-winning investigative journalist writing his first book, asked literary colleagues for advice and shared their suggestions, nearly all of which are simply superb — particularly for writers of non-fiction. Their advice is useful for writers in general but is a must-read for non-fiction authors, who tend to write into the wind.

There’s no substitute for reading these excellent suggestions (please go do so; I’ll be right here when you return). I have a few comments, though, offered below. They are grounded in my own experience as a non-fiction author (my first book, Imagining Toronto, was published by Mansfield Press in the fall of 2010 and was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award. I am currently at work on two, possibly three, non-fiction follow-ups, plus a novel I’d really like to finish first).

1. Write early and often. This advice reappears throughout the tips Silberman received, and it is utterly true. It took me three years to write the Imagining Toronto book, a period that also included the birth of my daughter and the death of my father (two events that make the life I lived before 2008 seem very distant indeed). While working on the book — which involved a massive research undertaking and clocked in at 135,000 words upon completion — I also continued to teach a full load (two days a week at York University, where I am happily affiliated with the Geography Department) and co-manage business affairs that required (and require) weekly and sometimes daily attention.

But during that time I wrote virtually every day. I wrote while holding my infant daughter. I wrote while pumping milk. I wrote while grieving my father (and continue to do so, although he’d hate the wasted time). I wrote on the subway and in lecture halls while my students wrote their exams. At times the writing did not go very quickly (there were periods when I choked on a single paragraph for a week or more, not so much because the writing itself was hard but because I didn’t yet know what ideas I was struggling to articulate).

I am by nature a very early riser, and I hold the view that early morning is a wonderful time to write, mainly because the day has not yet begun wearing you down with its demands. Moreover, any ideas that may have crystallized while you slept are still free and unencumbered. If you have a short window for writing, getting an hour (or even half an hour) in is wonderfully motivating, and can engender ideas that percolate in your head during the day. I also recommend writing for a little while before going to bed, just because it makes the next morning’s writing seem like a continuation rather than a new start.

If you struggle to “find the time to write” or have trouble motivating yourself to write, perhaps it would be more honest to say you are not currently in a writing frame of mind. Almost all the writers I know juggle full- or part-time jobs and family responsibilities alongside their writing careers.

2. Scrivener = meh. Two or three of Silberman’s advisors recommend this writing management software, and he indicates an intent to follow up on the suggestion). I’ve tried out Scrivener as a lark and abandoned it quickly, as it seems to me to put structure ahead of writing. It is far too easy to get lost in the details Scrivener purports to manage rather than to simply write. If it works for you (and for Silberman), great, but it is far from essential. All you need to write non-fiction is a good idea, a fetish for research and a writing device.

For the Imagining Toronto book I read more than a thousand literary works, hundreds of non-fiction books and scholarly articles, and managed a mental list of thousands (if not tens of thousands) of literary excerpts, references and quotations. The book contains eight chapters and forty-one subsections, plus well over 200 footnotes and a very extensive bibliography, and I never felt the need for anything to help organize it other than the structure of the book itself. One reason this was easy to do was because I incorporated what I read into the book as I wrote it. Also: Post-it Notes as book-markers. I went through cases of them, and nearly every book I read still flutters with Post-it notes inserted into the pages like prayer flags.

3. Feedback is overrated. One of Silberman’s advisors suggests getting as much feedback as possible. It’s my view that one should seek only as much feedback as is necessary and not a jot more. I’d suggest seeking feedback (and then only when necessary) from trusted colleagues or publishing friends at pivotal moments. Write your own book.

My husband (and now co-author) read much of the Imagining Toronto book before it ever reached my very patient publisher. Sometimes I asked him to read so we could discuss some of the ideas; other times he offered criticism and/or moral support. All these things were terribly useful, not only because he is someone I trust my life to but because he is also my intellectual interlocutor and many of our ideas emerge through a mutual feedback process. But I don’t think anyone else saw any of the book before it was published, apart from print articles that made their way into the book in modified form. My publisher didn’t even see most of it until the final six months or so.

4. Outlines can also be overrated. It’s my view that if your (non-fiction) outline is longer than a page, it’s taking energy away from the book. My outline was ten bullet points and a detailed (sometimes shifting) map in my head.

5. Too many drafts spoil the book. I am a terrible baker (it requires a precision I cannot manage, not to mention an affection for baked goods, to which I am pretty much indifferent) but have managed to learn the first and most important lesson of baking: do not overwork the dough!  If you overwork the ingredients, the bread (or cake … or book) will often fall flat or be tough or too dense or otherwise unappealing.

A similar thing, I think, is true of book writing. Overworked books seem visibly laboured and can fall flat as a result. Re-drafting can also become an excuse not to finish something and thus becomes a psychological evasion rather than a meaningful act of writing.

Sometimes books need redrafting. Sometimes this is evident to the author. At other times it’s something an agent, publisher or editor will tell you. But if redrafting gets in the way of actually finishing the book, it’s not ultimately a useful exercise.

Dare I admit that the Imagining Toronto book involved only a single draft? It was edited, certainly, and I spent quite a lot of time working on expressing the ideas as clearly and eloquently as possible, and several chapters ended up quite different from how they began, and plenty of stuff got moved around (or, in some cases, chopped out). Maybe some of this sounds like redrafting, but it was very much an as-you-go process, and in my view it was the most efficient way to write. And while the book is not perfect, its limitations have more to do with personal research proclivities than with structure or quality of writing.

6. Don’t feel the need to be exhaustive in your writing. This is actually an inversion of a great bit of advice from Bill Wasik, who suggests that readers expect an author to have exhaustively covered the terrain he writes about. But I’d suggest choosing a stopping point somewhere between what Wasik calls the “basic ground” and the omega point of your subject.

The Imagining Toronto book was the first full study of Toronto’s literature to appear in print. As a result (and also because I have a genuine fetish for research) I wanted the book to be as complete as possible. More than that, I wanted to celebrate every writer whose work I had encountered. I wanted to address everything about the imagined city. This was, of course, an impossible task, and certain subjects fell off the table as I wrote because there was neither room nor time to fit them in, or because mentioning them started to seem repetitious. According to my mental map of the subject the book should have been about 80,000 words longer — which might have made it more of an encyclopaedia than an analysis and might also have made it prohibitively expensive to publish. I have noted that while reviews of the book have been nearly uniformly enthusiastic, one criticism has revolved around a certain weariness at the number of literary references cited in the book. This is something I’ll keep in mind in future non-fiction projects: sometimes less really is more.

It’s okay to leave some things out. One way to pre-empt complaints that you haven’t discussed someone’s pet subject is to mention peripheral matters in passing and suggest they are beyond the scope of your current project. This trick works wonders in the scholarly world, and I think it’s good advice for non-fiction writers beyond the confines of the ivory tower as well.

6.5. This may sound like a contradiction of point 6 above, but do be exhaustive in your research. By this I do not (necessarily) mean that you should research every nuance of your topic, but rather that everything you choose to write about should be fully researched and properly sourced. Don’t guess, or rely on secondary references, or get caught in an error or slip-shod thinking. Don’t trust anyone else’s research, either; at the very least, triangulate among multiple secondary sources. As a meticulous researcher, it irks me when I find errors in others’ books, and it would be embarrassing to find factual errors in my own. If you cannot gain access to the primary data and must reply on secondary sources, describe any claims as “reported.”

7. Write the book that you’ve always wanted to read. This excellent piece of advice was supplied by Mark Frauenfelder, and I couldn’t agree more. The only downside to this approach that you never get to read the book with the sense of discovery and desire you might have enjoyed had someone else written it first.

Closely paralleling this point is Peter Conners‘ wonderfully put observation that “[n]on-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.” Amen.

8. Deborah Blum suggests writing the first chapter last, and I share this view, at least insofar as noting that the first chapter will likely change more than most of the rest of the book. To this I’d add: consider writing the final chapter long before you near the end of the writing process. I wrote the final chapter of the Imagining Toronto book a year or more before the book itself was done (and have already written part of the final chapter for Acts of Salvage, the Toronto novel I’m currently working on).

Similarly, Sylvia Boorstein, whose advice to Silberman I loved in its entirety (apart from not reading other books on your subject, an injunction I cannot fathom following) observes that she does not write from beginning to end but rather produces her chapters in the order their subjects appear to her. I do this, too, and think it is also (among many other things) a great way to overcome the ‘fear of the blank page’ some writers reportedly feel upon starting. I always begin in media res, and recommend this approach highly. As Boorstein notes, if you have the order in your head already, it’s easy to slot stuff in wherever it belongs.

The order in which I wrote the Imagining Toronto book is roughly as follows: The Imagined City (Chapter 1); The Myth of the Multicultural City (Chapter 4);  The City as Text (Chapter 2 — in truth the twelve sections in this chapter took over a year to write, and I ended up finishing a number of later later chapters before this one); Class Fictions (Chapter 6); Imagining Toronto (Chapter 8 — the conclusion); City Limits (Chapter 7); ; Desire Lines (Chapter 5) and The City of Neighbourhoods (Chapter 3). Almost all of The City of Neighbourhoods chapter was written during the final weeks (as part of a marathon that is a bit nauseating to remember), and one of the reasons it is so long is because I forgot the discipline that had kept the earlier chapters (which appear later in the book) somewhat shorter. Having said that, to many people this is the central chapter of the book and so perhaps it was a good idea to try to be as complete as possible.

9. This is implicit in some of the suggestions sent to Silberman, although I’m not sure anyone says it directly: the length, content and timing of a book is determined less by the author’s preferences and personal writing proclivities than by real-world exigencies and deadlines. Few books that ever get published are really considered ‘complete’ by their authors; I suspect that many (like mine) end because the time available to spend working on them has simply run out. Books are (like a writing career) works in progress.

Related to this should be the awareness that a book doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead, it should be the best work you are capable of at the time you write it. I am terribly proud of the Imagining Toronto book, not because I think it is a perfect book (I know I would do a better job if I was writing it now) but because it was the very best work I could produce at the time.

10. Although several of Silberman’s advisors suggest being open to harsh editing and never being afraid to “delete your darlings,” I recommend saving everything you edit out. Retain extraneous material and false starts in a file or files somewhere. You never know when it will come in handy.

Whenever I write something I maintain a file called “orphaned text” or sometimes “quarantined text.” Everything major I delete goes into these files for potential future use. Often false starts are motivators for future projects. There’s a place for almost everything.

11. Fully acknowledge your sources and inspirations. This goes beyond footnoting and referencing and protecting yourself from plagiarism accusations or lawsuits. It has more to do with the ethics of research and writing. Books, particularly non-fiction books, belong to a genealogy of ideas and writers, and it’s important to acknowledge the history that informed your work.

12. Finally, and most vitally, be grateful to those who support you. As Maryn McKenna advises, “Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.”

Let me say that I am exceedingly grateful to my husband, Peter, who looked after our Keep and put his own intellectual projects second while the Imagining Toronto book took up most of the air-space in our life. In return I’m co-authoring a new (non-fiction) book on which he is the lead author and I primarily the textual hand-maiden.

In closing, I guess I’ll say one more thing: good ideas and good writing will always find a home. I believe in this verily. The universe expands, and there is always room for new ideas to fill it.

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Smoke City Reviews

Thanks to a Twitter conversation, just learned about a new book review blog called Smoke City Stories, which reviews books set in Toronto! Great concept (she awards up to 5 CN Towers for a good read).

Books reviewed so far: Katherine Govier’s Fables of Brunswick Avenue (which I have to admit having liked far better), Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.

Hoping this is the start of a good thing. It’s well worth checking out, especially if you are looking for something Toronto-focused to read.

Smoke City Stories is run by Peggy Cooke, who uses the moniker @pedgehog on Twitter.

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Cleaning Up at the Vanier College Book Sale [also, a tale about my terror of storytellers]

I was afraid all the good books would be gone before I finally made it to this year’s Vanier College Book Sale at York University yesterday afternoon, but to my delight and pleasure (and possibly because my literary tastes are a little idiosyncratic) I managed to score about a dozen interesting books, all offered at half price because it was the second-last day of the sale!

Although none of my finds this year were as spectacular as the very rare true first edition of Al Purdy’s Poems for All the Annettes (Contact Press, 1962, complete with dust-wrapper) I bought for a dollar at the sale two or three years ago, or the dozens of great fifties-era science fiction pulp paperbacks Peter bought for fifty cents each the same year, this year’s haul wasn’t bad. Here are the titles:

Dan Yashinsky’s Tales for an Unknown City (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), an anthology of spoken word stories curated from the long-running 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling series Dare I admit having passed over this book a dozen times at book sales, primarily because I have an irrational fear of storytelling, and of the 1001 Nights in particular? Years ago as a graduate student, one of my very dear colleagues invited a group of us to a 1001 Nights storytelling event held in downtown Toronto. I went out of politeness and collegiality and remember nothing at all of what was said, only the terrible ennui of waiting for it to be over. While I do not precisely have an auditory learning disability, I find it very difficult to process or remember things people say verbally: I’m wholly text focused. It’s made me a bit neurotic about attending public lectures and literary readings: unless I can have a text handy or take copious notes, whatever people say amounts to little more than noise. Still, fifteen years or so after my traumatic introduction to storytelling in Toronto, I’ve picked up this book and am glad to have done so. If I’m ever in the company of storytellers again I will clutch it as ballast against the verbal storm.

Wordhoard: Anglo-Saxon Stories for Young People (retold by Jill Paton Walsh and Kevin Crossley-Holland; Macmillan, 1969). No, there’s no irony in picking up another book representing another ages-old oral tradition: these ones are safely trapped in text, too. Also, I love the notion of ‘wordhoard’ and suspect my City Girl will enjoy the book when she’s a bit older.

Thomas King’s One Good Story, That One (1993). Stop laughing! I like oral narratives when they’re written down!

E.L. Konigsburg’s children’s classic From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum, 1975), a novel about a young girl who runs away to live in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I cannot recall reading this in the past, although I have always been drawn to stories about people who found themselves dwelling in unusual urban spaces (e.g., Slake’s Limbo, The Prince of Central Park (I haven’t seen the film and think it cannot possibly manage to equal the wonderful book) and Help, I’m a Prisoner in the Library). Will give it a go.

Literary scholar Germaine Warkentin’s edited anthology Stories from Ontario (Macmillan of Canada, 1974).  I’m an admirer of Warkentin’s work and bought this book not only for the stories but for her introduction.

David McFadden’s The Great Canadian Sonnet (compleat in one volume) (illustrated by Greg Curnoe; Coach House, 2001). I have no idea what to make of this book, but then I never know what to make of McFadden’s work. It isn’t a sonnet, of course. It measures approximately three by four inches square and is about half as thick. The version I have is a single-volume reissue of the original Sonnet, which appeared in various guises, most notably as a recreation of the ‘little big books’ once marketed to children. Poison my mind, McFadden; go ahead. I’ll like it — I’m a Canadian, after all.

The League of Canadian Poets’ membership catalogue (second edition, 1980). Although bound as a book, this is an interesting piece of Canadian literary ephemera. I bought it because it lists the published works of members, including many who have since died and whose work is not only long out of print, it is nearly lost to memory. I had no idea, for example, that Toronto poet Ted Plantos had published so extensively in the 1970s, mainly because the little presses he wrote for vanished decades ago.

Margaret Gibson’s Considering Her Condition (Gage, 1978). A follow-up to Gibson’s award-winning The Butterfly Ward only, this time, about the madness of pregnancy rather than merely madness itself.

Judith Fitzgerald’s Ultimate Midnight (Black Moss Press, 1992), a book I expect to find interesting in the same way as I find Gibson (and Firtzgerald’s) other work.

Mary Tilberg’s The Moon Knows No Boundary (Guernica, 2004). Poems about exile and displacement.

Olive Senior’s Gardening in the Tropics (McClelland & Stewart, 1994), mainly because someone recommended her post-colonial poetry recently and I was surprised never to have read a complete collection of her work. Also of interest because, as a Toronto writer of Jamaican heritage, her work is likely to differ from the Trinidadian-originating Toronto writers I usually read.

Zsuzsi Gartner’s All the Anxious Girls on Earth (Key Porter, 1999). Because it’s Zsuzsi Gartner.

And finally, The Way We Drive: Toronto’s Love Affair with the Automobile in Stories and Photographs (by Bill Sherk; Boston Mills Press, 1993). If this book were to be reissued today it would probably feature on its cover a photograph of a car with a cyclist trussed to the front fender.

Not bad, eh? The damage: a total of $16.50 (half price day, although the prices were low to begin with).

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Spacing Reviews the Imagining Toronto Book

There’s a lovely review of the Imagining Toronto book in the current issue of Spacing Magazine. After describing the book’s strengths in detail — its “fusion of cultural theory and local history” and its varied emphasis on physical landscapes, culture and class — reviewer Emily Landau praises the book’s “enviable awareness of space and keen literary insight.”

You can read the whole review in Spacing’s ‘Hungry City’ issue (Number 22), widely available at newsstands and in bookstores and, of course, by subscription. It’s an especially beautiful issue, with gorgeous photographs of Queen Street and the spontaneous Jack Layton chalk memorials at Nathan Phillips Square, a special report on Toronto’s Priority neighbourhoods, a spatial analysis of food supply and distribution (and the dominance of major grocery retailers) in the GTA, and articles on farmers’ markets, urban foraging and Toronto’s surprising agricultural history.

Incidentally, my essay “Toronto at War” (focusing on literary representations of Fort York in the War of 1812 era) appears in the same issue [as a contributing editor with Spacing Magazine I write a regular column on Toronto literature, but have no influence on reviews unless I’ve written one].

 

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The Tip of the Tel

I read somewhere recently that pop-artist Andy Warhol’s filing system consisted of a series of cardboard boxes into which he would periodically pitch the complete contents of his desk. After his death, these Time Capsules (as he called them) became important archives of Warhol’s life and work. An ongoing project to inventory the 600+ boxes (each containing hundreds of documents — letters, magazines, ideas-in-progress — as well as characteristically idiosyncratic objects, reportedly including a pair of Clark Gable’s shoes) is ongoing at the Andy Warhol Museum, a task conducted with all the rigour and cost of any other archaeological dig.

Warhol’s Time Capsules have been on my mind lately because I have spent many stolen moments in recent weeks sorting, purging and archiving nearly four years’ worth of accumulated paperwork, research notes and other documents that have grown into middens in my office, bedroom and attic workspace. Although I am by nature a highly organized person, events that have defined this period — the birth of my daughter, the decline and death of my father and the time it took to complete the Imagining Toronto book (a simply massive research project) — have overwhelmed even my preference for order and my own filing system has gradually been reduced to roughly chronological piles of papers consigned to boxes, and a tel on my desk so deep that new projects took place on a hazardous mound of paper that threatened avalanche every time I added anything to it.

Clutter of this sort is, of course, not only claustrophobia-inducing but stifling to new projects, and since I am currently working on a novel (among whose protagonists is, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a hoarder) and several new scholarly projects, I resolved to restore order to the pile.

And oh, what things have appeared, jutting out of the strata like limnological deposits laden with memory.

A hand-written note from my father. A parking ticket issued by the City of Kingston during one of our regular trips to visit him in hospital. His obituary, and one of his poems.

The bracelet I wore in hospital while giving birth to my daughter. A medical file describing all the effort it took to conceive her, then two ultrasound pictures, a garbled record of her days in the NICU and a sheet of paper detailing her growth from the lowest possible percentile toward the highest.

A pile, nearly two feet thick, of print-outs tracing the progress of the Imagining Toronto book from its inception to the final proofs. Correspondence with writers and literary scholars. Conference papers, talk texts and newspaper clippings. Notes for further work, and drafts of sections that never made it into the final version of the book.

Scraps of poetry, telephone numbers, paper clips, a dozen missing pens. An autographed, 1993 Word Series baseball. CDs. Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. A nearly complete ream of legal-sized printer paper. A pile of micropress chapbooks. A pen whose top is a blinking eyeball. A plastic unicorn bequeathed by my daughter. Little stones I have carried around for many years.

I remember the period that preceded this accumulation of debris. I remember who I was, then. I remember spending whole mornings researching forgotten writers and obscure books, laying out chapters, dabbling with words, before biking all over the city visiting second-hand bookstores on a perennial search for forgotten Toronto novels. My files were always neat then. I remember the November day in 2006 when I moved my desk so it would face toward the window and I could look out into the cedars and peer at the houses beyond them. A cat — another cat whose ashes have since enriched the front garden — would lie in the window and watch the little birds, and together we would talk about the weather and the shifting angle of the light.

My desk is clear, now, except for three files, a cat, those precious stones and my daughter’s plastic unicorn.

It is November, again, and my desk faces the window. My files are orderly. The neighbours’ houses have reappeared, and every morning I watch their lights come on. I rise nearly every night to write, at two, or four, or five o’clock, and work until dawn. I relish these hours, the house utterly silent behind me.

And every idea that lay patiently in those piles of papers until its recent excavation, every thought that has survived birth and death and the long marathon of the last book, everything else that has waited and longed to find expression and room to breathe: they are all gathered together now at the very tip of the tel, and I can feel them poise to leap.

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Trinity College Book Haul

Trinity College

I spent most of the day before attending the Trinity College book sale deep in the Rosedale Ravine with a group of grade 12 Geography students from Bishop Strachan School. We emerged from the ravine at mid-afternoon, having climbed the steep hill to Chorley Park after lunch at the Don Valley Brick Works, and dashed as a group through the just-beginning rain to a TTC bus that serendipitously appeared (and waited!) just down the street. Exhausted and damp but filled with booklust, I rode the subway south to Museum station and then walked across the always-beautiful University of Toronto campus to Trinity College. No one noticed (or at least had the grace not to comment upon) my muddy jeans and wet boots.

At the book sale, I headed straight for the poetry and Toronto books (located conveniently right across from one another), and dug right in. After filling a large bag with interesting books, I trolled other sections of interest (Canadian fiction, childrens’ books, philosophy, biography and science/nature) and then hid under a table to sort my loot.

In an effort to practice restraint, I ended up returning about half the books I’d selected initially. Still ended up with a nice pile, though, and spent exactly sixty-five dollars in total.

Here’s the list of what I brought home (not including a couple of books for Peter and some kids’ books for Katherine):

Such a beautiful cover.

Jim Johnstone’s Patternicity (Nightwood Editions, 2010). Such a beautiful, fascinating book (filled with metaphors for organic chemistry), and I feel a bit guilty for picking it up second-hand after grabbing a copy of The Velocity of Escape (Guernica, 2008) for $2 at the University College sale and promising to buy the rest of his work new. Sorry, Jim — but I do promise to get your next book new!

Sheree Fitch’s In This House are Many Women (Goose Lane, 1993), poems poised perfectly between second and third-wave feminism. I like her work.

Alison Pick’s The Sweet Edge (Raincoast, 2005), a novel that probably reminds me of at least one grad school relationship. Maybe The Sweet Edge will help me learn to laugh about it.

Kathy Shaidle’s Lobotomy Magnificat (Oberon, 1997), a collection of poems shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Don’t know what to think of this book, which sounds a bit like an unfocused Maggie Helwig (whose work I love very greatly and whom Shaidle acknowledges as a mentor). Still, will give it a whirl.

Cary Fagan’s The Animals’ Waltz (Lester, 1994). I really enjoy Cary Fagan’s work, and am looking forward to a very belated read.

Erika de Vasconceles’ My Darling Dead Ones (Knopf, 1997), a novel focusing on Toronto’s Portuguese community and another book I’ve wanted to read for quite a long time.

Malea Litovitz and Elana Wolff’s Slow Dancing (Guernica, 2008), a textual dialogue between these two authors, one living; the other living her death. I’m not familiar with Litovitz’ work but quite enjoy reading Wolff’s poetry. Their ‘duologue’ sounds like interesting reading and will be my first foray into Litovitz’ other work (e.g., At the Moonbean Cafe (Guernica, 2003) — a book I know just from the title I’ll enjoy.

Cordelia Strube’s Lemon (Coach House, 2009). Usually I pick up new Coach House titles from the Press directly. For some reason this is one I missed (perhaps because it came out during that period between having a kid and finishing the Imagining Toronto book), although I have always read Strube’s work with wary interest. A comedic darkness informs Strube’s work, something I need to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate. Think I’ll make Lemon a bathtub book (for valued leisure reading I might not get to otherwise and do best with a glass of wine).

An advance (uncorrected proof) copy of Hal Niedzviecki’s Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened (City Lights, 2011). I admire Niedzviecki’s pop-cultural activism but am less confident in his writing. Am willing to give his work another shot, though. Also probably a bathroom book, albeit sans the glass of wine.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s The Tough Romance (McClelland & Stewart, 1979). How I love Di Cicco’s poetic voice, particularly during this period of his career.

And in Toronto-related non-fiction, I also picked up:

J.C. Boylen’s The Story of Castle Frank (Rous & Mann Press, 1959), a beautiful hard-bound book about the residence of John and Elizabeth Simcoe above the Don River in the nascent settlement of York.

Henry Scadding’s Toronto of Old (abridged and edited by F.H. Armstrong; Oxford University Press, 1966). This edition, much better than the schlocky paperback I have (but not as good as the original second edition from 1878), is a really excellent resource for anyone interested in Toronto as it was during the nineteenth century.

And finally, Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs (edited by Max Allen; The Ginger Press, 1997), a collection of Jacobs’ essays, correspondence and commentaries. A nice addition to my Jacobs’ library. No, I’m not an unequivocal acolyte of Jacobs’ work, but acknowledge her major contributions to urban studies.

So end the University of Toronto book sale reports for 2011. There’s still the Vanier College book sale at York University, and since I’m on campus teaching every week, I’ll be sure to drop in

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