Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
masthead

Our History Is Your Kitsch

A photo essay & book installation
Share |

Of great things one should not speak at all or speak with greatness: with greatness, i.e., cynically and with innocence.
          — Nietzsche

Jump back, what's that sound?
Here she comes full blast and top down
Hot shoe burnin’ down the avenue
Model citizen, zero discipline
          — "Panama," Van Halen

This project arose from a desire to cross-pollinate similar grassroots communities. Another source of the project was my frustration with watching books (outside of book retail channels) get passed by at one of any given number of book launches I wanted to take the books out of their normative space and have them be part of instinctual retail discovery (like the Discovery Channel meets Book Television).

I also saw the project address a subject that is only now, in my opinion, being addressed within creative communities: the generation factor. In the 2010 film Greenberg (written and directed by Noah Baumbach), the protagonist and anti-hero, Roger Greenberg, finds himself in a cross-geographic, cross-generational vortex. At one point in the film he tells his brother’s personal assistant, “You have to see past the kitsch,” after putting on a song from his youth. The much younger personal assistant responds, “I can see past it.”

So I started to think about concepts like “shop local” and “think organic” or “local market,” and I was walking by a boutique (69 Vintage, to be exact) and found myself thinking about Derek McCormack (as I often am). I recalled him talking about our local writers in relation to the children of tomorrow and their book buying habits. In the interview, Derek mused (with a slightly abject manner, but matter-of-factly and with great poise),

I work at a bookstore part-time. I see these cool, young Canadian kids come in. They like cool music. They like cool movies. And they read Robertson Davies. Or Jane Urquhart. Grandma lit. For them, that's what CanLit is. It bugs my ass. Shouldn't they be reading Tony Burgess, Lynn Crosbie, Lisa Robertson and Ken Sparling? We have these amazing writers here. I wish kids carried around Tony Burgess the way they carry around Burroughs or somebody.

In my most recent manuscript, I delve heavily into 20th century archetypes. One of which being the salesman (perhaps it was a result of that whole Mad Men craze over the last couple of years), which made me revisit Death of a Salesman. I began to also find great frustration in the way the Toronto literary community was exploding on the Internet but appearing so sporadically in physical reality. I saw the way books were being talked about, but seldom saw any evidence of their actuality in real physical spaces. I wanted to create a community garden of sorts — divided between several vintage stores in Toronto — where publishers, authors, local retailers, book and boutique lovers would discuss and admire collections of books for an extended period of time, and I wanted to document this attention in a manner similar to the way psychological tests or market research studies are recorded.

Except of course, this project is way more fun. So the Ontario publishers are in on it, they are going to be encouraging their readers and friends to visit these stores, take a look at what they have to sell and perhaps chat about a necklace, book, dresser or swimsuit. How many times have you been out with a friend or just walked by someone who was saying, “Where did you get that -----?” The same could be happening for books.

And instead of dozens of boutique customers recommending wrinkled, beaten-up hand-me-down copies of Beautiful Losers or On the Road or more contemporary “classics” such as The Kite Runner and The Time Traveller’s Wife, they could read books by people who live and write within a stone’s throw of that particular shop. The books were chosen according to three main factors: content, design and, to a lesser extent, recommendations by participating publishers. Some of the books are by my friends, while some are people I’m totally jealous of. I imagined retail scenarios, interactions in which a student was setting up their first apartment and needed some books for their coffee tables or to possibly do drugs off of, and I thought Paper Radio, The Haunted Hillbilly, Overqualified and Ronald Reagan, My Father would be great conversation starters — fetish objects that these young bohemians could paw at during “high” tea or a slow morning of crunchy toast and an eventual brunch in sunglasses. By preventing this imagined generation from buying more William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller (these purchases also, for the most part are second hand books, where the author’s estate earns no money) and having them think local, think Canadian small press and think about us instead of them, in a way, these titles could, quite frankly become a new sort of kitsch!

And our history, our stories, would become a part of their cerebral cortex and who knows, show them a part of Toronto, the world that Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Michael Crichton could only dream of. “I know where that is! That’s a restaurant in Parkdale!” they might scream when reading the opening chapter of Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For As Long As Possible.

The Books

Fiction
Katrina Best’s Bird Eat Bird (Insomniac Press)
Tony Burgess’s People Live Still in Cashtown Corners (Chizine)
Joey Comeau’s Overqualified (ECW Press)
Brian Joseph Davis’s Ronald Reagan, My Father (ECW Press)
Dennis Denisoff’s The Winter Gardeners (Coach House Books)
Claudia Dey’s Stunt (Coach House Books)
Lisa Foad’s The Night is A Mouth (Exile Editions)
Golda Fried’s Nellcott Is My Darling (Coach House Books)
Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? (House of Anansi Press)
Greg Kearney’s Pretty (Exile Editions)
Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi Press)
Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly (ECW Press)
Anne Perdue's I'm a Registered Nurse, Not a Whore (Insomniac Press)
Gregor Robinson’s Providence Island (Dundurn Press)
Jessica Westhead’s And Also Sharks (Cormorant Books)
Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For As Long As Possible (House of Anansi Press)

Poetry
Dani Couture’s Sweet (Pedlar Press)
Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Indexical Elegies (Coach House Books)
Melanie Janisse’s Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions)
Randall Maggs’s Night Work (Brick Books)
Damian Rogers’s Paper Radio (ECW Press)
Daniel Scott Tysdal’s The Mourner's Book of Albums (Tightrope Books)
RM Vaughan’s Troubled (Coach House Books)

So now that you’ve got your list of must-have-book bling to complement your desire for a whole whack of new summer patio attire and other soon to be discovered darling little items, why not follow this GTA-wide tour de force, a buffet of boutiques, who are teeming with both brilliant original items (many designed locally) and of course the aforementioned collection of dreamy reads.

The Tour

  1. Pretty Freedom (165 Augusta Avenue) has all your soft, hyper and medium-blend colour needs this season. The store is located in a pretty harbour on Augusta near The Boat.

    According to co-owner Jodee Malaya, “This weather calls for a denim mumbum/ hangover tank combo, with a side of peek-a-boob bikini top! Whether you’re going away on vacation or simply enjoying the city heat – pack light, boys & girls!”

    And what could go better with these lovely light blends than Jon Paul Fiorentino’s poetry collection Indexical Elgies or Greg Kearney’s Pretty? How about Randal Maggs’s poetry collection Night Work? A frisky tank top and a shady read on the patio? Marvelous. As Jerry told George once, “See, now you’re doing something!”

    Kearney’s second collection of short fiction delves into stories of social immediacy with comprehensive backstories and character development, while Fiorentino’s latest poetry offering sees the poet shift from persona-based humour to sharing his grief over the recent death of his mentor Robert Allen, and how he changed Fiorentino and his work, while Maggs’s exhaustive hockey poetry ode to arguably the greatest netminder in NHL history, Terry Sawchuk, demonstrates the elastic capabilities of both poetry as a genre and the poet as archivist.

  2. Next stop, in no particular order, is Freedom Clothing Collective (939 Bloor Street West). “Our vision is expressed through an environment created by artists who are encouraged to showcase their abilities and bring together creative energy to inspire a community.” And this is really true. The first time I ever went there was for a Pistol Press launch, which featured Catherine Kidd from Montreal. They have little shows all the time and tons of great clothing and objects to die for.

    Currently in the store, along with Jessica Westhead’s hot-off-the-press And Also Sharks (the perfect cottage read), are lovely little decorative objects by Polygun Collective, Rae, Colleen McKeowan and Sarah Smile. And, what better book to read whilst wearing some new summer-fare jewellery than Lisa Foad’s 2009 ReLit Award winner, The Night is a Mouth, the perfect summer alchemic emotional short-fiction thriller.

  3. Head west some more and you’ll find yourself at 69 Vintage Collective (1207 Bloor Street West). I found a lot of great summer dresses there (yes, I like dresses, and by found I mean saw, but I did “find” them, they are nice to look at, to imagine someone wearing for a picnic or Monet painting re-enactment). Visit the blog for constant updates.

    And when you are knee-deep in vintage blouses, blazers and kitsch tees, sidle up to a copy of Damian Rogers’s empathetic and aware collection of snazzy and eloquent poetry, Paper Radio, and Sheila Heti’s provocative and emotionally turbulent urban novel, How Should A Person Be? How should they be, Sheila? Well dressed. Obv!

  4. Now turn around. Go to the Annex. Walk past Book City (you might be returning shortly), and head to Theodore 1922 (497 Bloor Street West). Here you’ll be impressed by the finest threads for the man in your life, even if that man is yourself! And remember, dads need clothing all year long (and books too), not just on Father’s Day.

    Hot pink, swordfish blue, canary yellow fine cut shirts, sports jackets, ties and fancy pants, all perfect for the martini bar after the polo match. This store is where all future and current literary clotheshorse stallions should shop, and I’ve been told that from time to time, the odd crime writer does show up to refurbish his or her luxury wardrobe. And once you’re man-dolled up, read Claudia Dey’s haunting family novel, Stunt. Another perfect match. You can also sit back in your soft pastel contentment and lounge in the Trillium Award-finalist poetry of Dani Couture’s Sweet. There’s a part of you that may long for change, a new job perhaps? Once you’re dressed to the nines you can delve into the vocational hilarity that is Joey Comeau’s Overqualified, a book of satirical cover letters.

    When you're feeling slightly more courageous in your new duds (which may include the new line of designer swimwear for men), grab a glimpse into the cerebral side of life with RM Vaughan’s confrontational and confessional poetry book, Troubled.

  5. Suddenly sun-screened and walking along Queen Street West, you find yourself engulfed with psychedelic post-modernism with minor traces of early-1990s neon leanings.

    Yes, we’re talking about Peach Berzerk (507 Queen Street West), where the dresses are sensational splashes of light and colour, perfect for a summer stroll along the beach or through the park that ends up in an impromptu patio dance party. Once you are grooving to the oldies (Salt N’ Pepa, Technotronic, C&C Music Factory, Ministry, Aerosmith), take a Memorex trip down Daniel Scott Tysdal lane via his latest book, The Mourner's Book of Albums. Follow this with a spiritual reminiscing adventure into the landscape of Melanie Janisse with her poetry collection, Orioles in the Oranges, which will have you packing your bags for a day trip away from the concrete jungle by 3 a.m. You’ll be set for another look back at childhood and beyond when you delve into Providence Island by Gregor Robinson. As you move closer to Parkdale, keep this neighbourhood in mind for when you read Zoe Whittall’s Lambda Award-winning novel, Holding Still For As Long As Possible (now in paperback), which features a love triangle between three 25-year-olds: a former teen pop idol, a transgendered paramedic and a filmmaker.

  6. Still on Queen Street West or are you reading in some ethereal plateau no one knows about? If you’re still grounded to the concrete beneath you, you’ll soon happen upon the white-wall goddess chamber that is Bicyclette (880 Queen Street West). You will be astounded by the fair pricing and lovely finishing tools (earrings and necklaces) from the talented and local Corrine Anestopoulos. Afterward, go curl up under a tree at Trinity Bellwoods with Golda Fried’s Nellcott is my Darling. After the first few pages, the tender part of you wants to call your best friends and head to Montreal for the weekend. Why, for heaven’s sake? Read it and find out.

    While you’re sorting out your weekend getaway, you can take a minute to play it cool and delve into The Winter Gardeners by Dennis Denisoff, which is perfect for the cocktail hour or lounging poolside while dreaming of nothing in particular except peacocks, life in the small town of Lake Wachannabee, Ontario, and that gorgeous veterinarian who is oh so enchanting.

  7. Fresh Collective’s third outlet (401 Roncesvalles) is barely two months old and already has local designers ready to get you pretty for summer strolls to High Park, to Film Buff movie dates and other muggy misadventures. With bling for your ears and neck, eclectic dresses for both casual and Royal-wedding-type garden parties, colourful tops, shorts and even under things, this brand new store is a perfect rest stop for those sun-stroked afternoons. Unique to the Roncy location is silver jewelry from Apa Design. While there, go 1980s camp with Brian Joseph Davis’s hilarious and intelligent collection of stories, Ronald Reagan, My Father, or Katrina Best’s debut collection of stories, Bird Eat Bird, which recently won the Commonwealth First Book Award.

  8. Pineapple is a brand new store (2 Kensington Avenue) in the heart of arguably the mecca of all things kitsch in Toronto: Kensington Market. This new shop boasts antique, vintage and newly designed items culled from around the globe, displayed in lovely Victorian parlor rooms. Chat up the owner, poet Melanie Janisse, who also regularly contributes to Open Book: Toronto. She always has amazing stories of her frequent trips to near and far-off places.

    As you gander down the street, you’ll eye a few plaid shirts, cowboy shirts in fact, and feel the overwhelming need to listen to some twangy, mind-altering and heartbreaking country music. And what better book to read whilst listening to side one of a near-mint vinyl album? The Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack, the story of a tailor who befriends a fledgling country and western singer, convincing him it’s better to be more clotheshorse than thoroughbred.

  9. Hawk Eyes (103 Roncesvalles Avenue) is a beautiful furniture boutique owned and operated by Rachelle Turner. Store all the books you've accrued on your literary journey this summer on Hawk Eyes restored vintage bookcases, end tables and shelves. Turner admits that she loves to put antique books on her bookshelves and that often customers come in and read the books.

    "Once someone came in looking for books on astrology," she told me, commenting that sometimes her little furniture nook is confused with a bookstore.

    “My little ‘Roncey nook’ is a concept store with vignette displays of colour. Hawk Eyes features vintage finds and furnishings for the home or cottage. Pieces from the past were made with quality and craftsmanship. They were made to last. I'm here to make sure they get a new lease on life,” says Turner, who tells me the name Hawk Eyes was cribbed from a nickname her father gave her as a child. “He passed away about four years ago. My loss inspired me to live life to the fullest and do what I love. I named the store with him in mind so that he could always be part of my journey.”

    In addition to books like Tony Burgess's People Live Still in Cashtown Corners (read this and you'll never look at a gas station attendant the same way again) or Pasha Malla's Trillium Book Award-winning collection, The Withdrawal Method, you might just find breathtaking items to compliment your summer home such as an Italian Florentine dresser, a pair of hobnail lamps and Queen Anne fine bone china.

  10. I'm a Registered Nurse, Not a Whore by Anne Perdue will have you in stitches (aw, sigh, groan), especially when you tag alone with Sharlene and Doug when they take a seaside trip to a posh resort in New Mexico in the story "The Escapist," just one of many humourous takes on the human condition.

  11. Cool off down the street at Film Buff and have an ice-cream cone.

Authors on Kitsch

What is kitsch? Mike Tyson’s Punch Out? Will Smith’s song "Summertime"? Leonard Cohen`s "Suzanne"? An MC Hammer lunchbox? A 20-something blonde with dreads wearing a silkscreen Nirvana print dress at a 1990s retro night?

“My Nana's Eva Gabor wig,” Derek McCormack responds when I ask him about his most prized piece of kitsch.

“My Kelly Clarkson silver heart, actual gift and actual Thank You note to her songwriter for 'I Do Not Hook Up.'" Tony Burgess, when asked to name his most treasured item of kitsch.

“Kitsch is an appropriation. It is a recontextualizing of items pertaining to social history into a kaleidoscope,” says poet Melanie Janisse.

Sheila Heti’s musings commented on the transportation factor of kitsch. “I was reading a novel recommended to me just yesterday and I thought, ‘This is just American kitsch.’ And I think what I meant was that the images and sentences were meant to evoke sentimental feelings that the reader had inside them — sentiment not for things they (or anyone) ever actually experienced, but feelings that the reader imagines more perfect or more true-and-earthy people to have experienced.”

I asked local poet Damian Rogers what she thought about kitsch. I thought it’d be a good bet since she was once in the film High Fidelity starring John Cusack and had that line about Green Day. That film itself is a whole melodrama on kitsch and consciousness. “I don't think a lot about kitsch, but I suppose I would define it as an appreciation for the surreally overstated aesthetic gestures of the past. An embrace of the absurd, the ugly, the tossed away. Trash culture. At its best, it's self-aware, playful, and barbed commentary that punctures the aspirational aspects of ‘taste.’”

Conclusion

What will the future of kitsch look like?

“Douglas Coupland,” answers McCormack.

While Jessica Westhead says things will be pretty much exactly the same, “only rocket-powered, and everything will be foldable.”

And hey, if you are in one of these fine stores this summer, snap a picture of the books and tweet with the hashtag #kitschlit and help spread the word for our great community of book and clothing and furniture enthusiasts. Foursquare your locations on Twitter, tell the world about your findings, whether it’s a dress, a dresser or a haunted hillbilly.

To quote George Costanza in the early 1990s, "You know we're living in a society!"

Contest!

Want to win the collection of books featured in this article and at these fine stores?
To enter, please email enter@openbooktoronto.com with Kitsch in the subject line. Name one of the books featured in this article along with your name and phone number. Contest deadline is midnight on July 8, 2011. Please note if you win you must collect your prize from one of the stores featured in this article (we will let you know which one).

Nathaniel G Moore is the author of Wrong Bar, shortlisted for best novel for the 2010 Relit Award. He culled the title of this photo essay from a record by a band in the Unites Stated called The Harvey Girls. Visit Nathaniel's site at www.nathanielgmoore.net

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007