Anne Rice died last night. I was sucked into The Vampire Chronicles shortly after The Vampire Lestat came out in paperback. My friend Gilbert Bouchard, who was an aficionado of vampire fiction, raved about it and lent me his copy. I read it all in two or three days, which is fast for me. I was really taken by the vampire who was described as a David Bowie-like figure. At that point, I wasn’t used to reading fiction which make reference to niche corners of pop culture. Bowie wasn’t exactly underground, but neither was he usually referred to outside of music and fashion circles.
Besides that, the story of Lestat, Louis, and the doomed child Claudia had me hook, line, and sinker. I read went back and read Interview with a Vampire after that, and followed up with subsequent books in the series as they were released. They sprawled out of control for my tastes, and I wasn’t a fan Rice’s later war on fan fiction. But before that, I had an opportunity to interview her when she was in Edmonton to promote Lasher in 1993.
Rice was welcoming, thoughtful, and goth-fashionable. I think she really appreciated the surroundings. We were seated in Queen Anne (a coincidence) armchairs next to to the grand fireplace at the Châteauesque-style Hotel Macdonald. She said she liked my jacket, a black riding-jacket affair with back pleats; I felt this was the highest complement a fan of vampire literature could attain.
She spoke freely for the better part of an hour. Re-reading the interview, I was surprised by the number topics she discussed. Now I’m tempted to read or re-read all of Anne Rice’s vampire and Mayfair witch books.
In the 1970s, the stretch of Whyte Avenue that ran through Old Strathcona was not much of a shopping or hang-out destination. It was a place of discount stores, services like banks and gas stations, repair shops, dive bars, and a few strip clubs. By the time the 1980s came around, I was on the avenue at least once a week after high school, visiting HUB Cigar to pick up my copy of New Music Express and other British music weeklies, and a few times a year for a group outing to the Princess Theatre to see movies like Dawn of the Dead.
Then came the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. In a handful of mid-1980s years, the festival grew from a week of plays in a few theatre spaces, makeshift venues, and back alleys to a massive festival spread over several blocks. The festival, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and many interested community members built up the neighbourhood into a lively, year-round destination of boutiques, cafés, and a better class of night spots.
But gentrification and growth led to other problems. One was the proliferation of bars that left the street rowdy at night and empty during the day, addressed over the years through nightclub-led security initiatives and a municipal moratorium on bars. Another was the combination of chain stores eager to drink existing businesses’ milkshakes and landlords who were all too willing to serve them.
A new building went up at the corner of 105 Street and Whyte Ave, where a bank and gas station had stood. The first tenant in the expansive first-floor reatil space was a Sony Store, definitely a step up from the Radio Shack that was previously located down the block. But the high-end pricing of the store didn’t meet the low-end budget of the students, artists, and seniors who lived in the neighbourhood.
In the late 1990s, Old Strathcona fans and residents like me did not welcome the news that Chapters would be moving in. Walmart in the U.S. had set the precedence of a corporate big-box entity that would steamroll over existing locally owned stores, then close up when it was convenient for corporate HQ, leaving a community without any of the stores it replaced. (It was such a familiar pattern, the late 1990s sitcom That 70s Show borrowed it for a whole story arc involving the father’s unemployment due to the arrival of a giant “Pricemart” franchise.)
It took two decades, but Chapters is finally completing the familiar narrative, leaving the neighbourhood after it contributed to the premature closures of both Orlando Books and Greenwoods Books. In 2015, Jacqueline Dumas wrote about the factors that went into her decision to close her store, Orlando Books, for the Edmonton Queer History Project. She did not specifically mention Chapters, but did include the fact that she’d already moved the store east from its original location closer to Garneau due to rising rents.
Chapters’ prominent presence was most obviously a bold challenge to Greenwoods Books. The family-run store had a prime location on Whyte Avenue by the eastbound 104th Street bus stop, and, for a time, a second location in the building off Whyte that now houses some personal care studios and shops next to Planet Organic. (That building is itself the result of gentrification, having previously been home to Prudham Building Supplies.) I vividly remember being in the new Greenwoods, which was huge, well-stocked, beautiful, and had a wonderful children’s section, when a couple of tourists walked in. They said it was nice, but they were looking for the DVD section and knick knacks. In short, they were looking for Chapters.
After Chapters’ imminent closure made the news, I read a lot of fond remembrances on Twitter by people who had never known another new-release bookstore on Whyte Avenue. A few people said they would miss Chapters as an actual bookstore, and one that supported local authors. But most tweeters made mention of browsing the shelves, using the washrooms, having a place for kids to play, and hanging out for a coffee. They were essentially describing a library with a café. Chapters was evidently not selling enough books or knick knacks to run a library and public washroom on Whyte Avenue.
I also read some disparaging comments about the replacement tenant, Winners. I’m not thrilled that it will be competing against the nearby, underrated Army and Navy (some of my favourite pieces of clothing are from A & N Boutique!), but is Winners out of character for the neighbourhood? It’s certainly not a business that screams 1914, the heyday of Old Strathcona, but it’s not far off from the large, corporate tenants that have established themselves on that corner. Winners is just the next step on the retail ladder that detractors feared: an even larger, even more generic chain store. Granted, it does have a better general housewares section than anything in the neighbourhood since Call the Kettle Black moved to High Street. It won’t be a venue for local writers, but Winners might serve the neighbourhood’s needs as well as Chapters — as long it has enough washrooms.
When I had to get a handle on particle physics, I read The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question, by American physicist Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi). It opened with an anecdote about the failed effort to have a particle collider built in the United States. Clearly, this book was not going to be limited to descriptions of the mechanics of particle interactions. It was also about how research has been done, and why it is sometimes not done. Lederman wrote:
“This is a book about a string of infinitely sweet moments that scientists have had over the past 2,500 years. These sweet moments add up to our present knowledge about what the universe is and how it works. The pain and depression are part of the story, too. Often it is the obstinacy, the stubbornness, the pure orneriness of nature that gets in the way of the ‘Eureka’ moment.”
From The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi (1993)
By 2015, Lederman had severe dementia. His family sold his Nobel Prize to pay for his treatment and care. This was a heartbreak Lederman could not have predicted. I could not help but think of how his country’s failure to fund medicare infrastructure was akin to its failure to support scientific infrastructure. Both seem resulted from a shortsightedness that is keeping the country from nurturing, developing, and just plain valuing, its human resources.
One of Lederman’s colleagues, Michael Turner, said to Carol Off on As It Happens, that Lederman man probably won’t—and shouldn’t—be remembered primarily for the difficulties he faced at the end of his life. Lederman should be remembered for his scientific research and for inspiring generations of physicists and the physics-curious.
The Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor (Trade paperback cover)
I recently had the pleasure of reading N. K. Jemisin short story, “The Great City Born”. In her world, cities go through a life cycle. Some cities may gestate for a very long time without being born, but when a city is ready to be birthed, it chooses an avatar, a kind of midwife. The avatar is a human being who can hear the city breathing and feel what the city feels. The person eventually becomes the city in a kind of multiple state of being that is well-conveyed by Jemisin’s poetic fiction.
The story was fascinating, and especially appealed to me as a fan of the WildStorm comic The Authority (created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, and elaborated upon by subsequent creative teams). The Authority was a group of unlikely superheroes led by Jenny Sparks, the human embodiment of “the spirit of the 20th century”, and is probably most famous for including the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter, who were analogues of Superman and Batman. One of the other team members, Jack Hawksmoor, had the ability to talk to cities, but it was not a natural superpower, nor was it one that he agreed to acquiring. As a child, Jack was weaponized by 70th century humans who subjected him to painful body modifications that gave him the ability to fight a future monster by harnessing cities’ power. Jack–whose namesake is the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor–could communicate with cities, but they remained separate entities.
Jack Hawksmoor was built infrastructure, a human-engineered city utility meant to work with other human-engineered city utilities. In Jemisin’s world, cities and humans live symbiotically in a natural ecosystem: humans build cities that contain humans; cities choose which humans can contain cities.
I like the way cities are presented in both works. They are technological and biological, engineered and natural. Cities are the work of humans and they work with humans. Cities and humans shape each other.
This is the type of work I want to explore in this blog. I’m interested in the relationship between art and cities: how art portrays the city; how cities affect the making, presentation, and perception of art; and experiencing art and my city. Arts City is in its infancy. I’m looking forward to see what happens as we grow together.
“The City Born Great” is collected in Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction. It can also be read online at Tor.com or via Kindle.
This is as good a time as any to share an interview I did with Britta Lundin, with whom I was Twitter-acquainted through Supernatural fandom. She went on to join the writing staff of Riverdale, the CW television network’s adaptation of Archie Comics. This spring, she launched her debut book, Ship It, a YA novel about a young woman who comes to terms with her fandom identity, and through that process, her sexual identity.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
You mentioned earlier about queer ships and queer relationships on a TV show. Do you feel a responsibility for bringing things like that forward?
BL: Yeah. I do. I mean … It’s one of the reasons I got into writing for TV, was because I wanted to tell stories of people who don’t always see their stories on television. A big part of that is seeing more queer characters and queer women on TV. When I was a teenager, I was a young lesbian who didn’t really fully understand myself or my own sexuality, but I knew that I wasn’t straight. I could go on the internet and look at fan fiction, and there was a million stories being written about queer characters online that you weren’t getting on television at that time. This was in the early 2000s, and the gay characters on TV at that point were, you know, Will and Grace, and basically that was it. There were others, not a ton, and not ones that felt like they were written just for me. But what you get in fan fiction is so many stories. These same characters are getting written over and over and over as gay. You can get angsty stories or you can get happy stories. You can get ones where they’re tragic or ones with a happy ending, or fluffy ones or whatever you want.
I finally finished reading the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow late Saturday night.
I should have timed it better. If I had finished earlier in the day, I might have been able to find others who have read the book to talk about it. I’ll get that chance next week, when I see the musical with a friend who has also read the biography. Meanwhile, I have some general notes about the book.
The musical called attention to the fact that Alexander Hamilton was more fascinating than history had let us to believe, but the book, at a wrist-crushing 731 pages, delves into layers, nooks, and crannies that a two-hour show could never contain. Everything you learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda is given more depth and context. If anything, the Hamilton portrayed in this history book is even more larger-than-life that conveyed in a Broadway show. It left me even more incredulous that the US treasury had considered replacing his image on the $10 bill. Hamilton was never president of the United States, but he basically invented the entire U.S. banking system.
Jefferson is a villain.*
Burr is a super villain.*
John Adams sucked.*
The extent to which slavery was a factor in establishing the U.S. as an independent country will never not shock me.
So many echos to be found in modern politics: the political power of racism, the sex scandals, the 1%, fake news, the incompetent presidents.
It’s also beautifully written and novelistic. I mean, the illegitimate son of a sex worker in the West Indies immigrates to America, becomes a hero of the Revolution, writes most of the Federalist papers, creates U.S. banking infrastructure, fathers seven children, all before he could turn 50. You can’t make this stuff up! (*In points 2 to 4, I summarized my reaction to Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and John Adams, the Denethor of the piece. Chernow is not as reductive. He describes all these complicated men with clear-eyed nuance. He’s fair, but not afraid to call anyone on their shit, especially the abolitionists who never stopped owning slaves.)
Bottom line, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a very long read, but worth it for anyone interested in early America, the role of slavery in the nation, how governmental administrative structure was built from the ground up, and why Hamilton’s story make such a damn fine musical.