Given the recent Toronto attack which has shaken this city to its core, particularly the way it was directed with a passionate hatred towards women, this book has been a source of comfort to me over the last few days. Reading articles claiming “Toronto has lost its innocence” due to a “men’s-rights culture warrior channeling a cult of toxic misogyny” made it particularly difficult to enjoy the place I call home without the constant sense of uneasiness and violation. I needed to read a book where all the characters are women and they are sexually free within their own spaces, in the city of Toronto. This has been (for me) one of those rare moments of right book at the right time. In addition to its content, the author’s dry humour and deadpan writing style gives this narrative a ‘matter-of fact’ tone, which is much needed given the plot and characters.
The narrative follows Liberty, who has dropped out of university, and hitched a ride to Toronto back in the ’90s. In Toronto, and in her early 20s she falls for Veronika who is an unreliable, and unpredictable character. The reader gets a sense that Liberty wants both passion and stability in her life. Liberty wants safety, and comfort, but Veronika’s style puts her constantly on the edge. Liberty’s ambitions aside from her romantic involvements become apparent as she continues her studies and becomes a law librarian working for a very important Toronto firm. Her personal life is laid bare in this novel, but we are reminded that on a daily basis, Liberty is a contributing member of society completing important work. While Veronika distances herself from Liberty, and things never really work out, life keeps throwing them opportunities to meet again and again. The relationship between them is quite familiar, Liberty sees Veronika as a goddess, and muse, while Veronika could not care less. Even when Veronika is hurtful, Liberty narrates:
“She was like Wonder Woman, lifting up bulletproof bracelets to a bolt of humiliation and cooly zapping it back…there was no way I could have been as cool as Veronika, who didn’t seem to get hurt”
The third main character introduced is David, who transitions to Dana. Throughout the course of the novel the reader gets an insight to the difficulties a trans-gendered person encounters even during small meaningless daily activities like joining a recreational basketball team.
There are many moments when Liberty vocalizes what sex means to her, despite what the action itself might look like from the outside (ranging from somewhat rough, BDSM-like, or even at times passionless). Liberty experiences an array of rejections that are really painful to read. Although you see her brushing them aside, as a reader, you can feel the sting. After sleeping with a woman who was extremely hurtful and told Liberty that sex with her had been ‘terrible,’ Liberty doesn’t retort in a hurtful manner, rather she says:
“Listen. Sex for me is not about coming. It’s not about one particular act. It’s about having fun and taking care of each other’s needs”
This novel looks at the three women in Toronto in the ’90s, with a brief flashback to the early ’80s set in Nova Scotia, all the way to 2014 where the novel begins, as Liberty accidentally bumps into Veronika’s step-daughter. This ‘bump’ to me is an overarching theme over the novel. You get a sense that Liberty has strange feelings towards young people today and not only to how casually they experience things which were a struggle for her, but also towards the demands they make. For instance, having read about all these flesh and bone experiences of the past, Liberty has a reaction to seeing a young person on Tinder (or as she calls it: ‘Grindr for straight people’):
“With quick finger swipes, she rejected three face shots of young men and displayed a photo gallery of boys and girls whom she hadn’t rejected. All the cool urban high school kids were genderqueer these days—we can date anyone and we don’t care about gender!…when I was a teenager, the idea of being a dyke had scared the hell out of me.”
And just as she begins with this shock of how young people reject so easily with a single swipe and not being comforted by the awkwardness of doing it in person, or being rejected in person, all tied together with Liberty’s constant desire for safety and stability in her life, she concludes the novel with:
“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it was what I’d grown up with, was different from the current demands for safe spaces. Demands I wasn’t entirely comfortable with because who defined safe and when did it rub up against freedom? I understood wanting a safe space—any person who has been treated like shit would….when [Beth] stroked the center of my back, as she was right now, I felt utterly safe, precious, protected.’
What I loved most about this novel were the scenes of Toronto, and Liberty Village (name of Toronto neighbourhood) from the ’90s’ and early ‘00s. Descriptions of familiar streets, and familiar places made this novel particularly comforting. There is a lot of character development and growth while the city simultaneously changes with them. The Toronto Liberty runs to in the ‘90s is not the same Toronto she is in today. There is a mirroring in how Liberty enters the city unsure and fragile while the city itself feels defined, and near the end, Liberty knows who she is and what she wants, while the city is in a fragile state. Perhaps this novel can be summarized as “Life, and Liberty’s pursuit of happiness.”
This novel is written by Hamilton-based Nairne Holtz who is a law librarian in Toronto. She has written several other fictional works, and completed an annotated bibliography of Canadian Lesbian Literature. Information on all these works can be found at Holtz’s website. She has been shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan Prize, won the Alice B. Award for Debut Lesbian Fiction, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is almost always illustrated or photographed holding a dog, and she volunteers a lot of her free time at the Gay and Lesbian Archives.
I often check the Toronto Reference Library’s Exhibit Room because they have some of the most wonderful exhibits. Often they are in collaboration with other libraries and collections, and I can’t help myself from taking pictures of my experience. This exhibit showcased paintings, drawings and prints of post-war Toronto from the library’s Canadian Documentary Art Collection, demonstrating the fast-paced changes in our city in the mid-late Twentieth Century. More information HERE.
I really enjoyed the sense of community this project inspired, particularly in the way they requested that people share their best pictures of Toronto and added them to the collection.
Today I went for a walk in the rain and on a quest! I wanted to find the “Peter Pan Statue hiding in plain sight” at Avenue and St. Clair. I read an article about it in the Torontoist and decided to made a day of it. The truth is, I’ve passed by that intersection SO MANY TIMES but not once did I think that in the little cove that is Glen Park–which is also part of a residential building’s ‘backyard’ is a lovely statue of Pan. What I loved most about it were the details like the little mice carved in, the rabbits, the fairies talking to the squirrel, and Peter himself of course. At times I get so used to Pan as portrayed in Hollywood films, or even Disney, or Once Upon a Time versions. While I love all the interpretations, I seem to forget that Peter as depicted by Barrie is a child who is possibly 4 or 5, especially in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (and he doesn’t grow up so…). Seeing his statue reminded me what that would really look like. I took some photos for you to look at if you cannot make it there yourself.
The plaque beneath it reads: “To the spirit of Children at Play erected by the College Heights Association, September 1929.” (Making this statue 88 years old).
“I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and wrote to the man himself at his business address, asking him if he would come here. As I expected, his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects. The same post brought me a letter from Westhouse & Marbank, of Fenchurch Street, to say that the description tallied in every respect with that of the employee, James Windibank. Vila tout!” – Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chemistry and print culture knowledge embedded in his iconic character Sherlock Holmes comes from his medical background and hands on experience with the publishing world. The letters exchanged between Doyle and The Strand Magazine’s editor H. G. Smith validate just how detail-oriented Arthur Conan Doyle was when it came to the ways in which his stories were represented in the paper—from selecting his favourite illustrators, to showing concerns for how his work would be perceived by his readers.
In Canada, the largest collection of Doyle’s works can be found on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library –part of the Toronto Public Library system. The idea of a special Doyle collection was conceived in 1969 when a local collector, Mr. Hugh Anson-Carwright sold 200 books from his collection of Sherlock Holmes to the Toronto Library. At the same time, another Torontonian, a “S. Tupper Bigelow, [had] a splendid collection of secondary material –books, pamphlets and magazines about the Sherlock Holmes stories.” The library’s Literature Department purchased the large Doyle collection from Anson-Carwright, the Bigelow collection, and the smaller Mortlake collection. The Collection became accessible to the public in 1971 and continued to grow rapidly since. According to the collection’s current curator, the library back in 1969 could afford to make such purchases based on its allotted budget from donations made by Friends of the Library, benefactors, and/or Sherlock Holmes Specific groups—such as The Bootmakers of Toronto.
Since then, the Toronto Reference Library has purchased secondary material such as “critical, biographical and bibliographic studies” and ephemera such as tickets, brochures and advertisements related to any Sherlock Holmes play, film, exhibit, in addition to literary works that are written by other writers but inspired by Sherlock Holmes (even House M.D featuring Hugh Laurie is such a secondary work because it’s inspired by Holmes).
The Collection itself is composed of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters to the press, specifically to Mr. Herbert Greenhough Smith—whom he always refers to in letters as “My dear Smith.” Doyle traveled across Canada in 1914 (staying mainly in Alberta at Jasper Park) where his wife kept a handwritten journal which is also currently in the TPL Special Collection. Doyle’s notes on fauna and flora (beasts, birds, fishers) of North America, which he saw on his subsequent trips in 1922-1923 on his American Lecture Tour, his notebook on coin collecting, and notes for a speech delivered in Canada, are all part of the manuscript collection at the Reference Library. Equally important are two rough drafts for his literary works intended for publication and/or performance of The Crown Diamond (a short Sherlock Holmes play) and The Marriage of Brigadier Gerrard.
Doyle’s manuscripts have been acquired over time by the library at various auctions in the ‘70s, by means of donations, and from private collectors. In London a significant portion of Doyle’s manuscripts was sold at an auction where the work became instantly scattered—“Christie’s held the sale in London at their King Street location on 19 May 2004.” The Toronto representative at the 2004 Christie’s auction was Doug Wrigglesworth (chair of the Friends of the ACD Collection of the Toronto Public Library and contributor to The Magic Door newsletter). When it comes to a collection like Doyle’s, due to such a large fan-base worldwide, his works are purchases by extremely wealthy collectors at times where libraries can barely stand a chance in the competition. Such collectors appear on mainstream book-selling websites like AbeBooks where they sell either hardcover first editions, or manuscripts for prices that are difficulty to match with a library budget.
The largest collections in North America—besides the Toronto Reference Library—of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and manuscripts are: The Newberry Library (Chicago, Illinois), The University of Minnesota Library (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. In the UK the Portsmouth Library, The British Library, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and National Library of Scotland possess most of the largest European collections. There are several smaller libraries in both North America and Europe containing Doyle’s works and manuscripts yet they are not often frequented by scholars as much as the ones mentioned above. Doyle’s papers are extremely divided among institutions, libraries, and wealthy private collectors—making the TPL’s collection incomplete.
If you happen to visit the special library you will come across a small room with a wooden desk, a lovely carpet, and walls lined from the ceiling to the floor with books that have to do with Sherlock Holmes retellings. The rooms have decorations like busts of Holmes, chess pieces shaped like Sherlock characters, and illustrations. The special collections I mentioned above have to be requested in advance from the librarians. If you do access them make sure to follow the instructions from the librarian on how to use them: no pen, clean hands, delicately and carefully.
Letters to Sherlock Holmes
While I was at the library exploring the collection, I was told this anecdote on tour, which I would like to share with you. As it turns out, over time, people from all over the world wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Little did they know that in London at this address was the location of a bank. The bank received so many letters they hired a secretary to archive these letters, and at times, respond to them. Richard Lancelyn Green compiled some of the best and funniest letters in 1985 and published Letters to Sherlock Holmes. The book is available at the public library and for sale on bookseller websites. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud. There are people asking Holmes for his picture, for information on mysteries in their home towns, personal questions like: “I want to buy your violin, how much does it cost?” or “what kind of tobacco do you smoke?” There are letters from children asking him for math or chemistry homework help, people who truly believe he is real, or making inquiries for meeting him.
Here’s an example from one letter:
Dear Mr. Holmes
I often wondered how you met Dr. Watson, and what was your hardest mystery, and have you ever made love to any of your clients?
Sincerely yours, Robert Lawrence (Deer Park, NY, USA)
If you want to have a good time by yourself and laugh, I recommend you find this book and read it. It can be easily done in one sitting so there’s no pressure.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I was very happy when I discovered this library two years ago, so I wanted to know as much about it as possible. If you get a chance, do stop by because the librarians there are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and the room is highly atmospheric. Just being there will make you want to run home and read all the Sherlock Holmes books.
P.S. Sherlock never says “elementary my dear Watson” in the books….but you should know this by now. Here’s a fun article on it.
 Toronto Reference Library. Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. Toronto: Toronto Reference Library, 2015. Print.