It’s been a while since I’ve had a huge crush on a book, but on May 18, along with the civic-minded masses at Lula Lounge, I was introduced to Stroll. A smart, adventurous, literate-yet-outdoorsy city boy, Stroll knows both its history and its way around town, and advocates “dressing to impress” wherever one wanders. My stilettos and I were instantly hooked — even as we mentally calculated the cost of the heel-tip replacements from all the walking we were about to do.
Stroll, by Spacing editor and Eye Weekly columnist Shawn Micallef, is a collection of essays about walks around Toronto. Its addictive spirit of exploration encourages you to walk both with your feet and your eyes, and to actually think about all the stuff you look at every day but never really see. Its essays tell of city development and architecture, and folded into them are countless stories, whether as actual histories of the buildings we pass en route, or as our own imagined versions of what might have been. “Imagine that vast, empty theatre space behind the bank,” Micallef urges us at the abandoned Standard Theatre building at Dundas and Spadina, and as I do I am in a James Herbert or José Saramago novel — wretched survivors gathered in theatres and churches when the world outside falls apart. Perhaps your version is less dystopian, more cheerfully Vaudevillian. It doesn’t really matter. The idea is to let your imagination wander in the fictional possibilities of your neighbourhood.
Fiction with a strong sense of place has always done double duty as cultural guidebook, of course. Pack Donna Leon for a trip to Venice, Peter Mayle for Provence, John Irving for New England, Mordecai Richler for Montreal. Your Lonely Planet guide will tell you where to go, but Duddy Kravitz will tell you how to feel when you get there. Naturally, in a city as well read as Toronto, which even has a literary award dedicated to evoking the city in words, there is lots of literature-as-guidebook to choose from, and for me, reading Stroll has stirred up as much literary Toronto memory as it has taught me local history.
On stage at the Toronto the Good party last week, Windsor-born Micallef said, “It’s good not to be from Toronto, because you get to appreciate Toronto.” I think that’s absolutely true. Our awareness of a place is heightened when our very presence there is an adventure. And we enrich it even further when we walk it in our mind’s eye and in a fictional character’s shoes.
In summer 2006 I owned about eight books (on this side of the ocean) and one wall adornment (ditto). My “art collection” was a flattened-out Rand McNally map of Toronto. My “library” — stacked, for then, on the floor — included some books that were helping me make friends with the city. Reading John Irving’s A Son of the Circus — a rare non-New England Irving — I delighted in Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla strutting along Toronto streets I could now visualize. I cracked the spine of Michael Redhill’s Consolation on my patio one August night. It was past midnight and still north of 20 degrees as I read: “A Toronto winter was a thing beyond imagining. Never in England had Hallam seen this kind of persistent snow or its attendant temperature…a city so benighted by snow.” Impossible!, I thought, ice cubes by now a watery memory in my glass. If you are brave enough to read Andrew Pyper’s brilliant The Killing Circle with at least one eye open (in summer 2008 I mostly squinted at it in terror through my nail-bitten fingers) you will join protagonist Patrick Rush on many cross-town walks — most spookily from Rosedale to Queen and Euclid via the Ravine.
The city traversing of these fictional pedestrians brings me back to the beauty of Stroll. As I meander my way through the book I am adding my own notes and scribbles to the margins, and my own literary bring-alongs to the checklists of what to pack and wear that open each essay. To think of In the Skin of a Lion when the Prince Edward Viaduct is in view goes without saying, but how about pausing at King and Church on Stroll’s “Downtown East End Zigzag” to imagine Jeb Hallam’s 1855 apothecary from Redhill’s Consolation? On the “Harbourfront” walk, reflect on the thousands of writers who have appeared at the decades-old authors festival and reading series and then written about it: Andrew Pyper in The Killing Circle, Meg Wolitzer in The Ten Year Nap, Graham Swift in Making an Elephant, Mary Gaitskill in Don’t Cry (the list goes on). Bring Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy on the “Dundas Street” walk and think about Trinidadian immigrant Samuel at Coffee Time, trying to make sense of his peculiar new home. While engrossed in Micallef’s “CN Tower” essay, imagine if the world’s second-tallest freestanding structure just wasn’t there any more, as Darren O’Donnell did in Your Secrets Sleep With Me.
Just as the walks in Stroll intersect with one another, the whole concept of the book intersects with so many real and imagined stories of the city. Reading is generally a stationary activity, and yet in this case the point is to take the words for a walk, and to revisit stories, both personal and published, of the city in which we live.
There is something oneiric about walking through Toronto and its clusters of “Little Somethings” in summer, particularly after dark. If the weather so far this year is any indication, we’re in for a hot sticky few months ahead. So grab Stroll, pack some fictional friends from Toronto past, present and future, and go exploring. Don’t forget to dress to impress. Even if you don’t encounter a handsome stranger, your sharp outfit won’t be for naught. Toronto is always worth getting dolled up for. As is Stroll, of course. I can’t promise not to be jealous, but I bet pretty soon you’ll have a crush on him too.
Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs