Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Slow Reading Movement

All readers, but maybe librarians and book reps in particular, are familiar with, and perhaps are even living embodiments of the phrase "so many books, so little time" But maybe we really are just trying to cram too many pages into our busy little brains and losing the real joy of savouring a good book. John Miedema, a library student at the University of Western Ontario, has a very cool blog devoted to the Slow Reading Movement that has some very interesting discussion going on and links to other library news. You can read it here. He's also written a wiki entry on slow reading. He was inspired by Carl Honore's book In Praise of Slow which I highly recommend - an entertaining and thought-provoking look at slow eating, slow driving and slow sex among other activities. Sound advice. Honore's blog has even recently advocated slow blogging. You can read it here. Everyone take a deep, cleansing breath now. And. . . exhale. Feel better? Okay, back to the e-mail.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Take Care of Yourself - Sophie does it again...

I’ve blogged about Sophie Calle before; she’s one of my favourite contemporary artists who never fails to make me laugh – mostly because she does such a good job of laughing at herself, always seriously dissecting her life in interesting yet playful ways. Her latest project and new book is Take Care of Yourself (recently published in an English translation). When her boyfriend broke up with her by e-mail , she printed out the letter, (which you can read at the beginning of the book), and sent it to 107 different women, asking for their comments. The women form a very diverse group embodying a whole slew of different professions ranging from judges to police officers to philosophers, romance writers, criminologists and psychoanalysts. Their reactions are all in keeping with their professions and some of them are just hilarious. A proof-reader points out all of the boyfriend’s awkward sentence structures. A journalist turns the letter into a press release. A headhunter analyzes the letter writer as a potential job applicant and concludes that there are reasons to be concerned about the boyfriend's “instability”. There are screenplays, poems, songs, a children’s story, a bodice-ripping romance tale, a cartoon and even a crossword puzzle. Several hours of DVD material is also included – many actresses such as Jeanne Moreau and Miranda Richardson are filmed reading and commenting on the letter and singers such as Feist are filmed responding to it in song. Opera singers, clowns, puppets and even a parrot are all featured. The parrot is a hoot.
Take Care of Yourself is a fat, shiny, sumptuous, glorious art book and though it’s a bit pricey it’s completely worth the money. What a great xmas gift, either for yourself or anyone you know who has ever had one of those HUH??? letters from an ex. The photographs of all the women reading the letters are beautiful (some stunning interior and exterior settings) and the book design is original and a piece of art in its own right (the endpapers feature the letter in morse code, Braille, shorthand and even as a barcode). I absolutely adore Sophie Calle’s work.
Violette Editions has also recently re-issued Double Game – about Calle's interaction with the American novelist Paul Auster who based a fictional character on her in his novel Leviathan. Some of the art he attributed to this character was taken directly from Calle’s work but some was made up. Calle then proceeded to create and play with these fictional art pieces that Auster had devised for his character and Auster follows up with an invented guidebook on how Calle can make life better in New York City. Lots of intriguing and thought-provoking fun.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Spooky Reads for Halloween

It was dark and stormy night this past Saturday night; the wind howled down the chimney and an (almost) full moon peeked out between rainclouds as they raced across the night sky. Perfect conditions for curling up on the couch with a cup of tea to read a spooky ghost story! My book of choice was The Harrowing: A Ghost Story by Alexandra Sokoloff. This book was released last year in hardcover and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel as well as an Anthony Award for Best First Novel. It has just been released in paperback, and with Halloween just around the corner, I decided that the timing couldn't be better to finally give this a read.
A group of five loners who stay behind at their college dormitory over the Thanksgiving weekend to avoid going home to various dysfunctional family situations. The residence is an old rambling converted mansion complete with turrets, balconies, gabled rooms and meandering hallways. With a massive storm brewing, and the creepy gothic atmosphere getting to them, the five find themselves together in the lounge. Drunk, and stoned, they find an old Ouija board from 1920 that looks like it has been burned. Filled with artificial courage, they decide to play with the board and end up summoning what they believe is the ghost of a student that died (along with four others) in the attic of the residence years ago. To their horror, they discover that they've actually summoned much more scary- an ancient evil that will not give them any peace until it gets what it wants. While the characters are quite archetypal (the jock, the suicidal loner, the intellectual nerd, the brooding musician, and the promiscuous girl), the book itself is fast paced, creepy, suspenseful, and highly entertaining.

Another good creepy read is James Herbert's The Secret of Crickley Hall, one of my picks from last fall. Herbert is one of the U.K.'s top horror writers and this is his take on a classic ghost story. A couple mourning the loss of one of their children move to an old mansion in the countryside. What seems like an ideal place to regain their bearings, soon turns to a nightmare as it is revealed that the house has a very sinister past. The supernatural occurrences start almost as soon as they arrive and continue to escalate as the book progresses. Herbert is a master at creating a sense of increasing menace and tension. Read this one with the lights on!

A good spooky read for teens (Ages 12+) is Andrew Nance's Daemon Hall, which came out this June. A horror writer named Ian Tremblin, who writes a series of chillers for teens, sponsors a short story writing contest. The five finalists have to spend the night in the rumoured-to-be-haunted Daemon Hall, telling each other their spooky stories by candlelight. Anyone too scared to make it through the night forfeits their chance to win. As the teens are telling their stories, spooky and menacing events start happening in the background and the teens have to decide if the chance to win is worth risking their lives. The different stories are done in various fonts, so it is quite easy for readers to follow along. Some are comic, others downright creepy. My favourite was the entry that retold the classic 'babysitter' story using instant messaging! This book has been nominated as a 2008 YALSA Quick Pick.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A weekend with Nigella

It's nice to be home for the weekend with a real fall nip in the air. Perfect for doing some homecooking. I've been a huge fan of Nigella Lawson ever since I saw her first television cooking show. I love her sense of humour about cooking and she has the same reverence for frozen peas and Marmite that I do. I tested out her latest book Nigella Express this weekend with four recipes - all of which turned out great. Friday night, I made her Cheddar Cheese Risotto - the perfect comfort food! Then it was on to her Cocktail Sausage recipe. Be honest with yourself - have you ever cooked chicken wings at home? Of course not - they are a pain to clean and coat and cook. Nigella goes one better. These sausages are baked in a sticky coating of honey, sesame oil and soy sauce (I threw in some chili flakes for a bit of heat) and they are SO delicious. I used regular beef sausages (you can confidentally substitute with Nigella's recipes) and depending on the time of day that you cook these, you can either mop up the excess sauce with toast, or as I did, boil up some linguine, cut up the sausages, add some green onions and pour the whole gooey mess on top of the pasta. Absolutely yummy. For Sunday brunch, I tried her Orange French Toast (delicious), and then for my Sunday afternoon treat, her Chocolate Pear Pudding. So simple. None of this cutting up and soaking pears in brandy for ten days - you just open up a can of tinned pears, mix up a chocolatey batter, pour over the pears and bake. It takes about ten minutes of prep and thirty minutes of baking while you're reading a book on the sofa. Your reward is a light spongey cake which you can serve with the chocolate sauce that Nigella provides a recipe for, or just some vanilla ice cream. There are lots of other great recipes in here to try. Her Eton Mess - a jumble of strawberries and whipped cream - and her Pea and Pesto Soup, and Potato and Mushroom Gratin all have my tastebuds watering (the photographs in this book are wonderful). Rosalyn is the real chef and baker of our group, but if you are the type of "cook" that wants quick, easy recipes that don't require a lot of ingredients, then Nigella is definately for you. Plus, how can you resist a celebrity chef who was once a Booker judge?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dewey Diva Picks: Our links now available on the righthand side

Apologies if you've been trying to access our book lists on our website and are getting stalled or out-of-date links. To cut a long, technical story short, our website has a separate host and it's a bit complicated to make changes on it. I'm currently working on a way to post a PDF of all of our lists that can be downloaded and printed off when needed, or just opened up if you want a quick peek. I'll blog about it when it's available.

In the meantime, you'll see a new category on the righthand sidebar of this blog. Many of us have our lists posted on our individual publishers' websites and I've added links to those pages which will contain our latest picks and also some of our archived picks from past seasons (great if you are looking for bookclub suggestions among last year's books, as they may well be in paperback by now).

Just a note to our international and American readers - the isbn and publisher information listed is for Canadian distribution. However, many of our favourite books have been published worldwide, albeit by other publishers, so just check your local library or bookstore under the title and author. Many independent bookstores have terrific special order services and can probably obtain any of these books for you, so check out your neighbourhood indy.

Hope you find some good suggestions either for your own reading pleasure or that of your library patrons or bookstore customers. Hey, Xmas is just around the corner too...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

By way of introduction: ah, sweet nostalgia...

Due to a series of events (not important here) I came into the possession of a number of my old books that I'd stored many years ago and had forgotten about. Upon opening the dusty boxes many memories came flooding back, mostly good, all vivid. This instant personal library situated my thoughts in a particular stage in my life. It yielded a warm and chilly feeling at the same time. Warm, because I flashed back to that idealistic era of university and that first job (as a bookseller). Chilly, because I was immediately afraid of what I'd find upon closer scrutiny. I'm sure I'm not alone in discovering that my taste in movies, TV, music and, yes, books from that time in my life has not, shall we say, always "stood the test of time". And that was my predicament: do I keep all these biographical documents (my biography) or do I dispense with them en masse sight unseen? Afterall, it had been decades since I'd had any contact with these items. I could continue my life and never give them a second thought.

I did no dispensing. I began opening the boxes and taking out every volume.

Among the collection was a number of titles by the late SF novelist, Philip K. Dick. There were, maybe, twenty-five or thirty books made up of various editions (several titles from three or four different publishers with different covers). I began to smile and knew that I was about to begin a journey through the past. But what if those tomes that I'd deemed to be so brilliant all those many years ago are, in reality, so painfully, embarrassingly sophomoric? Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

OK, so let's cut to the chase...

I've begun my ongoing reacquaintance with Dick's We Can Build You.

Here's a bit of context: I was never a big fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy because I always found that technology (in the case of SciFi) or archaic customs (in the case of Fantasy) overpowered the human being (read: character). But Philip K. Dick was different. Technology is always incidental to the story, not the end all, be all. For Philip K. Dick, how the "little guy" confronted the establishment (often represented by technology) and refused to be subjugated or destroyed by it made a much more compelling story than a bunch of robots fighting. And, to me, that's why his books still work so brilliantly today. Sure, some of the science Dick envisioned in his novels seems quaintly naive now but the science plays such a small roll that it does not often intrude on all of his fascinating stories.

In We Can Build You, the main character, Louis Rosen, recounts the story of how his company's (MASA ASSOCIATES - Multiplex Acoustical Systems of America) intention to move out of the making of home electronic organs and spinets into the making of simulacra (robots that look like and pass for human beings) of actual historical figures goes horribly wrong because of greed and the inability of the characters to fully divine the scope and significance of their decisions. The story is populated with many compelling characters, including a manic depressive, anorexic young woman (this book was written in the late 1960's/early 1970's!) who is the creative source of these simulacra and a scarey, amoral real estate mogul who sees a way to get even wealthier by getting a hold of these "fake" people. The story begins (as all Dick novels do) in a typical day-to-day environment but slowly descends into a nightmarish world (not unlike Kafka) of fear, helplessness, mystery, paranoia and doom. But our "little" hero doesn't accept it and fights back. If it sounds like the product of a mind nurtured by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy/King Assassinations, Watergate, Vietnam, Kent State, the My Lai Massacre, the Cold War (and possibly some mind altering substances) you'd be right but the ride is lots of fun and, in the end, thought-provoking. There are definitely several strong connections with the world today (though the story is set in 1982) and will leave the reader impressed by just how "spot on" Dick was despite the drugs.

I'll be popping in from time to time, adding more reviews of Philip K. Dick novels as I make way through all those boxes. If you're curious about his work you could try just about any novel on the shelf and enjoy his unbridled imagination. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was made into the movie Bladerunner (a fine movie but missing an important plot line that adds much more depth to the novel), his short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale was made into the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall, and most recently his novel, A Scanner Darkly was adapted into the Richard Linklater rotoscoped (the process that transforms conventional film footage into cartoon/animation to create an other-worldly effect) movie of the same name.

In conclusion, let me say my "chilly" fears were unfounded. I am enjoying every moment I'm spending with my old friend. But I'm sure you figured that out already.

Oh, and may I suggest you listen to some Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Chambers Brothers, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jimi Hendrix while you're reading him. That's what he was listening to when he wrote these books all those decades ago.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Beautiful Libraries - Westmount Public Library

In our ongoing homage to the beautiful libraries we visit, here are a few pics from the interior of the Westmount Public Library in Montreal. It was built in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and is one of the most stunning libraries that we get to talk in. The decor is very much indebted to the arts and crafts movement - huge windows, lots of natural light, gorgeous ceilings. We could happily move in permanently! A history timeline can be found here on their website.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On the road, in which we invent a new verb...

. . . Galley-vanting: the art of finding the perfect place (a cafe, a park bench with a view, a library) to read a few chapters of the advance readers' galley of a yet-unpublished book, that is inevitably residing in a book rep's bag.

A few of us are just back from a week long road trip to Kingston, Montreal and Ottawa and lots of fun it was. Thanks to all the host libraries and enthusiastic librarians and school teachers who listened to us prattle on about the books we love. Montreal is of course, the perfect city to practice the art of galley-vanting as it is a walker's paradise. Galley-vanting is of course the perfect way to explore a city - the idea is only to read a few chapters at any one place and then move on and if you happen to pass a few enticing shoe/clothing/bookshops along the way, well, one must do what one must do. You can of course substitute a real book for a galley and so if you are planning a trip to Montreal, I offer two walking tours that you might like to try if you have a few hours to kill. Montreal is of course built on Mount Royal so if you are visiting for at least two days, start with my horizontal tour first as a warm-up and then proceed to the vertical one.

Horizontal tour: Start on Ste. Catherine, the city's main shopping street, a little bit east of University and first pop into La Maison Simons. This is a Dewey favourite for buying trendy, stylish work clothes with a bit of French flair at very reasonable prices. Their sweaters in particular are beautifully designed and unique. They also have great coats, lingerie, tights, and even bedding. Then head west. Depending on your time, you could go as far as Greene Ave, another lovely shopping street that includes two great bookshops, Babar en Ville, a delightful, well-stocked children's bookstore with knowledgeable staff, and Nicholas Hoare which has branches in Ottawa and Toronto, but their Greene St. store is one of their nicest. Great classical and jazz CD selection as well. Head up Greene to Sherbrooke and then start walking east. You'll pass the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts which is always worth a stop. They also have a terrific bookstore/giftstore with lots of one-of-a-kind items and they often feature the work of Quebec artists. Continue along and you'll reach the McGill University Campus - I like to lie on the lawn and read while pretending I'm an undergraduate again (and I always wanted to go to McGill). The university bookstore is located on the corner at Sherbrooke and McTavish and has a decent selection of books. You can also pop into Paragraphe, a trade bookstore/cafe on the corner of Sherbrooke and University. By now you are probably famished and looking for a meal. If you want to practice your less than perfect French (and don't want the waiters to automatically answer you back in English), then head east to either St. Laurent and head north up to Prince Arthur, or a few blocks further east to St. Denis and head south. Both streets offer a variety of restaurants and cafes. You'll also pass the campus of UQAM, one of the French universities in the city - their new buildings are quite stunning and modern.

Vertical tour: Have your breakfast in Old Montreal - lots of great cafes with wonderful coffees and pastries and you'll need your calories today. Browse the delightful old streets and pop into Librairie Raffin, an English and French bookstore at 3 rue de la Commune that has a very ecclectic selection and some great children's books as well. Also worth a stop is Librissime - a luxury bookstore that caters to custom made collections but is also a wonderful shop to browse and dream in. I love their $20,000 old vintage trunks filled with collections of art books. Then start heading north and uphill (zig-zagging is best). At the corner of Peel and Avenue des Pins you'll find yourself at the foot of Parc Mont-Royal and follow the paths and the steps to the big staircase that will lead you to the top of the mountain and this terrific view of the city and the St. Lawrence river.

Depending on how much time you have, you can spend hours walking all over the mountain - lots of great reading spots. Then when you come down, walk east along Avenue des Pins until St. Laurent and head south to Prince Arthur for a great meal or coffee. Along the way, you'll pass Librairie Gallimard, a French language bookstore connected to the publisher. At the east end of Prince Arthur you'll encounter St. Louis square - enjoy the architecture and the people watching. If you're still not tired, a few more blocks east and you'll end up at Parc Lafontaine - again, another great reading spot in the city.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Art of Book Jackets

If you work in the book business, sooner or later you'll fall in love with a book cover as a piece of art and want to frame it. I have a colleague who papered his powder room with Vintage U.K. covers (don't worry, no books were destroyed in the process; reps get extra covers in their selling kits) and a librarian friend of mine frames beautiful and interesting catalogue covers and hangs them in her kitchen and bathroom. With shadowboxes readily available at IKEA and other home furnishing outlets, you can also frame actual books, particularly mass market paperbacks. I'm enthralled with this new book out from Penguin which will give you lots of great ideas. Seven Hundred Penguins celebrates some of the publishers' best book covers of the twentieth century and it's a beautiful, inspiring art book.
I particularly love the green Penguin crime covers of the 1960s, many of them designed by Romek Marber. I have four Dorothy Sayers titles framed in my living room - a white stick figure lies dead against a graphic black and green background of stark geometric design or photomontage. They look terrific in black frames with a white matting. You could have a lot of fun roaming your neighbourhood's used bookstores looking for interesting groupings. Pick your favourite author and collect all their books in a series, or pick just a favourite book, such as Wuthering Heights or Lolita and collect different historical cover treatments. You could collect books that just had interesting type on their covers or used the same font, or all contained a key word in their titles. Or collect by designer. You could hunt for certain images, say books with wine bottles on their covers for a kitchen or dining room, or books with typewriters on them for your study, or books with various body parts for hanging in the bathroom. After all, as Anthony Powell coined, books really DO furnish a room.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beautiful Libraries - Amsterdam and Uxbridge

I'm always visiting libraries either for work or when I'm on holiday, and I do judge a city or town somewhat by their libraries - not only their collections and displays, but also their architecture and location. There's nothing I love more than a beautifully designed and user-friendly space that becomes the true heart of a community. I was recently in Amsterdam and popped into their central library for a few hours as it was raining cats and dogs outside and I could think of nothing I wanted more than to read some international newspapers, check my e-mail and have a cup of coffee, homemade soup and some delicious apple cake in their cafe on the seventh floor (recommended highly by my guide book to the city). This has to be one of the most gorgeous libraries I've ever been in. This is the outside and then the view of the city from the cafe. Wouldn't you want to spend hours here?

The stacks were beautiful as well. The shelves seemed to be made of a thick, white, slightly translucent plastic and they were lighted with white fairy lights so it seemed as if they were glowing. The underside of the escalators located in the middle of the building were also made fo this same material. The shelving end units were cabinets with various artifacts on display, so the whole effect was of being in an art museum or high end department store - yet completely devoted to books. The floor containing DVDs and CDs had very curvy, custom made white shelves that snaked around the floor. And the whole building was drenched with natural light. It was all very slick and modern but inviting at the same time. Definately stop in if you are visiting Amsterdam; it's not far from the Central Train Station and is a great place to have a cheap and hearty meal.

Small towns also have charming libraries. The Deweys were recently doing a presentation in Uxbridge, Ontario and I wish I'd brought my camera. Their library was constructed in 1887 and was originally a school. It has a lovely and elegant war memorial in front of it and inside, murals devoted to L.M. Montgomery and Glenn Gould who had ties to the town. You can see a photo of it here. (Click on the first photo in the left-hand corner).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

and the Nobel goes to....

Doris Lessing - the oldest writer to win it, and only the 11th woman so congrats to her on both counts. I've only read her most famous book, The Golden Notebook, back in university when I was trying to read all the great feminist works, (it made a great companion piece to Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins - still one of my favourite novels). I still remember being struck by Lessing's narrative complexity and her ingenuity in creating all these competing stories contained in different coloured notebooks. And in a strange bit of serendipity, I received my sample of Potter Style's latest little stationery offering today. It's a four pack of tiny travel notebooks with shiny faux snakeskin covers, inspired by classic steamer trunks. I'm crazy about them, especially since in the back of each one is a world time zone map and US/UK/Europe clothing and shoe size charts. Perfect for slipping in a purse or back pocket, or, if The Golden Notebook inspires you, for jotting ideas for your own novel.

Speaking of the Nobel, it would be a great reading adventure to tackle at least one book by every Nobel Laureate (I've read 33 of them). You can find the complete list here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Journeys of a Lifetime...

You can start your Xmas list early - National Geographic has just published a wonderful book for dreamers and travel buffs alike. Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips, organizes its adventures by mode of travel. There are chapters on trips by water, by road, by rail, by foot and by air. Also included are culture adventures, action-adventure trips, a chapter entitled "In Gourmet Heaven", and pilgrimages for literary and history buffs. There are also lots of fun sidebars containing lists such as "The Top 10 Steam Train Trips", "The Top 10 Shopping Streets" or the "Top 10 Trolley Rides" (Toronto's 501 Queen Streetcar comes out on top, three spots ahead of San Francisco which is a bit puzzling, but hey, I never knew it was one of the longest streetcar routes in North America. I obviously have to spend more time exploring my own backyard).
It's quite fun to check off those trips one has already done and plan/dream for the future. Having just returned from a combined holiday of two of these journeys - a fantastic river boat cruise down the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, I can vouch for it being a truly life-affirming and wonderful vacation. Lots of literary hotspots as well - a stop in Mainz where the Gutenburg Museum is, statues of Goethe and Schiller, and a literary tribute to Graham Greene's The Third Man, with a turn on Vienna's famous giant Ferris Wheel. Sorry if you have the zither music in your head now. Also in Vienna, I was able to knock off another of these 500 must-do experiences by making one of their "Top 10 Food Pilgrimages" to the Hotel Sacher to savour the famous sachertorte - a delicious chocolate cake with a tiny ribbon of apricot in the middle. It was so divine, I just had to take a photo!

Monday, October 8, 2007

As if I didn't already love Jonathan Coe enough. . .

. . . he writes this great article about his love affair with Virago Modern classics (which I collect, especially out of print Viragos). His new novel, The Rain Before It Falls (out in the spring in North America), pays tribute to one particular Virago author, Rosamond Lehmann, but I have also discovered numerous amazing writers brought back into print by this publisher. To his list of Lehmann, Dorothy Richardson, FM Mayor and May Sinclair, I'd add Rebecca West, Vera Brittain (her novels as well as her groundbreaking autobiography, A Testament of Youth), Rose Macaulay, Storm Jameson, and especially Elizabeth Taylor. Being a bit of a Bronte buff, Virago was responsible for my reading May Sinclair's The Three Sisters (which transports the Bronte story to the 1910s and has quite a few riffs on Bronte lore - the hero's name is Rowcliffe for example) and Rachel Ferguson's The Brontes Went to Woolworths, a wonderful comic novel about three fatherless sisters who create a imaginative fantasy world in which to cope. Though these last two are out of print again, you can still find copies in libraries and used bookstores. Virago also publishes new books by women writers; I recently read Michele Roberts' terrific memoir Paper Houses about her life as a feminist and a writer while moving from flat to flat in 1970s London. Incidentally, Virago also published her novel, The Mistressclass which pays tribute to Charlotte Bronte's Villette.
This is quite possibly the first time a male (famous writer or not) has ever admitted to being an avid reader of Viragos. Maybe it's the start of a new trend. In the new movie, The Jane Austen Bookclub (quite enjoyable in its way), based on Karen Jay Fowler's novel, three male characters actually end up reading Persuasion.