Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tis' the List Season. . .

I take it for granted that anyone reading this blog is going to be doing two things over the month of December - catching up on a lot of reading and buying books for gifts. To that end, starting next week, we'll be posting lots of gift suggestions in a number of different categories, and tons of top ten lists of favourite books (kids and adult selections) not only from the Deweys but from a wide spectrum of the Canadian library world including librarians, library students and library wholesalers. Stay tuned.
To start the list ball rolling however, the New York Times just published their Ten Best Books of 2007 and it's a wonderfully ecclectic list.

Top fiction:

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (great to see some work in translation make it to the list. I have his short story collection Last Evenings on Earth sitting on my to-be-read pile)
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (this is the book I want Santa to bring me - it's gotten such amazing reviews)
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (also won this year's IMPAC award!)
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

Top non-fiction:

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (terrifying stuff but wonderfully written)

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley (really happy to see this book get a nod. It' s another one I hope to get to soon; what a fascinating life!)

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

For more great suggestions, the Guardian had a terrific idea that I wish I'd thought of first. They asked writers to pick books that reminded them of Christmas past, books they'd recommend as gifts for today and books they are most looking forward to reading in the future. It makes for fun and nostalgic reading here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

National Book Awards for Children's Literature

I was delighted to hear that Sherman Alexie had recently been awarded the National Book Award for Children's Literature for his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. It is a very powerful story that will both make you laugh and cry- often at the same time!

The book (based in part on the author's childhood) recounts the story of fourteen year old Arnold 'Junior' Spirit, a budding cartoonist living on the Spokane Indian reservation. Junior loves to learn (he is even excited about geometry class) and is generally a good kid, but he completely loses his composure on his first day of high school when he realizes that he is expected to learn geometry from the same textbook used by his mother over thirty years ago. He despairs of ever getting a proper education, so when his teacher suggests he transfer to a school off the reservation, he decides to go. Reardan High is a rich, all-white school where the only other Native American in sight is the school mascot. Adjusting to Reardan is hard for Junior and he experiences his share of racist comments and culture shock in his first few weeks of classes. He also faces the disapproval of many of his tribal members back on the reservation, including that of his best friend Rowdy, who refuses to talk to him. But as the school year progresses, Junior's situation improves as he makes friends with both Roger (the jock) and Gordy (fellow geek), and develops a crush on the bulimic but beautiful Penelope. He tries out for and wins a spot on the school's basketball team, becoming one of the stars of the team.

Alexie's writing is funny, insightful, honest and really captures the voice (and language) of the young protagonist. The inclusion of 'Junior's' cartoons throughout the novel (by artist Ellen Forney) add deeper insight into what the character is thinking and also make the book approachable for reluctant readers (as do the short chapters). Alexie also doesn't shy away from dealing with stereotypes, and the book deals with life on the reservation, poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and death in a very straight-forward manner. These are all very heavy topics, but the book uses humour quite effectively to soften the blow of the various tragedies that occur over the course of the story, and the reader is left with a sense of hope. This is a book I know I'm going to read many, many times- it is fantastic! For ages 12 and up.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Age of Arousal/Blithe Spirit

I went to two really marvellous plays last weekend. Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal produced by the always innovative Nightwood Theatre, is very loosely based on George Gissing's novel The Odd Women, about the lives and struggles of women in Victorian London when there was a surplus of women in the population, and thus an excess of single or "odd" women. The novel and play are set amidst the ideas surrounding the early suffrage movement and feminist ideas about labour, marriage and sexuality. Griffiths' adapation is witty, sexy and gives really meaty, interesting dialogue to all of the five women characters. It's playing until Dec. 16th but if you can't catch it, Coach House has published a terrific edition (the play makes really wonderful reading) that includes Griffiths' extensive performance notes (she even includes a letter to Gissing taking him to task for his misogyny but acknowledging that he did live in different times - she can write more frankly about sex for example). Following the play is a series of short essays, her "reaction to research, time travel and the history of the suffragettes", which provides a lot of great information for those who are unfamiliar with this very important and fascinating era of women's history. Feminists and typewriters - how can you go wrong?
I also relished Soulpepper's production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. Terrific set and costumes, and some fine bits of acting, particularly by Brenda Robbins as Elvira. Coward is to my mind the most brilliant playwright of the twentieth century and his continual influence is often underrated. You can eavesdrop on the delicious gossip of the twentieth century by dipping into the newly published Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day. Or treat yourself to hours of entertainment with the recently released Noel Coward Collection, a set of seven DVDs of productions, not only of his plays but also filmed short stories.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Bad Sex Award nominees. . .

I'm not sure whether to laugh or be slightly embarrassed that so many of the nominees for this year's Bad Sex Award are published by the company I work for. But at least we're certainly getting some - bad or good. Actually I feel rather smug about Ian McEwan's nomination; I remember reading On Chesil Beach in manuscript last year and running around the office with the scene in question, asking my colleagues if they thought this was a candidate for the Bad Sex award or possibly just an example of the most brilliant writing ever? (The book also duly made the Booker shortlist). It certainly will change how you forever view French kissing. I won't give anything away, but suffice it to say that dental work and gag reflexes are involved.
Some of the other nominees include:
Jeanette Winterson for The Stone Gods (we're publishing this next May)
Ali Smith for Girl Meets Boy (also coming to Canada next May)
Gary Shteyngart for Absurdistan
Norman Mailer for The Castle in the Forest
and David Thewlis for The Late Hector Kipling (I'm currently half-way through this one, having been charmed and entertained by Thewlis's reading last month at the International Festival of Authors - I'm loving it so far, bad sex or not).
You can read the full list of nominees here. The winner is announced tomorrow.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

On the road ... in Western Ontario

As our busiest fall season draws to a close, the Deweys have had a lot of fun travelling to numerous libraries across the province. A few weeks ago we were in Wingham, in Huron County, for the first time. Another beautiful historic library. You can read more about the history of the region here. In 1947 they bought the first self-contained library truck in Ontario - a bookmobile they called "Miss Huron". And just around the corner from the library we found a branch of Coffee Culture Cafe and Eatery - delicious coffee, great homemade soups and sandwiches and yummy sweet desserts. They seem to have started in small towns and are now expanding into larger cities across the province. I'm sure in the future we'll have an opportunity to test them all out.
Also a big thank-you to the library staff at Chatham, who are some of the most enthusiastic and attentive booklovers that we talk to. They've also introduced us to a real treasure in Chatham - the most decadently wonderful chocolate shop! Eve Chocolatier seems to have a theory that almost everything tastes better dipped in Belgian chocolate and who can argue with that? Apart from sinfully good truffles, they dip pretzels and even red licorice in chocolate - so, so good. Thanks Tania for all the goodies! The good news for everyone else is that you can order their treats online. Check out their Emergency Stress Relief Kit!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Julie & Julia Coming to the Big Screen!

One of the funniest memoirs that I've read in recent years is Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell. The book chronicles the year temp secretary Julie spent trying to cook every recipe in Julia Child's cookbook 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking', and how her blog documenting the experience became a hit with foodies worldwide. If you love food memoirs, do get your hands on a copy! Powell's writing is hilarious and the food descriptions are mouth watering. I'm still boggled by the amount of butter Powell went through in her year long experiment.

Variety magazine reported on October 31st that Columbia Pictures is bringing this story to film! It sounds like a fantastic project so far- Nora Ephron is writing the screenplay and directing, Amy Adams (Junebug) is going to be playing the author, and Meryl Streep is set to play Julia Child. Now I just have to be patient as it likely won't hit theatres until 2009...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Women behaving badly. . .

One of the books I've been heavily pitching in my talks this fall is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's ingenious Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. This is the type of cultural history I most enjoy reading. It's partly a fascinating look at the history of this slogan which has popped up on t-shirts and coffee mugs and been used by groups representing every different political ideology, but at its core, the book is really a history about how women's history itself has been written, manipulated and ignored over the centuries. Ulrich uses Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf as examples of women who spent their careers proving that the stories of women's lives and work were essential and interesting, but she also takes iconographic and stereotypical images and mixes them with the ordinary. I particularly like her chapter ruminating on illustrations from The Book of Days which then leads to an examination of the changing historical significances behind images of women with cows. Terrifically interesting stuff and written in a very conversational style. This would be a great pick for non-fiction bookclubs.
In a similar vein, I've recently finished two books about unusual and ground-breaking women. I've been a huge fan of Janet Malcolm since reading The Silent Woman, her magnificant book on the biography industry surrounding Sylvia Plath. Malcolm doesn't just recount a life story; she inserts herself and the role of the biographer - the research involved, the conversations with other scholars, the nagging questions that can't be solved - right into her narrative. Her latest book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice looks at the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The first part examines how two Jewish, lesbian women managed to survive in France during WWII and the last chapter looks at the lonely life of Toklas after Gertrude's death. But the most fascinating part of the book for me was the middle section - a look at Stein's monumental and difficult work, The Making of Americans. Malcolm interviews two Stein scholars who have been waiting decades for a third scholar named Katz to finally publish his version of Stein's annotated notebooks about the novel - expected to shed huge light on the work because he actually interviewed Toklas extensively about every scribbled line. And why are Stein scholars so mad at Katz for his delay? Because without extensive literary criticism available on the novel, it doesn't have a decent shot at getting onto university curriculum and thus maintaining its canonical position as a key modernist work. As one of the scholars says, "He's left us hanging . . . And we'd like to hit him over the head and open that head up and see what's in it - assuming there's something in it. We're not entirely sure anymore." I just relish this kind of stuff - truly obsessed academics. I never know whether to laugh or just gaze open-mouthed in awe and admiration for a lifetime's devotion to a writer's work. But Malcolm makes us truly care about this mystery even if we're never going to tackle Stein's forbidding, 900 page masterpiece.
I'd also like to recommend Mary Ann Caws' Glorious Eccentrics: Modernist Women Painting and Writing. These are short vignettes of female painters who led unconventional and wild lives that not only fed their art, but also nurtured the talents of their male friends and lovers who often fared much better in the posterity fame game. Out of the seven women profiled, I'd only previously read about Emily Carr and Dora Carrington, so it was fascinating to read about Dorothy Bussy, whose obsession with Andre Gide mirrored in some respects, Carrington's adoration of Dorothy's brother Lytton Strachey. I definately have to read more about Suzanne Valadon who in addition to her own painting, was also Renoir's "voluptuous nude" model and mistress. She also knew Degas, Picasso, Erik Satie and seems to have had quite the tempestuous love life, including an affair with her son's close friend. Also fascinating was the chapter on the surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and her role in the resistence movement during WWII when the island of Jersey was occupied by the Germans. One of her self-portrait photographs graces the cover of the book.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alan Bennett - An Uncommon Writer. . .

Reps spend a lot of time alone on the road in their cars and when I've got a long drive ahead of me, I always make sure to bring along some Alan Bennett audio CDs. Being a Yorkshire girl myself (at least born, if not bred), I love his sense of humour and his characters' accents and turns of phrases often remind me of my grandfather, who lived not far from Bennett's native Leeds. I highly recommend his Talking Heads series - a collection of funny and poignant monologues by some of Britian's best actors - Eileeen Atkins, Maggie Smith, David Haig - or the audio version of his play The History Boys. And I have to say that the sound of Michael Gambon's excruciatingly prolonged vomiting while playing Guy Burgess in Bennett's An Englishman Abroad is truly one of the most extraordinary things ever captured on audio!
So it was with great delight that I opened up Bennett's latest print offering - a delicious little novella called The Uncommon Reader. In this story the Queen accidentally comes across a travelling library parked outside the palace kitchens, and not wanting to appear rude, decides to borrow a book. She also makes the acquaintance of one of her kitchen servants, an avid reader named Norman who eventually is promoted to amanuensis and charged with advising on all matters literary. The Queen becomes more and more addicted to reading, much to the chagrin of her family and advisers who fear she is letting her duties slip in the process. And then she decides reading isn't enough - she wants to become a writer! This is an extremely witty little tale; it's fun to see the types of books Bennett imagines her Majesty reading (only a Yorkshireman would throw in the wonderful Winifred Holtby). There is a very funny scene where the Queen hosts a gathering of writers and the ending is suitably cheeky.
And it brings up some very good points about how society really doesn't expect (or perhaps want) our leaders to be engaged with reading for pleasure. We care about what Oprah is reading but why not the Queen? Or our heads of states, our mayors and cultural ministers, even our bosses? I wish celebrities would flash their reading material as readily in front of the press as they do their latest designer purses.
I've also been dipping into a quirky little book, first published in 1926, called The Truth About Publishing by the British publisher Stanley Unwin. It's a type of primer on the industry and what is so fascinating about reading it, is to see how little has changed. The same arguements about the prices of books, the discounts given to bookstores, the existence of too many books published every year! But then there are these lovely little gems of wisdom sprinkled throughout such as the following:
"For the fact that more and better books are not read, we are all in a measure responsible. It is not the unwanted books that bar the way. It is the lack of early training and the lack of guidance. It is often a lack of knowledge or an absence of realization of the joys of reading and the inexhaustible treasures of English Literature."
Amen. I trust the Queen has already discovered the truth of this. (Thanks to Great War Fiction for leading me to the Unwin book)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Post 9-11 Antigone. . .

Okay, so this is weird. I log on to blog about a modern version of Antigone that I saw last night which, among other contemporary cultural icons also referenced Twyla Tharp, to find my fellow dude blogging about said Twyla's latest book. Obviously there's something dancing in the air...
However, if you live in the Toronto area, I do recommend checking out One Little Goat's production of Antigone Insurgency: Sophocles Revisited, written by Adam Seelig. It's not so much a full, modern rendition of Sophocles' play itself (there are only a few scenes from the play actually acted out, though quite powerfully so), but is more of a meditation on how universal and particularly topical the play is today, although Seelig points out in the program that, "everything in this play emerges from or responds to the Antigone of Sophocles. " The first thirty minutes is given to a long monologue recounting how the playwright had seen an outdoor dance choreographed by Tharp in New York before the towers were hit, how he walked down the streets in the weeks following, bought a copy of Antigone at a used bookstore and while reading it, had the eerie feeling that the same arguments made by George W. Bush to justify war abroad and a tightening on civil liberties at home, were echoes of Creon's speeches. The play uses a soundbite from Bush and also the famous one from Trudeau defending his actions during the FLQ crisis, and asks some pertinent questions about the nature of democracies but also about the role of gender and war (particularly in its final, very effective scene). The set design is simple but intriguing, dominated by a huge backdrop of large, red paint slashes raining down on a fairly bare stage. An untidy pile of ghostly ash-white chairs in one corner get pulled apart to build the tomb in which Antigone is eventually walled up. Microphones are cleverly used both as posts and to magnify and distort some of the speeches.
The play runs until November 25th. Sophocles' version seems to run for all time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Practice Makes Permanent"

That's what my highschool gym teacher used to say. He would go on to elaborate: "if you practice poorly, you play poorly and if you constantly practice poorly, you'll constantly play poorly." He explained that how you prepare physically and mentally for a task is more important than the preparation itself. I always thought he was a visionary, exposing his young charges to the ways of the world. That is, until I read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life is an incredible book that is part self help, part autobiography, and part inspiration. Tharp goes through the nuts and bolts details of what she goes through, step by step, to bring an idea to fruition. It's filled with excercises (mental, emotional and physical) that anyone can do to help enhance their own creativity - things you can do while you're doing the dishes, vacuuming the house, planting flowers in the garden, cutting the grass, sitting in your car in traffic. She assures the reader that anyone can benefit from reading the book. The practical processes she goes through is relevent to everyone's situation. She breaks things down, builds things up, rearranges things, looks at things from different points of view, throws things out and starts with brand new things. Tharp explains how creating choreography is like running a business, a household, a life. It's easy to read, easy to grasp, easy to enjoy: you too can make the creative process a habit!

Tharp assures us that we're all capable of being more creative than we are right now. All we need is more practice. Well, more good practice.

Surviving the wars. . .

On Remembrance Day I give a thought not only to those who died, but also to those who survived, particularly the ones who came home in pain or with horrible memories, and the families that had to deal with either grief, or the depression and violence of their loved ones. Nothing makes me angrier than reading stories about veterns who can't get access to either the medical care or counselling that they need. The long-term effects of war were brought home to me in two plays I saw this weekend. No Good Reason by Stephen Baetz was set during the last year of WWI at a convalescent home for wounded soldiers and detailed the growing friendship between a shellshocked Canadian soldier and an American soldier trying to learn how to walk again. Both have very different reasons for wanting to avoid going home. (Incidentally, the play used some wonderful Canadian WWI songs that have been recently recorded on a CD, along with actors such as R.H. Thomson, David Ferry and Gina Wilkinson reading Canadian war poetry - you can buy this lovely CD called Waiting There for Me here.) Then I saw East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch. This was a terrific play about a man trying to deal with the knowledge that his father was a Nazi war criminal - a doctor who performed medical experiments at Auschwitz - and the implications it has on his life, especially when he falls in love with a Jewish woman whose mother survived the camps.

This survivor theme has also been ever-present in two upcoming books I've been reading. I'll blog more about them closer to their publication date, but Bernhard Schlink's complex but beautiful new novel The Homecoming also features a young German who has to deal with his father's actions in WWII and is very much a meditation on the nature of evil and its role in society. And I'm almost finished Patrick McGrath's engrossing new novel Trauma, about a psychiatrist who helps Vietnam veterans deal with their post-traumatic stress and the guilt he feels when one of his patients - his brother-in-law no less - commits suicide. While these are two completely different novels, I find their cover treatments of vandalized books quite fascinating and thought-provoking. What does it say about the role of books and stories in dealing and interpreting (or creating afresh) a version of the past? What is missing? What ultimately can't be written down? The precision of the cut-out text in the Schlink novel is completely different from the violence that unleashed the ripping of the book on the McGrath cover, but I find both images to be extremely troubling and very powerful. Oh, and did I mention that the set of East of Berlin was dominated by a wall of dark, forboding, floor-to-ceiling bookcases?
Next up on my theatre schedule is a post 9-11 verison of Antigone that I'm seeing tonight. Yes, yet another story about survivors.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Lest we forget. . .

As we take a moment to remember all the men and women who have fought and continue to fight in conflicts around the world, the Deweys offer up a selection of books - both fiction and non-fiction - that either touched us deeply or made us think more clearly and intelligently about wars both current and historical.

First Casualty by Ben Elton
Set during World War I, this is a mystery that captures the absurdity of war in the manner of Catch-22: a former policeman turned conscientous objector is sent to France to discover whether a young soldier accused of murdering a officer and noted poet is indeed guilty, and discovers that in war the first casualty is always truth.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The quintessential Civil War novel (even more than The Red Badge of Courage), this follows the men and actions of Gettysburg in almost real time, capturing their motives, thoughts and fears. Thoroughly researched, The Killer Angels brings the soldiers to life – Lee, Hancock, Longstreet, Chamberlain – and conveys why men fight as much as how.
B For Buster by Iain Lawrence
Written for young adults but suitable for any age, this is the story of Kak, who runs away from an abusive home seeking the glamour and glory of war, only to find the reality of flying in a Halifax squadron utterly unlike his comic-book expectations. Lawrence does a wonderful job of painting the emotional isolation of terrified young men unwilling and unable to show their fear, and redefines the meaning of courage and honour in the person of Bert, the keeper of the pigeons who carry messages from downed planes back to the base.

I've been fascinated by the literature of the First World War since high school and in particular how women writers (and there were many - I've been collecting them for years) depicted the war and its effects on the homefront. The book that started it all for me is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth which not only recounts the pain of losing the man she loved, her brother, and two other close friends, but is a powerful overview of the extraordinary changes in women's lives from the Edwardian era into the post-WWI 1920s. It's also a very eye-opening look at the nursing profession during the war and the experiences of the VADs at the front. Just checking a few publishers' sites and amazon, this book looks to be inexplicably out of print or at least unavailable in Canada. I can't believe it - how shocking - so if someone out there knows something to the contrary, please let us know.
One of my favourite novels dealing with WWI is Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier which just grows in intensity and beauty everytime I reread it. It's the story of Chris, a man suffering from shellshock who returns home but doesn't remember the last ten years, including the war and his current wife Kitty. Instead, he lives in the past still believing he is in love with Margaret who has since married someone else. The core of the novel is the relationships between Kitty, Margaret and Jenny, the narrator and Chris's cousin who is also in love with him. It touches on issues of class, memory, gender relations and England, and its ending still devastes me every time.
One of the best books ever written on WWI, The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden, is alas out of print. She was an American who worked in a field hospital in France. The Forbidden Zone is a collection of short stories and narrative pieces that are incredibly powerful, ironic and filled with unforgettable images. Some of her work appears in anthologies and if you can get a hold of her short story "The Beach", I highly recommend it. You can also find excerpts from The Forbidden Zone in Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of the Great War edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, which also includes writing by Ellen N. La Motte - another nurse who worked alongside Borden.

Eleanor: One of my favorites is War, Women and The News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover WWII This is a wonderful exploration of news stories written by female journalists during WW11. Filled with great photographs and news clippings the conflicts and challenges these women faced are explored – they opened the door for aspiring female journalists today! On the fictional front Cynthia Kadohata wrote a wonderful book called Cracker. This is told in part through the point of view of a German Shepherd and his handler who experienced the Vietnam War. A wonderful and unique perspective!

Memory in a House, by LM Boston: For those of you familiar with the Green Knowe books, this book will delight you. The house of Green Knowe actually exists, and this book is Boston’s love letter to every brick and blade of grass. Remember Peter Boston’s illustrations? This is the house he grew up in. How does this relate to War and Remembrance Day? Boston extols the recuperative powers of the house as she opens her doors to homesick soldiers during World War Two. Well worth hunting down on library shelves and used bookstores, this book will help you fall in love with your living space and believe in the power of place.
Resistance by Anita Shreve
Shreve revisits her familiar themes of love and loss within the landscape of World War Two. Claire Daussois and her husband Henri help hide and protect a young airman, Ted Brice, after his aircraft crashes in occupied France. The love story stands in stark contrast to the atrocities in the village, humanity balancing horror, kindness standing tall against fear. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Fussell approaches the war from a literary vantage point, with the lives and work of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen and others providing the context. Read Pat Barker’s brilliant trilogy, Regeneration, Eye in the Door and Ghost Road, as you read Fussell. The combination is powerful.
There are two books that make me think of war from entirely different angles. One is The Sojourn by Alan Cumyn. This is the story of Ramsay Crome – a private with the 7th Canadian Pioneers. He joined up against his father’s wishes and was posted to the front lines at Ypres. The mud, bugs, noise and fear of battle came so alive with Cumyn’s wonderful writing. I felt that I could be in the trenches beside Ramsay. After one particularly bad assault, Ramsay is granted a ten day leave where he heads to London. There he visits family that he does not actually know and gets drawn into the other side of war far from the front. The emotions that Ramsay feels as he struggles against the strangeness of life in London and his desire to back to the familiar battle field are something I shall never forget. This book was partly based on the experiences of Cumyn’s own uncles who were soldiers in the Great War. The ending of this book is also pretty powerful. I had the opportunity to visit the War Museum in Ottawa after reading this book. Walking through the area constructed as trenches just made my blood run cold. Alan Cumyn is a beautiful writer.
The second book is The Wreckage by Michael Crummey. This is about the people who are left at home. Sadie and Wish meet in Little Fogo Island in Newfoundland at the beginning of WWII. Sadie is a Protestant and Wish is a Catholic. Something not accepted in this outport community, especially by Sadie’s mother. They do have a rather beautifully described, intense affair, and Wish is driven from the Cove by the disapproval of the locals. He enlists with the British army after the fall of Saigon and ends up suffering through the brutality and deprivation of a Japanese POW camp. Sadie does not know this and she heads to St. John’s to wait for him. After she hears he has died, she marries an American officer who she meets in St. John’s. Fifty years later Sadie returns to St. John’s, with her daughter, to scatter her husband’s ashes. It is there that she discovers that her past is not quite over yet. I really liked both of the main characters in this book. Michael Crummey can make even the most ordinary of people quite extraordinary to the reader.

Women Overseas: Memoirs of The Canadian Red Cross Corps , edited by Frances Martin Day, Phyllis Spence, and Barbara Ladouceur. Thirty-one women offer accounts of their lives overseas serving as Red Cross volunteers during WWII and the Korean War.
Blackouts to Bright Lights: Canadian War Bride Stories, edited by Barbara Ladouceur and Phyllis Spence. Thirty-six Canadian war brides recount their involvement in wartime duties and their journeys from Britain to Canada.
Brave Soldier, Proud Regiments: Canada’s Military Heritage by Allen Andrews. A wide-ranging account of Canada’s military leaders – from James Wolfe in 1759 to Lewis MacKenzie in Sector Sarajevo – offers a much-needed overview of Canada’s military heritage.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Judging a Book by its Covers

I recently went back to "the dusty boxes" which I'd been reunited with a month and a half ago. I pulled out an old paperback edition of John Steinbeck's To a God Unknown and immediately remembered the circumstances around which I obtained this book. There was a period of time, during my university years, when I frequented used bookstores in search of old editions of books by particular favourite authors of mine. When I saw this book on the shelf two thoughts immediately came to mind: 1. Hmmm, I've never heard of this Steinbeck title before, and 2. I wonder if it's the same Steinbeck that wrote Travels With Charlie and Grapes of Wrath?

The cover of the book had only the word "Steinbeck" across the top, the title just below that, and, in a small cursive script the words "A powerful novel of lust for land...". With a bit more investigation I discovered that it was, indeed, the same Steinbeck and found out the novel was one on his early works, published in hardcover in 1933, the same year as The Red Pony. What baffled me was the rest of the cover. Should I be led to believe that the cover of the book reflected what was between the covers? How could I reconcile this apparently bawdy tome with the socially conscious tales he'd created, such as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath?

When I dug this book from out of one of the boxes I decided to search the world wide web for a picture of the cover of the original hardcover edition so I could compare the impressions they would leave with anyone encountering them seperately or together. I could not find an image of the paperback edition so I snapped a digital shot of it. Feast your eyes on these:

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Stephenie Meyer Comes to Toronto

The fabulous Stephenie Meyer was in Toronto this past Friday to promote her new book Eclipse, third in the series after Twilight and New Moon. Twilight was one of my Diva picks way back in Fall 2005, and the series has been a phenomenon since the get-go, winning the following acclaim:

A New York Times Editor's Choice
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
An Amazon "Best Book of the Decade...So Far"
A Teen People "Hot List" pick
An American Library Association "Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults" and "Top Ten Books for Reluctant Readers"

New Moon was #1 on the ALA's 2007 Teens' Top Ten List, which is selected by a vote by teen readers.
For those unfamiliar with the books, the series chronicles the star-crossed romance between human Bella and vampire Edward. A rival suitor (Jacob- a werewolf) was introduced in New Moon, ramping up the tension significantly. While suitable for ages 12 and up, these books are equally addictive for adult readers. They are romantic (but chaste), highly suspenseful, and have believable supernatural elements. There are more books to come in the series. The fourth book, Breaking Dawn, is currently scheduled for Fall 2008.

Anyways, the event (a book signing at Indigo Books & Music) was HUGE! Estimates put the attendance at between 2100-2400 very enthusiastic fans who lined up for hours to see Stephenie in her only Canadian appearance. The signing line stretched throughout the store,

out the door,

and down the street.

Stephenie signed from about 7:30 to 11:30- just amazing!

Photos of the event are courtesy of fellow sales rep DC (punmaster, my skydiving buddy, and an all-around great guy!)

Stephenie has a new book coming out for adults next Spring called 'The Host'. We just received our reading copies (hee-hee!), so know what I'll be reading this weekend...

And the Giller Prize goes to...

Elizabeth Hay wins Canada's big literary prize for her novel Late Nights On Air. I'm quite amused however that in the midst of all the Canadian media coverage, it took the U.K's Guardian to report on Margaret Atwood's boycott of the fancy meal at the hotel where the awards event took place. You can read why here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

You Gotta Love the French. . .

On the eve of Canada's big literary night - the handing out of The Giller Prize, this story from France made me laugh so hard I nearly scalded myself with my morning cup of tea. It's award season across the pond as well and the prestigious Goncourt went to Gilles Leroy for his novel about Zelda Fitzgerald called Alabama Song. But the Renaudot prize went to Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'ecole which wasn't even on the shortlist! Oh, I hope this sets a precedent - how much fun would that be? The Guardian has the full story.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A brainy mystery. . .

With the extra hour gained this Sunday by turning the clocks back, I felt no guilt staying up late last night finishing Henning Mankell's latest mystery thriller, Kennedy's Brain. This is a stand-alone novel, but every bit as captivating as his marvellous Wallender books. Louise, an archeologist working in Greece, comes to Stockholm to visit her adult son Henrik, only to discover him lying dead in his bed. The police think it's a case of suicide but she's convinced that it was murder and sets out to prove it. Along the way she has to travel to Australia to find Aron (her disappeared ex and Henrik's father), investigate why her son had an apartment in Barcelona that she never knew about, why he left his landlady an envelope containing the photo of an African woman and an address in Mozambique, and in particular, why he has numerous files about the conspiracies surrounding the disappearance of John F. Kennedy's brain following the post-mortem done after the assassination.
This novel is a whirlwind trip around the world from the dark forests of Sweden where Louise's father creates sculptural facical carvings in living trees, to the heat and poverty of AIDS stricken Africa and a mysterious mission set up to help the dying. Along the way Mankell unrelentingly explores the nature of death and grief and its various physical, emotional and artistic manifestations. Louise's profession forces her to constantly speculate on the secrets of the distant and ancient dead; how will she react to the immediacy of death all around her, both in her personal life and what she encounters in Africa? It's this intensely human questioning that imbues a wonderful suspense thriller with deeper philosophical and more horrific contemporary themes, utterly satisifying to the reader. One to recommend to fans of John Le Carre, particularly The Constant Gardener.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Two Canuck Views of America's Classical Music

From time to time my various lives converge/collide with satisfying results. I LOVE books and I LOVE improvised music/jazz. When I get the opportunity to combine these two passions at the same time the potential for a nirvana-like state is extremely likely.

Here are two examples of books written by Canadians, published this year that fall into this category. One is fiction. One is non-fiction. Both books are from small Canadian presses and deserve to be read by many people, well, many people who enjoy jazz. Sure, if you’re a “jazz geek” (as my friends and I proudly refer to ourselves) you’ll likely find these works of more interest, but if you’re a reader who likes a fine character-driven novel or an in-depth investigation of one seemingly inconsequential historical event these two books may just fit the bill.

Let’s begin with the novel. I have to state at the outset that I am a good friend of the author. His name is Jim Reil. He’s been writing from 5:30 to 6:30 am every day for over 20 years! He’s done this while helping to raise three children and working as a vice president of an advertising firm in Ottawa. Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. He studied creative writing at the University of Victoria under Jack Hodgins in a class of 13 students. Jim told me that Mr. Hodgins came into class the first day, walked up to the front of the class and began something like this: “Look around you. There are thirteen of you – thirteen people who want to be published writers. I’m here to tell you that, in five years, only half of you will still be writing. In ten years only three of you will still be writing. In fifteen years only one of you will still be writing. To give yourself the best chance to be that one lone writer two decades from now you must write every day. EVERY DAY.” Jim took Jack’s advice.
Jim’s novel (his third) is called Now’s The Time. It centers around an Ottawa-born jazz saxophone player named Red Sanders who goes to New York City in the 1950’s to “make it” in the world of jazz and a scholar/professor from Victoria named David Grant who is researching the life of Sanders for a book he intends to write. The story plays out as Grant begins to uncover Sanders’ life. Along the way we meet a cavalcade of colourful characters as Red encounters them during his personal journey. There is the enigmatic orchestra leader Billy Williams (who is a composite of Sun Ra and Miles Davis) who preaches a militant form of Black Pride yet hires the red-headed “white” kid from Canada to fill his 1st tenor sax chair. There’s Neil Hefti, an actual historical figure, who first recognizes Red’s talent but is afraid to let the kid loose in the Big Apple. The reader learns a bit of social history, jazz history and, most importantly, a lot about what makes jazz so unique in the world of music. I feel fortunate that I got the opportunity to read this wonderful book and am looking forward to reading Jim’s next novel, which has absolutely nothing to do about jazz.
My second recommendation is The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field by Hamilton writer/musician David Lee.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview David on stage at the Ottawa launch for his book. It was all I could do to keep from gushing about the book. It’s a slim volume (only 99 pages, not including the index and pages of bibliography) but it puts forth such a fresh interpretation on a two week gig that the Ornette Coleman Quartet began on November 17, 1959. Lee discusses how this single event, despite much opposition from many quarters, changed the path of jazz for ever. The Five Spot was one of the preeminent jazz clubs in NYC for most of the twentieth century. Many classic live recordings have been made there. It was a prime spot for jazz musicians to showcase their talents and make a name for themselves. It’s where the musicians came to lounge.
Lee incorporates the philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu and his “Concept of Field” ideas. As a “jazz geek” I always knew that Ornette Coleman held an important place in the history of jazz and I sort of know why. But I never knew how he had accomplished this until I read this book. So often we get the impression that many historical figures make marks on history unintentionally or unknowingly but that is often not the case. Coleman knew exactly what he was doing and understood how revolutionary his music was to the establishment but he didn’t back down. He was vilified at the time by most (but not all – and, in the end, that’s crucial) but he did not let that stop him. Like the fictional character Billy Williams (from Now's The Time) who cast an unfathomable spell over his band members, Coleman convinced his band members with such conviction that he (and they, by association) were on the verge of changing musical history forever and, damned if he wasn’t right.
For me this is a wise book reminiscent of Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art (which is, alas, only available as a print on demand title) – a slim volume that draws in all areas of the arts to situate “jazz” within a larger context and give it resonance within the world of culture in general.

May I suggest that you listen to some “Stan Getz Complete Roost Recordings with Jimmy Raney” while reading Now’s The Time and Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings collected on the “Beauty is a Rare Thing” box set while you’re reading The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field.