Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading for the zeitgeist. . .

Thanks to My Tragic Right Hip for pointing me in the direction of this recommended list in Newsweek of the fifty books - new and old, fiction and non-fiction - to read in order to understand the global issues affecting our lives. Books that deal with the economy, environment, war, religion, and culture are all here and it's a pretty darn good list either for your own browsing, or to recommend to patrons. My favourites among them are Bill Buford's Among the Thugs (which I'd never have picked up if my male colleagues hadn't raved about it - and they were right, it's a very compelling and unforgettable read) and Muriel Barbery's lovely novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. You can read the full list here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Two fascinating documentaries. . .

I blogged a few days ago about the DVD release of Alain Resnais's film Last Night in Marienbad. So I went out to buy my copy this weekend and was thrilled to discover that the extras include two of Resnais's short documentaries - one of which - Toute la mémoire du monde, a 20 minute look at France's Bibliothèque Nationale - I've been wanting to see ever since reading film critic David Thomson's description in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He calls the documentary one of Resnais's most compelling films and writes that the director, "grasped the surrealist futility of archives and made the library a Borges-like image of our obsession with memory."
This gorgeously shot black and white documentary takes you into the subterranean depths of the library, where (at least in 1956) there were sixty miles of shelves, and up to the beautiful vaulted ceilings of the reading rooms. It follows a book from its arrival in the post, to its (pre-computer) cataloguing and its assigned place on the shelves. What really makes this documentary quite beautiful (and oh, so French) is the accompanying voice-over narration. Here's what happens when a library patron requests a book (the camera follows the entire process):

And now the book marches on toward an imaginary boundary, more significant in its life than passing through the looking glass. It is no longer the same book. Before, it was part of a universal abstract, indifferent memory where all books were equal and together basked in attention as tenderly distant as that shown by God to men. Here it's been picked out, preferred over others. Here it's indispensible to its reader, torn from its galaxy to feed these paper-crunching pseudo-insects, irreparably different from true insects in that each is bound in its own distinct concern. . . Here we glimpse a future in which all mysteries are solved. . . when this and other universes offer up their keys to us. And this will come about simply because these readers, each working on his slice of universal memory, will have laid the fragments of a single secret end to end, perhaps a secret bearing the beautiful name of "happiness".

Can't get that on a Kindle now, can you?
The second documentary on the DVD is Le chant du styrène - a quirky and colourful look at the industrial origins of a red plastic bowl. Like the first one, the voice-over text (here narrated by French author and OULIPO member, Raymond Queneau), makes this journey seem epic. If you liked the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, you'd enjoy this as well.
Alain de Botton's latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work also delves into this subject as he takes a philosophical, aesthetic and frequently amusing look at factories and offices. As de Botton explains, he is attempting, "a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life's meaning." It will make you think twice about industrial sites, shipyards and the origins of objects we take for granted. It is also a beautifully designed book with black and white photographs scattered throughout, including a photo essay tracing the origins of tuna steaks. I found the chapter on biscuits also fascinating - who knew that "biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking"?
(and no, de Botton isn't French - he's Swiss-born and lives in England. But he's written a book about Proust and I have no doubt he's fluent. He's probably also spent a lot of time at the Bibliothèque nationale).

Sunday, June 28, 2009


So I just Twittered our Blog. I am feeling very PO-MO right now.

Of all the 21 folks/groups I am following on Twitter, Drawn and Quarterly is the most interesting (as well as my cousin Sam). I took Seth around a few weeks ago and it was delightful. I love showing people around Toronto (even though he had lived here for many years).

I am always highly impressed with authors (and illustrators) like him who are able to take themselves away from what is essentially a very solitary occupation, and talk very articulately about what they are doing. It really must be quite difficult. Interestingly, he told me in the comics world, cartoonists are not edited as they are in other forms of publishing. Suffice to say I was amazed. If I was a writer, I am pretty sure every word I wrote would be heavily edited. Ah, well, I suppose I will just stick to talking about books and not writing any. John Irving is safe ;)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Janet Evanovich Event

As promised, I'm posting a few shots from the Janet Evanovich signing this past Wednesday, which was held at a Chapters store on the Queensway in Toronto. I'm a big believer in first impressions, and you just know that an event will be fun when you are greeted near the door by a person in a chicken suit...

About 375 fans lined up to meet the author and get their copies of Finger Lickin' Fifteen signed. While they waited everyone was kept entertained by a DJ spinning catchy tunes, free balloons (featuring favorite characters from the series), and was kept fortified by some absolutely incredible mini cheesecakes! For those who asked where we got them, they are made by a bakery in Bolton called Mercato Fine Foods Bakery and Deli.

Because I know that there are a lot of Janet Evanovich fans out there, I did make a point of getting an extra copy of Finger Lickin' Fifteen autographed for one lucky blog reader! If you are a librarian (Canada only) and would like the chance to win a signed book , please send me an e-mail with Finger Lickin' Fifteen in the subject line. Please make sure to include your full name and the mailing address of your library. I'll collect entries until 9:20 a.m. EST Monday July 13th. It's a strange cut off time I know, but for some reason 9:20 seems to be the earliest I can make it to the office on a Monday morning! Good Luck!

If you are a fan of the series, you might also want to check out the new animated Burg website that the publisher of the series has created. It features an interactive map where you can visit various locales from Stephanie Plum's neighborhood- her apartment, the bond office, her parent's house- and learn more about Stephanie's life and friends.
NB: This contest is now closed. Thanks to those who entered & congratulations to the winner!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bog Child wins Carnegie Medal. . .

Bog Child by the late Siobhan Dowd has won the 2009 Carnegie medal, awarded annually for an outstanding book for children. This is the first time the award has been given posthumously. Both Lahring and I have been big fans of Dowd's beautiful writing; her previous books - A Swift Pure Cry, and The London Eye Mystery have also been Dewey picks. Her last book, Solace of the Road, will be published this October. You can read tributes and more about the award at The Guardian's coverage here.

And if you are Terry O'Reilly fan. . .

Saffron and I didn't plan this - but after reading her post below, I can't help but add that if you are also a fan of the show, you'll be excited to know that Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant will have a new book out this fall - The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My New Favourite CBC Show!

I love listening to Terry O'Reilly's Age of Persuasion. The CBC program he hosts is all about how marketing intercedes with all aspects of our life. Even though I think I may have not an interest in the subject he has chosen for that week, he always draws me in. The show I have linked is all about Brand Loyalty. He starts off by talking about everyone's favourite journal: Moleskine which for many is a way of life and goes on to discuss everything from the Beatles, Apple and Harleys. I love the fact that I can listen any time I want because really, who can commit to listening to something on a regular, steady basis. Smart and funny. Take a listen and enjoy!

Great book and movie combo. . .

The recent release from Criterion of Alain Resnais's amazing film Last Year in Marienbad - which has a secure place in my list of top 20 films of all-time - allows me to give another pitch for the novel that inspired the film - Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, and easily in my list of top 20 favourite NYRB Classics. This may not be a very helpful blog entry, as it's completely impossible to truly describe either the novel or film and do either of them justice. They are both simply unique and brilliant "experiences" that explore the mysterious nature of reality, love, the sense of place and time, and the wonder, suspense and illusion that lies behind all fiction and film. Over on the Criterion website, you can watch the excellent trailer of Last Year in Marienbad here which may - or may not - give you a sense of what the film is about. But if it leaves you intrigued and the summer blockbusters are boring you to death, do pick up Casares' slim little novella and pair it up with the movie over some weekend this summer. A good bottle of wine and some friends wouldn't go amiss - you'll have lots to discuss afterwards. I'll definitely be purchasing a copy of the DVD - it's a stunningly beautiful film to watch.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Using your noodle. . .

In winter, my starch of choice is always mashed potatoes, but in the summer there' s nothing quicker and more comforting than a good bowl of noodles. I'm currently craving soba noodles, perhaps because they taste so darn good, hot or cold. Boil them up, add some cooked chicken, green onions, a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and I'm in heaven.
But I'm ready to expand my Asian noodle universe and so I'm having fun making my way through Noodle Comfort by Kentaro Kobayashi. With chapters devoted to a variety of noodles including Chinese, udon, yakisoba, pho, rice vermicelli and even traditional pasta, this cookbook is providing me with lots of different sauce and flavouring options, along with some good cooking tips. For example, I didn't know that if you are going to chill your noodles, you need to cook them slightly longer as they firm up when soaked in ice water. There are also instructions for making your own noodles from scratch, should you have the time. Design wise, it's not the most polished cookbook you'll ever come across, but there are decent photos for all of the dishes and it does give substitutions for some of the Japanese ingredients if you can't find them in your local supermarket. If you live in a major urban centre, you shouldn't have any problems.
It's part of a new Easy Japanese Cooking series from Vertical Press. Other titles include Donburi Mania, devoted to dishes over rice, and coming soon will be Bento Love, Veggie Haven and Appetizer Rex.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Janet Evanovich is Coming to Toronto!

The new chronicle of the chaotic (and extremely funny) life of bounty hunter extraordinaire Stephanie Plum, Finger Lickin' Fifteen hits stores and library shelves across the country tomorrow, Tuesday June 23rd.

We are extremely lucky here in Toronto, as Janet Evanovich herself will be in town on Wednesday June 24th. If you are in the Toronto area and would like to meet the lovely and talented author in person, she will be doing a signing at the Chapters Queensway store at 6PM (1950 The Queensway in Etobicoke). It sounds like a great time- there will be cheesecake, balloons, a DJ and more fun stuff.

Check the blog later in the week for event photos (and perhaps a giveaway or two)!

Hope to see you there!

The Fables series continues - in novel form. . .

I know that there are many fans out there of The Fables graphic novel series (and its various offshoots) written by Bill Willingham. The series takes familiar characters from fairy tales and throws them into the contemporary world and modern situtations. Coming this fall, in an interesting twist, will be the first, stand-alone Fables novel - Peter & Max. DC Comics and its imprint Vertigo have posted the first chapter online at its new blog Graphic Content. You can read it here. And to keep abreast of all that's new in the graphic novel world, check out their blog here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Are you headed for The Unit?. . .

This is truly the most disturbing and terrifying novel I have read this year - and I mean that in a good way.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy, is a dystopian novel, but like all great books in that genre, it succeeds brilliantly because the events that occur feel like they could happen next week. Our heroine Dorrit - not unlike myself - is a woman who early on in life was warned by her mother of the importance of being financially and intellectually independent. Career first - worry about men and babies later. Dorrit has taken this advice and become a writer, and though she's a struggling one she genuinely enjoys her life. However, society - still a free democracy - has radically changed its values. At the opening of the novel, Dorrit is preparing to go to The Unit, where all women who hit the age of 50, and men when they turn 60, have to go - but only if they don't have children.

On the surface, The Unit is a lovely place, an enclosed community where Dorrit gets her own apartment, has free access to restaurants, fitness centres, spas, museums and parks. Everyone is cheerful and she quickly makes friends with a group of other childless women. There is of course a library in The Unit, and a very up-to-date one; you can even sign out an e-reader. And the librarian works a lot of overtime because there are so many intellectuals in the Unit. "People who read books," he says, "tend to be dispensable. Extremely."

Scared yet?

Of course there is a political reason why Dorrit and childless men and women live in The Unit (and here I'm not revealing any spoilers you can't find on the jacket of the book). During their stay, they will be used as human guinea pigs for a roster of medical experiments and gradually become organ donors for those living outside The Unit - i.e. parents. They will be asked to donate what they can, bit by bit, until the final donation of a heart or lung. They get excellent medical care, but as you can guess, the life expectancy is not long in The Unit.

In addition to a cracking, well written story, this novel would make an incredible book club pick. It contains a minefield of ethical questions to discuss, not only around issues of organ donation (who deserves a kidney more - a perfectly healthy sixty year old man who may have another thirty years to live, or a thirty year old mother of two?) but also the role and economic value society places (or not) on childless citizens (who, I must mention are, ahem, often the ones covering maternity leaves). It's also very much a look at how the relationships and friendships between women change when children come into the picture. And about how married parents judge singletons, and the childless judge mothering skills. If we're honest, we've all been guilty of one or the other. The Unit may remind you of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and certainly if you enjoyed that novel, you will like this one too; I think it more closely continues the feminist and fertility debates that Margaret Atwood explored with The Handmaid's Tale, or even those that Aldous Huxley detailed in Brave New World. And this is definitely not just a female read - remember, childless men get sent to The Unit as well.

Shortly after finishing this unforgettable novel, I read a news report that the birth rate among Western women was declining at a rate that could have some major economic repercussions. Ninni Holmqvist is a Swedish writer, from a country famous for its progressive policies towards daycare and maternity leaves. And though my rational side tells me not to get freaked out by fiction, there's a part of me that wonders - what do the Swedes know that we don't yet? I've made a conscious decision in my life not to have kids (which I've never regretted - how do parents ever find the time to read?) though I'm happy to play a role in the lives of my friends who do. SO DON'T SEND ME TO THE UNIT!

(And of course, if you did, I couldn't offer up a few extra galleys of this amazing book, which I do now. Sorry, but this offer is only open to Canadian librarians, library staff and teacher-librarians at either public, school, or academic libraries. Just send me an e-mail at mscott@randomhouse.com with The Unit in the subject line, and include your library mailing address. I'll accept entries for a week, until noon EST on Thursday, June 25th, and do a random draw then. Winners will be notified by e-mail.)
N.B. Thanks to everyone who entered the draw. This giveaway is now closed and winners have been notified.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some recent travel reading. . .

Sorry it's been so quiet here for the last few weeks. I was working a ten day academic conference and straight after that I headed to Switzerland for ten days of vacation, where I climbed an Alp, went to a lot of art museums, sat through two Italian operas and an excellent production of Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) set in 1960s London, watched the dishy Roger Federer win the finals of the French Open on a channel with Spanish commentary, and climbed another hill in Zurich to visit James Joyce's grave. Oh, I do love Europe. And the chocolate and ice cream! The Swiss may be known for their watches, penknives and cuckoo clocks, but I for one salute their serious and professional dedication to butter.

Zurich is also the birthplace of Dada and so my reading material was two recent books published by Princeton University Press. The Posthuman Dada Guide: tzara and lenin play chess, by Andrei Codrescu was an inventive introduction to this literary movement and its key players. Codrescu argues that in our modern, impersonal internet age, the conditions are ripe for the nonsensical tenets of dada to flourish yet again. The book isn't as funny or creative as Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, which imagines meetings between James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara who were all in Zurich in 1916, but if you've seen the play or are interested in this artistic period, then Codrescu will certainly give you a good overview. Cabaret Voltaire (where Dada began) is now a nightclub called amusingly enough, the Duda Club.
One of the Dadaist members was Kurt Schwitters - I saw some of his collage paintings in the Swiss art galleries I visited - and he also wrote subversive fairy tales in the 1920s. These have been collected into a volume called Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales, translated and with an introduction by fairytale expert Jack Zipes. I've been interested recently in this genre since reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and many of these tales are pure, twisted fun in the "be careful what you wish for" vein. One of my favourites was "The Scarecrow" which uses very interesting typography as part of the narrative. A concrete fairytale, if you will.

Zurich has great bookstores both antiquarian and new. One of the major chains Orell Füssli, has separate stores devoted to German, French and English language books. In the latter, I found an early Jonathan Coe novel (oh joy!) that isn't available in Canada. The Dwarves of Death isn't his best book, but it was very entertaining plane and train reading, with a Nick Hornby sort of feel to it. And then as a nice bookend to the holiday, I read Milan Kundera's excellent piece of literary criticism, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, over the weekend. Not only a look at the art of the novelist, it's also a call for the history of literature to encompass the work of multiple cultures and nationalities. Writers, he argues, are as much influenced by what they may read in translation as they are by their own countries' writers, and a literary history that acknowledged this would look far different, and bring far greater prestige to many writers whose work is now often forgotten or out of print. He certainly has me interested now in reading The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch, Ferdyduke by Witold Gombrowicz, and Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot.