Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Non-Downer War Non-Fic

I’ve got World War Two on the brain right now. It could be the post I just wrote about Poland, it could be the anniversary earlier this month of its beginning, or it could be because of all those “Hitler finds out” videos I’ve been watching on YouTube (‘Hitler finds out United breaks guitars’ is, hands down, my fav). Whatever the case, I’ve got a couple of titles for you. Not huge downers, just interesting post-war nonfiction stuff.

I’m continually fascinated by the ways in which people deal with trauma and grief and, when thinking about this post, there were two titles that instantly came to mind.

I’ve always been a big fan of Ursula Hegi’s novels, especially her biggest title, Stones From the River. I remember knowing in my head that the story was taking place in Germany, and so clearly we would be reading about WWII from a German perspective, but there was an actual moment during my reading when I really realized that this was different from the books I had read before on the war, and yet it was exactly the same. Different side of the battlefield, but the emotional impact, loss, and sorrow were the same.

I followed up this story with a nonfiction title (I’m finally getting to the point) by Hegi, Tearing the Silence: on being German in America. Hegi interviewed several German-American adults whose parents participated, in some way, in the war. There was awareness on all of their parts of the devastation wrought by and on their country when they were children. More importantly, they each had some understanding of their parents’ involvement, and the residual effect on themselves. It’s a really interesting perspective, and Hegi delicately explores the grief, guilt, denial, and acceptance of her interviewees.

Another really interesting work is The Great Escape: nine Jews who fled Hitler and changed the world by Kati Marton. It’s about, well, what it says in the title. The nine Hungarian Jews include the director of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), the author of Darkness at Noon (Arthur Koestler), a renowned photographer (Robert Capa), and a physicist integral to the Manhattan Project (Leo Szilard). Marton describes a pre-, during, and post-war Hungary, and traces the lives of all her subjects. For each man, she examines the effects of the war and of leaving Hungary, as well as their mixed feelings about their pretty substantial and important accomplishments.

Also of interest: our local history and genealogy librarian, Joanne McCarthy from the SG Reference Department, has just pointed me to a new site focussed on Halifax’s role in the war. Designed to showcase some of the remarkable documents in the collection at Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, it’s an online feature called "An East Coast Port: Halifax in Wartime, 1939-1945"

Monday, September 28, 2009

2009 MacArthur Fellows announced

I'm sort of fascinated by the MacArthur Fellowship. My fascination ties in part to the very essence of the award - I love that there is a foundation out there that is supporting "creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world" with what they describe as "no strings attached" financial support to just keep doing what they are doing. But, I have to admit, that I also really like the fact that the MacArthur Fellowship is nicknamed "The Genius Grant" - I love the idea that each year a bunch of hardworking, creative-minded folks get to officially call themselves geniuses.

The MacArthur Fellowship isn't exclusively given to writers - their website notes that "past recipients have been writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and fishermen, among many others" - but they have been awarded to a number of great writers who have used the funding to further their careers, including the authors of a number of my favourite books: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace.

Amongst this year's nominees, there are three authors whose previously published writings you can borrow from Halifax Public Libraries and who you can likely expect to hear more from in the future:
(quotes are from the MacArthur Fellowship website)

Edwidge Danticat: "a novelist whose moving and insightful depictions of Haiti’s complex history are enriching our understanding of the Haitian immigrant experience. In works that chronicle the lives of ordinary Haitians, she evokes themes of family, isolation, and community that, while grounded in a specific cultural milieu, resonate with a wide range of audiences."

Deborah Eisenberg: "a writer of short fiction whose works present an unusually distinctive portrait of contemporary American life. Her exquisitely distilled stories often depict men and women coming to terms with their personal relationships and grappling with the changing social context in which those relationships occur."

Heather McHugh: "a poet whose intricately patterned compositions explore various aspects of the human condition and inspire wonder in the unexpected associations that language can evoke."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Friendly Events Next Week!

Hey readers. Halifax Public Libraries has a number of book related events you'll want to know about in the week of Sept 27th-Oct3.

If you're in the downtown - Tuesday is a big day at the Spring Garden Road Library. At noon, we're having Read Your Lunch: our monthly book chat program. Sit down around the table, have a cup of coffee, bring your lunch and we'll chat about upcoming and recent releases, old favourites and much more. It's an easy-going, enjoyable way to chat about books and get new reading ideas.

On Tuesday night, the Spring Garden Road Library is hosting Lesley Crewe, who will be reading from her new book Hit & Mrs.

Hit & Mrs. is a comedic romp about four lifelong friends from Montreal who travel to New York for a trip of shopping and Broadway shows. Things go wrong when the friends manage to get entangled in the criminal underworld of the city.

Lesley Crewe is the author of Ava Comes Home, Shoot Me and Relative Happiness. (If you want to know more about Lesley we did a whole post about her wonderful, fun and funny books last spring.) The program is at 7pm in the program room. If you want more information about either program you can call the Spring Garden Road Library at 490-5700.

Wednesday night in Clayton Park you won't want to miss the book launch of Like an Ever Rolling Stream: paddling through time in the Maritimes. Hugh McKervill will read from his latest book, a tale of two friends with a generation of difference in their ages. Despite this, they develop a profound friendship over twenty years as they explore rivers, lakes and coastal waterways throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is also an account of how time, like the streams they paddle, carries them to different places in life. 7pm at the Keshen Goodman branch - call 490-6410 for more information.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this weekend is Word on the Street. Sunday September 27th from 11-5 at the Cunard Event Centre on the Halifax waterfront. Visit with local authors, publishers and book sellers and celebrate Atlantic Canadian writing. Stop the the Halifax Public Libraries table while you are there, say hi and enter our prize draw! Don't forget to tell the bosses how much you love The Reader!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Staff Pick - Susan Hill

Perhaps you have heard of the prolific British author Susan Hill. She is probably most famous for the classic horror story "The Woman in Black" which relates the haunting testimony of a young lawyer who records in detail the nightmarish events of his stay in a house on a marsh in northern England, and the terrible events that alter his life forever. Another well known title is "Mrs. de Winter", a follow-up to Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" telling of what occurred after the fire at Manderley.

Susan Hill, the recipient of several prestigious literary awards, is the author of many children's books and she is also a playwright and has edited several anthologies of short stories.

In the past few years she has produced a four book (so far) mystery series set in England's West Country featuring British policeman Simon Serrailler. The novels are written with a sound knowledge of British police procedure and a unique understanding of human motivation and the details of daily life. A first rate detective story with a cunning twist at the end, the first book in this series "The Various Haunts of Men" is one of my favorite mystery novels. The other three novels in the series are: "The Pure in Heart", "The Risk of Darkness" and "The Vows of Silence".

Recently she has published a novella, "The Beacon". A small gem, this story portrays the life of the spinster daughter of a farming family set on a remote English hillside. The novella is so well written that you can almost hear the wind battering the old farmhouse and the reader feels the protagonist's mixed emotions when following the death of her parents a family secret in revealed...

A versatile author who is equally adept writing several different genres, Susan Hill is an author not to be missed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 2009 ReLit awards winners have been announced.

This is one of my favourite book awards, as it highlights those lesser known literary gems from Canada's smaller independent publishers. If you enjoy reading outside the mainstream, then these awards are tailor made for you.

The 2009 shortlist for novels included:

Girls Fall Down, by Maggie Helwig

Cleavage, by Theanna Bischoff

Anna's Shadow, by David Manicom

Shuck, by David Allen Cox

Charlie Muskrat, by Charlie Johnson

Chase and Haven, by Michael Blouin (the Winner!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Romance of Epic Proportions due out September 22

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon is the latest, eagerly awaited installment in her Outlander series. Like a sample? Gabaldon posts excerpts from her latest book on her website.

In the spirit of Dan Brown, count down the days until this latest in the series is available.

Gabaldon fans, The Ladies of Lallybroch, are anxiously waiting. Check out their website and see the merchandise available for purchase. (totebags, mugs, t-shirts).

Publisher's description:

"Readers have been waiting with bated breath for the seventh volume in bestselling author Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander saga — a masterpiece of historical fiction featuring Jamie and Claire, from one of the genre’s most popular and beloved authors.

Jamie Fraser, erstwhile Jacobite and reluctant rebel, knows three things about the American rebellion: the Americans will win, unlikely as that seems in 1778; being on the winning side is no guarantee of survival; and he’d rather die than face his illegitimate son — a young lieutenant in the British Army — across the barrel of a gun. Fraser’s time-travelling wife, Claire, also knows a couple of things: that the Americans will win, but that the ultimate price of victory is a mystery. What she does believe is that the price won’t include Jamie’s life or happiness — not if she has anything to say.

Claire’s grown daughter Brianna, and her husband, Roger, watch the unfolding of Brianna’s parents’ history — a past that may be sneaking up behind their own family."

If you haven't pre-ordered your book and want something long, romantic and laced with historical details try Sara Donati's Wilderness series, Jennifer Donnelly's Tea Rose series or Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (not a series, but will keep you occupied and engaged.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Staff Pick - Graceling by Kristin Cashore (part two)

I’ve read a couple of books since finishing Graceling and I still really miss Katsa! A sequel (tentatively titled “Bitterblue”) is currently in the writing stages, but is probably a couple of years away from publication.

Cashore’s prequel, Fire, is set to be released this fall, and while I’ve already placed my hold, it will not quench my desire for more Katsa. So, I must look to other books with equally strong and engaging female characters.

While reading Graceling, I kept thinking about Ayla from the Clan of the Cave Bear series. I read it years ago, but the two women are similar in that they’re both so capable and strong. Both are independent and thoughtful and are able to forge their own ways against incredible odds.They have a persistent survival instinct that results in incredible feats of endurance and bravery. They make for fantastic action adventure heroines.

Katsa also bears a strong similarity to Katniss, the lead from another hugely popular YA novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I’ve also read a few reviews that have likened the character of Katsa and the Graceling book in general to the Circle series (plural) by Tamora Pierce, or the Study series by Maria V. Snyder. Anybody read any of these titles? Dis/Agree?

Who’s your favourite strong female character?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Staff Pick - Graceling by Kristin Cashore (part one)

In Readers’ Advisory work, we talk a lot about appeal factors of books. Despite all this talking, I’ve never really considered what I find most appealing about books. In writing these blog posts, though, I have begun to realize that character tends to be the strongest appeal factor that ties my favourite books together.

When I describe books, especially ones that I love, I often talk about the voice of the main character and it’s that voice that draws me in and hooks me. Some characters are so strong and compelling that they stay with me long after I’ve finished their book and met several new characters inhabiting vastly different worlds. Some of them are so memorable that I physically miss them after that last page has been turned.

Such is the case with Katsa, the heroine of Kristen Cashore’s tremendous debut novel, Graceling.

It’s technically a YA novel, but the characters seem ageless – certainly older than their probable years. Katsa is from the Middluns, one of seven kingdoms, each one ruled by its own king. Katsa’s eyes are two different colours, signifying that she is a Graceling. Her special Grace (or skill) seems to be killing, as she instinctively fights with breathtaking speed and deadly accuracy. Basically, Katsa kicks butt like Buffy (sorry, I’ve been challenged to continue working Buffy into as many blog posts as possible).

All Gracelings are given to their king who determines if their Grace is valuable to his service or not. If it is, they remain in his possession. Katsa is her king’s special fighting machine; she serves his will and essentially acts as his personal thug. As she begins to sicken of her role in life, Katsa forms a secret Council that protects innocent victims of immoral kings. On a secret mission, she meets another Graceling whose skills almost rival her own, and with whom she has undeniable chemistry and the potential for a powerful and rewarding relationship.

... to be continued

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Oprah Announcement Coming Today!

Oprah's Book Club tends to create a pretty firm dividing line between people: there are lovers and there are haters and there seem to be few to fall in between. Since 1996, Oprah has been reading and discussing books on her weekday talk show - and no matter which side of the dividing line you fall on opinionwise - it can't be denied that her influence has skyrocketed sales for a number of authors. From its beginnings as a monthly club, through the era of classics, to the current day version where titles are picked occasionally and without any particular theme in mind - Oprah's Book Club has remained popular. So popular that when news of a new title gets started circling - it doesn't take long for the buzz to become a roar.

On August 24, Oprah Tweeted: Hey all you BookClubbers. Tune in Friday, September 18th to find out whatmy new book club pick is--never made a selection like "this".

Speculation began flying about which book might be the new selection almost immediately. Fan speculation on Oprah's website spans everything from Jodi Picoult's family drama My Sister's Keeper to Dan Brown's brand new suspense thriller The Lost Symbol to Kathryn Stockett's historical first novel The Help. Those ones mostly seem like folks hoping for their recent favourite book to get some attention from Oprah, but a more scientific approach as appeared on several blogs online.

Largely requoted, The Newtonville Books Community Blog - run by a bookstore in Newton Massachusetts - reported that they had been contacted by a book rep about purchasing the new Oprah selection. The title is always guarded, but the bookseller was able to find out that the book would be published by
Little, Brown and Company and that its list price would be $14.99/$16.99 Can. Based on that info, another blogger took to the Little, Brown catalogue and put together this list of potential titles - all released in the last year and having the correct price point:

Amigoland by Oscar Casares
This Wicked World by Richard Lange
Do Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments by Robin Hemley
The Man's Book: The Essential Guide for the Modern Man by Thomas Fink
Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn
Eat, Drink and Be From Mississippi by Nanci Kincaid
The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning by Peter Trachtenberg
The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton
Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger
Say You're One of them by Uwem Akpan

I, for one, am pulling for This Wicked World by Richard Lange, based purely on a punctuation pet peeve of mine - the misuse of
quotation marks for emphasis. As a Noir Mystery it would certainly be a bit of a stretch compared to previous Oprah picks - but it's the only book from the proposed list that has the word this in the title and - looking back to Oprah's tweet - that's what the quotation marks around the word this should indicate.

Searching the blogsphere it seems Say You're One of Them is the heavy favourite in public opinion: short stories would be a change for Oprah (as her Tweet implied) and the focus on the lives of impoverished children in Africa is certainly one that Oprah would want to highlight. Plus the book has been receiving rave reviews. It seems a logical next choice in terms of the pattern of Oprah selections. Hmmm - and quotation marks can be used to express irony, so maybe that's what Oprah meant by using in her original tweet. I can always hope.

Oh speculation - so much fun. We'll know for sure by Friday afternoon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I wish I could meet her! Great female fiction characters.

Do you have a favourite female character? Are there some books that just attract you to the character? Maybe she’s funny, smart, sexy, charming or just so normal, you can’t resist her?

Here are some suggestions from my own reading list that I adore, simply because of the female characters.
by Sophie Kinsella
Emma Corrigan is a quirky, funny character that I can relate to from my younger years.

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier.
Dona St. Columb is a strong female character who has made mistakes, needs change but in the end understands where her duties and responsibilities lie.

A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand.
Clair Danner Crispin is a woman who appears to have the perfect life but beneath it all, feels unloved and needs to find strength in herself.

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.
Clair Randall - a strong, passionate and oh so normal female character.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Six Degrees of the Library Collection - from Agatha Christie to George Eliot

In the spirit of the theory of six degrees of separation - that any two people in the world can be connected to one another through six relationships - we bring you what will become a semi-regular feature called “Six Degrees of the Library Collection”. You might be surprised how your favourite book can connect you to a wide world of reading.

September 15th is the birthday of legendary British Mystery Author Agatha Christie. Christie is considered by the Guinness Book of the World Records to be the bestselling author of all time. There are so many interesting factoids from Christie’s illustrious career it’s hard to know where to begin, but I guess I'll chose that Christie was a founding member of something called the Detection Club: a society formed in 1928 or 1930 (sources vary) by a group of British mystery authors.

The club was part social, part literary - members took an oath to follow certain rules in their writing including agreeing that their “detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?” The club still exists and in 2001 its current president Simon Brett oversaw the publication of a collection called The Detection Collection which contained new stories from living members of the club.

Simon Brett is a British mystery author who, like Christie, is well known for a few of his series characters: featuring Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter and Fethering. On his website Brett notes that while he is an accomplished author, he is not the Simon Brett who is a well known British wood engraver.

Brett isn’t the only current author to share a name with someone else who is also famous. American author Robin Cook shares his name with a late British Noir author. The British Cook (not to be further confused with the British politician who also shares the same name) published his first few novels in the 60s and 70s under his own name, but eventually took the pseudonym Derek Raymond so as not to be confused with his American counterpart.

In the late 1970s, Derek Raymond left the UK and lived in France for a number of years and stopped writing for a period. During this time he worked in several jobs, including as a vineyard labourer. Although Raymond didn’t go down this road, other British expats living in France have made quite a career out of writing about their time living there. A modern example is that of Peter Mayle, who wrote children’s educational books before turning to memoir and documenting his time in France in the 1989 book A Year in Provence.

Mayle’s depiction of life in France was so popular that the French government honoured him with a knighthood in France’s Legion of Honour. Although such knighthoods only officially go to French citizens, those of other nationalities are frequently given honourary recognition. Mayle is not the only British author to have received such an nod. This year Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was similarly honoured with French president Sarkozy noting that Rowling has “helped give young people back the taste for reading and writing.”

Joanne Kathleen (apparently her grandmother's name, not her own) Rowling might be a huge household name now and a face that children around the world recognize, but prior to the 1997 release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Rowling’s publisher reportedly worried that boys would not want to read a book by a woman, and so hid her gender by using her initials on book covers. The antiquated fear is a strange quirk of Rowling’s success story that ties her to some of Britian’s most famous female authors of the past including Mary Anne Evans, who is better known as George Eliot.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Alice Munro has been much in the news lately. David recently wrote about her very generously withdrawing from this year's Giller Prize competition. This year she also won the Man Booker International Prize awarded every two years for her entire body of work. A suitable honour for the writer who has been referred to as "our Chekhov".

Munro's stories tend to be reflections on everyday life. Rural Ontario and British Columbia are her typical settings. Her characters, for the most part are women. Her stories are coming of age stories often with a young girl moving from the country to the city. We read about everyday life, marriage, children, aging and death. Munro explores human relationships through ordinary everyday events. For us, the readers, the events are real and profound. Munro writes with grace and insight, capturing commonplace experiences making them significant.

Critics, writing about Alice Munro, tend towards the poetic. This article from the Toronto Star is a good example. Really, Munro's stories are just terrific reads.

Her latest, Too Much Happiness, is a little darker than usual. The ten stories deal with infanticide, forgiveness, adultery, a home invasion, murder, secrets and jealousy. The final story "Too Much Happiness" takes us out of Canada to Russia and Sweden. She tells the story of real-life mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, whose ironic final words give the story and the book its title.

Of course, there is only one Alice Munro. I won't use the word readalike, but a couple of authors do come to mind when I think about some of Munro's more typical themes. Anne Tyler and Carol Shields often (though not exclusively, of course) write about women and their relationships with spouses, children, friends and work. Unless by Carol Shields is about a woman who normally considers herself to be happy and successful. She is distressed to find her eldest daughter homeless on the streets of Toronto.

Alice Munro is sometimes compared to Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor would have been about ten years older than Munro and died quite young. She grew up in Georgia and her writing style has been called Southern Gothic with strong regional settings. Her characters, like Munro's, find themselves challenging deeply held community beliefs.