This year I decided to keep up with the Red Maple awards (hosted by the Ontario Library Association) and I thought I’d read at least one of this year’s nominees. The book that intrigued me most from the list was written by Vikki VanSickle and published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. I must admit I read this in one sitting. On a personal level, this novel brought back memories of my middle-grade years where we had to read books like The Giver, and after class or during library reading time we would purposely spook ourselves out with the Goosebumps series.
The Winnowing follows protagonist Marivic Stone who lives in a small town. There’s an eeriness about the setting reminiscent of Night Vale or Stranger Things, maybe even The Twilight Zone. The general narrative is certainly contemporary and realistic, but there are strange occurrences bordering the supernatural which makes this book hard to classify. VanSickle imagines a past where post-World War II there had been an outbreak of infertility rather than a baby-boom, and in this society the medical centers tried to reverse the crisis. The ‘boomers’ born out of this procedure all have this side-effect known as the ACES which is something a teenager starts developing and must be treated for. The treatment is also known as ‘winnowing.’ If one is not ‘winnowed’ the powers from the ACES can be destructive to the individual and the community. That is all I can say without spoiling too much. Like all good novels however, The Winnowing is about much more than its speculative premise. VanSickle focuses a lot of her writing on creating the bond between Marivic and her best friend Saren, Marivic’s understanding of the past and how it fits into her present situation—particularly the actions of her own mother—and how the young of any generation must carry the burdens resulting from the mistakes done by the older generations. This burden is beyond medical, as these young children have not only been robbed of natural development and must live in perpetual fear, but they have also been robbed of the innocence and playfulness that comes with childhood.
That said, I must discuss my favourite character in this book: Gumps! Gumps is Marivic’s grandfather who is a person I wish I could hang out with all the time. He is on his own a lot, but he’s so innovative and caring. We are told in the early pages that “Gumps was a retired repairman…he still liked to keep his skills sharp by practicing on old appliances that people at the side of the road for pickup or, worse, that he had scavenged from the scrapyard.” I don’t know why but I’ve always been so drawn to people who can fix and repair, or make something out of scraps, like an old-school inventor. We need more people like this in a world where everything is treated like it’s disposable. From the get-go I was completely fascinated by Gumps and on the lookout on what he had to say, and what he was doing. I think VanSickle wrote his character so well, because she doesn’t reveal too much about him that he isn’t mysterious, but she gives us just enough to keep him very interesting. He also tackles difficult situations with humour, which is just perfect. I kept on reading just for more moments with Gumps.
This is definitely a great bonding novel and ideal for a teacher, or librarian to read to a class, or for a book club. I certainly enjoyed it, and I hope there’s more to follow. Go read it!
“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic
Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.
Urbancic notes in the introduction that:
“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”
The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.
The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties. These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:
“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”
This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.
Books I read for Reviews (with links)
- Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell. A poet/professor wakes in a town where he must teach a syllabus on dead poets, and the dead poets come to life (To be published in August of 2017)
- Matter & Desire by Andreas Weber. Academic text exploring the relationship between our existence and nature through erotic experience (To be published August 3, 2017)
- The Man Who Loved Libraries by Andrew Larsen. This is a very short children’s book about Andrew Carnegie (to be published August 15)
- Thin Places by Lesley Choyce. Free verse poem telling the story of Declan Lynch who can hear voices and follows them. (To be published July 29, 2017)
- The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. This is a travel satire with a very grumpy main character (published May 17)
- The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle. A collection of new fantasy short stories (to be published August 18, 2017)
- Scion of the Fox by S.M Beiko. Young adult book with magic, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm (out for publication October 17, 2017)
- Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume. Pleasant children’s adventure about Ewan Pendle who receives a special education. (published)
- How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley – book on navigating through nature and reviving the connection between ourselves and the natural realm (out for publication August 22, 2017)
- Of Men and Women by Pearl S. Buck – short essays comparing the American household to that of China, published/written in 1941, currently being republished in a newer, updated eBook edition (out for publication June 27, 2017)
- Ex Libris – Anthology of Sci-fi and Fantasy short stories with Librarians, Libraries, and Lore (out for publication July 11, 2017)
- The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory by Chris Banks – poetry collection (out for publication Sept 5, 2017)
- Hunger by Roxane Gay – a memoir; a history of Roxane Gay’s body and experience with weight gain (out for publication June 13, 2017)
- Up Against Beyond by Jason Holt –Poetry collection (out for publication July 20, 2017)
- Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid –academic book, short biography, close analysis/reading of Iain M. Banks and his works published both as ‘Iain M. Banks’ and ‘Iain Banks’ (out for publication May 30, 2017)
Books I read for Myself
I had a great reading month mostly because I had all the time in the world: no work, no school, no exams.
According to my Audible App I also spent about 8 Hours listening. The listening included a variety of dramatizations of classics, or some audiobooks for the things listed below where I would follow along in the text while listening to an audiobook.
I read two short stories:
“The Machine Stops” – by E.M. Forster which already made it onto my ‘favourites’ list. The story is written in 1909 but it’s highly prophetic and describes a time where people are glued to conversation machines and lose touch with the organic. It’s like a “pre-WALLE” critique of our attachment to screens.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story took me a while to get into, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was happening for the first few pages. A man wakes up tied, in a pit, where a pendulum swings above him (one of those with a blade) and he doesn’t know why. He spends the story figuring it out. It didn’t really strike me in any way and it’s not as memorable as “The Black Cat.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I then read my monthly classic. This month I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Again, this didn’t sit with me quite as well as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. What I’m saying is: I can see why it’s important, I can engage in conversation about many aspects of it BUT reading it wasn’t a very exciting experience. Anne looked at domestic abuse and the ways women would put up physical barriers like Wildfell Hall itself. I liked the many perspectives in this work but I had one major issue with this novel and that was the characterization of Gilbert Markham, the first narrator. Gilbert as a first narrator to me was so feminine that I had a hard time imagining this man as a (straight) man. Everything he said was something I could never picturing a man caring about like the way a woman’s eyebrows look like, or the fabric of their clothing. It sucks that in my head I kept comparing Markham to manly Rochester and Heathcliff but one cannot help but lump the Brontes together. I would have no problems with bending gender norms and stereotypes but I think in this case Anne Bronte just didn’t know how to capture a masculine voice. I did enjoy that Helen was a painter and the descriptions of her paintings got to me in a very heartwarming way. Helen’s character is very interesting.
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
I am not sure how to describe the synopsis without spoilers. I’m going to briefly borrow parts from the synopsis at the back. Rose Franklin falls through the earth when she is a child and ends up in the palm of a giant metal hand. She spends her life studying physics and gets involved with a military/science team in search for other remaining parts of these giant metal giants which are scattered worldwide. The book is written in interview format. Interviews are conducted with Rose connecting her personal experience to the expeditions, with Kara Resnik (a military leader on this mission), and with other members involved in this investigation. I sort of imagined it as someone from the Pentagon interviewing all the people involved or around anything relating to these robot parts showing up all over. There are romances hidden, mysterious components to the robots or “giants” and it’s definitely not boring. I read this book with the text in hand and with the audiobook. It is an experience I recommend mainly because audible has different voices for the different characters and you really experience their presence. Lastly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Monster Calls, The Iron Giant, and most of all the giant guardians that are dormant in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I don’t know if anyone remembers those but as a kid I watched Atlantis so many times and the moment when the giants pop out from the ground to protect the city is a scene forever ingrained in my memory. I don’t know if I’m alone in making this association.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
This is a small novella that just got published by Tor.com. In the early 20th century America had a plan to import hippos to supplement the meat shortage. The plan was scrapped but Sarah Gailey re-imagines an alternate 1890s where hippos are present in the U.S. It’s a weird hybrid of fantasy and a westerner. This is the story of Winslow Houndstooth who rides his hippo. Every rider in this book has a hippo. Tor.com published an article introducing every hippo by name here. The novella is only 170 pages and a very easy read. The cover art is done by Richard Anderson and designed by Christine Foltzer. I’ll put together a better review for this on Goodreads later tonight.
Concluding Thoughts and Announcement
My favourite reads this month were Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell and Ex Libris: Libraries, Librarians, and Lore. I’ve also been reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan which I have not yet finished so it will be featured in next month’s wrap-up.
BIG ANNOUNCEMENT! Along with Ennet House I will be reading Infinite Jest from June 1 to September 18 (along other books of course). If you would like to participate there is still time to get the book and join our community. More details on this HERE. Everyone is welcome!
I requested this book for review when I saw the word ‘librarians’ in its title. I did not expect to love it as much as I did. This book is 5 Star rating for me, and I pre-ordered the hardcopy from Amazon after reading the introduction. This is by far my favourite anthology. Sci-Fi & Fantasy on the topic of Librarians and Libraries. Need I say more? Okay I will:
Paula Guran, the editor of this anthology, has compiled 24 short stories that have been previously published in Sci-fi and Fantasy magazines like Uncanny, and Clarkesworld which have at its core the topic of libraries and librarians. Some of the authors include Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, and Xia Jia (the last two were in a short story anthology I reviewed last month Invisible Planets). These writers are contemporary giants in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, and I was pleasantly surprised by the stories they wrote.
In library school the subject of “the image of the librarian in the public sphere” was a topic that was frequently discussed. We often looked at film adaptations and the usual depiction of a librarian was either the frumpy/spinster librarian like Marian the librarian in The Music Man, stern-shushing librarian figures like the librarian in Monsters University (Pixar Film), and real-life elderly librarian figures like Nancy Pearl (who is now an action figure), or the sexy librarian like Evy from The Mummy, Tammy Swanson from Parks and Recreation, or seductive library-figures in ads like Margot Robbie’s skit on SNL.
What Paula Guran outlines in the introduction is that librarians in fiction tend to be unhappy or stereotyped, but since this is science fiction and fantasy, the librarians expand beyond that. She writes:
“Science fiction and fantasy, is thank goodness, not ‘serious fiction’ (whatever that is). The troubled, gloomy librarian does, of course, occur in speculative fiction, but librarians are also characterized in many other ways.”
She explores libraries and librarians in sci-fi and fantasy works that have been published with the exception of the stories in this collection. She explores Borges’s Library of Babel, The Library of Dream in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman, to Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library Novels, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, and even projections of future libraries like in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, to give just a few examples. I was so intrigued that for the first time, a discussion of librarians explored literature that entertained possibilities rather than capturing stereotypes. Guran provided me with a bibliography of the many books I must read with a library at its core (added to my TBR).
I must admit that I read the Ray Bradbury story “Exchange” with a lot of passion—particularly since Bradbury is famously known for having been made a writer by the public library. He said in an interview with Sam Weller:
“I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old. So that’s why I’m here tonight—because I believe in libraries. They’re more important than universities. They’re more important than colleges. Libraries are the center of our lives.”
My favourite story in this anthology however is “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Kloges. It’s about a small child who is left at the doorstep of a library where seven librarians ‘live.’ Library space and time are explored in a way I have not yet encountered in literature. These are just a few lines that stayed with me:
“Librarians are guardians of books. They help others along their paths, offering keys to help unlock the doors of knowledge.”
“knowledge is not static; information must flow in order to live.”
“Books were small comfort once the lights were out, and their hard, sharp corners made them awkward companions under the covers.”
“time had become quite flexible inside the Library. (This is true of most places with interesting books. Sit down to read for twenty minutes, and suddenly it’s dark, with no clue as to where the hours have gone.)
I recommend this book to everyone, particularly librarians, people who love libraries and book descriptions, and lovers of science fiction and fantasy. This book will be published on August 15, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Many thanks to Diamond Book Distributors and Prime Books for sending me and ARC.
“‘What do we need libraries for? We’ve got the Internet now!’ FACEPALM” – Cory Doctorow
“Wherever you are in America, there is a librarian fighting to get YOU something”
This book will be published on May 16, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.
Last week I recommended five non-fiction books on libraries which were mostly academic and history-focused.
This book is not a history book but a celebration of libraries, and librarians, accomplished by a collaboration between photographers, librarians, publishers, and authors. By comparison to last week’s recommendations, this book is much more accessible. Kyle Cassidy published a photo essay on Slate in 2014 called “This is What A Librarian Looks Like,” a montage of portraits and a tribute to librarians. The essay had success and spread widely through social media. Cassidy expanded this project into what is now the new-coming book This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information.
The book has three components:
- Brief essays on the history of the American Library
- Photographs of contemporary American Librarians
- Essays by writers, journalists, and commentators including Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, and others who discuss what the library means to them now, and what memories they have of the library from their childhood and/or youth.
The three sections are woven beautifully combining the history, interviews, and photographs according to historical periods and American geographical regions. Cassidy opens with an introduction to this book on the ideal of the library by discussing the Library of Alexandria. He writes:
“What made the Library of Alexandria great wasn’t just the collection of books, but rather, its intellectual raison d’être: the insatiable pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge as a force to drive civilization.”
While discussing the leap across the digital divide and community service provided by librarians, this book urges readers not to look away while the Government is taking funds away from libraries. One such initiative is called Send Librarians to Congress, where the goal is to put a copy of this book in the hands of each member of Congress before Federal funding for libraries is eliminated as proposed in the “Skinny Budget” from President Trump. Cassidy writes:
“libraries in America today are at a crossroads, facing dangers not unlike those of the Great Library [of Alexandria] as well as an evolving technology that has the power either to make libraries exponentially more valuable or to erode their foundation if we are not careful.”
The book then focuses a chapter on America’s First Lending Library: The Lending Company of Philadelphia which was opened in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. The second history-based chapter is on artifacts and tablets interviewing Sumerologist Steve Tinney at the Tablet Room at the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the tablets similar to those which got us the Epic of Gilgamesh (British Museum) and Cuneiform writing.
Cassidy then turns his attention to individual library histories like the chapter “The Little Library That Tried” on M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, Massachusetts and “History you can Hold” focusing on the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. There are also insights to libraries collecting non-texts like the Franklin Public Library which collects ‘The American Girl’ dolls instead. The book closes with “Archiving the Past” at University libraries in Texas and Iowa with a conversation between Cassidy and George R.R. Martin.
I really enjoyed this book with all its components, however, as a reader and librarian I was much more interested in the essays written by authors and the history parts. I wish they were longer. Some author interviews were only a paragraph long. For 220 images of librarians to fit in this large book, expect a coffee-table-style book. I understand the political undertones, specifically the one I mentioned above, where this book aims to put a face to the community of librarians in America for Congress, but as a physical codex, the book will become immediately dated because of the abundance of contemporary photographs. On the other hand, the same component makes it somewhat unique to preserving the ‘here and now.’ I would urge the reader to look at this book first and foremost as an art/photography book, where the histories and author essays are the supplements for the images, not the other way around as is usually the case. Nonetheless, the book advertises itself as a celebration of libraries and librarians, and in that respect, it has succeeded.
In terms of librarians photographed, this book is America-centric. Though the librarians are multicultural and diverse, the workplaces of the librarians photographed are mostly in the United States covering an array of public libraries, special collections, school libraries, and academic libraries. The authors interviewed are American, Canadian, and British. Overall this book focuses on the Western experience of the library.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in libraries, photography, and who has enjoyed blogs/books like Humans of New York which focus on individuals with an excerpt on what they do, and what they enjoy. I especially recommend this book to Congress.
Many thanks to Hachette Books, Black Dog & Leventhal for sending me a copy of this book for an early review.
I will leave you now with this excellent quotation on the importance of librarians taken from the introduction to the book :
- Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles
In this book Battles covers the history of the library, giving an overview, starting with Alexandria and working his way to present times. This is a great starting point to get a general history of the library and readership. Battles takes into account Chinese and Middle-Eastern approaches to librarianship in history though it is mostly Euro-centric, particularly in the sections discussing the Medieval period and the Renaissance. I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the long history of libraries. To go from Antiquity to Present time in only 222 pages is a lot to cover so he doesn’t go into too much detail. Very pleasant.
- Apostles of Culture by Dee Garrison
This book covers the history of the American Public Library System since its conception post-American Civil War until present times– which for this publication is 1979, missing a rather large portion of the technological advances in the digital revolution. Its main focus is expository from an objective standpoint though it dives into the ideals and theoretical beginnings of the library and contrasts them with what the library eventually has done/become over time. It focuses on the transcendentalist ideals and key figures such as Melvil Dewey, and Andrew Carnegie and their role in the transformation of the library from a private institution to a public one. In addition the book explores the role of the librarian both from a gender studies perspectives exploring the collision between men and women in the field, the feminization of the field as well as the librarian’s role moving from imposing censorship to advocating for freedom of information. This book focuses on the public library as we know it today as it was begun by the United States in the mid-1800s.
- Part of Our Lives by Wayne A. Wiegand
This book covers the history of the American Public Library as well, like Garrison’s book, but it’s published in 2015 so it incorporates newer concepts and does a much more detailed job. What makes Part of Our Lives different from Apostles of Culture is that it uses many anecdotes. Wiegand interviewed many people who had experienced the library and uses the anecdotes to draw conclusions on American Public Library history. It’s not as history-heavy as Garrison’s book, but the anecdotes bring history to life. Wiegand wrote a lot on librarianship history. He also wrote a book focusing on Lewis Sinclair’s library mentioned in Main Street and looks at four small town libraries and argues that although people claim the library to be the pillar of democratic culture of an entire country, libraries actually cater to each individual town locally, and each individual community. Wiegand contextualizes the library within specific communities and shows how they specifically adhere to local rules that are negotiable and adaptable rather than broad and nation-wide. He published that book in 2011 and it’s titled Main Street Public Library.
- The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
More famously known for A History of Reading, Manguel focuses on readership histories and reading patterns in a lot of his published works. In this one he focuses on library history, but more on the library as an idea. For instance he examines how the library exists in our society as order, as space, as power, as shadow, as mind, as imagination, or identity (among others). It’s an easy and pleasant read. Unlike Dee Garrison’s book this is not as academic heavy. Manguel takes into account non-Western libraries and explores readership practices in other parts of the world as well. It’s more inclusive than books 1-3 mentioned above.
- The Library Book (2012)
This is a tiny book and contains 23 essays written by different authors. Each author discusses in a brief non-fiction essay what books as print culture or the library as space means to them on a personal level. They contextualize the library into their history as they were growing into the authors they became today. Authors include Lionel Shriver, Stephen Fry, Zadie Smith, Kate Mosse, China Miéville, Caitlin Moran, and Tom Holland, among others. Its main goal as the foreword suggests is to celebrate libraries. This is an easy read, it’s pleasant, and it’s the least academic form the five listed.
BONUS: Essay by Neil Gaiman (the first in The View from the Cheap Seats) Called “Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming.”