Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Reading Rainbow

On the eve of the new year, here's my round-up of reading past, present, and future. Obviously future. I mean, have you seen my To-Be-Read pile?!?

Favourite Books Read in 2014

• Leonard S. Marcus, ed., Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom: I wish I had known Ursula Nordstrom. Her letters are so witty, and this collection lets us inside the mind of the twentieth century's top book editor for children. A pivotal book for my academic work this year, and a captivating book for my professional interests. I can't believe I waited so long to read this book!

• Markus Zusak, The Book Thief: I wanted to read this book before the movie came out — or at least before I saw the movie. I've read other books by Zusak, but this one is definitely my favourite so far. I raced through it, fearful for the ending; I see myself re-reading this novel this year, so I can enjoy the word play, the narrative, the smartness of its construction. A Holocaust story, but also so much more. Published for children but written for anyone with a soul.

• Teresa Toten, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B: I will be using this novel in my seminar that starts next week. It has not received the praise it deserves, in my opinion: it's a sensitive yet funny book — and much, much better than OCD, The Dude, and Me. It's a story of mental illness, love, and growing up, written with tremendous insight and compassion. I loved this book!

• Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times: Such a pleasure to read a book by a scholar roughly my age who "gets" the pleasure of the book. In the future, I might require this text for my print culture course; it's rich with observations, personal stories, and bright imagery, and I admire the fresh scholarship. A small but outstanding book.

• Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: If you love books — and you know I do — you cannot miss this story of a curmudgeonly bookseller and his relationship with books. This year books and reading have had the spotlight; as I've argued elsewhere, reading snobbery has been a big feature of 2014, with personal, aesthetic, sociological, economic, and moral significance being attached to the act of reading. Zevin's book is a fully human response to the culture of reading. I loved this book.

• Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows: A tear-jerker, but never sentimental; as in most Toews novels, comedy is snuggled up tight with despair. This novel tells the story of a suicide and its aftermath, but it is also about resilience, family, and choice. There's a reason this book has showed up on so many critics' Best of 2014 lists. I'm glad I read it, though I don't know whether I'd have the strength to read it again.

• James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life: Probably not a book that would show up on most people's "favourite" lists, but I found this book deeply disturbing and profound in its accomplishments. Since my supervisor requested a new angle on my dissertation research, I've been making a point of trying to understand the history of the aboriginal peoples in western Canada. This book took me a giant step forward. But be warned: it implicates contemporary Canadian governments in an ongoing effort to destroy "the Indian". Powerful, chilling, thought-provoking.

• Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe: Spending several weeks on the BC coast made this book much richer for me, but I'd been meaning to read it for years. I like memoir, and this one is well written; I also like sociology, and this book delivers that, too, plus some environmental observations. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

• Janice A Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire: I've been meaning to finish this book for years and am so glad I finally did. This book led directly to a conference paper and will likely influence my thinking about reading, books, and class for the next few years. The book is part ethnographic study of the Book of the Month Club and part critique of the social construction of professional-managerial–class readers. For anyone interested in print culture, this is a must read.

Books I'm Glad I Read

• Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming: Memoir of the author as a child, cast in verse. I've read a couple of Woodson's YA novels in the past and since reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I've read some of her books for younger readers as well. This year, American publishing has realized it has a diversity problem: that is, there's very little diversity in who writes, edits, publishes, markets, and sells books. I hope readers who encounter Brown Girl Dreaming push for more books like this: it's a story of  resilience, of beauty in the ordinary, of life becoming.

• Michael Kutz, If, By Miracle: A Holocaust memoir written by a scrappy boy who survived. I have a life-long fascination with Holocaust writings, and I was very glad to read this book, which I probably would never have encountered had I not been reviewing it. It's intended for a teen audience but makes no compromises. Adult readers will learn something about how great adversity can produce great people.

• Neil Gaiman, The Sleeper and the Spindle: Not yet published in North America, this book arrived from the UK earlier this week, and I'm glad to have read it (although it's too short to count on my annual list). This smart, strong retelling of Sleeping Beauty has received a lot of publicity because of the kiss that awakens the sleeper, but that's not the most significant element of the story. The illustrations are glorious, and the writing is playful, clever, and powerful. Loved it!

Honourable Mention: Favourite New Author Discovered in 2014

Lemony Snicket. Well, this is a little unfair, because I first read a Lemony Snicket book about ten years ago, but it didn't take at that time. This year I received a new Lemony Snicket book to review (When Did You See Her Last?) and enjoyed it, so I read back through the Snicket catalogue (still haven't returned to the Unfortunate Events series, though). Snicket/Handler has been in some trouble for thoughtless remarks lately, but I think he's a good guy. I'm still a fan.

Books I Wanted to Like More Than I Actually Did

• Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

• Jo Walton, My Real Children

• Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

• Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

• Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone

All of these books are very good in their own way, but in my mind I'd built them into something greater before I'd read them. Dear Committee Members is an excellent takedown of contemporary academia — so identifiable! I'd hoped My Real Children would affect me the way Among Others had; still, I puzzled for days about the core of My Real Children. Maybe I can go back to it again when I've changed. Harriet the Spy bothered me as a socialist; perhaps it's a book I'll want to write about in a few years. I liked the Hyperbole and a Half blog, but found it didn't translate to book form very well. And The Chaperone was thoughtful and surprising, but my expectations were misplaced; that said, the novel is really worth reading, Louise Brooks or no.

Books Acquired in 2014 That I'm Most Looking Forward to Reading

• Ted Bishop, The Social Life of Ink

• Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

• Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read

• Al Silverman, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors

• Pamela Smith Hill, ed., Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography [of Laura Ingalls Wilder]

So that's it for 2014. Here's to great reading in the year to come.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Goodbye, Library Cat

As some of you know, we put our elder cat, Samantha, to sleep on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. She had fought a long battle with old age, but her various complications caught up with her and she was suffering. It was a very difficult decision to let her go.

At the time, I couldn't write about it or even talk about it much. It's still not easy, but today I pay tribute to our Library Cat.

Samantha was by far the smartest cat I've ever met. Zak claims this is because when she was young, in the lead-up to our move to St Albert, she spent a lot of time sleeping on our Encarta English Dictionary and various other reference books. She also had a life-long affinity for books.

If I were reading a book, Sam would rub her cheeks against the top of the spine and the corners of the covers (preferably while someone scratched her). We came to refer to this beahviour as cataloguing, and it was part of Samantha's night-time ritual for years and years. In fact, one of the ways we knew she was losing herself was that she stopped cataloguing, then stopped jumping up for night-time scratches altogether.

Here's a picture of Sam in Griesbach, with the compact OED in the background. Goodbye, Library Cat. I miss you every day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Brahmin

So, one of the many publishing-related web resources I subscribe to is a daily mailer called Shelf Awareness. It comes in two flavours: for professionals and for readers. (Apparently they are mutually exclusive categories.) One of the regular features on Shelf Awareness is a set of interviews with up-and-coming authors called Book Brahmin. Since sometime in 2015 (I hope) I will have published my first real book, I decided to do a Book Brahmin with myself, using the Shelf Awareness formula. Here it is!

On your nightstand now: Several books in various states of completion: Sara Paretsky, ed., A Woman's View; Joel Coharroe, ed., Six American Poets; Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, Mondo Canuck; Jame Clavell, Shogun; Jessica Kluthe, Rosina, the Midwife.

Favourite book when you were a child: It's really difficult to narrow my favourite book down to just one: I re-read my favourite books with alarming frequency when I was young, and there were many of them. As a compromise, I think I'll submit Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series as my childhood favourite. (Never cared for the television series, though.)

Your top five authors: Margaret Atwood. John Irving. Tom Robbins. Virginia Woolf. Timothy Findley. Honourary mentions to Charlotte Brontë, Judy Blume, and Robert Kroetsch. And ...

Book you've faked reading: I was an honours English major; I've faked reading many books! Moby-Dick is likely the most notable one.

Book you're an evangelist for: I do not feel I'm an evangelist for any book; if anything, I'm an evangelist for books and reading generally.

Book you've bought for the cover: Wide Open by Nicola Barker. Still haven't read it.

Book that changed your life: While I have enumerated a few dozen books that have changed my life in some way or another, one that I have recently come to recognize as life-changing is Wuthering Heights. I was fourteen and in grade nine when I read it for the first time, inspired by the song by Kate Bush. I can draw a line from this book to important school-assigned texts such as East of Eden and to self-directed texts such as Jane Eyre. And of course I've seen the film, watched various TV adaptations, and read various spinoffs and books inspired by Emily's original.

Favourite line from a book: As I've noted before: "All of us are better when we're loved" written by Alistair Macleod in his grand novel No Great Mischief. But a close runner-up would be Dumbledore's "few words" to address the great hall in the first Harry Potter book: "Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!" Then he sits down.

Which character you most relate to: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. She wants so very much to be a good person, but she has so much anger!

Book you most want to read again for the first time: Probably 1984 by George Orwell. But that's a long story.

Book you think everyone should read: The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Or maybe Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. No, The Cider House Rules by John Irving. Or maybe The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Planting Seeds

In January I will begin a new phase in my academic career when I teach my first baccalaureate seminar ("special topics") course. The course will examine editorial issues in children's and YA books from both technical and political economy perspectives — fitting, eh?

Here's the reading list. Students are not required to buy or even read all of the texts; the idea is that the presenter will give us enough information about the book, its structure, its potential editorial issues, and its engagement with the larger themes of publishing for children and teens that we will all gain new knowledge regardless of whether we've read the books before or not. (I have, obviously, read all of them.) I hope the students understand that they should not present the books as literature: the course is emphatically not an English seminar. Ideally, seminar participants will encounter new books to read in the future and will learn more about the issues in this sector of the business. I'm interested to see whether this approach works.

• Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me (I'm presenting this one)
• Neil Gaiman, The Wolves in the Wall AND Blueberry Girl
• Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit AND The Great Paper Caper
• Dennis Lee, Alligator Pie
• Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
• J.K. Rowling,  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
• E.B. White, Charlotte's Web
• Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
• Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting
• Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale...
• Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake
• Carol Matas, Pieces of the Past
• Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
• Laura Weiss, Ordinary Beauty (I'm presenting this one, too)
• Jaclyn Moriarty, Feeling Sorry for Celia
• Bryan Talbot, One Bad Rat
• Gabrielle Prendergast, Audacious
• Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese
• Teresa Toten, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B
• Martine Leavitt, My Book of Life by Angel
• J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
• Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
• Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post
• Jo Walton, Among Others
• Megan McCafferty, Fourth Comings
• Mariko Tamaki, (You) Set Me on Fire

We are also reading two nonfiction how-to guides, one on writing and editing children's and YA books and one on analyzing narrative prose.

I'm excited about this course, as it may form the foundation of my academic work for the next couple of years. There must a reason I've been reading all these kids' books, after all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Audience Participation Fiddling

Hey-ho! The other night I had the idea that I should organize an audience participation movie event. Something like Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with personal meaning. So I've come up with the Fiddler on the Roof Audience Participation and Singalong!

I can see it now. Just imagine the dress-up potential. Bring your hat for the Bottle Dance! Bring your pearls and gravestones for Tevye's Dream! Bring your suitcase for the train scene. Bring your hankies for "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Anatevka". Be sure to practise your grapevine step! Dress like a Cossack and get in free!

Huh. So just me, then?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Because I miss you

In the last couple of years this song has become dear to me. As the season approaches, I find myself listening to it over and over again. Wistful. Missing.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now