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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New Librarian of Congress

Yesterday I posted about some of the most beautiful libraries in the world.  One of the books on Schatje’s Shelves, The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, includes The Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  That library made news recently for more than its beauty:  a new librarian was appointed. 

Dr. Carla D. Hayden was appointed to that position by President Barack Obama.   At 64, she is the first African-American and the first woman to lead the 216-year-old library, one of the world’s largest, and the U.S.’s leading repository of knowledge and culture.  The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 162 million items, 3,100 employees, and an annual budget of close to $650 million.

Dr. Hayden has a reputation as a fierce advocate for her patrons and employees.  In 2003 and 2004, while serving as president of the American Library Association, Dr. Hayden clashed frequently with Attorney General John Ashcroft over what she perceived as privacy overreaches in the USA Patriot Act.

More recently, Dr. Hayden made the news in April 2015 when she was Baltimore’s chief librarian.  Freddie Gray died after being injured in police custody and Baltimore erupted in violence.  Though the governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency, Dr. Hayden and her staff kept the library open. 
For Dr. Hayden, the unrest was the test that clarified her values:  Libraries are about far more than books.  “The people of that neighborhood protected that library,” Dr. Hayden said.  “There were young men who stood outside. It was such a symbol” (

Since more than 80% of librarians are women, it’s about time a woman was appointed to this position.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Beauty of Library Investment

I’ve written about the importance of libraries before, most recently on August 13 (  Since my local library is now closed, I was interested in an article in The Atlantic which stated that “there’s empirical evidence that usage tracks investment. If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them. . . . The correlation between investment and use makes sense. If libraries have more funds, they can have more staff, more classes, more copies of the latest bestseller, and—maybe most importantly—longer hours” (

I’ve also posted about beautiful libraries around the world:
The Library of Parliament in Ottawa and the Vancouver Public Library have both made lists of the world’s most beautiful libraries, so I was pleased that another Canadian library has made the list.  The Halifax Library has been added to the list of beautiful new libraries built in the last few years:

Though not all libraries can make a list of the world’s most beautiful, all libraries are important community resources.  “If you build it [and fund it properly], [they] will come!”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of CANADA by Richard Ford

Yesterday, I posted the longlist of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  In researching this relatively new literary award which was established in 2012, I realized I have read four of the previous winners.

Here are the previous winners of this award:

2015:  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (

2013:  Canada by Richard Ford

2014:  The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The one book I have read from the above list but for which I did not post my review because I read it back in June 2012 (before I began my blog) is the one for Canada by Richard Ford, so I thought I’d post my review today.

Review of Canada by Richard Ford
3 Stars
Canada by [Ford, Richard]The novel opens in Montana in 1960. The narrator, Dell Parsons, is fifteen years old and lives a normal life with his parents and twin sister Berner. The parents are “regular people tricked by circumstance and bad instincts, along with bad luck, to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back” (7). They ineptly execute a sketchily planned bank robbery and are quickly apprehended. The focus of the book is on the consequences this one event has on the family, particularly Dell who ends up crossing a boundary as well, the border into Canada, and living with a mysterious American, Arthur Remlinger, in Saskatchewan.

The book explores how one event can have dramatic consequences for others and how people react to personal catastrophes. Separated from his foolhardy parents and his sister, Dell faces an uncertain future with few role models. He has to figure out for himself how to live his life; he has to find his way “from a way of living that doesn’t work toward one that does” (395). More than anything, Dell wants to be normal and to lead a normal life: “things were happening around me. My part was to find a way to be normal” (142) although he admits “It’s hard to hold the idea of a normal life” (93). Of course he is reassured when he is told, “You could be normal in Canada” (325). In the end he adopts an attitude of detachment, deciding that perhaps it’s best “not to hunt too hard for hidden . . . meanings . . . and learn to accept the world” (395 – 396).

The novel moves at a very slow pace, as Dell meticulously reflects on his parents’ characters and actions and tries to understand their motives and reasoning. In the process it is Dell’s character which is also revealed. By the time readers have finished the book, they will feel they know the narrator intimately.

The style is clear and crisp. I love some of Ford’s comparisons: Bev and Neeva Parsons were obviously wrong for each other and “The longer they stayed on . . . the more misguided their lives became – like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense” (6 – 7).

The title of the novel has me puzzled, especially since half the book is set in the United States. I guess I’ll just have to accept Ford’s explanation that he felt a “visceral-instinctual rightness” to the title: “The title seemed inevitable.” In return for appropriating Canada’s “sacred name,” he has tried to give back “as good a book as [he] can write” ( In my opinion, that’s quite a good book.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

The longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was released: 

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
Christodora by Tim Murphy
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout  (See my review:
The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
As Good as Gone by Larry Watson
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead  (See my review:
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. The winner will receive a $5,000 cash award.

Finalists are announced October 26.  The winner will be announced January 22.

There is also an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.  Go to for further information.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Kirkus Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The finalists for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Fiction have been announced.  Sponsored by Kirkus Reviews, finalists are chosen from books that earned a Kirkus Star which is given to books of “exceptional merit.”  The winner will receive $50,000.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
When Margaret's fiancé, John, is hospitalized for depression in 1960s London, she faces a choice: carry on with their plans despite what she now knows of his condition, or back away from the suffering it may bring her.  She decides to marry him. Imagine Me Gone is the story of what unfolds from this act of love and faith.  At the heart of it is their eldest son, Michael, a brilliant, anxious music fanatic who makes sense of the world through parody.  Over the span of decades, his younger siblings -- the savvy and responsible Celia and the ambitious and tightly controlled Alec -- struggle along with their mother to care for Michael's increasingly troubled and precarious existence.  Told in alternating points of view by all five members of the family, this brings alive the love of a mother for her children, the often inescapable devotion siblings feel toward one another, and the legacy of a father's pain in the life of a family.

Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.
Carousel Court is the story of Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young couple who move cross-country to Southern California in search of a fresh start for themselves and their infant son following a trauma.  But they arrive at the worst possible economic time.  Instead of landing in a beachside property, Nick and Phoebe find themselves cemented into the dark heart of foreclosure alley, surrounded by neighbours being drowned by their underwater homes who set fire to their belongings, flee in the dead of night, and eye one another with suspicion while keeping shotguns by their beds.  Trapped, broke, and increasingly desperate, Nick and Phoebe each devise their own plan to claw their way back into the middle class and beyond.  Hatched under one roof, their two separate, secret agendas will inevitably collide.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
The title refers to horse racing, and the novel centres itself within that world: a connected web of humans and animals, as well as a fertile patch of land, in the heart of Kentucky.   C.E. Morgan puts readers inside the consciousness of a range of characters who inhabit that patch of land through the years: an adolescent trying to grow up under the withering gaze of his landowner father; a brilliant black woman struggling with her seeming fate to be a household servant; a whip-smart boy who grows up in the ghetto but seeks to know more about his mysterious origins; and a girl whose uncompromising love of her family's legacy leads her to gamble with her own life.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx
In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France.  Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins.  René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing.  He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures.  But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.  Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation.  Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors.  Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.  The novel relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits.  When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.  Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.  Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens.  And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels.  Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

The winner will be announced on November 3. 

For the complete list of nominees, see   There you can also find the nominees for the nonfiction and young readers categories and links to the reviews of the books.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review of THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison

3.5 Stars
Toni Morrison’s first novel centres on a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a poor, unloved child who wants to have blue eyes.  Constantly rejected and told that she is ugly and worthless, she wants the blue eyes of a white girl so she can be loved and treated respectfully.  Through flashbacks, the reader also learns about the lives of Pauline and Cholly, Pecola’s parents. 

Pecola’s family is anything but the ideal family portrayed in the Dick and Jane stories found in children’s readers of the mid-twentieth century, the stories referenced at the beginning of chapters.  But though Pauline and Cholly’s treatment of their daughter is at least insensitive if not downright cruel, the flashbacks show what has shaped them and explain their behaviour.  Though it is difficult to forgive, we can at least understand what motivates them.  Morrison humanizes them and shows them to be victims as well.

The book examines a people trapped in fatal self-loathing, a self-hatred produced by a racist culture.  Fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed children are held up as the epitome of beauty.  What chance does a black child have when “black” has so many negative connotations?

The novel begins with first person narration, nine-year-old Claudia, one of Pecola’s classmates, being the narrator.  Though there are shifts in point of view, it is the innocence of Claudia and her sister that is most effective in conveying the injustices heaped upon Pecola.

The prose can only be described as poetic.  It is a style that invites the reader to savour words.  Because of the deadline of a book club meeting, I read it quickly and so undoubtedly missed much.  It’s a book that should be read slowly with individual sentences and even phrases being examined. 

The book is not an easy read.  It is unsettling and offers little hope.  Tragedy and sadness abound and there seems no end to the pain.  Perhaps only in Claudia’s rejection of a blue-eyed doll - “the big, the special, the loving gift” (20) - is there a suggestion that society’s racist standards of beauty may eventually be likewise rejected by black girls.

Morrison wrote about black girls in American culture, but I also found myself thinking about First Nations’ children in Canadian culture.  We have the horrific history of residential schools where aboriginal children were also told they were ugly and worthless.  Those children, ripped from their homes and parents, were, like Cholly, totally unprepared for parenthood:  “having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be” (160).  The consequences for the children of residential school survivors were disastrous – just as Pecola suffers because of Cholly’s lack of parental role models. 

Perhaps that is part of Morrison’s achievement in the book:  her message applies not just to the situation of blacks in the United States, but also to other minority cultures elsewhere.  Because what she wrote about 45 years ago is still a problem (e.g. Black girls lightening their skin; Asian girls having cosmetic eye surgery), Morrison’s testimony is damning.  Though her specific perspective should not in any way be dismissed, her book transcends a specific time and place.  So though the book is an uncomfortable read, it is one that must be read. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize Finalists

The shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (celebrating its 20th year) was announced today:

After James by Michael Helm
A neuroscientist retreats to a secluded cabin in the woods, intending to blow the whistle on a pharmaceutical company and its creativity drug gone wrong.  A failed poet is lured to Rome as a "literary detective" to decode the work of a mysterious Internet poet who seems to write about murders with precise knowledge of private details.  On the heels of a life crisis, a virologist discovers her identity has been stolen by a conceptual artist in whose work someone always goes missing.  After James is told in three connected parts, each gesturing toward a type of genre fiction -- the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic.  As the novel unfolds in great cities, remote regions, and deadly borderlands, it weaves connections both explicit and subtle.

The Parcel by Anosh Irani
The novel’s narrator is Madhu--born a boy, but a eunuch by choice--who has spent most of her life in a close-knit clan of transgender sex workers in Kamathipura, the notorious red-light district of Bombay.  Madhu identifies herself as a "hijra"--a person belonging to the third sex, neither here nor there, man nor woman.  Now, at 40, she has moved away from prostitution, her trade since her teens, and is forced to beg to support the charismatic head of the hijra clan, Gurumai.  One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a "parcel" has arrived--a young girl from the provinces, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt--and Madhu must prepare it for its fate.  Despite Madhu's reluctance, she is forced to take the job by Gurumai.  As Madhu's emotions spiral out of control, her past comes back to haunt her, threatening to unravel a lifetime's work and identity.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell  (This short story collection also appears on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize)
These stories range from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true and are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes.  Powell explores themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found. 

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh
Vietnam is a haunted country, and Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is a haunted man.  In 1908, the French rule Saigon, but uneasily; dissent whispers through the corridors of the city. Each day, more Vietnamese rebels are paraded through the streets towards the blade of the guillotine, now a permanent fixture in the main square and a gruesome warning to those who would attempt to challenge colonial rule.  It is a warning that Georges-Minh will not heed.  A Vietnamese national and Paris-educated physician, he is obsessed by guilt over his material wealth and nurses a secret loathing for the French connections that have made him rich, even as they have torn his beloved country apart.  With a close-knit group of his friends calling themselves the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, Georges-Minh plots revenge on the French for the savagery they have shown to the Vietnamese.  And it falls to Georges-Minh to create a poison to mix into the Christmas dinner of a garrison of French soldiers. It is an act that will send an unmistakable message to the French: Get out of Vietnam.  But the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong.  Forced to flee into the deep jungles of the outer provinces, Georges-Minh must care for his infant son, manage the growing madness of his wife, and elude capture by the hill tribes and the small--but lethal--pockets of French sympathizers.

The Break by Katherena Vermette
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.  In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night.  Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend.  Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain.  Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner.  Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre.  Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, sponsored by Rogers Communications Inc.,  recognizes Canadian writers for the year’s best novel or short-story collection as selected by a three-member, independent judging panel. The winner, who will be announced on Nov. 2, will receive $25,000.