Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The 7th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - April Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

**Note: The winner of the Freedom to Read Week mini-challenge was Carolyn Riedel. Congratulations to her! She will receive a copy of Vicki Delany's Gold Web:

(Once again, a huge thanks to Dundurn Press for graciously donating the prize!)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reader's Diary #1116- Judy Blume: Freckle Juice

Not one of her more controversial books by any means, Freckle Juice is nonetheless one of Judy Blume's best known works. Then, Freckle Juice is also aimed at a younger audience than Are You There God? It's Me Margaret and those other frequently challenged titles.

It still has an important message, however, about accepting one's physical appearance. Andrew, the boy on the cover above, does not accept his appearance. Nicky, the boy who sits in front of him in class, is covered in freckles and Andrew is J-E-A-L-O-U-S. It's told innocently and humorously enough that one doesn't need to get all preachy about the "dangers of body dysmorphia," but the seeds for that discussion are certainly available for planting.

Taking advantage of Andrew's desire to be more freckled is Sharon, a girl in Andrew's grade 3 class, who, given the two dimensional treatment by Blume, appears almost pure evil. She sells Andrew a recipe for freckle juice, comprised of various items commonly found in a kitchen; nothing poisonous, but gross enough that when mixed together and drank, makes Andrew sick. What's worse, it doesn't give him freckles. I loved this particular part of the story. It brought me back to my own childhood when a cousin and I would often make kitchen concoctions. We were convinced that the cure for cancer was awaiting humankind right there in the refrigerator if we could just discover the correct amounts of pickle brine and barbeque sauce.

Finally at the end, Andrew plans to not give Sharon the satisfaction of knowing she'd taken him for a chump, attempts to cover himself with fake freckles (see cover). When that doesn't work, the story comes almost full circle with a couple delightful twists that I'll avoid spoiling any further.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reader's Diary #1115- W. Somerset Maugham: Rain

If I was to tell you that I read a short story about a sanctimonious religious man who harshly judges a prostitute, you'd probably guess that in the end, it would be revealed that the man turned out to be a hypocrite. And, in this case, you'd be right.

If W. Somerset Maugham's "Rain" is salvaged at all from what would have even been predictable back when it was written, I'd say it was by the setting (you don't get a lot of stories set in the American Samoa) and by the fact that the religious man, Mr. Davidson, while certainly dislikable from the onset in his judgmental colonial remarks, does not appear to be a hypocrite at that point. The rain presents a picture of overwhelming pressure that seems to have a subtle hand in making him fall. Of course, rain is as natural as natural can be, and perhaps Maugham was making a point in that regard. Mr. Davidson didn't really stand a chance.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reader's Diary #1114- Sandra Dolan: One of the Most Busiest Posts in the North

The town I grew up in, Twillingate, Newfoundland, peaked during my childhood at about 6000 people. Today, long since the collapse of the cod fishery, it stands at about 2500. I know it's inevitable that some small towns die. I can accept that. I can't, however, accept how many small towns across the country are dying at this particular point in time and how nonchalant everyone is about it. There's a reason so many great Canadian novels are set in rural areas despite the fact that the majority of Canadians live in urban areas: small town culture is valuable. It has something to offer. And since when is it okay to simply let a culture die? Surely not all of these deaths are inevitable.

Okay, that's my rant, a rant inspired with Sandra Dolan's One of the Most Busiest Posts in the North, A History of Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta. For those of you who don't know where Fort Fitzgerald is (and I think it safe to say that that's most of you), Wikipedia lists it at "17 kilometres (11mi) south of the Northwest Territories border, 23 kilometres (14 mi) southeast of Fort Smith." The article goes on to quote a 2008 census, stating that 10 people live there. However, another website I found used 2010 statistics, and it had slipped even further down to just 8. It's a far cry from the 1000 people who lived there in the 1940s and 50s, when the town could support a church, school, RCMP detachment, store, and even a hotel. It was, as one early visitor once remarked, "one of the most busiest posts in the North." Now it is not be hard to believe that in another 10 to 20 years, Fort Fitzgerald will be a complete ghost town.

Whether or not Fort Fitzgerald's demise was inevitable is not an angle pursued by Dolan (though at least one resident quoted in the book expresses bitterness about the government's broken promises of a better life in Fort Smith). Instead, Dolan takes a fond look back at the town's history and people. isolating any particular story or character would give a misleadingly inaccurate picture of a wholly unremarkable town, but together they present a warm, intimate picture with real people. I was able to get a real sense of the bonds and concerns of the former inhabitants and for a while I felt like I was there, laughing and crying along with them. A few year's back I was charmed by Sandra Dolan's Wooden Boats and Iron People, a history of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. In One of the Most Busiest Posts in the North, she has upped the ante by including stories and quotes from elders and other former residents. The result is a highly personal and engaging history.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reader's Diary #1113- Oliver Miller: Rain

I once spent a week with a girl who told me she thought eating was boring. I found myself creating excuses to hop on her bike and make clandestine visits to nearby fried chicken outlets. I found myself very annoyed.

I thought of her again today as I read Oliver Miller's "Rain." The narrator's girlfriend declares her hatred for raincoats. Despite the rain, she discards it and leaves it on a sidewalk. She also hates couches.

At one point the narrator asks, "How could you not love a girl who used the word 'mawkish'?"

Because she makes asinine comments about raincoats and couches and eating, that's how. (You dodged a bullet, my friend.)

Despite her, I quite enjoyed Miller's poetic narration. It's a simply scene really, with just a bit more (and not too much more) clarity than William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow."

 by larskflem, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  larskflem 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reader's Diary #1112- Jeanette C. Smith: The Laughing Librarian

As a teacher, I've often said that I don't like reading about teaching in my spare time. Not that I always want escapism (often books feature worlds and situations I'd definitely not want to escape to!) but I also don't want to feel like I'm working. But now that I'm working on my masters in library and information science, I don't feel that way at all. If it's about libraries, I say bring it on.

I won't, however, review or discuss my textbooks here. I also won't say my blog posts are unprofessional (they're not), but I certainly don't spend the time analyzing and writing about my reading for this blog that I would for my courses. I'm pretty sure no one is coming to this blog to read lengthy posts (they're barely coming for the short ones) and while I hope I've offered something of substance over the years, something provocative here or there, for the most part I try to keep the posts light and conversational.

The Laughing Librarian, by Jeanette C. Smith, feels like a textbook. I'm not sure that's what Debbie was going for when she got this one for me for Christmas and it's certainly not what I was hoping for when I first unwrapped it. Then, Smith can hardly be blamed for that. The book is not subtitled A Collection of American Library Humor. It's called A History of American Library Humor. So, while there are a few examples here or there—of comics, jokes, and so on— the book can be dry at times. Even those examples don't always help; descriptions of a cartoon is nothing on par with reading the actual cartoon.

As a textbook, it doesn't always work either. From an organizational side of things, I wish there had been more consistency. Tracing how, for instance, library humour has changed throughout the years in the face of new technologies, new library practices, and so on, could have provided a nice (albeit obvious) path to follow. While Smith addresses these changes, chapter headings that range from "Librarian Types and Stereotypes" to "MAD Magazine" to "For SEX, See the Librarian," the book felt disjointed and lacking an arc. Clearly some of those loose threads had potential to be quite interesting. I was super-happy to have a chapter devoted to MAD Magazine, but again, I wish there had been more actual clippings rather than Smith's descriptions.

Check out what this blog does with library references from the Simpsons (sadly missed by Smith). I guess I wanted something more like that. I would have settled for Humour is Important rather than Humour, but only if it had been done well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Northwords Writers Festival - 2014 Authors

Yellowknife's prestigious Northwords Writers Festival is coming up once again, heading into its 8th year. In the past they've hosted such notable and acclaimed authors as Michael Crummey, Douglas Coupland, Charlotte Gray, Michael Kusugak, Kathy Reichs, Richard Van Camp and many more. So who's slated for this year's festival, being held from June 5th to the 8th?

It looks like the headliner (not that they call it that) is none other than Robert J. Sawyer, probably Canada's most famous current sci-fi writer (remember, Atwood calls her stuff "speculative fiction," presumably while casting the tip of her nose towards her crystal chandelier). Sawyer's won Hugo and Nebula awards and had a (albeit short-lived) series on ABC-TV.

Other authors making the voyage north of 60 this year, according to the Northwords website, include:
  • Hayden Trenholm
  • Liz Westbrook-Trenholm
  • Dave Bidini
  • Todd Babiak
  • Monique Gray Smith
  • Billeh Nickerson
  •  Tara Lee Morin
I've got mixed feelings about this year's guests. I've heard of about half and am excited to discover the others, but I'm disappointed with myself that a writers festival in Canada can have an entire roster of writers that I've barely read. I've read short stories by Sawyer and Hayden Trenholm, but that's it. Goodbye "Well Read Canadian" badge.

I jest, of course. I'm happy for the Northwords committee for this wonderful guest list and wish them the best of luck. I hope to at least take in some of the events, and if you're a Yellowknifer pay attention to their website and to local media to see more announcements on events and venues.

In the meantime, here are links to the lone stories I've read by 2 of the above authors:

Robert J. Sawyer- "Forever"
Hayden Trenholm- "Like Monsters of the Deep"

(Gulp! I just realized that neither of those reviews were exactly glowing. Maybe I'll try to steer away from those guys. Or go incognito.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reader's Diary #1111- Akbar Raadi, translated by Roya Monajem: The Rain

"He wanted to say something, but the words were sleeping between his lips." 

There are more than a few phrases like this scattered throughout Akbar Raadi's "The Rain" and thus more than a few times that I can't decide whether or not it's poetry or a bad Google translate.

Set in Iran, I believe during a drought, "The Rain" is a miserable tale about a couple about to have a meal that seems to consist of nothing but melon. What's making them so miserable? There's the drought, of course, but there's also debts that need to be paid (related to the drought), the absence of someone named Ramezan (a son, maybe?) that was taken away by soldiers, and something about a rooster. If I seem unclear about the details, it's because I am. But in the story's defense, I am left wanting more. Perhaps the description is lacking and/or confusing, but the raw emotion is certainly present.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Reader's Diary #1110- Keith Halliday: Yukon River Ghost

I brought Keith Halliday's Yukon River Ghost back from the Yukon this past summer and just recently had the chance to read it with my daughter.

Yukon River Ghost is historical fiction, set in the Yukon, early 1900s. It is the supposed found journals of a young girl named Papillon who was living for a summer in Canyon City, a figurative, and as it turns out literal, ghost town just outside of Whitehorse. (We visited the site last summer, and with the exception of an old wooden tram car, there was little left to seeexcept for beautiful nature, of course!)

I was interested in the book at first, feeling that it had a Scooby-Doo Mystery sort of vibe, only with a lot of interesting Yukon facts and factoids thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, that Scooby-Doo comparison became a problem.

First off, in Scooby-Doo, more often than not the supernatural elements turned out to be hoaxes (with people tearing off ghost-pirate masks at the end and cursing out those meddling kids and their dog). So, I kept expecting to discover that the ghost in this book was going to turn out to be a hoax as well. He didn't. Which is just fine, I suppose, I can't blame Halliday for my assumptions. But...

Second, I remembered that Scooby-Doo wasn't all that great anyway. Sure, Halliday's book has the added bonus of educational trivia, but it also has more than a few cheesy and/or implausible moments. The ghost, for instance, visits Papillon's house every night, rattling chains and generally making all sorts of noise— or at least enough noise to wake up Papillon anway, but not her mother? Ever? That's a little convenient. 

Anyway, I don't think my age group was the intended audience. I think most kids (like my own) will be interested enough, and maybe learn a thing or two, even if it's not destined to be the next greatest children's novel.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Reader's Diary #1109- Eugene O'Neill: The Iceman Cometh

It was over a week and a half ago that I read Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh and nearly, even in such a short time, forgot that I'd even read it. Not that I'd fault the play for being forgettable, but I was somewhat unsure what I thought of it. I enjoyed it, certainly, but unclear what I thought the message was. I ended up in a bit of a philosophical corner and I think my defense was to simply put it out of my head altogether.

A very brief synopsis: a bunch of rather miserable people, pining over "pipe-dreams," drink away their regrets at a bar. One of their own, Hickey, comes back into the bar, advising them to accept their failures, to give up hope, and they'll finally be happy. This new outlook wreaks havoc on everyone and threatens to upset their status quo. Hickey, however, turns out to have murdered his wife and the rest of the barflies pounce on this: if they can brush Hickey off as crazy, they can also write off his advice as the musings of a madman, and return to their happily miserable existence.

And it's that oxymoron that sends my mind veering. If hope is what truly has made these characters unhappy, believing that shedding oneself of hope will make them happy is a form of hope in itself, is it not? Now we're out of oxymoron territory and into paradox country. Fun.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Reader's Diary #1108- John Chu: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

I don't remember if it was Rod or Todd Flanders that said, "lies make baby Jesus cry," but whoever it was came close to explaining the premise behind John Chu's "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere:" whenever someone lies, they get unexpectedly rained upon (even indoors, it seems). The bigger the lie, the more it rains.

It's an interesting premise, to say the least. How would we live in such a world? How would we curb our behaviour and our speech? And is it a metaphor for guilt or something?

Unfortunately, I don't think Chu adequately explores his own premise. Instead it becomes a tale about a man named Matt who is coming out to his parents. It's not entirely removed from the premise, I suppose, as Matt hasn't exactly lied to them about his sexual orientation, but has not been forthcoming with the truth either. Perhaps his realistic adaptation is the way we'd all adapt in Chu's unrealistic world. Still, the premise seems unnecessary (was it merely a way to get it published by who typically only publish sci-fi and fantasy?) when the coming out story, complicated by intercultural and inter-generational gaps, is compelling and well-written enough without it. The premise becomes more of a distraction as the story goes on.

MAY 12 by lmark, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  lmark 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Reader's Diary #1107- William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray, illustrated by Audrey Colman: Walter the Farting Dog

When I was a boy, we said "fart" in the house all the time. (Sad that we had reason to, but that was my dad.) It never occurred to me that someone might consider it a bad word until visiting at a cousin's house one day, when a foul stench was followed by the question, "Ew, who poppled?"

popples-no-1-back by excitingsounds, on Flickr
(Dear god! They can "pop in"?!)
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  excitingsounds

Poppled? What's with the cute name? That sh*t reeks!

Anyway, I thought of that story again this week when I read the epigraph to William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray's Walter the Farting Dog; "For everyone who is misjudged or misunderstood."

Uh, yeah. It's a farting dog. Don't get me wrong, that message is there, that everyone has something of value, and sometimes that thing of value is late to be appreciated, but it's a farting dog.

Fortunately, most reviews I read didn't belabour the "feel good message" but instead praise the humour. In other words, it's a fart, not a dang popple.

Walter, the farting dog, is adopted by a family who quickly realize that their dog has a flatulence problem. They try everything to stop it (except for one clever uncle who uses the dog to mask his own farts), to no avail. Resigning themselves to the fact that they can't take it anymore and that they'll have to get rid of him, they change their minds after Walter's farts manage to foil a burglary. (It's a bit of a happy ever after ending, when seriously, they still can't live like that. I give them 2 months before the dog's back at the SPCA and they've invested in an ADT Home Security System.)

I don't usually go in for fart jokes. They're usually juvenile and too easy. But it's a kids' book. And when there seems to be a goal to turn such books into overly-sentimental and/or melancholy pieces with "serious" artwork that no real kid enjoys, they're entitled to a few innocent fart jokes, done in silly, but creative pictures.

Not sure, however, that it needs sequels, but hey, the first one was a success, and I guess there's money to be made in natural gas. (Actually, that's not entirely fair. I have enjoyed some sequels and as, I've not read the Farting Dog sequels, I shouldn't assume the worst. Still, I've kind of not gotten over those If You Give Laura Numeroff a Paycheck books.)