Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What should I read next? Wednesday #5: (after) Utterly monkey

aka "Lad lit."

aka Screw-up Men in Their Twenties and Thirties Who Have a Fundamentally Good Heart But Whose Pathetic Insecurities Cause Them To Mock Others.

Nick Laird's first novel, Utterly Monkey, tells the tale of Danny Williams, an Irishman now working as a "deeply unenthusiastic" lawyer in London (quote from Publisher's Weekly review). Circumstances reunite him with his childhood friend, Geordie, who is on the run from the Ulster Unionists and carrying a sack of cash. Yeah, that's going to end well. Danny and Geordie travel back to Northern Ireland (Danny, ostensibly for a case, and Geordie, well, to get the stuffing beaten out of him, essentially). A coming-of-age story laced with humour and romance (Danny manages to consistently put his foot in his mouth with his assistant, the lovely Ellen). Richly detailed, with magnificent dialogue (a great ear for dialects helps) and convincing characters (if sometimes implausible circumstances).

On the theme of disillusioned youth, the back cover of Steve Hely's How I became a famous novelist promises that "this is the story of [Pete] Tarslaw's effort to write the best-sellingest best seller of all time, and what its success costs him in the end." Pete, like our friend Danny, is frustrated in love, and this spurs him on to a project: using current best-sellers as a guide (see, already that makes my skin crawl), Pete will write something that is guaranteed to make him rich and famous, thereby securing his future and making his ex-girlfriend jealous. Sounds like an iron-clad plan, right? Well, it works, oddly enough, and Pete soon discovers that talk show invitations, book readings, and TV interviews are not all they are cracked up to be. Moreover, people's genuine reactions to his very fake book and persona begin to trouble him, much as he is loath to admit it. Things come to a head when Pete gets into a media brawl with another bestselling writer (shades of Nicholas Sparks). Will Pete do the right thing? Can he really be who he is? Is he anything more than a magpie? Will his ex-girlfriend ever speak to him again? Hely, who has written for Letterman, is spot-on with portayals of the cast of characters in the book world. Disturbing, funny, gross, and ultimately kind of a thinker, this book has more layers than you might think. We hope Pete does, too.

Beginner's Greek fits in the same group as the previous two books in many ways (funny, edgy, darkly comic, cynical at times) but is ultimately a much more pure love story, hidden underneath the dross. Peter (that's too many Peters per blog entry. Sorry) meets Holly on a plane; they click and he gets her number; he loses her number and therefore loses touch with The One. Years later, his ne'er-do-well, serial womanizer of a best friend, Jonathan, announces his engagement ... to a woman Peter discovers is Holly. Peter stumbles on in life, feeling wronged even though he never tells Holly why he didn't call her (idiot), and marries the dull Charlotte because it "makes sense." At Peter and Charlotte's wedding, however, Jonathan is out in the garden romancing a woman not his wife, and is struck by lightning and killed. Hmmmm.... looks like Holly is free now, doesn't it? A round-about courtship ensues, with a few casualties and not a small amount of growth on everyone's part. Lad lit with homage to Austen, oddly enough, and it works.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Conference notes archive

I'm working on it! Now uploaded: Irshad Manji's talk at OLA 2008, and a session about the Idea Stores from CLA 2006.

Click here!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Earthquake update

I'm sure you are all wondering how we survived over at Rideau today!

(For those of you not in Ottawa, or even Canada, we had an earthquake today. 5.0 magnitude... More messy near the epicentre in Quebec, but Ottawa saw some broken windows and flying bricks).

Unlike those wimps in the downtown office towers, we didn't evacuate. We were sort of about to, but then things calmed down.

I had a class visit this afternoon at 1 pm; it's a local Grade 2-3 class with a magnificent teacher who runs a tight ship and is a pleasure to collaborate with. I had just finished my booktalk and the kids were picking their books in the program room, from what I had discussed, and we were about to go upstairs to choose more and have a quick tour. Rumble, rumble. For a split second, I thought, well, that's a REALLY big truck (we have giant trucks through downtown all the time, because our city is backwards that way....). Then I thought, holy crap, that's an earthquake. My colleague (training! remember?) went immediately to the doorway (safest place!) and I was halfway out the door to get the kids to evacuate when the teacher made them sit down again. The most vigorous shaking was over by then, so I let them all stay inside. The kids were initially starting to freak, but when the teacher said, "We just experienced a very small earthquake," a bunch called out "Cool!" and it was smooth sailing from then on. They also found it pretty cool that my last earthquake was when I was their age.

Meanwhile, upstairs, apparently all our regulars on the Internet (oh, you know the types...) hightailed it out of the library at the first rumble. I think this is hilarious - two years ago, we had a nasty fire alarm incident (guys doing construction tripped it, but we weren't sure initially) and could I get those dudes to get off their butts? NO! I had to practically peel some of them off their chairs. Some wanted to debate about it with me. I was like, FIRE! OUT! NOW! and then they all lurked on the front steps with that Internet-junkie look on their faces and I was like, If this was a real fire, you'd be dead. GET ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET!. So, for future reference, simulate an earthquake if you want to dislodge your loyal Internet devotees. Good to know.

We have 30 feet high ceilings, and apparently the wooden beams shook. When I heard that, I did an internal walk-through, and found one shelf of books that had fallen. We got in touch with the city ("Do you see any cracks" Me: "Narrow it down...."), and I had someone else do an exterior walk-around (thanks!!!!) We noted down and photographed cracks, but eventually established those were cosmetic and pre-dated the quake. Whew. Poor Rideau Library has been through enough already!

So I ended up not really finishing my prep for my adult special needs group visit tomorrow, since I was busy writing incident reports (of a natural disaster nature, not for the drunk and disorderly...) and getting my new CPPSA to photograph the areas we were worried about. Oh well, I have a good excuse.

Meanwhile, Greenboro Branch is closed while a structural engineer inspects, and two other branches (Hazeldean and Osgoode) are closed due to power / water outages.

What should I read next? Wednesday #4: (after) Fall

Oh crap. Upon re-reading this, I realised my theme here is totally teen crime. Oooops. Oh well, forge on, brave readers...

Fall by Colin McAdam was one of my favourite 2009 reads. Set in the fictional St. Ebury School in Ottawa (McAdam himself attended Ashbury College), Fall is narrated primarily by Noel, a misfit at St. Ebury (nicknamed "Wink" because of his lazy eye) who is determined to change his fate. When his new roommate ends up being Julian, the popular son of the American ambassador, Noel strikes up a friendship with him, and his girlfriend, the lovely Fall (short for Fallon). McAdam soon regularly alternates points of view between Noel and Julian, as the lives of the two boys become increasingly, complicatedly, intertwined. I especially loved descriptions of Julian jogging through Rockcliffe with his dad (in part because their relationship was so interesting, and in part because I jog those streets all the time! There are few literary novels set in Ottawa ... a cheap thrill for me...) Fall, meanwhile, has gone missing: what does Noel know about this? What does Julian know about it? Who is telling the truth? A suspenseful, psychological thriller that leaves you wondering about the mythologies we create around our own identities.

And aren't all novels about school days a bit about this: the mythologies we create to survive, to fit in, or to not fit in, to stand out? This particular read-alike could really go on and on and on, but I'm going to stick to just a few titles today. Fall, by the way, won the Quebec Writers' Federation Literary Awards: Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was on the 2009 Giller Prize longlist.

The first title that jumps right into my mind is (also) local writer Priscila Uppal's The divine economy of salvation. Disclaimer: I happen to have previously had a drink with Uppal; if you think that clouds my judgement, whatever. In Divine, Sister Angela receives an anonymous package in the mail, sparking memories about her past in a Catholic girls’ school and forcing her to confront her involvement in a terrible crime. Again, how much can you trust Sister Angela's memory? The resolution of this book is a bit over the top, but it's a solidly satisfying dip into teenage psychosis (aren't we all glad we're past that?)

More of the same with a much-appreciated dash of humour to break up the tension in The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler (who you might know as Lemony Snicket). Handler’s tone in The Basic Eight is recognizably Snicket-esque in some ways, although the subject matter is very different. The Basic Eight purports to be the diary of one Flannery Culp (Handler can’t shake those Dickensian names!). Flan’s diary is being published because she is the criminal-du-jour, incarcerated for killing classmate Adam State. Her diary perfectly captures the almost-adulthood of 16-year olds: Flan and her friends (who call themselves the Basic Eight) throw dinner parties with illicit liquor flasks, competent adults are almost entirely absent, and Flan’s parents in particular seem to be disturbingly AWOL for the whole book. What’s the deal between Flan and Adam? Well, it seems that Flan spent the previous summer in Italy, where she sent increasingly romantic postcards to Adam; upon her return, however, it seems that Adam will have little to do with her. Meanwhile, Flan has some problems with her biology teacher and Flan’s best friend, Natasha, seemingly perfect and idolized by Flan, makes sure he is dealt with. One poisoned teacher later, the story takes a turn for the worse, with absinthe, secrets among friends and, before long, Adam’s inexplicable (or is it?) murder. Should the Basic Eight turn on its own? Handler deftly satirizes the media, especially Oprah and Dr. Phil, with the Winnie Moprah Show, a thorn in Flan’s side as it sensationally reports on her case. The discussion questions added to the diary by the team of expert psychologists and social scientists will also have you rolling around in a fit of (sometimes much-needed) laughter. Note that The Basic Eight was optioned for film (but seems to have fell off the map) and is, disturbingly, at least partially based on a real story. The Basic Eight and the next book are much more playful than the first two, but have the same dark undertones and sense of suspense running throughout.

Special topics in calamity physics by Marisha Pessl is oddly shelved in our Mystery section, which I think both hides it from fiction lovers and gives it a chance with mystery lovers, so I'm not sure how I feel about that... Anyway, Special topics features another misfit, Blue Van Meer (the name probably didn't help), who has been shuttled from city to city across the US throughout her childhood by her father, a perennial “visiting lecturer” and scruffy, somewhat loveable academic. Finally, in her senior year, Blue manages to stay in one place – Stockton, North Carolina, and more specifically, St. Gallway School – long enough to make friends. She also soon becomes enamored with a new, mysterious teacher… Again, something happens, and Blue has to decide whose side she is on. The novel is structured as a syllabus for a “Great Works of Literature” class, and is filled with references to novels both real and imagined.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is my last read-alike for Fall, but is less about actual crime than the special brand of emotional betrayal perfected by teens. Lee Fiora leaves her small hometown in Indiana at 14 to attend Ault, an elite prep school on the East Coast. There, she spends four years becoming increasingly enmeshed in her school’s culture: first an outsider, by senior year she is secretly dating a popular boy(or is she just sleeping with him?). Looking back a decade later, Lee muses about the secrets her fellow students kept from each other and the painful process of growing up.

I could totally read books set in schools, like, exclusively.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Training, training, training

So I am training a new staff member who will be a CPPSA, which is OPL-code for Children's Programming and Public Service assistant.

Her kids are, um, closer to my age, so she asked me to put aside a few recent kids' books so she could catch up on what she missed since she read to them.

I thought you would enjoy....

Alex's favourite picture books (from the past 20 years) in Rideau Branch's circulating collection:
You know you want to click on it to blow it up....

Same, except in Rideau Branch's Reference collection (for program use):
Yeah, yeah. I know. I kissed the baby is there twice. So shoot me. I just noticed that now.
P.S. The one below Go away, big green monster is Three little ghosties. You KNOW I ordered that one as a Reference copy....Just so I could have my own mobile.

A plan for Lansdowne that I can get behind

At left: Aberdeen Pavillion, 1903 (via)
At right: Aberdeen Pavillion, August 2007

For those of you who don't live in Ottawa, we are currently arguing passionately over plans for a major historic site in the city (despite the recent Citizen article saying people don't remember it is a historic site? Who are these people? Zombies?). Lansdowne Park has been around since the mid-19th century, and has hosted provincial exhibitions, including one in 1877 that included the first public demonstration of the telephone in Canada, military operations, agricultural fairs, musical concerts, sports events, and, most recently, a farmers' market.

I'm not even going to get into the nasty details of the news we've all been subjected to: ill-conceived plans left, right, and centre, mostly involving giant sports stadiums and big flashy screens, retail establishments and wacky token parks (some ideas were just kind of "out there," including a suggestion to plop a replica Mother Canada in the park, and a plan to move the Ottawa Art Gallery there). All I want to say about that nonsense is not everyone cares about sports, and some people who don't even live in the neighbourhood are worried about parking and transportation down Bank St., and would prefer to not see it choked in gridlock with every yokel and his sport-jersey-wearing brother slopping beer out their car window while cheering on some unpromising local team.

I just wanted to say here is one plan I could sort of get behind. Props, kids.

Photo from the

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday madness

Just a quick update since I thought you might enjoy hearing about my day!

This morning I did boring things like scheduling and timesheets, and I cleaned out my mailboxes (real and virtual) and checked out my holds that arrived over the weekend. I also replenished displays, checked in on the other branch I am temporarily supervising in addition to Rideau, sent some e-mails, and prepped by classes for the day.

Then, time for fun! Today I had 3 children's events on the docket: a school BBQ, a class visit to promote Summer Reading Club, and a Welcome to Kindergarten event at another school.

The BBQ was a blast (yummy food I rarely eat, plus some new friends made!). Part of it was a "spectacle," alors many of the children performed (singing and dancing, including belly dancing by a Grade 5 student I know quite well - she was amazing!) Meanwhile, this morning, I didn't really think through the whole outdoors thing, because I forgot to put sunscreen on my arms - eek. Finding myself on the edge of a school playground with no shade was alarming. Heh heh. I scooted over into another area that was shaded pretty quickly, running back to my table when needed. Sunscreen or not, it was brutal out there. Hey, Divas, if you're reading this, note I am using your bags (hidden in the shade, bottom left).

The class visit of Grade 4s from another school was WILD - I think it's that end-of-year, we-can-smell-summer thing. Oh, and did I mention they had a substitute teacher? Yeah. So that was interesting....

The Welcome to Kindergarten event was the most fun, by far. It was arranged as "stations" within the kindergarten room, with a speech at the beginning by the principal and myself. Due to some miscommunication, I ended up with the gross motor skills station, which was actually fine. I brought some books about shapes and had the kids cutting out shapes with the scissors and construction paper they had in their give-away bags. When they cut out a circle, square or triangle, they could tape it up on my posterboard. I also had all the usual stuff (library membership kits, bookmarks and flyers about events and opening hours, business cards, copies of Preview - our program magazine, invitations for Summer Reading Club), as well as specially-made bookmarks with the shapes on one side (with common examples, eg. a button) and books about shapes on the other side. Fun moment at the event: a parent of Indian descent speaking Russian with another parent. Turns out she speaks Russian, Dutch and English with her kids, and he speaks 5 ("something like that") languages and has family in Holland. Man, I love my urban 'hood.

Here are the books I brought with me:
Other great titles:
I think this batch of pre-kindergarteners did a great job with their shapes:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

IMPAC Dublin winner

Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker has won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first adult novel, The Twin. Bakker is also the author of a children's dictionary and the teen novel, Pear Trees Bloom White.

Read more from...:
IMPAC website

National Post
The Dewey Divas and The Dudes

Two library "firsts"

Liberia’s first children’s library

First public library in Kanungu District (one of the hardest-to-reach areas in southwest Uganda)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What should I read next?Wednesday#3: (after) Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, by Evelyn Waugh, is (I would argue, anyway) one of the seminal novels of the 20th century. Post English boarding school hijinks, family secrets, rich boy/poor boy angst, melodrama, guilt, religion... oh, and glamourous parties and drinking galore - what's not to love?

Seriously, though, I first read this in a Modernist literature class (we also covered the obvious, Woolf!, and the not-so-obvious and sadly mostly out of print, Henry Green and Barbara Pym). This was one of the first classes I took with my Honours advisor, Dr. Allan Hepburn (I may not have a type when it comes to romantic affairs - ok, that's arguable... -, but all the men I have worked best with have been Heppy-doppelgangers. Man, I miss him...).

So, Kaya, Fiona and I bonded in this class, and listened to far too many rhetorical questions, and soaked up the ambiance of these novels, alternately steeped in politness and homages to the ornate, poetic forms of old, or bursting into the new with stream-of-consciousness narratives and disjointed dialogue.

Brideshead, of course, fit mostly into the former, but with an entirely unreliable narrator thrown into the mix. The rich and flamboyant Sebastien Flyte (gee, that makes it sound totally obvious) is befriended by the studious and half-orphaned Charles Ryder at Oxford; Charles is drawn into Sebastian's troubled (English Catholic) family circle, becomes enamoured with the lifestyle, and, possibly, Sebastian's sister, Julia. For more on the real-life parallels between Ryder and Waugh, read this.

I recently read the lovely Sarah Waters' new book, The Little Stranger, and was struck by the comparisons to Brideshead. Unreliable middle-class narrator drawn into the complicated life of a struggling English family on a manor? Check. Angst-filled aborted love affair? Check. Forces conspiring against the happiness of all? Check. Like Brideshead, this novel needs a sophisticated audience of Anglophiles who won't become frustrated by ambiguity and who like a strong ambiance (in the shadow of a war, be it WW1 or WW2) and detailed characters and settings.

If interested in this period, or the breeding ground for England in the 20th century, I would also highly recommend London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis by Jonathan Schneer, which is a very readable history of turn-of-the-century Britain (and empire), encompassing everything from advertising and musical ditties to the local zoo, and what each element said about society at this monumental turning point in European, and global, history.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Happy (early) Bloomsday!

First edition of Ulysses.

Molly (pop-up series) by Ian Carr-Harris (born in BC) at the AGO - the text is the end of Ulysses.

Photo of Caraid O'Brien via The Book Bench (explanation: "This is a photo of me as Molly Bloom, beside my copy of Ulysses. I created a giant copy of Ulysses in my bedroom by pasting up copies of the New York Post on the wall, whitewashing them and then handpainting two pages from Molly Bloom's monologue so that it would seem as if Molly emerged from the pages of the book. The radio is a nod to Radio Bloomsday."

Other people's felts

I think our own Sarah needs to blog about her amazing felts, and I need to work on some new ones myself, but, in the meantime, I offer you this felt made by Julie Danielson of the blog, "Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast." It's of Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon (good choice!).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Renovated Cumberland Branch

I was fortunate enough to benefit from Cumberland's closure during the past few months, in that the "library-less" Cumberland library staff were taken in by many other library branches. We welcomed Rebekah and Marthe at Rideau's Information desk, and they were wonderfully helpful and I miss them already.

That being said, I am thrilled that their library is now open, and looks so spectacular. Join me on a virtual tour...

The adult department reading area.

The computer lab (art, as at Rideau, from the city art vaults; this one is called "Smoke signals")

The archway to the Children's department (I love it!)

Early literacy stations, to promote the six pre-literacy skills.

Looking out to the garden.

I'm sad to say I never saw Cumberland pre-renos (hey! it's far!) but it does look lovely now, and I am told it is much more open and airy. Some of the computer terminals are on a curve, so not everything is on a straight line, which is very refreshingly different. Little internal windows between children's and teens also make the space feel more breathable.

Plus, you know, purple carpet tiles and door and window frames will always win me over.

Thanks to the two Cs for accompanying me on this trip!

Another day, another chance to get angry about the state of UK libraries

So, KPMG came out with this report into public sector reform, and it included a review of libraries (low usage; high operating costs). The report called for giving local councils control over running their own libraries, thereby "saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock".

I got as far as "over-skilled paid staff" before I completely lost my head. Really? What makes me livid is that no one seems to be asking WHY libraries are not being used. Perhaps some staff need different training to make them better at reaching out to the community; perhaps some are doing a fabulous job but within a straightjacket of funding constraints.

Perhaps KPMG could have, oh, I don't know, asked some people in communities about why they don't use the library? Wouldn't that be more useful than taking guesses about how to serve these communities?

Then again, given that the KPMG report keeps freezing when I download it, I can't tell if they did, anyway. I get all my news via the Guardian.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Serendipitous chat at Chapters Rideau Centre

See, this is why I stopped writing. I suck at titles. My last short story was titled by my mother after I wrung my hands over it for ages.


So, Kris and I read about this guy in the Citizen, and he was speaking this weekend (Sat at Pinecrest Chapters; Sun at Rideau Centre). So off we went, expecting a reading and some Q and A. Alas, Chapters Rideau Centre jammed him into a small table by the escalator with no signage and no reading ('cause, you know, they have music on...). Anyway, those are all my words, not the author's. Just to be clear. He was very gracious about his corner.

The author is David Charles Manners, and his book is In the Shadow of Crows. I hate to blog before I've read it, but as a compromise, I will blog both now and later when I've finished it.

Manners was born in England, "to a mother raised amongst dairy cows on a Sussex farm and a father raised on India's North-West Frontier and in the idyllic hill-stations of the old East Punjab" (source). His book is about traveling to India as an adult for the first time and making discoveries about his family's past. He also became involved in initiatives to help India's poor, specifically those with leprosy, and has since founded a charity, Sarvashubhamkara (a Sanskrit name meaning 'he who does good to all').

Kris and I had a long talk with Manners about his book, his travels in India, poverty, political corruption, and desperation in India and in Canada, and Western attitudes towards all of the above.

I am now also interested in Reportage Press, "a new publishing house specialising in books on foreign affairs. All our books give a percentage of the profits to a charity chosen by the author."

Alas, I have little left to say until I get past page 10 (I can only read so much standing up in Chapters, you know). Meanwhile, you can watch part 1 and part 2 of these readings by Manners on YouTube.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tears (in a good way) on a Friday night

Just watch it. And, like, read the books too.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali @ Ottawa Writers Fest

So last night the husband and I trekked out to the (lovely) Mayfair Theatre (I know, hard life, eh?) to see and hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. She was articulate, passionate and certainly controversial; security was tight. I was disappointed to see a mainly white, 50+ audience - my disappointment from a writers fest point of view (as Kris said, "who's going to go to all the literary events from the next generation?"), and from a cultural/religious point of view. Kris is reading Nomad now, and he told me that she talks about being lonely; I can see why. While she certainly has good reason to avoid her own family and many of her former tribe, it must be very lonely sometimes to be her. On the other hand, of course, she is the definition of an internationalist; she warmly greeted the host of the evening, Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, by remarking how lovely it was to be speaking Dutch with someone in Ottawa, to have come upon a "member of her tribe" here.

Ayaan talked mainly about two of the three differences between the West and the Islamic world that she identifies in her book: sexuality, aggression, and wealth/money. She read Chapter 12 of Nomad, which talks mainly about her arrival in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and her struggle to become financially literate. Her adventures in loans and credit were meant to both amusing and thought-provoking, and they were certainly the latter, but I found they made me less amused than anxious on behalf of 1992 Ayaan; she receives a standard loan of 5000 fl., and she and her room-mate spend all but 400 fl. of it on hideous wall-to-wall carpeting. She very eloquently describes the feeling of information overload she and other immigrants feel upon arrival in the West; when speaking to a counsellor, she carefully explains how the phrase "furnish my apartment" actually meant that three huge concepts were being "thrust at me at once."

I did find some of her observations very funny; she was fascinated by wallpaper because it reminded her of covering her textbooks in school back home. She was captivated by words like "brocade" and "upholstery:" "these were words from Jane Austen, and I was living in an Alice in Wonderland world." Eventually, Ayaan's room-mate defaults on some payments for furnishings, runs up a long distance phone bill, and takes off on Ayaan, leaving her deeply in debt; Ayaan speaks highly of the Dutch friends she had who helped her get back on her feet during this time.

She talked about other Somalis, for whom she provided translation services after she had learned Dutch, who had taken out the same 5000 fl. loan as her, and had sent the entire amount back home to Somalia to smuggle their relatives out of Africa. With no concept of money, loans or interest, and no idea of the contributions made by ordinary Dutch in order that asylum-seekers might have these advantages, many of her former countrypeople ran up insurmountable debts, defaulted on loans, fled the country to other parts of Europe, and called it "Allah's will." She underlined how many immigrants she spoke to and grew to know had no idea of the obligations of citizenship or the concept of a welfare state, and how the differences between citizenship and tribal membership caused problems when Africans moved to the West.

Lucy (btw, I love Lucy, but that's another story. Let me just say she made a great host, and I have seen some crap hosts in my day) asked Ayaan after the reading was over was about turning points in Ayaan's life. Ayaan explained that one would be the fact that her father sent her to school, over the objections of her mother, who thought it would make her talk back when she got older. Her father threatened to "curse my mother in the hereafter" if she didn't let him send them to school; this sufficiently frightened her mother that Ayaan and her sister went to (and finished) school. Another turning point Ayaan spoke about was a time when she was in a camp on the Somali - Kenyan border, when she was 21, and she observed the camp shunning a dying woman who had been raped by the Kenyan police. Everyone knew she had been raped, but she was nonetheless left to die in a tent with no water, because the religious beliefs of the people around her dictated that she was "filthy, with no honour." Ayaan thought seriously about Islam at that point, and asked, "where is compassion? Where is mercy? Where is God?" The final turning point she referred to was when she was at Leiden University, and she bagan to approach questions of individuality versus collectivity and religious belief from a critical point of view. She said this gave her a certain distance from which to approach the events of September 11th and thereafter; she was able to "step back" from Islam and "scrutinise it as theory."

Ayaan spoke about her fundamental "problem" with Islam, in the literal meaning of the word, "submission to God." She questioned what type of God would want unconditional surrender, and what type of follower would want this "freedom from responsibility" for their actions. She also identified the "division of the world into believers / non-believers" as something she had a problem with, and the idea (in all religions, she pointed out) that this life is (I would qualify this as sometimes) seen as being merely a prelude to the afterlife. She called this type of belief the idea that "you're just getting marks" for the real life hereafter, a kind of cult of death.

She spared no kind words for self-identified moderate Muslims who champion change within the religion; she dismissed them as women who only "organise" in order to defend the idea of Islam (as a non-violent religion) rather than defend the rights of Muslims. She called them out as being uninterested in human rights; counting off issues such as female genital mutilation and honour killings, Ayaan said "they don't dig too deep into the mud of what it means to live in Islam." She exclaimed, "the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn't for nothing!" and rhymed off the historical events it was a response to: the Holocaust, violence against women and children, and so on. She underlined the importance of taking the Koran in context, as a historical document.

Addressing some of the tension in the room (well, I felt some tension, but it could have been me being nervous with all the police, security, and hyped-up audience members!), Lucy asked Ayaan what she would say about those who say she is just making "white liberals" feel comfortable in their prejudicial beliefs about Muslims, that Ayaan is just "excusing" their behaviour. Ayaan had a rather thought-provoking answer: that, instead of her providing an excuse for prejudicial beliefs, she is in fact saying that we are ignoring what is happening because of religion, and this makes people uncomfortable. She added that it is in fact the "moderates" who say that Islam is not violent who are providing "white liberals" with an excuse to ignore human rights violations.

Lucy asked Ayaan about Theo van Gogh's murder. Ayaan is clearly still quite angry with the Dutch parliament for, in her opinion, not saying clearly enough that the murder was inexcusable, and for going immediately to the Moroccan community in the Netherlands to "accommodate them." Lucy pointed out that sending the murderer to prison sent a clear message that the Dutch did not condone or excuse what happened, but Ayaan kept insisting that the Dutch government had "rewarded" the murderer by not clearly saying he had crossed a line. Her opinion was that the Dutch government failed to convey to the Dutch Muslim minority that this was a horrible act for which there was no "but;" she said many Dutch Muslim groups released statements beginning, "It is terrible that Theo van Gogh was killed, but..." and Ayaan's anger came from the position that there is no "but" in this situation.

There was a great deal of debate during the question period over the niqab. To be honest, I have no desire to go on about this issue here myself (basically, I guess if women "want" to wear it, fine, but it should come off when it's a security issue), but I will summarise what was said. When Ayaan was in the Dutch parliament, she said her caucus was frequently discussing Muslim women's dress. At this time, the Netherlands was installing CCTV cameras in public places; Ayaan's argument was that while every woman had the right to choose her clothing, no one had the right to say, in a world of CCTVs and terrorism, "scrutinise everyone except me."

Someone raised the recent case of a Canadian woman who is asking to wear the niqab in court while testifying in her own rape case. Ayaan maintained that this woman could not be making the request to wear the niqab out of religious motivation; if she was so religious, Ayaan reasoned, she would not recognise or seek justice in an "infidel" court. Ayaan thus interpreted this woman's act as an act of aggression.

All in all, some of Ayaan's views are pretty hard-line, and I think her anger sometimes makes her more inflexible than necessary, but she was an utterly engrossing speaker. I would pay big bucks to see her talk with Irshad Manji, whose writings about reform in Islam she mentioned briefly. I should look today for my notes from Irshad's speech at OLA a few years ago....

The evening was not all heavy: Sean made a good joke about the delicious smell of Mayfair popcorn ("Nothing goes with political debate like popcorn!") and Ayaan hilariously explained how attractive Christianity is by describing Jesus as "cuddly, long hair, nice sandals."

Kris and I came home with much to debate about. As we walked into the apartment, we agreed that, whatever happened tonight, Holland was a pretty amazing place to have given such an individual the opportunity to develop into the woman we heard speak tonight. At the end of the day, it's still really amazing that investing in a girl's education means you may end up with someone like Ayaan. As Kris says, sometimes we hear more negative stories about immigrants in the West; ultimately, Ayaan's story is certainly at times tragic, but her bravery is inspiring.

I was just trolling CBC's Ottawa video feed looking for Lucy's full interview with Ayaan, which is supposed be up today, but it's not up yet, so no link for you.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ode to thee who subscribeth via RSS

I just wanted you all to be aware of a response I had from Wendy Moffat, author of the new Forster bio so sensationally covered by the Telegraph:

Wendy says she has "written a letter to the Editor of the Telegraph to tell them that this article, for which I was not interviewed, is mistaken."

Well. Methinks the Telegraph smelled sex and made the most of it. Judgement is reserved for when I have read the book in question. Shame on the Telegraph for manipulating the situation, and capitalising on Forster's somewhat complicated personal life.

[As a total sidebar, this reminds me of the time that Martin Scorsese's daughter was in our summer programs at the library, since Scorsese was renting a local home while filming The Aviator - Cate Blanchett also came in, but that's a story for another day... let me know via comments if you want that story! Anyway, Scorsese's daughter, who is a pale blonde, was allegedly "sighted" by the local paper at the public pool: they said they knew her by her long brown tresses. Right.]

Upset at the Orange

Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna beats out the favourite, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall!


What should I read next? Wednesday #2: (after) Stargirl

Yeah, I realised after last week my title was not clear, so now I've added even more words. Happy?

Blargh. It's early on Wednesday morning and I'm feeling a mid-week slump. This aft, I'm off to a local French school to do Summer reading club promotion, which means I have to wake up before then.

Oh yeah, right. Books.

So, you loved Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. You loved Stargirl's carefree nature, her (sometimes unbelievable?) oblivion to being shunned in school, her hippie dresses, her pet rat, her ukelele. You enjoyed the enigma of Stargirl, and the down-to-earthness of Leo, the tension between first love and group conformity.

In that case, you might try Schooled by Canada's own boy wonder, Gordon Korman (can I still say that if he's 46?). While much funnier (and therefore somewhat less exhaustingly "earnest") than Stargirl, Schooled is a great read-alike. Main character Cap (that would be Capricorn) is sent to school for the first time after his grandmother, who homeschools him, falls out of a tree and is sent off to physio rehab. Cap soon finds out that there is life beyond the Garland Farm Commune (founded in 1967, and now reduced to just Cap and his grandmother), and it's full of TV, high school pranks, and, um, girls. He lands at Claverage Middle School, where a long-standing tradition is to elect the dorkiest kid 8th grade class president (thereby maximising opportunities for mockery throughout the school year), and thus is Cap thrust into the spotlight. He soon learns a great deal, including why he and his grandmother are the only people remaining on the commune, a subplot which I found particularly affecting. The scene near the end when Cap greets every child in the school by name is as moving as Stargirl's ukelele serenades.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

OK, now I am annoyed

'EM Forster 'turned against novels after losing his virginity' in the Telegraph

"EM Forster never wrote a novel after A Passage To India because his first homosexual experience at the age of 38 sapped his creativity, according to a new biography [....] Before his death Forster wrote that “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex prevented the latter.” In her book EM Forster: A New Life, Moffat argues that this cryptic statement reflects the writer's relief at developing physical relationships late in life, rather than referring to his sexual frustration as had been widely assumed."

Monday, June 7, 2010


I forgot to link to the National Post review of the new Forster book in my last post. Et alors,

Robert Fulford: E.M. Forster's closet with a view.


Stereotypes, secrets and cross-cultural relationships

I was simply going to announce a new biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat, brought to my attention by my mom (thanks!), but then this exploded all over the Intenet.

"This" being an attempt at humour (I think?) gone very wrong, in which an American woman (who also happens to run a dating website, I hear?) married to an Indian man attempts to explain how (and why) to date Indian men.

Although I do follow the Huffington Post (who ran this article), I only follow their books feed, so (thankfully?) missed this article the first time 'round. It only came to my attention because I follow Niranjana Iyer's blog, Brown Paper.

Niranjana writes eloquently about one of the myraid reasons the Huff Post piece is offensive: "That the stereotyping in this case happens to be (mostly) positive is of little consequence; exoticizing a people in this manner is to make them the Other (versus “ordinary” people). A mindset that is ready to label a billion Indians “gracious, social creatures” is just as capable of labeling them smelly beasts. Stereotyping robs a person of his individuality; does it really matter if the mugger is smiling or spitting as he’s relieving you of your valuables?" And she quotes one of the commenters from the Huff Post page (I am NOT going through all those comments myself!), who points out, quite rightly, that "Humorous generalization can be a laugh riot if done well– in a non-cliche or particularly insightful way– but this really misses the mark. It could have been funny or provocative if it had not employed so many cliched generalizations, or had done so with a self-parodying sensibility. [...] Writing a satirical send-up of any group’s generalized habits (Indians, white people, black people, whatever) requires a deeper, more nuanced perception of stereotypes, a fresh intelligence which provokes both thought and laughter. This article lacks that freshness." I don't know if this is the best time to mention that the various spoofs of the Huff Post piece available online sometimes have an edgy freshness to them that Miller's alarmingly earnest piece is missing.

As soon as I read about all this I knew I wanted to blog about it, if only to agree with Niranjana and the above comments, and to deplore the state of the dating world if these are the criteria applied ("successful and professionally desirable," not to mention "incredibly attractive" - OK, I know I am out of the dating world and can't be too judgemental, but seriously, are you choosing a buffet item or a partner?). Since I had notes about the Forster bio saved as a draft here, I was struck, when logging in, by the links between these two news items.

The Forster bio is apparently (I am on the holds list at work now, so must wait) about the importance of Forster's homosexuality to his work, and his life. I have to say, on my first reading of the review, I was thinking, "Yeah... so?" But then I guess I am a Forster nerd, and to me, it's obvious (because he pretty much says so) that he stopped writing because he couldn't write truthfully, and he couldn't write truthfully because he couldn't write about homosexual relationships, or at least not about anything remotely positive about them in mid-century Britain. Writes Fulford in the book review, "Forster wrote heterosexual novels because he had an old-fashioned sense of traditional values and because he rightly feared the consequences of writing about gays. [...] Moffat believes that by the time he wrote Howards End, in 1910, he was already tired of “the masquerade of propriety.” Being something of a specialist in hypocrisy (as the readers of all his best-known books well know), he may simply have decided that his own position was dishonest."

The idea for my Honours thesis came about years earlier, when I wrote the final exam in an English course at Marianopolis with Nini Pal. One of the texts we had read was A Passage to India, and the exam question read something like, "The novel concludes with the question, posed by Fielding, of whether he and Aziz can be friends. The horses, the earth and the world around them "said in their hundred voices: 'No, not yet,' and the sky said: 'No, not there." Do you believe this is still the case? Why or why not?"

(sorry if that's totally inaccurate, but that's how I remember it, anyway. I might have it somewhere in the office, but no way am I going back there to check...)

I was so struck by the question, and wanted so much to believe that the answer was no, not anymore, that I embarked on a study of modernist literature, and specifically, relationships across cultural, gender and class boundaries in Edwardian society and novels. As I learned more, I came to see how Forster's homosexuality, and his relationship with Syed Masood (at left below, from influenced his ideas, his writing, and his life. While Forster was far from the only modern Englishman (or woman) with a colourful personal life (I highly recommend Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe for more on the topic), he did feel his outsider status strongly, and was such an honest man that he struggled with keeping his true self in the closet. I always thought it was especially tragic that Forster seemed to set himself up to fail in romantic relationships: he fell in love with the most unlikely men, in the most unlikely places, setting himself up for an uphill battle against colonial England, racism, AND homophobia. I admire his open soul, but I wonder how much it hurt him.

So he stopped writing fiction (hey, many have stopped for less). I'm so pleased that Fulford states clearly that "he did not spend the rest of his life as a hermit in the style later perfected by J.D. Salinger. Forster wrote many essays, talked on BBC radio, lectured at universities, accepted royal honours and wrote a biography of the aunt who left him a small income. He was never in hiding." Although Fulford's eventual conclusions (that perhaps Forster would have been a worse writer if he had lived in a society in which homosexuality was accepted) are rather shaky - fans of Maurice, by the way, are thin on the ground because most people don't know it exists (trust me, I work in a library). Anyway, whether his writing would have improved or worsened is anyone's guess, really, but I'd say either way he would have been an equally influential (if humble) humanist regardless of which society, in which historical moment, he had lived in.

So, I guess this morning I was just thinking, I wonder what Forster would have made of the world, and this Huff Post article? I think he would have been utterly mortified at the lack of respect we sometimes have for each other as individuals, and I think he would have been somewhat uncomfortable with the humour we use to laugh off the stereotypes some people still believe in. Of course, we're certainly so much freer than we were in the 1920s, when Forster was finishing Passage in Weybridge, or even the 1970s, when Forster died. Although sometimes, when articles like the Huff Post piece come along, I wonder, how much freer? And at what cost to dignity?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shakespeare & Company Bookshop gets into the game

Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, famously founded by Sylvia Beach and now run by George Whitman's daughter, Sylvia Whitman, will resume publishing Paris Magazine (abandoned by George in the '80s) and also begin a 10,000 euro ($12, 292) prize, given "every two years to the author of the best novella containing 20,000-30,000 words. Initial submissions are to be received by Dec. 1, 2010, and shortlisted entrants must submit their complete novella by March 1, 2011. The contest is open to unpublished writers only and there is an entry fee" (via).

Doors Open Ottawa @ the Rideau Library!

I promised some people a full account (+ photos!) and so, forthwith!

We have three (!!) events on Saturday at the library, and I am in Toronto this weekend for an OPLA RA meeting, so my plan for Doors Open is self-serve. I have prepared a historical display, involving themed posters with scans, photos, and newspaper clippings, books relating to local history, and a plexiglass display of "realia" and Ottawa Room historical books.

When you enter the library, you see this on the staircase slatwall, a welcome poster with basic info, our Art brochure (we have art from the city art collection), a bookmark of some of the local history books, and the Doors Open brochures published in the Citizen.
You then make your way into the library. The way I am directing traffic is by using red bristol board circles taped to the carpet (as above on slatwall). The idea is, look for a circle and stand on it to see part of the historic display.

The first one highlights the library itself, and includes articles highlighting:
  • Our opening in 1934 (from the Citizen, the Journal, and Le Droit)
  • The arrival of the 2nd ERAC (Electronic Resource and Access Centre) computer (1996)
  • Our heritage designation (1998)
  • The opening of the link to Rideau Gardens (2006)
  • The repairs and renovations (2007-2009)
  • The re-opening and 75th anniversary (2009)
The next display (next 3 photos) features local history of a more general nature, and includes the plexiglass display of "realia" and Ottawa Room historical books.

I ordered 8 or so copies of Capital walks (above) and that's the only thing that has already gone! Good thing I only put 4 out. Ha ha! I don't blame people; it's the book I most enjoyed when I first arrived in Ottawa.

Inside the plexiglass:
Action Sandy Hill. Walking in Sandy Hill, Ottawa. Ottawa: Heritage Ottawa, 1975.
Bonin, Normand. La Basse Ville ouest, c’etait… Ottawa: Comité de citoyens de la Basse Ville ouest, 1977.
St. Brigid's Parish Golden Jubilee, 1889-1939. Ottawa: Le Droit, 1939 (can see best above).
Ribbon from Rideau Library re-opening ceremony, May 19, 2009.
Above the plexiglass:
Circulating copy of Walking in Sandy Hill, Ottawa, Une Bibliothèque Vivante: L'histoire Tant Attendue de la Bibliothèque Publique D'Ottawa, 1906-2001, and The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001 (by Phil Jenkins).
Below the plexiglass:
Books about Elizabeth Bruyère (if you follow that link, scroll down: coding issues...)

Eh bien, dans le quartier, alors.... A charming map of Bytown from the 19th century (street names! Mine was different!), hotels that are now offices, Sussex as a dirt road, Lowertown Market as a wooden barn, and the history of St. Brigid's. The books here are histories of local churches, community centres, the nuns again, and Whiskey and Wickedness thrown in for fun.

Continuing into the annex of the library, a look into Franco-Ontario culture in Ottawa, given that it was the Francophones of Lowertown who advocated for Rideau Library to be built.

Some specific info: reno time! This is pretty much the same stuff from here.

Here's where I really went crazy. Letting patrons provide feedback. Egads! Who knows what horrors await me upon my return from Toronto!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Service excellence

I just went the extra mile, so to speak, for an admittedly rather crusty patron, and received "un gros merci aussi grand que le Parlement."


What should I read next? Wednesday #1: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So you, like my friend Colette, who first gave me The Eyre Affair, and who just read Shades of Grey as an e-book in Rothera, enjoy the literary acrobatics of Jasper Fforde?

Well, then, if you especially are drawn to the mystery, the situational comedy, the links to literature, and Fforde's witty, wry tone, you will love The case of the missing books by Ian Sansom.

Probably the biggest difference between the two books is the difference in the personalities of the main characters. While Thursday Next is capable of (one suspects) basically anything, it appears Israel Armstrong is capable of (one suspects) pretty much nothing. I cannot better Philip Ardagh's description in the Guardian: Israel is "an overweight corduroy-wearing vegetarian Jewish librarian." A winning combo, no?

So poor old Israel has failed to be gainfully employed in London, and leaves the city in disgrace, taking a job in Tumdrum (not a real place!), County Antrim (real place. In Ireland). Arriving to find that budget cuts have reduced his place of emplyment to ... a bus.

[No, we wouldn't know anything about that, would we?]

Anyway, the real problem is that the actual books are missing, and no one in town seems to want to tell Israel where they are, although they all seem to know something....

I can tell what you're thinking by now - does this only appeal to librarians!? No, I certainly hope not. Israel's sense of having arrived in adulthood without feeling like an adult, his love of literature, the batty cast of small-town characters, and the sheer tomfoolery of this novel should endear it to many.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rushdie v. the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

You know, I actually have trouble most of the time listening to Cat Stevens, because I get sad and angry about who he was, and who he is now. See, if he had just converted, I could have lived with that. It's the madrassa, and a BBC interview I saw in maybe 2000, and the whole sitting-on-the-fence-about-a-fatwa that pushes me over the edge. I guess it's also the fact that I spent quite awhile studying moderate / extremist behaviour, both for academic credit and in my personal life, and the Cat Stevens story just strikes me as a particular tragedy of one individual's empathy and desire to connect and understand others (and, probably, impressionability) gone wrong.

Anyway, Rushdie called him on all that at a recent talk with Eli Wiesel in Toronto about human rights.

I heard Rushdie speak two years ago at Celebridée and he was his usual brilliant (if bombastic) self. Adrian Harewood also deeply shamed himself that evening by mispronouncing something Rushdie-related (I forget now; I should dig up my notes and post about that and other long-ago literary events...).

... The future is here!

"O, brave new world, / That has such [gadgets] in't!"

"Children, 4, 'to be fingerprinted to borrow school books from library'" from The Telegraph.