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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Yell Out Your Frustrations with Literary Quotations!

I’ve had some serious blog entries lately, so I thought I’d lighten things up a bit.  A while back Electric Literature had a list of “Literary Quotations That Sound Better When Yelled.”  See how many you can recognize:

One of my favourites didn’t make the list.  “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was a quotation I use when people make stupid comments or politicians make stupid decisions.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Burnings

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s Freedom to Read week, so I thought it appropriate to write about book burnings.  The novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is one of the dystopian novels which have become popular since the beginning of the Trump presidency.  The book presents a future American society in which dissenting ideas are suppressed so books are outlawed and any that are found are burned. 

Apparently, Bradbury was partially inspired by Nazi book burnings, a campaign conducted by the German Student Union to ceremonially burn books in Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. These included books written by Jewish, pacifist, religious, anarchist, socialist, and communist authors, among others.  The book burning ceremony in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is certainly a memorable scene.   

Now a new book with a similar name, The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell, reveals that the Nazi regime didn’t just burn books; it also plundered the contents of private libraries across Europe.  “The Reich considered the stolen books to be strategic assets that gave them a deeper look into the minds of their enemies, as well as a source of validation for their ongoing racial pogroms. The Nazis also saw seizing sacred texts as one more step toward erasing Jewish culture in total.”  After the war, many of the stolen books found their way into private collections and university libraries as 'donated' texts" (

There has been some success in returning art stolen by the Nazis to the families of their rightful owners since art often has a provenance.  Books do not have such a provenance so returning them has proven to be extremely difficult.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Freedom to Read Week (Feb. 26 - March 4)

Freedom to Read Week begins today.  “Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (

Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves.  To celebrate freedom of expression, why not read a book that has been challenged?  See for suggestions. 

Every year, libraries, schools and community groups across Canada celebrate freedom of expression by organizing Freedom to Read Week activities.  To find an event in your area, go to

For an international perspective, check out these sites:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A "Mission Impossible" Rare Book Heist

Back in September, I blogged about the world’s most expensive books (  I was reminded of this post when I read about the rare book heist that took place near London at the end of January.

Three thieves apparently climbed onto the roof of a warehouse and bored through reinforced skylights before rappelling down 40 feet to avoid motion-sensor alarms.  The operation is estimated to have taken 3 hours!  They absconded with more than 160 antiquarian books valued at over $3 million (CAN).

Among the books stolen were early works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, and Dante   Alighieri.  The most valuable item in the stolen haul was a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, the book that first explained that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the universe. 

One rare book dealer, Alessandro Meda Riquier, lost 51 books valued at about $1.5 million (CAN).  CBC Radio’s As It Happens had a short interview with Mr. Riquier:

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tom Hanks and other Fiction-Writing Actors

A collection of short stories by Tom Hanks will be published October 24, 2017. 

“Titled Uncommon Type: Some Stories, the collection comprises 17 stories, each having something to do with a different typewriter.  (Hanks has an affinity for the machines, owning a collection of over one hundred vintage typewriters.)  But outside of that particular shared detail, the plots and characters vary wildly: There’s a man immigrating to New York City after fleeing a civil war in his country; a person who becomes an ESPN star after bowling a string of perfect games; a billionaire and his assistant on a ‘hunt for something larger’; and an actor enduring a life of press junkets” (

This is not Hanks’ first published work.  In October, 2014, a short story of his entitled “Alan Bean Plus Four” was published in The New Yorker:

Of course, Hanks is not the first actor to write a work of fiction.  In 2010, Steve Martin wrote An Object of Beauty which received good reviews.  And Hugh Laurie of House fame wrote a comic detective thriller titled The Gun Seller which was also positively received. 

There are of course the bombs.  An article in The Guardian recently claimed that “most books written by actors are dogmuck” and proceeded to pan fiction written by Pam Anderson, Sylvester Stallone, William Shatner, John Travolta, James Franco, Chuck Norris, and Macaulay Culkin:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of THE BREAK by Katherena Vermette

4 Stars
This is one of the finalists for Canada Reads 2017. 

In a series of shifting narratives, the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime on a community in Winnipeg's North End.  The book could be called a whodunit (Who attacked the young Indigenous woman?), but it is much more.  The reader does see how the police investigate the case, but the identity of the perpetrator and the motive soon become obvious.  The focus is on the effects of the crime on the victim, her relatives (e.g. great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunts, cousin) and her friends.  In total, ten different viewpoints are given; except for the Métis police officer leading the investigation, the voices are those of women.

This is a compelling read though not an easy one.  It is the first book I have encountered which has had a trigger warning:  “This book is about recovering and healing from violence.  Contains scenes of sexual and physical violence, and depictions of vicarious trauma.”

This is a very timely novel.  Statistics show that Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal women, and the Canadian government has launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  Virtually all the women in the novel have experienced sexual abuse and/or domestic violence and/or addiction and/or cultural loss and/or family fracturing.  These are such common experiences as to be almost inevitable.  The title refers to a piece of undeveloped land in the middle of the community which becomes the scene of a crime, but it also refers to broken people, broken relationships, and broken links with the past. 

Besides a novel about the difficult lives of urban Native women, this is a book about resilience and survival.  The message is that women need to support each other to give each other the strength to survive.  It is the connection to family and the love for one’s family which allow for healing and provide the assurance that “Everything will be okay.”  Stella has distanced herself from her family but when she re-connects, she feels so comforted that she doesn’t’ want to leave.   The eldest speaker says, “I know I have my people.  I can feel them, even when they go away.  It means so much to have people.  It is everything.” 

Of course, not everyone has a supportive, caring network.  Phoenix, for example, has no one except an uncle, an ex-con, drug-dealing gang leader.  Her mother Elsie was gang-raped when she was a teenager and became a drug addict, losing her three children to the child welfare system.  Phoenix’s behaviour therefore becomes understandable and the reader cannot but feel some sympathy for her.  The added tragedy is that the dysfunction will continue into the next generation.

The number of characters is a weakness.  Some (Phoenix and Stella) are well-developed, but others (Cheryl, Louisa, and Paulina) are not sufficiently differentiated.  A family tree is provided but the number of nicknames adds to the confusion:  Cheryl is sometimes Cher; Louisa is sometimes Lou; Lorraine is sometimes Rain; Zegwan is Zig and Ziggy; Alex is Bishop and Ship, etc.  Why does everyone’s name have to be reduced to one syllable?  Phoen?!  The use of Paul for Paulina is particularly annoying because of its gender confusion.  The connections between non-familial characters are sometimes difficult to keep straight (StellaElsiePhoenixCedar-SageLouisaRitaZegwanEmily). 

Men in the novel are not portrayed very positively.  Young Native men are gang members and older Native men retreat into the bush:  three of the major characters have been abandoned by husbands.  Absentee fathers for Native children seem to be the norm.  Only three white men make an appearance.  One is Officer Christie, a stereotypical doughnut-loving cop who is lazy and bigoted.  Jeff and Pete, partners of Indigenous women, remain flat characters.    

The book does not offer excuses or assign blame; it just shows the situation and lets readers draw conclusions as to responsibility.  We know that the plight of Aboriginals is a consequence of colonization by whites, but this is not explored.  Neither is the role of residential schools.  However, the racism encountered by Aboriginals in the health care system and among police is shown.  The novel’s achievement is putting a human face to issues that are often misunderstood. 

This book is unflinching in its gaze at life for contemporary Indigenous women in urban Canada.  It is certainly a book Canadians should read.