Author Archives: winnipegpublibrary

No history without story

For in oral history, people are sources and sources are people.”                                                             – Dan David Prize

Stories. Listened to, read, told, recorded. Saved. Shared. The stories of individuals and communities, even our own or that of our families, are some of the most powerful ways we interact with events and people gone by. Coming up in early October we are thrilled to co-host what we know will be a thought-generating evening, inspired by the power of listening to the past. World renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli is being brought to Winnipeg by our program partner, the Oral History Centre (housed at the University of Winnipeg). Audience members will have the opportunity to consider the value of oral histories – of listening to the full arcs of real-life stories – in today’s world of information bits and bytes. The program is free and open to all; see the end of this post for details.

Oxford Dictionaries defines oral history as “the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events.” This basic definition, while technically accurate, doesn’t emphasize the heart of oral history and its practice – that is, people.

Historian Paul Thompson gets to that heart (from the Oral History Centre site): “Oral History…is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged […] towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact – and hence understanding – between social classes, and between generations. […] In short it makes for fuller human beings.”

readerPowerful stuff, oral histories are – listened to or read. Winnipeg Public Library has a wide-ranging and growing collection of oral histories to learn from and enjoy. You can find a starter list of titles here. To find out how you might go about collecting an oral history – recording and sharing stories yourself – visit the Oral History Centre’s site. The Centre is a real Winnipeg gem. It offers in-person workshops, the use of equipment and software, assistance with archiving and more.  Those with a strong interest in the practice of oral history will definitely want to check out The Canadian Oral History Reader ; 2 of the book’s editors – Alexander Freund and Nolan Reilly – are Co-Directors of the Oral History Centre.

About Alessandro Portelli

orderAlessandro Portelli is Professor Emeritus, Universita di Roma “La Spineza” and recent lecturer at Princeton University. A 2015 Dan David Prize Laureate, he is considered the world’s leading practitioner of oral history. More information about Professor Portelli can be found here and here. He also maintains a blog with occasional posts in English. Among his celebrated works are The Order Has Been Carried Out, about the 1944 Nazi massacre of over 350 Jewish and non-Jewish civilians in a suburb of Rome; and They Say In Harlan County which documents histories from Appalachian coal mining country. From Goodreads: “They Say in Harlan County is not a book about coal miners so much as a dialogue in which more than 150 Harlan County women and men tell the story of their region, from pioneer times through the dramatic strikes of the 1930s and ’70s, up to the present. Alessandro Portelli draws on 25 years of original interviews to take readers into the mines and inside the lives of those who work, suffer, and often die in them–from black lung, falling rock, suffocation, or simply from work that can be literally backbreaking. The book is structured as a vivid montage of all these voices–stoic, outraged, grief-stricken, defiant–skillfully interwoven with documents from archives, newspapers, literary works, and the author’s own participating and critical voice.” harlan

Professor Portelli will join us Monday, October 5 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. in the Carol Shields Auditorium on the second floor of the Millennium Library. Please register in-person at any Library branch or by phone 204-986-6450 (drop-ins welcome, space permitting).

We look forward to welcoming many of you to share in a great evening.

Monique W.

Get Informed! Get Political!

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”
– John F. Kennedy

On Sunday, 2 August, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament and start what will be the longest election in Canada since 1870. Many were quick to point out how much this will cost the Canadian public, or the advantages the Conservative Party of Canada may have with its larger funding base, but there is one other thing to consider: more time to make an informed decision.

As the quotation above by JFK insinuates, informed voters are key to a functioning democracy. And the library is an obvious place to help you make that informed decision on poll day. As we showcase every February during Freedom to Read Week, the library is a staunch defendant of freedom of speech, which means we make sure to have every side of the discussion as long as books and articles are written on it. Libraries have a central role in the democratic process and it all has to do with providing that information to anyone who requests it. So I am going to list some books that may help you be more informed about some major topics that are being discussed this election.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” – Andrew Carnegie

Leader Biographies

Publishing a biography before an election was something that was more common in the United States with Jimmy Carter starting the trend, while Canadian politicians usually published their memoirs after their term in office: e.g. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Brian MulroneyKim Campbell, Paul Martin. The first to launch a book before a campaign was Jean Chrétien with his title Straight from the Heart, and many candidates have since followed suit: Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton (though his book was not a memoir but rather a manifesto) .

Here is a list of the most recent books on the leaders vying for the position of prime minister.

Justin Trudeau published his autobiography Common Ground last year, just five months after becoming the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and one full year before the fixed election date of 19 October. This memoir outlines the major moments in Mr. Trudeau’s life that have prepared him for his political career.

Next we have Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, who published her book around the same: Who we Are: Reflections on my life and Canada. This is described as a cross between an autobiography and a manifesto as it details her life but also her vision for Canada.

Just recently Tom Mulcair published his own autobiography, Strength of Conviction, which discusses his upbringing and political career, and more specifically how his experiences have shaped his vision and beliefs for Canada.

Finally, Globe and Mail journalist and award winning author John Ibbitson took a one year leave of absence from the paper to write Stephen Harper’s biography. The new book simply titled, Stephen Harper, was set to be released in September but the early start date of the election pushed its publication up to 12 August. While many books talk about Stephen Harper’s policies and rise to prime minister (e.g. published in the last two years: The Longer I’m Prime Minister by Paul Wells, Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s new conservative agenda by Brooke Jeffery, Harperism : how Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada by Donald Gutstein, and Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s radical makeover by Michael Harris) this biography takes a deeper look into his private life, and his relationships with Reform Leader Preston Manning, his family, and even his cats. 

Election Issues

In order to properly assess the leaders’ promises, it is important to get a good understanding of the situation they’re talking about. I will present three major issues that have been hitting the headlines recently and give a few books that have been recently published on those issues.


With the trial of Mike Duffy and the scandal involving other disgraced Senators, there have been many discussions on the role and relevance of the Senate. Here are a few books that discuss the possibility of reform and the scandals that occurred:

A People’s Senate for Canada: not a pipe dream by Helen Forsey
Our Scandalous Senate by J. Patrick Boyer
Duffy: Stardom to Senate to Scandal by Dan Leger


The economy comes up in every election, and here are two books on this subject published this year:
The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen harper’s Takeover of Canada by Mel Hurtig
Stalled : Jump-starting the Canadian Economy by Michael Hlinka

Foreign Policy

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership going on during the election, and a constant shift in the international theatre, understanding Canada’s place in the world can be difficult. Here is one book that discusses Canada’s historic relations with China, and another that looks into Canada’s role in the world in the future:
Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper by Paul Evans
Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World by Derek H. Burney and Fen Osler Hampson

Of course these are only a few of the topics that are important. Many more could be highlighted, and if any of these or any other topic interests you, make sure to check out your library for any election queries you may have. We’ll be glad to help!


“Great Scott!”

As summer winds down, the nights get cooler, and we realize another eight months of cold is about to begin, I can’t help but wish I could stop time, rewind back to May, or fast forward through the winter.

Time travel has long been a popular sub-genre of science fiction in books as well as on the big screen. H. G. Wells spearheaded the movement (and arguably the genre itself) with his classic novella The Time Machine. In this story, the Time Traveler ventures eons into the future and is surprised and disturbed by the disparity between the upper and lower classes, which now form two separate species.

replayAudrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel, and his wife, who is forced to cope with his unpredictable absences. Replay by Ken Grimwood tells the story of a 43-year-old man who dies and awakens in his 18-year-old body. Some say this novel was a precursor for the comedic time-loop film, and one of my personal favourites, Groundhog Day.

groundhogMany other films have aimed to capture the thrill of time travel. Michael J. Fox won our hearts as he drove the DeLorean from 1985 to 1955 in Back to the Future. Woody Allen brought our favourite writers of the 1920’s to life in Midnight in Paris. Arnold Schwarzenegger even used time travel to go back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor in The Terminator!

Current research on time travel argues it is possible to bend time if we can travel faster than the speed of light. Stephen Hawking outlines this theory, along with others, in his famous essay How to Build a Time Machine. Hawking does an excellent job of breaking down cosmology and fourth dimensions into layman’s terms: “All you need is a wormhole, the Large Hadron Collider or a rocket that goes really, really fast.”

futureYes, the grass is always greener, but travelling back to fix a mistake, or fast forwarding to a cool, futuristic city seems pretty tempting. Sadly for us, the ability to time travel isn’t readily available yet, so reading about it in our favourite books will have to do for now. But, if we stop and think, we might find we do time travel in our own small ways. Every time we recycle a fashion trend from the 90s, listen to vinyl, or pore over pictures on our iPhones. Every time we read about the past and dream about the future. We don’t need the DeLorean to time travel – just our imaginations.

*Check out our “Great Scott!” display on the main floor at Millennium Library for more materials on time travel, outer space, and science fiction.


Reading globally

“You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people.”
– Abulaziz al Mahmoud, translated from Arabic by Amira Nowaira

coverAlthough the Library’s “Novel Destinations” summer reading game for adults just ended, it reminded me of a book I recently found: The World Between Two Covers by Ann Morgan.

On an impulse prompted by a comment on her blog, Morgan decided to take a year-long international journey by reading a book from each of 196 nations. She first chronicled this project in a blog (A Year of Reading the World), which is still online, but the book allows her more space to consider the geopolitical & philosophical issues involved in what seemed at first like a simple idea.

Some of the most obvious: what qualifies as a “nation” and what is a “national literature”? Must it be written by a person born there? Does it have to be written in that country, or can it be written in exile? Can it be about another place?

The book covers these questions, and more. Morgan discusses how fiction can affect our attitudes and expectations even more than non-fiction, due to its deeper appeal to empathy. She talks about the dilemma of international authors who need to write “Western-approved” themes for their work to be chosen for translation abroad, let alone read and/or critically praised. One chapter discusses the complications of reading literature in translation that depends on the often-overlooked work of a translator to convey (as much as possible) the nuances of another language and culture.

And, of course, she talks about the books she read. Thanks to her account I’ve already checked out Abdourahman Waberi’s fascinating alternate history In the United States of Africa, and look forward to reading The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad.

Sadly, the majority of the world is still off-limits to English-only readers. Estimates vary, but only 3 to 4 percent of books released in North America each year are translations. Seeking out English-language works from every corner of the globe was difficult; at one point Morgan had to ask Portuguese-speaking readers of her blog to collaborate on the translation of a short story collection in order to have anything to read from the country of Sao Tome and Principe.

If you’re interested in reading outside your borders, here are some ways to expand your horizons:

Enjoy your travels,


Old Book, New Trick

Last week on Readers’ Salon, Lori wrote about the enduring appeal of classic stories. As much as I love the classics in their original form, I am struck by the many ways in which they have been reimagined. In that sense, they are the superhero movies of their format, constantly being re-examined, re-imagined, updated and given improved gadgets or better capes. This allows audiences new and old to explore a new facet of a well-known story.



For example, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has undergone numerous updates and transformations, including Splintered, the YA series by A.G. Howard with a punk skater heroine, and the manga Alice in the Country of Hearts, which is based off of a computer game. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) tweaks to the characters, setting, and even genre of the story offer just enough spice to entice reluctant readers and pique their interest in this classic tale. Similarly, Gris Grimly’s interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein involves taking bits of pared-down original text and completing it with Gothically-styled, rock-inspired illustrations. Even the works of Shakespeare have been subject to continual re-imaginings, such as William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.


FablesFairy Tale Feasts

Fairy tales are another excellent example of the timeless nature of some stories. Fractured or updated fairy tales can take many forms, such as Marissa Meyer’s teen series, The Lunar Chronicles, or Bill Willingham’s adult graphic novel series Fables, in which your standard fairy tale characters end up exiles in modern New York City. However, changing the location of the story isn’t the only way to change how you interact with a classic tale. Jane Yolen’s Fairy Tale Feasts cookbook series for young readers offers an excellent opportunity for fairy tale fanatics to experience their favourite tales in a tactile manner, and demonstrates how a good story spills off of the page and into our day-to-day lives.



Mythologies also tend to be perennial favourites, as evidenced by the popularity of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (Greek), The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris (Norse), and the Thunder Road trilogy by Chadwick Ginther, which features a cast of characters from Norse mythology and just happens to be set right here in Manitoba (it just so happens that book three, Too Far Gone, is set for release in September).

Do you have a favourite re-imagining of a classic book or story? Or is there a story that you think deserves to be redone? I’d love to hear about it!


The Hotel on Place Vendome

The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Hotel on Place Vendome

For centuries Paris has captured our imagination. The French capital is known for its art, fashion, fine dining as well as the passion it evokes in men and women. In The Hotel on Place Vendôme, we travel back through time when this luxury hotel was home to many of France’s most influential citizens.


The Hotel Ritz, located at 15 Place Vendôme, opened its door in June, 1898. From the moment of its inauguration, the Ritz was a place where the elite drank champagne with foreign nobles and battled wits with artists from the burgeoning Parisian art scene.

Meanwhile, a disgraced artillery officer is the subject of an inquiry. The government has launched this latest trial to establish the fact that Alfred Dreyfus supplied Germany with France’s military secrets. The Dreyfus Affair has split society into two camps; the upper class who believe he is guilty, and the Dreyfusards (many of whom were artists) who believe the young officer is innocent.

This is a moment when the upper class was beginning to lose its importance in French society, whereas the artists began to cultivate fame. While the wealthy would retain their fortunes it was the artists, actors, film directors, sculptors and writers who would rise to prominence.

The patrons and staff of the Ritz Hotel would witness the end of the Belle Époque and live through some of the most savage events that would inevitably shape the 20th century.


It is the summer of 1917. A blackout turns the French capital into a ghost town. German planes drop their bombs on the darkened city. The populace holds its breath, terrified. Yet in spite of the bombardment life continues. Marcel Proust attends yet another party at the Hôtel Ritz. As the guests drink their cocktails they attempt to discuss gossip, politics – anything except the horrors of the Great War. As conversations continue to flow the writer tries to seduce his hostess, Hélène Chrissoveloni Soutzo, a Romanian Princess.

It’s another night at the Ritz.


When the Germans begin their occupation of France in 1940, Paris takes on a new significance. As a tourist attraction it offers numerous pleasures to beleaguered soldiers. Furthermore, as the cultural capital of Europe, Paris is beyond value. Those who are willing to collaborate with the new rulers will be compensated; some are given material rewards while others are awarded prominent positions within the new government. Unfortunately for most Parisians, the occupation meant food shortages, incarceration for political prisoners, deportation and eventually extermination for its Jewish population.

Because of the occupation many of the other hotels closed; however, the Ritz remained open. Its manager Franz Elminger was Swiss, and like his homeland the hotel remained neutral through out the war. This was a calculated move. The staff would continue to offer comfort and fine dining to anyone who could afford it, regardless of their nationality.

Unlike other long term residents of the hotel, Coco Chanel managed to keep her suites. Throughout the war she was romantically involved with the German officer Hans von Dincklage. Given her status and wealth, Ms Chanel was able to ignore the harsh realities of the occupation and continue living in opulence.

Until its liberation, Paris became an illusion. The Third Reich did everything it could to maintain the city as it had been. But the veneer wouldn’t last forever. Like the rest of their European possessions, the Germans went to extraordinary lengths to exert their control over France and its populace. As the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels famously stated, “The capital will be gay- or else.”


The Hotel on Place Vendome, written by Tilar J. Mazzeo, is a wonderful book that brings the past to life. Whether you’re a Francophile or a student of history this is a worthwhile read.


Listening to Voices of Transgender Youth

Transgender Pride flag

Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Jenna Talackova, Chaz Bono, Laura Jane Grace… Open and proud transgender people have been receiving a lot of press lately.  These transgender celebrities have publicly faced personal challenges in relation to their gender identities and many regard them as role models for transgender youth.

But we know far less about transgender teens themselves.  What are the challenges they face?  How might they be different from those encountered by popular celebrity adults?  What do they want the world to know about their experiences?

Beyond Magenta: Transgender teens Speak OutBeyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin provides readers with some helpful answers to these key questions.  This acclaimed book profiles six trans teens.  It gives readers a good look into their lives and the wide range of experiences they face.  Their accounts are honest, raw, heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Why is this book an important read?  Because of its truth.  It challenges some of our most strongly-held assumptions.  Contrary to what “gender reveal” parties would have you believe, (perceived) biological sex does not determine gender.  Traditionally, society has been quick to assign gender to a newborn when it is actually impossible to confirm it at such a young age. Many children are raised in accordance with socially-constructed norms based on their genitalia, restricting opportunities for non-conforming kids to be their authentic selves.  Strict gender categories are adhered to without thinking simply because they are familiar.  These categories can simplify our social interactions and maintain order.  But they don’t tell the whole story.  The interviewees in this book – and transgender people the world over – challenge these prevalent misconceptions.

Intersex Flag

In Beyond Magenta, the stories of teenage trans interviewees are told using their own voices.  Kuklin pieced together narratives from interview transcripts and collaborated with the teens in the editing process.  Their diverse experiences and perspectives help readers to understand that there is no one or “right” way to be transgender.  Some of the teens profiled have transitioned to various degrees within the gender binary (woman/man); one of the teens is gender non-conforming; another identifies as intersex.  Two use the pronoun “they.” These accounts are honest and moving and help to broaden perspectives and understanding of the experiences and challenges facing transgender youth, the greater transgender community, their allies and their loved ones.


While the intended audience is young adults, this is a beneficial read for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of social diversity and to gain insight into the lives of transgender people.  In Beyond Magenta, Kuklin asked Dr. Manel Silva, the Clinical Director of the HOTT (Health Outreach to Teens) Program, “What causes a person to be transgender?” She answered, “I think the question should be flipped around: What’s the cause for assuming that one’s gender identity has to be the one that you are born with? …when you hear the same stories over and over again, from people from all over the world, you start realizing that transgender is not an anomaly.  It’s part of the spectrum of people’s realities.  Then you stop wondering about the cause and you start realizing it’s a part of reality.”  (The Williams Institute estimates that more than one in 350 American adults are transgender.)

To finish up, here’s a wise, yet simple, observation from an interviewee, Mariah, “Everyone goes through one kind of transition or another.  We go through transitions every day.”

As a society, let’s work to expand our understanding of “normal” and provide trans youth with the acceptance and support they need during some of the most difficult times in their lives.  Beyond Magenta is a perfect starting point to raise awareness about the reality of the lives of transgender people and to encourage a perspective free of misconceptions.