Tag Archives: literature

Truth in (Dewey Decimal) Numbers

Every once in a while I get asked the following question:  Why is x shelved in the non-fiction section?  With x being some poem or some play or some book on astrology.  The questioner usually has a glint in their eye and a smirk on their lips when they say:  “You know the events in Hamlet didn’t really happen?”

Melvil Dewey

So I tell them:  Melvil Dewey, the man who invented that silly string of digits that libraries like to put on the spine of books, was so incredibly smart that he knew that plays of one Bill Shakespeare so deeply explored the human condition that, if not empirically true, spoke to the soul in such a way that his plays NEEDED to be shelved in the non-fiction section.  Achieving the same through literature, he thought, was a fool’s errand.  Thus, fiction and non-fiction.

Of course, the previous paragraph is almost completely fiction. Melvil Dewy…yadda yadda… invented silly string… yadda yadda…–that part is true.  The rest, not so much.  The truth is a little inside baseball and kind of boring.  But since you asked… the Dewey Decimal System is actually capable of cataloguing fiction. Meaning, if we wanted to, we could attach silly strings of numbers to the spines of all your favourite novels.  Unfortunately, and you’ll have to trust me on this, the way Dewey works and because our fiction collections are so large, this would make it much harder for you to find the books you’re looking for.

Since the great librarian revolt of 1815 [not true], most public libraries have opted forsake Dewey for their fiction collections and sort them alphabetically by author [true].  The reason poetry and plays remain under Dewey rule, and again you’ll have to trust me on this, is that their collections are so small having Dewey numbers makes them easier to find.  In short, when libraries divide their collections into fiction and non-fiction they aren’t really making a judgement call on the veracity of the content of the books, they are really just trying to make books easier to find [also true].

While you’re pondering the meaning of fiction and non-fiction, here are a pair of books that skirt the line:

A Million Little PiecesA Million Little Pieces by James Frey

In terms of popular culture, this is probably the quintessential example of the conundrum faced in categorizing something as fact or fiction.  Originally billed as the memoir of a 23-year-old drug addict, it came to light that a number of the scenes represented in the book were fabrications.  This, of course, raises the question:  Does the liberal way in which the author tells his story affect the overall ‘truth’ of the book?  After all, it is a common societal practice for people to alter and exaggerate the way they narrate their lives to tell better stories.


The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe GloecknerThe Diary of a Teenage Girl

I view this as kind of the opposite scenario as A Million Little Pieces.  The Diary of a Teenage Girl is categorized as a Fictional Graphic Novel, but has been described as autobiography or biography.  This book is a coming of age story told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl and deals with heavy topics such as sex and drug use.  In being categorized as Fiction I wonder if it lessens the impact of the novel.  In the book we follow the main character Minnie as she faces many difficult and confusing situations.  I worry that being ‘fiction’ allows the reader to avoid grappling with many of the questions the book by dismissing uncomfortable situations as fictitious and thus not something 15-year-old girls might have to face in real life.


Buzzworthy Literary Events of 2013

Looking back at the significant literary stories of the year a few registered on my radar screen:

*The 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice
firthWhen Colin Firth emerged from a pond in a wet shirt in the BBC’s 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice , Jane Austen became an instant pop culture celebrity. According to The Guardian, this scene was one of the most unforgettable in British television and spawned dozens of Austen mashups, tote bags, board games and bumper stickers.

Longbourn by Jo Baker, the most recent spinoff, takes a peak longbournat the “below stairs” world which mirrors the romance and heartbreak of the upstairs Bennet household.

madboyBridget Jones is another rogue Austen descendant. In the latest installment Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Bridget, now 51 and (spoiler alert) a widow, struggles in her inimitable style with aging, single parenthood, and Internet dating.

plath*50 years ago Sylvia Plath wrote one of the classics of American literature.  The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s descent into depression.  An anniversary edition was reissued this year featuring a cover that generated a storm of controversy.
A lurid photograph of a woman applying makeup from a compact smacked of “ chick lit” to some. Despite ( or because of ) this controversial cover the new edition has sold well.

*Canadians were jubilant when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Fiction. If you haven’t read any of her story collections here is a primer to “Getting Started with Alice Munro” from “BookRiot”.

North End*Winnipeg poet Katherine Vermette won the Governor General’s Award for poetry for North End Love Songs. Duncan Mercredi calls it “a story that winds its way through the north end (Nor-tend) of Winnipeg. … a story of death, birth, survival, beauty and ugliness; through it all there are glimmers of hope, strength, and a will to survive whatever this city throws at you.”

atwood*Margaret Atwood was the cover girl of the fall issue of Costco magazine . ( I can picture her signing copies of Maddaddam perched between the $1.99 hotdog special and the giant jars of ketchup!)  She also appeared at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale. And did you know she has over 400,000 twitter followers?

yousafzai*In September Europe’s largest public library was opened in Birmingham by Malala Yousafzai. She was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ rights to education in Pakistan. At the opening Malala proclaimed  “I have challenged myself that I will read thousands of books and I will empower myself with knowledge.” Read her biography – I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban.

Now I look forward to all the “Best of 2013” lists that appear in newspapers and magazines at this time of year. One of the first out of the gate is The Globe 100 compiled by Globe and Mail book editors. And I eagerly anticipate the launch of the emagazine database at Winnipeg Public Library. Watch for this game changing event in January!

What good, bad or ugly story caught your attention this year?


Autumn and the Arts

Over the past few weeks the leaves have slowly been turning colour and flocks of birds are heading to warmer locations. Autumn has arrived in Winnipeg and this time of year also marks the beginning of the season for various Arts organizations. The 2012-2013 seasons for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet , Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and Manitoba Opera (just to name a few!) all have so much to offer. Take a moment to view their online season guides and you will be amazed at the variety. Music and performances for all ages to experience and enjoy!

More often than not, before I take in a performance I like to re-familiarize myself with the work or perhaps review its history or acquaint myself with the composer. Winnipeg Public Library has numerous resources to help enrich your experience before attending the symphony, ballet or opera.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has entitled their 2012-2013 season ‘Fairy Tale Fantasy’. It will begin with the Canadian Premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin, based upon the classic children’s fairy tale by Victorian novelist George MacDonald.

The production’s roots in children’s literature made for a perfect opportunity for Winnipeg Public Library to partner with the RWB and host a free program for children. The program included a booktalk, games, classical music and a craft in which they decorated authentic ballet slippers!

Watch for two more ballet programs at the Millennium Library this coming season. In December, we will host a ballerina reading of The Nutcracker which celebrates the classic fairy tale as well as the ballet’s annual production.  During the Winter months, the focus will turn to the well-known characters of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales with the production The Sleeping Beauty.

The 2012-2013 season is also officially underway for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The new WSO season began their 65th season opener with Strauss’s Don Juan as well as some Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Many of the works that will be performed this year can be borrowed from the Library. Just check our catalogue.

If it happens to be opera that strikes your fancy, not only will you find full CD and DVD recordings of numerous operas at the library, but you can gain further appreciation for the story by checking out the libretto or gain a bird’s eye view of the production by examining the score. You can search specifically for CDs, DVDs and Musical Score titles in the catalogue!

If you still can’t get enough, the Library has many great reads about classical music – both fiction and non-fiction.

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music  by Blair Tindall.

A tantalizing memoir written by the gifted American oboist, Blair Tindall. Not for the faint of heart, in this book Tindall looks back on her 25 year career as a symphonic musician. It’s an exciting and candid portrayal of the inner-workings of orchestral life in the highly competitive New York City.

The Tristan Chord: Wagner and philosophy by Bryan Magee.

This is a must read for opera lovers and those striving to further understand the complexity of Wagnerian opera. Magee titles his biography after what is arguably the most innovative use of 4 notes of the 19th Century. Experience the stunning power of the chord for yourself by downloading the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde from Freegal Music. Once again the score, libretto, CD and DVD recordings of the opera are all available at the Library!

The Violin Lover  by Susan Glickman.

This moving novel set in 1930s London follows the story of a man and a woman who are brought together by the intense musical relationship the man forms with her 11 year-old prodigy son. Glickman, “well known for her lithe, rich poetry and brilliant literary criticism, has infused her first novel with music. Beautifully evoking all the senses awakened by playing and listening, this brilliant work of fiction accomplishes the rare feat of recreating the experience of one art form in another.”

As you can see the Library offers many ways to engage yourself and your children in the sensational world of art music and its history.



Armchair travelling for Euro 2012 fans

In my most humble opinion, there is no better way to start the summer than with an internationally televised football (soccer) tournament. Naturally, the World Cup tops my list of preferred events, but UEFA’s Euro competition is definitely #2.  The group stage wrapped up earlier this week, and we’ve now moved into the quarter finals; yesterday, we saw Portugal eliminate the Czech Republic, while this afternoon, Germany goes head to head with Greece. Exciting!!

As the tournament continues, it unfortunately means that there are longer periods between games; there’s a lot of time to kill on the days and evenings when there’s no football on the television! What to do, you ask yourself? Answer: read your way around Euro! Luckily, I have a few suggestions for you.

Let’s start by visiting the Netherlands, forgetting that the team lost all three games in the group stage and returns home covered in shame. (Yes, I’m feeling quite a bit of resentment that my number one team performed so horribly, but I’m working through it.) A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein was one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read, and also the most rewarding. As Publishers Weekly states, “Dorrestein excels at describing how an eccentric family, the van Bemmels of The Hague, is tormented and finally destroyed by the growing madness of one of its members.” Other popular Dutch authors include Gerbrand Bakker, Tommy Wieringa, and Margriet de Moor.

Moving on to Portugal, I recommend Blindness by the late José Saramago. Originally published in 1995, this book was adapted for the big screen in Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness. A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” whose victims are confined to a vacant mental hospital, while a single eyewitness to the nightmare guides seven oddly assorted strangers through the barren urban landscape. You should also try out José Luís Peixoto, Luís Miguel Rocha, and António Lobo Antunes.

My number two team is Germany, home of Herta Müller. Her novel about the Gulag, Hunger Angel, was first published in 2009, the same year that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel traces the experiences of Leo Auberg, who, after five torturous years in a post-war Soviet Union labor camp, succumbs to a hallucinatory existence where hunger and everyday objects take on anthropomorphic qualities. Other popular German authors include Ferdinand von Schirach, Günter Grass, and Jan Costin Wagner. Of course, none of these names are as fun to shout out as German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. SCHWEINSTEIGER!

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is a book you may have heard of last year. This novel is the first in the crime-thriller series about Department, and was originally published in 2007. Chief detective Carl Morck recovering from what he thought was a career-destroying gunshot wound is relegated to cold cases and becomes immersed in the five-year disappearance of a politician. The second Carl Morck book The Absent One will be released this August. Reserve your copy today! I also recommend books by Sara Blædel, Peter Høeg, and Christian Jungersen.

Regardless of the fact that this team beat my beloved Dutch in 2010’s World Cup final, let’s visit Spain by reading A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina. It’s the late sixties, the last dark years of Franco’s dictatorship: Minaya, a university student in Madrid, is caught up in the student protests and the police are after him. He moves to his uncle Manuel’s country estate in the small town of Magina to write his thesis on an old friend of Manuel’s, an obscure republican poet named Jacinto Solana. The country house is full of traces of the poet, notes, photographs, journals, and Minaya soon discovers that, thirty years earlier, during the Spanish Civil War, both his uncle and Solana were in love with the same woman, the beautiful, unsettling Mariana. Javier Marías, Manuel Rivas, and Arturo Pérez-Reverte are also popular authors from Spain.

Croatia’s Vedrana Rudan is a former journalist who started writing fiction when she was fired from her job for criticising the president, Franjo Tudjman. Her first novel, Night, is narrated by Tonka, a middle-aged, antifeminist feminist, who spends an entire night in front of the TV, rambling to an imaginary audience about her grievances about her own life and the world around her. She is a free-thinking woman who (finally) doesn’t give a damn, but she is also a victim of a hypocritical society to which she has no choice but to succumb. This isn’t a book for the easily offended, but those brave enough to give it a try won’t be disappointed. Other suggested Croatian authors include Josip Novakovich, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Miljenko Jergović.

Our first stop in Italy is The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri. In this 14th installment (after The Potter’s Field ) of the internationally popular series set in Vigata, Sicily, Inspector Montalbano once again wrangles with local politics, mysterious strangers, and the ever-present dilemma of what to have for dinner. I also recommended stopping with Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Fabio Geda, and Niccolò Ammaniti.

The Republic of Ireland is home to many a famous author, including Colum McCann. His novel, Let the Great World Spin, was the winner of the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, hinges on Philippe Petit’s illicit 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. It is the aftermath, in which Petit appears in the courtroom of Judge Solomon Soderberg, that sets events into motion. You may also enjoy the works of Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, and William Trevor.

Not only is England my number three team (it gets even more complicated during World Cup), it’s the home of my absolute favourite author, Sir Terry Pratchett. And it’s only fitting that he’s written a book about football, the 37th novel in his ever more popular Discworld series. In Unseen Academicals the wizards of Unseen University in the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork must win a match of foot the ball, without using magic, so they’re in the mood for trying everything else. As the match approaches, four lives are entangled and changed forever. It’s by far one of his best novels, and not just because there’s a librarian in goal. Some of my other favourite British authors include Monica Ali, Hilary Mantel, and Ruth Rendell.

I have yet to be disappointed by France’s Anna Gavalda, falling in love with each and every of her books. Hunting and Gathering, originally published in 2004 and made into a movie starring Audrey Tautou in 2007, is just a delight to read. The story follows four Parisians – a starving artist, her shy and aristocratic neighbor, the neighbor’s obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother – who share unexpected twists of fate that connect them to one another. If you haven’t already, you should also try books by Fred Vargas, the late Irène Némirovsky, and Claude Izner.

Andreĭ Kurkov is one of the better known Ukrainian authors, at least here in Canada. His latest mystery, The Case of the General’s Thumb, blends slapstick and political assassination. When the body of retired general Vadim Bronitsky, missing a thumb, rises over the city dangling from a Coca Cola advertising balloon early one morning, the local police, in the person of Lt. Viktor Slutsky, and Ukrainian security, represented by Nik Tsensky, both investigate. Other popular Ukrainian authors include Borys Antonenko-Davydovych, Marina Lewycka, and Sana Krasikov.

Since Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium series exploded onto the literary world, Swedish crime fiction has been terribly popular with our customers. However, Sweden is not only home to crime thrillers, as witnessed in Jan Guillou‘s Crusade Trilogy. The first book, The Road to Jerusalem, sees a Cistercian monk and former Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson, sent into the world by his master. He  encounters the scheming power battles of twelfth-century Sweden and is separated from the woman he loves by a headstrong noble’s fateful mistake. The series continues in The Templar Knight and Birth of the Kingdom. And because I’m also a fan of crime thrillers, I heartily recommend any books by Liza Marklund, Åke Edwardson, and Henning Mankell.

If you’ve never read a graphic novel before, I can’t think of a better place to start than with Marzi: A Memoir by Poland’s Marzena Sowa. Told from a young girl’s perspective, Marzena Sowa’s memoir of a childhood shaped by politics is fresh and immediate. Structured as a series of vignettes that build on one another, Marzi is a compelling and powerful coming-of-age story that portrays the harsh realities of life behind the Iron Curtain while maintaining the everyday wonders and curiosity of childhood. If graphic novels aren’t your thing, why not try books by Andrzej Stasiuk, Witold Gombrowicz, and Jerzy Andrzejewski?

My high school reunion is coming up in a few weeks (egads, it’s been 25 years!). That might be why I was particularly taken with Ordinary Lives by Josef Škvorecký, my Czech suggestion. The novel takes place during two class reunions: the first, twenty years after the class graduated, in 1963, and the second thirty years later in 1996. Danny Smiricky’s loyalties are tested as secrets from the past are revealed. Other famous Czech authors include Milan Kundera, Patrik Ouředník, and Arnošt Lustig.

In the mood for something on the weirder side? Try out The Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Russian author Viktor Pelevin. After auditioning for the part as a singing geisha at a dubious bar, Lena and eleven other lucky girls are sent to work at a posh underground nightclub reserved exclusively for Russia’s upper-crust elite. They are to be a sideshow attraction to the rest of the club’s entertainment, and are billed as the famous singing caryatids. Things only get weirder from there. For those who would like something a little tamer, I suggest Boris Akunin, Vladimir Sorokin, and the late Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

Our last stop is Greece. One of my recent finds is Stolen Time by Vangelis Hatziyannidis. A young student is selected by a group of five eccentric artists intrigued by his apparent intelligence and agrees to spend two weeks with them in a Greek hotel. The group claims it only wishes to interview him to probe the depths of his intellect, but as the sect begins to inquire into the young man’s past, the young man discovers mysterious writing on a dresser drawer and begins to uncover the secrets of the hotel–and of the group itself. You may also enjoy the books of Panos Karnezis and Nikos Kazantzakis.

Phew! Now I need to rest, and maybe watch a game. Or two. Hurrah! Hurrah! Die Deutschen die sind da!

– Barbara