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Canada Reads 2015: The Five Finalists

Earlier in January we posted that the CBC’s  Canada Reads competition for 2015 was kicking off and the longlist had been announced. Now, two thirds of that list has been whittled away, leaving just five remaining titles. Sadly, the single entry on the list that I had read did not make the cut, so I’m going to have to get reading! The five finalists will each be championed by a Canadian involved in the country’s media culture in some way. The debates will take place in front of a live audience and be broadcast on CBC Radio One for the English-language edition, and on Première Chaîne for the French. From March 16th to 19th, the five panelists will hotly debate why their selection should be declared the winner. The 2015 theme is “One Book to Break Barriers”, and challenges panelists to prove that the horse they’re backing has what it takes to increase accessibility between marginalized subcultures, challenge stereotypes and give a voice to silenced people.

Here are this year’s finalists and their defenders, with plenty of time to get your hands on copies to read:

1. Ru by Kim Thuy, defended by film critic and festival programmer Cameron Bailey

2. When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid , defended by reporter and TV personality Elaine Lui

3. And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, defended by folk-rock singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright

4. The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, defended by children’s activist Craig Kielburger

5. Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee, defended by actress Kristin Kreuk


Guantánamo Diary – Mohamedou Ould Slahi Writes From Captivity


Portions (heavily, repeatedly redacted portions) of the diary of a Guantánamo Bay prisoner have been released – even if the author hasn’t. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been detained at the infamous facility since August, 2002 after turning himself in to the Mauritanian authorities for questioning months earlier. Slahi, who admits to past Al Qaeda ties, maintains that he has been removed from all connections to the organization since 1992.

The American government clearly disagrees, and Slahi remains in custody today. In 2005, Slahi wrote a memoir of his experiences in Guantánamo, and (some version of) that book is finally available today, a decade later, called Guantánamo Diary. The memoir is written in English, Slahi’s fourth language, which he has learned through his time in captivity. Excerpts were first seen published in Slate in 2013. The book contains vivid and frank descriptions of beatings, extreme temperature exposure, sexual assault, relentless interrogations, and all manner of torture. Given the US government subjected the manuscript to over 2,000 redactions before declassifying it, it makes one uncomfortable to imagine what was stricken.

Slahi’s book is available in both hardcover and paperback. It is the first book ever published by a prisoner still held at the Guantánamo Bay facility.

Five books Mark Zuckerberg won’t be recommending

I had some fun with this one. Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, has a book club. So far he’s recommended The End of Power by Moisés Naim – a non-fiction book about how power is shifting around the world – and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature – another non-fiction title about about how and why violence has steadily decreased throughout history. Here’s five books that he won’t be recommending and I’m sure you can guess one of my recommendations before watching the video.

2014 Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair opens on Friday

Visitors to the 2013 Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair

Dasa Pahor, one of the sellers to be found at this year’s fair

The 54th Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair begins on Friday. It’s one of the major events in the European rare book calendar.  More than 80 booksellers from Germany, the UK, the United States, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, France and the Netherlands are displaying rare books and manuscripts, autographs, and prints.

One of the themes of this year’s fair is women in bookselling. They are making a major effort to prove that antiquarian bookselling is not entirely a man’s world. A number of female booksellers have been profiled in the fair’s website.

All of Germany’s finest rare booksellers will be present and many events have been scheduled in conjunction with the event.

The three-day fair concludes on Sunday and more details can  be found at the fair’s website.

Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius – Conscious But Paralyzed

ghost-boyIt sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like it must be invented by a tortured imagination. But Locked-in Syndrome is a real affliction, a rare neurological disorder. It is characterized by total paralysis of muscles throughout the body, excepting the muscles that allow for eye movement.

South African man Martin Pistorius – whose 2012 book Ghost Boy details the entire journey – was just 12 years old, a normal boy like any other, when his body began its descent into paralysis. What first began as symptoms of a flu soon revealed itself as something far more horrific, and with baffled doctors at a loss (far, far later, doctors eventually diagnosed cryptococcal meningitis), Pistorius was rendered entirely immobile over the course of the next 18 months. In the beginning, he was even unable to think. and was for all intents and purposes unconscious. Pistorius’ parents were informed he was entirely vegetative, with no brainpower remaining, and would likely remain that way until he died, for which they should prepare themselves.

Unbelievably, when Martin was (he thinks) somewhere between 14-16 years old, he “woke up”. That is, he was suddenly conscious and aware of his surroundings. He could see, hear and think, but was unable to alert anyone around him to his new state, or communicate in any way, so the people around them continued as if he were brain-dead. The medical community has thus far been unable to explain what “woke” him.

barneyA more terrifying, isolating and panic-inducing predicament is difficult to conjure, but Pistorius found strength and determination in a very strange place – that polarizing big purple television dinosaur, Barney. Being made to watch repeated, seemingly endless episodes of the antics of Barney and his friends made Pistorius focus on a goal – learning to tell time and to count down time without the use of a clock, by the length of each episode.

All in all, the paralysis-coma lasted 14 years, 12 of which he was conscious.

Astonishingly, today, Martin Pistorius now lives in with his wife, and is a freelance web designer/developer. For more about how that came to be, you’ll have to read Ghost Boy.

Oxford Junior Dictionary Says: Goodbye Apricot, Acorn, Holly, Hamster

ojdInteresting and distressing read on the Melville House web site this morning. It seems that since 2007, Oxford University Press have been quietly making some editorial changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary that have a group of authors up in arms.

Nature-associated words such as almond, blackberry, crocus, hamster, gerbil, ferret, goldfish and similar have been edged out of the publication in favor of words the OUP feel more relevant to today’s early childhood education. The new additions include words such as broadband, blog, chatroom, block graph and more in that vein.

The 28 authors – including Canadian literacy champion Margaret Atwood – are appealing via a January 12th letter to have Oxford University Press reverse their decision, reinstating the removed words in subsequent editions. The full text of the letter can be read on naturemusicpoetry.com. The crux, to my mind, is the snippet I’ve posted here:

“In all, the names for thirty species of common or important British plants and animals have been removed – such as acorn and bluebell – along with many words connected with farming and food. Many are highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce.

This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign:
“Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers,
picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on.”

I realize it’s unrealistic now to cling to visions of childhood painted as long days gamboling about in the forest, overturning mushrooms to catch salamaders, or wandering through meadows learning birdcalls and wildflowers, or watching tidepools teeming with life at the beach. Those days, for most children, are the exception, not the rule. But they are important, and they are part of our world, and the loss of that would be profound.

If OUP refuse to listen to the impassioned plea from these authors, perhaps they would listen to parents. We are not willing to let our children live exclusively indoors, and not willing to let hard, manmade light and surfaces define their constant environment. We know in our bones and our very spirits that our children need to be outside, with grass-stained knees and their hands in the dirt, learning what the world is made of. A snippet of proof: there is a school here, in our city of Victoria, BC, which offers a nature-based kindergarten program, promising to have kids spending days outside, rain or shine, learning in nature. Last week, beginning Friday night, parents lined up and camped out, some for days, to ensure their child received a spot in the program.

I very much hope the OUP will hear these authors, and give the children back the words they need. It’s extremely hard to favor pragmatism and practicality over preciousness where our children are involved, particularly when it involves the arena in which we lovingly store our own nostalgia, and our desire for our children to experience the same sweetness, freedom and meaningful experiences that we did.

Even when I am briefly able to set aside my love of language and absolutely unshakeable belief in its crucial importance, however; even when I am able to see past my revulsion at what-is-the-world-coming-to, I simply can’t see why, at worst, these words can’t co-exist together peacefully in the pages of the first reference book small hands might ever encounter. Our world is changing, and there’s no getting away from that, and no denying it, whether you see it as a positive, a negative, or a muddied grey area full of wonder and loss. But certainly, we owe it to our kids to preserve what is and what was, and show it to them. There must be a place both for bluebells and broadband, to let our children’s minds marvel at what the world wonderfully, perfectly created without us and before us, and what we, as human beings, have been able to bring forth since.

10 Beautiful Bookshops That Will Stop You in Your Tracks

A bibliophile cannot walk past a bookshop without slowing their step. We will linger at the window, gazing through the glass at stacks of books we have not yet read. We hover, telling ourselves we must read the pile on the nightstand before buying another. But we can’t resist the lure. Before long, we open the door, sounding the tiny bell that rouses the shop cat. We’re in, and we’re going to be a while.

The only thing that tops a bookstore full of amazing books, is a beautiful bookstore full of amazing books – a bookstore so charming not even a TV-addict can resist it. Many stunning bookstores list their books for sale on the AbeBooks marketplace, so we rounded up a few of the most alluring storefronts from Paris to Boston and everywhere in between. Even those immune to the magnetic pull of the smell of old books will stop dead in their tracks at the sight of these pretty AbeBooks bookstores, so before you step inside to bury your nose in a book, take a moment to enjoy the view from outside.

10 Beautiful Bookshops on AbeBooks - Brattle Bookshop

Located in Boston, MA, Brattle Book Shop first opened its doors in 1825. George Gloss took ownership in 1949 and his son Ken (pictured above) runs it today. The three-story building in downtown Boston is home to over 250,000 books, including two floors of used books and one floor of rare & antiquarian books. The books have even poured into the neighboring outside lot, nestled under the watchful eyes of Toni Morrison, Kafka, and Yeats.

10 Beautiful Bookshops on AbeBooks - Eureka Books

For most of the 20th century this charming storefront in Eureka, CA was a rough-and-tumble speakeasy called the High Lead Saloon, where in 1933 the two owners had a shootout in the back hallway. Only owner Tom Slaughter survived, and his family owned the building into the 1970s. It’s also said that author Raymond Carver indulged at the High Lead, and a picture of the building can be seen in his book Carver Country. Today, the building is occupied by a slightly softer crowd. Eureka Books moved in in 1992, and all signs of scandal seem to be gone. One of the last classic antiquarian booksellers on the west coast, Eureka Books offers first editions, ephemera, and new and used books.

10 Beautiful Bookshops on AbeBooks - Peter Harrington

A list of beautiful bookstores isn’t complete without a proper London shop. Peter Harrington has been dealing in the rare books business since 1969 and boasts an impressive selection of exquisite modern first editions, manuscripts, and more.

See all 10 Beautiful Bookshops here, and leave a comment about a beautiful bookshop in your city!

Helpful Traffic Sign Nevertheless Has a Foul Mouth

I really wanted to post about the downtown Los Angeles traffic sign that someone hacked. However, the hacker, while clearly of the literary sort and probably someone I’d like to grab a beer with, also seems to have a penchant for the swearsies, so I thought better of it. Basically what happened is that some prankster got into the back-end workings of one of those computerized big signs that give redirection and delay instructions (the ones that kind of look like a giant Lite Brite), and updated the message to something more general, more literary, more bossy, and more profane. Here is a cleverly photoshopped approximation of the message:


If you think you can stomach the real thing, taken by journalist Daina Beth Solomon, you can see it on Buzzfeed.

American Novelist Robert Stone Dies at 77

dog-soldiers-robert-stoneLoss for the literary world today – American novelist Robert Stone has died of COPD.

The New York City-born writer was best known for his second novel, Dog Soldiers, which earned him a National Book Award in 1975. However his career spanned nearly five decades, with his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, published in 1966, and his most recent, Death of the Black-Haired Girl released in 2013.

Further to his National Book Award, Stone was also twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and once for a PEN/Faulkner, among numerous other honors. If you’ve never read any of Robert Stone’s work, think darkly funny, fast-paced adventure, often with political, wartime or nautical bents to the stories. Detractors have criticized Stone’s works for being too bleak and hopeless, but fans are able to find and focus on humor and warmth in the words.

Stone died in his winter home of Key West, Florida, which is a good place to go, if you have to go. He had been an active and important member of the literary community there. He was 77 years old.

Science Survey Says….Screens Bad, Books Good.

A few weeks ago I came across the dramatically-titled article “Reading On A Screen Before Bed Might Be Killing You” (ever the subtle wordsmiths, HuffPo). Understandably alarmed, I wanted to click through for more information, but since it was bedtime, I instead hurled my phone from my shaking hands, not to pick it up again until it was safely morning. When I finally did click through, I was relieved to see that the title had been a bit misleading. While it does provide some rather troubling insights into the effect of screen time on our body’s circadian rhythms and ability to regulate melatonin, you’re not likely to drop dead if you indulge in an occasional Youtube-fest at bedtime (keyword here is occasional). I also question one aspect of the study, which states:

The study ran for two weeks and included 12 participants who read on an iPad for four hours before bed for five days straight, a process that was repeated with printed books. For some, the order was reversed: They started with printed books and moved to iPads.

No mention is made of whether the iPad users, like the print users (presumably), read one continuous piece, such as a novel. On an iPad, there is certainly an opportunity and tendency to jump around from article to article, social media to social media, video to slideshow to words and back. Given the nature of our attention spans, unless the four hours of reading was one continual piece of media in each case, I’m unconvinced it’s comparable.

And Kindle lovers were likely relieved to see that the article specifically pointed to light-emitting devices as the sleep thieves, and many e-readers still aren’t backlit, and require adequate ambient light to read, just like a book. That is, however, where e-reader fans can stop rejoicing. According to this article, our brains will thank us for reading actual, ink-on-paper print books.

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

It also makes reference to tactile, sensory experience of turning pages, feeling the weight of the book, the thickness of the paper, the roughness, wrinkles and possible dog-ears under our fingers as another factor in furthering stress reduction and helping our brains to understand the progression of the words. I don’t know about all that. but it sure is pleasant. And how about that smell? Mmm, mm, mm. Books.

All I know is everything in this article rings true for me in a very primitive, fundamental way. I feel better when I read a book, when I concentrate, ignore the world around me and abandon myself to words on a page and a story. I feel worse when I stare at my phone or laptop, refreshing glowing screens and absorbing tiny, lightning-fast and largely irrelevant micro-bites of information, that my brain doesn’t need or want. Funny, to think about my life’s greatest passion and indulgence, my lifelong hobby and habit, being relegated to necessary self-care. Fortunately, it should be an easier habit than say, flossing or exercising, to keep up regularly.

This sums it up nicely, in a sentiment that I, as a reader, along with many of you I’m sure, find entirely unsurprising:

Reading in a slow, focused, undistracted way is good for your brain.

Slow-reading advocates recommend at least 30 to 45 minutes of daily reading away from the distractions of modern technology. By doing so, the brain can reengage with linear reading. The benefits of making slow reading a regular habit are numerous, reducing stress and improving your ability to concentrate.

So, the science is in. stock those shelves, smell that paper, visit those libraries and bookshops. Curl up with a good book and improve your quality – and maybe even your quantity, a little – of life.