Monday, November 30, 2009


There were two memorials held in Edmonton on Saturday, both remembering acts of inhumanity that continue to reverberate in the community. The memorials were very different, one remembering a act of state genocide against an entire nation over 70 years ago, another remembering a single act of violence against an Edmonton teenager just a few years ago. The Edmonton Journal's front page on Sunday carried a picture of a service at Edmonton City Hall for the annual commemoration of the Holodomor famine genocide of 1932-33 in Ukraine. Robert Conquest's book, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine was instrumental in changing world attitudes towards the famine. Lubomyr Luciuk is a Ukrainian Canadian activist and academic who published Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine in 2008. This is a collection of essays and documents discussin the famine, including the text of the 2008 Canadian Statute which officially established Holodomor Memorial Day and officially recognized "the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 as an act of genocide". [Edmonton Holodomor Memorial pictured above left]
The other memorial was an annual indoor soccer match, EVAN's Game, which remembers Evan Grykuliak. Evan was the popular student and soccer player who was killed in 2006 at his 17th birthday party by a youth who has since been convicted of the crime and sentenced as an adult. EVAN (End Violent Acts Now)'s Game remembers Evan as a soccer player and raises awareness and funds for anti-bullying programs in Edmonton schools. This year a group of west-end U18 community players took on the Edmonton Police Service Masters team, with the result a draw 3 - 3 after an exciting comeback by the teens. Can soccer change the world? Perhaps not, but Evan's Game is an inspiring response to a terrible event.
Books reviewed and noted from Sunday's Edmonton Journal (November 29, 2009)
Reviewed in Books & Authors: Fiction: 
  • A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve  "Shreve's story is certainly thought-provoking" says local author and reviewer Debby Waldman.
  • Day After Night by Anita Diamant  "A solid introduction to Holocaust literature.... an easy and entertaining read, but it lacks the spark and freshness that could have made it truly transcendent " says Debby Waldman.
  • Peter & Max: A Fables Novel and Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book One by Bill Willingham  Reviewer and author Robert J. Wiersema notes that both titles serve as good introductions to Willingham's Fabletown graphic novel stories, with Peter & Max the first prose novel in the series.
 Reviewed in Books & Authors: Non-Fiction:  
  • A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War by Rick Hillier  Ottawa Citizen reviewer David Pugliese notes the retired Canadian general's memoir is a "media-savvy take on the Afghan mission" that is "strong on patriotism and weak on details".
  • Gravity, Steam and Steel: An Illustrated Railway History of Roger's Pass by Graeme Pole  "A marvellous, jaw-dropping rendering of the monumental effort it took to lay the tracks through Roger's Pass" says the Calgary Herald's Naomi Lakritz.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

I'm chuffed. The St. Albert Public Library is the first Alberta library to get a copy of the new Stieg Larsson novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, into patrons' hands! It looks like Vancouver Public Library beat us to the national title. This is the third and final book of the Millennium Trilogy that Larsson handed into his publisher before he passed away in 2004. Hornet's Nest won't be published in North America until May or June 2010, but we have a single copy of the 2009 British edition (by way of purchase in Australia). The first two of the trilogy:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2008) 
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

This situation is an unusual publishing world quirk. However, it isn't uncommon for British titles to be published in Canada before the American edition. Booker prize nominees often are unavailable in the US but available here. Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall, wasn't due for US publication until 2010 - until it won the Booker Prize and the release date was moved forward. See, keeping Canada's remaining links with the motherland has its perks! Rule Britannia!

With only one copy available you may have to be patient waiting for Hornet's Nest. Bide your time with some other great Scandinavian crime fiction. The recent BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh as Ystad, Sweden detective Kurt Wallander has made the books by Henning Mankell more popular than ever. [Library has the series on DVD] In the summer of 2009 Branagh filmed three more of the books in Sweden. Below is a list of the Wallander books in chronological reading order. The Pyramid is a group of stories Mankell wrote later that fill in some of the gaps in Wallander's life history. Faceless Killers was the novel that first introduced Wallander to readers. Below the Wallander titles, with BBC I meaning a title filmed for last year's Branagh series, BBC II for the upcoming series filmed the summer of 2009.

Mankell brought forward a new detective, Inspector Stefan Lindman, in The Return of the Dancing Master (2000). There are some links to Wallander in the book. More recently Manning made Wallander's daughter Linda a detective in Before the Frost  (2002).

A third Swedish crime writer, Hakan Nesser, was called the "odd man out" amongst the trio of Mankell, Larsson and Nesse by The Times. Nesser's detective is Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, with the novels taking place in Maardam in a country that seems a mixture of Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.

Next door in Norway we have some great crime writers, including Karin Fossum, who I have recommended before. Fossum's mystery series focuses on small-town police Inspector Konrad Sejer, with more psycholical thriller to them than Mankell's procedurals. Here are the Sejer books available in English so far:

For more Swedish crime check out Camilla Läckberg's Top 10 Swedish Crime Novels from The Guardian. (burial ground in Wallander's Ystad below)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Berlin Noir

Back in 1986 I decided it was a good idea to travel all around Europe with nothing but Let's Go Europe and a giant paperback of the Collected Novels of Thomas Hardy. Sure, thousands of miles away from home, why not read the most depressing novels in the English language? [ABE Books compiled Bleak Books: The Top Ten Most Depressing Books awhile ago. Hardy's Jude the Obscure was #3]
But Hardy was good prep for a day in grim East Berlin. We walked past Checkpoint Charlie and it felt like the Morrissey song: "Every day is like Sunday / Every day is silent and grey". Night to West Berlin's brilliant shining day of 24 hour bars and bustling main drag, the Kurfürstendamm (the Ku'damm). There was a real sense of history in East Berlin though. There was less postwar reconstruction, especially close to the Wall where many of the buildings were full of bullet holes from the war. The picture above is me in East Berlin on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, with one of the infamous 27 horsepower East German Trabant cars behind me. [Edit Nov. 17 - Globe has a slide show of new hipster car - the Trabant!]

Rosa Luxemburg was a Communist pioneer, killed during a rebellion in Berlin in 1919. Novelist Jonathan Rabb wrote a detective novel, Rosa, using her story. PW said Rabb's "re-creation of post-World War I Berlin is masterly". Rabb has a new (2009) sequel to Rosa out, Shadow and Light, set in 1927 Berlin.

The master of Berlin-set detective fiction is Philip Kerr, with his trilogy Berlin Noir (1993), originally published singly as March Violets (1989), Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991). The books star Bernie Gunther as a very hard-boiled detective in 1936, 1938 and 1947 Berlin (and Vienna in the 3rd one). Gunther fans were delighted when a new novel appeared in 2006, The One From the Other, followed by A Quiet Flame (2008) and soon If the Dead Rise Not (2010). Highly, highly recommended, particularly March Violets.

If you are looking for that Alan Furst-style eve-of-destruction atmosphere, David Downing has two thrillers set in 1939 Berlin, Zoo Station (2007) and its sequel, Silesian Station (2008). Both star Anglo-American journalist John Russell and concern the moral compromises war brings. Booklist called Zoo Station a "quiet but suspenseful tale of an ordinary man living in a dangerous place during a dangerous time".

Veteran espionage writer Charles McCarry was an American spy during the Cold War. Christopher's Ghosts begins in 1939 with Paul Christopher witnessing an atrocity committed by S.S. officer Franz Stutzer. 20 years later, back in Berlin during the Cold War, Stutzer emerges from the ruins looking to kill the last witness to his crime.

The best novel about the postwar/prewall period, the 1950s before the Wall's construction in 1961, is Ian McEwan's masterful, The Innocent. This is the Ian McEwan of Atonement fame. The Innocent was the first McEwan novel I read and I was blown away by it. This is a psychological thriller built around naive young telephone technician Leonard Marnham, brought to 1954 Berlin to help work on a secret tunnel under the Soviet sector, but finds himself deep in other nefarious deeds. A nice slow build to a shocking climax.

Paperbacks of Len Deighton's spy novels can be found mouldering away on many a cottage shelf as they made excellent beach reads. He set many in Berlin, including the first spy thriller to star his character, British spy Bernard Samson: Berlin Game (1983). You can follow Samson through three sets of trilogies: Game, Set and Match; Hook, Line and Sinker; Faith, Hope and Charity. Many have fallen out of print but Deighton may be due for a revival, especially with Quentin Tarentino considering filming Game, Set and Match.

Finally, a thriller set just before the fall of the Wall, in September 1989: Brandenburg Gate by Henry Porter. A riveting tale of a former East German Stasi agent forced back into service in the waning days of the DDR to save his brother on the wrong side of the Wall. Simon Winchester called it a "total of those bedside table books so thrilling you reach for it on waking."

More Berlin? More Wall?

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wall

Where were you on 11/9? I'm not sure. I was living in London, Ontario when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but I don't remember November 9th in particular. That whole year was full of momentous events - glasnost, perestroika, Solidarity, Tienanmen, Timosoara.
Today I remember 1986, three years before the Wall's fall, when a friend and I were in Berlin for a few days. That's me above, writing rude things about East German President Erich Honecker on the Berlin Wall (or more likely, "I wuz here").

Being at the Wall was an odd experience. Despite having grown up during the Cold War, having studied Soviet history in university, it was still felt strange to actually touch geopolitical reality. It was actually true, a country imprisoning its own people. A city literally divided by a giant wall. How could this really be?

From a tower near Potsdamer Platz I looked down at the Wall and saw that "the Wall" was actually a system of walls, fences and a barren no-man's land (see 1986 photo above). Talk among the tourists was that a mound of dirt in the middle of no-man's land was where Hitler's bunker was. The Platz was the site of the worst violence during the 1953 East German uprising. And the Wall was first breached at the Platz in 1989.

Today the Wall is long gone and Potsdamer Platz is full of glitzy corporate buildings (below in 2007). In her review of Frederick Taylor's book about the wall, Anne Applebaum wrote:
To anyone who remembers the surreal presence of the Berlin Wall, its absence now seems little short of miraculous. Walk from the Tiergarten, once in the West, across Pariser Platz, once a wasteland, and have a beer on the Unter den Linden, once in the East. Now it takes a few minutes; before November 1989, it wouldn't have been possible at all. Or drive through Berlin's western suburbs: Although there are neighborhoods where the streets form odd patterns, it is no longer possible to say which house was on which side of the border back then, so thorough has been the renovation and regeneration of the landscape. And yet at the time, the concrete structure of the Wall seemed so permanent, so indestructible.
Some folks aren't all happy with the shiny new Berlin and Germany. There's even a name for this nostalgia for the old days: ostalgie. (ost=east) Eleanor Wachtel interviewed prominent German writer Ingo Schulze yesterday on CBC's Writers and Company (replayed Wednesday or podcast). He grew up in the DDR (East Germany) and was happy the wall fell as he had the freedom to write. But he worries that in the new Germany "everything is commodified". He said in Deutsche Welle:
... public space is disappearing and being replaced by commercial space. Take Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Only tourists go there. Locals never do. It's not a proper public space -- it's a space that has been rented out to businesses. Democracy is about having public spaces. In the DDR, public space could only be used for official events. And now the public space that we have access to and should be using has been hijacked by commercialism. People are reduced to mere consumers.
Or people say, "Well, at least we had jobs under Communism". Sure, and prisoners have jobs too! The Globe & Mail's Doug Saunders, in one of his excellent pieces about the Berlin Wall anniversary, points to Archie Brown's new book The Rise and Fall of Communism. Brown notes that a key cause of the collapse of communism in Europe was the giant loans these governments owed to western banks. The loans were used to try and approximate a Western standard of living. By 1989 the western debt was unsustainable. Other good books on the ills of Communism:
  • Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (2001) - A short overview from the Harvard professor and Reagan adviser: "Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea"
  • Robert Service, Comrades! A History of World Communism (2007) - A scathing overview, with pithy lines such as calling Communist "fellow travelers" "Stalin's admiring slugs."
  • The Black Book of Communism (1999) - The groundbreaking catalogue of Communism's crimes which argued that Communism was morally no better than Nazism.
For a focused look at the history of the Wall here are two recent books:
A new book by Russian historian Constantine Pleshakov, There Is No Freedom Without Bread! : 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism notes that for the Soviet Bloc "making a living came first and was for many years almost enough to make the socialist experiment seem gratifying". But the command economy couldn't keep up its end of the social contract and the payment crisis accelerated discontent.

The human cost of living within the "socialist experiment", indeed the true nastiness of, in this case the DDR, is shown well in the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others. Even though it portrays a secret police officer ("Stasi") as having some sense of human decency, the overall picture gets the message across of a state that was a dark, Orwellian nightmare. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

For younger readers there is the graphic novel by Peter Sis, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Sis grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia before defecting in Los Angeles in 1982. In this book he tells his kids about his childhood, about learning at school to think and draw what he was told, and then his gradual rejection of Communism, thanks to things like rock and roll.

Next post - some Berlin fiction of note.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

PW Best Books of 2009

When our colleagues over at City Hall refer to "PW" they mean Public Works ("Gotta run - meeting out at PW today"). At the Library by PW we mean Publishers Weekly, the bible of the publishing industry and a source of reviews for our Library selection team. Generally PW reviews are short and positive (a must-buy!). You run across them in the Library catalogue as they are a featured review source along with Library Journal. Yesterday PW published a well-considered list of their 100 Best Books of 2009, with a PW Top Ten culled from the 100. The top ten is a good mix of interesting titles I think, but there has been a few comments and raised eyebrows in the blogosphere as none of the ten are by women writers.

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
A biography of writer John Cheever, the "Chekhov of the suburbs", who died in 1982. The Library has his collected stories, his journals and his novel, The Wapshot Chronicle.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Esteemed literary biographer Holmes looks back to the Romantics and a time when the sciences and the arts were not at war with each other. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow's famous "Two cultures" essay about the divide that separates science and the arts. I'm reminded as well of Jenny Uglow's 2002 book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.

Shop Class as Soulcraft
by Matthew B. Crawford
For everyone contemplating a middle age crisis: a book making the case for ditching the white collar grind and working with one's hands.

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
I recommended this classic adventure tale as a great fall read. Grann tells of his experience in researching the story of explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in 1925.

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War
by Neil Sheehan
The only one on the list the Library doesn't have yet (we'll order it). The story of the development of the ICBM (that's intercontinental ballistic missile for the young folk). Sheehan is the author of one of the essential Vietnam books, A Bright Shining Lie : John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.


Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
A book with buzz that I recommended as a great fall read. In this novel Chaon deftly juggles three intriguing plots about people dropping their old lives and remaking themselves.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
by Daniyal Mueenuddin
A linked story collection about life in Pakistan beyond the insanity of Waziristan, from a Pakistani-American writer.

Big Machine by Victor LaValle
LaValle is the cover boy for the PW Best Books issue (above). Kirkus said of this novel: "Too idea-hungry and haywire to be fully successful, too alive and abrasive to be missed. The multicultural novel has come of age - smashingly."

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer
Dyer is one of those smart, witty English guys who cranks out brilliant fiction and non-fiction . In Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It he told of his own travels in search of enlightenment. In this novel he tells the story of an aging hipster traveling in search of enlightenment. And a girl.

Stitches by David Small
Graphic memoir is threatening to become a genre of its own, with excellent books like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic or Jeff Lemire's Essex County series, and many others out there. Here Small tells of his difficult childhood. Have a look at the trailer for an introduction to the book: