In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century
Geert Mak
Translated by Sam Garrett
(Pantheon Books, New York City: 2007)

First published in the Netherlands as In Europa by Uitgeverij Atlas, Amsterdam, c. 2004 Geert Mak.

READ: April 2009

Heather Mallick, one of my favourite Viewpoint & Analysis columnists on the CBC website, reviewed this book about 6 months ago, and I was immediately intrigued. The book instantly went on my must-read list, though in the form of a request on a long hold list at the public library.

Well, Christmas - as I like to call it when I get an email about a long-forgotten book now being held for me at the library - arrived at the beginning of April. I sunk into this book with very little hesitation, and found it quite hard to get out.

Geert Mak, a journalist for a Dutch newspaper and an acclaimed Dutch author, spent the year 1999 travelling all across Europe in search of eyewitnesses and contemporary accounts of historical events from the past century. He takes us to so many places and introduces us to so many people. The 20th century was anything but dull for Europeans. But Mak's book is not a mere recitation of facts, dates, and events. He assumes his reader already knows the basic outlines of modern history, and so, while he does spend some time giving historical and political background, he mostly explores events through the people who experienced them.

20th century Europe was not always a happy place to be, depending on where you ended up. There was so much bloodshed, so much violence, so much turmoil. Mak does a very good job at putting a human face on much of this. On the one hand, that makes things like the rise of Nazism and Hitler in 1930s socialist Germany easier to understand; on the other, it also makes things like "the Troubles" in Ireland that much more horrifying, gut-wrenching, and disturbing. Mak makes recent European history personal.

Weighing in at just over 800 pages, this is a huge book! I had to read it far too quickly, and had to absorb a lot of information, drama, and emotion in each sitting. Sometimes it overwhelmed me for that reason. But mostly it just compelled me to keep reading (even if that compulsion was occasionally caused by a feeling of "if you keep reading, things must get better"). Mak's writing is lucid and clear, his eye for detail is keen, and he knows how to tell a story in such a way that the events become very personal.

Happiness(TM) by Will Ferguson

Will Ferguson
(Penguin Group Canada, Toronto: 2002)

READ: April 2009

One of my all-time favourite books. I have read it at least three times since first picking it up in 2004 (because I found the giant daisy on the cover was, ironically, pleasing). I hadn't heard of Will Ferguson before, though he has since become one of my favourite authors. I have since bought the book again at least three times, since I kept giving away my own copy to others.

It is a story about self-help books. One day, junior editor Edwin, desperate to show the boss that he is working on something, pulls - not out of his slush pile but literally out of the garbage - a giant, rambling manuscript someone had sent in, claiming it to be The Only Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need. The book and its claims are clearly ludicrous, but the boss gets Edwin to push through and get it published. The book is an instant success...except instead of reading it and moving along to the next trendy thing, people start taking its advice to heart. They quit their jobs, move to communes, start farming sustainably. They quit smoking and drinking, too. But even worse, they stop buying self-help books. Soon, the world's biggest problem is that everyone, everyone is just too darn happy. Except for Edwin.

The first time I read this book, I remember many laugh-out-loud moments. There were a number of chuckles this time around, too. Ferguson is witty and concise, his characters are likeable, and his insight into the human psyche is spot-on as well as amusing.

The Hike It, Bike It, Walk It, Drive It Guide to Ottawa, the Gatineau, Kingston and Beyond by Ann Campbell

The Hike It, Bike It, Walk It, Drive It Guide to Ottawa, the Gatineau, Kingston and Beyond
Ann Campbell
(Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ont.): 2001)

READ: intermittent to March 2009

A good book to help me discover some of these places literally next door. I have yet to undertake an entire one of Campbell's suggested excursions, but I have done some in part; for example, hiking up to the Mackenzie King estate in Gatineau Park. I keep this one nearby and often consult it when starting to wonder what to do on an upcoming Saturday. My one complaint: each described excursion would be well-served by an accompanying map. There isn't a single map in the whole book.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
(DC Comics, New York: 2008)

Originally published in serialized form, 1986-87.

READ: March 2009

Read the graphic novel in anticipation of going to see the movie, and I was so glad I did. Seemingly the story of how a number of retired superhero crime-fighters are now, apparently, being slowly targeted and eliminated, it is also, and much more importantly, a larger story of the fight for world domination and the end of the world. I thought the movie did a decent job of conveying the story onto the screen. The action and movement that is packed into the novel, however, is amazing. I may have to read some more graphic novels, if anyone has any suggestions.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley
Wordsworth Classics edition
(Dover Publications, New York: 1994)

First published in 1816.

READ: February-March 2009

I've had this book for many years now, and had tried once or twice to read it with no success. This time, I did! You really have to be in the mood for some Victorian literature - it's wordy, with lots of big words. (Hey, I have 2 graduate degrees - I know a big word when I see one.) Plus, it's written in the "confessional" style, which is probably my least favourite writing style. And not only is it confessional in tone, it's purportedly written by Dr. Frankenstein, who hears all this from the monster himself. The monster had initially fled after Dr. Frankenstein expressed horror at the being he had just created. Over the course of many, many years, he apparently taught himself English by living in the shed of an unsuspecting family in Switzerland, listening to their conversations and watching their interactions, night after night. His English is impeccable! And very Victorian. Then there is a whole string of misunderstood events that lead to a fairly high body count, and a multi-country pursuit.

However, once I was able to suspend my disbelief and get past the fact that the monster spoke as if he'd fallen out of a novel, it was, in fact, a fairly enjoyable story. It is not a very long book, and the story has a good pace. By the end, you really do feel sorry for the monster.

20,000 lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne

20,000 lieues sous les mers
Jules Verne
Édition jeunesse
(Hachette Jeunesse: 2009)

Publié pour la première fois dans sa version intégrale en 1870.

READ: November 2008 - March 2009

J'ai lu ce livre en anglais pour la première fois il y a quelques années à peine. Cette version fut la version jeunesse. C'est une histoire très intéressante (comme la première fois!), et je le recommande fortement, mais le français était d'un niveau assez compliqué... Voir le recensement en anglais pour plus d'information.

The Academic Library and the Net Gen Student : Making the Connections by Susan Gibbons

The Academic Library and the Net Gen Student : Making the Connections
Susan Gibbons
(American Library Association, Chicago: 2007)

READ: February 2009

Libraries like to think that they are at the cutting edge of technology, but more often than not, they really aren't. Many in librarianship (the younger ones, anyway) likely played with various technologies while in library school[1], but once out in a real library, you are suddenly faced with layer upon layer of bureaucracy anytime you want to try another or get anything done.[2]

In this book, Susan Gibbons, the director of digital initiatives for the libraries at the University of Rochester, surveys the main Web 2.0 technologies being used by students today, and suggests ways in which libraries could use these in order to better meet the needs of students. The technologies she discusses include: social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, RSS feeds, online gaming and MMORPGs like Second Life, wikis, blogs, collaborative sites like LibraryThing, social bookmarking sites like, and, of course, instant messaging.[3] She also stresses the importance of reaching students by making library services and websites available for cellphones and other mobile devices.

Some of these ideas work better than others. I see, for example, no need for my library to have a presence in something like Second Life (but maybe that's just because I don't really understand its purpose). I question the value of a Facebook page (though the idea of having "fans" is kinda neat). I've started playing around with RSS feeds (though I note the law library does not have one), though the jury is still out on whether it's saving me time or whether it's causing me to read more things than before (I lean slightly toward the latter; however, I am becoming more well-informed, at least where travel, book reviews, and alien abduction stories[4] are concerned). Library sites do need to become more accessible via cellphones, etc., and I certainly see applications like IM helping libraries gain more ground.

The book was written in 2006, so it's not (yet) too hopelessly out-of-date. While I didn't find it too helpful in terms of suggesting suggestions of things we could actually do here at my library (though that might be at least partly due to bureaucracy that stands between my ideas and actual change), it was good for giving an overview of what is out there and what some other libraries are doing with some of these tools.

[1] I know I personally loved my classes in multimedia (for which I made an electronic version of the Tolkien bestiary), electronic text design (wrote an e-paper on the (alleged) death of the book), and yes, even the dreaded systems analysis and design (my partner and I designed a database system for the law library - alas, never implemented - in which reference questions could be tracked and indexed for easy retrieval in the future).

[2] Statement not meant to imply anything about reviewer's current workplace. If anything, I have recently started finding some loopholes to work around the bureaucracy, and implement ideas that don't affect the bureaucracy. The real problem really has become finding the time to do so.

[3] I believe the book was written pre-Twitter, but that certainly has a role to play as well.

[4] That last one is (mostly) a joke.

The Next Gen Librarian's Survival Guide by Rachel Singer Gordon

The Next Gen Librarian's Survival Guide
Rachel Singer Gordon
(Information Today, Medford (NJ): 2006)

READ: January-February 2009

I believe I stumbled across this book when getting some other books on librarianship that I had recently read reviews for. The author, Rachel Singer Gordon, is a name I already knew - she is the editor of the Info Career Trends Newsletter to which I subscribe, amonst other things. She is one of those people who, in the world of librarianship at least, always seems to have something interesting to say. Plus I figured I am a NextGen librarian (I guess?) and so might learn something useful or two.

I probably had a larger need for this book a few years ago, but I still found it useful. Gordon provides advice and tips on many different issues in librarianship, from surviving library school*, to finding a first job, to perceptions of librarianship, to working with older colleagues who might perhaps be a bit more - ahem - traditional.

Another important aspect to note is that Gordon is focusing on the American library job market, which, from what I know, is significantly different from the Canadian one. It is really hard for many graduates of American library schools to snag that first job. Canadian library school graduates - and my evidence is largely anecdotal on this account, I admit - have a much easier time. Gordon gives some good general advice on job-hunting; for example, no matter how broke you might feel upon graduation, don't necessarily just snap up the first job that comes your way.

What I really found useful in this book is that Gordon also sent out surveys to both NextGen (under-40) and older librarians (over-40), in order to solicit feedback on the issues covered in her book. Some of the responses to these are very telling. Others are quick to point out that the under-40, over-40 divide is a bit of a false dichotomy, which Gordon (to her credit) acknowledges whenever possible. (You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, right?)

The final chapter in the book tackles the subject from a completely different angle. It is written for current administrators and managers, rather than the NextGen librarians working for those administrators and managers. This gives an interesting perspective from "the other side of the fence", so to speak.

Well-written, and a quick, easy read, I would recommend this to people still in library school, or those recently graduated (within the last few years). Beyond that, you've probably figured out most of what's in the book - maybe the hard way! I would also recommend it to older librarians, administrators and managers, who might be having a hard time relating to or understanding their younger colleagues.

* Those of you who are not librarians will not necessarily know that while most librarians are very content and happy in their day-to-day jobs, library school itself is almost universally disliked.

2009 Booklist

  1. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

  2. The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester

  3. Payback by Margaret Atwood

  4. The Next Gen Librarian's Survival Guide by Rachel Singer Gordon

  5. The Academic Library and the Net Gen Student : Making the Connections by Susan Gibbons

  6. 20,000 lieues sous la mer by Jules Verne

  7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

  8. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

  9. Chartrand des Écorres by Cosette Marcoux-Boivin (incomplete)

  10. Beijing Confidential: Tales of Comrades Lost and Found by Jan Wong

  11. Happiness (TM) by Will Ferguson

  12. The Hike It, Bike It, Walk It, Drive It Guide to Ottawa, the Gatineau, Kingston and Beyond by Ann Campbell

  13. In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

  14. The Rough Guide to Paris

  15. The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow

  16. The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret McMillan

  17. The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts And The Challenges To American Power by David E. Sanger

  18. Neither Here Nor There: Travels Through Europe by Bill Bryson

  19. Canadian Courts: Law, Politics, and Process by Lori Hausegger, Matthew Hennigar & Troy Riddell

  20. The Jade Peony by Wayson Choi

  21. Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick (incomplete)

  22. The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services by Richard Susskind (incomplete)

  23. Nova Scotia Book of Everything by John MacIntyre & Martha Walls

  24. The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs (incomplete)

  25. The English Legal System: 2009-2010 by Gary Slapper & David Kelly

  26. Wilderness Pleasures: A Practical Guide to Camping Bliss by Kevin Callan

  27. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

  28. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

  29. The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

  30. A Paddler's Guide to Weekend Wilderness Adventures in Southern Ontario by Kevin Callan

  31. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

  32. Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast by Bill Richardson

  33. The Human, The Orchid and The Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World by Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein