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Josef Skvorecky, author of The Engineer of Human Souls, dies at 87

The dissident writer and publisher Josef Skvorecky, author of 1984′s Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel The Engineer of Human Souls, has died at the age of 87, according to media reports.

Skvorecky came to Canada in 1968 following the Soviet invasion of his homeland, Czechoslovakia. With his wife Zdena Salivarova he founded 68 Publishers, which provided a home for dissident writers including Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera.

Skvorecky is also the author of The Cowards, The Swell Season, and Dvorak in Love. He is survived by his wife.

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Book links round-up: rare books burned in Egypt, 2011 digital publishing highlights, and more


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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Critic, gadfly, supporter of the Iraq war, misogynist, atheist. Christopher Hitchens was all these things. He was also one of the most erudite and plain-spoken writers of his day, possessed of intelligence, wit, and interests that were, in the secular sense of the word, catholic.

Hitchens died last night after a protracted battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.

The man himself would, perhaps, cavil with the term “battle” to describe his ailment. In one of a series of pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine describing, in typically direct, often painful detail, his daily struggles with the disease that was killing him, he referred to the oft-repeated term as “one of the most appealing clichés in our language”:

You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.

Once lionized by progressives, Hitchens’s views fell increasingly out of favour in the years following 9/11, especially concerning his support for the unpopular war the U.S. and its “coalition of the willing” launched against Iraq in 2003. From the Observer:

His advocacy for the Iraq war was only the latest of Hitchens’s positions that many on the left found uncomfortable, and led to a chill in his relations with Gore Vidal, who had once nominated him a “successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delphino.” But Hitchens’s opposition to what he called “fascism with an Islamic face” began long before 9/11, with the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie, imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Hitchens accused of “using religion to mount a contract killing,” after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

He was also excoriated in many circles for a 2007 article in Vanity Fair entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” which prompted outraged, and not unfounded, cries of misogyny. That essay is included in his 2011 collection, Arguably, which is one of the books in the inaugural season of McClelland & Stewart’s non-fiction imprint, Signal. Writing on Random House’s Book Lounge blog, M&S president and publisher Doug Pepper says:

Christopher dealt with his illness as he did his life leading up to it: with wit, insight, incredible intellectual productivity, and extreme courage. We are all terribly saddened by his passing – his was an incredible life cut short and we send his family our heart-felt regrets and sympathy. We are honoured to be his publishers, and in that role to have brought and continue to bring his work to Canadian readers. He will be missed but his great and inspiring legacy will live on.

Among the many tributes pouring in is one from Graydon Carter, the longtime editor of Vanity Fair, where Hitchens served as contributing editor and where much of his recent writing appeared:

He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often – constantly, in fact, and right up to the end – and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections.

Indeed, Hitchens went out as he likely would have wanted to: writing. As recently as this month, he published an essay about his cancer treatments interrogating, with clarity and an utter lack of sentimentality, Nietzsche’s famous bromide that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger:

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

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Toronto Public Library Board balks at 10 per cent budget cut

Last night, in its final meeting of the year, the Toronto Public Library Board approved a cut of 5.9 per cent to its 2012 operating budget. The 2012 budget now stands at just over $164 million, though more cuts may be on the way.

Going into budget negotiations, Mayor Rob Ford required all city services to slash their operating costs by 10 per cent. The TPL board has struggled to find savings. Recently, it shot down a recommendation by chief librarian Jane Pyper to reduce hours and collections at certain branches, and last night they passed on her last-ditch proposal to end bookmobile services, as well as literacy and student outreach programming. To increase revenues, the board voted for higher auditorium and room rental fees, a new fee for materials on hold that go unclaimed, and the phasing in of four new automated sorters.

The decision comes as a surprise, reports The Globe and Mail, in part because the mayor virtually appointed the library board to implement his financial vision:

“I simply can’t support a reduction in hours,” said [board member and City Councillor Jaye] Robinson. “I think in January you will find most of council backing this up and supporting keeping libraries open and accessible.”

While a board-room packed with library staff celebrated, [board chair Councillor Paul] Ainslie didn’t hold back his disappointment. “As far as I’m concerned, a majority of the board just abrogated their duties, shirked their responsibilities,” he said.

“I’m fully expecting the city manager to be furious, I think the mayor’s going to be furious, I think the budget committee will be furious, I’m furious.”

The budget now goes before the City of Toronto budget and executive committees before approval by City Council in January. The next TPL board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 30, 2012.

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Booksellers’ picks of the year: crime and mystery

The third instalment of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, A Red Herring Without Mustard (Doubleday Canada), is one of the most popular crime and mystery titles of 2011, according to booksellers contacted by Q&Q.

Two other new books from established authors, Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light (St. Martin’s Press/Raincoast) and Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison (McClelland & Stewart), are also among booksellers’ top 2011 crime and mystery titles.

A lesser-known Ontario author, retired aeronautical professional Liam Dwyer, has been one of the year’s top-selling authors at The Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto. Co-owner Marian Misters says Murdoch in Muskoka (Muskoka Dockside Reader), a new omnibus containing the first three titles in Dwyer’s murder-mystery series, has been especially popular.

At Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore in Winnipeg, co-owner Jack Bumsted points to local author C.C. Benison’s Christmas mystery, Twelve Drummers Drumming (Doubleday Canada), as his store’s best-selling book of the year. Other top 2011 titles at Whodunit? include Q&Q book of the year The Water Rat of Wanchai and The Disciple of Las Vegas, both from Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series published by Spiderline, the new crime fiction imprint from House of Anansi Press.

Walter Sinclair, co-owner of Dead Write Books in Vancouver, says the best-selling 2011 books in his store have common features. “All are well-established authors, all with mysteries featuring series characters,” he says. Dead Write’s top titles this year include William Deverell’s latest Arthur Beauchamp mystery, I’ll See You in My Dreams (M&S), and the U.K. edition of Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead (Headline/Hachette).

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Weekend reading list: the top stories from around our offices

Every weekend Q&Q rounds up highlights from other websites in the St. Joseph Media family. This week’s top stories include teaching your kids classic Canadian songs and Movember grooming advice.

Thirteen great songs every Canadian kid should know [Canadian Family]

How to not look like a complete jerk for the rest of Movember [Torontoist]

Bankruptcy in Europe, deficits in the U.S. and Canada. What comes next? [Ottawa Magazine]

Fifteen historic Canadian battle sites [Where Canada]

Five easy party appetizers [20 Minute Supper Club]

2011’s most romantic cakes and flowers [Wedding Bells]

Holt Renfrew unveils its holiday windows [Toronto Life]

Photos from the Versace for H&M runway show and afterparty [Fashion Magazine]

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Book links round-up: stories of remembrance, a dissected e-reader, and more

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Canadian literary event round-up: Oct. 21-27

The literary scene is lively this week with many festivals underway. Here’s a sample of what’s happening across the country:

  • LitFest non-fiction festival, various locations, Edmonton (until Oct. 23, tickets at litfestalberta.org)
  • Vancouver International Writers Festival, various locations, Granville Island (until Oct. 23, tickets at writersfest.bc.ca)
  • Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, various locations, Ottawa (until Oct. 25, tickets at writersfestival.org)
  • International Festival of Authors, various locations, Ontario (until Oct. 30, tickets at readings.org)
  • Gaspereau Press’s 12th annual Wayzgoose and open house, Kentville, Nova Scotia (Oct. 22, all day, free)
  • Roald Dahl Day with screening of James and the Giant Peach plus contests, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto (Oct. 23, 11 a.m., $10)
  • Canzine, 918 Bathurst Centre, Toronto (Oct. 23, 1 p.m., $5)
  • Psychologist Shelagh Robinson demos Mirror Read Books, Babar Books, Pointe-Claire, Quebec (Oct. 24, 2 p.m., free)
  • François Cusset reads from The Inverted Gaze, Type Books, Toronto (Oct. 26, 7 p.m., free)
  • Scrivener Creative Review launches its latest issue with guest reading by Jason Price Everett, Papeterie Nota Bene, Montreal (Oct. 27, 4:30 p.m., $5 for entry, a copy, and a cupcake)

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Ling Zhang responds to accusations of plagiarism

This week, the controversy dogging Chinese-Canadian author Ling Zhang’s second novel, Gold Mountain Blues, flared up again as prominent Chinese-Canadian authors Wayson Choy, Sky Lee, and Paul Yee signed a letter asking Penguin Canada to delay publication of its English-language translation of the book. Zhang has been accused of plagiarizing work by Choy, Lee, and Yee, as well as other well-known Chinese-Canadian writers. In their request, the trio criticize Penguin’s efforts to substantiate the accusations and they’ve asked for the delay so that an independent review might take place. (For more details on the controversy please follow the links to previous posts on Quillblog.)

In response, Zhang has issued a statement in which she claims not to have read the works from which she has allegedly borrowed, and expresses her disappointment at the recent turn of events:

Gold Mountain Blues is the result of years of research and several field trips to China and Western Canada. The research data obtained over the years is voluminous enough to allow me to write another complete novel if I chose to. A hundred and fifty years of Chinese-Canadian history is a “common wealth” for all of us to share and discover. I have not read The Jade Peony, Disappearing Moon Café, The Bone Collector’s Son, or Tales from Gold Mountain. I have a great respect for the authors who have already explored this rich territory before me: Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, Paul Yee, and Sky Lee.  I welcome and encourage authors interested in Chinese-Canadian history to do the same. When I started to write this book, I hoped it would serve to bring the Chinese-Canadian community a little more closely together, by sharing such a long and meaningful history.  I am deeply saddened to see that things do not seem to be going in that direction.

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CLA kicks off Canadian Library Month

The Canadian Library Association kicked off Canadian Library Month on Tuesday. Throughout the month of October, libraries across the country will host events to raise awareness about the importance of libraries in the nation’s communities.

According to a press release from the CLA, the theme for 2011, Your Library: A Place Unbound, strengthens this message by pointing to libraries as hubs of information and personal connection in the midst of a quickly evolving world. “From coast to coast to coast, libraries are without boundaries, places of endless opportunity where Canadians have an equal right to access resources,” says CLA president Karen Adams in the media release.

Within the span of a few months, Canadian libraries have faced threats from municipal funding cuts, union strikes, devastating fires, and natural disasters — to name but a few challenges. It’s nice, then, to have some positive library-related news to report.

And in case a month of library celebrations isn’t uplifting enough, here’s a quick round up of other library-friendly news:

Happy Canadian Libraries Month!

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Book Pictures

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Hall of Honourers

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

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