Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Libricide and Biblioclasm

April was historical nonfiction month for book club. It was hard to think of a topic to read about, but somehow I stumbled upon library burnings. I'm a librarian, so I ran with it.

Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century
By Rebecca Knut
296 pages

Generally I like nonfiction books, but I missed the marked slightly with this one - it was just too academic. The first few chapters explained the concept of libricide, comparing it to genocide, by defining it as the systematic destruction of books and other cultural artifacts as part of a plan by a psychotic regime or ruler to eliminate a particular culture or group of people. So libricide is thus not destruction as a casualty of war like in bombings, but a strategic and calculated destruction in order to maximize the elimination of a culture. Not overly uplifting. It's an interesting concept, but I just didn't want to read about it as a concept for 100 pages. I wanted to read about incidences of library burnings, but the cases chosen for this booked were patterned as such: entire chapter on background to and actual event plus analysis, with a couple paragraphs detailing what libraries were burned and how many books were lost. Cases included were: Nazi Germany, Serbia, Iraq and Kuwait, China and Tibet. The cases were interesting and I learned a lot about the Yugoslavia war and the situation in Tibet in particular, but the library part was too minimal to keep up my motivation to slog through the academic verbiage.

Did you know: Mao worked as an assistant in the library at Peking University in 1918. That's where he discovered Marxism. And later on he destroyed the country.

Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction
By Rebecca Knuth
248 pages

This is Knuth's follow up tome, and I meant to read it too, but ran out of time. It presents shorter summaries and analysis of library burnings due to biblioclasm, which is the destruction or vandalism of books due to extremist violence like terrorism, war etc. This differs from the first book because that was based on elimination of cultures by governments and rulers in power, whereas this book spreads a wider net. Cases include: Cambodia, Afghanistan, as well as particular library burnings in Amsterdam, Berlin, and more general chapters on war and vandalism. I'm sure it would be an interesting read, but I just don't have the time or the desire to plod through the high academic language.

So a bit of a fail this month. Interesting topic, some interesting case studies, but overall the academic language didn't keep me enthralled in the content. I would recommend these books to anyone who wants to learn not only about library destruction, but also delve deeper into the reasons, meanings, and repercussions of the occurrences.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being

I read a book for fun again. It's my new 2014 thing apparently. I'm so proud of myself. I'm actually looking forward to not having cable in a couple months so I can read and knit without distraction (except maybe netflix distraction...).

This book came highly recommended by a couple of colleagues. And maybe I didn't even mean to read it now but when a nice colleague takes the book out on her card for you there's this expectation that you'll actually read it instead of incurring fines on her account. So here goes!

A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
432 pages

Ruth is a lapsed novelist who lives on a tiny island on the west coast of BC with her tree planting husband and cat. She finds a diary, letters, and other bits in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore - perhaps from the 2011 tsunami in Japan? From then on, the narration skips between Ruth's story while she reads the diary, and Nao's story, the teenage girl from Japan who is writing the diary. The whole novel is wrapped in mystery - what happens to Nao? Was she lost in the tsunami? How did the diary get to Canada? Does her father commit suicide again? Does she? What happens to her 104yr old great grandmother? And where is Pesto, the poor cat?! (Ok so the cat is a minor blip but I was worried!)

I'm a bit divided on my opinion of this book. I loved Nao's parts: she was insightful and funny and tragic and hopeful. I learned about Japanese culture, and enjoyed hearing bits of wisdom from her great grandmother, Jiko, who is a nun. This part also threw me a bit because usually I stay away from depressing books and parts of Nao's story were very sad. She wrote a lot about bullying and suicide and her life is a bit tragic. But it's worth it in the end because there's hope for her future and it doesn't end on a sad note.

However, I didn't like the Ruth parts, and for this reason it took me awhile to get into the book (like the first 150 pages). The tales of island life and her relationship with her husband were fine, but I thought Ruth was a bit...whiny? I think it's a case of seeing my future more than Ozeki's flaw. Ruth's story is integral to the mysteries in the novel though, some of which don't get solved, so together, I guess both Ruth and Nao's story make for a pretty good read.

It's a really well written book; obviously the author is an expert on both island life and Japanese way of life (or at least does a good job of faking it). There are some footnotes, but the are quite useful at explaining some of Nao's Japanese words and phrases. I didn't mind the flip flop between characters, mostly because it kept me reading because I wanted to get back to Nao's diary. Ozeki does weave a pretty good mystery throughout and does so in a way that I could actually picture what was going on - which means this book wasn't over my head or anything, just a bit slow to get started.

I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to learn a bit about Japanese culture, or someone who fancies escaping to a remote BC island because apparently life is better out there. Or anyone who wants a good read by a contemporary Canadian author that might be a bit tragic in the middle but ends in a satisfying, if still a bit mysterious way.