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Guerrilla in the Midst

St-Laurent Blvd on Saturday Night
Last week I discovered that one of the original Guerrilla Girls, aka Frida Kahlo, was going to be in Montreal, giving a talk at the Café Santropol as part of the February 26 Nuit Blanche all-night arts fest. It couldn't have been a more beautiful night. There was a touch of spring in the air and people were wandering the streets, visiting the various venues in spite of the frigid temperature.

In addition to featuring local artists Pepita Ferrari, Caroline Martel, Rébecca Déraspe and Andi Gilker, the Café Santropol had put up Guerrilla Girl posters, including the collaborative work with  UQAM's art department to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, which Frida Kahlo later signed.

In front of a small room of visitors, our Guerrilla Girl spoke of her last 25 years of feminist activism, raising awareness about the dearth of women artists in major museum collections throughout the United States and then later in other western countries such as France, Ireland and Italy. Frida said that initially in the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls' pranks were met with hostility. Over time, this led to acceptance, which meant that the GGs had to come up with other approaches to maintain their activist edge. Our speaker also talked about the transformative effect of humour in delivering the GGs' message. It made sense to me. An angry message solicits a flight or fight response, while humour, obviously a more pleasurable sensation, might invite more reflection.  The other upside of using humour: Frida said that she had really enjoyed her 25 years of activism. One of her favourite projects had been creating books, some of which had gone on to become women's studies text books, not the original purpose.

Our Speaker: Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo
 In the Q&A, I asked about some of the successes of the GGs' activism. Frida said that due consideration is now given to collecting works of art by  women and people of colour. She also spoke of the Elles exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. (BTW, the GGs figure prominently in the exhibition's promotional video). After 20 years in the making, the Paris museum created a major exhibition featuring 500 works from more than 200 women artists from the main art movements of the 20th century. The purpose of this installation, which has been so incredibly popular that it was extended for another year, was to write an alternative history, or a new history of art which highlighted the contribution of female artists that hitherto had been excluded.

That's quite a step forward for one of the most important modern art museums in France.

In my research, I found another aspect of the GGs that readers might find humorous: the origin of the gorilla mask. Apparently at one of the meetings in the 1980s, someone had written a sign and inadvertently spelled "guerrilla" as "gorilla." They found this so funny that they decided to maintain their anonymity and don gorilla masks. What better way to attract attention than to wear a gorilla mask with a sundress and strappy sandals.

In the near future, Frida mentioned something about a series of art buildings in Chicago with strictly men's names. The GGs were reportedly going to change this by projecting women's names onto the buildings. I can't wait to see the results....

Related posts:
Guerrilla Girls, Humour and Hope
Publishing: What If...?
Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"  (Stats on the # of books authored by women that are reviewed)
CBC: The Elephant in the Room  (Terry Fallis's book beats Carol Shields in Canada Reads)
Reads from Men

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Alternative Sites For Great Reading

In the past few posts, I've had a lot to say about mainstream publishing and its literary contests, but where do you look to find something to read that is off the beaten path? I'll give you three hints.

Broken Pencil
Last spring, I came across this great little magazine which celebrates the zine culture and independent arts. Although it has been around for 50 issues, I only subscribed this past fall. From what I've gathered, zinesters have been known to become authors. In fact, up-and-coming authors such as Mariko Tamaki, Zoe Whittall and Heather O'Neill all started out with zines. And if you thought that the advent of the blog did away with our paper friends, think again. According to the most recent issue of BP, zines have never been stronger. I love the creativity of zines and the unconventional fusion of ideas, something that the big publishing companies shy away from.

BP also reviews books. I was recently sent a review copy of Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston from Vintage, and the book was so good, I wondered why I'd never heard of Livingston before. When I did some online research, I discovered that BP had already reviewed her work and had this to say about Livingston: "She's a damn solid writer who will make your head spin and your knees buckle." And how could you not like a magazine that has featured Zine Queen Sonja Ahlers, "the pioneering feminist, visionary artist and wondering soul," on its cover not once, but twice. Ahlers is my favourite collage artist.

Microcosm Publishing
This little-engine-that-could started out as a zine distributor and record label from Joe Biel's bedroom in 1996. Today it is the world's largest distributor of zines. This not-for-profit collectively run publisher and zine distributor aims to add credibility to zine writers and their ethics, teach self-empowerment, show hidden history, and nurture people's creative side. I've spent hours perusing this site, and I invite you to do the same. In addition to zines and books, you will find buttons, stickers, t-shirts and patches. This site will help you to develop your inner activist, expand your knowledge of other grassroots movements and give you some insight into worlds that you might never have known existed. This is a great site for authors looking for original characters and researching alternative backgrounds.

My favourite reading titles today are She Must Be Having A Bad Day: The Cult of the Female Food Service Worker #2; Railroad Semantics #4, the adventures and photos from a real-life train jumpin' hobo; Revolutionary Women: A Book of Stencils; and The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved (obviously about slow food).

You will also find past issues of Broken Pencil at Microcosm. If you would like to read a review of a zine before buying one just click here.

Elevate Difference
I started reviewing books for Elevate Difference about a year ago, and I've been offered a vast range of books to write about, from a Buddhist approach to addiction to the environmental causes of cancer. The organization provides a forum of thoughtful critique on books, films and music from a diverse group of writers, who often have conflicting viewpoints. Elevate Difference aims to accommodate a diversity of perspectives and searches for common ground rather than supporting progressive groups that strive to assimilate other schools of thought. ED publishes three to four reviews a day, and I usually find something I want to read after a few minutes of surfing. I guarantee that you will find some gems here that have gone virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media.

This week I bought, A Strange Stirring, a book about the impact Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on American society and culture in the 1960s. Now I have something to tide me over until the next season of Mad Men.

Related posts
Guerrilla Girls, Humour and Hope
Publishing: What If...?
Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"  (Stats on the # of books authored by women that are reviewed)
CBC: The Elephant in the Room  (Terry Fallis's book beats Carol Shields in CanadaReads)
Reads from Men

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Guerrilla Girls, Humour and Hope

Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have been raising awareness about the minimal representation of works by women and people of colour in museums. Their number one warfare tactic is humour. Donning gorilla masks and hairy hands, they have been brandishing posters and stickers, staging street theatre and demonstrating at art gatherings to bring attention to their cause. The Girls go by pseudonyms of famous women artists, such as Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo, never revealing their true identities. Their tagline: "Fighting discrimination with facts, humour and fake fur."

One of their most famous campaigns was "the Weenie Count," in which they tallied the number of male and female nudes exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. They discovered that only 3% of the artists in the Met's collection were women, yet women made up 87% of the museum's nudes. This gave rise to the creation of their now famous poster, which they plastered all over the streets of New York. The Guerrilla Girls eventually expanded their brand of activism to other cultural arenas, including the film industry in Hollywood. To raise awareness about discrimination in cinema, they posted headlines around Tinsel Town during Oscar season that read "The Anatomically Correct Oscar: He’s white and male, just like the guys who win!" The Guerrilla Girls even created a poster to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Montreal Massacre with the Université de Québec à Montréal.

For more examples of their work, please visit their site, which is both edifying and hilarious. Their posters and books can be purchased on their site. I just bought the Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art.

In 2001, some former GG members created a theatre collective, the Guerrilla Girls On Tour (check out the great downloadable posters and stickers!), while another group was formed to address Internet and workplace issues, the Guerrilla Girls Broadband. All three groups use snark and humour to raise awareness about sexism and discrimination.

I have been following the Guerrilla Girls On Tour on Twitter for about two years, and last November, I was pleased to see one of their tweets. The GGsOT announced that the New York Times had given into pressure from feminist groups and women's rights activists like the GGs and named 50 books authored by women in its 100 Notable Books of 2010. Enfin success!

This entire week I have been writing about sexism in the Canadian publishing industry. I've even suggested a girlcott. However, now I'm thinking more about the awareness that could be raised through facts and humour...Let me know what you think, and remember it's dead easy to print stickers. MaHaHa!

Other posts-related to sexism in publishing
Publishing: What If...?
Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"  (Stats on the # of books authored by women that are reviewed)
CBC: The Elephant in the Room  (Terry Fallis's book beats Carol Shields in CanadaReads)
Reads from Men

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Publishing: What If...?

This week, Charles Foran became the 10th winner of the Charles Taylor Award for literary non-fiction for his book on Mordecai Richler, Mordecai, the Life & Times. Foran will also be receiving the $25,000 that goes with the award. What a coincidence and marketing coup that it won the same year as the critical success of Barney's Version, the film adaptation of the Mordecai Richler book...

The three-judge panel, made up of two men and one woman, said that it was Foran's "clear voice, conveying a unique personality and tone, that set his work apart. Add to that an incredible eye for detail and mood." More subjectivity, but that's the nature of the beast isn't it?

In the 10 years of the Charles Taylor Award has existed, eight winners have been men and two have been women, one of whom was Carol Shields.

As many of you have noticed, there has been an explosion in the number of awards being given away to the "best" and "most important." Right now the CBC has it's Bookies, which we can all go online and vote for. I guess the growing number of contests, awards, prizes and galas, is another way to hedge our bets and find "the best."  This is no criticism, as I'm short on time like everyone else and do the same thing myself.

We live in a society with an increasing amount of choice, a selection so vast that it boggles the mind. The last thing we want to do is pick a dog of a book or waste our money on a mediocre film, so we look for the winner of high profile awards, the vast majority of which, in the publishing world at least, go to men.

What if...?

I scrolled through the other four finalists in the 2011 Charles Taylor Award and stopped at the lone woman contender, Merrily Weisbord, for her book the Love Queen of Malabar, the story of Weisbord's 10-year friendship with Das Kemala, the first Indian woman to write an autobiographical cult classic about love and desire. Das Kemala has been referred to by her fans as "The First Feminist Emotional Revolutionary of our Time." Sounds compelling. In addition, Weisbord has written for television as well as four other books. I had enough evidence that this book could very well be "the best" and "the most important." I immediately went online and bought the hardcover edition. As for the winner's book, I have nothing against Mordecai Richler or the author of Life & Times. In fact, I have fond memories of reading the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in my Canadian Lit class in high school. And I might read Mordecai: Life & Times, if I found it at the library. I'm sure Foran won't mind. After all, he has $25,000 to console himself with.

I started to think about this as a form of protest against the unfair sexist practices in the publishing world. What if we paid full price for books written by women and borrowed the books authored by men from the library and friends, or picked them up used? As women make up the lion's share of avid readers, we hold the balance of power. We could have our own little girlcott until publishers felt the pinch and started to change some of their unfair practices.

I realize that this may not start tomorrow. But it may pick up some momentum when more people realize that we are living in a far from egalitarian society, particularly in the publishing and entertainment industries.

PS, On Friday, it was reported in the National Posts that the sales of the Best Laid Plans, the 2011 winner of the CBC's Canada Reads series, had increased by 695% in one week.

Publishing sexism-related posts
Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"  (Stats on the # of books authored by women that are reviewed)
CBC: The Elephant in the Room  (Terry Fallis's book beats Carol Shields in CanadaReads)
Reads from Men

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Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"?

I say this book is "the best."
In researching further information on the apparent sexism in the publishing industry, I came across some more compelling evidence that the publishing world has a definite gender bias. I also answered the question I asked last fall: Why do male authors always get so much more press than their female counterparts?

If you're like me, I usually ask people around me for book recommendations before I shell out any money. I see what's at the library, read online book reviews and look at the used bookstore. A trip to the large bookstore chains can be dangerous because I usually spend far too much money; so many things look so appealing. In other words, I'm always on the look-out for something I might like to read. Otherwise, it's a little like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Now consider this. Just this month, Vida: Women in Literary Arts published some astonishing figures about the number of women working at major literary publications, the number of reviews women wrote and the number of women's books that were reviewed. Here's just a few statistics:

At the New Yorker in 2010
Number of reviews written by women: 8
Number of reviews written by men: 29
Number of women authors reviewed: 76
Number of men authors reviewed: 158

At the Times Literary Supplement in 2010
Number of reviews written by women: 341
Number of reviews written by men: 900
Number of women authors reviewed: 330
Number of men authors reviewed: 1,036

At the New York Times Book Review in 2010
Number of reviews written by women: 295
Number of reviews written by men: 438
Number of women authors reviewed: 283
Number of men authors reviewed: 524

Source: http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010

In other words, books authored by men are reviewed more often, and there are substantially more men reviewing books. So the people who are telling us which books are "the best" and "important" and creating the hype are in most cases those with a "Y" chromosome.

I recently spoke with an author who told me that in the publishing world, it is often said that what women write about is often not considered "important." Yes, it's true that there are people with whom I've chosen not to discuss books because I wasn't sure that we could see eye to eye on what was "important." But in the end what is "important" and "the best" are completely subjective...so maybe we should be looking for reviewers who hold similar views of what is "the best" and "important" to our own.

Other publishing-related posts:
CBC: The Elephant in the Room
Reads from Men

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CBC: Elephant in the Room

I've been pondering this for a few days, thinking of ways to phrase the obvious without making it look like sour grapes. No, the book that I thought should win the Canada Read 2011 series did not win this year, but deciding the best book, like the best bagel, is a completely subjective decision, which we all can't agree on, and this is something that I acknowledge.

But a few words have to be said about the obvious.

The Canada Reads 2011 series has now been running for 10 years, and its objective was to get Canadians reading, and reading Canadian authors. The series is a win-win situation for our national publishing industry and our authors who reap the benefits of increased exposure and book sales. I must admit that if it had not been for Canada Reads, I would not have read Guy Vanderhaege's the Last Crossing, Leo McKay's  Twenty-Six or Angie Abdou's the Bone Cage, three stories that I adored. The series has also demonstrated that Canada has many world class writers, and this was not the case when I was studying Canadian Lit in high school in the 1980s.

Indeed, we have come a long way. Canadians now read books by Canadians and even enjoy them. But now we need to look a little closer at the results of the last 10 years. I've done a little research and found that of the 50 finalists over the 10 years, only 19 women authors have made it into the finals (38% vs 62%), and in this past decade only two women have actually won (20% vs. 80%). There was a glimmer of hope this year when three women actually made it into the finals, one of whom was Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Carol Shields. Unless made it into the top five, Ms. Shield's final book in a stellar literary career. Initially, it hardly seemed fair that her end-of-career book would be competing against four first-time novels.

But surprise! Terry Fallis's The Best Laid Plans, the self-published book and "the Cinderella story" won the Canada Reads' essential book of the decade title. Everyone loves an underdog! Self-published authors are smiling from ear to ear across Canada. Then the other male finalist, the graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, won the CBC's People's Choice Award. Woohoo! Both men won awards.

I don't see Fallis's win as a "Cinderella story," I see it as a perfect illustration of the sexism portrayed in Shield's Unless--in other words, the elephant in the room that no one seems to be talking about. In this semi-autobiographical book, we see via Reta, our protagonist, how women's books are often ignored and undervalued. Our cautious protagonist's rage builds throughout the book, but her anger only surfaces when her editor, Mr. Springer, wants to make her book into "great fiction," which involves her assuming a pen name and changing the point of view from the female lead to that of the male protagonist. That way men would buy the book--the age old argument! Women read books written by women and men, but men only read books written by men.

Sorry, I don't buy that men only read men and that there's no way around it, particularly with all the marketing gurus out there who can sell cars, homes and just about any other consumer product to people who don't need them or have the money to buy them. This is intentional sexism, and some people obviously like the publishing industry the way it is.

The most aggravating part is that women make up the lion's share of readers. According to a UK study published in the Guardian in March 2009, 48% of women were avid readers while only 26% of men fell into this category. An avid reader was defined as someone who "cannot put a book down once they begin it and who reliably get through a long list of titles in an average year."

As a publicly funded broadcaster, the CBC should be investigating the Canadian publishing industry and getting to the bottom of some of its sexist practices. Rather than just perpetuating rampant sexism, the Corporation should be using its considerable power to influence the very industry that it helped build. In addition, it might start by giving equal exposure to women writers, looking into who is winning all the literary prizes and creating a list of best practices that publishing companies would need to follow in order to receive a CBC endorsement.

I'm sure there's a lot more our nationally owned radio and television network could do instead of just throwing its hands in the air and saying, "We didn't make the decision. It was the panel." This is a deep-seated issue that requires a little more than a glib "oh well!" response.

I'll just close with some 2009 statistics about who is winning all the literary awards and prize money in the US:

Amazon- Top 100 Editor’s Picks 2009

77 Men
23 Women

Los Angeles Times Book Prize 2009

Innovator’s Award- 1 Man
Robert Kirsch Award- 1 Man

LA Times Favorite Fiction 2009

16 Men
9 Women

The National Book Awards 2009

Fiction- 1 Man
Nonfiction- 1 Man
Poetry- 1 Man
Young People’s Literature- 1 Man

Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009

71 Men
29 Women

Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009

10 Men
0 Women

Slate- Best Reads of 2009

15 Men
7 Women

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1948-2009

40 Men
16 Women

© 2010 VIDA
Author: Amy King
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Another Remedy for Winter Funk

There's another school of thought for beating winter funk and that's the read-till-yer-blind remedy. I've been known to do this, as have a few of my friends. Sunday is usually the day I find myself looking around for something great to read or an article I may have missed during the week. Here are two gems I read last week, an article that shouldn't be missed and two posts if you're trying to find something on the Egyptian Revolution:

Pssst, if you've got a great book or article to recommend please leave me a comment with the details.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is the harrowing story of Walls' impoverished childhood and feckless yet intellectually gifted parents. Although incredibly sad in parts,  the Walls offspring have agency, but not all of them are able to escape their dysfunctional past.

Aya de Youpogon (volume 5): This is a six-part graphic novel about Aya and her friends living in a suburb of Abdijan in the 1970s. The entire series with its beautiful watercolour frames and highly addictive storyline will leave you combing the shelves of your local bookstore for the next installment.

The Guardian, "The Lost Art of Editing:" For all of you out there who actually notice typos in books (I know a few who even notice them in foreign languages), this article is about the wordsmith who makes the writer look even better. However, a lot more money today is being put into marketing and sales rather than on the subtleties of language. Pam, you'll love this.

If you're still euphoric about the revolution in Egypt, you may want to read about Asmaa Mahfouz, the young woman whose video is largely credited with rallying Egyptians to demonstrate in the streets of Cairo and the group she belongs to, the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been laying the foundation for the recent uprising for three years.

Other book reviews:
The Social Media Survival Guide by Deltina Hay
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire

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Remedy: Japanese Paper for Winter Funk

Sheets of Japanese Paper in Shop
One of my first obsessions when I moved to the Mile End was the Japanese paper store, Au papier japonais, at 24 Fairmount West. I have spent hours in that store looking at all the different prints, textures and colours of paper the store carries. The price may initially seem steep. However, when you consider that Washi paper is made from longer fibers than what we use in North America and that it is harvested by hand, the price is justified.

I started out just buying the small packages of remnants and making paper mosaics on dollar store boxes for fun. Then I got more ambitious and wanted to take a class. Yes, Au papier japonais has a series of workshops to give you an idea of all the beautiful things you can do with Japanese paper. As a Christmas present this year, my husband paid for the Traditional Japanese Cardmaking Class for me, and it couldn't have come at a better time, as January is high season for winter funk.

Three Traditional Cards
The class was held at the the store's art studio on St. Laurent Boulevard. When I walked in on this cold January morning, I felt the dry warmth of a woodstove. As I looked around, I noticed a sculpture garden in the back, some beautiful paintings on the walls and a collection of fabric stamps. This was also the owners' art studio.

Making Japanese cards required more skill than I had anticipated. I needed to learn several things, such as using an Xacto knife so that I didn't rip the paper (pssst it's all in how you hold the knife), cutting in a straight line (it looks so much easier than it is), finding centre points to make folds, piercing the paper with an awl and using an absolute minimum of glue. There is actually a method for using a glue stick so that it lasts longer than a few days.

Our instructor, Heather Midori, is an artist who uses washi as her preferred medium. She showed tremendous patience and repeatedly reminded us that we were all learning new skills. The first card was the most difficult because we had to apply all the skills we had just been shown. The second and third cards were much easier and allowed us to use more creativity. I immediately wanted to go home and use these skills again, so I wouldn't forget.

Valentine's from Maps, Japanese Paper, Cards and Ads
Last weekend, I made some Valentine's Day cards with my son and decided to take some Japanese paper to work and invite some people to join me in making Valentine's cards over the lunch hour. Initially, I encountered a lukewarm response, but when I told them that I had five different colours of glitter glue, four people immediately jumped on board. Because some invitees had previous plans that day, they asked if I could do it the following day, which I did. This time 10 people showed up, including a woman who brought even more cardmaking supplies. Then someone suggested that we do it again on the third day. On day three, more supplies arrived in addition to a very welcome box of Valentine's Day chocolates.

On the last day, when I heard someone say, "Oh, I'm just not that creative," I immediately thought of Lynda Barry's talk about creativity in January. Echoing Lynda I said, "That's just your inner critic talking to you. If you can't turn her off, you ought to at least turn her down." Everyone laughed, as our inner critics were all sitting at the table with us. Once you realize that creativity is just trying new things and new combinations to see the result, a lot of the stress disappears and the fun starts. This was an enjoyable activity and a great way to relieve winter funk.

Other hood-related posts
Bagel Conundrum
Mile End's Ring of Fame
What it is by Lynda Barry
The True Gender
Almost a Visit to Gender
St-Viateur: the Polish Bazaar
The Mile End Buzz Around Beekeeping
For the Love of Vinyl
Airing Our Dirty Laundry

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The Birth House by Ami McKay

Dora is the first girl born to the Rare family after five generations of boys. Deemed a peculiar child by the people in this small isolated town of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, Dora finds her vocation as a midwife, assisting Miss Babineau and learning the various techniques for catching babies and home remedies for various ails. When her mentor dies, Dora inherits her book of willows and carries on the midwife tradition, not only assisting the area ladies with their births, but also helping them to prevent conception and terminate unwanted pregnancies. Then a Doctor Thomas sets up shop in a nearby town, proclaiming that he has a more hygienic method for "painless" childbirth, that is, for a price. Dora once again finds herself cast aside. But she doesn't go down without a fight, one that is fraught with consequences, even forcing her out of town for a time.

Set in the second decade of the twentieth century, the Birth House has the First World War, the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish influenza outbreak as its back drop. Author Ami McKay did considerable research to give this book its rich detail. The Birth House is also a kind of scrapbook. McKay used newspaper articles and period ads to give further detail and change the point of view. For instance, in a run-in between Dora and Dr. Thomas in a general store, the good doctor insults Dora, but the reader does not hear her reaction. Instead, the passage is followed by a local newspaper article in which a woman is reported to have dumped molasses on the good doctor's head. The scrapbooking was a nice touch that gave the book its period look and feel.

When I reached the end of the book, I immediately wanted to know how the author knew so much about midwifery and herbal remedies. I was under the impression she was a type of specialist, but I was mistaken. Ami McKay had moved into a house that had once been the town's birth house and started her research from there. I was particularly impressed with her knowledge of plants native to Nova Scotia. Then I discovered that she isn't even from Nova Scotia, inspite of having all her "somes" in the right spots.

I have no criticisms of this book. It was a great read, and I didn't want it to end. I even found myself slowing down towards the final fifty pages to make it last longer. For those of us who grew up after the advent of the pill, this a great book to see what our fate as women might have been like without readily available contraception.

Truth be told: I'll probably read this book again. Something I don't do very often.

Other reviews of Canada Reads finalists:
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire

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The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

In the Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, we meet 32-year-old Daniel Addison, a jaded speech writer for the Liberal Opposition Leader. When our protagonist unexpectedly walks in on girlfriend Rachel and the Liberal Leader in "deep consultation," Daniel decides that he has had enough of political life. He opts to terminate his employment on the Hill and continue his PhD in English at the University of Ottawa. However, the Leader and his office are not willing to let the speech writer go that easily, and so Daniel offers to run a Liberal candidate in a riding where there is no chance of winning, the Tory stronghold of Prescott-Cumberland, held by the popular Tory finance minister.

By chance, Daniel meets Angus McLintock, a U of O engineering professor, grammar Nazi and highly principled Scot. When the reader encounters Angus, he is furious at being assigned another semester of teaching E to E, or English to first-year Engineering students, a task he loathes. Daniel makes a deal with Angus: he'll teach E fer E, if Angus runs as a Liberal candidate. Then the Tory finance minister is embroiled in an unsavoury scandal, and Daniel's worst case scenario materializes. He finds himself a staffer with an honest MP.

The Best Laid Plans piqued my curiosity because publishers had turned it down. But Fallis persevered, releasing chapters of his book as podcasts and then self-publishing. Then his book won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and was selected as a finalist in the Canada Reads 2011 series. So what exactly was wrong with the book? Why weren't publishers interested?

In terms of a novel, there was a pacing problem. From the outset, the reader knows the novel's premise, that Angus is going to beat the conservative incumbent, but this happens only at the book's halfway point. As for characters, I was expecting Rachel, his cheating girlfriend, to return and complicate the story. Her replacement, Lindsay, was an insipid character who didn't add much to the narrative, while her grandmother Muriel, who ran unsuccessfully five times as a Liberal, was underutilized as a source of vital political knowledge. At times, Daniel was far too wise for his 32 years; in fact, he sounded like a consummate PR specialist, also Terry Fallis's day job. As for narration, there were strange changes in point of view from Daniel to Angus in the form of end of chapter soliloquies/journal entries in which Angus addresses his dead wife, summarizing recent events and disclosing future plans. Some of these could have easily been edited out, as the reader is well aware of how the stereotypical Scot is going to react.

Nevertheless, readers barely have the chance to notice these shortcomings; they are too busy following political developments and Daniel's maneuvering to avert conflict and scandal, which are always just around the corner. The behind-the-scenes political story was fascinating, believable and humorous. Mr. Fallis is indeed a born storyteller, and his experience working with politicians, in addition to his engineering background and obsession with good grammar, make this book an enjoyable read. I'm guessing that the podcasts might make your commute to work a lot more fun.

I also see why publishers may have been leery to take this book on. A little heavy on telling instead of showing, the Best Laid Plans probably would have been subject to substantial revision, which would have interfered with the book's number one quality--humour. But lady luck has smiled on Terry Fallis. The Best Laid Plans is now into its fifth printing.

Other reviews of Canada Reads finalists:
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire

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Egypt: April 6 Youth Movement

Resistance by Nenad Duda Petrovic
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo today to take part in the "day of departure" rally for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The April 6 Youth Movement, which has largely been credited with creating momentum for this uprising, has adopted the non-violent means and the banner of its Serbian predecessors who overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Using traditional tactics such as graffiti, leaflets, notices, acts of civil disobedience, strikes and the creation of trade-unions, Serbian students succeeded in raising public awareness. Their efforts, too, culminated in a mass rally at the capital building calling for the removal of Milosevic.The tools used by the April 6 Movement to reach other would-be revolutionaries have changed dramatically since the Serbian dictator was deposed. Through its Facebook page, Twitter feeds and YouTube accounts, the pro-democracy group has united some 70,000 young, educated supporters who want a change in the Egyptian government.
According to the New York Times Magazine, the April 6 Movement has been laying the foundation for this uprising for three years, but it has never migrated offline. In fact, whenever members have attempted even small face-to-face gatherings, police have often arrived shortly after.

Many people may be asking themselves the same question: if the Mubarak regime has been aware of this group, why hasn't it done anything to shut it down?

Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has referred to this government inaction as the "Cute-cat theory of digital activism." On Facebook, political activists thrive because the social-networking platform is often used for everyday innocuous purposes, such as exchanging pictures of cute cats or discussing American Idol. Although authoritarian governments have few qualms about shutting down activist websites or proxy servers, they can't selectively pull the switch on a few political Facebook pages. That's right. They have to shut the whole thing down--inadvertently annoying cat lovers and infuriating American Idol fans and giving them a reason to radicalize.

Some might say a stroke of genius.

New York Times Magazine
New York Times Lede

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Rebel Yell: Asmaa Mahfouz

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Rebel Yell: Asmaa Mahfouz

Artist: Rage5

On January 18, Asmaa Mahfouz posted the video below on her Facebook page urging men and women to take to the streets and demand that Hosni Mubarak step down after 30 years of autocratic single-party rule in Egypt. Many people reportedly followed her lead, posting their own pictures holding a sign similar to Mahfouz's, expressing their intention to take part in a day of protest on Tuesday, January 25. The Mubarak regime has since shut down the Internet.

According to the New York Times, our rabble rouser celebrated her 26th birthday among tens of thousands of Egyptians yesterday. Mahfouz is a member of the April 6 Youth Movement made up of young people who have successfully used social media to mobilize Egyptians against their country's leader. Her group has been credited with playing a major role in organizing this mass demonstration.

I think you'll find her courage inspiring, especially since she chose to show her face and disclose her identity.

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