Read All Over – Jamie Fong

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Read All Over celebrates the bookworm in all of us, showcasing readers in Vancouver and the books they love most.

Jamie is a newly minted librarian with the Vancouver and Richmond Public Libraries. As a professional book selector and monger, you can imagine his wide eclectic eye for books and music. Whenever we work together, I’m always amazed at all the newest and coolest graphic novels and children’s illustrated books he’s got on hold. With Jamie’s interview you really get the sense that a life-long love of reading begins at a young age. I’ve already tracked down some of Jamie’s childhood favourites to read myself! I hope you will enjoy his generously sincere, well-considered answers as much as I did. Thanks Jamie!

 

What’s on your nightstand right now? Are you enjoying it?
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that at this exact moment it’s The Settlers of Catan… the novel.  I saw the original German version several years ago in the multilingual section of the Central library and was unduly excited that someone had been commissioned to write an official novel based on the board game, though a translation didn’t exist at the time.  I completely forgot about it until I spotted an English copy at a bookstore in Toronto last month.  Of course, I checked the library catalogue as soon as I could (VPL had ordered it!) and immediately placed a request.  I haven’t started it yet, other than reading the enthusiastic introduction by Catan game designer Klaus Teuber.  The novel itself was written by Rebecca Gablé.

Is this the genre you usually prefer?
There aren’t many circumstances where I’d willingly dive into a 600 page book of historical fiction, so I might end up regretting it.  I typically read a lot of graphic novels across all genres.  They’re quick reads and I love the interplay between visuals and text.  When reading “proper” novels, I tend to gravitate towards apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic science fiction.  I dig the survival aspect of these stories and reading the specific details about how whatever key incident (e.g. pandemic/zombies/nuclear fallout/unexplainable dome) affects both the larger societal implications and the characters on an individual scale.  This genre has really exploded in the last few years (especially in teen fiction) and you have to be quite vigilant to avoid the clunkers.

What’s next on your list?

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane since I devour practically any and everything Gaiman- related.  Also, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which is a multi award-winning 2012 children’s novel that I’ve heard a lot of buzz about and have been meaning to read for awhile.  At a recent get-together, two more friends raved about it, so it’s been bumped up near the top of the never-ending to do list.

Who is your favourite Vancouver author/ What is your favourite story set in Vancouver?
It’s probably bad that I can barely name any Vancouver authors off the top of my head…  That said, one of the first that does come to mind is Tony Cliff, the writer/artist of Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant, a rip-roaring and sumptuous adventure story that was serialized as a webcomic and will be coming out in a print version this fall, I think.  I actually tried looking up “novels set in Vancouver” and have read exactly none of the above.

 

Delilah and Dirk, by Tony Cliff

What magazines/journals can you not live without?

Maybe Wired? But I don’t even read that too regularly.  I like Interview in theory especially when there’s an inspired interviewer/subject combo, but again not really a deal breaker.  However, I realize that I read a lot of online articles from various publications (e.g. Vanity Fair, New Yorker, The Guardian) that are linked to or passed around the web, so I’d probably lament their loss if they suddenly went belly-up.

Do you read these mostly online or print, and why?
Mostly online, usually when an interesting article is making the rounds.  Sifting through ads in print form is tedious and the articles are usually of the read-it-once variety, so I wouldn’t mind if magazines went fully digital.  I still like my books physical though.

Where is your favourite place to crack open a book in the city?
On my couch or in bed.  I generally don’t like reading in natural light.

Which books/authors have influenced you the most?
Hergé, Neil Gaiman, Alex Robinson [Box Office Poison], Ian Fleming, Roger Ebert, Roald Dahl.  I should also pay kudos to Michael Crichton and John Grisham, the first adult novelists I got started reading when I was around 10.  Not coincidentally, I grew up during the height of Crichton/Grisham movie adaptations, which may have played a role in my burgeoning love of film as well.

Is there a memorable quote or excerpt from something you’ve read recently that you’d like to share?
I loved Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, but it really struck a chord reading it again as an adult many years later.  I found this passage particularly poignant and wise upon re-reading:
“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.”
So wonderful.  Whether I actually ever pay heed to this advice is up for debate.

 

The Phantom Tollbooth cover illustration, by Jules Feiffer

Were you obsessed with any particular book or story as a child?
Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island.
This is the one novel I distinctly remember my mum reading to my sister and me before bedtime.  She said it was one of her favourite books growing up and it quickly became one of mine as well.  The story follows three orphaned siblings living with their horrible aunt and uncle.  Together with their friend, they runaway to live on a secret island on a lake.  They’re super resourceful children, bringing supplies, chickens, and even a cow to the island.  Most of the book is them problem-solving the logistics of living on the island (food supply, keeping from being discovered, building shelter, gardening).  It’s a really idyllic survival scenario that kicked off a love of desert island stories from the junior novelization of Swiss Family Robinson to Alex Garland’s The Beach or even the TV show, Lost.  As was pointed out to me once in a university film class, desert island narratives are essentially the same as zombie movie narratives, so you can basically trace back the origins of my affinity for the post-apocalyptic genre to The Secret Island.


The Secret Island, frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by E.H. Davie

What were your favourites growing up?
Tintin; Dr. Doolittle; Roald Dahl books; Encyclopedia Brown; the works of Bill Peet; Dennis Lee’s Jelly Belly; Graeme Base’s Animalia and The Eleventh Hour; Mike Wilks’ The Ultimate Alphabet; The Phantom Tollbooth; many more.

Was there any individual in particular that shaped your development as a reader? How?
My mom.
She’s worked at the downtown public library in Edmonton (still does) basically my whole life, so I more or less grew up at the children’s library.  But even apart from that, she instilled a lifelong love of reading by reading to us, bringing home library books, giving us book gifts (always inscribed), and generally just encouraging reading without being super obvious about it.  Really, I think it was just sharing her own love of reading.  Back home, there’s a big bookshelf: the bottom shelf for children’s books, the upper shelves for adults, all alphabetized by author’s last name.  I would often stand there with my head cocked reading the spines over and over.  That’s how I came to read The Hobbit one day without having heard of hobbits or Tolkien.

 

 

Another time my mum handed me Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, another of her favourites from those shelves, and I can say with confidence that it was the first time my mind had been rightly blown by a book’s ending, thus sending me down a path of devouring Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories.  I have a clear memory of this one day she handed me a book at the library, The Vampire Lestat, and said I might like it.  In fact, I didn’t like it and didn’t even completely read it, but it was the first graphic novel I’d ever seen and the first time I’d ever heard the term.  Of course, I’d read all the Tintin and Asterixbooks umpteen times over and all sorts of other comics, but this was different.  It was dark, violent, and mature.  Even the art was more painterly than I was used to.  Not for kids.

It would still be years before the graphic novel collection would become a mainstay of public library, but in those early days, the collection was so small I could actually request every single graphic novel as they were ordered and I’d read every one regardless of genre.  Eventually I had to cut that off habit with the explosion of titles being published, but my fascination with the form has never ebbed.  You could blame my mom (while I thank her) for all the comics I read to this day.  I feel like I’m giving my dad the short shrift here, but he was important too.  There’s pictures of him reading to me even if I don’t remember it.  I would also tag along with him when he’d volunteer at the annual library book sale until I was old enough to actually help out in an official capacity.  And every year we’d bring home boxes and boxes of books.  Thanks dad!


What is the most cherished item in your library?
I have a signed copy of Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, that says “For Jamie, movie lover”.  I’ve been a faithful follower of his writing (movies reviews and otherwise) for years in addition to being a film studies undergrad.  Last year, I was super fortunate to attend Ebertfest, his annual film festival in Champaign, Illinois.  In between film screenings, I had the opportunity to meet him and have him sign his book.  As I was about to leave, he clasped my hand, shook it, then motioned ahead where (of course) my dad was standing with a camera, so I totally got to do two thumbs up with Roger!  Of course, this book became that much more sentimental with his passing earlier this year.

 

Jamie and Roger Ebert, photo courtesy Jamie Fong

 

It’s a long story, but my other most cherished item is a paperback copy of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens that I got signed and doodled in by filmmaker Terry Gilliam when I happened to be backpacking in Europe.  At the time, he was developing a Good Omens film adaptation that never did come together.  I was later able to get Neil Gaiman to sign it too, so now I’m just missing Mr. Pratchett!

The one book you always recommend is…?
Um, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Stardust, though now I’m super self-conscious and embarrassed that he’s my answer to practically half these questions.

Are you a hoarder or a give-away-er with books?
Definitely a hoarder, but lately I’ve been trying to be more astute with my personal collection development policies.  This goes for music and movies too.

What’s the last book you purchased?

Luke Pearson’s Hilda and The Midnight Giant is the latest one to arrive.  Still waiting on The Ocean at the End of the Lane to appear in my mailbox though…

What’s the last book you lent/gave away?

I usually don’t lend or give away too many books, though I inevitably recommend titles to be requested from the public library!  The last books I gave away were copies of the same book: The Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads, an excellent 1983 comic adaptation of The Journey to the West that was commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum in conjunction with an exhibition.  It was written by Evelyn Nagai-Berthrong and illustrated by Anker Odum who was a ROM in-house artist.  It’s a little-known and little-championed piece of Canadiana and comics history that I’ve been mildly obsessed with since re-discovering it a few years ago.  It’s one of those ones I read and re-read constantly as a kid at the library.  This probably sounds weird and braggy, but I gave away one copy to author/artist Gene Luen Yang, who had adapted the Monkey legend in his graphic novel American Born Chinese, and one to Neil Gaiman who has been attached to various Monkey King-related projects over the years.  I’d actually toyed with the idea of buying up every single used copy I could find and giving them away, but they became exponentially more expensive each time I’d buy a replacement copy for myself.

What is your reading style (in five words or less)?
In fits and starts.

Your life story is published tomorrow; the title is…?
Beef No Veggies: Diary of a Picky Eater