Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Revisiting The Book of Trees

This week I did something I've never done before. I re-read one of my already published books. Usually as soon as I'm finished a project, I never look at it again except for readings or interviews.  



I picked up The Book of Trees this week because while working on my memoir I was trying to remember why I wanted to study at a yeshiva in Israel. The book didn't prove that helpful- the protagonist Mia wants to become an orthodox Jew because her home life is so unsatisfying- she has an absent father, a distant mother and no Jewish affiliation. This couldn't be farther from my own family or Jewish experience. As I read, I remembered many things about the book. I had forgotten that Mia's childhood home was based on my friends Janet and Bill's house in the Beaches area of Toronto. Neither of them lives in that house anymore. Bill passed away almost ten years ago and Janet now lives in BC. I had also forgotten about the country and rockabilly music that Mia's family plays in the book. Mostly I had forgotten what a funny and unsuitable character for a yeshiva Mia is. She's full of teenage angst and sexual desire and her attempts to fit into a religious world are fraught from the second she gets to Israel. 

I hadn't forgotten about the political realities that form this book, how Mia learns that many of the forests in Israel were planted over former Palestinian villages, and how Mia's political understanding of Palestinian oppression undoes her religious yearnings. I re-read many parts of the book in light of the news about the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem last week, and the resulting violence in Gaza.  The New York Times podcast, The Daily reported two views of the embassy opening: Netanyahu's jubilant speech, and then the political reality of the violent suppression of Palestinian protest. Despite my rule against crying while driving, I couldn't help tearing up as I listened. I want Israel to be something it clearly is not: a place where my religious heritage is lived to its peaceful fullness, not an apartheid state where one's religious fulfilment only comes with the oppression of another. 

Throughout the week my Facebook feed filled up with Israel/Palestinian stories, most of them sensitive to the Palestinian plight. I felt relieved and vindicated, and less alone as a Jew, until I reminded myself that this wasn't indicative of how the Jewish world really felt. It's so easy to surround ourselves with our own opinions on social media that the few well-written, but supportive of Israel posts stuck out as treasonous diatribes, despite their careful wording and sensitivity. 

One post in my feed that caught my attention, was a link to an article on The Conversation by my friend Dorit Naaman, a Film and Media professor at Queen's University. Naaman is the director of the film Jerusalem, We Are Here, an interactive documentary that digitally re-inscribes Palestinians into the Jerusalem neighbourhoods they were evicted from in 1948.
Naaman's film reminds us of the 750,000 Palestinians who were evicted from their homes during The Nakhba, or catastrophe, and who by Israeli law do not have the right to return. Most Israelis who live in former Arab houses in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa know nothing of the former inhabitants. Naaman's film attempts to fix this. "I realize that if we - as Israelis- do not face the past and remedy its wrongs, we will have no future," Naaman says. Israel is slowly moving toward a One State solution, and the only way toward reconciliation, Naaman writes, is through acknowledgement and compensation. 

The Book of Trees hasn't sold many copies. It received an icy reception in the Jewish publishing world, and even friends weren't always sure how to respond. One 'friend' said she wouldn't read it at all, that any criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic. I think my (non-Jewish) publisher was brave to take on the book, and didn't realize how unpopular the conclusions are that Mia comes to about the narrative of Jewish return. Mia wants Israel to be the culmination of everything she's learned about Judaism, but she can't help feeling that her own return is at the expense of other people who actually live on the land. 

It's a little odd to feel nostalgic or regretful about a book written more than ten years ago, but I still have secret hopes that somewhere Jewish teens are reading it and reconsidering their perceptions about Zionism. I hope that maybe they're getting a more balanced view of Israel and the moral obligations of being a nation. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Birds, Brothers and Camp: A Few Canadian Titles

One of my reading goals this year was to read more Canadian Fiction. I recently read three very different, but excellent titles. The first, David Chariandy's Brother is set alternately in the present and in 1980's Scarborough. When Michael, a young man who works at a dead-end job at a grocery store and takes cares of his mother, is visited by his teenage girlfriend Aisha, the story dips into the past story of Michael's brother Francis. This a novel of suppressed grief, of a family undone by immigration and poverty, of parents working double or triple shifts to support a family in Canada while their "useless foreign degrees" hang framed on the walls. This is also a novel of how police behave in poor black neighbourhoods and the how the promise of a life in Canada can be undone by race and poverty. Chariandy's beautiful prose makes you read slowly and savour each word, even as the devastation of the story undoes you. 

I first came to Chariandy's work through his 2007 book Soucouyant: A Novel of Forgetting, about a young man who
returns home to care of his elderly mother suffering from dementia. Soucouyant is also beautifully written, but the novel stands out in my mind for having the best book cover ever. I love the rich blue and greens of the image, but mostly I loved the image of the over-flowing sink, the water crashing to the floor. Kudos to the designer. 



I heard about The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore on CBC's Q radio show in a segment by Jael Richardson who does Q's book pics. I don't tune into Q very often these days, but when I stumble on Richardson's recommendations I listen carefully because she always has titles I might not find myself. Richardson also chooses the kind of diverse stories that highlight different aspects of Canada that I am curious to read about.

The Lost Girls, by Kim Fu, is the story of five girls who get lost on an overnight kayaking trip from their summer camp. As a writer I read for plot and language, but I'm also endlessly curious how a writer crafts the structure of the story, and Fu does a remarkable job. The past story of the girls' camping trip is strung out in small sections throughout the novel. I wanted to keep reading to find out just how the girls would escape, and if all the girls would survive. In between these sections are stories that could be read independently about each of the girl's current lives, with the treacherous camping trip as a background influence. Each of the girls backgrounds and stories are remarkably different, and each of the stories while complete in itself, comes to a final conclusion that is not plot-driven, but open-ended, beguiling, and reveals something about how the past experience permanently imprints on them in remarkable and subtle ways. If you like the emotional complexity and attention to detail in Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories, you'll like The Lost Girls too. 

Kyo Maclear's Birds Art Life restored my faith in the Canadian reading public. Not only did I find this unusual book at Costco, but according to the cover, it is a #1 National Bestseller. And so it should be. Maclear's memoir is the story of a year in her life when she found herself unmoored, unsettled with family responsibilities, in particular to her ailing father. She decides to take up birding, which results in small, yet perfect epiphanies about art and life. I read this book during a week in which I finished a first draft of my own memoir and found myself both disappointed with the results and unsure of how to fix it. I generally find the end of a writing project to be a letdown. I like the doing, not the having done. When I am still writing, I am full of hope and possibility. When a project is done, the possibility of rejection sets in. And so, I read Maclear's book about a time she was in between projects, with empathy. The time of not doing is often rich in hindsight, but to us type-A's with our checklists and restless forward motion, it can be unnerving.

In Birds Art Life, Maclear wanders Toronto looking for birds, wonders what it means to wait for a glimpse of wildlife, and takes stock of her life. She tells us about her childhood, her parents, about her life in Toronto, about the busyness of daily life, and then the daunting task (to me anyway) of abandoning her daily responsibilities to go look at birds. In the end Maclear lists things she learned from her birding mentor, The Musician. She says, "Good shoes go a long way," and other truisms like "Don't carry more than you need." More profoundly she says, "There are no big reasons to live. Just little reasons." I turned down the corner of the page when I read the following: "There is really no one person who can give you a map for living. But this may not stop us from wishing there were. It would be nice if there were such a person or such a book, with a list of things to do and avoid, definitive directions to take and not take, cautions to navigate by. Act this way. Live that way." 

This resonated with me deeply. I think I want someone to tell me what to do, if I'm making the right choices, but I don't actually want anyone to tell me these things. I resist all advice from the people closest to me to the point where they stopped making suggestions years ago. (My mother used to say if she said I should go left, then I would automatically go right.) Maclear's book reminds us that there is no one path forward, no easy answers on how to live, only small moments to treasure. 

This past Sunday my husband and I washed our deck and set out our patio furniture. The kids raked and helped set up the trampoline. It's been a slow spring, the leaves still not fully out on all our trees. As we ate dinner on the back porch we looked for birds. A woodpecker darted around our ash tree, and a cardinal flitted among the chestnut branches. We all watched with amusement as a blue jay took a bath in the puddle at the end of our sump pump pipe. We lingered, all tired and not ready for Monday. The birds provided a few minutes of respite before heading into the house to clean up after dinner and getting ready for the rest of the week.   


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rachel Cusk

My friend Nancy once mentioned that she figured out how many books she read in an average year and then figured out how many books she might be able to read in a lifetime. The figure was staggeringly low to both of us. How would I ever get to all the fantastic books on my reading list. Would I ever get to all the classics I wanted to read? 

Now with Goodreads my reading has become increasingly planned.
Whole swathes of my reading are dedicated to particular topics: 20th century Ukrainian history, 19th century British women in India, Canadian historical fiction. This doesn't leave room for a lot of spontaneity, except, as my children like to say, except sometimes. Sometimes your public library's collection of Ukrainian history is so thin, that you start to browse the shelves. I did this recently, looking at the history section of my local branch to see what else I could find. And, I stumbled upon a book by Rachel Cusk about traveling in Italy. I've never really thought too much about traveling in Italy, or the writer Rachel Cusk, but something about the paperback made me pick it up, and it was a welcome break from reading about the Ukraine. So far, nothing good every happens in Ukrainian history, and certainly not in Jewish Ukrainian history. Ever.

In Rachel Cusk's book "The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy," Cusk leaves England for Italy with her husband and two kids. Unlike most travel memoirs with their detailed itineraries and clear-set goals, Cusk's book has a dreamy aimlessness.  She and her family drive through France and stay in old chateau. They reach the south and swim in the sea before it is warm. They look at art and meet people in castles. Cusk's slightly laissez-faire ramblings, her charming writing style and her fine use of simile lure the reader into the heat of traveling in Italy, into the basilica of Francis Assis and the Umbrian hills without cliché. While Cusk travels to see Italian art, it is the description of the people she meets along the way that are really compelling. An older French bachelor who hosts the family for a night in an empty chateau, some small American girls who befriend her daughters, and an expatriate Scot who challenges Cusk and her husband to dueling tennis games in the Umbrian heat all lingered in my thoughts after I finished reading the book.


Cusk's memoir lead me to her fiction, and I recently gobbled up two of her novels, "Outline" and "Transit," which are part of a planned trilogy. Although I loved these books, I struggle with how to describe them. They are about a writer named Faye, who is divorced. In one book she is remodeling her flat. The people who rent below her are unspeakably horrible and spread terrible rumours about Faye because they do not like the construction noise. But this is not what the story is about. There isn't really any "about" in this novel. Instead the books tell a series of stories about Faye and the people she knows, about their lives and emotional struggles. Together these stories come together to form a new kind of novel, or what many critics have called, the reinvention of the novel. There's also a certain violence that rips through many of the scenes: a teenage boy's violent reaction to a haircut, an unwanted and somewhat disgusting kiss, but Cusk writes about these with such elegant tone that it turns the violence into something less threatening, something muted. It's on these muted notes that the story turns and caught my attention. The many small plots drive the story forward, but at the end of the book the reader is left with a different impression of both story and the shape of a novel. 

These novels not driven by plot allow the reader to focus on the beauty of the writing. Cusk writes rich, elegant and thought-provoking prove that I am happy to lose myself in. I've read a few other books like this recently, books that don't ask "what happens next," but take you on a journey through language.  I'm thinking of Jon McGregor's amazing "Reservoir 13," a book which sounded like it might be a whodunit, about a girl who disappears, but turns out to be more about the town around the disappeared girl, and how her disappearance affects and doesn't affect their lives. It's a book that explores loss and how it affects us over time, but it does it unlike any other author I've read before. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Stowaway by Karen Hesse

2018 has started off as a very busy year, with very little time for blogging. My favourite read of January was What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and The Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro. Shapiro reinvents biography by looking at what six different famous women ate, and how it influenced their stories. The section on Eleanor Roosevelt's complicated relationship with food during her period as First Lady was particularly fascinating.


I’ve also been writing with great focus, particularly on my memoir, Searching For Rob, which is about meeting my husband, Rob, losing him, and then chasing across the Indian subcontinent into Nepal. An excerpt from the book just came out in the Canadian literary magazine, Prairie Fire. If you read the excerpt, which is called “Paul,” you might wonder where the searching for Rob bit fits in, and who this Paul person is. Rob comes into the story later. 


The book I’ve been reading with the most absorption these days, Stowaway by Karen Hesse, is a one I’m reading to my younger son. I actually read this book while I was breast feeding him ten years ago, and it’s been on my list of books to share with him when he was old enough.

Stowaway is based on the real expedition of Captain Cook from 1768 to 1770, in which Cook was looking
for a new continent. He never got far enough south to find Antarctica, but he did map out New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, then called New Holland. Stowaway is narrated in journal format by an eleven-year-old stowaway named Nick, who boards the ship the Endeavour to flee an abusive school master, and then an abusive butcher to whom he is apprenticed. Nick narrates the constant toil on the ship, the dangers of sea travel from unfriendly natives, scurvy and the dangers of the Great Barrier Reef, and the dangers of being the youngest member on a ship.



One of the best parts of reading this book is that my son and I are able to chart the journey both on the map on the book fly, and on Google Earth. Each chapter leads us to videos about the Great Barrier Reef, or the beaches of Tahiti. We are also enjoying looking up all the animals, plants and odd foods that are new to us, such as the blue-footed boobie, the grampus, a kind of dolphin, and portable soup, which is reconstituted dried meat. There’s also great pictures online of models of the Endeavour, including the pinnace (a kind of small boat) that Nick first hid in as a stowaway.



My son and I have spent a lot of time in the world of Harry Potter, Narnia and more recently, Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of Nihm. He's entered each mythical world with great focus and attention. Now he's entering the world of Tahiti, New Guinea and pre-colonial New Zealand with the same curiosity and attention to detail. We’re getting ready for some travel of our own soon. Reading into Nick’s adventures is opening my son’s eyes towards those journeys.


Click above to tour a replica of the HMS Endeavour. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Memoir

This week I found out that an excerpt from a memoir I’m writing will be published this winter in the Canadian journal, Prairie Fire. The story is about my experiences in Rishikesh, India. It’s part of a larger work called Searching For Rob, about falling in love with this guy named Rob, going our separate ways, and then spending the rest of my trip trying to find him again. Spoiler alert: Reader, I married him.

Although I’m excited about publishing a memoir excerpt, I’ve also had to think a little about what it means to write about myself. While the book details my spiritual and emotional development, it’s also one big booty call. While I’m not worried about exposing myself, and Rob approves of the story, I decided it was it was a good idea to send the excerpt to my parents before it was published. My poor parents! When I was traveling around India I gave no thought to their anxieties. I emailed them regularly, but gave them no details about what I was actually doing. At all. For example, I never told them about the day I rode a motorcycle without a helmet, or hiked alone in the mountains, or the time I arrived in Nepal without a guidebook or any Nepali money. As an adult with kids of my own (whom I of course worry about), I feel just a wee bit bad for my parents reading about my adventures on motorcycles with tattooed strangers. 

Another challenge of writing a memoir is that you have to believe that your story is interesting and worth saying. When I write fiction I make up the stories and I get to craft a compelling narrative. With non-fiction, I’m working with the conceit that I’ve lived an interesting life. I do think I have had some exciting adventures, but I also worry I’m a terrible bore. Imagine being stuck in an elevator with someone who thinks their life story is fascinating and wants to tell you the whole story in minute detail for hours on end? That’s what writing a memoir sometimes feels like.

Hopefully there’s balance between these two, and , and maybe more importantly, a really good story to tell. I didn’t just chase Rob across India, I also learned about Buddhism, met interesting people, struggled with my idea of self, and saw some amazing sights. This is what I have to imagine when I’m writing, otherwise I fall into the chaos of self-aggrandizement and self-hating. It’s odd how closely connected these are.

I’ve accumulated a list of books for reading and re-reading about India to help me write about my trip. Before I went to India, I read some fantastic fiction about the subcontinent: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Tales from Firozsha Baag; Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy; Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children; and VS Naipaul's A Million Mutinies Now.

In contrast, most of my reading during my trip was unplanned and spontaneous, the kind of reading I rarely do these days. Finding books to read in India in 1998 meant trading with other travelers or perusing used book sho
ps. Everything I read was gift. I stumbled upon Lolita while waiting for Rob in Nepal. Toni Morrison’s Beloved helped me through a bout of illness in Varansi. Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury made a very long train ride feel shorter. 


I'm hoping to re-read a few books specifically about India that I discovered during the trip to help remember my experiences. Herman Hesse’s Siddartha reinforced everything I was learning about Buddhism and meditation. Along with this, I think it’s high time I re-read Goenka’s The Art of Living. Goenka is the founder of the Vipasanna meditation method I learned about India. To balance these out, Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola should throw some cold water on any enlightening thoughts. Her book details the pitfalls of Westerns descending upon India to find the spiritual guidance that was lacking in their own lives, and explores the devastating impact that foreigners had on rural Indian communities as their lives became commodities for Western consumption. I remember reading it in shock and dismay. I just wanted to meditate and learn, but the book changed the way I viewed myself and traveling in India. 


Although I don’t have the massive guide book I traveled with, my book-loving (hoarding?) friend Ada has lent me two 1990’s guide books to India. They are in good shape, but slightly dirty. I handle them tentatively, as if they might still bare some of the illness and dirt I remember from the trip. The grubby cover of Ada’s Lonely Planet India reminds me of my friend James’ copy that he accidentally dropped in the muddy and very polluted shores of the Ganges in Varanasi.




Lastly, I have my journal from the trip, a remarkably pristine spiral ring journal with a Miffy cover that I bought at the Japanese book store Kinokuniya in Kanazawa, Japan. In the front cover is a list of the books I read during the trip, and in the back is a list of Japanese and Hebrew phrases I picked up from other travelers, important words like "samim," Hebrew for drugs, and "oshaberi," Japanese for chatterbox. There's a also list of the US traveler cheques I exchanged into rupees. (Apparently I lived on less than 500 US$  per month!)  Mostly I wrote about things that seemed unimportant to what I remember from the trip, but one thing is clear: I was hopelessly in love with Rob. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ottolenghi Sundays




The only book I’m reading with any real focus these days is Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem, a middle-eastern cookbook. My entire family whole-heartedly approves of this reading since it leads to the MOST delicious meals. I’ve inaugurated Ottolenghi Sundays, in which I spend most of my Sunday afternoons making meals my son describes as “a giant patchkorai.” I don’t know how to spell this Yiddish word (and my son doesn’t know how to pronounce it correctly,) but basically it means a meal that is a lot of work.

Tamimi, an Israeli-Arab, and Ottolenghi, a Jewish-Israeli, might have met in London, where they collaborate and cook together, but the recipes of Jerusalem are a cross section of Israeli culture and cuisine: Tunisian, Lebanese, Iranian and Turkish. For me, raised on Ashkenaz cuisine, these adventures into Jewish Sephardi and Mizrahi cooking are an exciting exploration of sumac and za'atar. 

I’ve become so obsessed with Jerusalem that we also had an Ottolenghi/Tamami Friday night dinner this week: kubbeh, a kind of lamb and bulghur tart, and a fattoush salad. I’m not sure how long I can keep working my way through the cookbook as my budget for pine nuts is growing thin, and my family is wondering when my obsession with eggplant is going to end. In the meantime, we’re eating well.

So, if you like to cook, and you like Israeli food, get this book. And make the stuffed eggplant, the sweet and sour fish, and the pickled lemon. I also recommend the turkey and zucchini meatballs and the burnt eggplant soup. There’s a sweet section in the book, and a whole new dessert cookbook called Sweet that I haven’t gotten to, but if I ever get back to eating sugar, I’ll be sure to indulge.  



If you only have time or energy to cook one recipe, go with the stuffed eggplant. I was watching the new Netflix documentary on Israeli Food and one of the first meals the host eats is stuffed eggplant. Here’s Jerusalem's recipe for it. Leave yourself lots of time to make this one- the eggplants roast in the oven for an hour and a half! 
  
Stuffed Eggplant
4 medium eggplants, halved lengthwise
6 T olive oil
1 1/2 T cumin
1 1/2 t parprika
2 onions, finely chopped
1 lb ground lamb
7 T pine nuts
handful chopped parsley
2 t tomato paste
3 t sugar
2/3 cup water
1 1/2 lemon juice
1 t tamarind paste (I left this out.)
4 cinnamon sticks
salt and pepper

Put eggplants skin side down in a roasting pan and bush with 4 T oil and season with 1 t salt and plenty of pepper. Roast for twenty minutes until golden and then allow to cool slightly. 
Heat the remaining 2 T oil in a large frying pan and add half quantities of the cumin, paprika and cinnamon with the onion. Cook for eight minutes over medium-high heat. Then add the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato paste, 1 t sugar, 1 t salt and some pepper. Cook for eight more minutes, until the meat is cooked.
Put the remaining spices in a bowl with the water, lemon juice, tamarind, the remaining sugar and the cinnamon stick and 1/2 t salt.  
Pour the spice mix in to the bottom of the eggplant roasting pan. Spoon the lamb mixture on top of each eggplant. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and roast for 1 1/2 hours at 375 degrees. Serve at room temperature or warm, but not hot.
         

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Kingston Writers Festival

Melanie Fishbane
This past week I had the pleasure of being part of The Kingston Writers Festival. I can't tell you how excited I am when my home town is turned into a mecca of literature. So far I've heard Adam Gopnik and Michael Chabon speak, met Melanie Fishbane of Maud fame, and ran into my favourite Kingston writer Sarah Tsiang. I got to meet the amazing author, editor and teacher, Shelley Tanaka who hosted the panel I presented at, and introduced a class I taught.




The highlight of the festival was presenting for teens with the author of Saints and Misfits, SK Ali. The festival puts the panel together and it's always a gift to find out you are going to present with someone you don't know, but who turns out to be a special person, and a fantastic writer. 




SK Ali
SK Ali is a Toronto writer, and her book, Saints and Misfits, is about a Muslim teenager, Janna, who faces a variety of challenges as a teen. Some of those challenges are the kind that all teenagers face: tense family relations and social media bullying. Janna is also dealing with the fact that a guy from her mosque, who everyone thinks is a saint, has attempted to sexually assault her. 





I loved the multitude of nuanced characters in this book. Ali creates a complete world for Janna, full of friends who provide multiple glimpses into Janna's Muslim and non-Muslim world,  and the tension Janna feels between her religious and secular worlds. I especially loved reading the voice of a young woman who wears a hijab, and gaining access to a world I know very little about. Can you name another book about a hijab-wearing young Muslim woman? According to Ali, the only other YA book is the Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big In This?

For all of it's differences, many of the themes of Saints and Misfits are things I've written about, or know about from my own adventures in the religious world. I know what it's like to be in love with someone outside my religion. I know what it's like to balance religious and secular life. Janna participates in a quiz game called The Fun-Fun-Fun Islamic Quiz Game, that reminded me of the many years I participated in Jewish youth group activities.

If you are interested in diverse YA books, Saints and Misfits, is not be missed. 

I am heading back to the festival tonight to hear Diane Schomperlen, Karen Connelly and others read at the Saturday Night Speakeasy. The KWF website says its already 73% sold out, but tickets are still available.