Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Little Fiction, A Little Non- My Summer TBR

I've been accumulating summer reading material like libraries are going to be closed. They won't of course, and I won't be out of town for that long, but I love to plan out my cottage reading list. This year is a mix - a little fiction, a little non, some books by women, some by men, some mighty tomes and slimmer volumes too. It's all very North-American- I'll have to work on that for next year. 

I devoured two of these books already in between cycling and cleaning at my cottage. I read Rachel Kusk's Kudos in my hammock while wearing a wet bathing suit. to keep cool in the 39+ Celsius weather. Like all of Kusk's trilogy, I devoured the book, but remembered very little of it when I was done. The novel is about a women who goes to a writer's festival and meets all kinds of interesting people who monologue to her about their lives and philosophies. Having read all three books I'm not sure what my take away is, but somehow I don't care. There's something about Kusk's writing that makes her books hard to put down. 

I also read Naomi Alderman's Disobedience this week. In this novel a Jewish woman, Ronit, returns to the ultra-orthodox childhood of her family upon the death of her father. She goes to stay with her cousin Dovid, only realizing that he has married her teen lover Esti. Having written about ultra-orthodox lesbians in my YA book Gravity, I was fascinated to see what happens to the women who leave orthodoxy and the women who stay. Ronit struggles with the on-going tension between the identity she was raised with and her adult self. I especially liked the way the book adresses the silence that is expected of women in this particular community and how both Ronit and Esti move out of that imposed silence.

 A film adaptation of the book just came out, and despite my better judgement, I saw the film before the book. I enjoyed comparing the two and thinking about the choices the screenwriter made in translating the book to film. The novel is far more subtle, whereas the film is dominated by a sex scene that is only mentioned in the book. Whereas the movie shows that there's no place for lesbians in orthodoxy, the book offers a more complex balance between sexuality and religion. Mostly I think the director Sebastian Leilo couldn't resist filming an explicit lesbian sex scene. I left the film with the following quandary: is it actually sexy to have someone spit in your mouth the way actress Rachel Weisz does to Rachel McAdams? A quick survey of friends confirmed what I thought: this doesn't appeal. You can watch the trailer here

I have a raft of other books I'm looking forward to reading this summer. 

I've loved everything else Michael Ondaatje has written, especially The Cat's Table and Anil's Ghost, so I'm sure I'll love Warlight too. 

Paul Auster's massive tome 4321 is apparently one story told four different ways. I've read and loved other Auster books, but mainly in French, so I'm looking forward to reading this in my first language. This book also comes with the a high approval rating from my super-reader friend Nancy. 

Also on my list is Jessmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. I haven't read anything by Ward yet, but I've read high praises about this southern tale. I'm looking forward to her lyrical writing style. 

In non-fiction I have two titles both purchased at the Kingston Writer's Festival. I was so taken with listening to Adam Gopnik speak at the festival that I purchased his Paris to the Moon.  Gopnik describes married sex as "like civil war re-enactors; you know how it's going to turn out -no surprises- but it's still enjoyable." On a more poignant note he also said that you should never underestimate other people's insecurities. He said, "everyone's life feels like failure on the inside." I'm still thinking about that statement nine months later. It helps me through moments when I'm not sure I'll ever publish another word. 

My other non-fiction title is Glenn Dixon's Tripping the World Fantastic: A Journey Through the Music of Our Planet. I boght this for my husband for Christmas and forgot to give it to him. It has a terrible cover, but it promises to explain why music has such a powerful hold on us. Since I have been plagued with earworms thanks to my children belting out Arrogant Worm tunes, I'm curious what I can learn. The book blurb also promises to explain whale music, and why some songs give chills up our spines. 

The book I'm most looking forward to devouring is Maggie Nelson's Bluets. This slender volume of prose poems is about my absolutely favourite colour blue. I'm a little obsessed with blue - it's shown up in both my home decorating and my writing. I know very little about this book and I'm resisting reading reviews because I don't want other people's experiences of the book to shade my reading. Right now I'm happy to gaze at what I think may be the most beautiful book cover ever. Perhaps I'll let ya'll know what I think when I'm back in the fall. 

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.