Thursday, October 6, 2016

Leanne The Spy

On a trip to Vancouver last spring, I found my childhood diary in my parents' crawlspace. As a writer, I have many, many diaries but this one is special because unlike my school journals which were read by my teachers, this was my first private diary, complete with a lock. It also had Garfield on the cover, which made it extra cool. I wrote in this notebook when I was ten, spanning grade four and five.

 Re-reading this diary was outrageously funny. I had some very strong feelings at that age. I despised my siblings, thought my parents horribly unfair, passionately loved a boy, and was disgusted with some of my classmates. I proclaimed all of this with lots of exclamation marks and a solid command of the profanities I'd learned at summer camp. For weeks I entertained (and shocked) my husband and boys with such gems as: "Marcy is a fuck-face" and "I wish Jeffrey was never born." (Apologies to my siblings; I certainly don't feel that way now.) My husband told me that reading your teenage or childhood diary in public is now a thing, a cult live show called Mortified: Share the Shame. It's like Dear Teen Me, but without the earnestness. It's unbelievably funny.

Although the boys asked for me to read them more of my literary debut, I kept most of it to myself. I still know (at least in a Facebook sense) the boy I loved in grade four and I still have his picture in a box in my basement. Somehow these feelings still feel too fresh to me, even thirty years on.

I did share with my boys one page with the words I WANT TO BE A WRITER scrawled in giant bubble letters, but then kept to myself the smaller font message: "but I don't know how," on the next page. This also felt too personal, and something I'm still grappling with. I could have wrote this yesterday, this going back and forth between literary dreams and the literary reality of the blank page.

My children were also impressed by how mean I was about my some of my classmates. "You're like Harriet the Spy, but worse," my older son proclaimed. This made me laugh. We were reading Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet at the time, and my boys were both shocked that Harriet would write such mean things about her friends, and then mortified that her diary was found. I mean mortified to the point where they had their fingers in their ears and were begging me to stop reading. I had to skip several pages until, as my younger son described, "Harriet became nice again." Perhaps this was the first book I'd read them where the villain of the story wasn't someone unlikeable like Malfoy in Harry Potter, but a complex character like Harriet with all her strengths and faults.

My son was correct: I was a total Harriet The Spy kid. I wrote about other people and my relationship to them to try and understand my world. Luckily, no one ever read my diary (except maybe my siblings).  Harriet wasn't a favourite book of mine as a kid. I recognized myself in her so much, that I remember quickly putting the book aside, as if it were too close to me. I shared this experience with a friend recently, and she laughed, and said she was The Babysitters Club. (This sounds much more wholesome to me, and that's probably why she's a therapist, and I write fiction.) One friend, with a troubled childhood, told me she was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and another friend with religious yearnings identified with Chaim Potok's Davida's Harp.

And you, was there a childhood book that spoke to you?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Harlem

Hot off his success with his documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, my brother Jeff Lieberman is already into his next project, a feature-length film called My Harlem. He's got an Indigogo campaign on and it's a great project to contribute to.

My Harlem is a feature-length narrative film set in New York's beautiful and historic Harlem neighborhood, where gentrification has been a hotly-debated topic. The discussion has been further inflamed by a Harlem church whose billboard often contains racist and homophobic messages. The sign has suggested that “homos” be stoned, thrown off buildings, and believes the gay community are sexual deviants out to “steal” the neighborhood.  The church sign has also targeted Black people, women, President Obama, and many others.  

As a Harlem-based filmmaker, Jeff wanted to write a tribute to his neighborhood to showcase all the beautiful and historic aspects of this vibrant corner of New York City.  He also wanted to pay tribute to the people who fill its brownstones, restaurants, parks and jazz clubs, and he wanted to address the thorny issue of gentrification and the complications that arise as the neighborhood continues to shift. Jeff has lived in Harlem for the last five years, and he says he recognizes that his presences is part of the problem. He also hopes to be part of the solution.

In My Harlem the sign brings the two main characters of the film together. Nathan who is white and Langston who is black react to the sign's hateful message in different ways. Their relationship dives deep into issues of race, gentrification and sexuality, all set against the backdrop of the police brutality of the summer of 2016. Jeff hopes the film will incite change and inspire healing for all of those affected by police shootings, displaced from their homes, and for all those who have had to hear hateful and dangerous speech as a result of their sexuality or the color of their skin.  

Jeff and others in the gay community don't have their own sign to combat hate speech, but Jeff's taken this opportunity to create a film that speaks to this sign with love and with opportunities for community healing. You can read more about Jeff's film and his campaign at Indigogo.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A True Title

Sometimes a book title comes to you like a thunder bolt. My novel Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust was like that. I knew the title before I wrote a single word. The only downside to this title is that it’s really long. I have said this mouthful thousand of times, and it never really trips off my tongue.

Sometimes I have an entire book, and no title. This is usually my predicament. How to encapsulate all my ideas and lure in a reader in a few short words? The working title of my forthcoming book (Spring 2017) was Feast. I wanted a short title after Lauren Yanofsky, and Feast summed up both a plot element at the end of the book, and a concept the main character was moving toward. My editor, however, felt it was lacking, and since she always has good judgement, I went on a title search. Next I thought to call the book Crave, but there are many books with that title, mostly of the bodice-ripper variety. After some soul searching, re-writing and wordplay, I found the book’s true title, The Most Dangerous Thing. It’s not too long, nor too common, and it sums up the book perfectly. (If you’re wondering just what is the most dangerous thing, you’ll have to wait a little.)

       Currently I’m looking for a title for an adult book I’ve written that spans twenty-five years of a woman’s life. It’s about love and loss and mothers and the way some people have to make a new family if they’ve lost their first one. The book has over the years I’ve been writing it been called: Open Your Heart, (un)Lucky, and It’s Better To Go On Long Walks. Each of these has spoken to some aspect of the book, but has been rejected for various reasons. Open your Heart was too common, (un)Lucky was well, unlucky, and The Long Walk title too glib. None of them really spoke to the heart of the book either. In desperation (and amusement) I tried using an online book title generator. This resulted in:  Lonely Japan Boy, The Seven Angels, Gift in the Crying, The Acceptance Ring, Dragon in the Planet, and my personal favourite The Legacy of the PotterSome of these aren't bad, but they've got nothing to do with my book!

       I’ve spent most of my long bike rides this summer trying to unearth the book’s true title, but a talk with my friend Robbie finally sent me in the right direction. I haven't nailed it down yet, but I think I'm getting closer. Possible options are Finding Home, Swing on a Star, Back to Belonging, Away and Home, and Someone to Dance With. Readers, if you have strong opinions about these, let me know! I seek advice!

     So what makes a good title? I like an usual combination of words like Hideous KinkyTheir Eyes Were Watching God and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The Cat’s Table also intrigues me. But I’m also equally happy with titles like Home and The Road Home. Perhaps I just love these last two books (by Marilynne Robinson and Rose Tremain) and don’t really care about the title. I imagine so. Books with two word titles that are easy to say, and remember, yet slightly unusual like Deborah’s Levy’s Hot Milk and Midnight's Children are what I aim for. With that in mind, I’m thinking of calling my next two books Rock Me Tight and The Tree Lover.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Floating in a Book

I never got to Tolstoy this summer. I blame it on my son, who high-jacked my reading list with his need to be read to for long hours of the day. However, I did make it through some of the titles in my pile, and I absolutely loved Rosa Sarkin-Gee's The Last Kings of Sark and Claire Fueller's Our Endless Numbered Days, both of which I highly recommend. Most of my reading time was taken over by Harry Potter. Yes, the Lieberman family was consumed by stories of Hogwarts, Quidditch and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

I had been suggesting I read HP to my two boys (ages 8 and 10) this spring, but they were adamant they were not interested. Then, my older son, who had until then only read graphic novels or diaries, decided to pick up an actual chapter book. He read the first Harry Potter in less than a week, and the next three during the rest of August. He only stopped reading to eat, sleep, go for the occasional swim and to indulge his other slightly obsessive habit: endlessly bouncing a tennis ball.

Enter my extremely jealous 8 yr-old who only reads in French. (Both boys attend a franco-phone school.) My older son learned to read in English out of necessity: when he had read every Nate and Wimpy Kid book in French, he reluctantly read them all in English. My 8yr.old, rather than trying to learn to read English, insisted on having the HP books read to him, which my husband and I were happy to do. Perhaps not all day, and not at the expense of reading other material, but read we did. The 8 yr.old and I are currently at the end of book 3, which means we read over a thousand pages of HP in August.   

Dinner conversations now revolve around the Nimbus 2000 versus The Firebolt, the correct pronunciation of  "Hermione," and whether palmistry actually works. The kids dream of Honeydukes and Diagon Alley. The hurl insults at each other like, "You are such a muggle!" My 8 yr. old spent a few afternoons with a broom handle at his side, demanding "Up! Up!" in the hopes it would magically rise into his hand. Every once in awhile he'd try and trick his brother into believing that it actually worked. When he got tired of that, he ran around with the broom between his legs, pretending to fly.

I had been waiting a while, patiently, for my older son to fall into reading the way I did as a kid. When I see him now hunched over a book on his bed, or sprawled on the hammock, totally engrossed, I feel a deep satisfaction that he has reached the level where reading is completely engaging. He has reached that magical other place where there is only story, where having to put your bookmark in your book because it's dinner or bedtime, rips you away from a place where you are totally immersed, and totally safe. In French the word for doing an activity that is both engaging and challenging is La Flotte, or flow state. And that's what my son is doing, he's floating in a book.

For amazing pictures of Hogwart's Castle made out of Lego check out the artistry of Alice Finch.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cottage Reading

I am soon off to my cottage for some summer relaxation. I'm looking forward to gliding across the lake on my paddleboard on calm mornings and being with family and friends. I'm also looking forward to my cottage pile of books. While top of my pile is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, my other books are slightly lighter fare. I'm looking forward to Rosa Rankin-Gee's The Last Kings of Sark and Claire Fuller's Our Endless Numbered Days. With my boys I'm hoping to read A Wrinkle in Time and T H White's The Sword in the Stone. I'm especially excited about the latter because I read so much about White in H is for Hawk which was definitely my favourite read of 2015.

As you can tell from the photo many of these books are from the library. Although I really love the library, I do feel a little guilt that I haven't

purchased most these books and supported the authors. I would love to, I really would, but there are several considerations. The first is cost. I read over fifty books a year and that  far exceeds my book-buying budget. The second issue is space. My book shelves are full. I have a small house and have considered turning a wall of my living into book shelves, by I also need somewhere for my kids' toys and other household items, like plates. I once went into someone's house to purchase a second hand table and found her dining room so inundated with books there was nowhere to eat. Whenever I feel the urge to own more books than I can store I think about that house. I like to read, but eating is important too.

I frequently buy books after I've already read them at the library. This way I know the book is one that I have to have, or one I liked so much I want to pass it on to friends.  

Here's a list of books I've had  to purchase lately:

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

Translatlantic -Colum McCann -I would buy this book three more times. That's how many times I've read it.  

The Children's Hour, AS Byatt -Again, a book I`ve read several times. It`s a brilliant portrait of certain kinds of families in early 1900`s England.

My Brilliant Friend and all of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. I had planned to write a blog post about this quartet but I was too busy being sucked into her world to write. These long books have also put me way behind on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.  

Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein- See my blog post on Orenstein`s book to understand why I had to have this work.

This is Happy, Camilla Gibb- A memoir about family from a writer I`ve always admired.

Age of Iron, JM Coetzee- One day I'll figure out how to write about the brilliance that is Coetzee.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Confessions of a YA writer

I have a confession. I like to write YA books, but I don't read that many YA titles. My Goodreads YA shelf is on the light side. It's not that I don't like the genre, I just like to read about adults. Some of my favourite books so far this year are Ha Jin's A Map of Betrayal about a Chinese spy living in the US, Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy and JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur

And then, I fell into the YA world of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. The main character, Cath Avery, is a very anxious college freshman. She worries about her roommate, her classes, her twin sister Wren, her mentally unstable dad and boys in general. The one thing that Cath feels good at is writing fan fiction, specifically about Simon Snow, a character attending a Hogwarts-like magic school. Cath has thousands of fans reading her online fanfiction where she creates alternate love stories about Simon Snow and his roommate Basil. Yep, that's right, she writes stories where a Harry Potter-like character falls in love with a Draco-Snape hybrid.

Another confession: I had never checked out fanfiction before. I spent an evening sucked into fanfiction, which has more than 700,000 entries just in the Harry Potter category. If fantasy isn't your thing, there's alternate versions of Pride and Prejudice, Bridge to Terabitha, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Anne of Green Gables, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I'm overwhelmed by the sheer volume of entries.

While Fangirl is heavy on plot (a lot happens in this novel, including multiple trips to the hospital) Cath's intense and personal narrative voice drew me into this story. I was rooting for her to start eating in the cafeteria (instead of eating power bars in her room), and for her to befriend her roommate. Mostly I must confess that I fell in love with the book's love interest, Levi. I've never fallen in love with a literary character before, never swooned over Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester. (Although I do have a little crush on Cherry Jones' character Leslie in Transparent.) And now, well, I'm in love with Levi. He's too tall, and gangly and he has a wicked receding hairline and he smiles at absolutely everyone. He's relentlessly cheerful and tells bad jokes in a way that I find annoying, but apparently endearing, since my husband has similar attributes. Levi is a knight with a rusting truck and he's endlessly patient with Cath's issues both social and sexual. I've never fallen in love with a rancher before, or a blond, or anyone from Nebraska, but Rainbow Rowell is that good.

I've got Eleanor and Park, Rowell's 2013 book, next to read and I'm certain I won't be disappointed.   

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Girls Should Know Sex Is Fun

Recently I attended a women's dinner where each guest was asked to talk about something that had shocked or surprised them in their lives. Most women talked about falling in love with their spouses, the death of their parents, or raising children. All except one woman, who burst out laughing when it was her turn, and said she was most surprised when she saw her first erect penis. "It was really impressive," she said.

 I was hoping for an evening of other shocking sexual firsts, but it wasn't to be. My co-dinners were all older than me by about thirty years, and they smoothly moved on to tamer topics.
I was ready for a good sex-talk (and what better than with women from a different generation?) because of the book I was writing and because of the excellent research book I'd been reading. The two had started to intertwine in my head the way good research material can subtly become part of your story. 

The book I've been working on is a YA novel called The Most Dangerous Thing. It's about a very introverted teenager named Sydney whose not so introverted sister wants to put on the play The Vagina Monologues at her school, including re-writing the cunt monologue. Sydney is horrified that her sister wants to talk about vaginas at school (or at all). She doesn't think about her body much, that is, until she starts to fall in in love with this guy, Paul. Sydney is unprepared for the sexual feeling she experiences and the book is about girls' relationship with their bodies and their sexuality. 

I had a few questions about teenage sexuality while writing this book. I wondered how girls felt about their vaginas, and if they wanted boyfriends for social or sexual reasons, or both. (My extremely unscientific research on this resulted in mixed results. Some friends I spoke to were motivated by sex, others by social desires.) Since I couldn't imagine asking the kind of questions I wanted to know about, I was thrilled to read Peggy Orenstein's new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating The New Landscape. 

Orenstein spoke with hundreds of girls across the US about their sexual experiences.
Many of the girls spoke about their sexual encounters with regret and few of them described their experiences as pleasurable. According to Orenstein's research, hook-up culture and the easy access and pervasiveness of porn has changed sexual expectation for both girls and boys. Girls are expected to look hot, but not too hot, to seek attention for their bodies but not too much attention, to walk a narrow line between slut and prude. Orenstein writes that most teen sexual activities favour boy's pleasure over girl's. Although teen intercourse rates have actually dropped, oral sex has become more common. Yet boys rarely reciprocate with oral sex on girls and boys are much more likely to rate their sexual experiences as pleasurable than girls. Some girls even rated their sexual satisfaction by their partner’s pleasure: if he was satisfied than she was satisfied.

Orenstein's book is the kind that makes people wring their hands-especially the middle section on the
Author Peggy Orenstein
Greek system of fraternities and sororities where boys throw the parties, invite the girls, serve the drinks and girls are expected to pay the boys back with their bodies. Almost half the girls interviewed for the book spoke of being coerced into having sex. However, it was the final chapters on sex-education that interested me, especially since I'll be teaching middle-school sex-ed this spring. 

I usually enjoy teaching this portion of the Health curriculum. My students pay rapt attention and have MANY questions. (It also leads to spirited chat in the staff room, especially when I bring in the birth control kit with the wooden penis.) I am always grateful that I teach in Ontario which has a sex-ed curriculum that gives students the kind of information they need to keep them safe and informed. We talk about abstinence and forming healthy relationships, but we also talk about birth control, STI's and the importance of condoms. Still, sex-ed can be a bit of a downer. I've even acknowledged to my students that I'll be covering what I call the "doom and gloom" of sex-ed, all the things that can go wrong: disease, pregnancy and unwanted sexual pressure.

Orenstein agrees that girls' sexual education often focuses on negative outcomes. We teach girls about menstruation and avoiding preganancy and focus entirely on the internal organs. In the past I have skipped over girls' external sexual organs, but why is this? We fully acknowledge that boys have sexual desires, why not girls too?


Orenstein has a new tactic for sexual education, and
Vulva puppet anyone?
it's the kind of thing that will make a lot of parents (and for sure abstinence-only adherents) freak out. She believes in teaching kids, specifically girls, that sex is supposed to be fun, that it's supposed to feel good. She believes that if we teach girls to advocate for their own pleasure by first knowing their own bodies, they'll be more in control of their sexuality and their sexual encounters. That's right, she's suggesting girls masturbate, and then choose sexual encounters that bring them pleasure. This is both revolutionary in terms of sex-education (especially compared to some US programs) and yet incredibly simple and straight forward.

Orenstein describes the Dutch model of sex-education, where parents talk to their children, not just sex-educators, but parents talk, not just about the "doom and gloom" scenarios, but about sex as a balance between joy and responsibility. I really like those two words: joy and responsibility. I can imagine starting my sex-ed lessons with those two words, and then going from there. 

For those of you seeking a little 90's nostalgia, and a sex positive message, I leave you with Salt and Peppa's 1992 hit, Let's Talk about Sex. 

And for those of you worked up about intimate justice, I insist you watch the video from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Put Yourself First recommended by Marjorie Ingall.