Thursday, November 10, 2016

You Want It Darker

The sad news that Leonard Cohen died arrived tonight, during an already difficult week most of us are still coming to terms with.

I've been listening constantly to Leonard Cohen since his new album, You Want It Darker, came out a few weeks ago. I heard the title song on the radio just after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. I'm certain the release date was intentional. Cohen sings,

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

Cohen, known to be suffering from back pain, speaks of our human failures, and also God's. After this week's election, we kill the flame, seems especially poignant to me. However, it's the Hineini part that made me stop in my kitchen and stare at my ancient radio. Hineini means, Here I am,  in Hebrew. It's what Abraham says to God just before he is about to sacrifice his only son Issac. At the last moment God asks Abraham where he is, Abraham says Hineini, and his hand is stayed. 

The Akedah, or binding of Issac is difficult to resolve. I'd thought it was a test of Abraham's devotion to God, but according to my rabbi, no one really knows what to make of it, or why we read
it during Rosh Hashana services. And yet, I love that Cohen uses this line, Hineini, here I am, to address God. It seems as perfect as his use of other parts of the high holiday liturgy, like Who By Fire. I also love that the choir that sings on the track is from the Shaar Hashomayim shul in Montreal, where Cohen's family were members for generations. (It's also happens to be the shul my Bubbie worked at for a time.)

Several other writers have written far more eloquently about Leonard Cohen recently. I loved Liel Liebowitz's piece for Tablet Magazine, and also David Remnick's excellent piece in The New Yorker.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Three Great Fiction Titles

I've read some amazing fiction titles recently, books that are definitely going to be on my top ten list at the end of the year. The first is the Man Booker Prize nominee Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.  I chose to read this because I loved the title. (Although having read the book, I have no idea why it's called Hot Milk.) It's a bewildering book, but so beautifully written, I didn't want to put it down.

This is the story of a young British woman, Sofia,  who travels with her mother to a medical clinic in Spain. The mother suffers from paralysis and a host of other medical conditions. Her illness holds Sofia's life in limbo, creating another kind of paralysis. In Spain, Sofia meets a various characters, my favourite being a German woman named Ingrid. At one point Ingrid embroiders Sofia a silk halter with the words beloved in blue thread. Later Sofia realizes the embroidery says something entirely different, changing her experience of their relationship. This book feels brief but its lasting images will be with me a long time.

One can never have too much Pride and Prejudice, right? Especially when it is re-written by the excellent Curtis Sittenfield into a novel called Eligible. This is a modern update of Pride and Prejudice, full of cross fit gyms, texting and reality TV.

The Bennett family has five unmarried daughters, a horrible mother and a droll father, but in this version they live in Cincinatti. Elizabeth Bennett is a New York journalist not interested in Mr. Darcy, here imagined as a pompous surgeon. 

Mrs. Bennett is especially odious in Sittenfield's update. Not only is she a racist snob, but she suffers from a shopping addiction and poor parenting skills. She also loves reality TV shows, including a show called Eligible, which stars Chip Bingley. When Chip comes to Cincinatti, well, you know how the story will unfold.

I've read several books by Sittenfeld, and she is unrelenting in her skewering of people across social millieus. I loved her collection of stories Prep, and even more so her fictionalized version of Laura Bush, American Wife.  Eligible would be a great gift for the holiday season.

Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs is a very different and somber book. It's the one that I'm going to re-read, to buy for other reading friends and to recommend to my book club.

The Little Red Chairs is the story of an Irish woman's life that is changed forever when a healer moves to her small town.  The woman, Fidelma,  falls in love with the healer only to later learn that he is a Bosnian war criminal. The Guardian describes this book as "a chilling masterpiece," to which I agree. I love O'Brien's prose, her attention to detail, and her masterful control of the story's twists and turns as Fidelma travels from Ireland to London, and then into the countryside and final to the Hague. The story is both painfully personal and also global, delving into moral questions about evil.

I recently listened to Eleanor Wachtel's May 2016 interview with O'Brien. O'Brien says she wonders if people such as the Bosnian war criminal, who is based on Radovan Karadzic, were always evil. "We ask that questions through time," she says, "but you never get an answer... Those who do these things have one thing in common, they deny. They believe they are the wronged one." O'Brien says, that "It's mad or it's a cunning so awful, that either way it's unpardonable." In the novel, Fidelma says to the accused, " I wish you were mad." It would make it easier for Fidelma to understand the atrocities committed if he were crazy. Ultimately, the novel offers no easy answers.

I also read and enjoyed O'Brien's memoir, Country Girl, her story of growing up in Ireland, and her experience of London in the 1960's. O'Brien's work was banned, burned and denounced when it was published because it often depicted young women who wished to flee their small towns and families, and because of their frank sexual longings. O'Brien herself was condemned for pursuing the kind of adventures her male contemporaries sought out. O'Brien writes brilliantly and the quality of her work has withstood these early barriers. Country Girl is an interesting testament to both the childhood she wishes to escape and the fascinating life she later lived.

In the stack of books I'm hoping to get into next is:
Helen Humphrey's The River
Kate Taylor's Serial Monogamies
Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing 


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.