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. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Booker Long List

I didn’t intend to read through the The Booker Prize Longlist this past summer but when I saw I’d already read several of the titles on the list, I felt I had a manageable task. I’d heard of several of the books already through Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is my favourite book on the list so far. Its the story of a young British black woman who works for a famous singer, Amy. When Amy starts doing volunteer work in Africa, the narrator (unnamed in the story) is forced to think about white privilege and how well-intentioned work can quickly morph into a new kind of twisted colonialism. It was refreshing to read the voice of a Black woman. Other books with black female narrators I enjoyed are Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me and Ya Gyasi’s Homecoming.

Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railway is one woman’s journey escaping from slavery. This slave narrative is jolted into a new form by the steampunk arrival of a literal underground railway. Cora, a runaway slave, journey through the states allows us to see the varieties of slavery, from a seemingly safe model city in South Carolina, to the burning of a black community in Oklahoma.  Although the book is rife with violence, the possibility of Cora moving (yet again) lends small glimmers of hope.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West also uses a supernatural device as a metaphor, this time, for the immigration experience. In an unnamed Muslim country two young people, Nadia and Saeed, begin a relationship just a as a military regime takes over their country. With the help of a fixer, they open a door from their country and arrive in another. They travel first to a refugee camp in Greece, then to England, and finally to the US. The doors expedite the story, but also replicate the sense of immediate change immigrants experience as they find themselves in radically different places. While the book is about the tension of being an illegal immigrant, it is also about the tensions of migration. Hamsin writes, “… for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” This made me think of my grandparents leaving Russia and the families they never saw again. Exit West is short, lyrical and will stay with me for a long time. (It also has a really pretty cover.)  
Next on my list is Solar Bones by Mike McCormick and Lincoln in the Bardo. I love George Saunder’s short stories and I’m sure Lincoln won’t disappoint.
My only qualms with the Booker List (other than Zadie Smith didn’t make the short list) is that Hari Kunzu’s White Tears is not on the list. While I really enjoyed the other books and would recommend them highly, White Tears is the only book this year that I read twice, sought out author reviews, insisted my husband read and tried to foist on my neighbours. I loved this book because I was confused by this book and it made me think, and think again.
The novel is about a young white man named Seth from a modest background whose wealthy friend Carter collects black music. When Seth records a man singing in New York on the street he thinks nothing of it, but when Carter fixes it up to sound like an old record and then puts in on the internet under the name Charlie Shaw, Seth’s world starts to implode. A blue’s collector claims that Charlie Shaw was a real person and Seth is drawn into the world of the black south where depression-era indentured prisoners endure a slave-like existence.
The book's characters start to blur in ways that suggest the violence done to the black community eventually comes to harm the white community too. Yet I'm still not sure what it means when an author of colour writes a book called White Tears? Is he being sincere that this white protagonist is really crying for the legacy of hurt against black people, or are white tears tongue-in-cheek? I still don’t know, and I don’t want anyone to tell me either.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

More Victorian Reading

I didn't get very far reading Russian novels this spring. Instead, I seem to be drawn back into the world of Victorian literature. I'm currently reading (and loving) EM Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread. Not only do I love the story- such outrage over Lilia Herriton's marriage to a younger Italian man- but I also love the title, which is from Alexander Pope's Essay On Criticism, "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Earlier in the spring I also enjoyed Claire Harman's biography Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart. Usually I find biographies offer too many details about parts of their subjects lives that don't interest me, but in this book I was fascinated by all aspects of Bronte's short life, from her experiences at boarding school, to her unrequited love with her Belgian tutor, and her adventures in publishing, both as Currer Bell and under her own name. Although I knew all the Bronte children died young and under tragic circumstances, I hadn't realized Charlotte had buried all of her sisters at such young ages, and I hadn't realized that Branwell Bronte, had died of alcohol and drug addiction. I also thought Charlotte hadn't died of tuberculosis like her sisters, Anne and Emily. Instead she died of severe morning sickness leading to dehydration, an ailment suffered by many women, including Kate Middleton. What a short and tragic life!

You can listen to Eleanor Wachtel's excellent interview with Claire Harman on Writers and Company. And if you haven't yet seen the 2011 version of  Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, you can watch a clip of it here. The IMDB description of the film is as deliciously dramatic as the book itself: "a mousy governess softens the heart of her employer only to find out he is hiding a terrible secret."

For more Bronte reading, I also recommend Lena Coakley's World of Ink and Shadow. This YA novel is based on the teenage lives of four of the Bronte Siblings, Anne, Emily, Branwell and Charlotte. The Bronte siblings are well known for their published works, but also for the childhood writings, largely of imagined places. Coakley plays with the Bronte juvenilia by having the kids enter into the fictional world of Verdopolis that Branwell and Charlotte created. If you like all things Bronte, and YA fantasy, you might very well enjoy Worlds of Ink and Shadow.   

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Russian Reading List 1

This spring I've been turning my reading attention away from Victorian-era Raj, and slowly focusing on Russia. This, I'm worried, will lead to a lot of depressing reading. If anyone knows about a happy Russian book, please let me know. It's with a certain trepidation that I start reading books that I feel to be from the land of bloody revolution, gulags, and the KGB. A google search for "funny Russian novels" came up with Russian classics, but nothing I would call a comedy.
So here's what's on my list.

I heard about Sana Krasikov's The Patriots from my favourite podcast, Unorthodox.  I was intrigued by the book because it's about people who immigrate from Russia, and then go back. Who does that? Lots of people, apparently, and guess what? It never ends well. You may think life in Canada or the US is problematic, or you may have high revolutionary ideals, but returning to the Mother Country is a sure way to become suspect by the Communist government. This is, of course, hindsight, and it does make for excellent fiction. Krasikov's novel is about three generations of Russians who return. I'm looking forward (sort of) to reading about the Cold War years, and about  current life in Russia.

Next on my list is Eva Stachniak's The Chosen Maiden. This historical novel takes place before and during World War One, earlier than the time period I'm interested in, but it's about Bronia and Vaslav Nijinsky, famous Russian dancers. I love a book about dance and this one is even blurbed by Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of one of my favourite dance books, The Painted Girls. This historical novel promises to shed light on the remarkable career of Bronia Nijinsky and the role politics played in her career. (I'm guessing being a ballerina in Communist times wasn't fun. Sigh.)

Okay, this is off topic of Russian books, but it's always good to talk about dance. I've endured many terrible dance movies with bad plots and poor acting- injured dancers, dancers with unreliable partners, choreographers who just don't understand- but if you want to watch a fantastic dance film, check out Ballet 422 on Netflix. It's a documentary of the New York City Ballet's 422nd original ballet choreographed by Justin Peck. I loved the way the film takes the viewer from the original ideas behind the choreography and then through rehearsals, costuming, lighting, to the final performance. Justin Peck is also kinda dreamy. Please enjoy his ballet "The Times Are Racing," filmed in the NY subway system.

One of my favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible also had a great show about Russia recently. 99% Invisible bills itself as the podcast about the "unnoticed architecture and design that shapes our world." I've learned about the US postal service, the urban planning of Salt Lake City, and my favourite episode, a phone booth in the Mojave Desert. In the episode, The Falling of the Lenins, old statues of Lenin are taken down in Kiev, Ukraine and other Ukrainians cities, revealing generational gaps and fissures in attitudes towards the Ukraine's Soviet past. While listening to it in the car, a small voice complained from the back seat, "Why are we always listening to things from Russia?" I had a huge flash back to myself complaining to my father about his obsession with Russian history. I didn't have an answer for my son at the time, but I'll be formulating one as I start reading about Russia, and when I eventually get to reading about Russian Jews, and just maybe, Russian Jews who decide to leave Canada and go back to Russia.

Oh wait, I just remembered a novel by a Russian author that isn't depressing. In fact, it is quite funny. David Bezmogis' Natasha and Other Stories is the story of Mark Berman and his parents, who have fled Riga for Toronto.  And, not only is Natasha a great read, but now it's a film. Even if the film does have a darker side- Mark's new cousin turns out to have a double life as a sex-worker- the trailer makes me long for the kind of summer where you ride your bike aimlessly, smoke cigarettes by a pool at night, and have few obligations. Yes, I'm reading for summer, or at least spring-like weather.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Launch for The Most Dangerous Thing

Awhile ago I launched my book, The Most Dangerous Thing, at Novel Idea bookstore, here in Kingston, ON. Lots of my friends came out to celebrate me, and for the first time my sons were old enough to come to the launch. I was supposed to post this ages ago, but life caught up with me, and I'm only sharing this now. Sigh. I'd still like to share the introduction I gave to the novel.

My boys are sitting in the front on the left. My reading must have been scintillating to them because one is very interested in his cookie, and the other is reading a Star Wars book instead of listening to me!

Good evening everyone. Thanks for coming out to join me in launching

The Most Dangerous Thing. This is a YA novel about a teenage girl growing up in Vancouver named Syd who suffers from a debilitating anxiety. Syd is also fighting a secret battle against depression. Syd believes she can cope with her mental health problems herself, but as the book progresses, Syd realized that she really needs some help.

I decided to write about mental health because I realized so many people, both friends and family, and also my students, were coping with some serious mental health issues. And mostly, no one was talking about their problems. It's my hope that teens suffering from depression might pick up a copy of The Most Dangerous Thing, and be able to relate to, and seek help if they need it.
The book is dedicated to my sister Marcy, partly because she's my sister and she's great, but also because she is a mental health nurse. During the writing of this book we had several long talks about mental health and she answered some of my questions from a clinical perspective.

The book is also dedicated to my Gibridge sisters, who are my neighbours. When my husband and I bought our house ten years ago, I knew we were moving to a great neighbourhood, but I didn't realize how many of my neighbours would also become my close friends. In particular I'd like to say thank you to Jen Davidson-Harden who also answered many of my questions about teen mental health.

This is me blessing the book: Please sell well!
I didn't want to invite everyone here tonight to read from a depressing section of my book, so I'm going to read from another part of the book that highlights some of the other challenges Syd faces. There's a cute boy that likes Syd, but Syd's not sure how people with anxiety talk to boys. Syd's anxiety about relationships and her sexuality is compounded when her sister Abby decides to put on The Vagina Monologues at her their high school. As you might imagine, Syd thinks this is a terrible idea!

I chose this section to read because I thought it would be fun to highlight the differences between extroverted and introverted siblings. In the book, Syd wonders if there's a support group available for introverted people with extroverted siblings. Siblings with extremely different personalities tends to be a theme in my family. My parents are very different from each other, as are my sister and I and my husband and his brother. This has continued in my own children. (At this point my boys were pointing and giggling at each other.) I'm pleased that my kids are old enough to be here tonight.

Oh! How fun is it to say 'vagina' in public?!
My introduction ended with a set-up of the scene I read, which was about Syd's sister announcing her intention to put on The Vagina Monologues. According to my friend Steve, I said the word vagina eleven times, which is probably eleven times more than it has ever been said in Novel Idea. I'm good with that, in fact I think we should all be saying vagina, or whatever you like to call female genitalia, a little more often.

If you're intrigued to read more about the book, please head to your local Indie book store, or you can find it online at most major retailers. You can also listen to a recording from the launch at Finding A Voice on CFRC. Many thanks to Bruce Kauffman for recording the launch, for his great weekly show and for all he does for literature in Kingston.

Friday, March 10, 2017

On Tour!

To celebrate the publication of my YA novel The Most Dangerous Thing, I will be on a Book Blog Tour all next week. If you follow the tour you can read reviews and interviews and even a guest post. Here are the dates.

March 14th 

March 15th

March 16th

March 17th

March 18th

March 19th

Many thanks to The Fabulous Flying Book Club for setting up my tour!