Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cover Reveal- The Most Dangerous Thing!

I got the most exciting package from my publisher this week: copies of my YA novel, The Most Dangerous Thing. I was quite pleased. Okay, I was actually thrilled! After years of hard work, there’s nothing like holding the physical object of your story in your hands. No longer disjointed in Scrivener, or marked up with Track Changes, it’s now a real thing. (Okay, there’s also some sheer terror lurking behind the joy, but mostly it’s a moment for happiness.)

Instead of writing these days, I’ve been working on book publicity. This means contacting magazines, blogs,  podcasts, local newspapers and telling them all about the book. And, it also means updating my web presence with my beautiful new cover. Getting a book cover is an interesting process. Someone else, (the art director) reads your book and comes up with an image that represents what you’ve written and what will help sell your book. My books has actually had two covers. Here's the first:

I really loved this when I got it. I loved the lettering, the colours and the clouds that represented my main character' Syd's mental health issues. I also loved the cyclist because Syd spends a lot of time on her bike. This first cover came to me mid-summer right in the midst of my own biking obsession. I biked over 600 km this season, mainly near my cottage, which is quite hilly. When I’m on my bike, I spend a lot of time thinking about future travel fantasies, books and my characters. Biking is a great way to sort out book-related problems. (I used to talk through these problems out loud  on my bike, but I was swallowing too many insects.)

This is me, with my bike, at my cottage August 2016. Biking is a fantastic way to make yourself ache all over and forget whatever ails you.

Just when I was really starting to fall in love with my book cover I got an an email from my publisher with a new cover. The first cover was skewing too young and so they went with another approach. It's quite different, but beautiful too, and probably speaks more accurately to some of the sexual content of the book. I was happy they kept the funky script for the title.

So here it is, the cover of The Most Dangerous Thing. The publication date is March 7. More details about the book, launch party and readings coming soon.

Monday, February 6, 2017

My Writing Group - On My Team

Writing is often a lonely thing. With the exception of the intense times when I work with my editor and we correspond frequently, most of my writing moments are spent alone. I absolutely treasure my solitude for getting the words on the paper, but the rest of the business of writing (publicity, wondering if what you wrote is any good, waiting for reviews, coping with endless rejection) can be very isolating. Luckily for me, I have the most amazing writing group. Ever. I don’t even live in the same city as my group, and they're still amazing.

I met my group through the Toronto Public Library's Writer-in-Residence Program which at the time was led by author Cynthia Holz. This is a great program if you live in the GTA. Here in Kingston, writers can meet and get feed-back from authors through the Writer-in-Residence program at Queen's University, or with the Poet-in-Residence at the Kingston Library.
Cynthia met with each of us individually, and then invited some of us to participate in a six-week seminar where we had the opportunity to give feed-back to each other on short assignments. At the time, I had just moved to Toronto and didn’t know very many people, so this was a great opportunity for me. I was also dying to be a writer, but didn’t know how to meet other writers or get published. At the end of the six weeks, I asked if anyone wanted to continue as a group, and seven of us did. I offered my large, decrepit, chilly apartment, and once a month the others trekked up to Melrose Avenue to look at each other’s work. We didn’t know each other at all at the beginning, but gradually through reading each other’s work, we became friends. We spanned over fifty years in age, originated from four different countries, claimed as many different religious and cultural heritages, and came to the group with a variety of personal and professional strengths.
That was almost twenty years ago. The group has seen marriages, babies, divorce, illness and death. Two of us have moved away, but still visit. One of us, moved away and then moved back. We lost Anne Warrick to cancer in 2014 and still miss her very much. Through all of this, there have been writing successes. Ania Szado has published two books Beginning of Was and Studio St-Ex. Elsie Sze has written Ghost Cave: A Novel of Sarawak, The Heart of the Buddha and Hui Gui: A Chinese StoryDianne Scott has published short stories in The Toronto Star, Taddle Creek, The New Quarterly and others, and has an awesome book set on Toronto Island that I’m sure will be in print soon. For years Elizabeth has taunted us with stories about a monk that keep us hoping for more. Roz Spafford’s poetry collection Requiem won the 2008 Gell Prize. She's currently working on a memoir about growing up on a ranch in Northwestern Arizona. Anne Warrick self-published a collection of fascinating  short stories for her grandchildren about growing up in England.
I love my writing group because they always agree to look at things, no matter how long or outlandish (it’s about a girl who hates the Holocaust, it’s about a lesbian governess in colonial India). They put in time and effort to give me constructive feedback to improve my writing. They ask probing questions. They phrase things gently but pointedly. (I wonder if readers will stay with you long enough to get to the “good parts.”) And, they’re excited for my successes, and encouraging through the long stretches of rejection and waiting. They remind me why I wanted to do this crazy writing thing in the first place: because it is good to go into story and reshape what we know about the world on the page.

 So here’s to writing groups and good friends. If you write, I hope you have people to send your work to for feedback and support. If you don’t, take a course somewhere - I loved Humber College- hope to meet some good people, and then rope them into being on your team for life. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Winter TBR

I've just gone through a spate of book ordering and buying and my TBR pile has all of a sudden grown astronomically. I thought I'd share some of the books I'm looking forward to reading this winter.

I'm currently reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railway. I heard about this book not because it's an Oprah Pick, but because the amazing Eleanor Wachtel interviewed him on her show, Writers and Company. Although I was slightly suspicious of the idea of the underground railroad being a real train, as opposed to a series of people and safe houses, this doesn't take away from the book. In fact, I'm sure this sort-of historical novel/genre-bending picaresque adventure will be one of my favourite reads this year.

I'm also looking forward to reading two Geoff Dyer books, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, and But Beautiful, A Book About Jazz. The Yoga book is a travel story, sort of. Dyer travels from place to place, (probably not doing yoga) and muses on journeys both exterior and interior. Since the Lieberman Smiths actually have some big travel plans coming up (2019!), I'm going to read this not with jealousy, but with my own future wanderings in mind. 

Forget Amazon or Goodreads algorithms, most of my reading comes from other people's suggestions. My former professor at the University of Windsor, Dale Jacobs, posted his top ten reads of 2016 on FB, and although it means I'll be a year behind in my reading, I'm looking forward to digging into Maggie O'Farrell's This Must Be The Place. I know very little about this book except it's about a man trying to find his place in the world.

When I'm on vacation, I like rummaging through second-hand bookstores for classics I've never read. I was in Toronto over the holidays and I picked up a copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run. I can just hear the chorus of "What, you've-never-read-any-Updike? No, I've also never read any Bellow either, and I haven't delved into Russian lit the way I should, but Updike I shall read soon.

 Just when my list was looking like it had more male authors on it than female, Marjorie Ingall's Mamaleh Know Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, came in the mail. I'm not sure I've ever read a parenting book (perhaps I should?) but Mamaleh looks both entertaining as well as instructive. Kudos to whoever designed the beautiful cover. (Jealous!) If Ingall's books is half as cheeky and interesting as her articles for Tablet, and her blog Sorry Watch, I'm sure I'll love it.   

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Judaism is a Tool!

This week was a wake-up jolt. The Lieberman-Smith family returned to our regular non-holiday life: work, school, meetings, Nature Club, soccer, piano, a snow day, and Hebrew school. Aside from writing books and teaching almost full time, I also teach Hebrew school. That's right, not only do I write and teach five days a week, but Saturday mornings I get up and teach Hebrew school to my two kids and ten others at our Reform temple. This is both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. Each week I get to create a tiny Jewish oasis of community. For the years my kids and I go to Hebrew school, that's what Shabbat means to us. (In another lifetime I'm hoping Shabbos will also involve rest!)

I teach the program so I can create a meaningful Jewish experience for my children. I didn't want their Judaism to be, as one friend put it, only bagel and Holocaust. So what is important to me as a Jewish educator? I teach Hebrew reading, tfillah (prayer), holidays, bible stories, and about tzedakah(good deeds) and mitzvot. (There's also a healthy dose of snack, socializing and crafts.)

Every once in awhile I stand back and think about why I want my kids and students to be Jewish. I want them to use Judaism to celebrate family, create community, do Gimilut Hasidim (acts of loving kindness), and also as a way to approach the sacred and divine in life. I want them to know how to pray in Hebrew as a way to express the happiness and sadness they'll encounter in life. Is that a big goal to achieve in two-and-a-half hours once a week? You bet.

Recently I heard an interview on Unorthodox that put what I was feeling into words. If you haven't listened to Unorthodox yet, I suggest you momentarily stop reading and check it out. Unorthodox is a wildly entertaining, irreverent and frequently enlightening weekly Jewish podcast  from Tablet magazine. For someone like who me who lives far away from major Jewish centers, it's a fantastic way to be  engulfed in all things Jewy. For example, where else am I going to hear interviews with author and filmmaker David Bezmogis, musings on Drake's Jewishness, Holocaust puns, or interviews with divinity students who analyze Harry Potter as a sacred text? How else will I possibly know if there are or were Jewish pirates? If that doesn't move you, let it be said that Unorthodox takes Leonard Cohen very seriously. And that should be enough to move you.

As I said Unorthodox is also enlightening, and that brings me back teaching Hebrew school. A few episodes back the Unorthodox crew interviewed Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, the spiritual leader of Beacon Hebrew Alliance of New York. He's a rabbi interested in bringing Judaism out of the shul and into the daily life of  his congregants. In the interview Spodek said that, "Part of the problem with American Judaism is that we think Judaism is the goal not the tool." If kids are bored in services or disconnected from Jewish traditions, why would they be invested in learning that tool? I agree with Spodek that Judaism needs to engage children and be relevant to them. Even more so, I agree with Spodek that kids should be Jewish so that they have tools to  have a sense of awe and wonder, and to express frustration or hope. Being Jewish because you mother said you should, or because Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews is to miss the whole point of what Judaism, and other religions too, can do for you.

Tibetan Prayer Wheels
When I was much younger I travelled in Northern India and Nepal for several months. I visited a lot of Buddhist temples with prayer wheels. Pilgrims circumnavigate the temples and spin these prayer wheels as they walk, and as the wheels turn, the prayers written on them float up to the gods. As I spun those wheels, I couldn't help singing parts of the Jewish liturgy. The words rose up into my mouth and I sang. It was how I expressed the beauty and wonder of what I saw as I walked. And I was thankful for the knowledge of how to pray.

Before Hebrew school broke for the holidays, we had a service with our once-a-month rabbi that happened to fall on the same day as Amnesty International's Write-for Rights Letter Writing Campaign. I'd planned to write letters with my kids that morning as part of our Tikkun Olam (healing the earth) and social action curriculum. This term I'm proud that my students (and their families) collected food and volunteered at the Kingston food bank, and donated money and items for Syrian Refugees coming to our city. When preparing for our Amnesty lesson, I did some research on Human Rights to share with my students. It occurred to me that these rights are almost identical to the list of things we are thankful for in the Baruch Hashchar, a prayer chanted at the beginning of the morning service. I quickly decided to re-write the prayer to reflect the human rights we enjoy in Canada. The whole congregation joined me in praying our Human Rights Baruch Hashachar, and at least for me, it was an incredible connection between being thankful, being present, and helping heal the world a little bit.  And these are also the Jewish tools I wish to impart to my children and students.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Few Books, A Little Soup

Hello Everyone, 

This holiday season other than spending time with my family and friends, I've been most excited about spending some time at home on my couch with a good book. The couch I'm sitting on now is an old one from my parent's house. It used to be crushed blue velvet, but it was reupholstered in white back in the 90's. It's more of a creamy colour now, with doggy highlights on the back.  The springs are shot, and it's not great for my back, but it's the best place to curl up in my house, away from the downstairs frenzy of Lego and Ipad. 

Over the holidays I'll be reading Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing (for pleasure) and re-reading William Dalrymple's City of Djinns (for research and pleasure). I may also tackle Dominique Fortier's Au Peril e La Mer, in French. Reading in my second language is a HUGE challenge for me, so we'll see how that goes. So far I've only read books about Chess, Pokemon and Tintin to my kids in French.  This holiday I'll also be gorging on this amazing Mushroom Kale soup I discovered at Farm Boy (see recipe at blog end).

I read some really amazing books in 2016.  I've written about some of them already, so I won't mention them again, but here are some other books I absolutely loved this year.

Martine Leavitt's Calvin

Calvin won the Canadian Governor General's Award for Young Adult literature this year, and it is most definitely deserving of the honour. The novel tells the story of a teenage boy named Calvin who suffers a schizophrenic episode and becomes convinced Hobbs of the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip is talking to him. He believes he'll only be cured of his mental illness if cartoonist Bill Watterson will write another Calvin and Hobbs cartoon. The real Calvin sets out across Lake Erie mid-winter to walk to Bill Watterson's home town.

I have to admit when I read the description of the novel, I wasn't that interested. I vaguely remember Calvin and Hobbs cartoons, but my friend and author YS Lee was so passionate about this book, I had to read it. This isn't just a novel about mental health, or delusion. It's about friendship and philosophy and human kindness and the things real friends do to help others. And it's also about the power books have over readers to influence their lives. As an author who isn't always sure where my books end up, this was tremendously interesting to me. 

Jane Gardam's Old Filth

This was actually another YS Lee suggestion. (Thanks Ying!) Old Filth is the nickname of a British lawyer who retires to the British countryside, after a prestigious career as a lawyer in Hong Kong. The novel is not just a portrait of one man's career, but of a century of British empire. Filth was born in the heyday of the British in Malaysia, schooled in pre-war England, an then comes back to England as Hong Kong returns to China. The best part of the book is Jane Gardam's no-nonsense prose and sharp clarity.  I also enjoyed that Gardam wrote two other books, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends, as part of the Old Filth series.

Farm Boy's Mushroom Kale Soup
2 Tablespoons oil
3/4 cup Spanish onion, chopped
3/4 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup celery, chopped
one Yukon potato, chopped
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 pound mushrooms (454 grams), chopped
3 cups water
one can  coconut milk
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
one head of curly kale, chopped and stems removed

Saute onions, carrots and celery in oil for five minutes. Add potato, garlic and mushrooms and saute five minutes more. Add water and coconut  milk, and bring to a boil. Simmer until vegetables tender. Add kale and cook five minutes or until kale wilts. Blend with immersion blender or transfer to a blender.  Enjoy with the remnants of 2016, or the new days of 2017.

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