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. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017


This week I found out that an excerpt from a memoir I’m writing will be published this winter in the Canadian journal, Prairie Fire. The story is about my experiences in Rishikesh, India. It’s part of a larger work called Searching For Rob, about falling in love with this guy named Rob, going our separate ways, and then spending the rest of my trip trying to find him again. Spoiler alert: Reader, I married him.

Although I’m excited about publishing a memoir excerpt, I’ve also had to think a little about what it means to write about myself. While the book details my spiritual and emotional development, it’s also one big booty call. While I’m not worried about exposing myself, and Rob approves of the story, I decided it was it was a good idea to send the excerpt to my parents before it was published. My poor parents! When I was traveling around India I gave no thought to their anxieties. I emailed them regularly, but gave them no details about what I was actually doing. At all. For example, I never told them about the day I rode a motorcycle without a helmet, or hiked alone in the mountains, or the time I arrived in Nepal without a guidebook or any Nepali money. As an adult with kids of my own (whom I of course worry about), I feel just a wee bit bad for my parents reading about my adventures on motorcycles with tattooed strangers. 

Another challenge of writing a memoir is that you have to believe that your story is interesting and worth saying. When I write fiction I make up the stories and I get to craft a compelling narrative. With non-fiction, I’m working with the conceit that I’ve lived an interesting life. I do think I have had some exciting adventures, but I also worry I’m a terrible bore. Imagine being stuck in an elevator with someone who thinks their life story is fascinating and wants to tell you the whole story in minute detail for hours on end? That’s what writing a memoir sometimes feels like.

Hopefully there’s balance between these two, and , and maybe more importantly, a really good story to tell. I didn’t just chase Rob across India, I also learned about Buddhism, met interesting people, struggled with my idea of self, and saw some amazing sights. This is what I have to imagine when I’m writing, otherwise I fall into the chaos of self-aggrandizement and self-hating. It’s odd how closely connected these are.

I’ve accumulated a list of books for reading and re-reading about India to help me write about my trip. Before I went to India, I read some fantastic fiction about the subcontinent: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Tales from Firozsha Baag; Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy; Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children; and VS Naipaul's A Million Mutinies Now.

In contrast, most of my reading during my trip was unplanned and spontaneous, the kind of reading I rarely do these days. Finding books to read in India in 1998 meant trading with other travelers or perusing used book sho
ps. Everything I read was gift. I stumbled upon Lolita while waiting for Rob in Nepal. Toni Morrison’s Beloved helped me through a bout of illness in Varansi. Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury made a very long train ride feel shorter. 

I'm hoping to re-read a few books specifically about India that I discovered during the trip to help remember my experiences. Herman Hesse’s Siddartha reinforced everything I was learning about Buddhism and meditation. Along with this, I think it’s high time I re-read Goenka’s The Art of Living. Goenka is the founder of the Vipasanna meditation method I learned about India. To balance these out, Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola should throw some cold water on any enlightening thoughts. Her book details the pitfalls of Westerns descending upon India to find the spiritual guidance that was lacking in their own lives, and explores the devastating impact that foreigners had on rural Indian communities as their lives became commodities for Western consumption. I remember reading it in shock and dismay. I just wanted to meditate and learn, but the book changed the way I viewed myself and traveling in India. 

Although I don’t have the massive guide book I traveled with, my book-loving (hoarding?) friend Ada has lent me two 1990’s guide books to India. They are in good shape, but slightly dirty. I handle them tentatively, as if they might still bare some of the illness and dirt I remember from the trip. The grubby cover of Ada’s Lonely Planet India reminds me of my friend James’ copy that he accidentally dropped in the muddy and very polluted shores of the Ganges in Varanasi.

Lastly, I have my journal from the trip, a remarkably pristine spiral ring journal with a Miffy cover that I bought at the Japanese book store Kinokuniya in Kanazawa, Japan. In the front cover is a list of the books I read during the trip, and in the back is a list of Japanese and Hebrew phrases I picked up from other travelers, important words like "samim," Hebrew for drugs, and "oshaberi," Japanese for chatterbox. There's a also list of the US traveler cheques I exchanged into rupees. (Apparently I lived on less than 500 US$  per month!)  Mostly I wrote about things that seemed unimportant to what I remember from the trip, but one thing is clear: I was hopelessly in love with Rob. 

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.