Category Archives: Books

A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

This blew my mind

and Oliver Sacks could probably tell me how it happened.

Six of his books are now part of this collage design.

I am cucumber, hear me roar: Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

I always thought I’d be one of those mothers who set a balanced meal on the table and felt her job was done, but in this too, as with so much else about parenting,  I’d underestimated the intensity of my emotional investment. Eating doesn’t come easy to my 5-year-old, who sees mealtimes as a detour on the way to fun things. My solution is to lie (a lot). My son has been hoaxed and coaxed into trying different foods with the promise of superpowers (carrots give you x-ray eyes) and brain function enhancement (okra makes you better at math). Also:  variably-colored poo (beetroot).

So I was very delighted to chance upon Fast Food–a picture book showing that veggies and fruit can be fun, fun, fun.

Fast Food features fruit and vegetables artfully carved into different forms of transport–blimps and bicycles and submarines and all things between.  Given the natural affinity between kids and fast-moving objects, this concept is an obvious winner. While my son loved the banana airplane and the radish Santa on his red pear sleigh (Santa’s beard is made with cauliflower), I was very taken with  the snow pea skateboard, the orange wheelchair, and the okra rocket zooming towards an onion-ringed Saturn.  None of the ingredients have been colored or tinkered with in any way apart from some judicious carving, and little ones will have great fun recognizing the fruits and vegetable that make up these pictures.

There’s very little text, and what is there is in clear unfussy rhymes, with a calm good sense shining through each page.

“Sometimes you’ll want to travel far./Maybe then you’ll choose a car.
It might be wise if more of us/would ride together in a bus!”

And I love, love  Freymann’s gentle, playfully composed sculptures. Here’s a big yellow school bus.

This post obviously cries out for more images, but I can’t find any  via google search, so you’ll have to go to amazon.com and check the “Click to Look Inside” link to see more. And they are all awesome, from scallion man (who actually looks rather like Fido Dido)  to red pepper fire truck guys. Freymann is fiendishly talented–give him a putty knife and some eggplant and potato, and you’d probably have an edible Mona Lisa in an hour. He’s authored 7 other books featuring carved food, and if they are anything like this one, I’m in for a treat. Oh, if only all fast food were Fast Food.

Giveaway: A ticket to hear Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston, James Bartleman in Toronto

I am SO THRILLED to offer readers of this blog a chance to witness three literary superheroes in action. In association with World Literacy Canada, I’m giving one person a $60 ticket to see Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston, and James Bartleman read at the Kama Benefit Reading Series.

World Literacy Canada is a Toronto-based NGO supporting women and children’s literacy through non-formal education programs in South Asia.  Their initiatives include adult literacy programs, community libraries, skills training (such as tailoring), and much more.  The Kama Reading Series is WLC’s flagship fundraising event. The first Kama reading featured writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood; 2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of this  event. This giveaway is for the last event in the series, and will be held at 6:30 at the Park Hyatt Toronto on May 30.

(You may remember that I’d done a blog giveaway earlier this year for the January event. )

TO ENTER THIS GIVEAWAY:

Please leave a comment letting me know you’d like to win a ticket, along with your email address.

This giveaway is about promoting WLC’s work, so we’ll all be very happy if you like WLC on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/worldlit ) and  follow them on Twitter (@worldlit). And if you’d share news about this event and giveaway on your blogs and on social media, well, more good karma will flow your way.

Earlier this year, WLC announced to widespread dismay that their CIDA funding had been cut. So, please do check out how you can help WLC continue their important work–you can donate, volunteer, or choose to help in some other way. (Contact them here.)

Small print:

1.  This giveaway closes on May 18, 2012.

2. One winner will be picked by random number generator. If you have left a comment but are not in the Toronto area, or do not wish to enter the draw for any other reason,  please mention this information in your comment.

3. World Literacy will mail the winner’s ticket to a Canadian mailing address, or will hand it over at the venue, depending on the winner’s preference.

4. I have no professional or personal involvement with World Literacy, and am running this giveaway in order to promote a cause I support.  For all legalese, please contact World Literacy Canada.

Here’s a  brief note about each of the featured authors

Rohinton Mistry: India-born, Canada-based Mistry is the author of Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), Such a Long Journey (1991), A Fine Balance (1995), Family Matters (2002), and The Scream (2006). He’s received too many honors to note here.

Wayne Johnston is the author of eight celebrated novels. Johnston’s fiction deals primarily with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, often in a historical setting. His breakthrough novel, 1998’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, was acclaimed for its historical portrayal of Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood, and was chosen for the 2003 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition.

James Bartleman is a Canadian diplomat and author who was Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario from 2002 to 2007. He initiated the Lieutenant-Governor’s Book Program in 2004, and has collected over 1.2 million books, donated from all corners of the province from both institutions and individuals, to stock school libraries in First Nations communities.

(All writer bios from Wikipedia.)

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping.

***

Update: The winner is entrant #5, Mayank Bhatt, chosen by http://www.random.org/ Congratulations, Mayank! And thanks to all those who entered!

Random Bookish Stuff #2

Sloughing off my dealings with ethically-challenged magazines and focusing on my upcoming reviews.

1. My review of TOK 5, a collection of stories and poems about immigrant Toronto, will appear in the forthcoming issue of This, a progressive Canadian magazine. Contributors to the anthology include M.G.Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Shyam Selvadurai, Nalo Hopkinson, and several talented newbies. TOK 5 is published by Diaspora Dialogues, an organization which “supports the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama that reflect the complexity of the city [Toronto] through the eyes of its richly diverse writers. Publishing and mentoring activities, as well as a monthly multidisciplinary performance festival, help encourage the creation of a literature that is vibrant and inclusive, while bringing these works to a wide audience.”

What’s not to love?

2. The thing about books is that they’re made from mashed-up trees.  Eco-Libris is running a campaign to promote green books by reviewing “books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. [Their] goal is to use the power of the internet and social media to promote “green” books and increase the awareness of both readers and publishers to the way books can be printed printed in an eco-friendly manner.” so, on Nov. 10, “200 bloggers will take a stand to support books printed on environmental paper by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 such books.”

I’m happy to be part of that multitude, and I’ll be reviewing Can’t Lit (ECW Press), a collection of edgy Canadian short stories. Yes, edgy can appear in the same sentence as CanLit, except the latter’s then called Can’t Lit. See?

3. I’m going to be reviewing Fauna by Alyssa York for Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.  From the publisher’s site: “The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.”

Damn, I wish they hadn’t made a point of mentioning Howell’s handsomeness. I suspect the book is a lot better than this sappy summary would have us believe.

4. I’m about a third into, and thus far enjoying, Aatish Taseer’s novel The Temple-Goers, a book firmly set in Delhi, a city I’ve spent much time in and mostly dislike. From the publisher: “A young man returns home to Delhi after several years abroad and resumes his place among the city’s cosmopolitan elite – a world of fashion designers, media moguls and the idle rich. But everything around him has changed – new roads, new restaurants, new money, new crime – everything, that is, except for the people, who are the same, only maybe slightly worse. Then he meets Aakash, a charismatic and unpredictable young man on the make, who introduces him to the squalid underside of this sprawling city. Together they get drunk and work out, visit temples and a prostitute, and our narrator finds himself disturbingly attracted to Aakash’s world. “

I’m deleting the rest of the summary because it includes a spoiler. Whoever wrote it was really idiotic inconsiderate.

5. Just finished reading Laila Lalami’s beautifully-written Secret Son. From the publisher: “Youssef el-Mekki, a young man of nineteen, is living with his mother in the slums of Casablanca when he discovers that the father he believed to be dead is, in fact, alive and eager to befriend and support him. Leaving his mother behind, Youssef assumes a life he could only dream of: a famous and influential father, his own penthouse apartment, and all the luxuries associated with his new status. His future appears assured until an abrupt reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends, where a fringe Islamic group, known simply as the Party, has set up its headquarters. “

Before I write my review, I want to re-read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education–the two books seem intimately connected, and I suspect my piece would be incomplete otherwise.

6. I want to review about 10 other books before the year ends. So, starting today,  I’m not accepting any unsolicited requests for book reviews till next year. Please write to me in Jan. 2011 if you want me to consider reviewing your work.

7. Women’s Web is running a contest for blog posts on your fave female character in fiction.  Easy-peasy, and there are prizes! Visit their site for more information.

University bans Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey

I am the planet’s most lackadaisical blogger, but this made me angry enough to dash off a post NOW. The University of Mumbai has removed Rohinton Mistry‘s Such a Long Journey from its syllabus because of complaints that the book portrayed the Shiv Sena (a right-wing Indian political group) in a poor light. The originators of the complaint? The student wing of the Shiv Sena.

“Following complaints from some BA students about ‘anti-Shiv Sena passages’ in Rohinton Mistry’s 1990 Booker-nominated novel, Such A Long Journey, Aditya [grandson of Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray] convened a meeting of the students wing of his party at Sena Bhavan [...]

Copies of the novel were burnt and a 24-hour notice was given to vice chancellor Dr Rajan Welukar to drop the novel from the second year syllabus.

The very next day the university cravenly bowed down to this demand and issued notices to all colleges dropping the novel from the syllabus, regardless of the fact that it was mid-term, and papers for the first semester were being set.” (From Mumbai Mirror) 

I don’t know where to begin.  Mistry is one of the foremost authors of our generation, notable as much for his humanity as his writing, and to have his work held to ransom by a group of ill-informed,  ill-opined thugs is as almost as maddening as the University’s decision to buckle. I don’t doubt for a minute that the concerned authorities were threatened and bullied into submission, but we are talking about a respected institution of learning here.  From their site: “The University of Mumbai (known earlier as University of Bombay) is one of the oldest and premier Universities in India. It was established in 1857 [...]  and it is one amongst the first three Universities in India.” If they do not have the will or ability to resist, who does?

As a reader, as a writer, as a Mumbai-lover, as someone who respects the book and admires the author (who, incidentally, lives in a neighboring city), as someone who believes education is (or ought to be) fatal to bigotry, I am upset on more counts than I can keep track of. Damn. Just…damn.

UPDATE: Here’s Mistry’s response to the ban, including a gracious thank you to all those stood up for the book.

The Suck Fairy

“The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading—well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the suckiness the first time—or you can say that the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck. The longer the book has been on the shelf unread, the more time she’s had to get into it. The advantage of this is exactly the same as the advantage of thinking of one’s once-beloved ex as having been eaten by a zombie, who is now shambling around using the name and body of the former person. It lets one keep one’s original love clear of the later betrayals.”

Where has this term been all my adult life? Simmering in Jo Walton’s brain, that’s where.

“Suck Fairies travel in battalions. Her biggest siblings are the Racism Fairy, the Sexism Fairy, and the Homophobia Fairy. Here, the thing you have to ask yourself is “How could I have missed that!” and the real answer is you were younger, more naive, less conscious of issues that now loom larger. “

I wish the piece had been edgier, but it’s a must-read, especially if you’re looking to explain a past crush on Biggles, the flying detective.

(Pics from http://www.biggles.info/)