Vegan Secret Supper by Merida Anderson

You can keep your membership to the Bilderberg Group; I’ve finally found a club I’d like to join. The Vegan Secret Supper (VSS) is a dining club run by Canadian chef Mérida Anderson, who engineers awe-inspiring vegan meals. Here’s a sample menu from the VSS Sunday Supper blog.

Back bean soup with coconut cream

Roast baby parsnips with shaved fennel, avocado, cilantro and pine nut parmesan

Hibiscus and beet empenadas with serrano mole, sunflower cream and sweet potato puree

Pecan and fig shortbread with brown rice caramel and chocolate truffle covered in dark chocolate with candied orange and fig preserve.

But the club is restricted (as clubs are), and it’s only the lucky dwellers of Vancouver, New York and Montreal who get to sample these meals. Well, the last two cities are each a seven-hour drive away, and Vancouver might as well be Vanuatu for all the good it does to me, so I asked for a review copy of the VSS cookbook from Arsenal Pulp Press hoping to replicate some recipes in my own kitchen.

On reading this book, it became clear(er) to me why I’ll never find employment as a chef. The meals I cook tend to be ladle-friendly sloppy gloppy one-dish wonders that are really hard to mess up, and when I do, they can be resuscitated with a heartfelt squeeze of lemon and a pat of butter. My food usually tastes pretty good and tends to be very nutritious, but no-one would call it sophisticated or beautiful. Hearty, rustic, comforting, yes, but too many of my dishes resemble a glob of something with chunks of other things poking through.

Vegan Secret Supper insists that the ingredients be thoughtfully chosen and carefully assembled, and the dishes be lovingly prepared. It isn’t a book for novice cooks, and these aren’t meals you dish up while pulling apart Lego with your teeth for your implacable five-year-old.  Anderson’s meals are intelligent, complex, and stunningly plated–the starters and mains are all about this with this and this and this (spiced peanut and yam soup with pickled string beans and sweet coconut bread. Hazelnut-crusted portobellos with caramelized fennel parsnip mash, radicchio marmalade and balsamic port reduction). Also, there’s a lot of while something is happening, do this. Two big danger flags for a lazy, inept cook like me. My husband, however, was completely taken by the recipes and can’t stop admiring their creativity, and he plans to try them out, for he thrives on activities like zesting lemons and marinating ingredients the night before and infusing flavors into oils. (Crazy, right?)

The desserts would be fairly easy for anyone who is familiar with standard baking techniques–it’s then mostly a question of substituting vegan ingredients. (But I’m not a baker–I use my oven mostly for roasting veggies and making lasagna. ) In sum, my dream restaurant would feature just about all of Chef Merida’s dishes, but my kitchen might give it a miss.  What really worked for me was the section on VSS pantry staples. Chipotle-apple reduction, quick pickled beets (yes, quick), and the carrot- tamarind chutney all look achievable and delicious. There was a recipe for sour cream (with coconut cream and lemon) that I know I’ll eat by the bucket.

(A note about this book’s layout: the last recipe book I reviewed was also from Arsenal Pulp, who apparently specialize in cookbooks by beautiful edgy crush-worthy tattooed vegan chefs, but I remember feeling very disappointed that the book had a sparse little clump of photographs of the goodies. This one has photographs galore–and then some more. No complaints at all.)

And best, it’s all vegan! The lack of dairy or eggs becomes inconsequential very soon; who would miss animal ingredients in a menu of such variety and complexity? There are many fun surprises; imagine devouring a crème brûlée only to discover the “cream” is sweet potato.  I love how Anderson elevates humble vegetables– beets, butternut squash and pumpkins all come up trumps  in the most unexpected places.  She uses a lot of fresh herbs and spices–each of these dishes must explode with flavor on your tongue.

I’ve concluded that while I probably won’t actually attempt any of the mains, I’ve definitely found a lot of inspiration. The condiments and ice-creams and soups are all relatively easy, and quite delightful. This book would be a lovely gift for the sort of cook who takes pleasure in the prep work, and it is a pleasure to read on its own terms. But enough with the review! What I really want is a VSS club in Toronto so I can taste Anderson’s cooking. Oh lovely Mérida, won’t you please consider visiting my corner of the vegan world?

The fifth Flavia de Luce: Speaking from Among the Bones

I’m very fond of novels set in rural England, especially when they’re packed with dead bodies and genteel old ladies and vicars and odd-sounding desserts (the chocolate shape!), and so I follow Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series, set in a post-war English village seething with murderous intent below a keep-calm-and-carry-on surface. Flavia is a precocious eleven-year-old whose deep knowledge of chemistry comes in handy for her vocation as an amateur detective. She lives in a decaying manor with her father and her two older sisters, and her relationship with the latter is filled with resentment and fierce love and devilry (their interaction is one of the highlights of this series). I wasn’t entirely taken with the first Flavia book (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)–I often found Flavia irritating, almost verging on caricature, and felt that the emphasis on the Britishness of the setting and principals was overdone. But my grievances didn’t last long, for in the subsequent books, Bradley struck a winning balance between Flavia’s intelligence and her vulnerability as a child unable to fully enter the adult world around her. For instance, in I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Flavia bends her wits to catching the murderer, but she’s also setting a cunning trap for Father Christmas. And the setting doesn’t feel as studiedly British anymore.

In Speaking from Among the Bones (to be released later this month), Flavia is, as usual, sticking her small nose into everything that’s not her business, and this time it’s a saint. It’s the five-hundredth anniversary of Saint Tancred’s death, and the saint’s tomb (in the village churchyard) is being opened for the occasion. But something has jammed the entrance. Being small and bendy and full of ‘satiable curiosity, Flavia volunteers to crawl into the tomb, where she promptly finds the body of the church organist. Who killed Mr. Collicutt, why is he in the saint’s tomb, and why is he wearing a gas mask? The answer takes Flavia through a hunt for a diamond, tin soldiers, secret tunnels, tombs (and sometimes, tunnels through tombs), a person afflicted with leprosy, and much more. Meanwhile, the de Luce family’s finances have dipped dangerously low…

I enjoyed the writing in this installment very much. Bradley is a funny guy, and I think this one is the funniest of the series so far. I spilled my coffee when I read Flavia’s version of  “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.

“We Three Kings of Leicester Square,
Selling ladies underwear,
So fantastic, no elastic,
Only tuppence a pair.”

You hummed this one while reading, didn’t you?

And there are some lovely thoughtful moments–for instance, Flavia, musing about motherhood, remarks it’s often a “a grim old business, and one that could never, really, be shared”; there’s a part of all mothers that is “forever beyond knowing”. And of course, we readers remember at this point that Flavia has never known her dead mother. I’ve really warmed to Flavia’s characterization over the five books–what seemed obnoxious and smug now seems merely spirited and faintly pathetic, and oh, the thought of this bright odd child entering adolescence gives me the shivers for her.

While I did find much to like, I’ve concluded that Bradley’s plotting style is just not my thing. Bradley makes a sort of stew of idiosyncratic characters and period detail and meaty chunks of history, and keeps stirring the pot while adding fanciful new ingredients, and brings it all to a boil with a flourish. The resulting dish will no doubt please many, but the whole thing felt messy and overcrowded to me. For instance, there’s a lengthy riff about British military history in the eighteen century, but the whole section is very tenuously linked to the actual murder. Interesting, yes, but ultimately distracting, I thought. If you prefer, as I do, mysteries featuring elegant diamond-cut plots that march inexorably towards a solution, this is not a series for you. But Bradley’s wit  and my fondness for Flavia (and an absolute corker of a last line in this book) have me eagerly anticipating the next installment. MOAR!

Thomas King on finding humor in intolerable situations

Before starting this piece, let me clout myself on the head for not reading Thomas King all these years. There.

Thomas King is a Canadian (Cherokee) writer and broadcaster who advocates for First Nations causes. Now, I believe the First Nations people got one of the shittiest deals in the history of the world. Like, EVER. The story of their colonization makes the British occupation of India seem like dinner guests who stayed a tad too long. I’d reach the end of my natural life span before I could finish reading the list of crimes committed against these peoples.  (I’ve written earlier about residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.) And this is not just ancient history–this is the stuff of our present lives. If you are a red-blooded organism, you should be very very angry.

King is indeed angry, but the first thing you notice about him is that he’s funny and affable.  Well, King explained that Native American issues are very harrowing for a general audience to engage with, and that he resorts to humor so as to keep his audience. In his radio show, for instance, in the segment titled 10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Have Indians in Canada, he listed the first reason as “they give the RCMP live targets to practice on.”  Smile. Wince. And…what’s the second reason?

King, who was born in California, spoke last night in my city–which  I learnt  is built on unceded Indian land (see stuff, present lives).  Happily, I seemed to be quite alone in my ignorance of his work.  King spoke in a gallery-style lecture hall designed to house several hundred skinny undergraduates, and the room was PACKED (and oh, those mingy chairs with those flip-top tables gave me a reminiscent chill). He was visiting for the launch of his new book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, which explores what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

The cover shows an old advertisement for an European cruise ship line, and even my untrained eye can see so much going on here–the pink-white-beige ship, the flag fluttering as it plows through the boiling water, the black and red evocative of the devil…oh, I could go on and on. King began the evening by reading two excerpts from his book. He first talked about the apology issued by Canada (Harper) and the USA (Obama) to the native people of these two countries. It was a “disingenuous” apology, he said, in that they were willing to admit guilt but  no liability; the history of colonization and genocide was sought to be portrayed as “a no-fault fender-bender.” Besides being personable and inspiring and witty–oh, can he WRITE. He then spoke about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, in which he was an active participant.  [Correction: he wasn’t at Alcatraz, though he did set out (unsuccessfully) for Wounded Knee]. What if there were a do-over? Well, there’d be cell phones, they’d make sure they had a doctor in the group, and oh, they’d pack plenty of toilet paper…

King then took questions from the audience, some very moving. Asked if things have improved for Native Americans over the past hundred years, he replied in the negative–things might have changed but nope, they haven’t improved in his opinion. He said their single biggest achievement was that despite the years of genocide, despite systemic efforts to make the native people disappear by the end of the 21st century, they are still around. Then there was a gentleman whose daughter was a newly minted social worker in Whitehorse. Did King have any advice for her? Yes he did, and of the soundest variety: Pay attention, be respectful, don’t be a savior on a white horse (ha!). And on his next book–could it be called The Convenient Indian? As in: conveniently demonized to suit the settler agenda? King replied that he was almost seventy, so his book would likely be called The Incontinent Indian, and no, that wouldn’t be convenient at all. King recently retired as an (English) Professor; oh to have been a student in that class.

I’m too old for seriousness, he said, his face deadpan, and then brought the session to an end to a round of prolonged applause.  Quick, someone do a PhD on King’s use of humor as bait-cum-weapon-cum-alarm clock to alert us to the ongoing resistance of the First Nations people.

Tears of Mehndi by Raminder Sidhu

Raminder Sidhu’s ambitious debut novel Tears of Mehndi (Caitlin Press, 2012) seeks to capture the story of the Indian Sikh community in Vancouver’s Little India over the past thirty-five years. The story begins in 1976, with a shocking racial incident—a small Sikh-owned grocery store is vandalized, with chocolate milk splashed everywhere; the graffiti reads “Hindu brest [sic] milk for free.” Now, this is a very cleverly crafted anecdote, doubly conveying the depth of ignorance faced by the Sikh community. But if there is racism without, there is oppression within. Although the Sikh religion regards the sexes as equal,
traditional gender roles dominate in a largely patriarchal community known to prize izzat (honor/reputation) very deeply. As ever, it is women (and their bodies) who bear the brunt of such fervor–there’s an over-riding imperative to produce male children, strictures to keep girls chaste and unworldly, and inevitably, so-called “honor” killings. The issue is compounded by the hostility of the outside world; for instance, believing that Canadian education is only for
those willing to integrate entirely and erase their cultural differences, some Sikh parents withdraw their daughters from high school.

There’s some first novel-itis going on, with Sidhu attempting to say *everything* about this community in 237 pages, and the unwieldy cast of characters (eight different first-person narrators!) meant I gave up keeping track of whose daughter was clandestinely meeting whom about halfway through the story. But Sidhu has considerable authorial strengths, notably including her unflinching gaze and her deep insider knowledge of Indian Sikhs, as revealed in anecdotes thrumming with life and honesty.

When oppression is seemingly bound to tradition, in a minority community already under siege from the outside world, dissent can seem perilously close to betrayal. In such an environment, community is everything; the universe is divided into Apnay Lok (our people) and the goray (white) outsiders. And within the community, battle lines are drawn not just around gender, but skin color, religion, degree of Westernization, and even old regional loyalties (for instance, a character remarks that she doesn’t like another woman who is from the other side of the river in Punjab, where women are said to be very cunning). Sidhu seems to say that our definitions of community define us; we progress as humans when we adopt affiliations beyond the ones we were born with.

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

Seeing Salman Rushdie talking Joseph Anton

It’s hard for me to overstate the eminent position Salman Rushdie holds in my reading of (postcolonial) literature, but I’ll give it a shot–my feelings on seeing him in person were akin to those of a Regency Romance convention beholding Jane Austen. I bought my battered 1982 Picador edition of Midnight’s Children second-hand,  back when I was a penniless high school student, and I’ve read over a dozen times and love it unequivocally despite having written two papers on it in grad school.

I’ve read all but one of Rushdie’s novels, and all his essay collections, and while I’ve followed his writing for over two decades, I’ve stayed triumphantly uninformed about his personal life.  But Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton is as much about the man as his writing, and heck yes! I wanted to know more about both.

The book’s main focus is Rushdie’s underground existence starting 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeni sentenced him to death for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. When asked to assume another identity, Rushdie chose the name Joseph Anton, a combination of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov (his first choice Ajeeb Mamooli, which translates to strange everyman, was rejected by his police team as too-Asian).  But Rushdie also covers his schooldays (at Rugby) and university years, his love life, his relationship with family back in India and Pakistan, his friendships (many with noted writers), his son, and much more in this enormous book.

I was about halfway through Joseph Anton when I attended Rushdie’s talk  at the Lincoln Alexander Center in Hamilton last Friday, October 26.  The 334 pages I’d read had impressed and  frustrated  me in near-equal measure. Much of the time, I was indeed reading, as the jacket copy said, a work “of vital importance in its political insight and wisdom”, a story of “why literature matters”.  Moreover, there were thrilling (to me) revelations about the genesis of Midnight’s Children–Rushdie noting how he decided not to “write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try and find that language.” Oh, yes.  Other times, I was struck by Rushdie’s fascination with celebrity, and the pettiness of his long-cherished, carefully-nourished grudges.  In person, I imagined, Rushdie would be an entertaining if occasionally  infuriating amalgam of Gandalf the Wise and George Costanza insisting he paid for Elaine’s big salad.

Well, there was no sign of George on Friday night, which began with a reading from the book, followed by a Q&A with Charles Foran.  Rushdie obviously loves to talk–Foran sometimes (c)would interject a question when Rushdie paused for breath. Fortunately for the audience, Rushdie proved a wonderful speaker.  So very articulate,  always witty,  succumbing at times to the seduction of the sound-bite, yes, but often brilliant, occasionally moving (his honest pride at how his young son coped with his exile was lovely to watch)–he had the audience eating out of his hand.

Foran’s questions about Rushdie’s life and writing were mostly answered in the book, so I’m not going to describe that conversation here (read the book, folks!)  Rushdie then took questions from the audience. He spoke about his friendship with Christopher Hitchens and the literary games they’d invented along with other friends (btw, when he talks about friends, he’s referring to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan).  He spoke about his love for P.G.Wodehouse (yes!) and Monty Python and the Bombay film industry and his gossipy mom. Asked which books he most enjoyed writing, he mentioned Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh–the former written for his young son, and the latter because it was the first book he wrote while underground, proving (to himself) that despite everything, he still had it in him to write.

At the end of the event, my blood was zinging–I wanted to walk a picket line and defend Literature, hang out with writers and invent literary drinking games with clever sexual innuendos , and write a novel that would change the world.  I was brought back with a bump when the organizers announced that Rushdie would speed-sign books because there was a time constraint–he needed to catch a bus back to Toronto.  A bus, repeated Rushdie, sounding a tad bemused. Oh, damn, those budget cuts in publishing are getting quite serious.

And now seems a good time to set down my appreciation of Bryan Prince Bookseller  and  A Different Drummer Books (and IFOA) for making this evening happen–it’s not often an event of this magnitude occurs in my backyard. During the talk, there was a brief mention of how vital these stores are to fostering the literary culture in this region, and really, it can’t be said often enough–we need to cherish our indie bookstores. I feel freakin’ LUCKY to live minutes away from two of the best indies in Canada. May they live long and prosper.

And do click  here for a note by Rushdie in praise of indies.

Disclosure: Review copy of Joseph Anton from Random House and event ticket from Bryan Prince Booksellers.  Excessive emotion in this post solely mine.

Book Launch: Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill

I asked Random House for a review copy of Sleeping Funny for the most ignoble of reasons–I figured my neighborhood would appear in the book. Miranda Hill lives a few streets away from me. I once saw her at my local Shoppers Drug Mart.  If you live in the sort of city Hollywood would pick for the alien invasion, you’re probably inured to this particular thrill, but seeing as I don’t, I do request books based on the recognition factor. But when I began reading, I realized that I had it all wrong. Yes, my hood was indeed portrayed in sumptuous detail, in a most illuminating light, but reading this book for those reasons was like visiting the Taj Mahal because I was looking for some shade.

Sleeping Funny is a collection of nine stories, one of which won the Journey Prize (Canada’s top prize for short stories) last year. Hill essentially examines how people react when confronted with the unexpected, but the latter précis does little justice to the wondrous variety of events and characters in this book. A smug middle-class neighborhood of professional women is shaken when a beautiful, bohemian artist moves in.  A teen girl attends sex-ed class to find herself witnessing the conception scenes of all her classmates. A young widow plants a garden to deal with the death of her pilot husband in World War II. A woman maintains a hospital vigil for a man who jumped off a high-rise rooftop.

I was perhaps most struck by Hill’s generosity as a writer in giving the reader many points of entry for each story– through character, through humor, through story titles with multiple interpretations, and most importantly, through the truths lurking on each page.  A character recalls the first time her husband hit her. “I couldn’t even remember Cy’s fist on me. It was as if something had pushed its way out from the inside like a latent cancer. ‘This is how I look as a beaten woman,’ I said. I tried it on like a uniform, and felt it settle on me like something I was always meant to wear.” Hill writes with uncanny perceptiveness, and she knows just how to inject the telling detail that’ll infuse a scene with depth and texture.  Here’s a woman at neighbor’s house, serving plastic glasses of wine “as if they were her mother-in-law’s good crystal.”  A child is so neglected that “his nails developed a rim of grime until, despairing of ever being told to clean them, he did it himself.”

So there was no way I’d miss the official release of this book or the chance to meet the writer. The launch, on Monday night, was hosted in inimitable style by Kerry of Bryan Prince Books, a store whose virtues I have long lauded on this blog.  The room was packed, but my friend and I came early, and besides, we strategically deposited our  handbags onto the good seats. (Men, I guess, slough off their jackets?) Hill read excerpts from three stories, and answered questions from Jeanie Macfarlane on her choice of form and her genesis as a writer. And yes, about her (our?) neighborhood. She also kindly signed my book with a personal inscription. In green ink. Given this book, I expected nothing less.

And here are pictures from that night, courtesy writer Ania Szado (check out her work, do).

Miranda Hill

Miranda Hill interviewed by Jeanie Macfarlane

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.


Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees begins with a richly suspenseful scene where thirteen-year-old Varsha Dharma discovers a frozen body outside her home in the town of Merrit’s Point, BC. Who is the dead woman? How did she arrive at her death? (And: what a solid opening hook.)

The Dharma family consists of the grandmother Akka, who came from India to Canada upon her marriage and the father Vikram, whose abuse drives his first wife to flee leaving behind their  young daughter Varsha. Vikram subsequently marries the docile Suman, and Varsha, who fears abandonment by this (new) mother as well, vows to keep the family together despite the fractures caused by the father’s violence.

Frustratingly, the impact of Badami’s valuable message about domestic abuse–the complicity of those who look away, the conspiracies of silence in abusive marriages and the resulting damage upon children, and violence in turn begetting violence—is diluted by her prose. One of the pleasures of reading an accomplished novel is the sense the author trusts us to meet her halfway, and compared to Badami’s prior work (three novels  including Tamarind Mem, which I liked very much, and The Hero’s Walk, which won the Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), this fourth novel often feels curiously heavy-handed and repetitive. For instance, Varsha remarks,  “Nothing makes him [her father] more heartbroken than to beat my naughtiness out of me…He is doing it for my own good, after all, he has no desire to see me turn into my mother.”  And a few pages later, “Poor Papa, it’s not his fault that he has to be hard with me sometimes. I know he’s worried I’ll turn out like my real mother.”

Furthermore, Tell it to the Trees breaks no new ground in analyzing the cultural scripts of South Asian immigrants, who often prioritize social status and family cohesion over personal happiness; instead, we are treated to elementary lessons on arranged marriages, dowry deaths and subjugated women, all in overwrought yet unsatisfying detail. Consider this paragraph where Suman describes her friend Lalli’s marriage.

“…Lalli was packed off with a dowry of five lakh rupees and two dozen gold bangles and a Godrej refrigerator and a motorbike for her husband, only to end up hanging from the rafters of her new home, the mehendi from her wedding still wet on her palms. Her in-laws wailed and beat their breasts and said that a mentally ill girl had been passed on to them without their knowledge, but the rumors that swept around the gullies were that her mother-in-law wanted more gold bangles and her father-in-law wanted an air conditioner and her new husband wanted a car instead of a scooter. When Lalli’s father refused to oblige, her in-laws strung her up like a criminal hung for murder. “

Upon reading this, I wrote “too easy” in the margin of my text.

Also contributing to my disenchantment was the dreaded explaining note (infesting so much immigrant writing) creeping in. “…to celebrate a  festival called Karva Chauth when prayers were sent up to the god Shiva…”  Surely we’ve passed the stage where readers must be told Karva Chauth is a festival? That Shiva is a god? (And doesn’t sending a prayer imply a god at the other end anyway?)

In all fairness, the scenes set in India (that so aggravated me ) comprise less than a fifth of the book, and Badami’s  descriptions are far more measured and sure-footed when the narrative takes place in Canada–she nails  the novel cruelty of a Canadian winter for the newly-arrived, for instance. And in the second half, when Badami stops educating the reader and gets on with storytelling, the book comes alive.  The characterization takes off,  the tension picks up, and the narrative acquires a satisfying momentum leading to a an emotionally charged, vibrant finish. When Varsha repudiates the impotency of childhood with a steely determination to prevail, it made me shiver.  Tell it to the Trees is  an adeptly plotted, beautifully structured work about an important issue, but in the final reckoning, I was unable to embrace it fully. Sigh.


Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

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

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!

Tomo: Friendship through Fiction (Japan), for Asian Heritage Month

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and while it doesn’t exactly nudge my blog in a new direction (at least half my content is Asian), I thought I’d formally acknowledge it by posting this review of Tomo, an anthology of Japanese teen stories.


Tomo is a collection of Japan-themed young adult short fiction commemorating the March 2011 earthquake; proceeds from the book’s sales support relief efforts in Tohoku. The anthology’s contributors are all connected to Japan via their heritage or lived experience.

The thirty-six stories are very loosely connected (in terms of both style and content) and have been grouped together thematically. Only five of the stories (gathered under the heading “Shocks and Tremors”) overtly deal with the earthquake, but tellingly, most of the stories embrace hope, positivity, and the possibility of new beginnings. The book emphasizes the normal preoccupations of teens everywhere—identity, belonging, the first stirrings of romance, the longing for supernatural powers, Facebook…  Tomo means “friend” in Japanese, and the editor envisions this book as way for teens around the world to understand their kinship with teens in Japan.

Several pieces deal with protagonists who are half-Japanese (haafus), often with conflicting loyalties; in some cases, the events of the earthquake exacerbate their conflicts. Other stories reach back in history—we hear voices from the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, for instance, while in another piece, the post-earthquake radiation scares evoke the aftermath of atomic bombing half a century ago. To paraphrase a character from the story “Paper Lanterns”, a story about grieving and remembering, this collection is a group memory bank, with varied accounts of teens growing and evolving in Japan.

The wide-ranging nature of this book inevitably implies that the reader will take some stories more to heart than others. I have a weakness for ordinary-meets-odd, and one of my favorite pieces was Alan Gratz’s “The Ghost who came to Breakfast”, a well-paced ghost story with an end-twist that characterizes the best in this genre. The linear storyline of Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s “Kodama” is elevated into greatness by her anything-but-linear sketchbook format, in which handwritten sentences writhe on the page in unexpected tangents (you have to turn the book ninety degrees in some instances). And then there’s “Yamada-san’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce, where the manner of a person’s death is etched onto a slice of bread by a very special toaster.

There’s plenty for seekers of more realistic fiction too, in the sections titled “Friends and Enemies”, “Insiders and Outsiders”, and “Families and Connections”. The teen protagonists are written with sympathy and intuition, and the stories are all executed with confidence. Sure, a few of the pieces feature some heavy-handed symbolism and could have used a lighter touch, but there isn’t a single dud; this collection was divided into ones I liked, and ones I liked more.

The stories also provides fascinating vignettes of contemporary Japan—the story “Signs”, for instance, is an Amelie-style mystery featuring a Purikura (photo) booth, a strange salariman, and a winning teen lead. From Pasmo travel cards to harajuku girls to face-offs between a Kendo club and a dance group at the school gym, Japan is placed vividly in the reader’s heart and mind. And that heart would have to be made of the proverbial stone not to feel for the people affected by the earthquake. But Tomo inspires more than sympathy—it ignites us to empathy.


Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction,  Holly Thompson (editor).

Stone Bridge Press, March 2012

This review appears in  The Asian Review of Books. Read more about the genesis of the book and its contributors at the Tomo blog.