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

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!

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. )


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 ( ) 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 Congratulations, Mayank! And thanks to all those who entered!

Library love (in rural India)

Gone Reading is an American company marketing products for readers.

What, you ask, are products for readers; surely one needs nothing more than light and a book?

Um, sort of. Bookmarks are nice. Bookends, booklights, bookish games …. yeah, quite a few things actually.

If you’re planning to get a reading light, a journal, T-shirts or mugs with reading-themed epigrams, please consider Gone Reading. They donate 100% of their profits to charity. Specifically, to charities that promote literacy. More specifically, to charities promoting literacy in the developing world. Like this one, you picky-picky devils.

That’s a picture of a library in Geejhar, India, that Gone Reading and a local charity READ Global are building together. Here’s what Brad Wirz, CEO of Gone Reading had to say in his email:

“GoneReading just started marketing itself in September, but our goal is to bring the magic of reading to the far corners of the world by providing significant funding to organizations such as READ.  We donated just $4,500 last year, but our goal is to quadruple that amount in 2012, growing significantly from there.  GoneReading donates 100% of its after-tax profits.  We’re lean and mean, with an all-volunteer staff…”

Hear ye: philanthropy and the capitalist business model need not be mutually exclusive. So, instead of Amazon or Chapters or Brookstone or Williams-Sonoma or wherever you’d normally shop for such items, do consider Gone Reading, where your funds will help get kids reading. Gone Reading will further sweeten the deal by offering a 25% discount to all readers of this blog. Please please use NIRANJANA25 at the checkout (ends April 7, 2012).

Here are some of Gone Reading’s products. I was rather taken with these bookends.

And this game would pair well with a robust red.

And this cake charm bookmark is quite delish.

And if you usually shop at Oxfam or Ten Thousand Villages, well, yes.

Disclaimer: I’m writing about Gone Reading because they are a non-profit working in an area I’m interested in; I have not been compensated for this post. Gone Reading did send me this small but perfectly formed reading light that my son immediately appropriated.

I can testify that despite a week’s worth of abuse at the hands of a four-year-old who attempted to tie the stem into a love-knot, the light still works fine.


I also wanted to share this moving story from Canadian novelist Terry Fallis, whose book club remembered a member lost to cancer by setting up a library in her name.  The group wanted to “find a fitting way for us to honour what Vicki had meant to our humble monthly gathering of book lovers.  […] Money was raised and other arrangements made, and on January 31, 2012, there was a grand opening. In Dhaberi, a small farming village in central India, a children’s library opened its doors for business. Vicki’s Library. The funds donated purchased 500 children’s books and will pay a librarian for two hours a day, to work with the children and check out their books. Our book club has pledged to keep the library open. I cannot think of a better way to honour a good friend who loved books and reading as much as Vicki did. ”

Please read the entire story here.

In which I attend a reading by Margaret Atwood, and come away dazzled.

So, I saw the legendary and very formidable Margaret Atwood read last night. The weather was foul– wet and windy and, needless to say, cold–but 400 people turned up to hear her, and I believe not one was disappointed. My impressions? First off, I was struck (rather like a gong) by her off-the-charts intelligence–she is fearsomely smart and well-informed. Second, she’s enormously witty, pee-in-your-pants funny, and she does this deadpan sarcasm thing that had me chortling while fervently hoping never to be at the receiving end of that cool assessing gaze. Third, she’s a superb performer–she had the audience cemented to their chairs for every second of the event. Atwood is mistress of the telling pause, and really, I never understood the dramatic potential of the air-quote till last night.

(Pic from the Toronto Star)

After the reading, she took questions from the audience, and here are a few things she said.

1. Recalling the texts she read at high school, she mentioned Tess of the d’urbervilles with a shudder. Mill on the Floss earned its fair share of ire as well.

2. When she began writing in the 1960s, five  Canadian books were published every year. Publication was conditional upon approval from partner publishers in the US/UK, and books were sometimes rejected for being “too Canadian”.

3. Like many authors, she self-published her work before finding a “legit” publisher. She views the current trends in self-publishing positively–she was enthusiastic about Lulu, blogging, e-books, Amazon etc., which all of which she likened to the string connecting two tin cans (the writer and the reader).

4. She said the conditions that have engendered the Occupy Wall Street movement are akin to the situation leading to the French Revolution–an undue concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites who manipulate laws to protect them.  Also noteworthy: 72 % of the OWS protestors are, in fact, employed (they protest after work hours).

5. She talked about social media with a sort of fond incredulity that had the audience cracking up. Apparently, she  found the cover image for her latest book via a ‘Twitter’ ‘follower’, who ‘tweeted’ “We think Margaret Atwood will like these pictures. ” And she clicked on the attached ‘URL’ and found a photoshopped picture she liked. (All quotes correspond to her air-quotes during the talk.)

She added that “digital manipulation meant something else entirely back in 1955.”

In sum: if there’s an event within a 1000-mile radius that features Margaret Atwood, you should go. Move mountains if you must.


Updated to add that The Penelopiad by Atwood has been adapted into a show by Nightwood Theatre, Toronto.  Do check out their site for more details (including tickets and dates).

An interview, and a talk

I’ve been interviewed on Open Book: Toronto by the wonderful Dorothy Palmer.  Here’s an excerpt:

“After completing my MBA, I worked for a while in large corporations (last with Citigroup), till I started believing I was entitled to do what I really wanted. I wanted to read and to write, and not just on stolen hours on weekends. So I got myself a Masters degree in the arts, and then I started sending out my work.

Clark Blaise says about Indian immigrants to [North] America that material success “has been the easy part. After all, they were programmed to study hard, invest wisely, and live frugally. But that other Constitutional promise, ‘happiness,’ has been elusive.” I’m a product of the Indian upper-middle class that Blaise so astutely portrays, and in some ways, I had to give myself permission to be happy and to believe that things would work out. And you know what? They did. Sure, it’s been a bumpy road–I initially received nothing but rejection from every Canadian publication I approached. (Fortunately my work got picked up in the US, otherwise I might have returned to banking.) I now work as a freelance writer and spend much of my time reading and writing.”

If you feel so inclined, you can read the whole thing here.


This weekend, I attended a round table conversation at IFOA on the topic “The Individual in Society”, featuring authors Bharati MukherjeeLauren B. Davis, and Johan Harstad. In essence, the three authors discussed why they (and their characters) chose not to conform, their respective motivations and reasoning, and the consequences of questioning the values of the societies they belonged to. I was (predictably) most interested in hearing Mukherjee–I’ve been reading her since high school, and “The Management of Grief” still tears me up.

I was particularly intrigued by Mukherjee’s response to Harstad mentioning that self-effacement was part of his manifesto of living. Harstad said (I’m paraphrasing liberally here) that he always endeavored to cause the least amount of fuss, to minimize his societal footprint, if you will. For instance, he said that when his flight landed, he always remained seated till the passenger in the aisle seat was ready to disembark. Mukherjee replied that it took a certain confidence to behave in such a manner, and that sometimes, in some societies, the only way to succeed was to claw and grasp at the most fleeting opportunites. Here’s the thing: Harstad is from Norway, while Mukherjee’s protagonist is a girl from small-town India. Pushing and shoving are perhaps both inevitable and necessary in a society featuring scarce resources, one that imposes draconian consequences for bucking tradition. I think a small-town girl would be mincemeat if she chose to be self-effacing rather than brash-bordering-on-selfish.

The tricky part, I suppose,  is recognizing when to abandon that sort of mindset. I think some are so conditioned to having to fight for the least glint of opportunity that twenty years after, they’re still jumping the queue at the $9.99 India Palace lunch buffet despite earning six-figure incomes.

Anyway. After the talk, I briefly met with Mukherjee and asked her to sign my book, and I didn’t have to spell my name out for her. And of course I gushed like an idiot; poise: when will you make my aquaintance?


Some of you may have noticed a pleasing symmetry in the above post: Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee are husband and wife. I’ll be hearing Blaise read this Thursday at the Rogers Writer’s Trust  Fiction Prize event.

On television, on books

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a guest on Book’Em TV, a Canadian TV show about books and reading, and the episode where I feature was shot on Monday. It was a lot easier than I expected, but I suspect I giggled feebly on camera while drool slopped down my chin. Ah, well. The show, which debuts this September, features a host, a panel of three readers, and a different guest in each episode. In essence, the three panelists, who each picked a favorite book, had to entice viewers to vote for their novel as the show’s read of choice. Their chosen titles were The Alchemist, The Beach, and Northanger Abbey, and it was great fun watching the three fight it out. The show host, Dr. Mary Ashun, really held it all together with her enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach–she made it seem as though a bunch of nice, book-obsessed folks got together to talk about their favorite thing. But, like, on TV. This is all way more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

The guest for the first episode was Terry Fallis, whose debut novel The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor and also won Canada Reads 2011, which is a big big deal, sort of an Oprah Book Club but with a sedate, publicly funded Canadian flavor. His episode was shot the same day, so I squeezed hands with him and then procured his signature on my copy of TBLP.  I’ll do a full-length review of the book soon, but a quick heads-up if you haven’t read it yet–it’s a funny, mordant, but surprisingly tender story about an academic-turned-politician. Sometimes CanLit can seem deadly dull, all earnest angst and winter depression, but this novel makes its points through humor and satire, and it’s ultimately a shout-out to idealism. Huzzah! An intelligent feel-good novel! When was the last time…? I want to mention here that TBLP was repeatedly rejected by publishers, and that Fallis went the self-publishing route. Now he has a nice deal with McClelland, so a slush-pile rejectionista somewhere has probably changed jobs, and is now Rob Ford’s advisor. Fallis was really funny and smart, so I hope you catch him on the show. Meanwhile, stalk him on the internets here.

It was then my turn, and I talked about reviewing and blogging and proclaimed on television that I don’t own an e-reader because I like to smell books. And then it was over, and we all (minus Fallis) went out for pizza. And here is a picture; the long hair in the pink coral shirt on the extreme right is moi.

And a shout-out to all the lovely people on the show and behind the scenes, who were stratospherically NICE and very smart; someone set them to work on the debt ceiling already. And not to belabor the very obvious diversity thing, but holy crap, we participants came from four continents. Lots of different people all talking happily about books, followed by pizza. Do you have a better vision for Utopia?

A reading, and a non-reading: Kristen den Hartog, and Dorothy Palmer

I attended two readings by Canadian authors last month. Or rather, I tried to; more about that later.

Kristen den Hartog read from her new novel And Me Among Them (Freehand Press, April 2011) last week at Bryan Prince Bookseller. It was the first time I’ve attended an event without having read the book in question, and I felt worm-like, knowing it was disrespectful to both writer and the writing. (In my defense, I’d requested Hartog’s book from the library much earlier, but it hadn’t made it to the shelves by the event. But still.) Also, I get much more out of a reading when I already know the plot–I can concentrate on the particular meanings the author assigns to her words without having to follow the storyline in tandem.

Despite my ignorance of the text, I enjoyed the evening very much. Hartog was gentle and approachable and easy to talk to, and radiated niceness;  you’d pray to spot her sort while searching for kindness from strangers. I chatted with her about her blog “Blog of Green Gables” which chronicles her reading adventures with her daughter. It’s a lovely, moving journal, accompanied by the child’s  illustrations, and each time I read it, it has me wishing I could magically produce a ten-year-old daughter to add to my family. (My mini-Athena would spring fully-formed out of my head, with a library card in one hand and a thermos of Earl Grey in the other. But I digress.)

(Author image from her website)

And Me Among Them is a novel about a young girl affected by gigantism.  From the author’s website:

“Born to a postman and an English war bride, a young girl named Ruth begins to grow at an alarming rate. The doctor claims nothing is wrong, but she soars upwards, and is the size of an adult by kindergarten. Though ostracized and teased by the other children, she longs to be among them.

Ruth’s giant perspective gives her a bird’s eye view that conveys her profound capacity for empathy. She can see over place and time – back to the days before she was born, through to the lives of other giants, and even into the intimate thoughts of her mother and father.”

Yes, you should read it; I picked my copy from the library yesterday.

Bryan Prince Booksellers, where the reading took place, is a wondrous place. It’s beautiful and dignified and serene. Kerry Cranston (who co-owns the store with her sister Tracy Higgins) and her staff are passionate and extremely knowledgeable about books. The event was accompanied by wine, cheese, and Ontario strawberries–and it was all free. I want to bake this store cookies and, while the oven heats up,  pave their sidewalk with gold. If you are looking to buy books in Canada, please go here: And send them Facebook love here, do.

The other reading was a talk by Dorothy Palmer about her novel When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books, Oct 2010), at the local library. I liked the book very much, and had all sorts of questions planned for the author–who did not show. There was no word from her or the publishing house (who had plugged the event on their website, Facebook and on twitter) to the organizers or the audience. After waiting for a half-hour, and checking every form of social media for information, I surrendered to my mom-fate: I went back home, washed off my mascara and changed into sweats, and put my son to bed.

I love authors and books and small presses, and I understand that unexpected delays and cancellations are the stuff of life, but surely, an update was (and is) in order. So, to whoever was in charge of this event: WTF, eh?

Update: I have since received an apology and an explanation of the communication error from the (blameless) author. All WTF statements are hereby recanted, and I reaffirm my love for authors and small presses. 

She Writes Blogger Ball

This weekend marks the She Writes blogger meet-and-greet, and this post is by way of saying hello. I’m a freelance writer, and my work has appeared in everything from The Smithsonian Magazine to Bookslut to The Missouri Review to My forthcoming pieces include an article on feminist YA literature (no, WSJ, not all YA is filled with “depravity”) for a Canadian magazine.   I also curate Women Doing Literary Things, an essay series featuring bookish women writing on the topic of gender and literature. I now host WDLT as a weekly feature on She Writes as well.

This blog features book reviews and commentary on literary happenings. My primarily interest is fiction (with an emphasis on feminism and race-related issues), but I read almost Everything. Kind folk would call my blog eclectic; most would say it lacks focus. Please wander around and leave your comments!

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!Click on the bookshelf to check out the other participants in the ball.

A House for Ms. Biswas

Each time I hope that the gender gap in literature might be narrowing, each time I envision Women Doing Literary Things’s peaceful organic end, along comes a Naipaul with idiotic remarks on the supposed inferiority of women’s writing. This is why we need forums where women writers support each other, communities which encourage work dealing with domestic, the ordinary, and the so-called banal (and zombies and apocalypses too, of course). One such space is She Writes, an online group of women writers. With over 15,000 members from 30 countries, it’s great place to hang out with kindred literary women, and I’m delighted to announce that WDLT essays are now a weekly (Wednesday) feature on She Writes! Please do check the site and the feature out.

Fittingly, this week’s WDLT essay deals with the deeper implication of Naipaul’s remarks. Writer Tina Biswas, in her essay titled A House for Ms. Biswas, confesses that Naipaul was the writer who inspired her to write. How did he get this business of women’s writing so wrong?

“When growing up, I would choose male authors over female ones, because of some misguided perception that men wrote about more serious matters (I’m now not sure what exactly constitutes a serious matter), and even if they were not writing about serious matters, they were at least writing about silly matters in a serious way.

This sort of bias can only come from a deeply prejudiced society. The kind of society where men are chefs but women are cooks. Where men are just men but women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. So when Naipaul accuses women of having a “narrow view of the world”, he means that they have a domestic view of the world, and from his chauvinistic standpoint, this domestic view is petty and banal and uninteresting and can only ever be inferior to the grandly political. But for such an insightful writer, he therefore completely fails to comprehend the relevance and importance of the domestic and how even his own life story has been shaped by not only the great sweep of history but also the small but equally powerful brush-brush-brush of the interior life. So when women choose to write about personal relationships and men think that is not important or interesting, that is their failing and their inability to value that which is closest to home.”

Please click here to read the rest of the essay.