Saturday, May 31, 2008

cue the violins

While we're on the disappointment trail, my friends, might as well add another one.  I was happily drinking my coffee while reading the Globe and Mail Book Review this morning when I froze - there was the announcement of the winners of the Canadian Jewish Book Awards.  My book had been submitted for consideration and I'd been fantasising about the possibility ... 

Anyway, there you go.  There were two potential categories for my book; one was won by a well-known academic for her latest work, but the other winner was a book published, like mine, by Syracuse University Press, about a Yiddish poet who lived at the same time as my great-grandfather. So I can't even claim that it was the press or the obscure subject at fault.  

Of course, this brought up all my other times of rejection and failure, a litany like sour breath on the back of my neck.  I feel as if my only and beloved offspring has been left off the invitation list of a very exclusive party.  What's wrong with my child? I want to cry. Why don't you appreciate her like I do? 

But you know, that child is doing fine.  Prizes matter, yes - readers more readily buy books that have won a prize.  Luckily, however, they will also buy books that haven't.  My publisher just sent the information that the book was chosen as one of the "Books to read this month" by a New York magazine.  It's the best book I could write and that's that.  All that matters now for me is to move right along to the next book. 

My sincere congratulations to the winners.  We all need every boost we can get in this business. Because in the end, if we write for prizes, we're lost.  We write because we have to write.  And so, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do.  

But first, a very large and comforting snack involving chocolate.  


Thursday, May 29, 2008

about a review

Sometimes a blog is for rambling discursions about the beauty of gardens, and sometimes, for spewing venom.  Yes, venom - well, as much venom as I am capable of producing, which is more than I'd like.  To bring you up to date with the adventures of my book, I've been waiting for a long promised review from New York's "the Forward," one of the most important Jewish newspapers in the world.  Ironically, it's the paper that my great-grandfather's deadly enemy, Abraham Cahan, edited for more than fifty years.  My fantasy, of course, was that the review would cause many new readers to clamour for the book.  

At last, the other day, the review of my book and of Gordin's recently translated "The Jewish King Lear" appeared, written by a Yiddish studies academic.  I'm happy to tell you that he did an extraordinary job of delving deeply into the book, pointing out its strengths and, yes, its weaknesses, exploring the various aspects of Gordin's life, Jewish life, the trials of new immigrants and the Yiddish theatre itself dealt with in the book's more than 300 pages, finishing with a generous and resounding ...

Oh stop.  Not.  In a nine paragraph review, half of one paragraph mentions my book, and at that is simply about the attitude that I, as a family member, take towards Gordin.  A kind of damning with the faintest of praise.  Other paragraphs deal with the play and interesting academic aspects of translation, and the rest is rambling discursion and anecdotes. 

Yes, for a minute or two, or perhaps a bit more, I was discouraged.  Not long ago, another article in an important Jewish magazine discussed at length the recent translation of Gordin's play, quoting from my book without mentioning it at all.  If I were a paranoid person, I would think there is some plot to keep this wonderful book unread and ignored.  But I am a sunny person with a beautiful garden, who will simply put this aside and move right along.  He didn't say he hated it, after all.  You can't always get what you want.  

I will go and plant some tomatoes.  Not to throw.  To eat.

of notebooks and notebooks in the garden

What a lonely few days!  I took my pretty white MacBook, whose name is MacZine, to the Apple store for repair on Sunday, and didn't get her back till Wednesday noon.  Three days without her - I was desolate.  I made the best of it, trying to relish all that email-free time, carrying a notebook and pen around for work.  But I felt as if a limb had been cut off.  How dependent we are.  It's now 9 a.m., and I've already been sitting with MacZine for an hour, responding to email and editing an essay sent by a student.  

And now - the joy of blogging.  Yesterday a friend who has had a diary all his life asked if I was still keeping mine, and I replied, to my surprise, that I was not, at least, hardly not.  I've been keeping a diary since I was nine years old, but now, between emails to my dearest friends and blogging to the world at large, the need to make sense of life by writing about it is taken care of.  Once in a while, especially after one of my yearly calls to my former psychiatrist who now lives in Montreal, I need to write to myself alone.  But mostly I now write OUT.  Not IN.

I did, however, enjoy working with a pen and paper again in the absence of MacZine, and am going to try first drafts that way for a while.  I haven't done this before, but I'd like to share with you a longer piece written a few nights ago, as I sat with an old-fashioned pad of paper.

Here I am in my summer room, which is painted many shades of green.  This is where I must be from now, mid-May, until at least early October - in my garden, the room that is closed off in winter and the sweetest place on earth, at least to me, in spring, summer and fall.

Right now, it's dusk in downtown Toronto.  Ten minutes away, the intimidating skyscrapers are emptying for the night.  Fifteen minutes away, the nightclub district is getting ready for the noisy onslaught, even on Monday night.  The Don Valley Parkway nearby is still crawling with commuters heading home, and with partyers, even on Monday night, heading in. Somewhere, as usual, a siren shrieks.

In here, there is greenery, and there are birds.  They are trilling endlessly in the trees and lined up at the bird feeder.  The day before yesterday, I wore my winter coat once more, the third time I have put it away and hauled it out again.  Today, at about 2 p.m., high summer arrived. Yesterday chilly, drizzling, grey; today muggy and breathlessly hot.  That's the way the seasons happen, in Toronto.

I sit surrounded by trees - lilac and sour cherry in my own yard and big unnamed trees in my neighbour's.  There are ghosts here of the trees that used to be - the damaged Manitoba maple at the very back that my friend, the ex-drug-addicted B.C. logger, climbed and cut down with chainsaws dangling from his belt, piling the ground with branches and firewood.  The mulberry that my gardening neighbour Dorothy insisted I get rid of, as it cast sticky messes into her yard as well as mine, and unwanted shade as well.  And the small awkward maple I cut down myself, alone, with a handsaw, in the days when I was trying to prove something about independence and solitude and strength.

There was a time when this garden was untended, parched and desolate, causing me only guilt and despair.  But like my children, it has grown steadily into something beautiful.  I don't know why I deserve such a reward, but here it is. 

Two sparrows are fighting in the air, chasing each other and squawking.  "You two cut that out!" I call to them.  No fighting allowed in this tranquil place.  But perhaps they're not fighting. Yesterday, I heard a fierce buzzing and saw two bees mating in flight.  They'd separate, track each other and then join again, soaring effortlessly through the air.  Another kind of Mile High Club.  Now I know why they call it "the birds and the bees."

And then there is Planet Ivy - a tall stone wall, almost the entire south border of my garden, thick with dense ivy that serves as an apartment building for birds and raccoons.  It climbs over my wall, spreading all over the walls of the expensive condos next door.  I have joked that they should pay me for landscaping and they have joked that they should sue me for damage.  Their ivy-covered walls look like Oxford University - august and very, very green.

On the other side of my yard, a savannah - the jungly, untamed grassland of a neighbour who never ventures into the back of her property, leaving it for the animals who creep through her towering grasses.  

I spent an hour weeding my idyll today, clearing only a small patch of invasive violets and lilies, giving the old roses room to grow.  I dug up a plastic bone that one of our dogs, Moose or Barclay, must have buried there many years ago.  Dogs, small children, teenagers - who wandered to the very back to smoke illicit cigarettes and other things, far from the stern parental nose - and now, a middle-aged woman tired from weeding - we have all made good use of this inner city oasis.  

The church bells, tolling eight.

It's 8.45.  I couldn't resist, I did more weeding.  Now my feet, knees and fingernails are dirty again. The birds are nearly silent - only one, calling still.  The scrawny raccoon who wakes me every night, clawing up the drainpipe by my bedroom on her way home - like a teenager skulking in far too late - has climbed down and lumbered off on her nightly hunt. No babies with her this year; I wonder why.  The solar lights are glowing in the flowerbeds. The background roar of the city is louder now that the birds are still.  Sirens, of course.  The light is grey and pink.  A breeze ruffles the tops of the trees.  That one bird must be in love.  A barbeque is being fired up, and someone is laughing.

It's 9.  A jet heading east is slashing white across the sky.  The love-sick bird, nearly asleep, keeps rousing himself to sing once more.  The laugher is silent.  My summer room is dark now, its green canopy and decor fading in the dim light.  But I cannot bring myself to depart - not while my friend still sings.  The bells toll nine.

9.15.  Inside, behind the screen door, looking out.  

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"finished enough"

This is the most beautiful spring I can remember.  Perhaps surviving the bitter winter pushed the trees and flowers, once they finally emerged, to explode.  There's a stunning pink dogwood tree at the Necropolis, and a huge, dark purple lilac up the street that in 22 years in this neighbourhood I have never noticed before.  Even these last days of October-like cold were almost tolerable, because they made the colour and scent of spring last longer.

I spent yesterday at the Writer's Union of Canada AGM, attending workshops and meeting old friends.  I learned a lot, and not only how much coffee writers drink.  In one panel, Ellen Seligman, described as "the queen bee of Canadian literary fiction," was asked when a writer knows that a book is finished. "A book is never finished," she replied.  "It is finished enough."  

There was an interesting discussion about the use of computer versus typewriter or longhand for first drafts.  Ellen said, "The computer is not necessarily a writer's best friend.  Everything comes out so fast.  The quality is different, the slowness and concentration is missing."  Writers who work on computers should still print everything out and edit from a hard copy, she said, which is read more slowly than words on a screen.

She also said that editing on computers has another pitfall - changes are so easily made that sometimes valuable work in earlier drafts is lost.  "Keep your drafts," she said. 

A panel on how to establish a profile emphasised the importance of a website and blog.  For once, I thought, I'm on target.  "What is your USP?" we were asked - our "unique selling position."  Ah, brave new world, where writers not only have to write the books, they have to come up with a USP to sell it.  "What's your brand? How do you differentiate yourself from other writers?"  They mentioned as example one writer who always wears a cowboy hat.  I emerged determined to work on my USP and my brand.  Hmmm.  Here's something fun and original - how about being branded as a writer who writes really well, how about that?  Will that do?

And then, in the afternoon, Nino Ricci set us straight in a panel on "What I wish I'd known" - experienced writers reminiscing ruefully about their early days.  Nino said, "So much of writing is delusion. How can we tackle the page in the morning unless we convince ourselves that what we produce is going to make a difference, to make some impact, to matter?  And then it is published and we realise that is not going to happen.  The reality is that what we do is often an exercise in humiliation." 

Thence followed an argument about who had had the fewest people at their readings.  Nino had three people once, none of whom had heard of him, but Paul Quarrington won; he told of a time that he and Wayne Johnston - "before he was famous" - had a reading at a bookstore and not one single person came.  Suddenly I felt pretty good about my twenty-five people at the 92nd Street Y. 

Susan Swan said she didn't know that being a writer meant being constantly judged and in competition with other writers.  Wayson Choy told us that he has learned the importance of teaching yourself the how - the craft - of good storytelling, like punctuation, the rhythm of dialogue, the music of sentences.  "If you have the craft, you can tell any story you want," he assured us with his usual sweet cheerfulness.  Oh well, if it's that easy - a USB and some craft, please, to go.  

I am going back today to have a fifteen minute "speed networking" session with a non-fiction agent who talked yesterday about the importance of a "platform" - which means being Barbara Walters, whose memoir is #1 on the Globe bestseller list -  and tonight to dance to the music of a band called Porkbelly Futures, fronted by Quarrington.  I loved spending the day in rooms filled with people who are usually alone with only their hearts and minds and their craft for company.  There we all were, gathered together in solidarity, convinced that what we produce matters.

And we are right.  Books matter.  Writers matter.  That's our unique selling position.  We matter. 

And now I think this post is finished enough.  

Sunday, May 18, 2008

getting some nice stuff off my mind and into yours

I've been receiving some heartening emails recently, and since - as per the last entry - I can't throw them out, I would like to share them with you.  

My friend Irene wrote last week about the blog itself: "Each episode seems like an effortless chat, engaging and interesting."  

Which makes me glad, because I have wrestled with what and whom this blog is for.  A "track statistics" site tells me that I am getting an average of twenty visits a day, 600 visits a month. This number thrilled me until I wondered if many of those visitors aren't actually me, checking to be sure the site is still there.

I've had some mail about the book, including a note from Tom Oppenheim, the actor Jacob Adler's great-grandson who was featured in the New York Times last month, which is how we got in touch with each other.  He wrote that he had read my book "with interest and pleasure." A relief, because when writing such a book, the author is aware that though all the protagonists are dead, their descendants are quite alive and up for a challenge.  

A friend of a friend, Perry Coodin, wrote recently, "What a wonderful book!  The extensive research you did to uncover this important story, the heartfelt and beautiful writing, the family connection, make for a riveting read.  Aside from the story of your great-grandfather himself, I love the picture you paint of immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side of that era.  This is an important book."  

I did not pay Perry any money to write this.  

And this just in from a new Ryerson student, who in the second class "jumped off a cliff" into her most important tales: "I want to thank you for creating such an incredibly safe place in your classes to tell our stories.  I've been wanting to tell this story my entire adult life.  Thank you." 

That's it for the Blowing my Own Horn department today, Sunday of a grey Victoria Day weekend.  Spring is still showering us with petals, scent and colour, and there are brand new babies at Riverdale Farm - seven kids and a lamb, and the piglets due to arrive today.  

Please feel free to write to me yourself, if the fancy strikes, even if it isn't paeans of praise. Though paeans gratefully accepted, and even reproduced.  

Saturday, May 17, 2008


There was a reassuring photo in the paper today, of a writer and filmmaker called Josh Freed sitting at his desk.  He has made a documentary about clutter, which he approves of and lives in. For months now, I have been berating myself because my office is in what my mother would call "a tip" - stacks of papers hither and thither on the desk side, and stacks of clothing on the closet side (my office used to be my bedroom and houses my wardrobe as well as my papers.)  But seeing Mr. Freed's desk freed me, if I may make a pun, from guilt about messiness.  In comparison with his, my clutter is the essence of order.  It is pristine. 

Still - paper arrives and I don't know where to put it, at least the vague bits - I might use this one day, I might need this in a story,  perhaps looking at this postcard in twenty years will make me happy.  Let's keep it, somewhere.  Perhaps I'll make a new file, put it away and forget about it.  Or stack it neatly somewhere in a neat stack with seventy-eight other pieces of paper that have no home but that I can't quite throw out.  Ah well.  Thanks to my new friend Josh, I don't mind any more.  Because unlike him, I can still see quite a bit of the surface of my desk.

I did a new bit of teaching last week - a three hour seminar on "memoir writing for seniors."  I wasn't sure how to condense my 25-hour term into 3, but it seems to have worked.  At the end, I asked them if their lives were a movie played out in scenes, what would be one of the most important scenes they would write?  We went around the circle, and their answers, as always, were moving and surprising.  What about you?  In the movie of your life, what scenes would you write?  


Monday, May 12, 2008

Mother's Day

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and here are my two Mother's Day presents.  I emailed this picture to my cousin Ted in New York, and he wrote back, "Where did you get them?  I'll take two."  I replied, "They take 27 years to grow. You can share mine."

This year they had the perfect plan - he bought and marinated salmon steaks, she bought and cut up a pile of vegetables - vegetables! - and they cooked supper together for the three of us.  "You rock," said my daughter, handing me a home-made card.  There was much teasing about which was the preferred child - I am still recovering from Sam's gigantic fifth tattoo, but on the other hand, Anna still smokes. So though they are close to perfection, they are NOT PERFECT YET.  Unlike their mother.

After dinner, the end to a great Sunday for these kids: a new episode of "The Simpsons" interspersed with the hockey game, Pittsburgh winning.  Then a "King of the Hill" where Stewie finally murders his mother, and then "Family Guy," which cut half an hour off my time watching the British drama "Cranford."  I sacrificed.  But when I at last switched over to PBS, we all saw the last half hour of "Cranford."  "That's Dumbledore!" they shouted, seeing one great British actor, and "Delores Umbridge!" seeing another.  Harry Potter also rocks.

Despite the frilly caps and fussy dialogue, despite the fact that this English village of more than a hundred and fifty years ago could have been the moon, they began to watch.  These children grew up swimming confidently in the murky water of popular culture, but infusions of the other stuff got in - a museum here, a concert there.  When Sam was courting a dancer, she asked him what his favourite classical music was.  "'Romeo and Juliet' by Prokofiev," he answered confidently, and the deal was sealed.  Now they can add to the list in their heads entitled "Boring Stuff that Mum Likes" the magnificent silence of Judy Dench mourning her lost love. 

We hugged and they went back to their own lives.  And I was left as thankful as it is possible to be.  Two lively thoughtful young people are newly out in the world.   I am proud to share them with you.    

Thursday, May 8, 2008

All right, so spring itself has decided to take a little break and give us chilly and damp.  It's guaranteed that the minute I put away my warm coats and boots, there's a cold snap and I get them out again.  Ah, Canada's unpredictability - flooding in New Brunswick, freezing in the Okanagan.  The only thing certain, as they say, are the two Canadian seasons: winter and road work.

I went to see "December Man" a few nights ago - for those of you in Toronto, I recommend that you do not miss it.  It's about the aftermath of the Polytechnic murders in Montreal, once again based on a true story: playwright Colleen Murphy has breathed life and heart into the individuals and events behind a newspaper clipping.  The acting of Brian Dooley and especially Nicola Lipman, as a middle-aged Quebecois couple blind-sided by events beyond their control, is as good as it gets.  After a production like this, I feel replete, as if I've just had a very good meal.   Which I have.

And on Sunday, I watched "Cranford," a British drama set in an English village in the 1840's, starring the world's best actresses - Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton.  How I love those mobile, intelligent, extraordinary faces.  Just as well the weather's not great - let's watch television and go to the theatre.  Who needs tulips?   

Monday, May 5, 2008

parade of pleasure

A friend just emailed from Istanbul.  We hadn't been in touch for awhile, he decided to check my blog quickly before writing and ended up reading all the posts.  "It took me almost three hours," he wrote, "and now I'm too tired to write to you."

I am nauseatingly cheerful these days, in the May sunshine - is there anything better? Yesterday, one wonderful event after another, first the local Forsthia Festival with a parade of local children and Riverdale Farm bursting with tulips.  The Don Valley Parkway was closed for the day so I took a long bike ride along the DV trail, almost like being in the country when there are no cars roaring by, especially yesterday, the one day a year when canoes and kayaks go floating past on the Humber River - all this ten minutes from the heart of downtown.  

And then to my student Margaret Norquay's book launch.  Margaret is now 87 and has lost her short term memory, so her memoir "Broad is the Way" is even more a miracle and a treasure, beautifully written with humour and clarity.  I met the editor, Lisa Quinn of Wilfred Laurier Press, and introduced her to the others in Margaret's writing group, with the hopes that each will eventually have a book launch too.  

And then Wayson brought over a book and DVD that he'd just bought at a writer's conference, about the work of writing teacher Pat Sinclair.  The book is called "Writing Alone and With Others," and both Wayson and I took notes as we watched the DVD, though we teach along exactly the same lines.  "Tell me something I can't forget," she tells her students.  Here is something I will never forget: seeing Margaret's smile as she signed book after book.  

Friday, May 2, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening

I had yesterday all planned - working at my desk, a class at the Y, more work, teaching. But then the phone rang at 10 a.m.  It was my beloved friend, writer Wayson Choy, back from Vancouver; he had just handed in the latest draft of his memoir, so now he was ready to play. "Let's have lunch and see a movie," he said.  I hesitated for a second or two - what about my work, my fitness regime?  Oh, to hell with it, nothing is more important than spending time with Wayson Choy.

I rented "Starting Out in the Evening," a film I'd heard about and wanted to watch with him. Another of Wayson's many girlfriends, Wendy the philosophy professor, came to watch with us. Wayson is a gay man surrounded by so many adoring couples, men, women and children, that he has a richer family life than many families.  

The film stars the mesmerising Frank Langella as an ageing novelist who cannot finish his last novel, and whose life is invaded by a perky graduate student writing a thesis about him.  It's thoughtful and moving with an unforgettable central performance and a riveting central issue - how much of his life should an artist sacrifice for his art? Langella's writer has sacrificed far too much; he has remained monastically dedicated to his writing to the detriment of his family and, ironically, his work: now he can't write because he's cut off, dry and lifeless.  And yet he is beautiful, a man of immense dignity.  Langella delivers a heart-rending performance of an artist locked in his brain and in his past.  

I thought afterwards - when Wayson called yesterday morning, I made the right decision.  For any artist, there is a constant struggle between the needs of the work and the life.  Too often, I veer toward life, which is why I have produced so little, and why I have such a glorious roster of friends.  How to balance?  Because there is a time when it's vital to say no, I'm busy, I'm working, go away.  There's the rub.