Thursday, January 17, 2008

ode to the Toronto Public Libraries

Okay, more excitement. Today I was happy to read a great article by Philip Marchand in the "Star" about how, despite gloomy forecasts for their demise, Toronto libraries are more than ever flourishing community centres. I'm a huge library fan. If I see the title of an interesting book, I immediately order it on-line and, in a day or two, I get the call that it's at my neighborhood library. While I'm there, I peruse the "New Books" shelf. Last week I went in to look for something about writing creative non-fiction, to get some new ideas for teaching - and found six superb tomes, just at my small Parliament Street branch. As I checked them out the place was buzzing around me - besides books, videos and DVD's, there were crowds using computers, magazines and newspapers, reference books and the children's reading circle. And, for a few, it's a warm, quiet place for a snooze.

Today, hesitantly, I went on-line to the Toronto Public Library site and entered my own name. Three entries that have nothing to do with me came up, and then ... my name and book. After a lifetime defining myself as an outsider, I'm triumphantly in the system! Four copies, the site told me, and one hold. That means that four people are reading the book right now, and one is waiting to do so. I was floored.

Whoever you are out there, Toronto readers, I thank you. I thank the librarians for decades of help and cheer. And I thank the powers-that-be that something in our crazy world - the public library system - can be so wonderfully right.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

the book in the world

An update on the book, which is making its way like a steady tortoise. The cover was featured in the Nov. 18th "New York Times Book Review," no less, in an ad for the fascinating website that runs a precis of the book. It also received a review in December in the "Jerusalem Report," a magazine distributed with the "Jerusalem Post." The critic writes about the "invaluable contribution" of my book, which "admirably combines scholarly research, critical analysis and personal memoir."

If he only knew how much those words mean! I struggled endlessly with a central problem: the book was both a biography of a once-famous person and a personal reflection on the meaning of his life to his descendants. When my agent in New York sent the manuscript to the big trade publishers, one after the other responded that it was too factual - not enough fun.

And when I subsequently sent it around to the university presses, I was given the impression that it was just too damn much fun, with too much personal stuff for a scholarly press. I did cut some - not all, by any means - of the personal material for Syracuse. That's the next book - all those juicy bits on the cutting room floor. But to receive praise - from Jerusalem, yet - for what had always been pointed out as the book's weakness ... brought a tear or two.

The reviewer wraps up by comparing the dismissive way Gordin was treated with "the cruelty visited on King Lear by his heartless daughter Goneril and Reagan. Fortunately," he concludes, "Jacob Gordin has a faithful and loving Cordelia in the person of Beth Kaplan."

How I wish I could show the old man THAT.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Good news on a rainy day

Gloomy January slumps along, but yesterday a letter made the day feel like June. I received an ecstatic email from former student Laure Croza, who went from writing memoir to writing for young people - one of her fine stories is on this website under "Teaching." She wrote to say that a story of hers has just been accepted for publication by Groundwood Books. Groundwood is one of the best children's publishers in the country, so she is starting at the very top.

And then she wrote, "Thank you Beth for nurturing me and sending me down this path. I'm not being sappy when I say I wouldn't be here without you."

From the very first essay that she wrote in class, Laure had clarity, heart, courage and skill. She also had absolutely no self-confidence, but she kept going nonetheless, and soon she'll be holding her first book. And in my dignified teacherly way, I say to Laure, "WOO HOO!"

I have been asked by U of T to teach a class called "Personal Narrative." The course used to be taught by the wonderful storyteller Helen Porter, who died tragically young last year. I am honoured to be asked to try to fill her shoes.

Monday, January 7, 2008

New Year's List

2007 was an exciting year, and I'm looking forward to 2008. At the age of 57 I feel a whole new phase of life beginning - my three children, Anna, Sam and book, are out in the world, teaching is going well, and I'm now contemplating the next projects. There's an article in the weekend paper about baby boomers making lists of what they want to do before they die. My list is simple: I want to publish more books, do more travelling, and spend more time in the country and/or by the sea.

I'd also, at some point in the future, like to fall in love again, join a choir, downsize to a smaller, possibly communal dwelling, and find more time for reading. Actually, I'd like to clone myself so that one of me does nothing but read - newspapers, websites, the "New Yorker" plus "Geist", "Maisonneuve," "Brick," "Walrus" and other great Canadian mags. And of course stacks and stacks of books. While that Beth sits happily reading, the other Beth is writing, teaching and living her life unimpeded by guilt about not finding time to read. Sigh.

"True to life," my Ryerson course, starts tonight and there's still room. "Autobiography II" at U of T starts in two weeks, and my new class there, "Tell the Family Story", will launch next term. As for writing, I have finally pulled out the boxes filled with diaries and letters from the Sixties, and am immersed in rediscovering myself at age 14 and 15. Delving so deeply into the past is the gift, and the grief, of a lifelong diarist. I read my daughter a few pages, and she said, "My God, Mum, you were intense at 14!" I want to say to that 14-year old girl, just relax, it'll get better.

Because it does and it did. It sure did.

Happy New Year.