Tag Archives: reading

Writer’s “Detox” Time

My periodic absence from the blog this spring owes much to the fact that life has gone from hectic to Borderline Bananas. So now that it’s summer — and my favourite season — it’s time to yank out the keyboard for real, toss the mouse to the cat, chuck the e-toys and drive straight for the shore with a crate of beach blankets and real old-fashioned books. I’m off for a few weeks of vacation — sun, sand, fine wine and buckets of clams. Some call it Writer’s Detox; I call it heaven. Hopefully, I’ll be back with lots of good reads  from the magical land of No Distraction.

Hope your summer includes loads of great reading and good times — and that wherever you are, you’ll unplug, cool down and enjoy some peace and quiet.

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Carole Reads!

Here’s a “heads-up” for all of you who live in the Toronto area (and even if you don’t!): I’ll be reading brand-new work at a Novella Night as part of the popular WordStage Reading Series. More soon, but save the date: Wednesday, December 14th . Things get rolling at 7.30 pm, at the New Dooney’s Cafe, 296 Brunswick Avenue (south of Bloor).

Torontonians, you’ll receive a newsletter soon with more info. Hope to see you there!

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Egypt’s story: The Yacoubian Building

When I first opened The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, I have to admit that I was daunted by its roll-call of characters with unfamiliar names, done in the style of a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Instinct told me to put a bookmark on this page. Instinct was right. Since this novel is narrated from a multiple point of view, this roll-call turned out to be a very useful way of keeping track of its twelve main characters and their roles in the plot. It added to my enjoyment of this wonderful saga of modern Egypt.

The author, Alaa Al Aswany, is a journalist who lives in Cairo and who’s made his living as a dentist. The Yacoubian Building was a bestseller in the Arab world and something of a scandal because of its racy content. The Yacoubian Building is also a real location in Cairo where the author once had a dental office, and in its fictional version, the building includes a spectrum of people, most of them either complicit in or frustrated by Egypt’s culture of corruption. Check out these lucky neighbours: an ageing playboy, son of a former Prime Minister; then a devout and unhappy Muslim, his social status too low for the police work he’s smart enough to do; his struggling girlfriend who works in a dress shop and gets stuck with daily feel-ups from her boss as part of her meal ticket; a rags-to-riches businessman aiming for politics, and his ill-treated second wife; an impoverished roof-dwelling tailor who longs for a shop in the building; the denizens of a gay bar in the basement, including an aristocratic newspaper editor and the cop he can’t take his hands off. Not exactly the chaste Middle East of the nightly news with its black-clad women and earnest men. Yet the Yacoubian Building contains this fractious crew like a pot of boiling water with a tight lid. Each character holds our interest as the author builds suspense by switching points of view back and forth. We also keep reading because this is one steamy novel, although I couldn’t help wondering if sexual expression that would be normal in the West just appears to be a lot more sensual and explosive in the more inhibited Middle Eastern context. All in all, the building’s a marvelous storytelling device, a metaphor for the whole of Egyptian society, full of characters we love and loathe, a microcosm of a country on the brink. It hints at the coming revolution that finally brought Egypt to a rolling boil — and better yet, in the unravelling of their lives, the characters show us why the revolution happened. There’s nothing like fiction for helping us understand the human heart in a culture so very different from our own. Plus it’s a wonderful read.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in 2004 by Harper Collins.

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The Strangest Story of All

Out of the hundreds of books—novels, novellas, short stories, nonfiction— that I’ve read in my lifetime, none has a story as strange as the one which Christians celebrate this weekend. Whenever I read the tale of Easter, I feel perplexed. Most of us don’t. Most of us are either skeptical or unquestioning. In the first instance, what’s with a dead guy coming back to life? Resurrection’s a nice metaphor—it’s spring and the daffodils are rising from the dead, and beyond that, it’s whatever. At the opposite extreme, there are those Christians who have absolute faith in Jesus, the tombstone-roller with a string of miracles already on his resume. Easter’s the ultimate one-off. He’s God, after all.

I’m neither a dismissive skeptic nor a hard-core believer. I’m a writer who loves and appreciates the mystery of life that surrounds us, who knows that in creative moments, it’s possible to step outside the confines of time and to glimpse extraordinary visions. “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Mystery counts for me as a writer—awe and wonderment, respect for those things that we cannot understand, even as we struggle to express them in words. Mystery drives us onward. In this spirit, I’m also a student of theology, and with great literary and scholarly interest, I’ve studied the four gospels and their breathless eyewitness accounts of the first Easter morning, none of which quite agree. As a writer, I approach these heartfelt and puzzling declarations, mindful of the “luminous halo” that also enveloped those scribes of long ago, sensing the truth-value of statements that are beyond me. I conclude that there’s no way to prove or disprove the events of Easter.

Yet as a writer, I’m not dismayed by this claim of resurrection.  It’s just too mysterious, too full of wonder to dismiss outright. It’s the strangest story, real and surreal, filled with both reportage and narrative invention. It invites us to peer through the veil of time, and there the story ends. Or maybe it just keeps right on going, as good stories do, alive in the world and in us.

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Novellas at Deer Park

April is Keep Toronto Reading Month, so if you live in the city, come to the Novellas at Deer Park series on Tuesday, April 19th when I’ll be reading from my novella A Gardener on the Moon. I’ll also be talking about some of my favourite novellas and why they matter as quality reading, especially for people short on time. That’s Tuesday, April 19th from 2-3pm. Deer Park Library is located at 40 St. Clair Avenue E. (one block east of Yonge, on the north side of St. Clair), and the reading takes place in the Program Room on the 2nd floor.  Please register at 416-393-7657.

Do you write novellas? Submit four pages of an original novella with a half-page summary to Deer Park Library – marked ‘Novella’ – between August 8 to 13, 2011, to be considered for a workshop in novella writing by author and president of Quattro Books, John Calabro. The first 35 submitted will be read and the best six chosen for the workshop on Tuesday Sept 27, 6 pm.

Hope to see you on April 19th!

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Bear With Me — A Soldier’s Tale

As far as reading goes, we all have our guilty pleasures. Now I’ll admit mine — I’m nuts about animals. If it’s cute and furry, just pass the book this way. Only this time I think I’ve met my match with a true tale about a bear that’s not only incredibly endearing, brave, and kind-hearted but also historically significant. Meet Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr which recounts the true story of Private Wojtek (pronounced Voy-chek) who was enrolled in the twenty-second Company of the Polish Army Corps during World War Two, where he served not only as a mascot but as an active participant in battle.

His saga began in 1942 when Polish soldiers, recently freed from the Soviet gulag and serving with the British in Iran, bought the bear from a local child. Raised from a cub, Wojtek — which means happy warrior — modeled himself on the soldiers and thought himself one of them. He became tame, wandering around the camp, scarfing cookies and other treats, putting away a beer or two with his mates, and enjoying cigarettes, which he didn’t smoke, but ate lit (Just in case you’re skeptical about his antics, there are lots of photos in the book, and you can check Wojtek’s website at wojtekthebear.com). His transport unit made its way through Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt before shipping off to Italy to the horrific battle of Monte Cassino. There Wojtek distinguished himself by hauling artillery shells to the front lines under enemy fire with no prompting from anyone. Polish forces won the battle, but at war’s end, unable to return to their occupied country, they were allowed by the British to decamp in Scotland.

Eventually Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, where the author of this book met him when she was eight years old. Orr had never forgotten the bear’s happy wave when she said “hello” to him in Polish. Yet what makes this book more than a funny ursine version of MASH is the skillful way in which the author allows the dreadful situation of the Polish soldiers to shadow Wojtek’s often hilarious antics. The bear caper was, from the start, the act of men who’d lost everything to the Soviets — wives, children, families, possessions, homeland. Wojtek answered a need to give and receive both love and comfort, and it was a testament to these soldiers that despite their suffering in forced-labour camps, they were still capable of showing affection and kindness to an orphaned bear. One of the men, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys, acted as his chief caretaker, and as the story unfolds, Aileen Orr describes Peter’s relationship with Wojtek and gives us a sense of how the bear was solace for much of what he’d lost. Turning him over to the zoo was heartbreaking, as were the losses of war that were never redeemed, including the “big power” machinations that silenced Poland for generations.

The political cruelty of the war’s aftermath gives a thoughtful tone to this charming and nicely-written book. Its author spearheaded a successful campaign to erect a memorial in Edinburgh depicting Wojtek and his keeper, Peter Prendys. And oh yes, Wojtek has a Facebook page called Wojtek the Soldier Bear. Count me in as a fan.

That’s Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr, published in 2010 by Birlinn Limited in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land

Usually I avoid using this space to feature authors who don’t need the publicity. Yet David Grossman’s latest novel is so haunting and deeply felt, so rich in insight about a troubled part of the world that it’s a must-read. It’s a long work, and at close to six hundred pages, it builds up powerful resonance between the lives of ordinary people, sporadic violence and the strength and fragility of the natural world. Its intricate weave of storytelling is well worth your attention.

The novel’s central character, Ora, is a complex creation — passionate, conflicted, and driven to protect the life of her son, Ofer. About to be released from his army service in Israel, Ofer re-enlists for a major offensive. Distraught, Ora decides to set out on a long hike through the Galilee region, leaving no word behind of her whereabouts, so that no one can bring her dire news about the fate of her son. It’s magical thinking, but she’s convinced that by leaving home for a long-distance hike, she will somehow protect Ofer.

Ora’s just separated from her husband, Ilan, and so she cajoles her former lover Avram to come on the hike with her. Ora, Avram and Ilan were old friends from their army days, but Avram, once a brilliant and creative artist, was shattered by his wartime experience, having been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war in Egypt.  Yet as they continue on their hike, Ora keeps her son Ofer alive by telling his story to Avram. The powerful rhythm of her family tale takes on its own life and Avram — at first reluctant to listen — begins to rally and to claim the story for his own. Yet the engine that drives this novel’s intricate machinery is the walk itself — step by step, its wonderful physicality pushing words forward, connecting Ora’s tales to the strength of her body and  the land. The entire novel seems to grow up out of the earth. Ora’s passion for her country and her ambivalence about politics are sometimes spoken, sometimes not. Yet her sensuality, her alertness to nature and her commitment to the life of her son pierce through the texture of this novel and bring it to life.

Grossman is deft in his use of time-shifts and changes in point of view; his technical skills never get in the way of the story, never break the steady rhythm of the tale. For anyone who’s been to Israel, he evokes the surreal and disorienting aspects of the place; the novel’s juxtaposition of ordinary life with an undercurrent of anxiety is a feverish, unsettling reminder of what the country’s like. In fact the title To The End Of The Land is a play on Ora’s recurrent fear that Israel may cease to exist. Yet Ora is like Scheherazade, the Persian queen who saved her own life by enchanting her king with stories. Her passionate storytelling speaks to the power of life in ways she’d never imagined, and in so doing, it speaks to all of us.

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman is translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. It’s published in the U.S. by Random House and in Canada by McClelland & Stewart.

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