Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book #60: My Holiday Reading

“For weeks the kid been going on and on about how dreadful we sound.  He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them.  Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there.  But there was something.  Some seed of twisted beauty.”
                                                                                              -Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues

Ever since childhood, my favourite thing about the Christmas holidays has been the lazy, languid days of curling up in my bathrobe and doing nothing but reading all day.  And this year has been no exception.  Right now, as I write, I’m wearing my favourite black terry cloth robe, a stack of books teetering on the sofa beside me.

Not surprisingly, I got a lot of gift certificates for bookstores for Christmas.  The first book I bought was Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning Half-Blood Blues.  I read this novel in just a couple days, unable to put it down.  What a pleasure to become immersed in the strange, delicious world of this novel, the underground jazz scene of Berlin and Paris during the Second World War, as seen through the eyes of Sid Griffiths, a “half-blood” musician from Baltimore, whose skin is so light he can almost pass for white.  But just the opposite is true for others in the band, most notably Hieronymus Falk, who, despite being the youngest, is the genius of the group.  Hieronymus – “Hiero,” as he’s known – is a “Rhineland bastard.”  He’s of mixed German and African parentage, fathered by a Senegalese soldier who was serving as part of the French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after World War One.  Despite growing up being reviled for his skin and relegated to a stateless identity, Hiero has musical talents that win him the name “Little Louis.”  Sid and the others take him under their wing, as a little brother at first, but as Hiero develops as a musician and artist, his remarkable abilities lead to tensions and rivalry.  Particularly where a certain singer, Delilah Brown, is concerned.  Sid becomes enamoured from the moment he first glimpses her strangely glamorous turban and thin, stark body and mesmerizing, pale green eyes.  Although she returns his affections, to an extent, she appears far more enticed by Hiero’s musical brilliance.

This is what I found so compelling about this novel: Edugyan brings to life a slice of history that until now, I’d known very little about, yet she does so through the lens of a set of characters and relationships that are so rich they’re constantly drawing me in.  Who among us can’t relate to the predicament of being jealous of a more talented friend?  Yet what under normal circumstances would simply be clashing egos and rivalries over art and women lead to much larger, tragic events in Nazi-occupied Germany.  Sid’s guilt and tormented conscience over whether he could have done something to prevent Hiero’s capture by Nazi police, in the riveting opening scene, lays the ground for his emotional journey in the rest of the novel.

And now, I've just started reading Chattering by Louise Stern, a slim, elegant collection of stories that I stumbled upon quite randomly a few days ago at a used bookstore on Ossington.  The best $4 I’ve spent in a long time.  Narrated from the perspectives of different deaf characters, drawing upon the author’s own experience, these stories give an intriguing glimpse of what it feels like to be constantly struggling to express oneself through sign language, body language and scribbled notes – heightening the ways in which we all feel estranged from language at times.  Young and surprisingly adventurous, these characters hitchhike with strange men, sleep on the beach, wake up in weird, risky places.  In between stories, I’ve turned my attention back to Haruki Murakami’s tome-like latest novel 1Q84, which is gradually drawing me in….  So much holiday reading to do….

Photo from: here

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Book ... & Postcards from Kaslo

On Thursday night, I had dinner with my publisher to celebrate that my memoir The Reading List is now in print.  We toasted and reminisced about the past year we’ve spent working together and schemed about how to make the book launch a fun event.  (It will be at the Japan Foundation mid-February details soon to follow – you are all invited!)  She gave me my author’s copies, some of which I’ll raffle off on my blog in January.  The books are now perched on a shelf near my desk to give me inspiration as I immerse myself in writing my second book.

Speaking of which, I was very excited to receive a package in the mail last week.  I’d been eagerly awaiting it for some time, this package from the Kootenay Lake Historical Society.  It’s an archive that I stumbled upon on-line when googling “Kaslo, BC,” the site of a Japanese-Canadian Internment camp during the Second World War.  My great grandfather, Kozo Shimotakahara, was the doctor assigned to provide medical services at the camp and he has long captured my imagination; one of the characters in the historical novel I’m currently writing is loosely inspired by Kozo and he also has a cameo in my memoir.  So when I discovered that the Kootenay Lake Historical Society has volunteer archivists who could send me old photographs and newspaper articles, I jumped at the chance – even for just a first taste.  One day in the not too distant future I would love to visit Kaslo and wander through Kozo’s hospital and get my fingers dusty perusing the archive myself….

I feel as though doing historical research is a bit like wandering through an antique/junk shop, where you never can predict what you might find and suddenly desire.  The set of pictures and clippings I received in the mail contain such a range of ingredients, most of which I have no idea how they could fit into my novel.  If at all.  Nevertheless, these facts and images beckon to me and maybe it’s not a bad thing if I just let them tease my brain for months or years to come and let them half-consciously work their way into a future novel, perhaps.  For instance, I found my eyes lingering on an article written in The New Canadian about Kozo’s trailblazing efforts to treat tuberculosis, which had reached near epidemic levels in the Japanese-Canadian community before the war.  The prevalence was six times that of the normal population, largely because the Japanese farming folk in BC were ill-informed about prevention measures, didn’t speak English and were distrustful of doctors.  All too aware of this problem, in 1930, Kozo joined forces with a certain reverend to start a tuberculosis clinic that he staffed by lobbying to have “one Japanese girl” accepted into the nurse training program at Vancouver General Hospital (I wonder who she was and what was her story?).  They even managed to have an X-ray machine donated and sent over from Japan.  “Every Japanese doctor cooperated to the utmost, but among them Dr. K. Shimotakahara, a pioneer medical men, did much to aid in the important steps against tuberculosis,” writes the author of the article.  Those must have been heady days, when the community was in its infancy, and I can only imagine what Kozo must have felt being at the centre of it all. 

But then the war broke out and the Japanese became seen as traitors overnight, ushering in darker days….  I wonder what became of the clinic or whether it was ever revived after the war.  Probably not, since the Japanese-Canadian community was forcibly dispersed and assimilated in the post-war years.  The clinic had likely outlived its purpose … a fascinating blip, a glorious footnote, swallowed up by history.

Photos courtesy of Kootenay Lake Historical Society

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book #59: The Other Murakami

"They don't have compensated dating in America," Jun said.  "I wonder what these geniuses would say if an American newspaper asked them to explain why Japanese high-school girls sell it."
                                                                                               -Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup

I recently went book shopping and bought Haruki Murakami's latest novel 1Q84, a tome-like brick of a book with a close-up of a pale, beautiful, slightly melancholy Japanese woman on the cover, and Ryu Murakami's much slimmer and lighter In the Miso Soup sporting a photo of a woman in black lingerie, her head cropped off, her skin aglow in eerie red light. 

Much as I love Haruki Murakami, there's something a bit daunting about starting a 925-page novel while immersed in my own writing....  I decided to save it for the Christmas holidays and dove into the other Murakami instead.

I have vague, pleasurable memories of reading Ryu Murakami's cult classic Almost Transparent Blue as a teenager and being particularly fascinated by the character named Reiko (perhaps partly because Reiko is my middle name).  In the Miso Soup, his more recent novel, provides the same kind of gritty look at Japan's underworld through the lens of the sex trade, yet this novel provides more reflection and commentary, on the part of the narrator, than I recall in his previous work.  It closely follows the relationship between two characters: Frank, a slovenly, balding American tourist, freshly arrived in Tokyo to indulge his appetite for the sex trade, and Kenji, the twenty-year-old drifter whom Frank hires to be his guide in navigating the peepshows, lingerie pubs, bars and brothels.  While the premise of this novel may not sound overly promising - it could quickly lapse into nothing more than a prurient thrill - Murakami's art lies in his ability to provide an almost anthropological look at the two cultures, Japan and America, which the two protagonists and their strange encounter represent.  One of the most interesting concepts central to the Japanese sex trade, we learn, is known as "compensated dating," where school girls go on paid dates with businessmen - but their activities may go no further than singing karaoke.  Or they may go further; the line isn't clear.  And it isn't only school girls.  Middle-aged, frumpy women trying to pass themselves off as college students frequent the same bars where hookers hang out, vaguely entertaining the possibility of selling themselves, too, should Mr. Right walk in.  What emerges, as Kenji takes Frank through this bizarre, highly stratified underworld, is a picture of a society where the lines between intimacy, sex and prostitution have utterly blurred and money is the only currency of desire.  

I lived in downtown Osaka one summer several years ago, during my undergrad days, and I recall being both baffled and intrigued.  Perhaps it was just the area where I ended up living, but the sex trade seemed to be absolutely everywhere - hostess bars tucked between the flashing lights of Pachinko parlours, swarms of garishly made-up girls in stilettos and mini-dress uniforms running into the streets accosting the men.  It perplexed (and saddened) me because I guess I held some naive, stereotypical views of Japan as a fairly traditional society.  Instead, I found myself immersed in a place where selling sex and sexuality seemed very much in your face and integrated in everyday life.

I don't know whether I ever quite came to terms with that summer in Japan, but Murakami's critique of the extreme loneliness and hollowed out existence that seem to be driving both his Japanese and American protagonists (the latter turns out to be a psychopath) made for a fascinating read.  In the end, the novel suggests that Frank and Kenji, though they come from very different cultures, may be equally screwed up.  In one of the final scenes, after Frank has gone on a killing rampage, Kenji searches his memory trying to explain what the word bonno means in Buddhism: "I think it's usually translated as 'worldly desires.'  It's more complicated than that, but the first thing you need to know is that it's something everybody suffers from."

Photo from: here


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book #58: Writing Unrest

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.  And only recently I’d been going on about how the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration.  Now I had some all too unwelcome corroboration of what I was, or had been.”
                                                                                                 -Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is replete with all the ingredients I’ve always loved in novels: intrigue, sexual secrets, and a complex matrix of desire kicked into gear by a missing piece of writing.  No wonder that it recently won the Man Booker prize.  This elegant, 150-page novella opens with the main character, Tony Webster’s glance backward at his high school days in 1960s England, a place where he and his admittedly pretentious clique of friends got high on Baudelaire and Dostoevsky and debated grand questions like the origins of war.  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” says Adrian Finn, the genius of the group.  Thus, early on, the novel establishes its fascination with the limitations of history and memory and writing – themes that Tony obsesses over, particularly as he gets older.

But “history” in this novel means personal history.  Personal history of the most intimate kind.  When the boys grow up and go off to university, Tony gets a girlfriend, an elusive beauty named Veronica who strings him along for several months until he dumps her – only to discover that she’s hooked up with his old pal Adrian.  Incensed, Tony has a vague recollection of penning a nasty letter.  Shortly after, Adrian kills himself for reasons that aren’t at all clear.  Through a strange turn of events, decades later, Tony comes in contact with Veronica when it turns out that her mother has in her possession the late Adrian’s diary – again, for reasons that aren’t at all clear – and she has left it in her will to Tony.  It might contain the key to the secret of why Adrian couldn’t bear to go on living.  Yet Veronica has stolen the diary, setting the stage for a bizarre series of emails whereby Tony attempts to wrest the diary from her.  Instead, what she sends him is his old letter – replete with his callow, biting (yet hilarious and sardonic) words.  He is brought face to face with the cruelty of his younger self and the disastrous consequences his writing unleashed. 

While the ending delivers a perverse twist, the most interesting aspect for me is Tony’s unraveling upon confronting his own former words.  It is as though he repressed all memory of his writing; the letter seems as alien as if another person penned it, yet his writing is unmistakable.  Fear of confronting and despising but nevertheless being forced to take responsibility for a former piece of your own writing strikes me as a fear that is especially resonant with writers.  It certainly is with me.  Here we are in November, a few months before my first book is set to be released, and I find myself waking up in cold sweats, tormented not so much by the possibility that readers won’t like my book, but rather by the possibility that two, five, ten years down the road, I may not like the book.  Like Tony, I might barely even recognize my writing … or who knows?  Perhaps a disastrous train of events is about to be kicked into gear in my personal life, as a result of its publication. 

Paranoid?  Me?

But what’s written is written.

So as Barnes says in the final sentence of his novel, “There is great unrest,” yet what can a writer do except keep on writing?

Photo from: here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Addicted to House Hunting

Over the past six weeks, my boyfriend and I have been shopping for a house.  I’ve come to realize that I take a strange pleasure in wandering through these houses of varying styles and levels of decrepitude – some still inhabited, others hauntingly empty, others carefully accented with generic furniture brought in by a stager giving the house the feel of a theatrical stage set.  The houses that still shows signs of authentic habitation are by far the most interesting.  There’s something quite delicious about running my fingertips over a stranger’s bookshelf and pulling down a novel I’ve been longing to read and finding a hand-written message inside, or opening a closet and finding a pair of beat-up ballet slippers or a tangled bathrobe.

Yes, I could imagine myself living here.

Back in my moribund grad student days, I wrote a good deal of my dissertation on the relationship between novels and houses.  Although I no longer speak that academic language (thank God!), there’s a part of me that remains fascinated by how novels use houses to tell the story of a protagonist’s state of mind, status and relationship to place.  It’s a sad fate indeed for those characters who can’t find a home – think of Lily Bart, the wayward heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, for instance.  An impoverished socialite, Lily sponges off her wealthy friends who have decadent country houses, yet it’s the comfort of Selden Lawrence’s more modest home that catches her fancy, the bookshelves in particular: “She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke.  Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure of agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities.”  As Lily sinks down the social hierarchy, the novel charts her decline in terms of her increasingly tasteless and dreary surroundings, until she is finally left in a sparsely furnished tenement room: “The shabby chest of drawers was spread with a lace cover, and set out with a few gold-topped boxes and bottles, a rose-coloured pin-cushion, a glass tray with tortoise-shell hair-pins….  These were the only traces of luxury.” 

In light of my love of this novel, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the most evocative houses I toured during our house hunt were places that I wouldn’t want to live in.  They’re places that give me glimpses into other people’s lives – lives on the “other side of the social tapestry,” as Wharton puts it.  On a whim, we visited a dilapidated white clapboard house at Bloor and Lansdowne that turned out to be an illegal rooming house.  I know from my father that after the war, my grandparents ran a boarding house in this part of Toronto, and so I felt that in a curious way, I was getting a glimpse of that other world and time while peering into these cramped, dingy quarters and gingerly walking up precarious staircases and knocking on bedroom doors (or at least, the real estate agent did, while I cowered behind).  Many of the boarders didn’t want to let us in, and it made me sad to think about how this was their last-ditch effort to claim a kind of squatter’s sovereignty.  Yet even as they shut the door in our faces, I found myself peering over their shoulders, entranced by the curious shrines some of these people had set up on their dressers, candles and incense burning all round, the hint of earthier substances in the air, and one woman had a string strung around the entire perimeter of her room, from which dangled hundreds of pairs of colourful sunglasses.

Although we weren’t serious about buying houses of this sort, I remained eager to keep touring them as a kind of research for my historical novel, part of which takes place in the Bloor Lansdowne neighbourhood in the 1950s, in a boarding house similar to my grandparents’….  So for me, the house hunt was doubling as a sort of field expedition, but I think our real estate agent was getting tired of our dithering.  Alas.

Yesterday evening, we purchased a fairly decrepit, but structurally sound Victorian house full of architectural possibilities (Chris is an architect, so we are looking to take on a “project” house).  The house is at the slightly more gentrified end of the Lansdowne neighbourhood, but close enough that I will be able to walk past my grandparents’ old house every day, communing with ghosts of my family past.

Photo from: here

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Fortuitous Connection

When I first started this blog a year and a half ago, I was just experimenting with another form of writing....  I had no idea it was going to lead me to an invaluable source for my new novel.  As I've mentioned before, I’m currently writing an historical novel partly inspired by my great grandfather, Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara’s life as a doctor at a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during the Second World War.  But never did it occur to me that someone with a connection to Kozo would stumble across one of my blog posts and contact me to send me this photograph of my great grandparents taken on their wedding day.

Over the past month, I’ve learned a lot about Kozo’s life from my new online friend, Todd.  Todd came across my blog when he did a Google search on Kozo Shimotakahara’s name – not knowing exactly who the man was.  He’d become intrigued by Kozo upon noticing his signature upon his great grandmother’s and her cousin’s death certificates, so he gathered that Kozo had been a Vancouver doctor before the war.  When he found the above wedding picture in his parents' possession, he figured that the Shimotakaharas might have been old friends of his great grandparents from the old days of Japantown.  It seems that when Kozo first arrived in Canada he stayed at a Japanese Christian Missionary in Victoria, BC, where Todd's great grandfather was a preacher.  The original photo was mottled with dirt and dust specks, so Todd skillfully photoshopped it (thanks Todd!)

As we discussed in our flurry of emails, Kozo and his wife Shin don’t look terribly happy on their wedding day.  Perhaps this is simply due to the limitations of photographic technology at the time: the poser had to remain perfectly still and hold the same expression for a long time, which could be cumbersome.  But I can’t help but read a certain hardness in both their faces – their stone-chiseled lips send chills down my spine.  Clearly, these are two incredibly willful people, as one might expect of a Christian missionary (Shin was one of the first in Japan) and a pioneering doctor (Kozo was the first Japanese-Canadian doctor and also a highly religious man).

Despite all the mythologizing in my family, discrepancies and lacunae about their lives abound.  My grandmother, who was our family historian, used to write hortatory essays based on the stories Kozo had told her.  According to her, Kozo left Kagoshima-ken, Japan at age fourteen  with a mere 5 yen, which his mother had earned by selling eggs, and immigrated to Vancouver where he worked as a houseboy and enrolled in elementary school to learn his ABCs.  Later, he went on to graduate from University of Chicago medical school.  I could never understand how Kozo became a doctor just like that.  Yet Todd has discovered a more textured narrative through some fascinating genealogical research.  He has sent me a border crossing record, photocopied from Vancouver Public Library, stating in the registrar’s slanted, slightly smudged writing that Kozo entered the United States on September 24, 1911, to attend Valparaiso University in Indiana.  He had $50 on him and was 5 feet, 2 inches tall.  A bit of online research reveals that Valparaiso was a Methodist, no frills institute of higher learning that did not have a med school.  So I wonder if Kozo enrolled there and then proceeded to University of Chicago, or whether his journey took a more circuitous route?  And why did he never tell anyone in our family about this interlude in his life?  Although I may never know for certain, these periods of struggle and self-formation when he was a young man tease at my imagination and after a while he ceases to feel like my ancestor – he becomes a character alive in my head.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book #57: Writing Memory

"His skin was warm-toned and Mediterranean and he made her think of Paris when she was twenty-one.  Her honeymoon with Marty, and it was Marty she was thinking about, really, and she didn't want to be thinking about him.  Marty had remarried and had a child on the way and he called her every night when his wife conked out with exhaustion."               -Lisa Moore, Alligator

A few years ago, I took a creative writing seminar and I recall the instructor talking about how important it is for a young writer to read and learn from the early works of the writers she admires.  "Pay attention to how the sentences move," I recall her saying.  "Passages that you find moving you should copy out by hand and always use a pen you really like writing with.  I recommend fountain pen."

In recent days, as I've been pressing on with writing my historical novel, approaching page 130, as of this morning, I've found myself reading and rereading Lisa Moore.  I loved her second novel February when I read it last year (and blogged about it here), so I eagerly went out to buy her first novel Alligator, which I've been luxuriating over for the past couple weeks.  This novel is peculiarly structured for a novel; it reads more like a set of interweaving short stories, where there are no minor characters.  Every character - from Frank, the hot dog vendor, to Colleen, the teenage delinquent and environmental activist - is compellingly rendered and given a unique interior voice and past.  And Moore's imagery is nothing short of stunning, even, especially, in rendering the minute details of everyday life: "The egg white stretched itself into opaque skeins and transparent veils and broke away from the yolk and frothed over the sides of the pot and settled back down."  But more than the sheer lyricism of her images, it's the way that her characters relate to these lyrical moments that makes her writing so memorable and true to life.  Their awareness of the sensuous details of the world around them are constantly taking them on detours into memory, unearthing before the reader all kinds of idiosyncratic facets of their pasts.  

In this respect, Madeleine, the aging film director, is perhaps the character who speaks to me most vividly.  Her aspiration to make an historical film about Archbishop Fleming becomes the driving force of her life.  Although it's never all that clear what the film is about, it's clear that Madeleine envisions her film as something far greater than a local colour documentary about her hometown, St. John's, Newfoundland (Moore's hometown and the setting of her novel).  In Madeleine's mind, "The film was about the desolate, violent landscape and human triumph over nature, but it was also, in a much quieter, private way, about evil.  A community in the grip of some religious fervour that had sprung out of the tyranny of mild, constant hunger and giving over."  But the irony of Madeleine's grand gesture is that her emotions are constantly pulling her away from her historical project and into the recesses of her own memory.  In the end, her film fades into the background compared to her continual reliving of the wreckage of her marriage to Marty and her endless, ineluctable struggle to recapture the early days of their passionate affair, in Paris, at twenty-one.  While her film may never see the light of day, her own life and the intimate details of all the characters whose lives revolve around the making of her film are elevated to near cinematic proportions.  And yet, they always remain wonderfully prosaic and down to earth.

If Alligator is in some ways a novel about the impossibility of telling a straight story about history, in favour of indulging in the digressive pleasures of storytelling and memory, it certainly sparked some thoughts in my mind about how not to write an historical novel.

Photo from: here

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Read an Excerpt

I thought it might be fun to give you a little sneak peak of my memoir, The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, before it's released in February.  Click here to read an excerpt.  An overview of the book as a whole can be found here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book #56: My Return Trip

“And sometimes in this fantasy I buy the house we used to live in, the rambling house down the highway, in the valley.  I have imagined it as neglected, needing paint, new gutters, perhaps even falling apart, everything around it overgrown and gone to seed.”
                                                                                             -Alice Adams, Return Trips

Monday night was a cool, rainy night, and that seemed fitting.  I attended my great aunt Sachi’s funeral, where the pianist played her favourite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”  I came home, exhausted from seeing everyone, made myself a cup of tea and stared at my bookshelf for a long time.  I was thinking about her house as I remembered it from my youth: a fascinating, slightly decrepit, rambling house on Gladstone Avenue, with built-in bookshelves jam-packed with books, and more books in teetering piles on the dusty floor.  Although most people probably remember Sachi for her paintings (she used to be a high school art teacher and had several striking watercolours she’d painted, hanging on her walls), I would always remember her first and foremost for her tastes in literature.  She had been a huge influence on me during my teen years, introducing me to authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami and Alice Adams.  In fact, as my eyes swept back and forth along my bookshelf, they settled on a book that had once belonged to Aunt Sachi.  I would like to say that she gave it to me, but I’m pretty sure she lent it to me some two decades ago, and I’d conveniently forgotten to return it.  And now I never would; tears filled my eyes.  The book was Return Trips, a subtle, evocative collection of stories by Alice Adams.

I curled up on the sofa and began reading the title story and was surprised to discover that I remembered everything about it vividly.  It is a story about the cryptic nature of memory and first passion.  The narrator, a middle-aged history professor, looks back on her youthful love affair with a man named Paul, who was fatally ill with a heart condition, so that “Even love . . . was for Paul a form of torture, although we kept at it – for him suicidally, I guess – during those endless, sultry yellow afternoons, on our awful bed, between our harsh, coarse sheets.”  While their affair appears luminous – the love of her life – compared to her troubled two marriages, she comes to realize that her continual desire to remember their affair is more about a desire to revisit a certain moment, or place, within herself.  In the same way that she obsessively circles back in her memory to Paul, she indulges in imaginative returns to Hilton, the southern town where she lived for a short while during her adolescence and found a surprising, enchanting happiness that stands out in sharp contrast to her otherwise troubled youth.  So much so that she often fantasizes about returning to their old house in Hilton and perhaps even staying there, leaving her husband for good.  But when the narrator finally enacts her dream of going back, she finds that the house has lost its magical quality: far from being in a state of romantic decay, it has been modernized and retrofitted to house a bunch of transient students.

These fantasies of return, however alluring, the book seems to suggest, are best kept as fantasies.  Upon being probed too closely, the past yields nothing more than that it is no longer as you imagined.

I found it strangely moving to read this story, while thinking about Aunt Sachi.  You see, for the past few years, ever since I began writing again, I’ve been harbouring an almost obsessive wish to ask her about our family past.  There were certain family secrets to which she’d alluded when I was a child, and I knew she was the one person who’d remained close to my grandfather right up to the time he died tragically, before I was born (I address some of this material in my memoir The Reading List, being published in the spring).  And besides, Aunt Sachi must have known things about my great grandfather, her father, the illustrious Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara.  After all, she’d lived with him at the internment camp in British Columbia, where he was the camp doctor during the Second World War; she had been right there at the scene that has for so long enticed my imagination.  So I often pictured myself going over to her house for tea one afternoon, and perhaps slyly turning on a small digital recorder, while she would tell me everything that I yearned to know. 

But I never went to see her, because I knew that in reality things would not play out this way.

My father had already tried to talk to her – confronting her about some of the demons in our family closet – and she had completely shut down.  Her face blanched; she excused herself.  It had taken them a few years to repair their relationship.

Rereading Return Trips made me feel that I now understood why; the past is best confronted imaginatively and from a distance.

Photo from: here

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book #55: My Book Delayed (& other things making me antsy...)

"It was October and Isabella felt like she should be going somewhere.  Fall always did that to her.  It made her restless, like she was late getting back to school; like she should be registering for classes, and buying pencils and notebooks and folders that matched."
                                                                                   -Jennifer Close, Girls in White Dresses

Over the past week, three people have asked me when they'll be receiving invitations to my book launch.  Sadly, I've had to tell them that it's now official: my book's publication is being delayed until the spring (February 2012).  I won't bore you with the reasons for the delay - suffice it to say that my publisher promises my memoir The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again will be out this spring, which she sees as a better time to have the book launch anyway.  I can't deny feeling a pang of disappointment when I first heard the news, followed by a whirlwind of anxiety (if publishing a book is a bit like giving birth, the thought of carrying this baby around for an extra few months is disconcerting, to say the least).  But now that I've gotten used to the idea of a spring launch, I'm feeling better and, to be perfectly honest, I'm awash with something strangely akin to relief.

Very few people have read my book yet (my agent, my publisher, my boyfriend and the sweet authors who wrote endorsement blurbs - thanks Emma, Kerri and Micah!) and I suspect that when my book is out in the world, I'll go through a period of feeling awkward around everyone, even those people who have no interest in reading, much less any interest in my book.  But knowing myself, that's how I'll probably feel.  So there's a part of me that relishes the idea of a few more months of mental peace, allowing me to just immerse myself in writing my next book.

In any case, I've been soothing my frazzled nerves by reading something on the lighter side.  I just finished Girls in White Dresses, Jennifer Close's delightful, humorous debut collection of linked stories.  It's hard to pinpoint what I liked so much about this book, but I have to say it captures a certain mood very well and allowed me to see versions of my earlier selves.  These stories focus on the interlocking lives of a group of friends who move to New York in their early twenties, after graduating from university, but instead of realizing their dreams, they embark on a decade of just kind of stumbling through life, mired in anxiety and self-doubts, while drowning in late-night martinis.  Isabella, the main character, is "surprised to find that she could do her job in a constantly hungover state," unsure whether to be grateful or to take it as a sign of being understimulated in her entry level position at a mailing list company.  Startled by her friend Mary's ability to come up with a "life plan" and apply to law school, Isabella takes the scenic route in searching for her dream job and dream guy - always feeling as if she's somehow falling behind, late at doing everything, like getting married and having kids, envying her friends who seem so much more on track.  But as the author skillfully reveals, these friends who seem on track are actually besieged by other pressures, the fissures all too visible in their seemingly perfect lives.

Ironically, when Isabella finally does come up with a life plan, and claws her way up in the publishing industry, she finds that industry unravelling at her feet.  And worse yet, her boyfriend Harrison - whom she worries she's been dating too long to end up with - is forced to take a job in Boston, presenting Isabella with the dilemma of whether to leave her beloved New York and go with him.  Life in this book is full of these kinks.  In the end, coming up with a "life plan" appears highly overrated; far better to just try to adapt to whatever unexpected turns life throws your way, and wash it down with something strong.  Which is what I'm trying to do (with varying degrees of success) by not over-stressing about my book delay....

Photo from: here 

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Writer's Death

Feeling a bit melancholy this Labour Day weekend.  The weekend got off to a sad start, when I had drinks with some of the other writers in my writing circle at a pub in the queer village.  Normally, when I see them it's to workshop our writing or clink glasses at a book launch.  But this time, we were having drinks because one of the writers in our group recently died in what appears to have been suicide. 

Wendy was a fascinating woman - warm, funny, anxious, vulnerable, fragile.  I recall her sexy librarian glasses and dimpled smile and insistence that she "wasn't a writer," even though we all insisted her writing was improving greatly; she was well on her way to finding her voice.  But what made Wendy particularly fascinating was that despite her fairly normal exterior, she came from a troubled past, to say the least: she'd been a child sex worker.  And she talked very openly about it.  After escaping an abusive home, she aged out of the foster care system and found herself on the street working as a sex worker (Wendy was always careful to use the word "sex worker," rather than "prostitute" - she'd made a career for herself as an activist working to advocate for sex worker protection and child protection, and was even pursuing her law degree at Osgoode, when she died).

The memoir that she was working on chronicled parts of her painful past, which, however turbulent, she captured with a good shot of humour.  I recall her reading aloud scenes of sex and violence that made my own life feel incredibly tame (one scene involved a hermaphrodite), yet the overriding feeling that came through in her writing, I would say, was a sense of horrible loneliness and searching.  Here was a woman who desperately wanted to be loved - because she'd never felt loved - and that made her susceptible to being exploited by a certain man, who occupied a central part of her memoir.

Yet it seemed to all of us that Wendy was at a really positive place in her life, despite the fact that she'd missed the past few workshops, and maybe been languishing in depression.  I was stunned by the news of her death.

One of the writers draped a bright pink feather boa over the chair at the head of the table, and we toasted to Wendy's life.

Although her memoir will probably never be shared with the world, I'm glad she wrote what she did.  Her words will stay with me.

Photo from: here

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book #54: The Other Side of My Bookshelf

"Darwinians, with their unconscious teleology, as usual put forward hypotheses about the possible selective advantages of the emergence of consciousness, but, as usual, these didn't explain anything; they were just so-so stories, no more.  Then again, the anthropogenic model was hardly more convincing: life had thrown up something which could contemplate itself, a mind capable of understanding it, but so what?  That in itself didn't make understanding human consciousness any easier."                                                           -Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles

A couple weeks ago, my agent Sam had a bunch of us over, and upon opening the second bottle of wine, one of the other writers there put forth the question: if you had to recommend just one book to the group, what would it be?  We went around the room, and people waxed lyrical about Flannery O'Connor, Marguerite Duras and Toni Morrison . . . all beloved friends on my bookshelf.  But Sam's choice caught my attention: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq.  I was struck by this title because I have it on my bookshelf - or to be more precise, I should say we have it on our bookshelf.  When my boyfriend Chris and I moved in together a little over a year ago, we combined our two book collections into an encyclopedic wall of books, and I often find myself, late at night, if I can't sleep, venturing over to the shelves dominated by Camus, Sartre and Musil - all those existentialist Continental authors whom I've never really gotten into.  The Elementary Particles was tucked alongside this set.  I'd observed Chris flipping through it and rereading sections a few times; he'd mentioned that the novel had stayed with him.  So in picking up this book, I had high hopes indeed: I was hoping to gain insight into both my agent's and boyfriend's unique minds (and the male mind more generally, if such an abstraction can be said to exist).

I was not disappointed.  The Elementary Particles puts under the microscope the strange, symbiotic relationship between two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, who on the surface appear polar opposites.  Michel is an almost asexual, brilliantly gifted molecular biologist whose only sense of connection to humanity is through his beloved body of research into the origins of human consciousness and individuality from the primal muck of animal life.  Bruno, on the other hand, is animal man incarnate.  The novel traces the vicissitudes in their love lives, as Michel is granted a second chance with Annabelle, his childhood sweetheart, a girl of extraordinary delicate beauty, and Bruno find love in the most unlikely of places: at a beachside orgy, where he meets Christiane, a cynical older woman whose taste for orgies proves not at all incompatible with a sensitive, wonderfully generous soul.  Fleeting moments of connection and lyrical beauty are possible in such relationships, the author seems to suggest, but in the end both Michel's and Bruno's affections are exposed as elusive and unstable.  Perhaps the most moving scene occurs just after Christiane has been paralyzed - depriving her of the carnal pleasure so core to her being.  Bruno steps forward for a glimmering moment:  "He kissed her on both cheeks, then on the lips. 'Now you can come to Paris and move in with me,' he said.  'Are you sure that's what you want?'  He didn't answer, or at least he hesitated."

Ultimately, Bruno's disappointment with his own inability to overcome the bounds of his own selfishness and believe in a form of love that transcends the fragile, ruined body seems to be at the heart of the author's disenchantment with the human race.  Yet I was surprised to discover that some reviewers - most notably, The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani - have dismissed this novel as nothing more than an unsparing case study of humanity's vileness.  For me, Michel's and Bruno's search for something more - whatever that "more" might be (a new mode of existence? a new mode of writing? a new way of inhabiting the world and our bodies?) - is a pay-off unto itself.  Reading about their search and its tragic limits filled me with melancholy awe and moments of piercing awareness that few authors are capable of provoking.

Photo from: here  


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book #53: The Paradox of Holocaust Fiction

"She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock.  Then slipped the key into her pocket."                                                              -Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah's Key

I just finished reading Sarah's Key, a novel that I wanted to love.  I wanted to love it and indeed learn from it, since I'm currently working on an intergenerational historical novel - and who better to learn from than an author whose novel has been made into a successful filmTatiana de Rosnay carries off her interweaving of past and present storylines with consummate skill, and yet I have to say I found something profoundly unsatisfying about the result.  

The historical plot focuses on Sarah Starzynski, a young Jewish French girl who suddenly finds her entire life under siege, when the French police, working under Nazi orders, evict the Starzynski family from their apartment in Paris and throw them into concentration camps in the French countryside.  But Sarah's torment is compounded by a personal guilt: in an attempt to save her little brother from the police, she locks him in a tiny closet, and only later, after she and her parents have been dragged away, realizes the consequences of her actions.  This strand of the novel I found utterly compelling and moving in how vividly it brings to life the horror of everyday-life-turned-upside-down through the eyes of a young girl.

Yet the present storyline that intersects with this narrative falls flat.  Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, discovers that the apartment her French husband has inherited was once inhabited by the Starzynski family and the tragic events that unfolded there come to haunt her conscience - leading to upheaval in her personal life.  While all the characters are skillfully depicted enough, I found myself unable to become emotionally invested in their crises: a marriage on the rocks, an unplanned pregnancy, the stresses of busy careers.  These normal concerns of contemporary life seem trivial and meaningless, juxtaposed with the unfathomable sadness of Sarah's plight.

And yet, don't get me wrong, it isn't that I wished de Rosnay had stuck strictly with the historical plot by telling the entire novel from Sarah's perspective.  To do so would have led to an utterly bleak novel (for who can honestly imagine a happy outcome for Sarah?)  No, I see why the author felt the need to allow for some moment of redemption through Julia's coming to terms with her sense of collective guilt.  Yet by creating Julia as a kind of stand-in for me, the reader, guiding my emotional response, I found my emotions invariably falling short of what I felt they should be, given the history at stake.  Perhaps this is the risk or paradox that any novelist may face in attempting to represent the Holocaust?  Shedding a few tears over Julia's angst felt like an overly sentimental and self-indulgent response, and yet I can't say how I would have told this story differently.

Photo from: here 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

At The Glass Menagerie

Over the weekend, I saw a marvellous play with my mother – The Glass Menagerie, at Soulpepper Theatre.  I took her to see it for her birthday.  As my mom and I were waiting for the play to start, I was reading Tennessee Williams’ bio in the programme and a couple sentences jumped out at me.  I read aloud: “Success came after poverty and odd jobs, a nervous breakdown, three attempts to get his undergraduate degree and a first play that flopped.  He was 34 years old.”

My mom looked over with mirthful, ironic eyes.  “That is so you!”

I’m turning 34 this year, and my first book will be published shortly (hopefully this fall, though my publisher tells me we may need to delay until early spring….)  I’m crossing my fingers it won’t be a flop, like Williams’ first play.  My dissertation rather fell on its face, so I’m counting that as getting my initial flop out of my system.  And like Williams, I suffered a breakdown while peddling my trade as an adjunct prof in the backwaters of Nova Scotia, which I definitely consider an “odd job.” 

My mother smiled and we settled back in our seats to a play that we both agreed was the best we’d seen in quite a while.  The matriarch at the centre of The Glass Menagerie is Amanda Wingfield, a faded southern beauty who parades around the living room of her shabby apartment in St. Louis, driving her two adult children, Tom and Laura, mad with stories of all her “gentleman callers” and former glory.  The actor who plays Amanda (Nancy Palk) brings just the right balance of manic energy and melancholy nostalgia to the role.  That her search to find a husband for timid, awkward Laura is doomed from the beginning is something everyone in the audience can just feel in their bones.  Laura is a strange, almost autistic young woman caught in a perpetual state of girlhood, her only interest playing with a menagerie of tiny glass animals.  Meanwhile, Tom – a factory worker and would-be poet – proves no less fragile and fallible on his own journey to escape the stifling conditions of home.

Their vulnerability makes these characters fascinating to watch, and most importantly, you can really feel their suffering.  And yet, even the darkest scenes are cut through with flashes of levity and beauty – a boy Laura had a crush on in high school nicknames her “Blue Roses,” because he misheard her say she suffers from pleurosis.  These fleeting moments of connection, humour and intense feeling somehow make all the suffering of life worthwhile, the play seems to suggest. 

The following evening, “Blue Roses” still lingering in my mind, I couldn’t resist renting Blue Valentine – a no less tragic, beautiful movie about lost love and thwarted expectations.  Just to make sure I’d thoroughly worked myself up into an emotional lather.

And the next morning, after a lethargic spell of a few days, I found that the words were flowing again.  What a relief.  I didn’t leave my desk for the next several hours, immersed once again in writing the world of my novel.

Photo from: here

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book #52: What's Historical about the Historical Novel? Toni Morrison's Latest Novel

"I will keep one sadness.  That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me.  Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her."

                                                                                                    -Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Recently, I've found myself craving historical fiction ... perhaps because I'm trying to write an historical novel myself.  Seeking to learn from the master of this genre, I picked up Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy. It's a surprisingly slender novel, but perhaps one of her most ambitious.  It seems as though throughout her career, Morrison has been progressively stepping back in time: beginning with her partly autobiographical first novel, The Bluest Eye; winning the Pulitzer Prize for her masterpiece Beloved, set in the antebellum South; and now receding even further into the historical imagination with A Mercy, set in the 1680s when slavery and the very idea of "America" were still in embryonic form.

The mercy at the core of the story concerns a young slave girl named Florens, born into slavery at a plantation in Maryland.  Yet Florens is not your typical slave girl; since childhood, she was "never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes," leading her mother to accuse her of putting on the airs of a "Portuguese lady," and she is quick to learn how to write from an old Reverend who secretly teaches her.  When Jacob Vaark, an adventurer from the North, visits the plantation to claim repayment on a debt, he finds the plantation in financial ruins.  In lieu of the debt, Jacob is offered payment in the form of a slave, and although he finds the slave trade distasteful, on a whim, he accepts Florens - perhaps moved by how the girl's mother beseeches him, kneeling on the ground.

But Florens' life on the Vaark farm - particularly after the master dies - proves anything but serene.  She becomes part of a strange survivors' colony of displaced women, centred around the master's wife Rebekka, a woman who might just as easily have been a prostitute back in England, had she not opted for her arranged marriage overseas.  The voices of these eccentric characters are all vividly rendered, but what I found most enticing about this novel is the emotional conundrum at its core.  Uprooted from the only home she knew and torn away from her mother, Florens is stripped of her identity and left flailing to forge a new self in the wild, never able to understand or forgive her abandonment - ironically, the "mercy" that was her mother's greatest sacrifice.

As I thought further about this historical novel, it occurred to me that what makes it so delightfully readable is actually the dearth of historical details.  The history of the period is used very sparingly, more implied than explained.  For instance, as Jacob tours the D'Ortega plantation, the "tobacco odor, so welcoming when he arrived, now nauseated him.  Or was it the sugared rice, the hog cuts fried and dripping with molasses, the cocoa Lady D'Ortega was giddy about?"  These carefully chosen details about what he was served for lunch encapsulate a whole history of conspicuous consumption and plantation culture, which, however fascinating, never overpowers the story.  History does not intrude on the emotions of the characters who drive the narrative.
A couple weeks ago, I was at my writing workshop, where my friend Diane warned me against the pitfalls of using too much historical research and exposition in my novel.  She quoted the author David Gilmour: "It's not what you put into your writing, it's what you take out."  Too true.  Time to read A Mercy again....  So much to be learned from Morrison's pared down aesthetics.

Photo from: here                                                                                                                     

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book #51: Stereotypes and Desire

"Whatever Sam Finkler wanted, his effect on Julian Treslove was always to put him out of sorts and make him feel excluded from something.  And false to a self he wasn't sure he had."
                                                                                  -Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

This morning after awaking from a turbulent dream, I made myself a double espresso and curled up on the sofa with Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I've been reading for the past couple weeks.  This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize last year, gives a brilliant and hilarious glimpse into the fantasy life of Julian Treslove, a man who has envied his Jewish friend, Sam Finkler, since childhood days, and at some primal level yearns to be Jewish himself.  Something of an artist manque and failure when it comes to relationships with women, despite years of womanizing - particularly after landing a job as an impersonator of Brad Pitt - Treslove has a love-hate relationship with Finkler, who seems to be everything he is not.  Successful.  Bitingly funny.  Rich.  Centred in his sense of self and heritage.  Married to the late Tyler Finkler, an impressive Jewish woman, whom Treslove was disappointed to discover, after their tryst in the sack years ago, was actually only a converted Jew.

That elusive thing Finkler possesses is constantly slipping away from Treslove, eluding his grasp.  For the rest of the morning, this book made me smile as I indulged in the happy-sad, melancholy-ironic ups and downs of Treslove's journey through a world where stereotypes and desire map on to each other, and one can only be experienced through the other.

And might I venture as a personal aside, that this absurd yet real predicament goes beyond Jewishness?  As I was reading this novel, I found myself thinking about all the bizarre moments in my own life, most of them involving ex-boyfriends, when it became clear that my "Japaneseness" somehow made me desirable.  I can recall one or two guys during university telling me that in some strange, inexplicable way they felt Japanese, and dating me was helping to bring this side of themselves out (admittedly a good deal of drinking was involved in these late night confessions).  As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian who doesn't speak the language, and who had a near breakdown when I lived in Japan for a summer several years ago, I myself have never felt very Japanese and have often felt there's something strangely misleading about my Japanese appearance.  But such is the ironic reality of living in an age where stereotypes make people desirable....        

Photo from: here

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Doc Shimo & Other Ghosts of Kaslo

About a month ago, I blogged about receiving a mysterious phone call from a woman who used to know my great grandfather, the late Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara, the dashing older man furthest left in this photo.  (If you'd like, you can here that blog entry here).  Well, over the past month, I have been communicating with this woman quite a bit (for purposes of protecting her privacy - she's an elderly lady who probably values her privacy - I'll call her "Norah").  Emailing back and forth and chatting on the phone with Norah has been very exciting because I'm currently working on a historical novel based on my great grandfather's life during the Second World War, when he was a doctor at the above internment camp in Kaslo, BC.  Getting to know Norah and hearing about her memories of my great grandfather - "the great Doc Shimo," as she calls him - has been a fascinating experience.

First of all, I had no idea that he was so adored by the Kaslo locals, or that he was seen as such an eccentric, trailblazing man.  According to Norah, a teenager at the time of the war, her experience getting to know Doc Shimo utterly dispelled the government propaganda disseminated about Japanese-Canadians.  At first, most people in the community weren't pleased by the prospect of having their little mountain town inundated by 3000 evacuees, who had been labelled as "the enemy," and they were even less thrilled that the internment camp was to be built in deserted buildings right within the town.  Kaslo, being a ghost town, had no shortage of deserted hotels and derelict buildings - relics of the gold rush days.  These buildings were retrofitted into tenement houses, where dozens of Japanese-Canadian families were crowded in.  Not your ideal living conditions.  But once Doc Shimo set up shop as the camp's physician, the locals quickly realized that they could benefit from having a doctor of his sophistication and skill set a stone's throw away.  Norah told me that when her brother contracted a severe case of bronchitis from working at the local mine, Doc Shimo treated him by giving him one of the earliest shots of penicillin.  When the boy asked, "How much?"  Doc Shimo said, "Give me your wallet!"  Peeling out $3, he said, "This'll have to do."

Norah's father, an artist, who had been deaf since childhood, befriended Doc Shimo.  It seems that the two men bonded because Norah's father had also felt discriminated against by certain locals, on account of his disability.  Thus Doc Shimo often drove out to Norah's home by the beach (as the camp doctor, he was allowed special privileges; his car was never confiscated, unlike the cars of other internees).  He sat to have his portrait painted.  Apparently, he told funny stories about his days working as a waiter in Chicago to put himself through med school.  According to Norah, he was a very charming man who could be a bit of a ham.  Upon glimpsing the boats lining the shore, Doc Shimo begged to be allowed to take one out.  Hitching up his pants and climbing into a small life boat, he had a strange way of rowing.  Rather than facing backwards, Doc Shimo faced forward rowing fisherman style (probably a habit acquired from his teenage summers working as a fisherman's apprentice).

Later, when Norah wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life ("there were no school guidance counsellors, back in those days," she informed me), Doc Shimo encouraged her to consider UBC's nursing program.  A few years later, she had the pleasure, as a newly minted RN, of assisting with the birth of a baby, working alongside "my idol ... the good Doctor Shimotakahara."

At the end of our conversation, Norah put me in touch with her friend, a local historian, who kindly provided me with the photograph above.  It's a beautiful, evocative photo....  Who know what my imagination will make of all these memories, but I couldn't resist sharing them right now.

Photo from Langham Cultural Society

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book #50: My Dad's Pick

“His jacket caught and tore on the barbed wire and his hands gently framed her waist, his fingers feeling the soaked sweater. He was leaning in, his forehead pressed against the cold metal wire; if there was something sharp there, he didn’t feel it. All he felt was Keiko’s cheek, wet from the rain, as she leaned in too.”
                                                                 -Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

A few weeks ago, my dad recommended a book to me, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It’s the first novel that my father’s ever recommended to me – in a reversal of our usual ritual. Until now, I’ve been the one to suggest books to him. When he retired a few years back, he turned to me – his bookish, English professor daughter – for a reading list. What a delight that three years later, I find myself no longer a burnt-out prof and my dad has become such an avid reader that he’s telling me what to read.

Like many of my favourite historical novels, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alternates between past and present plotlines. The novel opens with 56-year-old Henry Lee standing on the steps of the Panama Hotel, a boarded-up hotel located at the threshold of Seattle’s Chinatown and what was once Japantown, before World War Two. After recently purchasing the hotel, the new owner has discovered in the basement a storehouse of treasured possessions that were hidden by Japanese-American families during the war – their attempt to salvage something of the past, before being dispossessed and dragged off to internment camps in remote areas of Idaho and California. But more than simply ghosts of history, these recovered objects hold deeply personal memories for Henry, triggering him to remember his childhood sweetheart, Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese-American girl whom he’s never gotten over, even after they lost touch when she was interned. Bittersweet regret and melancholy thoughts about what might have been linger on in Henry’s imagination, taking him on an emotional odyssey into the past. Although I don’t usually gravitate to sentimental novels, this one is so compelling that I found myself feeling perfectly justified in indulging in a good cry toward the end. Maybe I’m not so highbrow after all….

Perhaps I was also feeling emotional because the novel has a personal meaning for me. The depictions of camp life in Minidoka, Idaho were particularly fascinating, since I know my grandmother was interned there. “There were no trees or grass or flowers anywhere, and barely any shrubs,” Ford writes. “Just a living, breathing landscape of tar-paper barracks spotting the dry desert terrain.” Here is a photo of my grandmother raking mud at the camp (she’s three in from the right).... My dad sent me this photo a while ago, after he discovered it online, and I blogged about my initial reactions here. But now, after reading this novel, I find my thoughts straying to the question of my grandmother’s love life…. What guy was she dreaming about as she raked, that little smile playing on her lips, the murmurings of her heart a thousand miles away?

Photos from: here and here

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My New Book Cover

A couple months ago, my publisher asked me if I'd had any dreams or fantasies about how the cover of my book would appear.  I racked my brain ... but nothing came to me.  Or nothing terribly original, that is.  All I could see in my head was a stack of books (which seems obvious enough, since my book is a literary memoir about finding myself through reading), juxtaposed with a martini glass (since during the tumultuous period I write about I was consuming quite a bit of Grey Goose, indeed).

I guess this is why I'm not a graphic designer.

A big thank you to Natalia, my publisher's graphic designer, who read my book and came up with this cover.  I liked it as soon as Sandra showed it to me; it seems to capture the evocative, melancholy, searching-for-happiness mood of my book perfectly.  The sepia photo is meant to represent my grandparents, whose turbulent romance casts light on my own journey of self-discovery. 

After deciding upon the cover, Sandra and I spent a lovely, somewhat anxiety-ridden morning, drinking coffee and bouncing around ideas about the blurb on the back of the cover.  After a few more rounds of revision, which involved chopping a couple hundred glorious words (I'm definitely way too subtle and verbose to ever make my living writing promotional material), this is what we were left with - my book in a nutshell:

"Leslie Shimotakahara is a young, disenchanted English professor struggling to revive her childhood love of reading.  Her father Jack, recently retired from a high-powered corporate job, finally has time to take up reading books for pleasure.  The Reading List tells the story of Leslie’s return home to Toronto to rethink her life and decide what to do next.  At the same time, she bonds with her father over discussions about the lives, loves and works of the novelists on their shared reading list – Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Atwood, to name a few.  But when their conversations about literature unearth some heartbreaking, deeply buried family secrets surrounding Jack’s own childhood – growing up Japanese-Canadian in the aftermath of World War II – Leslie’s world is changed forever.  Could discovering the truth about her father’s past hold the key to her finally being happy in love, life and career? 

As captivating as The Jane Austen Book Club, and as inspiring as The Film Club, The Reading List reveals how literature can sometimes help us expose our past, understand our loved ones and point us toward our future."

So there you have it.  Having the cover and back blurb in place definitely makes my book feel more real.  Until this point, I suppose there's still been something kind of abstract or dreamy about the concept of my first book.  But now, the book's become a material object and I'm filled with excitement and anticipation.  At the same time, another form of anxiety sets in.... No one in my family has read my book yet.  I wonder what they will think when my book is published in September?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book #49: My Phobia of Writing from a Male Perspective

"I fancied myself a chief in an earlier life, a man of the people, leading them through troubled times, photographed like Sitting Bull, my profile stern in its wisdom.  But I didn't get your gifts.  Or maybe I did, only just a little."                                               -Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce

Last Friday, I met a friend for drinks at Reposado, where I had a curious experience.  I walked to the back patio and found my friend perched at the corner table, looking very glamorous, sipping a margarita, surrounded by other stylish people, whom she introduced as architects she works with.   I, being the only non-architect, was very interested in hearing about the world of adaptive reuse and mixed use building, but not five minutes into our conversation someone interrupted my question and shifted gears.  “I don’t mean to seem like a stalker,” this guy said, “but are you a writer?  Were you by any chance having brunch with another writer about six weeks ago at Union?” 

I nodded, recalling my poached eggs and peas in hot sauce very well.  He proceeded to tell me that he and his boyfriend had been sitting at the table next to us – dreadfully hungover.  In fact, they were so hungover that rather than having their own conversation, they’d simply put their heads on the table and listened to two hours of my friend Diane and I talking about what we’re currently writing.  So this guy knew everything about me!  He knew all about my memoir and the revisions I’d been struggling with at the time, and he knew about my next project, the historical novel I’m trying to get underway.  But what was most eerie was that he also knew about my fears and insecurities in embarking on this novel and he quoted verbatim what I’d been saying that caffeine-fuelled morning, as I poured my heart out to Diane about my desire to write the novel from three different perspectives, one of which would belong to my great-grandfather.  He was an internment camp doctor during the Second World War.  But I have this fear – phobia, really, or mild phobia, let’s just say – of writing from the male perspective.  And especially a perspective so removed in not only gender, but also place and time.

Thus my writing and my writing hang-ups became the strange focus of our conversation, making my cheeks burn very hotly, and I felt compelled to reflect on what’s at the root of my hesitancy to doff my gender and identity.  Maybe it’s simply the fact that for the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been immersed in writing a memoir….  And much as I’ve enjoyed the process, the memoir genre does have limits.  While a certain creative latitude is at the memoirist’s disposal, changing one’s gender or throwing in a rape scene (unless it really happened) simply aren’t options.  And there’s the rub.  Much as I’ve loved the self-disclosure of writing memoir, I knew at the end of the process that I wanted the creative freedom of writing fiction.  So my mysterious run-in with this architect who ventriloquized my fears and anxieties as a writer so well (sadly, I didn’t manage to catch his name, even though we spoke for two hours) made me think about where I’m going and the direction in which I want to grow.  More imaginative risks.  Proliferating “selves” that go well beyond my own.

The author who’s brilliant at this – and whose Giller Award winning novel I was recently reading on my trip to Spain – is Joseph Boyden.  I love how Through Black Spruce takes the reader into the minds of two characters who are polar opposites of each other.  Will Bird is a dare-devil bush pilot lying in a coma, as he narrates in a strange, dream-like fashion, the story of his tormented past.  Annie Bird is his eccentric, beautiful niece, who’s on her own journey to find herself; she leaves the native reserve where she grew up to become a model and have a taste of the high life in Toronto, Montreal and ultimately New York.  The novel oscillates between these two very different voices, which are both utterly convincing, and yet, what’s most striking is how Boyden artfully reveals deeper similarities between their characters, emotions, fears.  I feel that any writer could learn a lot from reading Boyden, particularly on the craft of inhabiting other identities and creating voices that are distinctive and real.

Photo from: here 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Interlude: The Drifting, Travelling Mind

Just got back to Toronto after spending the past couple weeks travelling with my boyfriend in Spain.  (This is why I've been sadly neglectful of my blog - the guest computers at countryside inns in Andalusia are positively ancient and me, being a technophobe, I found it quite difficult to navigate the Spanish key board).  But my hiatus from blogging aside, the trip was delightful, and I can definitely see why so many writers have found Spain a source of literary inspiration - from Washington Irving's lyrical musings about the Alhambra (this stunning Moorish palace in Granada, which we toured) to Hemingway's deep appreciation for bullfighting.  Btw, we did not see a bullfight, for much as I might appreciate how Hemingway describes its unique artistry and rituals of violence, there are limits to what my stomach can take - not to mention the cruelty to animals.  We did, however, spend a marvellous, boozy evening at a flamenco club, where the passion, the stomping and pure anguish of the bullfighting aesthetic seem to be perfectly captured in this extraordinary style of dance.

In between gorging on tapas and visiting museums (I loved seeing Goya's "Black Paintings" at the Prado), I managed to do a little reading at sidewalk cafes here and there.  I did not do any writing, but instead I just let my mind drift and sooner or later it of course veered around to my writing.  This historical novel I've been struggling to get started on.

You see, something strange and exhilarating happened the day before I left on my trip.  I was having lunch in the food court of the sleek office building on Bay Street where I work (like most writers, I have a day job), when my phone suddenly buzzed.  The place was so noisy that at first, I could hardly make out what this woman was saying through the equally noisy static.  Finally, she shouted, "I'm calling from Kaslo, BC."  My heart skipped a beat.  As you may recall from my blog entry a few weeks ago, I'd contacted the Kootenay Historical Society, on a whim, enquiring whether they might have any information about my great grandfather, Kozo Shimotakahara, who was the doctor at the Japanese-Canadian internment camp established at Kaslo during the Second World War (this family history is part of what I want to explore in my novel).  Well, as luck would have it, it turns out that this woman was one of the nurses who worked with my great grandfather, and by the excitement in her feeble voice, I could tell she was just as pleased to have found me as vice versa.  "The stories I could tell you about Dr. Shimo...." she cackled.  "After he arrived in our little town and quickly dispelled all the government propaganda against the Japs, you have no idea what he did...."  But the hustle and bustle of businessmen rushing by with their lunch trays was so great I could hardly make out what she was saying.  After telling her I'd be away in Spain until the end of the month, she promised to call me one evening in June so we could talk more.  I'm crossing my fingers that she will. 


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.