Ru by Kim Thuy

Ru_coverIn French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge–of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull. 

A few weeks ago I finished reading the strangely non-novel novel (this is what I’m calling it), Ru, written by Canadian writer Kim Thuy. Thuy grew up in Vietnam and moved to Montreal at, I’m guessing here, about nine or ten years old.

The issues of displacement, immigration and loss of “self” are ones which always attract me most to literary fiction novels, but the way the anecdotes are formed and the narrative shaped still really confounds me. I suppose, however, that it is effective in some way, because I was moved, moved enough to write this post. I like the way the stories on each page link tangentially; I was often waiting for a certain kind of detail to round out the story and I usually found it on the very next page.

The narration doesn’t tell you everything about the young girl’s life, far from it. But you get a sense that you are absorbing the significant parts. I also really love when a character is so specific to time and place–down to the way they eat their noodles and follow around their cousin like a shadow–but is also able to seem universal, that “my story is your story”. I think if you go into this delightful little book expecting a chronology or to be spoon fed the arc of her life, you might be disappointed. Better to just enjoy it for what it is. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear oral testimony. The Governor General Award judges likely felt the same as Thuy was awarded a GG in 2010.

The copy I bought and read was the Vintage Canada edition, 2012, with English translation by Sheila Fischman. Ru was originally published in French by Libre Expression in 2009.

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Things Sukkot might be telling us about our life

This year, as the new Jewish cycle of the calender begins, I want to feel more connected to the earth, to the planet, to the things that nourish me. Its Sukkot now, oh Festival of Booths, oh commemoration of our endless wandering and the awareness of the things that sustain us. (Plus many, many other meanings). And this is why, I know, people say a bracha (blessing) before eating, even if they aren’t particularly religious. I often used to, in my own way, and somehow this custom disappeared for me. Thinking about bringing it back. Actively knowing what I am doing at three major moments throughout the day. The blessing on what we consume and what fills us is an opportunity to reflect, and say:

Right now I am hungry. My body requires this fuel. And lucky for me, it also tastes good. When I am finished eating, just before I am full, my body will feel different, I will be satiated, and I will be grateful for the process. I will have energy to do what I need to do, and I can also look forward to knowing that when the time comes to have another meal, I will have the means to prepare it. This is an awesome process that I will not take for granted!

Sukkah-web

Perhaps it is appropriate that I am having these ideas on Sukkot, and my reflection on all this is my version of going to shul this morning. Sometimes I worry that my mind is in a place where I won’t be able to connect with my davening (my prayer). That was such a gift that I was given on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to be able to connect like that. I know I deserve some of the credit, because I actively focused and pursued the experience that I wanted to have. But still. Sometimes it doesn’t always line up. Now, on a day when its a little dreary outside — as it always is on Sukkot, reminding us that nature exists, and that our Sukkah, or our friend’s Sukkah, needs to be strong enough to bear the wrath of the weather — I still feel a little light within. A little spark, reminding me that the year has really begun. Sukkot is a strange moment in time. We think we’re exhausted after the high holy days, and we feel perhaps that we don’t need any more reminders about new beginnings and resolutions and positive vibing. But Sukkot says, OK, BUT… WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? ALL THESE PROMISES LYING DORMANT IN YOUR SOUL… YES HELLO, ITS ME, SUKKOT, AND I AM SUPER DRAMATIC. Seriously though, we are encouraged in a major way. What is the physical manifestation of your life going to be? What actual foundations are you going to create to withstand the challenges of your year? How strong is your fortress? I love it. I love that it empowers us to create. To produce. It makes me feel privileged, that a festival is making itself so accessible to us.

On Passover we relate an important story, but it is not immediately actionable. Sukkot tells us: make a structure for your life. Make it beautiful and allow it to bring others in. Decorate this temporary space but bring its wonder into your home for the rest of your year. This is a blessing and we should be mindful of its power. Sukkot is the get-up-and-go of the year, I now realise, even if in the northern hemisphere we are going into winter. I will make it my get-up-and-go. Chag sameach! Happy holiday for all who celebrate. Best wishes to all who sleep in their Sukkah and who try to have many meals in there and make it their world for a short time. You inspire me.

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Five o’clock in Paris…

It looks like Paris today. From my window on the eighth floor, anyway, with the way the clouds seem to roll back from the tall buildings, and collect together on the horizon like a bunch of birds squeezed together side-by-side on an electrical line. It’s gray and white along there, above the condos and office towers and power stations, but the sun hides mischievously somewhere. I can feel it bring brightness to my apartment even though I’m so far away from that collision of city and sky. I love standing with my head against the cool barrier between me and the outside, looking north at the streets darting away under bare branches, a clear view created from downtown to midtown. It’s a feeling that made me want to move in, last year, because it reminded me of feeling powerful on a hilltop in Paris. That was four years ago, actually, when I roamed around with friends just made and dipped out of alleyways into wine bars for bread and cheese and goals of getting drunk. We ended up at the Sacre-Coeur at the close of one adventure, and that’s where I learned that the buildings touching the clouds can make you very, very content. If you wake up in the same spot that you have these revelations, and you witness the sun edging out over sleeping heads inside every apartment, you really can feel like everybody’s the same and that it isn’t just you looking for an eternal home.

Skyline-web

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Lots of human heart

Any Human HeartAs tradition goes (well, my own tradition), I am not really into telling you every. single. thing. about. some book. Personally, I don’t read those kinds of reviews, because not only do they include spoilers, but they fall short of providing insight into why the book matters. I like to try and express why a book is amazing or a bit crap, preferring not to focus on, say, how many characters were shot down. Sometimes writing a review takes major motivation, but then you get hold of something unique and immediately the cogs get to work.

A few weeks ago I finished reading the rather epic Any Human Heart by William Boyd. My lovely sister gave it to me (Hi!) with the encouraging squeal “Omygod, I am so envious that you haven’t read it yet, I wish I could go back in time and be a person who hasn’t read it.” A stellar endorsement! So I was duly pumped, and now that I’ve inhaled this novel, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s kind of like a more successful version of “Midnight in Paris” in book form, broadening the fictitious main guy’s inner circle from simply the art world into plausible encounters with real-life politicians, publishers, writers and royalty. (Don’t be picturing Owen Wilson. That’s not what I was going for. Logan Mountstuart completely stops being a goof in high school, plus he has SO MUCH MORE GAME than a Wilson brother. If you can believe it). Boyd paints a world surprisingly rich with detail – and, I gather, historical accuracy – leaving you jumping between thoughts of its huge importance and, well, thoughts of how potentially irrelevant it is. But, nonetheless, incredibly powerful.

The first journal section, when hero/anti-hero/intense brooding fellow Logan Mountstuart recounts his schoolboy days, is kind of bloody hilarious in that dry English can’t-be-bothered fashion. To be honest, while I adored the whole book, it is in this section where the voice behind the words is most well-matched to the character’s age, and where genuine humour is obvious. The well-meaning spirit of Mountstuart and his lads (see: the time-suckingly brilliant system of “challenges” they set for themselves) and his bizarre relationship with his cousin Lucy makes you think, “This guy’s life is ridiculous in the best way possible… let’s see what’s next.” While the book goes on to be entertaining throughout, I do feel I was led down a certain path of gaining hope upon hope for how Logan’s life will pan out, only to be utterly depressed by the circumstances that befall him. Side point, though: Boyd seems to be using him as a metaphor for the dashed dreams of the twentieth century western man, so perhaps the sad trajectory does in fact work.

While Logan regularly stops and reflects on the momentous occasions that dot his trail – which was very satisfying as I felt each time this happened that he and I were finally on the same page – I could have done with even more introspection. As a reader, reading about a young person, you get incredibly invested in the nature of their relationship with their parents, believing that this dynamic is going to stay with them forever and inform much of their actions throughout the story. Oddly, it’s almost as if Boyd forgot to create any kind of grieving space for Logan as he ages and half-heartedly attempts to connect with the memory of his parents. I was pretty mystified about what his final feeling towards his mother truly was, and annoyed by the fact that all her idiosyncrasy was brought forth in the early days only to have zero bearing later on. But that’s just me. Others might say, “Well, that’s the point. He connected with others far more than with his parents. That’s what Boyd’s trying to show you.” Hmm, I don’t buy it. I think these ties were simply forgotten in the effort of drawing out more intriguing relationships.

Despite those weird drawbacks, I don’t feel shy to announce that this might be a masterpiece. You don’t often finish a book being impressed, especially if its a type of book you rarely find yourself reading. (My pigeonholing game, “Gah! Is that commercial fiction?” started immediately as my cover happened to be the one where the author’s name is bigger than the title, aka the kind of book you buy at the airport. Judging a book is standard and don’t pretend you don’t do it). Anyway, obviously it is no Harlequin. It is complex and exciting and beautifully written. I don’t think I’ve read something so profoundly other-worldly and yet so accessible in a long time. It stands as a glorious log of journey and heartbreak (and alcoholism) throughout eight decades of the fastest-moving era of our time. Also, to keep it on the ground for a second, I have just discovered (a few years late) that there’s a TV series! Awesomely, Hayley Atwell plays Freya, which is an excellent choice. She was in the remake of Brideshead Revisited and is totally underrated.

I’d love to know in the comments what you thought of the novel. Happy reading/soul-searching!

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Season opener: an anecdote

It’s a total and complete body-and-soul experience, that first bike ride of spring. Its a joy I now know, living in downtown Toronto, a cyclist’s nightmare-slowly-turning-into-dream (like when child-aged Eric Bana pitches paper airplanes at my head in grade 5 science but then later walks me to my next class, and then I wake up). So many bike routes, so little time. I plan to bike from March to December this year, and to do it gracefully, pleasantly, without the haphazard anxiety and intermittent yelling I performed starting last summer when I biked for the first time since age 11. I was not going to adopt bike face, and I was going to be polite, courteous, safe and happy, and newly-tuned up Schwinniqua was going to do all the work.

Cut to this morning, 10am, riding to work from our new abode off Queen West. Poor Schwinny, in the garage all winter, not aware of the anger management scenario she was about to mediate. (Just kidding. My bicycle’s lovely, but she doesn’t know how to mediate.) Aaanyway, I took Palmerston, even though it’s one way going south, because Euclid and all those other ones are broken tarmac disasters. I have never had any trouble on Palmerston before, even during summer nights last year, getting home after two (three) beers and being distracted by the pretty, shiny lampposts everywhere. No, it was going to be total control this season.

What happens? Some guy comes rolling down Palmerston just north of Dundas, on the wrong side of the road, sees me, keeps biking towards me, he’s almost at my front wheel, he keeps biking… basically, I was supposed to move, even though I’ve finally mastered the art of biking on the right-hand-side of the road now, and was chalishing to use it. (He was also decked out in matching outdoor performance clothes, with no helmet, never a good sign). I, in a warbly voice, say loudly ‘Um, bike lane’ (which any sane person understands to mean, ‘I know this isn’t a bike lane but I’m trying to obey the right-hand-side rule so wtf are you doing mate’) to which this 30-something “adult” returns, ‘Yeah, yeah, uh, so… this is a one way, there’s no bike lane, BITCH.’ That’s actually what he said. To me, a stranger. I’m not precious, but seriously? Would you have said that if we were pedestrians, in line for overpriced lemonade at the Bloor Street Festival? Is this a high school football movie from 2002? Did he say that? Without skipping a beat, I keep biking but yell back, “Excuuuuuuse me?” (you wanker, I wanted to add, but that would’ve been unladylike, and also, the wind would’ve caught it and blown through its true effect.) Honest, I should’ve simply turned around and confronted him as he was stopped at the light, and made a whole performance about how much he sucks. But he’s not worth getting to work late for, and I do believe in a special kind of bike karma, wherein another nice woman later today might have enough time to tell him he’s unfit for two wheels. Probably four, too, for that matter.

I could only laugh about it a few minutes later, passing Bathurst on College and hearing three pedestrians tell a driver to “shut uuuup” after he shrieked at them “you’re going to die” because they ran right in front of a gliding streetcar, and then me. Cyclists can slow down, but for streetcars it’s not so easy. They were dumb, end of story. But they are allowed so much more leeway than anyone wearing a helmet. It’s crazy. They’ll spend the day thinking that everyone else on the road is more nuts than they are… we all will. That’s the T dot for you! Massive aggression just when the weather gets nice. Perfecto.

To complete the scene, another driver honked his horn and the three pedestrians finally got out of my bike lane. So maybe we do help each other out a little. I also always enjoy those times when you sneeze while riding and a pedestrian shouts “bless you!” Though I’m pretty sure that’s more of an Annex nicety than a Queen West thing. I’ll get used to it. In the meantime we have Trinity Bellwoods not even a block away, to do crazy loop-de-loops and scare small children on March break. It’s what happens when casual riders become commuters overnight, and the city’s just going to have to deal with it. Viva la biking!

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I want to pun the phrase ‘Second Cup’ because of the cafe but I’m not sure how

Yes, why WAS my coffee more expensive the other day? And why, as I continue to plow through different cafes in search for the best Toronto cup, was I paying way more than I tell my friends coffee actually costs in El Toro. (Toronto’s latest moniker is not catching on anywhere else but on my own Spanish-themed blog, so I’m sticking with it.)

The answer, in print, to why putting a big shiny toonie in the front pocket of my TNA jack-attack is no longer sufficient to appease the caffeine-craving bloodstream that inhabits me, is probably of little to no significance to my life. Shortage of coffee beans in world. Not good. Latte Tuesdays at Second Cup unfortunately cancelled. Fine. Next article. So why am I being neurotic and telling you about it?

Because The Toronto Star has done something really trivial but really nice for me today. They stoked a topic sitting long dormant within. I have ALWAYS wanted to write a blog about coffee, its brilliance and its danger, and everything that comes with that. What stops me? It’s not important. Everyone else is, you know, reading about the latest developments in Japan, myself included.

But for five minutes, I’ll allow the magic bean meltdown in the city to rehash my secret love affair of inking out about my habit. The truth is, I’ll never be able to stop drinking it. I’m not one of those crazies who drinks one at 10 am without noticing, one at 2 pm because she’s bored, and one at 8 pm because she’s “out for coffee.” Those people are nuts, sleep deprived and my best friends. After three solid years of one month on, one month off (my downfall, I expect, lay in my total lack of strategic planning) I now have about four cups a week. Regular sized cups. The Starbucks Venti bucket is for Justin Bieber’s mom. Nobody else should be getting into that.

Anyway, here’s the routine: Two at 9 am at different points during the week and two on the weekend over Saturday brunch. Is that so bad?! No. Great. Why do I still feel tremendously guilty and part of that crowd who everyone thinks has a problem?

Its probably because I think coffee is worth blogging about, or probably because I can’t believe people here think they drink good coffee. I would KILL for a real long black across the road from Gordon Station. On the North Shore. In Sydney, Australia. It’s freaking far, right. (It’s distance from here is plainly evidenced by my willingness to use the very North American “right” at the end of a lot of sentences.)

It was only today that I managed something close to my Aussie coffee dream, as I realised it was time to do justice to the quest. I nabbed that beautiful thing at the same place I’ve long supped lentil soup and crackers, but with whom I didn’t so far have a caffeine contract. It was lovely, way off the charts compared to the lukewarm milkfest designed by a certain Canadian road-trip-buddy powerhouse and ingested by everyone who’s late for a meeting. Every morning. Across the country. Gross. (Hey, Tim.)

Anyway, it was a delight, and for $2.63 I think I’m down.

Watch for a resurgence of this arabica-addled fluff the next time I move countries. (Won’t be for awhile, don’t worry.)

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One for the kids, aka all of us

What’s up, Friday afternoon. Hey there. I’m a little bewildered, which is really an emotion as good as any to kick-off the blogathon I hope this spring will be. See, I just watched a promo clip posted by some NAJO (North American Jewish Organisation) or other featuring a spectrum of wise kindelach whose parents are probably affiliated with some NAJO or other. (Endearing as they may be, I don’t imagine that they are models who have been outsourced.) So, then, they’re real enough to watch, and not fabricating a been-done-before celebrity montage. Cheers to the readers who have welcomed my embryo of a North American perspective, by the by. It means a lot. Anyway, back to the clip. The adorable confessions get the viewing off to a nice start; you feel like this is a campaign that will work, because they’re all answering a very general question, ‘What will the Jewish Future look like?’ in an individually charming way. It’s heartening to hear the responses of intelligent children, or at least the mechanics of an intelligent script.

But then the gear shifts; we have to assume this new segment got lift-off from a more specific request, one I’d like to call ‘Please tell the adults watching this cute clip on youtube during their NAJO office lunch break that your future spouse of choice will be at least garden-variety Jewish.’ Yikes, plus sudden realisation: the whole premise of the video is based on a Q & A format; the community asks, the children deliver. Historically, when have we ever done this? Haven’t we always been taught that Judaism is more about questions than answers? Kids, of all backgrounds, are reminded of this every day in Math when their teacher says, ‘Show your work. Even if you get the answer right, you won’t get marks because I won’t know how you got there.’

In Judaism, our rabbi is our ‘show your work’ teacher. I say this because I’ve noticed, recently, as I’ve become more friendly with my rabbis and spiritual leaders, that they never casually ask, ‘Hey, see you in shul at the end of the week?’ the way a friend might ask you if you’re coming to a party. There’s no agreement, no pressure. They never, in my experience, demand that you make a pact about coming to shul. This would no doubt put you on the spot, and turn you off having a chat with them the next time you’re in the same line at Aroma. Thus, when we promote our causes, whatever they may be, we should go by the same principle: observe the path that someone takes to get themselves to a spiritual or cultural place, rather than telling them ‘here’s how.’ That’s what I’ve appreciated more than anything in the last 13 years of being an involved member of my community… that my leaders and teachers trust me, because they know they have instilled the kind of spark, the kind of question, that you want to pursue.

This is why I like Saul- let’s call him Saul- because in the clip, he’s totally confused. I’m relieved, of course, that this is acknowledged in the script. (We later see Saul in the video quietly flying the Israeli flag; in ten years he’ll be that chilled out Birthright participant who everyone wants to share their iTunes with on the bus.) Anyway, for now, Saul sits and ponders. He says, “I’ll try.” He’s appropriately mystified! He’s like, “Listen, I came down to the studio because my mom promised me some cheese goldfish after. I don’t have a Jewish continuity plan, ok?” I mean, Saul is what, eight years old? Asking him about his beshert is a big deal when he’s still coming home from school with a note pinned to the back of his turtleneck in case he forgets to tell his parents about Dinosaur Day. How is he supposed to ingest this product-placement of weighty communal expectations at this stage of his life? He’s the one I identify with, because he doesn’t have all the answers. He looks at the cameraman in a way that the other kids don’t. He has niggling questions, more than anything.

The sentiments expressed by the other kids about their eagerness to be affiliated is undoubtedly admirable. They know what they want because they’ve been immersed in a positive, enriching Judaism their whole mini lives and are quick with the responses, because they care. But I hope that on the day of filming, they were sufficiently prepped, and then properly debriefed. Not because every NAJ-ified promo video should arrange that, but because with kids it is necessary. If they really are the future (a cliche I don’t love, but I am continually reminded of its trueness) then we’ll encourage their questions, not just their answers. We’ll spur them on at a patient and gradual pace, in a safe environment that promotes their Jewish literacy and concept-building.

I understand that you have to give students some leading fodder in order for them to make a spiritual sandwich. But imagine if all these kids in the video were in the same class at day school; there’d be just one Saul out there, a lone dissenter, playing one-man tetherball or, later, stealing guitars from the music room. One guy who didn’t simply say what he thought his parents and teachers wanted to hear.

Saul is going to go through so many permutations of his style of Judaism in the next few decades; he’ll phase some stuff in, some stuff out. Why would we want to rush this beautiful process? And Saul will be grateful that he has bright-eyed, motivating peers around him to help sort out what’s important to him and what’s not. But if all these friends have the same advice, time after time, the complex beauty of the questions inherent in Judaism will be lost. That will then be the future for these kids- being fed the ‘answer’ by rote when all they showed up for, at age eight, was a bag of cheese goldfish.*

*Pretty sure kids still love cheesey goldfish. Right? They were my life in 1990. For a kickass, and totally unrelated, homemade cheese goldfish recipe, click here. Thanks for reading.

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