Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thanks For Coming

When you're dealing with a deity with a sense of humour you may be surprised by what the afterlife has in store. Find out by reading my new humorous piece of fiction up at the Shtetl Montreal website. Check it out!

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Mighty Jacobson

Howard Jacobson plays ping-pong and chats about his newly re-issued tour de force.

Halbman Steals Home

The cover of my new novel due out early next year. More details here. Let me know what you think of the cover. Don't be shy to pre-order now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not knowing how to ask questions

A funny thing happened on the way to the seder. We forgot how to ask questions.

The Passover seder has one main objective; to tell the story of Israel's miraculous liberation from slavery and to do it in a way that will involve the whole family, particularly young children. This is why we don't just read the story, we enact it. We eat it, we drink it, we sing it, we mimic it, we even play a game of redemption, hiding a piece of matzah and paying the finders for its return. Involving children is the central component of the seder. The telling of the story gets underway only once the youngest member of the family asks the four questions, famously beginning with, Why is this night different from all other nights? In fact, how to ask the four questions at Passover is one of the very first things a Jewish child learns to do after they are old enough to learn the Hebrew alphabet. It's a rudimentary skill that is often the first public display of a child's Jewish education. But what happens when no child will ask the questions? Nothing happens. The seder grinds to a halt. Well, that's exactly what happened at our family seder this year. It must be said, that our family seders are unique events. We rent out a room at a hotel and typically have 60 to 100 in attendance extending three and four generations. In recent years it has become practice to post a family tree on a wall so that the cousins can locate their relationship to others in the room. Admittedly, asking the four questions at this seder is not for the shy personality. It's an intimidating scenario. There you are surrounded by eighty or so cousins, most of whom you know only vaguely if you know them at all, who are waiting to hear you sing a song in an ancient, tongue-mangling language you've only just begun to learn. And yet, every year one or two or three courageous youngins always step forward. This year, no one did, in spite of much begging and cajoling. Eighty people in the room, many children of various ages, a number of them parochially schooled and fluent in Hebrew, and no takers. At that moment, in the uncomfortable pregnant pause when it was becoming clear that no one was going to volunteer, a question and its implications arose in my mind: Have we forgotten how to ask questions? A quick survey of the room revealed highly accomplished people, doctors, lawyers, business people, three generations of families, all knowledgeable, educated, thoughtful people. And yet the moment suggested something disturbing to me, a prevailing complacency, a self-satisfied and worrisome disinterest and disengagement, and not just with the seder itself, but perhaps with larger dimensions of life as well. The fact that the seder can not proceed without the questions being asked suggests the essential importance of questioning. The ability to question equals freedom. When we stop asking questions we are tactily, either by choice or by force, giving up our independence. We are slaves, either in physical bondage, or suffering from forms of spiritual and mental slavery. The Haggadah (the seder guide) cleverly anticipates the difficulty of engaging younger generations in the seder by describing four sons, one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and even one who does not know how to ask a question. Many rabbis characterize the problem of the fourth son, not as lacking in knowledge, but as suffering from apathy, malaise. It seemed to me precisely the fog that had settled on our seder room. How clever of the rabbis to create a structure and process where, at a single penultimate moment at the outset of the seder, so much would be revealed about where we stand as a family and as Jews. We were rescued from discomfort by my oldest first cousin, a man in his seventies, a grandfather many times over, who stumbled his way through the four questions - he was clearly out of practice, it having been probably sixty-five years since the last time he said them at the family seder, way before my time, when he was the youngest, first grandchild of my grandparents. To be fair, our family seders have never really been about reengaging our religious traditions, culture and history. They've been about re-acquainting with family, getting to know long lost cousins, and introducing new generations to the family, which is important of course. Still, every year that I attend there is a place in my heart where I am hoping that the youngest members of the family will clammer and fight to ask the four questions, that they will see this opportunity to take centre stage in the grand reeneactment of our national story as a privilege and a moment to shine.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Companion by Lorcan Roche

A little while back I wrote that I thought there wasn't enough anger in today's writing. Then along comes Lorcan Roche's The Companion a book about two very angry characters; Trevor a caregiver who gets his kicks busting people's heads, and his charge a terminally ill young man suffering from Muscular Dystrophy named Ed. They both have a lot to be angry about. Ed is an only child. His father is a Manhatten Judge ensconced in his study and cares more for his books than his son. His mother is perpetually convalescing from a minor accident and never leaves her room. It's the most depressing portrait of domestic alienation and emotional neglect imaginable. Money might not buy love but fortunately for this family it can buy services. Enter Trevor, a strapping, young, angry Dubliner who answers an ad to be Ed's companion and caregiver. Ed's an ornery, irritable and demanding handful and caregivers don't last. Luckily, the Judge is only too willing to keep writing cheques to replace them. Trevor, it turns out, is experienced in providing care having tended to his dying mother and worked in a hospital for the clinically insane. He has the physical strength and fortitude to handle anything Ed can dish out. Notwithstanding the fact that Ed is physically wasting away while Trevor is fit and works out regularly in the gym, the two undeniably have a lot in common and find solace in each other. They're both fighters. Trevor sees himself in Ed's predicament. "And some days you're so angry you can literally hiss and spit, especially at incredibly healthy fuckers like me who've never been physically sick, not one single solitary day. And you want to lash out, you want to be cruel, and callous, to injure and inflict as much as your mean little spirit will allow. And maybe the only joy you know is the peace that comes after an argument, the feeling of things being washed away by coarse, salty tears. And you wish you could bleed to death heroically, not just leak like a stain into the carpet." This is Trevor talking about Ed, but also himself. In the end this is Trevor's story. We learn about why he fled his home to come to New York, an act of both escape and repentance. America, through Trevor's eyes, is the perfect place to pay your dues because they're so hard to come by here. "Americans are really shite at apologizing; they think the mere fact they bring themselves to mouth the words absolves them. They're not interested in the rites of penance, in listening to precisely how they hurt you, in understanding how small it made you feel. They want to move on, they want closure which is American for wanting things to go swiftly back to the way they were before. Inside their heads. They cannot comprehend that because they don't really know what they did wrong, that because they really don't need to know, the rest of us find them truly terrifying." Reminiscent of Nick Hornby, the searing voice, the depth and candidness of prose are what makes this book so exhilirating. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Imagining Montreal: The new and improved Blue Met edition

Not to be missed. Rover has reprised the staged reading, Imagine Montreal, as part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal on Friday, April 29, at 8 pm. The event is taking place at the Holiday Inn Centreville, in Chinatown. The "script" - a collage of excerpts from 26 novels published since 2000 and set in Montreal - will be read by 10 Montreal actors. The band Sweet Mother Logic will provide music. This idea is greatly reworked since the premiere in November, telling a riveting story: the rebirth of Montreal after a gloomy time in the mid and late nineties. The featured books will be available at The Blue Met bookstore.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Avner Mandelman at the JPL

Join me as I introduce Avner Mandelman, author of the new thriller The Debba and two killer collections of short fiction. Details here. He's a fascinating person with a unique personal story and one of the rare few who somehow manages to balance success in both business and writing fiction.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Kane's Bernstein

Mankiewicz may not have been the only participant in the Citizen Kane project concerned about whether Sloane’s appearance was sufficiently sympathetic. As Mankiewicz knew, Sloane was a Jewish actor and a veteran of Welles’ theater company. In the years following the filming of Citizen Kane, Sloane embarked on a series of plastic surgeries to reduce the size of his nose and thereby, he imagined, broaden the range of acting roles available to him. Welles later said that Sloane “must have had twenty operations before he killed himself. He must have thought, ‘If I could ever bob my nose right, then I’ll be a leading man.’”

Harold Heft's fascinating piece on Orson Welles's portrayal of the jew in his masterpiece Citizen Kane.