Archives for category: books

Alhamdulillah. So ten years ago, around this time, I tinkered with the idea of beginning a blog. It was my way of working myself back to writer-me.

And writer-me wanted to publish a book.

You know how they say persistence pays off? Well it’s true. Here’s proof on goodreads: (The blurb still needs fixing so ignore that) Saints, Misfits, Monster and Mayhem, Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads – Summer 2017. (And, yes, that review is by my daughter.)

If you’re on goodreads and you’re so inclined to support the publishing of narratives not often seen in the industry, please click the green [Want to Read] button.

What brings tears to my eyes: it will be the first North American YA novel featuring a main character in hijab published by a mainstream publisher. 2017, guys.

It’s seems like a whirlwind of a publishing journey – from query to agent to book deal =  just a bit over 3 months – but I know it actually took ten years.

Because my book deal would not have happened without this blog and its readers. Thank you so much. And, alhamdulillah, truly.

 

I am not a multi-tasker. When I teach, I teach. When I cook, I cook. When I write, I roam the moors and shires of my mind, scythe in hand.

I can only focus on one thing at a time.

So when my puff-cloud of a dream of becoming published, anchored FOR THIRTY-TWO years, left Earth and embarked on a swift ascent in a manner uncharacteristic of cumulus matter (i.e. I signed with a literary agent within three weeks of submitting my manuscript), I kept on cutting construction paper and getting band-aids and talking about the differences between a square pyramid and a triangular prism. With weird mechanical calm.

Sure I shared with friends and family and my yoga teacher, but I didn’t SCREAM AND FLAIL AND GO INTO A HAPPINESS COMA – like I imagined I would when I cracked the code of getting someone in the industry to say, hey, this might be sorta good, this two hundred page thing she’s been working on for five years.

I am still waiting for the giddy.

BECAUSE, GUYS, EVERYONE, MY-SEVENTH-GRADE-TEACHER-MS. ZULTEK-WHO-STARTED-MY-WRITERLY-OBSESSION: MY BOOK MAY HAVE A CHANCE OF BECOMING PUBLISHED!

Let us back up and trace how it is that this white puffy wonder that is my writing aspiration snapped its sail to set off. (I’ll drop the cloud metaphor now that it’s getting unmanageable, like pirates are waiting to enter stage left.)

In 2007 I decided I wanted to return to pursuing my publishing goal. The one I’d chased since I was a child and gotten a degree for in the 90’s but placed on hold to parent two children and be everything else.

In 2009, I took a year off work to write. I wrote the novel that taught me how to write beyond a short story/article. It was bad. Very bad – it even had a scene where a silverfish (yes, the insect) helped the main character of a contemporary young adult novel make the decision that would bring the story to its climax. No it wasn’t magic realism. And no, the main character wasn’t on drugs.

Still I queried this thing because, damn, I’d worked on it for FIVE MONTHS! And wonder of wonders, out of the five queries + pages I sent out, I got two full requests – and from Writers House and ICM to boot! The lovely Tina Wexler read it ALL and suggested things I needed to work on and even offered to be there for a revise and resubmit. (I still cringe on imagining her face when the pivotal silverfish crawled in.)

I went back to teaching but also came back home to work. I read about what goes wrong in novels and what makes things go right. I went on a revision retreat in Boston with writing mentors. And I saw that this first novel was a trunk novel, the kind you put in a drawer and close tight.

But one character in it, the one everyone loved without fail, crawled out of the drawer.

She wanted her own story. In early 2011, I let her start it via a private blog. When her story started to take shape and form, I plotted it a bit and teased all the threads and wove them with equity a la J.K. Rowling’s most magnificent spreadsheet. I kept doing this: micro writing and macro planning and weaving, always in bits.

I worked on it for three more years. And it was done. I had two great critique partners and six beta readers.

They loved it but I didn’t. The beginning wasn’t working for me. One of my critique partners agreed that it wasn’t as strong as the rest of the book. But she couldn’t figure out what was wrong either.

So for another year, I worked on just the beginning. I vacillated between wondering if I was just hiding my fear of failure behind this excuse and knowing with certitude that I needed my novel to be in tip-top-silverfish-free shape before I queried again.

Last year, I decided to do a query-run. Again sent out 5. No bites. I knew the query and first pages had to be strong and, frankly, they weren’t.

In December, I wondered what it would feel like to not want to be a writer. I imagined the freedom. I did that for three days before I went sobbing back to the keyboard.

And in that reaffirmation of my dream, I found a beginning that worked better for me.

During March Break, I wrote a query I liked, no double-guessing involved. I sent it out before the break ended, figuring it would take about three months to know if my book had a chance – just in time for summer vacation, when I could spend more time on my writing.

Instead, I got a steady stream of immediate requests for the full manuscript from rockstar agents I’d considered untouchable. In shock, I complied.

Then, offers of representation! I cried and wanted to jump on the first one – which was from a highly-sought after agent I’d queried after I saw my pitch was working.

That’s when experienced friends stepped in. Published people who helped me hone in on what kind of a published writer I wanted to be. With their guidance, I allowed myself to envision my career as an author.

And with that in mind, I chose THE agent that fit my writerly-style and writerly-aspirations: John M. Cusick from Folio Jr. Literary!

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Guys, guys, guys, I have to gush here because I’m so thankful that I took the time to think things through and ask questions. John has insight, strong sales and industry experience but more importantly, he came with resounding recommendations, has a communication style that fits my impatient-bratty-self and most most amazing, he’s a writer himself! The kindred spiritedness that springs between writers – I’ve never found that with any other human species when the topic of writing comes up and with John, I got a strong sense of his true passion for writing and writers.

That’s who I want to begin my (please God, LONG) writing career with. I am so so so excited!

Okay, cue pirates. Enter moor, stage left, sidestep crawling insect, and start your story – I’m more than ready to write it down…

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photo by Oliver Dodd

 

P.S. Getting this far took a long time but it would have taken even longer without the many great writers out there who actively share what they’ve learned. I’m always willing to share what I’ve learned – both from them and from my experiences – so if anybody has any questions/wonderings, please do let me know. I’d love to help others with their own dream clouds.

Every Monday I get to tote around two fresh teen (just entering teenhood, refuses to be called tween) librarophiles around town, tasting the delights of a new Toronto library.  Some time ago, while picking up my daughter and niece from school, I threw out a wistful thought, in that absented-minded way of mine that always means more work is coming into my life: Imagine, just imagine, if we visited EVERY single library in Toronto. Wouldn’t that be great? 

The idea stewed for a couple of years. We attempted it here and there and then I moved abroad for a year and now we are back and ready. Ready to take on Librarython T.O. Edition, where we visit and then blog about the library in question.

We started at our home branch of Port Union Library, port-union-library-03but that, we agreed, was just to figure out what this whole discreet critiquing thing entailed. (I.e., we’re not too impressed with our home library but too loyal to start bringing up its negative qualities.)

First, a brief background on the two critics and their credentials.

Sherlocka Critique, future graduate of Oxford, lives at 221B Baker Street, London, England. She wants to tell everyone who’s not too bright that she’s a huge fan of the “bloody brilliant” BBC T.V. series, Sherlock. (Commonplacer: stop swearing in British!) (Sherlocka: By the way, I’m not a FRESH teen. Quite aged actually.)

Hermione Pendragon, future graduate of Hogwarts, lives in Tajikstan. (Commonplacer: remember my intro –  these are FRESH teens.) (Hermione: Please note, this is being edited by Commonplacer.)

So, moving on, to Cedarbrae Library. 

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(They decided to take the Good Cop/Bad Cop Review Route; they’ll be alternating roles for each library they review.)

Sherlocka: Cedarbrae Public Library is a ruddy brilliant library for young folks, I mean, aged-folks, like myself. This is due to the adorable seating areas and modern furniture. (I ought to buy some myself!)

Hermione: Really, I believe that all of these “adorable seating areas” are all good and well, but they tend to make the patrons feel as though they are in a living room, and behave as such. Quite rowdily and noisily, if I do say so myself.

Sherlocka: Now now, you must ignore my mate here, she really is adorable, but she likes to critique, hence the job. Cederbrae is very well lit, mostly because of the floor to ceiling windows. They also have these quaint study areas, along with computers. And when I say computers, I mean lots and lots! This just adds more to the modern feel.

Hermione: In my opinion, those lights were much too bright. Quite blinding, in fact. And as for the computers, they were all occupied by youngsters playing a particular popular pixellated program (excuse the alliteration) which I shall not name. This is fine, but there really should be a higher limit on time.

Sherlocka: Continuing on, I must say I was rather impressed by the enormous selection of non-fiction books. And might I say, non-fic really is all the hype these days. The fiction section was also quite grandiose. Don’t get me started on the checkout system. Bloody brilliant. They had a bunch of these little self checkout machines, which everyone knows makes you feel independent and all the rest! 🙂

Hermione: I concur, they do have a rather large selection of books, which is lovely, but really, this makes their twisted organizing system even WORSE. Is it not a sad display of the state of the library system when one has to grub, yes, actually, physically, literally, spiritually, metaphysically, zoologically, whatever, BURROW beneath the Teen section shelf, just to reach some good old-fashioned science fiction?

Sherlocka: I must say, the organization in my opinion was great. Hermione was just upset because the science fiction had a section at the bottom of the shelf. (She must be a hard-core fan!) It was a fabulously organized library! The adult fiction was large indeed. And is it just me, or is this turning into a row (fight for you Americans)?

Next up: Agincourt Library

*And to think, these two, Sherlocka and Hermione, used to call themselves Ruby Garnet and Emeraldine Amethyst in another time…sigh, how they grow.*

Canadian reads (mostly)I think all these books except The Shipping News are Canadian.  Photo by susanvg.

Happy New Year!

I started 2014 by reading Alice Munro for the first time. While contemplating writing this sentence, I wondered whether I should cringe with shame while typing. Alice Munro, Canadian writer extraordinaire? (I haven’t read Margaret Atwood either.)

This is strange because much of my undergrad time was spent in English/Literature courses.  My degree in Creative Writing required hours contemplating the minutia of the Canadian experience. You would think that some of that would mean considering already published Canadian voices. Alas, no.

My brief experience with Canadian literature was in high school, where the majority of the English faculty were stodgily Canadiana-oriented. Students yawned because the chosen texts were ill-chosen. I was way into Southern Gothic by then  (Flannery O’Connor! Eudora Welty!) so I pretended not to like what I read in my classes, even going so far as to, after perusing a few chapters of The Diviners, take on Margaret Laurence in a precocious essay. Though I marvel at the fact that I received an A+, I chalk that audacious move of mine to the FOIBLES OF YOUTH.

I did enjoy writing about the Canadian identity, having grown up in a home obsessed with the CBC, where they always seemed to be debating what Canada was, is, will be. I was of those eager to dwell on the “will be” part of the discussions. Hence, the first Canadian writers I read by my own volition were the newer immigrant ones: Rohinton Mistry, followed swiftly by M.G. Vassanji.

But to not have read Munro, Atwood or the other stalwarts of Canadian literature? To have read Mordecai as a child (Jacob Two-Two) and not as an adult?

I feel a shame-tinged hole that widened after almost a year spent abroad, where I longed so much for Canada and its identity-crisis of an identity. I’d never wanted anything more than to return home to the embrace of ice-laden deciduous forests. And libraries.

As there were no libraries in the sandy place I went to live, that was the first public space on Canadian soil my daughter and I went to visit. And now that we’ve been to many in the six months we’ve been back, I think it’s time to turn to what is housed in those libraries in the section filled with red-leafed spines.  It’s the year to read Canadian.

I hope to update the blog with reviews celebrating Canadian literature, old and new. New will be first as my current read is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.  

Stay tuned! And if anyone has any must-read Canadian lit suggestions, please post in the comments.

Never want to forget this book:

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The first book that made me realize what a book was/is: a bundled-up world that one could slip into and once one slips out again, things looked different – a bit different or a lot – in the real world.

What a nice aha to get as a young child. I thank my dad for bringing home loads of books all the time. One of those loads contained this very special book.

It’s gone now but I hope to get a copy again one day.

Just seeing the cover induces coziness.

I just finished reading The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber. Abu-Jaber’s story of trying to find where she belonged – America or Jordan – resonates with anyone who’s grown up hearing about “back home” from immigrant parents. Often, the harsh realities of the now (here in America or Canada or Britain) cause the castaway from the East to paint a mythical glow and proportions to the realities of “back home”. As a child, I remember playing to the soundtrack of my mother on the phone to her friend, also from “back home”. The words I would hear over and over was “they way we did it back home was…”

Abu-Jaber’s father, Ghassan or Bud as he is otherwise known, is the castaway in her story. His homages to Jordan cause Diana to live with half her heart suspended – to be retrieved when she begins her life whole with both her Americaness and Arabness merged. Bud moves his family – with his American wife and 3 daughters – to Jordan periodically and then just as abruptly brings them back. When the family goes back to the place of Bud’s ancestral roots with the Bedu, Abu-Jaber writes with such love and authenticity, I was able to see why it is essential to write from the experiences bottled within you. I don’t believe others – outsiders – could write so movingly about the interplay between ancestral pride and current Arab angst as Abu-Jaber has done.

Abu-Jaber’s writing is soothing in its ability to transport the reader to cozy settings full of family love and larger-than-life characters. Each of the chapters is dotted with recipes for foods mentioned therein – both Middle Eastern and American. These recipes punctuate the book at appropriate times with titles such as “‘Distract the Neighbors’ Grilled Chicken” and “Cowboy Kibbeh” and my favorite, “Fattoush: Bread Salad – which everyone loves and everyone can pronounce”. So for those of us who have always wondered about how to cook “Barbaric Lamb Kofta” and ” Poetic Baklava”, it’s all in there.

It’s telling that Abu-Jaber chose to use a food theme to connect her book; with the myriad of fusion cuisine taking over the restaurant scene, perhaps one’s identity could be easily translated through food labels. I just went to an Iranian-Italian restaurant last week. In Toronto, Indo-Chinese cuisine is all over the place as is Indo-Somali-Italian. If I were a restaurant, identity/ethnicity wise I would be a Canadian-Malayali place (given there is such a thing as Canadian cuisine). I’m waiting for a Japanese-Lebanese-Mexicana joint.

In The Language of Baklava, Diana’s father was forever on a quest to find, buy and run the perfect restaurant to present his identity to the world – Jordanian. He doesn’t fully succeed and finally one day, the date of which Diana records on a napkin, concedes to an old friend that he is… “an American”. He had finally accepted his fusion identity: Arab-American. And after a year spent on her own in Jordan, Diana accepts hers as well: American-Arab.

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Book: The Language of Baklava, 2006

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Rating: * * * * (out of * * * *)

Comment:

If it got me back to reading “the whole thing” in the midst of a hectic time (report cards et all), it’s got to be engrossing, riveting and extraordinary.

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The Message of the Qur’an – a translation with explanatory notes by Muhammad Asad (Road to Mecca, Islam at the Crossroads);
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Crossing Boundaries: A Global Vision of Design by Vicente Wolf

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Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

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And I’m waiting for The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber to arrive.

For all you un-Harry people, please don’t read. You might lose your eyeballs from all that rolling.

Being an avid Harry Potter fan, I’m surprised at the patience with which I await the next book. The final book. (And I am one of those who believes J.K. Rowling will keep her word and close the series after book 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). I think my patience stems from the fact that I want to give Rowling plenty of time to make the biggest, thickest, hugest tome on the thinnest of papers with size 6 font ever released. It should come with a standard medieval looking magnifying glass. I’m hoping it would stop my ability to swallow even the thickest of her books in one sitting. I want to spend a weekend at a cottage with book 7. I want to shake my head at the thought of packing the massive thing into my vinyl messenger bag. I want to fear twisting my wrists every time I set it down in my lap for a read.

Now for some tidbits of my theory. My son has even more wonderful theories than I – having read each of the books 3 or 4 times over. He knows all the typos. I just have pretty insignificant tidbits of a theory:

1. First, I don’t think (and I hope not) that it’s a Dragonheart kind of ending. Harry has to die in order for Voldemort to die so he sacrifices himself … or that because they share similarities – for one to die, the other must too. I don’t like that. It’s way too easy… and Ms. Rowling you’ve had plenty of time. (And I have faith in your creative prowess.)

2. Second, I know they’re circulating rumors that someone else very important is going to die like Ron or Hermione… if it helps the story, I’m okay with that. (For those of you with hanging mouths: They’re not real.)

3. Third, even though I said that last thing: to me, Dumbledore is real. He’s wise, funny, and he lives that proverb: the mark of a good character is not how you treat those superior to you, it’s how you treat those under you. So I still don’t believe he’s dead. That whole last scene with Snape and Malfoy was too laden with double meanings.

4. Crookshanks is very important. I can’t forget the way she attached on to Hermione in the beginning and the way she fixated on Ron’s rat (who turned out to be Wormtail).

5. Tom Riddle and Aunt Petunia. There’s a connection. (Wormtail and Dudley? – seems more likely).

That’s mostly it. It will come together somehow…and if it doesn’t, I wouldn’t mind. As long as Harry doesn’t have to do the Dragonheart thing. That would make me twist my wrists hurling the tome.

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