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


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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.