If you want to write a certain genre, you’ve got to read all you can in that genre, at least 100 titles, says Heather Sellers in Chapter by Chapter. So, I googled lists of best historical fiction and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on most of them.
It’s the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, given only a chapter in Genesis 34. It’s a confusing account, since Shechem, son of Hamor, apparently rapes Dinah (no consent given?) but then takes her into his home, wanting to marry her. He is so desperate for her hand in marriage he agrees to Simeon and Levi’s deceitful condition that he and all the men of the city be circumcised. While Shechem and his men are recovering from the procedure, Simeon and Levi descend upon the town and slaughter every male and take the women, children, livestock and everything else for themselves. When confronted by their father Jacob about the trouble this has brought upon him, they justify their violence by saying “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
And that’s all we know about Dinah. So how did Anita Diamant write 352 pages in her voice?
When I was given the “R” title in the Penguin Drop Caps series I really had no idea what to expect. I was delighted by the rich azure cover, the cobalt page edges and the swirly gold cover initial embellished with an Indian motif, but all I knew about Salman Rushdie was based on an ad campaign in the Toronto subway system promoting some new book of his and the news that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa against him. Because of the subway ads I assumed he was a Canadian writer. And because of the scary-sounding fatwa against his book The Satanic Verses I assumed he was promoting some kind of paganism that was offensive to Muslims. Wrong and wrong again.
Would you read a book about the right to die by someone who committed suicide five years afterward? A colleague handed me this book as he was cleaning off his desk for the summer and said I’d enjoy it. Since I had loved his recommendation of Le gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, I decided to push past my initial distaste of the front cover (two naked figures—a child sitting on a woman’s lap—with stones for heads and black dots for navels) and my confusion about the back page description: “The story of a little Arab boy’s love for an old Jewish woman”. Love, like romantic love, I wondered?
But not three pages in, I was hooked. The characters, the setting, the first-person narration, the symbolism and the surprising ending make it obvious why this novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.
What a title. It scared me a little at first because I thought it would be about some kind of witches’ coven. Instead, behind one of the catchiest titles I’ve ever heard, is a story about mothers and daughters and about friendship and love.
The story wastes no time in getting to the inciting incident. Right on the third page we learn that Siddalee Walker, a theatre director, has spilled her soul to a New York Times reporter who writes that Vivi Abbott Walker, her mother, was a tap-dancing child abuser. Ouch. Vivi is so hurt she refuses to speak to Sidda for months. But the fact that one time Vivi did beat all her children, with her eldest daughter Sidda taking the brunt of the belt buckle, will not go away. Sidda has spent her whole life trying to make sense of this event and of her mother’s subsequent lengthy absence. However, thanks to the intervention of her three best friends, who with her compose the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Vivi agrees to send her daughter a scrapbook she calls her Divine Secrets, and which Siddalee has asked for to help her prepare for directing a play about women and friendship.
This rich emerald green with black and white contrasting colours has got to be one of the more gorgeous covers in the Penguin Drop Caps series. The initial L is in fact composed of two Ls, one a black woodblock style, the vertical line dotted with the windows of high-rise apartments, the other a white curlicue L dancing over top. Jessica Hische’s drop cap makes allusion to the New York setting of the novel, as well as the dual identities of the narrator, a Korean-American industrial spy.
On the back is the quote “Quell the old tongue, loosen the lips. Listen, the hawk and cry of the American city.” This perfectly captures Chang-Rae Lee’s lyrical style, his frequent use of the word quell (four times), and the themes of language and the urban melting-pot.
As I write this, it’s supposed to be spring, but Toronto is being hit with the usual April snow, this time in the form of slushy white pellets of freezing rain. It feels appropriate under today’s heavy grey skies to tell you about In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende’s latest novel.
November 2017, my dear friend Liz lured me down to Brooklyn because she had tickets to see Isabel Allende at the Brooklyn Public Library. We stood in a line that snaked around inside the building as far the children’s section and finally began inching back toward the main lobby where the talk was to be held. Before taking our seats, we were each handed an autographed hardcover copy of In the Midst of Winter. (Squeal of excitement!) From our places nearly at the back, it was hard to see either the author or her interviewer who were seated, and their amplified voices were not easy to hear in the high-ceilinged, reverberant cafeteria space. Still, I managed to take four pages of notes which helped me appreciate both her writing process and the book itself. “My calling,” she said, “was not the truth. My calling was fiction.”