Wednesday, June 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW of Frog Music


Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

After the international success of Room, set in contemporary times, Irish-Canadian writer Emily Donoghue returns – as she did in Slammerkin and Life Mask – to another century finding inspiration in historical characters for her fiction. 

From the grab bag of San Francisco’s colourful history, Donoghue pulls out a cast of tantalizing characters to populate Frog Music, a literary mystery based on the true-life unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing, frog-catching eccentric.  

Like San Francisco, then and now, Frog Music is a spicy stew of capricious souls. Fast-paced, nuanced and richly descriptive, Donoghue captures the raw emotions and harsh realities of a world filled with greed, lust and intolerance but also conscience, acceptance and a whole lot of music. Threaded throughout this page-turner are snatches of lyrics from more than 25 often bawdy songs (researched, catalogued and described in Donoghue’s notes at the end).

The year is 1876, post-Gold Rush, in a blistering hot summer made more treacherous by a smallpox epidemic and growing agitation with the burgeoning Chinese population.  The story opens with a murder in true crime mystery fashion. Bonnet is in a bed in a seedy hotel at San Miguel Station on the city’s outskirts. She is with Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer and high-priced prostitute, who is hiding from her mac.  

When Blanche leans over to untie her knotted gaiters, a shotgun blast blows a hole in Jenny’s chest, a scene we return to again and again, each time with a little more information as to who the players are and what factors have contributed to this bloody scene.

Arriving from the Paris Cirque d’Hiver, Blanche lives with her lover, Arthur DeNeve, and his cohort, Ernest Girard, both former trapeze artists and now chronic gamblers, in a dwelling she purchased with wages earned dancing as the Lively Flea at the House of Mirrors. This ménage à trois suits Blanche and Arthur but Earnest less so.  Nonetheless, there is always money in the pot as Blanche is wise in the ways of pleasing men, whether through a striptease or a tryst with some wealthy patron. “Her genius for this job is that she doesn’t have to pretend, because every throb of her salty little crack is real.”

Jenny and Blanche meet literally by accident, when Jenny, freewheeling atop her penny-farthing, crashes into Blanche. Despite her penchant for trousers, Jenny becomes the first real friend Blanche has ever had but also a catalyst for change. Their friendship flourishes despite Jenny’s homelessness, her proclivity for picking fights and her questions that stick to Blanche like a chemise on a hot day.  

When she inquires where Blanche’s baby son, P’tit, is being cared for, this creates a cascade of questions that awaken Blanche’s dampened mothering instinct. Once that door is open and Blanche retrieves her year-old son from a “baby factory,” she begins to change.  As in Room, Blanche becomes a mother who puts herself at risk to protect her child despite being unskilled at the task. Early on she mistakes a sudden moment of warm love spreading over her that is nothing more than P’tit peeing on her blouse.
In her many references to frogs, Donoghue is perhaps suggesting not only the national origins of the four main characters, all originally from France, but also the transformation a tadpole undergoes, beginning in one environment but developing into a creature of both land and water.  Jenny is a changeling: a woman, dressing as a man.  Blanche also evolves, from a commodity whose “body likes having its mind made up for it” to a fierce fighter on behalf of her son and her friend. Even P’tit changes, from a rickets-riddled yearling unable to sit up to a bouncy little boy. 

In the end, Blanche la Danseuse sheds her costume for the last time and dons a new persona. “Blanche will always like her drink, but she’ll try to make big decisions in the sober light of day… She will be fierce in P’tit’s defense; ambitious for his happiness, which means her own.” 

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Upon birth, I believe we are handed a suitcase that someone else has packed.  It is baggage we will carry all our lives and yet, if we were passing through customs with it, what would we answer when asked: who packed it?

This suitcase that we lug everywhere is filled with the hurts and happiness, triumphs and disasters, traumas and terrors that our parents have gifted us and often includes leftovers from what their parents handed to them.  The burden is passed along without conscious intention; it’s inexorable.

Some suitcases are no bigger than tote bags while others, often those handed to children of survivors who struggled to stay alive through one war or another, weigh the most.

Being accustomed from birth to shouldering the weight, most of us accept the burden as if it is an integral component of our make-up – an intrinsic part of who we are.  Of course, as we grow older, we will acquire a new and empty suitcase, and start filling it with our own things.  It is only around middle age, when exhaustion and aching backs start setting in do we think to stop in order to examine the contents. 

If our parents are still with us, we might tentatively begin asking questions.  Many of us don’t, however, either because we’re afraid to learn that we are more like our parents than we thought or because we fear that we will be forced to question what we believe (the notions we are most comfortable with) and who we truly are. 

If death robs us of our parents at an early age, that is, before exhaustion can set in, we have forever lost the option - the luxury - of asking for an explanation. We are left to our own devices to decode the DNA of our history.

That is my story. 

By the time I realized that I was carrying someone else’s bag, I was 45 years old and had been an orphan since 30.  Compelled to explore the contents, all I found were fragments of memories and puzzle pieces that failed to make a complete picture.  I struggled like an apprentice shaman, trying to divine a narrative from bones and shrouds, shreds of stories.  When you wait too long, the runes do not give up their mystery easily, if at all.

And so I was forced to learn how to pull apart the shreds and spin a story.  I now take these stories and send them out as cautionary tales. 

“Stop,” I say.  “Put down that suitcase.  Open it.”

Until that time you have examined the contents, you will be lugging two suitcases through your life.  You need to empty one to make room for understanding your own story.  With any luck, the load will grow lighter after that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review

(as it appeared on Montreal Review of Books blog)

CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Italy

Norman Nawrocki
PM Press
$18.00, paper, 300 pp.

Norman Nawrocki’s first novel, CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Italy is a wild and bumpy ride through 130 years of Italian history as it follows four generations of Discordias, a fictional family of Italian anarchists. They have many stories to tell, and these unfold in a non-linear fashion, often squeezed through the lens of political struggles.  
In keeping with his political inclinations, Nawrocki, the author of several books of poetry and short stories, moves us through time in an anarchical way and the effect can be dizzying. One minute we’re in present-day Rome immersed in the star-crossed love story of a young Italian musician and a beautiful and talented Romani violinist; one page later, Great-grandfather is telling us about his birth during a rock slide in Abruzzo in the year 1880. Although some of the characters and their stories reappear, others merely vanish into the ether of this epic tale.
Cinka Dinicu and Antonio Discordia are at the heart of this fractured novel. As it begins, we learn that Cinka, several months pregnant with Antonio’s child, has disappeared. She had arrived in Italy with her mother, younger sister, and brother on a bus filled with Romani looking for a better, safer life. They had come to fulfil her father’s deathbed wish that the family leave Romania for “the new land of opportunity.” Cinka also thought Italy would be “the land that would allow us to realize our dreams.” However, she quickly learns that the Romani are just as despised in Italy as they were back in Romania.
At a young age, Cinka was betrothed to a boy back in her Romanian village, as is the custom among Romani, and, unbeknownst to her, he is on his way to claim his bride. Meanwhile, Cinka is caught in the day-to-day struggle to survive. As her family’s sole provider, she is grateful when Antonio gives her studio work with his band. In no time, however, she is head-over-heels in love with the young Italian.
It is a Romeo and Juliet kind of love story: ill-fated. Being in love is something of a state of anarchy, two people creating a world unto themselves; it is only when the pressures of the outside world come to bear – in this case the full force of fascist politics – that reality takes hold.
Woven into this love story is a complicated narrative that traces the history of the anarchist movement in Italy and the rising tide of hatred against immigrants and refuge-seekers, most violently and particularly against the zingari. There is a great deal of passion but not always a clean line of narrative in Nawrocki’s work. It is human nature to try to make order out of anarchy (a term he defines as “the collective movement for freedom of the individuals”), and this is the task Nawrocki sets for the reader as he leaps from one brief scene to another, employing a vast cast of characters and feeding us historical vignettes about the rise of fascism and the struggle of the working class in Italy.  
“The most frightening thing is that nothing has changed [in Italy since Mussolini],” says Nawrocki. “We’re back in that institutionalized xenophobia." Although some news of these attacks on Romani and other immigrants has made it into North-American media, it has been so scant as to cause barely a ripple. While in Italy, Nawrocki took notice of TV and newspaper headlines about the plight of the Roma. After contacting a human rights group, he joined some fifty people as part of an official European Parliament delegation visiting a Roma camp. What he encountered there is authentically woven into the novel.
What immediately struck him were the desperate circumstances under which the Romani live. For the most part, they are unable to find much work. Children are forced out onto the streets to earn money to feed their families, which leads to lower education levels, and so it goes – a no-win situation. 
In the camp, Nawrocki asked the Roma what he could do to help and their answer was, “Tell our story.”
The first year after he started writing the novel, Nawrocki turned some of this material into a theatre piece, also called CAZZAROLA (which loosely translates as ‘Oh, fuck’). “One day, I performed the scene about the burning down of a shack in the camp. The next morning, there was a story in The Gazette about how neo-Nazis had used Molotov cocktails to destroy the Roma camp in Napoli.”
After this incident, Nawrocki went back to Italy and visited other camps. When the book was completed, Nawrocki toured it across Canada, collecting stories from Roma living here. “I think the novel is more relevant today and also, more relevant to us here in Canada. My cross-Canada tour was an eye-opener. It opened the door for other people to tell me their stories.
“Five years ago,” he says, “Canada was not deporting Roma. Suddenly Jason Kenney [Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (20082013)] decided that Hungary was now safe and began deporting everyone.” The Canadian government, says Nawrocki, is ignoring the startling and swift rise of Hungary’s Jobbik nationalist (and anti-Roma) party.
Norman Nawrocki is a man of many talents. Aside from his poetry and short stories, he is an acclaimed cabaret artist, sex educator, actor, and musician. As a welcome companion to the novel, Nawrocki & Amici (friends) have recorded “original & traditional music, songs & words, either inspired by or related to the novel.”
Ultimately, the splintered nature of CAZZAROLA! is chaotic and sometimes repetitive in the message it hammers home too stubbornly, but what comes of the chaos is a piercing howl against the rise of fascism and xenophobia everywhere.

Monday, February 24, 2014

After war’s end (Books Review)

Post image for After war’s end

In reading Carolyne Van Der Meer’s remarkable work, Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experiences, I was reminded of the intricate lace curtains found on the windows throughout Holland. In this creative reinterpretation of memories and experiences, Van Der Meer has eloquently succeeded in intertwining short stories, poems, and essays with the delicate touch of a fine Dutch lace maker. 

Based on the recollections of the author’s mother and other Dutch Canadians, as well as letters from and interviews with Canadian soldiers and resistance fighters, Van Der Meer takes these accounts and her first-hand research to craft a compelling view of what we are left with after war’s end.

]The journey begins as the author, a journalist, PR professional and university lecturer, goes in search of her mother’s memories as a young child in Nazi-occupied Holland.

Her quest is fuelled by the need to find a connection between that childhood – a world of hunger, bursting bombs and a father in the resistance who hid Jews in the space between the home’s two floors – with the placid, safe world they now live in. The fear of traumatizing her mother leads the author to seek other recollections as well, and these individual memories are seamlessly interwoven linking the past to the present with the power of shared memory.

Van Der Meer visits her mother’s hometown and even the house where she had lived.

However, it is in Amsterdam, after exploring museum archives that she is struck by “the taste of memory” while eating speculaas, her favourite Dutch spice cookie. Despite being Canadian-born and raised, she notes: “I get that odd feeling again – of being home, of feeling like I belong.”

That feeling of belonging when there is no experiential history is not uncommon among first generation Canadians. In the poem, The Bartender, the author wryly muses about a young Pakistani,

…in September. He goes home to find
his, I leave home to find

Van Der Meer is also driven to understand what forged the woman who became her mother, to understand the connection, that indefinable element that separates yet binds women to their mothers. The gentleness and awed respect that arises from the author’s journey to her mother’s town will resonate with all those who have gone searching for clues as to what forged the strength they both struggle with and admire.

It is in Van Der Meer’s poetry, in its sparse clean lines, that she best delineates the lasting tragedies of war – the inescapable memories – as in the poem, The Department Store that describes people hopelessly trapped beneath the rubble of a bombed building.

No more Vroom & Dreesman
Only a fine coating of dust –
and echoes everywhere.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In Search of Roots

Ten years ago I  began a journey with a visit to two cemeteries in Poland.  I did not know then I was beginning a journey. I had no way of knowing that it would be what I didn't find which would set me off on the road I have been travelling for the past ten years.  A decade is a benchmark, worthy of a little introspection.  It warrants stopping a moment to turn your head and see where the path began.

Chrzanow's main square
It is the Fall of 2004. I am standing in the Jewish cemetery at Chrzanow, searching for graves that have been numbered and correspond with the list I printed off my computer back in Montreal months earlier.  It’s a long way to have come to learn that there are weeds in this Polish cemetery with roots deeper than I will ever have.  Suddenly, I’m not even sure why I am here.

In my hand is the piece of paper with five names – all Klugers, like my mother – who are buried here, the last in 1924.  I printed the list off the JewishGen website. But I don’t know how these people were related to me, merely that we are connected somehow by these six letters.  I watch oversized snails trail slime across the face of a stone. My driver, Zbigniew, says that many tons of these fat, juicy snails are exported from Poland to France each year. I wonder if some are harvested from cemeteries.

I have come to Chrzanow, 35km west of Krakow, 15km north of Auschwitz, looking for my roots but have little to go on, only my mother’s memories and five names with six letters to connect me to them, to prove to me that I will not forever remain a displaced person.

My hunger for some personal history began in 2000 with a casual visit to Pier 21 in Halifax. In 1949, my parents and I landed there, just three of the 100,000 Displaced Persons who immigrated to Canada after the war. I was 19 months old.

Exploring the exhibit four decades later, I recognized in the stories a familiar blend of the hope and sadness inherent in every immigrant tale about what was lost and what might be found. In the centre of the exhibit were two banks of pews and facing them, a wooden teacher’s desk. Across its front in big, block letters was: IMMIGRATION, and behind, a sign in several languages, proclaiming Welcome to Canada.

I sat down facing backwards, surveying the immensity of the space now so quiet, so empty. When I turned around, however, I was dumbfounded. As if in a dream, I recognized the immigration sign. I suppose we had sat there for a very long time. And I wondered, if I could recall the sign, what else was buried in me? What if I went back to my birthplace in Passau, Germany, or to Chrzanow where my mother was born?

My mother never ceased telling me stories - about life in Poland before the war; what was lost; how she met my father in the DP camp outside Passau; and how she insisted on giving birth in town because too many babies died during childbirth in the camp, even though the war was over. My mother told me stories I didn’t want to hear. It was her road to sanity. But for me, it was a road littered with corpses. When she died in 1976, I believed the stories were laid to rest beside her.

I have been a Holocaust denier. Not in any of the usual ways: I don’t deny that it happened, but I have denied the need to turn and face the horror head-on, and enter into it fully. Was it not enough to grow up without grandparents and only a handful of relatives I’ve rarely, if ever, seen, or that my mother carried a palette of grief that coloured the happiness in our lives?

When asked where I come from, I tell my parents’ stories, how my father left Belarus and a wife and three children when he was conscripted by the Soviets. He went to Siberia; they went to Auschwitz. My mother and her husband escaped to Kazakhstan (or was it Uzbekistan?) where she had a son. Her husband died of malaria, her son of starvation. When my parents met, they married to begin life anew. I was the new but I didn’t want the history, just the hope.

When I was young I planned to be a journalist, but quickly learned I couldn’t ask the tough questions. Putting a positive spin on things is my natural inclination, so I became a publicist instead. But now I would gladly trade a rosy future for some family history. Today I want facts, street addresses, a genealogy – some notion of where I sprang from. I want to ask questions and get answers.
The town where I was born is trying to bury its strong Nazi predisposition says Anna Rosmus, a Passau native and author of several books including, “Out of Passau: The Town That Hitler Called Home.” But I’m unconcerned. I’ve been to Germany before. On my initial trip, the first sight to greet me in Frankfurt Airport was a pious Jew, facing west and saying his morning prayers wrapped in phylacteries and a tallis. I took it as an omen that it was safe to come back.

Street sign in Berlin
Passau is a little jewel of a town and I find myself playing the tourist because, although I was born here, I am not from here. I’m not sure where I’m from.

In a small shop next-door to the superb Baroque St. Stephen’s cathedral, I find a tiny Star of David, silver with an amethyst set in the centre. Leonardo da Vinci believed amethyst was able to dissipate evil thoughts. I buy it and place it on my bracelet, ensuring I will have a story to tell.

Here in Passau, three is a magic number. Three rivers - the Ilz, the Inn and the Danube flow into one. The corners of three countries - Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic – uneasily touch borders. And here, my father, mother and their respective ghosts came together to form me. Where no memories exist, I invent metaphors.

Heading back to the train station, I pass a travel agency, its window filled with Maple Leaf flags and signs touting the wonders of Canada. One sign proclaims: “Human Nature.” I catch myself reflected in it and smile.

I go from Passau to Chrzanow but there is nothing left there, either. After the cemetery, Zbigniew takes me to the City Hall where a young man explains that all records of the Jews in Chrzanow were destroyed during the war. Zbigniew tries again, rephrasing the question, but there is nothing. He looks at me sadly. The young man too seems sad to have disappointed me. But I’m not sure what I feel, definitely not hopeless; perhaps I feel adrift, rootless.   

It is my belief that we need to know where we come from to know where we’re going so I went to those towns looking for the past but all I found was my reflection in the Canadian flag. Perhaps, it’s another metaphor, suggesting we’re each responsible for building our own history.
- 30 -

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

God Rest Ye Merry Fressers

Growing up Jewish in a world that celebrates Christmas in a myriad of ways – in song, in lights, in trees, and in gift-giving – can be torture. It generates a terrible yearning for things verboten like belting out three verses of Joy to the World or artfully draping tinsel on the tree you spent hours wrestling into a corner of the living room.
            When I married, my husband sheepishly suggested we get a Chanukah bush. Pine tree-envy, I called it and pointed out, you either are or you aren’t Christian. My answer was no.
            In 1975, we moved into a new house and met our neighbor, Georgi, when she sent her eight-year old son, Bert, across the street with a care package on our first day in our new home. Food became part of the cement that would seal our friendship over the decades.
            A few years later, Georgi invited us to join her and her two boys along with some friends for Christmas Eve dinner.
            “There’ll be about ten of us,” Georgi said.
            “Can I bring anything, I asked?”
            She handed me a recipe for broccoli baked in phyllo dough and thus, started me down the slippery slope to the guilty pleasure of celebrating Christmas.
Christmas Cheer in Toronto 2010
            The evening was delightful. We loaded up on cocktails, and then enacted the Christmas play by donning bathrobes and kaftans to become shepherds and wise men. We wrapped a reluctant Noxa, the Siamese cat, in swaddling clothes (read: towel) as a stand-in for the baby Jesus. Georgi took the plum role of Mother Mary while young Colin was a shepherd boy and ten-year-old Bert not only played the role of Joseph but banged out carols on the upright piano in the hall. Lustily, we raised our wine-tinted voices although most of the carolers began to mumble as we neared the second verse. Except for my husband and me. To everyone’s amazement, the two Jews stepped up to the plate, rolling with ease into the second, and sometimes even the third verse of Deck the Halls, Away in the Manger and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, leaving the Christians madly flipping pages trying to catch up.
            That Christmas was the first in an 18-year tradition. Every September, Georgi and I would begin to pore over her tattered recipe book, planning and dividing up the cooking of the meal which became ever more exotic. One year, with three vegetarian guests we cooked sole en papillote, drinking whatever champagne wasn’t poured into the dish. I think the dish turned out really well but I have no memory of it. Another year, sans vegetarians, we roasted a young turkey stuffed with pistachio and dates. Yum.  Still one of my favourite recipes.
            Our crowning glory, still talked about today, was the Three Duck Dinner, each bird made with a different recipe. At the last minute, however, the vegetarians decided to attend.  Georgi and I hastily threw together some extra dishes but the fowls triumphed.  Despite a healthy range of choice, vegetarianism was abandoned for a taste of Crispy Roast Duck with Blueberry.
            Over the years, the Georgi’s boys grew up, friends moved away, and the guest list changed, making room for some of  my friends to be invited as well. One Christmas, I looked at the assembled in their crepe paper hats digging into Georgi’s famous flamed Christmas pudding and realized that there were more Jews at the table than Christians. It had become a ‘Jews for Jesus’ Christmas. And I said: Joy to the world.