Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Cover story

Speaking of blurbs, I also got a look at the (almost) final front and back cover design for the book — and it's gorgeous. I was thrilled by the integration of my photo (overlooking the Hula Valley), the title and subtitle fonts, and the four wonderful blurbs from two academics and two fiction writers... all of whom I deeply admire for their own writing and thinking.

Thanks to ECW Press for the hard work — and lengthy consultations — to make this cover the best possible advertisement for the prose within.

N.B.: One final change made after I saw this draft was removing the barbed wire on the spine, which we felt didn't suit the (mostly) hopeful spirit of the manuscript.

Good news from Kirkus Reviews

And so it begins... the anxiety over book reviews!

With the official launch of Chasing Utopia still two months away, the book got its first early review from Kirkus, the influential trade magazine... and I was relieved (nay, thrilled) that the reviewer liked the book. 

Read the full review here. If nothing else, it gives me something to salve my ego when the inevitable lukewarm or antagonistic reviews start to come in... I've got no illusions that everyone will share Kirkus's opinion about a book on a topic as deeply divided as the history of Israel.

And I look forward to adding the final line from the review to my collection of blurbs: "An eye-opening look at an Eden of eco-villages gradually giving way to economic exigencies."

Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Good Reads giveaway...

Anybody in Canada or the U.S. who wants to win an advanced copy of my book via GoodReads, should sign up below. Spread the word!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Chasing Utopia by David  Leach

Chasing Utopia

by David Leach

Giveaway ends June 30, 2016.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

 Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope (Fig Tree Books, 2014)

I’ve always thought great literature charts the history of missed connections—and the human struggle to repair lost opportunities or absent relations. From Odysseus’s wandering return to Ithaca, to Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, to the social and familial alienation of Leopold Bloom, the poignancy of literary art often comes from the longings and lamentations over what-might-have-been.

Missed connections form the heart of Safekeeping, a beautiful novel by Jessamyn Hope that spans the centuries but centres largely on a kibbutz near Mt. Carmel in the mid 1990s. I’d picked up the book, of course, when I learned of its kibbutz focus, especially the setting of a community on the verge of privatization. But I fell under the spell of Hope’s storytelling, characterization and unexpected shifts in narrative focus, even as I enjoyed how she wove the history of the kibbutz movement and the state of Israel into her novel’s backstory.

The missed connections—and the emotional turmoil they cause—are plentiful in Safekeeping, and most gravitate around a mysterious brooch, made by a Jewish goldsmith in the 14th century, of great value and even greater personal significance. There are missed connections between a grandfather and grandson in New York City; a father and son in the same district; a kibbutz-founding mother and her privatization-minded son in Israel; two pairs of star-cross’d lovers—a Chernobyl-scarred immigrant and a Palestinian-Israeli, a thirty-year-old French Canadian who has grown up in a mental asylum and a teenage kibbutz musician disfigured in a terrorist attack; and the equally secretive affair between a Holocaust survivor and a kibbutz pioneer during the turbulent birth of a nation.

The brooch acts as an objective correlative to evoke this sense of missed connections even as it joins the disparate characters and historical timelines of the story, like E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the movie The Red Violin. But Hope never overplays the brooch’s symbolic significance, and many of the characters resist its allure in interesting ways while others let its raw worth corrupt their personalities.

The main narrative follows Adam, a young recovering alcoholic haunted by many mistakes, through his months as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the Galilee on a mission, to return the brooch to a once-intended-recipient, whose importance even he doesn’t fully understand. Some of the most powerful scenes, however, are short interruptions or epilogues to the story of Adam and his grandfather. In one, Hope vividly evokes the horrors and desperation of a Black Plague pogrom—and the act that sets the novel’s drama in motion.

History otherwise works in the background to the characters’ lives: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the Oslo Accords and bus bombings of the 1990s, the divided reaction to the Jewish State around the world, the rise and decline of the kibbutz movement as a society of equals. There’s a depth of research, but Hope never forces it upon her readers or her characters. Toward the book’s end, the vote about privatization on the novel’s kibbutz feels, in fact, anti-climactic. More important are the last actions of her cast of characters—and whether they can breach those missed connections that have left them alone, deeply damaged or both. Some do. Some don’t. We are often left to imagine how key figures manage the trajectory of their lives, rather than having it all spelled out for us by the book’s final pages.

And the conclusion is a masterful exercise in surprise and indirection—a novelistic risk that pays off—that left me thinking and rethinking about all the characters and their decisions that had populated my imagination for the past two weeks.

Come for the kibbutz content. Stay for the storytelling. Safekeeping is a book that you will want to pass along to friends and relations, like a small heirloom too beautiful to keep to yourself.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The final design...

And one more change. The journey from inspiration to publication for this book has been long and winding. I'd count it at six years of researching and writing — and 27 years of thinking about my experiences as a young, naive kibbutz volunteer.

The path to a final title, subtitle and cover has been equally circuitous, if a bit more accelerated. The marketing folks at ECW Press came back with one more recommended change — this time to the title... I was nervous when I heard the publisher wanted to switch the title again. (I'd changed it three times on my own.) But then I saw the new version, matched to the sunset image from the Hula Valley, and it all just felt right. And then we added "Future" into the sub-title and everything clicked.

Now, I've got a pair of Advanced Readers' Copies to make the book seem even more real — I can lift it up and flip through its pages and begin to worry about reviews! 
mostly, I'm thrilled that this story — and the stories of the many people I met in Israel and the West Bank — will finally get shared with curious readers.

So what do you think?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bernie's kibbutz revealed!

Reporters at Ha'aretz dipped into the newspaper archives and discovered the smoking-gun to the "Where did Bernie volunteer?" mystery: in an interview with reporter Yossi Melman from 1990, the Bernie Sanders said he spent several months in 1963 on Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha' amakim in Western Galilee. Media are already sweeping the kibbutz, near Haifa, to learn more, although few people seem to have any memory of the young American who worked there before the big post-1967 wave of volunteers.

Anybody want to translate the original Ha'aretz story? Or more importantly, tell us if Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha' amakim has privatized since America's Best Known Socialist once worked there?

Friday, November 27, 2015

And we've got a winner!

... or at least a winning sub-title for my book. Technically, I think it was my editor who helped slash through the kudzu of potential taglines and help me arrive at the words that will appear under Love & Rockets. Drum roll, please!

Chasing Utopia in a Divided Israel

I think "Chasing" works better than the "Stumbling Towards" (too cute, too unclear) and conveys the sense that utopia — that dream of a better society — is always something we are in search of, the greener grass on the other side, the mirage on the horizon. It also (I hope!) suggests that the book is both about the kibbutz movement's search for utopia and my own quest to discover what became of that dream, 100 years after the first pioneers created Degania.

So, the Chase is on. Next up: going through the editor's notes. ANother thorough fact-check. And hopefully some cover options to mull over.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Helen Mirren, kibbutz volunteer

British acting legend Helen Mirren was recently honoured in Los Angeles at the Israel Film Festival and spoke about her experiences in the country—including a stint as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ha'on six months after the Six Day War, when the first wave of foreign visitors arrived to kibbutzes across Israel to fill in for members called up for Army service to defend the country. She recalls sleeping on the beach in Eilat—a pleasure that I shared, too, although two decades later.

"That visit to Israel was one of the important building blocks, in my life," she told the audience. "The courage and the commitment of those early people working on the kibbutz that I was luck enough to meet briefly. These building blocks that make personal lives and that make countries."

Kibbutz Ha'on, however, is no longer a kibbutz. In 2007, the indebted community returned its land to the state and became a semi-cooperative moshav instead.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Insert [Sub-Title] Here

The good—no, great—news: my book has a publisher and a publication date. I'm thrilled to announced that ECW Press has acquired the world rights to my kibbutz book with a publication date of Fall 2016.

The manuscript is with an editor and I am working with the publisher and production staff to hash out the cover design and final title-sub-title combo... 

... which is the bad-ish news: I'm stumped.

I'll be the first to admit that writing display copy was never my forte as a magazine editor. I was okay at it ("Land of the Lox" for a feature about indigenous fish-farming in BC!), but I also worked with other editors who were masters at the catchy title/subtitle combo. It's not easy.

My kibbutz book has proven that conundrum. It has evolved through several title variations:

  1. The Shouting Fence: That was the title of a poem I wrote, as a 21-year-old writing student, in the voice of a Druze man. It was briefly the working title of the manuscript and remains as a chapter title about my visit to Majdal Shams. It's catchy and dramatic—but misleading. It evokes the divisions in Israel but nothing of the utopian enterprise of the kibbutz. Nixed.
  2. Look Back to Galilee: The name of this blog was the working title of this project for years. It comes form a phrase used by one of the founders of Kvutsa Degania, who urged his compatriots to return to the Kinnereth—and the Galilee—to found their commune. But as one kibbutz researcher in Haifa told me on a visit in 2009: "It sounds kind of Christian." And while it evokes a sense of memoir, it isn't especially catchy either.
  3. Who Killed the Kibbutz? emerged late in the process as a front-runner when a grad student read a draft and suggested the manuscript needed more narrative drive and tension. What was the throughline? For a while, I thought it was the search for who or what had led to the decline of Israel's utopian communities. (I'm still kind of fond of this title.)
  4. Love & Rockets: And then a bolt from the blue. I can't even remember how I came up with this title—perhaps mining all my memories from the late 80s reminded me of the band of the same name (and it's cover version of "Ball of Confusion"—which seems apropos to the book's themes). It echoes Erna Paris's The Garden and the Gun, a wonderful travelogue about Israel that heavily influenced my own decision to write his book. It's the title under which I finally sold the project—so I think it stays. (Famous last words...)
But I still need a sub-title. Why? Because nonfiction books have sub-titles! And as Jack David, ECW's publisher, explained to me: book buying (and promotion) is less about browsing physical store shelves these days and more about discovering a book online via key word searches. And a sub-title is the best place for such key words. Utopia was always a key theme and therefore a key word in all my proposed sub-titles

I just reviewed my progression of titles and subtitles and found the following:
  • The Shouting Fence: Slouching Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2009)
  • Look Back to Galilee: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2011)
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz: Searching for Hope in a Divided Israel (2014)
  • Love & Rockets: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Israel (2015)
But the sub-title isn't quite there—and could use the word "kibbutz" somewhere in its syntax. Another writer also tsk-tsk'ed the use of a gerund in the sub-title, too. So I've been on a brainstormy voyage to come up with the perfect partner for Love & Rockets. Here's a list of ideas (some okay, others simply awful) that have poured out of my imagination:

  • The Broken Dream of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Broken Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Problem of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Stumbling Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Slouching Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Looking for Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Long Road to Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Cast Out of the Garden of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Cast Out of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Leaving Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Losing Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz

The "and" between "Israel" and "kibbutz"might be confusing, though, even though the book is about the utopian impulse in the kibbutz movement (which helped to found Israel) and in Israel in general (both inspired by and a reaction to the kibbutz). I previewed some options at our Grad @ Home party last Friday and got warm response to the "lost dream" theme in some of the sub-titles, so a few more variations....
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel's Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia of the Kibbutz
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia for a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz and the Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on Israel's Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel's Legendary Kibbutz
  • Israel, the Kibbutz, and the Lost Dream of Utopia
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz and its Dream of Utopia?

...at which point I just want to slam down my laptop and run screaming from the room. Nothing yet feels quite right.

Any suggestions? Any favourites? Anything that can save me from the madness of subtitle writing?

Update: I'll offer a reward—and give a copy of the book when it comes out to anyone who can dream up the perfect sub-title!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crowdsourcing the Quest for Bernie's Kibbutz

The search for Bernie Sanders' former kibbutz has apparently heated up in Israel. Ha'aretz reported that the Kibbutz Movement has taken to social media (Facebook to be exact) to generate leads on where the current Democratic presidential candidate might have volunteered in the 1960s. Non-Hebrew speakers can click on Google translate to get some comic suggestions. The crowd might not always have wisdom, but it always has fun.

Alas, my own lead came up dry. An elderly kibbutz researcher I know from Kibbutz Mefalsim  (which has many South Americans) recalled an American volunteer on his home kibbutz named "Bernard" (which Sanders went by as a young man). A search through the Mefalsim archives turned up no evidence of Bernie, however.

Still, I want to stake my claim to the Sanders' Search Reward right now by saying I'm 99% he stayed on Kibbutz Mefalsim!

Of course, the bigger question remains: Why won't Bernie 'fess up to the kibbutz where we briefly stayed? What went on there that he wants to hide? Yes, it was the 1960s. We don't need to stretch our imaginations. Perhaps it was in Israel that he learned to play the bongoes like this...