Winning book was author’s labour of love

One decade ago, soon after she won a fiction prize at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards for her novel Your Mouth Is Lovely, Canadian author Nancy Richler began work on a new novel.

 “I had the first scene very quickly,” she told The CJN. “But then it took a long time for it to open up to me and for me to know where I wanted to go with it and to find the right voice. It took about seven or eight years for me to complete.”

The Montreal-based Richler was in Toronto last week to attend the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards ceremony, where she won another fiction prize for her latest novel, The Imposter Bride, which HarperCollins published in 2012.

 Richler says she worked on the book intermittently during its long gestation period, putting it away for long periods and coming back to it occasionally to write new sections and to make revisions; she had no other writing projects going in the meantime. The fruit of her prolonged “labour of love,” as she calls it, was obviously worth the wait: besides winning the fiction prize, the book has become a bestseller and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

 “I lead many book clubs and The Imposter Bride is, at this moment, one of the most requested titles,” said the Awards’ enthusiastic host, legendary literary editor Cynthia Good, formerly of Penguin Books and presently head of the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College.

Seven other books and their authors were honoured at the 25th annual ceremony, which took place in the elegant Bluma Appel Salon of the Toronto Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor.

Another high-profile award-winner –  in the history category – was The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (Algonquin Books), by Toronto-born author Matti Friedman. The book tells the compelling story of the ancient and valuable Aleppo Codex (biblical text) that underwent a surreptitious and calamitous transfer from Aleppo, the Syrian City after which it was named, to Jerusalem in the late 1950s.  

 Friedman, who lives in Jerusalem, addressed the audience in a short video recording in which he noted the power of books to influence thoughts, ideas and lives. “I was exposed to that idea as a kid in Toronto,” he said. “My father taught at U of T, my mother worked at the ROM, and we had a house that was full of books. And I was lucky enough to have teachers at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate in North York who encouraged my interest in books and in writing.”

 Victoria poet Isa Milman became a three-time winner of the poetry prize for her poetry collection, Something Small to Carry Home (Quattro Books).

 Sharon E. McKay won the Youth Literature prize for Enemy Territory, an action-packed novel that depicts the complexities of the Arab-Israel conflict through the experiences of two teens, one Palestinian and the other Israeli.

 As usual, Holocaust themes were well represented. L. Ruth Klein won the Scholarship prize for Nazi Germany, Canadian Responses: Confronting Antisemitism in the Shadow of War (McGill-Queen’s), a collection of essays that explores how Canadians responded to events in Nazi Germany.

 Julija Sukys won the Holocaust Literature prize for Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite (University of Nebraska Press). Using mounds of letters and diaries that often “concealed more than they revealed,” Sukys told the story of Holocaust heroine Ona Simaite, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile.

 The Biography prize went to Aili and Andres McConnon for their book Road to Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation (Doubleday). The book tells the story of cyclist Gino Bartali, an Italian Catholic who hid Jews from the Nazis and smuggled illegal identity documents in his bicycle. The brother-and-sister writing team were born in Toronto.

 The Yiddish prize went to Montreal Yiddishist Pierre Anctil for his new French-language book, Jacob-Isaac Segal 1869-1954: Un poete yiddish de montreal et son milieu, which the awards jury described as “a scholarly and human portrait of a writer considered to be one of the foremost poets and journalists of Yiddish Montreal.”

Anctil’s trilingual acceptance speech brought a nice “tam” (flavour) not only of the Yiddish in which Montreal Jews of an earlier day were steeped, but also of the French as well. “Congratulations, felicitations — and above all, mazel tov,” the poet’s great-grandson, David Bloomstone, told Anctil. 

 The Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards are presented annually by the Koffler Centre of the Arts as a key anchoring event of the Toronto Jewish Literary Festival.