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Meira CookBy BERNIE BELLAN It was almost five years ago that I was first introduced to the writing of Méira Cook, when I read her very first novel, “The House on Sugarbush Road” (published 2012), which won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award.

Since then, I’ve gone on to read  Méira’s second novel, “Nightwatching” (published 2015), which won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. Both those novels were set in Méira’s native South Africa.
The language in those novels was astonishingly good. In both reviews that I wrote of those novels I was struck by Méira’s facility with words. The fact that her first forays into the literary field were in the realm of poetry helps to explain the almost magical rhythms that imbued those two brilliant novels. I note, in looking back at my review of “Nightwatching”, that Méira referred to the atmosphere in her Johannesburg home, where both Yiddish and English were spoken by her grandparents and parents. There were many other dialects with which Méira became familiar though, as spoken by black South Africans with whom she came in contact.
As she noted during an interview that I had with her in 2015, ‘Méira says that she “grew up with the ‘snap and crackle’ of language”, whether it was spoken by whites or blacks. Language,” she says, “permeated both worlds.” ‘
Now, with her about–to-be-released third novel, “Once More With Feeling”,  Méira Cook has re-established her position as one of Manitoba’s, if not Canada’s, finalist novelists. This time though, the setting is Méira’s new hometown, Winnipeg – which should make this book become an instant best-seller here.
But, if you haven’t read either of Méira’s prior novels, be forewarned: None of them  unfold in a methodical, easy-to-understand pattern. As a matter of fact, the various chapters in “Once More With Feeling” are largely disconnected. Characters are introduced, only to disappear for long stretches, sometimes appearing later in the book, at other times simply vanishing.
The ability to fashion such beautiful poetic imagery that seems to come so easily to Méira – as I learned when I spoke with her previously, is not at all something that simply flows from her incredibly imaginative mind. Here’s a lesson for any would-be writers: Méira told me she “writes and rewrites until she is satisfied with the finished product”.
“Once More With Feeling” opens innocently enough. A forty-something teacher by the name of Max Binder (who, it turns out, is Jewish, although that does not factor much into his story), has gone to the airport to pick up a young girl from Africa who had been sponsored by Max and his wife Maggie through WorldVision, a Christian charity group that operates world-wide.
But, just as in her two previous novels, the placid depiction of relatively banal events can take a sudden, violent turn in this book. Unlike the two South-African-set novels, however, “Once More With Feeling” is more a series of set pieces, each chapter set in an entirely different setting (although, as noted, some of the characters move between those different settings).
What anyone from Winnipeg will probably find especially interesting is Méira’s astute talent as an observer of many aspects of Winnipeg life. Although only some of the chapters delve into Jewish life here, I think it’s safe to say that those chapters will resonate in particular with Jewish readers. It should be noted that early in her career, Méira was a reporter in South Africa; her ability to record events in her memory shines through.  (I wonder whether she sometimes writes down snatches of dialogue she may have heard in a shopping mall, for instance.)
The book veers from often dreary situations to ones that are outright madcap. There is one chapter, set largely in what anyone familiar with Winnipeg will recognize as Polo Park, in which a wild, but beautiful 25-year-old woman takes a shy 15-year-old teenaged girl with her on a frantic expedition to the mall.
Here’s an excerpt from that chapter, in which the narrator (in this case, the 15-year-old) describes the multitude of factors that enter into teenage girls’ minds as they contemplate ordering food in a food court:
“What salt does is retain water, so no soy, no sir. They do the whole calorie-counting, app-consulting, food-wanking thing for about an hour and finally get so hungry with all the math they’re doing that they give in and get panic cheeseburgers from A&W. It’d be rude not to join them so I order a salad, no dressing, and a diet soda, no ice. It doesn’t make any difference, though. Courtney and Sami each have a cheeseburger and fries and a chocolate shake and neither of those two puts on an ounce because, here’s the kicker, by some magical property of fat-girl friendship, all the calories from their burgers and fries get sucked into my salad, which I scarf down in about three seconds. God, you can actually watch my stomach pooch out.”
I have to say though that, after having met Méira several times, I was more than a little surprised at how crude she can get in her writing. I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. As I noted earlier, she clearly has a keen ability to observe scenes and snatches of conversation that she is able to include in her writing. I assume though, that when she’s writing about some particularly disgusting rites of passage that male campers pass through at a Jewish camp located on an island in Lake of the Woods, she either must have heard about them from someone who attended that camp or else she’s borrowed them from someone else’s work. (Really, Méira, on a cookie – and then having to eat it?)
“Once More With Feeling” will be launched Monday, October 2nd, 7:00 pm, at McNally Robinson Bookstore.  Méira  will be interviewed by the Free Press’s Alison Gilmor – which should make for a most interesting evening. If you’ve never read anything by Méira Cook before, be aware that she is truly a gem in our community who deserves as much recognition as she has already received and is bound to continue receiving.

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