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Jazz singer Sophie Milman in her favourite place to read, The Mad Bean Cafe on Eglinton Ave. West in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Jazz singer Sophie Milman in her favourite place to read, The Mad Bean Cafe on Eglinton Ave. West in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

My Books, My Place

Coffee and Babel for Sophie Milman Add to ...

When the weather is nice, my favourite places to read are along the Beltline Trail in the heart of Toronto. There are many parks and benches along the trail, where I can lose myself in a book, with the serene beauty of lush maples as my backdrop. If the weather is really nice, I often ride my bike to the Brickworks and hang out there with a book. I like to read outside as late as the early fall when the smell of wet leaves is in the air and the colours are bright and gorgeous.

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Having spent my formative years in Israel, I’m a chicken when it comes to cold temperatures, so when it dips below 12 degrees, I seek the warm and cozy shelter of a great coffee shop. Actually, I often stay at home to read, snuggled up under a blanket, but sometimes it’s great to be out among people, even when engaging in the solitary activity of reading. And let’s face it: I don’t know how to make lattes!

One of my favourite coffee shops in Toronto is the Mad Bean, located steps away from Eglinton and Spadina. It’s a cozy, family-owned little place with great decor and a wonderful, warm ambience; great coffee, tea, delicious treats and those giant mugs, which serve as invaluable reading companions.

Even though I left Russia more than 20 years ago, I remain fascinated with the language and literature of my birthplace and relish the opportunity to read in Russian, or novels by Russian authors, whenever I can. I am rereading Isaac Babel’s The Red Cavalry, a fantastic collection inspired by the author’s experiences as a war correspondent in Russia’s bloody civil war. The imagery and language are amazing, and translate well, though I have to admit that the original Russian is more vivid.

It should be clear by now that I love heavy fiction, works with un-heroic protagonists and a great deal of tension. That's why I'm a huge fan of Bulgakov, Richler, Atwood, Rushdie, Roth, and Babel. In his unique, almost cubist-like voice, Isaac Babel paints an incredible picture of the war through the eyes of Kiril Liutov, a meek Jewish writer, who attempts to reconcile his values with those of the powerful, violent, bloody, yet noble “Red” Cossacks. As it unfolds, Liutov’s account sheds light on the nature of man, war, faith and the all-consuming revolution. He at once glorifies the revolution and exposes its dark and murderous underbelly.

Even though the book was celebrated and was considered the first great revolutionary novel, Babel’s life was cut short as he was swept up in Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s. Those who prefer a light read should steer clear, but if you love to be challenged by a novel, you will be engrossed by it. And don’t forget, everything goes down a little easier with one of Mad Bean's frothy lattes.

Sophie Milman is a Toronto-based jazz vocalist. Her most recent album, her fourth, is In the Moonlight.

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