Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Risky Whiskey: Lies, Whiskies and Other Dangers...

We've managed to crack some kind of code when it comes to fundraising events. The last few years we've been doing at least two per year: one in the middle of winter and one the week of the Festival.

Though they are an enormous amount of work, we almost always sell them out and manage to raise some funds for our educational programs and, of course, our Festival. And have a lot of fun in the process.

Last year we did Scotch & Fedoras which was a booming success (I still remember Jean-Francois Leduc dazzling the audience with a jazz-inspired reading of William T. Vollmann). And tonight we put on Risky Whiskey: Lies, Whiskies and other dangers....

There are literally two or three tickets left at most (they may be gone now because the last update I received was yesterday morning) so if you are a fan of whiskey, you might want to come check it out.

But it's only about the whiskey in part: the producer of the event is amazing: creative, intelligent, talented and, man, does he, Matt Zimbel, know what he's doing. And the host/emcee, too: Lyne Tremblay consistently wows our audience with her charm and originality.

Tonight it's going to be stories and anecdotes about whiskey drinking: the adventurous side of belting one on and whiskies from Japan, US and India. The show happens tonight at Monument National starting at 6pm. More information here.

It's not a marketing ploy, honestly: I do believe that the show is already sold out, though if this does sound like something that you might want to enjoy, contact us and see if it's possible to come warm your body with some of the best whiskies in the world while watching a funny and moving musical performance. We might be able to find another ticket or two... Nothing better to forget the winter blues than warming up in a friendly room full of whiskey lovers.



Monday, February 16, 2015

Philip Levine, 1928 - 2015


The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side-stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat," she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of dirt that we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

          -from The Simple Truth by Philip Levine



Saturday, February 14, 2015

NYRB Classics: some of my favorites

For years, I've been wanting to do an event on NYRB Classics. The premise is simple: we ask three or four confirmed Festival authors to "champion" their favorite NYRB Classics book and defend it at a round-table event.

I've never been able to make it work for various reasons (though not giving up) but being a champion of NYRB and while reading Silvina Ocampo's Thus Were Their Faces in bed last night, I started wondering how many NYRB books I had in my library at home. A fair number it turns out. (I even have in my collection The Invention of Morel by her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I think the first NYRB I bought was Mavis Gallant's collection Paris Stories. I may have even bought it in Paris now that I think about it. I've read and re-read this one many times and I love "The Moslem Wife" and several other stories in that collection which I could read and re-read every year and never grow tired of them.

I also love Natsume Soseki's The Gate which is one of those books whose images have stayed with me for years: a young couple who bitterly resign themselves to never being able to have kids and soon find themselves in a downward spiral.

Robert Walser's Berlin Stories is fascinating and when I was going through my Berlin literature phase a couple of years ago, I remember getting this one in the mail with the biggest smile on my face, knowing I would spend the entire next day on my sofa reading it. He's one of the most unique European writers...

And Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City is one of my most favorite books ever. Period. There are long passages of this collection that I practically know by heart.

The stroke of genius (or one of them) is that the editors ask really interesting writers to do the Simone Schwarz-Bart. Often these introductions or prologues or prefaces are just as interesting as the works themselves. So we have Helen Oyeyemi introducing Silvina Ocampo, Pico Iyer introducing Soseki, and Jamaica Kincaid introducing (the very under appreciated) Simon Schwarz-Bart. The main reason I bought George Simenon's Dirty Snow, in fact, is that I'm a huge fan of William T. Vollmann and I wanted to read what he thought about Simenon.

I don't love every NYRB (I find Stefan Zweig a bit thin though he's a fascinating character himself) but I love many of them and once something comes out in that familiar format, it rockets to the top of my list. (Really looking forward to Naked Earth by Chang and The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov).

One could easily spend all one's time reading only NYRB collections and never have time to read anything else. Oh, in a perfect world...


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Blue Met 2015 : Stay Tuned!

Though we won't officially announce our lineup for another six weeks or so, we are putting the final touches on our 2015 program and it's looking great.

In addition to our 2015 series on Mile End, we have events on First Peoples Writing (and a new prize), a series on Generosity, events about mobility, movement and immigration as part of Performigrations, and a Film Series, as well. And this is just a sneak peak: we have writers confirmed from 15 countries including Germany, Algeria, Israel, the USA, Martinique, Trinidad & Tobago, France, Italy, Mexico and others.

Events on dance, cinema, musical performances, walking tours, expositions, and of course round-tables, interviews and readings.

We officially release all our 2015 at a press conference on March 24, 2015 where we'll announce the winners of our prizes:

The Blue Metropolis Grand Literary Prize: this is traditionally one of our biggest events and in the past we've given the prize to Richard Ford, Colm Toibin, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others. As in past year, we'll award the prize on-stage at the Grand Bibliotheque on Saturday, April 25 in the afternoon, followed by an interview.

The Premio Metropolis Azul for the third year will be awarded to a very popular and in-demand author who explores some aspect of the Hispanophone world in Spanish, English or French. We're expecting a full house for this event on Thursday, April 23 in the evening. Past winners of this award include Sergio Ramirez and Luis Alberto Urrea. Some names on the short list for this prize in 2015 include Sandra Cisneros, Isabelle Allende, and Luis Carlos Zafón.

Our two new prizes this year are for First Peoples Writing and the Words to Change Prize. The First Peoples Writing Prize will go to an Indigenous Canadian writer of great renowned and the Words to Change Award is a new prize which aims to value work that brings communities together. This year, we're happy to give the prize to an artist whose work is at once funny, moving and historically fascinating.

Blue Met 2015 promises to be one of our biggest and highest-profile Festivals in a few years.

The 2015 runs April 20 - 26 at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal.



Sunday, February 8, 2015

Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing at Cinema du Parc

As part of Cinema du Parc's series on Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (presented by Martin Scorsese) this week, I was happy to see that A Short Film About Killing was on their playlist for this weekend. This is one of Kieslowski's early feature films and one that came directly out of his earlier made-for-TV masterpiece, Dekalog.

Dekalog is a series of ten short films (one hour each) that aired in Polish TV in the mid 80s and A Short Film About Killing was originally one of these short episodes that Kieslowski expanded into a full-length film.

I've for years wished that some repertory cinema in Montreal would play Dekalog in its entirety and I've only ever seen in on DVD but the premise is basically that each film is "about" or inspired by one of the ten commandments. So there's a film that alludes to Thou shall not commit adultery and one about Honoring thy father and mother, etc.

The films aren't meant to be explicit treatises on the Ten Commandments and the allusions to them are sometimes obscure or oblique. But it's an excellent series of films and an incredibly interesting time capsule into life in Poland in the 1980s.

I was really happy to see that the Cinema du Parc was fairly full this afternoon when I walked over to CdP (in a blizzard no less) to check out A Short Film About Killing.

The film is constructed in two parts: the first leading up to the random killing of a taxi driver by
Jacek, an aimless street criminal who seems to kill just for the thrill of it. But there are no easy answers: the taxi driver is a bit of a prick and Jacek, too, we learn later, has overcome a major tragedy in his own life. The second act leads up to Jacek's execution by the Polish state but what is not there is just as important as what is: there is no arrest, no investigation, not even any courtroom scenes (though the judge alludes to the defense attorney's speech against the evils of capital punishment, we never see the attorney - his name is Piotr - in action). This act opens with the judge ruling against Piotr and Jacek which starts the ball rolling on his execution. We see the cruelty of state-sanctioned execution but it's not done in any pat or superficial way: one killing leads to another but both are horrific and both are meant to be seen as equally abhorrent. And though there is certainly a political message here, how it's told is just as important as what the message is meant to convey. It's beautifully filmed and I'm so fascinated by these images of Poland in the mid-80s.

Speaking of Kieslowski, I really enjoyed reading Teju Cole's piece in the New Yorker about the director's last film, Red. Though I've always been more partial to Blue, I do find Red one of Kieslowski's most watchable and interesting films.

One of my most favorite all time movies is a Kieslowski movie, The Double Life of Veronica, and I've seen it probably 15 times. But I still get something new out of it every time I watch it and all of Kieslowski's films are at the top of my Criterion wish list (along with Wong Kar wai's In the Mood for Love). I, like Cole, discovered Kieslowski in my early 20s when Red was released and with a bunch of friends I saw a triple feature at the U-District Theatre in Seattle back in like 1994.  I've gone back to all of his films many times in my life and, to me, these films are what cinema is all about.

A Short Film About Killing plays again Monday, February 9 at 7pm at Cinema du Parc so I'd highly recommend it to any fans of "good" films and, of course, to anyone to admires the films of Kieslowski. Maybe CdP will get around to playing Dekalog one of these days or the entire Three Colors series. I hope so.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sophie's Choice by William Styron

William Styron is one of those writers for whom I gained an appreciation very early in my life.

I think I probably read Sophie's Choice for the first time when I was about 19 or 20 and I end up re-reading it every 5 or 10 years. Styron is one of those writers who seems to have followed me wherever I go. (I also love The Confessions of Nat Turner, despite all the controversy around it.)

Oddly, I had picked up Sophie's Choice a week or two before I left for Colombia and read the first 100 or so pages but decided not to bring it with me (I brought a book on the Vikings instead which I didn't even open once while I was in Latin America). But on the plane from Cartagena to New York, the people next to me on the plane suddenly began talking about Sophie's Choice and, in fact, the choice that is the great denouement of the novel.

I found this odd: a coincidence that two people were even talking about books next to me (though considering that one was an author at the Festival in Colombia, I suppose not that odd) but even more strange that it was a book I hold so dear AND one that I had just started reading again the week before.

In any case, William Styron, who died in 2006, is in the midst, I think, of a low point in his writing reputation. Often this happens for several years or more after an author dies (Kay Boyle is another writer who had some success in her lifetime but has never really picked up any momentum since her death more than 20 years ago; Czeslaw Milosz is another.). But it's a shame that his reputation has somewhat dimmed: he was such an important part of the American literary scene for so much of the 20th century, if not a controversial one. He was close to James Baldwin and, like Baldwin, very invested in civil rights and in the issues of his day. His themes are somewhat dated now, perhaps, and a novel about the Holocaust seems the last thing the world needs to get excited about.

But one thing that struck me as I read the book this time was how YOUNG these Holocaust survivors were. Sophie, I mean. For us today in this generation, the Holocaust means old people, the elderly, or those long long dead (even my maternal grandfather was too young to fight in WWII and would have been 17 when the war ended and the camps liberated. He lived to a ripe old age.) But in the novel, Sophie is a young woman in Brooklyn just a couple of years after the end of the war, trying to carry on with her life after the horrors she suffered. She was a young and beautiful woman like many women who survived the camps. It's easy to forget that the Holocaust was not about old people but about young people, many of whom had to try and carry on after the camps were freed (in this sense, I am also reminded of Montreal writer, Nancy Richler's fascinating novel, The Imposter Bride)

The other theme which fascinates Styron (maybe more than the Holocaust) is mental illness and the
main character, Sophie's lover, Nathan Landau, suffers from what we might diagnose today as bi-polar disorder. She is the one who has suffered unspeakably yet he is the one, the middle class American Jew, who is plagued with mental illness. Styron captures his ups and downs, his highs and lows and all the havoc he wreaks on those around him. This theme, perhaps, was prescient for Styron to be so interested in (though he suffered very publicly from his own bout of mental illness which he chronicles in his excellent book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness).

Sophie's Choice is a novel that still continues to speak to me and to surprise me even though I've read it countless times.

At a moment early on in the novel when Stingo hears the French horn coming from Sophie's room upstairs (he's only just met her in the hallway of the building and he is instantly struck with her beauty) he links her history and the music he hears from Nathan's French horn to the destruction of Europe that was what these young people had in their recent memories:

It was music that, among other things, spoke of a Europe of a halcyon time, bathed in the soft umber flow of serene twilights - of children in pigtails and pinafores bobbing along in dogcarts, of excursions in the glades of the Wiener Wald and strong Bavarian beer, of ladies from Grenoble with parasols strolling the glittering rims of vertiginous waltzes, of Moselle wine, of Johannes Brahms himself, with beard and black cigar...It was a Europe of almost inconceivable sweetness - a Europe that Sophie, drowning in her sorrow above me, could never have known.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Live from Cartagena, Colombia

So busy the last few weeks that I have no time to write and very little time to read even.

Usually from just after Christmas until the point in which our printed program is sent off to the designer and printer, I eat, drink, sleep and dream Festival events. Thousands of emails are exchanged. Phone calls are made. Drinks with publishers and hosts, coffee with authors and artists. (That's true year round but this time of year, it's super concentrated).

And in the thick of the busiest time of year, I zip off to Colombia for the Hay Festival. No, this isn't a vacation (despite what everyone in our office thinks!): it's work. Receptions, events, cocktail parties, meeting authors. It's all exhausting.

OK it's good work but it is pretty much non-stop from the moment I arrive until I'm on that flight back to New York.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
So much to see this year! Last night it was Laurent Binet. I loved his book HHhH which came out a few years ago and last night he was on stage with Felipe Restrepo Pombo, discussing French literature, his work, and Charlie Hebdo (I imagine there will be a lot of that since this is really the first major literary Festival since all that took place).

Today we'll see Andrew Solomon and some events on Colombian literature. Then our good friend Kim Thuy will be in conversation with Binyavanga Wainana and Peter Florence about Writing What's Important. Kim Thuy needs no introduction but Wainana is an interesting figure.

Other events on Indigenous writing in the Americas and How to Imagine New Societies also peaked our interest.

Then, it must be said, there are the parties! Gorgeously dressed people from all over the world, great food, excellent music. What a life!