Friday, March 29, 2013

Miriam Katin: Letting it Go

I've long been a fan of comics in novel or memoir form and so I was really happy when Drawn & Quarterly contacted us about doing an event at the Festival with Miriam Katin's new book, Letting it Go. Katin was born during WWII in Hungary but her work simmers with youthful and contemporary rhythms.

In Letting it Go, the author/artist (the book is a memoir) is confronted with her fears and anger, traumas from her past which centre around Berlin after her grown son informs her that he is moving there with his girlfriend. The book unfolds in these emotional bursts as Katin works through all her charged feelings that linger from her experience as a young girl, her prejudices against the city, her worries for her son.

It's beautifully drawn with a (what seems to me) intentionally amateur style (almost like it was taken directly from a sketchbook and publishes), naive, blunt coloured pencil drawings and no panels. But in the pages are gorgeous sketches of New York, of Berlin, of the past, and one gets a real sense of Katin's personality and her contemporary life as a New Yorker.

I am really excited that we can host Miriam for the book party at Blue Met. Her event, which will also feature Drawn & Quarterly Editor-in-Chief, Chris Oliveros, will be held at Hotel 10 on April 28 at 1:00 p.m.

And, hey, hey, it's free to attend!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jonathan Goldstein, Vincent Lam and other big names headline The Walrus Talks at Blue Met

This year, for the first time, Blue Met and The Walrus have joined forces to bring you one of their ever-popular Walrus Talks. This year the discussion centres around the theme of "Building Bridges" and will consist of several short (5-7 minutes each) talks by various writers and intellectuals with national and international reputation. This year, the talk will feature:

Jonathan Goldstein
Jonathan Goldstein: broadcaster, journalist, writer, contributor to This American Life, Goldstein's last event at Blue Met was standing room only.

Cameron Charlebois: Vice-President of Canada Lands and a trained architect, Charlebois will present his ideas of Building Bridges in a very real-world way given his role and also since bridges and Montreal are two subjects inextricably linked, particularly the last couple of years with talk of rebuilding the Champlain.

Alison Pick: writer of the really fantastic novel, Far to Go, Pick is a writer who I've been watching for a few years.

Vincent Lam: Giller Prize-winner and author of The Headmaster's Wager, Lam is a medical
doctor with a unique point of view given his background. And it's paid off: his books have been both critical and financial successes.

Pasha Malla
Saleema Nawaz: one of this year's "It" girls for the buzz surrounding her latest book (and first novel), Bone and Bread. Nawaz will, in fact, launch her book in Montreal tonight, Thursday, March 28, at Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore in Mile End, starting at 7p.m.

Pasha Malla: author of the collection of stories, The Withdrawal Method, Malla's new book, People Park, was short-listed for the First Novel Award.

Will Straw: head of McGill University's Canada Institute, Straw is a good friend to Blue Met and has done several events with and for us in the previous years (including last year's much talked event, Montreal's Most Notorious Crimes and Criminals.

Saleema Nawaz
Henry Mintzberg: head of McGill University's business school, Mintzberg is an international expert on strategic planning.

Rachel Giese: writer and Senior Editor at The Walrus.

The event will be held Saturday, April 27 at 2pm at the McCord Museum. Seats are very limited and there is no doubt in my mind that this event is going to sell out very quickly so don't say I didn't warn you if you can't get tickets for waiting too long! Buy them now while we still have some left. More information at the Blue Met website.

This event is in association with The Walrus, Blue Met, McGill University, Canada Lands, Enbridge and the Segal Centre.

Come check out some of the most interesting, innovative and exciting voices in contemporary Canada...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Arab Prize-Winner, Blue Met 2013

We are really thrilled that we have managed to land Hisham Matar as our 2013 Al Madjidi Ibn Dhaher Blue Met Arab Prize winner. Mr. Matar is one of the youngest and most haunting voices coming out of the Arab world the last number of years and his presence on the international literary stage is considerable.

When I saw him in New York in October as part of the New Yorker Festival, in conversation with a few other big name writers, I knew that our jury had awarded him the prize but was bummed that I couldn't share it yet because on stage he was fascinating: articulate, funny, dry, intelligent.

His book In the Country of Men haunted me for weeks after I read it years ago. The book tells the story of a young boy growing up in Tripoli until his father disappears into the Libyan prison system. The novel was short-listed for a slew of prizes, including the Booker Prize, and translated into dozens of languages.

On the occasion of his last book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, Matar passed through Canada though we didn't have him in our line-up for various reasons. At that time, he was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel as part of her Writers and Company and the interview was one of her best interviews: moving & shocking, it literally moved me to tears.

Hisham Matar will do two events at the Festival, an interview with Paul Kennedy (host of Ideas) as well as the awarding of the prize in the evening of Friday, April 26 at Hotel 10, 10 Sherbrooke Street West.

He will also be part of an event on Saturday, April 27: Literature as Refuge, a discussion at the Goethe Institute about the importance that literature has in a time of social, political or personal crisis. This event is with German writer Thomas Pletzinger, Italian Gianrico Carofiglio and Spaniard Ignacio del Valle, hosted by Katia Grubisic.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blue Met's 2013 Grand Prize Winner is Irish Writer Colm Tóibín

Our Grand Prize winner for 2013 is Irish writer Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and The Master. Tóibín is one of those writers I've been reading since I was quite young (I was so happy when the jury came back with their decision) and a few of his books are some of my favorites: The Master, which explores the inner life of Henry James and was a revelation, not only in terms of James' own work and life, but in the way one thinks about the public personal vs. the private man.

Blue Metropolis 2013 Grand Prize Winner
I also am a huge fan of The Blackwater Lightship which tells the story of a young woman who must come to terms with her alienated family life as her brother returns home after many years away, dying from AIDS. It's one of the few books I've read which I can recall tearing up while reading, so affected by its emotional core.

I also really liked Story of the Night which is set in Argentina of the 1980s, so much happening under the surface politically, socially, sexually.

Tóibín has written a few books the last few years and our Festival will give him a great chance to talk about these works with our audience.

Tóibín will take part in a few events at the Festival, most notably the Grand Prize Award Ceremony and interview by Eleanor Wachtel. This will be on stage at the Grand Bibliotheque on Thursday, April 25 at 6:30 pm (get tickets early because last year's show with Joyce Carol Oates was amazing - funny, moving and intelligent - and it sold out quickly!).

Writers and Company host, Eleanor Wachtel
Tóibín will also be part of a round-table discussion called Mothers Who Leave, a discussion about several recent books with missing mothers, missing wives. This will be with Montreal writer Nancy Richler (The Imposter Bride) and Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg (The Jewish Messiah). This event, hosted by Shelley Pomerance, takes place on Saturday, April 27 at 2pm.

This year's Blue Met Festival is centered at Hotel 10, 10 Sherbrooke Street West in Montreal and runs from April 22 - 28 with over 200 writers from 15 countries! Ticket information available at

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Notebook on Cities and Culture: an excellent podcast

I have become such a devoted fan of Colin Marshall's podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. Marshall talks to all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds: writers, editors, movie makers, translators, journalists, artists. From talking about contemporary fiction and publishing with Scott Esposito of The Quarterly Conversation to discussing Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada and the German language with translator Susan Bernofsky, every one of the podcast episodes is of interest.

Based in Los Angeles, Marshall isn't limited geographically and often has conversations with guests in or from Japan or Mexico or Europe.

In this culture of short sound bites and shallow "conversations" that pass as in-depth, it's refreshing to hear an hour-long conversation that really delves into the core issues surrounding art and culture.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chava Rosenfarb in Exile

Guernica Editions has released a new book recently of poems by Chava Rosenfarb, Exile at Last, which I've been revelling in the last few days. Rosenfarb emigrated to Montreal after surviving several camps during WWII (Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, among others) with a collection of poems she'd already composed in order to remember her suffering and the suffering of those around her.

But she saw the possibility in her adopted land and it was here in Montreal where she was able to turn this small collection of poems written in the dark into something tangible. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Holocaust Literature as a rule: it's too focused on one experience, one reality, and it's work which often doesn't speak to people when it's too myopically focused on a unique and unusual circumstance.

I also think of Czeslaw Milosz who said he refused to write about the horrors he survived (though he was never in a death camp, he did live through the bombing of Warsaw and most of friends and acquaintances being wiped out) because he never wanted to be a "professional mourner."

But I find that Rosenfarb's little book, edited by Gordie Morgentaler, translated by Rosenfarb herself, puts a spin on life in Montreal and gives voice to this unique kind of experience. For me, the Holocaust has always seemed so far away, a different continent, so long ago. But Rosenfarb somehow brings it closer, sees Montreal through the eyes of someone who survived, gives the duality we all live with here much more complexity. She says:

...I do not feel at home in this country. Here, in Montreal, in the Province of Quebec, I have lived for two decades between the two solitudes - in my own solitude. My alienation is due to natural causes, if I may call them that, and is incurable. It is due to my being both a writer and a Jew of the Diaspora, the eternally restless, eternally wandering Jew. This share of my alienation I accept and recognize as part and parcel of my identity. This part of my alienation is stimulating. It is at the very core of my creativity.

Though I am not a Jew, though I have not survived horrors as Rosenfarb and so many others have, I can relate to these words in important ways being, both an alien here and being eternally restless myself, but I also recognize that this sense of alienation is one of the things I like best about living here.

Rosenfarb's poems, most of which were written in Yiddish, are dated,often religious, and exist as small testaments to the limitations of translation, I fear. I don't speak Yiddish but I have done some translation and seen that some poems just don't work in English. Only some stand this way, some others are deceptively simple...

Some of the poems rattle with an emotional core that shake them but don't break them apart. While reading, I am often reminded of Nancy Richler's excellent novel, The Imposter Bride, whose protagonist similarly survived the Holocaust and ended up here, restless and damaged. But the experience must have been relatively common in the Jewish community here mid-20th century and I suppose many survivors could relate to it:

So she had gone,
forgetting to cry,
without saying goodbye,
even to the dog.
Without letting here eyes embrace
the walls between which she had paced,
without touching the things she was leaving behind,
things cherished for years.
Without kissing him whom she had loved
even in her mind.
She locked the door to her past,
An exile at last.

I don't read these poems for the poetry but for the sense they give me of the abundance of life in Montreal, of our history, of the countless voices who have come as survivors and left their mark on the streets we walk on every day.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blue Met Grand Prize: our short list

So every year our Grand Prize announcement is one of our biggest "ooh and aaah" moments. I remember clearly the murmur that went through the packed room last year at our Press Conference when we announced Joyce Carol Oates as our 2012 winner. And what a winner she was: her event at the Grande Bibliotheque was amazing (and sold out!).

In anticipation of our announcement next week, we release our short-list. It wasn't easy but this year our jury came back with three short-listed winners (we had a longer list that the short list was pulled from). They are:

Orhan Pamuk: Nobel Prize-winner (the first time we've short-listed a former Nobel Prize-winner though we have awarded the prize to someone who later won the Nobel Prize!), author of The Black Book, Snow and many other works, Pamuk, who hails from Turkey but lives in Istanbul and New York, is one of the best-known writers working today.

Colm Tóibín: Irish writer whose best-known works include The Master, Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary, his books are moving, haunting and full of a fierce intelligence and understanding of human nature. Personally he's been one of my favorite writers my entire adult life.

Rohinton Mistry: one of Canada's best-loved sons, Mistry has been nominated and/or won just about every major prize there is. His works shine with his finely crafted prose that he seems to work so diligently at since he doesn't publish every year like many writers do. The publication of a new Mistry work is celebrated and anticipated throughout the world. A Fine Balance is one of those works I can return to every few years and revel again in the world he creates.

One of these writers, it will be announced next week, has one our 2013 Grand Prize. The prize, awarded every year since the year 2000, has featured some of the world's best-loved writers: from Mavis Gallant (2002) to Carlos Fuentes (2005) to Norman Mailer (2001) to Joyce Carol Oates (2012), Margaret Atwood (2007) and Paul Auster (2004), the prize quite literally is one of the highlights of the spring season in Montreal...

Tune in to find out who wins for 2013: we announce our winner next week at our official launch and press  conference: Tuesday, March 26 at 10:00 a.m. at l'Espace Fontaine in Park Lafontaine.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Odds and Ends as we gear up to release our 2013 schedule!

Our official press conference is on March 26 at 10am at Espace Lafontaine in Park Lafontaine. We will release our entire 2013 line up and tickets go on sale. Buy early this year because last year most of our key events sold out before the Festival began!

My reading habits change at this time of year: I now stop reading for the upcoming Festival and start focusing on the next year! Already I have a big stack of books to get through as we do pre-planning for 2014, particularly since we want to have at least six big name authors confirmed before the beginning of May.

Been slowing making my way through Joseph Roth's Collected Stories which I am loving. The more I read Roth, the more I develop an appreciation for what a poet he was, what a master of language. I can't recommend his books enough. He has such a sensitivity to the lives of the downtrodden, the underdogs, the voiceless. He's just as concerned with the lives of the poor as he is the lives of the rich and powerful but in a way that brings their experiences to life. He's not a social reformer like Dickens (or Hugo, see below) but shows a real interest in these experiences and the individuals who live them.

I found the story "The Blind Mirror" absolutely captivating. In the story, Roth shows us the life of a young woman as she tries to make her way in the world. Here Roth reflects on the night:

Night is full of feeling and surprise: out of the blue, longings come to us, when the distant whistle of a locomotive catches in the window, when a cat slinks along the pavement opposite hungry for love, and disappears into a basement window where the tom waits. There is a big starry sky above us, too remote to be kind, too beautiful not to harbor a God. There are the little things close at hand and there is a remote eternity, and some relation between them that escapes our understanding. Maybe we would understand it, if love were to visit us; love relates the stars and the slinking cat, the lonesome whistle and the vastness of the heavens.

The lyrical qualities mixed with the emotional resonance (captured by Roth's main translator, Michael Hoffman) really strike me as both straddling the 19th and the 20th centuries.  Anyway, Joseph Roth A++

Also in my stack of potential 2014 authors are books by Guy Deslisle and Jimmy Beaulieau, and Edmund White novel, a couple of books of poetry and Victor Hugo.

Speaking of which, I finally got around to seeing Les Miserables on screen. Meh. I enjoyed it but mainly because of the novelty of the actors singing during the shoot and not having it be dubbed to death. The issue I have with the play (and, hence, the movie) is the fact that so much of Hugo's ideas are completely stepped over: I guess because it's a musical and there is a highly emotional (and visual) component to it, the focus is placed on the love story and the love between characters generally whereas in the book that's really just one small part of the story. There's also the aftermath of the French Revolution, social disorder, law and justice, what it means to forget your past but yet be tied to it. The movie and musical give us a sense of some of these issues but Hugo was a thinker and revolutionary, not something that is easily translated into musical numbers and dancing.

But it did make me feel that I should read the book again since it has been many years since I read it last. As spring springs, I look forward to hours on my sofa reading Victor Hugo and waiting for summer...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Serious Readers according to Philip Roth

Someone told me something the other day which has been playing around in my mind ever since: he said that Philip Roth had lamented that in another generation there won't be any "readers" left. 

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and chalk this up to typical Cassandra's involved in the writing or publishing industries. Of course, people are reading more now than ever before. More books are sold than ever before (despite what we're led to believe and, yes, most of the books are crap) and, of course, most people are sitting in front of a computer reading almost all day long.

Seriously? 2 1/2 hours every day?
So the question is: what is a "reader." According to Philip Roth, it's those who are "serious readers," meaning they read books at least 2 or 2 1/2 hours a day. Again, my initial reaction is skepticism. After all, reading is my job and even I often don't read that much, at least not books.

I wonder WHO today could possibly read books 2 hours every day? I typically get up at 6:30, work for two hours every morning (online reading, not book reading though I'm often reading about books), then I go into my office at around 9:30, staying until 5:30 or 6:00. By the time I get home, it's close to 7:00. Then there's dinner, catching up with what happened today with those around me, and if I'm lucky, an hour or 45 minutes of reading books. But I also try to read an article or two in The New Yorker or some other literary magazine. A TV episode of something before sleep...then, because I get up so early, I am off to bed.  And those are nights when I don't have some event to attend or some work to finish.

If Marilyn could do it...
Where on earth would I squeeze in 2 or more hours reading? I imagine that most people's schedules are similar to mine except maybe the few writers I know who can make a living at from writing alone.

On the weekends, I might occasionally find a couple of hours to sit and read but honestly even that's not every weekend. Again, books are my job and if I can't find the time to do it, I wonder if anyone can (except the writer exceptions noted above).

On some level it's a choice: I could possibly squeeze in 2 hours if I did nothing else: no movies, no TV, no conversations or going out. But reading should just be a part of one's life, it should add to life but not be life. I want to be able to go out and know what people are talking about. And, let's face it, though I occasionally have chats about some books with my friends (many of whom are readers), we talk at least as much about other things in life if not more. 

Reading has become, I think, a private occupation, something one does but possibly doesn't necessarily share or discuss with others (often perhaps because there aren't that many readers out there?), or at least not much.

So what do we talk about with others now? The news, TV shows (The Walking Dead, Enlightened, etc.), the latest New Yorker, podcasts, popular Internet memes, etc. 

I wouldn't want to sacrifice that for books. I love reading, but I guess even Philip Roth would say I'm not a "serious reader" ...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Czeslaw Milosz and the pleasures of reading...

The other day I came across this Paris Review interview from a number of years back with the Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz. This led me back into an orgy of Milosz reading over the weekend which has been so wonderful this cold dead season.

I have read Milosz nearly my entire adult life. He's one of those writers whose work I read consistently, re-reading certain key books, holding certain poems in my memory.

The Shanghai Public Library
I recall getting up early every morning and riding my bike to the Shanghai Public Library, spending all morning in a really beautiful English-language reading room surrounded by huge towering trees in the old French concession of the city. I would read his Collected Poems (the library had a small but very impressive collection of contemporary poetry) three or four mornings a week (at the time, one wasn't able to check out books in English, only read them in this almost invariably empty reading room) before I'd head over to where I was working. I don't know why but his words had such importance for me at that time in my life and I still have certain passages memorized from his collection Bells in Winter.

When my friend Sarah and her husband visited me in China, I asked them to bring me a copy of his New and Collected Poems which had just come out at the time, a huge tome that is heavy and unwieldy though, despite this, the book has been with me everywhere (from Paris to Hong Kong to Argentina) and I've read and re-read its poems many many times.

Later, I read The Captive Mind (which though still interesting feels quite dated in all its Cold War rhetoric) and his really lovely memoir The Issa Valley, about growing up in a dull forgotten and provincial part of Europe that has vanished forever. It was through reading To Begin Where I Am, an excellent varied collection of essays (from the history of Vilnius to the work of the American poet Robinson Jeffers to living in Berkeley, to Dostoevsky) that I discovered Tomas Venclova, another writer whose work I've come to admire through the years (I just missed him by a day when I was in Berlin last year...). I also came to know the work of the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewski through an essay he wrote on Milosz.

All this to say that on Sunday, when I saw the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation, the article there about Milosz's relationship with California (where he was a professor for many years) felt like the perfect coda for my weekend.

People who don't read books miss one of the truly great pleasures in life.