Thursday, March 27, 2014

Blue Met 2014 Literary Prize: Canada’s Literary Prizes

As far as literary prizes go, one of Montreal's biggest international prizes is the Blue MEtropolis International Literary Prize. Every year since 2000, we've awarded the prize to some of the most beloved writers in the world. They include such luminaries as Norman Mailer (2001), Mavis Gallant (2002), Carlos Fuentes (2005), Joyce Carol Oates (2012) and Colm Toibin (2013).

So who's gonna win for 2014? This year we had a long list of nearly 100 writers from all over the world. After deliberations, discussions, arguments (some heated), we were left with this respectable short-list:

Haruki Murakami: perennial Nobel prize nominee. One of Japan's biggest names (writer or otherwise). His books have been made into movies. He writes about running. He loves Cutty Sark and Miles Davis. He has his finger on the pulse of what's happening in contemporary Japan, a point of view we often don't have access to in Canada so readily.

Richard Ford: he should win just for naming a novel Canada. The
audacity of it, especially since it's about bank robbers. But in addition to books set on the high plains of Saskatchewan, he writes about New Jersey hooligans, traveling in Mexico and mid-life crises. Plus he's a real gentleman as about 25 people who've met him have told me. A real southerner who hasn't written about the south in a long time (someone recently told me he used to teach Richard Ford short-stories at "Old Miss," trying to instill a sense of pride in young southerners about one of their own.

Barbara Kingsolver: environmentalist, historian, complex creator of stories that straddle the personal and the political. Kingsolver is an under appreciated talent. Sure, she's made money off her books. Sure, Oprah digs her. But that almost undercuts the seriousness with which she she spends months and even years researching, writing, dedicating her life to her craft. She's written to me twice (on paper, mailed with stamps), kind and heart-felt letters that thanked me for inviting her to the Festival. I have four hand-written letters in my office from authors and two are from her. And when she's not crafting amazing novels like The Lacuna (personally I adore this novel), she's mentoring younger writers and putting her money where her mouth (or pen) is by supporting important environmental causes.

Eduardo Galeano: OK I have to admit that I have had a soft spot in my
heart for Galeano since I was a young man backpacking through Latin America. Long before the late Hugo Chavez handed over a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America to Barack Obama on a state visit (turning Galeano into that kind of leftist writer though he certainly is a certain kind of leftist writer). He's the kind of writer whose book you keep in your backpack for months at a time, dipping in and out of it, alternately moved, tickled, shocked, appalled, and knocked over. 

One of these amazing writers is going to be awarded our 2014 Blue Metropolis International Literary Prize and he or she will be announced at our official press conference next week: April 2, 2014 at 11:15 a.m. at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal.

In addition to the prestige and hearty handshakes, the winner will receive a check for $10,000 and first-class travel to the Festival, in addition to a rocking glass-engraved trophy!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Once in a while I read a book which knocks my socks off. Lately, it's been A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. The novel is a "re-telling" of Wuthering Heights but set in Japan in the 1950s just after the war. It's absolutely fantastic.

First off, it's highly readable. The characters are complex and intriguing, particularly the main character (the "Heathcliff" of the novel), Taro Azuma. But more than this, what Mizumura does with the novel form is fascinating: the book has a very long (150 pages +) preface where she tells the "real" story of how she came to write the novel and which people she met in her life helped her see a way in to approaching this story. She writes about inspiration and creativity, about growing up in New York with echoes from the original novel (as though life itself were a kind of novel but only in the retelling of life itself). But the preface is, in many ways, as important as the novel itself. It sets up so many expectations and helps us navigate certain plot points in the retelling part. I kept returning to the original Wuthering Heights while reading it, wondering how Emily Bronte's novel would have opened up if she had added this long "true" part before the novel.

The book has layers of tellings: the author tells us about her telling before she even tells it. Then some young man she meets in her real life becomes the basis of the main character who starts telling the story of the novel (Is he real? Is he fictional? Is he both?) but the bulk of the novel, as in Bronte's version, is told from the point of view of a housekeeper who witnesses the doomed love affair as an insider.

What I love about books that are retellings is when they open up the original and change it in a certain way for me, when I view that earlier work differently because of the retelling. The novel, like the original, looks at class but in very different ways that Bronte's novel. Mizumura is also interested in gender, in the war, in how the different generations approached love and violence. She explores the vastly different Japanese economy, what Japan was like when it was still a poor country.

At any rate, the book is nearly 1,000 pages long (but packaged beautifully in two separate volumes so they are easy to lug around) but I zipped through it in two weeks (a long time for me) and was enthralled in the novel from beginning to end. I highly recommend this book.

Blue Met 2014

We're almost there! On Tuesday, April 2 at 11:15 am, we release the entire program for Blue Met 2014. The press conference will be held at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal.

We have so much exciting stuff on our roster for this year's Festival: authors, events, prizes, special projects. It's really going to be a stellar year for us.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Murakami & Murakami

Back in the fall, I joined after being bombarded with advertisements from various podcasts and online. It was a good deal. I took advantage of their one book per month deal and listened to a few books. I managed to get through a few without any having made much of a major impression on me.

But then I listened to Haruki Murakami's book The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. What an odd book. But I found it very entertaining, followed by very irritating, and the book ended with me almost equally loving it and hating it. I have to say, one of the odd things is when male performers read female dialogue. This particular performance reminded me of The Kids in the Hall: you know when they are in drag and speaking as women, that high unnatural voice they affect? You get used to it, though.

I've never been a huge fan of Murakami to be honest. I find his universes too staged and it's like he's trying too hard to be metaphysical. But the threads don't always seem to fit together. His characters are all rather flat.

I liked IQ84 better than some of his earlier works. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle started out well: it tells the story of a missing cat, a runaway wife and a universe that opens up at the bottom of a dry well. Meh, even thinking back about it, I just feel perplexed about the journey I took with him (the book is like 20 hours long). It was worth the read but no one meets that many odd, strange or kooky people in their life (the main protagonist, a regular sort of guy, meets the strangest women. No one is ever normal in a Murakami book).

I like the experience of listening to a book, though. It doesn't replace sitting quietly in a room with a book in-hand, but it's nice to be able to listen on the metro, in taxis, while walking to my office. It would be hard to do more than one or two books a month maximum but it's definitely a good way to squeeze in another book each month.

They don't have a massive selection but there are quite a number of titles of popular books or writers in the buzz. They have a lot of shitty books, that's for sure! If the NYT best-seller is your cup of tea, you'll be in heaven. A severe lack of translated works which kind of sucks but they have the obvious suspects: Murakami, Pamuk, Marquez (some, at least).

I have to say one thing: the other Murakami is definitely a writer whose work is more appealing: Ryu Murakami writes all kinds of stuff. His books are shorter and deal with macabre subjects often (murder, prostitution, etc.) but he has such a sense of human nature and he does tricky things as a narrator. He lulls you into a false sense of security and has this way of pulling the rug out from under you as you read along. His book Piercing is a great example. It's not a masterpiece but it's a great read: mysterious, spooky, creepy and also a lot going on in terms of power and destruction.

I've been reading another VERY interesting work: Minae Mizumura's A True Novel which I am really finding fascinating. I will write about it later, though. Just to say: this book is what all books aspire to: complex, entertaining, funny, moving and thoughtful.

My Japanese phase is coming to an end. Not sure what's next on my list: Eleanor Catton? Jim Harrison? Joseph Boyden? Hmmmm.

Friday, March 7, 2014

David Foenkinos at Blue Metropolis 2014

All our hard work is coming together and we have finalized our 2014 program. It's now in the hands of designers, printers and poster-makers so things now shift into high-gear...

As a reminder, our 2014 festival dates are April 28 to May 4 at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal. We have More than 230 events with writers from all over the world!

We can announce today that French writer David Foenkinos will be one of more than 100 writers at Blue Met 2014. Foenkinos' most famous work in English is Delicacy and it's a short if humorous and haunting work about love, grief and starting over. It was made into a 2011 film starring Audrey Tautou. His other work that has been translated into English is called The Erotic Potential of My Wife which dates from about 10 years ago.

Though not as well known in the Anglophone world, he's practically a household name in France so he is certainly one of our 2014 headliners. Most of his events will be in French at the Festival, part of our series on some of the best French writing from France today.

More on that in the coming weeks.

If you read French, check out his latest: La tete de l' emploi and, of course, his last book, Ja vais mieux which was a run-away critical and commercial success in France. And stay tuned for all the details about his (as well as the 230+ other) events!

We launch the official program and all the details become public at our press conference on April 2, 2014!

The countdown begins...