Monday, March 30, 2015

The Girl on the Train

I thought I'd take a break from Festival-related books over the weekend and I read Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train. It was a great read: very dark, though, and very pessimistic about people.

The premise is relatively straightforward: a woman who rides a train every morning and passes the old house where she used to live with her ex-husband becomes infatuated with a young couple she sees out in their backyard. She creates an entire life for them, checking in on them and their life each morning as she goes into London and then again as she returns home.

When the woman turns up missing, a big mystery opens up: did the husband kill her? Or her lover? Or has she run off to start a new life?

This is all tempered by the fact that the protagonist is highly unreliable because she has a drinking problem. Major drinking problem. So huge chunks of her memory just vanish and she does things when she's on a bender that we aren't privy to (even she isn't). So there's a whole theme of memory and how we make memories, happy or sad, and how we piece together parts of our lives that we can't remember, the stories we tell ourselves to cope.

So I liked this book though I read it fairly quickly and I wonder how long it'll stay in my mind. It did get me thinking about books whose main protagonists are alcoholics though: Fitzgerald. That guy who wrote the book The Lost Weekend was based on (Charles R. Jackson: that was a Wikipedia moment). There must be others. But a drunk narrator is really too delicious a narrator for a writer to ignore: so much emotion to deal with, backstory (how and why they became a drunk), so much mysterious about it.

In any case, the book was a good read with a very interesting twist at the end. My one gripe, I guess, is just in the way the book suggests people are: that most people present this happy, idealistic face to the world but deep down, most people are hiding things. Yes, I think most people are hiding things but very few are hiding anything interesting. Diabolical people, sociopaths are rather rare, I think, and few people are really evil.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Annharte at Blue Met 2015

As part of our ongoing efforts to promote all kinds of writing and writers, we created a new prize this year to shine a spotlight on Indigenous writers of Canada by creating the Blue Met First Peoples Literary Prize.

The inaugural prize is awarded this year to Anishnabe poet and activist Annharte for her amazing collection Indigena Awry.

This work is definitely one of the most original and provoking poetry collections I've read this year in preparing for this upcoming Festival. Annharte explores urban culture in fascinating and often hilarious ways: but in addition to her poems, she performs, tells stories, and fights for the rights of women and the disabled.

Annharte will do many events at Blue Met 2015 but the headline event is the awarding of the Blue Met First Peoples Prize to her on stage in conversation with activist Taiaiake Alfred. This event starts at 11:00 am on Saturday, April 25 and the tickets are $10 ($8.50 if you buy before April 8).

Annharte will also do a storytelling event at Westmount Library at 10:30 on April 23. This event is free.

She will be in conversation, too, with novelist Lee Maracle, on Witness: Indigenous Women Writers. This one is at 11:00 am on Sunday, April 26 at Hotel 10.

Finally, she will discuss artists and ability/disability in an on-stage discussion with Laurence Parent and Concordia Mobile Media Lab's Kimberly Sawchuk. Writing Disabilities: Poet + Activist on Sunday, April 26 at 12:30pm at Hotel 10. This event is free.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Junot Díaz at Blue Met

Winner of our 3rd Premio Metropolis Azul, Junot Díaz will be at the Festival this year to talk about his popular works, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well as his other book This is How You Lose Her.

Díaz is one of contemporary fiction's best-known practitioners and a recent BBC critics poll ranked Oscar Wao as the best book of the 21st century.

Díaz's books reflect a changing demographic in US and North American society: his works detail the immigrant experience, the difficulties of assimilation and, in particular, of language-learning. His works are full of memorable and unique protagonists who struggle to fit in but stand out with humour and incredibly colorful language.

A prolific Facebook user, Díaz is also preoccupied with racism and injustice in America today and his Facebook posts reflect his social conscience (and, indeed, much of what interests him as a fiction writer).

"We live in a society where default whiteness goes unremarked - no one ever asks it for its passport - but God forbid a person of color should raise her voice against this smug occult system of oppression, points out whiteness, its operations and consequences - well, in two seconds flat that person is the one accused of being obsessed with race."

It's very interesting to me how our writers reflect our societies and we can learn so much about what is happening in any given society by considering that society's writers (and artists in general) and what interest them. Yet this is also a very delicate line to walk because writers who are overtly political often fall out of fashion very quickly. So there has to be some kind of broad appeal that both reflects the culture but also which stands independent of it.

Díaz will do two events at Blue Met 2015: his main event at the Rialto Theater, in association with, Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, will see Díaz on stage with Montreal writer Heather O'Neill (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night). This is on Thursday, April 23 in the evening. Tickets are $10 or $8.50 if you buy them before April 8.  Tickets available online here (service fees may apply) or you can also buy them at the shop: Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard Ouest, in Mile End.

His other event will be on Friday, April 24 at Librairie Las Américas (2075 St-Laurent). This event is in Spanish and will be an onstage discussion between Díaz and journalist Hector Tobar (author of Deep Down Dark: the Untold Story of 33 Men Buried in the Chilean Mine). Tickets here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blue Met's 2015 Grand Literary Prize winner: Nancy Huston

We've officially launched Blue Met 2015 and we couldn't be happier.

The big news is that our Grand Literary Prize winner for this year is Canadian/French writer, Nancy Huston. Huston has had one of the most unique careers in contemporary literature: from her beginnings on the prairies of Alberta, she has come to be regarded as one contemporary France's most prolific and respected writers.

Her most recent work, Bad Girl, is highly biographical (actually, it straddles some intersection between autobiography, biography and fiction) and a fascinating read. Her novel, Black Dance, is a novel that explores a life's work as the man in question lays dying in a hospital room. Written like a screenplay, the novel's full of voices from Milo's past as he considers what his life's work has meant.

I'm also a huge fan of Huston's The Goldberg Variations. Huston, an accomplished musician as well, is interested in riffing off the various iterations of these famous pieces. It's a really innovative and challenging work that I've read and re-read. Huston will be doing several events as part of the 2015 Blue Met Literary Festival:

Ultraviolet is a musical performance that Huston does with famed French guitarist, Claude Berthélémy. The musical tale is based on her short story of an Alberta family during the depression. She performs this piece on Thursday, April 23 at 5:30 pm at Hotel 10. The performance will be in French. Tickets are $10 and available here.

Also in French, Huston will be interviewed by Radio-Canada's Marie-Louise Arsenault on Friday, April 24 in the evening. This will be at Hotel 10. Tickets are $10 and available here. (Reminder: a 15% discount is offered if you buy before April 8).

Mainly in English, Huston will be awarded the 2015 Blue Metropolis Grand Literary Prize at the Grande Bibliothèque (475 Boul de Maisonneuve E ) with CBC's Paul Kennedy on Saturday, April 25 at 4:00 pm. Tickets are $15 and available here. This event, an annual tradition at the Grande Bibliothèque , sells out each year so get your tickets for this one soon. (Reminder: a 15% discount is offered if you buy before April 8).

Alberta prairie girl transforms into French intellectual superstar

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Five Important Facts about Blue Met 2015!

So much to say about our 2015 Festival, which runs April 20 - 26, 2015 at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal (in addition to several other venues around town).

Check out the entire program at our website.

Number one: 

We have literary stars: Nancy Huston, Junot Díaz, Patrick Chamoiseau, Russell Banks, André Aciman, Gene Luen Yang, Yasmina Khadra, Annharte, Don McKay, Marie Howe, Hector Tobar, David Usher, and many more!

Number two: 

Junot Diaz
We are more international than ever: Writers from Martinique, Trinidad, Germany, France, the USA, Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, Israel, Algeria and more! Events in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, German and Portuguese!

Number three: 

We have some fun series on all kinds of literary topics: Series on Mile End, Generosity, Pan America, the Caribbean, Performigrations, France, a Film Series, Europe, Almemar (Jewish writers), Well-being and lots more!

Number four: 

2015:  big Festival in a record number of venues throughout Montreal: This year we are pleased to
Oonya Kempadoo
present well over 260 events at our venue hotel as well as at the Grande Bibliothèque, Rialto Theatre, Concordia University's De Sève Cinema, Librairie Las Américas, Goethe-Institut, Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, Lion d'Or, plus other bookstores throughout Greater Montreal (from Saint-Lambert on the South Shore to Rosemére on the North Shore and many places in between).

Number five:
Literature and much, much more! Literature is the core of what we do but this year we also have a Film Series, two dance performances, writing workshops, theatre, walking tours, history, and politics.

American poet, Marie Howe

French novelist, Adrien Bosc

André Aciman
Russell Banks
Nancy Huston
Gene Luen Yang

Friday, March 20, 2015

Blue Met 2015: Program almost revealed!

We launch our entire 2015 program on Tuesday morning at 11:00. Along with it, all the names of our prize-winners including:

Our Grand Literary Prize: past winners have included Richard Ford, Colm Tóibín, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Carlos Fuentes, Norman Mailer, Dany Laferrière and many others, dating back to 1999. This is given to a distinguished writer of international stature for a body of work.

Auster, Byatt, Laferrière, Atwood, Mailer, Oates: who will join their ranks?

Our Premio Metropolis Azul is given for a work written in Spanish, English or French which shows some aspect of Hispanophone culture: past winners have included Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez and Chicano US writer Luis Alberto Urrea.

Urrea: his sold out Grande Bibliotheque interview was a 2014 highlight! 

And Blue Met has two new prizes to add to this year's roster:

First Peoples Literary Prize: this is a prize aimed at shining the spotlight on the work of a First Nations, Métis, or Inuit writer of Canada.

Words to Change Prize: this prize is given to a writer whose work or works brings communities together. This might be intercultural communication in regards to ethnic communities, religious communities, linguistic communities or some other community.

In addition, we'll announce all our writers, some exciting series we are doing and some fun projects we are working on.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Being a big fan of Ferrante's work and having read all volumes available in her Naples series, I reached back into her early work and read The Days of Abandonment.

I had a very different relationship with this one: it's too dark for me, too personal, too bitter.

I heard John Waters say once that Elena Ferrante was one of his favorite "angry women writers" and having only read her Naples series then, I found this comment puzzling. The series isn't necessarily "angry" at all. Certainly there are moments of anger but the book is far more complex than anger.

But after reading The Days of Abandonment, I can see what he meant: the protagonist relates the story of a short period of time she went through after her husband left her. The opening line:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

Olga, the protagonist, then falls into a mental abyss of fear, anger, doubt and pain. It's like one furious rant from beginning to end.

I am so glad I started with her Naples series which, to my mind, is far more interesting.

I don't know why I couldn't relate to this novel as well: the anger? The specifics of the experience? Olga's experience feels somewhat dated since she seems to have no life or interest or friends outside of her family life. I don't know if that would be a common experience in contemporary Italy but it certainly doesn't seem like it would be that common in North America.

It's a short, zippy book that can be read in a couple of evenings. Though be prepared for lots of negativity!

All this leads to our very special Elena Ferrante Brunch which we are doing as part of Blue Met 2015. Lynne Robson, former correspondent for The National, hosts the brunch and it'll be a great opportunity for anyone who's a fan of Elena Ferrante (or would like to become a fan perhaps) to come, discuss her work, meet other fans. The event is on Saturday late morning, April 25. It costs $25 and includes breakfast. But move fast: our breakfast/brunch events usually sell out. Tickets go on sale a week from today and can be bought at La Vitrine.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blue Met 2015: Gene Luen Yang in Montreal at Drawn & Quarterly

Comics artist Gene Luen Yang will be here in Montreal for Blue Met 2015 and on March 18 at 7pm, there's a great opportunity to read some of his work with other fans or newbies.

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard Ouest in Mile End) will be doing a session of their very popular graphic novel book club with his work, Boxers & Saints. This is great news: whether you're a big fan of graphic novels/comics and want to be a part of one of the most revolutionary voices in the medium OR whether you're new to comics in its most contemporary iteration and want to become familiar with what kind of experience reading a comic/graphic novel is about, this book club is your chance.

The bookstore is offering a 20% discount on his work, Boxers & Saints, from now until March 18.

Boxers & Saints

This book, a two-volume piece which looks at the Boxer Rebellion from two very distinct (and competing) perspectives, and won a slew of awards for its blending of myth, history and character. Much has been written about the Boxer Rebellion in recent years and its entire place in Chinese and Western history is being rewritten in many key ways. But Yang's work is not a dry historical treatise: it's moving and funny and shows us how we are shaped by the history we are fed and raised with (the book tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two quite distinct perspectives).

As the New York Times puts it:

Both volumes show how everyday humiliations by foreigners bred fear and hatred in the Chinese. But Yang also portrays the missionaries' tireless efforts to spread Christian learning and help orphaned children. Though many Chinese found Christianity threatening (and with good cause - it stirred up social conflicts that killed millions), the faith liberated and strengthened others, like the heroine of "Saints," a fatherless, outcast girl whose nocturnal visits from the spirit of Joan of Arc help her imagine herself a Christian warrior.

Get the book (again, if you buy it at the Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, you'll receive 20% off!), then attend the session, then have your chance to meet Yang in person at Blue Met 2015: Yang will be in Montreal for events on Friday, April 24 and Saturday, April 25.

Drawn & Quarterly's book club session is scheduled for March 18 at 7pm in their shop at 211 Bernard Ouest in Mile End. Refreshments will be served.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

We Are Not Alone at the Segal Centre

I'm agnostic when it comes to UFOs. I don't believe in them but I don't disbelieve either. I've never seen a flying saucer or anything resembling one. If there are aliens or life forms on other planets, it has little to nothing to do with me so it rouses no extreme feelings whatsoever in me.

So when I was invited to Segal Centre's opening night of We Are Not Alone, I was a bit apprehensive because I didn't want to be preached to for 90 minutes by someone who passionately believes. The one man show, written and performed by Damien Atkins, starts out without much promise, I thought: a brief "history" of UFOs (albeit a very North America-centric version) in a few remarkable and noteworthy cases. He asserts that the evidence IS there and that it's not particularly controversial. That those who deny UFOs just need to do a little research. This isn't done stridently but with various character voices and personalities that he manages to bring to life though he's alone on that stage. Again, for someone who has no vested interested or emotional need to believe or disbelieve, this started to get to me. Nothing's worse than a work of art with "a message."

Then the play got better: Atkins set up an entire series of scenes where he visited a UFO conference in Phoenix, Arizona, with the play's director, to do research. This is where Atkins' skills as an actor really became apparent: how he could create such a rag-tag collections and freaks and geeks while being funny and evocative. He talks about the bizarre aspects, the belief (and need to believe) that many in this community inhabit. The new age-y links. The oddballs. The goofballs. The nutters. A scene about going out into Sedona in the Arizona desert to "tune" some vortex with two hilarious believers was hilarious but also moving. Though Atkins is no fan of this commodified part of the UFO industry, he still manages to see the humanity in his characters, even characters that are screwball, odd, out there, totally nuts.
Actor/writer Damian Atkins

In the end, he won me over: the story (of a guy writing a play about UFOs) won me over and I wanted more.

But what struck me most (and impressed me) was the fact that the Segal Centre even put this show on. As someone in charge of programming in a cultural organization, I know the eternal tightrope one has to walk in Montreal between giving people what they want and expect but also challenging people, trying new things, experimenting. And this play was certainly more of the latter. I admire, Lisa Rubin, Artistic Director at Segal, for giving it the green light. It's not a 100% successful play and I did feel that another actor on stage might have allowed for more depth and complexity (the actor playing the writer of the play and another actor playing the director of the play would have been wonderfully meta).

One thing about Montreal English theatre is that it's often too safe and takes few to no risks. It's something I think about: because the English community is older on average than the Francophone community (particularly devoted English theatre-goers), there is less of a tendency to challenge and it's much easier to just go with the safe choice, something that English theatre companies are definitely guilty of. So it's nice to see Segal Centre doing something a bit out of their comfort zone.

Whether this pays off and translates into box office is a different question.

We Are Not Alone runs through March 15. Check it out.