Book Launch – “Finding the Words” Edited by Jared Bland

On the 17th of February, Walrus Magazine hosted the launch of this wonderful new Canadian book, Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile and breaking the Rules. Bland works at the magazine, as an editor, and was also the editor responsible for pulling this new anthology together.

There was a real hodge-podge of Canadian literati on-hand for the launch, which was held at Duggan’s Brewery. Being newly returned to the city, I haven’t yet met all of the great writers, bloggers and journalists in the Toronto market, so hitting these events solo is a bit daunting. I really should not have worried, though, as writer Guy Gavriel Kay introduced himself to me, thinking I looked familiar. We established very quickly that we had not previously met, but then went on to have an extremely in-depth conversation about the role of the internet in the lives of today’s authors, while also discussing The New Yorker’s David Denby. During our conversation, Kay mentioned he was waiting on his friend “Martin” to arrive. Well, “Martin” turned out to be none other that the Globe and Mail‘s Books Editor, Martin Levin. (I was sort of dying inside over my profound good luck in meeting both gentlemen! With hope, this was undetectable to my good-natured raconteurs.)

My only disappointment of the evening was the lack of a reading from the book – maybe this is standard operating procedure when it comes to anthologies?? I somehow doubt it, though. There are so many wonderful essays contained within the volume that to have a portion of one essay brought to life through wonderful oration would have been a great treat. Bland conceived the idea for this book as a look at the importance of language to writers. He brain-stormed some really crazy ideas with Ellen Seligman, a publisher (fiction) at McClelland and Stewart, as well as the President of PEN Canada.
Bland knew he wanted to keep the subject for the anthology broad in subject to allow participating authors some leeway with their essays. That the book would be anchored by this idea of the importance of language was always prominent though. “Language exists for us as something sublime as well as something incredibly banal.” writes Bland, in the introduction of the book Finding the Words. He goes on to write that this idea is “more complicated still for writers who are, after all, the artists whose raw material is most omnipresent in their lives.” Language, Bland concludes, “is an extremely rich subject for an anthology”.

Eventually (as you will note from the subtitle of the book), the topics of: inspiration; desire; war; celebrity; exile and breaking the rules were decided upon for the essay topics that would be solicited from novelists, journalists, songwriters, memoirists, philosophers and essayists. If you have a favourite Canadian wordsmith, they very likely have an essay in Finding the Words. This is a book that offers so much insight, grit and life within its pages. And, as an impressive aside, I would be remiss if I did not mention that proceeds from this volume of work will go to PEN Canada in support of its vital work in defense of freedom of expression on behalf of writers around tho world who have been silenced. A very noble cause and a very worthwhile project from Jared Bland.

(Apologies for my less than regular posting. I have been dealing with an illness, so have had some challenges keeping to a regular schedule.)

Book Lover’s Ball 2011 – Part One

Today, I finally have time away from work-work, so I can finally write my post about the amazing book event I attended on February 10th. The Book Lover’s Ball celebrated its 6th year in grand style. The event helps benefit the Toronto Public Library Foundation and it is a wonderful and unique experience. There was a healthy roster of Canadian authors present at this black-tie gala and each table of guests enjoyed the company of one author, during dinner. But…I am getting a bit ahead of myself here. I guess I should start at the beginning so you can have a full appreciation for how special this evening truly was.

The night before the event, February 9th, I made contact with Kirsti Stephenson, director of special events for The Mint Agency (responsible for the outstanding P.R. for the Ball). At the last minute, a member of the media was unable to attend so a vacancy had been created. Serendipity was smiling down and Kirsti extended a welcomed invitation to me which I very happily accepted. All of this occurred at about 7pm, giving me less than 24-hours to get prepared for the Ball. And yes, I did have a moment of feeling like Cinderella looking forward to attending the biggest party of the year (princesses aren’t usually my thing, though I will make an exception, at this time, for the coal-smudged, overworked Cinderella) . Along with being on deadline with a writing project, due the next day, I was looking like a regular ragamuffin! I was going to need more than a flock of chipper bluebirds and a mischief of mice to get me ready for the Ball!

My first priority was completing my writing assignment. Thankfully, I was nearly finished and had just a couple of hours of revisions and editing to get the piece to submittable status. By the time I finished, though, it was too late to call my hairdresser to see if she had an opening so I did what any other book-loving reviewer would do, I took to the internet to learn more about the authors I was not as familiar with who would be in attendance at the next evening’s event. Kirsti explained to me that there would be a cocktail reception from 6pm until 7pm. During this time, all of the authors would be mingling about, open to meeting and chatting with the guests. I wanted to ensure I had good familiarity with each writer (60 of them, in total), should I have an opportunity to meet with a writer who was outside of my reading and reviewing experience.

Thursday dawned and I was on the go! My hairdresser was booked up but one of her colleagues had an opening so I was able to get an appointment. Yippee!! First though, I was off for a mani-pedi. By the time I returned home at 3pm, I was coiffed, buffed and polished and ready for the party – except – I still had to figure out what to wear. In a lucky coincidence, I had two dresses, borrowed from my friend Cindy, as options for another special event that I ended up not attending. I chose a floor-length gown of Cindy’s that was beautiful. It was a flowing, black, sleeveless number, very Grecian in style, with beautiful beading around the waist. The theme for The Book Lover’s Ball was “Black and White and Read All Over” so the gown would be perfect. I make-up-ified and accessorized and was then ready to head downtown.

I arrived at the poshly adorned Royal York Hotel, an historical gem in downtown Toronto. As luck would have it, I arrived at the exact same time as writer, Graeme Gibson. An accomplished author, Gibson has also become known for being the partner of fellow author, Margaret Atwood. Ms. Atwood was away in England, so Gibson was without a date. He was looking very dapper in his tuxedo and tartan vest! We had a lovely chat as we made our way to the cocktail reception. Before I could ask some relevant book-related questions, Gibson was welcomed by several friends and my time with him ended as we neared the registration table. He was so kind and lovely! I presented myself at the media check-in and was greeted by some helpful volunteers. My name badge and table number secured, it was time to walk the red carpet! No, really! It was.

A red carpet was set up for guests to walk, in order to reach the cocktail lounge. This red carpet even came with some paparazzi – photographers and interviewers – ready to snap each guest’s arrival and ask questions of the many noted authors and local celebrities. Former Toronto comedienne, radio and television host Carla Collins was doing a great job promoting her new book. Then I noticed this, ummm, other lovely lady who had arrived dressed as Alice in Wonderland. Apparently, when The Book Lover’s Ball first launched, guests were encouraged to dress as literary characters, but this hasn’t been the case for a few years now. I would see Alice milling about, talking with an author every now and then and feel a weird disconnect from the reality of being at this amazing event. Perhaps I needed more wine?? The cocktail reception was beautiful. Held in two annex lounges off of the main ballroom, the intricate woodwork and marble that adorned the rooms was stunning. Coupled with the ornate ceilings, there was a certain period flair added to the ambiance of the evening. H’ors d’oeuvres were created by bad-boy chef, Marc Thuet. During the evening, a silent auction was running, with items to be bid upon ranging from books (of course) to trips, guest appearances by authors to sports memorabilia. Mostly, I was drooly over the bundles of books up for auction, courtesy of various Toronto publishers, but here was definitely something for everyone. People were spending a lot of time checking out the various items up for auction during the swish happy hour! While mingling before dinner, I had the opportunity to meet many writers, all of whom were gracious and interesting. My most in-depth chat was with poet, biographer and university professor, Richard Greene. “Rick”, as he introduced himself to me, won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for English-Language poetry. Greene has an upcoming biography on the life of Edith Sitwell due for release in Canada later this spring.

Here is a gallery of other authors I was lucky enough to meet during the cocktail hour:

From right to left are: Linwood Barclay with Lawrence Hill; Shilpi Somaya Gowda; Vincent Lam; and Claudia Dey.

Dinner began just after 7pm and, from the sounds within the room, everyone was having a great time. There was much laughter and a palpable buzz as we all enjoyed our meals. Following dinner was a fashion show that used themes from various books, such as Eat, Pray, Love and James Bond novels, to showcase some great designs from some amazing Toronto designers.

The biggest highlight for me came towards the end of the evening. I approached the bar and found myself standing next to Camilla Gibb (on the right, in photo). Now, Gibb is someone I have long admired. Her novels, such as Sweetness in the Belly, The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life and her most recent releaseThe Beauty of Humanity Movement are evocative and richly detailed stories that transport the reader (or at least this reader) to another world. That Gibb is a brainiac (B.A., M.A., PhD (Oxford)) with a potential geek-factor makes her all the more awesome. So, here I was standing side-by-side with Gibb wondering how to introduce myself. I need not have worried. Due to a creepy skulker at the left side of the bar, I was drawn into the chat Gibb was having with a friend. “Did you see that?” I was asked, as they indicated off to the left. Yep, I had noticed the fellow in question. I think he had succeeded in giving at least three other women the heebie-jeebies in the few minutes I had been at the bar. Gibb, her friend and I, now in consort together over the gross-factor of the leech-man, ended up having a terrific conversation. I properly introduced myself and spent a very quick moment as a fawning fan, then quickly reverted to journalist-mode. Gibb gracefully accepted my praise for her writing and we spent nearly ten minutes chatting about the event, in general, and the internet as a tool for publishers and writers. I admit it, I developed a bit of a girl-crush after meeting Gibb, but excused myself so as to not overstay my welcome.

I had a wonderful time and hope to attend again next year! During dinner, I was seated with Anne Marie Aikins, manager of community relations with the Toronto Public Library. A few days after the event, I got in touch with Anne Marie to request some numbers for The Book Lover’s Ball. I wanted to be able to share the success of this annual event with you in a way that indicates just how important this event is for the library’s Foundation, as well as giving you an idea about where some of the money raised will be directed. Here is the message Anne Marie sent to me:

In its sixth year, The Book Lover’s Ball – Black and White and Read All Over – was once again a huge success raising $470,000 in support of Toronto’s Library and its 99 branches. This past February 10, 2011, almost 600 literary and library lovers gathered on February at the Fairmont Royal York and mingled with 57
celebrity authors including the likes of Brian Goldman, Camilla Gibb, Carla Collins, Kate Taylor, Lawrence Hill, Linwood Barclay, Robert Herjavec, Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Stuart McLean.

Guests enjoyed the delicious, French inspired hors d’oevres dished out by Chef Marc Thuet and showed their support of Toronto’s Library through a silent auction, raffle and a new fundraising initiative – Adopt a Branch raising an additional $22,000 in support library priority needs including collections, programs, and services and community spaces.

Wrapping up the evening was a stunning fashion show inspired by our city’s cultural diversity and its international – and internationally read – authors. Show designers included Nadya Toto, Second, Envers, Samuel Song, and Romona Keveza.

Toronto Public Library Foundation is grateful for the support of Presenting sponsor Sun Life Financial and other major sponsors including Toronto Star, TD Bank, Whitehots Inc., OSSTF, BMO Capital Markets, Harlequin, Rogers, Citytv, Hello Canada, Air Canada Vacations and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

I shall leave you with a few more photos of Canadian authors I was lucky enough to meet during the event:

From left to right, Stuart McLean; Annabel Lyon; Robert Herjavec with his Dragon’s Den co-star Arlene Dickinson; and Giles Blunt.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. I will add a new post, part two of the Ball, in a couple of days as there are many more wonderful photos to share with you! In the meantime, if you are in a position to help the Toronto Public Library Foundation, with a financial contribution, I know they would be greatly appreciative. Like many library systems in municipalities across North America, the Toronto Public Library will definitely be facing shortfalls for fiscal 2011. A new municipal government just took over the reigns of the city in November, 2010 and it has been made known that funding for our library system is not a priority. That so many citizens rely upon the services offered by the Toronto Public Library does not seem to matter, unfortunately. Please visit the TPL donation page if you are able to help a great cause. Thanks!! I’ll get off my soapbox now. 😀

Credit for all photographs to George Pimentel. Used by permission from The Mint Agency, with thanks!

No Gentle Segue…

I have taken a break from the daily blogging – recovering from the Olympic adventure & working on some fiction writing – but jump back into the blogosphere today. There really isn’t a gentle segue as I move into my prime areas of interest: writing and reading. If I couldn’t have my books and, well, words really as an outlet, I would be a mess of a woman. It seems to be a genetic trait as many in my family are also voracious readers and there are several writers in the fold.

My latest undertaking is an on-line book group at Goodreads. This social networking web site is to books and writers what MySpace is to music and musicians. I have been using Goodreads for about one year now and I love it.

The Goodreads group I have created, along with my friend Nathaniel, is called Bookish. We hope it becomes a wonderful forum to exchange great book ideas and news.

In other book-related happenings today, the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) has announced the nominees for the 2010 Libris Awards. In contention for Fiction Book of the Year are: Galore by Michael Crummey, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon and The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre.

I read Galore in December, 2009 and it was my favourite book of last year. It is an epic novel set in Newfoundland. These two ideas are enough to earn my interest, but the incredible story and the poetic language Crummey has crafted turned me into a drooling faniac. Stephen Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo wrote this review of Galore for The Globe and Mail (spoilers included):

“Galore opens with a group of people in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, slaughtering a whale that has inexplicably beached itself. Young Mary Tryphena watches as the body of a man, pale and stinking, is cut from the whale’s belly. Her grandmother, an old crone named Devine’s Widow, defies the town oligarch, King-me Sellers, and has the man carried up the hill to prepare him for a proper burial.

The man, it turns out, is in fact alive, though he cannot speak a word. In the spirit of compromise and illiteracy, he is given the name of Judah. He never does utter a word, and he never loses his stench, but his presence ignites a spark in Paradise Deep that sustains the story for multiple generations.

Crummey’s prose is flawless. He has a way with the colloquial that escapes many writers, an ability to make the idiosyncrasies of local speech an asset in creating an image in the reader’s mind.

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.”

I have, for example, never heard the word “dunch” in my life. But still I know what it means, and have even from time to time felt it in my own rear side. There are writers who can send you scowling for a dictionary, and writers who throw you laughing into language. I went to the dictionary only because of this review, and “dunch” wasn’t there. It doesn’t need to be.

I believe that books, or at least good books, have a voice. I’m not talking about narrators or characters or that sort of thing; what I mean is that the book itself feels alive and it has a personality and sound all of its own, independent of whatever other stylistic devices are at play within its pages. In this respect, Galore succeeds brilliantly. It’s a book that will live in the minds of readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Where Crummey’s first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn’t so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It’s an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude , a novel very much the forebear of this book.

We eventually follow the descendents of young Mary Tryphena through the years, watch as Paradise Deep flourishes and flounders, see the ripples of events that happened years before, see history repeat and morph and repeat again. In Galore , the ghosts are real and the real people live as ghosts. Things that shouldn’t happen do. You could, I suppose, call the book a sort of magic realism, though I’m not sure if that doesn’t confine it in a way I’m not willing to do. There’s something about the term “magic realism” that suggests that magic isn’t real, and besides that, the magic that takes place in Paradise Deep isn’t really magic, it’s simply a part of the known world, like gravity or rainfall.

We have, in Canada, a handful of writers who are able, in the minds of readers, to define a place. While I’ve never lived in, or in some cases been to, the Miramichi, Comox Valley, Cape Breton or Montreal, I’ve read David Adams Richards, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod and Mordecai Richler. As a result, those places live as vividly in my imagination as many places in which I’ve spent more time and about which I know more factually. Perhaps even more vividly.

Michael Crummey is without a doubt one of Canada’s finest writers. I won’t thrust the mantle of the voice of Newfoundland on him, as he may well in the future write about other parts of the world, and I will be happy, as a reader, to follow him there. Throw a rock on the Rock, burning or not, and you’ll hit a good writer (please don’t actually throw rocks at writers, or anyone). But the Newfoundland that exists in my imagination – the one that may not be real and if it ever was real likely doesn’t exist today – smells and tastes and sounds like Galore.”

I highly recommend Galore and sincerely cheer for Crummey to triumph and win the Libris Award.