A year in reading

It should come as no surprise that staff here at Authors at Harbourfront Centre love a good read. So we’ve put together a list of our favourite books from 2012 for your holiday reading pleasure—or for the bookworm on your shopping list. Many were written by authors we had the pleasure of meeting during the International Festival of Authors this October, but others are books we just happened to read this year, including a sci-fi throwback from 1971.

Thornell, Night StreetKristel Thornell’s Night Street

Who would have thought a story about an Australian woman painter (Clarice Beckett) at the turn of the last century could be a page-turner? It was wonderfully written and I had trouble putting it down each evening to go to bed. I’ve never been to Australia, knew nothing about this painter, but found myself completely immersed in the story while walking in Clarice’s shoes.
—  Gwen Hoover

Lee, BobcatRebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories

This collection changed my sense of what a short story can do. By presenting believable characters in slightly surreal scenarios and settings, her language sparkling with ethereal metaphors involving starfish, spacemen and jewellery, Lee reminds us that fiction can be a lot like a dream. I’ve recommended this book to several people, and they’ve all loved it.
— Nicole Baute

Liam CarCard, Exit Papers From Paradised’s Exit Papers from Paradise

Every once in a while you read a book that you can’t put down. A book with a character so well developed, one with whom you sympathize and cheer for. A book that makes you feel, that makes you laugh out loud on a busy subway and even tear up a little. A book that makes you think, that makes you reflect on your own life and that warms your heart. A book that you would recommend to everyone, because we’ve all found ourselves in a rut at some point. This is that book.
— Tina Kessler

Goldstein, I'll Seize the Day TomorrowJonathan Goldstein’s I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow

If you want to read something witty and extremely funny without necessarily following a chronological order of chapters, just pick any page from I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow. I once laughed frenetically out loud on my seat and while I was looking for a tissue to dry my tears, finally realizing that I was in a bus with people looking at me.
— David Gressot

Rachel Dewoskin’s Big Girl Smallbig girl small

You’re pulled into the world of the narrator, 16-year-old Judy, with whom you want to cry when she gets led astray by her high school crush and laugh when she’s at her most sarcastic—but ultimately who you remember being when you were a teenage girl trying to figure it all out yourself. This was a book I read early in the year but it stayed with me for its realistic twist and for the story of friendship embedded throughout the novel—plus, I always like a good underdog story.
— Jennifer Asselin

Philip José Farmer‘s To Your Scattered Bodies Go To Your Scattered Bodies Go

The story begins with every human in history being brought back to life in youthful bodies, scattered along the banks of a mysterious river world. I found myself engrossed in the tale and almost read the entire book in an evening.
— Eric Mannell

And from our Artistic Associate Jen Tindall, who can’t choose just one:

The book that impressed me most this year was Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories. Her stories took me from this place to her places without me realizing until after I finished. Other notables: Embassytown by China Miéville squeezed my brain waves as I read it, sometimes painfully, but it was a wonderfully weird experience. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station was a poetic and funny book about art and coming of age in Spain, and with This is How You Lose Her Junot Díaz was on top of his game, so honest and brutal that it made me never want to date again.
— Jen Tindall

Happy holiday reading from all of us!

Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Style vs. Content: an energetic debate

By Corina Milic

Four authors sat down for a round table discussion on Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content, Wednesday night as part of the Toronto edition of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.

The event may have been tamer than its 1962 counterpart (authors almost came to fisticuffs during that controversial meeting), but there was heated debate, intelligent questions and even a few audience F-bombs.

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Susan G. Cole, books editor at NOW Magazine, hosted the chat with Marjorie Celona, Rebecca Lee, Anakana Schofield and Leanne Shapton.

The conversation meandered through each author’s writing process, the concept of style vs. content, style as content (reminding this audience member of fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan) and whether to use first person or third person narration.

Rebecca Lee uses first person throughout Bobcat and Other Stories, her debut short story collection. Lee said each character had a bit of her in them. “It’s like turning up the volume on yourself and that becomes your character.”

Marjorie Celona chose a double narrative for her debut novel Y, which is about a girl abandoned at birth. One storyline is told in first person, the other in third. “At one point the I key on my keyboard stopped working. First person can be limiting.”

But the real disagreements didn’t begin until Cole asked,

“Can style ever get in the way?”

Celona argued overly stylized writing can block a story’s emotion. She said she doesn’t want “the writer to be louder than the story.”

Anakana Schofield, the panel’s Irish-accented firecracker, was “horrified” at the argument, saying, “I find story is a dead end. I’m interested in language.”

Cole suggested in Schofield’s novel, Malarky, the style is the content. It was 10 years in the making and is about a grief-stricken rural Irish woman. Schofield said she specifically used stylized, fragmented language to “represent the discombobulation of grief.”

The debate evolved into the importance of story vs. language, which Leanne Shapton likened to the difference between illustration and art.

Shapton came to the round table from a unique perspective: she is an artist and an author. Her memoir, Swimming Studies, is about her experiences training for the Olympics and includes whole chapters told with photos and illustrations.

An energetic audience weighed in. Is there something gendered about the way authors use style and content? What is content? To which Lee answered with the best quote of the night: “What can writing do that other forms can’t? It can collapse experience into meaning.” Anyone can tell a story! And, doesn’t style, not narrative, define great literature?

“Shouldn’t we have both?” argued Celona.

Celona’s novel is about a girl who finds out she was abandoned at the YMCA as a baby and is looking for her birth mother. “It sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie,” she laughed. “Style is what elevates it above that.”

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.