Monday, October 26, 2009

Some highlights from the International Festival of Authors. . .

I've been spending the last couple of days taking in some exciting events at the International Festival of Authors and now want to take a month off to read a whole bunch of books. First on the pile has to be John Irving's new novel Last Night in Twisted River, which has been getting some stellar reviews. The Literary Saloon has a round-up of them here. Irving talked about how this novel has been brewing at the back of his mind for the last twenty years but he never can start the actual writing process until he knows the last sentence, and that only came to him about seven years ago. This sentence has already been widely quoted (it incorporates the book's title) and doesn't contain any spoilers so here it is:

He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning - as his father must have felt, in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night in Twisted River.

The first sentence is equally enticing:

The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.

While I've certainly enjoyed some Irving novels like A Prayer For Owen Meany, or The Cider-House Rules more than others, he is one author that I will always make a point of reading. I admire the time he takes with each book, how he maps out his narrative meticulously paying close attention to details. During his IFOA interview, he spoke about wanting his books to be as plot and character driven as the novels by those writers he loved to read as a teenager - Dickens, Hardy, and Melville. That's fiine company to be in.

Another thrill at the festival was to meet British writer Adam Thorpe who was visiting Toronto for the first time. Several of his novels have been Dewey picks for me: The Standing Pool, Between Each Breath and The Rules of Perspective. I love the fact that he never even remotely tackles the same book twice and his writing is intelligent, edgy, and frequently creepy in a delicious, slow building way, (The Standing Pool scared the heck out of me, but I couldn't stop reading). He excels at making the smug reader feel uneasy both morally and emotionally. His latest novel Hodd sounds fascinating. It's a re-imagining of the Robin Hood story, but in his version there is no Maid Marian, no band of merry men and no stealing from the rich to give to the poor. This is Robin Hood or Robert Hodd, as if he were the equivalent of a medieval gangster and Thorpe went back to the origins of the legend, long before the movies and television created the character we think we know. A good book for dark November nights, I think.

The IFOA's country focus this year is Scotland and my favourite Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy absolutely rocked the house with her clever, witty and inspiring one hour stand-up show Words, which explored how she became a writer, the pitfalls of being one, the frequently ridiculous and surreal things that happen on book tours and while talking to the media, and how the crazy profession is nevertheless worth it because she gets to create whole worlds with words and words are power. She is just awesome. Do yourself a favour and read Everything You Need , which definitely has a permanent spot in my top ten favourite contemporary novels list. When I read it several years ago, this story about a group of writers living on a remote island completely overpowered me with its bleak setting and its emotionally fraught relationships. It's a novel that goes right to your guts.

Something completely different, but also tackling the writer's life is Nicholson Baker's new novel The Anthologist. Paul Chowder is a poet trying to write the introduction to a new anthology, and using all the negative things in his life as an excuse to procrastinate. Baker is not only a terrific writer but a superb and very funny reader as well - definitely don't miss the chance to hear him speak if he comes to your neighbourhood. I think this new novel will have much of the same humour as my favourite Baker work - U and I. It's definitely on my to-read list.

I also went and saw Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk being interviewed about his latest novel The Museum of Innocence, but I'll blog about that later - I've almost finished the book.

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