International Festival of Authors: Book City 35th Anniversary Reading

A review of the Book City 35th Anniversary Reading

Featuring Linwood Barclay, Amitav Ghosh, Nancy Huston and Heather Jessup; hosted by Zoe Whittall

Tuesday, October 24th, 2011. Fleck Dance Theatre

Zoe Whittall, author of Holding Still for as Long as Possible and host of the Book City 35th Anniversary Reading, lacked the playful badinage displayed by Shelagh Rogers throughout Monday night’s Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalists Reading. Thankfully, this neither set nor affected the tenor of the night’s tribute to Toronto’s leading independent bookstore.

Former Toronto Star columnist-turned-author Linwood Barclay’s satirical discourse about Toronto mayors led seamlessly into the prologue of his latest novel, The Accident. Set in a contemporaneous world marked by a recession, rampant consumerism, and a palpable tension that lurks around every dark corner of New York City’s Canal Street, Barclay propelled the audience towards the sudden end of the prologue — and the start of a thriller that promises to keep the pages turning.

Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is the second volume (a follow-up to Sea of Poppies, published in 2008) of a proposed trilogy that looks at the opium trade of the 1830s. Drawing attention to the diametric contexts of his and Barclay’s novels, Ghosh transported the audience onto a ship of merchants passing through the island of St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile. Historically meticulous yet replete with pithy aphorisms and engaging dialogue, Ghosh’s voice suggests a unique (and not infrequently humorous) approach to the historical novel.

Nancy Huston introduced her latest novel, Infrared, by encouraging the audience to indulge in a nightcap while (or before) reading. And as the words propelled effortlessly from her lips, it was evident why. Subsumed in the consideration of a man’s life and immortality as consecrated in his orgasm — thoughts refracted through the stream-of-consciousness of a woman who sits with her parents in a restaurant, suffused with the smell of excrement every time the bathroom door opens and closes — the intricacies of Huston’s prose culminated in her performance of the orgasm of a (Catholic) French professor eager to “fuck a Jew.” Way to leave us hanging.

Finally, Heather Jessup read from her novel, The Lightning Field. Set in suburban Toronto during the Cold War, Jessup’s dulcet voice unveiled the poetry of the missile age — a starkly mechanistic world of jets and satellites ensconced in words intimately arranged (I don’t know about anyone else, but I got goosebumps).

The lineup of authors not only paid homage to the cosmopolitan and independent spirit that defines Toronto’s Book City, but recalled an assertion made by Alexi Zentner at the Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalists reading: “We read nonfiction to learn, but we read fiction to feel.” The night’s voices gave partial credence to Zentner’s claim, emphasizing our ability to learn through that feeling.

The International Festival of Authors runs from October 19th to 30th.