Reading Event: Ondjaki

Ondjaki, Transparent City

BookShelf Cafe eBar, October 23 2018:

As with the last “reading” I went to at the eBar (with Michael Adams), this wasn’t really a reading but more an interview, with Ondjaki’s English translator (Stephen Henighan) asking the questions. As with the Adams event, I think this was a better format. In part because it would have been weird hearing an author reading a translation of his own work, but also because interviews are more interesting than readings anyway. I’ve said it before but every time I go to one of these things I’m reminded of how poor most readings are. They only work in the very few cases where the author is a truly talented stage performer as well.

I don’t know how good a reader Ondjaki is, but he was great in conversation. He had some good anecdotes to tell and charm to burn. I even found out a bit about Angola, which admittedly wasn’t hard since I knew absolutely nothing about Angola before this aside from where it is on a map. I didn’t even know Luanda (the setting of Transparent City) was the capital.

There was a question from the floor about the title that I wish there had been follow-up with. I was wondering if Ondjaki meant something like “invisible” when he uses the word “transparent.” The point (or one of the points) he makes in the book is that people are transparent because they’re poor, so are they like the invisible underclass Paul Fussell wrote about, or the invisibility of Ellison’s Invisible Man? That’s the impression I get, but at the same time the main character’s transparency also makes him highly noticeable, someone to gawk at. So maybe something different was meant.

A good show, and well-attended for this neck of the woods. I wish we could have more like it.

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Political event: Guelph All-Candidates Meeting

Guelph All-Candidates Meeting

Italian-Canadian Club, May 10 2018:

So, last night I did my civic/democratic duty and attended the all-candidates meeting for the upcoming provincial election. It was much too long. The candidates didn’t debate or engage with each other at all. They gave quick set speeches on questions that had mostly been provided to them in advance. Not the most interesting format, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that each of the seven candidates responded to every question and they stuck to the same order throughout.

There was quite a full house, forcing the event coordinators to open up the room at the back. They said there were over 400 people and that may have been right. Though people did start to drift away as the night wore on. Here are my immediate thoughts and impressions on the line-up, moving from left to right (I mean in terms of the order the panel were seated, not as a description of their political alignment):

Sly Castaldi (Liberal): Castaldi is stepping into the shoes of long-time incumbent Liz Sandals. She struck me as a bit stern, but probably capable. I think she has a background in running a women’s crisis centre. I got the impression that she wasn’t that keen on being a politician though, and that she was having to work hard to get up to speed. Her remarks were well prepared, which means that she at least stayed on topic and answered the questions even if she sounded like she was reading from a card most of the time. She also could have used some more energy, especially as there is a real air of “time’s up” hanging over the Liberals this election.

Michael Riehl (Libertarian): Mr. Riehl didn’t show up and nobody knew why. I thought this seemed appropriate for a true Libertarian. I mean, the guy’s free to do what he wants on a Thursday night, right?

Juanita Burnett (Communist): most of Burnett’s comments were kind of vague and not well delivered. She did, however, get one of the most audience-approved lines of the night when she said that she was going to fund various government programs by a progressive taxing of the rich, and especially big corporations. Applause!

Ray Ferraro (PC): I thought Ferraro (whose background is in real estate development and who I believe is the brother of a former Guelph MP) had the best opening remarks, but somewhere along the line he lost the crowd. Not that the crowd was ever going to be on his side anyway. The event was sponsored by the Guelph Coalition for Social Justice and most of the big applause lines during the evening were for backing unions. Given that, it seemed as though he decided at some point that he had zero fucks to give and began making some bizarre statements, like saying that in 45 years in the construction industry he’d never heard of someone being injured at work. At least that’s what it sounded like he said. Maybe he meant something else. In any event, he was the only speaker who was getting heckled, which is something he seemed indifferent if not oblivious to. In general he struck me as reasonably well informed but perhaps a bit old for the job.

Paul Taylor (None of the Above): I’ve never heard of the None of the Above party. I assumed they are a joke party, along the lines of the Rhinos, and that Mr. Taylor was only there to provide some comic relief. But apparently not. According to their website their mission is “to elect independent MPPs who are not bound by party control and who truly can represent their constituents first. We support the 3Rs of Direct Democracy: Referendum, Recall and Responsible Government laws for true Legislative and Electoral Reforms.” I quote the website here because I didn’t get any sense from Mr. Taylor that he was aware of a party platform or that he had spent much time thinking of the issues in this election. Most of his remarks seemed off the cuff, or were offered up as “just my personal opinion.” As the night went on he seemed increasingly clueless. It didn’t help that he was always speaking right after Mike Schreiner either.

Mike Schreiner (Green): Schreiner may have been the only political veteran on the panel and it showed. I think Ferraro was a city councillor years ago, but that’s a different game. Schreiner was the pro. He sounded great and stayed on-topic all night. This wasn’t hard because many of the questions had an environmental angle (power generation, water conservation, climate change). Aside from what has become an obligatory nod to an undefined and perhaps mythical “indigenous world view” most of it sounded right to me. I don’t know if it’s because he’s the provincial party leader or because Guelph just has a strong Green organization, but the Greens around here always seem to work the hardest come election time. They easily have the most boots on the ground. Not that it’s ever got anyone elected, but if they’re going to make a breakthrough then this is the place.

Agnieszka Mlynarz (NDP): “Aggie” probably had the most energy on the night (though Schreiner was close) and she generally came across well. Unfortunately, our lousy first-past-the-post election system penalizes the number of parties on the center left who are largely indistinguishable as far as their main policies are concerned. I came away from the  meeting not knowing what Mlynarz, Schreiner, Taylor and Castaldi really disagreed on.

Thomas Mooney (Alliance Party): as with the None of the Aboves, I’d never heard of the Ontario Alliance party. Apparently they were only founded less than a year ago, as part of the fallout from the Patrick Brown affair. From what I can gather from their website they are a sort of libertarian coalition. They are against government (or government-as-usual) and pro-free enterprise, family values, personal responsibility, and hard work. Everything Mooney said seemed like a platitude to me. No policy specifics.

Final thoughts: I thought Schreiner was pretty clearly the best speaker. The three fringe party candidates didn’t seem prepared or even that interested in what was going on (or, for that matter, the election). Schreiner and Mlynarz were the only two who showed any enthusiasm. Castaldi’s demeanour seemed to reflect slipping Liberal morale but she might have just been having a bad night. As noted, Ferraro appeared largely apathetic, which may have been a sign of confidence that broader trends were pulling in his direction anyway or may just have meant that he really didn’t care.

As with any political rally, there were endless calls for the government to provide people with more. Meaning more of everything. More for health care (home care, mental health, drug plans, senior care). More for education. More for the environment. More affordable housing. Aside from the Communist call to soak the rich there was little desire to nail down how all this was to be paid for though. Schreiner thought that moving to a green economy would result in savings and he’s probably right. Castaldi, stuck having to defend the party in power, could only point to the fact that the Ontario Liberals have been spending more, much more, on health care and education already. But the feeling seemed to be that all this has been a waste.

I won’t call this election yet, but if the Liberals really are as vulnerable as they seem and this riding is up for grabs then there is a slim possibility that Schreiner gets in. But given the clutter on the left and the weakness on the right I’d say that Ferraro’s confidence at this point is merited.

Reading event: Michael Adams

Michael Adams, Could It Happen Here?

BookShelf Cafe eBar, March 7 2018:

The reading was supposed to start at 5:00 but didn’t get underway until 5:30. I hate to seem a grouch, but this really pissed me off. I mean, 5:00 probably wasn’t a good idea, but that was when it was scheduled to begin and it was when I (and almost everyone else who attended) was there. The delay also meant I couldn’t stay late and talk to Adams afterward, which was disappointing because he seemed quite approachable. Oh well.

Actually this wasn’t a reading. Adams was joined by a colleague at the front who asked a few general questions that he then ran with. This probably worked better than a reading anyway, especially as the stage wasn’t set up for any visual aids to be used and Adams likes to use a lot of charts to make his points.

As for the content, I came away unconvinced. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that I remained uninfected by Adams’s optimism. In answer to the question of whether phenomena like Trump and Brexit could happen in Canada Adams thought it unlikely because our democratic institutions are more resilient and we are a more tolerant nation generally. Well, Trump and Brexit were unlikely too, and I think before they happened most pundits would have said the same comforting things about the stability of the political system and multiculturalism in the U.S. and Britain. This made me question how much time Adams spends wondering if he may be wrong. This is something that anyone who speculates about the possibility of future events should do a lot of.

Adams did acknowledge that what has really kept Canada from tottering over the edge into political extremism is that we’ve been “damn lucky.” Specifically, what I think he meant by this is that we haven’t been impacted by a major economic crisis and we haven’t had to deal with anything like the same issues with immigrations as the U.S. and Europe are facing. That is, indeed, lucky, but how long can such luck last? He also observed how Canada doesn’t have any industrial ghost-towns like you see in the state of New York, but his examples of Ontario success stories — Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and Peterborough — are all university towns. Their economies are anchored by a lot of good government jobs. How stable and sustainable is that?

There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist but we shouldn’t let it make us complacent. Adams, like a lot of older, successful people, just struck me as too invested in the status quo. This appeared evident in his defence of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which he prefers to proportional representation (PR). He gave Italy and Israel as examples of PR gone wrong, and suggested that FPTP does a good job of keeping the crazies out. But the successes of PR are, I think, more plentiful and more telling, while Adams never adverted to the fact that Trump and Brexit both came about in FPTP systems. My own feeling is that people are drawn toward political extremes when they find the current system to be unresponsive and unrepresentative. This is something FPTP systems double down on. Eventually voters just become fed up and vote for chaos.

Overall I thought it was a good event though. I take a much bleaker view of things than Adams, but that’s OK. Now if only he could have started on time . . .

Reading event: Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

War Memorial Hall, University of Guelph, September 9 2017:

Wow. It’s been a year since I’ve been to a reading. War Memorial Hall is where the keynote speakers for the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival appear a day before the festival proper kicks off, and it’s where I saw Alexandre Trudeau last year. This year Naomi Klein was up.

The event was sold out and there were actually people lined up hoping to get tickets outside. I thought this was kind of weird. It was sort of like scalping, but it was being arranged by the festival coordinators, and the people who wanted tickets were, as I say, lined up waiting to get second-hand tickets. Tickets were $10 each and I didn’t ask how much they were selling for on this grey market. Surely there was some premium, as those who had them and who had already come out for the event should have been expected to get something for their troubles. But how much of a premium? If you’d bought a ticket and shown up at the Hall, what would somebody have to offer you to give your ticket up? I heard somebody suggest $5, but that hardly seems fair. On the other hand, would you really want to pay $20 for a ticket?

The guests appeared on time but Klein didn’t actually start reading until twenty minutes in. There were three introductions, including a sing-a-long with a representative of Indigenous people. This was a bit different, and also weird because nobody in the audience (I’m sure) had a clue what the words they were singing meant.

Klein read her most recent column, about the forest fires in British Columbia, instead of something from the book she was signing (No Is Not Enough). I wouldn’t say she is a great reader, and I thought the sound needed to be bumped up a bit on the speakers. The interview/discussion after, however, with Tanya Talaga, went very well. Klein is really good at communicating her ideas in a conversational, informal way, and Talaga’s questions took us through the arguments made in No Is Not Enough.

It also helps that it was a friendly audience. The only point where I had some reservations was when Klein talked about taking her child to see the part of the Great Barrier Reef that is still alive. Isn’t such tourism (eco- or otherwise) a big part of the problem? I think we should all be traveling a lot less. I’m all for setting up more sanctuaries where visitors aren’t even allowed and that can only be viewed by webcams.

The audience questions got cut off at the end. They really should have got started sooner. One seemingly eccentric scientist got up to say that she thought the U.S. military might be behind the hurricanes currently pounding Texas and Florida. The crowd groaned, and Klein politely said that she disagreed with such a theory, but I got a kick out of it anyway. It takes all types.

Reading event: Madeleine Thien and Alexandre Trudeau

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Alexandre Trudeau, Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China

War Memorial Hall, University of Guelph, September 17 2016:

Technically, this was only a reading by Alexandre Trudeau, followed by a conversation with Madeleine Thien. I hadn’t read Trudeau’s book, but I went because I have an interest in the “new China” (and the old China too).

Trudeau certainly has the family charm, and read well, but he seemed to have trouble expressing himself clearly during the Q&A. I wasn’t sure how in-depth his analysis was, because what he said seemed to involve a lot of very broad generalizations. Was this because he comes from a background of making documentary films? Films have far less information density than books, and this is his first book. He might have been sticking to the equivalent of sound bites. I couldn’t even be sure how much ground he covered in his travels.

Still, there were several points I had to take away and mull over. Trudeau seemed to think that while there’s a growing environmental consciousness in China it’s still not very prevalent. Thien thought environmental politics there focuses mainly on specific issues like air quality and food safety. I thought this was a significant distinction. I also thought what Trudeau had to say about generational attitudes towards China’s calamitous history in the twentieth century (in brief, those who lived through it want to forget it) was interesting.

The president of the university introduced the speakers and then the dean of arts closed the proceedings. I didn’t see any point in them being there at all, and I wonder if they showed up just because, you know, Trudeau. And finally, there were too many applause breaks. You don’t have to clap every time someone stops speaking, people!

Reading event: Andre Alexis and Russell Smith

André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs and Russell Smith, Confidence

BookShelf Cafe eBar, May 12 2015:

The eBar at the BookShelf is a nice venue for a reading because it’s dark and cozy and quite small so you don’t have a lot of empty seats. The only problem I’ve found is that the seating isn’t always the best because it’s not oriented toward the end of the bar, where the readings take place. It’s also not a great venue if you’re on your own. It feels like you’re dining alone. Luckily, and quite unusually (for me), I was with a couple of friends.

The reading itself was exceptional. Both authors are accomplished public speakers, though in a different ways. They each read for fifteen minutes, and then answered a couple of questions after. The main question they responded to had to deal with the fate of “literary” fiction in today’s culture/marketplace. Since this is a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about I was interested in their thoughtful answers, which cast me into further reflections on the matter. André also told a great story about dogsitting a pack of howling dogs while working on a novel.

Unfortunately things wrapped up quickly and I didn’t get a chance to talk for very long to either author. Nevertheless, this was still one of the best readings I’ve ever attended, an opinion shared by the half-dozen or so people I spoke to after. It would be great to see these two together on television, or YouTube at least. This country could really use more lively, well-informed, and articulate literary discussion.

Reading event: Michael Harris

Michael Harris, Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover

Harcourt Memorial United Church, April 19 2015:

I walked to this event, which took nearly an hour so I was tired when I arrived. As always, I showed up early so I just collapsed at the back of the church, not even in the pews, thinking I would move up when the reading started. I soon saw that this wasn’t going to be an option. When a friend asked me why I didn’t move closer to the people at the front I told her I was waiting for them to come to me at the back, which they did. The church was filled. I estimate around 350 people were there.

That’s a lot of people for a reading, but it was also a kind of political rally, hosted by Fair Vote Canada, which is an organization promoting proportional representation (an idea I support). After Harris’s presentation there were a series of short political speeches by different party representatives. The only major party not attending were the Conservatives, though they were invited.

It was a really successful event for several reasons: it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, there was a strong local organization behind it, and the headliner was an old pro at this kind of thing. He didn’t do a reading from the book but rather skimmed over the highlights in an anecdotal way, which kept things moving at a good pace. I think he spoke for around 45 minutes and the energy never flagged. Of course you can only do this with the right kind of book, but that’s the kind of book Party of One is so Harris ran with it. It also helped that he had an audience sympathetic to his message.

When I left I was offered a tree. I think it was a pine seedling. Nice idea, but I had no place to put it. There are days I really miss the farm.