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.