Preparing for the International Festival of Authors like a good little book nerd

Every year, Toronto hosts the massive, and massively popular, International Festival of Authors. It’s a gathering of contemporary writers spanning over a week and is as full of breathless gushing and long line-ups as you can imagine. I’ve been a few times, having had the pleasure of seeing how well David Mitchell and William Gibson get along, as well as hearing enough of Nicole Krauss’s new novel to know I don’t need to read it (which is too bad, as I quite liked the embarrassingly titled The History of Love).

On Friday, hubby and I are going to see China Mieville and Cory Doctorow; on Sunday, I’m flying solo with a roundtable on Japanese literature in translation–professor/translator/editor Ted Goossen, novelist Hiromi Kawakami, poet Hiromi Ito, and professor/translator/editor Motoyuki Shibata.

To prepare for these panels, I’ve been cramming in as much reading as possible by the authors represented. This has been a noble endeavour but it has, sadly, met with only mixed success. You know what I thought of my first, and undoubtedly last, awkward run-in with Cory Doctorow. Luckily, he’s being paired with China Mieville, whose novel The Scar I’m reading right now, and which I’m loving profoundly, completely, and maybe a little obsessively. I love Mieville’s brain; it is full of new worlds both recognizable and entirely twisted; his vocabulary is huge and incredibly sexy and his ideas even more so.

China Mieville is an ambitious, fearless writer; if writing can be likened to jumping off of a building, I would assert that Mieville does so coming out of a fierce running leap and sans safety net below. There are risks, of course; while there was much that was very, very right with the precursor to The Scar, Perdido Street Station, there was also enough that didn’t work that it distracted me in the end. But you know what? I have infinitely more time and respect for an author who bloody well really goes for it and fails than for authors who play it safe; safe will never lead to great. (I put that in there in case you felt like you were running a little low on cliches today. You’re welcome. No, really, any time!) I think Mieville might be truly great, but I will have to keep reading to find out if the promise of the first two Bas-Lag novels (well, first 1.5, really–I’m smack in the middle of The Scar) is born out over his ever-growing oeuvre.

My attempt to do a great deal of pre-homework for the Japanese lit session has also been only partially successful. Ted Goossen is my original guru of Japanese fiction; many, many years ago, I was gifted his edition of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, which blew my mind and my reading habits wide open. When I saw his name on the bill, that was more than enough to convince me to get tickets for this event; but I was also pleased to see the names of three Japanese authors I hadn’t yet read! Here’s where the sadness begins. I’m trying not to buy books these days (another fail, generally, but more on that anon) so I decided to rely on my beloved Toronto Public Library to help me out here. Only one of the three author’s works are available in English; I tried Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase. It started off in the most underwhelming fashion but got quite a lot better; it still ended with another whimper, however. I’ll try something else by her but I’m in no hurry.

The Briefcase is an unlikely love story between a pair of lonely urban misfits: a former teacher and his much younger student (younger, but not young–she’s 37 when they bump into each other and become reacquainted). There are some really lovely moments in their quiet and awkward affair, but overall the novel read like Haruki Murakami phoning in one of his “normal” novels, such as Norwegian Wood or South of the Border, West of the Sun. Not that she writes just like Murakami–I would be surprised if anyone could do that–but his influence is too plainly written on every page.

Still, I’m looking forward to my author fest weekend. If nothing else, there will be more Mieville and I will hopefully be able to thank Prof. Goossen personally for changing my reading life!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex says:

    I always intend to do my ‘homework’ before going to literary meetings but somehow it never quite gets done. I think the very fact that I’ve designated it as such is fatal to the endeavour. I do usually come away with a pile of books to read afterwards, however, which is better than nothing. Have a good time.

  2. Tony says:

    Still hoping to read something by Kawakami (in spite of your thoughts!). I’m sure Ted will be good value too 🙂

  3. Stefanie says:

    So jealous! I would love to see Mieville and he and Doctorow will very likely be quite an interesting pair. And the Japanese lit panel, so lucky! Please do report on it all!

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