I have sipped wine at many book events this month, and seen many grads of our creative writing classes, as well as many, many other writers on the scene this month.
Jowita Bydlowska launched her Drunk Mom at Ben Mcnally’s bookstore on May first. I reviewed this book for Shelagh Rogers’s The Next Chapter and my piece will run one of these days. The provocative title of the book makes one want to say one of two things: “Shame on You!” or “How Brave!” The thing to do is to avoid either of these reflexes and read the book on its own terms. It is interesting in and of itself, with a bit of the melancholy mood of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, Babylon Revisited. Bydlowska’s partner, Russell Smith was there with their child in his arms. Amusingly (!) the author had referred to him as an “ageing man about town”. Ouch! Since it was a launch about giving up drinking, the wine was dealcoholized. It took me two glasses to figure that out.
Luckily, I could pick up a Smirnoff’s Ice at Harbourfront later that night where I saw alumna Ania Szado read from her newest novel, Studio Saint-Ex. The novel is based on parts of the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Shyam Selvadurai, who will be teaching for us in the correspondence program, also read from his new novel The Hungry Ghosts. His prose is exquisite. In the audience, I ran across Barbara Berson, formerly of Penguin and now a freelance editor, and with her, Humber alumna Cathy Ostlere.
The very next night at the same bookstore, I went to Humber alumna Robin Spano’s book launch, the third in her mystery series, Death’s Last Run. I love her dramatic covers. Former Premier David Peterson was there, and I saw he bought six books! What a fan! So was Jack David, her publisher, and a Humber School for Writers Advisory Committee member. Jack has helped many, many writers get into print. He has an open mind, and although he might grimace to hear this, and open heart as well. We played poker together for years before I moved to another game, and we spent some time talking of memorable hands and players.
Later that evening I ran up to the Black Swan to see Karl Jirgens, publisher of Rampike, a venerable and yet current and edgy literary journal, read from his new poetry.
On Monday, May 6, I was particularly interested in seeing the reading by Kenneth Bonert at Harbourfront. Kenneth is a two-time Humber alumnus of Humber’s Creative Writing classes, and his new sprawling novel, The Lion Seeker, is set in South Africa and framed by pogroms in Lithuania. I had a chance to read this novel in ARC (advanced reading copy) and loved it so much I chose to blurb it. He already has American sales. Up that evening as well was Lewis de Soto, with his new novel, The Restoration Artist. Lewis is a very elegant speaker and writer and although I have only read the first few pages, I know his novel is engaging. Finally, Claire Messud read too from The Woman Upstairs, her latest novel. She caused some controversy when she was asked why her central character was unlikeable and shot back that Oedipus, among other literary figures, was not exactly likeable either. I asked her if she might teach at Humber one day, and she said she might do it.
Due to a family birthday, I had to miss alumnus Robert Rotenberg’s launch of his third novel, Stranglehold.Robert is a very serious mystery writer, with three books out in the last five years. The following evening, May 9, I had one of my regular dinners with Humber writers Joe Kertes and Wayson Choy. We go back decades, and our conversation loops from subjects like agents, page counts, and gossip of the very best kind.
On Monday, May 13, Joe and I dined again, this time with David Bezmozgis, who taught creative writing classes for us for years. He is near the end of his latest novel and is preparing to shoot a film of his story, Natasha. David wrote the script and will direct the movie as well. On that particular evening, the Beer Bistro was in a roar because the Leafs were playing, and it looked for a while that they had a chance to win, so we hurried home, but not before agreeing that we saw no need to write sprawling novels now and that sixty or seventy thousand words were enough for a novel (yes, we do count words. I do so obsessively. I also figure I lose three hundred words for every night I’m out and I’ve been out a lot this month).
On Tuesday night I was one of the writers at Pongapalooza, a Scotiabank ping-pong benefit to help raise literacy. There I chatted with former Humber teacher Lawrence Hill and current Humber teacher, Miranda Hill. I also spoke briefly with Anthony de Sa, Robert Rotenberg, Doug Bell, Alissa York, and among many, many others,Nino Ricci, with whom I fell into a conversation about narrative voice in the twentieth century and later. He felt that first person is best in order to provide emotional drama to a novel, but I have a longing and fondness for third person omniscient, as well as echoes of exalted language of the kind found in the King James Bible or in some of the translations of the Iliad. As we talked about these matters, ping pong balls flew around us, Nino was wearing a glowing head band, and appetizers of bacon, crab cakes, and meat on a stick went by. Authors were each given a drink ticket, and Nino and I were lucky enough to find extra tickets lying about on the floor. Was it beneath us to have picked them up?
I was running out of literary steam and so missed alumna and teacher Elizabeth Ruth’s reading at the Toronto Central Library. I was particularly sorry because I had missed the launch of her latest novel, Matadora, because I could not get into the Gladstone Hotel where she was premiering the book. How many literary events are are as crowded as that? (almost none).
On what I thought would be a night off, I learned there was a photography show at a Diane Arbus-like Soviet era photographer, Vitas Luckus, on Bloor Street. So I wandered down there and ran into an old friend, the Vancouver writer, Laimonas Briedis (Vilnius, City of Strangers). Since we share Lithuanian heritage, we talked a lot about history and in particular the history of Vilnius, a slightly mysterious city which remains largely unknown because it has a complex, layered history and is remembered variously by Jews, Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians, to say nothing of Russians.
Thankfully, most of the events are over for the season, although I will play poker next week with a group that includes five writers. We talk little of literature there, and concentrate on the subtleties of Omaha, a variation of Texas Hold ‘em that we have been playing for years.