amongst books

amongst books

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Frozen River, Iguanas in Wedding Dresses, Gypsies

Day Two of the Festival on Sunday was jam packed with math tricks, great readings and interviews, wild music to thunder your heart and uproarious belly laughter.

Playwright and mathematician John Mighton gave a brilliant talk on JUMP: Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigy. His book The End of Ignorance provides evidence that any child can become proficient in mathematics. I’ve heard this man speak before and I have to say, as a math disaster in elementary and high school, I found his words to be very inspiring. He shows how building confidence in a child and providing her with guidance, such as showing her the patterns of math, can result in math proficiency. The best part for me was when he showed the pattern in the nine times table. It felt like a poem in its elegant simplicity. If I can be excited about math, anyone can. He made some valid points about the problems with the current curriculum, the hierarchal system of the bell curve lowering teachers’ expectations about how students should do. He didn’t do this in an insulting or critical way; he merely presented the evidence and showed how we can constructively fix the situation. His methods are being used all over the world, and are particularly popular in Vancouver BC and in places in England.The man is a visionary.

In Writing Life 1, hosted by Sean Wilson, Helen Humphreys, Shawna Baldwin Singh, and Richard B. Wright read from their compelling books, followed by a fascinating Q&A session.

I am a big fan of Helen Humphreys, whose novel The Lost Garden is one of my favourites. Her latest book, The Frozen Thames is a collection of 40 little stories about each time the river Thames froze solid. The stories go from 1142 to 1895. The facts are true buts she’s made up the thoughts and feelings. She read three stories: one set in 1309, one in 1608 and one in 1809. The writing, particularly the descriptions of winter, are poetic and beautiful.

Shawna Singh Baldwin, at the festival for the first time, read from her short story collection “We Are Not In Pakistan.” What I really enjoyed about her reading was the humour and her mastery of dialogue. She read from the title story in the collection and pointed out that the word “Pakistan” means the land of the pure. She said that none of us are in the land of the pure anymore. I’ve never read any of her work before, but I plan on doing so.

Richard B. Wright read from his latest novel, October, which is narrated by James Hilyer, a widower and retired professor of Victorian literature. He’s in his 70s and living alone in Toronto. A daughter telephones him to let him know she has a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, which her mother also died from. He goes to London to visit her. While there he runs into a man he hasn’t seen in sixty years. The meeting releases a flood of memories and unsettles him. In the passage he read, James meets Gabriel outside the Dorchester Hotel.

I found myself feeling very compelled by Wright’s descriptions of London and the way in which he reveals the main character through his relationship to the city and to the characters he interacts with. I’m not surprised that Wright is a Governor General Award and a Giller Prize winner. He’s incredibly skilled. One of my favourite things about the festival is that I discover writers I haven’t yet been exposed to. I’m looking forward to reading Richard B. Wright’s novels.

The next event was the Metcalf – Rooke Award. Pearl has an excellent entry about this over on her blog, so I’m going to not say too much myself.

Kathleen Winter read about an iguana in a wedding dress from BoYs (Biblioasis) and received the Leon-Rooke Award; if you believe John Metcalf, the award was initiated by a book store franchise operation called "Page and Turner" that bounced the first award cheque and disappeared. Metcalf read an excerpt from a new short story that lambastes Alberta and Albertans so strongly, I’m sure their ears are’s all good satire, um...of course. Leon Rooke read about gypsies with the impromptu musical accompaniment of Glenn Nuotio on keyboards and Patrick DeDauw on cello.

I will comment on the beauty and originality of Glenn Nuotio’s music. He and Patrick sounded ghostly, ethereal. “Drape Me” was an amazing song with poetic lyrics; I’ll share just a brief taste of them for you here:

what if I pulled this sheet down from your head
and told you to take your time,
just listen to my breath?

and the song “City Lights” inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s silent films:

You're softer than gold
but just cold enough

You can hear more of Glenn Nuotio’s music here.

I hope to hear him again soon. It was a gorgeous way to end the night at the second day of the Festival. Check out the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter blog for coverage of poetry events.

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