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Hobnobbing at the International Festival of Authors

Last night, I attended a cocktail party and subsequent GG nom reading at the International Festival of Authors (henceforward referred to as the IFOA) currently running at the Harbourfront Centre.

I and my friends were slightly underdressed for the cocktail party - though we were not the only ones in jeans, there were more suits and skirts than casual wear. No one minds when there's an open bar, however, and despite the lack of liquor (next time I'm bringing a flask) everyone managed a good buzz on the available wine and beer.

The hors d'oeuvres were served generously (good thing too, there was no meal to follow the booze and without meat on sticks and crab cakes, who knows what could have happened?)

The price of entry was listening to the head of the fest babble incoherently for a few minutes about the increasing popularity and importance of the event. The speaker peppered his remarks with quotes from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, a commonly used reference book for speech makers who have no aptitude for creating quotable comments themselves.

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I mention it only because Julian Barnes was in attendance and had the pleasure of having himself quoted shortly after Churchill. He spent the evening surrounded by elbow-rubbers - moderately important publishing or newspaper people and a couple of literary groupies who looked up at him with admiring gazes and wide, amused smiles.

I spotted Zadie Smith (who is much taller than I imagined) in a far corner, and Charles Montgomery made small talk with my friend Alison, which culminated in an invitation for us all to join him and his pals at Remington's - alas, they only allow ladies on Sunday.

The reading took place afterwards at the Premier Dance Theatre. We (my friend Matt and I) were late, having stayed until the lights went up at the cocktail party chatting with Alison and, to be honest, squeezing as much free alcohol as possible from the event. Matt also managed to score digits from a friendly lass just as we were leaving, and really, how could Joseph Boyden compete?

We arrived in the middle of Boyden's selection from Three Day Road, which he related despite a bit of a cold, so his affected Irish lilt was barely detectable. I've heard that at prior readings he's become so entranced by his own prose that he gets a little verklempt, but I detected no catch in his voice or a teary eye.

I'm not trying to be snarky, the passages he selected were richly detailed and compelling, and it definitely put the book higher on my 'to read soon' list. But when the distance between author and reader is shortened, one can't help but notice certain quirks (especially when the writer is not a strong public speaker).

Golda Fried (author of Nelcott is my Darling) read next, and the contrast could not have been more stark. Having perhaps enjoyed more wine at the cocktail party than the other auteurs, Fried's reading involved periodic giggling, some stumbling over words, and a brief apology to her mom. Her novel doesn't have the weighty subjects the other GG noms tackle, so by comparison her tale of a McGill virgin freshman seemed a little light. However, she does have some wonderful turns of phrase, and if her reading is anything to go by, she captures the essence of university life and dilemmas with acuity and humour.

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After a short break, the readings continued with Charlotte Gill, whose book Ladykiller has my favourite cover. Her reading was good, though she has the vocal style I notice among poets who learn to read their work, not in monotone, but low, speaking carefully and giving a slight hum to the words.

Of the readers, David Gilmour seemed the most at ease, leaning casually on the podium and giving a synopsis of his book A Perfect Night to Go to China before reading a couple passages. His manner of reading matches the tone of his narrative nicely. The event of the book is dark (a man's young son goes missing), and Gilmour read the voice of a hopeful yet impossibly upset parent through social discomfort in normal life, and a dream world where he may still see his son.

Kathy Page read last, from Alphabet, first telling us how the book was inspired by time she spent as a writer in residence at a men's prison. The novel tells a story of a man in prison who learns to read, which opens up worlds both good and bad. Page read passages of her inmate reading his own sizeable file and a letter he receives in response to an ad requesting correspondence in her confident English accent. She spent, she tells us, about ten years with her subject, which the strength of her reading reflects.

The IFOA isn't just readings, though - this week we have interviews to anticipate as well. If you come tonight you might be treated to me throwing a large blunt object at overrated 'American wunderkind' Jonathan Safran Foer (whose Everything is Illuminated is an unreadable annoying POS).

A schedule of further readings can be found here. The event runs through Oct 29th. Tickets are 15$ (free for students with ID) and 10$ for Harbourfront members.


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