Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Planes, Trains, Ondaatje-mobiles

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Edinburgh International Book Festival

I am in England. Specifically, I am aboard an East Coast train from Edinburgh to London and currently somewhere just south of Newcastle. England’s green hills and grey clouds roll by outside the window. The clouds are to be thanked, I suppose, for all the greenness, and yet I’m aiming a scowl in their direction for I suspect they are also to be thanked for my head cold. I’ve just spent three days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) — one of the world’s biggest knees-ups for the written word — at which I attended, among other things, the worldwide launch of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. And where I borrowed, among other things, my friend’s mum’s wellies to save my flimsy summer shoes from the swamp (I didn’t expect it to be that kind of festival…).

The story of a literal and metaphorical right of passage, The Cat’s Table is a fitting book to be reading on one’s travels. In the 1950s when he is just 11, the book’s narrator, Michael, boards a ship to take him from Ceylon to a new home in England. The book’s author took a similar journey as a child, and has now journeyed to England again — though we assume this time by plane — to attend the EIBF event.

Every year during the month of August, in which the city also plays host to a Fringe, International and various other arts and media festivals, Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens is populated with marquee-style tents, a boardwalk, a Spiegeltent (which you might have visited at Harbourfront Centre during Luminato 2007), three bookshops, an authors’ yurt, a press pod, a box office and a collection of deck chairs on the lawn on which it may or may not be warm and dry enough to sit and read your new books. Featuring almost 800 authors over 17 days, it’s a massive event. And though having only eight Canadians on the bill did seem a little paltry, percentage-wise, at least one of our star Canadians was getting a star’s amount of fuss.

The Cat’s Table event, a sold-out affair on Saturday night, began with a rousing “This is probably the most eagerly anticipated event of the 2011 festival” from the host, following which Mr. Ondaatje launched into his reading. After bobbing about aboard the Oronsay, imagining an Asian teacher in later life buttoning his sweater “to protect himself from the English weather,” weathering a ferocious storm at sea and learning the many names for storms “Chubasco. Squall. Cyclone. Typhoon.” (and, for the weekend in question, I mentally added “Irene”) for 25 minutes or so, we were returned to reality with the host’s “You heard it first in Charlotte Square. That was a world premiere.” Lest we’d had any doubt, we were most clearly at An Event. We were also, we Brits and Canadians, seemingly all obsessed with inclement weather.

The audience questions were good, being both actual questions (instead of those annoying statements people try to disguise as questions) and suggesting that many in the crowd had already read the book. After we’d been funnelled back out of the tent the bookstore did a brisk trade with those who didn’t yet have a copy, and the signing lineup, onto which I tacked myself at the very end, took more than half an hour to go down.

The following day I found myself sharing a tent with Michael Ondaatje once again, though this time we were both in the audience. Will Self delivered an inspiring lecture to a full house on the life and work of W.G. Sebald. After the event I bought a copy of Walking to Hollywood (think Stroll but with more venom and broader geography) and read the Toronto chapter while I waited in line to get it signed. It turns out the chapter, written when Self was attending the 2007 International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront Centre, takes exactly the same amount of time to read as does standing in Will Self’s signing line. The piece is less than complimentary about IFOA. Hopefully he will nevertheless come again.

Beyond the book festival proper I did discover a little more CanCon on offer. On the festival’s middle weekend, five events featuring ten Canadians published by Tightrope Books had been staged at a new Fringe venue. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see them but hear from the organizers that the poets and they all had a swell old time.

“There is a story, always ahead of you,” says the narrator of The Cat’s Table. My story takes me next to London, where having already echoed the narrator’s journey to England, I will follow him to Dulwich College Library: Ondaatje’s own school before he arrived in Canada. I’ll be going there to watch my best friend get married though, not to read books by “an old boy of the school” as the narrator does, or to reminisce about “the beginning of violent storms that assaulted the Oronsay.” There has been too much weather, real and imagined, already these past few days. I’m hoping that particular part of the story is behind me.

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Win a colourful Guardian Books tote bag from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, adorned with a quote from Michael Morpurgo's I Believe in Unicorns: "Stories make you think and dream; books make you want to ask questions." Send an email to enter@openbooktoronto.com by September 16th with the heading "EIBF Tote", and your name will be entered in the draw.

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The Cat’s Table, published by McClelland & Stewart, is released in Canada this week.

Michael Ondaatje next appears at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West, Toronto) on September 25th. See Open Book's Events Page for details.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs


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