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Authors Festival opens with County residents debating this year’s must read book

By Sharon Harrison
It was called a close vote, but Ru written by Kim Thuy, and defended by Anne Preston, was deemed the winner of the County Reads Authors Festival 2021 as the book the year that everyone should pick up and read.

For the second year in a row, the popular County Reads, an annual favourite for many, was unable to take place in person due COVID-19 restrictions. Unlike last year’s event, which took to the radio airwaves, the event is online this year with presenters and readers going virtual – visible at least if only through a screen.

“It’s hard to believe for a second year, this is not an in-person event,” said Barbara Sweet, PEC Public Library CEO. “The upside of this, however, is that we have five brave and willing participants, and that Zoom enables friends and family from the US and Toronto and beyond to experience our Prince Edward County Reads event.

While not all elements of the festival were able to proceed this year, two of the mainstays – the County Reads debate and the speaker series were good to go.

The festival opened Thursday evening with five County presenters defending five recent Canadian titles.

The friendly debate loses a little of the fun interaction on a virtual screen, as the ever-popular event in pre-COVID times draws hundreds in its audience.

Ken Murray was back as moderator in the 12th year for the festival which the Prince Edward County Public Library hosts every spring.

The titles being defended this year are The Good German, by Dennis Bock (defended Kevin Scanlon); Ru by Kim Thuy (defended by Anne Preston); The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donohue (defended by Sandra Barnes); 26 Knots, by Bindu Suresh (defended by Alexandra Seay); and Agency by William Gibson (defended by John Hirsch).

Each panelist was given an initial five minutes to convince the audience why they believe their chosen title is worth reading. Murray then asked two questions of each defender, and they were given an additional one minute to sell their title to the listening audience.

Voting this year was immediate and took place online during a five-minute break, and the result was revealed after just a few minutes once the presentations were complete.

Sandra Barnes began the event by telling the virtual audience about her choice, The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donohue. Barnes is a new Prince Edward County resident and currently works for the Alzheimer’s Society of Hasting Prince Edward promoting dementia-friendly communities and education training.

Barnes begins her presentation by reading, as follows: “The public is urged to stay out of places such as cafés, theatres, cinemas, and public houses, see only those persons one needs to see, refrain from shaking hands, laughing or chatting closely together. If one must kiss, use a handkerchief, sprinkle sulphur in the shoes, if in doubt, don’t stir out.”

“Does this sound familiar?” asks Barnes, who says the verbiage is from 1918, but it could easily be posted today.

The Pull of the Stars in the first few sentences allows the reader to experience the sights and the smells of Dublin in the pre-dawn hour.

“Dublin is besieged, not only by the Great War, but also the war being waged within the walls of the hospital against a mysterious deadly illness that is taking the globe.”

Barnes speaks to a hospital that is overflowing with ill patients and is understaffed by half. She speaks to the exhausting struggle of a pandemic, but also of unexpected friendships; a tale of resilience and hope.

“It is a book about admirable people doing their best under less than ideal circumstances,” she said. “When you read this novel you’ll note how she cleverly uses dialogue to give depth to her characters, to educate the reader about life in Ireland and to comment on the government and the politics of the day.”

Barnes suggests the book should be read for its historical significance, but because it parallels the struggles and the fears we are facing today.

“Pandemic is not a term we thought we’d be using in this century.”

The Good German by Dennis Bock was defended by Kevin Scanlon, a Wellington resident and journalist of 42 years, now retired.

Scanlon began his presentation by sharing a story about a history teacher whose lectures were particularly dull and very dry. The then Grade 12 student, Scanlon explains how he developed a trick to move things along by asking an off-base question.

“One afternoon, the teacher had begun a tedious speech when I piped up with, ‘What if Adolph Hitler had never been born?’”

“That question led to the best half hour of my entire school year,” explained Scanlon.

He describes The Good German as in intriguing novel who premise is that Hitler was assassinated in 1939.

“In the actual history, an anti-Nazi carpenter planted a bomb that was to explode while Hitler spoke in a Munich beer hall in 1939, but the timing was off. The bomb missed its target when Hitler started his speech early.”

In the book, the bomb succeeds in killing Hitler and instead of making things better, everything gets much worse.

“In his novel, the author has masterfully woven a gripping narrative; it intertwines a love story and a coming of age tale. The novel is set against the scary backdrop of what might have been.”

With a long career with the federal government with Canada Customs, John Hirsch retired to the County in 2014, where among other things he is councillor for South Marysburgh.

Hirsch championed Agency written by William Gibson, the second novel in a series which Hirsch says stands by itself.

Hirsch says, “Its 402 pages just flew by despite being just about the most densely packed writing I have ever encountered.”

“Gibson has never believed that science fiction predicts the future, it only ever talks about the present,” explains Hirsch. “His earlier novel and this trilogy introduced us to an eco-political disaster where the population has been reduced by about 80 per cent.”

While he won’t give the ending away, Hirsch describes the book as a “deeply humane and rewarding novel.”

Anne Preston moved into a little County farmhouse 17 years ago and founded County Reads, where she organized and ran the event for 10 years before the library took over in 2017.

Preston presented Ru by Kim Thuy, a fictionalized memoir which chronicles the plight of a 10-year-girl and her family as they flee the communist regime in Vietnam during the 1970s, where they eventually come to Canada as new immigrants landing on the shore of Montreal.

She describes it as a classic immigrant story, but one that is breathtaking.

“It is not chronologically told, it is told episodically through a series of vignettes and each vignette is connected to the other one by an image or a phrase or a scent, in much the same way as our memory is triggered,” explained Preston.

“The vignettes flow back and forth from here to there, from past to present, from memory to history in much the same way as the ebb and flow of a small stream or a lullaby.”

As the general manager of the Regent Theatre, Alexandra Seay has recently landed in Prince Edward County.

Seay presented 26 Knots a debut novel, a short one at 125 pages, by Bindu Suresh which she describes as following four interconnected love stories set in Montreal.

“What Bindu Suresh is exploring is the nature of these knots and how one deals with them,” explained Seay. “The knots are the things we inherit, whether that’s a story told by a parent to us as a child, or whether that of a lover, an encounter, a significant moment that we have and what each of the characters choose to do with those knots.”

“Do they choose to tighten them? Do they choose to try and undo them? And it’s those choices she is exploring and they very relating circumstances,” says Seay.

“She captures a time, a place, through her exquisite language of the piece which is very poetic; it’s impressionistic, it lands you in a moment and takes you to the next moment, her poetry is in the language of the text, but her poetry is also in the structure of the novel.”

Seay explains how the author treats her page breaks like a poet would treat a line break.

“They are significant and there are many of them and very few of the 125 pages are full pages. It creates space for the reader in the narrative because the story is only ever a fraction of the experience of reading a novel. Maybe 50 percent is the words on the page and how they are constructed, but the other 50 percent is what you bring to it.”

Following the five presentations, Ken Murray asked two questions of each of the panelists.

“You meet the author of the book you’ve just presented and you get one question, what’s your question and why?” asked Murray.

Sandra Barnes said she would ask the author why she wanted to write this historical book about the pandemic in 1918.

“She wrote the book prior to COVID and was something that was already in the works and had already done all the historical research, put her words together and came up with this novel,” says Barnes.

“What would have inspired her to write something about a pandemic that took place over 100 years ago, and why did she think people would be interested.”

John Hirsch said he would ask author William Gibson, “Why in all his science fictions he tries to ground it and has it related to real events rather than the more fantasy type of science fiction?

Anne Preston said if she was able to ask one question of the author, it would be, “How did she manage to keep her dreams and her hope alive through so much deprivation and loss?”

“The reason I would ask that is because this book is so visceral, you can feel the fear in your own body when you are experiencing reading it and it just intrigued me how she kept going and so positive and grateful.”

Murray’s second question to the participants was as follows:

“In every story there is always a moment, something that just lingers, something that when that book is over, there maybe infinite moments in a book, but there is always one that can really come back to that really anchors that book that really turns you when you think of the book, is there a moment that jumps out you in the book? “

Seay said a series of images jump out, but they are not turning points in the book per se.

“One image is of one the couples there are making love on the balcony and it’s raining out and she’s sitting on the balcony edge and there is a description of a raindrop falling down her back, that jumped out to me.”

Preston said this book had so many images because there’s such poetry in it and it’s so evocative.

“There is one section of the book where the author is describing the women in the rice paddies, they are bent over, they are wearing hats to protect them from the sun, the women carrying the weight of everything, the families, their sons, they are carrying the weight of Vietnam, these women are just so burdened, they can’t stand up. That image of them being so burdened against the beautiful blue sky and they can’t stand up, the burdens are so heavy.”

Kevin Scanlon speaks to the time after the assignation of Hitler which is a big moment in the book.

“The bomber escapes and it’s a harrowing journey through Europe and he finally gets to the English Channel, crosses over on a boat when an atom bomb is dropped on London. He is at mouth of the Thames, the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being applied to London was a shock actually just trying to imagine what they would be like.”

The event concluded as each defender was given one minute to sell their pitch.

“26 Knots is a prefect weekend getaway and COVID anecdote and reading this book is supporting local because its published by Invisible Publishing,” said Seay.

“Ru is beautifully rendered, the precision of the language, the cadence of the phrases just make this a literary gem that you should experience and read, the book speaks to all of us.“

John Hirsch final thoughts, “Agency is classic Gibson, not a wasted word, every sentence is essential to furthering the story, no superfluous adjectives were used, densely packed is the only way I can describe it.”

“A masterful novel that grips the reader from those tense early moments when the anti-facist is planting the bomb that kills Adolph Hitler. I have always been drawn to theories that explore an alternate version of history. I found it to have a literary dichotomy, a story so interesting I couldn’t put it down yet the writing was so great I didn’t want it to end,” says Scanlon of The Good German.

Sandra Barnes described the Pull of the Stars as, “really a tribute to humanity and nurturing and great care and sacrifice that was made by the health care professionals.”

A recording of the 2021 County Reads Debate is available for viewing on the PEC Public Library website.

The County Reads speaker events continue on Friday and Saturday (April 23-24) free of charge to join in.

Friday events include Samra Zafar, at 1 p.m. reading from, and discussing her book A Good Wife: Escaping the Life’ I Never Chose, moderated by Elizabeth Etue.

It continues at 2 p.m. with Karen McBride reading from, and discussing her book Crow Winter, moderated by Liz Zylstra.

At 3 p.m. Robert Rotenberg will read from and discuss his book Downfall, moderated by Mike Harper.

Saturday’s events are also being held from 1-3 p.m.
They begin with Bryn Turbull reading from and discussing The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts and Royal Scandal, moderated by Ken Murray.
At 2 p.m. is Jeff Rubin with his book The Expendables: How the Middle Class God Screwed by Globalization, moderated by Dr. Thomas Harrison.
At 3 p.m., Iona Whishaw will close the event with her book A Killer in Kings Cove: a Lane Winslow Mystery, moderated by Julia Lane.

All events are free of charge as ‘Zoom’ webinars. Call any branch of the library, or click here to register at www.peclibrary.org/countyreads

 

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