Erika Ritter Gabor Mate John Geiger Litfest 2009 Paul Tough Russell Wengersky Tim Cook

authors worth reading: a recap of litfest 2009.

This weekend, Canada’s only creative non-fiction festival, LitFest: Edmonton International Literary Festival, was held in Edmonton. Over the past year, I have had the great opportunity of working with a group of talented local writers in organizing this festival as a member of the Litfest Programming Committee. This year’s festival was dedicated to the memory of local writer, editor and connoisseur Gordon Morash. As a fellow Programming Committee member, Gordon and I talked books and politics on our many LRT rides from the University to the downtown Litfest meetings. His passion on the committee was reflected in the success of this festival.

Here is a recap of some the Litfest events that I attended this weekend:

Thursday: At CBC Centre Stage, Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash discussed her new book, The Frog Lake Reader, which offers some new objective perspective on the tragic events surrounding the Frog Lake Massacre of 1885 (you can listen to Kostash describe her book on mp3).

Friday: Dr. Gabor Mate, author of many books, including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, spoke to a sold out crowd at Zeilder Hall at the Citadel Theatre. I showed up late and unfortunately wasn’t able to hear Dr. Mate’s talk due to the sold out hall. I have heard that it was an excellent talk and I look forward to see him speak in the future.

Saturday: Paul Tough, editor at the New York Times Magazine, spoke a couple of times throughout the festival about the challenges facing Americans in education, poverty and politics (and the Harlem Children’s Zone), and his role as a writer. Tough joined Erika Ritter on Saturday afternoon in a Writer Jam session, where they both gave some excellent and very valuable insight into their experiences as non-fiction writers. I found his perspective, especially on the challenges of staying creative while researching drier subjects, to be particularly astute. I purchased a copy of his book, Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, and plan to read it over the next month (and to write about it when I finish it).

Did you know that Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War is the only two-volume history collection documenting Canada’s involvement in the First World War? As a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, author Tim Cook has spent years pouring over personal letters, reports, and descriptions from the Great War, and it shows. During his talks this weekend, Cook succeeded in painting an subtle image that went far beyond what we were taught about in Social Studies class by presenting the personal stories of the real men who fought for King and Country in the trenches of Europe between 1914 and 1918. While being conscious not to downplay their efforts, Cook did talk briefly about Canada’s role in Afghanistan and especially the need to keep in perspective that, while our contribution to the ISAF mission is nearing 3,000 soldiers, a far larger number – over 600,000 Canadians – served in World War I. Shock Troops was awarded the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction: Winner 2009 (watch the YouTube video below).

Sunday: I was privileged to host a session Sunday afternoon that included two authors: John Geiger and Russell Wangersky. Both are accomplished Canadian writers and are also notables in the world of newspapers (Geiger, who was raised in Edmonton and St. Albert, is the Editorial Editor for the Globe & Mail and Wangersky is the comentary editor at the St. John’s Telegram).

Wengersky discussed his latest book, Burning Down the House, which tells the story of his eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter. He powerfully described the narcotic appeal that the intensity of firefighting grabs individuals – the sound, smell, heat, and emotion – and how the weight of unknown factors can tear down even the strongest and most experience firefighter. Geiger discussed his latest book, The Third Man, which tackles the belief by some people that an unknown presence has helped guide them to safety in extreme circumstances. Geiger recounted many ‘third man’ accounts, including the remarkable story of Canadian Ron DiFrancesco, who when trapped on the eighty-fourth floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, believes that he was guided to safety through a burning stairwell by an unknown force. I purchased a copy of Geiger’s book and plan to write about it when I finish reading it.

Litfest 2009 was an excellent experience. Similar to last year, I was able to spend hours listening to and talking with passionate Canadian readers and writers, and ended the weekend with a little less space on my bookshelf.

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