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Literary stars sparkle at Vancouver International Writers Festival

Progress is our most important product

When I was a kid and the world was still in black and white, Ronald Reagan was a pitch-man for General Electric.  This was between his careers as a Hollywood actor and the president of the United States.  Anyway, at the end of the GE commercial, Reagan would give us that avuncular smile and say:  “Remember, at General Electric, Progress is our most important product.”

That seems to be the case with the powers-that-be in Michael V. Smith’s new novel Progress.  In this case, progress includes bulldozing houses and even graveyards to make way for a hydroelectric project near a small town.  So when prodigal son Robbie returns to his childhood home, he finds his sister paralyzed with indecision as the clock ticks on a demolition order for the family home.

Progress is one of a dozen books sent to me in early September by the Vancouver International Writers Festival.   I try to read them all by late October, when I introduce the writers at a couple of festival events – Polyphony, on Saturday night, and The Afternoon Tea on Sunday.

According to my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (still available in book form!) polyphony is “ in which several simultaneous vocal or instrumental parts are combined...”.     This year those voices include the sound of Progress, a family tragedy, a Funeral For A Dog, armed resistance, the fur trade, celebrity journalism and an earthquake.   

The title of Thomas Pletzinger’s novel, Funeral For A Dog, gave me a little shiver as I picked up the book and shot a guilty look at our old pooch asleep on his bed.  The dog in the book is black, with three legs.  The fourth leg was shot off.  This dog speaks, and is sort of an unbiased witness to a post 9/11 love triangle.

Other authors reading Saturday night include Antanas Sileika, who says his novel Underground  “...could not have been written if not for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independance of Lithuania in 1991.”   Farzana Doctor’s novel Six Metres of Pavement explores detente closer to home.  Into That Darkness, by Steven Price, reminds us what it could be like when (not if) a major earthquake hits the West Coast.  Timothy Taylor’s The Blue Light Project takes us into the very near future, while Pauline Holdstock’s Into The Heart Of The Country is the kind of Canadian history that I would have paid attention to in school.

It’s no surprise that The Afternoon Tea on Sunday has been sold out for weeks.  Everyone likes to be read to, especially when the table is laden with decadent delicacies to nibble on while we listen. 

The Kootenays are the setting for D.W. Wilson’s collection of short stories called Once You Break A Knuckle (as in, once you break a knuckle, you’ll break it again).  The collection won this year's BBC National Short Story Award, worth about $24,000.  In awarding the prize, the judge said the story was a “...rattling good read...”

Tessa McWatt’s novel Vital Signs is about a woman who suffers a brain aneurism that steals parts of her rational mind and threatens her life.  Her husband is a graphic artist who tries drawing as a way to reach her, and the book is sprinkled with his little black and white images.

Giller nominee Lynn Coady will read from her timely novel about a hockey enforcer called The Antagonist.  Giller winner Elizabeth Hay brings her new book of historical fiction, Alone In The Classroom.  And the lyrical Wayne Johnstone spins a tale of Newfoundland sealers and North Carolina millionaires in A World Elsewhere

The Vancouver International Writers Festival continues until Sunday, October 23 at various venues on Granville Island.

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