LitFest 2015 Mini-Reviews: Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis and Separation Anxiety by Miji Campbell
LitFest is Canada’s only non-fiction festival. One of these years, I’ll get a pass and go to everything, but this year The Femme Memoir Hour is my one and only. It’s tomorrow, Saturday October 24, at 1:00 p.m. at the downtown library, and tickets are still available.
The theme of this event is tenuous. Yeah, they’re all memoirs written by women, but so what? Is that enough to tie these books together? I’ve read two of the books (kindly provided by LitFest, many thanks) and while they share some themes of recovery, they really couldn’t be more different.
Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis
3 out of 5 stars
Let me just get this out of my system: Girl in the Woods is Wild for millennials!!
That’s too simple and kind of condescending. It’s not Matis’ fault that Cheryl Strayed released Wild in 2012, presumably while she was writing Girl in the Woods. It’s not her fault that Strayed also had a traumatic past, that she also had a near-death experience on the trail, or that she also changed her name after her journey.
It also feels condescending to say I wish Matis, like Strayed, had waited longer and matured as a writer before writing a memoir, and yet. The book includes childhood pictures of Matis (…for some reason) labelled with dates in the late nineties, just in case you forget that she’s super young. The reminder is helpful though. Matis is maddeningly self-centered and dramatic, which is less annoying when you remember that she’s 18 years old when she begins her hike. And privileged. I mean, when the word “self-care” appeared I thought I was done. But I stuck around and remembered that duh, I was a privileged, dramatic, self-centered 18 year old myself, and Matis captures something true about that experience that’s hard to describe. And, she’s done something with all that privilege. Not the hike, the book. No one made her write a story about being raped. Imagine being known for the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Then again, imagine reaching so many people who need to hear your story.
If you can push away the comparisons, and quit wishing that a teenager was more mature, which is silly, you will probably enjoy Girl in the Woods. It *is* well-written, well, a little over-written, but there are flashes of greatness. I appreciate what Matis did with her story and I’m really interested to see what she does next.
Separation Anxiety by Miji Campbell
2 out of 5 stars
Again, let me just get this out of my system: Separation Anxiety is Eat Pray Love without the eating, praying, or loving!!
It’s not fair to compare a book to EPL just because it’s a memoir by a woman who goes through a divorce. Well, comparing and contrasting. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, Campbell’s life is privileged and suburban and normal. Traditional wifely and motherly roles aren’t enough for her. Neither teaching nor freelance writing lead to fulfillment. This is where you expect Campbell to travel the world à la Gilbert or hike through the woods à la Matis. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t really do anything.
Well, she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That’s not nothing. A weird, dysfunctional relationship with her mother is referenced as a factor but never really explained. She has debilitating insomnia as a young adult. She marries and has children. She divorces her husband for some reason which isn’t clear. She meets a new guy but we’re told nothing about the when or the how. Eventually, she is unable to work or leave the house, but the stakes don’t seem very high. It feels wrong to say that, because of course the stakes were high; this is her life. But it didn’t come through in my reading.
Traipsing around the globe and hiking across the continent can be inspirational (or aspirational,) but they’re not reasonable for most. Realism is good! But, it turns out, you do need something to hang your story on. The combination of Campbell’s short, clipped sentences, jumpy timeline, and lack of narrative almost made this a DNF. The last chapters, in which she gets her shit together, were good. There was some drive to the narrative and we got to hear from other people.
I will say the design of this book is wonderful. I’ve had several people admire the cover and ask me about it. You know what they say about books and covers, though.
The Femme Memoir Hour is part of LitFest. Meet the authors this Saturday, October 24, 1:00 p.m. at Stanley Milner Library.
Come for the authors, or come to meet moderator Liz Withey and her friend Laverne. Thanks to LitFest for the review copies. I haven’t read the third book, The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, but it sounds fascinating.
Fall 2015 Preview Part I: Edmonton Literary Festivals and Events
So much for a preview: these festivals are underway! Get out there, #yeg.
This will be my third LitFest and I’m most looking forward to the Femme Memoir Hour event, featuring local memoirist Miji Campbell (I’ll review her book Separation Anxiety,) Aspen Matis (I’ll review her memoir Girl in the Woods which, between the on-trend “Girl” title and the Lena Dunham endorsement, is sure to be huge,) and Ann Walmsley (just added to the roster, author of The Prison Book Club, which sounds a lot more interesting than Orange is the New Black,) and moderated by Edmonton’s own Liz Withey and Laverne. See you there on Saturday October 24, 1:00 PM, downtown library.
Check out the whole lineup here, get your tickets for headliner Jon Ronson, and peruse these events that caught my eye:
- Free Word on the Square events taking place Tuesdays at lunchtime in Churchill Square Sept. 15 through Oct. 6. Follow #wordonthesquare for schedule & updates.
- Free lunch time events Take Back Your Food Thursday October 15 and Gender Talks Friday October 16, both at noon, both at CBC Centre Stage, which is in the downtown mall just before you get to Winners.
- Just Words #MMIW October 18 at 2:00 PM at the downtown library – social justice writers “discuss the challenges, setbacks, and struggle to find justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
- Wab Kinew launches The Reason You Walk October 19 at 6:00 PM, Garneau Theatre.
It’s too late; you already missed Lawrence Hill. Now, make haste! Tickets are sellin’ fast. I could just list every event but here are my must-sees:
- Sandra Gulland, Friday October 16, 7:00 PM, Forsyth Hall: The Josephine B. Trilogy was one of my first historical fiction loves. Those titles, for one thing. It’s been many years, but I recall something YA about them (and I guess I was a Young Adult back then too,) but these books are certified classics, no matter the category.
- Clare Cameron, Wednesday Oct. 21, 7:00 PM Forsyth Hall: Cameron broke my heart and put it back together again with The Bear. I’m just going to try and not make a fool of myself when I meet her.
- Heather O’Neill, Friday October 23, 7:00 Forsyth Hall: Lullabies for Little Children is one of those reading experiences I can remember in such vivid detail – not just the book, but where I was (on holiday with family,) what I was doing (ignoring family,) and part of the reason I haven’t picked up her subsequent books is I’m afraid to break that spell. I might be convince to try, though.
Readings and Bookclubs and more
- Check Audrey’s and YegWrites for plenty of readings, including Jennifer Quist reading from Sistering on September 29.
- Upcoming #yegbookclub picks are Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton on September 14, and Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist on September 21. Join the chat on Twitter at 7:00 PM. Both books are heartbreaking and beautiful.
I went to a bunch of literary festivals and all you get is this lousy blog post
For a little more in the way of background info, check out my literary festival preview post.
Ted Bishop at LitFest
I wasn’t going to go to LitFest but I happened to see a free preview of Ted Bishop’s talk about his book in Churchill Square. The free talk was not well attended but the actual event was full of well-wishers. I already wrote about it here but I didn’t tell you about the cool fountain pens we got to try out afterward (cool is a relative term, of course, I assume if you’re reading this you might think it’s cool.) This is my second year attending LitFest and it won’t be my last. I hope LitFest continues the free talks on the Square. If you need to make a business case about return on investment, well, it sold me. That’s something!
Joseph Boyden at STARFest
The straight review: STARFest well organized, well attended, and well worth the price of admission. I was there to see Joseph Boyden, who did the standard reading from his latest novel, and chose one of my favourite sections from The Orenda (the first few pages) and he talked about the standard author-appearance stuff – inspiration, research, how the book fits into his larger body of work. He also talked about the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada (I was surprised he didn’t mention his new anthology on the subject, Kwe) and his own struggles with depression as a teenager. He gave a detailed description of his next book, which sounds like a bit of a legend or fairy tale about residential schools.
The gossipy review: Host and author Diana Davidson stunned in a royal blue dress from The Bay. Classic in a black button up, celeb author Joseph Boyden was powerful, vulnerable, and fascinating. Spotted in line at the book signing: Jason Purcell, noted Book Tuber, surrounded by admirers and on-trend in florals; star-struck Glass Buffalo editor Matthew Stepanic, and festival organizer Peter Bailey. I thought I got a “scoop” when Peter mentioned that David Eggers was coming to Edmonton, but he misspoke and meant David Sedaris, which is still pretty exciting!
The honest review: Joseph Boyden talked to me and touched me and said I was pretty. The end.
Joyce Carol Oates at Festival of Ideas
The closing night of Festival of Ideas was kind of the opposite of STARfest: It was under-attended (the Winspear was strangely empty; I hung back but there were plenty of floor seats available) and while I did see people I knew, I didn’t play the gossip columnist this time, preferring the company of Bartelby the Scrivener while I waited for the main event. Oates was less vulnerable than Boyden too. I doubt she went too far off script, though she joked with host Eleanor Wachtel that she felt like she was in a therapy session. Her life story was fascinating. I was rapt as JCO described her relatives and ancestors, because they sounded like characters out of a novel. Murders, suicides, Jewish grandmothers who concealed their ethnicity in America, growing up blue collar and going on to be a student and then professor Princeton… sounds like an American family saga to me.
Oates is arguably one of the best known authors in the world, but the signing line was calm, orderly, and short. I’m not sure why she wasn’t a bigger draw – maybe we are just that loyal to our #CanLit stars. I was still pretty nervous about meeting her. I didn’t want to freeze up like I did with Margaret Atwood. I remembered she had talked about personas, so I asked if her Twitter account was the real her or a persona. She said it’s very close to the real thing, except, of course, when her cat Cherie takes over:
An aside: I was so wrapped up in thinking of my question, that I couldn’t figure out why the man ahead of me in line looked so familiar, until he was getting his booked signed and I heard him say his name. It was Mr. Jeffries, my high school English teacher, who taught me One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Heart of Darkness, and John Donne, and The Odyssey, and was always going on about Joseph Campbell. I didn’t think that much of him while I was in school because I didn’t think much of anything at that age, but I recognize now that those classes had an enormous influence on me as a reader and now as a writer. I missed my chance to say thank you, so thank you, Mr. Jefferies.
Other bookish happenings this fall
Fall Preview Part II: Three literary festivals and a giveaway
Fall Preview Part I was all about the books I’m excited to read. Today, we’re talking Edmonton literary festivals and giveaways.
Actually, three giveaways. Edmonton hosts three excellent literary festivals, and despite my grumbling about a lack of Word on the Street (but for real, Lethbridge and not Edmonton?) I am excited to get into festival season. Read on for my picks, and for your chance to win your way into three of my most-anticipated events!
I had a great time at my first LitFest last year and I’m super bummed that I can’t make it to any of these fine events. If I could, I would go to:
- And Home Was Kariakoo (M.G. Vassanji) October 23, 7:30 p.m. at Stanley Milner Library. I am so sorry to miss this. I read The Magic of Saida last year and it was brilliant. Here’s my review in which I dub the author M.G. “Mother-effing Genius” Vassanji.
- Me, My Selfie, and I October 23, 5:30 p.m. at Kids in the Hall Bistro. I went to this event last year and it was so fun! They’ve changed it up a bit this year and are including selfie lessons which I sorely need. My kids take better selfies than I do.
- Headliner Naomi Klein was on The Colbert Report this week and you can see her October 20, 7:00 p.m. at the Winspear. She’s pretty feisty on Twitter, too:
LitFest is also running Words on the Square, in partnership with Edmonton Arts Council, bringing authors to Churchill Square at lunch time on Tuesdays to read and… well I’m not sure what else. I just have to run across the street to get there, so I’m in!
LITFEST GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to the M.G. Vassanji event to give away! Just comment on this post and let me know you want the tickets. I may ask you to take my copy of The Magic of Saida and get it signed. If that’s cool with you.
I’m excited to attend the St. Albert Reader’s Festival for the very first time. I love that the focus is squarely on readers. Sometimes at literary events I feel like I’m the only one who’s not an author too. It’s weird.
- Joseph Boyden: The Soul of an Author October 23, 7:00 p.m. at Arden Theatre, St. Albert. This is the reason I can’t attend the LitFest Vassanji event. How did two of my favourite CanLit authors end up appearing at the same exact time? Talk about #CanLitProblems! I’d already bought my tickets for Boyden and he probably would have won anyway, as I have a well-documented crush on him.
- Yann Martel: The Power of Literature October 29, 7:00 p.m. at Arden Theatre. I enjoyed Life of Pi and hope to watch the movie one day; as soon as I get a spare couple of hours alone in the house (i.e. never.) Martel has done lots of other stuff since LoP and I need to catch up.
- Padma Viswanathan: Loss, Identity and Faith October 19, 2:00 p.m. at Forsyth Hall. I’ve had Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon sitting on my shelf for a few months now. Its time may be coming.
Boyden hitting us with some content marketing:
STARFEST GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to the event of your choice to give away! Just comment and let me know which event you choose. Pick a back up if you want to see Boyden as it may sell out. Maybe reveal your own literary crush, too.
Festival of Ideas
When Margaret Atwood is the appetizer, can the main course compare? Atwood and Alanis were here last year as a pre-festival event. Joyce Carol Oates is like the crazier, American version of Atwood (on Twitter, anyway) and I must find out for myself what she’s really like. My picks:
- Joyce Carol Oates November 23, 7:00 p.m. at the Winspear Centre ($30) for reasons stated above. I snagged We Were the Mulvaneys at a library sale and have had it recommended it me more than once.
- Colm Toibin November 20, 8:00 p.m. at The Citadel ($24) because The Testament of Mary is brilliant. It earned a rare five-star review from me (obviously, everyone’s go-to metric) and showed me that brilliant novellas are not just found in the classics section.
There are more controversial tweets, yes, but to book bloggers, dissing Jane Austen is a throwdown:
FESTIVAL OF IDEAS GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to Joyce Carol Oates to give away! Just comment and let me know you’re interested. Maybe tell me your favourite JCO book, or link to her craziest tweet.
Did you catch all three giveaways in this post?
All you have to do is comment on this post and let me know which pairs of tickets you’re interested in:
- M.G. Vassanji at LitFest (October 23)
- Winner’s choice at STARFest (events in October and November)
- Joyce Carol Oates at the Festival of Ideas (November 23)
You can say you’re interested in more than one. Go for all three if you like! I’ll do a random draw for each pair of tickets and announce the winners on Friday, October 3. No airfare or hotel, I’m afraid, so make sure you’ll actually be in town. I’m not going to make you subscribe to my blog, or follow me on Twitter, or share this post, to enter. You should definitely do all those things, though.
Thank you LitFest, STARFest, and Festival of Ideas for generously providing these prizes! I’d love to hear what you’re looking forward to this festival season, whether you’re in Edmonton or not.
Preview: LitFest. Edmonton’s Nonfiction Festival
LitFest starts tomorrow! If you are thinking, “But Laura, it’s a nonfiction festival, and you barely read any nonfiction,” rest assured, LitFest organizers are pretty flexible about including authors who write all types of books, and, as a blogger, I can (maybe, almost) call myself a nonfiction writer too. Plus, I was fortunate enough to win tickets to a couple of events, so it’s a no-brainer! Here are the events I’m attending, and my top three picks for the rest of the festival.
I’m attending these events:
- ME ME ME! From the website: Finally. An event about the most important person in the world — YOU! Get your very own one-sentence biography from a professional author, have a photo shoot, and hear bits of brilliant memoir that will be featured later at LitFest. Your host is the extraordinary Bridget Ryan. Oct. 16, 5:30 pm, at Bohemia.
This is sorely needed, as my go-to pictures online are a blurry selfie and a picture from about four years ago. I’m also terrible at bios.
Writing in Blood: From the website: A writer’s family is both rich source material and a minefield, especially when the material remains nonfiction instead of being transformed into fiction. This panel – Jenna Butler, Lawrence Hill and Jessica Kluthe, with moderator Elizabeth Withey – discusses their personal experiences, and offers their thoughts for others shaping a family memoir. Oct. 26, 2pm, Stanley Milner Theatre
I’m reading Hill’s The Book of Negros right now and it’s blowing me away. I will be purchasing a paper copy so I can get it signed. I’m excited to see the other authors too. Jessica Kluthe, of course, wrote the powerful memoir Rosina the Midwife. I heard Jenna Butler read from her book of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, at the NeWest Press Spring Spectacular earlier this year. And I love Elizabeth Withey’s One Hundred Widows project – stories about earrings with no mates. Sounds weird but the execution is beautiful.
My picks of the other events:
- CLC Brown Bag Reading Series featuring Todd Babiak on Wednesday Oct. 23, and Lawrence Hill on Friday Oct. 25, both at noon, both in the student lounge at the Old Arts Building, University of Alberta. No explanation needed, right? It’s free and it’s two awesome authors! I hope to make it to one or both of these.
- Dan Savage. Oct. 21, 7pm, Winspear Centre. I used to read his column in Vue (or was it See?) along with Josey Vogels’ “My Messy Bedroom” while riding the bus to and from University, hoping that people didn’t think I was checking out the escort ads. I’d love to see Savage say “DTMF” in person.
- Digital Tools for Writers with Omar Mouallem, Saturday Oct. 26 at 10am, Stanley Milner Library. Really sad I’m going to miss this one. Someone go and take notes, okay? It’s free!
See you there, #yegwrites peeps!