The Lorenzo Reading Series had an exciting lineup for the Monday, Feb. 3 event, which featured guest authors Michael Christie and Bill Gaston. Despite being the first day back to class after a prolonged strike, students and members of the Saint John community eagerly filed into the Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre at 7:00 p.m. The choice to pair these authors together, with Christie being rather new to the writing scene and Gaston quite the opposite, made for a diverse and wholly interesting Lorenzo Reading.
Michael Christie’s debut novel The Beggar’s Garden is a collection of short stories that follow the narratives of nine characters, characters that are surprisingly connected despite their very different lifestyles.
Christie, who received his MFA in creative writing at UBC, worked in a homeless shelter located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—which he chose as the setting for his collection. The Beggar’s Garden has been unanimously praised, winning the Vancouver Book Award as well as being long-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize.
The Beggar’s Garden is reminiscent of James Joyce’s famed short story collection The Dubliners, which happened to be a huge influence on Christie, “In my house growing up, my father was always like ‘The Dubliners is the greatest book of all time,’ and you know we had Irish heritage. There’s this real kind of reverence for the book and when I actually read it I was totally floored by it.”
Christie’s admiration for Joyce’s famed work is apparent in his authorial choice to make a short story collection, which is essentially a Canadian narrative of the same kind.
Christie chose to read excerpts from the first two stories in The Beggar’s Garden, “Emergency Contact” and “Discard.” “Emergency Contact” focuses on Maya, a woman who compulsively calls 9-1-1 in hopes that one paramedic in particular will come to her aid. It’s a story both comical and tragic, reflecting on the very human desperation for love while inciting laughter at Maya’s determination.
Christie’s excerpt from “Discard” was equally cathartic, though heart-wrenching. The story follows Earl, a man who struggles with alcoholism and loss. One day, Earl realizes that a homeless man on TV is his long-lost grandson, Kyle. He immediately sets out to Vancouver, where the coverage was filmed, in search of the boy. Earl surveys Kyle from a distance and starts leaving “gifts” where his grandson scavenges. It’s another example of how Christie manipulates themes of love and loss in this potently human collection.
Student Michael Crate was in the ENGL3782 Special Topics: Lorenzo Reading Series course last semester, which covered Christie’s novel. Crate had this to say on Christie’s reading, “Sometimes I find [when] reading a book you have no idea who the person is, it’s just words on paper. So for me it was really cool seeing the guy who wrote the book and seeing his entire person.”
Author Bill Gaston is award-winning and renowned for his works Mount Appetite, Sointula, Gargoyles and Midnight Hockey. He read from his most recent work, The World, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
Gaston is also the inaugural recipient of the Timothy Findley Award and is currently working on a short story collection. He is a professor at the University of Victoria when he is not travelling for book tours.
Gaston is no stranger to UNB, or to New Brunswick. He was Writer-in-Residence at UNBF for a time and welcomed the opportunity to visit, “It’s great coming back to New Brunswick altogether because I lived here for 10 years in Fredericton. So I have tons of great memories and I have friends and most of my kids were born here. It’s kind of like seeing your life flash in front of your eyes.”
The World is a book within a book, centered on three unfortunate companions each dealing with personal tragedies. Stuart accidentally loses his home and seeks out his friend Melanie, a now middle-aged musician who is battle cancer of the esophagus. Melanie’s father Hal suffers from Alzheimer’s and the interactions between these three characters are heartbreaking and tremendously funny at the same time. What connects them further is a book Hal wrote when he was younger, called The World, a book he has no recollection of ever writing. It tells of a historian who stumbles across a collection of letters left at a deserted leper colony off the coast of Victoria. Written in Chinese, the historian seeks out a translator who he falls quickly falls in love with.
Gaston chose to read an excerpt from The World wherein Melanie, Hal and Stuart go to dinner at a posh Korean restaurant. It was an exceptional choice, as the scene depicted exemplified Gaston’s ability to work his readership emotionally. As the gang gets increasingly more intoxicated, which for Melanie means funneling wine and cognac directly into her stomach by a feeding tube, the laughter increased in the Lecture Theatre.
Gaston creates a sense of unease too, particularly while describing Melanie’s discomfort at being watched by the restaurant’s patrons, Hal’s inability to recognize his own daughter let alone his own food, and Stuart’s perpetual worry. The World is truly unsettling in its portrayal of human emotion, which makes it all the more relevant and ultimately a beautiful work of fiction.
Gaston’s newest work, a collection of short stories called Juliet was a Surprise, will be hitting bookshelves in June.
To find out more about the most recent guest authors, check out Michael Christie’s website at http://michaelchristie.net/index.html or Bill Gaston’s biography at http://www.canadianauthors.net/g/gaston_bill/.
For more information upcoming Lorenzo Reading Series events, check out their website http://www.unb.ca/saintjohn/arts/lorenzo/readingseries.html or contact Lorenzo Reading Series Coordinator Margaret Anne Smith at Margaret.Smith@unb.ca.