Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peter Behrens @ the Ottawa Public Library

I wish authors visited my library every day to do readings on my lunch hour.....

I was at my Bookmobile office this morning, but had to scurry back to Main Library for a meeting this afternoon. When I realised that if I left a bit early, I could get to Main in time for Peter Behrens' reading, I was thrilled. My office at Main is just on the other side of the back wall of the auditorium, by the way; knock in Morse code next time you're visiting.

With my crazy week last week (I am working on a couple of posts about it, including hearing Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull talk about the social determinants of health, RA in a day, as well as the International Festival of Authors!), I was happy to catch not one but two Writer's Fest events here in Ottawa on the last day of the Festival (right by the skin of my teeth, eh?). As this post auto-publishes, I will be on my way down the street for the Ottawa Book Awards Non-Fiction Roundtable with Tim Cook, Charlotte Gray, Roy MacGregor, Lawrence Martin and Eric Enno Tamm.

But Behrens... First, what can I say, he is completely captivating. Two lovely colleagues from Westmount Library had been trying to convince me to attend his talks there, and I couldn't quite grasp what the fuss was about, but he's a great, great speaker... and I say that as someone who has heard about a million introverted librarians and authors speak (badly) before! He's self-depracating (buy this book, and if my kid doesn't get into a Canadian university and we have to pay for an American one, the money will send him to university for one minute!), warm, thoughtful (to the point of being, frankly, intense) and has a wonderful deep voice.

Behrens explained that his desire to delve into family history was sparked when he thought about his relationship with his grandfather, and his relationship with his grandfather (upon whose life The O'Briens is based). As Behrens phrased it, that's only "two handclasps" away from history. He spoke about the tradition among earlier generations to keep their feelings and emotions private (they weren't "the Oprah generation"). As they understod it, your truest feelings were the ones you keep inside. Observed Behrens, "now, we hink we have found this new way of being warmly human," and that this privacy is unhealthy, when it is "more complicated than that."

Behrens spoke about the first time he saw the Black Rock in Montreal (I remember the first time I saw it, too: like Behrens, I was in a car, driven by my father, who explained what it was; Behrens observed his grandfather make a gesture to protect himself from the "juju" of the Rock). Behrens described how the "Irish established the template for how immigrants are received" in 20th century North America. The most interesting part of his talk, I felt, was his discussion of how history is treated in art (he talked about either books or films). "What bugs me about historical movies and books," he said, is how sometimes it seems as though "time happened with a different light around it." Artists portray the past in a fuzzy, rose-coloured light, as though it was "unclear," a sort of foreign country. Speaking about people in the past, he said, "I believe they were like us." He hopes historical novels, instead of placing the past at a distance, "take you by the hand and pull you into the world."

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