Saturday 3.10.2015

The day dawns bright and clear, and I jump into the car for a leisurely 8 mile car trip to the location of the latest book festival in the Scottish calendar – the UNESCO world heritage site of New Lanark.

New Lanark Village

The programme, spanning 4 days, is at its most intense on the Saturday and I decided to sample its delights from beginning to end. (6 events in all)

Spinning New LivesGiven the location the first strand is very much centred on local history and begins with C A Hope presenting on the investigations and research she undertook while penning her historical fiction trilogy of life at New Lanark in the period of David Dale and Robert Owen – the period that made the site world famous. Hope came to New Lanark by way of her work at the Scottish Wildlife Trust in the New Lanark nature reserve. The known facts of these famous men can be found in history books, she said. I’m more interested in the impact they had on the common man, the relationships with their spouses and other family members, their emotions, sensations and feelings. The characters in the trilogy are a mix of real historical personages and fictional characters whose experiences are an amalgam of multiple existences. Outlining her case for meticulous research, she gave insights into the weather of the age – a mini ice-age – 1814 was colder even than the infamous deep freeze of 1962-63; the fashion of the day – the empire line became fashionable because, following the French revolution, it was not done to show excess; nature in the Clyde valley, which would have been prolific in Dale and Owen’s day, before the Victorians decimated it with their passion for hunting. “I need to know enough to get my character to do the right thing and think the right way for their time”, she said. “And I have to do the research, even if they only have one line in my novel”. When asked which of her characters she would invite to a dinner party, she answered without hestitation “David Dale. Everyone knows about Robert Owen and overlooks David Dale, the generous, deep-thinking philantropist who put in 15 years of hard wok before Robert Owen arrived.”

imageNo doubt the next author would subscribe to that view. David McLaren has just published his second book on David Dale. It’s a complete rewrite of his previous book, as it draws on research and knowledge which has come to light from various digitised sources, now available on the internet. Mclaren also emphasised that Dale lay the foundations for Owen’s future triumphs, that between 1795-1799 New Lanark, established as a model factory community, was visited by over 3,000 of the then great and the good. (Owen took over in 1800.) New Lanark wasn’t his only concern – he founded Blantyre Mills near Hamilton, Catrine Mills in East Ayrshire, and Spinningdale in Cumberland, the latter never anything but a charitable, loss-making venture, founded to help the community. He was a major player in the Glasgow business community: a property magnate, director of the Glasgow Fire and Insurance Company, director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, founder of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and other things besides. Saintly even? Considering his wealth was founded on the spinning of slave-produced cotton from the West Indies, in 1781 Dale chaired the first meeting of the Glasgow Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Considering he stood to lose much influence, it was a brave move, said McLaren.

At the end of these two sessions, I wanted to know more about Dale,  and purchased both books pictured above.

Scottish History without the boring bitsIn need of lighter fare, I then went to Ian Crofton’s presentation on Scottish history without the boring bits. It was an hour of devils, mermaids, dragons in which Adam and Eve battled the cannibals, and colourful but lesser known characters from the past made an appearance: Black Agnes, The Wolf of Bagmoor, Earl Beardy, The Bride of Lammermoor and Half-Hangeth Maggie: a talk proving that fact is frequently stranger than fiction and ending with the tale of Bruichladdich, the distillery on Islay, which in 2003 was identified by the CIA as a lethal threat to world peace. (Read the book for more detail.)

I had been hoping for a beautiful autumnal day, and I received one. Following a quick lunch, it was time to stretch my legs with a walk in the woods that run by the River Clyde, starting here ….

The Falls of Clyde : Start

along here

The Falls of Clyde: Boardwalk

up here

The Falls of Clyde: Climb

to emerge at the Corra Linn, the Clyde’s most majestic daughter.

Corra Linn

There’s not many literary festivals that can offer scenery like that!

imageTime to return to the village and Kerry Hudson, a Lanarkshire lass from Coatbridge, inveterate traveller, now living in Berlin, who kicked off the fiction strand. The event had a lamentably small audience. (12, if that.) Still, this turned the event into an opportunity for a cosy chat with the author, who proved a gracious, charming and engaging conversationalist. I can’t say her novels appealed before, but Thirst does now, even though it may be a little gritty for my taste.

HareAudience numbers grew for Peter Ranscombe’s talk on the facts and fictions of Scotland’s most notorious criminals, Burke and Hare. Fiction: They weren’t graverobbers. Fact: They remain Scotland’s most prolific serial killers with 16 murders to their name, and are immortalised in the following rhyme.

Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

Fact: They were paid £7 10s for the corpse of Donald, a man who died of natural causes. That’s £600 in today’s money. No wonder they were tempted to the dark side. Their trial and Burke’s execution is well documented but what isn’t known is what happened to Hare, after he was last seen on the moors, heading toward Carlisle. So Ranscombe has speculated in his debut novel Hare. Yep, another one for my wishlist.

The FanaticAnd so to the final and best attended event of the day. You can’t expect anything less in Scotland, when James Robertson appears, and it was a terrific event, pulling together themes explored throughout the day. Where does the truth lie? When does the present become history and vice versa? Questions Robertson attempted to answer with examples from his own back catalogue of historical fiction. (I say attempted because the questions are slippery and so were his answers in some respects.) Nevertheless the event gave insights into the dark history of the C17th, The Fanatic (added to wish list), his wonderful novel about slavery, Joseph Knight, and his objectives when writing his controversial novel, inspired by the Lockerbie bombing, The Professor of Truth. “The past doesn’t only influence the present and future” he said. “History shifts because our lens and filters change. We can also influence the past.”

At the present moment Scotland is re-evaluating its past, particularly with regard to the role it played in the slave-fettered plantations of The West Indies. “This,” said Robertson “is due to having our own parliament. When you take responsibility for your present, it’s hard to avoid the responsibility for your past.” Interesting thesis, watch this space.

And so ended, a very Scottish and, at times, very local book festival day. It was an interesting inaugural programme. I look forward to developments in 2016.

RedThere are no prizes for guessing the identity of my favourite redhead, even though our Lizzie’s personality may not have been as dazzling as her locks.  “In her mournful beauty, her natural silence, her frigid apathy, she was like a statue to be warmed into life…” (Jennifer J. Lee)

It’s not the fire, tempestuousness and temper that is expected of a redhead in these parts … a licence for volatility which Jackie Colliss Harvey made good use of, if her childhood stories are the measure.  As she grew older, she discovered other expectations and as she travelled around the world, even more, though sometimes contradictory.  And yet, the common demoninator  always, redheads are different.  It begged the question why …

… one she answers in this history of the natural redhead.  Beginning with the Neanderthals, Harvey traces the voyage of the recessive gene through the human population, which has resulted in this intriguing distribution of red-headedness throughout Europe.

Courtesy of reddit.com

Courtesy of reddit.com

What accounts for the high concentration of redheads in Central Asia?  The answer involves Thracian slaves and Alexander the Great and disproves that all redheads must have Irish or Scottish ancestry.

Historically the book is fascinating.  I’d never thought of Elizabeth I’s red hair as incontrovertible proof of her royal descent. Never associated redheadedness with anti-semitism, due to the nefarious role of Judas, although many did (which accounts for why Shylock was played wearing a red wig until the C19th.)   I particularly enjoyed the art history section in which Harvey points out the significance and associations of the red-haired subjects.

Scientifically too, there are many interesting facts. Redheads avoid the sun for good reason and this behaviour led to accusations of vampirism in the past. A variation in hormonal balance presents a different smell and this, combined with character of the infamous Mary Magdalene, results in a reputation of sexual sizzle.

All of this and more was new to me, a brunette, and I found this definition of “the otherness” of the redhead fascinating.  Harvey has an engaging style, vivid and immersive powers of description.  She lost me though when she turned her text into a political agenda, arguing that the ignorance and intolerance of the past still prevail, that we live in a world that can’t cope with something as small and insignificant as people whose hair is a different color.  It sounds completely hyperbolic to me, but then I live in Scotland, amidst one of the highest concentrations of redheads in the world.



Oh yes!

Q: How delighted am I that Caroline and I can synchronise schedules to host the 5th #germanlitmonth this coming November?
A: Very much so, particularly as my German-language literature TBRs have doubled, tripled – nay, quadrupled – since last year. A month of nothing but German literature will give a good start to what may actually turn into a concentrated year of German-language literature reading for me.

Of course, you’re welcome to join me for that, and you may indeed choose to do so after sampling the delectations of GLM V in November. Which delectations specifically?

As always you can read as you please for the whole month. There are only two rules.

1) Whatever you read, in whichever language you read, must have originally been written in German. Novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poems, they all count. No genre is excluded.
2) Enjoy yourself. There’s no need to write long, detailed reviews (although we do like those). A quick opinion piece, the posting of a favourite poem, the tweeting of a pertinent quote or picture of a delicious book cover (using the hash tag #germanlitmonth, of course) all contribute to a communal celebration of German-language literature.

However, for those who prefer a challenge or four along the way, Caroline and I have devised the following programme (for lack of a better word). Join in one or all four of these, The choice is yours.

Week 1: Nov 1-7 Schiller Reading Week. Hosted by Lizzy.
Week 2: Nov 8-14 Christa Wolf Reading Week. Hosted by Caroline.
Week 3: Nov 15-21 Ladies’ reading week incorporating a readalong of Ursula Poznanski’s award-winning YA title, Erebos on Friday 20.11. Hosted by Lizzy.
Week 4: Nov 22-28 Gents’ reading week incorporating a Literature and War readalong of Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time To Love and A Time to Die on Friday 27.11. Hosted by Caroline.
Week 5: Nov 29-30 Read as You Please.

German Literature Month IV was astounding in terms of numbers of participants (40) and quality contributions. I’m not sure that we’ll be able to match it again, but let’s give it a shot. Are you in?

Nestled in the Clyde valley, only 8 miles from me,  New Lanark stands proud once more. In the early 1980’s, this wasn’t the case.

New Lanark 1983

New Lanark 1983

Millions of heritage funding pounds and 32 years later, the site is transformed and the former cotton mill and social housing complex is South Lanarkshire’s own UNESCO World Heritage Site.

New Lanark 2015

New Lanark 2015

It’s enough to make the C18th cotton mill founders, Glaswegian David Dale and Lancastrian Richard Arkwright, materialise during the recent open day.

David Dale and Richard Arkwright

David Dale and Richard Arkwright

As they wandered and bickered their way around – giving an indication of their somewhat fractious business relationship – they were mighty perplexed.  Why has Mill 1 been transformed into a hotel and spa?

New Lanark Mill Hotel and Spa (Formerly Mill 1)

New Lanark Mill Hotel and Spa (Formerly Mill 1)

Mill 2 has a shop, a café and the only remaining piece of working machinery, although it now spins wool not cotton.

Wool spinning

Where is Mill 4? (It burned down in 1883). A waterwheel turns still on its former location ….

Waterwheel Mill 4

Waterwheel Mill 4

even though it is superfluous these days.  The two men couldn’t wrap their tongues round this new-fangled “elec- electricicity” word, now generated by water turbine.

What is this school building?  “Ah, yes” said David Dale, “my Welsh son-in-law Richard Owen must have built this after I was deceased.  Ever the philanthropist, he did have the welfare of the workers and their children at heart. I’ve got to give him that even if I didn’t like him at first … He was dating my daughter.”

As we entered the village store, more of Owen’s initiatives came to light.  Buying good quality food in bulk to pass onto the workers at low prices, thus establishing the co-operative movement.

Owen with fresh supplies on his mind, but keeping the whiskey and beer close.

Owen with fresh supplies on his mind, but keeping the whisky and beer close.

When Owen left New Lanark in 1825, he went to the States and founded New Harmony in Indiana, based on the same social utopian principles practised at New Lanark. In 1862 he was advising and influencing Abraham Lincoln on the abolition of slavery. You could say the U.S Constitution began here at New Lanark.

2015 sees new beginnings for New Lanark with its inaugural book festival in two weeks’ time.  I’ll be there, hoping for a dry, sunny day.  Can you imagine how beautiful those trees will be at the height of autumn?

These days I don’t rush to read entire longlists for any prize. I simply pick out those that are of immediate interest to me a) because the book is already sitting in my TBR or b) the author is going to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival (longlisting always coincides with this) or c) I simply what to read it.

This year there were 4 Booker longlisted titles of immediate appeal and I managed to read 3 before today’s shortlist appeared. Only 1 made the shortlist. (Neither did my 4th title – Lahali’s The Moor’s Account.). Nevertheless I shall write this post with my views unimpeded by knowledge of the actual shortlist and I shall do so alphabetically by author surname.

The fishermenChigozie Obioma – The Fishermen
I was delighted for Pushkin Press when this novel was longlisted. Pushkin Press has been one of my favourite publishers – if not my favourite – for years. So I was delighted when this novel was longlisted and bought it immediately.

Set in Akure, Nigeria, The Fishermen is the story of a family’s unravelling. The downward spiral set in motion by the ravings/prophecies of a madman.

Although narrated by Ben, the 4th child in a family of 6, years after the events transpire, the narration preserves the innocence of a child of nine and that is what held my attention. The observational skills, yet the lack of understanding. A 9-year old child must accept his world without entirely comprehending its significance. The older narrator tries to inject meaning into events by ascribing roles to the key players, equating them to animal kingdom.

The bottom line is that this is a tragedy; the root cause of which is a prophecy that one brother will kill another. The irony is that the brother to be killed only hears the prophecy second-hand. Without that there would be no character change, sudden and virulent and way beyond the normal sullenness of adolescence and no bullying of his brothers, which leads from one disaster to the next.

There is something Shakespearian, perhaps even biblical about all this, although I can’t put my finger on it. About 2/3rds of the way through, I sniffed a reference to Things Fall Away, which became quite explicit only a few pages later. So I’m now convinced that this text is seasoned with literary references aplenty, that will make a second reading rewarding. That’s possibly why the novel has made the shortlist – that and an authentic recreation of a childhood and familial values amd loyalties that may seem out-moded to us these days. And the element of dubiety – was it really the prophecy that started it all? There are some events prior to that that could have started the rot. You know what? I’d love to discuss this with my book group.

By no means perfect – there are some clumsy sentences, but The Fishermen was by far my favourite among the 3 I’ve read. If I was delighted at its longlisting, I’m ecstatic at its shortlisting.

LilaLila – Marilynne Robinson
My first Robinson was Home, which then became my Book of The Year in 2009. Since then I have been less than enamoured with Robinson’s novels. I disliked Housekeeping and I positively struggled with Lila. (A short novel which took me just under a fortnight to complete – I kept falling asleep.)
I discussed this with my #edbookfest pals and we came to the decision that I was missing something because I have still to read Gilead. That may be the case but surely a novel must stand on its own merits to warrant a Booker longlisting/shortlisting?

That said Robinson’s prose and technical prowess are so accomplished. Impeccable even. Touching too, in places with subtle characterisation. But I couldn’t buy into the premise of this ill-matched couple (Lila, the drifter and John Ames, the aged lonely preacher) settling down together. I didn’t enjoy the drifting in Housekeeping and was dismayed to find it featuring so prominently here.

I certainly wouldn’t have shortlisted it. That said, I’m surprised it didn’t make the official shortlist. So too is the entire world, judging from reactions to the shortlist.

The ChimesThe Chimes – Anna Smaill
Another debut novel and a second purchase for me as I had the opportunity of attending Smaill’s event at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I enjoy a good dystopian novel and Smaill delivers one based on interesting premises, the loss of collective memory and the abuse of musical power.

In the post-apocalyptic UK of the novel, the Chimes are musical orchestrations, created by a vast musical instrument, that sound out morning and evening. Everything stops during this time. The population listen to and venerate the Chimes. It is almost – nay, it is a religious service. Naturally, the Chimes serve a sinster purpose ….

Within this society, which has lost all memory but that needed to perform daily tasks effectively, there are few who can preserve longer term memories. These are persecuted by the Order, for reasons which become obvious later. Simon is one such, perhaps the last in a line of memory keepers, who makes his way to London and becomes a member of a group prospecting for metal known as the Lady in the Underground tunnels of the city. The lady is a valuable commodity – she enables the group to survive.

The enigmatic group leader, Lucien, is an ex-member of the ruling order, which is seeking to destroy him. He is also blind, but his superior hearing makes up for this. Perhaps too much. (There were times when I didn’t believe in Lucien’s “disability”.) That and The Chimes allow Smaill, a classical violinist, to play the musical metaphors – though to my non-musical self, also to overplay them.

Smaill takes her time setting up her alternative society.  It becomes credible and its secrets are revealed gradually. But fault lines do appear about 2/3rds of the way through when the pace picks up. The denouement is rushed and I must say a tad convenient.

Shame. As I said, a good dystopian fiction. Sadly, not a great one.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2007-2015

Notes from my recent trip to Prague.

i) At 30C it was hot and sunny.

ii) The beer was very good – actually very, very good and the rumour that it is cheaper than water is true.

iii) The city is breathtakingly beautiful (though all those cobbles are hard on the feet).

The View from Petrin Hill

The View from Petrin Hill

iv) The Old Town Square hosted the funniest street artist I’ve ever seen.

Cute, cuddly and very funny

Cute, cuddly and very funny

v) Kafka’s novel, The Castle, remains as inscrutable as ever.

Now, how do I get into this castle?

Now, how do I get into this castle?

Having had a great time, the question is would I want to live there permanently? Rachael Weiss’s The Thing About Prague provides the view of an Australian trying to relocate permanently,  This is not the first book she’s written about Prague, having previously published Me, Myself and Prague which was based on a 12-month temporary stay. Prague had impressed her so much during that trip, that she got her cat adopted, sold up in Australia and moved back to start a new life.

The Thing About PragueI think it would be fair to say that she wasn’t expecting things to be so difficult.  In addition to the usual things when moving countries – or in Weiss’s case continents and hemispheres – learning a new language, making new friendships, finding employment, there was the obstacle specially reserved for non-EC citizens, obtaining the work permit.  Hers is a narrative replete with dodgy employers, unethical practices, incompetent lawyers and real-life bureaucracy that makes Kafka’s inventions appear sane!  Weiss relates her trials and tribulations with aplomb, humour and lashings of (the most excellent) Czech beer.

While life didn’t go entirely to plan, and things worked out after three years (though not in the Czech Republic), this made for great in-situ holiday reading.  And the question of moving to Prague never was a real one for me.  One look at the winter temperatures is enough.  However, The Thing about Prague did make me regret destroying those diaries of my own adventures abroad.  There might have been a book in me after all.


© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2007-2015

iWaterstone's window display

Waterstones Princes Street

With Waterstones getting on the act, what is a girl to do, other than join in. OK, we’ve already done it once this festival, but let’s circumnavigate the globe again.

Summary of impact on my TBR : 6 books read, 6 books purchased, 1 book moved to the immediate TBR.


Jellyfish – Just for Janice

This time we start in Scotland with one of my completist authors, Janice Galloway.  It would seem as though Baillie Gifford have decorated the main festival tent entirely in honour of her recent short story collection, Jellyfish, not the cheeriest of reads, but amazing as always.  As far as Galloway is concerned, a jellyfish is the most vulnerable of creatures.  Out of water it cannot function.  Stranded on a beach, it can wait only for the waves to reach it, hopefully before those boys with sticks.  In the collection, this vulnerability transfers to human beings in a variety of situations – the child in the buggy being pushed over the kerb into traffic, women in various states of mental breakdown, a man, who is angry – really, really, angry at the woman who has just left him.  Burning Love is my favourite story in this collection, and Galloway read from it in character.  I wish there’d had been time for her to read it to the end – I would have loved to have experienced the chill when the 600 strong audience realised just how blazing he is.

Al Senter (standing) and Howard Jacobson

Al Senter (standing) and Howard Jacobson

Moving south to England and Howard Jacobson was the surprise of the festival for me.  His work has never really appealed but next year, he is publishing My Name is Shylock.  Given my new found fascination wih The Merchant of Venice, this book is well and truly on my radar.   I thought I would just suss out the author.  Wit, humour, warmth and a certain down-to-earthness. Good repartee with the chair, Al Senter.  I was charmed.  I mean how can a girl resist lines like “I set my first novel in Wolverhampton polytechnic.  You can’t get more dystopic than that.” Or “Political correctness?  That’s just papering over the cracks.” Or “I have to be upset when I write”. Or .. I’ll stop there – more to follow when I’ve read J his most recent 2014 Booker-shortlisted novel, a signed-copy of which found its way into my book bag.

Why that one in particular?  It’s set in a world where people have lost their memories … As is Anna Smaill’s 2015 Booker longlisted The Chimes, the book I was reading at the time of Jakobson’s event. Smaill may hail from New Zealand but her novel keeps us in England, albeit a post-apocalyptic England in which collective memory has been erased through chimes, music which sounds out morning and evening.  Only a few are capable of a medium to long term memory and that only when prompted by objects. These people are hunted down by the Order – they are dangerous, because they may just find out what really happened …… Anna Smaill is a trained classical violinist and music infiltrates the life and language of her novel.  A little too much, for my taste.  I found it repetitive, but then I’m in no way musical.

Sailing across the Channel now to visit Simenon in Belgium, though in reality Maigret in France, during two events.  The first, a reading workshop with Sîan Reynolds, one of the translators, involved in the Penguin project, the second a conversation with Simenon’s son, chaired by Daniel Hahn.

John Simenon and Daniel Hahn

John Simenon and Daniel Hahn

Two events with very different formats, though sharing much content.  On the difficulties of translating Simenon’s simple prose, Reynolds pointed out the challenge of translating the text without making it sounding archaic or introducing modernism.  Interesting too to find that others are as fascinated by Madame Maigret as myself – Is she a mother figure, providing Maigret a safe haven, a nest to which he always returns? (Simenon lost his mother as a young child.) Apparently Simenon originally intended to write only 17 Maigret novels. This he did in the 1930’s.  He was persuaded to continue in the 1950’s and eventually penning 75.  Madame Maigret changes and becomes more pivotal in this second “batch”. Hhmm, this provides an impetus to continue reading. (I was considering calling it a day after 10 – I became slightly jaded by the conceit of the unknown stranger in The Dancer at The Gai-Moulin – Simenon, I’m not that stupid. However, I bought the novels 11 and 12 in the series and tracked down a copy of Maigret’s Memoirs – a book recommended by both Reynolds and Simenon, which features a conversatiion between Simenon and Maigret, and illuminates the author’s intent and technique in greater detail. BTW: Thr upcoming UK TV programme is a novel from the 50’s and for those who doubt the casting of Rowan Atkinson, John Simenon let it be known that he is rather good.

Main Event 16:00

Main Event 16:00

Onto Switzerland and to the main event of this year’s festival for me.  There may have been nagging on feedback forms in prior years but this was the third year of translation duels at the EIBF, and this was the first German translation duel.  (Everything comes to she who waits.) Ruth Martin and Shaun Whiteside were asked to translate a passage by Peter Stamm – a passage taken from the start of Stamm’s as yet unpublished novel Weit über das Land. Translation duels are always illuminating and hilarious, particularly when the author admits, upon close questioning , that he’s not entirely sure what he meant either.  “It’s not published yet,” said Hahn.  “You can still edit!” Ambiguity aside, who would have thought that rogue commas and conjunctions could be so fascinating.  (You’ll understand if you’ve ever tried to translate one of those interminably long German constructs.)  There’s a blow by blow account of the duel on #edbookfest’s Day 9 storify if you’re interested. Not sure I would have scored it this way myself.  I was very impressed with Whiteside’s intuition regarding the repetition of the word “verschwinden” – disappearance turns out to be a major theme in the novel, which he picked up having seen only the first six paragraphs.

Let’s stick with German for a while and award Timur Vermes, Lizzy’s reading of the festival award, for his resurrected Hitler from the opening page of Look Who’s Back.  It was very, very funny, as is the beginning of a book which becomes progressively more disconcerting.  Vermes’s point is that the Gemans did not vote fo a monster, that they were taken in by a clever man with attractive policies, and, without due diligence, it could happen again, anywhere.  “Writing as Hitler, was very easy”,  he said.  “I had the blueprint in Mein Kampf. ” There is to be a film – which will be interesting, although I can’t see how a film can recreate the experience of being inside Hitler’s head and the more diconcerting experience of agreeing with him …. sometimes.

From Germany to Russia, and Rosamund Bartlett’s reading workshop on Anna Karenina was everything I hoped for and more. 90 minutes to dscuss what is often mooted as the finest novel ever written.  Each participant was asked to submit written responses to  2 questions.  1) Why is AK such a fine novel? 2) Which question would you like to ask?  Bartlett then selected responses at random to discuss.  It was surprisingly effective.   Discussion ranged from Tolstoyian technique, the tradition of anti-heroes in Russian literature, the importance of mushroom picking in Russian culture, auto-biographical elements in the novel, the difficulties of identifying the hero and AK as a feminist text.  In addition, much was explained about the challenges of translation.  I even gained an insight into why I abandoned Pevear and Volokonsky’s translation of War and Peace.  (It’s down their ethos of being sticking to the Russian rather than creating a seamless English text.)

Sean Michael’s Giller prize winning novel, Us Conductors moves us further east into Siberia and back in time to the 1920’s and vibracy of the Jazz Age.  It tells the story of Soviet scientist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, inventor of the very strange sounding instrument, the theremin.  As I said above, I’m not in the least bit musical, so I’d never heard of this before – an instrument played without touch.  I am intrigued, and the  book has moved to the immediate TBR.

Michaels said that researching this novel made him very melancholy. The hopes, optimisim and modernism of the 1920’s have – 100 years later – faded to nought.  “We’re doomed”, he said.

Let’s follow the faded dreams and melancholy with Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset which takes us to the USA, specifically Hollywood during the final years of Scott Fitzgerald’s life.  When asked why he wrote a novel, rather than a biography, Nan replied “I asked myself what happens after the worst happens? How do you go on?  I wanted to try to feel what he felt.  The job of the fiction writer is to explore the places the biographer can’t.”  West of Sunset concerns itself Fitzgerald’s screen-writing years.  While he only ever received one screen-writing credit (Three Comrades, 1938).  Fitzgerald worked hard (when he wasn’t drinking.)  He repaid his debts and he fell in love again.  Perhaps his final years weren’t as disastrous as is received opinion?  Novel purchased, and added to TBR.

Our next eastward bound long haul flight takes us to Uganda and my final impulse purchase of the festival.  When Idi Amin came to power, Anyuru’s father found himself in Greece training to be a pilot.  Amin’s coup meamt he could not return home and he spent years of his life, stateless, waiting for his country  to become stable enough to return.  It did not happen and he finally settled in Sweden.  Anyuru has taken his father’s experience to explore the rootlessness and loss of identity that occurs when individuals are caught up in events they cannot control.  A best-selling  poet and novelist in Sweden, Anyuru’s A Storm Blew In From Paradise is the first of his books to be translated into English.

My time at this year’s festival is running out.  I need to make my way home.

Kingnorth, Rylance and Shaw (Credit Edinburgh Internation Book Festival)

Kingnorth, Rylance and Shaw (Credit Edinburgh Internation Book Festival)

So let’s travel through time back to 1066 and the England of William the Conqueror – otherwise known as William the Bastard – for two reasons, said Paul Kingsnorth, drily, before passionately expounding on the price paid by England for William’s victory. (The Harrying of the North)  Kingsnorth was accompanied on stage by Mark Rylance (yes, he of Cromwellian fame) and Martin Shaw (the storyteller) for a tour-de-force storytelling performance.  Kingsnorth provided the history, Rylance, the readings from Kingsnorth’s Booker shortlisted The Wake, and Shaw, the music and legends of the Fens, a dangerous place for the unknowing in those days.  It was a masterful 90 minutes performance by all three, amd I’m pretty sure the audience would have been happy to be kept spellbound for a further 90 minutes.  It wasn’t enough to persuade me to read Kingnorth’s novel, which is written in a contemporary version of Anglo-Saxon, but I am more than curious to see what happens now that Mark Rylance has optioned the film rights.

And finally, to complete this circuit of the globe, Dan Gunn’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream brings us back to Scotland, albeit to tragic and completely avoidable events during the Second World War.  In June 1940 the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat  as she was sailing to Canada.  On board were hundreds of prisoners of war and German and Italian “enemy aliens”.  Many of the Italians were born and bred in Edinburgh and held British passports.  The father of Dan Gunn’s friend was one of the victims, hence his interest in the story.  The novel examines the Italian community in Edinburgh during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the impact of Fascism, the reverberations of Mussolini’s alignment with Hitler and Britain’s refusal to learn the lessons of World War One.  (We will never intern enemy aliens again ……) The Pezzini family represent the Italian community.  Dario is the political voice, Emilio, the poetical voice and Guilio, founder of the ice-cream parlour and the inclusive voice,  The story is told by Lucia, their sister,  who has the thankless task of holding the family together.  The indomitable, Paola, her sister-in-law, and founder of a fish-and-chip shop, provides necessary comic relief.  Though as the natural survivor, she is not a comc character.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. Full review to follow.


Ducks trading storiesAnd there you have it.  When the programme lauched, EIBF issued a challenge to read around the world in 18 days,  Well, I’ve done it twice in 7 days at the festival, the first circuit in a westwards direction, this one ever eastwards.  Admittedly I never visited Mexico, which had a festival focus of its own.  Nor did I make it to South American shores.  Both would have been possible, had I been able to stay to the end of the festival. But alas, I must away, leaving the festival ducks to trade their wonderfully stimulating stories with others … for now.  We’ll meet again in 2016.


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