In its most ambitious programme to date the 2015 Edinburgh international Book Festival is playing host to over 900 authors from 55 countries, and with the theme “Around The World” is encouraging its visitors to read more widely than ever before. In line with this, I’ve decided to “globetrot” as much as possible this festival, and hope to discover some incredible new reading material as I go.
So what happened during my first three days of the festival? A complete circumnavigation of the globe, during 10 events, discussing 4 books I’d read prior, 2 books finished during, 3 purchases, 6 added to the immediate post-festival TBR with 2 more reserved from the library. (I am trying to behave myself.) Read on for more details,
The first book I read for this festival saw me falling down a rabbit hole with Alice. I’d never read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass before. In fact, I never felt the need, but in 2010 Alberto Manguel, an author with over 30,000 volumes in his personal library, chose Alice in Wonderland, as his desert island book. It has everything, he said. Must read it, thought I. 5 years later I did in order to attend a reading workshop alongside multiple generations, and the youngsters were more vocal than the oldies (me). I can’t say Alice bowled me over, but this workshop opened up the possibility of more serious interpretations of this fantasy. It surprised me how Alice was seen as a heroine for those who feel helpless, and an allegory of the growth to adulthood. Cathy Cassidy, workshop leader, has written about her very personal response to Alice HERE, and I really like the sound of The Looking-Glass Girl. (Cue first impulse purchase of the festival.)
Let’s stay in England for a while before the jet-setting commences.
Louis De Berniéres’s new novel The Dust that Falls from Dreams hasn’t had the greatest of reviews but then people knock Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and I love that book. So I went along to his event to hear about the new one. It is based loosely on his grandmother’s life – some things are true, others aren’t. “The whole point about writing fiction is to tell magnificent lies”, he said. “However, it is a fact that I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for two German megalomaniacs!” (His grandmother’s first fiancé was killed in WWI and his father met his mother when based in the Rhineland after WWII.) De Berniéres didn’t want to write another WWI novel from the trenches (it’s been done so well before), so he has concentrated on the women left at the home front. The novel is character-led as that’s where his interests lie. The move from narrative to character began after his South-American novels in response to his agent’s remark. “You’re not very good at character are you?” Another change, much welcomed by me, is the lack of graphic violence, which characterised the South-American novels, although the piece he read about the effects of trench warfare on the horses was graphic and moving. “I’m a man who easily cries” he said before reading it, and he had to compose himself afterward. (Novel to be reserved from the library.)
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks has been on my TBR since publication. It’s another that has received mixed reviews and I can’t say I have any idea what it’s about – not even after the EIBF event. The friendship between Mitchell and the chair, Stuart Kelly, was obvious in the spontaneous repartee between the two. After Mitchell had read a very witty meta diatribe against the literary establishment in the voice of his fictional author, Kelly quipped “We’ll skip the question about what authors think of critics, shall we?” The revelation of the evening (to me at least) is that Mitchell intends his entire oeuvre to sit within the same fictional universe, even as they individually read as stand-alones. Heavens, I have enough trouble making sense of them on a novel by novel basis. (The Bone Clocks will probably stay in the TBR for a while. I like the sound of the forthcoming Slade House better.)
Let’s travel westwards to Ireland where Paul Murray has set The Mark and The Void. More mixed reviews for this but on the morning of the opening EIBF event, despite being a man in need of coffee, he gave a brilliant reading in 4 accents: Irish, Belgian, Australian and German. I really like the sound of this novel which takes as its inspiration Oscar Wilde’s quote: “When bankers dine together, they talk about art; when artists dine together, they talk about money.” A light-hearted veneer coupled with the Irish financial crash sounds like a rather absorbing read to me. (Added to the immediate TBR.)
Westwards again to Iceland where Jon Kalman Stefánsson has set his well-regarded trilogy Heaven and Hell, The Sorrow of Angels and The Heart of Man. I haven’t read any of these but now that I have all 3 I can sit down and read them one after the other. Stefánsson’s event, during which he shared the stage with the Scot, John Burnside, and Daniel Hahn (chair), didn’t discuss the works in detail. It was a general discussion on the reuse of myth. Burnside was adamant about his mission “I’m trying to reclaim the world from Christianity and recreate the pagan world.” To which Stefánsson replied “When I sit down to write, I’m sure I’ll find the answers about death and resurrection. Afterwards, I’m not so sure.” The discussion, always interesting, flew off on some surprising and funny tangents (during which, Stefánsson revealed that Icelandic is the language spoken in Heaven). At the end of the session, however, both authors concluded that they write stories to save the world. (Stefánsson’s trilogy added to the post-EIBF TBR. I find the thought of Burnside’s The Dumb House, republished by Vintage, far too disturbing.)
Our next destination is USA, specifically Iowa, home to Marilynne Robinson. I read Lila prior to the event during which Robinson delivered her lecture, The Restless Reader, an exploration of why she reads as she does. Within the space of 5 minutes, the lecture had moved into the realms of philosophy, cosmology, theology and other -ologies, I can’t even spell. So I make no attempt to summarise (the #edbookfest storify for day one has a flavour of it, if you want to check it out.) “I have no concept of myself outside my mind”, she said. Which is consistent with her refusal to answer the audience question about “the heart” in her novels. “I would find that too difficult to answer”, she said tellingly. My feelings for Lila too are somewhat difficult.
We travel now across a continent and an ocean to arrive in Hong Kong. Translated from the German by Christine Lo, Jan Philipp Sendker’s Whispering Shadows deals with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in modern day Hong Kong and the pain of personal bereavement. Whispering Shadows are the memories that threaten to unhinge us. Sendker was a journalist reporting on Asia – a long detour on the road to becoming a journalist he called it. So he is very familiar with modern China. “Nowhere have people cried more in front of me than in China”, he said. “Because I am a foreigner, they just open up. The shadow of the Cultural Revolution whispers through many lives, but the most important issue in China is lack of trust. We should be afraid for China because of this.” Personal, political and commercial betrayals fuel the mystery in Whispering Shadows, a novel which nevertheless affirms the healing power of belief, trust and love.
Next stop, South Korea and, finally, I read Han Kang’s thought-provoking and disturbing The Vegetarian. I’m not going to review it here, as it has been reviewed on a mulitude of blogs already, I will say, however, that the author’s gentleness belied the violence and tumult of her imagination in much the same way as the outward submissiveness of her protagonist belies her determination to starve herself to death / reject human barbarity by turning into a plant.
Another long haul flight takes us to our penultimate destination (for this post at least), South Africa. Ian Rankin was spotted in the audience, so Margie Orford’s crime novels must be good. South African society is so stratified that the only way a character could transect it is to be either a journalist, a police officer or a mortuary van driver. Clare Hart is, therefore an investigative journalist. Orford decribed her as a scopic eye, to be sent wherever her pen sends her. Hart is not a crime trope, a lonely alcholic outsider, but a person who wants to put things right, someone who will establish an empathetic connection with the victim. A bit like the author herself, who feels that writing about her traumatised country is part of putting it right, alongside her work helping rape victims.
Oh, and Orford is witty. Sandwiched between two Scots, chair Russell McLean and author Ben McPherson, it’s a brave woman, talking about the book she is currently writing, “There’s something immensely satisfying about killing a man on page one ….” I was won over with the statement “Writing is a brilliant excuse for not doing housework.” (Psst, as are reading and blogging.) And finally, here’s the quip of the festival so far. In response to a question about tips for travelling in South Africa she said: “85% of murders are by family. So choose very carefully who you travel with ……”. It’s no surprise that Water Music made its way to my book bag.
Feeling tired yet? Time to return to home shores and our original departure point, England. I attended S J Watson’s event more out of curiosity than anything else. I’ve not read his 4-million-copy-selling Before I Go To Sleep. Nor am I sure I will, but I will be reading Second Life as soon as the library can serve the dish. The novel was inspired by a blog (I don’t know which) in which an aspiring novelist, writing about her every day life, revealed more than she thought. Watson’s mind began to wonder what if ….. Now, while I may hide online behind a nom de plume, I have been greeted in real life as Lizzy, by people with whom I’ve never had previous contact. Food for thought and this novel is a must-read-soon!
I know this is a long post, and yet, I haven’t mentioned the weather. I will now, because summer finally arrived in Scotland on 15.08.2015 – seriously. 3 days of unremitting sunshine. Charlotte Square was glorious ….
but not as glorious as the matching accessories provided by the Festival Book Shop. (My passion for purple is second only to my passion for literature …..)
Tomorrow I head back to the festival for another 4 days. Summer will probably have passed but the literary adventures will undoubtedly continue. Stay tuned ….