Archive for the ‘Edinburgh Book Festival 2008’ Category

 Winner of the 2007 Giller Prize

There’s been much moaning about this year’s Booker longlist from those ploughing through it.  I never summon up enough enthusiasm to read the whole list but I do watch out for any Canadiana.  So this year in the absence of any Canadian nominee (a fact I find incredible in a list the chairman claims to be “geographically balanced”), I looked elsewhere.  No better place to start than with the 2007 Giller prize winner.

The novel is set in the Northwest Territories of Canada during a time of change, the mid-1970’s: a time when the radio stations were threatened by television, and the northern landscape, by the proposed MacKenzie valley gas pipeline.  Escaping from a failed television career, Harry Boyd returns to Yellowknife to run a small radio station.  He hires two women, the wonderfully confident Dido, and the painfully shy Gwen. 

It appears that there’s a lot of the author in Gwen, who is hopeless at broadcasting.  She is quickly relegated to the late night spot where in isolation she is free to experiment, to learn her trade.  Dido, however, is a star from the offset, attracting the audiences, the men all falling in love with her at first, second or third sight. The first half of the novel is set in or around the radio station with the rivalries and the petty jealousies between the two women subtly on display.  With Dido in the ascendant, always, seemingly indestructable. Until she takes up with Eddie and then her vulnerability begins to show. 

Hay explores the fraility of the human heart gently and sensitively through the lives of her three main characters, with the subsidiary characters populating the pages to explore similar issues from different angles. They are rounded out, their stories entirely plausible and, in cases, quite saddening.  The frozen North is an isolated place and people can be lonely, either in or out of a relationship.

The landscape is not simply a backdrop.  As four friends undertake a trek across the frozen landscape, from Yellowknife to Ptarmigan Lake, the theme of human fraility and survival moves beyond the purely emotional.  Lack of preparation or a false sense of security can swiftly result in the catastrophic.  At the same time, this beautiful Arctic landscape is vulnerable, a DIdo, easily crumpled by the selfishness and inattentiveness of man.

The novel is a beautiful read.  Quiet and insistent.  Voices travelling through the air like radio waves, voices that are heard a long time after finishing the novel.  It’s not a page-turner in the traditional sense.  Hay takes her time telling the stories of her characters and landscapes.  The characters, true to life and engaging, held my attention in the first half; the landscape in the second, even though there isn’t much narrative drive.  Whether Hay recognised this herself and attempted to insert it by the use of foreshadowing, I’m not sure.  Time and time again, foreboding hints of disasters and losses to come are inserted at the beginning of each section in what seems to be an effort to pull the reader through.  Whether this betrays a lack of confidence in herself as writer, or myself as reader, I’m not sure, but so frequent was her use of the device that I became quite irritated.  It was a clumsy anomaly from an otherwise gracious and intelligent pen.  I questioned Hay about it at a recent book signing.    She explained that she wanted to convey a sense of time: that characters cannot only be placed in the present; the past tugs at us all as does the future which is impossible to resist.  Seen in that light, her insistent use of foreshadowing has its logic.  However, this reader would have preferred lighter penstrokes.  


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This Is Not About Me

This Is Not About Me


ISBN: 978-1847080615
Published by Granta
UK Publication Date 1.9.2008  (Pre-released at the Edinburgh Book Festival 23.08.2008)

It’s been too long since the release of Clara.  (6 years!)  So, when news filtered through that Janice Galloway was releasing something new at the EBF, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be there, would purchase it and that everything could go hang until I had read it.  Thus the Galloway event became my last event.  Nothing could possibly follow it. 

Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway

How right I was. The wow factor started the moment Galloway entered the auditorium.  Dolled up to the nines in 1950’s garb – lino-piercing stilletos, fishnet tights,  a loud floral confection of a frock, black lace gloves (removed for the reading), single-string pearl necklace, long flowing tresses and immaculate makeup- she had come dressed in homage to Cora, her elder sister.  Cora, the woman-hating, man-loving bully and the beast, who declares “there is no excuse for an ugly woman” in this the first volume of her memoirs.  The child, Janice, has an inferiority complex, inheriting her looks from her father.  However, Cora’s lessons in dolling oneself up, have taken – Galloway, in working class parlance, had scrubbed up well!

The entrance grabbed the audience’s attention and the 30-minute reading that followed held it spellbound as a door opened on Galloway’s unpromising childhood in Saltcoats, Ayrshire.  Living alone with her mother, who had left her husband preferring the loneliness of life without him to the loneliness of life with him.  Sharing a small cubby-hole of a room with her mother, until Cora returned, abandoning her husband and son.  The stuff of deprivation and rural poverty but told with humour that evidences Galloway’s refusal to slip into the mentality of victimhood.

The villain of the piece, Cora (it’s no accident that the memoir is published after her death) doesn’t “do domestic”.  The mother does.  Fetching and carrying and being put on by her eldest daughter and accepting servitude and abuse that she wouldn’t accept from her husband.  On the dustjacket the child, Janice, sits between a caterer (her mother) and a warrior (her sister), observing, deciding on which side of the fence she will land.

The volume was originally planned to conclude at the end of her teenage years.  Yet, using photographs and anecdotes from people known to her, Galloway found herself on page 53 at the age of four.  I find this amazing, considering I have no memories prior to the age of 4 (1st memory being the assassination of JFK).  “Is it memory?  Is it fiction” was one question from the audience.   Galloway said she honestly didn’t know.  Most of the text is prompted by photographs.  Galloway spoke on a photograph taken at the age of 3.  She is sitting on a bike, a stuffed dove on her shoulders, a backdrop of Austria behind her.  The setup indicative of how her mother wanted to make things appear as though they were better off.  What is interesting is that beyond the photograph on the dustjacket, there are no others included in the book.  It’s as though the reader is being asked to choose between the fiction and the fact.

In the best traditions of literary fiction, there is clearly a theme running throughout.  The confusion, terror and absurdity of not knowing during childhood.  The child, Janice, is an observer.  Her narrative voice limited by inexperience, recording the events but not able to put flesh to the motivations of the adults in her life.  This must have called for strong discipline by the adult Galloway, who with the benefit of experience and hindsight must have been sorely tested to impute motive and justification to the characters and to insert her own emotional responses to the events.  The fact that she has taken pains to expunge her adult thoughts proves that the book really isn’t about her but is a documentary of a world without men in a time when men were the breadwinners.

It’s extraordinary. Richard Holloway, who chaired the event, started by listing the awards Galloway has already won for her fiction. Introducing this book, he said: “I’ll eat my mitre, if this book doesn’t sweep up more prizes”.  I sincerely hope it sweeps up everything for which it is eligible and I wish fervently that Galloway doesn’t keep me waiting another 6 years for volume 2.


Further reviews at:


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There’s been more interest in the EBF bookbag giveaways than anything previous.   On that basis I  assume that you understand how continued book festival attendance depends on this most important item in the bookworm’s toolkit. So it is now time to acknowledge and applaud the stalwarts that supported me throughout the fortnight of the EBF.  It would have been impossible without them.

Bookbags EBF 2008

Bookbags EBF 2008

From left to right: Bag #1 originally earmarked as part of my EBF survival kit never crossed the front door.  Its open-topped juteness, an inadequate defence against the permanent wetness of Summer 2008.  I started the festival accompanied by the neighbouring modest black number.  The compartments at the front perfect for storing an ofttimes soaking umbrella.  However,  its size was limiting.  I was feeding a habit – CBPS (compulsive book purchasing syndrome).   Day two confirmed the need for an upgrade.

Enter bag #3 , a perfectly purple confection, providing not only adequate space but stylish colour coordination with other essential accessories —->Coordinated accessories

Once again side pockets for the flask and brolly.  This was the heroine (purple is female, isn’t it?) that saved the day and foiled the malevolence of that number 44 bus to Balerno.  The one drawback, however, is that it’s a suitcase – albeit of hand-luggage proportions.  But, when full and heavy, the narrow unpadded straps do cut through the shoulders so.  Broader than it is long, it is impossible to tuck under the arm, and so it becomes difficult to the negotiate the crowds in Charlotte Square and the book shops without inflicting collateral damage on unsuspecting bystanders.

It wasn’t until my last day at the festival that the perfect bag presented itself.  I had resisted visiting MacArthur Glen’s Designer Shopping Mall in Livingston all week.   (I drive past it on my way to Edinburgh.)  But just look at bag #4.  It ticks all the boxes.  With 12 hardback capacity, a backpocket for the brolly, zips to ensure water-tightness, longer than it is wide,  with broad weight-distributing shoulder straps.  The irony being that I obtained it only on my final day.  I didn’t have that many books to carry and that celestial body …  what’s it’s name again? … you know, the round yellow thing in the sky …  well, whatever it is called, it finally showed its face.  Not to worry this beautiful bag will come in useful next year.  Only 357 days to go …. still plenty of time to enroll for prerequisite weight training.

But I digress from the real business of the day.  Who is going to be acquiring a souvenir EBF bookbag?  I asked www.random.org to generate two random numbers between 1 and 18.  The results:

Here are your random numbers:

1	6

Timestamp: 2008-08-31 16:43:56 UTC

Congratulations to Beautiful Witch and donnafugata.  Please email your details to lizzysiddal@yahoo.com and I get your booty in the post right away.

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Souvenir booklet

Souvenir booklet

 Edinburgh Book Festival Saturday 23.08.2008

John Mullan (chair of the Best of the Booker), Margaret Atwood (former winner of the Booker Prize) and Louise Doughty (member of the 2008 Booker panel) sat and discussed the history of the Booker prize.  Here are the points I found interesting.

1. When and why did the Booker prize enter the consciousness of the reading public?

John Mullan argued that the prize really took off in the early 1980’s due to the quality of the fiction.  Midnight’s Children and Schindler’s Ark being seminal works.   Margaret Atwood’s theory is a little more colourful.  Given the British penchant for placing bets, she thinks that matching the Booker with the bookies was the determining factor in raising the profile of the prize.

2. Which is the best book never to have won the Booker?

Margaret Atwood: Alice Munro – The Beggar Maid (1980)

Louise Doughty: Beryl Bainbridge – Master Georgie (1998)  

John Mullan:  Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (2005)

(Lizzy Siddal: David Mitchell – Cloudatlas (2004))

3. Why is the prize frequently awarded to a compromise candidate?

Margaret Atwood explained the maths with much gesturing of her hands, showing how hard it is to get unaniminity with 5 judges.  Quite often 3 will love the frontrunner but 2 will veto it.  So the prize is awarded to another novel that all 5 are happy with. 

(Question to readers: which Booker winners do you think are compromise winners?).

Atwood also explained that the judging of the Giller prize isn’t as fraught.  There are only 3 judges and unaniminity is much easier to obtain.

4. Is Midnight’s Children really the best of the best?

John Mullan:  It’s a novel that wins over the readers – sometimes after many years.  Malcolm Bradbury, when a Booker judge in 1981, did not vote for it.  But he did when he chaired the Booker of Bookers 25 years later.

5. How was the 2008 longlist chosen?

Louise Doughty confirmed that everyone in the panel has read all the books.   Michael Portillo asked each judge to submit their top 10 by email, without conferring.  These lists, in which there was a surprising amount of consensus, were the starting point of the longlist meeting.  Consensus titles were longlisted immediately.  The remaining places were allocated after the panel debated the merits of the other nominated titles.

Questions from the floor

6. Why is the award ceremony no longer televised?

Nobody knew!  Amazing – I thought this would be an easy one to answer.

7.  What do the 6 shortlisted title for Best of the Booker have that is missing from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day?

John Mullan didn’t answer this either.  He sidestepped tactfully by stating that he didn’t consider The Remains of the Day to be Ishiguro’s best novel.   Never Let Me Go surpasses it in his opinion.

8. Question to Margaret Atwood?  To which of your own novels, would you award the Booker?

Margaret Atwood: (sharp as a razor, without so much as a pause, and thereby winning quip of the festival award) The next one, dear!


EDIT:  Serendipity or what?  See the article published in today’s Telegraph for the early history and the early controversy surrounding the Booker Prize.

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Andrew Sean Greer that is ….

To The Great Questions

To The Great Questions

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Thursday 21.08.08

Andrew Sean Greer shared the stage with Andre Dubus III at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  I took the opportunity to sneak a few uncosy questions beneath the radar during the event and the following book signing.

This post contains spoilers – Proceed at your peril.

(Scene I:  Inside Peppers Theatre.  Question from the floor.)

LS:  Andre has said that he keeps up to date with the reviews.  My question to Andrew – do you keep up with the blogs?

ASG:  I do.

LS:  Well, I’m LizzySiddal and ….

ASG: (Graciously)  Oh Lizzy.  Hello!  Yes – you’re about to ask me about why I wrote the last 13 pages of my novel, aren’t you?

LS:  (has actually forgotten about that, and is very impressed)  Yes, that’s right.

ASG: Well, I can’t possibly answer here.  I’d be giving too much away.

LS: (Recovering quickly)  In that case, I’ll see you outside after the event!  In the meantime, I’ll ask something else.   There’s been much written in the blogs about Pearlie’s voice, in particular, how inauthentic it is given her circumstances.  (Sharp intake of breath from the audience – this is not a cosy fawning question).  How do you react to that criticism?

ASG: To be honest, I don’t understand it at all.  While it’s true that in the main narrative Pearlie is a black 50’s housewife, she is narrating the story some 20 years later, creating a document of her own mind.   This allows her to be elaborate, to display her education.   Pearlie is coming to terms with her own story, so the structure of withholding and revelation is quite natural.  She hasn’t told this story before and is  uncovering links that she probably is seeing for the first time. 

ADIII:  The makeup of the word re-member is to put back together, to restructure thoughts and ideas.  The words don’t need to be as they were spoken.  The actions don’t need to be as they were performed.   It’s the opposite process of dis-member, to pull apart.

(Appreciative nods from the audience.)

ASG:  Good point.  That’s my answer too!


(Scene II:  The Book Shop – at the front of the signing queue.)

LS:  Time to spill the beans regarding those last 13 pages.

ASG: It’s about the pacing.  Pearlie’s been questioning her actions in the intervening years and those last pages provide the answer as to whether she did the right thing.  I also wanted to show Holland’s perspective.

LS: …. which brings me neatly onto my next question.  I was wondering about the love triangle with only two sides  ….

ASG:  The novel developed that way.  I wrote scenes in which Holland was a presence but I removed them all.   I decided to save his voice for the last section.

(Queue behind getting impatient now.  LS says farewell.   ASG meets and greets more fans.  Lizzy departs for an unscheduled encounter with the number 44 bus to Balerno …..)

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Thursday 21.08.2008

In describing the low point of my EBF experience, I shall betray my britishness.  We Brits have a justifiable obsession with the weather which I’ve been trying to avoid at all costs during this journal.  However, the events on Princes Street on 21.08.2008 at 22:12 p.m and the actions of the driver of the number 44 bus to Balerno has demoted literature from the top priority of this post.

I suppose that my smugness in avoiding the torrential rain of 19.08.2008 required divine retribution, duly delivered at 21.08.2008 22:12 p.m.  The driver of that number 44 bus to Balerno must have known for as he drove past the little black blob that was Lizzy (long black skirt, black 3/4 length kagool, black umbrella) his left front wheel accidentally (on purpose?) ploughing through the flash flood that was coursing its way to the inadequate drainage.  So it was that the great wave rose from the road to overwhelm the pavement and the pedestrian Lizzy.  Fast forward to the scene two seconds later and picture your own version of the drowned rat.   Fortunately the book bag hanging from on my right shoulder was protected by the bulk of my black blobness with the signed copies additionally protected by plastic bags.  And that is the only reason why there is no contract on the bus driver of that 21.08.2008 22:12 number 44 bus to Balerno!  Saved ironically by a WATERstones carrier bag.

You couldn’t make it up!  

So while he (the driver of the 21.08.2008 22:12 number 44 bus to Balerno) scoots off high and dry, Lizzy is left with cold, wet, and thoroughly bedraggled facing a 90-minute journey home.  My obsessive fantasies of revenge gradually replaced by the good memories of hours spent at the EBF.

More irony as the low point of the day was preceded with what is destined to be the high point of the fortnight.  Sebastian Barry waking us up with words and a reading from his Booker longlisted “The Secret Scripture”.  If you get an opportunity to go and hear him read from this, take it.  It is a phenomenal performance.  I hadn’t read the book and I’m so glad to have experienced this beforehand.  Because I don’t think I would have read the book in such a comic way.   The audience reaction summed up by the following comment (not mine, though I agree):  “Sebastian, I would love to buy your book afterwards, but you’ll have to come home with it!”. 

Sadly, ladies, we’ll have to settle for this podcast on the Faber and Faber website.

A few hours between events today, and time time for some sightseeing.  Wandering around the streets of Edinburgh during festival time, there is no lack of entertainment .., from all over the world.  Take a look at the selection of shots on Flickr and enjoy. 

Back to Charlotte Square and the international fiction strand courtesy of the Swedes, Bengt Ohlson and Klas Ostergren.  Ohlson, a brave man, retelling the tale of the classic Doctor Glas (review to follow) in his novel Gregorius (reading and review to follow).   Ostergren’s Gentlemen a novel written 28 years ago and only just translated into English.  A novel written by an exuberant young man as Ostergren was at pains to emphasise, particularly as he’s just written a sequel and the style is completely different – more controlled, spare and mature.  (Words of the author).   At the signing, I confirmed that he’d asked the reader to forgive much of the author.  Yes, he said, that’s true. 

Final event of the day – Andrew Sean Greer and Andre Dubus III.  For obvious reasons, a must-attend event for me. Shirking not my responsibility to ask the difficult questions to ASG.  The answers to which are deserving of a separate post. 

Great day.  Good memories – actions of the driver of the 21.08.2008 22:12 number 44 bus to Balerno notwithstanding!  And should you know who he is, don’t tell me!

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