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IMG_0160What attracted Tracy Chevalier to writing a modern day Othello for The Borough Press?  “It’s the quintessential story of an outsider”, she said.  “And I’m an outsider.  I still sound like this (referring to her American accent) after 30 years,” she quipped. (See footnote.)

Was she constrained by the thought of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps?  “Not at all.  I had a setting I know well and I was liberated from all the historical research!”.

By choosing to bring Othello into a 1970’s Washington school playground, Chevalier not only knows the setting, she has lived it. There are details in this book straight from her childhood, even if the racial element is inverted.  Chevalier was a minority white kid in a mostly black neighbourhood.  She knows how her Othello, or Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat feels.

And she knows how modern day 6th graders behave.  I’ll be honest – all these pre-adolescent relationships between boys and girls felt a bit grown up to me.  But Chevalier says these “couplings” – even if they only last for one hour – are the norm in her son’s school.  The kids are trying it out.

So back to Othello – his  passionate relationship with the lovely Desdemona,  the deadly nature of his unjust jealousy fired by Iago’s betrayal. It’s a true Shakespearian tragedy, and it ends with bodies strewn all over the stage.  “I couldn’t follow Shakespeare there.  In a theatre the audience is prepared to suspend disbelief.  But my novel is in a playground.  I’ve made the ending fit the scenario.   Even so I’ve littered my last act with metaphorical dead bodies.”  said Chevalier.

Don’t let that fool you.  The ending may be an emotional softening but it remains devastating.  Chevalier’s retelling is set over the course of one day.  Perhaps she sacrifices an element of realism in doing this?  Would things escalate so quickly, even in a 1970’s playground, where the supervising teachers are as rascist as the pre-adolescent Iago? Maybe not, but it ensures that the pace never slackens. Chevalier also incorporates the development of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship – something Shakespeare never did. Was it really the great love we assume? Chevalier certainly wasn’t convinced. Nor is she happy with the relative silence of the women in Shakespeare’s play.  “I’ve kept to his five acts”, she said.  “I’ve just given more airplay to the girls.”

She does this by following the action over the shoulders of her four main characters:  Osei and the golden-haired Dee (Othello amd Desdemona); Ian and Millie (Iago and Bianca). This allows her to examine the issue of racism from multiple perspectives, including the black boy’s point-of-view.  The decision to keep the narrative third-person avoids any accusation of cultural appropriation. (See footnote 2.)

The result is, as I have already said, a fast-paced and intense read, and, for me, the most enjoyable Hogarth Shakespeare retelling to date.   Once I suspended my disbelief.  6th grade = 11 years old for goodness sake.  Mind you, it is a long time since I was in the 6th grade playground.  What do I know?


Footnote 1: Edinburgh Book Festival 20.08.2017

Footnote 2: Am I alone in feeling distressed at the fact that Chevalier even had to consider this? What happened to artistic license?

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Be still my beating heart! Sarah Dunant remembers the romantic historical novels that sparked her interest in history.

Think of 3 adjectives to describe Lucretia Borgia. Now hold those thoughts while I describe Sarah Dunant in 3 adjectives.

Earthy, funny, cool.

This was by far my favourite event of the 2017 festival, and that was, in no small part, down to the author’s engaging style – she really connected with the audience, talking to us not to the chair.  She had us eating out of her hands in no time.

Of Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, she said: “I started my research and within about 15 minutes, I thought, hang on someone’s done a number on her.  This is a classic example of the victors writing history.  But if Lucretia has been maligned, then who else has received the same treatment?  And isn’t it about time someone set the record straight, instead of perpetuating the myth?”

And that is the purpose of her two novels, Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Father.   It is an attempt to rehabilitate the Borgias, except that sometimes that is impossible.

On Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, Lucretia’s father: “I can’t rehabilitate him. Rodrigo is bad news, but he must be judged by the times he lived in.  He was a Spaniard, an interloper, not an insider in the Vatican court.  He had to be a consummate politician to get to the top.  His behaviour was no different from everyone else, except that he did everything in technicolour.  Rodrigo was a big man of insatiable appetites – that’s why Jeremy Irons (who played him in the recent Sky series) is too thin in many ways.”

“His Catholic church was corrupt but don’t forget that that corruption financed the creation of some of the greatest Renaissance art.  ”

Rodrigo loved all his illegitimate children and held them close, but viewed them as valuable political assets when they came of useful age – in Lucretia’s case at the age of 13, when he married her off for the first time.

Of Cesare: ” Cesare was a man of extraordinary physical presence, popular with his troops, asking nothing of them that he wouldn’t do himself.  A ruthless manipulator and strategist, aware that time was running out as his father got older. Frustrated at what he saw as his father’s dithering.  “The trouble with the old is that their blood runs tepid, while ours runs boiling hot”, he says at one point In the Name of the Family.”

Can Cesare, who did murder Lucretia’s second husband, be rehabilitated?  Partially … when we remember that he was afflicted with syphillis at a young age, (actually when he was a cardinal) and so badly disfigured by it, that he resorted to wearing a mask, and yet look at what he achieved, despite the protracted illness.  I began to think of him as a malevolent superman while reading Dunant’s novels.  What did Dunant say? “An extraordinary physical presence.” She also said of him: “I think he was, without doubt, a sociopath, but, looking at his patterns of behaviour, I also think he was bi-polar.”

Machiavelli makes an appearance in the second novel as a young Florentine diplomat, observing Cesare Borgia, whom he was later to capture in the pages of the infamous The Prince. A consumate piece of political reporting according to Dunant.  “His dispatches from that time are gold-dust,” said Dunant.  She also said: “I thought he was smart.  I like smart!”

But what of Lucretia? Have you been following how she has been used by the men in her life?  Married to Giovanni Sforza at 13, forced to divorce and marry Alfonso of Aragon at 18 (a man she came to love), widowed at 20 by the hand of her brother.  Her third marriage to the much older and syphilitic Alfonso de l’Este, Duke of Ferrara at the age of 21.  Does this sound like the well-known strumpet of ill-repute or more like a dutiful daughter?  She became Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s political tool at the age of 13, and look at the pain they put her through by the time she was 20!

Yes, she left her son by her second husband to be brought up by others when she married for the third time.  But Dunant stressed that she should not be judged by our standards, but thar we should live with her in her own moment when this was the done thing.  She’s not the feisty heroine the C21st desires, but – and here is where she earns Dunant’s admiration – she gradually realises that the only way to gain a measure of independence is to get out of Rome.  She agrees to the marriage with the Duke of Ferrara and rides away, knowing that the Ferraras do not want her.  Because of her family connections, she is tainted goods, but Rodrigo makes the marriage worth their while with the biggest dowry ever paid in Italy. She does not love her third husband, but is sufficiently savvy to understand that her marriage is a diplomatic alliance and eventually forges an effective partnership with him.  She establishes her court, and transforms herself into the well-respected Duchess of Ferrara.  This is the journey Lucretia makes in the pages of In The Name of The Family.

So where does the rumour of incest originate? Dunant pinpoints it to the first divorce.  Lucretia had been married to Giovanni Sforza for 3 years without issue.  But Sforza had outlived his usefulness and Rodrigo needed her to be free to make another strategic marriage.  He decided to annul the marriage on the grounds of Sforza’s impotence, and Lucretia, who still did everything her father demanded of her, signed papers to that effect.  How did Sforza react with the following statement: “I have known her an infinity of times, but he (Rodrigo) just wants her back for himself.” Thus is a reputation destroyed!  “Fake news!”, cried Dunant.

Had these people no conscience?  “The Catholic practice of confession allowed them moral wriggle room”, she explained. “But, at times, it became a wild dance.”  Indeed and it is one that she captures brilliantly in her two Borgia novels, which I devoured within a week.  They are truly compulsive; with such protagonists and shenanigans, how could they not be? And there is also a feisty heroine in the form of Machiavelli’s wife.  He didn’t have it all his own way.  However, I would argue that there is a character bigger than any named so far:  Syphillis – a pestilence that arrived in Europe when Columbus returned from the Americas and cut a swathe so rapidly that, following the first reported cases in Naples in 1494, brothels were closing in Aberdeen in 1497.  Dunant includes the then hopeless fight against the disease and details the gruelling treatments that Cesare had to endure.  The doctors were at a loss – all they could do was slow its progess in an individual, but they could not cure.  As Dunant pointed out, syphillis remained a killer until the discovery of penicillin in 1946.  She is also convinced that Lucretia died of it, contracting it from her third husband.  It was the final wrong done to her by the men in her life.

To conclude the session, the chair, Jenny Brown, asked Dunant to summarise Lucretia in 3 adjectives.  She chose:

canny, loving, able to learn

Were these the words you picked at the beginning of this post?

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This event was top of my #edbookfest wishlist because James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany prevented Roy Jacobsen’s 5-star The Unseen from becoming June’s Book of the Month.  I read with utter fascination.  I thought I knew Germany quite well, but reading this book was illuminating to say the least.  And having now discovered how little I knew, I’m in no position to agree or disagree with Hawes.  I suspect his thesis is controversial to some and may ruffle a few feathers …

Referencing his 2006 novel Speak for England, which imagines an absurdist world in which Trump and Brexit are made possible, Hawes said “In a world that satirises itself, there’s no job for a satirist.  So I decided to stop writing fiction altogether.” He agreed to write this book at the request of a friend, although he claims he would have made more money washing cars at traffic lights in the last 2 years. ” I had no idea of these discoveries, when I started out.” he said.


Distilling his book down into a 45-minute presentation, Hawes showed how, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing of history, the Roman Germania, the territories of the Confederation of the Rhine 1808, and the boundary of West Germany (1949-1990) were essentially the same, with the Roman Limes Germanicus and the Elbe forming a natural eastern border. East and West Germany weren’t divided only during the days if the GDR, but, given the history of lands to the East of the Elbe (East Elbia), firstly as land colonised from the West as part of the German Empire,  and then overtaken by Prussia, they always were.  More controversially, Hawes maintains, they remain so.  Hawes proved the latter point by analysing voting patterns.  Votes from East Elbia brought Hitler to power, and even today voting patterns there are substantially different from those in the West of the country with 22% voting for the hard left in 2013. Berlin is the only place in East Elbia to buck these trends.

imageHawes, whose father was a Prussian Junker, has harsh words for the Junkers and their chancellor, Bismarck.  The Wars of German Reunification were really the Wars of Prussian Conquest, he argues.

The brief-lived political entity that was West Germany is the real Germany;  the one with Adenauer’s vision, close integration with the West.  What Bismarck started was the great deformation, argues Hawes.

Kohl rushed through reunification in 1990 because 200,000 East Germans left for the West when the Wall fell.  There would have been no East Germans left, had he not done so. The trillions of Euros that have since flowed from West to East (equivalent of a Greek bailout every year) aren’t achieving much, he argues.  It’s the West dancing to “a half-remembered Prussian tune”, subsidizing East Elbia as it had to do during Prussian and Nazi times.  Thanks in no small part to what Hawes calls “Merkel’s Strange Autumn” of 2015, Germany is now threatened by extremists on the left and right from the East (cf those voting patterns mentioned earlier), both wanting closer ties with Russia. Or perhaps the more realistic threat is a political coalition with either the NfD or Die Linke. Hawes is hoping that the winner of the forthcoming German election will remember the Germany where “state-worship, puritanical zeal and scar-faced militarism have always been alien. That Germany is Europe’s best hope.”

Otherwise the tottering West may be lost.

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Just wondering if you know the story of how this blog came to be? I lost a notebook containing 5 years of reading notes and decided that, henceforth, I would put those notes somewhere I couldn’t lose them.  Cue the birth of Lizzy’s Literary Life.  Right now I am filled with a sense of déjà-vu, because my #edbookfest notebook is missing ….

That is not the apocalypse to which the title of this post refers, however.  Rather to those in the latest novels of Louise Welsh and Heinz Helle. As if one were not enough, Edinburgh Book Festival treated us to two within the space of one hour.

From left to right: Heinz Helle, Louise Welsh and chairperson Anna Day

No Dominion is the third in Louise Welsh’s trilogy, set in a world ravaged by The Sweats, a flu-like pandemic, which has killed off about 80% of the world’s population.  7 years after the Sweats first struck, the main protagonists of the two previous novels, Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall, find themselves on Orkney where the community has established a fledgling democracy. A handful of surviving orphans have been fostered. The majority of them are now adolescent and, in addition to the usual teenage angst, are now in the throes of a fury caused by the limitations of their future.  So when strangers appear on the island and promise them a better future on the mainland, specifically in Glasgow, they all run away.

But just before they go, the foster parents of one of the children are brutally murdered.  This gives both Stevie Flint (now elected leader of the New Orkney council – “the sweats were the making of her”‘, said Louise Welsh) and Magnus McFall,  the foster father of one of the runways, valid reason to give chase.  The journey to Glasgow is fraught with danger, because not every form of governance encountered along the way is as reasonable as that established in Orkney.  They encounter feudalism, protectionism, and, when they get to Glasgow, dictatorship, all with psychopaths installed as leaders. While Stevie and Magnus show ever escalating and most alarming tendencies to match violence with violence, the malignity of these new regimes does not bode well for the survival of the naive teenagers who have preceded them.

“It is a quest”, said Louise Welsh.  “All my novels are quests.”  Indeed, but this is a terrifying, violent quest, and its vivid depictions of that violence are not for the squeamish.  At its core, No Dominion raises two fundamental questions: 1) when it is OK to kill another human being?, and 2) when does a child stop being a child?  In the context of a trilogy examining a broad range of societal issues –  book 1, A Lovely Way to Burn, the pharmaceutical industry, book 2, Death is A Welcome Guest, the justice system and religious fanaticism – this third volume focuses on human political systems. I can’t fault Welsh for the ambition of her undertaking, and I have raced through all three volumes this year, but I do wish there could have been less swearing.  I know, I know.  Given the extreme circumstances, such language is in keeping with the realism of Welsh’s writing,  but I did find myself wishing there could have been less – a lot less – of it.

Now Heinz Helle has written the non-sweary post-apocalyptic novel I was wishing for, but it’s no less shocking for that.  If fact, given the pared down language and matter-of-fact narrative style, its shock factor is probably greater.

Translated from German by Kári Driscoll

Each year Helle takes a vacation with his male friends in the Tyrol.  One morning as he looked down into the valley, he wondered what would happen if they were to find that the world had ended while they were away …. cue, Euphoria, surely the most ironic title of the year.

Just think about it – do you have the skillsets to survive in a world where all our technological innovations are defunct.? Nothing works anymore; all the food is gone and the rest of mankind has been obliterated as well.  There is no explanation for what has happened in Helle’s novel.  In fact, the author himself does not know,  “Explaining the science is not important”,  agreed Louise Welsh, “because the book is not about the science.”  So what would you do?

The 5 men in Helle’s novel descend to the valley, scavenging what they can along the way, losing their morals, language and humanity as they trudge through the countryside.  We’re in Lord of The Flies territory here, but with grown men.   Where are they heading? Away from here – to somewhere better.  Movement is their only remaining purpose in life and their hold on life is precarious.   All it takes is an accident ….

Structured into 69 episodes, shuffling between the post-apocalyptic present and the comfortable pre-apocalyptic past, the descent into barbarity is inevitable; shock lying in the speed of it.  I felt that even though the rape scene, episode 1 in the original German edition, does not appear until scene 16 in the English translation.  (Good call, I feel.  I doubt I would have read on with that as an opening, despite the dispassion of its telling.)  The shuffling of past and present serves as a constant reminder of what these men have lost, and. more importantly, a reminder of what we have now, of what should make us feel euphoric. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, both literally and metaphorically for Helle’s protagonists, but that needn’t be the case for us.  “We shouldn’t take what we have for granted”, said Helle. We need to protect it now.  Once lost, we may never regain it.

The world goes on as usual in the #edbookfest signing tent

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Given that Nick Barley, Director of EIBF, was chair of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and a second judge, Daniel Hahn, was on site to chair well over a dozen events, it was a given that the Man Booker International Prize would be a focus of this year’s festival.  Here are the two of them discussing the judging of the prize.

Wednesday 16.07.2017 was a key date for the Man Booker International Prize with 3 events in Charlotte Square.

Event 1) The Power of Translation

As we queued to attend this event, we were handed samples of Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen: one page of the original and the equivalent page in English translation.  “Surely not a translation slam!”, I thought.  (Oh, how I miss those.) Indeed it was not.  Instead Nora’s translator, Misha Hoekstra, and Kari Dickson, standing in for Don Bartlett, joined both Nick Barley and Daniel Hahn to discuss the particular challenges of translating these two Man Booker International shortlistees.

Now, of course, an hour is not enough to discuss the translation of two whole pages of two different novels in any depth, and so we didn’t.  Following a brief synopsis by Daniel Hahn of the other shortlistees and the characteristics which led to their shortlisting (Fever Dream, irresistibly creepy, cannot be read slowly; Judas, the use of biblical King James English mirrors the deep resonance of the original Hebrew; Compass, enormously ambitious, rich, full of stuff, requiring the translator to replicate the research; A Horse Walks into A Bar, captivating, unbearably uncomfortable, a unique if seedy comedian’s voice with untranslatable jokes, which the translator had to substitute with her own), the discussion turned to specifics with relation to the Scandinavian contingent.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal 

a) The title reflects the way learners are taught to turn in Denmark.  Why not Mirror, Signal, Manoeuver? asked Nick Barley.  Because that’s not how turning is taught in the USA replied Misha Hoekstra, and the same translation was to be published in both countries, So we stuck to the Danish original.

b) Of the translation in general, he also said that Dorthe Nors wanted to keep the beauty of his American English rather than translate it into British English.  (At this point I’m tempted to say – discuss.  But I shall refrain.)

c) Expletives – Rather than translate the Danish expletives, I thought about what the driving instructor would say if (American) English was her native tongue.

4) He changed the rhythm of the lyrical sections of the novel to make the prose more musical.

5) In what seemed to be a direct answer to those who find Sonja wish-washy, someone (probably Daniel Hahn or Nick Barclay) pointed out that observation is her revenge.

The Unseen

a) Norway’s population is equivalent to Scotland’s (5 million) but is spread out over a much larger area.  Each town has its own dialect (note dialect, not accent).  The dialect of the island of Barrøy (or so I assume) in the extract of The Unseen was unrecognisable to the two Norwegian speakers in attendance. (Kari Dickson and one audience member) So how did the two Dons (translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) approach the problem of translation? By inventing a new English dialect merging Scandinavian words used in English with the elongated vowels of Lancashire.

c) The landscape is a central element of The Unseen and the language used is highly specific.  So the differences between a tussock and a mound matter.  But what happens when there is no English equivalent?  Then the translator has to decide if what is lost in translation is compensated for what is won.

Event 2) Samanta Schweblin

Apologies to Karl Geary who was sharing the stage with Samanta Schweblin and must be edited out of this post, because of its remit.  Consolation is offered, hopefully, by the fact that I have added Montpellier Parade to my wishlist.

I reviewed Fever Dream a couple of months ago and so I’ll only add additional insights here.

a) Rescue Distance, the original Spanish title, is not a phrase invented by Schweblin.  It is one well understood in Argentina. Schweblin applied it not only to the central mother and child relationship but also to the distance between ourselves and the planet.  “What happens when we cannot measure the danger?”, she asked.  And made me think twice about my consumption of soya beans.

b) She wrote the novel 12 times.  The story wouldn’t work until she found David’s voice.

c) Key thought-provoking thought: “As an Argentinian I know nothing about Latin America, until I moved to Berlin.”

Event 3) David Grossman in conversation with Nick Barley

Of course, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize had to make an appearance as the culmination of the afternoon’s events. And I was delighted because although I was rooting for The Unseen to take the prize, I can see why the judges – unanimously, according to Daniel Hahn, deemed this the winner.

Before moving into the event, may I indulge you with a few thoughts of my own? (No? Then skip the next 5 paragraphs.)

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I would not have read A Horse Walks into A Bar without its win, and almost abandoned it after the first sitting.  It is the tale of a stand-up comedian, going into meltdown on stage.  It’s crude (I hate crude), it’s vicious and nasty (I detest that kind of comedy).  As a result, the jokes that made me laugh were few and far between. (Were they Grossman’s?, I now wonder.  cf notes from Event 1 above.)

It was saved, however, by the introduction of the retired judge.  A former friend of the comedian’s, who was implored to attend a performance.  “Do you remember me?”, asks Douvaleh Greenstein during a phone call.  Eventually the judge does.  “Thank God”‘ says Douvaleh. “I thought I’d made you up.”

And that need, that desperation reeled me in. I wasn’t going to stop reading until I knew what had caused it.  And even if watching this car-crash of a performance was extremely uncomfortable, I couldn’t avert my eyes.   I’m not entirely sure that Douvaleh transformed from a repellent character into one I wanted to embrace (as per Nick Barley), but I certainly softened my opinion of him.

That trajectory mirrors that of Douvaleh’s audience – or at least those that stayed to the end of his performance.  It’s only when a sympathetic female audience member, who knew him as a child, reminds him “you were a good boy”, that the cruel, vicious routine begins to transform into something completely different,

The Man Booker International Prize judges were “bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks”. I can see that. A Horse Walks into A Bar is anything but traditional, runs a gamut of risks including offending and alienating the reader.  Whoever heard of stand-up comedy without laughs?  But my word, the psychological intensity! Although The Unseen remains my favourite on this year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Grossman’s novel is the one that will elicit an emotional response from me for a long time to come.

Nick Barley was keen to put A Horse Walks Into A Bar into the context of Grossman’s work as a whole, specially as the third in a loose-knit trilogy exploring grief.  Grossman  was 2.5 years into writing To the End of the Land, a novel about a woman who has lost her son in a military operation, when his own son was killed in action against Hizbollah.  “I didn’t know if I could save the book”, said Grossman. “In the end, the book saved me. Writing literature is the best way to force me into my life.” He followed up with Falling Out of Time, in Barley’s words “a Homeric journey into the depths of grief.  I shed tears on every page.”   “Art is the closest a secular non-believer like myself can get to the intersection of life and death” said Grossman of Falling Out of Time.  “How little I understood what I was writing at the time, and I now understand that books take place in a writer’s blind spot.” In this context A Horse Walks Into A Bar examines the way humour, as irrational and illogical as it may seem, allows movement in the congealed world of grief.

Finally, in an echo of what Samanta Schweblin said earlier in the day, Grossman told us that he had had the story of A Horse Walks into A Bar for 24 years.  It wasn’t until the character of Douvaleh appeared that he knew how to tell it and write himself a worthy Man Booker International winner.

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As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

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The last 12 months have simply flown by!  Mind my “gap year” has been packed with home improvement projects (still WIP) and lots of travel.  Year 2 is likely to be similar (though not quite as manic), but for now, it’s time to return home i.e to my favourite place in Scotland, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

This year’s festival is bigger and better than ever, with over 1000 events in 17 days.  Charlotte Square just isn’t big enough for this programme, so there are two new pop-up venues in George Street.  I have mixed feelings about that at this point – will it change the atmosphere of the festival i.e dilute the cosy nook feel of the square? We shall have to wait and see …

There haven’t been many reviews on the blog in the past few weeks as I have been reading ahead.   The books to the right in the picture below are either completed or current reads.

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The Books of EIBF 2017

The pile on the left is TBR.  I wonder how many will move to the right in the next couple of weeks, and I fear (yes, that is the word) how many books will join the TBR, given the number of strategically placed bookshops!  I do intend to focus on book reviews, not event reviews,  on the blog this year.  My twitter stream @lizzysiddal is where ongoing commentary of the festival will be.

When launching the festival in June, the director of EIBF, Nick Barley, invited the world to “come to Charlotte Square to be inspired and challenged”. Well, I’m ready, and I’m on my way!

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