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.

Around the World With The EIBF

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 (Credit Alan McCredie)

Louis De Berniéres (Credit Alan McCredie)

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 (Credit Alan McCredie)

David Mitchell (Credit Alan McCredie)

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.)

Jon Kalman Stefánsson and John Burnside signing

Jon Kalman Stefánsson and John Burnside signing

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.)

Marilynne Robinson (Credit Alan McCredie)

Marilynne Robinson (Credit Alan McCredie)

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.

Han Kang Signing

Han Kang Signing

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.

margie Orford

Russell McLean, Margie Orford, Ben McPherson in the Writer’s Retreat

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 ….

Charlotte Square

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 …..)

Purple Accessories

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  ….

I did an A-Z of Glasgow to open up the Commonwealth Games last year.  Yet I spend more time in Edinburgh.  It’s time to address the imbalance.  Y?  You’ll soon C.

Auld Reekie / Athens of the North Fond nicknames for the Scottish Capital. The first, meaning Old Smoky, refers to the smoke that used to rise above the old town in the evenings, and which used to signal bedtime for children in the 17th century.  The second is a moniker earned during the Scottish Enlightenment when intellectual light in Edinburgh burned strongly, and, of course, there’s that half-finished Grecian Temple on Carlton Hill, the monument to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, The National Monument of Scotland.

The annual International Edinburgh Book Festival, which takes place in Charlotte Square, starts today.  Accepted as the biggest and best literary festival in the world, for the next 10 days it will be the centre of my universe. (Yes, I  know there’s a castle that sits majestically on its rockYou can’t miss it,  but Charlotte Square is my home from home, especially when the sun shines and there are spare deckchairs.

Deckchairs in Charlotte Square

Deckchairs in Charlotte Square

The name Edinburgh is generally accepted to have derived from the Celtic word, Eidyn.

The Arts Festival, first held in 1946, to help the city regenerate from the woes of World War Two, was the first of many.  Once the biggest arts festival in the world, it has now been dwarfed by The Fringe.  The Food Festival and Retina, the fotography (sorry, but it had to been misspelt) festival are recent newcomers to the calendar.  2015 was the second year for both,   Let’s watch them grow.

Grassmarket: View from Cowgate

Grassmarket: View from Cowgate

The Grassmarket is one of my favourite spots (mainly because of J). Steeped in history, it used to be the cattle market (its name is derived from the food that used to be munched in the cattle pens) and the public place of execution.  It has always been filled with bars, and taverns and hotels. You can still drink in the White Hart Inn, where Robert Burns stayed in 1791.

The Heart of Midlothian on the Royal Mile marks the doorway of the old prison and another site of public execution.  The custom of spitting on the heart, which people do for good luck these days, may shave originated as debtors, leaving the prison, showed their disdain for the place.

These days, my point of entry into the capital is the park and ride at Ingliston.  Free parking with a tram connection straight into the city centre. It cannot be beaten.

Jazz (July 2015)

Jazz (July 2015)

The Jazz Festival in July marks the official start of my summer season in the capital.  I always attend the free concert in the Grassmarket – come rain, shine or haar. (See W.)  There’s also a free Mardi Gras in Princes Street for those not as vertically challenged as myself,  (At 5′ 0″, I didn’t have a great view, the one time I attended.)

Greyfriars Kirkyard  is an atmospheric graveyard just 5 minutes from the Grassmarket. Sections of the old city wall – The Flodden Wall  – still stand.  There is a monument to the Scottish Covenanters, religious martyrs from the C17th, and the graves of some very famous Scots, including Greyfriars Bobby and William McGonagall – the worst poet in the world.

Which reminds me – Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature, and when you consider its literary heritage, how could it have been otherwise?  Edinburgh was the birthplace of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark and many, many more.   The city is now home to the Writer’s Museum, The National Library of Scotland, The Poetry Library, the Historical Fiction Festival, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The Meadows in May

The Meadows in May

In addition to these literary meccas, there are museums in Edinburgh to cater for any interest: The Edinburgh Museum for a history of the city; the anatomical museum and the Surgeon’s Hall Museum for those interested in medicine. The diversity of the collections in the National Museum of Scotland should keep everyone happy. Edinburgh is also an art lover’s paradise, hosting the Scottish National Gallery, The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps though, you’d prefer a stroll through the green space that is the Meadows – a hectic space during the August festival – but it was glorious when I wandered through last spring.

First there was the old town and then there was the New Town, south of Princes Street.  The neo-classical Georgian architectural marvel, the first section of which was designed by James Craig in 1768 .

new Town Plan 1798

New Town Plan 1768

The street names reflect the then recent union between England and Scotland, and St George’s Square, renamed to avoid confusion with an existing George Square, became Charlotte Square.

Three minutes walk from Charlotte Square is perhaps the most famous pub in Edinburgh: The Oxford Bar, Inspector Rebus’s watering hole.  Pop in during the book festival and you might get to meet the author.

The Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace, home to Mary Queen of Scots, both sit at the foot of the Royal Mile.  A walk uphill will lead you straight to Edinburgh Castle. (I advise you do this bit of sight-seeing in the opposite direction.)

I love the skylines in Edinburgh – whether it be the natural glories of the Salisbury Crags, the towers, turrets and tenements of the Old Town, or the sphinxes on the roofs of Charlotte Square.  Looking up in Edinburgh is a worth-while activity.

Summer Skyline in Princes Street

Summer Skyline in Princes Street

I can never look at the Walter Scott memorial without thinking of Thunderbird 3.  (Sorry Walter.)

As you walk through the city, you realise that Edinburgh is built on many levels.  It slopes down from the heights of the castle to the port of Leith in the east.  And beneath the Royal Mile is an underground warren of 17th century streets, Mary King’s Close,

Edinburgh’s villains are infamous. While the café and pub on the Royal Mile, which remember Deacon Brodie are quite cosy, the man himself, who served as inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, was not. Then there are the bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare.  Well, they started off as bodysnatchers, before deciding that murder was much easier way of provisioning a human corpse.

Weather – Never travel to Edinburgh without a raincoat or a brolly.  Chances of you needing them (particularly in 2015) are quite high,  And should you arrive on the same day as an Edinburgh haar, you might not even see the castle.

Edinburgh Haar

The Edinburgh Haar


X-rated content is located in the regions of the West Port.  I know this only because that area also hosts Edinburgh’s fantastic second-hand bookshops.

Berthed in the Port of Leith is the royal yacht, Britannia. I must visit one day.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz ……. No chance of me dropping off while in Edinburgh.   Mind I do sleep soundly whenever I come back from spending a few days in the city.  Which I am about to do.  The occasion?  See B, C and D.


Source materials: Countless trips to Edinburgh / On Glasgow and Edinburgh – Robert Crawford ISBN 978-0-674-04888-1 / Look Up Edinburgh – Aidrian Searle, David Barbour ISBN  978-1908754776 / All photos my own except James Craigie’s New Town Plan sourced from Wikipedia

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

Dark heart of the nightTranslated from French by Tamsin Black

I read Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night during the recent Women’s World Cup of Literature.  I didn’t like it much to be honest, and decided not to review it.  But Women in Translation Month has changed my mind.  My fellow WWCOL judge put it through to the quarter finals and there may be a wider audience for this cruel tale of man’s inhumanity to man … African to African.  Despite the obvious nod to Conrad’s classic in the title of the – in the author’s opinion – mis-translated English translation, the theme is not post-colonial cruelty.

In a very direct way, Miano challenges African culture.  The novel is set in a fictitious African village, enabling her to reach outside her native Cameroon.  Her main character returns to the village, having been educated in France, an outsider now looking in, all critical facilities intact.  A catalyst for change maybe?  No chance,  Village customs and values are solid, held rigidly in place mainly by the women folk even though they themselves are miserable.  The existence of the village is threatened by revolutionaries in need of new “recruits” and when they descend on the village – in the words of Part One’s epigraph, If the sun is carnivorous, dusk is homicidal.

I might add graphically and sickeningly homicidal.

I have no wish to revisit those events which in my view turned the rest of the novel to ashes. But it was a brave move on the author’s part to critique her own continent so unflinchingly. Why?  I’m not going to answer that.  The author already has.  In that article, which also demonstrates the forthright and plain-speaking style of the novel, she also explains why she thinks the title is mistranslated, and why she demanded that the University of Nebraska withdraw the foreword in their edition of her novel!

That might explain why the novel in English is very hard to find.  I read a pdf version sent by the publisher. An e-book which I can safely say has not suffered the fate of other e-books I have read.  Instantly forgotten. This one not. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.


This August will be as busy, if not busier,  than last August, although I hope to write a couple of new reviews especially for Women In Translation month hosted by Meytal at biblibio.

However, before starting on the new, here’s a quick recap of the books that have crossed my path since last August.  The lean towards works translated from German will surprise no-one who reads this blog for more than 5 minutes  ….

The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons – Monica Cantieni
Translated from German by Donal McLaughlin

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann – Goldstein

Big Bad Wolf – Nele Neuhaus
Translated from German by Steven T Murray

West – Julia Franck
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

The Dark Meadow – Maria Andrea Schenkel
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

Mr Darwin’s Gardener – Kristina Carlson
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts – Teresa Solana
Translated from Catalan by Peter Bush

Family Heirlooms – Zulmera Ribiera Tavares
Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Silence – Mechtild Borrmann
Translated from German by Aubrey Botsford

The Last Lover – Can Xue (Abandoned after 67 torturous pages)
Translated from Chinese by Annabel Finnegan Wasmoen

The Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano (Review to follow.)
Translated from French by Tamsin Black

Delirium – Laura Restrepo
Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky (Reread)
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

Links are to my reviews
My favourite three: Erpenbeck, Bronsky, Solana

So 15 read in their entirety and 11 reviewed – not too shoddy. In comparision I read 21 works by men in translation. The women are holding their own, without any positive gender discrimination on my part. I don’t expect #witmonth will change my behaviour in that regard, but I fully expect to discover a few more irresistable titles as the month progresses. Let the fun begin!

While The Women Are SleepingTranslated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

There’s been a lotta love shown for Javier Marías this #spanishlitmonth.  (Here, here, here and here, with more to follow no doubt.) Enough love to convince me that it was time to dust off the copy that the lovely Frances sent me back in 2011.  (Hangs head in shame.)

This short collection of stories (10 stories/130 pages), published over the course of 30 years, reads very quickly. They are not presented chronologically but the year of publication is noted at the end of each.  So, you could read them chronologically, starting with the one Marías wrote when he was only 14, The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (published 1968 when he was 16) and ending with A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (published 1998).

I didn’t bother with that.  I read from beginning to end noting a preoccupation with mortality, the ironic and the absurd.

The title story and the first of the collection sets the tone.  Two strangers sit talking at night by a deserted swimming pool.  Their wives are sleeping in the hotel rooms.  Or are they?  One of the conversationalists disclosing his absolute obsession with his much younger wife, who he met as a girl.  He is aware that the feeling, now reciprocated, won’t always be, and that before his wife walks aways he will have to kill her.  Is this a joke? It appears not but then he asks the other how certain he can be that she isn’t already dead. There’s enough ambiguity in his story to present his listener with a moral dilemma.  Should he check up on her at the risk of appearing mad, if she is alive and well?  How will he feel if he decides it is none of his business and she is already dead, or worse still, alive but found dead sometime in the future?  What would you do?

The preoccupation with death and what happens afterwards engenders a story written by a corpse, another featuring a series of love letters written by a dead person to a living one, a story of a haunted school, and a ghost who quietly listens as stories are read aloud.  None of Marías spectres are malicious, so these stories are not scary in any way.  They are more metaphysical pieces – the author trying to understand the possibilities of death – in a playful way.

My favourite story was An Epigram of Fealty.  An antiquarian bookseller has just put out some of his rare and valuable books in the window display, when a tramp begins to take a closer look, showing particular interest in the book worth £50,000.  Having been scowled at, the tramp leaves only to return with a few of his street mates.  At this the bookseller goes to shoo them away.  The tramp surprises him with the claim that he is none other than the author of said book, John Gawsworth, King of Redonda.  A likely story.  The bookseller sends them on their way but as he returns to his shop, he can’t help wondering if a) the tramp was telling the truth and b) how much the book would be worth with a signature!

That King of Redonda title a clue to Marías’s playfulness because he is the current King of Redonda and John Gawsworth, a London poet, once was.  More about the Kingdom of Redonda here. If ever, there were proof that fact is stranger than fiction, here it is!

However, I digress.  I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I suspect that beneath the very entertaining surface, there are further layers to be mined.  These stories have certainly switched me onto Marías and I will definitely read more soon.


PS A great recommendation, Frances.  Feel free to send more my way anytime you want.  😳

So this was the week I ticked off something special from my bucket list.  I have always wanted to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Now admittedly they were in Stratford, while I was 312 miles away at the cinema in Hamilton, but in my comfy seat in front of the giant screen, I reckon I had a better view than anyone in the theatre.

The Merchant of Venice was my first introduction to Shakespeare.  Or rather the first Shakespeare I remember reading (because surely we would have been introduced to something more entertaining, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) Anyway, at 14, I hated it, and haven’t given it a thought in the 4 decades since.  Nor do I willingly read Will’s plays, having long since decided that they were written to be seen, not read.

At 50-something, when I finally revisited The Merchant of Venice, I was staggered (no exaggeration) at the validity of its themes for our modern world: Intolerance, hatred of minorities, anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy.  No further detail here because I will soon wade into murky political and religious waters and this blog is not the place for that. The relevance of those themes made clearer by the decision to stage the play in contemporary costume on a stage made of brass, which reflected the audience back to themselves.  This could be you, the underlying insinuation, however uncomfortable that may be.

No-one is perfect and that is particularly true of the characters in the play.  My sympathies swayed back and forth as seemingly honourable characters became stained.  Antonio, who wagers all for his friend, Bassanio (actually lover, no ambiguity about that in this production), lost my support when he spat (literally, no ambiguity about that either!) in Shylock’s face.  That was his most “courageous” action, for the rest of the play he was a love-sick wimp!  Portia, clever, witty Portia, frustrated me with her inability to see through gold-digger, Bassanio, and everyone, but everyone lost any respect I may have had for them for the sheer vindictiveness of the judgment against Shylock.  Talk about kicking a man when he is down.

Makram J Khoury as Shylock (courtesy of the RSC)

Makram J Khoury as Shylock (courtesy of the RSC)

Shylock was not the Fagin-like character calling for his pound of flesh of my memory. Makram J Khoury, a Palestinian-Israeli whose lines sometimes reflected personal experience, portrayed Shylock in a most humane and fragile manner.  Yet he seemed too insistent when it was time to take his knife to Antonio.  The strength of the play, though, is to make that lust for revenge entirely understandable.  But on this stage it felt out of character.  Nevertheless, Shylock, the most honourable of them all, stole the show.

And yet, I can’t say why but I’m not entirely satisfied.  Why would Jessica be in such a rush to betray her father as she did?  There were no explanations of this on stage.  (Have some scenes been skipped?)  I have no recollection of Laucelot Gobbo impregnating Portia’s maid.  (Have some scenes been added?)  Shouldn’t Shylock be as morally ambivalent as the Venetians? Am I, despite my insistence that I won’t do it, going to have to re-read the play after all?  Or will the Shakespearian afficionados among you point me in the direction of the definitive Merchant on DVD? Please.


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