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Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

January in Japan: Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996/2010)
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Seventeen-year-old Mari is working at her mother’s hotel when a middle-aged man and a prostitute are thrown out for rowing and disturbing the other guests. Mari is drawn to the man, and starts to see him regularly; he tells her that he’s a Russian translator – the heroine of the novel he’s working on is even named Marie. The two enter into an intimate, masochistic relationship – which, naturally enough, can’t last forever.

Hotel Iris is a quiet book, and all the more powerful and disturbing for it. So thoroughly does Ogawa create the viewpoint of Mari as she’s drawn into the translator’s orbit, it’s a real jolt to be reminded that this man’s intentions are questionable at the very least. But what makes the novel particularly challenging to consider is that Ogawa is clear on the affair’s positive consequences for Mari, as well as the negative ones: it gives her an escape from being put-upon by her mother, however dangerous it might turn out to be. Hotel Iris is an uncomfortable read, in the best possible way.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (2008/12)
Translated by Rebecca Copeland

The latest title in the Canongate Myths series is inspired by the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi – which isn’t a story I know, so inevitably I’m going to miss out on something here. But the intriguing thing for me is that The Goddess Chronicle is written by Natsuo Kirino, and at first glance seems quite different from a gritty urban novel like Out. But look closer, and similarities emerge: both books focus on female characters who try to escape a system designed to hold and define them.

Our narrator is Namima, whom we first meet as a servant of the goddess Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kirino’s novel is the story of how she got there. Namima is born on a tiny island, granddaughter of its spiritual leader, the Oracle. It’s a hereditary position, though Namima’s older sister Kamikuu is destined to become the next Oracle – and it’s not until Kamikuu takes over that Namima learns her preordained role as the Oracle’s sister: to watch over the island’s graveyard for the rest of her life, with no human contact. Namima tries to escape the island with the boy she loves – but tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in Izanami’s realm.

A number of stories overlap in The Goddess Chronicle. There’s Namima’s childhood on the island, which has a measured clarity tempered with a touch of strangeness. There is Namima’s sojourn in the world of the living as a wasp, a fine ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale. And there is the story of Izanami and her brother/lover/enemy Izanagi, which now has Namima as a witness. Their story provides a point of comparison and contrast with Namima’s own. All is wrapped up in clean prose that gives this engaging novel a mythic feel of its very own.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Click here for the index of my posts.

War Stories: Hassan Blasim and Ben Fountain

Hassan Blasim, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)

One thing I feel I ought to do more often as a reader and reviewer is engage with the issues; I tend to think more about how novels and stories work as pieces of fiction, and park the issues they deal with to one side. I probably shouldn’t do that, and certainly couldn’t do that with the stories in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (translated by Jonathan Wright), because they’re all about how stories shape people’s experiences of war and its consequences.

The opening piece, ‘The Reality and the Record’, illustrates what I mean. After a scene-setting introduction – which explains that refugees arriving at reception centres have the stories they tell to gain asylum, and the stories they keep to themselves, the ones about what really happened to them – we launch into the main body of the story, an account given to a Swedish immigration official by an Iraqi refugee. Our narrator tells how he was kidnapped from his work as an ambulance driver, and forced to appear in a video claiming to be a member of the Iraqi army. He describes how, over the subsequent months and years, he was kept in captivity, sold from group to group, and placed in front of a camera innumerable times, to play all manner of roles.

Stories upon stories upon stories – not just all these fake videos, but the refugee’s account itself, because who would believe such an outlandish tale? Generally speaking, I’d read something like ‘The Reality and the Record’ and praise its aesthetics in using story, the way it resists a definitive interpretation… I can still do these things, but I can’t ignore the emotional impact of Blasim’s portrayal of war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost. The narrator of the tale’s frame comments at the end that ‘the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: “I want to sleep,”’ p.11); those four words say so much.

Elsewhere in The Madman of Freedom Square, we see more characters being damaged and destroyed by war, stories, or both. The narrator of the title story refused to believe tales of two young blond men who left good fortune in their wake, until he was wounded in an explosion and apparently rescued by them; Blasim shows how blurred the line between sanity and delusion may be, and the final sentences are especially chilling. ‘The Truck to Berlin’ is another tale which layers hearsay upon anecdote in depicting what happens to a group of Iraqi men who pay to be smuggled out of the country; in the darkness of the truck, they don’t know what’s happening, or even if they’re actually heading to Berlin as promised – the conclusion is both brutal and powerful.

Dedicated ‘to the Dead of the Iran-Iraq War’, ‘An Army Newspaper’ revolves around a fairly straightforward – but nonetheless effective – metaphor. The now-deceased editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page narrates how he received anonymously-authored exercise books containing the stories of soldiers, and published them – to great acclaim – under his own name. But the books kept coming, until he was besieged. At the story’s close, the editor cries out to the writer who has temporarily brought him back to life, ‘why do you need an incinerator for your characters?’ (p.20). That’s just one example of how Blasim brings home the stark realities of war. Not all the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are as successful, but the best pieces alone make the book worth buying. I’m very grateful to M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog for bringing Blasim’s work to my attention.

***

A new novel of the Iraq war comes from US author Ben Fountain, a debut novelist in his fifties. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the star of ‘Bravo squad’, who became the toast of America after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and the video went viral. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set on the final day of the soldiers’ ‘Victory Tour’ organised by the government, when they will be guests of honour at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, before returning to Iraq.

Fountain’s main subject could be summed up, I think, as the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home – it’s all about stories again. The people he meets on the Victory Tour treat Billy like a hero:

They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness (pp. 39-40).

But for Billy, what he did on that day in Iraq was – well, just something he had to do:

Billy did not seek the heroic deed, no. The deed came for him, and what he dreads like a cancer in his brain is that the deed will seek him out again (p. 40).

Already, new realities are being woven around those three minutes in the life of Bravo squad. Technically, even the name ‘Bravo squad’ is incorrect, but that’s what they’ve been dubbed by the media, and so that is who they now are. Movie rights are being negotiated: Hilary Swank is interested in playing Billy, and the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant in the face of a possible film deal. So, the boys of Bravo are losing control of their destiny, but they’re used to it: ‘manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ (p. 28)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of those books which I had to keep stopping reading to make note of something interesting; I don’t find myself doing that as often as I’d like. I’m still left with a nagging sense, though, that the plot of Billy Lynn is not quite enough to support a novel of this length – but there is a nicely-done sub-plot in which Billy falls for a cheerleader at the stadium, which has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a teenage crush that begins suddenly but may not have the chance to last.

But it’s Fountain’s prose to which I keep returning. One of my favourite sections in the novel comes when Bravo squad are introduced to the footballers and Billy sees behind the scenes: there’s a clear contrast drawn between these enormous men with all facilities on hand, and the soldiers of Bravo squad. As his Victory Tour comes to an end, Billy reflects on the implications of the discrepancy between the image and reality of war:

For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force…Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets (p. 306).

Whether in Fountain’s novel or Blasim’s collection, the stories win – and, so often, it’s the characters who lose.

Links

The Madman of Freedom Square
Hassan Blasim’s website
The publisher, Comma Press.
Interview with Blasim at The Short Review.
Some other reviews: A Year of Reading the World; Mithran Somasundrum for The Short Review; M. Lynx Qualey for The Quarterly Conversation; Alan Whelan for Lancashire Writing Hub.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Interview with Ben Fountain in The Scotsman.
The publisher, Canongate Books.
Some other reviews: Naomi Frisby for Bookmunch; Bite the Book; Boston Bibliophile; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Book notes: coming of age in Texas… and a history of sweets

Tom Wright, What Dies in Summer (2012)

Tom Wright’s debut novel chronicles one summer in the life of Jim Bonham, who lives in Texas with his grandmother (having been estranged from his mother and her current partner, and his father having passed away), and has frequent visions of a dead girl standing by his bed. At the start of the novel, Jim finds his cousinL.A.(Lee Ann)  sitting, shaking on the porch; she becomes part of his and Gram’s household, and what happened to her will be revealed over the coming months. That summer will also see the two teenagers discover a dead body (the girl of Jim’s visions), and Jim learning more about life and himself.

It’s in the latter aspect that What Dies in Summer shines brightest for me. Jim draws a distinction between being intelligent and smart, and comments that L.A. is much smarter than he. We see evidence of this near the beginning, when L.A. verbally outmanoeuvres a stranger who tries to trap her and Jim, when the latter would clearly never have been able to think like that. However, despite his lack of street-wisdom, and despite the fact that L.A. remains largely a closed book to him, Jim does grow and learn through his encounters with both dark and light aspects of life; Wright creates some beautifully judged passages depicting this. Jim’s narration also has a nicely unpolished quality, which really makes it feel like a voice that belongs to its character (something I do like to see in a first-person narrative). All in all, I’d say that Tom Wright is an author to keep an eye on, and What Dies in Summer certainly a debut worth checking out.

Tim Richardson, Sweets: a History of Temptation (2002)

Regular readers of this blog may know I’m partial to a bit of quirky social or cultural history; so much the better if, like Joe Moran’s On Roads, it can reach a little deeper than its immediate subject. Sweets is not on the same level as Moran’s book – perhaps inevitably, given that its subject matter is rather frivolous – but it is fun and interesting.

Tim Richardson takes a broadly chronological approach, with brief asides to focus on particular kinds of sweet. I find the book’s account of the early history of sweets a little dry in places, a little too heavy on detail; more engaging and lively are the anecdotes and insights on contemporary sweets – though the chapter on nineteenth-century confectioners and their ‘benevolent tyranny’ is fascinating. But Richardson’s enthusiasm is apparent throughout; and his closing whistle-stop tour of the world’s sweet cultures leaves me curious to know what some of the products he mentions taste like.

This book fulfils the Cookery, Food and Wine category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Ghosts and Lightning (2009) by Trevor Byrne

It takes only a few words to turn Denny Cullen’s life upside-down: ‘Ma’s gone. Jesus Denny, yeh have to come home.’ And it takes only a few pages for Trevor Byrne to establish himself as a writer who needs to be read. In that first chapter, Denny makes a hasty return to Dublin, leaving his life in Wales behind; the fragmented second-person impressions of the city, interspersed with the chatter of the twerp from the bus whom he’d rather ignore, convey brilliantly Denny’s sense of numbness at his abrupt loss and return.

The rest of Ghosts and Lightning is told in first-person, in Denny’s Dublin vernacular. It does feel a little awkward, structurally, that the initial ‘frame’ is never returned to; but this is a minor gripe when set against the way thaat the narration brings Denny to life as a character. More than that, actually, I’d say it comes to symbolise Denny’s situation — unable to leave his old life behind, just as his accent will go with him wherever he goes.

Not that Denny’s going anywhere right now. ‘I’m runnin and gettin nowhere at the same time,’ he says. ‘I remember feelin, when I first left for Wales, that I was in control. And I feel anythin but in control now.’ He’s stuck: no job, no transport of his own, living in his mother’s old house with his sister Paula (who has let the place go to seed), estranged from his brothers (one of whom legally owns the house, and may threaten eviction), friends mixed up in drugs… The list goes on. Ghosts and Lightning is a chronicle of how Denny tries to navigate his way through all this.

If all that sounds like hard going, rest assured it is not. The use of vernacular gives the telling an energy that keeps one reading, and there are some nicely amusing scenes along the way (such as when Denny goes to buy a clapped-out old car from his brother, and it turns out to be full of chickens).

However, Byrne’s novel has a serious heart, and is especially concerned (I feel) with how we may try to deal with tragic events, like the death of a close relative. One of the themes that really stands out for me is that of using stories to give shape to life. In Denny’s rather desperate words: ‘Stories though, man. The way they work on yeh. They’re a kind o spell, aren’t they? Or a prayer, maybe, some o them. An article of faith. How the fuck else can yeh make sense o things, like? […] There has to be meanin.’

But must there?  Ghosts and Lightning is (deliberately, I think) somewhat episodic in structure, its chapters feeling like a series of anecdotes; and it demonstrates how life’s uneven edges are usually smoothed off to create fiction. One sees this, too, in the way Bryne deploys supernatural and mythical concepts. Denny and other characters frequently refer to such things: most prominently, Paula thinks there’s a ghost haunting the house; but there’s also that last quotation above, and many other examples. Yet none of it turns out to be real, nor does it really feel as though Byrne wants us to entertain the possibility — rather, I see it as another manifestation of stories not working in the real world.

If there are problems with Ghosts and Lightning, I think they’re artefacts of the episodic structure to which I referred above. Maybe the plot is not as tight as one might wish, but that’s probably the point. And the structure sets up a particular rhythm of reading that (for me) lessens the impact of some of the shifts in tone (they become one small jolt among many).

However, these are easily ouwteighed by all the good things about the novel. I haven’t yet elaborated on Byrne’s sharp observation of charatcter. Take, for example, this description of two ‘old women obsessed with the clergy’, who attend a funeral: ‘two pious vultures, their eyes filled with gleeful sorrow.’ Or the comment about Denny’s brother’s wife, who insisted they erect a satellite dish because ‘she didn’t want people assumin she hadn’t the money for cable TV.’

Places, too, are strikingly described, with Denny suggesting that Ireland has issues of its own to work through: ‘We’re a shoddy country ourselves too, full o guilt and doubt and hidden nastiness. It’s just that, given a possibly brief period o financial well-bein, we happen to scrub up well.’ Denny and his country might, then, be seen as being in analogous situations. During the course of Ghosts and Lightning, we see the difficulties that both have — and, by novel’s end, that there may be a way forward for both. It’s a realistically optimistic end to a fine first novel.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

 ***

And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…

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