Daunt Books Festival 2014

The end of March saw the inaugural Daunt Books Festival in Marylebone which featured some exciting events and authors. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Daunt Books, but the flagship store on Marylebone High Street is a wondrous cavern of delights filled with natural light and an incredible selection of books divided by country. I’m off to Spain and Portugal in June and had a good look around for books to read and came away with a couple – Journey to Portugal by José Saramago and Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi.

When I tweeted about visiting Daunt Books and getting a copy of Comyns’ Sisters By a River, they contacted me to say there was a Virago Modern Classics event where four panelists will be discussing Comyns, amongst others, and would I like a ticket. It’s the first time I’ve seen an event featuring Comyns and jumped at the chance as Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is one of my favourite books. I got myself another ticket to see four up and coming authors too and took a half day off work.

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The first event of the morning, Celebrating Virago Modern Classics, featured Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Levy and was chaired by Virago publisher, Lennie Goodings. Virago was set up almost forty years ago to champion the importance of women’s literature and experiences, from forgotten classics to new writing.

Levy spoke of her love of Muriel Spark’s spare and precise prose to Angela Carter’s luscious, subversive novels. O’Farrell spoke of how it was impossible to see Comyns’ literary heritage as her novels are so unique. She used to buy any Virago Modern Classic she came across, no questions asked, because of their quality and feminist slant, especially Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour about the Anglo-Irish in the dying days of the Empire and its keen calibration of society and family and Rosamund Lehman’s The Weather in the Streets, sequel to Invitation to the Waltz. And finally Boyt discussed Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories, a novelist whom she describes as a writer’s writer who can achieve in one sentence, everything that needs to be said, and one with startlingly original ideas and who doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

The session was packed and it was incredible to see how popular the Virago Modern Classics are even today.

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The second session, Bright Young Novelists, featured Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld and was chaired by literary critic Edmund Gordon. I had heard Hunt read a few weeks earlier from her new novel but it was interesting to see the discussion with her fellow writers. All three novelists have published their second and third novels: Hunt has just published Everland, Foulds, In the Wolf’s Mouth and Wyld, All the Birds, Singing.

Asked why none of them wrote zeitgeisty books, they agreed that they needed to be interested in what they were tackling as it needed to sustain them for a very long period and writing something too close to home, in time and place, would place a greater pressure to get things right. Also on the process of writing their second and third novels, Hunt said she felt as though she was learning all over again, Foulds that each book is different and difficult in new ways and Wyld that with each novel, you think you are going to write what you really want but it doesn’t quite happen and that is what keeps you going. What an interesting discussion which provided an insight into the working life of young writers.

Both sessions came with perks, the first was a cup of fresh juice from The Natural Kitchen and the second was a delicious sausage roll from Ginger Pig.

I’d like to thank Daunt Books and Emily who kindly invited me to Celebrating Virago Modern Classics and for organising such a lovely, vibrant festival. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

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Umami Mart

It’s been a while, right? It doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating. At the end of last year, I did a runner for my birthday and flew to Perth with my friends and stopped in Hong Kong on the way back. It was 3 days of eating and sightseeing and boy did we manage to eat lots and lots of incredible Chinese food. And we insisted on only Chinese food. And we started with Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sum joint where you have to queue with the locals and there is no special treatment. But it is SO worth it. Check me out at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish!

In bookish news, I finally finished parts 1 & 2 of Haruki Murakami’s chunkster, 1Q84. I’ll review it once I finish part 3 which I am dying to read. It’s proving to be one of my favourite Murakami novels at the moment. I’m currently trying to finish Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, my pick for this month’s book group which I can only describe as different.

Upcoming is a brand new literary festival hosted by Daunt Books, details here, on March 27th and 28th. Some quality sessions including one to celebrate Virago Modern Classics. Deborah Levy will be there and they will be discussing Barbara Comyns, one of my favourite authors! So do put it in your diaries. I recently swung by Daunt Books in Marylebone and got myself one of their canvas bags in navy and a copy of Sisters By A River.

I’m so glad that Virago is bringing Comyns back into print. I wouldn’t have discovered her if not for Simon T kindly sending me an out of print copy of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead which was magnificent. More people need to read her!

Sisters By A River

So, once again I hauled myself to sunnier climes just so I could get a taste of sun, sand and curries. And literature, of course!

This time round, the 6th Galle Literary Festival was held a week earlier than usual and was, to my mind, a little smaller and leaner. The clash with the Jaipur Literary Festival meant that some authors were unable to travel the extra mile to Sri lanka. Boo.

So although I missed the likes of Katie Kitamura, who I was dying to meet, there were still some golden nuggets waiting to be discovered.

For me, one of the highlights of the festival this year was having the privilege of listening to John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who was a charming speaker and extremely witty. He apparently wrote the first draft of the novel in 2 weeks (and then spent the next 8 months rewriting like a normal human being). What was interesting was that he said the story just came to him and he knew that if he didn’t write it down, he would lose it. Split second decisions, eh? Although I haven’t read the book yet, I watched the film last year and was utterly awed and heartbroken by the tale. When questioned about the film, Boyne said that although there were some minor changes when translating the tale onto screen, he was very happy with the way the film was made. It’s a beautiful film and made me want to read the book. He talked about the reception of the book and the criticisms which naturally came due to the subject matter. The most vociferous critics were not the actual Holocaust survivors, who embraced his work, but third parties just like himself who had no connection to the Holocaust. In one event in New York, someone in the audience actually came up and punched him! But Boyne related all this with humour and I think everyone in the audience in Galle fell in love with him then. But did you know that he has also written seven other books? Neither did I, but I’m planning to check them out. It’s interesting that after finishing a book, Boyne prefers to write something completely different and in a completely different voice.

If you visit Sri Lanka and like browsing in bookshops, you will often come across reference to Robert Knox, castaway, survivor and friend of Daniel Defoe. Knox spent 19 years from 1660 in Sri Lanka as a prisoner/guest of the last Kandyan King, Rajasinghe II. Katherine Frank spoke about her new book Crusoe, laying arguments to support her case that Robinson Crusoe was based on Knox and that Daniel Defoe mercilessly plagiarised Knox’s own account of his imprisonment, An Historical Relation of the island Ceylon, which recounts his 19 years in minute detail. What an extraordinary man and an extraordinary story. I’d been meaning to read Knox’s memoir for ages and Frank’s talk has finally made me go out and buy the two volumes. Alas, they were too heavy to carry back so I left them at home to read when I next visit. Although there are some that dispute Frank’s theory, her talk was compelling enough for me to want to read her book and make up my own mind.

I also went to see a talk given by Juliet Nicolson at the beautiful Amangalla Hotel about Sissinghurst, the home in which she grew up which was owned by her grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Vita Sackville-West is, of course, notorious for her affair with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis (I think I first read about her in a compilation of wicked women!) Nicolson’s descriptions of her beloved childhood home and her colourful family was entertaining and lovely and I have a mind to visit the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst now.

I was also lucky enough to meet and participate in a workshop with Roshi Fernando, a Sri Lankan British author who is passionate and witty and gave useful tips about the architecture of the novel. I got a copy of her book Homesick , about the British Sri Lankan experience, signed and ready to read. And I was tickled to learn she has read my blog:)

Roshi Fernando also participated in a talk with Randy Boyagoda whose new book, Beggar’s Feast, about a self-made Sri Lankan man who lived until 100 and had 3 wives, 2 of whom he killed, has just been published too. Curated by Manju Kapoor, the two authors discussed identity and literature and the expatriate experience which also led to a heated discussion about accents and acceptance. Very thought-provoking indeed.

And finally, I did have a ticket to see Richard Dawkins who had apparently packed out the hall, but I gave it to my dad who misplaced his ticket as he’s become interested in religion (even though he is an atheist). Apparently the talk was brilliant, but hey, I can always catch him on tv here.

So although I felt this year wasn’t as flashy and razzmatazzy as last year, I had a fun-filled 4 days in Galle, eating, reading and discovering new sights. Since last year, there’s been an awful amount of work being done on restoring the historic fort, all the roads have been repaved, buildings restored, new cafes and restaurants and LOTS and LOTS of tourists. It was packed and although it’s harder to get rooms, it made me happy to see the place so bustling. Apparently next year’s GLF will be moved to March to avoid overcrowding and give people a chance to book rooms (we booked ours a year in advance).

With the new highway from Colombo just opened, it now takes only an hour to drive to Galle and many of our friends have apparently been down just for dinner. Usually it takes about 3 hours and you wouldn’t think of visiting Galle without staying overnight. Apart from one unlucky, flat, kabaragoya, we didn’t see many animals on the highway either.

Hello there. How are you?

I seem to have missed chatting with you all as the end of 2011 gathered speed and bulldozed all my me-time in a swirl of get-togethers, cocktails and lots and lots of comestibles. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t say no.

I’ll soon be off on my yearly trip to Sri Lanka and will be checking out the Galle Literary Festival again. This time, I have done NO preparation for the festival and will be going with the flow. I think this may be how 2012 will be for me. More chillin’, less frettin’.

I am, however, looking forward to seeing Katie Kitamura talk about her novel The Longshot. I got a copy for my brother-in-law who has given it a big thumbs up as an avid fan and practitioner of MMA himself. I will, of course, be borrowing the book from him once he’s finished, hehe. Juliet Nicholson will also be there to talk about The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War – a favourite historical period of mine. Richard Dawkins, John Boyne and D.J. Taylor will also be there. And I’m excited to seek more new Sri Lankan authors such as Randy Boyagoda and Roshi Fernando who will be talking about Sri Lankan writing in the diaspora. And this time, I’ll hopefully find out more about Sri Lankans writing in Sri Lanka. As usual, there will be panel discussions on literature, politics and war (as Sri Lanka recovers from its 30 year internal conflict) and documentaries about life in the north and the history of Dutch burghers. Lots of interesting stuff to look forward to.

I’ve got myself a brand new spanking phone and hopefully will be able to twitter about the GLF if I can find free wi-fi.

And that’s not all. I’ll be taking a short trip to Bangkok where I’ll be stuffing my face with all sorts of Thai delights! That’s what my family do, you see. We travel to eat. Sticky rice and mango, here I come! And of course, pop into Kinokuniya to stock up on some Japanese books.

So I will leave you with a tentative list of books I’m planning to bung into my suitcase:

Dust of Dreams (Malazan 8) by Steven Erikson
Clash of Kings (Song of Ice and Fire 2) by George R.R. Martin
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – as I doubt I’ll finish it before I go
Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka – What? I still haven’t read this?
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – if it doesn’t push my suitcase over the weight limit
And a couple of mysteries I haven’t decided upon yet.

So what are you all up to? Any plans for the new year? Or is there a book I absolutely must take with me on holiday? Come on, spill!

I’ve been a huge fan of Virginia Nicholson’s since reading Singled Out a few years ago and have been meaning to finish reading Among the Bohemians which I was enjoying too until I got side-tracked. However, I was lucky enough to bag a proof of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, Nicholson’s newest book and social history of women at the homefront during WWII, and I began reading it in preparation for her talk at the Soho Literary Festival a few weekends ago. And what a wonderful talk it was, interspersed with music from that period, and the wonderful Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, asking some pretty forthright questions. I was expecting a cosy chat but the discussion delved into some rather dark places, unsurprising when you consider the topic was war and its consequences. Yet somehow you think that it’ll be softer because it’s about women. I never seem to learn because I should really know by now that it’s never soft and easy when the subject is about women and their place in society.

Singled Out
was about WWI and surplus women, many unhappy that their lives would never follow the paths they had envisaged before the Great War but also an opportunity for others who were able to shake off the shackles of traditional marriage and society and embark upon a life far from conformity. Millions Like Us is about the women left behind during WWII who not only had to hold their families together, but also take up the jobs traditionally done by men as the armies gobbled them up. It’s also a chronicle of the sudden loosening of class structure and ambition as young women signed up to do something for their country as normal life ceased. Although money, food and material things became scarce, other freedoms emerged, as young women left home to take up jobs, earn money they were never able to before and embark upon relationships and discover sex. Six years of war, hardship, loss, love and experience and finally, when they thought that peace had been won and all was over, that they could return to normal life again, things were no longer the same. Even though many returned to being mothers, wives and dutiful daughters, something had irrevocably changed within many of the women.

The most profound thing I came away with after finishing Millions Like Us was the sense of dissatisfaction many women felt after the war ended. Their sense of self worth and resilience was brushed aside as the returning husbands, fathers and boyfriends resumed their control over their womenfolk. It hit hard how controlled women’s lives were and actually how difficult it was mentally to break the chains that bound them to their social station. The women had learnt that they were capable of working as hard as men and that they were good at their jobs. But what was lauded during war-time was no longer the case afterwards. It was rather sad to read about this. But you could also see how exhausted these women were, how they wanted life to return to normal and how they couldn’t fight against the established social hierarchy. And how could you with babies and domestic chores and your jobs being given back to the men?

Nicholson weaves the stories of about 50 women including that of her mother throughout her book. The stories are funny, sweet, sad and bitter and cover a spectrum of social strata. The little feuds between the different social classes, the love affairs, the tough jobs and the snatches of fun. If it were only these stories during the war, the book may have quickly lost its appeal, but Nicholson cleverly discusses what happened after the war, especially for those women who went on to work in Germany, helping with the rebuilding and organising including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. One of the more heartrending stories is of the plight of the women in Berlin, the rapes of thousands of German women by the Red Army and how many of the British women working in this climate never recovered from what they witnessed. It’s heartbreaking and, although this is a topic that could not be addressed in depth here, it’s a starting point for those who may be interested to know more about this dark period in history and I believe it is something that needs to be known rather than swept under the carpet as discussions of rape often are. I have to confess I knew almost nothing about this dark episode even though I did study WWII history at school but I recently found a copy of A Woman in Berlin published anonymously, but widely believed to be by journalist Marta Hiller about her experience in this particular period, which I will be reading shortly.

Millions Like Us is not the definitive book on the subject, but it’s a good start as it’s certainly a topic that is complex, multi-faceted and needs to be discussed. And it reaches deep into the differences between men and women and why there seems to be a necessity for keeping women under control. In some ways it is frightening to read about the hostility with which women are regarded if they step outside what is considered acceptable. I’m lucky to be able to live my life in the way I want without anyone controlling me. It just hits home how privileged I am.

And do check out Nymeth’s wonderful post as well.

A big thank you to Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

Slightly Peckish Tuesday

27 September, 2011

I have been BUSY this summer playing with my friends and we celebrated the end of the sunless season in London with my very first visit to Oktoberfest in Munich. For those of you who don’t drink beer (and I’m normally one of them) it’s the largest beer festival in the world and has just celebrated 200 years of fine beer brewing and drinking last year. So don your dirndls and lederhosen and have a peek at what I got up to at Umamimart: Slightly Peckish!

In bookish news, I popped down to the inaugural Soho Literary Festival last weekend and caught two events: Virginia Nicholson (author of Among the Bohemians and Singled Out and Virginia Woolf’s grandniece!) talking about her book Millions Like Us about women on the homefront in WW2, and a conversation between PD James and Ruth Rendell, two of crime fiction’s finest. Both events were fantastic and I came away with even more respect and awe for all three writers, especially PD James who is witty, feisty and adorable. Total girl crush. And did you know she is 91?? An unbelievable lady.

OK, so I didn’t really go into the controversies and boycotts that plague the Galle Literary Festival each year after my rant last year. However, to me it seems that literary festivals always come with boycotts for the publicity they generate, and in a country recovering from war, it’s effect is even more devastating and emotional. I really doubt whether the government is even taking notice of the literary festival which isn’t state-funded considering it has so many other pressing matters to deal with such as the rehabilitation of its people and land as well as the floods that have plagued the north east of Sri Lanka these past few months. But GLF’s founder Geoffrey Dobbs’ heartfelt speech at the end of the festival touched a chord. It may be a small contribution and the festival may have seen its share of rich socialites from Colombo who aren’t interested in literature, yet it has brought much-needed income to the areas surrounding Galle, the shops, restaurants and tuk tuk drivers as well as people from around the world who care about what is happening in the world and have an opinion and who also happen to love literature.

I say literary festivals should generate discussion. So, here’s a round-up of some interesting articles that came my way:

My friend Fëanor who blogs at Jost A Mon sent me this article expressing disappointment that the GLF features literature only in English and not in Sinhala or Tamil.

Jack Point who blogs at Court Jester left a comment on my post about why the boycott is wrong.

Malinda Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan journalist whose newspaper article my father sent my way.

And finally one of my favourite writers, V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage, has written a piercing piece about what it means to participate in literary festivals, especially the GLF. Hear, hear!