It's All In Your Head

Although I haven’t been posting much, I have been busy reading and attending lots of literary events.

This year kicked off with Han Kang talking about her astonishing novel The Vegetarian and celebrating the publication of her new book Human Acts at Foyles. I’m still gathering my thoughts in order to write about The Vegetarian and may have to do a re-read just because it’s so brilliant. I’ve chosen Human Acts as this month’s book group read for Riverside Readers so I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in. She was incredibly composed and collected and I definitely need to hear more from her.

Then I went to see Hanya Yanagihara’s at Foyle’s to celebrate the publication of her Booker Prize shortlisted A Little Life. I have yet to read the book which almost everyone I have met has ferociously recommended but I do have my copy ready. What was interesting was that at the talk, almost everyone had read it and was fangirl/boying over her. Considering the length and darkness of the book, I think that’s amazing. Yanagihara was so smart and vibrant and witty and I want to be her friend.

Then I went to Asia House to see Paul M.M. Cooper introduce his debut novel Rivers of Ink, a historical novel set in 5th century ancient Sri Lankan capital of Polonnaruwa. I don’t think I’ve read a novel set in Sri Lanka’s historical past since Colin de Silva’s Winds of Sinhala series in the 80s so I’m really looking forward to reading this. Cooper, who is currently in the throes of his PhD in Creative Writing at UEA had spent time in Sri Lanka and even learnt Sinhala – colour me impressed.

I also went to see Joanna Walsh in conversation with Claire Louise Bennet about their new novels Hotel and Pond at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Both were fascinating and I loved Hotel. It’s incredibly exciting for me to come across writers who deconstruct women’s lives in new and intellectually stimulating ways that are just outside conventional social norms.

I also attended a bloggers’ brunch to celebrate the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist chaired by Simon Savidge and with the shortlisted authors, Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All In Your Mind, Alex Phelby for Playthings, Amy Liptrot for The Outrun, Cathy Rentzenbrink for The Last Act of Love (Steve Silberman for Neurotribes and Sarah Moss for Signs for Lost Children were unable to attend that day). It was lovely to meet and catch up with other book bloggers some of whom I’ve known for a while now. I still think it’s wonderful to hear authors speak of their work as it makes you want to read books that you might not otherwise pick up. I found It’s All In Your Mind , which aims to demystify psychosomatic illnesses, incredibly compassionate and well-written and was really pleased to hear it won the Wellcome Book Prize for 2016.

And finally, I went to see my favourite Russian writer Boris Akunin talk about his Fandorin books and Japan at Asia House as part of their Georgia25 week celebrating Georgia’s independance. I’ve started his last one translated into English, The Diamond Chariot, which has a Japanese focus and loving it as usual. Akunin is such an intelligent, witty and self-deprecating man with such wide-ranging interest in almost everything. He spoke of one of his more disapproving critics (Putin) and how although he is ethnically Georgian, he has always lived in Moscow and wrote in Russian and how being cast into the perpetually alternating role of patriot/traitor can wear him out. He even spoke to me in Japanese when he heard my name and assured me that there is another Fandorin title being translated into English. Hurray!

Phew, that was a long list, right? So what have you all been up to? Any interesting books and authors I need to check out?

Umami Mart

You’re probably wondering how long it’s going to take me to talk about all the food I sampled on my short trip to Hong Kong at the end of last year. Well, we still have a long way to go because WE ATE A LOT. This week, I talk about some of the snacky places we stopped by in between our meals. Go and check me out at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish!

In bookish news, I went to see Eleanor Catton in conversation with Booker Prize judge and author Robert Macfarlane at the Union Chapel in Islington and what an event. Catton is articulate and wise for her age and spoke with such passion about her book and her research into her country’s history and astrology, especially her love of astrological apps which allows you to check the historical position of constellations from anywhere. Particularly interesting was her discussion of the role of women in gold-mining towns such as Hokitika which features in her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, and how she wanted to portray her female characters as more than just prostitutes or bar/brothel managers and to avoid any lazy characterisations which is so prevalent in fiction. This is something which happens too frequently, is disappointing and will really stop me from taking a writer seriously. So I’m excited to see how she’ll go about it. I’m right in the middle of The Luminaries at the moment, enjoying it immensely and in awe of Catton’s talent.

The English translation of Haruki Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage will be published this summer but I’m even more excited to learn that Murakami’s new collection of short stories is out in Japan today! It’s titled Onna no Inai Otoko Tachi (女のいない男たち), which can be loosely translated as Men Without Women/Men Who Don’t Have Women, and this is apparently Murakami’s first collection of short stories in nine years.

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.

photo 2

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.

photo 5

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!

Firestation Book Swap

The second event I was very much looking forward to in March was the Firestation Book Swap organised by publisher and blogger Scott Pack and novelist Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly, at Foyles. Since their inaugural book swap in a firestation in Windsor was such a hit, it’s become a monthly event and I’ve been dying to go to one. But Windsor is so far… Tickets were a fiver and we were told to bring a book to swap and that there would be cake.

On arrival, I was given a piece of paper to write a question that had nothing to do with literature or writing and which we put in a bowler hat for later. The guests were writers Matt Rudd, author of The English: A Field guide, and Nick Harkaway, author of The Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World, who began by pitching the books they brought to swap to hilarious effect, especially Rudd’s copy of Mindfulness of which he apparently has three but has never managed to read. Then there were random questions from the audience picked out of the hat including snappy ones such as ‘cheese or wine?’ and ‘when was your first crush?’ Cake was passed around (I had a ginger parkin) and a second bout of book swapping began culminating in a three-way. See, everyone leaves happy.

I don’t think I’ve laughed so much or had so much fun at a literary event before. People were pitching so many different books, there were lots of self-deprecating jokes and lots of home-made cake! It was so nice being in a place where everyone loves and enjoys talking about books in a very relaxed atmosphere. The evening ended with more cake (I had a slice of lemon and passion fruit sponge) and came away with a book I swapped with Scott for Jacob Ritari’s Taroko Gorge.

photo 1

It was also lovely to finally meet Scott who was so warm and friendly. His book blog, Me and My Big Mouth, is one of the first blogs I started following almost 5 years ago before I began chasing bawa. I can’t wait to dig into Brian Aldiss’ The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

I do hope Foyle’s will host another Firestation Book Swap which I urge you all to attend and if you do live near Windsor, lucky you!

photo 4

March seems to be a busy month in literary and publishing circles with lots of parties and events and I recently went to two lovely ones. Penguin Books kindly invited me to their annual Bloggers Night with readings from some of their authors. And wine, of course.

The Bloggers Night at Foyles was Penguin’s fourth event of its kind. I went to the first one as a guest, missed the second, returned for the third and fourth. It’s interesting to see the change in faces and blogging trends and one of the main reasons I go to these events is to catch-up with some of my blogging friends. This year I got to say hello to Annabel, Jackie, Hayley, David, Simon T and Dioni who I have known for around 4 years but don’t get to meet enough to chat about books. Lovely crowd and wonderful bloggers all. And I met Alex from Bookanista and Watermark Books in King’s Cross which has an incredible selection of titles and which you must all visit.

The other main reason is to hear the authors read from their new books, of course. One of the things I love about hearing authors speak is they finish what the blurb on their books set out to do. Sometimes I may not be taken by an unfamiliar author or book but after an author has finished a reading, my interest is often sparked and I rush out to get the book. In this case, it was Simon Wroe who captured what was funny so succinctly in his short reading of Chop Chop that I was instantly seduced.

There was a nice mixture of genres from historical to literary culminating in a performance by Will Self which was very Will Self from his new novel Shark. We also heard from M.J. Carter who read the beginning of her new novel The Infidel Stain, the sequel to her delightful The Strangler Vine. Rebecca Hunt read from her second novel Everland about two antarctic explorations separated in time. I love historical books about polar explorations after reading Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter so I should get stuck into this soon. Elizabeth Fremantle read from Sisters of Treason about the fate of Lady Jane Grey’s sisters – I didn’t realise she had any and I’m sure their lives must have been dramatic. Emma Healey read from Elizabeth is Missing tackling dementia and a missing girl from long ago, Livi Michael from Succession about Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and Nina Stibbe from Man at the Helm about the hilarious consequences of a recently divorced mother and her three kids moving to a small English village in the 70s.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Man at the Helm after hearing Stibbe read as it’s not the kind of book I would normally read but sounded hilariously charming but I’ll have to wait as it’s not out until August.

It was a wonderful evening and I came away with some books too – lucky me.

Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

And three books by Deborah Levy which I plan to read for #ReadWomen2014:
Things I Don’t Want To Know
The Unloved
Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography

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!