Category Archives: Book Festival Reviews

Ideas of India: The Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library 2017

When events are successful in one place, it often makes sense to send them travelling so that people in other cities and countries can enjoy them, too. The fourth UK edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, taking place in the Pink City every January and started by writers Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple in 2008, was held for the first time at the British Library, from 20-21 May 2017. I was looking forward to exploring a culture and its literature which I knew very little about before the festival, although India has been on my bucket list for quite some time. The diverse two-day programme with authors from across the globe was made up of 30 tempting sessions for literature lovers and also offered some beautiful Indian live music, including a lively set by amazing Mumbai-based band Kabir Café on Saturday night. I did my very best to attend as many of the events as possible and came home with some great stories and lots of fascinating reading material in my very beautifully designed festival bag.

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The very first event on Saturday morning was a live music session with singer Vidya Shah and poet Arundhati Subramaniam introducing us to some mystical devotional Bhakti poetry in the Piazza tent set up for the festival in the courtyard of the British Library. I stayed on for ‘The Beatles in India’ with Beatles biographer Philip Norman, who had some very entertaining and surprising stories on the band’s time at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.

Academic Rachel Dwyer’s interview of Bollywood director Karan Johar was predictably popular. Having not been much of a fan of this genre of film before, it definitely made me curious to find out more about its history and place in Indian culture in future. One of my favourite panel discussions on Saturday was ‘Migrant Words’ with writers Amit Chaudhuri, Lila Azaam Zanganeh, Meera Syal and Prajwal Parajuly very ably and humorously chaired by Anita Anand. The panellists shared their thoughts on and issues with identity and home, which all of us not living in the countries we were born in can certainly identify with. One of the most surprising and enlightening events for me was ‘The Genetics of Skin’, which I hadn’t originally had on my to-attend-list. Dr. Sharad Paul talked eloquently about the history of the human skin and skin colour and how it affects our health in a myriad of ways.

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The ‘India Votes’ as well as ‘The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art’ sessions were a great reminder why I love festivals so much as places of informal learning, as I picked up a lot of information about Indian politics and art. While most of the other attendees I spoke to had a connection with India and therefore an obvious reason for being there, there were also other members of the audience who had been brought along by friends or were planning a trip to India in the near future. As far as I’m concerned, festivals which promote a particular culture or country are a great place to do research for your travels as – unlike in most regular guide books – they provide you with up to date information on current events (e.g. recommendations for The Sacred Pushkar Festival and The Ragasthan Festival) and access to lots of knowledgeable people to quiz about your chosen destination.

The second and last festival day was equally busy. The ‘Footloose’ travel session, which was one of my favourites purely because it was such a pleasure to hear some of the top travel writers read from their own work, in this case William Dalrymple, Anthony Sattin, Hugh Thomson, Samanth Subramanian and Monisha Rajesh. A little later, British writer Giles Milton told us the fascinating story of ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’, which highlighted the many issues and quite gruesome conduct during colonial times. Food for thought indeed.

‘Shaping the Novel’ with writers Kunal Basu, Sarvat Hasin, Amit Chaudhuri and Tahmima Anam discussing the art of novel writing with festival director Namita Gokhale and ‘Ideas of India’, a panel discussion with some of the festival authors, were a real treat at the end of this wonderful festival, which was illuminating in so many ways. Most importantly, it has put India on the map for me and I’m not just talking about its vibrant, diverse culture, but the many individual voices I listened to over the weekend, the identities this vast country is shaped by and their hopes for a common humanity, which we can all learn from.

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On a more practical note, all weekend the three festival venues inside the British Library, the large knowledge centre theatre, the Piazza tent and the BL foyer (these events were free to attend, which was good to see given that all events at the original festival are free, too) were brimming with lively energy. I have rarely seen such a smiley – even if naturally extremely busy – festival team. Every single event I’ve been to was very well attended, which suggests that the organisers might look into expanding the venues in the years to come. It would also be lovely to see additional, possibly more interactive events, in order to draw in a younger crowd, too, as well as some Indian food and drink to also get to know the various flavours of Indian cooking.

Quite exhausted from the two-day literature marathon, but very happy to have learned so much about the many different Indias, I am now even more keen to make it to Rajasthan for the original Jaipur Literature Festival, which is the largest free festival of its kind. Those of you based in the USA or heading there later in the year might like to know that the festival will also be travelling to Boulder, Colorado (another place on my ever-growing bucket list) in September 2017. You just can’t escape extraordinary literature!

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the festival.

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A Bookish Christmas: The Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2016

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where everything revolves around books, where you can spend a whole weekend browsing tons of second-hand bookshops all without leaving the little town you’re staying in? Then the world’s first ‘book town’, Hay-on-Wye is definitely for you! Since Richard Booth (bookshop pictured below) opened his first bookshop in the little Welsh town near Hereford in the 1960s many other towns from all around the world have followed his example and joined the International Organisation of Book Towns.

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I had been to the ‘big’ book festival in the summer of 2009 once before the year I started the blog and had had an absolutely fabulous time, but had never made it to the winter edition until this year. It was exactly what I needed a month before Christmas: a few days away from it all in a cosy B&B surrounded by books, taking in the beautiful scenery, munching mince pies and sipping mulled wine like it was an Olympic sport AND a book festival on top of all that – genius!

I had arrived in Hay on Friday night just in time for the big Christmas light switch-on with Ben Fogle in the centre of town. There was a little Christmas market in a sizeable tent by the Cheese Market and it was the first time this year I really felt like Christmas isn’t all that far off now. A little later that evening a lot of us gathered for music of a very different kind, the Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band. It took place in the Castle, which is about to get an exciting makeover (more details below), one large room of which was nicely decorated with holly twigs, a real Christmas tree and a roaring fire in the corner. After a few minutes, the West African beats had everyone shedding their coats and dancing as if we were partying in much more sunny climes.

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Saturday morning started out well with an intriguing talk by Gruffyd Aled Williams about the significance of Owain Glyndwr in Welsh history followed by braving the pretty chilly temperatures on an equally fascinating guided tour of the now obsolete Hay Railway, which was in fact a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway and was in operation from 1864 to 1962. After having checked out the pop-up stalls of the food festival and warmed up with some spiced apple cake and latte at the Old Stables Tea Rooms in the centre of Hay, it was time for another event, this time in St. Mary’s church. Ben Rawlence talked about his book ‘City of Thorns’, which describes life in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya and we also heard from Yohannes who made it to the UK from Ethiopia via the Libyan desert and Calais. Lots of food for thought about what home means to all of us, especially at this time of the year.

I ended the evening with a lovely carol singalong in Hay Castle with more mulled wine, homemade mince pies and in good company. It was strange being in a small community such as Hay where nearly everyone knows each other and it felt at times almost like gate-crashing some sort of private celebration. I did meet a few others though who had come from further afield, such as London, like myself, Manchester and even Belgium to attend the festival. We all agreed we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that weekend.

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My Sunday began with an absolutely fabulous tour of Hay Castle (read up on its history and planned restoration on the Hay Castle Trust website) led by Mari Fforde. I’ve always loved how old houses preserve so much history over the centuries and was glad to see how passionate the local committee is about keeping their local history alive. It was a really dark, cold day, but thankfully the town centre was lit up by many beautiful lights, all the shop windows were lovingly decorated, there was a vintage festival on in town and many mugs of hot beverages waiting to be consumed by thirsty festival goers.

After finally having had enough time to do a really good bookshop crawl (yessss!), I attended my last talk of the weekend, ‘Browse: The World in Bookshops’, with the book’s editor Henry Hitchings who was interviewed by Hay Festival director Peter Florence (see picture below) in the Swan hotel, which was also the official festival HQ. The festival closing event at the Castle was another concert, this time with Australian born, Bristol based singer-songwriter Nuala Honan. Of course, there was more mulled wine and more lively conversation until it was time for the short walk back to my B&B and, alas, bye bye to Hay-on-Wye the following morning.

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Judging by the many sold out events of the weekend, the smaller, more intimate sister of the bigger Hay Festival is definitely a successful addition to the already existing roster of literary events in Hay. For me, it was the perfect booklovers weekend getaway and now I’m looking forward to Christmas even more!

Hay also has a vibrant social media presence, if you’re into that kind of thing. Do check out the below twitter accounts for updates on events, foodie delights and more if you’re planning a visit: @hayfestival @HayHOWLs (to stop the closure of their local library!) @chefonrun @BoothsBookshop @childrnsbkshop @haycastle @HayMarketsLtd @4bruce7 @alanababycorner @marifromvalley @thestoryofbooks @haydoesvintage @broomfieldhse @haycheesemarket @Chris_the_Book @globeathay @Oxfam_at_Hay @thefudgeshop @OtherworldzHay @thefudgeshop and many more.

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A Bookish Weekend Up North: The Manchester Literature Festival 2016

manchester-literature-festival-2016-logoI really love discovering a city through its cultural venues and this October I spent a weekend in Manchester to attend a few of the Manchester Literature Festival events. Running from 7 to 23 October 2016 and in its 11th year, the city-wide festival offered over 80 readings and talks for book lovers. I managed to catch these great events:

An Evening with Jackie Kay Manchester-based writer Jackie Kay, is always a pleasure to listen to. The event at Halle St Peter’s was chaired by Rachel Cooke, who guided the conversation from Jackie’s childhood with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, to her early years as a young poet up to the present time becoming Scotland’s ‘makar’ (poet laureate) in March 2016 and planning a new project based on visiting all the Scottish islands (sounds fascinating!). There is always such an interesting contrast between Jackie’s bubbly, outgoing personality and her thoughtful, melodic poetry, often dealing with some serious subject matter. I was glad I picked up her memoir Red Dust Road, which chronicles the search for her birth parents in Scotland and Nigeria, after the reading. While the book is partly incredibly sad, it is a fascinating, multi-layered read, which is also extremely funny and honest.

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi This event was held at the Central Library and featured one of Sudan’s best known poets who has been based in the UK since 2012. After a bilingual reading of his poetry in Arabic and English, the writer was interviewed by author Travis Elborough. I’m always interested to learn about cultures I don’t know much about and languages I don’t speak. As a translator, this often reminds me of the language barriers that need to be overcome in order for different cultures to understand each other and poetry is definitely one of the most beautiful ways to accomplish this.

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Shetland with Ann Cleeves When I was visiting Glasgow for Celtic Connections last January someone recommended the TV series Shetland to me. Having never been a fan of crime dramas or novels, I reluctantly gave it a go, but was quickly hooked by it, like so many of us have been. So of course I jumped at the chance to see the author of the Shetland series, Ann Cleeves, in conversation with lead scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe and actor Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh in the series. The event (see image above) chaired by broadcaster Erica Wagner provided a fascinating insight into the writing and adaptation process and it was lovely to see how well the collaboration seems to have worked in this case.

As it was my first visit to Manchester I also tried to get a good bit of – mostly literary – sightseeing in over the weekend. Here are some of my highlights:

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Literature-related museums and places: The John Rylands Library is part of the University of Manchester and the historic building dates back to 1824. I was even more impressed with a tour of Chetham’s Library (pictured above) the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom, which, together with the renowned school of music, was established as early as 1653. Not specifically literature-related, but well worth a visit is The People’s History Museum. It has some fascinating exhibits and brings the history of working people in Britain to life, right up to the present day. Second hand and comic bookshop Paramount Books, near the Shudehill bus station is a great place for stocking up on reading material about the city and further afield.

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Cosy cafes & pubs (with lots of veggie options): I ate at quite a few places during the weekend, which included The Earth Café (great veggie curry and desserts) in the basement of the Manchester Buddhist Centre. Another favourite was the fairly well hidden Nexus Art Café (cakes, coffee, snacks, see their courtyard above) as well as Common (extremely yummy veggie chili cheese fries). For a coffee or tea break you can’t go wrong with a visit to North Tea Power or Home Sweet Home. On Sunday night I headed to Odd Bar for a few drinks and some (by chance excellent) live Americana with The Wicked Path. I didn’t have enough time to make it to HOME and The Deaf Institute (they apparently do a great vegan hangover all day brunch on Sundays) this time, but did take a look at The Pilcrow Pub (see below), one of Manchester’s newest community ventures, which was largely built by volunteers (how cool is that?!).

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Making World Literature Your Oyster: The Daunt Books Festival 2015

The good thing about living in London is that hardly a week goes by without a writers festival happening somewhere around the city. Not all of them take place in such a wonderful bookshop and are as lovingly curated as the Daunt Books Festival in Marylebone, however.

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For the second festival on 19-20 March 2015, bookseller and organiser Emily Rhodes put together an enticing programme of talks and discussions for all ages. I would have loved to be at all the events (smaller scale festivals with only one event at a time are great as no clashes), but sadly work commitments got in the way.

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The talks I did catch were excellent though. On Thursday I was lucky to be at a conversation between former children’s laureate, novelist and poet Michael Rosen and one of the top literary translators in this country, Anthea Bell (mainly from German and French), chaired by Julia Eccleshare.

The topic was loosely based around fascinating German author Erich Kästner’s work, but also covered various other childhood favourites in translation. You can listen to a podcast of Rosen visiting the Berlin of „Emil and the Detectives“, a Kästner classic originally published in 1929, which was also recently made into a successful Westend production, here. Even just looking at the different covers from various past English editions of the popular children’s book translated from German was fascinating. So was the discussion on the German and English film adaptions of the book. Compared to existing children’s literature of the time, it was a groundbreaking novel and the only one of Kästner’s pre-1945 works to escape Nazi censorship.

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On Friday I started my book festival day with some delicious spiced hot chocolate from Roccoco chocolates before the first author event of the day: In Praise of Short Stories. I love short stories and far from being in any way inferior to the novel as a literary genre, they have their own appeal. There are even specific short story festivals, such as the London Short Story Festival or the Cork Short Story Festival in Ireland.

Today’s first panel was chaired by Laura Macaulay, publisher and bookseller at Daunt, and consisted of writers Tessa Hadley, Colin Barrett and Julianne Pachico. Listening to excerpts from stories by each of the panelists and the discussion that followed we were reminded what makes short stories so unique: they are unpredictable, irresistible glimpses into fictional worlds and can be a very rewarding reading experience if we are willing to give them a try. A short story, as writer AL Kennedy puts it in an article, “can offer the artistry and intensity of a poem, the themes and weight of a novel and all in a space so small that there is nowhere to hide a single error.”

My third and last event of the festival was Russians in Paris, about émigré Russian writers of the 1920s and their influence on Russian and foreign literature. Translator and editor Bryan Karetnyk, author Peter Pomerantsev and literary critic and writer Nicholas Lezard discussed Russian literature past and present, the relevance of Paris as a base for so many writers in the 1920s (including the fact that most Russian émigré writers had excellent French) as well as the freedom which a move to another city and country can bring to one’s work. I had never read any books by Gazdanov or Teffi before, the talk definitely piqued my interest in Russian writing, however.

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Luckily, there are UK publishers who specifically focus on the world’s literature in translation. These include And Other Stories, Pushkin Press and Peirene Press and Daunt stocks quite a few of them.

If you have caught the translated literature bug and are keen to read more books from cultures around the world in translation, you can take a look at @TranslatedWorld as well as hashtags #TranslatedWorld and #NameTheTranslator on Twitter for excellent suggestions. There is also a useful calendar of literature translation related events (mainly in the UK).

Thanks to Emily for being so welcoming and for answering all my questions on festival programming, preparations and her other bookish adventures. You can read my interview with her here and are welcome to join her monthly Walking Book Club in London.

Truth or Dare: Vancouver Writers Festival 2014

When I left Vancouver in 2011 after a blissful few festival months in this intriguing Canadian city, I always hoped I would be back sometime for the Vancouver Writers Festival. This year I did it! It was another excellent festival year with exciting authors from Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland and a few other countries. I was on the “Walk a Writer” team, which was a great experience. One or two of us would meet with the authors and moderator of a particular event at the hotel, take them over to their venue, help out with book signings and then help them find their way back if required.
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My first event was already a real highlight. The topic was “Writing back to the Self” and the pieces read by each of the writers as well as the discussion led by moderator Andreas Schroeder were fascinating and moving. Do look all of them up, each of the books sounded truly fabulous: Eve Joseph, Alison Pick, Kathleen Winter and Michael Pond.
The following day I got to meet two of my favourite historical fiction authors, Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue. It was also good to hear that Irish director Lenny Abrahamson is currently filming “Room” (based on Emma’s previous novel) in Toronto and will be working on a film adaptation of Sarah’s “Little Stranger” next. The group of writers I looked after later was equally fascinating. Christos Tsiolkas, Dionne Brand, Thomas King and Lee Maracle discussed cultural belonging or a lack thereof and its implications.
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On the last festival day I worked on one more event, “The Life and Times” with  Emma DonoghueDavid Homel and Jane Smiley. It was another intriguing session, this time revolving around the intersection of history and fiction. After a scrumptious lunch at the Granville island market, I went to one more event, “The Tie That Binds” in the Improv Theatre. Writers Angie Abdou, Nancy Lee, Richard Wagemese and Rudy Wiebe each read excerpts from their latest work, which all centred around more or less tricky family relationships.
To describe my festival experience as mind-blowing might seem a bit far-fetched, but thanks to the clever questions of the moderators and the willingness of pretty much all the festival guests to share some very personal thoughts and stories, it did leave me extremely impressed; most of all by the amazing resilience of human beings and the ability of the festival writers to capture the many facets of the human experience in such a captivating way. You could do much worse than picking up any book by any of the above authors.

3 Festivals, 2 Weeks, 1 Amazing Festival Trip to Ireland!

My first real festival adventure of the year was actually three events rolled into one. First I headed to the very top of Donegal, to a village called Malin for Guth Gafa Documentary Festival followed by a week in Dublin visiting friends and volunteering with both Dublin Writers Festival and Dublin Dance Festival. As you can imagine this made for a busy schedule, just the way I like it.
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It was Guth Gafa’s first year in Malin and the festival team got an enthusiastic welcome by the local community. We stayed in a couple of lovely houses near the village with sheep grazing outside the window and a short walk to the Green where the festival tent was pitched. There was also the pop-up cinema truck and the world’s smallest cinema, an old phone booth ‘screening’ a short film called Bye Bye Now, about the disappearance of phone booths around Ireland. You can watch it here. Despite summery temperatures one day and a flood the next, it was a blissful weekend, spending time with old and new friends, volunteers, filmmakers and local folks. I also discovered two lovely bands, who both performed as part of the festival: The Henry Girls and Kate O’Callaghan and her husband Seamus.
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Then I was off to Dublin, which was exciting after nearly three years of being away, but I also felt like I’d outgrown it somehow after living in Vancouver and now London. Still very nice to be back. Spent a week alternating between Dublin Dance Festival and Dublin Writers Festival, incredible fun! Both festivals had the usual fantastic programme of international and Irish guests and I got to know  a lot of interesting people. A typical day would consist of doing a meet & greet with authors at the festival hotel or walking them to the venue, stewarding at a dance performance and helping with box office followed by a few hours at the writers festival club for a gig at the Clarence hotel.
Some of the many highlights at both festivals were: Rebecca Solnit (brilliant creative essayist), Tom Keneally (eloquent author of Schindler’s Ark), Kevin Powers and Ben Fountain (both ex-soldiers who wrote fascinating novels about the experience of war); the ‘dual’ between Caitlin Moran (1200 people at sold out NCH!) and Jon Ronson, both fabulously entertaining; the Dennis O’Driscoll tribute evening with Seamus Heaney; Untrained by Lucy Guerin (two professional dancers and two non-dancers, humorous and thoughtful performance); Egg Charade by Aoife McAtamney and Nina Vallon (intense, ironic and playful two-women piece)
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It was really one of my best festival trips in a long time and the perfect start to another summer of festivals!

Game, Set and Books: The Wimbledon Book Festival 2012

After not having had time to volunteer at any (!) festivals in September I was really looking forward to the start of the Wimbledon Book Festival, which ran from 6 until 14 October 2012.

On the first festival weekend I helped out with the ‘Gary Mulgrew – Gang of One’ talk, which was intriguing and caused a lot of discussion between the writer and the audience as well as among us volunteers. This was followed by the ’40 Years of Picador’ reading by no less than eight authors all writing about the concept or number of 40. Events were held at a mix of venues around Wimbledon, from the King’s College school to the local library.

I also did a shift at the Jack Straw talk, who presented his memoir ‘Last Man Standing’. It was completely sold out, so we were kept busy with finding seats for audience members with special needs and running the bar afterwards. My last shift was at the reading by bestselling author Kate Mosse (no, not the model), who presented her new novel ‘Citadel’, which is the last in a series of three historical fiction books. As I had already signed up for my next festival, I sadly missed the second weekend with the readings in the big tent and all the children’s events. But there is always next year!

All in all Wimbledon Book Fest had a good mix of vibrant events covering a variety of genres, with dedicated organisers and relaxed, interested audiences. Definitely worth putting in your calendar for 2013.