EdBookFest 2011 Diary: Day #15 – Of small community living and Polish ghettos

Note: remember to scroll down to the bottom for picture highlights from the day.

It may have been my second last day of EdBookFest, but I had a couple of real highlights to keep the blues away. To kick off was an event in my most favourite of places, the Speigeltent (I especially favour it for the 10:15 events because they’re sponsored by the Bookshop Café and there’s free coffee and danishes on offer :)), featuring Man Booker shortlister, Philip Hensher and Irish debut novelist, Belinda McKeon.

Before reading from his latest novel King of the Badgers (Fourth Estate) Hensher told us that he always wanted to write a novel about small town society. His reading gives us an introduction to that small town society.

Up to the lectern next is Belinda McKeon, reading from her debut novel Solace (Picador). Before she started though she told us that the Speigeltent held sentimental value for her, because it was the place where her and her husband had got engaged, years ago…..awwww isn’t that nice?

I enjoyed Belinda’s reading. It was short but powerful and completely engaging. In fact on the strength of this reading alone (because I’ve yet to read Solace, myself), I determined that Belinda is going to be a real star one day.

Question time followed from the chair, Alan Taylor (writer for Herald and Sunday Herald and editor of the Scottish Review of Books), and we found out various things such as the spark for Hensher’s King of the Badgers came from the Shannon Matthews case (he couldn’t the levels of betrayal and deception out of his head). Asked whether he would novelise something like the Madeline McCann case, Hensher replied that certain cases are too tragic that they are best left alone.

Asked about the tension in her novel with regards to rural vs urban Ireland, McKeon reveals that her own life was marked by a similar tension in that she lived on a small farm but had to travel to the city for school and university, so the rural vs urban was always playing off against each other, in her life. There was talk about the Celtic Tiger, that term used to describe the economy of Ireland during it’s period of rapid economic growth between 1995 and 2007, and McKeon, somewhat taken aback to hear that this economic growth during this period was unique to Ireland, responded by saying that she moved to New York in 2005 partly because she found the whole Celtic Tiger thing to be a bit excessive with ‘money and shopping bags from Brown Thomas meaning more than neighbours and family’.

Told that embarrassment was a big theme running through his novel, Hensher revealed that he loves embarrassment because along with boredom it’s the most sincerest of emotions. “Nobody genuinely fakes embarrassment or boredom,” says Hensher. “And as such these two emotions are incredibly valuable to the artist.”

Story hour
Finally, on this the second last day, I managed to catch one of the excellent 4pm Story Shop events, hosted in the Speigeltent by Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature. Managed by the wonderful and larger than life, Anna Burkey, today’s reading was by PhD student, Katie Craig, who read a short story entitled, The Capybara. And boy did she read it. Putting everything into it, including her heart and soul, Craig thoroughly entertained the gathered, making me feel bad that this had been my first and only Story Shop event of EdBookFest 2011 (not completely my fault though, as I usually had another event on at this time). Fantastic stuff, and thanks to Anna and her team (they really do deserve a medal for their Story Shop efforts), you can find out more about Katie Craig, and catch an excerpt of her reading her story, on the Story Shop website.

A sobering hour
My only other event of the day was an evening one in the RBS Corner Theatre, in the presence of Swedish author Steven Sem-Sandberg who comes to EdBookFest with his epic debut, The Emperor of Lies (Faber Books). Based on genuine archived chronicles of life in the Lodz Ghetto – the second largest ghetto created by the Nazis – I knew that this was going to be a harrowing session. It was, and it was made all the more so with the continual presence of rain pelting off the theatre roof.

Hosted by brilliant former Scottish news icon, Sheena McDonald (a nice surprise because I love Sheena McDonald :)), it soon became clear, especially after Sem-Sandberg gave a short reading, that The Emperor of Lies is something pretty special; an absolute must read. Sheena even took the time to read out a review – something which she said she rarely does – which compares Sem-Sandberg’s novel in terms of scope and character, to that of Tolstoy’s War & Peace (high praise indeed).

Questions followed with the most pertinent one relating to the central figure of Sem-Sandberg’s novel i.e the abhorrent Jewish elder Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, who ran the ghetto during its existence, turning it into a major source of supply for the German war machine. Opinion is divided about whether Rumkowski was an enemy of his fellow Lodz Jews or their saviour. Sem-Sandberg was asked for his opinion on this. Very much sitting on the fence he responded by saying that he considers Rumkowski to be both a perpetrator and a victim.

Asked by an audience member why there is still such a fascination with writing about the Holocaust. Sem-Sandberg responded that he had never set out to write a novel about the Holocaust per se. Rather it was during a visit to Lodz Ghetto where the place remains dilapidated, downtrodden and claustrophobic, that he suddenly had the voices and the stories come to him, and a sense that he wanted to write about the place. He ends with the declaration that writing the book has changed is life forever. It doesn’t get more powerful than that does it folks? A truly memorable event.

Here are a few photo highlights from the day:

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).