World bookshopper: #2 Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC

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At first glance, there’s a huge contrast between Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which was the subject of my first world bookshopper review. Where HW is charmingly quirky and a little worn round the edges, much like many of the titles on its shelves, Rizzoli gleams. And while a large part of the fun of visiting the former has to do with the fact you never know what lucky finds might leap out at you from the donated titles ranged on the shelves, curatorial flair and selectivity are the name of the game at Rizzoli, which reopened at 1133 Broadway last year, after closing its previous store on 57th Street.

On the day I go, the main window is given over to one title alone: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. Copies of this lavish book – created to tie in with an eponymous exhibition, which was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are deftly stacked and propped to catch the eye of people passing along the snow-heaped sidewalk. Their uniformity is broken only occasionally by a Lonely Planet guide to Africa, several blue ceramic animals, a book on African art and a copy of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt – stylish touches that set off the handsome hardback admirably.

The same keen aesthetic sense is apparent when I get inside. Black pillars flank a harlequin marble floor. The wooden bookshelves shine warmly, proclaiming the subject matter of their contents in tasteful, serif font. Above them, a mural showing clouds against an azure sky softens the effect of the monochrome stone. Small wonder that the shop’s website proclaims it ‘the most beautiful bookstore in New York’ – someone has given its interior a lot of thought.

This appreciation of the visual finds its echo in the store’s merchandise. Substantial sections are given over to architecture, art, photography and design. Audrey Hepburn gazes coolly from the covers of many of the books devoted to fashion.

Similar care and taste goes into the selection of titles in the new fiction and new non-fiction sections too. I spot the latest offerings from international names such as Leila Aboulela, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as books by Stephen King, Sally Mann and Patti Smith.

There are also collectors’ items, such as the awesome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by translation celebrity Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante fame). Housed in a glossy casing, this handsome three-volume celebration of the Italian holocaust survivor’s extraordinary oeuvre seems to demand lofty surroundings. I decide that if I wanted to buy it and own it, I would first have to sell my little flat and purchase somewhere much bigger, with a library handsome enough to do it justice.

Opposite the new fiction and non-fiction area, a literature section contains collections of essays – or what are described on the shelf as ‘belles lettres’ – as well as poetry and more paperback fiction. Allen Ginsberg rubs shoulders with Lena Dunham, and there are works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Peter Carey too.

Nearby, a stand of Italian- and French-language fiction tempts me for a moment to dust off my A-level French and try something in the original.

In the end, though, my head is turned by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief. (On the flight out of New York – during which I devour this novel in one go – I’m very grateful for this decision. Not only is this novel about a Nigerian man’s return to Lagos after years in the States exceptional – seriously, you should read it – but it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have been able to fit a French dictionary into my hand luggage. I resolve to schedule my next bout of French-language reading for a time when I am not in transit.)

As I queue to pay for the Cole and pick up a postcard bearing a tasteful photograph of the bookstore at the counter, I am struck by a thought. The care and attention that goes into choosing and presenting books beautifully at Rizzoli actually has a lot in common with the come-one-come-all eclecticism of Housing Works.

In their contrasting ways, both these distinctive stores are physical embodiments of a love of books and a desire to create a good environment in which to share them. At root, the people behind them share many of the same beliefs – that the written word is important and necessary, that it has power to make the world better, and that it should be showcased in a joyful space where people relish spending time.

I step out through the stylish glass door into the chill of the Manhattan winter. Already, I am eager to see where my world bookshopping will take me next…

*NEW SERIES* World bookshopper: #1 Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, NYC

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Late last year, I asked for your help. I was planning a trip to New York City and wanted to know which bookstores you thought I should visit while I was there.

As ever, the response was impressive. Suggestions flooded in for intriguing wordmongers all around the Big Apple.

There were more than I could hope to hit in a month, let alone during the few days I was going to be in town. Nevertheless, despite the blizzard’s best efforts, last week I managed to get to five of the shops you recommended in Manhattan. And I enjoyed the trips so much that I’ve decided to write up my visits in a series of World bookshopper posts on this blog – a kind of mystery bookshopper review, if you will. (See what I did there?)

I’m hoping this will become a regular feature (in fact I’ve already visited three bookstores in another soon-to-be-revealed part of the world and plan to write about those too). So, if you have a favourite bookshop in your neck of the woods –wherever that might be – why not tell me about it below?

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll stop by one day.

In the meantime, let me introduce the subject of my inaugural World bookshopper review: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street, Manhattan.

This was a recommendation from Grant and, when I looked it up, the store’s premise intrigued me. Established a decade or so ago, the shop deals entirely in donated merchandise. Its profits go to support Housing Works, a charity set up to tackle homelessness and support those living with HIV/AIDS.

What’s more, the place is run almost exclusively by volunteers. As Elisabeth Kerr, my editor at Liveright/Norton, told me when I met her for coffee after my trip to the shop, these unsalaried booksellers come from a huge variety of fields. Now and then, you might even be served by folk from inside New York’s publishing scene, who are eager to get a taste of life on the literary market’s front line.

On the day I went, the shop was busy. Nearly every table around the cafe counter at the far end was taken up with people chatting over coffee, cake and – more often than not – piles of books. Elsewhere, customers milled around the wood-lined space, browsing the shelves, tables and trolleys, and climbing up the curving metal staircases to the galleries above.

The titles were arranged in sections that you might expect to see in any number of bookshops – literary criticism, comics/graphic novels, health and so on. However, there were some more unusual shelves too. I was particularly taken with the ‘Cool & Quirky’ stand, which offered vintage editions of such classics as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Chessmen of Mars and Doc Savage’s The Terror in the Navy for the bargain-basement sum of $3 a pop.

Knock-down prices were by no means the rule, however. In glass cabinets near the front of the store, rare editions commanded three-figure price tags. I spied a signed, uncorrected proof of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for $150 and an early edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a cool $300.

Curious to see what sort of presence international and translated fiction had in this shop made up of donated, second-hand reads, I made my way to the general fiction section. I searched in vain for many of the usual suspects. No Haruki Murakami or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie met my gaze here, although I did see a copy of Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia.

Moving to crime, I found more surprising gaps and inclusions. The great Scandi godfathers of gritty whodunnits, Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson, were conspicuous by their absence, but there were several copies of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

And though the work of the most famous Larsson was not represented, a novel by another writer with the same surname stood in its place: Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy), winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award.

It was a snip at a little over $6. Intrigued, I hurried it to the counter and handed over my money to the smiling, grey-haired volunteer there. For all I knew, she might have been a publisher, a schoolteacher or an astronaut the rest of the time.

You get the feeling that, at Housing Works, the bookshelves aren’t the only source of fascinating stories…

Picture by Crystal Luxmore on Flickr

Children’s book competition result

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Wow. What a lot of wonderful book recommendations you gave me in response to my request for suggestions of children’s stories written in languages other than English. Entries have come from far and wide – Ukraine, India, China and Switzerland to name just a few.

Reading through your comments has been a joyful and intriguing experience. And, as is always the case with exploring literature from elsewhere, it has given me so much more than simply ideas for good reads.

I really enjoyed your accounts of the different ways you’ve read and shared stories. From Annemarie and her cousins rewording one of the songs in the audioversion of Klatremus og de andre dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen by Thorbjørn Egner for her grandmother’s 80th birthday to Ray and his schoolfriends pretending to be the title character in Yang Hongying’s Naughty Ma Xiaotiao.

The cultural information you shared along the way was fascinating too. I was very interested by teacher Mariska’s comment that in Sweden children who have a mother tongue other than Swedish have a legal right to receive tuition in that language as part of their school education. Similarly, I loved the video that Encarni shared of giants dancing in Catalonia. This is something I experienced first hand at a festival in the Priorat region a few years ago and it is a wonderful sight. It was great to learn that the tradition comes from the song and tale ‘El Gegant del Pi’.

The book recommendations themselves were marvellous. So many tempting-sounding stories and concepts – from a paintbrush that enables a poor boy to bring his imaginings to life (Magic Brush by Hong Xuntao) to a book about a girl with a terminally ill mother that also contains recipes for the world’s best cocoa and pancakes as well as special tricks for secret agents (Die erstaunlichen Abenteuer der Maulina Schmitt by Finn-Ole Heinrich).

And, among the many new discoveries, I was struck by the handful of familiar stories that came to light too. There were favourites such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, along with well-known fables like the Kiswahili account of how the tortoise got its shell (Safari Ya Angani by Francis Atulo) – a version of which I heard in primary school. These shared narratives, many of which have travelled around the world, reminded me once again of the extraordinary power that stories have to connect us across cultural barriers.

I could easily have chosen ten or more winners from among the entries, but sadly I only have one signed copy of Reading the World to give away. And so, after much deliberation, I have decided to give the prize to Frances for her recommendation of the Italian classic Le avventure di Cipollino by Gianni Rodari, a story that has been popular in many parts of the world, including Russia, where the postage stamp pictured above featuring two of the characters is from.

Frances’s description of the tale was well-calculated to pique my interest: ‘a story of good versus evil and the power of affection, family and friendship in the fight against tyranny… in a world of vegetables and fruits’. But it was what she said after her pitch that tipped the balance. Describing how she had been able to recite the story word for word when a friend began to read it aloud years later, she wrote: ‘This is the reason of my choice: the book is good and I love it, but even more so, it is engraved in my heart. These books, we always want to pass on to others, as a gift from our heart to theirs.’

To me, that is the key to many of the best reading experiences I have had during this project and throughout my life. I hope 2016 brings many more such reads for all of us – books that we love so passionately that we want to give others the gift of reading them too.

Happy new year everybody and thanks again. Frances, I’ll be in touch.

Book of the month: Eka Kurniawan

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This was a recommendation from friend and fellow writer, Trilby Kent. She mentioned a few weeks ago that she had just discovered Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and highly recommended his work.

Kent isn’t the only person to have been wowed by Kurniawan. His latest novel to be translated into English, Man Tiger, recently received a glowing review in the UK Guardian, which described it as a Javanese subversion of the crime fiction genre. Furthermore, when I clicked open my e-copy, I was confronted by another endorsement in the form of an effusive introduction by celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this month. Despite describing the English translation of the title as ‘slightly awkward’, he was adamant that Kurniawan was Indonesia’s ‘most original living writer of novels and short stories’.

I turned to page one with a sinking heart. Could any novel really live up to such a fanfare?

I’m pleased to report that Man Tiger does so with ease. Opening with the savage murder of an ageing villager by the young man, Margio, who has been dating his daughter, this novel pours forth a stream of delights. As we follow the unfolding of the narrative, watching Kurniawan peel back layer after layer of grudges, half-remembered incidents and surprising events, we meet many characters so vivid and robust that they seem at times to lean from the pages and hoick us bodily into their concerns. There is the major who is convinced that the piece of ground he has been honoured with in the heroes’ cemetery is simply an invitation to die quickly and the elderly woman who would rather poison herself by eating the soil of her land than allow her avaricious children to get their hands on her wealth.

The references to crime fiction that several English-language reviewers have made are understandable, but potentially a little misleading. While the intricate and deftly tuned plot runs like clockwork throughout, keeping us guessing until the last page – not about who did what (we know that in the first sentence), but about why things happened the way they did – this book is so much more than a mere twist on a familiar genre. It brings in huge amounts of other things: myth, oral storytelling techniques and a brand of the fantastic that many will no doubt describe as ‘magical realism’, but which is quite unlike anything else I have read in that category.

The writing reflects the novel’s hybrid nature, shifting between registers with breathtaking dexterity. Moments of brutal matter-of-factness – gritty as anything you’ll find in the pages of Larsson or Nesbø – give way to bathos, flights of lyricism and a beauty that is almost painful.

Indeed, though there are one or two oddities in the text (some of which may of course reflect the original), translator Labodalih Sembiring deserves praise for his part in this extraordinary book. Gems such as ‘the night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon’, and ‘he gave up on cutting hair, and instead trimmed away at his own soul, snip by snip’ make the text glitter. This is particularly worth noting when you reflect that, as Anderson explains in his introduction, Kurniawan’s work presents great challenges for translators because it ‘includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centred dictionaries’.

There’s so much more to say. I wanted to tell you about Kurniawan’s extraordinary eye for detail, which brings the novel’s lush settings close enough to touch. I’d love to have written at length about his uncanny understanding of why we do what we do, and the way he portrays human ugliness, vulnerability and tenderness in all their fullness. I’ve got a whole list here of moments that had me chuckling and insights that made me nod in recognition.

But instead of turning this blog post into a dissertation, let me suggest this: give yourself a treat and buy this book or request it from your library. Then you can discover all this and much more for yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start 2016 than in the company of such thrilling writing. Happy New Year.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015)

Picture by Yos C. Wiranata on flickr.com

What’s your favourite NYC bookstore?

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I’ll be back in one of my favourite places in late January: New York. The trip is partly for a holiday, but I’ll also be celebrating the US publication of my debut novel, Beside Myself.

I already have a reading lined up at wonderful WORD in Brooklyn, where I did an event in May when The World Between Two Covers came out (you can see me outside the store in the picture above). But I’m keen to visit some other bookstores around the city too – whether for readings and events or simply to browse.

Over the many trips I’ve made to New York since I was 18 (when I first visited and fell in love with the city), I’ve got to know quite a few of its bookstores. I have a fond memory of taking over the world literature section in McNally Jackson one afternoon back in January 2012, at the start of my year of reading the world. Under the eyes of the bewildered sales assistants, I pulled heaps of titles off the shelves in an effort to identify works that might be suitable for my quest.

It was really quite funny, looking back. While most people were out sales shopping and trying to bag the hottest ticket in town, there I was, panic-buying books!

The trip proved worthwhile. Several of the titles I found that day ended up being my choices for the project, including Germano Almeida’s witty The Last Will and Testament of Senhor Da Silva Araújo for Cape Verde, and Nuruddin Farah’s engrossing Secrets for Somalia.

No doubt I’ll pay another, less disruptive, visit to MJ while I’m in town (I can still remember the thrill of popping in last spring and seeing The World Between Two Covers displayed on one of its tables).

But one thing I love about New York is the way new things are happening all the time and there’s always more to discover. So I thought I’d asked your advice about what stores and initiatives should be on my radar.

New start-ups or old faithfuls would be equally intriguing. As ever, I’m particularly interested in places that have a good selection of translated works. But I’m keen to hear about anywhere you think is great. And if there are other book-related places (cafes, libraries, community projects, festivals – you name it) that you’d like me to know about or that you think might be interested in hosting an eccentric British wordsmith for an hour or two, tell me about them below.

Ooh, this is going to be fun!

Picture by Steve Lennon

News from Madagascar

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Towards the end of my year of reading the world, I made an appeal. I’d been shocked to discover that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into and published in English, obliging me to fall back on the anthology Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa, as my read from the nation.

It seemed astonishing to me that the world’s fourth-largest island nation, which is home to more than 22 million people, should have no full-length books available in the planet’s most published language, particularly as the short stories and extracts in the anthology proved that it had many great writers. So I called for your help: which Malagasy novels should be translated? I asked.

For a long time, I didn’t hear much. I finished the project and went on with writing my book. Perhaps Madagascar was just one of those places that the anglophone publishing industry would continue to fail to reach, I thought sadly.

Then, almost a year after that post, I received an email from a US-based translator called Allison Charette. She said she had stumbled upon this blog and had been particularly drawn to the post on Madagascar. As a French-to-English translator, she was keen to do something about the lack of literature from the nation in translation, but she didn’t know where to start. Did I have any contacts or ideas for where she could go from here?

I made a few tentative suggestions from my own, very minimal knowledge of the situation and wished her luck. She had set herself an enormous task, I felt.

This year, Allison Charette was back in touch with extraordinary news. She had not only found a novel from Madagascar to translate, but had secured a PEN/Heim translation grant and was working to bring the book into English, with high hopes that it would secure a deal with a US publisher soon.

I caught up with her over Skype a few months back and she filled me in on what had happened since we were last in contact.

After speaking to Sophie Lewis at And Other Stories, the publisher who helped me in my search for a Malagasy book, and Susan Harris at wonderful online international literature magazine Words Without Borders, Charette threw herself into reading books that she might translate. But there was a problem:

‘I started getting out as many [French-language] Malagasy books as possible from my library. The more I read, the more I went “Oh, I need to do this. They’re fantastic!” and I started translating. Then I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the culture whatsoever, so I tried to email the authors, but they were unreachable. So I decided, well, let’s go to Madagascar.’

At the point where many people might have been tempted to give up, Charette redoubled her efforts. She persuaded Swiss NGO Humanium, which had just announced a partnership with Madagascar, to allow her to go and be their in-country representative for a while, using their contacts to arrange a homestay that would enable her to research the country’s literature in her spare time.

During the five weeks she spent there, she discovered the reason for the lack of responses to her messages to authors: as its electricity supply is very unreliable, Madagascar still operates largely offline, meaning that email communication is patchy.

In person, however, it was a different matter. Charette was welcomed warmly and met more than two dozen local authors, who were keen to share their work. Despite the island’s logistically difficult publishing situation, which means that writers have traditionally self-published in small print runs and supported themselves by other means, she went home with a whole suitcase of books.

It wasn’t long before one title in particular caught her eye: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, a historical novel exploring the controversial and sensitive subject of slavery in Madagascar. Despite the shocking subject matter (Malagasies are usually reluctant to talk about this chapter of their nation’s past, which many regard as shameful) and Madagascar’s relatively low literacy rate, the book had sold well at home.

What’s more, according to Charette, the author’s style, blending local and Western characteristics, made the book a particularly strong candidate for translation: ‘He has done an incredibly good job of mixing Malagasy ways of storytelling, which are based on the oral traditions, with something that Westerners will understand,’ she says.

Now, with the endorsement of the PEN/Heim grant and interest from publishers, Charette hopes it won’t be long before her rendering of Naivo’s work is available for English-language readers to enjoy, becoming the first ever novel from Madagascar to be published in the anglophone world.

And the good news doesn’t stop there: inspired by her efforts, Words Without Borders has devoted its December issue to Madagascar, carrying a range of fabulous translated extracts, as well as an essay on the nation’s literature by Charette, who is this month’s guest editor. If you’re keen to sample Naivo, there’s a piece of his work there. And if you have time, I’d really recommend ‘Abandoning Myself’ by Magali Nirina Marson (also translated by Charette) – a spine-tingling read.

Charette hopes this will open the door for many other Malagasy works to make it into English. She already has her eye on several more books she’d like to translate. And her ambitions go far beyond simply sharing Madagascar’s rich literature with a wider audience. In time, she hopes her efforts – and those of other translators and publishers engaged in bringing work into English from underrepresented nations – will help broaden and complicate the rather simplistic way that a lot of us English speakers talk and think about books from many parts of the planet.

‘If we can flood the market with enough African books, whether they’re in English originally or translations, then maybe people will stop talking about “African literature”,’ she says. ‘If I can start getting books from Madagascar to the public, this is one more way of helping this problem.’

Photo: ‘Char à Zebu’ © Franck Vervial on flickr.com

TED talks: a speaker’s-eye view

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Back in February, I asked you to tell me about your favourite TED talks. I had been invited to give a TEDx talk about my year of reading the world at an event organised by Procter & Gamble and I was keen to pick up some tips. It was very useful to hear about the speakers you found particularly inspiring.

In March, I flew out to Geneva to give my talk and had a wonderful time, appearing alongside such inspiring people as former Olympian Derek Redmond, sculptor Alex Chinneck and Luvuyo Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s great-grandson.

Although our talks from that day were filmed, they weren’t posted online. However, a few weeks after the event, I got an email from the organisers with some exciting news: the European director of TED, Bruno Giussani, had asked to see the footage of my talk. Not long after that, I spoke to Bruno on the phone and he invited me to speak at TEDGlobal>London this September.

That was when the hard work really began. Because of the precise timings of TED events, I had to get a draft of my talk to him in a matter of weeks – and find a way to cut the presentation I was used to giving (which can sometimes last as long as an hour) down to just eight minutes.

This was a new experience for me as I never normally write out what I’m going to say, preferring to talk without notes from a range of visual prompts. Still, I stuck to the brief and a few drafts flew back and forth between Bruno and me as we worked on tightening and focusing the presentation.

In the end, eight minutes proved a little too restrictive, so we settled on 12 minutes. We also agreed that I would do without my usual visual-prompt slides and hold up some of the books from the quest at relevant points instead. This meant that I would have to do what I had never done before and memorise my presentation pretty much word for word, finding a way to deliver it that hopefully wouldn’t make me sound like a robot.

Practice was the only way. And so from mid-August onwards, I went over my talk almost every day. I repeated it in the shower and in front of the mirror. I set a timer on my computer and rehearsed delivering it within the time limit over and over, until I stopped feeling stressed by the numbers counting down. I muttered it to myself as I walked down the street (I got some funny looks).

In early September, I had a rehearsal over Skype with Bruno and his colleague, Katerina. They stared out of the computer screen at me as I delivered my talk. It was quite a challenge to keep smiling and enthusiastic in the face of such intense scrutiny, but they seemed pleased. Barring a few last-minute tweaks to the opening, they thought it was ready to go.

The day before the event, I attended a rehearsal at the venue, the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London’s Green Park. I stood in a room facing around ten members of the TED team, including two performance coaches, and gave my talk. The team was generous and warm, applauding enthusiastically when I had finished. The coaches shared some advice on eye contact and movement on stage, as well as flagging up a few phrases that I could emphasise more carefully.

That evening I went with the other speakers, among them social progress expert Michael Green and Norwegian journalist Anders Fjellberg, to a dinner at the house of Bond producer and photography collector Michael Wilson. It was a great chance to unwind, mingle and reassure each other about how our talks would go – like me, many of them had found the experience of letting go of their normal speaking props a challenge.

The day of the event was a blur of make-up, microphones and meeting people. Backstage, most of us sat without saying very much, going over our talks in our heads and nibbling nervously on the snacks the team brought to the green room.

My presentation was in the second half, so I sat in the audience for the first session, willing on the people I’d chatted to the day before.

Then the interval passed and the speaker two slots before me was onstage. Then it was the speaker before me. Then me.

I heard Bruno announce my name, took a deep breath and walked forward into the red circle. The timer began the countdown and, well, you can see below how it went from there…

Photo: Courtesy of TED

My evening with Helle Helle

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I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

My time in Edinburgh

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I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Although my quest to read the world has taken me on many adventures and seen me speaking to a wide variety of audiences – from 20 Women’s Institute members in a school hall in Lee to 300 Procter & Gamble employees in Geneva – I had never faced a challenge quite like this. As I walked into the authors’ yurt, backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I couldn’t help being aware that I was here to take part in one of the most renowned literary events in the world.

Now, I’ve been in a yurt or two before (I once gave a talk in one in Canterbury), but I have never seen one to compare to this. Sprawling over an area about twice the size of my flat, it was made up of a series of conjoined octagons, which created pleasing little alcoves furnished with benches and cushions, where you could sit and prepare before your event. There was a luggage area, and tea and coffee, and an array of tempting snacks, and everywhere you looked you spied well-known, bookish faces, as though the world’s literary supplements had come to life and deposited their occupants here.

There wasn’t much time to take in the scene, however, as Dutch writer Gaston Dorren (with whom I was appearing) and I were quickly whisked away for press photos. A festival staff member led us round the back, past the bins, to a studio area. Four photographers appeared from another yurt and began shouting instructions: ‘Ann, look here!’ ‘Look there!’ ‘Put your hands on your hips!’ ‘Look up at the sky, Ann!’

Then, after a brief pre-talk chat with chair Rosemary Burnett, Gaston and I made our way to the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, where our event, ‘The World in Words’, was due to begin.

I’d had an anxiety dream the night before that no-one came to watch us, but when we walked out on stage I was delighted to see that the room was full. Gaston kicked off proceedings by reading from his witty and fascinating book, Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, I read a bit from Reading the World, and the discussion quickly got going, helped along by Rosemary’s questions.

Afterwards, we went to the bookshop to sign copies and chat to members of the audience. I was particularly pleased to meet several people I have been in touch with virtually over the past few years, among them Catharine Cellier-Smart, a blogger who lives on Reunion Island, where she is one of only two ‘sworn translators’, who help local people by translating official documents.

A brief respite and then it was back onstage, this time with award-winning translator, poet and critic, Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s criticism is renowned (indeed, he was described in the festival programme as ‘one of the most fearlessly outspoken literary critics writing in English today’), so I was more than a little in awe of him. He was very gracious and kind, however, and went out of his way to put me at my ease.

Our discussion, chaired by Society of Authors chair Daniel Hahn (another award-winning translator), explored the concept of world literature, and some of the many challenges and joys translators and readers experience when trying to access stories from other linguistic and literary cultures.

I spent the following day recharging and seeing a handful of the more than 3,000 shows being staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month (among them In His Own Write, a groundbreaking performance of the Beatle John Lennon’s nonsense book).

But on Wednesday I was back at the literary festival, this time as an audience member. Queuing for a talk on ‘What is the Nation State, Anyway?’ by academics Frank Bechhofer & David McCrone, I was delighted to bump into Gaston Dorren. We sat together to watch the event, which turned out to be an intriguing examination of Bechhofer and McCrone’s research into attitudes to national identity in England and Scotland. According to the pair, it’s helpful to think of national identity as a set of cards (made up of markers such as birthplace, language, place of residence and ethnicity), which each person will play differently from situation to situation. I found this very interesting as working out what makes a book count as being ‘from’ a particular nation was one of the big questions I had to grapple with during my year of reading the world.

Afterwards, Gaston and I repaired to the authors’ yurt where we spent a happy hour discussing writing, languages and our next book projects. I was also pleased to have a chance to say hello to my former creative writing tutor, Paul Magrs, who was preparing to run a readers’ workshop on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The final event of my visit was ‘Where I’m Writing From’, a discussion between authors Petina Gappah and Nell Zink about national identity and writing. As a Zimbabwean living in Geneva and an American living in Germany respectively, Gappah and Zink had a lot to say on the topic and there were plenty of laughs along the way. I was particularly struck by Gappah’s comments on the danger of expecting a writer to speak for a nation because, as she said, ‘writing about is not the same as writing for’ a place or a group of people. And I was thrilled to hear about her collaborative project to translate George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Shona – the first time the novel has ever been published in an indigenous African language.

When the applause died down, it was time to head off to the station to catch the train back to King’s Cross. My Edinburgh adventure had lasted three days and involved a round trip of more than 800 miles. Yet I felt I had travelled much further than that.

Audiobook giveaway*

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Yes, it’s official: the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, written and narrated by yours truly, is now published. It is available for listeners in the US and non-Commonwealth countries to buy here.

And if you’re curious to hear how my four days in the studio turned out, you can listen to the first half-hour of the book below. (As you might be able to tell, I particularly enjoyed reading the word ‘rattling’.)

For now, rights reasons mean that those of us in the UK and Commonwealth (including me), can’t buy it. However, Audible has kindly given me some CDs, in addition to a code for a free copy accessible to those outside the Commonwealth.

In honour of this fact, I am running a giveaway for readers anywhere in the world to get their hands on a copy of the audio version. All you have to do is leave a comment at the bottom of this post, telling me about a book you’ve enjoyed reading recently.

On August 1, I will put the names of all those who leave a book tip in a hat and pull out two winners. They will each receive the audio version of The World Between Two Covers in the format that works best for them.

If you live in a Commonwealth country this could be your only chance to get your hands on a copy without travelling beyond your borders. So make my day and share a favourite recent read below!

*iPod and physical book not included…

This giveaway is now closed. Find out the names of the winners here.

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