50 Shades of Funny with Gill Hornby and Deborah Moggach

We can all sleep a little easier, apparently the tyranny of ‘mommy porn’ has ended. No more 50 Shades of Grey¬†or any of its numerous imitators. Now it is time for funny. Or at least that was what we were being convinced today at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I had the pleasure of witnessing a lighthearted and enlightening discussion with Gill Hornby and Deborah Moggach. Both are authors of social comedies and very funny ladies.

the hiveGill Hornby was there discussing her first novel, The Hive, which I plan to review in early September. As her name suggests, she is the sister of famed literary humorist Nick Hornby. In her novel she explores the social cliques women and girls tend to form. She argues that this does not end in high school, and may even become more vicious on the playgrounds of primary schools as mothers drop their children off for the day. Reading from The Hive, Hornby illustrated her argument to the chuckles of the audience. Since this is the social milieu that I now inhabit I found Hornby’s observations hilarious and true. Even as adults there is a pecking order on the school ground and heaven forbid you step out of your allotted spot!

heartbreak-hotelDeborah Moggach is a well known author and screenplay writer. The making of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel may have sprung her work into the spotlight, but she has commanded a loyal following, especially in the UK, for years. Like Hornby, she had me in stitches during the discussion. Humorous off the cuff comments peppered her observations as one who has worked as a writer for a good long time and who has very particular views on aging and growing ‘more mature’.

Although Moggach talked a fair bit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she also gave us the pleasure of reading from her latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel. This novel brings back Buffy, a character that would not leave her mind after she was finished writing The Ex-Wives. As a serial ex-husband, Buffy opens a hotel in Wales and offers ‘Courses in Divorces’, which draw on his ample experience. Not surprisingly, the BBC has picked up the novel for serialization and I believe is in pre-production.

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Peggy Riley and Jenn Ashworth at Edinburgh International Book Festival

I had planned to talk about Peggy Riley and Jenn Ashworth at the Edinburgh Festival and review Ashworth’s latest book, The Friday Gospels, all in one post. What was I thinking? There is no way I could do that because a) The Friday Gospels is a pretty amazing book, and b) they both had a lot to say at the festival.

The Riley/Ashworth talk was held in one of the smaller venues at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was a sold out show. Not only that, the audience was quite engaged and asked good questions all around. That is something that is all too rare at events such as this. The mediated discussion flipped back and forth between the two women, but for simplicity I am going to deal with each woman separately.

Not surprisingly, Ashworth’s relationship with Mormonism informed much of what Ashworth had to say. The salient points to come across were that although she was raised a Mormon, she no longer is one and The Friday Gospels is by no means autobiographical in the least. Obviously she was writing about a world she knew intimately, but beyond that the characters had very little in common with her. There was some discussion about how her book had been received in Mormon circles and I got the impression that it varied quite widely.

One of the most fascinating aspects to me about The Friday Gospels and today’s discussion was the differences between Mormonism in the United States and Britain. Much of what circulates in the popular conscious about Mormonism has to do with the more extreme and fundamental strains of the religion. In the media one tends to hear about abuses and polygamous marriages, however that is not the experience of most Mormons, especially in the UK. While British Mormons are very different from the break away sects in places like Bountiful, Canada, they are also very different from the typical middle class, white collar image of the American Mormon going door to door. In spite of these differences, however, conformity is very important to Mormons in Britain, probably because it is such a small community compared to that in the United States.

Turning towards Riley’s portion of the discussion, she said that Jonestown and Waco had a greater influence on her writing of Amity and Sorrow than Mormons, though she also looked at them in her research. In particular, she was interested in the charismatic men who lead these groups.

This issue of a polygamous family group was a recurring theme in the discussion. Riley raised some very interesting points about it that I had not considered before. Specifically that in leaving a group such as the one she imagined in Amity and Sorrow one is not just leaving a cult, but a family and a faith as well. In essence, all aspects of your identity have to be re-invented. Riley also considered her protagonist’s choice to take her two biological daughters with her when she leaves the cult in which all children are raised communally.

I really enjoyed hearing Riley read from Amity and Sorrow. Her reading gave the book, and in particular Amaranth, a very different tone than I had in my head. Instead of finding this unsettling, I thought it added greater texture to my understanding and interpretation of the novel.

Salman Rushdie at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Well, this year’s stint at the Edinburgh Book Fest got off to a rousing start – Salman Rushdie. I almost can’t believe that I’ve never seen him before, but then on the other hand, he was in hiding for almost ten years. That kind of crimps one’s book related promotions. Not surprisingly it was a sold out show.

Throughout the interview, conducted by John Freeman of Granta, Rushdie came off as an affable, humorous and charming man of letters. He told numerous anecdotes about his life in hiding, his friendships with Christopher Hitchins, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Freeman referred quite frequently to Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir, making me wish that I had read it before coming, though it certainly wasn’t necessary.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on Rushdie’s big works: Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said that he had to understand who he was before he could write it. In retrospect this is self evident. Like the characters in the novel, Rushdie was also born in 1947, the year in which the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. For the first time in Midnight’s Children what can be called Indian English was used in a literary novel. Rushdie said he had to experiment with language to come up with something that could portray the hot, dirty chaos that is India.

And of course there was discussion of The Satanic Verses. Just as Midnight’s Children marked an important point in the growth of South Asian literature, a point at which India was present in language that was more vibrant than the cold prose of E.M. Forrester (who Rushdie greatly admires), The Satanic Verses introduced the world to the idea that international terrorism could be leveled against literature. Rushdie gave the impression that he knew The Satanic Verses was a great book and may cause a stir, but he thought that for all the wrong reasons. He viewed the novel as a book about London and Thatcherism in the 1980s. He felt that it was all about social upheaval and racial unrest, but did not anticipate the controversy or worldwide attention it garnered.

Throughout the hour during which Rushdie and Freeman conversed thoughts of Rushdie’s well-known womanizing tendencies kept returning to to my mind. He is certainly a charismatic and fascinating person, however it never became apparent to me why so many women are drawn to him. I get the whole brilliant older man thing, but for me it just doesn’t work with Rushdie.