October 19, 2016

Day of the dedications

(photo: @sfpubliclibrary Instagram 15 September)

Time for the book dedications of the year! Not written this year, or not necessarily, but the best I've come across this year. It's a tradition dating back to my very first post for Books in the City, in which -- with the whole world of books available to me as subject matter -- I chose to celebrate the art of the well-written book dedication. That tells you something about my affection for those little solitaires twinkling and winking at us from the centres of white pages.

I'm talking about the best dedications, of course, the ones that speak from the heart with the tongue of a writer, that neither surfeit us with lists (how did that start, those endless pages of acknowledgments in novels, for God's sake!) nor starve us of landmarks, the ones that, despite us knowing they are for a certain someone, we discover are magically also for us.

Here are this year's finds:

1.  Yuyi Morales in Thunder Boy Jr. 

To the Western Addition library in SF where, as a new mother and immigrant, I found my first home in the USA. Nancy, I hope you remember me. You changed my life forever when you put books in my hands.

A book dedication to a library! I had to start with this one. I've shared dedications to an author's typewriter, and to an airlines whose delayed flight inspired the book in question, but this is the first dedication to a library I've come across, via the San Francisco Public Library's Instagram feed @sfpubliclibrary (Western Addition is one of their branches).

As a librarian, I'm going to say that I'm sure Nancy remembers her.

The post went up as we were counting down to Banned Books Week, which was appropriate given that the author of Thunder Boy Jr is Sherman Alexie, whose The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is one of the most challenged books in libraries in his country, the USA. The dedication in that semi-autobiographical work also makes a point about home: "For Welpinit and Reardan, my hometowns", it goes, the first being where Alexie grew up, on an Indian reservation in Washington State, and the second the town where he went to High School, his first time off the reservation.

Thunder Boy Jr is Alexie's first picture book, about a boy looking for a name of his own; Yuyi Morales is the illustrator.  Here's a short trailer from the publisher:


2. Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem was asked by her interviewer at the Auckland Writers Festival this year to talk about the dedication to her new memoir, My life on the road. "Shall I read it out loud?" she rejoined. "I don't want to assume everyone has read my book!"

Her reading of it made exactly my point: great dedications have it all there; they don't need to be commented on.

This book is dedicated to:
 Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
 Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life".
 Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

3.  Jerome K Jerome in Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

After two new books, here's an old one, published in 1886. I knew about this dedication but for the longest time I was mixed up, thinking it was by Italo Svevo, so I could never find it. It could have been by Svevo, who had in common with Jerome K Jerome a love of what in Svevo's native Trieste was referred to with the Austrian term witze, meaning witty paradoxes and contradictions.


Italo Svevo also had a close relationship with tobacco, but in his case it was the cigarette, and in particular the last cigarette. In his book The confessions of Zeno, one of his alter ego Zeno's neuroticisms is to repeatedly smoke the last cigarette, in order to re-experience the joy of quitting. When Svevo was mortally injured in a car accident, he asked at the hospital if he could have a cigarette. His request was denied. Ah, he sighed, that really would have been the last cigarette. 

In addition to the dedication, Jerome K Jerome also wrote a fine preface for his book, which I would love to hear read out loud by John Cleese.

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS. having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere "idle thoughts" of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading "the best hundred books," you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

4. Tony Ross in Sticky ends: twenty-six cautionary verses with sticky ends 

To my dear mum and dad -- they always thought that I would come to one. T.R.

5. Ogden Nash in The Face is Familiar 

This collection of poems by the man who gave us "I never saw a purple cow..." and "If called by a panther, don't anther" is a treasure I found in the Central City Library basement. Although the book was first published in the USA in 1940, our copy is the Australian Edition of May, 1943, a fact which some librarian of the past underlined by recovering the book in wallpaper featuring red and blue stripes interspersed with golden crowns. Not that this would have been her only foray into book preservation. Recovering books in serviceable wallpaper was once a thing in public libraries. I imagine this librarian's ghost floating around in our basement checking up on all her handiwork.

Before disposing of the original cover, the librarian cut out the blurb on its flap and pasted it into the book, turning the book into a sort of time-capsule:

In re-issuing this book in an Australian edition, the publishers are confident that it will add considerably to the gaiety of this land at a time when our sense of humour is in danger of being submerged in a total war effort.

It goes on to cite a poem in the book, a dig at Japanese expansionist tendencies on the eve of Pearl Harbour, which the Australian publishers - how realistically I don't know - hoped the Australians would still be finding funny in 1943.

On the other hand, I myself found a comment apropos of Ogden Nash's death funny enough to note down - or maybe I actually came up with it? It's scribbled in my own hand next to my notes for this post. It'd be nice to think I could be so witty as to quip "Merde! Improperly prepared!" in reaction to learning that one of the most famous rhymers in the history of poetry died from eating improperly prepared coleslaw. Googling brings up nothing. If anyone knows the origin of this genial epigram, please let me know!

I was taking notes because I had discovered that a postage stamp honouring Ogden Nash made history by being the first US postage stamp to contain the word "sex"- "although as a synonym for gender", Wikipedia tells us. Whew!

"It appears under the letter O" the wikipedia pundit continues. With my librarian skills I was able to quickly unearth a reproduction of the stamp, just to check that fact. The pundit had it right.

But I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price of the stamp and realised that this could not have happened in the fifties as I had assumed. In fact, it turned out to be issued in 2002, on the centennial of Nash's birth! What, the word sex made history in 2002? Are we kidding?
The Amarillo, Texas newspaper article where I found this information contained, further along, a telling insight. The other set of new stamps to come out that year was "Discover Canada", highlighting popular tourist attractions. So, images of Foggy Cove and the Icefields Parkway and Buffalo Jump, vying for attention with Nash's racy poem "The Turtle".

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.

The dedication I found in the book, to Nash's wife, is not scandalous, antic or clever. It's sentimental, a bit reminiscent of the classic era poetry schoolboys of Nash's time (and of my father's, although he was a generation later) used to learn. "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by..." But it's definitely going straight to the book dedication wall in my pool room.

For Francis

And now to settle for the years,
That flew like frightened birds;
As fee for ten of happiness
I offer ten of words.

July 21, 2016

Fat is still a feminist issue. So is feminism.

Looking back on Susie Orbach at AWF 2016, and forward to Andi Zeisler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!

Carole Beu, usually the Festival’s most ebullient chair, went classic on us, almost reverent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!"


I looked around to see if I could spot any men behind me, or across the vast reaches of the ASB Theatre which, as I had just noted down, was fully populated. I certainly couldn’t see any in front of me. Aha, two! And a group! And just further along from them, look, two more... and...and ... here you go:

What is it with men anyway? Women would go to a session with a male protagonist of the culture wars. Women would go to a Foucault session, were he still alive of course. I expect women would flock to a Foucault session. Women would go to hear any number of venerable male cultural critics or theorists, I thought, trying to come up with names of some live ones. It wasn't easy. I mentally saluted the life force and staying power of that amazing AWF 2016 trio Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach and Vivian Gornick.

I clicked my attention back to the stage as Carole began chatting congenially about a certain Fifi. It didn't take me too embarrassingly long to identify Fifi as Fat is a Feminist Issue, Orbach’s 1978 book in which she used a feminist perspective to attempt to move people on from a blame-the-victim approach to weight “issues”.

Carole proposed, perhaps wishing and hoping, that the book “probably changed the lives of million of women”.

Susie Orbach’s calm response: “It didn’t change the world and the problem has actually amplified. It has now eaten into the lives of our children. There are women in rest homes being made to anguish over what they eat.”

“The book is actually most of all about compulsive eating”, said Carole, who was surprised to realise this when she reread it before the festival.

Orbach has never reread it -- she thinks maybe because she's frightened of it. When she wrote it, her insight was that “Largeness is a way of negotiating the pressures our visual culture places on us, about always having to look at yourself in a critical way. If you’re large, you’re exempt from that”. Today it’s different. “It signifies different things. It could mean being from the other side of the tracks or it could mean you have to look at the real me below the surface.”

But above all, largeness is not actually the issue. “You can be a compulsive eater in many sizes. You can be ‘normal’ and be a compulsive eater. I don’t think the real issue is obesity. It’s our relationship with eating. If we started with that instead of creating a stigma about being one size or another, that would address the problem better.”

The issue, in other words, is the notions attached to body size, the social judgments, the psychological feelings. I had never actually read Fifi, but I’ve now had a good look through it (thanks Auckland Libraries and Overdrive for having that available for me on my laptop in 60 seconds) (progress sometimes really is progress). As its electronic pages slipped past, it felt as though I were voyaging through an asteroid belt where the asteroids were big black words: all those angers, depresseds, turmoils, emptinesses, suffereds, swampeds, mirrors, defenses, and so on. It was a scary insight; what would it be like to live there.

The copy I had checked out was a reissue from 2006, for which Orbach had written a new introduction, in which she pointed out, “Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat is a Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement.”

How well said, how sadly and disappointingly true. And side by side with that goes another of the dark sides of living in our “moneyed world”, as Vivian Gornick described it: those companies making money by selling the perfect body (“though they don’t call it that”) to vulnerable people, mostly but not always women.

For one, the diet industry, raking in billions of dollars for products which don't work and people (consumers) conveniently never stop feeling they need, since only 3% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, for all kinds of reasons, from physiological changes to psychological pressures. The cosmetics industry, for another.

“To encourage body-hatred all over the world is a gift of later capitalism. We export it all over the world.” Orbach pointed out. I think it was in one of her columns for The Guardian where she discussed research which found a mathematical correlation between the arrival of commercial television and its army of advertising in various countries, and the increase in eating disorders among the young girls in those countries.

“Now the body is a product we have to make, instead of where we are from. We are going to have the branded body. Not just clothes but our bodies will be branded. The brand will be Barbie-esque.”

More and more people's daily lives feed them a stream of images of celebrities photoshopped and manipulated into an unattainable ideal. How healthy a diet is that? “People come in to me for a problem like a job problem and they also have body hatred but they haven’t come for that. They just assume they’ll have that all their life.”

“What do you hope for young women?” asked Carole.

“What I hope for all of us -- to have a life of meaning.”

I was reminded of a passage I read recently in a memoir which might have been Angelica Garnett's, or possibly Jenny Diski's (I trust I'm not the only person who remembers the sentiment and the sensation of past readings but not necessarily the specimen ID). Angelica had received from her aunt, Virginia Woolf, or maybe Jenny had received from her foster mother Doris Lessing, a note expressing the hope that she would have a happy life. Angelica/Jenny wonders, looking back, at the choice of "happy", rather than "good", which she would have thought a better wish. A life of meaning is a pretty good life, for my money.

I am not sure if it were the psychotherapist in Orbach instinctively making sure that we would leave the 60 minute version of the "50 minute hour" with a good feeling, once the discontent had been aired, but that was how it went. There were some likable closing lines from her --  "What's really satisfying is relationships and contributions and finding things that interest you" was one I liked, and there was one about a good ear being the most powerful thing you can offer which was met with a round of applause, surprisingly to me. I found her line about body-hatred being a gift of later capitalism much more rowsing. "Know your enemy" is powerful stuff too.

Because I am not a psychotherapist, but a reader and a writer, rather than lend an ear, I'm going to plant something in your ear: a suggestion for further reading. Susie Orbach speaks about the body becoming a brand. Andi Zeisler, the cofounder of Bitch Media, has written a provocative book about feminism itself becoming a brand. It's called We were feminists once and I discovered it during the Festival while travelling in the Vivian Gornick, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach force field. If something seems not quite right to you about a company selling (and people buying) body-hugging little tees, produced by poor women in developing country sweatshops, with "Feminist" emblazoned on the front, this is your book. Who is appropriating feminism, and why, while doing nothing to progress the "unfinished business of the women's movement" -- as Susan Douglas calls it?

I actually went and bought myself my own copy when I had to return my borrowed copy to the library. A book which teaches me the so very useful term "marketplace feminism" needs to be able to be pulled out again and again.

The many aspects of marketplace feminism and the range of the book can be glimpsed by its entry in the book's index, which points you to the following:  "as appeasement, beauty and", "choice and", "fashion and", "feminism and", "as feminist branding", "Mad Max: Fury Road as", "media and", "movies and", "popular culture and", "as prioritizing individuals", "purchasing and", "Spice Girls and", and, "television and".

-- Karen

July 06, 2016

Gloria Steinem: not the Queen of the Auckland Writers Festival

Photo Annie Leibovitz

She could have been the Queen of the Festival. She was the first guest whose session sold out. She had the royal touch, mothers lining up to get copies of her book signed for their baby daughters, in a modern version of the laying on of the hands. She was the only guest to have an interviewer summoned from across the seas (Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley) (not sure why, actually). She had the raiment - that leather jacket!

But here was the thing. She didn’t want to be Queen. She was not here to represent or embody anything. She was here to share some stories about her life, from the many in her book My life on the road. But no nostalgia! ”There’s something about being part of a movement and being on the road that forces you to live in the present -- which is where we should live.”

Nick Barley led her through the salient points in the book. They talked about her parents, her father who treated her as an adult even when she was little “and I’m very grateful to him”, and her mother, who had been a pioneering journalist but had given up her career in those days when no one thought you could have it all, not before having been diagnosed with “anxiety neuroses”. Steinem's stories of them were, for me and I think for many readers, the most touching in the book. They split up when she was only 11.

She never again felt she really had a home. As soon as she was out of school she took off for India. She told herself she was attracted for the theosophy aspect (her mother was a theosophist), “but really… I was escaping”.

In the Indian villages she discovered "talking circles". People would come out of their houses in the evening and sit together around a kerosene lamp to talk about the terrible experiences they shared, trying to sort out the truth and break the cycle.

We got the first taste of her wicked sense of humour. She recalled that many years later the women's movement developed their own form of talking circles -- consciousness raising groups.

"I’m sure a lot of women here remember those, now we call them book clubs.”

Back in the US, her time in India having helped her skive the suburban ideal she had firsthand reasons to distrust, Steinem began working in journalism. And here of course we came to her notorious turn as a Playboy bunny, somewhat misleadingly described in the Festival programme blurb as “She was famously a Playboy bunny, but one who wrote a magazine article entitled “A Bunny’s Tale”, revealing the exploitative working conditions bunnies endured”. She was a journalist, and Show magazine assigned her to write a story about the Playboy Clubs, with the idea she would go undercover as a bunny for a couple of weeks. She wasn't enthusiastic about it, but it was “the kind of assignment I would get”-- which tells you something about the times.

She had thought that it might at least be somewhat glamorous, but she was being set straight on that before even being fitted for her bunny suit. At the job interview she told the woman she was a secretary, and the reply came back: “Honey, if you can type you don’t want to work here”.

The article, which you can and should read online in the New York University Digital Library, made her famous but, she tells us, "It was a bad career move". Being an ex-bunny became the thing she was most known for, despite it being her least favoured characterisation. "At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. People say "What does she know? She was a bunny".

But there was some satisfaction. The gynaecological exam for aspiring bunnies which she blew the whistle on was discontinued soon after her article came out. And in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she pointed out "My exposé of working in a Playboy Club has outlived all the Playboy Clubs, both here and abroad."

Nick Barley asks a question about Ms magazine which I miss because I’m so stupefied by having heard him call it “Miss Magazine” and asking myself if this could be just an accent thing (I'm still not sure), and then asks her about the historic 1977 conference in Houston on women’s issues, 20,000 women in attendance, their delegates busy drawing up an action plan to submit to the US Congress (the conference was actually sponsored by the US Government).

It’s depressing of course to think how few of their planks have been achieved, and how many of those achieved are nonetheless still threatened (however, as I write this, the US Supreme Court has just blown away attempts by the state of Texas to deny women the reproductive rights the US government has ruled are theirs), but Gloria Steinem hadn’t written a book, and come here to talk to us, just to be our institutional memory, or Cassandra, or whatever.

She talked about the women at the conference, about the Native American women she had gotten to know there, how she had learned so many fascinating things about early Native American history from them. Because, and this is pure Gloria, “We don’t study history from when it started, we study it from when monarchy, patriotism and patriarchy and the other bullshit started”.

About patriarchy, Gloria... Gloria had no hesitation. “It’s about controlling reproduction -- that’s what it’s all about”.

The perfect lead-in for Nick Barley to call our attention to the dedication in My life on the road.

“Such a great dedication. Tell us about it.”

“Shall I read it? I don’t want to say everyone’s read my book!” (a good Steinem laugh) and she does.

 This book is dedicated to: 
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. 
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life". 
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

"You will do what you want to do with your life," muses Barley. "Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve sacrificed your life on behalf of others?”

“I don’t feel like that at all!” and another good laugh.

Gloria Steinem wasn't going in for any of that "I sacrificed myself for you" blackmail. She wasn't going in for recognition, or packaging, or ownership. (She doesn't even own a car, I learned from reading the book.)

"Women say to me with some alarm, 'My daughter doesn't know who you are!' But does she know who she is? Because that's the whole point."

She pumped for all of us filling the ASB theatre to use the occasion as an opportunity to spread the word about what we are doing and thinking. “Use the mike!” she said when Q&A time came around. And some people did, websites were promoted, organisations cited. But a lot of people had questions, and none were turned away.

Q "Where do you want us to be in fifty years?"
A “I want it to be wherever you want it to be. I'm not here to tell you where to go -- you know things I don’t know. “

Q Should we should talk to people who are “against feminism”?
A Well of course. “If I am fucking up I don’t want someone to hate me, I want them to tell me!”

A woman wanted to talk about the rights of sex workers. Steinem was honest; she has a problem with legalising “sex work”, though she does not want to criminalise it. “What happened to mutuality?” Is it about cooperation or submission? She doesn't see it as just another exploitative job, as is the risk if we term it "sex work". In her life, she says, she's only known one woman whose choice to sell her body was truly free of coercion.

Advice to a 14 year old feminist, who wanted to know where to start in her school where "nobody even knows what feminism is": Find an instance of injustice (how do the budgets for boys and girls sports teams compare) and organise people to challenge it.

"Change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”.

I saw a hopeful, funny person, the humour more pithy than came across in her book...

"Who are your anti-abortionists?" No hands went up.
"Maybe they don’t read books!"

... and the hope more matter-of-course.

I’m not sure it was clear to me from the book how enjoyable a member of your, um, book group she would be, but the evening left no doubt about it.

 She sent us out telling us to talk to other people after exiting. I took it as a sort of beau geste, but as it happened, my daughter and I, standing in the signing line with her copy of A life on the road (the Christmas present I didn't choose for her, thinking, What will that long ago stuff mean to her?, only to see her choose it on her own), found ourselves next to funny smart Michele A’Court, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and it all happened just as it should.

When we arrived in front of Ms Steinem, I heard my daughter say that she didn't care about having her name in the book, she preferred a message, "whatever you would like to say to me".


June 30, 2016

"A little life" and some big doubts at AWF 2016

The last set of our Writers Festival posts opens with Karen going against the crowd. Here's hoping that of the three types of cranky (entertaining, angry and annoying), this will prove to be in the first category.

So doll-like! Of all the ways I had imagined Hanya Yanagihara, author of The Dark Novel of 2015, doll-like was not one. She sat placidly -- or carefully-- in her black armchair like an objet d'art and I am not sure I saw any movement at all below the neck the entire time she was seated. Even her turning her gaze from Anne Kennedy in the interviewer chair to us in the audience during her responses seemed to happen in slow motion.

A low, modulated "Hello" and we were off. Somewhat disconcertingly to me, as I had been lured by the programme listing's promise of 'intense conversation' which seemed to imply opposing viewpoints, by way of introduction we had Anne reeling off a sequence of hyperbolic quotes in praise of the book, something which seemed not to disconcert Yanagihara at all.

I should lay my cards on the table right away. That book, A little life, had left me unconvinced. But I was looking forward to this session. Between the establishment honours it was garnering (Booker Prize shortlist etc) and the ardent reader fandom (a comment left on our online catalogue declared it "an experience, not just a book"), I couldn't help wondering if I had missed something. Or maybe been too in thrall to my personal tics. Like with the gougères.

Gougères, if you don’t already know (I didn't), are French cheese puffs, and, I just realised, a metaphor for my difficulty digesting this book. When Yanagihara describes Jude, her main character, a man traumatised by horrendous sexual abuse suffered as a child, who has become a top of the top litigator, while also having an extraordinary aptitude for theoretical mathematics and extraordinary musical talent, as always wanting to throw together some gougères for when his friends come over, I winced. I wanted Holden Caulfield to be one of the friends coming up the stairs, just to hear what he’d say.

But this is the thing. There is no Holden, because, as Yanagihara told us at the start in her very composed response to interviewer Anne Kennedy’s holding a first tentative light up to her book, “I wanted to make an hommage to the way my friends and I live”.

More in particular, she told us, she wanted to show that becoming an adult doesn't mean you have to get married and have children. For me who works in a library, this didn't strike me as news. But anyway, Yanagihara gives us four male friends, who have moved to New York together after their graduation from University, all rigorously unmarried but who seem to spend their time working, acquiring and achieving just like married men of their ilk.

They acquire wealth (apartments, country houses), habits (various, only in one case of the drug type, but it doesn't take him down), and partners (corporate, sexual, and other), and they achieve success. Lots of success. They all become stars in their fields, and all without doing anything as boring as striving. How is that?

But Yanagihara forestalls any question about her book's credibility (the 4-0 record of the friends being only one of many challenges in that sense). She tells us it's supposed to be that way, because she used a "fairy tale template". We need to suspend disbelief, is what I understand her to be saying.

“This is not a book you can go into and not surrender to it, and I hope what it gives you is the intimacy of a certain world”.

Surrendering to a book is my preferred way to read, but I wasn’t able to surrender to A little life. It might be that books about the world of wealthy Manhattanites just aren't that enthralling to me, unless executed with the wit of American Psycho, for instance, or if it's a fringe version, as in Netherland. So there's that.

But also. The heavy-handed, unimaginative depiction of the violence done to poor Jude, even more than the amount of it (every time he escapes one torturer, he falls in with another just as bad or worse). Yanahigara's editor did say that the sheer quantity of it was simply not believable, she told us, but “I told my editor if things are not quite believable they should still be true".

I suppose she means emotionally true. I'm with her on that, but I couldn’t find any true feeling in the sexual abuse scenes that are, after all, central to the book’s wallop. It should have been there, and it should have been horror and pity, but all I felt was unease and nausea. It gave me pause when I realised at a certain point that it was the same feeling I had in reading the child rape scenes in that Navajo “memoir” (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams) which turned out to be a hoax, written by an unsuccessful non-Navajo writer of gay leather porn. A suspicion of being rendered a voyeur. That the reading experience was going to be voyeuristic rather than cathartic.

Tenderness, when it appeared, seemed always the outcome of a bargain. And desire? How ironic (or maybe I should say manipulative, given that the reader is, I believe, supposed to think it an image of suffering) the use of a photograph of a man in orgasm (Peter Hujar’s Orgasmic Man) as the cover image for a book in which there is no spontaneous, unbounded sexual desire. In which Jude's lover, new to a sexual relationship with a man, explains it away with an "I'm not in a relationship with a man, I'm in a relationship with Jude".

Was that when the word 'facile' first came to me?  Facile which is one of the adjectives Hanna Yanagihara uses for a group of friends that she described as one of her inspirations for A Little Life, in an article she wrote for Vulture last year:

"...I was an editor at a now-defunct magazine about the media industry called Brill’s Content… It was my first magazine job, and I found it terrifying, like being moved from the high-school literary magazine to the high-school debate team: Everyone was smart and facile and articulate and argumentative. One of my co-workers [...] was a man named Seth, and it was through him that I became friends with two of his friends from college: Joe, who was a copy editor at the magazine, and Jared, who was Seth’s former roommate and an editor at Inside.com. I found them all fascinating."

I can't help but be reminded of the answer she gave when Anne Kennedy asked her about the writing process behind the book. "I knew exactly where I was going with it" she said.

And so she did. At various points we heard that she wanted it to be a long novel, a claustrophobic novel, a novel with no natural stopping points, where the violence would be "unsanitised", and which would be "very personal" to her. And that is where she went.

I think anyone intrigued by the subject matter of this book -- the lasting effects of trauma, the arc of friendship, its strengths and its limits -- who want to immerse themselves in a story, who are happy to set aside scepticism, who find social or cultural commentary intrusive, who would like to push the boundaries of their emotional endurance, should try going there with her.

Don't worry about the gougères. Maybe talking about gougères in Manhattan is no more pretentious than talking about quiche in my native California (which is to say, not pretentious at all, unless perhaps when the filling is kale, or ramps -- oops, don't they buy ramps in A Little Life?).

As her last question before Audience Q&A time, Anne asked, as interviewers do, “What’s next for you?”

The first laugh of the interview from Yanagihara! A strong, low laugh. But I didn’t catch an answer and I’m pretty sure that if there was one, it was a gloss over.

During Q&A, a sincere young male whom I dubbed “Mr G” in my notes stepped up to the microphone and asked whether Yanagihara could share any revelations that had come to her while writing the book “if it isn’t too personal”.

No, she couldn’t.

“I think this would be a great place to end” said Anne.


June 08, 2016

Marlon James at AWF 2016: Fascinating and free-flowing

Liz from Collections Insights went to hear the Jamaican-born novelist, now resident in the U.S., mostly from curiosity. She's now on not one but two wait lists for his book -- the print and the e-book version, a "whichever comes sooner attitude" which already tells us much about the session. Here's her full account:

When Noelle McCarthy introduced Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize last year with his A Brief History of Seven Killings, as the writer of a “bloody great book in every sense of the work” we knew were in for a treat – if for no other reason that we would be listening to two of the most attractive accents in the world – Irish and Jamaican.

As it turned out, the content as well as the delivery made the session fascinating. The rapport between McCarthy and James led to an hour of free-flowing conversation and covered a vast range of topics, from the music of Prince and space break sex to getting through writer’s block and the history of Jamaica.

The conversation started with a discussion of the recent death of Prince as James lives in Minneapolis and is a huge Prince fan. Purple Rain was the first record he bought and in his high school year book he was described as the person “most likely to work for Prince”. James’s regret was that he had never quite got round to seeing Prince live.

A Brief History of Seven Killings explores the abortive attempt to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976 and the impact that had both in Jamaica and in the US. The book is told by what McCarthy described as a “polyphony of characters”, each with their own distinct voice. James describes all his novels as being driven by voice, and finding the right voice as essential to telling the story. “The only voice I am not interested in is my own”. When he first started A Brief History he tried out different voices, searching for the “magic one” to tell the story. When a friend asked why he thought it was only one person’s story, he realised the number of voices he needed was actually 76.

The novel is notable for its graphic sex and violence – visceral was a word that came up a lot. James felt that in order to nail the character or “the voice” you sometimes had to risk going too far, to get to what was wanted. When it came up again later, he said “You’d be surprised how prudish and how squeamish I am”, but that his characters demanded more of him. What he described as “space break sex” was not enough. To explain he gave us an example:

     Tom said to Harry, “I have always loved you.”

     The next morning……

James said he found starting a novel terribly hard, with many false starts, but that he would read his way out of writer's block. Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover was especially praised for its sparse format – “stage director's notes rather than a novel”. He also said he had read the entire script of the TV series Breaking Bad, although he had yet to actually see an episode.

Talking more about the central theme of his novel, he described 1976, the year of the attack on Bob Marley, as a pivotal year in Jamaican history, when the hopes and dreams born of Jamaica's independence began to unravel. James was six at the time -- his mother a cop, his father a lawyer. While he was aware of their heightened fear, he didn’t understand why. Writing A Brief History was a way to find out what 1976 was like for adults who, like his parents, had lived through it.

It was one of those discussions you wished could just keep on going. James obviously thinks deeply about the process of writing, the role of the novel and how history is perceived, and you could see he enjoyed sharing his ideas in this sort of forum. I hope we will see him at the Auckland Writers’ Festival again.

-- Liz

May 31, 2016

Susie Orbach and Jeanette Winterson Pop Up at AWF 2016

8:56 PM: The nice helper at the after-hours ticket outlet aka Festival Information Desk is holding the last two tickets to Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach’s Pop-up session, cash only, hoorah, I’ve got the cash, and we’re off with minutes to spare, slaloming around a few clumps of festival goers enjoying their Bill Oddie afterglow, just enough time to grab a wine, and, what’s this? The bar is closed! What?

No no, someone says, the bar is IN the room, and points the way. Swerve, final stretch, we push open the doors, and there it is -- the bar, and a room bursting with women (okay I guess there were a couple of men). The widest range of hair colours ever yet seen at an AWF session, reds of all shades, white, blond, black, a variety of hats, all stylish, one shawl with a baby being marsupialled in it. Two front row seats for us and our wines, just behind some happy couples ensconced on double beanbags which have been laid out in the space between the dais and us, heightening my feeling that we’re taking part in a giant slumber party, about to call the radio station to request our favourite songs, all through the night. The buzz is palpable.

It’s time. Our Miss Clavel appears and it’s Festival director Anne O’Brien in person, and you can see right away she’s not going to tell us to go to sleep, she’s exhilirated too, presenting Jeanette Winterson, author and memoirist (Oranges are not the only fruit), and Susie Orbach, psychotherapist (most famously to Lady Diana) and writer (Fat is a feminist issue), together since 2010 and soon to celebrate their first anniversary as a married couple, ready to riff tonight on the theme of madness and creativity.

Once the wild applause fades,  the first thing -- and the second -- they do is ask for the lights to brought up so they can see us. They want to see us! How many guests from their places on the stage have mumbled about how they can't see anyone but who ever asked -- twice -- for the lights to be brought up?

“How many people here think of themselves as creative? Raise your hands!” Winterson throws out. Hands everywhere you look.

“How many people here think of themselves as crazy?” Almost as many.

“Creativity is our birthright as human beings" she pronounces. "Every child is born creative and then we knock it out of them. Not everyone will be an artist but we’re all involved in the creative response.”

“It’s interesting you say that because I’m not sure I agree,” responds Orbach calmly, in the first of several instances of endearing married couple-style banter, mentioning "Winnicott’s theory" that creativity is born of babies searching for a relationship with their mother.

“Yes”, Winterson concedes, it’s clearly about relationships, “not the the lone white male they want you to believe.” But who is to say which relationships? “The thing about artists is you can’t trust them, you have to trust the work. I’ve always thought a creative work is first and foremost a lie detector.” Her “autobiographical” novel Oranges are not the only fruit comes to mind, the one of which she once said, “I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful”.

She wonders how we are doing, could we see them well enough, considering that we are going to be spending an hour together, and invites Orbach to join her in perching on the backrest of the ottoman instead of sitting on its seat. Marvellously, they suddenly go from being talking heads to being individuals in flesh and blood, Winterson looking a bit like a mischievous chimney sweep in her black stovepipe-ish jeans, shirt and leather shoes with stitching around the toes which managed to suggest a certain elfin upturning, and Orbach like a sexy Parisian concierge with her black silk chemisier and skirt, and head of untidy curls.

The role of anxiousness is touched on, with Orbach describing the psychoanalyst’s “50 minute hour” as a place of both anxiety and extraordinary creativity. Winterson agrees, replying eloquently, “What is home? Where do I belong? What is my culture? These massive questions: the creativity we make is a sort of an answer”. And, “It’s not just a personal answering, it’s a gift -- we want it to enter into other people.”

“Why do we get so damn scared?” Orbach asks, turning to the question of bravery, of daring.

Winterson talks of when she was writing Why be happy when you could be normal, and how the question emerged for her of how much to reveal. In the end, she says, you need to find the "place you have to access in order to do the work you have to do”.

“In my generation,” says Orbach, who will turn seventy next year (Winterson is in her fifties), “daring to express yourself sent women into breakdowns”.

Something creative people must have, agrees Winterson, is enough confidence to risk bringing out another part of themselves. “Often what we call creativity is recklessness or ruthlessness,” she acknowledges.

Towards the end, they reminisce about their youth. “The search I was in could have led to depression or psychosis but the women’s liberation movement came along,” says Susie Orbach. “That’s how I got out of being crazy” -- not counting the craziness of youth, of course!

On Winterson's part, even with the hard childhood she’d had, locked repeatedly in the coal cellar for punishment by her missionary adoptive mother, not allowed to have books at home (she hid them under her mattress, where her mother found them and burned them), she has something almost romantic to say about the escape route she had created. “My best friends were dead. When I needed them I went and got them off the shelves of the public library.” And launches into an effusive description of a chance reading of TS Eliot on the library steps, aged 16, as Orbach smiles benignly. Generously. "I think that's wonderful," she says.

Kiwi author Joanne Drayton, another brave front-rower sitting a few seats down from us, asks if they think creative opportunities are diminishing in today's world.

Orbach allows as how she thinks there’s been a democratisation of creativity, even as we live under an economic structure that dictates where we are to find satisfaction. Although the first of those postulates could be seen as positive (and in fact Winterson is enthusiastic about the idea of democratisation and takes it as a sign that things are improving), she can't however ignore the alarming fact that 24 million people follow someone on youtube who shows you how to make yourself up so you look like Barbie.

Yes, says Winterson, “The best and the worst is now visible, it’s in your face all the time”. But, she concludes, “I’m optimistic, I think people will sort it out.”

Sometimes I feel that way and sometimes not. And I have to wonder if, brainy as she is, that isn’t true for Jeanette Winterson too. But right then, there was no doubt that she was speaking from her heart. That was what was so wonderful about the evening: the standing up (or perching on a backrest) for spontaneity, in a medium like the literary festival circuit where spontaneity is regrettably, if perhaps inevitably, in short supply.

As I’m writing, all I can think is how glad I am I got to see them like this, in their own orchestration, turning a crowd of curious admirers into friends for the hour, rather than watching a film of them walking around the Auckland Art Gallery peering at creative works and dropping bon mots about creativity as some guy from TV3 followed them around with a videocamera, as I chanced to see a short clip of. Actually, I couldn't have seen more if I'd wanted to, as it was on the Auckland Art Gallery's facebook page, and as I'm not a facebook user, the view was obscured by a banner inviting me to join facebook today.

What a happy privilege to have had the Orbach-Winterson experience live and off the network!


May 30, 2016

Paul Muldoon at AWF 2016: A poet worth knowing

In which Simon from Central City Library tells us about going to see poet Paul Muldoon, and the adroit adjective 'Eliotic' makes its first appearance in Books in the City:

The Writers Festival session "One thousand things worth knowing" featured acclaimed US-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon speaking about his career and artistry with our own C.K. Stead. Muldoon, a poet who enjoys a critical standing up there with the likes of Seamus Heaney (not to mention being a Professor at Princeton University and poetry editor at The New Yorker), was a warm and eloquent speaker. He read wonderfully and spoke with humour and grace. Stead is clearly less of a natural public speaker, (to be fair, he was a late stand-in for Bill Manhire), but knew Muldoon's work and antecedents more than well enough to help facilitate an interesting discussion.

The conversation begun with talk of formative influences. Aside from the impact of the immediacy necessary in radio, impressed upon him during his time working for the BBC, Muldoon admitted early poetic efforts also involved trying to "follow Eliot", which had often resulted in poetry that was "Eliotic."

In contrast, being an Irish poet, Muldoon had found it necessary to "work around" Yeats rather than aspire to, let alone compete with, his greatness. Stead expressed surprise that Yeats had not been mentioned more in the prior ‘From 1916 to Here’ festival event which Muldoon had been part of. Muldoon pointed out the irony that historical events after the fact had helped imbue a poem like Yeats’s “Easter 1916” with its verisimilitude. The British shooting of insurrectionists during the Easter Rising had in fact only happened after Yeats had composed the poem and not the other way round.

Even if he had begun as one of many Eliot acolytes, it was not the Eliotic that Muldoon was shooting for. Rather, he hoped he might induce an "electric shock" for the reader, or as Stead put it, "a kick in the behind." Muldoon elaborated that if the process of composing the poem is unexpected for the writer, this increases the likelihood that a similar shift, whether seismic or minor, will occur for the reader.

"If I know what I'm doing then everyone else will know too. . . If I don't know what I'm doing, there's a chance others will be surprised."

Further building on this contention, Muldoon went so far as to dismiss the "write about what you know" creative writing tenet.

Despite wanting to cause this shift in the reader, Muldoon was uncertain of the effect poetry might have on the world at large. He hoped it might do some good, and could see a world in which art took over the role of organised religion.

Muldoon read poems such as ‘Honey’ from his new volume One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, and older poems such as ‘Saffron’ and ‘Why Brownlee Left’. Muldoon contended ‘Honey’ was the type of poem which seemed to ask of itself: “Is this a poem at all?” The answer “Not much” was one Muldoon felt the culture of poetry as a whole should be more comfortable with. He read with a gentle determination that seemed perfectly in keeping with the tone of the poems.

A brief QnA session elicited charming and self-deprecating responses from Muldoon. When asked if he really felt he could “write about Saffron forever”, Muldoon said he felt that “subject matter” was irrelevant – that the whole world could be seen through the prism of something as seemingly minor as saffron. A second audience member enquired about what books had spoken to Muldoon in his youth. Stevenson’s Treasure Island as it turns out. “If I could write a book like Treasure Island, I wouldn’t bother with this stuff.”

-- Simon 

Xu Zhiyuan at AWF 2016: Inside the real China

Simonne from Central City Library went to hear "cultural phenomenon" Xu Zhiyuan and came away with a lot to think about... and to tell us!


Xu Zhiyuan, named by Ai Wei Wei “the most important Chinese intellectual of his time”, did not disappoint. Journalist, editor and author, his latest book Paper Tiger is a collection of his journalism written over the last seven years. The Sunday morning session with interviewer Jeremy Rose was certainly challenging, requiring intense concentration to digest all he was saying in his strongly accented English.

Opening with a discussion of the looming 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, we get the first of many indications that what is commonly known and discussed in the West is, in contrast, just not talked about in China. The Anniversary is a taboo subject; discussion could reveal flaws so discussion is not condoned.

It is Xu’s opinion that the Cultural Revolution, wherein Chairman Mao tried to impose a totalitarian system into every facet of Chinese life, poisoned the country. The economic and political reforms of the past thirty years had largely reversed this position, but with significant income inequality and a slowing economy causing widespread uncertainty and insecurity, there seems now to be a nostalgia among many for the totalitarianism of the past.

There is however, in Xu’s circles, resistance to State control, and in 2006 Xu co-founded a bookshop in Beijing called One Way Street Library. Mirroring the likes of Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and City Lights in San Francisco, One Way Street (now called OWspace with three branches in Beijing and more to follow in other cities) hosts regular salons. These events, often led by well-known authors and artists, are aimed at stimulating conversations about topics relevant to today’s world.

Interestingly, he has never been harassed by the authorities but is very aware that what could be discussed four years ago is off the agenda now. Present day bookstore discussions revolve around the arts, whereas they would once have included hearty political debates.

This censorship, Xu tells us, is not laid down anywhere; there are no clear boundaries or guidelines – what may be acceptable one day may get you arrested the next. He shares a chilling metaphor of a snake wound around a chandelier. The shadow cast by the snake ensures you are always aware of its presence but most of the time it stays in position while you go about your daily life. However, it can strike at any time; you will have no warning and it will be fatal. It is this unpredictability which is so disempowering.

When asked about internationally acclaimed artist and strident political activist Ai Wei Wei’s release from prison Xu offers a few theories:

- Perhaps he was released as a result of both international and local pressure – he has rock star status in China.

- His use of social media (he has been hugely active on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest internet platform and more lately on Twitter) has ensured a widespread public profile.

- Perhaps his strength of character helped to sustain him throughout his imprisonment; he is of an earlier generation, who grew up in the Cultural Revolution and are consequently tougher than Xu’s generation and those following.

Again, the uncertainty, the lack of consistency, the ever-shifting ground is made obvious in Xu’s lack of clarity. The poet Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” while incarcerated, is still in prison today. Although internationally acclaimed, the tight media controls ensure Liu’s achievements are known by few in China (his name is censored). It becomes clearer as the session continues that the Chinese authorities today are influenced by popular opinion but they carefully control what the public knows.

China’s leaders know only too well how the general populace love to see an official or chief executive jailed for corruption; their collective morality is outraged that such people set themselves above the rest of society. Consequently, panaceas such as the Anti-Corruption Drive are offered to the people to serve as distractions, shifting focus from the real issues facing China. An independent legal system, the freedom of the press, human rights, freedom of speech and the right to make personal choices; these, Xu tells us, are the fundamental pillars of a healthy society but they do not exist in today’s China.

The next topic, China’s one child policy, casts more light on the mind-set of the post Cultural Revolution generations. Initially introduced in 1978 as a purely physical solution to the burgeoning population issue, it was made possible by a citizenry well accustomed to totalitarian edicts and terrified by the consequences of not abiding. Aside from the horrors of sex-selected abortion, abandonment and infanticide, and the now skewed male/female balance, Xu tells us of the unexpected social psychology phenomenon which has developed as a direct result of this policy. The two generations since, born as “only” children, have never had the balancing influence of siblings to toughen them up and ensure they recognise their place as part of a whole (the family) and not the epicentre. Commonly referred to as “little emperors”, many are, according to Xu, “self-centred, narcissistic, over-protected, narrow minded and ruthless”. They want only to protect their lifestyle so the enticing distractions consumerism offers, along with a fear of reprisal, ensures they will not make a fuss when a fellow countryman who dared to speak out about an injustice is imprisoned.

However, it is not only Chinese disinterest that is to blame for the human rights abuses. Western leaders have in the past, when Communism was a dirty word, spoken out strongly against such abuses but now that China is a super power their tune has changed. Today’s Western leaders want a chunk of that phenomenal growth and so conveniently refrain from noticing that which may require criticism.

Still, despite such bleak days, Xu is optimistic that many of the new generation are more enlightened and he lives in hope that China can do beautiful things again as they have for thousands of years before.

And so the session ended but over the weeks following I have found myself returning to my notes again and again to ponder what he said. Surely, the sign of a great event!

-- Simonne Le Masurier

May 24, 2016

Carmen Aguirre at AWF 2016: "Mexican Hooker #1"

Amber from Parnell Library tells us about discovering Carmen Aguirre and why she thinks you should too:

Are you put off by the title Mexican Hooker #1? If you are, you shouldn’t feel alone – it was a feeling I came across in more than one person whilst mutually flicking through the Auckland Writers Festival programme. While you shouldn’t feel alone, you should probably feel regretful, though, because this stiffness likely kept you from encountering the almost disconcertingly interesting Ms. Carmen Aguirre.

Often the first thing you will learn about Carmen Aguirre is that at a young age she was raped – it is unpleasant, it is painful to read about, painful to think about. It seemed confusing to people I encountered -- to give a book concerning your most abject memories a name so blunt, so tongue in cheek, so tacky, even. What is she thinking, a rape victim, referring to the sex industry in such a cavalier manner?? Perhaps those people are uncomfortable confronting their own misgivings about the differences between rape and sex. Fair enough.

However, you needn’t be uncomfortable, because Carmen definitely isn’t. She is incredibly matter of fact, pastoral even, as she relates to you her experiences with a diverse range of violence. In an hour with Carmen Aguirre, a person previously unfamiliar with her work (ie, me) will learn that she is a woman who has lived a life unimaginable to some (ie, most New Zealanders). A political refugee under Pinochet’s regime from the age of six (her family relocated to Canada) and a member of the Chilean resistance from 18, Aguirre’s life was always going to feature danger, trauma and the processes of “healing” – whatever that might be and however it would come about.

For Aguirre, theatrical training precipitated this healing process, and Mexican Hooker #1 is an account of the dual experiences of becoming an actor (a very early calling) and being propelled into the therapeutic work of reconfronting and reappraising her rape. Aguirre travels to meet her rapist, the infamous John Horace Oughton, a kind of ‘bogeyman’ figure in the Canadian cultural landscape known as the ‘Paper Bag Rapist’, and for many this begs some questions, mainly, "Why?" If you’ve read any recent coverage of Aguirre’s book, you will likely know her answer – “Because I’d like to meet the man I’ve been in a relationship with for my entire life.”

Her answer encapsulates what is so fascinating about her life, her holistic and realistic attitude towards her experiences, and what is so brilliant about her title. Mexican Hooker #1 is a title that Aguirre says she had to fight her editors for, and I was happy to hear that because I love it. Aguirre sums it up with candor: the title is what it is because she literally played a character named “Mexican Hooker #1”, because she found herself completely and utterly typecast with no roles for women of colour on stage or television other than those very similar to ‘Mexican Hooker #1’, and lastly, heartbreakingly, because when she was raped at 13, her rapist called her ‘hooker’ repeatedly.

If you think it all sounds a bit heavy, and are expecting an incredibly morose autobiographical depiction of a tarnished life, absolutely don’t. As well as being matter of fact, Carmen Aguirre is hilarious, and my favourite moment was her quip about those who write for catharsis, “If you are writing for catharsis, you are not writing – you are masturbating”. Her language was rather more colourful, but you get the idea. I happen to completely agree, and at that moment I fell in love with her.

So yes, it is ‘heavy’ but don’t worry -- she is not writing for catharsis, she is not gunning to make you cry. Aguirre’s story is also impressive, entertaining, and very true. Aguirre referred to herself as ‘a person who writes plays for brown people’ and recognition of the purposeful, material value of her work is important. She says (I’m probably misquoting, but never mind) that her parents always told her that if you are not working for your community, then you are not working in the right way. But while her story, and her writing, is important for victims of sexual assault, for women of colour, for actresses, for refugees, it is valuable to anyone. And if you're not intrigued by a woman who was part of a revolutionary movement and who can make you cackle within the context of confronting the issue of rape, then I wouldn't know what to offer you.

You can, and really should, read Mexican Hooker #1 and Aguirre's first book, Something Fierce.


May 23, 2016

Patrick Evans at AWF 2016: "The literary club"

Maria Mitenkova from the Readers Services team at Central Library reads and studies New Zealand literature, and this wonderful session chaired by Kate De Goldi was her first -- and singularly wise -- choice from the Festival line-up. Here's her report:

Prior to this session, I only knew Patrick Evans for his scholarly work. I might have read a couple of his articles on Janet Frame, and I liked his The Long Forgetting: Post-colonial literary culture in New Zealand, a must-read for the paper on New Zealand Literature I took last semester at Auckland University.

Despite the common stereotype of academics, that they cannot write, there have been enough examples of scholars engaged in writing fiction, and I’m sure a few of them have even done well. For this reason, I was not too surprised to learn that Emeritus Professor Patrick Evans, who taught New Zealand Literature at the University of Canterbury for 46 years, is also an author of novels and plays. It might even be fun and entertaining, I thought, remembering his academic texts as notably accessible and not at all dry or tedious.

It was fun, indeed. The audience could not help but laugh as Patrick Evans read an abstract from his fourth novel The back of his head, a hilarious and troubling satire on literary fame featuring "a white male author behaving badly". Critics have regarded the book as “nasty funny”, the author said modestly but with dignity. As in his fiction, he was smart and funny in his talk, so that the atmosphere of the session quickly livened up.

I really liked his dry intelligent jokes with a blank expressionless face. Especially the ones that I got. As often happens with deadpan humour, at times it is hard to say if the speaker is being serious or not. He is a great storyteller, I thought. His lectures must have been fantastic. Lucky students!

Meanwhile, Patrick Evans seems to be happier outside of academia, enjoying the spare time he can finally devote to his fiction. “An academic career prevents writing”, he smirked in answer to the question on wearing the hats of both a writer and scholar. “University work is stressful, demanding and exhausting, so you cannot really do much.”

When asked to comment on modern New Zealand literature, Patrick Evans said he wished local novels were less middle-class and more based on New Zealand literary tradition. Why should a novel be nice? Why should a character be likeable? Why does one need to get pleasure from reading? What if there is no happy ending?

He encouraged New Zealand authors to be braver in their writing and push the boundaries of what is moral by saying yes to wild, crazy, wonderful stuff. “How do you get people to read such texts?” was a question from the audience. “People’s minds have to be changed”, he replied authoritatively, “their reading habits need to be reassessed.”

Feeling absolutely thrilled after the talk, I immediately bought Patrick Evans's third and possibly most acclaimed novel, The gifted, which, I learned, is loosely based on Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, two New Zealand classics whose fiction and life stories have both excited me hugely since long ago.

It took me a while to make my way to the author to get the book signed. Not because of a long queue; rather, it was the time Patrick Evans spent talking to each of his readers. I was fully rewarded when he talked to me just as much, quietly responding to my praise of his scholarly work with the same serious face and a wry intelligent smile.

-- Maria

May 20, 2016

Jane Smiley at AWF 2016: "A life's work"

Liz from Regional Collections made a long-time good intention into a reality when she went to hear Jane Smiley, and she was not disappointed. Exactly the opposite! Here she tells us about why:

I first heard Jane Smiley talk on the BBC World Service Book Club discussing her Pulitzer Prize- winning A Thousand Acres, a version of the King Lear story set in Iowa. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, but as is so often the way, never got around to it. I jumped at the chance to hear her in person at the Writers Festival, and thought I’d better make a start on reading at least one of her works, if there were any available with the Festival fast approaching. Saved by an e-book, by the time her session came round I was well immersed in the life of Iowa farmers in the 1920s, as depicted in Some Luck, the first book in her ongoing "Last One Hundred Years" trilogy.

Jane Smiley is tall – “you should see me in my 2 inch heels” she said, but the thing that caught my eye was the somewhat retro jumper she was wearing. It turned out that she had knitted it herself, using what she said was a typically Iowan product – knitting wool made out of soy husks. Her wide-ranging literary output includes among other things, an essay on knitting, "Why Bother?", in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting.

Interviewed by Paula Morris, Jane Smiley gave us many fascinating insights both about her personal life and also about reading, writing and the novel. It is tempting to try to list them all, but that would not capture the wry, laconic delivery that made her so entertaining.

Paula Morris’s praise of Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel led to a discussion of the role of the novel. Smiley said one of the things she truly loved about the novel is the sense of freedom it gives -- “The more novels you read, the greater your inner life is…. you are more likely to think for yourself, and less likely to follow others”. She saw Richardson’s Pamela as a breakthrough work because it gave women a voice for the first time.

"One Hundred Years" has a large cast of characters and the story is told from a variety of points of view. In answering the question of how she managed to achieve these many voices, Smiley said she belonged to a large gossipy family, and there was nothing she and her siblings liked better than getting her aunts and uncles to tell stories of their childhood. Each would tell the stories from a different perspective – “No,that’s not how it happened - it really happened this way… ” and would also have their own theories on what made others in the family tick. “Your mother always thinks that….” Smiley saw this environment, where the description of an event changed with the storyteller, as a natural upbringing of a novelist.

While she thought listening was the first step in being a story-teller, she felt the first step in becoming a novelist was reading. However, for her the motivation to write came from her insatiable curiosity to find out why things happened the way they did. Only one of her 60 books was written from her own experience (presumably Moo, the novel set in an American university in the midwest). The rest cover a staggering range of subjects and styles – a novel about medieval Greenland, Horse heaven, set in the world of horse racing, young adult novels and a number of non-fiction works including The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasof.
The extent of her love of “finding out things” is revealed by her praise for a weather site which gives a hundred years of daily weather readings for the Midwest. Just the thing you need if you are writing a year by year account of farming life in Iowa.

Jane finished her session with a reading from Golden Age, letting us hear the voices of the modern day members of that Iowa farming family. It was evident from her reading how much she loved her characters, with all their quirks and flaws.

If, like me, you haven’t quite got round to reading something by Jane Smiley, don’t put it off anymore. You are bound to find something in her prodigious range that you will enjoy. And if you don’t like the way the author thinks, you have the freedom, as Jane advocates, to quietly put the book aside, and leave it.

-- Liz

May 19, 2016

Michael Grant at AWF 2016: Front Lines

Chelsea from Central City Library tells us about getting to hear one of her favourite writers of all time at the Writers Festival, and taking a turn at the mike! 

Whilst I sat waiting for Michael Grant’s session I eavesdropped on two older women sitting next to me. The one closest to me was asking her friend who they were seeing, with the reply being, straight from the festival programme, "Michael Grant who has written over 150 books for children and young adults". Part of me was so pleased that these women were taking a chance on an author they didn’t know but another part of me wanted to sit them down in a corner with Gone for a few hours so they could see what they’d been missing. Grant then came in, a suave man with a cool American accent, who immediately made a joke about his glass of water being vodka. I decided this was going to be a great session. 

After a brief introduction from Jane Higgins, reading reviews of Grant’s books, the emotive book trailer for Front Lines was played. Against a backdrop of images of war a girl’s voice is telling us why women enlisted, that they were not heroes, they were cold and scared and just doing their part. This is the premise of Grant’s latest young adult novel, an alternative history where women are allowed to enlist for World War II.

Higgins asked Grant what drove him to write Front Lines to which Grant answered, rather honestly, that one reason is marketing. There’s a market for strong female characters but he was tired of the dystopia genre so wanted to move beyond that. His second reason is that he cares a lot about history even though he comes ‘from a country indifferent to learning anything from history’. Grant has a healthy cynicism for American politics but it is also clear that he is very knowledgeable. He explains his research process of reading books on WWII, visiting museums, going inside submarines to get a feel for them and even shooting guns in Las Vegas. Grant is funny, with jokes for both the teenagers and adults in the audience. Such as ‘spoiler alert: the Nazis lose’ and joking that America got into WWII late when it was still possible to make money off it.

Despite the violence in Grant’s books he actually doesn’t approve of guns. He told an animated story of how he bought a gun as a young man because he was convinced that a man who had beaten him up was going to kill him. However upon showing the gun to his family he accidently blew a hole in the floor, not realising that the gun was loaded. This shocked Grant, realising that he could have accidently shot a family member, so much that he traded the gun for a camera and never looked back. In his books however Grant doesn’t shy away from real action and violence, starting from 'Animorphs' up till his more recent series. He explains that he’ll write so ‘you hear the bones cracking’ which elicits an audible gasp from the woman next to me. I sincerely hope that she isn’t regretting her decision to see Grant.

Grant also touches on his 'Gone' series, explaining in a nutshell that it’s about a small town that one day has a dome appear over it and all those over 15 years old have disappeared. You can imagine the chaos that ensues. It is not that unlike ‘Under the Dome’ except that Grant wrote ‘Gone’ first. Grant says he’s been criticised for having such young characters do awful things but he says it’s because ‘an 11 year old with a gun and vodka is scary. If they were 18 it’d just be another night in LA’. When asked why he kills off characters he explains that his characters are his employees and sometimes they’re just not performing. He also says that he needs to be realistic, that you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg. I really appreciate his honesty here and his fantastic metaphors. Super fans will be pleased to hear that Grant is working on a new book set in the ‘Gone’ universe and that there will be some characters who cross over into this new book.

Finally comes question time and I make my way over to the microphone, even though I am sweating buckets. I thank him for writing books that I can recommend to teenagers, and especially boys, in the library. I then ask him what young adult books he would recommend. Grant replies that he actually steers away from young adult books as he doesn’t want them to affect his writing but he does recommend the author Andrew Smith. He then gives some lovely praise to his wife Katherine Applegate, whom he challenged to win the Newberry Medal. She did with her 2012 book The One and Only Ivan. As I sit back down the woman next to me tells me ‘Great question, well done’ and I decide that I quite like her. The session wraps up and upon leaving I see Grant signing books and chatting to teens and I think what a cool and intelligent role model he must be for them.

-- Chelsea

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