March 27, 2016

Popping up for refugees on World Poetry Day

As World Poetry Day rolled around this week I was taken aback to read on the website of its founder, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO for short, that one of its aims is to ensure that "the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art". What? Someone thinks poetry is like hair jewellery? Who are these people talking to?

"Encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals" on the other hand, is an aim I am happy to get behind.  Although "poetry recital" does sound -- if not quite outdated, perhaps overly quaint, evoking the poetry pursuits of school-days (of which, please note, my memories are all good) -- I am a huge believer in poetry being shared not just through books but by being spoken, performed, read aloud, and slammed.

The descendants of Homer who make up the Poets Circle in Athens also believe in the power of spoken poetry. They invited poets around the world to join together this World Poetry Day (also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) in performing readings calling attention to the cataclysm of our time, the refugee crisis.

It is so natural, so unsurprising, that this idea saw the light in Greece. Or better, under the light of Greece -- that incandescent, supernal light, as Henry Miller described it in the best book ever written about Greece by a non-Greek, The Colossus of Maroussi. "One would have to be a toad, a snail or a slug not to be affected by this radiance which emanates from the human heart as well as from the heavens," he writes. "Wherever you go in Greece the people open up like flowers".

Travelling in Greece and experiencing the same extraordinary hospitality fifty years after Henry Miller -- years in which the Greeks had suffered through occupation by the Axis powers during World War Two, a bloody civil war, and a repressive military dictatorship -- we used to say that it must have been because of the strength of their age-old tradition of having gods who were always popping down to earth in human form, so that any stranger knocking at your door could have been a god in disguise.

And the tradition continues:

Local people on the island of Lesbos help bring migrants to safety
Photograph: Kostis Ntantamis/AP via The Guardian

This is a photograph of local people on the Greek island of Lesbos helping bring migrants to safety after their arrival by boat. "Refugee Crisis: how Greeks opened their hearts to strangers" is the title of the article in The Guardian which this photograph accompanied. "Despite six years of economic hardship, ordinary people have shown astonishing generosity in helping the 42,000 migrants stranded in their country".

In Auckland poets Ruby Porter, Gregory Kan, Ole Maiava, Mohamed Hassan and Siobhan Harvey responded to the invitation of the Athens poets by sharing their poems in a pop-up reading on the steps of the Central City Library, hosted by Auckland Libraries in association with PEN International and the World Poetry Movement.

(clockwise from upper left: Gregory Kan, Ruby Porter, Mohamed Hassan, Ole Maiava)

How do you measure the weight of a human life, asked Ruby Porter, in a poem which caught at me with its mix of combativeness and eloquence:

How to weigh a life

The weighing of a human life:     like smoke       hard to measure.
Andrew Little says       seven-fifty
Joyce       two to three hundred
the government     under pressure     agree to six.
                        (A number     not necessarily divisible     by families.)

What then? Do a Winston Peters &     send back the men?

And you? You move freely   intake sharply        flame racing   to your
falls away.

We watched smoke last time you were up       Harvey Keitel &
                                                                                              Forrest Whittaker.
That first scene     where they discuss     the bet
            Sir Walter Raleigh made with     Queen Elizabeth     the First
                                              you can’t do that     that’s like weighing     air.

The weighing     of a human life: like          gallons of water. How many is there    
                                                                                                         between us?
The ocean is made up of          two hundred and sixty four million.
       Oceans away    (you are)
                                            land locked but still you   fly   over   sea to get here
taking off     & landing        at will.
If I could swim to you       I would.

       Oceans away
it’s easy    to turn from them.
The TV flickers blue and grey but       that’s all       that happens.
It’s easy to turn it off when it’s on TV
       (I can’t turn it off with you.)

Weighing a human life: like     the sea that holds them down
& out
           side    turn on it
 I want to spoon you
                  spoon fed our news in two minute sound bites
                                    one for the refugee crisis
                                                       three for the flag.

The difference    William Hurt’s character said
                                        was the weight    of the smoke.

You said you signed every petition you found online &
you wanted to go to the protest but you were working     that day.

The weighing      of a human life: like      tapping out the parts of bodies onto scales
            sad solo in A minor
this much will overbalance our          rockstar economy
this much will overflow our          state housing – isn’t it    already?

(I don’t know which city you call home anymore & it bothers me.)
I guess we have many.
                  You are a kind of home      to me.

Sometimes      after you leave
I sleep on your side
                         of the bed – it still smells of you
                                                   for a night or two.
Musk incense coconut perfume      smoke.

The counting of human lives:       like drops of water
window     at night
when you are here       you say
                  it always rains when we’re together.

As if you can just     tally it up     lives     like numbers on a       spreadsheet.
What’s your value? Reduce it down & export to excel.

On screen          William Hurt’s character said
        I’ll admit    it’s strange         
                                      it’s almost like weighing    someone’s  soul.

The weighing of a human life:      like   each head has a cost & we can just      assess it.
                                      How many refugees could      twenty six million save?

You smoke it till it’s all gone      then you weigh the ash.
Like weighing a human life
falls away.

Right now      you are not beside me
but rain is still running
& out

The credits were running & you said
I knew there’d be a Tom Waits song
            sad voice in     F major.
       You stub out your smoke.
We turn off the TV.

Ruby Porter

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Ruby will be one of the readers taking part in Central City Library's upcoming "A day in their shoes: the refugee experience" (Friday 29 April, 11am-2pm).

February 22, 2016

Review Revue for Pride 2016: podcast and... poem!

syndetics-lc syndetics-lc syndetics-lc

Following on our last post, where we enticed you with a transcript of one of the six reviews performed in our rainbow Review Revue, we can now offer you the podcast of the full line-up:

 Michael Giacon on Young Robert Duncan: portrait of the poet as homosexual in society by Ekbert Faas

 Jade du Preez on How to be both by Ali Smith

 Richard Galloway on Mary Renault, author of The Charioteer and many other works of LGBTQ fiction

 Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron

 Christopher Dempsey on Hear us out: conversations with gay novelists by Richard Canning

 Carole Beu on Lucky us by Amy Bloom

I loved it when Michael launched the evening by confessing "I have had this book since 1989 and I have just started reading it".   I trust we all have our own versions of this confession.

What we probably all don't have is the experience of having read Robert Duncan's revolutionary love poem which Michael refers to, "The Torso". I hadn't, but I hunted it down, and now that I've read it and found it as amazing as Michael gave us to believe, I want to give you the chance. I am not sure what year it was written, but it was at least 50 years ago, and it would be daring stuff even now.

The lines Duncan put in italics are quotes from "Edward II", Christopher Marlowe's tragic drama about the king who "cares for poetry, philosophy, and the commoner Gaveston more than war, statecraft, and his politically advantageous wife" as one of the writers on the University of Illinois page about this poem puts it. Attention to the last line, though: Duncan has altered one word from Marlowe's text, and with that changed everything. "The King upon whose bosom let me die." wrote Marlowe. "The King upon whose bosom let me lie." wrote Duncan, throwing off the death sentence of the homosexual.

Most beautiful! The red-flowering eucalyptus
                    the madrone, the yew
                    Is he...

       So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms
       the sight of London to my exiled eyes
       Is as Elysium to a new-come soul

              If he be Truth
              I would dwell in the illusion of him

  His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body

            such an idea in man's image

       rising tides that sweep me towards him

              . . .homosexual?

                 and at the treasure of his mouth

              pour forth my soul

                 his love   commingling

  I thought a Being more than vast, His body leading
            into Paradise,   his eyes
              quickening a fir in me,   a trembling

            hieroglyph:   At the root of the neck

       the clavicle, for the neck is the stem of the great artery
         upward into his head that is beautiful

                 At the rise of the pectoral muscles

       the nipples, for the breasts are like sleeping fountains
         of feeling in man, waiting above the heat of his heart,
         shielding the rise and fall of his breath, to be

                 At the axis of his mid riff

       the navel, for in the pit of his stomach the chord from
         which first he was fed has its temple

                 At the root of the groin

       the pubic hair, for the torso is the stem in which the man
         flowers forth and leads to the stamen of flesh in which
         his seed rises

  a wave of need and desire over   taking me

              cried out my name

       (This was long ago.   It was another life)

                        and said,

            What do you want of me?

  I do not know, I said.   I have fallen in love.   He
     has brought me into heights and depths my heart
             would fear   without him.   His look

       pierces my side . fire eyes .

     I have been waiting for you, he said:
                 I know what you desire

            you do not yet know   but through me .

     And I am with you everywhere.   In your falling

     I have fallen from a high place.   I have raised myself

            from darkness in your   rising

                      wherever you are

       my hand in your hand   seeking   the locks, the keys

     I am there.   Gathering me, you gather

            your Self .

       For my Other is not a woman but a man

       the King upon whose bosom let me lie.

--Robert Duncan, The Torso

You can listen to Review Revue via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

February 11, 2016

Celebrating Pride 2016 with a rainbow Review Revue

 Auckland Museum lights up for Pride 2016

Yesterday evening at Central Library we celebrated Pride 2016 with our annual Review Revue, an evening of stand-up reviewing with a focus on the world of GLBTIQ literature. "You get up with a book and you have seven minutes to make it notorious" is how we describe it to people we invite to join our line-up of reviewers. And no one says no, which gives you an idea of the atmosphere.

And for an idea of the content, well, you're in for a treat! One of last night's reviewers is a fellow librarian, so he also couldn't say no when I asked him to turn his notes into a post for Books in the City. Here he is and here you go!


Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world

I have never been to a Review Revue before. When my colleagues discovered an ancient book review of mine and asked me to speak, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sit here and listen to me waffle on about that book I read one summer that I sort of liked because it had a hot guy in it. But hey, I’m here and I’m queer and I’m here to talk to you about a book! 

I thought long and hard about a book to read, do I go the popular route and review a classic you’re probably pretending you’ve read? Do I choose a best seller like A little life (which by the way, is totally fantastic and everyone should read)? Do I spend all night extolling the virtues of Maggie Smith (hint, it’ll be longer than 7 minutes)? Do I get up on my soapbox about the gay erotica that the library stocks and why I find it hideous (the inability of so many writers to accurately write gay sex scenes)? Or do I find a hidden gem that many people wouldn’t have heard about and bang on about it for seven minutes until I’ve convinced you to read it?

You guessed it. I’m going to speed review for you a hidden treasure of a book that I read in one night, with lots of tears and smiles, Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron.

Picture yourself as a Russian-Ukrainian Jewish gay teenager in a dead-end small town in Nova Scotia 1987. Can’t do it? Well, meet Stephen Shulevitz, our hero. Three months before graduation he realises that he is in love with his best friend Mark. Mark is straight, dyslexic, from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn’t know what he’d do if he ever met a queer. ‘Probably kill them if they touched me’ is one of his many sweet lines in the book.

What follows from this realisation is Stephen’s coming of age, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, to his adolescence with an absent father, and to his ever changing relationship with his dreamy mother.

I don’t really want to tell you any more than that, because it is a fucking fantastic book that should be read by as many people as possible. At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, it never fails to be unflinchingly honest. From Stephen’s experiences with sex to the horrors of -- and attitudes towards -- AIDS in 1987 to the clichéd but ever fascinating topic of gay men and their mothers, this book covers it all in vivid, graphic detail.

What I do want to focus on in this review is the truth behind this book. I have read many, many novels about gay teenagers discovering who they are, starting at around age 12 when I was first discovering who I was beyond the Saddle Club novels and Cleo magazines. They veered between two extremes.

Some were nauseatingly cutesy romantic (Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the Universe, Fan Art, Rainbow Boys, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens agenda) where funnily enough, the best friend is in love with them or SHOCK GASP the cute guy at the back of the bus is actually gay and has been stalking them too. This is heart-warming to read but it is simply not true. These books should come with a "Don’t try this at home" warning, as they’re setting poor questioning teenagers up for failure or worse.

One the other end of the spectrum there is a range of teen reads where life is shit, high school is shit and the focus is on themes of suicide, depression, prostitution and runaways (Money Boi, Bait, Suicide Notes). While again a very real thing in the world for many gay teenagers, it is not always like that, nor is it helpful for books to perpetuate stereotypes and offer ideas like the ones some of these do.

Very few books find that rarely discussed but commonly experienced middle ground in exploring what being a gay teenager is like, and for me it's important to get up on my soapbox about one that does. I find it ironic that I had to go to a book set in 1987, in the middle of the AIDS crisis to do so, but there you go. Without spoiling it for you, it is an open ending, it has a bittersweet tone and it showcases that life for gay teenagers isn’t always about extremes. Often, writers forget that with gay teenagers, and trying to describe their life experiences, the drama is already there, honey. You don’t need to add to it, we’ll do that for you. I love books that focus on the character, rather than the circumstances surrounding them and this book nailed that.

For me, that was my life. As a gay teenager, I didn’t struggle, there were problems, bullies, unrequited crushes and awful experiences with girls -- I won’t lie. But there was no happily ever after as a 15 year old with that cute guy at the back of the bus; there were also no suicide attempts or drug overdose and years in rehab. That’s not to say those things don’t happen or take away from the struggles that people have, but for me, there was none of that.

There was just me, an ordinary gay teenager, trying to find his way in the world with not a lot of advice, a lot of alcohol and plenty of hormones. That’s what this book is about. Simple, plain honest life regardless of sexuality, written in the most beautiful of ways that understands sometimes life is messy, definitely not straight, but with a bit of grit and the odd tear, you’ll get there. I recommend you all read this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll all wish you knew a small town gay Ukrainian-Russian Jewish teenager like Stephen Shulevitz.

(Podcast of the entire Revue coming soon!)

December 16, 2015

Steve Braunias on The Scene of the Crime (with podcast!)

Had the eclectic public which filled Central City Library's Whare Wānanga earlier this month come to hear Finlay Macdonald interviewed by Steve Braunias, as the publicity had seemed to announce and Finlay picked up on in his opening gambit? No worries. I was there -- I'm not a "horrible trout" wont to pronounce without first hand experience, to borrow one of Steve's colourful animal kingdom descriptors which he used on the night -- and I can attest that the only thing threatening to upstage Steve Braunias was the lure of the subject of his new book The scene of the crime

The book, which developed out of Steve's reporting from a dozen notorious trials for variously heinous crimes, is not actually a study of the criminal mind, despite the book being placed in the true crime area of the library collections. As the title suggests, what he repeatedly found himself most interested in was the places. "It's impossible and pointless to try to put yourself in the mind of a killer", he says in the book, "but the setting takes you to the scene of the crime, shows you something about New Zealand".

In this way, it is indeed, as he pointed out, a companion to Civilisation, his wonderful and prize-winning (2013 New Zealand Post Book Award for General Non-fiction) stories evoking "twenty places on the edge of the world", and not its flip side, as one might be inclined to think.

Yesterday I was told that Steve Braunias has referred to himself as "the poor man's Martin Edmond". He does himself a disservice. They are both fine writers, of two different moulds: off the top of my head I'd say Martin Edmond is more Whitmanesque, the long lyrical cadences, the transcendencies, the bare feet and bare-stript heart; and Steve Braunias, more of a rascal and more of a realist, indignant and contrarian but also a lover of whimsy, would be more of a Mark Twain. Or maybe I mean Tom Sawyer.

No trace of Tom Sawyer in Finlay Macdonald, whose smooth and capable interviewing remained happily free of the cronyism which so often mars "in conversations" between friends. One of my favourites among his questions: does Steve Braunias, with over ten years under his belt now of hearing evidence of people doing horrific things to other people, believe in evil?

Stream the podcast to hear the answer to this and many other interesting questions. Either listen via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

Oh, nearly forgot: have you seen our new Auckland Libraries Top 100?  The scene of the crime is there, along with 99 other reading suggestions, including one from Steve Braunias.

November 29, 2015

Book dedications of the year

Every year I like to honour the art of the book dedication by posting some dedications which have caught my fancy through the months, a tradition harking back to the very first Books in the City post.

Just as there is no one recipe for a good book, there is no one recipe for a good book dedication. It's a bit like stone soup. Cryptic or poignant, cabbage or peas -- put in what you've got; the one essential ingredient is the magic stone, which in the case of dedications is personality, as so often in life.

1. Daniel Nester in How to be inappropriate

For our daughter, Miriam Lee Nester.
I’ll try to behave myself from now on.

I like the honesty of that "try", from someone who is so attuned to the inappropriate as to be able to offer an absorbing variety of examples, including "an Australian opposition leader caught sniffing a woman's chair; two more Australians, cadets this time, of Chinese descent singled out by superiors to play-act Koreans in knife combat; a Russian formalist points out a playwright's disregard for logic, and offers as evidence how characters break into scenes with strange or 'inappropriate' remarks; a proposed new drug treats 'inappropriate' levels of separation anxiety in dogs... ".

In other words, he goes on to say, anything "odd, out of place". Hey! I think I've found an example of that:

It just seems like the second something becomes really solemn [like poetry], I want to do something wrong with it. I cant help but think it has something to do with being an alter boy. -- from an interview with Daniel Nester, as quoted by the online magazine Smith

2. Jane Hill in The Murder Ballad

For my dad, who was proud of me

This made me so happy, and all the more when I saw a photo of Jane Hill.
This is Jane Hill, isn't she great?

Jane Hill

3. And these are the Nabokovs, Vladimir and Véra:

Vladimir and Vera Nabokov on the butterfly trail. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s
(Photo courtesy of Christie's)

Vladimir Nabokov in Speak memory, Lolita, Pnin, Pale fire, Ada, Transparent things, and Look at the harlequins:

For Véra

I learned this from Brian Boyd at this year's Writers' Festival, where he was presenting Letters to Véra, the book he edited of Nabokov's letters to his wife over their 52 years of marriage, the longest marriage in literary history, if I remember correctly. Starting from his memoir Speak memory in 1951 and until his death, Nabokov dedicated every one of his books to Véra.

The passionate lepidopterist also presented her with the first copy of each book as it arrived from the publisher, having first drawn in it an imaginary butterfly, a different one every time, playing on the occasion. Here's the harlequin butterfly he drew in Look at the harlequins, possibly a reference not just to the book but also to the harlequin mask Véra was wearing when they first met.

On their 43rd wedding anniversary, in Véra's copy of The Gift Nabokov wrote "Here is the tenderest of butterflies worthy of the anniversary, 1925-68", and labelled the butterfly he drew a male Charaxes Verae Nabokov. I looked up Charaxes. It is a genus of butterflies known for their constancy in returning always to the same spot.



4. Jules Feiffer in Backing into forward

For my children, my grandchild, my future grandchildren –

    Success is nothing to sneeze at, but failure, too,

                      Offers great possibilities.

And always remember, do not let your judges define you.

I saved this one for last. A summa cum laude dedication, a capture in amber of that moment in which the book is finished and ready to be sent off, a message to the dedicatee, but also to us, idiosyncratic and direct from the heart. I love the dedication and I loved the book, a memoir by the great cartoonist, playwright and illustrator (most notably of the children's-classic-for-all-ages The Phantom Tollbooth). A boy growing up in the Bronx who lacked "the basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene", with a father "primarily gentle and not very significant in my life -- or his own", a mother whom he would happily have murdered, but didn't want to wound. The girl he hitch-hiked across America to rejoin, who when he shows up at her door can't change her weekend plans. "If you didn't love me anymore, why didn't you write me? I wouldn't have come!" he says.

"I didn't know I didn't love you," she said.

"When did you find out?"

"When I opened the door and saw you."

If you have never at any time in your life thought that could happen to you, this book isn't for you, and I feel sorry for you for that.

If you'd like to see more dedications, here are the posts:

Dedicated by -- or to -- the beats: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Bob Orr

Book dedications n. 5: Balzac, Rostand, Conrad, Edward Gorey, and Neil Gaiman

Best book dedications n. 4: Hunter S. Thompson, Diana Wynne Jones, Lady Chatterley's lover

My dedications collection:  Christine Lvov Lealand, Larry McMurtry, JD Salinger

Dedications, again: Cornell Woolrich, Michael King, H. Rider Haggard

Dedicated to the one I love: Ken Kesey and Diane Wakoski

October 30, 2015

Launch of The Dreaming Land by Martin Edmond

(All photos by Dan Liu)

You missed it? Don't worry. In an exciting first for Books in the City, we're offering a podcast of the event. We've asked Simon Comber from Readers Services, who presented on the night, to present it.

On a pleasant spring Tuesday evening in late October people gathered at Central City Library to celebrate the launch of Martin Edmond’s childhood memoir The dreaming land.

Martin Edmond has been writing acclaimed prose works since his debut in 1992, the haunting The autobiography of my father. Other significant works include Chronicle of the unsung (2005) and Dark night: walking with McCahon (2011). The launch of Edmond’s memoir this year coincides with his increasing acknowledgment as one of New Zealand’s best writers. In 2014 he was honoured by the New Zealand Society of Authors for his work, and this year he was the Michael King Writer's fellow.

The initiated and the curious turned up to have a wine in the Atrium before moving in to the Whare wānanga to listen to a discussion between Edmond and Peter Simpson, a former Associate Professor of English at Auckland University with an expert knowledge of, and large passion for New Zealand literature. Simpson had prepared thoughtful engaging questions, and Edmond never failed to reply with warmth and generosity, but what really made the discussion was the rapport between the two, and their obvious mutual respect as writers and scholars.

Stream the podcast to hear the discussion. Either listen via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

October 18, 2015

Patti Smith on the childhood pleasure of reading books too old for you

(Photo Jesse Dittmar)

From Patti Smith's new memoir M Train:

There were red rosebuds in a small vase in the bathroom at 'Ino. I draped my coat over the empty chair across from me, and then spent much of the next hour drinking coffee and filling pages of my notebook with drawings of single-celled animals and various species of plankton. It was strangely comforting, for I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father's desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the Planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colors, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory. Such things that disappear in time that we find ourselves longing to see again. We search for them in close-up, as we search for our hands in a dream.

My father claimed that he never remembered his dreams, but I could easily recount mine. He also told me that seeing one's own hands within a dream was exceedingly rare. I was sure I could if I set my mind to it, a notion that resulted in a plethora of failed experiments. My father questioned the usefulness of such a pursuit, but nevertheless invading my own dreams topped my list of impossible things one must one day accomplish.

In grade school I was often scolded for not paying attention. I suppose I was busy thinking about such things or attempting to untangle the mystery of an expanding network of seemingly unanswerable questions. The hill-of-beans equation, for example, occupied a fair portion of second grade. I was contemplating a problematic phrase in The Story of Davy Crockett by Enid Meadowcroft. I wasn't supposed to be reading it as it was in the bookcase for third graders, but drawn to it I slipped it into my schoolbag and read it in secret. I instantly identified with young Davy, who was tall and gangly, telling equally tall tales, getting into scrapes, and forgetting his chores. His pa reckoned that Davy wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. I was only seven and these words stopped me in my tracks. What could his pa have meant by that? I lay awake at night thinking about it. What was a hill of beans worth? Would a hill of anything be worth a boy like Davy Crockett?

I followed my mother around the A&P pushing the shopping cart.

--Mommy, how much would a hill of beans cost?

--Oh, Patricia, I don't know. Ask your father. I'll take the cart and you go pick out your cereal and don't lag behind.

I quickly did as I was told, grabbing a box of shredded wheat. Then I was off to the dry-goods aisle to check the price of beans, confronted with a new dilemma. What kind of beans? Black beans kidney beans fava beans lima beans green beans navy beans all kinds of beans. To say nothing of baked beans, magic beans, and coffee beans.

In the end I figured Davy Crockett was far beyond measuring, even by his pa. Despite any shortcomings he labored hard to be of use and paid off all of his father's debts. I read and reread the forbidden book, following him down paths that set my mind in unanticipated directions. If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and the stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

-- Excerpt from M Train by Patti Smith, published by Alfred A. Knopf

Patti Smith on reading books too old for her-- and a lot more, I should have said. 

I've been reading 'M Train' all weekend. It's as singular and as moving as her earlier memoir 'Just kids'. But if 'Just kids' had something of the 'One thousand and one nights' about it, with its magic talismans, enchanted trips to Coney Island, even a young prince in the person of Robert Mapplethorpe, 'M train' would be more akin to the classical era narrative 'Anabasis' by the Greek historian Xenophon.  The term anabasis means an expedition from a coastline into the interior of a country.  Although Patti Smith is of course at least a continent.

October 14, 2015

Into the river is no longer a banned book!

"I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library."

If -- as I imagine -- you're visiting Books in the City because you like reading about books, chances are you've already encountered this quote from the great Argentinian poet, writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges.

Maybe you also know that for many years Borges earned his living as "first assistant" at a municipal library in Buenos Aires, cataloging books down in the basement (also, apparently, catching up on his reading), until he was dismissed for political reasons when Juan Perón came to power – only to be appointed the director of the National Public Library of Argentina after Perón was deposed.

My appreciation of this feel-good quote for readers par excellence was turned upside down recently when I read Paul Monette’s Borrowed time: an Aids memoir. Monette's friend Roger Horwitz (I use the word 'friend' because in the book Monette spends some time telling us how it is the term he prefers to use for what another might call lovers or partners), under assault from HIV in the pre-antiretroviral days, comes to the traumatic realisation that he is losing his sight. Monette recalls Borges, who famously also lost his sight in mid-life, and reveals -- guess what! That the quote as we’ve been fed it is all wrong!

Borges was not musing dreamily about his enjoyment of books. He was commenting on how his encroaching blindness meant that he would never be able to read again (this was the 1950s, no audiobooks, and he never learned Braille). And this twist of fate had happened to him, of all people -- “I, who had always thought Paradise to be a kind of library”.

Ironically, a decade earlier, in his famous story "The Library of Babel", Borges had described how the very infinity of the hexagons of the library which held all books meant that the possibility of finding any one book was equal to zero, and how this made men despair:

The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.

The other night I went to hear Ted Dawe talk at Central City Library about his book Into the River, which had been banned in New Zealand by the Office of Film and Literature Classification while their board of review examined a submission from the conservative Christian lobby group Family First.

What powerful things came out of the mouth of this white-haired ex-teacher of English (35 years, Aorere College, Dilworth School) and author of acclaimed books for young adults, including Thunder Road (New Zealand Post Children's Senior Book of the Year and New Zealand Post Best First Book in 2004) and Into the river (New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Best Young Adult Fiction Book in 2013), with his firm but lightly quizzical expression.

On being a writer:

"I write from a sense of mission. I want to create readers by giving them a powerful and memorable experience. I believe one novel can create a reader. I know it can, because it happened to me."

"Inspiring new readers has been my life's work."

"My iwi is the tribe of writers."

About Into the River: 

"I wanted to tell a powerful story and leave nothing out."

"The events depicted in the novel are blunt, coarse, immoral, illegal and shocking. But never gratuitous. Every one has a reason."

On its banning:

"Writers hold a mirror up to the world and sometimes the world doesn't like what it sees. This is true in New Zealand. If 'Into The River' has made aspects of our society look ugly, then hiding the mirror will not make it beautiful again." 

On the importance of reading:

"Novels are the last bastion of introspection."

On his reaction when he was notified the book was being examined:

 "I didn't realise we still censored books!"

As we headed out of the library, we passed a display which had been put up for the occasion, pictured above. I had been well aware of the long travail of Into the River, in and out of the censor's office, on and off our shelves, but the combination of Dawe's words, scribbled in my little notebook, and the physical representation of those small rectangular objects (smaller than a breadbox!) which according to some people are so dangerous that they must be kept off library shelves, made the oppression suddenly overwhelming. How did Borges put it? "Almost intolerable".

Today, the news is just in that the Film and Literature Classification Board of Review, following an appeal by Auckland Libraries to lift the 14+ restriction on Into the river,  a counter-appeal by Family First and a subsequent restriction order banning the book from being given, lent or even exhibited, have now made their decision. Into the river is to be "unrestricted". We are releasing all our copies back on to the shelves and/or into the hands of the more than fifty readers who optimistically put themselves on the wait list.

It would be nice to think that some of those who were lobbying for it to be restricted are on that list, but I doubt it. As Ted Dawe pointed out:

The book's critics often start by saying  "I've never read the book and I don't intend to."

What does that tell you?

Ted Dawe at Central Library, unable lawfully to "exhibit" his book

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Find out more:

Read an interview with Michelle Baker, Acting Manager of the Information Unit at the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Listen to a podcast of the talk:

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