Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"They're wonderful in bed!" Previewing AWF 2014

The approach of Auckland Writers Festival 2014 has Booklovers in the City abuzz. Central City Library is running a Festival Preview series, featuring some of the city's more noted booklovers regaling audiences with their takes on the line-up. This guest post by Joanne Drayton, author of The search for Anne Perry and Ngaio Marsh: her life in crime, recapitulates the entertaining presentation with which she kicked off the series.

Dr. Joanne Drayton's rundown on the Auckland Writers Festival

Outside Bennetts Bookshop in Wellington, I read their thought for the week. The words of American historian Marilyn Young:

"If I ever get married, it will probably be to a book. I’m always falling in love with them and they’re wonderful in bed."

I was left pondering the awesome power of books. For they exist in two worlds: in the twilight of private life (in moments of quiet reading) and in the full blaze of public scrutiny (in press and magazine reviews). We read them as individuals, but also as part of the mob, with a “thumbs-up”, “thumbs-down” mentality. Reading books is essentially a private experience that plugs us into the public grid, connecting the individual to a greater matrix. So if we were to look for the source of their power, it is in their capacity to connect two worlds: the private and the public domain.

Books move us, they change us, they excite us in bed the way nothing else can (almost). In the ephemeral word of voice-mail and electronic messages, the published word speaks to us with a sense of permanence, in a coveted pact of isolation, at its best in a one-on-one relationship between writer and reader. Few other things rely on such intimacy: few other things touch us in such a personal way. But at the same time they have the power to shape our cultural memory; to assume the voice of ‘authority’ in the highly contested and contentious area of cultural activity, to tell our histories, to establish our iconic heroes – the famous and the infamous – to define our identities, and to tell us who we are.

The Auckland Writers Festival is a time when the private and public worlds of books collide. What a responsibility!

It is a banquet. A feast of Words, Ideas, People and Personalities – and someone’s just handed you a half sized dinner plate! You know, the ones always handed to ‘the women’ at family get-togethers and bar-b-ques.

So how do you make a choice when there's so much choice?

 I decided to work out what thrills me the most. A quick look through the programme and I had my answers…


Not necessarily in that order …

Camilla Lackberg
43: Saturday May 17 2.30-3.30pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.


Because I’m fascinated by the whole crime phenomenon – why is it so popular, why has it infested popular television with almost the same degree of pestilence as cooking programmes? Why are people fascinated? Why does it grip all kinds of audiences from the Lords and landed gentry to the average and ordinary – like me?

Because I’m amazed by the virtuosity of the Norse … of the “Scandi-Noir pantheon”, as it says in the catalogue. Think of the greats that have come out of this part of the world – Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. And now, a Scandinavian Crime Queen -- Camilla Lackberg, sometimes called the Swedish Agatha Christie.

Lackberg became a writer after her family enrolled her in a creative writing course as a Christmas present: "For me, actually, specific images – snapshots – come first, and then the story starts to come together from those bits and pieces. I am very visual when I write, I 'see' the story in pictures and writing a book is like having a movie running in my head 24/7." Imagine how harrowing that must be!

But this is what I find fascinating … what interests her most of all (and me too), is the psychology of it all: ‘Just how horrible people can be!’ And where does this come from? And why? Each time a great crime doyenne sits down to write a new book, they visit this fundamental question, which I think remains the greatest mystery of all!

(This is fiction, but if you want to explore the politics of these issues in history, I think Reza Aslan’s session "The Politics of the Prophets" looks absolutely fascinating, too… 63: Sunday May 18 11:30am - 12:30pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre)

GENDER DIVIDES 68: Sunday May 18, 1.00-2.00 pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre


Well, here are the issues on the table for discussion:
  • Gender 
  • Politics
  • Feminism
  • Sexual violence
  • Twerking!
Twerking (I learned with the help of Wikipedia) is a type of dancing in which an individual, usually a female, dances to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance. Though the term seems to be of uncertain origin, common assumption suggest it is a contraction of “footwork” and a portmanteau of the words "twist" and "jerk". And just in case you didn’t know, the word was a runner-up in the Oxford Dictionaries "Word of the Year 2013".

While I can’t guarantee there will be a demonstration (perhaps with twerking on the table, this would have worked better as a workshop than a panel discussion), but this and more will be discussed by a stunning panel that includes:
    Eleanor Catton
  • Eleanor Catton, who has her own amazing session Our Booker Winner (53: Saturday 17 May, 5.30-6.30pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre). Author of The Luminaries and Man Booker Prize winner for 2013.
  • Jessica Jackley, an American businesswoman and entrepreneur. Jessica was the co-founder and CEO of ProFounder, a platform that provided tools for small business entrepreneurs in the USA to access start-up capital through crowd funding and community involvement. She is married to Reza Aslan (whose session I have already mentioned).
    Ngahuia Te Awekotuku
  • Dame Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Professor of Research at the School of Māori and Pacific Development, at the University of Waikato – and such a good choice.
    • Sandi Toksvig, who is a Danish/British writer and comedian who is a regular participant in QI and Whose Line Is It Anyway? And is chair of The News Quiz on the BBC’s Radio 4. Just 3 words: Funny, fascinating and smart!!

    68: Sunday May 18, 1.00-2.00 pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

    Michael Leunig: Self portrait

    Because I love the combination of
    • Cartoons
    • Writing
    • Painting
    • Philosophy
    • Poetry
    And these are the qualities, the abilities, the special talents that Michael Leunig brings together in a workshop that is essentially about two things: Creativity and You. This is a workshop where you can discuss and explore the creative process with a practitioner who has shared and told stories in ways that we can learn from and learn about.

    Whatever you put on your plate … make sure it sustains you imaginatively, creatively, and intellectually … because the choice is yours!

    Joanne Drayton

    Next AWF preview is 22 April, 5:30-6:30 pm, with Carole Beu, book  reviewer and owner of the Women's Bookshop, and Iain Sharp, poet, author and Manuscripts Librarian at Auckland Libraries Sir George Grey Special Collections. Central City Library, 44-46 Lorne St. Free entrance.

    Thursday, April 3, 2014

    Winning with Poo: thoughts on the Diagram Oddest Title Prize 2014

    "A little madness in the Spring
    Is wholesome even for the King"

    (Emily Dickinson #1333)

    At 36, the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year may be the youngest among the many eccentric traditions of the British springtime, centuries behind cheese-rolling, the Nutters Dance, and the Hare Pie Scramble, but it need harbour no inferiority complex. The prize, which is awarded annually by the book industry trade magazine The Bookseller, lacks neither for prestige -- in fact its custodian, The Bookseller's "legendary" diarist Horace Bent refers to it as "my prestigious prize" - nor for popularity. More people voted for the Diagram of Diagrams, won by Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, than voted for the Booker of Bookers, won by Salman Rushdie.

    Greek Rural Postmen and Their  Cancellation Numbers obviously merits its star status, but the Diagram Prize has called our attention to many sleeper glories over the years, including these, a few of my personal favourites:

    How to Avoid Huge Ships
    Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures
    People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It
    Highlights in the History of Concrete

    which are now joined by the 2014 winner

          How to Poo on a Date

    Subtitled The Lovers' Guide to Toilet Etiquette, this book answers "one of the most important questions that has played on the mind of mankind for centuries", according to its publishers.

    The runners-up are:

    Subtitles are de rigueur with odd titles and are usually prosaic, as in the case above. But Pieography's subtitle, When Pie Meets Biography, is perhaps even more satisfyingly odd than the title.

    "Anger" van Damme
    How to Pray When You're Pissed at God
    Here it was the publisher's blurb which was odder than the title. "Have you ever gotten pissed off at God? Moses did. So did Jesus and Anger van rear," I read.

    Anger van Rear? Who's that? Some Jean-Claude van Damme rip off?

    Reading on, all was revealed. That "van" was just a typo: "Anger van rear its ugly head" the line went on to say. Indeed it van. And proofreaders bow theirs.

    The Origin of Feces
     Subtitle: What excrement tells us about evolution, ecology, and a sustainable society

    Are Trout South African?
    Subtitle: Stories of Fish, Places and People. 

    and the one I voted for:

    Working Class Cats
    subtitle: The Bodega Cats of New York City

    Tom Tivman, Features Editor at The Bookseller, was plumping for Working Class Cats to win as well, describing it as "a blend of feline heroism, Brooklyn hipster chic and Soviet realism".

    You can get an idea of what's in the book by visiting the facebook page of this laudable awareness-raising initiative supporting "NYC cats who don't get paid for their labour", which contains gems such as:

    "ScuzzBucket from Bleeker Street Records wins the fatty award, hands down."

    So there you have it, a shortlist which Tivnan announced as one which "taps into the zeitgeist", with something for everyone, from internet cat-watchers to fans of foodie shows, and, "And we have two books about poo".

    And this is where I come to the question "playing" on my mind, I might even say "preying" on my mind (but not "praying", pissed or not):

    Is Poo odd?

    Although last year's Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop-led shortlist did feature a number of titles on topics of perennial interest and oddity such as penises, knitting and Nazism, and none at all on human waste, the previous year it was again poo, in the guise of Cooking with Poo, which took the prize. Horace Bent recalled "a long tradition" when he announced this year's winner on Twitter, adding in How to Shit in the Woods ('89 winner) and American Bottom Archaeology ('93).

    This pairing exactly illustrates my point. Is that first title really odd, or just a title containing a word which clamours for attention? My hunch is that as with people, the truly odd are always the ones who are not aware of being odd:  the aristocrat who goes around in glasses held together with tape, the grown man next to you in line for ice-cream as the movie is about to start, asking a lot of questions about the chocolate dip. In fact, the second of those titles, American Bottom Archaeology is wonderful to us in the same proportion as it was ordinary for its authors. American Bottom Archaeology is, as they go on to tell us in their subtitle, simply A Summary of the FAI-270 Project Contribution to the Culture History of the Mississippi River Valley.

    That's how I see it anyway. I am clearly a minority, given that the Diagram Prize is selected by public vote. In the old days, in the nude mice days and the lengthwise rolling days, Horace Bent decided the prize. He seems as chipper as ever, but he has over the years let slip a comment or two about his dislike for the "intentionally rude".

    A pity I didn't come across this 2013 title in time or I could have nominated it:  How To Seduce Women With Good Spelling, subtitle The Three Words You Can Learn To Spell Right Now In Order To Become A More Successful Lover, author a certain "Emma R".

    Emma R? Emma R? Why does this sound familiar?

     Why of course!

    Emma Rouault was the name of that irrepressible reader of romantic novels who made the big mistake of marrying the dull, definitely not odd, Charles Bovary.

    Sunday, June 2, 2013

    Kate Atkinson at AWRF 2013

    Kate's famous first
    Don't judge Kate Atkinson by her covers! While I was still thinking of her as the quintessential writer whose books are given by discerning women well-versed in contemporary fiction to their witty and equally well-read sisters or mothers -- in other words, a shoo-in for women's writing prizes, her website now quotes hardcore New Jerseyite and thriller writer Harlen Coben saying "Kate Atkinson is an absolute must-read. I love everything she writes".  She was beaten out for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction, she's been writing crime novels, and ... and here's a trio of insights into Kate Atkinson's private and professional lives which Janice from Epsom Library gleaned for us at "Life goes  on", starring Kate Atkinson, interviewed by Ramona Koval.

    Kate Atkinson gave us some insights into her home life as well as her writing life at this session:

    Kate has wrapped condoms in brown paper for her father's medical supplies business.

    She does research before each book, but doesn't look at her findings once she starts writing.

    Kate believes that no one can teach you to write, it comes from the imagination.

    Kate's latest
    As Q & A with the audience began, Kate amused us by saying the best question she has ever had so far was from a 13-year-old boy. This boy asked her which person in her family she would eat if she was starving to death on a desert island. Kate's reply was that she would not eat anyone in her family, but she would eat a stranger, but only if he was dead!

    So, Life Goes On!

    -- Janice Lowe, Epsom Library

    "How Humans Made God": Sir Lloyd Geering at AWRF 2013

    There aren't a lot of attractions which can inspire me to make an exception to my Never-Early-on-Sunday rule, but Lloyd Geering delivering the AWRF's Michael King Memorial Lecture, introduced by Brian Boyd, is one of them. How could I miss the chance to hear the theologian who's been called "the devil incarnate" and "the new Galileo" for saying "Of course, Man has no immortal soul"?

    My notes say there were 1200 people present; although I didn't note how I knew. I wasn't counting, and I can't believe that Brian Boyd, who introduced the lecture, would have been reciting the latest capted tweets about the session as some AWRF presenters were doing. What I do know is that -- and I can't swear it was the only time this happened at the festival, because of course I couldn't be at all sessions, but it was certainly the only occasion on which I witnessed it -- the applause which started up with the last line of Prof. Boyd's introduction didn't just increase, but doubled, when Lloyd Geering emerged from the wings and stepped up to the lectern.

    "The assertion that humans made God is one that only a century ago most people would have found blasphemous and even now most people consider silly and absurd," he began, by way of leading into a discussion of the notable thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century and beyond who have been his inspiration for just such an assertion.

    He took us from Hegel ("the first philosopher to say God is dead was not Nietzsche but Hegel, and he did this by introducing to the Western mind the notion of historical development, thus preparing the way for evolution") to Karl Marx, who saw man moving towards the classless society, and then on to David Strauss, who revolutionised the study of the New Testament, in particular the historical investigation of Jesus, and, finally and above all, to Ludwig Feuerbach, "the first theologian to assert we humans made God".

    Geering's three revolutionaries:  Copernicus in cosmology, who revolutionised our idea of the Cosmos; Darwin in biology, who revolutionised our idea of our origins; and Feuerbach in theology, who "revolutionised our understanding of religion by turning religion upside down".

    Feuerbach said that man created God as an idea in the human mind. It was a creation was made possible by the evolution of language. "Language above all differentiates us from the apes," says Geering. "Language enables people to construct a thought world, a world that can be passed on to future generations. We call it 'culture'."

    "This world evolved and is still evolving in tandem with the world of language. Language began 50,000 years ago, by naming objects. Things which could not be seen but only felt took longer to name."

    "It's misleading to use the terms 'religion' and 'science' in speaking of the primitive world. Gods were as much a creation of primitive science as of primitive religion in that they explained the mysteries of the natural world."

    "The cultural age of the gods lasted a very long time, but a time arrived when the gods ceased to be the most convincing way of explaining the world." Geering dates the birth of God to 500 BC, the era of the Jewish prophets, the first appearance of the commandment  'Thou shalt have no other gods but me'. "It is here that their word for God assumed the status of a proper name."

    I liked his take on the Origin Story. "In the old days, a thesis didn't have to be proved, it just had to make sense. And this story made eminent sense."

    Religion, Geering postulates, is really anthropology, or, as he quotes Feuerbach, "We project onto God all the talents we would like to possess".

    God played a powerful role in taking us to the modern world. "The idea of God is great", Geering says, "and it enabled people to believe that they lived in a universe and not a multiverse. Feuerbach said it allows us to live life to the fullest by learning how to embody our highest values."

    "I say," says this intrepid 95-year-old, possibly the only person I've known of in a developed country to have faced a charge of heresy (not quite "The Spanish Inquisition!" but certainly suggestive, nonetheless...), "the idea of God has done its work and it's up to us to shoulder the responsibilities we once expected a heavenly parent to bear".

    Saturday, June 1, 2013

    Ron Brownson on Pat Hanly and "The Joy of Art" at AWRF 2013

    Ron Brownson
    I was very happy to discover upon arriving at the Auckland Art Gallery auditorium that this session was a sell-out, landing Ron Brownson and Pat Hanly up there with the rock star and the war stories, but as more and more people disappeared through the door ahead I became a little apprehensive that I would be that one fan who wouldn't make it in.

    As it turned out I was found a place among those circumstantial seats in the very front row, practically under the podium, and there was Ron Brownson himself, a few seats over, waiting to go on. When he spied me, he popped conspiratorially into the seat next to mine and anticipated to me that there was a good line about Auckland Libraries coming up.

    The line was "I was recently outed by Auckland Libraries. Someone said, 'That took a long time!'"

    I count on that being a reference to his having taken part in "Review Revue", the event I ran during this year's Pride Festival highlighting the world of gay fiction, which made me very proud. On that occasion, Ron read a very funny story he'd written about his experiences as a boy going to the library to look for books about sex, rather unsuccessfully, unless you count the Kinsey report a good read. But he loves Auckland Libraries, where I first met him ten years ago over books ... not about sex, but about Persian carpets. ("That's Ron Brownson. He knows everything about Persian carpets." a librarian had whispered to me as he approached.)

    At the Art Gallery, Ron was there to talk about the great New Zealand artist Pat Hanly, about whom he also knows a lot, both as a personal friend and as an art curator (Senior curator for NZ and Pacific Art, to be exact).

    He confided that when he chose the title of his talk, people didn't like it. But he insisted that it was right for Pat's art.  "It's for joy. It adores living."

    He went on to recall the state of New Zealand art in the 1950s, when Pat Hanly left for Europe, as many artists were doing. It's easy not to realise that there were probably not 50 people in New Zealand working full time as visual artists. "There was not a community of artists here," Ron said dryly, adding that the Art Gallery did not show contemporary artwork until the 1960s.

    Then, luckily for New Zealand art, in 1962, after he'd been sucking at the "European teat" (to borrow the term Hamish Keith used to him) for five years, being influenced by Chagall, Francis Bacon and Pop Art, Pat Hanly decided that he preferred the "blue antipodean freedom of New Zealand or Australia" and came back.

    At that point, Rita Angus was a full time artist, but Peter McIntyre was having to do family portraits to be able to be an artist; Toss Woollaston  and Colin McCahon weren't full time artists either. Ron said "They were middle-aged and they needed to bring up a new generation of artists." They did become full time artists after Pat's return and for Ron,  "I am convinced it was Pat who made that happen."

    Pat's beach paintings from the 1960's, for instance, Ron pointed out, were urban paintings: "These are not farmers we see."

    Ron talked about the clear light, the bright colours. "I'll tell you the reason some people don't like his paintings. It's because they are about joy and happiness".

    Pat's self-portrait: "It's seeing oneself as part of a very large world. The word for this is cosmic".

    And then Ron read us Robert Sullivan's wonderful poem "Arohanui":

    Big love, that's what it means.
    Aroha Nunui means huge love.
    Aroha Nunui Rawa means very huge love.
    Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake means bigger very huge love.
    Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake Tonu
              means bigger enduring very huge love.
    Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake Tonu Atu
              means biggest enduring hugest love,
    which are some of the lengths and times of our longing.

    And closed by saying

    "I'd like you all to think about Pat Hanly, how much he's meant for our city and for our cohorts."

    A wonderful hour, graced by the presence of photographer Gil Hanly, Pat's wife, taking photos, reminiscing with Ron, appearing with Pat in old photos Ron showed, such as Marti Friedlander's famous portrait.

    Marti Friedlander, detail of Pat and Gil Hanly, 1969, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki

    The Auckland Art Gallery holds 92 works by Pat Hanly which you can browse here,

    Ron also showed us the beautiful new book Hanly from Ron Sang Publications, with an essay by Gregory O'Brien, plus contributions from John Coley, Quentin McFarlane, Barry Lett and Dick Ross, and Gil Hanly as photographic editor.

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