May 18, 2011

"Inside Stories" at AWRF 2011

Again, note the quote marks. Not a collection of Festival gossip, but a piece by Dr. Richard Nightingale, an assiduous library user and a man always willing to expand his horizons, who went to hear author Frances Walsh talk with Anna Miles about her new book "Inside stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975" with its wonderful table of contents ("The Filth", "The Husband", "The Servant", "The Tub"...) With the sang froid befitting someone on his way to becoming a writer himself, he cheerfully agreed to my request that he supply a piece about it for Books in the City.
During the space of 50 minutes Walsh’s oral presentation glissaded entertainingly across some of the insights that she has unearthed in her revelatory journalistic compilation "Inside Stories". She easily captured the attention of her audience with her witty, wry and sympathetic observations of the key lifeline-for-domestic-women role played by New Zealand’s women’s magazines between 1890 and 1975. She explained that the choice of the start date was determined by the event of the 1890s campaign for women’s political enfranchisement; and the end-date by a number of features of the 1970s including the fight for work-place equity with men, the abortion rights campaign and an overall disillusionment by housewives with the domestic trap of housewifery.

With verve and panache Walsh outlined her methodology: she scoured through women’s media (and one or two general journals such as the Catholic Tablet), collecting a miscellany of articles from and of the domestic front. Her archival dig revealed that while the circumstances of the housewives’ lot changed significantly in the 20th century (largely due to the application of electrical technology to household appliances), their prescribed tasks and obligations were never-ending and grindingly time-consuming. Their domestic enslavement was only leavened by the application of the many and various household (and marital and parental) tips which the women’s media earnestly promoted. Women’s magazines were, Walsh claims, women’s saviours.

Walsh illustrated her presentation with a selection of images from women’s magazines, including covers, advertisements, photographs and illustrations. She took great delight in reporting on some of the more innovative and often whacky or downright unorthodox tips that the magazines provided New Zealand women: for example, to stave off depression, drink gin and chant; to banish insomnia, read Plato; and to rid the hair of dandruff, apply brandy.

She pointed out that her subject matter has been organised into chapters that reflect the diversity of the housewife’s world. These headings include The Filth, The Husband, The Servant, The Tub, The Child, The Shopping and The Neighbour.

Walsh’s presentation of the subject of her book was affectionate and great fun. Her book will undoubtedly be equally engaging, It is a book that surely must be read and re-read. Her publishers have produced a handsome book that will beautifully complement any home study, office or library. Certainly, given the trenchant observations of its author, it is more than just a coffee-table book.

-- Dr. Richard Nightingale

May 17, 2011

David Mitchell at AWRF 2011

Most people I know who love reading admire David Mitchell, who possesses a wonderful talent for infusing his novels with both original ideas and narrative drive, as with his latest, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. So it's not surprising that he was one of the hottest attractions at this edition of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Zoë Colling from Central Library was one of a number of us who attended "An hour with David Mitchell" in which he was interviewed by Emily Perkins, and she came away enthusiastic. Now if I could just get her to change her name to Zoë de Zoet. Would that not be a fantastic name for a librarian? For anyone? In the meantime, here's her description:
Sounding like a modest rapper delivering a controlled, detailed and sharp spiel, David Mitchell's first reading was a passage from near the end of his latest novel The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It was a poetic prelude to his warm, entertaining talk. In his introduction he mentioned he finished The thousand autumns sixteen months ago and loudly, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek, proclaimed he was sick of it. The second reading was from a new short story that may turn into his next book. Hand gestures, facial expressions, pauses and the sound of his voice all changed as we were introduced to characters involved in an inside job, a hundred miles away from the last conjured realm.

Having not read Mitchell's latest novel, but a firm fan from falling into previous ones, it was exciting hearing about how he accidentally stumbled across Dejima when he was intending to find an inexpensive mountain of food in Chinatown. Dejima was once a tiny island and a trading post for an incredibly closed off Japan. When he came across this place and the museum there, he recognised from an internal Geiger counter of his imagination that this was a splendid spot for a story. Mitchell spoke charmingly about the challenges of writing an historical novel. How themes appear in his work after characters and plots have been figured out. Ideas concerning language, translation, miscommunication and language learning in The thousand autumns were discussed. He spoke about the difficulty of writing authentic-sounding dialogue for people from another era, who speak or are prevented from speaking a number of languages. The solution to this? Make up a language with a plausible name: 'Bygonese'.

The audience questions revealed some insightful information. Yes, he has been to the Chatham Islands and Mongolia! He uses Google Earth as a writing tool - what better way of discovering teetering, cliff-top monasteries? The gripping "imaginatively intelligent" worlds of Ursula Le Guin were recalled from his childhood as an early and enduring influence. Mitchell was very open at times. He talked about how his writing had changed since he had become a parent. His loss of interest in Trans-Siberian escapades as plot devices and his new fascination with "muddy" characters and their relationships that evolve when certain events occur or with passing time.

Mitchell made a number of light-hearted comments about himself during the hour, so it seemed inevitable the talk ended on a self-deprecating note. Perkins read out a line from his first reading – “This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself” - and praised him by asserting the audience would argue against this point. The last word went to Mitchell though, stating the line was not his but Leonard Cohen’s. Quietly mentioning he had slightly re-engineered the words. This manages to make writing delightful sentences, and novels, sound as simple as remembering a line one has heard somewhere and then modifying the line, like magic. A fittingly polite end.

-- Zoë Colling

Graphic Novels, Comics & Cartoons at AWRF 2011

Tim Kidd from Readers Services is a comics reader, creator and appreciator, and the person who takes care of the teeming comics and graphic novel shelves at Central City Library. He is also the only person on our library quiz team who knew which creature possesses the largest eye in the animal kingdom. It's the giant squid. Here Tim casts his own eye (in black bakelike glasses) on the comics and graphic novels session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which was chaired by Adrian Kinnaird, cartoonist and writer of the New Zealand Comics blog From Earth's End.
The guests were Karen Healey, Dylan Horrocks, Chris Slane and Ant Sang. All four have had books published in the last year, which are available in regular bookstores around the country. Dylan re-released his major work, Hicksville, last year, with a new design, new cover and a lovely new comics-form introduction; Guardian of the Dead is Karen Healey’s latest, award-winning teen novel; Ant Sang’s Shaolin Burning is set in medieval China and tells the story of Plum Blossom, a young woman who is determined to be the best Kung Fu warrior in the land; and Chris Slane’s Nice Day for a War adapts the diaries of Cyril Elliott, a soldier who served in the trenches in France. A big year for New Zealand comics.

It was a nice hour, led by Adrian Kinnaird, who began by asking the creators to talk about their early experiences reading comics, accompanied by pictures of Spiderman, Casper, Tintin, Donald Duck etc. projected on the big screens.

Then Karen and Dylan discussed the role of women in superhero comics. Karen Healey had been involved in the Girl Wonder group that was concerned with rehabilitating the male-centric genre of superheroes for everyone. Dylan had written Batgirl for some time and so had some insights to bring to a conversation about the poor treatment of women superheroes in recent years (for an interview with her and Mr Kinnaird about this and more go to

But my favourite part of the talk was when the cartoonists showed some of the preparatory material that went into their finished comics. It was illuminating to see these private sketches and notes blown up large on the big screen. They are such good cartoonists that even what they might consider a throwaway working-drawing still looked great enlarged a hundred times the size. I could see that what might take just a few seconds to read on the page could take many days of work to make. And I liked seeing the very different approaches they took to construct their stories.

Slane was obliged to do historical research for his book and he certainly did not take any shortcuts. Images of the battle fields in France as they look today on Google Earth, tourist photos of the area uploaded to the internet (beautiful green rolling pastures, lovely vineyards, cyclists) were married to photos taken by soldiers of the time ( blackened limbless trees, shattered buildings, mud, holes) and maps of battle positions and trench layouts. These gave him the ability to place his characters into the landscape. He went on to show how he unobtrusively incorporated all this reference work into the finished pages.

It was nice to see his thumbnails (small, sketchy drawings made to plan the comic page as a whole and test how one panel flows to the next). He showed how these were tightened up into more detailed sketches to get the character placement right, the story information clearly shown, and to check for readability. I thought these sketches from him looked good enough to publish as they were. But there was a further version of the page to work out the balance of dark and light tones. Only then came the finished drawings- done in pencil and watercolour. The writing, for him, he said, was inseparable from the drawing.

Ant Sang's Shaolin Burning is a beautifully crafted story and I was excited to see that Ant had chosen to show us the plotting process. He used techniques adapted from cinematic writing and his book does have the feel of a great dramatic action movie. To see the way he diagrammed the plot and the characters' transitions and development was fascinating. He displayed pages full of tiny notes with scribbled arrows leading to other notes to other arrows to more notes. A pair of columns of writing side by side -- each one representing a character -- with arrows shooting back and forth; triangles with words at each corner. His writing was arranged in a very visual way.

Dylan showed the pages from the script notebook he uses for his new story The Magic Pen, as serialised on his website To see someone's handwriting blown up so large was very personal and nice. A cartoonist needs to be clear above all other things and he excels at this. I thought it was neat that even his hand-written notes are a model of clarity. Then he showed how a few sketches in the corner of a page could expand into a new character and then how that character could intrude into the story so much that the whole thing changed. It all seemed natural and fun.

-- Tim Kidd

Fatima Bhutto at AWRF 2011

I'm always proud to be a librarian when I spot the stylish silhouette of my colleague Robin Whitworth gliding across the crowded floor of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which she never misses so luckily I get to see her there a lot. She contributed this description of Fatima Bhutto's star appearance (for such it seemed to be among festival goers):
Treasa Dunworth, a university lecturer, very fluently conducted the session with Fatima Bhutto. It provided a personal insight into the basket-case country that is Pakistan. The slight and very attractive 28-year-old Bhutto certainly possesses the presence and authority that mark her as an heir to the Pakistani dynasty. However, when asked by an audience member if she has considered standing in politics she prevaricated, likening it to when people ask why she did not become a dentist: she does not want to.

It probably goes without saying that it might also be a death sentence for her, as it was for her father, grandfather, and aunt. She still lives, one would imagine somewhat precariously given her outspokenness, in the country now ruled by the man she deems responsible for the murder of her father. She works as a columnist, and is also active in encouraging women to enrol to vote. Given that one has to have an ID card to enrol, and this costs more than a week’s food, very few women vote in Pakistan.

Bhutto's recently published book Songs of blood and sword is both a personal and political history. There is much research on her grandfather, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed before she was born, and who is her greatest role model. Her father, Murtaza, followed in the same socialist footsteps, after he returned from exile, and was shot by police in 1996 (assassinated, she says). Aunt Benazir is accused of being directly complicit in her brother’s murder, and of selling out to corruption and betraying all her father’s principles by rescinding a number of laws that had aimed at social equity. Fatima and Benazir remained estranged up until the latter’s assassination.

Fatima related an anecdote about how when they were growing up, Murtaza painted his room ‘Communist red’, whilst Benazir’s room was black and white stripes, like a jail cell.

Fatima described her childhood as ‘quite ordinary’, in that her father did everyday things like taking her to school each day. But she did admit that for a child's vocabulary to include words like ‘junta’ was unusual. She talked of how it felt to be a Pakistani in New York (where she was at University) after 9/11. Her opinion on the burqa is that it as an Arab, not a Muslim, garment, and she would never wear one.

-- Robin Whitworth

"Talk to the Taliban" at AWRF 2011

Thank goodness for quote marks -- or maybe not! In my rush to publish this very newsworthy piece contributed by Jo Davidson, our savvy Serials Librarian, I nearly forgot them, meaning the post would have been titled Talk to the Taliban at AWRF 2011. It might have been contested but hey, it would have gotten a lot of attention!
But the "Talk to the Taliban" session at AWRF should interest all of us as well. James Fergusson has a number of thought-provoking things to say on the subject of the Taliban, whom he first encountered fifteen years ago as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan. He has written a book called Taliban: the true story of the world's most feared guerrilla fighters, and after hearing him speak, I have to say that I hope it will be widely read. It won't happen but it would be great if all those people (I am one of them) who read Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novels The Kite Runner and A thousand splendid suns which depicted all members of the Taliban as sexually depraved, drug-addicted,or both, and always monstrously cruel, would read this book.

Here's Jo's summary of the salient points of the session:
This packed session on Friday afternoon had James Fergusson, journalist, conflict specialist on Bosnia and, since 1996, Afghanistan, being interviewed by Sean Plunket. Fergusson believes that the West must start up a dialogue with the Taliban if we are to find a way to withdraw from Afghanistan. He asserts that there are no al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan and that the Taliban have no interest in exporting terror. Quite the opposite in fact: they have always been a force for security in the country and helped bring stability in the period of civil war that followed the withdrawal of the former USSR in 1994. He emphasized that the Talibs or religious scholars have deep roots in Afghanistan amongst the majority Pashtuns and are not the foreign soldiers the West often portrays them to be. Fergusson explained that the Taliban never approved of al-Qaeda methods but desperately needed Osama Bin Laden’s money. Later, despite the problems his presence created them, their culture of courtesy to all guests prevented them from betraying him to the West.

In my view the Taliban’s treatment of women was glossed over by Fergusson, although of course that issue is not why the West invaded and is not used as justification for keeping troops in the country.

A question from the floor led Fergusson to opine that the role of our SAS in Afghanistan is dubious, as captive Afghanis are handed over to the National Security Directorate which, Fergusson has been told, still operates with the KGB handbook for which torture is acceptable.

Fergusson hopes that if a climate of trust can develop, both the Taliban and their neighbours in the region should be involved in the talks that lead to Western withdrawal. However as both sides want to have the military advantage before negotiations begin, there is no quick solution in sight.

-- Jo Davidson

May 16, 2011

Antarctica at AWRF 2011

Steve Braunias and Jane Ussher went to Antarctica two years ago "on assignment", the brochure of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival tells us. Was this expression which makes me think of war zones used on purpose, I wonder? Jane Ussher took photographs which were collected in a book called Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton, while Steve Braunias wrote about his foray in his book Smoking in Antarctica, in a section he called "Cold Days in Hell".  Nick Austin recounts his impressions of their joint appearance at the Festival.
I had not seen tramping clothes worn by members of an AWRF audience before. Maybe they were disappointed when Steve Braunias spoke of his total dislike of the place. But I am probably wrong because the book he was promoting is called Smoking in Antarctica. How could you be surprised? Steve Braunias is an entertaining speaker but between all the laughs he spoke with pathos. I was quite struck when he said it was a childless place, a loveless place. His comic pencil seemed haunted by explorer ghosts and Erebus ghosts, and my interest to read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The worst journey in the world was renewed. I wanted to ask him if he took photos during his trip but I was too shy.

Jane Ussher was a good foil to Steve Braunias. Where he spoke of his shock at the place, she seemed more awed. I liked hearing her warm voice speak about her trip and see the photos she took of the Shackleton and Scott huts. These are the subject of Ussher’s new book, called Still life. The Antarctic climate has preserved the huts well; I suppose they are literally (nearly) frozen in time. The photos make me wonder if these long-dead men might trudge through the doors at any moment. The interior shots are actually very set-like, which I associate with film more than painting.

Along with the others I went to, it was good to see this session so well attended.

--Nick Austin

May 15, 2011

Angels & Aristocrats at AWRF 2011

Campbell is a contemporary artist who in August will be showing at the Auckland Art Fair, where a "thought-provoking public programme of talks" is planned. He is also a member of the Readers Services team at Central Library, and as such he experienced a sort of sneak-preview of the genre by attending the AWRF event where Kim Hill interviewed "art detective" Mary Kisler about her new book Angels & Aristocrats, or Angels & Aah'-ristocrats, as Kim called it, a look at the forgotten treasures of our public art collections and their history. Here are some of the thoughts the talk provoked in him:
There is a stage on which two women sit. I got here just before they came onstage, one at a time, the louder one first, followed by the quieter one. Orange advertising and seashells surround them; seashells that glow with orange from within. The space between where I sit and where they sit is filled with at least one hundred grey heads.

Are these women English? I am confused about their accents, maybe this is the sound the English make when they have been surrounded by kiwis for a long time, or maybe it is the other way round. The loud one interrupts constantly. Even when there is no interruption, the sound of interruption is still in her voice.

They talk and I learn a couple of things, that most of the artworks that the book concerns were bought by Scottish and Jewish people, that there was a depression at the end of the 1800’s and I never knew Flanders was a place. I thought it was a name, so I thought Flanders was a person. There is laughter from jokes about wine. Jokes I don’t understand but which hit their mark nonetheless.

This is an art history lecture as I remember them. This one probably more history than art, but what can you really say about good art? Nothing needs to be said, it’s just there. Sometimes all the talking makes me like the art less, but the history lesson that comes with these paintings helps me engage a little more.

I love contemporary art, the blank canvases, empty films, absurd spectacles and sculpture that is mistaken for garbage and gets cleaned up by the cleaners, even the stuff I don’t particularly like – I like that it exists. I think this sounds like a good book. A book which is wanted and needed, but I really am so happy that we have moved beyond this kind of art, so happy for the invention of photography, so glad big touring exhibitions of landscape paintings are not such a big deal anymore.

-- Campbell

Madhur Jaffrey at AWRF 2011

"How Madhur Jaffrey, author of 'Climbing the Mango Trees: a memoir of a childhood in India', satisfied one librarian's appetite for food (talk)" would be a good subtitle for this contribution to our AWRF 2011 coverage by Ana, Customer Service Librarian at the Central City Library, who joined hundreds of foodies at the ASB Theatre for this event, chaired by Alexa Johnston.
No sooner had I sat down than the woman sitting beside me asked: “Is this the side for the vegetarians?” I told her there wasn’t actually going to be any food, that this was a presentation about food.

An event about food was the right thing for me to go to, as I just had a health check that meant I had had to fast from the night before. I did have a coffee and a brioche straight after but it didn’t assuage my appetite before going over to the festival. It was wonderful hearing Madhur Jaffrey talking about gharam-masala and delicious, mouthwatering food. She said you have to cook with intelligence, clarity and calmness. “What distinguishes Indian food is the magical use of spices.” Imagine her disappointment when she arrived in England in 1959 and was confronted with plain English fare. She made do with Bovril tea and Cadbury chocolate.

At that time she didn’t really know how to cook. So she wrote to her mother and learnt to cook by correspondence, with her mother sending her very short, three line recipes. She says that if you have a good palate, you recall the flavours and bring the taste back. She started writing cookery books and made a modest income. She realised that she had to be published if she wanted to get somewhere.

At this point, BBC radio was going to do a cookery series and they required audio tapes. So she got a few students to her little flat, put a little tape recorder on top of her fridge and gave them cooking lessons. Because the result was so confusing, she decided it was best to pretend to be doing a cookery class while she was on her own at home and that was so much better: “We’ll put a bit more pepper there,” she said as she sat in front of her tape recorder.

When she moved to America (where she now lives), an influential friend helped to get her a job with The New York Times writing about food. She still goes to India about once a year; she says she has always felt like an explorer going to little corners of the world.

I liked her relaxed style and she gave a multitude of tips on cooking and life in general. For example, she says in India it’s always better to enjoy wonderful food that has been cooked at home, rather than eating out. So, when you are there, make sure you get yourself invited to someone’s house. And one final pearl of wisdom: “Don’t use ‘lite’ anything. Much better to use the real thing, and exercise.”

-- Ana Worner

May 13, 2011

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival is on!

The AWRF 2011 arrived in town last night drawn by an exciting great locomotive with fire in its belly called "Works with words". What an opening! I didn't know what to expect from "a programme of uniquely New Zealand orchestral and "spoken word" works and in particular what I didn't expect was how the two hearts, music and poetry, would beat as one. In fact, the conductor conducted both (and very well). What was the wonderful phrase one of the esteemed guests introducing the event said? I think it was "Poetry has no correct meaning. This it has in common with music." 

The climax of the evening was certainly for me "Witnessing Parihaka" by Stephen Matthews, with words by Robert Sullivan. As somber and stirring as it should have been, a memorial which lived and breathed, and we along with it.

But also, let me spend a word for the part in John Elmsly's "White Feathers" when Stuart Devenie recited Hone Tuwhare's poem "Papa-tu-a-nuku (Earth Mother)" about the Awakening, the Maori land march of 1975,  while wriggling all over and the music clamouring and pealing all around him:

We are stroking, caressing the spine
     of the land.

We are massaging the ricked
     back of the land

with our sore but ever-loving feet:
     hell, she loves it!

Squirming, the land wriggles
     in delight.

     We love her.

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