May 22, 2012

Post-festival thoughts: what visiting writers take away

“The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart.”

As do the writers. The international stars of AWRF 2012 have departed along with the golden gnomes who flanked their armchairs on the stage of the ASB Theatre, although the loss of these last might be assuaged by the arrival of by a giant gold-trimmed carousel outside in the square, which I only figured out right now might be related to the arrival of Mary Poppins – the show, not the nanny, or, as PL Travers might have said, “the show, not the book” (although I think she didn’t dislike the show based on her book as much as she did the movie).

Speaking of international authors who depart, do you sometimes wonder what image of New Zealand they take away? I remember Christos Tsiolkas telling me at an AWRF a few years back about how he had spotted a sign as he exited his hotel for a place called Café Olympus or Café Zeus or something and, assuming it was a Greek establishment, headed straight there to enjoy a Greek coffee -- only to find a Chinese family behind the counter.“Christos, this is Auckland, not Melbourne!”

The great poet and adventurer Blaise Cendrars (a passion I share with Donald Kerr, Special Collections Librarian at University of Otago) passed through New Zealand at some point between the wars, wild years for him which he spent criss-crossing the world by land and by sea. He wrote about his impressions of New Zealand in his book Dan Yack, published in 1929, a notably modern book for its time with a note on the first page to say that it was not written but dictated entirely into a DICTAPHONE (capitals his). He goes on to say, “What a pity that the pages of a book do not yet have sound. But it will come. Poor poets, let us keep working.”

Dan Yack is Cendrars’s alter ego, and this is what Dan Yack has to say about New Zealand back then:

"If there exists anywhere in this world a Land of Tenderness, it seems at first sight to be New Zealand. On these favoured isles great flocks of pedigree sheep and cattle graze the tender grass in the small valleys. From one end of the year to the other, nothing comes to disturb them. You can travel by car for days, or on horseback for weeks, without ever meeting a living soul: you can cross peaks, descend again into new valleys, without ever leaving the pasture-lands. Apart from a petrified cataract, a wild corner that looks like a miniature Switzerland (and is reserved for newly-weds who come to spend their honeymoon there, or old couples who come to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary), and what little remains of the primitive flora of the country --- a few groves of rare and curious tropical plants, notably the giant cruciferous ferns, which are as flourishing here as in Ceylon – nothing picturesque ever strikes the eye. The whole of the interior of the country is divided into rectangles by high fences, with five strands of barbed wire, which separate the pastures; valley dovetails into valley, hill follows hill, nothing comes to interrupt the uniformity, the monotony of the gleaming grass spread everywhere, this dark-green grass which reflects the sky like water, dominates the landscape and gives it an aspect of calm, repose, peace and a warm silence.

"With a little bit of luck, you might chance to stumble upon a cluster of tall eucalyptus trees full of the cooing of doves, and, sheltering beneath their shade, a farm, if you can call this brand-new bungalow a farm, inhabited as it is by a colonist rather than a peasant, and a middle-class housewife rather than a farmer’s wife; they dress for dinner every evening, he in a dinner jacket, she in an evening gown, to play the pianola together or huddle over the radio.

"This couple is always very young-looking, although it’s often an old established household, where the boys are passionately devoted to sport and the young girls cling superstitiously to the social conventions and to the protocol of French etiquette in the colleges and clubs on the coast. Tens of thousands of similar couples are scattered about the solitude of the country, leading exactly the same respectable and well-to-do life from one year to the another, and no external event ever comes to disturb the monotonous and sublime course of their sentimentality. Time has passed. They have grown old without realizing it. But they have preserved all the illusions of the heart and the vigour of the senses. They live a deux. For themselves. Egotistical and complacent.

"Thus, the mentality of each New Zealander is insular several times over, because each couple is isolated in their own personal feeling of contentment, each farm is a Robinson Crusoe’s island amidst the solitude of the pastures, and the twin islands, which appear like a double oasis on the waters, are not welcoming, but close ranks and defend themselves fiercely against any immigration. New Zealand has broken her moorings and remains in contact with the rest of the world only through a moral link that attaches her to Great Britain, of which country every New Zealander is immeasurably proud to be a distant descendant, thus adding a feeling of pride to his insularity and confirming him in his rejection of all human fraternization.

"… This success, this maintaining of a precarious civilization at the furthest ends of the earth, this specialized and material activity, this total absence of moral grandeur, this lack of ambition, this extravagant practice of sports and games, this cult, this adulation of the body, this voluntarily restricted horizon, this intransigence, this lack of tolerance in the manifestations of social life, these concessions to nothing but well-being and personal comfort, this lack of humanity, these narrow prejudices and this complicated ceremonial which lays down the different degrees of worthiness of human beings, this situation of a group of people at the ends of the earth, this voluntary insularity, exclusive and individual, this optimism a deux, this mutual admiration in the bosom of the family, this complaisance in the face of everything concerning love, this communal salacity, this erotic curiosity which affects the young people very early and which still shakes couples in their extreme old age, this self-satisfaction, this pride, this arrogance, this selectivity, this refusal to cross-breed, this fine health of the body – in brief, all that the New Zealander of today considers to be his conquest and his achievement, the manifest signs of his independence from old Europe, and even this independence itself .. when one looks at all this close to, making allowances for a certain materialistic aspect that modern life tends to take on more and more in every region of the globe, and especially in the most far-flung places, where this contemporary trend towards uniformity and massiveness is increasing day by day; one perceives that nothing has changed in these islands, that New Zealand has made no progress at all, and that life continues as in the time of the cannibals and expresses itself through a whole series of laws, interdictions, repressions and cruel dreams under the aegis of the great god Taboo."

-- from Dan Yack, 1929

May 19, 2012

Writers Festivals Save Lives

We've all heard the phrase “Books save lives", but who knew that Writers Festivals can save lives too?

Actually, when it comes down to it, it's not often literally true that books save lives. I only know of one case, that of the Spanish writer Michel del Castillo. Books saved his life when, aged seventeen, having already spent ten years in concentration camps of one kind or another (from the one for “troublesome foreigners” where he and his mother were interned when they fled to France during the Spanish Civil War, to the forced labour camp in Nazi Germany where the Vichy government saw fit to send him a few years later, and finally the Franchist camp where he was interned as the son of a Red as soon as he was repatriated to Spain at the war's end), alone, penniless, desperate at not being able to get back into France where all his family was, he jumped off a bridge into the River Ebro to put an end to his nightmare.

As it turned out, the fall didn’t kill him, but the double pneumonia he caught from his swim was about to, if not for the fact that the doctor summoned to the squalid pension where he was staying caught sight of two books on his bedside table. They were The Brothers Karamazov -- del Castillo had discovered Dostoevsky, interestingly enough, at the Jesuit college where the Franchist authorities had sent him after his internment -- and Nietzsche’s The gay science.

“Have you read those books?” the doctor asked. And went away. And came back the next day, bringing a new antibiotic he had just been sent a supply of. He had decided this was a person who had the mettle to be a test subject for this unknown drug, called penicillin.

So that’s whose life has been saved by books. And whose life has been saved by a Writers Festival? Well, mine! It happened on the Saturday morning. I so wanted another coffee but realised I could not linger a minute more if I wanted to hear about the future of the novel. I jumped into my car and took off, smiling at our neighbours and their kids heading towards their car as I pulled out.

Three minutes later (so I heard when I got home) my neighbour realised that he had forgotten something in the house and ran in for a moment. Meanwhile, his four year old daughter managed to lean out of her carseat and release the handbrake, sending their large van careening right through the spot where I would have been sitting had the lure of the festival not been so strong. It crashed right through our fence, that's how big and heavy it was, which is why the little girl, thankfully, was not hurt. Looking at the pile of boards and splinters which had been a fence, I realised that my little car, and me inside it, would certainly have been crushed.

So there you have it! Writers Festivals save lives!

Can books take lives as well as save them? I loved this festival exchange between Iain Sharp and Brian Boyd, talking about Prof. Boyd's current project, a life of Karl Popper, which has been a "to do" for him for something like twenty years. You have to imagine Iain's lilting Scots cadence and amused, quizzical tone.

(Iain) Popper had a long life...

(Brian) Yes, damn him!

(Iain) Bartley had started a biography of Popper but died before it was finished.

(Brian, darkly) An omen.

Here's a video from our friends at Electric Literature with yet another idea on how books can save lives:

May 17, 2012

AWRF 2012: Lemon Andersen

I was among the crowd basking in the energy late on the Festival's last day as Lemon Andersen (the source of the energy) was interviewed by Nick Dwyer (who had the good taste to stay true to his quiet, nice guy self). It was the perfect high note to end my festival experience on -- including the moment when Lemon was asked to read from his book, didn't have a copy on him, appealed to the audience, and I saw Chris from the Readers Services team at Central City Library step up to hand him her personal copy. She almost didn't get it back, either, as Lemon somehow managed to feed it into the maw of his armchair when he sat back down. What kind of a cheat would that have been? Luckily persistence and an AWRF stagehand bouncing the chair about were able to get it back to Chris in time for her to get it signed. Here are Chris's observations from her memorable AWRF experience.
I made one selection from this month's Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and this was to see Lemon Andersen, the American poet, spoken word artist and actor live.
He performed some excerpts from County of Kings, his one man show and biographical account of his amazing life story told through urban poetry. It was fabulous to see Lemon perform live and to see that he still burns with a passion to spread the word in his own unique style. It was poignant to hear Lemon talk about his mother Mili and her death, shortly after first reading his poems.

A month ago I had seen the documentary Lemon (USA 2011 Dir Laura Brownson, Beth Levison) which provided a fascinating look at Lemon as he struggled to bring his life story to stage and try and maintain a living for his family and himself.

His life journey reads like a movie – born and raised in Brooklyn, half-Puerto Rican, half-Norwegian. Parents both addicts who met at a methadone clinic and passed away from AIDS. Survived on the streets with his brother, the inevitable run in with authorities, served two prison sentences by the time he was 21 and won a Tony award before he turned 30. Lemon’s passion for the written word and poetry was awakened within him while in prison. Lemon became a regular on, and had the most aired episodes of, HBO’s Def Poetry and was an original cast member of the award winning Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. A high point in the Lemon rollercoaster ride.

It was interesting that at his festival appearance Lemon said he has not seen the documentary and that it had been a hard process having the cameras constantly around him and especially his family.

My personal copy of County of Kings is now signed and had been used by Lemon himself during the show. It must be difficult constantly performing in a one man show and I was pleased to hear he had some down time while in Auckland at Rakinos in the city. I wonder what is in the next chapter in the life of Lemon?

“So watch me be the artist who was born ready made, watch me take the lemons and make the best goddamn lemonade.” LEMON

AWRF 2012: Maurice Gee, inaugural Honoured New Zealand Writer

Laura from Leys Institute Library tells us about this most special of the Festival Special Events. The New Zealand Honoured Writer is an initiative conceived to celebrate New Zealand's most accomplished writers, their body of work and the immense contribution they have made to the literary landscape of New Zealand.

What a treat it was to hear much-loved author Maurice Gee speak on Sunday night, and what a lovely way it was to end this year’s Writers and Readers festival. The normally event-shy Gee said he would have declined the invitation to appear had it not been for the request to be the festival’s inaugural ‘Honoured NZ Writer’. A gracious and humble man, Gee felt it would have been “churlish” to decline, and how thrilled the audience was that he didn’t.

As a keen children’s and young adult book reader, I was nervous at first that interviewer Geoff Walker might focus on Gee’s adult fiction work, but the session managed to cover a great cross-section of the master writer’s material, from Under the Mountain to Live Bodies, The Half Men of O and Plumb. It certainly made you realise what a great force Gee has been in New Zealand literature.

We were treated to a reading from The Prowler (entertained chuckles rang throughout the crowd), as well as a piece of unpublished memoir about Gee’s own introduction to reading as a young boy. We heard how he fell in love with Dickens, and began to write his own stories after becoming acquainted with the world of one Oliver Twist.

But what stuck with me from the session was something Gee said early on about the themes of his books for children and young adults – that of the creek and the kitchen. Gee talked about how he never could seem, in his writing, to get away from the small town in which he grew up and the things that surrounded him in his childhood. He told of an encounter he had when he was small, when out walking with his mother and brother by the creek that was his frequent playground. They came across a swagman bathing himself in the river. His mother stopped and turned her small group around, but there was enough time for Gee to notice the man’s stare and to realise that there had been something about the encounter that he had not understood. The eerie encounter was to become a scene in The Fat Man, but the creek features in another way in all of Gee’s stories for younger people: the creek, he said, came to stand for danger, and the haven that was his household kitchen growing up, for safety. They were always there in his stories – the creek and the kitchen, the dark and the light.

Such is Gee’s touch, turning the simple into the riveting. Sadly Gee said he had put down his fiction-writing pen (for he still writes by hand in exercise books), and had turned to memoir, more for his own entertainment than for publishing purposes. He had no sense of loss about the end of his fiction writing days, as his final words for the evening show: “I look back on 30 or so novels and think, ‘That’s ok’.”

Sunday evening’s session was insightful and entertaining. The standing ovation Gee received certainly showed I was not the only one who thought it a fitting tribute for one of our literary legends.

May 16, 2012

AWRF 2012: The God Matter

This was a Tri-Professor event, with Tom Bishop, Professor of English at the University of Auckland (where one of his regular courses is "Stages of Religion"), chairing a discussion between visiting US Prof. Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, and Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor at Victoria University and author of Wrestling with God, on the need for God in the 21st century and beyond. Jonny from Central City Library reports:
During this session Krauss and Geering debated the role that religion has played in the development of science. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, currently a Professor of Physics at Arizona State University, argued that religion had only ever been an impediment to science, and that it was immaterial that many great scientists had held Christian beliefs.
Geering argued that the Christian concept of ‘unity’ of the universe was essential to the development of scientific thought. Geering also believes that Christian tradition plays in an important role in providing a foundation for modern society’s moral structures.

Although Geering in his writings has departed from a concept of a Christian god, he still believes that Christian values and a ‘modern’ concept of god are essential to Society’s existence, and that the meaning and morals of life can be found in the teachings of the Bible. He drew attention to the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes. His idea of God seems to consist of the idea of unity in nature and the universe.

Krauss dismissed any idea of the value of the Bible outright. Through science, rational thought will lead us to meaning in life and provide us with the tools we need to survive as a species. Science, Krauss believes, can lead civilisation into a ‘post-religious’ world. It is in this world that rationalism and empiricism will provide humanity with structure and meaning.

Although the two speakers fundamentally agreed that Christian concepts of God and spirituality are out of date, there was no agreement between them on the ongoing value of Christian or any type of religious belief systems.

AWRF 2012: Martin Edmond on Creative Non-Fiction

Martin Edmond is one of my favourite characters (yes, he is a writer, but he is a character too) and I wish I had been able to make this workshop. Luckily Simon Comber from Readers Services was there to soak up the experience and dash off this description for us.
Martin Edmond's workshop on "creative non-fiction" (a term, he hastened to clarify from the start, which he had not chosen himself and was not particularly fond of ) was more of a freewheeling and fun discussion than a workshop. In a review of Edmond's most recent book, Dark Night: Walking With McCahon, by Justin Paton in The Listener, Edmond's prose style had been described as "Too personal to be called histories" and "too flagrantly imaginative to be called biographies". Edmond’s books, he noted, "look out of place on whatever shelf you put them." Thus it was no surprise that Edmond, a critically acclaimed prose writer, was the man to take this discussion -- even if he found the umbrella term for his own style a little reductive.

Edmond combined personal anecdotes with thoughts on writing in general, and explications of the "rules" of non-fiction. He always welcomed discussion and questions from the 40 or so attendees. He stressed that writing was an action. One was not writing when planning what to write or postulating on writing -- only when engaged in the process. Edmond felt preconceived notions of what one was about to write were often hard to realise, and that the best writing was often a surprise to the writer. He described the main qualities of creative non-fiction as selective truth, the inclusion of suppositions and the utilisation of one's right to speculate. "Perhaps" was a useful word, he contended.

Edmond shared his favourite version of the Greek muses: the pre-Renaissance notion that Mneme (memory), Aoide (voice) and Melete (occasion/practice) were the three muses that together bore art, including writing. He generously shared the story of how he came to writing prose (having tried and struggled to be a poet, by his own self-deprecating admission, for 20 years!) when being asked to speak at his father's funeral. The effortless voice that spilled forth when he got up to talk was the same voice with which he began to write his first book.

Discussion then turned more specifically to the complications of writing a personal non-fiction that may or may not refute other people's versions, and Edmond shared his own experiences in interacting with the family members and friends of people that he had focused on (and creatively speculated on) in his books, and the difficulty in deciding what to include and what not to, from both aesthetic and ethical standpoints. "Of course I've left things out," he admitted, "but they all think I've said too much."

AWRF 2012: An hour with Witi Ihimaera

An awesome piece on an awesome festival experience by Hiroshi Nakatsuji from Onehunga Library.
Music, activism, and psychic experiences…
summarise my hour with this Maori literary legend.

As a massive Ihimaera fan, it was an indulgent treat to be read passages from A Game of Cards and The Parihaka Woman by the author himself. I was lost in the stories, reliving my fond memories of childhood storytimes.

Music echoes in Ihimaera’s literature. All the lyrics in these passages were sung out by Ihimaera himself with his velvet baritone voice as he revealed that he studied music composition at University as well as English Literature. He described himself: “I’m just really a failed composer”.

“Writing isn’t for the faint-hearted,” the indigenous rights activist says, reminiscing about all the death threats, anonymous phone calls, and stones thrown at his doorstep. He is an activist with wairua who is truly concerned about the marginalised of the world. His passion and compassion to improve the status of indigenous people have taken him all over the globe including Australia, Canada, and Trinidad.

The highlight of the session was on his experience with a psychic while he was serving as a diplomat in Washington DC. On a friend's recommendation, he decided to meet a psychic. However, blinded by the intense light behind Ihimaera, this medium could not see through him and gave up on giving him his fortune. Ihimaera simply answered, “It’s my nan”, proud of being protected by the spirit of his grandmother and muse, Teria Ihimaera.

Of course, I purchased a copy of his latest work The Parihaka Woman, mainly for his autograph. This down-to-earth, humble man actually took a few minutes to chat with me and even gave me a special quote in the book:

“The spiral, at the same time
it goes out, it is returning”.

May 15, 2012

AWRF 2012: Doris De Pont on Black

"I'm Josie McNaught. You may have heard my name." Was I the only one in the Art Gallery Auditorium to find this slightly off-putting as an opening line from an event chair? Well, from some chairs: to be fair, if it had been Len Brown making the quip, it would have been quite okay. And if everyone else found it unremarkable, I wonder if the list of Ms McNaught's own achievements and successes which followed didn't make them think again.

Eventually, however, we were given an introduction to the glamourous woman whom we had all come to hear, and could see sitting, poised, dressed in black, on one side of the stage, whereupon she stepped up to the microphone and quickly dissipated the off-key note of the "All about me" introduction with her intelligent, amusing and well-researched considerations on why we love to wear black.

Doris De Pont was at AWRF 2012 as the compiler of the book Black: the history of black in fashion, society and culture in New Zealand, exploring New Zealand's obsession with black through essays by people like Andrew Clifford, Chanel Clarke, and yes, Doris herself, which I'm proud to say received its Auckland launch at Central Library in March in the beautiful Whare Wānanga. It's a big, stylish, solid black book, full of great photographs of New Zealanders in black across the ages.

She has also been a highly original fashion designer and more recently, after getting a degree in Museums and Cultural Heritage, the founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum. At this unique museum, which has no building, being instead an online presence, Doris curates online, travelling and pop-up exhibitions, including one called Black in Fashion which popped up in Wellington, visited in Auckland last year, and was also presented at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

"The big problem with black is that it's an ambiguous colour", Doris observed. "For every meaning that you attribute to black, there's an opposite and contradictory meaning". In particular, she said, black through history has been both the colour of loss and the colour of gain, or, "as I like to call it", Dying to Dyeing. Prior to 1856, it was very hard to get a good rich black by dyeing, so only the well-to-do could afford to dress in black, and they did, not only for mourning. She illustrated this with a photo from the book of Queen Victoria dressed in black, with Prince Albert by her side, still very much alive, and numerous of their children gathered around, likewise alive and likewise mostly dressed in black. When the first synthetic dyes came out in 1856, black became affordable to all, but continued to be a colour which upheld status and wealth.

Māori also adopted black for mourning, she thinks perhaps from their special relationship with Queen Victoria, their partner in the Treaty. She showed a beautiful photo by Peter Drury of Māori kuia at the Tangihanga for their Queen, with their heads adorned with seaweed and greenery, and black veils.

With the arrival of washing machines, all colours became equal. Black became the colour of authority (police) or anti-authority (rockers, punks, bikers and gangs). We got to see a great photo of the New Zealand Chapter of the California Hell's Angels posed in front of the War Memorial Musuem, all in black leather jackets, except one poor guy -- I'm still wondering what happened to his. We saw Fred's black singlet, a woman with Stevie Nicks hair power-dressing in the 1980s in a black Thornton Hall suit, and Rugby players in the 1880s, the "NZ Natives" team, who were the first to choose black jerseys on the occasion of an English tour in the 1880s, where all the other colours were already taken by the various British teams they'd be playing against.

The illustrated walk through place and time culminated with an image of a black t-shirt from the IWI collection at last year's New Zealand Fashion Week. "This", said Doris, "epitomises NZ fashion for me -- local, dark, edgy and intellectual."

"The story we're telling ourselves is that we're serious but up to the play. We're outsiders, on the edge of the world, but we can foot it with the best of them."

AWRF 2012: An hour with Stella Rimington

Fashion plate Robin Whitworth from Mt. Albert Library put on her best beige trench coat and went to hear Sean Plunket interview the ex-spy and current author of the Liz Carlyle thriller novels. Here's her report:
From the auditorium, you have an upward view of the stage and people’s feet are very much visible. Me being a shoe person, I do a quick character analysis of people from their choice of footwear. Dame Stella’s were sensible flats. What did I expect a spook to be like? James Bond glamorous? No. George Smiley grey and gloomy? No. In fact, slightly headmistressy in appearance. In character, warm, lively and forthcoming, with a good sense of humour, and not the least reluctance to answer any questions put to her by her interlocutor Sean Plunket, and later, the audience. She was asked what was the most important quality of being the Director General of MI5, and she said calmness, and indeed you got a good sense she would be unflappable in a crisis.

Another Dame, Judi Dench, based her portrayal of ‘M’ in the Bond movies on Dame Stella. Dame Stella concurred that Judi Dench had her off pat, even down to the way she holds her hands. She seemed to be quite charmingly flattered by this, and was looking forward to meeting this alter ego at a function for Dames on her return to the UK.

Dame Stella was the first female DG, and when she started in the service in 1967, there were no women. It was indeed a world of men in tweed jackets smoking pipes a la Smiley’s World. She stated John Le Carre was her favourite spy writer, and the most authentic. Intelligence work is largely unglamorous and unexciting; a lot of watching and waiting. In her own novels, she has added more action for her heroine Liz Carlyle than would be normal.

She started her writing career with her autobiography five years after her retirement from the Service in 1996, with little hope that she would receive clearance for publication. But the new era of openness, which started with her being the first DG to be publicly identified, continues, and there was only minor censoring. She had always read spy novels (“for relaxation, not to get tips”), and so her own series began. She is up to number seven, Geneva Trap, now, and has agreed to two more. She has to submit them for vetting before publication. She tries to keep them current. For example, Rip Tide is about radicalized young British Islamists.

She was there at the end of the Cold War, and said it was very strange to go to Russia and meet her KGB counterparts, these previous enemies, who were still very hostile. And of course the KGB is still active; “espionage goes on”.

Life and Art: Geoff Dyer at AWRF 2012

One of the most valuable things the AWRF did for me this year was to include Geoff Dyer in their line-up, thereby allowing me to solve one of my longest-running literary doppelganger cases (my personal term for those pairs of authors you always mix up), that of Geoff Dyer and Geoff Nicholson. I’m not saying that I’ll never be unsure again as to which one wrote Bleeding London and which one wrote Paris Trance, but I have definitely locked the name Geoff Dyer to the tall, skinny, gelled-hair, supercilious (at least publicly) guy who writes about art and jazz, which means, by default, that Geoff Nicholson is the long-haired, slightly chubby fellow who writes about rock guitar, food, and interesting obsessions.

At the Opening Night Party, having “found” myself next to Geoff Dyer while reaching for a glass of wine at the bar, I seized the moment to tell him how much I was looking forward to his session, and, since he is clearly a person with a sense of humour, to tell him about being one of my literary doppelgangers and ask him if he had a suggestion for a mnemonic which might help me keep my Geoffs straight.

He looked puzzled, but not, as you might be thinking, by the concept of the literary doppelganger. No, he was having a hard time identifying this other “Geoff”, also a writer, of twenty books, from the same generation, who had also made his name on the London scene, whose first book had appeared practically simultaneously with his. “Geoff who?” he said, drawing his brows together and peering over my head into the distance. “Nicholson? Nicholson… Nicholson…”

Eventually he got it. “Ah yes, Geoff Nicholson!” So did he have a suggestion? He put his head back and laughed, but as he brought it back down a gleam was forming in his eye. I am sure he was going to rise to the challenge. This is a man who thrives on cleverness. Unfortunately, I will never know, because at that moment Karl Maughan appeared and took him by the arm. “Geoff has to meet his new publisher!” he said, and carried him away (or as some might say, saved him from me). How had I forgotten that when writers are on the circuit, they are always working?

By the time Geoff Dyer’s session rolled around, a talk about “Life and Art”, I realised I no longer needed the silly mnemonic anyway, although of course need had never really been the point (I hope you all got that!). But the capsule description offered by the event chair Gregory O’Brien in his introduction was interesting. “Public intellectual, writer, journalist”, he described him. I’ve always considered Geoff Dyer first and foremost a writer, and it’s not that common, I was thinking, that a writer is also a “public intellectual” (as compared to the “public intellectual” who writes books, Isaiah Berlin, say, or Umberto Eco). Nikos Kazantzakis comes to my mind first, but he’s dead; Pasolini, same. Also Leonardo Sciascia and Vaclav Havel. Of people alive today, who? Amos Oz, Wole Soyinka, maybe Ha Jin.

What’s the first thing you notice about that list? Was it this? “Traditionally speaking,” Geoff Dyer pointed out, “English fiction has been hostile to the idea of ideas”. His own description of what he set out to do was “Criticism, commentary, original… that 'in-between' space was a place where I thought I could operate” and “I’m at odds with the idea that the novel is the sole outlet for creative writing”.

He says he is not what he calls a “career writer”, someone who finishes a book and then starts a new one, and he writes about non-mass market topics. “Would jazz be an example of that?”, asks Greg O’Brien. “Actually, it was quite a canny move. Jazz has had three revivals during my lifetime” Dyer says gleefully.

His first book was about John Berger, a “huge figure” as Dyer calls him, a writer about art, whose novel G won the Booker Prize. Dyer says his book about Berger was unbelievably boring – “It was my surrogate PhD” -- but then he met Berger, who was incredibly encouraging. "John Berger is the one who taught me about creative non-fiction” he testifies.
His new book, Zona, is a meditation on film, art and life, all through the lens of the Andrei Tarkovsky science fiction film from the seventies, Stalker. Tarkovsky’s film can be told in two sentences, he says, and then does it in one. “People in a place where at the centre their dreams come true.” “You don’t have to have seen the film. My publisher hasn’t seen it yet. I’ve come to view the film as being a trailer, an advert, for my book.”

The Geoff Dyer mannerisms amuse me. He is a good story teller. He story tells as images from the film show on the screen. I loved it. “The book is about an obsession. There is just one train station now in Cheltenham, where I grew up. When I was growing up there were four. My father used to take me to watch the trains at xxx (mumbled name of closest station). It closed when I was four, but at eight or nine I used to go play there with my friends. It was all rusted, decayed, tracks overgrown with weeds, nettles, dandelions.”

“Here we are” says Stalker. Home at last.

The book’s epigraph is from Camus. “After all the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly."

As Dyer likes to say, “Whatever else people think of my books, the epigraphs are fantastic”.

As the hour draws to a close Greg O’Brien says the three adjectives that come to his mind about Dyer’s writing are “Boredom, impatience, and xxx (mumble).” What could it be? I'd happily give my vote to "candour". Or was it "irritation"? This is, after all, the man who wrote a book called Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, and who had this to say to Gregory O'Brien and the public at AWRF 2012 about his new book, the one he had come to talk about:

“I stop listening when someone starts to pitch a book to me and especially if the pitch is about the contents. Of course the only thing to pitch is the tone, so take a look at the first paragraph and if it irritates you, go ahead and read it anyway!”

I plan to.

AWRF 2012: Why Lyrics Matter: Brian Boyd

Simon Comber is a singer/songwriter and a member of the Readers Services Team based at Central City Library. He knows that lyrics matter but was curious to hear Brian Boyd's thoughts on why they do. He reports:
Iain Sharp chaired a discussion with New Zealand's (and the world's) leading Vladimir Nabokov expert Brian Boyd. Sharp expressed concern at the start that trying to do justice to the sheer scope of Boyd's expertise and accomplishments in a mere hour was going to be a tall order, and sure enough, by the end of the talk the topic suggested by the event's title had scarcely been touched upon, with the final question from an audience member being "Er, Brian. Why do lyrics matter?" This is hardly a quibble though, as it was none the less a treat to hear Boyd talking about his formative years and how his passion for the work of Nabokov had evolved.

Having moved with his family from Belfast to New Zealand at a young age, Boyd found himself working at a bookstore set up by his parents in Palmerston North. He remembers reshelving Lolita when he was 12, which lead to him read it for the first time. He didn't really "get it", but his interest was again piqued when he saw Nabokov on the cover of Time Magazine (May 23, 1969, his razor sharp biographer's memory recalled) and Boyd, inspired by Nabokov's fascinating interview answers, went and got Pale Fire out of the local library. Reading that, he contended, was "the most exciting literary experience of my life." His interest and obsession with one of the twentieth century's great authors only grew from there, with Boyd writing a thesis on the novel Ada whilst studying at Toronto University on a scholarship.

Since then Boyd has completed a key two volume biography on Nabokov, (among involvement in writing and editing many other books on the man), spent longer than any man should annotating Ada (view his work so far here:, and also written two recent books on his interest in the human tendency toward pattern recognition, and shaping our experiences through art into fictional narratives. As Boyd amusingly put it: "Why does a successful species spend so much time telling each other stories that both sides know are untrue?"

He also discussed briefly his interest in the phenomenon that had helped shape his most recent book Why Lyrics Last that whilst Shakespeare's sonnets are the most successful collection of lyrics in western literary history, very few readers managed to read them all due to the collections lack of that overarching narrative humans seem to so strongly desire (though he noted some critics did perceive a narrative thread.) By then our time was up, and with great marketing savvy Boyd suggested that to really get to grasps with the contentions in his recent book you were just going to have to purchase it.

May 14, 2012

AWRF 2012: McCahon and the Micronaut

Martin Edmond and Gregory O’Brien illuminate the pilgrimages undertaken to get to the heart of two New Zealand artists abroad. In Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011) Edmond retraces McCahon’s steps on the 1984 night he went missing in Sydney, a vivid reconstruction knitted together with Edmond’s imagination and intimate knowledge of his adopted hometown. To write A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (2011), O’Brien and his family upped sticks to spend three months in Taranaki-born Percy’s London home, where he created many of his extraordinary and best-loved illustrations. -- from the AWRF 2012 brochure.

I have to say that there were times when the writers at the Festival seemed to be playing that game called Statues we used to play as kids; you know, the one where everyone runs around and then someone yells “Stop” and everyone freezes, then everyone runs around again and freezes again, each time in different clumps, and so on and so on. So we had, for example, Martin Edmond, who besides running his solo workshop on Saturday, talked with Gregory O’Brien and Peter Simpson on Friday morning about writing about NZ artists abroad, and then on Sunday afternoon with Anthony McCarten and Anne Kennedy about being an expat, McCarten having talked about his new book the day before with Lily Richards, while Anne Kennedy appeared with Greg O’Brien but not with Martin at the Open Mike event and again at the tribute to Hone Tuwhare, as well as with neither of them at “What the Dickens?”

How well these re-clumpings worked depended a bit on the people involved, how “event-genic” they were, and what connective had been contrived for them. For Emily Perkins and Jeffrey Eugenides, their joint appearance after their solo events, nominally about the future of the novel, was like a well-rehearsed scene in a drawing room comedy. For Gregory O’Brien and Martin Edmond, I don't know, they are both such un-persona people, and their books, despite being about other people, so personal and original, that the joint format hit me as more of a hindrance to getting to the heart of the matter than a help, with Peter Simpson valiantly alternating his, and our, attention.

Who had managed to intimidate the seemingly hard-to-intimidate Peter Simpson? I saw this man in action, here at the library, when the data projector unexpectedly failed just as he was about to present his beautiful book on Leo Bensemann (Fantastica: the world of Leo Bensemann). Every slide appeared as if seen through a green lens, and the IT guy we called just couldn’t understand why that wasn’t okay, after all they were just a lot of landscapes, so it took some time to spur him to action. Peter extemporised 45 minutes of amusing recollections and anecdotes until a new projector was found.

Quite a contrast to the Peter Simpson I saw on stage here, sounding rather like a school-master. “The format will be…” he intoned at the start in his rich baritone, and did he ever keep to it, to the point of cutting Martin Edmond off in the middle of his final line. I guess I never will know how Martin thinks the Australians see the NZ psyche in the setting of Australia.

The last time I saw Martin Edmond on stage at a Festival event, I remember using the word “rumpled” about him - not in the sense of unironed clothes or anything, just an expression of the contrast between him and his taut interviewer Peter Wells. Looking back I think a better word might have been “accidental”.But at “McCahon and the Micronaut” he filed out with Peter Simpson and Greg O’Brien looking positively, how can I describe it, springy, walking very upright, in tennis shoes and a white tee with what I think I recognised as the nzepc Richard Killeen seahorse on the front.

Of his book Dark Night he proudly said, “The reviews of the book said ‘This is a flimsy pretext for a book’. I wish they had said ‘audacious’. I didn’t think it was flimsy. I thought it was audacious.”

And then he told this wonderful story:

“Maggie and I flew in around 3 and decided to go have a glass of wine and a cigarette on K Road. As we were sitting there, three Maori guys, clearly living on the street, ragged and fearsome, came down the street and stopped at our table. ‘Got a cigarette, bro?’ I gave them cigarettes and two of them went off, but the third guy stayed and shook my hand. He said, ‘I’m drifting. I don’t know how to go back home. I had a car accident, lost two of my kids.’ Dark Night is a book about homelessness, and I thought about the Maori guy and I thought he probably would find his way back home, though he didn’t know it. My book in some way is to bring Colin McCahon home.”

Greg O’Brien recalled: “18 months after Graham Percy’s death we went to stay in his apartment in Wimbledon.” “Our friendship continued to grow” as he dug through boxes of thousands of drawings. He worked on the book in the study where Graham Percy’s ashes, spectacles and cellphone reside in a scale replica of the apartment, where he and his wife Mari had lived for twenty-five years, commissioned by his daughter. He found evidence that Graham Percy, during his last years, had used Google Earth to revisit places he’d been when young. A paddock he had walked across in New Zealand.

The AWRF brochure speaks of these two authors as having undertaken “pilgrimages”. Well done, blurb writer, whoever you are. I think it's a good choice of words, implying as it does humility, and a journey without conditions.

Gregory O'Brien concluded, “I hope that Graham lives in the book we made for him.”

And Martin Edmond summed things up thus for Peter Simpson:

(Simpson) “Did the process of writing this book change your view of McCahon?”

“I don’t know if it changed it, but it transformed it. I don’t look at it from the outside now".

The Future of the Novel according to AWRF

I went to hear Jeffrey Eugenides and Emily Perkins in "a wide-ranging conversation on the great novels and the future of the form".
As it turned out, we didn’t really hear about The Future of the Novel, or not in any capital letter way. It was a much lighter sort of occasion, a French macaron, it occurred to me, the two clever novelists-cum-creative writing profs as the two perfectly done hemispheres, just nutty enough, not too puffed up or too dry, and Jolisa Gracewood’s smooth, assured and berry-liscious questioning as the ganache in the middle.

“In The Marriage Plot, the old, reactionary professor thinks that now that religious and other taboos against ending marriage have fallen, and the “marriage plot" is therefore dead and gone, the novel is dead. Is that why you set the novel in the past?”

“I don’t consider the 1980s the past. I remember it as quite a vibrant time” Jeffrey Eugenides, born in 1960, deadpanned, setting the tone he seemed to find most matter-of-course.

Emily thoughtfully pointed out that people can still break the social contract and novels can explore that, citing The Slap and We need to talk about Kevin.

With or without marriage, Jeffrey rejoined, “Every story I write has desire at its centre.”

Emily seconded this, quoting fellow-festival guest Geoff Dyer, from his contribution to The Guardian’s “10 rules of writing” series: “Have regrets because on the page they flare into desire”. (She also said “And of course most authors put as their last point ‘Ignore everything I’ve just said’”. I couldn’t believe Geoff Dyer would have been one of these, and I actually went and looked it up just now, and can report that his last point was “Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else".)

Both novelists agreed that “a certain amount of comicity in your book allows you to stare better at the tragedy”, as Eugenides put it.

Possibly unintentionally (she is very clever, but perhaps too lovely a person to be so diabolical), Emily Perkins then provided the set up for that certain comic moment of the evening, one it would have been fun to see described by Mark Twain or maybe, in more contemporary times, Tom Wolfe.

She quoted a character in her new book who says, “You do see women going about their lives without a book, but how do they do it?”

Somewhere in the rows behind me an eager literateur could not repress an approving “Yeah!”

Yeah! Say it loud, Writers Festival core customer base!

The novel is not dead, despite critics (could someone tell me what a "dry-fi" is, which apparently James Wood of The New Yorker performed on Jeffrey Eugenides?), e-books (we heard opinions on whether it is important while you are reading a book to know how close to the end you are) and competition from "the ultimate post-colonial form"(possibly), the short story.

And finally, the future of the novel is …

Jeffrey Eugenides: “In my day, because of semiotics we knew that the novel was dying and we had to revive it. Now with my students it’s just about getting them to use punctuation. In my view the future of the novel seems to be unpunctuated.”

Jeffrey Eugenides shows off The Ring and the Book

AWRF 2012: An hour with Anthony McCarten

Sue from Readers Services at Central Library LOVED this event (capitals hers), which featured Anthony McCarten in conversation with Lily Richards. The short verdict was "funny guy, lovely man", and here's the long one:
How can New Zealand not have fallen in love with this writer, turning a blind eye to his internationally acclaimed Death of a superhero? Shame on us all! Perhaps our moon and stars were not in alignment at the time of its publication in Aotearoa. Whatever the reason, read this book now; it is achingly beautiful, poignant, funny, sensitive, the total package.

And now, McCarten has written a follow up novel, In the Absence of Heros, which picks up the characters of the earlier novel and looks at how the family is fracturing under the weight of their grief. The book also focuses on the phenomena of the online gaming world, where the surviving son seeks refuge from the unredeemed banality of everyday life and a family muted by grief. Not only is this book a commentary on grief and communication, it also speaks of our growing love affair with virtual worlds and all things online.

McCarten spoke too of his recently released novel Brilliance, which was a behemoth in its first incarnation some ten years ago, but has now been streamlined into its present day form. It is a fictionalised account of Thomas Edison reflecting back on his defining moment and his relationship with New York business man and tycoon J P Morgan. The book largely works to humanise a figure who was almost canonised in his time for his achievements, showing his human frailties and errors of judgement.

McCarten was extremely entertaining, self-deprecating, wickedly funny live and in written form, and appreciative of an audience which he noted was larger than the number of books he sold in NZ when he first published Death of a Superhero. Get to know McCarten’s writing now, you will not be disappointed.

May 13, 2012

AWRF 2012: An hour with Roddy Doyle

"He divides his time between Dublin and confusion." -- proposed by Roddy Doyle and his wife as the last line of the bio blurb on his next book's back flap.

Hats off to Brian Edwards for not having a "format" for this event, let alone announcing that he had one, which seemed to be the done thing at the Festival this year. What he had was a good conversation with Roddy Doyle. Let's face it: they are always saying "In conversation with", but it's usually just an elegant way of saying "Interviewed by".

I pondered this as I let myself be slowly taken back up the aisle of the ASB Theatre by the current of what seemed a notably unhurried crowd -- it had been a full house, and appeared to now be a satisfied one. What I came up with was, you can't fake enjoyment.

In their conversation, the bluffish guy in the big hat and the quiet, deadpan, very funny guy in rimless glasses further broke new ground by not talking much about the funny guy's newest book (Bullfighting), rather having him read a very funny story from it (Animals) in which a man looks back on an endless series of family pets and the variety of demises they encountered. From the laughter it was pretty clear that 98% of the audience could identify. For the rest, or maybe it was just the part I particularly enjoyed (talking of enjoyment), they talked about Roddy Doyle's views on life and writing.

"Writing is such a solitary activity, so unsynchronous with others. Why do you do it?"
"I do it because I love it. I do it because I can."

They talked about his 10 rules for writing which he supplied to The Guardian a couple of years ago for their Rules for Writers series. Here they are, for your enjoyment:

1 Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2 Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph --

3 Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job.

4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don't go near the online bookies – unless it's research.

6 Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said".

7 Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It's research.

8 Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

9 Do not search for the book you haven't written yet.

10 Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – "He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego." But then get back to work.

As you will have guessed, Rule number 10 was what inspired the quip which I led off with, perhaps my favourite of the evening.

But this was good as well, and good to hear it delivered as a quip:

"Why do people like your books so much?"
"Maybe the humour. And the tragedy. Laughter and tragedy always go hand in hand."

AWRF 2012: Emily Perkins on The Forrests

Sue from the Readers Services team at Central City Library was wonderfully impressed by The Forrests and its author. She reports:
Emily Perkins completely engaged her audience as she shared an immediate rapport with her interviewer, her fellow writer and contemporary Paula Morris, at this year’s Writers & Readers festival. Kudos have to go to Paula Morris who had evidently put a lot of planning into her questions, which were pertinent and helped immerse the audience in Emily’s creative processes and the literary scaffolding of her new novel The Forrests.

 Listening to Emily talk about The Forrests, named after the family it represents, one is struck by how unassuming and down to earth Emily is. Emily’s writing is so beautifully evocative, the strands of longing and nostalgia so palpable they seem to float around the reader as they travel through the pages. The excerpts Emily chose to read aloud were received by a spellbound and silent audience who waited respectfully after she finished before relaxing into quiet whispers of appreciation.

An hour passed regretfully quickly, and as I filed out of the auditorium, I was not surprised to note the number of people queuing to purchase The Forrests and travel further into their imagined world.

AWRF 2012: An hour with Sebastian Barry

Maybe it's because Jan Cronin, who was interviewing him, is so delectably fine-boned, but the first thing I noticed about Sebastian Barry is how he seems to have such a massive head, a 19th century head, I kept thinking, the kind that you would see emerging from a white shirt with a big white cravat flowing between velvet jacket lapels.

Halfway through the hour, it occurred to me. Oscar Wilde, that was it, he resembles Oscar Wilde, only without the languid look and air of superiority. The oracle-like pauses which punctuate his speech, moreover, do not lead to witty epigrams but to thoughtful considerations, served up with self-deprecating humour. When Jan slips in something about his "process" he complains, "It makes me sound like a cheese." Or, my favourite, at the end of a long reply: "I don't know if that answers your question because to be quite honest I don't remember the question".

Most of the talk centered on his new novel On Canaan's Side, whose main character Barry imagined forth from just a couple of facts he knew about a relative, an aunt or great-aunt or similar, more or less that she had emigrated to America, and that she had returned. He describes what he did with her as giving her a voice. "The people I'm most interested in are the chancy ones, those people who have no narrative. I'm making up a narrative for them."

We get a sample of the voice he has given her. He is asked to read an excerpt from the book, and he walks to the front of the stage and gives us first a five minute monologue full of asides and disclaimers about being involved in the theatre because of his plays, but never as an actor, and then suddenly launches into a fantastic impersonation of an 89 year old Irishwoman, right down to the balled up fists as she rails, telling the story of the day long ago when her brand-new husband was shot and killed before her eyes.

We are all hugely impressed. "How do you find the voice?" Jan asks. "How does it find you?" he replies.

He talks about why he has so often drawn on members of his family, from earlier generations, for his books. "My sister and I were sort of veterans of our childhood, and my mother was a veteran of hers. My father was one of those existentialists who didn't believe in history. I went looking for some background that wasn't toxic and I found it in these people who had lived in the twenties and the thirties. Ecce homo. It's good to have ancestors, even if I had to make them up."

There was a story told from the heart about the time he bent the rules and used someone who was still alive, and not only, who had been very close to him, with whom he had lived, even shared a bed, as the basis for a novel --his grandfather. When the book came out, he says, "There he was in his flat on Appian Way in Dublin, seeing his mystery laid out for everyone to see." No one likes that, and his grandfather was no exception. "He never spoke to me again."

"The ordinary human being," Sebastian Barry says, "would not hurt another human being, but a writer is a different kettle of fish."

May 12, 2012

Opening night gala at the AWRF 2012

The New Zealand Listener Gala Night, the opening event of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, can be declared a resounding success. I can't remember having been at any Writers and Readers Festival event during which the ASB Theatre so resounded with laughter and applause - the latter explicitly solicited by the beautiful and perfect Carol Hirschfeld as MC. Carol personally led the first rounds of applause, which she performed in a sort of flamenco style, arms upraised, a few to the left, a few to the right (I think she was simply trying not to clap right into the mike, actually, but whatever the reason, it added quite a touch of style).

The event used the "True stories told live" format, "live and true storytelling, unscripted and unmediated" as the programme assured us, on the theme What the Dickens?, honouring Charles's 200th birthday. As could be expected when storytelling is involved, and whether it was done on purpose or not, having half the presenters be Irish was certainly a master stroke in terms of laughter.

In this sense, the revelation of the evening, at least for me, was Eoin Colfer (double revelation actually, because I also found out to my surprise that his name is pronounced "Oh-in" and not "Ee-in"), who warmed us up with a short intro about how he once appeared at an All Irish (Go Irish? something like that) event with Roddy Doyle and Colin Farrell, where the organiser took him to one side and told him "Your Irish accent is not very good, could you spice it up with a few colloquialisms?" And his reply was, he said, "What? No, I'm a serious writer, bejeezus!" He also delivered the best throwaway line of the evening, "I was on my way over here on Virgin Australia (that's a plane)..."

Roddy Doyle's story of a night he spent in the Dublin A&E was the most Dickensian of the stories, just as I felt he cut a fine Dickensian figure on the stage. Perhaps the least Dickensian, figure and story, was Jesmyn Ward, the young black American writer whom I had expected might be this year's incarnation of the AWRF tradition of having a dark-skinned young woman writer who is always beautiful and chic in the line-up every year (come to think of it, it won't be an AWRF tradition but a publishers' tradition), but hey, although definitely lovely, she actually ambled out in jeans and a grey sweater which, while it was not a sweatshirt, was also cheerfully not a "look".

Or maybe the least was Geoff Dyer, who instead of a story performed a lecture on Jackson Pollock, with a lot of commentary on binge-drinking and baldness. He kept falling into long pauses and announcing he had to go consult his notes, and doing it, which I took to be one of those English upper class habits where you are so confidently upper class that you can be kind of shabby and amateurish. I'm not very good at recognising English classes. But my English-born friend Helen thought that was very funny when I confided it to her at the after-opening party. Apparently not!

I got done laughing at that just in time to hear this thought from one of speakers who had lined up to christen the festival, the CEO of Creative New Zealand, Stephen Wainwright: "You know... in the dark ages when there was no reading... we don't wanna go back there!" Agreement was written on all the faces present, except perhaps those like myself who were trying to handle the exceptionally slippery canapés, little triangles of soft white bread permeated with melted cheese. Mine slipped right out of my fingers and onto the floor, prompting an incredibly quick response from the world's foremost Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd, who will be speaking on Saturday about "Why lyrics matter" in conversation with Iain Sharp, an event I highly recommend. Brian deftly swooped down on my fallen canapé with a serviette just as I imagine Nabokov might have brought his net down on a Karner blue butterfly,  furthermore waving away the suggestion that this was anything but routine.

Now that's class!

AWRF 2012: Caroline Moorehead on A Train in Winter

Ana from the Readers Services team went to hear Caroline Moorehead talk about her new book A Train in Winter, in an event chaired by Carole Beu, from The Women’s Bookshop. She reports:
Caroline Moorehead grew up in a home where the only important thing was to write, so she and her brothers all became journalists. She is also a human rights journalist and advocate, who helped start a legal advice centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Cairo.

She started by talking a little about Human Cargo and also her involvement as a human rights defender. She has been to Africa and many other countries, and presented a strong image of refugee camps and detention camps where children are penned together, and the profound psychological effect this has on them.

A Train in Winter is about a group of 230 women working for the French resistance, who were arrested by French police, taken to a fort outside Paris, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Apparently the book, which I haven’t read yet, is very graphic. Many women died very quickly after arrival, from the horror of what they had witnessed. What made it different for these women was their friendship. This is the main thrust of the novel and the reason why 49 of them survived. If one person was weak, they kept an extra crust of bread for her; at roll-call (where it was sometimes 20 degrees below zero) they formed themselves into squares and kept the weak or sick in the middle for protection.

Caroline Moorehead thinks that ordinary people can make a difference. She says that refugees and asylum seekers are dominated by anxiety, and notes that one of the problems is that nobody asks them what are they interested in. Caroline Moorehead has made and is making a great difference to the lives and conditions of many of these people.

AWRF 2012: Captain Bligh

Who better than Georgia Prince, Manager of Auckland Libraries' Sir George Grey Special Collections, Regional Heritage and Research, could we ask to tell us about "Bligh", one of this festival's hit events?
In this session Anne Salmond was talking to Paul Diamond about the most notorious of all the Pacific explorers, Captain William Bligh of ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. Bligh is the subject of her latest book, Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas, the last in her trilogy of books on Pacific voyaging.

As she said, most people want to know why she picked Captain Bligh as her subject. First, she described the key moments in her research which gave her sympathy and insight into this complex man. One was reading his tender and affectionate letters to his wife Betsy, and the other was reading his vitriolic annotations in the margins of the official account of the last voyage of Captain Cook. He absolutely disagreed with this account of Cook’s death ( he was there) and objected strongly to the credit for the charts he had produced as Cook’s Master being given to his superior officer, Lieutenant King. As a librarian, I found hearing about the value of research moments like these both illuminating and satisfying.

In Bligh’s defence, she talked about the impossible situation Bligh was put into by the organiser of the Bounty voyage, Joseph Banks, and how it was “a mutiny waiting to happen”. Bligh had no way of enforcing his authority, apart from verbal abuse, and he never understood when to hold his tongue. But she also talked about his remarkable ability as an ethnographer and observer of Tahitian customs, as well as his amazing feat of navigating from Tonga to Batavia (Jakarta) in an over-filled open boat with little food, water or navigational instruments.

An amazing story which kept us all us fascinated and entertained. As Paul Diamond said in his concluding remarks, “None of these are dead stories”.

May 11, 2012

Auckland Writers & Readers Festival 2012: it's here!

In a few minutes, literati from all around the region, and I among them, will be homing in on the Aotea Centre for the opening event of the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, the New Zealand Listener Gala Night, titled What the Dickens? And there's more! I am also one of the invitati to the party afterwards. I wrote "afterwords" and then corrected myself, but you know, it might have been a Freudian slip. In fact, Books in the City will be posting a slew of "afterwords" on Festival events, from a swarm of charged-up librarians.

In our absence, I like to imagine our books will be enjoying themselves too, like those in this wonderful video which an art director named Sean Ohlenkamp filmed in a Toronto bookstore. I enjoyed seeing The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook go by, a book I haven't thought about in years. Or at least I think I saw it -- it all happens pretty fast!

May 01, 2012

Disappointed by the Diagram Prize for Odd Titles

From The bookseller 

"Cooking with Poo, a Thai cookbook penned by Bangkok resident Saiyuud Diwong and published in Australia, has trumped its rivals to scoop The Bookseller's coveted Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year award.

"The 114-page cookbook was crowned the winner having received the majority share of the public vote at and its sister consumer website In total, 1,363 votes were cast, with the breakdown as follows:

1) Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong (Urban Neighbours of Hope) 38% 2) Mr Andoh’s Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh (Royd Press) 22% 3) The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott D Mendelson (Createspace) 13% 4) Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World by Aino Praakli (Elmatar) 12% 5) The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A Rush (North Atlantic Books) 8%  6) A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares (Phaidon) 4%  7) A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two by Peter Gosson (Amberley) 3% "
  Well. I for one am disappointed. I have always looked forward to finding out every year what quirky title had been added to the list of winners of the Diagram Prize, from Greek postmen and their cancellation numbers (I have a feeling a readers' poll once chose this one as the best of the best) to How to avoid large ships. I think this tendency to nominate titles which have clearly been picked by the publishers as ones which would play to the peanut gallery is betraying the distinguished origin of the prize, which was finding a way to stave off boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In case you are saying, well, have you got something better, I do have a candidate. It's a Canadian bestseller called Slow Death by Rubber Duck, described on its website like this: "Provocative and groundbreaking, Slow Death by Rubber Duck reveals how the living of daily life creates a toxic soup inside each of us".

If I am going to be a purist, though, I should probably admit that this title could also be put in the intentionally-clever-rather-than-unintentionally-odd basket. Luckily, I have a back-up title, spotted on the library's bestseller shelves last year. Here it is:

The bonus years diet : 7 miracle foods including chocolate, red wine, and nuts that can add 6.4 years on average to your life by Ralph Felder and Carol Colman.

I love this! What kind of person writes a title like that? "6.4 years on average?" On average? Wouldn't on average be "more than six" or "six or seven", or maybe, "a handful" (five fingers on a hand!), or even "quite a few"?

I'm putting forward Steve Carell as the right person to play Ralph Felder if they ever decide to make a movie about the "dramatic studies" (I quote from the book summary) which led to the writing of this book.

In case you wanted to know, Poo means "crab" in Thai, and is the author's nickname. The library doesn't have a copy but when I searched the catalogue for it, I was offered The ladies' loos: from plumbing to plucking, a practical guide for girls as an alternative.

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