June 11, 2013

Adolf in Blunderland: a treasure from the basement

Adolf in Blunderland.
Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books and I love coming across it in any guise - from the Swahili version I encountered on the Internet archive library to the Mervyn Peake-illustrated edition which was the star of the University of Sheffield Library's exhibit Mervyn Peake’s Alice a few years ago.

You can imagine, therefore, how intrigued I was to come across an old, cardboardy book called Adolf in Blunderland in the Central City Library basement. The cover bears a caricature of Adolf Hitler in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit looking up at a giant caterpillar with Neville Chamberlain’s head, moustache, top hat and all, as he sits on a mushroom with a cap that resembles a map of the world. The Caterpillar is clearly about to offer Adolf a chance to take a bite out of it, just as the real Chamberlain did.

The book was published in Great Britain in 1939 and donated to the library by a Mr Griffiths in 1984. The authors are James Dyrenforth and Max Kester, James Dyrenforth being a noted lyricist of the 1930s and 40s who wrote the sorts of songs that are recorded by musicians with nicknames and their own orchestras, such as "Skitch Henderson and his orchestra".

The parodies of the Alice poems in this book are, in fact, very clever:

"You are old, Kaiser Wilhelm," young Adolf said,
"And your famous moustache now falls flat…"


'Twas the voice of the Fuehrer ! I heard him declare,
"If you want a good massacre, bomb from the air…"

However, the best moment for me in the whole book is the tea party, where the March Hare has become "March Into", and the Mad Hatter is the "Flatterer". And the dormouse? Read on:

March Into: No room! No room!
Adolf: There's plenty of room.
Flatterer: Only if we annex Hungary, as the great March Into suggests.
Doormat (weakly): Germany is hungry.

syndetics-lcAt the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this month, I was lucky to get a chance to interview Sir Max Hastings, author of All Hell let loose (a history of World War II that Hamish Keith thinks is the best ever written) along with many other fine books, including a funny memoir of his dysfunctional childhood I'm reading right now, Did you really shoot the television? A family fable. I took Adolf in Blunderland along to show him.

I told him about how when I found it, I was delighted by its cleverness, but after I'd finished reading it, it didn't seem as much fun as I had thought. Hastings said, kindly, "Yes, parodies usually aren't as successful out of their times", but that wasn't what I meant. It wasn't that the style was anachronistic - it was the story itself, and knowing, unlike the authors, how it would end: the carnage and the millions dead.

It occurred to me that writing a parody like this, for two Englishmen, was a bit like when I used to write poems about my sadistic high school science teacher, likening him to a turtle, or a camel, as the mood struck me. It's not the last laugh, it's what you have instead.

Read this post on Booktryst about an outstanding collection - nearly 500 books - of "Wonderlandia" at the University of British Columbia Rare Books and Special Collections Department. Yes, Adolf in Blunderland is there.

June 04, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 01, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that point, Rita Angus was a full-time artist, but Peter McIntyre was having to do family portraits to get by as an artist; neither were Toss Woollaston or Colin McCahon full-time artists. All did become full time artists after Pat's return and for Ron,  "I am convinced it was Pat who made that happen."

One of the changes Ron pointed out was how Pat's beach paintings from the 1960s were urban paintings: "These are not farmers we see."

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

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

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

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

And closed by saying

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

A wonderful hour, graced by the presence of photographer Gil Hanly, Pat's wife, taking photos, reminiscing with Ron, appearing with Pat in old photos Ron showed, such as Marti Friedlander's famous portrait from 1969, now in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.


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

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

May 29, 2013

What the internet is doing to you: Aleks Krotoski at AWRF 2013

"Techno-fundamentalism"! "Pseudo-anonymity"! I love it! Looks like my friend Alison from the Grey Lynn Library has a nose for finding cool sessions -- or maybe Aleks Krotoski's cat tweeted her cat about it!

Well folks, the good news is that there is solid evidence to suggest that in this new world of the web (are we at 3.0 yet?) people are “pretty much” behaving in the same ways as they were in the pre-web days. These are the findings of Dr Aleks Krotoski, broadcaster, journalist and academic who specializes in technology and interactivity. You will notice the phrase “pretty much”. This was how Aleks described the similarity of our behaviours both pre and post-web. If it sounds overly familiar of me to call Aleks by her first name and not Dr Krotoski, I think she would be okay with that. She is so down to earth, informal and engaging that I could easily imagine I was one of her girlfriends catching up for a coffee and a fascinating chat.

The session was chaired by Toby Manhire, who steered the conversation in a thoughtful, reasoned manner. This was necessary because Aleks is prone to embarking on the most exquisite and lengthy tangents.

Aleks spoke of falling into the traps of techno-fundamentalism and pseudo-anonymity. She also spoke of the joy of finding romance online (which she insists she hasn’t done). The concept that resonated with me was the serendipity of the web: those happy accidents traditionally associated with the act of browsing in a rich medium like a library. Aleks has designed a serendipity engine and it is producing surprising results. No wonder she was named one of the “Top Ten Girl Geeks” by CNET in 2006.

Oh, and her cat has a twitter account too. (@spartapuss)

-- Alison, Grey Lynn Library

Untangling the Web : what the virtual revolution is doing to you  by Aleks Krotoski.

May 28, 2013

Kate Atkinson at AWRF 2013: "Life goes on"

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Life Goes On!

-- Janice Lowe, Epsom Library

May 27, 2013

Page Turning with Ramona Koval at AWRF 2013

Dubbed by The Times Literary Supplement "Australia's literary microphone mistress", the journalist Ramona Koval has written a book (By the book) in praise of the art of reading. -- From the AWRF 2013 brochure.

Not having lived in these latitudes long enough to have been acquainted with The Book Show and its star Ramona Koval, I ducked into this session more or less on a whim, after bumping into (literally) two librarians I'm fond of, who were happily queuing to see it, and told me why. A book (By the Book) in praise of the art of reading? I'll queue to that! Ramona Koval? Her as well! Ramona is the name of one of my all time favourite book characters, a strong early influence on my world view: Ramona Quimby, persistent, independent, exasperating, always wanting to know more than she needs to, and, of course, all round annoying little sister to Beezus.

But when Ramona Koval walked out, it was someone else she reminded me of, and it was... Colette! And no sooner had I realised that, than there she was telling the session chair Carole Beu of the Women's Bookshop (you might want to keep that in mind for later) that she loves Colette, that in fact on her computer she keeps a photo of "Colette at 83, with a cake".

Why don't you talk more about yourself in your book? asks Carole, perhaps sensing in the sharing of this confidence an aperture towards the personal. "Well," smiles Ramona, a bit sphinxlike, "The people with whom I've had arrangements are all still alive..." Now that is definitely not channelling Colette, who never let something like that stand in the way of a good story.

Ramona Koval

But what are the good stories, and why are they good? Here we were treated to some enjoyable skirmishing.
Carole: "I read women's fiction. You don't mention any of the women's fiction I've been reading in the last 20 years."

Ramona says that she likes to read any kind of book - for example, she has lately been reading about Robert Scott!

Carole, firmly: "I would never read a book about Robert Scott."

Ramona: "How about Marie Curie?"

Then we had:

Carole, commenting on Koval's book Speaking volumes: conversations with remarkable writers: "As the owner of the Women's Bookshop I couldn't help noticing that out of 29 writers, only 9 are women. Why is that?"

Ramona: "Well, I picked the best interviews, I don't know, maybe the women weren't as interesting."

Carole: "I'm constantly aware that the balance is skewed in the favour of men."

Ramona: "If somebody's written a book that chimes with me, I don't care who's written it."

Colette: "Women, men, Je m'en fous!" and takes a bite of cake.

Some of the 29 writers included, by the way, are John le Carré, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Amos Oz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jeanette Winterson, PD James, and Hanif Kureishi, who makes a "matter-of-fact revelation that he never reads a book beyond the first 100 pages". Now that chimes with me -- it happens to me, okay, not quite always, maybe two out of three books!

And now, from the series "Every miller draws water to his own mill":

The review of Speaking Volumes from which I gleaned the above information, the work of an Australian journalist named Anneli Wright, ends with this observation: "The single disappointment is the dearth of Australian writers represented among Koval’s handpicked selection of those she deems remarkable."

Take that, Ramona! (I don't think she will.)

May 25, 2013

The strangest bird at AWRF 2013

Carol from Information Services at Central City Library came away impressed with all she learned when she went to hear writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker Quinn Berentson talk about his book Moa : a history of our strangest bird. Here's her report.

Who would ever have thought that science could be so exciting? Like in a good mystery novel, intrigue, jealousy, controversy and intellectual property theft played a part in the discovery of the moa in the 19th century. And yes, there was also a villain, in the form of the esteemed English naturalist Professor Richard Owen.

In the intimate atmosphere of the Art Gallery auditorium, we were entertained by Quinn Berentson on how New Zealand's moa captured the imagination of the world. Through a series of illustrations we were told a very twisted tale of human frailty, rivalry and controversy.

It began with a small piece of bone given to a European trader by local Māori from the East Coast, with the accompanying story that it came from a monster bird which haunted the area in times past. The bone arrived in England and was handed to Professor Owen. Owen realised that such a small sample did not provide enough evidence to go on, but he realised that this was a momentous find. Because of the structure of the bone, it must have come from some sort of giant bird.

This was all happening during the era of scientific and philosophical debate regarding creation versus evolution… the time of great scientific discoveries and theories from the likes of Charles Darwin, and the discovery of fossils, proving that indeed giant monsters did roam the earth millions of years ago. Owen was introduced as an "evil professor", with a reputation for destroying his rivals and stealing their ideas. He had locked horns with Charles Darwin, and now argued with Gideon Mantell, a physician and obsessed amateur fossil collector. Mantell had come up with the idea of an "Age of Reptiles". True to form, Owen swept Mantell aside and made the official announcement himself. He coined the term 'dinosaur' (meaning terrible lizard) and became rich, successful and famous.

With more European exploration in New Zealand, more moa bones were discovered and duly shipped off to England, into the hands of Owen. The moa was officially 'discovered' on 19 January 1843, Owen naming it Dinornis novaezealandiae. For the general public of Europe, this was their first introduction to a place called New Zealand.

 Moa bones are not rare, and are found the length of New Zealand. Every large museum in the world has a collection of moa bones due to Julius Haast, who exported them worldwide. The moa can also boast that it was one of the first museum specimens to be photographed.

Although New Zealanders are now known as Kiwis, in the 19th century the moa was recognised as the symbol of our country. Illustrations of moa have appeared on stamps around the world, and there was a hilarious moment as Quinn showed a comic strip with Superman battling a moa.

Quinn concluded with current research findings. The 'youngest' moa bones are about 500 years old, and there is no definitive proof of when the moa actually became extinct. DNA testing has identified nine species of moa - three unique to the South Island. The many variations initially discovered may have actually been age and gender differences.

An intriguing final remark: the moa is actually at the top of the list of creatures that could be cloned and brought back to life. There has been sufficient DNA discovered to potentially do this.

I found the entire hour captivating. Drawing on his experience as a documentary maker, Quinn Berentson is an excellent storyteller, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of the book, which went on to win the Royal Society of New Zealand's Science Writing Prize. An announcement was made at the conclusion of the "Issues of Science" session later on Saturday.

-- Carol, Information Services Librarian 

An hour with Anita Desai at AWRF 2013

Doris, librarian at Birkenhead Library, went to hear Anita Desai, who counts among her many awards and honours the New York Public Library's "Literary Lion Award", which she received in 1993.

I thoroughly enjoyed this "Hour with Anita Desai". The turnout was excellent and the atmosphere was great. Michael Moynahan made it a conversation more than an interview, about growing up in India and touching a bit on her early work. Towards the end they talked about her latest book, The artist of disappearance, three novellas set in modern India.

I did not know that Anita’s first language was German and that she learned English at school. Later she chose English as her ‘literary language’. Writing must obviously run in the family because her daughter is Kiran Desai.

What a humble lady, softly spoken and proud to be Indian. She writes about what she knows best, living in India, family life in India, and being a woman in Indian society. I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

-- Doris Lindauer-Hullett

May 24, 2013

"Issues of Science" at AWRF 2013

Carol's portfolio as reference librarian at Central City Library includes the sciences, so who better than she to tell us about the "Issues of Science" session at AWRF 2013?

This session with Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, interviewed by Sean Plunket, replaced "Bad science, bad pharma" with Ben Goldacre, who unfortunately was not able to attend the festival. Gluckman, who is currently the Chairman of the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Committee, began the discussion with the comment that science has a central role in our future. Technology has led us to where we are (not always for good), but it is also the method for our solutions. First World countries need to be generators of knowledge for growth, and New Zealand also needs to do this - we are not going to get rich by selling milk!

 In a measured and logical way, Gluckman answered every question posed by Sean Plunket. The only time there was a hint of the discussion getting heated was on the topic of journalists. Most decisions in society are based on values, and they need to be made against the background of underlying knowledge. Science, Gluckman explained, is about reducing uncertainties, and the media play a game of balance and bias. Even if there is a majority of 99% agreement on an issue, the media have the need to include the 1% opinion as well. They also want to be commercial, so sell stories using controversy.

So how can we go down the track of science and still be competitive?

 Innovate! Most innovation occurs at the interplay between disciplines, through merging of ideas. For example, what won us the America's Cup? It was the capacity of New Zealand science to work together, with good engineering. New Zealand has the advantage of our small size to get interdisciplinary research working.

 It was also emphasized that we need more people trained in science; just like numeracy and literacy, it is a critical skill set. Everyone should be encouraged into science by removing the "boring bits" and gaining an informed understanding of the issues of the day using scientific principles.

Returning to the topic of scientists and journalists, Gluckman admitted that in the past, some scientists have been arrogant, with a patronising attitude. Scientists and technologists have mostly gotten into trouble when research has forged ahead and not told the public what they have been doing. Communication with the media tends to be about breakthrough stories. Scientists tend not to be good at communication, and the media needs to recruit reporters who are trained in science.

The event concluded with the announcement of the winner of the Royal Society of New Zealand's Science Book Prize for 2013. It was Moa : the life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird by Quinn Berentson.  Professor Sir Peter Gluckman commented, referring to the author Quinn Berentson, "Here is a scientist who could communicate and tell a story".

-- Carol, Information Services

May 23, 2013

Return of a King: William Dalrymple at AWRF 2013

"Return of a King" is the title of his book, of course, but it could also be a tagline for William Dalrymple at AWRF 2013, back after a star turn three years ago at AWRF 2010. Mt. Albert Library's Robin Whitworth, who was there then and now, found that custom did not stale his infinite variety of charm and erudition.

Speakers at the Festival possessed varying degrees of fluency in their delivery; sometimes my enjoyment of a session was marred by hesitancy, monotonous voice, etc. When William Dalrymple cast off his jacket and strolled out from behind the podium, in full possession of the stage, I knew I was in the presence of a natural performer. 

He delivered a rollicking and entertaining history lesson, displaying total mastery of his material. A history lesson which America and its allies have failed to heed in their current engagement in Afghanistan. In 1839 the British launched an offensive out of fear of an imminent Russian takeover, and installed a puppet ruler in Kabul. Through ghastly incompetence and hubris on the part of administrators, politicians and the military (not least of whom was ‘our’ Lord Auckland), who ignored all expert advice, the occupation ended after a mere eighteen months. A massive retreat resulted in the death of over 18,000 who either were slaughtered or froze to death in the wintry Khyber Pass. 

Dalrymple has made a name for himself as an expert on the history of India, with a number of titles such as The Last Mughal, City of Djinns, In Xanadu, Sacred India. He claims to be the only author who has risked sniper fire to research the Afghan sources for this, his latest work Return of a King: the battle for Afghanistan,1839-42. 

--  Robin Whitworth

"Living With Dementia": Dr. Helena Popovic at AWRF 2013

Louise from the Information Services team at Central City Library went to hear Dr. Helena Popovic talk with Kate De Goldi about living with dementia. She came away with a signed book and lots to think about. Here's her report:

I really enjoyed this thought-provoking hour. Dr. Helena is a brain specialist and author of In Search of My Father: dementia is no match for a daughter's determination, while Kate De Goldi's latest book is a novel that references dementia, The ACB with Honora Lee. Dr. Helena and Kate are both daughters of dementia sufferers. They compared notes about their shared experiences of having parents with dementia and a lot of what they were saying rang true for me, as I also have a mother suffering from dementia.

Dr. Helena's book is about the journey she has had with her father. She is the founder and CEO of Choose Health - Better Living for Busy People, which is a company committed to reigniting people's zest and vitality for life and work. "Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia in the Western world and vascular dementia is the second most common". This statement by Dr. Helena was very poignant for me as my ninety year old mother is suffering from a mixture of both of them.

Another interesting statement that Dr. Helena made about her father is "He doesn't remember that he doesn't remember". I can absolutely relate to this!

Dr. Helena talked about things that we can all do to improve our brain function and reduce the risk of dementia. As a doctor involved with the care of her father, she decided to apply the same principles to him to see if it would make a difference. The three main things that we can all do are: physical exercise, social stimulation and mental stimulation. To follow on from this, Dr. Helena said "Getting exercise and social stimulation halves the chance of getting dementia". A lack of social stimulation and depression are the biggest risk factors for women, while strokes are the biggest risk factor for men. Something to think about…

Also, having a handful of walnuts and a handful of blueberries every day can apparently also help keep dementia away.

Kate's novel is based in a dementia care facility. Like Dr. Helena, both her parents have or had dementia, so her novel draws on the experiences that she and her sisters have had.

I purchased Dr. Helena's book that she signed for me and I very much look forward to reading it.

-- Louise, Information Services

May 21, 2013

Fifty Shades of WTF at AWRF 2013

Angela from Readers Services was interested in the Fifty Shades phenomenon and went to see what she could find out at "Fifty Shades of WTF".   Here's her story:

I went to hear New Zealand author Nicky Pellegrino talk with former editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly Sarah Stuart, Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka and New Zealand author Eleanor Catton about the publishing phenomenon known as 50 Shades of Grey.

The BDSM-themed 50 Shades of Grey trilogy by author E. L. James has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide since it was first  published in 2011. Interestingly, it started out as fan-fiction of the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer, and E. L. James changed the names of the characters and reworked the story before it was published.

I had read and enjoyed the Twilight series for what it was, but having read the first 50 Shades of Grey book I was annoyed by the obvious similarities, not in plot but in the characters. Thus I was really interested to hear what the panel had to say and I was not disappointed, as I found the discussion informative, thought-provoking and quite amusing at times.

Shehan Karunatilaka had only read the book for the panel and showed us his brown paper-covered copy, which he had been too embarrassed to read openly in public. He decided to look at the book as porn and a fantasy, and from that perspective, he didn’t think it was that bad. Yes, the character of Christian Grey is incredibly unrealistic – ‘a 27-year old gorgeous billionaire, who flies helicopters and plays the piano at midnight’ and the protagonist is a blank slate whom the reader can project themselves onto, but he thought it was perfectly targeted at its audience, just like Twilight was perfectly targeted towards its audience, teenage girls.

Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton enjoyed the book much more than the Twilight series, she thought the relationship between the two main characters was a healthier and more adult relationship than that of Edward and Bella in Twilight, which she believed was very damaging.

Nicky Pellegrino, on the other hand, had enjoyed Twilight and the relationship in those books and felt the relationship between Christian and Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey was disturbing and unbalanced.

Sarah Stuart saw the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon as positive in allowing women to indulge their sexual fantasies. She thought it was great that women were talking to each other about erotica and that it had become acceptable for women to read it and talk about it. It was also brought up that many women over the age of 50, and even of retirement age, were reading it, to the surprise of some.

Overall, the panel surprised me. Except for the moderator Nicky Pellegrino, the other three panelists had generally positive things to say about the book, to the consternation of some in the audience going by the questions afterwards. Some questions referenced the relationship between the two main characters, which mirrored all the warning signs of an abusive relationship as suggested by Women’s Refuge. Another audience member was concerned about the implications for feminism, but Eleanor Catton said that as an author, there’s nothing you can do about how your work is perceived by others, you put it out there and from then on people make their own interpretations of it.

I felt that the panel looked at the book and defended it mainly from an author’s perspective, which is fair enough, as they are authors. It was a very entertaining hour and I was glad to have been there for this fantastic discussion on the publishing phenomenon of 2012.

-- Angela Kitt

CK Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw at AWRF 2013: "Our monied world"

Tricia from Collections went to hear a famous father and daughter, both with a talent for fiction and recently published novels with one-word titles.

What an interesting session, both humorous and informative. I was not sure what to expect and the smaller Lower NZI room lent itself to creating an intimate living room atmosphere as we were introduced to father and daughter CK Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw by chair Steve Braunias.

CK Stead
CK Stead is one of New Zealand’s finest writers. He publishes across several disciplines, fiction, poetry, short story, essay and criticism.  Charlotte Grimshaw is a critically acclaimed fiction writer and an award-winning reviewer.

This was the first time they appeared together on the same stage. Charlotte did not want to be seen as using her father's influence to succeed and was committed to gaining recognition through her own literary efforts. She grew up in an inescapable ‘writing’ environment where intellectual debate and involvement in political events were encouraged. She did complete a Law degree and practised as a lawyer before following her own pathway to a career with the written word.

We were informed that it was a pure coincidence that their recently published novels both draw on the worlds of money, politics and contemporary society.

Published in 2012, CK Stead’s novel Risk is set in London in 2002 and looks at the world through the eyes of a recently divorced New Zealander who is working in the world of finance. No stranger to controversy, Stead set his book in an era of decline for the ‘Western’ empire, and focuses on a society where lies, greed and lack of morality prevail.

Charlotte’s novel Soon, also published in 2012, follows the characters of The night book which came out in 2010. It focuses on wealth and the political scene, looking at character, morality and the extent to which individuals are responsible for their own actions. In all likelihood we can look forward to another novel following the characters in The night book and Soon.

Father and daughter are justifiably proud of each other's achievements and it was a privilege to listen to their collective and individual passion for creating powerful fictional landscapes.

-- Tricia Alexander

Remarkable Women at AWRF: Aorewa McLeod, Memé Churton, Jacqueline Fahey.

Ana from Readers Services was enthralled by a trio of "Remarkable Women"
Three feisty women who have made their own destiny and have had very eventful lives. Some things they have in common, but they are also very different. The three came together for a fascinating and entertaining presentation at the Auckland Readers & Writers Festival.
Aorewa McLeod
Aorewa McLeod is a lesbian academic and poet. She taught for forty years at the University of Auckland.  Although she doesn’t look the shy type, she says she was very much so and had a bad case of nerves (she didn’t put it quite like that) before each of her lectures for 10 years.
Memé Churton’s memoirs read like a novel, although it’s all true.  Half-Italian, half-Chinese, she grew up in Trieste and came to New Zealand in 1950 when there wasn’t anybody here: “The streets were deserted”. She believes in “destiny”, and married a New Zealand soldier.
Jacqueline Fahey
Jacqueline Fahey is a painter, who inspires us through her work. She married Fraser McDonald and has written two memoirs, but she paints constantly. She doesn’t like to talk about “destiny”, thinks that’s a romantic idea. She “made her own destiny”.
Aorewa went to live in England and worked there as a nurse - aid, but returned to New Zealand to take care of her elderly mother. Her “destiny” would have been completely different if she hadn’t.
Memé had a lot of men friends constantly pursuing her; Jacqueline says she was the girl that boys took to parties when they wanted to give their mother a fright, but that, as was “very typical” in those days, she was a virgin for a long time. Aorewa, on the other hand, notes she was “constantly having sex” through the 1960’s. 
Memé Churton 
At one stage, the talk turned to dress and food. Memé dressed in Christian Dior, while Jacqueline claimed to spend 80 per cent of her time in gumboots. Aorewa was in England,and being colonial, had the advantage that nobody knew where she came from so she wasn’t cold-shouldered for her clothes. She was independent and washed her “smalls” regularly.

Memé's likings: coffee, smokes, and prosciutto, and when you are around her, these are always on hand.  Jacqueline once worked in a coffee shop, was put in charge of the espresso machine and not being a practical person, wrecked it. While Meme smoked, Jacqueline drank. Aorewa drank too, because she says there was nowhere to meet but in the pubs.               
Three remarkable women who entertained us for one hour with their stories. They are all very different but what they have in common is their individuality and love for life.
When you read their books: Memé : the three worlds of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander by Memé Churton,  Something for the birds and Before you forget both by Jacqueline Fahey and Who was that woman anyway?: snapshots of a lesbian life by Aorewa McLeod you’ll learn more fascinating things about them.
-- Ana Worner

Pankaj Mishra: The Ruins of Empire

Pankaj Mishra writes fiction, travel, literary and political essays and his work has been published in a number of international journals including The New York Times and The Guardian.  Emma from Birkenhead Library reports on hearing him at AWRF 2013, in conversation with Damon Salesa.

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, From the ruins of Empire: the intellectuals who remade Asia, is about the people whose ideas were instrumental in bringing Asia back from subjugation suffered under Western imperialism.   This was the subject of this session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Mishra spoke to Damon Salesa of how his book follows the intellectuals who are not mentioned or acknowledged in histories of nation states (formed by drawing “lines in the sand” -- Mishra) or in those histories that trace the rise and fall of Western colonialism.  The people in his book travelled widely across Asia and Europe in the early twentieth century, exchanging ideas, working out how to regain self-respect and to empower Asian interests.  Jamal al-Din al-Afghani from Persia, the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao, and Rabindranath Tagore the Bengali poet, were cosmopolitans who influenced later Asian political leaders.

In this session, Mishra also spoke of the way that historical narrative can shape politics, and cited the “new imperialist fantasy” perpetuated by the media, politicians and even some intellectuals, which has led to attempts to remake the Middle East by military force.  As William Dalrymple pointed out at an earlier session, the cost of this is astronomical, and if the money for bombs went instead towards schools, the outcome would be a whole lot better.

Although I nearly fell asleep in this session, I was listening!  It was just warm in the auditorium, I was tired, and the subject matter was quite intellectual.  But it was also extremely interesting and I was inspired to read more of Mishra’s work. 

I will definitely be reading this book.  

-- Emma Chapman

May 20, 2013

Rosemary McLeod at AWRF 2013: "The Secret Life of Aprons"

Georgia from Sir George Grey Special Collections at Central City Library reports on Rosemary McLeod's talk for the Weekend Gallery series.

Not long after I bought an old crochet blanket from a junk shop in Dargaville, I read Rosemary McLeod's first book about women's needlework called Thrift and fantasy. There I saw a picture of my blanket and felt immediately justified in my desire to rescue it! One of the pleasures of the book, and of its successor, the newly published With bold needle and thread : adventures in vintage needlecraft,  is the way Rosemary McLeod pays tribute to the ordinary women, including her mother and other family members, who made decorative items out of ordinary objects in the period before women joined the workforce.

Her talk "The secret life of aprons" focussed on the aprons from her extensive textile collection. She showed us pictures of aprons, all decorated with imagery which revealed the domestic lives of women from the 1920s to the 1960s. Some of the themes she covered were "wishing and hoping", "getting him", "keeping him interested", and "beyond the cottage door". These themes were approached with wit and humour, as you would expect from a columnist and cartoonist with an eye for social absurdities, but behind the laughter was a large fund of affectionate respect for the women, their lives and their creative work. As she said, people used to be embarrassed by these objects, seeing them as signs of women's repression, but now she wants us to celebrate them and their makers.

Many of the projects she stitched for With bold needle and thread: adventures in vintage needlecraft  are on show at Objectspace in Ponsonby Road until June 8th. They are well worth a visit!

-- Georgia Prince

May 18, 2013

Jackie Kay at AWRF 2013

Jackie Kay is a poet and author who was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. She and her brother were adopted by a couple of Scottish communists (who had met in New Zealand of all places) and raised in Glasgow. "My parents were very open about us being adopted," she tells us. "Well, they'd have to be, because we were a different colour."

Spirit and humour is something Jackie Kay seems to brim over with. Arriving on stage together with Stephanie Johnson (who chaired beautifully), she announces that she's going to read us a poem, but that rather than do it from one of the twin armchairs, she has decided to stand at the lectern because she'd noticed while listening to other speakers that "at the lectern you're framed by these nice flowers" -- breezily waving her hand at the two green giant palmettos rearing up behind her.

But the stories she tells are poignant. She goes to the town in Nigeria where her birth father came from and feels she recognises it. "I believe we can carry other people's memories in our DNA", she says, but then a minute later she is saying "Perhaps it was just me wanting to belong to that land which was my father's who had abandoned me".

Still later, she says "We can be defined by our losses, our griefs," she says. "People can be haunted by absences. To the point that an absence can be a sort of presence".

And one more thing is there along with the wit and wistfulness: courage. She talks about growing up in Britain in the '60s, being called a "darkie" even by a friend, and then about being a black, lesbian poet in Britain during the early '90s, a very strange time, she says, a time of extreme politics. "You had to hold your nerve". A white supremacist poster went up declaring Jackie Kay a "degenerate Irish Catholic wog", with razor blades concealed behind it so that if you tried to pull it down you'd get your fingers sliced.

She laughs. "I don't know where they got Irish Catholic from!"

In her latest book, she tells us, she had felt like creating interesting older women characters, as too often "they tend to disappear". She reads us a piece which is about an old woman in a nursing home. "These are not my clothes." the woman tells the attendant when she is helped to dress in the morning, when she is taken to a lounge and parked by the window, when she is taken to the dining room. I thought I was listening to a poem, quite a long one, I remember thinking, but I liked it. It turned out that I had missed the fact that the book Reality, reality was a collection of short stories, not of poems, which says something about the expressiveness of Kay's writing.

At question time, someone asks her to name her favourite poet. "Robert Burns", she responds immediately, and then adds Pablo Neruda, contemporary Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and the last century Scottish poet Hugh Macdiarmid. "I like New Zealand poetry too", she says. "Fleur Adcock, Bill Manhire, Lauris Edmond."

She had started the hour with a poem about friendship (poems are often written about love, she says, but not often about friendship) which she introduced by saying that she had read it "at the Robert Burns Supper in Sri Lanka". Everyone laughed to hear this, including Jackie. "The haggis was flown in", she said.

Here's the poem. it's called "Fiere", a Scottish word meaning "friend".


    If ye went tae the tapmost hill, Fiere,
    Whaur we used tae clamb as girls,
    Ye'd see the snow the day, Fiere,
    Settling on the hills.
    You'd mind o' anither day, mibbe,
    We ran doon the hill in the snow,
    Sliding and singing oor way tae the foot,
    Lassies laughing thegither - how braw.
    The years slipping awa; oot in the weather.

    And noo we're suddenly auld, Fiere,
    Oor friendship's ne'er been weary.
    We've aye seen the wurld differently.
    Whaur would I hae been weyoot my jo,
    My fiere, my fiercy, my dearie O?
    Oor hair micht be silver noo,
    Oor walk a wee bit doddery,
    But we've had a whirl and a blast, girl,
    Thru' the cauld blast winter, thru spring, summer.

    O'er a lifetime, my fiere, my bonnie lassie,
    I'd defend you - you, me; blithe and blatter,
    Here we gang doon the hill, nae matter,
    past the bracken, bothy, bonny braes, barley.
    Oot by the roaring Sea, still havin a blether.
    We who loved sincerely; we who loved sae fiercely.
    The snow ne'er looked sae barrie,
    Nor the winter trees sae pretty.
    C'mon, c'mon my dearie - tak my hand, my fiere!

What a great line that is, "My fiere, my fiercy, my dearie O".  Jackie Kay didn't translate "fiercy" for us, but I think we can guess.

I wanted to buy one of her books, but the line was long and I was in a hurry, so I gave up the idea. Later, coming out of another session and stopping for a moment in the midst of the crowd to think about where I needed to be next, I saw a familiar face right in front of me: it was Jackie Kay, in the act of signing a book for someone. A disappointed "Oh!" escaped me as I realised what a missed opportunity it was,

She turned and smiled at me. "Did you want me to sign a book ?" I explained my predicament -- the store was halfway across the foyer and I could see a ring of customers around it two or three deep. "Oh go and get it!" she said. "I'll wait!" And she did. On my return, I passed the PR homing in to take her to wherever she had to be next. But first she signed my copy of Red Dust Road, her memoir about looking for her birth inheritance.

Not just with her signature. She also put "To Karen", which I didn't tell her but she read off my lanyard, and "All best to you". And then this fiere, this fiercy, was off.

Wayne Macauley at AWRF 2013

Sue from Central Library went to hear Australian novelist Wayne Macauley talk with Simon Wilson about his work.  Here's what she learned:

I was curious to meet the author behind the darkly humorous novel The Cook. Are authors ever as we imagined they would be in the flesh? Do we read the blurb of the book then flick to the back inside cover of the dust jacket to see the face behind the words, returning again once we have finished the book, to see if their image somehow matches what we imagined it would?

Wayne Macauley is a well-established writer and, it has to be said, his writing style is dark and sardonic, examining the subtle cruelties of human nature that will emerge given the right circumstance of emotional duress. I've only encountered Macauley's one novel The Cook prior to attending this session at the Writers and Readers Festival, so I am curious to learn a little more about him. Especially given that the aforementioned work, published in 2011, satirises the cult of celebrity chefs and the burgeoning mass of reality television, tracking the trials and tribulations of wannabe "master chefs" as they slavishly compete against one another to be the surviving contender.

syndetics-lcThe first most fundamental fact about Macauley is that he has absolutely no culinary interest whatsoever, really that was just a vehicle for him to explore the murky underbelly of the 'dream' of fame and fortune open to those who want it badly enough. Certainly I didn't find my digestive juices stirred about reading The Cook, in fact vegetarianism seemed like quite an attractive option for some time afterwards.

Macauley acknowledges that there is a common thread of subverting dominant myths of our society that runs through all his work. His inspiration is triggered by prising apart the rhetoric of the working class hero, and imagining what other realities might exist behind the surface layer of rhetoric that is endlessly reproduced by society. This lends a subversive feel to Macauley's writing and a playful yet increasingly ominous feel as the text progresses, revealing motivations and desires, whether individually or corporately drive, that are less than pure.

I learn that Macauley keeps within his sight line a quote about "setting the bar too high" which drives his work. In adopting this ethos, Macauley believes his work exceeds mediocrity, as a more modest goal might produce less engaging work. In the process of setting himself challenges in his writing practice, Macauley keeps himself mentally focused, keeping boredom, which he believes is every writer's archnemesis, at bay.

Within the hour session we are treated to a brief synopsis of his two other novels, and I find myself thinking that if you were emotionally fragile it would surely be masochistic to read all three back to back. One should perhaps clear the literary palate between texts. Given that it has been a good two years since I read The Cook, I feel I am ready to look up his earlier books, to be sandwiched in between something a little more upbeat.

-- Sue, Central Library

May 17, 2013

Jane Tolerton and the "Boys at War" at AWRF 2013

Fiona Martin, Libraries Advisor, Service Development, went to hear journalist Jane Tolerton, author of a new book which draws on her first-hand interviews with veterans of the Great War.

A collection of oral histories recorded 33 years ago by Jane Tolerton for the Stout Collection at Victoria University and the Turnbull Archive was aching to be made into a book, particularly with the World War I centenary falling next year.  She has revisited those recordings and the photographs of the contributors, the result being the wonderful ‘An awfully big adventure:  New Zealand World War One veterans tell their stories.’

With an average age of 90 at the time of being interviewed, the veterans were at a point in their lives when they wanted to tell their stories, not to just anyone who would listen, only to anyone who was really interested.  For many of them, this was the first time they had explained what their war experience was actually like, having maintained a stoic silence to family and friends since their return.  The stories, illustrated by photographs of them as soldiers, and again as old men, ranged from the horrific, a man who was injured and left to die among a pile of corpses at Gallipoli until a family friend saw his foot twitch and rescued him, to the bittersweet, “All I thought was, I’m going to die, and I’ve never slept with a woman.”  

All the interviewees had volunteered to fight -- conscription only began in 1916 -- as at the time New Zealand saw itself as a vital part of the Empire, determined to punch above its weight.  This was evidenced by the huge numbers of ‘our boys’ who died either on the field, or of their injuries once the war was over.  The friendly banter between Australian and New Zealand soldiers was reinforced by mutual respect, camaraderie and an independent streak, particularly towards authority, each considering the other as ‘tough’, both mentally and physically, as opposed to the English soldiers who were young, weaker and unquestioningly obedient to their superiors. 

The author takes us to the Sinai-Palestine campaign, Chunuk Bair, Armentières and of course Gallipoli and Passchendaele.  The duplicity of the New Zealand media is exposed – newspapers reported only positive news, implying that the boys were having a jolly good time ‘over there’.  New Zealand and Australia remained in blissful ignorance of the trauma and deprivation experienced by everyone in Europe, so when they returned home, the men could not share their experiences with family and friends as they would not understand, and quite possibly, would prefer not to know.   

Jane Tolerton allowed the men to talk for themselves during the session, and it felt as though we were with each of them in their sitting room, hearing first-hand about the pranks, the lice, the trenches, the laughter and the tears.   

-- Fiona Martin

May 16, 2013

Opening night at AWRF 2013: Great show!

New Zealand Listener Gala Night is the official name of the event which launched a thousand AWRF sessions -- well, maybe not a thousand exactly but lots, plenty for everyone, I'd say, even with two superstar events, the lunch with Sir Max Hastings and the concert by Leonard Cohen biographer, journalist and rock chick Sylvie Simmons plus New Zealand's own Don McGlashan, sold out. At the Opening Night party a number of tales were being told of the machinations and subterfuges being used by frustrated Cohen-Simmons-McGlashan fans attempting to procure a place at the latter. I'm not sure if Max Hastings fans were doing the same; they might be thinking of just walking on in, as Sir Max famously walked on in to Argentine-occupied Port Stanley ahead of the British troops during the Falklands war.

The Book Council's True Stories Told Live format was reprised for this AWRF 2013 Gala Night, an infinitely superior choice to those serial 10 minute readings which were always so unsatisfying. The storytelling is... I was about to start hunting for a suitably enthusiastic word when I remembered that tonight they had actually all been used by Carol Hirschfeld. Wild, wooly, serious, frivolous, entertaining, provoking ... and that was just during her introduction -- her wrap up had again as many. The adjective which at least for me was the most significant of all, she practically threw away. "Eight writers are here to share a personal story -- " pause, reload -- "personal and true, inspired by the theme An Open Book."

And they were all true, you could tell, while at the same time being such stories, which has to be different than being true, although not exclusively so, of course.

Scottish poet Jackie Kay's story was about meeting her Nigerian, bible-toting (in a plastic bag!) biological father for the first time and realising that the only thing they had in common was their toes.

Peter Bland told of living for years with a father who existed only in a photo, taken in Africa, showing a strapping young man with his foot on an elephant, presumably dead, and then one day coming home to find "an old, fat, bald man sitting there -- my Dad".

Shehan Karunatilaka was an unknown to me, a Sri Lankan novelist who landed in Whanganui with his family as a boy. It wasn't easy being a Sri Lankan in Whanganui twenty years ago. His story took place in 1990, when he was 15, depressed and despondent, spending his time alternately crying and masturbating. Send me a sign, he asked God, who dropped a copy of Mayfair magazine in his path in reply. In the magazine, as well as the girlie photo stuff there was an article about the Police, his favourite rock group, which sent him off to Whanganui Library for a biography of Sting mentioned in the article. And what followed that was Lolita, The Sheltering Sky and the rest is history, as they say. "The book that changes your life doesn't have to be Moby Dick", he said. "It can be an old Mayfair magazine, stuck-together pages and all."

 Demonstrating a flair for the obsessive, Carlos Ruiz Zafón had hunted down a bookstore called "Acres of Books" in his adopted city of Los Angeles, because it had been recommended by Ray Bradbury. It contained a place called The Fiction Annex where you needed a flashlight just to find your way. Was it the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Who knows...

And that fantastic Fast talking PI poet, Selina Tusitala Marsh, was as always sharp, funny and loving: "I didn't grow up in a house with books", she began. "The Bible, the phone book... but the first open book in my parent's house was my PhD thesis -- being used as a doorstop".

Everyone will have had their favourite line, of course, and mine was Stephanie Johnson's almost Raymond Chandleresque opener (her hair style very Lauren Bacall to boot), "You reach an age when you are to yourself an open book".

An auspicious start to a long weekend full of good stories about books. Festival Director Anne O'Brien calculates that there are 150 "writers and thinkers" appearing, and not all at a cost. The Festival has way more free events than ever before, including readings sessions every afternoon. The full programme is here. Auckland Libraries staff will be out in force at the Festival of course, and giving you the lowdown here on Books in the City.

However you decide to do it, if you're a reader you owe it to yourself to sample the wares. As Anne O'Brien promised the faithful tonight, "Seduction is waiting for you around every corner". Or was that what Sylvie Simmons said when she was talking about her days as a rock journalist in the '70s, adding, "Not going to happen, you knew where it'd been".

April 18, 2013

Two American classics hit the screen

What I'd be doing right now if I lived in San Francisco:  I'd be heading off to The San Francisco International Film Festival to see "Big Sur", the film version of Jack Kerouac's later autobiographical novel, the one set not in the fired-up we'll be young forever days of On the road, but when the road of excess was leading, more than to the palace of wisdom, to the palace of misery and delirium tremens, in this case a lonely cabin in Big Sur.

I should say here that I haven't seen last year's film version of On the Road, even though there are lots of copies at the library. I just assumed -- because I've seen it happen so often -- that no actor of this period could be Dean Moriarty or Sal Paradise for me, that they would always look like models for The Gap, which actually did use that famous photo of Jack Kerouac in Greenwich Village for one of their ads.


(thanks to Dan Colman on the Open Culture website for this, and for the great line "As for what happened in Kerouac’s grave, we can only conjecture".)

And then, how to ignore the warning in Andrew O'Hagan's recent and very interesting piece "Jack Kerouac: Crossing the line"  in The New York Review of Books about Kerouac-inspired movies  (and about Joyce Johnson's book The voice is all: the lonely victory of Jack Kerouac), which compares the movie "On the Road", for depth of spiritual involvement, to "The Real Housewives of Orange County"? The truth is, the "On the Road" movie I'd like to see is the one Jack Kerouac wanted to see made, with Marlon Brando -- and this was Brando in his "Wild One" period -- as Dean Moriarty, and Jack himself, who was Sal Paradise, as Sal Paradise.

"Big Sur" has a fantastic trailer and I can't swear to it from seeing a trailer but I get the feeling that Jack Kerouac would not be turning in his grave, and might even have liked it. The San Francisco website sfist named it one of their top festival picks and said "[director] Polish’s seventh collaboration with cinematographer M. David Mullen yields spectacular results both in the paradise on earth that is Big Sur and in San Francisco where locations include Tenderloin tenements, City Lights Bookstore and Tosca in only the third screen adaptation of one of Kerouac's books and one that proves that the writer's dense, language-driven novels can, indeed, be gloriously cinematic."

Gloriously cinematic, that's for me. Not to mention the effect of hearing the names of all those places of the heart.

Here's the trailer:

There's another work by a great American writer, one who, like Kerouac, became himself a story as important as any of the stories he wrote, which has also just been turned into a movie. Did you guess it? It's F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I say "Did you guess it?" as a bit of a disclaimer, as I'm sure everyone knows about this movie, if only because it stars two famous actors, neither of whom look like Gap ads and both of whom are favourites of mine, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. Here's the trailer for it, with a non-jazz age soundtrack which is outrageously suited, and Leonardo in great Gatsby-esque form:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

If you love great last lines in literature, add this one from The Great Gatsby to your collection, if it's not already there.

And for anyone who enjoys book cover art from the past...

A set of Big Sur covers on flickr  
A set of  Great Gatsby covers from Paste magazine

From the library:

The Great Gatsby  the book, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Big Sur    the book, by Jack Kerouac

On the Road    the book, by Jack Kerouac
On the Road    the movie, by Walter Salles

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