May 30, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Peter McLeavey

Guest post by David Ashman, Preservation Manager, Auckland Libraries


I chose '08 - Peter McLeavey' from the programme of AWF events because I have worked with Jill Trevelyan, author of Peter McLeavey: the life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, and I had met Peter on a couple occasions and felt drawn to attend out of curiosity, conviviality and a sense of allegiance.

Rhana Devenport
What I hadn't realised until I had made my way down to the burrows of the Aotea Centre was that it was a panel discussion that included artists John Reynolds and Yvonne Todd and was chaired by Auckland Art Gallery Director Rhana Devenport.

What ensued was a lively and insightful discussion among three people who know Peter well, hold him in high regard and carry a swag load of affection and respect for the man.

This affection didn't prevent revealing Peter's sometimes less than flattering dark side, though it never steered into sensationalism or offensiveness.

It was revealed that Peter liked to be in control to the extent that you didn't buy art from Peter, he sold it to you, if he wanted to. John recounted his own story about having decided he wanted to buy a particular artwork by Laurence Aberhart and being taken by surprise to find himself negotiating with Peter for the right to write a cheque and bring the work back to Auckland.

John Reynolds
The panel continued in this vein with their own personal anecdotes, fond memories and sometimes bizarre stories that conjured up a picture of a man who was generous in his support of artists, committed to New Zealand art, and who had an idiosyncratic approach to business.

The session had begun with a clip from the documentary from a few years back called 'The Man in a Hat' and it ended with another tantalising glimpse from that documentary of a man not just in a hat, but also wearing a warm, thick and comfortable cloak of mana.

All three panelists and the chair provided an entertaining and highly informative hour that came to a close all too quickly and left me wanting to delve deeper into Peter's story; for that I will need to read Jill Trevelyan's highly regarded book.

And just when it all seemed to be over, a member of the audience stood up and revealed that he was Peter's nephew. As if to confirm Peter's need to be in control he recounted the story of how as an eighteen-year-old he had announced he would like to be an Art Dealer, like Uncle Peter. His mother telephoned her brother and asked if he would take Paul on and show him the ropes, as it were. There was a moment's silence, then Peter said he would call him when he was ready -- thirty-five years later, Paul still hasn't received the call.

May 29, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "May We Be Forgiven" with A.M. Homes, chaired by Paula Morris

Guest post by Campbell, Readers Services, Central City Library.


I’m here to see A M Homes speak; I’ve recently read two of her books. I’m not late, but the lights are off and the room is almost full. Naturally people take the end seats first and I navigate around people’s legs and bags to get to a seat by the left wall. I stand on somebody's bag and feel something squish beneath my step. I spill some water on some lady. I am sorry. I’m doing my best. She is on stage already, dressed head to foot in shades of black, her white skin is not tan but not pale, a generous helping of brown hair is thrown this way and that. A yellow dot floats over one cheek. Sitting with her on stage is Paula, in a black and white stripy skirt. Paula wants to talk about Jewishness. Her theory about the title of the book is wrong. The stage behind them is all black and orange, the festival colours. They talk about Scarlett Johannsen suing a French author, then talk about having a cold. She gestures with her hands, linking her fingers, holding hands with herself, touching her fingertips together flinging her hands outward. She is super confident, super relaxed and super healthy. She invites the entire audience to an artistic retreat just out of New York. I want to go. People are still coming in, they are missing the gold. The rare empty seats are filling up around me. A man behind me is obviously annoyed that I am using my phone as a light to take notes, I put my finger over the light and write in the muted red glow, it is just enough. She tells jokes. One falls completely flat but she turns the failure into a joke, this gets a laugh. She talks about being adopted and jokes that she is still up for adoption, one person sitting close behind laughs loudly. She drops names. She talks about her memoir, says it was like picking at a scab every day. It felt awful but she came out of it feeling like she’d had a massive therapy session. I would say that sounds accurate. She reads a passage from the latest book. I know the book and remember the scene. It involves a surprise orgy at laser tag. It’s a good scene. She reads quickly, in short stops and starts, only looks to her left. She is different when she reads. Later she says ‘in America we like to pretend things didn’t happen’. She talks about America. They translate very few books. Her books are not popular there.

A.M. Homes

May 28, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "The Conquest of Everest" with Huw Lewis-Jones

Guest post by Doreen, Community Outreach, Central City Library.


Everest.

One word is all most of us need and we can see the photographic images of that famous mountain.

syndetics-lcWhat a story Lewis-Jones had to tell. Those times he spent with George Lowe while researching and gathering information to put the book together. He had a captive audience, as we all enjoyed his humour and the personal stories of the journey which was the making of his book The conquest of Everest: original photographs from the legendary first ascent.

When the photographer on the trip of 1953 became ill, Lowe was available to take on the role (although he had no previous experience), giving him some wonderful photographing opportunities. He was in the lead going up for much of the climb, ensuring the possibility of the famous shots of Hillary and Tenzing from a higher location and then looking up to take the photos of that famous descent from the summit. Capturing those everyday moments where opportunities presented themselves, George Lowe was the invisible man on the trip, taking his place behind, rather than in front of the camera.

Having done the Base Camp trek last year, I can understand the attraction that the region holds. The Khumba glacier, the glorious mountains every which way, the enormity of it all. Walking through the rhododendrums, many still in flower in May. The journey is the people, the views, the experience is too precious to miss.

The final photo in the book is of great interest to me. The Himalayan Trust was to be set up by George Lowe and Ed Hillary to support Sherpa, after finding their guides and friends who had featured in the photo had become ill and passed away, having not had access to medicine. I always remember the endings and I felt the mood change when we were reminded that these feats would not have been possible without the Sherpa. There were murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Huw, you held us in the palm of your hand right until the very end. What an adventure!

Huw Lewis-Jones (photo by Nigel Millard, New York, 2010)

May 26, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "A Question of Civilisations" with Jim Al-Khalili, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Reza Aslan

Guest post by Emma, Birkenhead Library.


“Nothing is black and white...”

…was the message from entertaining and engaging physicist Jim Al-Khalili; serious journalist and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi; and scholar of religions (and interesting numbers man) Reza Aslan, at the “Question of Civilisations” discussion at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Jim Al-Khalili (Furnace Ltd)
Reza Aslan

Yasmine El Rashidi

Get these diverse people together, and what emerged was a very broad discussion. So much so, that at first I wondered if they would even be able to talk about the same thing. The panelists’ first comments were rather disparate. However as the discussion swirled, there arose interesting insights – all pieces in a puzzle that was the picture of this talk.

Why has Arabian scientific study not continued into the present? Al-Khalili is looking forward to a scientific Arab spring, but in the meantime, what is going on in the Arab/Middle Eastern world? This is a place that the media portrays as violent and full of religious extremists, but which once was at the forefront of world learning.

“Middle Easterners have very long memories.” (Aslan). All panelists saw the colonial experience as a major reason for both the loss of the canon of learning and in subsequently “rattling identity” (El Rashidi), making young people today determined to define themselves and their futures on their own terms. The sense of inferiority to the West is shifting and social media has assisted this process. I was surprised to hear how young this part of the world is: Aslan gave the numbers. Median age in Yemen is 18 years, in Syria it is 24. (Compare to the USA - 37, and NZ - 35). Lots of aspiration and determination are likely there, then.

People affected by colonialism in the relatively recent past react against it and resist the Christianising mission by becoming religious (Aslan), also, looking back to religion is one way to reclaim shaky identity (El Rashidi). Aslan also pointed out that Iran has never been colonised, and so people have a stronger identity there than in somewhere like Egypt.

While becoming strongly religious is one way to reject colonialism, it is not universal. Al-Khalili told of his father being shocked at the young women who choose to veil themselves in his presence. However, covering is not equal to powerlessness. El Rashidi gave examples of women running the show, dealing the stock market and taking care of the money in Kuwaiti families. The need to survive, she says, empowers women to take action. Nor is Islam equal to human rights abuses – remember that one third of the world's Moslems live in democratic or progressive nations. As the atheist Al-Khalili said, some things are just basically wrong, no matter what your culture.

The message from all panelists was, I think, that a more subtle and nuanced view is necessary to look at what makes people seek/reclaim a stronger identity. It differentiates between {religion and culture}, which is when people turn to religion as a means to express their cultural roots, and {religious nationalism} which is when religion governs politics.

The other message was of the harsh economic reality for many people in the region. El Rashidi lives in Egypt and had many first-hand accounts of economic necessity driving people’s choices and actions. She observed early in the discussion that the emphasis on extremism masks the economic struggle that drives people. Aslan thankfully picked up this point near the end of the session. People need foremost to survive, but also to have opportunities to pursue their aspirations. While some nations (The Gulf States) are now incredibly wealthy from oil revenue (as Al-Khalili says, “Why don’t they help out?”), others are struggling.

So, youth reclaiming/redefining identity amidst economic struggle…blurred, nuanced reality. The skill is to see through the commercial media storytelling, which often gives an unbalanced, sensationalist or stereo-typed view.

Nothing is black and white.

May 23, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "The Great Avian Chase" with Brent Stephenson

Guest post by Carol, Information Services, Central City Library.

Quite a large crowd assembled outside the doors of the Art Gallery, patiently waiting for opening time. From the buzz of conversation, most were going to attend this session. Snippets of conversation heard centred on their own experiences of bird photography or observation. Could we get any hints from this talk, perhaps?


Brent Stephenson epitomises someone whose hobby became their career. An enthusiastic birder and photographer from childhood, Brent regaled us with stories of his early experiences around Hawke’s Bay. He confesses he was inspired by Geoff Moon’s photography. Included in the commentary were some of his early photographs of birds taken with his mother’s small Kodak camera. “Some of these are not that great," he apologised, as he indicated a smudgy small dot in the middle of a light grey area of sky. “There’s the bird,” he added. Needless to say, his photography is now much better, and he was one of the first photographers in New Zealand to use digital cameras.

Brent has a full-time guiding, photography and birding career, and has done some work assisting the Department of Conservation. He also holds the current record for the most bird species found in New Zealand in a calendar year.


His main passion is seabirds, and he was involved in the recent rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm Petrel. He spent some time researching where the breeding area was, by catching and tagging them. How do you catch birds at sea? With a net gun, of course. It turns out they were breeding on Little Barrier Island, and their entry in Tennyson’s Extinct Birds of New Zealand has now been removed from the latest edition.

The New Zealand biogeographical region has lost 41% of its endemic species, most losses occurring since human habitation. New Zealand developed as a land almost mammal-free. Many of the ecological niches normally occupied by mammals have been filled by birds, reptiles or insects. Because of this, some birds have developed some quasi-mammalian characteristics eg the kiwi, with its coarse, almost hairy feathers, cat-like whiskers and, unusually for a bird, a sense of smell.

Sprinkled throughout the lecture were some gems of information:

  • You would probably not want to have met the Haast’s Eagle – now extinct, this was the primary predator of moa, before humans colonised NZ. It was the largest bird of prey to ever have lived, with talons the size of tiger’s claws, and was able to take prey probably up to 200kg in weight.
  • The little fantail that accompanies you on your walk through the bush is not just being friendly. It stays close by because your large body is disturbing insects and delivering up food.
  • The kea is one of the world’s most intelligent birds – also the bane of South Island car rental companies.
  • The Grey Duck (also known as the Pacific Black Duck) now seems to be extinct in NZ due to hybridisation with the numerous Mallard ducks. However, other birds of this species can be found elsewhere in the Pacific area.
Despite the losses, there have been many success stories : e.g. the Black Robin, Takahē, Kākāpō; the South Island kokako, thought extinct, may still be residing in small numbers near Reefton, as there have been recent sightings. We must celebrate the successes, yet still remember that New Zealand had a much richer biological diversity. We are all interconnected with the environment. Most of these birds have been lost since human habitation due to habitat change, competition and predation from introduced species.

A final word. If you do spot anything unusual, contact the Ornithological Society of New Zealand : www.osnz.org.nz They will be able to assist with identification. Did you know that over half of our native birds can be found in the Auckland region?

As I waited in the queue for the author-signing, I flipped through my copy of Birds of New Zealand.  It is extremely comprehensive, listing endemic, introduced, and occasional visiting species. There are notes on identification, behaviour, bird calls, distribution and conservation status. Brent’s photographs make up about 90% of the more than 1000 images in the book. It would be a somewhat weighty tome to carry with you on birding expeditions; however, the information is also available on an app.Visit http://www.mydigitalearth.com for more about it.

And Brent’s advice for budding bird photographers? “Just keep practising, and have patience.” Thank you, Brent. It obviously worked for you.


Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "Science and the big questions" with Jim Al-Khalili

Guest post by Kim, Information Services, Central City Library.



“Physicists want Einstein to be wrong!”  -- Jim Al-Khalili OBE

Jim Al-Khalili  (photo by Furnace Ltd)
Jim Al-Khalili is a great speaker, he is engaging, he has the ability to make people laugh, and he can make any topic approachable, without dumbing it down. I decided this within only a few minutes of his presentation "Science and the Big Questions". This is a man who knows his topic – science in general, physics in particular – so well that he’s comfortable enough to really enjoy it and encourage others to enjoy it. Many scientists and academics in general seem to be very guarded about their knowledge, but Mr Al-Khalili believes his knowledge should be shared.

Although the facilitator, Shaun Hendy (lecturer in physics at the University of Auckland) structured the talk in accordance with topics covered in Mr Al-Khalili’s latest book, Paradox, the dialogue seemed quite easy and not at all restrained. In fact, Mr Al-Khalili observed at one stage how great it was that an author of a book about science was included at a writers’ festival, and conversely, how strange he thought it that ministers in New Zealand’s government don’t each have a science advisor (as they do in the UK).

It was great to see such a crowd of people gathered to a conversation about science who weren’t all students of science (a poll was taken through show of hands), so enjoying every moment. If you have the opportunity to see Mr Al-Khalili in person, do. And subscribe to his podcast (you can find it here). And read his book.

May 21, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Camilla Lackberg

Guest post by Lucia, Grey Lynn Community Library.


Scandinavian crime Queen Camilla Lackberg delighted the audience at the Auckland Writers Festival with her candidness about her personal life and how she has no control over her characters, in that even she can be surprised by how her characters develop during writing.


An economist who changed her career to follow her passion for writing crime fiction, she wrote her first book when she was four years old, a bloodthirsty story involving Santa Claus and the demise of Mrs Claus. An early signal, perhaps, that she is fascinated by the dark side of life.

She talked at length about the formula of crime fiction writing and her discovery of the fact that she was actually working to a formula. Her first novel The Ice Princess was published in 2003, and her ninth novel is in progress.

Lackberg was happy to assure fans that there are no plans for main characters writer Erica Falck and detective Patrik Hedstrom to divorce. This will no doubt bring a sigh of relief from those who have come to know these two characters well. 

May 20, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "Trouble in Mind" with Jenni Ogden

Guest post by Tim, Readers Services, Central City Library.


The crowd waiting to hear Jenni Ogden speak was large and noisy. I could hardly hear the Black Sabbath song I was trying to listen to. There were people outside the room talking loudly. A man sat down to my left and I wondered if I knew him vaguely. Everyone seemed distracted. Then we all turned to look because the distinguished academic with a soothing voice came on stage to introduce Jenni Ogden -- renowned neuropsychologist and author of Trouble in Minda selection of case histories of people with damage to their brains of one kind or another.

When Ogden came on, her energy and wit and enviable ease with talking (I have two left hemispheres, she quipped) caught the crowd’s attention and held it throughout. She asked us to raise our hands if we knew someone affected by brain trauma. Most of us did. She spoke of her time at MIT studying the most famous brain in the world -- the brain that belonged to the man known as HM in text books, Henry Molaison. His hippocampus had been removed in 1957 in an experimental procedure intended to cure him of epilepsy, a procedure that also robbed him of the ability to create new memories.

Ogden described how HM was awake during the procedure, but because he had been sedated was probably too drowsy to notice this ability disappear -- but would you even notice this? When she knew him it was years later, but time had not really passed for HM, if the measurement of time is the laying down of memories, as Ogden argued. HM had a note in his pocket that he would happen upon every now and then which read "Dad is dead Mom is well". Every time it was (sad) news to him.


Ogden also described a woman who had a hole in her brain, and another woman who, because of a brain tumour, came to disregard anything to her left -- including her own left arm. The man to my left uttered in surprise “She was a friend of mine.”

I left feeling a little more fragile of mind maybe, but excited to read Trouble in Mind. And I wondered, too, if Jenni Ogden knows some arcane neuropsychological secret the rest of us don’t know -- the kind that keeps someone irreverent and energetic in perpetuity. Maybe it’s in the book.

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "Mirrorworlds" with Cornelia Funke

Guest post by Claire Gummer, Readers Services, Central City Library.

I came to the Auckland Writers Festival session with fantasy writer Cornelia Funke prepared for anything – and in particular for taking notes. Yet on pulling my writing equipment out of my backpack I found that the lead of not just one but both my shiny red pencils had broken. Funke could surely create some otherworldly explanation or solution; I simply had to hope my memory would serve me when I wrote about her “Mirrorworlds” session for Books in the City.


Funke, a vibrant 55-year-old, is German. While she can definitely be described as funky, she pronounces the ‘u’ in her name like the ‘oo’ in ‘book’ (rather than the ‘u’ in ‘fun’) and the ‘e’ like ‘er’ in ‘booker’. Her English is better than most native speakers’, though she still writes – handwrites, actually – in her first language. She describes her English translator as a little old lady who lives in Cambridge, England, and who is wonderful at suggesting words that capture the essence of characters more effectively than a direct translation, which might sound clunky in our language. So in the German edition of her novel Dragon Rider, for instance, her characters Sorrel, Twigleg and Firedrake have completely different names.

Funke’s readers are mainly children and young adults. As she says, however, grown-ups are permitted to enjoy her books as well, and more than a sprinkling of these were present at the session I attended. Interestingly, though, her questioners at the end – when audience members were invited to take a turn at the microphone – were a succession of school students whose communication skills would shame most adults. (Perhaps they had come better prepared than I.) Funke’s interviewer at the festival was also very articulate and perceptive. She was Dr Anna Smith, who teaches children’s literature, adolescent fiction and contemporary ‘supernatural’ texts at the University of Canterbury. Never again let it be said that children’s lit is for writers and readers who are less than intellectually adept!

Some people will have heard of Funke through the film adaptation of Inkheart, the first novel in her ‘Inkworld’ series. But please don’t judge her books on the basis of the movie, which she found very disappointing despite the sincerity and creative energy of its makers. The author is willing to engage with technology – she has recently released an iPad app relating to Mirrorworlds – but it seems she won’t fall for Hollywood again, and neither should we: it’s better to explore the books.

Years ago I read Funke’s first novel to be translated into English, The Thief Lord, and loved it. It’s taken me a long time to come back for seconds but now I’m reading her second ‘Reckless’ novel, Fearless, in which “Jacob Reckless faces death in the world on the other side of the mirror” (I can’t put it better than the blurb). The story and the language crackle and fizz with energy, and in person Cornelia Funke is similar. She is quite the dynamo, appropriately so, as in English ‘Funke’ means ‘Spark’. It’s a brilliant name … I wonder if, like lots of other clever things, she made it up?

Funke’s books are available at Auckland Libraries, when they’re not out on loan to her substantial number of local followers. Library members can also check out some interesting reviews and other information by signing into and searching the Literature Resource Center in our Digital Library.

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "An hour with Lloyd Jones"

Guest post by Blair, Readers Services, Central Library.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."

syndetics-lcThis Philip Larkin poem, as read by Peter Wells, set the tone for an engaging hour with Lloyd Jones. The subject of the discussion was Jones’s candid memoir, A History of Silence. Set against the destruction of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, Jones’s book attempts to unearth the foundations of his family. The task was made difficult by his parents' belief that ‘you are what you make yourself’. In the Jones family the past was rarely, if ever, discussed.

Jones revealed that despite this ethos, his parents were clearly products of their troubled past. His mother’s extreme sensitivity, for example, was a direct result of her upbringing as an abandoned, illegitimate child. Jones’s grandmother, Maude, was vilified by her daughter. To Lloyd and his siblings, she became almost mythic - a caricature of an evil absentee mother. However, Jones discovered that Maude was far more complex than his mother believed. Her actions also stemmed from a troubled past, a past she too tried to bury.

Jones was an articulate and witty speaker, but the highlight of the event was his two readings from A History of Silence. His evocative, dreamy prose perfectly captured the themes of the book and was a real pleasure to listen to.

May 19, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "The Politics of Prophets" with Reza Aslan

Guest post by Hamish, Readers Services, Central City Library.

Reza Aslan is a religion scholar who writes for a mainstream audience without speaking down to them. He comes from “a long line of lukewarm religious people and zealous atheists”. He moved from Iran to California as a 7 year-old and spent the Iran hostage crisis pretending to be Mexican.

Aslan spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival with Waikato Religious Studies professor, Douglas Pratt. Some of the points he raised were:

-   Worldwide, religion is more a matter of identity and community than belief.

-   The power of scripture is infinitely malleable. He pointed out that slave-owners and abolitionists use the same bible and the same verses to argue their cases. In the USA there is a shift in thinking on environmentalism amongst conservative evangelical Christians. Previously they have believed nature is here for our use so we should use it as much as possible, but now younger conservative Christians are pushing scriptures about humans being stewards of the environment. He says religions can adapt to the environmental crisis in the same way religion adapted to the knowledge of the earth not being flat.

-   Religion is a language made up of symbols and metaphors of faith. As an experiment he said the phrase “I am washed by the blood of the lamb” and asked audience members to put their hands up if they understood the phrase. Many of the people who put their hands up felt connected as a community with others who had their hands up, while many who didn't understand the phrase felt as if it was in a foreign language.

-   All of Jesus of Nazareth’s statements were inherently political.

-   There is a chasm between the Christ of faith and the Christ of history. He writes about this in depth in his recent book Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

-   Iran and Saudi Arabia are fostering religious violence between Shia and Sunni across the world. The fighting is about group identity, rather than about who succeeded the prophet in the 7th century.

-   He is not convinced of the effectiveness of interfaith councils. He believes organisations such as the Interfaith Youth Core which get people of different faiths to perform charitable actions together build more interfaith connectivity than formal dialog does. He mentioned that USA is the most religious country in the developed world and also the most religiously diverse, so it has an important role to play in building interfaith connectivity.

Reza opened the floor to a generous 45 minutes of questions, which were sometimes interesting and sometimes long rants disguised as questions. He tore apart one questioner’s idea that Islam was inherently vengeful and Christianity inherently forgiving. In answer to a question about religions causing violence, he pointed out that the most bestial acts of violence in human history have been carried out by secular regimes of the 20th Century. While religious violence is bad, he said that humans will kill each other for any reason.

As an atheist, I’ve found Reza Aslan’s books give a fascinating insight into the way the world works, and are much more illuminating than the books from the overrated “new atheism” movement.

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "An Interior Life: Rod Moss"

Guest post by Theo terBorg, Manager Collections Development, Auckland Libraries.

I went to this session out of a mixed interest in painting and aboriginal culture. I had recently watched the DVD of First Australians: the untold story of Australia, and wondered how this story has continued into the present. I guess this session answered my question.

Rod Moss by Shaan Raza
Rod Moss comes across as a modest, quietly spoken man, compassionate but with a strong will. His close friendships with Aboriginal people in Alice Springs and in particular the local Arrernte people have given him insights into both their ways of being and his own.

Rod talked about the veils between the two cultures and the racism that moves in both directions. It is the Aboriginal people, however, who live without proper housing, health care and education. And with alcoholism and substance abuse.

Rod’s painting is anchored in this reality. He works slowly from photos and works with local Aboriginal people. For the painting "Law Courts Alice Springs"(1999), viewable on his website, Rod asked local Aboriginal people to model, which they were keen to do.



Both Rod’s books, The Hard Light of Day and One Thousand Cuts: Life and Art in Central Australia include a selection of his paintings.

It is also timely that the Auckland Art Gallery is presently showing the exhibition My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia.

Stephanie Johnson did well in asking some probing and also some very personal questions, including questions about his personal relationships and why they failed, and why he has not had an Aboriginal partner. Rod answered these questions honestly, commenting that as he reveals the lives of other people, he should do the same for his own life.

Rod Moss’s work reminds me of the work of Sally Morgan (author of My Place) and Bruce Chatwin (author of The Songlines).

This is important work as these untold stories must be told so that the lives of Aboriginal people can be improved.

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: ‘Why Architecture (and Trains, Planes and Shops) Matter" with Jonathan Glancey

Guest post by Ana, Readers Services, Central City Library.

I went to hear Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic and writer whose most recent book is Modern architecture: the structures which shaped the modern world, in conversation with University of Auckland architecture lecturer Bill McKay.

Jonathan Glancey

As soon as the session started, I got the impression that Jonathan Glancey was not very comfortable in modern society. This is an outline of his comments:

We live in the age of globalization where the game is making money. But some people make money while some people go broke. Capitalism triumphed over socialism, and all we do now is consume. Previously developers went to the architect to draw plans for cities and buildings; now the architect goes to the developers.

Globalization is a monstrosity: we have skyscrapers and brutal skylines where all cities resemble each other. It’s a very powerful force but the buildings, instead of having character, get more and more banal. Buildings can expand the imagination, but they can also do the opposite: put kids in square boxes in schools, classrooms, and retail centres, and you’ll kill their imagination. It is important to start educating people early, and fortunately there are now programmes to bring architecture into schools. Let children experience beautiful buildings, and teach them to take care of the environment. For a child this becomes a life-expanding experience.

Politicians have a lot to answer for regarding the environment today. In Auckland we have many boxes: the Harvey Normans, the Esquires Cafés, Insurance companies, all just big boxes. Auckland is a real shock for the foreign visitor, a huge sprawl with a very complex land pattern. One gets no sense of a city, although this is a very particular country with great vegetation. One solution would be to have sky gardens and integrate them into our buildings.

We all have to engage. We are responsible for our architecture and we have a voice. What is the role of the architecture critic? - to make one think about the uses of buildings, of creating a local identity, and not just making money. This matters because if not one loses one’s soul.

The same thing applies with trains and planes: we need planes and trains that are skilfully crafted. These days we spend many hours travelling and we need air conditioned, comfortable trains. Planes can be deadly: lack of oxygen, dull food, smells, crowded toilets, seats with increasingly less leg-room. Airports are like big cities now and the traveller needs to feel comfortable, with good seats, nice places to eat, and so on.

To conclude, Glancey talked about digitization, which he says sounds “exciting” - but as you get older you need to look deeper. Alll this talk that ‘digitization has made the world more democratic’ is nonsense. Things have got both faster and weaker. The image of architecture as a bright cultural image is false. Many great buildings are subdued. He doesn’t like twitter either -- he says he is not a bird, and he cannot waste time in nonsense.

During “Question Time” someone asked Jonathan what he could see in terms of the future of architecture. He said that we need to look to the past, to the ancient cities and how really advanced they were - with irrigation, heating, running water. Nowadays we need buildings that fit into the landscape. Look back and see what we can learn from it ( the Maori would agree with him).

Another person asked him if he had any suggestions about the Auckland Unitary Plan, which doesn’t appear to be a cohesive plan (at which everyone applauded) and he gave as examples of great cities Barcelona - which he said is a great, dynamic and exciting city with little, tiny developments everywhere - and Genova.

All in all it was an interesting presentation. Knowing very little about architecture, although I like buildings, I really enjoyed his ideas and how he presented them.

May 17, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: An evening with Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence... Actually that's old Fezziwig in The Christmas Carol who did that, but Alexander McCall Smith, it occurred to me as he chatted amiably with Jim Mora, amused by his own jokes to the point that I nearly missed several punchlines from his chortling with laughter as he pronounced them, has a lot in common with old Fezziwig. Did old Fezziwig's fiddler tune like 50 stomach aches? At a recent perforance of McCall Smith's "Really Terrible Orchestra", an amateur orchestra of mostly clarinets he formed some years ago, "we had a standing ovation --- or a really quick departure!"

The evening's surprise, for me, at least:  McCall Smith has a New Zealand connection in the family. His grandfather was a doctor who emigrated to New Zealand and helped set up a free health service in the Hokianga. He too was a writer, the author of Notes from a Back Blocker, "and not satisfied with that", his grandson gleefully continues, "he wrote More Notes from a Back Blocker". No, the library unfortunately does not have a copy -- I checked.

I don't know off the top of my head how many books Alexander McCall Smith has written among his many (and all immensely popular) series, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, ‎The 44 Scotland Street series, The Isabel Dalhousie Series, and now Corduroy Mansions, but he is a very prolific writer. He tells us that he writes 1000 words an hour. "Not anyone can do that. Flaubert wrote [beat, beat] five words a day."   "I suffer from a condition called Serial Novelisation", he confides. "There's nothing you can do about it -- you write serial novels and then you die."

He stands up (metaphorically only, he is reclining at a 45 degree angle in his ASB Theatre armchair, legs stretched out before him) for his happy endings. "My books have happy endings. I know that the world is a vale of tears, but we have to be able to have happy endings."

Overall, and it's something which shines through in creations like Mma Precious Ramotswe, the woman who set up the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" in Gaborone, Botswana (he taught us how to pronounce her name: just say 'ma' but make the 'm' longer), one of the things he most appreciates is kindness. "I like to write about kindness and I like to write about people who exercise it."

May 16, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: NZ Listener Gala Night



The buzz went up, the lights came down, and Anne O'Brien emerged from the wings of the ASB Theatre to welcome us, do the Opening Night honours, and, with a turn of phrase I quite liked, wish that we all might "travel lighter and richer" over the next four days, before leaving the lectern to Carol Hirschfeld, our presenter for the evening.

And then, it happened. There was Carol, happily reciting her rosary of adjectives  -- "enticing", "surprising", "provocative" -- when all of a sudden she up and telescoped into a little Carol a tenth the size. It was just like Alice in Wonderland and the "Eat me" cake. I was so surprised I lost track of the adjectives, which, impressively, were still coming, and just stared.

True story.

Well, all right. After a moment, I realised what had happened. From my seat up in the balcony, I had been watching not Carol, but her huge, true-to-life image on the large screen, so true-to-life I hadn't consciously registered that it was an image. And as I sat there, lulled by Carol's impeccably modulated tones, my eyes had idly slid down and encountered the real Carol, a thumbnail in comparison.


"True Stories Told Live: Truth and Lies" was the evening's theme: eight writers from the Festival line-up, one after the other under the stage lights (and on the big screen), each with a story to tell. There was a lot of joshing from the writers about the true-false dichotomy, although every reader present, if they thought about it, could have told you that to make such distinctions, in literature, is to fool oneself.

The first story was told by the Nigerian "word and graphic artist" Inua Ellams, and it was about the end of a story -- the time a girlfriend broke up with him. "Three months from now, we're going to laugh about this", were the bravely spoken words, but the next day "I was all runs and cold". The doctor, putting away her stethoscope, said to him, "There's nothing physically wrong. What's been happening with you?"

"I said, 'Breaking up with my girlfriend.' She said 'Oh! It's heartbreak!'"

Marti Friedlander came darkly out and huskily announced,  "So many stories to tell at my age -- obviously!" Her bottom line on truth and lies was  "They tell you not to tell lies, but I've told them all my life and they were fantastic, actually!"

Huw Lewis-Jones, an action-lover whose books are on explorers, Everest expeditions, polar regions and so forth, had a notable line when he referred what the taxi driver had said to him on his way in, when he was feeling nervous: "You'll be all right, mate, just talk about Hobbits!"

A.M. Homes had a story from her book The Mistress's Daughter, in which she described what happened when her biological father unexpectedly appeared in her life, thirty years or so after her birth. "Tell me a llittle about you," she had asked him. What he came up with was  "I'm not circumsised".

Irvine Welsh's eyes glinted as he told the story of an evil, over-steroided cat named Twinkle, set, surprisingly, in Illinois, and with a surprise ending.

Sarah-Kate Lynch was even more surprising. Why do they give her books such awful covers? How are we to guess that she wields such wicked humour? This is a woman who dreamed of killing Bono (I've dreamed of him going and living in some far off place where there are no media whatsoever, but never of killing him) and says she felt bad for him, and for half of Africa.  

(credit Graham Clarke)
After the sorbet interlude of a sad musing on family and place from Yasmine El Rashidi, the feast swept to its finale with a shaggy-dog story set in Tuscany from that grand raconteur Alexander McCall Smith, involving his unplanned use of a bulldozer to get from Pisa, where his flight from Scotland had landed, to Montalcino, his vacation destination.

"It's  a very good way to see the country- it's slow and lets you look about. And the bits you don't like you can remove!"

A bright and auspicious start to AWF 2014!




May 15, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: it's here!


The French have a saying for it.  

En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît! 

Which means "In May, do as you please!"

Book Festivals are the perfect occasion for overindulging, and I will certainly be doing so at AWF 2014.

I've got 15 events on my list, starting with the New Zealand Listener Gala Night: "True Stories Told Live: Truth and Lies", to which I'll be heading off as soon as I hit "Publish", and I'll be posting the low-downs as soon as I ever can, and another 15 librarians or more are lined up for guest posts capturing the colours of the events they're attending.

So if you're sorry you couldn't be there, or you were there but couldn't be at two events at the same time, drop in here as the reports come in, for a whiff of Eau de AWF, a meal at 4 starred Food for Thought, and a wild slalom down Monte Literati!






May 14, 2014

Nominating "Hemingway's Boat" for the Three Tokes Award

This is not another post about a literary award. This one's about a literary anti-award.

1890s The Overcoat  (Lizok's Bookshelf)
My love for Russian literature has led me to some strange and suggestive territories, none of them involving a geographical presence in Russia, note. I was conveyed to the latest of these outposts by reading Lizok's Bookshelf, a blog by Lisa Hayden Espenschade, a writer, translator, and Russian teacher who "loves reading Russian fiction, particularly novels", and as seems more true with Russian literature lovers than any other type of literature lover, I therefore instantly knew her to be a true comrade and worth frequenting. Which I did, and this is what I learned.

Apparently, there's an award in Russia called the Абзац (Absats) Literary Anti-award, which is awarded yearly to four books: one for 'Worst proofreading,' one for 'Worst translation', one for 'Worst editing' and one for "Complete violation of all norms of publishing'. Unlike many of Britain's coveted prizes, eg Baileys, Man Booker, and the recently noted here Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse, Absats is not the name of a sponsor, but a Russian word meaning "indentation" or "paragraph".

The Indentation anti-award?

As so often happens in the Russian sphere, things were denser and more turbid than they seemed at first sight.

"When I looked for good ways to translate абзац for you [writes Lisa], I found some typical slang definitions that fit nicely with what I heard so often, basically “the end of something,” something peculiar, or a sort of intensifier that expresses emotion. This pretty much sums up my coworker’s uses of the word. Russian Internet searches turned up other alleged slang uses of абзац: to denote three puffs/tokes or some sort of 220 millimeter missile."

There you have it. Of course I had to see what books had been deemed Three Toke books (is this like our 'three on a match'?) but, shock! a check of zapaday revealed that this year's award had been cancelled! So we'll have to wait until next year to see if Absats comes up with a book to top the 2008 winner cited by Lizok's Bookshelf, a book called How to Seduce Any Man, which had been plagiarised from the book How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You.

syndetics-lcIn the meantime, I've got what I adjudicate a Four Toke Fail. It's in Hemingway's boat: everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson, a very good book lent to me by my friend the fine poet and erstwhile tall-ship sailor Bob Orr. It's Knopf who would have picked up the statuette for this one.

It's the 1930s and Hemingway's staying in Bimini on his beloved boat, the Pilar. He's recently had his favoured safari partner Bror Blixen, famed for his big-game hunting skills and his philandering, also Isak Dinesen's ex-husband, and Blixen's third wife Eva to stay. Eva is Swedish, an ex-race car driver, flirtatious, always skimpily dressed (for the era), and had been assigned sleeping quarters adjacent to Papa's, although the general impression is that the two had shared his.

On Bimini dockL to R: Unidentified man, Eva Blixen, Pauline Pfeiffer (Mrs. Hemingway), Hemingway, Bror Blixen. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

And here it comes, page 250:

After the visit, the couple had moved on to New York, from which the Baroness Blixen wrote Hem a letter, "on the engraved hotel stationery of the Waldorf-Astoria. ...Eva was leaving for Sweden - whether with Blix or without him wasn't clear from the letter - but she planned to return to Africa at summer's end. 'Do come clown in the autumn,"she said.' "

"Do come clown in the autumn"? Do you mean to tell me not a single person looked at that and thought "Come clown? Gosh, that's an odd thing to write to a tough guy like Ernest Hemingway. Could this be a mistaken reading of the careless handwriting of a woman swigging her sixth or seventh gin of the day? Maybe, hmm, it was a loopy 'd' and not a 'cl'?"

Or, as Knopf would have it, "her sixth or seventh gin of the clay!"


Hemingway clowning in Africa?

May 09, 2014

A literary award called the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize? Seriously?


Yes. And comically, too. The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize is a literary award for the best comic fiction of the year, sponsored by-- you guessed it -- the Champagne house Bollinger, suitably sparkling, and Everyman's Library, which has been busy for some time publishing handsome new editions of all of P.G. Wodehouse's novels and stories. You may have seen their characteristic covers by Andrzej Klimowski winking at you from the recommended shelf at your library.

The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize winner receives large amounts of Bollinger champagne (this year a jeroboam of Bollinger Special Cuvée and a case of Bollinger La Grande Année), and a set of the Everyman Wodehouse collection, over 90 books so far.

In addition and best of all, in "true Wodehousian style", as the Everyman's Library website puts it, each year the winner is also presented with a "local pig" of the Gloucestershire Old Spot variety, which has been given the name of the winning novel. Presumably these are different pigs, and not just the original Old Spot rebaptised.
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In this context, I was pleased to learn that the winning book in 2012 was Terry Pratchett's Snuffand that in 2001 Jonathan Coe won with The rotters' club.

This year's shortlist, announced Wednesday, while not perhaps such a rich mine for pigs' names, has the distinction of including Sebastian Faulks's sequel-homage to PG Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, which The Guardian praised as a "gentle, funny, knowing act of tribute".


The other shortlisted titles are:

Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding's third novel about Bridget Jones,

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi, which I haven't read, but if it's anything like his satire of London popular culture in the sixties and seventies, The Buddha of Suburbia, which I have read, it would get my vote,

Straight White Male by John Niven, a "no-holds-barred look into the mid-life crisis and the contemporary male sexual psyche" says the library catalogue, topics I think no one can dispute are great favourites among today's satirisers, particularly, perhaps, those who were taught at their creative writing classes to "Write what you know" (a line I wish I'd come up with, and unfortunately can't remember who did),

The Thrill of it All  by the Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor, described on his website as "a warm-hearted, funny and deeply moving novel for anyone that’s ever loved a song",

Lost For Words by Edward St Aubyn, according to its publisher a "hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award", presumably not the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, though it would be wonderful if it were.

Whether the pig will be a straight white male, lost for words, or something else, will become known on 19th May.

In the meantime, Wodehouse fans can amuse themselves with this very interesting and well-illustrated commentary on P.G. Wodehouse covers old and new, from Caustic Cover Critic.


 
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