December 30, 2016

Great Summer Read: Reread a childhood favourite

Of all the challenges, this is the one that most has me wondering what the top choice will end up being.

Roald Dahl is the most popular choice for now, with The Twits, The Witches, The BFG and Matildain that order.  

(If the thought just occurred to you that Hey, I could watch The BFG for Challenge number 8, "Watch a movie based on a book", may I say that yes, you could, but it does have a bit of a wait list as all new releases do. But do you know of the two other Roald Dahl adaptations which are firmly up there among the movies no child -- and few adults -- should miss: the hilarious Matilda, directed by and starring Danny DeVito, and the whimsical stop-motion James and the Giant Peach, with the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite and, please quote me, "See Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley as Aunts Spiker and Sponge and die".)

Enid Blyton is in next place, a generation older but having such a long career and being so prolific that it hardly matters, and let's not forget about the handing-down. One for all: the reader of Five go to Mystery Moor who says "This book is sentimental to me as it's the first famous five book my mum gave me to read".

If Enid Blyton is sentimental to you too, have a look at the website of the Enid Blyton society. If you, for instance, read The magic faraway tree between 1971 and 2014, you'll be able to find your very cover among the 16 covers on the 16 editions from those years. Which was your era? Bell-bottom jeans? Roman sandals? With white socks? No socks? 

2014 edition
First edition, 1943

New Zealand titles: Two that I didn't know which have been logged are The house that grew by Jean Strathdee from 1979, a "positive rendering of an alternative lifestyle in the bush" (says, which hopefully doesn't yet seem overly dubious as a premise; and No one went to town by Phyllis Johnston, published in the same period but set in pioneer days, the story of a real-life family in the hills of Taranaki. Anyone else remember these?

Oldie-but-goldies:  Oliver Twist from 1838 is the oldest of all the books people have read for this challenge, followed by, to my great pleasure, The Jungle Bookfrom 1894. This is the book where you'll find the story "Rikki Tikki Tavi", recently voted by our table of librarians at our Christmas lunch the scariest story of their formative years, and an excellent read-aloud I could have included in my recommendations, although you do have to be ready to impersonate a snake, because if you don't hiss a line like "If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!'' then it's never going to work.

Moving into the 20th century, we have The railway childrenAnne of Green Gables which I was shocked to discover was first published in 1908, I read that book as a kid and it didn't seem that old; Milly Molly Mandy, Mary Poppins, then at mid-century The snow goose ("I love this book as it brings back memories of reading with my Grandad" was the comment) and The Black Stallion, and moving into the post-Beatles'-first-LP era, Watership Down.

Welcome to this century: Put your hands together for those readers who had Percy Jackson and Jimmy Coates to accompany them in their childhoods! And Coraline!

What are you all re-reading for Challenge number 4? Let us know in the comments!

Anyone share any of these childhood favourites of mine?

Alice in Wonderland (my cult book)
Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web (still digesting their gifts and will be all my life)
Ramona the pest  (and pretty much everything Beverly Cleary wrote)
Mrs Piggle-wiggle (for giggles)
Pippi Longstocking (talk about strong female heroines)
The Little House books (“Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” says Laura. Unless you are lucky enough to have a book to read like the Little House books)
Just so stories (and which was your favourite, oh best beloved? Mine was Cat who walked by himself)
The Little Grey Men (how I dreamed of building an airplane like theirs!) and Down the bright stream 
Little Women, Little men, and even more, the proto-feminist Eight Cousins and Rose in bloom
Treasure Island (one of the most perfect books ever written)
The Phantom Tollbooth (manifesto for curiosity!)

And finally, I want to especially mention The Borrowers. I want to mention The Borrowers in this context of re-reading childhood books, because it is the book where I most vividly and unmistakably remember the sensation of believing in its magic. At the back of our old wooden house, my sister and I noticed that moss was growing underneath one of those airing grates that houses have down at their foundations. We knew that it was because our borrowers were using the grate to empty out their buckets of water (our toothpaste tube tops!) after mopping the floor of the house they had made below our floorboards. We were sure that one day we would catch sight of them. Actually, I seem to remember we did, once, or maybe it was the flash of a piece of foil a borrower was using for a mirror as she dried her hair by their window that we saw. Yes, that would have been it.

December 22, 2016

Great Summer Read: Check out a book bundle

Check out a book bundle at your library

The Great Summer Read crowd (1412 challenges logged so far!) have been taking home some very mysterious bundles  -- names like "She walks in beauty", "What I did last summer" and "Expect the unexpected" stick out -- along with the less obscure but certainly even more enticing to some, "Dystopias","Thrillers", and "For the girls".

The key to this challenge is: don't think you have to read everything in the bundle. It's about discovery. You'll discover some you like, and some that aren't for you. That's fine! 

How far along do you have to read before you know that a book isn't even going to become something for you?

I'm always hearing people tell with perverse pride about how dogged they are about finishing a book, but I've never seen it as a virtue. More admirable to toss it and move on to something better, I say. Does anyone ever talk about a fabulous meal where the first three courses were unappetizing? On the other hand, there can be some hiccups as you get into a book and it can still turn out to be a thrilling read.

Try the astute rule devised by Nancy Pearl, the American librarian diva, model for the Shushing Librarian action figure and author of the bestselling Book lustwhich goes: 

You only need to read as many pages as the number you get by subtracting your age from 100, to know for sure if a book is worth continuing. 

Basically, by the time you're 99, you'll just need to read the first page.

Great Summer Read: Read a story to someone

Not necessarily to a child!

Don't make the mistake of looking at this challenge merely as a good one for parents of small children!

In the pre-broadcast entertainment era, reading out loud was an amusement as habitual as going for a coach ride-- for the social strata who had leisure time and literacy skills of course. In even older times, pre-medieval, there are records of people commenting with surprise on seeing someone read silently, it was so unusual. Kafka used to read his stories aloud and laugh until the tears ran.

Try reading a short story to someone your own age, or older, including much older. A friend, your auntie, your cat (yes, someone gloriously reported having done this)! 

Think ghost stories around the fire and try something chilling.  "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a time-honoured read-aloud, with its deceptively normal opening, gradual building of apprehension, culminating in a terrible reveal. Plus, plenty to talk about afterwards, as everyone wants to know what it means. Shirley Jackson claimed she herself didn't know.

Or get yourself a collection of the haunting horror stories of Daphne Du Maurier. Read "The birds" and then watch Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation for Challenge #8, "Watch a movie or TV show based on a book", or "Don't look now", less widely known because Hitchcock didn't film it, but Nicholas Roeg did, an atmospheric bloodcurdler which made film history not just for its sex scenes between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, although perhaps most loudly for those.

Daphne Du Maurier

For something less frightening, but just as unsettling, try Ray Bradbury's otherworldly stories, often futuristic but not always. "The Fog Horn" is my favourite, a soul-stirring imagining of an ancient sea monster's tragic encounter with the modern world, inspired, Bradbury said, from his having come across the coils of a disused rollercoaster laid out on Venice Beach. If you want to have a look, you can read it online in plain-to-the-nth-degree text on the Internet Archive, or get it in print from the library as Bradbury would have wanted you to. He fought digitisation of his books tooth and claw, happily claiming his right to try to prevent the future.

How about a Sherlock Holmes story? My personal choice would be The hound of the Baskervilleswhich I've always thought of as a story but which I've just discovered is technically a novel. Let's call it a long story. You could tell yourself you're going to do in parts... and then see if you're able! It's another one you could pair with a film viewing - the 1939 Basil Rathbone classic or the 1950s version: Christopher Lee! Peter Cushing! A slew of other B-cinema names!

If you like the idea of the great sleuth but you want something easier to tackle at a sitting, I've checked it out (not being a Sherlock expert myself) and "A scandal in Bohemia" sounds like just what you need. It's only about a 10 minute read, and introduces a Sherlockian-fandom superfavourite, the shadowy Irene Adler. "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." is the first line of the story. You can read it online here.

You can't go wrong with any of the nine stories in Nine stories by JD Salinger.

If you prefer something more contemporary, which picks up on the maddening, sad and/or scary aspects of the world we inhabit today, without forgetting the comic side, try George Saunders. Have I ever been so disturbed by a story as "The semplica girl diaries" in Tenth of December? Possibly only by "The lottery". 

Or Tobias Wolff, and here I will point you to "Bullet in the Brain". Someone once phoned the library looking for this story right when I had the book in which it appears, Our story beginssitting on my bedside table. He was looking for it because he'd seen it described as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. I agreed! Unlike that customer, who had to wait for me to return the book (but I did the very next day, even though it wasn't even due yet, because bonding), you can now read it right away online aP.O.V. No.27 .

A Christmas story, given the season? O.Henry, master of the plot twist, wrote one of the most famous and sentimental Christmas stories of all time: The Gift of the Magi. You'll find it, and many of his other stories, online at the Literature Network, where you will also find such savoury read-alouds as Edgar Allan Poe's stories ("The cask of Amontillado"! "The Pit and the Pendulum"!), Oscar Wilde's heartbreaking fairy tales, Gogol's very funny classic "The nose" (a barber starts the day by finding a familiar-looking nose in his loaf of bread), and Ambrose Bierce's spectacular "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And let's not forget that classic story "The Lady or the Tiger", whose very title has entered our language, referenced by both Sylvia Plath and Batman, an appropriate story to end on. I challenge you to read it (it's very short and very worth it) and find out why I say that!

Great Summer Read: Read a book

Challenge #1 is your wild card! You can pick any book at all. 

Where to start? 

Perhaps an intriguing title you spotted on someone's bookshelf while you were waiting for them to get off the phone? In my experience, it's rare that a book doesn't live up to its title. The possibility of an islandA tale for the time beingInvisible citiesThe left hand of darkness and Heart of darkness both. Stuff I forgot to tell my daughterDon't lets go to the dogs tonightThe spirit catches you and you fall down. All good reads. But if anyone has any examples of annoyingly misleading titles, please tip us off!

Or how about defying the received wisdom and choosing a book by its cover? Without even flipping it over to see what it says about the author, or if you recognise the names on the blurbs -- you know, those other guys signed to the same publishing conglomerate, or who taught at the author's creative writing programme. 

In today's publishing world, covers are usually going to tell you just as much as the blurbs, and they will always be more imaginative.

Quick! Match these adjectives to the books below. Tantalising. Wrenching. Seventies. Surreal. Was that hard?

If you're looking for something new to read, the best place to start is with the New Titles lists on our website. Because so many new books already have a waiting list when they are delivered to the library, you won't always see them on the shelves. Browsing the lists you'll find a cover photo and a summary for each title, and be able to request it in two clicks. It doesn't always mean going on a wait list -- it could be available, but just at another library, and you'll get it in short order!

The lists include fiction and non-fiction, audiobooks, ebooks, childrens, teens, DVDs, books in other languages and more. The fiction is divided by genre and there are an awesome 20 different lists, including graphic novels with 113 new titles this month, the second highest total after good old "general fiction" (ie non-genre).

If you're looking for non-fiction, there are 39 categories to choose among, including both a Cooking - Cakes and Dessert and a Cooking - Vegetarian, Low-fat, with 27 titles just this month, including one by an Emma Bacon, who clearly does not demonstrate the nominative determinative theory.

There's also a category called Human Society, to distinguish it from, I suppose, books about bees, penguins, bonobos, tetras and the like. I scrolled through books about violence and borders, terrorism and white supremacy, sex and evolution, which got me wondering about that "Human", but I was quickly reassured by encountering a book which promised to show me how to turn grocery shopping, lawn mowing and PowerPoint making into "sources for meaning and joy".

Happy hunting! Happy reading!

The Great Summer Read

Call out to everyone taking part -- or thinking of taking part -- in the Great Summer Read! Yes, you're still in time to start. There's no registration and you can log a challenge at any time, even on the very last day, 30 January.

And from now until then, we'll be posting tips and reading recommendations for the Great Summer Read challenges here on Books in the City.

Add your own Great Summer Reading experiences into the mix using the comments feature on any of the posts and you can tick off Challenge #10, "Share your read"! (Comments on earlier posts also count - no worries, reader who commented on the Into the River post!)

NB Although only Auckland Libraries members can go in the draw for the Great Summer Read prizes, anyone can enjoy trying the challenges and contributing comments. The more the merrier!

I've been hunting down (aka requesting) and bringing home my candidates for the Great Summer Read challenges and by now have a nice stash:

Karen's bedside table 

As you can see, I am a librocubicularist, someone who reads in bed, from the Latin libro, book, and cubiculum, bedchamber. A term invented by Christopher Morley, author of a book I'm going to be reading for the Great Summer Read, or more precisely rereading-- my choice for completing Challenge #4: "Reread a childhood favourite". 

Recently I saw a comment on social media where "pastime" was spelled "past time" -- it seems a lovely expression for Challenge #4, where past time and pastime become one and the same.

No I'm not going to say -- yet -- what book I'm using for Challenge #4. Also because I'm thinking of using two books from that same year in my childhood, a favourite year, the year I got my first job in a library. 

So keep checking in with Books in the City for ideas for your summer reading -- surely one of the finest pastimes ever!

October 19, 2016

Day of the dedications

(photo: @sfpubliclibrary Instagram 15 September)

Time for the book dedications of the year! Not written this year, or not necessarily, but the best I've come across this year. It's a tradition dating back to my very first post for Books in the City, in which -- with the whole world of books available to me as subject matter -- I chose to celebrate the art of the well-written book dedication. That tells you something about my affection for those little solitaires twinkling and winking at us from the centres of white pages.

I'm talking about the best dedications, of course, the ones that speak from the heart with the tongue of a writer, that neither surfeit us with lists (how did that start, those endless pages of acknowledgments in novels, for God's sake!) nor starve us of landmarks, the ones that, despite us knowing they are for a certain someone, we discover are magically also for us.

Here are this year's finds:

1.  Yuyi Morales in Thunder Boy Jr. 

To the Western Addition library in SF where, as a new mother and immigrant, I found my first home in the USA. Nancy, I hope you remember me. You changed my life forever when you put books in my hands.

A book dedication to a library! I had to start with this one. I've shared dedications to an author's typewriter, and to an airlines whose delayed flight inspired the book in question, but this is the first dedication to a library I've come across, via the San Francisco Public Library's Instagram feed @sfpubliclibrary (Western Addition is one of their branches).

As a librarian, I'm going to say that I'm sure Nancy remembers her.

The post went up as we were counting down to Banned Books Week, which was appropriate given that the author of Thunder Boy Jr is Sherman Alexie, whose The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is one of the most challenged books in libraries in his country, the USA. The dedication in that semi-autobiographical work also makes a point about home: "For Welpinit and Reardan, my hometowns", it goes, the first being where Alexie grew up, on an Indian reservation in Washington State, and the second the town where he went to High School, his first time off the reservation.

Thunder Boy Jr is Alexie's first picture book, about a boy looking for a name of his own; Yuyi Morales is the illustrator.  Here's a short trailer from the publisher:


2. Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem was asked by her interviewer at the Auckland Writers Festival this year to talk about the dedication to her new memoir, My life on the road. "Shall I read it out loud?" she rejoined. "I don't want to assume everyone has read my book!"

Her reading of it made exactly my point: great dedications have it all there; they don't need to be commented on.

This book is dedicated to:
 Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
 Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life".
 Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

3.  Jerome K Jerome in Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

After two new books, here's an old one, published in 1886. I knew about this dedication but for the longest time I was mixed up, thinking it was by Italo Svevo, so I could never find it. It could have been by Svevo, who had in common with Jerome K Jerome a love of what in Svevo's native Trieste was referred to with the Austrian term witze, meaning witty paradoxes and contradictions.


Italo Svevo also had a close relationship with tobacco, but in his case it was the cigarette, and in particular the last cigarette. In his book The confessions of Zeno, one of his alter ego Zeno's neuroticisms is to repeatedly smoke the last cigarette, in order to re-experience the joy of quitting. When Svevo was mortally injured in a car accident, he asked at the hospital if he could have a cigarette. His request was denied. Ah, he sighed, that really would have been the last cigarette. 

In addition to the dedication, Jerome K Jerome also wrote a fine preface for his book, which I would love to hear read out loud by John Cleese.

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS. having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere "idle thoughts" of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading "the best hundred books," you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

4. Tony Ross in Sticky ends: twenty-six cautionary verses with sticky ends 

To my dear mum and dad -- they always thought that I would come to one. T.R.

5. Ogden Nash in The Face is Familiar 

This collection of poems by the man who gave us "I never saw a purple cow..." and "If called by a panther, don't anther" is a treasure I found in the Central City Library basement. Although the book was first published in the USA in 1940, our copy is the Australian Edition of May, 1943, a fact which some librarian of the past underlined by recovering the book in wallpaper featuring red and blue stripes interspersed with golden crowns. Not that this would have been her only foray into book preservation. Recovering books in serviceable wallpaper was once a thing in public libraries. I imagine this librarian's ghost floating around in our basement checking up on all her handiwork.

Before disposing of the original cover, the librarian cut out the blurb on its flap and pasted it into the book, turning the book into a sort of time-capsule:

In re-issuing this book in an Australian edition, the publishers are confident that it will add considerably to the gaiety of this land at a time when our sense of humour is in danger of being submerged in a total war effort.

It goes on to cite a poem in the book, a dig at Japanese expansionist tendencies on the eve of Pearl Harbour, which the Australian publishers - how realistically I don't know - hoped the Australians would still be finding funny in 1943.

On the other hand, I myself found a comment apropos of Ogden Nash's death funny enough to note down - or maybe I actually came up with it? It's scribbled in my own hand next to my notes for this post. It'd be nice to think I could be so witty as to quip "Merde! Improperly prepared!" in reaction to learning that one of the most famous rhymers in the history of poetry died from eating improperly prepared coleslaw. Googling brings up nothing. If anyone knows the origin of this genial epigram, please let me know!

I was taking notes because I had discovered that a postage stamp honouring Ogden Nash made history by being the first US postage stamp to contain the word "sex"- "although as a synonym for gender", Wikipedia tells us. Whew!

"It appears under the letter O" the wikipedia pundit continues. With my librarian skills I was able to quickly unearth a reproduction of the stamp, just to check that fact. The pundit had it right.

But I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price of the stamp and realised that this could not have happened in the fifties as I had assumed. In fact, it turned out to be issued in 2002, on the centennial of Nash's birth! What, the word sex made history in 2002? Are we kidding?
The Amarillo, Texas newspaper article where I found this information contained, further along, a telling insight. The other set of new stamps to come out that year was "Discover Canada", highlighting popular tourist attractions. So, images of Foggy Cove and the Icefields Parkway and Buffalo Jump, vying for attention with Nash's racy poem "The Turtle".

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.

The dedication I found in the book, to Nash's wife, is not scandalous, antic or clever. It's sentimental, a bit reminiscent of the classic era poetry schoolboys of Nash's time (and of my father's, although he was a generation later) used to learn. "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by..." But it's definitely going straight to the book dedication wall in my pool room.

For Francis

And now to settle for the years,
That flew like frightened birds;
As fee for ten of happiness
I offer ten of words.

July 21, 2016

Fat is still a feminist issue. So is feminism.

Looking back on Susie Orbach at AWF 2016, and forward to Andi Zeisler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!

Carole Beu, usually the Festival’s most ebullient chair, went classic on us, almost reverent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!"


I looked around to see if I could spot any men behind me, or across the vast reaches of the ASB Theatre which, as I had just noted down, was fully populated. I certainly couldn’t see any in front of me. Aha, two! And a group! And just further along from them, look, two more... and...and ... here you go:

What is it with men anyway? Women would go to a session with a male protagonist of the culture wars. Women would go to a Foucault session, were he still alive of course. I expect women would flock to a Foucault session. Women would go to hear any number of venerable male cultural critics or theorists, I thought, trying to come up with names of some live ones. It wasn't easy. I mentally saluted the life force and staying power of that amazing AWF 2016 trio Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach and Vivian Gornick.

I clicked my attention back to the stage as Carole began chatting congenially about a certain Fifi. It didn't take me too embarrassingly long to identify Fifi as Fat is a Feminist Issue, Orbach’s 1978 book in which she used a feminist perspective to attempt to move people on from a blame-the-victim approach to weight “issues”.

Carole proposed, perhaps wishing and hoping, that the book “probably changed the lives of million of women”.

Susie Orbach’s calm response: “It didn’t change the world and the problem has actually amplified. It has now eaten into the lives of our children. There are women in rest homes being made to anguish over what they eat.”

“The book is actually most of all about compulsive eating”, said Carole, who was surprised to realise this when she reread it before the festival.

Orbach has never reread it -- she thinks maybe because she's frightened of it. When she wrote it, her insight was that “Largeness is a way of negotiating the pressures our visual culture places on us, about always having to look at yourself in a critical way. If you’re large, you’re exempt from that”. Today it’s different. “It signifies different things. It could mean being from the other side of the tracks or it could mean you have to look at the real me below the surface.”

But above all, largeness is not actually the issue. “You can be a compulsive eater in many sizes. You can be ‘normal’ and be a compulsive eater. I don’t think the real issue is obesity. It’s our relationship with eating. If we started with that instead of creating a stigma about being one size or another, that would address the problem better.”

The issue, in other words, is the notions attached to body size, the social judgments, the psychological feelings. I had never actually read Fifi, but I’ve now had a good look through it (thanks Auckland Libraries and Overdrive for having that available for me on my laptop in 60 seconds) (progress sometimes really is progress). As its electronic pages slipped past, it felt as though I were voyaging through an asteroid belt where the asteroids were big black words: all those angers, depresseds, turmoils, emptinesses, suffereds, swampeds, mirrors, defenses, and so on. It was a scary insight; what would it be like to live there.

The copy I had checked out was a reissue from 2006, for which Orbach had written a new introduction, in which she pointed out, “Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat is a Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement.”

How well said, how sadly and disappointingly true. And side by side with that goes another of the dark sides of living in our “moneyed world”, as Vivian Gornick described it: those companies making money by selling the perfect body (“though they don’t call it that”) to vulnerable people, mostly but not always women.

For one, the diet industry, raking in billions of dollars for products which don't work and people (consumers) conveniently never stop feeling they need, since only 3% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, for all kinds of reasons, from physiological changes to psychological pressures. The cosmetics industry, for another.

“To encourage body-hatred all over the world is a gift of later capitalism. We export it all over the world.” Orbach pointed out. I think it was in one of her columns for The Guardian where she discussed research which found a mathematical correlation between the arrival of commercial television and its army of advertising in various countries, and the increase in eating disorders among the young girls in those countries.

“Now the body is a product we have to make, instead of where we are from. We are going to have the branded body. Not just clothes but our bodies will be branded. The brand will be Barbie-esque.”

More and more people's daily lives feed them a stream of images of celebrities photoshopped and manipulated into an unattainable ideal. How healthy a diet is that? “People come in to me for a problem like a job problem and they also have body hatred but they haven’t come for that. They just assume they’ll have that all their life.”

“What do you hope for young women?” asked Carole.

“What I hope for all of us -- to have a life of meaning.”

I was reminded of a passage I read recently in a memoir which might have been Angelica Garnett's, or possibly Jenny Diski's (I trust I'm not the only person who remembers the sentiment and the sensation of past readings but not necessarily the specimen ID). Angelica had received from her aunt, Virginia Woolf, or maybe Jenny had received from her foster mother Doris Lessing, a note expressing the hope that she would have a happy life. Angelica/Jenny wonders, looking back, at the choice of "happy", rather than "good", which she would have thought a better wish. A life of meaning is a pretty good life, for my money.

I am not sure if it were the psychotherapist in Orbach instinctively making sure that we would leave the 60 minute version of the "50 minute hour" with a good feeling, once the discontent had been aired, but that was how it went. There were some likable closing lines from her --  "What's really satisfying is relationships and contributions and finding things that interest you" was one I liked, and there was one about a good ear being the most powerful thing you can offer which was met with a round of applause, surprisingly to me. I found her line about body-hatred being a gift of later capitalism much more rowsing. "Know your enemy" is powerful stuff too.

Because I am not a psychotherapist, but a reader and a writer, rather than lend an ear, I'm going to plant something in your ear: a suggestion for further reading. Susie Orbach speaks about the body becoming a brand. Andi Zeisler, the cofounder of Bitch Media, has written a provocative book about feminism itself becoming a brand. It's called We were feminists once and I discovered it during the Festival while travelling in the Vivian Gornick, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach force field. If something seems not quite right to you about a company selling (and people buying) body-hugging little tees, produced by poor women in developing country sweatshops, with "Feminist" emblazoned on the front, this is your book. Who is appropriating feminism, and why, while doing nothing to progress the "unfinished business of the women's movement" -- as Susan Douglas calls it?

I actually went and bought myself my own copy when I had to return my borrowed copy to the library. A book which teaches me the so very useful term "marketplace feminism" needs to be able to be pulled out again and again.

The many aspects of marketplace feminism and the range of the book can be glimpsed by its entry in the book's index, which points you to the following:  "as appeasement, beauty and", "choice and", "fashion and", "feminism and", "as feminist branding", "Mad Max: Fury Road as", "media and", "movies and", "popular culture and", "as prioritizing individuals", "purchasing and", "Spice Girls and", and, "television and".

-- Karen

July 06, 2016

Gloria Steinem: not the Queen of the Auckland Writers Festival

Photo Annie Leibovitz

She could have been the Queen of the Festival. She was the first guest whose session sold out. She had the royal touch, mothers lining up to get copies of her book signed for their baby daughters, in a modern version of the laying on of the hands. She was the only guest to have an interviewer summoned from across the seas (Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley) (not sure why, actually). She had the raiment - that leather jacket!

But here was the thing. She didn’t want to be Queen. She was not here to represent or embody anything. She was here to share some stories about her life, from the many in her book My life on the road. But no nostalgia! ”There’s something about being part of a movement and being on the road that forces you to live in the present -- which is where we should live.”

Nick Barley led her through the salient points in the book. They talked about her parents, her father who treated her as an adult even when she was little “and I’m very grateful to him”, and her mother, who had been a pioneering journalist but had given up her career in those days when no one thought you could have it all, not before having been diagnosed with “anxiety neuroses”. Steinem's stories of them were, for me and I think for many readers, the most touching in the book. They split up when she was only 11.

She never again felt she really had a home. As soon as she was out of school she took off for India. She told herself she was attracted for the theosophy aspect (her mother was a theosophist), “but really… I was escaping”.

In the Indian villages she discovered "talking circles". People would come out of their houses in the evening and sit together around a kerosene lamp to talk about the terrible experiences they shared, trying to sort out the truth and break the cycle.

We got the first taste of her wicked sense of humour. She recalled that many years later the women's movement developed their own form of talking circles -- consciousness raising groups.

"I’m sure a lot of women here remember those, now we call them book clubs.”

Back in the US, her time in India having helped her skive the suburban ideal she had firsthand reasons to distrust, Steinem began working in journalism. And here of course we came to her notorious turn as a Playboy bunny, somewhat misleadingly described in the Festival programme blurb as “She was famously a Playboy bunny, but one who wrote a magazine article entitled “A Bunny’s Tale”, revealing the exploitative working conditions bunnies endured”. She was a journalist, and Show magazine assigned her to write a story about the Playboy Clubs, with the idea she would go undercover as a bunny for a couple of weeks. She wasn't enthusiastic about it, but it was “the kind of assignment I would get”-- which tells you something about the times.

She had thought that it might at least be somewhat glamorous, but she was being set straight on that before even being fitted for her bunny suit. At the job interview she told the woman she was a secretary, and the reply came back: “Honey, if you can type you don’t want to work here”.

The article, which you can and should read online in the New York University Digital Library, made her famous but, she tells us, "It was a bad career move". Being an ex-bunny became the thing she was most known for, despite it being her least favoured characterisation. "At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. People say "What does she know? She was a bunny".

But there was some satisfaction. The gynaecological exam for aspiring bunnies which she blew the whistle on was discontinued soon after her article came out. And in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she pointed out "My exposé of working in a Playboy Club has outlived all the Playboy Clubs, both here and abroad."

Nick Barley asks a question about Ms magazine which I miss because I’m so stupefied by having heard him call it “Miss Magazine” and asking myself if this could be just an accent thing (I'm still not sure), and then asks her about the historic 1977 conference in Houston on women’s issues, 20,000 women in attendance, their delegates busy drawing up an action plan to submit to the US Congress (the conference was actually sponsored by the US Government).

It’s depressing of course to think how few of their planks have been achieved, and how many of those achieved are nonetheless still threatened (however, as I write this, the US Supreme Court has just blown away attempts by the state of Texas to deny women the reproductive rights the US government has ruled are theirs), but Gloria Steinem hadn’t written a book, and come here to talk to us, just to be our institutional memory, or Cassandra, or whatever.

She talked about the women at the conference, about the Native American women she had gotten to know there, how she had learned so many fascinating things about early Native American history from them. Because, and this is pure Gloria, “We don’t study history from when it started, we study it from when monarchy, patriotism and patriarchy and the other bullshit started”.

About patriarchy, Gloria... Gloria had no hesitation. “It’s about controlling reproduction -- that’s what it’s all about”.

The perfect lead-in for Nick Barley to call our attention to the dedication in My life on the road.

“Such a great dedication. Tell us about it.”

“Shall I read it? I don’t want to say everyone’s read my book!” (a good Steinem laugh) and she does.

 This book is dedicated to: 
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. 
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life". 
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

"You will do what you want to do with your life," muses Barley. "Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve sacrificed your life on behalf of others?”

“I don’t feel like that at all!” and another good laugh.

Gloria Steinem wasn't going in for any of that "I sacrificed myself for you" blackmail. She wasn't going in for recognition, or packaging, or ownership. (She doesn't even own a car, I learned from reading the book.)

"Women say to me with some alarm, 'My daughter doesn't know who you are!' But does she know who she is? Because that's the whole point."

She pumped for all of us filling the ASB theatre to use the occasion as an opportunity to spread the word about what we are doing and thinking. “Use the mike!” she said when Q&A time came around. And some people did, websites were promoted, organisations cited. But a lot of people had questions, and none were turned away.

Q "Where do you want us to be in fifty years?"
A “I want it to be wherever you want it to be. I'm not here to tell you where to go -- you know things I don’t know. “

Q Should we should talk to people who are “against feminism”?
A Well of course. “If I am fucking up I don’t want someone to hate me, I want them to tell me!”

A woman wanted to talk about the rights of sex workers. Steinem was honest; she has a problem with legalising “sex work”, though she does not want to criminalise it. “What happened to mutuality?” Is it about cooperation or submission? She doesn't see it as just another exploitative job, as is the risk if we term it "sex work". In her life, she says, she's only known one woman whose choice to sell her body was truly free of coercion.

Advice to a 14 year old feminist, who wanted to know where to start in her school where "nobody even knows what feminism is": Find an instance of injustice (how do the budgets for boys and girls sports teams compare) and organise people to challenge it.

"Change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”.

I saw a hopeful, funny person, the humour more pithy than came across in her book...

"Who are your anti-abortionists?" No hands went up.
"Maybe they don’t read books!"

... and the hope more matter-of-course.

I’m not sure it was clear to me from the book how enjoyable a member of your, um, book group she would be, but the evening left no doubt about it.

 She sent us out telling us to talk to other people after exiting. I took it as a sort of beau geste, but as it happened, my daughter and I, standing in the signing line with her copy of A life on the road (the Christmas present I didn't choose for her, thinking, What will that long ago stuff mean to her?, only to see her choose it on her own), found ourselves next to funny smart Michele A’Court, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and it all happened just as it should.

When we arrived in front of Ms Steinem, I heard my daughter say that she didn't care about having her name in the book, she preferred a message, "whatever you would like to say to me".


June 30, 2016

"A little life" and some big doubts at AWF 2016

The last set of our Writers Festival posts opens with Karen going against the crowd. Here's hoping that of the three types of cranky (entertaining, angry and annoying), this will prove to be in the first category.

So doll-like! Of all the ways I had imagined Hanya Yanagihara, author of The Dark Novel of 2015, doll-like was not one. She sat placidly -- or carefully-- in her black armchair like an objet d'art and I am not sure I saw any movement at all below the neck the entire time she was seated. Even her turning her gaze from Anne Kennedy in the interviewer chair to us in the audience during her responses seemed to happen in slow motion.

A low, modulated "Hello" and we were off. Somewhat disconcertingly to me, as I had been lured by the programme listing's promise of 'intense conversation' which seemed to imply opposing viewpoints, by way of introduction we had Anne reeling off a sequence of hyperbolic quotes in praise of the book, something which seemed not to disconcert Yanagihara at all.

I should lay my cards on the table right away. That book, A little life, had left me unconvinced. But I was looking forward to this session. Between the establishment honours it was garnering (Booker Prize shortlist etc) and the ardent reader fandom (a comment left on our online catalogue declared it "an experience, not just a book"), I couldn't help wondering if I had missed something. Or maybe been too in thrall to my personal tics. Like with the gougères.

Gougères, if you don’t already know (I didn't), are French cheese puffs, and, I just realised, a metaphor for my difficulty digesting this book. When Yanagihara describes Jude, her main character, a man traumatised by horrendous sexual abuse suffered as a child, who has become a top of the top litigator, while also having an extraordinary aptitude for theoretical mathematics and extraordinary musical talent, as always wanting to throw together some gougères for when his friends come over, I winced. I wanted Holden Caulfield to be one of the friends coming up the stairs, just to hear what he’d say.

But this is the thing. There is no Holden, because, as Yanagihara told us at the start in her very composed response to interviewer Anne Kennedy’s holding a first tentative light up to her book, “I wanted to make an hommage to the way my friends and I live”.

More in particular, she told us, she wanted to show that becoming an adult doesn't mean you have to get married and have children. For me who works in a library, this didn't strike me as news. But anyway, Yanagihara gives us four male friends, who have moved to New York together after their graduation from University, all rigorously unmarried but who seem to spend their time working, acquiring and achieving just like married men of their ilk.

They acquire wealth (apartments, country houses), habits (various, only in one case of the drug type, but it doesn't take him down), and partners (corporate, sexual, and other), and they achieve success. Lots of success. They all become stars in their fields, and all without doing anything as boring as striving. How is that?

But Yanagihara forestalls any question about her book's credibility (the 4-0 record of the friends being only one of many challenges in that sense). She tells us it's supposed to be that way, because she used a "fairy tale template". We need to suspend disbelief, is what I understand her to be saying.

“This is not a book you can go into and not surrender to it, and I hope what it gives you is the intimacy of a certain world”.

Surrendering to a book is my preferred way to read, but I wasn’t able to surrender to A little life. It might be that books about the world of wealthy Manhattanites just aren't that enthralling to me, unless executed with the wit of American Psycho, for instance, or if it's a fringe version, as in Netherland. So there's that.

But also. The heavy-handed, unimaginative depiction of the violence done to poor Jude, even more than the amount of it (every time he escapes one torturer, he falls in with another just as bad or worse). Yanahigara's editor did say that the sheer quantity of it was simply not believable, she told us, but “I told my editor if things are not quite believable they should still be true".

I suppose she means emotionally true. I'm with her on that, but I couldn’t find any true feeling in the sexual abuse scenes that are, after all, central to the book’s wallop. It should have been there, and it should have been horror and pity, but all I felt was unease and nausea. It gave me pause when I realised at a certain point that it was the same feeling I had in reading the child rape scenes in that Navajo “memoir” (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams) which turned out to be a hoax, written by an unsuccessful non-Navajo writer of gay leather porn. A suspicion of being rendered a voyeur. That the reading experience was going to be voyeuristic rather than cathartic.

Tenderness, when it appeared, seemed always the outcome of a bargain. And desire? How ironic (or maybe I should say manipulative, given that the reader is, I believe, supposed to think it an image of suffering) the use of a photograph of a man in orgasm (Peter Hujar’s Orgasmic Man) as the cover image for a book in which there is no spontaneous, unbounded sexual desire. In which Jude's lover, new to a sexual relationship with a man, explains it away with an "I'm not in a relationship with a man, I'm in a relationship with Jude".

Was that when the word 'facile' first came to me?  Facile which is one of the adjectives Hanna Yanagihara uses for a group of friends that she described as one of her inspirations for A Little Life, in an article she wrote for Vulture last year:

"...I was an editor at a now-defunct magazine about the media industry called Brill’s Content… It was my first magazine job, and I found it terrifying, like being moved from the high-school literary magazine to the high-school debate team: Everyone was smart and facile and articulate and argumentative.  [...] I found them all fascinating."

I can't help but be reminded of the answer she gave when Anne Kennedy asked her about the writing process behind the book. "I knew exactly where I was going with it" she said.

And so she did. At various points we heard that she wanted it to be a long novel, a claustrophobic novel, a novel with no natural stopping points, where the violence would be "unsanitised", and which would be "very personal" to her. And that is where she went.

I think anyone intrigued by the subject matter of this book -- the lasting effects of trauma, the arc of friendship, its strengths and its limits -- who want to immerse themselves in a story, who are happy to set aside scepticism, who find social or cultural commentary intrusive, who would like to push the boundaries of their emotional endurance, should try going there with her.

Don't worry about the gougères. Maybe talking about gougères in Manhattan is no more pretentious than talking about quiche in my native California (which is to say, not pretentious at all, unless perhaps when the filling is kale, or ramps -- oops, don't they buy ramps in A Little Life?).

As her last question before Audience Q&A time, Anne asked, as interviewers do, “What’s next for you?”

The first laugh of the interview from Yanagihara! A strong, low laugh. But I didn’t catch an answer and I’m pretty sure that if there was one, it was a gloss over.

During Q&A, a sincere young male whom I dubbed “Mr G” in my notes stepped up to the microphone and asked whether Yanagihara could share any revelations that had come to her while writing the book “if it isn’t too personal”.

No, she couldn’t.

“I think this would be a great place to end” said Anne.


June 08, 2016

Marlon James at AWF 2016: Fascinating and free-flowing

Liz from Collections Insights went to hear the Jamaican-born novelist, now resident in the U.S., mostly from curiosity. She's now on not one but two wait lists for his book -- the print and the e-book version, a "whichever comes sooner attitude" which already tells us much about the session. Here's her full account:

When Noelle McCarthy introduced Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize last year with his A Brief History of Seven Killings, as the writer of a “bloody great book in every sense of the work” we knew were in for a treat – if for no other reason that we would be listening to two of the most attractive accents in the world – Irish and Jamaican.

As it turned out, the content as well as the delivery made the session fascinating. The rapport between McCarthy and James led to an hour of free-flowing conversation and covered a vast range of topics, from the music of Prince and space break sex to getting through writer’s block and the history of Jamaica.

The conversation started with a discussion of the recent death of Prince as James lives in Minneapolis and is a huge Prince fan. Purple Rain was the first record he bought and in his high school year book he was described as the person “most likely to work for Prince”. James’s regret was that he had never quite got round to seeing Prince live.

A Brief History of Seven Killings explores the abortive attempt to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976 and the impact that had both in Jamaica and in the US. The book is told by what McCarthy described as a “polyphony of characters”, each with their own distinct voice. James describes all his novels as being driven by voice, and finding the right voice as essential to telling the story. “The only voice I am not interested in is my own”. When he first started A Brief History he tried out different voices, searching for the “magic one” to tell the story. When a friend asked why he thought it was only one person’s story, he realised the number of voices he needed was actually 76.

The novel is notable for its graphic sex and violence – visceral was a word that came up a lot. James felt that in order to nail the character or “the voice” you sometimes had to risk going too far, to get to what was wanted. When it came up again later, he said “You’d be surprised how prudish and how squeamish I am”, but that his characters demanded more of him. What he described as “space break sex” was not enough. To explain he gave us an example:

     Tom said to Harry, “I have always loved you.”

     The next morning……

James said he found starting a novel terribly hard, with many false starts, but that he would read his way out of writer's block. Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover was especially praised for its sparse format – “stage director's notes rather than a novel”. He also said he had read the entire script of the TV series Breaking Bad, although he had yet to actually see an episode.

Talking more about the central theme of his novel, he described 1976, the year of the attack on Bob Marley, as a pivotal year in Jamaican history, when the hopes and dreams born of Jamaica's independence began to unravel. James was six at the time -- his mother a cop, his father a lawyer. While he was aware of their heightened fear, he didn’t understand why. Writing A Brief History was a way to find out what 1976 was like for adults who, like his parents, had lived through it.

It was one of those discussions you wished could just keep on going. James obviously thinks deeply about the process of writing, the role of the novel and how history is perceived, and you could see he enjoyed sharing his ideas in this sort of forum. I hope we will see him at the Auckland Writers’ Festival again.

-- Liz

May 31, 2016

Susie Orbach and Jeanette Winterson Pop Up at AWF 2016

8:56 PM: The nice helper at the after-hours ticket outlet aka Festival Information Desk is holding the last two tickets to Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach’s Pop-up session, cash only, hoorah, I’ve got the cash, and we’re off with minutes to spare, slaloming around a few clumps of festival goers enjoying their Bill Oddie afterglow, just enough time to grab a wine, and, what’s this? The bar is closed! What?

No no, someone says, the bar is IN the room, and points the way. Swerve, final stretch, we push open the doors, and there it is -- the bar, and a room bursting with women (okay I guess there were a couple of men). The widest range of hair colours ever yet seen at an AWF session, reds of all shades, white, blond, black, a variety of hats, all stylish, one shawl with a baby being marsupialled in it. Two front row seats for us and our wines, just behind some happy couples ensconced on double beanbags which have been laid out in the space between the dais and us, heightening my feeling that we’re taking part in a giant slumber party, about to call the radio station to request our favourite songs, all through the night. The buzz is palpable.

It’s time. Our Miss Clavel appears and it’s Festival director Anne O’Brien in person, and you can see right away she’s not going to tell us to go to sleep, she’s exhilirated too, presenting Jeanette Winterson, author and memoirist (Oranges are not the only fruit), and Susie Orbach, psychotherapist (most famously to Lady Diana) and writer (Fat is a feminist issue), together since 2010 and soon to celebrate their first anniversary as a married couple, ready to riff tonight on the theme of madness and creativity.

Once the wild applause fades,  the first thing -- and the second -- they do is ask for the lights to brought up so they can see us. They want to see us! How many guests from their places on the stage have mumbled about how they can't see anyone but who ever asked -- twice -- for the lights to be brought up?

“How many people here think of themselves as creative? Raise your hands!” Winterson throws out. Hands everywhere you look.

“How many people here think of themselves as crazy?” Almost as many.

“Creativity is our birthright as human beings" she pronounces. "Every child is born creative and then we knock it out of them. Not everyone will be an artist but we’re all involved in the creative response.”

“It’s interesting you say that because I’m not sure I agree,” responds Orbach calmly, in the first of several instances of endearing married couple-style banter, mentioning "Winnicott’s theory" that creativity is born of babies searching for a relationship with their mother.

“Yes”, Winterson concedes, it’s clearly about relationships, “not the the lone white male they want you to believe.” But who is to say which relationships? “The thing about artists is you can’t trust them, you have to trust the work. I’ve always thought a creative work is first and foremost a lie detector.” Her “autobiographical” novel Oranges are not the only fruit comes to mind, the one of which she once said, “I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful”.

She wonders how we are doing, could we see them well enough, considering that we are going to be spending an hour together, and invites Orbach to join her in perching on the backrest of the ottoman instead of sitting on its seat. Marvellously, they suddenly go from being talking heads to being individuals in flesh and blood, Winterson looking a bit like a mischievous chimney sweep in her black stovepipe-ish jeans, shirt and leather shoes with stitching around the toes which managed to suggest a certain elfin upturning, and Orbach like a sexy Parisian concierge with her black silk chemisier and skirt, and head of untidy curls.

The role of anxiousness is touched on, with Orbach describing the psychoanalyst’s “50 minute hour” as a place of both anxiety and extraordinary creativity. Winterson agrees, replying eloquently, “What is home? Where do I belong? What is my culture? These massive questions: the creativity we make is a sort of an answer”. And, “It’s not just a personal answering, it’s a gift -- we want it to enter into other people.”

“Why do we get so damn scared?” Orbach asks, turning to the question of bravery, of daring.

Winterson talks of when she was writing Why be happy when you could be normal, and how the question emerged for her of how much to reveal. In the end, she says, you need to find the "place you have to access in order to do the work you have to do”.

“In my generation,” says Orbach, who will turn seventy next year (Winterson is in her fifties), “daring to express yourself sent women into breakdowns”.

Something creative people must have, agrees Winterson, is enough confidence to risk bringing out another part of themselves. “Often what we call creativity is recklessness or ruthlessness,” she acknowledges.

Towards the end, they reminisce about their youth. “The search I was in could have led to depression or psychosis but the women’s liberation movement came along,” says Susie Orbach. “That’s how I got out of being crazy” -- not counting the craziness of youth, of course!

On Winterson's part, even with the hard childhood she’d had, locked repeatedly in the coal cellar for punishment by her missionary adoptive mother, not allowed to have books at home (she hid them under her mattress, where her mother found them and burned them), she has something almost romantic to say about the escape route she had created. “My best friends were dead. When I needed them I went and got them off the shelves of the public library.” And launches into an effusive description of a chance reading of TS Eliot on the library steps, aged 16, as Orbach smiles benignly. Generously. "I think that's wonderful," she says.

Kiwi author Joanne Drayton, another brave front-rower sitting a few seats down from us, asks if they think creative opportunities are diminishing in today's world.

Orbach allows as how she thinks there’s been a democratisation of creativity, even as we live under an economic structure that dictates where we are to find satisfaction. Although the first of those postulates could be seen as positive (and in fact Winterson is enthusiastic about the idea of democratisation and takes it as a sign that things are improving), she can't however ignore the alarming fact that 24 million people follow someone on youtube who shows you how to make yourself up so you look like Barbie.

Yes, says Winterson, “The best and the worst is now visible, it’s in your face all the time”. But, she concludes, “I’m optimistic, I think people will sort it out.”

Sometimes I feel that way and sometimes not. And I have to wonder if, brainy as she is, that isn’t true for Jeanette Winterson too. But right then, there was no doubt that she was speaking from her heart. That was what was so wonderful about the evening: the standing up (or perching on a backrest) for spontaneity, in a medium like the literary festival circuit where spontaneity is regrettably, if perhaps inevitably, in short supply.

As I’m writing, all I can think is how glad I am I got to see them like this, in their own orchestration, turning a crowd of curious admirers into friends for the hour, rather than watching a film of them walking around the Auckland Art Gallery peering at creative works and dropping bon mots about creativity as some guy from TV3 followed them around with a videocamera, as I chanced to see a short clip of. Actually, I couldn't have seen more if I'd wanted to, as it was on the Auckland Art Gallery's facebook page, and as I'm not a facebook user, the view was obscured by a banner inviting me to join facebook today.

What a happy privilege to have had the Orbach-Winterson experience live and off the network!


May 30, 2016

Paul Muldoon at AWF 2016: A poet worth knowing

In which Simon from Central City Library tells us about going to see poet Paul Muldoon, and the adroit adjective 'Eliotic' makes its first appearance in Books in the City:

The Writers Festival session "One thousand things worth knowing" featured acclaimed US-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon speaking about his career and artistry with our own C.K. Stead. Muldoon, a poet who enjoys a critical standing up there with the likes of Seamus Heaney (not to mention being a Professor at Princeton University and poetry editor at The New Yorker), was a warm and eloquent speaker. He read wonderfully and spoke with humour and grace. Stead is clearly less of a natural public speaker, (to be fair, he was a late stand-in for Bill Manhire), but knew Muldoon's work and antecedents more than well enough to help facilitate an interesting discussion.

The conversation begun with talk of formative influences. Aside from the impact of the immediacy necessary in radio, impressed upon him during his time working for the BBC, Muldoon admitted early poetic efforts also involved trying to "follow Eliot", which had often resulted in poetry that was "Eliotic."

In contrast, being an Irish poet, Muldoon had found it necessary to "work around" Yeats rather than aspire to, let alone compete with, his greatness. Stead expressed surprise that Yeats had not been mentioned more in the prior ‘From 1916 to Here’ festival event which Muldoon had been part of. Muldoon pointed out the irony that historical events after the fact had helped imbue a poem like Yeats’s “Easter 1916” with its verisimilitude. The British shooting of insurrectionists during the Easter Rising had in fact only happened after Yeats had composed the poem and not the other way round.

Even if he had begun as one of many Eliot acolytes, it was not the Eliotic that Muldoon was shooting for. Rather, he hoped he might induce an "electric shock" for the reader, or as Stead put it, "a kick in the behind." Muldoon elaborated that if the process of composing the poem is unexpected for the writer, this increases the likelihood that a similar shift, whether seismic or minor, will occur for the reader.

"If I know what I'm doing then everyone else will know too. . . If I don't know what I'm doing, there's a chance others will be surprised."

Further building on this contention, Muldoon went so far as to dismiss the "write about what you know" creative writing tenet.

Despite wanting to cause this shift in the reader, Muldoon was uncertain of the effect poetry might have on the world at large. He hoped it might do some good, and could see a world in which art took over the role of organised religion.

Muldoon read poems such as ‘Honey’ from his new volume One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, and older poems such as ‘Saffron’ and ‘Why Brownlee Left’. Muldoon contended ‘Honey’ was the type of poem which seemed to ask of itself: “Is this a poem at all?” The answer “Not much” was one Muldoon felt the culture of poetry as a whole should be more comfortable with. He read with a gentle determination that seemed perfectly in keeping with the tone of the poems.

A brief QnA session elicited charming and self-deprecating responses from Muldoon. When asked if he really felt he could “write about Saffron forever”, Muldoon said he felt that “subject matter” was irrelevant – that the whole world could be seen through the prism of something as seemingly minor as saffron. A second audience member enquired about what books had spoken to Muldoon in his youth. Stevenson’s Treasure Island as it turns out. “If I could write a book like Treasure Island, I wouldn’t bother with this stuff.”

-- Simon 

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