Book smack down

If you think literature needs a bit of slapping and wrestling, how about the Morning News Tournament of Books (sponsored by Powell’s Books). It’s a bookish battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction”.

2008’s winner was our old pal Mr Junot Diaz with The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao which gave the smack down to Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Junot’s response to his book’s victory:

I’m beyond humbled. This book took forever and broke my heart nonstop—it’s deeply gratifying that it has moved anybody at all. It’s a little strange to imagine poor Oscar fighting anyone in a tournament so you made the impossible happen. Thanks to everybody who supported any and all of these books and thanks to the Tournament for doing something so hilariously odd in support of literature. So do I get a T-shirt with that supercool rooster on it? He’s bad-ass.

See the 2007 and 2006 matches.

Mmmm Magazines …

The blue couches in the Central Library - the perfect magazine reading spot!
The blue couches in the Central Library - the perfect magazine reading spot!

Ah, study.  Exams, essays and assignments.  Enough to make even the most literary-minded of us melt into puddles of incoherence (except maybe you, Tom?). 

It is during these difficult times that I find myself drawn to magazines:  shiny, short and with lots of lovely pictures!  Even better, here at Central, there’s hundreds to choose from!  And more on the way every month!  And not just Cosmopolitan and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, either.  A quick read through the list of new titles on the way gave me these:  (Note: some of these might not be on the catalogue yet, but hang in there, and they will arrive, I promise!).

Gamefreaks – to feed my inner 15 year old fanboy.  This looks like it might be okay, with lots of glossy screenshots and game reviews, but it’s quite thin, and does seem to lean towards the “running around and shooting things” genre, although the article on Little Big Planet looks interesting.

World Sweet World – to balance the fanboy, I’m also feeding my inner nana.  This also looks pretty cool, if you’re into making felted hats and decorations from tea-stained folded paper and growing your own strawberries.   And the tagline is What a nice magazine!  Aww bless …

Knives Illustrated – to be honest, I’m a little unnerved by this one.  It’s not on the shelves yet, but I’m guessing it will be popular in some circles.

Fabrications – this also sounded promising, I thought, until I read the subtitle:  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  Maybe not, then.

Then I pootled round the open shelves and found these wee gems:

FMR – the biggest, glossiest, most classy look imaginable at really arty things

Make – super-nerdy, super-cool ideas on (for example) how to make a USB flash drive out of Lego

Five different guitar magazine titles (I don’t own a guitar, but you never know …)

Servo – with a very enticing cover article on how to make your own robotic arm

And finally, MMM Motorcaravan Motorhome Monthly (in case all that study really does get too much and I need to run away …)

Great Gig in the Sky

Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the Moon and 12 men walked upon its surface. These twelve are still the only human beings to have stood on the Moon. Earlier this year, I watched the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, a film that brings together the surviving crew members from the Apollo missions and allows them to tell their story. Unfortunately the reclusive Neil Armstrong is absent, but the amusing anecdotes told by his friends give great insight into his character (he comes across as a pretty cool guy).  I strongly recommend this movie (which you can rent from Alice in Videoland).  The “rarely seen footage” is beautiful and compelling. The astronauts are all refreshingly down to earth, and I found it interesting how their experience in space shaped their personal philosophies.  The danger of the early missions was really brought home to me – amazing to think what they achieved with such limited technology.

Seeing the movie sparked my interest in all things lunar, especially the intriguing Armstrong. Although I was initially put off by the words “authorised biography” (yawn), I read James Hanson’s  First Man : the life of Neil A. Armstrong and was happily surprised. The book is well researched, with great detail and I learned a lot about the man.  Armstrong also features in Moon Dust : in search of the men who fell to earth,  Andrew Smith’s attempt to track down and interview the moonwalkers.  His tales present a rather darker view of the moon experience, but is very entertaining.

One thing In the Shadow of the Moon doesn’t dwell on are the politics behind the Apollo voyages.  The Soviet- U.S. space race reflected the political climate of the 50s and 60s, when both nations were wanting to establish themselves as superpowers.  The book Dark Side of the Moon explores how the American government seized on the moon flights as a way of boosting public morale after World War II.  Again, it is a worthwhile read.

Stay Beautiful – Richey Edwards and the Manic Street Preachers

Now might seem an odd time for a flurry of obituaries for someone who was last seen in February 1995. But Richey Edwards of the band the Manic Street Preachers has only now been declared dead.

I think I had heard their sublime song Motorcycle Emptiness, but it took hearing the killer track 4st 7lb on the compilation Really free compilation to draw me into the Manics. They had a profound effect on me. Not only did they rock, but they were ultra intelligent and literary, with lyrics by Richey and Nicky Wire teeming with so many ideas and concepts it seemed a struggle to fit them into the container of the music.

They also courted controversy, claiming they would sell more records then Guns n Roses then break up, got into arguments with other bands, Richey carved the words 4 Real into his arm in front of a music journo.

I went down the fan route of buying cd singles and extended mixes, clipping magazine articles, t-shirts, all that stuff. The Holy Bible is the single most powerful album I’ve ever heard. And I strongly recall the day I went into Echo to pick up some new item when the Manics fan behind the counter said “Have you heard about Richey?” I hadn’t.

Richey seemed like a fragile soul, and in his last months his always slender rock star physique became wraithlike, he shaved his head, and immersed himself too deep in the horrors of which he wrote (especially the Holocaust – a recurrent theme).

You always mistook fists for flowers
Welcome welcome soldier smiling
Funeral march for agony’s last edge
6 million screaming souls
Maybe misery – maybe nothing at all
Lives that wouldn’t have changed a thing
Never counted – never mattered – never be (The intense humming of evil)

The band has carried on, and achieved success without Richey, but he is never forgotten by the band or his fans. The Manics new album will feature his words:

All the songs we are recording are lyrics left to us by Richey. Finally it feels like the right time to use them … It’s a record that celebrates the genius of his words, full of love, anger, intelligence and respect.

Moving Pictures

Hounded by authorities because of taxes, left-leaning politics and a liking for young ladies, the once adored comic Charlie Chaplin split the United States in 1952.  On his last day in the country, he finally consented to his portrait being taken by the noted fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon had been keen to take Chaplin’s photo for many years, but the actor continually declined.  After a full day’s shooting, Chaplin gave Avedon the perfect, spontaneous photo. Head down, fingers aside his head like devil horns, he grins at the camera. It’s an unforgettable image, both humourous and political. Chaplin’s goodbye to the States is one of the most memorable in Performance, a new collection of Avedon portraits.  The subjects are all leading performance artists, and while you may recognise the names, many of these images have never been published before.  Avedon had an ability to really capture the vitality of his subjects, and these photographs all possess a charming lack of inhibition. 

The Avedon book has really fancy packaging and will look great laying on your coffee table for a couple of weeks. Indeed, big, glossy photography books abound at the moment. The other one I’m poring over is Vanity Fair the portraits : a century of iconic images.  Vanity Fair has a well established reputation as a stylish chronicle of society, so this celebration of their most famous sitters was always going to be good.  Considerable thought has gone into the  juxtaposition of  the images and the result makes leafing through the pages more thought provoking. I especially liked the placing of covergirl Kate Moss, gorgeous in a Marlene Dietrich style tuxedo, facing a page with a photo of La Dietrich herself.

Do you have any books on…

Recently I’ve been compiling a few book lists for our website. While doing these, I’ve been looking up a lot of headings on the library catalogue e.g. recycling – childrens fiction; Siblings – childrens fiction; sanitary landfills – childrens fiction…

Yep – that is an actual subject heading : “My kid is so sick of books about cats and fairies – what do you have on landfills, actually, not just landfills – sanitary landfills?” Other childrens fiction subject headings that we don’t get asked about so often –

Helmets – “Excuse me, I’d like to read a book with headgear involved, specifically helmets”

Adjoining Landowners – “I’m in a particularly sticky legal dispute with an adjoining landowner – do you have any picture books to explain this feud to my 8 year old?”

Altitudes – “My child is past the up-and-down stage, what do you have on varying altitudes?”

Other random catalogue entries gratefully accepted…

Baby books – Up the Duff and onwards

When you are new at navigating pregnancy, you’re guaranteed to get advice from a variety of sources. And lots of people will gleefully tell you their horror stories. You need to do a bit of filtering so it’s good to know there are books and web sites to provide you with trusted information, and a bit of perspective.

I’m reading The New Zealand pregnancy book : a guide to pregnancy, birth and a baby’s first three months and it combines a lot of detail (including good illustrations and photos) with a clear, matter of fact style. Kaz Cooke’s Up the duff  is a goodie if you want a bit of pregnancy humour.

There are lots more resources to tap into:

Jack the Viking and more reviews

One of my personal fun tasks is to write reviews for Talespinner the Children’s Literature Journal for Christchurch College of Education. I have read four new NZ books lately and I thought they would all be a great books to buy as Xmas presents. They are as follows:
Jack the Viking by Melinda Szymanik
Jack is in big trouble. Things are going very badly at home: Dad is sick, his Mum is worried sick, he’s letting down the swimming team with his poor performance, and as if that isn’t bad enough, he’s being bullied by some nasty boys. Like all of us he wishes he was a super hero who could make all his problems go away. And he gets his wish – or at least a version of it – only to discover being a warrior isn’t all he thought it might be.

Suddenly, he is a thousand years in the past and trying to persuade the people around him he really is a Viking and not an enemy spy. He manages to persuade them he has lost his way from a foreign land, but draws the line at trying to explain 21st century New Zealand! Luckily, he is taken in by a friendly family and he just beginning to enjoy himself and learn some hunting techniques when the village is attacked and he finds himself on the run with other young survivors of the massacre. They are the only hope for the rescue of Stig’s step-mother and sister who are being held captive. So, the young warriors must travel four days by sea to Bergen to get support from the ruling lords and Stig’s uncle.

At first, the persona of Jack seemed a little forced and more like a female character, but once the action starts the story is very entertaining and all young lovers of adventure and fantasy will find it a great read. Even more exciting is the open ending and readers will have to wait until 2009 to read Magnetic North and find out if Karin and Krista are rescued … This book would be most suitable for confident readers from the age of 7 or 8, and would be equally enjoyed by boys and girls as there are interesting characters of both genders in the story.

Melinda has a great website and blog.

Chronicles of Stone: Set in Stone by Vincent Ford
This is the second book in a trilogy, but your enjoyment of it is not adversely affected if you haven’t read the first. The plot of Scorched Bone is summarised smoothly in the first chapter so the reader is free to follow the exciting adventures of the twins, Trei and Souk as they infiltrate the camp of the feared Northmen in a determined effort to learn their weapon making secrets. Continue reading

What it means to be a Superhero

Like most boys I dreamt at one time of being faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than an ox and of course being invisible. However, the real consequences and disadvantages of being a freak never entered my mind-a bit like being a celebrity I imagine; unable to have anything like a normal life.

Sadly, this lack of foresight plagues most of the graphic novels I come across. Invariably stories get submerged into a messy stew of bulging muscles, revealing costumes with implausible and confusing plots. There’s no sense of three-dimension.  I usually dismiss them as American Trash.

A few writers mercifully progress beyond this adolescent form of writing. Colleagues have already praised the superlative Watchmen a novel that can withstand re-reading after re-reading. Alan Moore has also continued his wider analysis of the trials and tribulations of being gifted in Top 10, a police precinct staffed by superheroes than spans several universes. (Think Hill Street Blues with latex.)

Tony Hickman is another who prefers motivation and introspection to random, violent action. In Common Grounds heroes and villains meet in the neutral setting of a chain of cafes, to chew the fat and muse about life’s ironies. Perry Moore’s novel Hero depicts a gay teenager anxious to prove himself both to the world and to his own disgraced father and Kurt Busiek’s Astrocity has these paranormal figures restricted to a what amounts to an American ghetto. Busiek actually spends time contemplating what it must be like for ordinary citizens having to endure the clashes of immortal beings, whilst trying to go about their everyday lives. All the above also have a sense of humour, often missing from the average Marvel or D.C. publication

My most recent foray into this sub-genre is Soon I will be Invincible. Austin Grossman has produced a novel that is sad, hilarious and gripping. He uses a system of getting two characters to relate the plot via alternate chapters. One is a female cyborg keen to fit in with the Champions, whose ignorance of her human origins causes her pain and resentment. The other is the anti-hero Doctor Impossible who, despite wanting to yet again take over the world and reduce Mankind to servitude, comes over as the most attractive and sympathetic male character.

All the cliches are here: the implausibly large secret hideaway, the relentless cycle of capture and escape, the secret powers (plus the ludicrous explanations of how each acquired their strengths), the quips and punch-ups. However, Grossman produces something wonderful- a superhero novel that is funny, witty, melancholic and an absorbing read.

Preaching in the hopes of converting

You know that feeling when you read something so ridiculously good that you want to make everyone you know read it too in the hopes of spreading it like a virus?  In the recent past friends have infected me with Bonk, and Russell Brand, but possibly the most virulent infection I’ve “suffered” in the last year would be the Preacher series of comics.

An English friend of mine mentioned Preacher to me several years ago.  He has a good handle on my taste so I checked to see if we held it at the library (we didn’t) and then promptly forgot about it.  Some time later another friend mentioned that she had the whole run at home and I thought I’d read the first one to see if I liked it.  In the following weeks I was to make frequent trips to her house, grabbing eight to ten issues at a time, lovingly removing them from and returning them to their mylar bags and generally becoming more and more enraptured by the unfolding tale of a preacher named Jesse Custer.

So what’s so great about Preacher?  For a start it’s penned by the irrascible, irreverent, and somewhat foul-mouthed Irishman Garth Ennis (with whom readers of Hellblazer may be familiar).  Believe me when I say that this ain’t a comic for kids or the easily offended.  Ennis’ characters drink, swear, get into fights, shoot their way out of sticky situations, have sex with the wrong people, and so on.  And the main character’s got a beef with God and is on a mission to call him out…John Wayne style.  So yeah, Preacher has attitude aplenty.

The story centres around Jesse Custer, a disillusioned preacher living in the backwater town of Annville who becomes possessed by an “entity” named Genesis that just happens to be the bastard offspring of an angel and a demon (of course).  As you can imagine “havoc ensues”.  Jesse is soon joined on his journey by his angry ex-girlfriend, Tulip O’Hare and an Irish vampire named Cassidy.

If Preacher were a movie (which it might be – Sam Mendes is rumoured to be directing), then it would be part Western, part Road movie, part Tarantino-esque ultra violence, drizzled with a liberal dosing of dark humour and a healthy disrespect for organised religion.

The entire 75 issue series is now available as a series of nine trade paperbacks so start with volume 1, “Gone to Texas” and just see if you don’t become a convert.

Here endeth the sermon.