December 2008


Literary hero worship.  Let’s face it if you were going to find it anywhere on the internet it’d be on a library blog wouldn’t it?  This is the first in an occasional series where I let the fan within loose, and gush about some of my favourite authors.

First up on the literary love-in is American raconteur and humourist, David Sedaris.  At first glance I would seem to have little in common with this writer.  He grew up in North Carolina before moving to New York, later transplanting to France.  He is gay and of Greek extraction.  He has a slightly high pitched voice and an art collection.  But these are all superficialities.  Sedaris’s writing conga-lines right through these imagined boundaries like a drunk uncle at a wedding.

David Sedaris is sardonic and insecure with a touch of the misanthrope… thus does he speak to my soul. (more…)

Here’s something to pencil in for 2009:
Five writers, six days, one very windy road. The New Zealand Book Council is taking Words on Wheels on tour again from 2-8 March, visiting libraries, schools, and the odd town hall on the road from Christchurch to Queenstown.

On the bus this year will be Anna Mackenzie (Teen Fiction), Vanda Symon (Fiction), David Geary (Scriptwriting), Janet Charman (Poetry) and Steve Braunias (Non-fiction).

Book Council Chief executive Noel Murphy says: ‘We are delighted to be able to take this unique and talented group of writers on a tour of one of the wildest parts of New Zealand. From Lincoln to Methven, to tiny Fairlie, no town in the Selwyn and Mackenzie districts will remain untouched during this highlight of the Book Council’s calendar in 2009.”

Mills & Boon, why just the mention brings to mind powerful, ruggedly handsome men sweeping winsome, earnest women off their feet.  Although I’m not a reader of romance fiction (not that anyone ever admits to it anyway) I will confess to a juvenile fascination with not only the cover art but also the titles of these novels.

It seems obligatory that the women pictured must always be gazing upwards through heavily mascaraed eyes at a square-jawed Adonis with unfeasible amounts of thick wavy hair.  Words like “tycoon”, “millionaire” and “ruthless” are used in combination with “virgin”, “mistress” or “wife”.  “Engagement”, “affair”, “wedding” and “marriage” also seem to feature quite heavily.  It almost seems as if there should be a formula by which you could generate the most typical title by finding the ultimate combination of the above.  Though why bother making them up when the actual titles of recent library acquistions such as Forbidden: the billionaire’s virgin princess and The sheikh’s rebellious mistress are so delightfully overboiled?

Fantastic new book The art of romance : Mills & Boon and Harlequin cover designs reproduces some terrific examples of romance cover art and presents them in full, glorious colour.  Earlier titles had yet to latch on to “The Ruthless billionaire’s virginal secretary” formula and instead had titles like “The wolf man” or “The lumberjack”.  Simpler (and more woodsy) times perhaps?  The cover art, tells its own story, as you can clearly see the change in hairstyles, fashion, and “pose”.  Earlier art might picture the heroine looking thoughtful with the suitor in the background.  Later art has them in much closer proximity and with the lady looking decidedly “swoony” which probably reflects the move to more “racy” stories.

If the actual cover art isn’t silly enough for you then I recommend checking out this site where the cover art has remained but the titles have been changed to rather comedic effect, or if you fancy yourself as a hunky hero or breathless heroine plug your name in here to find out what your character name would be.

Meanwhile I, Amanda Hardaway, will be applying some mascara and then trying to find a wind machine to stand swoonerifically in front of.

badscienceBen Goldacre is a man on a mission.  This doctor and journalist has made a career out of getting to the guts of sloppy, inaccurate, or misleading media reports on topics medical or scientific.  In his book Bad science, he attempts to give the reader the tools, language, and general wherewithal to be able to recognise that just because “sciencey” words are being thrown at us doesn’t mean that everything being said is credible. 

Admittedly, this might not sound like a fun read but that’s where you’d be wrong.  Goldacre’s conversational and often sarcastic style is very readable.  His enthusiasm for the topic is clear, as is his sense of irony (he once bought a membership to the American Association of Nutritional Consultants in the name of his dead cat to prove that the qualifications of a well-known television nutritionist weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.  Some time later she had to stop using the honorific “Dr” – you know, since she wasn’t one.)

As well as being pretty damn funny Goldacre does a great job of informing the reader.  I now know a lot more about how medical research is conducted and published, just how astonishing and important the placebo effect is, how misleading statistics can be, and what to look out for when reading or watching a story on “the latest medical breakthrough” (just because someone uses the phrase “research has shown…” doesn’t mean that the research has actually shown that) .  I”ll never hear or read the words “scientifically proven” again without immediately getting a “ping” on my BS radar.

In fact, I feel so empowered with this new knowledge I’d go as far to say that everyone should know this stuff, but I’ll concede that I have neither the power nor the persuasive skills to make the entire population of the country read a book so, assuming that many of you reading this post won’t get that far, I might just leave you with Goldacre’s oft-repeated catchphrase that can be applied to just about every soundbite ever uttered by a scientific “expert” – “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”  Indeed.

If you’re after more revelatory stuff of a scientific nature then check out the following -

Oh the ag0ny of the wanting-to-be well-read this time of year when the annual Best Books lists are published.       I opened the Listener a couple of weeks ago and discovered I had not read any on the first page of their list.  What had I been frivoling my time away on?  I knew the answer – I had beeen re-reading a lot of old favourites, especially aged mysteries.  However things got better when I turned the page and found Home by Marilynne Robinson which I had just read.   But it is her earlier book Gilead, to which Home is a companion rather than a sequel, that really stands out for me as the best book I have read this year.  Robinson’s subjects are love, redemption and morality in small-town Iowa.  Themes not so different from many other novels but few portray the inner life of their characters with such charm, wisdom and compassion.  Both are worth reading.  Try Gilead first as it illuminates the events in Home.

The Ringmaster

The Ringmaster

I had read a few other Listener picks including Vanda Symon’s The Ringmaster.  Symon is a terrific writer  – great plots, fast-paced, compulsive reading, but her heroine, detective Sam Shephard, is soo irritating!  Mouthy, prejudiced, impulsive  and opinionated.   It shows the quality of  Symon’s writing that I am eagerly looking  forward to her next book despite this.

I now have a very long list of holds for other “bests” of 2008 and haven’t even started on the library’s own Best Reads of 2008.   It should only take me until December 2009.

Finally a D.I.Y. craft book that combines sewing with electronics! I haven’t attempted any of the projects yet, but my choice would be the beaded clutch bag that spells “TEASE” in shiny lights whenever you open it. Many of the other projects focus on cool ways to wear your ipod (embedded in your hoodie, with secret controls in the pockets, or as a fashionable 1920s style hat or cool 80s fingerless gloves).

Switch craft: battery-powered crafts to make and sew is definitely the right Christmas present for the hip 16 – 20 year old in your family who is just discovering the coolness of hand crafts and has access to the school/university electronics workshop. The experimental possibilities leading on from this book feel like an endless summer of fun with your soldering iron …

A great companion is Fashioning technology: A DIY intro to smart crafting which has a similar array of cool (and weird) projects, with more tutorial support – lots of photos of circuit boards and all that sexy boy stuff you’ve never  been allowed to fiddle around with before.

Dennis Lehane of Mystic River fame (although I prefered Shutter Island for the great twist at the end) has written a new book called The Given day.  I wasn’t sure when I first started if it was going to be the one for me – starring baseball players and tough policemen plus a good healthy dose of American history, I struggled for the first part of the book.  However, it turns out to be a good rollicking read and before long I was an expert on baseball, the Boston Police strike and the susequent riots of 1919.

There are a large number of people to keep track of , but thankfully the list of  characters at the start of the book is a help. The 700 odd pages are filled with plenty of action and there is rarely a dull moment;  from the great flu epidemic, bent cops, undercover work, terrorists, a smattering of romance, home runs and lynchings, plus a few riots thrown in for good measure.

So if you like your fiction filled with characters, with a good dose of action and punch-ups, plus a healthy slice of history, then this could be your holiday read.

Last night I watched The Future is Unwritten on Joe Strummer, former lead singer of The Clash. It is a emotionally riveting portrait of an intense – and intensely talented -man. Strummer died unexpectedly at the age of 50 (while reading “The Observer”).

His life is explored via commentary and clips,  and a range of people are interviewed round a campfire – his family, close friends and associates, including well known characters such as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi (… and  Bono).

The documentary (directed by Julien Temple, famed for his association with those other punk icons The Sex Pistols) is punctuated with the soundtrack of Strummer’s world service broadcast radio show – filled with the wide range of music he loved as well as what he created .

Coincidentally, The Clash by The Clash has just hit the shelves. I suspect a lot of music lovers will be wanting to see this bright pink masterwork under their Christmas tree.  Genius.

One of my favourite t-shirt designs of recent years is this one that declares “Bad grammar makes me [sic]“.  As a bit of a stickler, pedant, and punctuation fuss-pot this sort of thing really does appeal to me.

And I’m by no means alone.  You could almost hear the exasperated sigh of relief when, several years ago stickler heroine Lynne Truss released her now famous diatribe on the failings of modern English use and usage, Eats, shoots and leaves : the zero tolerance approach to punctuation.  Fussy spellers and apostrophe monitors everywhere shook their fists at the sky and shouted “Finally, someone acknowledges our struggle,”…or possibly that was just at my house.

Anyway the book was wildly successful and ever since there has been a trickle of titles published designed to appeal to the same market.  Recently I dipped into the slow flowing stream of grammarian reading matter with Grammar Girl’s quick and dirty tips for better writing.

The thing I like about “quick and dirty” is its easy, informal style.  You’re not told off for not knowing the difference between “effect” and “affect”, quite the opposite, you’re reminded that lots of people get this wrong and with good reason.  It is confusing.  While I enjoyed Truss’s book (when I wasn’t reading it I clasped it closely to my chest and stroked it fondly), it was a bit “finger waggling” in tone.  “Quick and dirty” gives you the basics of what you need to know without the judgement and guilt, and its style is light, funny, and easy to read.

I found the cheesy pictures of aardvarks that seem to accompany every tip a little twee but memorable which is, I suppose, the point.  The book is based on Mignon Fogarty’s successful series of podcasts so if you’re looking for something educational to load up on your i-pod (do people do that?) then a wealth of grammatical knowledge is available online for your aural enjoyment. 

If it’s all a bit too complicated for you then you might like to try the kids’ version of Truss’s seminal work Eats, shoots and leaves : why commas really do make a difference or its follow-up The girl’s like spaghetti : why you can’t manage without apostrophes!.

 

Finally! Instead of a book inspiring a movie which inspires an awful computer game, a computer game has inspired a book. When I say ‘finally’ I am of course ignoring all Doom, Pokemon and Halo books, the Resident Evil franchise, Warcraft novels and Shin Megami Tensei.

A Prince of Persia graphic novel has come out and it reminded me how although every book that gets made into a movie gets an uninspiring computer game to accompany it (anyone remember Ghostbusters on the C64?) it hardly ever works the other way around. The novel is getting good reviews, although Publishers Weekly calls it a game “byproduct” which sounds sort of gross.

Kingdom Keepers is another gaming franchise that has made the small leap from the DVD shelf to the book shelf recently. Ridley Pearson has written the first two volumes in the second book series based on the PS2 game “Kingdom Hearts”.  I haven’t read either of them so far, but how long can I resist a book in which the little dolls from “It’s a Small World” start eating park visitors?

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