The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas.

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I had stayed up desperately wanting to finish The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and am now paying the price.  It is hard to believe that a book that had so appalled me in the first few chapters had managed to pull me into its grasp.  I lay awake thinking about the characters, wondering what would happen to them all, and marvelling at the way I had become engrossed in their lives.

Set in Melbourne the book opens with a barbecue for family and friends.  People and food arrive, along with personal baggage, fraught relationships and a healthy mix of race and age.  Things are going surprisingly well however, until one particularly unpleasant child, Hugo, gets slapped by Harry, and equally unpleasant adult, for attempting to bash his son over the head with a cricket bat. All hell breaks loose, and how eight  individuals present present at the barbecue react to this event becomes the backbone of the book. 

You certainly could not describe this book as pleasant, and I just wish that I had come up with the description of  a “Satanic version of Neighbours” as this  blog described it.  The first few chapters are indeed hard going,  but having read the posts from the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival about Tsiolkas, and the fact that he won a Commonwealth Writers prize encouraged me to persevere, and I’m pleased that I did. 

Tsiolkas has a voice that is very multicultural Australia, and what struck me was the racism from every quarter.  Greeks are described as “wogs”, Aborigines are feared by everyone, all Arabs are potential terrorists, the Greeks have no time for the “Australeza”, and the wife of one of the Greek sons is described as “that Indian woman”.   So much for the great Multicultural melting pot.

A surprising bonus in the book for me was that Tsiolkas  has a remarkable ability to get inside the teenage head, and I thought the chapters of two teenagers, Connie and Richie were by the far the best in the book.

The Slap probably isn’t  for everyone, (and it nearly wasn’t for me). Definitely worth a read, it’s big, bold, brassy and unashamedly Australian.  I loved it.

Knitting in Public

While writing a previous post I searched our catalogue for the title Sideways and spotted this gem Knitting cuff to cuff : a dozen designs for sideways-knit garments. To me it just sums up the weird and wonderful world of knitting books which from time to time I get excited about – although I never attempt any of the projects.

That might all change if I join the merry band of knitters on World Knit in Public Day this 13 June. Last year 180 people celebrated together in Christchurch – this year organisers are hoping for a bigger mob to descend on the Dux de Lux where they can take part in Knit Surgery (get some help on that project that’s got all tangled up), lasta pasta casta (knitting on dried pasta), fastest knitter and most improved knitter and the winner of the knit your own alien competition will be announced.

In the leadup to the day there is an extreme knitting photo competition and a special knitting class. Check it all out on the  Knit in Public website

A brief delve into the library collection produced some great titles – Men who knit & the dogs who love them, Knitting with balls : a hands-on guide to knitting for the modern man and Never knit your man a sweater unless you’ve got the ring! : 22 handsome projects for every level of commitment (takes me back to the good old days when knitting a sweater for your bloke was part of the Kiwi courting ritual)

Bottle Shocked

red wine glass and bottleThanks to a bit of serendipity (aka Mo-mo) I scored free tickets to the movie Bottle Shock. It purports to be about the events around the 1976 Judgement of Paris. I always thought this was a painting?

Anyway some Napa Valley wines outscored top French wines in a blind tasting by top French wine experts and made the world aware of the potential of New World wines.  These days I think of the potential specials at my local supermarket – but where Napa Valley led, so Kiwi winemakers followed and these days the cheeky beggars are even challenging on the red wine front, at least in the taste buds and wallets of a lot of British wine drinkers.

The film was a bit cliched at times – did they all run around in Deux Chevaux and Citroens in 1976? Or were they the only French cars Americans would be likely to recognise? But it did provide light hearted entertainment and a good story. It whetted my interest in Californian wines, although another movie of a couple of years ago, Sideways, gives an idea of how over-hyped it can be now. We have DVD copies of Sideways in our libraries.

The “effete Pom” character, Stephen Spurrier, is still around on the wine scene – as a consultant editor for Decanter magazine. If you want to explore the wide world of wine there are some great specialist magazines in our libraries – Decanter, Winestate, WineNZ plus the wine sections of magazines like Cuisine, Dine, Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Deep fried book supper

Being Emily by Anne Donovan
Being Emily by Anne Donovan

Both at home and abroad, the Scots use Robert Burn’s birthday as an excuse to get quite extraordinarily drunk and mind bogglingly maudlin; I like to think we do it very well.

This year it was even better as Rabbie aka the Bard turned 250 on January 25th and gave the Scottish Government and tourist industry a chance to roll out Scots culture big time, celebrating whisky, golf, ancestry, Scottish inventors and innovation, as well as another opportunity for Scots everywhere to get pissed of course.

As a little side project “Reading Roots” has been developed to showcase Scottish literary diversity. Tartan-clad Scottish librarians have been playing hunt the haggis not with “puddins” but with books deposited in public places à la Bookcrossing. Hopefully copies of the Oor Wullie annual, Trainspotting and the Bard’s finest poems will find grateful homes.

The Reading Roots website also has a taster of titles celebrating Scots writers both old and new. The lists include:

  • Glaswegian writer Laura Marney, her latest title My best friend has issues is apparently “a romp through the fleshpots Barcelona”. I also suspect Nobody loves a ginger baby by her may too be worth a scan based, if for no other reason, on the sheer outrageousness of the title. How very un-pc.
  • Jackie Kay is a well-known poet, short-story writer and novelist, Wish I was here is her haunting collection of short stories on the eternal theme of love. She also wrote The trumpet a fantastic and surprising novel from 1998.
  • Christopher Rush’s Hellfire and herring: A childhood remembered records the authors 1950’s childhood in the small Fife fishing village of St Monans and sounds suitably “Wee Free Church” with a salty tinge.
  • To further reinforce that no one does dark as well as the Scots Lin Anderson’s Rhonda MacLeod detective series is described as “a heart-stopping sprint through Glasgow’s dark underbelly”, a welcome distraction now that John Rebus is no longing scooping pints at the Oxford Bar.
  • Finally Anne Donovan gets a mention; she is the author of Buddha-Da, strong in Scots dialect and strong in story, a tale of worlds colliding. Her latest title is Being Emily and follows the family life of Fiona O’Connell, a young girl whose mother has recently died.

Over thirty million people globally claim Scottish ancestry; prove your Scots credentials, grab a whisky, snack on a haggis and read a great Scottish novel.

Recent necrology, 11-15 May 2009

Necrology – a list of notable people who have died recently. Now a regular feature on our blog.

  • Heather Begg, 1932-2009 New Zealand mezzo-soprano who had a distinguished opera career in Australasia and Britain
  • Les Bloxham, 1937-2009 Christchurch travel and aviation writer, reporter for The Press
  • James Kirkup, 1918-2009 Poet notorious for his verse published by Gay News, which inspired the last successful trial for blasphemy
  • Anne Scott-James, 1913-2009 Author and journalist with a talent for caustic one-liners who edited Harper’s Bazaar and later became an authority on gardening.

You’re a long time a caterpillar

The very hungry caterpillar.  No matter how you might personally feel about destructive munching on various foodstuffs by garden pests (I know I voraciously protect my basil from nibbly invaders) there’s no denying that the book is a classic.

George W. Bush, in one of his best known gaffs, very famously once declared it his favourite book growing up, despite the fact that it was published in 1969, the same year he graduated from Yale.  It seems he misunderstood the question (or his uni reading list?) anyway, that’s just a very roundabout way of letting you know that the caterpillar in question has just turned forty.

Such staying power for such a little guy.  I think the continued appeal of the very hungry caterpillar is down to several things –

  • “very hungry” is a concept that most children can really get behind
  • vivid, bright illustrations that really look like what they’re supposed to represent
  • the exciting and a little bit naughty bite holes in the pages
  • the metaphor of growth and change which is so intrinsic to the process of childhood – kids hear “when you’re bigger” all the time so really enjoy seeing the caterpillar grow over the course of the book.

So well done Eric Carle.  Not every picture book has such continued popularity.  Long may he continue to munch through 1 red apple, 2 green pears, 3 purple plums…

The Power Of Art

Simon Schama's Power Of ArtI thought Simon Schama’s Power Of Art series was about the best television I’d ever seen when it screened a few years ago. This series was one of those rare successes in that it managed to be intellectual AND entertaining at the same time. I know, I was suprised too. I missed a few episodes and was appalled to find it unavailable on DVD when I looked a while back. The library has had the companion book for a while now, which is great, but certainly a lot more dry. I’m thrilled to report the library now holds copies of the full series on DVD, which has finally been made available.

For those that caught the series and know how good it was, here’s a chance to see it again. For those of you who missed it when it aired amidst the cathode-ray mediocrity, prepare to be delighted. Simon Schama first appeared on our screens presenting the almost-as-enthralling A History of Britain series and seems to be the BBC’s smarty-pants of the moment. The key to his success is the genuine passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter overflowing through his narration. This interest is infectious and enables Schama to present ‘boring’ topics in an accessible and entertaining manner. Schama is an historian, and is drawn to drama so he has carefully chosen works that represent powerful ideas and were produced by artists in the grip of some sort of historical or psychological crisis. This, of course, makes for compelling story telling. Purists may object that the biography and history overshadow the art at times, but to Schama they are one and the same.

The impassioned narration is broken up by re-enactments of historical episodes from the artist’s lives, which vary in effectiveness (Andy Serkis of Gollum fame is just as scary as a deranged Vincent van Gogh). Overall, the series is enthralling and highly recommended for appreciators of painting, history or drama. For those that don’t ‘get’ modern or abstract painting, I particularly recommend the Rothko installment, you’ll never look at a red square the same again!

Champion Mo-Mo

Mo-Mo is a star. Well we all knew that but now it has been acknowledged nationally at the  Qantas Media Awards where she won the award  for Best Blogger of 2009.  In her day job Moata contributes to the Library blog but by night she masquerades as Blog Idle on the Stuff website.  Since winning the Stuff Blog Idol competition a year ago Moata has gathered a legion of fans for her funny and pointed writing about the daily events of life.

Stuff describes Moata as a “librarian with a black-belt in sarcasm who’s been meaning to get one in procrastination too but always ends up watching TV instead. Her blog is an unholy mash-up of whimsy, cynicism and wry observation.” If you haven’t already I’d recommend you check out Mo-Mo’s writing on both blogs. There are some great laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of wry acknowledgements when she hits the nail (or maybe the mouse!) on the head about the ups and downs of daily life.

Canoe well launched

I’d been looking forward to the launch of Apirana Taylor‘s new poetry book A canoe in midstream at Madras Cafe Books last night, not just because of the chance to have “a drink and a nosh-up and a talk” ,  the best bit of launches according to Taylor.  That was all good but even better was getting to hear Taylor read.

He had all his multiple talents on show last night; actor, musician, raconteur and most of all poet.  And he had the cleanest, shiniest shoes. Call me trivial but attention to details like that carry over into other things, like making sure the words in a poem are perfect and true. 

 The book was launched by Fiona Farrell in typically poetic fashion, as she talked about those  ‘poetry moments’ when a poet’s voice comes back to us as we’re walking along a hilltop or attending a funeral.  A scratchy recording of Yeats reading The lake isle of Innisfree in his quavery old man’s voice, James K. Baxter declaiming A small ode to mixed flatting or Margaret Mahy reciting Down the back of the chair.

We are uplifted, challenged and moved by these memories and the audience last night was given lots of opportunities to lay down some new ones as Taylor read in his unforgettable voice.  If you ever get the chance to hear him, take it.

Do you know where your towel is?

Author Douglas Adams, who passed away in 2001, has been responsible for more than a few entries into the English vernacular “babel fish”, “pangalactic gargleblasters”, the facetious use of the number 42 as an answer to incomprehensible questions, the difficulty of Thursdays…the list goes on*.

Amongst this list of sci-fi, hitchiker’s guide references you can surely include the importance of the humble towel, which is perhaps not so humble after all –

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V… you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough… any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Two weeks after Adam’s death in 2001 the inaugural towel day was held. On 25 May every year since Adams fans have clutched their towels to their chests, necks, or waists and worn them throughout the day in the kind of offbeat remembrance that the author would surely have appreciated. If you are brave and/or devoted enough why not wear your towel on Monday? At least then you’ll know where it is, and you never know, it might just come in handy.

For more information check out the official Towel day website.

*If none of this comprehensible to you, well firstly “Shame!”, secondly go read this immediately.