“Think Bill Bryson, But Only On Books”

CoverIn Outside of a Dog: a Bibliomemoir,  Rick Gekoski connects 25 books that have been special to him at different stages in his life. These books range from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss to Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein and twenty-three others in-between.

Gekoski writes with remarkable candour and by the end of the book I felt as if he was a close friend. Which is why, when I encountered him in the lift at the hotel, I greeted him as if we were old acquaintances who were delighted to meet up again. Of course he doesn’t know me from a bar of soap – he must get a lot of that in his travels.

He is billed as being “The Bill Bryson of the book world” – I can only imagine how annoying that must be for him, but the truth is that this is a very entertaining book which is also certain to inspire you to make a list of the twenty-five books that exemplify your life. If you do decide to do this and then turn it into a book, Gekoski has this advice for you: “Find the right language to capture the form of life you are observing and participating in. Take some risks and above all, make it fun!”

In his festival event Gekoski spoke to John Carey and it was like being a voyeur in a gentleman’s club. It was as if they had quite forgotten that we were there. Carey spoke us through some of the stages in Gekoski’s life and the books that were connected to those stages. In his talk he revealed not only some of the authors whom he revered , but also a few who hadn’t impressed. He is no fan of Harold Pinter or Joan Didion and felt that Paul Theroux was one of the most difficult authors he had ever met.

When it came to book signing time, I asked him the question I had not asked in the session which is: why he is so uncomfortable in libraries. He replied “Because they give me an anxiety attack. I am overwhelmed by too much choice” and then he wrote in my copy of his book : “To Roberta who is better at libraries than I am!”

The Michael King Memorial Lecture

A modest crowd heard John Carey deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture today. Carey talked about the influencesCover of Being Pakeha Now that shaped William Golding the novelist.

Golding was a complex man – a scientist who could talk knowledgeably with James Lovelock about the latest NASA rockets, a fine musician, a man free from conventional opinions, a deeply religious man, a socialist with a strong sense of class inferiority, a brave man in wartime who was deeply fearful in everyday life and a teacher who incited the boys in his class to violence as a psychological experiment.

Do only complex people write novels?

John Carey has been involved in some spirited argument during the festival. He believes in the accessibility of art to everyone and the clarity of his writing and his speaking certainly work to that point.

Michael King was another writer who as Rick Gekoski said introducing the lecture took “complex and culturally important things and made them available to everyone”. There is now the Michael King Writers’ Centre on the North Shore. It is a writer’s residence, offers short stay accommodation and runs a community outreach programme of public literary events, writing workshops and master classes.

Somebody stole my game

Chris LaidlawTwo fellows eating hot chips out of a polystyrene punnet was a refreshing sight for my slightly festival strained eyes – the Stagtastic! T-shirt with a picture of the Ranfurly Shield on it confirmed I was in a slightly different corner of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival world. Our library page on rugby didn’t even mention the Ranfurly Shield until last year, but I was quite keen to head to this session.

Somebody stole my game is the title of Chris Laidlaw’s new book. Laidlaw is a model of the traditional All Black ideal – Rhodes scholar, diplomat, race relations conciliator – coming, as the magazine Punch once wrote, from the days when the All Blacks had ‘the personality of a petrified forest’.

Host Lloyd Jones joked that when Laidlaw wrote Mud in your eye in 1973, that rugby players were surprised that a rugby player could write a book. “We circled it, picked it up, put it down.”

Also on stage was Gregor Paul, author of Black Obsession, and editor of Rugby Monthly. The main thrust of the session was essentially that rugby is no longer the great social connecter it once was. It’s an entertainment option where the loyalty of fans has been replaced by the fickleness of consumers of a heavily branded product.

There wasn’t much disagreement in the room, but I think there was palpable regret – most of the audience were very fond of the way things used to be.

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John Carey Bookman

cover of William Golding the man who wrote Lord of the FliesTwenty-two years, 1000 words a day, 2.5 million words, two unpublished autobiographies and an unpublished autobiographical novel, many early drafts of novels – that was the mountain of papers John Carey had to climb to write his biography of William Golding. He felt he really knew his man at the end and he could literally see the author working out his books on the pages in front of him.   William Golding: the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies reveals a complex man with two sides – a loving husband and father, brave naval officer and valued teacher who  “saw the seeds of all evil in his own heart”.

Carey’s own reaction to Lord of the Flies when he first read it involved the impact of the language. “I look for that feeling that poetry is happening” he said and he spoke strongly about that aspect of Golding to the hundreds of students he talked to earlier in the day.

A book reviewer for the Sunday Times over many years he collected many of his reviews into a book called Pure Pleasure where he had what was obviously the pleasure of walking around his bookshelves and pulling down things he remembered liking. A reader to his fingertips, he often remembers books  by where he read them. At the moment Ian McEwen’s Solar is on the go, and he is about to start Robert Harris’s Lustrum. He loves a good thriller and recommends the Swedish duo of  Sjowal and Wahloo.

He really values libraries. “I learned in libraries” he says about his  teenage experience of using the Hammersmith Library to explore the world of books. “Being alone with a book seems to me an experience that has to do with knowing yourself and being with yourself and understanding yourself and inspecting your own mind”

Hear what John Carey has to say about books and reading:

Marti Friedlander – Chutzpah

An hour with Marti Friedlander was a joy. She has been photographing New Zealanders for 50 years and her Cover of Marti Friedlandermemorable images have opened our eyes to our country. Marti came as an outsider, an “out there” personality who had to be a little wary with the reserved New Zealanders. She engaged with and liked her subjects from the start as she has always been drawn to how people engage with life. I thought she seemed enormously sensitive and sympathetic to the human condition, drawn especially to struggling artists and other people on the margins.

She decided very young that she would never follow the crowd. She doesn’t like being photographed and is not a “snapper” and feels there must be respect for the person you are photographing. She does recognise that in the digital age everyone has a camera and we are all photographers. Marti believes there will be a move back to black and white and photographers will go back to the dark room.

Her philosophy of photography:

  • Avaliable light
  • No props no studio
  • Black and white and processing her own work in the darkroom
  • The joy of being utterly mobile

This was a total fan session. We all clapped and whistled for ages and we all loved Marti’s idea that she might put an advertisement in the paper saying she would be at a certain place at a certain to take people’s photographs in order to capture the diversity of Auckland today.

Fiction: The Most Dangerous Thing in the World.

By her own admission, Yiyun Li has an interesting relationship with her mother country – China. She writes (and dreams) in English, has never been published in China, is barely recognised as a writer in her homeland and yet sets all her writing in that country.

This means that she is particularly well placed to compare the two countries that mean so much to her. She summed it up by saying that in America there is always hope for the individual – there is the audacity of hope. Whereas in China this does not exist. People accept that life in China is bleak therefore they are less likely to be devastated by disappointment.

She started writing because her parents were dead set against it and “whatever your parents do not want you to do, you must do.” In fact her parents saw fiction as “the most dangerous thing in the world”. Her first pieces of writing were the fabricated sick notes that she would create for herself in order to get out of school. For such a dimpled, sweet-faced lady, she was an extraordinarily rebellious child.

Her book The Vagrants starts with an execution and ends with one as well. Although this does not sound like a laugh a minute, the novel is really a collection of the love stories of characters who were around at that time. There is sadness, pathos and cruelty, but there is also tenderness and humour and love.

The entire audience was reminded time and again how different life in China was in the 1970’s. It is hard for us to comprehend the cruelty, for example, behind making the family of the executed girl pay for the bullet that was used to kill their only daughter. And that according to Yiyun Li is what really did happen.

I left the room thinking “I will never complain about anything ever again”. Yiyun Lee would have said that was very American of me.

Seven Days in the Art World

Having ‘slept on’ my thoughts about this session, sadly yesterday’s audio wrap-up comment about my ambivalence still stands this morning.

Sarah Thornton is an amazing speaker and clearly an incredibly intelligent and talented writer, and I remain committed to reading her book (it’s in my suitcase right now).  However, I really did find the session hard-going.  Granted, it was at the end of a long and busy day, and as I said, I have not yet read the book.

However, this shouldn’t have made any difference – you can never assume that a festival audience is as heavily invested in a work as you are, or that they know and recognise every name and artwork and quotation you are offering.  This is not, by the way, a criticism of Sarah Thornton, but rather of the chair who, somewhat ironically, I thought, perfectly illustrated some of John Carey’s comments from the What Good Are the Arts? session.

I guess all I can offer from this session is the comment that for those who do move within those fabled ‘art circles’, it would have been hog heaven.  And there were those in the audience who clearly do, and are, and were.  For the rest of us, I think, though, it was a little like being thrown into a combination dictionary/encyclopedia/phone book.

I am not unintelligent, not badly-read, and not without an openness to discovering new things and learning new ideas.  But there is no point of entry if you have no idea who these people are, what they do, and why they said what they did.  And surely the point of a public festival session such as this is to make more people more invested in reading, expanding horizons, and discovering newer and deeper ways of appreciating the arts, rather than leaving us adrift on a sea of name-dropping and intellectual show-off-ism.

I’m now hiding under the bed, waiting for the intellectual wolves to start pounding at my door and climbing down my chimney.  Oh, and I’d also be really keen to hear from anyone else who was at the session and who may have had a different experience of it. Anyone?

What good are the arts?

Featuring John Carey (What Good are the Arts?), Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution), and Sarah Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World), Friday’s What good are the arts? session has left me with questions rather than answers, and so in the spirit of giving I’m passing them right on to you.  Please also bear in mind that my own educational background has taken the literature, libraries and psychology route, rather than the fine arts and high culture route, and that my current heroes include a lurching zombie and a man wearing an iron suit.  Oh, and check out the Friday night audio wrap-up to hear me possibly insulting one of the world’s best and brightest experts in the art world.  I am on fire here.

Here are a selection of some of the questions I wrote down.  Some are comments from the speakers, some came from the audience, and some are just my own little musings.  Ready?

1.  Is there a rule that art critics and art writers can only use words of more than 5 syllables, all of which must end in -icity, -osity, -ality or -ism?

2.  Is calling someone a neuroaesthetitian a compliment, an insult, or a job description?

3.  If, as the Auckland Festival says, Ideas Need Words, does that make literature the highest form of art?

4.  Can anyone, in fact, claim that there IS a highest form of art, or is all art appreciation an absolutely solitary and individual matter of personal taste?  In other words, are there, as Denis Dutton says, universal and cross-cultural eternal values, or is it the case, as John Carey posits, that “you cannot be another being”, thus making it impossible for anyone to pass judgement on anyone’s taste?

5.  Is there a a shop where you can buy paisley cravats and smoking jackets?  And if so, can someone take me there right now?

6.  If the purpose of art is to make us better people and to draw us closer together, does that make football a higher form of art than painting or poetry or sculpture?

Well, people?  I just know you all have ideas and opinions about these questions …  (Just please don’t get all shouty at me.)

Canterbury poets shine at festival

I mentioned in the nightly wrap-up how wonderful the Poetry Live reading was and wanted to share some of the highlights in an audio clip:

Alison Wong, Ian Wedde, Bernadette Hall, Jessica Le Bas, Ben Brown, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Alicia Sometimes are all mightily talented, and this powerhouse performance has been one of the stand-out sessions of the festival for me.

Ben Brown gets special mention – a stylish and assured performance that had real zing. Seek out these poets and buy their work!

Writers love the edges: Script to Screen

Another full session, and one full, again, of great and inspiring stuff!  Any one of the panel could have held an audience on their own for the hour, but Witi Ihimaera, John Barnett, Philippa Campbell and Toa Fraser instead, with the help of chair Vanessa Alexander, managed to share the stage in almost equal measure. 

And this, I think was the main thing that I took away from this session – that in New Zealand, film-making is truly an ‘equal measure’ kind of process.  Adaptation of script or novel, with all its perils and challenges, can really only truly be successful when everyone works together – author, director, script-writer, actor and audience. 

A (far too) brief recollection of some of the ideas discussed:

Most important question when assessing a work for adaptation, John says, is “Does this resonate with me?”  If not, you will never successfully convey the spirit of the book or play. 

How do you get from the initial thing to the end-product?  Philippa:  Can use reconstruction, deconstruction or poetic re-imagining, and must be clear about which of these it is.  Also, she says, you must “place yourself inside the purpose of your adaptation.”

Advice to young or aspiring directors or script-writers from Witi:  “If you’re a writer, don’t even begin to get into adaptation … I used to say, Any old hack can write a film script.  But [it turns out] this old hack can’t.”

Toa:  “New Zealand films need people every step of the way to believe in them and will them into existence.”  And the real joy in NZ movies is working together with people from every area of production, from producers to actors to carpenters to gaffers. 

And finally, my favourite quote of the session, from the amazing Witi Ihimaera:

“Film only sees what it sees, and it doesn’t see the edges.  Writers love the edges.”