“What will you be reading in Italy?”

By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.

This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.

But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”

The Music ShopA friend’s suggestion: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.

A Florence DiaryA book from my must read list: Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.

The LoversA serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that  “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!

JohannesburgA book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.

And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!

There’s mutiny afoot…

“History is written by the winners”

This quote is attributed to either Churchill or perhaps Hermann Göring (the jury is still out!) and it’s pretty accurate – if yours is the only side of the story people hear, then its probably going to be the one that everybody believes. But the not-so-recent rise of fictional accounts of real historical events and significant historical figures has been trying to even the ledger by giving us the other side of the coin!

And we’ve had LOADS of writers contributing to this movement; think Hodd by Adam Thorpe – depicting Robin Hood as an outlaw, a thief, and generally a really bad man; or The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson – exposing John Batman as a scoundrel and murderer with his attempts to control (and/or massacre) the indigenous population of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Victoria; and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the courts of King Henry VIII from Cromwell’s view-point.

Each of these stories seeks to expose the “truth” or at least broader context of historical events in whatever form that can take since so long a time has passed…And now there’s a new title to add! In his new book Fletcher of the Bounty, Graeme Lay recounts the story of the mutiny on the Bounty with Fletcher Christian as the central character.

Lay’s skilled storytelling builds a world of contrast, between the confines of life on board a naval vessel adhering to authority and routine, to the freedom and love of life experienced during the time spent in Tahiti, connecting with people from another world and ultimately falling in love with an indigenous girl. He also describes well the slow unravelling of the ship’s commander William Bligh, and demonstrates just how alien he must have seemed while in Tahiti – clinging desperately onto his military ceremonies and brutal disciplines (continuing to wear full dress uniform in the sweltering heat, for example), while at the same time considering himself far superior to all others, crew and islanders both.

The story of the Bounty, one of idealism, betrayal and the resulting struggle to create a Utopian ideal, is familiar to all of us and as far as rewriting the story of the Bounty, the relationship breakdown between Bligh and Christian, and the inevitable mutiny, Lay doesn’t really push any boundaries beyond what we already know. It’s a well written sea-tale/love-story, and it does expand brilliantly on many of the themes dealt with in brief in the 1984 Roger Donaldson film The Bounty, (with the two leading characters played by the greats Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins).

His compelling character-driven narrative is highly descriptive and contextual and if you like a good nautical tale or are a fan of historical fiction then you should get a kick out of this retelling of the tale – I especially like the inclusion of regional languages as the crew travel around the Antipodes. Just don’t expect any new earth-shattering nuggets of insight.

Fletcher of the Bounty
by Graeme Lay
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775541066

And while we’re talking about stories in this vein, here’s a list of other titles that fall under the banner of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction, explore, read, and enjoy!

Mai rānō – Way back when…

Nau mai e ngā hua o te wao
o te ngakina
o te wai tai
o te wai Māori
Nā Tāne
Nā Rongo
Nā Tangaroa
Nā Maru
Ko Ranginui e tū iho nei
Ko Papatūānuku e takoto nei
Tūturu whakamaua kia tina
Tina, haumi ē, hui ē, tāiki ē!

Welcome the gifts of food,
from the sacred forests,
from the cultivated gardens,
from the sea,
from the fresh waters.
The food of Tāne,
of Rongo,
of Tangaroa,
of Maru. 
I acknowledge Ranginui above me,
Papatūānuku who lies beneath. 
Let this be my commitment to them all!

Janna with some ponga ferns

Growing up in the 60s the tamariki in my whānau worked alongside our mum and dad. Together we worked on our market gardens in Tāmaki Makaurau. West Auckland. Every day, rain, hail or shine the whole whānau would be out there, doing our bit. Mahi Māra. Working in the garden.

Dad would rise at 4am and start his mahi for the day. We’d watch him spray with water the packed produce in their wooden apple boxes. Then he’d lift the load onto the small wooden deck of our taraka. A tiny Morris Minor 1000. After parakuihi – breakfast, we’d scramble aboard, each choosing an apple box to ride within. Dad would light his ciggie and settle in behind the drivers’ wheel. While the rest of the world was still sleeping we’d fly through the streets on our trusty wooden steeds towards the tense and bustling world of the early morning markets. Turner’s and Growers. Downtown Auckland.

I can still hear the screech of the karoro and tarāpunga as they greeted the fishing boats. Just like me, the gulls delighted in the early morning commotion. He kanohi kitea te karawhiu. To see their little faces every morning was the norm.

After the morning’s auctions we would return home to get ready for school, perhaps with a box of apples, bananas or oranges, sometimes even a crate of watermelon. All kai was shared with our whānau whānui, our extended whānau. The māra was our life, we lived according to the seasons and according to how well our produce sold.

Dad, being an immigrant from Naples, Italy, grew exotic huawhenua. Vegetables such as Capsicum, Spinach, Aubergine, Italian Parsley, Radish, Globe Artichoke, Acid Free Italian tomatoes, Basil, Garlic. He even harvested the marrows before they grew to their full size. Unheard of in those days, we now have a name for immature marrows. Courgettes. Occasionally, for lunch, dad would snap a few flowers off the marrow plant, heat some olive oil in our dinged up fry pan and after sautéing garlic he would add the beautiful yellow flowers for 2-3 minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt. Courgette Napolitano style! Kai tino pai!

Mum, on the other hand, introduced us to kaimoana. We never went hungry with the bountiful Waitematā Harbour on our back doorstep. In the weekends or after school, up onto the tray of our taraka, along with e toru ngā kuri, our three dogs Sookie, Andy and Prince, us kids would jump and off to the beach we’d head. No problem if we forgot our kete. Plenty of harakeke growing on the side of the road. If need be, we’d pull over beside a flax bush and mum would whip up a kete to carry our kaimoana. Pipi, Toheroa , Kina, Kūtai, Pūpū,Tio repe. Sometimes we’d take a line and catch a tāmure or two. In those days the sea was clean and kaimoana was abundant. On the way home we’d stop again for a dose of Kawakawa. No one escaped chewing and swallowing the bitter green medicinal leaf.

Janna’s cat Buddy supervises some peastraw.

These memories, although more than fifty years old, are part of the essence that informs my love of gardening today. Ia rā, ia rā, everyday I garden with my cat Buddy. My love of the sea and all that resides within it is tino hōhonu. Deep and profound.

For those of you who love gardening as well, check out our seed swap

Try browsing these lists of my favourite Mahi Māra and Rongoā Māori pukapuka!

Janna Russo,
Network Library Assistant