Listening to ART

CoverAn early morning Sunday treat was listening to the OverDrive audio recording of ART. This award-winning play is about the breakdown of the long-standing friendship between three men when Serge buys a totally white painting for 2oo,000 euros. Marc is outraged at his extravagance  for a picture of nothing , whilst Yvan’s  attempts to placate them both only serves to aggravate the situation.

Their escalating disagreements are highly humorous and entertaining and raise questions about “What is art?” and “What is friendship?”.

For a very visual person, I did struggle slightly with recognising which of the three actors was speaking. However, the experience of being able to download the audio of such a high quality production to an MP3 player to play out loud was really excellent.

Enabling hubby and I to go to the theatre without the hassle of babysitters, and without even getting out of bed!

What if you knew your fate?

Cover of Machine of DeathOk – not the most cheerful of titles I agree –  but something just a little out of the ordinary. This is a truly fascinating and largely funny collection of short stories and artwork. Each work revolves around the central premise of the existence of a “Machine of Death“.  By a simple blood test an individual can discover the cause of their death (but not the time or place). Unfortunately the machine only spits out short answers – often vague and ambiguous. OLD AGE could mean dying in an armchair in your dotage or it could mean being run down by an octogenarian in a mobility scooter. However, the machine is always right and taking the test again will not change the result.

The stories explore different cultural and social possibilities of such a machine – when teens hang out together in groups of the same fate who do you sit with if you’ve got FLAMING MARSHMALLOW? How do you create an infomercial to sell a shipment of instructionless Chinese gadgets when you have no idea of what they actually do (although experiments on colleagues suggest they test for narcotics use)?

The stories were submitted to the website and most are under a creative commons license.  The editors are currently looking for stories for volume 2 although the deadline is midnight 15th July – so you’d need to be quick!

NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – And the winner is …?

Cover of Guardian of the DeadFor the past two years I’ve been reading all the nominations and guessing (correctly) the winner of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards in the Young Adult category. So this year I thought I would give it another go.

This year there seems to be a lot of similarity between the titles with lots of fantasy and science fiction. Guardian of the Dead is set very much in Christchurch pre-quake and what starts off like a school romance story quickly becomes more surreal as the characters become embroiled in Māori mythology that turns out to be a more literal explanation of the world than perhaps one suspected. With witches, monsters, gods, blood-thirsty faerie folk and a somewhat bizarre romance, this is derivative teen fiction with a Māori theme. It is very readable and I would certainly recommend it to teenagers – but after describing our beautiful and gloriously gaudy Peacock fountain as “a monstrosity” it can’t possibly get my vote to win!

Maurice Gee’s Limping Man is the third part of the Salt trilogy, the first of which won the award in 2008, I must confess to not getting very far with this.  A world with an evil enigmatic powerful villain and heroes with strange supernatural powers sounds thrilling but it all got a bit tedious – it seemed to lack the pace and page turning suspense of a great Young Adult novel.

Cover of Smiling JackThe opposite could be said for Smiling Jack – devoured voraciously in one sitting. A whodunit in a small town with a bizarre religious sect, a mysterious bottomless pit, missing gold bullion and bodies turning up all over town. This had great pace and kept you guessing right til the end. My only quibble was weak and unrealistic characterisation which didn’t really ruin the plot but did make the story less believable.

The two other contenders – Ebony Hill and Fierce September, I have blogged about previously – both of these are part two books (I would recommend reading part one of both first) and both excellent reads. However, both are slightly ruined in this competition by their similarity to each other. But of the two I found Fierce September more enjoyable, and probably my favourite of all the nominees.

So who will win?
Cover of Fierce SeptemberI’m really not sure. The Guardian of the Dead has the strongest New Zealand theme which sets it apart from other international literature, something important in a New Zealand-only contest and something the judges may well go for.

However, I would really like Fleur Beale’s Fierce September to win – she was also nominated in 2009 and 2010 with excellent titles Juno of Taris and The End of the Alphabet beaten only by an outstanding other entry each time  (The 10pm Question and The Crossing). So this time I’ll go with my heart and pick Fierce September, the results will be revealed Wednesday evening.

But what do you think?

Futuristic dystopian girls on islands …

Cover of Ebony HillIn the world of NZ young adult fiction, there seems to be a bit of a common theme – future dystopias involving girls trapped (and escaping) from islands.

This year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards’ young adult finalists include two such titles: Ebony Hill and Fierce September.

Both these books are sequels – because I hadn’t read The Sea-Wreak Stranger, I tried it first before reading Ebony Hill – back to back on a rainy Sunday. They are those kind of books – the ones that you can’t put down and merely grunt at your partner when he presents you with a cup of tea.

cover of Fierce SeptemberFierce September the sequel to Juno of Taris – a finalist in the 2009 awards. I read it a while back and is another great book. I will find it hard to choose between it and Ebony Hill.

Both books are set in a near future where (mis)use of technology has caused planetary-wide devastation and the feisty non-conforming heroines escape from a small island run by corrupt rulers.  In both books they find an outside world also suffering from problems and corruption.

Last year The Crossing (where a feisty young heroine in near-future dystopia escapes from a Pacific island) won the award. The sequel, Into The Wilderness, has not been nominated, but the finale – Resurrection is already in the library. This is a far darker trilogy – the horrors of the island are more extreme – but in my opinion an even better read than this year’s nominees.

So far I am going to be at a loss to make a choice, but there are three more nominated titles to read:

The awards ceremony is on the 18 May and children can vote for their own favourite, the Children’s Choice Award.

P.S. Another book with this theme – Exodus – is not a NZ title but possibly my favourite of all.

Love – in all shapes and sizes

Cover of The Selected Works of T. S. SpivetEvery so often a list of new library titles or library recommended reads pops into my email box courtesy of the Libraries Email Newsletters. This is a fantastic feature which results in me placing a flurry of holds on what usually turn out to be great reads.  Currently I’m reading this one:

T.S. Spivet’s fans at the Smithsonian Institution consider him a cartography genius–in fact, they’ve awarded him a prestigious prize they’d like him to accept in person, complete with a keynote speech for the celebration. What they don’t know is that he’s only 12 years old. But he’s nevertheless determined to get from his parents’ Montana ranch to D.C., and so he hops a train to begin his crossing of America. Along the way this precocious boy muses on everything from his impending fame to the garbage found on city streets and comes across some equally wide-ranging travellers. Cleverly illustrated, annotated, and printed, this debut is one of a kind.

The Selected works of T.S, Spivet is a book with everything; a humorous coming-of-age novel featuring a child prodigy with definite leanings towards Aspergers, a mysterious family, trains, science, insects, adventure and within its margins delightful little maps, diagrams, anecdotes and explanations.  It also has a rather bizarre and enchanting website.

It’s a book I currently adore (and I haven’t finished it yet – the ending could be dreadful – don’t tell me!).  Yet, for 3 weeks the book languished on my bookshelf – un-opened and unappreciated. Why?  Well, because, it’s not the cover exactly… it’s the shape – it’s the wrong shape!  It has the shape and feel of a text-book – it has the squarish weight of a history text-book whose tedium has not yet  enabled passage beyond the Tudors and you remain trapped in a dreary struggle to remember the exact order of luckless royal wives.

Why should the shape of my reading material matter so much? But it does (and it’s a pain to lug around on the bus).  This – and the title – conjuring images of dull, 18th century poetry by someone you are probably supposed to have heard of but haven’t – must make it a booksellers nightmare.  Indeed, I saw a huge pile of them for sale in the remainders book shop.  Which is why Libraries’ Email Newsletters offer a brilliant way to discover the joys of the uglies you’d never choose to pick up in the library but could become your own true (book) loves.

P.S. What books have you reluctantly read – only to find a true gem?

Away with the Fairies

Cover of Rainbow FairiesThere is something about fairies, if you have a 6-year old daughter they are everywhere. Books about fairies are everywhere! To take just the the Rainbow Magic series – there are colour fairies, jewel fairies, animal fairies, dance fairies, ocean fairies,  sporty fairies, fairies for the days of the week, holidays (including 5 devoted solely to Christmas) and even the weather – one suspects that they must be running out of ideas soon – surely! Series for children are not all bad – previous blogs here have discussed their role in encouraging early readers. I remember  my first solo reading – Five go off in a Caravan.  I pulled this from my mother’s hands to try to read by myself as I was so frustrated by her rationing of one chapter a day.  Ignore the badly written prose, poor storyline and zero dimensional characters – getting kids hooked reading words is the goal that will lead them on to higher things.

However, at this stage – my daughter’s not reading the fairy stories – I am!  Since my daughter’s primary judgement for good reading  is based on how pink the cover is – sometimes I do get a reprieve.  In addition to fairies, there are princesses and also ponies, and sometimes I am truly lucky and I get all three – Princess Evie’s Ponies – Silver the Magic Snow Pony – fortunately due to the wise judgment of library selectors not available at Christchurch City Libraries.  I am afraid to say that I am not always the most patient of parents – some of these books I have found so truly dreadful, that despite protests and even  tears, I am physically incapable of reading more than one page.

So what series are good to read to your 6 year old girl? Well, we have found some that we both enjoy:

  • Cover of Grandpa ChatterjiGrandpa Chatterji – a delightful series about a strange and mysterious grandfather from India who comes to stay.
  • Ivy and Bean – Two friends who get up to mischievous pranks.
  • Just Grace – Imagine being in a class with 4 other Graces.
  • Tilly Beanie – Tilly has a great imagination and always wants to be someone she’s not.
  • Katie – The Revolting bridesmaid – the girl who hates pink and “exquisite beading” has to be her sister’s bridesmaid.
  • Daisy and the trouble with … – Daisy is a cheeky girl who is often a  bit naughty and things go wrong and she gets into all sorts of predicaments.

Raring to Read

Cover of Mum's Robot Want to help your child with reading but unsure where to start? The library offers a terrific selection of early readers on their Into Reading shelves found in the Children’s area. Much of the reading fare my daughter has brought home from school has been pretty lacklustre and uninspiring  but on the library shelves we have found some gems.

The Wayland Start Reading selection is worth particular mention. The titles are organised into reading level colours and within each level a number of titles are arranged in groups of four. Each group is about a particular character – the books are humorous, engaging and exceptionally clever at creating  real, original stories with vocabulary that can be deciphered by the beginning reader.

My daughter loves them so much that we have taken to placing holds (free for children) on all the books in a particular group so that she can read them on successive nights. These books we use to supplement the homework books, particularly on weekends or holidays.

Other useful series of books we have enjoyed are the Reading Corner and Leapfrog titles.

Walking, Talking

Living Dolls is another of those must reads for Feminists. It discusses the worrying backlash against feminism and a return to sexism.  Talking primarily about society in the UK it dissects the hyper-sexualisation of women and girls. Images from popular media to internet porn have reversed social taboos so that prostitution is glamourised and women once denied the right to a sexual identity are now ostracised as prudish and old-fashioned if they don’t claim their “rights” to  flaunt their sexuality.

Natasha Walter discusses how this narrow range of acceptable behaviour for women to behave as “ladettes” is just as restrictive as in the past. Now young women are seen as outsiders if they choose to dress conservatively and not be promiscuous, the ” ideal” woman is that of a Barbie doll.  The pressure to conform is so intense, that worryingly even some of the top academic students in the country (gaining firsts at Cambridge) feel more defined by their looks than their achievements.

Walter also discusses the recent return to the ideology of biological determinism. Whilst in the 1970s and 1980s, gender “appropriate” behaviour was thought to be learnt by social conditioning, recent “research” seems to indicate that there are inherent differences between girls and boys. Boys are said to be more aggressive and naturally better at logic, mathematics and spatial awareness whilst girls are better at language, empathy, and building relationships . In a manner similar to Ben Goldacre in Bad Science , Walter reveals many of these modern “facts” to be based on poor research and that studies showing the opposite or no effect are ignored by the media.

Arguing, that these “facts” affect girls own views of their abilities and life choices and lead to women as being thought of as ideally suited to be caregivers rather than chief executives. This book is a passionate call to arms for feminists everywhere to renew their fight.

Other recent feminist reads:

Life is all about Luck

Last night Dawkins spoke to a packed auditorium of 2,500 (apparently a last ticket sold on Trade Me yesterday for $132 – though I know of at least one student who snuck in for free).  It was an audience of mainly supporters – Dawkins received a standing ovation at the end – and there was almost nothing in the way of heckling.  Outside there were a few protestors and the handing out of a “special” edition  of the Origin of Species with a “Creationist” introduction.

Dawkins was amusing and informative covering chemistry, biology, plate tectonics, and even tried answering a question on quantum physics before good-humouredly admitting defeat.  His subject was the chance events that brought us here; from living in a universe in which planets exist, from the chance event that allowed life to begin on Earth, to the good luck of each of our ancestors surviving and having offspring, to the chance meeting of the particular sperm and egg that made us. 

He then suggested that our desire to want to give gratitude for our good luck was an evolutionary hang over from the time our ancestors lived in small social groups and kept account of who owed who what before the invention of money.  Thus, feeling gratitude was a good way of remembering who was nice and who was not.  Being able to do this improved the fitness of individuals as they would “do better” in their dealings with others and pass on their “gratitude” genes to their offspring.

Although, Dawkins was speaking about his book the Greatest Show on Earth much of the audience were there to hear his views purported in the more controversial The God Delusion.  Yet his answer on how to reverse the apparent decline in rational thinking and belief in omnipotent beings was:  more religious education! But an education that teaches about all the different world religions and philosophies rather than one that indoctrinates into a particular version.

Despite Dawkins desire to educate the young, I was particularly struck by the advanced age of the audience, there were some university students, many middle-aged, and a surprisingly (to me anyway) large number of older adults too. What was missing were the younger generation – it seemed no one had thought to bring along their interested teenager (Perhaps there are no interested teenagers). Yet, Dawkins would be a wonderful and easy introduction for a bright teen to evolution, rational argument and how scientists think. Some other good titles for the teen (or adult) who just might be interested in science:

Why Evolution is True!

Cover of The Greatest Show on EarthLet’s get things straight – the above is not the title of Richard Dawkin’s most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth.  But it might as well be (and you get the feeling that Dawkins is slightly miffed that Coyne got the better title in last year’s plethora of books about evolution celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species).

If anyone could be described as my “hero” then it is probably Dawkins so I am delighted to be attending The Press Literary Liaison on Thursday. Dawkins is an entertaining speaker, an outspoken atheist and a champion of science (he was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the UK until 2008).

His arguments for the case for evolution are rational, evidence based, logical and very thorough. He discusses how we know the Earth is very old  from from counting tree rings to radiometric dating.  He explains in very easy to understand terms evidence that animals change over time, both in history and today. This includes an experiment with flasks of bacteria in a lab that have been evolving independently for over 20 years, molecular (DNA) evidence, evidence from embryology, and the “unitelligent” design of many animals.

With so much evidence to support Evolution and nothing found to contradict it, for Dawkins, the fossil record simply the “icing on the cake”.

Both he and Coyne introduce their books with a worrying statistic that less than 40% of adults in both America and the UK “believe” in Evolution and prefer Creationist explanations for life.

Dawkins is a man who is right and who knows he is right. His frustration at the supporters of creationism and intelligent design is apparent from the transcript of a radio debate. Dawkins repeatedly tells a creationist opponent that fossil evidence is available in the Smithsonian and to go look, but she adamantly denies such evidence could exist “or she would know about it”. Dawkin’s repeated and insistent  imploring to “go look”  shows why he has earned the nickname “Darwin’s Rottweiller”.

He does come across as somewhat arrogant and smug (his writing is peppered with name drops) but he is one of the best at explaining biology; engaging and entertaining  his readers.  So I am very excited about going to hear him talk.

Other resources about Evolution: