The Read Harder Challenge

Book cover of the paying guestsI always begin the year with great intentions of completing a million reading challenges, and inevitably my enthusiasm tapers off after the first few months. (I love how Robyn manages to make one book count for many categories. I might have to steal that trick later in the year.) This time I’ve decided to attempt the Read Harder Challenge 2015 because it looks fun and might make me read a bit wider, which is one of my more attainable New Year resolutions (she says optimistically).

So far I seem to be doing pretty well just from reading books I wanted to read anyway, but looking ahead I can see some difficulties. Can anyone recommend an entertaining self-help book? Or a published author under the age of 25?

Book cover of the strange libraryHere’s what I’ve managed to tick off:

Is anyone else doing a reading challenge?

Guess who’s coming to Christchurch? David Walliams, David Mitchell, Helen Macdonald, Xinran, Steve Braunias, Nick Davies.

Ōtautahi you are in for a right treat.  WORD Christchurch – in association with the Auckland Writers Festival – is bringing six top authors to town for its Autumn Season 13 to 17 May.

For some top whānau fun, head along to David Walliams (Thursday 14 May 6pm). He will be reading from Awful Auntie and talking about his kids’ books – with plenty of time after to get your books signed.

It is a really crackingly good non-fiction line up. Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk was picked in lots of top books of 2014 lists, and has the silverware to match – attracting big literary prizes like the Costa book of the year.

If you like gritty, investigative journalism, then Nick Davies’ Hack attack is the session for you. Or  have a drink at the Heritage Hotel for Steve Braunias and hear him talk about satire, politics, and the recent election campaign. Xinran will be talking about China and the single child policy.

If fiction is your cup of tea – David Mitchell is talking on Sunday 17 May. His latest The Bone Clocks is a genre-splicing treat, and you might also know of Cloud Atlas.

Cover of Awful AuntieDavid Walliams
Cover of H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald
Cover of Hack Attack

Cover of Madmen
Steve Braunias
Buy me the sky
Xinran
Cover of Bone clocks
David Mitchell

So, read the books and get your tickets sussed. If you are keen to attend a few sessions, your best bet is to get a season pass – with that you’ll get entry to all sessions (except David Walliams, book that separately).
Go to our page on WORD Christchurch.

Murakami unleashed: Auckland Writers Festival programme is out

Last night the programme for the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival was released and people gave a collective squee. Haruki Murakami is the headliner. This is doubly exciting – he is one of the best writers of our time and he doesn’t appear much on the literary festival circuit. We are not worthy, but we are excited.

Cover of Colorless Cover of Camp David Cover of Not my father's son Cover of Being Mortal Cover of Hi is for hawk Cover of Nalini Singh Cover of The bone clocks Cover of Captain Underpants

And there are more names, names, names:

Explore the full Auckland Writers Festival programme.

Here’s how Twitter is responding – with the hashtag #AWF15 as your gateway to the good stuff.

“I have read all your books” – A farewell to PTerry

I met Sir PTerry the same year I met my future husband. It was 1985 and I was 18 years old. I have, it seems, spent my entire adult life with him. Which may explain why I am very thankful that I have today off, and am sitting in a darkened room and erratically weeping-while-laughing.

I’m not sure I can do justice to the man – there are people all over the world who write much more betterer than me, and who cared just as passionately about him. You can (and should) read all of these things on the interwebs. You also can (and should) read all of his books. All I can do is say, thank you – you made me laugh, and cry, and fall in love, and feel brave, and learn things, and re-evaluate the way I thought about things, and champion books that (at least in those early days) no-one else thought were worth a damn. I almost preferred it that way – I think I didn’t want to have to share, and it felt so very special when I met those few others who felt the same.

When you came to Christchurch and I got to ACTUALLY meet you, you were every bit as scary and amazing and inspiring as I’d hoped you would be.

I fell in love with Vimes. I wanted to be like Granny Weatherwax (but always knew I was probably a lot more like Agnes Nitt). I adore the Patrician (One Man One Vote). We temporarily borrowed a cat called Greebo. I will ALWAYS want to own a dragon called Errol.

I have read all of your books; even the slightly less-outstanding very early ones (and those ones by you and Mr Baxter that I didn’t like so much but read anyway, because YOU’d written them). I’ve read them on planes and trains and boats, and in the garden and the lounge and in bed and at work. I’ve read them out loud to my family, and to my friends, and occasionally to random strangers.

I think my life would have been an emptier, colder place without you, Terry Pratchett. I probably wouldn’t have been a librarian, and I certainly wouldn’t have been a writer of small silly things.
You have made me a better person, and I can’t believe I have to carry on in a universe where you no longer are.
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Haere ra Terry Pratchett

“I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod, the latter because Thomas’s music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven.
Oh, and since this is England, I had better add, ‘If wet, in the library.’

I woke up this morning and read Terry Pratchett had died.
Cover of Going Postal Cover of The colour of magic Cover of Wintersmith Cover of The last hero

I searched the catalogue, and found 189 things with him listed as author (he wrote more than 70 novels). And had a laugh at one of his famed creations – The Librarian, a wizard turned orang-utang “the only librarian who can rip off your arm with his leg.”

Haere ra Terry Pratchett, a great and magical writer, a great and magical human being.

It’s useful to go out of this world and see it from the perspective of another one.

The Road to Wigan Pier: George Orwell’s early 20th century musings

The Road to Wigan Pier is another one of those books which has helped me realize the privilege of living in this part of the world, at this point in history, replete with all the technological processes and improvements which make life (somewhat) faster, easier and less painful (think dentists in the early 20th century).

Before I read this book I was discontent due to my plethora of first world problems – the cell phone battery doesn’t last long enough. The ending of the TV series The Killing didn’t provide enough closure. Forgetting my multiple passwords during technological pursuits. Jesus or Mary didn’t appear in the foam of my soy, trim, decaf, extra foam latte …

But reading this non-fiction work by liberal visionary George Orwell got me sorted, and makes me think twice before I have a first world whinge.

Cover of George Orwell Cover of George Orwell Cover of The lost Orwell Cover of George Orwell

The Road to Wigan Pier is basically a very well-written investigative, political, ideological and sociological commentary into life in industrial Northern England during the 1930s.

It’s split into two parts.

First, Orwell manages to detail and depict the rugged (in)human experiences of the working classes who occupy the horrible jobs and houses of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1930s. He does this through injecting himself into their environment in an act of heroic, subjective journalism – he takes up lodgings in a cloistered, rank and damp boarding house overfilled with sickly, pallid humans of all ages. It is here he lodges with the unwashed Brooker family, who are basically landlords to a bundle of borderline broke people living in the unsanitary conditions provided by the Brookers. Orwell’s Dickensian caricature of the Brookers and their house is quite a laugh – “I have noticed that people who let lodgings almost always hate their lodgers”.

However, it becomes not that funny after he enters hellish, chugging coal mines where one works but can barely stand in the cramped cavities, and therefore, spends hours scuttering about in a back-breaking, pooh-stanced, squatting position. The hard work is mesmerizing and leads him to state “If there is one man to whom I myself feel inferior, its is a coal-miner”. For what reward? A life fraught with health issues subsequent to the soot…

It is an exercise in raw reportage as he notes his impressions of life, and the horror and squalour of it all through exposing himself directly (as an upper-middle class gent), getting intimate with the toils of everyday life in the working class slums in what was supposed to be enlightened, democratic and civilized England. And that’s the point, all this is contrasted against that which is never really detailed in the book, but that which the English and Orwell were familiar with – the lush lifestyles of the upper classes in England, and the fullfilling life which being upper class afforded them.

Cover of George Orwell Cover of Anima Farm  Cover of George Orwell Cover of George Orwell

The second part of the book is a little surprising (to me anyway), because Orwell enters into quite a zealous Socialist spiel. This ideological discussion challenges classist modern England – why should there be classes at all in a democratic environment? However, while being a blatantly biased and ardent presentation on the values of socialism, its important to keep in mind the context in which the piece was written, that is, a time when socialism and liberalism was under threat from the burgeoning support for fascism and totalitarianism in 1930s Europe (and of course Mother England).

But it is apologetic too, as Orwell also criticizes the English Socialist movement for being full of nut-case individuals:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

Still a very intriguing journey into early 20th century socialist thought from one of England’s most celebrated and rational writers and reporters.

Lastly, what I found really interesting about this book is that Orwell discusses the nature of early 20th century progress and the “machine-civilization” which had emerged and preoccupied many thinkers of the time as mechanization and modernization was taking hold of society and changing jobs, gender roles, warfare and human economic and social interaction in general – will machines take all jobs? A 21st century echo anyone?

The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug – that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.

More on The Road to Wigan Pier

You can read The Road to Wigan Pier on Project Gutenberg Australia.

The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on David Sharrock, The Observer, 20 February 2011

Russel Boyce’s The Road to Wigan Pier exhibition

In 1984, I was commissioned by the Impressions Gallery, Bradford; to undertake a project that reflected on the themes described by George Orwell in his book, ‘Road to Wigan Pier’.

Search the catalogue for George Orwell

Personal names in the catalogue

Cover of Final Curtain
Ngaio Marsh’s novels are shelved under Marsh.

If you are a regular user of our libraries, you may have noticed that the writer’s name will usually be listed surname first in the catalogue. This order is important as an author’s fiction will be shelved under the part of the name which appears first in the catalogue listing.

Working out which part of the name is the surname or family name is usually straightforward, especially in the English-speaking world. It is normally the last part of the name, eg,

This general rule may be affected if the surname includes a separately written prefix (van, de, etc), or if it is a compound surname. The writer’s preference in the way in which his or her name is written is also taken into account.

Cover of Frog
Mo Yan’s novels are shelved under Mo.

However, a more common issue is that some nationalities follow different conventions. Therefore the last part of the name may not be that chosen for listing in the catalogue, eg,

  • Mo Yan is listed as Mo, Yan, not as Yan, Mo; and
  • Trinh Khanh Tuoc is listed as that, in direct order, not as Tuoc, Trinh Khanh.

For many, Icelandic names tend to prove the most bothersome when it comes to identifying which name the author is listed under. Icelandic names are in fact listed under the first given name, followed by any other given names, patronymic and family name, in direct order. Thus

Cover of Strange Shores
Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels are shelved under Arnaldur.

If you are unsure where to look for an author’s fiction on the shelves, you may find the answer in the catalogue – check the Full Record tab of a title in the catalogue and you will see how the author is listed.

Or, of course, ask your friendly librarian!

The skinny reader

Cover of Dept. of SpeculationNowadays hardly anyone comes into a library and asks for a skinny little book. Which is a pity, as there are some terrific reads that fit the “small but perfectly formed” description.

I’m a skinny reader – of books with fewer than 150 pages that is; they must have been published fairly recently and they must be well written. Actually, these small books are not that easy to track down, so here is a list of skinny reads that I have enjoyed. My favourites from the past few weeks are:

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. There are only a handful of books that I can honestly say have changed my reading life – and this is one of them. Read this Cover of While the women are sleepingbrilliant little book if any of the following apply to you: you were once dumped and it hurt like hell, you’ve never been dumped and wonder what all the fuss is about, you think you are happily married, but…

That covers just about everyone I know.

While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías is a small read of only 126 pages comprising 10 short stories that “inspire the reader to look at the normal things of life aslant.” Highly praised for his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Marías writes in Spanish and has been likened to Proust. I started to read this book because I love the cover. Then, as promised, the very first story threw me aslant.

The Guest CatCover of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a tiny read of just 140 pages. Translated from the Japanese (there is a trend here), it is the only book I have ever read that has caused me to have to draw the floorplan of the home of the two main characters. Nothing much happens in this book, but the spatial orientation seemed absolutely critical to me.

I’m going to be travelling soon. I’ve got my iPad loaded with Zinio magazines and a couple of books from Overdrive. But, when I am feeling all international in sundry departure lounges (after I’ve given the nearest pilot a wave), I like to don my dark glasses (OK, prescription dark glasses for the pedants out there), pluck one of these skinny books from my cleavage, and settle in for the long haul.

Ah, the joys of travel!

Having sleeping problems?

Book cover of Relief from SnoringSleeping should be easy, but as every newborn shows, it isn’t always child’s play.

Tess Graham, author of Relief from Snoring and Sleep Apnoea, thinks she can help us have a more restful sleep and more energy by changing the way we breathe. Tess is based in Australia but is visiting Christchurch to share her expertise.

Come along to South Library on Thursday March 5  from 11 am to 12 pm to hear Tess talk about healthy breathing habits. To find out more information and book your place, look at our events page.

Library resources to help with sleep

Books about sleep disorders
Books about helping your baby sleep
Music for relaxation
Articles about sleeping in Health & Wellness Resource Center
Fact sheets, articles and videos about sleep in Consumer Health Complete

Looking again at 1914 – an interview with military historian Peter Hart

pete03Peter Hart has been Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum since 1981. He has written a number of books about various aspects of the First World War, including Gallipoli and aerial warfare. His latest book is Fire and Movement, which takes a fresh look at the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

In this book you look at some of the myths that have grown up around the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914. How far do you feel that anything new can be said about the First World War?

It is not so much that anything new can be said – it is that ideas and concepts hitherto largely the province of historians and academics can be presented to a wider audience in a manner which is readable and entertaining. This is greatly helped by using carefully sieved personal experience accounts to bring the mingled drama, horrors and dark humour of the battlefield home to the reader. Popular histories often merely regurgitate myths based on wishful thinking and wartime propaganda. This is especially the case early in the war where we have the legend of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the BEF on the Western Front in 1914. Sheer nonsense that ignores what the Germans and French Armies – the main fighting forces during the huge Battle of the Frontiers and the Battle of the Marne – were doing in favour of nationalistic breast-beating myths. The real story of the BEF is far more believable and interesting. We should take pride in what people actually achieved – not in popular myths.

You mention that the British had prepared for war ‘but not for the type of war that faced them in 1914′. Why was the actual war different to what was expected?

There are a variety of reasons. It is always difficult to prepare for the unknown, armies nearly always reach back to their last major conflict for inspiration and a tactical guideline. In the British case this was the Boer War which proved sadly misleading. Little could be gained in preparing for a continental war with armies counted in millions, by analysing skirmishes with Boer guerrillas. The eventual British success based on fast-moving columns and blockhouse bases, led to a fixation with mounted infantry (later overthrown) and light artillery. Officers were thinking, developing their tactics and bringing in new weapons, but Britain had no large-scale training grounds on which to have full-scale realistic exercises. Budgetary constraints imposed by the government also meant that identified needs – such as more machine guns – were refused on financial grounds. Britain was not alone in this problem, but her situation was far worse as she had allotted most of the defence/war budget to the Royal Navy the force on which the whole British Empire depended. The army was a small afterthought, deployed with little strategical analysis to bolster the French Army. Thus the BEF was thrust into a continental war for which it was not prepared.

You’ve now written many books about the First World War, what is it about this conflict that keeps you coming back for more? What First World War books have inspired you?

I have always been fascinated in the Great War since I saw the television series in the 1960s and began reading the veterans published memoirs as a young bespectacled geek. Of these I particularly remember the Joseph Murray book Gallipoli As I saw it and the John Terraine masterpiece, Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier. When I began to work as the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum back in the 1980s I had the pleasure of interviewing over 150 veterans in great detail – of which one was Joe Murray who recorded over 20 hours – wow! The synthesised results are finally being published in August of 2015 – in some ways the culmination of my professional work. I think I was attracted to the war because we all wonder how we would have coped with those nightmarish conditions and the hell of ‘going over the top’. At first I was filled with a fury at the ‘stupidity’ of the generals.

Later on, I was taught the reality by a combination of the veterans, my colleagues and some brilliant historians like John Terraine. Now I find the sheer complexity of the war mindboggling, there was no ‘easy way’ to victory and if you engage in continental warfare with a major power then hundreds of thousands of men will die. Put bluntly: to beat the German Army you have to kill 2-3 million of the best trained and equipped soldiers in the world. This is a murderous business however you look at it.

Do you have any thoughts around how public libraries can engage with the First World War centenary?

I think the Great War is not something to be celebrated. Personally I am interested in the war as a historical event to be studied and understood as widely as possible – the sentimental centenary side of it passes me by a bit. Yet I fully accept that we should never forget all those on all sides who died or had their lives ruined in that terrible conflict. I just think their memory is best served by establishing what really happened to them and why. Having said all that then Canterbury Library seems to be on the right track! Making historical resources freely available so that people can look up relatives/local people and see what they wore, how they lived and where/why/how they fought. Small on-site displays can be very effective in sucking in interest. Online exhibitions are great and the use of social media including Blogs, Facebook and Twitter feeds can help increase awareness of our subject. Booklists are great in leading people towards a new world of learning – as long as they are not merely a list of books spouting mythologised nationalistic rubbish. The centenary could be an opportunity to gain a realistic perspective; but it could be a disaster if we fail to challenge historical untruths – or as some would call them – lies.

See our page on WW100 commemorations.