The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict is this month’s Big Library Read. You can get this eBook on OverDrive right now – no holds, no queues, unlimited copies. Meet Mileva Marić, The Other Einstein. Learn all about this remarkable woman by participating in the world’s largest global eBook reading club through libraries, Big Library Read.
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein’s enormous shadow. This is the story of Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
History tells us why she died. This captivating novel shows her as she lived.
Alison Weir has an impressive body of work as a historical writer – both non-fiction and fiction – but I was amazed that she was willing to start a huge new series entitled ‘Six Tudor Queens’.
So far she has published Katharine of Aragon: The True Queen and has followed this up with the queen I am most fascinated by – Anne Boleyn. True, Alison has written extensively on the Tudor period and possibly having previously written The Six Wives of Henry VIII had all the groundwork and research under her belt for such a massive endeavour …
My fascination for the 2nd consort of Henry VIII began as a child when I used to visit Hever Castle, the family home of the Boleyn family. Privately owned, but open to the public, there were huge grounds for kids to run themselves into exhaustion, Italian gardens, and an impressive lake. More importantly there was a small-scale castle with drawbridge over the moat that housed giant koi carp. Inside the castle there was abundant family history with an Armoury and severe looking family portraits – an ideal way to absorb an episode of English Tudor history!
There has been much information amassed about Henry’s reign and numerous mentions of Hever, but I knew very little about the formative years of Anne which is where this book – although fictional – is truly amazing. The early relationship that Anne had with her brothers and sister; the education received at the Courts of Burgundy and France, including an early introduction to feminist writers, were the details required to make Anne a much more sympathetic character than previously portrayed.
Through the narrative we begin to understand Anne’s motivations for her behaviour at the English Court, especially concerning her indifference to the increasingly besotted Henry VIII. Political and religious alliances through marriage was something the Monarch had to consider in case it weakened present and future Tudor rule and Anne’s romantic union with Henry Percy was quickly thwarted. Anne’s outrage at this ‘slight’ made her behaviour especially cool when dealing with the King – he was not used to this in women and it had the effect of increasing his romantic ardour.
Anne was quick to realise the power this infatuation gave her. She walked the precarious path to marriage and a Crown, quickly followed by a rapid descent once Henry VIII grew bored with her. Anne, for all her feminist intellect and political astuteness did not make the connection that she was still only female in a male-dominated society — and therefore her only requirement as Queen was to provide England with a male heir. That, coupled with her misguided belief that she was ‘equal’ to Henry, proved to be her undoing.
The personal panic I felt whilst reading this – a young woman who had seriously miscalculated her ability to keep her husband enthralled, and the lengths that Henry was prepared to go to ensure a son would succeed to the English Throne again illustrates the power of the writing.
The fact that Alison Weir takes us ‘along for the ride’ is positive testament to her ability as a writer. The reader cannot know with certainty what went on, but there is enough fact in this fictional tale to make it totally believable.
It has been 34 years since readers last heard from Fay Weldon’s infamous creation – Ruth Patchett, the ultimate she devil. Now in 2017, Ruth has returned. She is 84 years of age, now a dame, and a president for the institute for gender parity.
Her children have (unsurprisingly) not spoken to her for many years. Her husband now lives as a ‘guest’ in the high tower and suffers from dementia (though, as his carer observes, he still recognises his wife well enough and possesses the unfortunate gift of the foul-mouthed gab). The ghost of Mary Fisher haunts the high tower observing the politics and shenanigans of Ruth’s institute.
It seems that Ruth Patchett has indeed reached the end of the road. The ambitious Valerie Valeria, a relative newcomer to the institute, feels she is more than ready to take over the she devil’s mantle. This seems inevitable, until the appearance of Tyler, a young, attractive, twenty something — and the she devil’s grandson.
The ultimate down-trodden male, Tyler has suffered much — his mother is quick to remind him that, had she known he was going to be a boy, she would have aborted him. His sisters have ‘sharp elbows’ too and take daily delight in attacking his masculinity; and worst of all, as a man Tyler is unemployable and must stand passively back while woman take all the good jobs.
When Tyler eventually meets the she devil and it is proposed he transform himself into a woman to become her heir, Tyler concludes that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is a weird and wonderful story that promises to provide Weldon with plenty of hilarious ammunition, but I found this sequel to have all the weird of its predecessor ‘Life and Loves of A She Devil’ but a lot less of its wonderful. In place of Weldon’s usual sharp, effortless satire there is an overuse of jarring obscenities, and while there were a couple of small twists along the way, I felt the attempted build up and climax to be lacking.
However fans of Life and Loves will certainly appreciate the reappearance of characters from Weldon’s beloved original who have aged exactly as readers would imagine. Even in her 80s, Ruth remains every bit the atrocious, scheming she devil; Mary makes for the ultimate ostentatious ghost, and Bobbo is all too believable as the foul-mouthed, utterly unlovable old man.
While many critics have also described Weldon’s gender politics as being ‘confused’, I found her narrative to be reflective of the confusing gender politics of our times, and full of Weldon’s wicked sense of humour. There are no heroes to be found in this novel — Weldon targets smug, ambitious feminists in the guise of Valerie Valeria, who really seems to have confused and indeed the forgotten all about the feminist message. Tyler/Tayla is portrayed as a spineless, unthinking vehicle for Valerie Valeria’s ambitious schemes, and the she devil herself remains the dreadful monster we have come to know from Life and Loves.
While less accomplished than her other works, there is a lot to enjoy in Weldon’s latest novel. If you are interested in the theme of gender wars or just have a great appetite for the absurd then don’t hesitate to pick this up. With Fay Weldon, you are always guaranteed an entertaining and utterly original ride.
So I missed WORD Christchurch Autumn Season but just up the drag from Cape Town, in the beautiful Western Cape lies Franschoek, where every year (in May) the Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) takes place. I was curious to see how Africa festivates*, so my daughter and I offloaded the kids and headed into the mountains.
What is it about festivals that I love? Is it the books, the authors, the coffee, the vibe? In fact a better question might be: What’s not to love? The event that we booked for at FLF was entitled On Being A Book Club Writer, with three world renowned authors: Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame), Lesley Pearse (books like Belle and Tara) and Sophie Hannah (murder mystery writer of books like Closed Casket). The event was chaired by an ebullient Mohale Mashigo who thoroughly enjoyed herself, and worked the festival miracle of getting participants to interact with one another.
Here’s a selection of some gems that I gleaned:
I’ve never belonged to a book group, but I am glad they exist. Basically I am a storyteller – I think everything I write is rubbish until I’m told otherwise. My most bizarre reader interaction came from a young Korean man who proposed marriage. To this day I think he mistakenly thought the beauty selected for the cover of the book was me! All my writing is kept in my head, I make no notes, I seem to have no control over my characters. If I get Alzheimers, that will be it. You’ll be on your own!
I’ve attended many book clubs and spoken at quite a few of them. I love it when people come to blows over my writing. That coupled with wine and pizza, what’s not to love? It certainly feels to me that Book Club members care about books and reading. But I don’t write for book club members, I write for me. I too have very little control over my characters, I am more attracted to the Voodoo of writing, the making of little marks on the page. I once got a Valentine card from a Japanese man made from his hair – that’s the weirdest correspondence I have had. I firmly believe that you can’t express anything in writing unless you have experienced that feeling (OK so you can’t murder everyone, but you must have felt murderous at some point in order to write about it).
I did belong to a dysfunctional Book Club once, it had nine members, all women. Two of them spoke constantly, the other seven never spoke at all. I walked out one day saying I was off to fetch Chinese takeaway and I never returned. I don’t have a single weirdest correspondent. Bizarre correspondence is so regular, weirdness is so normal. I keep very detailed notes. I adore buying beautiful little notebooks. You might as well work in a canteen if you don’t like writing in a notebook! I work on a battered laptop, for at least a year the letter “p” didn’t work and I had to cut and paste it. I was writing a Poirot novel at the time!
This was my first festival coverage out of New Zealand. I loved it just as much as all the home fests I have covered. When I am old and very, very rich (one of those things has yet to happen!), I intend travelling the world from festival to festival … by train.
Sawubona from Africa!
* You are allowed to create new words when you blog about festivals!
Adams is the inspired writer of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, first broadcast by the BBC Radio in 1978. A cult following was inspired by the series and its characters, Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin the paranoid Android and Slartibartfast.
Adams’ inventive use of language, his imagination and humour have immortalised his writing. Using fantasy as a vehicle, Adams explores very human issues such as shyness, meeting women, rain, politics and the demolishing of houses to build motorways – or hyperspace byways.
Douglas Adams also penned three episodes of Dr Who (The Pirate Planet (1978), Destiny of the Daleks (1979) and City of Death (with Graham Williams, 1979); The Salmon of Doubt, the Dirk Gently series, and created the game Starship Titanic, based on a book he wrote with Terry Jones (Monty Python).
I love English wit. Its as stinging as English rain…or indeed Christchurch rain.
It is for his prose that I love the writing of Laurie Lee, although it’s darn near poetry anyway. Cider with Rosie was what started this love affair, the flames were fanned by Village Christmas, a slim little number that had me wanting to be ‘carol-barking’ with the young Laurie and the boys from the village choir, trudging through the snow and being given food and hot drinks.
That speaks to his power of writing. I mean who in their right mind would want the poverty and the poor accommodation of his early life? He was happy though, he knew what to expect with each season as behoves a true countryman. His Mother loved him and his siblings, his Dad having left Lee’s Mum with children from his previous marriage and the children they had together, then departed the scene only to show up occasionally and send money at about the same rate. Village Christmas does cover a wide range of other subjects besides Christmas, festivities and seasons: Things I Wish I Had Known at 18, Chelsea Towards the End of the Last War, The Lords of Berkeley Castle, The Lake District, and the Lying in State of Churchill to name a few.
As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning has Laurie leaving his beloved Slad and walking slowly to the coast and eventually London and the next stage of his life. Becoming a builder’s labourer keeps him in food and shelter until the building work is finished.
By this time he’s keen to see abroad and has learned to ask for a glass of water in Spanish, so the choice is obvious. Arriving in 1935, he makes his way from north to south, living with the people (especially the girls). Laurie witnesses the dissatisfaction and poverty which led to the start of the Spanish Civil War, and when war starts he is rescued along with other expats by a British warship.
These delightful books are written from the retrospective of an exile. Laurie has been accused of an incurable leaning towards nostalgia and to quote the man himself “The only truth is what you remember”. This fan is delighted with nostalgic excess.
Another poet, another nostalgic read — Dylan Thomas‘s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas’s writing is also evocative of another time and place and gives such a warm glow – despite the snow which arrived from the heavens each and every Christmas without fail. Firing snowballs at cats and writing naughty snow messages were a regular event. Written as an adult with sly humour, this creates pictures in my head that make me laugh aloud.
More grown up — but even more entertaining — is Under Milk Wood. The library has it as a narrated play, a talking book to lose yourself in, and play form in a book. Join the dreamers of Llareggub:
No Good Boyo a lazy young fisherman who dreams peevishly of “nothing”, though he does fantasise about Mrs. Dai Bread Two in a wet corset and is known for causing shenanigans in the wash house,
Myfanwy Price and Mog Evans who conduct a romance entirely by correspondence and dreams,
Mrs Organ Morgan wife of Mr Organ Morgan who plays the organ constantly,
Mr and Mrs Willy Nilly, he’s the postman and together they open the mail each morning, so they can spread the news around the village.
Mr Pugh, the schoolmaster who would dearly like to murder the domineering Mrs Pugh and hopefully orders the book “The Lives of Great Poisoners”,
Dai Bread the bigamist baker who dreams of harems,
Mrs. Dai Bread One, Dai Bread’s first wife, traditional and plain and
Mrs. Dai Bread Two, Dai Bread’s second wife, a mysterious and sultry gypsy.
Prepare to lose yourself in Llareggub as your narrator takes you from dawn to dusk with a host of exuberant, very human and memorable characters.
Milkwood was 20 years in the writing and is viewed as the best radio play ever written.
I’ve been stumbling around in my head for words to describe Thomas’s and Lee’s hold on me and why their work brings me such pleasure, but was bowled over completely and failed. I think silver-tongued, spellbinding weavers of words gives you an idea of their work — but read and listen for yourself, and see what you think.
Despite all of these books being written later in the author’s life, and being set long before my time, they reach me still. Do you find yourself reading nostalgia from before your time? Of your time? Do you revel in a read that makes you smile and feel good?
I was really disappointed to miss Ivan on their last trip to Christchurch last year, so as soon as I learnt they would be back this year, I made sure to get my ticket in my hot little hand. I have been a fan of Ivan’s work since reading Missed Her several years ago, and have only become more of a fan with Gender Failure and Tomboy Survival Guide.
The audience who attended An Evening with Ivan Coyote was – to quote one of my neighbours – ‘quite an eclectic crowd’. Despite any differences in age, gender, or any other identifier, however, everyone was completely drawn in by the stories of growing up in small-town Canada: What’s it like to be the only little girl in the world who didn’t want to grow up to be Princess Di on her wedding day?Why open the door to someone empty-handed when there is plenty of road-kill around to offer? What songs would you include in the soundtrack of your life? And how cool is it to live near a World Record-holding giant squash?!
Much of the material was from TomboySurvival Guide, Ivan’s most recent book, but the fact that I’d already read the stories did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the evening. Ivan’s portrayal of different characters had me laughing out loud, nodding in agreement with their observations of life, love and public toilets, and feeling like I was watching more than just one person. The elderly grandmothers, the best friend from childhood, and the ball players and sports coaches – Ivan’s storytelling and use of voices brought these characters to life, and it was a parade of the weird and the wonderful that we saw up on stage.
With a large number of gender-diverse audience members, Ivan also had words of encouragement and support for those who don’t look or act the way boys and girls ‘should’ look and act – be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and embrace what it is that makes you individual and unique. Be yourself, and know that asking people to use the ‘singular they’ pronoun to refer to you is not going to cause the end of the world!
Ivan is a fantastic storyteller, with some great stories to tell, and I look forward to hearing more from them. With sold-out audiences this year and last, Ivan has said they will be back, and I know that there will be keen interest in their next show. Until we hear about their next visit down to Aotearoa New Zealand, however, have a read of Ivan’s books available here at the library.
I could almost be in Dublin right now. It’s 13 degrees and in the freezing rain I bike up to the beautiful Piano venue on Armagh Street, for the last event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Anne Enright, first Laureate for Irish Fiction, is here to talk about her book The Green Road.
Winner of Irish Novel of the Year, The Green Road is a family saga, reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Great American Novel,’ The Town and the City. Is this Enright’s Great Irish Novel? Well she did get her prize…
Family, says Enright, are a common focus in many of her novels. The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is about a family of nine who reunite for a funeral. Other common themes are the drinking father, the difficult mother, and the death of a parent or sibling.
There’s nothing brings a family together like a good funeral.
Often splitting her stories between characters before gathering the threads back together, Enright insightfully examines different perspectives of a common experience or issue.
The Forgotten Waltz, (a lyrical story about a love affair), is more introverted. Both lyrical and ironically funny, it follows Gina as she navigates her way through an affair, and the death of her mother. Apparently it has long been illegal in Irish culture to talk in the first person: “It’s not about you…!”
Enright is part of a new canon of Irish writers who “write what they like”. She discovered women writers were overlooked in Ireland, and figured no-one would read her… so wrote for her own pleasure.
The landscape is a strong character too. Quietly dominating the prose at times, foreshadowing perhaps a storm to come in story:
“The sky was full of weather.” (The Green Road).
Enright felt she could not write about it at first but remembered a connection with the cliffs around County Clare.
Enright is the first to say that she doesn’t want to be “abouty”. She means that she doesn’t want each book to be about the same theme, though issues do inspire her. The drinking father persona of Ireland, the difficult mother…
When asked what inspired the story for The Forgotten Waltz, I was blindsided by her answer: the economic boom and bust of Ireland… the dishonesty and financial fallout of the affair being a vehicle for Irish investment in a failing property market… So there you go.
Enright‘s narrative voice charms the reader from the first paragraph. After a week of reading The Forgotten Waltz, my mind was speaking in brogue. So it was a pleasure to hear her read Hannah’s trip along the Green road with her Da, and the dramatic scene around Holy Thursday dinner.
Her observations of human experience have been described as an unblinking eye. I see it more as winking. Like the Catholic Church, (nurturing, but subversive, ‘you can’t get out of it” she says,) her work is poignant, with the humour that comes along with the dramas of life.
There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.
As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.
One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:
he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.
Andrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being
deeply strange and complicated.
He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!
Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.
Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?
I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.
Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.
“There’s no place like home”
Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.
Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:
You know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?
She shook her head.
He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.
— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy
When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!
Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.
I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.