Diana Wichtel – Driving to Treblinka: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverI must admit I have not yet read Driving to Treblinka, but I am on the long list of library customers who have reserved it to read. I have, however, read all The Listener articles that were the precursors for this book.

The moderator for this session was Philip Matthews, former colleague of Diana Wichtel, but now writing for The Press. He opened the session with some lines from Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan: “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”

Matthews suggested that Driving to Treblinka was a contribution to world history, but Wichtel demurred. She said that her father’s side of her personal history had remained in silence with a lot unsaid for many years until she reached a certain age. She was spurred by one of her daughters and a niece who said she must find where her father was buried.

When Wichtel was asked to provide a memoir piece and recipe for a book called Mixed Blessings, she was reluctant, but eventually wrote a piece. This was another spur to start researching the life of her father who was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by jumping from a train bound for the Nazi death camp, Treblinka. He was sheltered by partisans for the rest of the war. He ended up emigrating to Vancouver, Canada, where he met her Kiwi mother who was on her OE and ended up working at her father’s business.

Diana Wichtel. Image supplied.
Diana Wichtel. Image supplied.

When Wichtel was 13, her family migrated to New Zealand. The children believed that their father was to follow them after tying up the loose ends of their lives in Vancouver. He never did and she discovered her parents’ marriage had been disintegrating. As fate would have it, her mother met another man in Auckland who was also from Vancouver. He became Wichtel’s stepfather. When Wichtel was 19, her actual father became ill, but she could not afford to return to Canada to see him.

But once Wichtel’s own children had grown up, she was freed to follow the impetus to research her family’s Jewish heritage with her father as the pivotal identity. Wichtel was approached by Mary Varnham of Awa Press and, over four years, with some welcome assistance from her Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, she researched and wrote Driving to Treblinka.

Wichtel realised that from the outset the book had to be a personal story. She reasoned that if she was exposing her family, she had to expose herself. She stresses to the audience that it is her story and her version of the family’s history as honestly as she can portray it. She found that when she committed to writing the book, many of her own memories were recalled that she had imagined were lost to her.

When she interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he told her that “you have to open the door to the past, knowing you won’t shut it again.” And while working on the book, she felt that she had entered “the stream of history” which unkindly spat her out once her book was published. Worried about her wider family’s reception of her book, Wichtel had three months of anxiety after publication, but then realised to her delight that the family welcomed the book and were pleased she had written it.

Matthews joked that she had been a pioneer of what is now called “dark tourism” and she recounted some of the uncomfortable feelings she had experienced in Poland and in Israel. On a guided tour of Treblinka, she felt it was wrong that there was a cafe on the site. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, she saw a guide, himself a survivor, posing for pictures with school children. Another guide was adamant this was not allowed, but Wichtel felt that if the man had survived the Holocaust, then he should be the judge of its appropriateness. She encountered contentious displays of pre-war Jewish life in Krakow and she felt that it airbrushed the anti-semitism that had been present in Poland before and during World War Two. She joked that many people referred to this display area as “Jewrassic Park”.

She read an extract entitled “Snowing in Vancouver” about the last times she had spent with her father in 1964 before migrating to New Zealand at age 13.

Wichtel said the chapter called “Shouting at the Newspaper” was all too relevant with the many falsehoods being spread in the media about Jewish society, Jewish culture and the Holocaust and also the rise of the far-right in Europe and America.

She moved me to free the moths from my wallet. To paraphrase Jane Eyre: “Reader, I bought the book.”

Follow our coverage of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

You write funny!: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

What you really want from a session called “You write funny!” is for there to be writers and for them to be humorous. It’s pretty much right there in the title. You’re expecting to laugh a bit. And certainly this Friday night session at WORD Christcchurch Festival 2018 MCed by the affable Ray Shipley filled the bill.

The laughing, however, was expedited by Shipley’s careful, “kindly primary school teacher” style coaching, leading the audience through some “little titters” to start with, and eventually even, some good, old-fashioned cackling. “All laughs,” we were told “are valid and important“.

So that was a good place to start from.

The line-up of reading authors was largely unfamiliar to me but the feelings of amusement and genuine laughter (did the coaching and practice beforehand make for a better quality of chuckle?) weren’t. This is what funny sounds like.

First up was Erik Kennedy (author of poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime) who read three poems all with a wry serve of humour, “You cannot teach creative writing”, “Get a pet with a longer live span than humans have”, and in between, a strange take on Christmas heavily influenced by the content of spam emails. I can’t really explain this poem except to say that it was simultaneously more AND less weird than it sounds.

Megan Dunn’s face. Image supplied.

Megan Dunn read excerpts from her book Tinderbox, about her time working at a Borders bookstore. Much of the time Dunn read with a sly, knowing smirk on her face… that was fully justified. Her tales of retail reminded me more than a little of my experiences working in libraries as well as the self-confessional style of David Sedaris, in particular the essay Santaland Diaries about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s Department store.

It eventuates that I find both David Sedaris and Megan Dunn hilarious.

Dunn was followed by poet Chris Tse (author of poetry collection He’s so MASC) and his poem, Wasted, was a hit with the audience. Wasted is a treatise on the sort of men who don’t get drinks thrown in their faces nearly as often as they deserve. Though he admits there are few workable alternatives,

Only a monster would throw a bowl of chips in this economy.

Lastly Annaleese Jochems took the stage reading, from her book Baby, an exquisitely awkward scene of backyard fitness instruction that made me feel more squirmy than amused, but many people in the audience let loose their best cackles in response, so I might have been alone in that.

All in all, You write funny! gave my laughing muscles a good, solid workout.

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“We’ve all been through a lot” Chessie and Chris Henry: WORD Christchurch

I doubt there are many literary – or related – events where you have the author, one of their subjects and an audience made up of people who have been through many of the events described, to a greater or lesser extent, in the place where one of the events took place.

Cover of We can make a lifeThis was the setting for ‘Earthquakes and Family Ties’, a discussion about Chessie Henry’s new book We can make a life, which was also officially launched on Thursday night. Bronwyn Hayward was hosting and Chessie’s dad, Chris, was also part of a fascinating and moving conversation.

This was they first time that Chessie and Chris had talked about the book in public, [pause while I take a call from someone requesting this very book] a memoir of their family, their relationships, brushes with disasters, and a reflection on grief and loss in its many forms.

Chris is a GP and worked in Lyttelton a few years back before taking his family to Tokelau. Unfortunately Chessie and her brothers caught dengue fever and were very seriously ill – and Chris was pretty much the only doctor. Serious at the time, they now laugh about the experience, a powerful shared family memory.

The nucleus of the book is a conversation between Chessie and Chris that took place when they were driving down from Kaikōura in early 2017, where Chris is now based. In it Chris finally tells his story of the work he did as an early responder at the CTV building on 22nd February 2011, working to rescue those trapped. You can read an extract in The Spinoff, but tread carefully as it is a powerful story.

There are so many stories of that time, many that are still being uncovered and shared. It is so important to record these events, not just as history, but – as Chris says – as a practical response to disasters. We learned so many lessons and it’s crucial to record and share them.

Chris received a bravery award for his work at the CTV site. Yet doing so was confusing for him – he was glad to have this this difficult experience acknowledged, but he didn’t like being singled out and felt some kind of impostor syndrome. This huge event had, not surprisingly, a big effect on him. The conversation with Chessie forced him to open up and was like a dam bursting. Chris wasn’t okay. He was burnt out. But by acknowledging that and admitting vulnerability he was able to work through things.

I could easily write a lot more – about lost homes and Kaikōura, about advocating for rural GPs, and about the CTV families who spoke afterwards – reminding us that no one has been held responsible for the disaster. This was an incredible session. Kia ora Chessie, Chris and Bronwyn.

Chessie was interviewed on Radio New Zealand if you want to hear more.

Phone numbers to call for help:

Canterbury Support: 0800-777-846

General help: 1737

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No coward soul…

I am the only being whose doom
No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn;
I never caused a thought of gloom,
A smile of joy, since I was born.

Oh Emily Brontë – how wrong you are! I don’t know if this poem of yours is autobiographical or not, but you really have caused many smiles of joy and thoughts of gloom, and all sorts of other feelings, since you were born 200 years ago on 30 July 1818 in West Yorkshire.

image_proxyThink how many people have swooned over Heathcliff – surely the ultimate Byronic hero – and been captivated by the passion and strangeness of Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only published novel. It is in many ways a brutal and nasty book, considered shocking when it was first published in 1847, but has stood the test of time to be considered one of the greatest novels in the English language.

Emily is also known for her intense, intellectual poetry, although reading ‘I am the only being whose doom‘ has made feel a tad bit gloomy. In her isolated, seemingly lonely life, did she really feel that she had to keep her emotions under control because they were corrupting her? Or has she created a narrator to explore her thoughts around emotions and the need to be loved? We’ll never know, for Emily Brontë is so very elusive, perhaps the most mysterious of her incredible family.

She is also a canvas on which other authors have speculated – both about her life and about some of the gaps in Wuthering Heights.

I don’t really know how comfortable Emily would be with all this continued attention, but I hope she knows that she’s appreciated the world over. We’ll certainly be remembering her on her birthday and her wonderful way with words. I’ll leave you with this quote I love from Chapter 9 of Wuthering Heights:

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

Do you have any favourite Emily Brontë poems or quotes or Heathcliffs?

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Reading many lives

With regards to the quote above, if one were of a sardonic frame of mind one might point out that at the rate at which Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin kills off his characters a thousand lives might be an understatement. Nevertheless the basic premise stands. Reading allows anyone the chance to “inhabit” a great many people and characters.

This is never more true than when you’re reading a book of short stories. Though you may become attached to a character, the next protagonist is probably only a few page turns away. Sometimes this is a relief. Sometimes it leaves you wanting more.

Recently I’ve found myself reading books that work with the theme of many lives but in very different ways.

Cover of deleted scenes for lovers by Tracey SlaughterDeleted scenes for lovers by Tracey Slaughter. I think her surname is appropriate because she killed parts of my soul with this book (in a good way). Her short stories are set in New Zealand, but a rather grimy, rundown one. The stories, with exception of the last one which is a novella, are short and sometimes brutal vignettes from the lives of damaged and lost people. You’ll want to set aside time between each one. This is not a book to rush through. The writing is incisive and brilliant and made me feel a lot of things, some of them against my will.

Cover of Meet cuteMeet cute is rather anodyne by comparison. It’s a collection of young adult short stories, all by different writers and all featuring the “how they met” story of two characters. As with any collection like this some authors and characters resonate more than others, and while the bulk of the stories have a contemporary romance kind of vibe there are a couple of sci-fi/fantasy genre tales too. Most, though not all, of the stories are about straight couples – one of the unexpected joys of the book is that you don’t know when you’re introduced to the main character whether their story will be a boy-meets-girl or a girl-meets-girl one – I found it was fun to try and guess in the first page or so.

He rau mahara: To remember the journey of our Ngāi Tahu soldiers: From the pā to the battlefields of the Great War is completely different again – a nonfiction title produced by Ngāi Tahu’s whakapapa unit about the iwi’s First World War soldiers. It’s a beautifully put together book, filled with photographs of soldiers with names you might recognise – Nortons, Pōhios and Skerretts. Nearly two thirds of the book is dedicated to a profile of every Ngāi Tahu soldier who took part in the Great War, with the first part of the book featuring a sample of stories of soldiers, war, and their families. A gorgeous and poignant memorial to South Island soldiers and their whānau, and the lives they lived.

Staff picks for the Winter Reading Challenge (for ages 13 to 18)

How are you going with the Winter Reading Challenge? We have highlighted some of the fab books picked by teens, now here are some staff picks to help you tick off some challenges:

The first book in a series

Truly Devious Maureen Johnson
Unsolved mysteries, kidnapping, murder, and super smart teenagers at an isolated boarding school in Vermont. Alina

The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater
The story of Blue, the only non-psychic in her family of fantastic women, and the Raven Boys – four boys from a private school on a quest for a dead Welsh King. Full of humour, teen angst, almost-kisses and magic. (Also available as an audiobook.) Alina

Chaos Walking trilogy Patrick Ness
Todd Hewitt is the last man on the planet. All the females are gone, you can read everyone’s thoughts, and nothing is quite as it seems. A brilliant series, fantastic as an audiobook, and coming out as a movie in 2019. Kate

Find more:

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A book that was made into a movie

The Hate U Give Angie Thomas
When Starr witnesses the death of her childhood friend at the hands of a police officer, she struggles to decide what to do — speak up against injustice, or keep her family safe? (Read it before the movie comes out in October!) Alina

Everything Everything Nicola Yoon
What do you do when you literally can’t leave the house, and the thing you want most in the world is just outside the front door? Kate

Every Day David Levithan (picked by Saskia, Cashmere High Library)

The Book Thief Markus Zuzak (picked by Saskia, Cashmere High Library)

The Maze Runner James Dashner

The Fifth Wave Rick Yancey

Ready Player One Ernest Cline

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A book with non-human characters

Year of the Griffin Diana Wynne Jones
When Elda, the griffin daughter of the great Wizard Derk, arrives for schooling at the Wizards’ University, she encounters new friends, pirates, assassins, worry, sabotage, bloodshed, and magic misused. Alina

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A graphic novel/comic book

Nimona Noelle Stevenson
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Alina

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Ryan North
She’s part squirrel, part girl – she’s Squirrel Girl! Lots of fun, lots of laughs. Kate

One punch man

Spill Zone Scott Westerfeld

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A love story

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You Lily Anderson
A loose retelling of Much Ado About Nothing featuring fandom, extra-smart teens and a lot of snark. Alina

Autoboyography Christina Lauren
It can be hard enough being a gay teenager when you live somewhere liberal and progressive. It’s even harder in the middle of Mormon Utah. Kate

Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell (picked by Kim)

Emergency Contact Mary H.K. Choi (picked by Alina)

Pieces of You Eileen Merriman (picked by Rachel from Scorpio Books) [NEW ZEALAND]

Find more:

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Listen to a podcast or audiobook

Nation Terry Pratchett
Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s also completely alone – or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. Narrated by Tony Robinson (don’t worry, he doesn’t sound like Baldrick from Blackadder in this). Alina

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Benjamin Alire Saenz
Fifteen-year-old Ari Mendoza is an angry loner with a brother in prison, but when he meets Dante and they become friends, Ari starts to ask questions about himself, his parents, and his family that he has never asked before. Superbly narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Alina

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A book about identity

Lies We Tell Ourselves Robin Talley
In 1959 Virginia, Sarah, a black student who is one of the first to attend a newly integrated school, forces Linda, a white integration opponent’s daughter, to confront harsh truths when they work together on a school project. Alina

I am Thunder Muhammad Khan
Muzna is a regular British teenager, so how does she end up involved with Islamic radicals? Kate

A quiet kind of thunder Sarah Barnard
Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager with anxiety is even harder. And being a teenager with anxiety who doesn’t speak is even harder again… especially when love’s involved. Kate

Girl mans up M-E. Girard
Pen doesn’t want to be a boy – she just wants to look like one, and that confuses people. This is her look at frenemies, love, and teen pregnancy. An awesome read – I wish it had been written when I was a teenager! Kate

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index Julie Israel (picked by Rachel from Scorpio Books)

Girl Missing Sophie McKenzie (picked by Saskia, Cashmere High Library)

You’re welcome, universe Whitney Gardner

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda Becky Albertalli

Find more:

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A dystopian novel

Chaos Walking trilogy Patrick Ness
Todd Hewitt is just one month away from the birthday that will make him a man. But his town has been keeping secrets from him. Secrets that are going to force him to run. (First in a series and also available as an audiobook.) Alina

Little Brother Cory Doctorow
A standalone cyber-thriller packed full of teen hackers, revolution, terrorism, a police state, and an awesome romance. Alina

The Giver Lois Lowry (picked by Julianne)

Replica Lauren Oliver

Flawed Cecelia Ahern

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Inspirational biographies

Hope in a Ballet Shoe Michaela DePrince
Adopted in the United States, a young girl from Sierra Leone dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer. A great read, even if you’re not a dancer. Kate

In the sea there are crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbar Fabio Geda
Based on the true story of 10-year-old Enaiatollah’s escape from Afghanistan, and his journey across the mountains and seas to safety in Italy. Kate

In order to live Yeonmi Park (picked by Saskia, Cashmere High Library)

Being Jazz Jazz Jennings

Never fall down Patricia McCormick (a work of fiction based on the true story of a Cambodian child soldier).

Find more:

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More recommendations

Personal recommended reads from librarians – from classics to new publications!

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Rachel from Scorpio Books recommended these books for teens:

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Saskia from Cashmere High’s library recommendeds the following good reads:

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More reading ideas

Enter the Winter Read Challenge and win prizes!

Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby: Not sir by chance

Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby was given a knighthood for his service to Māori on this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours.

He is known by many names: Papa Hec to some, Hector to others. And now Sir Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby. You may not have heard of him but it is a name you should know.  His name is known all over the Pacific for his huge contributions to the revitalisation of celestial navigation, as a master carver, Te Rarawa elder, a font of cultural knowledge, for the revitalisation of waka building and waka hourua (double-hulled boat), as kaitiaki of Waitangi waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, and as he man responsible for the first return journey of Māori to Rarotonga by traditional methods after more than 600 years.

In February, I was extremely lucky to attend ACE Aotearoa’s Hui-Fono (an annual conference for Pasifika and Māori educators working in the Adult Community Education space) in Te Tai Tokerau – the Far North where we got to hear Sir Hec speak at his beautiful home in Aurere. Turning onto the Doubtless Bay Road after Te Awanui if you are heading north, you drive a few kilometres to the turn off to Aurere. There is no sign. Just a bridge that leads to a dirt road. Our two coach buses crossed that bridge, and although we couldn’t see the bridge under our bus we were assured that it was safe as Papa Hec was a bridge builder before he retired to carve waka and learn celestial navigation.

About two kilometres up the dirt road, we came to a clearing. A grassy hill, bordered by a warehouse, a carved whare, a waka hourua resting under a tarpaulin, and a house that had been extended several times looking out onto the expanse of the Doubtless Bay Sound.

On top of the emerald green, grassy hill was a ring of pou. And inside the ring was a group waiting to welcome us on. Papa Hec sat in the middle on a seat next to his golf cart. The scenery was breath taking. When Papa Hec began to speak his reo was so fluid, initially our group of over 100 sat far away from him. But as his sharing continued we crept forward mesmerised by his kōrero, and even when the Northland skies decided to sprinkle us with rain we still sat there listening intently.

Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby sitting next to his golf cart
Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby sitting in his special chair next to his golf cart

The circle that we sat inside was actually a compass. Each of the 32 pou, set 11 degrees apart represented a direction, and when he began to swivel in his chair we realised that through his own design Sir Hector had manufactured a seat centred in the middle of his compass, complete with adjustable sights to study the night sky. It was here that Sir Hec began to study celestial navigation guided by Master Navigator Mau Piailug who came to stay with Sir Hec at Aurere to teach wayfinding and navigating using the sun, stars, clouds, other indicators of nature, and the importance of finding true north.

32 pou on a hill at Te Aurere
32 pou on a hill at Aurere

I came away from Aurere, the lucky winner of a copy of Sir Hec’s biography written by Jeff Evans. I devoured that book, hungry for more and inspired by the ability of our ancestors to traverse the largest ocean in the world with ease. The things that are shared in that book made me realise that our hour with Sir Hec shed very little light on his amazing achievements and contribution to navigation worldwide.

Sir Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby and Jan-Hai with a copy of his biography
Sir Heke-Nuku-Mai-Nga-Iwi Busby and Jan-Hai with a copy of his biography

I am blessed to have had the opportunity to hear such a man speak in person at his beautiful home in Te Tai Tokerau, and we as a community that spans the Pacific Ocean are immensely grateful for your efforts and willingness to share your knowledge and inspiration to find our true North.

Thank you Sir Heke-Nuku-Mai-Ngai-Iwi Busby.

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Jan-Hai
Libraries Learning Specialist

Robert Webb – How Not to be a Boy: WORD Christchurch

On Tuesday evening I attended the WORD Christchurch event where the English comedian and author, Robert Webb, conversed with Michele A’Court about his book How Not to be a Boy.  A’Court suggested How not to be a boy is a “feminist memoir written by a man”. Webb demurred at that description and joked that the “F word” would ruin his chances of sales success.

Webb said that all throughout his life he had thought about gender and the way it defines roles and sets up certain expectations. So when he came to write a memoir, it seemed natural to use gender and its constrictions as a unifying theme.

As a boy, Webb discovered he did not seem to meet the expectations of what a boy should be. He was quiet and shy and not good at sports. Also, he was terrified of his father whom he describes as a violent, philandering, Lincolnshire woodcutter who didn’t really know how to bring up a young family.

Webb’s parents divorced when he was five, and he was brought up by his mother with whom he had a close relationship. Webb described how he felt most at ease in his mother’s company and he recalled fondly how he and his Mum would often sing along loudly with the stereo in the car. When Webb’s mother died of cancer when he was seventeen, he was devastated.

CoverThis experience served to illustrate to Webb that the “boys don’t cry” emotional repression that society seems to expect of males is a toxic expectation that does nobody any good. After his mother’s death, he moved back in with his father, had to retake his O Levels and eventually made it to Cambridge University where, because he had not processed his grief, he fell apart. He sought therapy at Cambridge which he found very helpful. Although not talking about one’s feelings was another trait society expected of males, Webb found talking about his feelings was exactly what he needed in order to heal emotionally.

During the evening, Webb read a couple of excerpts from his book. One was an account of his early teens where a male classmate who was pinching all the girls’ bottoms was challenged by another boy who received a smack in the mouth for his trouble. When the harasser was chastised in class by the teacher, Webb felt a sense of shame that he had been a silent enabler and not a “gentleman” like the boy who stood up to the harasser.

Another excerpt concerned the plethora of books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which Webb saw as letting men off the hook when it came to dealing with their relationships.

Although Webb realised his book appealed to middle-aged feminists, he secretly hoped copies of the book might be passed around in juvenile detention centres and boarding schools. He said he didn’t claim to be any kind of expert and that is why he had employed a tone of self-mockery. He hoped that by using jokes and describing the many things he has done wrong, he could present some serious ideas about gender roles to a male readership and get them thinking about how gender expectations might be limiting their own lives.

More Webb

Robert Webb is appearing at Auckland Writers Festival. Catch him there.

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The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

In The Wife’s tale, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam recounts the life of her grandmother Yetemegnu, an indomitable woman who lived through the most extraordinary century in Ethiopia’s history.

Edemariam first introduces readers to Yetemegnu on the day of her wedding, when she is just eight years old. Barely aware of the vows she is making, Yetemegnu is being married to Tsega, an ambitious priest more than two decades her senior. Over the next thirty years, Tsega is varyingly tender and brutal to his wife – a tyrant who beats her when she returns home from merely buying food, and a father who..

‘…when I was a child braided my hair.
Trimming the rough edges, teaching me manners.
My husband who raised me’

Edemariam heartbreakingly evokes Yetemegnu’s secluded marriage, (as a child bride and a clergyman’s wife), and her difficult motherhood which consisted of ten births, infant deaths, and difficult partings to give her children a better future. Edemariam brings her grandmother’s voice to life with vivid descriptions of her daily routine, observations of the world around her, and her prayers offered to the Virgin Mary. Edemariam’s narrative is  filled with rich prose that perfectly evokes her grandmother’s life, such as:

“The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.”

Edemariam also gives a fascinating and unique perspective into the events of the time. Born over a century ago, Yetemegnu lived well into her nineties and bore witness to the 1930s Italian occupation as well as famines, revolutions, and political coups. She vividly recounts events such as Yetemegnu fleeing her city during allied bombardment, her audiences with Emperor Haile Selassie to defend and avenge her husband; and her battles in a male dominated court to protect her property rights. With a housewife’s unique perspective, Yetemegnu also bore witness to economic and educational changes, as well as the huge changes in culture and attitude Yetemegnu herself had to struggle to understand.

Edemariam’s distinctive narrative manages to delve not only into the mind of her grandmother, but also into the rich history and culture which surrounded her. Elegant, and superbly researched, ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is both a rich panoroma of 19th century Ethiopia, and an inspiring tribute to the courage and importance of seemingly ordinary wives like Yetemegnu.

The Wife’s Tale
by Aida Edemariam
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780007459605

Have you found yourself yet?

I Am, I Am, I AmHave you found yourself yet? And if so, how?

Maggie O’Farrell, author of seven very successful novels, has worked out who she is using her seventeen (that is correct) brushes with death, and has put it all together for us in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am.  And it is very good.

O’Farrell has had a truly amazing life. Seventeen times she very nearly died (think attacks on lone walks, aeroplane near misses, medical blunders and and and and), but seventeen times she came back to live another day. These experiences have taught her a lot about herself, and she has assembled each episode into this uniquely structured memoir. After reading this book, it is almost impossible not to compare, to think back on one’s own life to times of danger or to those fleeting moments when guiding forces seem to have  intervened and prevented something truly awful from happening. I have not had a life like O’Farrell’s. And I come from Africa.

The ImmortalistsBut what if you did know the exact day when you were destined to die? Is this something you would want to know? And how might it affect your life?  The Immortalists explores this option after four young siblings consult a travelling fortune teller who predicts the exact death date of each of them. Half way through this novel I wouldn’t have minded if all four Gold siblings had died at the same time, like immediately, but it is worth it to hang in there as it’s a book that gets better in the second half.

Could it be instead that some of us live lives that have been shaped by the small, by a huge number of minor chords, by repetitive everyday attrition, by little tests that slowly reveal who we are?  Personally, I love to be told about myself by answering a gazillion questions (think the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs). I also suspect my birth date has subliminally influenced me. And this has been all well and good, until the library poster for the Lunar Year of the Dog arrived at work. To my dismay I see I am an Ox: steady, loyal, determined, blah blah blah. Just say “plodding” and be done with it why don’t you? I love my western Astrology sign of Sagittarius, but I am not a happy Ox.

Then I happened to glance at the top of this draft page and saw that this is my 200th library blog post.

I am indeed doggedly bullish. But I like to think of myself as an Ox armed with a Sagittarian bow and arrow with which to optimistically shoot my ideas all over the place. Maybe this is how I have found myself. Maybe it is with this kind of action I prove to myself: I Am, I Am, I Am!