When last did a book make you cry?

Moloka'iMy answer to that question is: last week – which is when I started reading Moloka’i.

Set in Hawaii in the 1890’s, Moloka’i tells the story of the scourge of leprosy on the island’s inhabitants. In particular it is the life story of Rachel, a child of only seven, who contracts the disease and is banished to a leprosy settlement on the island of Kalaupapa. Here she is utterly confused, surrounded by terrifyingly disfigured patients and separated from her beloved family.

Are you crying yet?

Moloka’i is exactly the sort of book I usually avoid: vaguely historical, set in a place I don’t know and don’t really want to know, with a child protagonist and about a disease that I fear in a kind of primitive, medieval way. Why then am I reading it? Two words for you: Book and Club. And say what you will about Book Groups, they do get you out of fossilized reading holding patterns.

Three StoriesAfter a few chapters of this Alan Brennert novel, I was too miserable to sleep. The only book antidote that I had on hand was J.M. Coetzee’s Three Stories. If you have read any of Coetzee’s work, like The Life and Times of Michael K or Disgrace (he was the first writer to ever win the Booker Prize twice with these two works), you will be agog that anyone would consider his writing cheering.

But Coetzee has mellowed. In the three stories in this little book he considers, in this order: the improbability of loving a house; the sorrow of loving a land and the something of loving a parrot (I may have to read that one again.) But I did read all 70 pages of Three Stories and drifted off to sleep in a most satisfactory manner.

How about you – which books have made you cry? And which have soothed your troubled brow?

Do chicks dig time lords?

I have no idea how I found this book. I was just sitting at the computer looking for a book. Now the book I was looking for didn’t have anything to do with chicks, digging or time lords, but there it was.

And I wanted it.

I have been often told, that one should never judge a book by it’s cover. I did. The psychic paper, the scarf and the key to the Tardis all said ‘read me’. And maybe the title Chicks dig time lords: A celebration of Doctor Who by the women who love it.

I quite like time lords, so I was curious. I knew Verity Lambert liked time lords, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Carole Barrowman did too. But a whole book written by chicks who dig time lords was a surprise. They all had different reasons for liking them and they all quite possibly had favourites.

While Doctor Who is off air, the Doctor is hopefully repairing his Tardis and maybe even its chameleon circuit to work. I think I could help him out. Not because I can run in high heels and mini-skirt. I can’t. I could get his Tardis fixed.

Cover of An unofficial guide companions fifty years of doctor who assistantsHe probably can’t travel back through time and space to arrive outside the Tardis repair shop on Gallifrey, but he could go to the planet-sized library which contains every book ever written and get a book on how to repair a Tardis. That’s where I come in. I have a library card which isn’t valid for all libraries in time and space, but since when do small details like that stop the Doctor and his companions?

I do know how libraries are organised and I know how to ask the right questions. If the library has a copy of a Tardis repair manual, I could find it with the help of the Librarian. If the Tardis materializes within the library, we won’t need to borrow the repair manual, but if he does borrow it, the Doctor will be able to keep it for ages, then travel back in time and return it on time. How cool would that be?

Do you dig time lords?

Dare I ask, which one?

While you are waiting for the return of Doctor Who, why not borrow a DVD featuring your favourite Doctor.

Anna Smaill – from a writing musician to a musical writer

Meeting Anna Smaill is almost like a scene from a modern James Bond movie. Hurrying up the stairs of Aotea Centre, she is not aware that I am following right behind her. Once inside the lobby, she reaches for her phone. Before I can say hello, the phone in my pocket starts to ring. Anna slowly turns around, puzzled, still holding her phone close to her ear. We find ourselves in an awkward moment. We don’t know what to do with our hands – greet each other or turn off the phones. Looking at each other, we burst out laughing, leaving the phones to echo around the lobby.

Cover of The Violinist in SpringEven though Anna published her debut novel The Chimes at the beginning of this year, she is definitely not a new name in New Zealand literary landscape. Her poetry featured in Best New Zealand Poems in 2002 and 2005, as well as numerous journals and magazines, before it found a permanent home in her first collection of poetry Violinist in spring (2006). Despite her dedicated academic pursuits – Masters in English Literature (Auckland University), Masters in Creative Writing (IIML, Victoria University of Wellington) and a PhD (University College London) – she never felt entirely suited for academic world. Most of all, she enjoys writing fiction. “It’s because it draws on all parts of me and it’s fun.” She quickly adds how “really really hard” it sometimes is.

The ChimesHer musical background has evidently marked not only her poetry but also her prose. Themes and style of The Chimes, dystopian novel set in alternative England, stem from the idea of music as an overpowering and navigating force of reality. An immense musical instrument, the Carillon, controls lives of remaining population. Brainwashing happens regularly with Matins, which tells “Onestory” – the only acceptable truth about the “Allbreaking”, the fatal discord, that broke with the past (now refered to as a “blasphony”) and established the present order. This is followed by violent erasing of – not only personal but collective memory as well – at Vespers with the Chimes. Among “memoryloss”, people who have suffered incurable damage, and “prentisses”, workforce which helps maintain the functioning of this complex musical tyranny, run by the Order, are outcasts. They forge for the “Lady”, a metal substance out of which the Carillon is made, and hold on to their “objectmemories”, the only remnants of their previous lives and selves. These enable them to trigger and nurture their personal memories.

The main character of the story, Simon, is a young orphan, who joins the pact of outcasts and soon realizes he possesses a special talent, that might change everything. With its unique style, which draws from the music, myriads of themes, relevant to a present day, and a clever narrative this work holds a reader in a grasp of perplexity and amazement until the very end.

I met up with Anna at Auckland Writers Festival to talk about her work, her life and The Chimes – of course.

Lives of people in The Chimes basically depend on their memories. What are your first memories of books, reading or libraries?

We used to go religiously to the library on Friday nights with my family. But I used to go to the library every day on my own after school as well, so it was almost like a second home for me. On Friday night we actually got the books out and we had a big red sack that we filled with books. I remember coming home and feeling reassured and excited. It was a bit like coming home from a supermarket after you just bought enough food for the week – only that I had enough reading material for a week. I was a total bookworm. Also, my family didn’t have a television.

Cover of TintinWe, children, were really lucky as our parents read to us a lot. I do remember the frustration before learning to read. I was trying to get my sister to read out Tintin comics for me. I also remember wishing to escape to my room to be able to read in peace during children’s parties. I found reading much more exciting.

Libraries are – just like museums and galleries – treasurers of collective memory. What is your opinion on cutting down library fundings, which is becoming a real fashion all around the world?

It’s a worrying development. People have a right to access literature. I do see it as a worrying sign. Although here in New Zealand libraries are so much part of the community, they are used by a broad section of the community and they feel very vital. In the UK, it didn’t feel like they were being that well used. There is more time to go to the library, here in New Zealand. In UK people are time-poor.

What has brought you to writing? Where does the need to write stem from? Is it just the fear of letting memories slip away, as you mentioned in a post on your web page, or are there any other inner motives and impulses?

The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.

Continue reading

Creative nonficion

Cover of A million little piecesHave you heard of the term “Creative Nonfiction“? The only so-called creative nonfiction that I was aware of was the books that over the years have been discredited for “creatively”  bending the facts. The likes of James Frey who was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s monthly bookclub one day and exposed the next for fabricating his criminal record and rehab experiences. Or Margaret Jones who published a memoir of her childhood in LA’s gangland only to be later discredited.

The Library handily lists these titles as “imaginary biography” but we don’t take them off the shelves. More recently – and perhaps more seriously – the young cook Belle Gibson (of the Whole Pantry fame) was outed as making up her illness which led her to claim that her recipes had cured her of cancer.  So, creative license has always been a less than savoury aspect of nonfiction.

What I hadn’t realised is that Creative Nonfiction is now becoming an actual genre. Editor/ author Lee Gutkind describes Creative nonfiction as “dramatic, true stories that use scene, dialogue and close, detailed descriptions – techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers.”

Now you could be forgiven if like me you think that many aspects of nonfiction have always had a creative bent – think of biographies, travel stories, memoirs.  These will often use dialogue, have a story that explains an event rather than just straight facts and will include the author’s opinion and ideas as opposed to a straight text book or news item which, theoretically at least, sticks to the facts.

I wonder if there a need for a name/genre for those easy to read, entertaining and informing books that have always graced our shelves. Do we need courses to teach prospective writers how to be more creatively nonfiction-like, or are we able to work out the differences for ourselves?

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The Art of the Novel

It’s 8:15 on Sunday morning and there’s already a queue of at least thirty people waiting to get into the free ‘Art of the Novel’ session. It’s not due to start till 9am and by the time I’m half way through my coffee the line stretches round the corner and out of sight. The room seated 350 people and it looked pretty full by the time everyone was sitting down!

I sat between a very serious aspiring novelist and a group of younger chattier aspiring novelists. The men behind me were also deep in a conversation about writing and almost everyone had note pads.

Enter our three novelists. Stephanie Johnson from New Zealand, Emily St John Mandel from Canada, and from England came David Mitchell, wearing a pair of bright pink stripey socks, so I was immediately taken with him. His work is amazing too, of course, but the socks!

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The session was roughly broken up in to three parts, the ‘pre-writing’ stage, the writing itself, and then the editing and publishing stage.

“Research is great procrastination,” Stephanie Johnson said, as the three of them talked about building up their knowledge before (or just as often, during) their writing. For her latest novel, Station Eleven, Emily spent a lot of time on survivalist forums, which was fascinating, but a little scary.

David Mitchell’s ideas for his next book circle around his head like planes in a holding pattern, waiting to come down. He seems to have a very organised mind, or at least his mental organisation system resembles a kind of organised chaos. Whenever he finds a second hand book he thinks might be useful for one circling plane or another he’ll buy it and store it away, with a bookshelf put aside for each potential novel.

David and Emily both agreed that they would get so sick of working on old novels that the thought of starting a new one was terribly exciting! The new ideas can get very flirty and pushy, so it’s a matter of keeping them under control while you slog through the final days of your current project.

Some great bits of writing advice came out of the session:

About letting ideas sit and stew:

“You do need composting time. It’s good to have at least a part time job that forces you out into the world to pretend to be a normal.” – Stephanie Johnson

“I have to write the novel itself to figure out where the novel is going… it’s an incredibly inefficient way to write a book really.” – Emily St John Mandel

About fear, and challenging yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone:

“I want to know that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time.” – David Mitchell

“I try not to think about the audience when I’m writing. Which audience member would I pick anyway? I write the kind of thing I want to read.” – Emily St John Mandel

“When you’re really writing and it’s going well, the experience shouldn’t be too different to reading, or knitting.” – Stephanie Johnson

On editing:

“Sometimes I retype my entire draft, or read it all aloud. A ‘random page edit’ is a great way to pick up mistakes, print out and pick up page 3, 250, 180, whatever, and you’ll find all sorts of errors that you won’t notice if you read your story in order.” – Emily St John Mandel

“I don’t try to make it perfect the first time, that first draft is just about bringing a thing into existance.” – David Mitchell

On writing odious characters:

“When we’re being odious ourselves, remember, we self justify. Have your villains do the same.” – David Mitchell

“No one is one hundred percent odious all of the time, or if they are, they came by it honestly.” – Emily St John Mandel

By ten o’clock it was clear that the audience would have stayed much longer but it was time to move on, or rather, move out into the signing queues for some quick one-on-one writing advice.

For the writers among us, do you have any writing advice to share?

Seeing and hearing Philip Ball

Cover of Invisible: The dangerous allure of the unseenDr Philip Ball, who gave a talk in Christchurch last week, has an intimidating CV that includes working in an editorial role at Nature magazine for 20 years, an impressive clutch of awards, and an academic background that includes an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Physics. So no slouch in the brains department, then.

He writes columns for a range of publications, as well as books about science and technology but placed within the wider cultural context. It’s science but it’s the literature of science, the art of science, and the myth of science all rolled up into one multi-disciplinary ball. His books also have really tantalising, curiousity-piquing titles like –

His talk on Friday Invisibility: a cultural history drew on ideas found in his latest book, Invisible: The dangerous allure of the unseen. I was interested in this right away as “invisibility” is my favoured super-power. No Adamantium claws for me, thanks. Being invisible presents so many opportunities for mischief.

It turns out, that this idea is sort of what the talk was about, as Ball addressed the audience directly at the beginning and asked:

“If you had the power of invisibility what would you do with it?”

We were then told that if our minds went straight to “power, wealth or sex” then we shouldn’t feel too bad, as that’s very much in keeping with the rest of humanity as far back as Plato (and further). Invisibility, we were told, is not a technical problem but a moral one.

Cover of The RepublicIn The Republic Plato uses the story of The ring of Gyges to illustrate the dangers of unfettered power. Like the One Ring of Middle Earth, this piece of jewellery bestows invisibility upon the wearer. Gyges, a humble shepherd, uses this power to seduce the queen and kill the reigning king and becomes “like a god among men” because unfortunately, invisibility corrupts.

Invisibility, it seems, isn’t necessarily a super power that you would want to have. Right, so I might have to go with super strength or metal claws, after all.

And yet people have been questing after this ability for as long as we have had the idea of it.

Modern technologies involving meta-materials, that can redirect light, are one possible route towards a “cloaking technology” but this is some way from true invisibility. Camouflage is one thing, completely disappearing is quite another.

Much of Ball’s talk leapt deftly from science to magic and back again, highlighting the similarities in purpose of the two and how they sometimes walk along side by side. For instance, in the 19th century there was a resurgence in interest in things spiritual, séances, spirit mediums and unseen forces, at the same time that invisible forces like x-rays were being discovered.

Ball argued that the notion of being able to communicate with another unseen being via the spiritual “ether”, made it much easier for people to accept the technological equivalent of communicating with someone at a distance via radiowaves.

Cover of The Invisible ManBall also made some allusions to literature, pointing out that H G Wells’ The invisible man is essentially a rewriting of the Gyges myth but using science instead of magic. As such, instead of the protagonist becoming god-like, his “power” is a curse. In order to be invisible he has to be naked so he suffers the cold and sore feet. He is no king. Modern invisibility still corrupts the soul but it also belittles.

It was a fascinating talk that covered everything from bizarrely painted “dazzle” warships of the First World War to Harry Potter to Star Trek and back again and illustrated the importance of magic and myth in the context of technology.

“Myth is no blueprint for the engineer. It’s more important than that.”

More Philip Ball –

World Wide Knit in Public Day – Saturday 13 June 2015

Ahoy knitters! We are hosting a World Wide Knit in Public event at Central Library Peterborough on Saturday 13 June 10am to 12pm. There will be tea and coffee and some biscuits to sustain you.

This event will be held in conjunction with Knit world (just down the street a bit at 189 Peterborough Street) and they are supplying a couple of secret prizes on the day too.

Daleks do not knit!

Daleks do not knit! World Wide Knit In Public Day at Shirley Library, 14 June 2014.  Flickr: CCL-2014-06-14-WWKIPDay-ShirleyLibrary-DSC_4494.JPG

The library caters to all your knitters and crocheters:

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Kids’ writing heroes at the Auckland Writers Festival

Did you ever wish to meet your favourite author when you were little? Did you get a chance? What did you say or ask? When I was a keen young reader, all my favourite authors were already dead. Except one.

I was lucky enough to meet her once. She was talking to the teachers in the foyer after the school visit, drinking coffee and smoking her cigarette. I was hiding behind the corner, gathering my courage and waiting for the best moment to come. All I could find at that moment was a small piece of paper. I decided it will do. Finally, I approached the table and asked her for an autograph. Her cold eyes pierced through the smoke between us and straight through me. A torrent of telling-off followed from her mouth. It must have been wrong question or wrong timing. According to her, it was the size of the paper. Only later on I learned she was writing children’s books but did not like children. It took me ten years to re-establish this fractured reader-writer relationship.

I am pretty sure none of the young visitors to Auckland Writers Festival had an experience like that! Children and their parents had a chance to listen and see some of the best authors in the world. Besides some big-name-sessions on Saturday and a family-focused day on Sunday, the school programme featured some great names during the week, including great American YA author Laurie Halse Anderson, a former comedian Natalie Haynes, performing poet Grace Taylor, New Zealand YA author Bernard Beckett, sci-fi YA debut writer Rachael Craw, singer and songwriter Hollie Fullbrook and cartoonist and creator of graphic novels, Ant Sang.

DSC_0073I could not believe my eyes when I stepped into the ASB Theatre on Saturday morning, before the David Walliams session. The place was like an anthill – little excited readers wriggling everywhere! When it was time for questions, their hands shut up in the air and I was afraid a couple of them might jump off the balcony, on which we were seated. After the show the excitement followed in the queue. I have never ever seen so many patient children in my life – some of them were queuing for more than two hours to get their books signed by David. No arguments, no rows, just very excited faces.

An afternoon session with Morris Gleitzman, Australia’s most celebrated writer for children and young adults, followed. On Sunday, after Captain Underpants/Dav Pilkey revealed a few of his drawing tricks, I walked into the foyer of Herald Theatre, where the family Sunday sessions were taking place, and caught an illustrator Raymond McGrath surrounded by a group of children. They were deeply focused on their work, illustrating and drawing monsters. Donovan Bixley, an illustrator and graphic novels author, was signing his books on the other side of the room. I mingled in the crowd to find a few keen young readers, who shared their impressions of the festival and their ideas about books.

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Donovan Bixley, top, and Raymond McGrath, bottom, working their magic with the little ones at Auckland Writers Festival.

First, I talked to a very young lady, Ava, who at the age of six already knows a true value of poetry as she came to listen to Jenny Palmer present her A Little ABC book. Jenny’s session was not the only one Ava attended. Donovan Bixley was pretty entertaining, talking about Young Jimmy, the hero of his comic hit Monkey Boy, and Zak Waipara presented his work on Maori myths. Ava was not shy about sharing what she is reading to her mummy at the moment: The brave kitten (Holly Webb) and How to train your dragon (Cressida Cowell). She usually gets books from her favourite Waiheke Library, which I visited next day and decided with no doubt it’s my favourite as well.

Sitting in the corner and reading a graphic novel was Kea. He is a quiet one, but there is something smart about his face. He tells me his favourite books are – I should have guessed – graphic novels, because “they’re cool” – I should have guessed that as well! He has seen quite a few authors during the festival, but his favourite is – you have probably guessed – Donovan Bixley. I wonder what he would be writing about, if he would be a famous author. With no hesitation, he answers: “Action stories, with lots of heroes!”

I catch Cooper and Ruby just before they whiz back in the theatre to see Trish Gribben and Judy Millar present their pop-up book Swell. After seeing David Walliams, Dav Pilkey, Morris Gleitzman, Jenny Palmer, Zak Waipara and Donovan Bixley, they both agree that David Walliams was the funniest and Dav Pilkey was exciting because he draw pictures and talked about his early childhood. Cooper found Zak’s session very interesting because it was all about Māori myths. If he was a famous author, Cooper’s stories would be full of action, ghosts and pirates. Ruby would write funny stories, like Roald Dahl or David Walliams.

Our time is up and I let children return to the next session. While I’m leaving the foyer, I ponder who of them would be my favourite writer. I decide it would probably be Ruby. And I am absolutely sure, she would not tell me off, if I asked her for an autograph.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Captain Underpants!

Captain Underpants is one of the most popular book characters for kids and his books are hardly ever on the library shelves.His hilarious adventures have kids laughing out loud. On Sunday morning at the Auckland Writers Festival, I joined hundreds of Captain Underpants – both young and old – to listen to his creator Dav Pilkey talk about his books.

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Here are 10 things you may not know about Dav Pilkey and Captain Underpants:

  1. Dav Pilkey was a super happy kid because he could do what he liked all the time…until he started school. School wiped the smile off his face because he found it really hard.
  2. He has ADHD and dyslexia but he hasn’t let this stop him from doing what he loves the most – writing and drawing comics.
  3. His teacher gave him the idea for Captain Underpants when she used the world ‘underwear’ and all the kids in his class cracked up laughing. He discovered that underwear is very powerful. He drew his first picture of Captain Underpants that day.
  4. That same teacher told him he couldn’t spend the rest of his life making ‘silly comic books’. He proved her wrong!
  5. He likes to be close to nature and loves kayaking.
  6. He has a pet giant beetle called Megalon.
  7. He writes his books in a cave.
  8. He has written two more Ricky Ricotta books because he pinky-swore to a kid a signing that he would finish the series.
  9. The Adventures of Dog Man, written by George and Harold in kindergarten, is coming out next year. This will be Dav’s 60th book!
  10. There is a new Captain Underpants book coming in August – Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinksalot. In this book we get to meet the adult versions of George and Harold.

Dav Pilkey’s presentation was full of action, thrills and laffs and was one of my favourite sessions of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Come and meet Dav Pilkey in Christchurch!

You too could meet Dav Pilkey in Christchurch this weekend. Dav is going to be talking and signing books at Fendalton School this Saturday 23 May from 12 to 1pm. If you would like to go along you’ll need a ticket, which can be collected from The Children’s Bookshop.

The evils of inequality

Cover of The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do betterThe gap between the rich and the poor has become one of the most topical issues in many countries post GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and post Neo-Liberal economic reforms. More and more people seem to feel that the rich (particularly the super-rich) don’t pay enough tax and have managed to sneakily get away with taking no responsibility for the GFC while the rest of us languish in our lacklustre lifestyles working squillions of hours per week…and all the while paying our fair share to keep society running! Or so the Russell Brand sentiment goes.

So its against this backdrop that The Spirit Level should be read, I guess…

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is among a handful of cornerstone works for anyone who is interested in 21st century political and economic thought. I reckon. In fact, I’d almost argue that it is a grand thesis which seeks to give policy advice on how to solve (or markedly reduce) a catalogue of society’s ills through its recommendations and findings.

Inequality = poor outcomes

The key message that authors (and epidemiologists) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett want to drive home is that the more “unequal” a society is, the more likely that society is to manifest higher degrees of illness, mental illness, drug abuse, widespread poor educational outcomes, obesity, social mobility and cohesion, violence, teen pregnancy, among other societal ills such as rapacious consumerism.

The focus on “inequality” is really on Income Inequality – the income gap between those at the top, middle and bottom. The argument being that countries with larger income gaps experience more societal ills.

International research

Their claims with regard to what drives poor outcomes in terms of societal well-being are backed up by some quite robust research comparing and contrasting various developed countries (and comparing States to States in the USA). Lots of graphs, statistical data etc drawn from reputable organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank (among many others).

However, not all variables are taken into account which might frustrate some people – claiming rates of obesity are higher in the USA compared to Japan because of the USA’s rough private healthcare system is a bit unfair when you leave out factors such as Japan’s healthy and entrenched culinary traditions, and genetic factors (skinny genes).

More tax…good?

But, it also seems that countries which have higher income taxes and high levels of wealth redistribution (i.e gather large amounts of tax revenue to pay for generous education, welfare, healthcare and maternity leave programmes) are more “equal” than countries which have low taxes and far less social spending – we see less of the aforementioned health and well-being problems if we practice the former!

However, the authors seem more concerned about Income Inequality (even if the average income is quite good but the top income markedly better), not so much tax. But what is outstanding is that pretty much all of the “most equal” countries have really high income tax regimes (Japan, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway).

So you are kind of left to draw your own conclusion about which is the most important – income equity or high tax rates, or both?

Sadly, New Zealand and Australia rank really highly in terms of inequality according to the authors, and therefore, this is what drives a variety of problems here and in Oz. Not just “people being lazy” etc.

Don’t be put off the by the academic sounding nature of the book, it’s really well written which makes all the technical sounding stuff really palatable.