Lists for the Listless

A popular read for cold, rainy days

It’s been a miserable, dark, rainy afternoon – I admit, it’s the first time in a long time but even so I’ve got used to good weather now …

As Autumn, (crisp and blazing riots of red and orange hued leaves) becomes clumps of wet, slippery mulch on pavements and in gutters, my thoughts turn to hugely enjoyable reads in the warm and dry ‘Inside’ that will blot out the slowly encroaching cold and wet ‘Outside’.

My reading recommendations normally come in the guise of ‘Have you read?’ conversations with friends; looking at the If you like… website page or the close scrutiny of library blog posts such as those recently written by the Library Angels attending the Auckland Writers Festival – I hastily place a hold on the work concerned and cross my fingers that the entire population of Christchurch are a little slower off the mark than me.

Roberta, Masha and Moata: Festival angels
2016 Auckland Library Angels. Flickr 2016-05-05-IMG_4074
a ‘gem’ of a read

Today, I engaged in a spot of ‘playing around’ within the Bibliocommons catalogue and found the following. If you type ‘Rainy’ in the search box and then choose the option ‘List’ from the Keyword drop-down menu you locate page upon page of lists created by people around the world who have the word ‘Rainy’ somewhere in the List headings they have created. Not just recommendations of books you understand, but DVDs, music, crafts for all age groups.

Of course the drawback is that you spend a long time wading through the information and writing down titles to put in your ‘For Later’ shelf but still it’s another way to locate a hidden  gem that needs to be read, listened to or watched.

Anyone else out there utilise this facility?  Anyone make their lists public for all to see and glean information from? Or place anything of interest in their ‘For Later’ Shelf from these Lists?

Frank Worsley – a local hero

It is just over a century since Frank Worsley, Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean reached a whaling station on remote South Georgia following a daring 16 day voyage to alert the world to the loss of Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition‘s ship Endurance. Because of this journey the rest of the crew – stranded on Elephant Island – were all saved.

Worsley was born in Akaroa in 1872 and the New Zealand Antarctic Society has republished an epic poem about him ‘Worsley Enchanted‘ written by New Zealand-born poet Douglas Stewart and illustrated by Myra Walton. The poem takes readers through his experiences on the Endurance Expedition – which has become legendary – and reflects on his relationship with the rest of the crew.

Frank Worsley. Smythe, P :Photographs of Frank Worsley. Ref: 1/2-182002-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22778293
Frank Worsley. Smythe, P :Photographs of Frank Worsley. Ref: 1/2-182002-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22778293

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Janna Levin and a matter of some gravity – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin
Janna Levin, (Image supplied)

I am concerned, as I enter the main auditorium at the Aotea Centre, on the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, that I may not have the brain power left to fully appreciate a session on Gravitational Waves. It’s been a long festival and I think I may have already overstuffed my brain with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts.

As a yawn escapes, I’m expecting the worst.

Fortunately Janna Levin is a brilliant and engaging communicator. I needn’t have worried. I’m able to follow the concept of waves in gravity, caused by the distant collision of black holes… quite well, actually. She throws a couple of oranges around, as a way of demonstrating how gravity curves spacetime (without gravity, the trajectory of a thrown orange would be a straight line), and this unexpected kineticism helps cement the idea.

Basically she’s explaining the science and significance of the big scientific announcement we all remember from February of this year but which most of us are a bit unclear about, in terms of what it all means. Thanks to Professor Levin, I understand a lot more about this.

The actual working behind all these ideas requires the kind of maths that most of us find bewildering – fortunately we have people like Janna Levin to do all that complicated numbers stuff and happily almost none of that makes it into her presentation. Instead she peppers her talk with a range of pop culture references (Third Rock from the Sun, Alien, Doctor Who).

In particular, This OK GO music video, filmed in a single take on a gravity defying “vomit comet” as she calls it, shows us what gravity actually is – namely falling. Falling towards a mass, in our case, the Earth (which is itself falling through space in an orbit around the sun). Most of us think about gravity in the wrong way, as the landing.

Though the music video above could make you believe otherwise, gravity is actually quite a weak phenomenon (compared to light, for instance) and therefore difficult to detect. We feel its effects here on Earth, of course, but if a gravitational wave originating in a far off galaxy were to pass through you now, would you even notice?

The answer is it has and you didn’t. But luckily scientists have been trying to record such an event for a while now and on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) two installations called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes that happened 1.3 billion years ago.

How? Well, they do it with mirrors…and a laser inside a 4km long concrete vacuum.

Imagine two ships bobbing on a calm ocean with a taut rope between them. Should a wave come along you’d be able to detect a change in the relative positions of the boats because of the movement of the rope. In this case, the boats are mirrors and the rope is a laser, and there’s two of these pairs stationed 3000km apart in America. And I’m sure it’s a lot more technical than that (and involves a lot of maths) but that’s the basic idea of how you detect gravitational waves. The sound of these gravitational waves is within an audible range. If they weren’t so very weak and quiet, you’d be able to hear them.

After months of checking and re-checking the maths, they made their announcement on what they’d found earlier this year.

Janna Levin explains gravitational waves
Janna Levin explains gravitational waves, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1940

Questions at the end of the session wondered about the possibility of multiple universes – most scientists working in this area seem to think this is likely – and one older gentleman went well out of scientific realms and into spurious sociology remarking that Levin was “a very attractive woman” and was therefore surprised that she’d be interested in science and maths since, in his opinion, those two things didn’t go together very often.

At this point you could actually feel the rest of the audience cringing and trying to collapse in on itself, like so many black holes.

Fortunately Levin had a fantastic answer for this which she communicated in a straightforward manner – if society tells women that their purpose is to be attractive, and you’ve already achieved that then why would you do anything else? But that’s not what it was like at her house.

A complex idea, communicated simply. Just like the rest of her lecture.

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Ben Brown – Matariki poetry workshop for teens at Shirley Library

Join poet Ben Brown for a young adult poetry writing workshop on Sunday 12 June from 1pm to 3pm at Shirley Library.

If you are aged between 12 and 15, come and join us for a Matariki themed workshop with Lyttelton poet, Ben Brown. You’ll be reflecting on memories and crafting those memories into poetry.

You can book at Shirley Library or ring 9417923 to reserve a spot.

All you need to bring is something to write on (it can be pen and paper, or a tablet/laptop – whatever suits best).

Ben Brown

More about Ben Brown

Ben writes children’s books, non-fiction and short stories for children and adults. Born in Motueka, he has been a tobacco farm labourer, tractor driver and market gardener. Since 1992, he has been a publisher and writer, collaborating with his wife, illustrator Helen Taylor. Many of Brown’s books have a strong New Zealand nature background.

Info from Ben Brown’s profile on the New Zealand Book Council website.

Don’t Panic! I’ve got my towel and I’m mostly harmless

25 May is Towel Day – here’s why you might like to carry a towel with you tomorrow.

I first encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a very long time ago on an old black and white TV. BBC TV produced the series based on the radio series. It starred Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, David Dixon as Ford Prefect, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sandra Dickinson as Trillion and Peter Jones was the voice of The Guide.

After that, I was hooked and I had to read the trilogy; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, the Universe and Everything. The trilogy expanded to include So long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless. Someone asked me what the books were about. How do you explain something as off-beat as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? I handed over my copy of the book so they could read the blurb on the back. I got the book back – eventually.

According to The hitchhiker’s guide, a towel is a necessity. To know where your towel is means to be in control of your life. The book lists many uses for a towel (including the traditional drying yourself) and goes on to explain that if you have a towel, a non-hitchhiker will lend you anything you need. Based on the assumption that you have lost your luggage, but still have your towel. I have put a towel to many uses: A bandage, a blanket, a sarong, a mop, a hat, a scarf, and have even used it to dry myself, but I have never tried travelling with a towel, but no toothbrush, brush, comb, shoes, or spare clothes, so I have never put Douglas Adams’ theory into practice.

Douglas Adams was born on 11 March 1952. He died of a heart attack on 11 May 2001. He was only 49. On 14 May 2001, one of his fans, D. Clyde Williamson, posted a tribute to Douglas Adams suggesting that a date two weeks after his passing should be observed as Towel Day. May 25th continues to be observed annually as Towel Day as an ongoing tribute to Adams. The fans are asked to carry a bath towel conspicuously with you for the day. Choose a towel that you like, and preferably isn’t tatty. Make sure it’s clean and have it with you.

Do you know where your towel is? Are you mostly harmless? If you answered ‘No’ to both of these questions, I recommend the following books:

Before his death, Adams was considering writing a sixth novel in the Hitchhiker’s series. Eoin Colfer wrote And Another Thing… from Douglas Adams’ manuscript. It was published on the thirtieth anniversary of the first book, 12 October 2009.

Murder in the library – A panel discussion on Wednesday 1 June 6.30pm

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and Christchurch City Libraries, invite booklovers to Murder in the library – A panel discussion – Ngaio Marsh Awards featuring three talented Canterbury authors. It is on at South Library, Wednesday 1 June at 6.30pm. This is a free event, but bookings are essential as places are limited. Please telephone 03 941 7923 or email LibraryEvents@ccc.govt.nz to book a seat.

Crime writing has evolved from the puzzle-like mysteries of Agatha Christie and Christchurch’s own Ngaio Marsh to modern novels delving deeply into people and places. It is the world’s most popular form of storytelling.

2016 Ngaio Marsh Awards entrants Ray Berard, Katherine Hayton, and Deborah Rogers will discuss what drew them to crime writing, how they craft memorable characters and page-turning stories, and the impact of our New Zealand setting on tales of crime and mystery.

Ngaio Marsh Award

Gloria Steinem: Encouraging trouble-makers – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.

Cover of My life on the roadAt the Auckland Writers Festival recently she discussed her beliefs, hopes for the future, and life’s journey as encompassed in her memoir My life on the road.

The audience was full of feminists of all ages. Teenagers to grandmothers, gathered to hear what she had to say. And as it turned out, to talk to each other about it afterwards. By far, of the all the sessions I attended at this year’s festival, this was the one that had the most noticeable sense of community about it, even as disagreements occured – but more on that later.

I arrived early, and was treated to an unexpected glimpse of the woman herself – off to the side in a roped off area in the balcony concourse of Aotea Centre – Gloria Steinem was addressing a small crowd in some kind of reception hosted by the US Embassy.

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem addresses a small gathering organised by the US Embassy, Auckland Writers Festival 2016, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00954

Later when she walked out on stage to sit down with Nick Barley, The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, there were a higher than average number of “whoops” from the crowd, which led me to wonder if the Americans in the audience might be responsible, and sure enough, Steinem herself confirmed that the mayor of Los Angeles was in attendance.

Given the incredible life that Steinem has had, it’s difficult to recap that here and this session, even with it running slightly over time, was never going to be long enough.

But here are just a few things that stood out for me the most –

Steinem reading out the dedication from her book which is to the English doctor who provided her with an abortion when she was 22 years old, had just broken off her engagement, and was en route to India. It was illegal at the time and the doctor made her swear to secrecy. This is not a topic that women often discuss this openly and plainly and for that reason alone it made an impression.

Her discovery in India of “talking circles” and the realisation that the ability to talk about terrible experiences is transformative.

All movements start this way, with consciousness raising groups – now we call them book clubs…

Gloria Steinem at the signing desk
Gloria Steinem at the signing desk, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-13-DSC00942

Her mild (I can’t believe it’s only mild) annoyance that, in her eighties,  she’s still described by people as an ex-bunny because of the 1963 exposé she wrote on conditions for the women working at the Playboy Clubs. She was a journalist and went undercover for a time as a bunny in order to reveal shocking practices like telling women that they were required to undergo an gynaecological exam in order to serve liquor in New York State.

At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. It has been a blight in some ways… People say “What does she know? She was a bunny”.

Her thoughts regarding feminism and the trans community.

Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing… It’s fundamentally the right thing because it’s dispensing with false categories.

On the younger generation of feminists, and the concerns that some mothers have that their daughters aren’t sufficiently well educated about feminism.

Women say to me with some alarm, “my daughter doesn’t know who you are!”

But does she know who she is? Because that’s the whole point.

As you would expect there were some really challenging questions from the audience covering topics as broad as decriminalising prostitution, if feminism is supportive enough of women in non-Western countries with different cultural norms, how to promote feminism at your high school (answer: find something that’s sexist and unfair and fight to fix it) and abortion law in New Zealand (over which there was some confusion and disagreement in the audience, but is, as one woman asserted, covered by the Crimes Act 1961.) One woman read out a question which she had rather appropriately written on the back of her birth control prescription!

But probably the best part was that Steinem threw the mic open, not just to questions, but to women wanting to make announcements for upcoming events and “troublemaking meetings”. She also encouraged everyone, as they left, to talk to two or three other people and to try and make connections. Because, I suppose, this is how movements that aren’t just book clubs happen.

No doubt there was a lot of talking and making of connections in the book-signing queue after the session as it was so long it nearly made it out the door and into Aotea Square. An hour later Steinem was still signing.

Signing queue for Gloria Steinem
Signing queue for Gloria Steinem, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00957

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Making literary fiction exciting: Michel Faber – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michel Faber
Michel Faber (Image supplied)

Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.

Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.

When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.

Cover of The book of strange new thingsThis unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.

Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.

Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1939

Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White,  and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.

He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”

There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.

Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.

His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…

Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.

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Front lines: Michael Grant – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michael Grant is the author of some 150+ books, including the very popular young adult Gone series. He also co-wrote the Animorphs books with his wife, Katherine Applegate.

Michael Grant
Michael Grant (Image supplied)

At the Auckland Writers Festival last week he sat down with Kiwi young adult author Jane Higgins to discuss his books, how he comes up with his ideas, and his approach to writing. He spoke with a good deal of humour, to an audience that was a little younger than most at the festival, and had an easy, affable manner (and dimples, which I am rather fond of on a person).

Cover of Front linesHis latest book, Front Lines, the first in a trilogy, is set during WWII but with one key fact changed – a US Supreme Court decision means that women may be drafted to fight in the war.

In some ways a war setting is one that suits Grant well as he was raised in a military family with a dad who was a “lifer”. Despite this background, he has no love of guns, having misfired one in his youth, which left him having to explain to the downstairs neighbour why there was suddenly a hole in his ceiling. He’s sworn off having a gun in the house ever since. These days his only interaction with firearms are for research – viewing WWII training films on YouTube, for instance.

Research for books also forms the foundation of his holiday plans – his upcoming trip to Europe might not be what the younger members of the family were hoping for when he announced – “Kids, we’re going to Buchenwald*!”

He has a strong interest in history which he described as “the backstory of the human race” and he compared trying to view current events without this as akin to watching the most recent Marvel movie and not understanding why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. You need the backstory of these characters to understand their motivations.

MIchael Grant at the signing desk
MIchael Grant at the signing desk, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00950

Grant admits to being a horrible workaholic, typically writing two books a year, and he becomes agitated and irritated when he’s not working – to the extent that he felt a little out of sorts taking a few days off to be part of a literary festival.

This compulsion probably explains his attitude towards the notion of “writers’ block” –

Writers’ block is self-pitying nonsense for lazy writers… If you just keep going, you tend, in the end, to get somewhere.

 

When the discussion turned towards the Gone series, a young man in the row in front of me did a double fist pump, which gives you an idea of how popular those books have been.

When asked about his inspirations for the series which features a world suddenly without adults and which the survivors live under a dome, Grant is keen to point out that he wrote the first book before Stephen King’s “Under the dome” came out (so no, he wasn’t copying that idea). Rather the inspiration for the books came from the TV show Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he believes to be riffs on the biblical tale of the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden.

Festival bookshop - Michael Grant
Books by Michael Grant at the festival bookshop, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-12-DSC00894

Fans of the Gone series may be interested to know that he is planning, not a sequel exactly, but another novel set four years down the track in the same universe, in which some old characters may appear.

As a writer of fiction for young adults, he does his best to keep the language clean, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t have a problem with swearing, and doesn’t think young people doing it is something to be concerned about, rather the lack of bad language in his books is for the benefit of… librarians.

Grant likes librarians (in a former life he was a law librarian), and doesn’t want them to get “wrath of God” grief (presumably from parents and school boards?) for stocking his books in their libraries.

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*Buchenwald was the site of a concentration camp in Germany.

Super sneak preview of next Johnny Danger mission

New Zealand author Peter Millett is the creator of the action-packed secret agent series for kids, Johnny Danger. This very funny series follows Jonathon Dangerfield, a boy who has fooled MI6 into believing he’s super spy Johnny Danger. So far there are two books in the series but the third book, Spy Borg, is due to be released in September.

We are super lucky to have a sneak preview of the cover and a little bit about the book from the author himself:

Cover of Johnny Danger: Spy Borg

‘Right now we are in the middle of creating Johnny Danger 3. It’s not coming out until September but I’ve been given the okay to show you a sneak peek of the book’s cover. I can’t give away too much about the storyline yet – but I can say that it involves a Siberian madman named Yuri who has developed a a series of killer terminator style robots that hunt down Johnny Danger. Using his wits and weapons Johnny must stop the world being flooded by evil Yuri-Nators!

If I told you any more I’d have to put you into a witness protection scheme! My lips are sealed now.’

While you wait for Johnny Danger: Spy Borg read the first two books in the series, D.I.Y. Spy and Lie Another Day.

We also have an interview with Peter Millett in our Kids section of the website. You can find out about his most embarrassing moment, who his favourite author is and what he thinks is the best thing about writing.