Lumber on an epic scale

cover of BarkskinsI discovered at the weekend with a rapidly beating heart, that one of my all time favourite writers,  Annie Proulx, has released a new novel.

Thirteen years since her last novel, Barkskins is, by all accounts, a rip snorter. According to what I can glean from good old Mr Google, it is 736 pages long, spanning 3 centuries, and tells the story of two French immigrants in the new land of America. They are bound to a feudal lord for three years and are sent to work in the dense and remote forests of the New World in exchange for a promise of land. The book follows them and their descendants from 1693 through to the 21st century and various family members travel all over the world, including to little old New Zealand.

Annie Proulx first caught my eye when I read The Shipping News, another great story of families, set in Newfoundland. I have never forgotten the ways she described snow and ice and barren landscapes and the families and eccentrics who lived amongst it.

Cover of The shipping news

Accordion Crimes was also a favourite, charting the lives of immigrants settling in America through the life of an accordion that is handed down through families; Jewish, Irish, Italian and many others.

Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain (a short story originally), were also made into movies, both well worth watching.

Ms Proulx, now in her eighties, was a bit of a late bloomer, with her first short stories published in her 50s and her first novel in 1992. She has gone onto to publish 13 works and win over twenty literary prizes, including a Pulitzer prize for The Shipping News.

Her novels and short storys are filled with hard bitten complex characters and landscapes that are wonderful described, I find I get immersed in her stories and I think this is because she herself has led a full and intense life, always on her own terms. She has been married and divorced three times and has raised three sons alone. She worked as postal worker and a waitress, and early on a writer of magazine articles on everything from chilli growers to canoeing.

She has two history degrees, drifted the countryside in her pickup truck, can fly fish, fiddle, and hunt game birds. But for all her life experience, she has said that she likes to write about what she doesn’t know, rather than draw on what she has already experienced. If you haven’t read her books, I strongly recommend them.

So, I’m on the library waiting list, hoping the book arrives quickly so I can again revel in her wondrous prose!

Shortest fiction on the shortest day: National Flash Fiction Day – Wednesday 22 June

Flash fiction is an experimental literary form that links together many traditional forms of narrative while also pushing on boundaries of poetry and dialogue. Here’s a chance to enjoy and celebrate it! The National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) Christchurch event, Flash in the Pan, will be held at Space Academy, 371 St Asaph Street on Wednesday 22 June 2016 from 6 to 8pm. All welcome. NFFD events are occuring simultaneously in Auckland and Wellington.

James Norcliffe is one of the judges and he’ll announce the 2016 winners. The 2015 NFFD first and third place winner, Frankie McMillan will also be present, along with other writers. The compere is literary reviewer and PlainsFM Bookenz co-host Morrin Rout.

Canterbury is well-represented. 7 of the 10 writers on the 2016 short list for the NFFD writing competition are Christchurch-based!

Flash Fiction

More Flash Fiction

Jeanette Winterson: The gap of time – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Two thousand people are waiting for the start of Jeanette Winterson‘s The Gap of Time event on Sunday morning at Auckland Writers Festival.

awf16
Jeanette Winterson, Image supplied

Suddenly the theatre is plunged into darkness and Cyndi Lauper’s voice rings out with Time after Time. Then the lights come up, and all alone in the centre of the stage is the tiny figure of Winterson. She’s wearing a plain shirt, jeans, boots and no other adornments. With her tousled hair (undyed) – that for sure sometime in this performance she will rake her hands through – she commands our attention. Behind her now Leontes’ voice rages from a scene in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Let the show begin.

The gap of time2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Winterson’s cover version of one his last plays – The Winter’s Tale – is both her tribute to Shakespeare, and the fulfilling of a life-long ambition to retell the story of Perdita, the abandoned child in the play. Winterson herself was an adopted child, and in re-telling the story in this her latest novel, she reaffirms what we already suspect – human emotions have not changed with time. The setting may be different but jealousy, rage, revenge and the redemptive power of love just keep trucking along.

Now, if you are anything like me, the link to a Shakespeare play will not be that much of a turn on. Sure we’ve all read them, and sure they are great literature – but won’t this just be like chewing old gum? You can go through the motions, but the flavour has long gone … And maybe you get that itchy feeling of looming potential inferiority. Are we going to be made to feel just the teeniest bit stupid?

But no. Winterson read the first chapter of her book to us and so captivated was the audience, that people left before question time in order to queue to buy the few remaining copies on sale. With only one short break from the mic – when darkness descended again and Stay with Me by Ed Sheeran filled the space – Winterson lead us into her story:

A black man finds a white baby abandoned in the night. He gathers her up – light as a star – and decides to take her home.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I was near the head of the queue to buy one of the last copies, nor that it seemed so vital to me that I bought it there at the festival, nor that I cried when the music filled the vastness of the auditorium, nor that this book will be inflicted on all my various reading groups.

I’ve told you next to nothing about the story. And I’m not really embarrassed about that either.

Just read it.

Find out more

The babes in the wood

The Death of BeesThe book group theme for February just has to have been The Babes in the Wood (the traditional tale first told in Norwich England in 1595), with all our reads having innocence/naivety central to their stories. Quite extraordinary how this kind of pattern can emerge in reading. Take note though, not all the babes are children – you may even find you are married to one!

From Book Group Number 1 came The Death of Bees, a story about the loss of innocence in children – right at the beginning of the book we are told that Marnie and her little sister Nelly have just finished burying their parents in the back garden. This alarming scenario is coupled with the persistent naivety of adults – like their darling next door neighbour Lennie. Lots of bad language, tough-to-stomach episodes and great character development made this a winning book group read.

The Trivia manBook Group Number 2 delivered Kevin Dwyer as  The Trivia Man (think Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, but much less appealing, and you’ll just about have the size of it). Kevin loves trivia pub quizzes, and his comprehensive collection of local weather data. He has absolutely no idea how to interact with women and to be frank isn’t all that interested. But the story spun out over 306 pages, lurching perilously close at times to necessitating a change of title to “The Trivial Man”. Moving on.

A gOd in RuinsBook Group 3 is an online reading forum to which I subscribe. A recent recommendation from them was A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Teddy, one of the main characters, exhibits a more complex naivety. A young pilot in WWII, he survives all that awfulness to return to civilian life with an innocence that is endearing, but wide open to potential abuse. Atkinson skilfully weaves the intricate tapestry of Teddy’s war experiences, his love-life, his fatherhood and finally his old age. All the time the dark undertow of his war memories is balanced by his simple belief in goodness.

Arthur and GeorgeFinally, back to Book Group Number 1 and Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George. If Julian Barnes ever gets to read this blog … no sniggering please … he would be astonished to learn that one book club member read this book backwards, chapter by chapter, and swears that made for a far superior reading experience. And at least one member of the group was hugely irritated by the blind naivety of George who would not countenance that the victimisation that he endured had anything to do with race.

These recent reads show that innocence and naivety remain compelling themes in literature. The loss of the first and the cultivation of the second threads its way through novel after novel. My book groups have probably only scraped the surface of potential reads here. What other good stuff have we missed? All recommendations will be naively received with innocent enthusiasm!

Geraldine Brooks and the Pulitzer Surprise!

The Secret ChordWhen Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel March in 2006, she had no idea that her book was even up for consideration. At home with her eight year old son, painting figurines, she did not even believe the first caller. Her little boy answered the door when a florist delivery came and said: “Mummy can’t come now, she is having a Pulitzer Surprise!”

And last night in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch event, The People of the Book were out in full force to hear Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks chat about writing and her most recent novel The Secret Chord. There – in Rangi Ruru’s beautiful new theatre – sat a petite, young Geraldine Brooks and her interviewer, Morrin Rout (wearing it must be said, distractingly eye-catching brick pattern tights). Let the excitement begin!

MarchGeraldine was originally a journalist who worked in the Australasian Bureau of The Wall Street Journal – a job which taught her that you can’t write around what you don’t know. She admitted to a New Zealand connection for her front page story on our research into Climate Change and Methane Gases – with its catchy title: The Farting Sheep Story.

When she talks about writing, Brooks several times made mention of finding the void in a theme and filling it:

Historical fiction works best when you have some blanks to fill. The trick is to let the story tell you what you need to know.

people of the BookThe viewpoints of different women is often the way for Brooks to get a fresh view on an old story that we think we know. It is still so true that you can get to powerful men through the women in their lives and she ranks an afternoon tea with Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife Khadijeh as one of the most remarkable afternoons of her life.

On her latest book The Secret Chord, she said her interest became piqued when her son asked for classical harp lessons (she’d been hoping for the recorder) and that David appealed to her as a character because every single thing that life can fling at you seemed to happen to him. She was particularly interested in how women affected David and how they wielded power in subtle ways.

Best of all Geraldine Brooks would slot right into any one of my book groups, her reading tastes are so similar. She is currently enjoying The Chimes by Anna Smaill (2015 Man Booker Prize longlist); thinks that the best book she has ever read is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (who won the Pulitzer Prize the year before her in 2005); is a big admirer of Hilary Mantel and can’t wait for her next book and (Geraldine was born in Sydney) she admires Tim Winton‘s writing as well.

I’d had an evening of minor mishaps prior to this event: a near miss at the restaurant where I was to meet my colleague (we sat waiting for one another in different parts of the venue). Then we held up the signing queue trying to get my photograph taken with this wonderful author – in the end the photo was out of focus. In the confusion, Geraldine misheard and signed the wrong name in the book. It took time for her to draw flowers over the mistake and insert the correct name (that copy is now valuable!). Finally I lost my car keys and had what felt like the entire theatre in an upheaval helping me look for them. You’d be forgiven for thinking “I wish I’d also gone to hear Geraldine Brooks – just not with them!”

But, I drove home on a high – so happy to be in the car, moving through my mundane surroundings to my precious home, and all the time thinking: I have met a Pulitzer Prize winner. I am so fortunate.

We have Geraldine Brooks’ works in book, eBook, and eAudiobook format.

You can also listen to Geraldine talk about The Secret Chord on RadioNZ.

Geraldine Brooks in Christchurch on 18 November – Toppling the hero…

Make sure not to miss this on Wednesday 18 November at 7.30pm – WORD Christchurch and Bookenz, in association with Hachette NZ, are proud to present an evening with Pulitzer prize-winning writer Geraldine Brooks, in conversation with Morrin Rout.

Cover of The Secret ChordHuman nature being what it is, we place certain personalities on pedestals only to vilify them on later occasions, normally when they have no right of response as they have departed the earthly world. Very rarely do we internalise why this situation arises, but usually the social barometer (public opinion) swings from left to right with alarming rapidity and then finally settles down somewhere in the ‘middle’ when a humane account i.e. their follies and their strengths make them more human.

Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel The Secret Chord based on the life of King David set 1000 BCE is a work of fiction, but reading it we have access to a creditably flawed and complex individual. His childhood is harsh but he survives it with an arrogance and self-belief system that is truly amazing. He is a tyrant and murderous despot who, having vast armies at his disposal, eventually becomes King.  He is loved as a figurehead by his subjects and his soldiers; yet his wives have reason to both love and fear him, and his children plot against him and betray him in their adulthood.

It’s a fantastic, hugely enjoyable epic story and lovers of historical fiction will probably race to get their copies.

Other works by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks can be found on our library shelves and on the library eBook and eAudiobook platforms (including our latest downloadable eAudiobook platform BorrowBox).

New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2015

Last night was one of the most important dates on the New Zealand children’s literature calendar: the night when the winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for 2015 were announced and celebrated.

We are thrilled to join in congratulating these great authors and their fantastic books:

Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Young Adult Book Award

Singing home the whale by Mandy Hager

Picture Book Award

Jim’s letters by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

Junior Fiction Award

Monkey boy by Donovan Bixley

Non-fiction Award

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill by Debbie McCauley

Best First Book

Māori art for kids by Julie Noanoa and Norm Heke

Maori Language Award

Ngā kī Sacha Cotter and Joshua Morgan, translated by Kawata Teepa

Cover of Singing Home The Whale Cover of Jim's Letters Cover of Monkey Boy Cover of Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill Cover of Maori Art for Kids Cover of Nga Ki

Children’s Choice Award Winners

This year children were given the opportunity to choose the finalists as well as casting the vote for the winners.  Nearly 16,000 votes were cast and these are the winners:

Picture Book

The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett & Trish Bowles

Junior Fiction

The island of lost horses by Stacy Gregg

Non-Fiction

The letterbox cat & other poems by Paula Green & Myles Lawford

Young Adult Fiction

Night vision by Ella West

Cover of The Anzac Puppy Cover of The Island of Lost Horses Cover of The letterbox cat & Other Poems Cover of Night Vision

Have you read any of these books? Do you agree with the judges’ choices?

New Zealand writer Anna Smaill is on the Man Booker Prize longlist

We’re all very excited to hear New Zealand author Anna Smaill is on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for her book The Chimes. I’ve read it, and loved it. It’s a dystopia, yes, and also timeless and full of history, music and atmosphere:

You can hear Anna talk in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch session Imaginary Cities, on Sunday 30 August along with Fiona Farrell, Anna Smaill, Hamish Clayton, and Hugh Nicholson  (chaired by Christchurch Art Gallery’s senior curator Lara Strongman). It’s part of a Shifting points of view season in the Christchurch Arts Festival.

Masha interviewed Anna at the Auckland Writers Festival – read her interview Anna Smaill – from a writing musician to a musical writer:

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.

I definitely think the impulse to write first came from that. Of course it is also a way of working things out for me. Just to process my experiences, work out what I think about things. It always seemed a necessary thing to me. And also it’s a great entertainment.

And just the other day Anna answered some quick questions.

Best of luck, Anna.

Chatting to authors

Roberta interviews Kathy Lette. Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre.  Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-11
With Kathy Lette. Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre. Friday 11 May 2012, Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-11

I bet this has happened to you: you’re reading a great book and you think – gee, I’d really like to interview this author. I did that for years before the day came when I sat opposite my first real  live author – absolutely scared witless and thinking – be careful what you wish for!

Here’s the authors I’ve interviewed (click on their names to read the full interviews):

Lionel Shriver: A 15 year old girl who changes her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel – just to pique her father – is not someone to be toyed with. This was my first interview ever at my first ever Literary Festival. I walked with heavy boots to her hotel, but I floated back on a little cloud nine. That was when I realised that there was nothing to be scared of, because authors love librarians!

William Dalrymple: He didn’t sit still for one minute in this interview held on the top floor of an Auckland Hotel. I had to chase him around trying to keep up with him. I was already nervous (he is a famous travel writer of books like Nine Lives – in Search of the Sacred in Modern India), and my uncertainties around the technology involved in getting the whole thing recorded were greatly exacerbated by Dalrymple’s restlessness. I start hyperventilating just thinking about it.

Kathy Lette: This interview really was like chatting to a good friend over a coffee. What a blast! Irreverent, sexy, fun, OK maybe a bit flippant. But at least she sat still!

Andrew Miller: Forever endeared himself to me by being the only author I have ever interviewed who asked: “How are things in Christchurch?” We were just post earthquake and the gap between life in Christchurch and life in Auckland made me feel so sad. His best known work is Snowdrops, a debut novel that made the Booker Long List in 2011. He was a pleasure to interview.

Roberta and Jeffrey Eugenides, Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-12
With Jeffrey Eugenides, Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre. Saturday 12 May 2012. Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-12

Jeffrey Eugenides: that is correct – the Pulitzer prizewinning author for his novel Middlesex. Terrifying to interview. Read right to the end and you will know why. The photo says it all really. 

John Lanchester: One of those interviews that never really had a lift-off point. I was chatting to him about his book Capital – which I had loved. His Publishing Agent sat with us throughout the interview. What did she think I would do to him?

Laurence Fearnley: I am a big fan of this Kiwi writer. We bonded over a coffee at one of the WORD festivals. She really thinks about her interview answers. She gives you her full attention. I am so fond of her.

Roberta with NoViolet  Bulawayo, Christchurch WORD Festival 2014,
With NoViolet Bulawayo, Christchurch WORD Festival 2014, 30 August 2014. Photo by Roberta Smith.

NoViolet Bulawayo: A young Zimbabwean author who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013 for her novel We Need New Names. We chatted for ages. I had to ruthlessly edit what had been recorded to get this interview down to a reasonable length. So young, yet so wise (her not me!)

There’s no doubt that interviewing is nerve-wracking – I felt my stress levels rise just writing this blog!  But I would not have missed these opportunities for anything. How about you? Do you have an author you would like to interview?

Honey, Hives and Hierarchy

I don’t believe I have ever read a fantasy book before, science fiction sure, but not fantasy.  After a long reading hiatus, I was perusing a list of books nominated for various recent awards to kick-start me into reading again.

Cover of The BeesI must confess it was the cover of The Bees by Laline Paull that hooked me in – embossed and golden. Only when I started reading did I notice ‘fantasy’ on the spine. I always think about witches, dragons and ‘far away lands’ when I think fantasy, so a book about a plucky and rather magical bee and the hive she lives in didn’t fit the narrow idea I had of the genre.

The book is a debut novel for Laline Paull, a playwright and screenwriter, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, with judges calling it “an Animal Farm for the 21st century”.

We meet Flora 717 at her birth, fighting her way out of her hive cell.  She is of the worker class, destined to clean and tidy after others for her short life. But this wee worker is different. She speaks, unlike others of her class, and she has an intelligence that soon sees her crossing antennae with those in the hive of higher classes. As the seasons progress, changes in the hive bring on new challenges to both Flora and the hive.

As Flora’s tongue unrolled toward the head of nectar, tiny particles of orange pollen tingled against her fur. The taste of the nectar was so bright and the energy release so sudden that she almost fell off the flower head.

I didn’t think I’d find myself rooting for a humble bee, but I was willing her on to achieve, find joy, survive the horrors of wasp attack, disease and resentment from those who believed she was getting above her station.

Well written, tense in places and tender in others, it’s a great read. I recommend you add it to your list. Oh and it gave my husband and me an excuse to have silly pun duels. “Honey, I’m hiving trouble bee-lieving you.” “I shall wax lyrical.”