James Gleick at WORD Christchurch: No spoilers for Time Travellers

James Gleick does not want to offend anyone.

The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?

A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.

James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi
James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi, Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0194

Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickGleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.

But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?

I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.

Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.

Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.

On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.

Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”

This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
  • Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
  • “All you zombies” by Robert Heinlein – An early short story that became the movie Predestination and is an interesting example of The Grandfather Paradox.
  • Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
  • Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
  • The Planet of the Apes series – Bernardi’s favourite for its use of Time Travel to address issues of gender and race.
  • Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
  • Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
  • “Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
James Gleick
James Gleick: a man in want of some straws. Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0198

Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!

Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.

When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.

But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.

It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.

Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?

Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.

Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.

I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.

And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.

More information

Five Forget Mother’s Day

If you’d told me when I was ten years old that I’d still enjoy a Famous Five tale 30 years later I’d have been thrilled. If you’d told me that at 15 I’d have been mortified. Such is the inextricable (and uncool) bond that Enid Blyton’s youthful sleuths have with childhood, innocence, and jolly good fun.

But things have changed and so have George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy. Get ready for “Enid Blyton for Grown-ups”.

Cover of Five Forget Mothers Day

The former Dorset-based cousins now flat together in London, have office jobs, mobile phones, and drinking problems (Julian). It’s now less “lashings of ginger beer” and more “out on the lash at the local”. Author Bruno Vincent’s reworking of Blyton’s much beloved characters incorporates humorous observations on modern life, knowing nods, and is positively soaked in irony.

Take, for example, George’s response to Anne’s suggestion that they all chip in for a Mother’s Day gift for Aunt Fanny, since she was practically a second mother to them all during their summers in Kirrin.

…My memory is that we were nearly killed about two dozen times. I think Mummy should count herself lucky to have escaped a custodial sentence for neglect…

Five Forget Mother’s Day sees the now young professionals grappling with mysteries of the “what do we get Aunt Fanny for Mother’s Day?” variety.

It’s a fun, quick read that somehow manages to be witty and modern whilst still retaining that “don’t worry, old bean, we’ll all muck in together and get through this sticky wicket” attitude that typified the original Famous Five.

An unexpected benefit of this particular title in the series (others on my “to read” list include “Five Go Parenting” and “Five on Brexit Island“), is that if you leave it lying around, your co-parent might take this as a passive-aggressive hint that Mother’s Day is Not To Be Forgotten. In my case this effect was unintentional, but it could perhaps be strategically deployed in families where forgetfulness is rife?

Five Forget Mother’s Day; conspicuously visible on a couch arm near you?

Five Forget Mother’s Day
by Bruno Vincent
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781786486868

 

Caraval: Magical fantasy

If George R. R. Martin’s Westeros of the Game of Thrones series is a magical take on an historical Britain, then the world of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a similarly fantastical Italy.

The story starts on a sun-soaked isle, the home of heroine Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella, but inevitably progresses to the home of Caraval, where potions, wishes and magic are real and wind through it like its twisting canals (making it suggestive of an imaginary, fairy tale Venice).

Cover of Caraval

Scarlett and Tella are the daughters of the local governor, a murderous, manipulative brute from whom both sisters would love to escape. Scarlett, the elder cautious sister, hopes to do just that via an arranged marriage… but Tella has other, somewhat more adventurous ideas, involving a trip to the mysterious, magical game of Caraval.

The game is like a murder mystery dinner, but one that takes place over 5 days, involves a whole town as the set, and is infused with magic. It’s all just a game and nothing is real… but Scarlett, who is drawn into the game by her sister and is forced to hunt for her when she is abducted, comes to believe otherwise.

There are clues, chases, shadowy menacing figures, false leads, magically transforming clothes, revelatory backstories and more than a little bit of heady, romantic entanglement. Perfect, escapist, young adult, fantasy reading for a rainy weekend.

But there’s also character progression as the reader watches Scarlett discover her self-worth over the course of the book, starting out as a fearful, somewhat downtrodden character but eventually, through love for her sister and dogged determination, finding strength and confidence in her own choices.

As far as mysteries go, this one kept me guessing (and most of my guesses were wrong). The story is a bit slow to start, and if you look too closely you’ll start to find plot holes, but that said once the main characters are in the game, the pacing is such that it’s a diverting, page-turning ride to the dramatic conclusion.

Though, be warned, a couple of intriguing plot points are left deliberately open, suggesting a sequel may be in the works…

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473629158

Emily Writes talks

Emily Writes is a Wellington-based writer whose blog posts have a habit of going viral. She is mother to two year-old Ronnie and four year-old Eddie and over the last couple of years I have chatted with her online quite a bit.

With a three year-old myself our online conversations have covered the full range of parental indignities from pregnancy and childbirth to toddler tantrums and terrible things that have happened to our soft furnishings. But also moments of delight… and Alexander Skarsgård gifs.

Emily’s new book, Rants in the dark, is proving a hit with parents across the country. Ahead of the Christchurch launch event at Scorpio Books next week, Emily chatted to me about her book, how she writes, and shared some favourite reads of her own.

Emily Writes
Emily Writes. Image credit: Christopher Tse.

So you started out blogging about parenting stuff, segued into somewhat tipsy movie reviews, have become the parenting editor at The Spinoff and now you have a book out. The next inevitable step is the biopic of your life, so the real question is… who will play you?

Oh my gosh, that is so hilarious. Alexander Skarsgård would need to be my husband in a movie and we would need to have many off-camera dress rehearsals and practice runs.

Cover of I Am Sasha Fierce
Emily’s twin and future bestie, Beyoncé.

I would really like it if Beyoncé could be me… I love her… My inspiration is Beyoncé so I would like to meet her. Because if she played me in a movie I could meet her and then maybe we would become best friends.

I’m now thinking about this a lot. Because it would probably be like a Shortland Street actor, right? Or someone who could do a believeable Kiwi accent, so maybe it could be… Nicole Kidman in a fat suit or something? Or… Cate Blanchett’s very good at accents.

What were you aiming for in writing “Rants in the dark”?

I hope that it is kind of a friend in the night to mums and new mums. If they’re awake at 3am or something like that – I wrote it at 3am. So I hope that it feels like somewhere they can turn in the night when they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Or during the day, or any time. I hope that it’s a different kind of parenting book.

It’s not a place for advice, or judgment or “I know what I’m doing” because I definitely don’t know what I’m doing. I hope that it just makes mums feel good about themselves but not in a “yoga” way.

Do you feel like there is a niche that parenting books weren’t quite hitting and that that’s where “Rants in the dark” sits?

I guess, yeah. I got What to expect when you’re expecting when I was pregnant and it kind of terrified me, and it’s also a bit like reading a dictionary. It’s quite a full-on book and I looked but I couldn’t find anything that properly prepared me – and I know that you can’t properly be prepared [for parenthood] – but I guess I wanted something like “hey, this might not be every single second of incredible delight. It will be amazing and the best thing ever but there will also be some really hard times”. That’s a really hard message to get across and maybe that’s why there aren’t books like that.

I just really felt like because we had tried so hard [to have a baby] that I would be ecstatic every second. And it’s that whole thing where, any parent talking about the hard times, you feel like you have to justify straight away – I am really happy…  And that’s why it’s such a difficult thing to talk about but I think we really do need to talk about… the realness of parenting, I guess.

I felt, with Eddie’s illness… how did this ever happen? And that’s a really hard thing when you start motherhood with something that you never expected that turns your whole life upside down. So I wanted to write something that maybe resonated with those mums that didn’t have this super smooth run into motherhood.

Sometimes I felt, when Eddie was really sick, that all these mums around me just had these perfect lives, and I know that that’s not true… but I felt very weird, alone and kind of “othered”… And I know that a lot of mums who have babies that have health conditions or are prem or that type of thing, they feel that too. So I hope that in that way it serves the community.

Emily Writes is not your real name, is it? Why did you feel the need to work under a pseudonym?

I guess the pseudonym is about the fact that I want to protect the privacy of my children. Every step of the way I’ve had boundaries and wanted to respect their privacy, and not only privacy but for me it’s about respecting them as people. …We talk a lot about what I’m writing, in terms of respecting the boys, but there’s a lot of trust there that I’m never going to do something that hurts them.

But I guess I don’t want them to spend their lives with people saying things like “oh, is your mum blah, blah, blah”. And I don’t want them to be Google-able, if that’s a word. I don’t want them to feel like they are characters or anything like that and I want to respect my husband’s privacy. He’s a really shy person.

… It also allows me a little bit of separation… I want to be able to come home and I walk through the door and I’m with my kids. …I find this is sort of a way to remind myself that I am a mum first to my kids and a wife and that is really important to me that I prioritise that and this allows me to not get too far up my own a*** or something.

With two small kids, it must be a struggle to write sometimes.

It’s hard to get it good. I write heaps. My drafts folder is like a phonebook… but it’s all s***. It’s easy to write lots but trying to find something good enough to publish is hard.

What I did was all at 3am, 4am because my kid is just intense. Every time he woke up, if I had an idea, I would note it down during the night and the book is like lots of little blog posts in a book. So I didn’t have to change my way of writing or anything [from blogging]. So I feel like I was pretty lucky. I think writers who write actual books are amazing.

Cover of Rants in the dark[I remind Emily that she has written an actual book]

Oh yeah, I have written an actual book. I forgot.

You just feel so lucky to have a book that you just feel very weird, and lucky and how did this happen? And it just doesn’t feel like it was hard because it’s so exciting. And also I didn’t do the grind like other writers did. I feel like I’ve been shot up the a*** with a rainbow, basically. I’ve just been very lucky.

What authors or writers do you yourself enjoy reading?

That’s a great question. I love Bunmi Laditan. I discovered her after I had started writing because someone said “you remind me of Bunmi” and then I went on her Facebook page and she’s just amazing in the way she talks about anxiety and mental health –  just so powerful. I love Bunmi.

I love Clementine Ford. I just read Fight like a girl. I think that was really brave. It’s kind of like Feminism 101, a really nice sort of entry into intersectional feminism…

I really love Emma Neale whose book Billy Bird – I just cried the whole way through it – it was such a powerful metaphor for parenting.

Cover of Mansfield and MeI love Sarah Laing’s Katherine Mansfield book, Mansfield and Me. I love that book. It’s amazing. I wanted to read it because I really like her as a person. She seems super nice and lovely. I don’t know her but that’s how she seems. So I thought “I’ll just buy it because she seems really nice and I want to support New Zealand authors” and then I loved it. You know when you just don’t know if you’re going to like a book or not, and then it’s everything? And I never thought I’d be into a Katherine Mansfield book but I loved it.

You’re coming down to Christchurch and doing a book launch event at Scorpio Books soon.

Yes, I’m so excited to come to Christchurch and that Scorpio Books wants to host me. And I think someone is running around trying to organise a day event so that we don’t exclude mums who can’t go out during the “witching hour” because their children are tyrants. Which is my children. I don’t mean that to insult anybody’s children.

I’m quite nervous about the Unity launch in Wellington because my kids will be there but I feel like if they absolutely crack it, I’ll just be like “See? I told you. Everything in the book is true”.

Hear Emily Writes talk at Scorpio Books BNZ Centre, 120 Hereford Street, Thursday, 6-7.30pm, 16 March.

The New Zealand Book Council are giving away one copy of Rants in the dark. To enter the draw, email reception@bookcouncil.org.nz with “Rants” in the subject line by Thurs 16 March. (Remember to include your postal address!)

Christchurch – Our underground story

Christchurch: Our underground story is a “lift-the-flaps” picture book with a difference. It has the sturdy thick board pages and colourful illustrations you’d expect to find in other books of this kind but the topic is a bit less straightforward than teaching simple colours or counting.

It’s about infrastructure, which is not a particularly thrilling word to most kids (or adults). But the ongoing maintenance and repair of quake-damaged infrastructure has a daily impact on Cantabrians, so thrilling or not, it’s probably something we should all pay a bit of attention to.

This is one of the reasons for the book as it attempts to open our eyes to exactly what all those coned-off holes in the ground, detours and diggers are in aid of.

It’s a challenging topic but SCIRT Civil Structural Engineer Phil Wilkins and Chemical Engineer/illustrator Martin Coates have brought their considerable experience to bear in producing a really unique and distinctly Cantabrian book.

Cover of Christchurch: Our underground story

Christchurch: Our underground story is sort of a “How Stuff Works” for infrastructure, filled as it is with diagrammatic drawings of how this pipe connects to that one connects to the next one, and the methods by which they’re maintained and repaired. By lifting the flaps you can see the processes and equipment underneath, and it’s all accompanied by explanations of what things are called and what their purpose is. It’s the kind of book that invites inquisitive kids to spend a lot of time absorbed on each page… and it’s pretty educational for adults too.

Christchurch: Our underground story spread
A look inside Christchurch: Our underground story by Phil Wilkins and Martin Coates

The illustrations make it clear that this book is about Christchurch with local landmarks and little touches like flowers poking out of road cones that place it very much in the Garden City.

Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Ronald McDonald House which provides accommodation for families who, because they have a sick child in hospital, have to travel from out of town.

The book can be ordered now with purchased copies able to be picked up at a book launch event at the Margaret Mahy Family Playground on Saturday 25 February. You can also place a hold on a library copy.

Further reading

On your bike! – Go by bike day 2017

A.E. Preece Cyclists' Exchange [ca. 1885]
Cyclist waits patiently for his muffin.
A.E. Preece Cyclists’ Exchange
[ca. 1885] File Reference CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0039
Go by bike day is tomorrow. Surely a person doesn’t need more inducement to hit the road, powered by their own legs, enjoying a form of transport that’s good for their fitness and their wallet… but a free coffee and a muffin at the traditional Go By Bike Day Breakfast doesn’t hurt, does it?

This year the location of the breakfast is 597 Colombo St, on a Life in Vacant Spaces lot at the St Asaph St corner and all cyclists can enjoy the aforementioned free breakfast thanks to a range of cycle-friendly sponsors.

I’ve been to several of these events in the past and it’s always a good opportunity for a bit of sly perving of bikes (and associated accessories) as the concentration of other cyclists gives you a really good view of all the different kinds of cycles and cyclists that ride around in Christchurch.

In fact, the whole month of February is a good time to be out on a bike, and not just because the weather is generally pretty good. The Aotearoa Bike Challenge encourages you to get on a bike, even if it’s only for 10 minutes and to try and rack up some mileage. It’s super easy to register, then you log all your rides, can set yourself goals to achieve – “burn off a glass of wine” for instance – and compete against your co-workers.

I am registered and it is strangely addictive. Even relatively short trips of a kilometre or two really do add up if you’re riding every day. Also, there are prizes up for grabs. And if you’re new to the whole cycling thing, they’ve got really helpful tips about riding to work, bike maintenance and other relevant topics.

Learn more about cycling

In our catalogue

Cover of Urban cycling Cover of The official New Zealand road code for cyclists Cover of Everyday cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand Cover of Bicycling an introduction

On the web

  • Bikewise Information about bikes for kids and adults. Bike safety, choosing a bike, maintenance, and more.
  • Cycling in Christchurch News, information and events for Christchurch cyclists
  • Cycling (Christchurch City Council) Information on cycleways, bike parks and cycle safety.
  • Spark Bikes Bike Share A two year pilot to promote bike share as a part of the city’s transport mix.  Borrowable bikes availabe at 5 central city stations.
  • Bikes on buses Information on using Metro’s bus-mounted bike racks
  • RAD bikes (Recycle a Dunger) Bike need some work before it can hit the road? Help is at hand with parts, tools, and instruction on bicycle maintenance and repair.

Saying goodbye to Princess Leia

I have been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I can remember and a large part of that reason was Princess Leia. Growing up in the 70s and 80s she was, along with Charlies’ Angels, the kind of cute but fearless hero that I longed to be like.

Later in life I came to appreciate Carrie Fisher for her other roles in films like When Harry met Sally, and more recently her brilliantly comic turn as the mother-in-law from Hell in sitcom Catastrophe, but most especially for her writing.

Cover of The Princess DiaristHaving been equal parts amused and horrified by her earlier memoir Wishful Drinking*, late last year I placed a hold on her most recent effort, The Princess Diarist. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that by the time the book became available that she would be dead. How could I have? And even worse, that her family would suffer a double tragedy when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, would follow just a couple of days later. I wept unapologetically and over the Christmas period I watched song and dance numbers from Singin’ in the rain on YouTube and moped.

So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I finally picked up The Princess Diarist and, after steeling myself and making sure a box of tissues was handy, started to read it.

But I barely needed them because, and this is the magic of writing and the author’s voice, Carrie Fisher was alive again on every page. Dripping with acerbic, self-deprecating wit and wordplay, The Princess Diarist was this amazingly comforting fan experience for me.

In case you didn’t know, the book is based on Fisher’s diaries from 1976 during the making of the first Star Wars film. The book is a mix of explanatory set-up of how she came to even been in the movie (or showbiz for that matter) and her observations on that time from a distance of some 40 years, as well as some really fascinating musings on the nature of fame, or at least her very specific version of it. And throughout runs her brutally honest humour and no BS attitude. The main revelation of the book is her on set affair, at the age of nineteen, with her married-with-kids co-star Harrison Ford. She dedicates a whole chapter to it which is, rather delightfully, titled “Carrison”.

You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.

(Harrison Ford “breaking character” by saying something heartfelt to Fisher, as they parted company)

The book also includes a section of verbatim entries from the aforementioned diary. In some ways this was my least favourite part, only because it’s written by a rather tortured teenager about her less than satisfying love life and I have unfond memories of writing similarly tortured diary entries when I was the same age. I can immediately understand why it took her 40 years to publish any of it (There is poetry. About Harrison Ford being distant. It’s wonderful/terrible).

Having said that, Fisher’s diaries are much better written than those of the average teenager. She admits to having been rather precocious and the sly humour and clever use of language would read as being written but someone much older… if not for the This Is So Very Important And Deep style of diarying that teenagers of a certain sort are prone to.

So skim through that section, casting grains of salt as  you go, would be my advice. But the rest of it is great – an absolute must-read for Princess Leia fans, or just fans of Fisher’s signature snappy rejoinders.

Having got through pretty much the whole book with nary more than a slight moistening of eye, I admit to some small amount of tearfulness upon reading the acknowledgments, primarily due to this passage –

For my mother – for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.

No, that part at least, was not funny at all.

More Carrie Fisher

*The audiobook version is narrated by Fisher herself, so if you really, really want to hear that sonorous voice in your head you can!

Summer reading, had me a blast

So, what usually happens with me over the summer is I drag a big pile of books and DVDs home and then I do an average to poor job of getting through them all over the Christmas and new year break, because even though I might not necessarily be at work, there’s still plenty to do at home (taking the Christmas tree down, letting the 3 year old help, cleaning up after that disaster and so on…)

This year I had the misfortune of getting a cold in the new year that turned into a chest infection and necessitated quite a bit of lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. Which as everyone knows is the perfect time to get some reading done. Here’s what I managed to rattle through as a result *cough*.

Cover of American GodsAmerican Gods – As recommended by Pickle Bronwyn, this is a great read. It spans a great many topics – Norse mythology, theology, Americana, First Nations beliefs – and it’s also kind of a road-trip novel. Engrossing and enjoyable.

Like a Queen – To say Aussie writer and mum Constance Hall is a phenomenon is not overstating the case. Her posts on parenting and relationships and the importance of building other women up rather than tearing them down are massively popular, largely due to Facebook. In only a couple of years she has recruited a legion of fans (or “Queenies”) from all walks of life who love her brash, no-BS yet tender approach to modern womanhood. Her book is more “hippyish” than I usually go for but it’s brutally honest and raw too which is very affecting. A great, affirming read for harangued and under-appreciated mothers.

Cover of You can't touch my hairYou can’t touch my hair: And other things I still have to explain – Phoebe Robinson made a fan out of me within about three pages. She’s wickedly funny, scathing and more than a little bit goofy while tackling pretty important issues like racism and sexism. I learned a lot about African American hair from this as well as what sexism looks like to a female actor/comedian. I LOVED this book (even though I cannot fathom why she put The Edge at the top of her “which order I would have sex with the members of U2 in” list. The Edge. REALLY?). It’s a humorous mixture of pop culture, social awareness and general badassery. Highly recommended.

Cover of Talking as fast as I canTalking as fast as I can – Actor Lauren Graham’s memoir is a lot like what you imagine her personality to be – considered and cheerful with plenty of quips, non sequiturs and tangential observations. It’s a must-read for Gilmore Girls fans and recommended companion reading if you’ve recently watched the rebooted “A year in the life” series. Don’t read this expecting to get the low down on any Hollywood scandal though. No careers are ruined. No beans are spilled. But it is a light, amusing read that makes me keen to check out her first novel (a second is in the works) as well as her screen adaptation of The Royal We. There’s also a handy “writing process” guide borrowed from another writer included that I may well put into use. Also, how much is that cover photo crying out for some book-facing? So. Much.

Exhibit A.

Cover of The world according to Star WarsThe world according to Star Wars – I am a sucker for any book that indulges my desire to ponder the many facets, nooks and crannies, and minutiae of the Star Wars universe. And Cass Sunstein, one of America’s most highly regarded legal scholars, obviously feels the same since he wrote this book, seemly to fill that exact niche. It’s a mixed bag (the section on the U. S. constitution was a bit tenuous, in my opinion) but there are plenty of opportunities to ponder the meanings, symbolism and politics of this most popular of sci-fi series’ and to view it through a variety lenses. Recommended for fans.

 

Book to film: The Changeover

Cover of The ChangeoverMargaret Mahy’s young adult novel, The Changeover was already several years old when I first picked up a worn copy in my high school library at the age of 15.

I was so taken with it that even before I had finished reading it I was re-imagining it in my head as a movie.

In that peculiarly obsessive way that teenage girls sometimes are about their favourite things my mania lead me to imagined locations and camera angles, and I had a very long list of songs to be included in the soundtrack. Most of which, upon reflection, were terrible.

When Margaret Mahy died in 2012, I felt moved to write a heartfelt blog post about how important her writing, and this book in particular, had been to me.

A couple of years later at a WORD Christchurch panel discussion on The Changeover, I learned that a film of the book was in development and felt conflicted in that way that book fans often do. Because how could that film ever live up to the book, or indeed my own imaginary movie of it?

Stuart McKenzie is, with his wife Miranda Harcourt, co-director of that film which recently finished shooting here in Christchurch.

The Changeover directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie
The Changeover co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie. (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Perhaps not fully understanding the degree of my fangirl obsession, he agreed to answer some questions about what their version of Mahy’s story will look like.

Margaret Mahy wrote a number of terrific books for young adults – what made you want to film The Changeover particularly?

We felt The Changeover was really cinematic. It’s a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who’s got to change over and become a witch in order to save her little brother from an evil spirit. So, it’s got a great central conflict! And its genre is very clear — yet at the same time it puts this compelling twist on it by feeling very naturalistic.

Its themes of love, loss, sacrifice and change are primal. Laura Chant feels like a real person — she struggles with herself and her kind of dispossessed place in the world, but she’s got big dreams. In other words, she’s a complex and powerful heroine who our audience can really identify with!

Another thing that made the book feel so cinematic for us was Christchurch. We updated Margaret’s story to contemporary, post-earthquake Christchurch. For us, the brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is like a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and subsequent transformation.

The Chant home set
The Chant family home in the Red Zone (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

The book (and Margaret Mahy herself) are very beloved, by me and many others. Does that place extra pressure on you to do a good job with the film?

All along we’ve wanted to make something Margaret would love: raw and lyrical, tender and tough and true. We wanted to keep the story feeling very contemporary, as the book itself was when it was first published in 1984. Like Margaret, we wanted to find the magic in the real world, not drift away into fantasy.

We were lucky to have Margaret’s blessing from the start. Before she died, she read and loved an early draft of the screenplay. So that was a great feeling to carry through the development of the project and into the shoot itself. She really encouraged us to find the spirit of the story and not be bound by the literal form of the book. We had this quote in mind by the great French film director Jean Renoir, “What interests me in adaptation isn’t the possibility of revealing the original in a film version, but the reaction of the film maker to the original work.”

I guess you could think of the book and the film as two reflecting worlds — much in the same way that Laura herself discovers the connectedness between two powerful realities — magic and the everyday — and finding in fact that they’re really one and the same.

Margaret was always clear that Laura’s changeover into a witch is a metaphor for her becoming a young woman, an active journey to embrace her own creative power. And Laura’s story itself is a metaphor for the challenges we all face in our lives and the changeovers we all have to go on in order to grow.

Oh yeah, back to the question about doing a good job… Yes, we really feel that! And we’ve still got a lot of work to do in post-production. Helps to have great people to work with, which we have.

On the one hand The Changeover, if you’re familiar with Christchurch, is very recognisably placed here, on the other hand it’s also very vague about where it’s set. The name of the city is never mentioned. The suburbs and street names in it are all made up. Christchurch is certainly its spiritual home, but you could make a very good argument that it’s not a story that needs to be specifically told here, and yet you are telling it here. What made you want to shoot here rather than in Auckland or “Wellywood”?

As you say, Christchurch is the “spiritual home” of The Changeover and we always wanted to make it here. I was born and bred in Christchurch and spent my early teenage years in Bishopdale which Margaret calls Gardendale in the book.

The Changeover was welcomed to Christchurch by Ngai Tahu in a moving whakatau — as a production we felt hugely embraced by Christchurch, the people, the Council, the environment itself.

Shooting in central Christchurch
Nighttime shoot in central Christchurch (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Miranda and I were determined to film in Christchurch because its flat vistas give the film a unique look. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud and Production Designer Iain Aitken helped us reflect the everyday and often unexpected beauty of the place.

Christchurch also allowed us to explore the division between social worlds which is a key feature of The Changeover. Laura comes from a solo-parent family struggling to make ends meet. By contrast, Sorensen Carlisle lives in an architect-designed home with fine art on the walls and a sense of history and sophistication. The developing romance between Laura and Sorensen means first differentiating and then bridging these two worlds.

Mahy herself described The Changeover as having a lot of folk tale elements – there are “evil” step-parents and an enchanted brother, for instance –  but also that “the city is simultaneously a mythological forest”. Will your film retain those suggestions of a modern day fairy tale?

Yes it does and that is in the very DNA of the story. At heart The Changeover is an emotionally powerful female rite-of-passage keyed into a primal fairy tale tradition. It’s true that those fairy tale elements are more overt in Margaret’s novel.

We wanted the film to feel very contemporary and naturalistic so in our story the fairy tale nature is felt rather than seen. We often thought about Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking study on fairy tale called The Uses of Enchantment. He says, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” That is something we experience through Laura in The Changeover.

In terms of characters, it strikes me that Sorensen Carlisle, at least how he’s written in the book, is something of a contradictory figure – dangerous yet vulnerable, jovial yet dark, aloof yet intense – that must present some challenges when it comes to casting. How difficult was it to find someone who can be all those things in a convincing way?

We had great casting agents in NZ and in the UK. We looked long and hard to cast this film. When we auditioned young UK actor Nick Galitzine we knew we had found our mysterious and compelling Sorensen Carlisle. And Nick and Erana James who plays Laura Chant have a powerful chemistry together. We have always said that this intensity is our special effect!

Reading the book as a teenager it was incredibly important to me that Laura was of mixed racial heritage both in a personal sense, as it was quite unusual to read about someone like me as the heroine of a novel, but also in that it marks her as being different and something of an outsider, which I think adds to her story. I’m really pleased that you’ve cast a part-Māori actress in the role. Was that always the plan?

This was totally important to us too. We love how in the book Laura is part-Maori but Margaret Mahy doesn’t make a big thing about that, it’s simply part of the unique world of the story which in fact helps make it feel universal. It’s true that Laura being part-Maori means that by her very nature she finds herself between two worlds. That’s the journey Laura is on — to open herself to new worlds, new experience.

We looked for many years for our Laura Chant — and we kept coming back to Erana James who we had met early on in our process. Of course, financiers want to cast someone in a central role like this who already has a profile. Erana hadn’t acted in a film before so she was unknown in NZ let alone internationally. But with the support of the NZ Film Commission we made a “tone reel” last year with Erana playing Laura. She was fantastic in it — and the international people involved in the project — like our sales agent and even Tim Spall or Melanie Lynskey — could immediately see that this young woman had something special.

Erana James on set as Laura Chant
Erana James on set as Laura Chant (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Could you hope for a better villain than Timothy Spall?

You are so right! But what drew us to Tim in the first place is that he could reveal the humanity in Carmody Braque. It’s this which makes him such a powerful adversary for Laura — because there is something of Braque in Laura herself. A desire to live more fully and expand her horizons.

We are so lucky to have Timothy Spall in The Changeover. He is mesmerising. I think Margaret Mahy would have been thrilled!

It’s clear from his answers that Stuart McKenzie is as much a fan of The Changeover as I am, so I feel much more relaxed about the movie adaptation now.

In addition to the film coming out late next year, McKenzie says there will also be a movie tie-in reprint of the (currently out of print) book. So roll on 2017!

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There’s a snake in my school

David Walliams, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in action in front of a very receptive audience of Christchurch schoolchildren last year, has been at it again, penning another offbeat children’s tale, this time a picture book.

It’s bring your pet to school day and Miranda, a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum, brings along her pet python, Penelope. Of course.

Cover of There's a snake in my schoolEven with a python on the loose There’s a snake in my school is not quite “Snakes on a plane”. For one thing there is no Samuel L. Jackson – though I’m happy to report that the school in the book does have a diverse ethnic mix of pupils, which makes a nice change from most of the picture books I read as a child.

Also, the snake in question is well behaved and non-menacing… mostly. Because there’s always a bit of darkness woven into Walliams’ stories.

Fans of legendary illustrator Tony Ross will enjoy the bright, energetic artwork full of animal-related mayhem and fans of “doing silly voices when reading picture books” will enjoy the pompous headmistress Miss Bloat, who, as interpreted by me, is a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket.

I read this to my nearly 3 year old, and even though There’s a snake in my school is longer and more wordy than most picture books we read together, it kept his attention until the end. Still, I think this would be better suited to school age children, if for no other reason than the school setting will make more sense to them.

There’s a snake in my school
by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008172701