200 years of the Modern Prometheus

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she began writing the English language’s most successful gothic horror tale, Frankenstein, which was first published  200 years ago. So after all these years what do we know about her, the story, and the circumstances that led to the creation of Frank Jnr.?

  • She did indeed write the story when she was 18, although it was not published until she was 21.
  • It was written as the result of a challenge laid down by Lord Byron (romantic poet extraodinaire), who along with young Mary, her husband Percy, and Byron’s “personal physician” John Polidori was staying in a spooky country house. On a stormy night telling ghost stories to each other, Byron thought it would be a good challenge for the group to see who could write the best ghost/horror story!
  • That session also led to Polidori writing the story ‘Vampyre’ which was influential on Bram Stoker for his work, ‘Dracula’.
  • ‘Frankenstein’ was first published anonymously on a short run of 500 using extremely budget materials by publisher Lackington’s, who are still operating today
  • In 1910 Thomas Edison created a 15min film based on the story – I love the music accompaniment on it!
  • The monster has no name but is referred to in the book by the names in my first sentence. For many years I believed the monster’s name was Adam, but I must’ve dreamed that!
  • The story was initially published anonymously with many readers assuming the author to be Mary’s husband Percy. Even after its reprinting in 1831 with Mary’s name on it many still thought Percy’s hand was involved. In truth it is now believed that Percy contributed a measly 6% of the text (4,000 of 72,000 words) with many readers considering that his contributions only detracted from the story, were over complicated and over described, making the whole thing harder to digest.
  • During her life Mary also wrote, seven novels, three books for kids, over a dozen short stories, and numerous biographies, articles, and poems.

The story of Frankenstein is now so embedded into our popular culture that there have been countless depictions and references all through the history of film and television; think Hermann Munster, the film Young Frankenstein, British tele series The Frankenstein Chronicles, and even with the fantastic kids film Tim Burton, Frankenweenie ,we see that this story of horror has even entered into the realms of children’s literature and culture.

But have we stayed true to Mary’s idea?? Does the monster still serve the same purpose as she intended; a lesson in mortality, human desire for control and intolerance for the different, perhaps even describing the perils of parental abandonment…? This series of charts from the Guardian suggests there have been some major deviations.

So how will you celebrate the outstanding achievement of Mary Shelley? Perhaps by reading some classic gothic/horror/monster literature, there’s plenty out there and I’ve created a short list of titles for you, all available through the Christchurch City Libraries catalogue and across many formats; books, audiobooks, ebooks, and graphic novels…

Classic Gothic/Horror/Monster stories

List created by DevilStateDan

Some spooky, dark, and unnerving tales, classic titles from famous names…

View Full List

Happy and spooky reading to you….

A luncheon interval on Mt Sebastopol while on a ski trip at Mount Cook National Park: Picturing Canterbury

A luncheon interval on Mt Sebastopol while on a ski trip at Mount Cook National Park [1926?]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0086
Do you have any photographs of skiing in Canterbury? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

A Luncheon Interval On Mt Sebastopol While On A Ski Trip At Mount Cook National Park

Annihilation

I’ve done it again. I’ve stumbled on to a book with a premise that really intrigues me and then leaves me floundering with more questions than answers. This drives me crazy. Other people love this book. I love answers. Fully committed though, I launched myself upon the movie when it turned up on Netflix.

More confusion as the writers took another turn with the story. My frustration now consumes me, but at least there was some resolution in the movie. But what is this story that managed to evoke such a range of emotions? Read on…

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Annihilation is the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s  Southern Reach trilogy. Southern Reach has control of Area X. This is an area of land that has apparently inexplicable changes happening to the environment, people and animals that live or have lived within it. Southern Reach has been sending teams into Area X for 30 years and up to this point, there has been a very high failure rate. One by one the teams either go crazy, kill themselves or return a shell of their former selves. Nothing stays untouched by the environment inside Area X. I say ‘inside’ but in reality there is no visible barrier that separates the real world and the one that is evolving inside Area X.

Southern Reach have decided that for their 12th mission it is time to send forth an all-female team consisting of an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and a biologist. They remain nameless for the duration and the chasm that exists between each of them is palpable and one wonders if it is deliberate. The very experiences that should bring them together are ripping them further apart due to an underlying distrust. Encounters with the inexplicable and alien continues the downward spiral as they search for answers.

Then my mind wanders and I can’t help but wonder, “Only 12 expeditions in 30 years?” That doesn’t sound quite right to me. History dictates that in our desperate need to find reason where there is none, we would have bombarded the area with specialists and most of all, military. Certainly not fluffed around so that there was more than 2 years between missions while Area X steadily grows larger! And the questions continue.

Hopefully you do better than me in your search for answers. Maybe you don’t need any and are happy to just immerse yourself in the possibilities alone. More than likely I gave up far too easily and just need to get stuck into VanderMeer’s next two books in the Southern Reach series, Authority and Acceptance and keep searching for those elusive answers.

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Alternatively try something completely different, if you gave up like I did:

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Cool stuff from the Selectors: Musings on fiction

Fiction publishing  is very much trend and theme driven, and as Heidi Klum said “one day you’re in and the next day you’re out”.

There are always the bestseller authors, but in amongst their numbers are a few subjects and authors that can come out of left field.

Bookshops

Bookshops. Books and people who sell them, read in them, murder in them and fall in love, usually in old dusty quaint places – none of which resemble Whitcoulls or Paper Plus.  The recently released movie The bookshop might also create some interest in this area.

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Librarians and Libraries

Librarians and libraries!  Well, not exactly a major trend, but for a generally under-represented group in books and films we seem to be featuring on a regular basis lately – usually there is a murder involved …which is um, interesting?

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Bakeries

Bakeries.  Food has always been a feature in fiction, but just lately there has been the odd bakery/romance popping up, which seems like a nice mixture to me.

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Bees and Beekeepers

Bees – and for some reason Beekeepers

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Feminist Dystopias

Feminist dystopias – not surprising considering the dramatisation of The Handmaid’s tale. These books are not for the faint hearted.

Find more feminist dystopias in our collection.

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Of course, fiction publishing is also affected by what is going on in the world, there have been more titles published in the last few years about refugees for example, plenty of titles about the economic crisis, climate change and a plethora of light easy reads for those of us who just want to escape.

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Women of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) on parade at Harewood Air Force Station, Christchurch: Picturing Canterbury

Women of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) on parade at Harewood Air Force Station, Christchurch [1941]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0095.
On 31 May 1941, forty-one women started in their positions as members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at Harewood Air Force Station. At the commencement of their duties, it was expected that they would soon be joined by further recruits, bringing the total number of WAAF members serving at Harewood to one hundred and fifty, with another two hundred expected for the station at Wigram.

Do you have any photographs of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in Christchurch or of the Harewood Air Force Station? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

The timeless tradition of nearly forgetting Mother’s Day

The second Sunday of May. Or, this year, Sunday 13th May. A day which – much like birthdays and anniversaries – I usually forget until the last dire minute. Cue me rushing through the mall right before it shuts trying to find a gift both thoughtful and needed. A thing which, by the way, doesn’t exist when you’re looking for it.

The history of mother’s day can be traced back to its ancient roots. Spring celebrations in ancient Greece honoured Rhea, the mother of the gods, with offerings of honey-cakes, drinks and flowers. The ancient Romans celebrated their mother of the gods too – Cybele, or Magna Mater, ‘Great Mother.’ They built her a temple in Rome and over several days during the March equinox, the festival of Hilaria was held in her honour. Even the ancient Egyptians held their own annual festival in celebration of the goddess Isis – she being revered as the mother of Pharos and a divine symbol of motherhood.

In a more modern age, mothering Sunday in the UK (the fourth Sunday of Lent) became a day where workers could take time off to visit their mothers; and in the United States a woman named Anna Jarvis is credited with beginning Mother’s Day there from 1908, following the death of her own mother. (Find out more about the history of Mother’s Day at The Legacy Project)

These days, we don’t so much bother with honey cakes and the lighting of the ceremonial fires, but Christchurch City Libraries do have a wealth of material, images and resources to help us celebrate mother’s day the way it should be (with a good book).

We could start with this handy Staff Pickles list, along with some of my top picks:

Cover of Five forget Mother's DayCover of MiracleCover of MothersCover of Mother's Day on Coronation StCover of Mother's and Father's day treats

Here are some photos from Christchurch City Libraries’ digital collection of mothers being mothers in times past and present.

How were many Cantabrians celebrating mother’s day in 1984 you ask? By joining in a nuclear free parade, of course: 

Nuclear free parade, Akaroa, Mothers Day, 1984 from Kete Christchurch. Entry in the 2009 & 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Jan Shuttleworth. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ

And you thought that our Babytimes could get crowded:

Mothers and babies gathered outside St. Helen’s Hospital, Sydenham [1909]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0075
Adorable family standing in front of the United Services Hotel in the square: 

Mother and Daughters in Cathedral Square (early 1940’s). File reference: HW-08-CE-018. From Flickr.

On a final note, it can be observed that in our busy lives we often neglect to make time for ourselves. Could this be any truer than for the busy mother? Enter All Right? who have brought us a fresh new idea in the form of these popular downtime dice, to remind us to take time out for ourselves. Downtime dice can be nabbed (free!) in libraries, but get in quick – they’re going fast! Check out their website for ideas about downtime activities.

Wishing you a Happy Mother’s Day!

How we met: The ways great love begins by Michele A’Court

How We Met has a pretty simple concept – Michele A’Court (feminist-comedian-badass) interviews a bunch of enduring Kiwi couples about how they met. There’s all sorts in there, lots of missed opportunities and first date mishaps, disapproving parents and friends, coincidences and romance.

The stories themselves are, of course, wonderful – Michele captures them on paper in a way that makes you feel that you’re sitting across from the couple with a cuppa – but what makes the book so special is the larger idea behind these stories. The ‘how we met’ story, Michele reckons, serves a greater purpose than just letting someone know the juicy details of how it all went down. Recalling that story provides an opportunity to really engage in the feeling, the same connection, spark, joy, that they felt way back when. Further, it seems that revisiting these feelings in tangible ways helps to keep a long-lasting, enduring relationship fresh and exciting.

So How We Met is a collection of glorious, real-life stories from Kiwi couples, but it’s also a reflection on relationships in general – the common and also totally unique experiences, difficult and glorious, of living life with your ‘one in particular’.

The thing I liked most about this book was how accessible and relatable it felt. Many of these stories are so intimate, so personal, so full of ‘in-jokes’ and ‘you had to be there’ moments, that it would be easy for the reader to feel a little removed from the action. But Michele tells them in such a comfortable way – I could tell because, as I was reading, I was finding something on nearly every page that I wanted to read aloud to my partner.

CoverMany of these relationships started at a similar time, although there are exceptions to that, of course. A happy and perhaps unintentional result of this means that the book reads a little bit like a snapshot of life for young people in New Zealand in the 70s and 80s. I loved this aspect of the book – it made me think of my parents, the stories I have heard from them (over and over) about how they met. And of course, New Zealand being very small, there were places and even people described in the book that, by a degree or two of separation, I had a connection to.

I also enjoyed the practical elements weaved through the book – the science behind the way our brains make memories, made accessible to non-science-brained folks like me. The list of relationship advice from these couples towards the end, too, felt totally sensible and not at all far-fetched (as those kinds of lists can sometimes be).

Michele is in Ōtautahi next Tuesday 15 May, interviewing the magnificent Robert Webb (of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look fame), with thanks to WORD Christchurch and the Auckland Writers Festival. Robert Webb’s book How Not To Be A Boy was in my top 3 reads last year. It’s remarkable and funny and challenging, and this event will be really special.

TL;DR: This is a sweet, generous and intelligent book. I recommend it – especially if you’re looking for something cozy, curled up on a winter afternoon.

How we met
by Michèle A’Court
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775540939

Ray
Upper Riccarton Library

Can men really write about women?

I’ve just read five books in a row written by male authors. I’ll freely admit that this doesn’t qualify as a statistically significant sample. And yet I feel compelled to wade right in and share with you my thoughts on the abilities of men to really really understand their female characters. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks here, so Buckle Up. It could be a bumpy ride.

The Dreams of Bethany MellmothIn my fantasy “authors I have a bit of a crush on” life, for some reason I have William Boyd pegged as a Big Game Hunter type of a man – leaning nonchalantly against a muddy Landrover, smoking a Camel. As a result I’m always taken by surprise to rediscover that he writes really well about women. In The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth  the portrayal of Bethany herself is very finely wrought. However, not to move the goalposts, I think that Boyd is trying to appeal to a female readership here, I just can’t picture male readers taking to this book at all.

Colin Cotterill gets round the problem of writing about women by simply excluding them, if not altogether, in the main. In The Rat Catcher’s Olympics there are really only two female characters and they are like male characters only with female names and husbands. This doesn’t deter me from Cotterill as an author, as his male characters have quite well-developed feminine sides anyway. Colin (I feel we are on first name terms) is the only author I have ever tried to meet: in Chiang Mai at The Blue Diamond Cafe which I had heard he frequented. The Rat Catchers Olympics is a hard novel to recommend to others. Dr Siri is an acquired taste and you need to have a high tolerance level for all things Laotian and in this book, Russian.

The Flight AttendantChris Bohjalian in The Flight Attendant, takes the cliché of a promiscuous air hostess and weaves an unsettling murder mystery out of it. Like a lot of male authors he’s really better at vampish/bad girl females – chances are you’ll not easily recognise yourself in Cassie.

Deon Meyer in the brilliantly dystopian Fever gets round the whole issue by paring the female presence in his books right down to the bare minimum – the very beautiful and the very sporty. Post an apocalyptic disaster, guess what?  It will still be a man’s world!

Cover of Adventures in modern marriage

Only William Nicholson in Adventures in Modern Marriage comes even close to trying to get under the skin of females you might meet in your everyday life. One woman at a time he does this really well, but he too has a problem with interactions between women – which , let’s give credit here, he does at least attempt to portray.

This seems to me to be a major problem area for many male authors. They struggle to write about women in groups, they have no ear for dialogue between women.

There, I have said it. What do you think?

 

The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, jealousy, and more than a little stabbing: NZ Opera’s Tosca

Tonight I had the delight of watching Tosca, performed by New Zealand Opera. In the spirit of joy and discovery, I brought along my mother, who was lucky enough to have this be her maiden voyage to Puccini’s works. Indeed, I would have her begin her experience with no other. Love and jealousy, deceit and more than a little stabbing, Tosca embodies everything I love about French drama and Italian opera.

Tosca is originally set in Italy in the early 1800s (in this performance, still in Italy, but pushed forward to the stylish 1950s). It focuses on the diva Tosca, her lover, Cavaradossi, who is accused of helping a prisoner escape, and the devious Scarpia, the Chief of Police, who desires Tosca and sees an opportunity in her desperation when her lover is arrested. The more modern setting was very tasteful, the ominous mafia undertones fitting almost too well with the political pressure within Italy, certainly connecting the audience more than Italy’s situation in Napoleonic times.

Orla Boylan as Floria Tosca. Image supplied.

Favourite character? Scarpia, of course. His leitmotif looms ominously throughout, providing dread from the moment the curtain rises. Teddy Tahu Rhodes provided a brilliantly full sound, and stole the show for me. His embodiment of Scarpia continually drew my eye back to him, commanding and leaving others in his shadow (at times, literally, due to clever stagecraft).

Favourite song? Lucevan Le Stelle. I sniffled my way through it, and even my mother had her eyes prick with tears in the heartfelt rendition by Simon O’Neill as Cavaradossi. His vocal performance of this piece was especially superb, the pauses speaking as much as his smooth and soaring phrases. You can have a taster of this in O’Neill’s 2015 performance in the video below.

Favourite moment? Spoiler alert: Tosca’s dramatic end. Nothing says defiance like jumping off a prison tower, crying ‘See you in hell, sucker’ (*ahem, not an exact translation). Orla Boylan provided a Tosca that was funny, believable and heart-breaking, with a voice and costume selection that delighted my diva-prone heart.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Baron Scarpia in Tosca.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Baron Scarpia. Image supplied.

Kudos, of course, to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, whose accompaniment outshone every production of Tosca I have watched. The mark of an excellent supporting orchestra is its seamless interactions with the performers, heightening the emotion and not overwhelming, which the CSO accomplished. The Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus featured as well, supporting with a variety of characters, and a fair few familiar faces to the Christchurch musical theatre scene.

All in all, a brilliant night. It definitely makes me want to go and reread my copy of Scarpia by Piers Paul Read, which provides the story from the perspective of the notorious Baron.

As someone who loves opera, I would highly recommend the experience. The show runs from 8 to 16 March.

Further information