Happy birthday, Ngaio Marsh!

Ngaio Marsh would have been 120 today. This world renowned crime writer and theatre director was born Edith Ngaio Marsh in Fendalton on 23 April 1895. Her father, a clerk, built Marton Cottage at Cashmere in 1906. This was her home for the rest of her life, although she spent significant periods in England.

Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s

Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s : “Ngaio in the spotlight” [194-], CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0038

Today there is a lovely little Google image celebrating her.

Many people know of Ngaio Marsh as the crime writer. But she also enriched the cultural life of Christchurch with her devotion to theatre production and mentored young people with dramatic aspirations. Ngaio made a huge contribution to the community, and it seems appropriate her name lives on  –

For more on Ngaio Marsh:

Reading the World

Cover of Reading the WorldAfter complaining about the hardships of attempting Read Harder 2015, I’ve come across an author who has shamed me into taking on another challenge.

In 2012 Ann Morgan decided to read one book from each of the world’s 196 independent countries, documenting her adventures on her blog and in her newly published book, Reading the World. While I don’t have the tenacity or the budget to do the same, it has prompted me to be more active in my search for diverse authors.

Cover of The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyI’ve already found a few on the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist for 2015 – Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan), Xiaolu Guo and P. P. Wong (China/Britain), and I’ve been struggling valiantly through The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (Finland). (Isn’t that a fantastic surname?) Here are a few more I’ve optimistically placed on my holds list, descriptions mostly yoinked from the library catalogue:

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu (China): Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth.

Cover of Kabu-KabuKabu-Kabu, Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria): Kabu kabu – unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn’t know you needed.

The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide (Japan): A bestseller in France and winner of Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living.

Cover of Listen, SlowlyHold Tight, Don’t Let Go, Laura Rose Wagner (set in Haiti): In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Nadine goes to live with her father in Miami while her cousin Magdalie, raised as her sister, remains behind in a refugee camp, dreaming of joining Nadine but wondering if she must accept that her life and future are in Port-au-Prince.

Listen, Slowly, Thanhha Lai (Vietnam): Assisting her grandmother’s investigation of her grandfather’s fate during the Vietnam War, Mai struggles to adapt to an unfamiliar culture while redefining her sense of family.

Cover of Black Dove, White RavenBlack Dove, White Raven, Elizabeth Wein (set in Ethiopia): Em, Teo and Em’s mother move to Ethiopia to honour Teo’s dead mother’s wish for them to grow up in a country free of racial conflict. For a while things go well — Em’s mother flies planes for a flying doctor service, and Em and Teo grow up happily on a coffee farm. Unfortunately this is the 1930s, and Mussolini’s army is eyeing up Ethiopia’s fertile land. With ties on both sides of the conflict, Em and Teo are drawn in against their will. Is their ability to pilot planes an asset or a liability? I don’t know yet, because I’m only halfway through!

Anything else I should add to my to-read list? Any fantastic authors who aren’t British or American? Let me know now while my motivation is still high! I’ll follow up on how I’m going in a month.

Talking about Christchurch

Cover of Once in a lifetimeThe team at Freerange Press brought you one of the best books of 2014 – Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch. Now they come bearing Talking Heads – a series of talks that explore the current state of play in Christchurch and expand upon themes and issues explored in the book.

The first discussion – Talking Heads #1 – is on the topic of asset sales. Councillor Raf Manji will be talking with one of the book’s editors James Dann.

Raf will be talking about how the council reached its decision to include selling assets as part of its response to Christchurch’s current financial situation (submissions for which close on April 28).

The talk is on Thursday 23 April 5.30pm at EPIC (96 Manchester Street, opposite Alices). James will also take questions from the floor, so you will get the chance to have your say.

Copies of the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch will be available for $40.

Günter Grass ist tot

German novelist, Nobel Prize for Literature winner, author of one of the most stirring and challenging books of the 20th century – Günter Grass is dead.

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I read the The Tin Drum when I was a teenager, after being hooked on the movie (starring the odd and shouty Oskar who can break glass with his voice). We rewatched it earlier this year, and got excited all over again. This article is a brilliant read: The Tin Drum summarised the 20th century in three words – it was written on the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication.

Barbaric, mystical, bored: here is the last century in summation. A schizophrenic, self-mutilating era in which man flew higher than was dreamed possible and plumbed depths unimaginable; slaughter beyond measure coupled with advances beyond comprehension; collective insanity and individual rationality; atavistic passions and detached irony; terror and humour.

Read him if you haven’t – his writing is utterly original.

Guess who’s coming to Christchurch? David Walliams, David Mitchell, Helen Macdonald, Xinran, Steve Braunias, Nick Davies.

Ōtautahi you are in for a right treat.  WORD Christchurch – in association with the Auckland Writers Festival – is bringing six top authors to town for its Autumn Season 13 to 17 May.

For some top whānau fun, head along to David Walliams (Thursday 14 May 6pm). He will be reading from Awful Auntie and talking about his kids’ books – with plenty of time after to get your books signed.

It is a really crackingly good non-fiction line up. Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk was picked in lots of top books of 2014 lists, and has the silverware to match – attracting big literary prizes like the Costa book of the year.

If you like gritty, investigative journalism, then Nick Davies’ Hack attack is the session for you. Or  have a drink at the Heritage Hotel for Steve Braunias and hear him talk about satire, politics, and the recent election campaign. Xinran will be talking about China and the single child policy.

If fiction is your cup of tea – David Mitchell is talking on Sunday 17 May. His latest The Bone Clocks is a genre-splicing treat, and you might also know of Cloud Atlas.

Cover of Awful AuntieDavid Walliams
Cover of H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald
Cover of Hack Attack

Cover of Madmen
Steve Braunias
Buy me the sky
Xinran
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David Mitchell

So, read the books and get your tickets sussed. If you are keen to attend a few sessions, your best bet is to get a season pass – with that you’ll get entry to all sessions (except David Walliams, book that separately).
Go to our page on WORD Christchurch.

Short and sweet

Cover of Stone MattressShort stories are delicious. Like chocolates in a box, you pick one that looks good and indulge in a bite-sized treat. I was recently stuck at Auckland Airport and lifted the lid on a copy of Stone Mattress, nine tales from the ingenious mind of Margaret Atwood. I must admit I found these stories rather moreish. Three tales and seventy five minutes later, I heard my name over the loud speaker and had to make a frenzied dash for the departure lounge.

Cover of Dear LifeOne of my favourite short story authors is Alice Munro who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her work. Her latest title Dear Life contains ten bitter sweet tales that resonate at the deepest level of the human psyche.

Cover of Between my father and the kingAt the moment I’m savouring the most recent collection of stories by Janet Frame. The critics say Between My Father and the King contains some of her best writing and includes previously unpublished work.

For exceptional collections that will give you a taste of other cultures and times, try those by Haruki Murakami, Yiyun Li, Edna O’Brien, Colette and the ever-perceptive Rose Tremain.

Apparently, the short story is one of the hardest genres to get right so I’m forever grateful that these authors have mastered the art. Short stories must be one of the most honest and immediate forms of communication around. They encapsulate moments of insight by some pretty amazing human beings and are a perfect treat at the end of a busy day. Happy sampling!

“I have read all your books” – A farewell to PTerry

I met Sir PTerry the same year I met my future husband. It was 1985 and I was 18 years old. I have, it seems, spent my entire adult life with him. Which may explain why I am very thankful that I have today off, and am sitting in a darkened room and erratically weeping-while-laughing.

I’m not sure I can do justice to the man – there are people all over the world who write much more betterer than me, and who cared just as passionately about him. You can (and should) read all of these things on the interwebs. You also can (and should) read all of his books. All I can do is say, thank you – you made me laugh, and cry, and fall in love, and feel brave, and learn things, and re-evaluate the way I thought about things, and champion books that (at least in those early days) no-one else thought were worth a damn. I almost preferred it that way – I think I didn’t want to have to share, and it felt so very special when I met those few others who felt the same.

When you came to Christchurch and I got to ACTUALLY meet you, you were every bit as scary and amazing and inspiring as I’d hoped you would be.

I fell in love with Vimes. I wanted to be like Granny Weatherwax (but always knew I was probably a lot more like Agnes Nitt). I adore the Patrician (One Man One Vote). We temporarily borrowed a cat called Greebo. I will ALWAYS want to own a dragon called Errol.

I have read all of your books; even the slightly less-outstanding very early ones (and those ones by you and Mr Baxter that I didn’t like so much but read anyway, because YOU’d written them). I’ve read them on planes and trains and boats, and in the garden and the lounge and in bed and at work. I’ve read them out loud to my family, and to my friends, and occasionally to random strangers.

I think my life would have been an emptier, colder place without you, Terry Pratchett. I probably wouldn’t have been a librarian, and I certainly wouldn’t have been a writer of small silly things.
You have made me a better person, and I can’t believe I have to carry on in a universe where you no longer are.
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Haere ra Terry Pratchett

“I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod, the latter because Thomas’s music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven.
Oh, and since this is England, I had better add, ‘If wet, in the library.’

I woke up this morning and read Terry Pratchett had died.
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I searched the catalogue, and found 189 things with him listed as author (he wrote more than 70 novels). And had a laugh at one of his famed creations – The Librarian, a wizard turned orang-utang “the only librarian who can rip off your arm with his leg.”

Haere ra Terry Pratchett, a great and magical writer, a great and magical human being.

It’s useful to go out of this world and see it from the perspective of another one.

The Road to Wigan Pier: George Orwell’s early 20th century musings

The Road to Wigan Pier is another one of those books which has helped me realize the privilege of living in this part of the world, at this point in history, replete with all the technological processes and improvements which make life (somewhat) faster, easier and less painful (think dentists in the early 20th century).

Before I read this book I was discontent due to my plethora of first world problems – the cell phone battery doesn’t last long enough. The ending of the TV series The Killing didn’t provide enough closure. Forgetting my multiple passwords during technological pursuits. Jesus or Mary didn’t appear in the foam of my soy, trim, decaf, extra foam latte …

But reading this non-fiction work by liberal visionary George Orwell got me sorted, and makes me think twice before I have a first world whinge.

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The Road to Wigan Pier is basically a very well-written investigative, political, ideological and sociological commentary into life in industrial Northern England during the 1930s.

It’s split into two parts.

First, Orwell manages to detail and depict the rugged (in)human experiences of the working classes who occupy the horrible jobs and houses of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1930s. He does this through injecting himself into their environment in an act of heroic, subjective journalism – he takes up lodgings in a cloistered, rank and damp boarding house overfilled with sickly, pallid humans of all ages. It is here he lodges with the unwashed Brooker family, who are basically landlords to a bundle of borderline broke people living in the unsanitary conditions provided by the Brookers. Orwell’s Dickensian caricature of the Brookers and their house is quite a laugh – “I have noticed that people who let lodgings almost always hate their lodgers”.

However, it becomes not that funny after he enters hellish, chugging coal mines where one works but can barely stand in the cramped cavities, and therefore, spends hours scuttering about in a back-breaking, pooh-stanced, squatting position. The hard work is mesmerizing and leads him to state “If there is one man to whom I myself feel inferior, its is a coal-miner”. For what reward? A life fraught with health issues subsequent to the soot…

It is an exercise in raw reportage as he notes his impressions of life, and the horror and squalour of it all through exposing himself directly (as an upper-middle class gent), getting intimate with the toils of everyday life in the working class slums in what was supposed to be enlightened, democratic and civilized England. And that’s the point, all this is contrasted against that which is never really detailed in the book, but that which the English and Orwell were familiar with – the lush lifestyles of the upper classes in England, and the fullfilling life which being upper class afforded them.

Cover of George Orwell Cover of Anima Farm  Cover of George Orwell Cover of George Orwell

The second part of the book is a little surprising (to me anyway), because Orwell enters into quite a zealous Socialist spiel. This ideological discussion challenges classist modern England – why should there be classes at all in a democratic environment? However, while being a blatantly biased and ardent presentation on the values of socialism, its important to keep in mind the context in which the piece was written, that is, a time when socialism and liberalism was under threat from the burgeoning support for fascism and totalitarianism in 1930s Europe (and of course Mother England).

But it is apologetic too, as Orwell also criticizes the English Socialist movement for being full of nut-case individuals:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

Still a very intriguing journey into early 20th century socialist thought from one of England’s most celebrated and rational writers and reporters.

Lastly, what I found really interesting about this book is that Orwell discusses the nature of early 20th century progress and the “machine-civilization” which had emerged and preoccupied many thinkers of the time as mechanization and modernization was taking hold of society and changing jobs, gender roles, warfare and human economic and social interaction in general – will machines take all jobs? A 21st century echo anyone?

The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug – that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.

More on The Road to Wigan Pier

You can read The Road to Wigan Pier on Project Gutenberg Australia.

The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on David Sharrock, The Observer, 20 February 2011

Russel Boyce’s The Road to Wigan Pier exhibition

In 1984, I was commissioned by the Impressions Gallery, Bradford; to undertake a project that reflected on the themes described by George Orwell in his book, ‘Road to Wigan Pier’.

Search the catalogue for George Orwell

Personal names in the catalogue

Cover of Final Curtain
Ngaio Marsh’s novels are shelved under Marsh.

If you are a regular user of our libraries, you may have noticed that the writer’s name will usually be listed surname first in the catalogue. This order is important as an author’s fiction will be shelved under the part of the name which appears first in the catalogue listing.

Working out which part of the name is the surname or family name is usually straightforward, especially in the English-speaking world. It is normally the last part of the name, eg,

This general rule may be affected if the surname includes a separately written prefix (van, de, etc), or if it is a compound surname. The writer’s preference in the way in which his or her name is written is also taken into account.

Cover of Frog
Mo Yan’s novels are shelved under Mo.

However, a more common issue is that some nationalities follow different conventions. Therefore the last part of the name may not be that chosen for listing in the catalogue, eg,

  • Mo Yan is listed as Mo, Yan, not as Yan, Mo; and
  • Trinh Khanh Tuoc is listed as that, in direct order, not as Tuoc, Trinh Khanh.

For many, Icelandic names tend to prove the most bothersome when it comes to identifying which name the author is listed under. Icelandic names are in fact listed under the first given name, followed by any other given names, patronymic and family name, in direct order. Thus

Cover of Strange Shores
Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels are shelved under Arnaldur.

If you are unsure where to look for an author’s fiction on the shelves, you may find the answer in the catalogue – check the Full Record tab of a title in the catalogue and you will see how the author is listed.

Or, of course, ask your friendly librarian!