This is a rant about books – usually family sagas – in which the relationships between characters cannot be understood without reference to comprehensive family trees. These tables or lists of characters are usually found near the front of the book, but occasionally (and perversely) are only discovered right at the back, by which time you have worked yourself up into quite a frothy.
Not a fan.
And don’t judge me until you have read all three of Pulitzer prize-winning author Jane Smiley’s latest trilogy on the Langdon family: Some Luck; Early Warning and Golden Age. Using the fictional and fascinating Langdon family to walk us through a century of American history, Smiley tests my family tree tolerance to its very limits.
Research indicates that 9 important characters per novel is about all most of us can tolerate. Yet Tolkien created a whopping 923 characters in The Lord of The Rings series, and readers have been very forgiving. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, on the other hand, has copped a fair bit of criticism for a character list that stretches to 80 plus 2 accompanying family trees. Smiley’s Langdons – a reasonably fertile lot, grow from a cast of 45 in Just Luck, to 72 in Early Warning and a 105 by the final book Golden Age. I’ve no complaint with Smiley’s writing, it is brilliant, so what exactly is my problem?
I find it tiresome to have to flick back to the family tree whenever a new character is mentioned. A mere 30 or so pages from the end of Early Warning a new character, previously unmentioned, was not clarified in the text which meant that even at that late stage in my reading, I was still at the mercy of the family tree.
Vital characters – like best friends, crucial business colleagues, lovers, illegitimate children and live-in partners don’t make the family tree cut, necessitating paging back to reread bits of the book to remember who’s who.
I harbour a suspicion that good writing should not need to use devices like this, and would instead be able to make clear the relationships within the text of the story.
Yet I read, with relish, all three of the books in this Smiley’s most recent trilogy – and have ended up knowing more about the Langdon’s than I do about my own family. And what fascinating, likeable, human characters the Langdons are, and how well Smiley plucks at the lute strings of family ties.
Jane Smiley is presenting at Auckland Writers Festival this year, and is in Christchurch on Monday 9 May thanks to WORD Christchurch. Maybe fortune will smile, and I will get stuck in a lift with her. Do you have any literary questions that you would like me to ask this great author, for I fear that left to my own devices I will just break down and sob:
I’m a great fan of Jane Smiley. I came across her in the late 90s when I read Moo and was impressed by her ability to write about issues confronting contemporary humanity – in this case how agribusiness was impacting on academia – with a quick wit and a writer’s eye that can spot hypocrisy at a hundred paces.
I followed up with Good Faith in which good natured real estate agent, Joe Stratford, gets seduced by the rich pickings of the US property boom and becomes a wheeler dealer par excellence. I was hooked.
Jane Smiley spoke at the Great Hall at the Arts Centre when she visited Christchurch to promote her 1998 historical novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and I was there in the front row. Smiley shows her range in this novel by writing about American history as competently as she does contemporary issues. And, I mustn’t forget to mention, Smiley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres.
Jane Smiley is an author to watch. She doesn’t flinch from the big themes and her penmanship would make many fellow authors want to throw down their laptops in a fit of chagrin and take up a nice, easy career in brain surgery.
When I was offered the opportunity to see her WORD Christchurch talk at the newly reopened Christchurch Art Gallery on Monday 9 May, I jumped at the chance. I’ll make sure I get there early and I get a spot in the front row again. I’m a Jane Smiley groupie and I’m not ashamed to shout it to the world!
Crime writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh’s actual birth date is 23 April, and she shared a birthday with Shakespeare. It’s doubly appropriate – as her production of Shakespeare’s plays were widely acclaimed. This is Ngaio as Hamlet …
If you want to find out more about Ngaio and Shakespeare, I recommend the splendid Inaugural Ngaio Marsh lecture – it was given on 22 April 2012 by Elric J. Hooper, MBE who appeared in several of Dame Ngaio Marsh’s acclaimed Shakespeare shows. He explains how they met (pages 10 and 11):
Three years later, in 1956, I was appearing in a student revue in the Civic Theatre and Gerald Lascelles told me that Ngaio Marsh and Charles Brash wanted to meet me. I went up to the empty stage after the performance. Two figures were standing there. The man was reticent. The woman was flamboyant. She was dressed in a handsome, three-quarter length seal skincoat. She was wearing a grey woollen skirt – not trousers. Her hair was wildly dressed. She smoked a cigarette. She asked me what I had been doing. Said Macbeth.
“Not the thane!” she said in alarm.
“No, A lord. Lennox.” I said putting her at her ease.
She mentioned that she was about to direct Lear.
A few weeks later, I auditioned for Ngaio. I was chosen to play the Fool in King Lear.
It was a memorable production with Mervyn Glue as the King, salivating so copiously that looking up into the lights one did not have to imagine the rain and storm. The costumes and set were blue grey. The set was a curved podium which a descending ramp on one side and steps down the other. In the centre was a kind of shelter for hovel. It worked extremely well.
His summary of Ngaio as Shakespearean director is a good one (page 10):
One of the great features of Ngaio’s Shakespeare were the moments that can only be described as “Theatrical.” Hamlet, at the end of the speech which concluded the first part, “The play’s the thing whereby I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” threw the loose sheets of the play in the air and stood there while the leaves descended around him. In Julius Caesar, hands were bathed in blood. In Lear, the eyes were ripped out.
Who doesn’t like something new? These four wee beauties are online portals to authoritative information about a huge range of subjects. They were on trial and were popular enough to be made permanent residents of our collection. So from now on, you can access:
The Economist Historical Archive, 1843-2012 – The Economist has been highly regarded for providing independent global, economic and political analysis since its first publication in 1843. More content will continue to be added;
Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991 – The Listener was a weekly magazine established by the BBC to reproduce and expand on the content of its broadcast and television talks. It is regarded as the premier cultural studies magazine of the mid-20th century;
There’s a painting of a lady on the wall at my work. She’s sitting in an armchair, with a big black dog at her side and a black cat on her lap. Behind her is a bookcase full of books and to her right side a window, opening up to a garden and a sea on the horizon. There is a lot on the painting I can relate to. Books, a dog, a lazy cat. But the woman in the painting remains a mystery. All I know is her name: Margaret Mahy.
I am most likely the last person who should be writing a blog about Margaret Mahy. First time I heard of her was three years ago when I realized I might be moving to Christchurch. The only New Zealand author who I had found on the bookshelves of my school library at home was Witi Ihimaera. So I did a bit of homework before I set out for Aotearoa. To my surprise I realized I was moving to a city that used to be a home to the greatest New Zealand children’s author, someone who won the Hans Christian Andersen award – the most prestigious and highest recognition in the world of children’s fiction.
After I landed, further revelations followed. Everyone I talked to seemed to know Margaret Mahy’s work or at least know about her. Even more: I was very lucky to make an acquaintance with a lovely lady who used to be her neighbour and a close friend. I ended up working at the same library as Margaret did. A lot of my colleagues still remember her. Her eccentric personality and masterful storytelling. Her fiery wig and starry cloak. Sue, who used to work with her, recalls her immensely generous and extremely modest nature:
She was very hospitable and often entertained colleagues and hosted parties for the local Children’s Literature Association at her home and was a wonderful friend and a colleague. She was also immensely interested in EVERYTHING – she learnt to fly, she studied astronomy. She was also a keen gardener.
Even though I have heard so much about her as a writer, a storyteller, a librarian, a person and a friend, she still remains a mystery to me. I have a strange notion the reason for this might be in the absence of her books in my childhood. It feels like she has never become a part of my imaginative landscape. She never entered my literary homeland because I never got a chance to read her books as a child. When I read them now, I still feel like I missed that initial, formative reading – experienced through child’s eyes, mind and imagination.
The irreversibility of time is unavoidable and cruel. I am reminded of that every time I talk to a person who read a certain book or author as a child, which I haven’t. I find myself swallowed by the feeling of missing out. It is similar to regret, that comes along when a favourite music star passes away and you realize you will never ever be able to see them again.
This points to the importance of reading in childhood, creating an imaginative mental space mutual to all – every reader, no matter their origin and background, can enter it. With reading, authors and books become a part of our collective memory, collective culture and make us feel at home, connect us together. With every new reader, this memory gets stronger.
Reading and nurturing readers is not the only way of strengthening this memory. There are other ways as well. Every morning on the way to my work I am reminded of that: Margaret Mahy’s name greets me from the stone wall of the new exciting playground on the Cambridge Terrace. When I visit my colleagues at Fendalton Library or go to library’s storage facilities, I can’t resist not to browse through Margaret Mahy’s collection: a treasury of old children’s books that (most likely) your grandparents used to read as kids. Some of them never made it to my shelves. But they maybe did to yours.
I am inviting you, to help me figure out the mystery of the lady on the painting and create another little piece of collective memory of Margaret Mahy. Have you read her books as a child? What was it like? Which one was your favourite? Did you read them to your children? Grandchildren? Do you remember her? Have you been to any of her storytelling sessions in the library? What was she like? I can’t wait to hear your stories about her – please post them as comments below!
As for myself I will persevere. Reading her books, listening to stories about her. I hope one day I might be granted a visa to enter that world of collective culture, of bountiful legacy, that Margaret so generously laid in front of her readers. Until then, I will salute that lady on the painting every morning I come to work: in my name, yours and most importantly – in the name of those to come.
Performance poet Anis Mojgani is coming to town this week courtesy of WORD Christchurch. He is performing at the Wunderbar in Lyttelton on Thursday 17 March, and at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Saturday 19 March. Check out WORD Christchurch’s info and get some tickets. Librarians – and fans – Kim and Masha asked Anis some questions, thanks Anis for your fab answers!
You performed in Christchurch at the WORD Festival in 2014 – what impact has visiting the city and its people had on you?
My visit felt pretty impactful on opening me up to a literary community on the other side of the world, both the the work and stories produced by it, and also the people making and supporting such literature, which I’ve been very grateful for. But also, I had a very strong connection to visiting in 2014. New Zealand felt like a place I would return to and could see myself spending an extended period of time inside of, and still feels as such. A lot of that was definitely connected to being in a city like Christchurch that seemed to be in a period of sorrow and confusion and rebuilding, one similar to my hometown in the wake of its destructive natural disaster. But also, the strange quirky creative patches of Christchurch that I was shown or stumbled upon, spoke to me, as well as being inspiring. And the audiences I had in Christchurch were some of the best I’ve ever had, terribly kind and inviting, present and excited.
You are from New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What observations or messages would you share with people of Christchurch based on your experience in New Orleans?
I don’t know if I’m the best person for such, I haven’t lived in New Orleans in a number of years. But being from there, and going there often, as that’s where my family still is and is, as Rachael King shared with me the other day, one of the places I would refer to as tūrangawaewae, there was a strong connection to Christchurch I felt because of the disasters in both cities.
When walking through Christchurch in 2014, I was reminded of how confused New Orleans was while in such pain, that it didn’t know in what direction it was supposed to move, how to begin rebuilding, what was the right choice. And as I write that sentence, I recognize the same connection in my personal journey over recent years. And as such with both, just to say that 1. when in broken places, sometimes, often, it is important to just get moving. To get out of the rubble, to move debris out of your home, to build again. And then see what to fix and change. To not let the destruction make you fearful of a future or to hinder the decisions that need to be made.
And 2. To use this opportunity for change, to change in good ways and with different patterns, while not forgetting to hold on to the beautiful traditions from before. I think about how it has been challenging for New Orleans, a city so incredibly rich with culture and tradition, to progress and rebuild, while keeping the parts of itself that make it the city that it is. A lot of growth there has threatened to change the city, and not necessarily in good ways. There are definitely people in New Orleans that have used the wake of Katrina to shape the city that may be more in line with the city that they envision it should be––losing and getting rid of people and cultures that they deem undesirable, which is a travesty. So I think of that, but don’t want to suggest that a broken thing should only then heal back to the same place it was before. What I loved, utterly LOVED, about Christchurch on my earlier visit, was how people embraced their city and claimed ownership of it by creating these pockets of awesome and weirdness and creative endeavours, to inspire others and to push forward perhaps the possibility of what an additional aspects of their city could grow to embrace. And those things are not what should be lost as the city rebuilds itself but rather invited to the table to participate, perhaps more fully.
What role/influence have libraries and books played in your upbringing? Is there a library you call your favourite (besides yours, which has 17 books).
Huge influence. There was a library called Nix that was about three blocks from our house growing up and was also on the walk home from school, and having one so close was very special. Not to mention memories of my school library, and of course the children’s bookstore my mother had when we were growing up. We’d walk there from school usually about half the week, and it was like having a large personal library, combing the shelves for the next thing to open and discover and explore. That was crazy influential, I think in a myriad of ways. Not only the importance of stories and how many different ways there are to share them, but also the feeling one gets from being surrounded by possibility, that here are these shelves to walk between and you have no idea what’s between all these covers – it could be anything! And you’re allowed to seek that out, you have permission to step into that mystery and many mysteries. So that sense, that feeling of discovery and curiousness is something I feel was fostered from the library and the bookstore.
I don’t know if I have a favourite library – the library as a whole in Portland Oregon where I live, is a really great library system that has an incredible selection. And there is a beautiful house of a library in New Orleans, the Latter branch. I love though seeing photos online of libraries that stand out, ones that are so beautiful, like temples designed and built to respect that which they hold. But also ones that are so small and tiny, in the middle of nowhere, that illustrate that even in the emptiest places, there should be a place where a person can go and discover books.
A rumour reached us about your current project, which – if we got it right – includes illustrations and is aimed at children. Could you tell us a bit more about that or is it a secret?
Can definitely tell you some! And it’s a couple things that you may have heard of. The first is my new book The Pocketknife Bible, which is a weird book that’s kind of a poetry-novel-memoir-picture book for both adults and children. It’s through the voice and eyes of me circa 6-8 years old and my childhood and the surreal wild boring beauty of childhood, but enters into some strange and dark places. It’s fully illustrated by me which is the first time I’ve done a book like this.
The other thing is that I’m starting to more seriously work on some stories for children, picture books mostly at the moment. Just completed a residency specific to that, so finished that up with a number of my stories more developed and fleshed out, story- and art-wise. So excited to see where all that goes.
Slam performances have a similar spirit as music gigs, there’s a flow in communication and audience seems to be very expressive. What was the most unusual reaction from the crowd you ever got?
I can’t think of a specific instance unfortunately, but it can be pretty interesting and fascinating. Because we all process information so differently, so there are plenty of times where you might share something that you think is funny and no laughter, or where a laugh may spring out of a random audience mouth, in the middle of something serious or sorrowful. And it’s definitely like music, because those little blips add to me then rolling with it, maybe reshaping little bits in the moment, like if there was something sad I spoke to and there was a chuckle, how can to offer up the next line in a manner that both makes that reaction comfortable and allowed, while also pulling the person/audience back in the direction I’d like to move them towards.
Who are you at the moment? A poet, an illustrator, a slam star? All together? And what else?
Who am I at the moment. I don’t know. Tired? But excited. Scared. And curious. Filled with sorrow and pain. And joy and a terrible gratefulness. I don’t know. I’m asked this question at a very open and new chapter in my life, one where I’m not fully formed, one where I’m reforming so many parts of who I am and what I’m seeking to make. I look at myself as an artist, and strive to continue creating work that respects this and speaks to it, whet here that’s through words, pictures, music, performance, or whatever. I love the work that I’ve been focused one for the past decade, but feel a reimagining of this as of late, or a new exploration of it, whether that is in the context of what is being written, or through more performative ways such as dance or theatre, or whatever.
Who/which are your recommended/favourite reads/authors and illustrators? Any that you have recently read and have lingered with you for a while?
I always recommend the poets Lucille Clifton and William Stafford, Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness. Tracy K Smith’s Life On Mars is wonderful. I didn’t get to finish Brown Girl Dreaming but it is beautiful. I’m drawing a blank on his name, but the author of the Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, I think it’s Gary something? His books are magic.
My three favorite books, novel wise, are probably East of Eden, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Maniac McGee. But I have too many books stacked up to read and probably even more that I’ve only started. I need to crack the whip and find my way back into a good kick butt reading habit. Crossing the seas is both a good and bad thing, as it invariably introduces me to books/writers that I wouldn’t have known before. As such, I’d want to read Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, and Tina Makereti’s Where the Rekohu Bones Sing.
What do you hope to do while you are in Christchurch / New Zealand this time?
A return to C1! Miniature burgers delivered through vacuum tubes is how all life should be!
Life is too short to fall in love only a couple of times. One should fall in love at least once a month. That’s what I do. I fall in love with people who just walk into my life but it feels like they have been around for ages. I fall in love with my dog nearly every day. Sometimes I fall in love with characters from books, foreign towns, landscapes and their unfamiliar faces.
This month’s love of mine is Anis Mojgani. When I first discovered him, I felt like this (from his poem This is how she makes me feel):
Someone has saved a baby.
There is a parade.
Someone has saved every baby.
I felt as if I was the one who saved a baby in Brooklyn in 1950s. I felt that this time, it will be different. This time, it will last. And sure I was right – Anis is coming back to Christchurch to perform on Thursday 17 March (Wunderbar, Lyttelton) and Saturday 19 March (Christchurch Art Gallery) – presented by WORD Christchurch in partnership with the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week and Golden Dawn Auckland. I am convinced his visit will make my relationship only fiercer.
I am also convinced that I am not the only one fiercely hopeful and in love. Anis visited Christchurch in 2014, enchanting the festival’s audience with his slam poetry performance. Alison’s post is a true testament of his power to compel people through words and poetry. Of course, there are other testaments as well, like the double win at the National Poetry Slam and a win of the International World Cup Poetry Slam, three published books of poetry, an illustrated poetry-novella, multiple TEDx talks and all sorts of other creative projects. To finalise his portrait in your mind, I suggest visiting his neat and cute website: http://thepianofarm.com/
I must admit that this romance started in quite an unusual way. Old-school librarian like myself would normally embark on this kind of adventure with tried and tested methods, like reading poet’s books. On this occasion the media was … You Tube. Once I started watching recordings of his performances, I couldn’t stop. Performed poems like Come closer, This is how she makes me feel, In my library there are 17 books, Shake the dust have been proper hits on the web for a few years now. Discovering them felt as if I just joined the party, which has secretly been going on for a long time.
Anis is not only smart with words, he is also a talented illustrator and graphic designer. His abundant imagination echoes in the poems – they are full of childhood inspired imagery: growing cities, tall skyscrapers, teenagers running through the evening air, birds trapped underneath breastplates. At the same time, they are brutally honest, revealing humanity and humbleness to all things greater than us.
He is one of those performing/writing poets in English, whose work actually talks to me. It addresses me and I can easily relate to it. When I read or listen poetry in foreign language, I often find myself falling in the deep crevices of comprehension diaspora: a poem sometimes does not reach me, it does not resonate with me. It feels like many of its layers and nuances are beyond my grasp and preventing me to trace some sort of meaning among the lines.
This never happens when I listen to Anis. The flow is spontaneous and easy. What that mean for his poetry or tells about me, I don’t know, and I sincerely don’t care. As long as this love lasts, I am happy.
At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in 2009, I was lucky enough to attend a session in which Ranginui Walker, academic, historian and biographer shared the stage with his own biographer and friend Paul Spoonley.
Over the course of the hour Walker came across as an intelligent, committed man with a great deal of personal integrity. Someone who never intended to be “the voice of Māoridom” for Pākehā New Zealand but somehow ended up there (and as you can imagine this was not often a comfortable position to be in). He spoke quietly and modestly of his accomplishments while there was no doubt that the courteous and stately manner was underlaid by a steely resolve. This is often the case with people who tell difficult truths.
His contribution to our understanding of ourselves as a country cannot be overstated. His 1990 history of New Zealand from a Māori perspective, Ka whawhai tonu matou: Struggle without end (along with Michael King’s The Penguin history of New Zealand) is a must read for anyone interested in how New Zealand came to be the place it is. It was a revelation to many and is a seminal work, which was later updated to address the Foreshore and Seabed debate. It is still a great and relevant read for all New Zealanders.
Weeks after NaNoWriMo ended, and still no blog post! Alas, I didn’t reach 50,000 words — finished up around 35k — but I achieved my main goal, which was to write every day. I’ve continued to write on and off since the 30th, but Christmas panic is definitely descending so who knows how long that will last.
My current distraction has been flicking through the New Zealand Festival lineup, which will be held in Wellington next year. All of the events look great, but I’m especially excited about the Writers Week. I want to see almost all of them! I’ve narrowed it down to some favourites:
Kate Beaton. I’ve been enjoying her online comics since she was on livejournal.com, and I own all her published material (which now includes a picture book, the adorable Princess and the Pony). She is so clever and funny and writes about my favourite subjects (history! feminism! fat ponies!).
Jasper Fforde. I haven’t got around to reading his more recently published works, but I thought the Thursday Next books were super fun. If you like quirky books about books, with dodos and national croquet, then start with The Eyre Affair.
I thought about how to express its power – it’s about Christchurch, but is bigger than that. It contains deep wisdom and a powerful historical sense. It is about the world. So I’ve decided to sample Fiona’s words – here are ten quotes.
1: This city took time to assemble. (p.55)
2: An earthquake is not simply a geological event. It occurs within a specific social and political context. (p.73)
3: For a second, as the entire city is flung into the air, there is unison. Then we fall back to earth and the map smashes into a hundred tiny pieces. (p.88)
4: In this city, it is easy to feel lost. (p. 103)
5: In the meantime, through the cracks, other kinds of art have emerged. The art gallery has been closed, but artists have covered walls newly exposed by demolition with imagery and colour. (p.129)
6: The personal is political. (p.158)
7: Forgiveness and retribution are a theme in L’Aquila, as they are in Christchurch. (p.224)
8: We are ‘stoical’. We are ‘strong’ and ‘southern’. To complain is to be a ‘carper’ or a ‘moaner’. It is a sign of weakness. Viewed from another city in another country, however, this resilience can also be seen as a weird suppressed passivity. (p.237)
9: I take a kind of deep comfort in reading thoughts prompted by an earthquake 2000 years ago and thousands of kilometres away. I like the vision of the world as a squirming thing filled with breath, not so far from the Polynesian vision of the great woman lying on her back with us all, naked as newborn kits, upon her belly. (p.248)
10: I’ve come to love this city … now it seems fragile, vulnerable and precious in that vulnerability, as do other cities in this country no matter how cocky they may have tried to be … (p343)
Immensely enjoyable for so many reasons, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, by Fiona Farrell,… http://t.co/NHiV5TJvuu