The Nerd Degree: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

The thing I really enjoy about comedy podcast, The Nerd Degree, is that though there’s generally a theme running through the episodes, you really never know what you’re going to get. And neither do the panelists, for the most part. But a safe bet is that there’ll be amazing facts, nerdy knowledge and plenty of laughs.

If you’ve never experienced The Nerd Degree either in person, or in podcast, then the best way to describe it is as a local comedy quiz show for nerds of all stripes (there are many varieties). It’s QI meets the MCU (or MMORPG or… LARP) . There are two teams, the host asks the questions, and points are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion.

The nerds at last month’s very special episode at WORD Christchurch were local YA author Karen Healey and Jolisa “Tell you what” Gracewood competing as team Comparatively Literate with scary movie specialist Dr. Erin Harrington and Ngāi Tahu writer and artist Nic Low as Essentially Illiterate. With Brendon Bennetts in charge of time-keeping and correct answers.

The Nerd Degree
Karen Healey, Jolisa Gracewood, Brendon Bennetts, Nic Low and Erin Harrington at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Sunday 2 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-02-IMG_0374

The theme of the episode was “adventure” and we sure were taken on a journey. It’s hard to talk about the content of the episode without spoiling it though I can say that Nic Low is a man who has an amazing story about seemingly everything (if he ever writes a memoir it will be a must-read), that Karen Healey has missed her calling as a writer for Macgyver and that apparently armadillo tastes a bit like duck.

But it’s probably best if you just have a listen yourself, which you can do via iTunes or on the Nerd Degree website.

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Reading favourites – WORD Christchurch

Is there anything so satisfying as introducing someone to a book that you love? In librarianship it certainly falls under the categories of both personal passion and professional responsibility (see our own Staff Pickles for examples). And the Reading Favourites session at WORD Christchurch yesterday had a similar vibe – of reading enthusiasts, well, enthusing.

Renowned New Zealand children’s author, David Hill; editrix of Tell you what, and comparative literature PhD, Jolisa Gracewood; and author and founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Paula Morris, all took the stage to wax lyrical about their favourite New Zealand reading. Poet Chris Tse was also supposed to be part of this panel but was unable to attend due to illness. A shame, and it would have been good to have another, and yes I’m going to say it, younger voice in the mix but it was still definitely a session worth attending regardless.

Things kicked off in a jovial manner with Paula relating the ridiculous predicament of having flushed her reading glasses down the toilet and having to make do with some hastily bought, budget ones.

And then, because it’s National Poetry day, each read a short poem, Jolisa and David both choosing pieces from well-worn copies of 100 New Zealand Poems edited by Bill Manhire. This is a collection that Jolisa called “subversive” due to its lack of attribution of the poems unless… you refer to the index, a device that perhaps forces the reader to engage with the poem on its own merits.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve already forgotten the name of the 4 line poem that Jolisa recited, but do clearly remember that I liked it, and can accurately report that David Hill’s choice was The Adorable Thing about Mozart by Elizabeth Smither.

Paula Morris encouraged us all to read some other piece of poetry for ourselves, preferably out loud (or possibly in public), reflecting that “…you can do anything in Christchurch these days…”

Well not quite, but surely, on a wild and wet winter day a verse or two of Hone Tuwhare, either whispered or shouted at the sky wouldn’t be considered too transgressive?

Cover of Wednesday's childrenJolisa’s first choice of favourites was Wednesday’s children by Robin Hyde. Her copy of this novel about a woman who wins the lottery and “lives as she pleases” has its own story. It was bought here in Christchurch at a library book sale and still retains its borrowing slip, and cards in a pocket at the back. Initially it went unread (by her) for quite some time and it wasn’t until a boyfriend of Jolisa’s started reading it and really enjoyed it that it came back onto her radar – a unexpected surprise of a read.

Wednesday’s children set in the 1930s and is about women, women on welfare, and women with children – all things that are as relevant now as they ever were. Though sadly it is no longer in print (so get a reserve on a library copy if you fancy trying it).

cover of From the cutting room of Barney KettleDavid Hill’s first choice was much more current, namely last year’s From the cutting room of Barney Kettle by Kate De Goldi. David admitted it made him both weep and laugh and said that De Goldi’s writing was “crystalline” and sharp. Moreover the adults in it are depicted as “fallible, real human beings and not caricatures”. He said he was “honoured to be thrashed by her in the children’s book awards”.

Jolisa’s second choice for favourite read was by another Christchurch author, this time Margaret Mahy, and her young adult novel The Tricksters.

Cover of The trickstersSet in the general vicinity of Lyttelton Harbour, Jolisa went into movie trailer voiceover mode describing its tagline as “The Christmas it all fell apart…”. It’s a story about a family and an earth-shattering revelation but it also has elements of the supernatural. Even as a confessed rationalist she still enjoys books that “ask you to take on faith that there are other worlds…” which is something we have in common. I can’t abide notions of magic or “woo” in real life yet find this not only permissible but desirable in fiction.

This book too, is sadly out of print, but Jolisa’s hope is that with the film of The Changeover (based on Mahy’s novel) being made, other “adjacent” Mahy young adult fiction will receive renewed interest. (If we’re casting votes, may I also suggest The Catalogue of the Universe and Memory? Please and thank you.)

Cover of Going westDavid Hill’s second choice was Maurice Gee’s Going West. He described Gee as very “modest” and the least “show-off” writer he knows, and described a tension between his quiet style and the quite shocking events that unfold. In fact, he’s so good that “I’m not even jealous”. Happily Going West is still in print, and via someone in the audience, who presumably has the inside line on things Gee, we learned that there will be a new young adult novel out in February 2017.

Digressions were common (and welcome – at least by me) throughout the session, and Paula Morris’s reflection that Gee’s novels being set in Henderson, where she grew up, meant something led into the question of whether or not New Zealand writers should include New Zealand place names in their work. What if it’s jarring or too “foreign” for non-Kiwi readers? Apparently these are questions that publishers want to know the answers to, as David Hill has been asked this himself.

I liked Paula Morris’s sarcastic remark on this that readers would surely be completely bewildered – “I thought this was happening in London… but apparently it’s Taihape…”

Well, quite.

David Hill went as far as throwing the question to audience member Ted Dawe aka “another author who beat me in the children’s book awards”, who said that he didn’t like to be too specific about anything in his books, but even so the US version of Into the river has a 130 word glossary, providing meanings for every Māori word used, for instance.

Cover of The book of famePaula Morris also picked two favourites, the first being The book of fame by Lloyd Jones, a really funny book that nevertheless got sneering reviews in the UK but which “everyone I’ve ever recommended it to has really loved it”.

She also recommended Māori boy by Witi Ihimaera which, as a memoir, is necessarily “full of lies” but is “searingly honest” as well.

The session veered off at the end towards discussing the eternal question of why people don’t read more New Zealand fiction. Kiwi authors do well with children’s books but somehow this doesn’t translate to adult readers.

Jolisa suggested that being forced to read something at high school in an “eat your veges – this is good for you” kind of way could harden a reader against particular writers, and I must admit I still bristle at the suggestion I read any Janet Frame again, ever. So I think there may be some truth in that.

Paula Morris in particular highlighted some of the odd “prejudices” that create barriers to people reading New Zealand fiction – the notion that it’s all doom and gloom, “man alone” stuff when that’s demonstrably not the case. Would reading one depressing British author put you off reading British authors for life? So why does that seem to apply with local literature?

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very similar to the problem of representation and diversity in media generally. We’re used to what we’re used to and what we’re used to is a particular kind of voice. In movies this has typically been male and white and probably American. But things are slowly changing. Kiwi films are going gangbusters at the box office, ones with indigenous faces and voices, even. And there was a time when a nightly Kiwi soap opera was a risky proposition rather than an institution. Perhaps the next Ghostbusters reboot or Hunt for the Wilderpeople* of New Zealand fiction is just around the corner?

Here’s hoping. In the meantime, we’ve all got some favourites to try.

More WORD Christchurch

*Technically the Hunt for the Wilderpeople of New Zealand fiction is Wild pork and Watercress, but you get my meaning.

(Don’t) Stop tweeting

Are writers dilly dallying round on Twitter when they should be writing and submitting their work for publication? Simon Wilson, editor of Metro, posited this and got some writerly hackles up. Hence this session Stop tweeting … Commit! A Twitter Odyssey at the Auckland Writers Festival, and on Twitter, starring Russell Brown aka @publicaddress, Jolisa Gracewood @nzdodo, Simon Wilson @metromagnz and chaired by Janet Wilson @bespokemedia – and featuring The Real People in the audience, and on Twitter.

#stoptweeting

This session was crackling with intelligence, but I wanted to hear more from the Yays …

Remarkable Women AWRF 2013

Cover: Who Was That Woman Anyway?Jolisa Gracewood had an unenviable task wrangling, in the nicest possible way, three strong, singular women who ended up running over her in the nicest possible way.  Or actually two of them did.

Aorewa McLeod is one of those simultaneously inspiring and daunting people who has a long and distinguished career and then on retiring starts another, equally successful enterprise. In McLeod’s case a Masters in Creative Writing led to a well-reviewed ‘autobiographical fiction’ or ‘fictional autobiography’, Who was that woman anyway? The book ended up at the top of the biography best-seller lists, then moved to fiction.

All the reviewers who met Meme Churton when her extraordinary memoir Meme: the three worlds of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander came out noted her chic, so, irredeemably trivial as I am, I was very keen to see her. And she did not disappoint. Churton has Chinese and Italian ancestry; she ran some of Auckland’s earliest dealer galleries and cafes; she knew everybody and had an extensive art collection, but she did not have a happy marriage. Meme claimed to have brought the first espresso machine to Auckland; Jacqueline claimed to have ruined one of the first in Wellington.

Cover: Before I ForgetJacqueline Fahey has written two volumes of memoirs that are not only insightful descriptions of of an artist’s thought and practice, but are also vivid snapshots of what life was like at a time when clever women were expected to help their husbands in their careers, look after the children and never ever show any signs of doing anything for themselves. Fahey’s voice came through the books so strongly I expected her to dominate proceedings totally.

And she pretty much did. Meme gave her a good run for her money, but Aorewa could barely get a word in, despite valiant attempts at talking about sex and destiny.  She did a bit better with fashion, but on the subject of hating her mother Fahey topped her again – “It’s the most natural thing in the world”.

What they all did agree on was telling the truth about one’s life can only ever be one version of the truth.  One woman’s truth is another woman’s lie, all memories are true but within families they can be hopelessly at odds.

Word of the session? Barbarous.

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