The Guardian’s worst books of the decade

Being a modest sort of outfit, Christchurch City Libraries blog has recently only been asking our readers for the best and worst books of 2009.

Not so the Guardian. This cultural behemoth has been taxing its readers with the vexatious question: what were your worst books of the decade? With 878 blog comments so far, this has clearly struck a chord and some of the responses are hilarious in a book-geeky kind of way. Several well-known authors and titles have been turning up with almost monotonous  regularity: Ian McEwan’s Saturday has quite rightly taken a good kickin’, as has Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, John Updike’s Terrorist, Don DeLillo’s The falling man, David Mitchell’s Cloud atlas and anything published by Martin Amis, Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer.

I too felt compelled to put my ten cents worth in and poured scorn on The divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. It was actually published in 1996 but I have never been able to shake off my absolute and profound hatred for this book. Anyway, have a chuckle at the sight of high-brow, prize-winning authors being shredded and roundly abused by the good readers of the Guardian.

And remember to get your Best and Worst reads of 2009 into us before December 16th and be in to win a lovely $50 book voucher.

Crazy old Q Awards

The annual UK Q magazine awards, held last week, are guaranteed to provide some juicy rock-in-roll controversy and this year did not disappoint.  It was Amy Winehouse‘s magnificently re-configured bosom that grabbed all the headlines when her bad girls, determined to get their time in the spotlight, leapt out of the hanky Amy called a dress. But the music though over-shadowed was not entirely forgotten. In no particular order and missing out the boring bits, the reader voted Q Awards went to:

  • White Lies for best new act (think Echo and the Bunnymen meet Interpol)
  • Spandau Ballet, of frills and hair flicks fame, scooped a Q Idol award. They’ve reformed and announced a series of UK tour dates for 2010.
  • Kasabian triumphed with a best album award for West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
  • Muse proved they are more than a Radiohead tribute band and scored the Best Act In the World today.
  • Robert Plant not only got a good eyeful of Amy’s assets but also won the Q Outstanding Contribution To Music Award. Robert we salute you.
  • Lily Allen got Best Track Award for The Fear from her album It’s not me, it’s you. Lily is always threatening to retire so this could be the pinnacle of her pop career. 

Arctic Monkeys, Yusef a.k.a Cat Stevens, Edwyn Collins, U2, Marianne Faithful, Sonic Youth, Frankie goes to Hollywood, Mr Hudson, Lady Gaga and The Specials all also felt the Q-love and received congratulatory trinkets. Well done chaps.

Dr Who, I miss you…

This year, so far,  we’ve had two of the promised four Doctor Who special episodes and while they’ve been sufficiently Who-ish; Planet of the Dead featured a BBC budget Lara Croft-esque character called Lady Christina and The Next Doctor with an anatomically ambivalent CyberKing, the knowledge that this is  the delicious David Tennant’s protracted swan-song has made it a miserable experience so far.

Oh yes, Mr Tennant I’d climb into your TARDIS any day of the week  but I’m not so sure about this new chap Matt Smith, there is something vaguely unnerving about an actor born in 1982-the Peter Davidson era- playing a 900 year old time-lord. There is also a new assistant in the pipeline and with almost unimaginable self-restraint the new ginger –haired, Scottish lassie has been named Amy rather than the infinitely more obvious Heather or Agnes, this may yet prove a mistake as no-one likes a stereotype better than your average telly viewer and Scottish stereotypes are just so much fun, usually corrupt coppers or whiney, malnourished druggie/ crims.

We won’t be able to enjoy the next series for some considerable time here in far-flung NZ so in the meantime the library has oodles of Dr Who DVDs, audio-books, novels and magazines featuring the Doctor in his many guises. Yes, the vintage TV series sets do wobble and every second story-line was filmed in a quarry in the Cotswolds but for sheer nostalgia and a chance to hide in terror behind the couch again, they are well worth another watch. And although I must confess to having become a little fatigued by story editor Russell T Davies’s plots, the latest Doctor Who series have lots of famous acting faces, racey plots and fantastic CGI.  The empty child and The doctor dances with Chrstopher Eccleston are two of my favourite episodes and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic presentation.

Beeb drama at its very best!

Siri Paiboun and the case of the dire author photo

I’m in the midst of an obsession.. with a fictional 73 year old Laotian, the star of Colin Cotterill’s mystery series set in post-1975 revolution Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun is the national coroner, kind but cynical, dedicated but often disillusioned. With no budget or lab equipment and no previous experience either in forensics or detecting, Siri and his loyal assistants Nurse Dtui (Fatty) and Mr Geung have prevailed in a number of tricky cases featuring murderous evil spirits, corrupt Communist officials and a virgin-slaying serial killer.

These titles have been marketed in America as being in a similar vein to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana based Mma Ramotswe novels. Like Smith, Cotterill’s tone is humorous and his characters warm and engaging; Siri however is clearer eyed than Precious Ramotswe. He recognises the deficiencies in the new Laos and being a natural-born rebel and risk-taker he delights in subverting the system. These titles are also less static; Siri and his cronies spend lots of time bouncing about in rustbucket trucks and death-trap motorbikes on the sub-standard roads of Laos tracking down dirty, rotten criminal-types.

Now on title six in this series, The merry misogynist, Cotterill’s book jacket author photos have also been an evolving delight. The Coroner’s lunch featured Cotterill in what look like Thai silk pjs and a highly dubious moustache. The tashe remained in varied forms through the next few titles but his latest photo shows him clean shaven and clad in non-silky garments…whew. Rubbish author photos aside, these novels are a delight. Fast and funny, and with a novel locale they are well worth a read.

Farewell to misery?

The “misery memoir” genre has been failing in health for some time, but has now, hopefully, bitten the proverbial with the demise last month of Frank McCourt.

McCourt, lovely chap that he was, kick-started the whole “if you think you had it bad get a load of this” childhood neglect/abuse/addiction/illness memoir with the Pulitzer prize winning Angela’s Ashes published in 1996. Little did he know the monster he’d unleashed.  Appalling childhood stories of deprivation have subsequently become de rigueur, each one trying to “out-mis” the last.

This need to marvel at others ability to triumph over adversity may be a deeply fixed facet of human nature. Let’s face it Bible stories are pretty gruelling. Perhaps digesting woeful tales of abandonment, hardship and horror  allow us to reflect on our own lives and think “it ain’t so bad”.

All well and good  but several notorious mis-memoir scandals have revealed both publisher and reader gullibility in the quest for a tragic tale.

  • James Frey’s 2003 memoir A million little pieces about his battle with crack was exposed as “fiction addiction” by The Smoking Gun website and he was, horror-of-horrors, subsequently spurned by Oprah, dropped by his agent and lost his book deal.
  • The veracity of Love and consequences by Margaret B Jones, detailing her poor, druggie  LA childhood, was queried by the author’s sister and whoops, indeed her story turned out to be fiction.  So not a half-white, half native American Indian? No foster family? No drugs and drug couriering? All fibs unfortunately, in fact a white, middle-class, private school educated single Mom. Tricky indeed.
  • Kathy O’Beirne, the author of Kathy’s Story: A True Tale of a Childhood Destroyed by Neglect and Fear has similarly faced questions about the authenticity of her time in an Irish Magdalene Asylum. Her publishers declined to publish a planned follow-up and her family have had a right good stoush about it.

So in place of misery we can probably anticipate more celebrity cook-books, self-help titles and paranormal romances to keep our library shelves full. Hurrah!

Final festival wrap-up

After an intense, enjoyable, fast-paced last day of the festival fever, we present our last audio wrap up. We have been proud to represent the library and hope you have enjoyed the coverage, which we have tried to make entertaining and informative.

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize added so much to the festival. It brought variations of eloquence to our ears and eyes from around the world, and impressing all the audiences, I am certain, with the breadth and depth of the all to uncommon wealth of writers which we were lucky enough to see.

Our final report is a touch under 14 minutes long.

Keep an eye on the blog for more interviews with Commonwealth Writers’ prize best book winner Christos Tsiolkas, Rod Oram, Don McGlashan, and for a slightly different take, Patricia Kay, one of the volunteers who has been with the festival since day one. We also hope to have follow-up interviews with authors in the near future, and more photos will be added to the library flickr soon. If you have questions or comments about any aspect of the festival or the coverage, leave a comment – we would love to hear from you.

Now get thee to a library 🙂

Not a shy African woman

An hour with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Chaired by Paula Morris this session provided another full-house and an insightful look at the issues of interest to this relatively new and exciting author. The thing around your neck, Chimamanda’s first collection of short stories, explores cultural clash and the migrant experience, building on the success of her earlier prize-winning novels Half of a yellow sun and Purple hibiscus

Paula Morris opened her questions by asking Chimamanda whether she was conscious of an African and Nigerian identity while growing up in a middle-class home in Nsukka. Chimamanda answered that she had no real sense of being anything other than Ebu, a Nigerian tribe, and that it was only when she left Nigeria to attend John Hopkins University in the US that she was viewed as African and suddenly expected by her teachers and fellow student to be an authority on all things African. She added that while to some extent she had to accept the label of Nigerian and African writer, she felt uncomfortable representing a whole continent. She also talked of having the authenticity of her first novel Purple hibiscus questioned by a white, male American university professor because her African characters drove cars and weren’t starving!

Spending half her time in the US, Chimamanda believes allows her to look at Nigeria from the outside, making her clearer eyed. This sentiment was also echoed in a later session by Tash Aw who also finds his voluntary exile in London affords him more clarity in analysing his home country of Malaysia. But Nigeria was she said “where her heart is” and while her country often infuriates her she belongs there and “loves it very deeply”.

Chimamanda was outed as an Enid Blyton fan, she joked she was reading the Famous Five back in her hotel room, and that her teenage years were spent in the quest for lashings of ginger beer. The fact she had never actually managed to taste ginger beer was remedied by one of the ARWF crew who brought her a Bundaberg, how topping! When questions were opened to the floor one gentleman complimented her on her modest demeanour while waiting to come on stage and called her a traditional “shy African woman”, a compliment Chimamanda was not having a bar of. Talented, beautiful, intelligent and not shy, an hour with Chimamanda was a real delight.


Passageways with Ann Thwaite and Joanna Woods chaired by Hamish Keith

My goodness that Hamish Keith gets about! He seems to be a constant on the New Zealand literary festival circuit and I think I know why, famous though he is for courting controversy, today with wonderful wit and charm he facilitated an interesting and generous conversation between biographers Anne Thwaite and Joanna Woods.

Hamish started the ball rolling by sharing the idea of the travelling gene; that everyone however long they’ve been in New Zealand has come from somewhere else. He also mooted the idea that early migrants to New Zealand rather than flying the flag for Great Britain were keen to establish an identity for their new home as something separate and other. He added that by the 1930’s and 40’s England had become re-established as home, reinforced through the education system and government, and that many New Zealanders  had a “fantasy past and uncertain present”. This fantasy past being created both Joanna Woods and Hamish Keith felt by nationalist writers of the period like Curnow and Fairburn, men with a vested interest in bashing the cultural achievements of the past.

Joanna Woods, author of Facing the music a biography of Charles Baeyertz, spoke compellingly about New Zealand’s vibrant cultural and literary scene during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She cited a galaxy of international stars that performed in New Zealand and a host of homegrown talent that enlivened the lives of early New Zealanders. Baeyertz founded The Triad a cultural magazine which stayed in print for over 50 years and provided her with a rich source of information about New Zealand’s early cultural creations.

Ann Thwaite winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1990 shared her recently published family history Passageways.  She said it took her 40 years after his death before she could face opening the suitcases containing her Father’s papers and acknowledged that delving into the past was not always a joyful process and that “a photograph could be too sad to frame”. She talked about the joy of getting to know her parents as young people through their letters and diaries and read a charming passage from her Mother’s notebook detailing the appropraite behaviours that a young lady should model.

While the authors themselves seemed to find some difficulty in aligning their particular publications with the programme’s uniting theme of migration this was nonetheless an interesting session tackling in somewhat plummy tones issues of identity and culture.

Richard Dawkins High Priest of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Church

Generally speaking I am most emphatically not a fan of science or in fact of scientists; apparently I am in the minority. Richard Dawkins on the “big screen” was chock-a-block and with a much younger, decidedly more alternative and dare I say, mannish audience.
Radio New Zealand National’s Sean Plunket was the chair and he cut an imposing figure, although I couldn’t help thinking how tired he must be and how surely this must constitute a late night for someone who has been up since 4am to do Morning Report with dear old Geoff.

The technology worked marvellously and the session combined both Dawkins and the release of the inaugural Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book of the Year Award, won by The Awa book of New Zealand science edited by Rebecca Priestly. Dawkins, wearing a fetching pink tie (or maybe zebra print), first talked of his desire for The selfish gene to be popular as he regards the communication of scientific concepts to be an important responsibility for scientists. His desire was to write books for both the general public and fellow scientists adding that “scientific papers were often incomprehensible even to other scientists”, and that the act of preparing complex scientific ideas for the consumption of the lay person further honed and clarified concepts.

Asked whether the controversy The god delusion had created was distracting either for Dawkins or other scientists in the evolutionary biology field he replied that ‘ the yapping chorus of ignorant dissent” and the debate with pro-religion detractors was generally time-wasting. That’s them told.

Sean Plunket suggested that perhaps the West was too tolerant of religion and faith,  Dawkins replied that nice, liberal people (yes you!!) bent over backwards to accept religious beliefs but that this exaggerated respect and acceptance of faith made it too easy for people who use their religion as a weapon. He believes that if faith allows an individual to become a suicide bomber in support of their religion then society is at risk.

Dawkins noted the decline in church attendance across Western society but didn’t see a correlating increase in rationality; instead he thought many were taking refuge instead in astrology, lay lines or voodoo. He himself went to an Anglican school but felt that generally the Anglican Church exhibited only a mild strain of the religious virus.

Plunket asked if Dawkins felt he was in any danger of becoming a Prophet for secularism or a High Priest of atheism, in reply Dawkins said he saw the danger but personally hated the idea of any cult or idolatry, wanting instead people to think independently and critically for themselves. Finally asked if on pain of death he had to choose a religion to follow what it would be, Dawkins replied he’d opt for the “church of the flying spaghetti monster”. Worra laugh!!

Leaving on a jet plane..but back on Monday

Unlike Mr Richard I have no typo-issues with the word Festival/Festical or even Auckland, only Christcrutch gives me gyp, so I leave with a spring in my step and say brin git on….

Festival highlights hopefully for me will include not cocking up interviews with Monica Ali and Kirsty Gunn, so if any of you out there want sensible questions asked, rather than my own unique brand of random interrogation, then this may be your last chance.

I’ve also been reading some interesting articles by and about Karachi based Mohammed Hanif, author of  A case of exploding mangoes and am keen to hear about his writing, the political situation in Pakistan and his decision to relocate there after 12 years in London.

I’m leaving all the clever clogs science, economics and political authors to my clever clogs colleagues with one author exception, Richard Dawkins. Sadly we are not to be graced by Dawkins physical presence but are instead going to experience him “on the big screen”. Apparently this event is a first in New Zealand and I’ll be there to mock in an ignorant and offensive fashion if the technology stuffs up, huzzah!

With fourteen events and interviews I’m expecting to be even busier than …eh, Paris Hilton, so watch this space.