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

Men writing about love

/Cover of The Course of LoveFirst some facts:

  • There is only one male Mills and Boon writer – and he writes under his wife’s name
  • and four grudgingly recognised female writers of Westerns (and they are accused of bending that particular genre in more ways than one).

In-between these gender outliers, it’s a bit of a free for all. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all men will have loved, far fewer men write romantic fiction, or books about love.

And I’m not including here books where there’s a sprinkling of lurve on top of a mountain of general bad behaviour and savagery. I’m talking about contemporary authors who truly attempt to reveal what they understand about love. Authors who lay themselves bare, who wrestle with love, whose hearts have (in all probability) been broken. Those men.

Cover of BullfightingAnd they do exist, but let’s just get the following man writers out of the way: Tony Parsons (with books like Man and Boy), David Nicholls (One Day and Us) and Nicholas Sparks (anything romantic that has recently been filmed, like Message in a Bottle). They are all popular, they all write well, but they feel to me like observers, one step distant from real involvement. They tell stories about men and women in love, but they don’t dig that deep.

My “Men who write about love” do it in a way that is very revealing to women, in books that will make you look differently at male bravado, and with characters who are almost certainly based on their own experiences. Authors like this:

This is a terribly Non-PC blog, I know. After all, why even bother distinguishing the gender of writers? Why not include gay writers and those who are transgender? But it gets worse, because  what I think I am really trying to say here is that men write better books about love than women do.

Prove me wrong.

Electronic sexy time with OverDrive

So last weekend I went on a second date and he has not called me back. I have to admit I was not feeling much spark either but can’t help but wonder – was it because I had three plates of food at the buffet? I thought men like women with an appetite? Maybe undoing the top button on my pants was a step too far though?

Life is so much easier when it is fictional fantasy! This weekend I will heal my wounds and sink into a world without stretch marks, uncomfortable silences and missed opportunities. Bring it on OverDrive!

A Zombie You Can Take Home to Your Parents

I learnt of a new genre this week and fell in love with a zombie for the second time. Zom-Rom-Com is a romantic comedy featuring a zombie as a leading romantic lead.

He’s cute, endearing and with a droll and funny sense of humour. He’s ‘R’ and he’s the zombie hero of Warm Bodies, a great Young Adult book by Isaac Marion that I really enjoyed last year, and is now a great new movie out in the theaters at present.

We have all got used to the lovable if troubled vampire, via the  True Blood television series, the books it was based on by Charlene Harris, and of course the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer that spurned a generation of movie vampire heart throbs.

But Zombies? They eat people, and they’re dead, so where’s the appeal? R doesn’t remember his past, just a shuffling existence around a deserted airport terminal in a post apocalyptic world. The remaining humans who have been spared the virus that has turned most of the world to zombies are holed up in a fortress and when R meets Julie, the daughter of leader of the human resistance, something sparks his humanity and he spares her, and becomes determined to save her and in the process saves himself.

The humour is great. In the movie there is a scene where ‘R’ tries to remember what life was like before, his voice over talks of a romanticised view of people connecting, loving, enjoying each other’s company, and we find ourselves looking at a busy airport terminal where everyone is connected alright, but to phones, computers, i-pods, all together but disconnected.

In both the book and the movie, the horror that is usually at the core of Zombie-hood is not at the core of the story, but love, acceptance and taking risks for others are.

Warm Bodies is a great story and has been made into a great movie, a faithful film recreation of a unique written story that is often hard to find.

Love loves to love love – Dishing out the Valentine’s Day love

It’s Valentine’s Day! I’ve got a big, sloppy Valentine for Dan Rhodes – oh so aptly his latest book is a crop of teeny stories that skewer love and marriage. Dan does both anti-romance and the most exquisite, heartfelt portraits of love and passion – so he’s a winner for both romantics and cynics.

He has written a list for The Guardian of top 10 marriage tales. One of his picks is The Man Who Went Into the West by Byron Rogers :

Writers are weirdoes, and you must never marry one. We don’t come much weirder than the great poet RS Thomas, and this riotous biography is a beauty. Amazingly, he had a wife. Give this a read and imagine how strange it must have been to be married to (or even by) the rhyming vicar of Manafon.

And another reason to lavish love on Dan is he has my equal favourite author website (first equal with Jasper Fforde).

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Christchurch Art Gallery shopWhen it comes to music, I give a big smoochy Valentine to Aussie Paul Kelly. A: for coming to play in Christchurch A big plea to other bands and musicians: Come and visit! We won’t bite! We love music. B for some lovely lovesongs like Winter Coat and Give in to my love.

And when it comes to art, I’d like to do a big shoutout for our own Christchurch Art Gallery. They don’t have their gallery, but they keep us in arty goodness. A Caxton exhibition has just kicked off at Central Library Peterborough. There is a great show at the NG Gallery by leading Canterbury artists Tony de Lautour, Jason Greig and Bill Hammond.

Their blog is full of interesting and quirky art (and life) insights. Plus their fab shop is handily located next to Central Library Tuam (and the Re:START). It has a range of art stuff, but also lots of great gifts, art t-shirts, David Bowie paperdolls and more. Arohanui!

Have a gander at some of our previous posts about Valentine’s Day  – the bright and dark sides:

And share your Valentine – who would you like to give some love too? Who are the authors and artists who ring your bell?

Remembering the future

CoverMy way of escaping from our shaky city is to dive into a book and live someone else’s life.  Even if you’ve got no power you can curl up on the couch in a blanket and read about how other people cope with difficult situations, watch them fall in love, go on an adventure or solve a mystery.  One particular book I’ve read recently is about something that I’m sure we’d all love to do at the moment – forgetting the past.

Forgotten is an amazing new book by Cat Patrick, about a girl who can remember her future, but not her past.  Every morning at 4:33am, London Lane’s mind resets and her memories of the previous day are wiped.  London explains her condition:

I see the future in flashes, like memories.  I remember what I’ll wear tomorrow, and a car crash that won’t happen til this afternoon.  But yesterday has evaporated from my mind – just like the boy I love.

I’m sure it’s blowing your mind right now, trying to figure out how that would work.  I was slightly confused for the first couple of chapters, but then got drawn into the story and wanted to find out how she dealt with knowing the future.  Every night before she goes to sleep she has to write down what happened during the day so that she can remember it for tomorrow e.g. what clothes she wore, what homework she has to bring to school, and why her best friend isn’t talking to her.  There’s also the problem of remembering her boyfriend, because she can’t remember him from the previous day, but she doesn’t have any memories of him in her future either.

Forgotten is one of those books that keeps you thinking and wondering from start to finish.  Just like London, you’re trying to piece together bits of the past and the future to try and figure out how it’s going to end.  You may think that it sounds like science fiction but it’s not (I’d love to know how Cat came up with the idea though).  Cat Patrick’s writing is really unique and she’s created characters that teens will relate to.  I’m just glad that my mind doesn’t wipe clean every day so that I can remember this amazing book.

Spend your holidays with Dash and Lily

Imagine this:

You’re in your favourite bookshop, scanning the shelves.  You get to the section where your favourite author’s books reside, and there, nestled in comfortably between the incredibly familiar spines, sits a red notebook.
What do you do?
The choice, I think, is obvious:
You take down the red notebook and open it.
And then you do whatever it tells you to do.

From these opening sentences of Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares I was hooked.  Set in New York in the days leading up to Christmas, and a few days after, the story alternates between the characters of Dash (written by David Levithan) and Lily (written by Rachel Cohn).  Lily is the girl who left the notebook in the bookshop for just the right guy to come along and accept the challenges found inside.  Dash accepts the first challenge and leaves the notebook for Lily to collect.  The notebook continues to be passed back and forth between them, with the help (and sometimes hindrance) of their friends and family members.   They decide to meet each other, but will the boy and the girl in the notebook measure up to the boy and the girl in reality?

I loved everything about Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares.  Dash and Lily are great characters with lots of personality, and  their family and friends that help them complete their dares are hilarious.  The authors have created a real sense of time and place and I really wanted to be there with Dash and Lily, celebrating Christmas in New York.  It’s the perfect book for this time of the year, whether you love Christmas (like Lily) or loath it (like Dash).


Fiction: The Most Dangerous Thing in the World.

By her own admission, Yiyun Li has an interesting relationship with her mother country – China. She writes (and dreams) in English, has never been published in China, is barely recognised as a writer in her homeland and yet sets all her writing in that country.

This means that she is particularly well placed to compare the two countries that mean so much to her. She summed it up by saying that in America there is always hope for the individual – there is the audacity of hope. Whereas in China this does not exist. People accept that life in China is bleak therefore they are less likely to be devastated by disappointment.

She started writing because her parents were dead set against it and “whatever your parents do not want you to do, you must do.” In fact her parents saw fiction as “the most dangerous thing in the world”. Her first pieces of writing were the fabricated sick notes that she would create for herself in order to get out of school. For such a dimpled, sweet-faced lady, she was an extraordinarily rebellious child.

Her book The Vagrants starts with an execution and ends with one as well. Although this does not sound like a laugh a minute, the novel is really a collection of the love stories of characters who were around at that time. There is sadness, pathos and cruelty, but there is also tenderness and humour and love.

The entire audience was reminded time and again how different life in China was in the 1970’s. It is hard for us to comprehend the cruelty, for example, behind making the family of the executed girl pay for the bullet that was used to kill their only daughter. And that according to Yiyun Li is what really did happen.

I left the room thinking “I will never complain about anything ever again”. Yiyun Lee would have said that was very American of me.

Caring about every word with Alison Wong

CoverAfter the rollercoaster ride of the interviews with Lionel Shriver and William Dalrymple, the festival event with  Alison Wong talking on her book As the Earth Turns Silver was like a soothing balm to the soul. Wong does not just write fiction, she writes poetic fiction and freely admits that “I care about every word”.

This book is a slice of life in Wellington in the early 1900s where inter-racial prejudice was rife. It is a love story about a clandestine relationship between a pakeha woman and a Chinese man. It is never destined to have a happy ending. Wong researched this period very thoroughly and slowly – the book was about 12 years in the making. It is quite beautiful and flawless – like a little gem. I believe that it will be well loved in the many reading groups around the country and certainly my book club can look forward to meeting up with it sometime very soon.

Wong wrote from when she was a little eight year old girl and found early on that she loved books with “emotional substance” she mentions two books that she remembers affected her very deeply, The Hill of the Red Fox and Owls do Cry by Janet Frame. She finds writing poetry easier than fiction writing and confessed that she often does not feel like writing, saying “it is a real test of character for me”. When inspiration is flowing though, she likes to write in little cafes and coffee shops where she can be seen sitting with her laptop, a latte and a view of the Wellington coast that she loves so much.

There is a scene towards the end of this book involving two Devonshire teas that made me weep. It is so beautiful it cries out to be painted. Instead I will make do with the thought that the character has while she sits with her cream scones: “There is nothing more empty than that which was full.”

Shriver interview: So much for that ‘most entertaining book this year on death and illness’

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I started the interview by asking Lionel Shriver about her choice of excerpt from So Much for That for the reading at the Festival Opening Night.

Well, it’s a sex scene so it takes a little nerve to read it aloud. Sex is usually done so badly in fiction, I guess in a way I was showing off –  or at least showing – which is to say that sex scenes really function in fiction when they are more than sex scenes. That is they can’t just be some gratuitous conclusion, they have to be accomplishing something, they have to be as justified as any other scene. I was particularly interested in that scene and exploring the effect of grave illness on the sexual relationship in a marriage.

The book has very serious themes, yet there are other themes which help create a balance.

Yes. I think a better way of putting it would be to say that they are serious themes but they are not explored in a relentlessly serious way. The hardest thing for me to get across to readers of this book is that it really isn’t a grisly, grim experience. It’s meant to be entertaining people who do love the book get that pretty soon and once they have got that I have found that people don’t have any trouble reading this book. A few reviews, even though they have been positive have done the book a disservice by talking up the nature of the dark, depressing material. Missing the point that this is still meant to be fun.

It is through your terrific dialogue that all of this comes true for me. How did you get to be so good at dialogue?

I really love dialogue, I like writing it and I like reading it in other peoples’ books. You and I would be alike we take our pleasure in novels in the same way. I love it novels really come alive and it has an almost cinematic quality.

Do you think that you need to be a good speaker in order to be able to write good dialogue?

Not necessarily. I think it helps in public events to be able to speak well and I thrive in public speaking situations. The bigger the audience the better. The hardest thing to pull off is the bookstore readings with just two or three people. That really takes poise.

Do you think that a writer of good dialogue needs to be a good listener?

Up to a point, I wish I listened better. I wish I remembered more.

Despite its serious themes, I did not find this a depressing read, in fact I found it quite uplifting.

I hope it is , but not in that creepy redemptive way that has become so trite but I did think that my happy ending is well earned, not only have the characters earned it, but the author and the readers have also earned it. It was always my intention that So Much For That would have a soft landing at the end.

In So Much For That Shep has fabulously frivolous thing in his fountains and a capital-A Afterlife vision. How about you?

I write novels – that is my fabulously frivolous activity! Just like fountains, what’s charming about novels is that they are magnificently unnecessary! If I had only a year to live – not enough time to write a novel, honestly I wouldn’t go off somewhere but would inhabit my daily life , perhaps more fully. I’d stay home, I like ordinary life, I think that ordinary life is not ordinary.

I’m going to lob a word at you and I’d like you to free range over that topic and your word is libraries.

OK I’m a big fan of libraries. It is on the public record that I hope in due course to will my assets to libraries of some kind. There are some tax issues to resolve but in general I think they are the most benign of institutions. I think it is difficult to come up with benign institutions. They represent everything that is important to me about my life. I’ve depended on them for most of my life and now lately it’s not just for books, but for CD’s, everything. I just think that they’re expressions of social generosity.

How do you feel about the changes that are taking place in libraries with the introduction of new technologies?

As long as books are not marginalised, I don’t have a problem with it. In the same way I don’t have a problem with e-books as long as people are still paid for their work. I think it is important that libraries embrace new technologies or they may be dooming themselves to obsolescence. I recently had my broadband cut off for a month which was like being exiled to Siberia and I used my local library in London to stay connected to the world and that was a service that I was very grateful for.

Do you think that readers who have loved your previous books will love So Much For That?

This is definitely the most entertaining book this year on death and illness. It is not a depressing book. It is not about illness itself, but it’s about being around someone who is ill and that happens to most of us sooner or later. The problem is that the carer is not supposed to have any problems. Your problems don’t matter , it’s the needs of the person who is ill that are paramount. Glynis becomes tired of Shep being so perfect and that is one of my favourite scenes in the book.

What is your opinion of  book clubs and reading groups? Groups of women with glasses of wine and savoury snacks dissecting your book, how do you feel about that?

I think it’s great! I hope they have more than one glass of wine. I don’t belong   to one myself, I am not a joiner and I don’t belong to groups of any description. I’m a relatively solitary person. I think book groups are one of the healthiest cultural phenomena to come along in quite some time. They are a vehicle for talking about some slightly more elevated matters. Book groups provide a nice middle ground between solitary reading and normal socialising. It’s also great when book groups disagree. It is OK to hate a book.

What about books that have questions in the back for discussion?

Some of my books have them, not that they are my idea. I have tried to discourage my publishers from including them, mainly because book groups seem to universally detest them , they find them condescending and never use them. So what’s the point?

If any one of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you like it to be.

Even as we speak  We Need to Talk About Kevin is being filmed, and I wish it the best but in all honesty, I believe that The Post-Birthday World would make a great film, a heart-wrenching film, I think it would be beautiful. Unfortunately that option has lapsed , so it is available – put the word out there!