The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English

This is a true story. This is two stories. It is a history of Timbuktu, a place with myth and legend wrapped around it, and it is the tale of librarians and archivists who worked hard to protect precious manuscripts from destruction.

Cover
The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu details the events of 2012 as Timbuktu (in Mali) comes under the control of jihadists linked to al-Qaeda. Rare manuscripts are under threat. The fear is that these cultural treasures will meet the same fate as historical sites destroyed by the fundamentalists. Archivists and librarians — and in particular Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara — come together and formulate a plan to spirit away manuscripts. They smuggle them out via a network of helpers, concealing and transporting them away by land and sea.

The drama of 2012 alternates with chapters about history and the various explorers who sought after the city of Timbuktu. In 1788, Sir Joseph Banks (naturalist on the Endeavour with Captain Cook) was part of the African Association Committee considering the exploration of Africa. Timbuktu was a golden unknown, and yet this Committee and others had it pegged as a place of great wealth. It became an alluring target for European explorers.

These historical chapters tell us a lot about Timbuktu, and the adventures and horrors that faced various explorers who got there, or didn’t. They also unveil the fiction and myth-making at the heart of its histories, and how people chased after a place that didn’t really exist.

The story is as punchy, thrilling, and exciting as a thriller. But it doesn’t take the easy route and is not simply an adventurous yarn about heroic librarians. Charlie English has done a mass of reading, research, as well as interviews and first-hand reporting. Were there really hundreds of thousands of manuscripts? How bad was the risk from the jihadists? What happened to all the money donated by various international agencies? He scrapes away bluster and lily-gilding, working away at finding the truth, and he gets as close to it as he can. The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu is a brilliant piece of research, and a history with layers and depth.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures
by Charlie English
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008126643

Read articles by Charlie English in The Guardian:

William Dalrymple’s review sums up the brilliance of this book: The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English review – how precious manuscripts were saved

More about the librarians of Timbuktu

 

Opera: Carmen at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Opening night at the beautifully restored Isaac Theatre Royal. The talk of the excited crowd dies down to murmurs as the lights dim. Light glitters from gilded panels. The open stage begins to fill with the cast, who stare heroically at the audience, then walk off to leave the lead character exposed.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is an Opera in four acts. It’s a passionate story, centred around Gypsy Siren come Revolutionary, Carmen. Her wily seduction of the Soldier Don Jose and the love triangle created when she spurns him for the compelling Toreador, Escamillo, raises passions that run out of control.

Carmen with chorus members
Carmen with chorus members. Image credit: Marty Melville

Directed by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Lindy Hume, (Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and La cenerentola), the themes of immorality and the murder of the main character broke new ground in theatre, making the Opera controversial after its release in 1875.

The cast of Carmen are incredible. Relaxed and natural in their roles, they deliver a heartfelt and convincing performance. Don Jose (Tom Randle) has a powerful voice with which to express his pain (like a knife in the heart). His duets with Michaela (Emma Pearson) are exquisite.

Micaela (Emma Pearson)’s pleas with Don Jose to save his life from ruin are delivered with such feeling that I was moved by her performance. Her voice brought the role to life with powerful strength.

Escamillo (James Clayton) has a beautiful voice. It flows naturally, like honey. I would have heard him more (he performs in Handel’s Messiah later in the year).

And Carmen (Nina Surguladze). Wow. She gave an incredible performance. Her voice filled the theatre, as did her personality. Nina has performed on the most famous stages in the world. Her Carmen was cheeky, strong heroic; her movements around the stage as graceful as her control over her voice, teasing us with soft notes, and inflaming us with her passionate mezzo soprano.

The supporting cast must not be forgotten. All great actors, their wonderful voices swelled the theatre with rousing performances of Amour and Toreador. Special mention to Kiwis Amelia Perry (Frasquita) and Kristin Darragh (Mercedes), Carmen’s companions. I loved their voices, and they brought more character to the stage.

Carmen
Clever staging at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Production Designer Dan Potra’s staging is clever and innovative. Moving panels create or take away space, ultimately leaving the lead characters, Carmen and Don Jose trapped.

The chorus and Escamillo take performances beyond the stage, singing shadowed behind the stage wall. Lights appear in a strangely jagged wall to create a mountain hillside, clever lighting (Matthew Marshall) creates swirling clouds from dry ice.

Lastly a hat’s off to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Pasqualletti and Oliver von Dohnanyi. and It was thrilling to hear Toreador played live. Great job.

Favourite scenes? The whole cast singing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle‘ in Act I. The dancing scene in Act II:  Carmen is completely in control; the women creating a whirlwind around the circle of sheepish, lustful men.

Gypsies
Gypsies. Image credit: Marty Melville.

And the Death Scene. Best Death Ever! The crowd gasped as Don Jose fired his gun (filled with very loud blanks), then gasped again as Carmen slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood. Especially entertaining as we all knew it was coming.

Footnote: My library colleague Rose O’Neill asked one of the Isaac’s friendly staff about The Ghost. It was thought that he had gone after the Quakes. Then after restoration he was seen behind the stage…

Ceiling dome, Isaac Theatre Royal.

 Find out more

Fun with Farts – Old MacDonald heard a fart

Miss Manners would probably be spinning in her grave*, but seriously, I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard as when I read Old MacDonald Heard a Fart! I took it home the other night, to read it to the Beecrafty family, but it seems not everyone enjoys a fart book as much as I do! Maybe I shouldn’t have read it at the dinner table, because of course it prompted a raucous fart-noise competition between myself and the Young Lad, and Mr K left the room in disgust. But if you’ve got kids who appreciate a bit of scatological humour, this picture book is a must!

There’s just so much to love about this book. As you probably already guessed from the title, it’s an irreverent, noisy version of the farmyard classic. It has lovely, vibrant, and expressive illustrations, with lots of little details and things to spy. I had to giggle at the Elvis rooster and the Jurassic Pork poster on the stable wall. The Ziggy Stardust unicorn in a Dalí landscape is really something, too.

But best of all has to be the instructions on how to create (verbally, I promise!) each fart sound. The Young Lad and I had great fun contorting our lips into the correct formations to make all the gross noises. Although he was quick to demonstrate his own favourite technique – I didn’t know what an accomplished fart noise creator he was. The next night, he was most indignant when I said I couldn’t read it again as I had taken the book back to work!

The story of this story is also quite something. Debut author Olaf Falafel tweeted that he needed a publisher for his new book, and before two weeks were up, he had a book deal! Isn’t that twitterising a whole lot better than covfefe?

So to paraphrase Olaf Falafel (that can’t be his real name, can it?) If you have a child, know a child, are a child, or act like a child** you should definitely go to a library and borrow Old McDonald Heard a Fart!

But wait, there’s more! Remember that book deal I told you about? It’s a three book deal, so there’s more like that on the way.

Cover of In One End and Out the OtherAnd there’s even more! I just couldn’t resist putting together a list of Poop and Parp related books

*If Miss Manners was dead, which she’s not.

**I’m guessing I fit the last category as well as the first!

Old MacDonald heard a fart
by Olaf Falafel
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008242794

Caraval: Magical fantasy

If George R. R. Martin’s Westeros of the Game of Thrones series is a magical take on an historical Britain, then the world of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a similarly fantastical Italy.

The story starts on a sun-soaked isle, the home of heroine Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella, but inevitably progresses to the home of Caraval, where potions, wishes and magic are real and wind through it like its twisting canals (making it suggestive of an imaginary, fairy tale Venice).

Cover of Caraval

Scarlett and Tella are the daughters of the local governor, a murderous, manipulative brute from whom both sisters would love to escape. Scarlett, the elder cautious sister, hopes to do just that via an arranged marriage… but Tella has other, somewhat more adventurous ideas, involving a trip to the mysterious, magical game of Caraval.

The game is like a murder mystery dinner, but one that takes place over 5 days, involves a whole town as the set, and is infused with magic. It’s all just a game and nothing is real… but Scarlett, who is drawn into the game by her sister and is forced to hunt for her when she is abducted, comes to believe otherwise.

There are clues, chases, shadowy menacing figures, false leads, magically transforming clothes, revelatory backstories and more than a little bit of heady, romantic entanglement. Perfect, escapist, young adult, fantasy reading for a rainy weekend.

But there’s also character progression as the reader watches Scarlett discover her self-worth over the course of the book, starting out as a fearful, somewhat downtrodden character but eventually, through love for her sister and dogged determination, finding strength and confidence in her own choices.

As far as mysteries go, this one kept me guessing (and most of my guesses were wrong). The story is a bit slow to start, and if you look too closely you’ll start to find plot holes, but that said once the main characters are in the game, the pacing is such that it’s a diverting, page-turning ride to the dramatic conclusion.

Though, be warned, a couple of intriguing plot points are left deliberately open, suggesting a sequel may be in the works…

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473629158

The Mikado: A very modern comedy

People people-watching in bustling New Regent Street, folks out and about in their finery, and a sea of black and white as those carrying black instrument cases make their way towards an unassuming looking back entrance off Gloucester Street – New Zealand Opera is back at the Isaac Theatre Royal, and this time it’s for their 2017 production – Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Set in Japan, and first performed over 120 years ago in a theatre in London, it might be difficult to see how this comic opera could appeal to the sense of humour of people here in 2017 Christchurch. Sitting in the audience last night, and hearing all the laughter around me throughout the show, I can tell you that this production has updated itself fantastically. Harajuku girls, the use of cellphones as a plot device, and references to Donald Trump and theatre etiquette mean you’ll forget that this opera has been around for long enough to become a theatre classic, and will enjoy it even if you aren’t a regular opera-goer.

Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis.
Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis. Image credit: David Rowland

The Mikado‘s story follows Nanki-Poo, the son of the Japanese Mikado (or Emperor), in his journey to Titipu in search of his sweetheart, Yum-Yum. Unfortunately for him, Yum-Yum is now engaged to her guardian Ko-Ko, and the woman Nanki-Poo was intended to marry is not overly happy at being left behind so unceremoniously. … Also, Ko-Ko isn’t that keen to have a rival love interest, either. What follows is an hilarious story of love, loyalty and power, and a reminder that sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t work out quite the way you’d expect.

This show was a delight to watch, and by the end of it my cheeks hurt from all the grinning and laughing. While I thought that all the cast members did a great job portraying their characters, I particularly enjoyed Brendan Coll’s version of the character Ko-Ko. With his wide range of facial expressions and various voices, I don’t think I have ever spent so much time laughing at someone with the job title ‘Lord High Executioner’!

Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko.
Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko. Image credit: David Rowland

I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Andrew Collis as Pooh-Bah – he’s the epitome of pomposity in this show, but he’s spoken to Moata and it looks like in reality he’s a really nice guy.

Along with the cast, members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the creative team involved with The Mikado have created a production that has a combination of visual, verbal and physical comedy, and is accompanied by an instrumental arrangement that adds to the overall enjoyment of the show. I highly recommend going to see it – the Isaac Theatre Royal is a beautiful venue, and this is an opera that will appeal to more people than just the usual opera crowd. With sensuous left shoulder blades, aunties with moustaches, and wandering 21st century minstrels peddling their CDs on Marine Parade, why not make The Mikado your introduction (or re-introduction) to Gilbert and Sullivan?

You only have until Saturday March 11th to head along and see this great show, so grab your tickets and get ready for a fun night out.

Cover of The Mikado sound recordingTo prepare for the show, or to relive the experience afterwards, jump into our collection and check out what Mikado-related material we have in a range of formats.

The Atomic Weight of Love

Book cover of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J ChurchThe Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.

Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.

It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.

Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.

The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.

Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.

That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.

Read the novel to find out if she does.

It is an enjoyable debut novel with a poetical style and reminds me of The Guernsey Potato Peel Literary Society, The Light between Oceans and The Shipping news. If you like nature and have a slightly scientific bent you will enjoy it and even learn a little physics on the way.

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008209292

There’s a snake in my school

David Walliams, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in action in front of a very receptive audience of Christchurch schoolchildren last year, has been at it again, penning another offbeat children’s tale, this time a picture book.

It’s bring your pet to school day and Miranda, a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum, brings along her pet python, Penelope. Of course.

Cover of There's a snake in my schoolEven with a python on the loose There’s a snake in my school is not quite “Snakes on a plane”. For one thing there is no Samuel L. Jackson – though I’m happy to report that the school in the book does have a diverse ethnic mix of pupils, which makes a nice change from most of the picture books I read as a child.

Also, the snake in question is well behaved and non-menacing… mostly. Because there’s always a bit of darkness woven into Walliams’ stories.

Fans of legendary illustrator Tony Ross will enjoy the bright, energetic artwork full of animal-related mayhem and fans of “doing silly voices when reading picture books” will enjoy the pompous headmistress Miss Bloat, who, as interpreted by me, is a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket.

I read this to my nearly 3 year old, and even though There’s a snake in my school is longer and more wordy than most picture books we read together, it kept his attention until the end. Still, I think this would be better suited to school age children, if for no other reason than the school setting will make more sense to them.

There’s a snake in my school
by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008172701

 

The Vorrh – A surreal and timeless fantasy

the-vorrhThe Vorrh. The name rolls mysteriously off the tongue. It’s a book, and a forest. Ancient, sacred; populated by monsters, angels, and those who have lost all memory and time. This is the first offering from B. (Brian) Catling, and it comes recommended by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V is for Vendetta) who said of it –

Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy

This is a great book. It’s highly readable, imaginative and vivid, with a thread that winds four story plots around an altered sense of time. Catling, who sees his work as Surrealist, draws a very human character in Ishmael, the Cyclops, while some of the humans have monstrous tendencies.

The web of the characters’ various journeys are brought together in the ancient forest, somewhere in darkest Africa. Be warned there are one or two grisly scenes, but quite essential to the sense of ceremony in the plot. Likewise, there is a little sex.

The story revolves around the Vorrh, a Cyclops, an English Photographer, a Frenchman (based on Raymond Roussel), and a Scot; “One of the Williamses”, who abandons the Army to fight for the native Erstwhile, and his wife Este.

B. Catling has penned two sequels to The Vorrh, picking up on the Trail of Tsungali, an Erstwhile hunter, as he takes the Bow back to the forest.

A little Gormenghast, a little Cloud Atlas, perhaps? Surreal and timeless.

Read more about The Vorrh

Tell me a story : audiobook bliss

Cover of The adventures of Augie MarchScrolling through shelves of audiobooks on Overdrive recently I came across The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, I’ve always skirted round this heavy weight literary man (multiple award winner including the Nobel prize for Literature in 1976). This time on impulse I decided to “give him a go” and I’m chuffed that I did! I was immediately hooked by the opening paragraph and the narrator’s gravelly, fast paced “Bronxy” voice.

I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

For me an audiobook is completely at the mercy of the narrator; if the voice, inflection, pace etc doesn’t grab me, that’s it, no matter how enjoyable the writing. In this case both work so well together. From the word go I became absorbed in the life story of Augie, a poor Jewish boy born to a simple minded mother and a long ago absented father in the Chicago of the early decades of the 20th century (Al Capone, Prohibition era.)

I was impacted by Bellow’s sentences let alone the epic tale full of vivid, larger than life characters trying to get ahead and live the American dream. It did require very focused listening so as not to miss out on the richness of the language or get mixed up with the many characters. Also it’s a long book and there’s a limit to the amount of sitting around listening an able bodied person can do. So I’ve been doing a kind of relay – listen, read the book, listen and knit, read the book.

So many knockout sentences but I’ll leave those discoveries to you if you so choose! Except for another little taste, a description of Grandma Lausch, Russian pogrom refugee, not really Augie’s grandmother, but ruler of his childhood household nevertheless.

She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie(her dog), whose bad smell filled the flat, on the cushion beside her.

Augie takes us on a series of often bizarre adventures, as he tries  on different lives inspired by people he comes across, on into post WW2 America; ultimately most are a wrong fit. He never does settle but in the end he celebrates the ride. Martin Amis, among many others, called this “The Great American Novel”. Worth checking out.

Cover of The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver is another great American writer and, apart from her wondrous ways with words, she has the gift of being able to narrate her own work with a warm, clear and expressively easy to listen to voice. She takes on different characters and different accents with aplomb. Hearing her read The Lacuna, probably the finest of her novels, is a real treat. I love this book and find her narration adds to its magic.

I listened to it as a pre-loaded digital audio book from CCL’s Playaway Collection that let me listen while moving about and “getting on with things”.

This story, coincidentally, covers the same time span as Saul Bellow’s novel. Very briefly, for readers who haven’t caught up with The Lacuna, the story’s protagonist is Harrison W Shepherd born, like Augie March, in the 1920s in the USA to a less than ideal family situation.

It takes us for a time to Mexico and into the lives of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera and of Lev and Natalia Trotsky who are hiding from Stalin and his Secret Police. Harrison in his early 20s becomes part of these two remarkable households as cook, secretarial assistant and friend. He is “uncurious about politics”. He cares about people and writing. He becomes inextricably involved. Consequently he is devastated by the eventual murder of Trotsky at the hand of a guest he himself invites into the guarded house, and by the confiscation of his own writings along with Trotsky’s.

Oh… I just had to delete a big paragraph outlining more of the plot! Hard to keep quiet when you fall in love with a character(s) and feel honoured by knowing them, their aspirations, trials, hopes and sorrows, the burden of events beyond their control. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about friendship, art, history, the Cold War –  its propaganda and witch hunts, the damage of Press inaccuracies and lies and the fragility of a man’s heart and of his reputation. It looks to be a tragedy and in many ways it certainly is but the ending is a not. It’s a very rich listen!   According to Muriel Rukeyser a US poet of the same era as our two stories said,

The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.

I reckon we’re never too old, too busy or too anything, to bend our ears to a gifted story teller.

Left Neglected: Recommended by Jodi Picoult … and me

Cover image of "Left Neglected"There is nothing particularly remarkable about the way Lisa Genova writes, but for some reason I couldn’t put her novel Left Neglected down. My life is nothing like the main character’s: I’m not married; I don’t have any children; I’m not especially career driven, nor do I dream about having a big house in the suburbs; and my brain doesn’t ignore information on the left side of the world. Yet I was completely and utterly engrossed in Sarah Nickerson’s journey to recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

I had never heard of the fascinating neurological syndrome Left Neglect until I picked up this book, but apparently it’s quite common. Lisa Genova has a PhD in neuroscience and obviously did extensive research on the syndrome in order to write about it.

I found myself covering my left eye at times to try to understand what it would be like to think that the left side of the page I am reading or the food on the left side of my plate doesn’t exist because my brain can’t register it. I tried to imagine not being able to feel my left arm or leg, as if these limbs were separate from the rest of me, as if they belonged to someone else entirely.

It was Jodi Picoult’s rave review printed on the cover of Left Neglected that made me want to read this book. I’m glad I did. While there are many differences between Sarah and I, there is one key experience I could relate to, and this is what I loved most about her story: I understand what it’s like to have your life changed forever in an instant; everything you have to adjust to and adjust within yourself as a result; and how, no matter what difficulties you must now face, you can always find the hidden blessing if you allow yourself to really look.

What books have you picked up just because another author you like has recommended it? Did you agree with their praise?