The well-mannered read

In this world of alternative truths, acts of terrorism, online dating and climate change, sometimes what one really needs is a well-mannered book. In well-mannered books there is no gratuitous swearing, sex is private, and war (a sometimes necessary evil?) is viewed from a big picture perspective. These are books in which Mr Please and Mr Thank-you have not yet left the building.

A Gentleman in MoscowAnd if you are thinking the descending scale “Boring”, you could not be more wrong. Take A Gentleman in Moscow as an exquisite example of a well-mannered read. Count Rostov (an unrepentant aristocrat) is placed under house arrest for life in 1922 in The Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin. The book is 462  pages long and almost all of the action takes place in that grand old hotel.  Count Rostov is an urbane, witty, positively likeable character – what is more, the book is peopled by a fascinating array of eccentrics.

As time passes, the world outside of the hotel changes and in a conversation with his lover Anushka, Count Rostov gives his view on the conveniences of modern life such as remote garage door openers:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute…….To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Hector and the Search for HappinessAnother contemporary author who writes in a very well-mannered way is Francois Lelord. In his novel Hector and the Search for Happiness, a young French psychiatrist (Hector) surely knows about love, sex, anxiety and behaviour problems. Indeed, this novel touches on all manner of problematic topics like prostitution and drug dealing, but in a very polite way.

You will be on a spectrum with your opinion of these books: from charming, to naïve, to patronising and worse. But I myself was charmed. So much so, I was delighted to hear that a film has been made of the first book. Imagine then my dismay when I learned that the film had turned its back on its French origins, been cast with a British psychiatrist, and set in the USA. How rude, not at all well-mannered. This would not have happened had Hector and Count Rostov met and formed a political party and taken over the world!

In the end Hector comes up with 23 “Life Lessons on Happiness” from all his travels. It seems appropriate to end with lesson no.5

Sometimes happiness is not knowing the full story

Just read the books!

Mothers and daughters

Fierce AttachmentsIt’s a long time since I have read a happy Mothers and Daughters book. Honestly, decades. How can this be? Most of the mothers I know have great relationships with their daughters. Yet current fiction does not support this view, and I have the books to prove it:

Let’s start with Vivian Gornick’s biographical account of life with her mother – Fierce Attachments. Well, the title says it all really. Two lippy women living in the Bronx without the balancing household presence of any y chromosomes. The daughter: sharp-tongued and sexually adventurous, the mother: conservative and grieving the loss of her husband. Their best moments come when they walk the streets of their beloved New York.

Hot MilkMoving right on to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, where things become that bit more curdled. Take one controlling, difficult-to-please mother, add a “finding herself” daughter and a dodgy medical practice. Transport them all to foreign soil, leave to simmer in the heat, stir occasionally – then prepare to dodge the fallout. Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for this very readable novel.

My name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton also has ill health as a trigger point for a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. It’s a small novel, set almost entirely in a New York hospital room, in which Lucy and her mother attempt to nut out their history. This book made me the most sad, because the real culprit in their story was poverty and its effect on families. It also makes one aware that sometimes, even when great efforts are being made, things do not always work out. In fact Elizabeth Strout is something of a specialist on the theme of strained mothers and daughters. Her highly acclaimed first novel Amy and Isabelle also tackles this topic.

A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member

said George Bernard Shaw. This may well be true, but I won’t know for sure until I have reacquainted myself with some good strong Happy Families books. Does such a thing even exist?

Feeling festive, out of Africa!

So I missed WORD Christchurch Autumn Season but just up the drag from Cape Town, in the beautiful Western Cape lies Franschoek, where every year (in May) the Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) takes place. I was curious to see how Africa festivates*, so my daughter and I offloaded the kids and headed into the mountains.

At Franschoek with Mohale Moshigo

What is it about festivals that I love? Is it the books, the authors, the coffee, the vibe? In fact a better question might be: What’s not to love? The event that we booked for at FLF was entitled On Being A Book Club Writer, with three world renowned authors: Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame), Lesley Pearse (books like Belle and Tara) and Sophie Hannah (murder mystery writer of books like Closed Casket). The event was chaired by an ebullient Mohale Mashigo who thoroughly enjoyed herself, and worked the festival miracle of getting participants to interact with one another.

Here’s a selection of some gems that I gleaned:

Lesley Pearse:

I’ve never belonged to a book group, but I am glad they exist. Basically I am a storyteller – I think everything I write is rubbish until I’m told otherwise. My most bizarre reader interaction came from a young Korean man who proposed marriage. To this day I think he mistakenly thought the beauty selected for the cover of the book was me! All my writing is kept in my head, I make no notes, I seem to have no control over my characters. If I get Alzheimers, that will be it. You’ll be on your own!

Joanne Harris:

I’ve attended many book clubs and spoken at quite a few of them. I love it when people come to blows over my writing. That coupled with wine and pizza, what’s not to love? It certainly feels to me that Book Club members care about books and reading. But I don’t write for book club members,  I write for me. I too have very little control over my characters, I am more attracted to the Voodoo of writing, the making of little marks on the page. I once got a Valentine card from a Japanese man made from his hair – that’s the weirdest correspondence I have had. I firmly believe that you can’t express anything in writing unless you have experienced that feeling (OK so you can’t murder everyone, but you must have felt murderous at some point in order to write about it).

Sophie Hannah:

I did belong to a dysfunctional Book Club once, it had nine members, all women. Two of them spoke constantly, the other seven never spoke at all. I walked out one day saying I was off to fetch Chinese takeaway and I never returned. I don’t have a single weirdest correspondent. Bizarre correspondence is so regular, weirdness is so normal. I keep very detailed notes. I adore buying beautiful little notebooks. You might as well work in a canteen if you don’t like writing in a notebook! I work on a battered laptop, for at least a year the letter “p” didn’t work and I had to cut and paste it. I was writing a Poirot novel at the time!

Happy Festival Faces!
Happy Festival Faces!

This was my first festival coverage out of New Zealand. I loved it just as much as all the home fests I have covered. When I am old and very, very rich (one of those things has yet to happen!), I intend travelling the world from festival to festival … by train.

Sawubona from Africa!

* You are allowed to create new words when you blog about festivals!

The chameleon reader

I am a chameleon reader. This is someone who takes on the personality of a character in their current read. In other words, a person who has porous boundaries between their real and their imaginary worlds.

The person most affected by this is my husband – who has taken to tentatively entering the house at the end of the day while he works out which persona is going to greet him. Here are some recent examples of my chameleon reading:

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Anne Patchett made me all envious of big families and large gatherings – resulting in an unexpected desire to entertain at home and devise menus for dinner parties. Just like  the beautiful Beverly who did exactly that, and ended up causing the mother of all family upheavals in the terrific family saga that is Commonwealth. We sank happily back to our two-person suppers when I finished reading this book.

Fierce AttachmentsHowever I bet my man preferred Commonwealth to the effect of my next read, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Reading Gornick makes me want to be a feisty, intellectual Jewish woman from the Bronx. It must have been a terrifying experience to come home to find me transformed into a sharp-tongued feminist with acute mother issues. But that too passed.

 

The satanic mechanicAnd in its place came the altogether more malleable Tannie Maria in The Satanic Mechanic. Along the lines of Mma Ramotse in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, this South African Karoo novel comes with a lovelorn closet detective who is a terrific cook (this is one of those books interleaved with recipes – and the odd Afrikaans word). My husband was very happy with this turn of events. But, it was a short, easy read and I moved quickly on to…

Olive Kitteridge Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Well here is a character who Takes No Prisoners. Who reaches rapid conclusions, holds onto them come hell or high water, who only once in her entire marriage apologised to her truly lovely, all-patient husband. We watched the DVD. My husband thought Olive was a total witch. But she is not, so I put him right about that in a Kitteridgy way. Still, I bet he is praying that I do not read the book.

And that’s what chameleon reading is all about. You should try it – it’ll really keep your partner on his or her toes!

Your history, my history, our history

The Penguin History of New ZealandWhen you emigrate, it takes time to get your histories all in a row.

First up all you are aware of is loss, the huge gaping and unfillable loss of who you were. It takes all your energy just to keep your head above water. At least that was how it was for me.

But then I rallied and joined the library where one of the first books ever issued to me was Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand. Feeling very virtuous I carried it back on the bus to Brooklands. There I took it on little jaunts from room to room and finally bussed it back (unread) a month later. It was too much too soon. I pulled in my horns.

Time passed and I started to look out for books that related to my interests: art, architecture and the stories of women. Beautiful books drew me in and fed my soul. Books like: Māori Architecture by Dierdre Brown; books about New Zealand Art, and A History of New Zealand Women by Barbara Brookes. I am unapologetic about the fact that sometimes I just looked at the pictures. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Cover of Maori Architecture Cover of a A history of New Zealand women Cover of Mauri Ora

Then, just recently, I came upon my best New Zealand book thus far – Mauri Ora: Wisdom From the Māori World by Peter Alsop. This is a lovely book to look at, a satisfying book to hold and a profound book to read.

Fiona and chalkboard at Central Library ManchesterAt much the same time as I was reading this book, I arrived at Central Library Manchester one day to work. On the sandwich board outside the library (see the photo at right with Fiona – its creator) was a te reo quotation with its English translation. I could almost understand the reo and I was enchanted by its translation – so appropriate for the library in question.

A small group of us stood outside the library looking at the quotes on the board. We had an engaging conversation about language and place and thought. Like planets, I felt all my histories line up and I was finally (albeit briefly) at peace. A quote from the Mauri Ora book says it all:

Ko te pae tawhiti, whāia kia tata;

ko te pae tata, whakamaua kia tīna

(Seek out distant horizons and cherish those you attain.)

Sick leave and my personality change

Winter ailments are striking early. In library after library staff are succumbing to lurgies and being booked off work. When it happened to me, my first thought was: Goodie, now I will read all the books on my shelves that I’ve not had time for.

I started with My Name is Lucy Barton. This was the wrong book at the wrong time. Lucy is sick in hospital having a disjointed trip down memory lane with a truly dysfunctional mother. It is beautifully written, but a Get Well Soon read it is not.

Cover of The life changing magic of not giving a f**kUnfazed, my hand reached out for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. I needed a life change, and heaven knows the cupboards were long overdue for a bit of attention. After one chapter I lost the will to live. There is only so much origami-like folding of underwear that an invalid can handle. Instead I selected The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k (How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do With People You Don’t Like.) That’s more like it!

HyggeNext up Hygge. This is a Danish word for the concept of Happiness. I soon realised that I had been mispronouncing it for months. Irrationally, this kind of wrong-footing really annoys me. I still call it Higgy*. Anyway, it is the trend du jour. I was feeling quite ho-hum about it all until it got to the bit where you feel all higgy because you do generous things. I had my usual perverse reaction to this. Who exactly is feeling good here? The giver or the givee? Just for the record I would be enraged if people  kept leaving little containers of home-made jam on my doorstep and hung freshly baked bread rolls from my front doorknob. Clearly I was not in a good mental space.

And that’s when I realised that I was going about this Sick Leave reading all the wrong way. What I really wanted to do was rip out my lungs and have a go at them with a meat cleaver. I wanted violence. I was after blood. In quick succession I read two wonderful murder mysteries (The Fire Maker by Peter May and I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill) and followed them up with my first Literary Western (The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt). I felt better almost immediately.

Cover of The Fire maker I shot the buddha The Sisters Brothers

We may have put an end to blood letting and the use of leeches in modern medicine. But that doesn’t stop it from being the way to go when you are feeling enraged by ill health. Give it a try!

*[Ed: For the curious it’s closer to “hoo-ga”. You’re welcome]

Librarians who write!

The Library of Unrequited LoveI’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me: “You should write a book!” Sometimes this is said after I have told a funny story, sometimes when they realise that I belong to not one but three book groups, but quite often it is said simply because I work in a library.

This got me thinking about how many librarians have actually written books. Let’s start with real live librarians working in Christchurch City Libraries right now:

  • Dylan Kemp is one of the Poets in Residence at a Christchurch community library. He has three published books of poetry to his name. Dylan is a poet who often focuses on relationships in his writing. In real life he speaks just like his poetry: thoughtfully, honestly and with kindness.
  • Andrew Bell is our resident coastal poet. He has two poetry books and a book of short stories in our collection. Andrew takes situations and observations from life (and Andrew is very perceptive) and turns them into beautiful writing that makes you want to say: Yes This Exact Thing Has Happened To Me!
  • Beaulah Pragg has the first of her Young Adult, Fantasy/Science Fiction novels – The Silver Hawk – in our collection. In a world of gender-role reversal set somewhere out there on “the rim”, Beulah’s imagination appears unstoppable – there is even a sequel in the offing.

TendernessBut wait there’s more. In the past, authors Sarah Quigley, Bill Nagelkerke, Dave Welch, Richard Greenaway and Margaret Mahy were all librarians working at Christchurch City Libraries. And internationally, well-known authors who have worked in libraries include: Philip Larkin, Anne Tyler, and Angus Wilson.

Sophie Divry, who wrote The Library of Unrequited Love, has a main character who (in a ninety page rant to a man who slept the night in her basement workplace) tells the story of her dead-end library job and her fantasy love-life for a customer. She has to have written this book in a library.

Librarians who have actually written and had books published know the hard yards that have had to be done to write a book, get it onto a shelf, and to have a hand reach out and choose it. They know best whether a library is a great place for an aspiring author to work.

As for me, I remain…..The Hand That Reaches Out!

List of Librarian Writers

Books written by current Christchurch Library staff.
Books written by current Christchurch Library staff.

 

On Love and Art and Maps

On our very first date my husband and I discovered that we share a love of maps.  In retrospect I can see now that we were coming from completely different planets, so to speak. His the planet in which the words “Cadastral” and “Great Circles” featured majorly. Mine the planet of the isolated farmhouse at the end of the road and my desire to visit it. But we both still find maps beautiful and own several sets of topographic maps. We have kept quiet about this bond, until now that is. Because Art and Maps are IN.

A Map of the World According to Illustrators and StorytellersTelling your life story through maps is the new therapy de jour. A great place to start is with a beautiful book entitled A Map of the World According to Illustrators and Storytellers. This book plays down accuracy in favour of getting the message across. Eighty-nine creatives map out their lives and their places. The variety of approaches is gobsmacking. One of my favourites is the Happy Planet Map on page 212. It may inspire you to look at your surroundings, and your life, and create your own map of how you feel about them.

Mapping ManhattanAnother take on maps and art and life  is Mapping Manhattan A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers. Here random New Yorkers were given simple, identical outline maps of New York and asked to tell their story of this city in any way that they liked. Seventy-five posted back their offerings to Becky Cooper who put them together into this fascinating little book. She says of this initiative:

Maps and Memories are bound together, a little like songs and love affairs are.

Making Art from MapsIn Making Art from Maps, the author Jill Berry starts from the belief that we all love maps. She loves them and she also loves art. These two loves started gelling somewhere along the way and resulted in this book where Jill and forty-one artists take maps and do astonishingly transformative things with them. This 2016 book would be a useful addition to the library of anyone who likes playing around with paper.

And closer to home, Even Smith’s Journal recognises that the day of the map is upon us in their online magazine of January 04 2017 with an article entitled Retro Maps of Modern Cities. The idea behind this approach is to treat maps as art and not just as guides to places.

So, if you’ve tried journalling and failed; succumbed to colouring-in and now sit with several partly completed books; and possibly even resorted to adult join-the-dots books (and please let this be just a very few of you) – but still you feel hollow, still your life mission has not been revealed to you, then let it be known that Mapping Your Life is the trending new thing.

More about maps

 

What were you reading when …?

Britt Marie was hereWhat were you reading when all the events of 2016 took place? Looking back on my reading year, here’s what brought me a bit of comfort in those weird and wonderful times:

Brexit – well I never saw that one coming. The book on hand was Britt-Marie Was Here – another winner from Fredrik Backman, the author of the sensationally successful A Man Called Ove. This novel is set in small town Sweden (still a member of the EU by the way), so a bit of a geographic link there.

The election build-up in America – would it never end? I got through a whole heap of reads like The Portable Veblen. Nothing like an American novel on squirrels and dysfunctional families to get one through the voting road show.

 Leonard Cohen died. I took solace in a murder mystery The Lewis Man by Peter May. All grey skies and peaty remains and the odd bird on a wire. Perfect.

The satanic mechanic Trump got elected – I was on holiday in Cape Town and indulging in a very South African read The Satanic Mechanic by Sally Andrew. One of those Alexander McCall Smith type reads – with recipes thrown into the mix as well. I just buried my head in the sand, something like the ostriches in the book.

When the Kaikoura quakes hit, I was still on holiday. It was a weird feeling to be so far away from New Zealand at that time. I’d moved on to a short, whimsical read that I picked up in an independent bookstore – The Reader on the 6.27. Translated from the French, this is an enchanting novel about the love of books and reading. It served me very well at that time.

John Key resigned while I was reading The Muse. This is a great novel to immerse yourself in by the author who wrote The Miniaturist. I preferred this second book (and the first was not bad The Reader on the 6.27at all either). If you are an art lover and would like a change of scene to Spain, this should go onto your list.

Finally what was I reading at the end of the year? One of those crumbling mansion, upstairs downstairs, governess novels – The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan. And dipping in to the silliest book I found all year Knit Your own Moustache. No I am not making this up!

How about you? What books sustained you last year? What books are carrying you gently into 2017?

Trevor Noah in my Christmas stocking!

Born a CrimeSouth African born comedian Trevor Noah is a terrific talker – let there be no doubt about that. But can he write? Well here’s our chance to find out with his hot-off-the press biography Born a Crime.

Not the first sentence in the book, but right near the start of Chapter 1, is the following sentence:

I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.

And the book careens onward from there. It is hilarious, heart-warming, revealing, educational, embarrassing (if you were born white in South Africa when I was), and yes, it is extremely well written.

Trevor Noah is worshipped in South Africa and by South Africans worldwide (I attended one of his shows in Christchurch a couple of years ago). On my recent SA holiday, all over Cape Town and Durban I saw people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colours and genders wearing Trevor Noah Born a Crime Tees. There were even a smattering of Trevor Noah for President shirts – and it is my one holiday regret that I did not buy one!

But he is also internationally known as the host of the award winning Daily Show, and now has his home in New York. If you are one of the few souls yet to hear him at his best, have a listen to this clip on airport announcements. Straight after that you might like to make a list of all the people who would love to find this book in their Christmas stocking, here’s mine:

  • Mothers and sons – Noah is at his best when he is on this topic;
  • People who love biographies of  the Poor Boy Makes Good ilk;
  • People who thought they understood South African politics (pause here for hysterical laughter);
  • South Africans everywhere;
  • People who like a good laugh – and that’s pretty much all of us.

But, it’s not really a book review if you just love everything, so I have to confide that I hate the title Born A Crime which I don’t believe does the book any favours. Even though Noah references the title on page 26, it just doesn’t work for me.

So, in answer to the question “Can Trevor Noah write?” The answer is a resounding “Yes”. Trevor Noah can indeed walk the talk!

Born a Crime
by Trevor Noah
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473635289