January 31, 2017

Great Summer Read: The book that had been on my TBR forever

I couldn't help noticing how many people taking part in the Great Summer Read seem to get through their To Be Read lists at such a fast clip compared to me. I'm talking about you, person whose book which had been on her list "forever" was The girl on the train, not even two years old! Why I've had Vanity Fair on my list for 15 years! And wasn't it nice to see that someone logged Vanity Fair for this challenge. I wonder how long their "forever" had been!

How long had my choice, The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, an English author who celebrates his 150th this year, been on my TBR list? I'm not actually sure, but when I encountered it last year in the basement of the Central City Library, a quaint little volume marked on the inside back cover with a pre-smiley-face-era smiley face (no circle! a nose!) by an early, contented reader whom posterity can only know as "L", I didn't waste the opportunity. Reader, I took it out. And then, as sometimes happens with quaint old books, it was due back, and I still hadn't read it, so I took it out again. And again. And again, until it became the book which had been on my other TBR list forever, the "To Be Returned" one, which meant something had to be done, so thank you Great Summer Read!

A fantasia about the denizens of a luxury London hotel at the turn of the century, involving the kidnapping of a middle-European prince, a murderous maitre, or maybe it was the cook, a beautiful and spirited girl and her American millionaire father, The Great Babylon Hotel is described on its back cover as "the forefather of all the comedy-thrillers which were to bob up successfully throughout the present century", which for us was the last one. It was a bit of a cross between an opéra bouffe and the cartoons the great Peter Arno used to draw for the New Yorker, dated but still genial, but alas! lacking the music of the former, and the wit of the latter.

I found myself wondering how it had come to be on my list. So as librarians do, I went looking for sources. Almost the only Arnold Bennett fandom I could find was from twenty years ago. A piece in the New York Times blog Bookend found much to admire in Bennett, despite an unprepossessing opening which surmised that if you were to ask ten literature lovers (my alternate phrase for "poets over 40 or people who travel with a copy of Trollope") whether they've ever read this one-time giant of English literature, you will invariably find that "no more than one in ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel".

My result was one out of one: I sounded out my uncle, a prolific and wide-ranging reader, 88 years old, who responded that he had indeed read Arnold Bennett. He did use the verb "sample", though, and added "but I couldn't get into him".

The Bookend writer went on to report on how Virginia Woolf dissed Bennett as an Edwardian (read "out-of-date") whose lack of interest in the interior, as opposed to the exterior, things in life led him to write books which leave you so dissatisfied that upon finishing them "you feel you must join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque".

Virginia has a mean tongue, but I suspect I might have felt that way if I had finished the book. As it turns out, I didn't. I couldn't. At first my opinion was "A bit of a trifle, and dated, but enjoyable in its own way", but as I read on the enjoyment was more and more in its own way, and less and less in mine, until at page 36 I had to acknowledge (after skipping to the end to make sure there were no unexpected developments) that it was gone for good. I hadn't arrived at the page Nancy Pearl would have wanted me to reach according to her "When can you stop reading a book rule", but I had gotten close enough to fire off a mental salute to Nancy on knowing her stuff!

I do have a romantic thing about old hotels, and maybe it was simply that which suggested this book to me. If you do too, I can recommend Hotel Savoy, a literary classic by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth set in a ramshackle hotel in Poland after the first World War, John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, which features two hotels, a summer resort in Maine and a rundown Viennese pensione (if you've only tried one of his recent books, think again, this is one of three very funny, inspired books he wrote in his early period, the other two being The world according to Garp and A prayer for Owen Meany), and of course Eloise, a picture book for all ages narrated by a little girl, a relative of Ramona from the Ramona and Beezus books, who lives at the Plaza in New York.

Plus two magnificent movies: the legendary Grand Hotel from 1932 with its all-star cast led by Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, and Wes Anderson's reverie The Grand Budapest Hotel, not based on The Grand Babylon Hotel, but on Stefan Zweig's The post office girl, also recommended!

January 19, 2017

Great Summer Read: Watch a movie or TV show based on a book

What's everyone watching for this challenge? From the reports, lots of different movies and three TV shows.

For the TV shows, I suspect the only suspense may be the ranking. And the order is:

1. The super popular and super costume drama Poldark, based on Winston Graham's historical novels set in 18th century Cornwall, which I have yet to see but intend to!

2. War and Peace, which I'm assuming is last year's magnificent BBC mini-series starring Paul Dano as Pierre and -- just one tiny fault -- someone as Natasha who tries a bit too hard, but it could be the 1972 BBC mini-series with a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, or the 2007 Russo-European mini-series with Malcolm McDowell, not as Pierre, a role it would be hard to imagine him in even when he was in the right age group, but as the cruel and controlling -- or to put the role firmly in Mcdowellian territory, let's say monstrous -- Prince Bolkonsky. 

3. Last year's hit series The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, which I have just been notified is waiting for me at my library, based on the book by John le Carré.

And for those who have already seen all of the above, or who are simply looking for something new, may I suggest the Inspector Montalbano TV series based on the crime novels by Andrea Camilleri. The 91 year old Sicilian writer is a literary treasure in Italy, perhaps the only literary treasure after the recent loss of Umberto Eco, whose medieval mystery The Name of the Rose sparked a hit film adaptation starring Sean Connery which you could also watch for this challenge!

Inspector Montalbano lives in corrupt modern Italy, where he is a thorn in the side of both his superiors and the shady types he pursues, an idiosyncratic loose cannon whose greatest satisfaction, besides getting his man, is enjoying a good meal. 

The movies

Movies people have been watching for this challenge include (besides various Harry Potters and Narnias) RoomThe lady in the vanThe MartianGone girlThe book thiefMr PipMe before you, and Love, Rosie, all from books of the same name. Also Carol, from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The price of salt, pretty much unknown until the movie came along, as she had published it under a pseudonym, presumably for being a story of two women in love in the conformist fifties -- although Highsmith aficionados have postulated that it could also have been because someone who was on her way to becoming famous as a writer of crime novels did not want her name associated with a romantic novel, period. And how about this one -- Home, from The true meaning of Smekday, a book described as being for children, catlovers, and anticipators of alien invasions, so presumably that holds true for the movie as well. For the movie you could add in Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez fans, since they are its stars.

Three older movies which I was happy to see named, as they belong to that category of book-movie duo where both are truly great in their own right, were Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, from the books by Roald Dahl, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun from  J.G. Ballard's novel inspired by his experiences of growing up in Shanghai during World War II, and Milos Forman's masterpiece One flew over the cuckoo's nest, from the book by Ken Kesey.

Here are a few more (not in order) recommendations for movie/book combos which I put in that same double-win category:

1 and 2. The big sleep, based on the book by Raymond Chandler, and  The Maltese falcon based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, two masterpieces of film noir starring the best trenchcoat wearer ever, Humphrey Bogart. You can get them both at one fell swoop with Humphrey Bogart: the essential collection

3. Or even better, get Murder Mysteries from the Greatest Classic Films collection and you'll get them both PLUS the original and unsurpassed The postman always rings twice, with Lana Turner and John Garfield, also in the noir pantheon.
4. The Shawshank redemption based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (originally titled "Hope Springs Eternal") in the collection Different seasons by Stephen King. Simply, on my honour roll of perfect films. And it has a happy, if bittersweet, ending!

5. A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the book by Anthony Burgess. Revolutionary when it came out and nothing that came later has dulled its edge.

6. The 1962 Lolita, the definitive one, Stanley Kubrick again, from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which some people have chosen for their banned book challenge.

7. I should have just made a Stanley Kubrick section! The terrifying The shining, from the book by Stephen King. "Wendy, I'm home!"

8. Trainspotting, mentioned above, directed by Danny Boyle, based on the book by Irvine Welsh. "Choose life!". This is the book/movie where one of the characters illustrates his creed on aging by arguing that Sean Connery's star turn in The name of the rose, mentioned above, was "merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory".

9. Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott from the book Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K Dick. I confess that in this case I haven't actually read the book, but I'm putting it in anyway because sci-fi cognoscenti all say it's a great read. For sci-fi lovers. Whereas the film is for everyone.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, from the book by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck from my hometown, Gregory Peck who can never not be Atticus Finch for you once you've seen this movie, no matter how many times he buzzes around Rome with Audrey Hepburn on his vespa.

11. Fight club from the book by Chuck Palahniuk. I'm thinking this could be the one time where the movie might actually be better than the book, but don't jump on me if you don't agree, I'm not sure-sure!

12. All Quiet on the Western Front - an oldie, way back from 1930, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque published the year before, another banned book for your Challenge 13. Yes, it was not allowed to be published in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, for its pacifism, or as some might say, its realism.

13. No country for old men, by Joel and Ethan Coen, from the book by Cormac McCarthy. For me this was one of those movies that was not at all what you had pictured, but then it becomes your vision too. I simply hadn't been able to imagine the levels that 'menace' could ascend to.

14. My Father's Glory and its sequel My Mother's Castle, directed by Yves Robert, from the autobiographical novels set in the south of France by Marcel Pagnol. These should be better known! I laughed and I cried. 

15. The remains of the day, directed by James Ivory, from the book by Kazuo Ishiguro. As always with Ivory, every detail is in tone. But I include it above all for Anthony Hopkins's performance. Which reminds me, I should put The silence of the lambs here too, from the book by Thomas Harris. 

16. Change of mood to silly, heartwarming, magical Babe, from the book by Dick King-Smith called The sheep-pig, reprinted after the movie under as Babe: the gallant pig.

17. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, a format which I suspect was responsible for her being able to say “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”

18. The man who laughs, from the book by Victor Hugo. If you enjoy an occasional high tragic drama, this is for you. A young man who was disfigured as a child by a band of misfits who gave him what I discovered is called a "Glasgow smile", and the beautiful blind girl who thinks, from touching his face, that he is always happy.

19. LA Confidential, based on the novel that won James Ellroy his place among the gods of noir. Some changes to the plot in the movie don't change that.

20. What did I choose for this challenge?  I watched The lady in the van, which I thought was superbly done.  It turned out to be one of those movie versions where the characters as brought to life are very different from how you had imagined them, but nonetheless completely compelling. I had pictured Miss Shepherd as more petulant and more faded than the dogmatic and disdainful Miss Shepherd which Maggie Smith gave us, but I liked the greater toughness and thus more startling vulnerability.

But I also decided to re-watch the most terrifying movie I have ever seen, the one I can't believe my parents took their kids to see, even if it was showing at their favourite little art house theatre which usually showed Ingmar Bergman-type movies which might have gone over our heads but certainly not traumatised us. It's the 1946 black and white version of Great Expectations, directed by David Lean.

Two things happened. One was that watching it now as an adult, having seen hundreds of films, I found myself constantly thinking how it was one of the most perfect movies ever made. And two, the scene when the huge, scary, escaped convict Magwitch jumps out from behind the tombstone in the cemetery thick with mist almost stopped my heart, again. On the other hand, it was interesting to see that while for all these years I have remembered seeing Miss Havisham burn up, down to her terrified eyes, it turns out that actually we are only shown the log rolling out of the fire and starting the hem of her cobwebby old wedding dress blazing. It's her horrible screams that let us imagine what later I was sure I had seen.

Ah, movies.


January 12, 2017

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or biography. Part II: Biographies

Who said her motto was "Well, you can't expect to be liked in my business, but with any luck you can avoid going to jail"?

A biographer.

A nine-time biographer (including of Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali) who wrote a memoir called Shoot the widow, where she also avows that the purpose of biography is "not just to record, but to reveal".  Oh and did I mention anagrams in the last post? The biographer is named Meryle Secrest.

I haven't read the book, though I might yet, but I did read a review of it by the American critic and essayist Louis Menand in The New Yorker, where he goes on to take an amusing look at various aspects of the biographer's creed, such as their assumption that the real truth about a person will always involve the thing least known about them, and their belief that if they can just get their hands on the letters, all will be explained.

But why, Menand asks? "Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter? People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and vent... They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception." I can quote it because I actually ripped his article out and saved it, I liked it so much. (It was a withdrawn New Yorker.)

In answer to the question, why do people like biographies so much, Menand says Secrest was to the point: people like gossip. And, he adds, they enjoy judging other people's lives. "It's not one of the species' more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it's probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met".

So let's indulge! I'm not going to recommend any particular biographies, because it comes down to whom you want to know more about, and you will know that better than I do. But I did want to remind everyone that you can see all the new biographies as they arrive by checking our new titles list every month. Just this month there are 215 new biographies at the library, ranging from Celeste, the story of most celebrated courtesan in Belle Epoque Paris, to Emma Goldman: revolution as a way of life by the astute but never arch Vivian Gornick, who presented her own memoir The odd woman and the city at the latest Auckland Writers Festival.

For my Great Summer Read, I'm reading the new biography of Joan Didion, The last love song, by Tracy Daugherty, and I'm almost up to her childhood. Yes, because I firmly believe with big thick biographies like this one, the reader has the right to attack it any way they please. So for instance with Nicholas Shakespeare's big thick Bruce Chatwin biography, which was 600 pages, I just kept it by my bedside for a couple of months (or more) and would simply open it at random and read far enough to get through the episode, and then stop. Another day, another random dip. It absolutely fit that mercurial character and his nomadic lifestyle.

With Joan, I've started at the end of the book, at the furthermost point from whatever we have in common -- that is to say, the present time, in which she is the literary doyenne of New York (which is to say of America). Also, I was eager to fill in the gaps in her magnetic, but noticeably ungrounded (though not false), latest memoir Blue Nights. Then I moved to the middle of the book, her time as movie industry royalty, this only almost totally out of my range of experience, given that I once had a boyfriend who lived in Brentwood, the Los Angeles enclave where Didion lived for many years. And now I'm closing in on the opening chapters, to finish on the things which bring me closest to Joan: California girlhood, pioneer ancestors, close acquaintance with rattlesnakes, Highway 99, a fascination with the All-American canal.

How is the book? It's very very good, very very interesting, and very very well-written. But as far as revealing goes, I will say this. Asked by the man behind the "Live from the NYPL" author events to give him a seven word biography for his intro, Joan Didion responded with "Seven words do not yet define me".

Neither does this book of 728 pages! Luckily!

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or a biography. Part I: Memoirs

From Daniel Nester's Shader: 99 notes on car washes, making out in church, grief, and other unlearnable subjects:

     May 2010. My mother handed me a manila folder with a sticky note that said 'For Danny,' written in her immaculate cursive.
     "Maybe these will help with, you know, your memoir." She pronounced "memoir" like "mem-wah," in exaggerated French, accompanied by a hand motion and a cigarette waved in the air.

Mrs. Nester, and everyone else out there, I totally get how talking about a memoir could sound affected, and how the annoyance would be quadrupled by a son correcting your New Jersey pronunciation, as Daniel Nester confesses he had been enough of a jerk to do.

But memoir is actually a good English word. Only its origin is French: mémoire, a memorandum, a note, just like in Daniel Nester's book title. And this is why it's different from autobiography, from the Greek for recounting your life. A memorandum records something not just for the record, but for future use. In the case of a good memoir, I see the future uses as things like making sense of something, or dealing with it, and especially, finding the story.

One of the best memoirs of recent times (in my opinion), Carrie Brownstein's Hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir, opens like this:

"I've always felt unclaimed. This is a story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged."

And here she is on her and her band's contribution to rock'n'roll (I can't help but notice that the adjectives apply to her book as well): "Sometimes the works were smart or pithy, profound, poetic, and often they were really messy. But they formed a boundary and a foundation for a lot of the girls who had been undone by invisibility, including myself."

Rock'n'roll is of course a classic genre in the body of memoir literature, along with misery (Angela's ashes being the mother of all misery memoirs and also an undeniably good read, unlike many of the children it spawned), celebrity, addiction, canine, mean-mothereccentric-mother, bad dad, outlaw, redemption, sexuality, mental illness, and apparently one called Shtick-lit, from the Yiddish-derived term for a gimmick, which is when someone goes off and does something for a year just to be able to write about it. Fake, however, is not a memoir genre.

I've been exploring a contemporary genre which as far as I'm aware has not yet been given a name, but I'd suggest  "Funny books about horrible things", from Jenny Lawson's Furiously happy: a funny book about horrible things. One could argue this book belongs in the mental illness memoir genre, but I think it needs a different category, to respect the author's creed that you should be defined not by your life's "imperfect moments", but by your reaction to them. I enjoyed it, though it was a bit exhausting.

Jeanne Darst's very funny Fiction ruined my family was instead an energising read which I'd also place in this genre, where I expected Jennifer Weiner's Hungry heart would also go, though after reading it (most of it), I'm not sure. I hadn't read her novels and picked it for its title and because she'd had a feud with Jonathan Franzen. I wanted someone excavating the humour in horrible experiences, but her style is more about playing it for laughs from the start. My intuition is that with personal memoirs you should look for an author you're compatible with and not at what everybody's reading -- pretty basic for anyone who's been in a relationship!

Read by the author 

Did you know you can get an eAudiobook of Furiously happy read by Jenny Lawson herself? Here are some other popular eAudiobook memoirs read by their authors:

The lady in the van by Alan Bennett  (you can also see the movie version for Challenge 8!)
Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Fear of fifty: a midlife memoir by Erica Jong
Unsinkable: a memoir by Debbie Reynolds
Moab is my washpot by Stephen Fry
Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos (of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' fame)
An improvised life by Alan Arkin
Where am I now? True stories of girlhood and accidental fame by Mara Wilson (star of the movie version of  Roald Dahl's Matilda)

and many more which you can find on the 'Read by the author' list curated by our Collections team on the Overdrive home page in our Digital Library.

If you like perusing recommendations, here are some of my favourite memoir genres and writers:

Obsession (possibly my favourite memoir genre)

My Judy Garland Life (2008) by Susie Boyt. "Speaks to anyone who has ever nursed an obsession" says the cover blurb. Non-obsessives will find it over the top. I loved it.

What to look for in winter: a memoir of blindness (2010) by Candia McWilliam. If you haven't ever suffered from self-doubt, we probably couldn't be friends. Candia McWilliam's self-doubt was crippling, or more correctly, blinding.

Double down: reflections on gambling and loss (1999) by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. The addictive land of possibility. "We would have been willing to win, but we were content to lose."

Nothing to be frightened of  by Julian Barnes (2008). A portrait of a family and a philosophical, intellectually curious, and often funny exploration of our obsession with death.


Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009). Patti and Robert, on their way to becoming legendary. The book is already legendary itself, and rightly so.

Slow days, fast company: the world, the flesh, and L.A. (2016) by Eve Babitz. A look back at the 60s-70s L.A. scene by one of its protagonists.

Sadness and grief

Dog Years (2007) by the American poet Mark Doty was recommended to me as one of the saddest books ever written. (If you wonder why that would be a recommendation, just skip this!). In a time of despair and depression, his long-term partner dying of AIDS, Doty's dogs convey something essential. "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to."

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2012). An idiosyncratic book about grief after sudden loss, from an author at the top of her game.

Nox (2010) by Anne Carson. I found this attempt (half book, half artwork) by a poet to come to terms with the loss of her brother, taking as her departure point an elegy by Catullus, incredibly affecting. 


In the darkroom by Susan Faludi (2016). Faludi describes her book as a pursuit of her father, a man who exited her life as a tyrant and bully, and who gets in touch almost 30 years later to announce that he has undergone sex-reassignment surgery. No happy endings, but some precious understandings.

The Bill from my Father (2006) Art critic Bernard Cooper's father once sent him an itemised bill for his upbringing. One of the best books I read last year. Is articulate an anagram of art critic? Not quite but it should be. Needs an anagram for witty, too, though!

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Woolf (1979). You may be, or then again you might not be, surprised at how many deceptive dad memoirs there are; for me, this one, from way back in 1979, is unsurpassed.

Boyhood, girlhood, families:

Toast: the story of a boy's hunger by Nigel Slater (2003). I have long championed a ban on the phrase 'achingly beautiful' - whew, this book isn't achingly beautiful, but it is beautiful in its description of an achingly hungry, above all for love, boy.

Skating to Antartica by Jenny Diski (2005)- Another deceptive dad, here matched with an eccentric mother, but it's not really "Families". Probably more "Unclassifiable". I plucked it off a travel books display at the Leys Institute Library, didn't find a travel book, but did find a great memoir writer. Practically everything Jenny Diski wrote was a memoir, up to and including the book she wrote while dying of cancer - In gratitude (2016).

Fun home: a family tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Fun home is a memoir in comic format, and that's about as far as the comic in 'tragicomic' goes. Growing up in a funeral home can be funny, a closeted father moves us into irony, and with suicide, we're at tragic. I note that on our catalogue record the publisher is down as calling the ending 'redemptive'. My word of choice would have been 'unforgettable'.

Fun home is actually only one of a large number of memoirs in comic format.  Here are a few more I recommend:

Graphic memoirs

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Stitches: a memoir by David Small
Epileptic by David B.
Tomboy by Liz Prince


Straight life by Art Pepper (1979, updated 1994).  Living the jazz life, with boundless talent, beauty and self-destructiveness.

Poison heart: surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone (2009) A music journalist I know recommended this one!

And closer to home -- and new: 

Goneville by Nick Bollinger (2016). "Goneville is at once a coming-of-age memoir and an intimate look at the evolving music scene in 1970s New Zealand. It show how this music intersected - sometimes violently - with the prevailing culture, in which real men played rugby, not rock. Nick Bollinger draws on his own experiences and also seeks out key figures and unsung heroes to reflect on the hard, often thankless and occasionally joyous life of the career musician"-- Cover blurb


Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl as "caught by" Wendy Jones (2006). Self-deprecating, irreverent and insightful thoughts about growing up by the rebellious artist and transvestite. I'm waiting for my copy of his new book, The descent of man, "exploring everything from sex, seriousness and intimidation to clothing, childhood and power."

Strangeland (2005) by Tracey Emin. Only for people who find a sentence like this appealing: "Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this.'

My avant-garde education (2015) by Bernard Cooper. The same entertaining Bernard Cooper cited above, this time looking back at his salad days in the pop art and then conceptual art years.

Memoirs have never been as popular as now, in our age of Reality Hunger, and all these are just to make you aware of the range. I'm sure you will find a good one which suits your taste, your mood, your time.

Happy reading!

December 30, 2016

Great Summer Read: Reread a childhood favourite

Of all the challenges, this is the one that most has me wondering what the top choice will end up being.

Roald Dahl is the most popular choice for now, with The Twits, The Witches, The BFG and Matildain that order.  

(If the thought just occurred to you that Hey, I could watch The BFG for Challenge number 8, "Watch a movie based on a book", may I say that yes, you could, but it does have a bit of a wait list as all new releases do. But do you know of the two other Roald Dahl adaptations which are firmly up there among the movies no child -- and few adults -- should miss: the hilarious Matilda, directed by and starring Danny DeVito, and the whimsical stop-motion James and the Giant Peach, with the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite and, please quote me, "See Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley as Aunts Spiker and Sponge and die".)

Enid Blyton is in next place, a generation older but having such a long career and being so prolific that it hardly matters, and let's not forget about the handing-down. One for all: the reader of Five go to Mystery Moor who says "This book is sentimental to me as it's the first famous five book my mum gave me to read".

If Enid Blyton is sentimental to you too, have a look at the website of the Enid Blyton society. If you, for instance, read The magic faraway tree between 1971 and 2014, you'll be able to find your very cover among the 16 covers on the 16 editions from those years. Which was your era? Bell-bottom jeans? Roman sandals? With white socks? No socks? 

2014 edition
First edition, 1943

New Zealand titles: Two that I didn't know which have been logged are The house that grew by Jean Strathdee from 1979, a "positive rendering of an alternative lifestyle in the bush" (says www.picturebooks.co.nz), which hopefully doesn't yet seem overly dubious as a premise; and No one went to town by Phyllis Johnston, published in the same period but set in pioneer days, the story of a real-life family in the hills of Taranaki. Anyone else remember these?

Oldie-but-goldies:  Oliver Twist from 1838 is the oldest of all the books people have read for this challenge, followed by, to my great pleasure, The Jungle Bookfrom 1894. This is the book where you'll find the story "Rikki Tikki Tavi", recently voted by our table of librarians at our Christmas lunch the scariest story of their formative years, and an excellent read-aloud I could have included in my recommendations, although you do have to be ready to impersonate a snake, because if you don't hiss a line like "If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!'' then it's never going to work.

Moving into the 20th century, we have The railway childrenAnne of Green Gables which I was shocked to discover was first published in 1908, I read that book as a kid and it didn't seem that old; Milly Molly Mandy, Mary Poppins, then at mid-century The snow goose ("I love this book as it brings back memories of reading with my Grandad" was the comment) and The Black Stallion, and moving into the post-Beatles'-first-LP era, Watership Down.

Welcome to this century: Put your hands together for those readers who had Percy Jackson and Jimmy Coates to accompany them in their childhoods! And Coraline!

What are you all re-reading for Challenge number 4? Let us know in the comments!

Anyone share any of these childhood favourites of mine?

Alice in Wonderland (my cult book)
Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web (still digesting their gifts and will be all my life)
Ramona the pest  (and pretty much everything Beverly Cleary wrote)
Mrs Piggle-wiggle (for giggles)
Pippi Longstocking (talk about strong female heroines)
The Little House books (“Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” says Laura. Unless you are lucky enough to have a book to read like the Little House books)
Just so stories (and which was your favourite, oh best beloved? Mine was Cat who walked by himself)
The Little Grey Men (how I dreamed of building an airplane like theirs!) and Down the bright stream 
Little Women, Little men, and even more, the proto-feminist Eight Cousins and Rose in bloom
Treasure Island (one of the most perfect books ever written)
The Phantom Tollbooth (manifesto for curiosity!)

And finally, I want to especially mention The Borrowers. I want to mention The Borrowers in this context of re-reading childhood books, because it is the book where I most vividly and unmistakably remember the sensation of believing in its magic. At the back of our old wooden house, my sister and I noticed that moss was growing underneath one of those airing grates that houses have down at their foundations. We knew that it was because our borrowers were using the grate to empty out their buckets of water (our toothpaste tube tops!) after mopping the floor of the house they had made below our floorboards. We were sure that one day we would catch sight of them. Actually, I seem to remember we did, once, or maybe it was the flash of a piece of foil a borrower was using for a mirror as she dried her hair by their window that we saw. Yes, that would have been it.

December 22, 2016

Great Summer Read: Check out a book bundle

Check out a book bundle at your library

The Great Summer Read crowd (1412 challenges logged so far!) have been taking home some very mysterious bundles  -- names like "She walks in beauty", "What I did last summer" and "Expect the unexpected" stick out -- along with the less obscure but certainly even more enticing to some, "Dystopias","Thrillers", and "For the girls".

The key to this challenge is: don't think you have to read everything in the bundle. It's about discovery. You'll discover some you like, and some that aren't for you. That's fine! 

How far along do you have to read before you know that a book isn't even going to become something for you?

I'm always hearing people tell with perverse pride about how dogged they are about finishing a book, but I've never seen it as a virtue. More admirable to toss it and move on to something better, I say. Does anyone ever talk about a fabulous meal where the first three courses were unappetizing? On the other hand, there can be some hiccups as you get into a book and it can still turn out to be a thrilling read.

Try the astute rule devised by Nancy Pearl, the American librarian diva, model for the Shushing Librarian action figure and author of the bestselling Book lustwhich goes: 

You only need to read as many pages as the number you get by subtracting your age from 100, to know for sure if a book is worth continuing. 

Basically, by the time you're 99, you'll just need to read the first page.

Great Summer Read: Read a story to someone

Not necessarily to a child!

Don't make the mistake of looking at this challenge merely as a good one for parents of small children!

In the pre-broadcast entertainment era, reading out loud was an amusement as habitual as going for a coach ride-- for the social strata who had leisure time and literacy skills of course. In even older times, pre-medieval, there are records of people commenting with surprise on seeing someone read silently, it was so unusual. Kafka used to read his stories aloud and laugh until the tears ran.

Try reading a short story to someone your own age, or older, including much older. A friend, your auntie, your cat (yes, someone gloriously reported having done this)! 

Think ghost stories around the fire and try something chilling.  "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a time-honoured read-aloud, with its deceptively normal opening, gradual building of apprehension, culminating in a terrible reveal. Plus, plenty to talk about afterwards, as everyone wants to know what it means. Shirley Jackson claimed she herself didn't know.

Or get yourself a collection of the haunting horror stories of Daphne Du Maurier. Read "The birds" and then watch Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation for Challenge #8, "Watch a movie or TV show based on a book", or "Don't look now", less widely known because Hitchcock didn't film it, but Nicholas Roeg did, an atmospheric bloodcurdler which made film history not just for its sex scenes between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, although perhaps most loudly for those.

Daphne Du Maurier

For something less frightening, but just as unsettling, try Ray Bradbury's otherworldly stories, often futuristic but not always. "The Fog Horn" is my favourite, a soul-stirring imagining of an ancient sea monster's tragic encounter with the modern world, inspired, Bradbury said, from his having come across the coils of a disused rollercoaster laid out on Venice Beach. If you want to have a look, you can read it online in plain-to-the-nth-degree text on the Internet Archive, or get it in print from the library as Bradbury would have wanted you to. He fought digitisation of his books tooth and claw, happily claiming his right to try to prevent the future.

How about a Sherlock Holmes story? My personal choice would be The hound of the Baskervilleswhich I've always thought of as a story but which I've just discovered is technically a novel. Let's call it a long story. You could tell yourself you're going to do in parts... and then see if you're able! It's another one you could pair with a film viewing - the 1939 Basil Rathbone classic or the 1950s version: Christopher Lee! Peter Cushing! A slew of other B-cinema names!

If you like the idea of the great sleuth but you want something easier to tackle at a sitting, I've checked it out (not being a Sherlock expert myself) and "A scandal in Bohemia" sounds like just what you need. It's only about a 10 minute read, and introduces a Sherlockian-fandom superfavourite, the shadowy Irene Adler. "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." is the first line of the story. You can read it online here.

You can't go wrong with any of the nine stories in Nine stories by JD Salinger.

If you prefer something more contemporary, which picks up on the maddening, sad and/or scary aspects of the world we inhabit today, without forgetting the comic side, try George Saunders. Have I ever been so disturbed by a story as "The semplica girl diaries" in Tenth of December? Possibly only by "The lottery". 

Or Tobias Wolff, and here I will point you to "Bullet in the Brain". Someone once phoned the library looking for this story right when I had the book in which it appears, Our story beginssitting on my bedside table. He was looking for it because he'd seen it described as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. I agreed! Unlike that customer, who had to wait for me to return the book (but I did the very next day, even though it wasn't even due yet, because bonding), you can now read it right away online aP.O.V. No.27 .

A Christmas story, given the season? O.Henry, master of the plot twist, wrote one of the most famous and sentimental Christmas stories of all time: The Gift of the Magi. You'll find it, and many of his other stories, online at the Literature Network, where you will also find such savoury read-alouds as Edgar Allan Poe's stories ("The cask of Amontillado"! "The Pit and the Pendulum"!), Oscar Wilde's heartbreaking fairy tales, Gogol's very funny classic "The nose" (a barber starts the day by finding a familiar-looking nose in his loaf of bread), and Ambrose Bierce's spectacular "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And let's not forget that classic story "The Lady or the Tiger", whose very title has entered our language, referenced by both Sylvia Plath and Batman, an appropriate story to end on. I challenge you to read it (it's very short and very worth it) and find out why I say that!

Great Summer Read: Read a book

Challenge #1 is your wild card! You can pick any book at all. 

Where to start? 

Perhaps an intriguing title you spotted on someone's bookshelf while you were waiting for them to get off the phone? In my experience, it's rare that a book doesn't live up to its title. The possibility of an islandA tale for the time beingInvisible citiesThe left hand of darkness and Heart of darkness both. Stuff I forgot to tell my daughterDon't lets go to the dogs tonightThe spirit catches you and you fall down. All good reads. But if anyone has any examples of annoyingly misleading titles, please tip us off!

Or how about defying the received wisdom and choosing a book by its cover? Without even flipping it over to see what it says about the author, or if you recognise the names on the blurbs -- you know, those other guys signed to the same publishing conglomerate, or who taught at the author's creative writing programme. 

In today's publishing world, covers are usually going to tell you just as much as the blurbs, and they will always be more imaginative.

Quick! Match these adjectives to the books below. Tantalising. Wrenching. Seventies. Surreal. Was that hard?

If you're looking for something new to read, the best place to start is with the New Titles lists on our website. Because so many new books already have a waiting list when they are delivered to the library, you won't always see them on the shelves. Browsing the lists you'll find a cover photo and a summary for each title, and be able to request it in two clicks. It doesn't always mean going on a wait list -- it could be available, but just at another library, and you'll get it in short order!

The lists include fiction and non-fiction, audiobooks, ebooks, childrens, teens, DVDs, books in other languages and more. The fiction is divided by genre and there are an awesome 20 different lists, including graphic novels with 113 new titles this month, the second highest total after good old "general fiction" (ie non-genre).

If you're looking for non-fiction, there are 39 categories to choose among, including both a Cooking - Cakes and Dessert and a Cooking - Vegetarian, Low-fat, with 27 titles just this month, including one by an Emma Bacon, who clearly does not demonstrate the nominative determinative theory.

There's also a category called Human Society, to distinguish it from, I suppose, books about bees, penguins, bonobos, tetras and the like. I scrolled through books about violence and borders, terrorism and white supremacy, sex and evolution, which got me wondering about that "Human", but I was quickly reassured by encountering a book which promised to show me how to turn grocery shopping, lawn mowing and PowerPoint making into "sources for meaning and joy".

Happy hunting! Happy reading!

The Great Summer Read

Call out to everyone taking part -- or thinking of taking part -- in the Great Summer Read! Yes, you're still in time to start. There's no registration and you can log a challenge at any time, even on the very last day, 30 January.

And from now until then, we'll be posting tips and reading recommendations for the Great Summer Read challenges here on Books in the City.

Add your own Great Summer Reading experiences into the mix using the comments feature on any of the posts and you can tick off Challenge #10, "Share your read"! (Comments on earlier posts also count - no worries, reader who commented on the Into the River post!)

NB Although only Auckland Libraries members can go in the draw for the Great Summer Read prizes, anyone can enjoy trying the challenges and contributing comments. The more the merrier!

I've been hunting down (aka requesting) and bringing home my candidates for the Great Summer Read challenges and by now have a nice stash:

Karen's bedside table 

As you can see, I am a librocubicularist, someone who reads in bed, from the Latin libro, book, and cubiculum, bedchamber. A term invented by Christopher Morley, author of a book I'm going to be reading for the Great Summer Read, or more precisely rereading-- my choice for completing Challenge #4: "Reread a childhood favourite". 

Recently I saw a comment on social media where "pastime" was spelled "past time" -- it seems a lovely expression for Challenge #4, where past time and pastime become one and the same.

No I'm not going to say -- yet -- what book I'm using for Challenge #4. Also because I'm thinking of using two books from that same year in my childhood, a favourite year, the year I got my first job in a library. 

So keep checking in with Books in the City for ideas for your summer reading -- surely one of the finest pastimes ever!

October 19, 2016

Day of the dedications

(photo: @sfpubliclibrary Instagram 15 September)

Time for the book dedications of the year! Not written this year, or not necessarily, but the best I've come across this year. It's a tradition dating back to my very first post for Books in the City, in which -- with the whole world of books available to me as subject matter -- I chose to celebrate the art of the well-written book dedication. That tells you something about my affection for those little solitaires twinkling and winking at us from the centres of white pages.

I'm talking about the best dedications, of course, the ones that speak from the heart with the tongue of a writer, that neither surfeit us with lists (how did that start, those endless pages of acknowledgments in novels, for God's sake!) nor starve us of landmarks, the ones that, despite us knowing they are for a certain someone, we discover are magically also for us.

Here are this year's finds:

1.  Yuyi Morales in Thunder Boy Jr. 

To the Western Addition library in SF where, as a new mother and immigrant, I found my first home in the USA. Nancy, I hope you remember me. You changed my life forever when you put books in my hands.

A book dedication to a library! I had to start with this one. I've shared dedications to an author's typewriter, and to an airlines whose delayed flight inspired the book in question, but this is the first dedication to a library I've come across, via the San Francisco Public Library's Instagram feed @sfpubliclibrary (Western Addition is one of their branches).

As a librarian, I'm going to say that I'm sure Nancy remembers her.

The post went up as we were counting down to Banned Books Week, which was appropriate given that the author of Thunder Boy Jr is Sherman Alexie, whose The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is one of the most challenged books in libraries in his country, the USA. The dedication in that semi-autobiographical work also makes a point about home: "For Welpinit and Reardan, my hometowns", it goes, the first being where Alexie grew up, on an Indian reservation in Washington State, and the second the town where he went to High School, his first time off the reservation.

Thunder Boy Jr is Alexie's first picture book, about a boy looking for a name of his own; Yuyi Morales is the illustrator.  Here's a short trailer from the publisher:


2. Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem was asked by her interviewer at the Auckland Writers Festival this year to talk about the dedication to her new memoir, My life on the road. "Shall I read it out loud?" she rejoined. "I don't want to assume everyone has read my book!"

Her reading of it made exactly my point: great dedications have it all there; they don't need to be commented on.

This book is dedicated to:
 Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
 Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life".
 Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

3.  Jerome K Jerome in Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

After two new books, here's an old one, published in 1886. I knew about this dedication but for the longest time I was mixed up, thinking it was by Italo Svevo, so I could never find it. It could have been by Svevo, who had in common with Jerome K Jerome a love of what in Svevo's native Trieste was referred to with the Austrian term witze, meaning witty paradoxes and contradictions.


Italo Svevo also had a close relationship with tobacco, but in his case it was the cigarette, and in particular the last cigarette. In his book The confessions of Zeno, one of his alter ego Zeno's neuroticisms is to repeatedly smoke the last cigarette, in order to re-experience the joy of quitting. When Svevo was mortally injured in a car accident, he asked at the hospital if he could have a cigarette. His request was denied. Ah, he sighed, that really would have been the last cigarette. 

In addition to the dedication, Jerome K Jerome also wrote a fine preface for his book, which I would love to hear read out loud by John Cleese.

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS. having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere "idle thoughts" of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading "the best hundred books," you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

4. Tony Ross in Sticky ends: twenty-six cautionary verses with sticky ends 

To my dear mum and dad -- they always thought that I would come to one. T.R.

5. Ogden Nash in The Face is Familiar 

This collection of poems by the man who gave us "I never saw a purple cow..." and "If called by a panther, don't anther" is a treasure I found in the Central City Library basement. Although the book was first published in the USA in 1940, our copy is the Australian Edition of May, 1943, a fact which some librarian of the past underlined by recovering the book in wallpaper featuring red and blue stripes interspersed with golden crowns. Not that this would have been her only foray into book preservation. Recovering books in serviceable wallpaper was once a thing in public libraries. I imagine this librarian's ghost floating around in our basement checking up on all her handiwork.

Before disposing of the original cover, the librarian cut out the blurb on its flap and pasted it into the book, turning the book into a sort of time-capsule:

In re-issuing this book in an Australian edition, the publishers are confident that it will add considerably to the gaiety of this land at a time when our sense of humour is in danger of being submerged in a total war effort.

It goes on to cite a poem in the book, a dig at Japanese expansionist tendencies on the eve of Pearl Harbour, which the Australian publishers - how realistically I don't know - hoped the Australians would still be finding funny in 1943.

On the other hand, I myself found a comment apropos of Ogden Nash's death funny enough to note down - or maybe I actually came up with it? It's scribbled in my own hand next to my notes for this post. It'd be nice to think I could be so witty as to quip "Merde! Improperly prepared!" in reaction to learning that one of the most famous rhymers in the history of poetry died from eating improperly prepared coleslaw. Googling brings up nothing. If anyone knows the origin of this genial epigram, please let me know!

I was taking notes because I had discovered that a postage stamp honouring Ogden Nash made history by being the first US postage stamp to contain the word "sex"- "although as a synonym for gender", Wikipedia tells us. Whew!

"It appears under the letter O" the wikipedia pundit continues. With my librarian skills I was able to quickly unearth a reproduction of the stamp, just to check that fact. The pundit had it right.

But I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price of the stamp and realised that this could not have happened in the fifties as I had assumed. In fact, it turned out to be issued in 2002, on the centennial of Nash's birth! What, the word sex made history in 2002? Are we kidding?
The Amarillo, Texas newspaper article where I found this information contained, further along, a telling insight. The other set of new stamps to come out that year was "Discover Canada", highlighting popular tourist attractions. So, images of Foggy Cove and the Icefields Parkway and Buffalo Jump, vying for attention with Nash's racy poem "The Turtle".

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.

The dedication I found in the book, to Nash's wife, is not scandalous, antic or clever. It's sentimental, a bit reminiscent of the classic era poetry schoolboys of Nash's time (and of my father's, although he was a generation later) used to learn. "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by..." But it's definitely going straight to the book dedication wall in my pool room.

For Francis

And now to settle for the years,
That flew like frightened birds;
As fee for ten of happiness
I offer ten of words.

Powered by Blogger.