May 30, 2009

AWRF 2009: Judith Thurman

Robin is Community Librarian at Mt. Albert Community Library, a person of great style both in her apparel and her reading, and perhaps a bit of a perfectionist. Who better than she to report on “An Hour with Judith Thurman"?
Biographer and New Yorker columnist Judith Thurman delivered the Michael King Memorial Lecture. She stood at the lectern and mostly read from her notes, in contrast with the usual Writers and Readers relaxed format of Q and A with an interlocutor. In my experience, biographers feed their audience’s curiosity for the lowdown on their subject, but Thurman vouchsafed not a jot of tittle tattle. Or perhaps she just assumed we had all read her books on Colette and Isak Dinesen, since they were published some time ago. Instead, she spoke about the search to capture the true essence of her subjects, which she said seemed more difficult the more documentation existed. She found Colette particularly elusive.

Very much a perfectionist, Thurman took seven years to research both her biographies, and expressed no plans to tackle another. As an illustration of her perfectionism, she read out each of her seven attempts to get just the right tone for an opening paragraph of an article on tofu that she was commissioned to write for The New Yorker.

May 23, 2009

AWRF 2009: New Yorker night

Nick from the readers services team at Central Library has been a New Yorker if not a New Yorker. He reports on the night.
Rick Hertzberg wore a classy outfit, linen suit with a skinny tie and cowboy boots. When Rhonda Sherman asked each of the three panellists (others being Judith Thurman and James Surowiecki) about their favourite New Yorker stories of all time I’m glad Hertzberg mentioned Joseph Mitchell because his stuff is cool. When I first readJoe Gould’s secret I thought it was fiction. It is about an old-style boho named Joe Gould, transcriber of a mythical oral history of the city, and the efforts of the writer to locate it. It is a whole book made up of just two of the magazine’s ‘profiles’, one from the 1940s and one from the 1960s. That is how it used to be, writers wrote articles as long as they wanted, or needed. It is sort of what defined the magazine, which is now 85 years old. As a New Yorker writer you just couldn’t get what you got, in a week. Sometimes it took years. It is not like that now but they still think the New Yorker will be around for ages, maybe thanks to all the subscriptions Surowiecki sold on the podium on Saturday night.

The New Yorker is different from the city itself. It is its own place and this explains, said Hertzberg, why people miles away like to read it.

The night started with a slideshow of cartoons and next time I want to hear from a panel of New Yorker cartoonists.

May 22, 2009

AWRF 2009: Lloyd Jones's authors

I went to hear Lloyd Jones too and I appreciate that Ana covered it for Books in the CIty because she reminded me of some good points that I had already forgotten, events overload perhaps, or maybe the distraction Finlay McDonald was causing me whenever he would start fiddling with his ear. For the rest I think he did fine; I especially liked when Lloyd Jones confided punchily  "Reading kind of completes the book." I've always liked and remember, probably because I work in a library, the lines in Borges's famous lecture on poetry where he said that poetry is not in the books in the library, it is in the encounter of the reader with the books.

One last Lloyd Jones moment to savour:
Q: What books are magic for you?

A: I like Raymond Carver - his book Cathedral, Richard Ford, Chekhov, Mario Vargas Llosa, oh, and Calvino - The Baron in the Trees - an excellent example of imaginative risk. At a certain point the Baron slips out into the tree- you expect he's going to come back down and then he doesn't, ever! I imagine Calvino weeing himself with excitement: "I'm going to keep him in the tree!"

May 21, 2009

AWRF 2009: Martin Edmond

Martin Edmond was a joy. He was "in conversation with" Peter Wells, whose high-strung air, which included at times clutching the arms of his chair like they used to do in the old Star Trek when it was a bumpy ride, was a perfect counterpoint to Martin's rumpledness. That's mood, not look. Because actually Martin was one of the best dressed of the Festival, and his were indisputably the best shoes there. No trapezoidal top seams or toes pointing up into the air, but good old black leather Doc Martens with the chunky rubber treads, neither scuffed nor spit-shined, just an understated saddle soap gleam.

I imagined him showing up in them at someone's house, an ex-railroad shack a kilometre's walk from where the sealed road left off. It would be dusk when he knocked on the door, unexpected, holding a bottle of wine, slapping the dust off the thighs of those dark blue trousers, slightly reminiscent of auto factory workers or Greek fishermen.

He talked about when he was an aspiring novelist "hanging about libraries" and how looking back, he now realises those years - 20 of them - were about finding his voice, which didn't turn out to be that of a fiction writer. "People are always a bit dismayed when they ask you what you write, and you say 'non-fiction'," he said, at which Peter Wells quipped "It's because they were hoping you were Harold Robbins."

The blurb of Martin's new book, The Supply Party, calls it a "quest-memoir". "I have to ask, what is a quest-memoir?", dryly asked noted memoirist P.W. "Oh," said M.E, "It's that the publishers were on to me for the blurb, and people are always confused about where my books go in a bookstore, so I thought I'd invent this new category." I understood "guest-memoir" at first, which works too.

The book looks at the infamous "ill-fated expedition" ("it's never mentioned without being called ill-fated" sighed M.E.) of Burke and Wills, with its 21 tons of luggage including "dandruff brushes for the camels" -- I still don't know if this is a joke or not, which I guess is actually the point. But the writer concentrates his insights on Ludwig Becker, the German scientist who served as the expedition's naturalist. "It's posited on the idea that I could get to know the interior workings of a man who never revealed himself intimately to anyone."

I told him how I had met him at Montana Poetry Day at the Library, how I remembered his very evocative reading of a beautiful poem. "Ah yes," he said. "I read that poem by Alan Brunton, and I muffed the last line. I couldn't get 'magellanic' right." Magellanic, such a Martin Edmond word. So now I have a copy of Luca Antara signed by Martin Edmond, with the annotation "to Karen, on a magellanic day".

"What do you like about writing?" he had been asked.
"I like sentences. I love a well-turned sentence." was the reply.

AWRF 2009: Wekas and Queen Cakes

Kim works in the readers services team at Central where she is famed for her chocolate ganache.  Her note from the Festival:
"Wekas and Queen Cakes" was a lively and entertaining discussion about food culture in New Zealand. The presenters, Alexa Johnston (Ladies a Plate) and David Veart (First Catch Your Weka), were absolute naturals and the discussion careened joyfully over a wide range of topics from the history of New Zealand cooking to the sociology of how we eat.

As well as the excellent speakers, the audience were great too. From the ever-amusing Peta Mathias to the elderly lady who wondered aloud if cows still have brains because she can’t seem to buy them anymore, it was all as light and sweet as grandma’s jam sponge. Lovely!

AWRF 2009: Lloyd Jones

Ana from the readers services team at Central Library captures the essence of her hour with Lloyd Jones:
Ok, just when you think it's safe to sit back, relax, along comes an author who dares you to push the boundaries, break all the rules and step outside the comfort zone into the uncertain world of imaginative risk.
"Aim for brilliance, find your voice - persuasive, seductive, enigmatic. Create your landscape of uniqueness. Think beyond narrative. Your aim is to go where no writer has ever been before. And then, the serious stuff starts..."
He continues to say that when you write with creative brilliance you surreptitiously become part of the essence of your creative reader's being, becoming (and he quotes Seamus Heaney) part of the "stitch-work of your DNA."
One must appreciate and savour his words on failure: "All those abandoned words, rejected manuscripts, are an invaluable and necessary experience on the path to greatness."
The author packed all this and much more in one hour; one hour in the company of our very persuasive and reductive Mr Jones. I am looking forward to reading other of his books. A very enjoyable hour.

May 19, 2009

AWRF 2009: Frank Sargeson

Carolyn is our Reference Librarian for "the 820.8s", "the 828s" and even "the 821.99s", which is to say, New Zealand prose and poetry. Here's what she did at AWRF 2009:

I felt very privileged to be one of the first to view a wonderful new documentary by Mark Casey at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival yesterday. "Frank" is more than just the story of the life and work of Frank Sargeson. This film captures rare insights into the man and the writer and records candid interviews with those fortunate writers who were mentored, inspired and influenced by Sargeson. These include some of New Zealand's top authors including Kevin Ireland, C.K. Stead, Christine Cole Catley and Graeme Lay. 14 Esmonde Road, Takapuna, was the centrepoint for an emerging New Zealand literature. For the first time writers could be writers and live in New Zealand.

Excerpts were read from some of Sargeson's key works including "An affair of the heart", "A piece of yellow soap", "A man and his wife", "Cats by the tail" and a particularly startling frog tale from "Memoirs of a peon".

In short "Frank" is a work of integrity, an inspiration and a must see. Well done Mark Casey!

AWRF 2009: Mandla Langa

Mandla Langa is from South Africa. During apartheid he spent 19 years in exile, in Africa and in Europe, mostly working for the ANC. His bookThe Lost Colours of the Chameleon is a satiric allegory about the nature of power and it won Best Book for Africa in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. I'm not sure what intuition led me to seek an interview with him, but as soon as he walked up to where I was sitting in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and smiled at me, I knew I had lucked out. This extraordinary man exudes gravity, lucidity, strength, and shines with generosity, grace and delight in life. He gave me a full hour of his time, and then went looking for his wife so I could meet her.

The next day when I told Christos Tsiolkas, explorer of "the dark crevices of the Australian suburban landscape" and de facto star of the Festival, how I had been blown away by Mandla Langa, he looked at me with joy. "You know!" he said. "He's my wise old man!"

I said to Mandla Langa, as we considered the horrors of the African continent, "It must be very frustrating... Do you manage to still wake up in the morning and say 'Let's see what we can get done today'? You have a very strong character I think."

Here is how he answered me -- I'm formatting it to show the rhythm of his speech:

I think despair, despair, despair, it is a natural emotion – reaction --
but at the same time it is a very self-indulgent emotion
in the sense that life cannot really be sustained on despair.
I don’t think so.
That is the truth, and when I look at South Africa
I also look at other countries on the continent
and in October of last year we were in Algeria
and I was watching on television the stampede which was happening
when the food parcels were being distributed
the same way as in Darfur
and you look at kids who are being pressed against gates and fences
and then you say to yourself
which is the thing that I try to say in Lost Colours of the Chameleon
that once you have dysfunctional leadership
you will have an accumulation of corpses
you will have people dying. And when you then say,
What do I see being wrong in other countries
some of it is wrong in our country.

And it is that lack of connection
and creation of the logical connection between dysfunctional leadership and poverty
because there is just too much in all of our countries to feed everyone
but what has to happen is that there are people who are willing to say
"this is how we should go
and this is how we can go
and this is what we should do"
and be willing to take sometimes
that unpopular step
of curbing the excesses
curbing the greed.

May 18, 2009

AWRF 2009: Richard Dawkins

Simon from the Readers Services team at Central Library shares his impressions after seeing "Richard Dawkins on the Big Screen":

Richard Dawkins and his finely honed views on religion and its failings in the light of science came to the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival last night. Despite the fact that he was not here in person, but answering questions via televised satellite, the ASB theatre was at almost full capacity, demonstrating what a healthy following books such as The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion have attained. The MC for the night was Sean Plunket, who did an admirable job of coordinating discussion with the "High Priest of Atheism", as Plunket jokingly referred to him. 

Some of the most interesting points of contention (depending on one's own beliefs of course) that I came away with, the points that Dawkins seemed most concerned in getting across to whoever would listen, were thus:

- religion should not be off limits to criticism, in the same way that no scientific hypothesis should be off limits.

- the imposition of  religious cosmologies on children, particularly those concerned with hell and damnation, were a form of child abuse (albeit mental rather than physical), and the way that suicide bombers are bred.

- tolerant liberals must be careful that tolerance does not give way to over-tolerance, as this paves the way for much evil to be done in the name of one's faith.

- Perhaps most pertinently of all considering Dawkins' role as a popular science writer,  a genre often accused of "dumbing down" scientific ideas: the popular scientist's role is to make his ideas as accessible and simple as possible without distorting that idea.

Dawkins also displayed a great sense of humour. When asked how he "avoided" indoctrination to a particular religion growing up he said he'd gone to an Anglican school. Anglicanism was he said "a mild strain of the virus." To close the night Plunket asked what religion Dawkins would choose if his life depended upon it. "Oh for goodness sake. The Church of the Fly and Spaghetti Monster" was the High Priest's reply.

Leaving the Aotea Centre and walking down Queen Street  I saw a man on the corner preaching aggressively to passers by the need to give yourself up to God. The battle rages on.


May 15, 2009

AWRF 2009: Opening night

The "New Zealand Listener Opening night", with five writers sharing the stage, was chaired by Mark Sainsbury, who employed all his skills to make it all very jovial, although I discovered that I personally have a hard time with multiple readings of excerpts from novels, as just when I have settled in to really listen, absorbed the idiosyncrasies of the reader, etc., it's over and time to move on to the next. 

I was in the second row so did get a good chance to study the footwear of the participants, one of my favourite things to do. Monica Ali in very fashionable boots to the knee, with the uppers some mysterious soft and slightly falling down grey stuff, David Malouf in ankle boots, very elegant ones, not the Beatle boot/horse riding boot I associate with Australians, Chimamanda in black high-heels, slip-ons which clacked as she walked (she was very beautiful), Mark Sainsbury also in ankle boots which were definitely not up there with Malouf's. 

For me, the best moment came at the very end, a final question from just across the aisle. Paul Reynolds, sitting near me, identified the questioner to me afterwards as young ________ from Jason Books (quondam).  "Who are your influences?"  The lapel mikes buzzed with startled asides between panellists: What does that mean, if we say an author, do we have to mean all his books, does he mean now or before?  Young _______ blushed and said that a version or another of 'authors you liked' would do. Upon this hint they spake: 

David Malouf, unhesitating: "Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens."
Monica Ali, smiling at us conspiratorially but still seeming like a head girl: "The writers we read in adolescence are the ones we read with intensity. Mine were Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac."
Tash Aw, miffed but not too worried, he had an ace up his sleeve: "Mine are the same as the first two, but with Melville added."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ruffled: "It's hard, humm, I could say Edith Wharton, pause, Chinua Achebe, pause, and people here will like this so I will put it in, Katherine Mansfield." (scattered applause)
Christos Tsiolkas, confidingly, truthfully: "Tolstoy, the Russians, but also the mid 20th century Americans, Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth. Something about the robustness of their language, and so many of them were children of immigrant Jewish families, and this spoke to me, a child of an immigrant family."

AWRF 2009: Mo Zhi Hong

The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival 2009 takes off today right in our own back yard, just the other side of that constructivist public artwork which is Aotea Square's present embodiment. Books in the City will be there, living the promise of Auckland City's friendly work-in-progress signs. Yes, I'll be "Getting on with Writers and Readers".

Mo Zhi Hong. In fact, I'm already getting on with getting on. I scored a coffee at the Library cafĂ© with my favourite Aucklander of the moment, Mo Zhi Hong, the author of The Year of the Shanghai Shark, which won the Best First Book Award in the South East Asia and Pacific Region of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize 2009. This makes him a finalist for the overall award, which will be announced at the Festival on Saturday night. In anticipation of our date, I read the book fervidly, on a plane, on the bus, the footpath, at meals, in bed. In every case, it was a wonderful experience. I couldn't believe that it was a first book, and by a software developer at that.

Then when I met MZH, as he styles himself, that was a wonderful experience as well. Here is the impression I took away: nonchalant intelligence, or perhaps intelligent nonchalance, tenderly illuminated by an appreciation for the unexpected, the non-standard, the evocative.

Here is what the judges wrote about his book:

“The Year of the Shanghai Shark is the story of a young boy’s rite of passage as he enters into the bustling, cosmopolitan street life of the contemporary Chinese cities of Dalian and Shanghai, under the tutelage of his uncle, a professional pickpocket. This superbly realised world brings us a gallery of eccentric and unforgettable characters such as the elderly poet who writes poems in the town square with a brush dipped in a can of water, the local repair man who has ingenious ways of fixing broken things and the cousin who excels at school but discovers that he has to learn English if he is to pursue his dream of emigrating to America. The beguiling voice of the narrator draws us into the shifting world of petty crooks, first-world businessmen, tourists, the NBA and McDonald’s. In this limpid and elegant novel Mo offers the reader a China caught in the vortex of change.”

My conversation with MZH started off by giving Books in the City its first-ever literary scoop:

KC “When I went to get your book out, I was surprised to see it was catalogued as teen fiction.”
MZH (looks dismayed, shakes head, laughs) "Not teen fiction!"

Auckland City Libraries, Christchurch City Libraries, Wellington City Libraries, take note!

La Cina e' vicina. China is near. This was the title of an Marco Bellocchio film from the sixties about family and radical politics as lived in Italy on the eve of the student protest movement. With its clever wordplay, and for its great irony,  it became a catch phrase. The narrator of The Year of the Shanghai Shark is an orphaned teenager for whom the Cultural Revolution, born the same year as the student movement, is such ancient history as to have no significance. He and his friends are living through a different revolution.  Is their China any closer?

The year of the Shanghai shark by Mo Zhi Hong. Read the book and make up your own mind.

Read the rest of MZH's interview here.

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