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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


There are few surprises. The Booker Prize Longlist was announced this morning, and Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man is the only hope for independent publishers (with Random UK taking 5 slots). Coetzee is a two-time Booker winner; Byatt has won once.

The Children's Book, AS Byatt (Chatto and Windus)
Summertime, JM Coetzee (Harvill Secker)
The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds (Jonathan Cape)
How to paint a dead man, Sarah Hall (Faber)
The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
Me Cheeta, James Lever (Fourth Estate)
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
Not Untrue & Not Unkind, Ed O'Loughlin (Penguin - Ireland)
Heliopolis, James Scudamore (Harvill Secker)
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin (Viking)
Love and Summer, William Trevor (Viking)
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters (Virago)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Joke finally seen after 79 years

I don't expect you to break out into hysterical laughter at this one, but a joke written by the playwright George Bernard Shaw has been found in an old cupboard seventy-nine years after it was stowed there. Or so says the BBC section on arts & culture.

It probably helps to know that the joke was written on the occasion of the 1930 opening of the Hall at William Morris House; and it probably assists even more when you know that William Morris was a socialist campaigner. And the last bit of vital information is that it was scribbled across the bottom of a photograph of Shaw himself.

The joke reads: "William Morris and I preached the gospel of Labour together on many occasions. Many respectable persons thought we deserved hanging. I am proud to hang in a hall dedicated to him."

Shaw passed away 59 years ago. It's a nice story, but I think I would choose a different joke to be remembered by.

I'd like a really good, enduring rib-cracking bit of humor ... Any suggestions?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


In a very interesting blog, well-traveled Australian YA author Justine Labalestier wonders why the girl pictured on the jacket of the US edition of her latest book, Liar, is white, when the protagonist is black. Curiously, too, the model on the cover has long hair which she uses to veil herself, while the lass in the story has short, bubbly hair.

Labalestier discusses the problem very rationally, I thought. First, as she points out, authors have little or no say about the picture on the jacket -- and, I add, editors don't, either, no matter how committed they are to the book. The final decision, or so I believe, belongs with the marketing department.

And it is definitely the marketing department of Labalestier's book that made the decision. She was told that a book with a black girl on the jacket would either be spurned by bookstore buyers (because black teens don't read? Please!), or, more logically, it would be moved from the YA section to the urban fiction section. Though can one imagine a book by Oprah Winfrey being shifted from the front of the store? Or a book about Naomi Sims, the famous black model, having a jacket picturing a white fashion model instead?

Allen & Unwin, who bought Australian/New Zealand rights, did a much better job. Their jacket has a spare, rather shocking look, with the title written apparently in blood. It would certainly make me pick it up and have a curious riffle through the pages. But I find it striking that they, too, chose not to show a person of color on the cover.

When they published my own Wiki Coffin books, where the hero is half-Maori, they chose to picture a white man on the cover -- and when I investigated, the model was a German! How far from Maoridom can you get? Would the books have sold much better in Australia and New Zealand with a Maori on the cover? Here, where not only is a significant ratio of the population Polynesian, but everything Pasifika is fashionable? I think so.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Considering that the whispers have all been about publishing, Spy Mouse waxed positively -- and most entertainingly -- eloquent in response to my frivolous post about clapping at classical music concerts. Having been granted permission, here is what this very cultured little rodent wrote:

I'd seen that piece by Jonathan Lennie, and am very much in two minds. I'm all for clapping a particularly virtuoso bit of showing-off then and there, but it infuriates me when audiences clap throughout a song-cycle, for instance. Interestingly, I was at a Prom performance of Handel's Partenope (salami-and-cream-cheese sandwiches, and a bottle of something white and Australian), and the half-capacity audience clapped regularly throughout. Mind you, we did have Andreas Scholl singing Arsace. But last night the Proms semi-staged the Glyndebourne production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, and on only two occasions did they clap a display of vocal fireworks; otherwise, as Jonathan Lennie says, the few seconds' silence afterwards was part of the performance. The audience clapped and stamped and cheered when it was over, though, and the place was packed. Oh, and crab-pate sandwiches and a decent French chablis.

Last week we went to Dvorak's Rusalka at Glyndebourne, which was ravishing beyond words even by Glyndebourne standards (chicken in cream-and-lemon sauce, baby leaf salad and rice with cumin, coriander, pine nuts and almonds, and a bottle of Lanson, with raspberries and tarte au chocolat to follow). So intelligently staged, visually lovely, with nothing to come between the opera and the audience as is so often unfortunately the case, and the cast sang like angels. The only things I've been to there which were more beautiful were Hockney's Magic Flute decades ago, and a bewitching Midsummer Night's Dream (Britten), which I can't imagine they will ever better. Can't remember what we ate but it involved a lot of champagne on both occasions.

I can't wait to go to the proms myself!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

National Library Lecture Series, Wellington



The National Library Auditorium, Aitken Street, Wellington at 5.30 pm

Guests and non-members welcome – gold coin donation
A glass of wine will be offered beforehand. The lectures will start at 6pm.

Thursday 20 August at 5.30 pm
Marguerite Renaud
The World of Self-Publishing

Marguerite Renaud will talk about her company, First Edition Publishing, which offers an easy and affordable way of publishing anything from personal memoirs to poetry.

Thursday 17 September at 5.30 pm
Bridget Williams (chair), Jane Connor and Sam Elworthy
Books and Change

Bridget Williams has been publishing in New Zealand for over thirty years – as an editor with Oxford University Press, and as a director of Port Nicholson Press, Allen & Unwin NZ, and the eponymous imprint BWB.
Jane Connor, a founder of Godwit Press, is currently managing director of Craig Potton Publishing, after some years as executive vice-president and publisher of Timber Press in the US.
Sam Elworthy is the director of Auckland University Press, after many years as editor-in-chief with Princeton University Press. This group, all with international experience and all passionate about excellent New Zealand books, explore the challenges and opportunities facing publishing today.

Thursday 15 October at 5.30 pm
Adrienne Kebbell
The Pleasures of reading online

Digital technology expert and former Business Development Analyst at the National Library, Adrienne Kebbell, will draw on her extensive knowledge of internet publications to demonstrate the ease and joy of reading your favourite newspapers and journals online.

Thursday 19 November at 5.30 pm (venue tbc)
John MacGibbon
Writing and Researching Family History

Historian and author, John MacGibbon, will share some of his expertise on discovering and writing social and family history. John is the founder and owner of the Ngaio Press, a boutique publisher specialising in books about New Zealand and New Zealanders.

To Clap or not to Clap

My blog has been neglected (weak excuse: school holidays), and I'm not even going to "talk" about books or the written word now, but pass on a story by Finio Rohrer in the BBC News Magazine that made me laugh out loud.

It is about the perennial problem of when to clap at a classical music concert -- something that was wonderfully satirized in the 2005 short movie The Clap, where an obsessional music fan spent hours studying scores so that he could clap at the precise second the work ended.

I think we've all had the horrible experience of clapping madly in an inappropriate place, simply because the vigor of the ending of a marvelous movement has totally carried one away. The embarrassment starts when (a) you realize you're the only clapper in the entire house, or (b) the conductor turns round and gives you a beetle-eyed stare before deliberately turning round again and lifting his arms, or (c) the orchestra is so startled and disoriented that the players scrape disharmoniously for a second before launching into the next movement.

My own remedy (in Wellington, at anyrate) is to wait until everyone else is clapping before I join in, though I once forgot that I was not in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and hollered, "Bravo!" Well, I love the way the crowd goes crazy at the Met., so why not? Placido Domingo does not appear to mind everyone hooting and cheering at the end of each aria, so why should a tail-coated conductor be any different?

In classical music concert circles, however, there is a ban on such spontaneity. Classical editor of Time Out magazine, Jonathan Lennie, has proposed that people shouldn't even clap right at the end. Instead, there should be a reverent pause before the hands are put together.

Lennie has written an open letter to the "Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts," asking why should anyone start "making a racket" the instant the work appears to be ended, when a period of dignified silence is much more appropriate? Some pieces positively demand it, he says. As Rohrer comments (tongue in cheek): "Take Schubert's bleak song cycle Wintereisse. You should apparently not be yelling 'bravo' between the songs, or going bananas at the end." (No matter how much the performers might enjoy it.)

Basic rules of concert-going etiquette:

* If everyone else is clapping, it is probably safe to do it yourself.

* Switch off mobile phone.

* No food in the auditorium (except for cough sweets, and please unwrap them before the music starts.)

* Avoid hacking cough during quiet bits (that's where the cough sweets come in).

I would also add singing along with the music. I paid good pocket money to go to a matinee of Traviata in Wellington when I was in my teens, and the Italian fisherman in the seat in front of me sang loudly along with the tenor.

And there should be another rule, according to the pedants:
* People don't normally clap between movements, they say.
But I'm not sure about this. Some movements positively demand it. In fact, according to Georgia Browne, a historical flute specialist, a lot of works were written with clapping between movements in mind. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven expected a hiatus between movements two and three, with a bit of ballet or singing to fill the gap. And refreshments. (A glass of wine would do that cough a power of good.) Which leads me to another idle thought -- what food would be appropriate? Champagne, strawberries, and ice cream for Mozart, definitely. Sausages and beer for Beethoven? All suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Books that change your life

Small press publisher Jacqueline Church Simonds has just posted her list of books that changed her life. Every other book blogger does it, she says, so why not join the throng?

I read her list with intense interest. There were a couple of nods -- Frank Herbert's Dune, and Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions are certainly up there, in my opinion, though I would make a trio by adding Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

There were raised eyebrows, too -- I may have a go at Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, a book I never imagined trying to read. But if it is funny, then I'll certainly give it a try. (Is it as disturbing and compelling as The Kite Runner, I wonder?) But as for Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire ... A long, wet weekend was spent with that book; it had been loaned by a friend who said, "You have to read this," and she was such a good, compatible friend that I was convinced I was in for a long, luxurious read. Instead, I endured three long days of frustration. I just could not get into the story, no matter how hard I tried. But then again, for me the ultimate vampire book is Richard Matheson's I am legend, which I discovered long before it became a cult novel. And of course there is Dracula ...

So, what about the books that changed my life? The list would certainly include Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and I am the cheese. The first is a study of power and the ultimate hopelessness of mutiny, the second the strangest and most compelling thriller I have ever read. Another thought-provoker was Kate Wilhelm's The Clewiston Test, which made me wonder deeply about the role pain plays in life.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was the first of many wonderful books that have brought the past alive. Melville's Moby-Dick taught me how the facts can be manipulated to create a dark, compelling, multi-layered yarn. Looking at books that stick to the facts, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale has to be the most astonishing piece of research I have ever read.

More to be added as titles come to mind. All suggestions and comments welcome.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nigerian writer awarded African "Booker"

Now, here is yet another writing prize I've never heard of before, and a very worthwhile and inspiring one, too -- even if some aspects of it are odd.

It is the CAINE PRIZE (named after the actor Michael Caine, apparently because at one stage he was chairman of the Booker committee), and is awarded annually for a short story written by an African writer.

It has to be published in English. Well, I suppose, considering the multiplicity of languages and dialects on the African subcontinent, that has logic behind it. But does the future hold a competition for EU writers that have to be published in English, too?

Despite that little quibble, I was delighted to read in the BBC arts and culture magazine that Mr. E.C. Osondu has scooped the award this year. The Chair of judges, New Statesman sub-editor Nana Yaa Mensah, described Mr. Osondu's story as "a tour de force describing, from a child's point of view, the dislocating experience of being a displaced person."

E.C. Osondu was born in Nigeria, worked for an advertising firm in Lagos, and then moved to New York to study creative writing at Syracuse University. He currently teaches literature at Providence Collge, Rhode Island.

The story is called Waiting, and was published in Read it yourself: It is funny; it is shocking; it is tragic; the characters are so swiftly and surely drawn that they are unforgettable. You will come away from it changed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Important new Captain Cook book

New Zealand's own expert on the life of James Cook, John Robson, has a new volume coming out in the UK, lovingly produced by Seaforth Publishing.

According to the publisher's website, this new book reveals that James Cook was chosen to lead the Endeavour expedition to the Pacific in 1768 because by that date he had become supremely and uniquely qualified for the exacting tasks of exploration.

This was a period when who you were and who you knew counted for more than ability, but Cook, through his own skills and application, rose up through the ranks of the Navy to become a remarkable seaman to whom men of influence took notice; Generals such as Wolfe and politicians like Lord Egmont took his advice and recognised his qualities.
During this period Cook added surveying, astronomical and cartographic skills to those of seamanship and navigation. He was in the thick of the action at the siege of Quebec during the Seven Years War, was the master of 400 men, and learned at first hand the need for healthy crews.

Highly readable and displaying much new research, this is an important new book for Cook scholars and armchair explorers alike.

Long-awaited sequel

Twenty years ago a novel set against the political backdrop of the newly independent India of the 1950s was published, and went on to sell more than a million copies.

It's quite a gap, but according to the BBC NEWS, a sequel is finally on track. Yes, Vikram Seth is writing the follow-up to his epic bestseller, A Suitable Boy.
In the original story, Lata's mother is looking for an acceptable bridegroon for her daughter. In this "jump sequel" Lata is an old woman searching for a "suitable girl" for her grandson, so the setting is a lot more modern, taking into account the great changes in India since 1952.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Whale Tale wins BBC non-fiction prize

Whales, it seems, are the flavor of the month. A book named Leviathan has won the twenty-thousand-pound BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

No, not the acclaimed account of the history of whaling in America, also called Leviathan, written by Eric Jay Dolin, which has won the John Lyman Award and L. Byrne Waterman Award, both for excellence in American maritime history.

This particular prizewinner is Leviathan, Or The Whale, the story of a man's lifelong obsession with whales, by Philip Hoare. According to the BBC announcement, Hoare describes his travels about the world in pursuit of whales, an odyssey he compares to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Or The Whale. Which must account for the coincidence in titles.
And no wonder Greenpeace has ordered another ship.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Those galleances again

Those loyal souls who have been reading this blog since it first began may remember a mystery I posed when reading the logbook kept by Capt. Samuel Wallis of the Dolphin in 1767, during the first European "discovery" of Tahiti.

Discovering also a woman he assumed to be the "queen," (Purea, aka Oborea), he presented her with a number of things, including three galleances.

Galleances? What the heck were galleances? Some kind of fowl, from the context. I posed the theory that they were guinea fowl: see "Galleances and guinea fowl" for the entire discussion.

And I received all kinds of interesting comments and suggestions -- but now I can triumphantly declare the mystery solved. And I was right! Three guinea fowl, they were.

My evidence comes from the private journal of James Burney, who sailed on the Adventure on Cook's second expedition. It was published by the National Library of Australia in Canberra in 1975, and edited by Beverley Hooper. On page 69, Lt. Burney is in Tahiti, making the observation that "Obreea" (Purea, the so-called queen) had fallen on hard times. "Captain Wallace had given Obreea a great many things amongst which were 2 Geese - 3 Guinea Hens - a Turkey cock & Hen & a Cat - of these the Indian [Omai] on board us, gave the following account. 1 of the Geese died - the Guinea hens were Stole from her & killed - the Turkey hen had 5 young ones but th cat killd them all. the Cat who was kitten miscarried, was stole & carried away to another Island & the Turkey hen is since dead -- So unlucky has Obreea been with these presents."

Those three poor guinea hens were unlucky, too. Doubtlessly they were cooked in an earth oven and eaten. I wonder what they tasted like?

Sailor's diary from Nelson's time

Anna Brady reports in the Antiques Trade Gazette that a treasure from the Nelson era has been sold for a record sum.
This is a very rare bird indeed -- the diary of an ordinary sailor, lavishly illustrated with his own watercolors.
Seaman George Hodge first went to sea in 1790, at the age of 13, and commenced his diary at the same time. By 1833 it had grown to 500 pages, and recorded Hodge's service in the Napoleonic wars and the American War of 1812.
Life in the forecastle was precarious in the extreme. Hodge was held twice as a prisoner of war by the French, and was press-ganged back into the navy after being released the second time.
The diary, offered with more than 600 other maritime items from a private estate, was listed for sale by Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth New Hampshire. Because of its rarity, the seaman's journal roused a great deal of interest, which was matched by the price received. Estimated at up to $50,000 it sold for $110,000.

Long time, no blog

Yes, yes, I know it has been a while. I have been sailing in Tupaia territory, including the island of his birth, Raiatea (pictured), where a breathtaking 4WD adventure took us across hills and through craters to his alma mater, the great marae Taputapuatea, on the southern coast at Opoa. This -- with Tahiti (and Samoa and Tonga) -- was an amazingly inspiring experience.
It was accomplished by cruise ship, which might seem bizarre. I have to admit that my spirit quailed before we boarded, as it seemed a crazy way of doing it (though very cheap, particularly considering prices in French Polynesia). However, it worked well, because I found that the cabin of a cruise ship is the Ideal Writing Environment. No phone, no internet, no meals to cook, no house to clean, nothing to do but write, save for the rushes up the deck to watch for island profiles. It was the closest I could get to Tupaia's voyaging in his home island network, without the prohibitive expense of a yacht. And there were other writers on board, after that Ideal Writing Environment. Joy Cowley was spied. And Graeme Lay was there, too, promoting his beautiful new book In Search of Paradise (Random House). Great fun.