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Tuesday, August 30, 2011


The romantic physician who inspired Dracula        

Life of the Day on the website of the Oxford Dictionary of Biography is that of John William Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron, who was by turns his friend, his rival, and his enemy.

The son of an immigrant Italian writer, Polidori became Byron's personal doctor just a few months after being awarded his MD degree on 1 August 1815 at the age of nineteen.  When the poet went on a trip to the Continent, Polidori accompanied him.  Byron's publisher, John Murray, offered him  £500 to keep a journal of the tour, but whether Byron knew this is unlikely, as it wasn't published until 1911.

They were not happy travelling companions.  Indeed, Byron became highly irritated by the rather pompous young doctor, as witness the following anecdote. 

"Pray, what is there excepting writing poetry that I can't do better than you?" demanded Polidori during one of their altercations.

"Three things," retorted the great poet (or words to that effect).  "First,  I can shoot out the keyhole of that door with a pistol.  Secondly, I could swim to the other side of that river.  And third,  I can give you a damned good thrashing."

Byron rented a house at Lake Geneva, and they were joined by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont.  One evening, after they had been reading a collection of horror stories (Tales of the Dead) to each other, Byron suggested they should each write a ghost story.

Mary wrote the tale that was later published as Frankenstein, Shelley wrote "A Fragment of a Ghost Story," and Byron wrote "Fragment of a Novel."  This last revolved about a charcter named Augustus Darvell.  Byron thought his contribution worthless enough to be discarded and forgotten, but Polidori was so inspired by it that he used the character of Darvell in his own tale, "The Vampyre," the first vampire story ever published in English.

He sold it to New Monthly Magazine after being dismissed by Byron and returning to England.  It appeared in the April 1819 issue -- under Byron's name, much to the poet's fury.  It was an editorial decision, apparently, because Polidori was chagrined, too.  Byron even retrieved and published his "Fragment of a Novel," to try to clarify the situation, but for a long time the public was convinced he was the author -- which didn't harm sales in the slightest.

"The Vampyre" was hugely popular, leading to many imitations, both on paper and on the stage, and the creation of a new genre that is a crowd-puller still this day.  Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexis Tolstoy all wrote vampire stories.  And then there was Bram Stoker's Dracula.  And that Stephanie Meyer series.

Single-handedly, Polidori transformed what had been vague folklore into the form discernible in all of the above -- of a handsome, aristocratic fiend who feeds on the highborn beautiful.

The fiend, in his story, was Lord Ruthven, a man of mysterious origins, who enters London society, and meets the young hero, Aubrey.  Enchanted, Aubrey accompanies Ruthven to Rome, but flees to Greece after the nobleman seduces a friend's daughter.  There, he falls in love with Ianthe, who tells him the story of the vampire.  Ruthven arrives, and Ianthe is murdered.  Heartbroken, Aubrey becomes Ruthven's companion again, an arrangement that comes to an end when they are attacked by bandits and Ruthven dies of his wounds.

But lo, after Aubrey returns to London, Ruthven reappears, as hale and hearty and evil as ever.  He seduces Aubrey's beautiful sister.  Aubrey dies in a bout of deep depression, desolate because he was unable to save her, and Ruthven marries the girl.  Within hours, she is discovered dead, drained of her blood.  Ruthven has vanished into the night.

Polidori's end was strangely like that of his tragic hero. He died in London on August 24, 1821, probably of suicide by poisoning, defeated by depression and gambling debts.   

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Whodunit" at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Sculptures at the Edinburgh Book Festival  

Mysterious sculptures have appeared at the Edinburgh Book festival - and no-one knows who left them.

Festival staff said they were "mystified and thrilled" by the gifts which have labels giving enthusiastic support to "literature and ideas".

The two sculptures were found on a signing table at the book shop and the entrance tent.

One is of a tray, with a cup of tea and a cupcake. The second is entitled Lost (Albeit in a good book).

It has a paper figure inside a forest created from a copy of James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The tea tray is inscribed "this cup is awarded to @edbookfest" - the festival's Twitter address.

It also contains a teabag full of letters, an unmarked book - and has a label marked "in support of libraries, books, words, ideas and festivals".

Over the past year similar sculptures have been left at the National Library of Scotland, the Scottish Poetry Library and the Scottish Storytelling Centre but their creator remains a mystery.

Festival director Nick Barley said: "I think there are seven or eight of these sculptures which have been delivered around the city.

"I would like to see them all together in a public place.

"It is an incredible piece of art that has the book at the centre of its work."

To read more about the festival:  BBC News/arts and culture

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Poetic farewell for Happy Feet

Geographically challenged penguin to be packed off home

The whole world, it seems, knows the story of Happy Feet, the confused Emperor Penguin who swam well off course, and landed on Peka Peka Beach north of Wellington, instead of some ice-shelf in the Antarctic.

At first the adolescent stray was simply a cute curiosity, as wildlife officers issued instructions to leave him alone.  Alas, he made yet another blunder -- when he got over-heated he mistook sand for nice, cooling snow (which, it seems, is eaten by penguins to counter hot flashes), and packed his tummy full of grit.  In a word, he weighed himself down, at dire risk of life.

So he was carted off to the Wellington Zoo, where he was given a nest of party ice, had the sand surgically removed, and became a local icon.  There was even talk of making him the All Blacks' mascot for the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

Instead, now that he's back to blooming health, he is being carried back to his proper environment, courtesy of a voyage on the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA) vessel Tangaroa.

Lots of words have been written about this headline grabber, many of them in response to a competition for the best poem about young Happy Feet, the prize for the two winners and nine finalists being guest attendance at a farewell party for the penguin at the zoo today -- plus publication in the Dominion Post


Happy Feet Happy Feet
Loves to groove to an invisible beat
Poor guy my oh my
Why did he swallow a sand and stick pie?
We hope he gets safely back
And joins up with his royal pack
Thanks to the team at the Wellington zoo
For healing him and saving him too!

The wind blows hard,
The temperatures plunge
The sky is dark,
The waves rampage,
I'm tossed,

My flippers are weak,
And my energy's gone,
I've struggled so far,
And had nothing to eat,
I'm lost.

I'm all alone
In a foreign place,
The sand's too dry,
Stones have no taste,
I'm beached.

Before I know it,
I'm surrounded,
Human's concern
Here abounded.
I'm blessed.

Weak and helpless,
I don't enjoy it,
The stares, the fuss,
The skill, the focus,
I must rest.

I'm going home,
I heard them say,
For me these people,
go all the way,
I'm stoked.

The competition drew entries from as far away as California, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Wrote the Irish contestant, Quinn Delaney, Oh, wee emperor mine / you've taught me much in a short time / on life, love and thermometers too / but way too much about penguin poo

Quinn, and anyone else who is interested, can follow Happy Feet's journey after release (about four days after sailing), courtesy of a GPS tracker that has been attached to his neck feathers. 

He can be found on twitter @Lost_Penguin



Saturday, August 27, 2011

Interview with an invisible thriller writer

A chat with famous playwright and pseudonymous thriller writer, Greg McGee, aka Alix Bosco

Cut & Run: When the Truth is No Protection
Ever since the launch of a new thriller series, beginning with the commercially successful, well reviewed, award-winning, Cut and Run, there has been huge speculation about the identity of the author, "Alix Bosco."  Theories abounded, and bloggers had lots of fun. 

Earlier this month it was revealed that Alix was none other than Greg McGee, wellknown writer for television, theater, and film.  Greg has very kindly agreed to subject himself to the following soul-searching questions:

Greg, you embarked on the voyage of life as a rebellious baby-boomer who happened to be good at the famous Kiwi collision-sport known as Rugby.  After playing at top level, including All Black trials, you exploded onto the literary world with an enormously successful play satirizing rugby culture, called Foreskin's Lament.  Not only did it get you a lot of admiring attention, but it happened at the indecently young (for a writer) and rather vulnerable age of just thirty.  

Did this sudden success mean that you felt confined to writing social commentary after that?  Stuck in a niche, as it were?  Is that the reason you chose to write thrillers under a penname? 

I guess it’s nice to be remembered for something! But you’re right, in that the success of "Foreskin’s Lament" back in the 1980s has proven difficult to get out from under. I’ve worked mainly in television and film since, but despite creating God knows how many different characters, many of them women, and despite winning every screenplay and scriptwriting award available in NZ, some of them several times over, and a Writer’s Foundation of America award, I’m still known as that bloke who played rugby back in the day and wrote that play about rugby, a bloke who writes about Kiwi blokes.

So when this character Anna Markunas started telling me her story, and it developed into a novel that happened to be a whodunit, I worried that Anna would have no chance of being received as a credible character if my name was on the book. By then I was very attached to her – she’d given me one of the best writing experiences I’ve had. My fears were confirmed by the readers of the manuscript, the very different responses from those who knew my name and those who didn’t. So, as proud as I was of my first novel I began the fight to keep my name off the cover. And it was a fight – no author means no interviews, and I was warned by Penguin and my agent not to do it if I wanted the book to sell. But I felt that my first obligation was to Anna, to give her a chance. So that’s how it all began.

One of the plays that followed [Foreskin’s Lament] was Out in the Cold, about a solo mother who cross-dresses as a man to get a job in the freezing works.  In many ways, it was a feminist as well as a social statement.  Did this influence you at all in the development of the character of the feisty and angst-ridden Anna Markunas?

Funnily enough, Joan, that’s my favorite play, after "Me & Robert McKee." In retrospect, I can see common elements. Outsiders are attractive to write, partly because many writers feel that they’re outsiders by virtue of their chosen profession (are we outsiders because we’re writers, or are we writers because we’re outsiders?), but also because of the unique perspective characters who are outsiders can bring to an environment. In "Out In The Cold," I wanted to put Jude into the most male environment I knew, the freezing chambers at the end of the slaughterhouse chain. She had good reason to be there, it was one of the highest paid labouring jobs in the land at the time. She was the ultimate outsider, but had to pretend not to be, to survive in that environment. 

Anna Markunas is also something of an outsider: her provenance is quite unusual for a New Zealander -  of Lithuanian stock, brought up by a solo mother who was a Second World War refugee, and whose job as a mid-wife took her from town to town, so that Anna was continually uprooted from school and friends and never felt that she really belonged. That’s an aspect of the pakeha [European] New Zealand character that really interests me, the longing to feel that we really belong here on this sliver of land at the edge of the world. Unlike the Maori, we Europeans have been here such a short time really, and while that youth gives rise to energy, robustness and a pioneering spirit, the flipside might be an insecurity about truly belonging. That’s certainly true of Anna, and it gives her empathy for other outsiders (who are often the kind of people who end up as victims in crime fiction and thrillers!).

 The first Anna Markunas book, Cut and Run, won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award, which was supposed to be presented at the Christchurch literary festival in September last year. Not only did a tragic earthquake fatally stall the proceedings, but you, as the anonymous winner, did not make an appearance.

It must have been hard not to feel bad about it (though of course you were not responsible for the quake!), because the bloggers had such a field day.  Any thoughts of turning the strange experience into a play?

I did feel regret at not being able to support last year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards, particularly after the quake delayed the original ceremony, but I didn’t realise my non-attendance was going to be such an anti-climax at the Awards ceremony because I didn’t know Cut & Run was going to win. Certainly, as soon as Slaughter Falls was chosen as a finalist this year, I knew I had to come out. I hope the support and the publicity my coming out has brought the Ngaio Marsh Awards this year has made up a little for last year. Don’t know about the play, Joan  – I’d have to cast myself as the villain, wouldn’t I?

Would Greg McGee have to cast himself as a villain? 

I personally feel that his very candid answers reveal him as something more than that ...

What do you think?

Comments welcome!

Quake tumbles books off library shelves

A proud librarian reported to MediaBistro that during the earthquake in Virginia this week, more than 27,000 books fell off the shelves at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library -- but within a day they were back where they were supposed to be.

Here’s more from the library: “The ground shook. The books dropped. The staff got to work… But just more than 24 hours after the quake, all the books were on carts, ready to be evaluated and sorted. Workers separated damaged books from those ready to be reshelved. Great people work in libraries.”

Earthquakes on the granite-bound coast of America!  A record hurricane has everyone braced on the same eastern seaboard (and fingers tightly crossed that damage is minimal).  One can't help but muse that the gods must be angry.  It is a saving grace of the human race, however, that there is always a glimmer of humor.  Witness a joke received this morning from Massachusetts:

BREAKING NEWS! President Obama has just confirmed that the DC earthquake occurred on a rare and obscure fault-line, apparently known as "Bush's Fault". Obama also announced that the Secret Service and Maxine Waters continues an investigation of the quake's suspicious ties to the Tea Party. Conservatives however have proven that it was caused by the founding fathers rolling over in their graves.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The "bestseller" list of banned books

Once a year, the American Library Association publishes a Top Ten list of controversial library books

Whether they have been banned, or not, is up to the board of each library, but here is the list, in order, of books that have come under attack:

The TTYL; TTFN; LBR; G8R series, by Lauren Myracle (YA books written in text-talk, with teenaged-style sexual references)

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Pamell and Justin Richardson (A cute, well-reviewed book about a couple of male penguins who love each other and want to raise an egg)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (Debut novel with mixed reviews about the inner struggles of a boy who can't help being a geek)

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (Enduring classic about racism, through the eyes of a child)

Twilight (series) by Stephanie Meyer (I found the final volume very disturbing, too -- but what's the point of banning something the kids would kill to get their hands on, anyway?)

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (Classic about the challenges of adolescence, told in brilliant, tough, streetwise, stream of consciousness style.)

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult (Thought-provoking novel about a 13-year-old who has been donating bits of her body to her cancer-ridden sister for years, and wants to get control back.)

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn McKler (The inner struggles of a girl who is unhappy with her physique)

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (The deathless story of Celie, and her struggles to protect her sister from the cruelty and sexual abuse she is enduring herself)

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (Memorable and disturbing, a story every adolescent boy who questions the world around him should read)

Quite apart from the self-defeating madness of trying to ban books, it is interesting to see how the list has evolved.  It is still possible to suspect that the people who hate these stories are racist, but on the whole it is yet another facet of the current passion (also doomed) to protect adolescents from themselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Tip for book signings

Book signings can be boring, but they can also be delectable

It's great when a fan comes at you out of the blue, with one of your books held out enticingly, and asks with a beguiling grin if you would be kind enough to sign it.

It can be less than wonderful sitting at a table in a bookstore, waiting with increasing desperation for people to buy your book. It's a great deal better to watch a queue inch toward you, but even that can become tiresome.  Faces blur, and individuals become ciphers.  Your smile becomes stiff and automatic.

According to the Authors Guild Bulletin, which quotes The Guardian, it's possible, however, to turn a profit out of that queue -- a profit beyond book royalties.

 As the very amusing story relates, bestselling author David Sedaris keeps a tip jar on the signing table.  He explains it away by saying that it is for money "for me to spend on candy."  And, it seems, people put money in the jar "because it's funny to give money to someone who doesn't need it."

His last book tour netted him $4,000 in tips.

That's a helluva lot of chocolate.

Digital taking on pace

eBooks and apps are being launched in tandem with printed books

And important books are being launched as stand-alone eBooks

Publishers are covering their bets -- or so it seems from a quick scan of the deals described in this week's Publishers Lunch "Lunch Weekly."

For instance:

Tim Ferriss, #1 NYT Bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body has sold a manuscript called THE 4-HOUR CHEF, which will make the secrets of the culinary arts and nutrition accessible to all via his life-hacking style and teaching readers to cook (and much more) while they gain practical applications of Ferriss's The Slow-Carb Diet -- to none other than Larry Kirshbaum at Amazon Publishing. Unsurprisingly, perhaps,  an enhanced ebook will be launched globally alongside the hardcover.

Composer Philip Glass has sold his memoir to Robert Weil at Liveright.  What promises to be an engaging story of his youth and what influenced his music, including work at his father's record store in Baltimore, and collaborating with Ravi Shankar and Allen Ginsbert, will be published with an app containing original Glass music.

FOX News Channel's digital-only enhanced ebook RISE OF FREEDOM: The New World Trade Center, providing an overview of the rebuilding effort that has taken place at Ground Zero over the last 10 years, exploring all aspects of the new World Trade Center site, including building details, the construction process and timeline, and the individuals and organizations that made the rebuilding effort possible, with 85 photos, original animation, and an introduction and 15 videos by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith reporting from Ground Zero, has been sold to Ana Maria Allessi at Harper, for publication on August 23, 2011.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Algorithms and expensive books

A $24 million book, out of print, and about flies

I can't resist passing on a blogpost by eminent American biologist and researcher, Michael Eisen, about the strange discovery he made when he looked up an out-of-print textbook on Amazon.

A colleague in his lab logged onto, to buy an extra copy of Peter Lawrence's The Making of a Fly -- which, it seems, is the classic text on Drosophila (aka the common or garden fruit fly).

To his surprise, he found that he was going to have to dig deep into the petty cash to buy a new copy, as one was priced at $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

Yikes!  A million bucks for a textbook!

Eisen confesses he thought it was a prank -- but there were two copies for sale, each well over a million bucks.  Two jokes in tandem?  Surely not.

Even more mysteriously, when the page was reloaded the next day, the price had gone up.  Each was nearly $2.8 million!

The clue lay in the competition between the two sellers, who were quoting sums within five thousand bucks of each other.  Out came the calculator.  The copy offered by bordeebook was 1.270589 times the price quoted by pronath, a pattern that repeated itself as the price soared each day.  "So clearly," he says, "at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other's price...

"Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook's price.  The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook "noticed" profnath's change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath's higher price."

But why make a book more expensive than the competition? 

Eisen deduced that profnath had a copy of the book, but bordeebook did not.  Accordingly, bordeebook would want to make sure that their non-existent copy would always be a little more expensive, so that if they got an order, they could buy profnath's book, and cover costs when they sold it.

The next mystery was how long it would take to notice.  Eisen can even put a date on it: 19 April 2011, the day after the price peaked at $23,698,655.93 (+$3.99 shipping).

What triggered this sudden comprehension?  The joke reviewers, most probably.  Going into the current page for The Making of a Fly is an amusing experience, as the posters have had such a lot of fun.

John Taylor Kesler writes, for instance:

I was fortunate enough to buy this at the bargain price of $19,087,354 there must have been a sale because the next day it was listed at $23M. I was very pleased to find upon arrival that the book contained very useful information, however to be honest I was expecting a few more pictures for the price paid. I highly recommend this to all my associates, I have many acquaintances with children in only the best private schools who will be buying several copies. If the price has you worried, ask yourself the American question: "can you really put a price on good education?"

Explore the rest, if you have time to sit back and laugh.

And, oh yes, the book is now priced at $308.58

Paul Cleave wins Ngaio Marsh crime prize

"Gruesomely gripping story" wins NZ crime writing award
Blood Men: A Thriller
Paul Cleave's Blood Men has been judged the best crime thriller published by a New Zealander in 2010.

Christchurch is not only Cleave's hometown, but also the site of his triumph, the awards ceremony having been held there.

It was a moment to savor.  A bestselling author overseas, Cleave has gone mostly unnoticed in his homeland.  He has sold 600,000 books in 19 countries, but only a few in New Zealand.

In 2007 his debut, The Cleaner, was the crime bestseller on Amazon Germany.  A French producer is currently seeking to make it a big budget film.

The judges priased Blood Men as "a gruesomely gripping story told in clean, sharp prose, with authentically laconic dialogue and flashes of dark humour."

The three other finalists were Neil Cross (Captured), Paddy Richardson (Hunting Blind) and Alix Bosco (aka Greg McGee) (Slaughter Falls).

The appearance of the last-named contender must have raised a stir, as the identity of "Alix Bosco" -- the invisible winner of last year's contest -- has been a mystery.

Please note my blog, dated 10 November 2010, in which I passed on a whisper from that perceptive rodent, Spymouse, that Alix Bosco was none other than Greg McGee.

A rumor that he apparently denied.  See next post.

Can you blame me for wearing a very broad grin?

Monday, August 22, 2011


For more than a year now, speculation has been rife about the identity of ...


"Well, there's another theory blown out of the water," I ruefully wrote.  This was after I reported that I had heard gossip (from Spymouse, him-or-herself), that the anonymous author of Cut and Run, the whodunit that won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel, was none other than well-known New Zealand playwright, Greg McGee

I had no way of proving my little friend right or wrong -- In order to preserve his/her anonymity, Bosco had declined to turn up to the inaugural awards ceremony.

Did the subterfuge help sales?

Who knows?

But looking back on history can be very interesting indeed.  Back when speculation was rife, in a very well-crafted column in Booknotes, (the newsletter of the New Zealand Book Council), Greg McGee revealed that though he had been "flattered by a rumour that I am Alix Bosco," he declined to be identified as such.

McGee knew the book that won the inaugural award (Cut and Run) well, as he is one of the team that is working it up for TV, and, as he said in the Booknotes column, "can vouch for it as a beautifully structured whodunit. I thought," he added thoughtfully, "I should read Bosco's follow up, to see if I should still be flattered."

And lo, he proceeded to review this second book, Slaughter Falls, in succinct, thoughtful prose, just as if some stranger had been the author.

Well, he decided at the end, he was still flattered, but not, alas, "as flattered as I'd be if I'd been mistaken for Justin Cartwright," author of To Heaven By Water.

And now it turns out that Spymouse was right!  He, Greg McGee was the author of the "beautifully structured whodunit" that won the inaugural award.   The evidence is there, within parentheses, in today's award announcement.

I read it in today's Dominion Post.   Slaughter Falls by "Alix Bosco (aka Greg McGee)" had been a runner up in the Ngaio Marsh competition.

I shook my head, truly.

How devious can a man be?

For interest, here is my original take on this book: Caramelised chicken tuna and Alix Bosco

Friday, August 19, 2011

The company behind Standard & Poors should not be in educational publishing

From Publishers Lunch

For years investors have disapproved of McGraw-Hill's portfolio, which folds the S&P Credit Ratings Agency, Education, and other unrelated businesses under the same umbrella. Recent share pickups by activist hedge fund Jana Partners in tandem with the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund heightened calls for the company to break up, sell, or spin off some of its divisions - especially the education side, the largest group within the company.

The WSJ first reported, with other outlets following with their own unnamed sources or "people briefed on the matter" that McGraw-Hill retained investment bank Evercore Partners to advise the company on a possible separation of the education division. Evercore's task, part of McGraw-Hill's larger operational review which the company discussed on its most recent earnings calls, was to see if as separation was viable and, if it was, whether the division should be sold, spun off or offered in a share sale. Per the WSJ a sale appears unlikely now for tax reasons, but if the education division became a standalone unit through a spinoff, sale talks may come at a later date.

Scholarly comment on Tupaia

From Cambridge

Scholarly comment on the contribution of Tupaia to the broad topic of Civilizations in Contact.

 I know that Alan Moorhead touched on these topics years ago in his "Fatal Impact" but the fantastic detail in your "Tupaia" does so bring home the awful wall of incomprehension that must have baffled both cultures at that period.

What a wonderful and intelligent man Tupaia must have been, and it was really very sad-making to read your final chapters of his illness and death. Such an unnecessary death in modern terms.

It has become a bit fashionable, perhaps, in the past few decades to attack the people who for a long time have been heroes of the British Empire: Scott, T.E. Lawrence, Kitchener etc. I am sure that you did not intend "Tupaia" to be iconoclastic, even though James Cook worshippers might be affronted at suggestions that he was a bit devious. But isn't it so typical of the heroes of that time, especially the men of action in the Royal Navy, to have an absolute almost fanatical faith in their own rightness, and superiority of knowledge and intelligence over the natives of foreign places. One thinks of Franklin, who might have survived if he had been more aware of the ways in which the Inuit survive in those barren regions of northern Canada.

I have really enjoyed reading "Tupaia" and it has made me think very differently about many things. Why is it, for example, that some British people are so alienated from the standards that we and our friends accept as normal, that they should think it their right to go out to loot and burn?

With thanks to Dr Martin Evans

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ancient ship's medical chest reveals much

From Nick Squires, writing for the New Zealand Herald 

A first-aid kit found on a 2000-year-old shipwreck has provided a remarkable insight into the medicines concocted by ancient physicians to cure sailors of dysentery and other ailments.

Medicines found inside a wooden chest included pills made of ground-up vegetables, herbs and plants such as celery, onions, carrots, cabbage, alfalfa and chestnuts - all ingredients referred to in classical medical texts.

The tablets, which have miraculously survived being under water for more than two millennia, also contain extracts of parsley, nasturtium, radish, yarrow and hibiscus.

They were found in 136 tin-lined wooden vials on a 15m-long trading ship which was wrecked about 130BC off the coast of Tuscany.

Scientists believe they would have been used to treat gastrointestinal complaints suffered by sailors such as dysentery and diarrhoea.

"It's a spectacular find. They were very well sealed," said Dr Alain Touwaide, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC.

"The plants and vegetables were probably crushed with a mortar and pestle - we could still see the fibres in the tablets. They also contained clay, which even today is used to treat gastrointestinal problems."

The pills are the oldest-known archaeological remains of ancient pharmaceuticals.

They would have been taken with a mouthful of wine or water, or may have been dissolved and smeared on skin to treat inflammation and cuts.

Historians believe the presence of the medicine chest suggests that the ship may have had a doctor on board, or at least someone trained in rudimentary first aid.

The chest also contained spatulas, suction cups and a mortar and pestle.

The vessel was transporting amphorae of wine, glassware, ceramics and oil lamps when it sank in 18m of water between the Italian mainland and the island of Elbe.

"We still don't know whether it was Roman or Greek or Phoenician, nor do we know whether it was a long-distance trading ship operating throughout the Mediterranean or a coastal vessel," said Touwaide.
He said the discovery showed that medical knowledge contained in ancient Greek texts, and later in the writings of Roman scholars such as Pliny, was being put into practise in the Roman Empire.

The ship was discovered off the port of Piombino in 1974 and the wooden medicine box was found in 1989, but it is only now that scientists have been able to use DNA-sequencing technology to analyse the contents of the pills.

Gino Fornaciari, a paleo-pathologist from Pisa University, said: "As well as understanding
how the ancient Romans treated each other, we are learning more about what illnesses they suffered from."

Study in Scarlet banned in Virginia

Aren't fictional characters allowed to express opinions any more?     

A Sherlock Holmes book has been banned from a school district in Virginia for allegedly expressing anti-Mormon sentiments. The school board removed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet from sixth-grade reading lists after a parent complained that it was anti-Mormon.

If you’d like to read the controversial work, Project Gutenberg has the free download. Jacket Copy has a first-hand account about attending school in this district.

New York Magazine has more: “The book, which includes a character who thinks marrying a Mormon is ‘a shame and a disgrace,’ will still be available to older students who wish to pollute their minds. Sixth graders will be left to read other Holmes books that include such wholesome topics as injecting cocaine with a special syringe that has its own leather case.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The devilish details behind the fall of RedGroup

A fascinating op-ed in today's Dominion Post

Business reporter and commentator David Hargreaves meditates on the failure of a big box business

He begins:

The abrupt demise in February of trans-Tasman retailer RedGroup will for many reasons remain one of the more unsatisfactory corporate sagas in New Zealand's recent history.

Why?  Because reasons for its failure still merit deep analysis.  What, exactly, went wrong?

Good theories are listed:

# Management market decisions did not reflect market demands, leading to overstocking with hard-to-sell items

# Decisions were made in Australia without enough communication with Kiwi counterparts, meaning that Christmas stock, for instance, did not arrive in time

# Loss-making stores were not identified and culled

# Poor interior organization, making the shopping and browsing experience more difficult than necessary

Communication seems to have been a major problem, being so foggy that it was utterly misleading.  For instance, in 2009 RedGroup trumpeted a 52% increase in sales, leading to gossip that a stockmarket float was being contemplated, worth up to $600 million.  Just one year later the company admitted to banking covenant breaches, and announced a loss of $43 million Australian.

Somehow, in the fog, a private equity owner, PEP, finished up being the major secured lender, not Bank of Scotland/Fortress, as was generally believed.  Yet this big change in financing was not explicitly revealed in the December 2010 report.  Commercial sensitivity?  Or an attempt to hide the fact that RedGroup was in big financial trouble?

Because the changed situation wasn't obvious, suppliers were still giving the company credit, and missed the chance to cut their losses.

PEP is also very likely to be a big loser.  Most of the Australian operations have simply closed down, after liquidating their stock.  The situation in New Zealand is much brighter: though sale prices of New Zealand assets have been kept confidential, reports from RedGroup's voluntary administrator Ferrier Hodgson reveal that about NZ$45 million was received from Anne and David Norman for the Whitcoulls bookstore chain, and just over two million for the five Borders stores.

It's quite an investment, particularly considering that the ten airport Whitcoulls stores and the eight Bennetts academic bookstores have gone to other buyers.  The Normans have the fervent best wishes of the whole book community in their effort to resuscitate the old and iconic Whitcoulls brand.

Kindle million club grows

Janet Evanovich and Kathryn Stockett have each sold more than a million Kindle books, joining what Amazon has termed the “Kindle Million Club.”
The authors join Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Charlaine Harris, Lee Child, Suzanne Collins, Michael Connelly and John Locke, who have also passed the million mark in sales of their eBooks in the Kindle Store. According to the release, Stockett is the first debut novelist to reach this milestone.
Evanovich’s latest novel Smokin’ Seventeen has spent more than 100 days on the Kindle Best Seller list. Stockett’s novel, The Help, has been No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list and was just adapted into a film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From the Edinburgh Book Festival

Sarah Brown, wife of the former prime minister, whose memoir Behind The Black Door published earlier this year gave an account of family life in 10 Downing Street, is due to speak at the Edinburgh Book festival today. Yesterday she tweeted that she was "pretty sure questions will relate to the last few weeks as so much has been happening".

Also speaking today will be Booker Prize winner and Scottish author Ali Smith, and Caitlin Moran, whose book How To Be A Woman raced up the Amazon book charts upon its release earlier this year.

The Fair runs until 29 August.

Literary birthdays

Happy birthday, authors!

Well, this is another on-this-day post, taken from yesterday's Dominion Post, 15 August 2011

But at least that means it is the right and current date for my readers, who are mostly on the other side of the date line.

On this day, 15 August, Sir Walter Scott was born.  Happy 240th birthday, Sir Walter! 

An inspirational man in many ways, Walter Scott (pictured) fought a bout with polio in his youth, and was sent from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders area to walk away his lameness in the wilderness.  While there, he absorbed the Border tales that influenced much of his work.  It also helped him grow into a tall, stalwart man, with legendary stamina.

He was apprenticed to his father, a lawyer, became an advocate in 1792, and waxed affluent with investment in publishing (Ballentyne & Co.) and the success of novels such as the immortal Ivanhoe.  About 1825, however, there was a financial crisis, and he was one of the many who was financially ruined.  Refusing to declare bankruptcy, he put all his property into a trust for his creditors and declared his intention to write his way out of debt.  He didn't manage it in his lifetime (he died in mysterious circumstances in 1832) but the continuing success of his novels repaid all the outstanding monies.   

Scott was the first English language author to become an international bestseller in his own lifetime. He was also the author of the epic poem Lady of the Lake. I remember as a student teacher watching a class that was listening unusually quietly as their elderly lady teacher read the poem in sonorous tones.  What I could see from the back of the class, and what she could not, was that they were surreptitiously tossing a ball of her knitting wool from hand to hand.  When she came to the line, Oh! what a tangled web we weave! they all lifted their hands in unison, holding up the web of wool they had made.

Luckily, she laughed.

Other literary birthdays:

Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom -- which is definitely one of the ten books I would take to a desert island.

Stieg Larsson, Swedish author of you-know-what...

And why has the Dominion Post not arrived today?  Because our usually temperate city was paralyzed by snow this morning.  Read all about it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

New short story competition

The inaugural Graeme Lay Short Story Competition

The NZSA Auckland Branch is pleased to announce The inaugural Graeme Lay Short Story Competition

Graeme Lay (pictured) is an editor and a prolific writer of stories, magazine articles, television plays, and books of fiction and non-fiction.

He was books editor of North & South magazine from 1990-1999, and in 1999 and 2002 he was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards for his YA novels.

The winner of the Graeme Lay Short Story Competition will receive $250.00, presented by Graeme Lay himself, at the December meeting of the branch, where the story will be read to the assembled members.

The winning short story will be published in the issue of The New Zealand Author which follows the December meeting

The catch.  International authors are not eligible.  Neither are Wellingtonians.

Conditions of entry
The competition is only open to NZSA Auckland branch members. All entries must be original and not previously published or broadcast. Entries should contain 1500 words or fewer.  The manuscript should be typewritten, on A4 sheets, double-spaced, and with clear margins.
There is a $10.00 entry fee. More than one story may be submitted, but the entry fee applies to each story entered. A title page should contain the title of the story, the number of words it contains and the writer’s nom-de-plume.

In a brief covering note, provide your name and address, the title of your story and the nom-de-plume you have used on the manuscript.
Hard copies of the entries and the $10.00 entry fee per story should be posted to:
The Graeme Lay Short Story Competition, c/o The NZSA, PO Box 7701, Wellesley St, Auckland 1141.

The closing date for entries is 31st October 2011


Intriguing discussion on the maritime history list

As readers know, I am a longtime member of MARHST-L, a maritime history discussion list that is run from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  Just occasionally, maritime words are discussed, the latest being the word DERELICT.

Writes Morgiana Halley: 

Our friend, Michael Quinion, at World Wide Words this week has treated "flotsam," "jetsam," "lagan," and "derelict." 

 He gave the following definition of "derelict:"

 ... "derelict" in this context has a technical sense of goods that have sunk to the seabed, can't be retrieved and are regarded as having been abandoned by their owner.

 Personally, (she comments) I have never associated the term "derelict" with "goods," that word always being associated in my mind with cargo. It has always been my understanding (and I may be in error, which is why I'm posting this) that "a derelict" (note the article) was the remains of a foundered vessel, entirely or almost entirely submerged, which remained unsecured and posed a drifting, and therefore unchartable, hazard to maritime traffic.

Can anyone shed further light on this? (she asks)  I find no serious quibble with the other definitions -- flotsam (floating debris), jetsam (items jettisoned from a vessel to prevent its sinking), and lagan (sunken salvageable goods marked for retrieval).

The first to reply was Roger Jordan.

This is an interesting one, Morg. (he writes)
Many years ago, when I was young, I had the distinct pleasure of being deputy archivist at Lloyd’s for what is now the Lloyd’s Maritime Collection at the Guildhall Library in London. Thanks to the many hours that I spent perusing casualty reports in Lloyd’s List, I have since been of the impression that a derelict is a vessel that has been abandoned  by its crew, for example, because of dismasting, becoming waterlogged, etc, and thus for the latter example being partially submerged. I certainly recall reading reports of derelicts being towed into port.

Commented Tom Brady:

The word itself, rather than its connotations, comes originally from the  Latin "relinquare" meaning "to forsake, or give up" vide licet "relinquish".

And William O'Neil provided the definitive answer:

The OED knows no such usage. The relevant part of their entry is
"A piece of property abandoned by the owner or guardian; esp. a vessel abandoned at sea.
"1670    London Gaz. No. 534/1,   A small Virginia ship laden with Tobacco, which they seised as a Derelict, pretending the men had forsaken the ship.
"1728    E. Chambers Cycl.,   Derelicts, in the Civil-Law, are such Goods as are wilfully thrown away, or relinquish'd by the Owner.
"1842    T. De Quincey Mod. Greece in Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. July 13/2   Often plague would absolutely depopulate a region. In such cases, mere strangers would oftentimes enter upon the lands as a derelict.
"1877    W. Thomson Voy. Challenger iv. 61   On the morning of March 23rd we steamed in search of the derelict."
Second edition, 1989; online version June 2011.
; accessed 13 August 2011.
Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1895.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Author of TUPAIA wins award

2011 CLL/NZSA Research Grants

The Stout Centre Research Grant has been awarded to Joan Druett.  (Yes, that's me!)  My project is a study of the first 50 years of United States consuls in New Zealand, a period extending from about 1835 to 1885, when the last regularly scheduled American ship departed from New Zealand.  (And yes, it is a maritime history.)

I'm personally delighted to win this award.  Not only is it a reassuring encouragement to write up a pet topic (those consuls were an entertaining lot), but it means I return for two months to the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University.  The years I spent there were among the best of my life; the friendliness and willingness to share hard-won knowledge is amazing. 

The other study award goes to Tauranga author Jenny Argante, who receives the Open Grant for research into the life of Dame Evelyn Stokes, who was a figure of significance in the Bay of Plenty and nationally as one of the first scholars to take seriously the connections between geography and culture. Throughout her life Stokes worked for recognition of marginalised groups including women and Mâori, and she published extensively on New Zealand historical geography and on Mâori land issues.

The awards, valued at $3,500 each, will be awarded at the CLL Writers Awards ceremony held in Auckland on 1 September.

Copyright Licensing Ltd. announce shortlist

2011 Finalists for New Zealand's Richest Non-Fiction Writer's Award Announced

Finalists for the 2011 CLL Writers’ Awards were announced today.

2011 is the 10th anniversary of the awards and will mark an investment by Copyright Licensing Limited of $1 million into New Zealand non-fiction.  Eight previous winners have already published their books, with 3 more titles due to go to print in the next 12 months. These will include the 2010 winners, Dame Christine Cole Catley and Steve Braunias, and one of the successful titles from 2009 by Peter Wells. Another former CLL winner, No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson by Paul Millar, was a finalist in the General Non-fiction category of the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards.

2011 sees a change in the format of the awards, with 5 finalists being chosen from an exciting and varied list of applications. The 2 overall winners, who will each receive $35000, will be announced at the awards event at the National Library in Auckland on 1 September.

The five finalists and their proposed works are:

• Dr Lee DavidsonMountain Feeling : The Lives of Climbers and Other Stories
• Bradford HaamiKa Mau Te Wehi : May the Force Be With You
• Janet Hunt – Dick Henry and the Birds
• Dr Malcolm McKinnon The 1930’s Depression in New Zealand
• Melissa Williams Maori Urban Migrations from North Hokianga to Auckland 1930 – 1970

CEO of CLL, Paula Browning says, “The Selection Panel for the 2011 awards commented on the extremely high standard of the 69 applications that were received and the mix of proposals from both emerging and established writers. This shows that non-fiction writing in NZ is alive and well.”

The awards are financed from copyright licensing revenue received by CLL from New Zealand institutions on behalf of authors and publishers. They enable New Zealand writers to devote time to specific non-fiction projects. Two research grants, provided in conjunction with the NZ Society of Authors and the Stout Research Centre, will also be awarded at the event on 1 September.