Rooms of Their Own: Where Great Writers Write by Alexa Johnson is charming and fascinating, and surprising too – who knew that W.H. Auden felt he could only work in slovenly, filthy conditions? or that Maya Angelou wrote in local hotel rooms, leaving home each day to work while guarded by anonymity-protecting hotel staff? Some writers, like Isabelle Allende and Haruki Murakami, have particular objects they need nearby, while one or two, like Margaret Atwood, can write anywhere, although they too have their own rooms.
James Baldwin went daily to the Cafe de Flore in Paris, writing surrounded by coffee, treats and other literary luminaries, Michel de Montaigne had his tower and George Bernard Shaw his writing hut that revolved, while Virginia Woolf had her wooden garden shed… The book is beautifully designed, with bright watercolours that offer a glimpse of the special spaces. There is an excellent range of writers from the Western canon, including beloved children’s writers like Beatrix Potter, J.K. Rowling and Judith Kerr (note Mog’s tail flicking by her desk!); and many tidbits to amuse and spark interest: I am going to look at Auden again after reading about the squalor he cultivated. Interspersed with the 50 individual writers are short essays on such intriguing topics as writing while recumbent; pets; typewriters; rejection letters…
Where would you write? What would you need about you to entice the muse to visit – or at least make it bearable to just sit down and knock out the words you need to… what would you banish? Zadie Smith has two computers, one that isn’t connected to the internet to remove all temptation of distraction, while Murakami listens to music but Stephen King, in his early days a music-while-writing writer now only has it on when he is revising.
“We live in a world filled with many amazing technologies. They let us travel with incredible swiftness. They let us talk to people at a distance, find out information or look at cat pictures. They let us limit the effects of a deadly virus.
What if there were other technologies in our world that enabled us to overcome loneliness? Or heal grief? Or solve mysteries? Or maintain courage in adversity? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone could invent technologies like these?
Good news! Someone already has.
I’ve been reading the book Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher, and he makes the case that about 2500 years ago, a group of people living in the eastern Mediterranean area did just this. In total, Fletcher lists 25 different technologies invented by this group, all designed to help with how humans live their lives – how to remove anger, find love, feed creativity and many more.
It sounds magical, doesn’t it? How did these people – so primitive to us in so many ways – come up with such powerful technologies?
Here’s the secret: they wrote literature. Let me give you an example of how these technologies – or techniques if you prefer – can work.
How to Remove Anger
In our communities, we have an innate sense that people should comply with certain rules or standards, or justice must be done to them. Until justice has happened, we feel angry. So, what if we fall foul of that? What if, through either a complete accident or some change in community rules that takes us by surprise, we breach them and bring this anger down upon ourselves? What technology is available to us?
Angus Fletcher gives two main examples: Job and Oedipus. Now, unlike Oedipus, we probably haven’t killed our fathers and slept with our mothers, because we know that’s wrong, and beyond wrong. We know Oedipus deserves punishment for his actions. However, as he unleashes a cry of anguish when he understands what he has done, we see his acceptance that he has done wrong and we see his remorse. At that point, we forgive him. We don’t ignore what he has done, but we lose our anger, our sense that punishment must be inflicted upon him because of his horrible ways.
When Sophocles wrote the story of Oedipus, he was following in the footsteps of an unknown poet who wrote the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. In that poem, Job is eventually forced to confront the fact that, when measured against who God is, Job’s response to the disasters that have come upon his life is incorrect. “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” According to Fletcher, this is the first apology in literature.
Just as with Oedipus, when we hear the remorse we forgive Job. And as we forgive him, we have come to learn the new technology: an apology, a show of remorse, can remove the anger someone rightfully feels towards us. It makes our community a better place.
I’ll give you that one for free! For the other technologies, make your way to Fletcher’s book. It quotes many different writers and characters from Shakespeare to Winnie-the-Pooh as it shows how the technologies that were discovered about 500BC have developed to modern times.
My own change
Throughout school and university, I’d always been taught that the primary things to examine in works of literature were themes, influences, what the book says about society – that sort of thing. I found it absolutely mind-blowing to read Fletcher’s opinion that the most important element of literature is the healing and fostering of the human condition.
Healing and fostering people is something that I – and many of you, I’m sure –dearly want to see more of. What came as a great shock was the revelation that one of my greatest loves, literature, was designed to enable this. This was such a great sea-change that I couldn’t come to terms with it quickly. After reading the introduction to this book, I couldn’t read any more of it for some weeks.
It’s only now that I’ve been able to pick the book up again, and I’m loving it. Not always agreeing with it, naturally, but very much enjoying the way it works out its thesis.
So, who were these people?
So, what happened to these wonderful people? Why did they stop inventing new technologies, and why have we never heard of them before?
According to Fletcher, they disappeared when two new groups emerged in classical Greece. The first were the rhetoricians, who weaponised the skills learned from the technologists to persuade others in the legal or political arenas. Then came the philosophers, concerned that the rhetoricians were reducing right and wrong to literary wordplay. These two groups battled each other, using the skills of argument but not the skills of literature. The technologists vanished in the war.
But their technologies live on. Grab a book. See if it can change you.”
One of the best books I’ve read in the last 6 or 8 months is by Bill François, a French physicist specializing in hydrodynamics, who is in love with the sea and everything in it. The book has the rather luscious title The Eloquence of the Sardine: The Secret Life of Fish & Other Underwater Mysteries – to be honest it was the title that made me pick it up and also its pretty cover. It is a wonderful combination of natural history, personal anecdote, popular science, myth and legend. Once you start reading François’ assured and captivating words (excellently translated by Antony Shugaar) about why he loves fish and what enchants him about the sea you find yourself happily following him underwater, learning some fascinating facts while enjoying his lyrical prose – I had no idea I was so interested in fish. His description of what you are hearing when you put your head under the waves is amazing: Whales! Claw-snapping shrimp! Kina (Sea urchins) grazing on rocks! The combination of passion about a subject and the ability to write elegantly, joyfully and entertainingly about that subject is a rare gift, and it makes reading really exciting and surprising, and oddly moving. This is a book you could give to so many people and surprise and delight them with both the unexpected subject and their unexpected reaction.
So then, when I saw a stack of the even more beautiful-looking The Secret Life of Fish by Doug Mackay-Hope, a biologist and executive producer for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, I just had to spend an afternoon reading about 50 of the strangest, largest, smallest, rarest, beautiful and peculiar fish in the oceans, lakes and rivers. This book is really well designed, split into sections like ‘Dangerous & Deadly’ and ‘Astounding Giants’ (Ocean Sun Fish, we’re looking at you!), and then each fish in the section has about four pages explaining why they are featured out of all the more than 33,600 species of fish on the planet. Mackay-Hope has painted evocative and personality-filled watercolour images of each fish that head up its own particular pages, there is a map showing the global reach of each and also a photo. A side-bar features information like size, habitat, likes, dislikes and personality (the Peters Elephantnose Fish is ‘bookish’ while the Goliath Triggerfish is ‘demonically possessed’) and the special skill they are celebrated for (Lampreys excel at ‘sucking’, Whales Sharks’ are good at ‘disappearing’ – a real skill when you’re 13 metres long – while ‘self-transformation’ is practiced by the European Eel). Mackay-Hope is also thrilled to tell you about these remarkable creatures and his tone is conversational and amazed that we have such things about us – another wonderful gift book or perhaps a treat for yourself…
There are two rather wonderful children’s books in the shop at the moment: both tell remarkable stories, have beautiful if slightly disquieting pictures and one features interleaved pages of semi-transparent tracing paper, which is always a lovely design feature in a book – doesn’t really work electronically…
Julia and the Shark is by Kiran Millwood Hargreave and is illustrated by Tom de Freston. It is a remarkable, poetic story about a mother,a daughter and a shark, with some interesting themes around science, mental health and family that are addressed honestly and compassionately. There are some dark realities to face but it is ultimately uplifting – it is suggested by 9+ readers, who are often aware of, and far more able to deal with, dark realities than we like to think; and I think adults will also appreciate it.
Julia and her parents are living on a remote island, her father is there for work and her marine biologist mother is determinedly seeking the Greenland shark, which is the longest lived vertebrate in the world (and not the ‘world’ of the book but the world world) – how long you ask? Possibly up to 600 years!
Let’s pause here for a little detour into shark aging: Sharks are usually dated by their bones which grow rings like trees but this shark only has cartilage, so scientists have worked out how to date the sharks by looking at a parasite they have in their eyes. This parasite traps light, and they can measure how old the light is – sometimes hundred of years. Read this fascinating article about how scientists have worked this out: https://bit.ly/33U5w1X
Julia’s mother is interested in the shark because her mother, Julia’s grandmother, is sliding into dementia as she ages – how does the shark live for so long, so well? On the remote island, far from family and friends, as her mother’s obsession with the shark starts to pull her under, Julia is aware that her mother is becoming other, and struggles to pull her back. “The shark was beneath my bed, growing large as the room, large as the lighthouse, rising from unfathomable depths until it ripped the whole island from its roots. The bed was a boat, the shark a tide, and it pulled me so far out to sea I was only a speck, a spot, a mote, a dying star in an unending sky…“
The illustrations, in black, white and bright yellow, are wonderful, and add real depth to the tale, which is presented in hardback. De Freston’s studio burnt down and he used the ash and burnt fragments of other artworks to create these haunting images.
There’s a Ghost in This House by Oliver Jeffers is a captivating and charming picture book with just enough of an edge of melancholy and oddity to intrigue and induce a little frisson. It is deceptively simple, with minimal words and fascinating illustrations. Jeffers, a master of visual suggestion, has used some photos from an old book about house interiors to add verisimilitude to the slightly not-right rooms. A young girl asks for our help, wondering if we can see any ghosts in the strange, weird house she seems to be alone in… she has never seen a ghost but wonders if we can see any? what are they like? Imaginative use is made of the semi-transparent pages, and you’ll enjoy the ghost-hunt… Great for kids, who are often fascinated with ghosts, and a treat for design-minded adults.
Mynatt writes about how what people had available to prepare, cook and eat influenced how particular tools developed; and also, in the reverse process, how the introduction of common tools from other cultures, or the development of new, better tools, previously unknown, changed cuisines, as they widened the range of ingredients that could now be prepared and made edible and palatable.
So there is a spoonful of social and cultural history in what is a rather beautifully designed book about, well, design, and how we use good design everyday: spoons got spoonier and were adapted for specific purposes (I have vintage silver soup spoons that are round and deep, so you get a good mouthful, while the delicate dessert spoons with fluted edges are very specifically for the frilly end of the meal, the decoration as it were, not for actual nutrition) as people got wealthier, ate a greater array of foods, and were able to show off their wealth.
The photos are clear and the text fascinating and informative, and there are orange and navy blue images throughout the book that do I think work, although when I first flicked through I didn’t like them. These images sort of abstract the tools, as they don’t look how you are used to seeing them and so you see the tools as designed objects that (as William Morris would want) are always useful and often very beautiful. When you actually read the book right through, rather than dipping in and out, they act like, dare one say, palate cleansers. This is one for the cooks, the eaters and the design mavens…
The Dark by Emma Haughton is an excellent crime novel set in an Antarctic Research Station during the six-months of winter darkness; a sort of locked continent mystery if you will. A&E doctor Kate North flies in (hoping to escape her own demons – you know how well that going to work, don’t you?), on the last flight before darkness descends, to take the place of the previous doctor, who met an accidental end. She is immediately struck by the inhospitable environment, the vulnerability of the Station’s inhabitants, their reliance on technology and machines to survive in the bleak world and their dependence on each other. You just know there’s going to be a worm or two in this apple.
The characters are believable enough, and the plot is satisfyingly twisty but really the main character is Antarctica, and its oppressive, completely implacable and impervious presence just outside the thin walls adds to the tension as Kate begins to realise that something, someone, is very wrong. Read it on a bright summer’s day, keeping the shadows at bay…
After Dark: Walking Into the Nights of Aotearoa,by Annette Lees, respects and appreciates the dark and explores how the hours of darkness and the twilight that ushers them in and out, make even the most familiar human things and activities mysterious, profound and special. With our body clocks firmly anchoring us in the daylight, Lees’ tales of walking in the night, skiing or surfing, are interesting and appealing, you’ll want to go out and try some of these things yourself.
Lees intersperses snippets of memoir with natural history (I want to go bat counting too!) and history, explaining how the great navigators of the migrations from ancestral Hawaiki used the stars to guide their way through the Pacific.
Its a rather wonderful read, it is in fact illuminating! Try reading at night, perhaps outside, bundled up in a blanket if you’re here in the deep south, where our nights are short at the moment, with a strong torch…
Trent Dalton spent two weeks this year sitting at a desk on a street in Brisbane, typing on a sky-blue Olivetti, and talking to passersby, asking them ‘Can you please tell me a love story?’.
This book Love Stories is the quite remarkable result. I must admit I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but several pages in I was interested by Dalton’s explanation of why he spent his time doing this – it’s been a hell of a year for everyone and he was intrigued by what he thought might be everyone’s most important thing: Love.
As the stories of loves old and new, unrequited, successful, romantic, platonic, familial, unfold I was really impressed with Dalton’s skill at drawing people out – he was a journalist before shattering records and receiving rapturous reviews (and every Australian literary award going) for his first novel Boy Swallows Universe (a great favourite of ours here at UBS Otago) and then again for his remarkable second novel All Our Shimmering Skies.
People wanted to talk with him and tell him their stories to explain, it seemed sometimes, to themselves as much as a stranger, to examine their lives anew. Each story is beautifully written, the individual voices are clear and Dalton has teased out other stories from his various Scheherazades. The book is a beautifully designed hardback, a soft melon pink with a gold-embossed brocade effect, and the pages are a rich cream – all his book covers are things of wonder and delight. It is a lovely book to give to anyone really, as it can be read by dipping in and out, as casually as people wandered past the strange man typing…
I like that not everything ties up neatly in each tale, just like it often doesn’t in life; and Dalton has a genuine, light, warm and whimsical touch that doesn’t drift into tweeness or teeth-shocking sweetness but is simple and direct and convinces that love is a very important, if not the most important thing. What story would you have told him?
Colin Thubron is one of the last classic travel writers, sending fascinating dispatches from distant, storied places, particularly central Asia and the frayed remains of the Silk Road and her great empires. He threads tangled histories of formerly powerful and wealthy societies and peoples through his accounts of traveling through what are often now struggling, squalid remnants, littered with a few buildings that hint at their former glory, and inhabited by people who tell and re-tell tales of the good old days.
InThe Amur River: Between Russia and China, the good old days might be the exciting times when Genghis Khan and his horde ruled the steppes, or the strong Soviet Union of the mid- twentieth-century when Stalin might well have been murderous, but Moscow appeared to care about the settlements far in the Russian East – when China, just across the river, was not doing better in almost every way.
Thubron, who speaks a useful amount of Russian, travels by horseback, foot, train and car along the banks of this river, the 8th, 9th or 10 longest in the world (depends who is measuring), that forms the border between China and Russia. It used to be a far more porous border and Thubron skillfully explains the region’s history, the huge movements of people and cultures, and the ‘forgotten’ mutual atrocities that inform the geopolitical situation he now finds himself in. He is interested in people and makes connections easily, but this feels like a sad land, life is hard and there are few options available. The river is a constant, a border, and a transport system, but it feels like a backdrop to the lives unfolding on it’s banks and it doesn’t appear to be particularly beautiful – the book has no photos and I did find myself exploring the internet for images of the river and some of the dour settlements and towns Thubron mentions. And yet… there is this fascinating history and people are making their lives here, at the edges of their respective countries – what will someone visiting in 20 years find?
Some of the best works of imagination, like Carl Nixon’s latest novel The Tally Stick, make you believe that events that would be outlandish or bizarre if met in real life are merely inevitable. The strange becomes realistic.
It takes a talented writer to bring this about. Dickens excelled at this, of course, and from this book (and his earlier Settlers’ Creek) I get the impression Nixon similarly knows his people and his settings intimately.
In 1978, the entire Chamberlain family – a mother, a father and four children – go missing on New Zealand’s remote West Coast. The car they hired when they arrived from the UK a few days beforehand is never found. In 2010, the remains of one of the children turns up, and testing of the bones shows that he had lived for four years after the family had disappeared.
It’s a gripping mystery on one level. The multiple time lines let us see the experiences of those who survived as well as the events of 2010. How do they merge together? How did this child live for four years, and what happened to the rest of his family?
Maurice, Katherine and Tommy are the three oldest children, ripped from a life of comfortable middle-class London life and dumped in the New Zealand wilderness. Who they meet, how they are treated, and how they deal with their new life is an excellent story as we follow them over several years. This is the storyline I alluded to above as outlandish, and yet completely natural in Nixon’s telling of it.
I particularly liked the way the children develop different responses to the situation they find themselves in. While loyal to each other, the natural conflict of their differing personalities is well done – you can see what drives each sibling to the actions they eventually take. Each character’s story has a tension that will hold you.
In the 2010 timeline we are introduced to Suzanne, sister to Mrs Chamberlain. It transpires she has made four trips from her UK home to New Zealand, scouring the roads, the creeks and the countryside for any information that might lead her to understand what happened to her family. Finally, on her final trip in 1983, there’s a report of someone that could be her niece Katherine. What will she find at the end of this trail?
The ending of this timeline was perhaps the only part of the story that failed to satisfy, as the 2010 events mean we know a significant amount about what Suzanne’s 1983 search will (or will not) reveal. There’s nothing wrong with the way Nixon does this, and there’s some decent tension that still arises from it, but it just felt like a bit of a let-down to me.
That’s my only quibble with this thoroughly absorbing novel. Otherwise, it’s a book you’ll be happy to lose yourself in. There is someone in your family you will want to buy it for as a Christmas present, but make sure it’s someone who lives close by so you can borrow it back off them…
Reviewed by Greg Brook, writer (Buy Me Love) and bookseller
The Mad Women’s Ball was a bestseller in France and I picked it up from our pile in the shop because it has the most beautiful gold-foiled cover, which glittered and grabbed my attention.
It is set at the famous Salpetriere asylum in 1885 (the patients were all women), and features real incidents like the annual Ball that patients attended along with Parisian high society, and the famous sessions where doctors and interested gentry could come and watch Dr. Charcot use hypnotism on some of the patients. At this time, no one was quite sure of the efficacy or boundaries of hypnosis in medical matters, so one could attend the sessions feeling that you were witnessing the cutting edge – as it were – of modern medicine, and congratulating yourself on the humane treatment the patients received, with the added frisson that you might witness something a bit mad to recount at an intellectual salon or fashionable soirée… The patients at Salpetriere were the usual mix found in asylums at the time: the genuinely ill, afflicted by mental illness, along with those whose behaviour was troublesome or dangerous, and women who wouldn’t/couldn’t fit into the roles allowed them by society and their families. As asylums of that time go, its standards of care, and living conditions were better than somewhere like London’s Bethleham or Bedlam. The story focuses on two women, 19-year-old Eugenie, a new patient, and Genevieve, a senior nurse, whose belief in science and Dr Charcot is challenged and provoked by Eugenie and the reasons she has been incarcerated, and how the evening of the Ball offers opportunities to change things.
It is well translated, the characters are interesting and believable, the descriptions of the hospital and the medicine practiced there is realistic and not overly-gothicised – perhaps if there had been somewhere like this for her to go, Mr Rochester wouldn’t have need to keep Bertha in Thornfield’s attic (a wee Jane Eyre ref). I was surprised at the ending but think it worked. It has since been turned into a movie…