Tuesday 31 July 2012

Jane Austen quiz : the answers

So here are the answers to the quiz about Jane Austen and her work:

What is Mr Collins' first name, and how do we know?

William - it's written at the foot of his letter to Mr Bennet, but that's the only time we hear it.

Who is the only woman to marry a man younger than herself?

Charlotte Lucas (marrying Mr Collins)

Who is the only married woman to call her husband by his Christian name?

Mary Musgrove, Anne's sister in Persuasion, calls her husband Charles (often in tones of exasperation or complaint).

Who is the only married man to call his wife by an affectionate shortening of her name?

Admiral Croft, also in Persuasion, calls his wife Sophy

Which characters are never heard to speak directly?

Captain Benwick in Persuasion - although he's often quoted, we never actually hear him speak, neither do we hear Robert Martin, Harriet's suitor in Emma, or - more surprisingly (when you think about the movies) - Georgiana Darcy. (Of course, you couldn't have a non-speaking main character in a movie - it wouldn't work.)

And lastly, not from the books but from real life: how many other contemporary writers (novelists or poets) did Jane Austen meet in her lifetime?

The answer?

None. Not one. Imagine that.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Margaret Mahy 1936-2012

Like all New Zealand children's writers - in fact, like everyone in New Zealand today, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Margaret Mahy yesterday. How many other writers are held in such high regard - and viewed with such warmth and affection? it's obvious from the tributes pouring in that she has shaped the reading habits and fed the imagination of thousands of children over the years.

One message that keeps being repeated is how much (and how often) people have enjoyed reading her books out loud, either to their own children, or to children in schools and libraries. So here is a small glimpse of our own reading history:

Hopefully you can tell from the creased spine and curling corners how much this book has been loved and enjoyed.

Even more obvious here (in fact I've just noticed that I've sellotaped the spine because it was falling apart from so many readings) and the story of the discovery and subsequent publication of this book - first published in the School Journal, now a classic - is a marvellous, magical tale in itself.

Here's another well-read favourite:

And so many more: A summery Saturday morning, The man whose mother was a pirate, The boy who was followed home, The witch in the cherry tree - all featuring Margaret's wild imagination, sense of the ridiculousness and beautiful, fantastical use of language.

And one more special memory of Margaret: hearing her recite Bubble trouble from memory; not only faultlessly, but with energy and verve and huge enjoyment in each word and rhyme as it rolled (or bounced!) off her tongue.

RIP Margaret, what a legacy.


Sunday 22 July 2012

Wonderful Jane Austen

The other good thing about libraries - usually a good thing, although it can be inconvenient - is that they waylay you with enticing-looking books to read when you should be doing something else.

I couldn't resist What matters in Jane Austen? (subtitle: twenty crucial puzzles solved) when I spotted it among the new books.

The chapter on "What games do characters play?" made me aware for the first time that that whenever I come across a description of any of the characters settling down to a game of whist, loo, speculation, vingt-et-un or anything else, I tend to block out the name and mentally replace it with "random card game". But actually, readers of Jane Austen's time would have known exactly how each game differed and what the subtext was. For example, some games demand a certain number of players, so each card game is a way of grouping the characters, separating some, throwing others together. It's almost like choreography in the limited space of  a drawing room.

And blushing! Such a simple act but again, how much subtext it carries. Which novel has the most blushing? Which heroine blushes the most? Do men blush? What do they do instead? Who is the one male character who does blush, and when?

You can also find out which characters die in the course of the novels (surprisingly few of them), and how much money you need to live on, and what the characters call each other - particularly the married ones, and the hidden meaning behind words like "blunder' and "the seaside".

John Mullan is an English professor, and if his lectures are like his book, they must be highly entertaining. In fact, one of the best things about this book is that it makes you want to go back and read all the novels again, looking for hidden signs amongst the blushes and blunders. I enjoyed the way he drops in little snippets of information, like the fact that most of Jane Austen's novels take place over a year (but there is never any mention of the heroine's birthday) as well as the attention he gives to Jane Austen's beautifully written sentences, so perfectly turned that they can hinge on one well-placed word such as "wisely" in Mr Darcy's self-deluded musings: "He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should escape him."

There are many more fascinating aspects of the novels to mull over: how often do plots rely on the weather? how does the age of her heroines relate to the average age for women to marry in Jane Austen's time? how do sisters get on together, and which sisters seem to be the best suited?

And here are a few more tantalising questions::

  • What is Mr Collins' first name, and how do we know?

  • Who is the only woman to marry a man younger than herself?

  • Who is the only married woman to call her husband by his Christian name?

  • Who is the only married man to call his wife by an affectionate shortening of her name?

  • Which characters are never heard to speak directly?

  • And lastly, not from the books but from real life: how many other contemporary writers (novelists or poets) did Jane Austen meet in her lifetime?

Friday 20 July 2012

Librarian's choice

One of the (many) good things about libraries is the serendipity they can bring to your reading, often as a result of scanning the shelves of recently returned or recommended books. I was thinking about this recently when we were on holiday with a group of friends. Everyone had brought books to read, and we would talk about what we were reading and pass the books around. There was also a big selection of books available on an e-reader - but somehow that's not the same as being able to look at the cover, read the blurb and handle the book itself to get an idea of whether you'd like to read it.

At Central Library in Wellington, there's always a display of books in the Fiction section under Librarian's choice and Reader's choice. (Actually, I'm not totally sure where the apostrophe goes: one librarian and one reader, or more than one? I'll have to check it out next time.) I'd always assumed that some care went into selecting the books to go on here, but last weekend I was standing by the display shelves when a librarian came along and starting slinging books on, some at one end and some at the other, with no apparent pattern. Of course, perhaps there was a hidden pattern that I couldn't see, but from now on I will have to assume that the Librarian's and Reader's choice are often overlapping.

One of the books I picked off the shelves was Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

Evelyn Waugh is always worth re-reading, although I'd forgotten how casually he uses terms to describe black people that would nowadays be seen as deeply offensive. It means that there's often an uncomfortable edge to the humour (being Evelyn Waugh, he probably wouldn't care) apart from the scenes set in England, especially in the environs of Boot Magna, where the worst crisis imaginable is the accidental substitution of "the crested grebe" for "the badger" in a newspaper's nature column, leading to wonderfully funny lines like these ones :

'He might bluff it out. Lord Copper was a townsman, a provincial townsman at that, and certainly did not know the difference between  a badger and a great crested grebe... "Lord Copper," he was saying [in his imagination] , "no man shall call me a liar unchastised. The great crested grebe does hibernate."'

Monday 2 July 2012

So many questions

Last month, I carried out a Skype session with the children of Westmount School in Palmerston North. We had a few technical issues, which led to a few interruptions... but the children were great listeners, very patient and well-prepared with lots of questions.

Today I received a letter in the mail (isn't it wonderful when you check the letterbox and find a real letter inside), very neatly written, thanking me for taking part in the video conference. "'My favourite part was hearing the answers to the questions," wrote this Westmount School student. "I would say it was hard answering all 50 or more questions, racking your brains to quickly find the answer."

Sometimes it was hard! But usually I enjoy answering  questions, because they can make me think about my writing in a different way, and clarify things (even for myself) that I hadn't put into words before.

So here are a few of my favourite questions from Westmount School, via Skype:

  • Can you remember all the books you've written?

  • Do you have books of your own at home?

  • Where do you get your rhymes from?

  • Why do you write different kinds of poems, not just the same one?

I really like those last two questions in particular - those students had obviously been doing a bit of thinking about poetry. (And a confession; sometimes I use a rhyming dictionary...)

Sunday 1 July 2012

Two writers

One of the good things about living in Wellington is that there are so many interesting literary or book-related events (as well as so many wonderful bookshops, libraries and of course cafes.) Book launches, poetry readings, talks by visiting or local authors, panel discussions, Book Council events, meetings of various writers' groups - and that's without the big events like Readers and Writers Week or the Book Award ceremonies.

I'm on the committee of the NZSA Wellington branch, and one of our jobs is to line up speakers for our two-monthly meetings. Last week, we heard from two writers: Gigi Fenster and Catherine Robertson. (Gigi and Catherine first met each other at a short story writing course in 2005.) .

Gigi Fenster lives and works in Wellington and has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. She has been published in a variety of literary journals, including Sport and Hue and Cry. Her first novel, The Intentions Book, was published by VUP earlier this year.

Gigi said that rather than talking about the "chaotic and unplanned" process of writing her novel, she would talk about some of the reactions to it since its publication in April, in particular a description of it as "New Zealand's first Jewish novel".  This had led her to ponder on whether there is such a thing as Jewish literature, and if so, what it consists of and how it is defined.  Gigi listed some of the titles - both expected and surprising - referred to in Jason Diamond's 2011 article on The 50 most essential works of Jewish fiction of the last 100 years.

She talked about her own reaction to having her book defined in this way, and how she thinks it affects her personally as well as the book.

Catherine Robertson’s debut novel, The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid (Random House, 2011), spent 21 weeks on the NZ bestseller list, including at number one. This book and her second novel, The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence, are both being published in German as well.

Catherine related how her manuscript for The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid came back with a request for it to be "much, MUCH funnier", and how her sense of humour and the love of jokes and puns that makes her writing so entertaining goes right back to her childhood. (Her grandad was obviously a great fan of humorous radio shows and comic actors.) She listed some of her favourite authors and books when she was growing up: Gerald Durrell's My family and other animals, The young visiters by Daisy Ashford, Clive James, Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons, P G Wodehouse.

Catherine talked about her journey to being a published author and finding an agent, and said that although her work seems to be stuck with the label "chick lit", she prefers "humorous contemporary women’s fiction". She also talked about her process of writing (in "rolling drafts") and compared writing a funny line to "making home-made custard." You have to "write for long enough", just as you have to keep stirring and stirring "until finally the custard comes right".

It's always fascinating to hear other writers talk about their work, how they got to where they are now and how they approach the job of writing.