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In this newsletter:
*** Hot Weather
*** News and Current Projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do: Constance Gervasi, Film Maker
*** On the DVD player: Borgen

Hot Weather

The new year came off to a pretty good start: I rolled out of bed bright and early on New Year's Day and decided to go somewhere I hadn't been before. It's a bit of a private tradition for me to start the new year with a good long hike. Usually I am drawn to the coast, but this time, I decided to head to the mountains.

Unbelievable though it may sound, in the five years of living in Featherston I had not yet discovered the hike up to Mt Holdsworth. It is, hands down, one of the most beautiful hikes I have done here in New Zealand, and I have done some pretty good ones! Right up there with some of the scenic South Island walks, and it's half an hour's drive from my doorstep.

On previous hikes in the Tararuas, I've always found myself walking mostly through thick bush, following one of the narrow river valleys, with little sense of the general lay of the land. This walk took me right up to the highlands, with forests full of my favourite trees: Southern beech, and manuka – or kanuka, the tree-shaped version of it.

But why more words: here are some photos.

Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas

Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas

Other than that, I've been taking my doctor's advice, put my artistic projects on hold (or at least on the very slow back burner), and chilled out for a bit. I've spent several golden afternoons lazing on various local beaches, and going for swims. I did make an attempt to get back into work mode after the Christmas holidays proper, but my body revolted: it's been so hot and dry this year that even sitting in the garden, on some days, was just too -- hot.

So I made the best of it and spent a week on the couch watching Borgen – which is indeed fully as good as I was led to expect. Read my review further down on this newsletter.

If I was worried about falling into a big black hole after finishing my hare book, it looks like I need not worry: things have been in motion and the universe works in weird and wondeful ways and Kate Mead – fellow Featherstonian and fellow classical musician turned radio presenter, whom I first met at a job interview for Radio New Zealand when I was very new in this country (and who told me that she actually reads this newsletter!) – has come up with the absolutely brilliant idea to turn Featherston into a Book town: part of an international group of towns who profile themselves as places where people buy books.

Naturally, I immediately offered her my 100% support. After all, my doctor has also prescribed a social life, so this seemed to be just about the right kind of project-cum-social-activity to be involved in!

The project is just beginning to kick off, and I don't want to jinx things by talking about not-yet-laid eggs, but we have been discussing a couple of ways for me to be involved as an artist, which I would very much like to see become reality. I've stopped trusting that things will happen until they actually happen, but I'll definitely keep you posted about how all this develops! It helps to know one person in this town who actually appreciates what I do. :)

Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa

Hot weather in the Wairarapa

While I am writing this, my Facebook feed is abuzz with discussion about writer Eleanor Catton's expressed opinions regarding the state of the arts and intellectual pursuits in New Zealand, and the virtue (or lack thereof) of our present government. They are remarkably similar to my own views on these topics. Catton made these remarks to the press in India, on occasion of being awarded the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries. Which I will now most certainly read.

The whole thing, incidentally, came to my attention because Robert Catto, who took the photo posted on the stuff.co.nz article which kicked the whole thing off, complained that he wasn't credited for it and hadn't been asked permission to use the shot – which just goes to further illustrate the points Eleanor Catton makes about the way creatives are treated in this country (the credit has now been added after the fact).

The general tenor on Facebook seems to be "right she is, and good on her for saying it aloud, and we should really go and march in the street or something". Would I ever like to see that happen.

Meanwhile, John Key and the news media who dance after his tune, have been churning out the full misogynic, below-the-belt viciousness which such a publicly voiced opinion (and by a New Zealand woman, to boot) apparently deserves. Which makes me wonder if some of these people have lost touch with reality so much that they genuinely don't realize how their remarks make them look, to anyone with half a brain, like the complete jackasses they are?

Weren't some of those people full-chestedly declaring themselves to be Charlie just a couple of weeks ago? But apparently Free Speech is only really for white boys who criticise the right kind of public enemy, in our Best of All Societies.

I've written up my thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo affair on my Amazing Stories blog, so I won't repeat them here. But I increasingly get the feeling that I am far from the only person who is disaffected with the state of affairs here in New Zealand. If what I am writing here on my obscure blog contributes in any way to building a critical mass of people saying out loud that some things aren't right, then I couldn't be happier.

I genuinely don't believe that most people in this country really want the kind of society were are currently headed for – despite of what the latest election results seem to show. And maybe it's time for this bitch to stop feeling sorry for herself, and start kicking some butt. That might be a good New Year's resolution: Wish us luck.

Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas

Mt Holdsworth hike, Tararuas



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Manuka dancing, by Astrid Nielsch Manuka dancing, by Astrid Nielsch Manuka dancing, by Astrid Nielsch Manuka dancing, by Astrid Nielsch

New oil painting: Manuka dancing

News & Current Projects

Since I have been on creative break, there isn't all that much to report in terms of new work. I have been doing some leisurely work on my hare book illustrations – still a few pages to polish though, for when I get back into proper work mode this coming month.

On my hike up Mt Holdsworth on New Year's day, I found myself sitting opposite a rather lovely specimen of manuka when I took my lunch break, so I whipped out my sketch pad and sketched it. The sketch is the basis for the oil painting posted above, which I plan to submit to the next Wai Art group exhibition coming up in February at the Carterton Events Centre.

The last painting of the old year was one of my waterlilies – the white one which is, by the by, definitely the wrong variety and it peeves me, and I need to sort this out. The first painting of the new years is another of my waterlilies which has now started to blossom, and this one is indeed the right kind: the variety is called Firecrest, and it is everything as wonderful as it should be. They're not quite Monet yet, but hey – it's a work in progress.

These two paintings are, as always, for sale: they are both 30 x 30 cm / 12 x 12 inches, and sell for NZ $ 150 / € 100 / US $ 120 each, plus shipping: the shipping rate is € 10 / US $ 12 for regular airmail, or € 20 / US $ 24 for tracked courier. Shipping rates within New Zealand and to Australia: please ask. Please contact me if you would like to purchase one of these paintings.

My last December post on Amazing Stories was due on New Year's Eve, so the obvious topic was Fireworks: one for every time zone, all around the world (plus an extra one from my hometown). Then the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened, and of course the illustrating community was all up in arms about it, so I have voiced some of my thoughts on the matter of what is and isn't Censored. The latest post is back to usual: I've started a new miniseries looking at magical birds, it kicks off with images of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake of Mexico and Central America. Visit my author page, with a list of all my blog posts on Amazing Stories.

My CD Baby account is currently some seven dollars short of reaching the sum for my next payout – make my day by reaching that amount before my birthday in early March! You can download tracks on CD Baby directly, or on iTunes, Amazon Mp3, and a bunch of other online music providers (just search for Asni the Harper). Of course, you can also order CDs and harp sheet music directly through my website – as well as posters and greeting cards.

Asni's garden in January: waterlilies! Asni's garden in January: waterlilies! Asni's garden in January: waterlilies! Asni's garden in January: waterlilies! Asni's garden in January: waterlilies! Asni's garden in January: waterlilies!

Asni's garden in January: waterlilies!

The weather has been too hot and dry to do much work in the garden. Maybe I didn't spend enough time on them, or maybe they just haven't had enough water, but my cornflowers and other summer blossoms aren't nearly as abundantly luscious as they were this time last year. We're now having a bit of rain, so perhaps they will grow yet. On the upside, the second of my waterlilies has now started to blossom, and it is indeed a Firecrest: everything as gorgeous as I was led to expect. And today I have spotted a bud coming up on the third one: so I will soon find out if it is what it should be!

I have been putting in some summer vegetables by and by: Capsicums, chillies, zucchini, and various kinds of beans. The okra has been doing well this year: it is definitely growing, though It hasn't reached flowering stage yet. But we have at least another month of summer to go, so I hope there will be enough warm weather yet for them to set fruit and ripen. And if not, I'll just live on cabbage, kale, carrots and beans! Plus apples and walnuts: both trees are literally bending under their load this year. Even my old tired Asian plum tree has been setting the most fruit it has had so far. I've already eaten four or five, and there are at least as many yet on the tree! :D

The home re-decorations are now in full swing: this counts as a holiday activity since it does not involve spending long hours behind the computer. I have to admit that I severely underestimated the time I would need: so far, I have painted the living room ceiling a cheery pale pastel yellow-orange – a colour shade sold as "moon goddess", but it looks good despite the tacky name, and will go well with the neutral silvery-white of the wallpaper, and the warm orange of the rimu wood. And I have been stripping old wallpaper. For a week.

Once I am done with stripping the rest of the old wallpaper, I will have to prime the walls, paint the wooden linings, the window and doorframes, and then, but only then, will I be ready to actually hang some wallpaper. Give it another couple of weeks, I'd say.

Optimistically, I have already ordered the birch forest wallpaper for my dining room: I thought it would be easiest to do the two rooms in one go – especially since I also plan to strip the carpet and polish the floorboards – but now I think that maybe once I'm done with the living room, I'll need a break. Well, let's just see how we go! I do want to be done with the works by early March, to celebrate my birthday in style and be able to have some friends over: not an option as long as the place looks like a battlefield!

Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do Asni's garden in January: work to do

Asni's garden in January: work to do



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Dancing manuka and curious ferns Dancing manuka and curious ferns Dancing manuka and curious ferns Dancing manuka and curious ferns

Dancing manuka and curious ferns

Cool Things Friends Do: Constance Gervasi, film maker

Constance is one of the Wellington artists whom I met through the PACE seminar several years ago. She is the only one of that group whom I am still in touch with: every once in a while she drops by unexpectedly with her partner Greg on their motorbike, and we spend a couple of hours sitting in the garden and catching up on each other. Or go out to one of the coastal beauty spots. Or I drop by their place in Upper Hutt, which is just across the mountain, on my way from Wellington.

Like many of us, Constance has had to put her creative ambitions on the slow burner while she was winning her bread as a salesperson, but currently she is involved in a project with the One Shot Collective, to shoot The Tramp, a segment of a feature-length film written and directed by herself. The Collective consists of a total of twelve writer-directors, who will all contributing one portion of the film. The central theme is "Chance encounters".

Seeing that she lives nearby, I thought this time I'd do my interview in video format. It goes with the whole filmmaker thing, and it's fun for me to get my hands on some video editing and use my professional skills from Natcoll!

The interview was conducted shortly before Christmas: at the time, Constance was fund-raising on PledgeMe, and had been planning to shoot the following weekend, but the shoot had to be rescheduled to January. In fact, it happened just last weekend, so by the time of this writing, it is all (hopefully) "in the can" and ready to go into the editing suite! I am looking forward to seeing the finished product.

But let her tell it in her own words:



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Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa Hot weather in the Wairarapa

Hot weather in the Wairarapa

On the DVD player: Borgen

::: WARNING: the following contains spoilers for season 1, 2 and 3 of the Danish TV series "Borgen" :::

The TV series Borgen, produced by DR (the Danish public broadcasting corporation), focuses on the character Birgitte Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), a politician and leader of a minority party who, on account of various machinations, unexpectedly finds herself Prime Minister of Denmark – and the first woman to be elected to that position.

The first season shows her learning the ropes, and asserting herself against the inevitable attempts by the mostly male political establishment to undermine her authority. In this, she has the full support of her smart Machiavellian media adviser Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), a somewhat younger man who gradually turns into someone she trusts completely, despite his rather more laid back views on the morality of some of their methods.

Kasper Juul has no problem at all accepting the professional authority of the women in his life – unlike Birgitte's passive-aggressive husband, who in spite of his rhetoric of supporting her professional ambitions all the way, soon begins to sabotage her at home. He completely fails to pick up the slack and lend her the kind of support that so many women continue to give professionally successful men as a matter of course, and he endlessly complains about the fact that her new job leaves her precious little time for family and intimacy. Their marriage disintegrates in an ugly battle of emotional blackmail, which affects not only the couple's children, but also Birgitte's ability to focus on her work – such as when her husband shows up at her office to discuss some trivial private matter, while she is running late for a meeting.

The third main character is the idealistic TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) – a character who bears some uncanny resemblance to Doctor Who's Rose Tyler, both in looks and attitude. The series shows her professional and emotional trials and tribulations, which offer a counterpoint to Birgitte Nyborg's storyline. The two women know each other professionally, and the two storylines are tied together by Kasper Juul, Katrine's former boyfriend, who continues to harbour strong feelings for her.

Katrine is an extremely talented and good looking woman just about to turn thirty, who has had a meteoric career at TV1. Despite being the perfect incarnation of the "hot blonde", she is consistently portrayed as professionally competent, driven and smart, rather than the sex pot such a character would have been in less enlightened TV productions. Even the fact that she does have several affairs during the course of the series – as a young and good looking single woman in contemporary Denmark likely would – does not take away from this impression we get of her character.

Katrine takes the moral mission of journalism very seriously – with the naive stubbornness of a successful young woman who has it all. This leads to frequent arguments with her boss Torben Friis, an old school news man who tries to balance station politics with good journalism. To the viewer, it is clear that he could not be more supportive of his young rising star, but Katrine is unable to see this, and eventually quits her job in a moment of pique at what she perceives as his failure to stand up for the Free Press.

The second season sees Birgitte now very comfortable with her position, but smarting from her divorce. The first half of the season shows her in danger of losing her moral compass: she sees herself forced to make decisions which go against her political convictions, has to fight off attempts by the Labour Party to undermine her authority, and eventually loses one of her most valuable political supporters, when an attempt to apply a little subtle pressure backfires. Her now divorced husband has moved on to a new relationship and is competing for their children's affection, and the emotional strain contributes to Birgitte's sense that she can no longer see things clearly.

Katrine, on the other hand, has taken a professional nose-dive: she has taken on a job at a tabloid style magazine headed by one of Birgitte Nyborg's strongest political opponents, which flies in the face of her own political convictions. She develops a close friendship and professional partnership with Hanne Holm, an older journalist who also used to work for TV1, but got fired on account of having a drinking problem, despite being one of the best political journalists in the country. When their editor-in-chief tries to force the two women to write a story revealing some incriminating evidence of a political opponent's homosexuality, they both quit their job.

Katrine briefly takes on the position of media adviser to the leader of the conservative party, whom she does not see eye to eye with politically at all. Again, she finds that she is unable to hold down that position due to her personal convictions. By the time she is desperate enough to accept to host a TV late night talk show, her old boss at TV1 offers to take her back on a part-time basis. It is clear that she has learned her lesson about the importance of balancing her professional idealism with a regard for the bigger picture, when she finds herself arguing to suppress a story she has stumbled upon, because of the dire consequences that publishing it would have not only for Birgitte's political efforts, but for a large number of innocent people.

Meanwhile, Kasper Juul has been pursuing his aim to get back with Katrine with a great degree of zeal. He has some dark secrets in his past: his constant attempts to hide details of his family and childhood were a major factor in his breakup with Katrine, who could not tolerate his secrets and lies. When he finds the courage to reveal them to Katrine, it leads to the couple's reconciliation.

Then Birgitte's daughter falls severely ill, which brings her family back together for a while, but also makes Birgitte realize that her husband wasn't the right man for her. She is forced to go on leave, in order to be there for her daughter, but eventually learns that her commitment to her country and her political career is equally as important as being there for her family, and that her daughter's illness was not caused by her accepting the job of Prime Minister. The season ends on an optimistic high note, with Birgitte returning to work and asserting her right as a woman to be in that position, while Kasper and Katrine decide to have a baby.

I didn't enjoy the third season quite as much as I did the first two. I was expecting it to pick up where the second season left off, see Birgitte emerge victorious from the early election, and watch Katrine and Kasper struggle with the challenges of combining young parenthood with their busy careers, and try to navigate the constant professional conflict of interest which their respective jobs put them in.

Instead, the season picks up a couple of years later: Birgitte has left politics after losing the election, and now works as a corporate advisor, but decides to make a political comeback. I was pleased to find she hasn't gone back to her prat of a husband, but instead found herself a charming British gentleman lover: presumably a nod to the success the series has had in the UK, and an excuse to have the characters speak English for whole scenes – which I thought was a bit sad for the Danish audiences!

Unsurprisingly, Katrine and Kasper's relationship didn't last much beyond the birth of their son, but they continue to be friends, and professionally loyal to each other. Sadly, Kasper Juul's character has been demoted to a rather minor position: I suspect this decision was made because the actor was busy working on other projects, but I found the series was really missing his energy, and his chemistry with the two female leads. It is now Katrine who teams up with Birgitte as her new media adviser, and helps her set up a new political party – but they don't seem to share quite the same camaraderie which made Birgitte's relationship with Kasper Juul such a joy to watch, or at least their relationship isn't given a lot of screen time.

The same is also true of some of the other personal relationships which are left dangling in the air – including Katrine's relationship with her young child, who seems to silently disappear from her life toward the end of the season!

Instead, Torben Friis – Katrine's former boss at TV1 – gets rather too much attention. I like the character and sympathise with him, but I didn't think his tortuous office affair, and his troubles with his wife and new boss were interesting enough to justify the amount of screen time they got, and I was a bit put off by all the random on-screen screwing that seemed to suddenly go on. Another nod to international audience expectations when it comes to Scandinavian productions? Maybe the whole Torben Friis storyline was intended as some sort of meta-commentary on the evils of having the money people decide the content of shows, but if it was, it really didn't fly.

The third season still has its highlights: the episode that shows Birgitte establish her new party in the public consciousness by riding on a scandal concerning the practises of commercial pig farming, is definitely one such: it has some of the greatest comedic moments in the whole show, as well as deftly addressing a serious topic.

All in all – if you're stuck for something to watch, I can't recommend this TV series more highly. You'll learn quite a bit about politics, and the art of standing one's ground, along the way!

Arohanui, from Asni



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WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach WHot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach

Hot weather in the Wairarapa: hitting the beach