Thursday, January 27, 2011

Can't teach an old popcorn machine... and my Best Books 2010

I had 8.5 minutes on National Radio to barrel through my Best Books for 2010, and barrel I did - despite my best intentions to go for the unhurried conversational pace of the lovely Graham Beattie who offered up his Best Books yesterday.

I have so much I want to say to do justice to the chosen books, and although I try to cull some of my thoughts to - you know - take a breath, they just come popping out unbidden and unstoppable like popcorn from a popcorn machine.

The great thing is I said most of what I wanted to say. Eight and a half minutes is a good amount of time for the review slot (Graham managed manfully on just over five), so I was lucky. And host Kathryn Ryan is a good sort, batting at the flying popcorn with a grin on her face, chomping on the odd one, and licking the butter off her fingers.

Click here for the review with Kathryn.

Here are my Best Books:

1. Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Penguin NZ)
2. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate)
3. Ephraim's Eyes by Brian Walpert (Rose Pewter Press)
4. How the Land Lies by Pat White (VUP)
5. These I Have Loved edited by Harvey McQueen (Steele Roberts)

And if you have trouble with the link to the review, I've had a listen back and fleshed out my notes so you can read at your leisure....

Best Books 2010: Nine to Noon 

1.    Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (Penguin - biography)
This book took ten years to write and is meticulously researched using new material in public domain.

I met Kathleen, a UK writer, when she visited NZ last year. She reached into her pocket and produced a brooch which had belonged to Katherine Mansfield, and was a gift from an elderly woman who’d known KM and Ida Baker. It was a gesture of thanks to the author for her sympathetic and sensitive approach to Mansfield's life. It is sympathetic writing - a story tenderly told in the language of a poet, which Kathleen Jones is. 

Most biographies have an elegiac tone in looking back over  a life - this bio has a sense of real time, of events unfolding in front of us. Two reasons: the precise details of KM’s life are given every step of the way as we follow her moving around different houses and countries, seeking a place to settle down and write, and later a cure; the structure is unusual - going back and forward in time, including on into John Middleton Murry’s life and marriages after Katherine. 

2.    Freedom by Jonathan Franzen [4th Estate - novel]

Like his hit novel Corrections, Freedom is one of those old time literary novels - the Epic. 

It's the story of an American middle class mid-western American family in turmoil : late 70s to today (Patty & Walter Berglund and their two children). It looks at the impact of modern life on their lives and the impact of their lives on the planet. There are dollops of familial love & hate, lust and betrayal, and the book is packed with political and environmental issues e.g. over-consumption/over-population/loss of birds/Iraq war. 

Freedom is hectic, funny, erudite, intensely psychological with precise, layered characters that are beyond being hateful or loveable – they just are.

3.    Ephraim’s Eyes by Bryan Walpert (Pewter Rose Press – short stories, available at Unity, Bruce McKenzie's and other independent bookstores, or online e.g. Book Depository)

Bryan Walpert is an American who lives in NZ, an academic and poet. 
Like Franzen, his characters are pitch-perfect with authentic lives, but there's nothing hectic or epic about these stories. They are what I call Black Diamonds: crafted, polished, cerebral, compact with a dark undertow – and cleverly linked.

Brian won the Manhire Science Prize for  one of the stories; he often uses prism of science and philosophy to explain life’s vicissitudes. He believes the way to the heart is through the head. Their impact reminds of Charlotte Grimshaw’s story collections. 

Each story contains someone’s grief - man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a woman with a secret needs a new cupboard, and gets a mycologist in as a flatmate to help pay for it.

Now two other New Zealanders whose work has had an impact on me this year: 

4.    How the Land Lies by Pat White [VUP - memoir/essays]
This book charts the life of a man who felt the odd one out in a West Coast family. Sensitive, intellectual and vulnerable, he was drawn to art and poetry rather than farming. He writes of how he lived on the land down South and ended up in the Wairarapa growing olives. This book is also a contemplation on the healing and overarching power of nature – and of the need for people to slow down and take care of and enjoy what is god-given.

There are two outstanding chapters on the kahu/falcon and the power to be had in walking, and a  tender evocation of the Wairarapa and of farming there. 

5. These I Have Loved ed. By Harvey McQueen [Steele Roberts - anthology]
The last book by poet, educationalist, and ground-breaking anthologist Harvey McQueen who sadly died on Christmas Day. This is an anthology of a 100 NZ poems Harvey loved. A great range from old classics like Milking Before Dawn by Ruth Dallas to James K Baxter to Jenny Borndholdt to Mark Pirie’s poke at NZ nature poems.

It's like reading one of my mother's well-thumbed anthologies for its comfortableness. Harvey mentioned one of them: 'Other Men's Flowers' by Lord Wavell as an inspiration. 

Wonderful introductions to each section giving the reader a taste of what one of Harvey’s students said was – ‘the best poetry teacher I ever had’. They put poets and poems in context and give them each  Harvey's personal stamp of approval. This is the same unhurried, erudite, thoughtful writing as This Piece of Earth, Harvey’s wonderful memoir of life in his garden which bids us all to take more time to reconnect with the earth.      

Harvey McQueen's Memorial Service is 11 am tomorrow Friday January 28 at Old St Paul's Mulgrave Street, Wellington. 


Elisabeth said...

You did brilliantly in 8.5 minutes. I can't imagine better. I have a solid feel for every book you've described and a sense of sadness over Harvey McQueen. Thanks.

Rebekah White said...

I loved Freedom (like everybody else), and now I'm looking forward to reading Ephraim's Eyes and These I Have Loved - they sound right up my alley. Must try to catch the book section on the radio.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks so much for the plug, Mary - I never thought I'd on a list with Jonathan Frantzen!!!!