Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ho ho hic

Here's our very own household Santa snapped last year delivering [escaping with?] some useful gifts. He's otherwise known as my husband Ian, and this is how we give our gifts on Xmas Day. Santa sits by the tree and gets wiggly Ned and giggly Grandmas and all the rest of the rellies and gathered friends on his red-clad Warehouse-issue knees, as he hands out whatever the tree elf passes to him [this is often Uncle David in an appropriate hat.]

The littlies love it, and so too do the giggly Grannies. For years my Dad did it and he's got the build and beard of a Santa, but a lean Santa with cotton-wool beard and checked boxers over the Santa pants seems to do the trick, too.

Let's hope Santa brings me a lovely book or two - Auster's Invisible would be nice, and so would Damien Wilkins' Somebody Loves Us All. It's been a great year for books for me. I keep a note of the best ones I've read - for review and for pleasure  - down the side column of this blog with links to posts I've written on this blog or reviews done. But I see I've left a few of the heavy-hitters off, and will have to update it in the New Year. Meanwhile, below is an edited and updated list which becomes a kind of 'best of' list of books published this year. Almost all are what I consider four or five star books, with five stars being the best. Some are books I loved just because they hit the right spot [using the 'search' box above left will help you find posts on some of these.]

I know there are some marvellous books that should be on a 'best of' list that I haven't got to yet, and I hope to read them in the hammock over the holidays - Elizabeth Knox's Angel's Cut and Alison Wong's As the Earth turns Silver are two of those.

First, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who regularly visit my blog and others who just pop by now and then. And a big thank you to those visitors who also write their own blogs which give me so much to think about and enjoy. My side column has links to those as well. Meanwhile, I will try and blog over the holidays from our rural idyll to the north, and I will be fully back on deck around mid January.

O Audacious Book Best Books 2009 
[in no particular order - and all novels unless otherwise stated]
Singularity by Charlotte Grimshaw [short fiction -Random NZ], The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels [Bloomsbury], The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, The 10 PM Question by Kate de Goldi [Longacre], The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton [VUP], The First Touch of Light by Ruth Pettis [Penguin], Corvus, A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson [Granta], Mirabile Dictu by Michele Leggott [poetry - AUP], Novel about My Wife by Emily Perkins [Bloomsbury], Ithaca Island Bay Leaves - a mythistorima by Vana Manasiadis [poetry - Seraph],  Beside the Dark Pool by Fiona Kidman [memoir - Vintage], Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1999-2008 by Vincent O'Sullivan [poetry - VUP], The Blind Singer by Chris Price [poetry - AUP], JAAM 27 - Wanderings ed. by Ingrid Horrocks [JAAM], Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, Etymology by Bryan Walpert [poetry], The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands [memoir - Granta], Magpie Hall by Rachael King [Vintage], Misconduct by Bridget van der Zijpp [VUP], A House on Fire by Tim Upperton [poetry], Too much Happiness by Alice Munro [short fiction - Knopf], Glory by Fifi Colston [children - Scholastic].

A Late Entry read after Xmas - Somebody Loves Us All by Damien Wilkins [VUP]

Postscript. And before I go, I have rather belatedly discovered the astonishing blogging of Jolisa Gracewood - the award-winning reviewer who blew the whistle on the plagiarism in Ihimaera's Trowenna Sea. Her detailed run-down on what's happened with this book is mind-blowing for the sheer scale of its coverage. Check out the previous post, too. Definitely worth a read if you've been following the Trowenna Sea story. Meanwhile, here's hoping Witi gets some time out over Christmas. Peace and Good Will and all that.

Slime balls and fire balls, it's Under the Mountain

Like the director's sister, my daughter tried out for the part of Rachel (the film not the TV series), but was too young and didn't have red hair. It was too late, she was already smitten by the Maurice Gee book, the upcoming movie and the passion of the director, Jonathon King, whom we heard speak at Te Papa. She's been waiting to see Under the Mountain the movie ever since and the two of us went along tonight and really enjoyed ourselves.

The script is smart and funny, the red-headed twins [apologies for not knowing their names] are fantastic together, their cousin and his girlfriend are nice comic relief, Sam Neill does a good turn as a fading fire-maker, the setting [Auckland] is pretty damn cool with the water and the volcanoes... and there is a nice contemporary feel to the movie from the million dollar plus seaside concrete home to Rach reading Elizabeth Knox's The Dreamhunter to the cuz having a poster of The Flight of the Conchords on his wall....

I had some quibbles with the slimy aliens - it felt abit late 70s/early 80s to me. I know Gee wrote them like that, but getting these slimeballs onto the screen three decades on could have led to a facelift [perhaps a digital one? deal to all that dripping? but then again the die-hard fans might have objected.] And I also felt there needed to be a bit more happening than there was - more glimpses of the baddies, more bad guesses, more creeped out kids, more chasing..... Issy, on the other hand, had no quibbles. Oh and we both love that scene when Rachel turns into a great ball of fire and unites with her flaming bro.

If you didn't follow the link above.... Jonathon King's sister is award-winning writer Rachael King who writes on her blog about her love for Under the Mountain, and her brother's success with the movie. And it is a success, I reckon - a great Christmas/New Year/Holiday movie to take the whole family to.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Body Thinking - the real sixth sense

Many - most? - all? - writing tutors will talk about using all five senses to write, because it's in the particulars of sensory experience, which is actually the only way that we can encounter the world, that we persuade readers that everything else we've invented is authentic too. So, next time you're imagining a scene, don't just think of the smell of the Gauloises or the taste of the coconut milk, the rattan of the café chair under your thighs, let alone the colour of the doves wheeling around the belfry or the feathery rattle of their wings. Here comes the lover, or the enemy: how does your body feel the move forwards, the spring up, the knees straightening and the ground newly hard under your feet as you stand, with your hand still pressed onto the table, to steady your heart.
More on the need to include 'body thinking' or proprioception in sensory writing on Emma Darwin's blog This Itch of Writing. My daughter is a dancer and she's just been accepted into a select dance crew following an audition on Saturday [she's only 13, but this crew rehearses after school]. I am fascinated by the way her body so effortlessly embraces and remembers movement, and yet she has trouble remembering mathematical facts or even what month it is.

Friday, December 18, 2009


There are days when a bus full of people heading off the motorway down a ridiculous ramp - too narrow, surely, too slight - on its way to the crush of the city, fills me with joy. Joy for the jostle of people, the collective optimism that where they're going they will get to, the precarious nature of living and yet how boldly we cling, the way the bus seems, briefly, to take wing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Auggie Wren's Christmas Story

I'm back from Paradise - turquoise sea glimpsed through skinny manuka and beech trees, golden beaches, ineffable bush tracks, waterfalls, fantails around my tent ... no internet, no cell, no TV, no alcohol, no showers ... swimming in the sea as the sunrises, dancing on the sand in the evening, kayaking in the open water, marvelling at the courage and curiosity of children and the strength and patience of the best sort of adult  ... and I've discovered the rest of the world has moved a little closer to Christmas....

Now there are presents to buy, menus to plan ...  and books to review... It's a bit of a ramble but nonetheless here's the link to a review I did today on radio about this lovely book - Paul Auster's Auggie Wren's Christmas Story. Auster, with his writer characters and his stories inside stories, always ties me up in knots when I have to explain them, and this book was trickier than usual, despite being a slight 41 pages long. This is because it has had two previous incarnations: as a short story in the NY Times on Xmas Day in 1990, and as part of the marvellous movie Smoke which director Wayne Wang and Paul Auster collaborated on. It's one of my favourite movies - I blogged on it here. In fact, this story has also been published in book form once before, but this new edition is illustrated with verve by Argentinian illustrator Isol and is charmingly produced.

As I said in the review, this is an unsentimental Christmas story about truth and lies, giving and taking, trust and goodness. It's also about taking the time to see ... and to be. A lovely gift - the sort you'd get out each Christmas and read and be renewed by. But then again, I was a fan before I'd even opened it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Paper Cuts

Watch this. Paper Animation of Maurice Gee's Going West made by the NZ Book Council to encourage books and reading. Viewed more than 330,000 times on youtube. More on the Scoop Review of Books. The animation was by Andersen M Studio in London: animator - Line Andersen, photography & lighting - Martin Andersen.

This will have to keep my blog regulars going for a week as I'm off on my daughter's school camp until next Friday. No internet, no cell phones, no laptop. Just my tramping boots and a book and fifty 12 and 13 year olds for entertainment. - still deciding which book to take. Something light, I think.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ithaca Island Bay Leaves

This intricate, clever, warm , irreverent book of poems was launched last night in Wellington. Vana flew in from Crete for it.

As author and our shared MA tutor, Damien Wilkins, said upon launching: Vana wonderfully conflates the ordinary with the heroic and mythical [he said it better than that]. You find people called Nestor and Hector out and about in Beramphore or Greymouth, and the story - for it is a story - stretches back over the oceans and through the history of the Manasiadis family.

It's about the stuff of being Greek back then and now, over there and over here, and all at once... The gorgeous cover by Marian Maguire is about that too. Being part Greek, this collection has always excited me - back in 2005 when it was Vana's thesis for the MA, and now it's been polished up for publication.

It was a wonderful launch last night by Seraph Press in amongst Maguire's works in the Adam Gallery at Victoria University. Good independent bookstores will stock it I'm sure [they should].
Kali tihi, Vana!

Postscript:: Vana's publisher Helen Rickerby says if a bookshop doesn't have Ithaca Island Bay Leaves they can order it in, or email her direct for a copy:

Monday, November 30, 2009

very pleased with myself

I am terribly excited. Without meaning to, I have ended up inside a children's novel, one of my own making - no, mine and Annie's.

At an exhibition here in Eastbourne, there were half a dozen paintings by local artist Annie Hayward. 'There's a story in those paintings,' I said to Richard the Rona Gallery owner, but one especially grabbed me by the hand and ran away with me. The next day, out walking with the dog, it wouldn't let go. I kept trying to engage with the scenery, ponder the adult novel, put one foot in front of the other etc, but the story was persistent and rather rude.

I saw Annie and I told her what was happening, and she said 'You're telling me the story of my childhood'. At first I thought we had a picture book on our hands, but then I started writing it down and after 1,000 words I knew it was something else. But what? I wanted Annie's paintings as illustrations, they had to be there, and an intrinsic part of the book, not extras. Suddenly, I remembered this.

I'd never read it, but I'd noticed it at the bookshop. So I raced in and bought it and sat down and read the story in a gulp. It starts like this:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who treated him with the utmost care and adored him completely.

And then, one day, he was lost.

It's a wonderful old-fashioned tale with lyrical language, a surprising protagonist with a vivid point of view, gorgeous colour plates and line drawings, and exquisite production values. Annie has it now. We're using it as a template for the shape and look of our book. I've written three-thousand words - about a third of what I think I need - and Annie already has three illustrations. Most importantly, the protagonist has been sketched. Today I think. Yes, today.

Annie and I talk regularly about what our story is actually about. She feeds me stuff, I feed her stuff. It is Annie's childhood first and foremost, but it is also mine, and my children's childhood, and her children's childhood. It is surprising where it's taking us. I love writing it. I love the collaboration.

It fills me up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

this land of giant angularities

I have fallen in love with this unassuming book that has been on the bookshop shelves since 2002. It is an astonishing anthology of NZ spiritual verse - not religious verse, but pure, hearty, searching, gutsy, naughty, wise, spirited verse that tries to express the stuff that is New Zealanders by reaching outwards first and foremost, rather than delving inside like a surgeon looking for a tumour.

The thing is, I spent a morning this week trawling through NZ poetry for a friend who wanted some words for a client's reception desk, and while I re-discovered the marvellous, I also re-discovered the listen-to-me, watch-me, I-am-the-pivot-point sort of poetry. The bald 'I', the bald eye etc. I started to feel like you do after too many coffees - bloated and agitated. Reading this collection, leaves me feeling as I do when I've climbed through the bush to the ridge in the hills behind us.

In the introduction, the editors, Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts and Mike Grimshaw explain how they see this NZ spiritualism:

One aspect is the hemispherical, seasonal and other forms of dislocation, celebrated and re-inscribed under the southern skies, as in Charles Allen's 'Antiphon', M K Joseph's 'Easter in the South'. Lauris Edmond's 'Another Christmas Morning', and Eileen Duggan's 'A New Zealand Christmas'.
Another dimension lies in a post-Wordworthian nature romanticism, evident in Dora Hagemeyer's 'Ecstasy', and P R Woodhouse's 'The Tussock Hills' ... [and] let's not forget the expressions of a cheekier trickster 'Kiwi' spirituality: Keri Hulmes 'Headnote to a Maui Tale', David Eggleton's 'God Defend New Zealand', Peter Bland's 'Beginnings', and Elizabeth Smither's 'Temptations of St Antony by his housekeeper.'
It's all that and more - some of it new to me, some of it old. I was intrigued by Andrew Johnston's 'The Bibl', was blasted by Vincent O'Sullivan's 'Angels, whacko!' [the first time in a long time a poem's made me sit up and laugh] and been reminded again of the sheer wisdom and insight of Lauris Edmond on reading the extract from her 'Wellington Letter'.

On top of that, the essay at the end of the book by Paul Morris explained to me for the first time - really explained - this country's spiritual engagement with nature [more of this in another post]. Meanwhile, here are extracts from 'Wellington Letter' which, I believe, explain to some degree, the current response to the Witi Ihimaera plagiarism controversy.

From Wellington Letter
by Lauris Edmond

Let me tell you of my country, how it
suffers the equivocal glories, the lean
defeats of a discontented not a tragic
people; how it dreams in small townships
of interest rates and deals, possible
adulteries, the machinations of committees,
sickness and the humanely disguised
failures of children - not hunger, seldom
despair, but perhaps a rifle shot across
the dark paddocks, the indefensible sting
of a snub, the ache of boredom...


In this land of giant angularities
how we cultivate mind's middle distances;
tame and self-forgiving, how easily
we turn on one another, cold or brutish
towards the weak, the too superior...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Witi - the four positions of faith

And so the argument rages about Witi's infidelity to the god of original thought. It seems to me people who are interested - and we need to remember there are many who aren't - take one of four positions, and I have outlined them below. For better or for worse, I have fallen back on Position Two [see previous post], which I hasten to say is not a moral high ground. Every 'position' has its elements of faith, its strengths and its weaknesses, and those who espouse it have good reasons for doing so. Some of my close friends have taken the other positions, and I respect them for that.

Position One: 'Old Testament'
Thou shalt not plagiarise and thou shalt know my anger when thou does, in my eyes your action has sullied your past work and sullies your future work, any forgiveness is conditional on exemplary behaviour in future, we will use the 'big guns' - experts and the media - to get our point across, we will express ourselves in legal and academic terms even though neither is directly relevant to the work of an artist but hovers on the edges tapping your perplexing shell like a bird with a sharp beak, we will be watching you beadily, forever and ever ...

Position Two: 'New Testament'
Plagiarism is not something writers should do but we recognise it is a difficult area for creative people and mistakes will be made, we will be verbal in our disappointment hauling on our experience of your work as a whole - its originality and its impact - personally and culturally, we will refuse to savage you for your mistake but instead will try to gauge its level and impact, we will call on you by name, when you express contrition - we will forgive you in long sentences on many blogs and facebook pages and letters to the editor, we will buy your books again. Amen.

Position Three: 'Agnostic'
We believe there are facts and there is fiction, there is fact in fiction and fiction in fact and fiction in fiction and fact in fact, and however you approach this complex area as a writer [or a thinker, a doer, a be-er], you must always act in good faith and with the highest integrity. Before we can make a judgement of any sort, however, facts need to be gathered and analysed, and we will take the time to point them out to those who are not aware of them ... then, well, that's just the beginning...

Position Four: 'Atheist'
Plagiarism, under many different guises and names, is the order of the day for writers; we care more about whether or not the writing is good enough and that demands a high level of originality and personal guts. End of story.

Late addition to post on 23-11-09. Following a comment here from lit-blogger Paradoxical Cat, I have developed a fifth position:

Position Five: 'Pagan'
We have many ways of approaching the issue rather than the expected, more straightforward route, we build the sacrifical fires of satire and wit to burn the self-important and those without intelligence and wit in each of the other four positions, but like all fire-starters we have to make sure we have a safe place to stand downwind of the fires ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Trowenna Sea

Witi Ihimaera's The Trowenna Sea. I work at the bookshop on a Friday, and the owners are away so no-one's shifted the stack. I pick it up and put a lime-green post-it note on top for Laurie, 'Return these to Penguin. Due to plagiarism, they are reprinting and will replace.' I wonder about keeping them and selling them as they are - after all, surely everyone knows now that there are unacknowledged passages there. Surely, in a country as small as ours, the acknowledgment has been made - legally, morally - at least in part. Isn't that enough? Look at the size of the thing - think 0.4% plagiarised -  think of the original work in there crying to be let out. Can't we get on and sell it? [note, it is already a bestseller...]

But Witi wants the book to regain its mana, he's asked for it back, and I suppose, in the end, it's his call. And his publisher supports him. Geoff Walker, my publisher too, sounded sad on the radio. He talked of their long relationship and how this would all be set right. I know how much the relationship matters to Geoff. Not long ago, he gave a dinner in Auckland for his fiction writers. He spoke of  how important we are to him. With one novel to my name, I sat next to Witi, Witi sat next to Kapka. We drank good wine and ate good food. It was a good night.

But there it is, The Trowenna Sea - green-stickered - humiliated - waiting to return.

Witi Ihimaera is a literary hero of mine  - I still remember the day I opened Pounamu Pounamu. I was a pakeha teenager with bunkbeds; it was night-time. I opened the green covers of that slim book and there was a world I didn't know existed - kicking and screaming, funny and moving, deeply alive. And then years later, Bulibasha: all that energy and charm and humour and love in the covers of one book. Whale Rider: the characters, the mythology, the magic. I can forgive Witi Ihimaera anything because he has given me so much. What's happened now can't wipe that out.

I am sickened by how fast the NZ public is to leap on a beloved writer's back and dig the spurs in, crying, 'You, storyteller, how dare you steal!' Storytelling is about stealing, writers always steal, it's just that we also have to turn what we steal inside out so it looks like something else. That is the issue. Why Witi did it, how he did it, I don't know and I can't say. I'm disappointed. I think he should have refused the money he won this week. But the spurs, people, why the spurs?

Working at a university, I know how wrong it is not to synthesise research. To put it bluntly, plagiarism is a bigger crime at university than murder - although Auckland Uni has, strangely, not demonstrated this. Anyway, all of this is about protecting original thought. I get that, so does Professor Witi Ihimaera. Hence the recall. Hence the green sticker. Let it rest at that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jawing with a blue whale - The Blue in Stanley

Nothing can adequately describe the feeling of vertigo I get when fiction and fact collide - the giddiness that is part thrill, part disbelief, part anxiety, part a weird kind of omniscience. It's like standing in a mirror room and seeing reflections of yourself receding to infinity. What comes first? What is true? How can all those words add up to a representation of reality that concerns and interests and moves people? How can it have a life outside of itself? And how does this thing I have made fit with all the wonders of the real world?                                
Above, you have a whalebone arch in the Falklands' capital of Stanley made from the jawbones of blue whales caught in the South Shetland Islands; and here, a photograph of The Blue next to one of these remarkable bones.

Is it nestling in delightedly, do you think, working up the courage to have a jaw about the largest creature the world has ever seen? Or is it leaning nervously, a little non-plussed, perhaps, by its close proximity to the 'real thing'?

A bit of both I think. O little audacious book.

The photographs were taken yesterday by Robert Paterson who works for the British Antarctic Survey on board the RSS James Clark. A Scot from the Isle of Bute, he travels thousands of miles to places like the Falklands and South Georgia where whaling is knitted into local history, much as it is in Arapawa Island, New Zealand.

Robert was in NZ a little while back and while here he stumbled upon my blog. Being a seafaring man who connects with old whaling towns on his voyages, he thought he'd like to read The Blue, so back home in Scotland, he emailed to ask me where he could order a copy. I put him onto Louise at NZ Books Abroad and she got to work. Unfortunately, the book didn't arrive before he left the country for his latest expedition, so he contacted Louise again and asked her to send another copy to Stanley in the Falklands, which is one of his ports of call.

So here it is, The Blue. Rather surprised to be so far from home and snuggled up to the jawbone of a blue whale. And it's all thanks to a Scot of the Antarctic! No, really, what a thoroughly lovely thing to do. I still can't quite believe The Blue is doing things in this world over two years after publication, let alone making expeditions south. There's that vertigo again...

Robert tells me that these whalebone arches are common sights in places where whalers once lived and worked. He says, 'I remember one in Edinburgh, by the Meadows, and I'm told there is one in Whitby too.' [Here's a Stanley local, Chelsea Middleton, holding The Blue beside the whale arch. It looks more confident like that I think.]

And to finish, Robert included a photograph of an old whale station in South Georgia. He says in his email:

I wonder what Johnny Norton and the other whalers would make of South Georgia? Here's a photo of the old station at Leith. There aren't many places in the world where you can see reindeer grazing alongside elephant seals and penguins - but this is one of them.

Johnny is one of the former whalers of Arapawa Island that helped me with my research for The Blue. I reckon he'd be fascinated by the old whale station at Leith. As I am.

All photo credits: Robert Paterson

For more photographs of the travels of The Blue see the links in the right hand column of the blog - and I'd love more. Send them to

Monday, November 9, 2009

One for sorrow, two for joy: Magpie Hall

Dora says nothing but sinks back into silence, concentrating on distilling the pain of the needles. She is so much more comfortable this time; now she reclines on a chaise longue, with her arm resting on a small table beside it

Henry has allowed McDonald's apprentice to tattoo him, a small picture of a spider on his leg, and so far the boy is making good progress; husband and wife lie side by side and now and again take each other's free hands. Dora feels a current pass between them - the shared experience creates something that sparks and crackles like electricity. McDonald feels it too - she knows he does. He shifts and sighs in his seat, glancing at their interlocked fingers. If he thinks them strange he says nothing - it is not his place after all..... [Magpie Hall]
This is the scene I have stuck in my head on finishing Rachael King's new novel Magpie Hall. It is powerfully evocative of the whole relationship between Dora and Henry - the growing attraction, the need to 'illustrate' their love on their skin; and more than that, on Dora's part, to somehow ink her skin with the desire that is bursting inside her but that she cannot express due to societal strictures. A desire for Henry, for adventure, for an independent life.

It is the late 1800s and Henry has bought and renovated Magpie Hall - a transplanted gothic castle in the Canterbury plains - for his new wife. Their stories are told in the third-person as the novel unfolds, but the main narrator is Henry's unhappy great-great-granddaughter, Rosemary, who has come to stay and write in Magpie Hall, which has been vacated after her loved grandfather died. She has inherited the taxidermy collection begun by Henry and continued by the grandfather, and she has also - it seems - inherited a love of tattoos. There are a number of skeletons in the Magpie Hall cupboards - not least what happened to Dora [was she drowned or murdered by Henry?], and then there's the story of Henry's cabinet of curiosities that went mysteriously astray.

There is another insistent secret that pushes its way into the story via ghostly sightings and some bizarre events, which seem to come straight from the pages of a Bronte novel. And this is no accident, as we know by now that Rosemary is writing a thesis on Victorian gothic novels: Wuthering Heights looms large in reality and by suggestion. Everything simmers away, until suddenly, the novel is turned on its head, and we discover the truths, or what we think are the truths, behind the ghosts and the gossip. At the same time, nothing is necessarily reliable ...

Great stuff. Rachael King spins a good yarn, and one that has a powerful aesthetic. Like her first novel The Sound of Butterflies, she chooses elements that both fascinate and repel and blends them with the morbid, the erotic, the eerie and the exquisitely beautiful. There is the same fascination with collecting and obsession and science, and with the stuff of illustration - how to show and hold and remember those evanescent things: love and beauty?

My favourite things:
*the tattooing - what makes someone want to be inked, and the history and detail behind it - Rachael's descriptions are visceral and exciting
*the taxidermy and its links to the controversial work and logic of Buller: kill to preserve
*the historic story especially the emergence of Dora's character
*the subtle references to the Bronte novels
*the twist in the tale - unreliability in the narration of a story is always compelling, I think, because it most accurately represents the stuff of story-telling

My not so favourite things: 
*I didn't engage with modern day Rosemary or feel much empathy for her - she is too self-conscious for my liking and not quite convincing enough
* I felt the Bronte material fell heavily on the page at times - for example, meeting masculine young 'Sam the farmhand' who hunts rabbits etc made me feel like there was a long (Ha)worthy finger pointing and saying 'He's one of mine!' [Not by name but by nature.]
*I wanted more of Dora.

And here's where you need to understand how unreliable I am at this point in the review - because I know Rachael, I was terribly excited by Magpie Hall so I read it quickly and through a lurgy-induced haze [see previous post]. I don't think I had all my wits about me when the whole novel was turned on its head, and, frankly, I'm still trying to work out all the references and clues - there are some hugely satisfying links between the two stories.

I think I really need to re-read Magpie Hall properly to 'get' it all, and I may have been too hard on Rosemary and young Sam ... So take what you will from this. There's certainly no getting away from the fact that it's been a blast - there's just the sort of uncertainty I like in fiction, and material that changes the way I see things.

'Two for joy' it is, then.

Book cover and web links in previous post.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Magpie Hall Launch must have been Mighty Mighty

I'm guessing the Magpie Hall Launch at Mighty Mighty in Wellington last night was a humdinger. Rachael King doesn't do events by half-measure and she was promising surprises. I couldn't be there because I have the Dreaded Lurgy - a lurking, lung-clogging lethargy [isn't Lurgy the exact right word?] Oh, I was disappointed! Still am. However, I toasted Rachael's book with a bowl of chicken soup, and proceeded to get down and read as much as I could of the reader copy I'd gleaned from the bookshop where I hang out - oops, sorry - work every Friday. I'm about half way through and really enjoying myself. This woman knows how to tell a good yarn [Sound of Butterflies was her first novel - winner of the Best First Book of Prose at the Montanas that year].

On Facebook, I called Magpie Hall NZ Gothic Erotic, and here's why: there's an old manorial house, leering magpies, faces at the window, old silk wedding dresses, hired help who shoot rabbits and are happy to jump in the sack, gorgeous tattoos on men and women, skeletons in the closets, stuffed animals watching every move ... and there are echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights! Spooky, really, after my last post... Meanwhile, I gather Magpie Hall is on sale from tomorrow! Go here to Rachael's brand-new rather lovely website to find out more about it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Taste of Sorrow

I am in thrall to this book. Since I started reading it on Friday, and ever since I ended it in the early hours of this morning, I have thought of little else. The subject matter - the lives of the Bronte sisters - is compelling in itself, but the writing by Jude Morgan is of the most astonishing sort.

And I have to say quickly at this point that a fictional portrayal of these writing heroes of mine did not appeal to begin with - but I was persuaded by lit bloggers I know and love to pick the book up and give it a try. This was sealed when I read that Bronte biographer Juliet Barker declared it 'Quite simply the best book about the Brontes I have ever read.'

Oh yes, it is. And one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Author Jude Morgan treads carefully, respectfully, quietly, so quietly you can hear him breathe at times, and then - like a hunter - he grabs his prey, twists and breaks its neck. He writes in a way that skins the animal and shows it to you, and then later elevates it, clean and like new. And all you can do is stare.

Breaking from the hunting metaphor, I was surprised at the - for want of a better word - feminist care and attention Morgan gives each one of his characters. Charlotte is at the centre, but Emily and Anne, their father and their brother, even Aunt Branwell and Tabby the housekeeper, are all developed and given life. Emily's shyness/reticence is especially well drawn.There's a sense that Morgan is feeling through the haze - much like short-sighted Charlotte does - and trying to put his hands on the exact word or phrase or feeling that will bring the Brontes to life. He pokes and prods, circles, tries and tries again. And then, there! There it is. My breath was taken away so many times.

One of the most compelling things about the novel for me is the marvellous understanding Morgan shows of the creative process - of the worlds of Angria and Gondal that the Brontes created and inhabited well into their adult lives, and the pain they felt when they couldn't write, and the intense and complicated joy they felt when they could. I found the time when the three surviving sisters finally came together around a table and shared the novels they were writing unbearably moving. And the goosebumps stood up on my arms and the back of my neck when the word 'Wuthering' first surfaced ... and the name 'Eyre'.There's a lot that's unbearably moving in this book, in fact, it is called The Taste of Sorrow after all. All that incredible genius, all those wasting deaths from consumption.... it has been analysed and written about so many times. But what Morgan has done is re-created these women by - as he says - trying to clear away the myth and legend surrounding the Brontes.
My own conviction about the Brontes was that they were not these fey ‘children of the moors’ who somehow happened to write great novels. They were very driven, very conscious as artists.
Which is what I love most about this book. The rest of the interview with Morgan is here [and it's a rare thing as Morgan is as shy of attention as Emily Bronte it seems - Jude Morgan is a pseudonym just like Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell.] And there is another review at Gondal-Girl's blog here and some Bronte fan links here  and the Bronte parsonage website here! Needless to say I've spent any spare moments I've had today trawling through the net for more on the Brontes and Jude Morgan. His novel Passion is on my reading list.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The way words cluster

Goodbye, I say to the mother of boys I don't know but my daughter does, after we've discussed the Halloween Party she's having - what time it starts, ends, that sort of thing. And what's your name again? I ask because I hadn't quite caught it the first time. I can tell she's busy putting up pumpkin lights and slicing blood sausage for vampires and ghouls to nibble on. Tansy, she says patiently, but her voice is a little further from the phone as if she was about to put it down. Tansy? Tansy. Like Pansy but not Pansy. Tansy. I don't think I've ever heard it before.

I hang up and drive to the local shops to buy provisions and have a coffee. Scott who sells heritage tomato plants and organic herbs and flowers is in the little lane between one shop and the next. My heritage tomato plants are already in the ground at home - one of them will produce tomatoes which are black inside, and another will produce tomatoes the colour of chocolate - but I need some other plants to fill my small dug-over beds: daisies, herbs, anything really. I rummage among the pots and pull one out. What's this? Pyrethrum - it's a natural insecticide. And this? Ants hate it - plant it around your house and the ants skedaddle. What's it called? Tansy.

I bought two.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fast food reading

How we, in the age of Twitter and a rampant internet, are losing the art of sustained reading and contemplation - lit blogger Mark Sarvas discusses this with the help of the erudite visitors to his blog who throw in a host of insightful comments at the foot of the post. Ironically enough, reading this [total time - 8 minutes?] gave me a lot to ... contemplate. But in fact it's not ironic at all. There is a lot to think about on the net, as Sarvas says, it's just that it's there in bite-sized portions that we grab at like fast food [I guess I could have eaten a Big Mac in those eight minutes]. Deep contemplation is harder to find time for, he maintains, and some, like Philip Roth, say novel readers will become as thin on the ground as readers of Latin poetry are now. In fact, I have Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow beside me on the table as I write this. It was there as I read the Sarvas blog. If I'd opened it instead, I could have read a few pages of the book at least [it promises to be rather wonderful but I am not as yet fully engaged with it]. However, now I have to go out and invade the day [grocery shopping, dropping children off, walking the dog]. The Taste of Sorrow will have to wait ... maybe later when I get home... after I've sampled my emails.   

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The whaler, the book and me

It was one of those nights you dream about as an author. Seventy-five people turned out to the Marlborough District Library to hear me talk about The Blue and one of them was Johnny Norton, a former whaler, who  helped me with my research five years ago, and I hadn't seen since. Johnny (above right) was one of the whalers who sat up at the Lookout on Arapawa Island in 2004 as part of the first DOC whale survey team. And I was there too, all those years ago, watching the whalers watching the whales, and taking notes for my novel. Johnny and the other whalers with their binoculars, and the groovy young DOC scientists with their laptops and theodolite, were wonderfully welcoming to a wet-behind-the-ears novelist. Another whaler - Ron Perano - came along last night, but he headed off before the photo opportunity. He joined the DOC survey the year after I was there.

There were other whaling families at the event, too, and people who live on or nearby Arapawa Island. I found myself rolling out all my stories about my research on and about Arapawa Island and the whaling : the marvellous and funny things I discovered, and the wonderful people like Johnny Norton I met on the way. And - feeling a little nervous with real whalers in the front row and not able to put it off any longer - I read a whaling scene.

As I read it I felt glad to be reading it and glad I'd written it. It felt like the words gave life to what these men and their families knew and loved and endured in their lives - elevated it all somehow, put it up there with the epic and elemental stuff of the myths and legends that informed my choice of whaling as a setting for the novel in the first place. It sounds a bit grandiose I suppose - but language is what I know and whaling is what they know and it's as if, without realising it, we'd given each other a gift. As I said to the crowd, I do believe fact is stranger than fiction, and often more compelling and more wonderful, but I believe it's fiction's job to take us there, and allow us to properly hear and see those people and places and events, and to feel empathy, but not in the way you always expect. As artist Francis Bacon said about art, ultimately fiction is about deepening the mystery.

Here's the beginning of the extract I read:

The sky was the colour of barely beaten egg, and the sun newly emerged from behind Arapawa Island streamed clear yellow on Lookout Hill and the men who waited there. Little else was lit at that early hour. A hundred yards below the Lookout the sea was still dark, and the hills behind were in shadow and crisp with frost. Each man on that hilltop felt privileged to be there on the edge of, the very edge of, the waking world.
It wasn't all that serious! I picked this extract because it is the best translation of what I saw and heard up the Lookout when I was there myself - the things the whalers knew, the way they talked and joked with each other, the way they did their job.

By the end of my talk, Johnny and Ron were up the front with me talking about whaling then and now, and the reason for whale conservation - it was rivetting stuff. One man came up at the end and said he'd been dragged along to hear me speak but he had to tell me he'd had a fantastic time. Well, I have to tell you, so did I.

Huge thanks to the Marlborough District Library - to Glenn Webster and the Friends of the Library especially - for looking after me so well and putting on such a fantastic event as part of their 150th celebrations, to NZ Book Month for supporting it, to Blenheim Bookworld [Peter and Charmaine] for selling my books, and to Blenheim for turning on an exquisite 22 degree-day yesterday and giving me such a supportive crowd.

Photo of me and Johnny Norton by Glenn Webster.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Blue in Marlborough and Fiona Kidman a double knight?

Two exciting pieces of news:

The Blue is having its own NZ Book Month event at the Marlborough District Library, 33 Arthur Street, Blenheim tomorrow night - Wednesday October 28 @ 7.30 pm [do ignore the websites that declare the event is on Thursday, it absolutely isn't]. Exciting because Marlborough is at the heart of my novel set on Arapawa Island in Tory Channel and I love taking it back to that part of the world. So far, my South Island events have been in Christchurch and Nelson, but this is my first sortie to Marlborough. I will talk about the research and writing of The Blue, and why I think the story of these 1930s whalers and their families lay in wait for me to write it. Then I read for a bit.

I have my notes ready and in big letters on the first square of card are the words Epic and Elemental. Every talk is different because I work from two note cards scrawled with notes and key words, but I nearly always start with Epic and Elemental. The epic stuff of the life of the whaler in Cook Strait on fast, two-man boats with explosive harpoons, and the elemental world they and their families inhabited. Their families. Well that sends me off in a whole other direction. For this was a time when men were men and women waited... well, they didn't just wait did they? There was washing and sewing and minding the children and feeding the chooks - and sometimes there were secrets too deep to remember and losses too deep to repair. Do come and hear more in Blenheim. It's so much more fun speaking to a crowd.

Speaking of Arapawa Island, one of my favourite NZ authors, Fiona Kidman [author of The Captive Wife also set on Arapawa and one of the reasons we are friends] was tonight presented with the gong for the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres which makes her officially a knight. The French Ambassador announced she'd received the honour at a function earlier this year to launch her memoir Beside the Dark Pool. Well, tonight, after pinning Fiona's honour onto her appropriately red jacket, the deliciously mischievous ambassador Michel Legras opened another slim box and pinned on a second medal - this time the highest order in France: the Legion of Honour. Which from my reading of wikipedia makes Fiona Kidman a double Knight as well as a Dame.

Sounds like a fancy chess move... ! But this time, Fiona wasn't going to be outsmarted. She was reduced to silence by the first knighthood surprise but tonight she had a speech prepared - albeit for one knighthood not two. It ended with some rather lovely poems, especially one about her husband Ian and a perfect time they had at a village in France. You get the feeling that Fiona Kidman, like Katherine Mansfield, might have a bit of poker work on her heart ....

Needless to say Fiona, and her assembled family and friends [some of them going back to her childhood] and colleagues were delighted by the Legion of Honour, and we all took turns to admire the enameled brilliance of both medals and tried to read the tiny French words. I recommended to Fiona that she wears them on a daily basis, and overlapping so they clank gently together as she walks, and she said she would definitely think about it, and as a start she would wear them to breakfast the next day. She agreed it was so much better to enjoy the honours than hide them away in a dark drawer. As fellow blogger Denis Welch said, over the divine fingernail-sized canapes and bottomless breasts of champagne, the French do the best medals.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

'How Ted Hughes Became' and the fine art of mutating the literary lecture

Following on from my post on the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, for which I have been rapped over the knuckles by some attendees who thought it the best lecture yet and my reference to 'lashings of water' exaggerated (perhaps it was, my apologies), I happened upon a report on the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture in the UK. It seems this lecture is not the sort where the writer's name blesses a presentation about a general literary theme [the Frame lecture is on the state of literature in NZ], but rather it's based around an aspect of the writer's body of work.

And 'based around' is what it says - outgoing poet laureate Andrew Motion, who delivered the lecture in July, indicated his theme How Ted Hughes Became had mutated and taken on a life of its own, estranged from its source.

What interests me is how the future speakers will approach the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture.  With three different versions of 'the state of literature in NZ' already out there - intelligently and convincingly delivered by eminent writers Owen Marshall, Greg O'Brien and William Taylor - where else can the speakers go? I hope, whoever they are, they keep Motion in mind and allow their genius with words and ideas to allow the 'theme' to mutate and take on a life of its own. Perhaps in deference to her own peculiar genius, Janet Frame's work should be a natural starting place for the lecture, or at least a touchstone, as the poetry of Hughes is for the UK event.

I certainly felt William Taylor's anecdote about his nodding acquaintance with Frame in a Palmerston North supermarket and his excited purchase of her first book, Owls do Cry, was one of the highlights of the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture this year. And how exciting it would be to use this annual event to give Frame this 'framing' if you like - a new way of appreciating her writing and life in a public forum - of seeing what has come from her, and what has gone off in other, gloriously mutated directions. 

So, yes, not something worthy but something that is driven by the very literature it comments on, something separately alive. Mutated. Experimental even. The report on the Hughes Memorial Lecture, written by leading literary blogger dove grey reader, finishes with an apposite quote by Ted Hughes, which could apply just as easily to the art of delivering a memorial lecture on literature:

 'Maybe all a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate. to be delivered of. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies.'
And then there's the lovely end to Greg O'Brien's Frame lecture last year:

If I have learnt anything in the last 20 years it is this:

That New Zealand Literature is our collective work in progress

That literature is a laboratory

That Literature is a prism through which we see the world—and not a mirror held up to the world

Literature is a beach house

Literature is a pulse

Literature is a field of electrical energy

Literature is a wind of fruitfulness

Literature is a life lived

And I remember the lives of Eric McCormick, Dennis McEldowney, Janet Frame, Michael King, Robin Dudding.

Friday, October 23, 2009

To the pure all things are indecent - William Taylor

Award-winning children's/YA author William Taylor did the honours for the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture in Wellington this year, in front of an audience of 80-plus which included Janet Frame's niece, Pamela Gordon, and a phalanx of children's authors and others in the children's book industry.

A relatively controversial writer in the YA market, Taylor has seen the gently satirical Agnes the Sheep banned [one of the conservative US states], and his best-seller Possum Perkins carrying a 'health warning' in Queensland [due to content] and later rejected for republishing in NZ and elsewhere on the grounds of the same content [what people saw as implied incest between father and daughter]. Hence the line in his speech that is the title of this post.

Taylor is the third writer to give this annual lecture - following on from Owen Marshall and Greg O'Brien. The literary state of the nation is the theme and 70-year-old Taylor did this by focusing on his own 40-year history as a writer [including a stint as chair of PEN] and extrapolating that out to show how it was for writers once and how it's changed over the years. As a young writer in literary terms, I found this historical journey interesting. It's always good to put the present day into perspective and hear from the battle-weary how lucky we are now in terms of writer prizes and residencies, and annual top-ups like the author's fund.

When Taylor's first novel Episode came out in 1970 with Whitcombe and Tombes [it was an adult novel], there was only one writer prize available and it was worth only $2,000. There are now a stack of these things including the $100,000 Menton prize and the mixed delights of Creative NZ funding. As Taylor said, one thing a writer had to learn back then was 'thrift' and, despite the increase in financial support across the board, 'thrift' is still - he believes - the name of the game. For one thing, he believes the percentage of books a publisher publishes from the manuscripts that land on his/her desk has dropped from about 2% to 1 %, and instead of only 600 authors applying for the author's fund [an annual payment for books held in NZ libraries], there are now 1700 [and interestingly half of them are children's writers.]

Taylor pointed out, it was -and still is - hard for anyone to make a living as a writer, but he's done that now for 25 years, after a career as a teacher. His ability to do this is no doubt helped by the fact that his books are published all over the world [even Albania!].

It was also good last night to see the writing world from the perspective of a children's author - the ones who, as Taylor said, earn half as much per book and get less from the author's fund per book but usually sell twice as many. He touched on the way children's writers are deemed to be the lesser species in the writing world despite their huge success in NZ and overseas, and despite the fact that they help create the readers that then go on to buy adult books.

Having said that, the lecture was a little dry and unspired at times - Taylor seemed to feel more comfortable reading rather than engaging with the audience, and this wasn't helped by his appearing to be recovering from a cold and requiring lashings of water to ease a dry mouth. There were hints of this notable author's  passions and strong opinions about the state of literature in this country - in both the delivery and content of the speech - and it would have been rather marvellous to have seen him toss the written stuff over his shoulder and plunge heedlessly in, with nothing but a string colourful anecdotes to act as life-buoys. 

The censorship of Taylor's books was certainly a highlight, along with an anecdote about meeting with the late Michael King [who rather than talking about his biography of Frame wanted, instead, to discuss Anges the Sheep] and another about how Taylor was on nodding terms with Janet Frame at a Palmerston North supermarket and never spoke to her despite being the proud owner of a precious first edition of Owls do Cry. There was another lovely strand that ran through Taylor's speech and had begun from the introductory speech by City Councillor Ray Ahipene Mercer. Mercer was a student of Taylor's at Trentham Primary fifty years ago, and remembered him with tremendous warmth as someone who'd helped cement his love for literature. Taylor, in turn, had warm memories of the ebulliant city councillor, and pointed out another student sitting in the audience.

I guess, in the end, Taylor himself is the gold in a speech like that. He is battle-weary but he is also marvellously triumphant after forty years as an author with many successes to his name - and so he deserves to be. It was a shame the lecture wasn't supported by more from the wider literary community, and by that I mean leading adult writers and those in the adult writing and publishing industry. Where were representatives from the International Institute of Modern Letters, for example? It just confirms what Taylor was saying about how children's writers are perceived in this country. More's the pity.

William Taylor is on the NZ Book Council site here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


An illustration from Australian author Shaun Tan's exquisite graphic novel The Arrival. And how I feel today now I'm back on the boat of my novel. Every decision about a scene or character offers up another four or five possibilities, sometimes more. There are days when the sky is a-flutter with them. And I am the man in the hat.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Typewriters: the fates and fingers of authors

Oh Olivetti! My Olivetti. I am sure this is it. My first typewriter. I just found it on and this is what they say about it: A worldwide favorite of students, its also the perfect portable for everyone from poets to PTA secretaries. Yes, poets. That was me - tapping poems on those keys with the small dip for a finger tip, just so, and each key pressing a metal arm with two small metal letters on the end [lower case and upper case], or a question mark or colon or quotation mark, and each tap would push that letter or mark into the paper, and leave a small shapely dent. 

Then there was the ower of the 'shift' - push it down and the whole of the key structure would lift like subjects before royalty to make a lower case letter a capital letter. At the end of each line, the lever had to be grabbed and pushed along so the black rubber paper roller [known as the carriage] pulled the page up and along to the start of the next line. Ch-ding. And sometimes the ribbon spool would stop feeding the ribbon through and I'd need to fiddle with a tiny clip to make it run again, sometimes I wouldn't notice and the metal letters would tap on the same spot long enough to cut right through it, or sometimes the ribbon would run dry of black or red ink and need replacing. And to correct mistakes, there was whiteout in bottles or on slips of paper which you put under the key before pressing the letter again.

[You know, I wonder if the second Olivetti is more like mine in fact - plainer, a little heavier?]

There's something about the act of typing, something expressive about it. The whole body wields the arms which push the hands which tap those finger tips, and it's like the fingers push and dig at the same time. They work to get those letters onto the paper. And the act of pushing the carriage along to get to the next line is like being a conductor of an orchestra with all the energy and showmanship it implies. I remember my father - his big hands tapping, his whole body throwing itself behind them, chucking that roller along at the end of a line with a loud and satisfying DING. My mother was more circumspect more compact about it, less ding-y, really.

I suppose the amazing thing is both my parents used typewriters as both of them are writers. The Olivetti was theirs. I inherited it. I tapped my early poems on it, and my student essays. Stories sometimes too. I loved it. It made my poems look like poems and my essays look tidy and formal. It helped make me a real writer.
For some reason, after university when I left NZ to live in England, I bought myself a new typewriter. Had the old one broken? Or did I just want something fancy and new and mine? I bought an Olympia. It's still in the garage in its case. Or I think it's an Olympia. I should just go and check, but it's late. It certainly looked very like this - but perhaps a little smaller and lighter? I like the blurb that goes with it: The writer's typewriter of the 70s. Ever since their introduction, Olympia SM 8 & 9 models have been very closely tied to the fates and fingers of authors and writers. They're dependable, comfortable to use, and nice and solid in feel and function. This machine is probably the most preferred writing tool for anyone prefers a manual and it sure will serve for many years to come.

'The fates and fingers of authors and writers', well who can argue with that? I've just found out on [which has a host of bios of typewriting authors] that Paul Auster got an Olympia in the 70s, not long before I got mine. This is him on the left. But back when I typed on my Olympia in our small London flat not too far from Primrose Hill, I didn't know Auster's work. Back then, I was like Sylvia Plath, angrily tapping angry stuff, enough to annoy the elderly Hungarian refugee downstairs. Except this was Plath's typewriter below [the actual one apparently]: a large, heavy Royal.

Nik, one of my writing students, bought himself a Royal this year - like Hemingway rather then Plath. In fact here, thanks to the power of the internet, is Hemingway's actual typewriter. 

It's been lovely reading typewritten work again. The way it's not absolutely perfect. The way you can see how the letters have found their place on the page, and without too much trouble you can imagine the noise and the orchestration behind them; and then it's no small leap to imagine the brain fitting those letters together to make the words. This is writing as a physical act, a theatrical, memorable act - my father throwing the carriage along so hard I suspected it might part with the typewriter one day, neighbours agitated with the angry clatter of my poems, and Auster - look at him - his fingers are fair twitching with expectation.

Monday, October 12, 2009



by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

This poem faces the scribbles and appointments of my week next week inside my yellow, treasure trove of a Faber Diary. I flicked forward just now to write something relatively uninteresting: 'marking' [October 19-23] and something interesting: 'Janet Frame Lecture' [Te Papa, 6pm, October 22], and there it was. After an especially chaotic, drivel of a day, the poem stopped me a moment, allowed calm to pool around my feet, made me smile.

Really, Larkin gets it - the bigger picture: life, death, religion, love, the march of days - and offers to the reader not the whole catastrophe but the exact point at which these things catch the light. That corner or curve or secret niche - caught in brightness and spilling with shadow. 

There, he seems to say. He doesn't dwell, he just remarks, simply, gloomily at times, cynically at others, as if these things have just that moment caught his eye, then he departs shaking his head. More on Larkin and his work here and here.   And a comment on his poem An Arundel Tomb earlier on the blog.

Postscript: Found this terrific quote on the link above which helps dispense with the idea of Larkin as a total curmudgeon. The author is quoting critic James Naremore at this point and later turns to another critic called King.

"...The greatest virtue in Larkin's poetry is not so much his suppression of large poetic gestures as his ability to recover an honest sense of joy and beauty." The New York Times quotes Larkin as having said that a poem "represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you—you the poet, and you, the reader—to go on." King senses this quiet catharsis when he concludes: "Although one's final impression of the poetry is certainly that the chief emphasis is placed on a life 'unspent' in the shadow of 'untruth,' moments of beauty and affirmation are not entirely denied. It is the difficulty of experiencing such moments after one has become so aware of the numerous self-deceptions that man practices on himself to avoid the uncomfortable reality which lies at the heart of Larkin's poetic identity."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood - such a wonderful title for so many reasons -  and such a book, too - blasted by the northern hemisphere version of the same weather that was blasting us today. Sitting reading by the roaring fire lit by my husband, I am rendered almost invisible as the winds rage and the sea slaps - outside the window, inside my head.

The book is the first collection of short stories by Canadian author Alistair MacLeod. It came to my attention when reviewer Iain Sharpe suggested the wind-slashed, isolated island life of The Blue might have something in common with the stories in the 1976 MacLeod book, which are set on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland.

Before you read more - click on this video of  Cape Breton musicians Qristina and Quinn Bachand playing the traditional music that pervades the place and the book. MacLeod talks of 'the near-Elizabethan songs and ballads that had sailed from County Kerry and Devon and Cornwall. All about the wild, wide sea and the flashing silver dagger and the lost and faithless lover' - but the fiddle and guitar music is different from the songs it seems, coming direct from the shores of Scotland and meant for dancing. I found the Bachands quite by accident on youtube last week and was smitten. It's raw, wind-swept, stuff.  

Anyway, since the lovely Sharpe book review which mentioned The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, I've kept an eye out for it ever since. But not until September this year, at the giant book fair at the TSB arena, did I catch sight of it: on my second visit, an hour from closing, and everything down to a dollar a book. The Lost Salt was sitting nonchalently on top of a pile of the overlooked.

I snatched it and then looked guiltily over each shoulder, as you do, to see if anyone else had noticed my greed. The place was pretty empty, but there to my left - less than a book-length away - was Lloyd Jones.

I held up my prize and he nodded amiably. It was his second trip to the book fair, too, apparently. The first trip was to collect up books for a library in Bougainville where Mr Pip is famously set.

I am only a little way into the title story so I can't tell you what The Lost Salt Gift of Blood means yet, but so far I am loving these elemental stories where men's trousers snap in the wind when they pee, and women have to insist the old horse is put down so he doesn't cost children their meals during an icy winter.

All this for only $1.

And I've got a stack from the fair still to go.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Frank Sargeson and Paul and me

It was Open Day at Frank Sargeson's bach in Takapuna at the weekend, and it was my eldest son's 21st birthday. A nice collision of events.

Seven years ago, Paul was inhaling the classics and short stories and NZ lit at the rate of a book and a half a week - some of them massive tomes by the likes of Dickens and Dostoevsky. He had more time for this than most because, for various reasons, he was doing his schooling at home that year. He'd just discovered Sargeson's short stories and so a visit to Auckland cried out for a trip to the writer's famous fibrolite bach [interior photo above].

One afternoon - sunny, I remember - we abandoned the rest of the family and caught a cab to the Takapuna Library where we understood we could pick up the key. I wandered all over the library until I found someone who could help me. She handed the key over as if we were popping in to the feed the cat. Then off we went in the taxi to 14 Esmonde Road. where one of NZ's foremost writers had lived and worked from 1931 - 1982.

The cab pulled up by the hedge. The travel guide wasn't lying, it was truly unprepossessing. We told the driver to pick us up in an hour, and we went gingerly in through the gate and up to the front door. The key slid into the lock and we stepped into - if I remember rightly, I can't put my hand on the notes I took back then - a porch with a daybed where Sargeson slept. The air was the air of a bach left closed for the winter, and at the same time it felt as if we were walking into a home which was still being lived in, as if we should call out, 'don't worry, it's just us!'

There were hats on the coat hooks and books left on tables and shelves. The shelves were groaning with books, in fact. We could hear them.

And there was the kitchen bench where Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame had lunch every day when she was living and writing in a shed out the back [no longer there.] I'm pretty sure it was usually soup made from the vegetables Sargeson grew, and they'd talk about what they'd written that morning and the book they were both reading at the time. Sargeson was - to use a modern phrase - 'mentoring' Frame. So, and again this is from memory, they read the same book and discussed it to encourage her writing.

In the morning, Sargeson would tap on the door of the shed and ask how she was going, and if she wasn't writing, Frame would tap madly on the typewriter 'The quick brown fox..' so he thought she was busy and would go away. Of course I could have that wrong but the story has stuck with me.

We admired the kitchen bench and the books and the relaxed clutter and disarray. Then feeling like Goldilocks, we sat in the chairs - the exact ones in the photograph above. And we sat. And we talked about Sargeson and talked about Frame and talked about their books. And the dust we'd disturbed drifted in the watery sunlight. And we talked some more.We had an hour, remember.

I had no camera to take photographs but I remember it so clearly. It was one of those perfect times when everything coheres - when the stuff of us and what we've done and are doing, and who we are and where we are, and all those dusty ghosts thronging the windows, come together and say in a ridiculously loud whisper: 'this.' This.

For this is us - my son, Paul, and I. It's books and talking and thinking and writing. And music, too, and, recently, films and philosophy. He taught me as much that year as I taught him I think.About a host of classics I'd never read and those I had. About the joys of rediscovering writers I hadn't read for years. About how reading is simply in some people's DNA. How making time for reading and writing can be as natural as drinking water - you just have to claim a place - the whole length of the couch, a desk with a chair - and do that thing you were meant to do.

How well Paul fitted into Frank's chair, and into that cosy little room with all the books. We didn't want to leave. We talked about how astonishing it was that we could just let ourselves into a national treasure like that - how New Zealand it was. And so we sat and talked until the taxi came.

In seven years, we've never been back. Well not back back. We still do it, all that talking and reading and writing and sitting in chairs and disturbing dust. And soup. We both love soup.