Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I love pohutukawa. The city is foaming with them. Such a lovely start to Christmas.
We go over the hill tomorrow for Christmas Day at our olive grove. I think we will have twenty-two family and friends there this year eating, drinking, singing, swimming, lying around and playing petanque. There aren't any pohutukawa up that way so I might take a few with me.

I once drove up to a friend's wedding in Turangi - the chilly bin packed with red blossoms. They looked great on the tables in the marae, although one of the kuia took me aside to explain that there were no pohutukawa thereabouts except for one on an island in Lake Taupo, and there was a good reason (backed up by myth) why that was so. She said she found the sight of the pohutukawa in Turangi lovely but perplexing.

They might look a bit odd among the olive trees, too, but they will be festive. And they'll blend in with the other imported blossoms like this little one below.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all visitors to O Audacious Book especially the bloggers I visit in turn through the year. I really appreciate people coming here, commenting, coming back ... I will try to post over the holiday period, although I'll be terribly busy reading all the books I never got to in 2008 but wanted to. I can get through one a day over the hill in summer.

Hammock here I come.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This Year

Weird video but I saw the Mountain Goats sing This Year live on Thursday night as the last song in their Wellington set at San Francisco Bath House, and it was one of those perfect moments in a string of perfect moments at the gig.

Singer John Darnielle [called by The New Yorker 'America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist']announced it was the last outing of the year for his US indie band, and punched out This Year like it was his last song forever.

It's been an intense year for me - using the Henry James quote regarding what people want in literature - it's been a year of 'bliss' (centring around my book) and 'bale' (centring around my family), and a bit of bliss in the bale, and bale in the bliss, if you know what I mean. So This Year is aways turned up loud in my car with the line 'I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me' a great one to sing-along to. Talk about cathartic.

But Darnielle is like that - he rinses words out and wrings them so hard they're not only fresh and shiny again, they're a different shape.

Celebratory. Berating. Questioning. Sweet and gentle, too. At the Wellington gig, Darnielle stepped away from the mike sometimes and sang some of the sweetest lines into the crowd without amplification. Lines like the one about being 'desperate' in someone's arms.

Darnielle is funny and enigmatic on stage and the total professional, as you'd expect. He was also wearing a lovely jacket until he got too hot. After a solo turn, he was joined by his excellent bassist and drummer.

Darnielle has his own blog here which shows an unhealthy fascination with metal music and horror movies and Jamie Lee Curtis. And another blogger has a look at some of the MG songs and great lines here.

And we didn't get to hear Woke up New performed but it's one of those sweet ones with sudden knife-sharp insight, and is a better video than most of the MG ones on youtube. Lovely, really.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Blue in Japan

His Excellency Ian Kennedy, NZ Ambassador to Japan, with his signed copy of The Blue. A nice irony here as The Blue is about NZ whaling and NZ was pivotal in the International Whaling Commission establishing itself as an anti-whaling organisation against the wishes of the Japanese.

I know this because my father-in-law, Ian Stewart, was New Zealand's Whaling Commissioner and Chair of the IWC in the 1980s. I visited him at the annual conference in the UK in 1985 and remember the Japanese fury at the NZ position.

It was then I started to become interested in whales and whale conservation and the history of whaling. I reported what was happening at the IWC conference that year for Radio NZ, and went on to report on the work of the Commission when I returned to NZ and worked for TVNZ's Eyewitness current affairs programme.

I remember the IWC met in Auckland in 1988 and I went up to cover it. I also remember looking for whaling footage for the story and being fascinated by the astonishing shots of whales cavorting in the ocean and looking after their young.

I had fallen upon the name Perano while I was at university in the early 80s and tucked it away (without realising) for future use. This was the family of Italian descent that began modern Tory Channel whaling which is the stuff of The Blue. Put that together with what I discovered about whales via my father-in-law, not least the passion people feel about them, and you have the curling tendrils of thought that led to my novel.

Thanks to Anna, Martin and Humphrey who sent me the photo of Ian Kennedy taken earlier this year after giving him a copy of The Blue. Anna's a second cousin to my father-in-law and her son Humphrey is living in Japan for a while.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

short stories rock

Do you ever think of the time, Olivia, when we were stuck in the stairwell? Of the way I dived through the fire-stop door and down the stairs and you followed me all tap-tap and clatter in those pointy boots of yours, and one floor down, my floor, the exit door was locked? I huffed a little, tried it twice, did a U-turn, led the way back up the stairs, back to the floor where the lecture was, but that door, the one we’d just come through, had locked behind us.

Okay this is very very cool. This is the beginning of my first ever published short story The Stairwell and the whole thing is published here on the new Turbine on-line journal (which is also very very cool and edited by the wonderful crew at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.) You can see I am at a loss for words on this one. Do go and check out the whole of Turbine 2008 with its -okay - cool array of poets, fiction and memoir writers.

And another very cool thing and first for me is this blog award from a cat of impossible colour who is a bit of a rocker herself in blog terms (thanks Andrea). So it feels like an early Christmas for me. And a cool one at that. Might even need to get myself some snow boots.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the art of breathing or the best books 08

My penny's worth is in The Listener feature on the 100 Best Books 08 along with a bunch of other writers. I love perusing the list - while thinking how odd it is that The Blue is regarded as a 2007 book, which it is of course, and it doesn't get a peek in - but what is fascinating is reading what the other writers have to say.

It's a great insight into the way Montana Medal winner Charlotte Grimshaw thinks to see she's read Tim Winton's Breath three times for enjoyment and 'out of what you might call technical interest.' Also interesting to see Menton fellow Damien Wilkins putting Marilynne Robinson's Home as his favourite novel. I remember discussing the book she wrote as its precursor - Gilead - with Damien when he was my tutor in creative writing at Victoria University. I am trying to remember if I got onto Robinson's writing in the first place because Damien recommended her first novel Housekeeping which is a modern classic. Come to think of it, I think he did. I loved Gilead very much but when I saw Home I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to that careful, quiet, constructed world again. Maybe I should (Elizabeth Knox loved it too I see).

And both Damien Wilkins and KM Award winner Julian Novitz seem to have loved Ellie Catton's spiky debut The Rehearsal which is another book I've been holding off reading because I know it's terribly clever with wonderful words. I usually want more than that from a novel you see. Then again, I think maybe I should stop thinking about it and just buy the book. When I heard Catton read from the manuscript a couple of years ago I was transfixed.

Lastly, good to see Vanda Symon's The Ringmaster, Sue Orr's Etiquette for a Dinner Party and My Father's Shadow: A Portrait of Justice Peter Mahon by Sam Mahon on the list. From my bookshop dips into each, and Mahon's reading at the Christchurch writers' festival, this is well-deserved and I intend to read all three forthwith.

Actually, my favourite 'best of' list didn't make it into The Listener.

Here's mine:

MY BEST BOOKS 2008 (The NZ Listener)

My top books for the first time ever are all non-fiction. First up: Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press). It is the whole package: exquisitely produced with a tantalising subject, stunning art plates, and prose that levers open the woman, her art and her time. Then there’s The Love School, Personal Essays by Elizabeth Knox (VUP) which I confess I have skimmed and am now reading, and find a thrilling insight into the mind of one of this country’s most imaginative and audacious writers.

Third on the list is Corvus, A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta) - a memoir about this writer’s unusual family in Aberdeen which has at different times included a rook, a crow and a magpie. This book offers up intelligent personal observations and facts that challenged my understanding of birds and the rest of the natural world.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

UK uber-reader discovers Frame

Devonshire-based book blogger extraordinaire Dovegreyreader has discovered Janet Frame. Her post was a nice surprise when I popped there today to see what she's been reading. I saw the NZ flag first and then the title Calling NZ - I've been Framed Again, and it begins like this:

Calling New Zealand...are you there New Zealand?Do you receive me?I'm just semaphoring across the oceans to let you know that I think you are a very fortunate country indeed to be able to lay claim to an author like Janet Frame. I hope there are trusts and monuments and preserved houses, a Janet Frame national holiday and the rest because what a legacy. Look, I'm even flying your flag for the day in recognition. I've read through the rules and I think it's allowed.

More here from this thoughtful and generous reviewer.

Needless to say Frame's literary executor and niece Pamela Gordon has already been in contact with dovegreyreader. For yes, there's a trust and a house and an award (won this year by Emma Neale) but there is no Janet Frame National Holiday. Not yet anyway.

Pictured above is a first edition of Owls Do Cry which I am proud to say is the copy I own (along with a very tatty paperback). Owls Do Cry is one of my favourite novels of all time, first read when I was 16, and to me a revelation in terms of the gorgeous possibilities of prose, and NZ prose at that.

Squealing at satire

Here's the link to the Radio NZ book review of Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Frankly, I blithered on rather than expounded in a succinct and thoughtful fashion, but you can tell I loved it to bits. I even squealed at one point.
Readers and writers surely love this book for its insights into story and the role of books and the flimsiness of genre (Clarke's novel is a faux-memoir and 'how to' guide which skewers these genres and makes use of them.). And if that doesn't grab readers, surely they're interested in Clarke's anti-hero's take on what he refers to as the Human Condition?

But when I raved to a very nice keen-reading customer along these lines in the bookshop today he listened politely and went off with the Booker winner instead. Maybe he doesn't like satirical novels.

I love them you see. Gulliver's Travels is one of my favourite books of all times. It's that way of looking at the Human Condition with a sharp and comic eye that makes the reader step back amused/provoked/thoughtful, and at the same time provides sudden brief and glowing epiphanies like - well - a match firing. In fact, Clarke's novel has fuller character development than most satires with bumbler arsonist Sam Pulsifer still an insistent voice in my head.

There's a little more on the book in the previous post. I wish, Gondal Girl (who asked), I could write a fuller written review but I simply haven't got the time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An Arsonist's Guide

I'm reviewing this wonderful satirical darkly comic heart-warming book on Radio NZ National tomorrow (Thursday Dec 4) at 10.30 am. The frenetic, searching voice of bumbler arsonist Sam Pulsifer is unforgettable - a sort of Richard Ford on speed crossed with The World According to Garp.
An Arsonist’s Guide is, among other things, about how we want books to do so many things—like make our life better, or make us better people—that they’re often unwilling, or unable, or ill-suited, to do. [Brock Clarke]

And there's more - lots more - on his website.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Persecuted by ideas - the inner life of Elizabeth Knox

I have skimmed and am now reading page by page Elizabeth Knox's wonderful collection of essays The Love School: Personal Essays. I am a terrible skimmer of non-fiction, especially exciting non-fiction. But I really must settle and read it properly because everything I've caught sight of so far has been the stuff that David Larsen describes as making 'the world tilt'. It is truly a fascinating insight into the mind of one of this country's most imaginative and successful writers and Larsen's review does it justice.

Rather than try and replicate that, here are some of the bits and pieces I've collected on Elizabeth Knox over the past few months, planning at some stage to post something on her on O Audacious Book. As happens, I still have the notes scrawled in red ink in one of my moleskine notebooks, and a tatty old review or two and nothing more substantial. So rather than dally any longer, here they are ...
Most of the notes were scrawled down when I heard Elizabeth Knox speak at the NZ Post National Schools Writing Festival at Victoria University in August. She was her usual frank self - talking deeply and absorbingly about why she writes and what she writes. One student asked her where she got all her ideas from and she said: 'I'm persecuted by ideas, I know what I'm going to write for the next ten years.'
On what to write about: 'I wait for something that is so exciting it's driving me crazy. I have a lot of ideas but I don't always know which end to start it from.'
To other writers: 'Take what really blows up your skirt and take an angle on it - something you haven't thought about before.' And 'every idea is a whole lot of ideas bundled up together.'
On the physicality of finishing the Dreamhunter books: 'The matrix of the whole story was falling out of my head and my brain was unravelling. It was physical. A very strange feeling.'
On her new novel The Angel's Cut - the 'sequel to The Vintner's Luck' due out soon: 'Xas is so pleased with himself and so powerful and so ruined at the end (of TVL). And you start with the ruined Xas in The Angel's Cut.'
Knox says she was preoccupied with flight in The Angel's Cut. 'Xas lost his wings in Vintner's Luck. He's very small and thinks he's an insignificant (? or maybe she said 'significant'?) angel. He's been wandering the earth since he lost his love Sobran.... He's been back in the air including on a zeppelin in WWI in an airshow in France...'
On the the negative reaction to Black Oxen: 'I was walking down the street and I thought 'I don't want anyone to look at me.''
I have kept a Listener review of The Vintner's Luck when it came out ten years ago (it has been stunningly re-issued to celebrate its tenth anniversary). The review is by writer Peter Wells and reminds me of the excitement so many people felt on reading Vintner's Luck all those years ago and continue to feel, and the excitement many of us have felt ever since when we see Knox's name on another new novel.

The truth is, you never know what to expect when you open that fresh shiny cover, but you do know it'll be a ride to remember. Appositely, at the school writing festival this year, Knox read a scene from The Angel's Cut which described Xas on a rollercoaster in the US. It was sensational. Literally. I barely wrote a word I was so taken up with experiencing the physical sensation of that ride. I did record a single quote that has no context but clearly stunned me at the time: 'left that person's hungry skin.'

Here's Peter Wells (The Listener 1998):

Reading The Vintner's Luck, I was reminded of why we read. We read to evade the weight of time ('Despair is gravity' - Elizabeth Knox.) We read also to experience the pleasure, almost unseen, of a beautiful construction, an airy theorem that exists only in words on the page and inside our heads. We read also to forget who or where we are. As Elizabeth Knox says, 'Books can be the people we never get to meet, ancestors or neighbours.'