Monday, 2 March 2015

I knew I was well overdue for a blog post but I am a bit shame faced that I haven’t blogged since November.  The truth is I haven’t been reading much.  Over the summer my reading was more aspirational that reality.  I did start the new Sarah Waters novel for a change of scene and pace.  I was enjoying it and was a fair way through before I had to return it to the library.  This has been the pattern over the summer; I’ve bought library books home and put them on my bedside table, and then carried them back to the library treating the books more like dogs that needed walkies rather than literature. 
I’ve been on Twitter looking at tweets where people have been skiting about the number of books they’ve read over the summer holidays and I felt a little obligated, knowing that I should be reading those books too.  But you know, after a year of study, library work, and teaching I just needed a break from literature, and to clear my head for the last intense nine months (ahh it’s actually 7 months now) of my PhD.  I’ve just finished going through a draft of my novel (my PhD project).  It’s ready to print out again, to read again, to make changes to again, and then send to my supervisor.  Nearing the end of my studies is a time of wavering confidence about my ability to write, and uncertainty as to what will happen to this book (my second first novel), and the great expanse of time post PhD.  I started studying a literature degree when I was 27, and now ten years later my university career is coming to an end.  It’s slightly terrifying.
I did read one book over the summer.  Kate Carty did the MA at the IIML during the same year as I (in a different stream) and has released Run Thomas Run (Escalator Press 2014).  The novel is about a family – Thomas, Esther and their children Ramina and George – who are forced to leave Baghdad in 1991 to get away from Saddam’s regime.  The novel has a riveting narrative drive in the first part when the family are based in Baghdad, and then the second part is based in England and we learn of the difficulties of adapting to a new country.  What is especially interesting is how Ramina and George adapt to England, whereas their parents sense of belonging to England is always uneasy.  Thomas especially, still carries with him the paranoia and guilt surrounding an incident with his sister, which opens the novel.  I did wonder whether Thomas should have told Esther and his children about what happened with his sister, and what dimension that could have added to the story, but on reflection, a man who has grown up under a regime as severe as Saddam’s is too used to keeping his thoughts and emotions to himself.
I’m also reading Kate’s classmate, Gemma Bowker-Wright’s short story collection at the moment.  I am enjoying the confidence of the writing, and the references to nature, time, and the complex relationships between friends, flatmates, husbands and wives.  I can’t think of another short story collection that features so successfully the outside world and how people interact with it. 

I also bought some books yesterday – I had a voucher that was burning a hole in my pocket.  I’ve got Sarah Quigley’s new short story collection (the cover is absolutely terrible WTF was the publisher thinking), and Kirsty Gunn’s collection, as well as Elizabeth Knox’s Inaugural Margaret Mahy lecture (the title on the cover is barely legible), and the essay/non-fiction collection Tell You What.  These will keep me busy but I’m not sure that my posts will be as frequent as they have been in the past.  The PhD is my priority this year, plus I have a kitten who as I type, is sleeping on my lap.  Plus (and perhaps I should put this before the kitten) I have moved in with my partner and his child, so you know, life’s happening which really is the best inspiration for a creative life.

Friday, 21 November 2014

I’ve just read Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon – Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project (2014).  She wrote the notebook/journal when she was the Randell Fellow and stayed at the Randell Cottage in Thorndon.  Gunn’s original project was to reflect on Katherine Mansfield’s “life in my own terms, using my own writing experience and knowledge of the city she and I were both born in as a way to understand both her and my own aesthetic and drive” (10).  While Gunn says that the initial conception of her project would be much larger, and “would take a great deal more scholarship than I possess, with more time and research and years of planning” the Thorndon she presents in this volume includes fragments of stories and ideas that may be developed further in other work (10-11).

While the book is about Gunn reconnecting with her and Mansfield’s aesthetic and drive, it’s also about Gunn reconnecting with Wellington, with her birthplace, and what the notion of home is.  Which is of course something Mansfield and Gunn have in common, although Mansfield didn’t get the chance to come home again.  The theme of ‘home’ has been prevalent in a few recent releases (see my post on Wedde and Brow) and is the most fascinating aspect to Gunn’s reflections.  Gunn’s daughters come and stay with her in the cottage, and it’s touching to see her connection with them as she tries to connect the girls with her birthplace.  I also enjoyed reading about Gunn’s sister’s fear about Kirsty coming back to Wellington, and I wanted to know more about her relationship with her siblings and parents.

What was interesting for me, as I read about Gunn’s reflections on Mansfield, was to re-evaluate my own relationship to Mansfield’s writing, and my relationship to Wellington.  You see, I enjoy Mansfield’s writing, and obviously admire her skill and style, but I don’t feel the same intense connection to it that Gunn does.  It wasn’t read to me like Gunn’s mother read it to her over her childhood.  For me, it’s a class thing; the experiences Mansfield draws on are not my experiences, I am very much outside the gates of the Garden Party.  I can’t even remember when I first encountered Mansfield’s stories – it must have been at school, but it was definitely at writing courses, and then at NZ literature classes at University where my favourite story of Mansfield’s, “The Woman at the Store” is said to not be typical of Mansfield’s style.  But I love it, I love the detail and the fear of the earth engulfing them all and turning the travellers as mad as the woman at the store.  Maybe the reason I love that story is because it’s outside of the middle class experience, because Mansfield is looking at a woman outside of her own experience, and sympathising (to a certain degree) with her.

Recently I had a story included in an anthology which made me question my supposed lack of connection to Mansfield.  The story is in Sweet As ( and is called “Oriental Bay.”  I wrote the story when I came back to Wellington to do the MA at the IIML.  I had lived here briefly before, over a decade ago.  I had just finished a creative writing course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru and thought I could go to Wellington and be all creative.  Which is all well and good but I wasn’t ready for it.  I was intimidated by the ‘creative types’ and had a sense that I wasn’t where I was meant to be.  I was trying to fast-forward my life when I knew I wasn’t ready for all Wellington could offer, so I went back home, went to University, got ready, and then came back.

When I came back the first thing I wrote was a story inspired by Mansfield’s “At the Bay.”  This brings up two things: the intensity of the experience of being in a new place, just how much you notice that is new and exciting that demands to be written about, and how in my mind Wellington is connected to Mansfield.  In my story, I wanted to write a contemporary version of going to the beach (though not Days Bay) and the city life of twenty somethings who are disconnected from family.  My story marks a space and time for me, and also made me realise how connected Mansfield is to my idea of Wellington, and a connection I feel to her writing set in New Zealand.

Gunn’s writing journal/notebook is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing the expansion of her aesthetic and drive in her new collection of short stories Infidelities.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin 2014)

Laurence Fearnley’s novel is an antidote to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch’s suffocating detail.  I read the Pulitzer award winning novel before Fearnley’s, and while I enjoyed it in parts, I found myself skimming over her wordy descriptions which suggests to me that those details weren’t necessary to the narrative.  And, at the conclusion of The Goldfinch I expected the theme to be somewhat more profound, given that the author had spent 700 odd pages to illustrate it.  Anyhow, this is a blog about New Zealand books and I only mention my reaction to The Goldfinch because I picked up Fearnley’s novel straight afterwards and sighed with relief.  Fearnley is a writer who cuts to the chase by using sparse language and beautiful descriptions to convey emotional depth, and engagement with the landscape.

Reach is Fearnley’s eighth novel.  The writing is confident and assured as the narrative follows the two main characters, Marcus and Quinn.  Marcus is a vet and is professionally doing quite well.  He has been living with Quinn for several years.  Marcus left his wife and daughter to live with Quinn, and hasn’t had any contact with his daughter who now lives overseas with her mother.  Marcus replays these actions in his head over the course of the novel, trying to convince himself that he isn’t a bad person.  Quinn is a successful artist who is preparing for an upcoming exhibition.  The relationship between Marcus and Quinn is one of two successful people who are together but also have independent lives.  Neither of the pair are very good at communicating with each other (or with others), and you get a sense that as their relationship has continued the list of things that remain unsaid has grown.  This creates a distance between the two, and when they are negotiating this gap, Callum turns up.

Callum is a deep sea diver who lives in a housetruck that occasionally parks outside Quinn’s house on the coast.  He is a man who finds diving an almost meditative experience and thrives on the beauty of the deep sea environment.  Callum and Quinn meet on the beach and after some awkward conversations, Callum describes what he sees when diving and Quinn pictures this in her mind, and creates a print of it for him.  Even though she has never dived, and can’t even swim, through Callum’s description she can relate to his experience of diving through her art.  Throughout the narrative the role of art in communicating and connecting with people is played out.  However, Quinn’s choice of subject matter for her exhibition – marriage - also confuses the lines of communication.  Callum dreads the content, fearing that their relationship will be portrayed negatively.

The symbol of the umbilical cord comes up a few times in the narrative.  Art as an umbilical that connects people, but also an umbilical cord, of sorts, connects Callum to his ship and fellow divers when he is saturation diving.  There are also umbilical cords between mother and child, between father and child.  Essentially the novel is about connection, who we choose to be attached to and what pushes people apart.  The narrative drive of the novel is whether Quinn and Callum will stay together.

My only niggle with the book is that the city where its set is called Cook.  To me, it feels like Quinn’s house is on the South Coast of Wellington, near Owhiro Bay, but then other descriptions made me think is in Dunedin.  It doesn’t really matter, it’s not imperative to the unfolding action, I guess I just found the other details so specific and apt that I wanted the place to be specific too.  I live in Wellington, but also lived in Dunedin and can see the similarities between the topography of the cities.  Sometimes when I’m walking from Berhampore into Newtown down Adelaide Road I mistake Mt Kaukau for Mt Cargill.

I really enjoyed this novel and its careful examination of relationships.  I’ve already recommended the book to three other people.  I should note that Laurence Fearnley was a reader for Master’s thesis a.k.a. my first failed novel.  She gave me some great comments, but alas it hasn’t found a home outside of my bedroom.  When I met her in person some time later, I asked her what you should do when your first novel doesn’t fly, and she said, write another one.  Which is what she did, to a great deal of success, and it’s advice that I am currently following.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Ian Wedde and Helena Brow

I went to hear Ian Wedde and Helena Wisniewska Brow in conversation with Harry Ricketts about memory, home and exile at the Writers on Monday series held at Te Papa by the IIML.  Ian and Helena have recently released memoirs where they trace family narratives and the idea of home. For Ian, his home shifts from Blenheim to Bangladesh and the UK, whereas Helena traced her father’s journey from Poland to New Zealand in 1944.  
Wedde thinks of memory as the unreliable engine of the unconscious.  He explains that memory is a dream-like condition, which, if you open yourself up to it, and are alert and receptive to odd occurrences, it opens you up to possibilities that you couldn’t imagine.  I think this ‘opening up’ to memory is much like an unconscious writing process where you open yourself up to delve deep into the unconscious and write about what you find there.  
Wedde uses two metaphors for describing his investigation into home and the family narrative.  The first is a rooks nest.  When the Wedde family were living in England, Ian and his twin brother would climb up into a massive rooks nest that was attached to the side of a country house.  The nest was a tangle of branches which was fabulous to break into and investigate but also stank of the excrement of the birds’ life and death.  Tracing the idea of home has the same dualism of the fantastic and the repulsive.  The second metaphor, and the title of Wedde’s book, is The Grass Catcher.  When Ian was growing up his father had a grass catcher attached to the hand mower that he detached and hung up on the garage wall when not in use.  When the Wedde family came home in the car the headlights of the vehicle would highlight the grass catcher and it would become an awful object, a mask that had within it the sense of the uncanny; of the familiar and unfamiliar.  
It is through objects that both Wedde and Brow tell their stories.  For Brow it is through photographs that acted like prompts and created a space for stories to be told.  Brow’s book is called Give us this Day a line in the Lord’s prayer that Brow knows by heart in Polish, and signifies living for the day, and also her father’s struggle to get through a day.  Ricketts noted that at one stage in the narrative Brow’s father is eating grass on the side of the road for sustenance.  
What caught my imagination, or sparked memories for me, was Wedde’s discussion of the unheimlich (the uncanny), which is a sense of something neither being totally familiar nor totally unfamiliar.  It’s also the sense of the familiar in something unfamiliar and the unfamiliar in the familiar, and that these two senses cannot be held completely apart.  While Wedde liked the grass catcher when it was doing its job of catching grass, on the garage wall it became the unfamiliar, a mask, but at the same time it was the familiar grass catcher. The grass catcher was something liked but also feared.  Wedde uses this dualism (familiar/unfamiliar) frequently and how this tension rubs-up against each other in his reflections about home, and his family.
Wedde’s reflection about his dad’s grass catcher sparked a few memories of my past in which the familiar became unfamiliar, and scary.  When I was an adolescent our family lived in Sarah Street in Timaru in a two-storey roughcast and brick house.  Upstairs, there was a full-length mirror on the wall outside my bedroom.  While in the day time I saw the track marks of a duster running over the glass, at night time when the hallway light reflected off it, the track marks made a man’s face with flowing hair.  The mirror became something to avoid, to not look at directly because I was scared of someone (aside from myself) looking back.  It was all just the stuff of an adolescent imagination but I still remember being freaked out by something familiar becoming unfamiliar and scary.
I also felt that tension when my family lived on a five acre block on the outskirts of town.  There was so much space and it was so quiet that it was comforting, but I was also scared of the space and quiet.  It seemed impossible that there wasn’t someone out there, watching.  Alongside this fear of people lurking, I was also scared of the fact that there might not be anyone there.  The enjoyment I felt in the open space and solitude also rubbed up against my fear of it.  And I guess the same can be said for the idea of home; at times you want to escape it and be alone, while at other times you’re sacred of being alone and run to it.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Reading and the Writing Process

I went to hear the winners of the New Zealand Book Awards speak at Wellington’s Central Library today. I probably should have stayed at home and kept plugging away at the critical portion of my PhD but the sun was shining and I needed a walk, plus the discussion and celebration of the writers seemed a justifiable study break, I could even chalk my excursion up as PhD related.   Information about the winners can be found here: 

But I don’t want to discuss who got what, but what the winners on the panel - Vincent O’Sullivan, Eleanor Catton, Jill Trevelyan, Jane Ussher and Bruce Ansley - had to say about reading and the writing process.
I recently read Breton Dukes’s short story collection called Empty Bones and Other Stories (VUP 2014) which is a great collection of stories by a very assured writer but my blog post didn’t reflect this.  My writing was lacking enthusiasm, which I knew but I just wanted to get rid of it, and then my blog editor/flatmate/friend/potential My Kitchen Rules cooking partner Denise said it wasn’t my best work and that I shouldn’t post it the way it was.  I sighed heavily, agreed, but couldn’t be bothered changing anything, so the Word file has stayed on my computer for nearly three weeks.  But then I went to the talk today and it got me thinking about the reading you do while you’re in the middle of a writing project.
Vincent O’Sullivan said that every good book you read becomes an influence on your work.  I recently read A. M. Homes’s memoir The Mistress’s Daughter for fun, meaning not PhD related, to discover that Homes’s discussion about identity and family history is relevant to my project.  I first came to know of Homes by watching the podcast of her interview with Paula Morris at the Auckland Writers Festival via Twitter, and thought Homes was so entertaining that I must read her work.  I work at a library, so it’s easy for me to get books on the fly because I’m so often at the library that I can act on my reading impulses before they dwindle.  With watching Homes’s interview and reading her book, I didn’t make a conscious effort to research and find information about family history, but I came to it organically, as if my study/reading instincts are so honed to my project that any whiff of relevance I sniff out, though I’m not really conscious of that at the time, I just think it looks interesting and is worth a dabble.  On a conscious level Homes’s memoir has been added to my annotated bibliography, but for the creative portion of my work I may find her influence in a sentence of paragraph that describes the importance of family history.

Bruce Ansley and Jane Ussher mentioned that for their non-fiction project they didn’t plan who to visit on each coast, but just rocked up and stumbled upon people.  Gathering information for their book was an organic process rather than meticulously planned, which brings me to a comment that Eleanor Catton said about applications for scholarships and/or residencies.   The forms for these applications want so much detail about a project before a writer has any notion where their germ of an idea is going.  The same can be said for PhD applications for Creative Writing that don’t make allowances for the fact that writing is a process  - the idea that you start out with may not be the one you end up with – which may be true of other disciplines too, but more so, I think, for writing.  I had to answer this question for my PhD application:

What do we already know about the topic?  And, what are the key landmark studies or theoretical positions in the topic area and what findings and theories have they generated?

I was researching my family history, I knew very little, but enough to know there was more to know.  PhD panels want a bit more than that, so I ended up talking about literary theory, talking around the project hoping that it would sound academic enough, credible enough, to tick the box and to not dilute the creative ideas that were percolating organically in my head.  While I still think there should be forms, the forms should better reflect the unfolding process of creative writing.
Catton also said that booksellers and libraries have an important role in sharing and transmitting knowledge about books in person (as opposed to via technology).  As someone who works in a library I agree with Catton’s statement, and add that this transferal of information is serendipitous.  I could be processing returns when I see a patron put something on the bench that catches my eye and discuss it with them, and then issue it to myself, and recommend books to patrons that I have enjoyed, or notice are popular.  This organic process has exposed me to a greater range of writers than I had previously read, and enables me to share my knowledge about books.
I read Breton Dukes’s collection because I needed to read a New Zealand book for my blog.  It is a good collection, a very good collection (well, I’m a bit iffy about the novella but the short stories are great).  I would recommend anyone interested in short stories to read the collection, I would suggest it to a library patron, but this enthusiasm didn’t show in my blog post.  I wonder whether this is because I was going against the organic process by ‘having’ to read the book, or maybe it’s a case that its influence will be felt at a later stage when I’m not obsessed with my PhD project.  While I struggled with the self-imposed obligation to read Dukes’s book, I have been reading other things.  Marty Smith’s poetry collection (which won the NZSA First Book: Poetry) is excellent, as is Maria McMillan’s.  I came to their collections by chance, I saw they were talking at Te Papa and I thought it would be interesting.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

James Cook’s New World: A Novel by Graeme Lay (Fourth Estate 2014)

This is the second novel in a trilogy that Lay has based on James Cook’s explorations around the Pacific.  The first novel, The Secret Life of James Cook relates Cook’s life as he leaves his family home to take up a shop keeper’s apprenticeship in a coastal town where he falls in love with the sea rather than the life of a shopkeeper.  We are shown Cook’s initiation into his career in the Navy where he is eventually charged with sailing the Endeavour to witness the 1769 transit of Venus, and then to find the Great Southern Continent.  The journey took three years, years in which he is separated from his wife and four children.  The novel shows Cook’s ambition, determination, and his annoyance at the class boundaries that exist in British society. He is also shown to have enlightened ideas about interactions between the British and the indigenous people of the Pacific.

Lay takes factual information about Cook and fictionalises it.  In doing so he attempts to get inside Cook’s head to show his emotional depth, rather than simply reiterate his journal entries of the journey which stick to the facts of the sea and weather.  Lay does this by having Cook write a journal for his wife Elizabeth which he presents to her on his return home.  While this is a good device I think there should have been more of it because the second half of the novel is concerned mainly with the journey, and while there are some of his thoughts about the ‘savages’ and his anger and/or fondness for the crew, I wonder whether we could have got closer to Cook’s thoughts.  I found myself reading passages that stopped abruptly where I thought more detail could have been related.

In the second book James Cook’s New World the same diary device is used by Lay and it works well.  I was captivated by the first part of the novel when he is home with Elizabeth and their children.  I liked reading Lay’s re-imagining of the Cook family dynamics, and the politics of the navy, in particular Cook and the Royal Navy trying to temper Joseph Banks’s ego.  Once Cook is aboard the Resolution for his second circumnavigation to find the Great Unknown Southern Continent, the journey narrative is similar to the first book with the similar risks, frustrations and interactions with indigenous peoples.  While on the first journey the botanist Banks was a bit of a slut and rather demanding in other areas of life too, the botanist on the Resolution was the complete opposite, but still rather annoying, showing that it is a hard road finding the perfect botanist.

The book is interesting in its relation of what life on board would have been like, and the hierarchy of ship life.  It is also humorous; Cook goes on a bit of a naming frenzy when he comes back to New Zealand which is rather amusing, and of course, rather colonialist of him.  There is added drama when Resolution’s support ship Adventure goes missing in the Pacific.  It is hard to imagine, in the current era of constant connection, that people are out of communication for years at a time.  The texting equivalent is cannon fire which only works when you’re in range.  If unfortunate events happen, there is just no way of telling anyone off the ship. The lack of connection, the isolation, is terrifying.

What I want to know more about is Elizabeth and how she coped with her husband being away for years at a time; what was it like to be a wife essentially in name only for three years?  I did enjoy Lay’s re-imagining of Cook’s journey but at the end of this novel, I want to read Elizabeth’s diary because it is her story that remains untold.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking by Michael Corballis (AUP 2014)

My mind is wandering away from the critical component of my PhD.  I’ve been telling people I’m in a reading and writing funk.  I just can’t be arsed reading or writing at the moment.  I’ve recently finished the first draft of my novel and I feel depleted and I instinctively feel the need to wander away from writing and literature to replenish my mind.  I went to the City Gallery on Saturday and saw Seung Yul Oh’s exhibition which was fun, and also Grant Stevens’s floating words which didn’t really help my reading and writing funk.  I couldn’t even be bothering reading the explanations beside the exhibits – I just wanted to wander around and look and absorb rather than read.  But, I did manage to read Corballis’s book because I thought it might help get rid of the funk.

The premise of Corballis’s book is that mind-wandering, or what we experience as a momentary lack of attention or day-dreaming, “has many constructive and adaptive features – indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it.  It includes mental time travel […] [and] allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and social understanding” and it also allows us to “invent, to tell stories” (viii).

We have seahorses behind our ears.  Well, not really, but we have hippocampus that looks like a seahorse which is a structure “on the inner surface of the temporal lobes of the brain – roughly behind your ears” (54).  The hippocampus (it means seahorse in Greek) is critical to mental time travel; how we mentally travel back and forth in time.  The hippocampus is the area that lights up when your mind wanders.  The mind wandering network also includes the prefrontal lobes, temporal lobes and parietal lobes (that’s a lotta lobes) but the hippocampus is, as Corballis’s says, the Grand Central Station of the network.

A lot of our mind wandering is told in stories.  We might tell our friends about things that happened in the past, or what we want to happen in the future, or we may simply make stories up.  Although mind wandering may make us seem like air-heads who don’t ‘live in the present’, Corballis argues that the ability to mind wander allows us to escape the mundane to play, invent and create.  This statement makes me think about Anne Kennedy’s talk at the Wellington Writers Week where she said that everyone is innately creative but the rigours of life and work drum it out of us.  By focusing on the present we stifle our ability to mind wander and therefore our ability to play and be creative.

Corballis discusses the literature that suggests that the right side of the brain is in charge of creativity.  He dispels the notion that either the left or right side of the brain is in charge of creativity, or one side valued more than the other.  Dividing the brain into left and right is similar to the dualisms of man/woman, black/white that “were driven to some extent by the divisions that fractured social and political life in the 1960s” (151).  Instead, Corballis sites Rex Jung’s study that suggests that creativity is found in the “widespread networks in the brain” rather than tucked up on the right hand side (152).  Instead, it is our ability to mind wander, and the randomness of those wanderings, that is the seat of creativity.

Corballis’s writing style is relaxed, witty, and conversational.  Technical details are related without jargon, and examples from literature and popular culture are used to illustrate his points.  His writing style is so relaxed and informative I want to sit in on his lectures because I imagine they are fun, and he is generous with his knowledge.  He discusses memory, time, dreams and whether animals think to the same extent as humans do.  I was particularly interested in the discussion about creativity, and feel I have a valid licence for mind wandering.

As an aside, I was reading Oliver Burkeman’s column in The Guardian who talks about Steven Pinker whose book The Sense of Style is coming out in the UK later this year.  Pinker is a psychologist who thinks that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.”  I think this relates to mind-wandering because if we choose to share our mind-wanderings with another person we can cause ideas to happen in someone else.  Anyway, if you like Corballis’s work then Pinker’s upcoming book may interest you.