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.

Monday, 23 June 2014

News Pigs by Tim Wilson (VUP) 2014

This is the first book that I haven’t finished for this blog.  I got half way.  I was looking forward to reading Wilson’s second book because I enjoyed his first novel but alas…I just don’t ‘get’ News Pigs.  The novel is about Tom Milde, a down and out poet and print media hack living in New York who has been wooed into TV news by poverty and a lack of options.   The invitation to TV news media sends Tom on a helter-skelter scramble to get to the location of a mass shooting for a live cross to the PLC news channel.

While hoofing it to location, Tom quips about his home-country PLC (which is meant to be NZ but isn’t), the media, America, his non-existent love life, and his journalist heroes and competitors.  The novel (well, the first half anyway) reads like a mix between a British farce and a satire, which sounds like fun - but the novelty of using symbols and bold type lets it down and makes it hard to read.

There are frequent swear words in the novel that are indicated by symbols rather than letters e.g. $#@&bird and Mother £%#$er which I just found annoying – if you want to say fuck and it’s appropriate to the character and situation, then just say fuck.  And then there’s the words in bold, and CAPS and black space and love hearts which all seems a bit juvenile, like when I was in form two and I had one of those pens that had 6 colours and I wrote each sentence for a homework assignment in a different colour.  And then there’s the footnotes which I ended up ignoring.

Perhaps using all these whiz-bang affects could  be a commentary on the short attention span and frantic pace of media, and the juvenile cuss words and fonts perhaps reflect the lack of maturity of Tom and the media he works in, but I just found it exhausting.  John Gardner talks about reading novels as entering a vivid dream, but Wilson’s writing continually shook me out of the narrative dream.  This could have been Wilson’s aim, but I’m not sure why.

The last novel I reviewed (Carnival Sky) dealt with journalism, and I read a review where Marshall was panned for not using the right language in regards to a tweet.  While I felt completely assured that Wilson knows the media he was writing about because he was the TVNZ correspondent in New York, I finished Marshall’s book because of the characterisation and his proficiency with emotional language as the novel went on.  However, with Wilson’s novel the character seems superficial, as perhaps it should be for a farce/satire, but the language and the use of every bell and whistle was distracting all the way through.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Carnival Sky by Owen Marshall (Vintage 2014)

My friend Maggie calls Owen Marshall the Chekhov of Timaru, justifiably so given his incredibly successful career, while I refer to him as the Big OM, and my father calls him “your mate the writer” mainly because he can’t remember anyone’s name (he can usually remember where they live and who they are related to, and what they were up to twenty years ago, but a name - no), but he’s also ‘my mate’ because I did Owen’s fiction writing course at Aoraki Polytechnic in 2001.  Doing the course was for me, a moment of personal transformation, and Owen’s latest novel deals with the same theme.
Sheff is a jaded journalist in Auckland who is trying to deal with the flux of print journalism.  He is also increasingly frustrated that tabloid fodder is valued over the informed investigative journalism that he writes.  Amongst the concerns about his profession, Sheff is also dealing with (and reeling from) personal tragedies, and his father is dying.  Sheff decides to chuck in his job, and after a bit of dithering, goes to his home town Alexandra with his sister, to be with his parents.  It’s while Sheff is in Alexandra that he starts his emotional transformation.
In some respects, the novel reminded me of the film adaptation of  Maurice Gee’s In My Father’s Den, mainly because of the film’s Central Otago location (and also because it’s a son returning to his home town)Central Otago is a place of weather extremes – stinking hot in summer and hoar frosts in winter.  Being so far inland gives it a sense of isolation, containment, and acridness.  Lloyd Jones notes in his writing that he is interested in coastal dwellers because they are continually looking out to the coast, to possibilities and otherness, whereas a Central Otago location, absent of a coast line, suggests that characters are hemmed in by the hills which means they only have themselves to look at, and into.  This is done extremely well in Owen’s novel.  The contained physical landscape parallels with the family’s sense of stasis as they nurse their father/husband, and essentially, wait for him to die.  The containment of the physical landscape and family circumstances allows Sheff to get to know his home town, his family, and re-evaluate his life.
Gee’s novel, and the film of the same name, is about puritanical repression and the fatal consequences of it.  Owen’s novel does deal with puritanical repression, in terms of the male characters inability to be emotionally present and available, but it’s not as intense; it is more hopeful.  At the end of each chapter there are little vignettes where Sheff recollects incidents from his past, and reveals his dreams for the future.  The vignettes are at times humorous, and show Sheff’s depth of feeling.  I really enjoyed the succinct incidents, and how they show the randomness of memory at such an emotionally fraught time. 
While Sheff is undergoing an emotional transformation, the physical is also represented.  Sheff is very clumsy and seems to attract random physical accidents to his person, from nosebleeds to getting smacked with a cricket ball.  The other sense of physicality comes from Sheff’s father, Warwick, who is dying from cancer, whose physical presence is diminishing daily.  The other physical presences in the novel are the stones that Warwick polishes.  Bowls of rose quartz, jasper and obsidian, to name a few, littered the house until Warwick’s wife insisted that he keep a bowl of his favourite stones in his sickroom.  Warwick likes the stones because they start out as something ordinary but can be polished up to gradually reveal the colour, the inner beauty of the stone.  When the light hits the bowl, Warwick says it looks like a carnival sky.  The saying, and title of the novel, seems to combine the beauty of the landscape with the revelation of an inner emotional life.

The only niggles I had were that Sheff seemed a bit older than 44 at the beginning of the novel, but as the story continued he seemed to act his age, and I warmed up to him, and felt for him.  Also, I thought it was a bit odd that he didn’t seem to have a cellphone to use to get help when his car broke down.  These are very minor niggles and were soon forgotten once Sheff revealed himself more.   Carnival Sky is a book that examines middle-age, and the potential for transformation.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and its gentle unravelling of Sheff’s emotional life, his attempts to reconnect with his family, and to make new meaningful connections in middle age.  

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Families by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP 2014)

Vincent O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s most esteemed writers that I haven’t read enough of.  I do vividly remember reading O’Sullivan’s Shuriken for School Cert English.  It’s a play about a prisoner of war camp in Featherston which held 50 Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.  Whenever Featherston is mentioned I think of the play and its portrayal of the culture clash between the New Zealand and Japanese soldiers.  O’Sullivan is also the current Poet Laureate, a novelist and academic.  The Families is a collection of short stories.

As the title of the collection suggests, The Families examines the relationships between husbands and wives, siblings, parents and their children, and couples who have no children, and examinations of long term friendships.  While the majority of family relationships examined in the collection are upper middle-class families, there are a few stories with working class people.  What most of the stories have in common is an emotional restraint, the characters inability to discuss feelings frankly, or to have feelings of intimacy in their relationships.  The past is also a preoccupation for the characters.

Another commonality between the stories is the examination of language, finding the rights words, and how some words don’t sound right, or sound worse, than their literal intent.  Memories from war also litter the collection through the characters interest and/or participation in international conflicts.  There are also, and it may be crass for me to mention it, a lot of men clutching women’s breasts and/or making reference to breasts.  Every mention is in keeping with the stories, and I don’t mean to insinuate that the references are vulgar, just that there were frequent mentions of men clutching breasts, and in some instances the manner of clutching are similar i.e. a man standing behind a woman and reaching over her shoulder.

Wellington is also the scene for the majority of the stories.  One of the aspects I enjoy about reading stories from my place in the world is that I can see the characters travelling along the roads that I travel on too.  While the physical location of the stories was familiar, the preoccupations with aging, death and long term relationships wasn’t really something I could intimately relate to, however “On Another Note”, the title story of the collection, and “Luce”, have characters that are at a similar stage of life that I am.

I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Munro’s short stories at the moment – trying to see how she extends the form – and admiring how her stories feel like novels in their complexity of human interactions.  O’Sullivan’s collection is in a similar vein.  Like Munro, the effects of the war litter O’Sullivan’s stories, as does the importance of place, and both writers have confident and distinctive voices, and use language seamlessly.  The gentle pace of both writers narratives belie the emotional impact of the stories, some of which are longer than 5000 words.

I do wonder whether “The Families” was the best story to represent the collection.  To me, the lasting impression I get, is of older couples coming to terms with their lives and relationships, rather than the parent-child dynamic.  However, on flicking through the collection, I can’t see another story that would encapsulate the collection…perhaps “Holding On” because of the connotations of the title.  I also don’t really like the cover – it’s too stark for the subtlety of emotion displayed within the covers.  However, this is a short story collection I can see myself returning to, and re-reading.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti (Vintage 2014)

In my last post about Farr’s novel, I mentioned that I had a few issues with the framing of her narrative, however in Makereti’s novel the framing device works to show the resonances of the past on the present.  A spirit, a kehua, tells his story of living on Rēhoku (Chatham Islands) and when Ngāto Tama and Ngāti Mutunga invaded his home in 1835.  The Waitangi Tribunal report, which Makereti has included at the start of her novel, states that Moriori:

“were willing to have newcomers amongst them.  Later, the insurgents attacked.  Moriori offered no resistance.  A peaceful people, with plentiful food and no competitors, Moriori had outlawed warfare centuries before, after parting from mainland Māori and settling on Rekohu.”

After the conflict, the kehua is left in-between, not yet dead but not living either.  In this liminal space the kehua is able to reach through to his descendants, and feel their confusion about the past and how it is affecting their present lives.
The kehua keeps an eye on Iraia.  Iraia lives as a slave with the Irihāpeti whanau in Queen Charlotte Sound, as his mother did when she was taken from the Chatham Islands to New Zealand.  Iraia is a similar age to Mere, and her father, Tu Irihāpeti allows them to play together despite their different social status.  However, as the children get older and become teenagers, their attraction develops into more than friendship.  This is problematic because Iraia is not considered suitable marriage material by Tu.  The narrative follows Iraia and Mere and the choices they make about their relationship in the late 1800s.
The kehua also keeps an eye on Lula and her twin brother Bigsy (William).  Lula and Bigsy’s mother, Tui, is Māori and their father is Pakeha.  Lula was born naturally, and physically appears Pakeha, Bigsy “is cut out” of his mother, and physically looks Māori.  When they are babies they feel whole together, however as they age their differences, their appearances (and who they appear to be), slowly pull them apart.  

The children are bought up in a Pakeha household and have very little knowledge of Tui’s family.  However, when Tui dies, the kids learn that she left instructions for her tangi to be held at her marae in Picton. Although Lula and Bigsy are puzzled because Tui never talked about her whanau, and only took the kids to Picton when they were babies, they respect Tui’s wishes.  It is at the marae that fragments of Tui’s and her whanau’s history and connection to the Chatham Islands comes to light.  

I haven’t come across another New Zealand novel that deals with the history of Moriori and Māori.  Lula researches the invasion from both Moriori and Māori sides using text books and oral accounts, and she also compares the invasion of the Chatham Islands to the European invasion of New Zealand.  While relating invasion and colonial histories is an incredibly fraught task, Lula’s three perspectives (Moriori, Māori and Pakeha) enable her to speak with sensitivity, while also giving hope that the past can be bought to light and talked about.
Makereti’s novel shows the elements of historical fiction that I enjoy.  It illustrates the past but it also shows how the past directly affects people now.  A lot of historical fiction just relates the past, the past becomes a foreign country that we visit and then just leave, but the most rewarding historical fiction, I think, shows us the past and then shows us how complicated an individual’s or group’s  relationship to the past can be, and how it is shaping their consciousness now. Makereti’s novel shows what people choose to remember and what they want to forget, it shows how individual subjectivities are challenged as they question who they are and where they belong, what to accept, what they leave behind, and where home is.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (Freemantle Press, 2013)

Tracy Farr grew up in Australia and has lived in New Zealand since 1996, which I think qualifies her for inclusion on a New Zealand book blog.  Farr’s novel is infused with reflections on both countries.  The main character, Lena, or Dame Helena if we’re being official, reflects on her life, and the cities she has lived in: Perth, Sydney, Dunedin and Singapore, to name a few.   As Lena moves from city to city, country to country, we learn of Lena’s love of music which starts with humming into a comb wrapped with tissue paper, to the cello, to learning the instrument in which she makes a name for herself - the Theremin.  The electrical instrument signifies modernity, and that Lena is a thoroughly modern woman.
The novel doesn’t have a plot as such, rather it re-tells episodes from Lena’s life as she reflects on her experiences.  At the beginning of the narrative a documentary film maker asks Lena to share her stories.  While Lena has encountered some fame for her musical abilities throughout her life, she is now a pensioner whose fame is now a memory, memories that the filmmaker is keen to capture.  Interspersed between the scenes set in the present, are reflections and memories of the past.  Initially, I thought that Lena’s reflections are the stories she is telling to the filmmaker because the memories are ‘told’ more than they are ‘described.’  By ‘told’ I mean more ‘tell’ than description.  I got this impression because the sentence length in most of the narrative is long, which, to me, indicates speech, a lingering story, spliced with commas, and semi-colons.  But, Lena’s reflections aren’t told to the filmmaker; instead they end up being episodes that she has written about herself.  This made me question the point of having the framing device of the filmmaker if it isn’t the filmmaker that Lena is telling her life story to.
However, the intrusion of the filmmaker into Lena’s life initiates her reflections, and it also brings up a conversation about memory, about truth and invention.  Mo, the filmmaker, asks Lena to try to tell her story in a new way, to make the old stories feel new by not relating them in the same way she always has.  Instead, Mo wants Lena to improvise, to make it fresh in order to acknowledge both invention and reality in memory.  Lena says that she will try, but I got a greater sense that Lena was choosing what to reveal rather than inventing elements of story.  Throughout the novel there are pieces of information that Lena is keeping to herself, which for the reader is a little frustrating but it also shows that you can only ever know something about someone if they choose to reveal it.  To emphasise the metafictional qualities of the text, Mo also says that the final film will reveal as much about her as it will Lena.  In filming Lena, Mo is also revealing herself.
While the predominant theme is memory, sexuality is also dwelt on in the novel.  Lena has several love affairs with men and women, but the most significant relationship is with Beatrix, an artist and ‘new woman’ of the 1920s.  Farr uses the analogy of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is being built when Lena arrives in the city, to show the increasing physical and emotional closeness of the women.  The two ends of the bridge don’t connect when Lena and Beatrix first meet, but they do eventually, and the pair, along with the rest of the city, walks across it.  This joining signifies their physically relationship, I think, but it certainly isn’t a point that is lingered on, which is strange given that Lena is 18 at the time and there hasn’t been a hint of any other sexual activity.  I would’ve thought it would be a big deal, in more ways than one, that could have been lingered on a little more explicitly.  Not doing so relates to Lena’s keeping some things to herself but I just don’t think keeping everything to herself works in a novel.

While I do have a few reservations about the framing device in the novel, the book also offers a perspective on Lena’s life lived through two World Wars and extending through to the 1990s.  We learn about the personal challenges in Lena’s life however, societal conformities about sexuality and gender roles are held at a distance.  A strength in the novel is Farr’s descriptions and obvious love of the ocean, and the scenes with musical instruments were delightful.  Farr’s novel has been long listed for the 2014 Miles Franklin literary award.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (VUP 2014)

Lamplighter made me think of Lloyd Jones and his philosophy about narrative.  In this interview ( Jones says that he enjoys elements in fiction where divergent points meet up, for instance when oral and written traditions make their way into a story.  Jones isn’t interested in plots (although one usually emerges) but in a persuasive narrative voice that communicates playfulness and intense concentration.  Jones also notes how people who are sealed off from the world look to the horizon where possibility and ‘otherness’ exist.  All of these elements are in Donovan Brown’s novel.

The prose in Lightlighter is at times poetic, especially when Donovan Brown is describing the wetland area where the novel is set.  The story is told in third person narration focalised through Candle.  His Grandfather is the current Lamplighter, a role that Candle is set to inherit, and his apprenticeship involves following his Grandfather as he lights the lamps every evening.  While a great deal of the descriptive prose is poetic, at other times, the writing slips into fable, especially when the Lamplighter is recalling stories of the creatures that exist beyond the lamplight.  There are also references to pā sites and battles on the land.  The novel is full of stories about place that are recalled through oral storytelling.  The divergent elements of storytelling – oral and written – meet and play with each other in Brown’s novel, and show the palimpsest of stories that mingle together in a single place.

I found Brown’s narrative voice intoxicating and lulling, like any good fable, but the story is also bound to the realities of life in a coastal settlement.  It’s the meeting of the divergent elements of fable and realism that I really enjoyed, and the combination made the story feel timeless.  While there are indications that the novel is set recently, the inclusion of a video game for example, it also feels like the action could be happening at any point in the last couple of centuries.  The community’s relationship to modernity is playful while also having the intense concentration that Jones speaks of because the sense of timelessness shows the unchanging attitude of some members of the community.
However, the community of Porbeagle is on the brink of change because the lamplighter’s role is being disestablished, which means that Candle’s apprenticeship is nearing the end.  The role of the Lamplighter is to light a perimeter against the dark “and the wildernesses beyond.”  This boundary between light and dark is like the ocean’s horizon to Jones.  In the wilderness lies other ways of being, it’s where ‘otherness’ exists.  The lighting of the boundary against the dark is an allegory for sexuality. Throughout the narrative Candle negotiates the community’s attitude towards his sexuality.  The mix of fable and realism in relation to sexuality is very clever.  A novel that discusses homosexuality in realist terms has perhaps become too familiar, and canny readers are aware of the themes and the feelings of characters who are coming to terms with their sexuality in a community that is perhaps disapproving.  Brown makes a familiar story new by mixing elements of realism and fable in discussions about sexuality.

About halfway through the novel when I had sobered up from the intoxication of the language I wondered where the novel was going, but a plot does come into play and all the stories of the Lamplighter and mythology come together.  The characters in the novel are fully formed and entirely convincing, but the most impressive feature in Brown’s writing is his descriptions (and evident love) of the coastal environment. While I didn’t always know the critters and plants that Brown was describing, the layering of detail added to magical qualities of place.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Monday 10 March

Session: Unravelling the National Grid
Poet, novelist and screenwriter Anne Kennedy on illicit love, passion and embroidery

Anne Kennedy writes across many forms which illustrates her creative philosophy of making every project depart from the known.  Usually an idea for a piece of work suggests a form but on occasion, such as her poetry collection Sing Song, Kennedy changes her mind.  Initially she thought Sing Song would be an article that she could publish in the Women’s Weekly so that she could reach a large audience but when she started writing the article her aims for the project didn’t fit within the confines of an article, so she changed to poetry.  Poetry allowed her space for experimentation which a poetry audience is receptive to, and to a certain extent, expects.  Alongside her philosophy of ‘departing from the known’ determining the form of her project, the expectations of the audience are also a factor.

Kennedy believes that we are all intrinsically artistic but the rigours of life and schooling drum it out of us.  Also, the notion of having to produce something, to be published, or displayed, in order to justify your artistic endeavours also puts people off creating.  A creative act actively fights this shut down, and through writing Kennedy tests artistic boundaries.  She believes that it is beneficial for artists to be immersed in other art forms, aside from the one they’re working in, when they are working on a project.

Kennedy studied music at university and receive a liberal and creative education based in theory, science and essay writing skills which have served her well over her creative career.  This is such an important point to make at a time when the Government continues to cut funding for the Humanities.  Professor Grant Guilford from Victoria University reiterates Kennedy’s point in an opinion piece in today’s Dominion in reaction to the recently released Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy:
“The humanities and social sciences are not just about the joy of living – reason enough to treasure these subjects. They are also pivotal in the development of a progressive, inclusive and internationally connected society. The arts, languages and literature, and other humanities subjects, play a central role in the celebration and critical reinterpretation of our national identity and our place in the world.” 
The magic that happens on the page keeps Kennedy enthusiastic about writing and even when the magic isn’t so apparent, she keeps chugging away until it does.  Writing certainly has a work aspect in that some days she doesn’t feel like it, but she usually writes through any road blocks she’s experiencing.  When she begins a project she isn’t sure how it will end but she plans as she goes, makes notes and usually sticks to a three act structure in most of her work.  Character development is the hardest thing, and she gets to know her characters as she writes, and even more after publication. 
Gogo, the main character in Kennedy’s novel The Last Days of National Costume (2013) is “on the westward slope of middle class status.”  Gogo is from a settler family who has struggled to create a comfortable level of middle class existence but once achieved she has started to slide into the “agony of plenty” as Kennedy defines it.  This is in contrast to Shane, a recent immigrant from Belfast who takes a ripped Irish dancing costume to Gogo to mend, who is struggling to make ends meet.  The novel is concerned with what happens to people once the struggle is over – what keeps us going.

So why an Irish national costume?  Kennedy believes that there aren’t enough Irish settler stories in New Zealand literature and points out the important difference between English and Irish settlers.  While the English could, and often did go back ‘home’, the Irish couldn’t because of the continuation of the Troubles.  The Irish immigration was complete; it was a new beginning in a new country because there was no going back.  Kennedy also wants to show the perspective of a diaspora, the rugged variety rather than the green of St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Auckland is prominent in the novel and this is because Kennedy enjoys writing about place and wants to put Auckland on the literary landscape as much as Fifth Avenue in New York is; we all know what Fifth Avenue is like through literature even though we haven’t physically travelled there.  The story takes place over the five weeks of the Auckland blackout in 1998.  The period of the blackout worked as a plot device so the action could take place over five weeks, and also the blackout delays Gogo mending the dress because she needs the light.  1998 was also a period of innocence; it was prior to 9/11 and what Kennedy considers a more hopeful time.  It was also before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in May 1998.  Before that agreement was signed there was still a sense that anything could happen in Northern Ireland.

The novel is also about the power of storytelling.  Shane’s story takes Gogo out of her middle class malaise, her interior world, and transforms her as well as Shane.  It is also about the contestation of land.

The session was thoroughly engaging and made more special when Anne was awarded the Nigel Cox Unity Books Prize by Fergus Barrowman at the end.

Session: 2014 New Zealand Book Council Lecture
Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton will discuss the role of change in fiction.

While waiting to get into the theatre we were told by the Festival staff to bunch up, to stand three abreast, and move closer to the wall.  People waited patiently, tickets in hands, we blocked access to the men’s loos (sheepish looking men widened their eyes and said excuse me to get through), and people were eating vanilla chocolate topped ice-creams or drinking red wine while checking their phones.  Then the doors opened and everyone poured in.  I had heard someone say that they were expecting 500 people, I’m not sure whether that number is accurate but the theatre was packed to hear Catton’s lecture entitled “Paradox and Change in Fiction.”

Catton used the analogy of physics to show the time and space elements in narrative.  We can only move in one direction – forward - in life, and when reading a book (we start at page one and move towards the end), and we occupy the present time in which we’re reading it.  However, time and space are elastic, there are times in life when time seems to drag and at other moments it seems to speed up, and while we occupy a space, we only see what we notice in that space, not the entirety of things in that space.  These aspects of time and space can be exaggerated in narrative.

In the fundamentals of physics no change is instantaneous.  No one goes from being bad to being inherently good in an instant, with no effort expended; we can’t get something for nothing.  In a narrative, a character that changes instantly with no effort is an example of bad writing because change without time passing is meaningless.  As readers, and people, we want to see how a person has changed and why, we want to be able to defend that change and to say why it happened.  Change in narrative needs to be meaningful and rewarding, and is a fundamental property of fiction alongside plot.

Catton noted that a lot of literary fiction lacks plot, indeed, that there seems to be a contemporary bias against it.  Catton cited Harold Bloom’s analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies and his belief that the character is more important than the plot.  Catton entirely disagrees.  In a Shakespeare comedy an impossible situation becomes possible.  Catton broke the plot progression into five points: an impossible situation is presented, an impartial aid arrives which usually involves some mischief, there is miscommunication, a revision of the impossible situation, and then a marriage.  Throughout this progression, spells and potions may be used in order for characters to gain insight and self-awareness, and it is only through this self-awareness that the impossible, in the case of a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies the impossible is love, is made possible.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies the five point plot progression is reversed.  In a tragedy, the situation that is first presented, the desire for permanent change, does seem achievable but it is thwarted.  Ambitions are never realised and everyone dies at the end.  In a tragedy what the characters feel to be true, and what is true, is never reconciled.  And how we define our truth depends on our lived experiences which form the basis of our definitions e.g. how we define love is based on our experiences of being loved and loving.  In a tragedy there is also a lack of self-awareness in the characters, which is the complete opposite to the comedies.  Catton referred to the differences in the plots of the comedies and tragedies as a plotted paradox.

While literary fiction has a contemporary bias against plot, it also holds ingenuity and action in low esteem, and there are no heroes.  Catton noted that some writers lay claim to insight possessively, and perhaps are reluctant to acknowledge things that they couldn’t have done themselves.  Genre fiction and children’s literature are not easier forms, and Catton notes that we should all be suspicions of a genre that names itself ‘literary fiction’ and to generally be suspicious of all genre labels.  She noted that if Jane Austen’s works were categorised along modern genre forms she would be a romance writer because of her happy endings.

What I take from this, as a writer, is to pay a great deal more attention to plot, to analyse the plots in the narratives I read to see how they are working – or whether or not they actually exist - and to read more widely across genres.  Everyone was captivated by Catton’s talk.  Afterwards, I heard someone mention that they thought Catton’s talk was academic but I’m not so sure.  In many ways I think she was encouraging people to read widely and not just read literary fiction that is studied in tertiary education, and I think in relating her ideas about plot to Shakespeare she was referring to a body of literature that while we may not know intimately, most people in the audience would know something about.  In many ways I think Catton was trying to expand our notions of what literature is, and what texts we define as literature, and who is defining them as such, and I think that is a task that the New Zealand writing community should take on board and is an entirely appropriate message for the New Zealand Book Council’s lecture.

There was time for a few questions at the end of the session.  In response to one, Catton said that literature should enlarge our lives, that it is spiritual and feeds us, and doesn’t repeat what we already live and know. 

Session: 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture
Celebrated author and illustrator Gavin Bishop delivers a literary “state of the nation.”

Bishop remembers going to see a Disney production of Pinocchio at the Picture Palace when he was four years old.  In particular, he vividly remembers seeing the open mouth of a whale that swallowed Pinocchio in the film.  It is a touchstone image for Bishop, an image that had a powerful impact on his psyche.

Going to the picture palace was a ritual.  He would take the bus into town, and walk to the theatre and queue outside and then push on the brass door into the lobby and make his way to the ticket box to buy a nine penny seat in the front row.  As a kid he bounced up and down on the seat, and some kids ran up and down the rows.  The pictures in the films were simple but unforgettable; they enabled him to enter into a magical world.  In that world he learnt the language of cinema, the shadows and the visuals of storytelling.  Opening a picture book is a lot like going to the pictures.  The cover suggests the coming attraction, there is the smell of the book, the feelings of expectations, the opening credits on the title page, and then the story takes-off.
The visuals of storytelling were also apparent when he first saw a play.  The sets were the same size and there were no long shots or cropped images, and the perspective of the audience member depended on where they sat at a consistent distance.  A lot of the elements of theatre are apparent in Bishop’s early images.
Creating a picture book is a lot like story boarding for a film.  Text is included alongside images but the words and images don’t say the same things.  The images may carry sub-plots which are not included in the text.  A perfect writer/illustrator relationship, according to Bishop, is when both elements are done separately so that the illustrator can show their way of seeing the story rather than have the writer impose their visual perspective.

Bishop reflected on the commercial pressures of publishers.  There are seldom hardback covers for picture books, instead the books produced are lean and mean, and the stories have been reduced and simplified for busy parents.  Quality books that are challenging seem to be in short supply.  Bishop reflected that very few New Zealand picture books were published during the 1940s-60s and while there were more in the 1970s, it wasn’t until Eve Sutton’s My Cat Lives in Boxes in the 1980s that publishing in New Zealand became more confident.

Recently there has been a trend towards nationalistic icons in picture books such as black singlets and rugby balls which Bishop finds boring.  Instead, he attempts to reflect his own world but when he does it is problematic for publication in America.  However, when he writes for the American market, the New Zealand readers found his stories lacking in depth.

The other challenges that writers and illustrators face in New Zealand are the conditions surrounding the Public Lending Rights which excludes work under 48 pages (picture books are typically around 32 pages), and having to compete with writers of other forms for Creative New Zealand funding is extremely difficult.  Writers of picture books are not often included in big awards or residencies.  However, there are also supporters of Children’s Literature such as LIANZA, tertiary institutes that offer training in illustration, Storylines, Te Tai Tamariki, the New Zealand Book Council, and the New Zealand Society of Authors which offers mentorship and professional services which Bishop has used on several occasions.  Bishop did suggest that there should be a Children’s Literature Laureate to help promote children’s literature and literacy in New Zealand, as Australia has successfully done, which seemed popular with the audience.

The session was entertaining and highlighted the positive and negative aspects for those writing and illustrating children’s literature.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Writers Week: Sunday 9 March 2014

Session: Reviewing the Reviewer
Terry Castle joins fellow critic Harry Ricketts for an hour of compelling conversation.
The first book Terry Castle reviewed was The Sea by Iris Murdoch for a student magazine.  Castle was a Murdoch junkie.  She read 22 of Murdoch’s novels in a row and named her cat after the author.  Castle recalls attending a reading of Murdoch’s in the States where Murdoch wore a sack-like dress which one of Castle’s contemporaries pulled up at the shoulders and asked if she’d like to remove her coat.  Castle said that while she can have fun with a writer’s eccentricities, and Murdoch had plenty, her main reviewing focus is to show her appreciation for the work, to be humble, and to share her passion for the work with readers.

These sound like good guiding principles for reviewing and her comments have made me think about my reviewing, given that I’m analysing New Zealand books in what is a small writing community where I’m likely to bump into the writers I read around town.  While I want to encourage people to read and buy New Zealand books, I don’t want to be an indiscriminate cheerleader who yahoos anything, or who is seen to favour one publishing house or another.  One way to negate all of these factors is to treat the reviewing process like a workshop.  I say what I like about the writing, I try to see what the writer’s intentions are and appreciate where they’re coming from, but I also show what I don’t understand.   Treating reviewing like a workshop allows me to comment constructively about writing and follow Castle’s aim of appreciation.
Harry Ricketts, the chair of the session for the NZ Writers Festival, asked Castle about the value of reviewing, and whether in this technological age there is space for the long essay review, to which Castle replied that there can’t be too many vehicles for reviewing.  She said that academic criticism was deadly boring, and that her own writing style met with resistance in academia because I assume it didn’t stick to the ‘rules’.  I find this fascinating, given that I am in the middle of a PhD in which my critical section investigates some New Zealand novelists.  I find myself asking whether anyone will drag my finalised thesis off the shelf and actually read my analysis aside from my supervisors and external examiners.  I write about NZ books because I want people to feel as enthusiastic as I do about them and my PhD is no exception, but the academic language of my thesis will ensure the audience will be small.  I guess my aim is to write with academic rigour which is also palatable to a wider audience.

Castle released a memoir in essay form in 2011 called The Professor – she read a portion at the session that detailed her sexual awakening.  It was funny, accessible, descriptive and if Ricketts had allowed her a little more time, was about to get a bit rude.  Here is a review of The Professor by Elaine Showalter:
As a reader Castle has been drawn to memoir by a curiosity to know what other people are like.  Biographies were a life line to Castle when she was a solitary child because they showed her how to be human.  Castle also believes that they inspire the reader to create their own story, to compare their life to the one they are reading about, and ultimately help us ‘read’ ourselves.  Fiction, and writing in general, also shows us how to live, how other people function which Castle believes is survivalist mechanism – we read so we can suss other people out and therefore learn to survive in society.

Session: Scenes of Secrets and Disguises
Five actors read scenes from Arts Foundation Damien Wilkin’s seventh novel, Max Gate

Overheard while waiting for the session to begin:

“Is Damien going to be here?”
“I hope so.”

Indeed, Damien was there to introduce his novel and the actors who were going to read scenes from it.  He pointed out that the chosen scenes from the book show the juxtaposition between the decorum and recklessness, between confinement and freedom by those living at Max Gate while Thomas Hardy was dying.  A division I didn’t see fully when I was reviewing the book. 
I thoroughly enjoyed Wilkins’s novel and the read-through was no exception.  No changes had been made to the script – sections were lifted from the page to the stage.  Florence, Alice and Nellie were accompanied by the young reporter and Alex, and Mr Cockerill.
I was fascinated by the dress of the actor Carmel McGlone who played Florence.   She wore a black skirt, over which was a black lace slip and over that another skirt.  I think this represented the layers of Florence’s character – her inability to emotionally connect with others at the same time that we see her extreme emotional distress; she cannot give or receive comfort.  When I read the book I don’t think I had fully grasped this element, but the visual depiction of it in Florence’s frock has helped cement it in my mind.

Thomas Hardy enjoyed the adaptations of his work, and to extend the idea to Wilkins’s work seemed entirely appropriate, and like any re-reading brings out the themes and reinforces the pleasure of the work.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways Co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones 2014
(more stories and poetry available at for free)

When I first opened this collection of new writing that discusses the history, people and critters of the Pacific I felt a bit disappointed about the lack of new fiction and the over-abundance of essays and memoir, but by the time I had finished the collection my thinking was totally transformed.  I found myself wondering whether it needed the fiction at all.  Not that the fiction is unsatisfactory, they are good stories by incredibly well renowned writers but perhaps the fact that there is only three of them, and the quality of the essays, memoir, and reportage is so high that I think they completely over shadow the stories.  But the essays, memoir and reportage – I felt such joy and excitement about the non-fiction.

Steve Braunias walks to Auckland airport, a journey those emigrating make for the last time and new New Zealanders make for the first, and notes Auckland’s cultural diversity as he goes.  He comes across a sculpture of a giant kiwi on the roof of an airport hotel and notes how, “The setting sun shone on its fat arse,” - probably one of my favourite lines in the whole collection.  Harry Ricketts also talks about migration and the masks immigrants use to fit into a new culture.  Alongside the movements of people, readers also learn about the migration of eels (O’Brien and Fell), sea pumice (Priestly) and the lengths people have gone to communicate with each other across the Pacific Ocean (McDonald).  Finlay MacDonald writes about Auckland, and how rather than it being a separate entity from the rest of New Zealand, it is in fact “becoming New Zealand”, the word ‘becoming’ seems especially pertinent when thinking about the collection as whole, which is about the becoming of the Pacific. 

 The ‘becoming’ also makes me think about Alan Curnow’s ‘state of the nation’s writing’ essay in the introduction of A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945) which Kate De Goldi makes reference to in her essay.  Curnow says that while nineteenth century colonists came to New Zealand physically, their spirit only adjusted to the new country several generations later; it was several generations of settlement “before poets appeared who could express what it meant to be, or to have become, a New Zealander” (20).  While Curnow may have had a point, the word ‘become’ suggests that the job of being a New Zealander is done, and perhaps limiting the ‘become’ to New Zealand is too narrow a frame, and ‘becoming the Pacific’ is a more accurate description; this collection certainly makes me think so.  The Pacific is a big pond which holds within in, and ebbs and flows through, a multitude of diversity and perspectives.  Curnow’s poem The Unhistoric Story ends with these lines:
And whatever islands may be
Under or over the sea,
It is something different, something
Nobody counted on.

The word ‘islands’ is the one that catches my eye.  I imagine in writing the poem that Curnow meant the islands of New Zealand, but if we think of the islands as those in the Pacific (and the continents at it edges), we are presented with a literature and perspective that perhaps even Curnow didn’t count on.

While the collection discusses literature (De Goldi, Weavers), it also gives social commentary; I found Bernard Beckett’s and Rob Oram’s pieces particularly illuminating.  David Burton talks about hunter-gathering on the South Coast of Wellington, and sport gets a look in too, as well as Damien Wilkins’s reflections on Stan Walker.  The subject matter is as diverse as the cultures represented in the narratives.  There is poetry too, which I think works well interspersed within the non-fiction.  I have seen murmurings on social media that there are only a few female voices represented in the poetry, which is true, however, overall the collection has 18 female contributors and 24 men, and people who I think of as primarily poets (Baker, Young, Jenner) are represented in the non-fiction rather than poetry.

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection, enjoyed reading so much creative non-fiction.  I found it inspiring; I was driven to write poetry about the Pacific. 

Buy the book. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Bright Side of my Condition (Penguin 2013) by Charlotte Randall

Charlotte Randall is one of contemporary New Zealand literature’s most accomplished novelists, and The Bright Side of my Condition is her seventh novel.  The narrative is about four convicts who have escaped the penal colony of Norfolk Island and have been deposited on a remote island in the Southern ocean by a Captain who promises to pick them up in a year.  He doesn’t.  The story of the men’s life on the island is told through the perspective of Bloodworth who comments on his relationship with his fellow castaways Gargantua, Toper and Slangam. 

The four men have very different personalities.  Bloodworth professes to be lazy but enjoys observing nature on the island, Gargantua believes himself the font of European knowledge, Slangam is a worker, and Toper has a religious bent.  Throughout the novel we learn how the men ended up at Norfolk and how they escaped onto the ship, and are deposited on the island.  The four men represent different belief systems and ways of approaching life.  While Gargantua relies on his knowledge, and Slangam finds meaning in life through work, Toper prays, while Bloodworth observes and thinks about different ways of existing on the island without the structures of society determining their actions.

However, as soon as they are on the island Slangam provides a structure for their existence and survival on the island which involves practical things like getting firewood and building a hut, but it also involves the structure of law.  At one point Bloodworth is punished for stealing potatoes and the penal system he thought they had left behind is enacted.  Although the prisoners are free on the island they enact the system of law which is an example of Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus.  The prisoners recognise themselves in the values of the dominant class from which they come and reproduce the ideology by becoming jailers.  Bloodworth comments that, “The nonsense is that free on our island we fashion a little replica of what we come from, a sad little copy of the big world.”  Freedom, and what is done with it, is questioned throughout the novel.

The novel is also metaphorical in that it references story; the correct way of relating a story, and stories the men remember.  At one point the men are discussing Robinson Crusoe and Gargantua notes that readers have to suspend belief to go along with the story, to which Slangam replies, “Yer have to be a fucken idiot.”  The facts of story, whether there should be facts in fiction or not, is debated by the men.  Gargantua notes that the basis of Robinson Crusoe was Robert Knox’s story of shipwreck, to which Toper replies, “that second one were the real story and Crusoe weren’t,” to which Gargantua replies, “the second only provide the facts for the first, that aint enough for a story, in fact it weren’t a fucken story at all.”  It is certainly a more lively debate about the basis of story that I encountered in any university tutorial.  Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is also referenced in the novel.  The island on which the men have been deposited has a colony of albatross and the men become to fear the bird because of what it signifies in the poem; death. 

Questions about religion, belief, and fate come up throughout the novel.  Bloodworth reflects about what God says about men having talents and that they should use them, also on sexual morality, and Toper worries himself about heaven and hell, good and evil.  Although Toper seems to be constantly crossing himself to ward off evil he also introduces to the group Eastern devout practices and different systems of belief.

On one level the novel is a survival story, about the dynamics between the men and whether they work for each other or against each other.  Bloodworth’s journey is the most fascinating because he is the one that is questioning the structures of their lives and undergoes a personal transcendence; magical realism is used by Randall at the end of the novel in a somewhat Rushdie-like fall (if I say anymore I will ruin the ending – but I’d like to discuss it more) which seems to signify Bloodworth’s transition from the real to the magic within the real.

I only have a couple of gripes about the novel.  The first is narrating the story using the idiom of an uneducated man, not because it is hard to understand or read but because Randall used a similar device in Hokitika Town, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that novel and the use of idiom in it, I wanted something different in this book.  Secondly, some of the facts she relates about mental health seem to be left over research from The Curative (another book that I thoroughly enjoyed – though at times the main character seemed too knowledgeable about the future of mental health).  While I think the execution of these elements is great, I question the repetition of their use in this work, I expected something different in this novel from such an accomplished writer.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Self-Portrait by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson (Auckland University Press) 2013


Marti Friedlander is the photographer that people who know nothing about photography know.  This beautifully produced book of Marti’s photos is more about the images rather than the words, as perhaps it should be, but the words do show that Marti is a curious and intelligent woman with chutzpah.  Throughout the text she explains her interactions with people and places that have bought about some of the most iconic New Zealand images. 

She doesn’t talk about her parents, or how she and her sister came to live in an orphanage in London in the late 1920s-early 30s.  Gaps and silences are as interesting in their omission as to what is included, and I am curious about Marti’s parents, but it is her self-portrait and she gets to choose how she composes the text as much as any photo.  Marti does recollect her transition from having no personal relationship to photography as a child, to starting her career in London, and moving to New Zealand with her husband in 1958.  At that time New Zealand appeared barren, bland and devoid of culture but thankfully Marti managed to find herself amongst European immigrants and the boho crowd who gave her a taste of culture that she missed from London.  While Marti has recorded the lives of artists, writers, protests, and politicans, she also reflects on her opportunities to photograph women at Parihaka and her work with Michael King on his publication Moko.  The memoir in some respects isn’t about Marti at all but is about her recollections of the images and the people in them; it is a social history of New Zealand as much as it is a memoir.

Marti uses a digital camera these days and notes how easily people delete the photos that they aren’t happy with which means, “They will never understand the absolute thrill of rediscovering an image years later which takes on a whole new relevance and wonder” (242).  Her comment made me think of the big box of photos that mum used to have up in the wardrobe when I was a kid.  Our ‘proper’ photos had been put into albums but then there was a box with all the duds.  People in the images weren’t smiling or looking the right way, or the camera wasn’t focused.  As kids we would occasionally take the box down to have a look.  There was one of Grandma (who hated having her picture taken) standing in the backyard next to Granddad’s impressive vegetable garden by the rotary clothes line, with her face turned away.  On first glance the image isn’t a Kodak moment, but it shows her in everyday life, which is what I think of when I think of her; we would hang out in the backyard stealing peas off the vine or water the sweet peas that grew up the side of the shed, or sit inside the state house with the sun streaming in the venetian blinds first thing in the morning and watch the wax eyes in the tree.  The picture of Grandma is one of an ordinary person going about her life, which illustrates Marti’s approach to photography, and with the passage of time that ordinariness has become extraordinary to me because it accurately shows my Grandmother.  People won’t have those boxes of photos in the wardrobe anymore because we’re all deleting the shots that don’t quite look good enough (and even the good ones we upload and never get around to printing).   I can also remember taking the thin brown negatives out of the photo envelopes and holding them up to the light to see the image in various shades of brown.  Marti’s book shows the changing technology of photography and highlights what skills and images we may be missing out on while making technological gains.

I was particularly interested in her impression and images of New Zealand’s artists and writers.  It seems anyone who is anyone has had a run-in with C. K. Stead who according to Marti has, “to get out what he feels, regardless” of the feelings of his longstanding friends (164).   The book highlights how hard it was (and perhaps still is) to gain recognition for art and writing in New Zealand society, the struggle to make ends meet, and for artists who coupled up, what happens when one artist gains more recognition than the other, and the effect it has on their relationship.  Readers also get an insight into Marti’s relationship with her husband Gerrard, and how each of them has grown as individuals, and as a couple.  The book is about being an outsider in New Zealand, being Jewish, coping with illness as a child, and of loss, but alongside these trying experiences there is also an enthusiasm and joy in life.