Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Reading in Review

Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne (novel, NZ)

Sydney Bridge Upside DownHarry’s cousin Caroline has come to stay in Calliope Bay, while his mother is away in the city for an ever-expanding reprieve from life at the edge of the world. Sinister things start to happen, all centring on the abandoned slaughterhouse. There’s a definite Ronald Hugh Morrieson vibe here, but I also found myself (strangely) thinking of Jim Morrison/The Doors more than one (Weird scenes inside the coal mine, etc.). A serious reviewer would refrain from such comments, but this isn’t a serious review, so there!

Patrick Evans once claimed Sydney Bridge Upside Down was, ‘The great unread New Zealand novel’. Well, after Text publishers (Australia) reprinted the book earlier this year and reignited interest in it, I’m not sure how unread it still is. And great? It was good, but I’m not going to claim it changed my life (Bernard Beckett) or that I'll re-read numerous times (Kate De Goldi).


The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell (novel, audiobook)

The ResurrectionistA couple of years ago I read O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh. I mentioned in my blog post at the time the blurb from James Ellroy about O’Connell being “the future of the literary suspense novel”; how this spoke of the promise and the shortcomings of that particular novel. O’Connell’s next effort, The Resurrectionist, is a step further down the path of literary machismo; it still exhibits its grimy genre chops without be ‘crime’ or ‘suspense’. O’Connell reminds me of NZ’s own Chad Taylor in a lot of ways.

The story has two main plots which rub against each other and sort of combine but sort of diverge at the end. The first is told in flat-but-punchy Ellroy-esque prose. Sweeney transfers his comatose son to the Peck Clinic because they have a track record of ‘arousals’... The other storyline is ostensibly a comic called Limbo, though it’s short on dialogue and long on narrative (and the occasionally overwritten passage): a bunch of circus freaks that go through a series of travails (hermaphrodite about to be sodomised by a sounding pole, strongman gets his arm hacked off by a tomahawk, the entire troop getting buried alive) and yet we’re supposed to believe Sweeney read these comics aloud to his six year old son? Okay, there are some problems with this novel. There’s a ton of loose threads and wasted build up just as there was in Word Made Flesh, but this was ultimately satisfying and I’ll definitely read whatever O’Connell produces next.

The moral: literary machismo can get you everywhere.


Brief Lives by Chris Price (multiple forms, NZ)

Brief LivesFun fact: the first book launch I ever went to was Chris Price’s Brief Lives. I was an MA student up at Vic and Chris had led some of our workshops while Bill Manhire was overseas, and I remember having an awkward conversation with her in the kitchen the day after the launch. I tried to say that her book sounded really interesting but I basically outed myself for not having bought a copy at the launch and would probably wait until someone who had bought a copy lent it to me. Shame.

Etiquette for a book launch #1: Buy the book. The wine will taste fuller-bodied for it.

Anyway, I eventually got around to buying a copy of Brief Lives this year and really, really enjoyed it. Halfway through I was certain it would rocket into my top ten books I read in 2010 (a phantom list I may just get around to compiling in December). It may still make it, but I didn’t enjoy the big biographical/literary essay at the end of the book, ‘Variable Stars’, as much as I enjoyed the chunks of alphabetically arranged sui generis joy that preceded it. Some read like prose poems, others flash fiction, others short stories. One piece (‘Notebook’) is pure ideas as one may find in a...  notebook. Favourites included ‘Harry Partch: A composer’s life, found at irregular intervals’ and ‘Singapore’.


Selected Poems, Pablo Neruda (poetry)

Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems/Bilingual EditionI know, I know. Last month I said (with reference to Selected Poems: Octavio Paz – Edited by Eliot Weinberger): “Again, I come to the conclusion that reading anthologies, Best Ofs and Selected Works misses the point.” Well, I actually enjoyed dipping in and out of this hefty anthology. Unlike the Paz book, this one had the original Spanish versions on the left leaf and the English translations of the right. I read most of the Spanish versions first without cheating. I often had moments of personal poetic frisson in the false friends I failed to translate (when I read ‘lava’ I thought 'molten rock' instead of ‘to wash’ etc). And there’s the fact I spent a lot more time in Chile than in Mexico, and did the tourist thing in Valparaiso, visited one of Neruda’s houses and shook his (statue's) hand. But all these things aside, I’m probably just more of a Neruda guy than a Paz guy.


Landfall #220 Open House (literary journal, NZ)

I haven’t always noted down the litmags I’ve read this year, and that’s naughty of me. It’s probably because I rarely read everything. I read most pieces eventually, but I’m a dipper when it comes to these sorts of things. This Landfall was extra special (as I’ve already noted here) because it featured a review of A Man Melting. Maybe that casts everything else in a favourable light, but I enjoyed lots in this issue, including Pip Adam’s quirky short story ‘Jesus Already Has’, Latika Vasil’s pleasing ‘The Sand Mandala’ and Lynn Davidson’s non-fiction piece about her mother with Alzheimer’s ‘Leaving the Is-land’.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Worksheet #49, or 'The Last Review?'

I bought a copy of Landfall #220 'Open House' today. Only got the chance to flick through it on the bus ride home but it looks like a cracker. Not the least because it features what could be the last review of A Man Melting for the foreseeable future.

Kate Duignan seemed to dig the stories.  Selected highlights:

"A Man Melting is a fine set of stories. It foots lightly through the angst of the young and the restless - schoolkids, teenagers, ex-pats, small-town boys and grils returning home, the entire 'Diaspora of Privilege' as one character puts it. It mixes PhDs and office jobs and classroom bullies with exotica gleaned from Google and presumably Cliff's own teeming brain..."


I'd much prefer to quote the whole review (there's no negative bits to leave out), but people should be buying/subscribing to Landfall.


"Cliff's quarry is the human heart and he hones in on it with a fierce accuracy."


When I'm not hunting for human hearts, I'm writing fortnightly light-hearted reflections for the Dom Post. It took my Gran to point out that the headline for my column on Saturday - "Keep up the with Joneses" had a typo in it.

No one else has mentioned this to me, and my gran is pretty eagle-eyed...

I'm not too put out because I don't even write the headlines (well, I submit my columns with a proposed headline, but so far I have a 1 from 6 success rate). My proposed headline for this particular column was A Man Mingling.

Dammit. Now that I've seen the typo, I can't unsee it.


No one has mentioned any typos in A Man Melting. I'm sure there are some. Milson Line appears as 'Milson Lane', but unless you're from Palmerston North, this wouldn't register as a mistake. In fact, the story ('Another Language') never explicity says it's set in Palmy, so it could be some other town with a Ruahine Street and a Rutland Place. Is there one?

GoogleMaps says No.

(There are Ruahine Streets in Paraparaumu, Hataitai, Dannevirke and Avondale, but no other Rutland Places).

If you find a proper typo, keep it to yourself.


"Perhaps more writers should train up on Excel."   (Truly.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A season of trees

At the moment I spend a lot of time thinking about flowering trees. On the bus, on lunchtime walks, gazing out my office window. Last summer I went on a native flora and fauna binge, including an effort to get to the bottom of the difference between pohutokawa and rata, but my interest this spring has been less parochial.

It started with the magnolia trees on Roy Street in Newtown. At least, I think they were magnolias, white ones. I had appreciated the full-on nature of the street in bloom last year without thinking too deeply about it. This year I had anticipated the white fortnight or so in late August/early September as a sign that I’d been travelling this way to work for over a year.

Something I hadn’t put much thought into, however, is that these trees had been planted specifically for the purpose of this all-out flowering. I guess most trees in inner city suburbs have been planted with some form of intent, either by homeowners or the council. Often the intent is decorative (the shade or oxygenation they provide being secondary). But flowers — big-ass flowers at that — growing on trees? It seemed like I had been missing something to this point in my life.

I suspect I am not alone in that the first types of flowers that pop in my mind when I hear the word are the sort you’ll find a florist. Those that grow from bulbs or on thorny bushes. The plant that produces the flower is secondary, or perhaps inseparable from the blossom in name and biology, like the daffodil. If asked to push further I’d think of something ground-hugging and decorative like a pansy.

Of course, I always knew on one level that trees produced flowers. Some, like the pohutokawa, are pretty hard not to notice.

Then in late winter/early spring I started to notice all the tree blossoms, especially on a trip from Christchurch to Timaru. I’d always thought of these as cherry blossoms but I knew there couldn’t be that many cherry trees around… Research suggests they were also other fruit bearing trees (apple, pear, plum...), crabapple, dogwood, and so on.

Early spring really belongs to these immigrant trees and they add an interesting flavour to our seasons. New Zealand life would be duller without them. But now that we're in November the natives are beginning to put their hands up. Some juvenile pohutokawa in Wellington have already popped their first red blossoms, while the more mature trees appear covered in dotted whites (the fresh flower pods, ready to blossom).

Pohutokawa tree set to blossom, Island Bay
But the revelation for me this year has been the beauty of the cabbage trees (ti kouka) in bloom. I've always had a deep affection for cabbage trees. We had a particularly straight-trunked, single-headed specimen at my childhood home and the image of a lone tree standing in a Manawatu paddock makes me swallow my vowels.

I'm less taken with cabbage trees as what they call "street trees", bound by concrete (and often metal cages) and placed with a kind of over-the-top cynicism; the stand of mature ti kouka outside parliament (which I can see from my window at work), however, seems to strike the right balance of overt symbolism and natural selection.

Perhaps it is these many-headed hydras that are responsible for my recent revelation that their blossoms are beautiful. Previously I hadn't thought much of them. If pushed, I would have described their efforts at reproduction as scraggly, straw-coloured, uninspiring. But this spring I've come around. A cabbage tree in bloom, particularly a many-headed hydra, is often the perfect balance of flower and foliage. The understated colour scheme, green lanceolate leaves and the white blossoms that soon give way to the tawny brown of the bare panicles (not unlike like the dun of the cricket pitch and the green of the outfield, but I don’t want to get carried away).
A many-headed cabbage tree/ti kouka, Melrose
And in a fabulous piece of timing, I discovered on Guy Fawkes how much those fireworks that make those fizzy showers of yellow-white light — you know the one’s whose images that seem to last longer than the other explosions — looks so much like a cabbage tree’s flowers.

Cabbage tree flowers, Houghton Bay
In my spring observing of flowering trees I've also decided I don't much like the kowhai. In bloom, and from a distance (preferably driving past at high speed), a kowhai can be striking. But the yellow flowers are at their brightest so brief a time and quickly revert to the blighted colouring of an over ripe banana. And in this period of full bloom, there's virtually no leaves to speak of. It's as if the tree has gone all out on the flowers at the expense of everything else. I shouldn't humanise the actions of this poor native tree, but it doesn't speak to me the same as the measured, unimposing approach of the cabbage tree.

Then there's the kowhai's fallen flowers which gum up gutters and make footpaths slippery. Since deciding I didn't like kowhai I've learnt of two people who required dental work after slipping on kowhai-slimed concrete. I wonder if there's a disproportionate amount of kowhai's growing outside dentist's houses?

The days of the kowhai bloom are already gone for another year and the cabbage trees will shake off their flowery ways soon enough. But I feel as if, in taking note of these process of nature around me, I have welcomed another set of companions to my life. Like an extended family, one or other will always step forward at significant times. And while there's nothing cynical or calculating in the least about my recent interest in the seasons and nature, it can only help my writing to know what sort of tree to place in what sort of situation...

Now, off to write that story about the aborist.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Worksheet #45 or 'You know you've made it when...'

You know you've made it when... No. 8
You know you've made it when you appear in a webcomic. [Courtesy of the fabulous Sarah Laing]


It's that time of year again. Creative writing students are having bonfires and pashing each other and generally acting like fictional characters now that they've handed in their year's work. Meanwhile, ex-creative writing students spend their nearly-Summer evenings reading manuscripts and making notes in the margin like:

Is this necessary?


Love this

Not sure about this


You know you've made it when... No. 14
You know you've made it when you're browsing in a book store and a clerk asks you if you're you. When you answer in the affirmative, they ask you to sign some books. [In related news, there's probably still some signed copies of A Man Melting at Unity Books in Wellington].


This scene is a lost opportunity.


I have two manuscripts to assess this fortnight, both Whitireia students, one collection of short stories and one novel.


Awkwardly worded


One for the Trainspotters....
My most recent column in the Dominion Post (Sat 6 Nov) has been posted online. Not sure if this is going to be a regular occurrence, or if this is a one off webular excursion.


You know you've made it when... No. 16
You know you've made it when you make man-dates with visiting French writers for Thursday evenings (and your fiancée says, 'A weeknight?' and you say, 'Yes,' resolutely, 'a weeknight.')


Needs more conflict.

It doesn't feel like you've earnt this ending.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Close but no big fat cheque

I went along to the award ceremony for the BNZ Literary Awards last night here in Wellington. I got an invite by virtue of winning the novice category in the distant past (2007). I also came top ten in the premier category in 2008, but all you get for that is a letter after the winner has been announced.

I'd entered the premier category again this year and knew I hadn't won as October went by without any excited phone calls from BNZ employees.  But at 2pm yesterday I got a phone call from an excited BNZ employee informing me I had been judged a runner up by premier category judge Lloyd Jones, that my name would be mentioned in the booklet being handed out at the awards and would I like a copy sent to me? I said that I actually had an invite to the awards and that I'd just collect a copy there. Cue short moment of awkwardness while information sinks in on both sides (runner's up aren't invited coz it'd make the event to expensive, especially if some wanted subsided travel to the awards).

At the awards, Margaret, the kind BNZ employee, proceeded to seek me out and introduce me to Lloyd Jones as one of the runners up. He asked which story mine had been. I told him the title and he said, 'The taxi one. That was a great story.' Which is always nice to hear. Later he told me I came second, but that he'd tell all the other runner ups the same thing if he saw them. Fair enough.

Then I ran into his ghost reader, who'd read all 500 entries and culled them down to a more manageable 50 which Lloyd then read. Once he'd settled on his faves, he and his ghost reader met up in her cousin's kitchen. According to the ghost reader, it really had come down to my story and the eventual winner. Take that with a grain of salt, I guess. The free wine was flowing and there was tequila in the dipping sauce for the prawns. If I came second or sixth, it makes no difference. BNZ have listed five runners up online, with a wee spiel about each of these stories (there's a typo in the quote they pulled from my story; their fault, not mine), but there's no order involved (the booklet explicitly says, 'No particular order' but the online version is silent on this point). Runner up is still worthy of putting on my CV and it was great chatting to Lloyd Jones and his ghost reader about my story (I wanted to changed the ending anyway, now I am motivated to do so).

But if I really did come second, and if it really was a line-ball call, that's a bit gutting. Seeing as how the winner (wait your patience, details to come below) gets $10,000 and some pretty valuable media coverage and I get to sound like a self-obsessed, unsatisfied schmuck on my own blog...


Hearty congratulations go to Wes Lee, winner of the premier category a.k.a. Katherine Mansfield Award for her story 'Furniture' (by my count her third short story competition win this year... check out her website at http://www.weslee.co.nz/).

The novice award went to Chloe Searle for 'Babysitting', as judged by the lovely Emma Neale.

And Brittany Rorrison won the secondary school category for 'Thirteen Stories', judged by Emily Perkins.

Full details of the winners, judges' reports and stories on the BNZ's website.

And props to BNZ for their long running and continued support of this award and, by extension, New Zealand writers.