Thursday, January 17, 2013

Names of Danger

I’ve named hundreds over people over the last ten years, all of them fictional. Some felt more alive than others. Then my wife got pregnant and we knew we'd have to name something for realz and 4 LIFE.

As with naming a character in a story or novel, choosing a name for our child involved a mix of general parameters and gut reactions.

Our parameters were:

a) if possible, the name should reflect the Italian heritage of my wife’s family (since the kid would have my distinctly un-Italian surname)

b) the name needs to be easy to pronounce and spell, and not get too mangled by the Kiwi tongue

c) the first name needs to sound okay with “Cliff” – a difficult task with any kind of name, but Italian ones seem particularly unsuited to such an abrupt, concrete surname as mine.

In order to find the baby name El Dorado, my wife and I scoured the internet. Few names of either gender fit all three requirements, and fewer still seemed to meet the gut-check.

We were then handed a copy of Il Libro Dei Nomi Di Battesimo, a baby name book from 1969 (though our copy was the 1976 edition), all in Italian. My mother-in-law warned us that some of the names may be outdated, but even if we were naming our child the Italian equivalent of Mable or Enid, it’d only be an issue when they travelled to Italy. These things tend to go in cycles anyway.

The names in the book are divided into sections, such as I nomi dei Santi (The names of the Saints) and La mitologia (mythology). One of the sections was titled I nomi pericolosi, which I translated as “Names of danger” or “Dangerous Names”. I checked with my wife and that was her interpretation too. Even Google Translate agreed.

How cool would it be to have a dangerous name? La Tigre Cliff. Toro (Scatentato) Cliff. Nitroglycerina Cliff.

But the actual names listed in the chapter just seemed to be virtues: Audace (bold), Generoso, Modesto. I guess the danger is if Perfetto doesn't turn out to be perfect. And a couple of the names, like Verecondo (bashful), were hard to imagine belonging to anyone but dwaves.

The real revelation for me, while reading Il Libro Dei Nomi Di Battesimo, was how utterly hideous a lot of Italian names are. Some seemed to mean things after which you wouldn’t normally think of naming a child.

Aracne? You mean, like, “Spider”?

Afrodisio, as in powdered rhino horn? Sei pazzo?

Others, like Gugliemina, are about as aesthetically pleasing as a mildewed drainpipe.

I guess I’d always subscribed to the belief the Romance languages were beautiful and expected all the names to be light and lyrical (the girl names at least). And, as we ended up having a girl, I think it’s important she know how lucky she is that we were mildly discerning and didn’t name her any of these gems from the pages of her Nonna’s book:


My favourite has to be that run of P-names. Maybe one day I’ll write a fairy tale where the heroine has six ugly sisters named Primitiva, Proba, Publia, Pudenziana, Pulceria and Pupa… Pupa. I just love saying that one.

So what did we choose in the end?


It’s Italian (check), appearing in the La Bibbia chapter (Bible names: it’s the Italian spelling of Leah). But some websites listed it as also being just the shortened version of names like Rosalia and Angelia. Turns out we both liked short names. And being non-religious this other derivation appealed.

It’s easy to say and sounds okay with Cliff (check, check). Sure, some people may want to spell it Leah, but at least it’s quick to spell out to correct people. Also, very quick to finger spell in NZ Sign Language!

We've already had someone pronounce it Ly-a / Liar, but no name is perfect. (Besides, her daddy does write fiction, so being liberal with the truth ain't the biggest sin.)

I’m sure the time will come when Lia runs home from school crying about the terrible names the boys (who secretly fancy her, how could they not?) have concocted from her name, and hating us, fleetingly, for our oversight.

My reply: “Well dear, you know your mother wanted to call you Ughetta, so you should count yourself lucky!”

Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012 in music

In May I wrote about how the launch of Spotify in New Zealand had aboosted my waning interest in 'new' music. By new music, I don't just mean new bands, but new albums by artists I already liked (or even trawling through artist's back catalogues). My iTunes library had reached critical mass. I had days upon days of songs to listen to, comfortably, familiarly. But Spotify came and made finding new artists as easy as clicking "Start Artist Radio".

So, for the first time since I started blogging in December 2007, I feel like I can do something similar to my annual best books list. This time I'm going to split up my top 11 'new' albums (10 just wasn't enough) into three categories...

You can listen to a track from each album in the following playlist:

Albums released in 2012 by artists that were new to me

Django Django - Django Django (2012)

This album sits alone in this category, because it's so good it deserves this kind of acknowledgement, but also as a lot of the new-to-me bands I listened to and enjoyed (Said the Whale, The Wooden Sky, Immaculate Machine, Margot and the Nuclear So and So's, Local Natives, Hey Rosetta!, Great Lake Swimmers) kind of blurred into one another. Some didn't release a new album in 2012. Some did but I didn't listen to it, or liked an older album better.

Django Django encountered none of these problems, in part because their self-titled album was their debut. But also because it was distinct in its funky fusion of sounds. In some ways, Django Django is a mid-point between my two favourite albums of 2011 (the African-inspired, loopy, mad WHOKILL by Tune-yards and the pop-gospel of the Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues).

Albums released in 2012 by artists I'd listened to before

John K. Sampson - Provincial (2012)

The Weakerthan's frontman's first full length solo album is as good as a full-blown Weakerthans album. It's got great punk-pop songs like 'When I write my masters thesis' and 'Cruise night', and more mellow gems like 'Heart of the continent' and 'Letter in Icelandic from Ninette San'.

A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets (2012)

Okay, so 2012 seems to have been the year for solo albums from Canadian frontment. The New Pornographer's Newman also released The Slow Wonder in 2004 which I've listened to quite a lot on Spotify this year. Shut Down the Streets is up to the quality of a New Pornographer's album and features some great songs, none catchier than 'Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns.'

Cat Power - Sun (2012)

I must confess to never really liking Cat Power that much until this year. But something clicked with Sun. The first three songs on this album were enough to convince me I was in the presence of greatness (more so than simply titling her 2006 album: The Greatest). I haven't gone back through her other albums to see if I've grown into them yet, but there's plenty of time for that.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill (2012)

Another Canadian (and kinda solo act). This time, though, I already liked Neil Young. I particularly like his scungy, messy jam records with Crazy Horse and Psychedelic Pill goes out of its way to over-deliver (the opening track. 'Driftin' Back' is 27 minutes long). Sure, there's nothing that new here, but I'll take Neil Young noodling on the guitar and coming back to the mic ever four minutes to get all curmudgeonly any day.

Albums released before 2012 that I didn't listen to until 2012

Desert Noises - Mountain Sea (2011)

Desert Noises were another new discovery for me in 2012. Like a more straight ahead version of My Morning Jacket, or a less insipid Band of Horses. Desert Noises debut album is a strong one, with 'Your Wolf' being the absolute standout track.

Low - C'mon (2011)

I'd listened to the odd Low track on compilations over the years (they seem to regularly pop up on Uncut's end of year Best Of's) and I must have borrowed 2005's The Great Destroyer from the library at some point, but 2012 was the year I got into Low in a big, big way. When I had three months left until the deadline for my novel, I started listening to Low and three months later I had churned out the required 30,000 words (and edited the whole manuscript a couple of times) and Low was still on heavy rotation. Something similar happened in 2008 when I started listening to the National and wrote like stink.

C'mon gets the nod here because it's their most recent album and it's also bloody great.

Retribution Gospel Choir - Retribution Gospel Choir (2010)

My Low obsession led me swiftly to frontman Alan Sparhawk's collaboration with Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. By the time they came to record their first full length album, Kozelek had stepped down from guitaring duties to act as the producer, but it's still surprising how hard this album rocks, given those involved. Tis a thing of beauty.

Los Lobos - The Town and The City (2006)

Los Lobos is another band I first encountered on an Uncut Best Of ('Burn it down' on 2010's compilation). Turns out, they also performed 'La Bamba' on the Richie Valen's 1987 biopic (which is still their biggest hit by most metrics). While Los Lobos has been around forever, they've grown into their sound and indie music has grown too, so that this Chicano rock band sounds as fresh and current as any new band with Wolf in their name. The Town and The City is an amazing album from the first track to the last.

Alesandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love (2010)

Keep those connections rolling: before 2012 I'd only heard one Escovedo track ('Crooked Frame' on a RYKO compilation I think). Loved the song, never had a chance to delve deeper into his work until Spotify. Like Los Lobos, he's been around a long time. His most recent album, Street Songs of Love is classic Escovedo and sounds like a cross between The Hold Steady, Warren Zevon and, funnily enough, Los Lobos. Great stuff.

Midlake - The Trials of Vanoccupanther (2006)

Midlake sounds like Radiohead when they were great (a briefer period than most of my friends are willing to admit) without the respective virtuosity of Jonny Greenwood (guitar) or Thom Yorke (vocals). And with more flute. I preferred this album, Midlake's second (which is sadly no longer available on Spotify) to their more subdued recent outing, The Courage of Others. The album opener, 'Roscoe', is probably my track of the year.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Best Reads of 2012

These are the top ten books I read in 2012 (regardless of when they were published).

#1 - The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master's Son(2012, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in August: "It's a great book...  [but] all of the narrative juice is used up before the novel actually closes (about 90% of the way through to be vaguely specific). But I was transported, tempted and entertained. Definitely one of the best books I've consumed this year."

Turns out, time conceals all flaws when it comes to this novel. Certainly the most memorable novel I consumed this year. As always, Numbers 1 through 3 could come in any order depending on my mood.

#2 - True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey
True History of the Kelly Gang(2000, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in October: "Yeah, this was a good book... The audiobook took a bit of getting used to as the narrator didn't go for much in the way of differentiating characters' voices in dialogue (and decided part way through to make Mary Hearn sound more Irish)...

"But there are advantages of receiving a text like THotKG aurally. Carey's Ned Kelly writes in a comma-less tidal wave, and with the audiobook you have no choice but to keep up with him. Carey's way of breaking up the narrative by describing the various packages that Kelly's account comes in (the conceit is that this true history is archived somewhere in Melbourne) is pretty canny. In fact, the whole thing is canny."

#3 - I Got His Blood on Me - Lawrence Patchett
2012, short stories, NZ)

I never blogged about my own thoughts on this collection, but here's what I said in a Dom Post column from September: "These days, most historical fiction being published in this country features a woman in a flowing dress on the cover, but Patchett's short stories mine a different vein. There are shipwrecks, marathon swimmers and battles between sealers and religious nuts. Costume dress is kept to a minimum.
I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Stories
"The present and the past are allowed to inhabit the same frame, whether it's the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves pestering a council clerk or a musket-wielding time-traveller appearing on the side of State Highway 1. Our past has never felt so exciting or accessible."

And 1: Here's my interview with Lawrence from June.

#4 - The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot(2012, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in June: "I found myself popping my iPod on while doing the dishes or watering the garden, not just during my workday commute, which is always a good sign for my level of engagement with a book.

"For the first time in a while, the American Contemporary Social Realist Novel felt like a genre, and I don’t mean that disparagingly: it felt snug and comforting. Here was the entire spectrum of middle class white college kids in the early eighties (so not much of a spectrum, really) talking about Victorian novelists and literary theory and religion (at other times, the narrator quotes long passages from books on these topics)."

#5 - State of Wonder - Anne Patchett
State of Wonder(2011, novel/audiobook)

What I said about it in May: "My current audiobook is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, read by Hope Davis. Sadly, Ms Davis struggles with the Australian accent and the first third of the novel features two Australian characters. This small quibble aside, I’m enjoying the book..."

I didn't blog about this novel once I'd finished it, but it was one of the more memorable novels I read this year. Strong plot, clean, unobtrusive writing, with something unnerving running just below the surface.

#6 - Straight through from London: The Antipodes and Bounty Islands, New Zealand - Rowley Taylor
Straight Through from London(2007, non-fiction, NZ)

Two years running my #6 spot has been taken by a non-fiction book that I came across while researching THE NOVEL (aka The Mannequin Makers). Taylor's book contains a great mix of general history, stunning colour photos and detailed appendices for those with a special interest in these islands. In particular, his log of every visit by vessels of the NZ Steamer Service was super helpful. 

#7 - The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow - Geoff Cochrane
The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow(2012, poetry, NZ)

I promised a couple of times this year to write about Cochrane's latest collection (and James Brown's, which I brought and read at the same time). But I got busy finishing my novel and, truthfully, I didn't respond to The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow as strongly as I had the last few of Cochrane's collections. Several tropes felt recycled. Basho, Li Po and Tu Fu were back. The worksheets were now "Pinksheets" and we got eight of them.

So much of the power of 2010's The Worm in the Tequila derived from the wry twinning of poet's recent diagnosis with diabetes and his alcoholism. He'd also moved from Berhampore to Miramar. For a poet of footpaths and footnotes, this is like a whole new canvas - but it is unfair to expect your favourite poet to get a new disease or colonise a new patch of town with each new collection. 

Returning to The Bengal Engine a few months later -- and returning again after that and to Cochrane's other collections (Hypnic Jerks was on particularly high rotation for some reason) -- I got over my initial ambivalence and could see these poems for what they were: photographs from a poet who chooses sound over sight, punctuation over pixels.

#8 - Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
(1874, novel/audiobook)
Far from the Madding Crowd

The oldest entry on this years list by a wide margin, here's what I had to say about it in October:  "I felt conditioned to enjoy Far From the Madding Crowd [because I'd recently read The Marriage Plot]. And I did like it.

"I like the way it starts with a very static description of 'Farmer Oak'. I like the way he's had his shot at Bathsheba Everdene early on and the scene where young George drives his sheep off the cliff, reducing him to a shepherd once more.

"...I liked Hardy's authorly theorising about men and women. The sort of things you could never really get away with in a book today. The sort of things quotation pages lap up, but has the habit of jolting the reader from the story..."

#9 - Love and Hydrogen - Jim Shepard
(2004, short stories)
Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories

This book features 22 short stories, a number of which appeared in Shepard’s first collection, Batting Against Castro. I really enjoyed Love and Hydrogen, but I’m just gonna come right out and say it: the book is too long...

"Love and Hydrogen may have too many stories, but it surely contains greatness. If not for ‘Ajax [is All About Attack]’, ‘Batting Against Castro’ might be the best sports short story I’ve read. ‘Love and Hydrogen’ might be the best ‘two men in love’ short story I’ve read (and it just so happens to take place on board the Hindenberg).

"The book is lousy with superlative, or near-superlative, stories. And for that reason, I can overlook the overstuffing, the lack of whole-ness, and proclaim it an awesome book."

#10 - How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
(2011, non-fiction)
How to be a Woman
The number ten spot this year was tightly contested with a number of novels (Arthur and George, The Keep, The Human Factor, The Art of Fielding and The Forrests) and non-fiction books (The Tipping Point, The Botany of Desire, A Place of My Own, Keith Richards' Life) that were good but not great reads. 

So my number ten spot goes to Moran's blend of autobiography and modern manifesto. 

Here's what I said about it in November: "I placed a reserve on this book months ago at the library and then when it was finally my time, I was reading it with the eyes of a father-to-be... [What I didn't say: we found out after I'd placed the reserve that we were going to have a girl, so the book took on greater importance].

"Caitlin Moran LIKES TO SHOUT IN CAPS. A LOT. But it works for her. When she wants to, she can turn a great, surprising phrase. Por ejemplo: "I feel embarrassed that she is now having to deal with our secret blackness. This is private. The admin of my soul."

"Interesting. Moderately enlightening. Always entertaining."


Target Practice
In my 2011 end of year reading summary, I noted the following goals for my reading in 2012:
  • "Read 12 poetry collections (one a month)
    • How'd I do? Only four new collections (not counting re-reading old collections). *Sad trumpet.* "Must try harder next year." 
  • "Listen to 12 audiobooks, including at least four non-fiction books."
    • How'd I do? Well, back in May I'd already reached the 12 and 4 mark. All up, I listened to 29 audiobooks, seven of which were non-fiction. A big healthy TICK.
  • "Read at least twenty New Zealand books." 
    • How'd I do? I only read 16. 80%. That's okay. Maybe next year. 
  • "Read at least six Australian books of fiction." 
    • How'd I do? Only three. *Sad trumpet*. There's always next year.
  • "Read at least six books I already own"
    • How'd I do? Depends if you count books I re-read. Pretty much everything I read this year I bought or got out of the library. So I'm giving myself a fail.
2012 was the first year I've ever consumed more audiobooks than physical books (29/26). I blogged about this a couple of times (early starts/tired eyes; most of my reading time being on the way to and from work). I think my Top 10 list this year is a bit middle brow, which is partly due to the fact only so many books I want to read are available as audiobooks. I'm gearing up to listen to Roberto Bolano's 2666 next year, but at 39 hours and 15 minutes, it's kinda daunting.

Some other stats:

What sort of books did I read? Here's a helpful camembert:

My response: More poetry needed. Novels can go down a bit, surely.

New or old-timey? Here's how the age of these books breaks down:

My response: More poetry needed. Novels can go down a bit, surely.

Where did they all come from? Here's how my year looked, based on the country of origin of the authors: 

My response: A bit vanilla. Again, audiobook availability may have something to do with this. Next year, I'll try and read books from at least 12 different countries, including 3 countries I've not read anything from before.

What were your best books of 2012? What country must I read in 2013? Lemme know!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Plus Ones / New Office / Yellow pohutukawa

So here we are. A new year, a new outlook on life. Mine is courtesy of the two week old screaming in the next room. I'm now a dab hand at changing nappies and ghosting through life with bloodshot eyes. Going back to work next Monday will be fun. Blogging, writing fiction and such luxuries may be infrequent this year. But hey, I have a daughter. Life is good.



This is where it all happens, part V 

The new arrival has neccisitated a reshuffle at the Cliff household. My brother moved out of the third bedroom a couple of months ago. Now I've moved my office into his old room and my old office is now the baby's room (for some reason I feel like stabbing people who call it a nursery, not sure why).

So this is what my writing space looks like these days...

I don't have the same view of the hills (and the seagulls going to and from the dump), but the deck's just there. On sunny, calm days I can pretend I'm writing al fresco.

As an added bonus, there's a fridge in the wardrobe which wasn't stocked when I took this photo but I can assure you it is now!

You can perve at my previous working spaces here (Edinburgh I), here (Edinburgh II), here (Houghton Bay) and here (Kingston I).

Nice surprises

We moved into this house in March 2012 and I only discovered that the pohutukawa above our place was a yellow one on 22 December.

It just so happened I was carrying my daughter inside for the first time, so it was rather auspicious.

A couple of days later I noticed the first head on our artichoke.

2012 was a fruitful year. One human baby delivered, one book baby handed to an editor, one house bought, one promotion and the promise of stuffed artichoke in a week or two.

Next steps

Tomorrow I'll post my annual Best Books I Read Last Year post. There's actually four books published in 2012 on the list, and two from 2011, so it's a bit more current than some other year's top tens.

Until tomorrow, you can read my lists for 2011, 2010 and 2008.

And the day after tomorrow I'll post a similar list for music. It'll be the first time I've done this, which says something for my consumption of new (to me) music, compared to the iTunes funk I'd gotten into in recent years. Mostly thanks to Spotify.

Till then, here's a picture of a windmill at Makara, looking north to Mana Island.