What New Zealand reads: part threeby Guy Somerset
The final part of a series in which prominent Kiwis reveal their most memorable books of 2013.
Contributors were asked to choose books ideally released in New Zealand in 2013 but not compulsorily so.
Writer and blogger, who this year released his first novel, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley.
This year, I finally read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Academics like to make undergraduate students read this very dense book on the grounds it is arguably the finest novel written in the English language but it struck me as a very grown-up book about marriages, spirituality, idealism, careers, political reform: subjects that are meaningful to me now but that I would have found incomprehensibly dull as a university student. I’m glad I waited. The best thriller I read this year – marginally different from Middlemarch – was Slayground, probably the best of Richard Stark’s “Parker” books, a series of classic crime caper novels written in the 1960s and 70s. Best literary book was Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D T Max’s biography of cult novelist David Foster Wallace. I am unlikely to ever read The Pale King, Wallace’s huge, unfinished epic about boredom, centred on a group of tax accountants working for the IRS in 1985, so reading about it is the next best thing. When I find a good science book, I like to keep dipping back into it for a few months, or sometimes years, and I’m still rereading The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick and The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t by Nate Silver. I also enjoyed Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson: it’s comforting to know that when I check Twitter and “like” things on Facebook I’m using a logical architecture that was developed in tandem with the hydrogen bomb.
Writer and journalist, whose With Bold Needle & Thread: Adventures in Needlecraft was released this year, accompanied by a touring exhibition.
The read of 2013 for me was An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, an entertaining and at times stinging analysis of the Profumo Affair of 50 years ago, and its wider social context. It seems unbelievable now that two teenagers, Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler, could have rocked the seat of power in England for doing what today we would not call very much at all. The double standards, prudery and hidden troughs of weirdness running through that society are forensically examined, a reminder of how grim life must have been for many New Zealanders of that generation, too, when hypocrisy was still counted a virtue. What will they say about us in 50 years’ time? I’m steadily making my way through The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan, a more difficult read, but made accessible by Kagan’s relaxed style and guiding analysis. Human motivations don’t change, however distant in time. A more visual book I’ve enjoyed has been the overdesigned Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, the catalogue of the exhibition of the same name held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another has been Embellished: New Vintage by Karen Nicol, justification for all collectors of the kind of decorative arts I find irresistible.
Composer, musicologist and writer, who this year released Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener’s Companion.
For some years, New Zealand readers and students of classical music have struggled to unearth a locally salient literature. Although a growing number of music-related titles appearing in print points to a new and welcome trend, New Zealand publisher inexperience in handling the subject is clearly an ongoing issue. In the wake of Glenda Keam and Tony Mitchell’s befuddled and indigestible 2011 textbook compilation Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa New Zealand, this year Awa Press launched How to Hear Classical Music by fellow Aucklander Davinia Caddy, a charmingly lightweight text intellectually on a par with a how-to guide to unwrapping a compact disc without breaking a fingernail. The British-trained author is chatty, self-absorbed and blithely unaware of New Zealand’s history and international status in classical music. The book was – according to her interview in the Listener – her way of “overcoming her distaste for a lot of post-1920s modern classical music” (ahem). At the other extreme, Bruce Russell’s 2012 Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand, a meandering collection of essays from our musical counterculture, evokes a lost world of US and European experimenters of the 1940s and 1950s, with sidelong allusions to John Cage and the Structures Sonores of Lasry-Baschet, along with the 1970s chic of the Scratch Orchestra of Cornelius Cardew. Indeed, their music is also well worth investigating: if you can find it, check out Richard Francis and Bruce Russell’s Garage Music, issued on the Alone at Last label (www.alone-at-last.com).
Science fiction writer and theatre director, who this year released The Disestablishment of Paradise, his first novel in almost 20 years.
It has been a wonderfully varied year for books. First come the poets: Gerry Te Kapa Coates with A View from Up There and John Davidson with Presence in Absence. Both these writers, while known to me, were new to me as poets – and as I read I could hear their voices, whether speaking of love, nature or the bleak passing of time. Then came an extraordinary biography, Disraeli’s Daughter by Auckland writer Catherine Styles, telling the hitherto unrecounted story of her grandmother, Kate, who was Disraeli’s illegitimate daughter. Many other books seemed to appear just when I needed them. The Last Frontier by Julia Assante arrived with its offer to “transform our fear of death”. It is written with great passion and includes clear instruction on how anyone of serious intent can make contact with the beloved deceased! Our world is changing rapidly and Supernormal by Dean Radin, with its subtitle Science, Yoga and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities, reveals the latest scientific evidence supporting the reality of clairvoyance, telepathy et al. Granted this is a controversial topic, but even if the book is only half correct it still points to a very exciting future – if we survive that long. This brings me to Craig Childs’ Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth. Childs is an adventurer who specialises in travelling on foot to see for himself some of the most dangerous and inhospitable parts of our changing world. In evocative but restrained prose, he reveals how deserts are extending, glaciers melting, villages retreating before rising sea levels … He brings alive the reality that lies behind the statistical curtain of global warming. And after that? The Shetland Bus by David Howarth Lieutenant Commander RNVR (1951) – as warm a tale of bravery on the high seas as you are likely to find. The book celebrates the heroism of the Norwegian fishermen who, in the depths of winter, plied between the Shetland Islands and Norway in their small boats, carrying agents, guns, dynamite, refugees and, occasionally, fish. Simply splendid.
Selina Tusitala Marsh
Poet, who this year released the collection Dark Sparring.
I’ve just read Afakasi Speaks (published by Ala Press in Hawaii), a first poetry collection by Grace Teuila Taylor. Taylor, renowned in spoken word poetry circles since she won the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival Poetry Slam in 2008, has worked tirelessly in the youth poetry community. She co-founded the South Auckland Poets Collective and compiled their first anthology, Something Worth Reading. Grace’s work and words have set the internet on fire – her most recent performance was filmed for TEDTalks! So, I wondered, how would this kind of spoken word lyricism enmeshed in an activism for disenfranchised youth and the nitty-gritty of a Pacific diasporic identity politics work on the silent page? Would the performativity of her spoken lines be conveyed with as much intensity and beauty on the page? For me, the answer is yes. Afakasi, the Samoan transliteration for “half caste”, or a Samoan of English and/or other descent, does indeed “speak” from the page. Layout is important – enjambment, pauses, held breathes keep the rhythm, and the long, slim, shapely poems invite the reader’s eye into a world of passion, play, grief, rage and celebration, with both form and content. Two of my favourites are Afastina (in sestina form) and the lament Black, black, tea.
Writer, who this year released the short-story collection Two Girls in a Boat.
Last year, I mostly read short stories; this year, I wanted to read novels. Fragmentary, immersive and gorgeously written, Emily Perkins’s The Forrests got me thinking about mortality, and the ways novels can be life-like and life novel-like. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River was more structurally conventional, slow to get going but ultimately electrifying: a masterclass in how the novel can illuminate history. Zadie Smith’s edgy, visceral NW catapulted me back to London, while Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam was disturbing and left me unsure what I’d just read. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld started with an account of a massive earthquake; a chapter in which I found myself diving for cover as Wellington was caught up in its own seismic drama. Digging into Kazuo Ishiguro’s backlist, I found When We Were Orphans, a surreal rollercoaster of a novel that made me increasingly motion-sick as I struggled to fix my eyes on some stable reference point: its climactic scene managed to make no sense at all, yet be more compelling than anything else I read this year. The Invisible Rider, Kirsten McDougall’s deft and witty debut, narrowly snuck in under my novels-only rule; I’m currently deep in Eleanor Catton’s intricately patterned The Luminaries.
Children’s writer, whose Melu was a picture book finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards and who was elected president of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
Sadly, it’s been hard to find much time or inclination to read for enjoyment this year. By the time I’ve finished my day’s writing and dealt with the piles of NZSA reports and correspondence, the only thing I usually want to read is the label on a wine bottle. Luckily, there are holidays. I read Melinda Szymanik’s A Winter’s Day in 1939 in a single sitting on a plane to Germany. Based on her father’s epic childhood flight from the approaching German army across the length and breadth of Eastern Europe, it’s a somewhat relentless and rather harrowing tale. Perfectly suited to reading in a crowded, airless space. The writing is so evocative it even made me appreciate the airline food. At the beginning of the year, I treated myself to the first 13 volumes of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, and have been indulging myself every spare minute. Along with Fredric Brown, Sturgeon is one of my all-time favourite writers. It’s a fascinating (and inspiring) literary autobiography charting his evolution from jobbing writer with a weekly “800 words with a twist” contract to sci-fi luminary. His stories are always engaging, often breathtaking.
Writer, reviewer and literary journalist.
This year I’ve been reading a short story every day, trying to roam through time and place, sample authors who are new to me, and not reading anything I’ve read before. New anthologies like Best European Fiction 2013 edited by Aleksandar Hemon have been incredibly useful. Although the self-imposed rules limit me to one-story-per-author – for the official “list” – I’ve read two fantastic American story collections this year: Tenth of December by George Saunders and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Given my obsession with litter, it’s perhaps unsurprising I loved David Sedaris’s take on a litter-strewn England in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and was absorbed by the account of desperate, ingenious people living off rubbish in Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. Although I’m not much of a crime-reader, and grind my teeth to stubs over the point-of-view violations lazily deemed necessary by some thriller/mystery writers, I ripped through Ferdinand von Schirach’s elegant, taut novel The Collini Case. The best novel I read this year was also one of the year’s longest: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which made me excited about reading and painting and stories and the world, and helped me remember why I write novels myself.
Writer, who this year released the novel The Virgin & the Whale: A Love Story.
The Drowner by Australian Robert Drewe was for me one of those chance encounters similar to meeting someone for the first time and within minutes feeling as if you are very old friends. Perhaps that feeling was because The Drowner inhabits a province of literature occupied by writers I already admire: Tim Winton (Cloud Street, The Riders) and Murray Bail (Eucalyptus, The Pages), and in New Zealand by certain short stories of Owen Marshall and in The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones. What these writers have in common is a style that pushes language and imagery to the forefront while at the same time keeping a tight grip on character and narrative drive. The Drowner is about a young engineer who is hired to construct a means of bringing water from the coast into the heart of the drought-stricken Australian desert during the gold rush. It particularly impressed me because Drewe explores the centrality of water in all aspects of human existence, coming back to it again and again through detail, imagery, character and the broad strokes of the narrative. The effect is like being carried along in a stream, moving in the fast currents and the slow eddies, but always immersed in water. A perfect marriage of story, language and style. Loved it.
Writer, poet, curator and artist, who co-authored Pat Hanly, winner of the illustrated non-fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.
In Silent Conversations, English writer, publisher and translator Anthony Rudolf talks his way, lovingly and brilliantly, through his home library. This glorious, soaring, wise and often surprising book – nearly as long as Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – is like nothing else I’ve ever read. It could be thought of as a book review of the entire literary contents of a very, very crammed London flat – or maybe it is a telephone directory of real and imaginary friends, or the self-portrait of a wry and fiercely intelligent (yet often self-effacing) man. Rudolf was in Wellington a couple of years ago and I remember marching with him up to the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Cuba St to sample a deep, local version of the kind of cultural life his book is all about. What a thrill, then, to read Jill Trevelyan’s captivating biography of McLeavey – a judicious, insightful and marvellously illustrated book. Last month, I visited the new MTG Hawke’s Bay museum in Napier and enjoyed two exhibitions there, both of which are accompanied by terrific publications: firstly, an exploration of New Zealand art and the domestic environment, Architecture of the Heart by Lucy Hammonds and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins; secondly, an inspired essayistic excavation of the museum’s archive by curator Georgina White, Take these with you when you leave. These two elegant, vital books are an exciting first step in a new MTG publishing venture and deserve to be read widely.
Some of the best fun I’ve had this year has been reading with my children, aged seven and 10, whose voracious reading is best satisfied with a series. A far cry from his bloody adult novels, Jo Nesbo’s recently translated Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series appeals to children for obvious reasons, perhaps, but no less effectively for that; a lonely child meets an eccentric scientist and his odourless explosive invention, and adventures ensue. David Walliams’s new novel, Demon Dentist, is the latest in a line of brilliance; this modern Roald Dahl is grimy and sharp, although Walliams’s characters are more often merely misguided, with a chance of redemption, lacking the sheer nastiness that menaces Dahl’s world. Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton won me over with their combination of manic silliness and cleverly self-conscious storytelling in The 39-Storey Treehouse (following on from their 13- and 26-storey treehouse books). Andy and Terry are also the main characters, writing and illustrating the very book we’re reading despite the perils of flying cats, hot ice-cream and the world’s first un-inventor. But my favourite this year was A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton, a book in which nothing happens, and whose tone of circular and determined obsessiveness places it somewhere between Waiting for Godot and Winnie-the-Pooh, a space familiar to every parent.
Writer, who won the Best First Book Award for Fiction for I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Tales at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Most recently, I’ve enjoyed I’m Working on a Building by Pip Adam, which used the language of engineering to create a novel unlike any I’ve read before. Audacious in another way was Anti Lebanon by Carl Shuker, which drew up monsters from ancient Lebanese sources. Also clever in its handling of complex histories was Baby No Eyes by Patricia Grace, which I read for the first time this year. Research for a novel led me to Ten Billion, Stephen Emmott’s powerful account of our present environmental crisis. More playful in its approach was Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which replaced our suburbs and skyscrapers with forests and teeming ecosystems, surprisingly soon after humans were erased. And in The Carhullan Army Sarah Hall showed how such end-of-world materials could be used to generate a gripping dystopian story with psychological depth. Appearing in its fifth reprint recently, Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka was my favourite book of poems. Exceptionally layered, its haunting of contemporary culture with various waka, and the legacy they connected to, generated a subtle and provocative challenge. The book that lingered longest was one I read in manuscript, thanks to the shifting moods of Laurence Fearnley’s novel of next year, Reach, and its extraordinary underwater scenes, as explored through the mask of a professional diver. Two Girls in a Boat by Emma Martin, meanwhile, showed how potent the short story can be in the hands of a precise craftsperson.
Record label owner, DJ and music writer.
My favourite reading experience of the year was undoubtedly Michael Smith’s Unreal City, which came as a special edition with annotation and music from Faber and Faber’s artist-in-residence, legendary DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall. The book is described by Weatherall as an “It’s not you, it’s me” letter to London, and the care and attention that has gone into Smith’s resonant, poetic vignettes and the entire package is extraordinary. Much of the best (and worst) music writing is found online these days, and collections like Point Close All Quotes: A Quietus Anthology and Matthew Ingram’s The Big Book of Woe removed the need for any laborious filtering, instead letting you head straight to quality, and often hilarious, analysis. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Philipp Meyer’s epic Texan tale The Son ate up a lot of absorbing reading hours, while Ramez Naam’s rollicking Crichton-esque Nexus, Walter Mosley’s Little Green and Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls all provided decent quick fixes. I’ve been following the late Iain Banks since breathlessly reading his debut, The Wasp Factory, cover to cover in 1984, and while The Quarry understandably wasn’t his best, I didn’t want it to finish. I’m still not sure if it really did, and as such it’s a worthwhile last word from a truly individual writer of our times.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring,” begins Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, a novel of the Iraq war. Taut, lyrical, horrible in its memories and yet wistfully positive, this tale of a veteran’s guilt in living when his mate dies is destined to be a classic.
Reviewer and blogger.
The death of Barbara Anderson was one of the more melancholy highlights of my reading year, as it prompted me to reread my dog-eared copies of her waspish comedies of (bad) manners Girls High and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. Elizabeth Smither’s The Blue Coat and Fleur Adcock’s Glass Wings showed a similar urbane wit, gimlet eye and understated but solid technical mastery, but I can only hope my two favourite Kiwi poets will be turning out work of this quality for many years yet. Last year, I complained that too many novels lived down to Philip Larkin’s formulation of “a beginning, a muddle and an end”. I had a better time with prose fiction this year. (20)13 turned out to be Elizabeth Knox’s lucky number, and mine, because her Mortal Fire and Wake were the kind of work most writers would be lucky to achieve once, let alone twice in a year. Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth lacks Bruno Lawrence going existentially bonkers in a camisole, but I’m thankful to Melbourne’s Text Publishing for bringing a classic of New Zealand science fiction back into print.
Writer, historian, reviewer and blogger.
Of new books I read this year, I enjoyed the daffiness of Danyl Mclauchlin’s novel Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, which pitched itself halfway between backyard surrealism and the Keystone Kops; the persistent and justified grumpiness of Paul Theroux in what may well be his final travel book, Last Train to Zona Verde, a truly miserable trek through southern Africa; and the dogged research Jarrod Gilbert put into Patched: A History of Gangs in New Zealand. But my two favourites among new books were Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it – a book that transcended pastiche and became a deconstruction of the whole historical-mystery genre. And the generous and expansive collection of Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011. This year, I also enjoyed revisiting a forgotten classic by the Spanish philosopher Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (dating from 1913) – one of those books that have to be read a few times to get the full flavour. I also revisited Robert Musil’s scary Austrian classic Young Torless (dating from 1906) – certainly the most shocking boarding school story ever written.
Writer and reviewer, who this year released the novel The Misplaced Affections of Charlotte Fforbes.
Keith Richards’s Life convinced me regret is for wimps. Best line: “Mick’s very good with the locals.” The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr is a mellower riff on music – a sensual, sensory treat. Kate Atkinson tells Life After Life with a confidence that makes it plain she won’t give a damn if you don’t like it. Afterliff by John Lloyd and Jon Canter offers more words for things we don’t but should have words for, such as “Garmelow: the longed for silence that follows a car alarm.” Great Granny Webster (from 1977) is a brilliant, merciless portrait of three fictional women, by an arguably more interesting real woman, Lady Caroline Blackwood (married Robert Lowell and Lucien Freud, died of drink). Afterwards, I needed The Comforter and the spare, heart-filled beauty of Helen Lehndorf’s poems. A gem set in a council flat, The Score by Adrienne Jansen asks if some things are too broken to be fixed. An earthquake breaks everything with nausea-inducing vividness in Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building. And to follow a life told backwards, what else but Lee Child’s Never Go Back. Once more, Jack Reacher fails to blend with the locals. He should call in Mick.
Host of Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand National.
A somewhat random mix has occupied the bedside book pile in 2013. One favourite, recommended by a friend, is Australian Steve Toltz’s debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole, published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It’s a witty bittersweet romp through a young man’s life from his dysfunctional upbringing and father-son relationship through the rollercoaster emotional and geographical travels of adulthood, and is packed with characterful insights into a human mind and heart that are at times sublimely expressed. Another Australian writer, Tim Winton, is in fine form with his latest novel, Eyrie, a middle-aged-burnout redemption story, featuring a man’s descent from the heights of professional achievement to those of a decrepit Perth high-rise apartment, failed marriage in tow. Taiye Selasi’s novel Ghana Must Go was a delightful discovery, a new voice whose family saga takes the reader from West Africa to the US and the UK, and home again, through clear-pitched storytelling and fragrant (in a good way) and poetic prose. Non-fiction favourites include Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Olivia Laing’s exploration of the role of alcohol as a force in the lives and writing of six of the greats of American literature, The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, and photographer Marti Friedlander’s Self-Portrait. The star of the literary year – Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – is the big summer read presently under way.
Writer, academic and art and cultural historian.
My book of the year is Jill Trevelyan biography of Peter McLeavey, both for the quality of the writing and the quality of material – how could you miss with an archive like that to draw on? Marti Friedlander’s Self-Portrait is a great read – very salty and honest about people. It’s hard to remember all the books one has read but I was very conscious of a string of high quality poetry publications this year, starting with John Newton’s Family Songbook from VUP, and then the AUP books by Elizabeth Smither (The Blue Coat), Ian Wedde (The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013) and Anne Kennedy (The Darling North). Among local novels, I enjoyed (mostly) Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Damien Wilkins’s Max Gate. I also read good biographies of Manet, Cezanne, Titian, Mahler and Liszt this year, and the whole of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Purdu, in a two-volume set bought in Ottawa around 1970 and which sat in my bookcase unread for 40 years. I am slowly working through the University of Otago Press’s edition of the Charles Brasch diaries of the war years, an important publication for New Zealand’s cultural history.
Listener Books & Culture editor.
The reading highlight of most days in 2013 was when my wife called me over to look at the latest post from the Civilian website, whose satirical squibs were a wonder of consistency and pinpoint accuracy. Renata Adler is a writer I hadn’t heard of until this year, when her two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), were reissued to justifiable fanfare. The latter contains more of a narrative thread than the former, but only just; both are best enjoyed as collections of loosely connected fragments that read like a merging of Joan Didion and Lydia Davis. Although I hadn’t heard of Adler herself, it turns out I had heard of Speedboat, only hadn’t realised it. Thanks to Twitter, I was able to confirm from Lloyd Cole that the song of the same name on his first album, Rattlesnakes, was indeed inspired by the novel. (From the actual novel, too, not just the title; Cole said it was one of the few literary references on Rattlesnakes he had actually read.) Adler’s more plentiful journalism and non-fiction awaits reissue but is readily available as, whisper it, Kindle editions. I have HarperCollins publicity manager Sandra Noakes to thank for directing me to Nathan Filer’s first novel, The Shock of the Fall. Noakes, like all the best publicists, knows not to play the “this was the best novel we published this year, you have to read it” card unless she really means it. She does, and rightly so: it’s a wonderfully controlled and executed first-person account of a young man caught in the grips of grief, guilt and madness. I’m not sure whether to thank or curse Australian newspaper chief literary critic Geordie Williamson for The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, which sent me on the trail of Elizabeth Harrower, Olga Masters, David Ireland and others contained within and indeed without (the latter including Helen Hodgman). The Text Classics reissue programme was there to aid and abet me in this madness. That’s what I was reading. Or some of it. Most of what I read I read for you, dear Listener buyer. You can see it week in, week out in the magazine. That doesn’t leave much time for purely-for-pleasure reading. Here, then, are some of the books I would have liked to be reading, and hope to be in the coming months. After stumbling across the great Bridget Brophy a few years ago, I worked my way through most of her books, including the novels Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953) and The Snow Ball (1964), the latter probably my favourite. But Brophy’s arguably best-known novel, Flesh (1962), continued to elude me – until the other week, when I found it as a Faber Firsts e-book. My luck has been in lately, because around the same time I found a second-hand copy of the long-sought-after novel Robinson (1958) by Muriel Spark. These two books now join the pile of early Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald novels I bought at the beginning of the year, thanks to my ever-generous father-in-law’s birthday cheque, but have yet to get around to. This year’s birthday cheque (at the risk of being so presumptious) is destined for a binge on Shirley Jackson, whose marvellousness keeps crossing my path, the latest time in a New Yorker podcast discussion of her. Finally, two non-fiction titles: David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59, the third in his ongoing series of social histories (which is taking place at a slower and more satisfying pace than that of his sort-of-rival, Dominic Sandbrook); and Karl Schlogel’s Moscow 1937, a many-faceted history of a key year in the life of the Soviet Union, bought in a bookshop on a complete whim, as books should be, that being the irreplaceable joy of the bricks-and-mortar store.
Writer, editor and blogger.
Kevin Ireland’s third volume of selected poems amplifies and updates 1987’s Selected Poems and 1997’s Anzac Day: Selected Poems. This new one – Selected Poems 1963-2013 (from Steele Roberts) – is substantial. It has 312 pages, weighs 730 grams and contains 290 poems. It is his 20th book of poetry and came 50 years after his first collection, 1963’s Face to Face, and was launched on his 80th birthday. Those are the stats. But is it any good? Yes. The voice was there from the start. The first poem, Summer evening: Piha, begins: “The old men, smoking on their porches,/Squint like experts/Down the barrel of the day.” The last one, 2012’s This pen, celebrates the pen that “gets to grips with words” and ends: “This good old pen writes poems/With a mind of its own. It does things/I would never have thought of.” Talk about the poet as evader – it wasn’t me, it was a big pen and it ran away! – but what a seductive voice throughout. There are poems of love, grief, friendship, politics (Tiberius at the Beehive) and joie de vivre. There isn’t enough of this in New Zealand poetry. Bonus points: the design is outstanding, with the covers of each original book reproduced, and also Malcolm Walker’s brilliant cartoons for Tiberius.
Writer and reviewer.
Trust the Irish with John Banville’s most recent novel, Ancient Light. His handling of language like malleable clay yields an absorbing story by not so much an unreliable narrator as someone who tells how he remembered his youthful affair with a married woman only to discover he had it all wrong. Then a small masterpiece, almost a genuine holy relic, Colm Toibin’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Testament of Mary, which, in simple lucid prose, tells how His mother really saw it all. Our bimonthly book club involves the reading of a classic, in this case Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Leo Tolstoy yes, Anton Chekhov yes, but how come I got so far without reading this? Another world, another planet, but what writing, what sympathies. We got the classics idea from the excellent ABC-TV’s First Tuesday Book Club, which offered up Wallace Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to Safety. This narrative of the lifelong friendship of two couples and their families resonates with an emotional power that is deeply affecting and enduring. Unforgettable. My non-fiction read of the year as been Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Forget Western Christian propaganda about the barbaric hordes that came looting and raping out of Central Asia. Many of the Mongols were Christians anyway and created the first meritocracy, harnessing the skills of all the peoples they came to rule for everyone’s good (but, yeah, they could be barbaric, too).
Writer and historian, whose An Awfully Big Adventure: New Zealand World War One Veterans Tell Their Stories was released this year.
I read An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines straight through twice – the first time for the information and story, the second thinking, “How does he do that?” This is a model of a non-fiction book in the age of Wikipedia and historical dramas. Wikipedia gives us the information, but doesn’t join the dots. The likes of Downton Abbey give us dot-joining dramatic narrative built on dodgy information, making assumptions about the past and building the story from there. But not Davenport-Hines, and this is the beauty of An English Affair. He starts with his memories and then sites them in the social landscape of the early 1960s. He examines each one of the cast of the Profumo Affair to see how they tick; then tells us where they fit in the story. Like looking at a series of peep shows and drawing back to the great social sweep. I know Davenport-Hines lives a starving-in-a-garret lifestyle to spend the time on this painstaking research and thoughtful reflection because I interviewed him for the Listener about his 2012 book Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew. So don’t just read his Profumo book, buy it.
Poet, reviewer and academic.
“All the dull stuff that most novelists would omit, Knausgaard leaves in,” complained the Guardian of A Death In The Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Indeed he does, but then so does Marcel Proust. This is just the first of six instalments of Knausgaard’s epic fictionalised memoir (its provocative overarching title is My Struggle) – a work that has been purchased by one-tenth of Norway’s population and has the rest of the world wondering what these Scandinavians are so stirred up about. Knaugaard records with manic precision the details of his childhood and youth, his relationship with his parents, his becoming a parent himself, and his struggle to become a writer. It’s as if everything Knausgaard has ever experienced has been meticulously stored away in his brain, only to tumble out now in beautifully formed sentences. Don’t read it for plot; it hasn’t one, any more than your own life has a plot. Read it for the way it makes the most mundane details extraordinary. Yes, he leaves the dull stuff in, but this is the most exciting novel I’ve read this year.
Writer, who divides his time between the US and New Zealand and this year released the novel Goat Mountain.
I had a residency in Amsterdam for six weeks this year with the Dutch Literature Foundation and read half a dozen Dutch authors. What affected me most was PF Thomese’s Shadow Child: A Meditation of Love and Loss, a short book of 100 pages you can never really finish reading. I’ve dog-eared so many pages to return to, because there are flights offered here, into how writing works and how we make meaning, how we attempt to return to the world after it leaves us. I was on the train trying to hide my tears from my neighbours when I read, “Do you want it, the baby, the body, the baby’s body? Do you want to hold it for a minute, you asked.” The best, most ambitious, beautiful and complex novel I’ve read this year was John L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy. It’s a fast historical novel set in the early 1400s in Florence and is also great tragedy and an amazing reflection on art and religion. I think everyone should read this novel and then go back to his earlier work, especially the story collection Desires and novel A Woman Run Mad. I think he’s one of our greatest living American writers, in the top 10, and I don’t understand why he’s not more widely known abroad.
Writer, who this year released her second novel, The Elusive Language of Ducks, 13 years after her first was shortlisted for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Before I knew it was an international hit, a friend recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Immediately, I was pulled into the mysterious, crazy, obsessive, compelling, unreliable narrative. At the other end of the spectrum, as far as pace was concerned, was the controlled brooding of New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani – an achingly reflective novel concerning language, identity, the psyche, disconnection and isolation, with insight into Finland’s mythology as well as more than a glimpse into that country’s part in World War II. From the New Zealand range, I was particularly entertained by Anne Kennedy’s The Last Days of the National Costume – such a quirky, cheeky story with a lovely taut forbidden relationship developing over the mending of a dress; psychologically fed by the dark of Auckland’s 1996 blackout, and embellished also with a personal story around Ireland’s Troubles, Belfast, Bloody Sunday. As a creative writing teacher, I also enjoyed Stephanie Johnson’s The Writing Class – an engaging story intermingled cleverly and seamlessly with an undisguised writing manual. Then there’s The Philosopher and The Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness by Mark Rowlands. “You would like it,” said Rosemary McLeod when I met her at a Women’s Litera-tea. I was a bit hesitant. Another animal book for the woman who wrote the duck book. But she was right. I loved the fascinating philosophical ideas woven through an exploration of the bond that developed when a Welsh philosophy professor, a self-confessed misanthrope, took on a wolf as a companion until its death 10 years later. And, of course, there’s the new delicious Tim Winton, Eyrie, which I’ve just started, with relish.
Writer, who this year released the novel Max Gate, received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award and succeeded Bill Manhire as director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
To my shame, I’d never heard of Marshall Berman until he died this year aged 72. His classic work All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982 and was revised in 2010. It was the book that did the most (healthy) damage to my thinking this year. The Guardian obituary described Berman as “a supremely accessible professor of political science” and his writing is certainly open and lucid; it’s also, by turns, warm, angry, full-hearted and dazzling in its range of references. Berman charts how and why we can feel both alienated and disenfranchised as well as energised and uplifted by living in the modern moment. He traces destroyed lives but also astonishing creative responses. He’s a brilliant reader of urban spaces, political movements and literary texts and a good deal of his work is about how these things are interrelated. At a time of proposed motorway flyovers and “I’m comfortable with that” politics, the book slapped me in the face. Berman also always wore a T-shirt and died in his favourite New York diner eating breakfast with his wife and friends.
Writer, editor and reviewer.
Non-fiction reviewing expands one’s horizons in unexpected directions, by virtue of having to read other people’s choices. Review books that have lingered in the mind this year include Chris Maclean’s Stag Spooner: Wild Man from the Bush, a comics-style hunting diary kept by a 1930s Wairarapa teenager. Rural youth today benefit from wider opportunities, we hope. Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club shows how the divergence between the clean-living heroes presented for public consumption and the more challenging reality the astronauts’ wives knew was glossed over by Nasa’s PR machine. (Not written as a feminist text, but …) The Queen Mother’s letters, Counting One’s Blessings, pickled a class and an era in aspic – and pink gin. I was first in the queue to buy Rick Gekoski’s Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature, and read it like a purring cat. In a Tauranga op shop, I stumbled across Toby Faber’s absorbing Faberge’s Eggs: One Man’s Masterpieces and the End of an Empire, giving historic context to the jeweller’s story and revealing that many of the wandering Romanov eggs are now in Vladimir Putin’s office. Jewels, royalty, obsession, shady art dealers, Russian history: what’s not to love?
Senior Listener writer.
Arm-pump: six days before hopping on a flight with bags stuffed with weighty presents, I have finished Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – all 889 brilliant grams of it.
That leaves me room for The Disestablishment of Paradise and His Dark Materials by Phillip Mann and Philip Pullman respectively, and for my battered copy of Winter of Fire, a young adult novel by New Zealand’s wonderful Sherryl Jordan. It is a tonic of a book, in which a stubborn, strange firebrand of a woman called Elsha finds an alternative to coal and changes the world. I won Winter of Fire at high school and still read it every summer, and Elsha is the closest I have come to an imaginary friend. The least relaxing reading I did all year was The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s follow-up to The Passage. A vampire zombie apocalypse, it reads like the literary love child of Michael Crichton and Stephen King. I read it while already scared out of my wits - bouncing around in tiny planes over Papua New Guinea, and at midnight in a dank windowless room on Daru island, after being startled awake by a man trying to break down my door. Back home, tucked up safe in my own bed, I read Wool, Shift and Dust, a clean and compelling sci-fi trilogy by Hugh Howey. I also knocked off Frank Herbert’s Dune, the latest four of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, LJ Smith’s The Vampire Diaries and Veronica Roth’s first two Divergent books. The third is on hold at the library; I am now 224th out of 513 holds. Seems everyone loves a YA dystopia. Kate de Goldi featured heavily. I loved her gorgeous The 10pm Question and bought - but am still steeling myself to read - her children’s book about dementia, The ACB with Honora Lee. There was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, plenty of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, and a dipping in and out of Janet Frame’s posthumously published Gorse is not People: New and Uncollected Stories. But then there was also an awful lot of chick-lit, by far the best of which was the second novel by local author Danielle Hawkins. If you’re in the market for a clever, compassionate story that just happens to involve a sexy All Black, I highly recommend Chocolate Cake for Breakfast.
Bookseller and contributor to Listener Book Club podcasts.
This year, I have particularly enjoyed these children’s books that also work as gifts for adults: Architecture According to Pigeons by (haha) Speck Lee Tailfeather, in which the building-appreciating pigeon is stunningly designed and really interesting; and Pomelo’s Opposites by Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, which is charming and witty, with Pomelo explaining up/down, happy/sad, but also possible/impossible, evident/unimaginable and something/whatever. The last part of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor’s famous trilogy of his walk from Holland to Constantinople, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, is as wonderful – full of adventure, history and life, told in his beautiful and inimitable style – as the preceding volumes. Things That Are: Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals by Amy Leach is a remarkable collection of short creative non-fiction pieces about anything and everything. It is both luscious and scientific, and will leave you dazed and delighted. As will The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield: an exploration of hidden treasures from the world’s museums, this is fascinating, startling and personal. Two small but perfectly formed fictions: Carl Nixon’s The Virgin & The Whale: A Love Story, a rather lovely, lyrical and amazing novel, with a sparkling imaginative tale told to a child secreted within, like words running through a stick of candy; and Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires. Jocelyne buys a lottery ticket. She wins millions. She tells no one. Now able to satisfy her list of desires, she starts to notice the small pleasures, the deep, quiet joys of her ordinary life and the people who live it with her … until somebody finds the hidden lottery ticket.
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