Saturday, January 31, 2009

Not a ghost town

I read Ghost Town - Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath in New York City and finished it off in Washington. It is the first fiction in the Bloomsbury series The Writer and the City which includes Peter Carey on Sydney and John Banville on Prague. McGrath gives us three short pieces set in different times in the life of NYC.
The first tale is about a woman who spied for George Washington in 1776 when lower Manhattan was destroyed by the British, the second is set in the 19th century and involves a small scandal that descends on a wealthy merchant of Dutch stock and his family at a time of Irish immigration, and the third story is set in the wake of 9/11 and involves a psychiatrist and his patient and a woman who's lost someone in the tragedy.

I heard McGrath read from the book when he was in Wellington for the Writers' Festival and he charmed the audience with his avuncular story-telling. I bought it to read in NYC and enjoyed the stories of an early Manhattan all the more for having walked with my daughter in Battery Park and around the Tribeca area. The story called Ground Zero was a stronger piece for me because I'd been to Ground Zero. It's a strangely unspooky place - a building site now with workers and machinery moving in and out, and down one side, people making their way to the train station and home.

I reached Broadway and headed south toward the site. Across from City Hall the phone company was digging up the street. A sanitation truck went by, its yellow lights blinking, spraying water to keep down the dust. More barriers, the familiar NYPD trestles, painted blue, stencilled, familiar.... Not far from the Brooklyn Bridge I came level with the ruins. all that had once been familiar was strange to me now, and it was not easy to know what I was looking at. Down a side street -was it Fulton, or John? - I saw a high building torn open, its innards sheared off and spilling out, twisted beyond recognition and starkly illuminated by that unearthly blue light...' Ground Zero, Patrick McGrath

There is some great writing but there is something lacking in the three stories. They first two feel to me like compressed novels with an 'and then and then' quality about them. The third story feels richer more complex but still lacks something essential. Issy and I have just spent the day in Universal Studios driving through Jurassic Park and avoiding special effects in Backdraft so the brain isn't up to analysing what that essential thing is right now. Later perhaps.

Anyway, New York is itself a rich and complex place. Overwhelming at times. Exhilarating. And exhausting. But I barely touched the surface, and I'd love to go back for more. I didn't get to Brooklyn where Paul Auster lives and writes and where novels like The Brooklyn Follies are set. I didn't get to really explore Greenwich Village or SoHo although I glimpsed where Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen got their first breaks. I didn't go to the Metropolitan Art Museum or eat in Little Italy or Chinatown. Or stand outside the Chelsea Hotel.

What Issy and I did was wonderful: Central Park, a Broadway Show, Times Square at night, the MoMA. We ate in diners where breakfast was $1.95 (including coffee). We stood on the top of the Rockefeller Centre and saw the top of the Empire State Building. We went downtown to Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty. We went window-shopping on 5th Avenue and bought some ear muffs from a street vendor. Most of all we watched New Yorkers walk and talk in the dark and gleaming canyons they call home.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wonder of Alice

I am still in Canada - until tomorrow. And I am still reading the inimitable Canadian author Alice Munro who recently hung up her skates because she'd apparently said all she had to say. Here's a slice from her short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage which I bought the other day in an Ottawa bookstore:

'I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida - not of that in particular - but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories, The cries of the crowd came to me like heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.

This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.' Family Furnishings

In the story Family Furnishings, Munro has a character who comes to the point where she knows she wants to write. The description above is what she feels writing is, and being a writer is. It could be my thoughts on the matter.

This is the first time I've read Munro's work in Canada. Suddenly, stories which mention Ottawa or Quebec or the thawing of the snow or a field of corn resonate differently, feel different. Even the voices I'm reading sound different here.

One day they were out in the fields of stubble playing with my father's dog whose name was Mack. That day the sun shone, but did not melt the ice in the furrows. They stomped on the ice and enjoyed the crackle underfoot. Family Furnishings

There was no fence. The cornfield just petered out into the yard. She walked straight ahead into it, onto the narrow path her arms like streamers of oilcloth. She had to remove her hat so they would not knock it off. Each stalk had its cob, like a baby in a shroud. There was a strong, almost sickening smell of vegetable growth, of green starch and hot sap. Floating Bridge

What hasn't changed is the way Munro is able to write the fine filigrees of feeling, and the equally fine shifts in those feelings. The way she makes a feeling an event, an event a place, a place a person, a person a feeling, and on it goes.

It seemed to her this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, an efficient pressure, a wholehearted probing and receiving , a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied. Floating Bridge

Munro's good on kisses. She had a great kiss in her collection Runaway that helped me write a kiss in The Blue. She also knows just when to open something out, to let it breathe and gain weight, and be suddenly bigger than, weightier than the sum of its parts.

What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given. Floating Bridge

And all this because Munro must listen to those distant sounds of 'inhuman assent and lamentation', really listen, and then suddenly - like a insect-eating bird - grab them from the air. Swallow that humming. Make it into words.

One guesses that for the character of the writer in Family Furnishings she listened to a sound already swallowed.

And the minute I heard it, something happened. It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head. I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself...

To finish with, here are some photographs from the Rideau Canal today in Ottawa. Minus 34 degrees C with the wind chill and yet there were so many people skating on the ice, all ages and backgrounds (it's free), wrapped up tight, together.

There isn't much noise except the scratch of the skates, the odd snatch of conversation in English and French. But there is that wave of sound Munro talks about - the sound humanity makes at its best one cold Saturday out on a canal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Holding its own in Canada

I mentioned in my last post that I saw Rachael King's novel The Sound of Butterflies on the shelves at the huge Chapters Bookshop in Ottawa, Ontario. And that I felt proud. Well here it is, holding its own. A lovely sheen to this cover.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Land of the Giants

It's the middle of the night in Ottawa and we're too far from Washington to hear the inauguration celebrations. Canadians I know seem to have watched the historic ceremony at work and school and home. They're all asleep now (the ones I know.)

There's not much to see outside but I can still make out the dips in the snow on the balcony railing where a squirrel shimmied along it two days ago. That's the thing about snow, all sorts of things are frozen for weeks: dog pee, squirrel prints, rubbish. You leave water and cameras in the car, they freeze too.
The snow blankets and muffles as you'd expect. It wraps up sound and tucks it down for winter.

We are in a giant fairy tale. Really. Giant. Eggs come in one and a half dozens. I saw a blue jay today, it's so much bigger than I thought a blue jay would be. There was what looked like a child's fort in the trees and my nephew said it was an abandoned crows nest.

Squirrels are darker and more menacing when hopping through snow. When you run into a baby bear, look for the mother, you might need to start running again.

Snowflakes on your eyelids are enchanting. In your eye they hurt.

Cafe au lait and brioche for breakfast in a patisserie. If we'd only come for that it would have been enough.

Today's winter sports and their aftermath: my niece was on a ski-trip but a suspected broken leg from a fall saw her stretchered off the mountain (luckily it's just a double sprain), my brother-in-law was on an annual ski trip up Mont Tremblant and lost his car keys, my nephew skated on the school rink without mishap ( we have pools, they have rinks.)

We go ice skating on the canal on Thursday. I can't ice skate.

I am reading Alice Munro's stories after buying a lovely new Penguin (Canada) copy of Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage at Chapters Bookstore in Ottawa.

I found Rachael King's The Sound of Butterflies there too and felt very proud.

After Munro, I need to finish Auster's The Brooklyn Follies. Then I think I'll start Obama's Audacity of Hope. The book is in my suitcase. It begins: 'On most days, I enter the Capitol through the basement...'


Monday, January 19, 2009

O Canada

Bienvenue a Quebec City. On the way there by car from Ottawa, the traffic signs said: 'froid intense' and the road was 'glissant'. It was in the minus 30s and a blizzard hit us on the way home, but our first day shone brilliantly in this 400-year-old fortified city on the narrowest part of the St Laurence River.

Ah yes, books. A whole bookstore full of French books including Quebecois Literature. I was looking for a novel by a former sister-in-law and another by a nephew. Neither were there. Meanwhile, I've started on Carol Shields' novel Unless. Good to read a Canadian.
Back to Ottawa.We've been very domestic and 'family' here since arriving with the only outing a spot of shopping at the local mall. We hit the city centre tomorrow. Maybe try some ice skating on the canal or a snowball fight?
A demain.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Lovely word in-spi-ra-tion. The breathing in... the oxygenation of the brain... the suggestion of the divine. The Marie Antoinette piccy above is an inspiration award for my blog from Aspiring Writer (ah, another one: a-spir-ing) whose blog I like to visit. And I am touched especially as I have been a bit quiet on here recently.

The idea is I pass the award onto seven others now, link to them, let them know and generally spread the love. The trouble is, five of the seven bloggers Aspiring Writer (Joanne Ganley) has picked are on my list of seven anyway! I see those five have said the same thing. It's a funny world the internet - it seems so big, but inside it are these tight little communities like villages.

Anyway, here are seven of my inspiring blogs - I can't say much about them because I should be packing ....

1. To Joanne who is Aspiring Writer and is enthusiastic and smart and keen as mustard to write and has lovely pictures of her garden 2. To Vanda Symon - a driven woman! She writes a book a year, raises two children, seems to have created her own mountain range of laundry and hosts a book show, and still keeps smiling all the time. 3. Gondal Girl who is quirky, mad on Emily Bronte, has finished her first novel, looks a bit like Nicole Kidman and seems - from her blog - to share so many of my preoccupations including birds. I feel I know her but we've never met. 4. Rachael King who is stylish and clever and honest to a fault, and driven to complete novel no. 2 while also sharing her love of collecting and a form of dance with a name that escapes me and some lovely music. 5. Andrea at acatofimpossiblecolour who captivates with her honesty about her life as a Zimbabwe immigrant in NZ. She writes madly and buys clothes crazily and collects gorgeous tea cups and shows all this off with such style and warmth. 6. Denis Welch at Opposable Thumb who refuses to be pigeonholed and will write intelligently, fluently, and beautifully about anything from the sound a car door makes when it shuts to his view on the Israeli-Palestinian issue to books he's enjoyed. 7. David Cohen's This is not a Blog Post - incisive and provocative media and political commentary by the Master.

Finally 8. (aren't I allowed a number 8?) Bookman Beattie's mad book site which he updates many times a day - full of stuff about books and writers. It gets a thousand hits a day from all over the world. Couldn't do without it.

Actually I have a number 9, too, Fifi, and a 10, Shroedinger's Tabby .... better stop...

I think my brain is a little lacking in oxygen at this late hour and a plane to catch tomorrow for one of those long, brain-numbing flights. I have packed my clothes and gifts for the family, and helped by daughter (and travel companion) pack her things. She has been far more efficient than me. I asked if she'd brought some jewellery (for when we hit the high spots in New York) and she said, 'I'll be wearing it.'

She has also chosen to bring the heaviest book in her collection of books to read, it's the third book in the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke and called Inkdeath - at least 500 pages long by the look of it and in hard back. This writer is one of Issy's faves, but couldn't a lighter book be found for the trip? I dragged A Suitable Boy around Samoa for six weeks and know how important it is to 'travel light.' But my daughter just smiled sweetly and pushed Inkdeath into her back pack.

She's a lot better by the way. Just hope those muscles of hers are up to lugging that back pack around Canada and the US. Then again, I suppose I've got my laptop and a small selection of books of my own. More on that later.

I'll try and blog while I'm away.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hums from the Hammock #2

isn't it lovely tiddly pom to be reading tiddly pom a lovely book tiddly pom and not any old book tiddly pom but one you can hold tiddly pom and float like a bear tiddly pom looking for honey tiddly's another one...

Breakwater by Kate Duignan [VUP 2001]. Ella, a young woman who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, accepts a place to live with her friend Tess and her mother Louise. Louise lives on Wellington's south coast, owns the Breakwater Cafe and has struggled to bring up her now grown-up children on her own. This first novel written by Duignan in her mid 20s as part of the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University is surprising for its maturity and polish. The author treads firmly in the world of daily human interaction pausing to make you watch what people are really doing, and listen, truly listen, to what people are trying to say. There is a delicacy of thought here, and an unsentimental, intelligent view of the world that lets characters quietly unfold and surprise you. The wild Wellington setting beside the sea is simply terrific. This is Louise:

'While each one of them sleeps and sloughs off the frustrations of the morning she is left alone, wound up, unable to read or think. She is reminded of the silverbeet growing up in the garden, in urgent need of treatment for white butterflies, and of the McCahon exhibition she hasn't seen yet, and of this slim novel, about Clarissa Dalloway and her plans to hold a party. All persistently unfinished. She wonders how it has come to this so quickly: being swept up entirely in the eye of young storms, with nothing of her own, no space to breathe. How has it happened that she is here once again? Taken over, and separate from her sense of self, which she sees as a shadow, quickly becoming thin and transparent, and walking now in a different direction.'

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hums from a Hammock #1

isn't it lovely
tiddly pom
to be reading
tiddly pom
a lovely book
tiddly pom
and not any old book
tiddly pom
but one you can hold
tiddly pom
and float like a bear
tiddly pom
looking for honey
tiddly pom
here's one...

Travelling with Augusta: Preston - Gorizia - Venice - Masterton, by Ingrid Horrocks [VUP 2003]. A reflective, intelligent travel memoir of the best sort. NZ poet and academic Ingrid Horrocks uses her Great-great-great Aunt Augusta's travel journal from 1835 as a basis for her own journey through Italy and Croatia. This journey includes an intelligent, thoughtful and, at times, provocative meditation on the role and meaning of the woman traveller. Wonderful insights into this part of the world, too. Stunning holiday reading. Makes me want to travel again on my own or, at the very least, to travel with Ingrid. A good independent bookshop like Unity in Wellington should have this book which came out five years ago and so should any good library near you. It has just been translated into Italian.