Wednesday, September 23, 2009

After you've admired the tulips

The tulips at Wellington's Botanic Gardens are perfect cups of buttery yellow and blood red and streaked lipstick pink right now. I couldn't miss them when I drove past today. I recommend a visit this Sunday, and when you're sated with all that colour, pop down Glenmore Street to the elegant white nineteenth century cottage on St. Mary's Street for a quieter aesthetic experience [take a left before you hit the Bowen St. intersection and head up at a 60 degree angle.]

Here's Kirsty Gunn on the cottage in the latest issue of Booknotes:

I felt like I was coming home. Everything about the place was familiar - from the New Zealand timber floorboards to the very positioning of the sash windows that looked out to a garden of native trees and hydrangeas.
The link to the rest of that piece is up on the Randell Cottage website.

Randell Cottage is one of the city's oldest cottages built by William and Sarah Randell in 1867 and home to them and their ten children.  Now it houses a French writer over summer and a NZ writer over winter. Kirsty Gunn has just left and French-speaking Iranian exile Fariba Hachtroudi is about to arrive. A team of Randell Cottage Friends and Trustees, of which I am one, will be on hand to show you around.

And back to those tulips. Looking at this photograph [thanks to] reminds me of my first days in New Zealand at the age of four. We'd arrived from Bermuda by ship and were staying at the Sharella hotel - pictured behind the flowers - until we found a house to rent. I seem to remember tulips then, or perhaps they came later. It was cold and windy, for sure, but then after the hot, still, crayon-coloured world of Bermuda, that was no a surprise. I do remember the sensations on moving here of a world leached of colour, and buffetted. My memories switch suddenly from colour to black and white for a while. The edges of things were less clear.

Once we settled in, we walked alot in the Botanic Gardens on regular Sunday outings. There were bagpipers [I wanted to be one], dancers in clogs [that too], ducks, flowers, the longest slide in the world, a cable car. It was a Wonderland. Later, my friend Deborah and I would walk through the Gardens to Wellington Girls College - in bare feet when it was hot [Deb was a bit of a hippy.] Then there were late night visits with boyfriends to see the glow-worms, and one boyfriend who took me there so he could take romantic photographs beside the magnolias. Or I thought that was the plan. I was surprised to find, when they'd been developed, that he'd taken almost a whole film of the trees, including close-ups of their perfect creamy blooms, and only one with me in it.

Dear reader, I married him.

See you at Randell Cottage on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What will survive of us is love

Two friends of mine died on September 25 a year apart. Two such different friends and such different deaths - one a successful businessman with a young family whose life was cut brutally short, the other a sculptor who'd lived a long and colourful life. My heart goes out to their families, for it's still too short a time - a year in one case, two years in the other.

English author Justine Picardi lost a sister this same week some years ago and writes - in her usual lucid and meditative way - about living with the loss in a post titled: What to read in memorium. The 'what to read' is Philip Larkin's poem 'An Arundel Tomb' which ends with: 'what will survive of us is love.'

And there are these lines which Picardi quotes:

Each Summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came...
Which is apposite. For here we are in spring again, light thronging the glass, yellow kowhai littering the ground, blossom frothing the trees, tui crazy with chortling, and I remember driving to the hospital where my friend the sculptor was dying, and stopping to steal a branch of blossom to take with me. Outside his hospital window a line of birds perched shiny in the sun waiting for him to feed them - as he did on a daily basis wherever he was.  I put my stolen blossom in a vase. I sat with him awhile and said good-bye. The birds stared at me implacably.

For my other friend it was autumn. We heard he'd kissed his family, picked up his briefcase and stepped into their leafy London street. He would have felt the nip in the air. Perhaps he was already wearing his winter coat. It was spring here, of course. The day was bright and hot when the call came, and the birds were singing at full throttle.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Here it is, JAAM 27, Wanderings, edited by Ingrid Horrocks. And in it, you can find me wandering around with the likes of Martin Edmond, Kirsty Gunn, Tina Makareti, Helen Lehndorf, Vana Manasiadis, Vivienne Plumb, Johanna Aitchison.... and thirty or so magnificent others.

My piece is called More Things on Heaven and Earth, Margaret. It is creative non-fiction this time, a genre that I've worked at as a journalist and a blogger, but not much outside of those spheres, and not daring to give it a fancy title like that. It pleases me enormously to see it here - one of only seven non-fiction pieces. The rest of JAAM 27 is short stories [11], a healthy stack of poems, and some colour images from Mike Ting.

The brief from Ingrid said she was interested in work about wanderers and travellers as well as works 'that digress in creative ways from narrative, argument or genre.' So my non-fiction effort is about fiction and real life and how they collide sometimes in unexpected ways. I still like it on re-reading, although I can't help but feel how meagre it is up against all the other stuff, not least the moody Kirsty Gunn story it nudges in
the line-up.

I'm still reading JAAM 27, but already it strikes me that there is a certain mood to it that reflects its editor - a writer of travel memoir, a poet and academic: Quiet. Calm. Reflective. Cerebral. Compassionate. In tune with the physical world.

The pieces I've read so far throw up a world where nothing is known for sure, but where the questions asked are not angry or bitter or tired, but rather simple questions posed in whole sentences on a wind-blown hill where 'macrocarpas/ kneel down and pray' [The Sinews of Ohau Bay by Keith Westwater] or beside a secret lake in the warmth of the sun [Memorial by Kirsty Gunn].

Water certainly features in this journal - water to lie beside and cross and walk through as rain. There are a lot of trees, too, and a reassuring amount of earth to anchor things. 'Worm leavings' even [in the end by Tina Makereti]. The physicality of the world we know triggers thought or holds it. Like it did for the Romantics, I suppose, except that there is less certainty here, more flux, boundaries that blur. And there are babies at the breast, wedding dresses with stories to tell, characters in novels that turn up elsewhere, and text messages that 'don't always arrive intact' [from The Thousand Ruby Galaxy by Martin Edmond]

That feeling, she knows now, looking back on all this, of getting 'lost' on that holiday as Karl had said they were when he'd woken up to find himself somewhere unexpected, was not being lost at all. It was the feeling, at the minute of letting it fall over her and claim her as she lay on the grass, of herself, who she was, what she wanted, what she didn't want. [Memorial by Kirsty Gunn]
Welcome to the shifting world of JAAM 27. More details here.

Note - The art work on the cover is by Rachel Walker and called Falling Through Time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catton among the pigeons

Murray told me off this morning. He said he read The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton [pictured] because I was reading it as part of my blog Tea Fiction Cosy Challenge [which involved reading all the Montana Fiction Finalists], and he's been waiting ever since for me to say what I thought of it.

Murray's a teacher and he knows good teaching means following up. He wouldn't be the sort of teacher, as I sometimes am, who promises 'we'll get onto that later' and never does. I said this to him when he waylaid me this morning at the local boys' prep school where he teaches, and he laughed in a convivial colleaguey way as if he might just do that too, but I know he wouldn't. I've been in Murray's classroom, and it's super-organised and high-tech with confident boys in blue jerseys. I have no doubt if Murray says he's going to do something in class, he'll do it.

Which is why I'll write about The Rehearsal like I said I would. I feel a bit responsible, too, because Murray didn't love Catton's book. He thought it was clever, but he says he didn't always know what was going on. And he's not the only one. I got lost a few times and had to go back to make sure I had it right, and even then I'm not entirely sure ... And yes, it's clever, but Murray's tone suggested 'too clever by half', and while praising its genius, The Listener's Louise O'Brien called it 'a novel from and for the head' [not the heart]. She said, 'there is no possibility for empathy with or even sympathy for the characters.'

Okay, well The Rehearsal certainly wasn't a book that opened its coat and said 'take me', but that seems to be the whole post-modern meta-fictional point. This kind of novel makes the reader work to unlayer things and find the body underneath. Satisfying if you have the time and energy and commitment and like that kind of thing, but not if you need to 'chill' or want to read the sort of fiction that goes directly to the heart.

On the surface, The Rehearsal is a novel about a girls' school buzzing with a scandalous teacher-student love affair, a nearby drama school that acts out the scandal, and a saxophone teacher who teaches the schoolgirls and causes everything to collide. The Rehearsal of the title is the stuff the drama school does in preparing the play, but it's also what the school students and the drama students and the music students are doing to prepare for their real lives, and the sax teacher, too, for that matter. For when does the rehearsal end? And when does the performance really begin?

Catton writes her scenes as if they are rehearsals - with people in roles speaking lines that include monologues and soliloquoys. Just when a scene seems to be proceeding in a way you'd expect, a spotlight is cued or the 'scene' is replayed or a character proceeds to say the most unlikely things. The writing is incandescent at times, and the overall effect, for me, was perplexing, disarming, hilarious and, yes, eventually, moving too. The latter emerges through the 'playing out' of the self-conscious rehearsal for the real thing that is young love, and through the character of the sax teacher who watches these new shoots and remembers how it was for her, once, and considers the aridity of her life now. Truly, she is the most astonishing invention that, despite her strange role-playing reality, still manages to arouse sympathy.

'I require all of my students,' the saxophone teacher continues, 'that are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with silent fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.'

Kiss-kiss goes the snare drum over this silence.

'But she wants to learn the saxophone,' says Mrs Henderson at last, sounding ashamed and sulky at the same time. 'She doesn't want to learn the clarinet.'
Mrs Henderson leaves unsatisfied and a little later another parent arrives.
That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.

'Mrs Winter,' she says, ' You've come about your daughter. Come in and we'll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.'

She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can scuttle in. It's the same woman as before, just with a different costume -- Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.

They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
All 'stage' mothers of the world, nay mothers, read that and weep. And teachers, Murray, as we discussed, have surely never said it better.

You can get more of a taste of the genius of Eleanor Catton -- for genius it is, a gorgeous singular go-anywhere talent -- at google books preview. Or, better, just go out and buy the book. This terribly-young author is already a cat-like phenomenon in the Big Book Square of the World with its greening statues of the famous and host of perching pigeons. She's won Best First Novel here and a similar award in the UK, and is lined up for more. The book reviewers and writers' festivals love her. One UK reviewer picked The Rehearsal as the future face of the novel.

All I know is that I read The Rehearsal weeks ago now, but when Murray told me off, I sat down and wrote this post without glancing at the book once. This is unusual, given the number of books I read, as I usually need a quick refresher to get underway. But not this one. It's still there, stealthy and sharp-eyed and stalking me, while I gossip among the pigeons.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Where the cool kids hang out - Obama in Netherland

Reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, I googled the cover [to put up on the blog] and found myself on which is 'a chronicle of creative works by and about our 44th President.' Above this fab pic of Obama promoting libraries, is a post - written in April - titled 'On Obama's Nightstand: Netherland.'

According to Qiana - the young-looking chap who writes the blog - knowing Obama's reading a book is enough to make him pick it up. He hasn't posted subsequently, so I wonder if he did. Meanwhile, Netherland is on my nightstand but oh how it asks to be brought downstairs and read and read and read until it's finished. There's something about the tone, the language, the voice of a book like this ...

Netherland is a post-9/11 novel set in New York. It feels as if the smoke and dust from that terrible day are still in the air and have been breathed in by the protagonist - a Dutch banker called Hans whose wife has left him for a safer life in England- making his life the kind of 'white on white' John Vanderslice sings about in his 9/11 album Emerald City. The novel is spare of language and the tone is a meditative one that is taut with the desperate stuff of longing and blame and alienation. But there is belonging too - in the game of cricket and the NY immigrants who play it on the margins of the recovering city. I am nowhere near the end, but this book is marvellous. One of the best I've read this year.

Lit blogger Mark Sarvas, like James Wood before him, gives it his highest recommendation [the review is in his 'recommended' column on the right]. He says of Netherland that it is 'a Gatsby-like meditation on exclusion and otherness,' and the conclusion is: 'a radiant beacon illuminating one of our essential questions, the question of belonging.'

Wonder what Obama thought of it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ruined in eight minutes flat

I love the way blogs work. I spotted a new Paula Morris novel on Rachael King's blog [it's her current read], so I went to Paula Morris' blog [she of New Orleans who was once of NZ.] Rolling down a bit, there it was... a new YA novel called Ruined with links to two fab little promo videos here and here - one of which gave me goosebumps [it's a ghost story.] So now I know. Quite a lot in fact. Including that it's selling fast on Amazon. And that took, oh, seven minutes? Eight? Just got to decide now if it's too scary for Issy (13) and me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I have in my arms the scarecrow and the bells of saint babel's etc.

Books for Africa, as my friend Maggie would say! The Giant Book Fair at TSB arena [on again today] yielded up for me: The Scarecrow - r.h.morrieson, The Bells of Saint Babel's - allen curnow, Blindsight - maurice gee, Mary Shelley - muriel spark, Not her real name - emily perkins [signed], In search of a character - graham greene, I have in my arms both ways - adrienne jansen, Big Wellington - o'brien/white, some travel books for my husband [a pico iyer, a theroux and dessaix's book on turgenev which I also intend to read], and an alastair cooke book of essays plus the Henry Root Letters for my dad [for father's day].

My children got a restrained bag-full each, and Penny and Elsie and Quentin between them lugged out enough books to fill a couple of suitcases. I saw Maggie there, and her own magnificent haul is detailed in a comment on the previous post. I envy her the Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Jan Morris - a hard-back, no less.

She mentions how I'd spotted both our novels on the NZ Fiction table. It was an odd moment seeing The Blue there - I checked and it was a first edition with a Montana award sticker on the front, in good condition, too. Read? Who knows. I put it back with its spine out and mentioned it to Elsie who was piling up short story collections elegantly on her forearm, and she smiled something reassuring back, and then the woman next to her said, does she want that book? - nodding at me and The Blue. And Elsie said, no, she wrote it. Oh! said the woman, I loved that book! Oh! I said. Really? That's wonderful! And it really really was.

Later, after a rummage through Travel and Essays and General Fiction, after seeing a man yelp as he leapt on Ed Hillary's book about Everest, after a chat about whaling with Ken from the Maritime Museum over old copies of Landfall, after admiring Quentin's copy of some fabulous biography that slips my mind and Issy's book about the Titanic and Paul's book of Cheever stories, I came back to NZ Fiction. And The Blue was gone.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Giant book fair

Massive excitement in my household because the annual giant bookfair at the TSB Arena is on this weekend. The Downtown Community Ministry runs it and the books are $2 each [$1 on Sunday] with special books priced as marked.
Every year we go: me and Paul and Issy and Penny and Elsie and Quentin - we stand there in the massive indoor arena, amongst the tables and tables of books, and hundreds of people, marvelling each time at the absence of noise. This is the spooky thing, all you can hear is a kind of happy whispery-hum as hundreds of readers thumb and shuffle books, and slide them into their bags.
We lumber out with our haul - Paul and Issy and Penny and Elsie and Quentin and me - and share it in the foyer afterwards or over breakfast across the way. We always find one treasure: a perfect copy of a loved book or a falling-apart copy of a loved book. Sometimes we swap, mostly we don't. One year, I nabbed a first edition [UK] of a Janet Frame novel for $2. And every year we go home and clear a space on the bookshelves for our finds - piling up the rejected books in a box in the garage.
This year I have been organised and sent six boxes of children's and adult books off yesterday as donations to the fair. This is the first year I have done this and I think we've been going for five years now. My son Adam took the boxes into town in the back of the car, thank God, because I couldn't lift them.
I told him where to go: Compassion House at the end of Luke's Lane [love that address]. So now I theoretically have room on the shelves all ready for this year's book fair finds. Trouble is, I can't see the space for looking. Somehow magically, it has already been filled.