Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going off half cocked

There was a lesson for all of us last week mixed up in the hysterical tabloid response to Hilary Mantel's alleged "nasty attack on Kate".

Read to the end. To the very end. Or if you don't want to bother stretching your brain cells that far, then please spare us your misinformed opinion and your misrepresentations of the author's intention.

'A story of lazy journalism and raging hypocrisy' Guardian

'Hilary Mantel and the pitfalls of the public lecture' New Yorker

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Quietly Astonishing Blurbs

Shift by Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press 2011)
Winner of the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry 2012

Magnificent Moon by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press 2012) Has to be a favourite for the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry 2013

Poems by two New Zealand women who have both lived as expats in London and returned home. Both studied creative writing under Bill Manhire at Victoria University. Both books are published by university presses. What else do they have in common?

Well, this: their back cover blurbs both contain the description astonishing modified by a form of the word quiet.

"For ten years the occasional appearance of an Ashleigh Young poem has teased and delighted her growing circle of admirers. Here at last is her quietly astonishing first book." (VUP 2012)

"According to Bill Manhire, Rhian Gallagher is one of the quiet, astonishing secrets of New Zealand writing." (AUP 2011)

There is one astonishing thing that Rhian Gallagher and Ashleigh Young do not have in common: Ashleigh Young's work was included in the highly controversial 'Anthology' of New Zealand Literature published by AUP in 2012. Some commentators liken the list of inclusions in the oversized contemporary section of this unwieldy volume as reading more like the personal cocktail party invite list of the married couple editors, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, who both lecture at Victoria University, than as a fair and representative sample of the best of recent New Zealand writing. It does seem bizarre to have included Young, who had not quite published her first book at that point, at the apparent expense of including work by AUP poet Gallagher in an AUP volume! Gallagher's third book, and her second poetry volume Shift was also fresh from having won the NZ Post prize for best poetry book at the 2012 national book awards. Her first volume, published in the UK, had been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prize. The fact that the South Island based Rhian Gallagher has apparently remained a secret to the Wellington-based anthology editors is indeed astonishing, and her work is just one of the many deafening omissions by the editors in the "AUP Anthology". I think it's more accurate to call it a "cultural compendium" than an "anthology of literature" since so many of the editorial choices have been illustrative of arbitrarily imposed cultural and historical themes rather than having been chosen because they were the best pieces by the best authors. Such an impressionistic project would not in itself be a bad idea; but unfortunately the reality of the idiosyncratic miscellany that AUP has produced conflicts with the stated aims on the cover of the 'doorstop' (more unkindly referred to as a 'white elephant'):  "In fiction and non-fiction, letters and speeches, stories and song, the editors unearth the diverse voices of the New Zealand imagination. And for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why." Nope - sorry - that is false advertising.

My own take on the AUP Anthology is that endless debates concerning the omissions will not be as helpful as would be an analysis of the flaws of the methodology which led to the notable omissions. I have listed dozens of names that are missing, that are equally as deserving of inclusion as many of the favoured writers. There will always be the ins and the outs resulting from personal taste, fashion, elitism, parochialism, cronyism, the gaps in the editorial knowledge, even perhaps the personal animosities, that will influence the selection process, although some of these factors seem to have operated excessively in this case. What also seems to be different in the production of this 'anthology' is that the editors frequently appear to have rejected an author's best work in favour of lesser squibs or vignettes that fitted in with their own theoretical framework. This may give an evocative snapshot of the country from the perspective of the towers of Victoria University, but it cannot claim to represent our literature.

PS Please don't imagine I am suggesting that Ashleigh Young's work is not worthy to represent the latest and the greatest. In fact I would put money on her magnificent debut outclassing the output of some of her former teachers and mentors. That's the way it rolls.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A time for everything

The abandoned sleep of the domestic cat has much to teach us of letting go and letting be. But don't think of them as laissez-faire, no no no! They can spring up at a split second's notice if conditions warrant it.

Moa birds!


Look what I got for Christmas. I know, lucky.
This would be my pick for Book of the Year in the NZ Post Book Awards, by a country mile, or it would be if it were eligible. Unfortunately, both Buller and Keulemans share the unfortunate circumstance of being long dead which apparently disqualifies their work from consideration, whether or not live editors have slaved away at the compilation of the content. That's the way it works on the literary side of the ledger, anyway, where posthumously published work has been in recent years declared ineligible, in a decision arguably aimed specifically at excluding Janet Frame's work from award nominations. Last year the new rules excluded all edited volumes of work by dead authors such as selections of letters and anthologies (coincidentally there was one book disqualified in 2012: an anthology of Frame's non-fiction). In earlier years, compilations of the writings of dead authors (eg Mansfield, Hyde, etc) were included for consideration. I wonder if edited volumes will be excluded this year or if the new new rules have been tweaked once again to allow specific books to be declared "in" or "out" depending on literary politics.

Buller’s Birds of New Zealand: The complete work of JG Keulemans.
Publication date: October 2012
Foreword by Stephen Fry
Publisher: Te Papa Press

Paw Justice

PAW JUSTICE - helping to prevent animal abuse and to encourage responsible pet ownership.

Get Ready - Get Through

The agency cat files himself away with the emergency supplies which are kept on a high shelf because the most likely natural disaster that we will experience at our new location is a flood. He has located the packets of milk and looks a little worried that the humans have perhaps not been attending to the fast approaching issue of expiring use-by dates.

See the New Zealand disaster preparedness website: GET READY GET THRU where you will find hints like:

"Check and replace food and water every twelve months. Consider stocking a two-week supply of food and water for prolonged emergencies such as a pandemic."

And don't forget pet food!

What moa do you need to know?

Haha, silly pun, sorry. I have just bought this informative and entertaining tome about the extinct moa, that I always think of as a giant chicken, because I keep remembering my first trip out of New Zealand, to [Western] Samoa, where I learnt that the Polynesian name for 'chicken' is: moa. So I always imagine the reaction of those Polynesian voyagers who first arrived and settled in God's Own Long White Cloud, when they saw the largest of the moa, naively grazing and looking delicious: "Wow! Look at that humungous chicken!" And I think that for those first Kiwis the name moa was perhaps, almost a joke...

But obviously I need to read the book and find out what the latest scholarship is on the naming of the moa, and everything else of course. And what a reasonable price it is for such a weighty volume (1.61 kg) - with such high production values - $50! How do they do it?

Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand's Legendary Bird by Quint Berentson, published by Craig Potton, 2012. Hardback with jacket.

I attended the launch of this book a few days ago at the premises of Dunedin's distinguished Natural History New Zealand where the author celebrated with his colleagues, family and friends, members of the publishing and book selling industry and other well-wishers.

"It’s a serious book about a popular subject and will fill a real gap in our natural history literature," says publisher Robbie Burton. "It’s a fascinating story and an important book that richly recounts and illustrates the life and death of the giant bird."

Read a review from the Otago Daily Times here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Primary Colours

I'd like to recommend two of my favourite novels from 2012: Red Rocks and The Yellow Birds.

Red Rocks is a children's book by New Zealand author Rachael King. It's aimed at about the ten to twelve year age group (I think) but could be happily read to or by, younger kids or older teenagers, and of course as with all well written children's literature, it is enjoyable for an adult to read as well.
Most tantalising for those who know Rachael King's history (coming as she does from a family numbering more than one or two well known New Zealanders) is that for some of the plot, she appears to draw from her own life experiences of living in a divided and then reconstituted family. She has great emotional riches to draw from and she transforms the bounty into a form that will resonate for those who have been through similar challenges and joys. So in part, this is an 'issues' book - and the bugbear of bullying also rears its ugly head in this story - but it is not just an issues book. There is also a marvellous fantastic and mysterious element woven into the narrative, an antipodean evocation of a Selkie story. I was reminded of Maurice Duggan's wonderful Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1957).

I shouldn't need to introduce my other favourite novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. I never thought I would even want to read a book on the subject matter of Americans fighting in Iraq and their return home afterwards. But having heard all the "fuss", the "hype", about how brilliant it was, especially for a debut novel, I picked it up in the bookstore (UBS Otago) and was immediately captivated by the beauty and clarity and poetry of the prose. Powers is a poet, and the reading experience is enhanced for me because of that. It's a heartbreaking and searing, and dare I say, important book.

"The Yellow Birds is the All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab Wars." ~ Tom Wolfe

Back to work

Happy year of the Snake! Happy 2013!

It has been a long hot summer here in the south of the South. Glorious.

Cats and people did take a break, recharge the batteries, but we're back to core business now.

Sniffing the breeze.

As Purr Usual