The Aussie Slap
A controversial and daring novel, “The Slap” uses the iconic scene of a suburban barbeque to examine identities and personal relationships in a multi-cultural society. Committee for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize 2009
By Roger Childs
This is not a book for the faint-hearted.
Christos Tsiolkas exposes the often unsavoury and intolerant underbelly of Melbourne suburbia where middle and working class families interact – socialising, drinking, smoking, swearing, arguing, taking drugs, having sex and committing violence.
However, the highly convincing characters also have strong family loyalties and friendships, and support each other in times of need.
Swift discipline sets things alight
The title refers to Harry’s impulsive action at a summer barbeque in his cousin’s backyard. He hits the out-of-control Hugo, a three year old who is not his own child.
The assembled company is split half in half as to whether his intervention was justified.
Eight of those present take up the story in 50-60 page chapters as the slap proceeds to a court case and beyond. Readers get the warts and all treatment on all these folk, and their friends and families. The narrators feature:
- the patriarch of a Greek migrant family
- his son and his Indian wife
- Hugo’s Mum
- one of her friends
- two teenagers who baby sit Hugo.
An absorbing read
The physical chastising of Hugo changes everyone’s life.
As the story unfolds, a wide range of Australian issues, settings and situations are featured which Kiwis can identify with.
- racial and religious intolerance
- domestic violence and bullying
- the merits of private and public schools
- teenage parties, sex and drug taking
- adultery and infidelity
- male bonding and female friendships
- homosexuality and AIDS
- tourism in Bali
- conventions and pop concerts
- a veterinary clinic and other work places
- pubs and cafes
- streets and parks
- backyards and lounges.
The text is smattered with four letter words, but their use is not gratuitous or over-used. It’s a bit of shock from page 1, but the foul language just comes naturally to these Aussie characters!
Put together this is a highly riveting and entertaining read. The characterisation is very thorough and the story flows along seamlessly as the secrets, lies, friendship and betrayals are revealed.
Not surprisingly, it was turned into a television series.
Is this the great Australian novel of the modern era?
It deservedly won a number of prizes within the Commonwealth, and was long listed for the Booker.
It was published nine years ago and many of you will have read it.
If you haven’t, you’ll find it hard to turn the light out if you’re reading in bed.
Greetings Poetry Aficionardos!
By Gill Ward
It’s always a dilemma how to start a column and this greeting seems appropriate as all of you who read this, do so because you are interested in Literature and what’s going on locally in the area.
I’ll start off with a word about Poets to the People which was initially set up (eleven years ago!) to bring notable poets out here so that those who found it hard to get in to Wellington could have the chance to hear them.
The monthly poetry sessions
Those who regularly join in our monthly event and are interested (and know about) literature in its many forms, appreciate, applaud, perform and celebrate our poets.
As well as welcoming our guest poet for the month others have the opportunity to share one of their own poems at the open mic.
We couldn’t have made it work for so long without you – or without the wonderful support of Leigh and her staff at High Tide Café. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and participation.
It was excellent to see the large turnout for Glenn Colquhoun last month. He enjoyed being with us and sharing his work in his unique style.
Earning a crust as well as writing poetry
I was thinking about Glenn being a doctor and Harvey Molloy being a teacher and extrapolated it somewhat by reflecting on other poets who also had to earn a living as well as writing poetry (as Richard Langston, a television and radio journalist, said to me once ‘poetry makes thin children’).
So just as starters –
- Robert Burns was a tax collector
- T S. Eliot worked in a bank
- Pablo Neruda was a diplomat
- William Carlos Williams a doctor
- Philip Larkin a librarian.
Thinking about our well known poets most of them work with in the field of literature both teaching and writing. Our much loved Hone Tuwhare started off as a boiler maker.
A distinguished literary man
We are fortunate to have another significant poet as our next guest – Harry Ricketts.
You will all know of Harry, and many of you will be familiar with his work in both poetry and prose and some will have attended courses that Harry has taught.
He has read for us before so you’ll be aware of what an inspiring performance poet he is.
Just a few notes about Harry there is much, much more to say about him but just to give a brief and skimpy outline.
He has published several poetry collections, among them : Plunge (2001), Your Secret Life (2005) and Just Then (2012), His poetry has been included in many anthologies of New Zealand poetry.
Harry’s anthologies and books
Aside from his own literary writing, Ricketts has been an anthologist since the 1990s. His work in this field includes How You Doing?: A Selection of New Zealand Comic and Satiric Verse (1998), with Hugh Roberts, and a two-volume series of spiritual verse anthologies, co-edited with Paul Morris and Mike Grimshaw, before editing The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing (2010).
A Wall Street journalist reviewer observed of The Unforgiving Minute that: ‘of all the Kipling biographies, Harry Ricketts is the most balanced.’
In 2010, with Paula Green, he co-authored the poetry primer 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (2010). He has also contributed scholarly entries to the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature and reviewed books for Radio New Zealand National,
Harry’s poetry is wide ranging from tender to satirical and often very funny. But no matter which poem you read it will be accessible and will convey something. Always.
I want to tell you what David Eggleton said about Harry Ricketts in NZ Books:
“ Harry Ricketts brings into the sunlight the lumber stored in the attic of his mind…He authentically conveys the felt details of a lived life, the long mulled-over aftermath of his world-wide rites of passage.”
Poets to the People April session
Harry Ricketts will be reading from his new collection ‘Winter Eyes as well as older and more recent poems.
- Sunday April 29th, 4 – 6pm, High Tide Café,
- Marine Parade, Paraparaumu Beach
- Refreshments available. $5 cover charge.
All welcome – tell your friends; bring a one page poem of your own to the open mic, (don’t worry – that’s optional!),
Nutshell: Foetus Tells All
He simultaneously spoofs crime fiction and finds a novel mouthpiece for a mordantly entertaining and exhilarating … commentary on the modern world. The Sunday Times (London)
By Roger Childs
Many readers will recall our regular book reviewer, Ralph McAllister, warmly recommending this highly creative novel last year.
Ian McEwan ranks with the likes of fellow Englishmen William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks in being able to consistently craft stories which are original, challenging and highly readable.
Nutshell does require a huge suspension of disbelief, as our narrator from the womb has high level cognitive skills, amazing powers of perception and university level erudition. However, it is definitely worth making the literary leap of faith to accept this unlikely raconteur, as he has a fascinating tale to tell.
Womb with a view
Our commentator is understandably attached to his mother Trudy, but is perturbed about the break-up of her marriage and a plan she is hatching. Husband John, a publisher and poet, has been tossed out of his house because Trudy says she needs some space as she staggers through the final month of her pregnancy.
In reality she wants as much time as possible with her lover, John’s brother Claude, and the couple set about plotting the demise of the seemingly hapless husband.
Our friend the foetus doesn’t miss a trick and needless to say is close to all the action, some of which he would rather avoid notably when Claude becomes amorous. Nevertheless, through it all he provides wonderful observations on the behaviour of the lovers, the ways of the world, the meaning of life and even the quality of fine wine.
A master storyteller
As always with McEwan, there is a rattling good story, plenty of food for thought and an entertaining mix of suspense, drama and humour.
However, what sets Nutshell apart is the scenario of a narrator who is providing the inside story, in a way that’s never been done before.
My encounter with Phil Lamason’s amazing life
The Kiwi who saved 167 fliers in Buchenwald
By Hilary Pedersen
It’s remarkable now to look back to a time when I had never heard of Phil Lamason. For the last almost three years this man and his exploits have taken over my life.
The story of kiwi pilot Phil Lamason saving 167 airmen from the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp isn’t well known in New Zealand, even among military personnel.
For me, objectivity flew out of the window early.
Confronted by the tapestry of a story with as many threads as Phil’s demanded only one response. Bury yourself in it.
Like Joseph’s coat Phil’s life had an amazing range of colours.
Think family, flying and farming. Think hot, sunny yellow for the love of his wife and children, blue for the sky, green for pastures.
As the title ‘I Would Not Step Back’ indicates Phil was, above all else, a man of courage. Think lion-hearted red.
In the context of ‘lily –livered’ there is no white in his story. But neither white nor red would be mentioned were it not for the multitude of dark grey and black threads in this life tapestry. The colours of doom.
Extraordinary heroism at Buchenwald Camp
So now think Buchenwald concentration camp and 168 Allied airmen. Phil’s heroism and leadership demonstrated among the conditions of hell and depravity into which these men were dumped at the end of a five day journey in a cattle truck, are the testament for his story.
Facing down a German officer, an Alsatian dog and a firing squad, Phil defied the odds.
But read too of his lighter moments, his farming and community life and of the Hugenot –influenced forebears who shaped the man.
A cast of characters, writers, designers and supporters
Read of the cast of characters with whom he came in contact. Among them is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
‘I Would Not Step Back’ is the result of a team effort including other writers. It is topped off by the breathtaking design and layout expertise of Wellington photographer and creator Sal Criscillo.
Thanks go to the members of the Phil Lamason Heritage Trust, the Lamason family and Glenys Scott whose friendship with Phil and interviewing tenacity made this project possible.
If you are interested in purchasing the book, go to www.phillamason.com. The fascinating story is beautifully presented and lavishly illustrated.
(KIN will have a review of ‘I Would Not Step Back’ in late May – early June.)
Bryson in top form
This splendid book, written in the breezy and humorous style that has come to be Bryson’s trademark, is sure to delight. Huffington Post
The master chronicler does it again
If you’re a Bill Bryson fan and haven’t read it, One Summer: America 1927 is a treat in store. If you are not into this legendary non-fiction writer yet, it’s time to get started!
Bryson has crafted an amazing array of books on topics ranging from Shakespeare and Appalachians tramping, to the origins of the American language and travelling around Australia.
His research is comprehensive, and he has a marvellous ability to provide the reader with fluent discourse laced with quirky humour and fascinating detail.
One Summer: America 1927 is obviously about key events on that particular year, but is also a chronicle of the whole of the earth-shattering 1920s. It’s Bryson at his best.
An amazing decade
It is known by many names:
~ The Age of Ballyhoo
~ The Days of Boom and Bust
~ The Roaring Twenties
~ The Jazz Age.
There is no shortage of fascinating material on the twenties, however Bill Bryson bring the decade alive by weaving through themes related to key events in the middle of 1927.
This was the year when unknown flyer Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly the Atlantic and consequently became the most famous man in the world. It was also an extraordinary summer for the Yankees baseball team and their legendary home-run hitter, Babe Ruth.
The flying and the baseball are the two major themes Bryson threads through this outline of a summer when America came of age, took centre stage and changed the world forever.
An extraordinary era
The decade started with possibly America’s worst president assuming office, and ended with the great crash which launched the Depression of the1930s. In between time America lived up to Leonard Cohen’s later judgement as being the cradle of the best and the worst.
It was a time of larger than life characters: Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Clara Bow, Bill Tilden, Al Jolson, Lou Gehrig, Herbert Hoover, Texas Guinan and Aimee Semple McPherson, to name a few, as well as Lindbergh and Ruth.
There were amazing things happening:
~ prohibition was theoretically the law, but alcohol consumption actually increased
~ there were devastating flooding along the Mississippi and its tributaries in 1927, and an area the size of Scotland was under water
~ cars, radio and movies came of age, and television was invented
~ The Ku Klux Klan had a major revival, and bigotry and racism were rampant
~ anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder in 1920 and executed seven years later despite world-wide condemnation
~ it was a time for flappers, jazz men, crime bosses and prophets.
Fabulous material in the hands of a master storyteller
Bryson writes in a style as effervescent as the time itself… New York Times
One Summer: America 1927 is wonderful entertainment and guaranteed to delight the reader. This is Bryson at the top of his game: eloquent, humorous, informative, comprehensive and, above all, highly interesting.
He weaves a rich tapestry on this pivotal decade in American history, recounting fascinating anecdotes on the scores of amazing characters and chronicling the many breakthroughs in technology, entertainment, media, transport and business.
To quote the man himself: Whatever else it was, it was one hell of a summer.
Not to be missed!
Poem of the Week
By Elizabeth Coleman
There’s a whole bunch of things
a whole crop of this and that
to wade through;
picking tracks through emotions
picking the right time
to say the right thing;
taking the right approach
taking precautions like
sunscreen and discretion;
composting the waste
recycling the good stuff
throwing stuff away
not allowing things to parch
and hoping things will sprout again
life will re-emerge;
trying to remember
there’s a whole summer coming up.
This poem is from Waikanae poet Elizabeth Coleman. Elizabeth is widely published . She runs, with Michael Keith, the local ‘Poets to the People’ monthly poetry sessions at High Tide Cafe in Paraparaumu Beach.
Best Work Of Fiction In 2015
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is in no way little
By Ralph McAllister
Why? Let me explain.
Four young graduates and friends arrive in New York to seek fame and fortune.
Willem is an aspiring actor, Malcolm hopes to change the architectural landscape of the city, J B is a black visual artist with strange ambitions and, central to the book, is Jude, a budding lawyer with deeply personal problems.
Throw them together over a period of many years and you might think you have a re-write of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
And, for the first 70 pages of this 700 page epic, you would be almost correct in your assumption.
The harrowing unravelling of Jude’s life
These accounts are probably the reason for the negative reactions of some critics and readers.
Whilst the writing is neither gratuitous nor sensational it is almost unbearably painful in the reading.
Sexual and self abuse are presented in such graphic detail that my tears flowed more often than from my reading any other book in years.
A book that will change your life
So why bother? Perhaps because redemption triumphs.
Willem loves Jude unconditionally. Harold the older friend does the same.
The agony of reading is balanced by the ecstasy of searing episodes of total commitment to friendship. That is why, finally, your reaction is one of joy that you have endured, as have the characters, the quandaries of loving, not a little, but too much.
I could go on about the intelligence and breadth of vision of the young Japanese American author.
I could marvel at the speed of a plot which races through time and situation with breathtaking brilliance.
But what I can say, with utter certainty, is this book is life changing.
“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
Never a more apt quote.
Best Non-Fiction Work Of 2015
A deeply affecting, urgently important book – one not just about dying and the limits of medicine but about living to the last with autonomy, dignity, and joy. Katherine Boo
Understanding what people want
By Ralph McAllister
Gawande is a surgeon, writer, lecturer who practises in Boston.
He has written for The New Yorker for over 15 years and is hugely respected for his wisdom, erudition and compassion.
In Being Mortal he looks at the medical profession’s ways of dealing with the dying.
He questions the false hopes that doctors often encourage, how health and survival are placed, at any cost, before the inevitability of death.
He asks why death delaying techniques, or tactics, are often central to treatment rather than exploring what the patient wants.
What can be done better as death approaches
Hence the jobs lack of appeal to all but the most dedicated.
This is a book which all of us should read, as death is the one thing that all of us have in common.
But it is not a depressing read. This is a work shot through with humanity.
His case studies throw light not only on his and his patients’ courage, but on our own growing awareness that we all have choices we can make on the way to a good end.
Another life changing experience, this time about death!
“Submission”: A Prophetic Novel?
A novel which hunts big game, while others settle for shooting rabbit. Julian Barnes on “Atomised” in the Times Literary Supplement
A controversial writer
By Roger Childs
What is not in doubt is that he is a best-selling author and The Times calls him … currently France’s greatest literary export.
He exploded on to the world of novels with Atomised, a story about two dysfunctional brothers, one of whom has sex on the brain and the other who has great difficulty with the female population.
Houellebecq followed this up with Platform, a novel about sex tourism.
Houellebecq has been criticised for his male characters who seem to regard women primarily as sex objects, and for his explicit language. However, all his books have a strong philosophical element as well as scientific, social and political observations; poetry and strong plot development.
He is a very honest, and sometimes humouress writer, who unashamedly tells it how it is and he challenges the reader with plenty of interesting theories on the ways of the world and the future.
His latest book Submission is no exception.
France as a Muslim state?
He lives alone, but each year takes on one of his students as a lover. He hasn’t seen his parents for years and in the course of the story they both pass on.
His field of expertise is the 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, but although seemingly safe in his job he still wonders about where his life is going.
He hasn’t been a political animal, but with presidential elections looming and the usual French impasse of left and right, he starts to take notice.
This is especially because there is a new player in the political field: The Muslim Brotherhood led by the charismatic Muhammed Ben Abbes.
However, surely the left and the right (headed by The National Front), will do their usual backroom deals and orchestrate strategic voting to prevent the unthinkable: an Islamic president?
The man at his best
There is plenty of depth in the discussions François has with professional colleagues, and the husband of one, who works for French intelligence.
As with all his characters, François is flawed and self doubting, but he is an intelligent thinker and his observations challenge the reader to take a position on topics such as
~ the role of God in the universe
~ the subjugation of women
~ the reshaping of capitalism based on small businesses.
You may not agree with all his views, but Houellebecq is a great story teller and the reader cannot remain indifferent to his perceptions.
As Europe is currently seeing an ‘invasion’ of Muslim refugees, Submission’s basic premise for France could well be prophetic.
Maori On Both Sides In NZ Wars
The Governor’s way of flying is to flap with one wing downwards and the other up. Renata Tamakihikurangi, the spokesman of Ngatikahuhunu, to the Superintendent of Hawke’s Bay, February 1861
Kupapa book raises uncomfortable issues
By Roger Childs
The word kupapa traditionally as a verb has meant to be neutral (in a quarrel), be loyal or collude. As a noun it has meant ally or collaborator. However for some Maori in recent times it has come to mean traitor.
Kupapa was the term used for Maori who supported British, and later New Zealand government forces, in the New Zealand Wars.
As Crosby points out, these supporters of the colonial authorities and the European settlers, actually out-numbered the Maori who fought against them.
Ron Crosby recently spoke about his book at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. What follows is based on his talk.
Treaty of Waitangi: perceived advantages
For those tribal leaders who signed the Treaty there seemed to be a number of benefits:
~ the establishment of peace and good order
~ trade advantages through contacts with the growing settler communities
~ a written guarantee of tino rangatiratanga
~ a reinforcement of the Christian messages of peace and good will.
Consequently many iwi were happy to align themselves with the Crown to maintain their mana and exercise tino rangatiratanga.
However on exercising their rightful sovereignty, there were different approaches to cooperating with the British colonial government: Tamati Waka Nene was in favour, Hone Heke Kariti was against.
Phases of conflict
What became known first as the Maori Wars, later the Land Wars and finally the New Zealand Wars, had four general phases:
The first two phases were fought for or against the Crown under the Governor, and the last two alongside or in opposition to the settler governments.
Phase 1: 1845-47
Amongst early Crown supporters were Wiremu Nera and Hori Kingi Te Anaua. Others who initially backed the colonial regime, but subsequently became opponents, were Te Whero Whero (later the Maori king) and Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake.
Te Kooti was another who changed allegiance after initially fighting with the settler government troops in 1865. Some started as opponents such as Topia Te Peehi Turoa from the Upper Whanganui. However later he joined the hunt for Te Kooti.
There were a number of engagements in this period:
- 1845: Bay of Islands
- 1846: Hutt Valley/Horowhenua
- 1847: Whanganui.
However as time went on it became evident that Crown forces couldn’t cope on their own and needed Maori allies. There were thousands of Maori who were experienced warriors from the Musket Wars and they could show the British forces a thing or two about tactics. The latter often made frontal attacks on enemy positions in lines and naturally suffered heavy casualties.
Maori troops were first used by the Crown at Horokiwi (Battle Hill near Wellington) and were crucial in the success of that engagement.
Phase 2: 1854-64
This period saw iwi disagreement over land purchases notably in Waitara, and Ahuriri resulting in fighting between hapu. It was clear that the Crown, by allowing widespread land sales, was ignoring its duty to support all British subjects including Maori.
Governor Grey referred to the outcome as a war between races. He authorised British forces to garrison towns in support of the settler communities.
In the period 1860-64 however, he was reluctant to use Maori troops on the ground, but employed them to provide
- guiding services
- political support.
They proved very useful in the North Taranaki and Waikato campaigns.
The Kohimarama Conference 1860
This was designed to bring about peace and an understanding of government policy. There were many powerful Maori leaders there from every part of the North Island and some from the South.
A number of major concerns were expressed:
~ the unheralded changes in the Crown’s land purchase policies
~ the invasions of Taranaki and Waikato
~ the start of confiscations.
However nothing was resolved and the wars were destined to continue.
Phase 3: 1864-68
The central North Island was the main theatre for this phase of the conflict. Alignment of Maori with the government intensified for a number of reasons:
- to maintain rangitiratanga over their lands
- to protect their religious beliefs: for example there was a strong Ngati Porou priesthood on the East Coast
- to avoid the risk of land confiscation.
There were fewer British and settler troops now and most fighting was Maori against Maori. This was the case in the key Whanganui battle over Matua Island.
However being kupapa didn’t stop confiscations happening and some had land taken because there were some tribal members in the ranks of the “rebels”. This occurred for some Tainui and Ngati Pouru kupapa.
In the Bay of Plenty in 1864-65 Tahi Te Ururangi supported the Crown and Kereopa opposed.
Kupapa were also crucial in beating back the rapid advance Titokawaru made towards Wanganui in 1868-69. The motivation for these Maori centred on the desire to recover lost land, re-establish their mana and exercise rangitiratanga. A key leader in this campaign was Te Kepa Te Rangihiwinui.
The final campaign: hunting down Te Kooti
The Urewera and the central North Island provided the challenging, tough country for these engagements. There was ruthless brutality on both sides and it was “take no prisoners” in this late 1860s – early1870s campaign.
It soon became obvious to the government that conventional forces were ineffective in the demanding terrain of the Urewera country. Minister of Defence, Donald McLean, ordered that only Maori troops would be used to try and capture the skilful Te Kooti.
The Arawa Flying Column was one of the key kupapa groups and in 1869-70 Te Kooti lost 40 warriors in the battles at Te Porere (SW Taupo) and Maraetahi (Waioeka).
Gradually Te Kooti’s forces were whittled down, but the leader still proved elusive. Near Maungapohatu, which was later to become the centre of Rua Kenana’s Tuhoi community, Te Kooti escaped over the rugged bluffs after a Ngati Pouru assault.
Kupapa not traitors
The recent nomination of “traitor” as a meaning of kupapa is misguided in Ron Crosby’s view.
Thousands of Maori fought on the side of the Crown, far more than fought against it.
They wanted to maintain their mana and rangatiratanga, and ultimately to be able to live on their tribal lands in peace.
Plenty Of Good Books Around
Lee Child: nothing if not consistent!
By Ralph McAllister
Make Me is Lee Child’s 20th novel featuring Jack Reacher….phew!
I haven’t read them all, but Make Me is right up there with the consistently formulaic and predictable of the other novels. Some critics might sneer.
A chance stop at Mother’s Rest in the middle of the prairies means Reacher encounters mystery, violence, bodies and sex, not necessarily in that order.
Great and instantly forgettable stuff.
Continuing in the large footsteps of Stieg Larsson
Curiosity got the better of me, as I determined whether anyone could take over the mantle of Stieg Larsson and deliver a sequel to the hugely successful trilogy, which began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Well Larsson is dead, but his characters Lisbeth Salander and Blomkvist are back in Stockholm , this time challenged by violent cyber crooks. Lagercrantz has responded to the unenviable task and forged a first rate addition to the previous runaway successes, and more sequels are promised .
Apparently Larsson planned seven.
Pat Barker in good form
This time we rejoin Elinor, Paul and Kit doing their bit during the Blitz in London.
Mellifluous prose, great descriptive set pieces show that, while Barker is now in her 70’s, she has lost none of her creative powers.
If you have time read Life Class and Toby’s Room first but Noonday can be enjoyed as a stand-alone account of people ,caught in desperate settings, whilst trying to hold on to fragments of normalcy.
Tom Wolfe on familiar ground
Back To Blood, Tom Wolfe’s latest is set in Miami with all the tensions, the money grabbers, corrupt politicians and police etc etc.. which he depicted in The Bonfire Of The Vanities, written in the 80’s.
The excesses in the plots and characters haven’t diminished, if anything they have increased, but octogenarian Wolfe entertains and infuriates with his usual unapologetic manner.
Probably, at 700 pages, for fans only!
Reissued now it’s a film
It is a coming of age story of a young gay boy growing up in Melbourne and Sydney, falling in love, coming out, facing happiness in less equal measures than prejudice.
The happier parts are easier to take than the painful journey to HIV and death.
The true story is harrowing enough but it is fascinating to think that is has taken forty years to make the film.
Long, uneven story up for the Booker
Finally A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon Jones. This centres round the attempt on Bob Marley’s life in Jamaica in 1976. The novel is neither brief (700 pages) nor gripping, except perhaps from a historical perspective.
Extremely violent, often impenetrable language and unsympathetic characters leave us uncaring and unmoved, despite some brilliant set pieces.
Not for the faint-hearted, but my chief alarm is that it has been shortlisted for the Booker, and it may win.
A Long Life ( see last month’s column) should win but…..
Miracle In The Andes
It was all worth it. I would do it all again for you. Nando Parrado’s book dedication to his wife and two daughters
The first-hand account of an extraordinary ordeal
By Roger Childs
The story is well known and many of you will have read Alive! by Piers Paul Read. It is a riveting account of the survival of 16 Uruguayan rugby players spending 72 days high in the Andes after their plane had crashed on Friday 13 October 1972. One of the two young men, who trekked over the mountains into Chile to start the rescue, decided to tell his story 30 years later.
Nando Parrado never saw himself as a hero and shyed away from giving his account in any detail. Then in 1991 he was persuaded to speak to a group of young businessmen and after a faltering start poured it all out in the next 90 minutes. The response was overwhelming and Nando decided that the time had come to tell of his experiences in print.
The result was Miracle In The Andes which he wrote with American journalist Vince Rause. The phrase a book that changed my life is a tired cliché, but if you haven’t found one, this is it.
A cold world of permanent snow
In the first hours there was nothing, no fear or sadness, no sense of the passage of time, not even the glimmer of a thought or a memory, just a black and perfect silence.
On their way to play rugby in Chile the plane carrying the Old Christians team, and some friends and relations, crashed on a glacier high in the Andes. Many of the passengers were killed including Nando’s mother, but amazingly 32 survived the initial crash. Some died subsequently of their injuries including Nando’s sister.
Expecting to be rescued, the survivors waited patiently in the wreckage of the fuselage, but later on the radio they heard that attempts to find them had been abandoned. For the next two and a half months they struggled to survive on a glacier which was over 3650 metres above sea level; slightly lower than the summit of Mt Cook.
Nando Parrado tells the story of tragedy and survival with compassion and humility. In vivid detail he tells of
~ the turmoil following an avalanche hitting the fuselage
~ the tragedy of a number of crash survivors succumbing to their injuries
~ the harrowing decision to eat human flesh in order to survive
~ the constant self doubt about the future and the seeming inevitability of everyone dying
~ the unsuccessful attempts to find a way out of the valley
~ the successful ten day trek across the mountains into Chile.
Acclaimed by the critics
~ … among the most compelling and inspiring accounts of survival, friendship and love… Toronto Star
~ … an astonishing account of an unimaginable ordeal. Jon Krakauer
~ … Parrado’s extraordinary quality is to remind those of us living within the firm safety net of society that we are all capable of pushing ourselves to the limit. Washington Post
~ It is a beautifully written and moving story. Peter Hillary
~ The grisly tragedy evolves into an affecting tale of almost mystical perseverance and physical stamina. New York Times Book Review
The story itself defies belief, but it is the way Nando Parrado tells it that makes this book a classic. As well as the detail of how they survived, the author provides wonderful character studies of all the people on the plane and how they coped in different ways. He also provides fascinating background on his early life, family, education, the rugby club, his friends and the later lives of all the survivors.
It is a very candid and highly personal story about fear and hope, love and despair, initiative and futility, friendship and argument, life and death. Read’s book Alive! is excellent as Nando confirms, however there is no substitute for a vivid, honest and humble first hand account of this amazing triumph of the human spirit.
It is life changing stuff: Nando’s final sentences are: As we used to say in the mountains “Breathe, Breathe again. With every breathe you are alive”. After all these years, this is still the best advice I can give you: savor your existence. Live every moment, do not waste a breath.
A Fresh Look At King Dick
A big fat book about a big fat man. Historian Tom Brooking
A towering figure
By Roger Childs
Richard John Seddon is our longest serving and greatest prime minister. He won five elections in a row, four with absolute majorities. He was six foot tall and 24 stone and was a political colossus in New Zealand as the 19th century rolled over into the twentieth.
The classic biography of Seddon was written 50 years ago by R M Burdon. Now Professor Tom Brooking from Otago University has taken a new look at this “ordinary bloke” from Lancashire and the West Coast whose governments transformed the nation and laid the basis for the modern welfare state.
Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own by Tom Brooking is published by Penguin NZ and retails at $65.
Tom recently spoke at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage about his approach to the big man. Above all he wanted to look at the many influences, from his Lancashire childhood on, which shaped Seddon, and to explain why he was so popular.
Humble beginnings in St Helens
Seddon was from the lower middle class and while his father was an Anglican his mother was a Methodist. He was born in 1845 about the time Friedrich Engels wrote the classic Socialist work Conditions of the Working Class in England. His parents were both school teachers and his grandfather was a farmer. As a boy he worked on the farm, one of many jobs he did in his time. Seddon’s instincts were basically liberal, which explains why William Gladstone was one of his heroes and Joseph Chamberlain became a close friend.
St Helens was a heavily polluted city and its industry was dominated by the glass, chemical and foundry industries and Seddon worked in the Dalglish Foundry as a young man. The city was different from most Lancashire settlements as it wasn’t a textile or soccer town. In St Helens the men played rugby or rugby league.
After he shifted to the West Coast of New Zealand, two of his siblings followed and the three families had a total of 40 children! He lived on the Coast from 1863 to 1891 and, amongst other things, was a miner and Mayor of Kumara. His daughters were feisty and over issues like women’s suffrage, they gave him hell at home. One daughter, Mary Stuart, later became his secretary.
The term populist is too simplistic to apply to Seddon. Popular liberal would be a better description. His political philosophy came from many sources some literary: Oliver Goldsmith, Robbie Burns, Walter Scott, John Stuart Mill, Gladstone, and Chamberlain.
He was never a socialist, but understood the movement in his own terms. As premier he wanted to see New Zealand move progressively towards greater equality and a fairer society. However, he did support the capitalist system, but wanted it to be civilising and not restrictive.
Progress and improvement for all, drove his political action and he wanted to see a balance between liberty and fairness. He liked the yeoman farmer ideal and was very supportive of McKenzie’s breaking up of the big landed estates and Ward’s cheap loans to small farmers.
Nation building was also a key aim and he rejected the offer to federate with Australian in 1900. As with most of his instincts, his nationalism was in line with public opinion.
Why so popular?
Seddon relished electioneering and loved the open air meetings of the time. In one early election campaign he impersonated the opposition candidate and the crowd loved it! Another popular technique he used on the hustings was to sing after he had spoken!
His unflagging popularity was based around his being a man of his times. He
- was a champion of rough equality and humanitarianism
- was not too radical and demonstrated Christian Socialism
- saw himself as the people’s servant
- reflected people’s egalitarian and domestic hopes
- personified the values of the time
- was a progressive builder.
Fundamentally he was in tune with the electorate as he wanted to see all classes of people progress towards a better life.
Seddon was a careful economic manager but determined to bring about social improvements. During his time as premier the foundations of the welfare state were established and, if he had lived longer, would probably have introduce superannuation.
He achieved an awful lot such as
saving the BNZ
setting up the St Helens Hospitals to provide a better deal for working mums
supporting housing and sanitation reforms so that New Zealand would have the lowest infant mortality in the world
wanting a better life for children
opening up education and promoted technical schooling to prepare young people for useful employment
helping in the Boer War to gain trade benefits from Britain
establishing the Liberal party as a modern political organization.
His desire for a wider New Zealand influence in the Pacific was one of his few failures and not federating with Australia made him unpopular across the Tasman. However, later in 1906 he toured Victoria and New South Wales and was feted like an aging music hall star.
Seddon was a man of his time and oversaw the development of a fairer and more prosperous society. Tom Brooking’s view is that if he came back today he would be horrified at a New Zealand which has less and less equality.
Ralph Wades Into The River
“As soon as possible, I intend to read Into the River. Starting with all the pages that fall open by themselves.” Raybon Kan
An impressive award winning book
By Ralph McAllister
I was going to spend time writing about Oliver Sacks, but I am sure he would understand, that as a writeroholic (I have just made that word up) he would be the first to defend my fury and impatience that, once again, we have given the opportunity for the world to laugh at our idiocy.
Into The River by Ted Dawe, a young adults book, won awards in 2013 including the Margaret Mahy Award for best young adult novel.
I read it then, and was deeply impressed by the author’s skill at entering the mind, the language and the anguish of the young Maori growing up in the foreign city that was Auckland.
The harrowing scenes of violence and the fumbling attempts at physical contacts were authentic and, in no way gratuitous.
The language was, while shocking at times, no more than was needed to depict the truth of the characters. It was a novel which demanded and got widespread attention and admiration.
Family First complains
“O horror horror, tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee”.
Well perhaps they didn’t use that quote as they probably haven’t read their Shakespeare either, but Macduff was talking about murder. Family First seem to be talking about words and situations that are neither horrific nor uncommon to most young adults.
Patricia Bartlett and “Ulysses”
I am reminded of Patricia Bartlett.
She was quite frank in admitting that she did not read all the books that people referred to her.
She relied on the bits that her supporters sent her, to make her erudite judgements. She saw nothing wrong with that.
The other marvellous example of our wonderful stupidity was in the 1960’s when Joseph Strick’s somewhat boring film interpretation of James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be shown to gender separated audiences in New Zealand.
~ Women at 2pm showing.
~ Men at 4pm showing.
I kid you not.
Luckily Victoria University hit on the perfect response to the ludicrous ruling by the censor of the time. They placed a rope down the middle of the cinema auditorium and women and men sat on either side.
Segregation at its funniest.
Big fines if you get Into The River!
Meanwhile back to Into The River, now removed from all book shelves, $10,000 fines threatened in the next month if you breach the temporary ban.
The news has upstaged the All Blacks in The Guardian and Australian newspapers.
Here we go again!
Of course the Film and Literature Review Board will throw out the complaints and Ted Dawe will probably have the last laugh.
But it should not need to come to this. Time and energy wasted on bigotry which we might be excused to think we had got rid of 20 years ago. Dream on.
And sorry Oliver Sacks, but I am sure you understand.
(The temporary ban was imposed by Waikanae resident, Don Mathieson QC, who is president of the Film and Literature Board of Review. It was lifted in early October as Ralph anticipated.(Ed) )
Poets Busy In Kapiti: May News
Remember – ‘If you can’t be a poet, be the poem!’
Live Long, Die Short
Rather than continuously decline, we grow and stay at high levels of function … the best that we can be … until our time comes. Dr Roger Landry
Having a positive outlook about the future
A couple of months ago I read a book review of Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging by Roger Landry, MD, MPH. (Blush, I cannot remember where I read the review.) Perusing my public library catalogue, voila, there was the book and I put a hold on it.
Once in my possession I began a very interesting journey through the contents that has left me feeling positive about life in general and looking forward to the next chapters of my being.
I was able to get through the work quite quickly when visiting my mother, now in “end of life care” at Sevenoaks, Matai Wing. She slept through most of my visit and her road to the end has turned into a long, slow decline. I wondered, as I read, what the case would be if she had read this book a few decades back.
Using recent science to help the ageing population
Mind you, Live Long, Die Short is based on the science that has occurred in the last 20 years. Its contents didn’t quite exist as they do now, although there were/are people then, as now, following its precepts. The book also discusses lifestyle of distant ancestors that support the modern day science, rather like the new trend in Palaeolithic diets.
Author Landry is a doctor specialising in preventive medicine. He is president of an organisation in the U.S. called Masterpiece Living. Although there is an American tone throughout the book that perhaps sounds of money-making, the contents are written in an effective, motivational style with strong advice to how we should manage ourselves.
As the world’s population ages, how it ages becomes significant. If the elderly are in decline, in need of constant care and thereby a large cost to the rest of society, it would not be considered a good thing. Alternatively, people can have the ability to lead active lives right up to the final upheaval and death, which, of course, happens to everyone.
Very good advice for anyone
Live Long, Die Short provides 10 tips on lifestyle, backed by medical research, which can lead to a positive ‘Third Age.’ Interestingly, many people I know in Kapiti, now in their ‘Third Age,’ naturally follow the 10 tips, or at least several of them. The book also provides methodologies for incorporating the tips into your life.
Although probably of interest to people approaching retirement and or adjusting into retirement, the book would not be a bad read earlier in life. It should also be of interest for people working in the retirement community business.
Live Long, Die Short was published this year by Greenproof Book Group Press.
There is a web site: www.livelongdieshort.com.
Meeting The War Poets
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in / And watch the white eyes writhing in his face / … / If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud … Wilfred Owen “ Dulce et Decorum Est”
Verse to remember
By Roger Childs
100 years on from the start of the Great War, it’s appropriate to remember a group who made a unique contribution to English literature: the war poets. Widely respected author, Victoria University Professor, Harry Ricketts, had written an acclaimed biography of the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling. However, he was keen to do justice to the men and women who used verse to highlight the wanton loss of life and wasteful destruction of World War One.
Discreet chapters on the individuals did not appeal as a structure, however on discovering in his research that many of the poets had met or might have met, Ricketts had an imaginative framework for Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War.
War stories in verse
Poetry about war predates World War One, but was often written in the safe confines of the homeland. Sometimes it was heroic, like Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.
In more recent times the American (Vietnam) War inspired poignant and satirical verse designed to expose the hypocrisy and stupidity of war.
Consider “A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar” by James K Baxter: ‘Tell them straight’ said Uncle Sam / That it’s a dirty war; / Mention the Freedom of the West / That we are fighting for; / But keep the money side of it / Well tacked behind the door./ ‘I’ll make it sound.’ said Holyoake, / ‘Just like a football score.’
Consider “To Whom It May Concern” by Adrian Mitchell: I was run over by the truth one day / Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way / So stick my legs in plaster / Tell me lies about Vietnam.
The legacy lives on and there are some unexpected connections. Ricketts mentions in his Prologue how some American soldiers in the 21st century, bound for Afghanistan, studied the war poets.
One young sergeant from Portland, Oregon picked out Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (It is Sweet and Right), “Just by what he said you can actually feel it, or you can get a mental picture of the death or the awful sights”.
Encounters of the war kind
Harry Ricketts’s highly original approach brings the war poets alive in fifteen chapters of actual and, in some cases, imagined connections. Strange Meetings is not designed to be a comprehensive or systematic coverage, however it is sensibly chronological.
It starts with Siegfried Sassoon (pictured alongside), meeting Rupert Brooke who was the first poet to die in the war. This first chapter over a kidneys and bacon breakfast in 1914, sets the tone for those that follow, right through to the ‘final meeting’ of the elderly Sassoon lunching with David Jones fifty years later.
Along the way, Harry Ricketts superbly recreates the settings of the interactions and fleshes out the lives of the poets, through perceptive observations on their
~ upbringing and social status
~ influences, hopes and inspirations
~ relationships and sexual proclivities
~ changing attitudes
~ written communication, opinions and literary criticism
~ desire to master the art of poetry and make it meaningful and relevant.
As expected, the commentary is interspersed with copious examples of their poetry, however, the verse illustrates rather than dominates.
The full range of emotions
The fifteen “meetings” cover a range of settings, situations and emotions. For example
- the poignancy of the correspondence between Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain
- the unexpected war hospital meeting in Scotland between two of the most famous poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen
- the literary “meeting” of working class Jew, Issac Rosenberg, and middle class public school educated, Robert Nicholls, in the pages of Georgian Poetry 1916-1917
- poetry readings in Mrs Colefax’s drawing room in late 1917, with nine poets taking part
- the reflective lunch in London, 46 years after the end of the war, between Sassoon and Davis Jones who had served in the same Mametz Wood sector on the Western Front.
Not unexpectedly, the long-surviving Siegfried Sassoon features in nine of the sessions and obviously there were limits on how many poets the author could cover. However, it is surprising that no space was available for G A Studdert Kennedy. The padre poet (known affectionately as Woodbine Willie) wrote some the most evocative and stinging verse to come out of the Western Front.
Constantly engaging, amiable account of one of the golden periods of English poetry. “Literary Review”
The critics have given Strange Meetings the credit it deserves. The 278 page volume is very thoroughly researched and imaginatively constructed. It is also highly readable, informative and entertaining.
A short Prologue sets the tone for the fifteen chapters on ‘meetings’ and an Epilogue detailing the 2002-2003 Imperial War Museum exhibition Anthem For Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets Of The First World War brings the study to an appropriate close.
There is also an excellent index and the Notes on Sources section at the end, gives the reader extensive detail of the primary material the author has tapped into and explanations of some of the possibly contentious conclusions he came to.
Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War by Harry Ricketts, is published by Pimlico and is available at all good book shops for $33.99.
One thing I’m not going to do, is read “Dirty Politics”: it’s just muck raking. Peter Dunne at an election candidates meeting in Khandallah
By Roger Childs
It was inevitable that Dirty Politics would rear its head again, once parliament resumed after the election.
Those who bothered to read it right through, knew that the National Party and John Key in particular, were seriously compromised by the contents. Furthermore, the debate over whether writers should disclose their sources and the unwise raiding of Nicky Hager’s house, have kept the mud boiling.
However, as often happens with breaking news, the cartoonists were far more astute than the political commentators. Dirty Politics caused John Key and the party bosses some anxious moments, but did not derail National’s campaign. Judith Collins, the cabinet minister with the closet links to the scurrilous right wing bloggers, was offered up as sacrificial mutton and Jason Ede, the main conduit from the PM’s office, quietly slipped away. National duly romped back into power.
Seeking out the truth
Nicky Hager investigates behind the masks of press releases, official communiqués, confidentiality claims and national security. Plenty of people are prepared to provide him with information, but obviously do not always want their identities revealed.
Hager has built up a world-wide reputation for honesty and integrity, but his approach is controversial in New Zealand and invokes the ire of people with power and influence.
The Hager books have revealed a lot of things that most New Zealanders would not otherwise have know, including
- spying for, and sharing intelligence with other nations
- the surreptitious collusion of our armed services with the Americans over many years
- involvement with the British in post-war Iraq when ostensibly we were working for the UN
- political spins on issues from genetic engineering to the hounding of Ahmed Zaoui
- working with the CIA in Afghanistan and supplying crucial intelligence to the American armed forces
- the nefarious activities of the National Party in the 2005 election campaign involving hiring right-wing overseas PR firms, dubious publicity and questionable fund raising.
In many ways Dirty Politics is a sequel to The Hollow Men. However, it not only catalogues the political shenanigans involving the close links between National Party and right wing bloggers in discrediting opponents, but also looks at the bloggers’ agenda in the Len Brown sex scandal; their campaigns against unions and individuals they didn’t like; opposition to the anti-obesity cause; support for the tobacco and chocolate industries, to name but a few.
To read or not to read
This is a cynically timed attack book from a well-known left-wing conspiracy theorist. It makes all sorts of unfounded allegations and voters will see it for what it is. John Key
The National Party didn’t want their supporters to read Dirty Politics, fearing large scale resignations. Fortunately for the government, right-wing voters were generally happy to accept the prime minister’s assurances.
The cartoonists had a field day with the allegations and revelations, and showed far more perception that many of the political commentators. A lot of the latter showed their ignorance in media columns which revealed their shallow understanding of Dirty Politics. Some even attacked the author, a sure sign that they hadn’t done their reading.
Out of many outstanding cartoons, one of the best was set in a muddy swamp and showed Slater sinking beneath the slime while Judith Collins was also slipping away. Standing on Collins with the bottom of his trousers covered in mud was John Key exclaiming At least my hands are clean!
People of all political stripes, should read Dirty Politics, because it reveals a corrupt and destructive style of politics which should be utterly rejected. The subtitle sums it up: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment.
As with all his books, Hager’s exposé of the negative campaigning in 2014 is meticulously researched, carefully footnoted and fluently written without recourse to polemic or hearsay.
More developments to come
It’s not going away, and John Key has many serious questions to answer. His ludicrous recent statement in parliament about not communicating with Cameron Slater in his capacity as prime minister, shows his vulnerability.
There are still plenty more throws of the dice in the dirty politics game, with the opposition having plenty of ammunition and Nicky Hager soon to have his day in court over the police search warrant and the seizure of property.
Two excellent novels and a publishers sop
I didn’t expect anything beyond it being published: that had always been the dream, then for it to become a bestseller… I hadn’t even thought about it. Debut novelist, Jessie Burton
A great first novel set in historic Amsterdam
By Ralph McAllister
Nella arrives from the countryside to the corrupt and Calvinistic 17th century Amsterdam.
She has been betrothed to a merchant, 20 years older than her, she has to fit into a bizarre house on the Herengracht run by her husband’s sinister sister Marin.
The strong plot line follows Nella as she tries to understand why her marriage is not consummated, instead the only act of kindness from her already estranged husband is a replica in miniature of the Herengracht house, in effect a doll’s house.
Nella gets more and more out of her depth as mysterious gifts arrive for the interior of the doll’s house, some of which seem to predict what is going to happen in reality. A horrific series of events leads to a trial of terrifying bigotry.
This is, at once, a mystery, a fantasy, a coming of age novel and an exploration of intolerance, all combined with an authorial control which augurs well for Burton’s future.
Of course I was immediately on side as the book is set in streets and areas of Amsterdam which I know like the back of my hand.
I often think that if McEwan were to rewrite the telephone directory he would still make it interesting.
This time, after tilts at the medical world in SATURDAY and science in SOLAR to name but two of his previous topics, he takes the case of justice and puts it under his penetrating focus.
Fiona is a High Court Judge in London whose husband wants to have an affair with his young secretary, with Fiona’s knowledge. After decades of marriage Fiona is unsure how to respond.
She is also forming judgements on complex cases in Court where she hopes to offer “reasonableness to hopeless situations.” The latest concerns a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness who does not want to have a blood transfusion which will save his live. His parents agree with him but the doctors believe that they know better and should operate.
The devil is in the detail as with so much of McEwan’s fine works. The contrast between the boy’s idealistic youthful aspirations and Fiona’s groping to cope with matrimonial aging betrayal is placed before us with the writer’s usual incisive and wonderful prose.
Again, highly recommended.
Top author but a publisher deception
On a lighter note, though the title suggests otherwise, THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER by Hilary Mantel brings together 10 short stories from the twice winning Man Booker author.
Scandal erupted last month in London when the Daily Telegraph refused to publish the title story for fear that readers would be offended by the content. The Guardian picked it up immediately and published.
The story is OK as an aging writer lets a ‘plumber’ into her house shortly before Thatcher is due outside in the park, the view from the apartment being perfect for murderous intent.
I must declare that I was disappointed in the publication. All the other stories had been published previously, one dating back to the 1990’s, and hardly representative of someone “at the peak of her powers“.
The thought did occur that this was a publisher’s sop to her thousands of readers who, like me, wait with impatience, the third part of her WOLF HALL, BRING UP THE BODIES trilogy.
You might want to save your money for that one.
Some novels worth reading
Dieffenbach brought to life
By Ralph McAllister
This novel centres on an outsider, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, who after prison terms in 1830′s Prussia accused, and probably guilty of youthful idealistic actions against the state, finds himself exiled to London which offers cold comfort to him and his aspirations.
He manages to gain a passage on one of the first of Wakefield’s ships to New Zealand and from then his troubles mount and mount as he tries to establish himself as a naturalist, explorer and a linguist.
He meets Darwin, Heaphy and Te Rauparaha over the years, as he returns to New Zealand again and again. His main obstacle would seem to lie in the fact that he saw little to accept current thinking that the Maori were inferior, not even the noble savages with which some regarded them.
The novel is a treasure of painstaking research with fascinating meetings and encounters in and around Otaki and Kapiti Island, which come to life in Thom’s hands.
What is not quite so successful is the covering of his private life. Too often we gain only glimpses of the real man and the others in his life. The love interests seem contrived and lack the veracity of the landscapes which Thom portrays with loving detail.
A novel on the dark side of Catholic Ireland
On a completely different and less cheery note is A HISTORY OF LONELINESS by John Boyne. Some will know his young adult novel, THE BOY IN STRIPED PAJAMAS, his brilliant account of life living next door to a concentration camp.
His latest is the story of a priest in Ireland who, over the course of many years, fails to see what is happening around him. The insights into the blindness of faith are painstakingly examined as abuses are covered up by the Catholic Church within Ireland and beyond.
At times you want to scream out “Can’t you see Father” but Boyne holds a tight rein on his and our reactions.
It is a skilful and revelatory treatment of a subject which must be one of the most shameful of our times. That it is a novel only demonstrates the continuing power of this particular art form.
Alzheimer’s with a twist
Ending on a similarly depressing topic, Emma Healey in her first novel ELIZABETH IS MISSING looks at Maud and her battle with Alzheimer’s as she tries to discover what has happened to her friend Elizabeth.
The story evolves into a murder mystery with some neat twists, but it is Healey’s skill at helping us understand a little more of this blight on humanity that kept me reading.
Next something a bit more cheerful, with the latest from Hilary Mantel.
But that is for another day
A clutch of historical novels
One of the best from a top American author
By Ralph McAllister
I finished re-reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America just as I left Brisbane for Waiheke. As many readers will know, this fine alternative history novel starts with Franklin Roosevelt losing the 1940 American election to Charles Lindbergh.
As America lurches to the extreme right and anti-Semite practices multiply, the young Philip Roth and his family try to maintain dignity and justice in a terrifying and utterly plausible nightmare.
It was a pleasure to meet again one of my all time favourite authors. I must go back for more delights.
Sansom with a 20th century setting
Quite coincidentally C.J. Sansom’s Dominion was the first of three novels set in and around these sad times which I read in peaceful and beautiful Waiheke. A world apart indeed.
Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister of Britain, Mosley his Home Secretary, Churchill is in hiding leading the protest movement and Hitler is dying.The year is 1952 and David Fitzgerald a civil servant, with a secret, is caught up with his wife in a spy story a la Bond which ambles along with a plot that is too long, with lots of politics and less action.
Sansom is a fine writer and his book will please his many Tudor sleuth Matthew Shardlake fans.
France between the wars
I much preferred Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris 1932.
Prose may have been inspired by Brassai’s photograph Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle.
The two women characters share cross dressing pursuits with racing cars and spying for the Germans as Hitler beguiles and entrances them.
This is a strange and different story told with all Prose’s normal creative style.
Binet on the death of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich
HHhH is the unusual title of a first novel by Laurent Binet. It deals with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. What sets this novel apart from others is the author’s constant agonising over what should or should not be part of the story. How much should a novelist make up, how much should authenticity reign supreme.
The debate is tortuous and at times infuriating, as Binet creates in one sentence and takes away with the next. Talk about having your cake and eating it.
Heydrich appears in all these novels, so that by the time it was to say goodbye to the Germans and Waiheke, I felt somewhat of an authority about both topics.
Now for something completely different : Mahler’s Ninth
And joy of joy I managed to catch a searing performance of Mahler’s Ninth by our NZSO in Auckland as a kind of follow up to the First Symphony, heard in Melbourne last month with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and not the Victorian Symphony as I erroneously wrote.
What has Mahler got to do with the price of fish?
Something to do with if I had not been looking after cats in Waiheke a place I have grown to love, there would have been no Mahler and yes, I know Mahler was Austro-German, but the connection is enough for me as I continue to admire that great symphonic composer.
J K Rowling “Master” Story teller
Pagford …. shone with a kind of moral radiance in Howard’s mind, as though the collective soul of the community was made manifest in its cobbled streets its hills, its picturesque houses. Howard Mollison, Chair of the Parish Council
“A Casual Vacancy”
By Roger Childs
Heading out with wife Mary to celebrate their nineteenth wedding anniversary, popular Pagford Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, drops dead in the golf club car park. This second page tragedy creates, according to England’s Local Council Administration regulations: “ a casual vacancy”. An election is required to fill the gap and as a consequence all hell breaks loose in what, on the outside, seems like an idyllic village. In her first novel aimed specifically at adults, J K Rowling weaves a wonderful story which anyone living in or brought up in a small town, will readily identify with.
One of the world’s greatest contemporary writers
J K Rowling is one of the biggest selling authors ever. Her books have sold over 450 million copies. She is unique in the history of publishing for making front page headlines world-wide because the latest Harry Potter tome was about to go on sale in tens of thousands of shops.
The fantasy fiction Harry Potter series has been a sensation and once released the books have been eagerly and quickly devoured by young and old. Harry Potter has featured in
~ seven books
~ 73 languages, including Latin
~ eight highly successful movies.
The Casual Vacancy was J K Rowling’s first venture beyond the fantasy world and this novel about a few weeks in the life of a small town is superb. Not all best-selling authors write well, but J K Rowling is a wonderful stylist and shows a polished mastery of plot development, characterisation and vivid description. (More on this shortly.)
From the Pagford election, J K Rowling has now moved into the crowded world of detective fiction. She wanted to write under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, but not surprisingly the word got out. Her second book, The Silkworm, has just been published to rave reviews.
Back to Pagford
The village, somewhere in southern England, sits on the border of the city of Yarvil. Pagford people regard themselves as a cut above Yarvillians and are devastated when boundary changes result in a poorer area being attached to the parish. The Fields, is inhabited by plenty of welfare beneficiaries, drug addicts and down and outs, and one of the book’s main characters, teenager Krystal Weedon, struggles to survive in this unforgiving setting.
The election to replace Barry Fairbrother, centres on whether the council will be able to cut The Fields loose, along with the unpopular Bellchapel Addiction Centre.
The unfolding story is riveting as candidates line up, alliances are made, accusations fly and battles are fought. One of the amazing aspects of Rowling’s novel is the existence of over 20 main personae whose characters are all thoroughly and realistically developed.
To increase the reader’s understanding, she uses a simple, but very effective technique for providing flashbacks and background: text in brackets.
As you would expect, she is very much at home with the many teenagers in the story and some of their conversations and school antics are hilarious. However her adult characters are also finely drawn and she is ruthless in exposing their foibles, ambitions, prejudices and weaknesses.
Battles on many fronts
As the forthcoming election looms there is conflict on a number of levels, between
- teachers and students
- the teenagers
- rival candidates
- parents and children
- husbands and wives.
Throw in elements such as racism, domestic violence, bullying, sexual shenanigans, drug addiction, corruption and computer hacking, and you have a classic social commentary on community relationships, issues and conflicts.
The story ultimately builds to a stunning and unexpected climax which leaves none of the main characters unaffected.
As the publicity blurb observes this is a big novel about a small town.
J K Rowling is in great form with The Casual Vacancy and it is surprising it wasn’t short listed for literary prizes. Needless to say it is available at all good book stores and your local library.
From all accounts the detective stories are crackers too. Rowling’s storytelling gift and magpie eye for genre detail make the new Cormoran Strike novel an irresistible read, says Reviewer Val McDermid on The Silkworm.
By Leslie Clague
I have just had a month of fairly full-on grand parenting and one of the joys of this activity is, of course, reading to one’s grandchildren and getting back in touch with children’s literature.
The children involved in my recent experience are one and six, so I got in touch with a range of reading levels while visiting them in the South Island.
For our one year old grandson the standouts were Grizzly and the Bumble -bee by Joy Cowley and Roadworks by Sally Sutton; illustrated by Brian Lovelock. The latter was the winner of the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2008. I was reading out loud the 2011 edition.
Roadworks is full of good action verbs and noise words like “Screech! Boom! Whoosh!”
I particularly liked the author’s dedication as well: “For Alice – why should the boys have all the fun?”
Another nice one, a Sesame Beginnings Book, Level 3, was It’s Naptime, Little One by Naomi Kleinberg. It rather made me want to dose off as well, but in the nicest possible way.
Keeping a six year old entertained
My six year-old granddaughter is currently being read the classic Enid Blyton’s Five Run Away Together, which she thoroughly enjoys (as did her mother, which is why she is reading the series). She does her assigned reading from school and then a few pages of “famous five” before lights out.
She also wanted to be read from Barbie Sight Words, a series of 10 story books and two work books. She is attracted by the fact that it’s Barbie and the books are pink and glamorous, but just between you and me, the stories themselves are terrible. Still, if it motivates the young to read….
With school holidays in May, granddaughter came to stay the two weeks with us in Turangi. She brought a collection of Scooby-do books with which she entertained me each night. They were good fun. As she is into Blyton, I thought we should try sharing some classics that I still have from my own childhood and that I also read to my daughter.
The all-time favourite — A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh, which includes The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, illustrated by E. H. Shepard – went down very well. We read the first six chapters of Winnie-the-Pooh.
I sensed a need for something else, however, and we went to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Personally, it didn’t grab me too much, but granddaughter was hooked. We got through four chapters, but then, alas, the holidays were over.
A book illustrator’s perspective
Another literary treat during the holidays was a presentation by children’s book illustrator Donovan Bixley at the Turangi Public Library. Bixley’s latest claim to fame is that he had two of his books gifted to Prince George on his recent visit to New Zealand. These were The Three Bears Sort of and The Wheels of the Bus.
Bixley gave a good talk, encouraging children to see the pictures in their head when they are being read to, noting that when you are read a whole story, your ‘brain’ draws the pictures. He encouraged kids to do scribbles first and then develop them into pictures.
He demonstrated on large drawing paper the importance of eyebrows in creating the emotions of characters.
His latest illustrated book is Monkey Boy, to be available in June. It took him six years to complete the drawings for this work.
Writing and drawing
Listening to his talk reminded me of a quote from The People’s Act of Love by James Meek (not a children’s book!) “…it was like the difference between writing and drawing. We live our lives like writing. The pen moves over the paper in regular lines. The past is written and can be read, the future is blank, and the pen must stay in the word that is being written now. The Mohican (a character in the book) lives like drawing. He draws one stroke after the other, but the strokes can be anywhere on the paper. When you watch, the strokes look disjointed and meaningless, but in his mind he sees the whole picture complete.”
So by writing we create more or less like we live, while visual art comes from whole pictures in the head. It doesn’t really matter – as long as the joy of reading to children remains.
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By Ralph McAllister
A friend suggested, after my last article devoted to books to avoid, that she did not want to know about those failures. Point taken, but I shall still reserve the right to warn you of real stinkers.
A popular novel by a popular novelist Robert Harris is AN OFFICER AND A SPY.
This is the story of the Dreyfus affair which captured the French and the rest of the world, as corrupt generals framed Dreyfus for passing secrets on to the dreaded late 19th century Germans
Told through the eyes of one of the officers, this is fiction steeped in meticulous research and it is easy to see why so many, including Emile Zola, campaigned for the man’s release .
Nearer to home I cannot speak too highly of Rebecca Macfie’s THE TRAGEDY AT PIKE RIVER MINE.
This is the chilling and excellent account of the corruption, ignorance and money grabbing which led to the deaths of 29 men in the west coast of the South Island.
Countless warnings about safety were ignored by successive managers, inexperienced staff were appointed, all seemed to be geared towards the satisfying of corporate dividends.
It is very easy to understand the deep anger that continues over the lack of responsibility and integrity.
I defy you to read this fine piece of research and not get angry.
Macfie talks at the Festival Writers Week at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington in the first week in March.
SAVING MOZART by Raphael Jerusalmy is a little gem.
Salzburg 1938,an elderly music critic is dying in a sanatorium and his diary charts his decline, with humour, irascibility and pathos.
I thought I was in for another Holocaust ordeal, but not a bit of it.
How he “triumphs” over the Gestapo is joyful and makes this a novella of unusual power.
Kate Atkinson is a fine writer but initially I resisted LIFE AFTER LIFE as the blurb suggested a fantasy about going back and changing the outcome of your life.
Well it is about that,but oh so much more.
Ursula lives and dies in war torn London.Her family is peppered with egocentric flamboyant and humourous characters.
The novel is so beautifully written that I am determined to go back and read it again soon.
It is that good.
Spies, Lies and Security LeaksBy Roger Childs
It was somebody else’s war. Turkey was not our enemy… Dame Silvia Cartwright at Gallipoli 2003
The first casualty when war comes is truth. Senator Hiram Johnson. 1917
Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden have performed great services for the world. By releasing “confidential” documents, emails and secret reports they have exposed what politicians, diplomats and military forces have been doing furtively around the globe for many years.
Nicky Hager is New Zealand’s conscience on such matters. Like the revelations in Wikileaks and from Snowden, his insights have attracted plenty of controversy, criticism and sometimes invective.
No stranger to controversy
Hager is a research journalist who is not satisfied with what is revealed in political press statements, defence department briefings and superficial articles in the papers. He seeks out the truth by investigating behind the facades of confidentiality and national security.
He can be compared to Robert Fisk and John Pilger who, with a similar modus operandi, uncover the truth from the people directly involved and base their writings largely on primary rather than secondary sources.
Because of his approach, Hager inevitably attracts controversy and invokes the ire of the people with power and influence.
- Secret Power examined the workings of the GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) and in particular its close cooperation in spying and intelligence with the US, UK, Canada and Australia. The use of the bases at Waihopai and Tangimoana to provide these ‘allies’ with information, was a key revelation.
- Hollow Men focused on National’s 2005 election campaign and uncovered sources of information and donations that the party didn’t want made public.
The search for truth about New Zealand and anti-terrorism
Nicky Hager’s Other People’s Wars has the subtitle New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror. It is a very readable, credible and thoroughly researched work. The book provides an enormous amount of detail about what New Zealand forces and intelligence personnel were doing in the post Twin Towers era which the government and defence leaders didn’t want the public to know.
Prime Minister John Key admitted he hadn’t read the book but described it a work of fiction.
In fact Other People’s Wars is probably the closest we’ll ever get to the truth, as it based on highly reliable sources.
Uncovering what had been covered up
Other People’s Wars is Nicky Hager’s most ambitious project yet and covers the period 2001 – 2011 when New Zealand
- supported George W Bush’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan
- became involved in fighting, supply services and intelligence alongside Coalition forces in that country, which were not officially sanctioned
- supported the post-Iraq War efforts at reconstruction, ostensibly with the United Nations, but actually in close cooperation with the Coalition military forces, especially the British
- expanded its intelligence agencies as they became obsessed with perceived Islamic terrorism threats
- maintained very close relations with the Americans in military and intelligence matters, despite the public perception that being out of ANZUS meant we did not have close ties with the USA.
This is a book that politicians, policy makers in defence and foreign affairs, and top personnel in the armed forces dislike intensely. Other People’s Wars turns over the stones to reveal what’s really been going on. For this reason it should be essential reading for those people.
The public at large should also delve into the volume. There have been some newspaper articles on Nicky Hager’s early and later research into what Kiwi forces and intelligence personnel were really doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this book is the place to go for the detail.
Nicky Hager’s research has been very thorough, and statements and quotations are carefully footnoted in 73 small print pages at the back of the book. His range of sources is extensive and some are surprising
- defence officials and service people, some of whom for obvious reasons wished to remain anonymous
- official documents and papers
- department reports
- quotations from people in authority
- Facebook, where some people serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere reveal an amazing amount of detail their superiors would not want known.
The only disappointment is the lack of photos (there are only two) and maps. Maps would help the reader identify locations in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular.
Raising plenty of questions
The detail and documentation about our foreign policy and defence involvement in the early 21st century, and the author’s perceptions, raise many questions.
- Why was the public not told about what our troops were doing in Afghanistan in the early 2000s?
- How have the armed forces been able to get away with deciding on the nature of their overseas involvement, especially with the Americans in Afghanistan and the British in Iraq, without the public, and in some instances, even the politicians knowing about it?
- Why are there so many highly paid senior officers in our tiny air force? In 2010 there were 207 squadron leaders, 66 wing commanders and 19 group captains.
- Do we really need to get involved in overseas commitments such as other people’s wars, just because the Americans and British are there?
· Does New Zealand actually have an independent foreign policy? This is a crucial issue, as we are currently lobbying to gain a position on the Security Council.
- Why has our SIS been obsessed with anti-terrorism, especially as it relates to Islamic people?
- Why has the mainstream media been hoodwinked by the politicians and defence officials on what really happened in Afghanistan and Iraq?
- How did the SIS and the politicians make such a mess of the Zaoui case?
- How much information and intelligence about New Zealanders is collected for the Americans and other western nations?
- When have people in high places such as Helen Clark, Phil Goff, Jerry Mataparae and John Key deceived the public about what New Zealand has been doing in the world?
A very important book
The strength of this work lies in its account of the systematic way in which censorship, prejudice and special interest have distorted our view of wars… This was James Fenton’s conclusion in reviewing The First Casualty by Phillip Knightley over thirty years ago.
Fenton’s quote applies equally to Other People’s Wars. This important book accurately documents a crucial part of the nation’s recent history and should be widely read.
Long may Nicky Hager continue to ferret out the truth about what is really going on in the murky worlds of diplomacy, combat and intelligence. The public has a right to know.
By Ralph McAllister
DOORSTOP OR PRIZE WINNER?
It will not have escaped some readers that the only New Zealand winner of the Booker, Keri Hulme in 1984, confessed that, at one stage, she was using her manuscript of The Bone People, set on the West Coast of New Zealand in the 19th century, as a doorstop.
Now we have another New Zealander, Eleanor Catton, nominated for the Man Booker with what some might call another doorstop,THE LUMINARIES,and where is it set?
Yes, you guessed it,West Coast Hokitika in 1866.
Some uninformed literary journalist predicted last year that Emily Perkins would win, then, with THE FORRESTS. He made that prediction before having any idea what competition she faced.
THE FORRESTS finished nowhere. And deserved to.
Perhaps many people were put off by the hype created by many New Zealand commentators writing on the back of that ludicrous forecast.
Let us hope that THE LUMINARIES achieves success, somewhat similar to Hume’s BONE PEOPLE, rather than THE FORRESTS.
And should it?
Well I shall not fall into the traps, laid by others, but, having read four of the other longlisted candidates’ novels,I see no reason why this complex ,convoluted and fascinating story THE LUMINARIES should not be welcomed as a significant addition to world literature.
Two days of my life were devoted to the 828 pages of this stunning book and I resented not one minute of that time spent.
Walter Moody arrives fortune seeking in 1866 Hokitika and stumbles into a hotel meeting where 12 men seem to be discussing, amongst other things,a missing man,stolen goods,a murder and an abused woman.
We follow each of these characters together with their astrological charts and horoscopes through tangled webs of deception and differing perceptions and viewpoints.
No sooner do we feel we are nearing the truth about one subject than another interpretation is placed before us for our confusion and puzzlement.
Each character has something to add to the gigantic pieces of the narrative mosaic
Catton is constantly there, omnisciently, to help us,to make sure that we know who is being referred to and where and when we go next.
This is the most skilful of tasks for any author but Catton makes light of the challenge with breathtaking ease.
Every time I began to feel slightly lost,there was the author propping me up.
This is Catton’s second novel after THE REHEARSAL, and she is 27 years old.The mind boggles at what she might achieve in the future to equal or surpass what she has done here.
For tension,mystery and examination of the enigmas that people face, it is a book like no other I have read.
Her research is meticulous,apparently she read nothing written after 1866 for a whole year so as to steep herself in what her characters might have read.
Do not be put off either by the novel’s length nor the structure of the various chapters.The pace of the first half is leisurely yet gripping whilst the final half is nightmarish ,feverish and full of ever developing revelations.
Do the people in the book strike gold in Hokitika?
One way or another some of them do, but I am not telling.
But as readers we certainly have struck gold with this author and her major achievement.
As for winning the Man Booker?
I couldn’t possibly comment.
As a postscript and another comparison ,I see that THE LUMINARIES has been published here by Victoria University Press several weeks before its publication in England.
In 1983 in the common room at Wellington College of Education, many students sat on the floor helping sort out the binding by hand of Keri’s book; at the time publishers wouldn’t touch this doorstop.
Some things have changed
Look what happened then and now
A Cook book with a difference: ‘The Secret Life of James Cook’ by Graeme LayReviewed by Roger Childs August, 2013
‘Captain James Cook would have been an astronaut had he been born two centuries later’– Graeme Lay
A top writer
Graeme Lay is one the country’s best contemporary writers. He was brought up in Opunake, which has been home to such luminaries as Peter Snell, Jim Bolger, Don Clarke, Graham Mourie, Jim Hickey, Malvina Major and Roderick Deane.
After leaving Opunake High School, he attended Victoria University and it was this latter experience which provided the setting for one of his early novels, Fools on the Hill.
Graeme has been a prolific writer and his output includes novels
such as Alice & Luigi which is partly set on the Kapiti Coast in the late 19th century
short stories including Dear Mr Cairney, a collection of poignant and sometimes hilarious tales, loosely based on characters and incidents in Opunake
tales for children and young adults such as the One Foot Island, a series of non-fiction works, mainly on the South Pacific, such as In Search of Paradise: Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific.
travel books, including a wonderful set of stories on experiences in the Pacific Islands: The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest
In earlier times, he was a great friend of Frank Sargeson and today works as a fulltime writer and editor on the North Shore.
Uncovering the mystery of Captain Cook
Yorkshireman James Cook is an important and familiar figure in New Zealand’s history, but not a lot is known about his private life and his relationship with wife Elizabeth and their children. Unfortunately, towards the end of her life, Elizabeth destroyed the letters James had written to her while sailing around the world.
The Secret Life of James Cook, as the author observes, is by definition a work of fiction, but one founded on fact. Graeme Lay has done extensive research on the great explorer and consulted a range of histories from J C Beaglehole’s seminal work The Life of Captain James Cook to Anne Salmond’s highly acclaimed The Trial of The Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas.
The result is a fascinating and comprehensive coverage of James Cook’s life from his Yorkshire upbringing to the end of his first voyage around the world. The historical novelist has some advantages over the historian, and a major strength of The Secret Life of Captain Cook is the successful blending of narrative, observations of the world around him, entries in the ship’s log, letters to Elizabeth and, above all, the imagined conversations.
The frequent verbal exchanges move the story along, maintain the interest and are vital in establishing relationships, explaining key decisions, discussing ideas, and highlighting tensions such as
- between Cook and Elizabeth over the uncertainty and time frame of what he was undertaking
- between the Admiralty and the Royal Society over the purpose of the voyage and how native peoples should be treated
- between navigator Cook, the man of humble origins, and scientist Banks, the highly educated gentleman.
The author has observed that the discussions over supper must have been amazing. Guys on board like posh naturalist Joseph Banks, artist Sydney Parkinson, and Cook were seeing things they had never seen before.
Preparing to circumnavigate the globe
From the quarterdeck James watched the shoreline recede and the green fields of Devon fade into the grey haze. This was it, the culmination of all he had worked towards… the chance to claim new lands for king and country…
It’s 1768 and Cook’s first voyage to the South Seas and around the world is underway. Most of the book is about this lengthy expedition, but the first 150 pages provide fascinating detail on the earlier years
- the teenage Cook’s journey from village Yorkshire to the coast for work
- his early experience on coal ships
- his fascination with sailing, mathematics, mapping and astronomy
- his rapid rise in the navy resulting from his growing reputation for skilled navigation and accurate coastal surveying, especially off the east coast of Canada
- his marriage to Elizabeth and the growth of the family.
Huge responsibilities and challenges
The various phases of the remarkable 1768-1771 voyage are recounted in depth and draw heavily, but not exclusively, on the work of Salmond. There are appropriately plenty of interesting descriptions and insights on the huge responsibilities of captaining a ship, such as
· making decisions on course setting, charting and navigation
· ensuring there are adequate provisions to maintain good diet and health: Cook was determined not to have anyone on board succumb to scurvy
· maintaining order and when necessary meting out punishment
· dealing sensitively with native peoples in the South Pacific
· balancing the varying needs and interests of crew, officers, marines and scientists.
This first voyage was extraordinary and startling, as it involved sailing across all the oceans of the world in the full range of weather conditions; major surveying, scientific and astronomical activities; contacts with a wide range of native peoples and colonial administrations, and ventures into uncharted waters.
It was one of the greatest explorations of all time and Graeme Lay does it justice in this highly entertaining and convincing novel.
Well drawn characters=
The danger when writing a novel about James Cook is to make him larger than life. Graeme Lay succeeds in making the great man human. Cook worked very hard to make his way in the navy and his tremendous determination and ambition paid off.
However, he did make occasional mistakes, such as attempting to sail the Endeavour at night off the coast of modern day Queensland and running it aground on a coral reef.
In the hands of Graeme Lay, Cook comes across as man who is aware of the enormity of his undertaking but is rarely arrogant or conceited. He worries about
- the health and diet of his crew and getting enough provisions
- maintaining peaceful relations with the native peoples they encounter
- the possibility of the crew spreading venereal disease in the islands
- the rising death toll amongst the crew, especially after the departure from Batavia
- how his family is faring back home.
Cook was always conscious of his humble beginnings. On the voyage he had an uneasy relationship with the Oxford educated and enthusiastic naturalist, Joseph Banks, who was also self opinionated, ambitious, and lecherous when it came to native women. The on-going tension between the two proud men is convincingly handled.
The characterisation of Cook, Banks, the Tahitian prince, Tupaia, and other key crew members is thorough, but one wonders if more could have been done to flesh out Elizabeth’s character.
For most of her married life her husband was at sea and all six children were born while James was away. Her resentment at the lengthy absences is touched on, but could perhaps have warranted more attention.
More to come
Graeme Lay is already at work on the sequel, recounting the second voyage which includes a foray into Antarctic waters. A trilogy is very much on the cards and we may get a little more on the Cooks back home.
The Secret Life of Captain Cook by Graeme Lay was first published in 2013 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Foreign TerritoryBy Ralph McAllister
Something of a vintage month, with travels to Iceland,Nigeria,Afghanistan,Brazil and other countries, all through the courtesy of some brilliant writers and their new books.
In ascending order of importance, FROZEN IN TIME is a documentary where Mitchell Zhukov explains what happened to the survivors of three crashes in 1942 in Greenland .The Americans sent two rescue planes to save the men from the cargo plane embedded in the crevasse strewn terrain.Both crashed.
When the author sticks to this story he is in good territory.However half of the story outlines the present day effort to rescue one of the planes and the remains of the victims.We spend far too much time at the State Department and being subjected to boredom by this part of the book.
One of England’s under appreciated novelists is William (Brazzaville Beach) Boyd.His latest WAITING FOR SUNRISE is an accomplished story of espionage,detective work and the temptations of the flesh. Some may have caught RESTLESS, another of his spy stories, in an excellent TV version shown here recently with a cast to die for, including Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon. If you don’t know Boyd give some of these a go, you won’t be disappointed. (and see fuller review below)
BEL CANTO was a huge hit over ten years ago for Ann Patchett.The story set in an unspecified South American country where the hostages in an embassy woo their captors with music,struck all sorts of chords(sorry) with readers.
Now Patchett returns to Brazil and splendid writing form, with STATE OF WONDER, a tale of a female American scientist developing a fertility drug in the depths of the jungle.One of her team goes missing and a young ex-student of the scientist is sent to find out what has happened.
Fascinating insights into indigenous tribes and a different kind of love story. Good stuff.
But finally, the book that will probably be my book of the year.Yes, I know that it is only July, but I will count myself very fortunate if I read anything that moves me more than AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini.
You have heard of him before.His first hugely successful novel was THE KITE RUNNER, about two boys and their ordeals in their attempts to maintain a relationship in war torn Afghanistan.It was later turned into a most successful movie.
The territory is the same in this third book, yet on a broader canvas.
The three year old girl,Pari is given away,reluctantly, to a wealthy family in Kabul. Her older brother Abdullah grieves for her in a story which covers 60 years and many relationships in America and France and Afghanistan.
This a novel which I defy you not to cry over once,possibly twice or more.It is shot through with brillliance in the handling of both plot and characters.We are in the hands of a master story teller and isn’t that what we want and, often as not, do not get?
Happy winter warmth in our familiar Kapiti territory as you travel the world in your and these authors’ minds.
Book review: Waiting for Sunrise by William BoydBy Roger Childs
‘William Boyd is English fiction’s master story teller.’ The Independent
I can humbly endorse this observation, having read nine of his books. If you are not familiar with his excellent writing, grab one when you are next in the library; you won’t be disappointed. His first novel was A Good Man for Africa and he has never looked back. It won two prestigious literary awards and was made into a film. You may have seen the TV serialisation earlier this year of Any Human Heart, another excellent story which encompasses an intriguing life in the 20th century.
Boyd tells wonderful stories which are thoroughly researched and so well written it makes it difficult for the reader to take a break! Waiting for Sunrise starts with the line It is a clear and dazzling summer’s day in Vienna. It sounds similar to Snoopy’s opening for the great canine novel: It was a dark and stormy night.
However Boyd’s second sentence pulls you in: You are standing in a skewed pentangle of lemony sunshine at the sharp corner of Augustiner Strasse and Augustinerbastei, across from the opera house, indolently watching the world pass by you, waiting for someone or something to catch and hold your attention, to generate a tremor of interest.
It’s 1913, and the someone is Lysander Rief:
- English actor and the son of an actor
- son of an Austrian mother
- in Vienna with a personal problem, which he hopes a local specialist will fix.
The story covers just three years and is set mainly in Vienna, London and Geneva. World War One is the backdrop for much of the time and Lysander is involved with German internees in Wales, sees brief action on the Western Front, then is tied up in intelligence and a constantly changing, riveting investigation to unmask a traitor.
There is a fascinating range of characters, who are as varied and interesting as their names
· Lady Anna (Annaliese) Faulkner, Lysander’s glamorous and loving mother
· Hamo Rief, his explorer uncle
· Hettie Bull: a flaky artist and occasional lover
· John Bensemon, the sympathetic psychologist
· Blanche Blondel: a fellow actor engaged to Lysander
· Florence Duchesne, the mysterious French secret agent in Geneva
· Captain Christian Vandenbrook, a key figure in the Directorate of Movements, to name a few. Sigmund Freud even makes a guest appearance.
Boyd is a clever writer who often varies his style: there is straight narration; at times Lysander is telling the story in sections called Autobiographical Investigations; sometimes the reader is involved; at other times it’s written like a conversation in a play and there are even a few poems. The mix is very satisfying and the unfolding story of Waiting for Sunrise builds to an exciting and unexpected climax.
I’ve just returned the book to the Paraparaumu Library which has a large collection of Boyd novels, including the brilliant Ordinary Thunderstorms.
DEAR VINCENT by Mandy Hager. Random House, 2013. 277 pages.Reviewed by Anna Smith
Dear Vincent is Mandy Hager’s confident and compelling new novel for young adults. It is the story of seventeen year-old Tara McClusky who, besides attending school, helps with the care of her stroke-paralysed father and works part-time to pay the household bills. Already struggling with feelings of isolation from her mother and peers, she is stunned by the revelation that her sister Van’s death was self-inflicted. Dear Vincent charts Tara’s transformation from a depressed teenager struggling to contain feelings of anger and guilt into a young woman able to accept the support and advice of mentors and friends.
Tara is the narrator of Hager’s novel and the reason why the story works so well. Her humanity and maturity draw us into a tale in which suffering and loss feature on a truly mindboggling scale. Intelligent and caring but also unhappy and lost, Tara identifies with the art and struggles of Vincent Van Gogh, who also knew what it was to be ‘alone and shunned, hungering for human contact.’ Most problematically for Tara, Van continues to flit around inside her head like a butterfly, haunting her and preventing her from moving on.
While Tara is by far the most strongly drawn character in the novel, Hager allows us to get to know the supporting cast in more detail as the story develops. While the initial stages of Dear Vincent see Tara’s mother portrayed as an impossibly difficult and even unlikeable woman, when her past is illuminated towards the end of the novel she finally emerges as the troubled human being she really is. Out of the mess of broken lives, Dear Vincent rises as a devastating and inspirational family tragedy. It shows the legacy of loss which a culture of violence can leave imprinted on future generations, and is truly a story for our times.
Dear Vincent is a story about grief, about hurt which runs deep, and about the hope available to those who seek help when they are in need of it. Hager shows that support can be mutual, that even people who need help themselves can be a source of strength and hope for others. Tara might depend on Professor Max Stockhamer for emotional support, but Max relies on Tara just to get in and out of bed. Weaving hope and tragedy seamlessly throughout her novel, Hager sustains its momentum to the very last page.
By Ralph MacAllister
Thrills and thrillers
Feel free to skip this column if you dislike the genre.
But I do warn you that snobbery is not a feature of Kapiti readers’ habits if the bestsellers lists are anything to go by.
Time and again thriller writers appear at the top of the charts so perhaps it is time for you to sample some of this impressive body of work.
Roslund and Hellstrom are two of Sweden’s best .The former is a journalist ,the other a specialist in jail and criminal reform.Together they write plots of stunning tension.
I remember reading THREE SECONDS a few years ago and forgetting all my other responsibilities until I had finished it.
TWO SOLDIERS is no less thrilling with a gang warfare plot and determined police trying to clean up some of Sweden’s darker spots. Bleak, relentless and fascinating as the story is, it will do nothing for the Swedish image of the problem free welfare society which we hear about.
But for us, a great read.
Gillian Flynn is an American, fairly recently on the scene. SHARP OBJECTS, her first novel, is a queasy story of a reporter who goes home to investigate two young girls’ murders and their missing teeth! She stays with her mother, a proverbial mother from hell, wonderful role for Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, alas too late for them, but Iwarn you, when I say queasy, I mean queasy.
Flynn has followed her first two books with GONE GIRL a superb account of a couple’s disintegrating relationship. We share each version of “the truth”as the plot reaches a thunderous conclusion and we are left exhausted at the clever twists and turns.
Finally,just to make you feel a little more secure, an old old favourite.
John Le Carre is now in his eighties and writing, still, at the top of his form. His latest, A DELICATE TRUTH is crafted with infinite care and attention to detail in every sentence, and it is funny.
We share the bumblings of the civil service in Whitehall as a planned kidnapping goes wrong in Gibralter and the subsequent cover up lurches from catastrophe to catastrophe.
Like many others, I read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD almost fifty years ago and marvelled at Le Carre’s talent then.
I continue to marvel,and so will you.
Book review: ‘Bones,’ by Harrison Dillard and Michael McIntoshBy Roger Childs
‘Mama, I just saw Jess Owens and I’m going to be just like him!’ — 13 year old Harrison Dillard in 1936
Like Jesse Owens
This is a gentle and humble autobiography about one of America’s greatest athletes: Harrison Dillard. He is the only man to have won the Olympics 100m and 110m hurdles titles and throw in a couple of relay victories and you have four gold medals. His hero Jesse Owens had won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and in so doing blew Hitler’s theories about white supremacy out of the water.
Dillard has a lot in common with the legendary Owens: they
- were brought up in Cleveland
- went to East Tech High School
- trained together
- were outstanding African-American sprinters
- won four Olympic gold medals.
From humble beginnings to Olympic glory
Harrison Dillard came from humble beginnings and at an early gained the nickname Bones because of his slight build. He quickly realised that he was pretty fast over the ground and so became determined to emulate Jesse Owens.
World War Two, in which he fought, interrupted his athletic career, so it was at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics that he would achieve his greatest performances. Prior to the London Olympics he had stacked up an amazing 82 wins in a row over the 110m hurdles and 100m sprints.
Interesting and inspirational\
The book is written in a simple but highly interesting style. Dillard is humble but sincere about his achievements and is quick to acknowledge the assistance and enouragement he was given by family, teachers, coaches and fellow athletes.
His story is inspirational for anyone, but especially for up and coming sportsmen and women because it demonstrates the value of focused training, careful preparation, confidence in your ability and determination to succeed.
It is also fascinating to learn how Dillard strategised to beat rivals of similar ability. It doesn’t take long to run 100m or 110m over eight flights of hurdles, so he quickly realised the importance of a fast start and the value of looking at the ground rather than ahead in the blocks.
A man of many parts
Beyond his athletic career Dillard played many roles: selling insurance, promoting the local Cleveland baseball team, as a radio commentator, newspaper columnist and 27 years as an educational administrator. He was always greatly respected for his dedication, hard work and humility.
Bill Cosby does a wonderful Foreward and comments He is admirable not only for his athletic achievements, but also for his character, showing unique awareness of how the choices we make define ourselves. He faced crucial and challenging decisions and issues throughout his life and never turned away…
His wife was Jamaican and they were happily married for over 53 years. After her death he revisited Jamaica and there is a wonderful section late in the book featuring his meeting with a more recent Olympic champion: Usain Bolt.
His final comments in the book show the measure of the man …my athletic career will speak for itself.... and I think it is pretty good. But what’s most important to me is that I always tried my best to be a good person. And that is the achievement of which I am most proud.
The book is a relatively quick read with plenty of photos and I recommend it unreservedly. My thanks go to John Penny for putting me on to Bones and for lending me his copy.
By Ralph MacAllister
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Let us start with the best.
Ron Rash and his latest collection of short stories shine, gems of the highest order, from a master story teller.
Most of the stories are set in familiar Appalachian territory with characters rooted in violence and compassion.The twists and understatements are typical and admirable Rash ploys. He makes us both love and hate his people.NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY is a perfect introduction to the world of one of the best writers living and practising in America today.
And I guarantee that you will want to read his five novels as soon as you have finished NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY.
Mal Peet‘s name has been cropping up lately so I tried to check out this novelist who caters mostly for young adults.
I found that I had read his gentle touching story of World War 2 TAMAR some time ago.
I wonder how often this happens to us,we read and we forget until…..
So I turned to KEEPER his novel about soccer and found that underwhelming. The goalkeeper’s rise to fame from the Brazilian forest is predictable and probably of interest only to the converted.
Well I am a fan of soccer,having watched an FA Cup semifinal at the new Wembley Stadium just a few weeks ago.
But I think I shall stick to the real thing.
Or look again at one of the best sports novel, written by David Peace, about Brian Clough, one of the most colourful and insightful studies into a manager’s life. THE DAMNED UNITED is brilliant.
WOOL by Hugh Howey is for the sci fi reader. I confess that this is not a genre I tolerate very often. Deserted silos and lies dominate this story of hidden truths and bleak landscapes.
Reminiscent of McCarthy’s THE ROAD but without the skill or editing that WOOL needs.
A chore really as 500 pages spluttered along with aching knees described on every other page,not to mention my aching patience!
Finally the book which I have felt more ambivalent about than any for a long time.
Author Abigail Tartellin is 25 and GOLDEN BOY centres on 15 year old Max who does not know who he is.
It is a coming of age story about a person we used to label as a hermaphrodite but now,medically, the term intersex is used.
Max and his English family live with his secret. His father is standing for parliament, his mother is a successful lawyer, his 9 year old brother (going on 40) copes in unreal ways and his girl friend, as can be imagined has problems with “down there.”
The infuriating thing is that the there is much in this novel that will help people whose sexuality or their friends’ or family is problematic.
But for every page of compassion and genuine understanding there are screeds of detail and repetition which should have been ditched by any competent editor long before publication.
So we are left with a worthy book which deserves to be read for the good bits and skim read for the rest.
An opportunity missed I am afraid.
By Ralph MacAllister
Just back from London and the bitterest Easter weather since records began.
While the grownups searched for the painted eggs in the garden, I made my famous scrambled eggs and finished CAPITAL by John Lanchester.
It is set in 2008 London where we meet a diverse group of people who live in the same street and cope in a variety of ways with the banking scandals and property twists and ambitions of football prodigy managers and meter maid experts.
The structure of the novel meant for easy interest but at the same time prevented one ever beginning to care much for the people.
I was disengaged.
Easier, in a sense, to care for the real types met each day as I left our comfortable Ealing house on the way to the tube!
Harlan Coben’s latest SIX YEARS is in his usual mould.
The protagonist keeps his promise to leave his former girlfriend alone . Six years later her husband has died, our hero goes to the funeral and all hell breaks loose, particularly as everyone there denies that the past ever happened.
Nightmarish puzzles and escapist fun.
Time to say goodbye to Mo Hayder.
POPPETS is an absolute dud, despite what other enchanted reviewers may say.
We are in a psychiatric hospital where ghosts haunt the patients and the staff.
The tedious laying out of what what little plot there is only surpassed by the techniques employed to, supposedly, maintain our interest.
Meanwhile back to London with a fine first novel by Saskia Sarginson, THE TWINS.
Olivia and Yseult are inseparable as children but have grown apart in adult life where one is anorexic and the other a career success.
We flash back and forward from 70’s London and Suffolk to the late 80’s and the remnants of Thatcher’s England.
The girls meet another set of twins at the local school and the four lives become inextricably linked.
The author handles the perspectives and shifts of time and realization with rare skill.
Thatcher was buried in a sea of hypocrisy whilst I was in London .
I did not attend the ceremony but it was easy to perceive the ideological division which rent England during her time and persists to this day.
The two London novels bear testimony.
By Ralph MacAllister
Some Months are Better Than Others
No warnings this month about inferior books.
No duds in this lot.
Belinda Bauer is fast establishing herself as one of the leading young crime writers in Britain.
FINDERS KEEPERS and RUBBERNECKERS will do nothing to hamper her growing reputation.
The former is the final part of a trilogy set in and around Exmoor where destroyed dogs and stolen children are inextricably linked to chilling effect.
The latter sees Sam in a coma and witnessing a murder in the next bed to him in the hospital, while Patrick is fighting through his Aspergers’ condition trying to understand what happens after death.
Bauer seems to be more interested in character than plot, even though her plots are gripping
Her characters are outsiders that she challenges us to understand.
Both thrillers are excellent,original and scary!
THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers is written by a young Iraq war veteran.
The opening sentence “The war tried to kill us in the spring”,tells us where we are going.
Murphy and Bartle are best mates and set to make sure that both get home.One does not make it and the other is tortured with guilt.To be welcomed home as a hero is unbearable.
The novel juxtaposes tender descriptions of the textures of the Iraq country and the relationships that can develop between men at war, with gruesome scenes of battle and destruction.
It may not be another ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,as claimed by the publishers,but it is touching and thought provoking.
I remember seeing that movie with my Dad just after the war and somewhat plaintively asking him “but Dad who are the goodies?”
Staying with the war locations HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by by Jamie Ford is a gentle love story of American born Japanese girl Keiko and her Chinese boyfriend Henry,both twelve years old.
Part of the novel is set in Seattle in the 1940s when Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to camps in places like Idaho.
Parallels with the treatment meted out to other ethnic groups at the time are unavoidable but not laboured in the writing.
We draw our own conclusions.
Henry in the Seattle of 1986 tries to make peace with the past and find some lost belongings of his former girlfriend.
This is a touching story of love surviving through racial intolerance and greed,separation and cultural differences.
It is a first novel of great promise.
Next bulletin from London and the spring.
Mmm, it was snowing near there yesterday.