Saturday, June 1, 2019

Third Age Vacation

In May I went down to Wanaka to talk to a branch of the University of the Third Age. They were running a four week 'course' on NZ writers. One writer a week, two hours per session (with a tea break in the middle). Cilla McQueen kicked off, discussing poetry. Paula Morris was next, covering fiction and teaching creative writing, then it was me, and Carl Nixon went last.

My talk was titled 'Career? Calling? Hobby?' and covered everything I've done in the last fifteen years, from writing the first draft of a novel in 28 days as a 21 year old, to my third published book that drops in August, along side the places I've lived, the jobs I've worked and the kids that have joined team Cliff.

The answer is you can't consider writing a career, at least in the financial sense, nor a hobby, in the emotional sense. And a calling seems to highfalutin for something that, so far and to my knowledge, hasn't changed anyone's life.

Writing books, having a family and paying the bills: it's all a juggling act. You can only persist so long if you don't have passion in all three aspects.

I also explained the geneses of The Mannequin Makers and Nailing Down the Saint, how my novels take-off when I see the connection between two bad ideas. A father raising his kids to be living mannequins and a shipwreck around Cape Horn. A levitating Franciscan friar and modern movie-making.

After the tea break there was time for almost an hour of questions and we could have kept going a  longer. The crowd was around 130-140 people and they were really engaged. Lots of retired school teachers and university types.

My family came down south with me and we spent two nights in Wanaka and two in Queenstown and did lots of touristy things (and spent a lot of money)...

Queenstown from the top of the gondola

...the kids highlight was the motel in Wanaka because it had a trampoline (typical)...

but those two hours with the University of the Third Age was mine.

May Consumption Diary


May is the month I finally got a feel for 2019 musically, from amazing albums from Aldous Harding and Orville Peck, to the fact my four year old wants to listen to 'Old Town Road' on repeat...


Advance copy of my next book, arrived 30 May 2019
(Anyone who asks why the book is dedicated to Gord Downie clearly has clearly never read this blog)

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There There by Tommy Orange (novel, audiobook)

Wow. I loved this.

I was a bit apprehensive when the novel began with a long, direct address about the lives of urban Native Americans, particularly those in Oakland, and how they got there. I was thinking: Where can this go from here?

And then Orange begins to introduce a large cast of characters, each with chapters from their own perspective. Weird comparison, but it felt a bit like George R.R. Martin at the helm of another exploding narrative (albeit in a mix of first and third person).

So I was still like: How's he gonna land this plane?

And he fucking does!

There's so much heart in here it's easy to overlook the head required to corral so many moving parts.

The New ShipsThe New Ships by Kate Duignan (novel, NZ)

Oh my god, I finished a physical book. And a NZ novel, to boot!

I really enjoyed this. It was dense in a good way. Not at the sentence level - at all - but the way there's all these time periods layered, geologically, and at various points we dig through from one time to another.

One observation: I kept forgetting I was reading a first person narrator. Peter Collie is so in check, in the beginning at least, despite the recent death of his wife, that it feels like a third person coolly narrating the story. I found this distance, ironically, pulled me in. What's up with this dude? Turns out, if you dig, plenty.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira (novel)

What? Two physical books in a month? Well, I did fly for work a little more than normal. And this one is only 87 pages.

Aira is an interesting writer. Whatever number of books I say here, he'll have published more than that by the time you read it. Wikipedia doesn't even try, listing only a "Partial Biography", comprising 73 novels published since 1975, and a bunch of other shorter works.

Is this a novel or a novella? It's unlike any novella I've ever read. It's so dense and direct. After reading Carl Shuker's A Mistake a couple of months ago, which is 182 pages, I've been thinking a lot about how to get in and get out in less than 200 pages. Aira has me lowering that page limit.

There's a particular kind of story that suits the level of compression and focus required to make it feel bigger than a short story but not leave you wanting more. The title of Aira's 2000 novel, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions in 2006, tells you a lot about how this one works.

One thing that slim books can get away with: getting better upon re-reading.

Which is ironic as Aira claims never to go back and edit his work. That's how he can churn out three books a year, a superhuman feat regardless of length. The complete lack of editing is surely posturing. The way he leaves the date he finished the manuscript on the last page! But I certainly felt the forward momentum he claims comes, for him, only by laying sentence after sentence in an indelible sequence.

Image result for artful ali smithArtful by Ali Smith (fiction/non-fiction hybrid, audiobook)

So, I thought I was going to listen to four lectures Smith delivered at Oxford, now read by the author herself in audiobook form - and this was true. But those lectures took such an inventive form that once can only refer to the resulting book as a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

Artful served to reinforce a couple of things.

Like: shit, Ali Smith is a good writer.

And: I could never do that! I don't think it's meant as an intellectual flex, but the connections she draws across literatures (albeit predominantly European) is impressive, and then to do it within a frame narration that is heart-breaking?


Image result for The Coddling of the American MindThe Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (non-fiction, audiobook)

I'm only halfway through. I had to stop as this book was making me overthink a lot of things.

There's plenty to agree with here. Call-out culture isn't something we'll look back on and say: that's where things started getting good. It makes me anxious even saying anything about call-out culture.

But there was an underlying tone in this book. The glee it felt in focussing on left-wing examples of violence and hypocrisy and blinkeredness and general badness. I couldn't stop thinking about Trump's "on both sides".

So I hit pause and I'll try finish it next month. Because muting isn't the solution when dealing with confronting ideas and material.


I ordered a quilt and nailed it to the wall of my garage.
Time will tell if this is the start of my Tragically Hip shrine.


Game of Thrones, seasons 4, 5, 6 (continuing the our rewatch) and eps 3-6 (& The Last Watch) of Season 8

My reckons, briefly: the final season was rushed. It would have been so much better if it was stretched into 10 episodes. There were at least 10 good episode-ending beats. A little bit of extra time for the big events to breathe. No need for any more CGI or crowd scenes: just people talking in rooms or on ramparts. You know, the show's bread and butter until the checkbook was opened too far.

Back when the show behaved liked TV, with all it's budgetary limitations and workarounds (see all of Rob Stark's off-screen battles in the early seasons), there was nothing but time. But it morphed into a full-blown fantasy-action epic with cinematic budget (and the echoes to Peter Jackson's Rings films got more and more pronounced), while still obeying something resembling a TV schedule. 6+ hours of content delivered over a 2 year period? No wonder everyone involved, from the makeup artists to the showrunners, wanted the dream to end. The fact 2 of those 6 hours were effectively action sequences (battles of Winterfell and Kings Landing): that's a lot of time and cost and effort that simply wasn't part of the formula when Thrones was building its fanbase.

So effectively four hours to explain everything that had built up over almost 70 hours previously? Ouch.

And then there's the expectations of the audience.

A lot of people were watching the show wrong (ha!). The death pools that people ran at the start of the season, as if that's the most interesting part: seeing characters die. Some people were only there for the cinematics. For the CGI dragons and the army of the dead. And then they have the gaul to join the chorus of people criticising the scripting and execution?

If you set aside the fact things were incredibly rushed, did any of the major plot points come without heavy foreshadowing? What Arya achieves in episode 3 was built up for seven seasons! (I concede her "leap" was poorly shot and did this plot point no favours.) Daenerys' heel turn: did y'all not watch the first half of Battle of the Bastards? And all of that Jon being Jon. The thing that becomes apparent when rewatching the show was how shit of a military commander Jon is, how frequently others bail him out (Stannis, the Knights of the Vale, Arya, Drogon) and how he'll never fully exercise his agency.

Season Six was when the show well and truly left the books behind and rewatching it in tandem with the last couple of episodes of Season 8 demonstrated the showrunners were working really hard to get to their ending. But a lot of people's reactions reflect the fact it was 2.5 years since season six aired and people just don't have good enough memories.

Small, non-spoilery example: two of my friends mentioned they didn't remember who Edmure Tully was when he stood up and started to pitch himself as the next king in the final episode, despite him being prominent in the siege of Riverrun late in Season Six (and his earlier significance leading up to the Red Wedding). So that whole 'Sit down Uncle' bit made them shrug.

Endings are hard. Game of Thrones had it worse than most: a thousand strands to pull together, a rep for subverting expectations, millions of fans that rage from rabid to extremely casual but everyone feeling entitled to express their opinion in real time (and in an age when social status can be accrued through denunciation without debate), and doing so at double speed.

But to say the final season should be handed to someone else and reshot? Every one of the signatories for that petition should be forced to make their own piece of art, a short story or film or script for a single episode of TV, and then reflect on their right to demand greater satisfaction from the labour and creativity of others.

Barry, Seasons 1 and 2

Having said something about GoT, I feel I should say something about this quite different HBO show. I also watching in May.

Season 1 didn't wow me until late in the piece, but with 30 minute episodes and 8 episode seasons, I was able to power through quickly and become hooked.

NoHo Hank is one of the better characters in TV history and it will be interesting to see how the show balances the need to give us our Hank fix without imbalancing things too much.

I love that the show feels so free to take risks, like the whole supernatural Taekwondo 12 year old in Season 2, or the way the inspecting officers don't stick around long. There's a bit of Thrones (at least, what GRRM wrote) in this ruthlessness.

Bumping Mics, Season 1

Isle of Dogs (watched in April, I think, but I left it off that list because it was... regrettably forgettable)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

April Consumption Diary



A Man in Love (Book 2 in My Struggle) by Karl Ove Knausgaard (novel, audiobook)

Image result for a man in love audiobook
Book 1 hooked me with its obsession with death, particularly the death of a father, and the brutal honesty (or the convincing facsimile of brutal honesty) of being a writer.

Book 2, as the title suggests, is more concerned with romance and what comes on its heels (in Knausgaard's eyes: the emasculating labour of the modern father), and the challenges of balancing family and writing, doled out with equal depth and brutality. So, again, it spoke to me. Structurally, it's interesting to consume as a 21+ hour audiobook, as there's only very subtle cues that we're shifting scenes (there's a lot of nesting and un-nesting) or gears - but it worked for me.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (short stories, audiobook)

Image result for maxine beneba clarke foreign soilI love short stories, but I keep finding myself struggling to get through a whole story collection in audiobook form. 

Individually, Clarke's stories were all interesting and well-crafted (though a couple of the endings felt abrupt) and, importantly, sufficiently different from each other (there's a host of different settings and set-ups), while being held together by central concerns about identity and belonging - particularly as a minority (including one story about a white Australian hair-dresser who moves to East Africa). 

So it must be the form (audiobooks) and the way I've been trained to immerse in 20-hour narratives that means story collections keep knocking me off balance in unsatisfying ways.

(There's something similar to be said for watching TV series vs discrete films: why invest anything in these characters that'll only be round another 90 minutes?)


Things are still getting back to normal at the Cliff household after my wife went onto shift work with uncertain hours and days for an undefined duration. My 5am starts have been rare, and those I have mustered have ended before 6am thanks to my son waking. 

I have now signed off on the final proofs of NAILING DOWN THE SAINT, so that sucker is off to the printers. In stores: 6 August.

The non-fiction music book I pitched before Xmas didn't get picked up, so I'm mentally promiscuous at the moment, waiting for the right ideas to collide and let me know what I'll be doing in early mornings and my days off for the next four years.


The Bad Seed - Season 1
I Think You Should Leave - Season 1
Peaky Blinders - Season 1
Game of Thrones - Season 3 and Season 8 eps 1-3 (and Talk The Thrones following each ep)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

March consumption diary


BOOKS (in the order I read them)

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Under the Sea by Mark Leidner (short stories, audiobook, US)

I was expecting shorter stories, and weirder stories, based on Leidner's poetry and Twitter account. I mean, there's weirdness and experimentation, but it's throttled down and/or dragged out. Still cool. But...

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A Mistake by Carl Shuker (novel, NZ)

I can't watch surgery shows on TV and the opening section of A Mistake made the feeling drain from my fingertips, but I ploughed through. This is not a diss but a compliment to the realism of the surgery scene (and me outing myself as a bag of blood and organs that dislikes being confronted with this fact).

Shuker's wide-ranging interview with Kim Hill last weekend was a classic. A Mistake might be one, too. It's a slim but knotty read: highly recommended!

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The Black and the White by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, NZ)

More of the same, Hallelujah Geoff.

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The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney (novel, audiobook, NZ/Scotland)

I heard McIlvanney discuss this novel and read from it in 2017, when it was going through the last stages of the editing process. At the time I found the challenge of lightly fictionalising the Bible John murders a bold one to tackle and, as someone with link to the actual crimes, it felt like McIlvanney pulled it off.

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What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (novel, audiobook, South Africa/US)

Lightly fictionalised. That can mean many things - most all of them apply here. 

To be fair, my head was still ringing from reading Knausgaard's A Death in the Family in Feb, and whatever you will say about the relationship between truth, memory and invention in the Norwegian's autofiction project, there's nothing light about it.  

Clemmons' short novel, in contrast, is light on detail, light on invention, light on characterisation. As a daughter-of-cancer memoir, it's passable. As a work of fiction, it doesn't really leave a mark.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (novel, audiobook, US)

A lot of narrative/narrator gymnastics are deployed by KJF. And the book does a good job of being able to get away with a limited first person perspective and leaf in a lot of real life research and theory about human and ape cognition and development. At times it felt more like an exercise than an attempt at immersion - but maybe that was the shadow of Knausgaard again (eff that guy, amirite?)

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (novel, audiobook, UK)

My third short novel of the month (after Shuker and Clemmons). This one takes less than two hours to listen to at 1.0 speed. So: short. But definitely novelistic in scope and ambition. The kind of book you can, and in all likelihood: will, return to again and again.


Speaking of grief, this month was severed in two by the events of 15 March.

On a personal level, my family life was thrown into minor disarray as my wife is one of the hundreds of people whose professional lives have been repurposed in the wake of one act of terrorism and cowardice. It's nothing compared to those that suffered more directly, as victims or loved ones of victims, or even those for whom the event was intended to single out and rattle with fear. But all the law enforcement, security, intelligence, ambulance and hospital staff - and the other unsung contributors in the days and weeks of rebuilding a better normal that have ensued - have my gratitidude. 

This is all to say I've spent a lot of time this past fortnight with just my kids, or alone once they are in bed, with my eyes leaking. Feeling helpless. Trying to tamp down rage. Fighting the urge to write about it, or worse, to tweet.  

My wife and I were supposed to see Alejandro Escovedo together on the 16th, but as she had just worked 30 hours straight, she slept and I took my brother instead. Escovdeo was clearly shaken by the events in Christchurch but was so genuine and warm that I can't think of a better artist to commune with at such a moment.

Towards the end of his set he had the house lights brought up (with some difficulty - no one at Caroline seemed to know where the switches were) and performed three songs from the floor. I know he's been doing this all tour, but it's still the ultimate gesture of vulnerability and generosity.

Truly a performance I will remember forever.

The next night I was supposed to see another concert with my brother, Regurgitator, one of his favourite bands in his youth, but I had to look after my kids.

I had tickets to see Gang of Four on the 27th, but that was postponed due to Andy Gill's ill health. So I must wait until 13 November to see the foundational post-punk outfit (or parts thereof).

Add to this Julien Baker's NZ tour in Feb being cancelled, and 2019 hasn't been the most auspicious for live music... but if that one gig from Alejandro Escovedo is all I see this year, by crikey I'll still be grateful.


Free solo
This is 40
The City and the City - limited run series
Lady Bird
Game of Thrones - Seasons 1* and 2*

I've also been playing a bit of Red Dead Redemption II (all these nights on my lonesome) and find it pretty tedious and yet I can sense that I'm probably one more gameplay session away from being hooked.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Consumption diary: January + February


(in the order I read them)

How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollen (non-Fiction, audiobook, US)

This book convinced me I wanted to try psychedelics after the first dozen pages, and then dragged on so long I kind of can't be bothered anymore. Unlike previous books by Pollen that I've read, where he was able to start and stop multiple times due to structure (The Botany of Desire) or wasn't wading against five decades of social bias (A Place of My Own).


The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (non-fiction, audiobook, Italy, translated)

In retrospect, maybe it's a good thing I felt this short explainer of a book told me nothing new.

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Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (non-fiction, audiobook, UK)

High quality thought and writing, though suffers the inevitable lumpiness and repetition when a writer (particularly a writer who views non-fiction as a sideline) rounds up their published work to bind between two covers. But taken en masse, Feel Free convinced me Smith is not just one of the pre-eminent writers of her generation, but one of its clearest thinkers.

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Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (non-fiction, audiobook, US)

There were large swathes of this book I sped through as it was telling me things I already knew. But towards the end it introduced me to some concepts (or perhaps it was more a framework for thinking, and it relied on everything that went before... that's probably what Pinker was going for), and I've been able to Think Like Pink(er) [TM pending] a number of times, especially when it comes to understanding why certain decisions get made at work.

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Back with the Human Condition by Nick Ascroft (poetry, NZ)

Heady word salad.

(I'm trying to read at least one poetry book a month, and am already one behind; my reviews have a three word limit).

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The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (non-fiction, audiobook, US)

I want to read Haidt and Lukianoff's The Coddling of the American Mind, which came out recently, but reserved Haidt's earlier book from my library's audiobook service and it became available first. I almost didn't listen to it, coming on the heels of Pinkers too-long but somewhat convincing treatise about the persistence of enlightenment ideals.

But I did persist and it actually wasn't a drag. It avoided being self-helpy, or Sam Harris-style syncretism, was eminently sensible when it comes to drugs like Prozac, and his motif of the elephant and rider is something I now use when thinking about my own behaviour on a daily basis.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney (novel, audiobook, Ireland)

Yeah, so, this deserves the hype. And the fact Will Self can't see it? Even better.

I listened to the first two-thirds of this audiobook over the car stereo with my wife after dropping my kids off at my mum's house and on the return journey; we then finished it lying in bed next to each other over a couple of evenings.

So it's hard to separate out the impact of the book from the means of its consumption (the importance of "set and setting" as the psychedelic pioneers referred to it, HT Pollen). That shared experience, and the fact my wife and I met when we were 18 (the novel starts in the last year of high school) and had all the stutters and missteps you'd expect, and the dude in the relationship starts on the path to becoming a writer and SPOILER ALERT applies to an MFA/MA in another country without telling her and then gets accepted.

So yeah, despite the fact Rooney's characters are a decade younger, there was a lot that cut close to the bone.

Will Self might dismiss Rooney's simple prose, but it's better than verging on unreadable, and to write so cleanly is harder than trying to sound smart. It's not perfect, by any means. This review in The Guardian does a good job of pointing out it's short-comings (while still hailing it as "a future classic"). The biggest crime might've been those moments when, in conversation, I could feel the author bursting forth, eager to say something (particularly in the latter stages when Connell gets into literary circles), but it's hard not to see this book becoming one of those generation-defining books, like Generation-X or The Secret History, that are also universally relatable.

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Call Me Evie by JP Pomare (novel, audiobook, NZ)

Pomare's debut succeeds on multiple levels. It's well written, timely and absolutely hits its marks as a 21st century psychological thriller.

Unfortunately, this genre (think: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train) just doesn't do it for me. It uses the unreliable narrator (often impaired in some way) as an excuse to withhold basic information that facilitates mystery, suspense and a twist. But the secrets are never that good and when compared to straight-up crime fiction, there's a vacuum where a hero (or anti-hero) might otherwise be.

Image result for My Struggle Book 1: A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book 1) by Karl Ove Knausgaard (novel, audiobook, translated, Norway)

So I've finally got around to reading Knausgaard. I resisted because did I really need to read the inner workings of another white male writer? But golly, is it good. It had me thinking about life (and Life) and writing almost constantly.




Phantom Thread
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Killing Eve -Season 1
Fyre (Netflix documentary)
The Breaker-Upperers
High Flying Bird
Ready Player One
And... in December I cracked and bought an NBA League Pass subscription, and have been watching every Sacramento Kings game (once I get home and the kids are in bed). Their season has exceeded initial expectations to such a ridiculous degree that getting 44 wins and missing the playoffs would be a bitter disappointment. It's so odd to be in February and be watching the results of the teams jostling for the last two playoff births in the West ("f**k the Lakers") rather than the tanking teams racing to the bottom of the standings in the hope of securing a franchise-saving player in the draft (though I'm still interested to see where Zion lands... worst case scenario, the Mavs defy the odds in the lottery and vault to the top of the draft and their unholy trinity dominate for a decade).

Sunday, January 13, 2019

This Fluid Thrill Awards: best books I read in 2018

Some stats and reflections on my year in reading make up the 2nd part of this post, but lets kick off with:


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, 2015)

What I said about it in February:
...In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.
So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.
But I like a strong brew...

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
...Heti's reconstruction of the novel form as something based on thought and deliberation (in this case, whether it's okay not to have kids), rather than drama and conflict, is both appealing and incredibly dangerous. 
For all it's seriousness, I found it incredibly funny. Especially the way the adapted I Ching... gives the novel a feeling of being written in real time. Even though it's random, so many of the responses are so perfectly mischievous and gnomic (like a good piece of AI poetry) that I couldn't help be tickled.

Three Men in  a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (novel, 1889)

What I said about it in December:
Loved it. The funniest book I read all year.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
The kind of book you nestle into, not because the content is comforting, but it's clear from page 1 you are in the hands of a master and you can just let yourself go with it. 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in October:
It's comic without being silly. Romantic without being gaga. So: like life, but better.
Highly recommended.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Noah Yuval Harari (non-fiction, 2016)

What I said about it in April:
I've recommended this book to three people since I read it, each for different reasons... but each time with the caveat that the book is confusingly structured...
Still, it was the right mix of a secondary explainer of the work of others and more adventurous, more challenging thinking.
Good stuff.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (novel, 2008)

What I said about it in August:
Loved this, too... All those extended sequences that fly the geek flag high (the immersive world of the Three-Body Problem game; the challenge of unfolding a proton into an 11-dimensional shape and then folding it back up again).

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.
I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates (non-fiction, 2015)

What I said about it in October:
The audiobook is read by the author, and I can't imagine receiving the content without Coates' delivery, which sounds a little like slam poetry, only tolerable...
While not everything about US race relations can be applied elsewhere, at a little over 3 hours, it's essential reading/listening for anyone.

Vacationland by John Hodgman (non-fiction, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.


In 2018 I got through 42 books, which falls short of my usual target of 1 book a week.

In 2017 I read 66 books. My favourite was Sam Lipsyte's The Ask. (I'm excited about Hark coming out this year in a matter of days!) But I was a full-time writer in 2016 and in 2017 I... wasn't. Though I still had to finish off the manuscript for Nailing Down the Saint and negotiate the editing process.

So I'll take 42 books read, but reckon I can do 52 in 2019.

For a start, I didn't read any poetry collections in 2018. Reading just one collection a month would have got me over the line.

What did I read?

27 novels, 3 short story collections and 12 works of non-fiction.

The 70/30 split between fiction and non-fiction is about the same as last year, though the fact I don't count reading for research, or podcast series, tends to depress the non-fiction figures.

How did I read it?

39 audiobooks (92%), 3 physical books.

Last year, audiobooks made up 71% of my "reading". I noted last year how a heavy reliance on audiobooks naturally limits the scope of what you can read (see: Who did I read? below), though setting targets and rules can help in a lot of ways.

In defence of audiobooks, I think listening to so many has improved my prose and I definitely know it has improved my ability to edit. Words on the page aren't the living object - it's only when they're read by someone (whether in their head or aloud) - and the sound of those words in sequence, the cadence of your message, is just as important as the meaning.

Who did I read?
  • Male: 62%, Female 28%.  Last year: 68% male, so a slight improvement, but still not flash.
  • US authors: 52% (last year 48% - so sadly static here). 
  • Then it was: UK (6 authors), NZ (3),  Australia (2), Canada (2) and a six countries with one author each. Not reading physical books severely limits my NZ reading, but it's a bit chicken and the egg. If I really wanted to read NZ books, I would have. I'm going through a low ebb in my interest in NZ stuff. That will change. Until then, I need to consciously ween myself from the Americans.
  • White authors 73%, non-white 27%. In 2017, only 6% were non-white, so this is a big improvement with room for more growth.
  • Works in translation: 2 (5%) compared to 6 (9%) last year.

Books by publication date
  • A third (14) of the books I read in 2018 were published in 2018. That's insanely high for me. In 2017, I read 13 books that came out that year, but it only made up 20% of my reads due to the higher volume of books read over all (and was my all-time high to that point).
  • In 2018 I also read 10 books published in 2017, so all up 57% of my reading was less than 2 years old.
  • Other years: 2016 (3), 2015 (5), 2010 (2), 2008 (1), 1980s (2), 1960s (2), 1800s (2).
  • Median year: 2017.
  • Oldest: 1818 (Frankenstein).

You may have seen that I previously tweeted my 5 favourite books from 2018... well, only two of those books cracked my top ten (though Rachel Kushner and Leni Zumas would be 11 and 12 on the list if it went that far). 

This is to say that current doesn't equal better. I saw someone on Twitter had a reading resolution to only read things that have been out for more than 2 years. That way, the books that are all hype and no substance should have evaporated and you have a better shot at reading the important stuff. But what's "important"? And if no-one reads (maybe just "buys"?) books the year they come out, contemporary authors will be schnickered.

So my reading resolutions for 2019 are the following:
  • Read great books
  • Read at least 52 books
  • Read at least 10 poetry collections
  • Read more than 40% female authors
  • Read at least a third non-white authors
  • Read less than 40% US authors
  • Read from at least 10 different countries
  • Read at least 5 works in translation
  • Target median age of books read: 2009

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

This Fluid Thrill awards: best songs of 2018

Earlier this week I covered the best albums released in 2018. Now it's time to cover individual tracks, noting that any artist that made it into my top ten albums of 2018 is ineligible here.


This is a tricky one. In previous years there's been a catchy, less-than-cerebral song with a bunch of nonsense syllables that has stood out. Think 'Class Historian' by BRONCHO, or 'Ya Ya Ya' by You Won't. But I went all of 2018 without one of these songs worming their way into my head. Which means I have more than a dozen great songs on my longlist with no clear way to distinguish them.

'Motion Sickness' by Phoebe Bridgers might have come out on top if it hadn't been released in 2017.

Same goes for 'Emotionally Untidy' by Rachel Maria Cox.

There were a bunch of other strong female voices on the list, perhaps none more plainspoken than Camp Cope's 'The Opener'. That song is so strong it kinda dwarfs the rest of the band's sophomore album (and stands head and shoulders above the rest of their live set). At the other extreme there's Lana Del Rey, whose 'Mariners Apartment Complex' is actually kind of autobiographical but it still feels like an act - but that's why I love her. It's like she's aping Shakira singing a ballad in order to speak honestly. And that line: 'I'm your man.' 👌

Valley Queen and Slothrust were louder but just as grandiose.

Tropical Fuck Storm's 'Lose the Baby' led the pack in terms of loud, bloke-fronted songs, but then is this cover better than the original? And TFS didn't see fit to put it on their album, so...

So in the end I've chosen...

'My Body' by David Bazan from his split LP with Sean Lane, Rare Coins.

The reasons:

1) It's a great song. A slower tempo than your classic earworm but I definitely sung this in the shower multiple times this year.

2) Lyrically, it speaks to me. I mean, the chorus:
But my body doesn't believe what my mind believes
My mind's been wondering what's true
But my body doesn't believe what my mind believes
My body might have some good news
Straight to the pool room*
* Pool room = playlist for my novel, NAILING DOWN THE SAINT, which comes out in August and deals with parascientific phenomena like levitation and premonitions. 

3) Upping Bazan here is a kind of two-for-one, as it saves me writing something separate about my favourite new-to-me (but definitely not new) artist.

I got into Bazan in a big way in 2018, first through Lo Tom (a supergroup including TW Walsh, whose album Terrible Freedom came in at #3 on my 2017 list; Lo Tom's self-titled also came out in 2017 and might have come in at #1 on that year's list if I'd heard it in time...), then Bazan's solo album Care, also from 2017, then all his solo stuff, then Headphones and finally back to Pedro the Lion. With the first Pedro the Lion album in fifteen years coming out later in 2019, my obsession isn't likely to abate any time soon.

I love Bazan's voice. He sounds depressed and beaten down but at the same time there's a strength to it. The vocals are always way up in the mix and his lyrics are so often coming from a pocket of power, or at least insight. The son of a pastor, there's a pulpit quality to many of his songs. Here is how I'm broken - I hope you can take something from my experience.

I was listening to a bunch of Bazan and Bazan-band albums over the weekend as I built some shelves in my garage and I realised how the guitar-based stuff sounds like The Lemonheads - less druggy, less flippant, more professional, but definitely in a similar sonic vein.


My kids love Gene McDaniel's 'Tower of Strength' from 1961 (written by Burt Bacharach) and I play it for them often because it's pretty great.

I also really like 'Sixteen Ways' by Green on Red from 1982.

Image result for Tom Russell Love & Fear
But I've gotta go with my nonsense-syllable-loving ways and honour Tom Russell's Stealing Electricity'. It's from 2006 but it sounds like it could have been recorded any time in the last fifty years. There's a good dollop of Johnny Cash and a whiff of Warren Zevon.

Any song whose chorus goes:
Two hearts go Da la da la da la da la da la na na, Da la da la da la da la da la na na
is going to be a bit daft, but like Cash and Zevon, it's not all nonsense.

I remember as a teen (or pre-teen?) reading about indigenous youth in rural Australia being so depressed that they climbed powerlines to electrocute themselves - and then discovering Soundgarden, particularly their songs 'Fell on Black Days', 'The Day I tried to Live ("The day I tried to win / I dangled from the power lines / and let the martyrs stretch, yeah") and 'Jesus Christ Pose' and it was like Chris Cornell was haunted by the same stuff as I was.

So a tale about "A mexican dead up on a power line..." brings in all those associations for me, all within a honky tonk earworm package. May it find it's way into dozens of playlists over the years to come!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

This Fluid Thrill awards: Best Albums of 2018

Here it is, my entirely personal and unscientific list of the best albums that came out this year. 

(And here are my lists from 20172016201520142013 & 2012).

In a future post I'll cover my favourite individual tracks and those artists I discovered and loved in 2018 but whose best work pre-dates that calendar year

According to my Spotify Wrapped (which covers until early December), I listened to 29,205 minutes this year, which is down from 40,162 minutes in 2017 when I was a full-time novel-writer and music-listener. A 27% drop in listening time is actually less than I'd expected. 

And I certainly had no shortage of contenders for my top ten. So much so that I'm gonna break tradition and list numbers 20 to 11, and an honorary mention, before saying a few words about numbers 10 through 1.

20. American Utopia by David Byrne
19. Surf Music by Paul Williams (funniest album)
18. Wide Awake by Parquet Courts
17. Hope Downs by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
16. Goat Girl by Goat Girl
15. Brushes with Happiness by The Wave Pictures
14. Vide Noir by Lord Huron
13. A Laughing Deat in Meatspace by Tropical Fuck Storm
12. Con Todo el Mudo by Khruangbin
11. We're Not Talking by The Goon Sax (there's a reason they sound like the Go-Betweens; that's not the only reason to love these youngsters)

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It pains me that one of my favourite bands of all-time (Low) released an album in 2018 that topped many end-of-year lists, but I can't add to the plaudits. 

Double Negative just doesn't do it for me. I've tried. It's probably in my top three most listened to albums this year. I don't hate it. But I don't enjoy it. I know it's not meant to be fun. I get why critics laud it -- it's a challenging album for challenging times, yadda yadda -- but give me C'mon or The Great Destroyer any day.


Boygenius EP
 (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus)

I'm not counting this in my top 20 albums as it's only an EP (6 songs, 21 mins). But it feels important. As if the Travelling Wilburys formed when their members only had an album or two under each of their belts.

loved Dacus' debut in 2016 (it rocks harder than her very good 2018 album, Historian, and anything on Boygenius) and am very excited about seeing Julien Baker live in February next year. Bridgers was new to me, but turns out she's just as good.


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10. Future Me Hates Me by The Beths

An earworm farm and my second favourite Kiwi album of the year. When I first listened to it, I dug the New Pornographers vibe, and then moved on to other things. Seeing it popping up on a lot of US and UK end of year lists made me return to it. Sometimes you find new depths at moments like this, but it wasn't really depth that struck me but a sense of fun. Of playing around within a groove (guitar music) without being ironic. 

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9.  Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love by St Lenox

This was another grower. Listening to this as I drove solo from Rotorua to Whakatane in November, I was finally free (and able) to sing along, and it was one of the best hours of my year.   

Soul-baring, hyperactive wordplay. Bedroom warrior instrumentation. And sequenced to perfection. 'Vincent Van Gogh' cuts to the quick (or maybe just for the artists with day jobs among us). 'Gold star' pumps you back up. 'Don't ever change me New York City' leaves you wondering where Andrew Choi will go next.

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8. Top Gear by Stef Animal

An instrumental album with each song including a retro or gimmicky instrument (from Casio SK-1 to Commodore Amiga 500 to the Cass Creek Electronic Waterfowl Call). If you'd told me such an album would crack my top ten (and be my fave local album), I'd have made my own waterfowl call sound, but Top Gear sounds like my childhood and the futures we were promised (think the stumbling into a pachinko parlour on Mars) without being gimmicky. 

If I ever write a sci-fi novel, this would be the soundtrack.

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7. Joy as an Act of Resistance by IDLES

My loud and angry album of the year. Confronting, articulate ('Don't fight a man with a perm' has to be up there for best song title of 2018) - they're like a British Protomartyr. 

I'm gutted I'll be out of town later this month when IDLES plays Wellington, but I get the feeling this is a band that, like Protomartyr, will release a lot of music in a short amount of time (their debut album, Brutalism, came out in 2017) and hopefully tour these parts again soon.

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6. The Crossing by Alejandro Escovedo

When I saw the track-listing stretched to 17 songs, I feared we were approaching the dreaded double album territory. Rolling Stone described  it (positively) as "a sprawling concept album", but all it's wrapped up within 59 minutes (phew!), and only the closer, 'The Crossing' cracks the 5 minute mark. That song caps a great album that plays off a great, if underrated, career (Escovedo was 67 when it was released). 

The Crossing 
covers similar territory to Drive-By Truckers' fantastic 2016 album, American Band, but given Escovedo's latin heritage (paired with his Texas rocker bona fides) there's a greater intimacy here when telling immigrants stories.

It's not a one-note album, either. 'Sonica USA' is a rocking 2 minutes and change. There are guest appearances from Wayne Kramer (MC5), James Williamson (Stooges) and honky tonk legend Joe Ely. It all hangs together and rewards on every listen.

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5. Transangelic Exodus by Ezra Furman

This is another story-based album, but it succeeds not for its concept but the success of its individual tracks. It shreds. It assaults. It soothes. It somersaults. And that's just track 1, 'Suck the blood from my wounds.' 

Dirty electronic beats and glitches are deployed here amid a more eclectic aural bed than the vaccuum on Low's Double Negative, and this seems to me the better reflection of the fuckedness of 2018. We're bored and overstimulated, we're irreligious and drawn to spiritualism, we can't love if we haven't been able to bring something or someone else down first. We're problematic (sigh)This is the album of that.

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4. Earthones by Bahamas

This album is coming back into its own for me with the return of summer. Despite his Caribbean moniker, Toronto-based Afie Jurvanen doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd produce the slickest, funkiest collection of laid back grooves in 2018. And it wasn't an instant thing. You can track the evolution of Bahamas from dangerously-close-to-Jack-Johnson to this kind of folk-funk perfection through his previous albums. 

Earthtones is an album I can put on in any mood and situation and it just works.

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3. Tenkiller by Marie/Lepanto

Marie/Lepanto is the union of Will Johnson (Centro-matic) and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (Water Liars) and something seriously clicks here. There are echoes of My Morning Jacket and David Bazan -- and because I got into Bazan's solo work and his efforts with Lo Tom and Pedro the Lion this year, but he didn't release a full LP in 2018, Marie/Lepanto probably gets boosted by a couple of spots as the next best thing.

Each of the 10 tracks is a gem (though I wouldn't call them all "killers"). 'Inverness' would be a contender for my track of the year if I didn't discount artists who appear in my top 10 albums.

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2. 13 Rivers by Richard Thompson

What an album to release at the age of 69. Holy shit.

Thompson has gone all kinds of directions over his career but in 2018 he sounds like some unholy blend of 
late Dylan, Nick Cave, Midlake and Corrosion of Conformity. 

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1. Beyondless by Iceage 

Danish post-punk problem children Iceage discovered the groove with Beyondless. Their very good back catalogue (New BrigadeYou're NothingPlowing the Fields of Love) and frontman Elias Bender Ronnenfelt's equally strong two albums with Marching Church feel suddenly sexless compared to Beyondless. There's even a (kind of) duet with Sky Ferreira -- few would have seen that coming.

The palette is enriched with horns, piano, an even the odd bit of tuneful singing -- without losing the rawness and energy that made Iceage so compelling from the outset. 

The band's battle with controversy has been well documented (my TLDR version: young guys try to mix nihilism with provocativeness, they learn those two don't mix), but here's hoping Beyondless is proof that provocation is beside the point when you can make music like this.


Don't believe me, here's a song from each of these great albums to get you going...