Monday, September 2, 2019

Checking in on my reading targets for 2019

In my end of year reading post for 2018, I set nine targets. Here's how I'm tracking two-thirds of the way through the year.


1. Read great books

I didn't define the target, so I'm gonna say "great" equals books I've rated 85/100 in the spreadsheet I use to track my reading.

At the moment my success rate is 38%, which is pretty good, so I'd say...

STATUS: ON TRACK


2. Read at least 52 books

I've read 40 books through 8 months, which extrapolates to 60 books for the year.

STATUS: ON TRACK


3. Read at least 10 poetry collections

Currently on pace to read 3, but this target has been hit by the City Library closure and me not getting back into the flow of borrowing poetry books. I reckon I can do it, even if it involves a bit of cramming in Summer.

STATUS: BEHIND SCHEDULE


4. Read more than 40% female authors

Right now I'm right on 40% female, 60% male. This one jumps around month-to-month, so it's useful to know I don't have much margin for error.

STATUS: ON TRACK (just)


5. Read at least a third non-white authors

Currently only hitting 20%. If I do read 60 books, of the next 20, 12 need to be non-white authors. Which is totally doable, but not something to be taken for granted. (Again, I blame to cultural hegemony behind what books get audiobook versions, but that's no excuse)

STATUS: BEHIND SCHEDULE


6. Read less than 40% US authors

Again, I'm at 40% exactly. Knowing this, I'll be able to choose other voices and hit this target comfortably.

STATUS: ON TRACK


7. Read from at least 10 different countries

I've read from 11 countries already (US, NZ, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Italy, Argentina). So I've met the target but I'd still like to get a bit more diverse.

STATUS: ACHIEVED


8. Read at least 5 works in translation

I've read 5 works in translation so far. Again, would be nice to add a couple more/

STATUS: ACHIEVED


9. Target median age of books read: 2009

Um. So far, the median age is 2018. If I read 60 books in total, and the next 20 are all golden oldies, the median age would still be 2014. So I think it's safe to say I'm not gonna hit this target. I blame the non-fiction bender I've been on, with a particular interest in things like climate change, depression and prejudice - so the more contemporary the better.

But I'll make a note to read a couple books with a least two generations remove before Christmas.

STATUS: EPIC FAIL


OVERALL

The most likely outcome had I not done this check would've been 5/9 targets, assuming I messed up one of the two 40% targets, but now I reckon I'll be able to hit 8. 

Here goes nothing...

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Launch month and August consumption diary

MUSIC




CASTING OFF THE SAINT

This month was launch month for my third book, Nailing Down the Saint.

I was in Hamilton for a panel on Contemporary Fiction on the actual day the book appeared in stores (6 Aug), as part of Hamilton Book Month. The highlight was meeting a former nun during the book signing afterward who could remember watching a film about St Joseph of Copertino back in her convent in the late 60's, and could still describe the final scene in detail. I was able to fill in some of the blanks such as the title (The Reluctant Saint, 1962) and we discussed the odd casting of an Austrian actor as St Joseph in an English language film about an Italian saint... Was not expecting that on my first public outing with the book.

Then I went to Palmerston North on the 13th for an intimate event at Bruce McKenzie Booksellers. Academic and fellow Penguin Random House author Thom Conroy graciously introduced me and questions from the floor led me into fun and challenging territory.

The next day it was a lunchtime Q&A session with Brannavan Gnanalingam at Unity Books in Wellington. You can read a write up of the event on Unity's website.

Lunchtime Q&A at Unity Books
It was very cool to get out there, particularly (re)connecting with the independent booksellers (shout out to Poppies in Hamilton, too) who are such great champions of local lit.

Still to come in September:
With a couple more things booked or in the pipeline later in the year.

(Let us say nothing of the dire book coverage in printed and online outlets... For now.)


BOOKS
Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman
Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman (short fiction, audiobook)


The subtitle is "fictional non-fiction", which immediately made me weary. Klosterman's a non-fiction writer who made his name by dwelling on the areas of culture you're supposed to gloss over (heavy metal in Killing Yourself to Live; all the junk in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs). He's branched out as his career progressed but this is his first book-length work of fiction...

And it's a collection of short stories.

Calling it "fictional non-fiction" and blurbing it with phases like, "Microdoses of the straight dope, stories so true they had to be wrapped in fiction for our own protection", and "Fair warning: Raised in Captivity does not slot into a smooth preexisting groove"... when it's just a slightly off-beat story collection frustrates me. I get why (story collections don't sell, etc etc), but it's this frustration that is the overriding memory of what is, otherwise, a fun collection of short stories.

Image with no description
The Unreliable People by Rosetta Allan (novel, NZ)


Read in preparation for my Going West session. We should have heaps to discuss!


The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (non-fiction, audiobook)

I listened to this in two chunks in one afternoon/evening, as I drove to and from Palmerston North for my event on the 13th.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-WellsThere was a fair amount of cognitive dissonance at play, charging my petrol vehicle on a 300km round trip while Wallace-Wells (who narrates the audiobook himself) describes (at 2x speed so as to fit the book into one journey and satisfy my inner impatient consumer) the collision course our planet is on with unequally distributed, climate-inflicted misery and death.

As a book, it'd make a great introduction to climate change. But I was expecting/hoping for more in the second half when it promised to describe what life will be like on Planet Earth if/when we careen off the cliff at something like 3 degrees of warming. I guess the fiction writer in me was wanting something more grounded, but the consequences of things like sea level rise, mass extinction of fauna and extreme weather were delivered with the same helicopter view as the precis of climate science that necessarily preceded the sooth-saying sections.


ChernobylChernobyl: the history of a tragedy by Serhii Plokhy (non-fiction, audiobook)


The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) cover art

The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad you did) by Philippa Perry (non-fiction, audiobook)

This wasn't research for a book. I've kinda done my parenting fiction with Nailing Down the Saint (and pre-parenting, bad parent book in The Mannequin Makers). I'm allowed to feel like we're not doing a great job IRL and look for a bit of help, eh?

I like to watch: arguing my way through the TV revolution by Emily Nussbaum (non-fiction, audiobook)
I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum

A collection of Nussbaum's columns, reviews, recaps and features (with a couple new/extended pieces covering #MeToo), it covers her thesis that, while TV has finally shaken off the junk culture label and its best work is rightly considered artistic and important, the "best" label is still reserved for predominantly male creators and masculine genres. The Sopranos rather than Sex and the City.

It's all convincing, but some of the later, capsule-sized pieces on individual shows like Law and Order SVU feel a little extraneous (the book is 380+ pages or 13+ hours in audiobook), but that aside: I'd recommend to anyone interested in TV and its relationship to other art forms and the broader culture.


On the go...

I'm partway through a few more books that I'll finish and write-up in September, but in case I forget:

  • Dead People I have Known by Shayne Carter - this is really good!!
  • Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry - ditto!!
  • You Know You Want This by Kirsten Roupenian - too early to say.


MUSIC II


Image

On Friday I went to see Aldous Harding at the Hunter Lounge, which is in the student union building at Victoria University. It was a terrible venue 18 years ago when I went to my first, drunken Orientation gigs (Tadpole, anyone?) and it's worse now that I'm a less-drunk, more fusty thirty-something middle manager. I've never heard the chatter of people in the back half of a venue so loud, so oppressive.

The fact that Harding sat down for many of the songs and the stage wasn't very high, may have caused some at the back to disengage, so the venue did her no favours, but fucking hell people, you paid good money to see the most unique musical artists of any generation or form, and you can't shut the fuck up for 90 minutes?

Because, venue and a portion of the punters aside, the show was insanely good. (Shout out to Harding's backing back who were amazing, too.)

Citytocity.jpgWe were clearly watching someone who has already ascended to a special, global (albeit niche) plane with songs like 'Fixture Picture' and 'The Barrel' (notably she didn't play either of her two most popular songs from her previous album, 'Horizon' or 'Imagining My Man'), but she more than hinted that she was already breaking through further barriers with her cover of Gerry Rafferty's 'Right Down the Line' and the new song that capped the encore 'Old Peel'.

I had a fan girl moment with the Rafferty cover. City to City is an album I've listened to a lot over the last 3 years, and I repurposed 'Right Down the Line' as a movie title for the fictional, feted director, Frank Motta, in Nailing Down the Saint. There was no levitation on Friday night, but it was levitation-adjacent.

FILM & TV

Funny As - Season 1
Russian Doll - Season 1
Derry Girls - Season 1
w/Bob & David - Season 1
Under the Skin
Merata: How mum decolonised the screen
Vertigo*
Toy Story 4
The Circle
Office Christmas Party
The Stolen

Monday, August 5, 2019

Nailing Down the Saint: The Playlist

So I wrote another novel and it comes out tomorrow in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s called Nailing Down the Saint and it’s about Hollywood, fatherhood and levitation. Here’s 70 minutes of music of special relevance to the project, and a bunch of words about that music (and other things).


1.     Patient Zero – Aimee Mann

If Nailing Down the Saint was Season Two of a TV show[1], this song that might play over the “Previously, on” recap: A young man arrives in Hollywood. The world lays at his feet. But things don’t go as planned.

There’s this point, two and half minutes into the song, just after Mann sings, “You paid your respects like a ransom / To a moment that was doomed from the start”, and there’s this low, ominous piano note. The song continues, but that note once struck can’t be unstruck. Things have turned to shit, even if you aren’t ready to admit it yet.
Welcome to Duncan Blake’s life in LA.



2.     Bedtime – Gord Downie

This song, the 3rd track on Introduce Yerself, kicked me in the guts so friggin’ hard when I first heard it, still reeling from Downie’s death[2], knowing he wrote it as his days with his family were numbered, and have young kids myself. The song recounts the struggle to get a young child to sleep, laying them down, pulling your hands away,  “as if from a bomb”, and getting out of the room, only to be called back in and for it to “start all over again”.

In the midst of this routine, it can seem a trial. Interminable. But what goes unsaid here is this eminently and imminently mortal father would give anything to go through it again. What might sound like a lullaby to someone not paying attention is actually an ode to fatherhood and a goodbye.

In NDTS, the protagonist, Duncan, has a nearly four-year-old son, Zeb, and thoughts of time passing and not being there for Zeb fuck him up. If he heard ‘Bedtime’, he’d be reduced to a puddle of gloop like *that*.


3.     Tinseltown in the Rain – The Blue Nile

So Duncan has moved to LA to continue his meteoric rise in the world of filmmaking, but was fucked over, then fucked up by fatherhood, and finds himself working in a chain restaurant in West Hollywood.

The penultimate chapter of the first section lifts its title directly from The Blue Nile’s song. With its synth-heavy, questioning mood – “Why did we ever come so far? / I knew I'd seen it all before / Do I love you ? Yes I love you / Will we always be happy go lucky?” – it feels like the mopey section of a John Hughes movie, which is absolutely something Duncan Blake might think in the moment before he gets his second chance handed to him by Frank Motta.


4.     Horizon – Aldous Harding

These next three songs are dedicated to Felicity “Mack” MacKinnon, Duncan’s best friend from high school, who, after a period of estrangement, joins him on his Italian quest to scout locations for Frank Motta’s biopic of Saint Joseph of Copertino (more on him in a bit).

When I first heard this song in 2017, I thought: that’s Mack. Here’s something I’d already written about her (and that’s in the final novel):

‘Come on, babe, play nice.’ She’d called him ‘babe’ since forever. Had shown up at his high school calling everyone that, like some Hollywood producer posing as a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, only she seemed to be doing it ironically. As if she’d ever turn Hollywood! She was real, belonged to the world of cellulite, not celluloid, could bend old language around new corners. It was as if every ‘babe’ had an implied, parenthetical retort, like the title of an unlikely pop hit.

(You’re no picture yourself) Babe.

(Nothing you can do can get to me) Babe.

Harding’s spare-yet-epic, totally cinematic masterpiece is likewise riddled with complex, terminal “babes”.


5.     It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) – Eurythmics

The only thing is: Aldous Harding is more Duncan’s kind of music than Mack’s.

On the road trip, she’s the master of the in-car playlist, leaning much more toward the nostalgic (or what counts as nostalgia for a child of the 80’s and 90’s).


There was A LOT more banter about music while Duncan and Mack travelled around Italy in the first draft of NDTS, but this had to (HAD TO!!) be pared back. Examples of riffs that ended on the cutting room floor: how OK Computer-era Radiohead sounds like a piss-take of 90’s po-faced seriousness; on nostalgia and wistfulness; how Lennox and Stewart are a better songwriting duo than Lennon and McCartney… That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, but I will sit at the summit until some vinyl-smelling boor comes to chase me off.


6.     I Will Wait – Hootie & the Blowfish

One thing I couldn’t cut was Mack and Duncan arguing about this song.

I was very much in Duncan’s camp (i.e. it is unconscionable to enjoy, yet alone publicly endorse Hootie & the Blowfish) for most of my life[3]. But I’m now Team Mack on this particular track. Add it twice to your next road trip playlist: once to get over the hump of your fellow travellers’ prejudice and a second time for the singalong.


7.     Can’t Keep Checking My Phone – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

I saw UMO live in Wellington in December 2015, when progress on the novel was stymied. I’d written about 10,000 words the year before, then got very sick for a fortnight and couldn’t get clear of family and work commitments to get the ball rolling again. But I could still faff around on my phone and go to concerts and have transcendent experiences listening to Ruban Neilson do Prince via T-Rex through one of those tin-can-and-string telephone getups.

When I got back into NDTS the next year, UMO’s Multi Love was still on high rotate and Duncan’s cellphone became one of the major characters – a know-it-all who sucks the mystery out of tipsy wonderings but can’t help get you out of the tangle it has led you into in the medieval centre of Assisi.

Then there’s Duncan’s female friend from work in LA who’s What’s App-ing him, desperate to know how his road trip is going…


8.     Sitting in my Hotel – The Kinks

‘Celluloid Heroes’ might be the more obvious Kinks song here, but that song sucks.

This one, however, is up there with ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’ as the underappreciated Kinks masterpiece.

It has that classic, fame-is-a-downer vibe that can translate even when you’re not famous (which is, let’s face it, most of us), just simply alone in a hotel room, or, right next to your best friend in a room in Pietrarubbaia and you realise that you’ve been criminally incurious about her life and motivations.


9.     A Private Understanding – Protomartyr

The best track from my favourite album of 2017 (Relatives in Descent), the most important year in the creation of NDTS.[4]

You can read a lot of things into the lyrics, so of course I see connections with my novel, but in 2018 I learnt another thing I love about Protomartyr while preparing to see them live[5]: that the frontman, Joe Casey, didn’t join a band until he was 35 (my age at the time), couldn’t play an instrument (like me, despite those three terms of classical guitar tuition at Intermediate) and struggled with stage-fright (hence the dark glasses and static stage presence). There’s even a Tumblr dedicated to journalist’s overwrought descriptions of him.

“The one who looks like a Belgian lorry driver is lead singer Joe Casey”

And yet here he is, singing songs about the Flint water crisis, the plague of toxic masculinity and the mysterious hum that can be heard in Windsor, Ontario.

A hero for our times!


10.  My Body – David Bazan

This was my favourite song of 2018. If 2017 was all about the first draft, 2018 was about actually writing an ending (!) and rolling through the manuscript again and again until it was fit for someone else to read (the editing process took me through to mid-2019).

Bazan solo and in all his other projects is amazing. Everything is shot through with the anxiety that comes as another mediocre (or not) white dude with a microphone.

‘My Body’ speaks directly to the concerns of NDTS.

Honestly, pick any line.

Or just start from the beginning: “This feels like a disproportionate amount of longing / More confirmation I was never meant to live alone”

(I mean, who write lyrics like that?)

As Duncan gets further and further into his location scouting gig, his native scepticism about the feats of Saint Joseph of Copertino, a seventeenth century Franciscan friar who is purported to have levitated hundreds of times and performed countless other miracles during and after his time on earth, is eaten away. To the point he might admit, as Bazan does in his chorus: “My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes”. Might.

Image result for Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston
11.  Mind Games – John Lennon

I’d never really listened to, or thought about, the lyrics here until I was writing this book. I’d just assumed it was about the mind games two people in a relationship play, but it’s a much more positive type of mind game Lennon is talking about – inspired by the book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston – and totally in keeping with Lennon in 1973.

For a while I wanted to call the novel Absolute Elsewhere, after a lyric in this song[6]. Instead it’s just a chapter title (along with another lyric, ‘Out of the Now’) and I let someone in sweatpants mangle it on guitar to a pizzeria full of cult members.


12.  Strange Torpedo – Lucy Dacus

Another chapter title.

Dacus has explained that she was inspired by a line in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I still can’t avoid the phallic associations of a ‘strange torpedo on the loose’ – which fits in with the theme of Hollywood enabling the unchecked masculine gaze…

Having said that. the strange torpedo in NDTS is a dead blackbird a young girl is trying to bring back to life in a convent carpark.


13.  Stay Lost (acoustic) / Tinseltown Swimming in Blood – Destroyer

This double shot from the deluxe edition of Destroyer’s Ken (2017) rounds out the Italian portion of the novel. Not gonna divulge any spoilers, but from the song titles themselves you can begin to surmise how things round out for Duncan with Mack and Motta.


14.  The French Inhaler – Warren Zevon

Early in the novel, there’s a discussion of Frank Motta’s oeuvre, including a film called French Inhaler, about “the ultimate kiss-off song [i.e. Zevon’s]. A cross between a talking heads documentary and crime scene re-enactment.”[7]

Thematically, this track and the way it crosses the line for both misogyny and self-loathing fits much better at the tail end of this playlist and the moment for Duncan “when the lights came up at two”.


15.  Mariners Apartment Complex – Lana Del Rey
16.  Green Light – Lorde

Image result for lorde lana del rey

It’s important to finish this playlist with some younger, female voices for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who gets to the end of NDTS.

I’ve long been a sucker for the overtness of Del Rey’s façade and the performativeness of her songs, but ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ appears to mark a more personal turn in her song writing. When she sings, ‘I’m your man’, in the chorus, it’s about self-empowerment and reclaiming gendered language and everything you want to surround your kids – female, male or otherwise - with.

Then there’s Lorde.

Melodrama came out in 2017 and was on high rotate as I wrote NDTS. But I was also in the US in 2013 when ‘Royals’ started to blow up (and Ellie Catton won the Booker Prize) and it was this amazing moment for young Kiwi women and I was struggling to start something new after my novel, The Mannequin Makers, had come out and would struggle for another four years…

So when Lorde kicked off her sophomore album with ‘Green Light’, a perfectly complex dancefloor jam about almost having the licence to just let go, it struck a chord with this thirty-something, who, like Duncan Blake, had “skin the colour of old lace, a penis and a second chance.”




[1] It’s not – it’s a standalone novel – but if it was…

[2] If you get to the end of NDTS, or if you’re like me and you read the acknowledgements page first, you’ll see that I dedicate the book to the memory of Gord Downie, the Canadian musician, writer and humanitarian best known as the frontman of The Tragically Hip. Downie recorded his final solo album, Introduce Yerself, while in the late stage of his battle with brain cancer. It was released 10 days after his death in October 2017, when I was in the midst of writing the first draft of NDTS. I’d been a rabid fan of The Hip and Downie’s solo work for more than a decade, and had shared a brief email exchange with him in the early 2010s which included me sending him my first book, but it felt to personal, too chummy, to have the dedication open the book. So that’s why it’s tucked away in back.

[3] I once flatted with a person who was inconsiderate, untidy and morally bogus (she expected us to lie to her husband when he called), but at the time I thought our most emblematic exchange was when, the one time she actually decided to clean the kitchen, she was blaring an FM station and said to me, “I just love Hootie and the Goldfish, don’t you?”

[4] The formula is pretty simple if you wanna pander to my tastes: dark, brooding music with evocative yet unpindownable lyrics = fantastic music to listen to while writing = dozens of streams.

[5] It was a great show BTW.

[6] Bullet dodged.

[7] One of the cool things about creating multiple filmographies was coming up with movies I wish someone would make. I mean, this craze for basic pop biopics baffles me when there’s so many more interesting stories to be told. Listen to ‘The French Inhaler’ and then Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘Hollywood Hopeful’ and tell me these songs haven’t just conjured up 90 minutes of screen time you’d actually leave the house for.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Consumption Diary

MUSIC



BOOKS

Image result for basketball and other thingsBasketball & Other Things by Shea Serrano (non-fiction)

This felt like reading something online (unsurprising, as Serrano writes for the Ringer and many chapters started as bits there or on its precursor, Grantland), without all the bells and whistles you might get online, like the ability to see the particular play being described instantly.

Which became the strength of the book.

Like the slow food revolution for NBA-heads. A wormhole back to the not-too-distant-past when you had to take some of these feats on faith, until the VHS arrived with the proof.

It helped reduce my screen time and open windows into a more creative application of my own NBA addiction.

The "(and other things)" is important, too. The book becomes a collection of personal essays, leaping off from barroom questions like "Which version of Michael Jordan was the best?" to discuss the difference between how white Americans and Mexican Americans care for their elderly.

Looking forward to Movies (and other things) in October!!


Superior by Angela Saini (non-fiction, audiobook)
Image result for superior angela saini

This pairs pretty well with The Coddling of the American Mind (which I still haven't finished, but). Answers the question: how did we get here? through the lens of race and race-based debate and politics.

In a macro-sense: it's so fucking demoralising (see also the ending of BlacKkKlansman). The scientific basis for racial difference has long been dismissed. But money and bad faith have been allowed to spur on bad science, which mixes with wilful ignorance...

That's the kicker. Without a latent mass of people waiting for these dog-whistles, it's over.

But there's enough in this book, if you pick through the individual parts, to suggest how we might go about (re?)building a better level of public discourse.

But some days it's just easier to go full-bore misanthropist, isn't it?


Image result for against interpretation susan sontagAgainst Interpretation and Other Essay by Susan Sontag (non-fiction, audiobook)


After reading these essays I happened to watch Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and it helped me understand why I hated it. There was no surface truth: it was all meant to be interpreted. No vehicle, just tenor. The urge to interpret turned into the creative act, leaving an empty vessel.

So, yeah, good book, bad movie.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (novel, audiobook)
Image result for my year of rest and relaxation by ottessa moshfegh

The only fiction I read this month.

I really wanted to like it, but it had a steep hill to climb as it based its narrative of some of my pet peeves: excessive drug use, extended therapy scenes, privileged, passive protagonist... While I hadn't quite read this exact story before (ie from the perspective of a mid-twenties female in New York around the turn of the Millennium) I have to say, it was a slog.


MOVIES & TV

The OA - Season 2 - I can see how some might see this show as a hot mess. It throws so many things against the wall. But to me, most of it coheres. And the stuff they're throwing? It's like they've been stealing my dream journal. Alternate realities. Angels. Cosmic Connections. And reading the same books: The Secret Life of Trees. Mind Games. Three-Body Problem...

The only thing that didn't sit right for me was the final twists, which was altogether too meta for me. If there's a reason Netflix hasn't renewed the show yet, it might be how the season ended. More likely it's that not enough people have watched it yet... I'm guilty for letting this sit on my watchlist for too long.

Or maybe the showrunners caught wind of the likelihood The OA would not be renewed and tried to crowbar some kind of closure (or deadening of expectations) so they could walk away from it? I think that's unlikely. But it's a show that invites theorising, even about it's production.

#RenewTheOA

Hereditary
BlacKkKlansman
Crazy Rich Asians
Mother!
Catch 22 (TV show)
Aziz Ansari: Right Now (curiosity killed the cat)
The Inbetweeners 2 - ugh

Monday, July 1, 2019

June Consumption Diary

MUSIC



BOOKS

The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox (novel, audiobook, NZ)
Image result for the angel's cut elizabeth knox
It only took me ten years to get around to reading the sequel to The Vintner's Luck but boy howdee this was good.

It sent me scrambling for reasons for how a sequel could be this good. Like, it helps when the main character doesn't age, so the sequel can take place at any time or place that takes your fancy up until the present day... but it still takes a massive amount of  skill to pull off!

There's a lot in this book that echoes what I was interested in when writing Nailing Down the Saint. It goes a lot further in pushing forward a counter-story to the rational materialist world view (the main character is an ANGEL! Lucifer makes regular guest appearances), without ever seeming like fantasy for the sake of fantasy.


Hark by Sam Lipsyte (novel)

HarkI'd been hanging out for Hark to appear on Audible (or one of the borrowing services I can access through my library) but I got tired of waiting and read the physical book instead.

And at first it was like a drug. I was taking photos of individual pages so I'd have record of an amazing sentence, or a hilarious joke (often both at the same time).

An example from page 78, where two characters are at an art gallery:
"It says here that we should enjoy Volk's work but not forget that we was distant with his family in later years and once considered having an affair with a neighbor."
So much to unpack!

I did struggle slightly to separate the first perspective character (the novel has a handful of them), Fraz Penzig, from Milo Burke, the protagonist of Lipsyte's previous novel, The Ask (2010) - and Steve and Lewis from the two novels that preceded that one.

The middle section of Hark suffers a similar, you're-not-really-reading-for-plot-are-you?, doldrums. The kind I'd normally be able to power through in an audiobook, but is more pronounced when you can't multi-task. And the ending... well, it sucked.

Zooming out, I think we've all been conditioned to be a little tougher on satire in the last few years, which makes it hard for Hark to hit all of its targets. Like that joke above could be seen as minimising the shittiness of the Woody Allens and Louis C.K.'s of the world... You really need to go with the fact none of the characters - but the white males especially - are vessels for hyperbole. Heroic they are not. And when a joke makes you squirm, there's power in holding that space and interrogating why, even if you come out the other end thinking: you really shouldn't have, Sam.

Still, like The Ask (which was my favourite read of 2017), I've got a lot of love for Hark - it's verve and eye-descaling moments - but it won't compete for a spot in my top ten reads this year.

Aside: Any author concerned about your average star-ratings on Goodreads should scan Sam Lipstye's for a reminder that average + Amazon = piffle.


Image result for the dry jane harper
The Dry by Jane Harper (novel, audiobook)

Pretty standard crime thriller.

Revealed the killer a little early (and the twist wasn't in a very satisfying direction), puncturing the tension.

But then: could I write anything near as thrilling? Nope.



Image result for fight club 2Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart (graphic novel)

Shit.

God awful.

Mercifully short.


MOVIES & TV

Chernobyl
Game of Thrones - Season 7* and 8
Succession - Season 1
Black Mirror - Season 5
Always Be My Maybe
Behind the Curve
About Time

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Third Age Vacation

Wanaka
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)...


Arrowtown
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

MUSIC


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...




MAILBOX #1


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)

BOOKS
Image result for there there tommy orange

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?

Damn.


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.

MAILBOX #2


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.


FILM & TV

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)