Sunday, February 28, 2010

February's Reading in Review

In my ideal month I would read at least one collection of short stories, one novel, one book of poetry and one work of non-fiction. I’d also read at least one New Zealand book. I don’t know how often I’ve achieved this in the past (I didn’t read a collection of poetry last month), but I hit for the cycle in February


Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (novel)

What's in the potato barn?

Rabo Karabekian played a cameo in 1973's Breakfast of Champions, but had to wait till 1987 to write his autobiography.

What’s in the potato barn?

He sounds like most every Vonnegut narrator: darkly humorous / doesn’t use semi-colons. ("I had made her so unhappy that she had developed a sense of humour, which she certainly didn’t have when I married her." p.245).

The double narrative – the life story and the what’s-going-on-now – makes for a herky jerky (but not unpleasant) read.

What’s in the potato barn?

There’s lots about art (abstract expressionism) and war (not just WWII, but that’s the pivotal one); other motifs (the bluebeard thing; Slazenger’s insanity) are under developed.

What’s in the potato barn?  Mild disappointment.

Footnote: I’m sure someone scholarly has looked at Vonnegut’s attitudes to race (on p.295 Rabo K says Maori “were cannibals and were divided into many warring tribes until the white man came…”) and how these fit with his opinions on humanity… Seems to be a sticky but interesting area.

How To Watch A Bird and Fish Of The Week by Steve Braunias (non-fiction, N.Z.)
How to Watch a Bird (Ginger Series)

How To Watch A Bird was an obvious choice after going native last month. From Braunias I learnt about twitching and bins, but also about Minka and Emily (his daughter and fiancé). Birds is best when talking about other books on birds (a strange compliment), but never quite escapes that column-y, I’ll-ride-the-coattails-of-X-because-I’ve-only-got-900-words-to-make-my-point feel.

Column-y isn’t a bad thing. After all, I went on to read Mr. B’s recent collected columns (Fish of the Week) which should probably have been called Beef of the Week (there are at least six columns about steak).

Fish of the Week: Selected ColumnsIn his introduction to Fish, Braunias claims: “In ordinary circumstances, I am a mild, inoffensive fellow who has no opinions about anything. The column persuades me to engage.” This may have been true once, but regular viewers of TVNZ7’s The Good Word (Braunias is a regular on the panel discussions) will agree that the parasite seems to have devoured the host.

What’s that? He’s got a novel coming out this year… interesting.

Pocket Edition and Into India by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, N.Z.)
Pocket Edition
Geoff Cochrane – walker of Wellington streets, poet laureate of drizzle – has been my favourite New Zealand poet for a couple of years now. These two collections come from different ends of his career (Into India 1991; Pocket Edition 2008) but inhabit the same territory (lots of weather; lots of alcoholism post factum) and exhibit the same gustatory joy for language.

I marvel at his fragrance.
I’m awed by his performance,
so orotund and bogus. The huge shell
he’s built for himself over so many years.
The Worm in the TequilaThe huge baroque carapace
He totters about beneath.
(from ‘Disassembling a Vacuum Cleaner’)

Pocket Edition is seventeen years braver; it’s high points seventeen years higher; looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of GC’s new collection, The Worm In The Tequila, which will be launched during the Wellington Writers and Readers festival next month.

Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker (novel)

Room TemperatureI certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected… (p.41).

There’s your thesis right there. Nicholson Baker’s narrator does just that: takes the minutiae of a day with his baby daughter (cable knit sweaters and nose picking) and gives a kind of life story; in turn illustrating that [with reference to genetic cloning]: “the particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.”

Room Temperature is both focused and meandering; myopic and exquisitely precise, but also profound and, at times, scatological. Every time I read one of Bakers books (this is numero tres), I leave richer and more wide-eyed.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford (short stories)

A Multitude of SinsCheaters, the lot of them. I often felt compelled to cheat myself, not to seek succur in the arms of another women (heavens no), but to skip ahead a few pages, or leave a story for dead and start the next one. Each story, in a vacuum (or an edition of the New Yorker) provides a good model to wannabe New Yorker contributors (or people trying to get into writing workshops). Consistent quality (and regular wafts of sexism) aren’t enough for me: it’s the law of diminishing marginal returns in book form.

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