Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Research Roadtrip: Urban coastal settlements

Okay, so on Thursday morning I flew into Dunedin, which really means I landed 40 minutes outta the city in Taieri. I then picked up my rental car and gunned it to Port Chalmers for a look around (this may or may not be the first landing point in NZ for one of the characters in THE NOVEL).

On the road to Port Chalmers

Port Chalmers still has a number of buildings from the 1800s, but they were overshadowed by two large cruise ships that were in port.

The scale of the present collides with the past, Port Chalmers

More about museums, Oamaru and Richie McCaw worship after the jump...

Monday, January 30, 2012

There Will Be Birds

I’m back from my flying visit down south and it was faarking fantastic.

Rather than tackle it in one big post, I’ll knock it off in several smaller, image-heavy posts over the next week or so. There will be birds. There will be lakes and hills and beaches. There will be more birds and a poorly-framed hector’s dolphin. I will, however, spare you the roadkill wallaby I saw near Lake Aviemore.

But for now, here’s a photo of my favourite mid-size town, the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand, Oamaru, as the southerly front approached on Thursday:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hills / Fielding / Bursitis / Work

A short poem


The hills you know were made slowly
Pushed up or carved out over centuries
For the day you buy a bicycle.

Things I tell the Internet but might feel weird bringing up in general conversation #1

The Art of FieldingMy review of Chad Harbach's novel, The Art of Fielding, is in this weeks Listener.

This is my second paid book review. I enjoyed it slightly more than last time, but it's a time consuming way to make less than a hundred dollars after tax (read a 500 page novel then spend a day trying to say something substantial and useful in 400 words). I guess there's the free book thing, too.

My respect for good book critics continues to grow.

(I have an evolving fantasy of not writing any fiction in 2013 - or at least not working on a novel - and devoting myself to writing longform journalism. Just for shits and giggles. I'll snap out of it soon, I think).

Things I'd whinge about if you met me in person #1

I am suffering from bursitis at the mo. Specifically, olecranon bursitis, or 'student's elbow'. It's kinda hard to take a photo of my own elbow that does the freaky, deformed, bulbous, bruised thing justice, but here goes:

It was a lot worse yesterday: the size and hardness of a golf ball, which made bending the thing nearly impossible. It hurts a bit, but less than you might think.

I first munted by elbow while living in Edinburgh four years ago. Since then I've had about three recurrances, either from a substantial knock or too much leaning on my desk at work.

Is it just me, or does it feel weird to be talking about my elbow online?

Things I tell the Internet but might feel weird bringing up in general conversation #2

To the relief of my desk-averse elbow, I'm off tomorrow to North Otago/South Canterbury for a four day research mission. It'll be a mix of museum trawling, beach combing and hill climbing.

Not quite as adventurous as the events in THE NOVEL (thankfully), but should be fun. Here's the route I may or may not stick to:

Photos to follow.

Something I'd whinge about if you met me in person and share online

I’ve gone up from two days a week at the Ministry of Education to three days. The logic behind the move went something like this:

• I’ve got up a head of steam on THE NOVEL (correction: I had up a head of steam, then got married)
• my (revised) deadline is not till July/August
• my team at work has just lost two people and they need all hands on deck
• $$$ I would earn more money $$$
• one of my working days could be a Friday, meaning I’d get to socialise more with colleagues (also: my brother/flatmate has Friday’s off making it easier to be distracted at home on Fridays).

All solid reasons. I especially like the one with the $-signs. I also hoped that by increasing the scarcity of my writing time, I’d make better use of it.

It’s still too early to say, but today I had a Gawd, what have I done? moment at work. It seems the holidays are finally over and there are a dozen things that need to be done pronto. Doesn’t help that the last few weeks have been slow going with THE NOVEL.

There is no perfect day job/writing mix and I’m sure I’ll get comfortable with my 3/2 mix at some stage.

Another short poem

Out of doors

It’s so late the weather has disappeared.
The trees have regained their good posture.
Where has Wellington gone I wonder?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A trip to Marumaru South, aka Baring Head

I can see Baring Head from my deck (I could see it from my desk right now if another house didn't intercede) but the view is particularly good when I'm walking home from the bus stop on a summer evening. Over the course of several such evenings two years ago I decided my fictional town of Marumaru South, located somewhere between Timaru and Oamaru, would actually look a lot like Baring Head, but with houses and streets.

Despite it seeming so close from the top of Mt Albert, Baring Head is actually an hour's drive from my house, followed by an hour's walk to reach the lighthouse and the views back across the harbour. And despite working on a novel set in Marumaru South for the last year, I had never actually been to Baring Head until today.

Before starting the walk to the lighthouse, M. and I drove to the coast, near the mouth of the Wainuiomata River. From the beach you can actually see the lighthouse and the hills you have to climb over to look back at Wellington.

After traipsing through sheep paddocks following the occasional orange triangle that marked the path, we made it up the hill and I was able to take the reverse of the photo above:

Baring Head is the windiest place in New Zealand, and it didn't disappoint today. Luckily the sun was out so it wasn't too cold. The sun, the wind, the pulsing grass in seed, the rocks and white-capped sea - it was all quite dramatic. Oh, and the sheep!

I'm not into lighthouses like some people (*cough* Marcus Lush *cough*), but there's a lighthouse in my fictional town and I was interested to see what Baring Head's lighthouse looked like up close.

Aside: I know I risk sounding a lot like the novelist in this article from the Onion:
According to Milligan, he spent seven months conducting in-depth historical research in order to conjure, as if out of thin air, the fictional and entirely bullshit universe of Connor's Cove, Massachusetts, including its utterly uninspired lighthouse...
I guess this is as close to operating on a knife-edge as we historical novelists get, eh?

Anyway, the Baring Head lighthouse (built 1935, so too recent to be much use to me) is a concrete design similar to the one at Cape Reinga, which I saw last month in almost zero visibility; you couldn't see the sea at all). Sadly there's a few temporary NIWA buildings behind the Baring Head lighthouse which ruin any lighthouse + sea photos.

Baring Head lightouse + sky - sea - NIWA weather station
Back from the lighthouse there are three boarded up cottages and another few small sheds/outhouses. The lawns had all been freshly mown giving the place a recent viral epidemic vibe.

Continuing on the loop walk yielded some great views of Wellington Harbour. Thanks to my zoom lens and some more digital zooming at home I've been able to identify my flat in some photos, but you'll just have to trust me.

Looking toward Wellington from Baring Head
So, how did my trip to Baring Head affect my thinking about Marumaru South? Well, I think there'll be more wind when I go through and do the second draft.

I'm holding off on any other changes as I'm going down to South Canterbury and North Otago in a fortnight for a four day research trip. It'll inform both my Marumaru scenes and the later 'flight to the hills'.

But for now, my trip to the real Marumaru has given my motivation to work on THE NOVEL a nice fillip. And who knows, maybe the exercise and new environment stimulated a bit of neurogenesis...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Short poems / Krypton Factor / Neurogenesis

Short Poems

2012 is the year of the London Olympics. It is also the Alan Turing Year and the year the world might end.

But I’m calling it the Year of the Short Poem. I’m not sure why. I just wanna post some short (six or less lines) poems in my blog posts this year.

So here’s #1 (it's by me, by the way):

Children play on the floor.
The mothers are beautiful.
We negotiate the years, barbeque by barbeque.

To the Burnham Army Base! (and don’t forget your tracksuit)

There’s was a minor internet kerfuffle earlier this week over a pamphlet from an indeterminate date in which John Key appears to diss New Zealand writers, which is all the more baffling as the pamphlet is supposed to spruik a NZ literature walk. Here’s the full statement (source: Listener Online).

I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.

This Literary Heritage Trail celebrates writers, poets and playwrights who have contributed to this young country’s cultural and historical life.

I hope you will take the opportunity to be part of this journey.

- Hon. John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Erm. Okay.

It’s probably true that for the majority of the population an average all black will be held in higher esteem than a great writer. But why bring up the All Blacks at all, John (or whoever in the PM’s office wrote his statement)?

Without presuming to being a literary hero, the statement does tempt me to organise a team of writers together to challenge the All Blacks to a Krypton Factor-style battle of brains and brawn.

Does anyone have Dougal Stevenson’s phone number?

Ghastly ghastly grows the purple blight

Around this time last year I wrote a column in the Dom Post about my hatred of agapanthus. I was pleased, therefore, to see this article online today (any discussion about the evil, ugly, insipid plant is helpful) but dismayed that the early poll results weren’t heavily in favour of banning it.

Maybe if an All Black spoke out against agapanthus??

Double Jeopardy

Something I missed while travelling: A Man Melting has the unusual privilege of being on the Sunday Star Times’ 2010 and 2011 lists of best books. The original December 4 2011 article not available online but the list features on Chch City Libraries’ website.

Here's what the article had to say about AMM: "The year's most outstanding debut. Assured stories from a young writer who knows how to vary his style to suit his subject: ranges from comedy to the really dour."

Kinda shows how small a splash AMM made in 2010, eh? The same can probably be said for 2011, but it’s hard to see how it can make it three years in a row in 2012… maybe an expanded third edition??

Caged monkey, sad monkey. Free monkey, happy monkey.

My current audiobook is Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. It looks at how famous writers and artists anticipated scientific discoveries, such as Whitman’s belief that emotions belonged both to the mind and body.
Proust Was a Neuroscientist
The connections between artist and science seems a bit tangiential at times, but the discussion of the science of umami (the fifth taste) or neurogenesis is facinating.

On the topic of neurogenesis, Lehrer describes how for a long time science held that the number of neurons in a primate’s brain was capped from infancy. But eventually experiemental science could demonstrate that our neurons could indeed divide and thus create new neurons. Part of the problem was that the lab tests used captive monkeys, and it has since been proven that captivity is bad for creating new neurons (neurogenesis). If you take the monkeys out of their cages, make them search for their food and give them a variety of toys, suddenly the brain starts bubbling with new neurons.

It has also been shown, so Lehrer informs me, that some anti-depressants stimulate neurongenesis and it is believed that new neurons rather than increased serotonin* could be what is making patients happy.

Combining these two findings suggests that the secret to happiness is a varied and challenging environment that’ll stimulate neurogenesis. Which provides a neurological explanation for why travel can make us happy. It can also explain why certain subjects (e.g. me) become maudlin when stuck in an office with little to do (or doing little despite a number of things they could be doing).

Now, if only summer will arrive properly, I’ll commence my neurogenesis routine!
*I originally spelt this 'ceratonin' -- one of the drawbacks of audiobooks is you aren't told/reminded how to spell technical words.

The year of the first person

I have two shortish (but not short-short) poems in Turbine 2011, which came out while I was roadtripping.  And no, I’m not trying to start a new vogue for first person bio notes, this is just what I sent along with my initial submission (as in: “Hey, here are some poems and here’s a bit about me”). I never got asked for a proper bio note or got a chance to review this one, but I’m happy to let it stand.

Maybe 2012 can also be the year of the first person?  Or does that sound too Biblical?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Best Books I Read in 2011

I know it's already five days into the new year, but here are the best books I read in 2011. As with my previous lists (2010, 2008), these books represent my best reading experiences of the year regardless of when they were published (for the record I read 13 books published in 2011 with three making my top ten).

1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
(novel, audiobook, 1838-9)

Nicholas Nickleby

I mentioned this book several times this year (such as here, here and here); perhaps this is natural when you listen to something for 30 hours...

What I said about it in October: "I can't remember laughing out loud this much when listening to an audiobook... M. is also listening to the audiobook on her iPod, though she's about ten hours behind me. We talk about the detours into the lives of the Kenwigses and the Crumleses, the lesser villians like Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby and the novel's great villain, Mrs Nickleby. It's all great fun, but is it great fiction? I think so. It's too flabby by modern standards. Far too many adverbs... But it's a pleasure to spend thirty hours of bus journeys and waterfront walks with Dickens' narrator (and Robert Whitfield, the audiobook's 'narrator'). The question is, what can I possibly load on my iPod next that'll be this much fun?"

2. The Prestige by Christopher Guest
(novel, audiobook, 1995)

The Prestige
Sometimes you read the right book at the right time, or in this case, you listen to it at the right time.

What I said about it in March: "Where Priest's novel trumps [Christopher Nolan's 2006 film adaptation] is the degree to which magic is inextricable from the story. The diary of Alfred Borden is built upon the concept of "the pledge" - the idea that the magician shows you what is up his sleeve, and you are willing to believe there's nothing, and that when something is produced hence, it is magic. So too, the writing of the diary exists on two levels: there's the prima facie truth and the between-the-lines truth... Great stuff."

3. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
(novel or linked short story collection - your call, 2010)

A Visit from the Goon Squad

What I said about it in July: "A Visit From The Goon Squad is about connections and disconnections, and the diffuse structure and disjointed narrative are how this is conveyed. Setting it in and around the music industry, which has always been fickle but over the last twenty years has seen drastic changes on the corporate side, the distribution and consumption of music, is genius.

"By the time I closed the book I had an appreciation for it, a respect even, and suspect it may creep onto my top ten list for books I've read this year...

"But it was a book I hated at several points."

You'll have to read the whole post to see what I hated, but it appears the passing of time has allowed it to more than creep into my top ten.

4. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell 
(novel, 2010)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

A real highlight for me in 2011 was my trip to Sydney in May the Commonwealth Writers Prize/Sydney Writers Festival and getting to hang out with some truly talent writers, including one Mr David Mitchell.

What I said about his book in April: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is both a leap back to the ambitious, imaginative feats of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas days, and a continuation of the use of more linear and focussed plots exhibited in Black Swan Green...

"There is still some unevenness in this novel... but one can overlook a couple of odd pages out when the novel is as entertaining and transporting as 1000 Autumns."

5. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts
(poetry/non-fiction, 2009)

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

I mentioned that I was reading this excellent book a few times throughout the year, but never summarised my thoughts because it's hard to feel like you've finished such a book. Green and Ricketts have sliced poetry up into various genres and movements and provided a chapter for each teeming with examples and places where to look next. A truly valuable introduction to poetry and New Zealand poetry that also functions like a Amazon-style 'If you liked this, you'll like...' set of recommendations for those who've read more widely but still have some gaps.

Special mention here to Harvey McQueen's anthology of New Zealand poems These I have loved (2010), which served both to bring new poems to my attention and remind me that I actually did read, study and enjoy New Zealand poetry at high school (early James K Baxter in particular, which I'd written off as imitative and easy to teach, but this is far too harsh a verdict for the likes of 'Wild Bees').

6. Tall Ships: The Golden Age of Sail by Phillip McCutchan
(non-fiction, 1976)

Sometimes you read the right book at not quite the right time, but still time enough for it to be of use...

What I said about it in November: “Since [buying the book two years ago] I've read over a dozen books about sailing ships and left McCutchan's languishing on the shelf. Sigh. I could have saved myself so much time leafing through books that weren't quite right.”

Do I think you should all rush out and buy a copy? No (even if it were that easy to find a 36 year old book). It's a niche interest. But in a year full of non-fiction reading and research, it stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of my reading experience.

7. The Larnachs by Owen Marshall
(novel, 2011)

The Larnachs

The first New Zealand fiction to appear on the list. All up I read ten books of fiction (novels and story collections) by New Zealand writers, after reading nine last year. While there were moments of great promise (Wulf) and polish (From Under the Overcoat, The Trouble With Fire) in other books, Marshall's novel was the most impressive for me.

What I said about it in October: "This is a marvellously written book. Marshall’s fiction has often employed a formal register, though this is his first attempt at an historical novel. The delight he has taken in the polished grammar of this bygone era is evident. I often read a sentence and paused to imagine Owen Marshall leaning back on his office chair, grinning, having just crafted it."

8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 
(novel, audiobook, 2011)

The Sense of an Ending

It's a rare Booker winner that makes it onto my top ten...

What I said about it in November: "The Sense of an Ending worked magnificently as an audiobook. There’s a single narrator, Tony Webster, who recalls specific moments in his life relating to a particular strand of memory: those relating to his friend, Adrian, who committed suicide in his early twenties. Tony weaves in and out of memory, digressing often on just what memory is and how it changes with time, but also finds the time to muse about the modern world, retirement, divorce and self-delusion. This is the kind of novel some agents might describe as quiet or slow, if you were to query them as a no-name writer, but I found it a thrilling and engaging story – thrilling, I guess, because it felt so intimate and real."

9. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen 
(novel, 2010)


At the other end of the spectrum from Barnes' slight novel is Franzen's ambitious, self-important doorstop.

What I said about it in May: "... it took me a good while to get sucked into the narrative – in fact, I thought about giving up after 50 pages and again at 100. Ah, at least I finished The Corrections...

"It’s clear J-Franz has it, whatever it is we’re all looking for in our writers: cajones, verbal alacrity and something to say, a deep moral vein and a finger on the pulse of kids these days... but there’s always the push and pull of his fiction and his FICTION, of the story he’s telling and the book he’s writing, of the look at my characters and the look at me.

I went on to call it a good-to-great novel and a sure bet to make my 2011 top ten. Seems it just squeezed in.

10= Western Line by Airini Beautrais and Spark by Emma Neale
(poetry, 2011 and 2008)

Western LineSpark

I read twelve collections of poetry in 2011, which comes to one a month. No doubt I could and should have read more, but the cream of this year's crop were Beautrais' second and Neale's third collections.

I enjoyed Beautrais' collection of prose poems, Secret Heart, about as much as I can imagine enjoying such a book (don't get me wrong, I love a good prose poem, but find myself maxed out after half a dozen), but Western Line manages to keep that 'An odd thing I noticed today' feel while wielding ancient forms of poetry (curses, charms, love poems) with modern aloofness.

What stands out for me in Neale's collection in the crispness of voice. There are a lot of poems (and prose-y bits) about preganancy and motherhood, which in years gone by or in the hands of another poet might have left me completely untouched, but Neale manages to present her 'Odd baby things I noticed today' in such vivid and seemingly simple ways that I went along for the ride and enjoyed it.


Some other statistics:

In 2010 42% of the books I read were New Zealand books. In 2011 this dropped slightly to 40%. Anything between a third and a half sounds about right. Any less and you're either missing new books that come out or aren't chipping away at those classics you'll read one day. Any more and you risk become too cloistered in your reading.

I listened to 10 audiobooks, which is down from previous years, but when you consider I listened to both The Brothers Karamazov and Nicholas Nickleby, both very long books, I think I did okay. It's interesting to note that my top two this year were both audiobooks. I think after several years of listening and reading to books, the distinction between the two is now quite small.

I read one eBook on my iPad, Jack London's Call of the Wild. I have downloaded a bunch more, but there always seems to be other things to do with the devise besides reading Chekhov. Gimme paper, I say.

Finally, I read nine short story collections to 26 six novels, or roughly one short story collection for every three novels. In 2010 this ratio was slightly higher (13:21).


Reading targets for 2012

First, an excuse. I have to read between 120 and 160 short stories as a judge of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize between now and May. This is something like 5 to 7 books worth. And while this won't be the same as reading for leisure, I'll surely eat up some of my leisure reading time.

But here are four targets which I'll report back on at the end of the year:
  • Read 12 poetry collections (one a month): hopefully there's a new Geoff Cochrane collection coming out around Writers and Readers Week like in '09!!.
  • Listen to 12 audiobooks, including at least four non-fiction books.
  • Read at least twenty New Zealand books.
  • Read at least six Australian books of fiction.
  • Read at least six books I already own.