Thursday, August 31, 2017

August consumption diary

I read/listened to 6 and a bit books for fun this month and read more than that for an essay, but let's start with music because I got a few things to say and you should hit play above while I prattle on.


Hamell on Trial
– A new discovery. He reminds me of Dave Wyndorf without the leather and the space rock and the comic books. 
It’s legitimate to ask what’s left of Wyndorf without those things… well, it’s Hamell on Trial. It helps that they are both about 60 and have the same, goateed, cat-eyed, plastic-surgery-but-not face, and seem to have self-confidence that belies their level of success. But it’s the world that wrong in both cases. Check out Ed Hamell and thank me later.

(A week ago the award for 'old dude who I didn’t know existed but then I listened to lots this month' would have gone to Willy Nile. Commiserations Willy.)

The Eurythmics – Turns out Lennox/Stewart worked their way into my DNA as a kid and rewrote some of my genetic code. I challenge anyone between the ages of 29 and 36 to listen to their greatest hits now and not conclude this is the greatest music you used to hate. Unless you never hated them, in which case, you were a genius and I hope you still are. 

(NB: This only applies to songs that were played on the radio back in the day. Anything that was new to me left me feeling NUTHIN'! Nostalgia, huh?)

Ryan Adams – Spoiler alert: I’m going to combine Prisoner and Prisoner B Sides as one album for my end of year list of the best music. I’ve never been a huge Ryan Adams guy, but something clicked for me with Prisoner and I love a lot of its supposed B sides. Is this the rare case that a double album might've been justified? Nah. The way these tracks were released was perfect.

Earworm of the month - 'Cumberland Gap' by David Rawlings (with a lotta help from Gillian Welch). I don't mind that it sounds A LOT like CSNY's 'Ohio', or it's one of about 1,000 songs called 'Cumberland Gap'. It's catchy as all get out.

BOOKS (in order of consumption)

Nothing but blue skies by Thomas McGuane (novel, audiobook)

An out of control novel about an out of control middle-aged dude in Montana. I enjoyed many aspects (its humour, its engagement with Clinton-era contemporary matters, the language), but it never quite hung together to be totally satisfying. I don't want to be that guy, but maybe I just like McGuane's short stories better.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (novel, audiobook)
Cool control, that’s how I’d describe Strout’s style. This doesn’t pack the punch of Olive Kitteridge (or even attempt that book’s scope), but it still has teeth. I’ve got Anything is Possible, Strout’s latest queued up as my next read, so I might write more about this one with reference to that.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (non-fiction, audiobook)

I really enjoyed How to be a woman, which was one of my top ten reads in 2012, the year I became the father of a little girl and future woman. Moranifesto has that same verbal vim and the ability to wed the personal and the political in relatable ways. And the audiobook, read by Joanna Neary, is a joy – Neary walks that tightrope between a Moran-impersonation and standard narrator voice, making it feel less like reading a book than having a slightly tipsy female friend hold forth on whatever’s grinding her gears most this minute.

Because it is, despite the political sounding title and politically focused preface, essentially a collection of columns, it feels disjointed and makes some of the entertainment pieces feel lighter than they might otherwise.

And on the politics, Moran’s pitch is essentially the same as Thomas L. Friedman’s in Thank you for being late: the internet and related technologies provides humanity the ability to get the best out of everyone, if used wisely. Whereas Friedman goes and talks to CEOs of tech companies in Silicon Valley and the Middle East, Moran is a bit more scattershot and dare I say it superficial, but better company and no less compelling.

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whittaker (novel, audiobook)

Hey, this was good. I almost said 'fun'. And it was fun in parts. But it puts its two main characters (the titular animators) through the works. There were elements I wasn’t fussed about, and it’d be a dick move to say, ‘great, for a first novel’, and go and list the structural whiffs and tropes I’ve seen before, but I can be a dick sometimes. Totally. But not today.

Because I’d recommend this book to most anybody. Whittaker not only gives us two memorable protagonists and embeds the creation of not one but two feature length animated films within the text, but totally gets inside the process of creating something other than a novel and the way an animator might see the world.

The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson (non-fction, podcast/audiobook)

This was hard to classify as it’s only available on Audible, where I get my audiobooks from when I’m not borrowing them from various apps associated with my local library, but it’s more of a podcast than a book.

Ronson traces the impact of PornHub (and the other tube sites it snapped up) making hardcore porn free and accessible for everyone with an internet connection, and it takes him some interesting places (custom shoots including a guy who pays women to destroy his stamp collection). The structure demands that Ronson focus on the more unexpected, possibly uplifting elements of the shift, but he doesn’t ignore on the downsides (massive rise – excuse the pun – in erectile dysfunction in young men; virgins being placed on sex offender lists and having any hopes of a normal life being dashed). It’s light on the impact on women in the industry, partly because this is covered in other places (like Hot Girls Wanted, the film and later series on Netflix) and going over this ground might feel like flogging a dead horse. But shouldn’t we? To take porn is potentially soul destroying for the performers as read risks sidelining our empathy for these people. As a female, Christian, recovering porn addict says, ‘You don’t name a deer if you’re going to shoot it.’

Anyway, anything that wades into this space will be problematic in some ways, but it was really interesting and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Enchanted night by Steven Millhouser (novella, audiobook)

Pet hate: audiobooks with music tracks. This one featured annoying incidental music at certain points (including the first, like, 10 minutes) as well as a second narrator for one specific character (but not other female first person chapters) and a babbling vocal chorus are various points which, though indicated in the text, just felt hammy.

This novella resembled the bitsy longer stories in Millhousers short fiction colelctions that I tend to like less than his more unified stories (indeed, I often begin to skim these longer ones).

I was interested to come across the sections here told from the perspective of a mannequin, who is both a mannequin and alive/enchanted.

There’s definitely a lot Millhouser and I share in common in terms of what interests us, what gets out fiction juices flowing, but in terms of how this book was constructed (and produced as an audio programme) meant I couldn’t enjoy it.

In progress:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (novel, audiobook)

I normally wouldn’t write about something I was only a sixth of the way into, but when an audiobook is 36 hours long, there’s actually plenty to be said that far in. I was skeptical about the single life with four branching paths as described in the novel’s blurb, and wasn’t sure about committing one and a half days to such an endeavor. For some reason I imagined each scenario being told in its entirety before the next one started back at Fergusson’s birth. The actual structure is far more preferable: Chapter 1.0 covers everything up to Fergusson’s birth, 1.1 has Fergusson’s earliest memories, 1.2 overlaps slightly with 1.1 – enough to show there are some differences – but moves the story/chronology forward, 1.3 overlaps/contrasts with 1.2 before moving forward, and so on.

There are very few ‘scenes’, as in something with dialogue or detailed desciptions of setting, characters appearances etc. Instead, there’s a lot of story-telling. And it’s intoxicating. At least, the first six hours have been…


Short story collections. A lot of short story collections. I read/reread books by Alice Tawhai, Lawrence Patchett, Nic Low, Sarah Quigley, Amy Head, Breton Dukes, Tracey Slaughter Helen Waaka, Pip Adam, Bill Manhire… and I also read parts of Steven Millhauser’s Voices in the Night and Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys whenever I wanted a non-Kiwi palate cleanser. This was all to inform my essay on ‘The Moves in Contemporary NZ Short Stories’, which I’m presenting on Saturday in Invercargill at the Dan Davin Short Story Conference (full programme here). I ended up taken a different path with the essay (one closer, in some ways, to the work I did with Recurrent Neural Networks earlier this year).


Game of Thrones season 7 (& the Ringer’s Talk The Thrones after every episode) – I haven’t read GRRM’s books (well, I read the first 50 pages of the first book on a flight once, then the person whose book I borrowed woke up) and I like the way the presenters on Talk the Thrones are split 2/2 in terms of readers/Maesters and non-readers. This season was disappointing, in terms of what it could have been, but it was still appointment TV/streaming via Neon when the kids are in bed. The big question is: will I read the books in the 2 years between now and the final season?

Little Big Lies (season 1) – No. The great Michael Kiwanuka song in the intro and the murder-mystery / chorus of bitchy side characters in episode one hooked me in. But what followed was five episodes of the same kinds of scenes being rolled out again and again (hmm, here comes Perry, I wonder if he’ll hurt Celeste or not… oh, there he goes). And the teen daughter planning to auction off her virginity for a good cause – I’m sure I’ve seen that before. And then it got wrapped up in the seventh and final episode with the least surprising answer to who died and who dunnit. Pfft, yawn and argh.
No, don't do it, just walk away, no, no... Oh. You shouldn't have done that.
L’Avventura – A classic Italian film about two characters trying to track down a third. How could I not watch this given the book I’m working on? This is the kind of film my fictional filmmaker would feel embarrassed to say he didn’t like / left him feeling bupkis, but I am not that filmmaker. I totally get how it broke with tradition and sought to do something different with film – that doesn’t have to mean it was successful in making me feel what Antonioni intended the audience to feel. But 57 years is a long gap to bridge, I guess. My bad.

Kids stuff

My kids are into the Smurfs at the moment thanks to some petrol store promotion, but they like the recent films (Smurfs 1 and 2) and not the animated series of my youth. Heathens!

Monday, August 28, 2017

This is not a drill: Fortnight 15 of the Burns

Fortnight 15 wordcounts

Total words: 11,247 words (60% on the novel, 32% on non-fiction, 8% on this blog)
  • 1st week: 6,799 words (4 day week because I spent a long weekend in Chch for a 90th birthday party, whoop!)
  • 2nd week: 4,466 words (4 day week because of Hamilton…) 

Poetry reading in The Link, NZ Poetry Day, 25 August
A Popular Boy

Last week, in the span of two days, I:
  • spoke to a 300 level Modern and Contemporary Poetry class about my Google Translate and Recurrent Neural Network poetry (the stuff I covered in this post from May). 
  • took part in the NZ Poetry Day lunchtime event at The Link at the university
  • gave a talk about my novel-in-progress as part of the English Department’s Friday seminar series. I talked about why I’m writing about a levitating saint and making movies in the age of VFX, how I’m writing it, and read from two early chapters. This was the first time I’ve read from it. My wife hasn’t even read any of it yet – except maybe the half a page excerpt I included in my application for the Burns.

A poem I chalked outside The Link for NZ Poetry Day
Smoove moves

A lot of this fortnight has been spent working on my paper for the Dan Davin Short Story Conference that kicks off on 1 Sept in Invercargill. After reading a bunch of NZ short story collections without any kind of framework/scientific rigour, I created my own framework for cataloguing the ‘moves’ a writer pulls when executing a short story and did a proof of concept (it took 4 hours to catalogue and analyse the 80 moves in the story I picked). And now I’m in the midst of writing it all up.
You can read a slightly outdated spiel about my talk on the Conference’s website here (final papers will make it online eventually too, I think).

Anyway, it’ll be really interesting to have so many people talking about the short story – and being down in Invercargill. There’s a marae visit and an afternoon in Riverton on the last day, and then I’m taking my whanau to Stewart Island for four nights. Here’s hoping the Big September Storm doesn’t happen till after we’re back in Dunedin!


I also went to Hamilton for a day/night last week for a thing that’s more to do with getting myself sorted for life after the Burns than writing. Everything about that trip in one word: meh.

Localised fog over the Taieri Plains that kept me on the tarmac for two hours.
But, like, who really wants to leave Dunedin? Or go to Hamilton?

Tactical Procrastination

With all this other stuff on the go, you might think progress on the novel would have slowed. 

But, so long as I was in Dunedin, I found myself plugging away at the next scene, and the next, and the next, partly as a way to put off writing my ‘The Moves’ thingy, or preparing for my talks. 

I experienced this when working on The Mannequin Makers, at some point after passing the midpoint when the work had enough momentum that it wasn’t a matter of procrastinating from writing it, but I'd often use writing it to put off doing other things.

It’s cool to have reached this point of fulcrum on this year’s main project, but it’s too soon to take the foot of the gas completely – I can’t coast to the finish line in angel gear, that’s for sure. In fact, I plan to go back to my story-boarding/cue-carding ways this week to make sure the story doesn’t sag in the middle and readers are happily being pulled along to the climaxes they expect, and those they don’t.

I should probably also be mindful of life beyond the novel over the rest of the year. I was in bad shape physically after finishing The Mannequin Makers, in no small part due to the continuous, concentrated hours I could happily spend on the manuscript. (After being a slack writer for a couple of years, I lost the prescription glasses I needed after finishing TMM and haven’t replaced them coz my eyes kind of came right by themselves. Let’s see how they are when this next novel’s put to bed!).

Bird life
Kereru at the uni
Kereru, closer

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bringing the heat: Fortnight 14 of The Burns

St Patrick's Basilica, South Dunedin
Fortnight 14
Total words: 13,319 (85% on the novel, 11% on this blog, 4% other)
1st week: 8,440 words (if you count the last Sunday of Fortnight 13, there was a 6-day streak of 1200+ word days)
2nd week: 4,879 (just a messier week)

In context: this is my second most productive fortnight after Fortnight 12, but 8,440 in this fortnight 1st week is the highest single week wordcount.

After ten days of not working on my novel (friends visiting, trip to Catlins), I started reading through my manuscript from the beginning on the first Monday of this fortnight. By Wednesday I’d reached the end (circa 150 pages/50k words), having made some significant tweaks (moving the second part of a flashback to later in the manuscript, re-working some scenes, changing how a character speaks) which explains how I was able to keep the manuscript expanding on these days. There was also a lot of tszujing up/tightening at the sentence level.

As I said to my wife on Wednesday evening, this was the first read-through where I could feel myself enjoying it. Things were starting to click. The weight (or lightness) of certain scenes now felt right as they had their counterpoints in place (or I knew more about where they’d go and what they’d be).

There’s still a lot of work to do to get to the end of this first draft, but as I think I’ve said before, it won’t be a crappy first draft (or better not be). It should be more like draft 1.75. And hopefully I’ve been able to bottle enough of this optimism to carry me through the next few weeks and months of drafting (and the inevitable read-through where I feel like it’s all shit and what the hell was I thinking).

St Patrick's Basilica, South Dunedin

The first week I had two photoshoots and one interview. 

The interview was with the Otago Daily Times for their annual piece on the Burns Fellow. 

One of the photoshoots was with the ODT so they had something to go with the article. The other was for the Rogues Gallery of every past Burns Fellow in the University’s library. The photographer asked what I was working on, I told him a bit about my location scout novel and he suggested we head to the basilica in South Dunedin.

That place is fascinating. They’ve just spent millions doing it up, mostly the foundations and the exterior, and they’ve left the inside in a kind of sustainable state of decay. It’s very Italian.

I have seen the ODT piece or photo yet, but I've seen the one for the library and I'm not unhappy (can you ever really like a photo of yourself? Well, I can't).


I mentioned in Fortnight 13 that my internet at home was on the fritz. Well it took another week and a day to get that sorted. Or put another way, three phone calls and two emails with Slingshot, four calls with Chorus.

This meant we had to play catch-up with Game of Thrones last week when we finally got the juice switched back on. Having no internet (and rapidly depleted cellular data) is good for staying off Twitter, which helps stave off spoilers, so it wasn’t all bad.


The day after I stayed home for Chorus to finally fix my home internet, I stayed home with my sick son. The next day I had meetings with people in town for most of the day and man, I was really missing my office at the uni by the end of it. It’s gonna be hard to leave those 12 square metres behind after Christmas.


Last week was the first I noticed blossoms on trees at the uni and a few days later the red rhododendrons were out in force. 

It's not completely dark when I have to wake my daughter up (she's a good sleeper, too good!) and it's still light while I cook dinner. Are you telling me that was winter in Dunedin? 

Because that was nothing!

And I know there'll be shitty days every week from here to December. And there'll be that lamb-slaying storm in the first two weeks of September that should surprise exactly nobody. 

But geez. 

That was mild. Pleasant even. 

Remind me why I live in Wellington again?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July consumption diary



The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (novel)

I’d been wanting to read this book since it came out (it had a buzz). When I finally got around to it, I couldn’t quite believe that it was published in 2010. Has it really been seven years? But also, in the way it seems to wallow in the downswing of the American Empire, it seems very NOW.

You can date it in some ways, like:
  • the passage about social media being about moving from one platform to a newer one (like Myspace to Facebook), rather than the splintering that occurred (something I’m guilty of myself in a story that occurs in A Man Melting, also published in 2010)
  • the way people ‘open’ their phones.
As Geoff Dyer put it in his review of the book in The Guardian:
The test for the obsessive prose stylist who lacks an instinctive gift for storytelling is always the same: what’s the minimum amount of plot you can get away with and still function within the parameters of a novel?... So if it takes little time to sketch the plot of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, that’s a backhanded way of saying it’s a stylistic tour de force.

Or, as my wife would put it, this is a “ranty” book. Which means it keeps company with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, the fun half of every Jonathan Franzen doorstop, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Martin Amis – so, just the swinging dicks of the last 75 years. Not bad company. Not for everyone, but definitely for me in certain moods.

This is the kind of book I wanted to write when I started writing seriously (...stops to do the maths…) fourteen years ago, when all I really knew were the swinging dicks. Now? I think it has definitely challenged me to ensure each page of my current novel is funny. Is tight. (So much of the humour comes from the concision.) My book won’t have the same level of verbal pyrotechnics – though there are already;  some controlled, localised events, like public displays for Guy Fawkes and New Years.

The New Animals by Pip Adam (novel, NZ)

*Warning: may be slightly spoilery, but probably no more than a half-decent review*

*Reminder: this is not a review but a personal reflection on a temporarily revived, low-traffic blog*

A very different proposition to Lipsyte… or is it? There are verbal pyrotechnics here, but it’s the kind where a spark has set off everything inside a warehouse that stockpiles fireworks and you are across town and you maybe hear something, start wondering, see some smoke drift across the city five minutes later, check online, check again in the morning and only then read about the carnage as set down by some tired scribe.

There’s humour here, too. And an uber contemporary feel. But again, somehow it’s the opposite of Lipsyte’s showy sort.

The first two-thirds of the novel follow a day and late night in the life of a newish, smallish fashion house in Auckland, run by three Millennial males but supported by the labour of female Gen-Xers Sharona (pattern-cutter cum miracle worker), Carla (contract hairdresser) and Duey (Carla’s friend and hair-cutting better). And in the middle of this is young makeup artist Elodie. In the middle in terms of love triangle/polyhedron action, but she’s to the side of most of the text until the switch is flicked at the 2/3rds mark and suddenly, uh, woah, this is different.

To talk about the novel purely as a machine constructed to perform this shift is too reductive. I mean, it’s not about doing something apparently different for the sake of it. There’s something else at play here: the way the first part and the second (I should note there are no official “parts”, not even any chapters, just double line breaks when the perspective shifts between characters) interact/fire off each other is in the aid of an overall effect.

And, I mean, haven’t we all started out trying to explain something from the world today in straightforward terms and then, 2/3rds of the way through, gone: you know what, maybe the truth is more like THIS.  Where THIS is an extended, surreal monologue, told with the cadence of a joke that continues to elude its punchline.

I’m not sure how I feel about learning that Elodie is effectively the daughter of John Key (poor kid with Jewish mum turned successful moneyman turned bland politician). I didn’t like it at the time, but probably because one of the models of my cult leader (in a hopefully non-obvious way) is John Key, and I was, on some cosmic level, butthurt.

But the ‘Elodie Key’ thing is just one of the many side-mystery/reveals in the novel that provide its momentum, where the main plot seems tailor-made (baddum-boosh) to provide little in the way of traditional thrust. I mean, the clock is ticking, the garment will be shot tomorrow, but the only one this really impacts is Sharona, and she’s done it all before. No, the novel gets you through on the back of little mysteries like:

Where did Carla go away to, and why?


What’s up with Duey, her look, her relationship with Carla?

And these are answered, or part-answered, in the Elodie section, and it’s all askew, but also helluva satisfying to be skewered in this way.

Thank You For Being Late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of acceleration by Thomas L Friedman (non-fiction, audiobook)

Oh man. I don’t know how Thomas Friedman gets so much (the rapid pace of change of technology, the nightmares of climate change, demography, economic and political destabilisation) and yet comes out the other end as an optimist. I mean, I follow his logic every time, but it takes some fricken fortitude to stare into the omni-headed monster and prescribe the right dental regime to tame the stank and calm the beast.

I fear I’m becoming one of those middle-aged, middle-income, white dudes who loves non-fiction and wants to foist the latest book they’ve read on other people as it’ll explain the way the world is now. Because I had such thoughts with Thank you for being late. But then, when I was all in on fiction, I never went around foisting novels or story collections on people. So maybe it’s just this book / this moment?

I do think, if you’re going to read it, read it now. 2018 will be too late. The world will have moved on, and I fear Friedman’s optimism may be even harder to comprehend.

The Saint, the Surfer and the CEO by Robin Sharma (“novel”, audiobook)

Another deliberate hate-listen. See Alain de Botton in May's diary
On one level, this is the easily the worst novel I’ve read since, um, high school. It’s basically a self-help book dressed up as a novel-length parable, except the outfit is so flimsy, and the thing tries to be a novel rather than a parable, that you get all the characters speaking like the guru Sharma thinks he is, as if in front of a packed auditorium, except it’s two guys on a beach in Hawaii.

The main character, I’ve already forgotten his name, is your classic neutral, know-nothing narrative vessel, except he frequently breaks into ‘profound’ reflections, either in narration or dialogue, that he couldn’t possibly have at that point in the story. He gets some things too quickly, then asks his interlocutor to better explain other things that were perfectly well put the first time to allow Sharma to double-back and double-down when he needs to cram one more metaphor from his notebook into the text.

With all that said, is it so easy to dismiss the “teachings” within the book? As with anything that seeks to help people, make em better human beings, Sharma’s terrible novel gets points for positivity. I’m sure there’s lots folks could take away from this book. I personally don’t think the universe is perfectly designed and all about bringing things into harmony. I find it a troubling middle-and-upwards class concept.

Sharma’s is the kind of philosophy that seems customised for a highly individualised, neo-con, capitalistic society. And that can all get a bit icky if you stop and think about it, or anyone but the people you interact with on a daily basis.

If you’re looking to better yourself, might I recommend Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to thriving in the age of acceleration by Thomas L Friedman instead?

The Gathering by Anne Enright (novel, audiobook)

First half hour: yeah, I can see how this won the Booker (over our very own Mr Pip).

The rest: *looks at watch*

Can you tolerate this? by Ashleigh Young (non-fiction/essays, NZ)

This took me a couple of months to finish. That’s not a criticism. It’s one of the good things about collections.

One of the reasons I stopped reading was because I left my copy on chair at the university while I made a thermos of tea (in theory this means I can have 3.5 hot cups of tea without having to leave my office, but my bladder normally runs out of patience before my thermos runs out of tea), and when I returned, it was gone. This was just after Young won the Windham-Campbell Prize and bookstores had run out of the second print run and a third was on its way. Peak Young, so to speak. Naturally I thought someone had nicked it, but a week later I found someone had handed it in at reception (this person had acted to protect the owner from having it nicked!). So I got it back, read the next essay, moved on to something else, returned, read another couple, left, returned, and finally finished in July.

Most of these essays I enjoyed, but each for their own reasons. Some were smart, some were brave, some were smart and brave. A small number did nothing for me, but that's to be expected from anything proclaiming to be a collection of "Personal Essays".

It's great to see any NZ book being in demand and at risk of being nicked - doubly great that it's something as seriously different as this.


Drinking Buddies – easily my favourite watch this month
The Double (2013)
GLOW Season 1 (abandoned at ep 5 to watch...)
GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
See No Evil, Hear No Evil*
And all the kids stuff like Trolls, Monsters University, Ratatouille, Shrek 1-4 (including Shrek 2 a bazillion times), with one eye on the TV/kid, the other on my phone (bad, bad parent!)*****