Tuesday, December 31, 2019

December Consumption Diary

So we made it. Forget about the end of the decade, I'm grateful for just making it through to the end of 2019. It was a rough one for me. Things need to change, and I'm taking a longish summer break to figure out which things, and how, but here's hoping 2020 is more fulfilling and creative.

I've got a few days before I take the family camping, so I'll knock out my best of lists for books and music this week.

But for now, here's what I listened to, read and watched in December...


Image result for dead people i have known"
Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (non-fiction, NZ)

I was partway through this book when I did a wee "fave books" thing for the NZ Women's Weekly. I said: "I’m also loving my current read: Shayne Carter’s Dead People I Have Known, which struts and sneers and sulks like a great rock memoir should."

I meted out the remaining chapters, in part because it was such good fun, but also because there's a lot of darkness and loss in the book.

This is not a drill: an Extinction Rebellion handbook (non-fiction, audiobook)

I read this tweet the other day:

Image result for this is not a drill"I was interested in climate change, and long before that, apocalyptic thinking and doomsday preppers, before 2019 (Nailing Down the Saint features a group of eco-terrorists, Second Wave, whose methods are wrong but their message should be harder to dismiss).

I've become more pessimistic the more I've read on this topic. There's no way our political and economic systems can be dismantled and rebuilt fast enough to achieve the emissions turnaround required to meet IPCC recommendations - because the general public are too insulated from the effects. Look at the unchecked consumerism this Christmas. Or talk to your Boomer relatives. Nothing has changed. We only have another protagonist (Thurnberg) to fill our news bulletins with.

Extinction Rebellion talk a good talk about learning from indigenous peoples in "the majority world", but it still feels very Anglo, very middle class.

I think back to Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now, which I read at the start of the year, and struggle to square these two perspectives:

  • the world, as a whole, is a better place to live that its ever been
  • the world is fucked.
The Boomer view is people have been preaching the end of the world since day dot. They've lived through the nuclear crisis. They've seen the hole in the ozone shrink after we stopped putting CFCs in our air fresheners. Surely this latest bout of catastrophic thinking will all come to naught as well.

I hope they're right. I doubt it.

Image result for the widow fiona barton"The Widow by Fiona Barton (novel, audiobook)

A pretty decent thriller, centering on the wife of the accused, though Barton includes other narrative perspectives (a journalist, a cop, and, briefly, the husband). I felt the first quarter was different, structurally and tonally to what followed, and wonder what it would have been like if we stuck with the first person narration of the widow throughout...?

Movies & Other Things by Shea Serrano (illustrated non-fiction)
Image result for movies and other things shea serrano"
I loved Basketball & Other Things earlier this year. The movie-based follow-up falls short of its predecessor because it's one thing to ask and answer oddball questions about sport, it's another to take that approach with the entirety of film (or even films from the 80's onwards to stick within Serrano's cultural wheelhouse). Where BAOT expanded the universe of basketball, MAOT contracts it, not just by limiting itself to essentially Hollywood films of the last 40 years, but by taking elements of those films and leaving the rest on the cutting room floor. It felt reductive rather than expansive.

That said, I still enjoyed it. I laughed. It's a beautiful object.

I'm just a curmudgeon.

Image result for 10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world"10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world by Elif Shafak (novel, audiobook)

How to describe this book? It's as if Rushdie took a Faulkner premise and a Pamuk setting... It's telling these three touchstones are male... but is a female-centred version of this kind of narrative (which we've seen over and over) enough?

Radicalised by Corey Doctorow (fiction, audiobook)

Firstly, is this a collection of four long short stories or four short novellas? I dunno. Some felt longer and more capacious than others, but all of them felt urgent and timely.

Image result for radicalized"
What sets these narratives apart from a handful of Black Mirror episodes? Well, firstly, until the most recent season, being compared to Black Mirror would be a compliment. But it's the depth you can provide in text.

I take issue with what Annette Lapointe said in the New York Journal of Books: "The stories themselves are simple, and the characters thinly fleshed: no relief there. When we tear ourselves free, we find that we’ve found nothing substantial. Doctorow would have been better served to render his ideas as essays, so that he could give them the complexity they deserve, and release his barely realized characters from their political pantomime."

Um, yeah, there's a big difference between an essay about the creep of Intellectual Property into everyday freedoms, like which bread you can put in your toaster, and how this unduly impinges upon the most vulnerable in society, and actually depicting this in narrative form.

Would I have got more out of any of these stories if they were blown up to four-times their length so I could spend more time with the characters? No.

Give me the bare essentials rather than bloat.

Give me four high concepts for the price of one.

Give me the hack to ensure my toaster can brown whatever the fuck I want.

Image result for jos charles feeld"Image result for under glass gregory kan"Image result for are friends electric heath"

Feeld by Jos Charles (poetry)

Brain re-wiring, trans Chaucer nature writing.

Are Friends Electric by Helen Heath (poetry, NZ)

Source scrambling, story-telling, science-y goodness.

Under Glass by Gregory Kan (poetry, NZ)

Jeff VanderMeer's teen angst lyrical diary.

The Peregrine by JA Baker (non-fiction, audiobook)
The Peregrine cover art
Okay, so it took 61 books, but I finally found my favourite read of the year. The combination of David Attenborough's narration, Baker's en pointe nature writing and the avian subject matter... och!

When I was researching Nailing Down the Saint I did Werner Herzog's Masterclass(TM) on filmmaking and he says at one point if you want to become a filmmaker, all you need to do is read The Peregrine (maybe he says read it once a year).

So maybe now I am finally ready to jump media?


Watchmen – Season 1
The Leftovers – Season 1
The Movies that Made Us - Season 1
The Mandalorian – Season 1
Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
Knives Out
Frozen II
The Hitman's Bodyguard
6 Underground

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November consumption diary

My only public outing in November was for LitCrawl's "Lie Down and Listen" session at the Design Library. It was cool to take part in LitCrawl for the first time, after attending many events over the last six years.

I read the pornography section from near the start of Nailing Down the Saint and only found out there was a kid (maybe 11) in the audience afterwards.

Parents these days! :)

Lawrence Patchett reading from The Burning River
 to a very comfortable and relaxed audience at the Design Library


I saw Gang of Four live at San Fran. It took me a long time to decide if I was watching a good cover band that just happened to have the original guitarist or if this incarnation of Gang of Four was simply good. 

Like, the smashing up a microwave bit was something I'd read about the original lineup doing. And to see the new frontman doing that bit, when he wasn't born first time around... it was weird.

All the fifty-something white dudes in the crowd seemed to be into it. Songs like 'Damaged Goods' were stadium-level singalongs. Maybe it was the older crowd's energy that finally won me over.

One thing's for sure: forty years on, Entertainment is a great album.


November was a weird month. I felt like I didn't get much reading time, what with all the reading I had to do (like judging the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition and being the external assessor for a creative writing student's manuscript).

But then I started listing books and it wasn't as meagre as I'd supposed. (Some I'm only partway through and will include in December's tally.)

Image result for how to be both cover"How to be Both by Ali Smith (novel, audiobook)

Loved it. I'm slowly working my way through Smith's books in a random way, and each one makes me think: why am I being so haphazard? Why don't I just devote myself to reading Ali Smith and only Ali Smith until there's nothing left?

The Coddling of the American Mind cover artHow to be both - I liked it even more than I liked Autumn, which was in my top ten a couple of years back. It pushed a lot of buttons for me: it's about (partly) art and artists; narrative invention; a sense of whimsy without being flippant... Stuff it in my veins!

The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (non-fiction, audiobook)

I had to hit pause on this book about halfway through in May. I finally returned in late October and made it to the end in November.

It was interesting to recognise its language (like "anti-fragile") being used in tweets by Jordan Petersen wannabes on Twitter. One of the overarching points of the book is that an "us versus them" mentality is a cognitive distortion... but it seems so far past its tipping point, can we ever "undistort" this way of thinking?

Image result for sisters mctiernan"The Sisters by Dervla McTiernan (novel, audiobook)

A crime novel in four hours? How might this work? 

Well, turns out you do everything you'd do in a book two or three times the length, but when you get to the first suspect who looks dead-to-rights like they're guilty you don't provide a twist, you just make them... guilty. 

Case closed. 

Book done. 

Image result for mary macpherson social media"

Social Media by Mary MacPherson (poetry, NZ)

Arch Kiwi poet of modern minutae.

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (non-fiction, audiobook)

I finished this book just before it was announced Boochani had been allowed to travel to NZ thanks to the mahi of folks like Amnesty International and Word Christchurch. Then it was announced Boochani would also do an event in Wellington -- and I was like, "I gotta be there," only I had parenting commitments that night.

NFBtM is the kinda book that enrages and frustrates by virtue of its written intent and lived experience (though I did find the translator's long sections before and after the main text tiresome) and makes you wanna write fifth form essays about Man's Inhumanity to Man.

It demonstrates the power of literature to pierce through the veneer of "I know about that from the news" to actually confronting what has happened, and is happening, in Australia's offshore detention centres (and other Western border enforcement industrial complexes) and inside the rotten heart of "The Lucky Country" itself.


The Irishman
I am not an Easy Man
Living with Yourself - Season 1

Saturday, November 2, 2019

September & October publicity and consumption diary

It's been a busy two months. Manic, at times.

Sometimes everything wants to get through the eye of the needle at once.

A second burst of activity in support of Nailing Down the Saint (more on this below)the most challenging period of my professional (ie not writing books) career, a week in Melbourne for work, and in general the lowest ebb for my mental health in maybe fifteen years...

But anyway...


Back in early September it was Going West Festival, in Titirangi. It was my second time at the festival (the first was in 2011), and it still has the cosy, kindly curious vibe. I did a session with Rosetta Allen about our latest novels, ably chaired by Caroline Barron.

Elizabeth Knox giving her address on opening night at Going West 2019
Then it was down to Dunedin with the family for a trip down memory lane (two years was two much for my son, for whom half a life has elapsed since my Burns year) and a solo session on the top floor of the city library. Afterwards, I had a chat with a Catholic priest who remembers St Joseph of Copertino being struck off the list of saints and was going to slip a little of the Joseph's life into the prayer group he was hosting that weekend.

St Clair
At the end of September, Elizabeth Knox and I shared the stage for a Writers on Mondays session at Te Papa, chaired by fellow novelist Kate Duignan. We got cartooned, which was cool (second time in my "second" career).

Reviews? Well, there's not a lot of bandwidth for any writing these days, but I did have positive reviews in North & South and The NZ Herald. ("Satisfactions abound" is a pretty pleasing headline for a review (even if the headline was probably the work of a sub-editor who hasn't read the book.)

Image result for ghost wall moss"

Ghost Wall by Sara Moss (novel, audiobook)

A short novel told in the first person, I was gripped throughout but the payoff for the ever-growing sense of dread felt a little meagre.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (novel, audiobook)

Image result for night boat to tangier by kevin barry"Another shorter book (though not as short or tight as Ghost Wall). This time it was the language that gripped me. The amazing, theatrical banter between the aging Irish gangsters, waiting at a North African port for the daughter of one of them. A blend of Shakespearean asides, Beckettian logic and Irish pub craic, it was so intoxicating the sections that lept back in time and away from the port flagged in comparison.

And another landing that felt less substantial that the waiting promised.

(I'm beginning to think I like the idea of short novels more than I do the reality.)

Image result for you know you want this kristen"You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian (short stories, audiobook)

I wanted to find fault with this book. I wanted to look down my nose at the stories in this book whose blurb touts the face "Cat Person" was "the first short story to go viral". (I listened to "Cat Person" in 2017 and thought it was a decent story published at the perfect moment but two years later could remember very few details).

And yet my bias was defeated. This is a very good collection. Very very good.

Image result for the absolute book by elizabeth knox"Brave but not just for the sake of bravery. Bold but modulated in tone and intensity.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (novel, NZ)

I don't read many books with faeries in them, but this is safely the best.

The Way Home by Mark Boyle (non-fiction, audiobook)

Image result for way back home boyle"So weird to listen to this as an audiobook, pumped into my ears via my cellphone, when Boyle has turned his back on modern technology (he writes toward the end of the book about considering if there was a way to avoid typesetting the printed version of the book).

I originally put this book on my reading list as I thought it might provide some sparks for a post-apocalyptic story, but as life got shitty I could see the contemporary appeal of unplugging, tuning out and dropping off the map. Total middle class yt ppl masochistic fantasy on my part, but still.

Underland cover art
Underland by Robert MacFarlane (non-fiction, audiobook)

There was a good book here, but it's buried (*rim-shot*) beneath an excess of description and, just, too much content.

Image result for neacuase internert gretchen"Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch (non-fiction, audiobook)

The two biggest challenges of writing about language on the internet in book form:

1) Managing tone - how do you pay due attention to interesting linguistic features and developments without disappearing up your own @#%?

2) Managing time - the internet moves fast - how do you talk about language, memes, platforms with a half-life of months?

McCulloch pulls it off in both respects.

Image result for sula toni morrison"Sula by Toni Morrison (fiction, audiobook)

When Morrison died in August, I knew it was long past due some of her books on my to-read list got taken off the shelf. Sula, her second published novel, opens up a world in its first few pages and adds so much depth to it, so deftly, that it's a little scary.

RIP Toni!

book cover of Flying LessonsFlying Lessons and other stories, by various, edited by Ellen Oh (short stories, audiobook)

A mixed bag, as most anthologies are, but some standout stories from Kwame Alxander and Sunil Malhotra.

Minotaur by Peter Goldsworthy (novel, audiobook)

Image result for minotaur peter goldsworthy"A blinded cop, two years into his convalescence. For most of the book, the tensions are between the reader and their expectations. Will this become a true hard-boiled detective story (early on, Detective Zadow is offered a new job on the force, a kind of human lie detector to weed out crooked cops)? Or is it a story of revenge... or depression... or medical misadventure... or madness? Is it a love story, comedy (the buddy cop chemistry between Zadow and Siri... yes, that Siri... is real) or a tragedy? Modern myth or missed opportunity?

There are a few cringy parts (okay, so maybe I'm supposed to cringe at the description of Zadow's Asian ex's "almond" eyes... every time they're mentioned and exoticised), but for the most part this is an interesting, absorbing psychological thriller in hardboiled garb.



Image result for rookie historian goo hae ryung"
Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung - 20 hour-long episodes, really got sucked in after getting used to the variety of tones (it's a bit like Shakespeare... or anime). Has totally thrown a cat among the pigeons of my Netlflix recommendations

El Camino - made me more eager for the next season of Better Call Saul rather than nostalgic for Breaking Bad

John Wick 3 (in-flight viewing - abandoned due to excessive violence in a constrained space)

Detective Pikachu (in-flight viewing - abandoned due to boredom)

Fleabag Season 1 (in-flight viewing - devoured)

The Chills: the triumph and tragedy of Martin Phillipps (in-flight viewing coming back from Melbourne... I also watched another movie... some recent release from Hollywood, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was, which tells you all you need to know)

Crashing Season 1

Rugby World Cup - my quadrennial descent back into caring about rugby

NBA - every Sacramento loss (ie every Sacramento game) so far this season (it's fair to say sport has done nothing for my depression...)

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...


2. Read at least 52 books

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


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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/


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.



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



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.)

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.



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.


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
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.