Friday, February 27, 2015

Mark Broatch on Chad Taylor

The 76th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue. Mark Broatch, currently the Listener’s books and arts editor, reviews Chad Taylor’s first short-story collection The Man Who Wasn’t Feeling Himself (David Ling, $19.95).

Chad Taylor isn’t afraid to take risks, open­ing his career with books featuring transves­tism, physical abuse and pathological lying. He is also extraordinarily prolific, particu­larly for a New Zealand writer. Three books published in two years, a produced screen­play, two others on the go, and he’s several thousand words into his third novel.

This new book of short stories is front­-bumpered by two pregnant quotes and a tribute to an unplaced woman, “likewise insane”. They have clever, inviting titles. In “From Soup To Nuts” (the title is an American expression denoting all-inclu­sive, from the first course to the last, though here it means something different), an ob­noxious, overbearing skin doctor takes his young date to a swank restaurant. Desper­ately needing to impress, he corrects her dining faux pas and the waiter’s. The reader is allowed to explore the thoughts of the young waiter, and the unlikeable Dr Hasby, popping in or stepping away as necessary to gather detail — detail which tells us, for example, that the young woman is not as naive as Hasby supposes, and that medical training has strengthened his ability to dis­tance himself from his actions, to horrific result, when the girl departs in disgust.

Taylor is not afraid to push his readers, be it with sickening violence or explicit sex. Or to vary approaches: changing person, style, speed, genre. This collection demonstrates his range, yet the stories share a voice, a smooth finesse that’s not always reassuring, because it’s hard to find a moral tone. There is, in a few stories, an unsettling violence towards women, though this is counter­poised by an overwhelming love in others.

Back to the sex. A lovingly sado-maso­chistic couple swap dis-pleasure in “Archie and Veronica”, characters from an American comicbook (as well as software tools for trawling the Internet, though I won’t accuse him of that obsession, even though the title story displays a useful knowledge of computers). They live out a fanciful life, inflicting one insult upon their bodies after another, from childhood, told in a style reminiscent of his novel Pack Of Lies.

“Oilskin” throws up the subject of abso­lute obsession. Nigel feels ambivalent to­wards flatmate Warren for the latter’s predilection for whipping young women — can it be justified by one victim’s claim that unless you want something above all else, you can’t be sure you’re alive? “Running Hot And Cold” tells an unusual and prob­ably offensive tale of brutally honest sex, including a golden shower, in which the participants find satiety by separate routes.

Arguably the best of the collection is “No Sun No Rain”. This murder mystery en­gages within a paragraph — a Taylor strong suit — displaying well-controlled humour as it spins out the travels of a keen sleuth tracking the connection between a missing Austrian landscape artist and a trail of waterlogged corpses found in Auckland harbour. Taylor displays a keen knowledge of art history with which he pricks the pre­tensions of the visual art world.

There’s hardly a weak card in the pack, despite occasional small errors — like the aircraft that accelerates as it comes in to land in the title story. These are accom­plished, fluent, believable stories. The worst that could be said of them would be that they are lightweight. But that wouldn’t really be fair. They suggest unspoken depths (psychological, cultural) but simply don’t ever get caught in them. They skip over their world’s waves like sharp bright shells, just occasionally reflecting light down — which reveals, if I read it right, that not only is much of evil banal, but so is much of its kissing cousin, pleasure. By pitching them this way, Taylor suggests that it’s not the surface of life which is interest­ing, but the undercurrents that drive our basic emotions that are worth thinking about.

UPDATE: The book is now available in a digital edition. More here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In praise of: Piopio

I have just finished editing a book by Bruce Ansley about the back roads of New Zealand. The first time I worked with Bruce was on Coast, which won its category, Illustrated Non-fiction, in the 2014 NZ Post book awards. So far, so good. Proven winning combination. And it’s a dream job editing him because he is such a good writer and also, I discovered when I met him last year, a top bloke. But!

But in the manuscript Bruce, who is, frankly a South Islander, said something dismissive in passing about Piopio, which is in the King Country (North Island) and I admit is not a thing of beauty. But my father was born and raised there and the half of my relatives who are not buried in Canvastown (South Island) are buried there. So I intervened.

Editing is not all about grammar and punctuation, you know. Sometimes it’s about sticking up for one’s turangawaewae.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #54

From the 23 February edition:
Same old, same old
Both opinions of Joe Bennett and Peter Dornauf are the same old gurgitation, ever seeking to calm their consciences before death and then judgement for all.
Nearly every day, the Bible is prophetically proven, rightly describing mankind’s pathetic endeavours these latter days. Pagan UN’s seeking a One World Government, currency and religion.
Did Peter Dornauf not know of Darwin’s dilemma – when asked how to relate a peacock in full mating splendour to evolution, honestly replied it made him “feel sick!”
Again all archaeologist who have buried their enmity of “Truth” readily reply Earth is all evident of a catastrophic flood with sea shell deposits on the Himalayas.
Of course these facts are not found in Educational text books, this partly to blame for the World’s rapid decline from social order.
Te Kauwhata 

As always, spelling, punctuation and grammar are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The best New Zealand crime novels of 2014

Amazing that we can have a longlist of nine for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. All hail Craig Sisterson for organising these awards and keeping them going. Here is Wednesday’s press release:
Three debut novelists and two established authors dipping their creative pens in the crime and mystery well for the first time help bring a fresh look to the longlist for the the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, revealed today. “It is fantastic to see more and more talented New Zealand writers bringing their unique voices, perspectives, and interests to one of the world’s most popular storytelling genres,” said Judging Convenor Craig Sisterson. “Crime fiction is a broad church nowadays, and this year’s excellent longlist illustrates that well. It will be very interesting to see which of these books the judges prefer.”
The nine longlisted titles are:
Drowning City by Ben Atkins (Random House)
Five Minutes Alone by Paul Cleave (Atria)
Databyte by Cat Connor (Rebel ePublishers)
The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing (Head of Zeus)
A History of Crime: the Southern Double-Cross by Dinah Holman (Ravensbourne)
Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer (Oceanview Publishing)
Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson (Upstart Press)
The Children’s Pond by Tina Shaw (Pointer Press)
Fallout by Paul Thomas (Upstart Press)
The judging panel (crime fiction experts from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and Iceland) will announce the finalists in May. The winner will be revealed at a special event held later this year in association with WORD Christchurch, which has supported the Award since its establishment in 2010.
The last three on that list were all (modest cough) edited by me, and all made the NZ bestseller list. Paul Cleave, Barbara Ewing and Dinah Holman also have form. Don’t know anything about the other two but they must be very good to be in this company.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A cry for help from Sebastian Faulks

In his Spectator Diary of 14 February, novelist Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, writes:
When I last had a job, I spent all the time longing to be released from it so I would have time to write books. My wish was granted in 1991. I have now spent almost a quarter of a century alone in a garret staring at a blank wall and I think it has driven me a bit mad. I’ve done my stint. I need to have a job again now. I want colleagues, gossip, promotions, lunches and a PAYE packet in a grey windowed envelope, with tax and National Insurance deductions already made. So that’s my resolution for this year: find a job. I can still write books at night and at the weekend, as I did in the early days. So if anyone has something for a chronically unemployed middle-aged non-smoker with no qualifications at all, here I am.

Faulks is now on Twitter, “to the disdain of my smarter friends and the horror of my children”. Follow him at @sebastianfaulks: prepare to be amused.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Headline of the month

It is only the 10th of February but there will not be a better headline in the next 18 days than this in the Economist about driverless cars:
Car, where’s my dude?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Best comment about Wikipedia ever

Tim Worstall, Portugal-resident author of 20 Economics Fallacies, expert on scandium (he does 60% of the world’s trading, according to Theodore Gray), nephew of a Northland avocado orchardist and a very amusingly foul-mouthed blogger on economics, writes
So, I went to Wikipedia to check up on something. And I read what they had to say and thought, yes, that’s about how I would say it was. Only to realise that they were quoting me.
And, you know, I’m not sure I trust a reference source that is getting their information from me.
Quite. Which is why the motto of this blog is: “Friends don’t let friends link to Wikipedia.”

This week I am mostly editing a book about New Zealand back roads by a great journalist so he should be correct about everything. He isn’t. As I do even with fiction I spend more time fact-checking than I do worrying about grammar: there are loads of Department of Conservation etc websites but books are quicker. To my surprise, the best book I have handy with which to quickly check place-names is one of mine.

Diana and Jeremy Pope’s Mobil guides are great, but I have to say that the 1998 Reader’s Digest Motoring Guide to New Zealand rules. I did the North Island; Tim Higham did the South Island. I trust Tim's South Island references more than my North ones, but the index is brilliant. It is probably the best book I have ever contributed to.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Russell Brand, revolutionary

Previous posts here and here. And now this, from the 20 December issue of Private Eye:
In 2010 the media reported that Jemima Khan, associate editor of the New Statesman, socialite and daughter of the late tycoon Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, acquired Kiddington Hall, a ₤1.5m stately home in the north Oxfordshire. In fact she didn’t acquire it; a Cayman Islands company called Kidslane Ltd did. […]
The Cayman Islands company is owned, Khan’s accountant explains, “by a trust established by [her] father for the benefit of future generations of his family,” a classic inheritance tax-avoiding ruse for a wealthy non-dom. The terms of the trust “prevent capital being distributed…” However, “as a beneficiary of the trust [she is] able to live at Kiddington Hall”.
The Eye understands that Khan’s recent former boyfriend Russell Brand also lived for a time at Kiddington Hall. Indeed, he wrote a chunk of his anti-capitalist Revolution diatribe at the Cayman Islands-owned stately home funded by one of the 20th century’s most ruthless capitalists.

So here are the Beatles, “live” in 1968 with “Revolution”. Note the guitar parts: who plays the solo bits? The liveness of this clip is every bit as authentic as Brand’s status as an anti-capitalist revolutionary:

Friday, February 6, 2015

Holiday in Berlin

Creative New Zealand is calling for applications for the $40,000 Berlin Fellowship, Closing date is 6 March. Full details here.

The skinny: it is for an established writer to work on an “approved project” in Berlin between November 2015 and September 2016, and the $40k covers travel, a monthly stipend and accommodation: 
A one-bedroom, 60sqm apartment in the district of Friedrichshain in former East Berlin, which has a reputation as a lively and dynamic district. The Creative New Zealand apartment is close to the last standing section of the Berlin wall. The apartment can accommodate a partner but is not suitable for additional family members.

Everyone I know who had the fellowship loved being in Berlin. The only possible drawback is that at least three of them had a long-term relationship breakup while there.

So here, from his 1970 album Burnt Weenie Sandwich, is Frank Zappa with “Holiday in Berlin” (the score is here):

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Andrew Fagan, shearer

The former singer in the 80s band the Mockers, Andrew Fagan  is a multi-talented chap: he is a poet (four collections, I think), children’s author, long-distance sailor (he circumnavigated New Zealand solo, and sailed solo across the Tasman), toy manufacturer and night-time talkback host on Radio Live with his wife, Karyn Hay.

The teaser at top right on the front page of today’s Waikato Times, “Andrew Fagan: Time to hang up the shears”, hints at a hitherto unknown skill: shearing. But sadly, the story on page 3 is about retiring shearer David Fagan. Oops.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

So much depends upon a washing line

Here is one of the most influential poems of the 20th century, Poem XXII from William Carlos Williams’s 1923 book Spring and All:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

As any housewife knows, a fair bit depends upon a washing line too — as Williams would have known, being a doctor. So here is Abbie Jury in her last gardening column for the Waikato Times on Friday 30 January, on washing lines. She is a great gardening writer and also a very good journalist: she busted the plagiarism in Penguin’s 2011 Tui NZ Fruit Garden.

Her penultimate post was on red-hot pokers. Quote unquote: 
The path back to social acceptance is somewhat more difficult for plants which have become the wildflowers of our roadsides, sniffed at as weeds although pretty enough on their days in flower. I am not convinced the agapanthus will ever recover from this lowly position in New Zealand life but the moptop hydrangea has already undergone a revival. The red hot poker is not as ubiquitous as the derided agapanthus, so maybe there is hope. In times past there were plans for it to be a great deal more common, in one area at least.
Back in the early 1980s when a cabinet minister fell out with his leader and was demoted, he came up with a clever plan to catch public attention. It was Derek Quigley, if my memory serves me right. He wanted to plant up our roadsides thematically, to pretty-up the main roads for tourists. So Canterbury, the home of grace and tradition and the place of his electorate, was to be planted in flowering cherry trees. Classy. I am afraid I do not recall what, if anything, was suggested for the Waikato. But poor old Taranaki – its roadsides were to be planted in red hot pokers if the fallen cabinet minister had his way. He was no horticulturist.

The Waikato Times is a fool to let her go.