Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lèse-majesté in Bangkok

A great story in the Economist’s 23 July edition about politics in Thailand with the world’s longest-serving monarch King Bhumibol, aged 88,  in hospital and sadly unlikely to return. A difficult time for a country divided between the yellow shirts (crudely, urban elite and royalists) and red shirts (rural, Thaksin supporters). The Army is currently in charge.
Whether it comes in weeks or years, the king’s passing will be more than a milestone. His death may set loose centrifugal forces that a coup in 2014 sought to contain, but seems destined in the long run only to aggravate. Below the surface, Thailand is deeply fractured. […]
Notably, the junta has made draconian use of Thailand’s law on lèse-majesté, which provides for long prison terms for anyone deemed to have spoken ill of the king, queen or heir-apparent. Facing growing anti-establishment sentiment in the provinces among people who feel that an urban alliance has conspired to disenfranchise them, the authorities have presided over a big rise in the law’s use over the past decade, with imprisonments rising sharply after the 2014 coup. […]
 Whatever one thinks of Prince Charles in terms of succession planning, Thailand has it worse: 
The 63-year-old crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, is spoilt and demanding, and—to put it mildly—widely loathed. Three times divorced, he spends a lot of time abroad, often in Germany. In 2007 leaked video footage showed him and his then-consort, who was wearing nothing but a G-string and heels, holding a lavish royal party. The only guest appeared to be Foo Foo, his poodle, which before dying in 2015 enjoyed the rank of air chief marshal. One of the prince’s more generous critics calls him “a loose cannon”. 
“To put it mildly—widely loathed” is brilliant. I would love to know whether this edition of the Economist was on sale in Thailand last week.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Nigel Cox on Elmore Leonard and Sara Paretsky

Today is 10 years since Nigel Cox died. Bah. If I was in in Auckland today, I would cheer myself up by heading for Unity Books, which he co-founded with Jo McColl in 1989. Amazing to think that was 27 years ago. Unity announces:
We’re only making plans for Nigel...
This Thursday is the 10th anniversary of the death of writer/Unity Books Auckland co-founder Nigel Cox. We’d love you to come to the shop to raise a glass to Nigel at 5pm, July 28. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman will speak, we’ll be playing the blues and we’ll have discounted copies of Nigel’s books in stock.
To mark the occasion, the 90th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Nigel and is from the March 1994 issue. The intro read:
Top US crime writers Sara Paretsky and Elmore Leonard visit Wellington this month to perform at Writers And Readers Week. But first, they help NIGEL COX with his enquiries.
The voice on the phone sounds thoughtful, interested, pleasant, but very relaxed, as though it’s used to talking, about itself at length to unknown interviewers from the other side of the world. At four o’clock in the afternoon in a suburb of Detroit, Elmore Leonard has put down his pen for a moment to deal with one of the chores that comes with producing the best work in your field.
The pen itself is clearly of great significance. “I used to use a 29c one, and then I used a 98c orange pen, my lucky pen, I wrote a bunch of books with that, then I graduated to a pen that cost about 7.95, and then I jumped up to a pen which is probably 150 bucks. I don’t write any better with it.”
This of course is just the kind of modesty expected of a man universally described as one of the nice guys in crime fiction. A particular quality of Leonard’s is the way he reinvigorates the genre he uses with each book. “A reviewer will say, Oh, now this book, it’s more reminiscent of his older work,” he says as though amused. “To me they’re all the same. They all have the same sound.”
That sound is the sound of people talking. “I emphasise dialogue. When I started writing it was my purpose to move my books and stories as much as possible by dialogue. The writers that I liked were dialogue writers, Hemingway, John O’Hara... Finally, when I developed my style, the idea was to move the story as much as possible by people talking – let one of the characters tell it. You maintain the sound of the people who are in it.”
Yes, but where does he find those wonderful talkers, with one foot on either side of the law, and their hearts in the right place, and their heads full of laconically articulated rationalisations and dreams? “If I’m going to do a book I don’t go out into a bar and hang out listening to people, but I’m always listening, y’know. I was watching a movie the other night, Menace To Society, which is a black-rap-and-street-gang kind of a thing, taking place in LA, and it’s all young black guys, and they’re all shooting each other. Or talking – they talk, talk talk, all the way through it, and so I picked up a couple a things. Like, they’re talking about tripping. Whataya trippin’ at me for? That’s tripping, like getting down on ya – not tripping, having a good time. Y’know. Or calling each other niggers – when they do it, when they don’t. I usually have a black character in the book, ’cause I like the way they talk. They have much more interesting dialogue than highly literate people, people sitting around the country club.”
You get the impression country clubs weren’t what he aspired to. “I got out of school in 1950, from the University of Detroit, majored in English, and I had only written a couple of stories – that was short stories – and I decided if I was going to do it [write fiction] I should approach it professionally and pick a genre in which to learn how to write, and I chose westerns, because I liked western movies – westerns were big in the 50s – and the idea was, I hoped, to sell to Hollywood. To get into writing westerns and make some movie sales. And that’s what I did. And I concentrated on the south-west, Arizona, New Mexico, Apache Indians, cavalry – cavalry was very big in the 50s – and then I researched the cowboys and horses and guns of the west.
“I subscribed to a magazine that was on highways, that was loaded with colour photographs of the land, so that when I needed a description of a canyon or something like that I’d go through the magazine till I found what I wanted, and describe that, instead of going out there. So that was how I got started. Then by the end of the 50s the book market for westerns had dried up, because of all the westerns on television. I didn’t want to write for TV because I didn’t like any of the westerns on TV, so I didn’t do it. And I had just quit my job at an ad agency in order to have more time to write fiction – I’d written about five books and 30 shorts, and two movies. “For a few years I just did freelance advertising, and I did industrial movies and some history and geography movies for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, and then when I got back into it again, I was into crime. The first one was The Big Bounce, and then what I’m doing now really started with Fifty-two Pickup.”
Since then there have been 20 pitch-perfect books in 18 years from the master of the American vernacular. Currently he’s working on a sequel-of-sorts to his last book, to be called Out Of Sight. Raylan Givens, the slow-talking, quick-thinking US marshal from Harlan County, Kentucky, who came in half-way through Pronto, will get a whole book to himself, if Leonard’s current plans work out – always a worry, apparently, for a writer so determined to focus on character rather than plot. But “once I get into a book, I’ll start about 9.30 and usually I’ll go right through to six. Today I forgot all about lunch – the time just flies by.”
Just like the pages he writes when you’re reading them.

“I’m kind of worn out. I don’t feel like working, so I took the day off.” Well, in Chicago it’s a good day to stay home, 12 degrees below, cars getting buried in the snow. Sara Paretsky has just finished her eighth novel, Tunnel Vision, and wants a rest, not from writing, but from her private-eye heroine, VI Warshawski.
“I’m actually going to take a break from VI for a while. I think it’s time for me to see whether I can do something else. Something non-genre. A little funnier than what I’ve been doing, a little less sledgehammer. Maybe I can make a soufflé.”
Warshawski is bluntly direct – Paretsky wanted a character who “was not afraid to say what was on her mind, wasn’t afraid of getting fired, basically,” which, since Paretsky is so civil in conversation, makes you wonder if perhaps you’re talking to the wrong author.
“Yeah, people are often disappointed when they meet me because I look soft. I don’t look tough.” She sounds delicate and careful, creating an impression of fragility which is shattered by sudden bursts of ironic laughter.
VI Warshawski first lashed her tongue in 1982 in Indemnity Only. “Up until about two or three years ago I hardly read anything but crime novels, so when I wanted to test whether I could actually write a book, mystery was the thing for me to do, because that was what I knew. And then if you’re writing books set in Chicago... it’s a pretty blue-collar kind of city, that didn’t seem to lend itself to the polite novel.”
She also had “a strong reaction to the traditional depiction of women in American crime writing – where, if you were a sexually active woman, you were evil and, if you were chaste, you were ineffectual. I wanted someone who could act.”
Warshawski and Paretsky both dote on their golden retrievers and share a political outlook, but connections between creator and creation end there. Unlike the fiercely independent Warshawski, who lives alone in the industrial immigrant sector of Chicago, Paretsky, 46, lives with her husband of 10 years and three stepsons in a Victorian-era brick house, where she writes in a converted attic.
She found it hard to find a publisher, not only because her all-attitude private eye was female, but because the books were set in a precisely detailed Chicago, not New York, “which is 1500 miles away,” she says wryly. That first novel sold only 3500 copies – but by her seventh, Guardian Angel, her sales per book were up to 75,000, enabling her to give up her job as a manager for a large insurance company.
“Sometimes I drive past my old office building and I just think, Oh boy, you’re in there in pantyhose and you’re working, and I’m out here in my jeans and I’m not!”
Yes, but as a former student and office worker, how does she know about the world she describes? Is she the kind of person who just naturally knows about guns and shooting people? “As a matter of fact I made a lot of mistakes with guns. I read about them, but the most fervent mail I’ve gotten has been from gun nuts. An Englishman wrote me an 11-page letter pointing out every mistake I ever made with a firearm.
“But by the time I wrote my fourth book a Chicago police sergeant came along and offered to take me shooting. I wouldn’t say that I was an expert, but at least now I’ve handled firearms.
“The things I research really carefully are the financial crimes I’m writing about and I try to do detailed research on any scientific facts I’m including. Tunnel Vision is partly set in these tunnels which run underneath the city of Chicago. I was never given permission to go and look at those so that really I had to just make things up and rely on photographs.
“I didn’t know about the tunnels. Most people didn’t until two years ago. They were put in around 1900, to ferry coal and other supplies from the Chicago river to feed the skyscrapers. They stopped being used around 1940, were sealed up, and then two years ago someone negligently rammed a pylon into a tunnel, which flooded, and billions of dollars worth of damage were done to the buildings downtown. Immediately this seemed to me to be a custom-made setting for some kind of crime.
“The book deals a little bit with the violation of the embargo against Iraq by some of the big American manufacturing concerns, and also with the ideas suggested by the BCCI collapse, and – the manuscript is 610 pages long – runaway teenagers, domestic abuse, the homeless, illegal Romanian construction workers. You name it, it’s there.”
In 1986 Paretsky helped found Sisters In Crime, an organisation which supports and raises the profile of women who write crime fiction. The sense of engagement here, of activism, is echoed by Paretsky’s novels, which are often described as feminist thrillers, or politically committed – thus the “sledgehammer” quality she refers to. But when she talks about her detective, there’s real affection – VI Warshawski won’t die on us.
“I won’t abandon her. There’s some other stories I want to tell about her.” Which is good to hear. The world would be reduced, if somewhat less ear-bashed, without her.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Brian Boyd on science

The 89th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Browne and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists, art curators – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

I will always be a visitor in the world of science. But what a place to be! When tourists choke the alleys of Capri or even Kathmandu, l can still travel to that other world, which is ours made new, infinitesimal within a cosmos we still cannot measure, or infinite beyond imagining. (I can barely comprehend that there can be trillions of atoms in a drop of water, let alone that the number of synaptic states possible in a human brain – in a lump I could hold in my hand – is many times that of all the particles in the known universe.)

Science enchants us because we know we have not invented its world. If reality did not so firmly resist our push, we would never think up terms of existence as strange as those we discover – we, who naturally rush first to animistic or anthropomorphic extrapolations of the obvious or explanations of the immediate: waves as the horses of Poseidon, thunderbolts as the wrath of Zeus.

But eventually – and Einstein thought this the strangest fact of all – the universe yields its secrets to intelligence, to patient, critical human intelligence, ready to reject what appeared incontrovertible, to sidestep timeless tracks of thought, to add to and multiply the five senses we once supposed were all nature allowed.

We extend sight with telescopes and microscopes, high-speed, slow-motion and time-lapse photography, radar and scanners and infrared images. We turn microscopes on ourselves to find that the human eye samples a hundred million points of space at any moment. We analyse the night vision of cats, the corneal focus of the hawk, the compound eye of the fly, we learn about blindworms and the ultraviolet sensitivity of bees and animals that can “see” by means of energy other than light: the snakes that sight their prey in the dark by heat, bats that negotiate night by sound inaudible to us, eels that navigate river murk by electrical fields. We can even look back into pre-human time by pointing at the past such chronoscopes as red shifts and radioactivity, rock strata and fossil pollen, tree rings and gene drifts.

The farther we see, the more we learn, the more we find how wrong was the notion that we stand at the centre and serve as the measure of all things. The natural supposition that the Sun moved across a flat Earth gave way to the Earth revolving around the Sun at the hub of the cosmos, to the Sun as only one peripheral star in the galaxy, to the Milky Way as one of billions of galaxies, perhaps to the galaxies as a minute part of the matter of the universe. We find that our sense of space, time, matter, self, and our senses themselves are accidents and atypical in the universe, just as we are. And yet the universe makes sense, and its intelligibility somehow places mind – the human mind, and what other kinds that we still do not know? – at its centre.

I forgot to mention what Brian is working on now: the page I linked to above mentions the Karl Popper biography, which I for one can’t wait to read, and the show On the Origins of Art he is co-curating at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Brian adds (in a Quote Unquote exclusive!):
Four guest curators, psychologists Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Miller, neuroscientist Marc Changizi and I each propose our own evolutionary account of art, and select works to illustrate our own hypothesis and challenge the other three. I have works from 15,000 years ago to new commissions, from all inhabited continents and a generous dotting of islands, from pottery 7000 years old to pottery now, from music videos and comics old and new to avant-garde carpet, and a sprinkling of New Zealanders, Hone Taahu, Len Lye, Filipe Tohi, Fiona Pardington and Marion Maguire. The show opens November 5 and runs until May 2017.
When I win Lotto, possibly this weekend, I will head straight for Hobart.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Iain Sharp on Janet Frame

The 88th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1994 issue. It was titled “A Bluffer’s Guide to Janet Frame” and the intro read:
Our greatest writer has produced 21 books – novels, short stories, poems, autobiographies. Naturally, you’ve read Owls Do Cry and To The Is-Land – but what about The Rainbirds or Daughter Buffalo? Never fear, help is at hand. Now you can amaze any dinner party with your intimate knowledge of her entire oeuvre thanks to Iain Sharp, who has read the lot. Here are the Quote Unquote Condensed Versions of the collected works of Janet Frame.
Written in her early 20s and published while Frame was still a patient in Avondale Mental Hospital, these 24 brief tales contain in embryonic form most of the themes of her later fiction. The joys of childhood give way to the pain and disappointment of adult experience. Hanging on to your imagination in a stiflingly conformist world is a perpetual problem. Frame focuses on the lives of losers, loners, loonies, budding writers and people on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The lagoon of the title story is gradually revealed as the murder weapon of a revered but secretly homicidal grandmother. Two of Frame’s sisters died by drowning. Frightening water imagery recurs throughout her work.

OWLS DO CRY (1957)
Set in the town of Waimaru (a thinly disguised version of Oamaru, where the author grew up), Frame’s powerful first novel traces the deterioration of the aptly named Withers family over a period of 20 years. The four Withers children compensate for their poverty during the Depression years with a rich fantasy life, but none of them manages to develop into a fully rounded human being. Francie, the vibrant eldest daughter, perishes in a fire at the local rubbish dump. Daphne, an unstable visionary, is confined to a mental hospital until a leucotomy transforms her into little more than an obedient robot. Epileptic Toby becomes a sullen recluse reliant on scavenging for his livelihood. Shallow little Teresa, who surrenders totally to materialism, is the butt of Frame’s rather crude social satire.

Written in London and dedicated to RH Cawley, the English psychiatrist who helped persuade her she was not a schizophrenic, as hitherto diagnosed, Frarne’s second novel is narrower in scope and less packed with imagery than her first, but nevertheless it remains one of her most haunting achievements. In a generally straightforward and understated fashion, the central character, Istina Mavet (the name blends the Serbo-Croatian word for “truth” with the Hebrew word for “death”), describes the eight years she has spent in New Zealand mental hospitals. There are obvious parallels with the Daphne sections in Owls Do Cry and with Frame’s own medical history. The repeated use of electric-shock treatment, the threat of personality-destroying brain surgery and the disregard for mental patients’ basic human rights are horrifying.

In this oppressively glum sequel to Owls Do Cry, Toby Withers travels by ship to England. He has grown into an even more pathetic misfit since the death of his mother and the change of location helps him not at all. His fellow passengers on the voyage include Zoe Bryce, a suicidal ex-schoolteacher who is desperate for any kind of amorous attention, and Pat Keenan, a dull, repressed, authority-worshipping Irish bus driver. A great title, but it’s hard to imagine anyone picking this one as their favourite among Frame’s books.

Weird, shadowy, ambiguous and less directly autobiographical than any of her preceding works, Frame’s fourth novel was denounced by one early reviewer as “unreadable in the worst sense” and hailed by another as “likely a work of genius”. Possibly both verdicts are correct and it’s an unreadable work of genius. Young Erlene Glace refuses to talk to anyone but her imaginary companion, Uncle Blackbeetle. Her mother, Vera, frets about both Erlene’s silence and the loss of her own senses. Meanwhile, Vera’s estranged husband Edward retreats ever deeper into his two obsessions: genealogy and toy soldiers. The final chapter depicts Vera as a mute, long-term patient in a mental asylum. Has all of the foregoing just been a figment of her disordered imagination? Do her husband and daughter exist? As well as leaving the reader with these brainteasers, the ending also hints at a nuclear apocalypse.

Frame continues in a very strange vein with a series of dream-like, disquieting parables and fairy tales which feature talking tigers, sheep, gooseberry bushes, garden gates and so forth. In the superb title story, which takes up half the volume and thus qualifies as a novella, a newly formed snowman discusses the world around him with an ice crystal on a neighbouring window sill. The snowman foolishly believes in his own immortality, although he is gradually melting and death, at one time or another, has touched the families in the surrounding houses. The ice crystal is known as the Perpetual Snowflake, but its perpetuity may be doubted. It seems, in any case, to be the distilled essence of a previous snowman.

Written concurrently with Snowman, Snowman, the more realistic Reservoir stories cover much the same territory as The Lagoon, but Frame’s skills as a storyteller have improved since her first volume. Once again the shadow of darkness falls on hitherto innocent lives, but Frame now knows how to imply a sense of menace or loss without resorting to melodrama or heavy symbolism.

Begun in England and completed after her return to New Zealand in November 1963, Frame’s fifth novel is a bold attempt to expand her range which doesn’t quite come off. The setting is Little Burgelstatham (literally, “a burial place for the heathen”), an ancient village in East Suffolk to which electricity and the overflow of London’s population are making their debuts. The narrative flits, rather unsatisfyingly, from villager to villager, but the focal points are Muriel Baldry (a social climber fatally obsessed with the huge chandelier she has inherited) and four members of the Maude family. Russell Maude is a boring old dentist who works with outmoded equipment and collects stamps in his spare time. His brother, Aisley, is a tubercular retired clergyman who dreams of emulating Saint Cuthbert, although he has largely lost his faith. Russell’s wife, Greta, devotes most of her energy to the control of garden pests. Her son, Alwyn, “adapts” to the horrible 20th century by seducing Greta and casually murdering an itinerant Italian labourer.

Perhaps suspecting that her talents are ill-suited to coping with a cast of thousands (or even tens), in her next novel (generally considered her strongest since Faces In The Water) Frame explored the psyche of a single neurotic character. Middle-aged Malfred Signal, an art teacher in the small South Island town of Matuatangi, retires early to nurse her sick mother. When her mother dies, Malfred settles in a bach on a Waiheke-like island near Auckland. Isolated during a storm and terrified by the fear of a prowler, she gradually loses her tenuous grip on reality. Made into a sombre film by Vincent Ward in 1979.

The title is confusing, for this volume is actually a selection from both Snowman, Snowman: Fables And Fantasies and The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. Those were American publications; this is the New Zealand version. It’s not a bad collection, but the absence of the long title story from Snowman, Snowman is a real loss.

Frame seems always to have written verse. Some of her childhood efforts appeared in the junior section of the Oamaru Mail. The Pocket Mirror gathers together 170 of her poems in no particular order. It contains squibs, fizzlers, nonsense poems and free-verse jottings, as well as more finished and profound musings, as if she simply emptied out her bottom drawer and let her publisher grab the lot. The casual approach conceals Frame’s true stature as a poet. There are
enough gems in this lucky dip to make it one of the most rewarding volumes of New Zealand poetry in the l960s.

Walking home from work one evening, Godfrey Rainbird, the British-born employee of a Dunedin tourist agency, is hit and apparently killed by a passing car. The funeral arrangements are made and Godfrey’s sister is summoned from England. Then Godfrey suddenly opens his eyes in the mortuary and emerges from his coma. His resurrection is an embarrassment to everyone around him. He’s fired from his job because his boss thinks it unwise for Dunedin to be represented by a reanimated corpse. This Lazarus fable could have made a wonderful short story, but stretched to 200 pages it’s a bit thin and lifeless. Known in the United States by the off-putting title Yellow Flowers In The Antipodean Room
Frame’s only attempt to date at a children’s book is a tough read for anyone under the age of puberty, but adult fans who haven’t tried it yet are in for a pleasant surprise. Mona Minim is a young female ant. On the brink of adulthood, she’s obliged to embark on two journeys. First she must leave the underground colony where she was raised and venture into the wider world. Then she must go on a mission to rescue friends trapped in a glass by a human child. There are obvious connections with other Frame stories concerning rites of passage, but she’s in an unusually relaxed mood here and she makes some good jokes. In her schooldays Mona studies “Sociology, Monarchy, Scent-Cone Care, Duties of Public and Private Stomachs”. Robin Jacques’ elegant and witty drawings are an added treat.

Divided into three parts, the longest of Frame’s novels examines the appalling treatment of the sick in body and mind over a period of more than a century, extending from World War I to the 21st century. The hero of the first section, Tom Livingstone (another significant name), returns from the Great War with gas in his lungs, shrapnel in his back, a wrecked mind and an obsessive love of Ciss Everest, the pretty nurse who helped him recover from his wounds. Decades later, when he rediscovers the former nurse dying of cancer in an English hospice, the discrepancy between the real Ciss and his romantic illusion is so vast that he feels compelled to murder her. Part Two focuses on the deaths of Leonard Livingstone (Tom’s derelict brother) and Colin Torrance (Tom’s grandson – another love-crazed killer). The final section is set in a bleak future where misfits are executed and used as sources of food, soap and leather. Autistic Milly Galbraith, who lives next to the old Livingstone property in Dunedin is scheduled to be exterminated on her 26th birthday. Overwrought, fragmentary and sometimes absurd, Intensive Care is still a hypnotic novel.

The mind games here are reminiscent of Scented Gardens For The Blind. Turnlung, an aged New Zealand writer of doubtful sanity, journeys to New York, where he meets Talbot Edelman, a young Jewish doctor who specialises in death studies. Edelman’s researches include the systematic mutilation of his pet dog. The two men form a brief sexual attachment. Visiting Central Park Zoo together, they see a baby buffalo, a symbol of America’s once healthy past in sharp contrast to the decadent present. Possibly Edelman is a figure entirely invented by Turnlung. Or vice versa. Certainly not for all tastes, this nightmarish novel fascinates some readers and makes others want to rush to the bathroom.

A woman of many aliases (not unlike her creator), Mavis Halleton, the narrator of Frame’s 10th novel, has tended to do things in pairs. She’s been married twice, given birth to two children, written two books, lived in two countries (the United States and New Zealand) and enjoyed success in two artistic careers (writer and ventriloquist). In rather rambling fashion, she tells us about her marriages, her travels, her travails. The novel is distinguished less by its plot than by its shafts of satirical wit. Near the beginning, Mavis describes the home of American friends as “full of likenesses, of replicas, prints of paintings, prints of prints, genuine originals and genuine imitation originals, imitation sculptures and twin original sculptures”. One of the main themes is the lack of authenticity in the modern world, whether you live in Auckland or California, Maryland or the Maniatoto (a plain in Otago).

The first volume of Frame’s autobiography deals with her childhood and sometimes painful adolescence in Oamaru. It ends with her heading off to Dunedin to become a trainee teacher.  Her recall is extraordinary. She seems to remember every poem she was taught when young, every song she heard, every rebuke that humiliated her and every mispronunciation as she slowly acquired her gift of language. In recent years, because of its lucidity, candour and friendly tone, Frame’s autobiography has become much more popular with readers than the difficult novels of the 1960s and 70s. Jane Campion’s generally faithful 1991 screen adaptation also won Frame new followers.

Ten years on, this is still the best selection of Frame’s short stories. “Snowman, Snowman” is included, as well as hitherto uncollected gems like “The Bath” and “Insulation”. For newcomers to Frame’s fiction, this is an excellent place to start.

The second volume of Frame’s autobiography covers the period from 1943 to 1955, the loneliest and most miserable years of her life, but also the formative years for her career as a writer. Traumatised first by her failure as a teacher and then by the drowning of her beloved sister Isabel at Picton, she became a voluntary mental patient. She spent almost all of her 20s in hospital. Her stories won her some admirers, however, including fellow writer Frank Sargeson, who let her work in the army hut at the back of his small cottage in Takapuna. The volume ends with Frame’s departure overseas on a literary grant.

In the concluding volume of her autobiography, Frame describes her arrival in Europe as a wide-eyed colonial, her first sexual experience (at the age of 32) on the Spanish island of Ibiza, her miscarriage, the revelation that she was falsely diagnosed as a schizophrenic and the period of intense creative activity in London which followed this discovery. Perhaps the trilogy will eventually be extended to a quartet, but so far the autobiography ends with Frame’s return to New Zealand after the death of her father in 1963.

Weary, no doubt, of the straightforward manner of her memoirs, Frame returns in her 11th novel to bamboozlingly opaque symbolism. Mattina Brecon, a wealthy middle-aged American, visits the North Island town of Puamahara (which closely resembles Levin, where Frame lived in the mid-80s). Mattina is lured by the local Maori legend of the Memory Flower, but the town is actually under the influence of the Gravity Star, a cosmic force which overturns all ordinary notions of time and distance. The residents of Puamahara are so absorbed in their material possessions, however, that they remain unaware of the approaching cataclysm until it is too late. The sole exception is Dinny Wheatstone, who is described as “an impostor novelist” and is probably Frame’s ironic self-portrait. As with many writers of science fiction, Frame’s grasp of science is a little shaky, but the real trouble with this strange book is the flatness and remoteness of all the characters. It’s like squinting at unappealing strangers through the fog.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #69

From the edition of Monday 4 July. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times, including the missing words and intermittent use of hyphens for dashes. You have no idea how carefully (and incredulously) I proofread these things.
Keep calm, carry on
Politically, the Western world as we know it is akin to Mother Earth when she gets overheated and the pressure within builds to breaking point and manifests itself as earthquakes and eruptions.
We have Britain – well, at least England, showing its distaste of losing its once closely guarded privilege to self-determination and has thrown off the shackles of “colonialism” to reinstate its sovereignty. As in its past, it will not come without pain, but that is the price.
We have, it is rumoured, the population of other countries within the EU regime of domination looking to show their parliamentarians that they too want Poland for the Polish, France for the French, Sweden for the Swedish and more. We see in the United States an awakening of the people to find that there is a rampaging bull charging from the left field and crashing through the fence of establishment, in so doing refreshing the minds of people, like a cold shower after a long slumber.
We see Australian political scene with its double dissolution and tightly fought election. Showing the cultural trait of “if it ain’t working, tear it down and rebuild it.” We see the British Labour Party with the Parliamentary caucus demonstrating that they are out of tune with rank and file membership - sound familiar?
And what happens to Mother Earth?
She settles down with the shape somewhat changed and a new future dawns for all. Maybe a new order.
And that is why Britain or at least England will come through the turmoil by “Keeping Calm and Carrying On”.
Tony Kirby
Some unkind readers – John Baker and Sarah Sandley – have queried whether this letter is genuine and not a fictional construct of mine. So here is a snap of the newspaper page, which gives you as a bonus a letter from former WaikTimes letter of the week contributors T John Marshall and Frank Bailey replying to T John’s letter earlier this week. Something about socialism, so in both cases tl;dnr.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Elizabeth Smither on saints

The 87th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is again from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
 So far we have had Barbara Else on romance, aka lust  and Tim Wilson on press-ups. Today: poet, novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Smither.

November 1, November 2, or particularly the midnight between, when All Saints crosses into All Souls, has always been my favourite time of year. What a lovely gradation it is: All Saints, All Souls – then it might be All Dogs, All Cats.

It seems a boundless kind of festival, incorporating the saints, like Teresa of Avila, who didn’t decay and had bits lopped off by the faithful, and others who dashed straight to ashes or dust (which reminds me of an all-time favourite bit of verse by an lndian babu on the death of Queen Victoria: “Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes/Into the tomb the great Queen dashes”).

What, I wonder, happened to those of Teresan tendencies who were never dug up to see? Are there unacknowledged saints underneath the sod crying out “Me too!”? Our own Katherine Mansfield, when disinterred, was found to be remarkably well-preserved. A saint of the short story?

My friend Margo, who begins her letters with a saint’s feast day, has caused a retaliatory search on my part through saints’ calendars. Our salutations, in the attempt to outdo one another, resemble missiles.

Waiting in my armoury are Caspar del Bufalo, Telesphorus, Theodosius the Cenobiarch, Fursey and Nicolas von Flue. And who were Edith of Polesworth and Edith of Tamworth, the Seven Sleepers, Ethelburga of Faremoutiers-en-Brie who sounds like a cheese? Up my sleeve are St Bee, St Winebald and Elizabeth Bichier des Ages. No matter what the date, there will be a name to send like a flaming arrow pitched at a turret.

Saints are nothing if not individual. Who can forget Teresa Avila’s table manners, her railing at the heavens when her barge sank, her laughter at the Inquisition’s cart? Others altered their DNA structures by sublime patience: St Therese of Lisieux washing snotty handkerchiefs next to a nun with halitosis. Choose, they seem to say, be what you like and don’t care.

Just recently I looked up St Polycarp. At 86 he was burnt to death, but the flames behaved abnormally, “making a sort of arch, like a ship’s sail filled with wind so he looked not like burning flesh but like bread in the oven”. To get rid of this image they had to stab him as well.

And in London at Westminster Cathedral there was the feretory of St John Southworth, the body buried and dug up and stuffed like a horsehair sofa. But his feet were encased in little red socks. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. A size three shoe, I think. Such feet, little saint.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Tim Wilson on press-ups

The 86th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Elizabeth Smither, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
Yesterday was Barbara Else on romance, aka lust. Today: Tim Wilson, who is now a novelist and TV star.

Twice each week after night has fallen I retreat to my bedroom, draw the blinds and spread-eagle myself on the floor. I check my shadow to ensure my spine is perfectly straight. Then like the Big Bad Wolf I huff and I puff. The house does not fall down. Instead, I descend and rise above the carpet. I am doing my press-ups.

Don’t get me wrong. A press-up is not my idea of a thrill. That I complete 160 of them each week must be the result of something – personal vanity, I suspect. Yet the value of these physical jerks is almost nil. Some men are built like brick outhouses; I am built like a corridor and I rest too much between exercises to get that endorphin rush which fitness junkies live for.

My rush comes when I take a break at number 60, and I am at the mirror, T-shirt discarded. Suddenly I appear fuller. Swollen with excited blood, my upper body looks like someone else’s, and I move close enough to the mirror to crop out my face – that too is pumped up. I preen and strut. I affect poses stolen from the inhabitants of aftershave commercials.

Inevitably, boredom overtakes me, so I hunch. Thrusting my stomach out obscenely, I conduct salacious experiments with my image. I permit my ruddied face to enter the glass. Do I look a fright!

You may think my little ritual strange, or that I have let you in on it perversely. Probably. But I have discovered a pleasure denied those who choose to exercise publicly. For a true narcissist, the only thing more rewarding than making yourself look good is making yourself look worse.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Barbara Else on romance

The 85th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Elizabeth Smither, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. 

The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
First up: Barbara Else.

Just as a poultice brings a boil to a head, the pleasures of romance give intense focus to your very being. In the first flood of a romance, everything in your day – and night – is connected to A Meaningful Other. Someone else concentrates profoundly on you, and you focus unwaveringly on that other person. The only other time that’s likely to have happened in your life is when you’re a newborn at the start of a feed. No wonder we yearn for the experience in later years. The anticipation of being close to AMO makes every cell in your body full to bursting with excitement and energy. I’m speaking of mutual romance, of course, not the miserable unrequited kind.

But what about the side-effects of this condition? Have you realised that being in love is a highly cost-effective and efficient state? The mental benefits are huge. Romance is so relaxing. Topics of conversation are all there, ready-made, and never pall. “What did you think, when you first saw me?” and “How long before you knew I was The One ?” And you can always rely on the repetitive two-word standby: “You’re wonderful.” “You’re wonderful!”

Then think of the physical benefits. Happiness makes you move with exuberance and bounce. When you’re in love you automatically stand taller and hold your stomach in. What a saving on gym fees. Even your skin improves: you can ditch the half-used pot of Natural Glow and rely on the inner one.

And never underestimate the importance of that crucial but often overlooked element in romance – lust. Candlelight and soft music, wide eyes and gentle smiles are only part of the package. Romance is, after all, a delectable combination of sentiment and desire. Once the lust aspect begins to be fulfilled, weight loss is a certainty. Orgasm and chocolate have the same effect on the brain, so you don’t need the Cadbury’s Flake so often. And all that prone and supine exercise! Even the middle-aged can recapture the sinuosity of youth. Forty-plus joints readily assume remarkable postures, horizontal, vertical and all the angles in between.

What an astonishingly positive state it is – romance even makes the other person smell delicious to you, no matter how sweaty they’ve got.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Nigel Cox on Alan Preston and Unity Books

The 84th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The intro read:
Nigel Cox pays tribute to the quietly legendary Wellington bookseller Alan Preston.
Keeping the books
“After 10 years I did a tot-up and worked out I’d put 10,000 unpaid hours into the bookshop,” says Alan Preston, founder of Unity Books. Not that he’s complaining: “The shop’s been my marriage, really. But you don’t go into bookselling to get rich.”
We talk in the sunroom of his book-lined house in Eastbourne. It has a spectacular view of Ward Island, back-dropped by Wellington Harbour, but glancing around you get the sense that perhaps in this house most of the looking is done inward – into the books, many of them with neat slips marking particular pages. Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Emerson... and a little cluster of Wodehouses. Down on a lower shelf a printed card carries Thoreau’s advice about not worrying about keeping pace with others, because perhaps you “hear a different drummer”, which seems appropriate for a man whose bookshop seems always to have gone its own way.
A most successful way it’s been too – after 26 years, Unity Books is something of an institution among good readers. But back in 1967, with such capital as he had augmented by a few thousand dollars borrowed from relatives, the future was anything but assured: “On our first day we took $19.70!”
That first shop was in the Empire Building in Wellington’s Willis Street and will be recalled by those with long memories as long, awkward and skinny – “only four feet wide at the narrowest point”, he chuckles. His face fills with pleasure as he recalls the excitement of that time, when he embarked on what was to be his life’s work.
The launch of his own bookshop was something that, in hindsight, Preston had been preparing himself for since the beginning: “As a little kid visiting my grandmother’s place in Newtown, I’d be on the back of the settee, ordering the books on the bookcase, putting them round this way, that way, little private categories.”
Reading was always a big interest, second perhaps only to sport. He trained as an accountant, entering the book trade in 1954 via the accounts department of Gordon & Gotch. After stints at Whitcombe & Tombs, South’s Book Depot and the book trade’s old curiosity shop, Ferguson and Osborne, he felt impelled to hang out a shingle of his own.
From the first he had very definite ideas about what his shop would stock. “On the first floor at South’s there’d been art books, old Collins Classics, and more serious, rather more valuable books, but very few people came up there and found them – these good books weren’t being presented, I felt, to those who would be interested in them.”
Not that all this high-mindedness precluded a nose for business. “I’ve always said, perhaps cheekily, that I was trading in the holes that Whitcoulls left,” he says, grinning. Big holes, they must have been, and filled with eager readers. Unity grew quickly from the day it opened, and Preston was soon able to pay back the money he’d borrowed. At which point his relatives said, “Look, it’s working, you’re loving it, we’re loving it too: have the money.”
The book world’s gain has been the sports world’s loss. From 1955 to 1963 Preston played Plunket Shield cricket for Wellington and was twice included in the North Island team. He also played in tests for New Zealand against Australia at soccer. “In 1956 there was the possibility of sending a New Zealand soccer team to the Melbourne Olympics,” he says, “but in those days soccer was the poor relation – we couldn’t afford to go.” The same fate befell a proposed trip by the 1957 national team to South-East Asia.
The interest in books has proved to be almost all-consuming. Preston, who could never be described as conversation-reluctant, will be remembered by many of his customers for the thousands of hours spent in intense discussion about the ideas thrown up by the new titles. During the 1970s, completing an arts degree at Victoria University, he took a paper on New Zealand fiction so that he might better understand this growing aspect of his business. He became involved in the mechanics of the trade – when Denis Glover said he was having trouble distributing the books his Catspaw Press was producing, Preston agreed to act as wholesaler. Glover’s correspondence occasionally arrived on the back of labels he’d soaked from vodka bottles.
These days, with quarter of a century behind him and two shops to preside over (Unity opened in Auckland in 1989), Preston’s dedication to bookselling is as total as his involvement. “Recently, outside the Auckland shop,” he says, “I heard a couple of guys in business suits, mid-30s, and one was saying, ‘I can’t go past this shop. I have to go in there.’ And when I hear comments like that, I think, yes, it’s all been worth it.”
Not that we imagine he ever doubted.

Jo McColl’s obituary of Alan, who died in 2004, is here.

Waikato Times letter of the week #68

From the edition of Monday 27 June. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times. Including the use of hyphens for dashes.
Bennett prediction
I read my paper from cover to cover - both sections - and when something gets to me, I start writing letters. Joe Bennett’s article about dusting off the old crystal ball in Wednesday’s paper (June 22) put my brain in overdrive and made me want to reply to him, so here goes.  
Joe, don’t wipe all the dust off yet! Anything can happen in this weird, wonderful world we live in. I am referring to your article about the hooked-nosed, left-handed Semite who kept evaporating. How can we be sure the marines dumped the right body in the ocean? He could have had a twin brother who decided to change the Al Qaeda name to Isis!
Now, your other prophecy about the 44th president of the United States: the brave - oops, I mean the Bent Racist Vain Egotistical man who may have started to soil himself when he thought he may have a chance of making it to the White House and not knowing what he was going to do when the real deal became apparent and the realty TV show was over so then decided to call it a day and sack the campaign manager backs down on some of the more serious stuff that he made jokes of and soon will throw in the towel before the election to save face in a defeat that would make his hair stand on end and perhaps disappear to the Trump Tower and hide away till the dust settles back on your crystal ball, Joe!
Ann Ridley