This biography/ autobiography/ graphic novel is idiosyncratic, interesting and fun. It has sent me off to read and re-read both Katherine Mansfield and Sarah Laing, different writers from different centuries who still seem to have a lot in common.Continue reading
Articles about New Zealand
Mansfield and Me — Sarah Laing
Billy Bird — Emma Neale
This is a wonderful story of a quirky boy and his family as they go through some funny, tragic, interesting times. The premise is that Billy turns into a bird, or believes he does. But there is a lot more happening around that, and it all makes sense in the end.Continue reading
Wellbeing Economics — Dalziel & Saunders
The ability to lead the kinds of lives that they value and have reason to value.There’s a lot of NZ-specific information, but the ideas are universally applicable. The approach is a bit different from the ideas put forth by the usual suspects across the political spectrum. Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders believe a market economy is essential, but recognise that it must be managed to allow the markets to deliver their maximum benefit. Even the most free markets are still heavily regulated, most obviously by contract and property law, and this helps us see that regulation is not antithetical to free markets — it is essential. As for the Big Government versus Small Government debate, Dalziel and Saunders argue that government should be big enough. Government’s job is to do the things that citizens cannot do individually or collectively, and to help them add value to the things they choose to do. But the onus is on citizens to initiate this process and to use this support for their own individual and communal wellbeing. This is a shift from the old welfare state to what Dalziel and Saunders call the wellbeing state. Continue reading
Thorndon — Kirsty Gunn
A meditation on belonging, place, family and more. Kirsty Gunn did what Katherine Mansfield never did: she returned from the UK to live for a time in her home town of Wellington, New Zealand. She stayed in a cottage in Thorndon, the suburb where Mansfield grew up, on a scholarship to work on her “Katherine Mansfield project”. This book is the result.
The style of Thorndon feels more like Mansfield than Gunn, in my limited experience of both writers. It feels as if Gunn, a Mansfield scholar, was deeply affected by being steeped in Mansfield’s formative environment. Even more so given that it was also Gunn’s.
Prizes — Janet Frame
Life is hell, but at least there are prizes.
This is a wonderful compilation of short stories spanning Frame’s career. There is a lot of variety here: the common thread is that they are mostly set in New Zealand in the second half of last century. There are surreal magical realist pieces, impressionistic slice-of-life pieces, and coming-of-age stories. My favourites are the ones written from a child’s point of view: we all used to be children, but she actually remembers what it was like and expresses it in a way that makes me remember too.
The Big Music — Kirsty Gunn
An old man kidnaps his housekeeper’s granddaughter and takes her for a walk in the hills. He needs to write her into a piece of music he is composing. This is the start of this novel, and as it continues we learn more about the history of his family, which has lived for many generations in a remote house in the Scottish highlands. The house and family have become famous in the world of classical bagpipe music, the “big music” of the title.
I have never seen a book put together like this one before. It’s presented as a documentary, with the story built up from fragments of letters, recordings and papers found during the author’s research into the family and house. Supporting the story are many many footnotes, including frequent cross-references to other parts of the story and to the numerous appendices including plans of the house, maps of the area, family history, proceedings of musical societies, academic papers and more. At first I found the footnotes intrusive and fussy, but eventually I realised that this was all an essential part of the book.
The Garden Party — Katherine Mansfield
Beautiful short stories from the expat New Zealander, set in Europe and NZ last century. They drew me in so much that while reading it on the bus, I missed my stop. Twice.
The stories are about unremarkable people, but in each one I felt that I could really get under the skin of the characters. The writing isn’t at all flashy, but it’s still somehow very immersive. Even the shorter stories feel quite substantial. This is definitely worth reading and rereading. But preferably not on public transport.
The Chimes — Anna Smaill
What would life be like if we communicated with music instead of words? That’s the situation in the dystopian future of The Chimes. People have lost most of their ability to remember in words, so they must rely on objects to prompt their memories, and an intricate musical language to communicate. Simon, a young man, fetches up in London with only a vague idea why he came and what he’s supposed to do there. Things start happening to him, and before long he starts making things happen himself. Eventually he becomes part of a revolutionary struggle.
I loved the first half of the book, as we are shown (not told) the mechanics of this strange new world. The language the characters use ingeniously blends musical terms with normal English. I love the term for musical heresy: “blasphony”. The second half is more plot-driven, so everything gets a bit more concrete. I found out later that his book is considered to be a YA (young adult) novel. I think this just means that there’s only moderate violence, sex and swearing, and a teenage protagonist. It also means that things are tied up nicely at the end. Luckily it’s not too neat for an old adult like me.
The Forrests — Emily Perkins
This novel is Dorothy Forrest’s life story, and her complicated family life too. After reading it I felt that I knew her quite well…
Soon — Charlotte Grimshaw
Two very interesting characters inhabit this story: Roza, the Prime Minister’s wife, a creative maverick who still manages to fit in with his circle; and her precocious young son Johnny, who is clever and manipulative and a bit of a nightmare. Throughout the novel, Roza tells Johnny a story featuring a large cast of characters including a nasty dwarf called Soon, and surreal happenings, all based on the other people in the novel. It’s like a terrifyingly twisted Enid Blyton romp, and it’s fun drawing parallels between Roza’s story and the novel.
The rest of Soon is nicely written and compelling, but the plot and the other characters are a bit more formulaic than Roza and Johnny. It’s a story of powerful people behaving badly. The right-wing Prime Minister himself is popular, but is also a cynical, amoral figure; a parallel here to the current New Zealand political scene, and also to another novel within this novel.