The picture on the left is Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, where I am at the moment. Purely by chance the book I am reading is Paolo Cognetti’s Otto Montagne, to be published in English in March as Eight Mountains. The novel won the Italian Strega Prize and, as the title tells us, is about mountains and mountain-climbing. I shall be reviewing it on return from my travels. It is set both in the Italian Alps and the Himalayas and Pietro, the hero/narrator, both of his parents and his best friend, Bruno, are lovers of mountains. It is a real joy to read it while looking at Mount Cook and the other peaks in the range.
Does reading a novel in an appropriate place enhance the reading experience? Should we read Wuthering Heights at Top Withens? War and Peace at Borodino? Voss in the Australian desert? 古都 (The Old Capital) in Kyoto?
I have occasionally made a conscious attempt to read a work in the place it was associated with: I read some of Ulysses in Dublin, Yeats poetry in Sligo, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts at Briggflatts and even some Hemingway at Key West. However, on the whole, like most people, I have read most books at my home, none of which have had any particular literary associations.
Does it make a difference? I think it does. Whenever I read about Pietro going up a mountain, I look out of the window and imagine him climbing here. Sitting next to me is my wife reading, as she always does when we come to New Zealand, Lord of the Rings, and, everywhere we go, she can associate with some part of Tolkien’s novel.
Most of us will continue to read at home or, perhaps, on the commute to and from work, but it is certainly occasionally enjoyable to read a novel or poetry with the place it is associated with.
The latest addition to my website is Anna Smaill‘s The Chimes. I have been sitting on this for several months but am inspired to read it as it made The Man Booker longlist and, as I have only read two others on the list (both, interestingly enough, by women), I felt that I should get round to this one. It is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel, something which seems quite popular at the moment. It is set mainly in London (though later moving to Reading and then Oxford), which has been damaged by something called the Allbreaking, whose nature is not entirely clear but seems to have involved some powerful sounds that destroyed buildings and killed people. The new ruling class, called The Order, seem to be a quasi-religious group, that use sounds to control the people, who must listen every day to the Onestory and The Chimes, sounds played by some form of musical instrument, with the latter having the effect of destroying people’s memories. Memories, except for bodymemory, i.e. the normal functions of the body, tend to be illegal, though people sometimes have memory bags containing objectmemories, i.e. objects that remind them of their past.
Our hero is Simon Wyvern, a young lad who has a gift (highly illegal) of reading people’s memories, inherited from his late mother. After the death of his parents, he comes to London from Essex, where he joins a pact (i.e. a gang) which hunts The Lady, i.e. palladium, which the Order needs. The story takes a reasonably predictable path, as Simon and Lucien, the leader of the gang, concoct a plan to bring down The Order by clever means. However, what makes this novel different is Smaill’s use of music. Smaill has had formal musical training and she puts that to good use in this book. Since The Allbreaking, communication is as much by music and singing than by words. We see how the gang use music to set a path and follow where they and others are going. People use it to communicate everyday issues and of course, the Order uses it to control the populace. I am not sure whether that is enough to win her the Man Booker Prize – I suspect not – but it does enliven an interesting post-apocalyptic story.
I have just returned from four weeks in New Zealand. There were two reasons for going. The first, of course, was to escape the English January weather, though this plan has not always proved to be entirely successful, as it was snowing when we returned. The second was because we very much like New Zealand – wonderful climate, amazing scenery, good food, roads almost empty, they speak English (more or less) and they drive on the left. They are also very nice people. However, this was not a literary trip. We started off in Wellington, where we hoped to visit Katherine Mansfield’s house. Unfortunately, the only day we were in Wellington was the day when it was closed, so we missed out. We did visit Te Papa, the Wellington Museum. Te Papa is short for Te Papa Tongarewa, meaning container of treasures. I must admit my favourite discovery there was English. This was The Marriage at Cana, a painting by an English artist called Winifred Knights, whom I had never heard of, though a couple of her works are in the Tate. It was bought by the Museum from the British School in Rome, as no-one else seemed to want it, because of its size. Shame on the then directors of British art galleries.
Scribes’ stock of New Zealand fiction
When we were in New Zealand three years ago, we visited Dunedin and, in particular, Scribes bookshop. That visit led to several purchases of interesting works of New Zealand fiction, as recommended by Scribes owner Richard Tubbs, so we had no hesitation in returning. Richard was again most helpful and again we exceeded our luggage allowance with books, as I bought several works of fiction and my significant other found some interesting books on New Zealand and Dunedin history, also at Richard’s recommendation. This is one of those bookshops that are sadly disappearing in the age of online book-buying and ebooks – a well-stocked bookshop, with lots of interesting titles and a very helpful, friendly and knowledgeable owner. (I stress the word friendly because I have probably encountered more miserable people running bookshops during my life than miserable people in any other profession.) Its location next to one of New Zealand’s foremost universities probably helps. if you are in or near Dunedin, you should definitely visit it.
We did find one other excellent bookshop in Dunedin – The Hard to Find bookshop or, as their slogan has it, the Legendary Hard to find (but worth the effort) Quality Second Hand Bookshop. It was an excellent shop, as well and, frankly, not all that hard to find. Owner Warwick Jordan (scroll down) was very helpful and friendly and pointed out some interesting books. Warwick, Richard and other bookshop owners, however, sadly admitted that they did not not read much New Zealand fiction.
The new Zealand fiction shelf at Whitcoulls, Auckland
We did have a quick look at a few New Zealand new book shops, including Whitcoulls, flagship shop of the main New Zealand bookshop chain. People were reading some of the same books that they are reading elsewhere – Gillian Flynn, the new Sarah Waters, the new David Mitchell, the Rosie Project and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter. New New Zealand books that they are reading are Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky, Sarah-Kate Lynch, Laurence Fearnley’s Reach, Maxine Alterio’s Lives We Leave Behind and Deborah Challinor. Challinor is a New Zealander who lives in Australia. There were a couple of other Australians who were selling quite well – M L Stedman for her The Light between the Oceans and, of course, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Oh, and, naturally, Eleanor Catton is doing quite well.
And talking of Eleanor Catton… While we were there, she spoke at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where she was highly critical of the New Zealand government, saying that it was dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. Prime Minister John Key said that she has no particular great insights into politics, though why that matters, I do not know. Talk show host Sean Plunket called her a traitor and a hua. (Nor, no did I and nor, apparently, did Plunket – see this explanation.) The Taxpayers’ Union said she had received generous support from the taxpayer. Others defended her, e.g. here and here. Not surprisingly, it is now being called Cattongate. And the whole business seems part of tall poppy syndrome. My view? Good for you, Eleanor. If politicos cannot accept a bit of criticism, they should be in a more genteel profession, such as used-car selling or telemarketing. She is perfectly entitled to criticise them, even if she has received some taxpayer funding. And hasn’t the publicity she generated for her country been worth a lot more than that the few dollars she received? The answer, by the way, for any politician reading this, is Yes.
The latest addition to my website is Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries. It is on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Despite weighing in at 830 pages, it is not the longest book on the longlist (that honour goes to Richard House’s The Kills). I was particularly impressed with Catton’s first book, Rehearsal. However, while enjoying this latest book, I do not feel that it was of the same calibre as its predecessor. This book is a complicated, plot-driven novel, set in Hokitika, a small town on the West coat of New Zealand, during the 1866 gold rush in the area. Twelve men – nine of European origin, two Chinese and one Maori – meet in the lounge of the Crown Hotel to share information (they all have some individual piece of information to contribute) about recent events in the area, including the death of a loner who is found to have a stash of gold hidden in his hut, the rapid sale of his assets, the unexpected appearance of a woman claiming to be his widow as well as other events such as the apparent attempted suicide of a local prostitute and the disappearance of the most successful gold digger. They are joined by a newly arrived man, who also has some information to share. Half the book is taken up with the various stories and their background before we get both the backstory and subsequent events. It is a good read but I do not feel it as worthy as its predecessor.
The latest addition to my website is Eleanor Catton‘s Rehearsal. This is a superb debut novel about performance and imagined performance, about the power of gossip and power in relationships, about who we really we are and who we think we are and about how the younger generation is changing, presumably in New Zealand though it could equally apply to any Western country. It tells two stories that will converge. The first concerns Mr. Saladin, a teacher of jazz band at a girls’ school who has an affair with Victoria, one of his under-age students and the repercussions this affair has on the other girls, the girl’s family, particularly her younger sister, and the community. Catton brilliantly portrays these repercussions in an original manner, exemplified by the (female) saxophone teacher, who comments, almost like a Greek chorus, on the events. The other story concerns a Drama Institute, which is very difficult to get into, and which uses challenging techniques to get the students to recognise who they are and how to become actors. It is primarily seen through the eyes of one of the students, Stanley, a somewhat solitary young man with a psychologist father who tells politically incorrect jokes about pedophilia. Stanley is conventional but sometimes challenges the status quo, as does Julia, a saxophone player in the other story, a loner who befriends Victoria’s sister. It is a complex novel, superbly written, clearly showing the maturity and expertise of a much more experienced writer.
I haven’t posted for a while as I have been on holiday to New Zealand. See obligatory pictures of Milford Sound and a kaka bird below.
The purpose of the holiday was just that – a holiday to see the beauties of New Zealand which, I must say, were well worth the very long journey. Literature definitely took second place. While many towns did seem to have bookshops, which was nice, finding New Zealand literature was trickier, as most shops stocked what you might find in any UK bookshop. The first town we went to was Nelson, in the South Island, and we visited Page and Blackmore where a nice lady recommended a few books, which I hope to get around to reading. It was not till we got to Dunedin that we found a first-class second-hand bookshop, called Scribes (their website seems to be down). It is up in the university area, near the excellent museum. The owner/manager admitted that he did not read much New Zealand literature but, nevertheless, was knowledgeable on the subject and had a good section on it, so I made a few more purchases to add to my list. In particular, I bought a couple of works by my favourite New Zealand writer, Lloyd Jones. Again, I hope to read them soon but…
One New Zealand writer I have yet to read is Janet Frame, though I own several of her books. While staying in Oamaru, we did visit her house at 56 Eden Street, a fairly ordinary house in a residential street, where she lived from the age of six with her parents and siblings, till she left Oamaru after competing secondary school. Photos of her house, typewriter and bedroom below.
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