Saturday, 3 January 2009

Books read in September

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in September. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Over the Wide and Trackless Sea - Megan Hutching (3.4)

New Zealand’s European women are the focus of this book, and it seems they shared many hardships, including long journeys, hard work, death of children and natural disasters. Their stories personalise the experience and there are many similarities in their accounts, told through diaries, letters and memoirs. It is also interesting to see that feelings of homesickness and displacement are the same ones that affect immigrants today. Megan Hutching writes in a straightforward style without any elegant interpretation or embellishments which makes incidents seem even starker.

It is very hard to know what women thought. Their tales are usually told through men; they were at the mercy of their husband or father, and they were hardly mentioned by other people. They seldom wrote about their feelings or personal information although they do provide domestic information about household routines.

The eleven women in the book have varied lives and Hutchings describes details that colour each of their lives; sheep farming; whaling; gum-digging; genteel life in politics and suffrage; missionary work; fossicking for gold along West Coast beaches; and housekeeping.

The book has large print and is easy to race through, suggesting it might be aimed at old ladies or amateur historians. It is a good starting point for anyone wanting to write a play or short story about any of these women and there is an extensive bibliography for further information.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (4.3)

This novel is based upon a great concept and it is a thrill to read; a sort of dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale with an emphasis on the possibility of cloning people so that they will be able to donate organs and offer people the chance to have children with enhanced characteristics. It is set in an alternate contemporary Britain where things are eerily similar but different.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are pupils at Halisham, an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. They are told that they are special and it is important for them to keep themselves well and ‘healthy inside’. They know nothing of the outside world and they form intense friendships and harbour little secrets, for which they feel guilty. This is believable because their world is so convincing and claustrophobic – evoking memories of schooldays best forgotten.

Kathy, now aged thirty-one, narrates the story with hindsight. She wonders throughout whether they could have guessed what was coming, dropping oblique hints and enigmatic asides. Information is drip-fed to the reader, which means the conclusion isn’t the shattering solution of a mystery, as this has already been revealed. Consequently, the novel is not exactly a thriller and it feels slightly unsatisfactory at the end. It is a sort of science fiction but very human. The relationship between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth is well depicted as they grow from puzzled children to confused young adults. The reader grows with them, making discoveries about their life at the same time as they do.

It starts to drag towards the end, however, and the conclusion is unsatisfactory Many questions remain unanswered which is a little frustrating, but the lasting impression is bleak. The overwhelming feeling is one of regret and it challenges the reader to do something vital; to prove that you are not simply a clone, programmed for a destiny beyond your control. And therein lies its power.

Venice - Jan Morris (4.7)

This biography of a city has historical and geographical information thrown in. It is not chronological (although there is a timeline at the end) but the seemingly random thoughts and observations are expertly corralled. Jan Morris writes with affection and obviously enjoyed living there, investing the city with a character of her own – Morris refers to Venice as ‘she’ throughout. Venice was the place where East meets West; a continental cosmopolitan trading port on the water with a unique place in history – both real and imagined.

He/she (the book was originally written by James Morris, but reprinted when she was Jan with a new foreword) writes of the people; the islands; the canals; the bridges; the boats; the buildings. The one thing he doesn’t write about is the food – “It’s not a gourmet city” – and it is refreshing to read a book about Italy that isn’t full of gastro porn. In fact there are no pictures at all, and although an illustrated guide might be nice, the words are enough.

He explains the fascination and the appeal of Venice through the sights and the sounds and the incomparable light. From the opening paragraphs, Morris writes with warmth, reverence and affection. To read his words is to fall in the love with the city as he has done. For the first-time traveller or the repeat visitor, this is an excellent introduction or memento of a unique city, and a wonderful piece of writing in its own right.

The Food Taster - Peter Elbling (3.7)

This faux memoir of Ugo diFonte, who becomes the food taster for a powerful Renaissance Duke, is part fairytale, part history and totally immersed in the art of storytelling. He is a simple man whose unpretentious attitude makes the book an amusing read; although light on historical detail, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t.

Unable to prevent his mother from hanging herself, Ugo is the unfavoured son, driven from home by the cruelty of his father and brother, Vittore. He finally finds fortune in the home of Duke Frederico, where he raises his daughter, Miranda. She is the apple of his eye but, just like Prospero (in one of many Shakespearean similarities), he attempts to protect her by preventing true love.

Ugo is earthy, artistic and passionate with a love of cooking. The Renaissance food is rich and sumptuous, including spit-roasted quails, capons in lemon sauce, and calves’ brains, with lots of recipes at the back. At times his rants on food verge on gastro-porn.

He is a fabulously unreliable narrator, partly due to his increasing drug dependency, and also because he listens to gossip and tells tales, embellishing the truth to make it more interesting. He admits to being tantalised by the power of a good narrative, and learns the power of oratory, noting that the substance of the story is not as important as the artifice.

Fear of magic and witches form a backdrop to the novel, as do suspicion, deception, the Inquisition and various forms of torture. Ugo leaps from one escapade to the next and extricates himself from many a life-threatening situation while preserving his daughter’s dignity. There is always room for sardonic humour, however, and just as a pompously written menu can conceal an inedible dish, Peter Elbling demonstrates that the simplest story can be enveloped in the richest prose.

What Happen Then, Mr Bones? - Charlotte Randall (4)

This novel about the Montague family has a backwards-in-time storyline. This can be a bit disconcerting, but it is the point of difference of the novel and is mentioned at the very start, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. There is a list of characters at the beginning – in order of appearance – and their relationship to each other which helps us to keep track. The family is traced from modern Petone to 1650 Oxford, incorporating recurring themes of medicine, ageing, death, love and infidelity. After waking up on a dissecting table, Anne Green changes her name to Valentine and writes her memoirs which are handed down through the family; some of whom are interested while others are not.

In her distinctive style, the author directly addresses the reader. We have the benefit of hindsight and modern knowledge, plus we know what happens later in the story. This is deliberate artifice but encourages the reader to experience the characters’ experiences with a measure of dramatic irony. It breaks all literary conventions and draws the reader in with confidences and confessions. It is all written in present tense as if the same observer was present at all events.

Life and our expectations of such are continually changing. It changes when we grow up and when children arrive on the scene. It changes again when we grow old. Ngaio Halifax, Susan’s mother-in-law begins a scrapbook of her memories, but she doesn’t really know why. The history of countries change and New Zealand certainly altered with immigration and colonialism. History is served with a generous side portion of cynicism, humour and wit as the voice of the people mingles with the history of mishap. It is told in asides, as it affects but is not central to the main protagonists’ lives.

What Happen Then, Mr Bones? is an interesting novel, not afraid to tackle big themes (art; religion; history; fear of birth and death; magic; medicine; natural remedies and prayer; the eternal contest between faith and science) from a quirky irreverent angle and without pretension. This is refreshing in any writer, let alone one from New Zealand, and I will definitely look out for her other novels in future.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Entertaining Children

My brother, sister-in-law and their children are visiting. This is wonderful as I haven't seen my brother for a number of years and before two weeks ago had never met their youngest child. Whenever we have friends and family to visit, we take them on tours of Wellington and environs, but we don't really do this with people with children so we wondered how to entertain them?

Fortunately they love to entertain themselves, telling themselves stories and disappearing into their imaginative worlds. On Christmas Eve they 'helped' me bake the biscuits which were to comprise presents for the parents and other adults. We made star biscuits and hundreds and thousands of the sprinkles were consumed, along with blue icing which is now decorating the kitchen benchtops.

They enjoy playing with their Christmas presents, colouring books and dot-to-dots. It seems we are more amused by table football than they. One day we went along to a park and took a football. My brother and Him Outdoors played with the football for about an hour while the children were content with the swings and the slides.

As we usually do, we took our guests to the wineries out at Martinborough. I can thoroughly recommend Vynfields as a place to take little people. The wine tastings come on a tray so you can take them away and sit in the magnificent garden with a platter too if you like. This means you can enjoy them at your leaisure while keeping an eye on the children playing in the wide open space.

Apparently rocks under trees can be converted to peanut butter sandwiches for yellow aliens (don't ask) and stone tables make excellent space ships.

Ata Rangi also has a large area for running around and playing stuck-in-the-mud or Peter Pan. I was slightly surprised that Wendy and the crocodile were the characters to be as I had always thought Wendy was a bit wet, but I think the drawcard here was that she could walk a plank (or a bench, if we're honest). Meanwhile we could get stuck into the Craighall Chardonnay with impunity.

A typical Wellington childhood entertainment is Te Papa, and we went along to see the colossal squid. I thought it was a little odd that bits of it were cut up and put in specimen jars, although it was still pretty impressive stretched out in it's entirety.

The children liked the 3D video that accompanied the exhibit, although the two questions they kept asking were, 'What killed it and why?' (Answers: fishermen; for our entertainment) and, 'Where are the dinosaurs?' (Answer: there aren't any, but there are some fossils). In fact, dramatic though the squid may be (and we are reminded that it is a colossal squid and not one of the giant variety - they are quite a different kettle of fish apparently) it lost out in the popularity stakes to ice cream.

Movenpick on Herd Street does delicious flavours - hokey pokey, vanilla (with real seeds from the pods) and the raspberry/strawberry sorbet ('It's healthy!') were among the favourites.

A short stroll along the waterfront to the playground at Freyberg Beach meant everyone could play on a variety of vomit-inducing contraptions which finished off the afternoon nicely. So there we have it; how to entertain children for a weekend in Wellington without driving adults to distraction.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Seeing with new eyes

Him Outdoors is injured - he has hurt his Achilles tendon and cannot run. Usually this would be a disaster; cue much grumpiness and incessant moaning. However, I have to say it is not actually that bad this time. We cycle when we can (wind permitting) and walk when we can't.

At the weekend we went out for a walk along the Eastern Walkway to Tarakena Bay. It's one of my regular runs, but this time it was more leisurely and I took the camera along.

There are a lot of steps, both up and down which gives you a good workout when running - step sessions as Him Outdoors calls them. My description is less polite. When walking, you can still get a sweat up, although the need to take photos means you can call a halt to the steady march - I have developed subterfuge in my 17 year relationship with a fitness facist.

I also decided this would be a good opportunity to study the flowers. Wild flowers are so beautiful, growing wherever they may in glorious profusion.

The pohutukawa trees are out in bloom. Him Outdoors used to struggle to capture the name (he called them Pocahontas trees) but now he is proud of his knowledge, and pronunciation, as he marvels that Seatoun is Pohutukawa Central. Indeed, these scarlet flowers (remarketed in the '90s as the Kiwi Christmas tree) add daubs of festive colour to the surrounding scenery.

The hills about this place are smothered with fennel. In spring it is fresh and feathery green scented with a subtle aniseed; in summer the green deepens to a vivd hue and the yellow flowers are buzzed by bees. It smells as though you are running through a curry bazaar. Later in the season the stems turn tough and woody. We always say we should bring a trowel and dig up some bulbs to take home, but we never do.

The bays themselves are quite simply beautiful. In their way they are as stunning as anything in Northland, Coromandel, Marlborough Sounds or the Bay of Islands. And they are fifteen minutes' drive from the capital city. We can't afford to go away this Christmas break (having used up all our finances on our recent trip to Itlay and America - and the America section of those travels is still to come on this blog!) so there is extra pleasure in having all these delights on our doorstep.

Even the names of these places are exotic. From the Pass of Branda - which we can't help but say in a deep cinema voiceover tone to Tarakena Bay. There is also Flax Bay, Eve Bay, Reef Bay, Breaker Bay, and Signallers' Cove.

At the end of this trail at Tarakena Bay the Ataturk memorial overlooks the entrance to Wellington harbour. Apparently the site was chose for its remarkable likeness to the landscape of the Gallipoli peninsula, and the monument contains Turkish soil from Anzac Cove.

Although this looks like a giant urinal, it is really quite a moving memorial to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli who went on to become the founder of modern Turkey. It may seem strange to have a monument to a man who was partly responsible for the deaths of many soldiers of that country, but according to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage website, the Memorial is an outcome of an agreement between the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand governments.

In 1984, Australia asked Turkey if the cove on the Gallipoli peninsula could be renamed Anzac Cove in memory of the Australian and New Zealand troops who died there in 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign of World War One. The Turkish Government agreed to change the cove's name from Ari Burnu and also built a large monument to all those who died in the campaign. In return, the Australian and New Zealand governments agreed to build monuments in Canberra and Wellington to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The inscription on the memorial was written by Ataturk in 1934 and is read every year by the Turkish Ambassador on Anzac Day at the National War Memorial in Wellington. (As with any of these photos, you can click on the image to make it bigger and read the words.)

So I saw an everyday sight with new eyes. This really is a beautiful place and although we often do, we can't really complain. Another positive is that, having walked the track, the next time I run it, it will seem that much faster. I'd better go before I turn into that ghastliest of characters, Pollyanna.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Up Where We Belong

Capitan Fantastico does it again as Stevie G leads his side to another glorious victory - 5-1 against Newcastle at St James' Park. Though I felt slightly sorry for Shay Given (it would have been at least ten if it weren't for his excellent goal-keeping) and didn't like to see little Michael (Owen) with blood pouring from his knee, that's not enough to wipe the smile from my face. The boys done good.

Even Lucas and Benayoun played well - and I'm not usually forthcoming in my praise for them. Mascherano's return is welcome - he adds the needle to the midfield and his challenges are of the 'uncompromising' variety, shall we say. I would have liked to see Robbie Keane come on and so, by the look on his face as he smarted on the bench, would he.

Of course I miss Torres, but they managed admirably without him. Babel is becoming a tower of strength (sorry) and it's always nice to see Hyypia head one into the back of the net. I still rate Kuyt for his hard work, positional play and tactical awareness, even if he does lack a certain finesse and you could probably make an entire DVD of shots of him tripping over the ball - I'm sure someone already has.

Benitez managed a smile, which may be a first, and didn't even look too annoyed to be bothered by a mobile-phone-wielding fan as he sat in the stands supposedly recovering from surgery while chattering away and passing directions through to Sammy Lee.

Watching Liverpool must be one of the worst ways to relax - I certainly bite off all my fingernails and feel my heartbeat rise each time they step on the pitch - but at least this time he was rewarded with three points and a chink of daylight at the top of the league.

So Liverpool will now head into the New Year at the top of the table where they belong. I'm sure someone knows when was the last time they did this. I don't. What I do know is that I believe they can go all the way this season. Bring it on! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.