Tell us about the book you want to give everyone for Christmas and/or the book you hope no one gives you for Christmas, we asked twenty-four of our top writers and critics. Fifteen of them dared to respond.
This Christmas I’ll be giving everyone a shot of inspiration in the form of Tivaevae: Portraits of Cook Islands Quilting by Lynnsay Rongokea, photographs by John Daley (Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $39.95). Tivaevae are beautiful creations by Cook Island women, the patterns usually based on flowers and plant life. Made of splendid, vibrant coloured fabric, these quilts are treasured by family and friends. John Daley’s photographs of the women and their tivaevae are a treat, and the text an interesting record of the women’s social and individual experience of quilt-making.
In an ideal world I’d also be buying up dump-bins of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury, $44.95) and distributing copies to everyone I know. Ondaatje’s prose is rich and seductive and he draws the reader into his romantic, troubled world, where characters are suspended in a kind of waiting.
Another possibility is Dennis McEldowney’s account of his wife Zoe’s life, Shaking the Bee Tree (Auckland University Press, $29.95). This is a very warm, humane book, full of love and indomitable human spirit.
In 1990 C K Stead accepted an official commission to commemorate the sesqui-centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi. Albert Wendt by contrast refused as a Polynesian to publish any new book that year. Native American novelists Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris have found a way of responding to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas that should please both Stead and Wendt and anybody else who likes a good read. They joined forces to write The Crown of Columbus (HarperCollins, $39.95), a fictional search for the meaning of Columbus’s legacy, part serious, part comic, part campus novel, part post-colonial novel, part scholarly intrigue, part island adventure: not only C K Stead meets Albert Wendt or The Tempest meets Black Elk Speaks, but also David Lodge meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez and A S Byatt meets Robert Louis Stevenson.
Or just Michael Dorris meets Louise Erdrich. Husband and wife ‑ and each National Book Award winners in their own right ‑ they have produced four solo books apiece (Erdrich’s Tracks is particularly stunning) and six children together, and now pool their experience as Indians, writers, lovers, parents. If you want to know a pregnant woman’s mind and body from the inside and like me will never have the chance, read the early sections by ‘Vivian Twostar’. The book would be worth it for them alone.
The books I don’t want for Christmas? The Feeble and Feeble Book of Christmas Lists, the Oxbore Anthology of Literary Antidotes, the Pungent Book of Rank Titles, the Random Collection of Chance Choices, and all those other farragoes of phraseoids devoid of content and consequence.
The Niuean John Pule’s book The Shark that Ate the Sun (Penguin, $24.95) was the one hardest to persevere with this year, but the one I’d give. It’s strange in spirit, returning always to a single rock in a wide ocean, to shadow and to superstition, yet it’s a New Zealand story. The prologue spits words and images. It’s almost incoherent, a surfeit of poetry in prose. And the story’s beginning – it’s too slow. But maybe it’s all part of a pattern. When were any of us that interested in the immigrants from Niue anyway? It takes the murder of Hector Larsen, New Zealand Resident Commissioner to Niue in 1953, to lay the book’s first narrative hooks into you. And as the book rises beyond any of that, beyond its structural incoherence, to a spiritual incoherence, it’s actually frightening. And it’s a New Zealand story now – these past Island men and women who immigrated from Niue after World War II, their past, their present. It unreels the dark history of Puhia, immigrant to New Zealand, worker, boozer, and the Niueans in Karangahape Road pubs who still hold onto the gods of the sea and stones. Their peeling-paint houses in Grey Lynn and Otara. Finally you treasure the unpredictable ball lightning of the prologue. It’s the voice of Fisi, Puhia’s son, a Niuean New Zealander. It floats beside everything, rolls through its walls, calls up the boards and the flying fox, even the curse. It can stop making sense, yet give a graphic Otara, can recount bitter emotion, yet be a vibrant spirit whose hand stretches to encompass more than is possible. It’s the book of the year.
It has been a serious year. We’ve had unrelenting negativity from the news media, in-fighting from politicians, bleakness from economic forecasters, and yet more from the weather. Enough is enough. The books I’ll be giving this Christmas will be as comforting as fish and chips wrapped in last year’s newspaper, and about as serious as a whoopee cushion.
Friends can expect a few cartoons from my favourites: Tom Scott, Gary Larsen, Booth and his New Yorker critturs. For children? The wise nonsense of Margaret Mahy and William Taylor. Their parents? Maybe the cosmic belly-laugh of Tom Robins’ Skinny Legs and All.
My own generation will probably get Robert Fulghum’s collection of essays Uh-Oh (HarperCollins, $15.95), iconoclastic observations on birth, death and in-between. I quote from the chapter on funerals, in which Fulghum, a young Unitarian minister in a new black clerical gown, is flying over a bay, about to commit the ashes of the deceased, to the sea. … at about five thousand feet, the pilot held the cockpit door open, and I took the top off what looked like a two-quart icecream container and poured the ashes out the door. The slipstream poured the ashes right back in the door. Filling the cockpit with the final dust of Harry, the deceased husband. Covering the widow, the pilot and me … The conventions of behaviour are not clear in these circumstances. You’re not really sure if spitting or blowing your nose is respectful of the deceased. We flew back to the field in silence. There’s not a lot to say at such times. This situation was not covered in seminary training.
Fulghum, author of All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, writes the kind of essay which can be easily digested between the turkey and the Christmas pudding and then, perhaps, forgotten. But later in the day you will experience a sudden hiccup of laughter and wonder where it came from.
Being from Dunedin and therefore thrifty by nature, I’m banking on others being generous and discriminating enough to give overseas friends the best of recent New Zealand fiction in the form of Barbara Anderson’s and Owen Marshall’s 1992 productions. Meanwhile, I’m intending to give them a snappy sampling of where New Zealand verse is at by dispatching copies of the Earl of Seacliff’s latest, Wrapper (Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, Dunedin, $14.95). The 35 authors represented include several of our frontliners (Bornholdt, Eggleton, Menzies, O’Brien, Tuwhare, Robert Sullivan among them), a number of interesting newcomers, plus some (Kim Eggleston, Judith Laube and Peter Olds, to name but three) who are overdue for the recognition they deserve. The 108-page volume is attractively decorated with graphics by Gregory O’Brien and Nigel Brown and if it isn’t quite as accomplished an anthology as last year’s Soho Square IV, at a little over a third of the price it will do very nicely.
Then again, for just $6.00 I could buy multiple copies of Boomer, the Otago University Literary Review for 1992 (Otago University Students Association, Dunedin), now in its 104th year and a most attractive and readable production. Among the contributors are Rob Allan, David Eggleton, John Gibb, Lloyd Godman and Dianne Pettis, and if any university anywhere has produced a better anthology this year, I’ll buy it!
I’ve needed the healing gift of laughter in 1992, the year I lost a mother and a daughter, so I’m sharing two books which have made me laugh as well as weep at three in the morning.
There are layers of poignancy in my choices. By any standard, Angela Carter’s Wise Children (Vintage, $19.95) is a triumph, a tour de force that tops even Nights at the Circus, a book I thought was untoppable. Wise Children celebrates all life as a stage, children and especially daughters from both sides of the tracks (and the blankets) as the players; it milks every last drop of comic irony from questions of disputed paternity, and celebrates motherhood as the one great certainty. Or is it? ‘If the child is father of the man,’ asks ancient song and dance girl Flora Chance of her twin Dora, ‘then who is the mother of the woman?’
No one wrote more musically beautiful prose than Angela Carter, even in the persona of Dora Chance in ‘her ratty old fur and poster paint’. She wrote sentences of impossible length but as rhythmic and satisfying as the longest subject of a Bach fugue, and richly comic set-pieces sending theatre and film people up to the skies, but with irony and compassion ‑ a laugh and a sigh a minute. Cruel, then, that it was to be her last book, the author dead this year from cancer at 51. Too soon. The final lines read ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’
William Taylor also writes about familial love, about eccentrics and coping and dreaming. In SuperMum and Spike the Dog (HarperCollins, $12.95) the most ghastly trio of sons currently strutting around New Zealand literature for children bully their none-too-bright but fiercely loyal little mother into a supermarket competition for the perfect Mum. Mercilessly groomed and trained by them, she reaches the national final. For me, this very funny sequel to The Porter Brothers continues Taylor’s ever-improving run towards the longer important satirical novel he must surely soon – please – write.
I have selected two from the many New Zealand, books which stood out for me this year because both have the kind of rich repletion one associates with Christmas. A solid addition to what Anthony Burgess has called a golden age for biography is Volume Two, The American Years (Chatto & Windus, $59.95) of Brian Boyd’s book about Vladimir Nabokov. This is an expertly marshalled and enthralling portrait of one of the great enigmatic personalities of 20th century literature. The author of Lolita (the devious narrator of which is both chasing and being chased by shadows ‑ the innocent Dolores Haze, and his own even more devious alter ego Quilty, so that he ends up ‘guilty of killing Quilty’) in Boyd’s account is the Russian émigré symbolist virtuoso who turned himself around, using the English language and the United States, to create one of the best novels ever written.
Michael O’Leary’s The Irish Annals of New Zealand (Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $21) is a minor New Zealand comic novel that has been completely overlooked so far, possibly because it’s published by a small press. Written in the run-on punning style of Joyce’s fractured Finnegans Wake, it has the hectic pace of wild Irish music and is driven by the proverbial anger of the Fenians, directed as much against themselves and their own destructiveness as against outsiders and the force of history. A drunken man falls from a train crossing the volcanic plateau of the North Island on a dark and stormy night and the novel is the ebbing stream of consciousness of his last thoughts. Or is it?
At times the author seems like some stage Irishman rummaging through a rubbish heap looking for poetical tinsel and bits of Celtic kitsch (everyone from Spike Milligan to U2) to decorate a very straggly Christmas tree. With word association sidesteps and multiple punning twirls as convoluted as the lettering in the Book of Kells, this is a clever, sometimes funny, very odd slice of local blarney well worth looking out for.
Some books pronounce their magic from afar before they come over the horizon. In Pacific fiction, Vincent Eri’s Papua New Guinean novel The Crocodile in the 60s was one. Albert Wendt’s Leaves of a Banyan Tree and recently Ola are two others. So are Keri Hulme’s the bone people and Patricia Grace’s Potiki and Cousins.
Now we have another master magician in our midst – someone whom Keri started talking about in 1990 (and she’s no mean caster of spells and divinations herself). His name is John Pule, born in Niue in 1962, who has lived in New Zealand since 1964. A young man carrying epic dreams who is first and foremost a poet. The rest of us will now have to move over to leave room on the paepae – the place of orators. The Shark that Ate the Sun is as big as the Pacific itself. It’s a history set in Niue and in New Zealand and of the attempts of a small Pacific family to keep together, keep in touch, keep true to self and to always listen to the spiritual voices which guide them. It’s a book of heartache and passion, of anger and brutality, and ultimately of wisdom and strength driven by the sense of loss which burns within all of us.
Our welcome, respect and admiration goes out to you, John Pule. Haere mai.
Shonagh Koea’s second novel Staying Home and being Rotten (Vintage, $19.9 5) is so stylish, so deliciously well-sustained, with such perfect balance in its shifts between past and present, and with such murderous characterisation, shocking hilarity, appalling sadness and teasing gifts of language, that it gets my vote for top treat of the year. It is the perfect companion for a journey: compelling, exhilarating and witty. But it’s also deceptively substantial. A stunning piece of writing; our nearest thing to Barbara Pym or Alice Thomas Ellis – indeed, one reviewer (correctly, I believe) has traced its lineage to Jane Austen.
And it comes at a bargain price. Vintage is turning out an excellent, low-priced series of reprint and original paperbacks. Koea’s novel has appeared at the same time as Marilyn Duckworth’s new and marvellous Unlawful Entry (Vintage, $19.95). Perhaps, on second thoughts, I’ll put both in my Christmas stockings.
Perhaps I read a book differently when I know that at the end of it I have to write a review. It’s disturbing how often any remnant of a book flies out of my head at the same instant the post-box swallows my crit-stuffed envelope.
Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Penguin, $24.95) is one of the few I’ve read this year for my own enjoyment. It was a gift from my Australian mother-in-law and little resonances of it still occupy me. To be honest, I didn’t want to choose it, but its brilliance transcended any trans-Tasman rivalry. I would have liked to ‘discover’ a little-known author, put out by a local publisher. The famous Tim Winton seems a bit easy. But there it is, the one book which left me with that low-down writer’s envy ‘I wish I’d written that’, accompanied by the depressing realisation ‘never in a million years could I’.
Winton is not one of those writers who believe talking about a novel in progress will put the muse in a non-communicative huff. In 1988 I heard him read from it at the Harold Park, Sydney. Fish, who isn’t the main character of the book (there isn’t really one) but is in many ways the centre, has stuck in my head since then. When I started Cloudstreet and realised this was the very same book, I was delighted to re-make Fish’s acquaintance. It was even better to meet Lester and Oriel, Sam and Dolly, Rose, Quick, Hat, Elaine and Red, and to discover that Winton maintains that lovely, tickling, warm Australian idiomatic language for all 400 pages.
Cloudstreet is, as they say, a ‘sprawling saga’. It’s also a treatise about love and spiritual well-being. Many times since reading it have I, like Sam Pickles, sensed the Shifty Shadow and felt that Hairy Hand of God. Come to think of it, I won’t be giving Cloudstreet to anyone. Everyone I know has borrowed my copy. It was a hard job wresting it back to write this.
As I crossed the equator, on the way to Malaysia, I picked up Sheridan Keith’s short-story collection Shallow Are the Smiles at the Supermarket (New Women’s Press, $19.95) and began to read it again. It was already on my shortlist for the Commonwealth Literature Prize, but with a meeting of the judging panel only hours away in Kuala Lumpur, I wanted to confirm my earlier impressions. I had read it first along with some 43 other entries in the space of two months. And what I suddenly found myself thinking was: Why hasn’t more been made of this book? Why haven’t there been more reviews? Keith’s stories are sharp, intelligent, rich with unusual detail. I like her originality, her intellectual sharpness, her polished command of language. I hope somebody will give me her new novel, Animal Passions (New Women’s Press, $21.95), for Christmas.
The book I won’t be giving is Inside Memory, Pages from a Writer’s Workbook by Canadian writer Timothy Findley. Phyllis Webb sent me this beautiful, luminous, searingly honest rendition of a life, one of the most wonderful books I have read in years. I won’t be giving it because I can’t buy it here. Instead, very trusted friends will be allowed to borrow it, and I hope that reading it feels like the gift it was to me.
I’ve had the misfortune several times this year of being accused of fairness and unremitting niceness. Like every virtuous person, I hunger for self-improvement. The book I’d most like to be given for Christmas, therefore, is Auberon Waugh’s autobiography Will This Do? (Arrow, $24.95). I’m told it is vituperative and irresponsible and bordering at all times on defamation. I shall read it, enjoy it, and try to write more savagely in my post-Waugh era.
The books I don’t want for Christmas are the ones I’ve read and liked in the course of a year’s reviewing. And it’s one of these I shall nominate as my standard present. Dennis McEldowney’s Shaking the Bee Tree is a memoir of his wife, Zoe, a former hole-in-the-heart baby who did not begin to lead anything resembling a normal life until after her second operation, by which time she was in her mid-50s. The book is not grim. It is a testimony to the power of persistence, courage and optimism and a marvellous antidote to the daily news diet of misappropriation, violence and perversion (and that’s only the sports pages). It’s also beautifully written.
Most of the people I know are writers, so I will be giving them Writers on Writing (Oxford University Press, $39.95). A writers life is a painful one, often hilariously so in the blackest possible way, and this latest anthology from Robert Neale, senior lecturer in English and Public Orator at Massey University, will gladden the lack of heart possessed by any author when (s)he reads of the literary labours of luminaries from Aristotle to T S Eliot, more than 50 in all. Witi Ihimaera, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield are the three New Zealand writers included.
For myself, the part I liked best was from George Borrow (1803-81) in Lavengro, a semi-autobiographical novel dealing with his first steps as a writer and an encounter with a publisher-bookseller’s wife to whom he had given a manuscript. I give you my word that it shall be read; come again tomorrow morning at eleven, when, if not approved, it shall be returned to you, she said. Upon reading this happy pretty little story my heart contracted to the size of a walnut. Writers on Writing is an erudite volume about the craft of writing, or what I call in my own mind the assembly of words. I liked it very much.
Most generalisations are suspect (consider this). I tend to disparage American culture, saying how much better Britain’s Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett are in comparison with television writers in the United States, for example, but in thinking of a book to comment on here I realise how powerful is the American tradition of short fiction, how superior are its young practitioners to those elsewhere. They seem gifted with Frank O’Connor’s ‘lonely voice’ of the short story; they speak for the submerged populations.
My case in point is Ethan Canin, 27 years old when Emperor of the Air (Picador, $15.95), his first collection, appeared, but already published, anthologised and the recipient of awards and fellowships. He writes quiet, insightful, dead-pan stories rather like those of his compatriots Bette Pesetsky and Bobby-Anne Mason. Stories that aren’t really about anything at all except the people in them. Stories that are hollowed out of observation and experience to provide a resonance there.
In ‘Pitch Memory’, for example, the narrator is called to a store where her widowed mother has been caught shop-lifting, manages to have her released and takes her home, where the mother falls asleep in front of the television, humming. And in the asides of narration a life is revealed. Pots clang on the stove, silverware chimes on the wood table. I lie still. My mother’s humming is soft, almost inaudible. Despite all science I think we will never understand the sadness of certain notes.
I loathe Christmas. At off-peak moments I glance at the world map and fantasise about countries which divide, geographically, into spheres in which Christmas is celebrated and those in which it is, joyfully, deleted. I always imagine this zone as one in which people enjoy themselves utterly, every moment precious in the knowledge that the participants are where they want to be, not where they feel they have to be.
Two books I would recommend, however, for people still trapped and seeking urgent diversion are Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (Penguin, $19.95) and Shonagh Koea’s Staying Home and Being Rotten.
Bartlett’s book is a literary artefact in its own right. It also heralds the fact that an essential late 20th century dialogue (one which is peculiar to this time, now and not any other time) is continuing. Works of art openly homosexual in their concerns grew so enormously in the early 80s. Aids momentarily shocked this momentum to a standstill. Bartlett’s book – erudite, sexual, subtle – is an indication that this dialogue has not merely picked up its momentum, it has been made more profound by the advent of Aids. This might make the book seem merely polemical. Instead it has an inventiveness which is playful, a life-affirming lyricism in its poetic vision.
Staying Home and being Rotten is a similarly playful read. I like Koea’s writing because she dares to be several things New Zealand writers know they should never be; her writing is dense, playful, rich, fruity and slightly Anglican around the edges. Like a good Christmas pudding, it suggests glazed fruit soaked in good alcohol, and maybe some coinage of dubious ancestry.
Both books will help drown out any number of domestic quarrels happening in your local Happy Xmas zone. Good luck.