09 January 2014

A sort of a review of 2013 but mainly a list of the books I read (or at least the ones I can remember)

In my last post I said that 2013 had been a bit crap, which is true - there were some crappy things that happened. The main bad thing was discovering that we needed to do a LOT of work on our downstairs flat after our tenant of forever (well, seven years) left, and the money and time and especially the stress that ensued.

But many good things also happened, and I had lovely times with friends and family and so forth. It just got a bit much at the end of the year!

Principal among the good things of the year was having an enthusiastic publisher (Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press) want to publish Cinema (which, as I said in my last post, is coming out next year). I also really enjoyed doing some finishing work on Cinema, and getting some really good and helpful feedback from Mary and also from Anna Jackson.

Another highlight was publishing two fantastic new books - as Seraph Press: Paula Green's The Baker's Thumbprint and Maria McMillan's The Rope Walk.

Other highlights were the lovely poetry conference in Hawke's Bay and especially getting to read at it;  talking to writing students about publishing and publishing students about editing for the web (a bit of a step outside my comfort zone); a great trip to Auckland in May to launch The Baker's Thumbprint, attend (a little bit of) the Auckland Writers Festival and hang out with friends; restarting a writing group with a bunch of my friends (most of whom were part of the JAAM writing groups that the eponymous magazine came out of in 1995); launching the latest issue of JAAM, and oh a bunch of other stuff. Like going away for long weekends with Sean. That's always lovely.

And somehow I seem to have read quite a lot this year. Mainly novels and non-fiction - my poetry reading seems to have been a bit thin.

Among the poetry that I can remember off the top of my head, I read and enjoyed Kate Camp's Snow White's Coffin, Rachel O'Neill's debut collection One Human in Height, Janis Freegard's The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider. Gosh, there's surely more! Oh, and the lovely Night Swimming by Kiri Piahana-Wong. A big highlight was actually reading an unpublished poetry sequence by Anna Jackson. It's called I, Clodia and is in the voice of an ancient Roman woman (and gf of Catullus). You too can enjoy it probably sometime this year - it will be in Anna's next book.

This is some other stuff I read that I can remember:
  • Biographies of Virginia Woolf. I read two of these, one after the other. The first was a shorter, introductory sort of biography. I think it was a necessary introduction to the other, much longer and more in-depth biography by Hermione Lee.
  • I had quite a run of New Zealand fiction, beginning with The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy. I've mainly only read Anne's poetry (I especially recommend The Darling North), but she's a fantastic novelist too. The strongest part of the book for me is the middle, where one character talks about his childhood in Northern Ireland. It was amazing. Riveting and straight to the heart.
  • Dead People's Music and The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing. Both were great, and I loved the images in The Fall of Light. I also read four collections of her comics, which I bought off her after a talk at the National Library. I've been really enjoying her comics online, especially the ones that feature Katherine Mansfield (often interwoven with Sarah's own life). I'm really looking forward to reading her completed graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield (being the big fan of KM that I am).
  • The Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan. It was strange and exciting to read about my own neighbourhood, albeit reflected in a rather distorting and somewhat grotesque mirror! Also cool to read about characters based on people I actually know (also distorted). I was a bit disappointed that The Campbell Walker, while a great villain, didn't seem much like the real Campbell Walker, who I think would also make an excellent cult leader. The launch of this book was also a highlight, not just for Danyl's hilarious launch speech (Sean said it was the best launch speech he'd ever heard, which of course offended me greatly as he's been at all my launches), but because we got to nose around inside the School of Philosophy on Aro Street, which we've all been dying to see inside for years.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I started reading this when I wasn't very well, hence I could devote the necessary vast swathes of time to it. Consequently it only took me a week to read (and really only in the weekends). And, for all its size, it is quite a fast read. It took me a little while to get over the fact that a book I knew was written by a young woman who lives in Auckland sounded like it was written by a bunch of crusty old Victorian gentlemen, especially at the beginning. But once I got past that dissonance I was impressed with the writing. And the end gets rather spare and lovely. It certainly is ambitious and, while it didn't entirely connect with me, I'm delighted she won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved her speech and her philosophy of writing. I was also pleased I'd read it before she won the Booker, so I could become the resident expert on The Luminaries at work, as the only person on my floor to have read it.  
  • I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam. Conversely, this is quite a small novel, but it took me ages to read in little bites. I wanted to savour it and give it space. It's a book that builds up piece by piece, and the characters, especially the protagonist, don't reveal themselves to us in a hurry, but it's worth the wait. It's like there are concrete blocks under the words, giving it weight and density that I didn't expect from the size. Its chronology runs backwards, chapter by chapter, and it's like nothing I've ever read. I think this is an amazing and important book. I've written about it for the Book Council's online newsletter thing, so I'll link to that when it's up.
  • Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm. I love Janet Malcolm's writing, and these articles and essays are almost all amazing. Especially the longer ones - towards the end were some shorter pieces that I'm not sure deserved collecting, but still, great book.
  • Memoir of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I love me a good wide-ranging, thinky memoir, and this didn't disappoint. While my family isn't quite like his, I related to the things he was remembering and exploring, and the story he uncovered about his mother is fascinating and rather sad. 
  • Artful by Ali Smith. I'm still not sure what this book is. I mean, its several lectures that Ali Smith gave about art and stuff, which mix fact and fiction, but I'm still not sure where the fact ends and fiction starts. They purport to be based on notes that the author's partner (who is haunting her) left when she died, but I think (from reading the internet) that Smith's partner is alive and well, and that Smith herself is not in fact a tree surgeon. Anyway, lots of lovely things along the way, though I wasn't quite sure what it all added up to when I was finished. Also, for some reason these lectures didn't seem to go through a usual editing process when they were published, and so things like book titles weren't in italics when they should be, and for some reason that niggled at me quite a bit. Gosh, that all sounds much more negative than I feel about it - it was a joy to read, with lots of little treasures.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I finally got around to reading this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood - I wrote my masters thesis on fairy tale intertextuality in her fiction, but I actually haven't really liked anything she's written since Alias Grace (which came out while I was writing my thesis and I managed to sneak it in). Has she changed, or have I? I feel that she has become more propagandistic and less artful, and also just less good. Possibly I disliked The Year of the Flood slightly less than Oryx and Crake, of which it is the sequel, but then I also had lower expectations. I started to read MaddAddam, but stopped after a few pages because I just didn't want to continue. Maybe I'll finish it this year - they're a trilogy and I do hate a loose end. No, that's a lie, I love loose ends in all sorts of things, but I do usually finish what I've started.
  •  The last book I read in 2013 was A British Picture: an Autobiography by Ken Russell, which I devoured in a couple of days after Sean gave it to me for Christmas. It's great! Whatever you might think of Ken Russell's movies, he sure can write. This was thematic rather than chronological, which I really liked. I love his movies, even when they're awful, and it has sent me back to watching some more of them, and re-watching some. We re-watched The Lair of the White Worm the other night, which is great fun. When I first watched it I was sure it was supposed to be funny, though this time I wasn't entirely certain of that. Very surprised to see Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as the archaeologist. So young!
I also started, but didn't finish, Careless People, which is all about The Great Gatsby and is so awesome that I'm going to devote an entire post to it.

What did you read? Have you read any of those? Thoughts?

1 comment:

Eden said...

Hi Helen,

Interesting post. I have read some of the Janet Malcolm, which I thought great, and I have the Aro Valley book also, but have not had time to read past the first few pages. This has reminded me to go back to it. Agree about Atwood. I absolutely love her earlier stuff, especially Lady Oracle and The Handmaid's Tale, but was less enthusiastic about Oryx and Crake and haven't bought her more recent books. Artful I enjoyed (but perhaps didn't interrogate very much) and must reread soon. The Luminaries is on my list.

I think the book I've found most memorable over the past year was The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (great voice). Also enjoyed The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.

Lots to look forward to in 2014. Hope it's a great year for you x