“What did you think …?”

A friend (A… ) and I had a conversation recently about two prizewinning books, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Both are long, in the region of 800 pages. Both have won major prizes this year: The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; The Luminaries won the Man Booker.

The Luminaries

I really liked The Luminaries, and wrote about it here. A… didn’t like it at all, found the characters unmemorable and the story repetitive – it ended back where it had begun, she said, reprising what was told in the beginning. The most positive thing she said about it was that she learnt a bit about gold-mining.

I didn’t take to the protagonist in The Goldfinch, found the descriptions of both settings and drug use overdone to the point of tediousness and thought it redeemed only by some interesting discussion near the end about the endurance of art (as distinct from a human life) and how it can make us see beauty in the world where we hadn’t seen it before. On the other hand A… thought it was a terrific, widely-encompassing book with a number of compelling scenes that endured well beyond the reading.

The GoldfinchWe both read a lot. I respect A…’s opinions (she has taught English literature, I have not). We neither of us changed our opinions about the books.

The conversation reminded me of times when I have felt like a minority opinion in liking – or not – a film/ book/ television show that everyone around me had an opposing view of. What I really liked, though, was that talking about why I admired one book and not the other with someone who disagreed made me articulate what I based my opinion on. That happens when my partner Prue and I talk about a book we have both read, too. And it’s one of the things I like about being in a book group.

Talking about books can be just about as much fun as reading them.


Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. And Walt Witman

First up, I never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. She’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington, and her latest book, The Signature of All Things was in my birthday pile (yay!), so I’ve read that. I enjoyed it immensely, though it sagged a bit in the middle.


The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia, in 1800, not beautiful but clever. She becomes a botanist, then a student of mosses. The events and emotional traumas of her life, along with her study of mosses, lead her to an obsession with the connectedness (and brutality) of life. By the end of the book I was thinking that all the characters that impact on Alma have been invented by the author to demonstrate or illustrate that idea. (This is not a criticism.) I won’t say more about it as I’d have to give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that I liked Alma a lot and most of the other characters, except for the man she married, Ambrose Pike, who I thoroughly disliked, which I suspect was not the author’s intention.

It is a coincidence that I read this book at the same time as I am exploring Walt Whitman’s long poem, Leaves of Grass, (as I wrote in my blog entry on 9 February). As I was reading The Signature of All Things, I kept think of the Whitman poem. There’s an exuberance and passion in Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing about the natural world in places that echoes Whitman, and some lists as Alma walks around Amsterdam that are very Whitmanesque. And Ambrose Pike embodies some of the more mystical and self-referential aspects of Whitman as he presents himself in the poems, though without the latter’s absorption in his physicality. (In fact, Ambrose Pike denies his body, especially in an erotic sense, in distinct contrast to Whitman.)

Alma herself has some Whitman-like qualities – she finds ways to enjoy her body in a world that thwarts her in this regard, but then she is a woman and not beautiful by the standards of her day. Alma also shares with Whitman a passion for engaging with the world and for knowing the world in the fullest possible way.

It may be fanciful to link Elizabeth Gilbert to Whitman, but it makes sense to me. And the exuberance is something I enjoyed in reading each of them.

The Literature of Lesbianism. Terry Castle, editor.

The Literature of Lesbianism is a big subject, deserving of a big book, and Terry Castle has made one. The subtitle explains: “A historical anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall.” As she’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington next month, Terry Castle is among the group of authors I’m swotting up on. This big book – 1110 pages, if you include the index – was published in 2003, and I have a copy to explore only because a friend lent it to me.

Terry Castle’s introductory essay is great. She’s concerned with the idea of lesbianism and how it has been represented by writers, male and female, over the centuries; lesbianism as “something to talk about”.

I love how she writes. I got a bit tired of Terry-Castle-the-snark in The Professor (while devouring the book) so enjoyed the more or less snark-free writing here. “This woman has read everything!” I cried out more than once, with some envy. She writes beautifully nuanced paragraphs on the “paradox [of] the way in which would-be banishers of the lesbian idea have often ended up facilitating its entry into cultural consciousness by making it more ‘talkable’.”

To my delight, Terry Castle derives from the cross-dressing women in Shakespeare, who invariably end up with a man, the “central thing” that “the possibility of divergence is is broached.” She has this way of taking a word, like “broached,” and using it in a slightly unusual way, which for me makes her writing lively and surprising. I can’t wait to hear her speak.

The extracts gathered together, the introductory notes to each section, and the (long) lists of further reading for each author selected, reinforce my admiration for the extent of Terry Castle’s reading. I fancy myself as voracious and expansive in my reading habit, but she leaves me barely off the starting blocks.

A longer, and much more interesting, version of Terry Castle’s interview with Guy Somerset in the recent Listener is here: http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/terry-castle-interview-the-extended-version/

Holiday With Books

There was beach and catching up with old friends and good food and lovely places as well as the books.

The first of many scenic picnic spots, with Prue, dappled.

The first of many scenic picnic spots, with Prue, dappled.

The birthday pile

The birthday pile – presents from Prue, along with a fifteen-session ticket to Writers’ Week.

The books part began with the birthday pile. And there was one more book for the birthday morning the day after we arrived in Auckland.  A and F were as welcoming as ever and there was catching up over Indian takeaways and wine. I mentioned to them that I was about to do an online course about Walt Whitman and A found a copy of Leaves of Grass that had been given to her mother by the mother’s grandfather and had annotations. Lovely. A also gave me the booklet Howl by Alan Ginsberg that has a poem about Whitman in it that includes the wonderful line, “who killed the pork chops?  and talked about teaching Whitman early in her university career.

At dinner with my son and his girl-friend, he pressed upon me his copy of  Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which looks into extremes of religious beliefs in he United States. He has had an important influence on my reading, getting  me started on science writers like Jarred Diamond.

When were further north, at Martin’s Bay, another A asked if I could explain to her why she likes some poets and not others. I’ve thought of a better answer since we left that goes something like this. There’s what the poem is about and there’s the words the poet has used. If either the content or the language strike a chord with me I like the poem. And if both what is said and how it is said come together to express something that really resonates with me I fall in love with the poem. Hardly profound, but I’m pleased that A set me off to thinking about it.

Prue with A (hidden) at Martin's Bay

Prue with A (hidden) at Martin’s Bay

On the way back to Auckland we stopped off to see E and B. There was a copy of The Luminaries sitting on a sofa, so of course, among all the other conversation we talked about that. Back at A and F’s The Luminaries came up again and they resolved to buy and read it.

At dinner, prepared by A and F for six of us, J said that at the suggestion of a friend she was re-reading Three Women by Marge Piercy and moved by writing about caring for someone who had has a stroke, as she and her sister do their very best for and with their mother who has been severely incapacitated by a stroke. H talked about researching family history and delving into The Coming of the Pakeha to Auckland Province. We went to a party with A and F, and E, who I know only slightly, said how she had got some of my novels from the library and they had been a welcome and pleasant distraction from some difficulties over the summer. I liked hearing that. And later, an email from C, visiting from the UK, to whom I had given a copy of where the heArt is, saying how she had enjoyed it and making some thoughtful comments.

I finished The Flamethrowers, which I referred to last week, and ended up liking it more by the end. Author Rachel Kushner is coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington soon and I shall go and hear her. The other book I’ve read this holiday, also from the birthday pile, is Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold sets out to post a letter and ends up walking the length of England to see the dying woman to whom the letter is addressed. This story could so easily have been mawkish, and it isn’t, it’s about regret and guilt and how what we do, or don’t do, determines what we think of ourselves and hence how we behave. It’s a lovely story, well told.

One of many Coromandel panoramas.

One of many Coromandel panoramas.

On Prue’s mind is on a contract she has recently signed to undertake another left-wing-feminist-economics book for a NZ publisher’s Ebook series.  She and I are both resolving to do serious writing from April, when other commitments and The Wellington International Arts Festival are over. On the drive home we each talked at length about our writing projects and the kilometres flew by.

Triple Treat – the book, the museums and the internet

Reading The Luminaries got me thinking about the histories of small towns and how accidentally we discover them. About twenty years ago I spent a few days in Hokitika, where The Luminaries is largely set (in the 1860s), knowing little about its gold mining past. I also realise how few of the books I read are set in places I have been, which comes from growing up in New Zealand, far away in the South Pacific, and not having the wherewithal to travel until I was in my forties. Reading took and takes me places, aided these days by the internet.

The turning into the hill rd is just to the left of the nearest post.

The turning into the hill rd is just to the left of the nearest post.

I know some of the history of Paekakariki, where I now live with my partner Prue Hyman. It’s also on the West Coast, but far north of Hokitika and in the North Island. By the 1860’s much Maori land here had beed confiscated, without compensation, Te Rauparaha was dead (1849), the whalers were gone and the road over the hill from the east of Porirua was open as a tortuous coach road.Then and now it is referred to locally as “the hill road”. The railway came through along the coast, with the first railway station opened in 1884. If a novel was to be set in Paekakariki at this time it would involve not gold, but the railway and the hill road. West coast New Zealand would also feature.

From the home page of the Paekakariki Museum Trust website.

From the home page of the Paekakariki Museum Trust website.

Thanks to the efforts of many local people, and cooperation with local bodies, the present railway station, opened in 1910, has been renovated and become the site of an excellent museum focussing on the history of Ngati Haumai, the railways, the surf life saving club, and the huge WWII encampment of United States Marines. Once a month Prue and I each do a stint on a roster of volunteers,= opening the museum to visitors at weekends and public holidays. (There’s a website at http://pspt.wellington.net.nz/index.htm with information and photographs.) Paekakariki remains a railway station, unstaffed these days, on the Kapiti line commuter service and the North Island Main Trunk, though trains on the latter don’t stop. It’s a picturesque forty minute electric train ride to Wellington.


Hokitika has a local museum.(http://www.hokitikamuseum.co.nz) Next time I’m down that way I’ll have a look. And if you are reading The Luminaries and want to know more about the town at the time of the book, go here for the front page of The West Coast Times on the day the story begins. (You can see the whole paper at this site.)

This blog entry has turned into a kind of case study of how a book, a physical place and the internet can work together – to my continuing amazement and pleasure.

Reading Shakespeare

For the first time since I began weekly posts I have missed a Monday. During the preceding weekend, I thought from time to time, as I do most weeks, about what the next post might be. Often this has led to the piece being written ahead of time and sitting quietly on my computer waiting for Monday morning to be inserted into a new wordpress page.

This past weekend was no different, except that no idea presented itself and other things occupied my mind and I forgot about blog posting. Until this Tuesday morning.  Then my friend Sylvia arrived to read Shakespeare and I had my topic.

Sylvia, ready to read Act 5 of Cymbeline

Sylvia, ready to read Act 5 of Cymbeline

Dennis Abrams runs a blog dedicated to the reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays in the order in which they were written. (This order is disputed, but he settled on a version that he thought logical.) The first post was in June 2011, the last will be some time in 2014. This morning Sylvia and I finished Cymbeline and there are four more plays to go. DA posts two or three times a week and encourages comments. His posts are scholarly, with long sections from a range of literary critics, and many references to youtube clips from film and stage productions of the plays. Find the blog at http://theplaystheblog.wordpress.com

I started reading at the beginning, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I don’t remember exactly when Sylvia expressed an interest in joining in and we decided it would be more fun to read the plays out loud together, but it wasn’t far down the list. We don’t take roles, we take turns at reading – one speech for her, the next for me and so on. And we read, we don’t on the whole try to act. Most of our meetings are mid-week, alternating at each other’s homes.

An excellent aspect of reading plays this way is having someone to talk to when a line doesn’t make sense, or you’ve lost the thread of the plot or can’t remember the significance of a particular character – or even whose side they are on. And it’s great fun recognising known phrases (so many of these) and Shakespeare’s genius with language.

I’ve discovered well-known plays I don’t like so much (e.g. A Midsummer Night’s Dream), confirmed some favourites (e.g. Macbeth) and found some new favourites in plays I’d never met before (e.g The Life and Death of King John).

The book I bought about 1956.

The “complete works” I bought about 1956.

The book I read from is one I have had since school-days. I remember I bought it myself, probably with money given on my birthday, when I was about fourteen, intending then to read all the plays, having “done” The Merchant of Venice in my first year at secondary school. Almost six decades later I’m nearly there.

Footnote: This is my 100th post.

Joining the lists

Best books, worst books, under-rated books, ’tis the season for writing book lists. I did a count in my reading journal and find I’ve read fifty-three books so far this year, when I include the current one, so I’ll make fifty-four or five by the end of the month. Many of these I’ve written about in this blog.

One of the places where I read.

One of the places where I read.

I decided to make my list consist of all the books I read this year, in the order I read them, without extra comment  apart from a double-star (**) for those I found particularly memorable.

A lot of my what-to-read decisions are a result of choices by my book group members, reviews and online comments, so most of the titles listed are worth reading.  I’ve added a + to titles I was re-reading and a – to those I didn’t finish (Which maybe shouldn’t be on the list, but I gave them all a good try).

Another reading place.

Another reading place.

I read six books on my iPad, via Kobo or ibooks, (I do my very best to not use Amazon) mostly on holiday in Niue, thus reinforcing the usefulness of ebooks for travelling. I still much prefer reading a printed version, and suspect I always will.

Fourteen got the **. I notice that more than half of these are set in times and places other than those familiar to me. I do think a lot of, but not all, the most interesting current fiction – and my reading is weighted towards fiction – is written from outside the contemporary English/ American arena.

I’ve got seventeen items on my “want to read” list. You will no doubt hear more about those next year. Here’s what I read this year:

Franz Kafka, America –

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

John Green, The Fault In Our Stars

Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother


**Rose Tremaine, Merivel

**Katherine Boo, Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Glenn Colhoun, Jumping Ship & Other Essays

**Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Cory Doctorow, Homeland

David Vann, Dirt

**Toni Morrison, Home

Val McDermid, The Last Temptation –

**Aorewa McLeod, Who Was That Woman, Anyway?

Carne Ross, The Leadership Revolution

**Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel

Virginia Woolf, Orlando +

**Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

**Ruth Ozeki, A Tale For the Time Being


Naomi Alderman, The Liars’ Gospel

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Michelle Roberts, Ignorance

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

**David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest +

A M Homes, May We Be Forgiven

Stella Rimmington, At Risk –

**Karen Green, Bough Down

Tèa Obrecht, The Tiger’s Wife

Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

**Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Anita Brookner, Latecomers –

James Salter, All That Is

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing +

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

Lore Frank, My Beautiful Genome

**Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing +

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behaviour

Thrity Umrigar, The World We Found

Noviolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Tao Lin, Tai Pei

A M Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita –

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

Olivia Laing, The Trip To Echo Springs

The Golden Notebook2 2

Julian Novitz, Little Sister

**Alexsander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

David James Duncan, The Brothers K

**John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

John Le Carré, The Looking Glass War

Lessons (Thank you, Doris Lessing)

The death of a writer who has been an important part of my reading life leads me to think back over how their writing has affected and influenced me, find their books on my shelves (so many shelves, so many books) and browse for a bit. Sometimes, but not often, I re-read. (There’s so much new, exciting writing calling out for attention.)


Doris Lessing, 94, died last month. Her five-novel sequence, “Children of Violence”—always, to me, “the Martha Quest stories”—changed my life. They were published between 1952 and 1969. I would have read them in the late seventies, maybe early eighties. Martha Quest, the protagonist of all five, was to me then a reflection of my unsatisfied self. Me and Martha Quest (brilliant naming!) did not know how to be ourselves in the world. The events of her life were more interesting and adventurous than mine, but she too was in a constant state of waiting, without either a map or a destination. Here’s a sentence from the third book, A Ripple From The Storm, that I had underlined: “Martha was again feeling that old pain, that she was excluded from some good, some warmth, that she had never known.” For all her unhappinesses, Martha took herself, and her own inner life, seriously. That was liberating.

And so, I revisited The Golden Notebook (1962), the novel for which Lessing is perhaps best known, and found that ten years after its publication she wrote a preface, saying how the book had been misunderstood, and everyone had missed its central theme, which is not what she calls “the sex wars”. She went on to say of course it had been misunderstood, once a book is understood it loses its value and interest. She said a couple of other things in this preface that really struck me.

The Golden Notebook1

One is that she wrote it straight through, as it were, from beginning to end, holding all the pieces in her mind. As it is complexly structured, that is very impressive. (In fact, the structure of The Golden Notebook anticipates the attempts of more recent novelists to do something different with the novel form.) She says it was hard. Another is her suggestion that we should warn young people that in educating them we are indoctrinating them. If only.

I remember reading The Golden Notebook. I remember Anna Wulf going mad, disintegrating, as I recall, as a kind of experiment with herself, thinking I hadn’t the courage to do that. Nowadays I am reconciled to the self I am, and not anguished about matters of selfhood and identity. The Golden Notebook, I notice, has not gone back on the shelf; it’s somehow on the to-be-read pile.

Her “Canopus in Argus” series, beginning with Shikasta, were the first science fiction I read that gave me any idea of what the genre could do to illuminate the human condition. I’m grateful for that introduction, too.

Thank you, Doris Lessing.

Let Joy Be Unconfined

Let joy be unconfined. Be still my beating heart. Two famous published lesbians from far parts are coming to a venue ten minutes walk from our place in Paekakariki. My partner, Prue Hyman, has bought our tickets.

Terry Castle and Alison Bechdel are coming to Wellington for Writers’ Week, part of the International Festival of the Arts in February/March 2014. To whoever thought to schedule them a session in our village 40 minutes up the coast, thank you. Thank you.

Terry Castle

Terry Castle


Terry Castle is an academic literary critic, whose most recent book, The Professor, is a collection of memoir-type essays. The longest piece, which gives the book its name, is about a relationship she had as a post-graduate student with a professor. I’ll say more about this book early next year, as it’s the choice for our book group which will meet at the end of December, and we don’t talk in public, as it were, about the chosen book before the meeting.

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel is famous among lesbians for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that ran in the feminist magazine Off Our Backs (oob) from Washington, USA, for many years and later in a collection of ten or more books. More recently, she has become widely known for her memoirs in graphic form, Fun Home: A family tragicomic and Who Is My Mother? concerning her relationship with her father and her mother respectively. There’s a five minute clip on youtube showing how she draws a page in one of her books. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cumLU3UpcGY Wow!

Through the nineteen eighties, when I was working at Broadsheet, we would pounce on each copy of oob as it arrived and pass it around at the Dykes to Watch Out For page. Then we’d get down to reading the excellent political articles in the issue. The comic strip was fun and poignant and reflected a certain kind of lesbian feminist culture back to us. There wasn’t a lot else around at the time that had us laughing and arguing with and recognising ourselves the way Dykes to Watch Out For did.

Alison Bechdel and Terry Castle in Paekakariki will be An Event. I will, no doubt, write about it.

The ProfessorAre You My Mother?

A Print Book Out There

DSCF0042 copy

Last Tuesday the print version of where the heArt is was launched at LILAC, Wellington’s lesbian library, quite possibly the only one of its kind. It’s a subscription library and describes itself as “for women-oriented women.” Find out more at its website at: http://lilac.lesbian.net.nz I had been asked to say something about writing and about publishing and to read from the book.

“The best training for writing is reading’ I said; not an original statement, but one I believe to be true. I talked also about content—as in feelings, experience, imagination, thought—and craft, the “how to” of good writing, using Elements of Style, which I mentioned in my last blog entry, as an example of a useful resource.

Deciding what piece from a novel to read to an audience involves considerations of the plot of the book and not giving too much away. So I read the first chapter.

In talking about publishing I referred to the range of ways you can publish, from chapbooks, which are hand made and usually given away to friends and family to publishing by an established publisher with all their weight of expertise, marketing and distribution to bring to your book. The latter, of course, is accomplished by a tiny percentage of people who write.

So I identified a whole bunch of other ways of getting readers, from posting short pieces on Facebook, or your own blog, or entering competitions. Publishing an ebook requires less outlay than publishing a print book, though it’s a mistake to omit editing and design from the process, and it requires time and commitment.

Getting an agent I referred to in passing; it’s not something I’ve ever done myself. Join the New Zealand Society of Authors (www.authors.org.nz/‎), I suggested, for reliable, New Zealand-based information. Poking around on the internet for writing that relates to your own was another idea, you never know who or what you will find.My final piece of advice was to follow this blog.

An option I had forgotten about until my partner mentioned it after the event, is serialisation on the internet. Renée is publishing her book Once Bitten a chapter a week at her website www.wednesdaybusk.com

However anyone decides to seek readers for their writing it takes some effort, you can’t just plonk your story/ poem/ essay/novel on the internet and wait for people to find it. The good news is that there’s plenty of ‘how to’ information out there, just be wary of anyone who wants money before they’ve done anything.