Tuesday, May 10, 2016

THE SNOW KIMONO - Mark Henshaw.

Mark Henshaw published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, came out over 26 years ago.  Since then he's done a heap of detective novels (as half of the nome de plume J.M.Calder)

Out of the Line of Fire was the exceptional, disconcertingly smart and witty often rather beautifully lyrical murder novel.  There were many others but thank goodness he's found the path back.  The Snow Kimono is again written in that edgy, off-beat manner.  Henshaw roll together his retired police inspector, and two Japanese citizens -  one a footless, former law professor; the other a drunken womaniser. 

The story begins in Paris, 1989 with an unwanted visitor, a Japanese professor who knocks on the door of Inspector Jovert. Recently retired Jovert is lost, his mission gone.  He's lost his was entirely in a disabling accident, he's a surrealist metaphor of the fickleness of age and ate.  He's washed up but still the flannel you reach for on the bathroom floor.  Familiar but contemptible. 

There's time in the novel to explore Jovert's past service in Algiers, and that part of the novel is possibly the most engrossing of the book. Jovert struggles to clarify the maze of Algiers' alleys and basements, while trying at the same time to make sense of the moral maze into which he plunged in Algeria.  This is a journey through reality, it tests loyalty in many languages.  In Japan, as in Algeria, the characters spend a good deal of time fretting about actual sins of commission in the past and potential  sins of omission in the future. Henshaw's best line : "Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time's throat."  Memory stimulates, time is fluid, facts meld into fiction to understand reality.  But what s that, anyway?

Set both in Paris and Japan, The Snow Kimono is an intricate psychological thriller but it's also  a brilliant meditation on love and loss, memory and deception, and the ties that bind us to others.  It's also highly confusing at times and often could do with some challenges in the editing.  To write without compulsion is, of course, our ultimate aim.  But to write and write bullshit is not.  There are times when Henshaw borders on swerving into the brown stuff.  It's only his own 'google' compass that helps him avoid the inevitable. 

How to Set Fire and Why - Jesse Ball

This is the follow up by highly acclaimed author Jesse Ball, who wrote of A Cure for Suicide, is back with a more  singular, but still blistering novel, about a teenage girl who has lost everything—and, ultimately, will burn anything.

Ok, so Lucia's father's died ; her mother is committed; she's living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt.  Life's pretty stink.  Then she gets kicked out of school—again.  Her only touch points are a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries desperately to hide.  She spends most of her time on the bus commuting backwards and forwards to the asylum, to visit her mother.  She has one rule to live by Don't do things you aren't proud of.  So far this is the plot to The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles, Heathers, Juno and pretty much every misfit Teen film I ever got dragged to in the eighties.  Then it gets a bit more interesting.  Lucia discovers her new school has a secret Arson Club and she willing to do anything to be a part of it.   It's really the coming of age, belonging tale that all those movies were about - with the quirky twist and the anti- Yank high School sentiment.  Think of it as the 16 Candles for the post Columbine generation.  Oh, and yes, it's dark and hilarious in places.  Don't take any of it seriously and you'll be fine.  The plot runs a predictable course Lucia's life in the Arson Club, er,  is suddenly lit up. Her need to belong is almost as strong as her need to break everything to see how they work - or rather, don't.  And as her fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.  Predictable, yes.  Worth reading...mmmm.  No.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Enemy Camp - David Hill

Vincent O'Sullivan covered the topic in his play 'Shuriken' over a decade ago.  The 'Featherston Incident' has become known as one of the most shameful events in New Zealand's WWII history. Up to 600 Japanese prisoners were held there from 1943 to the end of the war, the prisoners a mix of civilians, soldiers and sailors captured or committed under the War Act. 

Hill tells the story of the mutiny of a number of Japanese officers who try to comit Hara Kiri to protect their honor after capture and instead, are slaughtered by frightened, trigger happy guards, stirred up by propaganda and nativity.

The story is narrated, in a diary format, by school boy Ewen, whose dad works at the camp and was a a soldier in Greece.  His humanitarian stance throughout the story a surprising highlight. 
Ewen's mates are Clarry and Barry Morris.  Clarry suffers from polio. The boys are taught Japanese by Ito, a Japanese officer.  From him they learn all about the Japanese camp experience from their point of view -  “for us to be prisoner is to be dead person”.

Add to that pressure from American troops seeking intel about Japanese troop movements in the Pacific, the fierce loyalty of the  Japanese warriors and their intense pride and hostile reactions from those who have fought the Japanese and been tortured and you have a mixture primed for conflict.

This is a brilliantly written book.  Short, punchy.  A good size for students and adults to digest.  I zoomed through it on a week of train commutes.  And the whole account of this tender is sensitively done. It's clear that the boys are the eyes for the reader, but they can't interfere.  They are the impartial camera.  A very readable novel.

From http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/classroom/incident-at-featherston

The Featherston incident, 25 February 1943

Two kilometres north of the quiet little Wairarapa town of Featherston, a small memorial garden marks the site of a riot that resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one guard. A further 63 prisoners were wounded.

The memorial plaque
A plaque commemorates the site with a 17th-century haiku:
Behold the summer grass
All that remains of the
Dreams of warriors.

Featherston was the site of New Zealand's largest military training camp during the First World War, housing 7500 men, before being dismantled after the war. It was re-established in 1942 to house 800 Japanese prisoners of war.
The riot broke out as a result of some of the Japanese prisoners refusing to work. Capture was humiliation enough for some of these men. News of the riot was kept relatively quiet as a result of war-time censorship. There were fears that the Japanese might retaliate against Allied POWs in Japanese camps. An inquiry was quickly organised in early March and the guards were cleared of any wrongdoing. It pointed to a clash of cultures made worse by the language barrier. The Japanese seemed unaware of the terms of the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention that stated that compulsory work for POWs was permitted; the camp had only a fragmentary translation of this available to the prisoners.

Two of the Japanese officers, Adachi and Nishimura, were found to have stirred their fellow prisoners into action. The Imperial POW Committee in London edited the New Zealand report to minimise any propaganda value that the Japanese government might have gained from the incident. The report claimed that the guards acted in self-defence when charged by a crowd of 250 prisoners throwing rocks. It also noted that the shooting ended as quickly as possible, lasting about 20 seconds.
Memorial garden at Featherston

Others claimed, however, that the actions at Featherston were in retaliation for the mis-treatment of Allied POWs held in Japanese camps. Those who defended the actions of the guards that day were quick to point out that the Japanese prisoners had been generally well fed and housed and that this incident was an exception to the rule. It was noted that the Japanese were in no position to complain about one isolated event for many Allied prisoners fared much worse in Japanese POW camps.

A Few Hares to Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips - Alan Bollard

The Phillips curve is world famous in 'Economy  land'. Its inventor was an engineer, a genius, a man who led a pretty exciting life and contributed to economics in many different ways. Born and raised on a remote farm in rural New Zealand, the first part of his life was a search for adventure. During the Depression he worked in construction, and roamed the roads and outback of Australia picking up casual work from gold mining to crocodile hunting. In 1937 he traveled through militarizing Japan, a guerrilla war in Manchuria, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and growing tension in Europe. On the outbreak of war, he joined the RAF and re-armed planes in Singapore before incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp. There he learned languages, invented gadgets, and built a clandestine radio. No longer seeking adventure, life was now a search for economic stability. Demobbed, Phillips scraped a sociology degree at the London School of Economics (LSE), before convincing a skeptical faculty to let him build a hydraulic model of the economy. This beautiful, complex machine was a great success and Phillips was headed for serious economics. Subsequently, he developed new ideas for stabilizing economies, began to use electronic computers, developed the Phillips curve, showed ways to help an economy to grow, and developed new techniques to model economies. Always innovative, he later worked on stabilizing the Chinese economy, wracked by the Cultural Revolution. Dr Bill Phillips pioneered a dozen new directions in economics, making him one of the most innovative and influential economic pioneers.  

 Not long before his death in 1975, the New Zealand economics community wanted to recognize Phillips for all his achievements. So they published a commemorative book, with chapters written by all the international economists and they presented a copy to Phillips on his birthday in November 1974.  Sixty years old and wheelchair-bound after a stroke, he carefully accepts the book. He clearly can't move or speak very well, and is just as clearly frustrated by this.
He listens as he's told it's a recognition of all his achievements.  His response is typically modest, and understated. He just says: "Oh, I didn't do much. I just set off a few hares for people to chase."


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pipi at Home - Recipes by Alexandra Tylee/Photography by Richard Brimer

For anyone who's zipped through Havelock North, you'll know that Pipi café is a welcome distraction from the surrounding vineyards and farmer's markets.  Set in a Victorian style house that could well do with a lick of paint, with blankets for artworks and an overgrown English country garden out back it's shabby chic and Kiwi rustic is the main attraction - that and Tylee's also rustic but wholesome food.  This is not her first book but it's probably her most useful and accessible. 
With a brood of young whippersnappers herself there's a big emphasis on family food that can be produced quickly and will satisfy most palettes around the big scrubbed farm table.  Potato Hash cakes, for example are not very difficult (in fact, I made them up today for brunch with only half a glance at the ingredients and method). There's an old fashioned cornbread recipe that approximates the Southern version, with courgettes for added texture.  And there's a big emphasis on puddings.  Jamie Oliver will love this section, with references back to the meals our gran used to make.  Actually, the need to slow down and take time over a meal is inherent in many dishes here.  For those of us who spent way too much time in Ohakune, there's a carrot steamed pudding, and a blueberry tart (with cream of course), and an enticing chamomile panna cotta (which I NEED to try!).  The hazelnut roulade with chocolate mouse and cherries.  My Granma called that chocolate rolly-polly.  in fact there's an element of chic-granny in all Tylee's food.  The other theme is about using what's seasonal, like fruits and veges that are only available at certain times of the year.  Tylee mentions that Havelock North's abundant cornucopia of fresh is her inspiration.  One imagines she has suppliers lining up with pine boxes of apples, pears, grapes, nuts and other goodies.   And that's all well and good, but not all of us are so lucky.  I mean, in Wellington getting hold of a cheap, plentiful supply of figs, for example is nigh on impossible! 

Alexandra Tylee
What is accessible is the down to earth is her thought process.  For example, she's aware that not everyone is into fancy dining so like River Cottage Hugh, she trundles down to the local hall, in this case in Poukawa, to whzz up a 'Yoga Lunch' - a good excuse to road test some mostly gluten free, sugar free food like a Kale and Red Cabbage Slaw (very yummy), a Quinoa and Smoked fish salad with tahini and coconut cream (unusual) and a roast carrot and cashew nut salad.  The accompanying photos in this section suggest that the clientele to impress were not the standard ladies who lunch but the midweek blue rinse brigade.  At least they'd be no complaints about the honey cheese cake if the sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches went missing in action! 

Pipi is famous for its unusual pizza toppings but there's only a couple here under the title 'Pipi Truck'.  This is the cafe's side venture that gets wheeled out during event like concerts at Mission Estate.  The two on offer here are so simple there's really no need for a recipe.  One is a mix of roast peaches, prosciutto, rocket and fresh mozzarella.  The other is Figs, blue cheese and bacon .  Vegos need not apply! At the back f the book are som very cool 'Extras' such as beef bone broth, cherry tomato relish, celery salt (for seasoning) and a herbed butter called Cafe' De Paris which is awesome on steak and steamed veges like peppers and courgettes.  There's also a few basic which are straight out f the Edmonds' and, I feel a bit pointless without a better description of what to expect.  There's pizza dough the way Pipi makes it - which is the way I've always made it.  So nothing learned here.  And Flaky Pastry.  Which I learned at school and now can't be arsed making, though if I did it would be like this.

Like Jamie Oliver's book, pictures tell stories about the food and the cook.  There are lots of close ups of Tylee's family and a smattering of daily chores like wood chopping plus the occasional scene of her with the kids baking up a storm.   On the whole, photographer Richard Brimer chose to avoid the usual 'chef and the kids' clichés because we all know that mostly the little blighters never stay in one place long enough to finish any one task s any photos that were take on them kneading dough or whisking mayo would be clearly contrived.

Overall, Pipi at Home is a book of new and old classics.  There's nothing really new in it - more some affirmation and a bit of love for anyone who's a halfway decent cook wanting a book that's not too 'chef-ish' but still shappy-chic enough to make the every day and ordinary fare feel like you've just nipped down to your local café.  And judging by some of the photos of half rotting sheds and un-weeded gardens with strewn blankets, scones on the patio with tea in old 'best china' porcelain, a secret excuse not to mow the lawns. 


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Three Words - An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women's Comics - Edited by Rae Joyce, Sarah Lang & Indira Neville

This book is a lie.  A falsehood.  A deceit.  The brief: contributors were invited to create a comic around three words, provided by, error someone, such as 'Deep, And, Meaningful' or 'Electric, Tapir, Dreams'.  Firstly, WTF is a 'Tapir' ? And how can you make on 'Dreamy electric'?  What a crock.  Seriously, how pretentious!  Yeah, Yeah.  The white middle class male reviewer doesn't understand.  Why should he?  He was brought up on Spider-Man and Marvel comics with all the overdrawn, exaggerated objectification of women and minor players to the outer under-pantied, bubble biceped heroes toking out on kryptonite and radioactive spider venom.  Ok.  Yeah, you got me.  'Love and Rockets', Jamie Fernandez, 'Tank Girl', never happened. 

Truth is, graphic novels have moved on since Stan Lee ruled the universe - though he still owns a fair chunk of misogynist Hollywood - but I, as a reader still need to connect with great art and even greater writing.  Much of the work in here, this book, has the sentiment, but simply falls flat because it's either too weird, too, surrealist or just threw the brief out in lieu of doing their own damn thing, regardless. One example is artist Pritika Lal who approaches her three words - Sickening, Baste, and Scoops - with a one page graphics of a woman screwing a PC with the legend 'NB: You can't imbibe anothers success by fucking them' (no comma on 'anothers').  It's a cheap, tacky throwaway with bad grammar.  20 year's ago it was punk.  Now it's just crap.  And there's no association to 'scoop' either. Sharon Murdoch, a political cartoonist, on the other hand, does know how to succeed on the brief.  Her words: 'Scales, Kind, Prerogative' are very well explored in three pages of mini novel.  Her panels explore popular media commentaries of young women (Boozy, liberal, ambitious), the glass ceiling, and the politics of sun hats.  Her work is poignant and reflective.  It works on all levels.

Sill in other places like Miranda Burton's exquisite dream state illustrations that rip off Robert Crumb completely, the word theme is just abandoned completely in favour of simply showcasing a significant talent.  Ok, all in good.  So why not just commission Burton and forget the rest.  Including zine writers, artists, etc. is all wonderful but and action of democracy without direction. 

Ok, so some other pages work.  As a white middle class male I'm probably not the most objective reviewer.  But I want intelligent, effective writing for women to get totally obsessive with.  To take down the establishment and totally stick it to the male bastion.  Some of this book does that. That portion is inspiring and leading.  The rest is complete fish'n'chip wrapper and not worth the price.  Editors should have refined their agenda and focussed more.  Like modern political movements all inclusive diminishes the credibility to a cause - although what that is lost on me.  It all feels like this was edited by committee, where success criteria was that you were simply invited to contribute in the first place and 'quality' was an option, not a prescription.  Perhaps that's the point.  Valuing art is a beholder thing,  'Quality' is a fluid idea.  Or is the point that you don't need a point.  Either way it's a blunt success.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave / Text Publishing / or thesickbagsong.com

Despite its queasy title, this is not a poem about illness.  It’s an epic, if rambling poem chronicling Cave's 2014 tour of North America with The Bad Seeds - an account of a 22-city journey began life scribbled on airline barf bags that grew into a restless full-length narrative epic poem that goes looking for the roots of inspiration, of love and of meaning.  Coleridge woulda been proud.  
Cave started working on the book last year, during a flight to Nashville   Originally, it was a song, albeit a long one but it exploded into something else entirely.  There are snippets of life imagined and real.  There are a mix of stylistic name checks – Philip Larking and WH Auden, especially.  Plus deep analysis of the tour van’s soundtrack, the tour’s soundtrack really: Elvis, John Lee Hooker, James Brown.  Plenty of roots references as they travel through the Deep South.  Oh, and a tiny dragon makes an appearance (No, I won’t explain that one.  It’s a surprise).
Now 57 Cave’s got a fair body of work under his belt.  Aside from the Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and Grinderman projects he’s also published two novels, “And the Ass Saw the Angel,” a Southern Gothic tragedy about a town full of religious fanatics, and “The Death of Bunny Munro,” a dark comic novel about a sex addict who sells beauty products door to door.  Both are gritty and challenge the reader to the extreme.

With “The Sick Bag Song,” Cave has a crack at is experimenting with a new literary form to make a sort of jumbo of prose, poetry, song lyrics and some elements of autobiography.  His ‘poetry’ traverses the imagined child, on a railway bridge, leaping into the muddy Mississippi – juxtaposed by the icon rock singer heading off to the venue to become a one night deity in the eyes of fans and critics.  “And I will walk onstage at Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., and become an object of great fascination to almost no one,” he said, reading from the book. “The dazed crowd will drift back and forth across the fields and the sinking sun will flood the site with orange fire. After the show, I will sit outside on the steps of our trailer and smoke.”

Of course, Sharon Olds and her fellatio poems get a look in, Cave always adds a little perversion to unsettle you.  It's part of the journey through the exploration of muses in famous hotels like the NY Bowery.  Places where music came to writers like Cohen, without warning.  In Cave's case it's Dylan that steals the muse, not the hotel.  But that's another story.

It moves from childhood memories to more intimate moments from his marriage to unvarnished behind-the-scenes episodes from the life of a rock musician.  Some will make you blush a little.  Some are more about tedium, like waiting in heavy traffic for 2 hours. 

Always there’s procrastination, loneliness, creativity, and more prosaic things like throwing up on bad seafood or dying his black hair in a Milwaukee hotel bathroom - “I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black,/So that it sits like a sleek, inky raven’s wing/On top of my multi-story forehead / The bathroom light is brutal./ I reposition my face so that I stop looking/Like Kim Jong-un and start looking more like Johnny Cash/Or someone.”

His lists are some of the most intriguing moments, possibly written in the early hours of a flight, with scotch in hand and wit on fire: "The Nine Secondary Bedevilments of Creativity", The Nine Muses, "the Choruses of the Angels"....they are all reminders of Cave's extraordinary fascination with literature and the Classical world as it lives today.

His stuff has been compared to ‘the unhinged lyricism’ of Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman and Mr. Berryman.  I’d agree there.  It’s more deft than, say, Jim Morrison and I think should be taken seriously by those that look down on musicians.  After all, lyrics are poetry, too.  And more accessible sometimes.  As a stand alone, I don't think it would work.  But removing Cave from the work would be very hard even if the reader were a Martian.  It is very much a work of Cave's and a great tour diary, too.