Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing - Edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean

"I have known old eyes that have seen many more aspects of warfare than this man has seen - "
RAK Mason - 'Sonnet to MacArthur's Eyes' (1950)

For a little place, god forsake, at the bottom of the f''ing world we punch above weights when it comes to recording our selves in the theatre of war.  Agincourt, Battle of Britain, all of it - pah!  We were there, we did, and better than the rest huh?  A small country at the bottom of the world, we've managed to keep ourselves remarkably busy on the war front, even when travelling thousands of kilometres to find one.  We were idiots.  Lovers of Empire. Brainwashed fools.  We still trade commerce for sense.  Every time the world call, we go.  We are there first, before any one else.  We declared war on Hitler even before Chamberlain did.  This book is a chronicle of all the stupid, idiotic things we did, because we wanted to be counted when it would have been better to quietly wait it out.  The British F'ing Empire.  The reason we are all here.  Our origins.  And our near destruction.  This book documents all that.  The betrayals at Gallipoli and every other WWI battle.  The bullshit that spurred on every man to fight and the crappy justification for it.  All those who tried to escape Britain, they brought it with them and then tried to impose their crappy world on the local indigenous people.  The earliest chapters, written mostly from a British perspective document this.  New Zealand nearly lost an entire generation of men, thanks to the stupidity of its leaders.  Brits came here to avoid the pressures of Victorian Empire.  To escape the world.  But the baggage they brought trapped up all.  The Penguin Book of War Writing, edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean is a chronicle of a country trying to find itself whilst being drawn by the apron strings of Britain back into her dirty kitchen .
So not surprisingly all this activity has been well reflected in the literature, both fictionally and in factual accounts. Famous-in-New Zealand names fill these chronologically-ordered pages--Poets like Allen Curnow, James K Baxter and novelists like Robin Hyde, Maurice Shadbolt and John Mulgan, ll warned against the perils of war but were forced to fight the Germans or experience the loss of loved ones and friends.  . 

Then, of course, there are also the historians, such as Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Ian McGibbon and Christopher Pugsley - all remind us of the tragedies our families went through. They study it and report like it's something to be gazed at in a glass jar

New Zealand's history, starting in the earliest days is a history of conflict.  Even the New Zealand Wars of the 1850's - 80's It is a rich tapestry of experience and reflection which weaves a complex picture that evokes a similarly complex response from the reader because there is much here that is unfamiliar, as well as the well-known.

Because of the astonishing variety of warlike experiences that New Zealanders have been through and because we have mainly gone looking for them rather than having had them imposed upon us, by invasion, for example, the range of literary responses is equally broad. It is this range which is so aptly captured here and why it is a collection best put down and pondered before being picked up again and digested some more.

Then there is the ultimate fiction of peace in our time, which would render the contents of this book as these historical curiosities.  But realistically, this is not the case. 

The editors say it is the quality of the writing, above all, which has determined this selection, thus accounting for the presence of the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy-luminaries not usually regarded as "war" writers.  I have to wonder what they meant by 'quality'.  Never once is there any postcards or diaries saying what the men on the front, or the soldiers at the trenches really thought.  They all write as if there's some sort of glorious outcome.  But reality: This one ignores the real truth.  We were betrayed. 

Brewed: A Guide To The Craft Beer Of New Zealand by Jules Van Cruysen

The New Zealand beer industry is a dynamic one – full of larger-than-life, passionate characters; from loveable rogues through to budding mad scientists. Our beers are just as diverse. And the variety is growing exponentially. Jules van Cruysen brings together a selection from the current market.  They range from small time brewers to big players with brewing traditions from all over the world and combining these with Kiwi ingredients, ingenuity and creativity, we have a beer culture unlike any other.

In the last five years the New Zealand beer industry has grown from virtually nothing to totally owning everything. there are craft ale bars everywhere, like they were always there.  And punters are loving it.  Like Mike Cooper the wine aficionado, Van Cruysen details the brewer, their background, their art, style, and their philosophy.  Like wine they all have some point of difference.  Crouchers, of Rotorua, for example, is all about Pilsners and American hops, bold and gutsy flavours.  Tuatara has a quest to make an ale that is totally about the region. They also invented the Aotearoa Pale Ale (AP).  Or did they? 

Ok, so this book, which acknowledges the craft beers and brewers of New Zealand, is well overdue. Brewed will always be a snapshot of an industry creating beers that are full of character. Beers range from classical to crazy (Lamb Chopper anyone?), refined to quintessentially Kiwi (fancy a CHUR?) and aggressive (Sauvignon Bomb) to the suggestive (Morning Glory).

This is a book that should encourage experimentation among engaged beer consumers.  Help them to discover new breweries and, with the use of these amazing and comprehensive tasting notes, benchmark them against our old favourites. It'll help emerging beer drinkers to identify beers they will enjoy, starting them on a journey of discovery.

Jules is a professional beer, wine and food writer with over ten years’ experience in the liquor and hospitality industries. Having worked at Oamaru’s Riverstone Kitchen as a sommelier, Jules fell in love with great beer, and continued this affair working at Wellington’s craft beer bar, Hashigo Zake. With experience selling some of the world’s finest wines at some of New Zealand’s finest restaurants, Jules brings a unique perspective to writing about beer and is especially passionate about matching beer and food. He currently edits Eat New Zealand, and writes for a number of other publications including maintaining his own websites, XYEats and XYDrinks.

Historic Churches by Linda Burgess

This somewhat a journey and a guide to some of the most famous and interesting churches in Aotearoa.  Even if you're a non believer you have to acknowledge the power of the collective congregation.  If you head in to Karori's Futuna chapel, you'll know that although architecturally designed, it was build by the parish.  It shows how congregations can summon resources beyond any imagined, traditional methods.  Interestingly, Futuna is not an historical church.  But St John's, Taranaki St Methodist and The Karori Crematorium, all creations of Turnbull, are architectural marvels in a new colony.  They, too were built by the people.  Sure many favours were pulled.  God's phone list includes some very talented craftsmen. 

But this guide gives each church its due, strongly if plainly photographed without much ornamentation, with sometimes interiors and exteriors, each one taking a chapter.
The striking cover features St Gabriel’s, Pawarenga, in the historic Hokianga. 

 Not all the churches are registered as Category 1 by Heritage New Zealand, but many are strikingly pretty and feature strong aspects of Maori art and architecture.

A little dotting and patronising at times, author Linda Burgess points out many interesting facts of her subjects.  You got to admire the amount of work and travel to produce such a comprehensive work.  This is a great work to have on the backseat when exploring by car.  With photographer husband Robert, they've produced a pretty good glossy coffee table book to dip into when motoring about from Northland to Otago to Southland. 

Seriously, though this is a hard book to review.  Because you cant fault the research or the photography.  It's honest and lack the airbrush pretence.  It has some credibility, if not the glamour of a more up market effort.  Which you gotta like.  these are churches.  they are honest, too.
*Note to self - go see Hiona (Zion) St Stephen's Opotiki - at least for the tuki tuki panels which are stunning!

King Rich - Joe Bennett (Harper Collins)

The haunting story of two people linked by disaster and a desire for the truth, set amid the physical and emotional devastation of a post-earthquake Christchurch.  It's a love story.  Of sorts.
"At dusk he lights the candelabrum, creating an island of light in the centre of the room, animating the faces of the two dressed mannequins, glinting off the cutlery, the long array of glasses, the cellophane wrappers on the biscuits, the chocolate's silver foil. And the margins of the room are lost in the murk, might as well not exist. Richard smiles at the effect, at the little oasis of festivity and commemoration in a wide dark world."
Christchurch, days after the February 2011 earthquake. Richard hides, with a lost dog, in an abandoned, leaning hotel. Annie returns from England, seeking a lost father in her battered home town. Vince relives the most significant emotional experience of his life. What binds these lives together, and what tore them apart?  The novel traces two reasons of existence, as it were; Rich's plight to stay undetected in the hotel and Annie's quest to find him.  A stray labelled 'Friday' is Rich's canine companion.  Annie recruits friends and a growing list of her dad's mates and in so doing begins to understand who her father was.  Now, it's no Sherlock who'll reveal that Rich isn't  Annie's father. Not the point.  That's obvious from the get go.  But what drives this narrative.  Why the f***k is Rich here at all?  That's the eternal, frustrating question. 

On RNZ's "The Panel" Joe Bennett refuses to reveal the specific reasons why Rich is there or exactly what the inspiration and purpose of all his is.  He likes the idea of displacement and how we handle that.  As a man who lives in a house that's been condemned in Christchurch he knows all about the threat of displacement.  And we know him; from his columns in the DomPost and his radio presence.  He has a, how do I put it, confronting turn of a phrase.  In King Rich his characters are obvious, and hilarious for it.  Take the toilet cleaning company, "Cleaner Butts" run by a 'Mr Butts' of course!  Very droll.  Not.  There's a great line in the book, on Rich's hotel bathrobe, which he swans around in, like a robe of coronet snobbery: it "reveals the sternum, sown with scrubby hair, like bleached bad lands".  A bit 'waffleee', but there you go.  Former teacher Mr Bennett is at his best when describing real events, like HRH Wills and his Kate at a Hagley Park service, and of course, real places, like the Christchurch suburbs in the aftermath of the quake - those ghosts that float about the subsiding rubble.   But where he's less sure is when he's building his characters and their motivation.  It drove me nuts thing "Why these people behave the way they do?"  Having a significant natural event is not enough.  I need a backstory.  Bennett, you bastard, you've strung me along!


The Girl in The Spider's Web by David Lagercratz

The Girl in The Spider's Web

The fourth book, commissioned by the Larsson estate and written by David Lagercrantz, turns out to be a respectful and affectionate homage

One of the best jokes of the late Douglas Adams was the cover-line that announced “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker trilogy”.  The Millennium Trilogy – the three books by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, discovered after his early death in 2004 – has now also become a questionable designation, having been fattened into a quartet through a sequel commissioned by Larsson’s estate from the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz.

Because the three originals were for several years as common a sight on beaches as sun umbrellas – an estimated 80m copies have been sold globally – an extension was probably economically inevitable.  Due to the high risk of piracy and spoiler publicity, it has been written and published amid the sort of precautions – webless computers, encrypted emails, embargoed copies stamped with a legal warning on each of the 432 pages.  This release had the kind of conspiratorial plot that lurks itself within its own pages.

The appearance of novels that a character’s creator didn’t write still tends to generate heated articles and tweets, but any ethical worries about posthumous continuation are challenged by the pile-up of precedents.  As publishing increasingly adopts the Hollywood model of handing over hit books to other hands, James Bond and Jeeves, among others, have experienced adventures that their creators would be surprised to find in a bookshop. Adams’s gag about his expanding trilogy has itself had an afterlife, with the addition of a sixth story by Eoin Colfer.

I guess for non-Swedish readers, Larsson through an intermediary is an already familiar thing because a translator was always been there between us and his original text.  Even so, this particular project has been more controversial than other posthumous literary works because of a dispute between Larsson’s blood family and his former girlfriend, who possesses a laptop that reputedly contains all the original drafts and notes, in the way that the author would have directed his next books.  For legal reasons, Lagercrantz had no access to this material and so started with a blank sheet after reading the published Larssons.  is the second most anticipated novel of the year, after Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. But, whereas Lee’s precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird offered a radically revisionist image of its central character Atticus Finch, Lagercrantz, a tenant rather than a freeholder on the premises, sticks closely to the existing design.

There's no argument that Lisbeth Salander is one of the great modern crime characters.  She's damaged, twisted and not entirely on the side of evil or good.  Best of all, her flaws are her strengths.  Revenge and personal agendas seem to be her motivation. This time, through a highly convoluted set of relationships she's set on tracking down her criminal mastermind father.  Also in the trail Lagercratz has his work cut out for him.  Not so much a  ghost writer or a replacement to Stieg Larsson, he's definitely got his work cut out for him,  He did an excellent job on Fall of a man in Wilmslow (about the tragic British computer pioneer, Alan Turing), an likewise has performed with excellence here, too.  This one builds slowly, smouldering away with a series of fragments, loosely tied together by the relationship of Salander and Millenium's star journo Mikael Blomkvist, who's back to play detective, albeit a clueless one until the end.  The story, in part seems to follow a victim, a professor of artificial intelligence, Balder who's brutally murdered in front of his estranged, autistic son, August.  August is not only the only witness to his father's death but is a living computer, able to manipulate numbers and draw anything with immaculate detail.  He unwittingly holding all the clues to the professor's work, which is highly sought after by industrial spies. 

In a bleak setting of the Swedish wintery ice and snow a plot slowly unfolds like a peeling onion, each layer becomes even more stinging.  Salander, on her own quest, is recruited to find out why Balder was murdered, but in turn she learns who really has masterminded all this. 

Sure, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is back but even more, she's the wasp on the spider's back.  Lagercratz's respect for Larsson means that he has, in some ways, grown the writer's work.  I can safely say it never becomes pastiche.  It's a book that pays respectful and affectionate homage to the originals.  Two of the new characters are a deliberate nod to the Pippi Longstocking books, Larsson’s inspiration for Salander; and the Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, of the first Millennium book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:  referenced in a number of places - misogyny, maltreatment of women. There may still be arguments about whether continuation novels should be written at all but Lagercrantz could not have fulfilled the commission any more efficiently.  Hey, why not. If Bond can be remade by the Brocolli empire then why should the legacy of Salander die with Larsson? 

The novel leaves much to be said between Salander and Blomkvist and so surely increases the chances of the sequence continuing on towards the 10 books that Larsson is said to have originally imagined.  This book is as enjoyable, compelling and readable as the original trilogy and I would be surprised if there is another trilogy in train.  His skill simply adds even more to the cannon of Nordic skulduggery already available and invites you to seek out the next instalment.