little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: books

Reading list

Well, that was an idea that didn’t work. I have so many of those. I decided last year to write a short post about everything I read, sort of as a record to myself and sort of as a way of being part of the big book-lovin’ world. Yep, totally failed. Can’t even remember what I’ve read this year, and certainly can’t say anything very coherent about it.

Brief, partial notes, then, and maybe I’ll talk about last year’s books some other time.

Hilary Mantel
I was late to the Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies party, but boy was I ready for it when I got there. If history was always told like this — with characters and plot and excellent dialogue — I would be all in. I would also possibly know much more than I do, which would be useful because I read half of Wolf Hall wondering why Thomas Cromwell was being so chummy with the king when he was about to start a revolution and bring down the monarchy.

I also watched the TV series, which was dark and full of fabulous faces. I could look at Mark Rylance ALL DAY, but was damn near ready to chop Anne Boleyn’s head off myself by the end.

While I was at it, I read some of Mantel’s earlier work, some of which I liked very much and some of which I didn’t so much.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton*
I’m halfway, folks. This book is hefty. I’ve just got past the point where the narrator helpfully summarises and explains how all the characters and plot points relate to each other, so I’m feeling on firmer ground and keen to push on. I do have problems with books that are too heavy and awkward to read lying down or while eating breakfast though, so I’m interspersing it with lighter fare.

Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden, Margaret Simons
This is lovely, and very encouraging if your garden is in as dreadful a state as mine is but you still like gardening and dream of being a better and more productive person.

Noon Tide Toll, Romesh Gunesekera
One of those books that you pick up without much thought or anticipation simply because it’s the next thing in your pile, then can’t put down and can’t forget and foist upon anyone who gives you even the slightest opening. The narrator is a van driver for hire in post-civil war Sri Lanka. He takes his passengers north and south, and I liked everything about this book.

Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay
Feminism AND Scrabble. Loved it.

Old favourites
I’m having a Gavin Maxwell and Louisa May Alcott reunion. I’m quite shocked about Maxwell. The version I have of Ring of Bright Water is from my childhood and it is both abridged and adapted. I always knew that was a problem, but had no idea how much so until I got a pile of his stuff from the library. I dipped in last night and let’s just say, he has a COMPLETELY different prose style to what I thought and I suspect the otter situations are going to be quite a lot more complicated than I was aware of.

And LMA wrote all these sensational thriller romance-type books, which I’m not sure I can even go there. I started one last night which featured a very dodgy man called Tempest and an ACTUAL tempest, with lightening and wind and rain and raging seas and whatnot.

I love rediscovering books from my childhood, but sometimes it’s TOO MUCH. I did reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory though, which is a very sensible thing to do when you’re 40 and in danger of getting a bit serious sometimes.

  • Bloody hell, with immense thanks to my sister who pointed out that I had the wrong author for this one. No biggie, I mean, she only won the Booker. I want to note though that Anna Smaill was long-listed for the Booker for her wonderful The Chimes. New Zealand: land of writers, rain and small brown birds.

That Rabbit

The Rabbit knows what the Rabbit wants, and the Rabbit will quietly and persistently work to achieve the Rabbit’s aims, so quietly, in fact, that you will scarcely notice as he bends and shapes and softly pummels the world to his will. Until it’s done.

Case in point …

Ian vacuumed the car this afternoon after transporting the guinea pigs home from my sister’s house, where they have been on a wee holiday while we were away. He asked Rabbit twice if he would like to help with the vacuuming, but Rabbit was busy.

Rabbit realised that Ian had vacuumed the car without him, and got a bit cross. Then he calmed down and asked for the keys.

Being of a curious and light-hearted nature, Ian gave him the keys — Rabbit disappeared for a while, then came back and returned the keys. We weren’t really paying attention anymore, too much to do to get ready for the next bit of travel. The afternoon wore on a little more, and Ian got ready to take the boys to the library and the bookshop.

After more hassle than one would think strictly necessary for a straightforward outing of direct benefit to them, the boys were ready and they all trooped out to the car.

The back seat was covered with dirt.

“Well,” said the Rabbit. “Looks like we’ll have to vacuum it again before we go out, won’t we?”

And he did. He got the vacuum cleaner, vacuumed the car, put the vacuum cleaner away, and set off on his errands.

Reading list

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird and all the rest
I’ve got a whole stack of books lined up to add to this reading list thing. We had the Readers and Writers Festival and it’s winter and the evenings have been peaceful, so I’ve been able to pick up my reading pace a bit.

I seem to be a bit shy/lazy about blogging, though, so there they sit in a teetering pile, apart from the ones I had to take back to the library already.

Every male member of the household is down with some nasty virus thing that gives them a temperature and a sore head and makes them very tired. I’m fine so far, but touching wood often and getting nervous every time my nose feels a bit blocked. My main role seems to be to dispense hot drinks and maternal kindliness, to keep the crumpets coming and to play card games with the smallest, healthiest one. Also, to roam the house periodically in search of used mugs and grotty hankies.

I wish I could say that I am performing this role with grace and patience, but I’m borderline grumpy, feeling the cabin fever and vaguely repulsed by all the lying around being germy. Also, three days! The grown-up one has been a sleepy wreck of a man for three days! I don’t know that I could get away with such a thing.

Plus, there’s crap everywhere and the whole house needs a good airing out.

In more positive news, I’ve started going to the gym and, after three days of feeling like my legs were going to fall off, I would hurt something if I bent over and my shoulders needed a hot water bottle permanently strapped across them, I walked out the pain and have been feeling chipper and fit ever since. I had a day off and a massage on Thursday and physio and yoga on Friday, and now my main motivation in caring for Ian is to get him well enough to watch the kids while I go back to the gym.

Just while I’m having a moan, we put out a bird feeder a few weeks ago and I was delighted, DELIGHTED, on Thursday to see that the waxeyes had at last discovered it and were massing in flurried green enthusiasm to eat porridge and drink sugar water. Blackbirds and thrushes patrolled the ground underneath to collect anything that fell, also the occasional chaffinch and a small sparrow-like bird I have yet to identify, the chief household birdo being uncharacteristically prone and lethargic.* So all this was charming, spiritually meaningful, fascinating, beautiful. Then I got up this morning and realised they were using the washing line to perch on. I haven’t looked closely yet, but I suspect at least half the load will need to go back in the machine. And the only person tall enough to comfortably reach two of the lines is lying on the couch covered in blankets drinking hot water with lemon and honey in it.

All of which is a very long-winded and pathetic way of saying that I have discovered Anne Lamott and I love her. I started with Bird by Bird, and if you have any thoughts of being a writer, you’d best get a copy and devour it as soon as possible.

Then I read the novels, then Operating Instructions, then Some Assembly Required, and now I’m moving on to the faith ones. Lamott is funny, apt, wise and, thank God, human. If you’ve ever been a parent, Operating Instructions will recall to you everything you never dared fully admit you felt or thought or experienced. You’ll look at other parents and marvel at the love that drives the whole enterprise, at the fortitude needed to get through a damn day. You’ll look at your children, whether they are still small or well grown, and marvel that you got to be the one to carry them through childhood.

Speaking of which, the physio said I have “mum shoulders”. She said I’ve spent far more time holding a child — and here she curved her arms in front of her as though a small creature was nestled against her heart — than I have writing, and as a consequence my upper back is locked in a forward stretch that is going to take quite some time and work to unfold. But Lamott reminds me that the letting go is parenting too. As is the writing, the recording, the telling that forces the truths about mothering — or seventh grade, or sex, or faith, or families, or life — out of your heart and onto the page.


*I was thinking it might be a dunnock (the one bird against which no word of complaint has ever been raised, quotes the birdo), but no. He thinks it’s a female chaffinch. All I know is its head is a very nice shape, blunt and with a slight incline towards the back.

Reading list

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business and all the rest
I can’t remember whether Helene Hanff got caught up in the first Great Book Loss, but she was definitely part of the second. The first Great Book Loss happened in the late 1990s when my sister and I rented a tiny wooden house on a one-way street between the campus and the gardens. The house had deep green painted walls inside and a brick wall enclosing the garden. Boys lived in the flat next door and sometimes we would peek over the wall at them drinking beer and sitting around in shorts and jandals, and sometimes they would peek over the wall at us planting broccoli or drinking gin with our woolly hats on or decorating the edges of the garden with mussel shells, and generally there was a feeling of mutual intrigue and bewilderment at the utter weirdness on each side of the wall, but also a sort of benevolent live-and-let-live vibe that was best exemplified by Mushroom the Cat, who wandered from house to house over probably the radius of a full block, eating wherever she lit on some food and sleeping wherever she lit on a bed.

Anyway, the house was small and, to be honest, pretty cold, but it was a refuge from the intensity of student life and we loved it. It had an outside loo that we painted midnight blue with a silver ceiling (it was the 90s, remember, and — now that I think about it — I had my Masters thesis bound in much the same colours, only purple in place of the blue, GOOD WITCHY TIMES those were), every hole in the walls was stuffed with Steelo pads, the bathroom had rose-pink walls and pot plants all along the bench beside the shower, we had beautiful old plates and a big shared bookshelf in the front room, and every morning we’d walk to university together and every evening we’d walk home.

We also had many meals and drinking sessions and cups of tea and deep meaningful conversations with our friends, around the old formica table in the garden or nestled in the dusky green of the living room. One of these conversations involved cups of tea, the bookshelf and a dear friend. We got to chatting about our favourite feminist writers and, in our youthful enthusiasm, my sister and I started pulling books off the shelf and piling them up for the dear friend to take home. It was intoxicating, as choosing books for someone you love is, that full-throated joy of “Oh, you must read this one” and “This changed my life” and “I cannot wait for you to see what she does here”. Off our friend went with, I don’t know, three bags of books maybe, and we settled down to contemplate the gaps in our bookshelf, the gaps where we were making connections, sharing ideas, spreading the joy.

Time passed.

Eventually, our friend brought the books back. Only, not quite. Perhaps half the books she brought back were ours. The others, not so much. In my better self, I love the egalitarian librarianishness of this story, the idea of books passing from person to person, wending through the world as reader gives to reader gives to reader. In my not-so-better self, I still miss the books that didn’t come back, even though we never managed to fully work out what they were. Because they were our Young Women books. The books that we used to figure out the first bits of being adult and political and strong. The books that we cried to and laughed with and roared at. The books of the small makeshift house with the brick-walled garden.

So, I think Helene Hanff must have been in that lot. And then I lost her again. I gave another friend a set of books to help her through a rough patch, and they are with her still. I’m still looking for replacement copies of Primo Levi’s Other People’s Trades and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but last week my mum’s cousin sent a bunch of Hanffs from his sister’s collection. And if any writer exemplifies the Sunday afternoon bookshelf type, it is Hanff. God, but she’s gorgeous. What I would really like is to sit around drinking martinis and listening to Hanff tell stories, high up in one of her New York apartment buildings, perhaps with a bunch of other broads and dames, my sister certainly, Nina Simone, my mum and her friend Christl, Allison Janney, Patricia Grace, Ani Difranco, the Renegade Mother, the Yarn Harlot and anyone else who cared to join us. Mum and Christl and probably Grace really aren’t  either broads or dames, and my sister and I neither, but we’d do our best.

Hanff wrote plays, television scripts, articles, letters, telegrams and books. I’ll bet she wrote terrific shopping lists and notes. She’s sharp, big-hearted, well-read, funny. She used a typewriter and you can hear it in her prose, the staccato rhythm and the emphatic punch of sentence ends and paragraph breaks. Here’s a bit:

The problem of my Greek and Latin lessons remained unresolved. I wrote dignified letters to all the free city colleges, none of which, it turned out, gave free night courses in Latin and Greek. I took my one remaining piece of jewelry — a lapel watch — down to the Empire Diamond and Gold Buying Service and they wouldn’t even make me an offer. Just as I was getting completely discouraged, Maxine, as usual, came through with the solution.

“Why don’t you run an ad in the Personals column of the Saturday Review?” she suggested.

“The problem isn’t finding a tutor,” I said. “It’s finding the money to pay him!”

“That’s all right,” said Maxine reasonably. “Just mention in the ad that you can’t pay anything.”

And if you think I got no response to an ad that read:

Wish to study  Latin and Greek.
Can’t pay anything.

you underestimate the readers of the Saturday Review. I got five offers, one from a German refugee who said he would teach me the Latin and the Greek if I would teach him the English, two from retired professors, and one from a Lebanese rug merchant who didn’t know Latin but offered to teach me modern Greek and Arabic instead.

The fifth letter came from a young man who wrote that he’d graduated from the Roxbury Latin School and Harvard; and after careful consideration, Maxine advised me to award the coveted post to him.

“In the first place, he’s young and he might be cute,” she pointed out. “And in the second place, you can’t do better than Harvard.”

So Tom Goethals, who turned out to be six-feet-four, lean and shy-looking, and whose grandfather had built the Goethals Bridge, put his Roxbury Latin School and Harvard education to use by teaching me to read Catullus and trying to teach me Greek grammar.

Maxine phoned me after the first lesson.

“How was he?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s great!” I said.

“I told you to stick to Harvard,” she said. “Taking somebody second-rate would be like sneaking into the theatre and sitting in the balcony, or borrowing clothes from Gimbel’s instead of Saks. If you’re getting things for nothing, it’s just as easy to get the best.”

We always got the best.

Underfoot in Show Business, 1961 (London: Futura, 1981), 65–66.

I’ll have to work out a book-share system on this set with my sister. In the meantime, I’m hovering Hanff in every break in the day — with breakfast, while cooking dinner, while eating dinner, in the evening, in bed, while lighting the fire and playing Mastermind with the Rabbit, while cleaning my teeth and washing the dishes and making supper for the Cat.

I did the same 20 years ago and I’ll be doing it 20 from now, God willing.

Reading list

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

P1010262.JPGSteve Braunias, How to Watch a Bird
The Cat was a fully-fledged birdo by the time he was one. I don’t know why — I was a brand new and desperately sleep-deprived mother, so who knows what I was thinking, every thought was of shining, crucial importance, shimmering with light and meaning, ungraspable, everything and nothing, over and over and over — but I spent hours sitting on the sofa with him flicking through bird books and telling him the names of the birds. He even had a bird book for meal times, which became so thoroughly encrusted with food that we had to buy a new one. We went on outings to places where we could see birds, we kept lists of birds we had seen, we bought binoculars and guides and found websites and painted pictures and basically it was birds birds birds until he discovered bus routes aged four or so. After that it was maps and bus journeys and bus poems and bus games and visits to the bus station, and then it was briefly dinosaurs and a short stint of car names, and then geography, and now soccer. Each time, his interest has been total, comprehensive, encyclopedic and consuming.

New Zealand robin, toutouwai (18cm): The robin is a small bush bird found in many lovely places, especially Ulva Island. The Cat saw robins at the Karori Sanctuary.

New Zealand robin, toutouwai (18cm): The robin is a small bush bird found in many lovely places, especially Ulva Island. The Cat saw robins at the Karori Sanctuary.

We eased off on the birds for a while, but the interest is still there in the background, as are the birds ever and always.

Somewhere in all that birding time, I read How to Watch a Bird by Steve Braunias. Before that, I’d read his Listener columns on birds and I’d started to notice birds, to see them in all their strangeness and familiarity. Australia helped, with its pelicans and parrots and fairy wrens and crows and magpies. You’d have to be blind and deaf to not notice the birds in Australia; they’re all colour and noise and foreboding and joy, and they’re right there every time you step out the door.


Kea (46cm): The kea is a mountain parrot found mostly in the South Island high country. It is olive-green, with orange-red on its rump and under its wings. The Cat has never seen a kea in the wild, but he spotted them at Staglands and Wellington Zoo. He does a very good impression.

So I had those two birders, Braunias and my boy, reminding me to look, to be still, to wonder, to observe. But I didn’t think to bring them together until I heard Braunias talk at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. He was funny and cogent and even wise, and I realised that I wanted my son to read his book. I wanted the Cat to have stories and people to go along with the facts and numbers and maps and descriptions, and I got them for him, signed and inscribed by the author himself. It’s a lovely book and if you don’t have it on your Sunday afternoon bookshelf already, then your Sunday afternoons are not everything they could be.

The Cat’s verdict: ‘Pretty good, actually.’ The Cat never sugar-coats, so I’m taking that as high praise. Plus he’s quoting from it, which is the better sign really. A sample, to convince you:

Mandarin duck (51cm): The mandarin duck is a colourful Asian duck, which eats rice. The Cat saw this duck at Melbourne and Adelaide Zoos, and at Staglands.

Mandarin duck (51cm): The mandarin duck is a colourful Asian duck, which eats rice. The Cat saw this duck at the Melbourne and Adelaide zoos, and at Staglands.

Keith was very nearly a classic New Zealand birder — long and loping build, wears a beard, but came from Invercargill. He’s an accomplished artist. He lives in a house right next to the centre. It was a rather desolate spot, a sea breeze stirring the flax, and his only neighbours were birds; and yet, like me, he couldn’t drive. He hosts 12,000 visitors a year. There is a lodge at the centre for overnight accommodation — the day I arrived, a merry group of Lionesses were drying dishes and making lewd jokes.

Keith walked me towards the shore. As a bonus, there was a single white heron, white and absolutely enormous, reaching to the sky on its slender black legs. I could add it to my year twitching list of the black stilt, the terek sandpiper, and a very weird sighting of an albino oystercatcher. Feeding on the tide were 300 wrybills, about 500 red knots, and 1500 to 1800 bar-tailed godwits.

Eastern rosella (33cm): Originally from Australia, the rosella is a noisy, social bird with bright plumage. The Cat saw a flock of six rosellas at Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin.

Eastern rosella (33cm): Originally from Australia, the rosella is a noisy, social bird with bright plumage. The Cat saw a flock of six rosellas at Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin.

The godwits were slim — they lose drastic amounts of body fat on the long voyage to New Zealand — and small, and slow, and dazed, and greedy. Their sensitive bills probed the sand for movement. They feed on crabs by shaking the legs off one by one, and then scoffing the body whole. For dessert, they eat the legs. They had come all this way — light, precious things that witnessed cataclysmal horror, curdling temperatures, terraqueous distortions, all the rest — and I stood and watched them on a white-shelled shore on a cold afternoon. It was Friday, 15 September.

Superb lyrebird (100cm): The lyrebird is a remarkable songbird found in the bush of south-eastern Australia. The Cat saw a superb lyrebird at Adelaide Zoo. In the 'Life of Birds' DVD, David Attenborough listens to a lyrebird making the sounds of a chainsaw, a kookaburra, a camera, and a car alarm.

Superb lyrebird (100cm): The lyrebird is a remarkable songbird found in the bush of south-eastern Australia. The Cat saw a superb lyrebird at Adelaide Zoo. In the ‘Life of Birds’ DVD, David Attenborough listens to a lyrebird making the sounds of a chainsaw, a kookaburra, a camera and a car alarm.

Braunias writes about birds and birders, and about himself and New Zealand too. It’s like an avian social history ethnologico-geographico-zoological guidebook memoir, but really more like a  rambling walk on the seashore with a kind, wonderful, sharp-tongued friend, and what better for your nine-year-old son as he figures out who he wants to be and what he knows and what he needs to learn.

Bellbird, korimako, makomako (20cm): The bellbird is a songbird, endemic to New Zealand. It drinks nectar, and loves sugar water. There are lots of bellbirds at Granny and Dada's house and at Taieri Mouth. The Cat also heard bellbirds at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Bellbird, korimako, makomako (20cm): The bellbird is a songbird, endemic to New Zealand. It drinks nectar, and loves sugar water. There are lots of bellbirds at Granny and Dada’s house and at Taieri Mouth. The Cat also heard bellbirds at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

After reading the book, we took the Hoopers Inlet road home from a soccer match at Portobello. We dropped over the hill and saw the inlet plunk down in front of us, curved and graceful and quiet and full of birds. Swans, herons, kingfishers, pied stilts, spur-winged plovers, oystercatchers, paradise shelducks, ordinary ducks, pukeko, the lot. The Cat’s antennae lifted, he named each bird he saw, told stories, showed his little brother this feathered, mud-shanked, fish-catching, sand-probing, greens-foraging world. He became a birder again, and his own gentle, clever, funny self. I ruffled his hair, looked at the water, drove home.

* The pictures and captions are from a calendar the Cat made for Christmas 2009, and he would like to point out that he was not yet four at the time.

Blue-crowned parakeet, kakariki (32cm): The Cat made this bird up. It is slightly larger than its cousins, the red-crowned, yellow-crowned and Antipodes Island parakeets.

Blue-crowned parakeet, kakariki (32cm): The Cat made this bird up. It is slightly larger than its cousins, the red-crowned, yellow-crowned and Antipodes Island parakeets.


Royal spoonbill (78cm): The spoonbill is a wading bird, which sifts the water for small crustacea. The Cat saw spoonbills at Manawatu estuary and in the crescent lagoons on the road to Port Chalmers. The first spoonbills of the season are rightly greeted with the cry, ‘Welcome back, spoonbills!’


Little shag, kawaupaka (56cm): The little shag is the most common of the fresh-water shags. It feeds on fish, crayfish and eels, diving from the surface of the water. The Cat saw two little shags on wood and water in the Hutt River.

Little shag, kawaupaka (56cm): The little shag is the most common of the fresh-water shags. It feeds on fish, crayfish and eels, diving from the surface of the water. The Cat saw two little shags on wood and water in the Hutt River.

Piwakawaka, fantail (16cm): The fantail is a companionable bush bird, which finds humans useful for stirring up insects. One afternoon, the Cat saw three fantails together at the Nursery.

Piwakawaka, fantail (16cm): The fantail is a companionable bush bird, which finds humans useful for stirring up insects. One afternoon, the Cat saw three fantails together at the Nursery.

Korora, little blue penguin (40cm): Little and blue is a good way to describe this bird. At Moa Point, signs warn cars to slow down so the korora can cross the road to their burrows. The Cat saw korora swimming at Stewart Island.

Korora, little blue penguin (40cm): Little and blue is a good way to describe this bird. At Moa Point, signs warn cars to slow down so the korora can cross the road to their burrows. The Cat saw korora swimming at Stewart Island.

Banded dotterel (20cm): The banded dotterel is an elegant wading bird, which breeds only in New Zealand. In winter, it migrates to the North Island and to Australia. Daddy saw a dotterel at Pencarrow Lakes, where they lay their eggs on the beach. Now the Cat and Mary want to go there.

Banded dotterel (20cm): The banded dotterel is an elegant wading bird, which breeds only in New Zealand. In winter, it migrates to the North Island and to Australia. Daddy saw a dotterel at Pencarrow Lakes, where they lay their eggs on the beach. Now the Cat and Mary want to go there.

Reading list

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

Maurice Gee, Under the Mountain
I read this book as a child (teenager?) and it freaked me right the hell out. There were sluggy creatures and hot stones and lurking giant people and a scene where the children were standing in a cavernous room coming to terms with what they needed to do to save the world from apocalyptic horror.

It was terrifying, and for years I avoided even thinking about it if I could.

But then I saw it in the library and wondered if the Cat would enjoy it. Which is crazy because he bridles at fantasy literature and also, you know, terrifying. So I read it instead.

I have to say that reading it in middle age wasn’t so bad. Although someone could have warned me that the twins have red hair.

The characters are fantastic, the twins tightly connected, but different enough to be interesting and believable. Mr Jones is heartbreakingly right. Ricky anchors everything with his teenage courage and non-bullshittiness. Auckland, well, you’ll never look at Auckland the same way again.

Reading list

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

Usually when people ask me what I’ve been doing, my mind goes completely blank or I can only remember the Listener, the Cat’s latest adventure series, a spy thriller and a newsletter from the council. I know I’ve read more interesting and significant stuff, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

Sometimes I’ll remember how what I read made me feel or the state of mind I lurched around in after finishing a book, or I might remember the countries I visited and the characters who lived there, but have no idea which author took me there or what the book we journeyed in was called. I’ve even resorted to wandering along my bookshelves pointing at things with happy recognition. “I read that one,” I’ll say. “Oh, and that. That was an absolute cracker.”

So, I thought I might start writing a few notes on everything I read. Sort of a record, sort of a diary. This is a good time to start because I’ve been at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival (the acronym, inevitably, being DWARF) and my mind is full of writers, words, the magic that happens in books. Also, Ian is making doughnuts. And it’s Friday. Pretty good, huh?

Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett is one of my long-term favourite writers. I started with Bel Canto, which lived in my mind for a long time as one of the most surprising and beautiful books I’d stumbled across, then some years later raided the library for more. I’ve bought a couple, and if I spotted others in a shop I’d likely buy them. Her books make good presents and lovely Sunday-afternoon bookshelf items. Patchett is one of those authors you want everyone to read: “You must read Taft,” you’ll say. “I can’t believe you haven’t read Taft. Or RunRun really got me.”

I found This is the Story a year or so ago, devoured it, then was reminded of it when I was thinking about my favourite memoirs for a workshop I did during the DWARF. We were asked to bring along our picks and be prepared to read a selection; I had a big crisis about what would work and lugged a dozen books around town all day. We didn’t end up doing the readings, but it was great to think about what I like in a memoir and why. It turns out that the best memoirs aren’t necessarily the most quotable: The Periodic Table has a lot of tricky words that could get embarrassing in a roomful of attentive strangers, and Stet is a moving and glorious whole, full of people and stories, but doesn’t lend itself to easy extraction.

Patchett, though, is eminently quotable; I could open her book anywhere and give you a slice of wise and well-honed prose that will have you thinking for hours. Case in point:

We ease into the late-morning traffic of downtown Billings, the plastic-wrapped captain’s chairs cradling us like La-Z-Boys. Two blocks out, a black-and-white dog runs into the street and heads straight for our front wheels. Karl slams on the brakes. We then discover the First Great RV Truth: Like ocean liners and oil tankers, RVs do not stop. While Karl grinds the pedal into the carpet, I scream at the dog, “Go! Go!” We might have clipped its tail but the dog itself is spared, and we, very nearly stopped now, are ecstatic. We did not kill a dog in the first five minutes of the trip! We say it out loud to one another. What a good omen! What a positive sign! Five minutes in a Winnebago and we haven’t killed anything. (p 91)

This is the Story gathers essays from Patchett’s long and varied writing life. It’s a pleasing way to get a sense of a person; you find out what matters to them, you get a flavour of the world around them and the people and animals that shape their life, you know the things they’ve tried and the values that drive their decisions and actions. You know what makes them tick. It will also leave you with images that you can pull down from your mind on a bleak autumn afternoon, polish, hold to the light:

The books, the cities, the stores, the airports, the crowds, or lack of crowds, all fall under the heading “What Happened While I Was Away.” What I always remember clearly are the times I saw other writers, the way pioneers rolling over the prairies in covered wagons must have remembered every detail of the other settlers they passed, cutting through the tall grass from a different angle. “How was it back there?” you shout out from your wooden porch.

“Rough,” your fellow homesteader calls back, and raises his bottle of Evian in warning. “Be sure to drink your water.” (p 164)

Three days I’ve had that image in my head now, the homestead, the porch, the long grass. The calling across open space, the raised bottle of Evian. And it’s taught me something about writers and what book touring is really like. I can see it now.

I should warn you though, you might finish this collection wanting to get a dog, get divorced, get married, try out for the police academy, open a bookstore, hold your grandmother, write novels, go to Paris, be with your best friend, go to university, live somewhere with rampant plantlife, go to the opera and try life as a nun.

I did.


This could take a while

The Cat has decided that he would like to write a book. I offered to help him, and that usually means typing as he dictates. We started tonight and it fairly quickly emerged that this was to be a book about soccer, specifically a World Cup co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. The teams will be All-Stars teams with the best players of all time from each qualifying country.

We got through the first part of Chapter One tonight, and this is how it went:

France vs Brazil

Brazil kick-off. Garrincha passes to Pelé, who blasts the ball over Barthez from the halfway line, but it hits the crossbar and it goes in over Gylmar’s head for an own goal. Garrincha passes to Pelé again, who passes to Tostão, who dribbles it around the entire French team, including the keeper, but then he whacks it over the crossbar when it should have been a tap-in. Barthez boots the ball upfield from the goal kick and scores. The teams do lots of passing (and tackling) around the pitch until it’s halftime.

A streaker goes on the pitch and kicks the ball in the Brazilian goal. Amazingly, the goal counts. Brazil do quite a lot of shots, but don’t seem to get anywhere until in the 87th minute Pelé takes a shot from the edge of the area and it flies into the top corner. Then it’s a France kick-off and Ribéry immediately gets tackled by Garrincha. He starts dribbling the length of the field, but Ribéry slide-tackles him from behind and gets sent off. The resulting free kick is closer to the halfway line than the penalty area. Pelé takes the free kick and it looks like it’s going out for a throw in, but then it swerves into the bottom corner of the goal like a missile. Pelé tackles Zidane near the touchline and whacks it in the goal from range. Pelé gets a hat-trick. Then with the last kick of the game after a Vieira cross and an Henry flick-on header, Zidane bicycles it in off the post, then the crossbar, then the other post, then the keeper’s leg, and in.

Score: France 4 Brazil 3

Typing this up took about 40 minutes, with frequent breaks to change players, modify the play, and correct my spelling and use of accents.

About halfway through, I confirmed my suspicions: this book is going to be a rundown of every match in this fictitious tournament. We did some quick calculations and worked out that we’ll be doing 80 matches.

Parenting. It’s not what you think it’s going to be.

Also, I have no idea about hyphenation with soccer terminology.

The kitchen table

I just looked at our kitchen table and realised that it almost always has at least one book on it. The Cat and I are the worst culprits; we sit at the ends of the table, read through meals, and leave our books for next time. Sometimes a book will migrate from one end of the table to the other, and sometimes the Rabbit will fetch a book too, for company. He astounded us the other day by “reading” Fox in Socks out loud — he got a surprising amount of it right. Poor Ian thinks we’re a bunch of heathens. But I notice that there are three books about magnolias in my space this week, and I didn’t put them there.

It’s an incidental, grazing sort of reading that goes on at the table. The Cat can afford to fully immerse himself in the experience, devouring soccer biographies and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons with the same comprehensive determination with which he eats, but I need to be somewhat alert to the needs of my children for food and of my partner for conversation. So I’m more likely to have a copy of the Listener beside me, or a recipe book, or the Lonely Planet France guide. Things I can dip into, things I can skim. And as I look at the table again, things I can dream with. Isn’t that what we all do with books? Dip our toes into other worlds, imagine ourselves into travel, soccer stardom, outrageous childhood, new ideas, a garden, a banquet. Little dreams to sustain us through the pattern of our days, like the food we share, like the stories we tell.

The mouths of babes

The necessary context: It’s our 15th anniversary and I forgot for the first half hour of the day, then remembered only to realise that we have no money for presents, no babysitter for a date, no time to relax, and I was going to be parent help at Rabbit’s childcare all morning. I was unhelpfully Eeyore-ish about all this through most of the day, but rallied enough to buy flowers and tuna, sweep the kitchen floor, chill a bottle of white from the “fancy” collection, and get out the flash cutlery.

I made an old and sentimental favourite for dinner, poisson cru, a raw fish salad served on rice. I should tell you how to make it because it’s a happy and bonding meal, with little heat required and not too much fuss. You start by marinating chunks of tuna in lemon or lime juice, and when I say chunk, I mean something that you can pick up in your fingers and pop in your mouth without either dropping it or doing that embarrassing thing where you can’t chew effectively and look like a gerbil until you either spit or swallow. Because that is not the look you are going for on anniversary night, or indeed on any night involving loved ones and the fancy wine. So then you have your tuna marinating for about 20 minutes and in the meantime you can put on the rice and start preparing the vegetables. I’ll leave the rice to you; we have our method and it’s foolproof, but no doubt you have yours too. I do think jasmine is best for this — you want a little bit of sticky.

Next we come to the vegetables. The cucumber is fun. I use a whole cucumber if I’m feeling rich and generous, and the first step is to peel strips lengthwise to give a stripy effect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but you’ll probably know if you’ve got it right, and if you haven’t, you’ll have something anyway and I’m sure it will be useable. Then you need to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. I find this easier in shorter lengths, but it might depend on your prowess with a fork. You really want to scoop with the fork rather than scraping; it’s a textural thing. Once you have your stripy, scooped cucumber, slice it into half circles, a couple of millimetres wide, again about the size you’d want to pick up with your fingers. The garlic is easy — just finely chop a couple of cloves.  Tomatoes are also straightforward. Quarter them and cut out the stalky bits, then push out the seeds. I know no tidy way to do this; you’ll have to use your thumbs, so if you’re a bit on the hygiene-sensitive side like me, wash your hands first. Of course, you’ll have been washing your hands throughout this whole scenario anyway. You probably just did it, hey? Cut your quartered, de-seeded tomatoes into chunks — you know the drill. The last thing is spring onion. Slice it. Diagonally, for class.

So somewhere in the middle of all this vegetable finangling, you should have drained the tuna, tasting it first to make sure it’s “cooked” to your liking. And then you just mix the tuna and the vegetables with a can of coconut cream, decanted, aber natürlich, and then you serve the salad over the rice and pour the wine and have a jolly old time.

And that’s the context: poisson cru, fancy wine, a significant anniversary for which I am totally unprepared and under-resourced, plus (which I forgot to mention) two slightly cranky children, a not-very-pristine house, a strong desire for everyone under the age of ten to go to bed without any fuss, and actually, now that I think of it, the miracle of sharing my life from my early twenties to my nearly forties with the same long-legged, enthusiastic, kind, hilarious man. WITH TWO CHILDREN AND A CAT. Eight houses and as many gardens, hundreds of books, countless reeling conversations, walks and meals and nights and mornings and days, estuaries and mountains and beaches and cities, Paris and Melbourne and Tahiti and Dunedin, kisses and all the rest of it, collapsing laughter and tears and the occasional grump and stomp, all of those things that brought us together, that keep us together.

All of that, and at the bottom of the first glass of wine, Rabbit announces that he got himself a lolly this morning. I don’t understand; I question logistics and mechanics, get him to demonstrate his technique, express disbelief, incredulity. For the record, he pulled a chair over to the bench, climbed onto the bench, pulled down the lolly box, and extracted his prize. We watched him demonstrate; he was perfect. I still don’t know when this happened — he says this morning while I was in the shower, which seems incredible as Ian and the Cat were faffing around getting ready and the house isn’t that big and the chair takes a bit of shifting, so he must have been both quick and sneaky. Anyway, I’m trying to get my head around this small, determined, independent child, who — apparently — is mine, and so Ian tries to explain that the second-borns just are like that: they don’t need parental approval and they want to sort their own stuff out and they go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve the ends they want to achieve. And from the corner, the Cat lifts his head from his book. “Shite,” he says, “that’s so unfair.”


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