Monday, September 2, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

            This year, unlike the last two years, I was not present at the ceremony and dinner for the New Zealand Post Book Awards, so I view it from a little more distance than I have previously done. The awards were given last Wednesday (28 August). I will not discourse at length upon the value or purpose of book awards – I have done that previously on this blog, and merely come up with the obvious points that book awards recognize merit, point to the continuing importance of literature and are also, of course, supported by publishers in the interests of publicity. Book awards also regularly court controversy, as there are always critics and commentators who disagree with the judges’ decisions – and more occasionally there are public disagreements between judges. But beyond these platitudes, there is nothing I wish to say about the NZ Post Book Awards in general.

            This year, I found myself under-informed about the Illustrated Non-Fiction Category. The finalists were His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien (photos by Haruhilo Sameshima); Pat Hanly by Greg O’Brien and Gil Hanly; Selling the Dream: the art of early New Zealand tourism by Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart & Dave Bamford; and Stag Spooner: Wild man from the bush by Chris Maclean. Of these four, I have seen only the last, my review of which appeared on Landfall Review on line on 1 June this year. I judged it “work of pure adulation”, a book about a deer culler and amateur artist of the 1940s, including a reproduction of his illustrated diary of his life in the bush. In the event the category award went to Pat Hanly by Greg O’Brien and Gil Hanly.

            I should have been better informed about the Poetry Category. The finalists were A Man Runs Into a Woman by Sarah Jane Barnett; Snow White’s Coffin by Kate Camp; The Darling North by Anne Kennedy; and The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2011 by Ian Wedde. Again I confess my near ignorance, as of these four I have read and reviewed only Ian Wedde’s impressive The Lifeguard [my review of which can be found on the listing at right]. The judges gave the category prize to The Darling North by Anne Kennedy.

I am less embarrassed about the two other major categories. The four finalists for the Fiction Category were In the Absence of Heroes by Anthony McCarten; The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn; The Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster; and The Forrests by Emily Perkins. In this case, The Forrests by Emily Perkins was the only one I had not read and reviewed.

When I reviewed Anthony McCarten’s In the Absence of Heroes in the Sunday Star-Times [5 February 2012], I judged its story of an unhappy and dysfunctional family to be lively and somewhat teen-oriented, especially as its teenaged character was the novel’s most sympathetic. I concluded my review thus: “I think there are too many side issues, some twists that send it perilously near to being a formula thriller, and a mother whose grief and breakdown verge on over-the-top caricature. But McCarten can write, can keep it moving, and I found it a breeze to rush through his nearly 400 pages.

When I reviewed Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music in the Sunday Star-Times [12 August 2012] I focused on the Scotland-based New Zealand author’s experimentalism. Among other things I noted that this novel about bagpipers is “a novel that aspires to the condition of music… it is not told in any conventional narrative form. The Big Music is organized as a series of separate documents, personal papers and appendices, complete with footnotes, held together by the fiction that the novelist is simply the “editor” of these found materials… Like James Joyce and others, Kirsty Gunn is interested in form, in wordplay and especially in the sounds of words.” However, I did caution that this “rewarding book… does require patience to read” because of its unconventional style; and that “while there are strong elements of hope in the story, the net effect is more a lamentation for a traditional art form whose hold in the modern world is tenuous.”

I have a particular soft spot for Gigi Fenster’s debut novel The Intentions Book. Again, I reviewed this one in the Sunday Star-Times [15 April 2012]. This story of a family awaiting possible bad news (a daughter has gone missing while tramping in the New Zealand bush) I judged to be “a penetrating psychological examination” of the family’s buttoned-down father and  a character study in the best sense of the term.” I further noted that “there are so many things that work well here. The novel’s structure is necessarily complex (sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks) and assumes a grown-up readership. But it is never wilfully obscure. There is a dramatic logic to the way [the father’s] self-examination is revealed to us, and how one memory triggers off another… Gigi Fenster is a woman who produces a very convincing take on what makes men tick…There is also Fenster’s ability to convey, at one and the same time, the messiness of family life and the absolute necessity for family.” In short, I found this a very agreeable book.

The judges’ decision went to Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, and I congratulate them on their choice. There were fears that this year’s choices would be more populist than in previous years, but in the event they have chosen something that is stylistically challenging.

             I was similarly well-informed about the General Non-Fiction Category finalists. The four finalists were Steve Braunias’s Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World ; Jarrod Gilbert’s Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand; Vincent O’Malley’s The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters 1642-1840; and Joanne Drayton’s The Search for Anne Perry. Of these four, Braunias’s book was the only one I had not read and reviewed.

            I reviewed Jarrod Gilbert’s Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand on this blog on 8 April this year [look up my detailed review on the index at right]. It is a complex and well-researched book, avoiding sensationalism but inevitably giving much hair-raising detail. I particularly commended the author for keeping his critical distance even though he was, in effect, “embedded” with gangs at the time he was doing his research.

            I am compelled to make clear my negative view of Joanne Drayton’s The Search for Anne Perry, which I reviewed on this blog on 20 August 2012 [look up my detailed review on the index at right].  I find it an evasive book on many elements of the Hulme-Parker case which it purports to be exploring, and judge that parts of it come perilously close to being sanitised publicity rather than true biography. I am sincerely surprised that it made the list of finalists, and wonder at the judges’ reasoning. I would have been spitting tacks if it had won, as it was (as a study of the Hulme-Parker case) much inferior to Peter Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever, which was a finalist last year in this category of these awards, but did not win.

            Vincent O’Malley’s The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters 1642-1840 is a well-organised account of the interaction between Maori and Pakeha, especially in the early years of European settlement. Making my own notes on it (not for review) I found it an impressive synthesis of much that is known about such interaction, drawn from both primary and secondary sources. I appreciate the way O’Malley showed how dynamic and changing Maori society was even before the arrival of Europeans, and how much social change was triggered by Maori “agency” as much as by progressive European settlement. I noted that “the beauty of this book is the way it puts this broad pre-Treaty cultural history all in one volume and makes it accessible to a wider audience.”

            In this General Non-Fiction Category, however, the judges’ nod went to Steve Braunias’s Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World, which prevents me from saying anything of any value as I have not read it. I hope the judges got it right.

            While congratulating the winners, I draw no general conclusions from any of these results. I am sceptical of the processes whereby the “People’s Choice” is chosen, but I congratulate Jarrod Gilbert for winning this category with his well-researched Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. Likewise, congratulations to Helen Heath for winning the Best First Book of Poetry awards with her Graft [a review of which you can find via the index at right].

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