What They Were Reading

By Guy Somerset In Books, Listening In

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29th November, 2012 Leave a Comment

Contributors were asked to choose books ideally released in New Zealand in 2012 but not compulsorily so.

Hamish Clayton, whose novel Wulf won the Best First Book Award for Fiction at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: This was the year I finally made true acquaintance with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve been diving into it all year and been utterly captivated by its fearless – virtually ageless – intensity of image, experience, solitude, religiosity and lyricism. Of other poetry I’ve found this year, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars stands out as a daring, strange and defiant collection. And yet, for all their formal adventure, these poems never lose sight of the time-honoured values they celebrate: humour and beauty and love, longing and pain. Perhaps the poetical landscape I enjoyed most this year was Ted Hughes’s republished Remains of Elmet. Set in the Calder Valley west of Halifax where Hughes grew up, its weather-beaten landscape gathers up a whole history, from the fall of the Celts through wilderness years towards the Industrial Revolution and then on to early 20th-century decline and decay. Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain feels like a return to form via a return to familiar Heaney countryside, but in the act of return it’s a landscape that has deepened even further as a metaphor for life, inheritance and memory. Heaney’s selected prose, Finders Keepers, gathers 30 years of essays that ponder the relationship between art and life with an enviable aesthetic grace and a seemingly inexhaustible literary knowledge. Of the fiction I read this year, the most striking were EL Doctorow’s American Dream masterpiece Ragtime­, told with a dazzling, almost magic-realist verve; and John Banville’s The Infinities, in which the Greek gods intervene into the private dramas of a contemporary British family. Underlined by Banville’s signature flair for gorgeous, overflowing language and unremitting characters, the story is brilliantly inventive and funny and sad.  

Joan Druett, whose Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator was general non-fiction winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: An invitation to sail as a guest lecturer on a “Mutiny on the Bounty” theme cruise led me to a rereading of Caroline Alexander’s magnificent The Bounty. Written by a master storyteller, this tale of the voyage, the mutiny and the subsequent fall-out is a page-turner, yet thoroughly and reliably researched.  My copy is now so crammed with Post-its that it is held together with ribbon, which—along with the attractive prospect of a portable library— led to the purchase of a Kindle, and my entry to the world of e-books. One of my first purchases was a very popular trilogy-plus-sequel published by one of New Zealand’s most successful indie writers, Shayne Parkinson. Packaged as the “Promises to Keep” series, this family saga is set in a small North Island farming town in the 1880s, with an interesting background that includes the importation of Jersey cows and the establishment of cooperative dairy factories. That electronic publishing still has some glitches to solve is apparent in the lack of paragraph indents, but the characters in this Downton-on-the-farm are compelling enough to make it easy to understand why Parkinson has such a large following. And I couldn’t resist a sneaky read of The Queen and the Nobody Boy, Barbara Else’s sequel to The Travelling Restaurant, bought as a grandchild’s Christmas present. No ships this time, but it’s as colourful and engaging as its predecessor.

Catriona Ferguson, who was this year appointed chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council: As Philip Larkin put it, “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” – but where would literature be without a few messed up families? May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes starts with a hiss and a roar, and rarely stops for breath as it charges through the life of a fabulously dysfunctional family. Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon also dissects the inner workings of a complex family, quieter, more closely observed but just as compelling. Even quieter are Emily Perkins’s The Forrests and Mark Haddon’s The Red House - more tales of family loyalty and disloyalty; less dramatic, just as powerful. Feckless families are a great literary tradition and secretly I’d happily join any of this lot, just for a day or two. Sophie Hannah’s Kind of Cruel and Tana French’s Broken Harbour both delivered top-notch escapist, twisted crime, and closer to home Paul Cleave’s The Laughterhouse is a bit more brutal but pretty twisted too. Not new, but new to me, was Caitlin Moran’s frank and laugh-out-loud funny How To Be A Woman – I wish I had a time-machine and could give it to my 13-year-old self. I might also give her Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems edited by Paula Green. I was reminded of old favourites and found some new ones too. And what a pretty book – not just poems but images, and end-pages too. Very classy. And finally Sport 40 gave a nod to the Frankfurt Guest of Honour hoo-haa and published the work of some German writers (specially translated for the occasion) alongside some of their equivalents from New Zealand. A gratifying goodie bag of poems, essays and short stories.

Rhian Gallagher, whose Shift was poetry winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: New Zealand’s Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas is a stellar edition to be perused over time. It won’t date because the trees are the trees! I’ve been looking up some of my favourites and found the entries to be comprehensive and, given my ignorance, full of surprises. I did not know, for instance, that the fruit of the Kōtukutuku, Tree Fushia, was collected by Māori and early settlers and eaten raw. The photography is splendid — it is one very handsome book.  On the poetry front, Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott would have to be my choice of recent reads: an original, imaginative and moving collection. In the 12-year gap between her previous book and this, Shapcott literarily changes shape. This would have to be her best collection to date. I’ve also been enjoying The Incomplete Poems by David Howard — love poet par excellence. And I salute Cold Hub Press for going the distance in terms of production values. Why are there not more collected or selected editions being published?  There certainly are established New Zealand poets whose early work warrants being brought back into print.  Lastly, Moranthology by Caitlin Moran – Moran is one of most sassy social commentators writing in the UK today.  Her humour is wonderful but she is also acutely intelligent and perceptive. Her obituary for Amy Winehouse stayed with me. Winehouse was an incredible talent and as Moran says: “friends, particularly women, keep fretting over [her] death … it’s like when woodland animals circle another woodland animal who has died, uncomprehending as to why they have gone.”

Stephanie Johnson, who this year released the novel The Open World: The first big read of the year was Peter Wells’s The Hungry Heart: Journeys with Colenso, a lyrical, transporting overture to the legendary colonial printer and missionary. Other hefty and tasty tomes were two recent definitive collected short story editions, one by the masterful David Malouf and the other by a writer every writer holds dear, Alice Munro. The discovery I’d like to trumpet from the treetops is Katherine Susannah Pritchard’s novel Coonardoo, originally published in 1928. Set on a million-acre station in Western Australia, it’s a startlingly modern, insightful epic about love and otherwise between an Aboriginal and a white family – vivid, humane, revolutionary and heartbreaking. To my mind, Tim Winton is the only other Australian who comes close. Charlotte Wood’s Animal People, Ruth Park’s Missus and English writer Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life were all highly enjoyable, entertaining reads. Of  books by fellow New Zealanders, Paula Green’s anthology Dear Heart: New Zealand Love Poems has been a regular companion, for dipping and basking. Paula Morris’s admirable Rangatira is rich with historical detail and poignancy. The October publication of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon sent me to the library to first read The Night Book, before buying the sequel. Incisive, clever, wickedly funny and political – she’s a must read for all of us at this time.

David Larsen, who is a writer, reviewer and one of the Listener‘s film critics: One way and another, I’ve spent a lot of this year in the 16th century and on the moons of Jupiter. Sixteen, by coincidence, was my age when my mother first suggested I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. A mere three decades later, I can report that this was good advice. I lay in the shade of our orange tree every fine day last January and had my mind blown by The Game of Kings, the most densely referential, multi-linguistic romp of a historical romance it has ever been my pleasure to grapple with. Dunnett’s exuberant 16th-century Scots were nicely counter-balanced by another tribe I’d been resisting for a while, Hilary Mantel’s 16th-century English: Wolf Hall is so overwhelming I needed six months off before I could tackle Bring up the Bodies. (It’s just as good.) I spent part of this interregnum rereading Galileo’s Dream, and quite a lot else by Kim Stanley Robinson – my favourite science fiction writer (tied with Ursula Le Guin), and this grand fantasia, in which the father of modern science is transported through time to visit the Galilean moons, is currently my favourite of his books. (Tied with the Mars trilogy.) Lois McMaster Bujold improved my year no end by releasing a new Vorkosigan novel, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the 16th in this hugely entertaining space opera saga. And this was the year Scrooge McDuck returned! Only A Poor Old Man is the second in Fantagraphics’ superbly produced Complete Carl Barks series, collecting the life work of one of the greatest American comics creators. And now it’s summer again, and as I head back to my orange tree, I’m poised between the third Lymond novel, The Disorderly Knights, and Mantel’s French Revolution monolith, A Place of Greater Safety.

Greg McGee, who this year released the novel Love and Money and was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship for 2013: A supposedly strong year where the English “majors” majorly disappointed, mostly. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth was creepily narcissistic (Ian McEwan impersonating a female narrator writing in lovingly physiological detail of an affair with a young writer who is the spitting image of the young Ian McEwan, and writes just like him). William Boyd in Waiting for Sunrise, once again trying to write a thriller and losing the plot, even more woefully than in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Howard Jacobson writing an extended writer’s in-joke in Zoo Time – at least that part of it was entertaining. And John Lanchester’s ploddingly even Capital, a sociological thesis masquerading as a novel. Thank the god of good literature for Martin Amis, who abandoned the equally narcissistic territory of The Pregnant Widow to give us Lionel Asbo. At his best (The Rachel Papers, Money), Amis has a unique energy and invention – and he’s funny, such a precious commodity in serious literature. Lionel Asbo uses strikingly original characters to tell you more about state-of-the-nation England than a thousand sociological theses, and he knows how to use thriller elements to create suspense. That this book didn’t even make the Man Booker longlist is an indication of how mortally Amis has offended the English lit crits. Locally, the best book I’ve read this year is Susan Jacobs’s In Love And War. Jacobs is an elegant writer, compresses history beautifully, and writes earthily and emotionally about the relationships that flowered between the occupying New Zealand soldiers and Italian women in “the forgotten war” – the 2nd Division’s Italian campaign of World War II – and the culture shock when those women returned with their men to try to make a life in the “God’s Own” of the 1950s.

James McNeish, who this year released Touchstones: A Memoir: Two nominations only, although I have read many books this past year: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and, even more of a marvel, Peter Englund’s “intimate history” of World War I, The Beauty and the Sorrow. I read Mantel’s 2010 novel, Wolf Hall, at a gallop and have been digesting it ever since.  In this sequel, her insights into the sexual politics surrounding Thomas Cromwell and the monarch he served – yes, Henry VIII, who made New Zealand a Protestant vassal of mother England – are even keener. Oh yes. This is the way to understand history. Englund’s history, a narrative drawn from the journals and letters of 20 people from countries as diverse as Venezuela, Denmark, England, Hungary, Russia and New Zealand, is the only book I have read on the subject that has helped me understand what the Great War was about. It is a masterpiece of non-fiction, as poignant as it is thrilling, endlessly absorbing – Mantel in the flesh, so to speak, nearly 400 years on.  Now why don’t we produce historians like this?

Robin Maconie, musicologist, who this year released Avant Garde: An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez: Most of my book-buying is done at Quilter’s secondhand bookshop in Wellington. I enjoy out-of-date books. My copy of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians is a 1910 second edition, its opinions of Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner and others still living memories of these very composers. During the past year, I have been writing a survey of Stravinsky’s complete works (Experiencing Stravinsky, Scarecrow Press, February 2013), making the contemporary ambience of these older sources of reference especially useful. The Paris art scene at the time of The Rite of Spring was absorbed with thoughts of primeval culture, not only Russian and Spanish but also Polynesian. In 1907, a poet, Victor Segalen, tried unsuccessfully to interest Debussy in a proposal for an opera, Les Immémoriales (The Olden Ones), based on Polynesian mythology. Earlier allusions to Pacific fertility ritual in the memoirs of St Petersburg explorer and diplomat Georg von Langsdorff are echoed in Stravinsky’s Rite as well. Langsdorff’s observations of Polynesian music are summarised in Johannes C Andersen’s Maori Music, a sourcebook published by the Polynesian Society in 1934 and available since 2002 in facsimile reprint from Cadsonbury Publications of Christchurch (ISBN 1-887151-80-7). A forgotten hero of New Zealand music who provided Alfred Hill with stirring lyrics for the Commemorative Ode of 1906, celebrating New Zealand’s elevation to independent nationhood, from 1908 the indefatigable Andersen contributed numerous papers of field observations of the songs and regional dialects of our native birds, fully illustrated in music notation, anticipating Messiaen and providing New Zealand musicians with a wonderful study resource, today available online.

Bill Manhire, who this year released a Selected Poems, collaborated on These Rough Notes and The Moderately Hungry Maggot, and retires as director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters: I got great pleasure recently from Christopher Reid’s new book, Nonsense. Its first long narrative poem tells the story of the widowed Professor Winterthorn, who flies on impulse from London to a slightly reconfigured Wellington to attend a fatuous academic conference called – in three splendidly unlyrical lines of poetry – “Nonsense and the Pursuit of Futility/as Strategies of Modernist, Postmodernist/and Postpostmodernist Literature and Art”. Wellington plays its part very well – supplying wind and hills and water, light on the water, a good cold beer, and the somehow redemptive sight of strollers and joggers on the waterfront accepting “the moment’s imperatives”.  We leave Professor Winterthorn, who has played hooky from the conference, staring into “the mild, blue yonder” – which stares right back at him. This is a lovely piece of writing, melancholy and comic by turns, with touches of Buster Keaton or Hancock’s Half Hour. My other big-pleasure poetry collection this year was Kerrin P Sharpe’s Three Days in a Wishing Well. I blurbed this book for Victoria University Press, so I won’t go on about it, except to note I first knew Kerrin as a poet in the mid-70s. Suddenly, some 35 years later, here she is with a remarkable first book. Good things, as they say, take time.

Paula Morris, whose novel Rangatira was fiction winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: I read a lot of things this year because someone else asked me to read them. Despite my (occasional) complaints, I don’t really mind this: it nudges me towards books I might otherwise neglect. This year I’ve been moderating a book club run by a local arts centre, and our list included two particularly engaging novels. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, Man Booker-shortlisted last year, transported me to the buzz, fear and squalor of a London council estate, while Jennie Erdahl’s The Missing Shade of Blue explored an over-thinking Edinburgh, past and present. Reviewing strong-armed me into a novel I loved – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – and a non-fiction book I can’t stop thinking about, Your Unselfish Kindness: Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Mary Edmond-Paul. Research for a play dragged me into the intense, sinking world of Jean Rhys’s Collected Short Stories, and research for novels wended down two intriguing roads: one in pre-Treaty New Zealand (Marianne Williams’s Letters from the Bay of Islands, edited by Caroline Fitzgerald) and one through the history of Rome (Corradio Augias’s The Secrets of Rome: Love and Death in the Eternal City). I loved the incisive, often funny essays in the late Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet, and Pico Iyer’s superb two-step with Graham Greene in The Man Within My Head – a book I stupidly forgot to add to my Listener best-of list. [Ed: No worries, we have an interview with Iyer about it in the pipeline.] And the best for last, of course: Alice Munro’s Dear Life, arriving at the end of the year, incapable of disappointment.

Julian Novitz, who this year released the novel Little Sister: The Tragedy of Arthur by American author Arthur Phillips was one of my favourite novels of this year, a witty, moving novel about art, fakery, and fathers and sons, revolving around a newly discovered and possibly forged Shakespeare play (the full text of the play is included, as the novel works as an “introduction” to it, and it’s a fairly impressive imitation Shakespeare’s early histories). On the strength of that novel, I tracked down all of Phillips’s earlier books as well, and The Egyptologist was a particular highlight: a creepy (yet also occasionally absurd) thriller dealing with the travails of a would-be archeologist in 1920s Egypt. 2012 also saw strong novels from some of my favourite authors: Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, NW by Zadie Smith and The Forrests by Emily Perkins. Two debut novels really stood out for me this year: Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (which won the 2012 Orange Prize) and Amy Espeseth’s Sufficient Grace (an exquisite, haunting novel set in rural Wisconsin, which examines both the comforts and the terrors of family, faith and nature, all from the perspective of a young girl who must confront dark secrets and profound uncertainty).

Gregory O’Brien, who this year illustrated Kate De Goldi’s The ACB of Honora Lee, contributed the lead essay to Hanly and was the non-fiction winner of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement: Art in Oceania; A New History by Peter Brunt et al is at once a landmark publication and a necessarily oceanic one. Alongside traditional carvings, statues, architecture, tattoos and tapa cloth, the book presents a diverse array of material from Western historical sources before tracking through the complex cross-cultural productions of recent decades. It’s a genuinely breathtaking book; a real and rare event. A different Pacific reality is at the core of Rebecca Priestley’s Mad on Radium; New Zealand in the Atomic Age — a commendably level-headed account of a story that feels it could, at any moment, morph into a Godzilla film script. It also offers an incisive perspective on the national psyche, with plenty of black comedy, bloody-mindedness, mad ideas (such as proposed nuclear testing on Raoul Island mid-1950s) and some inspired science to offset the lunacy (uranium ice cream, anyone?). Artists Postcards: A Compendium by Jeremy Cooper is an ultra-intelligent delight, a revelation, and a paean to the art-gallery postcard rack. (Am I alone in thinking this is one area in which New Zealand lags behind the rest of the world?) Featuring 437 postcards and a lively, substantial commentary, this global survey happily includes work by a few local artists: Anne Noble, Ann Shelton, Sarah Maxey and Kris Sowersby. 2012 ends in a blaze of poetry collections, among them James Brown’s Warm Auditorium and Ashleigh Young’s Magnificent Moon, with the translucent, poetic prose of Kirsten McDougall’s The Invisible Rider galloping alongside, summerwards.

Sue Orr, whose short-story collection From Under the Overcoat was People’s Choice winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: Biographies bookend my 2012 reading. Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feud was my first read of the year; I’ve just finished DT Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. These intense portraits of two brilliant writers, both afflicted with devastating physical and/or mental illness, left me sated and sadly wondering what might have been. Martin Edmond’s Dark Night: Walking with McCahon was my favourite book of 2012. Edmond’s command of the eerie shadow between fact and fiction made this imagining of Colin McCahon’s disappearance in Sydney in 1984 a magical read. My favourite poetry book was Dear Heart, edited by Paula Green. Her expansive, generous definition of love grew this beautiful collection into something bigger: a treasured keepsake. Other fine non-fiction discoveries included Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, Bligh by Anne Salmond and When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. I read average and superb novels, among the latter Canada (Richard Ford), Open City (Teju Cole), Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward), The Forrests (Emily Perkins), The Intentions Book (Gigi Fenster) and The Big Music (Kirsty Gunn). But it was a slim, sickening, brutal work – David Vann’s Dirt – that reminded me it was possible to loathe and love a story at the same time. Vann extrapolates family dysfunction to the darkest degree, and then some.  I’ll remember Dirt for decades to come.

Martin Patrick, who is a Listener art writer: Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station initially seems like a rather indulgent, repetitive and annoying memoir-style account of a young poet on a residency in Spain, but its intensity and lyricism build slowly, until the book almost abruptly finishes, and I (second) thought: what happened here exactly? The reissue of Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is a very welcome alternative to endless coffee table repackagings of photos, memorabilia and sometimes even music. Although Keith Richards’s Life was excellent, this book is qualitatively light years beyond it stylistically, and really the only book I would recommend on the world’s most venerable rock band. Paul Auster’s Winter Journal is rather slight in comparison with his best novels and most memorable non-fiction, but shows that he is still an adventurous writer at times, and his slippage into second person to describe his own aging body and mind is well worth reading. Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries vacillate between laundry lists of cultural data and slightly disguised romantic woes, but if you have ever been intrigued or infuriated by her essays, this shows her in test-drive aphoristic mode, need I say more? The critical success of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead is perhaps moving more collections of quality essays onto the shelves, at least for the moment, and Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours is terrific, particularly a close encounter with Werner Herzog and a story about shooting an independent film in small town America. Two fantastic biographies of iconic US figures of cinema and literature respectively both have the word “ghost” in their titles and appeared within days of one another: Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost (on Henry Fonda) and DT Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (on David Foster Wallace). Both are sad, riveting, and major events in terms of chronicling enigmatic and challenging figures of US culture, past and (nearly) present.

Emily Perkins, who this year released the novel The Forrests: Plenty has been said to recommend Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, which I’ve recently read, but I was particularly struck by its exhilarating prose, cloudy sort of narrator and the way its histories and stories surface like waves. A wonderfully unmechanical novel. And I adored The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya. This is another first novel that’s heady with images and language, about a young backpacker from India travelling through Guyana. It’s an open-eyed, rather than wide-eyed, outsider’s impression of a remarkable country, and won the 2012 Ondaatje Prize for a book that evokes “the spirit of a place”; one of its many attributes is that it knows how completely a place is bound up in its people. Along those lines, I’ve loved the collected writings from the blog Spitalfields Life, produced in a beautiful book of the same name: portraits of a neighbourhood with a fascinating past and present, written by “The Gentle Author”, whose generous curiosity drives the work. I guess place reveals itself at different distances; amidst the crowds at the Frankfurt Book Fair were some terrific New Zealand talks, readings and musical performances – like a citywide mini-festival of home away from home. If I can have a “listen” of the year, it would be poems from Thicket by Anna Jackson: the sort of work that quietly rips your heart out.

Craig Ranapia, who reviews books for the Listener and writes the culture blog Muse at Public Address: In a year when too many A-listers earned their place in the hall of shame (Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Richard Ford), Christopher Beha’s debut What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a graceful and tough-minded novel it’s hard to sum up — or sufficiently praise — in a few dozen words. Just read it.  Please.  A more melancholy pleasure was a reprint of Tessa Duder’s Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life. Updated, and on shelves just over a month after Mahy’s death, it’s still a model of literary biography, neither tabloid squalor nor gushing hagiography. Joanne Drayton’s The Search for Anne Perry didn’t live up to the pre-publication “Heavenly Creature speaks!” hype, but it, too, was a pleasantly judicious life. But the highlight of my literary year was a very old book, not a new one.  It’s open to debate whether travel broadens the mind, but it was quite an experience to take a pew in Winchester Cathedral and impiously read Pride and Prejudice six feet away from Jane Austen’s grave.  I was in England when Mantel-mania was in full swing, and for once Bring Up The Bodies deserved it all.  I can only hope her second Man Booker brings her early novels back into print where they belong. Particularly Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, a loosely autobiographical novel of the culture clashes around an English woman in Saudi Arabia with her husband, which I found in a secondhand bookstore in Vancouver. Then left on a train 10 minutes after finishing it. As you do.

Guy Somerset, who is Books & Culture editor of the Listener: Some of my best reading in 2012 has been as a consequence of the Listener Book Club – plug, plug. I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies without the benefit of having read Wolf Hall first, but did not suffer as a result, with Mantel’s ability to animate the past and her characters’ lives in every dimension more than seeing me through. (Although Wolf Hall is now on top of my dauntingly large pile of to-read books.) The Book Club also steered me towards Emily Perkins’s The Forrests (and I confess I was one of those who thought it stood a good chance of a Man Booker shortlisting) and reading the entire backlist of Jennifer Egan. I don’t care what Book Clubbers said – Look at Me is a wonderful satire, the funniest thing I read this side of Nancy Mitford’s 1935 send-up of sisters Unity and Diana and British fascism, Wigs on the Green, which distracted me from the first leg of a very long flight to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (The lunatic asylum for lords, with its fake parliamentary chamber where they can debate to their enfeebled minds’ content, is pure inspiration.) A trip to Tasmania (it’s all jetsetting here at the Listener, you know) led me to read the Text anthology Deep South: Stories of Tasmania edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood - and thus to discover Hal Porter, whose baroquely comic contribution, Great-Aunt Fanny’s Picnic, resulted in me scouring the local bookshops for anything else by him I could find. A Kate De Goldi recommendation on last year’s Saturday Morning with Kim Hill books of the year show led me to another wonderful discovery, Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings. I didn’t expect to read wittier, wiser, more wide-ranging essays in 2012 – but then discovered John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America. Finally (I could go on – I read more this past year than for many a year), a shout-out for Faber and Faber’s reissue of long-unavailable Mass Observation books Britain, First Year’s Work 1937-1938 and The People and the Pub. All bought – like so many other things during the course of 2012 – late one night in a few clicks via Kindle. Sometimes it’s just too hard to resist.

Albert Wendt, who this year released the poetry collection From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden and short-story collection Ancestry, and was fiction winner of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement: Reading fiction and poetry is my passion. But, aue, in recent years I’ve found it more and more difficult finding novels that satisfy that. Because my wife, Reina, and I were away in Hawaii from 2004 to 2008, I fell behind in my reading of New Zealand literature, so, since coming back, I’ve tried to catch up. Consequently, my list of memorable reads this year is confined to books by New Zealand authors, and there are no novels in it. In fiction, I found these collections of short stories far more gripping and satisfying and innovative than the novels: Alice Tawhai’s Dark Jelly, Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire and Sue Orr’s From Under the Raincoat. Dark Jelly is my book of the year: it is enthralling, frightening, enlightening, and uses our language in glittering, challenging ways. I tried to read all the recent New Zealand collections of poetry. Rhian Gallagher’s Shift, Peter Bland’s Coming Ashore, Siobhan Harvey’s Lost Relatives, Vincent O’Sullivan’s The Movie May Be Slightly Different and Anne Kennedy’s The Darling North demanded I read them more than once, and I have, many times, with huge admiration. Joan Druett’s Tupaia, Anne Salmond’s Bligh and Huia Histories of Maori edited by Danny Keenan were the non-fiction books that excited, fascinated and expanded my knowledge of our history the most. I plan to reread them during the Christmas holiday period.

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