Book Review: The Great Wide Open, by Douglas Kennedy

A damn good go at the Great American Novel. If you enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmonds, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, this book is for you.

This review first appeared in Otago Daily Times, 27 April 2019.

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Reading the Great Wide Open, in the, ahem, great wide open.

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Book Review: Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim (Penguin Random House, 2019)

The Monk-on-Twitter, and founder of The School For Broken Hearts, relays his sage advice. Love for Imperfect Things will remain on my shelf, in the hope that one day—on just the right day—one of my children will happen upon it, slide it down from the shelf, and find just what they need.

This review first appeared in Otago Daily Times, 27 April 2019.

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Book Review: At the End of Darwin Road by Fiona Kidman (Vintage NZ, 2008)

At the End of Darwin Road: A MemoirAt the End of Darwin Road: A Memoir by Fiona Kidman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘At the End of Darwin Road’ is a beautiful, must-read memoir from one of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s most treasured writers and taonga, Dame Fiona Kidman. This is the story of her early life, tracing a line from the scented orange groves and their property at the end of Darwin Road in Kerikeri, to similarly-scented Menton in France, where she writes the book in 2006, whilst on the Katherine Mansfield residency (and where she accidentally remarries her divine husband Ian, but that’s another story!).

The present influences the past, weaving together the Kidman’s changing silhouettes over the years. From the ‘funny little thing’ she was as a child (not helped by her affinity for water divination, and an imaginery husband called Eric. McKay), through to her teenage years at Northland College, and then her burgeoning writing career, and becoming a feminist of sorts. As the book, and her life, progresses, we witness Kidman embracing her difference, as she comes to understand who she is, and the power of her words.

Kidman reflects stoicly on being bullied by the headmaster’s ‘big boys’:
I wanted to be a famous writer, and I was getting my frist real taste of the critics. – page 58.

She buys Pride and Prejudice with her cow milking money and so begins a Victorian literary fascination, often with the outsiders like Becky Sharp and Lydia Bennet. She was an advanced reader and would often came across adult content she didn’t understand, or know what to do with. She asks herself often whether she is a decent girl, and in fact what is a decent girl? Her decency came into question in tandem with her understanding of the power of the written word, with her love note to Eric (not to be mistaken with her imagineray husband, Eric McKay): ‘I still like you. Do you like me?’ She got in all sorts of trouble for that one: ‘I thought you were a decent girl,’ said the headmaster.

Kidman is damn funny, and is able to laugh at herself: at her weirdness, her ill-chosen dresses and hats, her power with words. She is also brilliant at describing place, especially her life-long fascination with those early Kerikeri years:

For my father it was a place where things might have gone well but for a little more luck here and there. For my mother it was a nightmare of servility and poverty. And for me, it remained a place where the exotic was mingled with solitariness and a fractured family life. A place where I had felt damaged. Some nights, when I lay awake, I would see the sunlight, sticky summer paspalum grass, ripe pendulous fruits hanging in the hedgerows in the heat. And oranges, glimmering among their jade-green castles of leaves. I often slept restlessly or not much at all. A dark corner would turn over at the edge of the picture. I could never quite lift it. – page 241.

I also enjoyed how we’re let into the secret real life seeds that grew her best-loved fictional work. The writer’s dilemma, she writes, when drawing on life, is what to put in and what to leave out, and what to invent.

Mandarin Summer is essentially a work of fiction, and so are most of the characters, but I have long ago given up the pretence that Constance and Luke Freeman are not based on my parents, nor Emily on myself. – page 30.

It is a story of friendship and love, too, with some poignant accounts of her relationships, including the tragic loss of two of her dearest friends, which had me in tears. And, her husband Ian, and their great love, casts a dappled light over the pages. She knew the minute he walked into the library that they’d marry. In Menton she writes:
I watched Ian turning into Montée du Lutetia, the steep little street where we live. He half raised on laden arm in salute, as he walked towards me. This is the story of my life—Ian walking towards me, never away. There were times when he might have. I don’t know whether anyone else would have stayed.
Memory can be difficult sometimes.
– Page 228.

It’s also an enjoyable romp through New Zealand’s literary history, with appearances by Witi Ihamaera, Patricia Grace, Ian Cross, Michael King, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Lauris Edmond, Bill Manhire, Robin Dudding, Allen Curnow, and many more. There’s a scene in a bedroom with Sam Hunt that gets Kidman into all sorts of trouble…it’s not quite what you think, but I’ll say no more!

This is such a gorgeous book. Reading it is like sitting down for coffee with a dear friend.

MORE FAV QUOTES:

On leaving her ‘enchanted life’ in Morrinsville for Kerikeri:
All my life I will be shaped by that separation, and the journey to the north, taken in a slow train, in the company of my mother. – page 31.

Fascination with Kerikeri, as one does with the place where one is formed.

The morning her first children, Joanna, was born:
But there I was, a mother and a writer. It was my twenty-third birthday. – page 118

When all the babies except one had been given out, a nurse wandered over with a puzzled look on her face. ‘I’ve got one Māori baby left over,’ she said.
The baby was mine. I couldn’t have been more proud of her.
– Page 118.

When I sat down to write Mandarin Summer, it was time to draw on this stored material about the North that I had carried around in my head for more than twenty years. – page 218.

Besides, I couldn’t leaeve the North alone. – page 241.

I don’t regret most of them, but I think there are times when it’s worth taking stock and asking yourself if you are achieving anything useful. Writing and committees don’t always go together. – page 164.

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Book Review: ‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

THE END by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Harvill Secker 2018 (originally published 2011)

Linda has stars inside her, and when they shine, she shines, but when they don’t the night is pitch black.
– page 1025.

At Auckland University in May 2018, Knausgaard warned our small group that that this book was different. That ‘The End’ returned to the beginning, circling back around to question the very decision he’d made to publish in the first place. Had he done the right thing? Were his memories correct? What did he owe his uncle Gunnar, if anything? (And no, he did not mention the 300-odd pages of Nazism essay in the middle…).

Page 101:
For crying out loud.
What a fucking mess.
How the hell could I ever have put myself in such a spot? What was I trying to do? Why couldn’t I keep all the badness to myself like other people did? But no, I had to go and shove it in everyone’s face, and drag others down with me in the fall.

A fittingly dazzling end to the series, despite—and I have to admit it—I skim-read most of the Nazism essay. I understand why he included it, but it felt to me like a major detour, and I just wanted to get back to Linda, Vanja, Heidi and John. That’s where the magic lay for me.

I particularly enjoyed the way, once again, he so realistically juxtaposes the every day motions of life against the backing track of inner turmoil. Smoking a cigarette—thinking of Gunnar. Drinking coffee from that vacuum jug—thinking of Gunnar. Dropping the kids at nursery—thinking of Gunnar. He captures the nagging fear and shame of someone’s criticism and dislike, an earworm nagging at every layer of consciousness. It has the effect of slipping the writer and the reader away from the exterior and into the interior, each side alternatively amplified then fading out.

Other pulsing veins throughout the book are that he still felt the fear of his father, like an after-taste, despite his father being dead many years. Also, the intriguing gap he feels between himself and life:

Page 1057:
One of the many things she [Linda] criticises me for is that I don’t see her. This is not quite true, I do see her, the problem is that I see her more or less in the way you see a room you know well; everything is there, the lamp and the carpet and the bookcase, the sofa and the window and the floor, but somehow transparently, no mark is left on your mind.
Why do I organise my life like this? What do I want with this neutrality? Obviously it is to eliminate as much resistance as possible, to make the days slip past as easily and unobtrusively as possible. But why? Isn’t that synonymous with wanting to live as little as possible? With telling life to leave me in peace so that I can …yes, well, what? Read? Oh, but come on, what do I read about, if not life? Write? Same thing. I read and write about life. The only thing I don’t want life for is to live it.

And again, on page 213, he writes of the necessary distance between him and his children. He doesn’t explain why – “an element of enduring . . . of holding out, the opposite of letting go and living.”

I wonder if this is something most writers feel?

I felt at times uncomfortable with his detailed description of Linda’s illness and mental decline. Obviously it was Knausgaard’s story too, it affected him greatly, but it somehow seemed too much, cruel even, to reveal his wife’s weakness in this way. But this, we all know, is Knausgaard’s style, and where the magic lies.

Despite skim-reading much of the Nazism essay, I understand the point he makes, and was blown away by the dark and urgent question he asks of us:

Page 828:
Decent humans distanced themselves from all of this, but they were few, and this fact demands our consideration, for who are we going to be when our decency is put to the test? Will we have the courage to speak against what everyone else believes, our friends, neighbours and colleagues, to insist that we are decent and they are not? Great is the power of the weak, almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as ‘they’, in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as ‘we’. It will come as what is right.

Woven throughout the novel are his considerations of, and questions about literature—what it is and its purpose:

Page 115:
And writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which it never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than everyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed. Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?

Page 169:
From a literary perspective, mercy lay in beauty, which is to say in the beautiful sentence, and in the creative manifestation, the fictionalisation, the secret alliance of events that criss-crossed any novel, because this criss-crossing in itself was an affirmation of meaning and cohesion.

Page 224:
. . . on the contrary, literature’s entire system is based on the reader submitting to the work and vanishing within it.

Other favourite quotes:

Page 15: on death:
Everyone’s life contained a horizon, the horizon of death, and it lay somewhere between the second and third generations before us, and the second and third generations after us. We, and those we lived with and loved, existed between those two lines. Outside were the others, the dead and the as yet unborn. There, life was a chasm without us.

Page 243: on friendship and love:
Geir gave me the chance to look at life and understand it, Linda gave me the chance to live it. In the first instance I became visible to myself, in the second I vanished. That’s the difference between friendship and love. That the two things came into my life simultaneously meant for a while everything was turned upside down, all of a sudden, almost from one day to the next. I found myself plunged into something completely new. Everything was wide open, nothing was impossible any more. And in the sky, I that fantastic summer of 2002, the sun shone, sinking red into the Mälardalen every night, as if shrouded by a veil of blood, its last rays glittering gold on all the city’s towers and spires, and I was immortal.

Page 164: on the decision to publish:
In the years that followed, I willingly told anyone who cared to listen about dad and his demise, it made me special and perhaps interesting too, it made me into someone who had seen a few things, gave me a certain air of casual disregard and depth, something I’m sure I was trying to attain, I’d always carried that inside me, the desire to be someone, and that notion of elevation had always been a part of my motivation for writing. Holding forth in that way about my father and what became of him always left me with a bad taste in my mouth, because I was exploiting him and the tragedy of his life for my own ends. But that was small scale. The novel blew it all up and made a big thing out of it. I was exploiting him, yes, I was climbing on his corpse. And I was doing that simply by writing about it. At the same time it was the most important story in my life.

If you’ve a Knausgaard fan this is a must-read, but the weight of the central essay pulled the book down for me, so I give it four out of five stars.

Advice from Karl Ove Knausgaard

When writing my recent memoir, I often asked myself: Where on the line do you stand between honoring the truth and capitulating to satisfy the terms of someone you love? What are you prepared to sacrifice in order to tell your story? Karl Ove Knausgaard answers these questions and more, in an intimate master class at the University of Auckland.

This article was originally published in NZ Author magazine, Issue 315, Spring 2018. Thanks to the NZSA and editor Tina Shaw.

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5 Tips on Writing a Kick-Ass Writing Residency Application

After a week of judging dozens of paid writing residency applications for Aotearoa New Zealand’s national writers centre, Michael King Writers Centre (I’m on the board – sign up to our newsletter here: http://www.writerscentre.org.nz), I wanted to share my secret tips for putting together your next kick-ass application.

  1. Follow the rules. If you’re asked to supply three documents, supply those three documents. And just those three documents.
  2. Your CV: IMPORTANT: Include a paragraph at the top that summarises you as a writer and citizen of the literary world. Paint a picture of who you are and what you’ve done. Zoom out before you zoom in to the  detail. Always list your publications, but if there are many, group them in a way that makes it easy for us to review. For example, by genre. Always include the publisher and date published. If you’re self-published give us some numbers – how many copies have you sold? Top ten on Amazon? If the project you’re planning to work on during the residency isn’t a genre you’ve previously published in, convince us you’ll be successful by listing blogs, articles—anything you can think of—in that genre.
  3. Synopsis or project outline: This was the one applicants had the most trouble with. I need to be able to picture, in one quick reading, exactly what your project is. I need to know the plot, the genre, who your audience is, an outline of what happens, any structural or narrative things of importance, voice, point of view. Be clear. We’re judging your writing here, too.
  4. Writing sample: To give your application the best chance, give us a writing sample from the project you plan to work on at the residency. Especially if you haven’t been published in that genre before. I know you love that piece that was published by the Huffington Post, but we want to see that you’re already deep in the project we’re funding you to write.
  5.  Proof. Spell-check. Proof again. Really.