Friday, October 27, 2006

Mister Pip. Lloyd Jones

Lloyd Jones

In a small village Bougainville during the civil of the early 1990s, Matilda’s thirteen-year old routine life is disrupted as her school is forced to close. The remaining white man on the island, Mr. Watts, agrees to teach classes at the school. His classes consist of reading Dickens’ Great Expectations from start to finish. Matilda is cast under the spell of the story and her constant enthusiasm for the character Pip raises the ire of her devout Christian mother who becomes concerned at Matilda’s fascination with fiction.

After finishing the novel I read Nicholas Reed’s review in The Listener and I pretty much agree with his verdict. The success of the novel lies in its overcoming of what on first glance look like insurmountable obstacles; it seems unbelievable that the character of Pip would be so appealing to Matilda, or that we we, as readers, would accept Watts as as a great white cultural hero bringing Dickens to Bougainville. The novel works as a parable of the power of literature to exceed cultural or historical constraints by its appeal to readers’ imaginations and by the escape it offers from daily reality. You can’t keep a good story or a good literary character down. The novel’s canny enough to complicate the mechanics of storytelling. In telling Great Expectations Watts transforms the story much in the same way that the Christian gospels are transformed in different tellings and different readings. Jones never lets these reflections on storytelling, truth and morality (as a code or way of living one’s life) get in the way of his dramatic story and one of the real pleasures of the book is the steady pacing—this is a marvelously orchestrated novel and definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Image from Bookclub NZ.

And here's a bit of fun: Wired's six word science fiction stories.
Hey, perhaps The Listener could one! (6-words).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. John Gray

John Gray’s short book is one of the most interesting I’ve read in while. Gray argues that in contrast to the popular notion that there’s an almighty clash between Modernist ideals and the medieval fundamentalism of al-Quaeda, we should view al-Quaeda as a utopian modernist movement that is entirely ‘global’ in its scope and operation. For Gray, 9/11 rings the death knell of modernity’s central myth: that we are becoming more rational, more peaceful and more scientific—in short that scientific progress must spell the end of superstition and the irrationality of fanatical beliefs. Gray has a direct, almost muscular style of writing—the very antithesis of turgid academic prose. He’s blunt and to the point.

My problem with Gray’s argument is that it doesn’t really explain much. What difference does it make whether al-Quaeda are ‘modern’ or not? Gray goes to great lengths to remind us that both Fascism and Communism were modernist revolutionary movements that can be seen as precursors to al-Quaeda’s project. But I doubt if Islamic fundamentalists see this tradition in operation and so I wonder about the value of making this claim. Still, I recommend Gray's book as he's a highly engaging writer with a fresh approach.

There’s a very good review of the book by Martin Bright over at The Guardian.

I don’t usually mention my professional reading as a teacher in this blog but this week I took part in an extremely useful professional development session in which I read Bonnie Benard’s short, valuable article How to Be a Turnaround Teacher.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Sprague on Oliver's Either Side The Horizon.

I received a request to republish a review on the blog which I'm happy to do.
If you're interested in Stephen Oliver's work you can find out more about him and read some of his work at his website. This review was first published in June 2006 issue of Antipodes – A North American Journal of Australian Literature and appears with the author's permission.

Historical Vertigo
Stephen Oliver. Either Side The Horizon. Titus Books,2005. 112 pp. A$19.95 ISBN 0-9582586-3-5.
Reviewed by Nicole Sprague Fairbanks, Alaska

Stephen Oliver’s world is a post-modern poetic circus where the material and the metaphysical hiss, side by side. The book cover captures an industrial plant crouching under a myriad of gray clouds, all barely in focus, while a vertical stop sign states stop or pots, depending upon one’s perspective. Reading Either Side The Horizon engaged my sense of vertigo.

The opening poem, “Letter To An Astronomer,”outlines the predicament: “Make no mistake / there’ll be neither alien ship nor coded message exchanged, /merely (coming in under radar) signs of our passing intime, most fluid of inventions – condemned forever to/rush forward, condemned forever to rush backward”(3). In Oliver’s poems, everything returns, especially the gruesome habits of human beings.

Focusing on the nuances of genocide and cultural imperialism in Oliver’s work may reflect my own morbid sensibilities. But there they are on the page: Rwandan machetes flying, “the bullets that pumped meaning back into our lives,” great ancient statues of Buddha tumbling to the earth, and Mira Markovic missing good coffee after her husband’s arrest.

“Stalin’s Cotton Socks” illustrates Oliver’s poetic roots in history. He writes, “Joe, you drank the Aral Sea dry”(52). Then a few lines later, “The Aral Sea shrunk to a dirty stain miles off; / all to make your cotton socks, Joe, to cover your cloven hoof!”(52). The cultivation of cotton in the Aral basin could beStalin’s greatest ecological disaster. In the poem, Oliver employs a colloquial tone, juxtaposing the brevity of Stalin’s actions, creating irony in the voice of a father explaining to his son that the bottle of whiskey he consumed before driving may have resulted in his crash (oops).

Juxtaposition is what makes Oliver’s poems delightful. These are not the heavy-handed poems of a social critic, nor do they veer off into Eliot’s tradition of the philosophical. Rather, these are the poems of a thoughtful humanist, albeit one who laments the folly of human behavior, without judgement. In“Credo,” with its tight four stanzas, Oliver begins,“When you mix hatred and anger you / get men hiding in mountains and other men / with fresh uniforms who oppose them” (63). Oliver nails it brilliantly.

“Credo” should be required reading for politicians. In closing he writes, “These words held hostage by your every / thought allowed you to swallow the lie whole”(63). Hatred and anger function as particulars,and the date (November 1, 2003) that follows the poem anchors in to the present.

In this regard, Oliver is reminiscent of poets like Wislava Syzmborska: the particulars become merely secondary to the tragedy of all humans, universal and constant. Killing and despair are not rare and specialized events, they are commonplace. In “Munch Museum, Oslo” Oliver retells the recent theft of Munch’s “The Scream.” In a straightforward narrative, utilizing accessible and economical language, Oliver writes that “The Scream” represents “despair, muted panic, the sort of panic one would feel drowning”(77). In the penultimate and ultimate lines that follow, comes the simple question: “Who in their right/ mind would live with such a painting, let / alone steal it; such despair is commonplace” (77).

What threads these poems together is an ongoing historical conversation coupled with Oliver’s playful stylistic diversity. The poems bounce from straight narratives with tidy lyrics, to leapy, linguistically driven poems, and finally to Oliver’s intellectually rich metaphysical excursions. I find Oliver most compelling in his lyrical mode; however, his prose poems are good fun. “The Home as Homicide” begins, “The magnolia flower bruise-purple, cream cupped, under September” (46). Oliver extends the bloody, sensual image throughout the first stanza, returning to a human landscape in the second stanza. “The land insisting upon its climactic heritage beyond the roar of air / conditioning in a million suburban homes…”(46). In Oliver’s dialectic, there is a binary, earth and its inhabitants. But like the book's cover, this binary is fuzzy and grey, straining toward something holistic, which I think the book achieves.

Either Side The Horizon is the realm where dialectics stumble, where vertigo and eternal recurrence are essential, and where, finally, a truth emerges. I might call Oliver’s truth doubt, a nod to Keat’s negative capability. However, really what Oliver describes, from multiple uncanny viewpoints, is wonder. Not wonder in a romantic sense, but the wonder of a little girl appreciating a magenta wildflower blossoming in field of land mines.

There's more information on Either Side The Horizon at Titus Books.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Falling Angels. Colin Thompson.

I read this to my son Taran in the Karori library and we spent ages looking at many of the superb, surreal drawings in this book that combine the strange with the familiar: a bridge over a river is supported by a sneaker, a bedroom carpet is actually an inland sea, etc. Sally has been flying since she was a small child—it’s nothing strange to her or her grandmother…in this world imagination reigns over all. This is a delight and I’ll be reading other books by Colin Thompson.

I’ve just visited the New Zealand Poetry Society website to see the winners of this year’s New Zealand International Poetry Competition.

And the winners are

John O'Connor of Christchurch won the open section with his poem Mother and Child, second Tom Dowling from Ireland with How Worlds Collapse and third Tim Upperton of Palmerston North with The Starlings.

Emily Adlam of Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland won the junior open section with Phobia, second Kirsti Whalen of Epson Girls' Grammar with Beside Her Window and third Maria English of Samuel Marsden Collegiate with Falling Short.

John O'Connor of Christchurch won the haiku section with wax-eye, second Jeanette Stace of Wellington with emptying the mousetrap, third John O'Connor with the creak, fourth André Surridge of Hamilton with Christmas dinner and fifth Nola Borrell of Lower Hutt with exhibit.

Sophia Frentz of Tauranga Girls’ College won the junior haiku with empty house, second Shenan Stanton of St Andrew’s College, Christchurch with for a day, third James Popu of Wellington College with dark alley, and fourth equal went to Shenan Stanton with one cover and to Alice McIntyre of Ilam School, Christchurch with brick.

Congratulations to all winners

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stormbreaker. Anthony Horowitz

First of all, read the book before you see the film. Stormbreaker is a gripping, highly entertaining ripping yarn. Horowitz treats Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels as a kind of literary genre: you know the conventions and chuckle at some of the elements of the plot. There’s a crazy villain, a silent, deadly ‘odd job’ sidekick, an enormous aquarium holding a single gigantic Man-o-War jellyfish, impossible escapes, fiendish plots, a sadistic German assistant and of course gadgets and car chases. And it’s exciting, fast, gripping and fun.

I took my two boys to see the movie during the holidays and we loved the movie. In his blog, Neil Gaiman has mentioned a few times that most movie critics don’t really understand what makes a good childrens’ film. I think he’s right—the rotten tomatoes rating for the movie Stormbreaker is a lousy 50%. This is far too low for what’s really quite a satisfying kids’ movie (far better than the yawn-inducing Garfield 2). But the book towers over the film for a number of reasons. I don’t know how Horowitz pulls it off but incredibly Alex Rider is a believable character. He’s an everyday schoolboy who finds himself press ganged into being a spy. His movie counterpart appears altogether too dashing, too good at karate, too cool—he’s a movie Bond more than a year 10 school kid. And because it’s the movies there are more car chases and fights than the book although these are quite fun to watch. Unlike the novel, there’s a girl with whom he rides off into the London sunset at the end.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good young adult read check out the read hot site full of reviews and recommendations.

Image from Fantastic Fiction.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mister Pip. Lloyd Jones

Well, it was an impulse buy. I’d missed all the hype. Perhaps it was the laid-back morning I’d had, the long sleep…not to mention the pleasant, delicious lunch with my old friend SunnyO (The Long Bar on Brandon in Wellington has the best tofu I've tasted in NZ) and SunnyO paid for lunch. Anyway, as we were leaving we gazed into a bookshop window and SunnyO pointed out Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip in the window and before I knew it I was looking at the lush, tropical cover and the inviting bembo typeface and I remember that I still had some book vouchers to cash-in as well as a little money to spend on books. This birthday I was blessed with book tokens and I do enjoy cashing them in—which means that I get around to reading the book.

I have already mentioned my frustrations with the Penguin website. This morning I was disappointed that such a major publisher as Penguin has no information about the novel on the Penguin NZ website. (OK, so perhaps I should poke around all the different websites until I find something? Hey, that's work.) No, no, I'm finished with information architecture and corporate clients, I don't want to even start thinking about how it could be better—but it isn’t that hard, and they have such fantastic books and it could be just so much better. I try not to use this blog as a soapbox for whining but come on Penguin...