Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Reading room

The question is, what kind of a self-respecting spider-hole hideaway doesn’t have any books in it? Not even some old Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, or a pile of desiccated New Yorkers from decades past, or a couple of well-thumbed paperbacks featuring one of the Jameses, Bond or Herriot? I’m appalled.

Well yes, there were some books upstairs, according to the Washington Post: "a book on interpreting dreams, volumes of classical Arabic poetry titled Discipline and Sin, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment," the latter surely a plant by some well-stocked soldier or journo with a sense of humour. But no reading matter in the hole itself, which is where you'd really need it. (Strangely, in the kitchen, among everything else -- eggs, cucumbers, marmalade, spam, and Lipton tea -- some "kiwis." Were they Zespri, do you think, or some northern hemisphere brand? Just another postmodern branding opportunity...)

Anyway, if you’re lining up your own reading list before settling into a snug holiday hidey-hole, the year-end lists of Best Books are showing their seasonal colours. The avid book fiends over at LeafSalon have some good links to various lists, and the Listener has a long and eclectic list of its own. Tooting my own horn for a second, a few of those recommendations were written by me, as was a recent review of four books by New Zealand writers.

Actually, as originally written, that review began with a rant about treacly, meaningless, or downright stupid back-cover blurbs (not unrelated to Chris Hunter’s sharp piece on book cover design a few months ago). It's my little hobbyhorse -- more of a Shetland pony really -- but honestly, in this batch of books there were a couple of corkers that really set me off. I know it's not always easy to wrap up a book in one tasty paragraph, but it shouldn't be that hard. Between underwhelming boilerplate, typos, and utter howlers, the authors are playing uphill from the get-go: "An unashamed celebration of family, friendship, and above all, hope" -- oh thank goodness, not another ashamed celebration of etc. "A delightful story of pain and loss" -- look, who writes this stuff? And how can we make them stop?

The thing is, most of the front covers were lovely, Kelly Ana Morey's Bloom especially. Gorgeous piece of design, that, and a fine novel.

Speaking of righteous curmudgeonliness in the book department, I was moved to hear that wizard of the hour Sir Ian McKellen always reaches for the Good Book when he arrives in a new hotel, as reported (free registration required) in the New York Times:

Sir Ian took a puff of a Marlboro Light and smiled like a serene party host. "I can't wait to get into bed," he said. One aspect of his hotel room already felt like home: he had ripped the anti-gay passage Leviticus 18:22 from the Gideon Bible, a ritual that lets him sleep more soundly.

What a naughty old bugger he is, and I mean that in a wholly affirming way. While applauding his direct action approach, I wouldn't necessarily advocate book vandalism myself. Sometimes the best answer to language that offends is, precisely, more language -- rather than censoring idiocy, let it stand and add your own marginal notation to the conversation. On the other hand, I once had a rather terrifying encounter with someone who had done just that to an innocuous library book I was reading, and had filled the margins with increasingly chilling and paranoid comments of a misogynist and child-hating nature. Ick. Hard call.

Alternatively, if you have a lot of time on your hands, a picture is worth a thousand words. Remember making little animated flipbooks by carefully drawing a stick figure in the corner of each page of a paperback, so that when you rapidly flip the pages, the little person turns a cartwheel and disappears off the edge, or explodes, leaving behind only a speech bubble saying “HELP, I’m a raving homophobe”? The Gideon Bible and hotel-room ennui were made for such idle, rewarding pleasures.

Some more best books, rewarding pleasures all. Busytot and I have been enjoying

Bob Kerr

’s sublime picture book

After the War

. It’s not new -- it was first published in 2000 -- but it is timeless and ageless, and every home in New Zealand should have a copy of what is, in effect, a pictorial history of the postwar years. The deceptively simple story tells of a tree planted by the narrator’s father when he returns from the Second World War. Meanwhile, the clear and charming pictures, labeled in five year intervals from 1945 to 2000, depict the tree growing as the world around it changes and the soldier’s daughter grows up.

Every time I look at the book I notice something new: the soldier’s grandson fixing up the old car and driving off (to university?); the slips in the deforested hills, which are eventually replanted with pine; the city expanding on the distant horizon. The interior scenes are especially delightful, with tiny changes in the kitchen mirroring larger changes in the world: home-made preserves give way to wine glasses and bottles of olive oil; the kettle changes shape and a microwave appears. And each time I get to the page where a storm fells the tree and the old soldier disappears from the story, I have to wipe away a tear.

There are subtle ambiguities that enrich the book: is the soldier Maori? And what about the boy the daughter brings home? It’s not clear. The endpapers show the landscape of the story before European settlement. It is a densely forested place with a pa in the distance (on the scoria cone that becomes a quarry in later years), and perched on a branch in the foreground is a perky saddleback -- the same bird that will appear on the supermarket calendar for 1999, by then a near-extinct icon of nativeness. Still, the book ends on a hopeful note, as the family plants a kowhai tree that tempts the tui back.

I also just finished

Terry Pratchett

’s newest novel,

Monstrous Regiment

. If you twig to the allusion in the title, then the book’s many revelations won’t come as a complete surprise, but you’ll still find much to ponder on and plenty to admire in this cunning satire on the art of war. Pratchett’s idiosyncractic alternate universe grows ever closer to our own, and this book is his most serious yet, without sacrificing his trademark wit.

If you've never read Pratchett, his

particular genius is in following a bunch of amiable characters through a major development in modernity -- the printing press, the police, the death of religion, the forced democracy of urban life -- in the process producing a stealthily brilliant people’s history of the last thousand years or so. This is not satire designed to outrage -- he’s not proposing

eating anyone’s babies

-- but one that illuminates and defamiliarizes conventional pieties. He also writes lines to make you snort coffee out your nose ("Klatchian Rare Roasted! When a Pick-Axe Is Not Enough!"), which is always a good thing.

I did a fair amount of coffee-snorting while reading

No Touch Monkey: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late


Ayun Halliday

. Last year, Halliday blew the whistle on parenthood in

The Big Rumpus

. A fringe theatre veteran who found herself up the duff and off the job market, she nailed the masks of comedy and tragedy above her new domestic life and carried on regardless. The parenting book is equal parts slapstick and heartbreak, always with her amiably klutzy, try-anything-once, what–the-hell self at centre stage.

In this new book of cautionary travel tales, it becomes voyeuristically clear that Halliday earned her staunch parenting stripes on the backpack trail. Who could be fazed by a barfing, wailing infant, or the stress of ferrying two toddlers through the wilds of Manhattan, after having survived a beating at the hands of a mad madam in the red light district of Amsterdam, or battling fierce thieving monkeys while working off the effects of

ganja milkshakes

? The travel war stories are all good, and this gal has been -- and been in trouble -- everywhere, from Romania to Rwanda, Kho Phangan to Kashmir.

What I liked most, though, were the author’s wry reflections on the

pursuit of the authentic tourist experience (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one). Long after the fact, she laments stocking up on Trade Aid style wooden salad servers in Tanzania, instead of pouncing on a solitary soup ladle made from a can of name-brand toilet cleaner. True, the latter would have made a more memorable souvenir; and yet she still has the story, which is in the end the thing you want to bring home with you. Definitely a book for the incorrigible traveller —- current or recovering -- in your family.