Week in Review

Yowsa!: the 2019 ReadingRoom literary awards

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias announces the awards we've all not been waiting for - the inaugural Newsroom awards for excellence and weirdness in New Zealand literature.


Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35). Actually the best book of 2019 – and it really is immense, a deep and powerful work, maybe even the most successfully achieved portrayal of underclass New Zealand life since Once Were Warriors; yeah, that good – is in some ways also among the worst. God it needed a ruthless editor! I couldn’t be bothered reading a single line of these vast swathes of writing in italics, meant to be all sort of spooky-ooky and interior thoughts but were just a drag, sorry Becky. But when it came to telling the actual story, and sticking to the plot, Auē was in a class of its own. It’s about a Māori family torn apart by violence. The story is told through three points of view – two brothers (a kid and a young guy) and the author also entwines the story of another family member. The tension builds, there are clues and hints and signs, and all is eventually, harrowingly revealed. One violent passage is written with more visceral and sickening detail than you’d read in Lee Child. The writing is also beautiful in places: “The girl licked at my neck like the sea.” Throughout, New Zealand as a not all that great place and Māori as a displaced people are observed with consummate skill and huge warmth. I want this to win the 2020 Ockham National Book Award for fiction. I want people to read it. I want to eventually read a second, more controlled novel by the author: she’s a major talent.


Hello Darkness by Peter Wells (Mighty Ajax, $40), at Unity Books in High St, Auckland, on February 11. Well this one was a bit special. Peter was dying. He died exactly one week later. He’d hung on in there just long enough for the specific purpose of launching his final book. It was written and intended as a farewell note: the essays in Hello Darkness formed his cancer diary. David Herkt, at Stuff: “Hello Darkness is Wells' final assessment of himself and his many lives.” The cancer raced to catch him just as it was published. He appeared at the launch in a wheelchair. He was the most stylish man in the room. I gave a speech; he gave a speech, at great personal effort; he left with a cheerful wave. He emailed me that night, “My bed is made at the Hospice and it's time to hop back in.” It was the last I heard from him. Unique guy (from David Herkt’s review: “He is a man who changed New Zealand and our ideas of ourselves”), wonderful book, unforgettable launch.


Behrouz Boochami. He looked so much like Jesus! And liberals with lepers in their head flocked to see him. His appearance at the Christchurch WORD festival was a spectacular coup staged by WORD director Rachael King in association with the remarkable Meg de Ronde from Amnesty International, who kind of functions as a civilian Jacinda – caring, right-on, committed. As for Behrouz, he had audiences spellbound. He talked of refugee life on Manus Island; and he talked of hope, and the struggle that never ends.


Marilyn Waring. How is it that I’m the last person in New Zealand to know the truth about Marilyn Waring? I met her on the literary festival circuit, saw her onstage, and said to one and all: “But she’s so funny!” And one and all said, “Yeah. We know.” The former National Party maverick did the rounds to talk about her celebrated political memoir The Political Years (Bridget Williams Books, $40) , and brought laughter with her everywhere she went. What an awesome person, and sharp as a pin, too.


The Paisley, 17 Carlyle St, Napier. I heart this place. It’s the coolest – very well, the only cool - joint operating as a New Zealand literary festival venue. It's got a retro vibe with big old armchairs and lots of lava maps as well as framed photos of Led Zep lounging outside their plane, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and other cool cats. It’s also got a library. Hundreds, maybe a thousand or more books, stacked in bookcases – one book at the back functions as a secret door, push it and you’re backstage. It’s set up as a live music venue (Jon Toogood has performed there, as well as local bands) and gives a louche, bohemian feel to writers events. Plus by the way Napier is awesome, and local poet  Marty Smith is just about the best festival chair in New Zealand. Idea: move the boring old Auckland Writers Festival to Hawkes Bay!

Ceri Evans, who wins a really important award mentioned a bit later in this article.


Rachael King’s personal essay inspired by Dead People I Have Known  by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $38). I commissioned Rachael to review Shayne Carter’s brilliant memoir earlier this year for The Spinoff because 1) it was a very male book and I thought it would be fascinating to read a female perspective 2) Rachael knows rock’n’roll, knows Shayne, and most importantly, really knows how to write. She ended up writing something better than a review. It was more a personal essay. This could be the start of something. One of the best literary festival sessions I ever saw was a few years ago in Blenheim, where Rachael appeared alongside Charlotte Grimshaw; they talked to each other about their lives as the daughters of famous literary fathers, and it was a kind of masterclass of two writers telling stories and sharing insights. Charlotte later wrote a novel which explored some of this personal territory. I really hope Rachael expands on her Shayne Carter piece, or rather uses it as a departure point, to write something book-length about her own life. She’s a very fine novelist and my feeling is one day she’ll write a very fine memoir.


“A poem for Garrick Tremain”  by Victor Billot, published December 5, at ReadingRoom. Alas wretched Tremain. His cartoon making merry of the measles epidemic on Samoa made him the most hated man in New Zealand for a week or more; it moved Dunedin writer Victor Billot to verse. He emailed later, “It was done in a hurry and I looked at it and thought technically this is held together by blue tack and string. It lurched all over the place from satire to a heartfelt conclusion. Was it just going to be more blather? Who am I to be apologising to Samoa? In the end I just went with a gut sense that something needed to be said in this kind of way. Maybe that uncomfortable mix of emotions is the key. A small gesture but it seems to have been appreciated.” Quite: his poem went viral, and became the tenth most-read piece published at ReadingRoom in 2019. The people want poetry.


Ministry of Books, Sanson. I keep hearing great things about this enormous bloody big shack full of second-hand books in Sanson, that dusty, roaring cross-roads on the Manawatu plains. God it looks amazing; there are pictures on its website of a sprawling mess. Also, it’s down the road from Viv’s Kitchen which sells the $4.20 cream horn pastries  that Duncan Garner made famous. If you’re passing through this summer, call in. We hope to receive a more detailed report from the finest journalist in the region, Jono Galuszka.


Mandy Hager, for her classic tweet on October 22, when the roof of the Sky convention centre caught fire and caused a spectacular blaze: “I can't help feeling the burning Skytower Conference Centre is the perfect metaphor for National's 9 year legacy and the fire-fighters represent the current government.” Good grief!


Talia Marshall. There had been a long and rather ominous silence from the wildly gifted Dunedin writer (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku) these past couple of years but she made a tremendous comeback in 2019 with four essays, including a classic one sort of about Janet Frame  for ReadingRoom and a more personal one about her father for North & South.  No one writes like Talia. There are jagged edges, dark currents, rage, wit, powerful insights, Māori thinking, bohemian rhapsodies; someone somewhere should publish her as an author, give her an award, confirm her genius.


CK Stead. Karl, 87, worked like a demon this year on volumes two and three of his memoir. The first volume, South West of Eden, came out in 2009; I read it earlier this year, and loved its clear language, its portraits of such as Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson, its charming evocation of youth and youthful romance set in shiny, watery Auckland. The book stops in 1956. Volume two takes up the story, and stops at 1989; he finished writing it this year and then immediately tore into volume three, which I gather goes up to the present. He couldn’t wait to write ‘em and I can’t wait to read ‘em. The two books will document a literary era. His first, best-selling novel Smith’s Dream later turned into Sleeping Dogs with Sam Neil in it, the scandal of the London flat for New Zealand writers, his classic essay The New Victorians on the first wave of political correctness, his friendships with Allen Curnow and Barry Humphries, his fearsome reputation (Michael King once dedicated a book to Karl: “Like execution, he concentrates the mind”) ... I hope they document his personal life, too,  with the same cool intelligence and dedication to the purity of a sentence or a line of poetry which has illuminated his life’s work.


Elizabeth Knox. It’s a golden fleece gone grey, it’s a magic carpet, it's a splendid harvest, it’s a mountain stream cascading for all eternity, it’s an unbelievable tale that all who hear it believe it, it’s Guinevere and The White Witch and The Lady of the Lake and Isis and Hera (not Lindsay Bird, the ancient one) – it’s the most amazing haircut in New Zealand literature.


Ceri Evans. The author of self-help junk Perform Under Pressure: Change the way you the way you feel, think and act under pressure (HarperCollins, $40) really ought to have titled it Perform Under Pressure: Change the way you the way you feel, think and act under pressure or I will hunt you down and shave your head till it resembles my own super-impressively fierce shining dome which sends the message that I don’t stand for any shit and demand that you take my self-help gobbledegook very, very seriously. Still, the publisher might have had problems with the spine.


Having more literary festivals and less books. Author and Stuff journalist Philip Matthews remarked on the Twitter machine the other day, “While review pages are in decline, people wanting to hear from/encounter writers IRL is a growth industry. Two more just announced by @WORDChCh for 2020: Jung Chang in Feb, and Lindy West in March.” To which I responded, “Let's just do away with their damn books! Could that work? Authors at festivals could just say they write books.” Philip thought this had potential, and wrote, “You hear them talk and this ‘book’ thing is something you buy afterwards to get their signature.” Yes, I said, but as long as this “book” thing wasn’t actually a book – an app, perhaps, linking to a podcast. Philip responded, “Maybe the app could also provide a personalised greeting from a deep-fake version of the author to simulate that human experience.” Anyway, the point is that listening is the new reading. Podcasts and literary festivals are where it’s at; there’s no need for books, certainly no need for review pages – wait, hang on, I have just urged the extinction of ReadingRoom. Bother. Oh well. Merry Xmas!

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