Strange Places

Two clever new atlases are keeping us amused here at the bottom of the world – there is probably a German word for the pleasure the geographically isolated take in reading of others who are more so.

The Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer is an informative list of places you don’t want to visit before you die – if you try to, you’re likely to die along the way.
Really beautifully illustrated with detailed maps, this is a bizarre mix of scary, benighted locuses of paranormal activity, lawless badlands, places that have either had far too much political attention paid them – or far too little, and nasty environmental disaster zones. Interesting, thought-provoking and perfect for your local mapophile.

As is Nick Middleton’s  An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist: A Compendium of Fifty Unrecognized and Largely Unnoticed States which is oddly sad and a little strange. This is full of places that you may have been to, that you know people from, that you might trade with but which just don’t actually exist in the sense of being recognised diplomatically or by the UN or being regarded as a country – a slippery designation one discovers – by anyone outside of them. Once again there are maps and, cleverly, the shape of the territory under discussion is laser cut out of the page. Once again, another beautiful book.




What a week of odd reading. It was mostly all good but didn’t have any sense of cohesiveness to it… These are my favourites.

(I have just come back here after writing to the bottom of the post. Scratch the comment above about cohesiveness: these are all slightly chilling, despite the often wonderful writing, full of perma-frosted Siberia, goulies and ghosties, death and its totems… if this is what I liked most this last week, I can see now that I just wasn’t in the mood to be amused by Bill Brysons’s latest jovial travel-writing outing The Road to Little Dribbling)

I kicked off with Kolymsky Heights, a thriller by Lionel Davidson which was first published in 1994 and has just been re-released. The publisher’s rep raved about it, and it has some big names on the cover shouting about how it is the best thriller EVER. And it was really good, all pre-digital spycrafty and ooh! look how much the satellites over the secret Russian science station can see! Which was sort of sweet but the very cool – think a Canadian multi-lingual, hyper-educated First-nations Jack Reacher/James Bond – hero copes admirably with all the challenges thrown his way, and the romance of the journey from Japan over the top of Russia through the rapidly icing Arctic Sea to Murmansk and beyond is fascinating. Very much worth a read, refreshing and fast-paced, and I didn’t really notice the devicelessness of the exercise until afterwards, in fact I think most devices (have you noticed this, the use if the word ‘device’ is now how writers refer to one’s personal technological , um, devices, so that they don’t date the story?) would be utterly useless.

Then I read the new collection of ghost stories from Head of Zeus, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read With the Light On, selected by Louise Welsh. Its a gorgeous big hardback and stuffed full of creepy, unseelie tales from Pliny the Younger through to Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. I have to admit I ended up skipping the ones written in any version of Scots, mostly from around the 18th century, as it was just too hard to figure out the words and get the sense of the tale, and I felt silly muttering under my breath as I tried to decipher the sounds the marks on the page made. Fun to dip in and out of, and quite a few would make for excellent reading aloud.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is utterly remarkable, and so very sad. A woman dies suddenly, one of those everyday falls where you hit your head the wrong way and life is gone. Her two young sons and her Ted Hughes-scholar husband are devastated, almost stopped themselves. Then Crow arrives, black feathers shining, beak clacking, truth-telling and keening, to wrap them in his wings and chivvy the household through the dark times ahead. You should read it, you don’t know when you may need the book’s scratchy, beautiful, squawky creature. It is just new in, a lovely small hardback, we have put it on a table next to the new Hughes biography, where the poet stares out strongly at the world.  Hughes wrote Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, first published in 1970 by Faber & Faber, a collection of poems about the character Crow, which I haven’t read but now feel I must. I cannot wait to see what Max Porter does next.


Chasing the tale…

Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City by Mark Adams is a curious tale, filled with an energetic mix of academics and amateur scholars, and spiced up with a few theoreticians from the wackier reaches of the internet and Atlantisology.

All that we actually know about the famous lost city that sunk beneath the waves after a cataclysmic earthquake is found in the work of Plato. He may be describing something that sort of actually happened in some form once (a city destroyed by an earthquake, a tidal wave, an eruption on an island), inventing a story to make a philosophical point, describing a technologically-advanced super civilisation founded by aliens, or he has been misquoted and mistranscribed for a couple of millennia and everyone has just been chasing their tails.

Actually, pretty much all the people Adams encounters are chasing their tails. Most of them do not agree on even where to start looking, and they positively (if we extend the tailed-thing metaphor a little further) pounce on anything, no matter how bizarre, that supports their own particular theories, while ripping each other’s prize exibits of truth to bits… One of the great things about Plato’s mix of accurate-sounding measurements and odd vagueness is that anything can be reduced to him either exaggerating or understating whatever the particular factor is. Which means you can say “He really meant this…” or  “That bit is just a metaphor, but this bit over here isn’t, because it matches this thing that I know/feel is what he meant”.

I think this is an arena for people who really, really like to argue. While they cannot win, neither can the other sides, as all base their arguments on facts and “facts” and deductions and guesses.
Which is sort of a win, if you know that you are actually right.

Adams is very interesting about why we want there to even be a lost city, what its lost-ness, and our hopes and dreams about its found-ness, mean. Adams also takes an interesting detour into philosophy in an attempt to explain the context of the original tale, and explores Plato’s ideas, and the philosophical tricks he plays, and the techniques he is using to see why he might have spun this tale/reported the truth.
You can choose which is the correct end of that sentence, just like you can choose which Atlantis theory is the right one, which is the fun thing about the whole endeavour which has gobbled millions of dollars and much human energy over the years.

The ur-Atlantis story hovers out there, perfect, sublime, almost one could say, platonically.

Far away and long ago…

I was shelving in the travel writing and found a couple of books that looked kind of interesting: The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village by Michael Paterniti and Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins. They are both very good…

The Telling Room is quite lovely. Paterniti follows a cheese to Spain, finds the cave where it was made, discovers all is not as it should be and starts to investigate why it is now made in a modern factory by a corporation as opposed to the family whose recipe it is. Paterniti sort of falls in love with the tiny village of Guzmán and with Ambrosio, the charismatic cheesemaker, and returns many times to winkle out the story, not just of the cheese but of Guzmán and its 80 inhabitants, finally taking his wife and young children to live there for a year. Paterniti finds himself unable, unwilling in fact, to ask the hard questions to sort out what happened, to find out why the cheese has gone. His honesty about this, and his attachment to various people, and his ambiguous role in the story make this as much about journalism and its ethics, friendship and happiness, as about cheese – and by the end of the book you really want to be able to try this cheese. Paterniti brings the scorched, ochre Castilian plateau to life, with its myths and legends and spirits. Life continues very much as it has for centuries here, the traditions embedded and unchanging. The village appears simple and pastoral but is riven with feuds and jealousies and people are still scarred by the Civil War and Franco’s reign. I was a bit surprised how involved I became, it was strangely compelling and also moving – salty and strong like the storied Páramo de Guzmán.

Under Another Sky – shortlisted for 2013’s Samuel Johnson Prize – is a lyrical exploration of the things and places the Romans left in Britain when they retreated and the empire began to crumble. Few of the invaders were in fact ‘Roman’ or Italian even, many were from what is now Northern Africa, Central and Western Europe, and their physical traces are mixed with that of the Britons who, after three hundred years of Roman rule, were about as Roman as everyone else in their tastes and habits. This history often lies just under the farmland and cities of modern Britain, often the Roman-cut building stones have been re-used several times and the streets follow the straight Roman roads. Higgins is very good at explaining why this history is important in the modern world, how it echoes and resonates, and why it still fascinates.

Love your local…

Here is a smattering, nay, a plethora of books by local authors:
The Silver Gaucho by Jackie Ballantyne, Doby Press, $34.99: a surprising new novel ranging from Argentina to Dunedin and Otago. Dunedin’s Santa Parade features!
Oamaru: New Zealand’s Living Victorian Town ($49.99) and Peninsula: Exploring the Otago Peninsula (was$49.99 now $29.99) by Paul Sorrell & Graham
Warman, Penguin Books: Celebratory and informative, lovely to own and great gifts.
    Grahame Sydney: Paintings 1974-2014 from Craig Potton, $99.99; Deluxe Edition is $149.99: a major retrospective survey of paintings from Sydney’s 40-year career as an artist.
You Fit the Description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds Cold Hub Press, $49.99: “In my mind’s bookshelf, this poet of the Dunedin I hold dear sits companionably between Baxter and Tuwhare.”  – Cilla McQueen.
MiStory by Philip Temple, Font Publishing, $34.99: both a dystopian thriller and a chilling warning, with believable characters who draw us into their (our??) story.
What Lies Beneath: A Memoir by Elspeth Sandys, Otago University Press, $34.99: a
searing, amusing, and never less than gripping tale of a difficult life, beautifully told.
Amisfield: Food and Wine from a Central Otago Winery Random House, $59.99: Fresh and sensational bistro food matched with gorgeous wines.
Kindness & Lies: Relationships That Make a Life by Lisa Scott, Bateman, $29.99: Funny, entertaining and thought-provoking insights into life’s pivotal relationships.
Reach by Laurence Fearnley, Penguin Books, $37.99: a brilliant novel about risk-taking and the ways in which creativity, struggle and danger empower individuals and enrich life.
Tuatara: Biology and Conservation of a Venerable Survivor by Alison Cree,
Canterbury University Press, $89.99: The evolution, natural history and conservation of
tuatara are covered in comprehensive detail in a style accessible to a wide readership.
Professor Penguin by Lloyd Spencer Davis, Random House, $39.99: a clever mix of scientific knowledge and anecdote, told with humour, hard-earned knowledge and insight.
Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own by Tom Brooking, Penguin Books, $64.99:
Premier from 1893 to his untimely death in 1906, Seddon held a clear vision for NZ; he was both the builder and the maintenance man – if not the architect – of our country.
Pewhairangi: Bay of Islands Missions and Maori 1814 to 1845 by Angela Middleton, Otago University Press, $49.99: the story of Ngapuhi and Pakeha engagement, as neighbours, over four decades, at Hohi, NZ’s first permanent European settlement.

We say, whether it is authors, books or bookshops:

Bestest of the Best.

Marcus, our book buyer here at UBS Otago has just got in a variety of The Best American….2014 anthologies of stories and articles. These are consistently good,  year on year, you can read each one’s offerings all at once, and from beginning to end or languidly pick and choose, like selecting your favourites from a tasty box of chocolates. I have just read The Best American Mystery Stories – they were so good, each was amusing and clever and several were startling, subverting the idea of what we think of when usually discussing mysteries.

9780544309906I like this series because you never know what you’ll get and if you read them cover-to-cover, you often end up surprised and joyful to have discovered a new writer or usefully having paid attention to something that usually you’d have skipped because you thought you weren’t interested in the subject. I like the cover-to-cover campaign through the pages as you don’t get the chance to pre-judge or self-censor, although I don’t neccesarily read the whole thing in one go, just make sure I read them all.
On the horizon for this weekend is The Best American Essays 2014 and The Best American Short Stories, with maybe The Best American Travel Writing 2014  and The Best American Infrographics 2014 for dipping in and out of next weekend. Nature & Science Writing and the Non-Required Reading might wait for Christmas lolling around.

The only thing that would make them better would be gorgeous covers – they are a bit staid, dour even, and give no hint of the treasure within.

Be careful what you reap…

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman is fascinating, a mix of history and adventuring and biography, with a smidgen of mystery-solving thrown in.

In 1961 Michael Rockefeller – a scion of those Rockefeller’s – was travelling in Papua New Guinea – well, the part of that mysterious, otherworldly island then governed by the Dutch, followed by newly- independent Indonesia – when he disappeared, presumed drowned, last seen swimming from his small boat towards the distant shore.  He was there searching for Primitive Art – objects created by ‘primitive’ people’s, newly accorded status as Art by the Western art world. As Hoffman says, this was good as it gave such objects value and meaning, in the Western world, outside of their original cultural meanings and purposes, so they were therefore preserved, bought and admired -but also removed, physically and culturally, from their origins. In the 21st century, you’d be naive to doubt that any interaction between the West and Others, those the West doesn’t know quite what to make of, has Romantic ideas about, and simply doesn’t understand, is a two-edged sword – and the side holding the hilt, thinking itself immune to cuts and danger, isn’t always the one you’d think

Hoffman makes a compelling case for the ignorance of the people collecting up this Art, basically removing/buying objects that were the mainstays of complex cultures and which had great ceremonial import, at a time when the industrial world was first encroaching – some of these tribes had only just been contacted by the outside world. It would appear that Michael Rockefeller might have got caught in the middle of several conflicting tales: the Dutch holding on tight to sovereignty in West Papua; the Asmat, a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, head hunting and ritual cannibalism; the Indonesians, pushing for full independence;  and Michael himself, a man enchanted by the ‘Lost World’ vibe of Papua, who loved and responded to the art and cultural objects he saw there, and who also wanted to impress Dad, the original collector and promoter of Primitive Art.

Pretty soon after Rockefeller disappeared, rumours swirled that he had been killed and ceremonially eaten. Hoffman sets off to Papua himself, following the oral culture whispers and veiled stories from village to long house to clan… A really interesting tale, many layered, which gives you a lot to think about.
Are Hoffman’s conclusions about Rockefeller’s fate correct? They certainly could be, even probably are, but I found the clash of civilisations and peoples surrounding  Rockefeller’s death, and still ongoing, the real point of this book.