August Reading

Books Acquired

  • Barcelona Plates | Alexei Sayle
  • City of Djinns | Theodore Dalrymple
  • Te Mahi Kete: Maori Flaxwork for Beginners | Mick Pendergrast
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • Atlas of Remote Islands | Judith Schalansky
  • Block Printing: Techniques for Linoleum and Wood | Robert Craig

Books Read

  • The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand | Heather Nicholson
  • Born Standing Up | Steve Martin
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • The Conductor | Sarah Quigley
  • Intrusion | Ken MacLeod
  • The Night Sessions | Ken MacLeod

Twice now this year I’ve been reading a book purportedly set in New Zealand and come across howlers that made me grit my teeth. Douglas Coupland’s Generation A puts Palmerston North in Wanganui rather than the Manawatu; I counted three vocabulary errors within two pages (although someone says “crikey dick!” at one point, so research has obviously been perpetrated). Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions shows evidence of a visit to the North Island, but tourists are unlikely to see tui-tui birds sharing a kaori tree with a flock of fantails.

MacLeod and Coupland are popular authors, doubtless with Kiwi fans. Would it be so hard, in the age of the Internet, to recruit a few volunteers from this part of the world, who I bet would be happy to help out for just an acknowledgement? The mistakes I saw would be obvious to any New Zealander on even a cursory reading, and crowdsourcing one’s fact-checking could be the way of the future.

The Night Sessions is a police procedural set in a secular future (MacLeod is a Scottish science-fiction writer), with artificial intelligences hiding out in a Creationist theme park near Rotorua. The expunging of religion from public life was implausibly quick and thorough, whereas the social effects of truly intelligent machines seem negligible. I found it hard to suspend disbelief, even without tui-tuis.

Intrusion is a much more engrossing account of a benign and terrifying nanny state in near-future Britain, where gene therapy is obligatory and women are forced back into the homes because the world is deemed too full of fetus-harming contaminants. Woven into this, unfortunately, is a strand of completely-unbelievable nonsense about a retina mutation that lets one see tachyons and (thus!) the future, a strand which grows until it dominates the book. Everything then grinds to a halt, with a tacked-on conclusion, in a most disappointing way.

For a change of pace, I tried Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor, an evocative account of the siege of Leningrad and the composition of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony, which was most successful at evoking the privations of hunger and winter. It didn’t quite ring true for me though: partly an odd mixture of anachronism and Russian-isms in the language, partly major characters disappearing from the stage (probably from the dictates of history).

Nitpick, nitpick, nitpick. It was left to old favourites to salvage the month. Steve Martin’s account of his standup career reminded me how many years of gruelling work it took him to develop an act that was actually funny, and why he abandoned it. It’s also elegantly written. A favourite I didn’t get chance to read, but was happy to find in a Devonport bookshop, was Alexei Sayle’s short-story collection, both dark and absurdly funny. I bought Cold Comfort Farm almost entirely because of the hilarious Ros Chast cover, and realised that it had been far too many years since I read it, as it seemed almost a different book (or at least the same book read by a different person). Resolution: regular rereading until I can recite the best lines to other fans, while bystanders roll their eyes.

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