Tuesday, May 10, 2016

THE SNOW KIMONO - Mark Henshaw.

Mark Henshaw published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, came out over 26 years ago.  Since then he's done a heap of detective novels (as half of the nome de plume J.M.Calder)

Out of the Line of Fire was the exceptional, disconcertingly smart and witty often rather beautifully lyrical murder novel.  There were many others but thank goodness he's found the path back.  The Snow Kimono is again written in that edgy, off-beat manner.  Henshaw roll together his retired police inspector, and two Japanese citizens -  one a footless, former law professor; the other a drunken womaniser. 

The story begins in Paris, 1989 with an unwanted visitor, a Japanese professor who knocks on the door of Inspector Jovert. Recently retired Jovert is lost, his mission gone.  He's lost his was entirely in a disabling accident, he's a surrealist metaphor of the fickleness of age and ate.  He's washed up but still the flannel you reach for on the bathroom floor.  Familiar but contemptible. 

There's time in the novel to explore Jovert's past service in Algiers, and that part of the novel is possibly the most engrossing of the book. Jovert struggles to clarify the maze of Algiers' alleys and basements, while trying at the same time to make sense of the moral maze into which he plunged in Algeria.  This is a journey through reality, it tests loyalty in many languages.  In Japan, as in Algeria, the characters spend a good deal of time fretting about actual sins of commission in the past and potential  sins of omission in the future. Henshaw's best line : "Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time's throat."  Memory stimulates, time is fluid, facts meld into fiction to understand reality.  But what s that, anyway?

Set both in Paris and Japan, The Snow Kimono is an intricate psychological thriller but it's also  a brilliant meditation on love and loss, memory and deception, and the ties that bind us to others.  It's also highly confusing at times and often could do with some challenges in the editing.  To write without compulsion is, of course, our ultimate aim.  But to write and write bullshit is not.  There are times when Henshaw borders on swerving into the brown stuff.  It's only his own 'google' compass that helps him avoid the inevitable. 

How to Set Fire and Why - Jesse Ball

This is the follow up by highly acclaimed author Jesse Ball, who wrote of A Cure for Suicide, is back with a more  singular, but still blistering novel, about a teenage girl who has lost everything—and, ultimately, will burn anything.

Ok, so Lucia's father's died ; her mother is committed; she's living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt.  Life's pretty stink.  Then she gets kicked out of school—again.  Her only touch points are a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries desperately to hide.  She spends most of her time on the bus commuting backwards and forwards to the asylum, to visit her mother.  She has one rule to live by Don't do things you aren't proud of.  So far this is the plot to The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles, Heathers, Juno and pretty much every misfit Teen film I ever got dragged to in the eighties.  Then it gets a bit more interesting.  Lucia discovers her new school has a secret Arson Club and she willing to do anything to be a part of it.   It's really the coming of age, belonging tale that all those movies were about - with the quirky twist and the anti- Yank high School sentiment.  Think of it as the 16 Candles for the post Columbine generation.  Oh, and yes, it's dark and hilarious in places.  Don't take any of it seriously and you'll be fine.  The plot runs a predictable course Lucia's life in the Arson Club, er,  is suddenly lit up. Her need to belong is almost as strong as her need to break everything to see how they work - or rather, don't.  And as her fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.  Predictable, yes.  Worth reading...mmmm.  No.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Enemy Camp - David Hill

Vincent O'Sullivan covered the topic in his play 'Shuriken' over a decade ago.  The 'Featherston Incident' has become known as one of the most shameful events in New Zealand's WWII history. Up to 600 Japanese prisoners were held there from 1943 to the end of the war, the prisoners a mix of civilians, soldiers and sailors captured or committed under the War Act. 

Hill tells the story of the mutiny of a number of Japanese officers who try to comit Hara Kiri to protect their honor after capture and instead, are slaughtered by frightened, trigger happy guards, stirred up by propaganda and nativity.

The story is narrated, in a diary format, by school boy Ewen, whose dad works at the camp and was a a soldier in Greece.  His humanitarian stance throughout the story a surprising highlight. 
Ewen's mates are Clarry and Barry Morris.  Clarry suffers from polio. The boys are taught Japanese by Ito, a Japanese officer.  From him they learn all about the Japanese camp experience from their point of view -  “for us to be prisoner is to be dead person”.

Add to that pressure from American troops seeking intel about Japanese troop movements in the Pacific, the fierce loyalty of the  Japanese warriors and their intense pride and hostile reactions from those who have fought the Japanese and been tortured and you have a mixture primed for conflict.

This is a brilliantly written book.  Short, punchy.  A good size for students and adults to digest.  I zoomed through it on a week of train commutes.  And the whole account of this tender is sensitively done. It's clear that the boys are the eyes for the reader, but they can't interfere.  They are the impartial camera.  A very readable novel.

From http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/classroom/incident-at-featherston

The Featherston incident, 25 February 1943

Two kilometres north of the quiet little Wairarapa town of Featherston, a small memorial garden marks the site of a riot that resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one guard. A further 63 prisoners were wounded.

The memorial plaque
A plaque commemorates the site with a 17th-century haiku:
Behold the summer grass
All that remains of the
Dreams of warriors.

Featherston was the site of New Zealand's largest military training camp during the First World War, housing 7500 men, before being dismantled after the war. It was re-established in 1942 to house 800 Japanese prisoners of war.
The riot broke out as a result of some of the Japanese prisoners refusing to work. Capture was humiliation enough for some of these men. News of the riot was kept relatively quiet as a result of war-time censorship. There were fears that the Japanese might retaliate against Allied POWs in Japanese camps. An inquiry was quickly organised in early March and the guards were cleared of any wrongdoing. It pointed to a clash of cultures made worse by the language barrier. The Japanese seemed unaware of the terms of the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention that stated that compulsory work for POWs was permitted; the camp had only a fragmentary translation of this available to the prisoners.

Two of the Japanese officers, Adachi and Nishimura, were found to have stirred their fellow prisoners into action. The Imperial POW Committee in London edited the New Zealand report to minimise any propaganda value that the Japanese government might have gained from the incident. The report claimed that the guards acted in self-defence when charged by a crowd of 250 prisoners throwing rocks. It also noted that the shooting ended as quickly as possible, lasting about 20 seconds.
Memorial garden at Featherston

Others claimed, however, that the actions at Featherston were in retaliation for the mis-treatment of Allied POWs held in Japanese camps. Those who defended the actions of the guards that day were quick to point out that the Japanese prisoners had been generally well fed and housed and that this incident was an exception to the rule. It was noted that the Japanese were in no position to complain about one isolated event for many Allied prisoners fared much worse in Japanese POW camps.

A Few Hares to Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips - Alan Bollard

The Phillips curve is world famous in 'Economy  land'. Its inventor was an engineer, a genius, a man who led a pretty exciting life and contributed to economics in many different ways. Born and raised on a remote farm in rural New Zealand, the first part of his life was a search for adventure. During the Depression he worked in construction, and roamed the roads and outback of Australia picking up casual work from gold mining to crocodile hunting. In 1937 he traveled through militarizing Japan, a guerrilla war in Manchuria, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and growing tension in Europe. On the outbreak of war, he joined the RAF and re-armed planes in Singapore before incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp. There he learned languages, invented gadgets, and built a clandestine radio. No longer seeking adventure, life was now a search for economic stability. Demobbed, Phillips scraped a sociology degree at the London School of Economics (LSE), before convincing a skeptical faculty to let him build a hydraulic model of the economy. This beautiful, complex machine was a great success and Phillips was headed for serious economics. Subsequently, he developed new ideas for stabilizing economies, began to use electronic computers, developed the Phillips curve, showed ways to help an economy to grow, and developed new techniques to model economies. Always innovative, he later worked on stabilizing the Chinese economy, wracked by the Cultural Revolution. Dr Bill Phillips pioneered a dozen new directions in economics, making him one of the most innovative and influential economic pioneers.  

 Not long before his death in 1975, the New Zealand economics community wanted to recognize Phillips for all his achievements. So they published a commemorative book, with chapters written by all the international economists and they presented a copy to Phillips on his birthday in November 1974.  Sixty years old and wheelchair-bound after a stroke, he carefully accepts the book. He clearly can't move or speak very well, and is just as clearly frustrated by this.
He listens as he's told it's a recognition of all his achievements.  His response is typically modest, and understated. He just says: "Oh, I didn't do much. I just set off a few hares for people to chase."


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pipi at Home - Recipes by Alexandra Tylee/Photography by Richard Brimer

For anyone who's zipped through Havelock North, you'll know that Pipi café is a welcome distraction from the surrounding vineyards and farmer's markets.  Set in a Victorian style house that could well do with a lick of paint, with blankets for artworks and an overgrown English country garden out back it's shabby chic and Kiwi rustic is the main attraction - that and Tylee's also rustic but wholesome food.  This is not her first book but it's probably her most useful and accessible. 
With a brood of young whippersnappers herself there's a big emphasis on family food that can be produced quickly and will satisfy most palettes around the big scrubbed farm table.  Potato Hash cakes, for example are not very difficult (in fact, I made them up today for brunch with only half a glance at the ingredients and method). There's an old fashioned cornbread recipe that approximates the Southern version, with courgettes for added texture.  And there's a big emphasis on puddings.  Jamie Oliver will love this section, with references back to the meals our gran used to make.  Actually, the need to slow down and take time over a meal is inherent in many dishes here.  For those of us who spent way too much time in Ohakune, there's a carrot steamed pudding, and a blueberry tart (with cream of course), and an enticing chamomile panna cotta (which I NEED to try!).  The hazelnut roulade with chocolate mouse and cherries.  My Granma called that chocolate rolly-polly.  in fact there's an element of chic-granny in all Tylee's food.  The other theme is about using what's seasonal, like fruits and veges that are only available at certain times of the year.  Tylee mentions that Havelock North's abundant cornucopia of fresh is her inspiration.  One imagines she has suppliers lining up with pine boxes of apples, pears, grapes, nuts and other goodies.   And that's all well and good, but not all of us are so lucky.  I mean, in Wellington getting hold of a cheap, plentiful supply of figs, for example is nigh on impossible! 

Alexandra Tylee
What is accessible is the down to earth is her thought process.  For example, she's aware that not everyone is into fancy dining so like River Cottage Hugh, she trundles down to the local hall, in this case in Poukawa, to whzz up a 'Yoga Lunch' - a good excuse to road test some mostly gluten free, sugar free food like a Kale and Red Cabbage Slaw (very yummy), a Quinoa and Smoked fish salad with tahini and coconut cream (unusual) and a roast carrot and cashew nut salad.  The accompanying photos in this section suggest that the clientele to impress were not the standard ladies who lunch but the midweek blue rinse brigade.  At least they'd be no complaints about the honey cheese cake if the sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches went missing in action! 

Pipi is famous for its unusual pizza toppings but there's only a couple here under the title 'Pipi Truck'.  This is the cafe's side venture that gets wheeled out during event like concerts at Mission Estate.  The two on offer here are so simple there's really no need for a recipe.  One is a mix of roast peaches, prosciutto, rocket and fresh mozzarella.  The other is Figs, blue cheese and bacon .  Vegos need not apply! At the back f the book are som very cool 'Extras' such as beef bone broth, cherry tomato relish, celery salt (for seasoning) and a herbed butter called Cafe' De Paris which is awesome on steak and steamed veges like peppers and courgettes.  There's also a few basic which are straight out f the Edmonds' and, I feel a bit pointless without a better description of what to expect.  There's pizza dough the way Pipi makes it - which is the way I've always made it.  So nothing learned here.  And Flaky Pastry.  Which I learned at school and now can't be arsed making, though if I did it would be like this.

Like Jamie Oliver's book, pictures tell stories about the food and the cook.  There are lots of close ups of Tylee's family and a smattering of daily chores like wood chopping plus the occasional scene of her with the kids baking up a storm.   On the whole, photographer Richard Brimer chose to avoid the usual 'chef and the kids' clichés because we all know that mostly the little blighters never stay in one place long enough to finish any one task s any photos that were take on them kneading dough or whisking mayo would be clearly contrived.

Overall, Pipi at Home is a book of new and old classics.  There's nothing really new in it - more some affirmation and a bit of love for anyone who's a halfway decent cook wanting a book that's not too 'chef-ish' but still shappy-chic enough to make the every day and ordinary fare feel like you've just nipped down to your local café.  And judging by some of the photos of half rotting sheds and un-weeded gardens with strewn blankets, scones on the patio with tea in old 'best china' porcelain, a secret excuse not to mow the lawns. 


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Three Words - An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women's Comics - Edited by Rae Joyce, Sarah Lang & Indira Neville

This book is a lie.  A falsehood.  A deceit.  The brief: contributors were invited to create a comic around three words, provided by, error someone, such as 'Deep, And, Meaningful' or 'Electric, Tapir, Dreams'.  Firstly, WTF is a 'Tapir' ? And how can you make on 'Dreamy electric'?  What a crock.  Seriously, how pretentious!  Yeah, Yeah.  The white middle class male reviewer doesn't understand.  Why should he?  He was brought up on Spider-Man and Marvel comics with all the overdrawn, exaggerated objectification of women and minor players to the outer under-pantied, bubble biceped heroes toking out on kryptonite and radioactive spider venom.  Ok.  Yeah, you got me.  'Love and Rockets', Jamie Fernandez, 'Tank Girl', never happened. 

Truth is, graphic novels have moved on since Stan Lee ruled the universe - though he still owns a fair chunk of misogynist Hollywood - but I, as a reader still need to connect with great art and even greater writing.  Much of the work in here, this book, has the sentiment, but simply falls flat because it's either too weird, too, surrealist or just threw the brief out in lieu of doing their own damn thing, regardless. One example is artist Pritika Lal who approaches her three words - Sickening, Baste, and Scoops - with a one page graphics of a woman screwing a PC with the legend 'NB: You can't imbibe anothers success by fucking them' (no comma on 'anothers').  It's a cheap, tacky throwaway with bad grammar.  20 year's ago it was punk.  Now it's just crap.  And there's no association to 'scoop' either. Sharon Murdoch, a political cartoonist, on the other hand, does know how to succeed on the brief.  Her words: 'Scales, Kind, Prerogative' are very well explored in three pages of mini novel.  Her panels explore popular media commentaries of young women (Boozy, liberal, ambitious), the glass ceiling, and the politics of sun hats.  Her work is poignant and reflective.  It works on all levels.

Sill in other places like Miranda Burton's exquisite dream state illustrations that rip off Robert Crumb completely, the word theme is just abandoned completely in favour of simply showcasing a significant talent.  Ok, all in good.  So why not just commission Burton and forget the rest.  Including zine writers, artists, etc. is all wonderful but and action of democracy without direction. 

Ok, so some other pages work.  As a white middle class male I'm probably not the most objective reviewer.  But I want intelligent, effective writing for women to get totally obsessive with.  To take down the establishment and totally stick it to the male bastion.  Some of this book does that. That portion is inspiring and leading.  The rest is complete fish'n'chip wrapper and not worth the price.  Editors should have refined their agenda and focussed more.  Like modern political movements all inclusive diminishes the credibility to a cause - although what that is lost on me.  It all feels like this was edited by committee, where success criteria was that you were simply invited to contribute in the first place and 'quality' was an option, not a prescription.  Perhaps that's the point.  Valuing art is a beholder thing,  'Quality' is a fluid idea.  Or is the point that you don't need a point.  Either way it's a blunt success.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave / Text Publishing / or thesickbagsong.com

Despite its queasy title, this is not a poem about illness.  It’s an epic, if rambling poem chronicling Cave's 2014 tour of North America with The Bad Seeds - an account of a 22-city journey began life scribbled on airline barf bags that grew into a restless full-length narrative epic poem that goes looking for the roots of inspiration, of love and of meaning.  Coleridge woulda been proud.  
Cave started working on the book last year, during a flight to Nashville   Originally, it was a song, albeit a long one but it exploded into something else entirely.  There are snippets of life imagined and real.  There are a mix of stylistic name checks – Philip Larking and WH Auden, especially.  Plus deep analysis of the tour van’s soundtrack, the tour’s soundtrack really: Elvis, John Lee Hooker, James Brown.  Plenty of roots references as they travel through the Deep South.  Oh, and a tiny dragon makes an appearance (No, I won’t explain that one.  It’s a surprise).
Now 57 Cave’s got a fair body of work under his belt.  Aside from the Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and Grinderman projects he’s also published two novels, “And the Ass Saw the Angel,” a Southern Gothic tragedy about a town full of religious fanatics, and “The Death of Bunny Munro,” a dark comic novel about a sex addict who sells beauty products door to door.  Both are gritty and challenge the reader to the extreme.

With “The Sick Bag Song,” Cave has a crack at is experimenting with a new literary form to make a sort of jumbo of prose, poetry, song lyrics and some elements of autobiography.  His ‘poetry’ traverses the imagined child, on a railway bridge, leaping into the muddy Mississippi – juxtaposed by the icon rock singer heading off to the venue to become a one night deity in the eyes of fans and critics.  “And I will walk onstage at Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., and become an object of great fascination to almost no one,” he said, reading from the book. “The dazed crowd will drift back and forth across the fields and the sinking sun will flood the site with orange fire. After the show, I will sit outside on the steps of our trailer and smoke.”

Of course, Sharon Olds and her fellatio poems get a look in, Cave always adds a little perversion to unsettle you.  It's part of the journey through the exploration of muses in famous hotels like the NY Bowery.  Places where music came to writers like Cohen, without warning.  In Cave's case it's Dylan that steals the muse, not the hotel.  But that's another story.

It moves from childhood memories to more intimate moments from his marriage to unvarnished behind-the-scenes episodes from the life of a rock musician.  Some will make you blush a little.  Some are more about tedium, like waiting in heavy traffic for 2 hours. 

Always there’s procrastination, loneliness, creativity, and more prosaic things like throwing up on bad seafood or dying his black hair in a Milwaukee hotel bathroom - “I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black,/So that it sits like a sleek, inky raven’s wing/On top of my multi-story forehead / The bathroom light is brutal./ I reposition my face so that I stop looking/Like Kim Jong-un and start looking more like Johnny Cash/Or someone.”

His lists are some of the most intriguing moments, possibly written in the early hours of a flight, with scotch in hand and wit on fire: "The Nine Secondary Bedevilments of Creativity", The Nine Muses, "the Choruses of the Angels"....they are all reminders of Cave's extraordinary fascination with literature and the Classical world as it lives today.

His stuff has been compared to ‘the unhinged lyricism’ of Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman and Mr. Berryman.  I’d agree there.  It’s more deft than, say, Jim Morrison and I think should be taken seriously by those that look down on musicians.  After all, lyrics are poetry, too.  And more accessible sometimes.  As a stand alone, I don't think it would work.  But removing Cave from the work would be very hard even if the reader were a Martian.  It is very much a work of Cave's and a great tour diary, too. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

This Paper Boat - Gregory Kan - Auckland University Press

This Paper Boat follows the author as he traces his own history through the lives and written fragments of Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde), of his parents and their parents. He explores old territories of Robin Hyde’s, still dripping with the past – the tide pool at Island Bay with its shrimp and driftwood, the garden at Laloma with its crushed lemon leaves. He listens to the stories of his parents and their parents, the eels and milk, frangipani trees, drains and barbed wire of their childhoods. He remembers a jungle of his own; he searches for ghosts in the water. While stumbling across irreparable fractures between worlds, the author uncovers the permission to have beautiful and imperfect plans.
The collection flows forwards beautifully like Ping's river, with each poem running into the next like a continuing narrative running onmany different time lines.  In it there's a potted history of Kan's , as he moves back into his own past and those of his parents - travelling between Singapore and New Zealand. The poems explore early 20th century New Zealand  Robin Hyde, and delve into her life at times but don't break the flow of Kan’s poetry and instead, integrate seamlessly into the writing.  It's that alone that makes it all a pleasant read.  "Outside the square of land you last appeared on / seventy-five years ago, I pretend to busy / my phone. I am / taking in the way Wellington had to force itself / upwards to meet you."  "Walking / through
Wilton’s Bush a few days ago I was / disoriented when I cut my hand on a thorny, / overhanging branch. I realised I had no gloves. / No camouflage paint on my face, no equipment / vest, no rifle around my neck, no ammunition, / no water, no signal set, no platoon, no rank." These different pasts all reflect on the present for Kan, and even with his own past self there seems to be a certain amount of separation that is used to examine the present.  Wellingtonians will totally get this, too.
These poems run every direction from emails to blog text.  Modern and ancient and in that sense have a freshness at a time when poetry has a soundbite expenditure for singular event.  Robyn Hide was always a literary figure I found a bit pretentious.  As an academic, in my early years, I struggled to understand why she was famous or revered. Then again, I never understood McCahon either.  But on face value Kan's work is intriguing and challenging.  That's enough, I think.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In the Cold Dark Ground - Stuart MacBride

I love MacBride.  He's always on the top of my holiday reading list.  Ironically, when I'm putting my feet up, avoiding the head of the midday Kiwi summer sun in a shady spot, MacBride's main character, Sergeant Logan (Lazarus) McRae is out in the worst of North Scotland's rain, sleet and snow.  'In the Cold Dark Ground' is the third book in an on-going series centred around McRae, his sometimes boss, the extremely obnoxious DCI Roberta Steel and a host of increasingly familiar side characters of constables, sergeants and DC's that crash in and out of plots that intertwine like a complicated helix of frayed DNA spaghetti strands.  As each book develops, we get to meet these people as individuals and procrastinators but even more fascinating are the host of evil villains that MacBride chooses to rain upon McRae.  No rest for the wicked would be the best way to describe the continuing downward spiral each book is constructed around. 

This time, McRae's back in his local patch, plodding the uniformed beat when he stumbles across a missing person's case that rapidly becomes a hunt for a murder.  The MP is found dead, body bleached, naked and with a bin liner tied over their head - the trademark of one particularly nastier Southern Scottish Drug lord.  Inevitably, DCI Steel and her specialist crew swoop down McRae's station, 'stinking up the place', causing chaos and using up all the available cups and never doing the washing up!  Within five minutes, McRae's been recruited in and expected to solve the case so Steel and her superiors can nab the glory.  As the slightly disgusting, irritable but loveable rogue Steel is back on form yelling and shouting obscenities at everyone, threatening to put her size nines where the sun wont shine and generally causing more havoc than should be normal.  Layer onto that McRae's unenviable looming task to shut off his girlfriend Samantha's life support system, after five years in a coma; add in some unwelcome duties to be Will Executor of the newly departed gangster Wee Hamish Mowart - which is hotly contested by Mowart's successor and McRae's nemesis, Rueben.  Then add to that the circling vultures from Professional Standards, who intend to bring down Steel for inappropriate conduct.  And finally, if that wasn't enough, throw in the discovery that the B-I-T-C-H from HQ who's running the MP/murder op is none other than McRae's very long lost sister and she's well 'p-d off' that McRae didn't attend their dad's recent funeral (owing to the small fact that McRae was under the impression the man had died many year's previously and was well unaware of his second family). It all builds up to a perfect Hibernian,  Shakespearean mess. 

As with the last two books, MacBride's ability to keep layering up complex dilemmas but still keep all Logan's balls in the air is a perfect skill.  I once met MacBride, a wonderfully, mischievous crime geek, who i can well imagine secretly grinning his way through every page he writes.  And fair call to.  This is wonderful, dark, tragi-comedy at it's best.  It's what I love about these books, they all read like wee mini series and would be perfect for TV, but the chance to totally immerse one's self in the host of characters and scenarios is really best achieved on the page, more than the screen. 

MacBride has a small lexicon of his own language and terms, like 'sook': the act of sucking chip fat or biscuit chocolate off one's fingers.  His irreverent passion for detailing insignificant details like how pie and pastie pastry spreads uncontrolled down one's frontage, particularly over Steels ample bosom is almost obsessive.  It's a wonderful contrast to the gory details of murder victims and crime scene scenarios.  These, he'll give us once before allowing each character to replay them in their own twisted words and descriptions through out the novel. 

All of this, in the end amounts to yet another highly satisfying 518 pages.  MacBride has a whole army of fans, who like Harry Potter and Tolkien fans have a slightly geeky fanaticism.  Once you read this, you too will probably become one two. Unlike Taggart, or Morse or Midsummer Murders, this is not a simple, one dimensional British crime series - it's way better than that. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Art that moves - The Work of Len Lye - Roger Horrocks. Auckland University Press

‘Kinetic art is the first new category of art since prehistory’, ex-pat New Zealand artist Len Lye boldly claimed in an essay in 1964. In Art that Moves: The Work of Len Lye, Roger Horrocks – author of a best-selling biography of Lye – explores what Lye meant by this, and how his own work in sculpture and film bore it out. 

"My book is about an important artist and a big idea, Len Lye’s idea that movement could become the basis for new forms of art. . . He believed that only a few of the possibilities of movement had so far been tapped. This book aims to explore what the world of art – and the world in general – may have looked like through the eyes of an artist whose passionate interest was ‘the mystery of motion’. – Roger Horrocks
First published in 2009, this is the companion to Horrock's biography of Len Lye, 'Len Lye: A biography'.  It might be compelling, but if you've read the bio, then this is ground already covered.  It goes through, at an art overs' level shifts in the focus from Lye's life to his art practice and innovative aesthetic theories about "the art of motion," which continue to be relevant today, especially if you are an animator or public artist.  And on that, the ownership by the public of Lye's work is something Horrocks finally gets to talk about, at least a little.  in the bio, this is neglected.  But here the on-going challenges of restoration, curation and even building a gallery to house his work is explored in ways that Lye, himself never contemplated.  Sure Horrocks goes beyond general introductions to Lye and his artistic importance, but it's all an abridgement of the bio, and his other work 'Zizz' (which is a work from Lye's own words).   Again, its thoroughly researched and fully illustrated.  But the best bit is the unique set of DVDs, featuring Lye's films, kinetic sculptures, and interviews with the artist himself.  Various notes on the web confirm that finding all these on youtube, etc would be a real challenge, so the chance to have them all together is worth the cover price alone.  The DVD has four films where the artist painted on, or scratched into 35mm film. The celluloid is transformed into vibrant, dynamic and compelling art works, featuring stuff like the very neat "Swinging the Lambeth Walk', a dated but in tune 'Trade Tatoo' and 'Color Cry', made in America at a time when this kind of film only came from Europe. His 1958 film 'Free Radicals' makes the travel to DVD really well with the and the frenetic scratched lines still dancing chaotically through a field of dense blackness as originally intended. The film was the work of a highly wired kinetic artist responding to the music (in this case the North African Bagirmi tribe) with the sensibilities of a hip New York jazz musician and an abstract expressionist painter.    There's also a great collection of shorts on some of Lye's greatest sculptures but the best bit is a short film made by Horrocks himself, produced by Shirley Horrocks, which uses Lye's quotes to walk through all his major life moments and works - the greatest introduction and the final word (or words) on the subject. 

Len Lye : A Biography - Roger Horrocks. AUP.

Len Lye (1901–1980) is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most original artists; a one-man art movement spanning several countries and multiple media over a lifetime and beyond. As a New Zealander practising in London during the pre-war years, and then a key figure in the post-war New York avant-garde art scene, Lye mapped a unique course through Modernism.

Roger Horrocks was Len Lye’s assistant in New York and was given the job of organising his written works. He became an expert on Lye’s life and art, and wrote an acclaimed biography that was shortlisted for the 2002 New Zealand Book Award. He has curated exhibitions of Lye’s work, directed a film about him, and written the libretto for Len Lye: The Opera.

In Zizz! (Awa Press) Horrocks tells the story in Lye’s own words, compiled from the artist’s many writings. Lye was driven by a lifelong passion for motion and energy, and how to depict them in art. This is another bite at that cherry from a more holistic view.

If you ask me, Frizzell, McCahon, Wollaston and Driver are all frauds!  Completely nothing, worthless - well, in comparison to Lye, that is.  It was only a few years ago, thanks to the good people of New Plymouth (some) and the arrogant bloody mindedness of the New Plymouth Council, which sparked a  huge battle over the funding of a special centre for Lye's work that many of us general plebs even got to hear about this great artist.  And what a man, and what a life!  Horrocks should know, too.  As Lye's artistic assistant, Horrocks is obviously the best person to explain the man, the artist and the visionary.  Horrocks, himself is now an Emeritus Professor at Auckland University, and the founder of the Television and Media Studies Programme.  He's also a filmmaker and journalist, so he's the right chap to tell the story of Len Lye.  This particular story is a reprint of the original 2009 biography , with a new chapter on Lye's posthumous career, which includes the final realisation of a number of works that in the day might not have even been possible.  One, the 'Water Whirler', on Wellington's Frank Kidds Park could certainly have never come to fruition until a later date, but remains a beloved landmark.  Of course, the New Plymouth waterfront would not e quite complete without it's own Lye piece either. 

Horrocks presents an unusual but refreshing, and it would be fair to say, extensive approach to art from the last century, navigating Lye in the process.  In the short film 'Art That Moves' (made for his other book 'Art that Moves: The Work of Len Lye') Horrocks features many quotes from Lye that give you a sort of loose manifesto around his artistic philosophy and how it came to light.  It's in this biography that we get the in depth details of how the artist was able to transcend the usual artist's obsessions and afflictions (loss, poverty, war, exile, alienation) and make an incredibly diverse body of work ranging from paintings to films to sculptures and writing.

His biography is inspiring and sometime jaw dropping.  But the narration never sensationalises and I thought was very sympathetic.  While others would choose to refrain from offering opinions or judgments, Horrocks is not afraid to add in his own asides, veiled in facts.  He knew the man after all. 

Layed out here, is the life and work, of probably the best example of a Kiwi made good since Katherine Mansfield.  And underrated, like all Kiwi stories.  It's backed by engaging research and you can really see Lye persistence through enormous adversities.  Like the most efficient soldiers  he seems to thrive on it.  That's Horrocks showing his value in the writing.  I would have liked to understand more about the 'Individual Happiness, Now' theory and a bit more critical evaluation of Lye’s films would have been valuable, too.  Especially, from his peers.

Horrocks, who began his artistic journey in the 1950's, at a time when Kiwis were really starting to explore post-war European, American and South Pacific themes in their art and identity tries to every modernist theme: modernism, primitivism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism - and the future of modern sculpture.  And that's where Lye’s story starts.  It's that of an artist taking his vision and inspiration out of his home land to rest it in a new place in the artistic modern world.  That's a world where the crossover o commercialism and art, classical music and jazz clash and collaborate.  The work of Charlie Mingus, for example just goes to illustrate how music became a sort of manifesto.  Today, it's music in video games and product placement in movies.  Lye was sort of already doing that but making his own films set to is own composition choices. 

Lye took it a step further and became an American citizen in 1950, but he was really a Kiwi at heart, despite the defection.  He was born in born in New Zealand in 1901, and we learn, his early in life was marred by the death of his father, resulting in insecurity, foster homes and indifference.  Now that all could have easily could have crushed or twisted young Len but instead it made him tough, and built a really self-sufficient interior life.  Lye, as Horrocks tells us, and his film validates, was inspired by nature, light and especially movement.  He taught himself to draw.  He became interested  in the processes of memory.  Even in his early years, he was experimenting in some ways.  He carried out a series of highly innovative systematic experiments to both strengthen his memory. 

Alienated and underprepared by the New Zealand school system, Lye did what many artists do: he quit early, with minimal qualifications.  He worked as a labourer, gardener, etc.  But it seemed that this work only helped his thought process.  The passion around movement came from his own physicality.  he also studied art through books in the library but by the age of 22 Lye felt that he'd ran out of options, as an artist, here in New Zealand and  relocated to Sydney, to 'join the bohemians'.it was there that Lye discovered psychoanalysis, film animation and discovered early works of  kineticism. 

Horrocks goes into some detail about this subject, almost to the point of obsession.  But, it's important to understand this if only to understand why he moved back to New Zealand in 1924 and his interest in the tribal art of Polynesian culture, which is primal, physical and direct.  Lye later travelled to Fiji, Rarotonga, Tonga and Samoa, remaining for months on end, getting to know locals, immersing himself in the culture and learning about their individual art making processes.  After returning to Sydney, he finally took the plunge in 1926 to feed his restless yearning to see European modernism 'in the flesh'.  So working his way to the UK as a steamship stoker, Lye headed for London.  There he drew on his knowledge of Australian aboriginal and Polynesian art to get in with the artistic vanguard.  He ever made images for the animated film 'Tusalava', a 9 minute long, B&W animated film about the transformation of simple life forms into complex ones that grow, evolve and are ultimately consumed.  This was pretty revolutionary for its time.  Very little was known about Polynesian culture, save for the racist and often inaccurate Victorian 'Cooks and Livingstone' accounts of the day.  This mean Lye could establish himself in London and at some European film festivals as a credible and pioneering film artist.

 'Tusalava' was supposed to be a trilogy but funding issues project meant it never progressed beyond the first picture.  Still, again and again, Lye reinvestigated how to push the artistic and cinematic boundaries through batiks, paintings, writing and theory.  London was good for Lye.  He was accepted by the new and established artistic community; he  explored associative writing and drawing techniques and he made original book covers for writers like Gertrude Stein and Robert Graves.  He also published his own book of letters 'No Trouble' (1931).

An avid member of the London Film Society, Lye saw many ground-breaking European art pictures of the day but he was especially inspired by the work of Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, and Walter Ruttman.  Horrocks talks again in detail of their influences and reach, and how it seeps into the commercial mainstream.  Lye never had the kind of money needed to make such ambitious work.  So, as a man from the land of no.8 wiring, he began painting and scratching on clear film discards which he horded up from the Ealing Film Studios.  Those early experiments won him a  commission as a film artist by the GPO Film Unit in London.

His first GPO project was in 1935 'A Colour Box' , screened widely in local cinemas and at prestigious European film festivals.  His semi-abstract movies were technically complex, bright, and above all, energetic.  Music was important.  you might say he was New Zealand's first music video producer!  Images, patterns, colours, text were all accompanied by music like jazz or swing -  a natural accompaniment.  And remember, this was before Disney's Fantasia was released in 1940!

The war years were hard.  He was married, but unemployed with two children.  While Orwell looked to the ultimate doom of mass control, Lye was creating a new theory for a post war liberated life, which he labelled 'Individual, Happiness, Now'.

Lye did garner some work in the war years, though, working for the Realist Film Unit to make wartime information films, which led to a six month stint working on segments for the famous  'March of Time' newsreels, based in New York.  Leaving his family back in England, Lye moved to New York in 1943 and was soon enamoured by the liveliness and openness of New York and decided he had to stay.  But wartime travel restrictions made it impossible for Lye to move his family over.  so by the time Lye’s family was able to join him in New York he'd commenced a new and serious relationship with Ann Hindle.  His first marriage to Jane collapsed and he divorced and married Ann.

New York agreed with Lye.  In 1953, he made the remarkable 16mm direct film 'Color Cry' which had a scorching soundtrack by blues singer Sonny Terry.  It was a collage comprised of  photogram strips.  The method 'direct' is a cameraless means of producing photographic images, laying various fabrics and objects on the surface of unexposed colour film in a darkroom.  It's highly risky as overexposure and contamination are imminent.  Lye would place is objects then quickly turn on and off the room light on - therefore printing his shapes directly onto the film.  All this layering is now done with computers and programmes but the three-dimensional effects he made were utterly stunning for the day - they pulsate with vibrancy and this kind of infectious, rhythmic energy.  MTV would be jealous!  Ironically, his works are often screened on MTV Europe during awards shows.  'Color Cry' is another film collected in the 'Art that Moves' book.

It was a technique he used to produce portraits of painter Georgia O’Keefe and poet W.H. Auden.

In 1958 Lye made 'Free Radicals', a scratch film set to a pulsing soundtrack of African drumming, for the 1958 International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium which won Second Prize.  Alas it didn't translate into any further successes or  commissions for Lye.

After years of living in poverty, indifferent receptions to his work and a continuous lack of project funding Lye threw in the towel.  He chose to devote his energies to making 'kinetic sculptures'.  His early work in the 1960s was in steel, sold through the Howard Wise Gallery in New York but exhibited in major museums across Europe and the United States.  His sculptures were expensive to make, ship, exhibit and maintain so he never really made back on the sales. 

Roger Horrocks
Lye’s greatest sculpture is 'Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters)'. These have finally returned to New Plymouth, I believe.  I am looking forward to seeing them when I visit myself in March. 

'Trilogy' is constructed of two nine-foot long strips of polished steel and a steel loop, suspended from overhead electric motors. When the motors are on, each piece performs this terrifying ballet like the wielding knives of a guillotine - strips of steel whip through the air at incredible speeds.  Then the motors suddenly stop, and the two vertical steel strips crash to a halt with a thunderous clap! It's been likened to witnessing the opening of the gates of Heaven, or Hell.

Alas, funding was the main reason why many works never were realised.  But thinking was free. So Lye became interested in genetics, and particularly DNA.  He began to mine the biomorphic images from his earlier paintings and sketches as sources for a new theory called 'The Old Brain'.  Lye called him self "the old brain guy who can't drive a car'. 

Finally, in the late 1960's we Kiwis started to get wind of his achievements.  Various dispatches from the local art community were made and finally the Lyes made it back here in 1968 to visit.  He was still working when his lot his fight to leukaemia in 1980, but Kiwis are lucky that much of his work found its way back to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, and is now in the new Len Lye Centre for all to enjoy. 

I found this book engaging and almost overwhelming.  It's just a shame that the story of the Govett-Brewster connection seems to be a bit lost in the process.  The reason why the collection is really here instead of with Horrocks in Auckland is still an untold mystery.  But that's my conspiracy.  this is an excellent account and belongs in every art book collection.