WORD: Canadian Tales – Elizabeth Hay

Happy National Poetry Day everyone!

I chose this session because it featured a writer called Elizabeth H. I know that sounds odd – narcissistic even – but I’ve discovered many interesting writers (and people generally) just by following the sound of my own name. And, when there are so many interesting-looking sessions to choose from, it seems as good a way as any other to discover something new.

Canadian Tales – Canadian novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Hay interviewed by Vancouver Writers Festival Director Hal Wake – was a lovely way to start my WORD 2016. It was a friendly session filled with quiet good humour.

Acknowledging that today is National Poetry Day, Hay and Wake both read some poetry to begin with: George Oppen and Raymond Carver respectively. Hay says she reads poetry first thing most mornings, because it stimulates her writing mind: “Reading something to which you respond loosens the imagination … The best moments in writing are when you’re self-forgetful”. Hay says she’s been reading Ted Hughes’ The Birthday Letters, and that the “raw, fresh, vigorous language” gives her energy. The way Hay figures out what she wants to write, she says, is she lies on the bed and thinks about what matters most to her, and the answer comes.

There was much discussion of politics. At one point Wake wryly asked “How many people in this theatre have seen a picture of our Prime Minister with his shirt off?” Many hands were raised – an audience member commented that in Aotearoa we’re “suffering from a bad case of Prime Minister envy”.

Elizabeth_HayHay (above) said “I love political stories … You get to see the characters unfold on the big screen. For me, [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau is a character in my life … The reason I have time for Justin is the hope that he might become more than he appears to be: it is a novelist’s hope for a character. In narrative, one of most exciting things is when character finds they’re more capable than they thought they were.” Hay observes that it’s very satisfying for humans to observe people getting better at things.

Hay worked as a radio journalist for many years before becoming a professional writer. In 2007, she won the prestigious Giller Prize. Hay says: “It gave me a bigger readership and such a wonderful holiday from envy for a whole year … although by the end of the year I’d developed a serious allergy to myself, and had to employ my favourite word in the English language, which is ‘no’.” On the topic of literary awards generally, Hay said “All writers and all publishers need to be vaccinated against the awards season”.

cv_his_whole_lifeIt was interesting to hear Hay speak about being a Canadian writer writing both in and about Canada, especially in the context of the discussions we often have about the nature, place and fate of New Zealand writing. Hay says she regrets not having managed to convince her children that Canada is an interesting place to spend their lives (although her daughter does now live in Canada). She spoke about the resistance she gets from her publishers for writing specifically Canadian books: “I think Canadians are more interested in reading Canadian stories than publishers realise … In Canada, people appreciate books that give them their country.”

Hay had a quiet but warm presence, and there was a rush at the end of the session to buy her book and join the long signing queue. Hearing her read from her book was a real treat. Onwards to the rest of WORD Christchurch!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Canadian Tales – Elizabeth Hay, interviewed by Hal Wake

His Whole Life
by Elizabeth Hay
Published by Maclehose Press
ISBN 9780857055460

Other sessions featuring Elizabeth Hay:

About a Boy, Sat 27 Aug, 1.45pm

Read the Girl: the first three Millennium books, redux

I have just completed the #ReadtheGirl challenge. While I read Stieg Larsson’s series about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist during the original hype, I was keen to re-read the originals before the fourth book in the series was to be released.

cv_the_girl_in_the_spiders_webWhile the book, titled The Girl in the Spider’s Web, is fully authorised by Larsson’s estate; his long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson has strongly suggested that allowing this book to happen at all was not in the series’ best interest. Gabrielsson claims to have 200 pages of a fourth (claimed by Larsson’s family to be a fifth) in the series, and continues to fight to hold his literary rights.

David Lagercrantz is the author of this book, and so heavily-guarded were the details of the book by the publishers, that Lagercrantz wrote the draft on a computer without internet access, and personally delivered the typed pages to his publisher. I’m not sure exactly how all of the publishers who are releasing the title simultaneously on 27 August have kept the secret, despite needing to edit it on their computers, and print it digitally; but okay, we get the gist.

cv_the_girl_with_the_dragon_tattooWhat are the strengths that I hope Lagercrantz is capable of emulating in his book? The most crucial element in the Millennium trilogy for me, the main reason in fact that it worked, is Salander’s unique character. Her strengths and weaknesses were essential to solving the crimes in each of the three books that I have just re-read. She is seriously your go-to girl for hacking computers and for kicking some bad-guy woman-haters’ butt.

Larsson was also an excellent writer of political intrigue, and this reflects his own background as a journalistic expert in right-wing extremism, as well as being himself a far-left activist. He gave enough detail about the Swedish political system as it stands, to convince me that the activities that led to Salander being declared mentally incompetent are not too far-fetched to make a compelling storyline.

cv_the_girl_who_played_with_fireThe way in which Larsson utilised his many excellent characters was very well planned. He thought nothing of pulling up a bit-part player to follow through third-person narration, simply to get across the sense of this person’s motivations. In the third book, we heard from Edklinth in this way, also Inspector Faste in the second book; rarely have I seen an author who was so able to pull in the number of view-points required to get the full story across with all of its complexities. This was more necessary in the second and third books of course, because those dealt more closely with Salander’s backstory and the cover-up needed to keep her shut up after her attack on her father.

However, I hope that Lagercrantz doesn’t micromanage the settings of his book as much as Larsson was guilty of. There were moments in the first three books where I was shouting ‘I don’t care what the bloody room looks like or where the flowers were, just get on with the action, man.’ I am not so visual a reader that I need the accuracy Larsson gave his settings; I’m more than happy to get the gist and move on.

cv_the_girl_who_kicked_the_hornets_nestSo where did we finish with the third book? Without giving out obvious spoilers, most of the plot surrounding Salander and her father Zalachenko has been put to bed. The only outstanding element of Salander’s background concerns her twin sister, Camilla, so I expect to learn more concerning her in the coming book. Where is she, and why was she complicit in covering up her father’s actions? Blomkvist has completed his book about the Section, and published it, while Erika Berger – the editor of the Millennium magazine, who briefly left to work for a big newspaper – is back where she belongs. Salander and Blomkvist have made up, sort of, by the end of the book; while Blomkvist has a relationship with Monica Figuerola that is still on the cards.

On the topic of Blomkvist’s amorous pursuits, I have always struggled to see Blomkvist as anything more than an idealistic version of the author himself, with a similar background, and passions; and the fact that no woman within 50 miles is safe from his charms has always struck me as far-fetched and frankly, irritating. I must add I am not a fan of crime novels as a general rule, similarly because the men are “Men” and the women are “Women”. Luckily, Larsson is enough of a feminist for none of the women in his books to be completely within the “Women” mould.

One thing that the exercise of ‘reading the girl’ has given me, indeed the point of the promotion, is a great desire to read the next in the series. Controversy or not, this is going to be a huge seller for booksellers across the world. I wish it all the best and look forward to reading along.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The latest editions of the Millennium trilogy:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, published by MacLehose Press, 9780857054036
The Girl who Played with Fire
, by Stieg Larsson, published by MacLehose Press, 9780857054043
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
, by Stieg Larsson, published by MacLehose Press, 9780857054050

Coming Soon:

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz, published by Maclehose Press, 9780857053503

Book Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker

Available in bookstores nationwide. cv_the_truth_about_the_harry_quebert_affair

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is Swiss author Joel Dicker’s first novel. Written in French, the rights have already been sold for translation into over thirty languages, and glowing reviews are coming in from all over the world. This one, however, won’t fall into the glowing category.

While I enjoyed the book well enough, it felt sometimes like I was being hit over the head with it. When I tell you its 4cm thick and weighs about a kilo, you’ll understand what I mean.

Dicker breaks a few rules with his story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just look at what Eleanor Catton did with The Luminaries for an example of an author self-imposing multiple constraints on herself while using a style not seen for a century, but who still delivered a sublime read.

In Harry Quebert, Dicker teases the reader with the promise of a structural innovation, a take-your-breath-away twist, or a revelation of unreliable narration. When, towards the end, it becomes clear that none of these will be delivered, the feeling is one of exasperation and disappointment. The three main sections are exactly what they say they are. The little introductions by Harry are nothing more than little introductions. The extracts from the book within the book are simply extracts. Sub-sections are dated and timed so we know exactly what is going on, with whom, and when. Dicker may have thought he was being exceedingly clever to show his narrator, Marcus Goldman, telling us what happened and then including extracts from his book-within-a-book that also tell us what happened, but it soon becomes tedious when you realise that’s all he’s doing.

The characters have a similar lack of subtlety. The cop who instantly trusts Goldman and works together with him. The waitress who marries the wrong man. The tormented father of Harry’s under-age muse, Nola. The hideously disfigured – and therefore immediately suspected – handyman. And so on. Even the symmetry between Harry and Marcus isn’t enough. Marcus himself is the only one who has a slightly interesting and somewhat darker background, but does that result in a twist, a degree of unreliability or a nasty streak? No it does not. Will he turn out to be an anti-hero? Highly unlikely.
The truth is that The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is neither the book-within-a-book Goldman wrote first (The Harry Quebert Affair), or the revised version. It’s a hotch-potch of material that that we’re supposed to believe has been put together by Goldman. But why? Who is Goldman talking to? Are the sections where Goldman isn’t present supposed to be his fictional versions of events? Or does Dicker shift to the omniscient point of view for those sections? An inconsistent approach to the narrative lets the book down.

This book is already a publishing juggernaut, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown and J K Rowling, Dicker has written a story that fascinates people and draws them in, forces them to turn the pages to see what’s going to happen next. What Dicker didn’t need to do was try and dress it up in a complex structure to somehow give it some ‘literary’ kudos. When Ian McEwan or Marisha Pessl mess with our minds by putting things on the page that are not what they seem, it means something to the story. Dicker’s constructions do not; he might as well have simply told the story straight.

It is possible that the lack of subtlety comes partly from the translation. Unless you happen to be fluent in French, and can muster the strength to read it again, you’ll never know. But his characters are sufficiently stereotypical that I think I can safely say they’d appear the same whatever the language.

You could do a lot worse that read The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair if you’re after a book with literary pretensions, entertainment without requiring a great deal of thought, and a decent word count. The writer as a crime-solving hero? Here he is. If a half-decent screenwriter and director can get their hands on it, it will undoubtedly make a better movie than it does a novel. Goldman follows the classic hero’s journey so closely it’s easy to imagine Dicker writing with his copy of Christopher Vogler open beside him. I just wish he hadn’t tried to be so clever with the structure.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair
by Joel Dicker
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857053107

Book Review: Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

cv_look_whos_backAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

It’s 2011, and Adolf Hitler has returned. Or, as the tagline puts it: “He’s back. And he’s Führious.” Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) imagines what would happen if, instead of dying in his Führerbunker in 1945, Hitler travelled through time and reappeared in the present day. Answer: assumed to be a pitch-perfect impersonator, he becomes a media sensation.

It’s an intriguing and unsettling premise that raises the important question: have we, as a Western society, learned to reject Hitler (and other hate-filled fanatics) and keep him away from power? Vermes’ answer is no. The Hitler of his book becomes worryingly famous and influential, and we never really see a sign that this will change. The fascination of Hitler, the power of his magnetic fanaticism and cast-iron self-belief, has not waned. Even as his hatefulness and epochal crimes appal us, we cannot look away.

It is this horrified, almost spellbound fascination that is at the heart of Look Who’s Back, that forms both its context and its appeal. As a publication, it has been wildly successful both within Germany and across the globe, and Vermes undoubtedly has Hitler to thank for that (helped by the excellent cover by Punch Design). As a work of literature, Look Who’s Back is nothing particularly special, nor does it have anything new to say. The entire story, which is pitched as a black comedy, is told from Hitler’s point of view, with a lot of the humour reliant on the tried-and-true formula of the bemused alien (that Herr Starbuck sure has a lot of coffee houses, etc). This unchanging point of view coupled with the total lack of character development on the part of the narrator makes the novel oddly flat, with stilted pacing and a tailing-off ending that I found unsatisfying. In a strange way, Look Who’s Back is both shocking and rather dull (albeit with funny moments).

What Vermes has grasped, though, and what I keep coming back to as I reflect on this novel, is the power of silence. Hitler was a charismatic orator, and in Look Who’s Back we see this used to full effect. In the TV studio: “I listened to the silence … my physical presence unleashed a hush upon the assembled crowd … I could see the uncertainty triggered by nothing more than simple eye contact in that breathless silence … The tension in the room was palpable … I enjoyed it.” Here is the tense and painful silence in which we still contemplate Hitler. Part of what makes him so difficult to conceptualise is that what he achieved was so extraordinary. If he had only used his powers for good, we would revere him as a gifted and world-changing leader. But we are horrified not only by what he and the Nazis did, but by the fact that ordinary people, voters like you and me, enabled him do it. Hitler scares us into silence because he shows us the dark side of what we − as a collective, a citizenry, a Western nation; as a group of people we automatically think of as the good guys − are all capable of. Here is the silence in which no one says no.

As a physical book, though, Look Who’s Back is very pleasing. As well as having an absolutely superb cover, it has been beautifully designed and typeset (well done Patty Rennie). I thought it was particularly effective how Hitler’s speeches have been laid out as poetry, inset and with only a few words per line. As a typesetter myself, I always find it interesting when the act of typesetting enters a novel. In Look Who’s Back, Hitler reflects that he ought really to develop his own typeface: “Then it occurred to me that before long graphic designers in printers’ workshops would be discussing whether to set a text in ‘Hitler Black’, and I scrapped the idea.” Look at that – the Führer can make typesetting jokes too! How very, very unsettling.

Look Who’s Back is, in the end, an odd pendulum lurching between horror and farce. It is both a worthy thought experiment that raises important questions, and an inconclusive story that leaves a bad taste in the brain. To read it and enter its world is to see ourselves and our modern, media-drenched society as through a Halloween Hitler mask made of flat cardboard − an uneasy and unsatisfying experience. But perhaps I should let Vermes have the last word: “Books don’t have to educate or turn people into better human beings – they can also just ask questions. If mine makes some readers realise that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognisable as such, then I consider it a success.”

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

Look Who’s Back
by Timur Vermes, translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857052933