A recent blog mentioned the latest Colm Toibin novel Brooklyn as being disappointing. I had never read any of his work before so I didn’t come with expectations. By the time I had finished this novel I could see why it is on the Booker longlist and I can put money on it that it will be on the shortlist and it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see it take out the big prize.

It is one of those deceptively simple novels that could easily be overlooked because they are dealing with everyday lives seemingly untouched by the big events of the time. The major character is Eilis, a young woman who lives at home with her widowed mother and her sister Rose. She works in a grocery store owned and operated by a truly awful woman who favours certain characters (the “better” people of the town), wilfully ignores others and bullies her two helpers. A priest visiting from America tells Eilis and family about the possibility of a job in a department store in Brooklyn and this is arranged for Eilis.

Her work in the store and her quite circumscribed life outside it are beautifully captured and the time (1950s) is tellingly evoked. I had no idea that at that time it was quite innovative when a counter for “coloureds” to buy clothing was introduced. The various young women in the boarding house where Eilis stays are all very real characters: in fact, there are no stock characters in the book even if some could, in lesser hands, be relegated to the part of sour spinster, bossy landlady, good time girl, Italian momma, etc.

Other bloggers have said that they found the main character passive and that put them off. Well, she just is and so is Hardy’s Tess and a lot of other literary characters and people in real life as well. She’s a girl from provincial small town Ireland and hasn’t much experience of the world and so she tends to fall in with what is arranged for her. The novel reminded me of the brilliant John McGahern novel Amongst women and also, in a strange way, of the brilliant French film The lacemaker, in which Isabelle Huppert made her name.

By the end of the novel Eilis is faced with a very tough decision and it is to the credit of the novel that it is both in character and unexpected. Will it win the Booker? I’d say the William Trevor and Hilary Mantel’s novel (which my wife is reading with great enthusiasm at the moment) are its strongest rivals and the one that will not make it to the shortlist is the pretty laboured jokey spoof of Cheetah the chimp telling all.

Dave Dobbyn at the TelstraClear Club

You really can’t beat seeing a great musician perform live and it’s even better when they go acoustic.  One of my favourite New Zealand musicians (and a Kiwi legend), Dave Dobbyn performed with some other local legends last night at the TelstraClear Club in Cathedral Square.  Dobbyn belted out some of his back catalogue, focusing on less well known material with a few hits thrown in.  Some of the ones he chose I hadn’t heard before, which is always good as I can then go and get his previous albums from the library to listen to them.  Old favourites, including ‘Whaling,’ ‘Welcome Home’ and ‘Oughta Be In Love’ were given the acoustic treatment.  My only disappointment was when Dobbyn handed the mic to his back-up singer for one of my favourite songs ‘Oughta Be In Love’ (who I thought did a fairly average version of the song).  I didn’t let this ruin the concert though and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  The venue was perfect for the more intimate nature of this concert and I’m looking forward to going back there on Thursday night for the Wellington Ukelele Orchestra.

The world’s fastest Timaruvian

Was the man who made BBC commentator lose Harold Abrahams his cool. I’m sure you’ve seen the clip which contains the memorable lines: “Come on, Jack!! My God, he’s done it. Jack, come on! … Lovelock wins.”

This Thursday is is 73 years since those words were uttered, and the anniversary of New Zealand’s first athletic gold medal.

Jack Lovelock grew up in South Canterbury and was a doctor, athlete, military man and journalist. Three books have been published in the last three years about this remarkable Kiwi, who died tragically 50 years ago. Feeling ill, he was on his way home from work and fell under a New York subway train in 1949.

Lovelock, by James McNiesh, was reprinted this year, and we blogged the Christchurch Writers Festival session about As If Running on air, edited by David Colquhoun last year.

Fellow Timaru Boys’ High student Graeme Woodfield has written one of the most comprehensive biographies of the man who won gold in the Olympic mile race at Berlin in 1936. There is a statue of Lovelock in the school grounds and much memorabilia is housed there.

For more about this remarkable Kiwi, see’s feature.

Win 50 Popular Penguins

Popular Penguins are those orange covered paperback classics and the second series of titles is now out. You can win a set of 50 (worth $650) simply by emailling by 12pm Wednesday August 5.

Go give it a go and I wish you (and me) luck.

Recent necrology, 13 July-2 August 2009

Necrology – a list of notable people who have died recently. Now a regular feature on our blog.

  • Edward Downes, 1924-2009
    Pre-eminent British conductor who gloried in the works of Verdi and Russia’s great composers
  • John Keel, 1930-2009
    UFO observer who also chronicled other paranormal phenomena such as the Mothman and Men In Black
  • Frank McCourt, 1930-2009
    Writer who pioneered the ‘misery memoir’ with Angela’s Ashes, his chronicle of a grim childhood in 1930s Ireland
  • Jill Balcon, 1925-2009
    Screen and stage actress who scandalised her family when she married the poet Cecil Day-Lewis
  • Gordon Burn, 1948-2009
    Writer drawn to dark themes who shed light on the life and crimes of Fred West and the Yorkshire Ripper
  • John Ryan, 1921-2009
    Illustrator and animator who created Captain Pugwash, the best-loved pirate on children’s television in the 1970s
  • Harry Towb, 1925-2009
    Northern Irish actor best known for his TV appearances in The avengers, Casualty, The Bill, Minder, Eastenders, Doctor Who, Heartbeat and others