Lumber on an epic scale

cover of BarkskinsI discovered at the weekend with a rapidly beating heart, that one of my all time favourite writers,  Annie Proulx, has released a new novel.

Thirteen years since her last novel, Barkskins is, by all accounts, a rip snorter. According to what I can glean from good old Mr Google, it is 736 pages long, spanning 3 centuries, and tells the story of two French immigrants in the new land of America. They are bound to a feudal lord for three years and are sent to work in the dense and remote forests of the New World in exchange for a promise of land. The book follows them and their descendants from 1693 through to the 21st century and various family members travel all over the world, including to little old New Zealand.

Annie Proulx first caught my eye when I read The Shipping News, another great story of families, set in Newfoundland. I have never forgotten the ways she described snow and ice and barren landscapes and the families and eccentrics who lived amongst it.

Cover of The shipping news

Accordion Crimes was also a favourite, charting the lives of immigrants settling in America through the life of an accordion that is handed down through families; Jewish, Irish, Italian and many others.

Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain (a short story originally), were also made into movies, both well worth watching.

Ms Proulx, now in her eighties, was a bit of a late bloomer, with her first short stories published in her 50s and her first novel in 1992. She has gone onto to publish 13 works and win over twenty literary prizes, including a Pulitzer prize for The Shipping News.

Her novels and short storys are filled with hard bitten complex characters and landscapes that are wonderful described, I find I get immersed in her stories and I think this is because she herself has led a full and intense life, always on her own terms. She has been married and divorced three times and has raised three sons alone. She worked as postal worker and a waitress, and early on a writer of magazine articles on everything from chilli growers to canoeing.

She has two history degrees, drifted the countryside in her pickup truck, can fly fish, fiddle, and hunt game birds. But for all her life experience, she has said that she likes to write about what she doesn’t know, rather than draw on what she has already experienced. If you haven’t read her books, I strongly recommend them.

So, I’m on the library waiting list, hoping the book arrives quickly so I can again revel in her wondrous prose!

Confessions of an Author Obsessive

Cover of The Crane WifeI’ve got a bit of a obsessive personality at the best of times (to my shame, I have been known to tidy DVDs at shops without even being aware of it), and when it comes to favourite authors, it manifests in a need to read every book they have ever written. This has often been frustrated by choosing authors who seem to only write one book a millennium or have written so many, my task seems Herculean.

When I read a writer who just ‘does it for me’, I then set about reading every thing they have ever written. Those who have written just a few I can mark off quickly, others are proving to be a life’s work for me.

It’s interesting how some vary in their skills from book to book, and others nail it every time. I sometimes start with their first book and work through in order of publication, or just randomly pick them in a crazy ‘throw my hands in the air like I just don’t care’ kind of way.

So, like a true obsessive, I will now list a few of the authors I have read completely or am working on. I’ll also give my tips, for what it’s worth, on how I think it is best to approach them:

Cover of Close RangeAnnie Proulx

Start with The Shipping News, then Accordion Crimes, Postcards, Close Range (which is a collection of short stories including the excellent Brokeback Mountain), and then move on to her other excellent titles. I’d leave Bird Cloud to the end. This is a non fiction account of her building her dream home in Wyoming and is possibly the least interesting, but that may just be me.

Patrick Ness

Start with the amazing Chaos Walking Trilogy, move onto A Monster Calls, then More Than This, and finish up with The Crane Wife and The Crash of Hennington. Mr Ness is one of those writers who needs to write more prolifically to keep me happy! There is a title of his not in the library:  Topics about which I know nothing – I’ve filled a request an item form (a useful form to use if you want the library to buy something).

Cormac McCarthy

Cover of Outer DarkThere are eleven of his titles in the library, and he is my slow and steady author. I love his work, but it is not always easy going and rarely light, so I pepper his works in among my other reading.  I’d suggest starting with All the Pretty Horses, then move onto Outer Dark, The Road, No Country for Old Men,  Suttree and then his other works. I’ve still got a few to read, and the added bonus with McCarthy is his works have such depth and strength of narrative and character (I’m not biased or anything), that they make great movies… so read the book, watch the movie of  The Road, The Sunset Limited (a play), The Counsellor and No Country for Old Men. 

John Steinbeck

An early obsession for me when in my teens, I think I started with Of Mice and Men, then moved onto Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, but perhaps it is time to finish that list off too.

Carol Shields

This writer’s works are only partly read by me, but Unless got me hooked, which led to The Collected Stories, Duet, Stone Diaries, Small Ceremonies and Larry’s Party. I still have several more to tick off the Carol Shields list.

Do you have authors you love with a passion, whose latest novel you are hanging out for? And who would you see as your ‘must read all’ authors?

Stormy weather

Cover of Caribou IslandWe had two hours of sunshine over a six day Christmas holiday in a Catlins bach. Small wonder my mind turned to thoughts of the weather in fiction.

And I’m not talking about your everyday gentle Mediterranean breeze here. I’m talking about weather with attitude. The sort of unwanted bad stuff that pulls out a chair at the table and settles in for the long haul. The sort of weather that drives couples in enclosed spaces to the edge of their tolerance, when even a good argument seems preferable to scanning the skies, yet again, for a tiny patch of blue.

And, indeed, there are novels where the weather is like an additional character in the plot, where you feel that the weather is partly responsible for everything that goes wrong and a few of the things that go right. Here’s my selection of great weather reads:

  • Caribou Island – David Vann’s novel about the dangers of attempting to fulfil someone else’s obsession, set in a bitterly cold climate.
  • Cover of The Sheltering SkyThe Shipping News – Annie Proulx. The 1994 Pulitzer prizewinning novel in which unpredictable weather plays a key role.
  • Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg. A detective’s “visceral feeling for snow” makes for a chilling Danish thriller.
  • Atonement – Ian McEwan. Read this review in The Guardian on the effect of weather on the characters in this novel.
  • The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles’ novel reveals the effect that strange environments and great heat can have on relationships.

Four out of five of these books have been made into films. Which begs the question: is extreme weather an asset, visually and atmospherically, in both novels and films? But don’t take my word for it, here’s Ernest Hemingway on the subject:

Remember to get the weather into your god damned book – weather is very important.

As far as our little Catlins trip went, in the end we did not have a marital spat, instead opting for a drive in the pouring rain to Gore, for a cappuccino. And in that one sentence resides everything you need to know as to why a film will never be made of my life!

Put on your killer heels and go west!

Or any other compass direction for that matter, just get out of Christchurch for a bit. I went to Auckland last week, where the full impact of how our earthquake  lives have changed hit home. It was the footwear that got to me in the end. High strappy sandals in bright sunny colours for the women and polished Italian shoes for the men.

Will I ever again see shoes like that pounding the streets of Christchurch? To cheer myself up I actually bought a book  and repaired to the nearest coffee shop – which had collected $181.60 for my home town. This kindness made me feel as if I came from a far away galaxy where the citizens are very old and wise  and wear ugly shoes.

As for the book – this is the first time that Annie Proulx (she of The Shipping News fame) has let me down. In her memoir Bird Cloud she manages to  both welcome her readers in and simultaneously lock us out. Apparently, even the very rich and famous (who clearly have not watched enough episodes of  Grand Designs) can also make disastrous property decisions.

In Proulx’s effort-filled building project, the house sounds dire, the landscape forbidding and the endless pondering over minute archaeological scraps left me stone cold. But it was only when I found myself having uncharitable thoughts about migratory birds that I  got out the killer heels.

Back home, I’ve been so relentlessly positive lately that I found it quite hard to stick the stiletto into this book. Now it’s done, I feel so much better. As Lionel Shriver said: It’s OK to hate a book.

So, join me and cross over to your dark side. Which books do you love to hate?