Wellington author Linda Burgess chooses this and that and above all she chooses the book you want to buy several copies of this Christmas – The Scene of the Crime, by Steve Braunias (no relation to the Spinoff books editor).
Thinking of what to recommend from what I’ve read this year, I realise how much of the reading I do is a year behind. Not only this, but my latest up-to-the-moment reads (Anne Tyler’s Spool of Blue Thread, which I loved, and Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, which I didn’t) have already been written about – at length – for The Spinoff.
Then there was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which disappointed – not only has nothing ever been quite as good as Behind The Scenes at the Museum, but I found the central premise and structure of both this and its predecessor Life After Life irritating rather than intriguing. And then there was Anne Enright’s The Green Road, which came so strongly recommended by one of my favourite booksellers. I had just said, during a casual conversation, that I wanted a quiet book, an Elizabeth Strout, an Anne Tyler, and there it was, magically in a paper bag as the credit card did its bit. I think it’s very good, but I’ve stopped part way through. And there it lies, in the Elena Ferrante pile. So I’ve chosen three non-fiction books, all new, all local, and all terrific.
I admit that Fiona Farrell is a close friend, but as most writers know about other writers who are close friends, schadenfreude is pretty much a given. So believe me, when I recommend The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, I’m not doing it out of loyalty. Or even envy. I’m doing it because it is a totally fabulous read. I marvelled at it throughout. Although based on – inspired by – the destruction of Christchurch by both nature and subsequently man, this book goes far wider. It looks at how other countries perched on similarly volatile ground have dealt with rebuilds. It wiggles its way into the minds of people, cruising across centuries with casual intensity. Fiona herself has intellect and curiosity by the bucketload and this government’s response to her city’s destruction has aroused an anger in her. She’s not righteous, she’s not hysterical, she’s just – right. Fiona is known for her fiction but I believe that this compelling book is her masterpiece. If we were a country that valued intellect, this government would be very afraid. Fiona would do well to avoid people wearing hard helmets and high-viz vests.
I’ve only browsed – at reasonable length – through Bronwyn Labrum’s Real Modern but I’m saving up my pennies to buy it ($75 – not cheap, but understandably.) As a baby boomer I’m the target audience for this look at the norms and objects of the 1950s and 1960s and I was immediately engrossed. There is so much in it to recognise, relate to. I remember our first stereogram, the new coffee bar style coffee cups. Dad’s pride in the Humber 80, bought with overseas funds. It was a time when we were one of the richest countries in the world, and yet when no one had anything much: how strangely attractive that feels. It’s an era that it is easy to feel nostalgia for. Were they really simpler times? It certainly feels like it now. The book looks at the two decades that saw us begin our move towards consumerism. It is lavishly illustrated and totally fabulous.
Then there’s The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias, who writes about crimes that have transfixed this country – including a trip offshore when he had a few days to fill in London. Inexplicably he didn’t spend them at the National Portrait gallery or Ottolenghi’s café in Notting Hill, instead choosing to watch Rolf Harris’s trial. I loved Steve’s book Civilisation. Is The Scene of the Crime as good? Probably. He’s a master of tone. He’s there as us, with eyes wide open, and brain and heart engaged, in an interestingly disengaged way. He doesn’t try to be judge and jury, just sits in the gallery marvelling really at the pitifulness of it all: the extraordinary and often momentary madness of ordinary people. His judgments when made come in sideways – there’s Anthonie Dixon with his romantically spelled first name who’s cut off the hands with a samurai sword of women he knew, who’s killed a man. This is no momentary madness. But he’s sent to prison, it having been decided that he’s not insane. Within days he kills himself. Steve believes that this is effectively capital punishment.
The book moves around, returns to, the Lundy trials, the first of which I followed like Madam Defarge in 2001. We’d just left Palmerston North for Wellington, and I had a sense of ownership. It bothers me still to read about it. How can lives end like this? There’s the hideous minutiae – not only should you wear decent underwear in the event of being run over by a bus, this trial acts as evidence for why one should never eat junkfood in case the pathologists are going to be called in over the next short while. Two different sorts of chips – how can that not haunt?
The stories of ordinary people never fail to upset me. So the chapter I found most poignant, most riveting, most bearable in a way, is the one about fallen hero Rolf Harris, the man with such a lack of nouse, such a belief in his own fame, such a lack of irony, that on the first day of his trial he breaks into a quavering rendition of Jake the Peg. He’s old and frail, like people who ran concentration camps got old and frail, like people who own dairies and teach teenagers and drive milk trucks and run huge corporations get old and frail. He’s been a right prat. He’s been a grubby little groper. Steve sits in a crumby courthouse in Southwark, London, and on our behalf watches him being called to account.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.