2009

how 2009 began. part i.

In honour of the release of Emilyn Brodsky’s new album, here is a bit of a recollection of the first time I saw her/heard of her. Which was also the first time I ever went to New York. And the first time that I saw Amanda Palmer.

It’s one of those nights that isn’t easily forgotten. This is the lead-up.

On the first night that I ever spent in New York, I went to a show.

It was January – only just. Patti Smith wrapped up her Bowery Ballroom gig to see in the new year, and then, at 2am, or thereabouts, Amanda Palmer was to perform.

I’d been in Montreal all of four days, but more than a month in advance, this show had been announced, and with the reckless abandon of an eighteen year old on their first adventure, I decided that I was going to take the train from Montreal to New York City to see this gig.

It could be the only chance I get to see Amanda while I’m in North America, I reasoned. It’ll be completely worth it.

It’s ten hours on the Amtrak Adirondack line between Montreal and NYC. I was a fresh-faced wee gal, fed on police procedurals and gritty dramas. Convinced that carrying a bag through New York at night was unsafe, I decided that my best bet was to wear my tiny daypack underneath my coat. Which meant minimal items could be packed. I brought a map, my wallet and my phone, along with a Gossip Girl novel that I bought at a second-hand bookstore in Le Village.

It was probably an attempt at NYC wannabe-hipster irony. I read the whole thing before we got to Albany. I hadn’t thought to bring food, or to organise food, for that matter – apart from a Red Bull for the morning I left. I was terrified that I would miss my train. Anna gave me some sesame snaps with Polish writing on the label, which were the only thing I ate between the morning of the 31st and 8am at Penn Station the next morning.

But that’s getting ahead of myself.

It’s a tricky thing, an ultra-late gig away from home. It seemed pointless to organise a hostel room, I told myself – I would only be there for an hour or two after the concert wrapped up. I had twelve hours in New York, all of them dark, and my only place to go was the Bowery Ballroom.

Manhattan can be overwhelming to the first time observer. While the streets may be numbered in places, there are pockets where they get more creative and criss-crossed and generally turn into a bit of a mystery. I had looked into tips regarding travel around New York (given my stance on bag-wearing, it will not surprise you to know that I was terrified of catching the subway). I knew that I was supposed to state the cross-streets, not the specific address. Bowery and Delancey, Bowery and Delancey. It was my mantra, a ballpoint scrawl on my hand.

My plan was as follows: Arrive in New York. Go to Times Square, because that’s where people go for midnight at New Years, right? Loiter around, watch the ball drop, then catch a cab down to the Bowery Ballroom and wait in anticipation.

Despite my taxi-etiquette research, I hadn’t thought to look into the whole Times Square situation. So I didn’t know that people queue up from three-ish to get into the square proper. And everyone else just crowds around barricades, hoping to catch a flash of pixelated fireworks on an electronic billboard.

So I found myself walking up and down Avenue of the Americas, trying to pass the time. I got caught in one of the peering crowds more than once, but wriggled my way out of them once moderate claustrophobia started to set in. I worried that the bare ground was going to wear away the soles on my new snow boots. When 0000h EST hit, I saw fake sparkles and heard the roar of the crowd around me. As the square started to clear, I wandered into it, to get a feel for what was going on, and saw my first Broadway signpost. The ground was covered with confetti and crushed cups, and police were trying to usher people out.

Satisfied that I had survived to tell the tale, I headed back to the streets that were still open to vehicle traffic. All cabs seemed to be occupied, but finally I could see one that was waiting for a desperate patron. His window was down. ‘Bowery and Delancey?’ I asked. I shouldn’t have phrased it as a question. He shook his head, and drove off.

Slightly shocked and shaken, I stepped back. Another cab was pulled up further along the road. ‘I’m going to Bowery and Delancey.’

‘Only do numbered streets.’ He wound up his window. I bit my lip, and started to have an internal meltdown. Cabs were out of the question here, clearly. Maybe if I headed towards the venue, got myself a little closer, I would be able to successfully convince one to take me the rest of the way.

I had in my head some sort of strange inverted perception of Manhattan. Maybe it was too much Ancient History, and the whole Lower Egypt in the North, Upper Egypt in the South thing, but I had convinced myself that the higher the street numbers went, the closer I was to downtown. Remember that my map was in my backpack, which was underneath my coat.

Given this lapse in geographical ability, it’s a goddamn miracle that I started walking the right way. I popped into a dairy (a corner store, really – what a few months later I would know was locally really a bodega) and asked if they had a map. I was told no. I willed myself not to cry as I went back out into the street, and kept walking in the direction that I hoped was the right way.

A few blocks later – and a few leering interactions with celebrating New Yorkers later – I went into another shop, this time planning to buy a drink in a glass bottle. So that I could rehydrate myself (after my sesame snap diet of the day) and have a potential weapon if I felt threatened. Fortunately, I never had to use my Orangina bottle of doom.

Up to this point, I hadn’t been replying to anyone who spoke to me or wished me Happy New Year! as they passed me on the street. But this store was well-lit and there was a man behind the counter, so when another customer said ‘Happy new year!’ to me, I echoed it.

‘You heading home? We’re just going home from a party.’

‘I’m going to a gig, actually.’

‘Oh yeah? Where?’

‘The Bowery Ballroom?’

He nodded approvingly. ‘Have you got a ride outside waiting?’

I shrugged. ‘Uh, I’m walking.’

He waved a hand. ‘No way! Me and my boys’ll give you a lift! Just wait here – what was your name?’

‘Elizabeth,’ I told him, my go to alias in stressful situations.

‘I’ll just go check, man.’

He left the store and crossed the road, disappearing into the dark towards wherever his ‘boys’ were parked. I was pretty sure that this was not a situation I was game to get myself into. So I left, and saw a cab across the road. It looked as though the Hassidic Jewish man crossing the road was heading for it, so I dashed out quickly, telling myself that I was less safe than he was. ‘Bowery and Delancey?’

He nodded, though grumbled ‘but we’ll have to turn around,’ as I got in. ‘And my meter’s broken, so it’ll just have to be twenty bucks.’

That seemed like a fair sum in exchange for my getting to the gig without anything terrible happening to me. I agreed. He dropped me on The Bowery, right by Delancey, and I thanked him profusely as I handed over the required bill.

It took a moment to get my bearings, especially as a bunch of high-heeled girls tottered into the cab that I’d just vacated. But running down past one of the seedy-looking corners of the intersection was a queue. For something. And a beautiful hunch told me that that was where my people were.

‘Is this the queue for Amanda Palmer?’ I asked, shy and foreign. There was a guy and a girl at the back of the line.

They nodded.

I nodded, comprehension and relief.

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SPRING HAS SPRUNG

…and I’m sick. Naturally! Evil vile lurgy winding its way through the bookish types of Wellington. Hoping that tomorrow dawns a little healthier. It’s really an inopportune moment for this to be happening.

That being said, while being attached to my bed and/or couch (bed yesterday – forced self to couch today) I have been productive – I’ve written a book review for Booksellers NZ, I’ve made a ‘Briar Does Books’ video for reasons not altogether known (watch it below), I’ve interviewed a musician for one of two NZ Musician articles I’m currently working on (busy busy bee!). I’ve also ‘finalised’ the Sargasso Press website (as much as a website is ever finalised) and am quite satisfied with how it has turned out.

I’ve also been Making Plans of various sorts. Big publish-y projects – more on that as it develops. And it will. I’m determined to make it happen. Fitness/fun-time plans, like finally learning to skate properly. I’ve had the derby skates for about five or six years now, about time I actually used them.

It’s going to be grrrreat.

Now, back to Doctor Who and healing vibes and tannin-tummy-regret.

CURRENT THINGS THAT ARE HAPPENING

READING: Wake by Elizabeth Knox (among other things)
WATCHING: Season 1 of Doctor Who / Season 4 of Torchwood
LISTENING: Eb & Sparrow (self-titled LP)
DRINKING: Harney & Sons Vanilla Comoro black tea. YUM.

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Review : The Bone Clocks

A good book leaves you thinking about it between reading sessions. A great book leaves you thinking about it after you’ve finished. A freaking spectacular book not only leaves you thinking about it, but colours everything that you try to read afterwards, and leaves you feeling slightly hollow, because the experience is over.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell falls into the ‘freaking spectacular’ category. As the page numbers started growing ever larger, I felt enormous internal conflict – on one hand, the compulsive desire to find out what happens, but on the other hand, the need to draw things out slowly, to savour every page and thought. I suspect the fact that the last book that really had that effect on me was The Luminaries is a very good sign for The Bone Clocks’ chances on the award circuit.bone clocks

Even now, days after I finished it, I think about the feeling of closing that heavy pink hardback after reading… and then opening it again, to re-read the final page – knowing that it was going to be a hard act to follow. Perhaps intentionally I have limited much of my reading since then to easily-packaged pop YA fiction (even when I have responsibilities to other books) – I don’t feel like I’m quite ready to fall into another story so deeply.

The Bone Clocks is mysterious. It contains fantasy, but you wouldn’t dream of shelving it in an SF/Fantasy section. It’s epic and complex without being incomprehensible. It visits the past and the present, the real and then unbelievable. David Mitchell is a wizard. I have heard mixed things from others about his earlier books, so I’m a little wary of dipping my toe into those waters – after all, I would hate to taint the admiration that I currently have for the man.

I’m loath to go into too much detail, because however I try to describe it, I won’t do it justice. Good and evil are more black and white than they are in some tales, and yet it takes quite some time to figure out precisely which is which. It’s about survival at any cost and in the worst circumstances. It’s about examining the way in which we treat our world. It’s about one person, and so many people at once.

It is not a book to jump into lightly. You need to treat it carefully, give it the time that it deserves. If you peck at it bit by bit, you might not be captured by it as much as it deserves. Get yourself somewhere comfortable, allow yourself a decent chunk of time, make yourself a pot of tea or a plunger of coffee. Appreciate the beautiful design, both aesthetically, and conceptually. Be prepared to have people comment on how pink it is. Laugh gently, knowing that they have no idea what this pink tome holds. Then, when you’ve finished, pass it on to someone else to read, so it can inhabit them next. It’s what Marius would do.

This is the first of (hopefully) several reviews of books longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Last year I only managed to sort out The Luminaries and We Need New Names – this year, I will hopefully manage to do the whole shortlist (all the better if this magical title makes it through to the next round – my hopes are certainly high).

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Unitarianism Update

omar musa

Author & rapper Omar Musa reading to the crowd at Unity Books Wellington

Working on various reviews at the moment (bit overworked and overwrought to pour enough energy into any single title at a time right now) but if you’d like to have a glance at things that I’ve been up to at the moment in The Real World, here links to (and snippets from) my last couple of event write-ups for Unity Books.

Omar Musa visited us for his first event outside of Australia. Review and photos by yours truly. We cranked (shop-appropriate) rap tracks and made stupid/hilarious “here comes the dog!” jokes with regard to Tilly’s naughty but loved (or at least tolerated, by some) pup Rhon.

His language was colourful (‘Sorry for swearing so much – actually, I’m not sorry at all.’) and hilarious (‘I think I should get a writer’s residency at Queanbeyan McDonalds.’) while the passages he read from Here Come The Dogs varied from beautiful to brutal. He did not shy away from any of the questions asked by the crowd, recounting various tales of his past and the writing experience, including his shenanigans while spending time with Irvine Welsh.

And a couple of days later, it was National Poetry Day! Cue excitement across the city (and country)! Apparently there were poets doing poetic things on buses – sadly my route was not one of them, but still! Bringing magic to the people. Nice stuff, Wellington. We had seven VUP poets performing, and the turnout was INSANE. I love Wellingtonians. I trekked around the crowd and listened and loved and am really excited about working the launch for one of them (Frances Samuel) in the next couple of weeks.

Obligatory snippet:

In our books, there is perhaps no finer day of celebration than National Poetry Day. And this year, we were thrilled to mark the day with a lunchtime event in association with Victoria University Press. Seven VUP poets performed for crowd that grew and grew as the readings went on – across the store, people could be seen turning their attention from cookbooks and photography collections to the writers at the mic.

There’s a reason why my current Twitter bio is ‘I go to a lot of book launches’.

I love it, though.

Book Awards write-up coming. Internal conflicts regarding future bookish plans stewing.

This has been your captain speaking, we hope you have enjoyed this flight of fancy.

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the karaka tree

the karaka tree was full of berries
we couldn’t eat them / orange and hard
tiny cherries of another time
crushed them between our fingers
and rubbed into the grass
I scared myself into scalding
hot water / the only way to be sure
that I would bite my nails
chew a knuckle bored in the boughs
die a death of karaka-stained teeth
a small blonde body in the jonquils

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Review : The Bone Season

I wrote this up over the last couple of evenings, and just as I went to post it, I saw that Samantha Shannon posted on Twitter that it’s a year to the day since The Bone Season was released. Most fortuitous timing to be nattering about it here then, hm?

The Bone Season hovered on the edge of my reader consciousness for a while before I took the plunge. As I’ve probably mentioned here, the life of a bookseller is a wonderful one in many ways, but difficult in others – particularly when it comes to prioritising books to read. But months of noticing a staff pick card stuck to one of the computers at work (thanks, Ness!) eventually piled up and I decided it was time.

Nice work, self. The Bone Season

The basic genre concept of The Bone Season combines supernatural fantasy (love – when well executed) with dystopia (double love). I’m sure there are other examples of this combo out there, but I can’t recall having encountered one. Clairvoyance, alternate history, bit steampunky, dystopic future… it’s a helluva combo.

The main character, Paige, is well crafted in a way that many ‘genre’ characters tend not to be. She’s not superwoman, despite having rather unusual abilities – and at the same time, she’s not one to swoon wildly in the presence of preternaturally-beautiful god-like beings. Which is refreshing.

I’m looking at you, paranormal romance.

It’s such a fascinating world that Samantha Shannon has created. Dystopia always seems to exist in the terrifyingly plausible and familiar world, whereas fantasy is, well, fantasy. Combining the two is a satisfyingly eerie combination – some of the standard ‘oh GOD this could HAPPEN’ of dystopia is worn down because of the fantastical elements – but the characters are no less accessible because of it – the amaurotic vs. voyant divide may be an imaginary rift but it echoes many such historical instances of persecution.

It breathes life into a realm of fantasy that dances closely to real life – obviously there are people in the world who do place a lot of faith in psychics and tarot readers. What they would make of Shannon’s world, I don’t know, but it (almost) makes me want to believe.

We have many more to look forward to in this series, with Shannon being signed for three titles from the get go, and recently having this extended to all seven intended instalments.

As a reader? Bloody loved it. Read it swiftly. Finished it and looked up exactly when book two is due out.

As a writer? The usual sense of ‘what am I doing with my life?’ that one feels when encountering authors who get signed while still in undergrad. Admiration and frustration.

As a bookseller? DREAM. It’s adult fiction, but eminently readable but most of the young adult crowd. Written well – in such a way that non-‘genre’ readers might be willing to give it a go, but not so ‘literary’ (ugh, these labels) that those who generally stick with fantasy and/or SF (often high-concept/poor-execution)


The Bone Season is out now from the clever folks at Bloomsbury.

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The dark and the difficulty

On operations and depression and musical talent wasted.

Sorry, more angst before I get back into reviewing. It happens.

There is a Banksy poster on my wall – The Girl With The Balloon’. There is always hope. I bought it in a lighter time. Now, even though it is opposite it my bed, I rarely notice that it is there. Unconsciously ignoring the message?

Overworked and overwrought; life is catching up on me. Study and work and never saying no to requests for extra hours; trying to create my own things on the side. And on top of all of that, chronic illness and depression, and exhaustion.

It’s no wonder I’ve spent the last three mornings in bed, even if they have been tinged with guilt and a sense of irresponsibility. Like I haven’t earned the right to feel incapable of scooping myself out of bed in one piece without every fibre of my body – both physical and mental – screaming in protest. You need to REST.

Sleep is for the week, they say, and it may be true. Lately, sleep takes a long time to come and in the morning I can’t muster up anything that could be called energy. Yawning on nine hours of sleep. Waking up before alarms go off, but incapable of going back to sleep because the brain is laden down with feelings of guilt and fear and frustration.

I was going through some old word files recently, and found a bunch of ‘what I want to do with my life’ type documents from when I was sixteen/seventeen. Apart from using lyrics from ‘Girl Anachronism’ as my angsty version of Lorem Ipsum when I got off track, it’s so… hopeful. So upward gazing.

“what do i want with my life? what sort of a career do i want? i have no idea. i like the idea of too many things, i don’t love the idea of doing anything, right now. except for crazy impossible things, like tv presenter, radio presenter, scriptwriter, full-time author, actress, musician. artist of all trades. bette-type art gallery person. i don’t know. i will wind up being a teacher, probably. i don’t know what possibilities i have. i just know that i want creativity and recognition.”

I wrote the word ‘skinny’ six times in one document. Sorry, seventeen-year-old self, still not there. I wrote a hypothetical future in which I studied jazz at Victoria and modeled my wardrobe on Vita from The Tiggie Tompson Show and planned piercings at the top of my ear (well, that part I fulfilled).

“Going to be a French speaking, Classical and Artistic jazz musician who also writes. A writer who also plays jazz. I might even be in a rock band. I will have long black hair, with a Karen O fringe, then I will cut it short and dye it bright blue.”

I’ve never been in a band, and I’ve never really played jazz. It seems like my brief fascination with pursuing it was a sort of school leaver midlife crisis. My music has fallen through my fingers and the only instrument in this city is my ukulele. And in stress I chew my fingernails, making strumming more difficult. My flute and my voice have fallen on hard times, and they probably can never be revived to the standard that they were previously held to. Such standards that I held myself to.

That I still hold myself to – but now giving up is the option. If you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all – and so with school behind me and the only musical options either community based or semi-professional I let it slide away through formerly nimble fingers. Not dedicated enough to my craft for the AYO or equivalent, but too proud to play for a non-auditioned ensemble. And now, so out of practice that one wonders who would have me anyway?

What a tangent.

I nearly ran out of anti-depressants. Yesterday I had one pill left, and I finally worked up the will power to call the GP’s office to ask for a new prescription. It cost me $16 for the piece of paper. I’m nearly at the end of my second bottle of mercaptopruine; I’ve done my fourth Humira injection at home. To think that I spent a couple of months of last year free of all medication (apart from industrial strength painkillers) – how strange and fancy-free.

Soon it will be a year since my surgery, and thinking about that makes break down even more. I was supposed to be fixed. I was supposed to have had the reversal operation by now – I wasn’t supposed to still be smiling and strong and telling people how totally great and normal life with an ostomy can be. Because it’s horrible. It’s better than constant Crohn’s-type hell-pain, but it’s horrendous none the less. Something as simple as wondering where the hell to stash your boxes of supplies – or the fact that going out without a handbag or backpack is out of the question because one needs to always be prepared for an emergency situation. Or the constant gurgles.

I may write positively about it at times, but that’s only because I want to be seen as normal and capable. I don’t want to be this broken girl who fell so low because her body and her mind let her down.

 

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