Thursday, September 25, 2014

THE CHINESE KEY FOR THE CHINESE CHEST


In the last four years, since that first earthquake on 4th September, 2010, I have become accustomed to seeing many people wearing hi-viz vests and hard hats appear at the door clutching clipboards and assorted instruments and telling me that they have come to measure this or inspect that.

Once or twice I’ve wondered. There was a young pair who appeared without notice and asked permission to make an inspection. They would not need to come inside, they said. I watched as they walked around outside but they made no notes and took no measurements. Since then I’ve taken mental notes, checked IDs, collected dozens of business cards, looked carefully into many pairs of eyes – just in case. 

Yesterday a young man, who had made an appointment, was due at eleven. He was to check for the dreaded asbestos, commonly found in older houses but now of course outlawed. Whatever he had to do had to be done alone – I was required to go out and leave him to it.  Alarm bells clanged. Leave a stranger in the house alone? It might all be a hoax, designed to get me out of the house while villains backed up a truck and cleared the place out. My pictures! My Collected Works! My Jools! My Notes! My Autographed Books! My Work in Progress! My Laptop! My Kindle!

That was all really, no one was going to get rich on what they found here. However, I spent time trying to find the strange Chinese key for the strange Chinese padlock for the Chinese chest so that I could hide small treasures in there. Then I looked for the ordinary key to the Chinese desk so I could lock the Chinese key and the Japanese camera in the desk. But wait! I couldn’t put the Japanese camera in the Chinese chest because I had decided to take a photo of the young man. Why? In case he turned out to be a gang, of course, and I would later be able to show the Police a photo.

He was charming. How could I mistrust this open faced fellow? I took his picture, babbling about how I was recording all the quake experiences, and he stood there and grinned happily. I explained that he shouldn’t try to go out the back door because it was stuck fast and the glass would break. I told him where the manholes were. I gave him a key and told him to lock up and – such creative thinking – hide the key under the doormat when he was done. Then, fingers crossed, I left him to it.

My trust was not misplaced - this time.

 

 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

PALM-SIZED FICTION



Having read hundreds of books as a book reviewer, and hundreds more for my personal pleasure, I have come to understand something about what, and why, I read. And to think about what I don’t read.

The books for review have been a mix of fiction and non-fiction. The subject matter of the non-fiction has ranged widely in both scope and depth, and has sometimes been challenging but almost always rewarding. There are no drawbacks to learning something new or seeing a different point of view.  And having to consider what to write about a given book not only focuses the mind but furnishes it too.

landscape (detail)
The fiction – novels and short stories – has included books that I might never have chosen for myself. In fact, in real life I rarely choose fiction. I’m one of those people who normally, in libraries and shops, scan the first page and only turn to the second if the author has managed to catch my interest. But as a reviewer I read right through, critically but, I hope, fairly. Doing so taught me that the first page doesn’t always offer reliable indications about the rest of the book, and I was often pleasantly surprised.

That held true for full-length novels and books of short stories, although sometimes I felt cheated that a book plugged as a novel turned out to be a book of short stories so thinly connected that you could hardly see the stitches. When I worked in the trade the prevailing opinion was that books of short stories were unpopular, and only established writers could risk cobbling together enough shorts to fill the space between the covers. I used to wonder why that should be. After all, people have always enjoyed stories from babyhood onwards, and the length has always varied to match both subjects and attention spans.

Now there is a fashion for what are called, among other things, short-shorts, flash fiction, micro-fiction, drabbles and the wonderfully quirky Chinese “palm-sized”.  Shorts can be anything from six words (for example the often quoted “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn”) to about 300 words – and telling a story within that limit is a challenge.  But – there isn’t time to savour them.  

I’ve just glanced at a new batch of flash fiction, published with a common theme, on-line at http://flash-frontier.com  Twenty-six of them, one after the other. Obviously they are of mixed quality, but all are worth reading. But they remind me why I am not drawn to short fiction, even though I have written some and will continue to do so.  For me, a story has to be long, structured, elegant, thoughtful, gripping, satisfying. Something with depth. Something that lingers in the mind. Something at around 200 pages.

 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIBLES AND CHEERS



When I was working at the Minerva Book Shop in Auckland back in the sixties I came across a newly published and runaway best-selling book called “Let Stalk Strine” by Afferbeck Lauder*.  I was immediately taken back in my mind a couple of decades or more to another country. I was a recent arrival from Japan where I spoke only Japanese and English, but suddenly, in the new country, I was having to cope with a new, strange language – Australian.

I was used to culture shock, and to adapting to my surroundings. After all, at seven I had already lived in several towns and cities in two different countries and had attended at least four schools. How hard could it be to pay attention and deal with the new surroundings and the new language? It wasn’t long before the reality hit. In the first of three Australian schools I came up against a young student teacher who, under supervision, was let loose on our class with a spelling test.

No problem – I was good at spelling, mainly because I was already an avid reader.  All went well enough with most of the kids until Miss Thing pointed at me, smiled a hopeful smile, and said “Tible.”  Assuming that this was an unknown Australian word, I fell back on phonetics and spelt out “T-I-B-L-E.” 

“Wrong!” said Miss Thing. 

I was furious. “You said tible so I spelt tible!” How else, after all?

“Oy didn’t sigh toible, Oy said tible!”
 
A battle ensued as they say (probably somewhere in a Shakespeare play) and I went home bewildered and in a roaring temper. Of course, as children do, I soon learned to speak Strine, and even now, when I pop across The Ditch, I drift seamlessly into Strine when in the company of other Strine speakers.

Mr Lauder would have understood my problem. He published other books including “Nose Tone Unturned” and a couple of books that made fun of poncy upper class English: “Fraffly Well Spoken” and “Fraffly Suite”.  He even wrote a song: “With Air Chew” (as in “I can't win, I can't reign, I will never win this game, with air chew…”).  He was an Australian himself and he knew how Australians talk. He was responsible for the introduction of several Strinisms that have lasted the distance, such as “dismal guernsey” “egg nishner” and “Emma Chisit” – reputedly the reply of a woman asked by a writer at a book signing what her name was so he could personalise the autograph.

Where was Afferbeck Lauder way back then, when I really needed him?

*The confused should try reading the Strine examples aloud

Friday, September 5, 2014

COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO


I’m a rooster, according to the Chinese zodiac charts. This only recently occurred to me, because for some reason the memory of an old napkin ring, which I haven’t seen or even thought of for decades, surfaced. Not, in fact, a ring but a triangle. It was silver, my name was engraved on it, and on the apex stood a rooster. It would have been a christening present and the significance of the rooster came back to me. I was born in Japan in one of the years of the rooster. So I googled it.

We roosters are fine-feathered (we like loud, fancy clothes), observant (beady-eyed), outspoken (stamp on people’s toes), enjoy the limelight (and become cranky if we don’t get it), hold the stage on all possible occasions (and expect everyone to pay attention) and we talk a lot. We can brag for Africa and are forever banging on about our accomplishments, which annoys the dickens out of those who can’t escape. Oooops.

Roosters are hard-working and multi-talented – hell, we can do anything if we put our minds to it.  We are active, amusing, charming, attractive and beautiful. Yes, that’s what it says here, I’m only repeating what it says, and anyway I was the most beautiful baby in the world. Promises, promises … 

Roosters are rarely sick but we can be sensitive and get moody and stressed at times. Not surprising, having to be all the above, all the time, there’s so much to live up to. We apparently enjoy sports such as hiking (ha, what do they know!) and swimming (yep, can do that, mother made sure of it). We grow up to be newsreaders, sales persons, restaurant owners, hairdressers, public relations officers, farmers, athletes, teachers, waiters, journalists, travel writers, dentists, surgeons, soldiers, firemen, security guards, and police officers.

Ah well, it’s too late for all that now. I clearly made the wrong choices, and anyway I hardly recognise myself in all that up there. What about predictions for the future? Oh goodie, new admirers are lining up – hope they can dance, like to mow lawns and are handy with hammers. But there’s a warning too: given a choice, I’m advised to lean more towards business and career rather than romance. Hmmm.