Crazy, Sexy, Cool
Maggie Rainey-Smith on the books she read in 2022
My year of reading kickstarted when, on the second day of January, I broke my wrist. This also meant that I missed out on a teaching contract. Instead I took up a lovely opportunity to co-edit—with Linda Burgess—Room to Write, the book celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Randell Cottage residencies. The book includes French writers who have lived in the cottage, but Linda and I were responsible for the 20 Kiwi writers and their submissions. All of the stories—some fiction, some not—have been translated from French to English or vice versa. I can’t lay claim to that part of the project. But I have done a lot of close reading of stories evoking the shifting moods and inspiration of writers dislocated either by hemisphere or the gift of solitariness.
One of my absolute favourite writers is the Australian novelist Michelle De Kretser. I rushed to read her latest book, Scary Monsters—it reads one way until halfway through, and then you turn it around and read another story. De Kretser writes so well about being ‘other’ and in this book she looks at racism, misogyny and ageism. I adored her Questions of Travel, which came out some years ago, as well as The Hamilton Case: I’ve been hooked ever since.
Another highlight was reading Fiona Kidman’s memoir So far for now. I admired her courage and insight writing about widowhood. She never shies away from tricky topics. I am an avid reader of New Zealand literature, so also read the novel Loop Tracks by Sue Orr, and two other memoirs: Grand by Noelle McCarthy, and You probably think this song is about you by Kate Camp (whose mother is in my book group). I also helped to launch Jan FitzGerald’s fourth poetry collection, A Question Bigger Than a Hawk. But my focus in the early part of the year was on my own poetry collection, Formica. It has been a thrill to have a poetry debut published at last. I describe it as a baby-boomer memoir. It’s had very warm reviews and I’ve had the most delightful conversations with friends and strangers who have contacted me to say, ‘This is my life’. This is so interesting to me as, of course, we think our own lives unique.
Most years now, I travel to South Korea: our youngest son has lived there for over 16 years. He is married with two darling children, my grandchildren. They live in Seoul, and I am besotted with this city, the people, the culture, and the writing. I am known to binge on Korean Netflix and can highly recommend Our Blues, a delightful anthology-style series based on the volcanic island of Jeju and different from the melodramatic—though fabulously satisfying—Seoul-set dark dramas about greedy corporations or over-ambitious parents. I re-read The Island of Sea Women by the US author Lisa See, which is about the lives of the Jeju women divers known as haenyeo, and the brutal treatment suffered by islanders during the anti-communist fervour that followed the second World War.
I also discovered the work of Hwang Sok-yong, one of South Korea’s foremost writers. His 2018 novel At Dusk, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. It’s the story of a man born into poverty who escapes the slums to find success and wealth as director of a large architectural firm. Visiting his old neighbourhood and reconnecting with a lost love, he recognises the cost of modernity, the loss of an old lifestyle. We see this when we visit Seoul, as our son has lived in some of the city’s less salubrious areas—Yeonsinnae and now Guro. Almost overnight, whole blocks will vanish to be replaced by high-rise apartments. There’s a gentle intimacy to At Dusk which I love about Korean writers, as well as the underlying darkness and the sense of outrage at injustice.
In Seoul, there’s a flea market near the Dongmyo shrine where ageing hipsters go to shop, to commune and to promenade. In the metro I’ve often seen the mostly elderly men in their dated but colourful fashion, but until this year I’d never been to the market. My son took me, and we had the best fun: I purchased a book by Kim Dong-hyun called Mut–Street Fashion of Seoul. (Mut is his version of meot, the Korean word for cool). It’s full of glossy full-colour photos of men and women, nearly all wearing hats, and dressed in a wide variety of what might be called yesteryears’ fashion. A delightful contrast to the hyper-conformist fashion of the younger people in the flash parts of downtown Seoul.
When I travel, I always take a book or two from my bookshelves that I haven’t got around to reading. This year it was Snow by the Turkish Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk and I was mesmerised. I’ve owned the novel for several years and there it was, waiting for me to uncover this fascinating fictional story of an exiled poet returning to Turkey. It is politically charged both overtly and obscurely. I’ve just been re-reading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, a book that had sat on my bookshelf for over a decade or two before I took it with me to Seoul one year and uncovered its brilliance. Re-reading is even more rewarding, and the book is littered with Post-it-notes so I can return to sentences and insightful descriptions of human motivation and character. Wow. It’s a grand love story with the backdrop of a post-war Britain, two beautiful orphaned colonial sisters and the men in their lives.
I share a passion for cold-water swimming with Kiwi author Paddy Richardson and I waited with anticipation for her new book By the Green of Spring. From my home, I look out towards Matiu Somes Island and some years ago I read Live Bodies by Maurice Gee. I enjoyed the historical details of the men interned on Somes but loved even more the post war lives in Blackball.
Most recently, on a road trip to the West Coast, in a Reefton bookshop I found Fay Weldon’s Leader of the Band, and I laughed uproariously at this crazy, sexy romp of a book. Sometimes it feels as though you will never catch up with all the amazing books that are written in New Zealand, let alone international authors. It was a treat to fossick and find a gem like this.
'I started to feel very guilty, as though I’d perpetrated a crime, a rort' - Stephanie Johnson