Monday, September 13, 2010

Birthday Books

Today is my 76th birthday. When I turned 70 I said to my mother I didn’t think I’d make it this far.’ She replied ‘I didn’t expect you to reach it either.’ So six more years. A bonus? I’m alive and life’s interesting, if stressful.

Yesterday, six friends came for late afternoon drinks. Despite being told not to, all three couples brought presents, very complementary in their nature and in their different spheres reflective of my three great interests, reading, gardening and cooking. The book was Alison Wong’s award winning ‘As the Moon turns Silver’ – a splendid choice for I’d been getting impatient. It had been ordered from the public library long ago and there must be a massive queue.

The garden present was produce placed in a box labelled ‘From Our Piece of Earth’ - homegrown tamarillos, lemons, parsley, walnuts, (in the shell and cracked) and two lovely florets of sweet-scented freesia. As I haven’t grown freesia since we left Farm Rd I was delighted to have this bunch. The final present was a generous amount of saffron with a promise to cook and bring a meal using it. Thoughtful presents all. Much appreciated.

This morning saw a bounty of books. Anne and I have evolved a system for Christmas and birthdays. The recipient orders some books they would like while Dorothy, the cat, makes a selection of something unexpected. The latter device has been surprisingly successful. It gives an unexpected flexibility in choice. The time I was given a life of Elizabeth David I thought the cat’s bombed out this year. She hadn’t. I enjoyed the life and it added two whole new dimensions to my cooking world – French recipes, (her’s were so much more simple compared with the complex Julia Childs ones) and books about cooking as literature, worth reading for their own sake. .

I had asked for Kathleen Jones’, one of the Tuesday Poets, life of Katherine Mansfield. By happenchance it turned up under other circumstances so we had a copy. Anne’s reading it first. I told her to choose a replacement. She made a decision to purchase Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, which has been rapturously greeted in America. It’s a big book. There’s a lot of reading there. Comparisons with Mansfield’s concise prose spring to mind before I even begin. But then as a wise teacher said to me sixty-odd years ago when I was ploughing excitedly through ‘Moby Dick’ ‘you don’t need to understand a book to like it.’ Block-buster carry their own appeal, it's like travel for a long time in vast new country..

The other order was for another Tuesday Poet, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s recent book, ‘Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau’. In my younger days I uncritically accepted Best as the interpreter of the old Maori, especially Tuhoe. As I’ve grown older I’ve become increasingly aware how that interpretation needs scrutiny.

I look forward to having Holman as my guide as I re-enter territory not visited for ages. Both geographically and intellectually. I’ve seen Lake Waikaremoa four times, each visit lasting a few days. It is the loveliest spot in the North Island. But the reviews of Holman’s book are clear that it is more than just about Tuhoe country – it is about the nature of our colonial history. That is a discourse that holds fascination. I noticed when I dipped into the books this morning this was the one I lingered over longest. It begins with a striking quote. ‘We use media to destroy cultures, but first we use media to create a false record of what we are about to destroy.’ .

Also in the book pile were the latest poetry collections from Kate Camp and Ingrid Horrocks. Not only  have they both had good reviews whetting my appetite I’ve enjoyed their previous work. And so to Dorothy’s two surprises. She couldn’t go to Melbourne so she sent a proxy. Anne, who in the Books for Cooks shop found two books that Dorothy thought were bang-on. I do too. Both involve M.F.K.Fisher the great American food writer. There is a reprint of one of her works and a book about her.

The reprint is ‘As They Were’, a collection of essays and articles that form a sort of autobiography. The cover has a reproduction of Cezanne painting, rosy apples, one green apple and a coffeepot, an appealing gem of an introduction. Book covers count. In earlier blogs I’ve sung the praise of Fisher’s prose. I dipped into one essay called ‘The Changeover’. A dip turned into a devour. I emerged envious, touched, in awe and felt I had been in Reno and been offered a coyote pup. Wow!

The cover blurb says ‘in a properly run country, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would be recognised as on of the great writers this country has produced this century.’ The New York Times Review.

The last Dorothy gift looks a gem. Joan Reardon has written a book called ‘M.F.K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating her Kitchen’. Reardon is a culinary historian - now that would be a fascinating occupation. I look forward to reading it with relish.

To complicate matters I’m half-way through Margaret Forster’s ‘Isa and May’ It’s the usual Forster country, a novel that reads as an autobiography it’s so real - female relationships, in this case a young woman and her two widely different grandmothers. Gradually family secrets tumble out. In novels they usually do. Being my mother’s son I’ll finish it – a satisfactory read - before I raid the new treasures now burdening my ‘to read’ shelf.

I can almost forgive the TV for going on the blink last night. But that’s another story.

Despite such minor harsh realities it's a time for celebration. Whitebait for dinner tonight. 76 seems today to be reasonable. Cheers! .


  1. Hope you enjoy the Best book, Harvey - happy birthday! If you enjoyed the quote on media and culture, seek out Edmund Carpenter's work - he's one of my inspirations, a radical anthropologist who worked with Marshal McLuhan. Cheers.

  2. Birthday greetings, Harvey - what thoughtful gifts your friends brought - and Dorothy the cat sounds wise and facilitative.