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How to spend $1000 at Unity Books: the final episode

As winner of the 2015 Nigel Cox Award, Steve Braunias was awarded $1000 worth of books at Unity. He’s finally spent the last dollar, and reports on his shopping spree.

The thing about winning the Nigel Cox Prize is that it comes as a total surprise to the chosen authors, and I hate surprises. The announcement I’d won last year was made very suddenly onstage at the Auckland Writers Festival. It came at the end of a session in which David Slack and myself said haw-haw-haw things about satire and such. The audience had got up to leave and so had I when Susanna Andrew from Unity Books appeared out of the blue and started saying something very loudly into a microphone. It had something to do with the fact I’d won an award, which should have been the cause of great delight but I was startled and took it in very bad grace.

Afterwards it was the cause of great delight. The prize: $1000 worth of books at Unity, awarded to an author “considered to have an exceptional way with words”. Awesome, bro.

It’s a wonderful prize and I felt like a god whenever I sauntered into Unity Books this past year. Anything I wanted was mine. It was there for the picking. I could say: This and this and this, and walk out. I read so much and so much of it was fantastic, on occasion very nearly life-changing, and there was an exciting sense of being connected to new literature.

As a lifelong cheapskate I do most of my book buying in second-hand bookstores. I love the randomness of it and the chance discoveries, the missing pieces picked up for a song. It’s where I feel at home and at ease, and of course a lot of it’s got to do with the economy fares. But it means I’m always behind the times. I spend most of my reading life with things like Elmore Leonard’s cowboy novel Last Stand at Saber River (1959) or JC Beaglehole’s elegant history The Discovery of New Zealand (1939) or Lytton Strachey’s eternally outrageous Eminent Victorians (1918) or Historia Calamatatum (c1133), in which Paul Abelard writes the incredible sentence, “They had vengeance on me with a most cruel and a shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world, for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.”

Unity brought me into the 21st century. And yet I was still looking backwards; a theme of my buying were biographical works of some of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. But I also bought modern fiction and modern New Zealand writing and modern crime writing.

With a generosity I now bitterly regret, I said to Emily and Minka, “Choose what you want!” I’ve gone around the house to gather my books I got with the Unity prize, and done the maths, and can account for $658. My generosity can be measured at $342, which is very generous indeed, he said bitterly.

So this is what I got for myself.

Salinger (Simon & Schuster, $43) by David Shields and Shane Salerno: Told as oral history, this was revelatory reading – I had no idea Salinger was such a wretch. God almighty. What a strange and unhappy life, and what strangeness and unhappiness he gifted to others. But the writing life, those precious years when his genius went to work, is so excitingly told.

Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster, $50) by J Michael Lennon: “Ample and very loyal,” as Andrew O’Hagan yawned. Lennon’s biography of the great American stylist is too kind to Mailer’s lesser works, which formed the greater part of his writing. So many of the novels were junk. There was bad poetry, too, and worthless dithering reflections upon Life And That towards the end of his life. Lennon loves the lot, and his plot summaries take up many boring pages; perversely, he’s almost dismissive of terrific works such as The Fight, which I think may well have more great sentences than just about any book of non-fiction. But you can’t fail to write a good biography of someone as crazy as Mailer, and Lennon is very diligent as he follows the fortunes and fucks of Mailer’s busy life.

Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago, $28) by Tracey Thorn: Well-reviewed memoir by the Everything But The Girl singer. It was okay I guess but at the end of the day it was rock-chick lit.

Clothes, Music, Boys (Faber, $30) by Viv Albertine: Well-reviewed memoir by The Slits guitarist. It was okay I guess but at the end of the day it was rock-chick lit. What was I thinking buying it, and the Thorn book? I’m amazed I didn’t also waste my money on the Kim Gordon book.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (HarperCollins, $27) by Richard Hell: That’s more like it! I was a huge Hell fan when he was in his pomp as a bohemian punk rock frontman in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he writes really interestingly about the New York scene and in particular Tom Verlaine. There’s a sad encounter when they meet years later as strangers. There’s also this sentence: “Kathy Acker wanted me to slap her while I fucked her in the ass.”

Richard Hell, performing in the movie Blank Generation, (1980) Credit: Youtube

Richard Hell, performing in the movie Blank Generation, (1980) Credit: Youtube

Landfall 229 (Otago University Press, $30): I bought this because I wanted to read the excerpt from the work in progress Adam Dudding was writing. I gather he’s finished the memoir of his father Robin and it’s due to be published later this year. Going by the excerpt, it’s going to be one of the best New Zealand books of 2016.

Phone Home Berlin (Victoria University Press, $35) by Nigel Cox: I bought it partly because the Unity award is named after the late New Zealand writer, and more so because I simply wanted to read these selected essays by one of our most elegant authors. It was an absolute pleasure.

This House of Grief (Text, $38) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador, $37.95), both by Helen Garner: I was bored to sobs by the latter book – I just couldn’t care less about the crime it describes – but I was deeply moved by the former. Garner’s book about the death of three little boys, killed when their father drove the car into a lake, was devastating to read. Life-changing, you could say. Her skill and approach at writing non-fiction had a huge impact. I had to try and promptly forget it because shortly afterwards I took time off work to write my book The Scene of the Crime. But I included one of her insights, quoting it at the front of one of my chapters about Mark Lundy: “There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our destructive urges.”

Immortal (Century, marked down to $12) by Duncan Hamilton: Yet another biography of George Best. They’re all good.

Irish footballer George Best is led away by policemen. He was later accused of drunk driving and assaulting a police officer.    (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

George Best surrounded by adoring fans. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, $45) by Jon Ronson: Everything Jon Ronson writes is great.

A Man in Love (Vintage, $27) by Karl Ove Knausgaard: I haven’t got around to reading this novel yet.

Purity (Fourth Estate, $37) by Jonathan Franzen: Or this one.

Joan Didion: The Last Love Song (St Martin’s Press, $69) by Tracy Daugherty: I haven’t got around to reading this biography of the one of the greatest American writers of last century yet.

Updike (Perennial, $30) by Adam Begley: Or this one.

Jospeh Mitchell: Man in Profile (Random House, $59) by Thomas Kunkel: I haven’t got around to finishing this biography of the one of the greatest American writers of last century yet; I got nearly half-way, and absolutely loved it. Mitchell is just about everyone’s favourite journalist. His masterpiece Joe Gould’s Secret changed the way I think about journalism and about story writing. I didn’t quite get up to the writing of that book in Kunkel’s excellent biography, and of course I’ve yet to get to the years where Mitchell went to work every day at the New Yorker, hung up his coat, sat behind his desk, and wrote – nothing.

Truman Capote (Anchor, $30) by George Plimpton: Immensely depressing oral biography of one of the greatest American writers of last century. The guy turned into a complete shambling wreck. But there is some great stuff in here, and it includes an interview Capote gave to the New York Times in 1966, just as In Cold Blood was about to come out. We can think of In Cold Blood now as perhaps the greatest work of what might be stinkingly called “creative non-fiction”. It’s a masterpiece. But it would be erroneous to think it was the first book to play with fiction and non-fiction, and make something special out of it. Capote tells his interviewer : “The decision to write a true account of an actual murder case was based on a theory I’ve harboured since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘non-fiction novel’, as I thought of it. Several admirable reporters – Rebecca West for one, Joseph Mitchell and Lillian Ross – have shown the possibilities of narrative reportage.” Fascinating that Capote was aware of Mitchell; perhaps, though, he wasn’t entirely of the extent Mitchell invented things, and had already done so much to invent the “non-fiction novel”.

American author Truman Capote (1924 - 1984).    (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Truman Capote (1924 – 1984). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Do Not Sell at Any Price (Scribner, $30) by Amanda Petrusich: I’m reading this right now and loving every page of it. Petrusich is a music journalist in the US, and her book is about “the wild, obsessive hunt for the world’s rarest 78rpm records.” She writes so beautifully, and funnily, too. The book also just happens to intersect with the subject of a book I want to publish next year: I’ve been working these past few months on collecting New Zealand LPs, with a view to publishing a selection of somewhere between 100 to 200 of the weirdest, most hilarious, most striking and most appalling covers. Let me say at once that kitsch and Kiwiana are only a small, unavoidable part of it; I hate kitsch and Kiwiana. But I love stories, and the vinyl records of old tell a particular and peculiar history of New Zealand culture. I’m only collecting from charity stores and it’s rare that I find any rock’n’roll. As such much of my collection of about 350 LPs could accurately be described as junk – brass bands, choirs, Christian music, Suzanne Prentice, Howard Morrison, Bid’s Old Time Accordion Band. Some of them , though, contain really good music. Sometimes it’s great art. Who does the better version of Schubert’s “Ava Maria” – Kiri Te Kanawa, on an exciting live album recorded at the New Plymouth Brooklands Bowl, or Malvina Major, on her holy debut album? Petrusich discovers a lot of really good music and great art. They include the haunting, powerful pre-war blues which she listens to on 78, and writes about with a fabulous intensity of feeling. What a writer she is. What a wonderful book. A thousand thanks, Unity!

 

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