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SWAMPTHING FRIDAY BOOK CLUB AUGUST 8, 2013 Second Edition
A Shining Debut
Div Collins reviews Craig Cliff’s first novel,
The Mannequin Makers...and was pleased to have done so...
“A man could disappear in Melbourne.”
Perhaps in the late 1800s – the year a character thinks this in The Mannequin Makers – this may have been true. For former Swampthing movie reviewers, however, when your editor wants to find you…it ain’t that difficult.
How fortunate then that the assignment was this rather excellent novel by Craig Cliff?
The Mannequin Makers is a daisy-chain of sorts: a larger story passed between particular characters and their smaller stories, stretching across two centuries.
The chain starts with Colton Kemp, a father numb with grief, stumbling through a rural South Island town on New Year’s Eve, 1902. It ends with his son, Eugen, considering past events on a Sydney beach in 1974. The themes of purpose and survival ensure a connection that gives the book a strong shape.
Kemp is a carpenter of sorts. Part of his trade is building and carving mannequins for storefront windows. In the small town of Marumaru, there are only two department stores. While Kemp builds scenes for one window, the other store’s display is constructed by his rival, a mute, enigmatic fellow that people come to call, The Carpenter. His mannequins are far more lifelike and expressive, and Kemp struggles to achieve the same (if not better) results from his own work. It’s a struggle that leads to a fascinating solution; one that sows the seed for success and possibility, before eventually turning to deceit, betrayal and, ultimately, peace.
Kemp’s opening section is the only section written in the third person. The descriptions of him rarely get close. When they do they’re always effective, sometimes beautiful:
“Even now, he thought, I am losing Louisa. Her image is becoming fixed in my head. Those thousand memories, that ever-changing face. All is being sanded down to one, and that will be sanded further until there is no life left.”
“He turned his back on his boss and began to walk the mile and a half back to his secluded property, hauling his earthly form as if it were an engine coupled to a dozen freight carriages, every step a fresh battle with inertia.”
Describing the ferocity of Kemp’s loss, from his point of view, would be to define, and limit, it. We’re supposed to be kept at a distance from Kemp. It makes his eventual opening-up to Eugen that much more effective.
The Carpenter’s story is told in the middle portion of the novel. It tosses between his youth and subsequent years much like the boat he found himself on as a young man. Unlike the eventual shipwreck these passages hold together and remain buoyant. The later part of his story comes with a good helping of suspense and tension. The Carpenter’s origins prove to be The Mannequin Makers’ compelling heart, beating strongly in the centre of the book.
The last pages will sneak up on you. Not every answer is given, nor secret revealed; real life is never so neat. The novel almost reads like a fairytale in places, but there’s also an authenticity. When you’re surprised by the abruptness of that final page, you won’t be disappointed.
Craig Cliff has taken the structure of his first book – the award-winning, A Man Melting; a short story collection where an element from one story is carried over to the next – and tinkered with it to great effect in his debut novel. Much like his craftsmen, Kemp and The Carpenter, Cliff has fashioned a lovely bit ‘o story – well-built and polished.
Craig Cliff at the library
An afternoon with the ex-Manawatu writer at the Palmerston North City Library. Craig will be talking about his new book The Mannequin Makers.
Date: Sunday 11th August
Where: Ground Floor, Central Library
RIPE FOR PICKING’’
Helen Lehndorf reviews Get Fresh by AL Brown - the book of his TV show
This is a beautiful book. Well-known chef and TV cook, Al Brown, whose restaurants include Logan Brown in Wellington and Depot in Auckland, travels ‘heartland’ New Zealand to see what regional specialities there are to be enjoyed. Get Fresh: Stories and Recipes from Heartland New Zealand. One Man, a Ute and a Frypan is the book accompaniment to Brown’s latest TV show of the same name.
So where is Brown’s ‘heartland’? The chapters are divvied up by the location: Dunedin, The Coromandel, Riverton (yep, Riverton gets a whole chapter), The Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury, Northland, Marlborough, Central Otago and South Auckland. South Auckland? Yes, South Auckland. I always thought ‘Heartland New Zealand’ meant ‘not Auckland’ but I guess not!
Get Fresh is not a recipe book in the usual sense. It’s part-travel, part-memoir and part-recipe book. Al Brown writes passionately about New Zealand regional food, bringing in his own recollections, memories and opinions.
Each chapter begins with a summary of a region’s ‘feel’ and culinary strengths, followed by a short essay where he talks about his experience at each of the featured Farmers’ Markets and the produce he finds there. While Brown writes specifically about the growers, makers and gatherers he visits, and meets, the essays are also full of information about the vegetables, nuts and meats he finds.
Each chapter concludes with a three course menu from the region that showcases the local ingredients. This book is not one for vegetarians. It is meat-heavy, but not with the usual supermarket-bland meat. Instead, it has the likes of beef-cheeks, shellfish or even offal. A ‘best of’ page shares where to visit, what to eat and drink, and a bit about the song chosen to go with that region. (I’ll get to that later.) Of course, the ‘where to visit’ information is at risk of dating quickly but it’s a great feature nonetheless, showing Brown’s research and experience.
Some of the dishes, like ‘Goat’s cheese tart’ and ‘Apple pie’, look like they could become firm favourites in a home-cook’s repertoire. Others, like ‘Watermelon parfait with wild blackberry’ or ‘Watermelon salad and mint and melon syrup’, probably fall into the category of ‘fun to read but I’d never cook it’.
The design of the book is great. The photographs are transporting. Photographs of markets, produce and growers/makers help intensify the vicarious travel feeling the book offers. The heading font has a kind of stencil look – one that you might see on a hand-painted sign or food truck menu – and text excerpts are white on black in a ‘chalk-on-blackboard’ style. It’s very thoughtful and clever.
Al Brown writes just as he talks, and the writing style is conversational, enthusiastic and very New Zealand, with phrases like ‘give it a nudge’, ‘get your head around’ and ‘I had the main course nailed’ peppering the text. His passion for not just New Zealand produce, but the country as a whole, shines through the book. He writes eloquently about his love for rural halls; how at the Coromandel market the local style was ‘dreadlocks, overalls, gumboots, oilskin vests, Gore-Tex and tie-dye’; and ‘Southland sushi’ (cheese rolls). I am yet to eat ‘Southland sushi’ but it is definitely on my bucket list.
Get Fresh is a nostalgic book, too. The author muses on childhood memories of eating flounder, gatherings at the local hall or standing outside the butcher’s as a kid, along with other assorted, fond, backward glances to a simpler New Zealand. Brown often signs off his essays with ‘Amen!’, ‘God Bless!’, ‘Congratulations to them!’, so you get the feeling you are part of some intimate community conversation. It’s compelling stuff.
He writes convincingly about Farmers’ Markets:
“Markets are one place where I refuse to rush, as they’re not just about tasting and buying the product. To me, much of the attraction is the interaction between the grower or producer and the customer. You can learn so much just by listening to what the person behind the stall is saying to another customer. It’s not a push and shove zone, it’s about patience and waiting your turn to have a moment or two with the providore. You’re not only learning about the product – how it is grown, how the season is shaping up – you’re also there for the sharing of cooking tips, and all the odd anecdotes and bits and pieces offered up by the passionate producer....When you know the people behind the products, their stories and their land, somehow when you cook or eat their produce, it inherently tastes better.”
This might be something of a romantic view, but it’s one I’m willing to adopt.
The only non-Farmers’ market Brown visits is South Auckland’s Otara Market: ‘
“There were no stands here selling cute cupcakes, quails eggs, fresh buffalo mozzarella or designer sausages at 30 bucks a kilo. It was not a place for the ditherer or the faint-hearted. It’s a hard-core, high-octane working market and I wish I lived next door to it.”
Despite the sophistication of his restaurants and recipes, he is at times wonderfully plain-speaking, sarcastic even, about some food trends. He scoffs at sprouts, for example, saying of micro-greens: ‘I have never really embraced the micro-herb world, always putting them into the ‘pretty novelty’ category: chefs strategically place these tiny leaves on a plate which I always think look a bit like nature’s pubes dotted about.’
His frankness throughout the book is refreshing and often funny: ‘Time and time again, I see great products with the wrong sorts of names and bad packaging. It drives me crazy … Why, if you have spent hours, weeks and sometimes years making and perfecting a great product why would you get your second-cousin who was runner-up in his graphics design course in fifth form and who is ‘really great on the computer’ to design the brand?’ On planning menus: ‘I subscribe to the ‘less is more’ category, after all, when you’re invited to a friend’s place for dinner, there is usually only one choice, and nine times out of ten it’s delicious.’
Get Fresh comes with a fabulous accompanying New Zealand music CD; Al Brown teamed up with Mike Chunn (formerly of Split Enz) to choose songs from local bands from each region. It is terrific that he promotes not only New Zealand music, but music from emerging musicians.
This beautifully designed, thoughtful and passionate book would make a great gift for the foodie in your life. Think about giving it to someone new to New Zealand and sharing a taste of our laidback, casual and community-centred style.
Finally, did the Manawatu get any mentions in the book?
Yes! One. On page 99, when Al is talking about his home region of the Wairarapa:
“I’ve always been proud of growing up in the Wairarapa. Viewed by many as a bit of rough diamond, it never had the envied reputation of say, the Hawkes Bay or the Manawatu.”
GET FRESH: Stories and Recipes from Heartland New Zealand.
By Al Brown
(Food photography by Kieran Scott, location photography by Peter Young.)
Random House NZ
RRP $60 (includes Al’s Road Trip Mix CD)
COMING SOON TO SWAMPTHING
Can you ‘get fresh’ in the Manawatu?
In the introduction of the Get Fresh, Al Brown writes about how he arrived in each region looking for what was ‘unique, fresh and in season’. He would start in the Farmers’ Market and go from there, so Swampthing decided to do a roadtrip to Manawatu’s award-winning Farmers’ Market in Feilding to use this same criteria of ‘unique, fresh and in season’ to explore what we might have been able to offer Al, had he passed through our region on his tour.