Category Archives: Bookishness

Reading List for 2017

Here we go again. I console myself with the fact that a) I do read more each year when I make these lists, and b) I do actually read some of these books. It’s a selection from Year’s Best compilations, unread books from previous lists of mine, suggestions of friends, and ideas from Andy Miller’s excellent The Year of Reading Dangerously.

  • Don DeLillo | Zero K
  • Iris Murdoch | The Sea, The Sea
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Oliver Ready transl.) | Crime and Punishment
  • Dave Eggers | What is the What
  • Dave Eggers | Heroes of the Frontier
  • Rebecca Solnit | Hope in the Dark
  • Dexter Palmer | Version Control
  • China Miéville | The Census-Taker
  • Alexander Weinstein | Children Of The New World
  • Brian Evenson | A Collapse Of Horses: A Collection Of Stories
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee | The Gene: An Intimate History
  • Han Kang | The Vegetarian: A Novel
  • Ann Patchett | Commonwealth
  • Stephen Asma | Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads
  • Shaun Hendy | Silencing Science
  • Philip Larkin | Collected Poems
  • Michael King | Moriori: a People Rediscovered
  • Breece D’J Pancake | The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake  
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Joris-Karl Huysmans | Against Nature
  • Isabel Allende | Zorro
  • Arthur Golden | Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Hannah Arendt | Origins of Totalitarianism

2016 Reading

Last year I managed to read fewer books than the year before, due of course to the Four Horsemen of the Bookopalypse (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and downloadable TV). Some were great, some not so much.

Of the science books I finished, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl stood out. Stunning writing about plant biology interspersed with memoirs of a career in science. A book I’d like to give to all the young women I know starting on a research career; both inspiring and sobering. Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor is an up-to-date overview of current conservation debates: Why should we save endangered species? Are resurrected species the same or different? To what extent are humans managing nature and steering evolution? George Monbiot’s Feral, in the same vein, was an interesting meditation on rewilding and recreating vanished ecosystems, but too concerned with creating wilderness in that least wild of areas, Wales. Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, a cultural study of British and US taxidermy, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, Victorian fads, kitsch, and Damien Hirst, had, unforgivably, no photos.

Danyl McLauchlan has created an entire genre of Dan-Brown-esque Wellington Absurdist Noir in just two books: Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of ditto: great rollicking reads, deflating themselves at regular intervals, although I enjoyed the first more. They’re especially poignant for anyone with the misfortune to have lived in damp depressing Devon St, as I once did. I once even excavated an Aro Valley backyard in much the same way as black-robed cultists do in Unspeakable Secrets, but found only bits of broken bottle.

Steve Braunias’s How to Watch a Bird captures the pull of birdwatching as an outsider immersing himself in that world for a year. It includes a great interview with grand old man of New Zealand ornithology Graham Turbott, and a cameo by Major Wilson of Bulls (whose egg collection I recently inventoried). The other natural history book I adored was Dave Hansford’s Protecting Paradise, an important overview of the 1080 debate that doesn’t satisfy itself with just stating the science but delves into the psyche of hard line 1080-haters and examines their motivations. Very relevant in this era of alternative facts.

This year I took part in the 100 Days project, trying to draw something every one of those days. My guide for this was the inspirational Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws, a simply superb tutorial book. Also a fine teacher is Lynda Barry, in whose amazing Syllabus we see a class of non-drawers learning to write, observe, and depict themselves and their lives through exercises, movies, diaries, and non-destructive feedback. It’s epitomised by Barry’s rule about candy in the classroom: the students can have as much free candy as they want, but they have it draw it first.

My favourite book of 2016 was by my friend Ashleigh Young. In Can You Tolerate This? she created a Wunderkammer of essays, all connected by invisible threads, all in her distinctive thoughtful voice. Whether it’s growing up in Te Kuiti or skeletal deformity it’s a pleasure to be in her company and see the world with fresh eyes. Recommended.

The disappointments of the year included Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats (mostly forgettable New Yorkerish amusements), Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence (one of my favourite SF writers but not a good collection), and re-reading Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, not as impressive as recall it being 20 years ago.

So in 2016 I managed only 19 books, (out of interest, six by women). That compares to 28 the year before, just 18 in 2014, and 30 in 2013. The last time I made a serious effort to read more, blogging each month, was in 2012 when I finished 73 books (discussed in crushing detail in the rest of the category Bookishness). I think making reading lists is how I fight to delay Bücherdämmerung.

Recommended Reading

Instead of a bio I used to have this following carefully-curated list of books on my About page, in line with the philosophy that a person’s true nature is revealed by their bookshelf. Now I just think they’re good books.

  • Possession • A. S. Byatt
  • Atonement • Ian McEwan
  • Distraction • Bruce Sterling
  • Master and Commander &c. • Patrick O’Brian
  • How Buildings Learn • Stewart Brand
  • A Pattern Language • Christopher Alexander et al.
  • Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions • John Michell
  • The Empty Space • Peter Brook
  • Last Letters from Hav • Jan Morris
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything • Bill Bryson
  • Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable • Ebenezer Brewer (et al.)
  • On Food and Cooking • Harold McGee
  • Little, Big • John Crowley
  • Classic Italian Cooking • Marcella Hazan
  • Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type • Geoffrey Dowding
  • Real World Scanning and Halftones • David Blatner &c.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style • Robert Bringhurst
  • The History Man • Malcolm Bradbury
  • Catch-22 • Joseph Heller
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside • John & Bunny Mortimer

February Reading

Books Acquired

  • What If? | Randall Munroe

Books Read

  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • Latin for Birdwatchers | Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

I stumbled across Latin for Birdwatchers in the New Books section of the library, and it seemed like the perfect nerdstorm; I enjoyed it so much I wrote a whole page for the local paper about birds’ Latin names. The Whanganui Central Library is really pretty good for a town of 40,000: they have a reasonable acquisitions budget, good taste, and seem to take notice of patrons’ suggestions for purchase. 

The other good read this month was George Saunders’ latest collection. I’d really enjoyed Pastoralia, Persuasion Nation, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He’s a postmodern writer uncannily like David Foster Wallace in tone and use of language, except without the footnotes. The style is fizzing and inventive, and good at slowly revealing a horrid truth bubbling away under the bland conversations of his characters. There are bleak character studies of damaged people put in impossible situations, in a disturbing America, sliding into dystopia or already there. The only thing I didn’t enjoy were the brief bits of science fiction seemingly written, just like DFW’s, by someone who thinks SF is a joke and an excuse to make up silly futuristic brand names. But most of this collection is haunting and memorable.

I started H is for Hawk, and finally opened Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, which had been sitting on my shelves for many years. The Penguin History of New Zealand is rather like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, an account of the long history of Aotearoa told from the perspective of penguins. Since I hate penguins, this may be a challenging read, and I’m not expecting too much to happen for the first few million years.

January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • A Handbook of Biological Illustration | Frances Zweifel
  • Father and Son | Edmund Gosse
  • A Heart So White | Javier Marías

Books Read

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • What’s Become of Waring | Anthony Powell

The Crack-Up, a collection of memoir and short fiction, was one of those books recommended on Twitter in a flurry of knowing tweets, possibly calculated to make you feel like a philistine if Gatsby was the only Fitzgerald you’ve read. It’s a short collection and certainly worthwhile: the title essay is particularly good, an exploration of Fitzgerald’s alcoholic breakdown with some pithy introspection. Of the short stories, I thought “Pat Hobby Himself” and “Financing Finnegan” were a pair of little gems, perfectly-formed satires of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The corresponding European Golden Age is captured by an elegant sample of Stefan Zweig’s cultural history, autobiography, and fiction. Zweig was a journalist and biographer, and his moving evocation of pre-WWI Vienna, and what it was to be a cosmopolitan young writer amidst it all, is taken from his memoir The World of Yesterday. I first came across Zweig in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, an alphabetical examination of art and politics for which Zweig and his 1942 suicide provides the capstone; James praised his portrait of Vienna—a city I spent two summers in and adore—so I decided I’d read it “one day”. Which would probably not have happened but for this sampler, compiled by Wes Anderson to accompany The Grand Budapest Hotel—hence the twee pink hand-lettered cover and the twee title (a reference to a fictional society of concierges in the film, nothing to do with the author himself). But if the movie tie-in acts as a gateway to reading more Zweig, I can forgive it.

Anthony Powell to me is a wodge of tasteful bricks that make up A Dance to the Music of Time on other people’s bookshelves, one of those forbidding series of novels we always mean to read when we have a good long span to concentrate in, perhaps whilst in exile on St Helena. But younger Powell was a comic writer, and a couple of his short early amusements sounded worth a read. What’s Become of Waring is an entertaining jaunt, with a cunning structure that looks even more cunning in retrospect; Evelyn Waugh without the manic flashes of silliness or the blackest cynicism.

Reading List for 2015

In 2012, making a to-read list had the interesting effect of dramatically increasing the amount of miscellaneous reading I did, even though I only polished off half of it. So I’m trying it again. Some of these are professional (Simon, Berentson, Campbell-Hunts), some the books-of-today (Macdonald, Hager, Gibson, Link), and some classics I’ve always meant to try (Powell, Bulgakov, Gosse). A mix of fiction and non-, but only 7 female authors out of 26. They’re collected from the year’s best-of lists, some recommendations of well-read friends, and the enthusiasms of strangers on Twitter.

  • Nina Simon | The Participatory Museum
  • Meg Wolitzer | The Interestings
  • Javier Marías | The Infatuations
  • Simon Rich | Spoiled Brats
  • Anthony Powell | What’s Become of Waring
  • Anthony Powell | The Afternoon Men
  • Joe Sacco | Bumf
  • Helen Macdonald | H is for Hawk
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Nicky Hager | Dirty Politics
  • Quinn Berentson | Moa
  • Ryan Reynolds et al. (eds.) | Once in a Lifetime
  • Mark Miodownik | Stuff Matters
  • William Gibson | The Peripheral
  • Marilynne Robinson | Gilead
  • Stefan Zweig | The Society of the Crossed Keys
  • Charles Stross | Accelerando
  • Edmund Gosse | Father and Son
  • Mary Renault | The Last of the Wine
  • George Saunders | Tenth of December
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald | The Crack-Up
  • Svante Pääbo | Neanderthal Man
  • Randall Munroe | What If?
  • Diane Campbell-Hunt & Colin Campbell-Hunt | Ecosanctuaries
  • Andrew Mack | Searching for Pekpek
  • Kelly Link | Get in Trouble

Reading List for 2013

Tsundoku (Japanese): The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.

Last year I came up with a reading list of 47 books for 2012, but got through only 23, so I’ve scaled it back this year to a couple of dozen. I’ve sourced it from the Listener and Slate best-books-of-2012 lists, recommendations of D and friends, and even a suggestion from a random Twitter follower, but overall my cunning strategy this year is to be, well, late.

Last year the New Zealand media went into a full-scale literary feeding frenzy because The Forrests was tipped for the Man Booker Prize by an anonymous comment on the Hay Festival website. Anonymous British praise? Let’s all get in a fizz! Most Kiwis had never heard of the Hay Festival, of course, and for all the media knew it could have been any of the Festival staff; perhaps a caterer. “Look you, that Emily Perkins, she’d be a dead cert for Booker. You want chips with that, love?” The Forrests was the Listener book club pick only a few days after it had been officially published, and copies still damp from the presses were flying off bookstore shelves.

I decided it might be nicer to read it in 2013.

  • Alain-Fournier | Le Grand Meaulnes
  • Alain Badiou | In Praise of Love
  • Nicholson Baker | The Way the World Works
  • Julian Barnes | Through the Window
  • Quinn Berentson | Moa
  • Laurent Binet | HHhH
  • Katherine Boo | Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
  • Oliver Burkeman | The Antidote
  • Paul Callaghan | Wool to Weta
  • Bernardo Carvalho | Nine Nights
  • Richard Ford | Canada
  • Richard Fortey | Dry Storeroom No. 1
  • Nick Harkaway | The Gone-Away World
  • Ian Kershaw | Hitler: Profiles in Power
  • Elizabeth Jenkins | Harriet
  • Denis Johnson | Train Dreams
  • Ben Lerner | Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Mark Lynas | The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans
  • Robert Macfarlane | The Old Ways
  • Hilary Mantel | Bring Up the Bodies
  • Joe Meno | The Boy Detective Fails
  • Lydia Millet | How the Dead Dream
  • Nancy Mitford | Wigs on the Green
  • Alison Moore | The Lighthouse
  • Lawrence Norfolk | John Saturnall’s Feast
  • Lawrence Patchett | I Got His Blood On Me
  • Emily Perkins | The Forrests
  • Rebecca Priestley | Mad on Radium
  • David Quammen | Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
  • Keith Ridgway | Hawthorn and Child
  • Marilynne Robinson | When I Was A Child I Read Books
  • Kim Stanley Robinson | 2312
  • Nina Simon | The Participatory Museum
  • David Thomson | The Big Screen
  • Claire Tomalin | Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self
  • Rose Tremain | Restoration
  • Chris Ware | Building Stories
  • Ashleigh Young | Can You Tolerate This?

December Reading

Books Acquired

  • Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertant Education of a Reluctant Chef | Gabrielle Hamilton
  • The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren | Peter and Iona Opie
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers | Katherine Boo
  • Restoration | Rose Tremain
  • Equus | Peter Shaffer
  • Coming Up Roses | Sarah Laing
  • It Chooses You | Miranda July
  • The Uncommon Reader | Alan Bennett
  • Worst Journeys: the Picador Book of Travel | Keath Fraser

Books Read

  • Bad Science | Ben Goldacre
  • The Desolation Angel | Tim Wilson
  • The Last Days of Hitler | Hugh Trevor-Roper

The highlight this month, and one of the best books I read all year, was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, wherein he debunks alternative medicine, dodgy medical research, and credulous journalism while giving us a crash course in clear thinking and basic stats. I know it’s too much to ask all doctors, scientists, and (especially) journalists to write in such an engaging and straighforward way, but they could at least read Goldacre to see how it’s done. I’d recommend this book for anyone who has to weight up the claims of medical researchers and alternative-medicine practitioners (and that’s pretty much all of us, these days). Goldacre’s coming to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in May, and I’m sure he’ll be worth catching.

Over a year ago, I decided I would draw up a reading list for 2012, cribbing from various best-ofs and friends’ suggestions. It was an experiment to see what effect this had on my book-buying (which had gotten a bit out of control) and my reading (which had started to wither away). So how did the Year of Reading experiment go?

My 2012 reading list was 47 books, about 16,500 pages total, and I finished 23 of them. A couple of books I dropped from the list: Caribou Island because it sounded totally depressing, Hungry Heart because I saw Peter Wells speak at the Writers Festival and lost all confidence in wading through what seemed like an overly-idiosyncratic biography of Colenso. So that’s a 50% success rate.

But the big surprise was in how much other reading I got done, just by consciously setting aside time for it: 73 books total, one every five days. Most of my reading for the year was not therefore taken from that carefully-curated reading list, but it still seems to have served a purpose.

Consciously keeping track of everything I bought also proved interesting. Over the year I acquired 123 books, and had one of my irregular shelf purges in October, which got rid of 40 (for credit at Classics and Suchlike in Ponsonby, so eventually to be converted back into books again, but fewer books in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.) I could then calculate how many unread books I’d accumulated:

(Books acquiredbooks purged) – books read = net library gain
(123 – 40) – 73 = 10 (yes, that is ten)

For the first time in Lord-knows-how-many years, reading almost kept up with buying. True, only because of a one-off asset liquidation, and true, this doesn’t reduce the Current Reading Deficit which LibraryThing helpfully tells me stands at 270 books. But it’s something, so I declare the Year of the Reading List a success.

Favourites: The Stranger’s Child, Bad Science, The Road, Moominpappa at Sea, Bird by Bird, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, The Sisters Brothers
Abandoned: Feast Day of Fools, Dreamers of the Day, In War Times, Are You My Mother?
Should Have Abandoned: Anathem, Home Fires

Something I learned from this experiment is that putting a big, forbidding book on a reading list is not enough actually to make you read it: the doorstop of The Rest is Noise, with its suggested iTunes playlist, sat by my bed for a couple of months. Reading lists can be good, though, for making you pick up something you always meant to get to. The Last Days of Hitler is history as investigative journalism, reconstructing the end of the Third Reich immediately after its demise, at a time when the fate of Hitler was still a matter of rumour. Trevor-Roper methodically dispels the idea that the Nazi regime was a totalitarian machine: in his blunt account, it was a bunch of scheming clowns and courtiers.

My final book of the year, which took some tracking down given it’s by a local author, was Tim Wilson’s remarkable short story collection about OE, sex, the media, and bleak relationships; each story a small slightly surreal gem. I finished it on Christmas Day and it felt like a gift.

November Reading

Books Acquired

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | James Joyce
  • A Treasury of Damon Runyan | Damon Runyan
  • Arguably: Selected Essays | Christopher Hitchens

Books Read

  • This is How You Lose Her | Junot Díaz
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy | William Irvine
  • Robbing the Bees: a Biography of Honey | Holley Bishop

Most cookbooks are never actually used. They’re aspirational, collected as an aid to daydreaming, or to inflame culinary fantasies—food pornography. Food porn has full-page colour photos art-directed with vintage crockery and worn oak tables, poorly-written recipes in tiny type, and binding that stubbornly refuses to lie flat or fit in a recipe stand. Almost everything in the cookery section of a bookshop qualifies, so it must meet a need.

An analogous genre I think is on the rise, particularly in New Zealand, is rural porn. Not nasty romps in the woodshed, but seductive portrayals of country life for city folk who dream of retiring to a lifestyle block and idly growing olives. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself, as I drool over the plans for quirky cottages in Lloyd Khan’s Shelter, design imaginary orchards while flicking through Trees for the New Zealand Countryside, and hunt out books on dry-stone walling or stile construction.

Holley Bishop’s rural porn Robbing the Bees is especially seductive, because it’s the sub-genre wherein the author acts out the reader’s fantasies by flinging themselves inexpertly into a rustic pursuit (chickens, sheep, oranges); in this case, bees. It’s three stories in one: a cheerful romp through the history of beekeeping, a year in the life of a Florida tupelo-honey producer—quirky, rustic, passionate—and the author’s account of becoming a beekeeper herself, making all the mistakes you would expect. The reader can easily picture themselves doing the same—tending their hives, harvesting honey—except the actual life of an apiarist that Bishop describes punctures the fantasy by being hot, hard, and occasionally painful work, a note of realism cutting through the Arcadian hum.

William Irvine has produced an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, applied rather than theoretical, and updated to contemporary concerns. It’s a bit plodding in tone, but improves as you get into it. Irvine finds the common ground of Stoicism and Zen Buddhism, and the techniques he lists show interesting similarities with cognitive behavioural therapy, so much so that you wonder how much of a modern twist has been put on the Greeks. But you finish it with a real desire to read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, which is some achievement.

After reading Irvine, you’ll be wishing that Yunior, the Dominican-American protagonist of most of Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, would read some Stoic philosophy or indeed anything that would stop him messing up his life. These linked short stories were written over 14 years but read as a loosely-joined novel, finishing with the most painful and likely-autobiographical, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Díaz writes in a loose Spanish-English mixture, poetic and crude, completely enthralling and unlike anything else I’ve read all year; I’ll be checking out Oscar Wao.

I’ve completely lost touch with the Listener book club since Look At Me. It seemed like a good idea, encouraging everyone to read the same book each month and discuss it online, but it being a partnership with NZ booksellers made me suspicious. Sure enough, Bring Up the Bodies and The Forrests were chosen as two successive monthly selections: both had only just been published, and our local independent bookstore was barely able to order copies in time for people to read them. Forget about trying the library—this looked like a promotional tool for bookshops. No thanks.

October Reading

Books Acquired

  • R.U.R. | Carel Čapek
  • Shelter and Shelter II | Lloyd Kahn
  • The Last Days of Hitler | Hugh Trevor Roper
  • Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys
  • Gentlemen of the Road | Michael Chabon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe | Douglas Adams
  • The Library Book | Rebecca Gray (Ed.)
  • Phantoms on the Bookshelves | Jacques Bonnet
  • A Moveable Feast | Ernest Hemingway

Books Purged

  • Forty: my annual clean-out of books I’m never going to open again (or, in a couple of cases, have carted around for 20 years without opening yet).

Books Read

  • The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
  • Shelter II | Lloyd Kahn
  • Script and Scribble | Kitty Burns Florey
  • Hinewai | Hugh Wilson
  • The Library Book | Rebecca Gray (Ed.)
  • The Sparrow | Mary Doria Russell
  • Dreamers of the Day | Mary Doria Russell [abandoned]

The amazing levitating Hem

The amazing levitating Hem

The Sisters Brothers was a nominee for my Best Cover award this year, but A Moveable Feast is without doubt the winner in the Worst Cover category; terrible Photoshopping makes Hemingway look like a divine being, levitating over the pavement outside Shakespeare & Co., with Sylvia Beach about to drop to her knees and worship. No, actually, she just looks bored. “Levitating again, Hem?”

A mixed bag this month. I indulged my daydreaming about hippy-architecture with Shelter II, Hinewai was preparatory reading for my first visit to the nature reserve of the same name, and Script and Scribble was a pleasant but tame example of the current fashion for handwriting nostalgia. The Library Book, though, is pretty missable: a compilation to raise awareness of potential cuts to the UK library system, it’s weakest when it moves from a defense of libraries, based mostly on nostalgia, to disparaging the internet (with Seth Godin’s contribution a notable exception). Curously, none of the contributors are librarians; most are British genre writers I’ve never heard of, who wax poetic on the nice smell old books had when they were children and a library was a gateway into a magical world of freedom, and so forth.

Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Man Booker with The Line of Beauty, which I have but haven’t read, and his next book, The Stranger’s Child, made the 2011 longlist. I’ve now read both it and the Man Booker winner, Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and I have to say I preferred the Hollinghurst. It reminded me of two of my favourite books, Possession (with its literary sleuthing) and Atonement (with its reworking of the past in light of the present), all cleverly, deftly done. Gay characters are central to the century-spanning story, but unlike The Line of Beauty only incidentally a novel about gay identity. One of my favourites of the year so far.

I’m now on record as saying I hate it when authors write science fiction and refuse to admit it, but The Sparrow is not really SF; its subject is more anthropology and religion, asking why a Jesuit missionary would keep his faith in a world full of pain and evil, in a culture that doesn’t buy into his beliefs. It mirrors the story of the Jesuit martyr Isaac Jogues, tortured by Iroquois and eventually murdered by them in 1646. Russell’s science fiction world in Alpha Centauri happens to have breathable atmosphere and humanoid aliens, but they fulfil the function of Native Americans so closely that this really could have been an historical novel, like her last three. (on the off chance, I had a crack at one of her more recent ones, Dreamers of the Day but could not get into it.)

September Reading

Books Acquired

  • Billy Liar | Keith Waterhouse
  • Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It | Geoff Dyer
  • Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi | Geoff Dyer
  • 253 | Geoff Ryman
  • Disgrace | J. M. Coetzee

Books Read

  • Leaves of the Banyan Tree | Albert Wendt
  • Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Super Sad True Love Story | Gary Shteyngart
  • The Last Werewolf | Glen Duncan
  • Feast Day of Fools | James Lee Burke [abandoned]
  • How Music Works | David Byrne
  • In War Times | Kathleen Ann Goonan [abandoned]

The problem with established “literary” authors dabbling in SF is that you can tell they think they’re slumming. Most obviously don’t read SF, and don’t realise their bright ideas have been treated better and earlier by others. They tend to be lazy, tossing about a few “futuristic” touches as window dressing but not really examining their implications. Steyngart’s future setting in Super Sad True Love Story is a parody of the present, played largely for laughs, but at the same time he seems to want to say something about the erosion of relationships in an age of oversharing. But he can’t have it both ways: the label “satire” absolves him of any commitment to his wacky ideas. It scarcely matters, since as the book progresses the SF aspects gradually disappear, except for a fairly unbelievable and sketchy account of the fall of the USA and its takeover by the IMF and Norway. The central narrative could have been set in the present day without much trouble; it might even have been an improvement.

That central love story, while indeed super sad, is a cheat. The protagonist Lenny Abramov is a bookish, nerdy Russian Jew, a lovable shlub whose weaknesses we’re meant to find endearing. A typical Steyngart hero, and (we suspect) a stand-in for the author. Lenny falls for Eunice Park, a vapid Korean-American 15 years his junior, who doesn’t read and is obsessed with online clothes shopping. Eunice moves in, sponges off him, and nags him constantly about his wardrobe, while lusting after other men and eventually cheating on him with his boss. Yes, she has a dysfunctional family and abusive father than is supposed to explain all this. But the deck is so monstrously stacked against her and towards poor Lenny that we begin to wonder if the author recently had a bad breakup and is working out Some Issues. I was hoping to like this book, as the last two Shteyngart novels I read were funny and linguistically inventive, but not quite satisfying: I wondered if adding science fiction to the mix would help. Sadly no.

Two others I didn’t even get through this month. James Lee Burke to me is a pale shadow of Elmore Leonard, and although the Texas setting is very evocative, too often the characters say things no human being would. Kathleen Goonan’s, despite being recommended by China Miéville, also proved disappointing, a stodgy WWII saga that apparently eventually involved time travel. By halfway through I was too bored to care.

After seeing Jeffrey Eugenides at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival earlier this year, I saved Middlesex and The Marriage Plot to read back-to-back. I suspect an unspecified percentage of Middlesex is autobiography, but wouldn’t want to guess how much. I enjoyed it, reminiscent of Michael Chabon with Greek culture instead of comic books, but the gap between the historical family saga and the account of growing up intersex was hard to bridge.

The Marriage Plot is more clearly autobiographical, with careful 1980s references: descriptions of genetics at the time match my undergraduate memories. I found the portrayal of manic depression and the long-suffering partner moving, and the satire of theory-ridden English classes hilarious, but other readers might not.

superman_logo_t_shirt_largeAm I the only person who gets completely sidetracked by anachronism? In The Marriage Plot, Leonard reads Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Ever Since Darwin exactly when they were first published, in 1977 (yes, I checked). But Albert Wendt, wanting to immerse us in the world and mindset of 1930s rural Samoa, dresses one of the characters in a Superman T-shirt. I’m nerdy enough to know that Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and printed t-shirts weren’t common until after WWII. Later on another character mentions reading A House for Mr Biswas in 1960, which would be a feat in isolated Samoa especially given it wasn’t yet published. But really, anachronism can scarcely spoil this lovely book, which was about ten times as evocative as it would have been had I not visited Samoa for the first time this year.

Finally, check out The Last Werewolf if you want easy-read contemporary fantasy, and David Byrne’s magnum opus in appealingly squishy cover if you like the music of the Talking Heads, or music of any other kind at all.

August Reading

Books Acquired

  • Barcelona Plates | Alexei Sayle
  • City of Djinns | Theodore Dalrymple
  • Te Mahi Kete: Maori Flaxwork for Beginners | Mick Pendergrast
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • Atlas of Remote Islands | Judith Schalansky
  • Block Printing: Techniques for Linoleum and Wood | Robert Craig

Books Read

  • The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand | Heather Nicholson
  • Born Standing Up | Steve Martin
  • Cold Comfort Farm | Stella Gibbons
  • The Conductor | Sarah Quigley
  • Intrusion | Ken MacLeod
  • The Night Sessions | Ken MacLeod

Twice now this year I’ve been reading a book purportedly set in New Zealand and come across howlers that made me grit my teeth. Douglas Coupland’s Generation A puts Palmerston North in Wanganui rather than the Manawatu; I counted three vocabulary errors within two pages (although someone says “crikey dick!” at one point, so research has obviously been perpetrated). Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions shows evidence of a visit to the North Island, but tourists are unlikely to see tui-tui birds sharing a kaori tree with a flock of fantails.

MacLeod and Coupland are popular authors, doubtless with Kiwi fans. Would it be so hard, in the age of the Internet, to recruit a few volunteers from this part of the world, who I bet would be happy to help out for just an acknowledgement? The mistakes I saw would be obvious to any New Zealander on even a cursory reading, and crowdsourcing one’s fact-checking could be the way of the future.

The Night Sessions is a police procedural set in a secular future (MacLeod is a Scottish science-fiction writer), with artificial intelligences hiding out in a Creationist theme park near Rotorua. The expunging of religion from public life was implausibly quick and thorough, whereas the social effects of truly intelligent machines seem negligible. I found it hard to suspend disbelief, even without tui-tuis.

Intrusion is a much more engrossing account of a benign and terrifying nanny state in near-future Britain, where gene therapy is obligatory and women are forced back into the homes because the world is deemed too full of fetus-harming contaminants. Woven into this, unfortunately, is a strand of completely-unbelievable nonsense about a retina mutation that lets one see tachyons and (thus!) the future, a strand which grows until it dominates the book. Everything then grinds to a halt, with a tacked-on conclusion, in a most disappointing way.

For a change of pace, I tried Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor, an evocative account of the siege of Leningrad and the composition of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony, which was most successful at evoking the privations of hunger and winter. It didn’t quite ring true for me though: partly an odd mixture of anachronism and Russian-isms in the language, partly major characters disappearing from the stage (probably from the dictates of history).

Nitpick, nitpick, nitpick. It was left to old favourites to salvage the month. Steve Martin’s account of his standup career reminded me how many years of gruelling work it took him to develop an act that was actually funny, and why he abandoned it. It’s also elegantly written. A favourite I didn’t get chance to read, but was happy to find in a Devonport bookshop, was Alexei Sayle’s short-story collection, both dark and absurdly funny. I bought Cold Comfort Farm almost entirely because of the hilarious Ros Chast cover, and realised that it had been far too many years since I read it, as it seemed almost a different book (or at least the same book read by a different person). Resolution: regular rereading until I can recite the best lines to other fans, while bystanders roll their eyes.

July Reading

Books Acquired

  • Just So Stories | Rudyard Kipling
  • Rambo Goes to Idaho | Scott Abels
  • The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
  • Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
  • The War Against Cliche | Martin Amis
  • Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush | Eric Newby

Books Read

  • Listen to This | Alex Ross
  • Wulf | Hamish Clayton
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
  • Sacred Hunger | Barry Unsworth
  • Coming of Age in Samoa | Margaret Mead
  • Skios | Michael Frayn
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | John Le Carré

One of the best things about a holiday somewhere remote is reading solidly for days. D and I took a stack of books to Samoa for a week, and whole afternoons were spent ploughing through them. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger was one I’d been meaning to get to for years, but I was always put off by its length, so having days to devote to it was a blessing. For some reason I had the impression it was a dense philosophical work, but it turned out to be a fine historical novel, in the Patrick O’Brien mould, on the malleability of human nature. Samoa also seemed the ideal place to finally read Margaret Mead, and her lyrical descriptions of village life did have extra resonance in that setting. The rampant sexuality she claims to have found apparently needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and her grand conclusions about reforming the entire American educational system (based on interviews with 50 girls in Samoa) can be safely skimmed.

Another read that would be good for an island holiday is Skios, a charmingly-written frothy entertainment. It’s a farce of shuffled suitcases and mistaken identity which works through all the expected permutations right up to the final dénouement, when it suddenly loses patience with itself and its genre conventions. Transcending the genre is probably what got Skios onto this year’s Man Booker longlist, where it sits somewhat awkwardly, but Frayn is really a splendid playwright, a sublime humourist, and an accomplished novelist on a good day, so the recognition’s deserved.

Wulf picked up the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book award this year, and it really is something different from a standard NZ historical novel, more CK Stead than Maurice Shadbolt. My only quibble is biological anachronism: it mentions moa stories and giant eagle bones years before they were actually unearthed, and describes pohutakawa flowering along the Kapiti coast when their normal range is north of Kawhia.

The Bailey was a pleasant light read, but for some reason didn’t grab me. I guess I was expecting some sort of larger payoff than the book intended to deliver. The faintest of faint praise I can give is that it will encourage someone to keep a snail in a terrarium and learn to watch more closely. The Le Carré was likewise a filler; casting no aspersions on a fine spy novel from an author I love, but my memory of the film was still too fresh, and I couldn’t reconcile Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch with the middle-aged warhorses on the page.

This month my best reading was the Alex Ross. This collection of essays is mixed but full of great music journalism, from Brahms to Björk. He has a refreshing eclectic tone of voice, so I’m very much looking forward to spending a month working my way through The Rest is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. Both are best read in conjunction with his website, which, I discovered afterwards, has numerous audio clips: sometimes it’s a bit frustrating to read a musical analysis of a Schubert song cycle you’ve never heard. The best I can say is his writing even made me want to try listening to Bob Dylan. And that is not faint praise.

June Reading

Books Acquired

  • No Country For Old Men | Cormac McCarthy
  • Tasman’s Lay | Peter Hawes
  • Not Her Real Name and Other Stories | Emily Perkins
  • The Moon’s a Balloon | David Niven
  • Bring On the Empty Horses | David Niven
  • The Great Railway Bazaar | Paul Theroux
  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside | John & Bunny Mortimer
  • The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry | Dorothy Wright
  • The Loved One | Evelyn Waugh
  • Meetings with Remarkable Trees | Thomas Pakenham
  • The Owl That Fell From the Sky | Brian Gill

Books Read

  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs [again]
  • Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down | Rosecrans Baldwin
  • Are you My Mother? | Alison Bechdel [abandoned]
  • Galileo’s Dream | Kim Stanley Robinson
I still buy books faster than I can read them. But this feels completely normal: how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life. —Julian Barnes

Although Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows (TWITW) is usually viewed as fantasy literature, it is in fact science fiction in the style of H.G. Wells. The difference between fantasy and science fiction lies in the violation, or not, of physical laws; fantasy always contains some form of “magic”, whereas SF is a realistic portrayal of a society where one or more plausible conditions have been changed, either by setting it in the future, or in the present or past under different historical circumstances. Thus Watership Down is fantasy; The Wind in the Willows, with its internally-consistent materialist setting, is SF.

witw2It is science fiction because Grahame describes a society mirroring 1908 England, with one notable exception—the presence of human-animal hybrids living alongside, and aping in their dress and customs, human beings. The hybrids closely resemble those described in Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), monstrous creatures produced by vivisection, and book explores how these creatures assimilate into Edwardian Britain, presumably after being relocated from their island prison. Toad’s rich “father”, described by Badger as “my old friend”, may even be Moreau himself.

It is important to mention at this point that the familiar illustrations of the characters, created by Ernest H. Shepard in 1931, are somewhat inaccurate. Their apparent size, for example, varies enormously from page to page: in one depiction, three tiny animals are trying to subdue a horse, and are obvously no taller than the hub of a caravan wheel; in another, one is driving a full-sized motor car with little difficulty. Shepard is obviously not aware of their human-animal hybrid nature; for example, toads are hairless in life and in his illustrations, but Toad is twice described as hirsute (“He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers…”, “[Toad] parted his hair in the middle, and plastered it down very straight and sleek on each side of his face…”). We should see past misleading visuals and rely on a closer reading of the text for clues to what these creatures represent.

One valid reading, for example, is that Grahame is satirising British attitudes to race and class at a time when money was turning old social distinctions topsy turvy. All four main human-animal characters are independently wealthy (from inheritance and property), and are fully accepted by neighbouring humans as a consequence, much as the pigs in Animal Farm are when they become capitalist bosses. In contrast, the hybrids who reject human society—implicitly, Western civilisation—are naked savages, living a marginal Hobbesian existence in the Wild Wood.

witw1A more interesting reading of TWITW, though, is as an allegory of gay life in Edwardian Britain. The idea of homosexuality as repressed animal nature is implicit in Stevenson’s 1896 The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. For a gay reading of Stevenson, see Colm Tóibín, LRB 34(9):3–8; in an early draft Hyde’s bestial urges included soliciting men in the street. Homoeroticism in English boarding schools was, indeed, commonly described as “beastliness”. The animal/human protagonists of TWITW are all male, the plot revolves around Toad’s skill as a “female impersonator” (in early 20th century British English, a drag queen), and Ratty and Mole’s “particular friendship”, complete with hand-holding, is the love that dare not speak its name—at least not in a book ostensibly for children.

Grahame’s satirical point seems to be that no matter how hard the protagonists try to “pass”—meticulously observing the trappings of English custom and class—they are plainly and obviously not human, condemned forever to be the Other, and able to exist only thanks an English social milieu too polite to mention their “monstrosity”. Thus we can view The Wind in the Willows, for decades mistaken for an innocent children’s story, as a science fiction allegory (and an important early influence on Animal Farm) satirising the closeted gay subculture of Edwardian Britain.

May Reading

Books Acquired

  • Out of Sheer Rage | Geoff Dyer

Books Read

  • Made by Hand | Mark Fauenfelder
  • The Origins of Sex | Faramerz Dabhoiwala
  • Wood Engraving: How to Do It | Simon Brett
  • Salvage the Bones | Jesmyn Ward
  • Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays 1989–2010 | Geoff Dyer
  • Great Expectations | Charles Dickens
  • Out of Sheer Rage | Geoff Dyer
  • Believing is Seeing | Errol Morris
  • Home Fires | Gene Wolfe
  • Uncle | J. P. Martin
  • Uncle Cleans Up | J. P. Martin
  • Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown | J. P. Martin
You cannot draw a figure; you can only draw something about the figure. If this sounds a difficult idea, substitute ‘say’ for “draw’.
—Simon Brett, in Wood Engraving: How To Do It.

Western sexuality was, until the Enlightenment, more or less Talibanic, with execution of homosexuals and adulterers and no notion of individual privacy. Most histories of sexuality get started around 1800, but in The Origins of Sex Dabhoiwala catalogues the fundamental change between 1650 and 1800 that created modern sexuality: the idea that sex was benign, that it was a private secular matter, that men not women had the greater sexual appetite, that prostitutes were to be pitied not feared, and many other assumptions that largely shaped Victorian sexuality and weren’t re-examined until the late 20th century. It’s a bit discursive, with more than strictly necessary on the economics of prostitute reform, or the trade in plagiarised pictures of notorious courtesans. Rather than telling a chronological story, chapters are on range of topics in parallel over the same time period, which does cover the same ground several times.

The sexual universe Dabhoiwala outlines is sometimes shockingly foreign: prior to the Enlightenment, it was “common knowledge” that women needed to have an orgasm to conceive. Which all sounds very jolly. But if a woman became pregnant after being raped she must necessarily have enjoyed it, so the sex was therefore consensual. Not so jolly now, eh? But the saddest words I read were “…shortly before his execution for blasphemy…”, referring to Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead in 1697. It’s currently fashionable in academic circles to knock the Enlightenment, but we don’t execute many people for blasphemy these days.

In May, Auckland hosted a Writers and Readers Festival, which is always a blast and the highlight of the literary/intellectual calendar. One auditorium was packed out by an audience who paid $20 each to hear two writers talking for an hour about Derrida. (And yet we apparently can’t support a public-service TV station in New Zealand. Go figure.) I read Jesmyn Ward’s harrowing Salvage the Bones in preparation; she recounted her tour of Duke University and how she found it too segregated to attend.

The high point for me was hearing Geoff Dyer. He’s almost uncategorisable, writing whatever he fancies—novels, history, criticism, autobiography—while cultivating a rather charming air of being a flailing amateur at all times: Out of Sheer Rage is a hilarious book about not being able to write a book about DH Lawrence. He’s also very quotable.

  • “Whatever people might think about my books, the epigraphs are fantastic.”
  • “The book was going great! Except it had gone from being a book about tennis to a book about Tarkovsky.”
  • “A career writer is someone who finishes a book on Friday, takes the weekend off, and starts a new book on Monday.”

When the Uncle books were published in the USA, the dottiness of British coinage needed explaining.

When the Uncle books were published in the USA, the dottiness of British coinage needed explaining.

Finally, a quick rundown of all the other reading I got through this month. Made By Hand was a huge disappointment. It’s intended to recount the author’s journey towards a more hands-on hand-made life; while the klutzy rambling of the book is endearing, and it’s good to be reminded that a fear of making mistakes is what stifles so much DYI, the reader wishes Frauenfelder would just RTFM. Home Fires was also terrible, from an author I have huge respect for, but this was lazy, dull, and flat. Dutifully plodded through Great Expectations but Dickens still holds no charms for me, and it wasn’t helped by the whole story hinging on improbable coincidences. The Errol Morris is a fascinating exploration of historical documentary photography through amazing close readings. And the Uncle books were a rediscovered childish enthusiasm, charming inventive anarchy, great fun to read out loud, and topped off by Quentin Blake illustrations. Is there a literary work that Quentin Blake would not enhance? I think I could get through 120 Days of Sodom if he’d illustrated it.