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.

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