Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

Demian — Hermann Hesse

Demian is very mysterious and alluring. This book is about him and his influence on the narrator — they first meet when they are both schoolboys. Demian then turns up repeatedly as the years go by, gradually taking the narrator into a circle of freethinking misfits. It’s less fanciful than the other Hesse novels I have read, but still packs a bit of a punch.

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Zeustian Logic — Sabrina Malcolm

This story is more fun than you would think, given that it is about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s death. Astronomy and mythology are two of Tuttle’s boyish hobbies; they run like threads through the stories he tells his younger brother and the conversations he has with his friend, and also play a big part in the novel’s resolution. His father, a famous mountaineer, disappeared in controversial circumstances which made his loss even harder for his family to deal with. The repercussions continue even a year later, when the novel is set.

Apart from dealing with his father’s death, he also has to deal with his mother and brother, who are struggling in their own way to manage. And of course he also has to negotiate the usual teenage issues; mostly school, and also the juvenile delinquent petrolhead who lives next door (along with his cute half-sister — it’s not all bad).

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — Jules Verne

It’s good to finally read this famous book, starring the famous Captain Nemo and his famous ship the Nautilus, and discover that its fame is well-deserved: it’s a page-turning adventure story with drama, intrigue and nifty gadgets.

The narrator, a maritime expert, joins an expedition and eventually ends up aboard the Nautilus with couple of his companions. In a series of episodes we find out about the ship, a little about the captain, and a lot about various going-on under the sea. Verne puts a lot of really interesting and generally plausible ideas into the story, which is impressive for a speculative fiction written nearly 150 years ago. I have always wondered about the title though: I always thought that it referred to a depth of 20,000 leagues, but then I discovered that 20,000 leagues is about 100,000km, ten times deeper than any ocean. I now realise that it’s simply the distance travelled while under the sea — they circumnavigate the globe underwater, following a very meandering path.

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12 Rules for Life — Jordan B. Peterson

This is fun to read and it may change your life. The subtitle describes it best: chaos (particularly perhaps the chaos of the modern world) is what Peterson dreads, and he offers prescriptions, strategies and even commandments for how to preserve an ordered and civilised life from the relentlessly pounding waves of entropy. And all presented using language that virtually demands to be read out loud.

Each of the 12 homely “rules” is really just the starting point for a wide discussion of how life should best be lived. Peterson is a psychologist and a Christian, and those are the lenses through which he views the world. There is a lot about biblical history and teachings — a lot of it is presented as metaphor so it is still somewhat relevant even to non-Christian and even non-religious people. But still, there is a lot more bible-bashing than I was expecting, even from such a famously conservative figure. Each of the 12 chapters ends with a restatement of the rule as its last sentence. For some reason I find this irritating and twee. And I normally like tweeness.

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A Manual for Cleaning Women — Lucia Berlin

Squalor and alcoholism feature prominently in these short stories based on Berlin’s life. Many of the stories concern marginalised people: they suffer so much injustice but still manage to keep going. Even so, I wouldn’t describe the stories as uplifting.

I picked up this book because I had read about it in the London Review of Books, and also because it had a foreword by Lydia Davis.

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Owls Do Cry — Janet Frame

This is deservedly one of the classic New Zealand novels. When I returned it to the library, the librarian eagerly asked me how it was. I said it was really good — a novel version of Frame’s short stories. The shifting viewpoints give a broad understanding of the characters and events, and the impressionistic first-person narrative really made me feel what it must be like for the main character, living a life very different to mine. Bad things happen to her, but there are also many marvellous moments of beauty:
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End as a Man — Calder Willingham

Jim Flynn put this book in his top 5 novels list, so I grabbed it when I found a copy recently. He said it was the greatest novel portraying contemporary American college life. “Contemporary” in this case means circa 1950, and it is actually set in a military college, so it’s presumably a bit different from a civilian college like Harvard or whatever. It does seem a bit bizarre, with the ubiquitous corporal punishment and merciless bullying of first-years by older students who are still just out of their teens. I don’t know whether this weirdness is due to being 60 years ago, being American, being a military school, or being a work of fiction. I suppose it’s all four, but I do get the impression that the general features of the books’s college life are based on fact. Holy cow, what a hell-hole it must have been.

So the characters end up in various unedifying situations, usually of their own making, and we see them as they deal with things, usually badly. It becomes apparent that the novel mostly concerns the misfits and bad hats of the academy, which explains a lot about the dramas that befall them. The book ends with a couple of eloquent and very different speeches, and closes with just deserts all round.

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Proofiness – Charles Seife

This is a great survey of all the ways to lie with statistics, and how to avoid being fooled by them. So many of the things we read and hear are based on numerical data, and often it’s hard to argue with them — “the numbers don’t lie”, they say. And it’s true: numbers don’t lie. But people lie, sometimes using words and sometimes using numbers.

There are sections on politics, discussing gerrymandering and also counting election results. Seife’s analysis of the 2000 US presidential election is excellent, laying bare the frankly ridiculous voting systems in use. He also reveals what the actual result should have been, after all the court cases and recounts. His conclusion surprised me, but it is actually the only sensible option even though it would probably have caused outrage.

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How to Bake π — Eugenia Cheng

The whole idea of mathematics is to make things easier. It allows us to understand the world is ways that would be impossible without it. So it’s a great shame that many people see it as shrouded in mystery. Eugenia Cheng tries to overcome this problem in this book about mathematics and cooking (and in some cases, the mathematics of cooking).

The intricate details of mathematics can be tricky to get straight, but the concepts should be intelligible if presented properly. In this book, Cheng works towards an understanding of Category Theory, her own specialist area of mathematics. (I think this is the “mathematics of mathematics” mentioned in the subtitle.) Each chapter starts with a simple recipe, which Cheng uses to illustrate a mathematical concept. This strategy works well: you really get a good idea of what the concept is and why it’s useful, without getting hung up on complexities.

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Dept. of Speculation — Jenny Offill

This small but perfectly-formed book is a simple story of girl meets boy and all the usual things that follow. But it’s told in an unusual way so that I sometimes felt as if I was inside the main character.

The viewpoint changes around a bit, and the tone varies from personal to almost clinical at times. But even so, there is so much insight here, like this heart-rending evocation of the isolation of a new mother whose partner is away during the day:

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Zombie Economics – John Quiggin

A taste for paradoxical reasoning is common among economists, to the point where it is a job requirement in some circles.

— Zombie Economics, p112

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He’ll Be OK — Celia Lashlie

This book is about about raising boys, especially teenagers. It’s heartfelt and compelling, and it has a lot of good things to think about and remember if you have or are planning to have a teenaged son.

Celia Lashlie spent a lot of time at boys’ schools talking with the boys and their teachers, and describes what it’s like to be a student in a boys’ school. She describes the experience really thoroughly — as I read, I really felt I knew what their world was like. But there are many different ways for boys to experience their school life, and I thought she focused on one without really acknowledging others.

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The Happiness Project — Gretchen Rubin

This book made me happy. Gretchen Rubin did her research, found out every possible method for becoming more happy, and then spent a year trying them all out. In the end she decides it has worked — she is happier — and she evaluates which methods worked best for her. She’s read a stack of popular psychology books and self-help guides, so we won’t have to.

The thing that works best for her is a resolutions chart: for example, she’ll resolve to sing every morning, and then put a checkmark on the chart every morning when she remembers to sing. She says that was the best thing because it helped her get other things done, but mainly because it was so satisfying to award herself a checkmark and to look back on the month and see all the evidence of resolutions kept. It’s interesting that this technique, often recommended to help children remember to brush their teeth or put their clothes away, can also work well with adults. I bet Rubin had very clean teeth as a child, and probably still does.

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I love reading philosophy, and I love reading novels. So this philosophical novel is right in my sweet spot. I have read some of Goldstein’s non-fiction, but after reading this fun and thoughtful book I want to search out her other work.

It’s a story about Cass Seltzer, an academic whose life changes when he publishes a book about the psychology of religion. The catalyst is the book’s appendix, which contains the titular 36 arguments along with commentary and rebuttals. That appendix makes him into a superstar — he gains fame, notoriety even, and an academic superstar girlfriend. The novel covers his career from the beginning, through his fame, and more.

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Can You Tolerate This? — Ashleigh Young

This is like one of those great, wide-ranging conversations where you talk about everything, from what you did last weekend to the meaning of life, and everything in between. Each essay is on its own topic and they are apparently unrelated, but as I got into the second half of the book I found that they started to go together and give a coherent picture.

I first heard of this book when I read Ashleigh Young’s essay in Tell You What 2016, in which she describes the process of creating its distinctive cover illustration. Later, the book became big news when it won a huge literary prize. I remembered that I also enjoyed her essay in the earlier Tell You What book, and I also realised that one of the blogs I read, Eyelash Roaming, is written by Young. It appears that I am a fan of Ashleigh Young’s writing! So naturally, I bought the book.

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The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker

This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!

The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)

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This Is Not a Novel — David Markson

I have never read a novel like this before, but that’s obvious since it is actually not a novel. (The clue is in the name.) But it has characters (well, a character), lots of historical figures, and a (very faint) narrative arc. And it’s pretty fun to read.

Initially it seems like a very tersely worded version of one of those books of random factoids. Just a succession of one- or two-sentence paragraphs stating more or less interesting historical facts. Like this:

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Little Deaths — Emma Flint

New York City last century: the scarlet woman, the suspicious tragedy, the tough cop, the tenacious reporter. They’re all here, but they are put together in some unexpected ways. Right at the beginning, the “murder mystery” trope is upended by having the story start as a flashback, so we immediately know how it ends. Or do we? We meet a lot of characters on our way through the story, and despite the foreshadowing, the end of the book is quite satisfying.

The thing I liked most about this book is the writing style. Nicely-turned phrases and insightful sentences had me nodding my head all the way through. Smiling sometimes, even, though any humour in this book is definitely on the dark side. (Not The Dark Side though; it’s not that dark.)

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Mansfield and Me — Sarah Laing

This biography/autobiography/graphic novel is idiosyncratic, interesting and fun. It has sent me off to read and re-read both Katherine Mansfield and Sarah Laing, different writers from different centuries who still seem to have a lot in common.

Sarah Laing’s life so far has been conventional for an inquisitive Kiwi — growing up in the suburbs, university, OE working in London, returning to NZ to bring up a family, with lots of personal experimentation and discovery along the way. Presented here as a graphic novel, it’s readable and fun. It’s like a long-form expanded version of her comic strip Let Me Be Frank.

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How to Be an Existentialist — Gary Cox

Some people think being an existentialist means spending your time brooding in cafés. Most people have no idea at all what it means. This book will explain what existentialism is, where it came from, and how to do it. You could call it “Existentialism for Fun and Profit”, except neither fun nor profit are really part of the existentialist programme.

Existentialism says, amongst other things, that there is no inherent meaning or purpose in life: it’s all completely contingent and arbitrary. Now, you might think that that’s a bad thing. But actually it’s good: since we have free will, we are therefore free to create our own meaning for our own lives.

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Get it Together — Zoe Williams

I love this book. It’s a heartfelt, clear-eyed, inspiring clarion call for everyone to get together to make the world more livable. Her ideas are all so practical and achievable that I actually feel hopeful that they could really happen.

If more people read this book, the world would be a better place.

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No one belongs here more than you — Miranda July

This is just fantastic. July’s short stories are so imaginative in the way she blends mundane realism with the bizarrely surreal. It feels like a modern, shabby, seedy version of magic realism. Many of the characters are strange, but still trying to get along with life in their own broken way. They seem insane, and probably are, but they still work according to their own internal logic. They are trapped in a mind-numbing suburban existence, or growing up in an extremely dysfunctional environment. The writing seems to make the real world disappear and I find myself totally absorbed in the weird, affecting lives of July’s characters.

I have heard that July’s novel “The Last Bad Man” is a bit more conventional in style. But after reading this wonderful collection I definitely want to read more Miranda July.

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The Last Day of a Condemned Man — Victor Hugo

Notes purportedly written by a condemned man during the day before his scheduled execution. Hugo wrote this as a protest against the death penalty at a time when the guillotine was in enthusiastic use by the French authorities. It works well by humanising the doomed prisoner, though I feel it cheats a little by never detailing the crime that put him on death row in the first place. Still a powerful read.

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Billy Bird — Emma Neale

This is a wonderful story of a quirky boy and his family as they go through some funny, tragic, interesting times. The premise is that Billy turns into a bird, or believes he does. But there is a lot more happening around that, and it all makes sense in the end.

Neale is a poet — I bought this book (and others) after hearing her read some of her poetry at the Going West Books and Writers Festival last year. So the book is beautifully written and Neale is really able to get into Billy’s head and make him really convincing. There’s a lot of familiar feelings and wisdom for parents of young boys (like me — I mean, I’m a parent, not a young boy, though I was once and still remember a bit about that too). The whole book made me think of Kate de Goldi’s excellent The 10PM Question, another fine story along similar lines.

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My Secret Life In Hut Six

This book reveals what it was really like for ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary world of Bletchley Park, the World War 2 British military code-breaking centre.  There are quite a few books about this — My Secret Life In Hut Six is unusual because it doesn’t focus on the main personalities. It’s the story of one of the rank and file workers, written by her grandson. At the time, she had only a vague notion of the context and importance of the work being done, but since the reader (hey, that’s me!) does know this, everything takes on much more meaning. The writing is plain but gives a good sense of what it must have been like for this clever young woman from the provinces to be caught up in something much bigger than she could have known. It’s a new take on a fascinating place and period.

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Wellbeing Economics — Dalziel & Saunders

wp-1463690996770.jpegThis short but thought-provoking book describes a way that New Zealand’s economy could be reorganised to focus on the wellbeing of all its citizens, defined as

The ability to lead the kinds of lives that they value and have reason to value.

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Thorndon — Kirsty Gunn

ThorndonA meditation on belonging, place, family and more. Kirsty Gunn did what Katherine Mansfield never did: she returned from the UK to live for a time in her home town of Wellington, New Zealand. She stayed in a cottage in Thorndon, the suburb where Mansfield grew up, on a scholarship to work on her “Katherine Mansfield project”. This book is the result.

The style of Thorndon feels more like Mansfield than Gunn, in my limited experience of both writers. It feels as if Gunn, a Mansfield scholar, was deeply affected by being steeped in Mansfield’s formative environment. Even more so given that it was also Gunn’s.

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Accidence Will Happen — Oliver Kamm

Accidence Will HappenIn this book, Oliver Kamm attempts to explode a few myths about English usage, and set out sensible guidelines for literate writing. He gives interesting historical background notes and examples for many of his points, so the book is useful and well worth reading. But even though he chides “sticklers” for their insistence on idiosyncratic rules, his own rules and suggestions are themselves quirky and inconsistent. This makes the book a bit frustrating to read. It’s fun if you enjoy arguing with books though.

Kamm is generally very liberal in his views of language: he thinks that language should be allowed to change through usage, and that arbitrary and obsolete rules shouldn’t impede this. He’s right, of course. But he goes both too far and not far enough: he want to throw out some rules that are useful and make the language more usable; yet he wants to keep some obscure rules that make no sense despite his attempts to justify them. I found myself shaking my head and tsking so much that I was moved to pick up a pen and note my disagreement (and, in some cases, my agreement). Here are some examples.

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Prizes — Janet Frame

Prizes

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes.

This is a wonderful compilation of short stories spanning Frame’s career. There is a lot of variety here: the common thread is that they are mostly set in New Zealand in the second half of last century. There are surreal magical realist pieces, impressionistic slice-of-life pieces, and coming-of-age stories. My favourites are the ones written from a child’s point of view: we all used to be children, but she actually remembers what it was like and expresses it in a way that makes me remember too.

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The Big Music — Kirsty Gunn

The Big MusicAn old man kidnaps his housekeeper’s granddaughter and takes her for a walk in the hills. He needs to write her into a piece of music he is composing. This is the start of this novel, and as it continues we learn more about the history of his family, which has lived for many generations in a remote house in the Scottish highlands. The house and family have become famous in the world of classical bagpipe music, the “big music” of the title.

I have never seen a book put together like this one before. It’s presented as a documentary, with the story built up from fragments of letters, recordings and papers found during the author’s research into the family and house. Supporting the story are many many footnotes, including frequent cross-references to other parts of the story and to the numerous appendices including plans of the house, maps of the area, family history, proceedings of musical societies, academic papers and more. At first I found the footnotes intrusive and fussy, but eventually I realised that this was all an essential part of the book.

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