Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

Meg

Meg is the Italian Björk. And if you think that’s glib, try this: Meg would be the result if Björk joined Fever Ray and they went clubbing in Naples. Glib, yes, but maybe on the right track. Of course there is a lot more to her music than those easy comparisons, but they are a good place to start.

Meg’s singing reminds me a lot of Björk, but also of Karin Dreijer (from Fever Ray and The Knife). A lot of her songs seem to come from the same place as Björk’s, from the (mostly) electronic production that somehow still sounds organic, to the huge expressiveness of her vocals. But there is sometimes a slightly unhinged edge to the voice that makes me think of Dreijer. The only thing I can’t comment on is her lyrics, since I don’t understand Italian. She does sound a bit more subdued in her few English-language songs, so I’m sure Italian speakers would get even more out of Meg’s music than I do.

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A Selfie as Big as the Ritz — Lara Williams

I loved this book of short stories even though most of them don’t end especially happily. The stories are written in a variety of voices, but almost all concern young women navigating problematic relationships. (Some of the women are older; some stories focus on men; but relationships are a constant.) Reading each story feels like inhabiting the character. It’s fun to be in someone else’s skin for a few minutes.

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Turning Learning Right Side Up — Ackoff & Greenberg

Standard education systems are broken: Turning Learning Right Side Up points towards a way of fixing them. It argues that the current system of education was designed for purposes that no longer make sense. (Ken Robinson’s TED talk Do schools kill creativity? is the classic formulation of this problem.) Then this book talks about how education could be designed to help children become fully-rounded adults.

The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching, with children taking the initiative in their activities and even in the organisation of the school. This is already the norm at a few places, such as the famous Sudbury Valley School in the USA. It works well partly because a family that sends their child to such a school has probably already prepared them for this more independent style of education. I think it could work more generally, but it must start very early — children will need to grow up understanding that this is how schools work. Places like Playcentre in NZ get them started on the right track, with their philosophy of child-initiated play. We just need to continue this idea as they move through the education system.

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The Road to Serfdom — Friedrich Hayek

“Freddie” Hayek is, of course, famous for the epic rap battles between him and his arch-nemesis, the maverick economist and Bloomsbury groupie John Maynard Keynes. Keynes may have been more charismatic, but Hayek had the edge in writing. The Road to Serfdom is a compelling and passionate defence of free-market economics and is much more readable than Keynes’s dense The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Even the title is snappier. (The General Theory wasn’t written for a popular audience, though — Essays in Persuasion is a better read, although maybe less influential.)

Hayek does come across as a bit of a Cassandra, terrified that a bit of well-meaning socialism is just the first step on the slippery slope to fascism, totalitarianism and, well, serfdom. The shrillness of his warnings is explained by the context: he was writing during the second world war, and saw echoes in contemporary American society of Germany in the interwar years. He grew up in Austria before living and working in the USA and England, so he was well-placed for this comparison.

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Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction — Susan Blackmore

This is a nice pocket-sized guide to consciousness. Actually it’s a guide to the problem of consciousness, since there is no consensus on what consciousness is or even exactly what the word means. Blackmore is even-handed regarding the various competing viewpoints, though it may all be slightly coloured by her own views, which are heavily influenced by Buddhism. And if you think that’s an incongruous stance for a hardcore psychologist/philosopher to take, then you really should read this book.

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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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Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

Snap judgements are surprisingly accurate. Even the ones we make without knowing how. Even the ones we make when we don’t even know we are doing it: “I just had a bad feeling about him, I can’t explain it”. This book gives evidence and explanations for this. It’s interesting in itself, but the trouble is it has been a very influential book — since it was published, its examples have been cited and reused so many times in so many places that what must once have been groundbreaking now seems overly familiar. I had similar thoughts the last time I saw a performance of Hamlet: the dialogue just seemed to be one cliche after another. Of course, they weren’t cliches when Shakespeare wrote the play!

Even so, the sections towards the end about microexpressions were very interesting and new, at least to me. They give some insight into where the “bad feelings” about people might come from, and maybe some pointers into how you could train yourself to read people and situations better. So even now this is still a worthwhile read from a very influential writer.

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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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The New Torchlight List — Jim Flynn

Jim Flynn’s first Torchlight List book was a really interesting guide to one man’s essential reading list. This follow-up takes a different tack but is just as engrossing. Here Flynn takes a more global view, focusing on different parts of the world and calling out books and writers that he thinks are worth reading.

Flynn talks about the books and writers in the context of the countries and regions they come from. He gives excellent overviews of the various regions including their history and politics, which helps to explain the genesis of the different writers. I learned a lot just from these sections — they could almost be a book on their own.

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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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