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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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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This 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.
A 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.
In 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.
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.
An 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.
What would life be like if we communicated with music instead of words? That’s the situation in the dystopian future of The Chimes. People have lost most of their ability to remember in words, so they must rely on objects to prompt their memories, and an intricate musical language to communicate. Simon, a young man, fetches up in London with only a vague idea why he came and what he’s supposed to do there. Things start happening to him, and before long he starts making things happen himself. Eventually he becomes part of a revolutionary struggle.
I loved the first half of the book, as we are shown (not told) the mechanics of this strange new world. The language the characters use ingeniously blends musical terms with normal English. I love the term for musical heresy: “blasphony”. The second half is more plot-driven, so everything gets a bit more concrete. I found out later that his book is considered to be a YA (young adult) novel. I think this just means that there’s only moderate violence, sex and swearing, and a teenage protagonist. It also means that things are tied up nicely at the end. Luckily it’s not too neat for an old adult like me.
This novel is Dorothy Forrest’s life story, and her complicated family life too. After reading it I felt that I knew her quite well…
This is an amazing prose poem spanning the author’s love affair with an older married man. The language is raw and rich and really takes you to another place, and usually not a happy one — when she isn’t miserable, she’s obsessively ecstatic. But wow, what a ride:
Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.
To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs
It’s amazing what you can see if you actually look at things you’ve seen a hundred times before. Alexandra Horowitz, like most of us, has wandered city sidewalks many times, but usually without really paying attention to her surroundings. So for this book she went on a series of local walks with various experts, including a town planner, an audio engineer, a blind person, a toddler, and a dog. Each chapter describes the result as she looks at her familiar environment through a different lens.
This reminds me of walking with my own kids when they were very young: a five-minute stroll could easily take an hour. The world is such an interesting place if you actually stop and look. This book will inspire you to do just that.
Most religions make metaphysical claims that are hard to believe, if they make any sense at all. But even if you don’t believe that the world rests on an elephant standing on turtles, or that omnipotent beings scrutinise our every move, religious traditions have a lot of ideas worth keeping. Religions place great importance on things like community and ritual, acknowledging our needs and our foibles too. This is what de Botton points out in this book.
I have long thought that some sort of secular church might be a good idea: a place to go to every week with a bunch of other people, hear a sermon, chat, and just be part of a varied community. There are such places — pubs, sports events — but they’re not as inclusive as a church would be. Religion for Atheists has a few proposals along these lines. Like his book The News, these suggestions would reorganise society in a way that he thinks would improve our lives. I agree.
Two very interesting characters inhabit this story: Roza, the Prime Minister’s wife, a creative maverick who still manages to fit in with his circle; and her precocious young son Johnny, who is clever and manipulative and a bit of a nightmare. Throughout the novel, Roza tells Johnny a story featuring a large cast of characters including a nasty dwarf called Soon, and surreal happenings, all based on the other people in the novel. It’s like a terrifyingly twisted Enid Blyton romp, and it’s fun drawing parallels between Roza’s story and the novel.
The rest of Soon is nicely written and compelling, but the plot and the other characters are a bit more formulaic than Roza and Johnny. It’s a story of powerful people behaving badly. The right-wing Prime Minister himself is popular, but is also a cynical, amoral figure; a parallel here to the current New Zealand political scene, and also to another novel within this novel.
The title describes the book: 23 things, some counterintuitive, some perhaps contentious, they you may not have realised about the economic system that the world runs on.
The presentation and organisation of this book is inspired partly by Dr Seuss, which is almost reason enough to buy it. There’s also a rather clever and useful section suggesting how to read the book with particular issues in mind: for example, if you don’t know what capitalism is, or if you think politics is a waste of time.
This story is about a tomboyish girl called Stephen. It traces her life from her birth and upbringing in a wealthy and genteel English family in the late 1800s, through the first world war and on to a successful career. She never feels quite comfortable conforming to the model of a well-brought-up young woman, and it takes many years to realise what the reader already knows, that she is (in her own words) an “invert”. Of course, such things were not discussed back then, at a time when the authorities did not even acknowledge lesbianism’s existence, and would have made it illegal if they had. The book was banned (and burned) on publication in 1928 in England.
Initially I couldn’t warm to Stephen because she is so privileged in many ways. She’s rich, physically masterful, intelligent, and has a very supportive and understanding father and other carers. She’s also a brilliant equestrian, fencer and writer. But I realised that this just throws her problems into stark relief — nobody will explain or even acknowledge her feelings of not belonging; hence she does spend a lot of time in the “well of loneliness” of the title. She rails against the unfair fact that she will never be able to acknowledge her partner as such, or even to grieve her properly if she dies, without suffering awful societal consequences. It reminded me of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, where (spoiler alert) even at Gareth’s funeral, Matthew, his loving partner of many years, could be referred to only as “his closest friend”.
The reason children don’t like going to school is that it interrupts their education.
— Jay Griffith at the RSA
That quote could serve as a summary of this book. It’s a guide for teachers to make their classroom time more effective, so that students will be engaged and will learn useful things in their time in school. Continue reading
The Undercover Economist is full of useful explanations of many orthodox economic concepts. It explains why free markets are so powerful and what economic efficiency means. It also contains the most accessible explanation of the subprime mortgage crisis as I have ever read. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For Mr Harford, like many others, markets are that hammer. He does a decent job of trying to address possible difficulties with market-based solutions, but he ignores some fundamental problems.
Economists call free markets “efficient”. This just means that nobody can be made better off without also making somebody else worse off. For example, 10 billionaires having all the money while a million paupers starve to death could be an efficient system, since we can’t give a crust of bread to a pauper without making a billionaire worse off (by the price of a crust of bread). Obviously, this sort of efficiency doesn’t say anything about whether the economy is at all desirable. Hartford briefly points out that we tend to value things like fairness too.
Alfie Kohn says that homework is worthless. According to his book, there is no evidence that typical homework is beneficial in any way for junior schoolkids, and minimal evidence that it’s worthwhile for any students at all. In fact, there is evidence that it can be harmful to the kids’ attitudes to learning and stress levels. Homework also has opportunity costs, given that homework takes time that could be used doing something else like physical play, reading or family activities. This book lays out Kohn’s case against homework as currently practised.
Kohn’s website has a wealth of related essays following up the points in the book. For example, he argues that homework does not offer academic benefits.
This is a collection of essays on topics that have caught Baker’s eye. There are reports of his (in)famous efforts to preserve library newspaper collections, as well as thoughts on pacifism and video games, and a fascinating story of his brief immersion in the world of Wikipedia editing. As always, he comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, perhaps excessively so. But he has a nice turn of phrase and a strong social conscience.
This book is a follow-up, of sorts, to his The Size of Thoughts from 15 or so years ago, which I bought because I liked the cover. Baker’s non-fiction is a nice contrast with his very discursive novel Room Temperature, and worlds away from the low-key perversities of Vox and The Fermata.
Human well-being consists of more than just happiness. In this book, Martin Seligman presents one way of breaking down well-being into its components, so we can try to improve all of them and enable ourselves to flourish. PERMA is the acronym for the five components he identifies:
- Positive emotion
An interesting survey of the working of democracies, as illuminated by their responses to the last hundred years of democratic crises. The idea is that the inherent flexibility of democracies is their main strength but also an inescapable weakness:
This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them. Debt accumulates; retrenchment is deferred. Democracies are also competitive, which means that politicians will blame each other for their failure to tackle the long-term problems. However, they do it in a way that gives the lie to urgency, because if it were truly urgent, then to they would compromise to fix it. Instead they squabble. They are comforted as they squabble by their knowledge that the system is resilient.
Success does not lead to happiness. Rather, happiness leads to success, according to this book. The brains’s neuroplasticity means we can make our thinking more flexible and actually become smarter, and we can help this to happen by taking steps to become happier. For example, in one study, doctors made more accurate diagnoses if they were given a lollipop beforehand. Such trivial mood enhancers make us more effective — that’s The Happiness Advantage, the first of his seven principles.
Achor lists some ways to become happier: Continue reading