Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

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:

What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.

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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

That’s a good summary of this book. It argues that a lot of the foundations of current economic thinking are outdated, and have in some cases been entirely disproved, and yet they still influence policies to everyone’s detriment.

Trickle-down economics has now been thoroughly discredited. An IMF discussion paper says, “The poor and the middle class matter the most for growth via a number of interrelated economic, social, and political channels.” It’s easier and easier to find similar views, even from authorities like the World Bank. Yet we still hear people saying that tax cuts for the rich will benefit the rest of us.

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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.

The view in the book is undoubtedly true for many boys — the importance of sports, mates, school spirit — but experiences are different for everyone. I went to a boys’ high school myself, and I do recognise some of the aspects of schoolboy life that Lashlie describes. But overall my own experience was generally more middle-of-the-road than that described in the book. Of course some of my fellow students were much more extreme than me, but some were more boring and conventional — I don’t think my experience was that unusual. Lashlie does occasionally nod towards alternatives, but overall the world she describes does seem traditional and stereotyped. Perhaps that’s the most obvious view to an outsider, but I do feel Lashlie romanticises things a bit.

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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.

Unsurprisingly, given that Goldstein is a professional philosopher as well as a novelist, there is a a lot of philosophy in this book. Some philosophical ideas are explicitly introduced and mentioned as such, with Goldstein talking through her characters to explain the concepts. This is a different approach to that of Jean-Paul Sartre (the other philosopher-novelist I have read): his novels are deeply infused with existentialist ideas, but they don’t really talk about philosophy and philosophers as such.

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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.

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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.) Anyway, he is supposed to be writing an introduction to an anthology of poetry, but instead spends his time doing odd jobs, wistfully trying to get back together with his ex, and procrastinating in various other mundane ways. He also thinks and muses on poetry. Reading those sections is like talking to a smart but down-to-earth friend — just fun anecdotes, opinions and observations, but about poetry and literature rather than football or celebrities. (Or football celebrities.) There are some pretty neat ideas — I am convinced by his argument that so-called “iambic pentameter” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) actually has three beats to the line, not five. There’s potentially an academic paper in there, but that would be less compelling than the present book. Continue reading
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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:

Puccini, sipping coffee, once told Lucrezia Bori that her costume was too neat for the last act of Manon Lescaut, in which Manon is destitute.
And dumped the coffee on her gown.

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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.

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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.

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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.

There’s a lot of NZ-specific information, but the ideas are universally applicable. The approach is a bit different from the ideas put forth by the usual suspects across the political spectrum. Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders believe a market economy is essential, but recognise that it must be managed to allow the markets to deliver their maximum benefit. Even the most free markets are still heavily regulated, most obviously by contract and property law, and this helps us see that regulation is not antithetical to free markets — it is essential.

As for the Big Government versus Small Government debate, Dalziel and Saunders argue that government should be big enough. Government’s job is to do the things that citizens cannot do individually or collectively, and to help them add value to the things they choose to do. But the onus is on citizens to initiate this process and to use this support for their own individual and communal wellbeing. This is a shift from the old welfare state to what Dalziel and Saunders call the wellbeing state.

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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


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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The Garden Party — Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party

Beautiful short stories from the expat New Zealander, set in Europe and NZ last century. They drew me in so much that while reading it on the bus, I missed my stop. Twice.

The stories are about unremarkable people, but in each one I felt that I could really get under the skin of the characters. The writing isn’t at all flashy, but it’s still somehow very immersive. Even the shorter stories feel quite substantial. This is definitely worth reading and rereading. But preferably not on public transport.

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The Chimes — Anna Smaill

The ChimesWhat 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.

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The Forrests — Emily Perkins

The ForrestsThis novel is Dorothy Forrest’s life story, and her complicated family life too. After reading it I felt that I knew her quite well…

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept — Elizabeth Smart

By Grand Central StationThis 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.

Fear will be a terrible fox at my vitals under my tunic of behaviour.

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On Looking — Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking

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.

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Religion for Atheists — Alain de Botton

Religion for AtheistsMost 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.

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