Articles about books

A book is a present you can open again and again.

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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Auckland Writers Festival 2018

My schedule for Auckland Writers Festival 2018I love the Auckland Writers Festival. Every year I attend a few events, miss lots of good ones, and I always say that next year I will be better organised and see more. This year I took a day off work on the Friday so I could pack everything in to one day. I still didn’t get to everything I wanted to, but Joanne and I had a good day anyway. Here’s what we saw.

The Creative Brain

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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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