September 20, 2013


I've moved my blog to and reactivated it over there.

June 2, 2013

Reading the wide world

Only one of the books in this post is set in Britain, and that was written in the 1920’s and takes place in a number of earlier times. None are set in either the United States or New Zealand.

I read How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid because a friend in London heard him speak and was impressed. I'm glad she told me about him as the next week I saw it in the "bestseller" section at my library and brought it home. It's is an unusual book, based I think in Pakistan, written in the second person; the reader is addressed as "you" throughout and given advice even in the chapter headings such as "Move to the City" or Work for Yourself." There is a narrative, the story of the person who I guess is the protagonist. It's a beautifully written book and I loved it.

Re-reading Orlando for a reading group, I was surprised at the dense, lyrical writing, which I had forgotten. I kept thinking about Cezanne's paintings. Virginia Woolf had such a great understanding of sexual politics and what being a woman meant at different times. Orlando's consciousness of her self in different periods without any demonstration of surprise is fun. And I especially like the way the three hundred years it covers start and finish under the same tree.

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, which is why I read it. It's a grim story set in North Korea when Leader Kim Jong il was a young man. The story is told through a number of means—in the first person, via official stories piped into every workplace and home and street, via stories extracted through torture, and all sorts. The human to human cruelty is immense. The plot is complicated. It’s a great, if grim, read. Pak Jun Do, the son of the title, listens while he’s at sea on a fishing boat, to the broadcast of a young American woman rowing around the world.

"What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary? If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they’d make more sense to Jun Do. Maybe he’d understand why some people accepted their fates while others didn’t. He might know why people scoured all the orphanages looking for one particular child when any child would do, these were perfectly good children." (page 41)

The story of Jesus’s life from four different points of view, all of them involving “lies” makes up Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel. This book is really interesting to read as picture of the lives of the times, which were often grim and gruesome. People’s capacity to do dreadful things to each other has been around for a very long time. I guess it’s na├»ve of me to think we are any better “now.”

April 15, 2013

Mainly Men + Toni Morrison + Shulamith Firestone

In this selection of my reading, three of four authors and four of four protagonists are men. (And I finish with a radical feminist.) The woman writer is Toni Morrison. Her novel Home Is about Vietnam War vet Frank Money, who goes in search of his sister, who has been working for—and experimented on—by a white doctor. It’s grim on all fronts but not without hope in the end. The home of the title is a place where you can get looked after, probably without sentiment or even affection, and could well be the place you ran away from as soon as you could. Toni Morrison is a great writer and I am glad to have read this book.

 It’s not hard to pick that David Vann’s Dirt is not going to be a barrel of laughs. Galen wants to be enlightened and sees his nightmare family as preventing him. He’s tragically self-absorbed. Everyone—mother, aunt, cousin, Galen—seems mad, except perhaps the grandmother.

"His grandmother, unable to remember anything, was definitely on pause. Someone taking a break from the game. Then there was the big question of what the game was about. Why were we all trying to learn lessons? Galen knew it was so we’d finally be without attachment , but why did attachments ever have to exist in the first place?" (page 69)

I liked reading this bleak book, too.

I wrote in an earlier post about Vladimir Nabokov’s tragic/ comic Pnin. His Pale Fire is tricksier, just as hilarious in places, and compelling, but there is no character to equal Professor Pnin. The protagonist, KInbote, is the most unreliable of narrators. Most of the novel takes place as his deluded commentary on the poem Pale Fire by murdered poet John Shade, footnotes included. Having read these two books I don’t understand why Nabokov’s fame rests on Lolita; it’s not nearly as good as either of these. Pale Fire has been described somewhere as a precursor to David Foster Wallace’s  Infinite Jest. Apart from the footnotes, I don’t see it.

New Zealand poet Glenn Colquhoun has published a collection of prose writings plus some poems, Jumping Ship and Other Essays. He gets a lot right. Take this:
“Engaging with Maori does not mean assimilating them. It does not mean being assimilated by them. There are two ways of doing things in this country that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”
The understated style and humour are endearing, sometimes veering towards sentimental maybe, but always perceptive.  And the humour is good. For example, in writing of a man who had worked mining sulphur: “If he went to hell for lying he would at least be used to the smell.”

I just read an article in the New Yorker (15 March 2013) by Susan Faludi, about Shulamith Firestone. I knew Firestone had died last year, sick and poor, but I didn’t know the extent of the tragedy that was her life. (I doubt she would like being included in a post mainly about men.) She was an icon, a firebrand, a passionate, uncompromising fighter, the author of The Dialectics of Sex, a radical feminist  theory of politics where she argued that gender inequality was the result of a patriarchy that structured society by defining women through their biology. For her the biological family was a tyranny imposed on women. I remember being shocked by her ideas at the same time as admiring her for putting them out there. She was an icon, an example of a fearlessness that many of us lacked. Is it foolish, I wonder, to wish she had had a better subsequent life?

March 30, 2013

Books That Show Us Other Lives

One of the highlights of a recent trip to Auckland was the launch of Aorewa McLeod's new novel Who Was That Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a lesbian life. The crowd in The Women’s Bookshop spilled out into the street as Stella Duffy did the honours and Aorewa talked about the writing of the book and read two extracts. 

Reviewer Elizabeth Heritage writes in the Booksellers NZ blog: "Who Was That Woman, Anyway? is an engaging and determined attempt to look at the ways in which we structure our own identity in terms of gender and sexuality. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we feel sexual desire the way we do? What determines who we are attracted to? To what extent is gender a cultural performance, and to what extent is it biologically determined? Ngaio doesn’t definitively answer any of these questions; her life in this book becomes a process of examining and querying and arguing." Read the whole review at:

I read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother partly because it’s sci-fi-ish, slightly-in-the-future setting makes it background for the novel I have embarked on. It’s a novel about what happens when “homeland security” goes, well, mad. Marcus, a 17-year-old who cares about justice, gets his friends into trouble. Marcus — a fictional character — has been compared to Aaron Swartz, the internet activist charged with using a university computer network to, without authority, download millions of academic journal articles with the idea of making them freely available. Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Little Brother is good, and chilling, and I plan to read the sequel, Homeland.

When I started reading Rose Tremaine’s Merivel, I thought it might be a variation on Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It isn’t. Merivel the character is not a political figure, he’s much more Montaigne—to whom he refers often—than Thomas Cromwell. He wants to believe in himself as worthwhile but struggles with his own past and present dissipations and can’t decide whether he is slave or friend to Charles II. As a physician of his time, he pays plenty of attention to bodily functions, smells and (lack of) sanitation. In many ways a foolish character given to weeping, he survives many changes of fortune.

"Such are the days and times of every man and, no matter how hard we work and strive, we can never know when something shall be given to us and when it will be taken away." (page 286)

I recommend this beautifully written book.

I don’t very often give up on a book, but I did on America. And it’s Franz Kafka! I found it a great disappointment compared to Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. The protagonist of America endlessly introspects on minor matters, makes and breaks “friendships” oddly and doesn’t seem to learn anything. The book has a Kafkaesque sense of doom but about halfway through I couldn’t be bothered finding out any more.

“Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” it says on the cover of Behind The Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. I didn’t see a lot of hope as I read of people living grim, stinking, insecure, violent, self-punishing lives recycling the waste of the rich on a rubbish dump. One woman’s plan for getting on in the world involved becoming a slumlord. However,

"Among powerful Indians, the distribution of opportunity was typically an insider trade." (Page 138)
Katherine Boo says in an excellent note at the end of the book that it’s all true, including people’s names. She used interviews, recordings and public records to get the stories. It’s hard to read about such unrelenting poverty and awful living conditions, but somehow, once you have started this book, necessary.

"Sunil thought that he, too, had a life, a bad life, certainly—the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he’d come to realise on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself." (page 199)

March 7, 2013

There's More to ebooks than Kindle

I've been an advocate for independent bookstores for years. (My two favourites in New Zealand are Unity Books in Wellington and The Women's Bookshop in Auckland.) For Unity you need the "unitybooksonline" page and the "ebooks" button and on The Women's Bookshop page the Kobo link is at the very top on the left of the home page. 

I have read a lot about "the death of the book as we know it" and "the death of print" and so on, to which I say "Tosh!" It’s both/and, people, not either/or.

The Ebook market is presently dominated by kindle, an ereader that takes books from the Amazon Kindle store in a format called .mobi that is particular to Kindles. Which means you can only read it on a Kindle device or app, so Amazon creates a circular process whereby you spend your book money with them. 

I want to say out loud: “THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES.” There's another Ebook format, called ePub, which is used for nearly every other Ebook reader than Kindle. New Zealand booksellers have decided to go with a reader called  Kobo, and sell this device. You can also download a free Kobo app to your iPad or smartphone. iBooks is another app for ipads and smartphones that reads ePub.

So you have a Kobo and you want to put some books on it. If you go direct to the website you can buy and download from there. BUT, if you go to the website of your favourite independent bookstore and tap or click on their 'ebooks' button you can go from there to the kobo website and its 3 million books and—this is the important bit—the bookstore gets a cut from the sale. This is a tiny amount, a few cents, but it a) adds up if lots of people do it and b) keeps the independent bookstores in the game; they remain a player in the business of getting the books we want to read to us.

This all seems ponderous written down, but once you've done it a couple of times it's simple enough and, whatever happens in the book retailing world, I want independent bookstores, who are the ones who care about books and readers, to be a big part of it. Independent bookstores are also important to independent publishers, who are also important to us readers. Whether you take your books with or without batteries, support the independents.

PS. My own preference is still for reading books printed on paper. There's something about the physical object I really enjoy. The irony is I didn't appreciate this until I read a couple of books on my ipad.