Saturday, 6 March 2021


BOOKS @ VOLUME #219 (5.3.21)

Read our newsletter and find out what we've been reading and recommending, about new books that have arrived this week, and about the short-listed books for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese woman and her worlds by Amy Stanley   {Reviewed by STELLA}
An appealing history of Japan in the nineteenth history, Stranger in the Shogun’s City is a tale both personal and encompassing. Tsuneno is the daughter of a priest. Growing up in a small mountainous village, the temple is central to her life and expectations. Married at 12, life seems mapped out: she will be a diligent temple wife. Yet 15 years on and with no children in sight, she is sent home again with the divorce papers—not an uncommon occurrence in the nineteenth century, where women would be remarried—a failed relationship not necessitating disaster. Two more marriages down the road and the picture for Tsuneno isn’t quite as rosy, her family are losing patience with her and she has other ideas. Seeking independence, she goes against her family’s wishes and knowledge, pawns her belongings (mostly clothes), and makes her way to the city of Edo in the care of a family acquaintance—someone she thought she could trust. In a relatively short time, Tsuneno’s world is turned upside down. Not only has the trustworthy friend betrayed her, physically and emotionally, but he has also left her in financial peril and abandoned her in the city. Living in a tiny room, at the mercy of her landlord, without money or warm clothes, bedding or utensils, she is desperate to find work. Her dreams of a good position in a Shogun household are remote, but she does get a job working long hours as a housemaid. It isn’t ideal, but it enables her to stay in Edo, a lively city with prospects. Tsuneno rises and falls alongside the city. This is the story of a woman and the story of a city, Edo, at the end of a golden age, known as the Great Peace, a time just prior to the arrival of the American gunship and Commodore Perry. As we read we fall into step beside Tsuneno, seeing the informal structures of the city—the migrant workers and peddlers— that underpins the economic structure of the more formal organisations, the geisha and the theatre performers that brighten the evenings, the temple priests, the samurai of all classes (one of whom will impact this woman’s life more than she expected) and the hierarchies of the ruling shogunate classes. Pieced together from letters (between Tsueno and her family), family records kept at the temples, combined with historical events (famine, fire, political machinations) and research, Amy Stanley creates a gripping account of a woman who chose between family and freedom, who made the most of the hand she was dealt. Rich in detail with its vivid descriptions of the environs (urban and rural), and lively portraits of Tsuneno, her family and the people of Edo, Stranger in a Shogun’s City is a compelling history of an ordinary woman in a fascinating time and place. 


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“Even on a blue day you could tell this sky had a knack for breaking into storms,” she writes, she someone, she the pharmacist-to-be, as she arrives in the Alpine town, a town anyway that seems like an Alpine town, high up, reached only by funicular railway, there’s a certain steepness involved, the town is depopulating, certainly you have the feeling that the only people living there are those you are aware of at any given time and that soon they too may be gone. When the narrator arrives she remembers visiting the town as a child in the company of her uncle and her mother at a time when her mother was ill but her uncle did not yet know that she was ill. From what has she run away to come here this time, or what has she otherwise left if it is not the case that she has run away? She takes a job as a pharmacist at the pharmacy owned by a Mr Malone, it seems she was a pharmacy student before she came here, though the main tasks of a pharmacist, at least in Mr Malone’s pharmacy, are not the main tasks of a pharmacist as we know them although certainly allied to those tasks. Mr Malone “believed that a pharmacist’s role was to enhance the locals’ potential by listening carefully,” to allow others to tell their stories, to reduce one’s presence to that of a listener only, to abnegate oneself, “the more absent I seemed, the more they talked,” she says, having a natural talent for the work of disappearing, a natural talent for undoing what we ordinarily think of as existing. “It occurred to me,” she says, “that there was something reassuring about the obviously dangerous Mr Malone to someone like me who worried all the time.” He is corrosive to her idea of herself; she wants to be corroded. Mr Malone eventually leaves the pharmacy to her and stands for mayor, though he hardly leaves, she supports his campaign, there hardly seems to be another candidate, Mr Malone becomes mayor, still he in the centre of his coterie of occupationally defined men, he is the centre of some void sucking at her always. Was there really a wolf-beast once in the town that ate little girls? Somehow it’s a fable but not exactly a fable, more a dream, everything is described with the same degree of portentious detail and the same lack of overall shape as an account of a dream, a dream in this case from which the dreamer, the young pharmacist, cannot awaken, from which waking will never be possible. Within this dream that the dreamer does not realise is a dream, the dreamer struggles to differentiate the actual from her reveries, the stories get away from her, “I was easy to derail,” she says. “I derailed myself on my own. Unless I was busy I was distracted by daydreams,” though she and we struggle and fail to tell what is actually the case and what is dreamed, the same residue remains in either case, the same damage done. “After I articulated this sort of reverie I felt a sense of revulsion,” she says. “I had started to feel as though I wouldn’t wake up, was scared I would disappear.” All stories are told stories, but the compounding of detail here erodes knowledge rather than constructs it, all detail is a subtraction, a relinquishment, written and rid of, the shape of things is lost, the self annulled. “I experimented with how little I could let pass over my face,” she says. All memory and identity are stripped away by iteration, vacancy expands, pushing everything out of sight and into non-existence, if there is such a place to be pushed. Even the descriptions eventually become descriptions primarily of absence: “The room had no decoration, nothing personal, no photographs of strict-looking characters standing in front of wrought-iron gates,” the narrator nothing more than a mirror: “I also was a reflective surface,” no longer sure even how to present herself before the customers of the pharmacy, “walking around in a long pause, an ellipsis,” her escape from herself complete, she has become the phantom she has unconsciously always sought to become. “All feelings would pass if I didn’t engage with them,” she says. “I have a weak spot, I had taken to telling people, a magic phrase that I used to trick my way out of an emotional hole,” out of existing, now ready to leave even this, the town of her attenuation. When her uncle comes to collect her he remembers nothing, he is a stranger to the town, he too has lost his history, he too has become nothing more than a label on an absence. And we are left with nothing, nothing that is except an oddly-shaped void, mountain air,  sublime sentences, surprising details, words, phrases, oddness coming at us like something beautiful, sharp and cold. On the iterative level, Elven’s book has something of the disconcerting clarity of the work of Fleur Jaeggy, but more as if a work of brilliance had been translated a little awkwardly and inaccurately and somehow enhanced by the process no matter what was lost, though if this is a translated work, and perhaps all works are translated works in the way in which this work is a translated work, it is not a work translated between languages but between minds if there are such things as minds. Elven describes a new employee at the pharmacy as “perching his opinions at the end of pointed lips,” and how, during a storm, the storm promised perhaps by blue skies mentioned earlier, “we saw slanted people walking along the grass, trees gesticulating like conjurors, the wind throwing water off the river.” We may forget the sentences but we are left with the strange effect upon us of these sentences, just as we may forget a dream but still be left strangely affected. 

Click through to reserve your reading!

Poetics of Work by Noémi Lefebvre         $34
Sparring with the spectre of an overbearing father, torn between the push to find a job and the pull to write, the narrator wanders into a larger debate, one in which the troubling lights of Kafka, Kraus, and Klemperer shine bright. Set against the backdrop of police brutality and rising nationalism that marked the state of emergency following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Poetics of Work takes a jab at the values of late capitalism. A blistering treatise of survival skills for the wilfully idle.
"A smart, timely, and novel proposal for poetics in the age of personal and political patriarchy." — Joanna Walsh
Dwelling in the Margins: Art publishing in Aotearoa edited by Katie Kerr        $45
On the periphery of Aotearoa New Zealand’s publishing scene, there is a rich and varied cottage industry of small press publishers. They work in collaboration, in gaps between paid gigs and with the support of like-minded peers: poets who print, curators-cum-editors, self-publishing photographers, and cross-disciplinary designers. Dwelling in the Margins introduces some leading figures of independent publishing in their own words. Through stories and essays, thirty practitioners reflect on their craft, speculate on the changing landscape of book-making, and imagine alternative frameworks for the future of publishing. Featuring Dominic Hoey, Imogen Taylor, Judy Darragh, Catherine Griffiths, Bruce Connew, Bridget Reweti, Matariki Williams, Luke Wood, Sarah Maxey, Ella Sutherland, Jonty Valentine, Haruhiko Sameshima, Matthew Galloway, Louise Menzies, Sophie Davis, Alan Deare, Chloe Geoghegan, Alice Connew, Anita Tótha, Balamohan Shingade, Chris Holdaway, Erena Shingade, Gabi Lardies, Simon Gennard, Harry Culy, Katie Kerr, Lizzie Boon, Melinda Johnston, Samuel Walsh, Sophie Rzepecky and Virginia Woods-Jack.
Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras           $40
In her nonfiction as well as her fiction, Marguerite Duras's curiosity was endless, her intellect voracious. Within a single essay she might roam from Flaubert to the scattering of desire to the Holocaust; within the body of her essays overall, style is always evolving, subject matter shifting, as her mind pushes beyond the obvious toward ever-original ground. Me & Other Writing is a guidebook to the extraordinary breadth of Duras's nonfiction. From the stunning one-page 'Me' to the sprawling 70-page 'Summer 80', there is not a piece in this collection that can be easily categorized. These are essayistic works written for their times but too virtuosic to be relegated to history, works of commentary or recollection or reportage that are also, unmistakably, works of art.
"While reading Marguerite Duras, it can be hard to tell if you are pressing your hands to her chest or if she is pressing her hands to yours. Has she mined your deepest feelings or have you caught her heart's fever? Her nonfiction, written in the same blood and seawater as her fiction, produces the same sensation." —Paris Review
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan           $35
Hassan's poems chartan intimate course through memories from his childhood and upbringing in Egypt, New Zealand, Turkey and elsewhere to untangle the intersecting traumas of migration, Islamophobia and grief and ask difficult questions about the essence of nationalism and belonging.

The Age of Wood: Our most useful material and the construction of civilisation by Roland Ennos           $55
How were humans able to develop civilizations and produce a globalised economy? Ennos shows that the key factor has been our relationship with wood. Synthesizing recent research with existing knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as primatology, anthropology, archaeology, history, architecture, engineering, and carpentry, Ennos reinterprets human history and shows how our ability to exploit wood's unique properties has profoundly shaped our bodies and minds, societies, and lives. 

I Am a Human Being by Jackson Nieuwland         $20
The first collecting from an exciting emerging poet. "Take part in a new transformation with every new page as the speaker becomes by turns an egg, multiple trees, a town crier, a needle in a haystack, and a cone of blue light in this incisive and pathos-filled exploration of what it means to be anything at all."
A River Called Time by Courttia Newland           $33
The Ark was built to save the lives of the many, but rapidly became a refuge for the elite, the entrance closed without warning. Years after the Ark was cut off from the world, a chance of survival within its confines is granted to a select few who can prove their worth. Among their number is Markriss Denny, whose path to future excellence is marred only by a closely guarded secret: without warning, his spirit leaves his body, allowing him to see and experience a world far beyond his physical limitations. Once inside the Ark, Denny learns of another with the same power, whose existence could spell catastrophe for humanity. He is forced into a desperate race to understand his abilities, and in doing so uncovers the truth about the Ark, himself and the people he thought he once knew.
"A masterful reimagining of the African diaspora's influence on England and on the world. It's a grand tale and still an intimate portrait of loss and love. What glory and influence would Africa enjoy if colonialism had never occurred? Courttia Newland reshapes our vision of the past, present and future by taking this one question seriously. The result is something truly special. No other way to put it, this book is true Black magic." —Victor LaValle
Metropolis: A history of the city, humankind's greatest invention by Ben Wilson        $60|
An exhilarating tour of more than two dozen cities and thousands of years, examining that invention’s good and bad effects. The bad effects (“harsh, merciless environments,” for instance) are produced not so much by roads and buildings but by what’s invisible. The city, as Wilson sees it, is less of a warehouse of architecture and more of an organism that shapes the creatures living inside.
The Penguin Book of OuLiPo edited by Philip Terry     $26
A fascinating look at the work and workings of the exclusive group of writers and mathematicians who use constraints as a laboratory to generate literary texts. Featuring work by Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and other OuLiPo members, as well as "anticipatory plagiarists" preceding them, the book gives a good introduction to the OuLiPo's novel ways of generating texts and exercising our literary capacities.

The Flying Couch, A graphic memoir by Amy Kurzweil           $40
Amy weaves her own coming-of-age as a young Jewish artist into the narrative of her mother, a psychologist, and Bubbe, her grandmother, a World War II survivor who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto by disguising herself as a gentile. Captivated by Bubbe's story, Amy turns to her sketchbooks, teaching herself to draw as a way to cope with what she discovers. 
>>"How do you feel about being a character in my book?"
>>A page evolves
>>"The thing in the middle is drawing."
>>How to draw literary cartoons
How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm          $25
The science on climate change has been clear for a very long time now. Yet despite decades of appeals, mass street protests, petition campaigns, and peaceful demonstrations, we are still facing a booming fossil fuel industry, rising seas, rising emission levels, and a rising temperature. With the stakes so high, why haven't we moved beyond peaceful protest? In this manifesto, noted climate scholar (and saboteur of SUV tires and coal mines) Andreas Malm makes an impassioned call for the climate movement to escalate its tactics in the face of ecological collapse. Offering a counter-history of how mass popular change has occurred, from the democratic revolutions overthrowing dictators to the movement against apartheid and for women's suffrage, Malm argues that the strategic acceptance of property destruction and violence has been the only route for revolutionary change. Moving from the forests of Germany and the streets of London to the deserts of Iraq, Malm offers us a challenging and urgent discussion of the politics and ethics of pacifism and violence, democracy and social change, strategy and tactics.
With a Little Kelp from Our Friends: The secret life of seaweed by Mathew Bate and Liz Rowland         $35
Beyond the tideline, there are around 10,000 types of seaweed. An essential ingredient for life on Earth, seaweed has sustained animals and people for many thousands of years. From ancient history and mythology to modern uses in food, health and medicine, discover how seriously cool seaweed is, and how it can even help tackle climate change.

Tom Stoppard, A life by Hermione Lee       $70
"An astute study of the dazzlingly clever playwright, which details the parties and famous friends, but also identifies the emotions that drive much of his work. An exceptional biography." —Guardian
L.E.L: The lost life and scandalous death of the 'female Byron' by Lucasta Miller         $30
On 15 October 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old woman was found in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa, a bottle of Prussic acid in her hand. She was one of the most famous English poets of her day—Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known by her initials 'L.E.L.' What was she doing in Africa? Was her death an accident, as the inquest claimed? Or had she committed suicide, or even been murdered? To her contemporaries, she was an icon, hailed as the 'female Byron', admired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Heinrich Heine, the young Bronte sisters and Edgar Allan Poe. However, she was also a woman with secrets, the mother of three illegitimate children whose existence was subsequently wiped from the record. After her death, she became the subject of a cover-up which is only now unravelling.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell         $33
In Japan it is Yuki-onna - 'a goddess'. In Icelandic, Hundslappadrífa - 'flakes as big as a dog's paw'. In Hawai'ian, snow is hau - 'mother of pearl', but also 'love'.  From Iceland to Greenland, mountain top to frozen forest, school yard to park, snow is welcomed, feared, played with and prized. Arctic traveller and award-winning writer Nancy Campbell digs deep into the meanings, etymologies and histories of fifty words for snow from across the globe. Held under her magnifying glass, each of these linguistic snow crystals offers a whole world of myth, culture and story.  
Childhood, Youth, Dependency ('The Copenhagen Trilogy') by Tove Ditlevsen            $26
Following one woman's journey from a troubled girlhood in working-class Copenhagen through her struggle to live on her own terms, 'The Copenhagen Trilogy' is a searingly honest, utterly immersive portrayal of love, friendship, art, ambition and the terrible lure of addiction, from one of Denmark's most celebrated twentieth-century writers.
"Utterly, agonisingly compulsive. A masterpiece." —Guardian
"Sharp, tough and tender, wrenching sadness and pitch-black comedy. Ditlevsen can pivot from hilarity to heartbreak in a trice." —Spectator
"Astonishing, honest, entirely revealing and, in the end, devastating. Ditlevsen's trilogy is remarkable not only for its honesty and lyricism; these are books that journey deep into the darkest reaches of human experience and return, fatally wounded, but still eloquent." —Observer
A Chronology of Film by Ian Haydn Smith          $45
Organized around a central timeline that charts the development of film from the earliest moving images to present-day blockbusters, this volume features key films, film commentaries, and contextual information about the period in which they were produced. By revealing the social, political, and cultural environments in which these films were created.

In a quest to better understand the vast heartland of Asia, Caroline navigates a course from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the sun-ripened orchards of the Fergana Valley. The book is filled with human stories, forgotten histories and tales of adventure. Eden is a guide using food as her passport to enter lives, cities and landscapes rarely written about. From the author of the equally wonderful Black Sea
A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion           $33
This is the story of Libby and her siblings over one long hot summer, and how one decision can have terrible unintended consequences. Rage. That's the feeling engulfing the car as Ellen's mother swerves over to the hard-shoulder and orders her daughter out onto the roadside. Ignoring the protests of her other children, she accelerates away, leaving Ellen standing on the gravel verge in her school pinafore and knee socks as the light fades. What would you do as you watch your little sister getting smaller in the rear view window? How far would you be willing to go to help her? The Gallagher children are going to find out. This moment is the beginning of a summer that will change everything.
"Yoking a classic coming-of-age narrative to the pacier engine of a thriller takes skill and A Crooked Tree is more than persuasive, emanating nostalgia, foreboding and clear-eyed empathy." —Guardian
Featuring photographs from African studios and photographers from 1870—1970, this collection contrasts the fresh and vital information in these images with those of colonial photographers who all to often figuratively crushed their subjects under their prejudice, projections and expectations. 

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

 Find out about the books short-listed for the 2021 OCKHAM NEW ZEALAND BOOK AWARDS!

Read the judges' citations below and click through to our website to obtain your copies. 

Use the
VOLUME OCKHAMETER to vote for your favourite book in each category and to go in the draw for a copy of each of the eventual winners. 


Bug Week, And other stories by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press)
Atmospheric and refined, Bug Week is compelling from start to finish. A tightly wound collection of short stories which explore the weird, the eerie and the mordantly funny, there’s a sense of quiet unease and slow-burning rage. A talking albatross at an open mic night, an envious sibling, a desperate ex-lover and a melancholy brothel owner are some of the characters encountered in this collection, which delves into the female experience, anger, male entitlement and restless malaise.
Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press)
Looking at surveillance, identity, gender and people living on the margins under the fallout of capitalism, Nothing to See follows the lives of Peggy and Greta, who are recovering alcoholics (or rather, one alcoholic who has splintered off into two). And just when you think you’ve cracked what is going on, Pip Adam turns everything in this dazzling novel inside out, leaving the reader momentarily disoriented but exhilarated.
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press)
This transcendent novel about ‘wilful blindness’ is written as a series of letters, interviews and diary entries told from four different angles — the newly-appointed camp administrator at Buchenwald labour camp Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, his wife Frau Greta Hahn, Dr Lenard Weber, who has invented a machine called a Sympathetic Vitaliser which he believes can cure cancer by using a process called ‘remote sympathy’, and the collective reflections of Weimar citizens. Immersive, profound and plotted with a breathtaking dexterity, Remote Sympathy is vividly evoked.
Sprigs by Branavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson)
A searing novel which examines violence, racism and toxic masculinity, Sprigs looks at the consequences of a sexual assault at a high school rugby game aftermatch, and the ripple effect of trauma that follows. Brannavan Gnanalingam deftly brings together a hefty cast of characters, skillfully orchestrating multiple voices and perspectives. Written with sensitivity, nuance and not without bursts of comic relief, Sprigs is an unflinching novel which forces us to reckon with uncomfortable truths about power and privilege in Aotearoa.

Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
The language of Funkhaus pumps and flows as if the collection were a great red heart. Hinemoana Baker’s poems reference Sylvia Plath, Wi Parata, aunties, and P.J. Harvey. Vacuum cleaners, dogs, and polaroids also appear in imaginative ways. The book’s shifts in subject matter, migratory metaphors and language encompass satirical political poetry, tender love lyrics and memorable street tunes. Like the emanations from the radio station of the title, these poetry messages travel; from Lake Geneva to Waitangi, Berlin to Ihumātao, Funkhaus transmits an unstaunchable array of emotions in rhythmic form.
Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Seraph Press)
Magnolia 木蘭 grows and blooms through mother-daughter conversations across generations, cultures and languages. Seeking to understand her place in the world, a young writer journeys from New Zealand to China, England to Malaysia, from film to contemporary art, and from English to Mandarin, Hakka and Māori. Subtly but insistently exploding prejudices and expectations, Nina Mingya Powles presents a poetic mosaic that more than lives up to the brilliant elegance, or mingya 明雅, promised by her Chinese name.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books) 
Mohamed Hassan shapes the emotional outpouring of performance and the fast footwork of slam into perfectly timed poems of political commentary, personal awareness and metaphorical virtuosity. Refusing the easy refrains of nationalism, National Anthem syncopates family history, displacement and personal trauma with a devastating commentary on racism’s most ugly manifestations. It mixes compromise and commitment, Egypt and Aotearoa, English and Arabic, laughter and anger, skepticism and love to sound out a new beat for poetry in this country and beyond.
The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)
Tusiata Avia turns her vociferous intellect and satirical vehemence to recording recent events and finds a base space for poetry in which to pick up the pieces and keep on moving. While furiously rejecting the destructive legacies of colonialism, her poems acknowledge that contradictions live at the centre of contemporary commitments. From garrulously hilarious observations to expressions of profound grief, the collection activates her insights, reforming our consciousness of what constitutes poetry as she goes.

An Exquisite Legacy: The life and art of New Zealand naturalist G.V. Hudson by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton)
George Hudson’s grandson has produced a glorious tribute to his grandfather, not only one of New Zealand’s greatest naturalists but also an artist of dazzling skill. In reproducing so many of these paintings for the first time, the author is scientifically and artistically scrupulous, with detailed captions and superb production values. Crucially, this is also an enlightening and lovingly written biography — we are drawn inside the world of an insect-mad fellow who became a significant figure in our natural history landscape.
Hiakai: Modern Māori cuisine by Monique Fiso (Godwit, Penguin Random House)
Hiakai is no ordinary cookbook but rather one which, unusually, lets us see our natural environment with fresh eyes. Coming from award-winning chef Monique Fiso, it is the result of years of labour and research into Māori cuisine and all it represents. Passionately written, well edited, beautifully illustrated and presented, Hiakai weaves tikanga, history, cultivation, foraging and hunting into an influential classic of the kitchen, and also of cultural history; in these recipes Fiso shows the range of indigenous ingredients with sophisticated flair.
Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press)
This elegantly produced collection of photographs, the bulk of which have never been published before, is exquisitely designed and edited — and the image reproduction is exceptional. The accompanying text breathes life into these individuals and, thanks to the layout, Marti Friedlander’s uncanny ability to capture the spirit of her subjects shines through. With images of over 110 artists, photographed over several decades, this important volume is a wonderful cultural account of mid-to-late twentieth century creative life in New Zealand.
Nature—Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press)
This sumptuously beautiful book presents a wondrous selection of specimens from Te Papa’s natural history collection. Brilliantly photographed and produced, it highlights not just the breadth of these collections but also the knowledge and passion of those who care for them. Jane Ussher is one of Aotearoa’s most accomplished photographers and she has clearly approached this project with great respect and enthusiasm for the exhibits which represent our vanishing natural world, and have never been more worthy of our attention.

Specimen: Personal essays by Madison Hamill (Victoria University Press)
This compulsively readable collection charts the inner life of someone who often feels at odds with those around her. Madison Hamill traces her sense of difference in fresh, razor-sharp prose, via encounters ranging from a bullying primary school teacher, whom she quietly bests, to the clients at an under-funded drug clinic in Cape Town, for whom she can do nothing. It is as memorable for her unblinking view of herself as it is for her compassionate awareness of others’ struggles.
Te Hāhi Mihinare: The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa (Bridget Williams Books)
This is both a history of an institution and a corrective for ‘fatal impact’ narratives in which Māori are presented as the passive victims of colonisation; Hirini Kaa shows how iwi adapted the new religion to make it their own. His emblematic example is the haka ‘Te Pārekereke’, which celebrates the arrival of Christianity and the gift of seedling kumara — both of which promise a new start. Performing the haka acknowledges the renegotiation of mātauranga through Christianity, and embraces both continuity and change.
The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere, A biographical portrait by Vincent O'Sullivan (Penguin Random House)
In this exemplary instance of the biographer’s art, Vincent O’Sullivan transcends what in other hands may have proved an insurmountable obstacle — writing about an artist without illustrations of the work — by producing a life story that ‘feeds back’ into the imagery, deepening and enriching all subsequent encounters. He has given us a sensitive, meticulously researched portrait of one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important modern artists.
This Pākehā Life: An unsettled memoir by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books)
The question at the heart of educationalist Alison Jones’s multi-stranded memoir is what it means, for her, to be Pākehā: a non-Māori New Zealander who belongs nowhere else. It is a coming-of-age story, a family story, and a story of place. It also charts a personal journey at a time of intellectual foment, when making a difference meant protesting. Above all, it’s about friendship, and about learning how to listen in order to work collaboratively towards positive change.

Use the VOLUME OCKHAMETER to vote for your favourite book in each category and to go in the draw for a copy of each of the eventual winners. 

Saturday, 27 February 2021

 BOOKS @ VOLUME #218 (26.2.21)

Find out about new books and book news in our latest newsletter!


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


One of a Kind: A story about sorting and classifying by Neil Packer     {Reviewed by STELLA}
Big beautiful children’s books are beguiling and informative. One Of A Kind is one such book. Opening the cover reveals endpapers that I would have spent hours looking at when I was young. An array of small drawings of objects and animals, food and buildings loosely circled with curly arrows making connections, gives a taste of what is to follow: a wondrous selection of objects, and the relationships that particular objects have to each other. This is a book of classifications, of organising that is sure to please a young mind and lead to explorations of subjects as diverse as musical instruments, the family tree and cheese. It starts with Avro walking along with his musical instruments—maybe on the way to a class. Turn the page and here is his family tree right back to his great-greats and branching in all directions—with a clear visual explanation of the various sorts of cousins (first cousin, second, third along with first cousin once removed, second once removed, etc). Next we get to meet his cat, Malcolm, and then, of course, Malcolm’s family of cats. There are ones you know—cheetah, lynx and tiger—but what about the sand cat, fishing cat and kodkod? And all these people and cats you have met belong to the wider group—the animal kingdom (species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, animal kingdom). Packer goes on to classify a few other things, arranging them in their groups, actions and linkages. Musical instruments (wind, string, electrophones, percussion) from the voice to the bombarde to the hurdy-gurdy to drum machine and the cabasa. Vehicles—choose your means of transport. The tool shed—learn your hammers! Clouds—sky-gazing becomes a new adventure spotting the cirrus, nimbostratus and altocumulus. Buildings by use, age and material will start the conversation of form and function. How well do you know your apples? And then the books at the library—classifications galore. Avro finds the art books—sorted into their periods and styles each with an apt feline illustration. After we follow Avro through his day’s explorations, there are explanatory pages about each section and what it means to sort things into groups—how that makes sense of the world. And how in all this wide world with all the different things—some strange, others familiar, some opposites, many similar—there is just one unique you. One Of A Kind is a book for curious minds, with its striking illustrations and excellent classifications. 


Friday, 26 February 2021


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


Calamities by Renee Gladman   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
I began the day remembering, or what for me passes for remembering, or at least attempting to perform what passes for me for remembering, the book I had read, a torrent of short essays written by Renee Gladman, each of which begins with, I began the day. The essays, or what pass for Gladman as essays, start out being about not very much, small ordinary particulars of Gladman’s life, or small observations such as a poet might make about the ordinary particulars of life, but really they are not so much about these things as they are about the writing about these things, that is to say about the relationship of a writer to her experience and to her work and about her trying to decide what sort of relationship there might be, both actually and ideally, between this experience of hers and this work. The essays that start out being about not very much end up being about even less or rather more, depending on your point of view, depending on whether you think the universals that open from particulars lie within them or beyond them. Gladman is concerned not so much with the signified, or even with the signifier, as she is with the act of signification, the act of conduction which causes, or allows, a spark to sometimes leap across. Gladman’s touch is light, and she constructs some beautiful sentences, and the sparks leap often, and she usually avoids being precious. In the final, numbered, section of the book, Gladman ties the compositional knot as tight as it can be tied, removing content almost entirely from her writing other than the act itself of writing. “I was a body and it was a page, and we both had our proverbial blankness.” What is her relationship to the text she produces, irrespective of the content of that text? “ I didn’t know whether at some point in my past, perhaps at the very moment that I set out to write, the page had fallen out of me or I had risen out of it.” She relates her prolonged rigours in attempting to find the essence, so to call it, of writing, to reduce writing to the irreducible, the making of a mark, the drawing of writing. “Language was beautiful exposed; it was like a live wire set loose, a hot wire, burning, leaving a trace. The wire was a line, but because it was electrified it wouldn’t lie still: it thrashed, it burned, it curled and uncurled around itself. … I was amazed that I was talking about wires when really I was talking about prose.” I’m not sure that the making of a mark is the irreducible essence of writing, but it is the irreducible essence of something, something which may perhaps be taken for some aspect of writing, at least in the physical sense. But maybe this is what Gladman is trying to isolate and understand, or to split, the duality between content and form, literature’s version of the mind-body problem (or, rather, the mind-body calamity). Although writing is all her art, Gladman wants to reach the limits of this art, of narrative, of words, of the act of writing, “writing so as not to write, so to find the limit (that last line) beyond which the body is free to roam outside once more.”


Book of the Week. Stephen Fry's lively retellings have brought Ancient Greek myths and legends to a new and wider readership, and have plenty to offer those already familiar with these stories. In his latest volume, Troy, he turns his attention to the Greek war on Troy, a tragic ten-year siege that tested loyalties and resolve both on the battlefield and at home. Fry breathes life into the characters and reveals the depth of their relevance to modern times. 
>>What made this story extraordinary? 


The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter            $17
Madrid. Unfinished. Man Dying. A great painter lies on his deathbed. Max Porter (author of Lanny and Grief is the Thing With Feathers) translates into seven extraordinary written pictures the explosive final workings of the artist's mind. 
"Reads like a private communion with the painter." —Guardian
little scratch by Rebecca Watson           $35
Watson's remarkable project evokes, to often hilarious effect, the thought processes of its character through the course of a day. Beneath the world of demarcated fridge shelves, office politics, clock-watching and WhatsApp notifications emerges a instance of sexual violence that has shaken and disordered the character's existence. 
"little scratch reads like the cinders settling in the air after an explosion. The silent and enraged inner testimony of a character trying to maintain 'normalcy', little scratch is daring and completely readable." —Colin Barrett
"Playful precise and insightful, Rebecca Watson's writing bursts with enormous energy." —Nicole Flattery
Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell            $17
Shaun Bythell, proprietor of The Bookshop, Wigtown, follows his (cuttingly accurate) Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller, with a hilarious 'useful' handbook to the types of customers booksellers are faced with every day. Which type are you? 

The Walker: On losing and finding yourself in the modern city by Matthew Beaumont            $43
A literary history of walking From Dickens to Zizek. Every time we walk we are going somewhere. Moving around the modern city becomes more than from getting from A to B, but a way of understanding who and where you are. In a series of riveting intellectual rambles, Matthew Beaumont, retraces a history of the walker.   From Charles Dicken's insomniac night rambles to wandering through the faceless, windswept monuments of the neoliberal city, the act of walking is one of escape, self-discovery, disappearances and potential revolution. Pacing stride for stride alongside such literary amblers and thinkers as Edgar Allen Poe, Andrew Breton, H G Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys and Ray Bradbury, Matthew Beaumont explores the relationship between the metropolis and its pedestrian life. He asks can you get lost in a crowd? It is polite to stare at people walking past on the street? What differentiates the city of daylight and the nocturnal metropolis? What connects walking, philosophy and the big toe? Can we save the city—or ourselves—by taking the pavement?
Serpentine by Philip Pullman           $24
A story from the world of 'His Dark Materials' and 'The Book of Dust'.
Lyra Silvertongue, you're very welcome. Yes, I know your new name. Serafina Pekkala told me everything about your exploits.
Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon have left the events of 'His Dark Materials' far behind. In this snapshot of their forever-changed lives they return to the North to visit an old friend, where we will learn that things are not exactly as they seem.
A lovely small hardback, beautifully illustrated throughout by Tom Duxbury.

Wars Without End; Ngā Pakanga Whenua o Mua: New Zealand's land wars, A Māori perspective by Danny Keenan              $40
The possession and dispossession of land continues to cast a long shadow between the partners of the Treaty of Waitangi, and until these issues are adequately addressed a wound will remain in New Zealand race relations. 
Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora         $60
24 Māori academics share their personal journeys, revealing what being Māori has meant for them in their work. 
News, And how to use it by Alan Rusbridger             $28
An A-Z guide on how we stay informed in the era of fake news, from former Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger. Nothing in life works without facts. A society that isn't sure what's true can't function. Without facts there can be no government or law. Science is ignored. Trust evaporates. People everywhere feel ever more alienated from—and mistrustful of—news and those who make it. We no longer seem to know who or what to believe. We are living through a crisis of 'information chaos'.
Paradise: Dante's Divine Comedy, Part three, Englished in prosaic verse by Alasdair Gray             $33
The posthumously published concluding volume of Gray's inventive vernacular version of Dante's poem. 
>>Is Lanark also some sort of version of The Divine Comedy

Sapiens, A graphic history, 1: The birth of humankind by Noah Yuval Harari, David Vandermeulen and Daniel Casanave       $48
Noah Yuval Harari's remarkable set of thinking tools for looking at human history are now presented as a graphic novel. 

The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold            $24
In 1757, a down-and-out Irish poet, the head waiter at the Shakespear's Head Tavern in Covent Garden, and a celebrated London courtesan became bound together by the publication of a little book: Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. This salacious work—detailing the names and 'specialities' of the capital's prostitutes—became one of the eighteenth century's most scandalous bestsellers. Rubenhold, author of the revisionist history The Five, reveals the lives of women on the list and gives us remarkable insight into women's lives in the 18th century precariat. 

Charts the rise of the New Romantics, a scene that grew out of the remnants of post-punk and developed quickly alongside club culture, ska, electronica, and goth. Not only did the movement visually define the decade, it was the catalyst for the Second British Invasion, when the US charts would be colonised by British pop music—Depeche Mode, Culture Club, Wham!, Soft Cell, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Sade, Spandau Ballet, the Eurythmics.

When We Got Lost in Dreamland by Ross Welford              $18
When 12 year-old Malky and his younger brother Seb become the owners of a "Dreaminator", they are thrust into worlds beyond their wildest imagination. From tree-top flights and Spanish galleons, to thrilling battles and sporting greatness - it seems like nothing is out of reach when you can share a dream with someone else. But impossible dreams come with incredible risks, and when Seb won't wake up and is taken to hospital in a coma, Malky is forced to leave reality behind and undertake a final, terrifying journey to the stone-age to wake his brother.
Beethoven: A life in nine pieces by Laura Tunbridge             $48
Beethoven is for many the archetype of the classical composer, yet his life remains shrouded in myths, and the image persists of him as an eccentric genius shaking his fist at heaven. Tunbridge cuts through the noise in a refreshing way. Each chapter focuses on a period of his life, a piece of music and a revealing theme, from family to friends, from heroism to liberty. It's a combination of biographical detail, insight into the music and surprising new angles, all of which can transform how you listen to his works.

Maxwell's Demon by Steven Hall           $37
With the same white-knuckle thrills as Hall's first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, this new book is also a freewheeling investigation into the magic power locked inside the alphabet, love through the looking glass, the bond between parents and children, and, at its heart, the quest for meaning in a world that, with each passing season, seems to become more chaotic and untidy.

An Event, Perhaps: A biography of Jacques Derrida by Peter Salmon          $43
For some, Derrida is the originator of a relativist philosophy responsible for the contemporary crisis of truth. For the far right, he is one of the architects of Cultural Marxism. To his academic critics, he reduced French philosophy to "little more than an object of ridicule." For his fans, he is an intellectual rock star who ranged across literature, politics, and linguistics. An Event, Perhaps presents this misunderstood and misappropriated figure as a deeply humane and urgent thinker for our times.

The Japanese: A history in twenty lives by Christopher Harding            $70
An enjoyable introduction to Japanese history, from the earliest records to the present, as distilled in the lives of twenty very various individuals. 
"Harding's book is a marvellous read, full of startling information." —The Times

Erosion: Essays of undoing by Terry Tempest Williams        $38
How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts? We know the elements of erosion: wind, water, and time. They have shaped our physical landscapes. Here, Williams explores the many forms of erosion we face: of democracy, science, compassion, and trust. "These are essays about the courage to face what is most brutal and monstrous by finding what is beautiful and merciful." —Rebecca Solnit

Open Water by Caleb Azuman Nelson           $33
Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists—he a photographer, she a dancer—trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence. At once a love story and an insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it.
The International Brigades: Fascism, freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Trewlett          $33
The Spanish Civil War was the first armed battle in the fight against fascism. Over 35,000 volunteers from sixty-one countries around the world came to help defend democracy against the troops of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. This is the first major history of the International Brigades. 
"Magnificent. Narrative history at its vivid and compelling best." —Fergal Keane
Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman            $32
Max's dream is to live in Paris and be a poet—even though no one will buy his poems, and he is penniless. And he's a dog. But living in New York City isn't so bad. Where else could he have friends like Bruno, who paints invisible pictures, or Marcello, who builds upside-down houses? Fun!