Friday 30 July 2021

 BOOKS @ VOLUME #240 (30.7.21)

Read our latest newsletter. Find out what we've been reading, and about our events, new books, and amusements. 

Our Book of the Week is Rachel Cusk's new novel, Second Place. Clever and unsettling, and critical of the limiting structures of gender and privilege, the book is narrated by a woman who invites a long-admired artist to stay and work in her marsh-side cottage, only to suffer immensely from the chasm between reality and her expectations. 


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 

Second Place by Rachel Cusk      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
How do you feel, Jeffers, about having Rachel Cusk’s new novel Second Place addressed entirely to you by its narrator? I hope you don’t mind, Jeffers, that we are reading this book, too, as I’m not sure that you have done anything to warrant all this possibly unwanted attention. Perhaps Cusk’s narrator, M, has transferred to you the unreciprocated obsession she in the summer of the novel directed towards L, an evidently talented but aging painter somewhat off the boil, who she has persuaded to come and work in the so-called ‘Second Place’, a small house constructed by her husband Tony and a group of ‘men’, across from their own house above the marshes, to which M, after hanging curtains over the windows—the key metaphor of the book, perhaps—serially entices artists and writers who she wants to encourage to work there. I suppose you know, Jeffers, that M is some sort of writer, though she herself never seems to do any work of this sort, except, I suppose, for the novel she has written to you some time after the visit from L, and I suppose that’s not nothing, entirely. M claims to have had a strong connection with L from the time she saw an exhibition of his paintings some fifteen years before the summer of the novel, and do you find, Jeffers, that it is sometimes easy to forget, as M seems entirely to forget, that she means nothing to L, that he has never even heard of M until she offers him the ‘Second Place’, that her deep connection, so to call it, with him is entirely one-sided. And what is the nature of this deep connection that M feels, do you think, Jeffers? Is it in some way sexual, even if not sexualised, M is far too repressed for that, sublimated into the artistic mode perhaps? “When I looked at the marsh, which seemed to obey so many of [L’s] rules of light and perception that it often resembled a painted work by him, I was in a sense looking at works by L that he had not created, and was therefore — I suppose — creating them myself,” she writes, oddly. Certainly, Jeffers, M feels entitled for some reason to some undefined sort of meaningful attention from L, attention that, unsurprisingly, he has no inclination and plausibly no ability to provide. M is entirely taken aback that L arrives with a younger woman, Brett, and it is no surprise, Jeffers, that M’s emotional outbursts when it is evident, at least to us, that L does not at all reciprocate the special relationship to which M feels she is entitled, merely serve to motivate L to avoid M as much as he can. He is frightened off by her neediness, if he even notices it. “I had had this ugliness inside me for as long as I could remember, and, by offering it to L, I was perhaps labouring under the belief that he could take it from me.” Hmm. Perhaps, Jeffers, M has written to you in an attempt to insert herself into the biography of a famous painter to whom she had in fact not the slightest importance, her relationship with L, so to call it, being always entirely one-sided. This would be sad, Jeffers, if M was herself not so entirely unpleasant, a fact that ought to make it sadder, really, but our sympathies, Jeffers, even your seemingly great patience with M, can only extend so far before irritation sets in. This is a very uncomfortable novel, Jeffers, and the more familiar we become with the suffocating workings of M’s mind, the more uncomfortable we become. The way M writes rings wrong line by line, Jeffers, every simile, every over-contrived metaphor, every feeble profundity rings wrong and makes the reader stop and remember that they’re reading, that this is a constructed text, an artificiality, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, and not an experience that they themselves are having. When M, or Cusk as M, writes, “the sky was like a blue sail overhead,” I cannot picture this, can you, Jeffers? Or when, on the following page, she writes, “life rarely offers sufficient time or opportunity to be free in more than one way,” does this make sense to you? Much of the claustrophobic isolation of M’s mind is ring-fenced and protected by dichotomous rules that she has adopted or constructed, perhaps in order to survive some previous time of trauma that she alludes to but does not reveal, and, although she may be drawn unconsciously towards transgression of these ‘rules’, she cannot relinquish her commitment to compliance and control. “But it is not Tony’s business to change places with me, nor I with him,” she writes. “We are separate people, and we each have our separate part to play, and no matter how much I yearned for an occasion for that law to be broken, I have always known that the very basis of my life rested on it.” Do you think, Jeffers, that M’s insistence on seeing all problems—existential, artistic, personal, or practical—purely in terms of reductionist and frankly quite regressive gender generalisations, and indeed her compulsion to explain every particular in her life in terms of a generalisation of some sort, blinds her to her own contribution to any particular situation and in effect alienates her from and disempowers her in these situations, even when, or even particularly when, her generalisation may be right? This contrary pull between the particular and the general has been a constant source of tension and risk in Cusk’s works generally, Jeffers. No-one can isolate and describe better than Cusk a particular or a telling detail that embeds itself in a reader’s mind and changes the way they see both the fictive and the actual world. Cusk’s ‘Outline’ trilogy is full of such wonderful splinters of hobgoblin’s mirror, so to call it, Jeffers. But can we be certain that it is Cusk’s intention that we regard M with the mixture of contempt and pity that we undoubtedly feel, or feel with perhaps a modicum of doubt, when M merely demonstrates or exaggerates the tendency to reductive gerneralising that Cusk has previously shown us of herself in her less convincing moments? Especially in certain of her non-fiction, Cusk has not infrequently moved from potent particularities to increasingly dubious generalities that reduce the insight inherent in the particulars. I wonder, Jeffers, could this book be a satire on or evisceration of Cusk herself? If not, and I think probably not, it is unclear, at least to me, Jeffers, to what extent Cusk and her narrator align. “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions?” asks M. And what, Jeffers, are we to make of the constant and presumably deliberate infelicity of description in the novel, the twee and old-fashioned turns of phrase, for example that the shelves are “higglety-pigglety” and the houses are “plonked down” somewhere or other? Cusk has created a narrator who is in many instances convincingly bad at writing, but this project, if it is her project, and I hope that it is for I hold Cusk in great esteem as a writer, comes at considerable risk to the author. Is Cusk intent on resisting our expectations of her? Perhaps, Jeffers, Cusk is trying to write in a way opposite to that of the ‘Outline’ trilogy, to react against the way of writing fiction that she developed there (if you are interested, Jeffers, you can read my ‘autofictional’ reviews of those books >here<), but it is hard to know, Jeffers, just what this opposite might be. One of the empowering strengths of the ‘Outline’ trilogy was the suspension of interpretation by their narrator, Faye, but in Second Place, all we have access to is the narrator M’s interpretation, and so much interpretation that we barely see through it, if at all. What are we to make of this, Jeffers? Perhaps the cleverness of Second Place is to suppress the unstated to a level within the narrator to which she does not allow herself to have access, leaving M superficial in the extreme and complicit in her own repression. Perhaps Second Place, Jeffers, sees the final relinquishment of M’s impulse to rebel, awakened perhaps by the devil-in-the-train episode with which the book opens, if that episode prefigures anything at all, and the ultimate victory of her already dominant impulse to comply. After all, the protagonist, so to call her, is caught in the past tense and unable to learn from her experiences. The book is written looking back from a time beyond the book’s occurrences, and she has evidently not been transformed by them, Jeffers. She has become a stagnant narrator, or one now utterly resigned to the compromise she had wrought before the book began. “L and Brett had imported a new standard, a new way of seeing, in which the old things could no longer hold their shape,” observes M, but, although she recognises that “this loss of control held new possibilities for me … as though it were itself a kind of freedom,” ultimately she affirms the rigidity of shape that she has constructed, just as — ‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’ and all that — Cusk affirms a more traditional approach to the novel, but not without complicating it in interesting ways. Chekhov’s guns, with which the book bristles, are never fired: the devil on the train, M’s fainting event, the gunshots of the bird-cannons, and you, Jeffers. When Brett says of the Second Place, “It’s a cabin in the woods straight out of a horror story,” is this meant to heighten or deflate all that comes after? Do you think, Jeffers, that M is toying with you? Cusk, I think, is certainly toying with us. “It is important that I only tell you about what I can personally verify, despite the temptation to enlist other kinds of proof, or to invent or enhance things in the hope of giving you a better picture of them, or worst of all making you identify with my feelings and the way I saw it,” writes M. Yet this is exactly what she does to you, Jeffers, and also does to her readers, these Jeffereses-by-extension. Who, though, is she deceiving or trying to deceive? Perhaps only herself. M’s ultimately conservative impulses are confirmed by her encounter with L, who has been caught by the tide: “‘I was trying to find the edge,’ he said … ‘but there is no edge. You just get worn down by the slow curvature. I wanted to see what here looks like from there … but there is no there.’” And, excuse me for asking this directly, just who are you, Jeffers? M speaks to you in a tone that suggests you might be, variously, a friend, a servant, a psychotherapist, God, a dog, or a teddy bear, none of which you seem to be, nor do you seem to be someone in the field between these poles. She repeats your name hundreds of times, Jeffers, as if to remind you or the reader or herself that she is addressing you, you in particular, though you make no more than a passive contribution, the contribution of your absence. Perhaps, Jeffers, you are M’s imaginary friend, or you might as well be, even if you do exist. A note at the end of Second Place says the book “owes its debt” to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 epistolary memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in New Mexico but, even though the amount of debt the book owes is not specified, I do not think this adds anything to our reading of Second Place, other than providing a source for the names: Brett, Jeffers, M [= Mabel], and L [=Lawrence (much admired by Cusk)], not that I can say as I have never read that book. Perhaps you can help us there, Jeffers. 


>> Read all Stella's reviews.

The Employees by Olga Ravn       {Reviewed by STELLA}
Written as a series of worker statements, The Employees is one of the most intriguing novels I have read in a while. My interest was piqued by its format: a novel written in short statements based on a series of interviews to gauge worker contentment and their response to the cargo on board. Yes, it’s the future: the 22nd century to be exact and the crew of The Six-Thousand Ship are docked on planet New Discovery collecting specimens. These specimens, Objects, are having a profound effect on the crew, both the human and humanoid workers and the bureaucrats have been sent to record their statements and to gauge how the Objects are impacting the workflow and productivity of the crew—a typical corporate-world strategy: get the workers to explain themselves so a solution, probably not favourable to said workers, can be implemented. What unfolds in the 179 Statements is surprising. The Objects of New Discovery are both feared and loved; there are antagonisms, as well as attraction, between the humans and the humanoids; some of the humans are living in a nostalgic past lost in images — holographs of their children to dwell on —  and craving experiences of a long-lost Earth; and the humanoids are various, and their different upgrades have made some indistinguishable from the humans and increasingly independent, causing friction in their role, in particular, towards the Objects. Each interview and recorded statement reveals a little more to the reader, building a sense of this world. The ship has a mission and the crew set roles, yet somehow the Objects have upset this carefully tuned equilibrium. What these Objects are is never fully explained and I imagine for each reader they will present differently. Some are smooth, others colourful, yet others fine-haired, some produce eggs and are full of seeds. Are they large or small? They seem carry-able, and one of the workers describes sitting with one in his lap. The crew assume vastly different relationships with the Objects. It may be that the humanoids respond more positively, sensing some similarities in their ‘objectness’, while the humans find them more confusing, and some are repulsed by them. It is not always clear whether a statement is from a human or humanoid, adding to the obliqueness of the text. With Ravn’s choice of structure, you could imagine a staccato-like form, and while ‘business’ language and systems are apparent and the environment of the sterile ship evokes a science laboratory, the writing is in fact wonderfully compelling. She cleverly brings these recorded conversations into the realm of lyricism, with the workers' feelings and longings exposed, along with their pleasure and anger of their purpose. From the laundry staff to the captain to the doctor, each expresses their perspective. While some refuse to speak, rebelling against the Committee, others are relieved to unburden themselves. The Employees is a fascinating look at what constitutes a human, and what might be an object — where does sentience begin? — and are we ever really autonomous? An exquisite novel with depths of thought to lose, and find, yourself in.


The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard              $34
"We can get close to such a person, but if we come into contact with him we will be repelled." Long out of print, this novella from one of the best writers of the twentieth century is now available in a new translation by Douglas Robertson. The cheap-eaters have been eating at the Vienna Public Kitchen for years, and true to their name, always the cheapest meals. They become the focus of Koller's scientific attention when he deviates one day from his usual path through the park, leading him to come upon the cheap-eaters and to realize that they must be the focal piece of his years-long, unwritten study of physiognomy. The narrator, a former school friend of Koller's, tells of his relationship with Koller in a single unbroken paragraph that is both dizzying and absorbing. In Koller, the narrator observes a gradually ever-growing, utterly exclusive and ultimately destructive interest in thought. 
>>A sequence of crushings
>>The translator makes his case for the semi-colon (among other things). 
>>Read Thomas's reviews of others of Thomas Bernhard's works
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder          $35
A sharp, intelligent, playfully transgressive novel-of-ideas that explores the way power, gender and tradition shape modern motherhood. Nightbitch's protagonist, an artist-turned-fulltime-parent, is home with her two-year-old son, struggling with solitude, exhaustion and monotony, even while she feels profound love for her child. Then, over the course of the summer, she experiences a strange metamorphosis (the clue is in the title) which complicates her situation in outrageous ways, whilst also setting her free.
"Graceful, funny and unnerving as hell." —Jenny Offill
Piripai by Leila Rees             $39
Piripai is natural history as prose poetry. It is a story of place, time and a subtle coming of age on the sand dunes between the river and the sea. The book is structured around twenty-six birds that inhabited Piripai, and ordered according to the time of year, beginning in spring and ending in winter. It is suffused with observation and memory, conveyed in a stripped-back style that both evokes and abstracts. Through the eyes of the book's three characters we learn about their family, their culture, their birds and the rough, beautiful land they call home.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley             $33
Helen Grant is a mystery to her two daughters. Growing up, Bridget and her older sister Michelle were kept at a distance by their mother's caginess and flair for the dramatic. Meanwhile, their Saturdays were spent with their father, a serial liar whose boasts and bluster were exhausting. Now Bridget is an academic in her forties. She sees her mother once a year for a shared birthday dinner, they text occasionally about Mad Men and Ferrante to feign a shared interest, and they have settled into a strained peace. But when Helen makes it clear that she wants more, it seems Bridget's childhood struggle will have to be replayed. And as it becomes clear that her mother's life might end sooner than she thinks, Bridget struggles to know what forgiveness entails, and whether it's possible to find meaning in a vanishing past and a relationship that never was.
"Astute, bitter, funny. Unforgettable." —Guardian
Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku            $30
It seems like an ordinary day when Tui and Kae, sixteen-year-old twins, get home from school - until they find their mother, Maia, has disappeared and a swirling vortex has opened up in her room. They are sucked into this portal and dragged down to Rarohenga, the Maori Underworld, a shadowy place of infinite dark levels, changing landscapes and untrustworthy characters. Maia has been kidnapped by their estranged father, Tema, enchanted to forget who she really is and hidden somewhere here. Tui and Kae have to find a way through this maze, outwit the shady characters they meet, break the spell on their mother, and escape to the World of Light before the Goddess of Shadows or Tema holds them in Rarohenga forever.
Esther's Notebooks: Tales from my ten-year-old life by Riad Sattouf           $33
Every week, the comic book artist Riad Sattouf has a chat with his friend's daughter, Esther. She tells him about her life, about school, her friends, her hopes, dreams and fears, and then he works it up into a comic strip. This book consists of 52 of those strips, telling between them the story of a year in the life of this sharp, spirited and hilarious Parisian child. The result is a moving, insightful and addictive glimpse into the lives of children today.
>>Watch Les Cahiers d'Esther

The Book of Jewish Food: From Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden            $85
An exemplar of food writing, splicing recipes and stories into something somehow more valuable than both, Roden's book contains more than 800 recipes from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, from ancient times to the present, and from all parts of the world. 
Butcherbird by Cassie Hart          $25
Something is drawing Jena Benedict's family to darkness. Her mother, father, brother and baby sister are killed in a barn fire, and Grandmother Rose banishes Jena from the farm. Now, twenty years on Rose is dying, and Jena returns home with her boyfriend Cade in tow. Jena wants answers about why she was sent away and about what really happened the night of the fire. Will, Rose's live-in caregiver, has similar questions. He hunts for the supernatural, and he knows something sinister lurks in the Benedict homestead. Like Rose, Will has experienced childhood tragedy. Soon, Jena and Will unearth mysteries: a skull, a pocket-watch, a tale of the Dark Man and a tiding of magpies. The duo learn Rose's secrets and confront an evil entity that has been set loose.
The Broken House: Growing up under Hitler by Horst Krüger          $37
In 1966, Krüger looked back back at his own childhood and realised that he had been "the typical child of innocuous Germans who were never Nazis, and without whom the Nazis would never have been able to do their work."

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad           $38
More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too-many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one had made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials, but of Vanna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though Vanna and Amir are complete strangers and don't speak a common language, Vanna determines to do whatever it takes to save him. In alternating chapters, we learn the story of Amir's life and of how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the duo as they make their way towards a vision of safety. But as the novel unfurls, we begin to understand that this is not merely the story of two children finding their way through a hostile world. 
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long         $28
Long's poems reveal her as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment.
The Flowering: The autobiography of Judy Chicago             $65
A revealing autobiography, illustrated with photographs of Chicago's work, as well as personal images and a foreword by Gloria Steinem. Chicago has revised and updated her earlier, classic works with previously untold stories, fresh insights, and an extensive afterword covering the last twenty years. This narrative weaves together the stories behind some of Chicago's most significant artworks and her journey as a woman artist with the chronicles of her personal relationships and her understanding, from decades of experience and extensive research, of how misogyny, racism and other prejudices intersect to erase the legacies of artists who are not white and male while dismissing the suffering of millions of creatures who share the planet. 
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson           $38
Many of the stories collected here are pure Jansson, touching on island solitude and the dangerous pull of the artistic impulse: in 'The Squirrel' the equanimity of the only inhabitant of a remote island is thrown by a visitor, in 'The Summer Child' an unlovable boy is marooned along with his lively host family, in 'The Cartoonist' an artist takes over a comic strip that has run for decades, and in 'The Doll's House' a man's hobby threatens to overwhelm his life. Others explore unexpected territory: 'Shopping' has a post-apocalyptic setting, 'The Locomotive' centers on a railway-obsessed loner with murderous fantasies, and 'The Woman Who Borrowed Memories' presents a case of disturbing transference. Unsentimental, yet always humane, Jansson's stories complement and enlarge our understanding of a singular figure in world literature.
Beginning with the first published cookbook by Hannah Woolley in 1661 to the early colonial days to the transformative popular works by Fannie Farmer, Irma Rombauer, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, and up to Alice Waters working today. Willan offers a brief biography of each influential woman, highlighting her key contributions, seminal books, and representative dishes. The book features fifty original recipes—as well as updated versions Willan has tested and modernised for the contemporary kitchen.

Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the wisdom and intelligence of the forest by Suzanne Simard               $40
Raised in the forests of British Columbia, Simard was working in the forest service when she first discovered how trees communicate underground through an immense web of fungi, at the centre of which lie the Mother Trees— the mysterious, powerful entities that nurture their kin and sustain the forest. Though her ground-breaking findings were initially dismissed and even ridiculed, they are now supported by the data.

Helen Kelly: Her life by Rebecca Macfie           $50
Kelly was the first woman to lead the country’s trade union movement: a visionary who believed that all workers, whether in a union or not, deserved to be given a fair go; a fighter from a deeply communist family who never gave up the struggle; a strategist and orator who invoked strong loyalty; a woman who could stir fierce emotions. Her battles with famous people were the stuff of headlines. Macfie examines not only  Kelly’s life but also a defining period in the country’s history, when old values were replaced by the individualism of neo-liberalism, and the wellbeing and livelihood of workers faced unremitting stress.

La Vita è Dolce by Letitia Clark           $55
Featuring over 80 Italian desserts, this book showcases Letitia's favourite puddings inspired by her time living in Sardinia. Complete with anecdotes and location photography throughout, each recipe will be authentic in taste but with a delicious, contemporary twist. From the author of Bitter Honey
Worn Stories edited by Emily Spivak           $50
Everyone has a memoir in miniature in at least one piece of clothing. In Worn Stories, Emily Spivack has collected over sixty of these clothing-inspired narratives from cultural figures and talented storytellers. First-person accounts range from the everyday to the extraordinary, such as artist Marina Abramovic on the boots she wore to walk the Great Wall of China; musician Rosanne Cash on the purple shirt that belonged to her father; and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley on the Girl Scout sash that informed her business acumen. Other contributors include Greta Gerwig, Heidi Julavits, John Hodgman, Brandi Chastain, Marcus Samuelsson, Piper Kerman, Maira Kalman, Sasha Frere-Jones, Simon Doonan, Albert Maysles, Susan Orlean, Andy Spade, Paola Antonelli, David Carr, Andrew Kuo, and more.
The Fragile Earth: Writing from The New Yorker on climate change edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder           $40
In 1989, one year after climatologist James Hansen first came before a Senate committee and testified that the earth was now warmer than it had ever been in recorded history, thanks to humankind's heedless consumption of fossil fuels, New Yorker writer Bill McKibben published a deeply reported and considered piece on climate change and what it could mean for the planet. At the time, the piece was to some speculative to the point of alarmist; read now, McKibben's work is prescient. Since then, The New Yorker has described the causes of the crisis, the political and ecological conditions we now find ourselves in, and the scenarios and solutions we face.
Johnny Cash: The last interview and other conversations        $35
Together with an introduction by music critic Peter Guralnick, the interviews here spotlight Cash's inimitable rhetorical style, and the fascinating diversity of subjects that made him as relatable as he was mysterious.

Saturday 24 July 2021


BOOKS @ VOLUME #239 (23.7.21)

Read our latest newsletter and find out what we've been reading and recommending. 


This week's wonderful Book of the Week, Charles Boyle's The Other Jack, is a book about books, mostly — and about bonfires, clichés, dystopias, failure, happiness, jokes, justice, privilege, publishing, rejection, self-loathing, shoplifting and umbrellas. It is a book about why readers read, and about why writers write. When writer and reader meet in cafés to talk about books (that’s the book's plot, pretty much), you will be very pleased to be privileged with their company. 
>>Read Thomas's review
>>The index gives an idea of the book's literary concerns (so to call them).
>>Boyle operates CB Editions, one of the best and smallest publishers
>>The freedom to fail. 
>>"It was thrift as much as anything."
>>A little star
>>"Temperamentally unsuited to the 'growth' model."
>>A pub chat, apparently.
>>Caught in The Poetry Archive
>>An evening with CB Editions
>>Read Thomas's review of Good Morning Mr Crusoe by Jack Robinson [i.e. Charles Boyle].
>>Read Thomas's review of Robinson by Jack Robinson
>>Read Thomas's review of Blush by Jack Robinson and Natalia Zagórska-Thomas
>>Read Thomas's review of An Overcoat by Jack Robinson
>>Read Thomas's review of by the same author by Jack Robinson
>>24 for 3 by Jennie Walker [i.e. Charles Boyle]. 
>>The Disguise, Poems 1977—2001 by Charles Boyle [i.e. Charles Boyle]
>>The Manet Girl by Charles Boyle.
>>Your copy of The Other Jack

Friday 23 July 2021


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 

The Other Jack by Charles Boyle     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
I take a seat at an outside table at this small café. I am a little early. I have bought myself a coffee to drink while I am waiting for Charles Boyle, whose book The Other Jack I have just finished reading. The book takes place, if that is the right way to put it, almost entirely at or in a series of cafés, where Charles meets, in the present tense, a young woman, Robyn, who may or may not exist and may or may not be called Robyn, to discuss all manner of things to do with books, in particular the relationship between a reader, such as Robyn (who insists she is not a writer), and an author, such as Charles (who, as with all good writers, is really more of a reader). Planning to meet Charles in a café seems to me therefore quite appropriate, as does the lingering uncertainty about how much of what I am writing is fiction and how much is true, wherever we might mean by that. This sort of uncertainty is very playfully handled in The Other Jack, both with regard to the narrative, so to call it, of the book itself and with regard to the more general, indeed universal, ‘problem’, so to call it, of all literature’s relationship to ‘reality’, a relationship that is always reciprocal, if often rather one-sided, and therefore always changing, even if a text itself does not change. Charles doesn’t make this ‘problem’, or any of the other ‘problems’ of literature any less insoluble, but rather reassures us that these so-called ‘problems’ are rather the reason for literature, literature’s motive force, if you like. In the book, which is largely about why books are written and otherwise about why they are read, Charles tells Robyn that he is thinking of writing a book about the conversations they are having. “When I say it’s a book about what we talk about when we talk about books, and then list a random number of subjects, some more obviously book-related than others, I mean that it’s about the talking as much as about what’s being talked about, so about misunderstandings, silences, evasions, forgetfulness, differences that we hope will be reconcilable ones but may not be and sudden unaccountable enthusiasms. Even if much of the time I am talking to myself.” The book presents as a wash of short wide-ranging passages on books, writing, publishing and reading, lightly written and deeply thoughtful, with a wonderful index of literary concerns. At the beginning of the book, Robyn has somehow identified Charles as the author, under his pseudonym Jack Robinson, of some of her favourite books, books that I incidentally also have enjoyed, and Charles’s relationship to this Jack, and his long history as a writer and as the germ and motor of CB Editions, one of the smallest and best publishers currently operating in Britain, is seamlessly conjoined both with his history as a reader and lover of books and with what we could call, for want of a better term, his social conscience. Charles seems to have an authenticity, despite or because of his duplicities, that I fear I will never attain, I think as I wait for him to arrive. All I have ever done is imitate and appropriate — perhaps all that all writers ever do is imitate and appropriate whether they know this or not — and anything that may have been mistaken by anyone for originality on my part has merely been the measure of the failures and shortcomings in my imitation and appropriation. It is little wonder then, as I have got better at writing — if indeed I have got better at writing — that I have appeared less and less original, and appearances, after all, are the measure of originality, I suppose. Perhaps originality isn’t the thing. On the basis of the conversations between Charles and Robyn in The Other Jack, I was looking forward to talking with Charles Boyle, but there is, I suppose, an unspoken limit on how long I can sit at this café waiting for him to turn up and it is hard to know how long I should continue to do so after it has become nothing less than certain that he isn’t going to appear. The mistake, I’m sure, must be mine. Also, it is beginning to rain, the tables inside are all full, and as I failed to mention arriving with an umbrella it would be inappropriate to produce one now when I need it (Chekhov’s gun ought to work backwards, too). I am half way home when I realise I have left my copy of The Other Jack on the café table. No-one came running after me with it as at the start of the book Robyn came running after Charles with the book he had left on his table. To continue writing would involve making stuff up.   


>> Read all Stella's reviews.

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr   {Reviewed by STELLA}
What happens if your future is defined by a mistake? In Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks, Charlie is a young misty-eyed teenager wanting to fit in like anyone else. Relegated to the ranks of uninteresting and naive by her peer group, she sees an opportunity to lose her virginity as a step towards being grown-up. It’s 1978, and much to her surprise and the disbelief of her parents, Charlie is sixteen and pregnant. And the abortion clinic is temporarily closed due to protests and restrictive new laws. This is New Zealand of the '70s with its 'high moral ground' clashing with the progressive feminist politics for change, in this case open access to abortion. It’s a hot day, and a plane is on the tarmac waiting to take off for Sydney. Several women, including Charlie, on the plane, have scraped the money together and with the help of Sisters Overseas Service are heading to Australian clinics. Protests at the airport are holding up the flight and it is in this moment of waiting that Charlie decides to ‘keep the baby’ and heads home. Yet keeping the baby was never going to be an option: her parents aren’t progressive and there is no happy ending for them or Charlie, who is packed off to small-town New Zealand for her confinement, only to be further bewildered by the process of adoption, which leaves her empty-handed and without even a glance at her child. The novel swings between these crucial moments and 2020. Now living in Wellington, Charlie, a primary school teacher, lives with her almost grown-up grandson (who moved in when he was four), Tommy, and is negotiating his quirks, her middle age, as well as the year of lockdown. When her son, Jim, turns up unexpectedly to re-establish a relationship with Tommy, it’s more than a knock on the door — it’s a window (through which is blowing a gale) opened into the past and has repercussions. Charlie has kept the window firmly closed, and like us all has squashed down uncomfortable events and situations in which she has felt out of control. Yet to be free of the past, and to give Tommy the future he deserves and needs, she’s going to have to open it a crack. Orr’s evocative writing, particularly of the young Charlie, captures family dynamics, the impact of politics and social mores, and the concept of choice, in all its contradictions and strengths. She cleverly weaves a tale of intergenerational impact, layering the political and social expectations of both periods (the 70s and now) over each other while also touching on difficult subjects (drugs, suicide, consent and sexual behaviour). Here we have loops in various modes: the loops of music devised by Tommy’s girlfriend’s sister (which also highlights its own loop — the interconnectedness of a Wellington social scene with links to Jim); the loops of walking the block during Lockdown; the loops of the rabbit holes known as conspiracy theories; and the loops of time which repeat and can become knots — knots which need untying. 


Real Estate by Deborah Levy            $26
The final volume of Levy's 'Living Autobiography' is a meditation on home, the spectres that haunt it and the possibilities it offers. Reconfiguring her life after her children leave home, how can Levy create a balance between her creative, political and personal lives and the demands of the world she lives in?
>>Read an extract.
>>Things I Don't Want to Know.
>>The Cost of Living

The Commercial Hotel by John Summers         $30
When John Summers moved to a small town in the Wairarapa and began to look closely at the less-celebrated aspects of local life - our club rooms, freezing works, night trains, hotel pubs, landfills - he saw something deeper. It was a story about his own life, but mostly about a place and its people. The story was about life and death in New Zealand. Combining reportage and memoir, The Commercial Hotel is a sharp-eyed, poignant yet often hilarious tour of Aotearoa: a place in which Arcoroc mugs and dog-eared political biographies are as much a part of the scenery as the hills we tramp through ill-equipped. We encounter Elvis impersonators, the eccentric French horn player and adventurer Bernard Shapiro, Norman Kirk balancing timber on his handlebars while cycling to his building site, and Summers's grandmother: the only woman imprisoned in New Zealand for protesting World War Two. And we meet the ghosts who haunt our loneliest spaces. As he follows each of his preoccupations, Summers reveals to us a place we have never quite seen before.
"A beautiful, robust collection of work. Every once in a while a book comes along that you read, reread, and treasure. This is one of those books." —Laurence Fearnley
"This book is an achievement of much clarity and grace, but more importantly it is a work of promise." —Landfall Review Online
Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki            $25
The first English-language publication of a legend of Japanese science fiction and a countercultural icon. In a future where men are contained in ghettoised isolation, women enjoy the fruits of a queer matriarchal utopia—until a boy escapes and a young woman’s perception of the world is violently interrupted. The last family in a desolate city struggles to approximate twentieth- century life on Earth, lifting what notions they can from 1960s popular culture. But beneath these badly learned behaviours lies an atavistic appetite for destruction. Two new friends enjoy drinks on a holiday resort planet where all is not as it seems, and the air itself seems to carry a treacherously potent nostalgia. Back on Earth, Emma’s not certain if her emotionally abusive, green-haired boyfriend is in fact an intergalactic alien spy, or if she’s been hitting the bottles and baggies too hard. And in the title story, the tyranny of enforced screen-time and the mechanisation of labour foster a cold-hearted and ultimately tragic disaffection among the youth of Tokyo. Nonchalantly hip and full of deranged prescience, Suzuki’s singular slant on speculative fiction would be echoed in countless later works, from Neuromancer to The Handmaid’s Tale. In these darkly playful and punky stories, the fantastical elements are always grounded in the universal pettiness of strife between the sexes, and the gritty reality of life on the lower rungs, whatever planet that ladder might be on.
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini             $38
Adelmo Farandola doesn’t like people. In summer he roams the valleys, his only company a talkative, cantankerous old dog and a young mountain ranger who, Adelmo Farandola suspects, is spying on him. When winter comes, man and dog are snowed in. With stocks of wine and bread depleted, they pass the time squabbling over scraps, debating who will eat the other first. Spring brings a more sinister discovery that threatens to break Adelmo Farandola’s already faltering grip on reality: a man’s foot poking out of the receding snow.
it was both, and by Sasha da Silva             $30
"This text seeks to be a helpful addition to the growing argument for the architectonic validity of what it is to commune with the other. It takes its starting point of investigation to be changes and dynamics of our shared metaphysical landscape. The aim is to demonstrate that meaning matters, and too, always remains plural as it is caught in its own becoming. The concepts of relationality, speculativity, embodiment, low theory, and poetics are introduced and explored, as a poetry of the moment is put forward in all its messy reality. Perhaps things remain unfinished. The format is interdisciplinary and playful, and it seeks to remain attentive to the serendipity of the spontaneous patterns unfolding all around us. With the greatest of care, form is followed only sometimes." 
For more than four weeks in the autumn of 1962 the world teetered. The consequences of a misplaced step during the Cuban Missile Crisis could not have been more grave. Ash and cinder, famine and fallout; nuclear war between the two most-powerful nations on Earth. In Nuclear Folly, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy tells the riveting story of those weeks, tracing the tortuous decision-making and calculated brinkmanship of John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, and of their advisors and commanders on the ground. More often than not, Plokhy argues, the Americans and Soviets simply misread each other, operating under mutual distrust, second-guesses and false information.
Theatre of Ocean: Stories of performance between us by Alexa Wilson         $15
Theatre of Ocean is a memoir of outtakes from a performance artist moving backwards and forwards in space and time in a world recently past. Alexa Wilson offers us the interwoven remains of performance, love, art, culture, gender and politics. Juxtaposing real stories with art works and musings performed, scripted, staged, or improvised, Theatre of Ocean reveals an artist clawing at the possibilities for social-political change in a dynamic triumvirate of settings: New York, Berlin, New Zealand.
>>Dancing through the pandemic
Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra              $40
In Not to Read, Alejandro Zambra outlines his own particular theory of reading that also offers a kind of blurry self-portrait, or literary autobiography. Whether writing about Natalia Ginzburg, typewriters and computers, Paul Léautaud, or how to be silent in German, his essays function as a laboratory for his novels, a testing ground for ideas, readings and style. Not to Read also presents an alternative pantheon of Latin American literature – Zambra would rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Pablo Neruda, Mario Levrero than Gabriel García Márquez. His voice is that of a trusted friend telling you about a book or an author he’s excited about, how he reads, and why he writes. A standard-bearer of his generation in Chile, with Not to Read Alejandro Zambra confirms he is one of the most engaging writers of our time.
"When I read Zambra I feel like someone’s shooting fireworks inside my head. His prose is as compact as a grain of gunpowder, but its allusions and ramifications branch out and illuminate even the most remote corners of our minds." —Valeria Luiselli
"There is no writer like Alejandro Zambra, no one as bold, as subtle, as funny." —Daniel Alarcón
>>Read Thomas's review. 
Who Invented This? by Becky Thorns and Anne Ameri-Siemens         $48
Who invented the car, different types of vaccinations, the light bulb or the microwave? The things we are surrounded by didn't just appear out of nowhere, they were conceived by talented inventors, scientists, and engineers. While some inventions were the result of teamwork and a long time in the lab, some inventions just happened to be made by accident or by looking for something else. Unravel how classic inventions and creators paved the way for the modern tools and technology we have today.

Enough Horizon: The life and work of Blanche Baughan by Carol Markwell           $40
One of the first writers to speak with an authentic New Zealand voice, Blanche Edith Baughan (1870-1958) was known as a poet and local travel writer. Enough Horizon tells of Baughan's troubled upbringing with a mentally ill mother in London, and her emigration to New Zealand in 1900, where she embraced the freedom it gave her to write and think and enjoy the wilderness she grew to love. It was here, particularly in her beloved Akaroa, that Blanche's writing and interests in the environment and her advocacy for the vulnerable in society flourished. She was a botanist, conservationist, humanitarian and prison reformer, who strove for the effective and humane treatment of prisoners. Blanche met and corresponded with leading writers, thinkers and scientists of her day, including John Ruskin, and poets Jessie Mackay and Ursula Bethell.
Assembly by Natasha Brown            $22
Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Go to college, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy an apartment. Buy art. Buy a sort of happiness. But above all, keep your head down. Keep quiet. And keep going. The narrator of Assembly is a black British woman. She is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend's family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself. As the minutes tick down and the future beckons, she can't escape the question: is it time to take it all apart? Assembly is a story about the stories we live within - those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers. And it is about one woman daring to take control of her own story, even at the cost of her life. 
"Stunning." —Bernardine Evaristo
Chomsky exposes the problems of our world today, as we stand in this period of monumental change, preparing for a more hopeful tomorrow. 'For the left, elections are a brief interlude in a life of real politics, a moment to ask whether it's worth taking time off to vote . . . Then back to work. The work will be to move forward to construct the better world that is within reach.' He sheds light into the phenomenon of right-wing populism, and exposes the catastrophic nature and impact of authoritarian policies on people, the environment and the planet as a whole. He captures the dynamics of the brutal class warfare launched by the masters of capital to maintain and even enhance the features of a dog-eat-dog society. And he celebrates the recent unprecedented mobilisations of millions of people internationally against neoliberal capitalism, racism and police violence.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy             $38
“Feminism should terrify the patriarchy. It should put patriarchy on notice that we demand nothing short of its destruction. We need fewer road maps toward a peace treaty with patriarchy and more manifestos on how to destroy it. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is my manifesto.” —Mona Eltahawy
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls identifies seven ‘sins’ women and girls are socialised to avoid – anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. With essays on each, Mona Eltahawy creates a stunning manifesto encouraging women worldwide to defy, disobey and disrupt the patriarchy. The book draws on her own life and the work of intersectional activists from around the world, #MeToo and the Arab Spring.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls exhorts and advocates for more confidence, more clarity, more of a sense of value and rights, more pleasure and joy for women. With its gloriously energetic, rampaging prose, it also inspires those things." —Rebecca Solnit
An Historical Overview of Lambton Harbour by D.J. Pyle          $20
A brief history of Wellington's harbour written aboard The Sealion, a floating community space in the waters of Lambton Harbour.

A large-format book of stunning photography and expert geological and natural history information. "Karstified landscapes are among the most bizarre on our planet – both above and below ground. New Zealand Karst takes you on a visual journey across sublime karst scenery and into the subterranean wilderness of New Zealand caves. Accompanied by popular scientific texts, stunning images lead you from the sculptured limestone pavements of the alpine marble karst to the grassland and jungle karst of the foothills, onwards into the twilight zone and deeper into the caves. It explores the diversity of peculiar features and creatures of the underground, ventures back into the light of cave ruins, and concludes with karst-related Māori rock art. Learn about the life cycle of the endemic glowworm and the critically endangered Nelson cave spider. Explore the majesty of cave minerals forming speleothems of all types. Discover the many roles water plays in shaping karst and understand the vulnerability of these geotopes and biotopes. New Zealand Karst reveals how you can appreciate karst as a phenomenon where geological, biological, and archaeological beauty all come together in harmony."
Daughters of Kobani: The women who took on the Islamic State by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon           $37
In 2014, northeastern Syria might have been the last place you would expect to find a revolution centered on women's rights. But that year, an all-female militia faced off against ISIS in a little town few had ever heard of: Kobani. By then, the Islamic State had swept across vast swathes of the country, taking town after town and spreading terror as the civil war burned all around it. 

Brontë by Manuela Santoni              $29
A graphic novel of the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.
The Survival of Māori as a People by Whatarangi Winiata and Daphne Luke            $65
This collection of twenty-five papers by Professor Whatarangi Winiata and co-authors given over the last forty years, comment on Māori spirituality, social development, education and political affairs. They cover Winiata’s experiences of and thinking about reengineering the working of the Hahi Mihinare; driving the iwi development programme Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, which led to the foundation of the first contemporary whare wānanga; galvanising the New Zealand Māori Council to hold the Crown accountable over fisheries, forestry, language and broadcasting; and co-founding the Māori Party with Dame Tariana Turia and Sir Pita Sharples. The papers are organised into themes of iwi Māori, mātauranga Māori, tino rangatiratanga, and the survival and wellbeing of Māori people.
>>Read a sample