Saturday 25 February 2023


New books and book news!

Read our latest NEWSLETTER 

BOOKS @ VOLUME #318 (24.2.23)

Our Book of the Week is Joy Williams's astounding haywire dystopia, Harrow, which charts the remaking of meaning through ecological disaster (or at least through the failure to prevent ecological disaster (or even to notice the apocalypse)). Full of characters and situations that will burn themselves into your memory for ever, this is a book that is at once a deeply serious and madly funny portrayal of the world we are making (or destroying) for ourselves. "Harrow gets under your skin and, just when you’re confused, the lightbulb clicks on and it’s so bright you hope you’ll be in the dark again." —Stella
>>Read Stella's review
>>Collapsing reality
>>Joy Williams does not write for humanity
>>Ecological ruin and postmodernism. 
>>A millennial's purgatory.
>>Fruitless taxonomies. 
>>Where are the great climate novels? 
>>See also Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement
>>Uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser  {Reviewed by STELLA}

Scary Monsters is a novel of two distinct parts — two novellas — where you choose which story you read first — Lili's or Lyle's. I decided on chronological order. Lili’s story is set in Paris in the 1980s, and Lyle’s in a near-future Australia. 
If you’ve done an OE to Europe you will immediately step into Lili’s shoes. She’s teaching for a short time in Paris, on her way to Oxford, living at the top (all those stairs) of an apartment building — not charming — in a cold and small room and probably paying too much for the privilege. Definitely paying too much, according to her more sophisticated artist friend, Minna. As Lili, Minna and her boyfriend, Nick, gravitate around each other, the world with all its thorny issues circles them. The newspapers are full of the Yorkshire Ripper case and the police are out on the streets, picking up illegal migrants from North Africa. When the police raid their neighbourhood, Lili is always asked for her ID, while Minna never is. Privilege comes in a fair-skinned box. Lili, an Asian Australian, is used to feeling othered, but you get the distinct impression she hoped to escape some of this prejudice by being among like-minded travellers. Despite being part of a diverse, freewheeling and optimistic group of young people, it’s Lili who is grappling with, and noticing, overt and covert racism, dealing with her creepy downstairs neighbour and sexist behaviour from her wider social group. Aiming for sophistication — she wants to be a modern-day Simone de Beauvoir — but falling for Minna and Nick can only lead to disorientation. This abruptly ends when Minna takes off. There are all sorts of little power plays here, as well as the charge for a bright new future. Lili and her friends celebrate the election of France’s first socialist president. Hope is in the air, but on the street does anything change?
And then switch to Lyle. Lyle’s a middle-aged Melburnian who works in Evaluations at the Department of Security. He lives in the outer outer suburb on Spumante Court with his ambitious corporate wife, Chanel, and his ageing mother, Ivy (who migrated from Sri Lanka when Lyle was a child). They have two adult children: Sydney — who has almost finished his PhD but he’s gone off-grid and is proving a disappointment — and Mel, who’s moved to London to study architecture (an expensive exercise for her parents) but whose ultimate focus is her social media profile. They’ve all survived the Pandemic and the others that followed, and are fortunate — though not as wealthy as some of their fellow corporate Australians — to live in an air-conditioned house out of the fire zones. In other words, this is good for those that can but crap for those who can’t, and ultimately horrendous. As are this family. While Lyle and Chanel spend all their time being as Australian as possible and then more so, Ivy is delving back into her past. Chanel’s pumping for the new apartment and Lyle is torn between the easy life of agreeing and his care for his ageing mother, complex feelings that are foreign to him. Add to this the need to keep yourself as neutral as possible and avoid suspicion from either the securities services or from his wife, you have the distinct impression that Lyle is walking on hot bricks. Navigating this dog-eat-dog world which hates migrants and offers no empathy, Lyle is starting to crack. But can a man with so many layers of veneer crack at all or is he lost to himself? 
De Kretser’s playful and intelligent novel pitches you in and throws you out — it’s both absorbing and startling in structure — and will leave you to ask and answer the question: Who are the scary monsters? The prejudices that bind us to a situation? Or us, humans, ourselves? You choose.


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


Aug 9—Fog by Kathryn Scanlan {Reviewed by Thomas}

At what point does literature begin, he wondered, if there is such a thing as literature and if it does at some point begin. Is it not after all the case, he wondered, that we are assailed at all times and in all circumstances by an unbearable infinitude of details that we must somehow resist or ignore or numb ourselves to almost entirely if we are to bear them, we can only be aware of anything the smallest proportion of things and stay alive or stay sane or stay functioning, he thought, we must tell ourselves a very simple story indeed if we are to have any chance of functioning, we must shut out everything else, we must only notice what we look for, what our story lets us look for, he thought, the froth now frothing in his brain, or rather in his mind, our stories blot stuff out so that we can live, at least a little longer. We are so easily overwhelmed and in the end we are all overwhelmed, the details get us in the end, but until then we cling to our limitations, to the limitations that make the unbearable very slightly bearable, if we are lucky. All thought is deletion. The stories that we think with, he thought, are not possible without an ongoing act of swingeing exclusion, thought is an act of exclusion. What would we put in a diary? What would we put in an essay? What would we put in a novel? If we boil it all down how far can we boil it all down? We find ourselves alive, the details of our life assail us, eventually overwhelm us and destroy us. That’s our story. We die of one detail too many, but if it wasn’t that detail that finished us off it would be another, they are lining up, pressing in, abrading us. Can we resist what we understand, he wondered, to the extent that we even understand it? Is art just this form of resistance? At what point does literature begin, if there is such a thing as literature and if it does at some point begin? Is there something in our life that resists exclusion, something that when the boiling down is done is not boiled completely down? Can we move beyond simplification to a countersimplification, he wondered, and what could this even mean? If Kathryn Scanlan found a stranger’s diary at an auction and she read this diary so often that she felt she almost was its eighty-six-year-old author, if a diary’s keeper is an author, she too became the dairy’s keeper, certainly, at least in some sense, and then if she further edited this dead woman’s year, this dead woman’s words, though the woman was not yet dead, obviously, in the year that she kept the diary, when she was the diary’s keeper, not quite yet dead, whose work do we have in Aug 9—Fog, the boiled down boiled down again, this rendering, this literature, we could call it, rendered from life, here in a two-step rendering process? That is no place for a question mark, he thought. The story of the year is a story of death plucking at an old woman’s life, she loses her husband, her health, her spirits, so to call them, a strange term. The details of her life are the ways in which what she loves is torn away but also these details, often even the same details, are the ways in which this tearing away is resisted, he thought, these details are the ways in which what is loved may be clutched, in which what is loved is saved even while it is borne away. “Turning cooler in eve. We had smoked sausages, fried potatoes & onions. Dr. says it’s a general breaking up of his body. I am bringing in some flowers.” Every very ordinary life, and this is nothing but a very ordinary life, he thought, no life, after all, is anything but a very ordinary life, every very ordinary life is caught in the blast of details that will destroy it but or and these are the very details that enable a resistance to this blast, through literature perhaps, so to call it, resistance is poetry, he thought, an offence against time, a plot against unavoidable loss. We resist time and succeed only when we fail. “Every where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.”

Saturday 18 February 2023

New books and book news!

Read our 317th NEWSLETTER.




This week we are featuring the work of the superb Chilean author, Alejandro Zambra. Growing up under the Pinochet dictatorship, Zambra became acutely aware of the power of words to both reveal and conceal, to both save and condemn. His work is deeply humane, wryly playful, and fired by an underlying anger at injustice and oppression.
>>Each book suggests its own form.
>>Signs of hope
>>Author and translator present Chilean Poet.  
>>Chatting with Megan and Daniel
>>'Skyscrapers'. >>Omitted characters
>>Read Bonsai, Zambra's breakthrough novel
>>Read Thomas's review of My Documents
>>Read Thomas's review of Multiple Choice. 
>>Read Thomas's review of the essay collection Not To Read
>>Read Zambra's most recent novel Chilean Poet


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell) {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“I am writing with a great deal of ease and fluidity. One must distrust that,” wrote Clarice Lispector, quoted by the Chilean Alejandro Zambra in one of the essays in this highly enjoyable collection of literary observations on, ostensibly, some of the more interesting largely (but not exclusively) Latin American literature of the last quarter century, literature that distrusts, as Zambra dismisses, the clichéed fluidity of the ‘Magic Realists’ most readily (and lazily) associated with Latin American literature by Western readers. Zambra instead values literature that is hesitant, inventive, always aware of new possibilities, mentally and linguistically supple, striving always towards new forms. “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one,” wrote Walter Benjamin (not quoted by Alejandro Zambra (at least not in this book)). Because the reviews collected here are often of books the reader of Not to Read has not read and by authors with whom the reader (at least this reader) is unfamiliar, the reader at the outset may think they might skip quite a bit of the book, to make reading faster, but Zambra’s book is too interesting, too nicely written, and too enjoyable. There are indeed considerations of many authors the reader has not heard of, but the essays deliver the same fascination as reading Borges’s studies of nonexistent books (Borges thought it more worthwhile, and faster, to write about books that do not exist than to write the books themselves), with the added benefit that, just possibly, works by these authors may already be, or may one day be, available in English. At the very least, one reads to read about the writing and reading of texts, which is, after all, the most interesting thing to read about. The reader might have thought that skipping might save time, but the text runs so lightly and so sprightlyly that the reader is in any case carried forward more rapidly by following the text than they would have proceeded had it been possible to skip. The essays and reviews included in Not to Read also function as a sort of literary autobiography of Zambra himself, his concerns, approaches, influences and motivations, and provide a greater appreciation of his other work, direct yet subtle, playful yet poignant, personal yet politically and socially acute, compact yet wonderfully expansive. Zambra recommends books we are sure that we will like, even though we may never get to read them, but, more importantly, the reasons for his recommendations, his observations on and his responses to these books, provide a portrait of a reader we come quickly to admire, and who we as readers may well wish to be more like, as well as of a writer alert to the possibilities of writing. Zambra is frequently very funny, as he is in the title essay ‘Not to Read’, which starts out as a review of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Have Not Read, which Zambra has himself not read, and carries on to become a deliciously prickly lampoon of opinions formed of books without reading them, intercut with seemingly very valid reasons not to read some writers’ books. Zambra’s concision and lightness (Zambra is an exemplar of the literary qualities Italo Calvino thought most important in his Six Memos for a New Millennium) can produce beautiful sentences, such as this one on Santiago, quivering with a sensitivity that undercuts ease and fluidity and leaves us utterly aware: “It’s the city that we know, the city that would follow us if we wanted to flee from it (from ourselves), with its permanent architectural eclecticism, with the dirty river, almost always a mere trickle, cutting the landscape in half, with the most beautiful sky imaginable in those few days of autumn or winter after it rains, when we rediscover the mountains.” 


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Pure Colour by Sheila Heti {Reviewed by STELLA}

Curious and more curious, in Pure Colour Shelia Heti takes us further than she has before. If you’re a Heti fan, you will be used to her turn of phrase and oblique references as well as her wry absurdist touch. In her earlier novels, How Should A Person Be? Heti gave us a wild and wonderful exploration of a young person dipping her feet in the world, with all the bravado you would expect as well as the doubt; while Motherhood explored that moment in life when you ask the big questions about art, relationships and parenthood. In Pure Colour, Heti makes another jump and then plunges sideways. It’s more existential and probing, and flat bang in the middle the main character becomes a leaf. Seriously. Mira leaves home for college and studies art criticism, she works in a lamp shop and has fallen for the woman who works in the bookshop. She’s piecing together information and coming up with her own interpretations. People are either birds, fish or bears and respond according. Birds look down and see the world from above in an abstract fashion, thinking their way around it. Fish, being one of many, is more concerned with the collective whole, while Bear is particularly loyal to only a few or even one, and those in their ambit are completely secure in the Bear’s love. God’s got a lot to answer for in what Mira sees as God’s 'first draft', and there are some hilarious interludes about what God thinks/does: God “doesn’t want the criticism of the most dynamic parts of culture coming from someone in the middle of life… God doesn’t care what you think about a band”, and when Mira muses on why God didn’t make every face the same “A person can waste their whole life, without even meaning to, all because another person has a really great face.” The first draft is also real and scary — it’s too hot and much of life is pointless. Mira wanders through her life as though she is sleepwalking, and when her father dies she is pulled into a vortex of grief and an intense sense of her life as a leaf. She does emerge from the leaf, but life has moved on. Annie, the woman she is obsessed with, has moved on, the lamp store has gone and art critics who have been trained on paper are no longer as valid. She’s become one of the precariat and when she finally decides to up sticks and track down Annie, it’s too late. It was always too late — it was a mistake. Where is Shelia Heti going with this? Is she gently nudging us towards the inevitable second draft with Mira as our not-so-great-but-okay guide or is she simply playing another game in abstraction? Mira wonders “why she spent so much of her life… looking at websites, when just outside the window there was a sky”. Maybe Heti felt the same way. Pure Colour is intriguing and full of ideas that trigger more ideas, and you can decide whether you’re a bird, fish or bear if you play along.

Friday 17 February 2023


Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu            $33
Driven by a deep-seated desire to understand his mother's life before he was born, Derek Owusu offers a powerful imagining of her journey. As she moves from Ghana to the UK and navigates parenthood in a strange and often lonely environment, the effects of displacement are felt across generations. Told through the eyes of both mother and son, Losing the Plot is at once emotionally raw and playful as Owusu experiments with form to piece together the immigrant experience and explore how the stories we share and tell ourselves are just as vital as the ones we don't.
"Derek Owusu is a writer of rare empathy, intensity and allure. This brief verse novel, in untranslated Twi and various registers of English, observes the inner life of an exhausted immigrant mother, notions of cultural disinheritance, and mutable identities." —Paul Mendez
"I write from the heart, first.
What Have You Left Behind? by Bushra al-Maqtari          $38

In 2015, Bushra al-Maqtari decided to document the suffering of civilians in the Yemeni civil war, which has killed over 200,000 people according to the UN. Inspired by the work of Svetlana Alexievich, she spent two years visiting different parts of the country, putting her life at risk by speaking with her compatriots, and gathered over 400 testimonies, a selection of which appear in What Have You Left Behind? Purposefully alternating between accounts from the victims of the Houthi militia and those of the Saudi-led coalition, al-Maqtari highlights the disillusionment and anguish felt by civilians trapped in a war outside of their own making. As difficult to read as it is to put down, Bushra al-Maqtari's unvarnished chronicle of the conflict in Yemen serves as a vital reminder of the scale of the human tragedy behind the headlines, and offers a searing condemnation of the international community's complicity in the war's continuation.
This is an extraordinary collection of testimonies. It’s almost unbearable to read, but averting your eyes from the suffering to which the book bears witness feels craven. Brave, painful, necessary and harrowing, Bushra al-Maqtari’s work confronts the reader with the devastation of the war in Yemen and gives a voice to those whose lives have been destroyed by it." —Marcel Theroux
Bushra al-Maqtari's boundlessly humane project of collecting firsthand accounts to document the nearly decade-long Yemeni civil war – and the West's complicity in it – is unblinking in its moral gaze. Every single voice collected in these pages is a blow to the heart. By the time I finished this book, I was consumed by sorrow and rage. This is an act of witnessing, and of making us engage in the witnessing of a disgraceful, criminal war that will shake your soul." —Neel Mukherjee
>>"They robbed me of my children."
>>A locked room for loss

The Waste Land: A biography of a poem by Matthew Hollis            $50
T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem 'The Waste Land' has been said to describe the moral decay of a world after war and the search for meaning in a meaningless era. It has been labeled the most truthful poem of its time; it has been branded a masterful fake. Hollis reconstructs the intellectual creation of the poem and brings its charged times to life. Presenting a mosaic of historical fragments, diaries, dynamic literary criticism, and new research, he reveals the cultural and personal trauma that forged 'The Waste Land' through the lives of those involved in its genesis: Ezra Pound, who edited it; Vivien Eliot, who sustained it; and T.S. Eliot himself, whose private torment is woven into the seams of the work. "Deeply and brilliant concerned with the tendrils of unhappiness and Eliot's triumphant creative response to it." —Guardian
>>Animated sand.
>>Words heard and seen.
>>Death by water

Trilogy by Jon Fosse (translated by May-Brit Akerholt)          $35
Trilogy is Jon Fosse's critically acclaimed, luminous love story about Asle and Alida, two lovers trying to find their place in this world. Homeless and sleepless, they wander around Bergen in the rain, trying to make a life for themselves and the child they expect. Through a rich web of historical, cultural, and theological allusions, Fosse constructs a modern parable of injustice, resistance, crime, and redemption. Consisting of three novellas (WakefulnessOlav's Dreams, and Weariness), Trilogy is a haunting, mysterious, and poignant evocation of love.
t is easy to see Fosse's work as Ibsen stripped down to its emotional essentials. But it is much more." —New York Times
Read Thomas's review of Fosse's (later) Septology
The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez        $23
Diego, the son, is disillusioned and bitter about the limited freedoms his country offers him. Mariana, the mother, is unwell and forced to relinquish her control over the home to her daughter, Maria, who has left school and is working as a chambermaid in one of the state-owned tourist hotels. The father, Armando, is a committed revolutionary who is sickened by the corruption he perceives all around him. In meticulously charting the disintegration of a family, The Fallen offers a poignant reflection on contemporary Cuba and the clash of the ardent idealism of the old guard with the jaded pragmatism of the young.
"A beautiful and painful novel that demonstrates the power of fiction to pursue the unutterable." —Alejandro Zambra

"Álvarez does a neat job in this very short but nutritious novel of establishing the personalities of his characters firmly enough that it comes as a real shock when he upends our expectations of how they might behave." —Jake Kerridge
A war foretold that never takes place. A death foretold that never takes place. And in the middle of this is the inevitable collapse of a family and a country. The Fallen is a subtle, intelligent and profoundly moving novel which sketches, in elegant and thoughtful prose, a rarely seen Cuban landscape." —Alia Trabucco Zerán

My First Popsicle: An anthology of food and feelings edited by Zosia Mamet           $37
Food is a portal to culture, to times past, to disgust, to comfort, to love: no matter one's feelings about a particular dish, they are hardly ever neutral. Mamet has curated some of the most prominent voices in art and culture to tackle the topic of food in its elegance, its profundity and its incidental charm. With contributions from David Sedaris on the joy of a hot dog, Jia Tolentino on the chicken dish she makes to escape reality, Patti Smith on memories of her mother's Poor Man's Cake, Busy Philipps on the struggle to escape the patterns of childhood favourites and more, My First Popsicle is an ode to food and emotion.

The Passenger: Space                  $37
'Night, Sleep, Death and the Stars' by Lauren Groff; 'The Universe Underground' by Paolo Giordano; 'We All Hated Each Other So Much' by Frank Westermann; Plus: discovering new planets and destroying satellites; returning to the Moon (this time to stay); the Mars delusion. In the 1960s, the rivalry between the superpowers brought us into space, adding a whole new dimension to human life. The last frontier was open: between 1969 and 1972 twelve men (but no women) walked on the moon. No one has since. The space race revealed itself for what it really was: a political and military competition. Space agencies, however, have not been idle and the exploration of the solar system has continued with probes and robots. Without politics, science has thrived. But the lack of government funding has opened space exploration to the forces of capitalism: the race has started again, with different rules and different players. Colonising Mars might not be the solution to humanity's problems, but the promise of space - whether expressed in a tweet by Elon Musk or a photo taken by a NASA rover on Mars - keeps proving irresistible (as does this illustrated miscellany).
>>What is it about space? 
Wanderlust: A history of walking by Rebecca Solnit          $28
What does it mean to be out walking in the world? From pilgrimages to protest marches, mountaineering to meandering, this modern classic weaves together numerous histories to trace a range of possibilities for this most basic act. Touching on the philosophers of Ancient Greece, the Romantic poets, Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett, Andre Breton's Nadja, and more, Rebecca Solnit considers what forms of pleasure and freedom walkers have sought at different times. Wanderlust invites us to look afresh at the rich, varied, often radical interplay of the body, the imagination, and the world when walking. New edition.
"Radical, humane, witty, sometimes wonderfully dandyish, at other times, impassioned and serious." —Alain de Botton
Mercia's Take by Daniel Wiles          $25
1870s, the Black Country. Michael is a miner. But it's no life. Michael exhausts himself working two jobs, to send his son Luke to school, so he won't have to be a miner too. Down the pit one day, he finds a seam of gold. If he gets it out, he can save his own life, and Luke's. But his workmate has other ideas. Mercia's Take summons an England in the heat of the industrial revolution, and the lives it took to make it.

"Energy and passion fuels this harsh and beautiful first novel; Daniel Wiles connects us viscerally to the past we have buried, the history we choose to ignore." —Hilary Mantel
"Read this novel and marvel at its language, dark and gleaming as obsidian. Daniel Wiles channels the Southern Gothic into the vernacular of the Black Country and unearths from the past a tale of desperation that speaks to our current damnation. A striking debut." —Paul Lynch

Elderflora: A story of ancient trees by Jared Farmer           $40
Humans have always revered long-lived trees. Our veneration took a modern turn in the eighteenth century, when naturalists embarked on a quest to locate and precisely date the oldest living things on earth. The new science of tree time prompted travellers to visit ancient specimens and conservationists to protect sacred groves. Exploitation accompanied sanctification, as old-growth forests succumbed to imperial expansion and the industrial revolution.Taking us from Lebanon to New Zealand to California, Farmer surveys the complex history of the world's oldest trees, including voices of Indigenous peoples, religious figures, and contemporary scientists who study elderflora in crisis. In a changing climate, a long future is still possible, Farmer shows, but only if we give care to young things that might grow old.Combining rigorous scholarship with lyrical writing, Elderflora chronicles the complex roles ancient trees have played in the modern world and illuminates how we might need old trees now more than ever.
>>The tree whisperer. 
The Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklöf        $40
In our era of 24/7 illumination, an excess of light is a pressing problem. Just about every creature on earth, humans included, operates according to the circadian rhythm. The world's flora and fauna have evolved to operate in the natural cycle of day and night, but now light pollution has become a major issue. This challenges our instinctual fear of the dark and urges us to cherish the darkness, its creatures, and its unique beauties. 

Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians by Chris Riddell           $30
Zam, Phoebe and Bathsheba, the three guardians of magic, disappeared with no warning nearly ten years ago, leaving the Kingdom of Thrynne in the icy grip of a powerful sorceress. Most people have fled in desperate search of warmer lands, escaping the snow monsters that roam the streets. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Tiggy Thistle lives hidden and safe with a kindly Badger — until the day she meets the elf Crumple Stiltskin, one of the crafty Stiltskin brothers, she suddenly has to run from her happy home. So begins Tiggy's quest to find Zam, Phoebe and Bathsheba - the lost guardians and their beautiful cloud horses - the only people, she believes, who can save Thrynne from the curse of endless winter. Tiggy Thistle and the Lost Guardians is the second and final title in 'The Cloud Horse Chronicles'. Illustrated throughout in two colours by Riddell at his best, and presented as a handsome hardback. 
>>Drawing and reading
Once Upon a Fever by Angharad Walker            $22
Since the world fell sick with fantastical illnesses, sisters Payton and Ani have grown up in the hospital of King Jude's. Payton wants to be a methic like her father, working on a cure for her mother's sleeping fever. Ani, however, thinks the remedy for all illness might be found in the green wilderness beyond the hospital walls. When Ani stumbles upon an imprisoned boy who turns everything he touches to gold, her world is turned upside-down. The girls find themselves outside the hospital for the first time, a dark mystery unravelling.
Tumbleglass by Kate Constable            $20
Thirteen-year-old Rowan is helping her older sister Ash paint her bedroom when she discovers a mysterious ring that transports them both back in time to 1999. To a party being held in the very same house! While Ash dances, Rowan unwittingly disrupts the laws of time, and when she wakes up back in the present day, her sister is missing, and - even worse - everyone in their family seems to be forgetting she ever existed. With the help of her magical neighbour Verity, Rowan must find the courage to travel back through the history of the house. But can she find everything she needs to rescue Ash before her sister disappears forever? 

The Future is Degrowth: A guide to a world beyond Capitalism edited by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan          $35
Offering a counter-history of how economic growth emerged in the context of colonialism, fossil-fueled industrialisation, and capitalist modernity, The Future Is Degrowth argues that the ideology of growth conceals the rising inequalities and ecological destructions associated with capitalism, and points to desirable alternatives to it.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The true story of the woman at the heart of the German resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner            $28
Born and raised in America, Mildred Harnack was twenty-six and living in Germany where she witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. She began holding secret meetings in her apartment, forming a small band of political activists set on helping Jews escape, denouncing Hitler and calling for revolution. When the Second World War began, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. Now in paperback. 
"While never less than scrupulously researched, this biography explodes the genre of 'biography': experimental but achieved, Donner's story reads with the speed of a thriller, the depth of a novel and the urgency of an essay, like some deeply compelling blend of Alan Furst and W.G. Sebald'." —James Wood
The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, revolution and resilience; 500 years of women's self-portraits by Jennifer Higgie          $30
"A bewitching, invigorating history of women artists, the work they've made and the impossibly hard conditions in which it was produced. I can't think of a more satisfying riposte to anyone who asks why there have been no great women artists than to present them with this incandescent book." —Olivia Laing
"Brilliant, reveals an until-now hidden history of women's self-portraiture. A gift that keeps on giving." —Ali Smith
Now in paperback. >>Also available in hardback
Freeman's: The best new writing on Animals edited by John Freeman          $28
Over a century ago, Rilke went to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where he watched a pair of flamingos. A flock of other birds screeched by, and, as he describes in a poem, the great red-pink birds sauntered on, unphased, then 'stretched amazed and singly march into the imaginary.' This encounter - so strange, so typical of flamingos with their fabulous posture - is also still typical of how we interact with animals. Even as our actions threaten their very survival, they are still symbolic, captivating and captive, caught in a drama of our framing. This issue of Freeman's tells the story of that interaction, its costs, its tendernesses, the mythological flex of it. From lovers in a Chiara Barzini story, falling apart as a group of wild boars roams in their Roman neighbourhood, to the soppen emergency birth of a cow on a Wales farm, stunningly described by Cynan Jones, no one has the moral high ground here. Nor is this a piece of mourning. There's wonder, humour, rage and relief, too. Featuring pigeons, calves, stray dogs, mascots, stolen cats, and bears, to the captive, tortured animals who make up our food supply, powerfully described in Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk's essay, this wide-ranging issue of Freeman's will stimulate discussion and dreams alike.

VOLUME FOCUS : Katherine Mansfield

A selection of books from our shelves.

Strange Bliss: Essential Stories


All Sorts of Lives

Woman in Love


The Garden Party: And Other Stories

Heart of Flame

A Strange Beautiful Excitement

Mansfield and Me

Saturday 11 February 2023



BOOKS @ VOLUME #316 (10.2.23)

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Our Book of the Week is the much-anticipated new novel from Eleanor Catton, the author of the Booker-winning The LuminariesBIRNAM WOOD is an eco-thriller that holds a mirror to our current political and environmental predicaments and the range of forces — personal, societal, global — that complicate our positions in and responses to those circumstances and to each other.  A landslide in a small South Island community collides a group of guerrilla gardeners with an American billionaire in circumstances of increasing existential threat in this gripping novel that echoes Macbeth in its exposure of the darker workings of the human psyche and the corrosivity of power. 
"I wanted the novel to explore the contemporary political moment without being itself partisan or propagandistic. I wanted it to be fateful but never fatalistic, and satirical, but not in a way that served the status quo. Most of all, though, I wanted it to be a thriller, a book of action and seduction and surprise and possibility, a book where people make choices and mistakes that have deadly consequences, not just for themselves, but for other people, too. I hope that it’s a gripping book, a book that confides in you and makes you laugh and – crucially, in a time of global existential threat – that makes you want to know what happens next." – Eleanor Catton
"Birnam Wood is electric: a spectacular book. It has the pace and bite of a thriller. It has an iron-willed morality. It feels like the product of astonishing skill, and formidable love. It’s literally, physically breathtaking." – Katherine Rundell
"What I admired most in Birnam Wood was the way that the rapid violence of the climax rises, all of it, out of the deep, patient, infinitely nuanced character-work that comes before. If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this." — Francis Spufford
"Birnam Wood is terrific. As a multilayered, character-driven thriller, it's as good as it gets. Ruth Rendell would have loved it. A beautifully textured work—what a treat." — Stephen King
"Mysterious and marvelously unpredictable, Birnam Wood had me reading the way I used to as a kid―curiously, desperately and as if it was the whole world. Catton connects to the natural and unnatural ways in which we try to control our environments, our impulses and one another. A spectacular novel, conjured by a virtuoso." — Rivka Galchen


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Harrow by Joy Williams   {Reviewed by STELLA}
How do you get geriatric eco-terrorists into a book and make it sound believable, ironic, outrageous, and compelling? When your main protagonist is a ten-year-old with a jaundiced view of the world, but also a surprising innocence, how are we convinced that this could be a future reality? Joy Williams makes us believe because she’s a genius. Harrow, her recent novel, is a sideways dystopia, very strange and difficult to follow — not because it’s pretentious or overly literary but because the end of the world (as we know it) will be confusing, blindingly obvious, and surprisingly full of unexpected consequences. As you read this review, you will notice the inconsistencies — how can it be this, but also that? How can you have a 10-year-old protagonist surviving crossing America alone but somehow be okay —  picked up and harnessed by the goodwill of others — even if this is fleeting? How can, and why, do terminally ill geriatrics who can’t seem to get along (there are plenty of petty squabbles at the abandoned conference centre/resort) have a plan (of destruction — we will get to that later) that forces them to be bound together by a mutual ideology? Well, it works because Joy Williams is a brilliant writer and she’s angry, even as she darkly exploits us humans and uses our foibles to create characters who will stick on you. And that’s how it is — Harrow gets under your skin and just when you’re confused the lightbulb clicks on and it’s so bright, you hope you’ll be in the dark again. Darkness may be preferable to the future. This world is destructive — or was. Williams layers out all the issues under this veneer of fictional telling. There’s consumption, capitalism (hyper), deforestation, extinction (there are no more animals), and, really, just collapse. The world has given up and humans are swaddled by what’s left — entertainment and distraction. The rebellion has been overcome, aside from the geriatrics with their inconsequential acts — small violences do not a change make. Especially when the worst excesses of capitalism and environmental destruction have rebooted full throttle. And this is the world that Khristen at ten has the job of navigating. After her boarding school closes and the rich kids have been collected in their SUVs and other vehicles of a survival nature, the teachers take off and deposit Khristen at the train station. It’s not too much later that the end of the line approaches, i.e. the trains stop and K has to walk on in search of her mother, who she last heard (a few years back) was headed to the aforementioned resort. No surprise, she doesn’t find her there. Yet, the matriarch of this outfit takes her in for a bit and we get a front-row seat as witness to the shenanigans of the motley crew, as well as a paying guest, a mother with her precocious 10-year-old son, who’s determined to be a judge — he spends his days quoting legal jargon. They have their own side hustle story which involves murder, family dispute, alcohol, and expectation. Yet they are on holiday, so standing in the putrid lake, known as Big Girl, fishing is how Khristen first encounters her future judge. 


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


One-Way Street by Walter Benjamin (translated from German by Edmund Jephcott)  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
What form would literature take if it was the expression of the organising principles of an urban street rather than those of literary tradition? Between 1923 and 1926, Walter Benjamin wrote a series of unconventional prose pieces in which “script - after having found, in the book, a refuge in which it can lead an autonomous existence - is pitilessly dragged out into the street by advertisement and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.” On the street, text, long used to being organised on the horizontal plane in a book, is hoisted upon the vertical plane, and, having been long used to a temporal arrangement like sediment, layer upon layer, page upon page, text is spread upon a single plane, requiring movement from instance to instance, walking or, ultimately, scrolling across a single temporal surface, a surface whose elements are contiguous or continuous or referential by leaps, footnotes perhaps to a text that does not exist, rather than a structure in three dimensions. Even though Benjamin did not live to see a scroll bar or a touch screen or a hyperlink he was acutely aware of the changes in the relationship between persons and texts that would arrive at these developments.“Without exception the great writers perform their combinations in a world that comes after them,” he wrote, not ostensibly of himself. As we move through a text, through time, along such one-way streets, our attention is drawn away from the horizontal, from the dirt (the dirt made by ourselves and others), away from where we stand and walk, and towards the vertical, the plane of desire, of advertising, towards the front (in all the meanings of that word), towards what is not yet. It is not for nothing that our eyes are near the top of our bodies and directed towards the front, and naturally see where we wish to be more easily than where we are (which would require us to bend our bodies forwards and undo our structural evolution). In the one-way street of urban text delineated by Benjamin, all detail has an equivalence of value, “all things, by an irreversible process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character, while ambiguity displaces authenticity.” The elitism of ‘the artwork’ is supplanted by the vigour of ‘the document’: “Artworks are remote from each other in the perfection [but] all documents communicate through their subject matter. In the artwork, subject matter is ballast jettisoned by contemplation [but] the more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows. In the artwork, the formal law is central [but] forms are merely dispersed in documents.” What sort of document is Benjamin’s street? It is a place where detail overwhelms form, a place where the totality is subdued by the fragment, where the walker is drawn to detritus over the crafted, to the fumbled over the competent, to the ephemeral over the permanent. The street is the locus of the personalisation and privatisation of experience, its particularisation no longer communal or mediated by tradition but haphazard, aspirational, transitory, improvised. Each moment is a montage. Writing is assembled from the fragments of other writing. Residue finds new value, the stain records meaning, detritus becomes text. In the one-way street, particularities are grouped by type and by association, not by hierarchy or by value. The here and now of the street is filled with referents to other times and other places. The overlooked, the mislaid, the abandoned object is a point of access to overlooked or mislaid or abandoned mental material, often distant in both time and space, memories or dreams. Objects are hyperlinked to memories but are also representatives of the force that drives those experiences into the past, towards forgetting. But the street is the interface of detritus and commerce. Money, too, enables contact with objects and mediates their meaning. New objects promise the opportunity of connection but also, through multiplication, abrade the particularity of that connection. Benjamin’s sixty short texts are playful or mock-playful, ambivalent or mock-ambivalent, tentative or mock-tentative, analytic or mock-analytic, each springing from a sign or poster or inscription in the street, skidding or mock-skidding through the associations, mock-associations, responses and mock-responses they provoke, eschewing the false progress of narrative and other such novelistic artificialities, compiling a sort of archive of ways both of reading a street as text and of writing text as a street, a text describing a person who walks there.