The two biggies since the last diary:
- we moved house
- we went back into nationwide lockdown.
The two biggies since the last diary:
So midway through the year and I've read 53 books... On track for 100 in a year for the first time since I started counting. Probably ever. Not all of them have been stellar. Some have been mercifully short. Others I'm not sure how I finished. While others have been such a joy. I am richer for having entered their worlds. So... reading.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (non-fiction, audiobook)
Right book, right time. One test of a book is how often you bring it up in conversation and I've been able to refer to, and evangelise about, Braiding Sweetgrass often in the weeks since reading it.
It ranges widely - and does drift in parts, being rather long - but the topic is so broad (see that subtitle) and the process of decolonising the thinking of a reader such as me when it comes to plants takes time.
Embodies the gift economy. Kia ora, RWK!
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (novel, audiobook)
Gonna call it now: this is the funniest book I will read all year.
Is it a novel? Is it another autobiography, veiled this time by the third person pronouns? Is it longform poetry?
Answer: it is the natural end result when language and attention and logic come out the other side of being "extremely online".
Buy a ticket, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (poetry, ebook)
Okay, so this actually is poetry :)
Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell (non-fiction, audiobook)
This is the book I thought I was going to read when I picked up End Times by Bryan Walsh in May. I wasn't sure if I was ready for more apocalypsia so soon, but O'Connell's book lived up to my (deferred) expectations. Maybe it's homerism, but I enjoyed the section set in NZ the most. Often, that would be the part where the hollowness of the European correspondent rang through, but not here.
Kia ora MO'C!
The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary (novel, audiobook)
Okay, so, hear me out. I enjoy reading romance, at least this kind (blame Emma Lord). It would be stretching things to call this a rom-com as it's not super funny. It's tone is breezy, but then the main female character is recovering from a toxic relationship (and gets stalked by the gaslighting ex) and the male lead's brother is in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
The set-up (a male hospice nurse who works nights rents out his flat 7pm to 7am to a junior book editor so he can pay legal fees for his brother, and the two flatmates only converse through post-it notes...) is super hooky.
Sometimes the beats felt like they came with signposts: THIS IS A BEAT.
But I devoured it. I like romance. It only took me 38 years.
Their Lost Daughters by Joy Ellis (novel, audiobook)
Speaking of genres, one I've not had as many hangups about is crime. No doubt because it's coded as more masculine. But this one was only meh.
My Year Abroad by Change-Rae Lee (novel, audiobook)
Speaking of genres, this was NORTH AMERICAN LITERARY FICTION. How can you tell? It's at least twice as long as it needs to be. Fixates on a particular bucket of imagery (food & gustation). Is told over two time periods (with one being more interesting that the other). It became a game of diagnosing its cliches and flaws - and that got me through to the ridiculous climax.
This review from the NYT does a pretty good job of capturing how I felt: "this long and draggy book is a 'controlled fllight into terrain'."
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (novel, audiobook)
Speaking of NORTH AMERICAN LIT FIC. This was so: I spent time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Yawn.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (v. short novel, audiobook)
Nope. I am still to find the fantasy that converts me to the genre.
The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson (non-fiction, audiobook)
The bumblbee guy tries to branch out, but doesn't bring anything new to the conversation.
FILM & TV
Line of Duty - Seasons 4-6
Mare of Easttown - finished season 1
We are the Champions - Season 1
The Masked Singer NZ - Season 1 - the kids really got into it, for some reason
Feel Good - Seasons 1 & 2
Sweet Tooth - Season 1
Long Time Running
Breaking Boundaries: the science of our planet
Framing John DeLorean
I got a bit of media coverage after a session I ran for the Otago Energy Research Centre, which was followed by this piece by Uni comms about me and my writing background and how it links in with being their Net Carbon Zero Programme Manager.
Work is equal parts fun and daunting at the moment. Every week brings new connections, which bring new opportunities and obligations. Right now it feels like things might start to settle down about 2024 or 2025...
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (essays, audiobook)
Published in 2011, collecting magazine pieces from even earlier, but it didn't feel dated. Sullivan was tapping into the racial, religious and economic discontent that would propel Trump into the White House - that's part of it. But his voice is so clear, distinct. I really want to read a collection of his essays from the last 10 years...
You Have a Match by Emma Lord (novel, audiobook)
YA high school drama and romance... A couple of years ago I would have turned my nose up at such a thing. But I really enjoyed it and Lord is excellent at pushing a plot forward with the right amount of challenge and comfort. Highly rated.
The Heap by Sean Adams (novel, audiobook)
A bloated Crying of Lot 49. A very white writer dude novel. Bold. Nuts. Shoddy. But bold!
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (novel, audiobook)
A different kind of bloated. I couldn't help comparing this unfavourably with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Like, kudos for the melding of imagination and scholarship, but then again: that's all you managed to say in so many pages?
Maybe I was grumpy because it seemed to accept so blithely 100 years of piss-poor climate action from our present to the present of the novel.
Maybe it was because the characters all seemed to be experts in (American) history 1970-2020, which would be like me or you knowing all about the gunfight at the OK Corral, the economics of the dustbowl or the early days of photography (without Wikipedia!).
Aimless Love by Billy Collins (poetry, audiobook)
Listening to Collins read these selected poems made me wish I was listening to Hera Lindsay Bird instead. Or Mark Leidner. Or anyone with a pulse and a sense of humour (dad jokes don't count).
Ghost Species by James Bradley (novel, audiobook)
Maybe I was still grumpy from like, three books ago, but this seemed undercooked.
American Blood by Ben Sanders (novel, audiobook)
Strong Reacher vibes. Attempts at Elmore Leonard-y dialogue. Just lacking 900 volts of originality to really stick out.
End Times by Bryan Walsh (non-fiction, audiobook)
I thought this was going to be Notes from an Apocalypse, but it wasn't. It read like a run of Time Magazine cover articles, the annoying uncle of dinosaur media that delights in telling you about the Drake equation, Moore's Law and R values as if you didn't know about that shit already.
And yeah, I was super pissed off by Mr Walsh's chapter on climate change, which a) is downplayed as an existential risk and b) he reckons the only answer is geo-engineering... without sufficiently considering the risks (when it made messing with nature ever go wrong??) and the inequitable distribution of those risks.
But his chapter on pandemics, written before COVID-19, is pretty fucking prescient, down to the risk Trump would pose if something like H5N1 or H1N1 ever kicked off while he was in the White House.
No one is too small to make a difference by Greta Thurnberg (non-fiction, audiobook)
The Liver Cleansing Diet to Walsh's three cheese lasagna. Basically Ms Thurnberg reading a bunch of her speeches, with a bunch of repetition. But rather than grate, her taglines hit like sitcom catch phrases. Oh no she didn't!
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria (non-fiction, audiobook)
Hey, this was quite good. Except for the fact it could probably have been written pre-COVID. And can I remember any specifics from it? Hold on, I'm sure I can... I mean, beyond the fact it didn't make me want to shove a Phillips head in my ear, and I felt kind of worthy listening to it...
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (non-fiction, audiobook)
For a more successful way to use the constantly restarting/reframing technique, see:
250 Ways to Start an Essay About Captain Cook by Alice Te Punga Sommerville (non-fiction, physical book)
Funny. Scathing. Frank. Smart. But really funny.
Oh, and we managed to buy a house in Dunedin this month. We put unsuccessful offers on three houses and attended an auction for another where the bidding went mad early so I never technically got to bid/offer, but still had to go through the rigmarole of having finance and insurance sorted just to sit in a room and watch a woman burst into tears when a property investor kept out-bidding her and her husband...
So when you win a tender, you're like: Oops. Should I have offered that much? Did I just leave someone else in tears?
At least we're going to use it as our family home. We'll make memories and compost and cider there. There's a park across the road with the biggest pear tree I've ever seen, so I guess that'll be pear cider. I might even write a book or two. One of them will probably be about how problematic golf is. All that private land parading as public utility green space. All that water. The selfishness of the sport itself. But, o, the glory of it. The simplicity...
Which may just be a self-deceiving scheme to let me play a round or three at the local courses here...
FILM & TV
Mare of Easttown (Season 1 - up to episode 6) - so good
Starstruck - Season 1
Line of Duty - Seasons 1, 2 & 3
The Masked Singer NZ - the kids are weirdly obsessed, even though they don't know who the celebs are
A Fish Called Wanda
The Trip to Greece
I started writing a short story yesterday. I took my laptop to a different building at lunchtime and wrote for 30 minutes surrounded by studying students. It felt good.
Now I woke up at 6am on a Saturday to continue working on it, but instead I'm doing this consumption diary.
A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard (non-fiction, audiobook)
I view these topic-specific history books are as a kind of palatte cleanser between books. A way to reset and may learn a thing or two in the process, or see things in a different way. This was okay in that respect. The second half is very Anglocentric. Oh well.
How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (non-fiction, audiobook)
Written during the first half of Trump's first term, when the spectre of a second was very real (as was impeachment or implosion before the election). Pretty spot on in it's diagnosis of the authoritarian traits of Trump and a reminder, as Biden pushes through some pretty good policies on things like climate change, that we are no longer on the darkest timeline.
Two Stories by Sally Rooney (short stories, audiobook)
Should I count this as a while book? Probably not. But I have a 20+ hour Kim Stanley Robinson novel queued up for next month so I will, so there.
The first story was so good. The second less arresting. Hard to judge without another six or so stories to bounce off.
A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (novel, audiobook)
I will always love Millet for the jolt her novel Oh! Pure and Radiant Heart gave me when I was letting my dream of writing seriously slip away as a twenty-something living in soulless Brisbane.
A Children's Bible takes just as bold risks, but is completely different. It'd be interesting to read this after Parable of the Sower, rather than before. I think I would have enjoyed this take on climate-induced partial apocalypse even more.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (essays, audiobook)
A collection of previously uncollected essays, reviews and columns from across 5 decades of Didion's writing. Didn't feel bitsy. I enjoyed it.
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (short stories, audiobook)
Wow. This book is exciting. It starts out with short stories in a recognisable, North American mold. It felt a little like a first nation's Jesus' Son - and then the stories lean more into Nishnaabeg modes and language. Another bad comparison: it felt like the bait and switch in David Vann's Legend of a Suicide where the death (the dyer?) in the second half is unexpected and makes you re-evaluate everything. This time, it's like: where those first stories good on their own terms or were they bait to lure me in.
Lots to mull over. Lots to learn from.
A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson (novel, audiobook)
YA romance notable for two things:
1. How absolutely unremarkable it is within the world of the novel that the romance is between two male sixteen year olds. Literally unremarkable: no one bats an eyelid that person A is gay, or person B is gay, or that A and B would be a couple. It's cheering that there's these representations out there and that LGBT youths might experience total acceptance from the get go - in some spheres / at some point in the future.
2. How badly this thing falls apart in the second half. It felt a bit like taking the set up from an early season of the Simpsons and resolving it with in the many of recent seasons (or Rick and Morty).
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (novel, audiobook)
If this is Science Fiction or Fantasy, then they need to build a bigger church, because a bunch of stuff written by dudes that manages to avoid the SFF label definitely deserves it. From the The Road to anything by Michael Crichton, and even Lawrence Wright's The End of October.
But who cares for labels, anyway?
I really enjoyed Parable of the Sower and am looking forward to reading the follow-up, Parable of the Talents. I did feel frequently wrong-footed by where I thought the novel would go and where it went. Again, approaching this from an SFF perspective is partly to blame.
And it's hella prophetic. See: How Democracies Die, et al.
FILM & TV
The Gulf - Season 1
Cremerie - Season 1
Last Chance U: Basketball - Season 1
Defending the Guilty - Season 1
Shtisel - Season 1
Bad Neighbours (yes, that's 3 Rose Byrne movies in a month)
Love and Monsters
The Blue Max
Bill & Ted Face the Music
MUSIC - FEBRUARY
Foresaw an influence pandemic and the disintegration of life as it was known in the US. Unfortunately, assumed this would play out the same way everywhere and the US would save the day. A good piece of speculation - and kind of absorbing - but on reflection: not a very good novel (later characters in particular are 2-dimensional).
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (novel, audiobook)
Ferrante through and through. Very good. How does it compare to the Neapolitan Quartet? Similar pretence of extreme self-divulgence from first person narrator. Same world. Less expansive, obviously (hard to compare a standalone novel to a quadrilogy).
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (novel, audiobook)
I'm beginning to think I'm just not on the Richard Flanagan wavelength.
Reality & other stories by John Lanchester (short stories, audiobook)
A classic case of stories being fine in isolation, but when piled on top of each other in a collection the strengths get drowned out by the weaknesses. Like Black Mirror without the edge. Like Steven Millhauser without the imagination. A very normcore kind of twist-in-the-tale short story, rinsed and repeated.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (novel, audiobook)
Not gonna lie, this felt long. Starting when Shuggie is on his own as a teen and then flashing back to when he's an infant and then staying in this flashback for 95% of the book is probably one factor. By then last 20% I was invested, and I think overall it's a good book. An instant classic, though? I'm not sure it brings anything new to the table, besides its fully realised characters.
Silver by Chris Hammer (novel, audiobook)
There's an event near the midpoint of this thriller, the sequel to Scrublands, that ratchets up the death toll. It felt exhilarating at the time. "Oho, the stakes are through the roof!" But each aspect of this event are unpicked relatively quickly and simply so that the narrative can return to the much less interesting, but precipitating death that occurred in its first pages. So: structural issues, but not definitely not "red stickered". Two books in and you can count me as a Hammer fan.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (novel, audiobook)
Fabular in mode, mildly futuristic in setting. Suffers from the classic fable flaws of a lack of depth and the clash of science/tech and magic.
How to Pack for the End of the World by Michelle Falkoff (novel, audiobook)
Good YA. Love the title. Enjoyed the book. But the title could lead you to expect some bad shit to go down on a global scale. Not here. Bad stuff = worrying about all the ways apocalypse might happen and standard high school hijinks.
A Short History of Russia by Mark Galeotti (non-fiction, audiobook)
Too short. Lesson learnt.
The Secret Life of Mr Roos by Hakan Neeser (novel, audiobook)
Weird. Structure again. This is the 3rd inspector Barbarotti novel, but the inspector doesn't show up until halfway through the novel, when he's introduced to the case we've spent 200 pages with from the two suspects' perspective. Hard to establish or maintain much tension like that. But interesting to see someone try!
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (essays, audiobook)
I really liked Smith's essay collection, Feel Free, but this one felt rattled off, responding directly to events in the first half of 2020. I'm interested in the tension between the ever-moving news cycle and how a book (with all the inertia the publishing industry applies) can interact with this. Six Intimations felt stuck in the middle. Too late to be contemporaneous, too insubstantial to be enlightening.
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (novel, audiobook)
A mixed bag. Promising premise: a couple's daughter goes missing for five years and then returns. Ryan steers head-on into Irish racism but gets the speed wobbles. Failure of nerve, imagination or research? Dunno.
FILM & TV
Taskmaster UK - Seasons 6, 7 & 10
Solar Opposites - Season 1
Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art
Big Trouble in Little China
The Darjeeling Limited
Moxie - impossible to not compare unfavourably with Book Smart... one of it's flaws is the way it uses 1990s Riot Grrl / zine culture as the inspiration for a 2020s teen's feminist awakening, rather than something organic from contemporary culture (the seams really start to show when the film tries to be meaningfully intersectional inside of a bloated-feeling but still inadequate 1:50 runtime)... BUT it does mean - in isolation - it has a killer soundtrack. TopLady isnt on Spotify (so not on one of the playlists here) but check out Green Light Red Light from 2015 on Bandcamp!
MUSIC - MARCH
So we live in Dunedin again. The Burns Effect is real.
I start my new job (Net Carbon Zero Programme Manager at the University of Otago) after the long weekend (9 Feb). It's gonna be great.
Turns out moving to a different island is great for your reading/audiobook listening. Lots of cleaning, lots of gardening, lots of books churned through.
Autumn by Ali Smith (novel, 2016, UK, audiobook)
Promised I’d re-read this after finishing the other three books in the seasonal quartet in 2020… Still great. My altar to Ali Smith is progressing well.
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen (novel, 2020, US, audiobook)
Strong debut novel that deals with gender, race and privilege through a fairly straight-forward narrative set in New York’s start-up scene.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (novel, 2020 [translation], Japan, audiobook)
Never warmed to this one. These things happen.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (novel, 2020 [translation], Japan, audiobook)
A gem. I loved it from the first sentence. I worried for a bit that it was going to swerve too much into the territory of Convenience Store Woman, but it remained enough of it’s own thing to be a triumph!
Sisters by Daisy Johnson (novel, 2020, UK, audiobook)
A short novel that trades almost completely on an atmosphere of dread. Felt like I’ve been told this story before.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (short stories, 2020, US, audiobook)
I’d never heard of Danielle Evans but the title intrigued me and I was really impressed with these short stories (one of which is billed as a novella, but it’s just a long story IMO).
Whatever It Takes by Paul Cleave (novel, 2019, NZ, audiobook)
I enjoyed this. Starts off at a rollicking pace and pays off in the right places.
Rules of Prey by John Sandford (novel, 1989, US, audiobook)
Ugh, it’s official: I never want to read/watch/listen to anything that includes extended sections from the perspective of the killer ever again. That shit can fuck right off.
A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen (novel, 2020, US, audiobook)
The second Bright Sessions novel. This one is set well before the time period covered in the podcast (which I haven’t listened to), but ironically I think it needed that prior investment in the Damien character to fully hit its straps.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July (novel, 201X, US, audiobook)
Did it go on too long, or maybe just take a little long getting there? Maybe the endorphins from the drastic brain re-wiring enacted by the first couple of chapters wore off by the two-thirds mark? Still v. good.
Bluffworld by Patrick Evans (novel, 2021, NZ, physical book)
I’ve reviewed this for The Listener... should hit shelves in early March. Here's the cover, which didn't fit in the collage...
Turns out moving to a different island significantly reduces your screentime. Hurrah! The only thing I can recall is: I May Destroy You - Season 1.
The rules are, as ever, that I'm choosing the books I liked best from what I read in the calendar year, not solely from those released in that year.
Though my reading does tend to skew towards more recent releases...
Holy shit, Ali Smith. I am in awe of you....My favourite out of all four was Spring. Somehow blends The Sixth Sense and No Friend But the Mountains, and spends a lot of time on Katherine Mansfield and Rilke. It works.
Loved it. Leaves all the guff of novels on the cutting room floor (explaining who folks are and how they fit together) and just gives us the fluff of daily life.
This is a book I'm already finding multiple reasons to recommend to people. It's not about withdrawal from society at all, but a refusal to play on the field as it's defined by the online materialists.
There's a lot of depth to Odell's arguments, and I enjoyed the fact so much of it is grounded in the (visual) art world. And nature. And history.
I have had this on my Audible wishlist since it came out in 2018 but, despite depression marching ever closer over that time, I kept putting it off...I only finished Lost Connections today so I haven't fully processed everything. There weren't many surprises. Materialism is bad. Big pharma is bad. Contact with nature and other humans is good. But Hari stitches it all together so clearly, weaving in his own experiences with depression and anti-depressants. One refrain through the book is why some people can see the off-ramp but never take it - like Joe, the paint-mixer whose mindless job is sucking his will to live and dreams of becoming a fishing guide in Florida but never does anything about it.It's what I'm asking myself now. I'm working too much at the expense of everything else because, why? Because I have a mortgage and just a few more years of killing myself to live will be worth it? By which time my kids will have been boiled slowly in this stressed atmosphere, used to being fed and ferried by us but little else.Something has to change...
Porter has a subversive streak, evident both in how he puts a page together and use of narrative... For the longest time, the 'disappeared boy' arc felt fresh and new. That it doesn't hold that line to the very end is a bit disappointing, but it's still fantastic overall.
Very good. Does aging so well. The stories without Olive do a pretty good job of holding their own.
O'Farrell rises to the challenge of writing about Shakespeare's life without making it Shakespearean in scope or language but still making art. I really loved this. Agnes takes a while to emerge as the heart of the story, and overtake the eponymous child, but it's masterfully done. Stephanie Merritt's review in The Guardian covers the main strengths. Just so good. Top ten book of the year with a rocket.
I felt pleasantly flayed by this one. Like, it should be no surprise that Australia's colonial history actively overwrote a lot of what the indigenous people had going on pre-contact. So much cognitive bias going on then and now.
... I got sucked in quick and finished it in a couple of days.I'm a sucker for hard sci-fi. This doesn't have the scope of something like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. We're only a couple of decades in the future and every piece of technology described conceivably exists now. But Weir makes it thrilling and epic, while also keeping a sense of the quotidian, both on the surface of Mars and back in Houston.Two thumbs up!
I really liked this. A YA novel, which is basically an adult novel with permission to have a plot and be a bit emo, that asks what if the X-Men were real, but instead of becoming superheroes they went to therapy?