Two more lists after this one because I want to support New Zealand bookshops.
But today I want to celebrate NZ Music Month – music has been such a go-to comfort for me in the past few months. I find myself awake listening to and loving Trevor Reekie’s world-music selection on RNZ in the middle of the night, or Nick Bollinger’s sweetly crafted music reviews along with Jeremy Taylor’s (also RNZ). I found myself playing Nadia Reid latest album over and over again when I was trying to meet an anthology deadline and work seemed impossible.
Earlier this year Michael and I sat on the slopes and listened to Don McGlashan and the Mutton Birds along with The Black Seeds at the Hunting Lodge in West Auckland and it was bliss. Another day and I popped over to Kumeu’s summer Folk Festival and loved everything about it. These outdoor / indoor music events seem like a miracle now, a mirage in my mind to which I keep returning. To hear live music is perhaps one of the most extraordinary human experiences because it transcends everything – all the toxic crap in the world and it brings us together. It makes you feel good: both physically and emotionally.
Hard times for musicians, especially with live music events not on the calendar yet.
Just as we can support NZ books in NZ book shops, we can support our local musicians and purchase their music. I am hanging out for Reb Fountain’s amazing new album (physical one due June).
This week I invited musicians and music fans to pick a book or two that has offered comfort or that they have loved, recently, or at any point in time!
Thanks to everyone who contributed. This a treasure house of books that sets me all aglow as a reader. Ruby Solly has assembled the most wonderful list of books ever and because I have read and loved all of them bar two – those two are now on my must-purchase list! I plan to keep buying books from local bookshops once a week and buying NZ music.
A list of books picked by musicians, music critics, music bookshops and music fans
Marysia Collins (Singer)
I’d like to recommend the book Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez.
Why do I Iove it?
This book is PACKED with data and examples of biases (i.e. ways the world is way worse for women) which at first punch you in the chest and then make you feel armed with this new power of knowledge. Admittedly it comes with a heavy serving of frustration and sadness, but served in a clever and witty way that in itself reinforces the hope drawn from the good things we know happen when women take an equal place on the stage.
A musical reference from the book is the mention of the fact that a standard piano was designed around the average size of a man’s hands – which are larger than the standard size of a woman’s hands. The obvious implications of this being that it’s harder and more painful/injury-provoking for women to play the piano.
Victoria Kelly (Composer, performer and producer of music – and also the Director of NZ Member Services at APRA AMCOS)
Funny you should ask… just last week I was compelled to return to a book I have read more times than I can count. It’s my favourite book – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – and the only thing I’ve felt like reading during this entire lockdown period.
I think it comforts me because Vonnegut has the gift of being able to take the reader by the hand and lead them kindly and generously through the brutality and strangeness of humanity.
I love the fact that it changes as I get older, and that it still surprises and enlightens me.
Perhaps my favourite passage in the book is one I read aloud to my 13 year old daughter just the other night because she was worried about school and finding it hard to get things done at home.
“Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going too. It went like this:
God grant me
the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
to change the things I can
and wisdom always
to tell the
Among the things that Billy could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
That last sentence that gets me every time.
Don McGlashan (Musician)
I’ve been reading a lot. First CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, a set of short stories by George Saunders, where grotesque but vivid characters scratch out lives in the wastelands and theme-parks of a post-apocalyptic America. I love how funny and bleak Saunders can be at the same time, and sometimes he just floors you with a piece of imagining so true and strong you have to put down the book and breathe deeply for a bit. Like that, for me, was a story called “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz”, about a man who is forced to sell memories to get by; first other peoples, then finally his own.
Then I read Sea People – by Christina Thompson, an utterly engrossing investigation into the history of Pacific peoples, and their voyages of discovery. Thompson, a US/Australian who teaches writing at Harvard, examines what we know, through the work of greats like Dame Anne Salmond and Te Rangi Hiroa; what we are only just now learning, like the re-vitalisation of ancient navigational knowledge by such scholar-voyagers as Nainoa Thompson – and what we still don’t know, like what happened to the Lapita and Rapa Nui civilisations who left such striking footprints and little else. “Sea People” uses multiple lenses: Polynesian oral history, linguistics, archeology, anthropology, the uniquely Western knack of suggesting radical (and wrong) theories rather than ask the locals – and Thompson has skin in the game, too: she writes from the heart because she’s married to a Maori man, and their children carry Polynesian DNA. I picked it up because I wanted to understand more about the Pacific and its people, but after a while, I found that the timeless fog already brought on by the lock-down became even more hazy, as I missed appointments, meals and sleep so I could cram in another chapter.
Trevor Reekies (Musician, writer, Trip To The Moon member, Producer and Presenter of Worlds of Music RNZ)
These 2 gentlemen remain my favorite Poets
SAM HUNT is one of Aotearoa’s most loved and respected Poets. He has lived the life, walked the walk (usually downhill in his treasured Cuban heels) and entertained audiences from all walks of life with his unique perception of his world, his endearing humour and personality and, of course, his poetry. Living the life of an artist in Aotearoa takes considerable motivation in one’s own belief. Sam may give the perception that he arrived as a fully formed poet and that his work comes to him easily. But the reality is that he applies himself to his art every breathing moment of his day. He rehearses, he reads and writes daily. He chucks his creative line into the pool … sometimes he may get a nibble and other times he may arrive at a finished piece, but crucially, he chucks his line into the pool on a daily basis. Sam is equally a brilliant raconteur. He entertains. Sometimes his introductions to the poem are longer than the poem itself but that is part of his charm. I’ve seen him perform shows with bands like The Warratahs and just take command, such is his presence. This place would be the poorer without him. I don’t own many of his books but one title I enjoyed immensely is his book Backroads, Charting a Poet’s Life (2009). It’s a treasure of a book filled with a collection of yarns that reveal his integrity, eloquence, humour and unique charm.
PETER OLDS I met when I was a student at Otago University in the 70’s. From memory it was at a flat in Cumberland street where the Editor of Critic magazine lived. He is the first person I met who described himself as a poet. Peter’s poems are as appealing as many of the ‘Beat’ poets and City Lights’ fraternity. Peter is uniquely himself and writes the way he talks. He was always good company who was totally focused on his work and that is the sort of dedication I admire most. It’s hard work being a ‘poet’ in a country that for years has denied the arts as being ‘work’. .. more a case of being a ‘dole-bludger’ .. Peter Old writes a lot about Dunedin, the city where I was born, walking the same streets that my parents once walked in their youth.
I can read Peter’s work easily and relate to it with the same fondness that I have for the city itself. Peter Olds writes of relationships, hitch-hiking the country and nights at the Captain Cook Hotel with old friends and new, all the time collecting mental notes and anecdotes for future resource. Peter wrote intelligently to a cultural and generational divide. A working class poet blessed with a whimsical humour and a keen ear that (for me) gives his work a significant point of difference.
Favourite Collections: Beethoven’s Guitar (1980) and Under the Dundas Street Bridge (2012)
Nadia Reid (Musician, songwriter)
My recommendation would be a non-fiction book called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
Something about her writing just gets me right where I need it. This book is a book about writing ultimately and also about Life. I found it quite relevant to songwriting too. She talks about ‘getting your butt in the chair’ and just turning up. My favourite quote from the book:
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
O and this quote! This is actually my favourite:
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
Will Ricketts (Musician, Phoenix Foundation)
A book that gave me some comfort …..
The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar Roald Dahl
Perfect little windows into ingenious scenarios, a collection of miniature mental holidays.
I find Roald Dahl’s style of writing transfers that essential spark or signal within the constant noise, something that is intangible if one tries to encapsulate it in essence.
The formula of doing, the gift of story telling, the gift of the imagination.
Grant Smithies (Music critic/ journalist/ broadcaster)
As a kid, I could often be found in my bedroom, touching my tongue to the terminals of a transistor battery. Ow!… Zzzt!… Ow…Zzzt…Ow!… Zzzt! Why? I grew up in Whanganui in the early 60s, where a cheap thrill was better than no thrill at all. And I like a good jolt.
Perhaps that’s why I read mostly short stories, to the extent that whenever I make my way into a novel, it feels like an interminable journey with far too many people to meet along the way. Give me short, surprising, vivid, weird. Give me Denis Johnson and Joy Williams.
Joy Williams: The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (2015) is a ripping comfort read, assuming you’d find comfort in visiting a succession of skew-whiff worlds rendered by a preacher’s daughter who believes everything, no matter how mundane, has deep cosmic undercurrents.
So many qualities I love in other writers are there in Williams, plus more besides. She is Anton Chekhov in dark glasses and wraparound skirt; a rural Grace Paley; John Cheever stuck fast in the surrealistic groove that gave us The Swimmer and The Enormous Radio. She cops the minimalism of Ray Carver and Lydia Davis, then blows it all sideways with a humid waft of Flannery O’Conner gothic.
She’s a compassionate misanthropist with bold comedic chops, welding rage and despair to belly laughs within sentences so elegant, you sometimes have to read them twice before moving on with the story.
“What a story is, is devious,” Williams once told an interviewer from The Paris Review. “It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.”
Her subject is American failure and its repercussions. She’s interested in the way people deal with loneliness, and regularly sets up occasions in which her characters are forced to confront their own insignificance, facing the fact that they are just another anxious critter struggling to find safety within nature.
Animals provide a mystical non-human dimension to many of her best stories- members of some secret parallel society, bearing witness, hanging out at our side while living in an utterly different world.
And Denis? Let’s just say that Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992) is a book every aspiring short story writer worth their salt reads and rereads like a sacred text, eager to unlock its mysteries.
Again, funny and bleak are bedfellows throughout these eleven interlinked tales of lost souls crashing cars, breaking into houses, shooting up, committing murder, hanging out in bars where some drinkers are still clad in wee plastic bootees and hospital gowns after going “over the wall” from rehab.
The action moves between 1970s Iowa, Chicago, Seattle and Phoenix. Someone gets stabbed in the eye by his wife. Bad things happen to bunnies. A naked woman with long red hair hovers above a speedboat while two men strip electrical wire from the walls of a house to sell for drug money.
Leaps in logic, time, focus and tone mirror the addled mental state of the central protagonist: shaky memories/ wishful thinking/ drug hallucinations/ obsessions/ pathologies/ outright lies are all rolled together into sentences so poetically compressed, I sometimes finish a story and go straight back to the start.
Johnson once described his own writing as a “zoo of wild utterances”, and it’s a zoo worth visiting. Jesus’ Son makes you either want to become a better writer or give up writing altogether. And it will give you more pleasure than putting your tongue on a transistor battery.
Ruby Solly (Musician, poet, performer)
Curating this book list was super interesting as I realised books are not really something I turn to much for comfort nowadays. Mostly I turn to books to challenge myself and turn to other things like music for comfort which makes sense as I work with both fields so listen and read a lot. But when I need comfort, there are a few favorites I return too. All of these books are set in strange otherworldly places in one way or another. Be that 1970s New York, or a land stuck in perpetual winter. They also help us to answer big questions, or at least to add a little bit more to what we already know so we can live with not knowing all the answers. They show us parts of who we are, and parts of who we can be. I hope you pick up one or two, and I hope you enjoy them as much as me.
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
I bought this beautiful little poetic novel on a whim when I was about fourteen before a car trip home, and it lasted me the exact space from Hamilton to Turangi. Shane Jones is an excellent writer in the alt-lit scene and this, his first book, looks at a close-knit town that is perpetually stuck in winter, which is personified as a man called ‘February’ who lives in the sky beyond the clouds. Jones weaves together poetry, drawings, prose and a sea of surreal characters and scenes to make a book that takes you from the depths of depression into a new world. I use this book almost medicinally when I’m feeling really low.
How To Live Forever by Colin Thompson
As part of my job, I spend a lot of time with kids and books. This one has stuck with me for life and comes as both a picture book (with Colin’s detailed and otherworldly illustrations) and a children’s novel. Colin Thompson is my favorite children’s author / illustrator as he managed to weave these incredible worlds filled with magic, and humor; all while examining some really heavy questions around topics such as purpose, greed, and death and dying. But don’t let that put you off. This book is full of magical characters, homes that pop up in books, and helps children (and let’s be honest, adults) understand that good things need to come to an end for us to truly appreciate them.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I’m a huge Patti Smith fan, and this book sums up a such a specific and special relationship that young artists starting out have with each other. It reminds me in part of the girls and gays essay by Tayi Tibble, and describes this beautiful (in Patti’s case, mostly) platonic love and how that support and nourishing of each other creates such beautiful work because both parties feel so loved and supported. In typical Patti fashion, the book is littered with beat celebrities and includes her first encounters with Allen Ginsberg (who initially thought she was a handsome boy) and William Burroughs to name a few. The book has this rich sense of wonder at the size and magic of 1970s New York and feels full of hope.
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
This book is described as an American post-modern post-apocalyptic novel; which I admit does not sound comforting from the get-go. Richard Brautigan is also described as being one of the grandfathers of alternative literature, and his influenced can be seen in many other writers including Shane Jones. In this book, he creates a commune in a village that has its own bizarre way of being where nearly everything is made from different colored watermelons, more specifically, the sugar that comes from them. The sky changes color each day of the week and the different colored watermelons must be harvested on the day that the sky matches them. One of the days is a ‘black soundless day’ which is when the black watermelons are harvested. This book is a sensory treat and can take you away from anything with the strength of its imagery and bizarre scenes that can feel almost animated or film like.
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo
Written by the first Native American poet Laurette of the United States, this book is filled with wisdom and hope in the face of so many impossible things. Joy’s voice has this incredible way of looking at difficult and awful situations through love and ancestral wisdom in order to survive and honor those who have brought her there. She talks in this book of ‘the knowing’ which is a powerful thing to bring into one’s life during times that comfort is needed. Anything by Joy is a real comfort book for me.
Under Glass by Gregory Kan
I love poetry books that are bigger than just the individual poems. This book is a journey into a strange world with two suns (which light boxes has as well!) and gives us a winding path to follow through the new places we find ourselves in. There’s this subtle percolating, calm sort of insistence in this book. Willing you to read on. The pacing in this is beautiful and always leaves me feeling like if been on a journey and now am ready for a gentle sleep and wherever dreams may take me, I can handle it.
Ruby-Fruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
This was my big, queer, coming out read and what a way to start. The story follows Molly Bolt and her life, starting with her in primary school scheming with her best friend getting him to ‘show himself’ to girls for a price that they then split 50/50. Molly is a bulshy, queer little grifter who makes her way around America making friends, art, and discovering herself and the dangers that being yourself can have for someone like her. It’s light, beautiful, and hilarious.
Mophead by Selina Tusitala Marsh
My Mum bought me this book after we read it together in a bookstore and she cried saying “It’s so like you!”. I felt very embarrassed to be compared to Selina even by my Mum, but I’ve returned to this book again and again when I’ve had a rough day. Selina’s writing has a vivaciousness that’s infectious, it’s impossible not to feel powerful and special reading this book. It shows you that no matter where you are at in your journey, you’re exactly where you need to be.
Wāhine Toa by Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa
This book outlines the female whakapapa of ngā tangata Māori with the deepest words and illustrations. Pūrākau show us how to live our lives, and all of them are filled with multitudes of lessons where we take what we need at the time and leave the rest for others or for when we may need it in future. This is a book to be read again and again, and to discover something new every time.
(Paula: Thanks Ruby! This list was like a comfort blanket to me! I so loved being taken back to books that have meant a lot to me too.)
Simon Sweetman (music journalist, music blogger, short story writer and poet
Greil Marcus Mystery Train (1975)
I have a few non-fiction books I return to – some to just dip in and out of, others where you read it again from cover to cover – Mystery Train by Griel Marcus is both. I’ve read this book start to finish a half-dozen times but I’ve dipped in to it for just a few pages in one gulp on so many occasions. It’s a history of rock’n’roll through four essays – four artists mark the development of American music, are the signposts. The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. But with Marcus it’s all about the links and distractions – the way he uses these artists to also tell the story of many other musical acts and cultural moments. The writing is brilliant – and the final chapter is the best writing on Elvis Presley that you’ll ever find. And by extension it’s some of the best writing about America. “Mystery Train” is that rare music book where you could read it without having too much interest in reading about music – it is worth it for the journey and the language and the command of writing. But it would be impossible to close the book not being curious about so much of the music discussed in its pages. One of my all-time favourite books and easily one of my favourite volumes of music journalism.
Jeremy Taylor (Slow Boat Records, RNZ music reviewer)
If I were to name one book that I have genuinely loved, and that has stood up to continued re-readings, it would be Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes: Britpop, and my part in its downfall.
It is alternately hilariously funny, bleak, cruel, tender, and self-aware, and has the best anecdotes (returning home to his dingy flat in Camden to find Metallica sitting on his couch!). The history of Britpop as told by someone smart enough to realise it was all, actually, bullshit. Thoroughly recommended!
Ariana Tikao (Taonga puoro musician, singer & composer )
Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan. Penguin Books, 1994.
I’ve just started reading this book again. It was a birthday gift from my then boyfriend, who wrote a beautiful mihi to me on the inside cover. We were about to go our separate ways while he went off on his OE, and I headed back to New Zealand after living together in Sydney for a year. It was February 1998, and we’d just finished the Overland Track, an epic seven day tramp through the mountainous heart of Tasmania, down to its lush West Coast. The book is set in Tasmania, and includes not only the drowning river guide Aljaz Cosini’s personal and family history, but touches upon the wider history of Tasmania. It starts with a description of his traumatic birth, which has certain similarities to his pending death. By the way, the boyfriend didn’t stay away on his OE all that long, and now we have two adult children. Our youngest is planning his own OE – once borders open again. Things tend to have a cyclic nature, and in the meantime I will enjoy ‘returning’ to Tasmania via this beautifully told story.
Long may we support and cherish NZ music