This week I decided to invite a variety of New Zealanders to pick a book that has given comfort or solace during lockdown or at any point in their lives.
I do this but I feel like a butterfly adrift in my home – alighting here, stalling there, resting here. It is hard to settle. Writing gives me continued comfort, keeping both my blogs up, as does my stack of books. I have found Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 has given immense solace as I linger upon poems, essays, reviews. The whole issue is a tonic, so much so I invited a handful of poets to read one of their poems for a virtual reading. I am also reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory – a mammoth book! – but I am reading it slower than a snail’s pace because I am so in love with the sentences. A single sentence fills me with joy. Then there is the thematic and crucial presence of trees. I can walk through this book like I am walking through the track on our land. Again it is just so restoring. I love what Bryan Crump says below about discovering his pick in a London bookshop and falling into the joy of the book in a cafe. You can just loose yourself in the bush tracks of your reading. Just what we need at the moment, like little cafe breaks.
Thank heavens for books. And thank you everyone who responded in these challenging times with a book and some thoughts, when all we might want is to drift like the clouds.
Tara Black (comic maker)
Juliet Blyth (CEO ReadNZ)
My early reading in the lockdown was erratic, I found it hard to settle on one thing so to get me started I read Damien Wilkin’s new novel for young adults Aspiring (Massey University Press). Damien has so much empathy for his male characters and I thought this book portrayed with heart and humour the inner workings of the male teenage brain. That led me to reread his novel from 2016 Dad Art. Again the male characters are sensitively told and this book is both laugh out loud funny and really sad! Damien writes so tenderly about the relationship between his main character and his elderly father. Finally I liked Lloyd Jones comment in a previous post of yours about reading not for comfort but preferring something that rattles his cage. For me this book has been Halibut on the Moon by David Vann. This is a powerful and moving book but proceed with caution – this is a book about suicide and may be challenging for some readers. Despite the subject matter the author makes room for some dark humour and the utterly frank conversations between the main character and his parents were artful, making for some very uncomfortable but necessary reading.
Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson (Penguin)
Our family of 4 came to New Zealand in the early 70’s and left the rest of the relatives back in the UK. This meant that holidays, particularly the long summer break, didn’t have to be spent staying with family, we could go anywhere we wanted, and we did. We spent those wonderful, carefree, childhood summers in small-town New Zealand – just like the setting for Gabriel’s Bay. Even though (according to the author) it’s a fictional town, there are hundreds like it all over the country and as you’re reading images of various places around the country will come to mind. The same is true of the characters. There’s a familiarity (stereotype is too harsh a word) with Mac, the GP’s militant receptionist who’s got a heart of gold she’s careful not to let too many people see. There’s Sidney, parenting alone (and doing a damn fine job) but beating herself up about what her boys might be missing out on. There’s lots of NZ-ism’s and glorious descriptive writing that takes you to another place – which is exactly what we need at the moment – to travel without traveling. Gabriel’s Bay will take you there and, when you’re ready to go back for more, What You Wish For (the second Gabriel’s Bay) is just the thing.
Bryan Crump (Presenter Nights RNZ)
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I was living in London at the time (1994) and was in singing with the London Philharmonia Chorus. We’d been performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony”; a setting of some of Whitman’s poems. The music drew me in first, but one day, with nothing to read, I wandered into a second-hand shop on Charing Cross Road and came across an 1897 edition of Leaves.
I wandered off to the Leicester Square McDonalds, or some cheap pizza joint. I can’t recall exactly now. I do remember sitting there, devouring the poetry; turning page after page, like no poetry I’d experience before. I heard this voice sing out like a secular preacher, celebrating the spiritual in everything “for every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”.
Clumsy? Yes! Repetitive? Again and again! Cheer leader for the rapacious American dream? Yes. But that idea, linking the quantum to the cosmic, nothing else in poetry has moved me like Walt did then.
Lynn Freeman (Presenter Standing Room Only RNZ)
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
I once met British Fantasy writer of Discworld fame in person, clutching a stack of his books for signing.
“Thanks for Discworld,” I whispered. Remember, I interview famous people for a living.
“Thanks for the money,” he quipped. I mentioned this exchange to him the first time of several times I interviewed him for RNZ.
Terry and his occasional co-writer unleashed dozens of titles in this world. I’ve read most of them, but not in order. So during the lockdown, I’m starting with the Colour of Magic and laughing my way through his satirical fantasy series from start to finish.
Karyn Hay (author and broadcaster)
I have to confess I never read for solace or comfort unless it’s some sort of spur of the moment self-help book that I’ve picked up in an airport and generally regret spending money on before the plane’s even taken off. Twenty chapters telling me something I already know and didn’t need to part with $39.95 to confirm. It depends on the nature of one’s distress of course. Poetry is always good for heartache, and I quite like quotations centred on the topic of one’s despair but, as these can both be googled, I don’t really need the hard copy.
If I was reading for a child I would look for something to take their mind off things, but then you always tend to do that with children, virus or not. (Mostly you’re just trying to take their mind off the fact that you’re about to turn the light off at any second.)
My advice when needing solace or comfort is to write something yourself. This is the greatest consolation of all.
John Gow (Gow Langsford Gallery)
I just finished reading Witi Ihimaera’s Māori Boy – a memoir of childhood. Published by Random House in 2014, it is a book which I have been meaning to get to for quite some time.
In this strange isolation environment it was great to read a book so New Zealand focused, remind one of the treasures hidden in our country such as the amazing meeting house ‘Rongopai’ which is the Ihimaera house at Waituhi, Poverty Bay. I very much enjoyed feeling the Māori names of people and place rolling off the tongue and being mentally located in and around Gisbourne in the 1950’s 60’s. One is reminded that there is so much history to read about, Te Kooti, Rua Kēeana, Sir Āpirana Ngata, and the like and Witi, gives a great personal take on on Māori mythology and the importance of Whakapapa within Māoridom. He also reminds us of the many injustices, the racial prejudices and the hard road Māori have had since colonisation. All done in a way which is not confrontational, not offensive, but very much a reminder of our (the colonisers) less than auspicious roots in New Zealand Aotearoa.
Thoroughly enjoyed the read and now want to buzz off to the Gisborne regions and explore the landscape which was so beautifully laid out before me in this very personal biography.
Claire Mabey (Director of Verb Wellington)
I have been re-reading The Absolute Book (Victoria University Press) by Elizabeth Knox lately. I felt a real urge to be back inside that world and I have loved every page of it. I think even more than the first time I read it because this time around I feel like I have more space to think about all of the aspects and layers of the characters, places and the happenings. While the book takes you off into other planes of existence, it also feels so real. I think that’s because Elizabeth has poured so much passion into the keystones of this story: Libraries, family, the environment, and our ability to figure all of the mysteries out and improve on ourselves.
Judy Millar (artist)
Be My Guest – Priya Basil
“The dinner table, among friends, is where the best conversations take place.” These are the opening lines on the inside jacket of a small book sent to me earlier this year by author Priya Basil.
And of course, it is true that conversations fuelled by the simple act of sharing a meal are always memorable, special. But here we are part of a global lockdown, separated one from another.
So reading Priya’s small book has taken on special meaning as she explores food, race and family – asking what the simple act of hospitality means for our culture focused on selfishness and greed.
A timely read for sure. And an engrossing one by an author who was born in London to Indian parents, grew up in Kenya and now lives in Berlin. Her book takes you on a hurtling ride across cultures – spices, hard to pronounce ingredients, familial love, loss and the strangeness of living in communities other than your own. A small book filled with generosity.
My favourite book is not even my book. It’s social suicide to admit this on a literary website but somebody gave it to me (Tim Wilson gave it to me) and I didn’t give it back. Not for the usual reasons – laziness or forgetfulness – but because I love the book so much I have convinced myself it’s mine.
The book is Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan – a collection of essays (my top ten books are all collections of essays) each of which is both factually dense and personal, vulnerable. After each piece you think “wow, how lucky was he, a writer, to be that closely associated with this remarkable thing/person/event” but of course that’s the trick of a great writer – she makes the commonplace urgent and the invisible luminescent. There’s a little celebrity in here too, as you’d expect from a guy who made his living writing essays for GQ, but even familiar, famous names are written about based on what’s interesting about them, not on what we already know. One profile begins “How do you talk about Michael Jackson except that you mention Prince Screws?” then gives you a brief history of the singer’s great great grandfather before concluding the opening section of the essay with this beautiful line: “so the ridiculous moniker given by a white man to his black slave, the way you might name a dog, was bestowed by a black king on his pale-skinned sons and heirs”. This sort of line is everywhere in the book and many nights, when I want something to read but don’t want to commit, I’ll pick up Pulphead and open it almost at random to remind myself how good writing can get and, more depressingly, how far I still have to go.
Sam Orchard (Queer and Trans Illustrator, Comic Creator and Designer)
A beautifully drawn graphic novel about a young dressmaker and her prince employer. It’s a refreshing story that takes the best elements of fairy tale storytelling (centering beauty and human kindness), and the best elements of queer storytelling (valuing ambiguity, fluidity, and queer relationships) and weaves them seamlessly together. It’s beautiful visually and emotionally.
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.
Victor Rodger (journalist, actor, playwright)
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road may seem like a strange choice.
It’s a pitch-black post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare which follows an unnamed father trying against seemingly insurmountable odds to get his young son to something resembling safety.
But for all the unspeakable horrors that father and son must endure throughout The Road – and there are many – the father never gives up on his quest. As per Churchill’s edict, even though he knows he’s going through hell, he keeps on going, fuelled by the love he has for his son.
As bleak as much of The Road is, I ultimately find this to be one of the most moving books I have ever read.
David Slack (Auckland writer, columnist at large)
Postcards by Annie Proulx
I find comfort and solace in a book about a man whose life dwindles away to nothing. Postcards was Annie Proulx’s first novel. I love them all but this one is special to me. I’ve read and reread it more than any other book I can think of. Why would I take comfort from a book about a man who makes a mistake and in living with it leaves his home and family behind, makes his way across America, now and then gains some purchase but always eventually is moving again and just when he’s down to almost nothing people back their truck up to the trailer that contain what’s left of his worldly life and tow it away?
I don’t read it to punish myself. I do it to delight in her writing. She can draw the arc of a life in a single paragraph, sometimes even a single sentence. She will find the interior life of a character in a name and a few words and you will sense their foibles, their sound, the tilt of their head, the smell of their clothes. So much vividily familiar humanity: the failings; the inconsistencies; the recognisable in life that is not so often set out in a sentence.
There’s a vividness and power to episodes she will set up, a kind of set piece that comes upon you unheralded; his mother in a car on a hill getting into trouble that escalates in the most astonishing and dismaying way. And even at this astonishing pace you find yourself resigned to the truth of it, the inevitability of misfortune in life in the smallest and largest ways.
The dwindling away is a metaphor for Vermont, his home state – her home state too – a commentary on the dwindling of American life. I know this because I asked her the stupidest of questions at a writers session in Auckland. Did it have to be that way, could she see another fate for him? No, she said, this was tracing the fate of the state. I said it was just so sad to see it happen. She smiled kindly.
Nicola Strawbridge (Programme Manager AWF)
I’ve found consolation in the trees in my neighbourhood since Level 4 kicked in, looking forward to passing certain trees on my daily walks, lingering in the shade of a copse of Puriri and Pohutukawa in my local park. And by extension, writing that explores the natural world has provided much needed ballast in these uncertain times. Emergence magazine and their February ‘Trees’ issue has been one of my lockdown discoveries. There I found British writer David George Haskell’s Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree – both in written form and as a podcast complete with short original violin compositions. The magazine also introduced me to American poets Wendell Berry and WS Merwin and has whet my appetite for work by our nature writers. I’m on the lookout!
Jennifer Ward-Lealand (actor and director )
One Minute Crying Time by Barabra Ewing (actress, novelist and playwright)
(Massey University Press)
I’ve been a fan of Barbara’s writing for a long time – The Actresses being my favourite. Her new book is a vivid memoir of growing up in late 50s early 60s Wellington. What touched me so profoundly was her discovering a window into te ao Māori through her studying of te reo Māori – something I have experienced too. She worked alongside people at the Māori Affairs Dept that I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taught by – and of course through all of this was pursuing her love for the theatre, again a great love of mine. There were so many “YES!” moments for me as I read this book – and that has been comforting when a lot of doors have been closing for those of us working in the arts.
Catherine Woulfe (Books Editor, The Spinoff)
When I’m scared or sad or shocked I like to read about plants. I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory late last year and it is an enduring comfort. It is a book about trees, and it works like a centrifuge, spinning your perspective out by a few millennia, until everything happening now seems somehow fine and minor. This too shall pass; life will find a way, etc. It also made me get back into the vege garden properly. (Bokashi is the way, the truth and the light.)
Xanthe White’s The Natural Garden (Random House) is another backstop. Beautiful photographs and very doable NZ gardens, even on horrible old clay. As a kid I used to spend hours pottering through Mum’s gardening books and watching Maggie’s Garden Show with her, so it’s very much a nostalgia thing.
Last weekend I read Wendyl Nissen’s upcoming A Natural Year: Living Simply Through the Seasons (Allen & Unwin) and I swear I could breathe more deeply after about 10 pages.