Some More Book Reviews

A few more of my recent book reviews from here and there…

Mariano Sigman’s  The Secret Life of the Mind: How our brain thinks, feels and decides. Listener. 5 August 2017. (No link yet.)

A review of The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, politics and women’s writing. Scoop Review of Books. 14 July 2017

Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the AnthropoceneListener. 3 June 2017.

Roger Scruton’s On Human NatureListener. 6 May 2017.

A Q&A with Prue Hyman about her book Hopes Dashed: The economics of gender inequality. Scoop Review of Books. 24 March 2017.

A review (plus a bit of a rant) of another Freerange Press collection, this one on the news media, titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Scoop Review of Books. 21 February 2017.

Shortlist: Fiction in TranslationThe New York Times Book Review. 17 February 2017.

All my book reviews (well, since starting this blog) are gathered together here and here. Also, I help run Scoop Review of Books. Do let me know if you are keen to review New Zealand titles. Uh, because we’re an all volunteer outfit, I’m afraid the only payment we can offer is a review copy of the book…


We Are What We Read

Having largely cut corporate media from my information diet (more on the food analogy below), I’ve had time to read more books. Recently: for review, at Scoop Review of Books, Barbara Brookes’ epic A History of Women in New Zealand, Paul Moon’s Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century (plus Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a rather depressing collection about the global dominance of English); in The Listener, Susan Faludi’s memoir about her parent, In the Darkroom; and, a few months ago, some first novels for The New York Times. I’m working on reading, and hopefully writing about, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, by Brian Bargh (Huia), and I just got my hands on Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books).

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrVincent foreshadowed this book in his 2014 collection Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand, in which he had a chapter on the Waikato wars that included some of his new research. (My review is here. Yeah, sorry for all the self-linking, but if I don’t do it, no one will.) I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about that book back then (I might have missed it), but this new one seems to be attracting a lot more attention. Thankfully.

There’s definitely a growing momentum for more (any? some?) recognition of the wars fought on this land, particularly since 2014, which was when we really got to see clearly how much media and government attention was lavished on foreign wars (well, mostly the Gallipoli battle) compared with those fought here. It was 100 years since the former, and 150 years since several major battles of the latter. (I researched and wrote about that pretty extensively back then.)

Not for review (by me!), I’m up to volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six (yes six) volume memoir, My Struggle. I can’t really explain why (so far) I love this book (does it count as “a book”?) But I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, am a bit stuck at around the one-third mark in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Actually, there are quite a few books I’m stuck in the middle of… And, no, I have never been able to finish Infinite Jest.

But still moving along is another epic on the state of the bloody media, in the form of a collection titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, put out by Freerange Press (who do some very cool stuff). Which brings me to the media and food.

We Are What We Eat, uh Read

We need to start treating the “news” more like we (try to) treat food: Eat healthy, stay away from junk. It’s up to us to get these people to stop pumping out sugary crap (aka clickbait etc. etc.) by not “consuming” it. I haven’t taken this so far as to come up with particular news diet fads (what would be the news equivalent of Atkins, or mediterranean, or high-protein, or low fat diets?). But we all know crap when we see/taste it, and I suspect we all know we should be avoiding it.

I’m actually not a food dieter, so it took a bit of trial end error to work out how to change my news eating habits. My findings: Start out with a fast of at least a day and up to a week. That means no mainstream corporate news/junk food at all. Not even headlines. I predict not only will you feel less depressed and annoyed, you will actually be better informed. (I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but don’t forget, you won’t be under the misapprehension that the most important issue facing humanity/Aotearoa NZ society is All Black sex.) After the fasting period, slowly introduce the healthy stuff – longform, serious, non-clickbait content that has some substance to it, and books. And, yes, if you relapse and find yourself clicking on that sugary shit, you must atone by consuming something serious. And, yes, you should feel guilty, as guilty as if you’d scarfed down a giant bottle of fizzy drink. (If you fall off the wagon, another quick fast should get you back on track.)

I think you’ll find that almost nothing of what our for-profit media are pumping out is stuff you need to know. Which brings me to a premature conclusion from having not quite finished Don’t Dream It’s Over: People, it already is over. Time to put them out of their misery, because as with sugar, they’re doing us way more harm than good.

Fighting to Choose: All the Reviews

I’ve pretty much recovered from the 2013 Prochoice Highway tour, phew! And all the reviews my book, Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand, is going to get are probably in, so FIghting to choose picI thought I’d close out  posts about the book with the complete (so far as I know) list of and links to all the reviews, starting with the most recent (and most negative), in the Listener. (Must say, I was pretty pleased to get a review there, bad or not! And, see, I am resisting  carping about it…just!)


Political Science (66) 1, 2014. (links to pdf) Reviewed by Jennifer Curtin.

January 18, 2014, Listener, (links to pdf) Reviewed by Rosemary McLeod (There were a couple of follow-up letters that took issue with Rosemary’s review.)

Redline: Contemporary Marxist Analysis. 4 December 2013. Reviewed by Daphna Whitmore

Women’s Studies Journal (NZ), 2013, 27:1. (Links to pdf) Reviewed by Linda Bryder.

October 2013, Pacific Journalism Review, 19 (2), (Links to pdf) Old Abortion Law Still Holds Sway, Reviewed by Sue Kedgley.

October 19, Otago Daily Times:  Abortion Rights Struggle Makes Compelling Read, by Elspeth McLean

September 2013:  (links to pdf) Journal of Primary Healthcare, Vol 5, No 3, Sept 2013, by Dr. Carol Shand

August 16: Online in the Nelson Mail, by Sarah Dunn.

July 2. Scoop Review of Books, by Megan Whelan

June 25. The International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, by Shomi Yoon.

May 23. At the Booksellers New Zealand Blog, by Nikki Whyte.

May 9. At Ideologically Impure, by Queen of Thorns.

Prochoice Highway

Busy-ness with the Prochoice Highway.  To keep track, that site is probably better than this one until the end of November. Yes, it’s the book and info tour of Aotearoa NZ which officially kicks off on 15 September. Eeeek, too soon. I haven’t even packed!

Meanwhile, I did read some more rather neat books in translation, which I reviewed for The New York Times.

Normal transmission will resume.. probably in 2014. But if you want to get regular updates from the tour, click here and sign up.

Auckland Book Launch

The Auckland launch of Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand on 24 July was rather a lot of fun, and I’m very grateful to everyone who helped make it happen, especially Linda at the Gus Fisher Gallery, Laila Harré (who gave a most generous speech!), the women of WONAAC (the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign), ALRANZ, the Auckland Medical Aid Trust, Carole and Tanya of The Women’s Bookshop, Victoria University Press, Auckland Pro-Choice People, and of course everyone who came along. I had a seriously good time, and the collection of Double Standards were popular, with a few of the young feminists suggesting it be revived. Go for it!

The good and bad news was that we ran out of books, which was entirely my bad because I’d promised to take a supply of extras but didn’t quite have enough. Sorry Carole! But we did not run out of wine, and that’s probably more important.

Egging Me On

After campus security learned that a dozen eggs had been thrown at the Gus Fisher Gallery’s door the night before (an unprecedented occurrence so…draw your own conclusions), they posted a couple of guards outside. The best comment about the egging came from a friend in Tauranga, who’s something of an animal rights activist (besides being pro-choice of course): “I hope they were free range”, she said, followed by “what a waste”. Precisely.

Here are a couple of pix from the event, but please hop over to the Prochoice Highway site to stay up to date with the tour, which starts in September. (Same photos over there, I’m afraid. We didn’t enlist enough amateur photogs…)

Part of the display table at the Auckland launch, showing The Yellow Rabbit, and the 1980 Xmas Crossword special edition of The Double Standard.

Part of the display table at the Auckland launch, showing The Yellow Rabbit, and the 1980 Xmas Crossword special edition of The Double Standard.

Laila Harré speaking at the Auckland launch.

Laila Harré speaking at the Auckland launch.

Book Update: Events, Reviews

cover-jpeg-mediumThis is the year of the book for me, and it really hits high speed in September when the Prochoice Highway takes to the road. In the meantime, there are a few book related events percolating over the winter, and the list is kept up-to-date over at the Highway’s events page. Here’s the latest rundown:

27 June 2013: Alison McCulloch and Morgan Healey will speak at the Wellington Rape Crisis AGM. (Not a public event.)

24 July 2013: Auckland launch of Fighting to Choose. 5:30 p.m., Gus Fisher Gallery, Shortland St, central Auckland.

26-27 July 2013: An ALRANZ/Highway book and info stall at the CTU Women’s Conference in Wellington.

29 July-2 August 2013: Otago University Students’ Association Women’s Week. Details TBA.

23-25 August 2013: A Highway book and info stall at Labour Women’s Conference: Community Building Project, Onehunga, Auckland.

25 August 2013: Ladies’ Litera-Tea. From 1-5 p.m. Auckland. Details TBA.



January 18, 2014, Listener, Reviewed by Rosemary McLeod

Women’s Studies Journal (NZ), 2013, 27:1. (Links to a PDF) Reviewed by Linda Bryder.

October 19, Otago Daily Times:  Abortion Rights Struggle Makes Compelling Read, by Elspeth McLean

September 2013:  (links to pdf) Journal of Primary Healthcare, Vol 5, No 3, Sept 2013, by Dr. Carol Shand

August 16: Online in the Nelson Mail, by Sarah Dunn.

July 2. Scoop Review of Books, by Megan Whelan

June 25. The International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, by Shomi Yoon.

May 23. At the Booksellers New Zealand Blog, by Nikki Whyte.

May 9. At the Daily Blog, by Queen of Thorns.

Cross-Post: Who Was That Woman, Anyway?

[This was originally posted on 20 May 2013 at The Hand Mirror]

It’s trite to say that books take you places. But true nonetheless. With books, you can disappear into other times, cultures, imaginary worlds. “Foreign” fiction is better than any guide-book at introducing you to a place and its people, and sometimes even better than going there if you want to see beneath the surface.

But if you live here and read enough of the stuff (say novels from the two Anglophone powerhouses – the United States and the UK-plus-Ireland) then a different feeling starts to kick in. Like what you’re getting to know is really life inside the American novel, not life inside America. At about the same point, for me anyway, “local” fiction itself starts to feel a bit foreign. Not in the way “foreign” fiction is foreign, but in the way local fiction feels rare, like something you don’t see very often. Which, when it’s good local fiction, also makes it feel precious and exciting and new.

Who was that woman imageI felt this way reading Aorewa McLeod’s new book “Who Was That Woman, Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life.” It’s a novel, yes, but as McLeod explains in the book’s front matter, it’s inspired by real life events. “Some details happened in real life, some did not,” she writes. “The characters are fictionalised and given fictional names.” The book’s 10 chapters, ordered by date, span roughly 40 years in the life of Ngaio, McLeod’s protagonist who, like the author, is an English lecturer at a university in Auckland.

The subtitle is sweet in the way it undersells the book. These are not only snapshots of a lesbian life, but of life in New Zealand, and life in Aotearoa. Snapshots of what it can be like to grow up here, and live here.

Its starting point is the 1960s with Ngaio, a university student, heading to Nelson to spend her summer break as a nurse’s aide because “an ex-schoolmate’s father was someone high up in the mental health service and he had suggested that nurse-aiding in psychiatric hospitals was a lucrative way of earning money in the holidays”. Ngaio is put in a ward with bedridden, severely disabled children. “There were enormous hydrocephalic water heads, tiny pinheads, huge slobbering mouths, bent bodies, contorted hands waving in the air, grasping blindly, clutching as if there were something to reach for. They could grip me with such desperate strength that I had to pry their fingers off. Many were blind. I couldn’t tell how old they were.” McLeod’s writing, particularly in the first half of the novel, is like that: direct and piercing.

It’s while she’s working in Nelson that Ngaio meets Suzy, her first love. Suzy is a Māori woman from a Mormon family who works as a charge nurse at the children’s ward in town. “She only goes for white girls,” a friend tells Ngaio. “All her family’s married white. That’s what the Mormons encourage them to do, to make it in the white world.” Who cares! Ngaio is in heaven. “This was it; this was what it meant to make love. This was the transformational moment of my life.”

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