Review: How Does It Hurt?

how does it hurtBooksellers NZ review blog – How Does It Hurt? by Stephanie de Montalk.

Here’s my latest review for Booksellers NZ. I felt a very deep connection with elements of this book – a memoir/essay collection/non-fiction wonderland focusing on chronic pain. Stephanie’s own experiences are at once entirely different and so very familiar to my own. Every page held a combination of new understanding of both the experiences of others and how to put into words my own experiences.

I fought the urge to make the review entirely third person without my own involvement, because it’s the sort of book that you are automatically involved in, whether you yourself have experienced pain of this sort or not. It’s informative where it’s not relatable. It’s a book that could play an important role in the understand the experience of others. It’s just a damn good book, too.

Here’s the first snippet.

A review should, as a rule, be an impersonal thing. But occasionally a book falls into your hands that resounds with you in such a tortuously familiar way that it’s impossible not to feel your own related experiences playing in the background as your read. With that in mind, this is a review of Stephanie de Montalk’s How Does It Hurt?, my reading of which was underpinned by my own experiences with chronic pain and illness and the medical world.

The rest can be read on the Booksellers NZ blog.

I also had my latest radio review today, which I will link to when the audio clip is up. The book in question this time around was Aquarium by David Vann, and it was altogether excellent. More on that later, hopefully!

How Does It Hurt? is published by Victoria University Press with an RRP of $40 and can be purchased at all sorts of good bookstores across NZ. Like this one!

This Wellingtonian Life™ (not actually trademarked) – in which I talk about many things, including serendipity, words and coffee

Kia ora, readers!

Before I forget to mention it, I first need to mention I HAVE A REAL PROPER WEBSITE. www.rawlibrary.co.nz. Please do check it out. Rest assured, this is still where the blogging shall happen.

It has been a bit of a lull, I know – I’ve had intermittent internet coverage, and all sorts of things on my plate. But today, I have set up camp in the lovely Wellington Central Library, and am mooching off the half hour of free internet before I succumb to paying for more. February 2nd – the day I move into my flat – cannot come soon enough. Nice view here, though.

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So, This Wellingtonian Life™. I’ll be more attached to it once I have an actual room to call my own, and can access my books and external hard drive (foolishly packed into my storage stuff – I’m down to GoT, Sherlock and Hannibal on my laptop), but despite the wind attempting to carry me away, or at the very least, making me regret wearing sandals and/or full skirts, it is still proving most delightful.

Let’s have a bit of a photo introduction, shall we? All of these, and more, can be trawled through on my Instagram account.

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Not the warmest of welcomes. Wellington is one of those places that, I was already most aware, the beautiful days are virtually beyond compare, but the rest of them… a little more grim. Still, good to arrive without any delusions as to what I was coming to, right?

Day One (first full day – let’s call that grim rainy day Day Zero, since I only arrived part way through the day) was beautiful, and busy. I introduced my mother to Wholly Bagels* (delicious) and positioned myself in front of the Doctor Who lifts in the James Smith building, as evidence below shows.

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This Day One was better known as The Day Of Interviews. I chatted with Wellington band City Oh Sigh for my next NZ Musician piece, while consuming coffee #2 of the day. They were lovely, their music is lovely, and I will be sure to post a link here when the piece (and their album) comes out. For now, suffice it to say that the record is beautiful, and you should all listen to the first single, Sometimes.

After Interview #1 came #2 (which was really more of a chat, but still. It fits with the feeling of the day), with the lovely Kelly of the NZ Festival team. Care for a story of serendipity? Let me tell ya…

ImageIt all starts with Neko Case.

I fired up my laptop once I got back to the motel after some wandering in search of food on Day Zero. Opened Twitter, and saw the most recent post was a competition question from the NZ Festival feed, to win the new Neko Case CD. Well, I like Neko Case, I thought to myself, and it’s just been posted, so I have a chance, wahoo! The question was regarding how many days until the festival started, and I knew that it begins the same day as my course, so it was easy peasy. I replied, got in first, won the CD. Emailed Kelly to ask if I could collect it rather than have it sent out, since I was yet to be at my official address. All fine and dandy, I arranged to pop into the St James Theatre sometime in the next few days to collect it.

Then I had an email from Kelly the next day, while I was on my way to meet up with City Oh Sigh, asking if we could perhaps grab coffee because she had checked out my blog and had a couple of projects she’s like to chat to me about.

First real day in Wellington, people, and I felt like I was being hit with the WTF-IS-GOING-ON-THIS-DOESN’T-HAPPEN stick. Someone with pulling power reading this here blog, and having it actually lead to something?

So I turned up to the St James, met up with Kelly for Coffee #3 of the day, at Jimmy’s in the lobby of the theatre. Turns out she’s been looking for a book-blogger-type to do some write-ups of NZ Fest Writers Week events. And she saw this here blog linked from my Twitter after I won the CD. And the stars seemed to align, on some level. So I said yes, of course. And will be going to the Writers Week launch (where all of the guests will be announced) this week. The likes of Alison Bechdel, Tom Keneally, Jung Chang and Elizabeth Gilbert have already been announced, so no matter what it is going to be pretty damn excellent.

So thanks, Neko Case, you’re a fricking pal.

But I digress. Interview #3 of the day was yet to come – the most important, ultimately, because it was with Unity Books, for a part time job. And as much as I love writing about music and books and everything of that nature, at this point in time it doesn’t exactly pay the bills. Unity is basically the indie bookseller dream – and I had fortuitous timing indeed. I sipped water from a champagne flute while harping on about Margaret Atwood and Iain Banks and my finally having read Gatsby and all that jazz. And I guess I did something right (well, admittedly, I do have a fair foundation in bookshops), because to days later I had the call to say ‘you’re our gal’ – well, in different words, but still.

So naturally, I had to reward myself with book related paraphernalia. Found at Rex Royale on Cuba Mall. ❤

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Since then, my days have been filled with riveting stuff like buying towels and leggings, and going to see Catching Fire again. Though there have been higher points, like playing Cluedo and Alhambra with some old friends and new ones way out in the Hutt. That’s where I ‘befriended’ this Bird Of Many Names (so we will just call him Bird). I quickly became mortal enemies with him after realising that I had managed to get bird poo on my t-shirt and jeans. We had a moment, though.

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Other exploits have included many coffees, market-wandering and harbour-view-appreciating. Here are a few more pictures to tide you over, until the next installment of This Wellingtonian Life.

ImageGorgeous if a little Other-Mother-esque Katherine Mansfield sculpture on Lambton Quay.

ImageNew library card. A sign of true belonging.

ImageRagtime piano playing on the waterfront.

ImageWise words from Vincent O’Sullivan.

À bientôt, mes amis!

* I will be lining up a bunch of cafe/restaurant reviews to post in the coming days, just to keep things going here even if I’m not constantly plugged in. Watch this space.

an update… from reasonably near eketahuna

Well, my dears, I know that I haven’t been terribly good at updating now that my official project is done, but there are reviews in the works (recently finished The Great Gatsby, finally, and just read The Wasp Factory,  which was both highly disturbing and excellent all at once. Currently reading The Metamorphosis, among other things.

Life has been getting in the way of posting,  though. Finishing at work (scary!), organising a Wellington flat and part time job – and the last couple of days, actually driving down from Auckland. If you know much about NZ geography and current events, however… it means that I am currently in Palmerston North… the closest city to the earthquake epicentre yesterday. The biggest/only earthquake I’ve ever felt was about a 2.0 in Auckland (where we have a bunch of dormant/extinct volcanoes, but little current geological activity). Which felt like a big truck rumble.

Yesterday was a 6.2. Holy mother of God. I have not been that scared… possibly ever. It just kept going and going. Nothing even fell over where we were (motel rooms are mercifully fairly bare when it comes to furnishing!) but it was violent as hell and the ground swayed for some time after. And then the worry of aftershocks keeping one constantly on edge.

Not the best fun. And in the immediate aftermath is the terrifying moment where you wonder where it was centered – if it was this strong here, was it right near us? Or was it something insanely big down in Wellington? Knowing as we do in NZ the destruction that can come with large quakes – hell, yesterday’s quake was basically the same magnitude as the catastrophic February 2011 one in Christchurch (though that was much shallower and therefore more horrendously damaging) – I had a moment of wondering will I have a flat to move to?

Basically, I don’t recommend. Suffice to say I will be prepping an emergency kiy as soon as I’m in my new place. Stay safe, and keep reading, people!

‘the fall of light’ and other things by sarah laing

As per my earlier The Luminaries review, this review was catalysed by my writing a review for our work website. It’s still in the works (I’m not so good at the concise two paragraph type set-up that our space constraints require) so here is my more verbose, more ‘just keep typing, it’ll make sense in the end’ review of Sarah Laing’s fantastic The Fall of Light.

the fall of light

I can’t decide if it’s a fantastic or tough year to be a New Zealand writer. I suspect it’s a bit of both, for many – the Eleanor Catton effect has to be a tricky beast. There’s got to be an afterglow on the entire book industry locally – but it also has to be a bit daunting, being shelved alongside the newly christened Booker winner.

That being said, as a book industry person and writer of words myself, I feel very much compelled to call attention to other fantastic kiwi releases of the last few months. Sarah Laing’s The Fall of Light is among my favourite reads of the year, and generally I like to think that’s fairly high praise coming from a bookseller. Laing initially entered the spotlight the same way that Eleanor Catton did – winning the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition (one of the two biggest short story competitions in the country, certainly the one with the highest circulation of the winning stories).

Laing won in 2006, and at the 2007 award ceremony (where Catton took away top honours and yours truly came second in the secondary schools division), everyone took home a copy of her debut publication, Coming up Roses, a short story collection full of delicious tidbits. I won’t say too much on that title, since it’s been a while since I’ve read it and I don’t want to do it a disservice by being unable to pinpoint the exact bits of magic, but it’s an excellent collection, that much I can say confidently.

2009, and her first novel was released. Dead People’s Music was my favourite book of 2009, I think, and that’s some stiff competition – The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood came out that year too, but the pages of Dead People’s Music are far more well-thumbed. The book is the story of Rebecca, a Wellingtonian avant-garde cellist and her exploits as a newly arrived New Yorker – along with two other parallel storylines of Rebecca’s earlier teenage years, and the Germany-to-New York-to-the Wairarapa saga of her late grandmother, fellow cellist Klara. I adore the book. Coloured perhaps by timing – I’d only recently returned from my North American adventures when it came out, capped off by nearly three months in New York – but even upon re-reads, when the experience and parallels aren’t so fresh in my mind, it’s a wonderful read, beautifully written and constantly engaging, with the changes between main characters and temporal periods keeping things fresh chapter to chapter.

But I’m getting off topic here. Earlier in the year, I discovered that Laing had a new novel coming out. Regular blog readers may recall that I’ve mentioned it on my ‘Magnificent Winter of Books’ posts – it was the last one I discovered, and the first one that I had the pleasure of reading, with the Random House reps being particularly wonderful with the AR copies for booksellers. So it was with great delight that I read The Fall of Light over Queens Birthday weekend (this review is SO overdue), AKA Briar’s birthday weekend – and what a wonderful present it was.

Rudy is the protagonist, and I have to say always impressed when an author gets in the head of the other gender in a convincing fashion. Obviously I’m speaking with feminine bias here, but I thought that his portrayal was top-notch. According to Laing herself, she did get her husband to consult on occasion, with him confirmed that yep, this sounds like a male voice, so evidently the approval comes from across the board. With the setting being Auckland, there was even more familiarity in the settings than in Dead People’s Music – quite jarring at times, when you read about someone going for coffee at Dizengoff, when you’re sitting just down the road! Not to mention the family home itself, location never explicitly specified, but I always sort of superimposed my dad’s house over the top (big, somewhat architectural, immersed in Waitakere bush), and with Sarah herself telling the gathered fans (yours truly included) at an authorly interaction/wine/nibbles evening last week that she’d based the location on Huia, I felt somewhat justified in my imaginings. Apologies to all non-Aucklanders, the past couple of sentences probably meant absolutely nothing. Suffice it to say, there are shades of home all over the book.

As with all of her writing, the conjuring of people and places is wonderful, and she is one of those wonderful authors who makes the somewhat ordinary (in this case, in the vein of suburban tragedy, a man nearing middle age losing his job, with his wife having left him, taking their daughters with her) – which is one of my favourite writerly talents. Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-executed plot-driven masterwork as much as the next person (haven’t I waxed lyrical about The Luminaries and Margaret Atwood enough?) but I also love stories that come to me relatively simple and perfectly formed, like a continuation of what makes a good short story. Some authors make the transition with varying degrees of success – I have many feelings about certain authors’ novels as versus their short stories, but that’s another post for another occasion – but she does it perfectly.

image originally at http://booknotes-unbound.org.nz/sarah-laings-the-fall-of-light/
image originally at http://booknotes-unbound.org.nz/sarah-laings-the-fall-of-light/

One particularly magical thing about Sarah Laing is that in addition to being a fabulous writer, she is also a graphic artist, and is behind the design of all three of her books’ covers (don’t quote me on that, but I believe that it’s true?). But TFoL is even more special – the book also contains gorgeous black and white ink-wash illustrations throughout, which add a whole other layer to the story and the reading experience, portraying Rudy’s near-death-experience influenced dream sequences. When I first read the book, I was so plot-hungry that I did somewhat skim over the images, apart from appreciating their gorgeous execution – but having had a more in-depth explanation from Sarah herself the aforementioned writer evening thing, I feel compelled to go back and examine the pictures more thoroughly in the context of both the book and what she’s described

I’ll probably post a link to my ‘official’ review when it goes up, but in the meantime, I urge all you folk to go get your hands on a copy now – it’s a lurverly trade/C format (unlike her earlier two which were released straight to B format but beautifully designed nonetheless), with pretty foldy bits and all that jazz. I generally far prefer a nice TPB to a HB, and this is no exception (can you see my book nerd showing?) – get it! And more than any other novel I’ve read recently, I seriously do beseech you to get a real copy rather than the ebook, because your Kindle/Kobo/Sony/whatever just won’t do the illustrations justice.

I also feel the need to mention her comics – I thoroughly recommend checking out her Let Me Be Frank quartet, which you can (I think) find out more about over at her wordpress blog – also entitled Let Me Be Frank. I picked up #3 and #4 at the soiree thing last week, and they are both fantastic. Enough to make me seriously think about buying Metro magazine a lot more often, in part just for the comics… hop to it, and investigate it yourselves. Her next publication is, all going to plan, a graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield and herself, and having seen a few initial sketches and draft panels, I’m very excited. I mean, it’s basically a law to be a Mansfield fan as a Kiwi writer, so I’m just living up to my expectations, right? Right?

a toast to ellie catton – darling of the writing world, NZ literary superhero

I originally posted this on my Raw Library FB page (go like it now, you crazy cats!), but the sentiment must be shared over the whole internet! The rejoicing in NZ bookstores today was ridiculous.

In super exciting book world news (and if you’ve been living in a news media free world for the past 11 hours), Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries! This is super exciting, for several reasons beyond the fact that it’s one of the biggest deals in the literary world – she’s a) the youngest author EVER to win b) it’s the longest novel ever to win, and c) she’s only the second Kiwi to win. And combining points a) and c), last time it was won by a NZer, it was Keri Hulme (The Bone People) – in 1985, the same year Catton was born.

It’s really a spectacular book – my review obviously supports my opinion – but I’d also recommend checking out her earlier work. The Rehearsal, her first novel, is among my favourite books of all time – I would say that it’s probably my overall favourite ‘contemporary fiction’ book. But even further back then that, her short stories are all fabulous. And here’s where Briar connections come in! Catton’s story Necropolis won the 2007 Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition (for non-lit-obsessed types/non-Kiwis, it’s one of the two biggest short story competitions in the country) – coincidentally the same year that I can second in the secondary schools division. I congratulated her, and she me, and it was a splendid evening. Here’s hoping I can yet emulate but a fraction of her success. Go read Necropolis!

‘the luminaries’ by eleanor catton

***UPDATE! As those of you with your fingers on the literary pulse will likely already know, Eleanor Catton has taken home this year’s Man Booker Prize, which is a ridiculously huge honour, and all of the NZ literary community is pretty much on cloud nine. Either way, if you’re unsure about whether you want to undertake the massive read that is The Luminaries, then hopefully my review below may sway you.***

Front page review of The Luminaries by yours truly on the University Bookshop Ltd (aka the biggest academic bookshop presence in New Zealand) website! AKA my workplace, but still… We’ve only just instated these online staff pick reviews, and I was first pick, so that’s quite satisfying! Read on – and seriously consider buying a copy. The trade paperback is lovely, but the hardback is absolutely gorgeous, and worthy of the splurge, I feel. I’ve mentioned this book a couple of times before, so some points may sound familiar.

Anyway, it reads as follows –

The word Dickensian has been thrown around with regard to Eleanor Catton’s sophomore release, The Luminaries, and it’s certainly got the Victorian grittiness – and impressive page count – that one would expect from any decent Dickens novel. But it’s so much more than that. Catton may only be in her late twenties, but her ability to enter into the minds of the multitude of key characters – almost all male, from all kinds of ethnic, social and moral backgrounds – is staggering. The descriptions of Hokitika and the surrounding lands are beautifully evocative, the constant presence at the beginning of chapters of an omniscient narrator feels like a reassuring indicator that the mysteries will all unfold. And Catton’s ability to stick to period style writing and editing in a completely believable fashion is ‘d—ned’ impressive.

Despite the book’s length, you are drawn into the various mysteries at hand almost immediately, and between the evocative writing and the constant unraveling of the mysterious strands of stories, it’s thoroughly unputdownable. It’s a historical novel, a mystery, with a touch of the fantastical (the omnipresent references to the zodiac) – all by a young contemporary New Zealand author, whose future works will have the world’s attention. Highly, highly recommended.

The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.
The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.

To further elaborate – I was constrained by word/space requirements, naturally – I was overall a big fan of the book. That being said, I do think that I preferred The Rehearsal to The Luminaries – and perhaps that’s just my genre preferences coming through, not to mention 300 and something pages verses over 800 – but given that The Rehearsal is possibly my favourite conventional ‘contemporary fiction’ book, that’s a difficult honour to top. So many authors these days are either good story makers or good writers (especially the former) – but not necessarily both. Eleanor Catton is, most assuredly, both of these things. There’s always a storyline to weave the beautiful language around, rather than just to exist for beautiful language’s sake (for which there is a time and a place, but I’d argue that’s something that should generally be reserved for poetry and short prose rather than a fully fledged novel).

Back to the story itself though – one of my favourite aspects of the novel, beyond the overarching story and the writing, was the character development. No character was truly left unexplored – and virtually every man and woman had some varied shades of morality in them – except, perhaps, for the villainous Francis Carver, who was pretty much straight up nasty.

Having visited the West Coast – though not for at least a decade (being able to write that makes me feel so very old) – I am somewhat familiar with the environment being written about, particularly since we had a family jaunt to ‘Shantytown’, a West Coast tourist attraction that is set up like a 19th century gold mining town that’s about half an hour up the coast from Hokitika. But even without that experience, I love the way Catton conjures up the ramshackle, wild environment that these people were living in. It’s known as a bit of a grim, rainy place, rough of weather and of sea, and there’s certainly no lack of that feeling in the book.

The integration of astrology into the book is an interesting element that I feel is reason enough alone for a re-read – I sort of want to work my way through it slowly with some sort of reference book or Wikipedia open to sort out what all the references mean – and I know I’m not alone with that sentiment. As with many books of its girth, the initial read through is all too skimmed through in parts, as there’s just so much to get through – particularly when there is mystery involved. To explicitly have something like the astrological connections fuels the desire to reread and absorb more to an even greater extent than usual, because it does feel as if a whole other layer of meaning may have been lost to the layperson reader.
Overall, it’s truly a triumph – so get your greedy book-fiend paws on a copy now. I really do recommend getting a physical copy, it’s so satisfying and gorgeous (did I mention the beauty of the end papers in the hardback?? they are stunning – at least in the NZ version by Victoria University Press, I’ve no idea what the Granta or Little, Brown ones are like I’m afraid) but it is available in ebook format too – meBooks is a great source for NZ ebooks, with both epub and Kindle formats available. Physical copies are available through all regular retailers – UBS, obviously, as linked at the beginning, but if you’re overseas, try below at Indie Bound to support independent bookshops! Or, if you’re super attached to Amazon, then you can get it there too.


The Luminaries

At the time of writing this, we are two days out from the final Booker prize announcement, and Catton is the favourite of some sources. I’ll be sure to update with the details – even if she doesn’t take home the prize this year, to be nominated at such a young age (born in 1985!) is a coup in itself. And there will hopefully be many more thought-provoking and superbly executed books where this one came from.

“do your research” – a riesling-fuelled rage against an xojane.com article

Let me preface this piece by saying that I’ve had quite a bit of wine, so if I get shouty (well, internet-shouty), forgive me. But this… this really ground my gears.

So, most of the time my 365 piece posts are poetry or prose, and I occasionally sprinkle in health or book related posts, but rarely count them towards my 365 total. Today I make an exception, because I’ve had this post simmering inside me ever since I read this particular article on xojane.com this morning.

If You Are Fat, New Zealand Doesn’t Want You.

Continue reading “do your research” – a riesling-fuelled rage against an xojane.com article