Fore-Side Chats: January’s Reading Catch-Up
One way I’ll be using this space is to have a chat to you about the books I’ve read across the span of the previous month. Check in for updates on the first Thursday of every month; the first of this series will up on June 2, with a backwards look at what I read during the month of May. Until then, I thought it might be useful to catch you up on what I’ve already read this year.
Here’s a look at what I read in January:
1. Crow – Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber 1970)
I mostly read this book on New Year’s Day while sitting in the living room of my parents’ home in Baltimore. Their living room is one of those places where people don’t generally go to do any actual living; there is a salmon-colored sofa set and a grandfather clock that chimes every 15 minutes. It’s bleak. Crow is bleak. I picked it up primarily because I wanted to read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, which is kind of a modern response to Crow, or at least Max Porter uses Hughes’ character of Crow as a device in his own book as well. I also hadn’t read any Ted Hughes. I would recommend reading Crow before Grief, but maybe not back to back like I did. I would also recommend reading it if you’re into Sylvia Plath but haven’t read any of her odd little husband’s work yet.
2. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter (Faber & Faber 2015)
At the end of last year and beginning of 2016, this book seemed to be everywhere at once. It made the rounds on BookTube* and was also getting read widely amongst my bookseller friends back in New Zealand. I’m glad I read it, though it was a kind of morose way to start the year off. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bit of memoir and also an ‘experimental novella in verse’, which right off the bat reminded me of one of my favorite books, Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart. It didn’t really do enough weird stuff to feel all that experimental for me, though I know the verse aspect really knocked some people’s socks off. Read this if you’re geeky about Ted Hughes, or if you like a good cry. The title is, inexplicably, a play on the title of an Emily Dickinson poem. So there’s that, too.
3. The Vintner’s Luck – Elizabeth Knox (VUP 1998)
Elizabeth Knox is a huge deal in New Zealand, and The Vintner’s Luck won several book awards and was long-listed for 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). Before The Vintner’s Luck, I’d only read Wake, her most recent novel, a during-and-post-apocalyptic zombie-style novel set in a small seaside town in New Zealand’s South Island. It is chilling and wonderful and easily one of my favorite books for adults. It is fabulist in the sense of ‘quiet atmospheric horror’, and I’ve searched to find that same sensation in other books. When my partner, Jackson Nieuwland, pitched The Vintner’s Luck to me as a novel about a homosexual relationship between a human man and an angel, set on a vineyard in France I was tbh not very interested. Thankfully, people continued to recommend it to me (and it also helped that I found a copy for virtually $1 in an op shop). All I’ll say is Xas is not a normal angel and this book is really sexy and also fabulist and while it’s not very horrifying it’s quiet and atmospheric and a lot darker than it sounds.
4. Graft – Helen Heath (VUP 2012)
One thing I did recently was in December of 2015 I moved from Wellington in New Zealand back to the United States with Jackson. While we were cleaning out our bookshelves, we decided we couldn’t ship a million books to the States for one year. We were each allowed one stack of unread books for personal consumption and one shared stack of unread books. Please feel free to marvel at our restraint. Anyway, at this point in the year I was working exclusively from my personal stack. Graft is an unusual book, being the only volume of poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize. I love learning about science and I love making poetry and the poems in this book are a great combination of two things I strive for in my own writing. I learned a lot from reading Graft. The only thing that still sends me into fits is I thought I’d earmarked a specific line for epigraph usage, but I’ve been back through the collection searching for it about a dozen times and I haven’t found it. Also, there is this great review from ya girl Hera Lindsay Bird.
5. Dear Sweet Harry – Lynn Jenner (AUP 2010)
This is a poetry book about Harry Houdini, Mata Hari, and Jenner’s own family history. Like Graft, it is a distinctively New Zealand work that deserves wider international readership. I was able to catch Jenner in a panel back in October alongside several other Kiwi poets I admire, including Nina Powles and Helen Rickerby, talking about, of all things, the pinkness of their book covers. While the general vibe of the panel was taking back the pink cover as a source of empowerment and a feminist act, Jenner played down what I see as quite an obviously pink undertone in her book covers, opting to open up more about the pink light pervading Dear Sweet Harry. Jenner talks often about this glow or even sparks of pink light that appear to her when she’s onto a subject, and it’s really fascinating. No surprises her blog is pinklight.nz.
6. Genealogy – Maud Casey (Harper Perennial 2006)
Maud Casey is a Dream Human and I can’t believe anyone let me study with her for two years. (She teaches at the University of Maryland, where she is obviously undervalued for her genius because there is no place on Earth where I can imagine her talent would be properly put on display. Besides perhaps in her own books, which, is that a place on Earth? Debatable.) Maud introduced me to Barbara Comyns and Kathryn Davis and the wider world of Shirley Jackson beyond “The Lottery”. Like I said, Dream Human. I, on the other hand, am a Flawed Human who tends to jump directly into new things without researching them or doing any proper study of them before I go, so I did not read all of Maud’s books before taking on an MFA with her. This is something I’m retroactively working to correct. As I’d actually managed to read Drastic (short stories) a long while ago and her latest novel, The Man Who Walked Away, in early 2015, Genealogy came along with me back to the States. Genealogy is more quietly strange than her latest, as it’s grounded in a family and is more obviously literary fiction. But there’s nothing boring about Maud’s prose, which is all her own and always curious, always inventive.
7. Tampion – Ali Pinkney (Metatron 2014)
You have a copy of this book already, right? Because Tampion, along with a lot of other great reads from Metatron, is (at least currently) out of stock. I picked up this title as part of an earlier edition of their The Female Perspective bundle, an easy choice at CAD$40 for 5 (even easier now, as they’ve knocked a further 10 bucks off the current bundle). I’d read the other titles in my bundle (A Little Death Around the Heart, A Work No One Told You About, Interviews, and I Am Here) and had started Tampion last year but somehow put it down before finishing it. All of the books here are just beautiful, and I’m so glad to have re-read and properly finished Tampion now. Reading through Metatron’s catalogue makes me want to move to Canada and join a girl gang, though I’m not at all convinced I’d be let into any.
8. The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend – Dan Santat (Little, Brown Books 2014)
This one was a pretty random read for me. It’s a children’s book and I think it must have been hyped on BookTube because Jackson gave it to me on my birthday and we read it together. I really love children’s books like Duck, Death and the Tulip, which is a heartbreaking, gorgeously drawn and written book by German author Wolf Erlbruch. Beekle was not the right book for me. The story is fairly wonderful albeit saccharine, but the style of the illustration seemed pretty half-assed to me. There’s a lot better out there.
9. One Human in Height – Rachel O’Neill (Hue & Cry Press 2013)
Rachel O’Neill’s debut poetry collection One Human in Height is unreal. She’s one of the few people I know who can weave politics into poetry without making me sick. She’s also scary good at dipping a brush into such disparate topics as fairy tale, space, and ghosts and having them all come out more human than her most human of poems. Favorites of mine include “Something orange in the forest”, “Students of Galaxies”, which is a six-part poem, and the title poem. She’s also illustrated the collection, and does a lot more wonderful art things like this kind of graphic comic thing in the Enjoy Occasional Journal.
10. Home and Away: Travel, Place and the Cosmopolitan Art of Kushana Bush – Natalie Poland (Hocken Collections 2012)
Before leaving town I managed to see Kushana Bush’s work exhibited at the Wellington City Gallery, which featured gouaches from the Melbourne Art Fair 2014 and Nais Tambu Pepa Piksas. Highlights included “Morality Play” and “Exorcism”; lowlights included me tripping up a flight of stairs in excitement, landing several steps above on my knee in full view of an older woman who cautioned me to ‘go slowly’. Not before I got myself a copy of Home and Away, the accompaniment to All Things to All Men at the Hocken Gallery in 2012, I wouldn’t. This book is swathed in one of Kushana’s iconic patterns, the robe/kimono from her “Pieta”. Natalie Poland covers a lot in this book focusing on some of her earlier work, and while I learned a lot from one read it’s a book I will go back to again and again for insight into her methodology and practice, and just to look at the beautiful reprints of the detail in her work.
11. In Through the Earth, and Up to the Sky – Emma Ng, curator (Enjoy Public Art Gallery 2015)
I can’t explain it, I just got on an art kick in 2015. I’ve always been what you might call a fan of the visual arts, both as viewer and semi-casual participant (Studio Arts minor at uni—ha!) but in 2015 I decided to step my game up to Art Collector and Benefactor. By which I mean that between the months of October and December, I participated in a lot of things at Enjoy Gallery (including their book fair, where I sold copies of LEFT and picked up In Through the Earth, and Up to the Sky) and I bought two things from real art galleries (one of which was from Enjoy, the other was Paul Nache in Gisborne, where Jackson and I became the proud new look-afterers to an impressive painting by Valerie Bos. See: Flawed Human bit in the Genealogy chat above.)
Anyway, before my Enjoy kick started, Emma Ng curated a show that placed Caroline McQuarrie’s Homewardbounder next to Bridget Rewati’s I thought I would of climbed more mountains by now. And then she had this insane little book printed up for the show, where two staple-bound chapbooks (one with black text on black paper, one with white text on white paper) are banded together in one piece of intricately folded card. I can’t speak to the gallery show, which I missed, but the essays, prints, stills, and reflections in this unique bind up actually took my breath away. Something about caves, man.
12. Creature – Amina Cain (Dorothy 2013)
As it happens with so many of these things, how oh how has it taken me this long to read Amina Cain’s second book of short stories? Well, I’ll tell you: I have nearly all the Dorothy titles, and Creature was my sixth read from the press. At this point, I’m just trying to save them up and mete them out at appropriate intervals. But just look at that cover by Catherine Lemblé—which btw is meant to be judged for its perfection—and try to convince yourself not to read it. I may not have anything new to say about this collection that hasn’t already been said, and even if I did, I already sent my copy back to a friend in New Zealand along with her copy of Hell by Kathryn Davis. Amina doesn’t falter. Even if she did, she’d make it into something worthwhile.
*Through the hype for the Man Booker prize last year, I found BookTube and got really into watching it, specifically starting with Jen Campbell’s channel. I’m not embarrassed to say that my partner, Jackson Nieuwland, and I watch a pretty wide variety of channels on BookTube together now. Some of the books I read this year will absolutely be coming from recommendations I’ve gotten from BookTubers.
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below specifying which, and I can write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in January. And stay tuned for the next installment, my February catch-up, coming out on May 19.