The baby seal book club

Sarah Dunn is a book nerd so that you don’t have to be. A voracious reader who also writes, she’ll provide you with weekly blog posts about popular literature. No seals were harmed in the making of the above pun.

Advice columns: Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things

05:00am 17 Apr 2014

SARAH DUNN

I first discovered Cheryl Strayed when I was on the night shift.

During journalism school, I worked part-time for a company which was contracted by the state to send care workers to elderly and disabled people. My job was to man the phones after everyone else had gone home.

Most of the time, nobody called and I got to use their office supplies to work on my assignments, but if the phone did ring, I could be dealing with just about anything. One elderly dementia patient would regularly call up and sob down the phone about a child she had lost many years ago. I thought her medication had been adjusted after she stopped quite abruptly, but it turned out she had simply redirected her attention to Telecom's customer services line.

I found this out when their manager called and asked us to make her stop as his staff were getting upset.

Another patient was so challenging that only a few care workers were prepared to visit him, so setting his rosters was a nightmare. We would have friendly talks about this - "You were very rude to that lady. I can't keep finding people to look after you if you chase them all away," - and he would apologise, but he always went back to his old ways.

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Love for animals: A New Zealand Book of Beasts

05:00am 04 Apr 2014

SARAH DUNN

My father is a vet, and until I got old enough to start failing at maths and physics, I thought I would be one too.

Wearing a pair of tiny khaki vet's overalls and a miniature stethoscope around my neck, I would come with Dad on every call I could - not just cute jobs like immunisations for puppies, but dehorning procedures, TB testing, visits to battery pig farms, equine limb abrasions and even emergency bovine caesarean sections.

To this day, I have a tolerance for gore that's never yet been equalled, and I know just how to find and hold up the right vein in a cat's paw for injection.

It's amazing how many people harbour dreams of working with animals - despite all the messy bits, I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't made little sighs of longing when I tell these stories. 

Auckland University Press' new A New Zealand Book of Beasts explores the cultural context behind the way we think about animals in New Zealand.

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Inclusions: Poetry of discovery and mana

05:00am 22 Mar 2014

SARAH DUNN

The package containing Caoilinn Hughes' Gathering Evidence arrived on my desk at the same time as one from Customs New Zealand. I don't believe in signs, but it still seemed strangely appropriate that I'd get a new passport and such an adventurous poetry book at the same time.

Hughes moved from Ireland to New Zealand after gaining BA and MA degrees in Belfast. Before venturing into creative writing, she worked for Google and ran a small business.

Her debut collection is loosely arranged around the idea of discovery, both in a scientific sense and otherwise.

It starts with an avalanche, and carries on from there to cover Hughes' fear of dogs; encounters with strangers in several different cities; travels in South America and more.

Hughes is highly detail-focused, zeroing in on peculiarities of speech, technical terms and background knowledge to illustrate the broader shapes of her poems.

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Precious creatures: A baby book and a bird book

05:00am 28 Feb 2014

SARAH DUNN

I'm the last person who would think to pick up a book about babies, but such is the appeal of Toby Morris' new graphic novel Don't Puke on Your Dad that I liked it anyway.

At this early stage of life, I tend to regard babies in the same way as very expensive pieces of ceramic artwork - they're lovely, but not for me, and it's probably safest if I don't pick them up.

The first few pages of Morris' book deal with similarly wary feelings on his part: "One night early on in the pregnancy I arrived home drunk to find the entry to our tiny apartment blocked by a hulking great new pram. I owned a pram! Me!"

The book doubles as a kind of diary and sketchbook, using cartoons and short snippets of text to share Morris' feelings about the birth and growth of his son, Max.

Max is exhaustively chronicled month by month over the first year, and Morris faithfully allows his style to evolve as his son's features and body change. There's a summary at the end of each chapter which includes a portrait, a list of all the new things Max has learned - "Reaching out and grabbing things,"; "Smiling a lot. Likes a tickle," - plus a note of what kind of music he prefers at the time, his weight and measurements.

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Dizzy heights: Creative writing meets structural engineering

05:00am 21 Feb 2014

SARAH DUNN

In geometry, a locus is a set of points which are determined by one or more specified conditions. A good example is a circle – think of its circumference as a locus resulting from the condition is that all the points need to be equidistant from a single point.

In Pip Adams’ newest book I’m Working on a Building, the condition is that each chapter needs to contribute to an understanding of a character named Catherine, and the locus is the shape of the book. Beyond this, it gets harder to explain.

I’m Working on a Building began as the creative component of Adams’ PhD, which asked “In what ways can the language of structural engineering inform, alter and enlarge fiction?”

Catherine is an engineer who specialises in building large structures and sabotaging relationships. The chapters intersect in random order at different points of her life, finding her working in shiny offices in Wellington; overseeing project in North Korea; living with her husband in Christchurch, and hiding in squats as a drug-addicted young teenager.

Part of the story deals with Catherine’s involvement with the misguided construction of a replica of the world’s tallest tower, the Burj al Khalifa, on New Zealand’s West Coast. Other sections cover her escape from a serious earthquake in Wellington. Quite a lot of the story doesn’t mention her at all.

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