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.

Words: On speech and Eimear McBride's debut novel

05:00am 14 Feb 2014


Sometimes when I interview people as a reporter, they can be quite hard to understand.

Sources can have strong accents, difficulty speaking due to neurological or physical disabilities, or they can just have complicated stories that stretch their ability to explain a narrative out loud. They can forget crucial things and remember them in the middle of digression that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, or email me a radically different version of the same story two hours after I’ve sent the piece to press. Often they are just very old, and operate on a different understanding of time to the rest of us.

Usually we will have to work together to translate the body of a source’s tale into standard news style, but only rarely is it impossible to include a person’s own words in the finished piece. Story and plot can be passed on separate to words, but words and speech convey a person’s identity in a way that nothing else can. They’re precious.

The value of self-told tales is apparent in Irish writer Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Written in a kind of stop-start mixture of short sentences, repetition and localised vernacular, her style can be hard going at times, but it adds so much depth to the experience.

Here’s the first sentence, as an example: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you.”

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Research: Fiction from Korea and Japan

05:00am 31 Jan 2014


Some people keep little black books to keep a record of all their enemies, but my notebooks are for ideas.

My favourite kind come from Japan Mart in Richmond. They have plain cardboard covers, sturdy bindings and unlined paper, which is important when you have handwriting as awful as mine.

Some of the scribblings inside them turn into news stories, while others are different:

"Get rich quick scheme #275: 'Streetwise PR!' Private PR group which writes reasonably-priced press releases on behalf of individuals who want classier complaints, letters to the editor and Stuff Nation contributions. Exclamation point in name is key."

As it turns out, this genius idea has already been well explored on the other side of the world by Korean writer Lee Ki-Ho. I’ve been trying to read more contemporary Korean and Japanese literature in anticipation of a trip to both countries later this year.

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Twinpack: New poetry by two Kiwi women

05:00am 24 Jan 2014


North Canterbury poet Bernadette Hall’s voice is strong and trustworthy. She doesn’t mess around, but nor is she harsh.

Launched in November by Victoria University Press, her new book Life and Customs is broken up into three delightfully named parts – “How lovely to see you”, “Sul: a ballet that awaits performance” and “Life & customs”.

The straightforward opacity of all three titles neatly illustrates one of the defining aspects of Hall’s work: although the language she uses is totally clear and sensible, the sentences she makes with it afford a little more mystery.

Having said that, “Sul” is exactly what it sounds like: a ballet. Told in 11 parts, it recounts the fantastical tale of a girl called Sul who runs away to live with the Ice King.
Informed by fairytale logic and Hall’s time in Antarctica, the story is richly detailed and beautiful, ripe for illustration and re-issue.

The pastoral “How lovely” and “Life & customs” sections are set in Otago. A satisfying mixed bag, they include voices from Hall’s ancestors; images gleaned from travel and from being around children; a terrifying “angel of perfection” and a few longer prose poems.

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Earthlings: An introduction to New Zealand comics

05:00am 24 Jan 2014


Adrian Kinnaird's From Earth's End is the first solid reference point to a Kiwi literary scene that can be harder to pin down than a bag of live octopuses.

Independent New Zealand comics are not exactly hard to find, but in order to get hold of the good ones you have to know where to look. Kinnaird's anthology and guide contains all of this information, as well as a truckload of luscious pictures.

My first experience of comic books came when I discovered my father's stash of vintage Mad magazines when I was 10.

Imported from America, they were mostly published between 1973-1977, and included extensive cartoon spoofs of then-current films like Planet of the Apes and A Clockwork Orange.

There was Spy versus Spy; a whole strip about the kids from Snoopy growing up, dropping acid and going to festivals together; and a series of faux certificates entitling the bearer to join the Legion of Skateboard Heroism.

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Drumroll: The year's best and worst reads.

05:00am 13 Dec 2013


There's been an amazing crop of books come through this year, particularly in the field of poetry. I've managed to cover most of my favourites in this column - Sarah Broom's poetry collection Gleam and Elizabeth Knox's latest novel Wake stand out as the best - but I thought I'd round the year off by mentioning some of the best extras that didn't make it into full reviews of their own.

I've also included some of the worst books to cross my path this year. Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton published an excellent essay on elitism and the psychology of negative reviews through Metro this week, saying most one-star reviews on websites like Amazon and Goodreads boil down to three key complaints. These are: the book was confusing; the book was boring, or the book was badly written.

She expands further.

"'Confusing', 'boring' and 'bad' are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter - the job of criticism - such "reviews" only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place."

For the most part, I agree with her. Most of the time when I dislike a book, the core problem is that the author is writing for a specific audience which just doesn't include me.

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