A biochemistry student’s experiences of life as a gay, black man captured over one weekend
✚ “What started off as a fairly innocuous read soon became anything but. Reading Real Life after Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King I was more than ready for some shallow banter between some smart American twenty-somethings, however the eventual brutality beneath the happy accomplished veneer of the characters often made me feel sick.
“The experience of being an ‘other’ was conveyed in such a raw and authentic way made me reflect on the times where I might have ‘othered’ people without realising. This was another very uncomfortable read with not much breathing room for the reader.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this book and so far the shortlisted books have been amazing.” – Suzy
‘Yes, your deficiencies. I won’t say what they are. You already know. You come from a challenging background. It is unfortunate, but it is how it is.’
✚ “Wallace is a black, gay biochemistry student from Alabama who is simply trying to get ahead in his studies and find his place in a white, straight dominated world. But as he breeds nematodes in the lab and teeters on the edge of friendships he must endure a raft of prejudices, both intentional and inherent.
“In Real Life, one weekend of Wallace’s life is examined, with conversations, dinner parties, relationships and human interactions studied microscopically. What’s discovered is not just brutal honesty but an exacting portrayal of intimacy, sexuality, violence and loneliness. What’s more the weekend is replayed in a perfectly paced, delicate and nuanced writing style.
“There is no part of this book that is unbelievable, it really is a story about one person’s real life. I felt like I was right there, in every scene, observing and absorbing the lives of this group of friends. A moving experience that I sometimes hated and sometimes loved but always respected.” – Rachel
Chosen by Jodie
The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.
✚ “Born a Crime is the true story of a South African boy who starts his life under Apartheid and who feels the effects of the regime throughout his formative years. His childhood is filled with extraordinary events, an incredible mother and an abusive stepfather. Despite the consequences of these factors, the story is one of resilience, especially when one doesn’t have the resources to advance themselves. There were many people in the book who did not thrive, but Trevor’s mother wanted to show her son a different world and a different way of living. She was unique for her time and place; she was a critical thinker who knew how to make the best of situations. Not only was the book entertaining but witty too and I would highly recommend it. ” – Jodie
✚ “I learned a lot reading Born A Crime. I thought the mother was an incredible rock for her son throughout their lives under apartheid. What astounded me was how Trevor lived in no man’s land constantly – not considered black enough to be black or white enough to be white, nor brown enough to be coloured. Trevor opened my eyes to situations I wasn’t aware of before hand. For example I had always thought of the South Arican slums as a mass, not as individual people. But they have hierarchies, and dreams and desires. But Trevor did not want to be a victim and his mother was always educating him even when he didn’t realise; even when he was getting a hiding.” – Becks
✚ “Trevor Noah definitely has an interesting story to tell. However I don’t think his focus was in the right spot. His mother was a remarkable women and a snippet of some of the horrors she endures are offered at the beginning of the book. But it’s not until the end that those stories come to light, all the pages in-between filled with Noah’s petty crimes and childhood antics. This made Noah seem self-absorbed – the story should have been hers not his. Plus the lack of plot continuity created a stop-start effect that interrupted my interest in the story.” – Rachel
✚ “I enjoyed Born A Crime, finding it entertaining and informative at the same time. For me it was a memoir that held a good balance between personal anecdote, social-cultural commentary and historical insight into South Africa and apartheid. I think it was blended well with humour and a little irreverance. I was uplifted by a sense of hopefulness and admiration about the author’s Mum and Trevor Noah himself. It is a read I’ll recommend to others and my kids when they are a little older. A new (to me) view on apartheid and race relations. Humbling” – Sonya
✚ “This story of a South African childhood was witty as well as educational. Trevor dealt with situations that most children would never experience with humour and directness. The book’s chapters were sectioned by themes. It did sometimes feel disjointed with the abrupt stop-start of the themes but it was an interesting way to structure the book, rather than the traditional chronological presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and would happily recommend it to a friend.” – Jo
Chosen by Sonya
A New Zealand woman traces her father’s World War II history and discovers a heartbreaking truth.
✚ “Driving To Treblinka is a memoir by New Zealand journalist Diana Wichtel. In it she seeks to redeem the past, a past in which she did not truly know her father Ben, nor his sufferings trying to evade the Nazis in German-controlled Poland.
“The biographical book opens with lines from her father’s autopsy report, so it is clear from the outset that there will be no happy reunion. Each chapter starts this way, with a quote from a report, or official document that slowly reveals her father’s demise.
“The author’s life is highly detailed throughout. Her life with her father in Canada, her years without him in New Zealand, the years spent wondering, the years spent searching, the years spent guilt-stricken, agonising over her own culpability.
“Also highly detailed are the discoveries about her father’s life, including those discovered on the road to Treblinka, an extermination camp. It’s fair to say these revelations are moving, sad, even distressing, with intimate accounts of how holocaust atrocities affected not only Ben but his extended family members for the rest of their lives.
“Thematically Wichtel has investigated how secrets and silence can damage families. She makes it clear that not being told the truth created more damage than the reality she was being shielded from ever could.
There are a million reasons why we don’t talk about the truth and one of those is because the mother cries.
“There is hope too, loving family bonds and resolve to offset the secrets but the story remains honest, honouring her father, rather than all tied up like a fictional story.
✚ “Driving to Treblinka is a fresh take on what we all thought we knew about the Holocaust. Its impact is in the study of the power of truth – the manipulation of truth – and the layers of degradation that remain secret. Yet after all these years, those affected still hope for a different view of the world.” – Sonya
✚ “A page-turner that moves, educates, and captivates via the study of the social repercussions of events, – how people react and change in response to an event, and how that effect ripples down through families. When these investigations are undertaken honestly the result is as this book is, heart wrenchingly affecting.” – Rachel
✚ “I really enjoyed this book and was emotionally invested throughout. It is a harrowing, eye-opening account of how trauma is passed down through generations. It investigates what is required to counter this persecution. I have not cried over a book in many years, but this was heartbreaking.” – Jo
✚ “The theme of remembrance resonated from this book for me. At the heart of it, we all want to be remembered and loved. Yet our histories extend beyond our own lives and what we carry forward affects how we act and how we are remembered.” – Becks
✚ “When you didn’t think there were any more war stories to be heard, something like this surprises you. It demonstrated that the byproduct of one person’s experience lasts longer than they do.” – Jodie
Chosen by Jo
On an unnamed island, people’s memories are slowly deleted by the controlling authority, the Memory Police.
✚ “Censorship and authoritarian surveillance are at the thematic heart of this novel. Items that represent art, cultural identity and independent thought are slowly “disappeared” and the population of the unnamed island are forced to forget items and all memories associated with them. Whether the Memory Police have thought control or are simply the enforcers of the rules is unclear but just their existence instills dread and fear in the reader. There are many words that accurately describe the book: Orwellian, dystopian, existential, science fiction.
“Of course there is a resistance, people who do not forget. They hide in friend’s basements or feign docility whenever the Memory Police pass. The unnamed narrator of the book has such a boarder – a book editor named R. He spends his time assessing the narrator’s half written manuscript and reintroducing her to items that no longer exist.
“The manuscript runs a parallel story of censorship, of a typist with no voice who is held hostage and afraid to escape when given the opportunity. Just as the typist’s experience seems to come to life in this book, the author Yoko Ogawa warns us that the contents of her book can be found in real life: tyranny, passivity as a survival instinct, but also opportunity for resistance.
“Written in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, the novel has a timeless quality that had us bookclubbers drawing references to totalitarian states of many ages from deep in the past to modern day. Of added comparison was the current state of the world, living with Covid and the ‘acceptable’ level of control required to manage it.
But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance.
✚ “For something so unique and different, The Memory Police was surprisingly easy to read. I haven’t read anything like this before and enjoyed the storyline. Once I researched it I found I liked it even more – it’s such a tragic tale! The simplistic style of writing allowed me the room to process the story and themes themselves rather than spending time trying to interpret the text.” – Jo
✚ “I loved The Memory Police for its relevance. This is not a book written purely for entertainment value, it has an important message about the danger of tyranny and how elimination of free thought is the surest way to suck the life out of people. Its Kafkaesque style produced many parallels to the Covid world in which we are living today and there were layers and layers of close-to-home meaning. For something written 25 years ago to be so relevant today is a sure sign of class.” – Rachel
✚ I liked The Memory Police a lot, which is surprising to me in that I don’t normally enjoy ‘odd’ books such as this. I liken the reading of it to studying a Salvador Dali painting. Strange, a little uncomfortable, intriguing. The book was literary surrealism, painted beautifully. I found the writing style easy to read, and the imagery clear in my head. I felt drawn in by the characters. I liked them. I knew them; even though they were nameless. So yes, it was a thumbs up from me. Weird, uncomfortable but beautiful too.” – Sonya
✚ “Though initially intriguing, The Memory Police became repetitive for me. The island’s residents would love something, it would disappear, they would learn to live without it, the Memory Police would take some kind of action related to the “disappeared” item and then the cycle would start again. Overall I felt there were too many unanswered questions to make it memorable.”– Jodie
✚ “The Memory Police was written in 1994, yet its focus on the effects of thought control seem to be extremely topical right now. The author reminds us that free thinkers are always the first ones silenced but they must have their voice to fight against power hungry leaders. – Becks
Chosen by Rachel
Katey Kontent tells the story of when, in 1937, she and friend Eve met Tinker Grey in a New York jazz bar
✚ “It may have been written in 2011 but Rules of Civility has all the atmosphere and stylistic charm of the period in which it is set: 1930s New York. Jazz bars, martinis, sports cars, Dickens and beautiful people make for captivating reading.
“It would at first appear that the presence of wealthy benefactors and young socialites parallels with those other famous New York novels Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Great Gatsby. But this is where the plot commonalities end and in fact Towles has done well to not borrow from these same era tales.
The narrator Katy Kontent was born Katya, the daughter of a Russian immigrant. She uses her wit and charm to work her way up the both corporate and social ladders and make the most of every opportunity presented to her. Caught up in a life of oysters and cocktails she meets interesting characters with unusual names – Dicky, Bucky, Bitsy, Generous. Everyone is emotionally charged with a habit of analysing and voicing their inner most thoughts in dramatic style.
Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement. I don’t mean gawking at the Chrysler Building. I’m talking about the wing of a dragonfly. The tale of the shoeshine. Walking through an unsullied hour with an unsullied heart.
“One night at the novel’s outset Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a stranger in a bar. His seemingly privileged and sophisticated lifestyle is a draw card to both the girls, and it’s not long before their’ lives become linked through a series of dramatic and unforeseen circumstances.
“The result is a snappy and glamorous period piece full of friendships and covert romance that you can’t help but picture in black and white. The development of both the plot and characters is full and fast paced and constantly throws surprises at you.
“The Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company & Conversation was a document written in 1595 and made known later by George Washington. It set out 110 guidelines on how to act in a civilised manner. They are actioned throughout the book, by characters eager to reinvent themselves in high society, and are listed in full as a afterword. They make interesting reading and are used effectively to unite the themes and plot lines.”
68th: Go not thither, where you know not, whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked and when desired do it briefly.
“The bookclubbers agreed this was one of those literary gems, rarely found, and an absolute pleasure to read.”
Chosen by Becks
Mexican Lydia and her son Luca are on the run from Cartel hitmen.
✚ “The interesting part of American Dirt is not only the content, but how the content was received.
“Before it was finished several publishing houses were in a bidding war over publication rights. This hype resulted in the book making all sorts of best-sellers lists. It featured in Oprah’s bookclub, had movie rights secured and was even described as a modern day Grapes of Wrath.
“But perhaps there was an excess of hype, because at the same time it was largely criticised, and called “trauma porn,” with both Mexican and American writers pointing out the American author’s many inconsistencies and errors.
“The book is a migrant drama in which Lydia Perez must flee Acapulco with her eight-year-old son Luca after the rest of her family is murdered by Cartel hitmen. She heads north in the hope of making a safe border crossing to live a free life on American dirt.
“This had all the ingredients to produce a great read but unfortunately it fell a little flat for the freerange bookclubbers. We agreed it began as a page turner, but the further into the book we got, the more the people and situations became cliched. We quickly tired of the characters’ uncanny luck in the face of dangers that do take people’s lives in the real world. The narration, while from the Mexican woman’s POV, felt more like an outsider’s view looking in rather than a sense that the plot was being lived.
“It was only at our bookclub meet with some research from Becks that we discovered the controversy on the book. Online comments ranged from calling the author a racist for attempting to write about Latin issues, through to the cry of censorship. We were not judging Cummins from a moral standpoint, we were not discussing whether she had the right to write the book, but we did comment on how the lack of depth affected the believability of the plot and the characters, and therefore the enjoyment of the book.
“Controversy aside, we compared American Dirt to a Hollywood-style, block buster. Don’t get too caught up in the why and the how and you’ll be able to enjoy it as fast-paced holiday read.”
Internationality, borders and sentimentality over the comforts of home have been under the microscope lately with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. When disaster strikes it’s in one’s nature to analyse what home really means, what it comprises and the emotions it stirs up. But once snug in that domestic nest, global considerations come into play. What are the international influences that help shape our sense of home? What other usefulness can be found outside our borders? What do we have to offer the world?
These reflections are particularly relevant to the Ockham NZ Book Awards shortlist of 2020. Firstly the awards evening is cancelled, the nominees to learn their fate by video stream. And the six week lockdown was the perfect time to devour the shortlists.
Secondly there’s the fact that two fiction nominees are very New Zealand books, while the other two are seemingly international books exploring the wide-reaching topics of suicide and medical misadventure.
One of the two quintessential Kiwi books is Pearly Gates, a character study of a Baby Boomer from a recognisable NZ town, recalling his dreams of being an All Black. The town and its residents are so developed, reading the book is like living in the town. Like them or loathe them, there is no denying this is one take on what it means to be a Kiwi.
The other is Auē, a book about poverty and violence, particularly in past years and a look at how we have grown and how we must continue to self analyse to cure ourselves of this horrific cycle. It’s a redemptive book, studying quite a different side to New Zealand life but again there is no denying the ambitioius hope of Kiwis is found in many places.
Halibut on The Moon is written by an American turned New Zealander and is set in Alaska and California. It reads like an international book and has surprised many Kiwi lit fans about its inclusion. No it does not offer a recognisable Kiwi setting but it is written by a New Zealander and showcases the ever increasing level of talent being imported and bred here.
A Mistake is based in New Zealand, but its story about culpability in the medical world is universal and could be set in any hospital anywhere in the world. Its study about best practices of medical reporting may take on a different meaning now with the threat of Covid lurking in every corner.
So, two books to ground us at home, two books to influence our relationship with the world, all deserving of their place on the shortlist.
Rachel: “To me there is a clear winner and that is Halibut On The Moon (but we rarely correctly pick prize winners so have probably just jinxed you David Vann – apologies). To read this book is to live the life of Jim. Its autobiographical nature ensures Vann is able to recreate the scenes with conviction. His bravery in revealing his past trauma is offset by a dark humour and retains the complete fiction experience (unlike last year’s winner which to me read more like non fiction). It is amazing the styles, the emotions, the seemingly antithetical threads Vann has pulled together to make this story perfect. If he doesn’t win it would surely only be because the judges don’t consider his book reflects Kiwi life enough. But in my opinion the characters’ empathy and concern for one another, plus the story’s dark humour are pretty well recognised Kiwi traits. I think it’s the most well written shortlister and it deserves to win. In saying that I would not be unhappy if Auē took home the Acorn. Manawatu is talented and I look forward to her future literary career.”
Suzy: “I have so enjoyed this shortlist and would be delighted for any of the authors to win. The standout sucker punch book for me was Halibut on the Moon, but only by the smallest amount. It’s hard to pick a second, third and fourth from the others as they were all so damn good, but if I had to I’d cheat slightly and put Auē and Pearly Gates at second equal. Feels pretty mean to A Mistake though because that was damn excellent too. Can’t wait for the announcement!”
Auē is about the struggles to escape a life of violence
✚ “A young man called Tauriki decides to undertake a quest to locate his birth mother. Responsible for his orphaned half brother Ārama, he entrusts the boy’s care to an aunt and uncle. But it is a home where violence and fear are rife. Interspersed with the two brothers’ stories are the voices of their parents, telling their stories from years earlier where gang life was their every day.
“It goes without saying there is a lot of violence in this novel. It is sometimes so unbearable it’s hard to look at the words. But such violence has and does exist. Some people succumb to what is ingrained in them and some fight their way out. The author dedicated the book to a family member who was brutally murdered. Knowing this makes the novel’s violence important. We need to know so we can unite against it. Manawatu does this with a strong thematic sense of redemption and whakapapa.
“And that’s what kept me reading – the beautiful characters and their poignant stories. Their friendships and their hopes were a reprieve to the horrors. They, infact, had me so entranced I polished the book off in a very short space of time.
“There are a lot of neat and tidy conclusions in the final chapters which seemed more blockbuster than literary but overall I did really enjoy the raw emotion being poured onto the pages.” – Rachel
The mayor of a small NZ town recalls his successes and failures in the lead up to an election and school reunion.
✚ “Pearly was such a recognisable character it was disarming. We all know a Pearly – a Boomer with such a strong sense of self-assurance and entitlement that Gen Xs and the rest are almost envious.
“Pearly’s a wholly unlikeable man whose unshakeable confidence causes him to act in ways that are morally questionable at best and criminal at worst. Nevertheless he has risen to small-town South Island fame as the local mayor. Along the way the small insights he has into his behaviour are never enough to redeem himself to the reader.
“While I detested Pearly Gates the character I absolutely loved Pearly Gates the novel. On one page I would be judging him from a moral high ground and on the next I would realise with considerable discomfort that I have a bit of Pearly in me. As benevolent and kind as I think I am, of course I also act in complete self-interest sometimes (although hopefully not dropping to Pearly’s low standards).
“The level of introspection this novel engendered along with the awful self-realisation was something else.” – Suzy
✚ “Anyone who reads Pearly Gates will know someone who slightly resembles the main character, Pearly Gates. That air of importance that some think comes as a given with age; the denial of the fragility of life. For this part I think the novel was well written and relevant.
“However I found there was a lack of plot. A nearing-old man meanders through the pages detailing his real estate deals, his mayoral & school reunion committee obligations, his opinions of various people and his memories of his glory days as a young rugby player destined for the All Blacks. I was waiting for a dramatic event to break the monotony of his life, but the monotony of his life is it. There were a couple of interesting events that showcased Pearly’s moral decline which I thought would lead to something bigger but, actually, the characterisation of Pearly is the main event.
“All in all, I appreciate the skill involved in the construction of Pearly but the book did not excite me.” – Rachel
Penguin Random House