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Big ideas in small packages

Many thanks to all of you who have been into the shop or who have sent us messages. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the community for its new bookshop.
We will be open this Sunday (18 December) for relaxed browsing and bookselling, from 10 AM until 1 PM (or some time thereafter). Come and choose your seasonal gifts (ask our advice if you like!) or surprise yourself with something good to read.
We are looking forward to seeing you! - Stella & Thomas

We have just had a visit from Genevieve King, whose Valley Gatherings: Food inspired by the Clarence River and those who call its banks their home is not only a delightful cookbook but also a photographic record of life on the Clarence River immediately prior to the earthquake that remade the landscape on 14 November. The book is available in Nelson exclusively from VOLUME. $3 from each sale will be donated to the relief of Clarence.




Heap House by Edward Carey
After hearing Edward Carey at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in May, I was fascinated by his description of the world of the Iremongers, and this has been the find of the year for intriguing and excellent children’s writing. The third in the trilogy, Lungdon, has just been published, but start with Heap House. In the opening pages we are introduced to the unusual Iremonger family, who live on the outskirts of London where they collect and sift the rubbish which has grown into great moving heaps with a life-force all of its own. Meet Clod and the serving girl, Lucy, and begin an adventure of twists and turns, the unexpected and surprising. The language is captivating, the world is fascinating and the plot is both philosophical and beguiling. Great as a read-aloud, for summer family reading, and for 12+.

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey
Recently released, Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child is a stunning portrayal of war-time Germany through the eyes of two children, Sieglinde, from a middle-class family in Berlin, and Erich, from a farm near Leipzig. Theirs is a story of secrets, fear and overwhelming loyalty – for both the right and wrong reasons – a story that plays out in an atmosphere of paranoia and loss. Yet there is beauty in the small details and the happenstance relationship between Sieglinde and Erich. Chidgey’s novel is reminiscent of Jenny Erpenbeck’s End of Days; it’s beautifully crafted, building tension and foreboding and never letting the reader off the hook. The narrator’s voice is one of haunting sadness, all-telling yet allusive.

This Model World by Anthony Byrt
If you are looking to keep abreast of developments in contemporary NZ art, go no further than Anthony Byrt’s This Model World. Immensely readable, Byrt combines serious art discussion with his own personal take on our contemporary artists, as well as letting us into his world as a critic. Drawn from interviews conducted at the artists’ studios, the conversations flow and we are given an insight into what compels these artists to make, how they frame themselves in the world, and the ideas they discuss through their work. Artists include Shane Cotton, Judy Millar, Peter Robinson and Yvonne Todd. This Model World is remarkable in its ability to be simultaneously very personal and informative, with Byrt intertwining his own life into these observations about art and the place of art in our lives.

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
The short story collection Children of the New World is the brainchild of American writer Alexander Weinstein. The opening story, ‘Saying Goodbye to Yang’, sees a family sitting around the dining table watching Yang, a sophisticated big brother robot, malfunction. In the story ‘Children of The New World’ a couple live a virtual existence, complete with two perfect children, a nice suburban house and everything is wonderful until they venture into the Dark City. Their adventuring brings a virus into their perfect world, creating chaos. Many of the characters in the stories are disconnected from each other and from place, addicted to their programmes, technological implants, computer generated improvements and virtual worlds. Weinstein gives us wry stories – many are darkly funny – which question our obsession with technology, social media, perfection, identity and our desire to recreate ourselves. Set in a near-future this collection is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Hand-Coloured New Zealand by Peter Alsop
Hand-Coloured New Zealand is a stunning publication from the dream team of Peter Alsop and publisher, Potton & Burton. From 1945, White’s Aviation produced the best hand-coloured photographs. This book is a tribute to the expertise of the company that produced these works, to the photographers and colourists whose work was exquisite. There are in-depth chapters about Leo White, the company founder; Clyde Stewart, chief photographer and head of colouring; and my favourite entitled ‘One of the Girls’ about Grace Rawson and her work as a colourist at White’s. The book is generously illustrated. Many images will be familiar, either glimpsed on an aunt’s wall or as large-scale photographs in public buildings. This beautifully produced publication is a must for collectors, photographers and for anyone interested in New Zealand’s social history.

‘Object Lessons’
Big ideas can come in small packages (a principle we represent at VOLUME!), and the books in the excellent ‘Object Lessons’ series published by Bloomsbury each take an everyday object (bread, hood, password, bookshelf, silence, &c) and explore the deep strata of meaning and cultural resonance inherent in that object but to which we are usually blinded through familiarity. Favourites read so far include Hotel by the incomparable Joanna Walsh (see below) and Dust by Michael Marder (which explores the philosophical weight of the universal substance which is comprised of things that have lost both identity and form).

Hotel by Joanna Walsh
As a relief from an unhappy marriage, Walsh got a job as a hotel reviewer and spent a period of time living only in places that are intended to be alternatives to home (places in which ‘staying’ means not remaining but merely deferred leaving). In this series of short pieces, with occasional appearances by Freud, Dora (the subject of Freud’s early work on hysteria), Katherine Mansfield, KM (her alter ego), and the Marx brothers, Walsh plays rigorously with the idea of the hotel and with the idea of home that is its complement and shadow. Throughout the book, she does such a thorough job of picking away at ideas that vertiginous spaces open up within them, terrifying emptinesses in what had seemed like smooth and continuous thought. She is, understandably, intent on the mechanisms and ellipses by which her marriage has disintegrated: is the fault in the idea of marriage, in her husband or in herself, or is this “only ordinary unhappiness”? Walsh is adept at the re-flexing of banal tropes into fresh and sturdy thought: “We went into marriage to fulfil our individual desires, but we found ourselves required to be fulfilled by what we found there. The marriage problem is the same as the hotel problem. I have second-guessed your desires, and those of others. I have made myself into a hotel.” She is under no illusion that thinking can provide resolution (indeed the benefits of thought are magnified when resolution is impossible or eschewed), aware that problems will remain problems (we may at best hope for them to be problems we to some extent understand): “Plot is good in books but bad in life. There is no plot in a hotel. When I am in a hotel, the bad thing in abeyance but it is waiting to happen outside the hotel nevertheless.”

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.” Always hinting at experience just beyond the reach of language, Bennett's remarkable book is impelled by the rigours of noticing. Encounters with persons and with the infraordinary are treated with equivalence: acute, highly acute, overly acute, observations immediately plunge the narrator’s awareness into the depths of her response (“My head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances.”), far from the surface at which outward contact may be made, or may be being made, a process that is both deeply isolating, terrifying and protective. Bennett’s unsparingly acute observations of the usually unacknowledged or unacknowledgeable motivations, urges and responses that underlie human interaction and quotidian existence seem here induced by an acceptance or a resignation that is enabled by despair, or is indistinguishable from despair, both a resignation and a panic, perhaps, a panic on the edge of self-dissolution which is perhaps our last resistance to self-dissolution and therefore fundamental to individual existence: the anxiety which all human activity is designed to conceal. Bennett’s is a very individual voice (click here to hear her read a sample), resonating at times with other works of irredeemably isolated interiority, such David Markson’s superb  Wittgenstein’s Mistress or the suppressed hysteria of Thomas Bernhard’s narrators, but tracking entirely her own patterns of thought (I have perhaps made an error here of conflating the author with the narrator, but, if this is an error, it is one hard to avoid in the book in which style and content are inseparable) with an immediacy that precludes the artificially patterning, pseudo-assimilable explanation of a ‘story’. In one excellent section, ‘Control Knobs’, the narrator describes the gradual disintegration of the three knobs that control her cooker and speculates a coming time when the last interchangeable knob breaks and the cooker will become unusable. This reminds her of the counted matches in Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (another novel of irredeemably isolated interiority), which mark the time to the point at which that narrator will no longer be able to light a fire to cook and warm herself. Following a discussion of Bennett’s narrator’s reading and misreading of that book, she returns to an account of the ultimate hopelessness of her attempts to procure new knobs for her cooker. “I feel at a loss for about ten minutes and it’s a sensation, I realise, not dissimilar to indifference. So, naturally, I handle it rather well.”

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
Of the three friends who had studied piano together under Horowitz at the Salzburg Mozarteum, the narrator, Wertheimer and a fictionalised Glenn Gould, only Gould continued playing, for the others, though piano prodigies, were unable to continue their careers after having overheard Gould’s interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and been ‘destroyed’ by his genius. Twenty-eight years later, Gould,  having withdrawn from the world into his ‘isolation cage’ in the Canadian wilds, dies of a stroke while playing the Variations, and, soon after, the highly neurotic Wertheimer, who had been labelled ‘The Loser’ by Gould on their first meeting and who had been most deeply devastated by the unapproachability of Gould’s genius, for he, unlike the narrator, had set his heart on being a virtuoso, and who had withdrawn to his ‘isolation cage’ in the Austrian wilds after his sister, who he had obsessively dominated and controlled, had ‘escaped’ and married a Swiss industrialist, commits suicide by hanging himself near his sister’s new home. The book, in one relentless paragraph with the same sublime unpegged looping structures as Bach’s music and the wicked barbs, subversions and reflexive humour of an interpretation of Bach by Glenn Gould, represents the thoughts of the narrator as they loop over and over the relationship between the three characters, who can be seen as three aspects of Bernhard himself, his characters being blanks upon which he projects his own neuroses, invective, frustrated abilities, lung disease, impulses for self-destruction and, above all, stultifying ambivalence. A revulsion by everything, a precise analysis of the inescapable destructive cacophony of human relationships, a delineation of the self-annihilating effects of the ‘isolation cages’ that are the refuge from humanity, no thought is sooner expressed than it begins to appear ludicrous, the further developed it becomes, the more ludicrous, until it is left exploded, empty, food for its opposite, no less ludicrous. It takes well over half the book for the narrator to walk into the inn at which he will stay after visiting Wertheimer’s ‘isolation cage’ in Traich to search for the work Wertheimer had been writing, almost the entire content of the book taking place at at least the second if not the third or fourth remove, in a subjective hole so deep that the characters leach characteristics into each other as the narrator hysterically overdoes every analysis and statement to the extent that we come to believe that any statement is an overstatement and a false statement, or at least a statement within which truth and falsity cannot be disentangled. In this rereading I noticed that Wertheimer is briefly mentioned as having been writing something called The Loser (otherwise the narrator dismisses his writing as aphorisms “destined for the walls of dentists’ waiting rooms”), and I couldn’t get out of my mind that Bernhard identified strongly with his Wertheimer character, who has written this book as if narrated by his unnamed friend who would have found this work after Wertheimer’s suicide (Bernhard’s proxy suicide) had not he arrived at Traich to be told by the gamekeeper that Wertheimer had been seen to burn all his papers before his fatal trip.

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
Even just to see the cover of this book is to be unable to resist taking it home. The pictures and the story they tell with just a small amount of added text are touchingly tender and thoughtful. A gentle lion finds a wounded bird who cannot fly off with its flock and makes it a bed in a slipper, nursing it back to health as they become close friends through the winter. Spring comes and the flock returns. Will the bird leave the lion to rejoin them? The story is full of subtle observations about attachment and freedom, about seasons in the year and also in relationships, about being true to your nature and about the strength of friendship, but these are not shouted and the reader is entirely involved in the characters’ immediate feelings. This might well become your favourite picture book.

The Notebook by Agota Kristof
In an unnamed country [Hungary] during an unnamed war [WWII], twin brothers from the Big Town are deposited with their unknown grandmother in the Little Town [near the German border]. Their belongings are immediately taken and sold by their grandmother, apart from their father’s big dictionary, which they use to write their story in the big notebook they demand from the local bookseller on the basis of ‘absolute need’. They set rules for their writing: “The composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do. For example, it is forbidden to write, ‘Grandmother is like a witch,’ but we are allowed to write ‘People call Grandmother a witch’. We would write, ‘We eat a lot of walnuts’, and not, ‘We love walnuts,’ because the word ‘love’ is not a reliable word. Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.” The twins describe how they perform ‘exercises to toughen the body’ – hurting themselves and each other until they no longer cry when they are hit, and ‘exercises to toughen the mind’ – subjecting each other to verbal abuse until they no longer blush and tremble when people insult them, and also repeating the words of affection their mother used to use to them until their eyes no longer fill with tears: “By force of repetition, these words gradually lose their meaning, and the pain they carry in them is assuaged.” Unable to be separated, controlled or opposed, the twins practise the only virtue left in a world rendered amoral by war: survival. ‘Absolute need’ is the basis of their interactions with others: they demand boots from the cobbler so they can go about in the winter, they blackmail the priest on behalf of the unfortunate Harelip, they comply with the masochistic requests of the Foreign Officer because of his ‘absolute need’ (which is no less absolute for being psychological), they wreak disfiguring revenge on the priest’s housekeeper because of her mocking of the passing [Jewish] Human Herd’s absolute need for bread. The narrators’ dual identity, the pared-back matter-of-fact prose without metaphor or superfluity, the rigour with which small and horrendous matters are treated with flat equivalence make this book powerful, moving (while remaining unsentimental) and memorable.

15 Church Street / PO Box 364, Nelson 7010, New Zealand
telephone: 03 9700073
txt: 0211970002


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VOLUME · 15 Church Street (Radio House) · PO Box 364 · Nelson, 7010 · New Zealand

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