Home Book editor The Derivative Book Report #5

The Derivative Book Report #5

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Book editor Catherine Woulfe presents a slice of new books to love.

Welcome, welcome, come shelter from the rain, sit down for this fifth edition of The Spinoff Book Report. Everything is very easy and discreet: these are books that I have read recently and that I have adored, those that I intend to push to my friends, those that I recommend to you without reservation.

There is accidentally a theme happening this time: a green, growing, outdoor theme. I hope that reassures you.


Notes on femininity by Sarah Jane Barnett (Otago University Press, $30)

A sharp and intelligent memoir. Pieces will make you wince. Barnett remembers lying on a bed with an excited high school boyfriend as he pinched her stomach. In one place: “Pretty good”. Another: “No, you have fat here.” She remembers one night in her third year of art school. “I don’t usually sleep with fat girls,” says the guy she just slept with. “It wasn’t so bad.”

But the phrase that sticks with me appears in a chapter on wandering around with other women. “We feel a bit dangerous, like we are indulging in something taboo. In a way we are: to be absent from our families and our duties is to be selfish. And women are not selfish.

I’m off on my mop as soon as I shake off this damn covid-asthma.



Regenesis: Feeding the world without devouring the planet by George Monbiot (Allen Lane, $37)

A book about soil and shit, trees and rivers and erosion, people and how we feed them. For George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner, it’s not free-range farming or organic farming, but basic math that’s important: he wants us to understand how much land we use – and thus damage and disable critical regenerative processes. like rewilding – by farming.

We do not come out of this equation in style. “The most land-hungry nation in the world is New Zealand,” he wrote. “If everyone ate the average New Zealander’s diet, which contains lots of free-range lamb and beef, another planet almost the size of Earth would be needed to sustain us.”

He also wants us to see that there are better ways. There’s a burgeoning section about a farmer who figured out how to grow gorgeous piles of vegetables on a small patch of land without fertilizers or herbicides; another about a man preparing protein-rich bacteria in large vats. Monbiot is a stunning writer, and it’s science that reads like hope.


Kohine by Colleen Maria Lenihan (Huia Publishers, $25)

This collection of short stories twirls between Japan and Aotearoa, between generations and between apartments. I love how intertwined the stories are and also how much wiggle room there is in the prose. There’s a detachment, an airy titillation, a rhythm – and a feeling, always, that the ground might come loose beneath you. Suicide is everywhere, as are spirits, sex and grief. Energy, flicking and zapping and buzzing. “It just goes to show, mate, that everyone is hanging by a thread,” says a brother writing on the other side. “Do whatever you wanna do, buddy. Live your dreams and all that shiz! Fuck!


Two book covers, left showing the face of a young woman superimposed on a street scene in Japan;  right showing a scorching sunset and a dark silhouetted tree.


Better blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster, $35)

A surprisingly lush and textured debut album, set in Tāmaki Makaurau and centered on the intergenerational trauma of colonization. A thriller. Not a missed note, pace as hell. Lots of bush and sea. Two main characters, both Maori: a female cop who does her job very well but risks being destroyed; a young man who sets out to honor his tipuna and becomes terribly, presumably twisted.

Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) is probably best known for his involvement in Teina Pora’s long fight for justice – six years ago he won an Ngaio Marsh Award for his non-fiction book about the case , In Dark Places, and he also made an award-winning documentary The Confessions of Prisoner T, which helped bring crucial evidence to light.

Bennett says he wrote this novel as a “Trojan horse bearing great complex and difficult themes”. We will publish an essay by him when the book comes out on August 10.


Pesticides and health: how New Zealand is failing when it comes to environmental protection by Neil Pearce (BWB Texts, $15)

I grew up in an orchard and once in a while dad had to apply a spray that mom called “a real nasty”. She picked up the laundry off the line and kept us kids inside while it was happening.

But Dad would be out there on the tractor for hours, up and down the rows, the spray cloud billowing and blowing behind him. He was wearing his astronaut suit but I wondered when he was diagnosed with dementia at 55 if those sprays had anything to do with it. At the same time I thought, nah, surely if the spray was this dangerous, we wouldn’t have been allowed to use it?

Neil Pearce has completely dispelled this sense of security. He is an international expert on villains and their fallout and his argument is that New Zealand is totally failing to protect workers and others at risk. Our system sucks.

The book is a call to action, but in places it reads like a professional memoir – keeping it taut and dry, measured, compassionate, Pearce tells gripping stories about Agent Orange and the New Plymouth plant who helped produce it, and on small town sawmills. where workers spent their days soaked in dioxins. “Putting the story to press is quite cathartic, and I think it’s important to do so,” Pearce writes. “Some things have happened that are just not acceptable, and if nobody documents them, they are more likely to continue to happen… My main motivation is that very little has changed and it needs to change. These are not just historical issues.


Three book covers, all abstract – Galatea looks like a dark but starry night;  Pesticides has a white cover with text only;  the poetry anthology has a dreamy green circle on navy blue.


Galatea: a short story by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, $12.99)

You know Miller via his novels The Song of Achilles and Circe, both of which reign supreme and resurrect – 10 years after publication, in the case of the former – because BookTok love their. Now, new fodder: a short story lovingly wrapped in an exceptionally beautiful little hardback book. “A small piece, but nonetheless very dear to me,” Miller wrote in an afterword. “Galatea was a response, almost uniquely, to Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth in the Metamorphoses.” In short, Pygmalion (he would call himself an incel these days, Miller notes) is so disgusted with real women that he carves one out of ivory, falls in love with her, and brings her to life. Happy until the end of time? No.

Fans of Circe, in particular, are invited to join in.


No Other Place to Stand: An Anthology of Climate Change Poetry edited by Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, Erik Kennedy and Essa Ranapiri (Auckland University Press, $29.99)

This is the kind of book you pick up knowing it will take you about 20 minutes to tip. And yes, those poems crushed me in a puddle on the floor. Some that I had read before, but with so many clicks together, they landed differently, stronger. Some lines have stretched their elbows. And there were so many poems I hadn’t read before, and read with a start: Victor Billot ripping out tapes of Scott Morrison; Dadon Rowell, weeping in the dust of the bushfires; Cindy Botha and her fucking haunting hammerhead shark, who

“Falls in the seabed wave – it’s dying

corner of gray and shy fins sliced ​​and discarded

on the ice with 100 million others. It took him an hour to touch

at the bottom, flowing red ribbons as a Valentine’s Day gift.

At the end, I felt a bit like that shark but I also felt a profound shift in perspective, as if I had been taken out of the center of things and was with all these poets, on the fringes, together, shouting stop.

Alright, that’s me – I’m going to bed with the new Emily Writes book. Requires adult supervision, it’s hot pink and I love it and it comes out in late August.