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Book Reviews: Swirly World / Of Mice and Men

19 Apr

Swirly World: The Solo Voyagers – Andrew Fagan

Swirly World in Perpetuity is a tiny yacht – only 5.2 metres in length. It used to be painted a pea-green, but now if you look to your left as you pass northward over Auckland’s harbour bridge you’ll likely see a small bright orange thing bobbing around in the bay. 5.2 metres might seem like ample space in an empty room, but fill that with bedding, cooking equipment, a life boat, several week’s worth of food, navigation equipment, a multitude of sails, a guitar (of course) and you have yourself a very cramped spot in deed.

This is an account of Andrew Fagan’s personal journey from being a once-teenage-boatie and general yacht enthusiast to the record holder for sailing from New Zealand to Australia and back again in the smallest boat. We’re taken on board while Fagan first sails to Sunday Island, then around North Cape and down the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and eventually embarks on his 1900 km epic quest to reach Mooloolaba (Queensland), as a contestant in the 1994 Solo Tasman Race.

Even if you’re not really into yachts this is still an enjoyable read. Andrew Fagan is most well-known as the front man of NZ’s 1980s pop group The Mockers, and has a very conversational way of writing that is both engaging and fun. He also loves his metaphors (there were times I couldn’t even tell what was metaphor and what was not), and so the further along you read the more you come to consider the ocean as some living beast that, only by acts of goodwill, allows two-legged mortals ride upon it.

Sometimes the experiences mid-voyage seemed quite romantic: the sheer isolation of it all, weeks spent on a miniature plywood structure floating atop the vast and lonely liquid platform, far from anything solid or tangible, at the complete mercy of the wind… But most of the time it seemed downright awful. Think true and utter nausea, seasickness at its worse. Not to mention the wild tiredness brought upon by sleeping only an hour at a time least the wee boat bang into a large ship or veer off course.

This is worth a read. If nothing else, it sure makes you feel glad to be on good, solid ground.


Me, on Swirly World, September last year.


Of Mice and Men –  John Steinbeck

This short book begins and ends at the bank of Salinas River, California. The river is deep and green, and warm from slipping all day over yellow sunlit sands. In the early evening rabbits come to sit at its edge. Between the willows and sycamores a path is “beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.” I mention all this only because even if you disregard the actual story, Steinbeck’s descriptions, which are simple yet seemingly so true and accurate, are in themselves a delight to read.

It is a story about the friendship between two men: Lennie, who is simple-minded, and George, who has taken it upon himself to care for and protect Lennie. Set during the Great Depression, George and Lennie have migrated to yet another ranch in search for manual labour work. George is fast-thinking and wily, but still Lennie’s immense size yet child-like understanding of consequences leads them both into serious trouble.

Of Mice and Men is both touching and thought provoking, and I can see why it’s considered such a classic. Concerning friendship, obligation, racism, competition, and above all hope, it really is a sad and beautiful story.


It’s called living

13 Mar

When an author dies, suddenly what seemed like a potentially infinite output from them – an infinite number of words, an infinite number of ideas – becomes finite. But worse than that, it’s not just finite. It’s over. Everything already written is all that there is. There ain’t no more coming and you better deal with it.


I was, and am, a Terry Pratchett fan. From the day I first picked up Small Gods and in a matter of only three pages learned the perspectives of both tortoises of eagles, had the whole “does a falling tree in a forest…” problem solved for me, and was given the definition of history, I was hooked. (And on page four, “Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.”)

The books I haven’t read myself I’ve had read to me, by the soothing voice of Nigel Planer, the reader for most of the Discworld audiobooks. I’ve spent hour after enjoyable hour in that world where light moves sluggishly (due to the high magical field), where assassination is legal (providing you have the right paperwork), where bread can be a weapon, ducks may sit on you forever, top academics are those most skilled with a crossbow (because competition is so high), and everything is kept afloat in space upon Great A’Tuin the Giant Star Turtle (well – on top of four large elephants, on top of the turtle). My two favourite characters have always been Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, and Death, and it’s them, more than anyone else, that I’m sad have now also had to die with Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett had a way of being both entertaining and incredibly thought-provoking at the same time, not just in a general philosophical sense, but relating to specific aspects of our own society. Prejudice and inequality were central themes in many books, gender, greed, power, hate. Even torture. So although in one sense his books are “light reading” they are far from being insubstantial – as illustrated by the many on-line fan pages dedicated to his quotes.

And one quote in particular seems rather fitting right now. So I’ll end with it. “It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It’s called living.”




Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

23 Nov


I’d been meaning to read this book for a while, partly because of the intriguing name, and partly because I remembered enjoying the movie Awakenings – based on a true story about the author, British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who “awakened” a bunch of catatonic patients through the use of a new drug (think Robert De Niro, sitting motionless in a chair, suddenly catching a ball thrown at his head).

In ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ Oliver Sacks gives accounts of some of his most memorable patients. There’s the man who, obviously, mistook his wife for a hat (and tried to remove her head to place it on his own). There’s the guy who was mysteriously bestowed the improved senses of a dog and could identify a room full of people by smell alone. The poor man who believed his own leg was a dead person’s leg sewn on and kept chucking it out of bed (and wondering why he fell out of bed with it). The woman who had seizures and heard detailed renditions of the songs she’d only heard before immigrating as a baby. These are just a few of the many fascinating, yet often tragic stories.

I found it hard to put this book down. Though non-fiction, the cases are often so far fetched it seemed like mad fantasy. It is not written condescendingly, however. Olive Sacks writes about each patient thoughtfully and compassionately. You feel you get to know the patients as people, not just as abnormalities of the mind.

This book was written in 1985, so is bound to be medically out of date. But it does give insights into the human brain that I’d never really considered before. The human brain, apparently, has the capability to calculate 20 figure prime numbers within moments. Or keep a memory log of every conscious second. Or perceive colours and smells in wholly inhuman ways. This I just did not know. But instead of thinking, “hey wow, how can we all gain these skills?” I got the eerie feeling that there’s a fine yet necessary balance going on. The man who could smell like a dog no longer cared for abstract thought, he was too concerned with what he was experiencing in the present. The twins who could calculate immense prime numbers were so severely autistic they could barely function in the world. Maybe our limitations make living a “normal” life possible.

And then there were those who didn’t gain any special skill but only suffered losses – the woman who could move her body through sheer mental will but could no longer know it as her own; the man who could see perfectly, but could no longer recognise what he was looking at; the woman who had to turn herself in circles to eat her dinner, eating right half of the plate at a time, because she’d lost the concept of left-ness.

I totally recommend this book. It’s beautiful, sad, enchanting and definitely thought provoking.

Book Review: The Alchemist

20 Oct

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I picked this book from our over-crammed bookshelves nearly at random. Being both an avid book collector and a painfully slow reader, scanning our bookshelves is, for me, much like perusing the books in a second hand books store. I recognise few, have read fewer. On this particular morning, as I rushed out of the door and off to work, it was the size of the book that mattered to me. The Alchemist is seductively thin, with large font.


The story follows the journey of a Spanish shepherd boy who has a recurrent dream about finding treasure near the Egyptian pyramids, and, considering this as an omen, trades everything he has for the opportunity to live out his dream. His path takes him across the Straight of Gibraltar to Tangier, and then on across the Sahara Desert. It is a journey of spiritual learning, self-discovery, and a whole lot of omen following.

First things first, it is beautifully written. The language is simple and poetic, and the book is continually thought provoking. I often found myself drifting off, staring at the sky while I contemplated yet another piece of wisdom given to the shepherd boy, and through him, to me. In fact you can flick to nearly any page of the book and find some proverb-like proposition, such as:

A shepherd may like to travel, but he should never forget about this sheep.


Treasure is uncovered by the force of moving water, and is buried by the same currents.

The story is all about the boy fulfilling his ‘personal legend’, and I found myself questioning my own decisions in life, and wondering if I wasn’t somehow hampering my own journey to happiness.

It does get rather spiritual by the end, but the story seems so fantastic (and by that, I mean a piece of fantasy) that it didn’t make me squirm. The boy even starts talking to his heart in a literal sense (and the heart talks back… such a wise heart he is, too…).

The story is told in a linear fashion, and (except for the occasional exception) only from the boy’s perspective. A precedes B, and C follows. There are no flashbacks, no asides in which the boy reminisces about things from his past. Usually I find this kind of storytelling incredibly boring (Alice in Wonderland makes me want to set fire to my own foot), but for some reason I wasn’t bothered when reading The Alchemist. It gives it a very Old Testament kind of feel (maybe even on purpose).

Although the book in many ways seems quite serious, I got the sense that the author was having a bit of fun. At one point the boy reads a book, and is annoyed that some authors introduce too many characters’ names on the first page. It then suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t even know the boy’s name (it’s Santiago, given on the first page, but then never used again). From then on I noticed that characters weren’t given names. They were simply “the Englishman”, “the alchemist”, “the crystal merchant”. “The old king” was given a name, but he later regrets that he didn’t remind the boy of it, because he knew the boy would have forgotten it (and of course by this time I had forgotten it too). The only person who was referred to by her name was Fatima, the boy’s love interest.

I enjoyed reading The Alchemist. It was different to what I’d usually read, and lovely, and unexpected… There’s one line I would do away with though. The boy notices that Fatima has tears in her eyes when they part from each other (for an indefinite period of time, with no certainty that he’ll return), and he asks her why she’s crying.  “I’m a woman of the desert,” she said, averting her face. “But above all, I’m a woman.”

Yeah… maybe not that line, Paulo.