Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry (Hachette, 2022)
Wealthy celebs from the good old days laying out their memories before us gossip-hungry paupers can seem like a strained attempt at a resurrection, as if they’re trying to emerge from the detritus of their days of drugs and bad decisions to find a place in the modern-day. But holy-moly, this memoir is so much more than that.
Matthew Perry, who plays Chandler in the 90s American sit-com Friends, has written a memoir not as a resurrection but more as an act of redemption. His demise into the darkest depths of drugs and alcohol takes him literally to death's door, with a colostomy bag and multiple scars - one from a surgical incision the size of a bowling ball in his stomach. The excessive use of opioids, Xanax, Valium, and the concoction of other pills he was taking (and stealing from open-homes on a Sunday) means he should technically be dead. The only reason that at 53 he’s stopped taking opioids and drinking alcohol is because there’s no amount that will get him high or drunk, which he realised after his fourteenth triple vodka at home.
There are snippets into Friends that millennials will love, stories about his relationship with Julia Roberts, gossipy gibes at Keanu Reeves, and tales of filming and partying with Bruce Willis, but that’s just titivation. This is a vulnerable, mind-altering view on addiction as a disease and if there’s one good thing to come from unveiling the best and worst of his past in this book. He says, it’s helping others with addiction.
library of exile by Edmund de Waal (The British Museum, 2022)
Edmund de Waal’s interactive exhibition, library of exile, is the most stunning amalgamation of art, pottery, and writing; and here The British Library has immortalised it in a publication of photographs and essays (by no less than Elif Shafak, among others). De Waal has resurrected destroyed libraries, burned books, and silenced voices by curating a travelling library housing books written by the exiled.
The weight of the exhibitions impact is felt beyond the shelves too, in the names of destroyed libraries that are written on the white exterior walls. All 2,000 of the books from the exhibition have travelled to Venice, Dresden and London, where attendees were welcomed to write their names inside a book of relevance to them on an Ex Libris book plate. The library finally ended up at the University Library Mosul, where the books have been donated to sew the seed for a new library after Daesh burnt and destroyed millions of books and manuscripts in an act of terror in 2015. This exhibition was praised as de Waal’s best to date, or in his words, what is likely to be his best ever.
There’s much to be learned from it and the words within this book. It’s a meaningful gift for the artistic, book-loving, history buff and a gift destined to be treasured forever, as it’s not only bound by delicate grey cloth but embedded with history and meaning. It’s the ovation that will ensure the libraries and the exiled are never erased from history again, and the acts of defiance against them don’t win.
The Unfolding by A.M. Homes (Granta, 2022)
Big Guy is a sixty-something lifelong Republican donor unable to accept the idea that Obama’s sleeping in “his” White House.
The novel begins the day Obama beats McCain in the 2008 US presidential election and carries through to the inauguration. What unfolds is a satirical soap opera that’s simmering with racism, inequality, outdated patriarchal values, and a family who’s one step away from a breakdown. The Big Guy’s cripplingly thin wife, Charlotte, is a Martha Mitchell-esque character; an equal match for her husband, who’s patriotism and weakness for winning supersedes logic and reason. While he watches her drink vermouth at dinner like it’s water, there’s a lacklustre energy to her giving off the sense that his bigoted beliefs are getting tired. Yet they go home and have sex so quick it’s over in a thrust and one short sentence. Her drinking soon gets in the way, mainly of her survival, and he doesn’t think twice about devoting his time to plotting how he’ll save his country from its supposed collapse while she’s somewhere else.
Truly, A. M. Homes, winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is the only writer who can convey such fractured relationships and unravel one family’s demise so painfully and amusingly, slowly. It’s the ultimate satire echoing the insane state of American politics. The Republican Party, which is at the heart of The Unfolding, have been “hijacked by a narcissistic carnival barker and his mob of conspiracy theorists, science deniers and Christo-fascists”, according to The Washington Post, and Homes captures the very essence of them all and all that went do very wrong.
Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy by Charlotte van den Broeck (Chatto & Windus, 2022)
In the small French village of Verchin in Saint Omer, there’s a church built in the 1600s with a twisted spire and a tale of suicide. The spire, as an arguably innocuous legend would have it, was first erected straight and tall to mock the girls who pretended to be virgins when they married.
One day, though, a pig farmer’s daughter charmed the spire with her honesty, and it leaned in for a better look, twisting itself on its own axis and vowing never to straighten out until a second virgin came to church to marry. But, this joker of an orator tells the author, “as you can see… the spire is still waiting”. Belgian poet, Charlotte van den Broeck, manages to use banter between the nationalities and unique insights from the locals to investigate architectural tragedies, or rather the tragedy of the architect, like in this case with the chief mason who committed suicide.
There’s a tale of Reginald Geare, who gassed himself five years after Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, D.C., collapsed in 1922 under the weight of a snowstorm and killed a lot of people. And Francesco Borromini of Rome, who lived in the more conventional Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s shadow during the 17th century and eventually impaled himself on a saber. It’s an intriguing concoction of architecture, poetry, and storytelling as van den Broeck takes us on a world-wide architectural tour with a niche angle. You’ll never be able to look at church spires the same way, as is her skill to breathe life into the many facets of a building.
Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins, 2022)
The best kinds of children’s books are the ones that are both pleasing to the eye and provide entertainment for the adults.
Here We Are is a montage of the wonders of our world with simple sentences on all the things Jeffers wanted his 2 month old baby growing up knowing. In one illustration of blue hues, crayon-drawn mountains and planets, he explains the constellations (millions of stars) and the stars (burning balls of gas very far away) above a sometimes blue sky with wind (moving air), rain (falling water) and clouds (floating water) below. Over leaf, there’s friends by a tent with fire, food, and water for basic survival. There’s a small person's body labelled with a heart (to pump your blood) and a brain (for thinking) and Jeffers says “look after it, as most bits don’t grow back”. His words are atop cute, colourful illustrations, and they spark some of our stagnant brain cells back to life.
Reading and picturing in your head how the moon spins around us while we’re spinning around the sun is akin to tapping your head while simultaneously rubbing your tummy. It’s a great opportunity to revisit definitions of the marvels we lose sight of in the domesticity and complicatedness of being a grownup. This book (and all of Oliver Jeffers for that matter) are a portal to a more accessible language, which can only help us communicate better with our children and grandchildren. Buy this book from Little Unity and the young ones in your life will thank you.
Rooms by Jane Ussher (Massey University Press, 2022)
Every so often a book lands on the shelves at Unity and I become fixated on its irresistibility. These last few months I can’t stop thinking about, flicking through, or writing about Jane Ussher’s portraits of Aotearoa’s most stunning home interiors in Rooms. You’ll perhaps recognise her name as one of our foremost documentary photographers. She created Nature Stilled, which is full of obscure and artistic stills of nature’s creations from the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa’s scientific collections. There’s a probable chance that you, a customer at Crane Brothers, have had your house photographed for this latest collection of interiors. It is awash with impeccable style. Looking through the pages feels both comfortingly close to home yet inspiringly far as the grandeur, art, and tchotchkes are notably unique, unaffordable or priceless, and subject to the tastes of Aotearoa’s snazzy homeowners.
There are hallways to peruse, alcoves to get lost in, and a myriad of rooms donning weighty curtains, old arm chairs, floor-to ceiling bookshelves, tables that look ripe for a seance, and art that makes you think “I could have done that” and pieces that will make your jaw drop. But the pizzazz is truly in the soul of the spaces she captures; somehow every shade and angle attributes to the way the space has been lived in, as does every speckle of dust that sits on a surface or floats like an orb in front of her lens. Matched with John Walsh’s masterful essay on the intricacies of her work, spanning philosophers and the unique, subtleties of Ussher’s skill, this is a gift impossible to get wrong. If you think a book reviewer who works in a bookshop doesn’t need this book buying for her, you’d be wrong. It’s at the top of my Christmas list.
The Crown in Vogue by Josephine Ross and Robin Muir (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
Edward Enninful, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, said of this coffee table must-have that ”Vogue, like the royal family, has been through many evolutions of its own, and to view Her Majesty's life through the record of our pages is truly a document of history.” This tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor is as reliable, gracious, and majestic as her 70 year reign; and the work that author Robin Muir evidently put into it has resulted in a timeless keepsake.
Composed of never-seen-before photographs unearthed from the unrivalled Vogue archive, there is no other publication with the authority to produce such a “special royal salute”. After all, British Vogue has borne witness to a century of royal history. In the depths of Vogue's archives, Muir found treasures including unpublished portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales, when she was still Lady Diana Spencer, in outtakes from her very first Vogue sitting with Snowdon in 1981. Amongst photographs taken by prized Vogue photographer, Cecil Beaton, and Antony Armstrong Jones, who left Vogue to marry Princess Margaret, and other greats, are contributions through the decades from royal commentators like Evelyn Waugh and Zadie Smith.
This is a photographic homage on the great moments of four reigns, documenting coronations and jubilees, weddings and births, one abdication and the death of two Kings, presented in the unparalleled style of the world’s most stylish magazine.
Tits, Boobies and Loons: And Others Birds Named by People Who Clearly Hate Birds by Stuart Royall (Harper Collins, 2022)
“Some people will literally name all the birds instead of going to therapy, and this book exposes all the weird and wonderful monikers these poor feathered creatures have been tarred with”. Have you ever wondered where the bird names Short-Legged Ground Roller, Fluffy-Backed Tit Babbler, and Horned Screamer come from? If you have, there’s no answers here. This book is simply the most hilarious, side-splitting picture book of birds that, as the title suggests, were named by ornithologists who clearly hate birds. It was very difficult serving customers the day I picked up this book, because I desperately wanted my colleagues to find their bird names as crack-up as I did, which you can devise using the helpful table in the back.
My favourite is the Disappointing Thick-kneed Wanker for someone who has the initials LH born in November. It’s the antidote to a world that’s teetering on the edge of self-destruction, and this is not the kind of pointless counter book you pick up once and never touch again. Even the bird on the cover is funny. Just imagine how much joy’s on the inside.
Quicktionary: A Game of Lightning-Fast Wordplay (Chronicle Books, 2022)
Not everybody is competitive, and if you’re one of those people graced with composure, I can only imagine what a civilised version of this game could look like. But slow-paced and gloat-free is not how one gets kicks from this.
The rules are simple. The 102 card deck is split into thirds by colour; yellow, blue, and red. The three decks are placed on the table so all players can see them. Each card has either a category or a rule on it, and players have to muster every ounce of brain power (which isn’t as easy as it sounds if you’re sipping on margaritas) to shout out any word that meets all three criteria. The first person to shout a word that fits the criteria keeps the card, and the first person to collect five cards wins. For example, the red card says “ends with the letter R”, the blue card says “begins and ends with the same letter” and the yellow card says “an item found at the office”. Read this bit slowly. I’ll give you three seconds. Rubber.
In all honesty, I get a lot of pleasure playing this by myself, like you do watching University Challenge or 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. If you’ve ever seen Jon Richardson’s face when he gets the Countdown conundrum right, expect a lot of that from your friends when you get a word wrong or they get in there first. It has the possibility to bring out the worst self-congratulatory gloaters in everyone.
Straight Up by Ruby Tui (Allen & Unwin, 2022)
Released in September, Straight Up is the memoir by the indomitable, joyous, wonderful Ruby Tui who, if you have been living under a rock, is one of the legends who led the Black Ferns to victory at the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2022. But her books not in vogue now simply because they won. It was already at No. 1 in New Zealand for three weeks when it was first released because it’s so damn brilliant. At the World Cup it was held up by fans to millions of viewers on TV, and the demand became so high it sold out nationwide and Allen & Unwin had to rush to reprint p.d.q (pretty damn quick). It’s the book of 2022.
Ruby was surrounded by drugs, alcohol and domestic violence growing up and she details the harrowing impact that watching her Mum get beaten by her new boyfriend, and her Dad deal drugs and offer her joints, had on her. Her story of transformation and resilience is a story of hope and inspiration when you look at where she's at now. It’s obvious how this hilariously witty sports star has become a pillar of strength for many across Aotearoa. The ins and outs of her rise to rugby stardom are also documented, from trialling rugby at university just because the fields were affordably next to her accommodation, through to the international tournaments in Rio and the struggles within the team. Ruby Tui will go down in history as a legend, and we at Unity still can’t believe she once walked on our carpets and hid tickets to the World Cup inside her book.