December Must-Reads by Chloe Blades

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30 November 2022

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Rooms by Jane Ussher

(Massey University Press, 2022)

The wonder of this work from photographer Jane Ussher, beyond the beauty of its outstanding curation and craftsmanship, is found in the angles in which you can view it from. Admiring her portraits as standalone works of art is a joy, as you wander the hallways, alcoves, and rooms framed by sharp angular beams of natural light, unique artworks, tchotchkes and un/fashionable interior decor. This, with a glass of red wine at sundown, is my preferred angle. Alternatively, take the scholarly angle. As John Walsh explains in the evocative opening essay, the philosopher and critic and contemporary of Freud, Walter Benjamin, “saw collecting as a means of asserting control over the uncertainties of modernity… Ussher’s interiors portraits are testament to controlling instincts – those of collectors, and those of photographer”.

This book is a fine example of Aotearoa’s pizzazz, combining the skill of Massey University Press and the most beautiful interiors with the artistic eye of Ussher. Like her portraits of people, she has a knack for capturing the soul of her subject from every angle.

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

(Doubleday, January 2023)

You heard it here first, thanks to an excellent recommendation from Caro at Unity Books – this book needs to be at the top of your 2023 TBR pile. Until now, I’d never laughed through my tears while reading a book, as nothing before had been able to slice through my ice-queen heart. Edith and Ashley are best-friends who together have shared the joys of marriage, the lows of infertility, and a unique 40 year-long female friendship. But now Ash is caring for Edi in her final days in hospice.

You’d think it would be sad, with the inevitable ending, but picture a black comedy that’s been written and then edited down to the funniest, wittiest, most beautiful 200 pages of memories and interactions since Sorrow and Bliss. The braiding of both families, the care-givers, the cats, and even the guitar player paint a heartfelt picture of the highs and lows of grief and the complicated beauty in caring for someone who’s loved deeply and in different ways. Newman dedicates the book to Ali Pomeroy and at the end says, “wherever you are. Come back to me”. Evidently this is a work of pure love that perhaps gave Newman another chance to be with her best friend and immortalise her in this life-affirming debut.

‘Cherry’ Ingham: The Englishman Who Saved Japanese Blossoms by Naoko Abe

(Vintage, 2020)

Award-winning journalist Naoko Abe discovered Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingham, the 19th Century Englishman who saved the Taihaku blossom tree from extinction in Japan, when researching an article on how cherry trees spread in the British Isles. Ingham’s name kept appearing, yet memories of him and his remarkable achievements were unknown. She unearthed cardboard boxes of his journals and breathed new life into his story, producing a stunning ode to Spring complete with sepia hued colour illustrations. Collingwood came from an unusual family of wealthy eccentrics (some of their deaths are no less outré). They owned 35 Japanese Chins, took their pet sparrows on holidays down the Nile, and even had a pet albino jackdaw called Darlie who lived in Collingwood’s Dad’s hat.

Naoko paints a remarkable portrait of Japan too through centuries of wars, Samurais, Japanese postwar plantsmen, her parents, and beyond, rooting the cherry blossom’s relevance and cultural significance firmly at the centre. I discovered Naoko after a short residency at Galloper Sands Gallery in Suffolk where on a residency of her own she joined artist Jason Gathorne-Hardy who’d planted cherry blossoms on his grounds. It was the most fortuitous experience, giving me all the Spring feels of optimism and revitalisation just as I promise this book will do for you.

Why Did You Stay? by Rebecca Humphries

(Sphere, 2022)

You’ve heard of the BBC TV show Strictly Come Dancing? It comes with an old tale of tabloid entertainment called ‘the strictly curse,’ which is the idea your husband or wife waltzes off to the bedroom with their dance partner because their sweaty loins couldn’t resist the lust. In this memoir, actor Rebecca Humphries recalls the times she suspected her boyfriend, a famous comedian she calls He, of cheating on her with his Strictly partner and when confronted he said this – “if you saw the two of us together you would see that we’re just friends, and you would be able to see what a psychopath you are”.

Low and behold he was cheating, specifically on Rebecca’s birthday, and her life upended and the news spread its tentacles along with the narrative of her as a victim. She released a Twitter statement and someone replied, “Why Did You Stay?” This memoir is a reclaiming of that narrative with a coming of age arc as she shows us how society builds a woman, and how easily the scaffolding of her self-confidence and self-worth can be dismantled. From finding herself with fewer friends and less auditions to craving the dopamine hit from the crumbs of His kindness, the signs of a relationship underpinned by gaslighting and narcissism unfurl. This is not a revenge-memoir, this an exceptional and brave rediscovery of life’s joy, friendships, and possibility once the toxicity is out.

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