Book Review: Luxembourg, by Stephen Oliver

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_luxembourgLuxembourg – Google it to find a tiny European state with spires that point to infinity, cobbled streets, canels through the city. But the blurb on this collection of poems draws us away from Luxembourg, telling us that these are the poems of a New Zealand poet returning home after twenty years in Australia. It’s hard to ignore the word hiding in plain sight in the title – lux – meaning light. Indeed, there are stars and sunsets, twilights – in many poems the light carries with it a ‘darkening into dawn’ of old world versus new. Perhaps the light is the light of understanding.

I might start by saying that my mum picked up the book from my shelf and was unimpressed with the first page’s description of ‘Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs’, in the poem Dreams of Flying. Further in, in a poem called Undercover I found:

…This is rural New
Zealand, where every woman over forty
looks like Janet Frame in a parallel universe
of the under privileged… 

These gripes aside, Oliver has a well-respected place in Australasian poetry. It seems a ripe time to admit that these are the first poems of Oliver’s which I have read (though this is his nineteenth collecton). It is on the basis of this collection that I call him a landscape poet. He writes about people, but it is in his consideration and depiction of the hills and valleys, skies and trees, that the poems carry the most beauty, weight, and originality of phrase. The poet’s language and eye is that of the painter as sights are drawn, spilt like paint on canvas rather than described, as in the poem Undercover:

The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away…

…The glass bowl tilts overhead

In the poem Road Notes, there is ‘fog / broiling off rounded hills’, the poplars rising ‘wind washed’. The ordinary sometimes appears; in the poem Dilapidated Dream – the poplars are ‘sentinels’, but also the stunning, as in the poem In the Blink: ‘Drought is the story of absences, equidistant / and everywhere.’ In the poem Apocrypha, Oliver describes houses like ‘a handful of croutons thrown over lumped up hills’. Descriptions of ideas are also catching, as in the poem Road Notes: ‘Memory has pulled tent pegs and moved on. / A sadness of light is all that remains, the mould broken’.

With the exception of a few poems close to the end of the book which caught me with their real feeling and humanness (the poem The Lost German Girl, and the closing lament for the friend who has died), the people in this book seem to be mostly vessels for the poems’ ideas. Not that the human is absent – fossils are ‘substances by which we sense / ourselves’. But the poems are highly intellectual, philosophical, scientific even, asking how and why we exist – Oliver is a name-dropper, a myth-dropper, a place-dropper. I needed a dictionary. The translation of the title poem, ‘Luxembourg’, into German is a nice touch, and the occasional Spanish or Latin phrase contributes to a feeling of intense working. The book is interposed with prose poems, a form growing in popularity. These tell stories and develop character, following a similar rhythm to the free verse which is more numerous.

Places in New Zealand appear – Te Kuiti, Piopio – I am happy to find the poet on the West Coast. But they submerge beneath the ripples of global citizenship that dominates Luxembourg. I keep coming back to the question, what lies at the heart of this collection? Why is it by the lamplights of Luxembourg or Europe or even Alaska that the poems choose to find a place in the world? It will take more than my two readings to interpret the heart of Luxembourg.

I do love the cover, and I’ll admit that as an old-fashioned romantic who loves landscape descriptions I chose the book because of its cover – the opera singer rendered in black and white, her heavy made-up, haunting eyes, staring into the unknown. She seems set in time – quite unlike these poems.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Luxembourg
by Stephen Oliver
Published by Greywacke Press
ISBN 9780646986968

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

lonely_planets_best_ever_travel_tipsFor such a small volume, there’s an abundance of useful information packed in here!

Whatever your particular question about travelling well, safely, economically and with minimal fuss, you’ll most likely find the answers in this pocket sized travel companion. From how to survive a small-group tour, to which plug is for which country, to considering ‘old-school’ technology to help you through small crises – there are a lot of ‘oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that before?’ moments.

It will be very helpful, I think, for less experienced, and also solo, travellers.

There are suggestions for eco-travelling (up to a point, of course) and how to give back to local communities through supporting local initiatives while you are visiting. This includes eating local! It’s one of the simplest ways both to support and learn about the place you are in.

Hate the cramped feeling you get on long flights? There is a list of exercises you can do pretty well anywhere to help with that.

Love your food, but have an allergy or intolerance to particular things? Take diet cards (if you are coeliac, for example) and snacks for emergencies. It’s worth it.

Always take more clothes than you need? Remember there are shops where you are going – this is not a Lonely Planet tip, but my own advice – and if you spend a bit of time planning to take things which mix and match, your problems are halved.

Got scammed on your last trip? Relax, it happens to everyone but you do need to be alert, and there are tips for what to watch out for. The mantra ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true’ definitely holds when travelling.

Highly recommended, and only one proofreading error that I picked up – one of the headings is STAY SAVE AND HEALTHY – doesn’t work, however you parse it!

But regardless of how often, or where, you travel, I think you’ll find this a very handy little book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips
Published by Lonely Planet Global
9781787017641

Book Review: Hedgehog Howdedo, by Lynley Dodd

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_hedgehog_howdedoThis classic by Lynley Dodd is set in the depths of winter as a young girl goes searching for all the hedgehogs hibernating in her garden. We count along with her, ‘two are on a ledge, I even saw three white ones in a hole behind the hedge’Finally the little girl sets down on her back door step and imagines what will happen when spring arrives and the hedgehogs wake up.

This gem of a book has everything we have come to expect from a Lynley Dodd book. It will bring adults back to their childhoods and introduce young readers to the delights of Lynley Dodd’s brilliant story-telling.

The text is sparse and perfectly targeted for the young reader. It contains her playful alliteration and parcels everything up in lilting melody. There is also her whimsical imagination – have you ever heard of a pizza plant before or dreamed about the noise of windywhistle grass?

This book would be wonderful to read on a cold winters night when the pictures mirror the cold view out the window. It carries the promise of warm spring days very soon as colour slowly emerges when the young girl dreams of the hedgehogs waking up.

Lynley Dodd is a national treasure for her contributions to young children’s literature – and rightly so. This book is the perfect bedtime story with her poetic text a joy to read aloud. The illustrations and gentle pace will lull young readers into a peaceful slumber with a smile on their face.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Hedgehog howdedo
written & illustrated by Lynley Dodd
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143773023

 

Book Review: Everyone Walks Away, by Eva Lindström

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_everyone_walks_awayThis is an eloquent picture book for children of all ages that deftly touches upon subjects of loneliness and exclusion.  We meet Frank who is standing alone while three friends are having fun. Frank goes home, cries into the pot and begins to cook. We don’t know what Frank is cooking and it is delicious to see the story emerge.

What is unique is the way the author has not made the hard topics soft and cuddly. Friendships are hard work and children know this. This book honours these emotions and children’s experiences by being honest about the sadness Frank feels. The ending wonderfully suggests the beginning possibilities of belonging, but doesn’t guarantee instant friendships.

The language is emotive; it provokes wonderful imagery and opens up conversations about how we experience emotions. Frank goes home and cries into a pot” is a sad statement to make about a sad event. I wonder how older children might also imagine the sadness our characters are feeling? The words are just enough to tell the story and gives space to talk about the issues the characters face.

Eva Lindströmis a comic artist and the illustrations wonderfully mirror the sparse text. At the beginning, there is only one scooter, one seat, even the leaves seem to be drooping. There is loneliness in the pictures. But, as the friends join Frank, we can find three bowls, three chairs and three pieces of toast. Every detail is thought about, including colour. Frank is seemingly downcast compared to the sunshine and brightness used to portray the three friends. Hope appears in the pictures as the characters begin a new, tentative friendship.

It is a quiet story that will touch the reader.  Everyone walks away is a real portrayal of friendships and belonging that deserves to be read aloud.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Everyone walks away
by Eva Lindström
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571864

 

Book Review: Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand , by Annette Lees

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_a_year_of_swimming_outdoorsHave you ever thought to yourself that swimming all year round would be a good idea? Neither had I, until Annette Lees’s charming collection of diary entries, tales and interviews with swimmers persuaded me of the wonders it could work on your physical health, mental health and appreciation for New Zealand’s beauty.

Part diary, part non-fiction stories with a splash of science, Swim opens with a classic swimming-related pun (‘Diving in’) and tells the story of a normal woman, Annette Lees, who, almost accidentally, decides to swim every day for a year. It begins as a commitment to swim all summer and slowly extends until it becomes a year-long effort.

The book is divided into beautiful seasonal sections which helps break up the year’s records of swimming. Her daily swims are described in diary entry format, which I became surprisingly invested in as the book went on. They share details of the weather, the water, and snippets of conversation with people she meets. Some she even manages to convince to swim – ‘He grabs his girlfriend by the hand – ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ he yells.’ There are many places where I now want to swim, and one thing I would have loved to see is a map with the swims marked on.

Woven amongst these daily swims are collected stories: anything and everything to do with New Zealanders swimming. From competitive swimming to historical swims to government swim campaigns, these well-referenced stories offer insights into New Zealand’s incredible history with swimming. Interviews with swimmers from various backgrounds made swimming seem more accessible and left me in awe of the amazing things that New Zealanders do when they set their minds to it. Arno Marten, for example, describes his attempt to swim from Milford Sound 450 kilometres down to Te Waewae Bay. Swimming is far more ingrained in the New Zealand culture than I ever bothered to think about, but I am glad that Swim gave me a reason to do so.

Although initially a little hard to get in to, before long I was avidly awaiting the next adventurous tale. Lees has a deliciously dry and witty writing style, which I would just begin to miss before another comment proved that her humour had simply been waiting for the right moment to resurface. She has truly mastered the art of finishing with a bang: each story ends almost abruptly, in a way that adds to the story rather than completes it.

Swim is a beautiful book. Unfortunately, it was let down by its clear lack of thorough proofreading. It was hard to appreciate the beauty of the book as an object when I was overwhelmed by the number of obvious errors, especially in the middle third of the book.

Lees’s descriptions of swimming are glorious: ‘the sensuous feeling of water on the skin, or the giddy happiness, freedom and contentment that steals into the soul when bathing.’ Between the imagery, the fascinating stories and the personal accounts, any reader will truly be immersed in an appreciation of swimming.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Swim
by Annette Lees
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503956

Book Review: Ajax the Kea Dog, by Corey Mosen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_ajax_the_kea_dogAjax is a working dog trained to sniff out the nests of endangered kea in remote parts of the South Island. His trainer, Corey Mosen, then places cameras in and around the nests to monitor the kea and any predators that might attack them.

Corey Mosen is a wildlife biologist working for the Department of Conservation and picked the Border Collie / Catahoula cross pup from a litter in Westport, after being advised the Catahoula were highly intelligent and had heaps of energy, making them suitable for the hard work in the high country. His book describes how he trained the pup to seek out the nests and the rigorous testing which took around 18 months before he was approved. Ajax is one of around 80 dogs in New Zealand who work to detect protected species or unwanted pests as part of the internationally recognised Conservation Dogs Programme.

The pair use a helicopter for many of the journeys and often camp out together in the remote terrain of the high country. It is a wonderful story of a man and his mate working together in unpredictable weather and harsh conditions and Mosen has included a great selection of photographs many snapped by him while they have been out on the job.

The author has also included chapters ‘Introducing the Kea’ and ‘Threats to the Kea’ which discuss the habits of the mountain parrot and I was unaware kea nest underground, making them particularly vulnerable to stoats, wild cats, possums – and even ‘rats have been seen hooking into kea eggs.’

The Appendix provides information about the Kea Conservation Trust supplied by Tamsin Orr- Walker, as well as information about ways to help kea and resolving conflict with kea.

Ajax the Kea Dog is an interesting read written with humour, and portrays the wonderful bond between a man and his dog carrying out important conservation work. Before reading this book I had not realised that kea were considered endangered in New Zealand as I have often encountered the cheeky parrot while visiting the high country. A wide age group will enjoy this publication and it could sit well in a library in a secondary school to promote a career in conservation.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Ajax the Kea Dog
by Corey Mosen
Allen & Unwin New Zealand
ISBN 9781760633615

Book Review: time to sing before the dark, by Helen Bascand

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_time_to_sing_before_the_darkI read this book sprawled on my bed, straight off a six-hour-long bus ride, back in my flat in the big city after a week away: tired, sunsick, and homesick already. I raced through them, loving them. Then I had to go back and read the poems again. Everyone knows you shouldn’t rush poetry (I couldn’t help it; the words were comforting, the voice fresh but strangely familiar).

First to note is the title, time to sing before the dark – words scrawled on a page found in Helen Bascand’s papers by her friend and writing partner, Joanna Preston, who edited this posthumous collection. The title acknowledges the poet’s death; however, the sense is not of stillness or ending, but vitality:

when you hear the birds’ urgent evening chatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark

These are the last words said, the last poems published, the final performance. While fear works its way in between the lines, the poet does not despair but rather opens up.

Bascand writes in a graceful free verse that does not feel at all fusty, but has an immediacy and the boldness of real life – recounting teaching her young husband to hang a towel. The poems address painting, history, and myth. We see the earth shifting, hear the voice of the moon. Poems which recreate myths bring their characters close – Bascand’s Leda is not victim; she embraces lust. The poem Persephone retells the ancient myth in a voice that is tangible and tactile:

just a simple descent, he said,
through layers of old seasons – down
into a winter of desire and lust clinging to her skin.

Persephone in the dark night, shuffles fragile memories
like used playing cards – this crumpled picture, a woman
in a paddock of clover – tears burning where they fall.

Many of these poems can be illuminated by their mythic origins, but they read fluently without this knowledge, speaking on a human level. There is a sense of rebellion simmering, especially in the poems which treat on women – Bascand writes of reaching into the tree’s branches to shake the snake coiled on the fruit (Thought).

‘The dancing language (for my sister)’ is one of my favourite poems, as the poet watches her sister dance on the blue coffee house carpet. These do not read like the poems of an old woman, but a woman in the midst of life. They move from childhood to courtship to age. There are enchanting, intimate moments. Bascand has a knack of making memories come alive:

Last night
Orion stood on his head
in December’s sky, and the stars
were as close as magic, as if
we stood on a virgin ridge
and stretched up
to pluck them. (Ring out wild bells)

Ordinary moments are received perceptively: words weave meaning. They theorise on trees, while in the poem The weight of words:

Outside the window, the pear tree simply
stands within the gravity of pears
and their letting go. 

Perhaps why I found the collection so comforting was its appearance of simplicity, its elegant truths. This apt piece comes from within the poem ‘Shifting’:

Arriving

Going
towards the new house
turn
into the street, the front door,
unpack supplies, make a bed,
pick
a flower for the jam jar

boil an egg, the jug –

say

home.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to call these poems simple. There are the wild moments which take breath away. In ‘Reading the night’ the poet states:

It was the wind that did it,
tore through the butterfly-wings of meaning,
left a tattered gap, wide enough for moonlight,
but too fragile to climb through – as you  might
over a sill before jumping to freedom –

Not only are the poems beautiful in themselves, but in the way these have been arranged beneath the marbled blue and white jacket with its single bird still singing by the light of the moon. Most touching is the titular phrase reproduced in a handwritten scrawl on the back cover. This is a book undertaken with delicacy and thought. My feeling about posthumous collections is that while they are the author’s work, they inevitably carry something of the editor with them as well –  they are not, cannot be the book as the author would have made it. There is a tenderness in time to sing’s arrangement that shows the strength of the friendship between the editor and the writer.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Time to sing before the dark
by Helen Bascand
Published by The Caxton Press
ISBN: 978 0 473 45128 8