Book Review: Vodka & Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vodka_&_apple_juiceJay Martin’s husband accepts a diplomatic post in Poland so she leaves career to share the experience with him, of living in a country vastly different to Australia.

Her memoir Vodka & Apple Juice catalogues their journeys to many countries bordering Poland, as well as her involvement assisting Tom with his job at the embassy. From glamorous cocktail parties and dining with presidents, to snowy sleigh rides and drinking vodka in smoky bars, Jay is thrown into all that embassy life has to offer. She sets herself a goal of learning the Polish language and starts simply ordering coffee etc until eventually she is able to hold a conversation and confident to explore the country on her own, as well as venturing in Eastern Europe. At times Martin struggled with living in Poland as she felt she was living multiple lives, doing the mundane living things about the home, or staying in five star hotels while on embassy work but she was also living as a foreigner, trying to identify food items in the supermarket while ‘finding my way around on buses and dealing with obstructive post office officials.’

She felt her husband Tom wasn’t having the same ‘disjointed experience’ as he was in the embassy all day and often into the evening. But her writing for the Warsaw Insider and volunteering at the museum as well as the addition of a cat called Very helped her become more satisfied with her Polish experience.

An engaging read, with touches of humour which help to lighten the enormous challenges the couple find themselves having to deal with, in a very different culture to what they are used to. It will be enjoyed by anyone who travels, especially to a country where English is not the native language. Martin’s inclusion of historical facts also add a depth to the book without making it a heavy read, as the author’s wit is evident in every chapter. I loved the book, its name is captivating, and the cover splendid, inviting the reader to turn the pages to read of the Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland.

Jay Martin grew up in Melbourne and lived in a number of countries overseas before settling in Canberra where she worked as a policy analyst and married her husband Tom. On their return from Poland the couple settled in Fremantle,Western Australia, with the cat called Very.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Vodka & Apple Juice
by Jay Martin
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591316

Book Review: Living Big in a Tiny House, by Bryce Langston

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_living_big_in_a_tiny_house.jpgTiny houses are a big thing. Around the world, more and more people are embracing the concept of downsizing their living space. The reasons for doing so are as varied as the tiny houses they create. Some wish to lessen their impact on the environment, others want to reduce their cost of living, and for some, a tiny house offers greater flexibility in where, and how they live.

Five years ago Bryce Langston stumbled upon an image of a man standing in front of a tiny house on wheels and was intrigued to find out more. He was hooked, and from then on, he has constructed his own tiny house and at the same time, created a video channel showcasing his own experiences as well as exploring the tiny house concept. This book is born out of that passion and interest, and is a collection of inspirational houses and the people who live in them.

Ranging in size from a miniscule 4 metre square to a ‘huge’ 60 metre square, the houses are as different as their owners: some are kitted out vans, some are permanently fixed homes, others are converted shipping containers. The folk themselves range from singletons, to couples to families to retirees. One particularly impressive owner built her tiny house as her Year 13 school project – a home owner at just 18 years old.

Each house is presented with an array of photographs along with a background story/interview of the owner and the how/why of their tiny house journey. For those who might be inspired to build a tiny house, practical tips for construction and planning are included at the beginning of the book. Although the photographs offer a good peek at the inside, I would have liked to have included a plan of just how each tiny house is laid out.

It is beautifully presented, and is a colourful and interesting book to dip into. The personal stories show not only the possibilities of what can be created, but also how lives can be enhanced and widened by living with less. You can’t help but admire the tenacity and passion of these pioneers in the tiny house movement. This will appeal to anyone who is interested in design and lifestyle, or those who are keen to try tiny house living for themselves.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Living Big in a Tiny House
by Bryce Langston
Potton & Burton, 2018
ISBN: 9780947503901

Book Review: Up the Mountain, by Marianne Dubuc

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cv_up_the_mountain.jpgMrs Badger lives at the foot of a small mountain, and though she is very old she walks all the way up to the top of that mountain every Sunday. The story begins with Mrs Badger setting out on her walk just like any other Sunday but today she gets the feeling she is being watched… Leo, a little cat, would like to climb the mountain too but he is full of self-doubt and announces that he is “too little”. Curiosity eventually gets the better of Leo and he follows Mrs Badger, who is more than happy to introduce her young friend to the many wonders of the mountain. Along the way, Mrs Badger generously shares her wealth of knowledge about the animals and plants that live on the mountain. When Mrs Badger becomes too old and tired to explore the mountain with Leo, Leo begins to adventure up on his own but he never forgets his friend Mrs Badger. He returns at the end of each trip to share his discoveries and bring her gifts from the mountain. In the end we see that Leo (older and stronger now) makes a new friend; a younger friend much like himself in the beginning of the story for whom he can share his now bountiful fund of knowledge about the mountain with.

Being curious is a wonderful thing that should be encouraged in children and Up the Mountain does just that. It is a beautiful and heartwarming story about trying new things, seeking adventure and enjoying nature. Lovely messages of kindness, caring and friendship are woven through this story as it explores the importance of helping others, sharing the beauty of nature with a friend and stopping to take in the world around us. As the main characters make their way up the mountain we also learn interesting facts like, what mushrooms are delicious in a stew, the perfect walking stick and what we can make with sumac leaves!

The vibrant watercolour illustrations are just as sweet as the story and emphasise all the different aspects of nature from tiny insects flitting about the trees to long grasses and peaceful bodies of water. Children will enjoy searching the pages to unearth all the different animals and plants.

Passing knowledge on to our younger generations – especially about the natural world – is so important and Marianne Dubuc illustrates just that in this touching story with along with its charming artwork. Up the Mountain encourages curiousity and kindness and promotes the message that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to if you’re willing to work for it!

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Up the Mountain
by Marianne Dubuc
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9781911496090

Book Review: The Sound of Breaking Glass, by Kirsten Warner

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cv_the_sound_of_breaking_glass.jpgI grew up in the Hutt Valley with children whose surnames, and often Christian names were so obviously European and therefore foreign, with facial features ever so slightly different from my bog-standard British-derived features, many also musical and artistic. And yet in many ways they were the  same as the rest of us Lower Hutt school children.

In later years, I discovered that one or both of the parents of these children came to the Valley after the war, either as children themselves or young adults – Polish, Jewish, Dutch, Yugoslav. I never knew as a child the stories of these families, and really why would I? I never questioned the back story but there was always a curiosity about my fellow classmates. These children would now be around the same age as the author of this novel – early 60s/mid-late 50s – and a good number of them would probably fall into the category of Second Generation Survivors – children born to people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine your entire family wiped out because someone didn’t like what they were, hard to imagine having no grandparents, uncles, aunts because they simply are no more, hard to imagine what it must be like to hear your parent waking in the night from a terrible nightmare. Thank goodness for writers like Kirsten Warner, who through storytelling, can give us some sort of idea.

This novel is not strictly about the Holocaust or about what happened to those taken away to the camps. It is a frame of reference around which this story has been created, and unsurprisingly the make up, the personality, the essence of the central character, Christel, whose Jewish father was a refugee and survivor of the camps. Much like the author’s father, making the author herself a Second Generation. It has been shown that the children of survivors of extreme trauma have that trauma stamped in their own DNA, passed on by their parent(s), making them behave in ways that to someone without such DNA changes may well find difficult to understand, to empathise with, even live with. Aside from survivor’s guilt, Christel also grows up in fear – that one day in Auckland suburbia, the door will be bashed down and the whole family carted away to who knows where; that there are bad people all around her; that there may come a time when there is not enough food. It is against this background that Christel has grown up.

The novel is set primarily in 1990s Auckland, with a regular return to her childhood in 1970s Parnell. She is now married to Ted, has two very young children, and is a producer for a reality TV programme, which is similar to Fair Go or Target. She is also involved in a women’s protest group called Women Against Surplus Plastic (WASP). Hardly surprising that she is very stressed, so stressed that she is really at breaking point. While trying to balance all these high demands, it seems that she is losing her mind. Her imagination begins to work overtime, conjuring up a variety of ways to deal with the stresses in her life – this is so cleverly done, that at times I was sort of caught between what was real and what (patently) wasn’t. She had her own encounters with trauma as a teenager, long buried, and now in her increasingly fragile mental state, her imagination, her coping strategies and the reappearance of a long forgotten person are threatening to bring everything crashing down.

But she is not the child of a Holocaust survivor for nothing! This is also a funny book – always look on the bright side as Eric Idle says. And Christel has a great sense of humour – her boss is the Fat Controller; the women in her WASP group are Rock Star, Celebrity Yoga Teacher, Madonna. There is Car Couple, Karate Man, Artist; her alter ego the Big C; and Milk Bottle Man. For anyone who has grown up in Auckland, or spent long periods living/working in the inner city area, the setting will be very familiar, and no doubt bring about long periods of contemplative nostalgia. From the Parnell Baths, to Cox’s Bay, to the inner city, Remuera Road, Mt Hobson, Newmarket, Parnell.

This is a somewhat exhausting read, with so much going on, such intensity, continuous moving between Christel’s present and her childhood, examining the complicated relationship between her parents, coming to terms with her father’s and hence her own past. But it is also satisfying, clever and rich in its writing, particularly its characters, its unusual and unexpected conclusion. I hope that through writing this novel, Kirsten Warner also got some peace and personal resolution in her own life story as the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Sound of Breaking Glass
by Kirsten Warner
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780994137876

 

Book Review: Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand

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cv_better_lives_migration_wellbeing_and_nzWith migration being an ongoing political topic, and a tricky policy area, this book would seem to be a timely one. Julie Fry and Peter Wilson are both independent economists, and the former has already co-written a 2016 text on migration, with Hamish Glass, for Bridget Williams Books. However, this version is a lot longer and becomes more of an academic text, rather than an extended essay on a specific topic.

Besides utilising their economics training, and referring to well-recognised academic economists, Fry and Wilson introduce the ‘Wellbeing’ framework, which introduces a range of qualitative aspects for policy-making, to complement the existing quantitative measures. But the authors also refer to the shortcomings of aggregated statistics such as Gross Domestic Product, before setting out all the categories of the Wellbeing approach. Since the so-called Wellbeing approach will apparently feature prominently in next year’s Budget documents, this is a useful way to think about nuances in policy.

However, the idea of Wellbeing is open to criticism for being somewhat subjective, or even nebulous, and introducing political criteria, such as considerations of the Treaty of Waitangi. One can perhaps expect right wing economists to find it all a bit too politically correct, and also lacking in econometric rigour. There is a conceptual problem that is rather obvious here, and migration exemplifies it for economists. While most economists want free movement of money, capital and goods across borders, there seems to be an exception with the mobility of people, at least for people who don’t have useful skills. Yet that mobility also aids in moving wages and prices.

The difficulty provided by this conceptual problem, of having free markets but not free movement in people, becomes clear in the chapter on applying the Wellbeing framework. This chapter is actually significant in itself, highlighting the current issues in tertiary education, and the health profession, caused by temporary and permanent migration. But, certainly with regard to tertiary ‘export’ education, especially in private training (with work visas), the authors revert to wearing their economic hats.

First there is a criticism of export education as a contributor to national income, given the free movement of capital, as a business decision. The point being that so-called export education is not necessarily good for the economy just because it provides an ‘export’ income. Then a few pages later the authors claim, while making a point set within parentheses, that ‘export’ education is not really an export at all, if those graduating from tertiary courses stay in New Zealand, and don’t actually return home.

The latter point is made in the context of an important discussion about the health sector workforce. Indeed, it seems that New Zealand has almost the highest number of foreign-born doctors in the world, apart from Israel, and has the most foreign-born nurses. It might have been better to focus on these migration issues within the tertiary sector, and the related question of training an indigenous based health profession, more directly.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand
by Julie Fry & Peter Wilson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533759

 

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

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cv_a_well-behaved-womanHello, my name is Rachel, and I am addicted to historical fiction. Probably 60-70% of my adult library is historical fiction, with another 15% historical biography. For me, the sign of a good historical fiction book is one that sends me searching for more information, and A Well-Behaved Woman certainly fits the bill.

The riches to rags to obscene-riches tale of Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith, later Belmont) is the focus of Fowler’s novel. After the American Civil War her family was left in dire financial straits, and to avoid abject poverty Alva needed to marry well (or more to the point, she needed to marry wealthy). She set her sights on William Kissam Vanderbilt, and won, entering into a world of wealth and privilege that defies comprehension.

Life wasn’t all smooth sailing (both literally and figuratively) for Alva after her marriage. The Vanderbilts were ‘new money’ and found it hard to gain acceptance in the top tier of New York society. Alva worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for the family and a lot of the novel’s plot follows her efforts to become part of the New York crème de la crème, as well as her married life with William.

Alva’s character – strong, determined, well-educated, rebellious and creative – is a gift to an author, and Fowler has made the most of it. The book is well-researched and moves along at a good pace, and successfully transports the reader to the luxurious world of Gilded Age New York, Newport and Europe. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the only thing missing for me was a Vanderbilt family tree – fictional Alva struggles to keep track of them with their reuse of names when she first meets them, and she at least had the benefit of seeing faces. As a reader it was even harder to keep track.

A Well-Behaved Woman sent me in search of one of my favourite book adaptations, the BBC’s 1995 version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers, set at the same time as much of Alva Vanderbilt’s early story, and certainly appearing to be based on some real life characters (you can find it on YouTube). I also spent some time skimming my long-forgotten copy of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, enjoying the photographs of the novel’s protagonists. And this is why it’s easy for me to recommend A Well Behaved Woman to others who enjoy historical fiction and/or strong and interesting female characters – I was completely satisfied with the novel, but my interest was piqued and it sent me looking for more.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Well-Behaved Woman
by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473632516

Book Review: Galleries of Maoriland, by Roger Blackley

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cv_galleries_of_maoriland.jpgGalleries of Maoriland is a study of the people, works and objects of what would become known as ‘Māori art’, and the genre’s heyday between 1880 and 1910. It is a new appreciation of the value of the works produced, circulated and displayed during those years, and how they found a place in the fabric of our national identity.

While the focus is on the complex interactions between Māori art (art by or about Māori), its makers, collectors and traders, Māori themselves (as subjects or consumers), and the public, it is also an amazingly detailed glimpse into many other aspects of New Zealand life at the time.

It is an insight into how Māori and Pākehā saw themselves and their neighbours, as both adjusted to a shared future, and how an art and story appeared to express the spirit of this cohabitation, as the realisation slowly dawned that Māori would remain a living part of New Zealand.

Blackley recreates the wild hunt for authentic and exotic relics of a Māori past, so-called curios, and the many ways of obtaining them: trade in ceremonial gifts, tomb-raiding, or excursions to maniacally rake up the land to find buried treasures. The curios collected were often displayed (as the book’s remarkable collection of images shows) in incongruous, sometimes ghoulish arrays, of huia feathers and weapons, pounamu and disembodied heads.

Blackley explains how these displays also helped to revise the country’s pre-European material culture and its inhabitants into a more acceptable (though not particularly factual) story for the Victorian mind, enabling collectors to place these items (and perhaps their makers) on a scale of development towards the apex of supposed British superiority.

Curios also allowed Pākehā to make sense of Māori and their culture, although often with little relation to how Māori actually understood and lived it. Despite this, Blackley observes that the creation of this Māori-inspired folklore by Pākehā for themselves laid some of the groundwork for the bicultural imagery that distinguishes New Zealand today.

The book’s biographies of portrait subjects and other figures demonstrate how Māori adeptly navigated the art market, not only as suppliers of curios but also by availing their romanticised image. By recreating sittings for Goldie’s ostensibly melancholy Māori portraits, Blackley underlines this pose was agreed and negotiated, rather than disingenuous or manipulative.

Blackley explains how portraits were valued by Māori as a new taonga, and by Pākehā as an art form with uniquely local features. He details how for Māori, portraiture was a revelation, reproducing the awe of Māori in city galleries and including grateful comments to the artists in visitors’ books of the time. While Blackley recognises portraits did help reinforce prevailing beliefs of Māori fading away, he counters Māori also saw in them a medium to reach out to their descendants. As a descendant of the subject of a Goldie portrait, I appreciated this balance.

Blackley’s investigation of traders, artists, and their subjects reveals a remarkable biculturalism among Pākehā in this world and a worldly sophistication of Māori subjects, often nameless in titles of the works, who rather than brooding elders in decaying pā, were frequently influential, well-travelled, sophisticated citizens of the world. He notes these subjects felt Pākehā artists belonged to them, upending preconceived ideas of relationships between artists and these subjects.

On the other hand, Blackley observes biculturalism allowed traders to use their knowledge of Māori lore and custom to manipulate Pākehā purchasers and Māori suppliers of objects. Similarly, public figures we imagine as honourably representing the Crown, after receiving hugely significant gifts with due solemnity, did not hesitate to dip into the profitable side business of trading taonga that had been gifted with the expectation they be returned in like form.

While the period’s ongoing transfer of Māori land is not his focus, Blackley provides interesting links between the whittling away of Māori land and Māori art. Māori attending land courts were inspired to contract portraits as they passed strategically placed galleries. Pākehā legal representatives with knowledge of te reo and tikanga represented claimants and claimed healthy commissions, later funnelling them into the profitable patronage of Māori art or trade in Māori gifts.

While the book provides examples how the colonial gaze could crush innovations in Māori art that challenged the narrative about what Māori art should look like, it also provides counter examples of the fruit this fertile cross-cultural environment could produce.

In one example, idyllic visions of how Māori lived in pre-European kāinga were cobbled together to create a performative culture for visitors, the inhabited model pā. Although these did not prosper like other manifestations of Maoriland, they were surprisingly empowering for Māori, who took ownership of this idealised past, reclaiming it to fortify and revive their tikanga. We also learn how it was a Pākehā artist that brought to life a symbolically rich new flag for the Māori King – the embodiment of aspirations for Māori self-determination.

Towards the end of the period, Blackley shows how the gloomy gaze into an uncertain future so commonly associated with the pose of Goldie’s subjects could more appropriately apply to early Pākehā commentators on Māori-inspired art. The days of freewheeling theorising gave way to a more formal and structured approach, and the curio mania too became a thing of the past, although its images remained thoroughly embedded in the national psyche.

Although Blackley reveals much of so-called Māori art was Pākehā fantasy, he does not deride its makers. He recognises Pākehā collectors, amateur scholars, and artists reinterpreted or embellished Māori art not only for profit, but also in the spirit of nation building, in search of what made New Zealand unique. Māori also found a means not only to preserve their images, but to ensure their material and immaterial culture remained central in the imagination of the colony.

The resulting hybrid folklore still dwells in our national subconscious, and Blackley’s work helps to identify some of its origins. His book subverts our understandings of history, art, engagement, ownership and appropriation. It is layered and diverse as it delves into the minutiae (not to say curios) of the times it studies and does so in the spirit of those times.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Galleries of Maoriland
by Roger Blackley
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869409357