Book Review: Stag Doo, by ‘Big Al’ Lester

cv-stag_dooAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Having grown up with male relatives who enjoyed hunting and fishing in the great New Zealand outdoors, I thought I’d enjoy this book. I did, but I think I’ve grown out of my youthful desire to be one of the boys..

‘Big Al’ Lester collects mates and their stories like a gumboot sock collects burrs. The stories are well told and I enjoyed them mainly for this reason. I have male friends now who love sharing tales of their derring-do in the wilderness, and this book would make a welcome gift, one to be read over a few beers, while reminiscing with like-minded mates. I don’t think many of the stories in the book have been too exaggerated in the telling. This makes for some head shaking moments as one reads, if the reader is someone who has never experienced such adventures in person. But even such a reader will enjoy the humour and eccentricity revealed as ‘Big Al’ encourages his mates to tell all. As he says in the epilogue- “the hills are full of hard case characters who are out there simply being themselves.” And one can identify with them to some extent because, like us, they’re human.

I enjoyed the photographs that were included, but I would have liked to see what some of the biggest ‘character’s looked like. And the book contains a glossary at the back which explains terms which may be unfamiliar to the townie. All in all, a good read for the hunter in your life who loves to laugh at the mishaps of his or her fellows.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Stag Doo
by ‘Big Al’ Lester
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143574064

Book Review: The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Available now in bookshops nationwide. A must-read. cv_the_hate_race

Maxine and I grew up in the same country, during the same era. As a New Zealander, I was also a little different, and I was discriminated against by one particular teacher, but this wasn’t widespread. I am white. My best friend was Australian-Indian – she was born there, but her parents weren’t. Reading this book made me think harder about what the impact the colour of her skin must have had on her. To me, she was my BFF. When we returned to NZ when I was 11, I was none the wiser about her experience.

What happened to Maxine Beneba Clarke by virtue of the colour of her skin, growing up in a small town in NSW, Australia, was unforgiveable. Maxine is Australian, her parents, as far as she was aware, were from England. Her first experience of racism was at preschool, at the hands of a pretty blond girl who stated, “You are brown”. While she had realised she wasn’t white, she hadn’t realised that this was perceived as a bad thing until that point. And from that point forward, many wouldn’t let her forget it. At primary school, she was star of the week, and when telling her teacher her parents were a Mathematician and an Actress she was assumed, by the teacher, to be lying.

She prays to a God she doesn’t believe in to become white, like everybody else, and one day it happens. Her skin starts turning white. Her mum takes her to the dermatologist, who diagnoses vitiligo. It doesn’t last, she turns dark again once the summer returns. Later she notes, “By grade eight, the wake-up-white prayers of my childhood had been well and truly reality-checked. I knew it would take an awful lot for broad-nosed, coffee-toned, B-cup, study-freak me to make the grass-greener leap.”

Maxine is a skilful storyteller, and grounds each segment of the book in its place politically, and socially. Her love for her family and friends shines, while she tells her stories of torment without the grainy taste of revenge. And it was torment – every time she moved schools, changed after-school activities, there would be a group of people who had been allowed, even trained by their culture to ridicule her. There is no doubt in the book, that this treatment of race was/is insidious and endemic in the White Australian culture. She spoke to a guidance counsellor who said it was a ‘little bit of teasing,’ when she had nasty notes being placed in her bag, her books, telling her to “go home”. She took another bullying incident to the principal, bawling, who said ‘It’s just a little bit of nonsense.’

But though there is misery, and this is a memoir, it is not – somehow – an overwhelmingly downbeat read. “The margins between events have blended and shifted in the tell of it. There’s that folklore way West Indians have of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places, because after all, what else is a story for?” Maxine’s storytelling lifts us when we need it, and the depths we plumb are of the behaviour of others, and how Maxine changed as a result. The boys at her high school played a game at the entrance to the girl’s toilets: ‘What are you?’ She had to give the right answer – “A blackie.” – to get past. It is in that chapter that we get the full sense of how this was creating her as a person:
“…I was Sooty, Boong, Thick Lips.
Somewhere along the line we give up counting.
Somewhere along the line, we just give in.
Somewhere along the line, we stop reporting.
Somewhere along the line, we die a little.”

I had the privilege to see Maxine at Auckland Writer’s Festival, speaking live to a multicultural group of high school students. She was one of the most powerful performers I’ve ever seen on stage.

I think every white person should read this, everywhere. Not just in Australia, nor just in New Zealand: everywhere. “Everyday racism” shouldn’t be a thing. “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be necessary to state. All high schools, too, should have this book on their shelves. This is about racism: this is about bullying based on something a person can’t change. It is important for teenagers to understand the impact words can have.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Hate Race
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733632280

Book Review: Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt

cv_salt river songsWith around 20 poetry books under his belt, well-loved poet Sam Hunt has once again captured readers with his latest collection, Salt River Songs. Although a thin volume, it is no less weighty or full of treasures than previous collections.

Long-time friend, biographer and occasional collaborator, Colin Hogg writes in his generous intro, that Sam doesn’t know what ‘typically New Zealand poetry is’. This topic has no doubt been debated often over the years, but not many people would argue that Sam’s poetry has contributed healthily to a semblance of a poetic vernacular in this nation. He has a reputation for his everyman, lyrical style grounded deeply in the New Zealand soil. His poems have always emerged from the fertile country of his birth. This collection is no different.

We see through Sam’s eyes from a spot on the verandah or the wharf. While both platforms bring to mind images of ageing, they are spots we all know; as familiar as the vantage of a pohutukawa branch or a deck chair under a tent awning; never far from salty waters. They are themselves etched with the salty wind of family, love and loss; as are these poems.

The title refers to the five salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour, including Arapaoa, where Sam lives. The title poem is also divided into five sections, each including the leitmotif ‘on Kaipara time’. You can almost feel the salt air in this work, with its allusion to sea shanties and maritime folk songs. It touches on the settler history and nature of time and tide in love and grief. It’s a short cycle; not quite melancholic, but rather wistful. The line ‘it’s a muddy creek for me’ is repeated and closes the piece. It shows Sam’s love of uninhibited nature and a slower pace, far from the sanitised and often frantic urban life in a metropolis, such as Auckland.

Speaking of sanitisation, Hogg recalls Sam’s mum chastising him for using too many F words in his poetry, after accompanying him on tour. There’s a few F-Bombs in this collection for the reader to help us recognise the larrikan performance poet we all know and love. The loveable maverick with his collar up and buttons undone still wanders through these poems, from the bed hair profile pic, to the Hone Tuwhare-style sex poems. But Sam is never crude; cheeky perhaps, but always endearing.

Yes, as Hogg points out, this collection does hold a grief, this through-line of death and loss; the salt rivers themselves a perfect metaphor for tears shed, a poet well-seasoned by the weather of life. (We live close to death, old mate…without even knowing it.) But it never flounders into sentimental territory. It is simply a poet acknowledging the fragility of things: the world [is] held together by cobwebs. But Sam’s philosophy toward the whole thing is summed up in the poem Piping The Fife. Musing on the death of someone he didn’t feel that warmly towards, he writes:
We each get on with our life
as well as we can. For me
I lie low, piping the fife.

He’s committed to the music of life and what plays out, keeping out of trouble. So to quote Sam, ‘I hope he keeps singing that song’ for many years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503031

WORD: Ask A Mortician, Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background-copyDeath is an odd thing to be chipper about. LA-based mortician, ‘death positive’ advocate and YouTube star Caitlin Doughty is definitely chipper, though: she has that extreme chirpiness that I’m going to assume is compulsory for anyone living in Los Angeles. And yet she is not flippant: in amongst her ebullient humour is a serious intellectual and moral engagement with issues of death, grieving, funeral customs, end-of-life care and spirituality. I felt immediately drawn to her. If it were possible to pre-book one’s own mortician, I would consign my corpse into Doughty’s hands without a second thought.

Doughty was interviewed by local coroner Marcus Elliott, who did a good job of asking interesting questions and then giving Doughty plenty of space to answer them. (I must also give him props for his dapper blue cravat.*) Doughty entered the death industry as a young woman fresh out of her medieval history degree. “My relationship with death is the best relationship of my life.” When she was 8, she had seen a small child fall from a balcony, and “the spectre of death began to haunt me … [but] dialogue with my parents [on this topic] was not open”. She spoke about the ways in which children are curious about death, but we tell them that their interest is dirty, or weird, or wrong. This is one of the many things Doughty wants to change.

Another is the way that the professionalisation of death has distanced us from the dead body. A century ago in the Western world, the family cared for the corpse; dead bodies lay in state in the home and then were carried out for burial. Only in the 20th century have we developed a professionalised class of death workers, who come and remove the corpse from the home (or, more likely, hospital) and take it away. “Nowadays, being around a corpse causes terror and confusion … We have a weird, ‘uncanny valley’, creeped-out relationship with the dead body.”

One of the many things I learned from Doughty in this session – and I look forward to learning more from her book that I bought, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – is the history of embalming. “Originally embalming was an American thing – you’re welcome – and was used during the civil war to keep bodies preserved long enough to transport them back to the north.” Embalmers would follow the battles and set up stalls, sometimes embellished with a heavily embalmed unclaimed corpse to serve as advertising. And then, after the war ended and the demand threatened to dry up, the embalming chemical companies invested heavily in training people as embalmers and selling their services. And so the funeral industry developed. “New Zealanders are the second most regular embalmers after Americans, you’re welcome for that as well.”

One of the most common objections to embalming that Doughty hears from mourners is that it makes the corpse look strange, which interferes with the grieving process. This is something else Doughty wants to change. “Sitting with the corpse is always difficult and beautiful … There is a sacred quality to caring for the corpses of those we love.”

One thing Doughty warned us about, which reminded me of Atul Gawande’s talk at the Auckland Writers Festival last year, is that “the good death isn’t handed to you … you have to have the conversations and do the planning.” Particularly under our current medical system, which will try and keep you alive as long as possible, even when quality of life has deteriorated horribly. Doughty worked on the campaign that led to California recently passing a law that allows for assisted dying.

Recently Doughty has opened her own business, “the only non-profit funeral home in LA”. She offers a service of coming to your home to look after the corpse, but is finding that “once you explain to people that it’s safe and legal and how to do it, they do it themselves. It turns out they didn’t need a professional at all.”

Elliott asked about alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. There’s composting: “composting bodies is really quite a beautiful process … they turn to soil in 6-8 weeks”. And aquamation, using very hot water and lye, which “flash decomposes the body down to something like ash.” Or conservation burial, whereby you have yourself buried on some land in order to prevent it being developed, “like chaining yourself to a tree, but you’re dead”.

There was the inevitable audience question about the afterlife. Doughty says she visualises her life being like a film reel, which flaps off at the end into an empty white nothingness: “that brings me comfort”. And comfort, overall, is what I took from her session.

* I think it was a cravat. The names of different kinds of clothing isn’t really my area of specialty.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782111030

 

WORD: Work / Sex, with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff and Julie Hill

Event_WorkSexIf Ivan E. Coyote did one of the best things a literary festival can do – broke my heart and then put it back together again made better – this session did another: forced me to examine my own unconscious bias and realise I was wrong.

Sex work is something I’ve never really thought much about, which means that most of the ideas I have about sex workers are those I’ve passively absorbed from the society and media around me. And, if there’s one thing feminism has taught me – and as Debbie Stoller said on Friday – it’s that received ideas, particularly about women, need to be carefully rethought. So thank you to Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, and especially Kate Holden, for prompting me to do some important rethinking.

They were on a panel chaired by Julie Hill. Conversation was lively, intelligent and stimulating (as per the usual very high standard of WORD), and all three women read from their latest books, which I tried in vain to buy from the bookstall afterwards (they had sold out).

Hodgkinson was working as stripper at the same time as editing student magazine Canta while studying. “I found the unregulated vibe of the industry really alluring … Writing is more difficult, it requires an element of emotional truth in order to succeed. With stripping, you can fake that.” For a long time she kept her stripping life secret. “I regret not having owned that part of myself publicly earlier … It annoyed me that people were making judgements about me based on what I did for a job … I was not personally ashamed, that shame got put on me from outside.”

Doff is a New Yorker who told us tales of working the champagne hustle in strip joints and bars in Times Square in the 70s and 80s: “I always wanted to be a hurly burly girl … I probably qualified as a drunk by the time I was 13 or 14.” She spoke unflinchingly of the danger of those times and the brutal rape she suffered that went practically unpunished: her rapist was just banned from the pub for a couple of weeks. “The mafia owned all the strip clubs and gay bars, the places where people couldn’t complain … Women were very, very replaceable … We formed foxhole friendships [with each other], under fire in the front lines of the war.”

Holden, an Australian author, says she was “such a dork” as a teenager, “really intimidated by other humans”. She had “a grand fantasy of doing something radical … Grunge was the making of me because it didn’t matter what you wore, I could just leap in and fake it … I wanted to do something that scared me … Heroin led me into sex work through force of economics.” Holden spoke eloquently about the custodial side of sex work, and how a lot of it involves caring for men who are lonely – and educating them about sex. She also spoke of the consorority: “In some ways it’s a perfect female society … We had such a range of womanhood on any shift [at the brothel] … It was exciting to see women experimenting with different kinds of boldness.”

I was particularly struck by Holden speaking about “the assumptive public discourse about sex workers … Whenever there’s violence against sex workers, the emphasis is always on their work … If plumber comes to your house they don’t need to bring a bodyguard in case you ravenously sexually attack them. It’s so arse about face that we think a sex worker is in charge of not being raped … Sex work is rated as a separate, exotic category of work. We’re not having panels about writers who have also been sandwich makers!”

I felt that tingle in my brain when you hear something and agree with it, but believing that new thing requires you to let go of a pre-existing idea you weren’t even aware you were holding. I felt some old ideas dissolve. I will be tracking down Holden’s book for sure.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Work / Sex
with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, chaired by Julie Hill

Under My Skin: A Memoir of Addiction
by Kate Holden
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN 9781611457988

Two Decades Naked
by Leigh Hopkinson
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634833

WORD: Making it Overseas, with Ben Sanders, Tania Roxborogh and Helen Lowe

Event_Making-it-OverseasAll New Zealand authors dream of making it overseas – these three have. Tania Roxborogh has her historical novel (set in the time of Macbeth) Banquo’s Son in the UK, USA and Asia. Ben Sanders is Auckland-based, and his fourth novel, American Blood, is in the Australian, NZ, US and European markets. Helen Lowe is Christchurch-based, and all of her fantasy books have been published overseas, rather than in New Zealand. They are in the USA, UK, Australia and NZ and European markets.

Lowe was told straight out of the gates, that nobody in New Zealand would publish a fantasy series. After trying to sell her series to publishers in Australia and the USA herself, she gave up (she stopped counting rejections after 15) and realised a full series from an unknown author was too much of a gamble for any publisher to take at that point. She needed to write a stand-alone book. An Australian editor she had spoken to with her series advised her that she should try the US market, and find an agent. In response to a later question about how she found her agent she said – I looked at who the writers who wrote in my genre used: this triangulated at The Writer’s House, so that’s where I started and lucked out. Her new agent sold Thornspell in just three weeks, and the series sold after that, after about 4-5 months. Being published in the US opened up the world.

I had seen Ben Sanders’ rise over the past couple of years and thought he must have just been plucked from obscurity when Warner Brothers saw the unpublished manuscript of American Blood and optioned it. Oh no, it was a bit deeper than that! He had an agent offer to represent him after his first three books were published through HarperCollins NZ, and checked them out before accepting (note to readers: if somebody is offering to sell your book, always check them out first). His agent is through Wordlink. It took three years to get a book accepted, and happened mainly because he met an editor at Pan Macmillan personally while on holiday in New York. He had to set this book in America – hence American Blood, which was published last year in the US.

It took Tania Roxborogh seven years to be an overnight success. Her super-enthusiastic agent came on board in May 2009. It took until October 2014 to have any luck placing the novel with a publisher: by 10 January in 2015 she had a contract, with an advance of $10,000 US. It took a lot of persistence, and a lot of trust on both her agent’s and her part; but she got there!

Things she has learned: the Australian market is more accepting if NZ writers come via the UK publishing houses. And the sales are so much bigger than the NZ market: by the end of its run in 2015, Banquo’s Son had sold 5,600 copies. Internationally within 2 months in the UK market, 9,500 copies had sold. Vanda quipped, “You have finally harnessed the machine.”

All three of our guests have found having an agent essential, though none have experienced the ‘dream agent’ experience. The most helpful things with agents is they know what is being pitched, and they know what is being published by whom. Sanders said his agent was essential to get him contacts in New York. “Having an agent is like any business relationship, you have to go into it with your eyes open”, says Helen Lowe.

Vanda then asked whether being an author from a small country was an impediment to being published overseas. Not really, was the general agreement. Sanders’ Auckland crime novels weren’t picked up internationally until he agreed to ‘Americanise’ them. He is currently doing this, changing ‘petrol stations’ for ‘gas stations’, and the bonus of this is that he can change any errors he finds along the way. Sanders adds, “It’s not just a matter of if the editor says ‘yep I like it’ – that person needs to talk to the Editorial Director, and so on all the way up the commissioning chain.”

For Helen Lowe, she never had to worry about where they are set: she writes Fantasy, set in different worlds. And Thornspell was set in Middle-ish Europe. The US doesn’t even change the language in her books, they just change the spelling. Her UK publisher simply publishes it, US spelling and all, knowing their market doesn’t mind.

Lowe also addressed the idea of self-publication in the Fantasy genre. She thinks this only really works if you already famous: the main thing traditional publishing has over self-publishing is distribution. “And if you are doing it yourself, you will be locked into Amazon’s rights model, possibly not in favourable circumstances.”

This was a fascinating discussion, about something I’d long been curious about. In my day job at Booksellers NZ, I frequently post up announcements about the sales of US / UK rights: now I understand exactly why this is such a fantastic achievement for those hard-working authors that it happens to. Well done to Helen Lowe, Ben Sanders and Tania Roxborogh for being Olympic-class writers!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Making it Overseas – Ben Sanders, Helen Lowe and Tania Roxborogh

Daughter of Blood
by Helen Lowe
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356500058

Thornspell
by Helen Lowe
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780375844799

American Blood
by Ben Sanders
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760291570

Banquo’s Son
by Tania Roxborogh
Published by Thomas & Mercer
ISBN 9781503945821

WORD: Tim Flannery – An Atmosphere of Hope, with Simon Wilson

tim_flannery

Tim Flannery

Simon Wilson got an early laugh as he announced himself as “speaking on behalf of the Lorax.” He was an excellent chair, knowledgeable and entertaining.

A sobering fact of climate change to start with: if the earth’s temperature continues to rise at the current rate of increase, in 80 years the whole earth will be 4-5 degrees warmer on average. The sea levels will be at levels that they were 55 million years ago, and there will be virtually no ice caps. This will cause huge migrant populations, with flow-on effects including food shortages and economic problems.

To stay within 2 degrees of our current temperature, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. Wilson was an excellent chair: one of his first questions was, on the scale of 1 – 100 in optimism in our ability to bring about change, with 100 being ‘it’s all going to be fine,’ where does Tim Flannery sit? In short, he was close to 1 seven years ago when the Copenhagen Climate Council (which he was involved in preparing for) failed to bring about change: he is now at 50 or 60, since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The significance of the Paris Agreement is that “we now have unified, consensual agreement to end the fossil fuel era.”

To put some context around this: Tim Flannery is one of the world’s experts on and authors about climate change. He is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group, and from 2011 was the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public. Until he was sacked by new Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

One of the key ways that Flannery thinks that as nations, we can make drastic cuts in emissions, is by shutting down all coal-powered Electricity plants. And his renewable energy of choice is something I hadn’t previously heard of: Concentrated solar power. “There’s a lot of way of doing this – mirrors, tower, super-heated objects.” You can store it in a lot of places – silica sand being an example. Port Augusta coal-powered Power Plant was the biggest emitter of CO2 in Australia: it has now been replaced by CSP. Sundrop Farms, an agricultural farm that is run using this technology, now grows 10% of all of Australia’s tomatoes. The biggest benefit of CST is that it can make our most worthless land – desert land – the most productive agricultural place on the planet. The challenge with regular solar power is that it can’t be stored – it needs a back-up for days that aren’t sunny.

Wilson put it out there that if you breed despair, we feel hopeless. But then if you generate hope, you are in danger of people just going well then we won’t worry about it – we’ll carry on as is. To this Flannery noted, “The single greatest impediment to implementing environmental change is that we haven’t got everybody along with us.” But despite all that there are solutions, and promising trends. China has started to close down a lot of their coal-powered plants, in favour of nuclear plants, and more renewable energy plants – and they are scaling up their electric car manufacture hugely.

The trend of electric cars, and driverless cars is something Flannery thinks is going to make our world unrecognisable within 20 years. My husband has been putting off learning to drive because he figures nobody will be soon – he may well be right. Certainly by the time my kids are grown up, they will be watching out for robot cars on the roads – or perhaps being driven by them.

Flannery thinks that developed countries have passed peak oil use, and that the idea that developing countries still need to go through this stage is a strategic challenge that these countries have to work through.

Politics and the environment
Here’s where things get revolutionary. Flannery believes that our system of government has taken us as far as we can go. He believes that decisions about money shouldn’t be in the same space as decisions about how to deal with climate change. With climate change, and anything that affects the whole world, we need to select citizen juries and give them all the facts scientists know. Flannery gained an enormous respect for the common sense of people while Climate Commissioner. “We have to break the nexus between money and corruption. If we can do that, we would get a long way forward.”

The conversation shifted to carbon credits at one point: at the moment, the price for carbon credits is random. To make any true difference to our CO2 emissions using our current methods we’d need to plant all of North America in forests. Flannery says, “We need to start making investments that are required to make a difference. We need to both reduce emissions, and find new ways of dealing with our world via technology.”

The reason Flannery has hope stems from a combination of factors: the two-year flat-lining of Co2 emissions, the fact we have the Paris Agreement, the changes in technology and social networks are among them.

There were some good audience questions at this session. How do we prepare for what is coming? Flannery quipped, “NZ needs to live up to its reputation of being clean and green. You guys have some great innovators. The government needs an innovation fund to foster this in areas we’ll need in the future”.

Ultimately, “We have to start preparing to adapt to the unavoidable. We need common sense regulations in place to deal with that.”

I am going to be reading more about this essential topic – I think we all need to. This is the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. My sons will still be alive in 80 years; I don’t want them to be living in a ruin caused by us.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Atmosphere of Hope: Tim Flannery

Atmosphere of Hope
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355406

The Explorers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Classics
ISBN 9781921922435

We are the Weather Makers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781921145346