Book Review: With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in WW1, by Anna Rogers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_with_them_through_hellAlongside the New Zealand soldiers who fought in World War I, there was a large team of dedicated medical (and veterinary – New Zealand also sent about 10,000 horses) personnel who did everything they could to save lives and treat the injured. Anna Rogers has painstakingly researched the history of the medical services and tells their story in all its gory detail, right from the early days when female doctors, nurses and volunteers had a battle on their hands just to be allowed to serve overseas.

With Them Through Hell is an extremely comprehensive book on the medical services, more of a history textbook than a book you would sit down and read in one sitting. It certainly isn’t a jolly hockey-sticks tale of what went on – it’s a far more sobering and factual account, and anyone reading it will be shocked at the challenges they dealt with on a daily basis, both in the lead-up to their dispatch to the war zones and also during the conflicts.

Divided into four sections – Feeling the Heat; From Chaos to Care; Unexpected and Unsung; and Maimed and Mended, which are then further divided into a total of 16 chapters – the book goes into great detail about the part these medical personnel played in the war. There are numerous photographs (predominantly black and white, apart from reproductions of oil paintings) and also copies of letters and cartoons. The photographs illustrate the conditions they worked under, but the text carries far more detail about the hardships they endured during the war.

It must be hard to tell the story of so many people over many years without using quotes from both published and unpublished sources, but I found the quoted material tended to slow my reading of much of the book. This was particularly noticeable in some sentences that contained more than one partial quote, as there was no attribution alongside. The book is substantial, so flicking to the footnotes at the back was not something I wanted to keep doing, and often the source would just be given as a newspaper article.

I read the introduction and then dipped in and out of the book, reading chapters that particularly interested me rather than reading from start to finish in sequence. As each chapter is comprehensive in itself, this is a reasonable way to proceed.

It is great that the medical services’ dedication to duty has been recognised and given its own tribute in With Them Through Hell. For historians and those who work in the medical services today, this book will be a fascinating history of the work carried out by medical personnel and the pioneering advances in treatment they made under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.

With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War
by Anna Rogers
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995100190

 

Book Review: Hudson & Halls, the Food of Love, by Joanne Drayton

Available in bookshops nationwide. This book is shortlisted for the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-fiction in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 

cv_hudson_and_hallsHudson & Halls, The Food of Love is a wonderful book. Far more interesting than just their cooking, this tells the story of their two lives – in the spotlight, and in private.

Drayton has done a great job of researching their backgrounds and giving an insight into their personalities. While their television personas were very flamboyant and upbeat, their personal lives contained a lot of sadness. Peter Hudson grew up not really knowing who his real mother (whose background could be a whole book in itself) was, while David Halls pretty much knew who he was – but subconsciously realised it wasn’t what his family would accept.

The fact they came from opposite sides of the world and from very different backgrounds meant nothing once they met – it was like they found their soulmates and their purpose in life. I’m still a little astounded a shoe salesman and a shipping clerk ended up being celebrity chefs, but hey, this was the 1970s when anyone with ambition could become a star!

The book included a lot of things I never knew about the couple, probably because I was a teenager when they were at the height of their fame here. I didn’t know about their shoe shop or their restaurant, and I’m not even sure I knew about their move to the UK after New Zealand television ended their reign.

As a homosexual couple, Hudson and Halls lived in conservative New Zealand during a time of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but they were genuinely liked by many and a lot of homes owned at least one of their cookbooks. Despite this they certainly suffered some harsh criticism both here and in the UK (if the reviewer of one of their television series published her review today, there would be an outcry and she’d be rightly vilified), but they never gave up.

I doubt many people would have kept going despite so many rejections, but reinventing themselves was something Hudson and Halls did time and time again.

While I knew neither man was still alive I did not recall details about their deaths, and reading about what happened deeply saddened me. I always remembered Hudson and Halls and their spats in the kitchen, but Drayton’s book means I will now remember them more fondly, like a pair of slightly eccentric uncles who could always be relied upon to liven up any family gathering.

At the end of the book Drayton shares how long it took her to write the book and how many setbacks she had along the way. I’m very pleased she persevered and made the effort to talk to as many people who knew the couple as possible. I think that is what sets this book apart – the photos are like looking into someone’s personal photo album (which it sounds like she was permitted to do), and the memories of their friends are what elevate it from a mere biography into a very personal look into Hudson and Halls’ lives. I’m sure they’d be horrified at some of the personal recollections of their friends, but the book would be poorer without them. Their friends and family have shared some intimate memories but the book is definitely not voyeuristic.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Hudson & Halls, the Food of Love
by Joanne Drayton
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531267

Book Review: There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime, by Erik Kennedy

Available in bookshops nationwide. Shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

cv_there's_no_place_like_the_internet_in_springtimePoets like to say that content is form and form is content. It gets said enough to be true, but reading Erik Kennedy’s There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime reminded me that to the average reader (and I’m not sure how many are left given that we go around declaring nuggets like the one above) – the average reader will find a difference between poetic craft and poetic content. They will respond to them differently. Poetic content is more personal – it’s going to be harder to respond to in a neutral, analytical way. Form on the other hand comes with guidelines. So let’s start there.

It’s indeed where Kennedy starts – his title and first poem in the collection is undoubtedly a sonnet. Its fourteen lines follow a slant petrarchan rhyme scheme and begin with a grandiose private contemplation of nature before a sudden turn in the eighth line ‘Wait, am I thinking of the internet? / Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of / is desperate and very, very like it.’ I think form is where Kennedy likes to play. In an interview with his publisher about this Kennedy replied, ‘there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary.’

Kennedy’s collection is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and his attention to form and rhyme may be a big reason why.

The risk in Kennedy collection lies here: in the reader feeling belittled. His irony could be read as condescension; his satire as mocking. In the poem Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show, for example, the poet’s eye could be read as ridicule; the poem I’m Impressed as a poem which praises foolishness.

I don’t think this is Kennedy’s intention, but it can happens in poems where Kennedy appears pleased with his own detachment, a smug onlooker. When he becomes more involved in the poem, engages and relates to the content, it couples with his form to create memorable poems. In the poem Four Directions at the Beach, Kennedy makes you look differently at a classic New Zealand scene. The poem Remembering America is like a sad country and western heartbreaker song. The poem The School of Naps is like a self-examination.

I have a close friend who on first meeting I detested; it was because I misunderstood her. I was like that with There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime. When I began reading it I felt like Kennedy wanted to make fun of me. If you feel like that too go back and try again and look at everything he is doing in each poem; you might find something else there which leads you to become close friends.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime
by Erik Kennedy
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561957

Book Review: Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tatau‘The history of tatau has…been one of both continuity and disruption, with social, cultural and technological change coming from within Sāmoan society as much from the outside world.’ (p.298)

If you know nothing at all about tattoos or fa‘asamoa (Sāmoan culture, values and traditions) this excellent book will lead you into a whole new world. It focuses on Sāmoan tatau – the lines and motifs that form Sāmoan tattoo designs – and the ceremonies and rituals that accompany the process of receiving a tatau, often considered as a rite of passage for young people. Authors Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot are joined by other contributors, including poets, academics and historians, to describe the complex history and symbolism of tatau over the past 3000 years. Collectively they explore and explain the multiple influences on tatau practices, which include politics, geography, sexuality, genealogy, gender roles, art, literature, health and safety, religion, science and (latterly) social media.

Mallon, a writer and Te Papa curator, is of Sāmoan and Irish descent. His deep interest in the topic was sparked by an ‘early and vague’ memory of his grandfather’s tatau. Galliot is a French anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on traditional tatau and lived in Sāmoa while completing his PhD. Both authors have developed complementary and in-depth knowledge of tatau history and contemporary practices.

‘What [surprised] me, and continues to intrigue me, is … that a set of symbols from a seemingly remote group of islands in the South Pacific could circulate in many forms across a range of contexts and on the bodies of people from all walks of life and across the world.’  (p. 11)

Mallon and Galliot describe how symbols (including logos) from other cultures have been incorporated into tatau designs alongside indigenous symbols over time. The designs and the location of tatau on the body continue to change and evolve, although there is still a strong demand for traditional methods and patterns. Tatau designs are no longer limited to the body and are now evident in art (such as Michel Tuffery’s woodcuts and Fatu Feu’u’s paintings), and other objects as diverse as postage stamps, stationery and tee-shirts. The knowledge I’ve gained from this book has helped me to recognise – and encouraged me to search out – tatau patterns and references in unexpected places. The book includes Flanagan’s remarkable graphic depiction of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt poem, centred on the poem’s intense and evocative descriptions of tatau.

The distinctive characteristics of tatau are the ‘location of the markings on the body, their extent and density, and the tools used in the tattooing process (p.14)’.  Although many tufuga (tatau artists) now use masini (machines) with steel needles and black ink, others continue to use traditional tools to make marks on the body by vigorously tapping the skin with sharp ‘teeth’ to perforate it so that pigment can be introduced. I found the chapter focusing on the iconography of tatau particularly informative, as it includes a selection of common patterns and explains what each represents. This chapter also has photos identifying the many different tatau zones (each with a group of motifs) on both male and female bodies. (These zones, and the names used to refer to the tattoo, differ for men, who wear tatau or pe’a, and for women, who wear malu.) Each zone has its own term. Fusi, for example, is the name given to a belt, strap or band of motifs located at the top of the thigh.

The book draws on many different sources, including journals, poetry, photographs, exhibition catalogues and oral histories.

I found the rich descriptions of the rituals, protocol and ceremonies associated with tatau practices of great interest. These customarily included preparing and sharing food, providing sports and other entertainment, and bestowing gifts such as fine mats, canoes, weapons and instruments. The photos and illustrations throughout the book are stunning, in particular the highly detailed drawings of tatau – many of these are hand-drawn and date back to the 1800s. Photos of the tools are stark – the sharp teeth of the combs clearly visible and reinforcing a theme echoed throughout the book: that pain is inevitable, and indeed ‘you cannot find yourself without pain and suffering’ (p.26).

The photos of people with tatau allowed me to look at length at the designs and appreciate the intricacy of the patterns, as well as to consider the time and skills needed to create the tatau. In real life such prolonged gazing would be disrespectful. I’m grateful to the men and women who gave permission for their images to be included in the book. Mallon and Galliot report that a full tatau is rarely seen, instead we may see only a glimpse with the rest concealed beneath clothing. They note that it is not uncommon for social media users to criticise how and where others reveal their tatau.

I see some parallels between Tatau and the earlier Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (Te Awekotuku and Nikora, 2007) such as the descriptions of the shared influence of the Lapita people who are believed to have practiced both face and body tattooing. The Lapita are considered to be the ancestors of multiple Pacific Island peoples; as seafarers they migrated far and wide across Oceania. Tatau briefly discusses the positive relationships established between certain tufuga and Māori tā moko practitioners, which has included gifting traditional tools to strengthen cultural connections. Both Tatau and Mau Moko refer to the extensive contributions of Sulu’ape Paulo II, a renowned and active tufuga who also supported and mentored Māori artists.

A glossary explains terms used throughout the book and there is a comprehensive bibliography, as well as brief biographies of all contributors.

The hard cover and spine are striking and embossed with symbols that spell ‘tatau’. The cover is partially enclosed by an eye-catching dust-jacket featuring the lower abdomen and thighs of a male body with tatau. The print varies in size throughout the book and some readers may find the smallest print a challenge. In several chapters the orange text on dark pages is also hard to read, especially in low light.

Although Mallon and Galliot have written a meticulous and comprehensive history, in the closing chapter they comment that ‘…this book is far from the last word on Sāmoan tatau. There are other histories to be written and other stories to be told…’ (p. 299). Their book will be a superb reference for future authors who are likewise privileged and trusted to bring these stories to life.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN: 9780994136244

Book Review: This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Finalist in the 2019 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize 

cv_this_mortal_boyIn 1955 New Zealand was far from liberal. Xenophobia was rife. English, and in particular Irish immigrants were generally treated with mistrust or even outright dislike. It was also the time of bodgies and widgies and “milk bar cowboys”, so different to the usual run of middle New Zealanders of the era.

Albert Black, the focus of Fiona Kidman’s latest novel, This Mortal Boy, came to Wellington with the encouragement of his doting mother, seeking a better life. Initially he made a friend of another immigrant and together they found labouring jobs and were able to board with a widow in Lower Hutt. The mother of the house treated them as well as Albert’s mother had treated him, and he grew fit and strong. He tried to save enough money to go back to Ireland but he was restless and homesick. It wasn’t long before he started mixing with the young people around the city and had stopped saving his money. The bright lights of Auckland beckoned.

He became the caretaker of a large central city house in Auckland and eventually started taking in housemates but it quickly became a rough party house with a bad reputation. Albert found “drinking, dancing and dames” to be more fun than working and saving. He fell in love with one girl but others chased him and he faced the jealousy of a small-time crook. In a scuffle one night, Albert accidentally killed him.

In prison for murder, Albert saw moral decisions being made on his behalf but always hoped for a reprieve. His mother in Ireland raised a huge petition which even went as far as the Governor General but it was ultimately unsuccessful. His was the last hanging in New Zealand.

Readers will recognise famous names of local identities and politicians and may be surprised by some of the attitudes expressed. This is a well-crafted story which is gripping to the very end.

Reviewed by Nan Turner

This Mortal Boy
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771807

Book Review: Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor, by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham Book Awards.  

cv_wantedThis beautifully produced book is both a delight and a cause for a bit of national soul-searching.

If you do a quick Google search on ‘forgotten public art’ it’s clear to see that NZ has a poor track record of maintaining and caring for its public art works, never mind keeping a registry of what we have.

The title should give you a clue. What happened to them? The large murals which Taylor produced as commissioned work were partly his own idea, as shown in this quote by Kennedy Warne from NZ Geographic October 2007: ‘Taylor came to regard architecture as “the mother of the arts”, recalled one of his friends, the eminent Wellington architect Maurice Patience. “[He] loved our profession, and one could guarantee that if he were in architectural company discussion would soon turn to the artist’s role in buildings.” Every contract for a major new building, Taylor argued, should include a sum of money allocated to a commissioned work of art to be associated with the building. There was a degree of self-interest here, of course: Taylor hoped he would be one of the commissionees.’

In 1945, Taylor was appointed as art editor for the New Zealand School Journal. Many of us will recognise and remember his brilliant woodcut illustrations. Bryan James in his excellent book about Taylor says ‘Above all, he wanted his art to be accessible to the everyday New Zealander. He believed art should be for the common man as well as the cultured elite.’

As with nature, Taylor felt it was his role as an artist to make Māori culture accessible to his countrymen. He saw himself as an artist-craftsman or artist-designer, writes James, someone rooted in the community and whose duty was to improve the lot of his fellow man. ‘He had little time for art that did not have a direct function of purpose, that could not be part of everyday living.’

By the early 1960s, murals were Taylor’s major form of work, produced in ceramic tiles, carved in wood or painted. James notes of Taylor’s work in this period that a distinguishing feature was his incorporation of Māori elements. ‘It was something he consciously set out to do, because he saw Māori as an essential part of the natural order of life in New Zealand, who could no more be excluded from his art than could the bush, the landscape, or the individual creatures he featured.’ Few other non-Māori artists of the time cared to feature Māori culture so prominently in their work.

So, back to the book itself. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith chanced upon some of Taylor’s work in three dusty boxes in storage in Auckland. This began her passionate journey to find out what happened to the eleven other murals and I think she’s probably in line for a National Treasure award!

The very first pages are photos of the original works, with single word titles: Found, Missing, Hidden, Lost. 7 have been found. 2 are missing, 2 are hidden, one is lost. Holloway-Smith’s work in locating and documenting these murals has been a massive undertaking, and this wonderful book is the culmination of that work.

Each mural has an essay written by someone with an interest in, or connection to, the work or the place in which it was originally installed, and they are accordingly very different and intriguing to read.

The generous illustrations throughout, and the quality of this book make it a real treasure.

Let’s hope that public art work in Aotearoa, from now on, is more carefully documented and preserved so that we never again lose work by artists of such high calibre and brilliance.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor
by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994141552

You can see a sample here on the Massey University Press website. 

Book Review: The Yield, by Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide. 
This book is a finalist in the Poetry category of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

cv_the_yieldIn attempting to describe The Yield and my response to it, I found myself referring again and again to the poem Lingua incognita, which is quoted on the back of the book and is, if I was pushed to name it, probably my favourite poem in the collection.

Some words dwell in the bone, as yet
unassembled…

Down in the bone the word-strands glimmer and ascend
often disordered, often in dreams,

bone-knowledge beating a path through the body to the throat
labouring to enter the alphabet.

and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is Yes
and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is No.

The best word I can assemble to describe my feelings about this book is seen. I was casting metaphorical looks over my shoulder the whole time I read it. How very rude, I thought, and Please stop, and You don’t know me!

But of course, she does, at least in the way a poet knows an experience that transcends the individual, and can translate it so accurately.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Yield. I’m ambivalent about the focus of New Zealand poetry on the New Zealand landscape, and more specifically the New Zealand backyard. But to call this book a book about nature would be to greatly underestimate it.

I read the first three words and thought, oh. Oh no. How very dare you? – outrage being my usual reaction when another poet displays their talent.

‘Measure my wild,’ the first poem invites, perhaps expanding the invitation to encompass everything to follow.

In the poem Wild, we’re invited to consider nature as doctor, which fascinated me and took me by surprise. I took pains to not read anything about Wootton’s life or this collection before opening it, so I wasn’t aware of her medical background or the role this would play in her work. As a sick poet, it is therefore unsurprising that I felt seen.

Examine my yearn, and treat it with trees.
Un-pane me. Wilden my outlook.

Having read the book, I consider my outlook wildened.

I generally do not like long poems. I am a harsh editor – if you give me a long poem, I will send it back cut in half. To me, the challenge and deep delight of poetry has always been in how much you can say with how little. I like denseness. I want one crucial word that does the work of ten.

Wootton has shown herself to be a master in this regard. There is not a single word in this book that does not need to be there.

I am in the habit of using cardboard gift tags to mark notable pages when reading books for review. Unfortunately, this scheme doesn’t prove so useful when you are sticking one in every second page.

This is not to say I liked every poem. I didn’t, and I’m not meant to. A collection will, hopefully, contain something for everyone. By extension that will mean there’s things that do not speak to me as loudly as others. In any case, I am more in the habit of falling in love with individual lines than entire poems, and in this way Wootton has rendered me something of a nymphomaniac.

For all the emotion explored here, there is little heaviness. In fact, another reviewer used the term ‘exuberance,’ and I would add ‘exultant.’ There is a worship occurring; of the world around us, and of our bodies and the many things they are capable of. The poem The needlework, the polishing opens:

‘I like an empty church, forgive me…’

The line echoed in my head for days, like a refrain from a choir. And, to finish:

‘The kneeling rail. I kneel. I quietly rail.’

<insert deep exhalation from the reviewer> The religious imagery at play here spoke to me profoundly. As someone whose illness has given them a complex relationship with spirituality, I felt at home in this poem. It was interesting to come inside, from that other, wild church we worship throughout the book. To come inside, to kneel, to express grief and anger in a such a very contained way.

The poem Pray revisits a difficult relationship with god, one which could find its answer in ‘A treatise of the benefits of moonbathing’, where science offers medical impetus for a centuries-old communion. The moon, the poem suggests – its feminine iconography a counterpoint to the male-lead religion in other parts of the book – could cure insomnia if consumed appropriately.

… two thousand feet above worry level with the moon’s smile sailing over the fence
Mare Frigoris
A moonbath in spring is a spritz to the hibernated soul.
One skips back, freshly rinsed
with sparkling thoughts like moonwash gilds us all the same, O our beautiful bones!

I could go on – the multitude of gift tags mock me – but it’s important to recognise the futility of doing an entire collection justice in 1000 words. So I will finish with the final lines from ‘Graveyard poem,’ which etched itself neatly inside my ribs.

… all the children with their terrifying ages engraved stark against bewilderment –
it’s right to be so afraid
of love.

and the angels dip their wingtips to our occasionally touching palms
and the leaves rustle underfoot: risk it, risk it.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

The Yield
by Sue Wootton
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522483