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

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Book Review: Drawn Out, by Tom Scott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_drawn_out.jpgTom Scott is probably better known for being a cartoonist rather than a writer, but his memoir, Drawn Out, proves he’s just as witty with words as he is with pictures.

The book tells the funny, heart-warming and often sad tale of his life and goes some way towards explaining where he got some of the material for his cartoons and plays.

When people say they had a hard time as a child, they probably don’t mean as hard as Scott’s. His father could be cruel and it’s pretty clear Scott wasn’t his favourite child. Cartooning and acting up in class were ways for him to express his feelings, but rather than pursuing any of those creative endeavours he decided to train as a vet. As an animal lover, after reading some of the things he and his mates got up to, I’m glad he gave up on the idea of being a vet!

Drawn Out provides some fascinating insights to major events that happened in New Zealand as Scott illustrated or wrote about most of them. He riled bosses and prime ministers alike (he was famously banned from going on an overseas trip to China by then prime minister Robert Muldoon), but he obviously got on well with many of those he came across in his working life, some of whom became close friends.

Scott has a knack of bringing people to life in his writing. You feel sorry for the cards many of them got dealt – Scott included – and the background he offers helps provide a better understanding of why certain decisions were made. However, some of the anecdotes about people still living do at times come across as a tad gratuitous, as do the snippets of plays and scripts that are dotted here and there.

There is no doubt Scott is a talented writer, but the book could have done with some judicious editing as it wanders and backtracks a bit. He has been there and done that, but it’s a bit hard to keep track of all the people, events and memories. One person is mentioned early on in the book and I hazarded a guess as to who they were, but it wasn’t until page 295 that this was confirmed.

Overall, Drawn Out is a good yarn in the style of Barry Crump. If you’re interested in the people who made the news and the lives of those who reported on them, you’ll enjoy this book.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Drawn Out
by Tom Scott
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505911

Book Review: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522230

Book Review: Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, by Chris Brickell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_teenagersThe photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.

All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.

It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.

The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408688

Undreamed of… 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_undreamed_of_50_years.jpgArt books, coffee table books, travel books. There are so many out there and they all blur together making it hard to select one. This is not a problem when you come to Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. It combines beautiful art, interesting background and a wealth of New Zealand artists and their stories. What more could you ask for?

The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, established in 1966, supports artists by providing studio space and a stipend for a year. The first fellow was Michael Illingworth. Now it is an established part of the New Zealand art scene.

In 2016/17, the Dunedin Art Gallery and Hocken Gallery exhibited 50 years of work from the recipients of the award. This beautifully illustrated book commemorates the event and the artists involved.

The book begins with three superb articles on the importance of art, the establishment of the fellowship and its impact. I found each of these a work of art in itself. We have Hodgkins commenting on her own art:

‘This present line of work is good… I have got well into the spirit of the place & it is yielding up riches – undreamed of, at first sight…’

This was in 1930 from Flatford Mill where she had a studio and support to enable her to work without financial worries. It is this idea that gave rise to the fellowship, which enabled an artist to focus on their work. The link to the University of Otago was beneficial to the artist who had money and space to work. Julia Morison, Fiona Pardington and Heather Straka were inspired in their work by the Medical school and many artists had their work displayed by the University.

Priscilla Pitts looks closely at the impact of the Fellowship, while Joanne Campbell charts the founding of this award. Charles Brasch preferred to stay in the background but it appears from her research, that he played an important role in the creation and continuance of this grant. It was set up initially to nurture an identifiably national culture though in fact the first two recipients were English emigres. There were two occasions when the Fellowship was in danger from financial strife, as is often the case with awards dependent on sponsorship from outside. In both cases, a solution was found and 50 years of success suggests it will continue to flourish.

Finally, and this is the bulk of the book, come the artists. These are in alphabetical order and include photos, artworks and a biographical summary. In reality, it is a Who’s Who of the New Zealand art world. While the early recipients worked in the more traditional fields of painting and sculpture, the later years include installations, moving image and three-dimensional works. When looking through these pages, it becomes apparent that the selection panel got it right, time after time. The artworks are amazing and I am just disappointed the exhibition did not travel the country and enable us all to benefit from such a rich range of creativity.

I am not sure I will still be here to celebrate 100 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, but after reading this book, I am sure it will occur.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship
by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522568

Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732

 

 

 

Book Review: Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa, edited by Athol McCredie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

ten_x_ten_cvr_loresThis is a beautiful book covering the broad and diverse range of art at Te Papa as they prepare to renew their gallery space. 

 

In this book, ten of Te Papa’s art curators have each picked ten pieces from Te Papa’s collection of over 16,500 works and explain why they are drawn to them and why they believe they matter. The collection is truly diverse, balancing international and New Zealand art, and with pieces dated from circa 1300 to 2015. Each curator gives a short commentary on the painting, drawing, photograph, applied art object or sculpture. 

 

Curators responses vary from historic influences to emotional connections, with the tone very casual and conversational. These commentaries translate well creating a more informal, casual approach to art that I think most readers will enjoy. It’s enough to guide the viewer to certain elements or aspects in an informed approach but still allows the viewer to draw their own response. I recognised quite a few artworks featured but knew very little else and it was nice to learn more. 

 

The passion and delight of several curators shines through as they share the piece with the viewer. I found Rebecca Rice’s commentaries particularly compelling and I enjoyed pausing between paragraphs to look at the opposite art, consider what she had highlighted or identified before absorbing more.

 

I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the wonderful introduction by editor, Athol McCredie, who gives an overview of how Te Papa’s collection developed, how it acquires art and how it grew the diverse collection to what it is presently. This was surprisingly comprehensive and interesting, with a great insight from McCredie. ‘Art with depth and strength may speak to people in different ways, but speak it does’. 

 

This book is great start for anyone even just a little curious about art or planning to visit Te Papa’s renewed gallery space.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa
by Athol McCredie
Published by Te Papa Publishers
ISBN: 9780994136251