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

 

 

 

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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

 

Book Review: Back With The Human Condition, by Nick Ascroft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_back_with_the_human_conditionMuch like the author photo proudly displayed on the back cover, Back With The Human Condition presents itself as a serious collection, but one that is filled with slightly more relaxed and satirical moments. At face value the book feels like a philosophical exploration. Love. Money. Death. Complaints. And while the gravity of the first three subjects can weigh heavily, it is the fourth and final, the slight twist, that delights and carries itself throughout the collection.

These four sections act as a guide, a reference point by which we can look into the poems. Through them Ascroft focuses the readers attention in a very effective manner, the subjects are after all relatable to us as readers in some way. And by keeping his overarching subjects so broad, we can read our own experiences into his writing. It is a rare thing for an author to pull this off successfully, but Ascroft has managed it, seemingly with ease.

Reading through the collection, one can see the fine crafting that has gone into each and every poem. In ‘The Tide’ we find a powerful description of a lover’s touch.

Your touch if it was made of notes wouldn’t be in the woodwind from
the bulrushes at your voice’s base, curling up and down your throat
and flowering into tight seedheads of words, but in the syncopation
of high black ticking piano keys, offbeat and ticklish like long grass.

The images conjured by Ascroft’s elegant poetry can instil powerful and relatable emotions in the reader. And while this poem grabbed my attention, each person who picks up this book could find a poem or passage that truly speaks to them, that connects with their own human condition.

On the other side there are poems that border on the satirical, and clever poems whose enjoyment comes from a more simple part of human nature. The poem Subject-Verb Agreement plays around with language on multiple levels, titles like Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out, and Jonathan Relieves Himself out a Bus Window in India are enough to illicit a chuckle, and poems like This Poem Is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim play around with modern conventions. Back With the Human Condition recognises and explores all parts of human nature, providing a varied and enjoyable experience.

But this collection is not just about a connection on a human level. Ascroft ventures beyond this to some degree with poems like The Bearded Blog, an experimental piece that visually emulates a page of web code. This collection about us is not just drawing on our experiences and using those to present itself, but also providing new angles of thought, new avenues to tread down as humans. So in the end, perhaps Ascroft is more philosophical then I thought, though the bathrobe still reminds me of the lighter side of his writing.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Back With The Human Condition
by Nick Ascroft
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560844

Book Review: Beside Herself, by Chris Price

Available from bookshops on 21 March 2016.

cv_beside_herselfChris Price’s forthcoming collection, Beside Herself does wonders for the imagination. The mask-like face on the cover evokes the masks used in Greek Theatre; tragedy, comedy and tragicomedy all taking their turns to appear. A playful atmosphere is created throughout the book, where these different styles merge together and flow from one to the other.

There are moments where the poems skip off the tongue and reading them aloud adds a new level of enjoyment to the page. In ‘Trick or Treat’ we are given rhyme after rhyme, hold or sell / kiss or tell / stare or blink / hood or wink – / then / it’s / my air-guitar / your whammy-bar. ‘Antipodean’ plays with opposites and other contrasts, I am the wrong / way round, my north, / your south, my up, / your down, your Krone / my Crown. These poetic moments are not only enjoyable to go through, but they bring a lightness to the poetry, a comedy of sorts.

In contrast there are some more serious moments that balance out the more light-hearted pieces. ‘Paternity test’ starts out with the lines Here is how it is: / if I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. / As I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. Price easily exchanges one mask for the other, moving from comedy to tragedy between the pages, but it doesn’t feel forced, more like a natural progression that goes back and forth. This movement keeps each poem fresh, and as you continue to read, more and more voices and characters appear.

Perhaps the most interesting characters, and one that is given a lot of space, is the medieval thuggish Churl form the long poem ‘The Book of Churl.’ This poem spans twenty-eight pages, dealing with the life of this strange figure from the past. He is not like the knights commonly found in medieval literature, carrying a cudgel instead of a magic sword or lance, and his princess turns out to be a girl he finds in the forest at night. If he were a hero, something / would happen now. Instead, he lives / a long unhappening. Unadventure, / unbirthdays, unrest. But his ‘unheroicness’ is endearing in a way, and his character sticks out and feels whole, and the drawing that follows the poem seems to capture his essence.

The drawings by Leo Bensemann that bookend the different sections of Beside Herself really help to give even more character to the pages. The figures come to life in the words, both directly and indirectly. It is a refreshing collection, a good mixture brought forth by the different masks, the different voices and characters. At times it is fun and light, at others serious and intense. But above all it is an interesting study of the different personae created by Chris Price.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Beside Herself
by Chris Price, drawings by Leo Bensemann
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408466

Reviews of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists

Ockham_Book_Awards_lo#26E84 (2)The finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards have now been announced, giving readers 16 fine books to take a second look at, and consider among the best New Zealand books ever produced. The judges had an unenviable task, with 18 months worth of submissions considered, and of course they haven’t chosen everybody’s favourite books (wherefore no The Chimes?) , but it is a pretty fine list nonetheless.

Click the title you are interested in below to read a review, either on our blog, or if we haven’t yet had it reviewed, in another extremely reputable place.

Acorn Foundation Literary Award (Fiction) 

Unity_poetry_fiction

Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

The Back of His Head, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press)
Chappy, by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing)
The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (Victoria University Press)

Poetry
How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (Haunui Press)
Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press)
The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press)

General Non-Fiction

Unity_non-fiction

Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

Maurice Gee: Life and Work, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press)
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City, by Fiona Farrell (Penguin Random House)
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin Random House)
Lost and Gone Away, by Lynn Jenner (Auckland University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction
Te Ara Puoro: A Journey into the World of Māori Music, by Richard Nunns (Potton and Burton)
New Zealand Photography Collected, by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books)
Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press)

Enjoy these wonderful New Zealand books and share them far and wide.

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are supported by the Ockham Foundation, the Acorn Foundation, Creative New Zealand and Book Tokens Ltd. You can find out who the judges are here. The winners (including of the four Best First Book Awards) will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday May 10 2016, held as the opening night event of the Auckland Writers Festival.

The awards ceremony is open to the public for the first time. Tickets to the event can be purchased via Ticketmaster once festival bookings open on Friday 18 March. Winners of the Acorn Foundation Literary Award, for fiction, win $50,000. Winners of the other three category awards each receive $10,000, the Māori Language award $10,000, and each of the winners of the three Best First Book awards, $2,500.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor

Book Review: Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station, by Harry Broad, photos by Rob Suisted

Moleswcv_molesworthorth won the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards

This is yet another book from Craig Potton Publishing that you wouldn’t read in bed unless you were attempting to kill three birds with one stone: honing your intellect, bathing your senses, and toning your triceps.

Molesworth is the name of the book and of New Zealand’s largest high-country station. How large is large, how high is high? Situated inland from the Kaikoura Ranges, wedged between St. Arnaud in the north and Hanmer in the south, Molesworth occupies a land area greater in size than Stewart Island/Rakiura. Much of this land lies above 1000 metres; many of the peaks are closer to 2000 metres. ‘The overwhelming impression as you travel through it,’ writes Harry Broad in his introduction, ‘is one of hugely imposing landscapes that dwarf its rivers and dominate the horizons.’ Other writers have described Molesworth as a ‘sort of ghostly colossus, lurking in its mountain fastness.’

The station has long had considerable national recognition, for the above reasons, for its mystique — there was no public access until 1987 — and because of the transformation under inspired management from a ruined, rabbit-infested landscape in 1938 into a flourishing and profitable farm within a few decades, and so on into the present day.musterteam_w

Harry Broad has set himself the task of verbally mapping the history of Molesworth. His method of doing so, as the subtitle suggests, has been to present its history as a succession of stories, as told by the people who have created and contributed to the legend of Molesworth. Those whose stories he has recorded include the sometimes hapless buyers and sellers of Molesworth’s early history (1850-1938), the husband and wife teams who have successfully managed the place since the Government took over in 1938, the politicians, the stockmen and the environmentalists. To listen to their stories is to have no doubt which country you’re in:

‘“That’s where you were growing your tucker. I don’t think it will go a hell of a lot further.”’

‘“In response, he welded two crowbars together and told them to get on with it.”

“I was a bit in awe of him. He was one of those blokes you could put in some good days for and all you got in the end was a grunt and sometimes a bit of a grizzle.”’

‘“Thirty miles from the nearest telephone… the mountains around us and the stars, and there, I tell you, you know it’s New Zealand.”IMG_1161[1]

The central story of course is that of the land itself, the iconic high-country landscape of mountain and river valley, scree and tussock, snow, dust and willow. (image above is of the map included in the back of the book) Inevitably, the true sense of the vast, lonely, sometimes bleak environment and the people who live in it is captured best in pictures. This is certainly the case with Rob Suisted’s sensitive photographs, as he projects himself and his Canon into the action: riding the muster, getting up (too) close and personal with the beehives, astride the stockyard fences, up at dawn in the stockmen huts. From the cattle rises steam and dust. There is stormy light on the ranges, fire in the forge. There are dogs in motion and draught horses waiting patiently to be shod.

Though Molesworth the book is essentially a verbal and pictorial history of the place and its people, there is a throughline that captures the tension central to Molesworth’s past, present and future. Put simply, Molesworth is a large chunk of New Zealand that has generated a correspondingly large number of opinions from a variegated cast of stakeholders. The Government, Landcorp, a steering committee, DOC, Kai Tahu, Te Tau Ihu, the wider farming fraternity, anglers and hunters, environmentalists and almost anyone in New Zealand who values public access to mountains and rivers have a stake in Molesworth. It is a lightning rod for opinions on the basic function and value of land, a subject which is at the heart of New Zealand’s colonial history and ongoing self-perception.

What then is the reader left with, having laid Molesworth down upon the kitchen table for the final time? A mindful of intangibles: a sense of a vast unvisited New Zealand; a whetted desire to perhaps visit this part of it next summer when the storms have eased. An insight into farming practice past and present; a faint self-disdain when considering the easy comfort of metropolitan life. But most significantly, a sincere respect for the writer, the photographer and the publisher whose keen senses, hard work and artistic sensibilities have unearthed a shining stone.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station
by Harry Broad, photographs by Rob Suisted
Published by Craig Potton Publishing
ISBN 9781877517167

Book Review: The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall

The Bright Side of my Condition is a finalist in the Fiction category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards.cv_the_bright_side_of_my_condition

“Maybe next time I get it right.  Forget special.  Next time I come back as a whalefish breathing steady in the lovely deeps.”  So speaks Bloodworth, convict-narrator of Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of my Condition.  And Randall indeed seems to be grappling with just that − what is the point of our brief human lives?  When we eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, should we be remembered for, or remember ourselves as ‘special’, or should our successes instead be measured by the twin metric of beauty and enjoyment?  As Bloodworth muses, the penguins know:

… their useless stumpy wings that don’t fly, their duck feet that don’t walk, their bodies jes a starchy morning suit, but look how they contrive to free their selfs from their limits and enjoy their lives.

Look how they grin, he says.

Randall writes her first person narrative as the man of the time would speak.  The opening sections bloom with ‘I dint say a word’ and ‘I’m Bloodworth.  It aint a name I ever heared of before it were thrust upon me.’  This jars, to begin with.  But as the story progresses, it quickly becomes a an obviously strong narrative voice.  Bloodworth is hard to like, but he must have grown on me − the surreal change of form at the end of the book left me caring for his fate, and I was surprised by this.  He is not really a likeable character, but is richly imagined.  More importantly, his experience is an allegorical tale that explores issues of existentialism, freedom and choice. “And yer have to ask,” says Bloodworth, “… what even were I brung here for?  Jes to walk alone across these cliffs?”

the_snares

The Snares islands

In three parts, the novel addresses ‘The Early Years’, ‘The Middle Years’, and ‘Eternity’ of the experiences of four convicts who escaped from Norfolk Island onto a sealing ship. The ship did not have enough food to feed the crew and the convicts, and so they were discharged onto one of The Snares, a group of subantarctic islands 200 kilometres from the South Island of New Zealand. The collective area of these islands equate to 3.5 kilometres squared. If it sounds foreboding and harsh, it is. The experiences of the four men are of the environment, each other and the self, for that is all there really is. Seals are murdered for their skins, and these skins hid away and counted as a measure of time passing. Interactions between Bloodworth, Gargantua, Toper and Slangam are brutal and bitchy. Imagine being stuck on an inhospitable island with three other law-breakers; a sack of potatoes, rice and rum the only provisions; the promise of rescue at least a year away. There is little to hope for except rescue. At least in a prison, your sentence, you would presume, would end. Here, on the island, the reader already knows that rescue is actually a decade away. And then what?

Gargantua believes he will be delivered as a hero to the literary circles of England, and that the story he has to tell of the experience will define him as ‘special’. Toper seems a bit stupid − his religion and natural inclination to follow rather than lead make him a prime candidate for manipulation. Slangam sees himself as boss, and so it is. Bloodworth eventually sours of interaction and heads out alone to a cave, rejecting company for penguin and albatross watching, and internal philosophising. ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Middle Years’ follow these internal and external journeys.

Wandering Albatross Kaikoura 19 Nov 12_990

Copyright Stephen Burch Kaikoura Pelagic, New Zealand, 19 November 2012 EOS 7D & 400mmf4DO. 1/5000 sec f5.6 ISO 800

It is in ‘Eternity’ that things dramatically diverge. We still have our narrator, but his situation changes. This is the smallest section of the book − 30 pages − but the most interesting as far as form goes. Randall has talked about how the ideas in this part of the story actually prompted her writing The Bright Side of my Condition. Things end as they start – the bickering and bitching continues – and the questioning of self and others goes on.

And what of Bloodworth? He continues to grapple with the exquisite pain of living. At one point he asks: “But were there more of a plan for me? … Were I made special for a special life?” Randall’s response comes through words that swell from Bloodworth’s pre-convict life: “Living do the making.” We are as we choose to live, so choose to live wisely.

by Lara Liesbeth

The Bright Side of My Condition
by Charlotte Randall
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143570660