Book Review: True Stories, by Helen Garner

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_true_stories.jpgBirth, death, relationships, fear, joy and passion – Garner weaves these and many other themes together in this superb collection of non-fiction written over an almost fifty-year time frame.

Garner – a novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist – draws on memories and anecdotes, overheard conversations, research that took her years, and observations that she has captured in seconds.  Her notebooks, she tells us, are where she stores not only the material that forms the basis for her essays, but also her scribbled ‘notes: aimless’ that are sometimes the genesis of fiction.

It’s great company, this book. Equal measures confronting, comforting, confusing – solemn one section, the next lighthearted and laced with humour. How skillfully she describes her world and the people in it: including not only the family and friends she’s known well, loved (and sometimes lost), but also the kindness and weirdness of strangers. Garner is both brave and honest as she reflects on her experiences as a daughter, mother and grandparent, her disrupted relationships, and the delight to be found in both deep and fleeting friendships. In some of the most poignant sections she recounts the vulnerability of her aging parents as their health and well-being decline.

Read one chapter, and you’ll likely see Garner as resilient and confident, a woman able to take anything – and anyone – in her stride. Then read the next, and that view may be tipped on its head when she shares insecurities, regrets and sadness.

Garner raises both implicit and explicit questions – Who owns a story? Should writers and readers be kept apart? Can you be an artist without causing pain? The answers (whether hers or ours) are not likely to be clear-cut.

These essays are located in a vast and eclectic range of settings, including cruise ships and trains, morgues and graveyards, hospitals, spas and even a fencing lesson. She describes situations familiar to us all, as well as places that most of us will never visit. The chapters are in a rather loose chronological order and it doesn’t really matter in what order they are read. It’s a solid chunk of a book (over 600 pages) that you can dip in and out of, whether you have five minutes or five hours to spare. Some chapters run over many pages. Others are brief – a sentence or two, barely a paragraph. I know that I’ll want to return to this book over time, as many of the essays deserve to be re-read.

Each chapter is carefully and cleverly titled, some titles almost little stories themselves: Sighs Too Deep for Words, Auntie’s Clean Bed, Notes from a Brief Friendship, to name just a few.

Garner is open about her inability to judge the value of her work, and the elation as well as the despair she faces as a writer. In one of my favourite passages she writes about the tyranny of email – and her horror of the vast blank message field with its ‘appalling infiniteness’. She prefers the tight and disciplined boundary of a postcard: ‘You cannot go on and on and on. It challenges you to get straight to the point, to fill its tiny oblong with energy’. She laments the lost art of exchanging postcards and dislikes the immediacy of email, because the swift replies all too often arrive before the sender has had a chance to draw breath.

How well she gives life to the characters and situations she describes: the lawyer with ‘a face as pale as a teacup’, the ‘platters of tired old lettuce’ on a cruise ship buffet, the ‘tiny sausage’ of a sick baby’s arm, the ‘marmoreal bosom’ of a bride-to-be. (Marmoreal, it turns out, means resembling marble. Garner knows her words.) I found myself wanting to learn more about the people whose narratives Garner introduces and to find out what happened next. Some of the stories she relates have already attracted significant media coverage, yet Garner urges us to reconsider events through a different lens.

And look – there are secrets buried in the end papers. Hidden under the flaps of the dust jacket are handwritten tiny notes – what Garner would call ‘the hints and tremors of fiction’ – that may spark stories not yet told.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy biographies and similar works of non-fiction, who will appreciate Garner’s powerful descriptions of ordinary situations and everyday lives. It will also appeal to people who are intrigued by the richness and complexity of relationships, people who are aging or caring for aging parents, and people who are both afraid of and exhilarated by the prospect of living alone, who must learn (as Garner does) to ‘carry their memories on their own’.

Garner says it is difficult to be an inconspicuous observer, however we are left in no doubt that she has mastered the art.

by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

True Stories
by Helen Garner
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925773194
The paperback of this title has just been released.

 

Book Review: Around the World Fashion Sketchbook, by Jenny Grinsted & Eva Byrne

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_around_the_World_fashion_sketchbook.jpgFashion, travel, colouring-in, and design – courtesy of the creative team at Lonely Planet kids. The Fashion Sketchbook is a very fun and educational trip around the world in traditional costumes.

Divided into six geographic regions, the book features twenty-seven countries from Mexico to Ghana to our own New Zealand. It’s always a source of parochial glee to find Aotearoa in a book.  Each country has a double-page spread outlining traditional clothing, patterns, fabrics, and jewellery.

Part fashion fact book, part atlas, part activity book, this A4-sized book has plenty of information and photos but also leaves room to draw in your own designs. You can customise a Herero-style hat from Namibia with your own patterns and colours, or follow the steps to draw your own quadrille dress for a Jamaican dancer. Fun, educational, and creative.

This is a great activity book to keep your design-minded, wannabe young travelers busy over the school holidays. My twelve-year-old has already stolen my review copy.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

Around the World Fashion Sketchbook
by Jenny Grinsted & Eva Byrne
Published by Lonely Planet Kids
ISBN 9781787014442

Book Review: House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_house_of_dreams.jpgWhat a wonderful biography, of the girl known as ‘Maud’, who was the wonderful writer behind Anne of Green Gables. As well as many other novels, a couple of biographies, and countless poems and stories.

Sometimes you are so secure in your own world, you forget about our collective history as women. That once, women were expected to be no more educated than was required for the purposes of keeping a household in order. And that it was seen as perverse if a woman required any further education, let alone needed money to achieve this end. When relatives died, money was not left for the education or keeping of a female relative, but to the boys in the family.

Reading Maud’s story made me cry several times. Her mother died when she was only two, so the family moved to Cavendish, her mother’s parents’ grand house in Prince Edward Island, where she was raised by them as her father departed to make his fortunes elsewhere in the new country of Canada. Her grandmother showed very little emotion nor love, but cared for her in her own way. Her grandfather is rarely brought into the biography by Rosenberg, except to say ‘no’ when asked for money towards Maud’s education.

Rosenberg portrays Maud’s real love as her writing, and secondly, her friends. She had many deep and lasting friendships, both on Prince Edward Island and later, on the mainland. She was very tied to her home, and was immensely aware of the beauty of the world around her.

This biography puts forward the idea that Maud was manic depressive, and had seasonal affective disorder. Rosenberg uses past biographies, alongside letters and diaries to build this throughout the book, which is told in beautiful prose, balanced with a biographers’ eye for information worthy of inclusion. There were no parts of the book where I couldn’t see the purpose each paragraph played in telling the story of Maud. This is the mark of an excellent biography.

Maud was let down quite severely by many in her life, but never her Grandmother Lucy, for whom she was named (the L is Lucy). Grandmother gave her hard-saved cash from the household fund to help her achieve her two stints at University, as well as helping her to get a job to earn the rest of the cash.

Maud’s success in writing was self-made, and she was extremely driven. After being a teacher for a couple of years, then a journalist (thanks to a suitor getting her a job), she returned back to Cavendish to look after her ailing grandmother, and stop her being kicked out of her home by her uncle John. That is where Anne took seed in her mind, and there is a site nearby the original home, that is labelled as being Green Gables.

There are lovely line-drawings at the front of each chapter, summarising the topic of each chapter – the passions, the depressions and more of Maud as her life plays out. The illustrator is Julie Morstad, and they feel deliberately similar to the turn-of-the-century illustrations of Anne of Green Gables.

I finished this biography with many things to thank feminism and the study of psychiatric medicine for. The ability as a woman to work full time, and have children; the ability to get pills for ailments of the mind; the ability to live independently of a man should I so wish. Rosenberg has brought a truly fascinating story to life with her own writing gift. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants an insight into the life of a writer, and the life of a woman over the turn of the century.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery
by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763660574

Book Review: Epic Hikes of the World, by Lonely Planet

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_epic_hikes_of_the_world.jpgThis is the hiker’s fantasy book – packed with mouth-watering mountain, forest and coastal trails that have you dreaming of that next hike and holiday before you can figure out where you last put your boots.

Epic Hikes of the World profiles 50 hikes from around the world, spending quality time with each trail showing us luscious full colour photos, general maps, and details on how and when to go, and how difficult the trail is. What I really like about this book is how the main trail description is written as a story from a hiker who did it – similar to how we hikers share tales with one another of the great trips we’ve been on, picking up on how word of mouth often inspires our next hike.

The Lonely Planet writers/hikers are good at relating tales just the way you’d tell the story at a dinner party – how you planned to do the walk in 3 days but it took you 5 days and why: how you ran into those Swiss tourists and shared a brew overlooking a stunning mountain tarn, or the views you saw when you hit that summit and marvelled at the sheer drop of hundreds of metres.

I’d actually really like to read these trail stories in a small paperpack format and take it on a hike with me, to ponder and delight in those descriptions when I’m out in the mountains and bush.

A few New Zealand hikes make the list – the Routeburn, the Abel Tasman Coast track, and the Cape Brett track. I’m not really sure about the latter, but I guess that a sheep, farmland and lighthouse walk is more appealing to the visitors to NZ rather than for us locals, who see this kind of view most days.

Some of the hikes are more about the history (Hadrian’s wall in the UK), or taking a different approach (heli-hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains in Canada), and there’s even some city walks (Sydney’s Seven Bridges). It’s not always about the mind-blowing views (Four Days on the Alpine Pass Route in Switzerland)… Who am I kidding – it’s always about the mind-blowing views, and the challenge of getting there and having earned it.

It’s nice to see the “More walks like this” follow up detail that accompanies each trip. If you like South African Day hikes, it’ll tell you about 3 more, if the challenge of coast-to-coast hikes is more your thing, they’ll list 3 more you can consider looking into. It’s a nice touch to a nicely put together book. This is one of my favourite Lonely Planet books to date, but that’s because hiking is one of my favourite things.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Epic Hikes of the World
by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787014176

Book Review: The Incurable Romantic: And Other Unsettling Revelations, by Frank Tallis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_incurable_romanticLove makes the world go round, or so the songs say, but what happens when love goes wrong? This book gives the ordinary person, a secret glimpse into the world of a Psychotherapist. Frank Tallis has already written three works on psychology for the lay reader and is himself a clinical psychologist. By using examples from his experiences, he illustrates the many problems that arise in the name of love. Each chapter deals with a different story and he gives the background research for different disorders. So not only are we drawn into the problem, we are allowed to see the variety of tools available in searching for a solution.

Tallis begins by reminding the reader that love dominates our world through writing, movies, songs and history. His own interest with odd things led him to psychotherapy. As he says, ‘For me, psychotherapy is as much about narrative as it is about science and compassion, perhaps even more so.’

So these stories draw the reader into a strange and unsettling world. Megan, who falls in love with her dentist and becomes obsessed to the point of arrest. The elderly Mavis, unable to cope without her late husband. Tallis discovers it was not their shared interests but something more unusual that bound them together. Each story is told with compassion and the endings are often inconclusive. Years later, Tallis is still wondering how some patients have survived.

I found this book fascinating as love as an obsession was not something I have considered. While there is a lot of background history about the science of treatments, it is a readable book for the ordinary public. Tallis is a gifted writer who captures the essence of the problem and his narratives are sympathetic and informative. I see Ian McEwan endorses the book on the cover and I could see writers of romance or mystery finding the text very helpful in the development of a character. It brought to mind McEwan characters from On Chesil Beach.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Unsettling Revelations
by Frank Tallis
Published by Abacus
ISBN 9780349142951

WORD Christchurch: David Neiwert – Alt-America

WORD Christchurch is on from 29 August – 2 September.

David-Neiwert_cropped-1David Neiwerts body of work as a journalist centres on the radical right wing in the United States of America, and the discussion here was centred around issues brought forward by his latest book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.

The USA, and by extension the world, sits on the edge of an apparent historical precipice; Neiwert remarks that America has been very lucky when it comes to Facism and Authoritarianism, in that a movement has not emerged with a singular, charismatic leader. Until now.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of a movement mired in the fascistic elements which have long been a part of the American psyche, but those elements have become emboldened begun to draw together in a way that has not previously been seen. The emergence of Trump as a right-wing populist demagogue has taken the country to the precipice of authoritarianism in unprecedented manner, and it is – Neiwert argues – on the back of the emergence of an Alternative America where people’s connection with reality, truth, compassion, empathy and reason have been eroded by a relentless stream of misinformation and hateful rhetoric. A counterfactual culture driven by Fox News and Infowars, emboldened to take to the streets and behave violently. American Fascism has its leader now, and the mid-term elections and 2020 presidental race are ultimately pivotal in the success or downfall of the regime and the ideology.

New Zealand in the past has tended to ultimately be dismissive of America and its influence on us, othering the American as a brash, arrogant, imbecile who is ultimately little more than an annoyance, though events since 2001 have changed this perception, and there was a sense palpable among those present that the politics of America are in 2018 of great concern to us here in New Zealand. With our neighbours in Australia unapologetically legitimising authoritarian mistreatment of refugees and migrants, the trajectory of politics in the USA and the ability of this to influence the lives of people here in the South Pacific is clear.

Neiwert’s analysis does not initially inspire a great deal of confidence that the movement of people’s thinking toward the extreme right can be halted. He talked of the way that those seduced by the ideals of the alternative right are generally immobile in their thinking, driven by gut fears and paranoia, and discussed the ways in which debate – both public and personal – tends to have the result of hardening the beliefs of the radical right wing.

He talked repeatedly of the individuals who are consuming and producing the hateful rhetoric of this alternative universe as being “down the rabbit hole” of white supremacy and anti-semetic conspiracy theory, remarking on how rare it is for people to be shifted in their beliefs once they are established in their profound denial. The apt comparison was made with the mentality of religious cults producing self-fulfilling prophesy over and over, though religious fervour is replaced by paranoid beliefs about minorities and a belief that the white way of life is under threat. Crystallised by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the movement has gone from fringe groups of militia, tinfoil conspiracists and internet trolls all the way to control of the Republican Party and the WhiteHouse.

Neiwert’s suggested responses are not necessarily direct, but the encouragement of empathy and compassion in our society and encouraging participation in democracy from all quarters is hard to argue against. Faced with the potential emergence of global authoritarianism, it is vital that we take the in-depth understanding that David Neiwert has dedicated himself to and fight these ideologies, lest the lessons of the horrific atrocities of the 20th century be forgotten and repeated.

Attended and reviewed by Brett Johansen

David Neiwert: Alt-America
WORD Christchurch, Thursday 30 August

Buy the Book – Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump
by David Neiwert
Published by Verso Books
ISBN 9781786637468

Book Review: Everyday Adventures, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everyday_adventuresLonely Planet, that loved and trusted bible for backpackers and travellers, has added to their pantheon of guidebooks with a book close to everyone’s home. The cover promises ‘50 new ways to experience your hometown’ and it certainly delivers on this promise. Set out in five sections of adventure themes: Follow Your Senses, Social Adventures, Challenge Yourself, Cultural Odysseys and for the more adventurous adventurer, Roll the Dice, the book offers unique and fun ways to re-discover the place you live in. In each section you can pick and choose the challenges that best suit your level of budget, and adventurous spirit. This is a fantastic ‘how-to’ book that will get you out and about, looking around you and appreciating (hopefully) the world you walk through each and every day.

The adventures are outlined briefly and a list is provided of what you will require to complete each mission, along with instructions and colourful photos from around the globe. Diving into the challenges could see you for instance: camping in your own backyard and stargazing; spending 24 hours at the airport; travelling to the end of the train/bus line; playing life size monopoly around the city; letting your dog take you where they want to go, or volunteering a charity or organisation that operates in your city. The options are varied from easy to complex, and range from an hour or two to a few days – they have the suggestions, you decide on what and how and where.

To offer you more inspiration to get out there, or to clarify just what the adventure may entail, a case-study for each suggested adventure is provided. Written by Lonely Planet authors, they are lyrical pieces of travel writing filled with personal insights and imagery describing the sights and smells discovered by the adventurer as they test drive the adventures. These vignettes make for charming reading in themselves, and are accompanied by interesting facts relating to the adventure.

It has been *ahem* quite a few years since I had a few backpacking adventures on my Big OE; travels now look very different, and are a whole lot more comfortable might I add. However, like most travellers the love of discovering new places and experiences remains and with this book the Backpacker spirit can live on, opening up the possibilities of adventure close by. This is definitely a book for those who like to try new things and for those who love sharing fun experiences with family and friends.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Everyday Adventures
Lonely Planet Global Ltd, 2018
ISBN: 9781787013582