Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Tell You What: 2017, edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2017This third AUP collection of ‘Great New Zealand Nonfiction’ was an engaging summer read, and may even turn out to be the best such compilation. Through a miscellany of styles and themes, patterns emerge, just like little ripples in a swimming pool, or batting statistics in test cricket history. At first it was a useful read during the slower periods in the recent Basin Reserve test match. But as the cricket got more exciting, and the injuries more serious, I realised that the essays demanded greater concentration.

Personal narrative and in-depth history are woven into everything from slave runs in 17th century Iceland and the 19th century Marlborough Sounds, to the previously unknown story of a Muslim immigrant herbalist, and a 1960s case of arsenic poisoning. Seriously obscure literary texts and pop culture kitsch from the 1970s form the background to tales of gendered angst. There are also some good selections from more mainstream journalism and essay subjects.

Giovanni Tiso makes a very good point about the assumptions of policy reformers over the course of a century when it comes to the spending habits of the poor. And Dylan Cleaver’s piece from the NZ Herald brings new life to the odd world of pigeon racing. There are also important and contrasting takes on the role of Maori protocol and sense of whakapapa in a number of the selections, some in specific cultural contexts, and others in the more complex considerations involved in the wreck of the Rena, or purchase of the Awaroa inlet. Talia Marshall’s treatment of the latter is both grammatically and thematically challenging, covers a whole sweep of Maori and colonial history, and also notes the loss of bird life in the Abel Tasman national park. Like a number of the authors, she questions our sense of place.

The main theme that emerges in this collection is the struggle for understanding between parents and children over time, including how to overcome a denial of family history. Toni Nealie’s ‘Bequeathed’ is a very structured piece that draws together her very fragmented family history, and focuses on lost grandparents, the complications of their ‘mixed race’ marriage, and the role of particular inherited items in creating meaning where memory had been shunned. The pain of maternal death and its implications are examined in Ashleigh Young’s ‘Anemone’, as she describes the journey to London to help her brother and nephew cope with the suicide of her sister-in-law. Young’s brother’s reaction is similar to that of a sea anemone; and her nephew finds an explanation in the intricacies of something called Minecraft. But Young herself can’t quite fathom the situation, or even use the word suicide.

Equally challenging, and somehow unfathomable, Tracey Slaughter’s account of her childhood in ‘Ashdown Place’, and the life changing effects of a swimming pool being installed. It becomes the venue for tawdry adult parties, what is now called ‘swinging’, and the seeds of permanent splits and reallocation of partners. Slaughter’s description of the cultural artefacts and reference points of the time are evocative in the extreme, at least for those also growing up in the ‘70s. And her final paragraph, where she recounts the seedy morning afters, as the child within returns to the swimming pool for a contemplative paddle, is sublime. But for all its literary merit I found myself troubled by this one, and the part where she suggests that the explanation is sociological – couples who married too young discarded their sexual mores in the heat of summer, but otherwise remained suburban conservatives. Perhaps infidelity was re-invented in the 1970s.

With that point made, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood have done a fantastic job in compiling these essays. 2016 was also a good year for non-fiction writing if nothing else.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tell You What: 2017
by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood (eds)
Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408602

 

Book Review: The Journal of Urgent Writing, edited by Nicola Legat

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_journal_of_urgent_writingThis book, or journal, is the first in a planned annual collection of long form essays from (mostly) academics and journalists, addressing “urgent” topics that they have been researching or thinking about recently. If continued as planned, these journals should give a snapshot about issues that were concerning us at that time – or that should have been concerning us more, in retrospect. In any case, this collection brings specialist writers to a more generalist audience. A fine idea that seems to be gaining in popularity, considering that Auckland University Press has also just published a collection of non-fiction stories and essays.

Some editorial decisions have probably been made about the order in which these essays are presented, but I could not pick up any logic in the placement. In some cases essays that touch on similar subjects are placed far apart, making me wonder whether they would have given the reader a different impression if read sequentially. I only wondered this after reading two essays that did seem to segue: historian Peter Meihana writes on how the concept of “Māori privilege” may be part of New Zealand’s national creation myth, used by colonial governments to both claim egalitarianism and to sanction Māori dispossession. This is followed by Krushil Watene’s piece on water, law and philosophical concepts of ownership. Watene argues that indigenous perspectives on humans’ connection to and responsibility to nature are among the philosophical forces that can lead us away from recent (environmentally disastrous) ideologies that privilege exploitation of natural sources for individual gain.

I suspect that, as with a magazine, these pieces should be picked up in whatever order the reader cares. No more energy for new arguments? Flick to the sole pictorial essay and marvel at diatoms! I just wasn’t feeling it when I turned to an essay about why children can’t read, so came back to it later only to realise that it wasn’t the subject that had left me cold, but the fact that the essay had none of the conversational qualities that made some of the others so engaging. Nothing wrong with a list of well-argued refutations of myths on this topic, and I’m sure the piece could have formed the basis of a good lecture, but there was no illustrative anecdote, no insertion of the authors’ voices into the narrative along the lines of “when we first looked at this issue we expected X, but here’s what happened…”.

Other readers may well differ, but the most successful essays for me were the ones that gave the feeling of a good sit-down chat with someone who knows way more than you on a particular topic and would just love to tell you about how they discovered it. The first piece – Dan Salmon on the problem of sustainable tuna fisheries and so much more – is a fantastic example of this. The next piece is a complete change of tune: an address to graduates about how to live a good life which, although containing plenty of warm and worthwhile advice, did not strike me as especially “urgent” or new. Paul McDonald’s address does, however, incorporate advice which could be a commissioning brief for this kind of collection: “Tell stories, too, especially those that exemplify our humanity. Constructive change is most likely to result from a combination of logical data and a compelling story”.

To that end, Jarrod Gilbert makes riveting use of statistics combined with shocking examples of how those stats are or are not addressed, in his essay on crime and justice. He writes like a guy who could talk your ear off about any number of maddening stories on these topics without getting at all boring.

Mike Joy is angry about the state of our rivers, and this is hardly news, but it is perhaps fitting that his subject and angle was the one I could most easily predict from looking at the author list. His essay charts his personal and professional journey to becoming “that scientist who campaigns about freshwater”, and the dramas along the way.

Teena Brown Pulu tells an intensely emotional family story to illustrate the irrelevance of rules that force people to nominate only one ethnicity to identify with. Paula Morris and David Slack also do lovely work weaving wider themes into their reflections about life stages and parents. Slack’s final essay ends the collection beautifully on a poignant and hopeful note.

Richard Shaw addresses arguments for why young people disengage from democracy and what should be done about it, in a topical and indeed urgent piece that is hard to read now without thinking ”ah, this was written right before THAT THING happened in the USA…”
Speaking of which, it’s only fair that a collection of urgent 2016 writing should allude to the political news in the USA. In the one essay that genuinely irritated me, Paul Thomas started off with what seemed like a “damn kids get off my lawn” invective against the “cult of self-esteem”, politically correct outrage and social media narcissism. He then annoyed me further by seguing into what may be a fair point, arguing that Trump’s rise to power is linked to his embodiment of extreme narcissism which is only now seen as normal. Frankly that’s an argument I was just not ready to read about, even if it contains a grain of truth. 2016, everyone.

To sum up, a quote from another highly topical essay reminds us what this compilation is aiming for. David Hall’s fair-minded discussion about the meaning of environmental politics buzzwords such as “green growth” concludes: “By taking seriously other ideas, even those we disagree with, we force ourselves to think better about our own.”

With that in mind, bring on the 2017 round of thought-provoking rants.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

The Journal of Urgent Writing
edited by Nicola Legat
Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994130068

Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

Sport
is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Book Review: Shortcuts: Track 1, speculative fiction by Paper Road Press

shortcuts-track-1_front_draftbAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

From indie publishers, Paper Road Press, we have the first in what will be, hopefully, a series of anthologies: Shortcuts: Track 1. This installment offers up a collection of fine speculative fiction from a selection of New Zealand authors. The tales are diverse and engaging, long enough to immerse and engage the reader, but short enough to devour in a single sitting.

We begin with ‘Landfall’ by Tim Jones, a chilling near-future tale. New Zealand has become a distant haven for refugees escaping a world altered by climate change. However, it is not, truly, a haven, for the beaches are patrolled, and outsiders − and those who aid them − are greeted with guns and hostility. Nasimul is one such refugee, fleeing his homeland of Bangladesh. Donna is a soldier, trained to hunt and kill, but there is compassion amongst the cruelty.

This is followed by the somewhat more fanciful, ‘Bree’s Dinosaur’ by AC Buchanan. Deformed banana cake, a science project, a family secret and a meteorite, all converge into an explosive conclusion.

Grant Stone’s ‘The Last’ is a more haunting, fantastical tale, with folklorish elements. The narrator, Rachel, is a reporter − one of the last true rock reporters − sent into the countryside to interview the enigmatic Katherine St. John, singer and songwriter. But there is more to the woods than meet the eye, as Rachel is soon to find out.

Lee Murray and Piper Mejia have teamed together to bring us ‘Mika’. Mika is from Aotearoa, has set out on a mighty journey in her waka (a far-evolved descendant of the traditional canoes) to New York, seeking the cure for the disease that is ravaging her family. What she finds, instead, is a conspiracy, an unlikely ally and a child with a dark past and an even darker future.

Probably my favourite in this collection is ‘Pocket Wife’ by I K Paterson-Harkness. It introduces strange future-tech: miniature replicas of a person that acts as a sort of surrogate for the person, allowing them to see, hear and feel everything that the doll feels. Our narrator may be away on business, but his wife is watching him, through the eyes of her Tiny. When the replica malfunctions, we are thrown into a darkly humorous comedy of errors.

The final tale, ‘The Ghost of Matter’ by Octavia Cade features Ernest Rutherford − but not entirely as we remember him.

Overall, Shortcuts is a fine and entertaining collection, offering a bit of everything: chilling dystopia, nifty future-tech, a harrowing journey, and much, much more. I look forward to seeing what else the authors, and Paper Road Press, have to offer.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Shortcuts: Track 1
Edited by Marie Hodgkinson
Published by Paper Road Press
ISBN 9780473336486

Book Review: Huia Short Stories 11, Contemporary Māori Fiction

cv_huia_short_stories_11Available in bookshops nationwide.

If life is like a box of chocolates as Forrest Gump says, then a good box of chocolates will have something for everyone, and a few surprises. Huia Short Stories 11 is a good box of chocolates – I think readers will find something within that will engage them, and it won’t be the same thing for every reader.

Authors published in the anthology are finalists from the 2015 Pikihuia Awards for Māori writers, with short stories written in both Te Reo Māori and English, and also novel extracts. The topics, themes and writing styles are diverse, as you might expect with 19 pieces written by 15 authors.

I can only read very basic Te Reo Māori, and unfortunately that isn’t enough for me to be able to read the handful of stories that are written in Te Reo, so I will have to leave those for another reviewer.

Some of the stories are light of heart; ‘Kingdom of Maisey’ by Aaron Ure had me laughing at loud as the narrator slowly succumbed to the will of a household invader. Others are pretty heavy; the judgement that is ignorantly heaped upon the narrator of ‘Tired Eyes’ by Anya Ngawhare made me cringe; the despair felt by the job seeker in ‘The Job’ by Lauren Keenan will resonate with many people who’ve had to negotiate their way through an unforgiving job market; ‘A Picnic with the Bears’ by K-T Harrison is a reminder that all may not be what it seems.

Some of the stories are hard to read. This is not a criticism; the stories need to be told. Stories like ‘A Picnic with the Bears’ and ‘Aroha’, by Ann French, are going to hurt the heart of all but the hardest readers, and ‘Old Totara’ by Robert MacDonald was also an emotional read. ‘Hands of Time’, Ann French’s other story in the anthology, started sad, but offered more explicit hope.

So, as far as boxes of chocolates go, this anthology isn’t just soft centres. Some of the stories will give you something to chew on. Some will make you smile with recognition, and some will make you cry. But they are all worth tasting, you may just find something new that you like.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Huia Short Stories 11
Published by Huia Publishing
ISBN 9781775502043

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2015In his foreword to Tell You What, John Campbell is keen to engage the reader in a discussion about what might constitute ‘New Zealand culture’ these days. He starts out by quoting Allen Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,/ Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Campbell goes on to list the ways and individuals in which identity and culture have developed and found expression in the years since Curnow wrote those lines in 1943: the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, frigates in Mururoa, Whina Cooper’s hikoi, Bill Manhire’s poetry, Janet Frame, Flying Nun, Marilyn Waring…

What Campbell is referring to is a two-faceted shift in the way that New Zealanders represent themselves. The first is that many of the people of Aotearoa do now stand conspicuously upright, in many locations, for many reasons — in anger, in celebration, in dissent, in assertion of the need for something better. And linked to this, making it all visible, is the emergent confidence, talent and stridency of our storytellers. There are multitudinous voices, pluralistic points-of-view! And to the great good fortune of the reading public, particularly for those of us who still prefer to read paper books, the second annual instalment of Tell You What has arrived just in time to stave off the despair at contemporary reportage that might, to paraphrase Campbell, have readers climbing into the oven beside the turkey.

So what is going on in New Zealand, for New Zealanders, for New Zealand writers? Judging by this collection, heaps. There are twenty-four pieces, if you count the foreword (which you should, because Campbell is a marvellous writer). There are personal and political accounts from Christchurch, China, Huntly, Frankfurt and the front lines of journalism. There is a lot of humour, which has me thinking that we might be quite a funny people, sometimes. It would be curious to see how much of the humour (Steve Braunias’ satire, Megan Dunn’s surrealism) would translate culturally. If Jermaine and Bret can be known worldwide just by their first names, perhaps the New Zealand sense of humour does cross cultures.

Within the uniformly excellent ranks (there are no weak links in the volume) there are a half dozen prices of writing that particularly resonated with me, either through the subject matter or the style of writing, and usually both combined. Charles Anderson’s account of the sinking of Easy Rider off Bluff combines journalism with a poetic sensitivity. It is a sad, sad story, made all the more harrowing and haunting through being nonfiction.

Braunias writes of his failure to respond adequately when a faulty heater almost sends his house, his daughter and his whole life up in flames. Braunias, like David Sedaris, has the ability to paint failure and weakness in a funny and sad light. His self-absorption rarely crosses over into self-indulgence.

Dunn’s ‘The Ballad of Western Barbie’ begins with an epigram: ‘Two things happen in Huntly: something and nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.’ Her narration of life in Huntly, as perceived when young and then as a well-traveled adult, is enlivened by conversations with her Western Barbie. It sounds odd from a distance, but it works.

Ross Nepia Himona has thought and written an unhyped analysis of the complexities and contradictions inherent in New Zealand’s ANZAC commemorations. In a piece taken from his blog ‘Lecretia’s Choice’, Matt Vickers offers us a head-and-heart dispatch from the front line. And Sylvan Thomson’s portrait is a funny and tender insider’s tale of how it is to make the physical, social and psychological transition from young woman to young man.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the collection is even. The overall effect for the reader is a sort of mental and emotional relief, a confirmation that something human and intelligent is consistently being expressed and deciphered in New Zealand. In an era of persistent media and political distortion of life big and small, writing like this offers counterpoint and advice: Don’t simplify complex matters, and don’t complexify simple matters.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016
Edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408442