Book Review: As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto

cv_as_much_gold_as_an_ass_could_carryAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Vivienne Plumb’s collection As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry  collects a vibrant selection of poetry, plays and short prose from this always-innovative author. These are pieces composed over a writing career begun in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre and leading up to Plumb’s recent attainment of a PHD in creative writing from The University of Wollongong, Australia. General readers and those lured by the mysteries of the PHD will be equally intrigued to read the extracts here from her thesis manuscript The Glove Box and other stories. (Spineless Wonders, 2014) This collection earned her the prestigious doctoral award. Her Australian publisher’s ironically acerbic trade name is also entirely in keeping with Plumb’s own rapier wit and comic timing.

In whatever genre or persona she operates Plumb’s writing is intellectually incisive and visually complex. But it frequently also carries a depth finding tincture of melancholy. Jillian Sullivan’s excellent discussion of this dimension of Plumb’s poetics is analysed in the wonderful essay ‘Landscape and Lament: Anti-consolation in the Poetry of Vivienne Plumb’, which features on-line in the current issue of Ka Mate Ka Mate.

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is an indispensable repository of Plumb’s oeuvre. The unflinching honesty of her narratives illuminate the human condition with nuances that make even life’s greyest moments shine with a diamond energy. Her barbed appraisals of suburbia, the universe, and everything, make an indispensable contribution to New Zealand writing.

Finally however, I must demur in one key respect from the design values in this collection. It’s marvelous illustrations by Glenn Otto are a kinetic calligraphy, which brilliantly complements Plumb’s own take no prisoners approach to every topic. However, in my opinion her editors should have restricted this artist’s contribution to the white spaces of the text. Plumb’s material deserves the uninterrupted limelight. She should not have to compete with Otto. Where his strokes spill exuberantly into the textual black space they return the reader’s imagination to the page surface, competitively disrupting narratives in which Plumb’s own extreme vistas and experimental narrative close-ups would otherwise offer the reader enjoyment unbounded.

Reviewed by Janet Charman

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
by Vivienne Plumb
with illustrations by Glenn Otto
Published by split/fountain
ISBN 9780473373184

Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Book Review: Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha, by Tania Roxborogh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bastion_pointErica Tito thinks she’s going to spend the summer training her new horse (and also working to pay for it) but her parents suddenly have quite a different plan.

In 1977, the Muldoon government announced a housing development on Ngāti Whātua reserve land. This land had been reduced in size over time, by compulsory acquisition, despite having once been declared absolutely inalienable.

Many of the Ngāti Whātua iwi quickly returned to Auckland, and set up camp on Takaparawha, in what turned out to be a very long protest which ultimately saw more than 200 people arrested, and the buildings destroyed. However a subsequent Waitangi Tribunal determined that the land was indeed owned by Ngāti Whātua and much of it was returned. (source: Nzhistory.govt.nz)

So, to return to Erica’s story – her parents decide that it’s most important that they join Joe Hawke and the other Ngāti Whātua leaders, and despite Erica’s protests, that’s what happens. However what is intended a summer break turns into almost 18 months of living in leaky tents, on Bastion Point as the family become immersed in the struggle to retain their land.

Tania Roxborogh has created a compelling and entirely credible story, told through the diaries which Erica (who loves reading and writing) keeps throughout this time. The difficulties of living in such conditions are occasionally startling in their description; one which sticks with me is Erica’s note about her clothes smelling of smoke and damp, and trying to get rid of that before going to school so that she would not be embarrassed. But there are also the high points – an understanding and challenging teacher, Erica’s eventual ability as a top debater being drawn out, friendships made and kept despite enormous differences.

The importance of whānau is well-defined, and will resonate with young readers, as will the strength of character of the Tito family, determined to fight for what they know to be right.

The occupation of Bastion Point was not an easy time for Ngāti Whātua, and Roxborogh alludes in a very gentle way to the difficulties between the occupiers and the tribal elders and their advisors on the marae. She has more to say (through Erica) about the politics and the government of the day, and that is a good reminder to those of us who are old enough to remember Bastion Point and the challenges which were thrown out to all New Zealanders.

In all this is a very accessible, engaging and thought-provoking book. I’d recommend it to anyone, but particularly to teachers as a terrific resource either as a read-aloud or a text for study.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha
by Tania Roxborogh
Part of the My New Zealand Story series
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434795

Book Review: The Traitor and the Thief, by Gareth Ward

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_traitor_and_the_thief_wardAn entertaining steampunk-esque adventure, The Traitor and the Thief won the Tessa Duder award (for unpublished young adult writers) in 2016. It is well written, taking in elements of Harry Potter and the Cherubs series, whilst also retaining a fresh originality.

Sin is an orphan and a thief, living on the streets and his wits. That is, until the day he is picked up and introduced to COG, a society that takes in skilled teenagers and trains them to be spies, in an effort to prevent, or reduce, the effects of war. Illiterate and not strong with numbers, Sin immediately sets about improving his skill-set with a dedication that is quite inspiration. He swiftly makes friends and settles in to his new way of life. Of course, this newfound prosperity is not to last, for there is a traitor in their midst, and if they are not unmasked, then all of their hopes will be in vain. Can Sin uncover the traitor? Or will his own past catch up with him and lead them all into ruin?

With a sparkling array of characters, an engaging world, and enough twists to satisfy, The Traitor and the Thief should appeal to fans of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Traitor and the Thief
by Gareth Ward
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925381504

Book Review: It’s My Pond, by Claire Garralon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_its_my_pondIn It’s My Pond, a duck finds a pond and claims it, but then another duck comes along and also claims it – so they split it in half and share it. But then… another duck comes, and another, and another… chaos and boredom ensues while all the ducks try to stay within their little portion of the pond, until yet another duck makes a very good suggestion and they discover how much more fun the pond is when they start sharing and playing in it together.

UNTIL, a hippopotamus appears…

This is a beautifully made book. Thick, creamy stock, Bright but simple illustrations with a clever story. It features a great theme of sharing, equality, and playing together which creates some really good conversations with young children.

Reviewed by Nyssa Walsh

It’s My Pond
by Claire Garralon
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9781911496021

Book Review: Play, by Jez Alborough

cv_play_jez_alboroughAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Play is another fantastic Bobo the monkey book, companion to Hug, Yes and Tall. This time follow Bobo as he resists bedtime to play with his jungle friends. The sun is still up and Bobo wants to play. He sneaks away after being put to bed to join Giraffe, but Mum finds him again and returns him to bed. Bobo can’t resist temptation though and swings away to find Tortoise. Suddenly the sun is going down and Bobo is left alone in the dark, far from his Mum! Thankfully a welcome friend shows up to help him home.

This was such a good book to read to a 1.5 year old. It’s filled with beautiful full page illustrations and just a handful of words, which was perfect for someone with minimal vocabulary. A simple story told through illustration but cleverly done so you could interpret what is going on as much or as little as you wanted as you read it. Perfect for little ones who are just starting to interact more with books.

Reviewed by Nyssa Walsh

Play
by Jez Alborough
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406373073