Book Review: Kai and Culture – Food Stories from Aotearoa, edited by Emma Johnson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

We need to come back to eating what’s available and sustainable. We need to remind people where food comes from. …Respect is what we need more of – for each other, our land and our food.
Fleur Sullivan – p. 32-33

cv_kai_and_cultureThis is a thought-provoking book exploring New Zealanders’ connections with kai. It encourages reflection on the social, cultural, historical, ethical and environmental issues linked with the food we grow, import, export, and eat.

The introduction explains that Kai and Culture covers ‘a range of ideas, projects and stories through essays, profiles and recipes’. The narratives incorporate multicultural perspectives, including reference to the mahinga kai central to Ngai Tahu identity that focuses on how and where traditional food and other natural resources are gathered. There’s also a profile of the Māori-owned Yellow Brick Road sustainable seafood company whose business is based on kaitiakitanga principles (of guardianship, protection and preservation) that focus on preserving New Zealand’s seafood resources. This ‘involves responsibility, respect, a deep connection to place and knowledge of provenance’ – such as knowing who caught the fish, when and how.

There’s discussion, too, of the positive impact that immigrants have had on the food grown, purchased and eaten in New Zealand homes and restaurants. Historically this includes the new varieties of vegetables established by Chinese market gardeners, and the parmesan cheese and olive oil introduced by Italian immigrants. As we are a multi-cultural nation, there continues to be many influences on what we grow and eat. For example, the book tells of a restaurant that honours and celebrates Pasifika food, and describes the innovative Middle Eastern meals prepared by refugees who cook for the non-profit social enterprise Pomegranate Kitchen.

Kai and Culture challenges our thinking about our interactions with food, including not only what we prepare and consume but what we waste, and why. Most of us know that seasonal variations influence the quality and availability of fresh produce – but do we consider where out-of-season produce has come from and how it was handled along the way? We learn about the skills and resources required to plant and nurture a self-sufficient fruit and vegetable garden, and whether or not this is a realistic goal for the average New Zealander. Kai and Culture also outlines alternative ways of gathering food, such as foraging – for wild parsley and other herbs, fungi or edible seaweed, for example – as a complement to fishing and hunting.

The book raises the issue of whether consumers have a right to know which country the food they are buying came from. (It’s a yes from me: I’m irritated by the fine print on many packaged foods declaring that the product was ‘packed in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients’, with no further information provided.)

Contributors include chefs, architects, writers, film-makers, academics, producers and restaurant-owners. Most sections are well-written (with references included if you’d like to learn more), although some of the longer sections would have benefited from tighter editing. There’s a fine balance between describing a business model or venture objectively and sounding like an advertisement or product endorsement. I would like to have heard more of the voices of individual contributors, instead there’s a certain sameness to the writing style across many sections.

Photos accompany most stories. The strangest depicts four adults bobbing in a spa pool full of heated milk. (You’ll have to read the book to find out why.)

There’s an unconventional mix of both narrow and wide margins throughout the book and a somewhat pedestrian two- and three-column layout and font. I found the typographic ornaments (swirly icons and the like) accompanying the heading of each section a distraction. Few seem to have any relation to the section content.

The 30 recipes at the end of Kai and Culture were provided by contributors to the book and most have links to particular sections. I wonder whether the recipes might have been more appropriately placed together with the associated story. This would mean, for example, that the simple pasta with tinned tomatoes recipe might have sat alongside Rebekah Graham’s essay about families that struggle to afford nutritious food, which she argues is a human right.

Some recipes include foraged ingredients, such as beach spinach. At the other end of the scale several recipes involve expensive or unusual ingredients and complicated methods. I’m keen to prepare the Ika Mata recipe for marinated raw fish, one of the more straightforward recipes, based on techniques and ingredients shared by people from the Cook Islands.

I can imagine Kai and Culture being used by secondary school teachers as part of a food and nutrition module, or as assigned reading for a tertiary education course that focuses on food production and consumption. It could also appeal to people interested in challenging and changing how they source, grow and/or use particular foods, and consumers wanting to make more informed and responsible purchasing decisions at supermarkets and even restaurants.

The topics and issues discussed in Kai and Culture have given me a greater appreciation of the efforts made by New Zealand growers, farmers and other food producers and of the challenges they face in providing us with healthy and sustainable food.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Kai and Culture: Food stories from Aotearoa
Edited by Emma Johnson
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473412241

Book Review: Gordon Walters, New Vision

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_web-gordon-walters-catalogue-auckland-art-gallery-publication_1024x1024.jpgGordon Walters is one of New Zealand’s most renowned modernist artists – his koru series instantly recognisable. Substantial in content and size, this book accompanies an exhibition that is being held in Dunedin until April of this year and will then be at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from July through November 2018.

The hard cover is striking – a reproduction of Walters’s black, white and blue geometric ‘Painting J’ (circa 1974). An interesting choice given the instant recognition afforded to his koru works – the choice of cover making it clear that his art extended beyond what he is best known for.

Contributors to the book include artists, art historians, curators, art history lecturers and others with specialist expertise and interests – including Māori and Pacific architecture and art history, historic art, craft and design, and the development of modern art in New Zealand and global modernisms.

The introduction explains that Walters ‘created a network of active relationships from a synthesis of forms, concepts, cultural traditions and perspectives’. The chapters explore in detail the multiple influences – at home and abroad – upon Walters’s art. Several chapters discuss the criticisms that were levelled at Walters as a Pākehā artist who incorporated Māori symbols into his art, primarily the unfurling spiral shape known as koru (also referred to in this book as pītau). Although Walters was accused of appropriation, he did not believe that the koru-like form in his paintings was essentially a reproduction of a Māori symbol. Instead he preferred to describe the symbol he created as ‘a horizontal stripe ending in a circle’.

However, the authors make it clear that Māori culture and symbolism were significant influences for Walters. He acknowledged that he had drawn on the principle of repetition that is a strong characteristic of Māori art, seen in kowhaiwhai patterns for example. While some Māori supported Walters, not all accepted nor stood up for him. Curator, lecturer, researcher, activist and art historian Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is quoted as describing Walters as both insolent and ‘damn cheeky’.

Brown’s chapter, entitled ‘Pītau, Primitivism and Provocation’, explores Walters’s many, varied and often complex relationships with Māori culture, imagery and art. This includes an overview of how the Waitangi Tribunal looked at the work of Walters’ – amongst others – when examining and delineating the distinction between taonga and taonga-derived works.

Walters’s connections with other artists are well-documented, in particular his friendship with Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist who moved with his parents to New Zealand in 1939. Walters and Schoon together visited Māori rock art sites in Canterbury. Walters was fascinated by what he saw and experienced during these visits, and the power of the rock art images. Later, he studied Aboriginal bark paintings as well as other indigenous art including tapa cloth designs and Marquesan tattoos – constantly seeking inspiration from cultures other than his own.

Schoon introduced Walters to work produced by Rolfe Hattaway, an artist living with a mental illness described as schizophrenia. Hattaway’s unconventional art – some of which is included in the book – inspired Walters to experiment with shape and form, particularly rearrangement and transformation. This preoccupation with rotation and reflection and other transformations remained a key feature of Walters’s work over time, and is examined in detail in several chapters. The book raises questions about how – and whether – Walters and Schoon acknowledged and valued Hattaway’s work.

As a young man, Walters’s visits to Wellington’s Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery challenged his thinking and stimulated his curiosity about both culture and art. Despite for a long time earning very little income from his art, Walters was a frequent traveller, with many trips to Australia. He lived for a time in London which allowed him easy access to galleries in Europe. His connections to, and relationships with, art and artists from Europe, the Americas, the Pacific and New Zealand are described and discussed.

The text is academic, yet accessible and thought-provoking. The book would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Walters’s art – in particular art collectors, art students, art enthusiasts and people wanting to learn more about the history of modern art and its evolution in New Zealand. Each chapter is accompanied by detailed footnotes. Additional features include a chronology of Walters’s life, an exhibition history, a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index.

The book has a good balance of images and text, including not only Walters’s work but also photographs of his studio, his fieldwork, and clippings of both modern and indigenous art cut from magazines and other sources which he glued into his scrapbook. His scrapbook forms a ‘consciously assembled catalogue of … visual information from across cultures and across time’. Photos of Walters show a young man whose hair grew in soft curls, reminding me of the koru that later featured so prominently in his work.

I was surprised by the extent and range of styles (including landscapes, nudes, floral works, surreal art and abstracts) depicted in the book. There’s a somewhat serious self-portrait in charcoal, as well as screen prints, works in acrylic, ink, gouache, oil on canvas, and oil on muslin. The colours range from stark black and white to vibrant yellows, blues and reds. Several works are repeated within different chapters, being central to the discussion and perspectives of individual chapter authors.

Additionally, the book contains works by artists whose work Walters engaged with, such as Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Victor Vasarely.

The font is smaller and fainter than ideal, although the text is printed on good quality paper that turns smoothly and the pages stay open easily.

For anyone who attends the exhibition the book will be an excellent reference. Due to its weight and size, this is not a book that most people would want to carry with them while visiting a gallery. However there would be value in reading it before attending the exhibition, to know what to look out for and to gain a deeper understanding of Walters and his art. It is certainly a book to return to over time. Several pages fold outwards from the spine of the book to provide a multi-page spread. While not recreating a full exhibition experience, the side by side placement encourages analysis and allows the reader to compare the similarities and differences among related works.

Ultimately, as with any art book, the book cannot do justice to the scale, depth, colour and complexity of the original works – it has, however, heightened my interest in attending the exhibition.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Gordon Walters: New Vision
Published by Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
ISBN 9780864633156

 

Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: Apartment Living New Zealand, by Catherine Foster

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_apartment_living_new_zealand.jpgEvery weekend about now – when weeds are unfurling and the grass is clearly in need of a trim – my partner and I look at each other and sigh. ‘We’re really apartment people,’ we say wistfully. Having spent time in apartments in Auckland, Wellington, London, Paris, Rome, New York, San Francisco and Melbourne, the lure of the apartment lifestyle is strong.

Author Catherine Foster begins with a brief description of the history of apartments in New Zealand and the changing cultural norms and attitudes towards apartment living. She notes that a lack of affordable land has seen rapid growth in the attraction of apartment ownership, which offers both convenience and quality of life. Significant increases in property prices, geographical restrictions and post-quake upheaval have all contributed to this growth.

Phoebe Gibbons lives with her partner in an inner-city Auckland apartment. She sums up the appeal of apartment living, sentiments that are shared by other apartment owners: ‘We have the city on our doorstep, a park across the road, and our jobs within walking distance. We can’t imagine a different lifestyle.’

Proximity to a city means that many owners walk from A to B, although almost all apartments covered in this book have their own parking space. In fact, one apartment includes parking for up to eight cars.

Foster and a team of photographers cover 20 diverse apartments, grouped by style: classic, contemporary and converted (typically from commercial to residential use). Some were constructed recently, others have been inhabited for close to a century. Auckland apartments feature prominently: 14 of the 20 apartments covered are in Auckland. Three are in Wellington, with one each in Lyttleton, Dunedin and Tauranga. I would have been interested to know Foster’s criteria for selecting the featured apartments and I’m grateful to the owners for sharing their homes.

Beautiful photographs of each apartment are counter-balanced with plenty of white space and interesting text. Each entry includes brief information about the apartment’s owner/s and their motivation for apartment living, followed by the property’s history and key design features. Architectural sketches offer a bird’s-eye view of floor plans, alongside information about the size (in square metres), the stud height, and the year constructed or renovated. Stud heights range from the traditional to a soaring 7m high cathedral ceiling.

Foster outlines the challenges architects face working with the demands of the Building Code, zoning restrictions and resource constraints, especially when renovating a heritage building. Patience is key during what some describe as ‘combative’ and ‘onerous’ processes. During renovations there’s a need to balance respect for the integrity of an original historic building with practical requirements for modern-day fixtures and plentiful storage. In some cases original fittings are still in use, such as the stunning bronze and glass lights in Wellington’s former Dental Clinic building.

Wellington_at_dawn

Panorama of Wellington at dawn, from Wikimedia Commons. 

There are many clever and sometimes surprising features, including a firefighter’s pole offering a quick descent as an alternative to an adjacent staircase, and self-contained pod bedrooms that can be easily reconfigured by future owners for commercial rather than residential use. In a Parnell apartment, enormously tall laser-cut aluminium screens double as folding shutters, providing both privacy and light control. And I’ve never seen anything else quite like the invisibly supported table suspended blade-like from one apartment’s kitchen wall.

Foster explains how both light and colour are used to best advantage, such as the bands of coloured glass brightening an exterior wall. Paint is also used to good effect: pastel shades to maximize space, blackboard paint on a kitchen wall to increase visual depth, and the 26 different shades of white in an apartment that serves as both home and office.

I appreciated the additional details Foster provides about artworks and other objects on display, such as sculptures and hand-blown glass vessels. An apartment owned by major patrons of the arts was constructed to showcase an extensive and eclectic collection that includes works by Warhol, Walters, McCahon, Upritchard, Killeen and others.

The combination of forward-thinking architects and open-minded clients results in clever design elements, such as the digital clock-tower in a Wellington apartment complex. Floor-to-ceiling cupboards offer not only spacious storage, but also help to reduce noise levels. In one apartment there’s a television hidden behind a mirror. In another, a mirrored splashback makes a small kitchen space appear deeper and reflects a bowl of juicy citrus fruit.

The apartments have diverse outlooks, including urban environments, ports and oceans, cityscapes, the Waitakere Ranges, and even the outer oval in the grounds of Eden Park.

There’s beauty in the writing too – ‘light washing down [that] creates a pattern of intersecting shadows; ‘the delicacy of a glazed atrium’; ‘bedrooms…quiet in both mood and decoration’; the ‘views of the Waitemata Harbour across the tumbling roofs of nearby houses’.

The final chapter outlines a pragmatic list for potential apartment owners to consider – safety, for example, as well as the need to look carefully at body corporate records. (Are there disputes between neighbours? What is the maintenance schedule? What are the annual fees?) The emotional implications are also teased out – for example, are pets allowed? Are occupiers allowed to make their own mark by changing the internal layout? A checklist and design prompts help to ensure that prospective purchasers know what to look for (including the direction of sunlight and prevailing winds), and what to avoid. A glossary lists real estate, architectural and legal terms as currently used and understood in New Zealand. A design directory lists most – but not all – of the architects and designers whose work appears in the book. Additional references include books, articles and websites dedicated to apartment living.

As an inveterate open-homer, I savoured every page of this elegant book. It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite apartment – given a choice, I would spend a month in each. Until then I shall tackle the weeds and mow the lawn and dream of one day waking up in an apartment of my very own.

by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Apartment Living New Zealand
by Catherine Foster
Publisher: Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770510

Book Review: Write to the Centre, by Helen Lehndorf

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_write_to_the_centreWriter and teacher Helen Lehndorf started her first journal (a diary) aged 13 and has kept going – with the occasional pause – ever since. She’s captured the many changes in her life through these journals: good times and bad, wise decisions and regrets, relationships, parenthood, and the ‘quiet and chaos’ that most of us have probably experienced. This book includes many of her handwritten entries, nestled amongst postcards, cuttings, notes, sketches and other ephemera that she has pasted into her journals with the gluestick mentioned in the subtitle.

The many and varied benefits that come from keeping a journal are described. Lehndorf encourages everyone to give it a go, in whatever way works best. Don’t be put off if you are time-poor. Scrawl or glue into your journal a few minutes at a time, she suggests, because the entries are an excellent way to discover who you are and (later) who you were: ‘…these notes captured in a journal are like messages in a bottle from all my earlier selves’.

There are twelve chapters. The early chapters provide plenty of inspiration for getting started, with suggestions for learning how to be a curious, alert and slightly detached observer of what’s going on in your own life. Thoughts will lead to words (jot them down quickly, before you forget), and these notes may in turn lead to relief or clarity – though Lehndorf reassures us that there’s wisdom to be gleaned from experiencing and writing about resistance and confusion too. Later chapters could almost be read in any order. The fabulously descriptive chapter headings make it very clear what each chapter covers – such as ‘Full-throttle melodrama: allowing the ugly’ (Chapter 6!).

shameless_journal_1Lehndorf gently encourages us to write about anything that comes to mind – whether this be events, friendships, places, plans or even lists…spontaneity is key. Lehndorf is confident that eventually everyone’s own style and voice will emerge. It’s OK, she says, to write about things that don’t go well, the rough or tough times, the stumbles as well as the dreams. Choose how and when to write, and write about whatever makes sense to you. Write at length, a line, or just a word. If words won’t come, she advises adding a doodle or simply gluing in something that appeals or may later bring back memories. Allow your journal to reflect the complexity of your life, use it as a way to work though hurt feelings, remorse and disappointment, as well as a way to remember happy times, joys and triumphs.

Each chapter concludes with a Give it a Whirl section, jam-packed with ideas to kick-start journal entries, even if you’re a reluctant or self-conscious writer. ‘Cultivate your curiosity’, Lehndorf suggests, because there are a never-ending number of things to write about, and if you run out of ideas of your own it’s quite OK to jot down other people’s insights too. Themed journals are also a possibility – for example, journals that focus mainly on gardening, music, wish-lists, or trips.

I liked the New Zealand flavour woven throughout her journal entries, such as the nods to Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, references to beach and bush walks, river swims and op shops – and Ngaio and Nikau appearing on the long list of ‘possible cat names if we do get a cat’.

wttc_murray_journals_2

It takes a certain amount of bravery to share innermost thoughts so publicly, and I admire Lehndorf for her willingness to let us read a broad and somewhat random selection of entries from her own journals. It’s reassuring to see the words crossed out, the scrawls and scribbles, the shortcuts and abbreviations, notes spread hurriedly down and across pages, the self-doubt amidst the celebrations. Perfection is not the goal. It’s all about the process, not the product, she explains. And if you’d prefer to destroy your journals rather than let anyone find them, there’s a wee section outlining interesting ways to do so.

This is a relatively large book, A4 size. I wonder if the size, combined with the somewhat ambiguous title and busy cover imagery might deter or confuse some of the likely target audience. I’m not sure that I would have picked up this book if I had seen it in a bookshop, possibly mistaking it for a textbook or handcrafting manual (given the prominence of the ‘gluestick’ in the subtitle). This would have been my loss, given the wealth of practical suggestions, creative triggers, motivation and encouragement Lehndorf offers within this book.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Write to the Centre: navigating life with gluestick and words
by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Haunui Press
ISBN 9780473367770

Book Review: Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep

Is there a man living who knows what he looks like and what he does when he is asleep? … Some men sleep intelligently, others like clowns. (Balzac, quoted in Snooze)

cv_snoozeSnooze is the sort of book that a wise and thoughtful uncle might write, perhaps reflecting McGirr’s early adult life working as a Jesuit priest. Intriguing facts and wry observations are interspersed with gentle and perceptive descriptions of parenthood, and philosophical issues to contemplate. McGirr’s fascination with sleep stems from his own struggles with sleep apnoea and the exhaustion he experienced during his sleep-deprived years co-parenting twins and their close-in-age sibling.

McGirr makes it clear that Snooze is not a guide-book for people searching for techniques to ensure a good night’s slumber. Instead it is part-biography, part-history, part-enquiry into what is known and what still remains to be known about the complexities and functions of sleep.

McGirr brings history to life by sharing sleep-related stories about well-known historical and fictional characters, including light sleepers and insomniacs such as Thatcher and Dickens (who, apparently, would only sleep in a bed where his head could point north). He looks at how sleep is depicted by writers such as Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, by philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and within Homer’s Odyssey. He describes how Robinson Crusoe slept safely and comfortably in a ‘thick bushy tree’ and how Gulliver preferred to sleep next to his horses rather than his family. McGirr also explores the role of sleep in war, in the bible, in fairy-tales, and amongst the homeless. He reflects on the gap between those who have their own beds and those who do not, acknowledging the skills that people who sleep rough must develop to seek shelter.

Short of conversation-starters? Snooze provides plenty. Did you know that horses’ joints have tendons and ligaments that lock to allow them to sleep standing up, or that neuroscientists are considering the possibility that babies dream before they are born? And have you heard about the Italian who has invented a bed that makes itself? (There’s a YouTube clip about this, if the book piques your interest.)

McGirr points out the incongruities between how sleep-related products are marketed – the crisp white sheets, the fluffy pillows – and the contrasting realities of human sleep as we toss and turn, shedding hair and skin flakes, perhaps dribbling, scratching, and sweating. (Or worse.)

Coffee, of course, gets a mention – alongside other caffeinated drinks and drugs that hinder rather than help. McGirr remarks on the contradiction of the café ritual: ‘it’s a curious culture that allows you to relax as long as you spend the time loading up on stimulants’.

I often like books that can be dipped into – a few pages here and there as time allows. Although I read Snooze from start to finish, most chapters would stand alone well. You could open the book at random and read a chapter or two at a time. There’s a brief reading list for each chapter at the back of the book if you’d like to learn more.

Perhaps my favourite story is of McGirr’s four-year-old son appearing at his parents’ bedside at 2:06 a.m. When asked why he couldn’t go back to his own bed he earnestly declared that this would not be possible, as he had already made it. Parents may also empathise with (and perhaps even admire) the now nomadic family whose children were such terrible sleepers that their parents resorted to driving them around because they would only sleep in the car. The family journeys became longer and longer – until ten years and thousands of miles later they were still on the road, albeit now by choice.

McGirr describes the process of surrendering to sleep as ‘an act of faith in the existence of tomorrow’. Is sleep, he ponders (quoting Aristotle), an activity of the body, or the soul, or both? Something to think about when you nod off tonight.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498585

Book Review: Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art, by Dierdre and Craig Hassed

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_illuminating_wisdomPartners Craig and Deirdre Hassed have collaborated to share wisdom from Eastern, Western, indigenous, ancient and contemporary sources in the form of spiritual and philosophical quotes, mantras, proverbs and blessings. Craig, who wrote the text, is an academic and coordinator of mindfulness programmes at Monash University. Deirdre is a skilled calligrapher with a deep interest in philosophy. Themes covered in their book include love, beauty, truth, justice, service, compassion, virtue, unity, peace and wonder.

The title plays on various meanings of illumination – including the lustrous gilding added to some artworks to reflect light, as well the association with understanding and insight.

Although there are plenty of inspirational and aspirational quotes circulating on Facebook (and sold on cheap canvas ‘art’) few are attributed to individuals and there is typically no contextual information. Illuminating Wisdom is very different: the comprehensive background story for each quote both educates and informs – at times gently challenging readers to consider life from a different perspective.

The book includes Apache and Celtic blessings and the brief ‘indigenous and folk traditions’ section includes a whakatauki (Māori proverb). This section also acknowledges the role of symbolic stories, songs, dances and proverbs and the interwoven connections between land, ancestors and other living creatures (with particular reference to the teachings of the original inhabitants of Australia).

Many of the people quoted are familiar, such as scientists Curie, Newton and Einstein, leaders and politicians Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Michelangelo. Others are less well-known. The historical notes and accompanying stories are engaging and several inspired me to turn to other sources to find out more. I learned, for example, about the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the head of a religious community as well as an outspoken philosopher, mystic, author, composer, healer and scientist. Her writing and music are still popular – her Gregorian chants have been updated with electronic effects and modern instrumentation; I was soon listening to her soothing compositions on YouTube.

Craig includes a brief history and outline of diverse spiritual and religious traditions and practices. He explains that spiritual traditions often have dual paths – a religious pathway for people drawn to faith, and a mystical or philosophical pathway for those drawn to reflection.

I was at first confused by the ‘see text’ note accompanying most illustrations, expecting to find a typewritten transcript of the relevant calligraphised quote. This would have been helpful, as some of the more ornate and intricate lettering is a challenge to read. Instead, the referenced text describes the source and context of the quote, and explores its key message and likely intent.

In an ‘artist’s notes’ section at the back of the book, Deirdre summarises the technique used for each calligraphy work, including linocuts, sandblasting, collage, and letterpress prints. She uses inks, hand-stamping, gouache, gold leaf and gold powder, acrylic paint, foil and coloured pencils to inscribe her designs on surfaces such as hand-made, hand-dyed and hand-marbled papers, canvas and papyrus. An index assists readers searching for a particular quote, author, religion, spiritual teaching or tradition.

My favourite? A quote from the Sufi poet Rumi: ‘Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.’ Craig interprets this as a reminder ‘to be open to the grace and good fortune surrounding us’, drawing parallels between this quote and the focus on gratitude in current positive psychology circles. (Food for thought: it was apparently Socrates, rather than Marie Kondo, who first challenged us to consider: “How much can I do without?”)

This is a book to be dipped into and savoured over time. For me its value lies in the history, analysis and wisdom shared alongside each quotation, as well as the beauty of the calligraphy – not only the intricate lettering but also the materials and mediums used to create it.

Illuminating Wisdom would be a good place to turn for inspiration next time you write to comfort, congratulate or console someone you hold close to your heart.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art
by Deirdre Hassed and Craig Hassed
Published by Exile Publishing
ISBN 9781925335354