Book Review: Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tatau‘The history of tatau has…been one of both continuity and disruption, with social, cultural and technological change coming from within Sāmoan society as much from the outside world.’ (p.298)

If you know nothing at all about tattoos or fa‘asamoa (Sāmoan culture, values and traditions) this excellent book will lead you into a whole new world. It focuses on Sāmoan tatau – the lines and motifs that form Sāmoan tattoo designs – and the ceremonies and rituals that accompany the process of receiving a tatau, often considered as a rite of passage for young people. Authors Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot are joined by other contributors, including poets, academics and historians, to describe the complex history and symbolism of tatau over the past 3000 years. Collectively they explore and explain the multiple influences on tatau practices, which include politics, geography, sexuality, genealogy, gender roles, art, literature, health and safety, religion, science and (latterly) social media.

Mallon, a writer and Te Papa curator, is of Sāmoan and Irish descent. His deep interest in the topic was sparked by an ‘early and vague’ memory of his grandfather’s tatau. Galliot is a French anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on traditional tatau and lived in Sāmoa while completing his PhD. Both authors have developed complementary and in-depth knowledge of tatau history and contemporary practices.

‘What [surprised] me, and continues to intrigue me, is … that a set of symbols from a seemingly remote group of islands in the South Pacific could circulate in many forms across a range of contexts and on the bodies of people from all walks of life and across the world.’  (p. 11)

Mallon and Galliot describe how symbols (including logos) from other cultures have been incorporated into tatau designs alongside indigenous symbols over time. The designs and the location of tatau on the body continue to change and evolve, although there is still a strong demand for traditional methods and patterns. Tatau designs are no longer limited to the body and are now evident in art (such as Michel Tuffery’s woodcuts and Fatu Feu’u’s paintings), and other objects as diverse as postage stamps, stationery and tee-shirts. The knowledge I’ve gained from this book has helped me to recognise – and encouraged me to search out – tatau patterns and references in unexpected places. The book includes Flanagan’s remarkable graphic depiction of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt poem, centred on the poem’s intense and evocative descriptions of tatau.

The distinctive characteristics of tatau are the ‘location of the markings on the body, their extent and density, and the tools used in the tattooing process (p.14)’.  Although many tufuga (tatau artists) now use masini (machines) with steel needles and black ink, others continue to use traditional tools to make marks on the body by vigorously tapping the skin with sharp ‘teeth’ to perforate it so that pigment can be introduced. I found the chapter focusing on the iconography of tatau particularly informative, as it includes a selection of common patterns and explains what each represents. This chapter also has photos identifying the many different tatau zones (each with a group of motifs) on both male and female bodies. (These zones, and the names used to refer to the tattoo, differ for men, who wear tatau or pe’a, and for women, who wear malu.) Each zone has its own term. Fusi, for example, is the name given to a belt, strap or band of motifs located at the top of the thigh.

The book draws on many different sources, including journals, poetry, photographs, exhibition catalogues and oral histories.

I found the rich descriptions of the rituals, protocol and ceremonies associated with tatau practices of great interest. These customarily included preparing and sharing food, providing sports and other entertainment, and bestowing gifts such as fine mats, canoes, weapons and instruments. The photos and illustrations throughout the book are stunning, in particular the highly detailed drawings of tatau – many of these are hand-drawn and date back to the 1800s. Photos of the tools are stark – the sharp teeth of the combs clearly visible and reinforcing a theme echoed throughout the book: that pain is inevitable, and indeed ‘you cannot find yourself without pain and suffering’ (p.26).

The photos of people with tatau allowed me to look at length at the designs and appreciate the intricacy of the patterns, as well as to consider the time and skills needed to create the tatau. In real life such prolonged gazing would be disrespectful. I’m grateful to the men and women who gave permission for their images to be included in the book. Mallon and Galliot report that a full tatau is rarely seen, instead we may see only a glimpse with the rest concealed beneath clothing. They note that it is not uncommon for social media users to criticise how and where others reveal their tatau.

I see some parallels between Tatau and the earlier Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (Te Awekotuku and Nikora, 2007) such as the descriptions of the shared influence of the Lapita people who are believed to have practiced both face and body tattooing. The Lapita are considered to be the ancestors of multiple Pacific Island peoples; as seafarers they migrated far and wide across Oceania. Tatau briefly discusses the positive relationships established between certain tufuga and Māori tā moko practitioners, which has included gifting traditional tools to strengthen cultural connections. Both Tatau and Mau Moko refer to the extensive contributions of Sulu’ape Paulo II, a renowned and active tufuga who also supported and mentored Māori artists.

A glossary explains terms used throughout the book and there is a comprehensive bibliography, as well as brief biographies of all contributors.

The hard cover and spine are striking and embossed with symbols that spell ‘tatau’. The cover is partially enclosed by an eye-catching dust-jacket featuring the lower abdomen and thighs of a male body with tatau. The print varies in size throughout the book and some readers may find the smallest print a challenge. In several chapters the orange text on dark pages is also hard to read, especially in low light.

Although Mallon and Galliot have written a meticulous and comprehensive history, in the closing chapter they comment that ‘…this book is far from the last word on Sāmoan tatau. There are other histories to be written and other stories to be told…’ (p. 299). Their book will be a superb reference for future authors who are likewise privileged and trusted to bring these stories to life.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN: 9780994136244

Book Review: Around the World in 80 Food Trucks, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_around_the_world_in_80_food_trucksHands up if you remember pie carts? Oh, how times have changed! Food trucks are in vogue now and this book not only shares 80 different recipes from around the world but also tells us about the hard-working people behind the scenes, as well as the history of their business and their ‘truck’. Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, North and South America are all represented. The common formula is simple – fresh food, locally sourced and prepared by hand – although the vehicles and their owners are a truly diverse bunch.

Who can run a food truck? According to the New York city-based Caitlyn Napolitano, ‘Anyone with passion, gumption and a love of cooking’.

The rise of the gourmet food truck has apparently occurred in the last 10 years or so, coinciding with the growth of festivals and pop-up ventures. As most of the vehicles are mobile their owners are able to move from location to location according to the season or demand. A handful have expanded and now operate permanent restaurants as well.

The vehicles include an old fishing boat now on wheels, a truck covered in Astroturf, and a re-purposed dentist wagon (whatever that may be). One vendor operates from a vintage bicycle and ‘Little Bonnie Dot’ is an enchanting 1930s teardrop caravan. She rolls around the Australian countryside enticing people to her mobile tea parties.

Photos show the people running the trucks exuding happiness and enthusiasm. If there’s a downside to operating a food truck, it’s mentioned only in passing or not at all. Many of them say that the food they offer was inspired by visiting or living in other countries. Some saw a gap in the market they knew they could fill. While some operators have a lot of items on their menu, others have chosen to do one thing and do it well. The recipes have been invented, transformed, and sometimes passed down through generations. Many chefs are self-taught, although a few have undertaken formal study at places such as the Culinary Institute of New York and Ireland’s Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Although many of the featured recipes appear to be quick and easy to prepare, some require more forward planning, such as ingredients that need to simmer for a while and the pickle that must rest for at least 24 hours before use. Most recipes are for main dishes, although desserts are covered too – including pineapple-ginger ice pops, lemon waffles, and a superb caramel flan. There are lots of delicious-looking sauces, onion jams and marinades too. The index is organised by location as well as by the type of dish.

Two of the food trucks are based here in Aotearoa. Although the recipes include ingredients from around the world, most would be easy to find in your local supermarket; if not, there are suggested equivalents. (No mollete available? Use a soft bread roll instead.) The recipes are well-written and easy to follow. There’s a note about how many people each recipe will serve: typically 2 to 4, although the octopus serves 16 – and Banjo’s Blue Cheese slaw supposedly ‘feeds a crowd’.

There are Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter links for most trucks if you’d like to learn more about them. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

Belgian waffles in New York City

Earlsfield Sourdough Pizza

Hong Kong’s ‘Princess Kitchen’

Australian Greek Street Food

I’m always attracted to recipes with interesting names, so the Chakalaka Relish (hot and spicy, packed with vegetables, baked beans, and chopped chilies) is first on my list of things to try. I’m also intrigued by Curry Up’s Chana Masala recipe which includes chickpeas steeped in tea.

Sometimes you have to take a leap to be happy.’

  • Wes, an ex-advertising executive whose food truck offers more than 30 different types of waffles

The featured food truckers include former engineers, dental technicians, bankers and fashion designers – so if you’ve fantasised about throwing in your routine 9-to-5 job this book might inspire you to launch a new career. It will also appeal to those interested in recreating dishes from a favourite food truck, and anyone planning a trip abroad who would enjoy fresh food prepared in a novel setting. If you have limited space you’ll appreciate the book’s compact size – and as it covers a whole range of topics (including recipes, travel, people’s stories, and the history of the food truck scene) it would be equally at home on a bookshelf in a living room or a kitchen.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Around the World in 80 Food Trucks
by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781788681315

 

Book Review: Still Counting – Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making, by Marilyn Waring

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_still_countingNew Zealand’s Labour Government will continue to measure economic growth. The government is now also committed to improving inter-generational wellbeing. This will require different ways to measure ‘success’ beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the official measure of economic growth).

Waring is a feminist economist, former National MP and current Professor of Public Policy at AUT. Still Counting, she says, includes ‘a lifetime of thinking about wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making’.

Waring describes her despair and frustration that high-level policy discussions still focus on ‘capitals, resources, assets and incomes’. Wellbeing has – until now – frequently been overlooked. Measurements of a nation’s economy have traditionally excluded all unpaid work, much of which is carried out by women. Here’s a short (2 ½ minute) video Radio NZ recently produced that explains why this exclusion is unfair: Why ‘women’s work’ doesn’t count. If the video – which includes references to Waring’s work – piques your interest then Still Counting will fill in the gaps and challenge you to consider what could underpin a wellbeing approach to public policy.

Waring observes that ‘reality is far more complex than tidy models’. She presents many examples to back up her assertion. She is critical of at least one New Zealand framework that purports to provide a robust evidence base and outlines her reasons why – including that key data are deliberately left out.

This is a short, punchy book. Waring’s own voice comes through strongly and she shares both personal and professional experiences. It made me think about how and where I spend my time – particularly the amount of unpaid service work most of us now carry out.  Like her, many of us are now our own ‘banker, checkout operator, petrol pump attendant and travel agent’, consuming our own services. Her perspectives on Uber, Airbnb and Wikipedia made me reconsider the impact of their operating models on our lives and communities.

Waring is critical of the accuracy of current GDP measurement data, given the ‘revenue-shifting habits’ (e.g. tax havens) practised by multinationals. She observes that the blurring of ‘work’ and ‘home’ life also weakens the data, as it is possible for both paid work and domestic activities to be undertaken in the same place and often at the same time.

Waring criticises not only data-gathering methods but also terms that she considers to have been misappropriated and misunderstood within the ‘wondrous world of economics’. For example, she dislikes the term ‘capital’ being applied to non-economic or non-financial constructs such as social relationships.

Waring is frank about which – and whose – arguments she considers ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’. She draws upon a Monty Python quote to express her frustration with the OECD’s reliance on ‘monocultural, Western and very Eurocentric characteristics of wellbeing’. She’s particularly scathing about the report of the Global Happiness Council – and what she calls (tongue in cheek) its ‘startling insights’, for reasons she explains.

Waring expresses exasperation that Te Kupenga (a statistical framework developed by Māori to capture data on Māori social, cultural, and economic wellbeing) is not better known and more widely used. She sees great value in Te Kupenga’s focus on quality of life and its ability to gather data at a collective rather than solely individual level.

Waring urges different questions to be asked, ‘not just those dictated by consistency and comparability’ – particularly to capture data on women’s lived experience. She notes that a ‘wider spread of experts [beyond a limited pool of economists] would be better able to compile the sufficiently large variety of data sets needed to make judgements on behalf of current and future generations’. She praises Canadian and Australian approaches to gathering information about wellbeing: their measures ask people what contributes to their wellbeing, rather than relying on pre-determined indicators. Pause quietly, she suggests to us, to respond to a question Bhutan has asked its people: ‘…what are the most important things (sources) that will make you lead a truly happy life?’ This question lingers in my mind.

In the closing chapter, Waring outlines priorities for action. These include environmental issues, embedding Te Kupenga principles in wellbeing decision-making, and undertaking rigorous and regular time-use surveys. Again she urges significant changes to the ways in which data are prioritised, collected and reported, so that ‘inadequate proxies and abstractions’ are avoided.

This book will be of interest to readers familiar with the language of indicators, data sets, frameworks and variables. And if you’re not, there’s a list of key acronyms in the appendix, together with a bibliography and detailed endnotes for each chapter.

It’s a thought-provoking read, challenging us to examine what New Zealanders (and especially government policy-makers) value, as well as to reconsider the most appropriate sources of evidence to inform policy-making. It’s an excellent introduction to not only the wellbeing and policy landscape but also to Waring’s writing. It has encouraged me to seek out more of her books, articles and podcasts.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making
by Marilyn Waring
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9781988545530

 

 

Book Review: Experience USA, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_experience_USAThis Lonely Planet book sets out to entice visitors to the USA, a country surely in need of someone to look at it through a happy lens to counteract the doom and gloom we hear about it daily. The introduction portrays the USA as a land of ‘hope, potential and opportunity’ where most everyone has a job, loves small talk, watches sports, and spends their leisure time going on fishing trips or attending school reunions. Conversely the authors also note that life in modern-day America is’hard and not always fair’, although the book provides little explanation as to why this may be. Granted, a travel guide is rarely the place to provide deep insight into social, cultural or political change.

This book offers interesting information and observations, many eye-catching images and detailed maps of some areas – although you may have to wade through extraneous material to find them. It piqued my interest in travelling to some of the states I’ve not yet seen, as well as to attractions I didn’t know existed.

The authors’ patriotism shines through loud and clear: ‘We,’ they trumpet, ‘have always
been a nation focused on betterment…[striving] to be better, bigger, bolder.’ You’ll also have to tolerate some cutesy wording: ‘Tornadoes can go wherever they darn well please…’ and some mind-bogglingly odd questions: ‘Are we a melting pot of cultures…a mosaic…or a tossed salad?’ You may also have to take some of the advice with caution, such as the suggestion to use pepper spray to deter a charging bear.

I found the book somewhat hard to navigate. Page 21 has a map depicting all 50 states, paired with a list of key experiences region by region. Yet the book is primarily structured not by regions, but according to the ‘behind the scenes workings of US culture’. The sections are titled – rather vaguely – as Big & Bold, Americanarama, Melting Pot, Innovation & Creation, and Surprising Experiences. Although the large subheadings within each section indicate what is covered, you’ll need to consult the index if you want to zoom in quickly on key areas of interest.

There are suggestions for journeys by plane, rail, and car – and also by riverboat, cycle and cable-car, and on foot. More adventurous travellers will find information about mountain trails, caves, caverns, tunnels and white-water rafting. The suggested itineraries cover not only main routes but also lesser-known detours. Festivals, conventions, competitions, rituals and celebrations are also described. As some sights or events take place during particular months or seasons (for example, whale watching, Coachella, bat swarms) the book recommends the best time of year to show up.

If you like quirky attractions the book will help you to locate unusual places to visit, such as the American Museum of the House Cat (North Carolina), the Lunchbox Museum (Georgia), or California’s International Banana Museum. There are directions to the world’s largest chainsaw in Michigan, and the two-ton, 20 foot long, beady-eyed killer bee modelled on the bees that terrorised Texas in 1990. Lost your luggage en route, or fascinated by what others have mislaid? The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, sells items that travelers have left behind.

Historical events are covered too, such as the Salem Witch Trials and the associated museums and memorials. It’s disappointing that the index does not consistently include reference to people or places of significance, even if they are referred to in the text. For example, there is no entry for Martin Luther King Jr, although he is briefly mentioned in the book. Nor does the index point to popular tourist destinations such as the White House or Times Square.

Cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles are of course featured, however if you are planning to visit them a smaller, more tightly focused guide book will likely offer better value and more detailed information. Curiously, Los Angeles is described as having a ‘gregarious personality’ (although there’s little evidence of this when you’re being interrogated at LAX…).

Unexpected extras include a few recipes – Mint Julep, and Tortilla Soup – as well as an ‘armchair reading’ list for California’s John Muir Trail, and a list of classic films and books set in and around the USA. (Delighted that the fabulous Thelma and Louise gets a mention.)

The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading, suggesting that it will provide ‘inspiration, ideas and itineraries for lovers of classic cars, barbecue and rock and roll’. Why limit the target audience and turn potential readers away? Although most New Zealanders enjoy a good barbecue, how many of us would see a barbecue as a sufficient attraction to base our holiday around? If that does sound like you, there are a couple of pages devoted to preparing and eating Texas barbecue, described by the authors as a ‘manly meal’ (!). There are even suggestions about what not to wear while eating it, and whether to eat with your hands or a fork.

If you’re organising a trip to the USA, Experience USA will offer you an extensive range of suggestions for what to see and do. Yet the weight and shape of this book make it too big and heavy for most people to take on a trip: it has 316 pages and is almost the size of an A4 sheet of paper. It would be most useful during the planning phase – or after a trip when reminiscing.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Experience USA
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787013322

Book Review: Headlands – New Stories of Anxiety, ed. by Naomi Arnold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_headlands‘Anxiety sucks,’ says author Kirsten McDougall in her Headlands essay. Although this neatly sums up what it’s like to live with anxiety – and is echoed by other contributors – Kirsten and many others also write about hope and acceptance, gratitude and understanding. This excellent book makes it clear that many people with anxiety learn to live well.

Headlands is a powerful and comprehensive contribution to the New Zealand literature on mental health and wellbeing. Contributors write bravely and brilliantly about what it’s like to live with anxiety. Perhaps they are your friend or colleague, your parent or partner, your doctor, bus friend or the person you nod at on your morning dog-walk.

There may or may not be any outward sign that they experience anxiety. As the stories in Headlands show, there are many different ways that people learn to cope or cover it up.
Editor Naomi Arnold reveals that last year one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. If you are one of the estimated thousands who have ‘stayed silent’, Headlands may encourage you to talk things over with someone who can help. Arnold has succeeded in her mission to draw together voices that offer ‘reassurance and validation’ to individuals and whānau affected by anxiety.

‘Bringing this collection together was a delicate task,’ Arnold explains, because ‘there’s still a stigma in talking about mental health.’ In total 31 contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds share their experiences. Most are living with anxiety themselves, although Headlands also includes chapters by a physiotherapist, a suicide prevention officer, and a couple of clinical psychologists who are exploring the use of micronutrients to alleviate anxiety.

Although the contributors use many of the same words to describe how anxiety feels – often referring to an overwhelming sense of panic, dread, or fear – there are lots of different ways that their anxiety is manifested. Some write about eating disorders, insomnia and nail-biting, others mention anger, self-harm, indecision and paralysis. Singer, songwriter and poet Hinemoana Baker has what she describes as ‘somatised anxiety’ where anxiety is expressed though physical symptoms that cause pain.
Donna McLeod (Taranaki born and now living in Motueka) offers her community’s voice in a strong and poignant poetic narrative describing the anxiety shared among wāhine Māori.

Some contributors can trace the probable cause of their anxiety, with several referring to childhood abuse. Others see a genetic link, recognising symptoms of anxiety across generations of relatives. Arnold observes that some people may not be aware that they have anxiety and consequently will not seek help. Yet a diagnosis is not the be-all and end-all. As Bonnie Etherington notes ‘…there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not’. Eamonn Marra explains that when he learned to use mindfulness to acknowledge anxious feelings as they surfaced rather than ignoring them, this was ‘the biggest step towards being able to manage [the anxiety]’.
Several contributors mention experiencing anxiety when they were children, although at the time they did not have the word to identify the feeling, nor yet the self-awareness to recognise what it was. Over time there may be a gradual realisation and awareness of what helps and what hinders. Holly Walker writes of an ongoing cycle of learning about what she calls her ‘limitations’: ‘It’s a strange thing, having to revise your ideas about yourself’.

What helps varies from person to person. Contributors have tried a range of methods – including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Some have been admitted for psychiatric care. Others describe the benefits of meditation, yoga, running and other forms of exercise. For writer and actor Michelle Langstone, caring for sick and injured birds was central to her own journey towards wellbeing. Medication works well for some, although several contributors write about their reluctance to consider it.

I attended a panel discussion during Wellington’s recent LitCrawl event where four of the people who contributed to Headlands talked about their experiences. Editor Naomi Arnold chaired the sold-out session. Reiterating themes from the book several speakers mentioned the benefits of meditation and exercise, and one recommended having a conversation with a doctor about what’s right for you. ‘Medication’ said one panelist, ‘complements good life decisions’. Headlands makes it clear that there may be some trial and error involved to work out what will suit someone requiring support to manage their anxiety – and that what works best may change over time.

If the cover of this book was audible it would perhaps be a buzzing static or a low off-key bass hum. In particular, the cover art is a striking expression of Holly Walker’s ‘jangling world’ and its ‘cacophony of sound’.

If you are living with anxiety – or questioning whether you are – or if someone you know or care about has an anxiety-related disorder and you want to know how you might support and help them, Headlands offers ideas, insights and hope.

‘I wonder how many people live without anxiety? It can’t be that many!’ says musician Riki Gooch. Even if you are one of these people, this book is for you too. As Arnold reminds us, all New Zealanders – including whānau, communities, colleagues, and health workers – have a shared responsibility to learn, to listen and to accept, and to make it easier for people affected by anxiety to access appropriate help and support.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
Edited by Naomi Arnold
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561896

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: 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