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

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