Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_i_get_ready.jpgI saw this book and thought ‘this encapsulates my life’. The woman on the front of How I Get Ready looks like she’s having more than a bad hair day. She’s a Quentin-Blake-esque illustration, as scribbles eclipse her and what she’s wearing from the waist up. I almost burst out laughing. Perhaps it’s a meant to be a windy day in Wellington? Either way, I’m getting vibes of spontaneity and disorder. What a fantastic cover and title combo.

So, the poems. These are anything but slapped together and harried, but they are full of vivacity. Even though the poems seem to be about real life, they feel imagined and fantastical – for example, they leap from subject to subject in a way that reminds me of Lorelai off Gilmore Girls. Like, we start with a potato and somehow segue to a coral reef, an aquarium, blood and a balsawood aeroplane. It’s a mishmash, told by a sassy and energetic voice:

Tantruming moon throws light at my house
like unwanted treasure. Go on
do that one more time.

As well as a poet with a previous collection to her name, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), Young is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016). She is Poetry Editor for The Spinoff Review of Books and currently resides in Wellington. Her confident voice invokes her own name several times in her poems, giving the sense that these are personal, opening up her mind space. She delivers keys to private moments, and we can only guess at their meaning:

As you open your mouth
thousands of fish cross the room
and entirely clothe you in their fish shadow

and even though I cannot see you now,
it looks so good.

‘Fancy’ is catchy with its refrain ‘We should always overdress for each other’. Meanwhile, things get playful in ‘The Feeling of Action’:

And we agreed the feeling of action
as he was flying or jumping or leaping –
a flowing cape would give him movement
it really helped and
it was very easy to draw

These are clever, funny, complex poems, with plenty of ideas to explore. Young experiments with a variety of styles, presenting a poetry practice that is consistently evolving. And the final poem of the book, How I Get Ready, makes us think of a beginning rather than an end. It heralds a step into the unknown:

and the air turns over, gently exposing
its soft underbelly. My going-out clothes are waiting for me
ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

How I Get Ready
by Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562367

Book Review: Sport 46, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

sport_46Literary journal Sport has returned for its 46th instalment, featuring a great variety of fictional pieces by 49 New Zealand writers. It’s a little difficult to know how to properly review Sport 46 as a book when it covers so many styles and formats. Each essay, poem, story and interview really needs to be considered in its own review. There are some very distinctive voices here, and each one demands your full attention; despite this, they feel perfectly at home alongside eachother.

The anthology opens with a interview with Bill Manhire by Anna Smaill, and from there covers an impressive range of fiction. Amongst the more traditional stories and poetry, seven essays fit in seamlessly, as does Barry Linton’s brightly coloured comic, My Ten Guitars. This is a story told through a list of the guitars that have followed the author through his life; from Hamilton to Auckland, from his first guitar at 16 to his friend’s Yahama guitar before it got stolen. The list of guitars survived by the author tell an autobiographical story in such a refreshing way; it would be wonderful to see more comics in future editions of Sport, as they are such an effective yet underrated storytelling medium.

While I love a good poem – and Sport 46 certainly has no shortage of very good poems – short stories are always the pieces I tend to enjoy most in an anthology. Amongst my favourite pieces in Sport 46 is The Pests, a short story by Zoe Higgins. A teenager who builds landscape models discovers that her perfect miniature worlds are being invaded by mysterious creatures. Another short story that particularly captured my attention was Blue Horse Overdrive by Anthony Lapwood. A group of young friends experience a number of startling things in a short amount of time; their band is noticed by a record company, the bass player begins routinely fainting while perfoming, and most concerningly, the band begin to see an electric blue horse appearing in the crowds during their gigs. The supernatural elements of both of these stories make them so enthralling to read; I thoroughly enjoyed them.

I strongly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Sport 46 and sample some of the best work to come from New Zealand writers in 2018. There is an excellent combination here of the bizarre and the familiar, the distortion of a dream and the comfort of home.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Sport 46
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall & Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562343

NZF Writers & Readers: Cut it Out, with Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young, Fergus Barrowman

Tara Black reviews Cut it Out, a discussion about editing between Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young and Fergus Barrowman. Images copyright Tara Black.

Jane Parkin has edited hundreds of books, and she joins Ashleigh Young – to talk editing, with Fergus Barrowman.’

NWF18 Cut it Out - on editing

AWF17: The Art of the Essay: Roxane Gay, Ashleigh Young, Teju Cole

The first thing to know about this session is that the queue started forming an hour beforehand – for this, a panel discussion about essays. And it wasn’t just a few die-hard fans sitting to fight to the front of the room – by the time I arrived, around 10:05 (the session due to start at 10:30), the line wound up along the ramp to the main atrium, doubling back on itself. I talked with those around me, and we wrung our hands – would we get in? Was the wait going to be worth our while?

We did – and it was. The room was packed – all seats taken and the last of the late arrivals standing or cross-legged in the back of the room – but all rapturously attentive to the figures on the stage.

All three panellists were international faces, including the New Zealand representation.
Roxane Gay is a writer for myriad formats and forums as well as an English professor at Purdue University in Indiana. Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer and noted art historian, with a column in New York Times Magazine and several books to his name. His awards include the PEN/Hemingway Award and the mysterious but lucrative Windham-Campbell Prize. And then, of course, is Ashleigh Young, a name that surely needs no further explanation to readers of this blog or familiar with the contemporary New Zealand literary scene. She is a 2017 recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize.

‘We’re here,’ Simon told the packed house, ‘to talk about essays!’ So they did, spinning a broad discussion of craft, of influence, of intent.

Teju spoke about the privilege of the essayist – the fact that being in a position to take the time to sit down to think about things deeply and put pen to paper is quite a luxurious position to be in. Ashleigh described her writing process as very rarely starting with any great insight, commenting that ‘an essay is me trying to write my way out of bewilderment’.
three essayists.JPG
The issue of reliable narration in a non-fiction format was bounced around the three panellists. It is something that Ashleigh seemed to grapple with. ‘All I can write from is quite deep inside my own experience. I’m always trying to be honest about the truth as I experience it.’ Teju spoke of ‘productive discomfort”, describing his style of essay creation as ‘always writing subjectively, but not always super personally’. Continuing on the same vein, Roxane was asked ‘Do you see yourself as a truth teller?’ – which she responded to simply and clearly. ‘No – I just see myself as a writer. I don’t overcomplicate it beyond that.’

There was discussion about the ways in which an essay will develop – whether there’s a specific end point in mind, or whether the end makes itself known through the process of the writing. ‘When I start the essay, I have the answer – but by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve misplaced it,’ Teju said – to knowing laughter from some of the writers in the room.

‘Generally, the ending is something I do not know when I start,’ Roxane said. ‘But when I get there, I know then – this is what I want to leave the reader with.’ She went on to describe the best essays as being ‘dazzling without being ostentatious’.

‘Isn’t that a fine line?’ Simon asked.

‘It’s a very fine line,’ Roxane agreed. ‘But you know it when you see it.’

All three writers read a piece of their own writing – all very, very different pieces, representing the breadth of what the form can be. Which is, for Ashleigh, part of the appeal – even describing the essay as a ‘generous’ form. ‘I suppose the thing with the essay is that nobody’s been able to quite define it just yet. It’s a baggy monster of a form.’


Simon WIlson, Teju Cole, Ashleigh Young and Roxane Gay onstage. Photo by Sarah Jane Barnett, copyright Pantograph Punch

Teju read ‘What It Is’, a short piece that ran in The New Yorker – a response to news in the modern world, that, while bleak at times, had the audience in stitches. One of the two women I spotted knitting in the audience laughed particularly uproariously at the line ‘But the burning question no one has raised yet is whether Ebola is the Newsweek of halitosis.’ – a line that you’ll have to read the full piece to get the glorious context for. It’s only just over 400 words.

Ashleigh read an excerpt from ‘Witches’, one of the essays in her collection Can You Tolerate This? – a beautiful and lyrical piece reflecting on the move from wild and fearless childhood to self-conscious teenage years.

Z_feministRoxane’s excerpt came from ‘Typical First Year Professor’, one of the first essays in her collection Bad Feminist – looking at her first days as a fully fledged English professor in the middle of Indiana while being who she is – a black woman with immigrant parents, a feminist, a liberal thinker, a queer woman. ‘Nuance is really important to me,’ she said later. ‘Most of the people in my immediate life disagree with everything that I am.’

The panel reflected on the certainty of one’s self and strength of character that need to exist in order to write essays. ‘There has to be a fundamental boldness, the knowledge that this is worth talking about,’ Teju said.

Roxane agreed. ‘You have to have the audacity to believe that the way in which you narrate the world matters and deserves to be heard.’

Thank goodness for Roxane’s audacity, and that of Teju and Ashleigh. Our literary world is enriched by the contributions that each of them make – and listening to the three of them in conversation with Simon was an absolute treat.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

You can catch Roxane Gay in her solo event Sunday at 10.30am – 11.30am
Ashleigh Young has one more event, Saturday evening from 6.00pm – 7.00pm
See Teju Cole talk about Photography Favourites 12noon – 1pm, Sunday 21 May

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

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

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


Extraordinary Anywhere, Edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey

cv_extraordinary_anywhereAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

We all have our own idea of the meaning of ‘Place’, whether it is our house, or home town – or even a page in a book, or seat in the theatre. Victoria University Press has published this collection of seventeen essays, all of which offer glimpses into where we are now in New Zealand in the 21st Century.

This collection of personal essays, a first of its kind, re-imagines the idea of place for an emerging generation of readers and writers.

It was while the editors were on a road trip, and stopped for a break at Paekakariki that the idea for the book began. As the book states, “The writers are interested in the obsession, fascination, wonder and often intense unease experienced in relation to particular spots in this country. They are interested in how lives are actually lived in very specific places and how these lives – and places – have changed over time.”

The collection is divided into three parts. The first, ‘Any Place might be extraordinary if only we knew it’, focuses on a single location. In the second section, ‘You take place with you as you go on’, we read stories of mobility and the reasons why people migrate to different areas in the country. And the third section, ‘The meshing of thought and world’, wrestles with how global issues and modern technology influence place.

“In the final essay Tim Corballis seeks to negotiate how we might live in the complexity of new places, suggesting that we need to hold on to at least two perspectives: a local individual view…. ,: but also a larger perspective, one that might include an image of the whole Earth, for example, and imaging of place adequate to confront climate change.”

As well as editors Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey, contributors include Tony Ballantyne, Martin Edmond, Tina Makereti, Giovanni Tiso, Ian Wedde, Ashleigh Young, and more.

Jo Bailey and Anna Brown have designed an intriguing dust cover for this paperback book which deserves to be studied as it adds a visual dimension to the publication.

Extraordinary Anywhere needs to be devoured slowly as the essays are all vastly different in style and content, reflecting the diversity of our place, Aotearoa-New Zealand and the World. There is something in this book for everyone, and I particularly enjoyed the essays about places I was familiar.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Extraordinary Anywhere- Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand
Edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560707

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

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

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

Words of the Day: Tuesday, 5 November 2013




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Book reviews
Book Review: The Teddy Bear’s Promise, by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Robyn Belton @HarperNZ

Book Review: After Her, by Joyce Maynard

Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height: Sent Paula Green searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes…

Author interviews
The Book Council’s own Rachel O’Neill is in the ‘5 Easy Questions’ hot seat over on Booknotes Unbound

This conversation between Joan Fleming and @EleanorCatton is full of gold

Tuesday Poem
Helen Rickerby is editor at @TheTuesdayPoem, and posted ‘No time like the ’80s/ No future’ by Airini Beautrais

Food writing by famous people, A Fork in the Road is one of our giveaways this week

The winner of Wake by @ElizabethKnoxNZ is Russell Coldicutt.

Book News
Vote for your favourite (shortlisted) book on Goodreads!

Hundreds queuing for #HobbitFanEvent in #Wellington today/ (Photo: Kent Blechynden).

Congratulations to @AnnabelLangbein and the other writers honoured at the Culinary Quills on Saturday

From around the internet
Wondering ‘How Bullshit Works’? Episodes 1 & 2 of Joe Bennett’s reading of his book for @ninetonoon available

A sad & hopeful set from poet @ashleigh_young is the next in our ‘Creative people make creative sets’ series

“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” – Terry Pratchett. Listener weekly quiz online


Book review: Magnificent Moon by Ashleigh Young

This book is in bookshops now.

The James Brown quote on the back of Ashleigh Young’s debut poetry volume immediately brings to mind many things about her poetry that make it so compelling. Speaking of the poems he says: ‘Theirs is a world that is advancing toward us at the same time as it is backing away.’ Young’s way of dealing with the aching anxiety of the world and the experiences of those sensitive among us is the striking heart of her book.

I’ve been a bit of an Ashleigh Young fan for a while and so it’s no surprise to me that her book is better than I was expecting.

With a publishing record of a decade, I think there was a certain amount of expectation floating around the ether with regard to Magnificent Moon. I think the book exceeds expectations, mine at least. The poems I’m familiar with only seem better tucked in beside unfamiliar ones and they all reverberate at a pleasant frequency together.

The tender way the poems pull apart the delicate net of family life shows honesty and care at the same time for the people that populate the early poems. The book opens with ‘Russell sprouts’ a short poem based on a childhood misunderstanding about her father. A practised hand makes the pun at the end a delight, if not wholly unexpected. From there the book seems to swell into itself. Each poem feels like a question to me. While some have answers others linger on after the book is no longer in my hand.

One of the poems ‘Interrogative villanelle’ is a list poem of questions, which cleverly captures the anxious rat wheel that is the pursuit of health and happiness. Many of the poems are also invitations to the reader to look around for small references to other poets and writers (Ezra Pound sneaks in and there are snatches of lyrics to be found too) or even other poems in the collection. Some of the best lines made me pause for a moment just to hold onto them a little longer. The end of ‘My hairdresser and my heart’ makes me want to sit in a totally white, silent room and contemplate it further.

Ashleigh Young’s main draw for me is her ability to write right up to the edge of a feeling and just stay there uncomfortably for a while. There’s depression, sadness and anxiety but also love and a wistful sort of playfulness. The poems contain clever metaphor and come from what is clearly an intelligent, experienced and somewhat austere hand. The poems balance the absurd with the mundane so there is never too much of one nor the other. I can’t decide if I want her to break out and just blast us with everything that’s held back in this book or whether it is better to have the tension sustained by keeping it under covers. The push and pull between revelation and restraint feels a bit like the bread and butter of the book. The poem in which the book title appears offers these fitting lines:

‘We have not

been sleeping well

as if we sense that all is not well with the land

despite a magnificent moon tonight.’

Overall it is a well balanced and excellent read. No doubt I’ll be dipping back into it over summer and quite likely for a long time after that.
Reviewed by Emma Barnes.

Magnificent Moon
by Ashleigh Young
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN : 9780864737632