Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558

 

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

 

Book Review: The World, the Flesh & the Devil, by Andrew Sharp

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cv_the_world_the_Flesh_and_the_devil.jpgHaving written this review in the lead up to Christmas seemed very appropriate, as it reviews the life of Samuel Marsden, who brought Christian missions to New Zealand with the first service held on Christmas Day 1814 in the Bay of Islands. The traditional Maori Christmas carol Te Harinui commemorates this event. It seems strange then that Samuel Marsden is relatively unknown and absent from representation in New Zealand history.

Andrew Sharp is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Auckland. This latest book is the product of a great deal of research over eight years. It is a very strong addition to New Zealand History in the 1800s. Andrew’s book is strongly referenced and illustrated throughout with images of the locations and people described. It is not a quick read, but a satisfyingly deep one.

Samuel Marsden had a modest upbringing in England. He had a straightforward, uncomplicated belief in The Bible, and in man’s place in society. His belief and scholarship meant that he became involved with the London Missionary Society. He married shortly before leaving England for Australia, after a charmingly awkward written proposal to his future wife, Elizabeth.

Samuel Marsden moved from England to Australia, initially to Botany Bay, then moving to Paramatta. He became a magistrate, and an antagonist of a series of local Australian governors, in particular Governor Macquarie. The feud between Macquarie and Marsden is an excellent example of strong contradicting opinions in local government! It was around this time that he developed his reputation as ‘the flogging parson.’

His ability in Te Reo and friendship with Ruatara and later Hone Heke helped him to settle in New Zealand. It seems remarkable that he met Ruatara, as Ruatara returned from his unsuccessful trip to meet George III. Samuel took care of him during the long sea journey and Ruatara lived with the Marsden family for a few months before attempting to return to New Zealand. Samuel Marsden was very interested in ‘civilizing’ through agriculture, and gave Ruatara wheat seed to take with him.

Overall Samuel Marsden preached a message of adherence to the bible, leading a productive life full of bible reading, church attendance and work, to avoid giving in to the temptations of the flesh and to show commitment to a ‘lively’ repentance from sin. He felt sure that hearing his evangelical message would have a civilizing impact on all audiences. It was felt that you first tame the ‘uncivilised’ population through agriculture and then they would be receptive to his sermons. He was a committed sheep farmer, determined to breed the perfect productive sheep for the local environment.

This is a big book. I would have liked to hear a little more about Marsden’s family life. That being said, given that it was such a long time ago it is probably quite difficult to research that. There are a number of dry sections – explaining religion and English societal structures being two I found that demanded my concentration, but these did provide important context to the events described in later chapters.

Andrew Sharp notes that reviewing people with today’s standards is somewhat unfair. I found Samuel Marsden as a historical character difficult – he is hard to like when you look back. However, his accomplishments and achievements in quite short time periods were quite remarkable. He was active in New Zealand during a really interesting time in our history. Whether or not you agree with his religious beliefs or thoughts on bringing ‘civilisation’ to ‘native populations’ he was someone who got stuff done, and did it with an eye to his ‘eternal reward’ rather than necessarily making friends or seeking glory. A thought-provoking read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The World, the Flesh & the Devil
written by Andrew Sharp
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408121

Book Review: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits

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cv_gottfried_lindauers_nzGottfried Lindauer was a Bohemian immigrant with an artistic eye and a pragmatic business sense. A keen traveller, he combined his love of painting, photography, travel and an inquisitive desire to learn more of the Māori people. This book is a celebration of the 67 portraits of Māori completed from the 1870s on.

In 2016, the Auckland Art Gallery staged an exhibition of the Māori portraits by Lindauer and commissioned this book to accompany the event. While sometimes such publications are little more than picture books with captions, I was delighted to find this publication an extensive analysis of all aspects of the works. Here we can read the background, the setting, the sitter, the painter, the journey of the completed work and finally the place held by the painting among the people for whom it is taonga. This extensive research takes the reader far and wide. I was fascinated to read about a retrospective of his work held in his hometown of Pilsen, the capital of West Bavaria, in 2015. Here we see the training and development of his art. We also investigate the links with Goldie, another familiar portrait painter of Māori. The sharing of subjects and photographs is clearly shown in the illustrations, which make this book a pleasure to read.

Lindauer also did more than just draw what he saw. He was interested in the cultural practices of the Māori, in the meaning of facial markings, the hair, the dress and the person. He showed respect for the mana of his subjects and did much to foster positive relations between Māori and European. There was a desire among many tribes to record their respected elders in a painting and Lindauer was the chosen artist for many of these.

While the background information adds depth to the works, it is the quality of the paintings that I was drawn to. Each artwork is fully explained and linked to the overall story. While the ownership of some works is contested, so is the identification of the subject. This book was, I suspect, a work of careful diplomacy. Such portraits are far more than a picture on the wall and this is clearly communicated. I recall while staying on a local marae, being invited to the Big House. Here I entered a room with floor to ceiling portraits of the families through the generations. In the dark recesses at the top corner, I may have spotted a Lindauer or a Goldie. But that was not important in this context. Here was a living memory, a treasure, a taonga.

So too is this book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits
by Gottfried Lindauer, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408565

Book Review: This Model World, by Anthony Byrt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_modern_worldI first heard of Anthony Byrt quite recently, when Kim Hill quoted him extensively at an event about Simon Denny’s Secret Power installation (first shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale – a section of this exhibit is now at Te Papa). I state this to explain my own perspective: I am interested in art, but have not studied it extensively and am not familiar enough with art criticism to know New Zealand art writers by name. It quickly became clear that I did not have to be an historian of contemporary art to enjoy and appreciate this new book.

Over the course of several years, Byrt visited exhibitions and studios around the world, interviewing or reflecting on 12 contemporary New Zealand artists. Six longer chapters are interspersed with shorter features on artists whose work extends or links to themes in the longer sections. Byrt appears to have given a lot of thought to the first-person narrative style of writing. I think that it works very well here: in places he steps back to detail an artist’s background, then he comes back into the frame to talk about his own experiences and changes in perspective relating to their work. Becky Nunes’ photographs throughout the book seem similarly well-thought-out. There was a conscious decision to focus on the artworks and the artists’ working spaces, rather than photographing the artists themselves.

The promotional blurb describes this as “a riveting first-person account of one author’s travels to the edge of contemporary art”. I did find Byrt’s journeys quite riveting. He has a talent for describing certain scenes so you can imagine yourself in the space with the artwork. However I’m particularly drawn to the phrase “the edge”. We in New Zealand “live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else”, as Bill Manhire’s words remind us on a concrete slab on the Wellington waterfront. And now, after so long being considered physically on the edges, we can participate in the global conversation about art more instantly than ever before, like everybody else. What will this mean for New Zealand art and artists?
i-live-at-the-edge-of-the-universe

We’re looking at some of the big, tricky, –isms here: globalism, commercialism, post-colonialism. Questions of how to critique a system while taking part in it. These themes interweave the stories of individual artists and their preoccupations.

I read this book over a couple of weeks and, on numerous occasions, found parallels between themes coming up in other parts of my life and in Byrt’s writing. I attended a symposium about health research, at which a book of new protocols for working with Māori genomic data was launched . One of the researchers stated that in this context we see how whakapapa is both a scientific AND a cultural construction. That evening, I read the chapter on Peter Robinson, whose early work dealt with his identification as “3.125% Māori”: “whakapapa rendered as stark biological fact”. Byrt sees some of Robinson’s more recent, interactive work as “a critical examination of the power dynamics of knowledge acquisition, of putting people to work, of who can speak about what and for whom”. And I found myself exclaiming, yes, exactly, that’s what we social researchers have been pondering too!

It was only partway through the chapter about Steve Carr that I realised Byrt was describing an exhibition I had just been discussing with my visiting father (we headed to Wellington’s City Gallery and his first question was whether “the watermelon” , which he had watched last time, was still there). I recalled Carr’s clever video works, some of which feature a slowed down bullet passing through several apples, and balloons containing contrasting coloured paint being popped. I had felt a childish glee, watching these scenes of beautiful destruction in a way that the human eye could not hold onto in real life. But there was something more going on – something visceral that I could not quite articulate. Byrt, of course, can articulate it: Carr uses camera technology “to create an image of total bodily empathy. His balloons, and the paint they contain, hang like organs and burst with human release.”

cv_creamy_psychologyIt has been a particular thrill for me to read Byrt’s take on several exhibitions that I had seen but not taken detailed notes on. I could certainly say that Yvonne Todd’s photographs struck me as creepy and hyper-real but, again, Byrt can explain why they seem that way.

Postcolonialism is, unsurprisingly, explored from various perspectives. Shane Cotton is known for painting large canvases with recurring themes including wide skies, stylised gang patches and the tattooed, preserved Māori heads that were notoriously collected and traded to European museums in the late 1800s. The discussion of his work is woven through a chapter which also features Byrt’s visit to look at different large panel works in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (I wondered whether anyone other than a recently-arrived New Zealander would describe the edges of these panels as having “a jet-lagged shimmer”) and a brief tour through the problematic history of Western exhibitions featuring Māori art. Cotton and his contemporaries work in an era where people recognise and debate the ethics of representing colonised cultures. Rather than taking an explicitly moral position, his representations of the disembodied heads, Byrt surmises, is “simply an act of re-presentation: a way to keep the disruptive residue of our violent history, still alive, staring back at us”.

In the final section on Simon Denny, Byrt draws links between historical events, rapidly evolving media representation of these events, and how our (that is, Byrt’s, Denny’s and my ‘older millennial’) generation sees the world. I had also briefly visited Venice in 2015. I had taken the opportunity to do two specific and, I thought, unconnected things. Firstly to retrace my maternal grandfather’s World War Two footsteps, taking a photo in the exact same spot as him outside the Hotel Danieli. Secondly to visit Denny’s Secret Power biennale exhibition at the Marciana Library. I was somewhat stunned when the chapter on Simon Denny opened with a description of the New Zealand forces’ stationing at the Hotel Danieli. Byrt linked that earlier example of New Zealand’s contribution to global affairs with the opening of Denny’s exhibition in Venice 70 years later: “a test of New Zealand’s contemporary political significance”. Byrt says that Denny made him rethink the significance of personal memories linked to historical moments. Now his writing on Denny’s art is having a similar effect on me.

I found this book thought-provoking and personally resonant. Alongside the description of the modern art world is a reflection on how contemporary New Zealanders negotiate our tangled global whakapapa to contribute to international conversations. I might have considered these ideas before, but not with such a focus on the role that art plays. I believe Anthony Byrt has come up with something quite profound here. I look forward to reading more of his writing.

Reviewed by Dr. Rebecca Gray

This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
by Anthony Byrt
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408589

Book Review: Fat Science, by Robyn Toomath

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fat_science“Can I borrow that book when you’re done with it?” asked a friend who saw Fat Science on my reading pile. Well, yes, of course. Although this is a book I’d prefer to keep on hand to dip in and out of so that I can continue to think about the issues that Toomath raises.

The title and sub-title get right to the point – diets and exercise don’t work. The book itself explains why not – and what alternatives there may be.

Toomath has helped me to understand what’s going on that makes it so hard for many New Zealanders to get healthy food and enough exercise. Most weight loss diets lead to only short-term success for people living with excess weight, who Toomath describes as being unreasonably optimistic. Our bodies are complicated. There are multiple factors that interact to determine whether and how we lose, maintain, or put on weight. These include genes, hormones, the effects of sedentary work and sleep deprivation, time-pressured cooks, urban design, food pricing strategies, rising inequality, trade and economic policies . . . the list is long. Toomath thoroughly and systematically explores key questions – eg Can drugs or surgery make us thin? Is fatness inherited? – and related topics. She draws on credible and well-referenced local and international research to back up her observations and recommendations. She emphasizes that most of us cannot change our body size – and that efforts to change the amount of exercise that we do are notoriously difficult to sustain.

We likely all know that there’s no simple or single solution to the obesity epidemic – especially given how, where and when fast foods are marketed. Toomath raises our awareness of marketing ploys and urges consideration of how the “cute shapes and attractive colours” of many processed foods, with their combinations of fat, salt and sweetness tweaked to perfection, are peddled relentlessly by an industry with large advertising budgets. No longer restricted to traditional media, ads for fast foods, processed foods and other unhealthy foods are hurled at us (and our children) day and night, with subtle and not so subtle internet marketing on the rise.

The weight loss industry is flourishing, with numerous plans, programmes, shakes, pills and supplements on offer. Governments in New Zealand and other countries have tried a raft of initiatives to help people adopt healthier lifestyles and to support people to lose weight and keep it off. Although the evidence from many trials is discouraging (with poor long-term outcomes reported) there are schemes that work and proposals that are worth pursuing. As a starting point, Toomath points to ideas put forward by an international food policy advisor and her team. Their suggestions include providing an environment that encourages young children to learn to prefer healthy food, overcoming barriers to cost, and encouraging people to think more critically about their choices when they are purchasing food. Toomath explains how these ideas can be actioned – for example, by providing healthy food in schools, reducing sugar content in food intended for children, subsidising healthy food for low-income families, and restricting access to unhealthy food retailers in areas where children gather. One point on which Toomath is very clear: exercise is good for us, but exercise on its own is rarely the only answer.

This is a thought-provoking book, packed with facts and figures and personal insights. Toomath challenges us to consider why there is such a gap between evidence and policy – when governments know what is likely to work, for whom, and under what circumstances, what is preventing the appropriate actions being taken? “Demand an environment”, she urges, “where it is easy to eat and exercise in a way that keeps everyone healthy”. She also makes it clear that policymakers and politicians must invest time to understand which interventions will be acceptable and which will likely meet resistance and fail.

Fat Science has helped me to look more critically and carefully at how individual and collective responses can influence how New Zealanders source, prepare, market and consume healthy food. I’m going to consider which of Toomath’s key messages I should pass on to others, and how. As a start, I will soon lend her book to my friend.

Reviewed by  Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Fat Science: Why diets and exercise don’t work – and what does
by Robyn Toomath
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408534

WORD: Bloomsbury South, by Peter Simpson, interviewed by Paul Millar

cv_bloomsbury_southThe publication of Bloomsbury South is an important event for the arts community of Christchurch. It tied together the many artistic genres and people who were based in Christchurch from 1933-53.

Peter Millar led an interesting hour of questions and reflections with the author, Peter Simpson. Millar described the book as “a beautiful object in its own right”. This comment arose from the way that images, headings and original documents have been used to create a superb reading of this period in the artistic history of New Zealand. He described it as a book which gives equal weight to text and images.

Peter Simpson recalled the time 15 years ago when he first realised the connections between the creative blossoming in Bloomsbury, London post-WW1 and what happened in Christchurch. In the intervening years he has written about many of the artists as individuals, but it was a much grander idea to bring them together in this book. He talked us through the chapters and grouping these in pre-war, war, and post-war. Then the different genres became a focus within these chapters. “Once I settled on this plan, I stuck to it”.

Simpson talked to us about the importance of a physical space for these artists to meet. 97 Cambridge Terrace was owned by artist Sydney Lough Thompson, but he rented out studio rooms to the arts community. This provided an intellectual, political and artistic home for an ever widening group.

Institutions such as the Caxton Press and the University provided support for the group. The Depression also played a pivotal part in developing an awareness of the struggles many New Zealanders faced. While most of the artists came from middle class homes, it was as Special Constables, recruited from the university, that they met the desperate face of real people. Certainly, Denis Glover’s biographer felt that the experience had a profound effect on Glover. Paul Millar likened this to the creative response generated post-quake in Christchurch. As the depression was a catalyst for the Bloomsbury South group, so the Christchurch earthquakes have provided an urgency in artistic response.

Ursula  Bethell’s role as a Mother Superior to the young male writers was a discovery which surprised Simpson. The general thought was that she ceased writing in 1934 and her influence stopped. His meticulous reading of the private correspondence of the artists, allowed him to trace connections and influences. Some, like Angus to Lilburn, wrote 2 or 3 times a week across the same city. He found this an invaluable resource and one which still offers unfound insights.

There was so much to celebrate in this event. Peter Simpson was the right man to write this book with an already extensive knowledge of these artists as individuals. But it was his vision to draw them together in these pages, and engage us in this story. He gave credit to his publisher, Auckland University Press, and in particular to Katrina Duncan, who superbly married text and image.

I had my copy of Bloomsbury South to be signed and when asked by my seat mate what I thought, I replied that I loved every page. I found him with a copy at the after match. ” I was tossing up, but your comments convinced me”. I know he will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Bloomsbury South, by Peter Simpson, interviewed by Paul Millar

Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408480