Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725

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Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701

 

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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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

Books I’ll be Giving this Christmas, by Jenna Todd

Jenna Todd is the Manager of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden, Auckland, which was this year crowned Nielsen Independent Bookshop of the Year. Here are the books she is planning to give friends and family this Christmas. And you can win them: just tell us your favourite cover in the comments, and/or over on Facebook!

cv_swing_timeSwing Time, by Zadie Smith (Penguin)
Swing Time is my go-to fiction recommendation for this Christmas. There is a touch of Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels in terms of female friendships carrying the story however, there’s a lot more going on including the exploration of race, the internet, and pop culture. This layered narrative allows you to take in the story on so many levels. It’s fresh, contemporary and a novel that captures a snapshot of current times.

A is for Aotearoa, by Diane Newcombe & Melissa Anderson Scott (Puffin)
cv_a_is_for_aotearoaI may be biased, as Diane & Missy are Mt. Eden locals, but this is the type of book that will go out of print and customers will be asking after it for years to come.  A is for Aotearoa follows on from the successful A is for Auckland. It’s slightly more advanced as the reader is given as series of clues for each letter of the alphabet and they have to guess each New Zealand landmark (don’t worry, the answers are in the back!) It’s the type of book that can be read together as a family, with interactive flaps and whimsical illustrations. I’ve sent this to my dear Canadian friends and they just snapchatted me a picture of it under their Christmas tree.

cv_annualAnnual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press)
When I saw a proof of Annual at the NZ Booksellers Conference this year, I was so excited. Kate De Goldi has curated a treasure trove of some of NZ’s most loved and soon to be loved creative talents. Presented in a beautiful A4-sized hardback, this is the perfect gift for the curious NZ child. I plan to give this to my 12-year-old sister, and I hope more are published so I can give her one every year!

cv_tell_you_what_2017Tell you what 2017, edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (AUP)
This is the third year that Tell You What has been around and it’s such a treasure to sell. Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew have brought together the best non fiction written over 2016. It’s such an easy present to give as it’s perfect for someone who lives and engages in New Zealand culture or for someone who has never been here – so pretty much anyone! I plan to give this to anyone that I can’t decide what to buy them.

The Shops, by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books)
cv_the_shopsCivilisation and Scene of the Crime have been some of Time Out’s bestselling non fiction over the last few years. Luncheon Sausage brings us the NZ gothic feeling of these titles − but this time Steve’s writing is accompanied by an excellent series of images by Peter Black. Each image of Black’s feels like a Braunias essay in itself − it says so much by saying not much at all. This year, I will be buying The Shops for my husband so I can have the pleasure of owning it too!

by Jenna Todd

Books I’ll be giving this Christmas, by Nicole Phillipson

Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.

Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153

cv_man_v_natureThis short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.

Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691

cv_mansfield_and_meThe first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364

cv_commonwealthAnn Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183

cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakesIn How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029

cv_coming_rainComing Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.

by Nicole Phillipson

christmas-top-indiebound_v2

Book Review: Bloomsbury South – The Arts in Christchurch 1933-53, by Peter Simpson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bloomsbury_southSomething happened in Christchurch between 1933-53. Here, in this southern city, far removed from the creative artistic spark which had spread across Europe and the Americas, there was a blossoming. Christchurch is my city, so the arrival of Bloomsbury South was like opening a door to a world I suspected  had existed, but had never properly explored.

Peter Simpson knows this world, as he lived in Christchurch for 25 years. He was a student, then a teacher at Canterbury University so knew and worked with many of those in this artistic community. His familiarity with running a publishing and printing company, Holloway Press, also enabled him to have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of this group.

The something that happened was the coming together of a group of creative artists: writers, painters, dramatists, sculptors, publishers, musicians, actors and dramatists. Together they supported, discussed and experimented in the wider arts. The title alludes to the Bloomsbury set who rose to fame in London. While some might say it is a bit pretentious to make this connection, Peter Simpson gives strong evidence to support the title.

His research is meticulous, and follows the individual stories of these creative leaders. Ursula Bethell was a founding member, and her support and encouragement is shown as an important factor in the establishment of the group. She supported rising poets, while Leo Bensemann provided a house for a studio, but also the venue for discussions and parties in which big ideas were freely debated. The founding of the Caxton Press played an important role in the printing and distribution of many new works. Each development is explained and its importance highlighted in this very readable book.

Having lived in Christchurch all my life, I have grown up with these names. I suppose I have struggled with the vacuum left as they departed for more supportive roles in other cities. Peter Simpson details this gradual decline and the desperate attempts by the remaining members to struggle on. The furore over the gift of Francis Hodgkins’s painting, Pleasure Garden, epitomises the conservative backlash in Christchurch. The establishment resented and excluded the members of the group, and so they left, taking their vision and passion to other shores.

This book is one of those benchmark writings, which every follower of the development of a distinctly New Zealand voice, must read. Peter Simpson has timed the release of his book well, coming 5 years after the earthquakes, which literally shook up the arts scene in Christchurch. I trust this publication will signal a new era in Christchurch creativity. It is time to move forward with the knowledge of past mistakes to enable us to build a community which allows and supports all forms of expressive art. This book is a wonderful gift to anyone who wonders, “What happened?”

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

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

Book Review: A Few Hares to Chase, by Alan Bollard

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_few_hares_to_chaseDr Bill Phillips is not a household name, even if he was the pre-eminent New Zealand economist of the twentieth century. A self-effacing, if not enigmatic man, he obviously left an impression on Alan Bollard, a young post-graduate student at Auckland University in the 1970s, that led to a biography some 40 years later. What should we now think of the almost forgotten economist, remembered only in name for a contentious macroeconomic conundrum, who spent most of his life overseas?

Alan Bollard’s book is a game of two halves, with the first part describing the young Bill Phillips’ ‘search for adventure’, and the latter part being his post-war experience as an academic economist. Not surprisingly, the first half is more interesting to read. Bollard writes of his Phillips’ family background in the remote Te Rehunga district, in the Tararua area, which is no longer on the map (in fact a historical map of the area would have been useful). Although the farm was in the southern part of the Ninety-Mile bush region, and the nearby Scandanavian settlement, Bollard sticks to the familial rather than regional history.

Bill Phillips grows up in troubling economic times, gets an electrical apprenticeship, and heads to the remote Taui camp near Waikaremoana. A restless young man, he is soon off on a great O.E., first across the Tasman, and then into combat zones in Asia that would leave a lasting impression. There are obvious comparisons with another New Zealander travelling across the Soviet Union, – Bill Sutch, – but Bollard is either unaware of that contemporary tale or chooses not to tell.make that link.

800px-MONIACdashboardPhillips ended up in London in the late 1930s, and with the outbreak of war he is back to Asia with the RAF, and eventual imprisonment for three years. Despite surviving this ordeal, his health is never the same, and he picks up a heavy tobacco addiction on the way. He uses his rehabilitation money to enrol for a sociology degree in the London School of Economics, which he struggles with until he finds his true calling, and somehow manages to get a PhD in economics in four years, inventing the famous MONIAC machine along the way (right) which provided an archetypal model of the macro-economy. This is all quite a compelling story, and is written sympathetically by Bollard, though rather too briefly. Dr Bollard has to provide a lot of contextual information about the economic and cultural events of the time. He then tends to speculate about whether Phillips would have attended certain events. The tentative links made between Phillips and other New Zealanders in London can also be misleading. On page 202 he suggests that Phillips worked on a modelling problem with the help of a Peter Whittle, but by the end of the paragraph it seems uncertain that they ever met. It is actually Phillips’ association with his contemporary academic economists that really counts, and the big names in the pantheon of the profession.

Even for those of us who have read a bit of economic theory the latter part of the book is a difficult one. Once Bollard starts to write about the ‘Phillips Curve’ it begins to read like an academic article and this isn’t helped by the use of the APA referencing system, when there are endnotes as well. Bollard suggests that Phillips’s work on a statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation is of fundamental importance, even though it was quite amateurish at the time. Phillips certainly preferred an inductive method, as opposed to the deductive approach favoured by other theoreticians, which can also be seen as ideological. Bollard has extrapolated the influence of Phillips’ work for the kind of inflation targeting that he was involved in as governor of the Reserve Bank (page 138). This seems a bit of a stretch, and for someone who studied stabilisation in the economy it seems odd to foreground a technical aspect, when the essentially ‘Keynesian’ policy approach became passé. Of course, Bill Phillips missed the destabilising effects of the new monetary policy, when the workers’ expectations workers had of inflation had replaced expectations of keeping a job.

As a whole the Phillips biography still seems to lack a sense of the man, and would have benefitted from a comparison to other New Zealand-based economists who are better known here. It’s as if the respect of the fellow Dons is more important, and there is but a glimpse in some of the long quotations. The key one is on page 105, when Professor Robbins is interrupted by a “wild man from New Zealand waving blueprints in one hand and queer shaped pieces of Perspex in the other.” This certainly describes Phillips as an enthusiastic amateur with original ideas, and it is in fact the MONIAC machine that is his legacy. Phillips and his machine can be seen on the cover of the book, in a rather dark and unappealing reproduction. The obvious late decision to change the cover (the alternative appears in the review page of North & South) and the sub-title reflects an almost too retiring subject for a book project. The magnificent machine, however, is held in the Reserve Bank museum for all to see.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce. Boyce is currently completing a PhD thesis on the topic of tax havens. He has previously worked within central government in the area of Finance and Economics.

A Few Hares to Chase: The Life and Economics of Bill Phillips
by Alan Bollard
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408299