Book Review: Felt Intensity, by Keith Westwater

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_felt_intensityFrom the start of Felt Intensity, Keith Westwater creates a strange and haunting image as he places the all-too-human thoughts of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 1’ in front of the scientific abstraction of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 2.’

In ‘Report 1’ we are told that During that afternoon of terra not-so-firma / we stood around, shivered, hugged the ground / solaced those from the third floor / whose sky had fallen on their heads. Juxtaposing this with the data of ‘Report 2’ feels like a strange wrenching away from the personal experience of the event, until in the last line we are told Widely felt in Canterbury. This line brings the poem back into a relatable atmosphere, where the abstract statistics merge with the intense feelings created by the event.

This mixing of the personal and the more public or abstract thought continues in ‘Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale,’ where the numbers that are used to measure the felt intensity of an earthquake are quantified by descriptions of people and the environment. VI – IX Many frightened and run outdoors / Some chimneys broken / Noticed by persons driving motorcars. We see an intersection of two distinct modes of thought about the earthquakes, one of personal experience, from the people who were directly affected by the event. Next to this we see a more distant experience, seen through the lens of science and public reporting (‘Headlines’), the experience of the people who were not there, but still felt the impact of the event. Westwater expertly merges these two different spheres into a shared experience with these poems, evoking what could be called a ‘New Zealand’ experience.

In the second section of the collection, Westwater moves in a slightly different direction, reflecting on a different sort of fault in society. In ‘Today, there are twenty-three’ he outlines the meeting of high-fashion and style, Versace, Gucci, / and Swarovski sup with / the Saatchi brothers, and the political fallouts, politicians will make / the brothers even richer. This picture of the well-off is contrasted with a different sort of picture sitting in the same space. On Golden Mile / beggars squat. / Today, there are twenty-three / between Manners Street / and Parliament. Westwater continues to create stark contrasts, but unlike the earthquakes that brought people together, here there is a clear divide between one group and the other.

And it is these differences, sometimes reconciled, at other times continuing to run in parallel, never to fully meet, that draws one into Felt Intensity. At other times it is a calm that engages, a personal story that slows everything down and moves away from the intensity of the scientific and political. But these don’t hold a candle / to the stories told me then / of angels tending / flocks of fireflies / across the fields of heaven.

A fine balance is struck by Keith Westwater, and different worlds mix together to create a pleasant experience.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Felt Intensity
by Keith Westwater
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129918

Tim Gruar in conversation with Kate De Goldi about ‘The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle’

Kate De Goldi’s novels and picture books really engage you. A winner of numerous awards, including the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards and the Esther Glen Medal, her books have a specific type of sophistication that respects and challenges her readers. Inspired by her own veracious reading appetite when growing up and a love of the new wave of post war children’s fiction, she builds her novels with cinematic layers that are as much about the set and scenery as they are about the plot.

Kate_de_goldi_launching_barney

Kate De Goldi signing after her launch at Unity Books. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

cv_from_the_cutting_room_of_kate_de_goldiAs with her previous award winning novel, The 10pm Question, there’s a degree of line-blurring when it comes to defining her target age for her latest book, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle. So I have to ask, “Is this book for young adults? Or is this a book that can be read and enjoyed by young and old alike, like the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?”  Kate: “Good question. I’d like to say it’s a book that can be read by anyone from 9 – 90, because I think there are some reasonably sophisticated language and ideas at play.”

One of the things that De Goldi says inspired her most recent writing, was the post-war ‘middle range fiction’ that really ‘nourished her insatiable appetite’ as a teenage reader. She says that nowadays the publishing world has been keener to produce age appropriate works, particularly in the young adult space. She wanted to create a book that was less age prescriptive.

In her latest book, From The Cutting Room Of Barney Kettle, we meet filmmaker Barney Kettle, who likes to invent stories, but in this case finds the real oil right under his nose. The book opens with a letter written from a hospital bed by an unnamed man, as he recovers from serious injuries. He introduces his project: a story about Barney Kettle which he writes over many months, as he slowly recovers. He writes to remember the street where he lived, home to a whole raft of strange, weird and interesting people and bizarre, singular shops and curious stories. He writes to remember the last few summer days. Before he was injured; before it all came crashing down; before his world vanished.

“Every filmmaker is a megalomaniac” – the perfect summary of many of the most famous directors – from Fellini to Spielberg to Jackson, all crazy obsessed nutters and brilliant visionaries. Then there’s Barney. “The character of Barney was inspired by my nephew Rowan, who has been making films since he was about 6 years old, corralling his relatives and his whole neighbourhood into whatever project he was up to at the time. His devotion was such that on the day of the first Christchurch earthquake, the day of his first job at a production house, his first instinct wasn’t to dive for cover but to grab the camera and start filming. Which he did. All day! He’s now an animator. Barney is Rowan, but he’s also a bit of me too – as my sisters will attest. He’s someone who’s utterly focused on making something and seeing it all the way through to the end.”

Barbara Larson, helping to launch Kate's book. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

Barbara Larson, Kate’s editor and expert chopper – helping to launch Kate’s book. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

Much of the book revolves around the idea of editing, chopping up, re-arranging, the pieces, all exacerbated by the unexpected but significant event that threatens to take over the story. It’s not hard to find direct links and references to post-2011 Canterbury. Because she grew up there, Christchurch was always destined to be a major character in the book. She actually started writing about Barney and the High Street before the earthquakes but had to stop, “because the coordinates changed. I came back to the High Street that was destroyed. But I couldn’t not include the event, it was a major part of my landscape.”

“I wanted to capture a High Street that was a lively, colourful fantastic place, with layers of history and with its own community. I always wanted to write about children at play in a community is a street like this, the kind that you only get in a city. The kids are kind of parented by the others in the street. They have real relationships with the adults, as well as each other. Anyone with an appetite for eccentric figures will more likely find them here. It doesn’t happen in the gated suburbs, where people are more spread out.”

“This is my, heightened, slightly imagined version of the (Christchurch) High Street,” De Goldi says, “with a slightly personal history too. A couple of my generations have lived in buildings above these shops. We all went to that Basilica for mass. It’s part of my family’s fond, collective history. We remember the shops and people and those days we were there. And now as a Wellingtonian I always go back there for my frame of reference. Even though, now it only exists in memory. Much of the street came down and is rubble now.”

Remains of the McKenzie Willis building, on High Street, Christchurch after the quakes.

Remains of the McKenzie Willis building, on High Street, Christchurch after the quakes.

Also an important part of the picture, De Goldi says, was to set Barney living over an old school junk shop. “The kind that Christchurch’s High Street were once full of, with discarded fashions, lawnmowers, TVs and appliances and all manner of bric-a-brac.” The ultimate props room for a filmmaker, and a place of constant visual inspiration.

The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is definitely one of those multi-layered books that will, hopefully, invite many re-reads as its reader gets older. For the younger reader, there’s the opportunity to explore a world lost forever. For older readers, perhaps a chance to remember a world that is still alive in their own imagination.

Interview by Tim Gruar

The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre, Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775535768

Book Review: My Story: Canterbury Quake, by Desna Wallace

Available in bookstores now.

Canterbury Quake is the latest installation of the populacv_canterbury_quaker ‘My New Zealand Story’ series; the debut novel of Christchurch writer Desna Wallace. Wallace skilfully recreates the fear and distress felt during and after the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes, through the fictional diary of eleven-year-old Maddy.

***

Sometimes Maddy just wishes she could be like the other girls at school.  Then maybe her parents would buy her a cellphone for her birthday.  Maybe her sister wouldn’t be so bossy, and her little brother less annoying!  All the other girls – like Maddy’s best friend Laura – seem so much luckier than her…at least they have phones.  Maddy scribbles down her thoughts in her new diary day after day…and then the unimaginable happens.  Maddy’s world is changed forever, and cellphones become the last thing on her mind.

After the city is shaken awake on the 4th of September, 2010,  everything that Maddy’s family relied on crumbles. Routines are shattered, work buildings destroyed, schools shut down. The neighbourhood has become a labyrinth of detours and a strange sandy substance, lined with ever-present road cones.  Maddy records new words like “liquefaction” and “aftershock” in her diary, trying to make sense of the rapidly changing situation the city is in.

Maddy’s older sister Tessa has stopped talking to anyone, and her best friend Laura moves away from Christchurch, leaving Maddy to pair up at choir with a girl she barely knows.  Everyone is too scared to even go out to the movies anymore.  It feels as though nothing will ever be the same again…will Maddy and her family be able to cope with the aftermath of the quakes?

***

Canterbury Quake reminds readers that, in the face of disaster, we all have to accept each other’s differences and work together to be able to move on. Far from a dry book full of dates and facts, Canterbury Quake takes you right back to the September and February quakes, from the fresh perspective of a young girl living in the middle of the city. The bravery of the characters perfectly reflects Cantabrians’ reactions to the earthquakes. You will find yourself marvelling at how strong the spirits of a city’s people are. Everyone should read this book at least once; the earthquakes are part of Christchurch’s history, but they’re also a part of New Zealand’s history.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon (who experienced the quakes first-hand)

My Story: Canterbury Quake
by Desna Wallace
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775431824