Book Review: Earthquakes and Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch, by Kathleen Gallagher

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_earthquakes_and_butterfliesThe Christchurch earthquakes form the basis of this beautiful piece of writing. Kathleen Gallagher shapes her novel around the life stories of a cluster of people whose lives crisscross like the fault lines under the city. This is not a simple retelling though. Rather, it is an extended elegy on life, death, friendship and survival. The links to the land and the ancestors of this place begin each chapter, tying the story closely to Maori mythology and the spirituality of place.

The story works on so many levels. Yes, there is a basis on events which is elucidated through exquisite details…”they move slowly along beside split open, partly falling buildings, past the trees still standing as if nothing had happened, along Bealey Ave, where the big brick homes of yesteryear have their chimneys fallen through, their walls askew”.

But the people stories are what I loved the most. They are heartbreaking and tragic but hope flits on the edges, moving the story forward. The way strangers help unasked, generosity is freely given and shelter is for sharing.

It is wonderful to see such a prosaic tale arise from the rubble. The photo books, the kid’s stories, the building stories have been told. But here is a piece of literary writing which weaves together all these elements. Photographs of details from the city begin each chapter and are themselves mini masterpieces with their own tales. Gallagher has a close connection to the events and I struggled at times to read such clear expressions of my own experiences. It all came back; the fear, the loss, the humour and the uncertainty of each day. This book has captured it all. I am grateful for her vision, her compassion and her talent in producing this taonga.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Earthquakes and Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch
By Kathleen Gallagher
Published by Wickcandle Books
ISBN 9780473332327

Book Review: Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leaving_the_red_zoneThe Garden City, the cathedral, the sight of cranes towering overhead—these things have all amalgamated into the image of what Christchurch is and has been. Leaving the Red Zone captures this blended image, presenting a collection of poems on the Canterbury earthquakes.

With a range of different writers in one collection, it was amazing to read such a selection of perspectives and emotional responses to the same event. Some writers use facts to try and understand Christchurch’s suffering; demographics become something structural, concrete, and real amidst the strangeness of a home turned to ruins. Keith Westwater employs the Richter scale to measure the effect of the earthquakes on both the earth and humans. It starts at “3.1… Felt by only a few” and finally moves to “6.1… Felt by all… Stoics grimace and those on edge start crying”.

Gravity is also an everyday concept turned strange in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Janet Wainscott asks, “how do we find and keep our footing here?” during the strange imposition of aftershocks that are constantly changing what used to be a stable home. Fixating on action and items becomes a reprise, even if, like Frankie McMillan, she becomes “another woman hurrying / home ticking off a list / candles, shelter, food and water”.

Many poems in Leaving the Red Zone describe interactions between not only friends and family, but also strangers. The title of Jeni Curtis’ piece says it all—Prayer For A Boy Whose Name I Never Found Out—the poem itself proving that even amid all the terror, there is a string of community. The question “Where were you when it struck?” becomes a point of reference for those who share the experience of the Canterbury earthquakes.

It also explores breaking points; C. M. Fitzgerald, writes “If I hear that damn word resilience / one more time, I will scream”, when the frustration of building herself back up over and over again becomes harder each time. Others poems question how ruined something has to be before you finally have no choice but to give up, and what it means to reach this breaking point. In her poem Possibilities Of The Now, Annette Chapman leaves with her “world packed in a moving van”, a departure that has layers of history behind it.

I was only fourteen when the 2011 earthquake struck. I had lived my whole life in Auckland, never been to Christchurch, and didn’t have family or friends there, so I am someone who has never felt the full effect of it. However, this collection makes Christchurch feel a little closer, through a whole chorus of voices that are joined together by memory.

The fact that Leaving the Red Zone cycles through the initial earthquake to aftershocks, the aftermath, and the promise of rebuild creates a full and rich narrative. Although many people have left Christchurch itself, the words of these poets persist in this collection; they are New Zealanders who are still attempting to understand this tragedy, years on from when the first quake struck.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes
edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston
Published by Clerestory Press
ISBN 9780992251758

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

Book Review: Wishes and Worries by Sarina Dickson, illustrated by Jenny Cooper


Available in selected bookshops.

Wishes and Worries is part of a home-school resource for teachers and parents to use
when wanting to help children who are experiencing mild to moderate anxiety. The concept came about as a response to the aftermath of Christchurch earthquakes, when many children were demonstrating a need for help managing their worries. Utilising cognitive behaviour and narrative therapy, the book helps adults to help children in an easy-to-follow way.

Wishes and Worries is the part of the resource for teachers to use at school (Maia and the Worry Bug is the book for parents to use at home). It is designed to be read aloud, and then for NZ Curriculum-linked activities to follow within the classroom.

Dan has a constant stream of self-talk going – although for him it feels like it’s coming from external sources. He feels under pressure to let his mum get to work even though he’d like her support at school, as he finds it a high-stress environment. He really doesn’t want to be there, but he knows his mum will be frustrated with him if he tells her about it. The adults in his life don’t get what’s going on for him. Dan is carrying so much worry and fear (a rumbling truck causes him to hold his breath before he realises it’s only a truck) that it’s affecting his concentration. Luckily, he discovers an almost magical way to take control of his worries and turn them into something wonderful.

The follow-up activities are well-thought through and would be very easy for a teacher to use with no adaption required. They help children to identify their own worries, to think about how it affects their thinking and their bodies, and ideas for how they could address them within the classroom in a safe and supportive way.

While the book was written in response to the Christchurch earthquakes, it could apply to just about any situation that I can think of, including children who are anxious about lots of things, rather than in response to an event. Children have all sorts of worries, and adults often dismiss them with comments like “You don’t need to worry about that” or “You’re just being silly” – and these sorts of responses really don’t help, they just drive the worry underground. It’s so much healthier for children (and adults!) to identify their anxieties, realise their mental and physical responses, and deal with them accordingly. Wishes and Worries will definitely assist caring adults to help the children in their lives.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore, primary school teacher

Wishes and Worries
by Sarina Dickson, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Kotuku Creative
ISBN: 9780473319250