The Rehearsal, directed by Alison Maclean

The Rehearsal is released nationwide on 18 September

poster_the_rehearsalThe Rehearsal is guaranteed to bring back all of your awkward teenage memories. And it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in a long time.

Set in a drama school simply called ‘The Institute’, The Rehearsal tracks the life of Stanley (James Rolleston) as he becomes part of the churning-out-actors system, led by head tutor Hannah (Kerry Fox). Her focus is on getting the young actors to forget themselves, and open themselves up to being vulnerable.

Stanley meets a 15-year-old girl, then re-meets her by chance while role-playing one day, and tentatively starts a relationship with her. At the same time, we learn of a scandal at a local tennis club, where a coach has been carrying on with one of his students – as it happens, Stanley’s girlfriend’s old sister is the student. Stanley’s group has to create an end-of-year project, and as they have independently learned more than most about the scandal, they decide to create the play about this.

The script is spare, letting the young actors meet the challenge in a natural, off-the-cuff way. While I haven’t read the book (ok I admit it) I understand from the friend I attended with that the movie is different, and that this is a good thing. The use of a tennis club to open up the settings seemed an excellent way of bringing light into the movie, and contrasted well with some of the grimier spaces the movie lurks in.

The thing I enjoyed most about the movie was the humour. It wasn’t all drama students ranting and raging across the stage, and memorialising their darkest hours. From being a drama-type student at High School, mid-production things did get a little dark, and this was reflected accurately. But it was genuinely funny, though I noticed sometimes I was the only one laughing…

The final set-piece was superbly done, and served as a chance for some of the actors to look straight at the camera in farewell. I highly recommend going along and seeing this when it comes to a cinema near you  when it comes out on general release on 18 September.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Rehearsal
Directed by Alison Maclean
Script by Emily Perkins and Alison Maclean
based on the novel by Eleanor Catton (VUP 2008, ISBN 9780864735812)

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244

Book Review: Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn


Lost for Words, a novel by the rather charmingly cv_lost_for_wordsnamed Edward St Aubyn, is a satire onthe Man Booker Prize for Fiction – which meant that Eleanor Catton was very much on my mind as I read. Featuring a cross-section cast of the literary elite, Lost for Words particularly pokes fun at the pretension, ineptitude and general ill-qualification of the prize’s judges. The plot follows one iteration of the Elysian Prize from the assembly of the judging committee to the announcement of the winner.

Of course, a novelist satirising literature’s highest prize for novels cannot help but appear to be, at best, self defeating, and, at worst, harbouring rather sour grapes. This feeling only intensifies when you realise that one of St Aubyn’s previous novels, Mother’s Milk, was Booker shortlisted in 2006, and failed to win. Then everything gets odder when you learn that, with Lost for Words, St Aubyn has just won the UK’s prestigious Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.

So is it any good? I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It is very, very funny. The characters  − judges, publishers, authors, literary critics  − are splendidly and mercilessly drawn. The bite to St Aubyn’s satire keeps the book bubbling along nicely; his real anger lending it an urgency and candour without which Lost for Words would have been self-serving and tedious. There is even − and how very dare he  − what seems to be a swipe at our own literary golden girl: one of the long-listed titles is an historical novel written by a young New Zealander. We read an excerpt from it over one of St Aubyn’s characters’ shoulders and it is dreadful: crude and ridiculous. If this is intended as a dig at Catton’s sumptuous The Luminaries then it is very far from the mark.

Part of the pleasure of reading Lost for Words is in joining St Aubyn on his patch of judgemental moral high ground. The sheer ridiculousness of (for example) a self-published cookbook being mistaken for a post-modern novel and longlisted for one of world literature’s most serious awards is just possible enough to make the reader delightedly aghast. And of course St Aubyn is flattering us throughout, assuming that we − like he, one presumes  − are able to call a literary spade a spade.

But are we? Who are we to say which is the best novel? What criteria would we impose? As my favourite character in the book, Didier the philosopher, puts it: “What is literature? … What is this privilege we grant to certain verbal communications, although they employ the very same words we use to buy our bread and count our money? Words are our slaves: they may be used to fetch a pair of slippers, or to build the great pyramid of Giza: they depend on syntax to make the order of the world manifest, to raise stones into arches and arches into aqueducts.”

There is a lot more in this vein. Didier is loquacious; every time he appears on the page, a torrent of words spills from his mouth. Other characters are constantly trying to get him to shut up; one even resorts to kissing him to stop him talking. Although he is hyper-articulate, the reader very soon begins to worry that his cascade of sentences hides a confusion of thought. There is no doubt that St Aubyn intends him as a parody, a caricature of literary theorists.

And here again, Catton came to mind. I saw her deliver the New Zealand Book Council lecture at Wellington Writers Week earlier this year and was delighted and inspired by her articulate confidence and intellectual grace  − huzzah for successful Kiwi women! I was also very relieved not to be reviewing her lecture (as I had been reviewing other Writers Week events), because I didn’t entirely understand what she was trying to tell me. It reminded me of being in English Lit theory classes and being uneasily unsure whether my failure to grasp (for example) post-structuralism was down to my own intellectual ineptitude or a fault in the way the theory was explained.

David Larsen’s review of Catton’s lecture in The Listener was very revealing: “Not saying nearly enough is going to be my whole approach here, and one day, when this lecture is printed in a book of Catton’s essays, you can read it, and then read it three more times, and then you will understand why … let me concede frankly that the task [of explaining what Catton’s lecture was about] exceeds my abilities … I write this in terrified awareness that one day [Catton’s] non-hypothetical book of essays is going to put you in a position to judge just how badly I’ve got this wrong”.

This, I feel, is the core of the cultural problem that St Aubyn is trying to address. How can we assess the value of that which we don’t understand? To what extent should literature be judged on its ability to communicate? − and to whom? The cultural elite? The lowest common denominator? What does this mean for our cultural and intellectual ecosystem? What kinds of ideas  − and people  − can thrive in this environment?

As a satire, and as the title would suggest, Lost for Words takes a very dim view of the situation. Writers are self-absorbed, publishers are unfaithful, judges are blindly partisan, critics are spellbound by meaningless gush − and readers are entirely absent from the equation. The world of literature is doomed; a shrinking pool of self-referential, elitist tosh.

Personally, I am more optimistic than St Aubyn. I accept that judging will always be subjective and I’m sure there inevitably are political agendas at play − but I still find literary prizes to be useful signposts in a gigantic, ever-growing maze of books. And, if at first I don’t understand something, but I wish to, I am willing to re-engage with complex ideas. (I will be buying Catton’s book of essays when it is published.) Besides, if I fully understood everything I ever read or heard immediately, that would limit the possibilities of my intellectual development, and  − like Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest − I intend to develop in many directions. But then, I’ve never been turned down for a Booker. That’s got to sting.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Lost for Words
by Edward St Aubyn

Gender Divides and the Michael King Memorial Lecture, Auckland Writer’s Festival Sunday 19 May

A lot of folk today looking pretty shattered − but still smiling. This year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been absolutely full steam ahead the whole time, packed full of fascinations and inspirations. Thank you and congratulations to the organisers for delivering extraordinary experiences.

My first session today was oneJackley_Jessica I’d been really looking forward to: Gender Divides, a
panel discussion on feminism between Sandi Toksvig, Eleanor Catton, Jessica Jackley (right), and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, chaired by Judy McGregor.
As with Science and the Big Questions yesterday, the topics were so broad as to make discussions in such a tight timeframe necessarily superficial. However, there was still a lot to be gleaned.

Catton spoke about the challenge, as a successful female artist, of having to be feminist as well as having to be heard. She said that women making good art is itself a feminist act. Toksvig commented that successful women in public life feel a responsibility to represent all womankind, not just themselves − a responsibility men never seem to feel to other men.

mark_zuckerbergI was particularly struck by Catton’s comments that she hates lists (eg of writers) that contain just one woman’s name. The presence of that one name does not legitimate the absence of all the other women. It was also very interesting to hear from Jackley, a social entrepreneur and micro-financer, about the different expectations of male and female entrepreneurs. Males are able to look scruffy (in a Zuckerbergian (left), been-up-coding-all-night kind of way), whereas females are expected to look immaculate at all times in order to be taken seriously.Author, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku

The session closed with McGregor asking the four panellists what advice they would give a 12-year-old girl, and I loved their answers. Te Awekotuku (right): never lose hope. Catton: you can do things that you’ve never seen done before. Jackley: you can write your own rules. Toksvig: look to the past and you will have the brightest future.

My final session for this year’s festival was, unfortunately, the weakest one. I went along to the Michael King Memorial Lecture expecting a high standard of considered, wide-ranging thought and communication, commensurate with King’s own impressive achievements. What we had was entrepreneur Ray Avery talking about his autobiography and his book about New Zealanders of note, which he urged us to buy.

One of the first things Avery (below) did was ask how many of us had heard of him, commenting that “being slightly famous is very complicated”. He spent nearly an hour telling us about his life, a classic rags-to-riches story. He also boasted about committing adultery, which I found alienating. However, he has undeniably had a largely positive impact on the world: as he told us repeatedly, the company he runs Avery_Ray(providing eye surgery in the developing world) has restored the sight of an impressively large number of people.

Avery’s main point seemed to be that the meaning of being a New Zealander is to be like him: entrepreneurial, resourceful and “with no respect for the status quo”. With this strong sense of identification between the traits he admires most in himself and our perceived national character, it is no wonder Aotearoa is his adopted country.

This weak point notwithstanding, this has been a superbly stimulating festival. I have discovered lots of new thinkers and authors whose ideas and works will provide food for thought in the months and years to come. Thank you to everyone who spoke – and I’ll see you all next year!

Events attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage


Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: An Evening with Eleanor Catton

I think it’s safe to say evening_with_eleanor_cattonthat An Evening With Eleanor Catton was one of the most anticipated events on the DWRF programme. It’s not often that Dunedin hosts prize-winning novelists, let alone Booker Prize-winners, and it was brilliant to see that the DWRF organizers chose to make Catton’s even something special, with abundant canapés and a glass of champagne handed to you right at the door.

eleanor_catton_eventThe talk was held in the spacious foyer of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, with a camera sending live feed to two large screens set up to help the capacity audience see Catton and host Finlay Macdonald on the platform at one end of the foyer. Macdonald was a genial and funny presence, whose interviewing style made us all feel very comfortable and put us all in a mood to enjoy the event (or maybe that was the champagne).

Catton was a funny and warm presence herself, and I got the feeling that she’s someone who comes to clear, firm opinions but only after turning a thought over carefully and thoroughly in her head. This thoughtfulness was clear in the way she talked about how The Luminaries came about. She described the novel as “the Antipodean version of the Victorian novel” and noted that part of its structure came out of an earlier attempt to write a novel for young adults.In fact she seems to rate young adult and children’s literature very highly, because, in her words “the endeavour is very pure… a child will only read to the end because they love the story”, not because it’s won a prize or because the child wants to appear smart. In this way, children’s/YA literature is all about the reader.

This regard for the reader seemed to be very important for her. She talked about how shecv_the_luminaries_HB really wanted The Luminaries to be fun to read, and several times she mentioned doing something a certain way − for example, constructing the architecture of The Luminaries − because she thought it would be a fun thing to do. But that sense of just wanting to do fun things is clearly tempered by some serious thinking − she talked about having ‘control documents’ on her computer, including one which detailed every scene in the book and how she wanted each scene to feel, and how having these documents enabled her to look at the book from a telescopic or bird’s eye point of view.

It was also interesting to hear Catton’s point of view on modern fiction. The Luminaries apparently came out of frustration at a lot of modernist and experimental fiction, where she felt there was “a lot of withholding”, and she talked about how you can be influenced (and motivated) by something you feel could have been done better − in other words, a kind of ‘negative’ influence.

Catton also showed some real impatience with literary fiction; when asked by Finlay Macdonald about the oft-forecast ‘death of the novel’, Catton replied that the novel did something unique (and irreplaceable) in that it could “give the experience of externality and internality at the same time − like life”, where we live in the world but also have our own internal, thinking life as well. But she said she would be quite happy for consciously ‘literary’ fiction to die off, and described it as a dull genre where nothing seemed to happen.

She went as far as to say (in her quiet, firm way) that literary fiction “needs to open its doors and stop being so ridiculous about genre fiction”. Macdonald summed it up rather neatly when he suggested that perhaps “the boring novel is dead”! Certainly the amount of leleanor_catton_sign_lineove the audience showed for The Luminaries indicated that Catton had succeeded in writing a very un-boring novel. In fact, one audience member confessed he’d been so riveted by her book that one night he forgot to cook dinner − about as good a review as you can get. (signing line to the left).


Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Eleanor Catton will give a talk at the Auckland Writers’ Festival in the event called ‘Our Booker Winner’, at 5.30pm on Saturday 17 May.

Catton on Bloom’s “critical hypocrisy”

The New Zealand Book Council Lecture, 6.15pm, Monday 10 March

Eleanor Catton broke new ground in literary criticism when giving the New Zealand Book Council’s Lecture, part of Writers Week and the New Zealand Festival at the Embassy Theatre on Monday night.

The importance of what she said, in eleanor_cattonmy view, will reverberate  through literary circles for some time,  if for no other reason than she is to give the lecture at a number of other events before it is likely to be published in full (although I understand that the Monday night lecture is available behind The Listener‘s paywall). But there are more important reasons behind my contention of longevity of her thoughts than just how many times they will be repeated.

The lecture, while complex, was beautifully written and delivered with compelling, but gentle confidence, in a pristine voice.

Catton’s initial delving into the physics of time and space – the past and the future – was somewhat fuzzy and Catton described it later, in answer to a question, as a “silly idea’ on  which she needed to do more work.

Real sharpness came though in her criticism of those who contend that character is more important than plot in literary fiction. “Good fiction…. requires meaning “, thus a plot.

And then Catton went into the attack. She dissected a number of Shakespeare’s works , particularly Hamlet, dismissing any thoughts that they were devoid of plot in favour of  character. She was particularly critical of Harold Bloom’s view that Shakespeare was a writer of genre rather than a writer of literary fiction; dismissing his arguments as “critical hypocrisy”. Catton described “as dreary as it is wrong headed”, Bloom’s claim that “investing in plot was not a Shakespearean talent: it was one dramatic talent that nature denied him”.

And there was more on Bloom, which I am sure will fuel the debate for some time once the Catton lecture is more widely disseminated.

In thinking of this debate regarding plot and character in literary fiction, there was one insight I gained personally from the lecture in regard to The Luminaries – well, I think I have. I loved the plot and initially let slide any real understanding of the astrology within the book, as many other readers have told me they also did. Some of those other “sliders”, though, lamented the fact that there was not enough character development.

Then on Monday night I put the thoughts together and realised that what Catton may well have done was indulge the character lovers by the device of the establishing the characters of the “players” by using their astrological signatures. So to understand the characters within The Luminaries, it seems to me you have to refer to the front of the book and the astrological signatures of each person.

Look out for the published lecture.

By Lincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ

Comics and Roses – a review of two events, Monday 10 March

Comicsville, featuring Adrian Kinnaird, Dylan Horrocks, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy

My first Writers Week event today (Monday) was Comicsville, a panel discussion at the Hannah Playhouse on New Zealand comics. It was chaired by Dylan Horrocks and featured Adrian Kinnaird, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy; cartoonists all. I also spotted Alison Bechdel in the audience, and later saw that she had tweeted a drawing she’d done of Horrocks.

As with Sunday’s session with Bechdel, it was slightly pp_robyn_kenealystrange to have a discussion about comics without having any of them on display, but conversation was lively nonetheless. I was particularly glad to be continuing my trend of discovering interesting female authors: today’s ‘find’ is Kenealy (right). Deeply involved in the fan community, she spoke intelligently and with academic insight about the place of fan-fiction and the nature of self-publishing, very hot topics in the publishing world today. Normally, being drawn to an intriguing new author, I would immediately go and buy the book, but she said very openly that she is not trying to make money from comics and only self-publishes, mostly online. You can find her work here and here.
The book that was available for sale, though, is the new and very colourful From Earth’s End by Kinnaird (left). It’s a history of New Zealand comics and a snapshot of Kiwi cartoonists today. Flicking through my copy, I was immediately struck by the dearth of women: apart from Kenealy, apparently we pretty much just have Sarah Laing, and that’s about it. Surely that can’t be right? What about Li Chen, for example? (Closer study reveals that Chen is mentioned on page 88, but is not one of the thirty cartoonists with their own dedicated chapter.)

Being a word geek, I was particularly interested to learn from Horrocks that ‘graphic’ comes from a word meaning both to draw and to write; and that comics in te reo Maori are pakiwaituhi, which similarly indicates a story both drawn and written. This came up after a very lively discussion of the term ‘graphic novel’, which apparently has become a posh, literary term for comics generally – a rather back-handed compliment, as it implies comics need euphemising.

Overall, I left feeling that New Zealand comics are in an interesting and fruitful state, with digital publishing reaching new audiences unbounded by geography or paper distribution. Lots to look forward to.

A Rosie Glow, featuring Graeme Simsion (with a little bit of Catton comparison)

My third Writers Weekpp_graeme_simsion event today (Monday) was A Rosie Glow; Lynn Freeman in conversation with Graeme Simsion, author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Rosie Project. Unlike previous sessions, this felt very much like a standard author talk pitched explicitly towards increasing book sales.

And indeed Simsion admitted that, since publication, his life has become one long publicity tour – full credit to him for still seeming engaged and genuinely pleased to talk to fans. The fact that this was the second time that Freeman had interviewed him on this topic, though, unfortunately intensified the feeling of stale, recycled material.

It was perhaps a rather cruel and unusual act of scheduling to put Simsion’s talk on the Embassy Theatre stage immediately before Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary New Zealand Book Council lecture (entitled “Paradox and change in fiction”). In many ways, Simsion’s and Catton’s lives could be seen as parallel: they are both relatively new Australasian authors who have rapidly become life-changingly famous and, based on the success of one novel, are both now able to be full-time professional writers. But of course they are very different people.

Simsion spoke a lot about his protagonist, Don Tillman, and how he has a Twitter account in which he tweets in Tillman’s voice, and how there is a Tillman sequel planned. Catton didn’t mention The Luminaries or any of her characters at all, and instead spoke with calm but ferocious intelligence about huge ideas, ranging from the way fiction requires both ingenuity and insight in order to succeed, to the nature of space and time in narrative.

Simsion appeared happy to basically keep writing the same book until its popularity ran out – and, indeed, since it obviously ain’t broke, this is a perfectly cromulent strategy. Catton displayed a dizzying intellectual ravenousness that seemed to eat up subjects ranging widely within her chosen field of literature and beyond. When a member of the audience asked when she plans to publish a book of essays, she responded simply “soon”.

Once again I have ended a day of Writers Week events inspired and buzzing. Bring on tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ