Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786


Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

cv_vinegar_girlThe latest modern retelling of Shakespeare’s timeless stories, released by Hogarth and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, lovingly carries within it the bones and shape of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, clothed in quintessentially twenty first century, easy breezy beach read trappings.

Vinegar Girl is the compulsively readable story of Kate Battista, the daughter of a socially inept research scientist who hatches a mad plan: his Russian research assistant Pyotr should marry Kate in a green card marriage, thus allowing Pyotr to stay in the country to continue helping Dr Battista with his work. Inevitable shenanigans ensue. The absurdity of this plan is nicely balanced by the fantastically ornery Kate. As shrews go, Kate makes a really engaging one. Kate is blunt to the point of rudeness, charmingly oblivious to social cues, eternally exasperated and prickly as a hedgehog but probably less cute. But as we get to know her, we do get to see her vulnerable core, which helps to explain her (inevitable) softening towards Pyotr.

Kate is the most well-rounded character in the novel, but the whole cast of characters is equally entertaining. Kate’s much younger sister Bunny is an excruciatingly annoying teenager with a tendency to end all her sentences as if they were questions (you might be forgiven for thinking she was Kiwi!) Pyotr, interestingly, is not depicted as a dashing and skilled wooer of women, as in the play – instead he is an awkward, slightly galumphing, hyper-intelligent nerd (whose Russian accent Tyler captures so perfectly, and whose proverbs make almost no sense at all. “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’” Sure, Pyotr. Whatever you say.)

You don’t have to know The Taming of the Shrew to enjoy Vinegar Girl. Written in a clear easy-going style, with highly amusing characters and a plot that follows the shape of both the Shakespearean play and also, somehow, every satisfying chick lit book, this novel is fun comfort-food reading. Despite the vinegar in the title and in the character of Kate, Vinegar Girl won’t leave a sour taste in your mouth. If anything, you’ll gobble it down in one go.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Vinegar Girl
by Anne Tyler
Published by Hogarth Shakespeare
ISBN 9781781090190

Book Review: My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_sister_rosaMy Sister Rosa, the latest from YA author Justine Larbalestier, is a superlative example of how damn good today’s YA fiction can be. Engaging from the first page, packed with a diverse and distinct cast of characters, smart, real, and insanely creepy, My Sister Rosa is a psychological thriller where the character that makes you squirm with fear is a ten year old blond girl with dimples—a Shirley Temple psychopath.

The story is told from the point of view of teenager Che, who loves his little sister Rosa even as he worries about her lack of empathy, her manipulativeness, and her tendency to use her formidable intelligence to play ‘pranks’ on people—pranks that start off as not quite harmless (like stealing a passport) and escalate to alarming, near lethal heights. The tension in this novel is skilfully ratcheted up, chapter by chapter, to the point where you start to fear for the safety of almost any character Rosa talks to. Just knowing that Rosa has found out that one of Che’s friends is afraid of heights made my stomach churn.

One of Larbalestier’s strengths is clearly her characterisation. Her portrayal of Rosa teeters right on the line between truly creepy and melodramatic, a tough balancing act but one she pulls off to uncanny, sinister effect. Despite Rosa being the flashier character, I was (even) more impressed by Larbalestier’s drawing of Che. Here was a deeply felt representation of the kind of young man I could recognise from everyday life: close to his friends, self-conscious about his acne, yearning or home, yearning (and horny) for a girlfriend, an inveterate texter and messager on his phone, and full of love and care for his family. Despite his family being any other family’s worst nightmare.

In general, this novel (like so many others) is shaped such that we steadily climb a steepening slope of tension towards the climax, and then we topple down the other side into the denouement as the tension relaxes and all our remaining questions are answered. The building of tension and ramp up to the climax are handled expertly, but the handling of the climax and denouement seem slightly off somehow. Without giving too much away, the climax seems somehow less forceful than one might expect, and given how much our tensions have been ramped up,  the denouement feels a little too extended (perhaps understandably, given how many plot threads needed to be tied up).

Nevertheless, My Sister Rosa is a great read—well-written, fast-paced, exciting, engaging and eminently re-readable. This book is a keeper.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

My Sister Rosa
By Justine Larbalestier
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN  9781760112226


Book Review: The Party Line, by Sue Orr

cv_the_party_lineAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Set in a rural farming town in the 1970’s, under which an ugly truth smoulders, Sue Orr’s first novel, The Party Line, traces the arrival of new sharemilkers into the town of Fenward, and the disruption one particular family causes to that town’s culture of silent complicity to ugly acts.

The novel revolves around young Nickie Walker, the almost-teenage daughter of farmers, who strikes up a friendship with glamorous, charismatic Gabrielle Baxter, the daughter of a newly widowed sharemilker who has just moved to town. Gabrielle’s presence is immediately magnetic and disruptive, and it is under Gabrielle’s influence that Nickie begins to question the status quo of the town she’s grown up in. Moreover, when both girls witness something they wish they hadn’t, it is Gabrielle who is willing to do something about it, rather than to ‘toe the party line’.

Orr paints a portrait of this small farming town that is totally believable, with its Calf Club Days, its oppressively hot summers, and its clenched-fist, suspicious resistance to difference or change. There’s also a mob-mentality-like refusal to act when action is needed, and in some ways Orr’s delineation of this reflects that quintessentially Kiwi saying “She’ll be right”. In this context, saying “She’ll be right” just means ignoring a problem until it goes away, and Orr’s novel shows all too clearly how troubling such an attitude can be.

Despite the overall intense believability of the rest of the characters, I had some difficulty believing in Gabrielle, the catalyst for so much of the action in this novel. To me, her charisma and allure were not enough for me to understand her character fully, and as such, her character remained an enigma, or, if anything, a performance (multiple times she seems to pretend to cry—which confounds both the characters in the book, and confounded me!) On occasion I wondered if she was a kind of ‘manic pixie dream girl’ – a charming bundle of slightly odd characteristics embodied in a character, but not a real person. In the end, I decided that she wasn’t—she has a background, and some kind of inner life—but our access to that inner life seems always to be obstructed. The slipperiness of her character strangely dimmed my enjoyment of the book.

In contrast, I found the subtle transformation of Nickie’s mother Joy to be extremely compelling. Seen at first as something of a harridan by her daughter, Joy Walker eventually becomes a much deeper, nuanced character, who has herself become aware of the strain of nastiness that runs through the town. It is this kind of gentle, sure-footed development of characters in this novel that I found most absorbing, and, along with Orr’s well-shaped prose, is, I believe, what makes this novel such high quality reading. An assured debut novel.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Party Line
by Sue Orr
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781775537557

Book Review: From the Podium, by Gary Daverne

As a musician living in New Zealand, my interest was naturally piqued by this memoir. I had heard of Gary Daverne’s work as a composer over the years, as he’s been fairly prolific in writing advertising jingles, orchestral music, and, interestingly, music for the accordion. But I hadn’t been aware of his career as a conductor of orchestras, and I looked forward to reading more about this side of Daverne’s career. After all, I’m an orchestral musician and it’s always interesting to hear about life seen from the conductor’s podium.

As a man deeply involved and invested in music-making from the community to the professional level, Daverne’s career is impressive. He’s taken his orchestra, the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, to China with Amalia Hall, he’s guest conducted high calibre orchestras like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and he’s apparently been in the enviable position of having more offers of work than he can handle—a sure definition of success!

In terms of the memoir itself, however, From the Podium lacks several aspects that would make it a fully engaging read. Granted, this book was self-published, so I can forgive some slips in presentation and basic editing (and I can even forgive one rather strange shift from third to first person near the beginning). It is however a shame that the memoir feels so episodic. Despite this memoir being nominally structured, in a rather cute way, according to the acts of a show, the memoir lacks overall narrative cohesion. In other words, this memoir feels too much like a collection of disconnected (if amusing) stories.
It’s a jumble of beads with no thread to string them onto. As such, these myriad stories may hold interest for those who know Daverne, or perhaps for those who have an insatiable interest in what goes on backstage at a show or at a concert and has never heard these kinds of stories before. But as someone who has lived through similar experiences (having to deal with inclement weather during an outdoor concert, the travails of touring, mistakes made and lights going out during shows) and therefore doesn’t find these things particularly surprising, each story was charming, certainly, but ultimately did not hold my sustained attention.

I found myself wishing that there had been more about what Daverne had actually thought about his experiences of New Zealand musical life, and what he’d learned through his life. Instead I was merely given a catalogue of anecdotes to read. And this is a shame; Daverne has clearly made a huge contribution to musical life, and that contribution should have been better represented. In the end, this memoir represents a missed opportunity to properly delve into an interesting life.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

From the Podium
by Gary Daverne
Available from

Book Review: Chappy, by Patricia Grace

cv_chappyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

“Who’s he’s mountain?” asks an old Maori elder in Patricia Grace’s new novel. He’s asking these questions about Chappy, a mysterious stowaway, apparently from Japan, who has landed in 1930s New Zealand and been taken in by the Maori seaman who found him. “Who’s he’s river?” old Uncle Jimmy asks. “Who’s he’s ancestors? Who’s he’s name? Who he is?” It is these questions that drive this novel, as, eighty years later, Chappy’s grandson, lost and troubled Daniel, travels back to New Zealand from Europe in search of the mysterious grandfather he never knew and, indirectly, in search of his own roots.

Chappy is skilfully and effortlessly woven together by Grace. Though Daniel’s voice occasionally pops up, the majority of the novel is an interlacing of narratives from Aki, the Maori seaman who took Chappy in, and Daniel’s great uncle, and Oriwia, Daniels’ no-nonsense, practical, sometimes bolshy grandmother, and Chappy’s wife. Alongside this narrative interweaving stands a cultural interweaving too. Different languages—Maori and English, predominantly—slip and slide alongside each other, and, though Chappy is undoubtedly a New Zealand novel, like its characters, it wanders the Pacific, with significant sections set in Hawaii and Japan. As Oriwia tells Daniel, “You can be anywhere in the world, but you have a tūrangawaewae that cannot be denied you.”

I enjoyed the expatriate or wandering flavour inherent in this novel; overseas travel has always been a part of New Zealand experience, from the twenty-first-century OE to the twelfth-century voyages from Hawaiki, and yet previous great Kiwi novels haven’t , in my opinion, often included that journeying spirit. Grace however manages to express this international aspect without sacrificing this feeling of Aotearoa as tūrangawaewae—its characters’, and our, place to stand.

It’s significant then that both Daniel and his grandfather Chappy enter the novel rootless, without a place to truly call home. Chappy stows away on a ship and, though he comes to consider Aotearoa as home, this home eventually turns on him, as might unfortunately be expected in 1940s New Zealand when dealing with a Japanese immigrant. It was fascinating and sobering to read the sections describing Pearl Harbour and the hardships German and Japanese-born Kiwis endured during that time. Chappy also spends time living in Japan and in Hawaii, torn from his wife back home, and still living a life that seems somehow incomplete or impermanent; several times he’s compared to a ghost. In fact, Chappy remains a mystery—though we learn more about him, he remains oblique and unreachable. Daniel, however, is luckier. His quest to discover his grandfather leads him in turn to understand his own roots.

“Who’s he’s mountain?” Uncle Jimmy asked of Chappy, and though Chappy’s answer to that remains unknown, it’s clear that Daniel’s search has brought him closer to understanding who his own mountain, river and ancestors are. This immaculately written New Zealand novel thus tells a universal story—the search to find your self—and is utterly absorbing and beautiful. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

by Patricia Grace
Penguin Random House New Zealand
ISBN 9780143572398