Book Review: Write to the Centre, by Helen Lehndorf

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_write_to_the_centreWriter and teacher Helen Lehndorf started her first journal (a diary) aged 13 and has kept going – with the occasional pause – ever since. She’s captured the many changes in her life through these journals: good times and bad, wise decisions and regrets, relationships, parenthood, and the ‘quiet and chaos’ that most of us have probably experienced. This book includes many of her handwritten entries, nestled amongst postcards, cuttings, notes, sketches and other ephemera that she has pasted into her journals with the gluestick mentioned in the subtitle.

The many and varied benefits that come from keeping a journal are described. Lehndorf encourages everyone to give it a go, in whatever way works best. Don’t be put off if you are time-poor. Scrawl or glue into your journal a few minutes at a time, she suggests, because the entries are an excellent way to discover who you are and (later) who you were: ‘…these notes captured in a journal are like messages in a bottle from all my earlier selves’.

There are twelve chapters. The early chapters provide plenty of inspiration for getting started, with suggestions for learning how to be a curious, alert and slightly detached observer of what’s going on in your own life. Thoughts will lead to words (jot them down quickly, before you forget), and these notes may in turn lead to relief or clarity – though Lehndorf reassures us that there’s wisdom to be gleaned from experiencing and writing about resistance and confusion too. Later chapters could almost be read in any order. The fabulously descriptive chapter headings make it very clear what each chapter covers – such as ‘Full-throttle melodrama: allowing the ugly’ (Chapter 6!).

shameless_journal_1Lehndorf gently encourages us to write about anything that comes to mind – whether this be events, friendships, places, plans or even lists…spontaneity is key. Lehndorf is confident that eventually everyone’s own style and voice will emerge. It’s OK, she says, to write about things that don’t go well, the rough or tough times, the stumbles as well as the dreams. Choose how and when to write, and write about whatever makes sense to you. Write at length, a line, or just a word. If words won’t come, she advises adding a doodle or simply gluing in something that appeals or may later bring back memories. Allow your journal to reflect the complexity of your life, use it as a way to work though hurt feelings, remorse and disappointment, as well as a way to remember happy times, joys and triumphs.

Each chapter concludes with a Give it a Whirl section, jam-packed with ideas to kick-start journal entries, even if you’re a reluctant or self-conscious writer. ‘Cultivate your curiosity’, Lehndorf suggests, because there are a never-ending number of things to write about, and if you run out of ideas of your own it’s quite OK to jot down other people’s insights too. Themed journals are also a possibility – for example, journals that focus mainly on gardening, music, wish-lists, or trips.

I liked the New Zealand flavour woven throughout her journal entries, such as the nods to Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, references to beach and bush walks, river swims and op shops – and Ngaio and Nikau appearing on the long list of ‘possible cat names if we do get a cat’.


It takes a certain amount of bravery to share innermost thoughts so publicly, and I admire Lehndorf for her willingness to let us read a broad and somewhat random selection of entries from her own journals. It’s reassuring to see the words crossed out, the scrawls and scribbles, the shortcuts and abbreviations, notes spread hurriedly down and across pages, the self-doubt amidst the celebrations. Perfection is not the goal. It’s all about the process, not the product, she explains. And if you’d prefer to destroy your journals rather than let anyone find them, there’s a wee section outlining interesting ways to do so.

This is a relatively large book, A4 size. I wonder if the size, combined with the somewhat ambiguous title and busy cover imagery might deter or confuse some of the likely target audience. I’m not sure that I would have picked up this book if I had seen it in a bookshop, possibly mistaking it for a textbook or handcrafting manual (given the prominence of the ‘gluestick’ in the subtitle). This would have been my loss, given the wealth of practical suggestions, creative triggers, motivation and encouragement Lehndorf offers within this book.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Write to the Centre: navigating life with gluestick and words
by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Haunui Press
ISBN 9780473367770

Book Review: Helen Clark: Inside Stories, by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_helen_clark_inside_storiesHelen Clark needs little introduction, but for those reading this blog from the far side of Mars, let’s recall that she was NZ’s first elected female Prime Minister, before that a politician, a political activist and is now a high-ranking United Nations official.

There are many events in her career which are still matters of controversy. And just how was she so effective? What’s the ‘inside story’? This book seeks to answer many of the questions about Helen Clark, and the events that she was part of, in the words of those who know her, and were part of it all. This is a worthy aim: much of that period is still quite murky. What really happened in the 1984 Labour government to send it lurching off in an unexpected economic direction? What about ‘paintergate’? How was the foreshore and sea-bed furore managed?

The book has its origins in Pond Eyley and Salmon’s documentary Helen, which has been on TV a couple of times, and screened at documentary film festivals. Claudia Pond Eyley is a visual artist and film maker, and Dan Salmon is a documentary director and producer. While putting Helen together during 2012-13, they interviewed many of those who know Helen Clark best. This book is formed from transcripts of these interviews, with short linking passages introducing each chapter.

The range of participants is astonishing: from Clark’s parents and sisters to political colleagues and foes. They include friends, her husband, teachers, mentors, staff, journalists, lobbyists and commentators. I was very impressed by the range of participants – it must have taken a tremendous amount of work to get all these people to cooperate.

The coverage is obvious: Helen Clark’s life, from birth in the Waikato to the UN in New York. The organisation is, for the most part, simply chronological. Chapter titles tell the story: Chapter 1: Country girl to left-wing liberal; Chapter 2: Getting extremely involved in politics; Chapter 3: Meeting Peter; Chapter 4: MP for Mount Albert, and so on to Chapter 18: New York City.

Helen Clark is renowned as not only a skilled politician, but a very private person. The greatest contribution of the book is to get inside these protective barriers and reveal something at least of her ways of thinking and working, her relationships with people, and her motivations. Naturally some contributors verge on hagiography, and some have political axes to grind, but neither tendency is so powerful as to detract from the interest in what they have to say.

The book lives up to its sub-title – there are inside stories here. But this genre of recorded oral history has some limitations. There was a nagging doubt at the back of my mind about how much editing the interviews had been through. These are not verbatim transcripts, and there isn’t any indication of how much has been omitted. There’s some repetition of course: the 1984 Labour government rejection of its assumed economic policy features in several stories, but the stories don’t form a coherent picture and the reader is left perhaps with more data, more insight into Clark’s role, but not a lot more insight about the big picture.

This book is interesting, in places amusing and often enlightening. By design it doesn’t attempt to interpret, analyse or synthesise. We still don’t have the sort of analytical, independent biography that Helen Clark, and the events she has been part of, deserve. This book may be part of that later volume’s source material.

Helen Clark: Inside Stories
by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408381

Book Review: Play In The Garden: Fun Projects for Kids to Enjoy Outdoors, by Sarah O’Neil

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

Most parents I know wish to get their children off ‘screens’ and outside to enjoy fresh air cv_play_in_the_gardenand creative play. This New Zealand childrens’ gardening book will achieve just that, with fun projects and inspiring activities.

The book is written for children, but there is advice for adults on how best to support children in achieving the activities and making the most of the garden. The author is realistic: ‘Most kids don’t have the kind of stamina you need to garden well and often give up quickly….but there is a better way. Instead of giving them a corner of your garden, make yours a little bigger and let the kids have fun with the extra crops you grow for them.’

The level of activities is well-suited for adults who are new to gardening, and the book has sections for spring, summer and autumn (although autumn has just one activity). There are some great basic science activities, too, like soil-testing to encourage junior botanists and microbiologists. I liked the ideas of trying to grow a square cucumber or making vegetable-based paints. For the crafty kids there are scarecrows, colourful bird scarers and corn-husk dolls. The author has clearly tried out these activities with her own children, and they are genuine and achievable projects which kids would get a kick out of.

The book is well-designed and features cute illustrations by Vasanti Unka. The photographs are instructional rather than aspirational, which is good for encouraging people to actually try the projects. Instructions for the projects are well-written and easy to follow, and the diagrams are also clear and helpful.

I liked the practicality of the projects and the many opportunities for hands-on learning. Often garden/craft books aimed at children offer projects kids are unlikely to achieve or want to achieve, with spurious educational value – this book is an exception to that. If the kids in your life undertake even a third of the great projects in this book, they will discover a love of gardening and have their curiosity about the outdoors ignited, well and truly. I asked my own non-gardening nine-year-old to have a look through the book, and he said he would like to try growing giant pumpkins, growing peanuts and making vegetable paint. That’s the beauty of this book, there is enough variety of project types in the book to appeal to all children.

This book would make a delightful Christmas present for any children in your life. It’s a practical, fun book which is sure to inspire the next generation of gardeners.


Author Sarah O’Neil has also written a gardening book for adults The Good Life: Four Glorious Seasons In My Country Garden. Her gardening blog is here.

Reviewed by Helen Lehndorf

Play In The Garden: Fun Projects for Kids to Enjoy Outdoors
By Sarah O’Neil
New Holland Publishers (NZ) Ltd
ISBN 9781869664138

Book Review: The Lonely Nude, by Emily Dobson

‘Forgive me, I am worn out by various tasks.’cv_the_lonely_nude

Emily Dobson’s first book, A box of bees, is one of my favourite New Zealand poetry books, so I was excited to see her new book appear. Emily once worked as an artist’s life model, and in her second collection she explores both physical and emotional vulnerabilities, she ‘lays bare’ in her own ambivalences, and in wonder too.

The poetry in the book is situated at various places around the world, and in various seasons. America, Mexico, New Zealand, Spring, Winter are just some of the terrains. The book begin with three poems ‘Pogo’, ‘Unicycle’ and ‘Mapua’ where the writer celebrates the ridiculous in her life, the ways she has opened herself to humiliation in her slightly daft explorations of the unicycle, the pogo stick, the nudist colony. There is a knowing humour throughout this book. The metaphor, too, are effortless and lightly-handled, from ‘Life model’: ‘I do this / because I am good at staying / / incredibly still’ and, from ‘Nude’: ‘A pose never stays the same. You sag and sink down.’

A tenuous hold on the world is beautifully revealed throughout the book. The underside of the wonder in the poet’s voice is her insecurity at her place in things. The voice in the poems seems to feel like an awkward child and is unclear of how to cope gracefully with the adult behaviours expected of her. Emily Dobson is unafraid to examine our common human frailties: ‘Look at us. We are both dressed in grown-up clothes, but look how afraid we are…’

These poems are spare, deft, clean. There is not an ounce of verbosity, redundant language, overblown imagery. At times my first reaction on finishing a poem was: ‘Is that it?’ but then I would re-read it, and re-read it again and my question would turn into the declarative ‘That’s it! Yes, …that’s it’, something true had been cleverly conveyed.

The physicality in the imagery is lovely. There are naked bodies, hands, ‘his arse was like seawater against my feet’ (from ‘The Man’), and in a foreign country, a woman reaches for herself as if to check she is still there: ‘I compulsively touched my face and reached for my feet / worrying at them.’ (from ‘At the end of the song, bees’). But even when she returns home, things do not get easier: ‘The fig at home / always dropped its fruit / too soon.’ From the collection, I got a sense of a person holding on to life carefully, aware of life’s fragility and complexity: ‘I smile like a madonna / I am nothing like a boulder.’ It is also a voice of deep self-awareness and offers a fresh examination of quotidian absurdity, daily indignity. This is a very humane, relatable book.

The blurb on the book says that these poems ‘spent several years in Emily’s wardrobe’. I’m so glad she decided to bring them out into the light. In her own words: ‘I was tired of dealing/ with the everyday waste/ of an ordinary life.’

By Helen Lehndorf

The Lonely Nude
By Emily Dobson
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739292

Book Review: The Limits, by Alice Miller

This is the first poetry collection of multi-award-winningcv_the_limits writer New Zealand, Alice Miller. It’s an extraordinary book, a departure in style and tone from anything else like it in New Zealand poetry.

The book has an unusual tone, it’s folkloric and gothic, seductive but remote. There are poems referencing Tolstoy and Helen of Troy, poems about Antarctica and poems about love. There seems a great distance between poet and reader, as though the poet is shouting across a ravine. The poet’s voice is both grand and chilly.

The poems reminded me of contemporary song lyrics − like the work of Feist on her album ‘Metals’, the Bowerbirds, Fleet Foxes and Bjork − more than any New Zealand poet contemporaries. Like these musicians, Alice Miller employs playful natural imagery to engender overwhelming human emotions, but it’s gestural natural imagery rather than specific. It’s the natural world of our collective imagination, rather than the literal, inhabited nature of our bioregions.There are trees, forests, rivers, maps and armies in the book, yet oddly, little sense of place. Apart from a couple of images of the contemporary world: an ATM, a mention of a computer screen, these poems could have come from any (recent-ish) time, any place. It would be easy to get this approach very wrong − contemporary poetry makes much of specificity − but the imagery is for the most part interesting and deft and there is real emotion here, enough to give the poems heft.Nature mutates, misbehaves and shape-shifts:

‘When we go to the field
to recover our weapons
all our axehandles
have grown back to trees.’

There’s a sense the terrain of the book is constantly shifting, nothing defined will stay defined.

Alice Miller marries human moods to the mythic, emotions to both history and an uneasy future. This is romantic writing in terms of the tone of awe and the poet’s experience of the sublimity of natural phenomena. The poems are trying to negotiate an often hostile natural and emotional terrain. The poems rail and rally.

It’s also romantic in the sense of poems of intimacy and love. The opening section: ‘skin’, consists of three beautifully written love poems, the vulnerability in the poems is palpable: ‘It’s strange to be the same planet / but split to forge a new, raw globe‘ and ‘This stitching between bodies isn’t skin / It’s only old rope easily cut. / Where the seam tears there’s blood.

At it’s best, The Limits did take me to, and beyond, the limits of my imagination, with elegant, intelligent images and explorations. Occasionally the writing is a a bit elusive, a bit too fanciful, but for the most part, Alice Miller has created an imaginative and philosophical world I was pleased to dwell in.

By Helen Lehndorf

The Limits
By Alice Miller
Auckland University Press (RRP, $24.99)
ISBN 9781869408060

Alice Miller’s website


Book Review: Puffin New Zealand Children’s Treasury: Ten Best-Loved Stories From Favourite Kiwi Authors

Available from bookstores from 26 September

What incredible value for money this new treasury is – cv_puffin_nz_children's_treasuryten children’s books in a hardbound volume for the cost of one book! This would make a terrific gift for any child aged 3–7.

The books included in the treasury are: My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes by Eve Sutton, Who Sank The Boat by Pamela Allen, The Kuia and the Spider by Patricia Grace, A Summery Saturday Morning by Margaret Mahy, The Tree Witches by Gwenda Turner, A Brooming in the Night by Ben Brown, My Brown Bear Barney by Dorothy Butler, A Dragon in a Wagon by Lynley Dodd, Mrs Wishy-Washy’s Farm by Joy Cowley, A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree by Kingi. M. Ihaka.

The subtitle states these books are ‘best-loved’ and I was convinced of that claim. It is a combination of books I read and loved myself as a child and some newer titles I hadn’t come across. The books are presented as they were in their original editions, with the same illustrations. Amongst the illustrators are some of New Zealand’s finest artists including Robyn Kahukiwa and Dick Frizzell and illustrators, including Lynley Dodd and Gwenda Turner. It’s a great opportunity to share some of the books you might have grown up with yourself, with a child in your life.

The book is well-produced. It is hardbound with thick, glossy pages. There is a well-written index of information about the authors and illustrators at the back of the book, something which is often lacking in children’s books and is most welcome in this one.

I’ve yet to meet a child who doesn’t love the repetition and wit of My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes. In my household, the Christmas classic A Pukeko In a Ponga Tree gets pulled off the shelf for a re-read every December, and pre-schoolers love the clumsy exploits of Mrs Wishy-Washy.Pages from Treasury page 18 and page 19The illustrations in the book are wonderful and varied in style, from realistic to highly stylised. Flicking through the book, I got a true taste of a New Zealand childhood experience, from lovely illustrations of our native flora and fauna, to beach, gardening and farming scenes – the New Zealand childhood is definitely a more outdoors experience than in some other Western countries, and the book reflects this.

If you have children to shop for this Christmas, this new treasury is beautifully produced, the books are well-chosen and it is superb value for money. It would be a great ‘sampler’ for a pre-school child who is moving on from toddler picture books, however there is plenty of fun in here for the older child for independent reading as well. With it’s generous inclusion of ten books under one cover, it could even be given as a one-gift-fits-all for siblings. I highly recommend this excellent compendium of ten classic New Zealand stories.

Reviewed by Helen Lehndorf

Puffin New Zealand Children’s Treasury: Ten Best-Loved Stories From Favourite Kiwi Authors
Published by Penguin NZ (Puffin imprint)
ISBN 9780143307617

Lauraine Jacobs – Everlasting Feast at #AWRF

cv_everlasting_feastAuckland Writers and Readers Festival, Friday 17 May, 4pm

Launched just three weeks ago, Lauraine Jacobs’ new book Everlasting Feast is the best kind of food memoir, one with lush food photography (by Elizabeth Clarkson) and some of her signature recipes. (All the flowers in the book are from Lauraine’s own garden.)

Lauraine Jacobs wrote for Cuisine magazine for many years and now writes for The Listener. In her new book, Lauraine tells colourful stories from her rich career in food and food writing in a way which is both educational and lively.

Lauraine has previously published ten recipe books and so felt with this book it was time to do something a bit different, to bring her love of story-telling together with her passion for food. Through close telling of her own journey with food, Lauraine explores the country’s journey in food since the 1950s. In this session, Lauraine spoke engagingly about both the national and international food scenes with a wry sense of humour and a sharp intelligence.

The book covers Lauraine’s life from a five-year old Brownie and is a very Auckland book, featuring the various places around the city where Lauraine has lived and worked. Lauraine has encountered many notable food writers in her career, especially through her involvement with the International Association of Culinary Professionals, which she first joined, then eventually chaired. Through the Association she met Julia Childs, who she said was a spirited raconteur who would often still be telling stories in the bar at 1am, a woman who truly earned her legendary title and who bought real cooking back to America in an era of Betty Crocker packet foods and tuna casseroles made with cans of Campbell’s soup.

Lauraine spoke passionately about the importance of starting our cooking from fresh, seasonal produce. In her book she writes in depth about her favourite ingredients: lemons, herbs, butter and salt.

She said her favourite quick meal is fresh fish with salad, which is a lovely fusion of those four ingredients – the lemon and butter enliven the fish, the salad is bought to life with lemon, herbs and salt. Lauraine somewhat controversially declared that ‘most New Zealand butter is rancid on the shelf’, that the paper packaging does not adequately keep it fresh and that for years she has bought Danish butter because it is cultured butter and as such tastes fresher. The local exception to this being Louis Road Creamery butter, which has caused her to buy local butter again. According to Lauraine, the best way to treat butter is to cut it into small cubes at the time of purchase, wrap them in foil, freeze and take out as required. She also believes that our local olive oils are better than most imports.

When asked by a member of the audience for what she considered one of her signature dishes, she chose her Red Salad (shown above) a salad developed for a special Christmas issue of Cuisine magazine, which she believes to be one of her most successful recipes. This recipe features in the new book. 

When asked what the next trend would be in food, and she spoke hilariously about cake trends “Cupcakes are dead. Macarons have now been over done. Whoopie Pies never gained traction. Next up is the artisanal eclair.” She recently travelled to San Francisco and encountered beautiful eclairs there made with rich chocolate ganache and paper-thin pieces of dark chocolate as an embellishment. Apparently, the eclair is also on the rise in Paris, so we can expect to see them appearing in New Zealand cafes soon.

cv_the_constance_spry_cookery_bookLauraine was also asked what her ‘Desert Island Cookbook’ would be and she cited Constance Spry’s 60 year old The Constance Spry Cookery Book because it contains solid recipes for everything from casseroles to jams, but a more recent book which has inspired her is the Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.

According to Lauraine, one of the biggest changes in New Zealand food is how often we shop for ingredients now, the
notion of ‘the weekly shop’ is dying and people are shopping at
supermarkets on average four times a week now.

cv_ottolenghiI really enjoy people with strong opinions plainly spoken, and Lauraine Jacobs delivered on this front. She is clearly a deeply intelligent person, with both an artistic flair for beautiful food and the analytical, forward thinking mind of someone who is always looking to the future of the food industry, how it might improve and change. This was an excellent, educational session and the hour flew by in an instant.

Further recommendations from Lauraine’s session:

Written by Helen Lehndorf. 

Thank you to Auckland Writers & Readers Festival for providing Helen’s ticket to this event.

Everlasting Feast
by Lauraine Jacobs
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781775532538

The Constance Spry Cookery Book
by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume
Published by Grub Street
ISBN 9781908117175

Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
by Yotam Ottolenghi
Published by Ebury Press
ISBN 9780091922344

Tuesday poem: Tincture by Helen Lehndorf

At eight I learned the word ‘tincture’. I carried
the word around on my tongue. I chanted it
like holy word, like spell. Before that, it was
just ‘potion’ or sometimes ‘perfume’. Flower
petals collected, leaves. Certain grasses would
bleed milk. Breath of Heaven for the scent.
Clings of spider web. An old cupboard door
for a chopping board. A river rock for pummelling.
Jams jars with creek water. I would cut and crush.
You had a gun and I had a knife. Chop and stir.
Mix it in with a stick until full
and frothy. The tang of damp nature.

It’s a tincture. It’s a potion. It’s special perfume.

Set free for whole mornings, whole afternoons.
Our house made of bamboo. Our tyre swing.
With our pockets full of crackers and boiled lollies,
we would go. Across the road, down to the creek.
Into the goat cave high up a mud wall. We’d scramble up
and sit, ankle deep in goat shit, on wooden beer crates.
Try to catch the fresh water crabs, belly crawling
along the creek edge. I had a knife. You had a gun.
Aged eight, aged six. Shimmying along
back fences stealing fruit. Acid stomachs
from too many sweets and apples. We stayed
until it got dark, or there was a call from home.

It is a tincture. It is a trick. It is a treat

It is a locket, for locking
and hiding down a shirt,
against a heart.

From The Comforter by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Seraph Press
Used with the permission of Seraph Press

This poem has been posted as part of the Tuesday Poem scheme