Book Review: Rants in the Dark, by Emily Writes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Rants-in_the_dark.jpgI discovered Emily’s blog Dear Mama (now Rants in the Dark) thanks to Jolisa Gracewood, who marked her as a blogger to watch in a ‘new media’ session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2015. I read some of her pieces as soon as I got home, and everything about parenting suddenly made sense. I immediately commented on one of Emily’s blog posts and got seriously the quickest response I’ve ever had: she knows how to build the community she wants to see.

I was delighted to see Emily become the Parenting section editor at The Spinoff, and publish pieces by mamas and dads from all over New Zealand, explaining aspects of their parenting and lives to us all. I’m now divided on whether the Parenting or the Books section is better!

Emily’s parenting philosophy is to let kids be kids, parent with respect, and be kind. But as she says herself ‘This book is an advice-free zone.’ Emily shares the trials and tribulations of parenthood as you’ve rarely seen it before – if there is one takeaway, it is that every child is different. Even within families.

The format of the book is cleverly done, with very short pieces (for checking out on the loo with kids interrupting) interleaved with longer – but not too long, we’re talking sleep-deprived mum length, essays. Some of the essays are serious, like ‘We built a village’, others are more a yawp into the void: see ‘How to get your baby out of a swaddle’ for a cry-laughing moment for an example of this. All of the essays are easy reads for those of us who don’t remember what being a fully functional, sleeping adult feels like any more.

If you are pregnant and wondering just what you are in for (really), grab this book. If you are pregnant and on the terrified side of what you are in for and still hoping everything is going to be like the ante-natal teacher has told you (it might, don’t get me wrong), then um maybe wait a few months. Once you have your bubba, it will all make sense.

Like Emily, I have two boys. I’ll leave you with this: ‘My boys are very delicate and gentle and loud and boisterous and cuddly and angry and delighted and easily upset and resilient and quiet and hilarious and rambunctious.’ Children are wonderful, and so is Emily. Thank you Emily, for being the person who is brave enough to talk about the bits of parenting that other books do not.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780143770183

NB: Emily Writes is doing several events over the coming months. Check out where she will be next here on her website.

Book Review: Tell You What: 2017, edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2017This third AUP collection of ‘Great New Zealand Nonfiction’ was an engaging summer read, and may even turn out to be the best such compilation. Through a miscellany of styles and themes, patterns emerge, just like little ripples in a swimming pool, or batting statistics in test cricket history. At first it was a useful read during the slower periods in the recent Basin Reserve test match. But as the cricket got more exciting, and the injuries more serious, I realised that the essays demanded greater concentration.

Personal narrative and in-depth history are woven into everything from slave runs in 17th century Iceland and the 19th century Marlborough Sounds, to the previously unknown story of a Muslim immigrant herbalist, and a 1960s case of arsenic poisoning. Seriously obscure literary texts and pop culture kitsch from the 1970s form the background to tales of gendered angst. There are also some good selections from more mainstream journalism and essay subjects.

Giovanni Tiso makes a very good point about the assumptions of policy reformers over the course of a century when it comes to the spending habits of the poor. And Dylan Cleaver’s piece from the NZ Herald brings new life to the odd world of pigeon racing. There are also important and contrasting takes on the role of Maori protocol and sense of whakapapa in a number of the selections, some in specific cultural contexts, and others in the more complex considerations involved in the wreck of the Rena, or purchase of the Awaroa inlet. Talia Marshall’s treatment of the latter is both grammatically and thematically challenging, covers a whole sweep of Maori and colonial history, and also notes the loss of bird life in the Abel Tasman national park. Like a number of the authors, she questions our sense of place.

The main theme that emerges in this collection is the struggle for understanding between parents and children over time, including how to overcome a denial of family history. Toni Nealie’s ‘Bequeathed’ is a very structured piece that draws together her very fragmented family history, and focuses on lost grandparents, the complications of their ‘mixed race’ marriage, and the role of particular inherited items in creating meaning where memory had been shunned. The pain of maternal death and its implications are examined in Ashleigh Young’s ‘Anemone’, as she describes the journey to London to help her brother and nephew cope with the suicide of her sister-in-law. Young’s brother’s reaction is similar to that of a sea anemone; and her nephew finds an explanation in the intricacies of something called Minecraft. But Young herself can’t quite fathom the situation, or even use the word suicide.

Equally challenging, and somehow unfathomable, Tracey Slaughter’s account of her childhood in ‘Ashdown Place’, and the life changing effects of a swimming pool being installed. It becomes the venue for tawdry adult parties, what is now called ‘swinging’, and the seeds of permanent splits and reallocation of partners. Slaughter’s description of the cultural artefacts and reference points of the time are evocative in the extreme, at least for those also growing up in the ‘70s. And her final paragraph, where she recounts the seedy morning afters, as the child within returns to the swimming pool for a contemplative paddle, is sublime. But for all its literary merit I found myself troubled by this one, and the part where she suggests that the explanation is sociological – couples who married too young discarded their sexual mores in the heat of summer, but otherwise remained suburban conservatives. Perhaps infidelity was re-invented in the 1970s.

With that point made, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood have done a fantastic job in compiling these essays. 2016 was also a good year for non-fiction writing if nothing else.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tell You What: 2017
by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood (eds)
Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408602


Books I’ll be Giving this Christmas, by Jenna Todd

Jenna Todd is the Manager of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden, Auckland, which was this year crowned Nielsen Independent Bookshop of the Year. Here are the books she is planning to give friends and family this Christmas. And you can win them: just tell us your favourite cover in the comments, and/or over on Facebook!

cv_swing_timeSwing Time, by Zadie Smith (Penguin)
Swing Time is my go-to fiction recommendation for this Christmas. There is a touch of Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels in terms of female friendships carrying the story however, there’s a lot more going on including the exploration of race, the internet, and pop culture. This layered narrative allows you to take in the story on so many levels. It’s fresh, contemporary and a novel that captures a snapshot of current times.

A is for Aotearoa, by Diane Newcombe & Melissa Anderson Scott (Puffin)
cv_a_is_for_aotearoaI may be biased, as Diane & Missy are Mt. Eden locals, but this is the type of book that will go out of print and customers will be asking after it for years to come.  A is for Aotearoa follows on from the successful A is for Auckland. It’s slightly more advanced as the reader is given as series of clues for each letter of the alphabet and they have to guess each New Zealand landmark (don’t worry, the answers are in the back!) It’s the type of book that can be read together as a family, with interactive flaps and whimsical illustrations. I’ve sent this to my dear Canadian friends and they just snapchatted me a picture of it under their Christmas tree.

cv_annualAnnual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press)
When I saw a proof of Annual at the NZ Booksellers Conference this year, I was so excited. Kate De Goldi has curated a treasure trove of some of NZ’s most loved and soon to be loved creative talents. Presented in a beautiful A4-sized hardback, this is the perfect gift for the curious NZ child. I plan to give this to my 12-year-old sister, and I hope more are published so I can give her one every year!

cv_tell_you_what_2017Tell you what 2017, edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (AUP)
This is the third year that Tell You What has been around and it’s such a treasure to sell. Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew have brought together the best non fiction written over 2016. It’s such an easy present to give as it’s perfect for someone who lives and engages in New Zealand culture or for someone who has never been here – so pretty much anyone! I plan to give this to anyone that I can’t decide what to buy them.

The Shops, by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books)
cv_the_shopsCivilisation and Scene of the Crime have been some of Time Out’s bestselling non fiction over the last few years. Luncheon Sausage brings us the NZ gothic feeling of these titles − but this time Steve’s writing is accompanied by an excellent series of images by Peter Black. Each image of Black’s feels like a Braunias essay in itself − it says so much by saying not much at all. This year, I will be buying The Shops for my husband so I can have the pleasure of owning it too!

by Jenna Todd

WORD: Reading Favourites, with David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

I’ve seen Paula Morris chair a few sessions at various writers festivals, and was reminded again today why she’s one of my favourite chairs: funny, engaging, doesn’t talk over her panellists, keeps discussion ticking along in a lively manner.

Today she was chairing Reading Favourites, discussing with David Hill and Jolisa gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander their favourite NZ books and how more reading of NZ books can be generally encouraged. Unfortunately Chris Tse was unable to attend – Morris quipped this was either because he was sick or because Hill had offended him.

As today is National Poetry Day, each panelist started with a poem. Hill read Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Two Adorable Things about Mozart’, commenting that “there are certain lines I’d give an index finger to have written”.

Gracewood (right, on the right, photo by Marti Friedlander) read from a “very subversive poetry anthology” in which the names of the poets are not published on the same page as their poems. She read us ‘Telephone Wires’, which turned out to have been written by a 12yo girl in the 1950s. Morris read ‘Going Outside’ by Bill Manhire. The audience hummed in appreciation.

The panellists had been asked to bring along their two favourite New Zealand books. Gracewood showed us her copy of Wednesday’s Children by Robin Hyde, an ex-library book that had been stamped every week in 1951. She said it’s about a woman who wins Lotto and can live as she pleases – a “really magical book” that rewards rereading. She spoke about how Wednesday’s Children has “deep historical reminiscence … [and] continues to be fresh”.

wednesdays childrenIt’s also out of print – which, as Gracewood pointed out, is a problem we need to discuss. Her other favourite book – The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy – is also out of print, although Gracewood hopes that the upcoming film adaptation of Mahy’s The Changeover (one of my personal favourite YA books of all time) will incite publishers to reprint these works. About The Tricksters, Gracewood said “I love it when a book asks you to take on faith that there are worlds alongside ours”.

Hill’s two favourite books were Kate De Goldi’s The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle and Maurice Gee’s Going West. Of the former, he said “The writing is crystalline … I really wept, put the book down and wept … [and] I smiled with delight.” He said that children’s writing has to suggest a world order in which there is still hope, and noted the wonderful respect for adults shown in The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.

Hill called Gee “the great chronicler of NZ adult life [and] the least show-off writer I know … [with] restrained craft but also a relentless evisceration of personal relationships.” He said that any book of Gee’s makes him think “Yes, that’s it … He’s so good I come away with no envy whatsoever.” I was thrilled to learn from Harriet Allen in the audience that Gee is publishing a new YA novel next year.

cv_Maori_boyMorris’s two favourite books were The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones and Māori Boy by Witi Ihimaera: “they’re both ‘our story’ books”. She said Lloyd writes in the communal voice and gives a great insight into colonialism: “it is really a great NZ novel”. Ihimaera writes as “someone resolutely from outside the centre” – his is a “very important book”.

Discussion then turned to the general problem of why Kiwis don’t tend to buy large quantities of NZ fiction. I liked Hill’s idea that we should have billboards with the opening sentences of NZ novels on them. (eds note: NZ Book Council did this in the early 00’s in bus stops.) Audience members suggested that NZ Book Month should be just about NZ books, and that our school curriculum should feature more work by Kiwi writers – although it was pointed out that this can have a downside, in that forced reading of books at school can put readers off, sometimes for life. (Although this tends only to be the case for NZ fiction: reading a book you dislike at school by a US author, for example, does not tend to put people off US fiction.)

Morris mentioned that she too had been in the Canadian Tales session earlier with Elizabeth Hay, who had spoken about the difficulties of persuading Canadian publishers to back specifically Canadian books – so this is not just a problem for us here. Morris said that our children aren’t making the transition from reading NZ children’s books and YA to NZ adult fiction.

Gracewood and Morris spoke about research they have done for the NZ Book Council into Kiwis’ attitudes to NZ literature. For some reason NZ literature has a distinctly negative aura. Whereas Kiwis support NZ sports teams because they’re ours, NZ literature runs up against the spinach effect: people reading it because they feel they should. Gracewood said “we get excited about supporting our cuddly native birds; what would it take to make NZ books that charismatic piece of literary fauna?”

Reading Favourites was a lively session with a full house and a very engaged audience – so maybe there’s hope for NZ literature yet!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Reading Favourites, by David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

Enemy Camp
by David Hill
Published by PuffinISBN  9780143309123

Tell You What 2
edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408442

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321117

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2015In his foreword to Tell You What, John Campbell is keen to engage the reader in a discussion about what might constitute ‘New Zealand culture’ these days. He starts out by quoting Allen Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,/ Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Campbell goes on to list the ways and individuals in which identity and culture have developed and found expression in the years since Curnow wrote those lines in 1943: the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, frigates in Mururoa, Whina Cooper’s hikoi, Bill Manhire’s poetry, Janet Frame, Flying Nun, Marilyn Waring…

What Campbell is referring to is a two-faceted shift in the way that New Zealanders represent themselves. The first is that many of the people of Aotearoa do now stand conspicuously upright, in many locations, for many reasons — in anger, in celebration, in dissent, in assertion of the need for something better. And linked to this, making it all visible, is the emergent confidence, talent and stridency of our storytellers. There are multitudinous voices, pluralistic points-of-view! And to the great good fortune of the reading public, particularly for those of us who still prefer to read paper books, the second annual instalment of Tell You What has arrived just in time to stave off the despair at contemporary reportage that might, to paraphrase Campbell, have readers climbing into the oven beside the turkey.

So what is going on in New Zealand, for New Zealanders, for New Zealand writers? Judging by this collection, heaps. There are twenty-four pieces, if you count the foreword (which you should, because Campbell is a marvellous writer). There are personal and political accounts from Christchurch, China, Huntly, Frankfurt and the front lines of journalism. There is a lot of humour, which has me thinking that we might be quite a funny people, sometimes. It would be curious to see how much of the humour (Steve Braunias’ satire, Megan Dunn’s surrealism) would translate culturally. If Jermaine and Bret can be known worldwide just by their first names, perhaps the New Zealand sense of humour does cross cultures.

Within the uniformly excellent ranks (there are no weak links in the volume) there are a half dozen prices of writing that particularly resonated with me, either through the subject matter or the style of writing, and usually both combined. Charles Anderson’s account of the sinking of Easy Rider off Bluff combines journalism with a poetic sensitivity. It is a sad, sad story, made all the more harrowing and haunting through being nonfiction.

Braunias writes of his failure to respond adequately when a faulty heater almost sends his house, his daughter and his whole life up in flames. Braunias, like David Sedaris, has the ability to paint failure and weakness in a funny and sad light. His self-absorption rarely crosses over into self-indulgence.

Dunn’s ‘The Ballad of Western Barbie’ begins with an epigram: ‘Two things happen in Huntly: something and nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.’ Her narration of life in Huntly, as perceived when young and then as a well-traveled adult, is enlivened by conversations with her Western Barbie. It sounds odd from a distance, but it works.

Ross Nepia Himona has thought and written an unhyped analysis of the complexities and contradictions inherent in New Zealand’s ANZAC commemorations. In a piece taken from his blog ‘Lecretia’s Choice’, Matt Vickers offers us a head-and-heart dispatch from the front line. And Sylvan Thomson’s portrait is a funny and tender insider’s tale of how it is to make the physical, social and psychological transition from young woman to young man.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the collection is even. The overall effect for the reader is a sort of mental and emotional relief, a confirmation that something human and intelligent is consistently being expressed and deciphered in New Zealand. In an era of persistent media and political distortion of life big and small, writing like this offers counterpoint and advice: Don’t simplify complex matters, and don’t complexify simple matters.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016
Edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408442

AWF15: Stop tweeting…commit! With Jolisa Gracewood, Russell Brown and Simon Wilson, chaired by Janet Wilson

This was my penultimate session at what has been a scintillating and immensely exciting Auckland Writers Festival. For the ideas discussed, the questions asked (though mainly by the chairs) and the people met.three_col_Russell_Brown

The moot for this discussion, which involved Russell Brown (aka the editor of Public Address, pictured left), Jolisa Gracewood (aka @nzdodo) and Simon Wilson (editor of Metro), was ‘is long-form writing dying in New Zealand because all of the writers have gone to the echo chamber that is twitter?’

Simon Wilson began the discussion by talking about his editorial in Metro in 2013 which raised some hackles and made some feathers fly, called ‘Stop Tweeting and Do some work.’ He made his argument, stating that twitter can be such a time-suck that it stops you doing a) what you ought to be doing and b) what you want to be doing, and cited the black hole of twitter debates. He made the point that print media is dying, because young people don’t have the attention span. Later on he noted a study of online behaviour which proves that people’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 5 seconds when deciding what to read.

It is, as Simon Wilson states, hard to get people to pay something to read something; no matter your interest, you can get good, and professional writing free, on your phone. Simon sees Twitter as good for spreading truths, but notes that not only is this not the only way to do so, we have to fight for writing, to keep it. He says, to encourage people back to media, “long form writing needs to become intensely entertaining, and by the best writers.” And it’s not that he doesn’t think writers should tweet – but he thinks that they should write. The challenge is this: twitter is easy, writing is hard. More writers need to choose hard.

Russell Brown runs Public Address, New Zealand’s most popular long form blog, which is helped by voluntary subscriptions, rather than web advertising. He believes writing on the internet has been a boon for the written word. Before 1995, nobody who wasn’t a professional was writing for an audience – the internet obliges you to write, and sharpens your communication skills. “Twitter suits people who can write well,” he said, “It is not easy to be cohesive and relevant in 140 characters.”

The heart of the dilemma for people who write is: if you want to make a living out of your writing, you must be in print. And to write for a publication is to stick to their word limits, and be paid what they pay. A lot of publications won’t publish long-form writing – a column is 6-800 words; while the internet is infinite. Russell says the best paying freelance long-form gig in town is writing for the NZ Drug foundation’s magazine – they pay 80c a word; but they aren’t trying to make money from it.

wilson_simonSimon (right) mainly uses freelancers, and says that long-form writing in particular has to be sharp. The hook has to be in the first paragraph, if it isn’t, he will push the piece aside for one that is. At the comment from Russell that we are all suffering now a degree of ADD, due to the plethora of digital options, Jolisa argues that this has all happened before – while the likes of Oscar Wilde didn’t have twitter, they had coffee shops, parties, pamphleting.

Russell finds that on his blog Public Address, it is possible to keep people on the page: just have long pages. While 350 words is said to be optimal for blogs, long form is certainly possible, and certainly desirable tackling topics like those that Public Address does.

Russell points out that just because something has appeared on the internet, it is not valueless. Likewise, if it has appeared in print, it is good to repeat it digitally, as Metro does with some of their columns. Russell believes that Metro does in the right way.

The panel agreed on the whole that the standard of columns at the moment in NZ is gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlanderpoor, and Jolisa (added that a lot of magazines and papers in New Zealand don’t sound like NZ. She asked, why are we not putting bloggers into magazines? There are great voices online, she says, and this is why around 50% of Tell You What was sourced online. At the chair’s question about whether twitter starts the creative process, Jolisa says maybe, but it depends on who you follow. Simon Wilson adds that being clever on twitter may give you the ability to do other things, the dopamine hit from a twitter success gives you enough joy of recognition to stop you wanting to write longer forms.

Simon says that good non-fiction writing has literary qualities, and that people haven’t giving up writing and reading, but it needs to remain commercially viable. Alongside this is public funding – Pantograph Punch, for instance, is funded by Creative NZ.

This session gave me a lot of food for thought. I run twitter and facebook accounts on behalf of Booksellers NZ, as well as our website and this blog. Twitter for me, is a way to connect with the wider world, and find long pieces that I may otherwise not be aware of. It acts as a catalyst to further reading. And this was a very good discussion to attend as my experience of the festival drew to a close.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

Castles and Mirrors and Cities: Of Sam, by Jolisa Gracewood

Uncle Sam was a bonus uncle: an army pal of my Uncle Ted from Malaya days who just sort of showed up and became part of the family. He came from an Irish clan further up the North Island, so I imagine when he met the Wellington Graces he felt right at home.

Sam was larger than life; tremendously large to my young eyes, a big man at a time when not many people were. His voice was big, too – resonant, orotund, dramatic – and he sang like an angel. In fact, he sang in the choir of St Mary of the Angels, and when he died, the choir sang him out in a heavenly funeral mass.

Sam was that old-fashioned thing: a lifelong bachelor. He never smoked, hardly drank, loved music, lived simply. And so he had money to spare. He was generous at a time when not many people were lavish with cash and with goodies. He never came to visit empty-handed, and his gifts were invariably glamorous, to me astonishingly so: liqueur and chocolates for the adults, pretty hankies for the ladies, hardback books for the children.

Sam took children very seriously, which I appreciated, being a very serious child. We had long, grave conversations, and he always asked about what I was reading. I didn’t just look forward to those conversations with my honorary uncle, I positively swotted for them.

Ocv_castles_and_mirrors_and_cities_of_sandne of the books he brought – which might have been intended for my younger brother but became an obsession for me – was a picture book with the magical title Castles and Mirrors and Cities of Sand. A title like that promised a fantasy world of some sort, but this was a far more serious thing: a nonfiction picture book!

About sand.

The pictures were evocative, fuzzily overprinted in gold and teal and pink and red, and something about their expansive simplicity drew me in. The illustrator, Allan Eitzen, was (Google tells me) a Mennonite, and now that I know this, I detect a pragmatic, reverent worldliness in the images. Children at play on a beach; Afghan men building houses from bricks made of sand and straw; Navajo sand-painters; bundled-up workers on trucks scattering sand on snowy roads; all children of God.

The words, by Lillian Bason, are hypnotically sensible in the way of children’s books of the era. ‘Sand feels warm and soft and tickles your toes when you walk in it,’ she begins. ‘But’ – and there’s always a but in nonfiction, isn’t there? Straight away, because where else to begin dismantling what we know except at the beginning, and why write at all if that’s not what we’re going to do? –

‘But it is really made
of different kinds of rock
pounded into tiny pieces
by ice and water
and the wind –
Of course this takes
A long, long time!’

And we’re in business. It’s a perfect nonfiction lede: stand by to see the world extrapolated from a grain of sand.

JG_piece_firstspreadWho knew sand had so many features, so many uses? Lillian knew. Start by really looking at sand, she urges the child reader. ‘Grains of sand are pink and sometimes shiny gold. They can be green or sparkling white, or even black.’ Look more closely: sand is someone’s home. Who’s living in the sand right now? Crabs and snails and starfish, for starters. And ants. Right under your nose. And out in the desert, a whole bunch of other creatures: lizards, horned toads, Gila monsters. If you don’t know what these are, Allan’s camouflaged pictures will show you.

Sand is for making sandcastles; everyone knows that (I always lingered over the page that shows a fantastically complicated sandcastle with bridges and towers and moats and archways). And if the sandcastle is like a city, then the city is a sandcastle writ large. Lillian and Allan show the bigger structures that bigger people make, from hand-built mudbrick houses to ‘roads and bridges, tall office buildings, and apartment houses in cities.’

JG_piece_sandcastleIn the city, sand is everywhere! Flip that egg-timer. Feel that sandpaper. Watch the grit-truck in winter (or dream about it, if you’re a child in an unfairly snowless climate). Then turn the page and find yourself in a cool dark cathedral illuminated by stained glass. That’s sand, too, because guess what: ‘Glasses you drink from and glasses you look through, and windows and mirrors and telescopes, all used to be grains of sand.’

And what’s more, the book continues, sand is a medium: you’ve written in it at the beach; people paint with it in the desert. Sand is for art.

JG_piece_medicine_manThe medicine man had bowls of sand,
black and red,
yellow, blue, and white –
then, holding up a handful
of each color,
he’d sprinkle it on his picture
to make the right design.’

The bright lines, primary and clear, an incantation: this sentence is a sand picture in words. The right design.

Like language, sand is also an ephemeral encircling of the world, shifty and transformative. In the African desert, writes Lillian, ‘you can see how the dunes keep changing shape as the winds blow the sand around. And if you go fishing along the coast, you can see how the waves keep washing the sand to new places along the shore.’ Allan’s illustration folds the dunes of one place into the dunes of the other. Sand, like language, shapes the world pro tem: always in play, no sooner apprehended than it’s whisked away by wind or water or time.

In a beautiful piece in our anthology Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015, Eleanor Catton makes the argument that children cannot truly apprehend the sublime – a magnificent mountainous view, say – ‘because a child need not, perhaps cannot, confront the limitations of his or her language.’ Language, Catton writes, ‘for a child, is already miraculous, supple, generous in its association, tragic, hilarious, disproportionate and huge.’

This is persuasively put. And yet. In its combination of clear pictures and plain language, the end of Castles and Mirrors and Cities of Sand always had the power to send me hurtling out of myself into a sensation that both evaded description and demanded it, which is surely the definition of the sublime.

The first image: a stark, dark headland battered by the sea, a trio of gulls holding strong in a gale. A world without people. The stack of words echoes the shape of the cliff face:

‘Maybe the sandy beach
where you like to play
used to be a rocky cliff
high above the ocean
that was slowly worn away
by years and years
of dashing waves
and stormy winds.’

It did! It was! (I feel the beginning of a shudder, even now.)

JG_seaTurn the page, and the chill arrives. An ink-dark sea underpins a long wide stretch of golden beach curving up to a distant lighthouse, towards which children race, abandoning in the foreground a perfect sandcastle surrounded with a smatter of small footprints and handprints like prehistoric cave paintings.

And these were the words that got under my skin and lifted me right out of it:

‘And maybe the rocky ledge
you like to climb on
will someday be
a flat beach of sparkling sand,
where other children
will build their castles
and race the waves
along the water’s edge.’
JG_piece_sandTime turns, and we’re tipped off the edge of it.

This is what the best nonfiction does: it tells us things we didn’t know (about castles, mirrors, cities and sand), while reminding us of truths we know but don’t wish to (about time, implacable decline, finitude).

As a child, I visited this strange, plain little book again and again purely to activate that nameless lurching sensation of holding infinity in the palm of my hand. As an adult, I cannot read it without thinking of E.B. White’s classic memento mori memoir, ‘Once More to the Lake’, and wishing for just one more grown-up conversation with the kind man who took children seriously and gave me this gritty gift.

by Jolisa Gracewood, co-editor with Susanna Andrew of Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015. 


Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, image copyright Marti Friedlander


My animals and other family, by Susanna Andrew

When I was small I avoided non-fiction the way other children avoided vegetables. I skipped the history in the School Journal and went straight to the fiction bar. In my reading habits, I was fact-averse. There was, however, one non-fiction book that I swallowed whole: The World of Pets.


I was given it for my birthday when I was eight years old. It was a large, hefty book with full-colour plates and chapter headings such as How to Care for Mice, Keeping Guinea Pigs and Which Breed of Cat Is For You? I loved its grave and factual tone. There were animals in that book that I could only dream of having – cats with pedigrees, silky rabbits, chubby hamsters, voles, and even chestnut horses with long manes. My animal-loving obsession was tolerated by my family. They nicknamed me Daktari, and banned all pets inside the house.daktari

Perhaps it was being the youngest of eight siblings that made me want to be the boss of others, but it was true that whatever was able to be caught and brought up in a cage, I had at some stage tried to be the master of. As Seamus Heaney put it, “I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied /specks to range on window-sills at home,..and wait and watch until, the fattening dots burst into nimble -/swimming tadpoles”.

I bred mice in different colours in a four-storey cage built by the caretaker at the school my mother taught in. The cage allowed me to partition off floors and separate the babies from the males, who sometimes ate them. I also owned a cat, some goldfish and an axolotl. I kept guinea pigs named Wilbur (but of course) and Charlotte – and all of their offspring. I had an aviary which housed ring-necked doves, quails and finches. I managed this whole animal kingdom alone, with the book as my guide.

possumOne day, the caretaker at my mother’s school arrived in her class with an orphaned baby possum and my mother brought it home for me. It was a tiny pet furball, the cutest thing imaginable, and it clung to me. Whenever I picked it up it climbed up on to my head and sat spreadeagled in my hair. One morning I woke to find the possum was missing from its cage. I remember crying in the morn-ing before school.

There was no chapter in The World of Pets titled How To Look After Your Pet Possum. It could only have contained the unhelpful sentence ‘It doesn’t belong to you’. The writing in that book was prosaic and encyclopaedic but at the age of eight it gave me my fictional life: Hamster Trainer, Rabbit Keeper, Horse Owner.

Susanna Andrew is co-editor with Jolisa Gracewood of Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 published by Auckland University Press RRP $30.00 ISBN 9781869408244


Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, image copyright Marti Friedlander


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