Book Review: The New Animals, by Pip Adam

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_new_animalsPip Adam’s new book is both astute observation and raw imagining of what life is like when involved in the fashion world in Auckland. And it makes me want to run like hell in the other direction. The shallow lives of the characters, the consumption and micro-examinations of self and other (without reaching any kind of depth of understanding) seem representative of the mass consumerism and solipsism that can be found in such spheres of life.

Carla is the first character we are introduced to. She’s not altogether likeable or appealing: ‘Her skin was wrecked, her eyes, her nerves. But the powders and pills and tongue scraping and cleansing made it possible for her to pay the barista, smile at the child, look down as she left the cafe …’ Later, there is Sharona and Duey, the latter masturbating to porn in boredom and panic at work, and the former somewhat dismissive of the fashion world in which her friends have centred their lives around.

They are all purposefully awful in some way. And are they really even friends? It’s hard to say. They are always questioning what others think and reflecting on past decisions, like nervous, twitchy rats in a cage. In fact, it seems that each character just tolerates others for the sake of scraping through the shallow life that’s been chosen, whether older (Generation X) or younger: ‘ Now Carla was scoffing. He could see it, the way her mind ticked … she was wrong and now he couldn’t say anything because that would be a dick move’. The addition of a dog named Doug who pretty much wants to kill her owner Carla, and who is locked in a crappy little apartment all day has the reader feeling a real dis-ease representative of the sickness of these people’s lives.

Everyone seems to be sleeping with make-up artist Elodie, who, on the surface at least, is an easy-going pleaser. The book makes a sudden veer in the magic realist direction in the second half, when Elodie seems to have a breakdown (or revelation of truth?), and steals Doug to head out into the ocean. Literally. Well, like, literally in the book, but not, one would imagine, in the story. She encounters the grotesque on her journey, a metaphorical representation of the grotesque of the fashion world.

Even though I found it hard to enjoy when reading (I really disliked the characters and the interactions they were having, although it is of course unnecessary to always like characters) this book stayed with me. The imagery of Doug the feral dog, who was once tame, and Elodie’s oceanic experiences were haunting. The title refers to such things; this book is animalistic. I would say prepare to feel uncomfortable.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561162

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DWRF 2017: Hannah Kent with Majella Cullinane

DWRF17: Mothers Day Brunch with Emily Writes

When I say Emily Writes’ name, I feel like I am making a statement. I know it’s a nom de plume, but nevertheless, saying it aloud makes me smile. Emily Writes. Noun and verb. Yes, she does, I think to myself. And, boy, the stuff she writes is such valuable stuff! If we want a truly functioning society for our kids and families, people everywhere should be reading what she is putting down.

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Emily Writes, Photograph © Chris Tse

When I first read Emily I was impressed by her guts and sense of humour. It was the now-infamous Skarsgård piece; my actual best friend shared it with me. Years of True Blood had us already in the zone, but Emily actually put it on the page. Upon reading more of her work, I loved what she was saying about parenting and motherhood; she was the real deal.

This Mothers Day brunch was a different format for the Festival: the venue was the lovely Scenic Circle Southern Cross, and the brunch itself was a seated, semi-formal event. The food was divine – bircher muesli, white raspberry brownies and platters of melon – but the real highlight was Emily. I don’t think Emily knows how fabulous Emily is. She is the woman you meet and instantly wish was your best friend: she’s down to earth, swears like a trouper but in the most appropriate places, and battles fiercely on your behalf. Please be my best friend, Emily! I thought to myself after she opened her mouth and the gold flowed.

cv_Rants-in_the_darkHearing her speak today was just like reading her writing. Humour, honesty and absolute compassion for women and their families is what seems to drive Emily. Her opening story was an off-the-cuff description of going out the night before and drinking quite a bit of wine at dinner with Jesse Mulligan. Her self-deprecating style when sharing the shenanigans of the previous evening, and her, ahem, ‘womanly’ admiration of Mulligan had the audience pretty much crippled with laughter.

Later, and on a more serious note, Emily talked about the unreal pressures women (and women as mothers, in particular) are under, and how she hoped her writing helps address these things. She pointed out that the normalisation of taboo topics like prenatal and postnatal depression would be a really positive thing, and would mean fewer mothers were lost to families.

I think what is so attractive about Emily Writes is that she doesn’t know how amazing she is. She sees herself as a regular mum – a self-declared bogan – who is parenting children and who happens to also write. It’s this ‘normal’ vision of self that has perhaps made her so attractive to the general population in New Zealand; she’s one of us, but she’s also giving voice to us from the inside out, and it’s a voice that is usually silent. If you haven’t read her book Rants in the Dark, go out right now and get it. You’ll be so happy you did.

Attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143770183

DWRF 2017 Showcase Gala: Metamorphosis

Although I arrived 20 minutes into the ‘drink and nibbles’ introduction to this event, it was clear upon entering the beautiful Toitu Settlers Museum building that things were pumping. Gala Showcase: Metamorphosis was a sold out event, and the room was packed. When the call was made for the audience to take their seats, the attendees had to make their way from one end of the museum to the other – a canny move as this meant the best of the museum was showcased before the event had even started.

Kate De Goldi emceed this meditation on ‘metamorphosis’ and introduced each author before they responded to a selected book (or books) that embraced this concept. Whilst it was a treat to hear each author give mostly prepared talks on this topic, it was also an excellent ‘taster’ as all authors have further events this weekend.

ian-rankin_5Ian Rankin (left) was the first to speak, and his thoughts centred around metamorphic considerations in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. He talked of how his books were influenced by this one, and shared anecdotes of macabre body snatchers and dichotomous laboratories in the times before bodies could be legally left to science.

Stella Duffy gave an impassioned speech about the power of words and the way they can change readers. She used the touchstones of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Janet Frame’s fiction to explore this concept in her own life. She particularly marveled at the way these texts created music for the reader through words alone – no mean feat.

John Lanchester was softly spoken but exceptionally articulate in explaining the effect the poetry collection Ariel by Sylvia Plath had on him as an 18 year old school leaver. He talked of the way Plath took seemingly nebulous emotions and feelings and nailed them to the page in astonishing ways. His explanation of the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly was beautiful and a fitting metaphorical end to his talk.

hannahkent-2016-credit-lauren-bamford_origThe story Hannah Kent (right, photo Lauren Banford) wove about her school exchange from South Australia to Iceland was atmospheric and gripping. She explained how she felt literature saved her life in the early days of that time, in the dark winter days next to an Icelandic fjord. She talked of how To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened up her understanding of what it means to be human, and how, ultimately, this is what people are searching for.

When Bill Manhire stepped up to the microphone few would have expected his choice – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – but his exceptional discussion of Blyton’s dreamlike sequences in this selection convinced many of the extraordinary value of transformation in children’s texts.

The night ended with Victor Rodger speaking to his experiences in mid-1980’s Christchurch as a closeted gay, half-Samoan teenager and the moment of reckoning and solace found in Another Country by James Baldwin, the gay, African-American author with anger in his veins. It was great to have Rodgers back in Dunedin, as he almost feels like ‘ours’, having been the Burns Fellow in 2016.

All of these showcased authors have events on this weekend, and, after seeing what was on show tonight, I highly recommend attending. I’m sure you will be in the hands of experts.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Events with Ian Rankin (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Stella Duffy  (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festivals)
Events with John Lanchester (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Hannah Kent
Events with Bill Manhire (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Victor Rodger

 

DWRF 2017: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

This show will also appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival

Dunedin is incredibly lucky to have secured the latest Dyad Productions play Jane Eyre: An Autobiography for the Readers and Writers festival this year. The company first visited our southern shores during the last festival in 2015 with Dalloway, and this latest production is as stunning as the last. Rebecca Vaughan shows again that she has an alchemist’s touch on the stage. She inhabits a handful of characters from Jane Eyre and gives them life far beyond the original page. This show was an hour and a half long and not once did Vaughan drop a line or character.

Whilst there were many occasions to admire the ways characters were embodied by Vaughan, one of the most touching scenes was between Jane and Mr Rochester – Vaughan of course was playing a love scene, with all its nuances, essentially with herself, but it was so believable that members of the audience were in tears.  Let’s just pause for a moment and really think about that  – Vaughan created a climactic scene between two characters, playing both back and forth, and it was as if we were watching realist theatre. Outstanding stuff.

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Other highlights included the exquisite costuming and lighting design.  It’s a hard ask getting these things right when travelling a show – designs need to be roadworthy and easy to set up.  Vaughan’s grey Victorian costume looked deceptively plan from a distance, as was fitting for Jane Eyre’s time and place in society. But up close, the immaculate pleated details and tailored shapes were remarkable. In complement to the acting and costuming, lighting design utilised colour and silhouette to astonishing effect, with reds and oranges throwing puppeteering-like shadows on a plain white backdrop.

Bravo, Dyad Productions – you really deserved that standing ovation.  If you are in Dunedin this weekend, I plead with you to go and support this international theatre, not only for the sheer delight of experiencing something so good, but also to ensure their return once more to our fair city in the years to come.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

You can catch Jane Eyre: An Autobiography on Sunday 14 May at 1pm, at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. And as stated above, Dyad will be talking Jane Eyre to the Auckland Writers Festival from Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 May. 

Book Review: The March of the Foxgloves, by Karyn Hay

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_march_of_the_foxglovesThe March of the Foxgloves is a carefully crafted work set in the late 1800’s, mostly in New Zealand but also with some key scenes ‘back home’ in England, following protagonist Frances Woodward. We follow Frances’ footsteps as she escapes a restrictive and troubled existence for the chance to start afresh in the antipodes. Frances is a keen and technically savvy photographer – an enjoyable aspect of this text – and Hay has satisfyingly researched and written an authentic artistic voice with the internal dialogue and third person understandings of Frances’ art.

Karyn Hay has an excellent ear for dialogue. Her characters’ interactions are clear, crisp and believable. When main character Frances talks to the children of her hosts at Dunleary in Tauranga, Hay creates convincing and sometimes madly humorous conversations. She obviously has children of her own and one can assume that she has partaken in many such maddening back-and-forths. After taking a photograph, agreed on by both adult and child, one interaction goes like this:

“What shall we call it?”
“What shall we call what?”
“The photograph.”
“What photograph?”
“The photograph I’ve just taken.”
“Can I see it?” Tussie asked eagerly, running towards her.

This Monty Python-esque exchange between the Frances and Tussie suggests that maddening conversations with the young are not, at least in Hay’s mind, restricted to the 21st Century. In fact, the dialogue presented around the children is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hay’s novel.

A lot of the book moves at slow pace. The plot seems incidental to the finely crafted characterisations and moments – almost vignettes – which are accurately and deliberately described. Minor character Wolf’s descent into the opium den (‘ … behind their eyelids all vision was purely chimerical.’) and Marshall Harding’s feelings for love-sick hostess Hope and his fiancee Callista (‘Her aperture was more compelling than a plate of mutton stew to a sailor.’) are well-crafted moments, but the rhythm of these anecdotes moves the story with unusual rhythm. By the end of the book, though, I hardly cared: the final sections make up in pace and structure for the slow build, as Frances becomes a true heroine and seemingly random moments are shown to be anything but trivial.

There is no doubt that Karyn Hay can write very well. I’m looking forward to seeing what she puts her finely-honed ear to next.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The March of the Foxgloves
by Karyn Hay
Published by Esom House Press
ISBN 9780473365820

Dunedin Writer’s and Reader’s Festival: An ancient guide to Modern Life, with Natalie Haynes

DWRF imageNatalie Haynes is funny. Like, she’s-a-comedian funny. Which is not really surprising, considering that was her job for 12 years or so.  Apparently she retired in 2009 to spend more time writing, which is, of course, excellent for the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. What Haynes brought to the festival was priceless: an icing on top of a proverbial cake; an extra limb to an already heavily-weighted tree. She not only managed to share – nay, revel in sharing – her written work, but did so in the format of a stand-up comedy show.  Brilliant.

From the first joke cracked about pacing being habitual and also imperative for preventing the horizontal lecture that would otherwise eventuate thanks to jetlag, to the improvised banter around stage-creak ( with apologies for staying away from one side of the audience), Haynes held the floor like a pro. Winning the audience over quickly and kindly with comparisons of our fair Dunedin city to LA (‘bring all your coats and jackets, they said!’ – the weather has been unseasonably generous this festival), Haynes proceeded to form her talk around topics chosen by the audience.

 pp_natalie_haynesWomen, politics, religion and philosophy were chosen from the eight or nine offered up, but even more impressively, Haynes went one step further by deciding to ‘mix it up’. She talked about ‘Women and Politics’, and ‘Religion and Philosophy’ as two distinct categories.  And she so knows her stuff.  From Medea and Eastenders to Lysistrata in Kenya, Haynes seamlessly articulated ways in which the classical world is still highly relevant to today’s society. Surely this woman drinks coffee; her mind and mouth were moving at a furious pace. Or maybe Haynes is just blessed with the so-called gift of the gab. Either way, her energy is infectious.

cv_the_amber_FuryHaynes finished her show by reading the first few pages from her recent novel The Amber Fury.  It would have been great to have another hour with her addressing this text, as what she shared was both evocative and provocative.  Many in the audience rushed for the queue to buy the book, and the line was long for signings after the show. It’s great to see the festival branching out like this (with theatre, too, in Dalloway), although I guess they always have, with events such as the Story Train and Poetry in the Pub already established during the inaugural festival. Haynes’ show felt like a hidden gem amongst gems, and I feel lucky to have been part of an intimate audience who basked in the sunny company of a consummate professional.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Natalie Haynes will appear at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in three events.