Book Review: Say It Naked, by Rachel Tobin

Available in bookshops.

cv_say_it_nakedMindfulness is the goal of Rachel Tobin’s Say It Naked. If there were any form to use to feel out the present and sit with it, it’s in the endless moment of poetry; the snapshots that pull you close. ‘Autumn, Waitaruke’ encapsulates this desire to appreciate what makes up the world around us, ‘A thin bronzed morning, / undressing. // A folded body, / a hill.’ Tobin takes the world and pushes it through thousands of bodies, the closeness of the body throughout the book is one of the things that makes it so engaging.

The narrative track of Say It Naked reflects life drawing, the nervous energy of committing a stranger’s body to the page, or the nervous patience of being that persons who is drawn.

Speaking of bodies, throughout the collection Tobin’s own drawings punctuate the collection, strange bodies vulnerable bodies, she undresses us all and finds beauty in that open display, there is no Biblical shame here. There are worlds in these expressive images, as there are worlds held in the poems. There is a stretching out, a curiosity that of course lands on the political. The poem ‘On the behalf of…’ stabs with efficiency and empathy, Tobin uses personification to evoke the horrors of global warming;

I heard the Ross Sea is getting acid,
though it never asked for a trip.

I heard today the shells of molluscs
making a living there are dissolving.

The humour here stings with a precise efficiency. Another aspect of her writing I really love is the way she can get into those small moments; these quiet spaces become a quilt to wrap yourself in. One of my favourite poems from the collection would have to be the poem On waking, a crystalline study of intimacy;

My voice is cut husk and diamond; your heart
unrolls like bedding when I sing.

My eyes unruffled water; I gaze in the face
of your unrest, and see a sun, nesting.

My hand is dappled silk and litmus; it knows
at first touch, the animal crouched inside your heart.

It follows on like this details that perspire on the skin and leave the mouth in breathless shuffles. We are all bodies throbbing and pulsing inside a dying world, trying to avoid the baton, trying to find a laugh, trying to find a moment, trying to find each other. These lines from the last poem in the collection really underline what Tobin is doing with these poems;

A dog barks.
A man walks past.
The smell of a sewer rides on the wind.
The day is an open heart.

Say It Naked is heart at it’s most open.

reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Say It Naked
by Rachel Tobin
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 978-0-9951092-5-4

Book Review: The Sound of Breaking Glass, by Kirsten Warner

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_sound_of_breaking_glass.jpgI grew up in the Hutt Valley with children whose surnames, and often Christian names were so obviously European and therefore foreign, with facial features ever so slightly different from my bog-standard British-derived features, many also musical and artistic. And yet in many ways they were the  same as the rest of us Lower Hutt school children.

In later years, I discovered that one or both of the parents of these children came to the Valley after the war, either as children themselves or young adults – Polish, Jewish, Dutch, Yugoslav. I never knew as a child the stories of these families, and really why would I? I never questioned the back story but there was always a curiosity about my fellow classmates. These children would now be around the same age as the author of this novel – early 60s/mid-late 50s – and a good number of them would probably fall into the category of Second Generation Survivors – children born to people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine your entire family wiped out because someone didn’t like what they were, hard to imagine having no grandparents, uncles, aunts because they simply are no more, hard to imagine what it must be like to hear your parent waking in the night from a terrible nightmare. Thank goodness for writers like Kirsten Warner, who through storytelling, can give us some sort of idea.

This novel is not strictly about the Holocaust or about what happened to those taken away to the camps. It is a frame of reference around which this story has been created, and unsurprisingly the make up, the personality, the essence of the central character, Christel, whose Jewish father was a refugee and survivor of the camps. Much like the author’s father, making the author herself a Second Generation. It has been shown that the children of survivors of extreme trauma have that trauma stamped in their own DNA, passed on by their parent(s), making them behave in ways that to someone without such DNA changes may well find difficult to understand, to empathise with, even live with. Aside from survivor’s guilt, Christel also grows up in fear – that one day in Auckland suburbia, the door will be bashed down and the whole family carted away to who knows where; that there are bad people all around her; that there may come a time when there is not enough food. It is against this background that Christel has grown up.

The novel is set primarily in 1990s Auckland, with a regular return to her childhood in 1970s Parnell. She is now married to Ted, has two very young children, and is a producer for a reality TV programme, which is similar to Fair Go or Target. She is also involved in a women’s protest group called Women Against Surplus Plastic (WASP). Hardly surprising that she is very stressed, so stressed that she is really at breaking point. While trying to balance all these high demands, it seems that she is losing her mind. Her imagination begins to work overtime, conjuring up a variety of ways to deal with the stresses in her life – this is so cleverly done, that at times I was sort of caught between what was real and what (patently) wasn’t. She had her own encounters with trauma as a teenager, long buried, and now in her increasingly fragile mental state, her imagination, her coping strategies and the reappearance of a long forgotten person are threatening to bring everything crashing down.

But she is not the child of a Holocaust survivor for nothing! This is also a funny book – always look on the bright side as Eric Idle says. And Christel has a great sense of humour – her boss is the Fat Controller; the women in her WASP group are Rock Star, Celebrity Yoga Teacher, Madonna. There is Car Couple, Karate Man, Artist; her alter ego the Big C; and Milk Bottle Man. For anyone who has grown up in Auckland, or spent long periods living/working in the inner city area, the setting will be very familiar, and no doubt bring about long periods of contemplative nostalgia. From the Parnell Baths, to Cox’s Bay, to the inner city, Remuera Road, Mt Hobson, Newmarket, Parnell.

This is a somewhat exhausting read, with so much going on, such intensity, continuous moving between Christel’s present and her childhood, examining the complicated relationship between her parents, coming to terms with her father’s and hence her own past. But it is also satisfying, clever and rich in its writing, particularly its characters, its unusual and unexpected conclusion. I hope that through writing this novel, Kirsten Warner also got some peace and personal resolution in her own life story as the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Sound of Breaking Glass
by Kirsten Warner
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780994137876

 

Book Review: New World New God, by Ian Harris

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_new_world_new_godChristian churches in New Zealand are experiencing a drop in numbers attending Sunday worship as the younger generation question the traditional biblical teaching, but Ian Harris’s book New World New God provides new thinking on how to perceive God and his relevance in today’s world.

Ian Harris’s Faith and Reason columns – which have featured in the Otago Daily Times for fifteen years, and in The Dominion Post and Touchstone as “Honest to God” – argue that Christianity in this millennium is not the paradox it appears to be, but religion at its most creative. I have read them over the years in the Otago Daily Times, but having them together in a publication made for a challenging read for me and had me questioning much of my thinking, having been raised in a Presbyterian household, and continue to follow the Christian faith.

Harris believes ‘new doors are opening, new insights into the Bible are superceding understandings that once seemed chiseled in stone and new interpretations of the Christian faith tradition are emerging, that are fully in sync with our secular world.’
The collection in New World New God explores different aspects of Christianity under the chapter headings God, Jesus, the Bible, Easter, Christmas and the Holy Trinity, and each column has the date at the end when it first appeared in newspapers.

He says ‘one purpose of the column is to pass on to people the thinking of leading theologians of our lifetime’ and he includes comments by Sir Lloyd Geering, as well as Stephen Hawking and Phillip Pullman. To survive in the modern world the church needs to change its teaching, Harris believes, focussing on the new ‘God as symbol’ rather than the God out there of traditional theism.

I found this an interesting read, the columns are well written in language which people can understand. The columns can be read individually and I am sure I will pick this up and re read many of the pieces in the future. The author has acknowledged a number of references at the rear of the book which will be useful for further research .

Ian Harris’s career straddles the worlds of journalism and the church, as he grew up in a Methodist parsonage, and he gained an honours degree in English at Auckland University. He has worked for a number of years as an editorial writer on The Dominion as well as church publications. Instrumental in founding the Ephesus group in Wellington whose purpose is to explore new ways of understanding and expressing Christian faith in this millennium, he and his late wife Jill also wrote The Ephesus Liturgies series.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

New World New God
by Ian Harris
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780994137869

Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet.

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223

Book Review: Aspiring Daybook – The Diary of Elsie Winslow, by Annabel Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aspiring_daybookIn Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson, Elsie Winslow returns home to live with her father, Simon, and help care for her terminally ill brother, Sam. Her former lover Frank lives nearby. We share in Elsie’s life for a year through this book, her diary, which includes poems, yes, and also photographs, Facebook chats, emails and newspaper clippings. This is what Elsie chooses to record from her day, her month, her year. This structure means the reader is glimpsing small moments, gathering up character and events but has to let them go, not knowing how they might return.

Because of the form, Wilson’s characters, and perhaps most importantly their relationships, are slowly revealed; there is a cryptic, uncertain nature to them. This is powerfully used as the story unfolds. But it can get confusing – reading an email on page 69 I suddenly wasn’t sure who had cancer (I worked it out). This isn’t a book which can be dipped in and out of while expecting to keep track. It is better to be immersed in its images.

When I say images I mean both the photographs and the poetic imagery. I enjoy the mixed-media elements of the book but the strongest images are created in the poems. About her brother’s cancer treatment Elsie writes, ‘This is what they call burning down the house to get the mouse in the basement.’ Later she creates Ibiza with words – the people, flavours, scenery – and ends with ‘sunsets everyone claps for.’ Elsie remembers mountains ‘which bite the sky like a deathly incisor.’ My mind can see these teethy mountains extending into the sky just as I can look at the photograph of a mountain on page 40.

Aspiring Daybook is experimental, adventurous and mysterious. It’s a mixed-media narrative. And it’s the kind of thing I love; I’m predisposed to like this work. If you like experimental narratives or mixed-media storytelling than I think you too will find it’s a wonderful, moving, surprising read.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Aspiring Daybook: The diary of Elsie Winslow
by Annabel Wilson
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109230

 

 

 

Book Review: Gone to Pegasus, by Tess Redgrave

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_gone_to_pegasus.jpgThis first novel by Tess Redgrave engaged me from the start.

Eva McAlester and Grace Coles are unlikely companions drawn together by circumstance and by their common interest in women’s suffrage.

The novel is set in Dunedin, in the late 19th century, and Victorian New Zealand springs to life in Redgrave’s compelling writing. The themes of love, relationships, mental illness and women’s rights are all interwoven into a really fascinating read.

Both women are in marriages which are less than satisfactory to differing degrees. Grace is an adventurer by nature, with an intriguing background. Eva is an accomplished pianist whose confidence in her abilities is, one could say, understated. They share a great love of music, and this results in a seriously good friendship.

Their respective husbands are largely absent, one through illness and the other through work, and their wives are looking at their own roles and how they can adapt to suit. Grace’s husband is a bully, although she does not let Eva know this.

The continuing presence of music in their lives permeates the novel. It’s cleverly done and clearly Tess Redgrave knows a thing or two about classical music, among other things. The interweaving of  real people and events into the story is well done; I hate to give spoilers, and I also hate to outline the whole novel.

What I will say, though, is that the real formation of the Women’s Franchise League, which effectively separated temperance from the platform of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, is brought to life in this novel. Local politics of the time are also addressed, notably via Henry Fish, a former councillor and mayor of Dunedin, and an MP, who was notably antagonistic to votes for women, and failed to keep both his mayoralty and his electoral seat  – quite likely because of women having the right to vote. Beautiful irony!

I think it’s deserving of being widely read, and I look forward to seeing further fiction from this writer.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Gone to Pegasus
by Tess Redgrave
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9781473419196

NZF Writers & Readers: Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée

Sarah Forster reviews Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée. 

Elspeth_Sandys_and_Renee_Looking_B.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250.jpgI decided to come to this because I saw Renée at Litcrawl last year and thought what a woman. And I came out with the same opinion, and a much better knowledge of Elspeth Sandys than I had going in.

Mary McCallum was chairing, and had them both read their opening chapters of their memoirs (in Elspeth’s case, her second one). Both dealt with their love of reading. Renée states, ‘Reading was a drug, a spell under which I fell willingly.’

Elspeth’s memoir is about her teenage years into her years in the UK: ‘I’m the bad news my parents never wanted to hear.’ She read Trollope, Dickens, The Cruel Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Georgette Heyer. Shakespeare. She notes, ‘Is it any wonder I’ve become an expert at pretending I know what I’m talking about?’

Both women were missing parents – Renée’s dad died when she was only two. Renée’s mum had to marry because Renée was born, which saw her seen as inconvenient, while her younger siblings were loved dearly and given opportunities galore. Renée says, ‘She taught me to work, and she taught me to read. And how to manage personal disasters.’ She regrets not having the chance to know her as an adult, as her mum died at 42.

Elspeth’s adoptive mum turned up to her first wedding on tranquilisers – dressed entirely in black, with bold lipstick. She stood out, with her big lot of lipstick. Elspeth learned much later she was extremely intelligent – had topped nursing school and ought to have been running a hospital, rather than a home.

Mary then brought up a story Renée tells in her book – there was a man on her bus who noticed she was a reader, and began giving her his old John o London’s Weekly’s, which opened her mind up to the idea that there were people who wrote books, plays, performed in theatre. At this stage she was 12, and starting paid work, but now she had a possibility.

Elspeth’s source of books was more straightforward – her father was in publishing, and they had all the great writers available to her. However, in her teens she was with three different foster families in the space of three years, so they became more important to her.

We moved, then, from reading to writing. Elspeth married an actor and moved to the UK and wrote on scripts for radio and TV. They moved to the Cotswalds, where anyone who had moved there since the 1640s were seen as interlopers. Their presence there attracted many others – John Hurt, Sam Neill, among others. Hurt bought one of the manor houses and came with his partner. They bought horses, but neither could ride. His partner died after being thrown from a horse during a storm.

Elspeth notes that they entertained every weekend, and it was exhausting – being a mother, writer, wife. Mary asked more about who she learned from – she said Ben Kingsley taught her the most, despite being one of the most difficult people she’d ever known: ‘he was enormously imaginative.’ Meanwhile John Hurt was a ‘devil-angel’.

Living in the village, as the kids make friends  at school, they slowly become part of it all – and all goes well until Mrs Whittaker – the upper class – labels them ‘communists’. The upper class counts as Mrs Whittaker. The longhouse they live in is painted as a communist cell.

Back to Renée – a proud lefty. Renée’s explosion of creativity happened when she was 50. She left her husband, became a lesbian, and an activist. She started writing, revues and plays centred on women. Prior to this she had worked doing everything in Napier’s theatres, directing, down to the jobs nobody else wanted. She says, on moving to Auckland, ‘It was like releasing something that had been damped down all those years.’

She had a lot of luck – sent a script to Mercury Theatre on spec, only to be asked for something else – she wrote her play ‘Setting the Table’ in four days. From there on, she was asked to do revues, commissioned for plays, and more. Her play ‘Born To Clean’ was a musical play. She says of the period, ‘I was very very stroppy. I hadn’t had an adolescence. I regret nothing.’

‘Born to Clean’ is about three young women who meet at school, drift apart, then reconnect. It includes a tampon scene – the characters read the wording on a pack of tampons – which Renée was concerned was too far out for people to accept. People laughed so hard, there was a queue for the box office for the rest of the run. It did well all over New Zealand – then filled the theatre every night for a month in Sydney, despite a negative review from a male in the SMH. In Renée’s words: ‘so tough shit’.

Mary then asked Renée whether she thought she would effect change. Renée noted on her two plays where she presented the female POV, that she’d read maybe two things about how women survived in the 1930s: she could see what they did, they went hungry. This is who she wrote about in ‘Wednesday to Come’. And she wrote ‘Pass it On’ about the Waterfront Lockout. She noted this was a tough one to research – the stories were hard to find.

Mary noted for Elspeth and Renée that the nexus of real life and fiction was ‘slippery and fertile.’ She then prompted Elspeth to agree that yes, her novel Obsession is based on she and Maurice Shadbolt’s relationship – Shadbolt enticed her back to NZ to live in the bush. She then said ‘I don’t see much of a difference between memoirs and fiction writing. All fiction is autobiographical.’ For those of you waiting – there will be no third memoir.

The two women held different opinions on whether you ask permission to write about others in your family. Elspeth hasn’t written about her children or her first husband, at her childrens’ request; while Renée doesn’t ask permission.

One last word of wisdom for the genuinely fascinating and wonderful Renée: ‘As soon as you give mothers a name, they become people’. She refers to her mother by her first name throughout – and her sons began doing the same for her once she explained her logic.

I would 100% go to any event featuring Renée in any festival this year. Don’t miss her!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster