Book Review: Back With The Human Condition, by Nick Ascroft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_back_with_the_human_conditionMuch like the author photo proudly displayed on the back cover, Back With The Human Condition presents itself as a serious collection, but one that is filled with slightly more relaxed and satirical moments. At face value the book feels like a philosophical exploration. Love. Money. Death. Complaints. And while the gravity of the first three subjects can weigh heavily, it is the fourth and final, the slight twist, that delights and carries itself throughout the collection.

These four sections act as a guide, a reference point by which we can look into the poems. Through them Ascroft focuses the readers attention in a very effective manner, the subjects are after all relatable to us as readers in some way. And by keeping his overarching subjects so broad, we can read our own experiences into his writing. It is a rare thing for an author to pull this off successfully, but Ascroft has managed it, seemingly with ease.

Reading through the collection, one can see the fine crafting that has gone into each and every poem. In ‘The Tide’ we find a powerful description of a lover’s touch.

Your touch if it was made of notes wouldn’t be in the woodwind from
the bulrushes at your voice’s base, curling up and down your throat
and flowering into tight seedheads of words, but in the syncopation
of high black ticking piano keys, offbeat and ticklish like long grass.

The images conjured by Ascroft’s elegant poetry can instil powerful and relatable emotions in the reader. And while this poem grabbed my attention, each person who picks up this book could find a poem or passage that truly speaks to them, that connects with their own human condition.

On the other side there are poems that border on the satirical, and clever poems whose enjoyment comes from a more simple part of human nature. The poem Subject-Verb Agreement plays around with language on multiple levels, titles like Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out, and Jonathan Relieves Himself out a Bus Window in India are enough to illicit a chuckle, and poems like This Poem Is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim play around with modern conventions. Back With the Human Condition recognises and explores all parts of human nature, providing a varied and enjoyable experience.

But this collection is not just about a connection on a human level. Ascroft ventures beyond this to some degree with poems like The Bearded Blog, an experimental piece that visually emulates a page of web code. This collection about us is not just drawing on our experiences and using those to present itself, but also providing new angles of thought, new avenues to tread down as humans. So in the end, perhaps Ascroft is more philosophical then I thought, though the bathrobe still reminds me of the lighter side of his writing.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Back With The Human Condition
by Nick Ascroft
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560844

Book Review: Seelenbinder, by James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_seelenbinderFor a book written about a man in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Seelenbinder reads more like a casual conversation in a café than the biography of an Olympic wrestler and member of the Resistance.

James McNeish manages to deliver this story in an easy and comfortable manner, seemingly writing more for the reader than for the history books. He blends together historical facts and events with his own style of storytelling, inventing conversations and painting Seelenbinder’s life for us in interesting colours. He talks to the reader at times, inviting us into his process of writing, moving between his own experiences and motivations and those of his subject. Seelenbinder, the Olympian who defied Hitler comes across as a highly interesting and engrossing, if at times confronting, book about a man largely forgotten.

McNeish somehow manages to expertly combine history and fact with his own storytelling. At one point he compares himself to Scheherazade, the narrator of The Arabian Nights, saying that at times he must invent. He is open about his own writing, letting us know what is invented and what is not. At times he gives us options, different possibilities of what actually happened. These moments in McNeish’s writing are inviting, they feel casual and give life to the history. It draws you into the pages, creating an engaging story, filled with both fact and fiction.

Where his writing style is interesting and engaging, so too is his subject. After reading the book I asked my parents, who lived and grew up in Germany before the reunification, if they had ever heard of Werner Seelenbinder. By McNeish’s account, it is not surprising that they haven’t. “The process of un-naming goes on.”

Seelenbinder remains mostly forgotten, and this book feels like an appropriate stepping stone to bringing him back into history. Through McNeish we see Seelenbinder not simply as a historical or political figure (as he is often viewed), but as an interesting and complex man who endured the hardships of his time. Alongside other important figures and groups that existed in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, like the July Plotters, he seems to be an important part of German and world history, and yet remains largely forgotten.

McNeish not only tried to relay his life to us, but also deals with this issue, asking the question of why his name disappeared. His journey is just as interesting as Seelenbinder’s, and these multiple lines that run through the book create an interesting and enjoyable read. McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Seelenbinder: The man who defied Hitler 
by James McNeish
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493011

Book Review: Soundings of Hellas, by John Davidson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_soundings_of_hellasFor those who are familiar with Greek myth and history, it is easy to find an entry into John Davidson’s latest collection of poetry, Soundings of Hellas. It is filled with references to both the ancient world of the past as well as to the more modern Greece visited by Davidson. But as the poem on the back of this collection, The Myth of Myths, mentions, ‘The heartbeat of a myth is / felt in Wellington as much / as in Santorini, Larissa or / squeezing Piraeus.’

It is this presence of Wellington and New Zealand, alongside present day Greece, that connects to the past and to these ancient myths, making what may feel like a distant story seem almost like home.

At first the many classical allusions feel almost overwhelming, even for someone who studied Ancient Greek myths. But soon familiarity sneaks in alongside the heroes and gods. In the poem First Impressions we are told that ‘Poverty was a crude sign soliciting / camping on a patched patch of / grass in front of a cottage. Almost / Arcadian after the self-importance / of Patras.’ While the second part of these lines is a bit distant, this image of camping is familiar for almost every New Zealander. It also instantly ties together Greece with something relatable. This ease with which comfort is created certainly helps to bring some of the unknown elements into a more welcoming space.

Davidson not only deals with the ancient past of Greece, but also visits it in more recent history, painting vivid pictures of his experiences and impressions. In the poem Athens, 28 October ‘Aegean Airways disgorged us / from an oppressive cloud bank / into an airport like any other.’ Again Davidson tries to make the unfamiliar familiar with his words. While the rest of this poem mixes a present day Greece with images from the past, the opening lines lessens the alienating effect this can have in the reader. Davidson does this in a subtle way, and unlike the Greek influence it doesn’t stand out, perhaps making it a lot more effective.

But perhaps the best mixing of these different points of interest for Davidson comes in the poem Talking Olympos, which opens with the lines ‘You can spot Hermes any day on some / Wellington street.’ It is this casual way of placing these two elements together that create a truly enjoyable collection that plays around with ancient myths and brings them into a relatable and modern world. As the poem’s last lines say, ‘A busy bunch, the Olympians. / Ignore them at your peril.’

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Soundings of Hellas
by John Davidson
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9781927242957

Xu Zhiyuan: Culture Crisis at #AWF16

pp_xu_xichuanFifty years ago, China underwent a cultural revolution, and with the anniversary of this momentous moment in Chinese history so close, Jeremy Rose began the session by asking Xu Zhiyuan the question, “How will China celebrate this anniversary?” With certainty, Zhiyuan said that there will be no mention of this event. For the country, it is still taboo to mention this revolution, especially in the media and public spaces. While he was born in the year of the death of Mao Zedong, a post-revolution 1976, Zhiyuan says that there was still at that time a shadow that the citizens live under, and that this remains to this day.

He expanded on this by using a metaphor that he was told by a friend. “It’s like a snake’s shadow” coming from above, hanging on a chandelier, “even if it doesn’t move, it can eat you at any time.” It is this looming fear that creates this cultural crisis.

In admiration of well-known bookshops, such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Zhiyuan opened his own bookshop (One Way Street Library) in Beijing in an attempt to create a cultural icon for China. Here talks and discussions are held, but while initially these included everything from politics to current affairs, Zhiyuan says that in the last few years this has shifted more to talking about art and literature. The taboo and fear of the past generations still exists, it is an ever-present shadow. Rose asked, “How do you know what not to talk about?” Zhiyuan responded by saying, almost jokingly, “it’s like dating a lady”. When can you cross the line, when can and can’t you do and say certain things. Zhiyuan says that what might be okay today might not pass in a month, “it’s about feeling the mood”, and practicing walking on the border.

But this fear for Zhiyuan and newer generations moves into a slightly different space. With the globalisation of China as a major economic power, an element of consumerism has been introduced into mainstream culture. This has left people feeling fragmented, and fearful of losing everything. Zhiyuan says that everyone feels weak and has no expression. The materialism that is pushed in the home is creating a spiritually and culturally weak society.

cv_paper_tigerAnd this is where for Zhiyuan this culture crisis comes from. He says that it is important for the new generation to learn about history and culture, especially in this globalising age. He compares China’s global economic expansion to the British Empire’s expansion. The main difference for him lies in the fact that the British expansion included culture, writers, anthropologists, and so on, where with China this is not present, even in the digital age.

Rose mentioned the tone of Zhiyuan’s book, Paper Tiger, as being very pessimistic. But Zhiyuan says that it is precisely because he is optimistic “that I can say a lot about the dark side of China.” He remains hopeful of the future, even with all of the problems facing China.

Attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Paper Tiger: Inside The Real China, published by Head of Zeus, ISBN 9781781859797

Marlon James: A History in Seven Killings, at #AWF16

marlon_jamesGetting to listen to Marlon James talk about himself and his book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2015, made for a very good reason to rise early this Saturday morning. A very intelligent and thoughtful conversation flowed  naturally from the stage, punctuated by funny remarks, insightful comments, and thought-provoking discussions. As though this great novel wasn’t riveting enough, hard enough to put down, James himself was a joy to listen to, a voice I could happily hear in conversation for many hours.

Half a year on from his winning of the Man Booker Prize, James was asked to reflect on his experience, and interestingly enough he turned to the other authors on the shortlist, saying that the dust won’t settle until the next recipient of the award is announced. Instead he says that he thinks of the other works nominated and how reading them is an important part of the experience.

a brief history in seven killingsThe conversation between James and Noelle McCarthy moved from the novel, to his personal life and experiences, and to Jamaica and its culture and history. A Brief History of Seven Killings is brought together by the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, an event that James, despite talking in great detail about it, says wasn’t introduced into the novel until he realized it was a common point between the characters. Instead this novel is driven by voice, and unlike his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, it uses many different voices. This change in style reflects many different elements in the story and form, and the ideas James engages with. He says that “the only voice I was not interested in was mine,” and so he used different voices and characters to express different desires and a changing point of view about a single point of history.

James also says that this novel was a new experience for him, and not only because of the change in narrative voice. One of his most famous quotes is “you have to risk pornography,” something he got from when he was told he had to “risk sentimentality” in response to his unwillingness to write about love. This risk is what fiction is all about, a place where we can explore the interesting and visceral, a place of escapism. When asked whether he though of this book as a screenplay, he noted that there is a certain something that he says only the novel form can do, in that it can have a conversation with the reader with the immediacy of the present, haunted by the past, with a fear of the future. “The novel already comes with the fourth wall down.”

As the session finished, James read a short extract from the novel, bringing moments of laughter and moments of silence from the audience. Overall, this feels like a good representation of James, a mix of all the things that we look for in a great piece of fiction.

Event attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

A Brief History of Seven Killings, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780746357
John Crow’s Devil, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780748498 The Book of Night Women, published by Oneworld Publication, ISBN 9781780746524

Life Lessons: Hanya Yanagihara in conversation at #AWF16


The oft misquoted ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’ seems like a good lead into the thoughts that Hanya Yanagihara shared this year at the Auckland Writers Festival. With the publication of her … Continue reading

Book Review: Thought Horses, by Rachel Bush

The Wellington launch of Thought Horses, and a memorial of Rachel Bush’s life, will happen this evening at Vic Books in Kelburn, from 5.30pm. 

cv_thought_horsesRachel Bush’s newest collection of writing, Thought Horses, begins ‘between 4.30 and 6.30,’ and quickly stacks a list of thoughts onto the reader. The opening and title poem quickly puts the reader into the strange position of being a part of the poem, of belonging in it rather than being a voyeur into the poet’s world. While it begins with an almost command like ‘Some things to think of,’ it slowly moves into a list of ‘You think’ this and that, placing the reader in the position of imagining all that the poet wants us to.

While the collection does not continue in this same style, this introduction helps to engage the reader from the beginning. Bush then continues by bringing in outside references, things that we as readers can know and understand. There are numerous references made to the work of Anne Carson, especially in the poems ‘Anne Carson, Until I Fall Asleep’ and ‘Five Answers for Anne Carson,’ as well as ‘Made of Myrrh,’ which begins with a direct quote from this other writer. Bush also adds brief references to other works such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle. These other works provide a point of reference for the reader allowing an easy entry into the text.

These details are important, as a lot of the poetry in Thought Horses does feel quite personal, so these doorways help to prevent isolating the reader as purely being a voyeur. There are small intimate moments, like the mothers singing in the poem Sing Them:
When our mothers sang,
the words became us
and the songs became us.

In the poem Early there is a haunting quietness:
One ruru calls
its own name.
Its wings are invisible.
They make no sound.

These moments feel so quiet that it feels almost invasive to intrude upon their words.

The poem Little Bear is more personal as the narrator’s voice tells us about its mother:
One of my mother’s names
was Ursula. Mary Ursula.
Consider that open vessel,
that curved vase of a vowel.

In the poem Near Timaru ‘My father drove us / to a frozen lake’, and another personal scene opens up. These small but intimate moments contrast with the more open and inviting poems, creating an interesting dynamic. By moving between these quieter and louder poems, Bush forces the reader into a more thoughtful position. One doesn’t know what to expect from the next poem, and so thoughts must race to keep up with the changing landscape of this collection.

In the end Thought Horses is an interesting book of poems. It shifts itself constantly from one position to the next, and this dynamic helps to create a unique experience for the reader.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Thought Horses
by Rachel Bush
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560721