Book Review: Portholes to the Past, by Lloyd Geering

cv_portholes_to_the_pastWell know theologian, Lloyd Geering, takes the reader on a journey into the twentieth century, as he shares a wide range of experiences in his memoir, Portholes to the Past.

At nearly 99 years old Lloyd Geering is well qualified to look back over the last century, discussing the massive social changes he has lived through and evaluating the progress the human race is making.

Born into a world at war on 16 February 1918, he was the youngest in his family, and his three brothers all left home while he was in primary school. The family moved a number of times to enable his father to gain employment. Despite this, and the struggles of the Great Depression, Geering had a good education and went on to University, ultimately training as a Presbyterian minister.

He remembers “men tramping the highways with swags on their backs” during the 1930s, looking for any odd job in return for a meal and a bed in the hay barn, which all changed with the passing of the Social Security Act in 1938 creating the New Zealand welfare state. Geering stated, “the welfare state was founded on two basic principles: that every citizen has a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and that the community is responsible through its elected representatives to ensure that this is achieved.”

Of course one of the greatest changes which occurred during Geering’s life time has been in communications, and young people today would struggle to comprehend how the family was told of the death of his brother. A messenger was sent from Dunedin to the farm at Allanton to inform the family of the passing of Ira due to TB, as they had no telephone. Lloyd then had to travel to Dunedin to let another brother Fred, know of their brother’s passing.

I enjoyed reading this book; it brought back lots of memories of my parents, who talked about many of the same issues, as they were born in the same era. They also had a Presbyterian background and followed Geering’s Christian journey.

In his concluding porthole he is optimistic about the future: “It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship. Together with the spiritual forces of faith, hope and love, these qualities may yet enable us to create a viable human future.”

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Portholes to the Past
by Lloyd Geering
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493332

Book Review: Goneville: A Memoir by Nick Bollinger

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_goneville_a_memoirAuthor Beth Kephart urges anyone reviewing a memoir to consider whether the writer has made their story matter not just to themselves, but also to the reader – and how well their life has been swept up into words. Nick Bollinger’s Goneville succeeds brilliantly on both counts. When I reached the final pages I felt as though a visit with an old and interesting friend had just ended: the kind of friend who drops in only once in a blue moon but with such good tales to tell and insights to share that by the time they leave you’re already hanging out for their next visit. In this review I refer to him as Nick; ‘Bollinger’ somehow seems way too formal for someone who has revealed so much about himself.

Nick’s memoir focuses on the 70s, although he writes briefly about his experiences before and after that time. He describes a carefree childhood swinging on vines and building forts in Wellington’s Town Belt, but also riding on his father’s shoulders on Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches. His parents saw their children as equals, encouraging them to ask questions and share their points of view. His grandparents, German Jewish refugees who immigrated to New Zealand in 1939, befriended poets, actors, painters and composers: including Glover, Baxter, McCahon and Lilburn. His mother grew up in an environment in which the arts were central. His father, too, was raised in a family immersed in history and literature. Perhaps it’s no surprise that music and language have also played significant roles throughout Nick’s life.

Both inside and outside school hours at Onslow College, Nick and his best mates shared albums and singles, discussed songs, hung out in the ‘listening rooms’ of record stores to sample popular music, and test drove guitars. They were entranced by the up and coming bands seen on New Zealand’s sole television channel, never mind that the images were transmitted in black and white.

In an era where no one asked for ID, a 13-year-old Nick slipped stealthily into a gig at Victoria University’s Student Union Hall behind a friend dressed in a second-hand greatcoat bought in Cuba Street. The hall became a regular destination: Nick’s ‘place of worship’. Soon he was playing in school bands, then graduating to professional gigs with a range of musicians (including a stylish saxophonist in pink velvet trou). Nick mastered essential skills such as making two cups of percolated coffee last for three sets in cafés that had live bands.

Nick’s growing obsession with music lead to night after night of attending gigs large and small – Bruno Lawrence, Blerta, Billy Te Kahika (Billy TK), Dragon, Split Enz and the Windy City Strugglers amongst many others. Some musicians became famous, some evolved from one band to another, most disappeared into the ether. A handful became Nick’s friends and mentors. His ‘vague dream’ of making a living playing the music he loved for a while came true. Life on the road with Rough Justice involved lurching through New Zealand in a rumpty overheating bus; days and nights filled with rehearsals and performances, ham steaks with pineapple, poster-pasting expeditions, grumpy publicans, and ‘post-gig post-mortems’. Drugs, of course, get a mention. The band’s final gig was played in July 1979. Postie life beckoned.

Nick’s writing brings the sights, sounds and smells of the era alive: the Mammal drummer who ‘hammered his tom-toms with the concentration of a blacksmith at a forge; a twanging riff that concludes with a long scrape down the E-string, aimed at driving interlopers out the door; the scent of damp burning and the glowing end of something that was being discreetly passed among a small group…’

This is not only a personal history but also a window into the changing technological, social, political and cultural landscape of New Zealand at that time. Lion Breweries had a dedicated national entertainment manager who arranged to host covers acts, showbands and aging entertainers; his influence extended to renaming a band ‘Pilsener’ to promote Lion’s latest lager. Meanwhile original bands gave it their all in small-town halls, unlicensed clubs, festivals and street parties. Folk music was still popular. Blues greats B.B. King, Chuck Berry and others performed in New Zealand. Muldoon ruled the country, marijuana sales were lucrative (and buds available at certain dairies if you knew the password).

It’s a well-researched book, with an excellent index and plenty of references for readers who want to learn more. (I did wish that captions appeared beneath each photo, rather than within a separate appendix.) Chapter headings hint at the stories about to unfold: ‘You can’t dress like that in the Hutt’, ‘Rebels and refugees’, and ‘Pig’s head and pipi bolognese’ among them. A detailed discography identifies Nick’s favourite records by New Zealand artists, with a brief overview of each individual’s or band’s career as well as a heap of other information. He notes that many of the tracks can now be found on Spotify or YouTube. I love the look and feel of the cover – take a second to run your fingers over the raised print of the title and author’s name. The cover image sums Nick’s story up: the flares! The haircuts! The rock’n’roll bus!

Given the small-town nature of Wellington (of New Zealand, too) – and the realization that Nick and I had a family friend in common – I wondered whether our paths might have crossed all those years ago.  I suspect, however, that the young Nick led a more adventurous early life than I did. It’s clear that he has many more stories to tell; I’m looking forward to them already.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Goneville: A Memoir
by Nick Bollinger
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249543

Book Review: My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my-fathers-islandMy Father’s Island does more than tell the story of Adam Dudding and his father Robin, the greatest New Zealand literary editor of his generation. It tracks NZ’s literary scene through decades and cities, thanks to Robin’s vast documentations and Adam’s interviews with major cultural figures. So many names are dropped throughout the book I got jealous, wishing I had had Ralph Hotere’s advice while doing a colouring competition, or had read ‘The Smiths and the Joneses’ before it became the Under the Mountain.

Dudding doesn’t stick to a chronological, or location-based, order to the memoir – “The truth remains, though, that I don’t really know how to write this book … I decided early on that simply telling Dad’s story chronologically wasn’t the right approach”. It jumps around, but not so much that you can’t follow, and he acknowledges when he’s re-covering or coming back to a previously told story. Very few memoirs give the immense detail that Adam Dudding does in My Father’s Island. There were several moments of utter surprise for me, re-reading to check that Dudding actually had gone into that much detail for the world to read.

Dudding also acknowledges when his memories of his father have turned out to be misremembered, reminding us all of moments we’ve double guessed after hearing new information – “If I’ve misremembered this, what else have I got wrong?” Dudding gains a vast amount of information for this memoir, interviewing old friends, colleagues, neighbours, and family members. He succeeds in the picture of Robin he builds – an immensely interesting, important and flawed member of NZ’s literary world. He also creates a picture of both himself and his dad as a son and father, their family lives, their personal lives. Dudding’s final chapter is simple and effective, giving the reader a wonderful closure which I feel was as much for Dudding and his family, as it was for the reader.

You don’t need to know the subjects, or the literary scene, to enjoy My Father’s Island. Dudding has created an incredibly personal and relatable story of families, relationships and New Zealand. It will have older generations reminiscing of a New Zealand been and gone, and younger generations realising that, yet again, they were born too late.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

My Father’s Island
by Adam Dudding
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560820

Book Review: The Grass was always Browner, by Sacha Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_grass_was_always_brownerThe Grass Was Always Browner by Sacha Jones has been described as a ‘memoir of ordinary events and aspirations’ but I’d describe it more as perfect blog fodder, and I wasn’t surprised to read the author does in fact have a blog, OWW: One Woman’s World.

Growing up in an ordinary suburban Australian family, Sally Jones isn’t all that happy with her lot. There’s her boring name for a start – Sally, a name shared with a neighbour’s dog. A mouthful of cramped teeth, a flat chest and a battle with asthma were added burdens.

For some bizarre reason a doctor prescribed suppositories to cure her asthma. After they made her vomit, ballet was deemed a better alternative. That made the name Sally even less attractive, because whoever heard of a ballerina called Sally? [Despite yearning to be called Sacha, and obviously achieving this at some point in her life, there isn’t actually any mention of when or how this happened.]

The Grass Was Always Browner is a simple story, made up of all the minutiae of family life, school, friends and ballet.

The story involves some moving accounts of Jones’ ballet career, both the highs and the lows, including her father being strongly against her indulging in what he sees as a frivolous pursuit. After reading about the sacrifices she made, you can’t help but cheer for her when she enters competitions and gets the chance to dance the lead role in a major ballet. The book ends with her heading off to London to enter two ballet competitions.

I’m not sure if there will be a sequel, but I was left feeling a bit flat, as I don’t know if she stayed in London and enjoyed a brilliant ballet career, or if the insecurities that plagued her early years overwhelmed her and she quietly returned to her ordinary life in Australia.

While The Grass Was Always Browner is an entertaining read, there are several sections, especially in the first half of the book, where I had the urge to shout, “Come on! Get to the point, woman!” Jones is probably great fun at parties, regaling everyone with tales of her youth. I’m just not sure it’s the kind of material that translates well into a book; it reads like the diary I imagine it started life as.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Grass Was Always Browner
by Sacha Jones
Published by Finch Publishing
ISBN 9781925048643

The Odd Woman and the City: Vivian Gornick at #AWF16

Image

‘That was the best thing, ever. It is so good to be reminded why we go to these things’ said my companion amid the fiercely appreciative clapping at the end of Vivian Gornick’s hour talking with Jolisa Gracewood.

vivian-gornick-body-image-1432301445Feminist, memoirist, journalist, novelist, walker, and owner of wonderful cheekbones, Vivian Gornick (picture above by Mitchell Bach) was captivating, strong and reassuring – rather sweetly assisting Gracewood at one point when she became (charmingly) overwhelmed by the possibilities of their discussion (‘my brain is going in five different directions right now!’).

cv_the_odd_woman_and_the_cityThe hour revolved around Gornick’s latest memoir The Odd Woman and the City, described as ‘part paen and part elegy’. Fifty per cent of New York’s households are single occupancy, and the majority of those households are occupied by women, we learned. Oh to be a woman and to live alone, in a city like New York. Listening to Vivian Gornick is like listening to your best inner feminist self, winning the argument over the worst. Gornick says that the feminist revolution is the ‘longest revolution in history’ and ‘every fifty years we are called something different – ‘new’, ‘free’, ‘liberated’, backhanded descriptions…’

Gracewood asked who is ‘the odd’ woman – good question. For Gornick, her ‘odd woman’ was inspired by George Gissing’s 1890s book called The Odd Woman, in which, Gornick says, she saw herself in Gissing’s descriptions of the early feminist movement. You become the odd woman, she says, when you recognise that you can’t not long for equality.

The other primary characters in Gornick’s book are best friend Leonard and the city of New York. Leonard is the fictionalised version of a very real friend of Gornick’s – a gay man also searching for equality. In their friendship, said Gornick, she sees the paradigm for modern life. The question of writing your life came up several times across the session. In the case of Leonard, Gornick said she knew that the real Leonard was pretty OK with how he was represented because he asked her “can I audition for the role of Leonard?”Alongside this friendship is Gornick’s relationship with the city, which she describes as constantly presenting episodes of theatre (in big cities that is, and no, Auckland does not count – we’re more like California here), always reinventing itself but always remaining the same – ‘It’s the crowds, the blissful anonymity of the people at eye level that are the same. (I don’t look up or I’d wanna kill myself – the buildings look like they’re warring with each other)’.

One of the more moving parts of the hour was when Gornick described the way her relationship with New York shifted after 9/11. She described the loss of nostalgia ‘stunning beyond stunning’ – she was feeling as though she was walking through a devastated landscape. And the only way she found to understand her devastation was to read European novels by women who had experienced war (namely Natalia Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bowen). These stories soothed her because they were ‘looking past the history, beyond the bleakness to tell it like it really was, without sentimentality or nostalgia’. And that is clearly what Gornick prides herself on in her own writing – the ability to tell the hard truths.

cv_fierce_attachmentsGracewood brought the discussion to Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s first memoir about her relationship with her mother and with the woman who lived next door. Both women were widowed but one became a professional mourner and the other ‘the whore of Babylon’ – and Gornick ‘was embroiled between them’. This in-between-ness seems to have defined Gornick for a large part of her life – the struggle to justify herself to herself. Her epiphany came, she said, in her 30s, when she realised that ‘the princess was always after the pea, not the prince’ and the feminist movement came upon her.

Gornick’s mind comes up with striking images – on her discovery of the power of applying her mind to writing she said ‘an image had taken shape in my mind and the sentences were trying to fill that space’ … ‘a rectangle opened up inside my body, clearing space, with myself in the middle wanting to clarify and be clarified’. With that discovery she found joy, safety, peace and understanding. ‘And then I got divorced’.

Question time was hampered by a lack of roving microphone but the best of the lot was: ‘Is Hilary Clinton a feminist?’ Her answer: ‘NO!’ ‘She’s a politician through and through’. Gornick said that Bernie Sanders is important as a provocateur and that Trump is truly dangerous – the hope is that Clinton will get it but only because she’s not Trump.

Gracewood finished the session off with a final question, about Gornick’s idea of the twin persona involved in the writing of a memoir. A vital concept in non-fiction is that you have to pull from yourself the person telling the story and that your narrator contains the tone, the structure. You have to be both sides of the question in non-fiction – you have to find your own part in the conflict so that you have a narrative.

Gornick’s double selves have served her well. And the self on stage today was truly inspiring. What a woman.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Vivian Gornick will also appear in the free event Tell It Slant, Saturday 14 May 2016, alongside Steven Toussaint, Stephen Braunias, Chris Price and Joan Fleming

Books:
The Odd Woman and the City, published by Nero, ISBN 9781863958141
Fierce Attachments, published by Daunt Books, ISBN 9781907970658

Book Review: Quicksand, by Henning Mankell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_quicksandQuicksand is the late Henning Mankell’s account of his thoughts and memories from the day he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 through to May 2014, the end of his first course of chemotherapy. Over sixty-seven short chapters, some no more than a few paragraphs, he pulls together incidents and memories, concerns and beliefs, passions and regrets, from his life, and lines them up alongside his fight against cancer. It was first published in Swedish in 2014, with the English translation following in February 2016, four months after Mankell’s death.

Many will know Mankell from his most widely published and adapted works, the Wallander novels, but these form only a small part of his prolific output. He also wrote more than fifty original plays, two series of children’s books, several screenplays, and a dozen other novels. In 1977, fifteen years before Wallander, when he was 29 years old, he published his first novel. In Quicksand ,Mankell tells how he did not submit the manuscript until he was absolutely sure it was good enough. Like all artists, Mankell had doubts about his ability but when, a few weeks later, he receives confirmation that the novel will be published, he is pleased but not particularly surprised. Throughout Quicksand we see Mankell’s remarkable combination of humility and self-belief.

A writer is an acute observer, and Mankell observed and remembered a lot. The short chapters in Quicksand traverse an extraordinarily full life. Mankell is concerned about big questions, the disposal of nuclear waste and global warming in particular threading their way through the whole book. But these go side by side with many private moments: a dream he once had about the trenches in Flanders; visiting a church lost beneath shifting sands, only its bell tower visible; seeing a boy killed grotesquely in a motorway accident.

The sub-title of Quicksand is What It Means To Be A Human Being. Another writer might, when faced with death, have indulged in self-pity or taken the chance to try and justify past action and mistakes. Apologies to abandoned lovers and children might have been attempted, or reconciliations to former friends. The closest Mankell gets to this is an acknowledgement that he might not have been the best theatre director during his time in Maputo, or that he may regret the way he treated some of his former lovers.

Mankell was always curious. Several times he tells us how he read everything there was to read on a topic. Radiation and nuclear waste, cave paintings, European history, climate change, ice ages – through the fine detail of remembering a stay in a town decades ago, or a photograph, or a street performance, everything he learns is turned into a question about our past and our future. He knows his own future, like everyone else’s, was always limited in time. No-one lives forever. He knows that just a century ago, living to nearly seventy years of age would have been highly unusual. He’s grateful for the years he’s had but the cancer diagnosis is, of course, still a shock. The fear and uncertainty it causes, the bringing into sharp focus an understanding that most of the things you’ll achieve in your life are now in the past, are the scaffolding within which this book was created.

Conspicuously absent from Quicksand are parents, children and lovers, except for his fourth and last wife, Eva, despite the fact he was married four times, and had four sons, each by a different partner. Although understandable – Quicksand isn’t an autobiography – I was surprised that the events that made such a strong impression on Mankell either did not include his relationships and children, or that he chose not to include them.

Mankell wrote in Swedish and many of his works in English, including Quicksand, were translated by Laurie Thompson, a distinguished academic and founder of the Swedish-English Literary Translators Association. It is hard to believe Quicksand was not written in English, so lucid is the phrasing, so perfectly captured are Mankell’s emotions on the page. It was Thompson’s last translation. He died of cancer in June 2015, four months before Mankell in October 2015.

The older we get, we more we realise how short life is. Seneca told us this in his essay On The Shortness Of Life over two thousand years ago, but still we forget it. Mankell, with his fiction, his theatre, his human rights activism, his political life, his relationships, his ever-hungry curiosity for knowledge and about people, packed in more than most but sixty-seven years is not that long. He wanted more. We should be thankful that before their deaths he wrote, and Laurie Thompson translated, this book. Read it, put it alongside your copy of Seneca, and stop wasting what time you have left.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Quicksand
by Henning Mankell
Published by Harvill Secker
ISBN 9781846559522

Book Review: The Dreaming Land, by Martin Edmond

cv_the_dreaming_land_bigAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

I thoroughly enjoyed Martin Edmond’s wonderfully descriptive memoir. With a style and pacing that draws the reader in and envelops them in a New Zealand that had a type of insularity all of its own, Edmonds telling of his early years is a treat and while not all wine and roses, it is a life that would resonate with many.

The son of teachers, Edmond knew the vagaries of moving town, shifting house and losing people in a time when we were ruled by the motherland, where life could be harsh and every town was governed by a set of unwritten expectations, where position mattered and narrow-mindedness could make life hell. The awareness that there were undercurrents of discord in his home and his difficult relationship with his mother kept Edmond precariously balanced, as he struggled through those rights-of-passage experiences and strived to find out exactly who he was. The great thing is there is not a jot of whinging, it is what is and we get on with it.

Edmond is without doubt an extremely talented writer, and he uses a delightful array of language to tell his tale, his humour even as a youngster shines through…a put-together bike is called an anthology of a bike. In many ways the book encapsulates the best of growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in New Zealand. It shines a light on a time now past, but fondly remembered by so many of us.

This book would make an excellent gift, especially for someone who grew up in the book’s timeframe. It’s easy to read, very memory-inducing but never trite. A great read.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Dreaming Land
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321490