Book Review: We Can Make a Life, by Chessie Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_can_make_a_lifeChessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life is a powerful, affecting memoir. Spanning a family history of adventure, love, bravery and loss, Henry writes tenderly about her family’s journey through multiple traumatic experiences – including the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes – and their unbending courage in the face of them.

We Can Make a Life leaves a lingering imprint. It demands to be felt; emotionally impactful, it invites the reader to empathise with and reflect on the shared experience of trauma. A freelance writer based in Wellington, author Chessie Henry is a Master of Creative Writing graduate of the IIML. A book ‘that’s been swimming around my head for the last couple of years’, We Can Make a Life is her debut work.

The book opens with an email from Christopher Henry, Chessie’s father, describing his burnout following years of non-stop work as a rural GP. Written one week before he received a Bravery Medal for his role in the Christchurch 2011 earthquake, the placing of this desperate email is deliberate. Not only a call for help from Chris, the letter is a warning against the overwork of our New Zealand medical (particularly rural) personnel.

Jumping back to the ‘beginning’, Henry details her parent’s childhoods and schooling in England; Chris and Esther’s escapades as young adults; their serendipitous meeting through Esther’s brother Andrew – Chris’s best friend – and their adventurous (and, on occasion, terrifying) one-year honeymoon trekking across Africa. Henry describes her parent’s early life and marriage with a gentle warmth which dips but never delves into sentimentality. We get the sense that Chris and Esther are wanderers: people content to embrace every possible opportunity no matter where it may lead. When Esther was seven months pregnant with Chessie, the couple emigrated to Sumner, Christchurch.

Four younger brothers – Finn, Matt, Rufus, and Rocky – soon followed, and Henry depicts the fun (and challenges) of growing up within such a large family. When Chessie was nine, the family (with five children under ten) moved to Tokelau, where Chris worked as GP to the tiny island community. Facing multiple stressful – and dangerous – trials, the year in Tokelau was the first massive upheaval in the Henrys’ lives.

Following moves back to Sumner, then Kaikōura, and then the beautiful rural area of Clarence where Esther worked to create the perfect family home, the reader is completely emotionally invested in every member of this close-knit, warm and hilarious family. This makes the chapters on the 2011 Christchurch earthquake even more hard-hitting. The unedited interviews with Chris and Esther are both poignant and harrowing, depicting first-person accounts of the devastation the February 22 Christchurch earthquake, and the 14 November 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, caused. Chris’s honest account of the rescue mission at the collapsed CTV building is particularly difficult to read, but so important.

Henry’s personal story is the glue that connects the disparate chapters together. The memoir is partly a story of Henry writing the memoir; of conversations and interviews with family members and friends – be they in the car, over dinner, at the bar, or in a leaky Wellington flat. The memoir recalls important talismans in Henry’s life that hold significant personal importance – such as a broken seagull ornament – that are catalysts and anchors for unravelling memories. We Can Make a Life is the story of Henry working as a curator of her family history: sifting through the pieces that make the cut, choosing those which do not – and being open about this process and its difficulties. The result is a neatly ordered memoir: each chapter tells a segment of the family story.

A starkly current book, it opens the floor for multiple discussions. It highlights the issues facing the New Zealand medical scene: not only the inadequate funding of rural centres and personnel, but also the problems facing overworked staff in an understaffed system. The memoir highlights the present mental health crisis, particularly the insidious ‘black dog’ that haunts not only the Henry family, but people across New Zealand.

We Can Make a Life is a timely, evocative, empathetic and finely crafted memoir. Written in beautifully detailed prose (‘Even the hills seemed colourless, wet rocks that had slid out of the ocean like tired swimmers, their spines curling back towards the sea’), this memoir will provoke multiple conversations. My recommendation: go read it, and then send it on – mine is winging its way towards my parents as I write.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

We Can Make a Life
by Chessie Henry
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561940

Book Review: Feverish, by Gigi Fenster

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feverishFeverish is a fascinating memoir. Gigi says early in the book that while she wanted to write a memoir, she did not think anyone would be interested in reading about a middle-class, middle-aged white South African living in New Zealand. Furthermore, she seemed to be in some kind of creative slump. So she thought she needed some kind of inspiration to drive her to create something far more appealing – inducing a kind of fever such as that which often drives performance artists or other writers and poets.

That’s where it begins, but where it goes is far-reaching, wide-ranging and thought-provoking.

The breadth and depth of her internal exploration into what is significant is quite remarkable. But what to me is more remarkable is how she turns this into a fascinating, detailed and lively memoir of life as a young woman growing up in apartheid South Africa, with family who escaped the Holocaust – but not only the young woman, also the mature parent living with her husband and daughters in New Zealand. Her family – particularly her parents – spring off the page with their compassion and intellect and consideration for others. Her relationships with her siblings and her friends will probably ring bells of recognition in many. Her conversations with her teenage daughters are frequently hilarious. You do feel as though you know her family through the stories, throwaway comments and serious discussions which abound.

Her exploration of fever and how it might, or might not, work for her permeates the book with a sense of urgency (she was writing this for a PhD thesis, so I imagine there was time pressure!) but along with that, a sense of discovering what is really important to her.

I am not about to give away the results of her internal journey into the effects of fever on the creative mind, but I will say that I read this book once fast, and then a second time a great deal more slowly and I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s funny, clever, intellectually demanding, and it really makes the reader think  about what is important in life, and in our interactions with the people  in our lives – whether they are friends, relatives or colleagues does not matter. What does matter is how we see them and interact with them.

In all, I think it’s a great read, and the hoorey-goorey antennae will stay with me for a long time to come!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Feverish   
by Gigi Fenster
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561803

 

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