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: Lecretia’s Choice, by Matt Vickers

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lecretias_choiceThis certainly is a story of love, death and the law as it stands in New Zealand in our right to choose when we die and to surround our death with dignity. At this point in time, it isn’t for us to choose, that is out of our hands.

Lecretia and Matt Vickers were trailblazers: raised in down-to-earth homes where education was valued, they took their opportunities and made the best of them. After meeting and marrying, the world really did appear to be their oyster but life can have twists and turns, some kind and generous, others not so much. Matt and Lecretia wanted children and when it didn’t happen naturally, they turned to IVF, to no avail. A series of nasty headaches sent Lecretia on the path to what turned out to be the diagnosis of Brain Cancer, and the terminality of this cancer opened a door that many wished would stay shut.

Lecretia had seen death, it wasn’t pretty, and more than anything Lecretia wanted to die with dignity, she wanted to make her own choices, without depending on others. Her choices would allow her to say goodbye to her loved ones as she wished, Lecretia didn’t want to suffer unnecessarily. Dependence on others for pain control and the basics of life was, to Matt and Lecretia, a ghastly way to end ones life; and so they began to fight, not just for themselves but for others who might find themselves in the same position. It was a hard battle, one taken to the High Court, to seek a pathway for herself and others to die with dignity. The Ethics of Assisted Dying are complicated and rigorous in their application. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a mother, father or husband – if you help someone to die in New Zealand, you can be prosecuted.

Sadly Lecretia did not win her battle, and the fight continues.

This book is a marvellous example of what love can do and a testimony to the spirit of resilience. It isn’t always an easy read but it is a great retelling of a life well-lived and of the courage that allowed Matt and Lecretia to step outside of themselves at the most difficult time in their lives, and stand tall for their beliefs.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Lecretia’s Choice
by Matt Vickers
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355598

Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

Sport
is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

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: The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_romanovsThis is a massive book. Since I am not a historian, I found it somewhat daunting – partly because of the size, but also because of the fact that I can’t retain dates, and the cast of characters in the Romanov dynasty is ridiculously large – but I persevered and got through to the end. While I did finish the book, I would like to say up-front that this is a reaction to the book, rather than a review, due to my lack of background knowledge of the topic.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has set the book out in segments which relate to each of the emperors of the Romanov family. Each section begins with a “cast list” of characters, their relationship to the tsar of the time, and their nicknames. This is a very helpful technique, and I found myself referring to it frequently.

I heard a quote recently about the Romanov empire – “an empire so vast that as the sun was rising on one side, it was setting on the other”. The Romanovs to me exemplify the saying that if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I found almost everything about them to be reprehensible – they were violent, power-hungry, devious, war-mongering, licentious, profligate, conniving, autocratic, despotic, religiously fanatical, and treacherous. If the book had been written as fiction, you’d find it hard to imagine how anyone could create all of this in one family.

The reader in me got a little bit caught up in the wild ride through four centuries; but at the same time I was sickened by the violence, the lies, the anti-semitism and the weird dependence on Rasputin by Nicky and Alexei and their family. If you want to know how not to run a country, let alone an empire, you may enjoy this book. I didn’t like it personally, but only because the characters I was reading about were so unpleasant!

It’s prodigiously well-researched, written in an entertaining way, and Montefiore had access to material not available to prevous chroniclers of this family.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Romanovs: 1618 to 1918
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
ISBN 9780297852667