Book Review: A Strange Beautiful Excitement, by Redmer Yska

Available now from bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_strange_beautiful_excitementA beautifully produced small-format hardback printed on good paper is a bit of a rarity these days, and this one is just a delight from start to finish.

Redmer Yska has written about his home town, Wellington, through the lens of Katherine Mansfield as a child and teenager, and the interwoven histories of the city and the writer are absorbing, engaging and enlightening. Yska writes with an immediacy that is compelling, and personal – as he writes about the research he is doing, you feel the excitement building and it’s catching! So when he does find a story written by a young Kathleen Beauchamp – and published in a national weekly magazine – a full seven years earlier than anything so far found, you want to join him in shouting with delight. Patience was truly rewarded, and the discovery is significant for NZ literature.

But there’s a lot before that exciting find. The society of early Wellington, the development of the city, the class consciousness brought over from England along with the first settlers is given great attention and – on occasion – criticism. The way Yska weaves his own childhood experiences in Karori into the reality of life in the time of Harold Beauchamp and his family brings a dimension which is unexpectedly vivid. He shows just how much impact Wellington, its weather, its society had on Katherine’s writing. She used her experience, her family, her schoolfriends, the neighbouring children and of course her imagination to create her amazing stories.

But what really resonates with me is the way Redmer Yska portrays the early settlement and development of Wellington –  innate racism, deforestation, the near-extinction of kakariki, polluted waterways, cholera and typhoid and more are all thoroughly researched, acknowledged and just eminently readable. It’s a long while since I have enjoyed a book as much as I did this one.

I think it’s a tour de force and an immensely valuable addition to our literature on Katherine Mansfield, but equally if not more importantly to the history of our city. It’s fresh, original, and I think all Wellingtonians should own a copy – it really IS that good.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903
Reviewed by Redmer Yska
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522544

Advertisements

Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

Book Review: Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep

Is there a man living who knows what he looks like and what he does when he is asleep? … Some men sleep intelligently, others like clowns. (Balzac, quoted in Snooze)

cv_snoozeSnooze is the sort of book that a wise and thoughtful uncle might write, perhaps reflecting McGirr’s early adult life working as a Jesuit priest. Intriguing facts and wry observations are interspersed with gentle and perceptive descriptions of parenthood, and philosophical issues to contemplate. McGirr’s fascination with sleep stems from his own struggles with sleep apnoea and the exhaustion he experienced during his sleep-deprived years co-parenting twins and their close-in-age sibling.

McGirr makes it clear that Snooze is not a guide-book for people searching for techniques to ensure a good night’s slumber. Instead it is part-biography, part-history, part-enquiry into what is known and what still remains to be known about the complexities and functions of sleep.

McGirr brings history to life by sharing sleep-related stories about well-known historical and fictional characters, including light sleepers and insomniacs such as Thatcher and Dickens (who, apparently, would only sleep in a bed where his head could point north). He looks at how sleep is depicted by writers such as Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, by philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and within Homer’s Odyssey. He describes how Robinson Crusoe slept safely and comfortably in a ‘thick bushy tree’ and how Gulliver preferred to sleep next to his horses rather than his family. McGirr also explores the role of sleep in war, in the bible, in fairy-tales, and amongst the homeless. He reflects on the gap between those who have their own beds and those who do not, acknowledging the skills that people who sleep rough must develop to seek shelter.

Short of conversation-starters? Snooze provides plenty. Did you know that horses’ joints have tendons and ligaments that lock to allow them to sleep standing up, or that neuroscientists are considering the possibility that babies dream before they are born? And have you heard about the Italian who has invented a bed that makes itself? (There’s a YouTube clip about this, if the book piques your interest.)

McGirr points out the incongruities between how sleep-related products are marketed – the crisp white sheets, the fluffy pillows – and the contrasting realities of human sleep as we toss and turn, shedding hair and skin flakes, perhaps dribbling, scratching, and sweating. (Or worse.)

Coffee, of course, gets a mention – alongside other caffeinated drinks and drugs that hinder rather than help. McGirr remarks on the contradiction of the café ritual: ‘it’s a curious culture that allows you to relax as long as you spend the time loading up on stimulants’.

I often like books that can be dipped into – a few pages here and there as time allows. Although I read Snooze from start to finish, most chapters would stand alone well. You could open the book at random and read a chapter or two at a time. There’s a brief reading list for each chapter at the back of the book if you’d like to learn more.

Perhaps my favourite story is of McGirr’s four-year-old son appearing at his parents’ bedside at 2:06 a.m. When asked why he couldn’t go back to his own bed he earnestly declared that this would not be possible, as he had already made it. Parents may also empathise with (and perhaps even admire) the now nomadic family whose children were such terrible sleepers that their parents resorted to driving them around because they would only sleep in the car. The family journeys became longer and longer – until ten years and thousands of miles later they were still on the road, albeit now by choice.

McGirr describes the process of surrendering to sleep as ‘an act of faith in the existence of tomorrow’. Is sleep, he ponders (quoting Aristotle), an activity of the body, or the soul, or both? Something to think about when you nod off tonight.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498585

Book Review: From Moa to Dinosaurs, by Gillian Candler and Ned Barraud

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

From Moa to Dinosaurs is a finalist in the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction, part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_from_moa_to_dinosaurs.jpgPotton and Burton have really taken on the task of ensuring quality nature texts are available in New Zealand for adult and child alike. This book is another in the explore and discover series.

Here we travel back in time to view the beginnings of life in New Zealand. The first section explains the formation of New Zealand from Gondwana. Clear diagrams and text lead us to the following chapters where we look at different habitats and their inhabitants.

Each section includes delightful illustrations that are bright and simple. I liked the separation of facts into boxes with easy bullet points. Likewise, there were boxes called How do we Know? These gave the scientific basis for the information presented. This is a successful format used in the previous titles and ensures that fact and fiction are distinguished.

The language is easy to follow but a useful glossary is included at the back for the more difficult ideas. An index also allows easy retrieval of information. Quality texts like this are essential in the classroom and allow research away from the Internet in manageable chunks. The format means the text is useful right across the primary levels. It provides a starting point for more detailed study but a good overview for a lesson.

This book would be an essential for a school library, but I think the whole series provides a great wealth of information for a family. Sometimes it is as easy as buying the set to start a love of the natural world in your kids. After reading From Moa to Dinosaurs I went and found my geologist’s hammer, grabbed a grandchild and headed off on a fossil hunt in the foothills.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

From Moa to Dinosaurs: Explore and Discover ancient New Zealand
by Gillian Candler and Ned Barraud
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503109

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