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: Kai and Culture – Food Stories from Aotearoa, edited by Emma Johnson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

We need to come back to eating what’s available and sustainable. We need to remind people where food comes from. …Respect is what we need more of – for each other, our land and our food.
Fleur Sullivan – p. 32-33

cv_kai_and_cultureThis is a thought-provoking book exploring New Zealanders’ connections with kai. It encourages reflection on the social, cultural, historical, ethical and environmental issues linked with the food we grow, import, export, and eat.

The introduction explains that Kai and Culture covers ‘a range of ideas, projects and stories through essays, profiles and recipes’. The narratives incorporate multicultural perspectives, including reference to the mahinga kai central to Ngai Tahu identity that focuses on how and where traditional food and other natural resources are gathered. There’s also a profile of the Māori-owned Yellow Brick Road sustainable seafood company whose business is based on kaitiakitanga principles (of guardianship, protection and preservation) that focus on preserving New Zealand’s seafood resources. This ‘involves responsibility, respect, a deep connection to place and knowledge of provenance’ – such as knowing who caught the fish, when and how.

There’s discussion, too, of the positive impact that immigrants have had on the food grown, purchased and eaten in New Zealand homes and restaurants. Historically this includes the new varieties of vegetables established by Chinese market gardeners, and the parmesan cheese and olive oil introduced by Italian immigrants. As we are a multi-cultural nation, there continues to be many influences on what we grow and eat. For example, the book tells of a restaurant that honours and celebrates Pasifika food, and describes the innovative Middle Eastern meals prepared by refugees who cook for the non-profit social enterprise Pomegranate Kitchen.

Kai and Culture challenges our thinking about our interactions with food, including not only what we prepare and consume but what we waste, and why. Most of us know that seasonal variations influence the quality and availability of fresh produce – but do we consider where out-of-season produce has come from and how it was handled along the way? We learn about the skills and resources required to plant and nurture a self-sufficient fruit and vegetable garden, and whether or not this is a realistic goal for the average New Zealander. Kai and Culture also outlines alternative ways of gathering food, such as foraging – for wild parsley and other herbs, fungi or edible seaweed, for example – as a complement to fishing and hunting.

The book raises the issue of whether consumers have a right to know which country the food they are buying came from. (It’s a yes from me: I’m irritated by the fine print on many packaged foods declaring that the product was ‘packed in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients’, with no further information provided.)

Contributors include chefs, architects, writers, film-makers, academics, producers and restaurant-owners. Most sections are well-written (with references included if you’d like to learn more), although some of the longer sections would have benefited from tighter editing. There’s a fine balance between describing a business model or venture objectively and sounding like an advertisement or product endorsement. I would like to have heard more of the voices of individual contributors, instead there’s a certain sameness to the writing style across many sections.

Photos accompany most stories. The strangest depicts four adults bobbing in a spa pool full of heated milk. (You’ll have to read the book to find out why.)

There’s an unconventional mix of both narrow and wide margins throughout the book and a somewhat pedestrian two- and three-column layout and font. I found the typographic ornaments (swirly icons and the like) accompanying the heading of each section a distraction. Few seem to have any relation to the section content.

The 30 recipes at the end of Kai and Culture were provided by contributors to the book and most have links to particular sections. I wonder whether the recipes might have been more appropriately placed together with the associated story. This would mean, for example, that the simple pasta with tinned tomatoes recipe might have sat alongside Rebekah Graham’s essay about families that struggle to afford nutritious food, which she argues is a human right.

Some recipes include foraged ingredients, such as beach spinach. At the other end of the scale several recipes involve expensive or unusual ingredients and complicated methods. I’m keen to prepare the Ika Mata recipe for marinated raw fish, one of the more straightforward recipes, based on techniques and ingredients shared by people from the Cook Islands.

I can imagine Kai and Culture being used by secondary school teachers as part of a food and nutrition module, or as assigned reading for a tertiary education course that focuses on food production and consumption. It could also appeal to people interested in challenging and changing how they source, grow and/or use particular foods, and consumers wanting to make more informed and responsible purchasing decisions at supermarkets and even restaurants.

The topics and issues discussed in Kai and Culture have given me a greater appreciation of the efforts made by New Zealand growers, farmers and other food producers and of the challenges they face in providing us with healthy and sustainable food.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Kai and Culture: Food stories from Aotearoa
Edited by Emma Johnson
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473412241

Book Review: Fearless: The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand’s Great War airmen, by Adam Claasen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_fearlessThe Ministry for Culture and Heritage commissioned a number of works on the Centenary of the Great War. Fearless is an amazing collection and distillation of the vast amount of information on the part played by New Zealand airmen.

The whole story of aviation in New Zealand has never been told previously. Here we have the background which looks at aviation development in New Zealand; we see the vision of Henry Wigram who was asking for support from the Government as early as 1909. Funding was always going to be a problem as there was no navy, and sea was seen as more important to New Zealand’s defenses than air. The whole idea of military aviation was in its early stages, but already there were some who saw the advantages.

Fearless is not a dry history about the planes and their parts. Rather, it combines the military and political scene with the stories of individuals. We learn the stories of the early pioneers, the political activists, the daring adventurers. It is here – in the stories of the passion and persistence of some of these young men who were determined to fly into war -that I found the greatest interest. Their stories are detailed, lively and often humorous.

The illustrations bring the text to life and add faces to the names, the planes and the events. The photograph of RAF officers paying tribute at the burial of Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), taken at Keith Park’s Bertangle airfield, summed up the depth of this book. Park’s leadership in the Great War gave him a superb platform for his important role in World War 2. His is one of the many stories covered in this wonderful book.

New Zealanders played a very important part in the Great War on land and sea. After reading Fearless, I also appreciate their role in the air. It has taken 100 years for this publication to emerge. But it was worth the wait.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Fearless: The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand’s Great War airmen
by Adam R. A. Claasen
Published by Massey University Bookshop
ISBN 9780994140784

Book Review: Gordon Walters, New Vision

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_web-gordon-walters-catalogue-auckland-art-gallery-publication_1024x1024.jpgGordon Walters is one of New Zealand’s most renowned modernist artists – his koru series instantly recognisable. Substantial in content and size, this book accompanies an exhibition that is being held in Dunedin until April of this year and will then be at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from July through November 2018.

The hard cover is striking – a reproduction of Walters’s black, white and blue geometric ‘Painting J’ (circa 1974). An interesting choice given the instant recognition afforded to his koru works – the choice of cover making it clear that his art extended beyond what he is best known for.

Contributors to the book include artists, art historians, curators, art history lecturers and others with specialist expertise and interests – including Māori and Pacific architecture and art history, historic art, craft and design, and the development of modern art in New Zealand and global modernisms.

The introduction explains that Walters ‘created a network of active relationships from a synthesis of forms, concepts, cultural traditions and perspectives’. The chapters explore in detail the multiple influences – at home and abroad – upon Walters’s art. Several chapters discuss the criticisms that were levelled at Walters as a Pākehā artist who incorporated Māori symbols into his art, primarily the unfurling spiral shape known as koru (also referred to in this book as pītau). Although Walters was accused of appropriation, he did not believe that the koru-like form in his paintings was essentially a reproduction of a Māori symbol. Instead he preferred to describe the symbol he created as ‘a horizontal stripe ending in a circle’.

However, the authors make it clear that Māori culture and symbolism were significant influences for Walters. He acknowledged that he had drawn on the principle of repetition that is a strong characteristic of Māori art, seen in kowhaiwhai patterns for example. While some Māori supported Walters, not all accepted nor stood up for him. Curator, lecturer, researcher, activist and art historian Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is quoted as describing Walters as both insolent and ‘damn cheeky’.

Brown’s chapter, entitled ‘Pītau, Primitivism and Provocation’, explores Walters’s many, varied and often complex relationships with Māori culture, imagery and art. This includes an overview of how the Waitangi Tribunal looked at the work of Walters’ – amongst others – when examining and delineating the distinction between taonga and taonga-derived works.

Walters’s connections with other artists are well-documented, in particular his friendship with Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist who moved with his parents to New Zealand in 1939. Walters and Schoon together visited Māori rock art sites in Canterbury. Walters was fascinated by what he saw and experienced during these visits, and the power of the rock art images. Later, he studied Aboriginal bark paintings as well as other indigenous art including tapa cloth designs and Marquesan tattoos – constantly seeking inspiration from cultures other than his own.

Schoon introduced Walters to work produced by Rolfe Hattaway, an artist living with a mental illness described as schizophrenia. Hattaway’s unconventional art – some of which is included in the book – inspired Walters to experiment with shape and form, particularly rearrangement and transformation. This preoccupation with rotation and reflection and other transformations remained a key feature of Walters’s work over time, and is examined in detail in several chapters. The book raises questions about how – and whether – Walters and Schoon acknowledged and valued Hattaway’s work.

As a young man, Walters’s visits to Wellington’s Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery challenged his thinking and stimulated his curiosity about both culture and art. Despite for a long time earning very little income from his art, Walters was a frequent traveller, with many trips to Australia. He lived for a time in London which allowed him easy access to galleries in Europe. His connections to, and relationships with, art and artists from Europe, the Americas, the Pacific and New Zealand are described and discussed.

The text is academic, yet accessible and thought-provoking. The book would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Walters’s art – in particular art collectors, art students, art enthusiasts and people wanting to learn more about the history of modern art and its evolution in New Zealand. Each chapter is accompanied by detailed footnotes. Additional features include a chronology of Walters’s life, an exhibition history, a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index.

The book has a good balance of images and text, including not only Walters’s work but also photographs of his studio, his fieldwork, and clippings of both modern and indigenous art cut from magazines and other sources which he glued into his scrapbook. His scrapbook forms a ‘consciously assembled catalogue of … visual information from across cultures and across time’. Photos of Walters show a young man whose hair grew in soft curls, reminding me of the koru that later featured so prominently in his work.

I was surprised by the extent and range of styles (including landscapes, nudes, floral works, surreal art and abstracts) depicted in the book. There’s a somewhat serious self-portrait in charcoal, as well as screen prints, works in acrylic, ink, gouache, oil on canvas, and oil on muslin. The colours range from stark black and white to vibrant yellows, blues and reds. Several works are repeated within different chapters, being central to the discussion and perspectives of individual chapter authors.

Additionally, the book contains works by artists whose work Walters engaged with, such as Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Victor Vasarely.

The font is smaller and fainter than ideal, although the text is printed on good quality paper that turns smoothly and the pages stay open easily.

For anyone who attends the exhibition the book will be an excellent reference. Due to its weight and size, this is not a book that most people would want to carry with them while visiting a gallery. However there would be value in reading it before attending the exhibition, to know what to look out for and to gain a deeper understanding of Walters and his art. It is certainly a book to return to over time. Several pages fold outwards from the spine of the book to provide a multi-page spread. While not recreating a full exhibition experience, the side by side placement encourages analysis and allows the reader to compare the similarities and differences among related works.

Ultimately, as with any art book, the book cannot do justice to the scale, depth, colour and complexity of the original works – it has, however, heightened my interest in attending the exhibition.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Gordon Walters: New Vision
Published by Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
ISBN 9780864633156

 

Book Review: Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, by Chris Brickell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_teenagersThe photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.

All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.

It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.

The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408688

Book Review: Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good-bye_maorilandOver the past few years, we have remembered many of the events during the Great War, 100 years on. Each battle is commemorated, medals are displayed, letters rediscovered and exhibitions opened to the public. The influence of the Great War on our distinctive New Zealand music was a story waiting to be told. I was delighted to find Chris Bourke has contributed another book to help chart the growth of music in our land. In his previous book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of Popular Music 1918-1964, he covered a huge range of styles and developments over 50 years. In Good-Bye Maoriland, he looks at the individuals and influences on our New Zealand music as a result of the Great War. Chris Bourke is a writer, radio producer and editor. He is meticulous in his research and I always appreciate the thorough notes that support his writing.

Bourke begins by describing the place of music in the family home. In 1916, 40% of New Zealand homes contained a piano. This is a staggering statistic when you consider the pianos were imported, heavy and very expensive. Music shops flourished selling the latest sheet music and music making was an important part of life for towns and cities. This was the era of Brass bands, the local Choir and Vaudeville Shows, which often travelled the length of the country and included visiting celebrities. However, the idea of making a living from music was still undeveloped for most citizens and the part played by music during the war shows how important it was as in uniting and entertaining the troops. Add to that, the patriotic nature of many songs and we begin to see the influence on the war to the development of New Zealand music.

The chapters follow a logical progression as they include the songs to stir recruits, the memories of soldiers lost, the Concert Parties, Waiata Maori and returning home. Each section shows the changes that occurred as the war advanced. It also charts a maturing of a distinctly New Zealand music. I can see Bourke writing Blue Smoke and realising that the Great War was a rich story on its own. Often it is not until we begin to seek answers that other questions arise.

This book is not just a well-researched history. Every page is illustrated with appropriate photographs. I found these fascinating as formal and informal shots allowed the reader to see the high standing in which music making was held. The cover artwork of many New Zealand written songs could actually make another book in the future. Especially, because so much of this music will be lost as families move and downsize.
This book will inform those interested in both war and the cultural history of New Zealand. It is a source book for anyone working with music of the period and a fascinating read for the generally curious, like me.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War
by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408718

Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766