Book Review: A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_communist_in_the_family.jpgRewi Alley was thirty-two years old when he decided ‘to go and have a look at China’, leaving family in New Zealand. It was 1927, he had always dreamed of a life in the army, but after returning from World War 1 he found little for him in New Zealand and after a stint at farming in the North Island left to check out the Chinese revolution.

Arriving in Shanghai, Rewi was soon employed as a fire inspector for the Municipal Council in the British International Settlement, before being promoted to a factory inspector. But he found this to be a ‘miserable experience’ with many of the workers ‘not more than eight or nine years old’ being beaten by the foreman ‘with a piece Of Number Eight gauge wire as a whip’. Ultimately it is the plight of the children as factory slaves as well as orphans of war and famine which give him the courage to leave his job and follow the dream of Gung Ho.

In 2017 Elspeth Sandys, a cousin of Rewi Alley, travelled to China with other family members to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in Shanghai. In her book A Communist in the Family she follows that journey as well as including much of Rewi Alley’s life. A great deal of this comes from Alley’s own writing, letters home, poems, memoirs and other books he has written .

A Communist in the family: Searching for Rewi Alley is written with a great deal of detail and the reader feels part of the journey as the family travels from Beijing to the remote Shandan province on the border of Inner Mongolia, visiting many sites which were significant in Rewi’s life .There was also time for temples and marvelling at 18metre high gold Buddha before their guide would be calling them ‘Alley whanau! Attention please. Follow my flag. This way’…

Sandys has included photographs of Rewi and many of the people who were important in his life, as well as some wonderful photographs captured during the family trip in 2017. The page of Māori words and New Zealand slang at the rear of the book will be helpful for readers from other countries, and the End Notes provide excellent information for people wanting to do more research.

I found this a fascinating read, as Sandys’ beautiful descriptive writing had me feeling part of the journey through modern China, while Alley’s poems reminded me of the harsh history China has endured. It is a solid read but I found it particularly interesting. As New Zealand now has close links with China for trade, it will be of interest to many people.

Elspeth Sandys has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. She has written extensively for the BBC and for RNZ as well as for TV and film. Elspeth lived for many years in the UK but has been back in her home country of New Zealand since 1990.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531601

 

Book Review: Every morning, so far, I’m Alive, by Wendy Parkins

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_every_morning_so_far_im_aliveWhile reading Wendy Parkins’ memoir I was reminded of how universal the need is among humans of knowing who we are and why we are.

The author has recorded with remarkable honesty the breakdown of her spirit under the pressure of the life she was living.  While she began to write of her struggles as a means of coping with what was happening, she discovered more about herself, not only in the distressing present, but also how her life as a child and adolescent had shaped her, and, perhaps, had pre-disposed her to the behaviours that were now causing her so much suffering. Her intellectual capability and strength of spirit were an obvious asset in withstanding the terrible assault on her mind and personality. Even while in the midst of her breakdown, Wendy looked for possible reasons for why she was suffering, going back to memories of her childhood and of her relationships with her parents and others, considering interactions that she had never before given thought to in her busy, fulfilling life as an academic.

I was immensely impressed with the courage it required of the author to continue living through such catastrophic trauma, and not only to continue living but to keep searching for the “why”. The author, herself, may have benefited by writing her story, but we, the reader, benefit also by acknowledging the frailties and resilience we all share as humans.

Memoirs such as this help us to develop empathy and understanding not only for others but for ourselves as well.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Every morning, so far, I’m Alive
by Wendy Parkins
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531618

Book Review: Landfall 237, edited by Emma Neale

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landfall_237.jpgEstablished in 1947, Landfall continues to play an important role in supporting and showcasing writing and art within New Zealand. This autumn edition is no exception. Like unwrapping presents on Christmas Day, opening Landfall 237 reveals a wealth of artistic delight. The announcement of the winners of the 2019 Charles Brasch Young Essay Writing Competition gives this edition extra joy. The Judges’ remarks on the overall standards and in particular about the three winners, give insight into the future of writing through our talented youth. Jack McConnell’s The Taniwha, Moderation of Our Human Pursuits is included.

While I enjoyed new works from some of my favourite, established writers like Cilla McQueen’s Poem for My Tokotoko, and Peter Bland’s America, I enjoyed new ideas, rhythms and clever language constructions from some new writers.

This edition celebrates the centennial of Ruth Dallas, one of the poets most published in Landfall from 1947-66. John Geraets in Ruth Dallas’ poem Turning cleverly combines her writing with an historical and literary timeline. I liked the way this opened up her work afresh. Her poetry is all but neglected these days so it was a pleasure to see such a beautiful tribute.

The featured artists in Landfall 237 are Sharon Singer, Ngahuia Harrison and Peter Trevelyan. Again, their portfolios show a fresh approach in painting and photography.

orthodoxy
Peter Trevelyan’s work orthodoxy (as above) featured on the last page. To me it summed up the precision and beauty of the printed word. Therefore, from the first page with promising new writers, to the final visual statement of orthodoxy this Landfall is a present worth unwrapping.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Landfall 237: Autumn 2019
Edited by Emma Neale
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531731

 

Book Review: To The Occupant, by Emma Neale

cv_to_the_occupantAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

Since 2018 Emma Neale has been the editor of Landfall, someone who judges and selects, curates and discards creative work on a daily basis. But she is also still a writer, producing her own work, defining her own voice and in her latest poetry collection, To the Occupant, she proves she isn’t caged in an ivory tower but is herself awake and aware in our world.

What Neale does so well is to ask us to look at an ordinary scene – waiting in a checkout queue, walking with a child, or eating a muesli bar – and then turns us around until we are facing something more extramundane. A great example of this is the poem ‘The Tasti™ Taste Guarantee’ which begins with the confession that a muesli bar meant for a child’s lunchbox has been eaten by the mother. Yet after that admission the poem floats away into an examination of our mortality, our human failures and the fact that sometimes,

when I catch a glimpse 
of time’s webbed, oil-black wings…I’m so stunned and dread-run that even eating
a candy bar in Supergrain disguise
seems to be the opposite of inaction.

It is because she does this so well that the odd occasion when it doesn’t happen, when the poem keeps you stuck in the stasis of the moment, it feels like a let down.  You want her to always spin you from the ordinary, to point at our cosmic reality and whisper, ‘Look!  Look!  Can’t you see?’

Of course this isn’t all Neale does in her poetry. Notably in this collection, she plays with creating meaning without words. In ‘Tone Poem’ she lays words out between musical bars and mixes musical notations with poetry. In ‘Two Birds Billing’ and ‘It Goes Without Saying’ Neale uses only non-alphabetical characters. These are fun and clever poems but underlying them they ask us to question how meaning is transmitted across black marks on a white page.

Neale also captures objects and nature in surprising yet totally suitable ways. A radio is ‘hunched in the kitchen corner’; chickens are ‘laughing as if they’d woken to tell each other outrageous dreams’; unseasonal weather patterns are ‘the chills of a planet running high fevers’. Of course they are! And yet –  would we ever have thought to describe them that way?

Emma Neale’s last book was a novel, Billy Bird, and To the Occupant certainly has its share of boys and of birds, a sort of literary Neale signature. But it is her strong, compassionate wide-open writer’s eye which most defines her, whatever the genre.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 

To The Occupant
by Emma Neale
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531687

Book Review: Filming the Colonial Past – The New Zealand Wars on Screen, by Annabel Cooper

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_filming_the_colonial_pastThe New Zealand Wars have given filmmakers from early days a rich source of material.  One of the earliest filmmakers was Rudall Hayward, who initially made silent movies.  He made 3 films featuring the New Zealand Wars. They were The Lady of the Cave 1922, Rewi’s Last Stand 1925 and The Te Kooti Trail in 1927. A remake of Rewi’s Last Stand in 1940 brought this film into the era of sound.

Rudall Hayward’s family emigrated to New Zealand when he was 4 years old from England. His family came from a line of entertainers, touring with variety shows that included short films, sometimes locally made ones. Early films often depicting Māori were Europeans with their bodies dyed brown – shocking, and not at all convincing. Hayward’s instinctive showmanship combined with genuine interest in making films about Aotearoa generated community involvement in his projects.  They also drew in local townspeople and iwi.

This involvement with communities and local iwi has continued throughout the decades in New Zealand. It has become a very important part of telling of the history of how the relationship between Pākehā and Māori has developed through the centuries. The history of our own country is important and needs to be told – filmmaking is an excellent way of doing this.

Politics has also played an important part in how the stories are told, including the amount of money available to be able to portray and ensure these stories can be told.  Television played an important part in this. Television drama series The Governor and independent film Utu, enlisted Māori advisors Don Selwyn, Merata Mita and Joe Malcolm.

Full length feature films River Queen and Rain of the Children were made with mixed reception by critics and the public alike. Many saw River Queen as a bit of a disaster, with delays in production because of lack of money and one of the main actors becoming ill.

Over the years Māori have become part of the mainstream acting community but in early years of colonial film-making, they were not encouraged to apply for parts. They were not seen as having the ability to portray what the writers and directors saw as qualities which would be accepted by the general viewing public.

As well as a change in the number of Māori actors, there has been an uptick in the number of Māori directors, with a number of well known and respected Māori film directors being part of film making history worldwide. Taika Waita and Lee Tamahori are two that a number of us have heard about – especially if you are a movie goer. Taika’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016 gives a sideways glance to The Te Kooti Trail as the young hero Ricky (Julian Dennison) tells Bella (Rima Te Waita), ‘I’m a Maori warrior and that bottle over there is a British Soldier, I’m defending my wives’.

Lee Tamahori has directed a number of very successful films here and overseas but the one most of us remember was Once were Warriors, which shocked a lot of New Zealand audiences who found the subject matter rather confronting.  When he moved to Hollywood, he worked on films Die Another Day (the James Bond film from 2002) and The Edge. 

The cost of producing historical drama have continued to rise but new technologies have reduced the cost of screen stories in other genres. Most films are now shot digitally, drones have replaced helicopters, and editing has become digitised.

One area of change that most of us of the older generation have noticed is that technology has replaced travel guide books. Travellers who want to engage with the past may choose a digital guide, the Waikato War Driving Tour app, a history of the wars created by the Māori Heritage team of Heritage New Zealand in 2013. More recently, The Ministry for Culture and Heritage have developed an app – The 1846 War in Wellington. They have connected sites, allowing a traveller to follow the paths of the wars while listening to the words of people who fought at each place.

This book is certainly a comprehensive and detailed look at film-making in New Zealand. While I found it a bit heavy going at times, it was overall a fascinating and enjoyable read.  Who would it appeal to?  Anybody really with a fascination with film and TV documentary and drama productions.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Filming the Colonial Past – The New Zealand Wars on Screen
by Annabel Cooper
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN: 9781988531083

Book Review: the moon in a bowl of water, by Michael Harlow

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.cv_the_moon_in_a_bowl_of_water

the moon in a bowl of water is a collection of prose poems, most of which are small journeys, tiny stories or precise portraits. But reading the collection sent me down a Michael Harlow rabbit hole, I even burrowed out a book he wrote over 20 years ago on teaching the writing of poetry (Take A Risk, Trust Your Language, published in 1985). I realised in the end that I was searching for his motivation – the drive behind this new collection of exclusively prose poems. I got as close as I’ll get with a quote from an essay Harlow published on ‘The Prose Poem’ in takahe – the prose poem celebrates ‘the strangeness that is in the familiar,’ he wrote.

To Harlow the prose poem is a place where ‘the reality of the imagination and the imagination of reality flourish.’ And you see this in the moon in a bowl of water where the poems prove that the author can maintain the musicality and even mystery of poetry within the prose sentences. For example, in the poem ‘A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue’ there is the sentence ‘If you hear anything I haven’t heard, just Buzz me Miss Blue, and that dear hearts will do.’ With its internal rhyme and sound patterns, the poem clearly has all the signs of poetry. But with most poems having a tight narrative prose form I can’t help but think of another genre – flash fiction.

Indeed, reading the acknowledgements it is clear that some of the poems first appeared in the flash fiction collection Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (eds Frankie McMillan, James Norcliffe, Michelle Elvy, 2018). The difference between flash fiction and prose poetry currently rests (says Tim Jones in an essay in Bonsai) on where they’ve been published first and how the author defines them.

the moon in a bowl of water contains beautiful lines; one example – ‘I saw the conducting hand of the wind in the bodies of trees, all that leaf green music’ (from the poem For once, then, something.)  However, if you are wanting new interpretations of sonnets, to count syllables and see the mastery behind each line break this won’t be the poetry collection for you.  But, with 22 June bringing New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day,many readers may be curious of the origins and value of the growing form, may want to understand how it can be used and the stories it can create.

In an interesting way, this poetry collection is a great place to start.

reviewed by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod

the moon in a bowl of water
by Michael Harlow
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531540

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20 By Jared Davidson

cv_dead_lettersAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This is a curious book. It is obviously about wartime censorship, and provides an insight into the sometimes very strange actions of officialdom, and ordinary people, who feared an enemy within society. But somehow the book’s title does not convey exactly what the author is trying to achieve. The ‘dead’ letters, which were never seen by their intended recipients, are not actually dead. They were in fact preserved, and sent to the national archives, where an archivist (Jared Davidson) brings them to life.

In fact, Davidson brings a handful to life by repeating them in their entirety at the beginning of each chapter. This follows a longish opening chapter in which he provides a good overview of the system of censorship, and the key personnel involved. The chief censor was a British soldier, Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was sent over for the job, as part of his role as chief of general staff in New Zealand. The actual censorship was under the supervision of a William Tanner, based in the Wellington postal centre, and operating under the Solicitor-General’s regulations.

All of the officials were deeply involved in the war effort, as an imperial venture, but their practices went beyond this remit. Mail censorship included all letters written to people in neutral countries, and individuals were targeted for what would normally be legitimate dissent. The atmosphere created within a small society led to suspicions being cast on anyone considered a foreigner, and therefore denunciations followed. This accounts for some individuals whose lives were disrupted, if not destroyed, by the heavy hand of the State after letters were censored, even if not actually subversive.

Davidson has collected a small sample of these cases, basically one per chapter. Some of these people were just misfits, and would otherwise have been seen as eccentric, especially those from European cultures, such as Marie Weitzel, Hjelmar Dannevill, and Laura Anderson. Others had obvious opposition to imperial Britain, either as Irish catholics like Tim Brosnan, or Frank Burns, who decided to evade conscription in the West Coast bush. The author obviously has an interest in the fringes of the labour movement, and the so-called Wobblies, where there was organised dissent and forms of opposition, including the actions against the conscription of married men in 1917.

But mostly these are very individual stories of outsiders, and some troubled souls, who made the mistake of writing candidly to friends and family, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davidson is able to follow up these stories, and find some relatives who were not aware of the letters, and the stories within them. There is a sense of justice finally being provided for some individual cases of harsh treatment.

There are also a few problems with the book. The narrative can be somewhat jumbled as it goes from the particulars of a contemporary letter, and then including a lot of contextual information, before trying to complete the story of an individual life story. Davidson has a habit of referring to published authors as ‘historian’, when he is actually referring to academics. Obviously these outsiders and dissenters are of great interest in history departments, but a lot of the detail is very obscure.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20
By Jared Davidson
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531526