Book Review: 仁 surrender, by Janet Charman

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_surrendersurrender is a poetry collection that Janet Charman began to write during a 2009 residency at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was during a guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum that Charman completed the first draft. And the influence of these locations is potent all throughout 仁 surrender.

Charman begins with familiar concrete images related to travel. A ‘felt carpeted box / with a pin number’ holds a passport and an envelope of cash. Charman takes her time going through the routine of washing her clothes, hanging them on an elastic and a ledge above the window-bay. She pauses for a moment, letting herself take in the view as she stands within this new temporary space.

Throughout 仁 surrender, there is a ‘you’ that Charman speaks of with affection. Small snippets from different poems tell us more about this ‘you’. In the poem where people are, Charman explains how she is ‘but one whose work you’ve translated’. And even without mentioning a name or a physical characteristic, Charman builds up this ‘you’ into a strong figure. It is someone who gives Charman the ‘sharp of your (their) tongue’ when they realise that Charman has not brought an electronic dictionary with her. ‘Western cultural hegemony’, Charman states in explanation of her actions, and her own shame is evident when she writes that this ‘you’ has every ‘right to be angry’. As a result, Charman is left considering, ‘what will be left of the Chinese culture / when Capitalism has finished planting its landscapes with Coca-Cola’.

Charman’s experience with this ‘you’ also touches on issues of being a woman. While talking about this figure, Charman states that she is someone ‘who fears men for every good reason / and still wants to be wrong about them’. Meanwhile, in another poem, Charman finds an exhibition about a woman called Lydia Sum. Charman sees costumes on display, each piece ‘alive with jouissance’. But when Charman mentions the exhibition to one of the others at the hotel, she learns that Lydia Sum was sometimes ‘referred to as ‘Fatty’ / affectionately’. And hearing this, Charman writes, “i want to burst into tears”.

In the poem writing exercise, Charman goes on to explain why she writes the way she does, with minimal capitalisation. For her, lower-case first person represents:

‘the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration’

Whereas upper-case first person:

‘reads as the default generic setting

of uninterrupted male subjectivity

as neutral and universal in patriarchy

in relation to which

a woman artist

must perpetually distinguish herself’

Comparing the conventional, or the male, against the unconventional, or the female, in this way is an enlightening process. It also brings a valuable insight into Charman’s own work and opens up how her poetry can be read. In this way, 仁 surrender is more than just a collection of poems about new places and locations. It highlights the issues that follow us wherever we go in the world, some that go far beyond the concrete and into the invisible frameworks that hum in the background and define what is acceptable.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

surrender
by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531106

Book Review: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

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cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522230

Undreamed of… 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere

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cv_undreamed_of_50_years.jpgArt books, coffee table books, travel books. There are so many out there and they all blur together making it hard to select one. This is not a problem when you come to Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. It combines beautiful art, interesting background and a wealth of New Zealand artists and their stories. What more could you ask for?

The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, established in 1966, supports artists by providing studio space and a stipend for a year. The first fellow was Michael Illingworth. Now it is an established part of the New Zealand art scene.

In 2016/17, the Dunedin Art Gallery and Hocken Gallery exhibited 50 years of work from the recipients of the award. This beautifully illustrated book commemorates the event and the artists involved.

The book begins with three superb articles on the importance of art, the establishment of the fellowship and its impact. I found each of these a work of art in itself. We have Hodgkins commenting on her own art:

‘This present line of work is good… I have got well into the spirit of the place & it is yielding up riches – undreamed of, at first sight…’

This was in 1930 from Flatford Mill where she had a studio and support to enable her to work without financial worries. It is this idea that gave rise to the fellowship, which enabled an artist to focus on their work. The link to the University of Otago was beneficial to the artist who had money and space to work. Julia Morison, Fiona Pardington and Heather Straka were inspired in their work by the Medical school and many artists had their work displayed by the University.

Priscilla Pitts looks closely at the impact of the Fellowship, while Joanne Campbell charts the founding of this award. Charles Brasch preferred to stay in the background but it appears from her research, that he played an important role in the creation and continuance of this grant. It was set up initially to nurture an identifiably national culture though in fact the first two recipients were English emigres. There were two occasions when the Fellowship was in danger from financial strife, as is often the case with awards dependent on sponsorship from outside. In both cases, a solution was found and 50 years of success suggests it will continue to flourish.

Finally, and this is the bulk of the book, come the artists. These are in alphabetical order and include photos, artworks and a biographical summary. In reality, it is a Who’s Who of the New Zealand art world. While the early recipients worked in the more traditional fields of painting and sculpture, the later years include installations, moving image and three-dimensional works. When looking through these pages, it becomes apparent that the selection panel got it right, time after time. The artworks are amazing and I am just disappointed the exhibition did not travel the country and enable us all to benefit from such a rich range of creativity.

I am not sure I will still be here to celebrate 100 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, but after reading this book, I am sure it will occur.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship
by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522568

Book Review: Casting Off – A Memoir, by Elspeth Sandys

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cv_casting_off_a_memoirCasting Off begins on the eve of Elspeth Sandys’ first marriage in Dunedin in the 1960s where she says, ‘Presbyterianism is in the air you breathe in this town. It is also, and always will be, in my bloodstream’.

This is the second volume of her memoir, the first What Lies Beneath, explained her interesting and challenging background and childhood.

I checked the the difference between an autobiography and memoir before I could write the review, and I learned the autobiography is a chronological recording of the person’s experience while the memoir relies more on the author’s memory, feelings and emotions
Sandys herself says, ‘I will try to stick to the facts, avoiding invention but guided, as I cannot help be, as I have always been, by imagination’.

I have not read the first volume but found this an interesting read and was able to pick up the facts of Sandys early life as the book progressed.

After her marriage the couple left New Zealand to live in England where they enjoy the arts and theatre scene. However, work is intermittent, and by 1968 she is divorced and back in New Zealand with a daughter.

The book is supported with photographs supporting many of the significant events in the author’s life. Many of the earlier photos are black and white but there are also a number of more recent coloured snaps, including The Long House, a home she lived in London during her next marriage.

I enjoyed the inclusion of poems appropriately slotted throughout the book which shows the versatility of Sandys writing.

She has published nine novels, and two collections of short stories as well as numerous original plays and adaptions for the BBC and RNZ, as well as scripts for film and television. She now lives in Wellington, has two children and six grandchildren.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Casting Off – A Memoir
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522551

 

 

 

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

Book Review: Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, by Liz Breslin

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cv_alzheimers_and_a_spoonAlzheimer’s and a Spoon is about all the broken spaces, the crevices, the things that have been forgotten and lost. Liz Breslin’s first poem in the collection touches on this theme immediately. The poem is made up of words from actual conversations between Alois Alzheimer, who identified the disease that’s named after him, and Auguste Deter, the first person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some answers are fractured. “What year is it?” Alzheimer asks. It is 1901 and Deter responds, “Eighteen hundred”. And yet, some things stay grounded. When Alzheimer asks about the colour of snow, Deter responds, white. The sky, blue. Meadows, green. It is a short conversation but it shows what Alzheimer’s can take and what it decides to leave behind.

Breslin’s poem ‘dichotomy’ explored this idea as well. In the piece, Breslin asks, “please pass me a scrumpled ball… secret me the memories you don’t speak”. As Alzheimer’s grows and grows, words and memories start to disappear. And Breslin is trying to pull these moments back out before they slip away.

In the poem ‘Allies’, Breslin describes a vivid moment of her own. It’s a subtle poem recalling a memory of her babcia, her grandmother, in her boarding house in Oxford. Breslin describes how “the kitchen smelled of dill and those mushrooms beginning with ‘p’ that I can never remember, and mould… Everything in its place. Pressed and fiercely meek”. In this personal piece, Breslin perfectly describes the simple nostalgia that comes with visiting relatives, and the comfort that can be found through memory.

Perhaps in connection to this memory, cutlery makes its appearance throughout the collection. ‘when life gives you spoons’ is a whimsical poem that repeats “when life gives you spoons, measure sugar, stir the juice / when life gives you spoons, fix tyres… call them ladles… scoop the innards, carve a heart… collect a set”.

Breslin is the one who watches memories disappear in others but for a moment, she also imagines what it would be like to be the person with the broken memories. In ‘Alzheimer’s and a spoon, she asks, “Where are they off to, these words / I am losing?” There is a sad resignation throughout the piece that shows the disconnection between herself and what was once hers. Her own ideas feel like someone else’s, and Breslin wonders about “words that were mine”, words that she can’t seem to grasp anymore.

For this reason, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is a tangled collection. Alongside Breslin, the reader has to navigate a landscape of broken memories. It shows how exhausting the world would be without the memory we rely on every day. I felt lost trying to connect all the fragments of Breslin’s grandmother together, when she was such a key figure throughout the collection. This left me confused at times, and perhaps Breslin could have provided more poems to help string it all together. But also, I recognised that maybe this was the point: sometimes gaps can’t be filled and sometimes fragments are all that’s left.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon
by Liz Breslin
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522988

Book Review: Doctors in Denial – The forgotten women in the “unfortunate experiment”, by Ronald W. Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_doctors_in_denialThere have been two phrases in New Zealand, which have become synonymous with tragic events. While “an orchestrated litany of lies”, reminds us of the Erebus inquiry, an ”unfortunate experiment,” takes us straight to the sad events which unfolded over 20 years at National Women’s Hospital, in Auckland.

Ron Jones is a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who was part of the original team to bring the spotlight on the work of Professor Herbert Green. Here he tells his own story in meticulous detail. The book follows a chronological timeline but also inserts the stories of some of those involved and gives a human face to the unsuspecting women in this experiment. He also captures the behaviour and social conventions of the times, which had a part in these events. While today we are appalled at the thought of medical experiments on uninformed patients, it was still the era when the Doctor knows Best and who are we to question.

The account of events, people, places and the advances being made in medicine at the time give a robust substance to the book. Here are the details, which supported the experiment, the people who questioned but were ignored, the women who accepted the treatment offered, or not offered in some cases. Against a worldwide agreement among many experts that CIS was a precursor of cancer, Green decided to make a study of his group without their consent. This meant women were untreated, or over-treated in invasive ways without a choice or knowledge of their involvement.

While the book is a little heavy for a general read, it is essential reading for anyone concerned with the development of ethics committees in New Zealand. It is important for medical students to see the fallout from poor decisions and for administrators to understand how things can go so wrong if there are no careful checks on the behaviour of our experts. This book clearly reminds us of how wrong we can be and the pain such mistakes can cause. I am a much better informed teacher of ethics and a woman who will always ask questions, even of the experts.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Doctors in Denial: The forgotten women in the “unfortunate experiment”
by Ronald W. Jones
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522438