Book Review: Drivers of Urban Change, edited by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available now at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_drivers_of_urban_changeThis book is a product of an ongoing research project by Otago University’s Centre for Sustainable Cities, based in Wellington. It is part of a series of research findings on urban change in New Zealand, which appear to be in equally attractive books. This seems to be a rare example of applied social science research, which has depth and accessibility for the non-fiction reader. It is also a very topical project, given the challenges facing all the major cities, but particularly Auckland and Christchurch.

The main text of the book is based on interviews with experts, local government planners and politicians, and some involved in the policy-making process for central government agencies. There are also 18 case studies within the book, which involve a page or two on a particular urban topic, and reflect some new research undertaken by post-graduate students. Besides chapters on the main cities, there is an extra chapter called ‘sentiments about cities’, which is based on an on-line opinion poll. And, of course, there are a number of figures and tables that provide a lot of statistics as well.

There is something in Drivers of Urban Change for anyone living in the main urban centres, who is interested in policy issues. I think that the main text reflects the particular political context of the time that it was written, and most chapters refer to government Ministers frequently. Perhaps this is a strength and weakness. I seems to suggest that central government could and should be the key driver of urban change. Then again, there is certainly critical reflection on the current government’s attitude, which seems to favour urban property developers, or ‘the market’. As a social scientist I would have liked to see a bit more on the role of public housing, with a comparative aspect. In terms of publishing, some of the figures appear a bit fuzzy, and there is no index.

I believe that I actually took part in the Horizon online poll that forms the basis of chapter 7 in Drivers of Urban Change. This was particularly interesting, especially to see the results of other people’s views on social inequality. But there were also some specific questions on housing density and cities, and this is a critical issue now. As someone who does live in an apartment (for at least part of the week), I don’t recommend it for most people, and it is certainly not a panacea for urban issues, but a partial solution at best. Including the views of people on the ground, as opposed to policy-makers, is always a challenge, but this book is a very useful starting point.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Drivers of Urban Change
Edited by  Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493042


Book Review: Seelenbinder, by James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_seelenbinderFor a book written about a man in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Seelenbinder reads more like a casual conversation in a café than the biography of an Olympic wrestler and member of the Resistance.

James McNeish manages to deliver this story in an easy and comfortable manner, seemingly writing more for the reader than for the history books. He blends together historical facts and events with his own style of storytelling, inventing conversations and painting Seelenbinder’s life for us in interesting colours. He talks to the reader at times, inviting us into his process of writing, moving between his own experiences and motivations and those of his subject. Seelenbinder, the Olympian who defied Hitler comes across as a highly interesting and engrossing, if at times confronting, book about a man largely forgotten.

McNeish somehow manages to expertly combine history and fact with his own storytelling. At one point he compares himself to Scheherazade, the narrator of The Arabian Nights, saying that at times he must invent. He is open about his own writing, letting us know what is invented and what is not. At times he gives us options, different possibilities of what actually happened. These moments in McNeish’s writing are inviting, they feel casual and give life to the history. It draws you into the pages, creating an engaging story, filled with both fact and fiction.

Where his writing style is interesting and engaging, so too is his subject. After reading the book I asked my parents, who lived and grew up in Germany before the reunification, if they had ever heard of Werner Seelenbinder. By McNeish’s account, it is not surprising that they haven’t. “The process of un-naming goes on.”

Seelenbinder remains mostly forgotten, and this book feels like an appropriate stepping stone to bringing him back into history. Through McNeish we see Seelenbinder not simply as a historical or political figure (as he is often viewed), but as an interesting and complex man who endured the hardships of his time. Alongside other important figures and groups that existed in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, like the July Plotters, he seems to be an important part of German and world history, and yet remains largely forgotten.

McNeish not only tried to relay his life to us, but also deals with this issue, asking the question of why his name disappeared. His journey is just as interesting as Seelenbinder’s, and these multiple lines that run through the book create an interesting and enjoyable read. McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Seelenbinder: The man who defied Hitler 
by James McNeish
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493011

Book Review: Soundings of Hellas, by John Davidson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_soundings_of_hellasFor those who are familiar with Greek myth and history, it is easy to find an entry into John Davidson’s latest collection of poetry, Soundings of Hellas. It is filled with references to both the ancient world of the past as well as to the more modern Greece visited by Davidson. But as the poem on the back of this collection, The Myth of Myths, mentions, ‘The heartbeat of a myth is / felt in Wellington as much / as in Santorini, Larissa or / squeezing Piraeus.’

It is this presence of Wellington and New Zealand, alongside present day Greece, that connects to the past and to these ancient myths, making what may feel like a distant story seem almost like home.

At first the many classical allusions feel almost overwhelming, even for someone who studied Ancient Greek myths. But soon familiarity sneaks in alongside the heroes and gods. In the poem First Impressions we are told that ‘Poverty was a crude sign soliciting / camping on a patched patch of / grass in front of a cottage. Almost / Arcadian after the self-importance / of Patras.’ While the second part of these lines is a bit distant, this image of camping is familiar for almost every New Zealander. It also instantly ties together Greece with something relatable. This ease with which comfort is created certainly helps to bring some of the unknown elements into a more welcoming space.

Davidson not only deals with the ancient past of Greece, but also visits it in more recent history, painting vivid pictures of his experiences and impressions. In the poem Athens, 28 October ‘Aegean Airways disgorged us / from an oppressive cloud bank / into an airport like any other.’ Again Davidson tries to make the unfamiliar familiar with his words. While the rest of this poem mixes a present day Greece with images from the past, the opening lines lessens the alienating effect this can have in the reader. Davidson does this in a subtle way, and unlike the Greek influence it doesn’t stand out, perhaps making it a lot more effective.

But perhaps the best mixing of these different points of interest for Davidson comes in the poem Talking Olympos, which opens with the lines ‘You can spot Hermes any day on some / Wellington street.’ It is this casual way of placing these two elements together that create a truly enjoyable collection that plays around with ancient myths and brings them into a relatable and modern world. As the poem’s last lines say, ‘A busy bunch, the Olympians. / Ignore them at your peril.’

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Soundings of Hellas
by John Davidson
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9781927242957

Book Review: Beyond Puketapu, by Dunstan Ward

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_beyond_puketapuPuketapu in Maori means ‘sacred hill’. For Dunstan Ward, it’s also “the name of a high conical hill… that dominates the landscape between what was my father’s North Otago farm and the Pacific”. This is what the first poems of Beyond Puketapu start with: childhood memories of New Zealand’s nature.

Ward himself moved away from this home in New Zealand; similarly, his poems also make this transition into other overseas settings. Pieces about Paris make up a large portion of this collection; one poem captures the moment snow falls in France while another compares flowers along the Seine to the memory of a particular Otago morning. In ‘Gift of Venice’, Ward also captures a different part of Europe. In this poem, Venice is brilliantly described as “wrapped anew in tissue of light”.

With a significant amount of his poetry immersed in Paris, the danger of this massive scope is that I felt out of depth with what I was reading. Compared to the earlier poems in the collection, which were much more familiar, there were numerous French words and phrases I didn’t understand. I was unsure as to how crucial these were for supplementing Ward’s poetry. I still appreciated the beautiful language in these pieces, but having so much of the text in French resulted in feeling that some of the meaning was lost on me. It was only when Ward returned to more everyday landscapes that I felt I could immerse myself in his poetry again. At the end of the collection, Ward comes back to nature in a setting that seems more familiar, with the final poem ‘Song’ describing “a day that alights / Like a bird on your table”. It was these snippets of nature that I enjoyed the most.

A poem that stood out for me was Actaeon, a modern retelling of the Greek myth where Actaeon, after stumbling upon the goddess Diana when she’s naked, is then transformed into a deer. In this retelling, however, Actaeon’s final fate is not shown and instead the poet worries, “what will she do to him?” I enjoyed this familiar but still slightly altered take on myth and how it tied in closely to Beyond Puketapu’s themes of nature.

I also enjoyed the little section at the end titled Arrière-pensées, a section that contained more comical pieces. A poem about Ezra Pound’s Modernist motto, “Make it New” is simply titled ‘Lower Case’. Another self-referential piece titled ‘Poem’ with the subtitle ‘(creative writing class)’ plays with the idea of what makes a good poem.

Beyond Puketapu indeed does what the title promises; it looks beyond the New Zealand that Ward was born in and the childhood it represents. I was expecting to read a lot more poetry based in New Zealand due to the cover image of nature that seemed to be quintessentially New Zealand. However, it was still interesting to see the poet surrounded by the beauty of Europe and how he still found himself thinking about the wild nature of New Zealand. Puketapu, or simply home, is represented as a kind of beginning through which the rest of the world can then be discovered.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Beyond Puketapu
by Dunstan Ward
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242940

Book Review: Bullet Hole Riddle, by Miriam Barr

cv_bullet_hole_riddleAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Miriam Barr’s collection of poetry Bullet Hole Riddle is, on reflection, perhaps one that I wanted to like more than I actually did. I wanted to like it because I admired the bravery of ‘going there’ (and by ‘there’ I mean the violent or traumatic past that this book documents the fall-out from, and which is, for the most part, ignored by serious writers as ‘distasteful’), because I agree with the way the author politicises the personal and refuses to allow damages done to the (female) body to become on the one hand, belittled, and, on the other, the defining feature of a life. As the title suggests, the book enacts a riddle; the teasing out, in three parts, of the scar tissue of a trajectory of violence. In this it becomes almost a concept book, it sticks so closely to its central themes.

The first section, Bullet, uses eight, quite brief, poems to bring the reader into the world of the book. It’s here that you realise that, as a reader, you have become implicated in the actions described. These small poems act as riddles: in the poem ‘Lesson’, the speaker describes how her “legs did not/run me away”, and the poem ‘Observer Effect’ admits “I was dressed towards desire/designed to seek it”, the poem ‘No Craft’ looks at consent and (body) language, AND contains, for me, one of the best lines in the book: “the fire horse in us bucking the entire time/at how we give in”. This section doesn’t pull its punches, these are hefty issues, and the poems used to raise them concede their complications, while at times showing things in stark simplicity.

The second section is much less clear, and probably the most enjoyable, poetically, for me. We move into a confusing world of jungles and rivers, the damaged psyche; this section deals with the desire to move and the failure of the body. The poem ‘Self-soothing’ looks at the ways we attempt to heal ourselves; the line “I am on my knees in the dirt/the earth is in my hands/a secret running down my back” captures, for me, one of this book’s major strengths: the ability to accurately describe physical sensation in a way that points to the emotional. In fact, this physicality, the author’s taking back of her body, writing it down for herself, and documenting its involvement with others is the primary aim of the book I think.

The final section describes the healing of the speaker, but, unfortunately, is the one I enjoyed the least. Not because I’m a terrible person, but because, for me, this is where the writing crosses over from symbolic to clichéd at times. It seems like the book loses its poetry, becoming more prosaic; I stop engaging with the writing, and because I’m satisfied that the speaker is going to ‘be ok’, the plot doesn’t hold my interest either. If this was a simple book of domestic poetry, some of these poems would stand just fine on their own, but as they come at the end of this storyline, they seem a bit wishy-washy. I’m not sure what I actually want for the end of the book instead though, soo….

Overall I felt like some of these pieces were slightly uncomfortable on the page, like they, in their hearts, belonged to the voice, and had been pinned down against their will. Some of their vitality has been lost, I suspect, in the transition from performance to paper. I found it difficult, at times, to balance the confessional tone of the poems with the almost mysterious content. For poems that appear so frank, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what is happening from time to time. Though maybe this is the point. Many of the things this book is doing, though, make it an important one. It’s a feminist book, and it takes its politics seriously, sometimes at the expense of the writing, but most often balancing the two. Anyone who reads this book will find it impossible not to think seriously about gender politics in society and in our intimate dealings with one another. From where I’m standing, that can only be a good thing.

Reviewed by Hannah Mettner

Bullet Hole Riddle
by Miriam Barr
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242681

Book Review: Only One Question, by Tom Weston

Available now at bookstores.

Tom Westcv_only_one_questionon’s Only One Question  is his latest of several collections of poetry. This work is cerebral and carefully rendered, and it was unsurprising to learn that Weston’s day-job is in law. This is premeditated poetry, with scrutiny to detail and an emphatic wish for clarity.

The blurb states that these poems ‘came into existence pre-earthquake but have been shaped and moulded post-earthquake’. And indeed, the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 haunt this collection, but it would be wrong to suggest this is a defining feature. Poems such as ‘Earthquake, elsewhere’ transport the reader to shaky terrain. But the poetry here has a sweep broader than disaster-poetry per sé. Subjects range vastly from the contemplation of a terrestrial ‘astronaut’, the passing of a dog, a wedding, observations of an hotel lobby. But these subjects are the vehicles for the introduction of loftier ideas. The ‘astronaut’ ponders the absurd repetitions of his days on earth. Meanwhile, ‘the old dog’ looks at our perception of the past. Every ordinary object lugs with it something bigger. This poetry has a philosophical edge.

Weston is a master of abstraction, and our attempts to relay meaning occupy a large space of his work. Language is seen as a tool that can haul things into the world, but also affirm the empty and ineffable. Weston’s people are sometimes ‘speechless’, sometimes ‘holding candles and waiting for words to matter again’. There is a sense that language is a device with which we are at best flailing and incompetent. Weston asks ‘how do we speak and whose language is it’. Moreover, words can be wielded in an attempt to break with reality, to delude and to deceive.

Weston, however, has a command of words which belies such ideas. There is a feeling that he labours to convey meaning ‘just so’ in the face of linguistic constraints. But it is where he lets his poetry slip into the visceral and the everyday, that his strength is most profound. Weston’s imagery is vivid and compelling and, I reckon, punches beyond the more intellectual observations that surround. ‘When winter speaks’ is about the rebuilding of a city. Here is my favourite stanza from the collection (although it can be said I have several) – ‘Let frost build cathedrals in the grass. Each/ blade, each clover leaf to lean against the next, a frozen city/ all hued in white’.

Tom Weston’s Only One Question is a multi-layered, expansive and erudite collection. This work demands a little time and thought. If you have both, then this may be for you.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Only One Question
by Tom Weston
Published by Steele Roberts Publishers
ISBN  9781927242582