WORD Christchurch: Mortification

WORD Christchurch: Mortification

After a hectic day getting riled up about Brexit and then learning to Vogue the FAFSWAG way, I settled down with relief for some good old-fashioned storytelling.

WORD Christchurch director Rachael King took to the stage first to introduce the Mortification session, inspired by an anthology of the same name edited by Robin Robertson in which writers tell stories of their public shame. She was joined in person by Robertson, Paula Morris, Steve Braunias, Megan Dunn, and Jarrod Gilbert; and in spirit by Irvine Welsh.

After a brief word from Robertson we were treated to a video from Welsh, who told a truly horrifying story of having shat himself in public and then trying to clean himself up in a filthy public loo. The tale also involved being laughed at by a bunch of drunk Glaswegians while standing naked from the waist down trying to wash himself in the sink. So gross – yet so funny. He really set the tone.

Morris was up next. ‘I have no public befoulings’ she said, to my relief, but instead told a story of ‘a thousand small humiliations’, often involving miniskirts. ‘I have the legs of a Polynesian seafarer and they need to be on display’ – but various wardrobe malfunctions have meant ‘once again feeling the breeze where the breeze should not be felt’. Her story of being perched awkwardly on a posh chair at an opera concert ‘vagina on velvet’ was particularly well told – and most women will be able to relate to the mortification of an unexpected period just when you’ve chosen to wear white trousers.

Braunias’ story was beautifully composed, with apparently unrelated details all coming together at the end. He first said he’d spied Helen Clark here at WORD, ‘storming along like a southerly in slacks’, before reminiscing about his life as a young man in Wellington – ‘the city felt like a jagged edge’ – refusing to go on his OE because NZ was too strange and baffling to leave. I can’t do justice to the story without relating it in full – hopefully there will be a second volume of Mortification and you’ll be able to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that I will never see the back of Helen Clark’s head the same way again.

Dunn took us in a completely different direction with a tale of trying to be a mermaid – including repeated use of the term ‘mermazing’ which I now wish to work into my everyday conversations. As part of her research for her forthcoming book, she took a mermaiding class in Florida, where ‘the heat sat on my skin like processed cheese’. She was told to undulate not just her body but also her head and neck: ‘I felt really dumb’. But she gave it a try – ‘middle age is gamely keeping going’ – despite a ‘deep sense of ugliness that’s hard to shake’. Dunn concluded that her happy place is in a bookshop, not the water, where mermaids are safely sealed within the pages of books ‘where they bloody should be’.

Our final storyteller was Gilbert, who told the story of trying to win a bet to run a marathon in three and a half hours. This involved him striding to the centre of the stage to act out a particularly mortifying episode from his training whereby he had to take an emergency dump in public on the side of the Sumner causeway, ‘possibly the most exposed piece of geography on earth’. He called the marathon ‘cruel and despicable insanity’ – but he did win the bet when he finished with a time of 3 hours 28 minutes. ‘It’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me.’

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Books I’ll be Giving this Christmas, by Jenna Todd

Jenna Todd is the Manager of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden, Auckland, which was this year crowned Nielsen Independent Bookshop of the Year. Here are the books she is planning to give friends and family this Christmas. And you can win them: just tell us your favourite cover in the comments, and/or over on Facebook!

cv_swing_timeSwing Time, by Zadie Smith (Penguin)
Swing Time is my go-to fiction recommendation for this Christmas. There is a touch of Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels in terms of female friendships carrying the story however, there’s a lot more going on including the exploration of race, the internet, and pop culture. This layered narrative allows you to take in the story on so many levels. It’s fresh, contemporary and a novel that captures a snapshot of current times.

A is for Aotearoa, by Diane Newcombe & Melissa Anderson Scott (Puffin)
cv_a_is_for_aotearoaI may be biased, as Diane & Missy are Mt. Eden locals, but this is the type of book that will go out of print and customers will be asking after it for years to come.  A is for Aotearoa follows on from the successful A is for Auckland. It’s slightly more advanced as the reader is given as series of clues for each letter of the alphabet and they have to guess each New Zealand landmark (don’t worry, the answers are in the back!) It’s the type of book that can be read together as a family, with interactive flaps and whimsical illustrations. I’ve sent this to my dear Canadian friends and they just snapchatted me a picture of it under their Christmas tree.

cv_annualAnnual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press)
When I saw a proof of Annual at the NZ Booksellers Conference this year, I was so excited. Kate De Goldi has curated a treasure trove of some of NZ’s most loved and soon to be loved creative talents. Presented in a beautiful A4-sized hardback, this is the perfect gift for the curious NZ child. I plan to give this to my 12-year-old sister, and I hope more are published so I can give her one every year!

cv_tell_you_what_2017Tell you what 2017, edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (AUP)
This is the third year that Tell You What has been around and it’s such a treasure to sell. Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew have brought together the best non fiction written over 2016. It’s such an easy present to give as it’s perfect for someone who lives and engages in New Zealand culture or for someone who has never been here – so pretty much anyone! I plan to give this to anyone that I can’t decide what to buy them.

The Shops, by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books)
cv_the_shopsCivilisation and Scene of the Crime have been some of Time Out’s bestselling non fiction over the last few years. Luncheon Sausage brings us the NZ gothic feeling of these titles − but this time Steve’s writing is accompanied by an excellent series of images by Peter Black. Each image of Black’s feels like a Braunias essay in itself − it says so much by saying not much at all. This year, I will be buying The Shops for my husband so I can have the pleasure of owning it too!

by Jenna Todd

WORD: The Spinoff After Dark: Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Event_The-Spinoff-after-DarkI arrived at this session in a bit of daze, having had my head exploded by Hear My Voice, two hours of incendiary poetry and storytelling from a group of WORD Christchurch’s most outspoken writers. One of my favourite things about literary festivals is discovering new writers to love, both from Aotearoa and overseas, and at Hear My Voice I found three: Sophie Rea, Daisy Speaks, and Ivan E. Coyote. As well as being wonderful writers they were also exceptional performers. Catch them if you can.

The Spinoff After Dark was a very relaxed session – and a good thing too, because by this point in the day after Busted, Speaking Out and Hear My Voice, I was in danger of Feelings Overload. Toby Manhire, Alex Casey, and Duncan Greive from The Spinoff sat with some mics in a cafe and nattered to us. They did mini-interviews, which were quite fun, starting with comedy writer Steve Hely: “Everything I know about Max Key, I learned from Alex Casey”. I’m not sure why they were talking about Max Key, or why Casey had been emailing Hely so much information about him: one of the downsides of this session is that it assumed a lot of shared knowledge on the part of the audience (which I didn’t always have), and relied often on in-jokes. But the participants were quick-witted and the mood good-humoured, so it was generally entertaining.

The second guest hauled out of the audience was WORD Literary Director Rachael King. Casey was asking everyone who their Fight for Life opponent would be: it had to be someone equivalent in your field. King chose Auckland Writers Festival Director Anne O’Brien: “I lift weights, so she’d be down in the first round.” (Hely had chosen Max Key.)

The third guest was Joe Bennett, but I’m afraid I can’t report on what he said because all it says in my notes is “wow, Joe Bennett is really goddam annoying”. I think he said he would fight Steve Braunias.

Next up was author Paula Morris. She reported on her travels in Latvia, where you have to go everywhere by bus and it’s really hot on the buses, but people get annoyed with you if you take off your coat. “That’s just one of the many interesting things I know and it’s why travel is important.” She would fight Selina Tusitala Marsh, because she’s weak from where Morris pulled Marsh’s neck muscle while brushing her hair.

The fifth interviewee was illustrator Toby Morris (no relation to Paula); the other half (with Manhire) of ‘The Pencilsword‘. They spoke about the trials of being called Toby. Morris said his father-in-law referred to him as Tony in his speech at his (Toby’s) (I mean Morris) (Toby Morris not Paula) (god, sorry) wedding. He would fight Sam Scott from the Phoenix Foundation.

Then RNZ producer Mark Cubey was called to the stage. He said he was amazed there aren’t more Spinoffs: fantastic, fun, crazy, good websites. In fact, he said, “I think there’s room for a spinoff of The Spinoff, you could call it The Spunoff.” Greive looked horrified. “No one do that!”

Manhire then invited celebrated journalist Rebecca Macfie to come up and be mini-interviewed. This was a complete surprise to her and it took Manhire a while to persuade her. “I’m totally unfunny, I’m the wrong person to be doing this,” Macfie warned. Manhire asked her whether Pike River was over. “Shit no. How can it be finished when there’s no accountability, no bodies, no justice.” Hear, hear.

The final guest was blogger Giovanni Tiso. He was asked how come he’s so good at blogging when English is his second language, after Italian. He said “writing is a second language anyway. You are taught rhetoric if you’re taught well at school.” (I think Italian schools must be better than ours because I don’t remember being taught that?). Casey was asking everyone what they snacked on while writing. He said he writes his blogs on Monday nights so there are no snacks (cue much consternation). He would fight Karl du Fresne.

The panel then answered questions people had tweeted in, and from the audience. Greive on sports journalism: “Everyone got into bad habits a hundred years ago and that’s why a lot of things are bad.” Casey on The Bachelor: “When you apply an international franchise here you see the weirdness of New Zealand, and that’s why I like it”. She ghostwrote the text of Jamie Curry’s (heavily illustrated) book in a couple of days.

Eventually the panellists resorted to interviewing each other. Manhire would fight Duncan Garner. Greive would fight Marcus Stickley because The Wireless won best website at the Canon media awards, and “I will probably carry that resentment to my grave”. Casey does not recommend K Bar chocolate.

I wanted to tell Casey how much I admired her outspokenly feminist work at The Spinoff but such earnestness seemed out of place in amongst light-hearted discussion of snacks. I confined myself to live-tweeting and wine. Bring on WORD Sunday!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Spinoff After Dark
with Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Alex Casey appears today in:
The Great Divide?, Sun 28 Aug, 3.30pm

Toby Manhire appears today in:
Giving Them Hell: Political Cartoons
, (Chair) Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Duncan Greive appears today in:
Reimagining Journalism, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

 

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2015In his foreword to Tell You What, John Campbell is keen to engage the reader in a discussion about what might constitute ‘New Zealand culture’ these days. He starts out by quoting Allen Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,/ Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Campbell goes on to list the ways and individuals in which identity and culture have developed and found expression in the years since Curnow wrote those lines in 1943: the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, frigates in Mururoa, Whina Cooper’s hikoi, Bill Manhire’s poetry, Janet Frame, Flying Nun, Marilyn Waring…

What Campbell is referring to is a two-faceted shift in the way that New Zealanders represent themselves. The first is that many of the people of Aotearoa do now stand conspicuously upright, in many locations, for many reasons — in anger, in celebration, in dissent, in assertion of the need for something better. And linked to this, making it all visible, is the emergent confidence, talent and stridency of our storytellers. There are multitudinous voices, pluralistic points-of-view! And to the great good fortune of the reading public, particularly for those of us who still prefer to read paper books, the second annual instalment of Tell You What has arrived just in time to stave off the despair at contemporary reportage that might, to paraphrase Campbell, have readers climbing into the oven beside the turkey.

So what is going on in New Zealand, for New Zealanders, for New Zealand writers? Judging by this collection, heaps. There are twenty-four pieces, if you count the foreword (which you should, because Campbell is a marvellous writer). There are personal and political accounts from Christchurch, China, Huntly, Frankfurt and the front lines of journalism. There is a lot of humour, which has me thinking that we might be quite a funny people, sometimes. It would be curious to see how much of the humour (Steve Braunias’ satire, Megan Dunn’s surrealism) would translate culturally. If Jermaine and Bret can be known worldwide just by their first names, perhaps the New Zealand sense of humour does cross cultures.

Within the uniformly excellent ranks (there are no weak links in the volume) there are a half dozen prices of writing that particularly resonated with me, either through the subject matter or the style of writing, and usually both combined. Charles Anderson’s account of the sinking of Easy Rider off Bluff combines journalism with a poetic sensitivity. It is a sad, sad story, made all the more harrowing and haunting through being nonfiction.

Braunias writes of his failure to respond adequately when a faulty heater almost sends his house, his daughter and his whole life up in flames. Braunias, like David Sedaris, has the ability to paint failure and weakness in a funny and sad light. His self-absorption rarely crosses over into self-indulgence.

Dunn’s ‘The Ballad of Western Barbie’ begins with an epigram: ‘Two things happen in Huntly: something and nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.’ Her narration of life in Huntly, as perceived when young and then as a well-traveled adult, is enlivened by conversations with her Western Barbie. It sounds odd from a distance, but it works.

Ross Nepia Himona has thought and written an unhyped analysis of the complexities and contradictions inherent in New Zealand’s ANZAC commemorations. In a piece taken from his blog ‘Lecretia’s Choice’, Matt Vickers offers us a head-and-heart dispatch from the front line. And Sylvan Thomson’s portrait is a funny and tender insider’s tale of how it is to make the physical, social and psychological transition from young woman to young man.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the collection is even. The overall effect for the reader is a sort of mental and emotional relief, a confirmation that something human and intelligent is consistently being expressed and deciphered in New Zealand. In an era of persistent media and political distortion of life big and small, writing like this offers counterpoint and advice: Don’t simplify complex matters, and don’t complexify simple matters.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016
Edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408442

Book Review: The Scene Of the Crime, by Steve Braunias

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_scene_of_the_crimeI have read a lot of True Crime books over my reading life, though the number has slowed over the years as the American market has been flooded by what could only be described as repetitive trash. I would be lucky to source three or four books from there in a year; the Australian and New Zealand market, however, gets better and better, and from this market comes the brilliant The Scene of the Crime.

Braunias has put together a very good slice of our crime pie in this compilation… everything from the now notorious hit and run banker, the sword-wielding Antonie Dixon, the ghastly Rolf Harris to Mark ‘Lundy Hundy’ Lundy, who probably has a category all of his own, for convictions related to the same crime. In fact, Braunias does such a good and fair job with Mr Lundy that for a moment there I almost had doubt but no, I woke up, and Lundy is still guilty as.

Clint Rickards and Antonie Dixon get a very fair and engaging hearing as does the poor Guy Hallwright who wrecked a number of lives via his hit-and-run antics, his once-glorious bankers’ life a little shabbier these days. He also covers Brad Murdoch, who is serving a hefty sentence for the murder of Englishman Peter Falconio, who some people still feel is alive and well and out there somewhere, possibly with Lord Lucan.

This is a very well-written book, the choice of tales told is spot on though eclectic, and each chapter flows on from the next: you simply want to keep reading. The people who populate this book, no matter how ghastly their crime, are quietly fascinating and each stands out in some way, sometimes even just for the ordinariness of their actions and the motivation for their crime. Braunias is very good at digging into the background of the tale, the ‘what came before’, which gives an enhanced picture of a situation and tells the reader why it evolved into something else. In particular the Lundy case stands out but so does the Hallwright case, I haven’t read better on Antonie Dixon or Clint Rickards either.

Fair and balanced, a very good read indeed for anyone with an interest in this genre or the particular cases it covers, this is a book that will be passed around and will undoubtedly lead to some heated discussions.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Scene Of the Crime
by Steve Braunias
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540830

Steve is in Wellington this week, promoting this book:
18 November, at Unity Books Wellington, 12 noon – 12.45pm
18 November, at Marsden Books, Karori, Wellington, 6 – 7pm

Satirist With Good Sense Of Humour Seeks Kindness and Lies, at Dunedin Writers and Readers festival

ODWRF imagen stage there were three chairs, three tumblers and a glass jug that would be a weapon in the wrong hands. Up they came, a pair of satirists bisected by a crime writer. The wall behind them was bare and white. In the absence of background colour (which tone would readers match to satire?) they would be forced to rely on wit and anecdote. On personal charm and vitriol: on revelation.

Lisa Scott spoke first, of Feedback from Readers. At one end of the continuum: a box of chocolates. At the other: a drawing of an appendage. (Hard to know, she said, if that was positive or negative feedback.) And a copy in the mail of a column of hers, with errors marked in red pen, a score of three out of ten and in capitals SEE ME.

pp_steve_braunias‘Always in capital letters’, commented Steve Braunias (left), then he spoke too of feedback. There have been communications that have stood out, he said. An invitation to use a private house and pool in Fiji. He’s going in October. (Anyone who reads Braunias will not be surprised by such an offer. He’s quite explicit and unembarrassed in his solicitations.) But on the darker side, a letter writer in a prominent public position “crossed the line” by labelling him ugly and questioning if this trait will pass on to his daughter. Braunias went after the letter writer, strongly enough to be fired from his column- writing job by the national publication’s recently-arrived editor (“a weakling and a nincompoop”– the audience gasped) “Columnists come and go,” wrote the editor. “Editors come and go,” wrote Braunias. They were both correct. Five minutes in and we had already received our money’s worth.

Lisa-Scott-portrait-640pxVanda Symon, with an ongoing excellent sense of when to place questions and how to maintain momentum, asked the two writers what they regarded to be the role of satire. “A fire starter,” said Scott (right). “A mirror held up to naked emperors. If you’re going to bare your ankles at me, I’ll bite them.” Braunias: “Satire is good for evoking situations and people as they really are. If you want to depict John Key, satire might be more effective than the positive descriptions chorused by most political commentators.” Symon asked if satire might have an effect on the behaviour of politicians and other subjects, to perhaps keep them honest? “God no, terrible question, three out of ten.”

The session moved on, following a certain rhythm. A question would be asked. If it was a tough one, Braunias, his untucked shirt rumpling before our eyes, would say “Lisa…?” and Scott would answer first. She spoke of her terror of deadlines, of hate mail, of the regret at hurting people’s feelings, of the women who have helped her along the way. She said that it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a paid writer, to have a national and in particular, a local audience. Braunias agreed that this was a wonderful thing. That he, too, owed his breaks to “really nice people.”

He said that he crossed the wide line between satire and slander rather too easily; he has been sued successfully any number of times. “It’s just a path you stumble along and next thing you know you’re fucked.” He was weary and laconic about his lapses in taste and judgement, about his column that took as its subject the otherwise heroic Julian Assange, who tweeted hostilely in response. “Oh Julian,” sighed Steve and reached once more for his long-empty tumbler.

The satirists and the crime writer had drunk the jug dry, drawn deeply from the well of personal experience, hit us with humour, honesty and talent. And a fair amount of grace. Amazing. It had been a revelatory hour, yet another one in an autumn festival filled with excellent hours.

Satirist with GSOH seeks Kindness and Lies: Lisa Scott and Steve Braunias, with Vanda Symon
Saturday, 9 May

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Check out  WORD Christchurch Festival and Auckland Writer’s Festival for future events featuring Steve Braunias.

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244