Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bad_thingsBad Things, the blurb tells us, is about the different things we do to survive. At the start of the collection, on a single page, two strong sentences introduce this idea: ‘I did it for myself / I did what needed to be done’.

And what has been done? Wallace explores this in her poem The animal. In this piece, an animal lies ‘stuck in the mud, sick and barely moving’. The narrator’s first instinct is to reassure the frightened animal and come to its aid. But then the animal is quickly struck by a heavy piece of wood and the narrator looks up to see her sister, ‘anger still erupting from her slight form’. It seems that while the narrator saw compassion as a solution, her sister reverted to aggression. The uncomfortable ending where the two are left speechless seems to deny the option of reconciliation.

In the poem The olives, Wallace further explores consolation as an option for survival. She starts the piece with a character musing on the scenes of a cooking show. Wallace humorously describes how ‘the chef goes to Europe, and oohs and aahs at things the locals have been doing for centuries’. But then Wallace moves to observing other scenes: the comforting ‘sound of the olives falling onto the tarp’, people who ‘voice heartbreak for those who were shot and are then criticised by yet other people’. This leads to a reflection on the heartbreak that we all carry. The main character of the piece then returns to a reality where she spends ‘the long dark hours saying the same things over and over to her daughters’. What follows are words that she whispers like a prayer, words that we have all found ourselves saying to others: ‘it will be okay / I’m here / we are together’.

One of the most heart wrenching pieces in the collection is the poem Helping my father remember. In this piece, Wallace subtly sets the scene by describing her father at the kitchen bench, ‘his hand hovering / over an orange and a paring knife, / trying to think / what he had planned’. Throughout the poem, Wallace is there keeping an eye on her father, following him through ‘tall grasses, as high / as my head’. But a world of loss does not mean a world devoid of comfort. The ending seems to refer back to The olives when Wallace beautifully tells her father, ‘We won’t be lost / if we’re together’.

So how do we survive all the bad things? Through her collection, Wallace explores a variety of situations. There is no objective right or easy solution, but consolation seems to be a key theme throughout Bad Things. Wallace’s poem Reminders for December also offers a series of words to hold tight to and repeat in times of adversity, and it is a comforting piece in its simplicity. In the poem, Wallace provides a word on each page, similar to those reassuring phrases at the end of The olives. And she tells us, ‘cut / dig / gather / heel in / lift / protect’, reminders to keep on going.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bad Things
by Louise Wallace
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561612

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Book Review: Our Future is in the Air, by Tim Corballis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_our_future_is_in_the_airOur Future is in the Air is Wellington author Tim Corballis’ fourth novel. He’s a past winner of Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writers’ Residency (2015) and a holder of a PhD in aesthetic theory. In 2015 he was Writer in Residence at Victoria University. Oh, and he’s a father of twin daughters – probably the best qualification for this particular project – a project of future and hope. Sort of, anyway.

It’s 1975. A time of protest and upheaval is ending. A few years earlier, the world was in disarray. There are protesters in the street and change is everywhere. Meanwhile science is making leaps and bounds into unknown territories, off the back of the Space Race and Nuclear Armament development.

The book opens with a dry and technical account of the experiments that led to the discovery and development of a new technology that would alter how we think, plan and govern going forward. There is whispered talk of the lead scientist, only known by his, or her initials. It seems that sometime in the 20th Century it was discovered that it was possible to receive information from the future. And then it was possible to send people into the future as well. And then, for a short time in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, visiting the future was possible. But this had some pretty monumental consequences.

Time Travel, like recreational drugs, was big in the counter-culture. Hippies found a way to trip out without acid. Personal time travel became popular. But there were also some dark discoveries. Some of the visions of the future had extreme impacts. The 9/11 attacks in New York were witnessed and so, because of that the building of the Twin Towers were put on hold. Building was cancelled to prevent future catastrophe. Investment into airlines and mass airline travel was literally stopped in its tracks: the Boeing 747 was shelved as an idea, the Dreamliners of today were never developed, and as a result everything in the travel space stagnated. There was no crash landing on the Hudson or bombing over Lockerbie.

Consequently, New Zealand was affected. Tourism as we know it today was affected. Our economy was still buoyed up by shipping and Lamb sales but our sense of isolation and the access to the great OE was greatly impacted. Our connection to the world never grew to the levels it is today. The internet never happened.

And now? When time travel was made illegal, it moved underground – servicing a demimonde of addicts, spies, bankers and activists. In amongst this, there’s a mystery. One character, Pen, is missing. His friends and family start to wonder where he’s got to. He’s known to go on benders in the past but somehow this is different. So much of the book is around the search for him. It transpires that he’s been sneaking around behind his wife’s back time travelling. In his case, it becomes addictive. He can’t stop. The book becomes a sort of mystery search and rescue, of a man who doesn’t realise he’s missing.

Written from the perspective of the 1970’s, Corballis intentionally sets out to write this book as realism. He wanted something of a documentary truth to it, like a book that accompanies a series or film. He lays out the evidence with a number of devices including an array of voices, pseudo-documents, blog entries, etc. If you look at the current documentary on Stuff called The Valley, about Afghanistan, you’ll see how investigative journalists have painstakingly tried to construct the full story from fragments of evidence, conscious that the main players, like the NZ Defence force, choose to remain silent. And in a similar way, Corballis puts his findings before us in an attempt to tell the story.

He’s on record as arguing that this is a Sci-Fi novel due to the geeky references to technology and the general concepts of time travel. In other ways, though, it’s not Sci-Fi because it’s not really about our future because it’s set in our past. A recognisable but alternative one at that.

One of the delights of this story is that, in the future, it is understood that it is possible for ghosts to exist. You get this communication and cohabitation between the parties. In a similar way to how we react with virtual people on our devices and real people in the room.

This is not entirely new. Many cultures walk alongside ghosts and spirits. When I was recently in the Cook Islands I was told how people bury the dead in their front gardens so that they can include then in their everyday affairs like eating with them during social occasions. This appreciation and assimilation is similar in Corballis’ book.

His ghosts are echoes of the past. He wraps his story around specific dates. 1975 wraps into 2008. 1968 turns into 2001. He does this to see if history can be collapsed in a little, if two different time periods can plausibly coexist. It may be his comment on the acceleration of time – or our perception of it.

To make it more real he references the politics, land rights, fashion, of a 1970’s Labour Government run New Zealand, a place which is just sufficiently far back in our memories to be a little fuzzy around the edges but still close enough to be instantly recognisable. There was hope for the future. Utopian dreams. Investment in environmental causes. Many of the protest movements of that time were to do with the future, such as human rights. Extrapolate that out and it’s possible to see that they may have impacted events, indirectly or even unintendedly in the future.

Interestingly, we don’t have that same relationship with the future that we once did. Mainly, it seems, because the rate of change is so face the future is almost in the past. Imagine the future, crowd fund the idea and it’s happened. That’s the dream. So, to make his point he looks at how he can play with the future – albeit in the past. So much of our sci-fi is apocalyptic and negative. Our future is doomed – movies, books etc all set us in a time when humans, the environment and other factors have almost destroyed us. Dreadful dystopian stuff. Is there really a future for us humans?

It seems Corballis wants to find the future in our past, that 1970’s was the last time we looked hopefully into the lens with positivity. And that is the lesson he gives us. The dystopian lens paints a black future, informed by religious beliefs and myths of woe. He doesn’t want to follow that direction. For him, as a writer, defaulting to an Armageddon theme is all to easy and perhaps a little passé. There are times in our past that we need to get back to learn and plot the next steps objectively, for a change. There’s got to be better ways of thinking about what comes next.

The Future is in the Air is an exploration of an alternative history. A what if? There’s no lesson here, except maybe to think in parallel about the decisions we made. We often think it would be great to jump in a time machine and leap forward to get the answers we want. This might just be the cautionary tale that accompanies that thinking.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Our Future is in the Air
by Tim Corballis
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561179

Book Review: Flow: Whanganui River Poems, by Airini Beautrais

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_flow_whanganui_river_storiesFlow is a collection of poems centred around the Whanganui River. In her dedication, Airini Beautrais tells us that this work is not a grand attempt to track the history of the river and its people. Rather, it is more of an attempt at a collage of stories: “some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human”.

The collection starts with part one, which is titled Catchment. This section covers an array of stories from different areas around the Whanganui River. Beautrais provides a location and a date as a subtitle to each poem. For example, in Clear Away, Beautrais gives the label Ōrākau 1864. In this piece, Beautrais brings us back to a world of conflict and describes the bodies of fallen soldiers, still bleeding. The poems in this section also stretch all the way to the present. In Huihui (subtitle Taumarunui 2014), Beautrais portrays a memory close to the river itself. Beautrais describes how “the water answers yes / to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria: / it is moving faster than you can walk; / it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom”. In the scene, women glide by in kayaks, a jet boat passes.

The next section of Flow is titled A Body of Water. Here, Beautrais provides more indefinite scenes involving the Whanganui River. In Snow, Beautrais beautifully describes how “The first snow falls / like sugar, sown / breath-thin / on each blank mountain’s face”. Her soft description perfectly portrays the wholesome memory and excitement that comes with the first snowfall. This section also contains pieces describing animals that live in the river. Her poem Tuna (subtitle Longfin eel / Anguilla dieffenbachii) supplies a portrayal of these fish, describing how “The leaf-shaped larvae drift the currents, turn to glass eels once / they’re home”.

Finally, Beautrais moves into poems within the town of Whanganui itself in her third section, The Moving Sand. Her piece PechaKucha perfectly describes the conflict of feelings that can arise with the journey home. She tells how, “When you drive / in, on the highway there’s this sign: Welcome Home. / And I get this sinking feeling, every time I arrive, / that I’ll be stuck there forever”. Home may be a familiar place, but it is also charged with memories that can pull you back, sometimes unwillingly.

In this way, Flow is a collection based around the Whanganui River, but it is about more than just the river itself. Beautrais also expands to stories around it, delving into the past as well as the present. She tells of the nature within it as well, and how it changes and lives with the river. Finally, human emotions and memories round off the collection at the end. As Beautrais tells us, “stories collect around bodies of water because people live there”. In Flow, she proves that these stories are not limited to one realm: there are stories to be found in many different worlds, whether they are human or not.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Flow: Whanganui River Stories
by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561148

Book review: Lifting, by Damien Wilkins

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.cv_lifting.jpg

Lifting follows Amy, a store detective working at a famous historic department store in the last few weeks that it is open before closing for good.  The store is called ‘Cutty’s, but it is difficult not to replace that with ‘Kirkcaldie and Stains’ in your head.  The setting is so unabashedly Wellington, and as a person suddenly surprised to discover she has lived quarter of her life there, I enjoyed the very present Wellington setting.

Lifting is a character study of Amy, with a plot that moves you towards an ominously shadowed ending.  Amy is introduced as a busy working parent  balancing a baby, finances and work with her husband, a supportive but not robust mother and a new challenge  looming unemployment as the store is about to close.  Amy is a store detective, and is very good at her job  how did she get the skill set to do this?  Why is she being interviewed by the police?

Past and present are all mixed together as Lifting is told from Amy’s perspective  uncensored and with her whole life narrative available at any one time to inform the story.  I found Amy a very honest character, without the superficial heightened self-perspective given to many characters in books.  Amy is Amy, she makes no great discoveries about herself  but she is very interesting and approachable.  Definitely one of the best written characters I’ve read in quite a while.

The slow deconstruction of Cutty’s is mirrored with the deconstruction of Amy  so much time is given to her description, and thoughts.  While there is a sense of foreboding as the book draws to a close, the plot is not allowed to take over the exploration of Amy.  It was a very compelling read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Lifting
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561025

Book Review: Selected Poems, by Jenny Bornholdt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poemsIn Deborah Smith’s intriguing cover photo for Jenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems, the eye is drawn to the bright fly agaric mushrooms torn up by the roots. They sit like thought or speech bubbles above the woman’s head. Laid out carefully on paper towels, the dirt is still fresh on the base of their stems. Of course, the metaphor here is obvious, but digging a little deeper (excuse the pun) it astounds; not dissimilar to Jenny’s work. Firstly, parboiling these mushrooms (to avoid poisoning), renders the eater literally intoxicated. They are psychoactive, mind-altering little beasties. They come with a warning. You get the picture. These are not morsels to be trifled with. At first glance, they are things of beauty and objects of intrigue, but they carry a deeper magic (literally).

This idea is brought to the fore early on in this book, particularly within the garden, where an unearthed white onion flower is, ‘a plain enough thing’ but truly, it is a ‘decoy of simplicity’. This speaks to the viewer of an art work hanging in a gallery, or someone reading a poem excerpt. Every poem in fact, has a whole world that has contributed to its creation, a process that is dynamic and ongoing, as the reader or viewer plays their active role. The last stanza sums this up perfectly:

So we have a white flower
propped on the top of a green stem
a plain enough thing
while underneath
the feelers are out
hooking into other systems
forming a network
the flower an undercover agent
posted on the watch
a decoy of simplicity.

For a dexterous poet like Jenny to call a flower simply, white and green, speaks to a simplistic way of looking at art; reductionist. Jenny is a poet whose senses are alive to wonder and the interconnected ideas and neural pathways that form the root system of a poem, or a group of works. It would be too easy to equate a poetry collection with a book of pressed flowers but Jenny’s poems here are a living collection.

For the editor and poet to handpick poems for a collection, from a body of work that spans around 30 years, is no mean feat. We live in a day and age where music albums and other artistic media are consumed piecemeal, with songs and poems extracted from their original contexts. Many consumers latch on to the singles, or the anthologised poems, without ever reading or listening to a collection in its entirety. In a way, the cover image speaks to that. There is still dirt on the roots. These poems have their genesis elsewhere. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, so does each individual poem, before it is strung together in any collection. It is like a bunch of flowers. The number of possible arrangements is infinite and each presentation offers another layer of meaning. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are is the inevitable search for aesthetic links to The Bill Manhire School of poetry. Leading the way as the country’s first laureate and with Jenny under his wing for a time, both poets do share a delight in the ‘tender observation’ (NZ Book Council) of the everyday.

In her author photo, also by the renowned Deborah Smith, we see a retro watering can. It’s a symbol of looking back over the planting, watering and harvesting of ideas; the work. There are many fertile minds in the world, but few with the dedication and skill to cultivate longevity and a poetic life, such as Jenny Bornholdt’s. Of course, a laureateship and several other awards go a small way to recognising the results of her commitment to her craft and her contribution to the New Zealand poetic landscape, both through her work as an anthologist and or course, as a poet.

It is with that knowledge that the reader can pick up this fine volume and examine each fragment, each piece, knowing that they have been extracted purposefully and with great care. Prepare to be intoxicated by the work of one of her generation’s finest poets.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Selected Poems
by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560660

Book Review: Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016, by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_NZ_Labour_partyIf you asked someone on the street what the oldest political party in New Zealand was, I suspect most wouldn’t say it was the Labour Party. Most would have assumed that National had been around longer, having dominated post-war politics, if not the history books.

This book serves a specific purpose for the Labour Party centenary, and contributes to the historiography on the labour movement and its political wing. It will certainly appeal to those in the party who are interested in their history, and add to the knowledge of some forgotten characters and good Labour people who served the party as lesser lights in the Caucas and Cabinet rooms. I think the most successful part of the book is in the choice of the photographic plates and cartoons, and their reproduction with extensive captions where needed. Here we can view a story that begins with rather formally dressed men posing for group photos at conferences, being mostly European immigrants who were autodidacts, and then see, as colour photos reflect, a party with significant gender balance and multicultural contribution.

If we are to assess the merits of the text I have to be critical of the core part, with regard to political philosophy, and the academic assumptions about policy-making. The Labour Party was an anti-imperial, anti-war movement that took the idea of socialism seriously, and explicitly battled against what was called the ‘Money Power’. Despite their sympathies to the philosophy, both of the authors have focussed on the academic writing on the Labour Party and political history, with a very selective use of the extensive thesis writing of history students, mostly from Canterbury University. It was, however, Auckland University alumni that came to dominate Labour Party politics, especially in the period when Professor Keith Sinclair had control of the Walter Nash papers, which produced his biography, dissertations, as well as activists.

But the authors of this book don’t even mention the Walter Nash collection despite, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature and the inadequate description of its contents. This means there is no update on the views expressed by Sinclair – the failed Labour candidate for Eden in 1969 – and his polemic against what he called the Lee-Sutch syndrome. This seems to come down to Lee and his followers being naïve about the possible financial policy in the 1930s, based on Reserve Bank credit; and Nash having an economist’s understanding of sound finance, based on a reading of Keynes. This is rather unconvincing in terms of economic theory influencing policy, and the fact that Nash accepted that Reserve Bank credit would be permanently financing State House construction. When the Reserve Bank Governor objected to this financial policy in 1939, he raised the interest rate for the Housing Account finance, and timed it to occur when Nash had to go to London for a loan conversion. This was the actual policy situation, in contrast to Sinclair’s view on the anti-Labour role of the Bank of England in those loan negotiations, and the mythology which still surrounds it.

Of course, by the 1980s the Labour Party had decided to leave financial policy to Treasury, and monetary policy to the Reserve Bank, and opened the floodgates for international finance. This effectively undid everything the First Labour Government had achieved with its policy of ‘insulation’, in a rapidly changing global system. But it also reflected a completely different party, which did not appreciate its history. As the party policy returns to urban house construction, maybe things have changed back.

Reviewed by S.A. Boyce

Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016
by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN  9781776560745

Book Review: deleted scenes for lovers, by Tracey Slaughter

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_deleted_scenes_for_loversNew Zealand writer and academic, Tracey Slaughter, has produced a book of seventeen well-crafted short stories. deleted scenes for lovers comprises a selection of award-winning pieces from regional, national and international anthologies, competitions and magazines such as takahē, Landfall and Orange Roughy and the Bridport Short Story Prize. She’s clearly skilled at writing, and as a lecturer at the University of Waikato, she’s an expert on creative writing. You can learn a great deal from her use of language, how she sets up a scene, and the significance of the underlying themes pertaining to the real world.

Infidelity is explored openly in ‘deleted scenes for lovers’ and ‘go home, stay home’. In ‘the names in the garden’, a woman ponders God and life after being told by a congregation not to arrange the church flowers anymore. I particularly enjoyed the sweet and comic portrayal of ordinary family life in ‘scenes of a long-term nature’, where a love story is told in future tense, where married life is envisaged in colourful still frames, out of sequence. This short story may be nostalgic for some and revelatory for others. On a more serious note, ‘how to leave your family’ portrays motherhood as a clash between adulterous thoughts and children. Nevertheless, the story shows that children make married life more interesting, if not sunnier.

Slaughter writes with great detail, unveiling the “behind the scenes” of contemporary New Zealand life. The short stories encompass the world of the small-town, presenting our Land in honest lower-case titling and raw characterisation. Slaughter’s couples, young women, wives and children all deal with working-class life and its concomitant troubles. Within the pages lurks dark danger, intoxication, death, rape and lonely, lightless rooms. And in these scenes you feel the presence of broken vows and secrets threaded through unhappy living. But there is also communication, optimistic thought and anticipation, even if these come in the forms of quiet sunsets and washing lines.

Slaughter’s short stories are vivid, truthful, and incisive. They’re a feast for the senses. As the reader you are invited to survey each situation and form a conclusion based on the images you see. Her syntax is a sword; her choice of words a magic wand. In sum, Slaughter has rejuvenated the short story with poetic finesse.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante.

deleted scenes for lovers
by Tracey Slaughter
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560585