Tayi Tibble & Sam Duckor-Jones Book Launch at Unity Books Wellington

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Tayi Tibble and Sam Duckor Jones

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Book Review: All This By Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

cv_all_this_by_chanceAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

In 1947 Stephen leaves New Zealand, ‘A farm, Cows and mud and half a day by bus from anywhere,’ to train as a pharmacist in in post war London. It was there he met Eva, ‘Tall and quiet and calm, the words first occurring to him as he walked beside her’.

‘All this by chance ,as they kept saying to each other in those first months together… the sheer chance of a church social both had felt so awkward at as to run away from.’

Growing up with an English family Eva has suppressed much of her early life and Jewish background, but as the couple are about to return to New Zealand her Aunt Babcia (Ruth) is reunited with her, and stirs memories of their life in Europe and Hitler’s Germany.

There are a number of characters in the book and the author has listed the key people in the front of the book with the year of their birth, which helps the reader keep the storyline in context, as it progresses through the chapters from 1947 to 2004, and then back to 1038 for the finale. Stephen and Eva’s son and daughter deal with their family history completely differently, with David keen to delve into a Jewish way of life, while Lisa is content to ignore her mother’s background.

Born in Auckland in 1937 Vincent O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels Let the River Stand which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award, and Believers to the Bright Coast which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region prize. He has also written a number of plays, short stories and poems and worked as an editor and critic.

Now living in Dunedin, O’Sullivan was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours and was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013-2015.

All This By Chance is a beautifully written book which requires concentration to capture the moving family story told by three generations, of the horrors of the holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared. Keely O’Shannessy has designed a very fitting cover which invites the reader down the path through the trees into a family who has tried to forget the atrocities of war, but finds the following generations becoming fascinated with their background history, and wanting to learn more.

I enjoyed this book, especially the author’s choice of words and phrases such as ‘Against the wall a gas heater she fed with shillings and florins purred when the weather turned’, and anyone who enjoys family history will find it a great read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

All This By Chance
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561797

 

Book Review: The Facts, by Therese Lloyd

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_facts.jpg

When I save these words I’m reminded
this product is licensed to you.
(‘Light and Things,’ after Bill Culbert)

Therese Lloyd’s poems in The Facts are open about where their origins are owed. While the word processor in the poem Light and Things is owned by the narrator’s departing husband, these poems also incorporate a range of artists who inspire and influence the writing. This book is the product of Lloyd’s IIML doctoral thesis on the role of ekphrasis (responding to artwork via poetry) in the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.

The grand experiment of The Facts is purposeful and beguiling, as Lloyd investigates the role of artistic influence by immersing herself in the experience of being-influenced. The inability of these poems to exist in isolation from the art inextricably interwoven with Lloyd’s life is a convincing conceptual framework, exploring the way poems and other art ‘echo and re-echo against each other’ (as she quotes Jack Spicer). However, getting the best from this book is dependent on a reader’s existing knowledge of art and Anne Carson – or our preparedness to flip between the printed poems and Google search.

Some readers will find the ekphrastic aspect of The Facts delightful. Frequent credits to artists (like Bill Culbert and Graham Fletcher, musicians like Beck and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Carson) offer an element of discovery by inviting readers to cross-reference to other texts. The way the lives and meanings of artworks spill over or drench through each other is an aspect of the book that enriches the subject matter of the individual poems, as the characters within collide and drift apart – bruising, staining, offering, conquering, relinquishing.  Part of the fun in the ekphrastic works about visual art is the way the ‘original’ artworks are themselves newly enlivened by Lloyd’s lyric reinvention. I was especially captivated by the inner worlds Lloyd lends to Edward Hopper’s painted women. She inhabits their restless stillness, their ambivalence between settling down or abruptly rising, without ever forcing a narrative or solution upon them.

The poems in this collection are clear-eyed and intense, arranged in three subject-categories of time, desire, and absence. The titular poem The Facts is a crisp, considered, punch-in-the-gut telling of a toxic love affair that doubles as a meditation on the science-cum-wizardry of writing truth from memory. I love these lines on the paradox of writing “the facts” of memoir, despite the amorphous nature of memory and perspective:

To write about us in the past tense forces form
on the formless, parentheses on the eternal. A neat, parabolic air settles and makeshift wisdom
takes the place of the real. Yet here I am
dedicating lines to the short glitch of us. I want to complete
this thought. I want this thought to end.
(The Facts)

Poems like By Sunday and Rebound are also razor-sharp stand-alone poems, self-contained in deceptively stark images; a refused grapefruit and obsolete kettle. Through this book Lloyd explores rejections of all magnitudes – received with rage; confusion; grace. Poems like Rebound deftly work through those haunting everyday questions (why repair when you can replace?) that determine relationships with domestic appliances and with people.

Between the failing marriage, the toxic ex, and the rotating cast of inspirational artists, Lloyd’s constant companion throughout this book is Anne Carson. ‘What happens when a poet (you or me, your preference)              decides to spend three years of their grown-up life side by side, arm           in arm with another poet?’

There’s risk of reader frustration in framing the book so explicitly around another writer’s work. It could be intimidating to readers who may not want to do a PhD’s worth of study to familiarise themselves with the ‘original’ text, and also position the new work as eternally secondary to its predecessor; always after Anne Carson. The drawing-in of the conceptual and creative work of other artists in attempts to understand life through this work does demonstrate the value of art as a means to guide one’s perception, in current experience or hindsight. Lloyd says she, like Carson, ‘accrues tools along the way to help in her investigations usually dead writers and painters, their wisdom trapped so they can never create anything new, or, more crucially, defend themselves.’

Whether Lloyd’s explicit acknowledgement and interrogation of influence is a success or a weakness of the book, is likely dependent on the reader. The framing of The Facts around the concepts in Lloyd’s doctoral thesis lends an intellectual experiment that is inevitably more rewarding if you’re interested in meta-analysis and are familiar with Anne Carson’s work. Carson’s The Glass Essay is an ideal starting point for new readers, especially if you enjoy this book, which is possible even without encyclopaedic knowledge of Carson, as long as one doesn’t mind feeling out of their depth in reference.

Occasionally, I found myself wishing Lloyd’s raw tellings of thwarted desire depended less on Carson’s collapsing triangle concept so I could feel less like a guilty student who hadn’t done all her homework and could more fully immerse myself in the world of the poems, to experience rather than intellectualise the addictiveness of yearning. But as an academic-ish type myself I often make the argument that intellectualising is a way of experiencing. Tripping up on references which at first mystified me, then seeking out their origin, has made re-reads of this book all the richer. Besides, the poems in this collection – compassionate but unflinching – are rewarding even if you don’t want to be assigned extra reading.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkes

The Facts
by Therese Lloyd
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561810

Book Review: Hoard, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hoardFleur Adcock’s Hoard is a compilation of poems that weren’t included in Adcock’s last two poetry books, The Land Ballot and Glass Wings, because they didn’t suit the theme of these collections. The poems in Hoard instead reflect on Adcock’s own life through a variety of topics.

In Six Typewriters, Adcock uses six typewriters she owns as springboards to different moments in her life. She begins by talking about her ‘father’s reconditioned / German keyboard… with a spiky Gothic ‘o’’. Then she describes ‘Barry Crump’s portable / Empire Corona’, and how it has been slowly rusting away. She ends with a typewriter that her mother gave to her. Adcock claims that this typewriter was so efficient that she didn’t care for computers. Then, with what I would imagine would be a wry smile, Adcock ends the poem declaring that, of computers ‘I shall say nothing’.

This subtle wit is a large part of Adcock’s poetic voice and it carries on throughout the collection. Although Adcock has lived in Britain since 1963, she was born in New Zealand and makes regular visits to New Zealand as well. For this reason, New Zealand features heavily in Adcock’s poetry as a defining feature of her life.

In the poem Fowlds Park, Adcock speaks fondly about her time in this park. She talks about the memories attached to the area and how ‘Everything here matters to someone: / the swings, the coin-in-the-slot barbecue…’ However, Adcock chooses to talk about the bad as well as the good. She also states that the park’s beauty is something short-lived because ‘The bastards will get their hands on it… they will come with their development schemes’. Adcock’s fondness for the park does not mean she is blinded by the fact that it can be ruined, and that other precious green spaces in New Zealand have already been altered.

Adcock’s playful wit also comes to light in Raglan. At the start of the poem, Adcock asks, ‘What do you do in Raglan when it’s raining?’ Well, according to Adcock, you could sit outside the library and use the free Wi-Fi. You could go to the museum but, as Adcock states, ‘when you’ve seen it / you’ve seen it’, and you’ve probably already seen it if you live there. Through this good-humoured tone, Adcock highlights a specifically New Zealand condition: what it’s like to live in a small town like Raglan.

Adcock’s imagery is also particularly vivid, and this shows through her poem The Lipstick. In this piece, Adcock describes a shade of lipstick that is so ‘shudderingly wrong’. She imagines what it will be like when she throws it away and when it ends up in the landfill:

seeping and oozing, leaking fats
through its patiently corroding
armour, wailing invisibly
into the soil with its puce voice.

Fleur Adcock’s hoard of poems cover a wide array of topics, all reflecting on different moments in her life. Although there is no underlying theme, Adcock’s voice threads all these pieces together into a diary of memories.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Hoard 
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561674

 

Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

Book Review: Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939, by Margaret Sparrow

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_risking_their_livesDame Margaret Sparrow, since qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, has played a significant role in promoting the availability of reproductive health services in New Zealand. She openly states that it was thanks to her own ability to access contraceptives, and on one occasion a mail-order abortion drug, that she finished medical school at all. A prominent member of groups including Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, she still makes appearances at pro-choice protests. Recently named Public Health Association champion for 2017, Dame Margaret has been speaking at various events recently, continuing to promote her causes and occasionally startling younger women with frank discussions about masturbation.

She has lent her collection of historical contraceptive devices to be exhibited at Te Papa. She displays a golden speculum-shaped trophy in her living room. In short, Dame Margaret Sparrow is a bloody legend.

Risking their Lives is the third in a series recording abortion history in New Zealand. The earlier books covered the periods 1940 to 1980, and the 1800s. Compiled from coroner’s reports, newspaper reports and some biographical information about key figures who instigated change, the book intersperses historical context with the sad stories of many women whose circumstances led to their deaths from abortion-related causes. This book covers the section of time in between the previous two, during which increasing awareness of deaths from septic abortions led to changing political priorities about women’s health. Eventually.

As shown in the book, women who were pregnant and did not want to be were really between a rock and a hard place: strong social disapproval of childbearing out of wedlock led people to desperate remedies that could kill them. Married couples also feature in these stories; some women who died from abortions already had young children and felt they could not afford another.

Unsurprisingly, this is pretty grim reading. Margaret Sparrow acknowledged as much at the book launch, thanking Victoria University Press for committing to publishing her work despite knowing that abortion death is hardly bestseller material. As she read out one of the narratives, in which a woman on her deathbed was being quizzed by police about which drugs she and her friend might have procured, I suddenly remembered the words on a painting about illegal abortion from 1978: This woman died, I care. This, I thought, must be part of the purpose: to tell the stories of these 90-odd women, who didn’t need to die like that. To show, however belatedly, that someone cares.

After a setting out of historical context, the book divides its stories by the themes of medical causes of death, contraception, the law, then the professions of people most commonly caught up in abortion-related trials and scandals (doctors, nurses, chemists and others). I eventually found this layout slightly confusing, as with each new chapter the stories would start back in the early 1900s and progress on to the late 1930s. Given the evolution of social and medical perspectives being shown throughout the book, I might have found it easier to follow a more strictly chronological arrangement.

The chapter on contraception provided a surprise highlight. Following discussions of contraceptives in the media of the day (disapproving editorials on the one hand, euphemistic newspaper advertisements for “remedies” on the other) the chapter goes on to describe and contrast three pioneering women in the field of birth control: Marie Stopes in the UK, Margaret Sanger in the USA and Ettie Rout in New Zealand. They come across as fascinating characters: they knew each other and had at various times collaborated then strongly disagreed. They all seemed, in their own way, to be rather eccentric. But given the strength of conviction needed to keep pushing their work through, against prevailing social norms, a touch of unconventionality might have been helpful.

The most obvious audience for this book might be students of social and medical history. The book is however a stark reminder to any reader about how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. It certainly made me grateful to be living with a female reproductive system now rather than 100 years ago. Abortion back then was dangerous, certainly, but naturally-occurring miscarriages could also kill women, and childbirth carried far more risks before modern medicine cut down the rates of fatal infections.

Reading these women’s stories may be an act of bearing witness: This woman died, I care. But we are also reminded that for any progress to be made, people like Margaret Sparrow needed to care. As she notes in her epilogue, we still have abortion in the crimes act, and while so much has improved for women’s health, there are still barriers. The connections between these kinds of stories and the present day need to be heard, because people need to keep on caring enough to keep pushing for change.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
by Margaret Sparrow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561636