Book Review: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rotoroa.jpgChristchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.

Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.

Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.

Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.

The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.

Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.

With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rotoroa
by Amy Head
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561919

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Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

Book Review: Failed Love Poems, by Joan Fleming

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_failed_love_poemsI remember wanting a copy of this book when it came out in 2015 and, being impoverished, I made a hopeful instruction to my future self. To Buy, it said. I Need This.
I discovered that note a couple of weeks ago and wondered why on earth I hadn’t done it before.

The book is split in thirds. After the poem Past Me’s emphatic instruction, I was surprised to find I didn’t really engage with the first section. It didn’t match the recollection I had of Fleming’s work, but I found what I was looking for in the second section; each poem as one paragraph with no line breaks and sometimes little punctuation. It was this semi-breathless narrative that hooked me then, and I found the same now. It is interesting to see how it sits as part of the collection, from the poems in the first section, which play quite extensively with space and breaks, to these in the middle which condense and run-together and tumble but should be read at no faster pace, and then to a mixture of the two in the final third.

Fleming has a distinct talent not only at capturing character, but in unearthing and giving face to the feelings that occur at different and difficult stages of love and heartbreak, often through attention to the finest or commonest of details – a sagging couch where lovers meet in the middle, reheated meals, a small flat, ‘almost-folded’ clothes. For example, in 3. LEAVING.

….He always brought home soup.
…They had really tried. Let’s really try, she said.
…People here are the worst kind of hungry, he said
…Soup again, cold and welcome.
…And they loved each other and they loved each other and they loved each other, and they microwaved each other’s meal.

With many of these poems it is near impossible to pick out one or two lines – as with the final one in part two, 6. TRANSLATIONS, which is painfully beautiful. A relayed conversation between the narrator and an other – perhaps the therapist named in the first line, perhaps only themselves – it describes, to me, the vulnerability of falling in love, of having fallen, of what is left afterwards.

….(how intolerable is your solitude) I’ve talked it through so many times it’s like it doesn’t belong to me anymore and still it’s not gone (without his eyes on you are you still real is the question)

We break there to move to part 3, which is an interesting choice, as the first poem in this next section, First Loss, also feels like heartbreak.

… Sometimes,
you keep on losing someone even after they’ve left.

And this standout image:

your face in tender disintegration

I think it takes particular skill to create poetry in blocks of text. It can be easy to write something with arbitrary line breaks and call it a poem, but to write a full page of text – as Fleming has done with the poem Postcard with the dark in it – and have every line be just as important and beautiful as the last, takes a different level of craftsmanship. The scene of a midnight swim, the feeling of sadness –

…hurrying the careful stumble, faster to the shock. …
And the sea so cold, fuck, nothing you could help, though I loved you for something like helping, or I thought I did, as we staggered out while the phosphorescence curled its light back into itself like it didn’t exist without some bodies there to break it…

There are particular images that caught me all through the final poems, but none so much as in the second part of the poem The life of the body, which is a very good example and summation of the tender expression of everyday grief that is present throughout the book. This is one I will revisit for many years to come.

Goodbye is odd-sized and no
one came and let their fingers get caught
in my borrowed zip

(Note: I have done my best to indicate spacing and where I have selected lines from different parts of poems with ellipses. This unfortunately doesn’t convey the presentation or feeling of the full poem. Please use this as you own excuse to buy the book! I hope the author will excuse me).

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Failed Love Poems

by Joan Fleming
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739896

AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

Aflame was one of those lovely little sessions of chatter between three people who know, understand and appreciate one another. In many ways, it’s these sessions in the slightly smaller spaces, with purely local voices, that really feel like the heartbeat of the festival.

In ‘Aflame’, the focus was on creative non-fiction by two talented New Zealand-based women. Gigi Fenster and Megan Dunn were the writers, and Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop was the highly competent chair. Carole understands what festival audiences want from a panel session – she was, as she said at the intro, a long term Auckland Writers Festival board member – ‘though not anymore, I’d been there too long’. That legacy of experience does makes her a prized chair.

Beu,Dunn,Fenster_Still_02

Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster and Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

Carole highlighted the fact that she wanted to ensure that the discussion got across ‘how wonderfully quirky’ they both are. And as for the title of the session, it was obvious, with ‘fire and burning and fever’ winding their way through both books.

And then, both authors had the chance to expound upon the story behind their books – Dunn’s Tinderbox and Fenster’s Feverish.

Tinderbox was borne from Dunn’s desire to create a revamped version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451… and then evolved from there, shifting from novel to memoir in the process. She talked through her background as a roving bookseller, at Borders (RIP) in both Wellington and the UK – describing the dying days of the chain as engaging with customers who were ‘picking over the carcass for bargains’. Likely relatable for a few other booksellers out there!

Fenster touched on why fever was her focus for her memoir – describing how she ‘saw fever as a very kind of creative thing’, relating it to a sense of what went on in Victorian children’s books, with sickly but fascinating characters. ‘The initial idea was to induce a fever and then track that’, Fenster said, but thankfully for her own wellbeing, after a little research into both methods and ramifications, she thought better of it.

Both authors, after their initial contextualisations, read from their books. Dunn began hers by dedicating it to the Elam Fine Arts Library – eliciting a cheer from the crowd. The short passage started with light humour but brought in heavy elements as the temporal positioning became clear – it was set on the day of the London Underground bombings.

Beu,Dunn,Fenster_Still_01.png

Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster, Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

At the reading’s end, Beu commented that it was an interesting choice, something so weighty, when so much of the book is hilarious, to which Dunn deadpanned ‘I bring the humour, but I bring the pain too’.

Fenster’s piece spoke of the time when her brother was desperately ill with meningitis, and examined the former role of ‘the watcher’ in the medical profession – those who would sit and wait and watch the patient until the fever broke. The significance of progress was covered, with the vast achievement of ‘I can get it myself’ (in reference to a cup of water) repeated, mantra-like.

While not discounting the care given or the medicine administered, Fenster did come to the conclusion that ‘it was the watching’, her father’s sitting at his bedside and watching him through the night, that saw her brother through.

Both writers took a wander through other aspects of the lead-up to their creating these works. Fenster spoke about a family holiday to Swaziland, where she read Wuthering Heights through the night and had the adult joy of the shared literary experience with her father. She also explained the way that some of the conversations – in what is still a non-fiction book – were created, rather than collected verbatim, but still told complete truths of the experience of the time.

Dunn explained National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to those up with acronyms – to an enquiring Carole, summing it up as ‘a writing community, with the aim to write a 50 thousand word novel in the month of November’.

She was of the ‘use it as a deadline’ school of NaNo, rather than the online forum-focused option. But in her solitude, she gave it a go, and in 2013, she succeeded, getting her 50K across the line in time. The timers that factored into the plot of Tinderbox arose from her time holding herself accountable for NaNo, with half an hour of writing before work each day.

It was a friendly, upbeat vibe, with plenty of laughter for guests and audience like. One particularly glorious – and interactive moment – was the encouraged discussion of ‘porn names’, according to the internet suggestion of ‘first pet name’ + ‘mother’s maiden name’. While I won’t repeat the specifics here, since that particular internet challenge is rather uncomfortably often a means of digging for password prompt answers – and I don’t want to jepoardise her cyber security – suffice it to say that Beu’s response was the perfect level of filthy to take the audience away in gales of laughter. The perfect way, indeed, to spend a Saturday festival afternoon.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Tinderbox
Published by Galley Beggar Press
ISBN 9781910296820

Feverish
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561803

 

Book Review: Floods another Chamber, by James Brown

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_floods_another_chamberI was given James Brown’s The Year Of The Bicycle when it was published in 2006 and enjoyed it a lot.

Floods Another Chamber is his sixth collection, and I expected to feel the same. I didn’t have quite the emotional reaction as I’d hoped. It took me until about the third read-through to start engaging with the work. I don’t think Brown’s style has necessarily changed, but my taste has.

I tend to look for myself in poetry, and when I can’t relate, I move on. A lot of this work explores Brown’s own experiences, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that as a young (ish), non-athletic (I don’t think I’ve gotten on a bicycle since 2002) woman, I didn’t immediately find a way in. That probably makes me egocentric, an argument furthered by the fact that several of the standout moments for me were in pieces where Brown examines poems, the poet, and the nature of poetry. Here, I found myself.

Like this stanza in the middle of Unresolved Poem.

… When I looked inside
Inside myself, all I saw were people having 

conversations. Some were animated, some not,
and in quite a few one person was sitting in

Silence. …

… Poetry

takes over your life
and makes it sad.

This loneliness suggests to me several things – how poems might live inside a person, how self-examination is necessary to produce a good poem, how the writing life can be an isolating one. I’m a sucker for a good final stanza and that one does it for me.

That feeling echoes throughout the book, particularly in the side-by-side poems Tlaloc (God of Rain), and Ghosting. Each has a sense of eerie beauty, a narrator on the search for something, and a final stanza that could hint at malice.

Our tongues taste
distant blood.

and

… Then
I am beside myself.

You are beside me
then

Even in those poems that don’t have an emotional impact for me, there is a cleverness that comes from Brown’s years of experience. His skill is apparent in moments of sly wit; a deft turn-of-phrase; an unpicking of theory; a very sure-footed word selection. It’s like the snap of light off the tale of a fish as it about-turns under water. This is apparent in the poem Postmodernism Explained.

You’re dreaming. In the
dream you fall asleep and dream
you’re writing. If to

write is to reflect
what you’ve already read, and
thus to reread, to

read is also to
rewrite. What are you saying?
Wake up, you tell me.

Along with the examined life of the poet, there is a recurrent theme of time and its concepts, which plays out in the poem Museum for the Future. The poem has a suspenseful, recalcitrant tone and reminds me of my own ability to procrastinate and argue with editors when I should be “rewriting” with “innovative adaptability.” The final stanza is a perfect example of that slicing wit.

Given a choice, I’d take the firing squad
and look the bastards in the eye because
even with your hands tied and back to the wall
they could still completely miss the point

(I did wonder if perhaps this last could also be levelled at certain poetry reviewers).

And here is the poet again, in lines like ‘You will never be employed in an industry that makes money’, and ‘It is possible to show too loudly’, from the poem The AM Sound, which also contains the titular ‘With every repeat of the desperate riff and chorus, / your despair floods another chamber’.

In Letter to Hugo, we see it all – the poet, the act of poetry, and the passage of time. I found myself in the frustration of the second stanza, which made me laugh and then stop when I got hit in the face with that darn fish.

Hugo, your poems continue to annoy me
Their main purpose seems to be to show
how clever you are… No domestic
detail for you, as if truth and beauty can never be
a walk in the park.

These lines, while not the final stanza, tied things off nicely for me. The man has made his point.

I think we write poems because it makes us happy
I think we rewrite poems to make life better

But don’t rewrite your poems
to please me, Hugo. Poetry is freedom.

 
Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Floods Another Chamber
by James Brown
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561599

 

Book Review: Feverish, by Gigi Fenster

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feverishFeverish is a fascinating memoir. Gigi says early in the book that while she wanted to write a memoir, she did not think anyone would be interested in reading about a middle-class, middle-aged white South African living in New Zealand. Furthermore, she seemed to be in some kind of creative slump. So she thought she needed some kind of inspiration to drive her to create something far more appealing – inducing a kind of fever such as that which often drives performance artists or other writers and poets.

That’s where it begins, but where it goes is far-reaching, wide-ranging and thought-provoking.

The breadth and depth of her internal exploration into what is significant is quite remarkable. But what to me is more remarkable is how she turns this into a fascinating, detailed and lively memoir of life as a young woman growing up in apartheid South Africa, with family who escaped the Holocaust – but not only the young woman, also the mature parent living with her husband and daughters in New Zealand. Her family – particularly her parents – spring off the page with their compassion and intellect and consideration for others. Her relationships with her siblings and her friends will probably ring bells of recognition in many. Her conversations with her teenage daughters are frequently hilarious. You do feel as though you know her family through the stories, throwaway comments and serious discussions which abound.

Her exploration of fever and how it might, or might not, work for her permeates the book with a sense of urgency (she was writing this for a PhD thesis, so I imagine there was time pressure!) but along with that, a sense of discovering what is really important to her.

I am not about to give away the results of her internal journey into the effects of fever on the creative mind, but I will say that I read this book once fast, and then a second time a great deal more slowly and I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s funny, clever, intellectually demanding, and it really makes the reader think  about what is important in life, and in our interactions with the people  in our lives – whether they are friends, relatives or colleagues does not matter. What does matter is how we see them and interact with them.

In all, I think it’s a great read, and the hoorey-goorey antennae will stay with me for a long time to come!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Feverish   
by Gigi Fenster
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561803

 

Book Review: In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy, by Elizabeth McLeay

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_in_search_of_consensus.jpgThis is an easy to read book on a very specific subject, New Zealand electoral law, and the Parliamentary process by which it changes. Although somewhat dry, for anyone interested in the political process, with Parliament at the centre, it will be of interest. But in the end it just highlights the constitutional vacuum in which the New Zealand system of government functions, and the lack of interest in political history.

Dr McLeay is a retired ‘political scientist’, and active collaborator with constitutional law experts at Victoria University. The subject matter of the book also extends some thesis work undertaken by James Christmas. The specific area of their interest is the 1956 Electoral Act, and clause 189 in particular. This concerns the manner in which electoral law, the rules governing voting in elections, can be altered in a consensual manner. The key term is ‘entrenchment’, and the decision to make any electoral law subject to a substantive hurdle, whereby changes can only be made through referendum or a ‘super-majority’ vote in Parliament. But since the Electoral Act itself can be altered by a simple majority in Parliament, we then have a discussion of whether there should be a ‘double entrenchment’, to protect the existing rules.

This may make sense to those reading the book, but it is actually contradictory, as it is impossible to entrench the rules in anything other than a moral sense. Since the idea of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ is supreme, and it is not possible to bind future elected parliaments, the existing rules are as vulnerable as any other piece of legislation. In practice the vulnerability only really comes up in the debate over the Māori seats.

So what is the point of the book? Well, the point is exploring the somewhat wider political context and historical significance of the constitutional changes during the 1950s. The historical significance is really because of it being the first National Party ministry, and with some specific constitutional changes that it imposed, such as the removal of the upper chamber of Parliament, known as the Legislative Council. This marked the beginning of the two-party system, and the ‘unicameral’ system of government, in which the party with the majority of seats takes Executive power. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality is still seen in the National Party campaigns, despite the change to MMP.

Focussing on the historical context is central to the early chapters of the book, and the use of archival papers, particularly those of the National Party leader, Sid Holland. It has to be said that Holland is not a favourite subject of study for political scientists or biographers. Most do not get past the repressive legislation imposed by Holland during the waterfront industrial dispute in 1951; and the author mentions that the Official Secrets Act was also part of Holland’s legacy. Indeed, she concludes that section 189 of the Electoral Act was the result of a ‘tiny political elite [playing] around with the New Zealand constitution behind closed doors.’ The undemocratic nature of the process for the new act emphasises the ‘boys club’ mentality of the time.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy
by Elizabeth McLeay
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561841