Book Review: The New Animals, by Pip Adam

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_new_animalsPip Adam’s new book is both astute observation and raw imagining of what life is like when involved in the fashion world in Auckland. And it makes me want to run like hell in the other direction. The shallow lives of the characters, the consumption and micro-examinations of self and other (without reaching any kind of depth of understanding) seem representative of the mass consumerism and solipsism that can be found in such spheres of life.

Carla is the first character we are introduced to. She’s not altogether likeable or appealing: ‘Her skin was wrecked, her eyes, her nerves. But the powders and pills and tongue scraping and cleansing made it possible for her to pay the barista, smile at the child, look down as she left the cafe …’ Later, there is Sharona and Duey, the latter masturbating to porn in boredom and panic at work, and the former somewhat dismissive of the fashion world in which her friends have centred their lives around.

They are all purposefully awful in some way. And are they really even friends? It’s hard to say. They are always questioning what others think and reflecting on past decisions, like nervous, twitchy rats in a cage. In fact, it seems that each character just tolerates others for the sake of scraping through the shallow life that’s been chosen, whether older (Generation X) or younger: ‘ Now Carla was scoffing. He could see it, the way her mind ticked … she was wrong and now he couldn’t say anything because that would be a dick move’. The addition of a dog named Doug who pretty much wants to kill her owner Carla, and who is locked in a crappy little apartment all day has the reader feeling a real dis-ease representative of the sickness of these people’s lives.

Everyone seems to be sleeping with make-up artist Elodie, who, on the surface at least, is an easy-going pleaser. The book makes a sudden veer in the magic realist direction in the second half, when Elodie seems to have a breakdown (or revelation of truth?), and steals Doug to head out into the ocean. Literally. Well, like, literally in the book, but not, one would imagine, in the story. She encounters the grotesque on her journey, a metaphorical representation of the grotesque of the fashion world.

Even though I found it hard to enjoy when reading (I really disliked the characters and the interactions they were having, although it is of course unnecessary to always like characters) this book stayed with me. The imagery of Doug the feral dog, who was once tame, and Elodie’s oceanic experiences were haunting. The title refers to such things; this book is animalistic. I would say prepare to feel uncomfortable.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561162

Book Review: Black Faggot and other plays, by Victor Rodger

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Black_Faggot_Reading playscripts is something I used to do for pleasure as a teenager. (Fair to say I was maybe a bit besotted with theatre then, not to mention being a bit of an oddball as well!)

So putting my hand up to read some about 60 years later is either a sign of regressing, or a renewed interest.  I’m going for renewed interest.

It was absolutely fascinating to read a script again. Victor Rodger certainly packs a punch in his dialogue, but it’s what lies beneath the script that provides the real substance – values, stereotypes, pre- and mis-conceptions are all challenged in these three plays.

They are sometimes shocking, often funny, and above all they challenge the reader in many ways, so I can only guess at the power which must emanate from the stage productions when the challenge is really laid down.

Black Faggot, (the book title, and the first play) grew from a response to Destiny Church and their position on same-sex marriage, and it’s a powerful and thought-provoking work. VUP has kindly allowed me to quote from the comments by Tanu Gago:

‘I never understood what it took to love another man until I was transformed by the love of another man…………………….on the other side of all that pain and fear we are also capable of experiencing real love. The type of love that saves our lives.’

This, to me, is the essence of Black Faggot. There is a very positive message here for young men, in particular, struggling with their gender identity.

The other plays, At the Wake and Club Paradiso give equally thought-provoking messages. At the Wake shows the difficulty some of us have with acceptance of the other, in whatever shape or persona that comes, and again is a deeply moving play.

Club Paradiso challenged me more; the violence is too much for me and the play shocked me deeply on several fronts – the mindless violence, fuelled presumably by methamphetamine, the sexual bullying and the graphic details depict a kind of place where, fortunately, I have never been. However the play has a innate truthfulness, and that is perhaps why I struggled with it – as a straight pakeha woman of a certain age, I hate to think that behaviour like this exists, even though I know that it does.

More power to Victor Rodger, is all I can say. It takes a brave and accomplished writer to deliver work like this.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Black Faggot and other plays
by Victor Rodger
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561032

 

 

DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: The Internet of Things, by Kate Camp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_internet_of_thingsThe title of poet Kate Camp’s latest collection is telling. The Internet of Things is the latest phrase being bandied about by technology bloggers. According to the Internet (funnily enough), it was first coined by someone called Peter T. Lewis as far back as the end of the late 1980s. It refers to a future where physical objects are connected via, you guessed it, the Internet. Alternatively called ‘smart’ technology, the phrase evokes objects speaking to one another without the need for human intervention.

With that context in mind, we delve into Kate’s poems, where objects do indeed speak and tell stories, beginning with the title poem. Here, the narrator visits John Lennon’s aunt Mimi’s home in Liverpool and the surrounding ports (ports of course having a double meaning, pops up in several poems).  The cover picture of the seemingly miniature kitchen evokes the objects of a children’s tea party, with its symbolic collection of objects for various dining rituals. There is a feeling of unreality to the photograph, like a staged home in a museum. Each object is clean, with no traces of the ‘eggs and chips’ or the whistle and steam of the kettle as Mimi made John his cups of tea.

As we move through the poems, we are presented with an array of objects, from the most banal (the contents of a rubbish bin), to the paintings of Rembrandt and the subject, St Jerome’s slippers (Like those white towelling freebies from a hotel). The poet imbues the mundane with a cheeky questioning and likewise grounds the typically austere objects of the art world with connections to the everyday. It is a rich source of subject matter for a poet and one that Kate surveys with skill and ease.

Poems such as Lego Lost at Sea, offer a glimpse of how absurd some childhood objects appear in different contexts. Based on a true story where millions of pieces of Lego were lost overboard in 1997, the poem sketches a scenario where a diver is depicted in the wooden fashion of a Lego person and the cartoonish stories those of us who played with Lego created.

Utilising the metaphor of the title again, we find Kate describing the body as being made up of channels, tunnels and space (a light elusion to the idea of cyber space perhaps?) In the poem Woman at Breakfast, Kate writes:

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits. 

Then, we find gems such as the line, the dull miraculous privacy of the human mind. Much like the internet, Kate renders the body as repetitious and boring, but also a thing of wonder. As the book progresses, we are treated to natural imagery as well, so that we are not given a mechanical treatise or a metallic insight into a dystopian future. Rather, the works are often miniature nostalgias; poems that are objects in their own right; speaking to us and connecting with each of us silently and dynamically, wherever we might be.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Internet of Things
by Kate Camp
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561063

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974

 

Book Review: New Zealand Jazz life, by Norman Meehan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_new_zealand_jazz_lifeThis is a great read for anyone who is even remotely interested in the NZ music scene, but particularly for those who are keen on jazz. As I look around the Wellington jazz club gigs, I can usually count the number of people under 40 on the fingers of one hand but I KNOW that out there are many who find their jazz kicks at other venues. They should read this book!

Norman Meehan is a jazz musician, teacher, writer, who has interviewed about 40 NZ jazz musos. His criteria were that the interviewees had to be NZ-born, and have produced at least one album.

So it’s a slightly unusual take, in that many of our very talented musicians have left for other countries where, sometimes, it’s easier to make a living from your passion.
That said, the book is about the state of jazz in NZ – how it got to where it is, is it in a good place, where is it headed, is there a New Zealand sound in jazz? All questions to which the interviewees give insightful and varied and highly personal answers. I really enjoyed reading this, as all of the musicians in the book are well-known, and I have listened to many of them live both in NZ and elsewhere.

The passion for making music comes through from all of them, but so does the difficulty of making a living at music in NZ – pretty well impossible to do just from gigs. There are one or two who have managed it, but on the whole NZ jazz players have to have a day job as well. That makes it much harder and that tension and struggle is well-documented in this book. But what comes through most of all is the sheer joy of playing jazz – in whatever form it takes.

There are some wonderful photos by Tony Whincup -sadly not of all of the subjects, as Whincup passed away before the book was completed.

If I have any quibble at all, it’s with the proofing of this book. There are far too many typos which should have been corrected, unusual for publisher VUP.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

New Zealand Jazz life
by Norman Meehan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560929

Book Review: The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_wish_child_nzI don’t quite know where to begin – this book is a tour de force, a work of art, an insightful commentary on the horrors and pointlessness of war and violence, a love story, a shocking peephole on to the Nazi modus operandi and so beautifully written that it hurts.

I found that I was by turns immensely saddened, then amused, horrified, having moments of “Oh, I know THAT person”, and caught up in the stories of the main characters and the enigmatic voiceover who pulls it all together.

I don’t want to give any spoilers at all, it’s far too good a novel for that.

However I will tell you that the stories are told through the voices of the children, Erich and Sieglinde, who live with their families in Leipzig and Berlin respectively. Chidgey’s descriptions of life under bombing and destruction is a poignant reminder that in war everyone suffers, regardless.

Catherine Chidgey has written a novel which is gripping from start to finish, which has twists and turns and surprises, and which I consider to be one of the best novels I have read this year. Actually, maybe one of the best novels I have read, period.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622