Book Review: A Wise Adventure II: New Zealand and Antarctica after 1960, by Malcolm Templeton

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cv_a_wise_adventure_2New Zealand has always had a close association with Antarctica from the very first. Early exploration often set out from New Zealand and continuing contact was based in Christchurch, in particular with the American Deep Freeze base.

In A Wise Adventure (VUP 2000) Templeton covered the period of 1920-1960.This included the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty system. In this companion volume, he looks more closely at the developments and negotiations since then. The Antarctic Treaty was set up to ensure access to scientific research and the peaceful management of the area and resources. While this seems a relatively simple premise, the actual process of establishing legal documentation, of getting the agreement of all interested parties and finally of enforcing these rules, is more complex.

Templeton is a former New Zealand Foreign Service Officer and has served at the United Nations and as Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Using archival materials and his own meticulous research, he has collated the information into this excellent record of the negotiations and decisions behind the treaties.

To the outsider, it appears a straightforward task to gather the interested parties and sign an agreement. In the case of Antarctica, where many diverse nations wished to have a say, it was complex. Both the fishing and more recently, the mineral resources of this area, are an important focus for countries far removed by geography. The treaties included environmental protection and management of living resources in a sustainable way while also ensuring that those countries, who claimed sovereignty and those who opposed such claims, were acknowledged.

In A Wise Adventure II we see the important role played by New Zealand since 1960. With the 60th Anniversary of the Ross Dependency at Scott Base, in December this year, it is timely to have this publication.

While this book is not light bedtime reading, it is an essential read for those interested and concerned about the future of Antarctica. It is by reading about the journey traveled, that we can be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

A Wise Adventure II: New Zealand and Antarctica after 1960
by Malcolm Templeton
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561681

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Book Review: Ordinary Time, by Anna Livesey

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cv_ordinary_time‘Peter Singer believes we are all equally valuable and I believe him,’ Anna Livesey writes in the titular poem of her new collection, Ordinary Time. The poem is wonderfully casual, like a structured train of thought. ‘This means I should do more,’ Livesey continues. She then muses onwards and, wondering about the future, thinks, ‘One day there’ll be no book of mine left on the earth’.

These musings on the passage of time are what form the backdrop of Livesey’s collection. She specifically focuses on the time that passes with pregnancy, birth, and childhood. In doing so, she explores the world of parenthood. In the poem Speech and Comprehension, Livesey perfectly describes the innocence of new life that her baby has, the simple ‘infinitesimal knowledge of less than two weeks’. At this stage, parent and child speak in their own silent language.

However, the wonderful innocence of children also needs protection. In the poem Artificial Intelligence, Livesey portrays the worries that come with being a parent. She describes the earthquake drill procedure at Playcentre, which includes instructions to ‘fold over your child like a turtle and hold on’. When Livesey describes how the parents ‘give ourselves up, bend-bridge-wise / over small hearts that judder and fear’, Livesey highlights a vivid image. Each parent acts as both a physical and metaphorical buffer to the world’s dangers. In this way, Livesey perfectly describes both the care and worry that comes with parenthood. She softly ends the poem with a sentence that is simple, yet carries mountains of emotion: ‘One month post-partum, I find, you’ll cry at anything’.

Livesey’s wonder at the growth of her children also carries its own innocence. In the poem Your Mind Like a Pearl, Livesey ponders how she and her child were once together, telling her child that ‘before you were born, you, coalescent, bathed inside me’. Now the two are separate entities, parent and child both carrying their own thoughts within their own bodies. As her child thinks and moves, Livesey addresses her child and states how she can see ‘the physical presence of your mind, working’. Through her observations, Livesey herself seems struck with awe as well.

The bond between parent and child is also a relationship that plays out through Livesey and her own mother. Her mother suffers from time; Livesey brings out the image of her mother’s hands as she last saw her, in ‘the claw-twists of dementia’. She also describes her mother’s hands as they used to be when she was younger, the hands that taught her how to sew as well as the hands that held her close.

It seems that ordinary time has a firm grasp on those both in youth and in older age. Livesey’s own awe as her child grows reveals how inspiring this passage of time can be, even if it is not quite so comforting on the other side of the spectrum. And even if time rolls onwards and all the books we write are to disappear, as Livesey states at the end of her first poem, ‘Having started as a poet I suppose any contribution is a positive mark on the ledger’.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Ordinary Time
by Anna Livesey
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561605

 

Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

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cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

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cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Baby
by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

Book Review: The Fuse Box – Essays on Writing, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price

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cv_the_fuse_boxWhat a fascinating collection this is. Poets, novelists, playwrights, tutors all write about their experience of writing. Their stories are remarkably different – Elizabeth Knox says she learned stories first as spoken narrative (her old sister Sara told her stories all the time) and later to read independently. That’s not so unusual, most kids hear narrative first – but few have the same talented sister to spin the tales, and even fewer find their creative voice as successfully as Elizabeth Knox has.

James Brown discovered at some point that reading could make him laugh and cry, and that it is not necessarily so for everyone. His piece is an alphabetic framework of his experience of writing and what the intending / aspirational writer should keep in mind. It’s well done and ranges from discovery through flarf (look it up!), intervention and shit detection to zing. It’s a clever idea and it works really well.

Lloyd Jones writes ‘to unlock something I don’t know exists. It’s in me somewhere and I’m in search of it’.

Damien Wilkins sheds light on Dennis McEldowney, among others. Stella Duffy views writing from a mid-point in life, with ideas to assist new writers. As she says, you can ignore all her points except this one: do the work. You have to do the work.

She also says that writing is not hard work. ‘Being a miner is hard work. Working twelve hours a day in a textile sweatshop is hard work………Writing…is not hard work…. but you have to work hard at it’

Patricia Grace is interviewed by her playwright daughter-in-law Briar Grace-Smith in a wonderfully interesting set of questions and answers. Much to be learned here.

For Victor Rodger writing is a political act, and for Nina Nawalowalo, necessity is the mother of her invention – there are stories which need to be told. As Tina Makereti quotes at the beginning of her essay, ‘Beautiful writing alone is not enough. Not now – look around you.’

There is a wealth more in this small book – it’s a really excellent insight into how many of our best writers write, teach, learn and create. If you want to write and don’t know how to begin, most of the experience in this book seems to say “just do it” and then see where it goes. That is really great advice. I think this is a great addition to our New Zealand literary canon, and I just have to end with the most wonderful quote from the last piece in this book, a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird where she says:

‘You start to wonder about the future and the great untitled project of your life

It keeps you up at night, like a big fluorescent sadness’

Maybe the solution to that is simply to start writing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Fuse Box: essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters
Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561650

 

Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

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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

Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

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cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882