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Securing the Past

Book Review
Making History: a New Zealand story
 by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, 384 Pages. $45)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

jp-cover-001Over the last half century there has been a growing interest in New Zealand history. Books on all aspects of history are popular, supplemented by films, TV, the internet and exhibitions in museums and galleries around the country. Jock Phillips is a pioneering public historian who has sought new ways to communicate history to a wide audience. His autobiographical memoir is a fascinating account of how perceptions of history have changed through his career.

At the outset, I must make it clear that this is not a fully objective review. I worked under Jock at Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and have a high regard for his dedication and management skills. In reading this book, I was keen to find out more about his background and motivation.

As the son of two history graduates who studied together at university, it was almost inevitable that Jock would become an academic. He won a scholarship to Harvard, immersed himself in US politics in the Nixon era, and returned to Victoria University to teach American history. At that stage he had never studied New Zealand history – in those days a poor relation in the academic world – but he gradually came to be fascinated by the social history of his own country. His understanding grew as he worked on two books – the first on domestic stained-glass windows with friend and collaborator Chris Maclean, and the second on Kiwi male stereotypes which eventually became his best-seller, A Man’s Country.

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Rite of Passage

Book Review
The Fell
by Robert Jenkins (RedDoor Publishing, 2019)
Reviewed by Johnny Tell

410khbegzulVery recently I posted a review for this novel on Goodreads.com and make no apology for posting another here. It is my intention to ensure The Fell finds as wide a readership as possible. It matters that much.

The Fell is tagged as a debut novel by Robert Jenkins and RedDoor Publishing, but the quality of its craftwork suggests otherwise.  I would like  to know more about the author but his bio tells us little.

The Fell reads like a classic of literary fiction, a rite of passage that stands testing against any previous work. I suspect, in time, if it finds its feet,  it will rank alongside the likes of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Actually, for readers today, this will eclipse them. They are vanilla in comparison.

To be fair, in comparison Fight Club is tame and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is set in a normal and well-run institution.

The Fell reeks of lived experience and is in places harsh, brutal and disturbing, but also poetic, subtle, tender and clever. I suspect for many readers it will be almost too subtle, an entire life-changing event is distilled into a single line. “I let him have me all”, is all we hear about the boy narrator’s first experience of homosexuality. A line referencing a hilariously inappropriate folk song catches you unawares until it percolates and then stuns with how very appropriate it really is. His view of old people in a park is heartbreakingly on the money.

Sometimes confusion, honesty and raw experience are encapsulated in a single word and the simplicity of language used by the young character is employed perfectly.

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Woman in Law

Book Review
Shirley Smith: an examined life
by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, $40). 464 pages.
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

ss-cover-001As the years pass, I have become less interested in reading fiction. Why bother to read made-up stories when the actions of real people are so fascinating and unpredictable? This new biography of Shirley Smith (1916-2007) is an example of an unusual life, skilfully narrated by Sarah Gaitanos.

Shirley Smith was the only daughter of a prominent Wellington lawyer. After studying at Oxford, she later became a pioneering woman lawyer in what was then a male-dominated profession. It seems a simple heroic story, but there are several unexpected twists. Although she showed an early interest in studying law, this was vetoed by her father, who felt that it was no profession for a woman. Instead she studied classics at Oxford in the late 1930s. Her social conscience was aroused by the gathering political storms in Europe, and she joined the Communist Party. The atmosphere of the times is nicely evoked by the recent movie, “Red Joan”. In later years Shirley confided that she was so thankful that she was at Oxford rather than Cambridge, where she might have been recruited as a potential spy.

Returning to New Zealand soon after the outbreak of war, she joined the Classics department at Victoria University College, then moved to a similar position at Auckland  where she taught Latin. It was during this period that she met and subsequently married Bill Sutch, a brilliant but erratic economist and left-wing intellectual. Shirley insisted on retaining her own name rather than becoming Mrs Sutch – almost unheard of at the time, especially once she had a baby. When she returned to Wellington to join Bill, she started attending weekly meetings of the Wellington Central branch of the Communist Party, and came to the notice of the Special Branch of the NZ Police (forerunner of the SIS). A report on her activities noted that “SS is evidently well versed in the doctrine of Communism and she gave a lecture on the Fundamentals of Dialectical Materialism which was too advanced for most of the members present”.

 

Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

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A Novel Novel

Book Review
Novel
by Vaughan Rapatahana (Rangitawa, $38)
Reviewed byJohn Carstensen

cover-novel-vaughanNovel, now there’s a novel title for a novel, and a novel approach to writing a novel, perhaps best described as a deconstructed narrative. It is obvious from the beginning that it is not a conventional narrative structure. On the first page we find the Afterword and yes, the Forward is at the end. Also, for the benefit of the reader, an Addendum outlining the proper structure and set of rules for The English Novel, most of which are broken in Novel.

In this, his second novel, Rapatahana returns, with greater success, to the themes of geopolitical conspiracies, imperialist neo-colonialism, perpetrated in this tale, principally by the USA and the nefarious activities of the CIA. Pitched against the oppression of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Philippines and other countries are the rebels and fugitives, one fugitive in particular, a New Zealand Māori called Norton, a reappearance of a Rapatahana alter ego.

Novel is divided into short chapters of rapidly shifting scenes, tracing the footsteps of Rapatahana himself across territories he knows well, especially Aotearoa, the Philippines and Hong Kong and the settings are described in vivid, convincing detail. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, shootings, stabbings, beheadings. The narrative proceeds at a fast pace throughout  a number of subplots and the abrupt shifting from one to another  can seem a bit disorienting but it all comes together into a kind of circular mélange, with Norton, the principal protagonist, ultimately seeking an existence in ‘non linear time.’

One sometimes encounters a statement within a text that could have been stage-crafted as dramatic irony, as a commentary on the story itself, as in the following quote (p. 32):

Still, he couldn’t help sensing undercurrents, an undertow. Like there was a plot to the story but no one could quite sus it out just yet. They all knew they had a role or two to play, but no one had gotten round to giving anyone a script, eh. Who was the bad guy? Who was the killer? Who was the sheriff? Who was the author and what were they on about anyway?

What indeed? Anyway, a thoroughly interesting read.

Sex Work

Book Review
My Body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change
by Caren Wilton with photographs by Madeleine Slavick (Otago University Press, $45)
Reviewed by Wendy Montrose

my-body-my-business-cover“What I want to do with my body is my business……….and if I want to sell it to you for such and such, who are you to poke your nose into my bedroom?”

I have to admit, this book appealed to me for the promise of a glimpse into the murky world of the sex industry. Who isn’t just a tiny bit curious? I wasn’t disappointed either, but for entirely different reasons.

Caren Wilton spent almost a decade collecting the stories of 11 former and current New Zealand sex workers who, through their frank and honest recollections, open the door to what many of us consider is a closed world, the world of massage parlours, brothels and street workers. There is no holding back. From recollections of childhood sexual encounters to a disturbing description of aversion therapy, the stories are told in a matter of fact way in the interviewee’s own voices.

My Body, my business opens with an overview of the New Zealand sex industry including changes following decriminalisation in 2003. Many of the subjects of the book worked in the industry both before and after this momentous event and their stories reflect common experiences of the times. They tell of abuse, insult and assault, being spat upon, entrapped by police and tricked out of their hard earned money, discrimination in employment and accommodation, all often by the very sectors of society who made use of their services.

 ‘People would stand and stare and talk about you like you were a mental patient.’

‘I got abused, all the normal crap and that – ‘You’re a slut!’ ‘I’m not a slut, I’m a business woman.’

But they also talk about the community and camaraderie amongst sex workers who often take the place of estranged families, sitting around chatting like any group of women during downtime in a brothel or taking refuge from the streets in all night coffee bars, supporting and encouraging each other, watching each other’s backs.

‘If we needed to work at night for whatever reason, one of us would have the kids at our place for the night. We had our own little babysitting community. That was a priority of the women there, making sure their kids were safe. The majority of them were mothers.’

Neither self pitying nor boastful, the subjects come across as incredibly ordinary albeit with an extraordinary job. And that is the point. Sex work is their job, it’s not who they are or what they are. It’s what they do for a living and like any of us, they have another life. They are human, just like you and me and if you met any one of them in the supermarket, you wouldn’t know how they made their living.

‘You’re an actress in many ways. You’re there for a purpose, you’re going through a routine.’

‘Underwear that I would buy for work was for work – I wouldn’t wear that underwear if I was going out. I always kept things quite separate – it just made me be able to come back to being who I am. I was no longer the actress, the sex worker ….’

I was surprised to learn that sex work could be a choice, that it’s not always a case of having no other option. The oldest profession has for some been a conscious career choice.

‘I liked having sex with different people and you’d get paid for it. How wonderful. What a great way to make a living.’

My Body, my business is as entertaining as it is informative. The stories are easy to read whether about a suburban dominatrix, a transgender street girl or the Dame who led the fight for decriminalisation and the right to safety and legal protection for sex workers.

This is the best thing I read in 2018. My preconceptions have been shattered by the stories, expertly drawn out by Wilton and told without judgement. The subjects are likeable, funny and at times tragic but never hopeless or deserving of pity.  Go on! Let your eyes and your hearts be opened. Mine were.