Scoop Review of Books

Chaos of Life

Book Review / Poetry
by Vaughan Rapatahana (erbacce press, $17.50)
Reviewed by John Carstensen

ternion_full_webA love of language and languages pervades the poetry of ternion. Rapatahana has an impressive command of English but also an uneasy ambivalence for this language of colonisation which tramples on indigenous languages. In the ternion collection there is frequent and fluent use of te reo Maori, which is part of Rapatahana’s (preferred) identity. He prefers to identify with the colonised rather than the colonisers. There are also smatterings of Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Bahasa Melayu and Samoan, which are all part of his experience.

In reading ternion, as with all of Rapatahana’s poetry, certain questions arise. Why the eccentric typography? The eye and the mind are led across the topography of the page in a manner that enhances the semantics of the text, (and yet it is still best read aloud). And why the obscure lexis? The often unfamiliar vocabulary forces a focus onto precise meaning and nuances of meaning. I smile at the occasional bon mot, as when he feels atrabilious, on encountering American servicemen in the Philippines.  Interestingly also Rapatahana picks up the time honoured tradition of writing poetry about writing poetry, musing on the Muse and, to good effect metaphorically, as catching fish, and preparing a boil up.

In ternion there is no underlying big story, no ideology or philosophy, bar the implied nihilism, explicitly alluded to in Ray Brassier quotes (nihil unbound): “Philosophy is dead. Everything is dead….The world is not designed to be intelligible and is not ordinarily infused with meaning.” The world of ternion may not be infused with meaning but it is infused with attitude and mood, projected by the observer. Rain leers and skulks, grass sniggers, scrub whimpers, birds cast sarcastic glances.

In ternion the chaos of life is rendered into coherent images. There is life. There is death. There is the pathos of loss and grief. Pathos but never sentimentality. There is occasionally jarring cynicism but also there is love. Romantic and redemptive love. Death is increasingly present – “a skulking cur loitering just beyond every door.” In the last poem of the collection the poet appears, tellingly, and with a nod to T.S. Eliot, in the persona of a gerontion.

Finally and, as always, Derrida has the last word, “No one has final authority over the meaning of any text; not the experts, not the author.” But I can still rate it, okay? Five stars.


Romance Lives

Book Review
How We Met – the ways great love begins…
By Michele A’Court (Harper Collins, $35)
Reviewed by Justine McLeary

how_we_met_coverAn old flatmate of mine used to scoff at me whenever I watched romantic movies, telling me they were cheesy. She’d have thought this book was too. But I loved it as much as I do those movies.

Chances are you’ll be familiar with Michele A’Court’s name. She’s been around on the Kiwi stand-up comedy scene for a long time. This is her second book (her first, Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter, was published in 2015). In How We Met, Michele explores her theory that, if you ask a couple to tell the story of how they met, you’ll see them fall in love with each other all over again. Telling their story, Michele theorises, gives couples a sense of belonging to each other and helps strengthen their bond. This theory is borne out by the fact all the featured couples are still together, and backed up by relationship therapist Sara Chatwin, who agrees the stories help couples reignite falling-in-love feelings that may have been covered up by life experiences. The stories let the good stuff shine through again, she says.

While the stories are about the featured couples, Michele’s wit and voice really shines through. Her writing style is entertaining and highly readable. My favourite tale is that of Roger and Briony, who finally got together after years of friendship and romantic near-misses: there’s nothing like a story of people who overcome the odds for love. Michele brings Roger and Briony – and her other couples – vividly to life within her pages. I felt like I knew them, and I missed them after I finished the book.

How We Met is a rare book in that it evokes laughter and tears in its readers. Some of its stories do both at the same time. Michele has included her parents’ story – they met in 1951 and married in 1955 – and this was one such tale.

There’s something uplifting about reading other people’s love stories, isn’t there? That’s what makes How We Met easy to read and hard to put down. It’s sweet. There’s no other word for it, really.

Who Killed Jane?

Book Review
The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong
By Kelly Dennett (Awa Press, 2018, $42)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

jane-furlong_webThis is an important book. Why? Because any publication that soberly and sensibly attempts to cast light on an unsolved murder is important, for the very real reasons that not only do the bereaved require and deserve a sense of closure, but that the murderer or murderers may be closer to being confirmed, arrested, tried. Who wants murderers in society, whether they be currently incarcerated or not?

Kelly Dennett’s first, well-written book, does not solve the case. It does not answer several significant questions about this case either and Dennett does accept this aspect – “In this book I don’t claim to have solved the crime.” But, via her slogging research and her sheer dogged determination to – yes – seek some form of justice for the late Jane Furlong and her loved ones, Dennett does widen our awareness, does press us to pressure for some sort of resolution of a murder that occurred 25 years ago.

The back cover quotation from the Author’s Note inside, is especially apt, “the story has, in various degrees come to consume me. For the past few years it has plagued me.” Dennett’s obsession steadily becomes our own, as we flip faster through the pages and complete in one prolonged session, hell-bent in uncovering what did happen to Jane, when someone picked her up from Karangahape Road in 1993, why she was murdered, why she was transported to and buried in a sandy grave at Port Waikato, of all locations. And, of course, who did the deed?

Indeed, the personal anecdotes that Dennett includes, make for a rather different criminal investigation book, in that the author includes herself in some of the later investigatory action and is perfectly honest about her controlled emotions throughout. She even writes about her own disrupted domestic situations during her search and her mid-2016 workplace meltdown. I have been reading crime books for over 50 years now, and this particular book strikes me as different, because so much of the author’s own candid personality permeates the pages. For example, her own tripping into Jane’s realm of encountering men who were, “total shitheads” and “bastards” — after her own similar experiences with suchlike.

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Living Abroad

Book Review
The Expatriates by Martin Edmond (Bridget Williams Books, paper $49.99; e-book $20)
Reviewed by Mark Derby

the-expatriatesAs with painting a fence, writing a book results in a quantity of surplus matter to be set aside for some future project. When the writer is as productive, panoptic and persistent as the late Sir James McNeish, whose output spanned a half-century until his death in 2016, his nachlass (as it’s properly known) was unusually extensive and abundant. James was a generous man, and once he realized he could no longer make use of this lifetime’s compilation of literary raw material, he offered it, without any conditions, to Martin Edmond, a fellow writer whose work he admired and which has clear parallels with his own.

In his introduction to this book, Edmond describes being presented with files of James’s notes and clippings, meticulously ordered by subject. From those, he chose to write about four New Zealand men whose lives and achievements were based in Europe (and in one case Russia), and expanded on James’s research to produce this measured, thoughtful and fascinating multiple biography.

One of the four, Ronald Syme, moved from small-town Taranaki to become a world-renowned Oxford classicist. A working principle for his studies of ancient Rome was prosopography, defined by Edmond as ‘a sort of group biography in which the interconnections are as important as individual lives.’ This is clearly the approach taken by Edmond himself in this book. Each of its main subjects is concisely but systematically situated within a family background (sometimes with as many as four generations of forebears), a social and political milieu, and a network of acquaintances and influences. If that sounds too programmatic to be truly interesting, it isn’t, thanks to Edmond’s deft editing of his subjects’ own writing, his supplementary research across various countries, and in particular, the full-spectrum learning with which he is able to explain and illustrate this extraordinary material.

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Not So Sweet

Book Review
A Life Less Sugar by Amanda Tiffen with recipes by Leigh Brown (Harper Collins, $25)
Reviewed by Justine McLeary

sugar_coverI admit to being slightly obsessed with food. This year I’m on what might be called a quest for a healthier lifestyle, so I jumped at the chance to read this book, eager to soak up pearls of sugar-free wisdom.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Jam-packed with recipes, A Life Less Sugar breaks down the vast sugar-free topic into bite-size pieces that are easy to digest. It also clearly explains how to read food labels — something that, if you’ve ever stood in the supermarket trying to make sense of percentages like I have, you’ll find really helpful.

Author Amanda Tiffen, who lives in Christchurch, spent years following weight-loss programmes that didn’t work. Giving up, she turned instead to an active lifestyle and a healthy diet comprising low-fat foods, fruit and vegetables. She continued to gain weight and accepted she just wasn’t meant to be slim. But, in 2014, a documentary about the evils of sugar opened her eyes to how what her ‘healthy’ diet contained. An adult woman, Amanda explains, should eat a maximum of six teaspoons of sugar a day. She was averaging 30. Since then she has lost 20kg.

She wrote A Life Less Sugar to help others avoid the same trap. In the book Amanda examines many foods and their sugar levels. Be warned: this may come as a shock. A seemingly healthy breakfast, for example, comprising two Weetbix, 100ml of milk and 205g of tinned fruit, equals eight teaspoons of sugar – more than an entire day’s recommended intake.

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