01 September 2014

Bead-mumblers and the God Assumption

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Lawrence Jones
The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall (Penguin, 2014), 244 pp., $30

After setting her first novel, Dead Sea Fruit (1995), in the familiar time and place of Dunedin of the 1970s, Charlotte Randall has often set her stories in more distant times and places, such as Bedlam mental asylum in London in the early nineteenth century in The Curative (2000) and Hokitika in the gold-rush days in Hokitika Town (2011). Thus it is perhaps not surprising that this, her seventh novel, is set on an unnamed and uninhabited ‘speck’ in the subantarctic Snares group of islands south of Stewart Island in the early nineteenth century. 

Whisky Shots, Beer Bongs, Spotting Knives and Hash Oil

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Nicholas Reid
Empty Bones and others Stories, by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, 2014), 182 pp., $30 

Back in 2011, when I reviewed Breton Dukes’ debut book of short stories Bird North and other Stories, I was careful to note that one has to distinguish between an author’s skill on the one hand, and an author’s worldview or subject matter on the other. Frankly, said I, while I recognised Breton Dukes’ great skill as a writer, and his ability to shape a story and to make it allusive enough not to be a mere anecdote, I was nevertheless not in sympathy with his characters. Most of them seemed to be alienated young men, sometimes outdoorsy, sometimes druggie, nearly all not yet capable of sustained or meaningful relationships with others. To me, a sense of sickened machismo hung over the collection, as if these young men ached to be Good Keen Men but had somehow been damaged before reaching that goal.

The Ribald, Dashing Psychiatric Nurses of Nelson

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Hilary Lapsley
Who Was that Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, by Aorewa McLeod (Victoria University Press, 2013), 222 pp., $35

In a prefatory statement to her ‘novel’, Who Was that Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, Aorewa McLeod invites the reader to wonder about the extent to which the novel is fictional: ‘All of these stories are inspired by real life events. Some details happened in real life, some did not. The characters are fictionalized and given fictional names.’ 
It is not surprising that there is often a thin line between fiction and memoir in gay and lesbian writing. Lesbian lives are lived against the grain and those who record them are faced with particular challenges in writing about themselves, their lovers, friends and communities. Lesbian identities are hard-won, treasured by their owners and validated by their communities, yet in public life they are routinely ignored, feared, even despised. Their identities are fluid not fixed, are self-assigned in the most personal manner and are normally visible only by choice. Gay and lesbian communities reinvent themselves, changing and being changed by the cultures around them, reaching for a continuity that is hard to achieve when histories are subversive and hidden. Adrienne Rich, American lesbian poet and National Book Award winner, aptly wrote in a poem: ‘I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world.’ (‘Natural Resources’, from The Dream of a Common Language, 1977) 

I’m Very Proud to be Having Your Abortion, Trev

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Helen Watson White 
Three Plays by Robert Lord, edited by Phillip Mann (Playmarket, 2013), 290 pp., $30

‘The world is divided between those who know the score and those who don’t,’ says John in It Isn’t Cricket by New Zealand playwright Robert Lord (1946–1992). This minimalist and abstract piece, probably Lord’s first-written stage play, was enthusiastically received when given a rehearsed reading by director Sunny Amey at Downstage in 1971, and was subsequently printed as an insert in Act magazine. Along with two later scripts it has now been selected and edited by Phillip Mann for Three Plays by Robert Lord and published in Playmarket’s New Zealand Play Series, to celebrate the agency’s 40th anniversary in 2013.

Nonsense Sayings

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Michael O’Leary
The Thin Boy & Other Poems, by John Gibb (Cold Hub Press, Lyttelton, 2014), 44 pp., $19.50; Things to Know, by Andrew Strang (Sudden Valley Press, Christchurch, 2014), 64 pp., $20; The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider, by Janis Freegard (Anomalous Press USA/Matchbox Studios NZ, 2013), 42 pp., $20; The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, by Cliff Fell with illustrations by Fiona Johnstone (Last Leaf Press, Motueka, 2014), 32 pp., $20

Anyone who knows of John Gibb and of the Dunedin poetry fraternity, with which he has caroused over the last thirty or forty years, will be pleasantly surprised that this book, promised for all those decades, has finally made it into print. Gibb was one of many of us around in the 1970s onwards who spent nights, months and eventually years in the Captain Cook Hotel and the Robbie Burns Hotel, as well as at parties all over the city, discussing and drinking our way through philosophy, politics, art and, above all, poetry – sometimes even remembering what we had said the next day, when the same discussion picked up where it had left off!


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Rick Bryant
Gutter Black: A Memoir, by Dave McArtney, (Harper Collins, 2014), 320 pp., $44.99 

On the giant speaker cabinet perched precariously on the mezzanine level amidst the debris of Bruce Moose’s renovations was painted ‘Goodbye Dove’. The other one, at the entrance to the party floor of Mandrax mansion, read ‘Hello Sailor’.

It was Ray Goodwin, the guitarist from Dragon, who told me one day in 1975 or thereabouts: ‘I know a couple of blokes who have some really good songs coming along.’ These blokes, whom I did not actually meet for quite a while, were Dave McArtney and Graham Brazier, most of the front line of one of the best, and best-loved, rock bands ever to emerge in Aotearoa.
Editor Findlay MacDonald has made a very good job indeed of ensuring that Dave’s book moves well, holds your attention and deals with some interesting but personal biography – and not just Dave’s, because there are two personalities at the centre of this narrative: Dave McArtney, and the band Hello Sailor – Graham Brazier, Dave McArtney, Harry Lyon, Lisle Kinney and Ricky Ball – a music entity with a life of its own. As a group, Hello Sailor was unique in this country, and I can say that with authority, because I watched them for decades in a huge spread of locations and conditions, not to mention moods. For my money, they have not been excelled. There have been other major achievers, of course, but they have been in different genres. You could call me a reluctant, even jaundiced, fan, and I never much engaged with some of their music, but yes, I saw some great performances. 

Man in a Room Selling Dreams

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David Eggleton
Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, 2013), 496 pp., $64.99

‘I am not slaving my guts out as a dishwasher for kicks,’ Peter McLeavey wrote in a letter to Pat Hanly in December 1968. McLeavey was at that time working as a ‘general dogsbody’ in an electric battery factory in order to subsidise his Peter McLeavey Gallery, which opened in September 1968 at 147 Cuba Street in a suite of rooms the gallery occupies to this day, a Wellington fixture. McLeavey built up his dealer gallery the hard way, through elbow grease, business acumen and perseverance, but above all through belief in what he was selling: New Zealand art.
His sense of mission was self-developed, but it grew out of the circumstances of his upbringing and a particular moment in cultural nationalism, namely the zenith of New Zealand high modernism, promulgated early on by Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Hamish Keith and others, but which by the late 1960s was beginning to find a larger, almost mass audience, made up mostly of the post-World War II baby-boomer generation looking for signs of national identity.