Archive for the ‘Books I’ve read’ Category

I found this memoir by a feminist filmmaker absolutely riveting. Gaylene is just nineteen months older than me, and I could relate to so much of her childhood and teenage years. We listened to the same radios programmes and both had Yul Brynner as a favourite film star. She describes Christchurch in the 1960s as being a city of bicycles that all had bells. The bicycles are still here, but sadly not all now have bells, and those that do sometimes fail to use them.

Gaylene’s description of having an abortion in Sydney is starkly poignant, yet it was a privileged option in the late 1960s. The story of the graduate dining room at Gonville and Gaius (pronounced Keys) college in Cambridge held special interest for me because I’ve visited that college where a relative did his PhD. I loved the fact that Gaylene called her first husband her first husband right from the beginning, thinking it would keep him on his toes (but it didn’t). I’m tempted to start calling Stephen my first husband but it seems a bit pointless after more than 50 years.

In 1971 Gaylene joined a Consciousness Raising circle in Cambridge which developed into a feminist activist group. My Auckland introduction to C.R. was later, but also important to my self-development. Of course I loved her mention that rhyming couplets can be superlative and wished I could locate Eric’s doggerel The Pensioner’s Cat which Gaylene captured on video. She also talks about Wellington Trades Council’s women’s choir which became Choir Choir Pants on Fire. I have their c.d. with wonderful socialist songs, including Bread and Roses.

One section tells about the making of Hope and Wire, the series based on the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, which I have never watched. It’s a creative drama, an amalgamation of stories, but to me it could never be as real as Gerard Smyth’s When a City Falls. There are details of all Gaylene’s productions, many of which I’ve seen and enjoyed. I particularly remember taking my mother to see War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not yet seen My Life With Helen, which tells of Helen Clark’s unsuccessful bid to become Secretary-General of the United Nations. It’s now definitely on my must-see list.

The whole book clearly explains Gaylene’s development as a filmmaker and her reasons for making films, and does this in an entertaining way. We are extremely lucky to have her telling our stories in Aotearoa.

This is a book not to be missed
you need to read it, I insist

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I’ve twice enjoyed hearing Clementine speak at Word festival events, and this encouraged me to try her book about love. Last September she spoke of how we often see our past selves in negative ways, carrying self-doubt inside. To have a relatable story with depth you have to get to know your inner self, ask them to forgive you, and they will, because all they’ve ever wanted is your love. This book gives us an opportunity to know Clementine’s inner self, although she does tell us that knowing is not necessarily understanding. She also says that to know love is to know more of yourself.

Clementine is honest and open about her life and her fantasies, and gives very clear and deeply personal depictions of the feelings of a teenage girl, a mother, and the woman in between them. I was impressed with how much she remembers in vivid details. She does say: “As a writer I live in a perpetual state of examination and memory.”

Throughout the book I was intrigued by the continual use of texting as communication. This is something I’ve never taken to myself, and I sometimes wonder if I’m missing out. I favour using email – will respond to Facebook messages, but email is always my preference. I recently said to friend who is driving a brand new hybrid car, that I would have trouble coping with such a sophisticated vehicle as I haven’t yet assimilated the smartphone.

Clementine’s openness about her relationships makes for compulsive reading. She writes about her mother’s death, about lovers, about friends, and about motherhood. All of it is absorbing, and skillfully written.

She tells it just the way it is
her frankness makes you go gee-whiz

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This book kept me engrossed all afternoon. I started it at lunchtime and finished it just before dinner. I did take a break to spend an hour in the garden, and it is only 269 pages. Apparently the author’s name is a pseudonym for Christi Daugherty who is a former crime reporter and civil servant, and has written bestsellers for teens and adults.

The novel is a spy thriller with a female protagonist, and politically up to the moment. It’s the fast-paced and suspenseful story of a chase across London, which included places I’ve visited such as Camden, Regent’s Canal, and Little Venice. The Russians have hacked into the city’s CCTV, so Emma needs to take the person she’s protecting through back alleys, and use her many amazing skills. It’s great to have a female spy, and the references to her background and training were exciting. This was an excellent read for a summer holiday afternoon.

It’s good to have a spy like Emma
with skills to solve the worst dilemma

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Time away from home on my own is rare these days. In fact it’s more than six years since I spent a night away from home and Stephen. When a friend offered transport to Dunedin I hesitated, then thought “why not?”. It’s good to have a break from my usual routines, and interesting what effort, physical and emotional, is required to make that break.

At home I have regular rituals and activities, which have been carefully chosen and developed over many years. One of those is reading a daily newspaper and doing the puzzles in it. In Dunedin the Press is now simply not available in hard copy. The Otago Daily Times is a possible substitute, with equivalent puzzles, but the news items don’t have the same relevance.

Usually I do 15 minutes exercises each morning, then go to my computer to check emails and blog, and do Wordle. I took my tablet away with me, but had difficulty logging on to the motel WiFi at some times, and I never even thought about Wordle. Digital devices are great for keeping in touch, but a few disconnected days gave me a chance to focus my thoughts elsewhere.

Dunedin building facade

It was wonderful to wake in the morning and know I had two completely free days ahead of me where I could do whatever and whenever I wanted. This seldom happens at home, and when it does there are always domestic tasks I could be doing. Saturday morning I woke at 1am to the sound of rain. At home I would listen to RNZ National through my headphones, careful not to wake Stephen. In Dunedin I could put on the bed-light (and the electric blanket, lacking the warmth of a partner in bed), and read or write. I’m currently reading Juliet Batten’s latest memoir The Persimmon Journal which deals with lockdown, loss, and release, and even mentions me on page 172. Juliet’s story of ageing and dealing with physical deterioration is an inspiring example of the changes we face as we get older.

I think of time away as being on retreat, and when I retreat I like to have a question or theme to consider. The solution or resolution can often come from the subconscious. For these few days my non-urgent focus was on future plans. What might I do differently in the coming year? Last year I joined the University of the Third Age and have relished the stimulation those talks give me. The previous year, through a writing class, I produced and published a small memoir which gave me a sense of achievement. What new activity could I choose for 2023? What have other older people chosen? It would be good to increase my circle of friends, something that seems harder to do as I grow older, especially when people die and/or move elsewhere.

I’ve offered to co-facilitate a Summer Solstice ritual for a spirituality group where I’ve not led before. I’m unsure whether I have the energy to do more in this area, but it is an option, especially as there are others who would share the responsibility.

The commitment of formal volunteer roles doesn’t attract me at present, but I’ve found satisfaction when an opportunity has arisen to perform a Random Act of Kindness. How could I build more of these into my life?

Or maybe I’ll just enjoy having more time to myself, and meeting each day as it comes.

There is so much that I could do
Great to have time and freedom too

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Two mothers have very different views about the need for vaccinations, and the ramifications are far-reaching. The women have a long close friendship although their personalities are not alike, and they each care for the other’s child. The author gives both sides of the vaccination debate, and demonstrates how both mothers are trying to do the very best for their child.

My daughters had all the suggested jabs, and I have too. In the 1980s I knew someone who had a tragic adverse reaction to a pre-travel vaccination, but I know such outcomes are rare. Conflict over vaccination has been topical in Covid times, but most of us believe and follow Health Ministry guidelines.

The characters in this novel are well drawn, and there is suspense.

The main message I took from the book is how easily we can become obsessed by an idea, and how important it is to consider other possibilities. This is an enjoyable book that will make you think.

You can’t expect impunity
if you’ve refused immunity

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This is a beguiling book, full of humour. The narrator, an American woman, loses all her family in the influenza epidemic and inherits enough money to enable her to travel. She becomes part of the inner circle at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell, among others, meet to decide the fate of the Arab world after World War One. The consequences of these decisions are being seen today.

I enjoyed her cynical observations of war, the influenza epidemic, and the tourist attractions of Jerusalem. After excellent descriptions of Egypt’s ancient attractions she notes that Jerusalem appeared to her as an enormous mushroom colony, and that the soil around the Nile is so fertile you could plant a pencil and harvest a book.

Her Dachshund Rosie accompanies her on her travels and the dog’s personality radiates through the book. It’s not a breed that’s ever attracted me but I now feel more sympathetic towards them. When Rosie disgraced herself in a luxury car shared with Winston Churchill which was surrounded by rioters, Winston commented that this was “Quite a common reaction to combat”.

I appreciated the understanding of the difference between a suffragist and a suffragette.

When our heroine had too much to drink, Lawrence supported her when she vomited. “Oh, good Lord,” I gasped, hilarious and horrified as I took the handkerchief Lawrence offered. “I just puked in front of the Uncrowned King of Arabia.”

“My dear Miss Shanklin,” Lawrence said with a gallantry I have never forgotten, “I was an undergraduate at Oxford. Believe me: I’ve seen worse.”

While this is a work of fiction the author has used historical dialogue wherever this was available. The end of this book was strange, but I could excuse that as I’d enjoyed the rest.

We start to understand at least
some problems of the Middle East

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This memoir was written by a 98-year-old woman. She grew up in New Brighton, and later worked in Wellington, as well as travelling overseas. Margaret was a Hansard Reporter and offers some interesting snippets of Parliamentary history.

What struck me about the book was how many facts the author was uncertain of. It’s understandable that a 98-year-old’s memory may be fragmentary, but I couldn’t help thinking that many of these facts could easily have been researched by an assistant, and that some editing would have been useful. Maybe just writing her story down was what she wanted to do.

Margaret relates how when her grandfather married for a second time he neglected to tell his new wife he had seven children dotted around Christchurch. This reminded me of my grandfather who neglected to tell my grandmother that two sons of his first marriage had come with him to Christchurch from Australia. Many details of places and events in this book are ones that I either remember or remember hearing about, e.g. my mother was also there when Kingsford Smith arrived from his flight across the Tasman.

I was lent this book from the New Brighton Historical Society. It has a copyright notice, and was printed by Printabook who are “self-publishing experts”. There is nothing to say who the publisher is, although it was evidently the author, and there is no ISBN number, which indicates the book was never intended for sale. Christchurch City Libraries hold one copy which is for in-library use only. Some diverting episodes are included, but Margaret’s story failed to enthrall me. I wondered who had thought of the title, which didn’t quite seem to match the book.

When near a hundred years have passed
the anecdotal scope is vast

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This book of autobiographical essays opens with the story of Fiona becoming a widow, and goes on to give the origin of many scenes that appear in her novels. She writes with a wonderful sense of place, deals practically with the changes that come with age, and gives us captivating glimpses of the life of a successful writer.

I liked her statement that everyone has grandparents but not everyone has grandchildren – personally, I have grand-kittens. Parts that especially drew my interest were her description of the way she taught classes to write memoir and the research she did for her book about Jean Batten. Festival sessions with small audiences also appealed. I imagine those small audiences would have had a real treat. It reminded me of the time Stephen was in a play where only two audience members turned up, and they, along with the cast, all went to the pub.

The essay on massage reminded me of wonderful massages I had from a woman who later left Christchurch. It’s some years now since I had a professional massage but it’s a treat I may avail myself of again now that Fiona has brought the idea to mind. She described how the milled rims of her wedding ring have now vanished which reminded me that mine too has lost its milled rims after many years. Fiona’s story of the Pike River Mine and her responsibility to seek justice shows her determination and commitment.

So many different stories, all fascinating and all told with skill and honesty.

She shares the stories of her life
now moving on – no longer wife

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Writing a memoir is an act of resurrection. I was privileged to hear three authors of memoirs speak at a superb session at this year’s WORD festival. The session was titled Whose life is it anyway? and facilitator Victor Roger was engaging and knowledgeable, telling us that he had laughed and cried when reading each of the three books.

I arrived early with time to browse the University Bookshop stall, where they were selling literary t-shirts, buy one, get one free. I was delighted to get a long-sleeved shirt with a quote from Hermione Granger which says When in doubt go to the library. For Stephen, a lifelong Science Fiction fan, I chose one featuring The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

The three writers on the panel were Ruth Shaw (The Bookseller at the End of the World), Megan Dunn (Things I learned at Art School), and Clementine Ford (How We Love). I’d not read any of these, although two were already on my For Later list (to which the third has now been added). I was surprised that the theatre was only two-thirds full. The session was also being live-streamed, and I guess there are people who are still wary of being out in crowds, even though all the audience was masked.

Megan Dunn, Clementine Ford, Ruth Shaw, Victor Roger

Clementine explained she was wearing a hat because she’d been travelling for ten days and her hair needed attention. She also said her grandmother would have been horrified by this. I’d previously heard Clementine speak on a panel in 2015 where the topic was How to be a feminist. This time she spoke of how we often see our past selves in negative ways, carrying self-doubt inside. To have a relatable story with depth you have to get to know your inner self, ask them to forgive you, and they will, because all they’ve ever wanted is your love.

Megan said: Good girls write memoirs, bad girls don’t have time. Her father had suggested to her that some things are better left unsaid. In 1989 she was 14 years old and her family were living above an old persons’ home, when her uncle killed himself. Some of her writing is therefore about a child absorbing death. Her description of her own mother’s death was incredibly moving. This mother was never supported to reach her potential or be publicly known, and Megan is now honouring her in this book, so that thousands of people know her and cry for her.

Ruth said she was able to draw on lots of diaries and letters, but recalling the emotions was tricky. She often imagined the person she was writing about standing beside her, together with those who would become her readers. After being raped she became pregnant at 17, and found her mother’s reaction difficult to understand, but her mother later explained the difficulty of living in a small community among the families of the perpetrators.

Megan pointed out there are many lonely people in the world, and suggested one way to combat loneliness is to buy these books.

Clementine said that if you know someone you can be a witness to their life, and that is an important form of love. She recommended the film Beaches as an example of this. Clementine would like to write about her father, who re-married after her mother died. She hopes he will die before his second wife does so she can write the book and that woman can read it.

When questioned about censoring what you’ve written Ruth said she had changed the names of her four husbands and son, to protect their privacy.

All the authors were amazingly open about their stories, and I had tears in my eyes on several occasions. This was a stimulating and very worthwhile session, and I look forward to the pleasure of reading each of their books. Have you read these memoirs?

Their stories came right from the heart
there’s more to read – a further part

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Any genealogist would find the beginning of this book delightfully intriguing. I was fascinated to follow the author’s family research, including his use of databases which are available on the internet, and I can relate to his obsession with the quest to discover more. His emotion on making contact with previously unknown relatives reminded me of similar experiences I have had.

When I read of the amazing amount of family correspondence Richard discovered in various archives I felt envious. He describes being a kind of time-travelling commuter, secretly shuffling back and forth between the present day and the world of his eighteenth century family.

Detective biography is the perfect label for this book. The author gives details of how his ancestors gained wealth through their slaves in the West Indies, and how shocking he found this. His descriptions of the transport and sale of slaves are harrowing. I thought smugly of my own Rout ancestors who were abolitionists.

I admit I skipped through many of the pages which dealt with British politics, the financial crisis of 1772, and the American Revolution, where an earlier Richard Atkinson supplied the Royal Navy and troops with rum and other provisions.

For me, the personal anecdotes were more engaging that the wider political and war details, though I admired the thorough research and the many illustrations. It was moving to read of the moment when Richard touched the hair of his Great-great-great-great Aunt. His commentary on DNA testing was interesting especially when he found so many distant cousins were of West African ancestry.

This book would be enjoyed by anyone curious about British colonial history, but there is a special attraction for family historians.

A decade is the time it took
to research and to write this book

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