Book Reviews and all that jazz


I was tickled pink as they say when Graham Beattie invited me to be a guest reviewer on his literary blog.   I belong to three book clubs and read quite a bit I guess (mostly I always tell myself, as a way of catching up).   You see, many of my super-smart book club friends grew up on a diet of books and they can quote from childhood memories, books they’ve read several times.   In this regard, I am way behind, apart from recalling the cover of my ‘School Friend’ annuals.   Yes, my family always gave books for Christmas and birthday, so I cannot complain, and my parents were regular library users.   Mum read detective stories and Dad loved Barry Crump or Hori and the Half Gallon Jar.  The local library was part of my landscape tucked as it was inside the brick council building that also housed the local cinema.   On Anzac Day, this very same building was where we gathered to pay homage to Gallipoli, The Somme and other legendary battles (in our house, the battle of the bottle).

The librarian was a serious but kindly woman who peered down over spectacles and used a long pencil with a rubber stamp attached to mark the library card and stamp the book, so you knew when to return it.   There was a certain smell of polished floors and stacks of books and the odour of silence and shuffle that is impossible to rekindle.    Libraries nowadays lack the holiness of our public library lodged in-between the Council Chambers and the Cinema.

I was a regular at the Cinema, and if movies could have been withdrawn like library books back then, I’m sure I’d have been one of the biggest borrowers.   Movies were my entertainment.   When other kids went to the beach on a hot Saturday, I queued for the matinée.   The Wednesday double-feature was for grown-ups, but if a really good movie was showing, my parents might agree that I could go on a week-night.   I recall watching Rin Tin Tin and Woman Obsessed as a double-feature one Wednesday school night and my Dad waiting outside after to walk me home in the dark.

It was outside the library one evening that we stood on the eve of a particularly important local body election when one Mayor was ousted and half the town stood with us while my Dad slipped behind the Doctor’s surgery (a small stucco building that still stands) to take a leak as we waited for the announcement.   Back then, local body politics were deemed as important as national elections and the Right or the Left were on either side of the street so to speak.   We were dyed in the wool Labour supporters with Tory neighbours in a working-class street that included two chemists, a builder (my Dad), a butcher, a baker, two school teachers, and eventually, a Prime Minister (but I’d long left home by then).

My sister was always way ahead of me.   She was ahead of many of her contemporaries too in small-town New Zealand; reading Shakespeare alongside more salacious banned books, collecting art books, drinking illicit Cona coffee in a candle-lit dive on the main street with red checked table cloths, where candles dripped wax down Chianti bottles.   Oh yes, she was way ahead of me, as I fled out the door weekdays to six am mass to keep my soul from the devil.

So, catching up, I call it.

And now I am writing to defend my style of reviewing.  Not that I’ve actually been asked to defend it (yet…).   But I’ve been thinking about reviews and the more academic point of view, that the “I” in the review should be absent.   Well of course, as you can tell from this preamble, leaving me, out of anything is going to be a challenge.  I make no excuses.   I read blogs and I write one and I’ve yet to find a blog that isn’t really about its creator, no matter how well written, researched, diverse, or interesting … their passion for the material, the topic, their desire to have you engage with them in a debate, discussion or dream.   Or, their desire for a voice, or just plain self-promotion…  Yep, that too.

I am not an academic book reviewer.   When I read a book, I bring my life experience as a woman, mother, wife, book clubber, writer, and my ego (oh yes, that most definitely).  I bring my opinions, my prejudice, my bias, my passion and my ignorance.    We all of us bring this to any book we open to read.    Hopefully, when we close the book we have perhaps lost some of our ignorance and ignited more of our passion, reduced or informed our prejudice/bias so that we recognise it and all of that jazz and more… we have perhaps fuelled our desire to read more, or to write better (better than we have been writing, as opposed to better than the writer we just read – because usually as a writer, I am mostly humbled and awed when I read).

Anyway, this is just an unplanned rant that I plan to post, about book reviews and why I feel no need to attempt to take the “I” or the “me” out of my reviews.    Not everyone will want to read my opinion or even care why I like or dislike a book and in this I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes (framed and on a shelf in my office) about writing – by Brian Joseph Epstein – and here is the link.

And a link to some of my book reviews.

Learning to sing


There is something quite extraordinary about discovering your voice.    Although…  to be fair, my journey of discovery has only just begun.   For years I have sung my heart out, but always with the knowledge that I was out of tune, “flat”, unable to match pitch.     I didn’t know it was called matching pitch, until last weekend.     I didn’t even know what a major scale was … perhaps it is no wonder I couldn’t always match pitch.

Well, what joy I had at the Reclaim your Voice workshop with the help of Nikki Berry and Gary Easterbrook, and seventeen other extraordinarily courageous women over a weekend at Turnbull House in Wellington.    We were warned on the Friday night that it would be an interesting journey and that perhaps there would be tears.   Well, I thought to myself, tears there may be, but not from me, because I don’t do ‘crying in public’ unless of course, it is a funeral.   And this was no funeral.  I had booked to reclaim my voice.   I’d been assured that this was definitely a workshop for people who couldn’t sing and not as happened when I tried to learn French and the people in the Beginners class all turned out to have studied French at school, or university.

As it turned out, some of the people in my singing workshop, actually sing in choirs, and on hearing this during the obligatory personal introductions, I felt the terror rising.    But, it turned out we all had a level of terror, even the most beautiful of our voices was constrained by some inner critic, childhood memory, grief, or embarrassment.   I was quite shocked to hear women who to me sang like nightingales, who didn’t believe they could sing.   At least my terror was somewhat more warranted.   But then too, some of my own fears were manufactured, as it turned out to my great surprise and delight, on the first round, solo, I matched pitch.  I got the thumbs up from Nikki.   I was taken aback, but found very quickly that Nikki Berry doesn’t do thumbs up when it’s not warranted.

Over and over, throughout the weekend, we sang solo in front of strangers, who became friends, shed tears (sobs sometimes), as our voices emerged, tested new styles and we sang, belt, twang, sob, falsetto… mostly new terms to me but the sounds were amazing.    People surprised themselves first and then the rest of us.  I was filled with admiration for the women who took courage in hand and wanted more, even when their voices sounded beautiful to me, they wanted more.    They stood alone in the room, encouraged by Nikki, took risks and we applauded with our laughter, and often our tears of joy for their achievement.

Don’t go away.   This isn’t therapy.   Hubby was puzzled when I told him how much I had cried.   He enquired was it singing lessons I had enrolled for?    Yes, before this weekend, I might too have looked a little askance at someone telling me how much they had cried learning to sing.     Well, as it turns out, laughing and crying are a great start for the vocal folds, and once you’ve released all that air and emotion, something beautiful happens (eventually, and after a few false starts and horrible noises), music happens, clarity occurs, voices surprise their owners.

I thought about what happened over the weekend, and it reminded me of skiing.  I learned to ski as a young adult in Norway  on a working holiday in the early seventies, in the Haukeli Mountains on what was then called the E.76 highway between Oslo and Bergen at the Vagslid Høgfjellshotell .   I had no fear of failure back then because I was so excited to have this opportunity.   Falling was just part of skiing and the snow was metres deep and the world was at my feet.    Then I returned to New Zealand and had a family in the late seventies and began learning downhill skiing, so very different from cross-country.   My fears began, I didn’t want to fall, my technique was wrong, and I was self-conscious.   My progress at downhill was so much slower than my first foray into skiing as a young woman on her OE, unencumbered by expectations and fear of failure.

But too, something else about skiing and singing…  If you’ve ever been on a crowded ski field and stopped to listen, you will know what I mean.  People don’t compete (perhaps some do), but the average family skier is just so thrilled to make it down the hill trying out a few new turns, tackling a slightly trickier track.   Over and over you hear people saying ‘did you see me’…. with joy, as much as pride… did you see me … they’re not looking at the other skiers, they’re so excited at their own unexpected progress and their families and friends are happy to applaud, agree, be delighted with and for them.

It felt like skiing a little, when I learned to sing this weekend.   Everyone seemed as happy for me as I was for me, when I sang on one note, then two notes, oh my goodness, I can sing on five notes… we were all engaged with each other and our progress was not in comparison to one other, but simply about each person’s individual progress, in comparison to their expectations (whether just meeting them, or going beyond).

Turnbull House in Wellington, lends itself to the intimacy needed for this sort of workshop.  It was here, back in the late nineties that I read my very first poem in public.  I’d just finished the undergraduate Poetry Course run by Greg O’Brien at Victoria University, and our class was invited by the Poetry Society to read.   I turned up with my whanau (husband and two sons), and the rest of my class just turned up and I recall one of my sons, who is now a builder, told me that he endured the boredom of the poetry readings by counting the ceiling panels or some such detail.  It seemed fitting that my first solo public singing, was also within these walls.

And so, I am writing to thank the extraordinary women who shared my singing journey this weekend, for their tears, for their laughter, for their courage, for their beautiful voices.   Of course, none of this could have occurred without the insightful, grounded, guidance of Nikki Berry, a talented teacher and singer.   Nikki generated an environment that was completely safe for all emotions and enabled us to take risks with our voices and our hearts.    I felt at times for Gary (the only male) who so expertly accompanied us on guitar and piano, exposed to so much joy and grief and laughter among so many women, but he didn’t seem to mind.   Evidently there are usually men too in these singing groups but for some reason, our group was all women.   Maybe this allowed more emotion, who’s to say, but it is true, that the emotions propelled the singing and made our journey all the more valuable.

If like me, you think (or know) you can’t sing, take a risk, enroll in one of these workshops and be surprised.    Oh I won’t kid you, I’m still singing out of tune, but now I know how to find that voice, how to match pitch and I am practising.  I have a song to sing to my granddaughter, and it goes like this.