Monday, December 2, 2019

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“STRONG WORDS – The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition” Edited by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “CATCH AND KILL” by Ronan Farrow (Little-Brown / Hachette, $NZ 37:99); “MY PENGUIN YEAR” by Lindsay McCrae (Hodder and Stoughton / Hachette, $NZ34:99)

What is an essay? When we were in the first years of secondary school, an essay was a little narrative of personal experience, in the notorious “What I Did in My Holidays” mould: so basically a first-person story. Call it confessional. Then in the senior years of secondary school, an essay was meant to argue a case like a lawyer, on such topics as “Was King Lear the author of his own misfortunes?”, to be written with a neat introduction, a neat final paragraph drawing a conclusion, and in between these, five or six paragraphs, each making a point, each beginning with a “topic sentence”, and each using evidence, usually in the form of quotations from the text. Call it forensic.

But as soon as we were free of school, and free of undergraduate essays on Eng. Lit., we discovered essays that were neither confessional nor forensic, though some were. Essays could move in many directions, and didn’t have any firm template. Personal experience, sure. Arguing a case, sure. But also reflecting or reconstructing the past; or trying to get a handle on personal relationships; or venting dyspeptic or euphoric feelings; or imagining a possible society; or God wot. Trying to define what an essay is, the best I can come up with is “a, usually short, piece of non-fiction prose, reflecting personal experience, personal convictions or personal interpretations of the world.” Clumsy, but at least comprehensive.

The difficulty of defining an essay is reflected in Emma Neale’s Introduction to Strong Words - The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition. She quotes with approval Virginia Woolf’s statement that whatever it deals with, anything “from the immortality of the soul to the rheumatism  in your left shoulder”, an essay “is primarily an expression of personal opinion.” Having quoted this, Neale herself describes the essay form as “protean”. 

As judge of the Landfall Essay Competition in 2018, Neale had the unenviable task of reading her way through the 90 essays submitted, and choosing three winners – 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. But she knew that many which were not so awarded were also interesting, intelligent and engaging pieces of work. Hence this anthology, which gives us fully 21 of the essays that were submitted, with the three winning essays as the opening items in the book.

On the very rare occasions when I have been called on to judge writing like this, I know (once the real duds are set aside) that there is a final wrench when winners have to be decided on. There is always that nagging thought that you might have made the wrong decision, or that you are not honouring work which other experienced judges might have considered the best. As I read Strong Words, I found a few essays which I might have given the top spots instead of the three winners, but this is not to denigrate anything in this anthology. In their own very different ways, each essay is engaging in the real sense of the word – involving the reader by getting and holding the reader’s attention.

Of the three winning essays, Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending” is a lively reconstruction of how it felt, at the time, to be in New Zealand at the end of the First World War. Its sense of immediacy strips away later interpretations we may have imposed upon that time. But Susan Wardell’s “Shining Through the Skull” and Sam Keenan’s “Bad Girls” are both in the more confessional mode. Wardell deals with having been misled in the most personal and embarrassing way. Keenan deals with the brutal death of a teenage friend. Both are inevitably led to reflect on the way young women are seen in a defective world.

As I read the other eighteen essays, I found some that had a similar intention to the three winners. Louise Slocombe’s “The Thorndon Esplanade”, for example, essays the same effect as Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending”. It attempts to reconstruct a vanished past – though in Slocombe’s case, the past is part of the Wellington of Katherine Mansfield.

Just as essays are idiosyncratic, so is the reader’s response. I was attracted by some essays here simply because I shared experiences with the authors. Why was I so interested in Bryan Walpert’s “One Eye Open”, his painful account of having Bell’s Palsy? Because it’s an affliction I had never heard of, until I was rushed to hospital two years ago, and found myself lying on a gurney with two doctors standing over me and making preliminary diagnoses. They speculated that I might have Bell’s Palsy, and described it as something that has the apparent symptoms of a stroke, but isn’t one. As it happened, I was suffering from Miller-Fisher Syndrome, which had me on my back in hospital for a month, and then about three months recuperating at home. But at least I’d learnt what Bell’s Palsy was!

Why was I attracted to Jocelyn Prasad’s essay “Uncut Cloth”? Because she has written a charming reflection on saris (or “sarees” as she writes it). Married to a man of Indian parentage, my eldest daughter has adopted the sari as wear for formal occasions, and we have heard many tales like those Prasad tells of the complexities of donning a sari correctly.

Cait Kneller gives a fragmentary, mildly surreal, sketch of (the North Shore Auckland suburb of) Glenfield, which is the suburb in the next valley from where I live; and Kneller apparently went to the same secondary school as my three youngest daughters. And oddly enough Kirstten Ure’s essay “Puriri Moth”, wherein she sees the ephemeral life of the “adult” moth as an image of loss, rang bells for me. I regularly guide tourists around the bird-sanctuary island Tiritiri Matangi and stop to examine a stately puriri tree and discuss the puriri moth’s life-cycle to explain the black blotches that they leave on the trunk.

You see, there are personal as well as literary reasons for being interested in an essay.

The most directly confessional essays in this collection are Toby Buck’s “Aquae Populus” giving a wry view of the habitues of a small community sauna; John Allison’s “The Way it Is”, a sketch about being old; and P.J.Stanley’s very sad “Anatomy of Belief”, about being cut off by her father when she ceased to be a Scientologist. The essay that comes closest to being poetry is Madeleine Child’s “Loess”, with its evocation of the windy heights of Otago as experienced by her father.

There are what amount to polemics in this collection, but none of them are strident. There is nothing that is overtly political, and even versions given of the battle of the sexes are muted.

Those essays that are closest to (good) polemic are by Mikaela Nyman and Jane Blaikie. In  “Language Means Belonging” the Swedish-speaking, Finnish-born New Zealander Mikaela Nyman weaves in much personal experience of minority languages, their uniqueness and ultimate untranslatability, before arguing strongly for their conservation, especially in promoting the teaching of Maori. Jane Blaikie’s “Mrs Wakefield Unknown” concerns the caddish, deceitful  Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his opportunistic scheme to kidnap and marry a rich young heiress. Much of this story is already familiar to a wide readership, but Blaikie emphasises the fate of the young woman, largely disregarded by history. From this she segues, not too convincingly, into an argument that Wakefield’s name should be expunged from all public places.

In line with the general “linguistic turn” that much philosophy (and poetry) has taken in the last half century, language itself is the essence of two essays: Building on her own experience of suffering, Tracey Slaughter, in “Notes on a Scale of Silence”, elaborates on the idea that language is simply inadequate to convey the sense of pain. She quotes many sources to reinforce her insights here (I am surprised that, among others, she didn’t quote Robert Graves’ “The Cool Web”), though her ending, asserting the need to write about the experience of pain, somehow compromises her premise.  And in an odd way Tim Upperton’s “A Lifted Stone” also turns on the matter of language itself. He first plays variations on the unknowability of other creatures; then on the unknowability of other people; and ends up considering the limits of language in connecting with the world. Somewhere in the same ballpark  - language and its impact on the world – is Fiona Clark’s “Off By Heart”, on the therapeutic power of poetry.

So here I am once again name-checking just about every item in a collection and being careful not to make glib or dismissive comments. But I do admit misgivings about, and a disconnection from, some selections. Derek Schulz’s “Not a Maori Name” seems to me to examine too minutely (i.e. over-think) the texts he quotes as he considers the meaning of a story, written about New Zealand, by an author (Penelope Fitzgerald) who had never been here. Justine Whitfield’s reflection on the sense of touch, “The Klimt Bubbles”  is a bit nebulous and unnecessarily circumlocutious in some of its expression. The essay that first excited me, but ended up baffling me, was Jessica Maclean’s “Strange Harbours”. Articulate and replete with erudite, sophisticated vocabulary, “Strange Harbours” seems to be calling for some sort of radical re-alignment of New Zealand spirituality with a mix of Maori and Christian references and theologies. But it becomes a rant, shooting off in all directions. I tried very hard to find a crowning coherence here, but was foiled.

And the positive conclusion to this essay of my own? The real stunner in Strong Words is Becky Manawatu’s “#Mothersday”. It is so powerful because its memoir of family tragedies is written in a deadpan, sometimes almost ironical style: un-demonstrative and with no self-pity, and therefore convincing us more fully of the traumas being reported.

One little footnote to this brief assessment of varied and interesting essays: For the record, of the 21 essays, 16 are by women and only 5 by men. I won’t complain about gender bias or some such. I’m sure that Emma Neale isn’t the type of judge who would make selections by any such criterion – so this means nothing more than that more women submitted essays. This does, of course, reflect a big cultural turn-around. Once upon a time, anthlologies of essays tended to be all-male affairs. (To check this, I pull off my shelf a copy of W.E.Williams’ Pelican Original A Book of English Essays  dating from the 1950s, and find that the 25 authors represented are all blokes.) But the dominance of women writer does seem to have one effect – there’s much quoting of Virginia Woolf in many of these Strong Words.

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Very clumsily I move from a New Zealand book to two books from elsewhere. First, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill.

            You have to wait until over three-quarters of the way through this 400-page book (page 347 to be precise) before you discover what exactly the title Catch and Kill means, although the idea behind it has appeared often enough. “Catch and kill” is a phrase used by the grubbier and more dishonest news outlets. They buy, as an exclusive, a story that has been filed, but do not ever publish it and find ways of gagging the author, who is prevented from publishing elsewhere. Usually this means that the news outlet has been either threatened or bribed by some powerful person to bury the story, because it contains negative things about them.

            Ronan Farrow (who, for what it’s worth, is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) is the dogged journalist who bit by bit, in 2017, uncovered the whole Harvey Weinstein mess. The powerful Hollywood producer had for decades sexually harrassed, violated and blackmailed women – especially actressses who appeared in the films of his company Miramax. The blackmail meant threats (often carried out) to ruin the women’s careers if they ever reported what he had done, or if they refused his (sometimes violent) advances. Farrow gives all the details relating to the many women who trusted him enough to go on the record and be interviewed. There were dozens of them, and most of them had indeed had their careers destroyed by Weinstein and his confederates.

            As a film reviewer for many years before 2004, I remember seeing some actresses (Mira Sorvino, for example) making a big splash in a couple of films, seeming on the verge of a major career, and then suddenly disappearing from the screen. At the time I thought this was just standard Hollywood ruthlessness – it chews ‘em up and spits ‘em out – but now I understand what was really going on for some of them.

            And yet while this whole horrible scandal is properly detailed for us, it is not the major focus of Farrow’s book. Farrow is really concerned with how his attempts to get his story published were constantly blocked by the higher executives of the TV network that employed him, NBC. This is not so much a book about Weinstein’s crimes as a book about how Weinstein was able to twist influential people’s arms and keep his sordid affairs unreported.

            There was a paper trail of “non-disclosure” agreements whereby aggrieved women could be threatened by the law if they made public what had happened to them. America’s sleaziest publication, the National Enquirer, not only kept “kill” files of stories they had never published, but was complicit in publishing negative stories about many of Weinstein’s victims, the better to damage their credibility. In this they were helped by the Black Cube company of “private investigators” who had been hired by Weinstein and his lawyers, who spied on people, dug up as much dirt as they possibly could on Weinstein’s accusers, and tried to infiltrate Farrow’s investigation.

            Farrow was repeatedly prevented from presenting his findings on NBC, so he finally went elsewhere and got the story published in The New Yorker.

            Farrow is, of course, on the side of the angels and the detail given here is necessary. Yet I admit I did not like this book as much as I wanted to, for all its worthiness. It is not just the (inevitable) breathless, journalistic style, but it is a matter of its sheer length. Names are named, as they should be in a legal submission, but in such profusion that it is easy to forget which informant, which executive or which lawyer is being referred to at any given time. To be blunt, Catch and Kill would have been punchier, and could have said as much, at half the lengtth.

            Just a few closing remarks: Hillary Clinton is mentioned three or four times, usually in a negative context. It is not simply because Harvey Weinstein was a prime donor to her campaign for the presidency, but because she had clearly heard of his repeated crimes long before the story broke, but chose not to distance herself from him.

            There is also the obvious, but daunting thought, that the Harvey Weinstein story is neither unique nor new in the history of Hollywood. Once upon a time the “casting couch” was both a joke and standard operational procedure. All that is happening now is that it is being challenged. Look, for example, at the story of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures in the 1940s and 1950s, and see that Weinstein is no aberration.

            Very briefly, Farrow refers to Jeffrey Epstein, who is the current best-known villain in stories of sexual abuse – so much so, in fact, that the Weinstein story is beginning to pass out of the collective consciousness. Sad but true - but don’t worry. Other scandals of sexual abuse will doubtless obliterate thoughts of Jeffrey Epstein, and we will forget the days when the jolly exploits of Prince “Randy Andy” were as much a joke as the “casting couch.”

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            I enjoyed Lindsay McCrae’s My Penguin Year more than Catch and Kill, probably because of its subject matter. It’s equally journalistic in style, but written by a man with real enthusiasm and therefore conveying some of the excitement that he himself must have experienced.

            As a schoolboy in the north of England, says Lindsay McCrae, he was fascinated by wildlife and was a compulsive photographer of animals. Over many months he photographed the lives and habits of badgers, and submitted some of his work to producers of wildlife documentaries. He was readily accepted as an emerging talent. So, avoiding university and formal tertiary education, he went straight from school to a position with the BBC’s wildlife department. He gradually became a skilled cameraman.

            He was addicted to David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series and, he says, as soon as he saw emperor penguins in a sequence of one of Attenborough’s documentaries, he knew that he wanted to see them for himself. His dream job turned up. He was commissioned to stay in the Antarctic for eleven months, observing and filming emperor penguins to record their entire life cycle. One problem – he had just married and his wife was pregnant; so there was a wrench in parting; but off he went to a German base in the Antarctic, where he shared his eleven months with German colleagues, he himself being kitted out with German equipment.

            One major strain of My Penguin Year has to do with the difficulties of shooting the desired footage. Before the emperor penguins came back from their months at sea, McCrae had to wait through weeks of endless, and often sleepless, Antarctic daylight. The penguins marched onto the ice in late March, in the Antarctic autumn. Extreme temperatures had effects on even the most advanced cameras; weather (such as long autumn and winter storms) made much filming impossible. There are two months (62 days) when the sun is always beneath the horizon, and sometimes there is complete darkness although, as this book’s many illustrations show, interesting shots can be recorded in the bright moonlight. McCrae wanted to create intimate images of the emperor penguins’ lives, but there was the difficulty of getting at close quarters with them. He tells stories of his perilous climb down from the ice shelf, where his base was, to the sheet of sea ice, where penguins gathered and mated.

            In the midst of this tale, there are the family moments. His son was born when most of his mission was completed. McCrae tried to be in daily contact with his wife and son, and he recorded for his son his readings of all the Beatrix Potter stories.

            But in the end, the most engaging element of this book is his interaction with the emperor penguins themselves, and his verbal record of their life cycle.

            It begins with courtship rituals when the males and females come ashore.

Even before the females are impregnated, the males practise how to incubate eggs by holding balls of ice on their feet and under their feathery bellies. McCrae found it difficult to film the most intimate detail – the actual laying of the eggs. Transferring the eggs from female to male is a delicate process. If the male is too slow in getting the egg safely to the top of his feet, the egg could quickly be frozen on the ice.

            As soon as the transfer is done, the females head out to sea to fish and live for some months, fattening themselves up while the males exclusively do the incubation of the eggs. They brood for about 64 days during the winter months. Even in good weather, the temperature is usually minus 40 degrees Celsius. For mutual warmth, there is the well-organised and tight tribal huddle of the males until the chicks break out of their eggs. By the time the plump and now well-fed females return, the males, having not fed for two months, are emaciated and near starvation, and now it is their turn to go out to sea and fatten up.

            Not too surprisingly, McCrae finds that emperor penguins suffer a high infant mortality rate. He tells many sad tales of observing eggs mishandled in the transfer from female to male, or prematurely cracked open, or frozen on the ice. Some penguins are trapped in a deep gully where, as a last resort, they have to abandon their chicks before they themselves freeze to death. Nature is prodigal, the mass production of offspring is the obvious strategy to ensure the survival of a species, and such deaths are to be expected. Still, for the individual, nature is cruel.

            There are no frills to the style of My Penguin Year. It is good journalism, an easy read, informative, and well illustrated, as well as having the human factor. Can’t ask more of it really.

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