Times Like These by Michelle Langstone (Allen & Unwin, 2021), 256pp, $36.99; The Commercial Hotel by John Summers (Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2021), 192pp, $30
I read to find my own hand in the pages of books. In the future, I want to keep holding books. To touch myself on each page saying, I am here, I am here, I am here. —Ocean Vuong
Just when I was trying to compose sentences to write about Michelle Langstone’s Times Like These and John Summers’ The Commercial Hotel, I happened upon this quote, from American poet Ocean Vuong. With words far better than mine, Vuong was able to encapsulate what it was like for me to read these two collections of non-fiction essays. Like him, in reading these authors’ words I too touched myself on their pages. Vuong reminded me of the exact alchemy of why we read and love books: it’s the magic of not finding ourselves alone.
At the same time, however, as much as I found myself there in their worlds, sometimes I did not—because the magic a book holds can also be the exact opposite of seeing yourself there. It’s about escaping, a brief moment of respite in which to forget your own life by plunging into the lives of others and learning something new. The best kind of learning, the learning you aren’t aware of, is that embedded in story.
Times Like These and The Commercial Hotel are based on the authors’ lives, and I both found myself and lost myself within their pages. Both books feel like wanderings into the blooming rooms of the authors’ minds. The epicentre of Langstone’s book is her own life from which the world radiates outward. With Summers the starting point is Aotearoa, from which we are often drawn back to him.
Langstone’s essays are her poignant dispatches on life, and flow into one another so seamlessly that you wouldn’t be able to tell where one ends and another begins if it weren’t for the chapter headings. Her book begins with the death of her father and the aftershocks, which she describes acutely. It leaves her with a tormenting grief that is also carried by her family as they attempt to reassemble their lives around the loss, to reach each other across its chasms.
I found my own grief for my father’s death on her page and recognised the sorrow still held by my own family. Our fathers died in the same year, and hearing someone articulate their thoughts on what it felt like in a way that incorporated bitterness, ferocity, yearning and peace helped me understand my own ravages of loss. Using one of her many metaphors, Langstone notes, ‘Our grief moves with the kinetic energy of dominoes; we fall one after the other, collapse in a heaped pattern of loss, then reassemble.’ She admits, ‘The grief is not something that words can solve.’ But in trying to express her grief, she articulates it for me when my own words don’t coalesce as easily.
Langstone’s memories of her father and her childhood with him are non-linear and as repetitive and erratic as grieving is, their rhythm within the flow of her essays emulating the gasps of despair. She manages to convey grief with the rhythm of her memories, into whose mercurial familiarity I nestled. But there was much for me to learn within her sorrow, too. Our fathers died very different deaths: I was living in another country when my dad died from an unexpected heart attack, while Langston nurtured her father through a slow decline from disease. Langstone’s words offered me a heart-breaking window into watching a loved one die slowly: ‘We began our grieving before Dad left us. We had time to imagine our lives without him, and into that future we filed our sadness and our loss, and let it hang there, a portrait of a lesser-numbered family with an empty space where he had been.’
In the end, Langstone’s book is not directly about loss but about the vanishing—of former selves and of people who mean so much to us—that constantly occurs in our lives, and the spaces this leaves. How we examine these spaces and try to corral them into something new, how we try to reckon with them. We watch the vanishing of her father, to begin with, but also the disappearance of the life she once knew (as a result of pandemic-induced lockdowns), of her fertility as she tries desperately to conceive a child, and of her younger selves as they diet, fall in love or dissolve into other characters. Langstone’s deft writing holds us in the waves of her thoughts as she inhabits middle age, that liminal space between cycles of others’ births and deaths.
Langstone writes, ‘I find comfort in the way words come together to form rhythms and arcs. The way they commune to make a story is a witchcraft I have always witnessed but am now part of.’ We can take comfort in realising, with her, how words and stories become our legacy. ‘When we are gone, the stories about us replace the imprint of our bodies in time and space,’ she says.
Near the end of the book Langstone remarks, ‘Some days I walk down the street and allow myself to imagine every passer-by as a bundle of fluttering pages.’ It’s an image I kept envisioning as I read John Summers’ collection of essays. In The Commercial Hotel Summers explores the ‘bundle of fluttering pages’ that are often never given a chance to be put in a book: he examines idiosyncratic characters and monuments of Aotearoa as diverse as Māori and Pākehā Elvis impersonators, murdering bushmen, Arthur’s Pass and the freezing works. He’s interested in the things themselves as well as how they intersect with his own life as a Kiwi.
He conjures up a yesteryear New Zealand, a colonial one of tearooms, function rooms and RSAs, of Vietnam Vets and ‘worlds of beer by the jug, of bring a plate and borrow the trailer’. It’s an Aotearoa I could still taste as I grew up in 1980s Tāmaki Makaurau. Thus, reading The Commercial Hotel, I found myself in Summers’ pages too, reminiscing with him over the rituals of school camps, over being that timid kid in school in awe of the swagger of his mates, over clunky commodore computers reaching our shores, over feeling insignificant while tramping through vast, majestic landscapes. And yet there are ways I am separate, ways I don’t recognise myself in his pages, because of course the specificities of his story and the nation’s history can never be mine, especially as I am a child of immigrants. But there is beauty in learning about his loci and perspective and the quieter narratives of the land I was born to, one I no longer live in but still call home.
Summers’ essays chronicle everyday lives (his maternal grandfather, who worked at the local freezing works and taught him woodwork, is a recurring character), and he juxtaposes them with more noted or eccentric people of Aotearoa—a technique that demonstrates how each of us is a marker and maker of our nation’s history and landscape just by living within it. We aren’t all Norman Kirk, building a house with his own hands, balancing timber on his handlebars before becoming prime minister; or Bernard Shapiro, whose adventures on foot have retraced important chronicled expeditions using the clothing, food and equipment of times past. Each life, Summers seems to say, is an extraordinary part of our collective history.
Summers illuminates the almost forgotten aspects of Kiwi life—parts that are fading, infamous or so commonplace that we take them for granted and fail to see them as the valuable things they are. He illuminates objects too, looking deeper into their origins, asking why they are what they are to us, and examining the ways they often tell us who we are. For him, the simple smoky glass Arcoroc mug, beloved of canteens and cafeterias throughout our country, becomes a unifying and democratic symbol that all people from Aotearoa will probably hold at one time of their life.
Summers has a history book-worthy connection to our history: his paternal grandmother was a pacifist, the only woman imprisoned in Aotearoa for speaking out against World War II (although the only words she managed to utter before she was handcuffed were ‘the Lord Jesus Christ tells us to love one another’). Later, she and her husband owned the John Summers Bookshop in Christchurch, which became a parlour of sorts ‘where artists, writers and academics could congregate’, ‘an oasis in conservative Christchurch’. They were friends with Colin McMahon and Charles Brasch, who even lent them money for their first home.
The book reminds me of someone who once commented on how Kiwis are ‘super quirky’. It took some time before I understood what she meant. And after reading the last pages of Summers’ book, I realised how he has managed to capture that elusive trait that makes us, well, uniquely us. Whether through the warm fondness of his glance or through the smoky glass of an Arcoroc mug, Summers manages to capture something that is a nostalgia and an explanation for who we are.
It’s a nostalgia central to both books. Langstone evokes rich imagery of the New Zealand past in her memory of a summer spent on a boat, lining up in sandy togs to buy an ice-block at the dairy. This is a remembrance that comes to me, too. And as I’m travelling through the misty valleys and leaf-lit trees of the landlocked French countryside where I now live, I think of the blue country she calls the ocean, an ocean that anyone living in Aotearoa knows well. Summers captures the same ocean and the way it occupies a central place for us: ‘a scouring surf, a brine wash. A real baptism.’
SHANA CHANDRA is a freelance writer from Aotearoa of Indo-Fijian and girmit descent, currently based in France, who works within the magazine and digital publishing industries world-wide. Having completed her Masters of Arts in creative writing at the University of Technology in Sydney, she is also an accomplished and published short story writer and is currently working on her debut novel, Banjara, a fictional re-telling of her ancestors’ journey from India to Fiji as indentured labourers.