Book Review: Today in New Zealand History, by Atkinson, Green, Phipps and Watters

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_today_in_new_zealand_historyOne of the joys of aging is picking up a book like this and recognising that nearly half of the events happened in my lifetime. I remember most of them too. This is not a highs and lows, shockers and disasters type of  book. Instead, we have a wonderful collection of events which include the quirky (introduction of Jockey Y fronts), the disasters, the political triumphs, cultural firsts (Anna Pavalova dancing here) and plenty of sports. My husband enjoyed the sports clips as they were often the lesser-known events. Interspersed with the events, are the birth of a variety of New Zealanders on this day. These little vignettes could be a book on their own, but included in the text and photos of the main items, they add another layer of enjoyment.

The collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Alexander Turnbull Library has resulted in a book that is both informative and visually captivating. There is a photo of Michael Joseph Savage on the steps of the Social Security building. It is all art deco and serious but captures the amazing introduction in 1938 of the Social Security Act. The photo of the opening of the Christchurch Town Hall also made me nostalgic, for I sang at the opening and attended a meeting there on the morning of the quake.

By uniting two such esteemed groups, this team have produced a book that rises above the usual coffee table pretty. I found the clear and easy to read text gave me enough information without boring me through detail.

As a teacher, I am constantly saddened by the lack of historical knowledge shown by my pupils. I feel that a knowledge of the past enables us to truly face the challenges of the future. As New Zealanders we have travelled a long way in a short time. This book would be a useful aid to help students focus each day, on an event. My husband commented that he would be able to do this using just sports as there are often 2-3 stories for each day, and sports feature often. There is a pupil like this in every class.

Add to all this a hefty hard cover and wonderful photos. What a great Christmas present for those baby boomer parents who can relive their childhood and educate the grandchildren at the same time.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Today in New Zealand History
by Neill Atkinson, David Green, Gareth Phipps and Steve Watters
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593003

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Book Review: Matariki: The star of the year, by Rangi Matamua

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_matariki_rangi_matamuaDr Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe), an Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, lectures on Māori language and culture and has a specialist research interest in Māori astronomy and star lore. In recent years he has been involved in public promotion of knowledge about Matariki, the star cluster traditionally associated with midwinter and the beginning of a new year. Most commonly known in Western culture as the Pleiades or “seven sisters” of Greek myth, this cluster of seven (or nine, or more) stars is visible throughout much of the year but disappears in late autumn and rises again in midwinter.

For those of us who have not grown up with stories of Matariki, it appears that the constellation and associated festivities have become more promoted in mainstream Aotearoa New Zealand society just in the last decade or so.  While it is cool to be able to renew a local midwinter celebration, some might note that there’s also a danger of commercialising traditions to the point that the culture behind them is misinterpreted or disregarded. I mean, we haven’t seen “sexy Matariki dressup costumes” in the dollar stores yet, but it’s still possible that whatever is promoted as “Matariki” now has, by being interpreted for a general audience, lost some of its deeper meaning.

Dr Matamua’s book therefore feels timely, as it answers many questions about the culture, history and Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) associated with Matariki. This is useful for those of us who would like to understand and mark the Matariki season without getting all insensitive-story-stealing-Pākehā about it. Perhaps most importantly, the book is part of Dr Matamua’s stated mission to ensure Māori ownership of knowledge and practices associated with this star lore; for Māori to stop being written into history and start writing ourselves into history.”

This book reads like a labour of both love and scholarship.  Flicking to the back first, I made the rather mundane observation that there’s a short index but a relatively lengthy bibliography and list of citations for each chapter. It became clear as I started reading that while this is not a long book, it is the distilled result of many years of research. Not just the author’s academic research either: the information in this book has been passed down through experts in his family. A 400-page manuscript about Māori star lore was compiled by a father and son in Ruatāhuna between 1898 and 1933, at a time when many customs were ceasing to be practised due to colonisation. The son passed the manuscript on to his grandson, who later passed it on to his own grandson, Rangi Matamua.

Matariki has many names, so the book begins with an overview of how the star cluster is known in different parts of the world and in other ancient myths, showing the connections between traditions in other parts of Polynesia. But even in Māori culture, it is associated with multiple meanings. Experts meticulously observed the stars to inform navigation and harvesting activities, while also upholding spiritual beliefs about the connection that each star had to people on earth. Each star in the Matariki constellation has a role in watching over sources of food, wellbeing and weather.

Matamua points out early on that the practises of astronomy and astrology are blended in Māori star lore. Appropriately, this book weaves technical observations with explanations of cultural practices and various proverbs about Matariki. Artist Te Haunui Tuna has provided beautiful black and white illustrations throughout, which similarly blend the technical and spiritual. These show the place and movement of celestial bodies (eg position of the sun relative to stars; phases of the moon) along with the Atua personalities associated with each – so the sun and each star in the Matariki cluster gets a distinctive face to match their mythological personality.

The book dispels some common misconceptions. For example, that Matariki is not a harvest festival – by the time it has risen, the harvest should be mostly done. Rather, it is a time to gather and feast during the more barren time of year, honouring the deceased and offering sustenance to Matariki in the hope for a prosperous new season. Also that the timing for this observation – as with many of the traditional Māori seasons – cannot be mapped tightly onto a Western calendar that remains static each year regardless of the environmental conditions. Matariki was not even observed at the same time or in the same way throughout Māori communities, which makes sense considering that constellations become visible in different parts of the country at different times.

There is a helpful table projecting the setting and rising of Matariki every year from now to 2050, showing how the period of Matariki varies year to year. Should we ever get to the point of declaring a midwinter public holiday for Matariki, there is no one calendar date it could be attached to; it seems more like Easter, moving every year according to what’s going on in the sky. Rangi Matamua concludes his book with a discussion about the revitalisation of Matariki customs in recent years. He hopes that it can develop as a celebration that, while inclusive and modern, is underpinned by Māori culture, language, traditional practices and beliefs. Judging from this book, his research could provide a valuable resource to help achieve that aim.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Matariki: The star of the year
by Rangi Matamua
Published by Huia Publishers
ISBN 9781775503255

Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753

Book Review: Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

This book is from the newest university publisher in New Zealand, Massey University Press, and presents some new research from post-graduate students and academics, mostly from Massey and Waikato Universities. It is a reminder that there is substantive research being done in social science in a multi-disciplinary context, and this is a valid attempt to get a wider audience than that within the ivory towers. The term ‘Precarity’ is derived from the work of an English academic, Guy Standing, who has written about the ‘Precariat’ as an international phenomenon. Standing provides a brief foreword to the book which explains his version of the concept, and relates it to the idea of a ‘denizen’, being those people who are marginal in the labour market, and are therefore no longer treated as full citizens. In fact, Standing’s concept of a ‘precariat’ and this book do not highlight the labour market much at all, other than in how it relates to the welfare system. This inevitably means that most chapters look at the effect of welfare policies.

Precarity is a collection of mostly very specific chapters about aspects of the welfare system, and the specific experience of certain people within it. This highlights some rather difficult material based on marginalised ‘denizens’, often from particular ethnic groups or cultural perspectives. The troubling content is presented as sensitively as possible, and most of the substantive chapters are quite brief. In fact, given that most chapters have two or more authors it seems that there has been a form of cherry-picking of the potential content from much more in-depth research. Only the chapter on media depictions of precarious work provides a lengthy contextual positioning.

Indeed, the book does not really need to focus on one particular concept like ‘precarity’ at all. It is really a very focussed critique of welfare and social policy practice. All of the theoretical framing is stated early in the chapters by referring to the now familiar concept of ‘neo-liberalism’, and the position that sweeping new policies were imposed based on an economic theory that had inevitable consequences for vulnerable individuals in the labour market, or on the fringes of it. This works at a very general level, or is presented as an inevitable international trend, and creates a large gap between theory and practice. There is a chapter called ‘From working poverty to sustainable livelihood’, in which a group of psychologists refer to the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The SDGs are intended to address the poverty trap within specific countries, and focus the use of international aid. The authors refer to critics of international aid, but reduce it to a binary choice.

Since there is effectively a consensus within the book, in which all of the social scientists accept the idea of neo-liberalism as the prevailing policy paradigm, the chapters examine its deleterious effects. There are important empirical critiques of policy here, and the sheer callousness of the Work & Income staff. One especially topical point refers to the so-called ‘social investment’ approach that the National Party has claimed is the answer to welfare dependency. The chapter on young Maori mothers on the Youth Parent Payment benefit highlights the way that the beneficiaries are obliged to undertake education and training. This is based on the financialisation of lifetime benefit costs, and utilises a Net Present Value calculation by officials that is obviously inappropriate, since there are no ‘investment returns’ to be made as an interest rate.

So there is some significant work here, but it is not an easy read, and the lack of an index does not help the reader look for specific concepts being discussed.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand
Edited by, Shiloh Groot, Natasha Tassell-Matamua, Clifford Van Ommen, and Bridgette Masters-Awatere
Published by Massey Texts
ISBN: 9780994141514

 

Book Review: The 9th Floor, edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_9th_floorThis was quite a difficult book to review, with the election campaign all over bar the shouting. I almost feel like we need to know who the next Prime Minister is, to put it all in context. It is also quite difficult to assess the book as a book, because the ‘conversations’ with the former PMs are also running on Face TV at the moment, after playing on RNZ.

So do we really need to read the book, given that the conversations are still available on-line at RNZ’s website, and playing on a TV channel? The short answer is no. While the introduction to the book adds some context, the reader does not get the same amount of information about the interviewee as the visuals provide. And some of us may feel that we have already heard enough from the former PMs anyway.

Another issue is that the conversations are effectively verbatim, with some tidying up of the transcripts, and are mostly opinion. In other words, there is no attempt to clarify any points involving detail, or expanding them with the help of statistics. Then there are the interviewing and personal idiosyncrasies: Guyon Espiner knows most of the subjects from being a press gallery member for TVNZ, which meant reporting in soundbites rather than lengthy interviews, and his approach to radio is similar.

But the main problem is with the former PMs themselves. Only two out of the five were elected as Prime Minister. Both Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore were effectively caretakers, and Moore’s tenure was so brief he rarely made it into the office. Palmer is quoted as saying the whole thing was a nuisance for him, and Moore’s opinions remain scattered and often risible. By contrast, Jenny Shipley was the first female Prime Minister, but it is difficult to find the substance in what she says, and the rhetoric is often completely adrift from the substance of what actually happened. The central part of the conversation remains what she did to welfare policy before becoming the Prime Minister, in a rather unseemly move to unseat Jim Bolger.

The Bolger conversation is the most interesting, even to those who don’t wish to recall his tenure in office. It is obviously the most significant to Espiner, who has used one particular comment in his campaign interviews with the current leaders of the National and Labour Parties. Bolger is probably the only political leader, and perhaps the only right wing politician, to confess to having adhered to the neo-liberal doctrine. This seems interesting but does not accord with the facts, particularly since the term was not invented when he was elected. He actually won a massive majority under the previous electoral system, and therefore got to implement his party’s agenda without any impediment. This was not simply a case of following a theoretical doctrine.

Some of what Bolger talks about is significant, even while unconvincing. The key part, perhaps, is the question of the fiscal hole creating by the BNZ losses up to 1990. The issue seems important, as the journalists state that they also interviewed the previous finance minister, David Caygill, about the BNZ debacle. But none of this information is presented in the book, and nor is it related to the Winebox saga, which was the biggest story of the 1990s. So, while Bolger comes across as sincere and something of a maverick as a conservative politician, not much new is being added. This also applies to the conversation with Helen Clark, which is disappointing in not providing much insight, perhaps because she is still active in public life. All in all, this book highlights an era of unstable government, and rather mediocre political leaders.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The 9th Floor: Conversations with five New Zealand Prime Ministers
Edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin
Published by BWB Books
ISBN 9781988533223     

Book Review: A Strange Beautiful Excitement, by Redmer Yska

Available now from bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_strange_beautiful_excitementA beautifully produced small-format hardback printed on good paper is a bit of a rarity these days, and this one is just a delight from start to finish.

Redmer Yska has written about his home town, Wellington, through the lens of Katherine Mansfield as a child and teenager, and the interwoven histories of the city and the writer are absorbing, engaging and enlightening. Yska writes with an immediacy that is compelling, and personal – as he writes about the research he is doing, you feel the excitement building and it’s catching! So when he does find a story written by a young Kathleen Beauchamp – and published in a national weekly magazine – a full seven years earlier than anything so far found, you want to join him in shouting with delight. Patience was truly rewarded, and the discovery is significant for NZ literature.

But there’s a lot before that exciting find. The society of early Wellington, the development of the city, the class consciousness brought over from England along with the first settlers is given great attention and – on occasion – criticism. The way Yska weaves his own childhood experiences in Karori into the reality of life in the time of Harold Beauchamp and his family brings a dimension which is unexpectedly vivid. He shows just how much impact Wellington, its weather, its society had on Katherine’s writing. She used her experience, her family, her schoolfriends, the neighbouring children and of course her imagination to create her amazing stories.

But what really resonates with me is the way Redmer Yska portrays the early settlement and development of Wellington –  innate racism, deforestation, the near-extinction of kakariki, polluted waterways, cholera and typhoid and more are all thoroughly researched, acknowledged and just eminently readable. It’s a long while since I have enjoyed a book as much as I did this one.

I think it’s a tour de force and an immensely valuable addition to our literature on Katherine Mansfield, but equally if not more importantly to the history of our city. It’s fresh, original, and I think all Wellingtonians should own a copy – it really IS that good.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903
Reviewed by Redmer Yska
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522544

Book Review: The Fuse Box – Essays on Writing, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_fuse_boxWhat a fascinating collection this is. Poets, novelists, playwrights, tutors all write about their experience of writing. Their stories are remarkably different – Elizabeth Knox says she learned stories first as spoken narrative (her old sister Sara told her stories all the time) and later to read independently. That’s not so unusual, most kids hear narrative first – but few have the same talented sister to spin the tales, and even fewer find their creative voice as successfully as Elizabeth Knox has.

James Brown discovered at some point that reading could make him laugh and cry, and that it is not necessarily so for everyone. His piece is an alphabetic framework of his experience of writing and what the intending / aspirational writer should keep in mind. It’s well done and ranges from discovery through flarf (look it up!), intervention and shit detection to zing. It’s a clever idea and it works really well.

Lloyd Jones writes ‘to unlock something I don’t know exists. It’s in me somewhere and I’m in search of it’.

Damien Wilkins sheds light on Dennis McEldowney, among others. Stella Duffy views writing from a mid-point in life, with ideas to assist new writers. As she says, you can ignore all her points except this one: do the work. You have to do the work.

She also says that writing is not hard work. ‘Being a miner is hard work. Working twelve hours a day in a textile sweatshop is hard work………Writing…is not hard work…. but you have to work hard at it’

Patricia Grace is interviewed by her playwright daughter-in-law Briar Grace-Smith in a wonderfully interesting set of questions and answers. Much to be learned here.

For Victor Rodger writing is a political act, and for Nina Nawalowalo, necessity is the mother of her invention – there are stories which need to be told. As Tina Makereti quotes at the beginning of her essay, ‘Beautiful writing alone is not enough. Not now – look around you.’

There is a wealth more in this small book – it’s a really excellent insight into how many of our best writers write, teach, learn and create. If you want to write and don’t know how to begin, most of the experience in this book seems to say “just do it” and then see where it goes. That is really great advice. I think this is a great addition to our New Zealand literary canon, and I just have to end with the most wonderful quote from the last piece in this book, a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird where she says:

‘You start to wonder about the future and the great untitled project of your life

It keeps you up at night, like a big fluorescent sadness’

Maybe the solution to that is simply to start writing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Fuse Box: essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters
Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561650