Book Review: Ajax the Kea Dog, by Corey Mosen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_ajax_the_kea_dogAjax is a working dog trained to sniff out the nests of endangered kea in remote parts of the South Island. His trainer, Corey Mosen, then places cameras in and around the nests to monitor the kea and any predators that might attack them.

Corey Mosen is a wildlife biologist working for the Department of Conservation and picked the Border Collie / Catahoula cross pup from a litter in Westport, after being advised the Catahoula were highly intelligent and had heaps of energy, making them suitable for the hard work in the high country. His book describes how he trained the pup to seek out the nests and the rigorous testing which took around 18 months before he was approved. Ajax is one of around 80 dogs in New Zealand who work to detect protected species or unwanted pests as part of the internationally recognised Conservation Dogs Programme.

The pair use a helicopter for many of the journeys and often camp out together in the remote terrain of the high country. It is a wonderful story of a man and his mate working together in unpredictable weather and harsh conditions and Mosen has included a great selection of photographs many snapped by him while they have been out on the job.

The author has also included chapters ‘Introducing the Kea’ and ‘Threats to the Kea’ which discuss the habits of the mountain parrot and I was unaware kea nest underground, making them particularly vulnerable to stoats, wild cats, possums – and even ‘rats have been seen hooking into kea eggs.’

The Appendix provides information about the Kea Conservation Trust supplied by Tamsin Orr- Walker, as well as information about ways to help kea and resolving conflict with kea.

Ajax the Kea Dog is an interesting read written with humour, and portrays the wonderful bond between a man and his dog carrying out important conservation work. Before reading this book I had not realised that kea were considered endangered in New Zealand as I have often encountered the cheeky parrot while visiting the high country. A wide age group will enjoy this publication and it could sit well in a library in a secondary school to promote a career in conservation.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Ajax the Kea Dog
by Corey Mosen
Allen & Unwin New Zealand
ISBN 9781760633615

Book Review: Scarfie Flats Of Dunedin, by Sarah Gallagher with Ian Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_scarfie_flats_of_dunedinJust mention the words ‘Toad hall, ‘The Dog Box’, Footrot Flats’ or ‘Shrieking Shack’ to anyone who has studied at Otago University and these legendary flats will trigger a hilarious yarn or two of escapades during their scarfie days.

In 2000, while studying at the University, Sarah Gallagher was preparing a presentation on the theme of ephemera, and felt the signs on flats she walked among everyday were just what she was looking for. Scarfie Flats of Dunedin is a result of the eighteen year research project, ‘into the flats, their tenants and their tales’. Gallagher collected more than 600 names, the earliest dating back to the 1930’s , and these have been recorded in the rear of the book, as well as a map of the area noting the locality of all the featured flats.

Having been a student in Dunedin in the mid 1960’s I was intrigued by this title and keen to delve into the student sector of the city again. Many flats seem to be the same as when I left. Of course I have continued my connection with having two daughters study there and now my first granddaughter has recently graduated as a doctor, so we have seen some changes, but more likely just a coat of paint.

This hardback book has sat on my coffee table for a month and I have enjoyed the nostalgic journey with Sarah Gallagher as she learned how the flats got their names and who might have lived in them.

Interesting to see the TV Ones Seven Sharp programme visit one such flat recently, 660 Castle street, where the band Six60 had its beginnings in 2006. The boys had spent time jamming in their rooms at UniCol and ‘thought it would be good to flat together and get a band going’.

Other contributors have also added their point of view along with Dr Ian Chapman and the photographs brought it all together for me. Our family has pored over these with many a laugh and story.

Scarfie Flats will be enjoyed by many ages, as it is an engaging read, and well researched, a valuable record for Otago University but would sit well on everyone’s coffee table.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Scarfie Flats Of Dunedin
by Sarah Gallagher with Ian Chapman
Published by Imagination Press
ISBN 9780995110441

Book Review: Kaitiaki o te Po: Essays, by J. P. Powley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_kaitiaki_o_te_po_essays.jpgThere is a very specific form of discomfit in reading this collection of essays. Particularly for a middle-aged man, growing up in particular urban culture, and still mired in the education system. Powley is a social studies teacher who really can write essays.

The essays vary in form and length, and some are written in the third person. But all weave together consistent themes of grief, bordering on despair, and the restless search for new ground (often overseas), while exploring colonial New Zealand history. This involves going with his class to Opotiki, to learn about Rev. Volkner’s ghastly death and its local context; as well as a deconstruction of Anzac Day myths.

The title of the book is also that of the first essay, which sets the scene in many ways, both personally and culturally. The grief is for mostly men, first a friend named Matt who dies of natural causes in London. Along the way there are elegies for students who have committed suicide. And by the end we reach into the grief for his father, who died relatively young, and was never replaced as a parent. It is Powley senior that appears on the book’s cover, looking out over a braided river, on a bridge built in 1963. This isn’t made clear in the book, even if he remains a kind of presence within.

A lot of the content involves the teacher talking out of school, rather literally. This seems to be alright if the names are changed, and the schools are unnamed, but some of the language is unfortunate. The key one is titled ‘The March of Progress’, and is something of a masterpiece, if you can cope with the younger protagonists dying, and Powley’s guilt as a Dean, at leaving the particular school prematurely. The weave of historical context, based in the Wellington suburb of Berhampore, and the Japanese experience, both in a school trip and his own feeling for the culture, is rather brilliant.

Powley’s longer essays are written in numbered sections, and this allows jump cuts to other themes. In ‘Time Never Cares’ one of the sections is simply a quote, and the many references to other writers does not necessarily add to the elegy. Also, the fourth and seventh sections begin with the same paragraph, word for word, about a photograph of the young John-Paul and his mother in an awkward first day of school pose. He understands the first day nerves better, perhaps, than the distaff side of his family.

For me, the essay titled ‘Pastoral Scene’ is problematic. He seems to actually refer to the concept of ‘pastoral care’, as described in an opening quote from Judith Collins (Powley likes to quote from correspondence with National Party cabinet ministers). This revolves around his work as a Dean at the earlier school and a time capsule which is opened as the cohort leaves that school. He includes sections of dialogue with recalcitrant students, usually of Māori heritage. An analogy is introduced based on the writing of Eric Blair (George Orwell), and his shooting of an elephant while working as a colonial administrator in India, who had to be seen to please the natives. The theme seems to be the difficulty of disciplining children who are already a lost cause.

I’m reminded of an incident at my high school, when a social studies teacher was assaulted in class, but chose not to take any action. He left teaching and went on to be big in the financial world.

Powley’s last two essays concern the walk-out of the classroom by his late father, the suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell, and the taking anti-depressants. These stories descend into swearing and self pity without resolution.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays
by J. P. Powley
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134592

Book Review: Hello Darkness, by Peter Wells

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_hello_darkness.jpgPeter Wells felt unwell while on a trip overseas and on his return to New Zealand made an appointment with a doctor who ordered a PSA test. When it came back he was told he had prostate cancer and it had spread into his bones, giving him the symptoms he had experienced while on holiday.

He soon found himself in Auckland hospital to undergo intensive treatment in an attempt to arrest the cancer. He began writing of his experience on daily posts on Facebook, which were also reprinted on The Spinoff, and later published into this book, Hello Darkness.

In his Foreword, Wells explains ‘This book, then, is the story of six months in my life, told in diary segments… not merely the sum of the original FB posts and the Spinoff version… I have added in private diary musings I did not put up on FB.’

The November 15, 2017, post is accompanied with a view from Wells’ hospital room and the photographs throughout the book include many from his youth, as well as friends and family and special places which have helped shape the man, and add to the story.

Six months later Wells records on his FB post ‘I had lost most of my hair; my eyebrows had gone fugitive; I was the weight I was when I was in my twenties…but the fact was I was alive, I could walk, my cancer had been challenged, called to a halt – be it momentary or permanent, nobody knows.’

Peter Wells is an award winning author and filmmaker, and most recently Hello Darkness won the 2018 Media Voyager Award for best personal essay,  the work being described as ‘Wry, acute and confessional but, most of all wise.’

I found this an interesting but at times an agonising read, having brothers as well as my husband requiring treatment for prostate issues. It is however a beautifully written, honest account of a man who at times was in great pain but still clinging desperately to life. In his final chapter entitled Down to Daybreak, Wells said ‘I began to see daily life itself was a form of a gift- just to be alive was a prescient thing…I also had this constant almost shrill sense of astonishment at just being alive.’

So it’s a book about taking stock, looking back to what matters in life, but also forwards, towards coming to terms with the remainder of life.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Hello Darkness
by Peter Wells
Published by Mighty Ajax Press
ISBN 9780473451622

We publish this review of Peter’s last book a few days after his death, in Auckland, of cancer. A service for Peter will be held at St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church, Corner of Hobson and Wellesley Streets, Auckland City on Monday 25 February at 10.30 am. Vale Peter Wells, who did so much for so many. 



Book Review: End of the Golden Weather, by Bruce Mason

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_end-of_the_golden_weather.jpgThis is one of the books re-released as VUP classics.

Like most readers, at least most of my vintage, this is a very familiar work. I have read it, seen it many times, but I had never read the interview which forms the preface to this edition.

It’s absolutely fascinating, and threw up all kinds of reminders. I saw the NZ Players, when they were doing school tours in the early 1960s. I remember the name Bute Hewes as a producer of television. But what stands out from this interview text is the amazing ability of Bruce Mason, not only as a writer but as a performer. More than 500 solo performances of this work is a staggering achievement. Add to that no props at all, and you can only be stunned at the determination and the audacity (Mason says that Emlyn Williams, when asked for advice, appeared stupefied at Mason’s audacity in thinking he could pull this off at all!) that drove Mason. He wanted us to see this work, and if no-one else would perform it (which sadly was the case) then he must needs do it himself. 40 characters, one actor.

Thank heaven, is all I can say to that.

There’s a reported conversation between Mason and a theatre-goer ( a reluctant one!) who enjoyed the show despite himself, and mentions a red light. Mason says there was no red light. I empathise with the theatregoer, as when I saw the Goons movie, I could swear Harry Secombe was wearing a ‘flowered cretonne frock’ in his bit about the queen. Of course he wasn’t; it was radio, after all, translated to the stage. But that’s the power of theatre, and of the actor.

So, reading the whole ‘voyage into childhood’ that makes up this work is an absolute delight. I am over and over again in awe of Mason’s creative and linguistic abilities.

The end of the golden weather, the end of childhood innocence and the kicking-in of the harsh realities of life are timeless.

If you never have seen or read this ( and there will be many readers who have not) do yourself a favour. Buy, borrow, beg or steal it and immerse yourself in a true and magnificent New Zealand classic.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

End of the Golden Weather  

by Bruce Mason
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864732729

Book Review: Still Counting – Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making, by Marilyn Waring

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_still_countingNew Zealand’s Labour Government will continue to measure economic growth. The government is now also committed to improving inter-generational wellbeing. This will require different ways to measure ‘success’ beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the official measure of economic growth).

Waring is a feminist economist, former National MP and current Professor of Public Policy at AUT. Still Counting, she says, includes ‘a lifetime of thinking about wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making’.

Waring describes her despair and frustration that high-level policy discussions still focus on ‘capitals, resources, assets and incomes’. Wellbeing has – until now – frequently been overlooked. Measurements of a nation’s economy have traditionally excluded all unpaid work, much of which is carried out by women. Here’s a short (2 ½ minute) video Radio NZ recently produced that explains why this exclusion is unfair: Why ‘women’s work’ doesn’t count. If the video – which includes references to Waring’s work – piques your interest then Still Counting will fill in the gaps and challenge you to consider what could underpin a wellbeing approach to public policy.

Waring observes that ‘reality is far more complex than tidy models’. She presents many examples to back up her assertion. She is critical of at least one New Zealand framework that purports to provide a robust evidence base and outlines her reasons why – including that key data are deliberately left out.

This is a short, punchy book. Waring’s own voice comes through strongly and she shares both personal and professional experiences. It made me think about how and where I spend my time – particularly the amount of unpaid service work most of us now carry out.  Like her, many of us are now our own ‘banker, checkout operator, petrol pump attendant and travel agent’, consuming our own services. Her perspectives on Uber, Airbnb and Wikipedia made me reconsider the impact of their operating models on our lives and communities.

Waring is critical of the accuracy of current GDP measurement data, given the ‘revenue-shifting habits’ (e.g. tax havens) practised by multinationals. She observes that the blurring of ‘work’ and ‘home’ life also weakens the data, as it is possible for both paid work and domestic activities to be undertaken in the same place and often at the same time.

Waring criticises not only data-gathering methods but also terms that she considers to have been misappropriated and misunderstood within the ‘wondrous world of economics’. For example, she dislikes the term ‘capital’ being applied to non-economic or non-financial constructs such as social relationships.

Waring is frank about which – and whose – arguments she considers ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’. She draws upon a Monty Python quote to express her frustration with the OECD’s reliance on ‘monocultural, Western and very Eurocentric characteristics of wellbeing’. She’s particularly scathing about the report of the Global Happiness Council – and what she calls (tongue in cheek) its ‘startling insights’, for reasons she explains.

Waring expresses exasperation that Te Kupenga (a statistical framework developed by Māori to capture data on Māori social, cultural, and economic wellbeing) is not better known and more widely used. She sees great value in Te Kupenga’s focus on quality of life and its ability to gather data at a collective rather than solely individual level.

Waring urges different questions to be asked, ‘not just those dictated by consistency and comparability’ – particularly to capture data on women’s lived experience. She notes that a ‘wider spread of experts [beyond a limited pool of economists] would be better able to compile the sufficiently large variety of data sets needed to make judgements on behalf of current and future generations’. She praises Canadian and Australian approaches to gathering information about wellbeing: their measures ask people what contributes to their wellbeing, rather than relying on pre-determined indicators. Pause quietly, she suggests to us, to respond to a question Bhutan has asked its people: ‘…what are the most important things (sources) that will make you lead a truly happy life?’ This question lingers in my mind.

In the closing chapter, Waring outlines priorities for action. These include environmental issues, embedding Te Kupenga principles in wellbeing decision-making, and undertaking rigorous and regular time-use surveys. Again she urges significant changes to the ways in which data are prioritised, collected and reported, so that ‘inadequate proxies and abstractions’ are avoided.

This book will be of interest to readers familiar with the language of indicators, data sets, frameworks and variables. And if you’re not, there’s a list of key acronyms in the appendix, together with a bibliography and detailed endnotes for each chapter.

It’s a thought-provoking read, challenging us to examine what New Zealanders (and especially government policy-makers) value, as well as to reconsider the most appropriate sources of evidence to inform policy-making. It’s an excellent introduction to not only the wellbeing and policy landscape but also to Waring’s writing. It has encouraged me to seek out more of her books, articles and podcasts.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making
by Marilyn Waring
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9781988545530



Book Review: As You Will – Carnegie Libraries of the South Pacific, by Mickey Smith

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_as_you_will.jpgThis is a pictorial book, and something of a labour of love for the photographer Mickey Smith. She has already presented some of her photographs in exhibitions, and her travels to remaining Carnegie library buildings were no doubt personally rewarding. However, the result is a quirky and somewhat puzzling book, even with the addition of historical images.

The book has a very logical structure, beginning with the three Carnegie libraries that are still in use as libraries, followed by the majority which have been re-purposed, then the three that have been closed for earthquake reasons. Of the 18 libraries that Andrew Carnegie funded in New Zealand, six buildings have been demolished or destroyed by a disaster. So an historical image has been found for each to complete the task.

There is a brief foreword by Charles Walker, but this does not really provide a context for the book. So there is no narrative structure, other than the logic followed by locating the buildings and photographing the remaining functions and interior space. But why were there 18 libraries funded by the Carnegie organisation in provincial New Zealand, and only four in Australia, and one in Suva, Fiji? The latter is one of three that still performs basic library functions, and the only other examples are in Marton and Balclutha, of all places.

The photographic reproductions are very good, but most of the images are of rather mundane interiors, even for the libraries that have been re-purposed. The exceptions seem to be the ones that have become restaurants or bars, such as in Dunedin and Fairlie, and the Onehunga gastropub that provides the portrait in the cover image (presumably this is of Carnegie). The only other memorials for Carnegie himself seem to be in Hokitika and Westport, in two of the libraries that are now closed. It seems that the three libraries that remain in provincial Australia still have a library purpose or have added museums.

There are two puzzling aspects to the layout of this book. The first is that, while the library architecture is actually the key focus, this is always represented by the historical images of the library being opened. There are no contemporary shots of the library exterior, with the exception of the one in Timaru, and this is only because the façade is all that remains. The second puzzling aspect is the choice of images in a landscape format, which are placed in a vertical position in the layout, which makes them seem disoriented. Meanwhile, some of the larger images do appear across the spread of the layout in the usual landscape form.

Notwithstanding the quirky layout and the lack of captions this remains an interesting book, and directs us to the influence that Carnegie’s philanthropy had, if not in the creation of the mainly provincial libraries, then at least in terms of their distinctive architectural forms.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

As You Will: Carnegie Libraries of the South Pacific
by Mickey Smith
Published by te tuhi
ISBN 9780908995608