Book Review: The Kiwi – Endangered New Zealand Icon, by Matt Elliott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the-kiwi.jpgThe Kiwi has long held a special place in the hearts of most New Zealanders. Few of us have actually seen or heard one, but we know all about them. Or do we? Matt Elliott has embarked on an exciting journey to inform his reader about this amazing bird.

The subtitle gives you a clue to his approach. ‘Endangered’ allows him to look at the scientific facts. He describes all five species with illustrations and locations. He writes about sanctuaries both in New Zealand and overseas.  The dangers to the Kiwi include stoats, dogs and humans. His chapter on the use of 1080 is perhaps one of the clearest, most reasoned pieces of writing on 1080 use that I have read.

‘New Zealand’ includes kiwis importance to Māori as well as the use of the Kiwi on products and in advertising campaigns. The giant Kiwi in Eketahuna gets a mention, along with Kiwi pies and Kiwifruit.

‘Icon’ reminds us that we are known as kiwis ourselves when travelling. Who could forget the Buy NZ Made campaign that used the kiwi to remind us to support local businesses?

The Kiwi is the result of some extensive research, unearthing a wealth of little known information. I learnt that Roy Rogers sang about The Kee Wee Bird. I only remembered his song about the Little White Duck. Matt Elliott is an award-winning author writing for both adults and children. His love of history and skills as a researcher are evident in this book.

The illustrations and layout of The Kiwi make this an ideal introduction to our special bird. Both visitors and locals will discover a treasure trove of information between the covers. The final illustration by the author’s 5-year-old son begs the question: Will there still be Kiwi for his son to celebrate in 50 years.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Kiwi: Endangered New Zealand Icon
by Matt Elliott
Published by Imagination Press
ISBN 9780995110458

Book Review: Every morning, so far, I’m Alive, by Wendy Parkins

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_every_morning_so_far_im_aliveWhile reading Wendy Parkins’ memoir I was reminded of how universal the need is among humans of knowing who we are and why we are.

The author has recorded with remarkable honesty the breakdown of her spirit under the pressure of the life she was living.  While she began to write of her struggles as a means of coping with what was happening, she discovered more about herself, not only in the distressing present, but also how her life as a child and adolescent had shaped her, and, perhaps, had pre-disposed her to the behaviours that were now causing her so much suffering. Her intellectual capability and strength of spirit were an obvious asset in withstanding the terrible assault on her mind and personality. Even while in the midst of her breakdown, Wendy looked for possible reasons for why she was suffering, going back to memories of her childhood and of her relationships with her parents and others, considering interactions that she had never before given thought to in her busy, fulfilling life as an academic.

I was immensely impressed with the courage it required of the author to continue living through such catastrophic trauma, and not only to continue living but to keep searching for the “why”. The author, herself, may have benefited by writing her story, but we, the reader, benefit also by acknowledging the frailties and resilience we all share as humans.

Memoirs such as this help us to develop empathy and understanding not only for others but for ourselves as well.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Every morning, so far, I’m Alive
by Wendy Parkins
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531618

Book Reviews: A book about, and a collection by Greville Texidor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_the_juicy_pasturesI read the biography of and collection by Greville Texidor together, which turned out to be very good idea.

Margot Schwass has written a comprehensive, intelligent, and fascinating biography of Greville Texidor. Some of you might say, “Who?”. It’s a fair question.  Greville Texidor arrived in New Zealand as a refugee, in 1940. Others who fit this description include Lili Krauss, and Theo Schoon.

Greville, a Spanish Civil War veteran who had been interned in Holloway  after returning to England was now married to a German national, Werner Droescher. She came to New Zealand with Werner, and her mother and sister. They were sent to Kaipara, quite another country compared to Spain and England. That was an enormous culture shock.

Very early on, Frank Sargeson met them, and quickly became a mentor to Texidor. They began an intense correspondence, and when she began writing seriously, he read and commented on all her work. She became part of that group of writers who were enormously influenced and supported in their writing careers by Sargeson.

So, who exactly was Greville Texidor, and how does she come to be regarded as a New Zealand writer? I asked around a selection of friends for their opinions on just what are the criteria: variable, it transpires. However a strong opinion was that the writer should produce their work while living in New Zealand, regardless of the subject matter.  That seems good enough!

And certainly this qualifies Greville Texidor. Almost the entirety of her published work was written in New Zealand; she continued to write after leaving NZ, but none of it was completed, and much of it destroyed by her. Some of it appears in the collected stories, which was edited by Kendrick Smithyman more than 20 years after her death.

She was a deeply unhappy woman for the latter part of her life, despite her success as a writer. She never really came to terms with living in New Zealand, and certainly never regarded herself as a Kiwi. For a woman of her background and experiences, NZ in the late 40s and early 50s must have been a dire backwater, saved only by her connections with Sargeson and others.

Margot Schwass has brought this almost-unknown figure of NZ literature to life in her biography. It must have taken her a prodigious amount of time and effort to find more about Texidor, but she has created a fascinating work which keeps sending you to the stories.

So now, to the stories.

cv_in_fifteen_minutes_you_can_say_a_lot.jpgThe collection includes what many have described as her best work, the novella These Dark Glasses. Janet Frame said of this work that she was “impressed and quietly depressed by their assurance and sophistication”.

Texidor wrote really well. These Dark Glasses is set somewhere in the south of France, quite possibly in a small town we know as Cassis. It’s fascinating – this is how it begins:

‘SUNDAY – Calanques: I am used to not being met. Comrade Ruth Brown is not the clinging type……..And Jane never did meet anyone at the station. We always considered it bourgeois…..’

That either repels or draws you in, I think. I decided to be drawn in and see what this writer was about. I think that her stories – and I won’t mention them all – are cleverly drawn from her own experiences, and obviously not entirely works of fiction. But then what is? She writes well about relationships, and catches personalities and attitudes in small exchanges of conversation.

The stories are variously set in New Zealand, France, Spain . One which stood out for me is the story An annual affair.

This is at once familiar, sad, provides some  moments of recognition and many others where you think ‘“thank goodness my father/family/etc were not like that.’ It’s a Boxing Day picnic in a small town somewhere in NZ. Early in the day dad ‘has to meet a chap’ and heads to the pub. The kids in their good clothes end up covered in mud and have to change into the spares their thoughtful, long-suffering mother has brought along. It sounds like any dire picnic in the 50s, on a fairly miserable summerish day. Windy, not warm enough to swim, pub too close and food predictable. But the observations of the narrator turn it into a remarkable story.

And I think that’s the key to Greville Texidor – she observes so clearly what is going on beneath the surface, behind the comments and in the looks! She’s well worth discovering, if you have not found her already. And when you do read her stories, read Margot Schwass’ excellent biography alongside. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

All the juicy pastures: Greville Texidor and New Zealand
by Margot Schwass
ISBN 9781776562251

In fifteen minutes you can say a lot: selected fiction   
by Greville Texidor
ISBN 9780864730466

Book Review: Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dead_people_i_have_knownEveryone has heard of the ‘Dunedin Sound’, and this book by frontman of Straitjacket Fits, Shayne Carter, will bring back memories for those who lived through those years when the music was in its infancy.

Carter says he used to keep a diary, and although he dumped them years ago, that style of recording everything features throughout the book. There are certainly no holds barred regarding his childhood and family life. He grew up in a family that used alcohol as a crutch, and at times during his life, he did too. A lot of fights and disagreements with band members – his own band and those from acts he played alongside or supported – litter the book.

He’s very honest about his battles with alcohol, drugs, depression, and – I think – his own talent. Despite the accolades, he seems uncomfortable with the fame he achieved and always wanted things to be better.

Making it big in New Zealand saw the band head overseas, but for some reason they never quite achieved their potential. Carter resents some of those he feels didn’t deserve to achieve success in the industry, but he’s also very generous to those who have been there for him and helped his musical career along the way.

There are some surprising revelations in the book, like his early love of Cilla Black and Donny Osmond, but when bands like the Sex Pistols hit the scene, he’d found music he could really identify with. The songs he wrote started having more meaning, and the industry started taking notice. Despite all this, Carter writes for himself and his fans, and therefore they actually mean something.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed seeing him live as he recounts many instances of abusing the audience, but I’d say a lot of that was down to his heavy drinking rather than wanting to have a go.

Hearing he’d started out as a cadet reporter on a Dunedin radio station wasn’t surprising as he spins a good yarn. A man of many contrasts, I reckon he’d spin a good yarn in person too. It’s an engaging read, even for someone like myself who tends more towards the rock and pop end of the spectrum. For those who are fans of New Zealand music and musicians, you won’t find a better present.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Dead People I Have Known
by Shayne Carter
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562213

Book Review: Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy, by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews

Available in bookshops nationwide. The TV series is currently screening on Sunday evening and available on TVNZ OnDemand.

Funny_as_four_coversIn Funny As, the book of a new TVNZ series of the same name, Paul Horan and Philip Matthews navigate the chop of New Zealand’s ambivalence towards its own comedy in a way that’s both sober and enthusiastic. They consider ‘New Zealand comedy’ to mean pretty much anything any New Zealander has done since WWI to make another person smile on purpose. The care they have so evidently taken in appraising how New Zealanders execute jokes and japes of every stripe makes this book immediately as essential as such a book can be.

When it comes to assessing the legends of the game, Horan and Matthews deploy a bluntness which is maybe one of the side effects of covering so much history with so few words. Instead of parroting easy, accepted assessments on our giants, they risk throwing in definitive, evaluative statements. Sometimes, they’re damning. The section covering folk legend Barry Crump acknowledges that he was ultimately revealed to be an ‘abusive, violent husband and absent father’ before ending: ‘New Zealand struggled with the information that its best-selling comic writer, yarn-spinner, heroic loner and popular joker was also a monster.’

Not ‘possibility’, or even ‘allegations’. ‘Information’. And that’s their last word on Crump: ‘monster’.

The authors’ ability to take a stand and remain clear-eyed about their subject is one way in which the book distinguishes itself. Talking about the influence of British TV comedians on quintessential joker Billy T. James they write: ‘This style of humour, often reliant on ethnic stereotypes, was long out of date by the time James debuted it on New Zealand television.’

Yes, true. So true in fact it can’t be meaningfully rebuked, and when placed in the context of this chapter, doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of James or sneer at his audience. In fact, the chapter on James deftly manages something that Matt Elliott’s biography Billy T: The Life and Times and Billy T James could not: it meaningfully surveys the comic’s place ‘Between Two Worlds’, engaging with the racial and social tensions around James’ work with seriousness, while never losing sight of what made James such an appealing and popular comedy star. Ultimately, James’s reputation is not undermined by such examination, but enhanced. He beams widely at us from under the famous yellow towel on one of the book’s four covers.

funny as_topp twinsThe other three covers are given to the Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords and John Clarke. The politics of the Topps are foregrounded, with the words “punk” and “f*ck” deployed as readily as “yodel” and “rural childhood”. The shortish, vital chapter on ‘two women unafraid to express all that they were in a small society that many might have expected would shut them down’ serves them well. It will hopefully send some readers to the superb 2009 documentary Untouchable Girls.

The irony of Flight of the Conchords’ image being used to sell a book from a TVNZ series will not be lost on their fans. Theirs is already a story for the history books it seems. An unlikely one, to be sure, but it now apparently belongs to the whole bloody lot of us. And seeing posters I used to drink cheap wine under in dank Wellington flats lovingly reproduced in a coffee table book is just the price of growing up, I suppose. (Their friend and collaborator Taika Waititi, about as perfect a synthesis of New Zealand comedy as you could wish for, gets his own chapter.)

The recently departed John Clarke acts a kind of spiritual guide for the project, with Horan and Matthews stating early on that they have followed his ‘firm dictum that there is no such thing as a distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. Such observance to the teachings of Chairman Fred could have resulted in bloodlessness in the hands of some acolytes, but Clarke’s intelligence, passion and sense of fairness are qualities the writers evidently admire and seek to emulate.

A black and white still from Clarke’s appearance with Hudson and Halls is generously given two pages, and the caption informs that this picture is ‘[a]ll that remains’ of the event. It’s one of the many times when a sense of loss is invoked in the reader (OK, this reader) without any forceful tugging on the nostalgia strings.

If it’s nostalgia you’re after, though, just flick through the thing for the photographs and the reproductions of posters and flyers. Aside from Clarke, Hudson & Halls and the Conchords, there are also full-page reproductions of gorgeous Red Mole and Front Lawn posters, Rosemary McLeod cartoons from The Listener, theatre posters for Jean Betts’ Revenge of the Amazons and Roger Hall’s Glide Time, John Key on Letterman, Arthur Baysting as Neville Purvis and a promotional card for Debbie Dorday’s Auckland cabaret club, Burgundy’s. Yep. Because this book sees comedy as a broad church. Both Mika and David Low are here, and deserve to be. Children’s television, and youth television like Havoc and IceTV, are also given their due. When you think about it, they really are part of the story. Thank god we’re a small enough country that we can see how connected it all is. By canvassing everything that could come under the banner of ‘comedy’, Horan and Matthews have, perhaps unwittingly, gone against Clarke and made a case for a ‘distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. But it’s not entirely what we may have been conditioned to think it is. Instead of “self-deprecating” and “laconic”, how about we describe it as “inclusive”, “adaptable”, “intelligent” and “multi-lingual” a little more often?

Because so much has been included in this book, I’ll just say that if you think it’ll be in here it probably is: McPhail and Gadsby, the Hori books, Seven Days, commercial radio, Funny Business, ‘Melody Rules’, BLERTA, Jono and Ben, Allen Curnow, Hen’s Teeth, Back of the Y, the showbands, Lyn of Tawa (who gave us – get this for precise, economic writing – ‘a complete, imaginary folklore of New Zealand life at its most ordinary’), and Samoan comedy in New Zealand, which is given a chapter of its own. The book is so packed it begs to be called ‘definitive’, but anyone interested in comedy is going to be peeved something they like has been left out. Given the scope of the book, I would have liked to seen Jonathan and Dane, Binge Culture, the Fan Brigade, Mrs. Peacock and Joseph Harper get some space, but when Frickin’ Dangerous Bro, Jo Randerson, Snort, Tom Sainsbury and half the Aucklanders I follow on Twitter are all present and correct… well I’m hardly going to lodge a formal complaint.

We have reached a point where the story of our comedy has become one worth reading and telling. Horan and Matthews have written right up to the minute, and though Rose Matafeo’s success at Edinburgh in 2018 is a fitting peak to rest the flag in for now, it’s clear we’re going to continue finding new ways of knocking this comedy bastard off. If the TV series lives up to its tie-in product, it’ll be an absolute cracker. And if it doesn’t… well it’s always nice to see that ‘Where’d I get my bag?’ joke on the telly.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy
by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869409005

Book Review: Jobs, Robots and Us – Why the future of work in New Zealand is in our hands, by Kinley Salmon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_jobs_robots_and_us.jpgWinter is a good time to take stock of our own lives, issues in society and the purpose of life, work and technology. It is a time of reflection to enable us to look ahead. Kinley Salmon provides an excellent resource to help with our musings. Here is a book that includes social history, science, statistics, expert opinion and personal experiences. What part does technology play in the future of our nation and are we ready to embrace change? This book gives a balanced and very well-organised response. The chapter topics are clearly outlined in the introduction and so enable the reader to gain an overview before further reading. I found this helpful as the summary of content allowed me to select the areas of my own interest to read first. Are we prepared for changes and how best can we enable these?

Kinley Salmon grew up in Nelson and now works as an economist in Washington DC. His qualifications in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard, combined with his New Zealand upbringing, give him a unique perspective on the issue of work and technology.

In this book, he addresses ideas such as the speed of adoption and diffusion of technology, the lack of know-how to enable change and how to sustain such change. This book is made accessible by the use of examples from New Zealand. The Novopay debacle is given as an example of innovation without good preparation. Likewise, a taxi driver using Tom-tom rather than Google Maps or Waze, which give real time traffic information, shows an unwillingness to adapt new technologies.

I was interested in his discussion of the impact of new immigrants and recent returnees as bringing new ideas back to our shores. He gives evidence that they do make a difference in our ability to take up new technologies.

In the concluding chapter, Salmon states that the future of work in New Zealand is not yet written, but sits with individuals, businesses, iwi, communities and government to be shaped. As a teacher, I found this work challenging but hopeful. My students will play an important part in deciding what work will look like but the environment that enables such changes, lies with my generation.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Jobs, Robots and Us: Why the future of work in New Zealand is in our hands
by Kinley Salmon
Published by BWB
ISBN 9781988545882

Book Review: The Plimmer Legacy, by Bee Dawson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_plimmer_legacyMost people who know Wellington will have come across the Plimmer name. It’s immortalised in locations such as Plimmer Steps, Plimmer House and the seaside village of Plimmerton, north of Wellington city. Many residents and visitors will have paused to look at the statue of the ‘energetic and entrepreneurial’ top-hatted John Plimmer and his ever-leaping little dog Fritz. The pair are found at the base of the steps between Boulcott St and Lambton Quay, a route that Plimmer often took. Bee Dawson’s book recounts the story of the Shropshire-born Plimmer and many of his descendants from the 1800s through to the present day.

Dawson is a social historian who has carried out extensive research not only on the Plimmer family but also on the growth of early Wellington. Her book also provides a comprehensive record of farming history in the Rangitikei area, where many of Plimmer’s descendants established farms.

The Plimmer family and other settlers faced many challenges. Earthquakes, infant deaths, rheumatic fever and other illnesses took their toll. Fires were common, sometimes destroying entire streets, and there were constant threats of work-related injuries and deaths. However, life was not all doom and gloom. The Plimmer family was fortunate to experience first-class trans-Tasman steamer trips, enjoying the plush couches, tempting menus, and solid marble baths on offer during the journey. Their social life included balls, fancy dinners and moonlight river excursions.

Dawson has drawn on accounts in newspapers, letters, journals and other records. Where there are gaps in these accounts, she suggests what was likely to have happened. Photos and maps supplement the text. There are plenty of diverse topics covered, some in more detail than others. They include Māori history and lore, transportation (with a hair-raising tale of brake failure), duck-shooting traditions, pest control, mourning rituals, and corporate ‘wheeling and dealing’. Dawson even offers a couple of the Plimmer family’s favourite recipes.

Dawson grew up on a Canterbury farm and her love of farming and knowledge of farming practices is evident throughout the book. As a townie I knew nothing about the complexity of land exchanges or the farm ballot systems that Dawson describes. I was intrigued to learn about the old Rabbit Board houses, and how farming families cope in remote areas during floods and electricity outages.

The tight-knit nature of rural communities is well-depicted, and Dawson also emphasises the strong family ties and business nous that have kept Plimmer’s legacy alive.
Succession planning has been critical to the Plimmer family’s ongoing success. Generations of Plimmer descendants have continued to work the farms, often during university holidays. This work often involved what they call the ‘d’ jobs: ‘drafting, dagging, docking, drenching and dipping’. Such hands-on jobs provided a solid introduction to farming life, although some descendants later pursued careers in the corporate world.

I suspect that this is the only book I’ll ever read where the appendix includes a list of paddock names. Some are named after family members, others after farm workers including shepherds, fencers and tractor drivers – there’s even one named after an accountant. Several names reflect the territory, purpose, or characteristics of the area, such as Flax Gully, Airstrip and Dam Flat. Dawson provides a thorough index and a short bibliography for readers keen to learn more, drawing primarily on New Zealand material. The family tree at the front of the book helped me to keep track of the main characters.

The closing notes include a descendant’s observation that the Plimmer family has now come full circle – from Wellington city to the Rangitikei district and back to the city again. The area where John Plimmer first established his business ventures is now ‘just a stone’s throw away’ from the family’s current office on Queen’s Wharf. That office is also not far from the statue of Plimmer and Fritz. If the statue could talk, Dawson’s book hints at the fascinating stories those two could tell.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

The Plimmer Legacy
by Bee Dawson
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143773559