Book Review: Complacent Nation, by Gavin Ellis

Available now in bookshops and e-bookshops nationwide.

cv_complacent_nationGavin Ellis is the former editor of the NZ Herald, and a regular commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon, who is able to blend practical print media experience with some theoretical rigour. This is an excellent example of an extended essay, in a new digestible form, which BWB seems to have perfected. The book can certainly be read in one sitting, and provides much food for thought, but is it really a sampler for a more developed argument? Perhaps it draws together some recent examples of media practice, and government PR strategies, that aren’t necessarily the disturbing new trend that Dr Ellis is worried about.

The title suggests that the main problem is the ‘complacent nation’ of citizens, or civil society, but most of the text is about the role of government. Ellis states that there is a dangerous paradox, in that the more the government curtails freedom of speech, and thwarts the fourth estate, the less we citizens seem concerned by it. He has some historical examples from New Zealand, and some very contemporary media stand-offs, as well as some international comparisons, particularly from Canada. But the paradox seems to be that, although the number of journalists has greatly declined and the role of the press changed, the government seem ever more threatened by the possibility of sensitive information getting out, at least, the elected government does.

There are a couple of things that really interested me in the book concerning official information. The first is the role of the Office of the Ombudsman. This is a key role, but for those of us who have complained to the office about an information non-release and got nowhere, we have a slightly different perspective. Dr Ellis is worried about the media not being able to get information released, but they seem to do far better than the individual citizen.

It was, though, important to point to the criticism of the media by the former Ombudsman, Beverly Wakem, who claimed they acted like ‘rottweilers on heat’ in using O.I.A. requests. In fact, Ellis is arguing that the government agencies are trying to protect the Executive from any political embarrassment, and in withholding information are not acting in the public interest. There are also examples of imposing costs, or excuses like ‘commercial sensitivity’.

The second aspect of this involves the relationship between government agencies and their ministers. Ellis talks about the current relationship involving the ‘no surprises’ policy, in which all potential political problems for the minister have to be signalled in advance, and therefore controlled by the Executive.

One thing I thought about while reading this was that, whenever a practical problem comes up with public services, ministers are often quick to say that it’s an ‘operational issue’ and not their problem (the department’s PR people can deal with that). That seems contradictory: the ministerial office needs to know everything, but isn’t really responsible for any of the detail of policy implementation. Is it just the typical ‘passing of the buck’, and bureaucratic politics in the Wellington beltway, or is this of more constitutional significance? Hopefully the debate will now ensue.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Complacent Nation
by Gavin Ellis
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780947492946

Book Review: Silencing Science, by Shaun Hendy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_silencing_scienceIn 2009, seismologist Yukinobu Okamura warned Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Science Agency that ‘a wall of water of the size that hit Fukushima Daiichi was quite possible during the lifetime of the plant’. This message never reached the public; the government dismissed it. The muzzling of science, in this instance, contributed to the world’s worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

Shaun Hendy’s engaging book Silencing Science, which is part of the fantastic BWB Texts series (short books on big subjects), opens with the potentially devastating consequences that misinformation or the malfunctioning of science communication can have. This instantly gives rise to the question: could this happen here? From the start we are warned not to become complacent because Professor Hendy, director of Te Punaha Matatini (a New Zealand centre for research excellence), underlines that there are ‘rifts between our scientists, our politicians, and the public that put members of society at risk’.

Effective communication of science obviously has great use for us as a society and is also vital to an informed public, which in turn is part of a functioning democracy and any notion of consent being attributed to decisions made by those governing. Hendy bolsters these seemingly self-evident concepts throughout the book by illuminating why we need to be aware and vigilant of how this communication is under threat in Aotearoa. Indeed we soon see that science in the public sphere is undermined in myriad ways.

The frictions and complexities of science’s relationship with society, the media and policy-makers include: conflicts of interests; transparency issues; the insufficient independence of current scientific advisors; and the domino effect where scientists are cautious about speaking to journalists, journalists then don’t have access to good science or know how to engage with it, all of which results in a diminished public sphere. There is a reciprocal lack of trust between scientists and the public; some scientists are afraid of speaking out when funding is contingent upon certain sets of data or when there is the foreshadowing of attack on the horizon.

New Zealand is small and the country’s contact surface area is great, so the implications for misinformation or character assassinations are writ large when you can reach so much of society. There is also, as Hendy points out, very little doubling-up of expertise in the scientific world. This places a lot of responsibility on that sole expert’s shoulders, who might not come forward to speak at all if there is the threat of personal attack. Through these two factors of reach and singleness, our size has particular impact on public scientific discourse.

Hendy gives the example of Doug Sellman, who researches the harmful impacts of alcohol. With a few quick strokes of the keyboard, he was painted as a mad puritan on the infamous Whale Oil blog. As Hendy notes, other scientists, not ready to face attack, hang back and this diminishes the public sphere twice over as it ‘makes it easier to paint the likes of . . . Sellman as lone voices, driven by ideology and opportunity . . . rather than spokespeople for the scientific community’.

Without robust discussion, the culture of debate and critique is reduced and false balance enters public discourse. The most nefarious, commonly occurring example of this – due to the agency involved – is when interest groups and lobbyists manufacture public concern. Good ol’ fashioned fear mongering.

An example: Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, recommended fortifying bread with folic acid, as a means of addressing serious birth defects. A campaign against such a move led to the National government rejecting the recommendation. This campaign exploited ‘a common misunderstanding of the way science works. Science is never certain, particularly so when investigating the very small risks of a range of possible harms’. Here those representing the food lobby groups (who were against the change) could pick and choose individual studies (and disregard wide range of studies and expert opinions that have formed some sort of consensus) that suited, thereby bolstering their interests and sewing doubt in the public, ‘even when the weight of evidence is against them’.

The variations in science’s pace in the book – from the sudden threat of an emergency such as the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima through to the subtler, slower builds of climate change, water quality and so on – take the reader through the vast network of elements that help or hinder science’s capacity to fulfil its function in the public interest. As Hendy says: scientific discovery ‘depends not on the brilliance of the individual’ but rather ‘on communication’. The dire consequences of muted scientific sphere are revealed and we are called on to both value the role of scientists as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society and safeguard it.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Silencing Science
by Shaun Hendy
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9780947492847

Book Review: The Interregnum, ed by Morgan Godfery

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_interregnumThe Interregnum promises a collection of essays by ten of New Zealand’s “sharpest emerging thinkers”. It’s ambitiously framed around the idea that we’re living through the titular period of uncertainty, described by Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci as an interval where an old dominant ideology is dying, and the new is yet to emerge. Gramsci reckoned that in this interregnum, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

The collection is edited by prolific Wellington writer, commentator and trade unionist Morgan Godfery. In the introductory essay Godfery drops us into an anti-TPPA rally, which he says is evidence the “neoliberal political settlement” is beginning to fray as people reject the “market values” he alleges have come to dominate our political space over the past three decades. Godfery also cites the emergence of populist movements around the world, such as Corbynism in England and the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, as evidence that many of us are beginning to be fed up with the free-market liberal consensus.

It’s an engaging introduction that had me hoping we were about to get stuck into 1) an exposition of a new left-wing policy program to replace neoliberalism, and 2) a series of polemics against New Zealand’s most craven establishment hacks. Basically, I was after a readable Kiwi version of Thomas Piketty, mixed in with a few withering attacks on Key and Hosking.

But I was disappointed with a lot of what followed. Don’t get me wrong: five of the ten essays were entertaining, informative and genuinely thought-provoking. The others were not.

The best pieces form the core of the book, and redeem it somewhat after a decidedly mixed start. Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s essay gives an especially interesting perspective on radical Kaupapa Maori politics and her view of its potential to reshape the country. Lamia Imam provides a valuable overview of the place of identity politics and social media in modern New Zealand.

The most interesting chapter in the book is probably Holly Walker’s essay on the challenges of balancing being a mother and an MP, and Walker refreshingly provides some actual, concrete steps we could take to achieve true gender equity in parliament.

The essay by Salient alumnus Wilbur Townsend is also worth a look. It’s an exploration of the well-founded concern that robots are about to steal all our jobs, and Townsend makes a number of interesting points about the challenges that increasing automation poses for the labour market. He ties it all together with good local examples, like those horrible screens at McDonald’s, and he’s also got genuine flair for pretty hilarious writing.

However, the book’s sorely let down by the other chapters. These include a plodding overview of New Zealand’s well-documented failures to enact meaningful climate policy, and an earnest little piece which did little more than reiterate the prevailing left-wing line on Key’s (admittedly deplorable) personal attacks on Eleanor Catton.

The worst is saved for last: number nine is a puzzling analysis of what Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change means for New Zealand (the reader is left none the wiser by its end), while the concluding essay is a dire little meditation on “The Politics of Love”. Here we’re treated to author’s idea of how “the politics of love could refresh political language and address loneliness”, which seems to be some sort of half-baked theory that if we’re more polite to each other then we can somehow overcome the appalling everyday injustices of unfettered capitalism. One of the worst things I’ve seen in print, and I’ve read both of Shane Warne’s books.

In my view, the book lets itself down in two key areas: 1) the lack of any vigorous, novel application of theory, and 2) its lack of humour or irony. The title and introduction seem to promise that Marxian ideas and theories would be applied in the New Zealand context. But nowhere are we treated to any sort of application of hard theory, and in fact the only place Marx is cited is in Godfery’s introduction. But the greater crime is the weary earnestness of many of the pieces.

The Interregnum offers some interesting takes on kiwi life in late-capitalism, but it looks like we’ll be waiting a while yet for a genuine left-wing manifesto for 21st century New Zealand, and many readers will find it more than a little preachy.

Note: for an example of a left-wing writer who combines hard theory with great writing, please read Sam Kriss, especially his recent post “In Defence of Personal Attacks”: https://samkriss.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/in-defence-of-personal-attacks/

Reviewed by George Block

The Interregnum
edited by Morgan Godfery
Published by Bridget Williams Books (Texts)
ISBN 9780947492649

Book Review: Christchurch Ruptures, by Katie Pickles

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_christchurch_rupturesThe Christchurch earthquakes were a devastating physical phenomena which have continued to cause upheaval across Canterbury to this day. While we are all familiar with the land and buildings being forever changed by this process, we are less conscious of the implications for history and society.

Katie Pickles is a History lecturer at the University of Canterbury. In this short BWB text, she looks beneath the surface at the long term implications of the quakes on the perceived image of Christchurch. To do this adequately, she first explores the history of the city. This includes Maori settlement, the European arrivals, education, transport, architecture and many more aspects which helped mould the city prior to the quakes. In itself, this is a fascinating read showing the radical feminist groups, the artists who saw Christchurch as the centre of innovation and the educational experiments in early communes.

Her in-depth analysis then shows the impact of the earthquakes on the future image of the city. With the loss of so many of the colonial landmarks, it has become possible to reclaim the sites and landforms which pre-dated European settlement. To this end, she dwells on the part Ngai Tahu are playing in the establishment of areas of interest, names and purposes of certain sites.

I found the 170 pages a deep but satisfying read. While I might not agree with all of her conclusions I can follow the arguments and appreciated the accessibility of this pocket history of Christchurch. It has stimulated much discussion among Christchurch residents and it will be interesting to see if her predictions unfold. I would suggest this as a great book club read. The debates would be lively.

While we are still repairing the cracks, sinking foundations and rattled nerves, we are also excited to watch the new city rise from the rupture.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson (Christchurch resident)

Christchurch Ruptures
by Katie Pickles
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321292

Debating New Zealand: Morgan Godfery, Holly Walker, Courtney Sina Meredith

All Writers Week events have rightly started with thanks to the sponsors, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank some people as well. Firstly, thanks to Sarah Forster at Booksellers NZ for regularly commissioning me to cover NZ literary festivals. [ed: no worries, E!] Thanks to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey for putting together such an extraordinarily rich and stimulating Writers Week. Thank you to all my fellow reviewers, especially Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer of Radio NZ for their heroic live-blogging efforts. It’s great to feel part of a crowd (and helpful to have someone to cross-check my quotes against!).

Thanks to all the volunteers and staff of Writers Week, the NZ Festival, the Embassy Theatre, Bats Theatre, Unity Books, and Ticketek, who have been uniformly charming and helpful. Thanks to Harriet Elworthy for giving me the pro tip about the good food and quick service at Five Boroughs (no coffee queues!) so that I could dash out between sessions and fend off dehydration and/or general collapse. (Yes, I know I ought to have brought snacks from home, but my handbag is full of books.)

Back to this afternoon’s first session. In Debating New Zealand, Linda Clark chaired a panel discussion at Bats Theatre with political commentator Morgan Godfery, former Green Party MP Holly Walker and poet Courtney Sina Meredith, all contributors to the latest of the BWB Texts, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand. If you haven’t yet discovered the Bridget Williams Books Texts series, I highly recommend them.

 

Clark was, as you’d expect, a superb chair, keeping the conversation flowing and the ideas sparking. She quipped “once upon a time I used to be well known”, before saying the festival couldn’t find a journalist currently working who would attack neo-liberalism. Although I know she meant this as a joke, I think it is neither true nor helpful; there are plenty of journalists working in NZ today who are criticising the dominant ideology. However, it was just one misstep among a generally excellent discussion.

As Charlotte Graham points out in her review, this session wasn’t a debate by any stretch, and Clark acknowledged that they were preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, it was useful to discuss these important ideas, and I was heartened by the fact that Bats Theatre was completely packed out.

morgan godferyGodfery, who works a lot with trade unions, spoke about the demand he sees within Aotearoa to radically reshape politics. We have two options: disruption or resignation. He says that young people are increasingly choosing the former, although he acknowledges that this is reflected neither in political polls nor in voter turnout. He spoke about the attack on traditional institutions of dissent (eg media, unions).

Walker said “I came out of three years of Parliament much more cynical than when I went in”. She revealed how her experience in government had made her feel like she had lost her voice entirely. “I found that I lost my ability to reflect and think about what am I here for.” It was an exhausting, two-person job. Interestingly, Walker reported how her conversations with students have changed over the years. A decade ago, students were agitating for the end of the student loan scheme. Now, they’re so used to it that they’ve stopped questioning the rationale behind it. “The dominance of the status quo makes it really difficult to imagine how things could change. Things like the universal basic wage feel like a fantasy.”

courtney sina meredithMeredith works at MIT in Otara. “So many young people are degree pioneers in their family, and they’re paying for an education we can’t even confirm will happen. Critical thinking won’t feed anyone.” She pointed out that debates about home ownership ignore the fact that different cultures have different concepts of ownership. Families living in communities where they have social housing can also feel that they own their homes, even if their names aren’t on the title deeds. “People stay within their communities just to survive”, where they are part of a group to which they add value just by being alive.

Naturally there was an audience question about the flag referendum. Godfery said “it’s a really weird debate”; it’s strange to not acknowledge that the flag only has the meaning that we put on it. Meredith commented that the flag debate has engaged people who were previously politically disengaged, and that that can only be a good thing. The session ended with an upbeat call to embrace the politics of aroha: “Let love be our rallying cry!”

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Debating New Zealand: Holly Walker, Morgan Godfery and Courtney Sina Meredith
Chaired by Linda Clark
All attendees had written BWB Texts, get this fantastic range of short books on big subjects at bookshops nationwide.

Book Review: Wealth and New Zealand, by Max Rashbrooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_wealth_and_NZInequality of wealth between people has become quite a topic of interest recently – think Thomas Piketty and similar writers. Reports such as “The wealthiest 20 Americans own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of Americans” (that’s 152 million if you’re keeping score) crop up frequently, and there is a widespread belief overseas that “the 1%” have way more than everyone else.

What about here in the quarter-acre paradise? There’s no really wealthy people here are there? What’s the difference between wealth and income anyway? Is NZ facing a problem of inequality becoming more marked? And is inequality a problem anyway?

Max Rashbrooke has written widely in print and on-line about inequality. He edited Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis in 2013, and that has been on my to-do list for many months (next year, I promise). When I saw this BWB Text I grabbed the opportunity to at least get a start at the material.
Rashbrooke takes the debate about wealth and inequality, and puts it into a New Zealand setting. He presents a lot of data, and raises a lot of question.

What is wealth anyway – as opposed to income? Why does it matter? What does wealth look like in New Zealand? Who are the holders of wealth, and what do they do with it? It isn’t all fast cars and booze you know.

Having NZ data changes the way that we think about things. The level of inequality and the rate of growth of some people’s wealth while others go backward staggered me. It is sobering too to read that “we are not immune to his [Piketty’s] prognosis of a return to Victorian-style levels of inequality”.

Some of course will argue that the disparity of means between groups is unimportant, and that inequality is not a problem. Some too will argue that wealth is not, in fact, all that unevenly spread about the community. The author presents data which will disabuse them. It is hard at first to understand why the share of the national income going to wage and salary earners is so low compared with other developed countries. Rashbrooke shows that this trend started in the 1980’s (surprise!). He also shows that a partial but erratic correction has occurred since early this century. This is just one example of the material he presents in a very clear series of graphs and occasionally tables. Be aware though that some of the graphs have been truncated, so care is required reading them. Some of the data has not be published before, at least in this form.

As well as asking questions and drawing conclusions from them, the author advances possible policy responses to reduce wealth inequality and wide income gaps. There’s quite a variety here, and they should make anyone think. Some are obvious: taking the heat out of housing by making life-time renting both more ‘normal’ and more comfortable, for example. Others are quite controversial: mandating mixed neighbourhoods, for example, or giving everyone a share of the national accumulated wealth as of right.

This is another success in the BWB series of short books. It does things right: presents the facts simply, shows their importance, raises the questions, and proposes some answers. And it’s about economics yet is understandable and readable: a rare combination. I really must get into his earlier book next year.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Wealth and New Zealand
by Max Rashbrooke
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321575

Book Review: Why Science is Sexist, by Nicola Gaston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_why_science_is_sexistNo doubt it is a reflection of my own background and insensitivity, but the question of sexism in science has never occurred to me, although I have worked supporting scientists for significant periods. I have missed a lot!

My initial thought when I saw the title was that there was a pretty massive assumption being made – that science was sexist. Fortunately, the author quickly demonstrated that there is sexist behaviour in science, and sexist attitudes. She demonstrates that women are under-represented at all levels of scientific study and inquiry, in all disciplines, and in all areas, including academia and professions, private and public services. She recounts the arguments that mental ability is gendered, although there is no actual evidence for that statement.

Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, and President of the NZ Association of Scientists. The book is a very personal one, including her own experiences, opinions and reactions throughout. Starting from the widely reported incidents involving world-renowned scientists (including a Nobel Prize-winner), she gives many examples of the way that sexism plays out in the scientific world.

But the real question is ‘Why?’ Gaston delves into the research. Subconscious bias and stereotypes are examined. I found some of these alarming – do rational scientists really say things like that? Biological differences are assumed to exist despite there being no evidence for them. Women’s contributions are systematically undervalued or denied. Discussions about women in science are recounted which seem to be quite bizarre. The author demonstrates the considerable extent of our unconscious bias against female scientists, and warns of its damaging consequences for science and for society.

The author’s approach is interesting. There is a mix of objective research studies and personal observations. There are suggestions for positive ways forward, and her personal to-do list. Her call is to rethink attitudes not only to gender, but to scientific inquiry. The 93 pages pack in a lot of data, research, opinions and some conclusions. The writing is clear and the argument easy to follow – and so to accept or reject. But rejection would seem perverse in the light of the material here.

This is a book that raises many difficult questions, and offers some solutions. I found that it challenged some of my preconceptions, and has provided much food for thought. It’s short enough to read, think about and discuss in an evening: do it!

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Why Science Is Sexist
by Nicola Gaston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN  9780908321650

Book Review: Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_truthsHousing – particularly its availability, quality, and cost – is a common feature of news broadcasts and publications in New Zealand. There can be little doubt that the state of housing in NZ is a critical factor in many of the major issues affecting this country: the economy, employment, immigration, health, sustainability are all affected in one way or another by the housing situation.

Phillipa Howden-Chapman is a frequent commentator on housing issues. She is a Professor of Public Health, and is currently the Director of the University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research programme. She brings to this succinct survey an extraordinary mass of facts, figures, and opinions. She believes that comparatively recently we have lost a lot, and moved towards third-world conditions in many areas. She firmly believes too that access to dry, warm and safe housing should not be determined by a household’s income.

She begins with a survey where we have come from in housing policy. There’s more in this 25-page chapter (they are small pages too!) than might be expected. New Zealand has neglected its heritage of enlightened policies, and a case is made that we now have some of the worst housing in the developed world, especially for the approximately 50% of families in rental accommodation.

The second chapter deals with the interaction between the housing market, and the welfare state, and the third with the importance of housing in the national economy. Here she challenges some of the assumptions commonly made in economic discussions, and demonstrates the role of housing in the recent rapid increase in inequality in our society. And why this matters to both rich and poor.

The fourth chapter ‘Why Does the Quality of Housing Matter’ is, for me, the guts of the book. It is astonishing that in a ‘light-handed’ regulatory environment, legal costs are so high. As might be expected for a health researcher, the author canvasses the health issues caused by poor living conditions. She is scathingly critical of the lack of properly collected data available, and the thin layer of evidence that supports the development of policy. She does not accept current policies around rental houses, and regards current government measures as lukewarm at best. Her proposal is a strong, standardised Warrant of Fitness for all rental accommodation.

The final chapter sets out some directions that the author believes housing policy must move in. She considers policies to make more housing available; to make housing affordable, healthy and sustainable. She describes some successful models from Europe – especially Scandinavia. Changes are needed, she says, at both national and local government levels in the ways that planning and monitoring are done. She advocates mixed-tenure communities, and has several examples. She also calls for greatly increased regulation of the private rental market, in the interests of both tenants and landlords.

Don’t be mistaken: this is not a dispassionate book! The author has done the research (over some decades) and she has a firm conviction that the country can do better. She also knows what she means by ‘better’, and takes no prisoners in allocating blame. In brief, she has an axe to grind, and the facts to grind it on.

On one level, this is an easy book to read. It isn’t long (BWB bills the series as ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’) and the writing is fluent. At another level, it can serve as the gateway to much more: there are extensive notes and references, and it would be easy to follow up the statistics and graphs here in more detail. If you have any interest in society’s well-being, I recommend you read this book.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis
by Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by BWB, part of the BWB Texts series
ISBN 9780947492335

Book Review: Towards a Warmer World: What Climate Change Will Mean for New Zealand’s Future, by Veronika Meduna

Available in bookshops nationwide.cv_towards_a_warmer_world

There are of course many books, both short and long, on climate change. This one is particularly focussed on New Zealand and the South Pacific: what could the future look like for this region?

This is one of the BWB Texts, which are billed as “short books on big subjects”. It’s certainly a short book, and there are few subjects bigger than climate change.

Meduna has found a surprising number of studies on aspects of climate change within New Zealand and Antarctic and charts their effects on our flora, fauna, ocean levels and the projected impact of these changes on the way that we live. There’s no wild predictions: just careful analysis of where we are, how we got here, and what our future path looks like.

Many children already born will see the year 2100, and that is the time-span that is broadly dealt with. The author has found many scientists working in the areas of climate change, geography, palaeontology and related fields, and brings their findings about the past and present, and more importantly their projections for the rest of this century, to a wider audience.

The book has nine chapters, and most begin with a simple, particular observation – such as a very wet June causing flooding in many part of NZ – and use of the underlying science work to explain a wider phenomenon – in this case the El Niño climate event and its effect on the oceans. And of course, what affects the oceans affects all of us. This moving from the particular to the general is a feature of the writing, and roots the narrative in the concrete, leading the reader to more abstract thinking in gentle steps. This technique is just right in this situation, and I am sure that the author would be a gifted teacher.

Some of the predicted changes are horrific such as flooding of coastal regions. Some are less so: kiwifruit orchards in Canterbury anyone? The author does not dramatise but bases her predictions on what we see now and can model for the future. I say “her predictions”, but they aren’t hers alone: the scientists involved are named, and their experiments and theoretical work described.

In a book this size it obviously isn’t possible to discuss all the possible variations thrown up by the climate models, and it isn’t possible to discuss the experimental data in depth. But this does not detract from the book’s usefulness as an introduction to, and summary of, the science. Thankfully, the book is free of rhetoric, is always rational and unruffled even when describing we have damaged the world possibly beyond repair, and is carefully based on good science. Political issues are avoided.

There are no tables, figures or graphs – I did want a map of Antarctica at one point.
Veronika Meduna initially trained as a scientist, and now works as a science broadcaster and journalist. She is one of the best communicators of science that this country has. She has managed to condense a wealth of information into the book’s 89 pages, and include suggestions for further reading for those interested in more depth in some of the matters discussed. The writing is clear, engaging and yet precise.

There are many of these BWB texts, released in electronic and print form. I hope that they are all as good as this one. If you do not already have a good grasp of the science behind climate change, read it immediately.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Towards a Warmer World: What Climate Change Will Mean for New Zealand’s Future
by Veronika Meduna
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321735

Book Review: Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater – A Writer’s Early Life, by Albert Wendt

cv_out_of_the_vaipeAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

A short and concise history of the very early life of Albert Wendt, Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater gives the reader a great insight into boyhood split between Samoa and New Zealand.

The first chapter poses an interesting question – how reliable is an autobiography? Wendt acknowledges and defiantly states “Don’t trust me, be suspicious. I’m deliberately leaving out most of the story – it’s none of your business, and I don’t want to hurt the people I love.” I found this simply wonderful – for the author to say from the get-go, “it’s not the whole story and don’t expect it” is rare these days, and I took the rest of the book with a pinch of salt.

Covering his early life in Samoa and scholarship to New Zealand, Wendt pays homage to teachers and places that influenced his life and his writing. At New Plymouth Boys’ High School he published poems for the first time, and wrote and published more during his time at Ardmore Teachers’ College. The Wendt the world reads and enjoys would not exist without the New Zealand education he worked so hard to gain a scholarship for.

The suburb of Apia, Samoa where Albert Wendt spent his boyhood is something of a myth to Wendt now – “Is the Vaipe I’ve created in my stories, poetry and novels really the Vaipe that existed and exists in real life? Or is it real only in my books? Where does fact end and fiction begin?” I feel that this is probably true of many hometowns for people – while we’re not all writers, we sometimes morph and create a place different to remember than the one we actually grew up in. Wendt has immortalised his own upbringing through his writing, excerpts of which are scattered perfectly throughout the book.

On top of this, Wendt has delved in to deeply personal matters – a near death experience in the swimming pool, intense exam stress, severe home sickness in a foreign land very far from home, a mother’s death at a young age,and the somewhat reluctant acceptance of the Maualaivao title.

The uncertainty of the truth to this account didn’t diminish my enjoyment for Wendt’s story; I love a good life story, even if I don’t see the whole picture. There is so much heart thrown in to the pages, and every reader will take something away from such a well-written and informative tale.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater – A Writer’s Early Life
by Albert Wendt
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321223