Book Review: Futuna – Life of a building, edited by Nick Bevin & Gregory O’Brien

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_futuna_life_of_a_buildingFutuna Chapel sits amongst modern housing developments in Karori in Wellington, its roof towering above the houses, its future preserved thanks to protection under the Wellington District Plan as well as a Category 1 registration with the Historic Places Trust.

Throughout the pages of Futuna – Life of a building, the reader is taken on a journey from the inception and building of the chapel, its dereliction and finally its rescue and refurbishment as a non-denominational centre for spiritual, cultural and artistic expression. The stunning photographs bring the chapel to life and compliment the series of essays which tell the story of this unique building devised by architect John Scott and artist Jim Allen.

Built by brothers of the Society of Mary as part of their men’s retreat centre, the chapel is named after the Pacific Island of Futuna where a missionary Peter Chanel was killed in 1841, and opened in 1961. When the Society of Mary decided they had no further use for the building it was sold to a Wellington builder, who used it as a storage place while he developed housing on the surrounding land. Then, in 2007, the chapel was bought by the Futuna Trust, and refurbishment commenced, culminating in Futuna hosting a Medieval Music group at the inaugural open day March 2008.

Gregory O’Brien’s poem Ode to Futuna Chapel adds a lightness to the story with his beautiful description of the chapel:

Equal parts concrete ,wood ,
and light –that was the equation
the Chapel of Futuna offered, where
the two rows of pews formed
the shape of a capital L…

And I particularly enjoyed his poem The return of Christ to Futuna Chapel, which celebrated the return of Jim Allen’s carving to the chapel.

This book is a real treasure, it is a factual historical recording of an iconic building in New Zealand, which as with many church buildings throughout the country, faced an uncertain future until passionate people rallied together to save it. From the eye-catching front cover to the Poem for John Scott at the end I have loved unraveling the story of the Futuna Chapel, finding new details each time I have picked up the book.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Futuna- Life of a building
Edited by Nick Bevin and Gregory O’Brien
Photography by Paul McCredie and Gavin Woodward
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560523

Simon Winchester: Pacific Future, with Greg O’Brien

pp_simon_winchesterSimon Winchester still remembers the phone number that ultimately led to his success. He had written twelve books, and was well into planning on his thirteenth (having already bought a tramp steamer with his publishers’ money to staff for a book on trade routes around the world) when by chance, he saw a book called Chasing the Sun, by Jonathon Green – about dictionaries. In it, while relaxing in the bath, he read about Dr W.C. Minor, who was a major contributor to the Oxford Dictionary, and was fascinated by this murderous lunatic. He called a lexicographer friend – she of the number – and what she told him led him to write what was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne in the UK, and The Madman and the Professor in the USA.

pp_gregory_obrienGreg O’Brien chaired this event, and his questions were perfectly pitched between levity and a clear admiration for what Winchester has achieved. Winchester was told by a Korean fortune teller that he would write 38 books exactly: so far, he is at 30, so eight more to come then. He is a non-conformist scholar, and the most general you can get when speaking of his books is that he studies the human record of things, though his degree was in geology.

One of the great things about Winchester’s books, says O’Brien, is that he has stood in the places he is speaking about – he doesn’t just read it, he lives it. Asked whether he serves Literature or Journalism as a master, Winchester said, “To write something in 12,000 words is easy; to write something in 100,000 words is easy, it just takes longer. But once you pare it down, it becomes more difficult.” He hasn’t done journalism, except long-form journalism, for some time now; his books are not what he would call journalism.

He started his life as a geologist until he read a book by James Morris, and wondered if perhaps he could write books instead. At Morris’ suggestion, he dropped geology and became a journalist, ultimately becoming a war correspondent. His first book was about Northern Island, where he had been stationed during the uprisings. His second, American Heartbeat, has still only sold 13 copies. I couldn’t help thinking then that if he had been publishing in today’s environment, that would have been his final opportunity! As it was, he got to 12 books before The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which he wrote in his early 50’s, just as he was worried he was being ‘put out to grass’ as a war correspondent.

cv_the_surgeon_of_crowthorneHis US publisher didn’t like the idea of this new book (as opposed to that of the ‘tramp steamer’ above) so they cancelled his contract, as books about a single person at that time were just not as popular in the trade. Ultimately, once the book was published, his agent found a USA publisher for it, and the rest was history. At the time it exploded, he was researching another book in Canada, tramping across the icy wastelands of the north when he received a radio transmission to make it to the nearest phone. This phone call ended in his being flown out of Canada, to New York, then back again to rejoin his expedition, for an interview with Mel Gusso, which ended (three months later) in a 4,000-word feature about Winchester and The Professor and the Madman in the Arts pages of the New York Times.

While the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne gave him security as an author, Winchester thought that now his publishers had decided he can only write sure-fire bestsellers. This is a feeling echoed by Cornelia Funke in The Kids are All Right – there is a level of obscurity that can be helpful to creative freedom, it seems!

Winchester always writes on big topics, says O’Brien, often beginning with one person but ultimately enclosing a much broader topic. More recently, of course, he has begun writing books about oceans. “I had written a previous book about the Pacific,” said Winchester, “But it was bad. I wanted to right the wrongs.”

As Winchester works across so many topics and writes in such broad strokes, O’Brien asked him whether he gets in trouble with scholars when he publishes his books. While it doesn’t often happen, said Winchester, when he wrote The Map that Changed the World, he did get in trouble with a biographer of William Smith who had given him help with his research while he was writing the book. The expert’s book deal was cancelled thanks to Winchester’s book, so he accused Winchester publicly of plagiarism – luckily, this accusation never saw the light of day as it didn’t check out.

This was a fascinating session, which took in many dog-legs, including a long story about a well-known surveyor who successfully led a double life, simultaneously as a white man and a black man. This only became known upon his deathbed.

Simon Winchester is now working on a book about precision, and how it took over the world. This book will be a homage to his father, who was a precision engineer.

If you weren’t in the 700-odd-strong audience at The Embassy on Thursday, I suggest your have a listen to the Radio NZ recording of this session here. In the meantime, check some of Winchester’s books out – I certainly intend to.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Simon Winchester: Pacific Future
4.30pm, Thursday 10 March, Embassy Theatre
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

NB: This was actually the first event I attended at the Writer’s Festival, but the notes were trapped on my work computer until today. Apologies for the delay in reportage!


Email digest: Wednesday 14 August 2013

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Book reviews
Book Review: Pat Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien & Gil Hanly

Book Review: The Intentions Book, by Gigi Fenster


True Stories Told Live – the XX Factor is in Auckland, tonight.

David Larsen is talking with Eleanor Catton at Takapuna Library, this Friday evening.

Authors dancing? No no… Books and bubbles for Kaikoura

Jo Seager launches A Bit of What You Fancy, at high tea events in October…

Book News
While the Australian National Bookshop Day is over, it is no reason to stop celebrating them. 

Which book would you pick for ‘Book Club in a Box!’ ‘The White Princess’ or ‘The River of No Return.’ Win here

Find Waldo a Shop Local success in US

Wendell Berry wins the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award   His #poetry

Kobo Glo E-Reader — A Bookseller’s Review

Frankfurt Book Fair is nearly here again – here is a preview from Publishing Perspectives

Awards News
Two new reviews of #nzpba books – The Intentions Book, and Pat Hanly

There are only 4 MORE DAYS to vote for your  #nzpba People’s Choice and be in to win $1000 in Book Tokens

From around the internet
Ever wondered what Shaun Tan drew as a child? Listen to the curator talk about his exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

Because we know there are a lot of English majors excelling at bookselling

Happy Birthday to bestselling author Danielle Steel! What’s your favourite Danielle Steel novel?

Thug Notes takes on Hamlet…priceless

How to find reviewers for your self-published book…

What a great idea! How Cooking Can Encourage Your Child to Read

Book Review: Pat Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien & Gil Hanly

This book is in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the Illustrated Non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

Hanly std cover

I remember when I first saw one of Pat Hanly’s paintings. I was working as part of the exhibitions team at Te Manawa, Palmerston North’s art gallery and museum, when the curator wheeled out this exuberant and dynamic painting, which I was to learn was a Hanly. Born in Palmerston North, Hanly’s work seemed to exemplify the aesthetics I associated with the sixties and seventies: bright colours and shapes with political undertones. This is why I was interested to read in the retrospective of his work, Pat Hanly, that Hanly’s paintings departed from the “sombre, monochromatic and rooted” work that New Zealand painters were doing at the time. In his introduction to this incredible book, curator Gregory O’Brien states: “Hanly was that rare thing in mid-20th-century New Zealand art … His work came as a surprise to the light-sensitive retinas of the gallery-going public. Here was a painter of dazzling sunshine rather than the dusk or night-time.”

This is only one of the reasons why the book, Pat Hanly, will be so welcomed. And what a book! As well as containing 190 full page plates, and over 150 smaller images and photographs, the book also includes personal essays by Hanly’s colleagues and friends, and an essay and commentary by O’Brien. The combination of stories, memories, biographical information, and scholarly writing, provides readers with a complex and rounded view of Hanly as both a man and an artist. This allows many ways for a reader to access Hanly’s work, whether it be through descriptions of his “charismatic … and restless, nervous energy,” or his artistic philosophies.

 Paradise Bird Escapes Bather

Paradise Bird Escapes Bather, Oil on canvas, 1015 x 1525

The book is structured chronologically, although O’Brien notes that the structure also acknowledges the “cyclical nature of [Hanly’s] career, with its loops and reprises.” After documenting Hanly’s early family life, the book follows him to art school in Christchurch in the 1950s where “male students usually wore corduroy pants, tweed sports coats and polo-neck jerseys, while the girls tended to be close imitations of their mothers: twin-sets, pearls and sensible shoes.” While reading about his student days I was suddenly nostalgic for my own time at art school (admittedly in the 1990s – but how little has changed), and this signaled one of the strengths of the book: it evokes a strong sense of time and place.

The book then moves to London, where Hanly lived and travelled with Gil Taverner (who he’d met at art school, and is an artist in her own right), their marriage, and the birth of their first child, Ben, in the late 1950s. The London essay also provides an incredible sense of time and place, which works to elucidate Hanly’s artistic preoccupations with our capacity for self destruction (especially in terms of nuclear war), which manifested in series of paintings such as Massacre of the Innocents (1961-1962).

Hanly and his family returned to New Zealand in the 1960s, and the book documents Hanly’s light and lush paintings of the 60s, his murals of the 70s and 80s (some of Hanly’s most iconic work), and his more abstract and political works of the 80s onward, which includes O’Brien’s essay on Hanly’s life in Auckland, where he and Gil made their home. While Hanly’s work responded to the intense social change that happened in New Zealand from the 1960s through to the 1980s, O’Brien calls him an “expressionist whose work was disarmingly angst-free.” I was interested to see how a book – even one as glossy and large as Pat Hanly – would handle the murals, but the high quality foldout reproductions do them justice.

The book ends with a detailed chronology of Hanly’s life that includes excerpts from personal letters, reviews, his journal, and manifestoes, and it seems to suggest that there is more to be said about the man and the painter than will fit into one volume. Pat Hanly is a wonderful book. I am not surprised that it has been selected as a finalist for the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett (

Pat Hanly
Essay by Gregory O’Brien
Contributions from John Coley, Quentin MacFarlane, Dick Ross and Barry Lett
Photographic Editor Gil Hanly
Book Dimensions: 300 x 300 mm x 276 pages
Published by Ron Sang Publications
ISBN 9780473208646

For more artwork, go here to the Ron Sang Publications website

Book Review: His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell, by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien

I was thrilled to be given this book to review. cv_his_own_steam I have been a visitor to Barry Brickell’s property at Driving Creek in the Coromandel over many years.  I have always been in awe of Barry’s property, with its railway and many hectares of native planting.  I knew little of the creative side of Barry’s character.  Of recent times the millionth visitor has passed through Driving Creek.  Over many years, the railway has expanded with Barry doing most of the work, with others helping at different times, building the tracks and the steam trains to pull the passenger carriages.  Barry has also built all his own pottery kilns, and traveled all over New Zealand building kilns for other potters.

This book is very well laid out with a foreword by long-time friend Hamish Keith.  His Own Steam follows Barry through his life with beautiful photographs of various works over many years.  I love the earthiness of his work, not bowing to fashion and staying true to himself.   I had a real laugh at his father Maurice wanting Barry to have a “real job” with an office and carpet on the floor.  I don’t think his father was really disappointed with his son, as he helped him build his first kiln at their family property in Devonport, and in his parents later years, they moved up to the Coromandel to live closer to him.  Barry is an individual who would be deemed eccentric by some, but genius by others, myself included.  I especially loved his salt glazed pots and the beautiful murals that he has done for various organisations including the Devonport Library, and the lovely twisted forms of his larger pots. The fact that he made coffee mugs and jugs for his own use shows how functional his homewares are.

I am not a potter, but like many others in the 1970’s, my own home had many pottery pieces displayed with my own parents despairing at my choices.  I now only have one very precious piece made by a visiting Japanese potter bought in the late 1970’s.  I still love the earthiness of what I call “good pottery”.  Barry’s bowls and sculptural pieces are absolutely beautiful.

While this book would appeal to people of the pottery and ceramic world, who have more than a fleeting knowledge of Barry and his work, it also has a wide appeal to others.  I especially liked the footnotes to explain various comments throughout the book and also the chronology compiled and written by Emma Bugden and Toni Taylor.

In New Zealand we are very lucky to be able to express ourselves freely without harassment and to celebrate others greatness.  Barry and his gifts are to be celebrated.
Highly Recommended.

Review by Christine Frayling

His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell
By David Craig & Gregory O’Brien, with new photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869407636

Book review: A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Life and Times of Graham Percy by Gregory O’Brien

This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

In the introduction to this book, Gregory O’Brien catches our attention by defining a micronaut as: ‘someone who dwells on or is moved by small things; he or she is a student of miniature objects or a traveller across minute spaces.’ He goes on to apply this definition to Graham Percy, the New Zealand-born graphic artist, illustrator, typographer and designer ‘who traveled far (Taranaki to London via Auckland) and built a career on the closely observed detail.’

That which the introduction states, the book itself illustrates with nearly two hundred pages of Percy’s varied works, resonant in themselves and enhanced by O’Brien’s lucid artistic analysis and magnetic chronicle of Percy’s life. It would be fair to say that up until recently, Graham Percy’s artwork, particularly the independent work of the last few years of his life (Percy died in 2008), was not that well-known, at least by me.

IMAGE: page spread for pages 60 and 61

A reader such as this, coming fresh to the subject (Percy specifically and art generally), provides an excellent examination of this kind of book. And it turns out that the book passes with flying colours. Which is to say that as I moved through the pages, traveling chronologically along the river of the artist’s life, I was aware of a developing sense of deep pleasure and admiration bordering on awe.

The subject of this awe (sometimes lapsing into envy) was two-fold. Firstly, there is the actual art of Percy: illustrations, designs and paintings – precisely rendered, imaginative, original and often wry. Evidence of a richly lived physical and mental life. Then there is the prose of O’Brien: intelligent, articulate and the product of thoughtful research. (The writer spent several months in the artist’s home in 2009.) Evidence of respect for the reader, who may or may not be familiar with art history and artistic process.

IMAGE: page spread for pages 66 and 67

For the reader, savvy or savage, this should act as a stimulus and a provocation. By this I mean that like the reproduced artwork within its pages, this book provides the opportunity not only to revel in the micronautical genius of the inspired expatriate Graham Percy, but also to contemplate how one might (oxymoronically) follow Percy’s lead in carving an individual path through life.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Life and Times of Graham Percy
by Gregory O’Brien
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869404703