Book Review: Go Girl – A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women, by Barbara Else

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_go_girl.jpgIn the vein of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls comes Go Girl: A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women. It is written by well-regarded New Zealand author Barbara Else and illustrations are provided by nine New Zealand artists. This hardback edition is boldly coloured and the contemporary illustrations further enhance this attractive book. In what I hope becomes standard practice in kiwi publishing, macrons are correctly used for words written in Māori.

My daughters (aged seven and eleven) jumped on this book. They then searched the book to see if their favourite high profile women were included. Having completed that, they then searched out stories of women they were unfamiliar with.

Beatrice Tinsley was a profile that particularly resonated with the girls, I had not heard of her astrophysics achievements prior to reading this book. Hūria Mātenga, the famous rescuer of the shipwrecked boat Delaware was an amazing story of strength and bravery.

Barbara Else provides tips at the end of the book for further research on the women covered and we had a fascinating time looking up the Te Ara website for further biographical information. There is a timeline at the back of the book with each woman plotted to show when she was born. This provides a great way of ‘re-ordering’ the stories, which are provided in alphabetical order in the text.

This is a wonderful book. The writing style is clear, and reads like a bedtime story, so is very appealing. Often, the writing style will further reflect the woman portrayed – I particularly enjoyed Margaret Mahy’s profile! I loved the wide range of subjects. With nearly 50 stories, and a range of historic and contemporary women across a variety of disciplines, this is a great book for New Zealand children.

I’m sure that this book will appeal widely in New Zealand homes and schools, quickly becoming a standard resource. It makes a fantastic gift.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Go Girl – A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women
by Barbara Else
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143771609

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

The brilliant mind of Peter Wells was out in full force in his session, where he was in conversation with writer and producer David Herkt. Herkt introduced Wells as ‘an author who writes both with a fountain pen and mobile’ – an apt and literal descriptor of a man who has penned – and typed – in venues both traditional and modern.

As the session name – Dear Oliver – suggested, the primary focus was on Wells’ most recent release, Dear Oliver, while also touching on his cancer diaries, which recently won him the gong for Best First-Person Essay or Feature at the Voyager Media Awards.

‘Wells has never simply been an writer, not that writing is ever simple,’ Herkt said, and Wells agreed.

‘In terms of the shape of my career, it has this social activist impulse threaded through it – it’s not a strictly literary career in that way.’

Herkt rattled off just a few of the different aspects of Wells’s background – from his involvement in the early days of gay liberation in Auckland, to his ‘instrumental’ role in saving the Civic Theatre from demolition, to co-founding (with Stephanie Johnson) this very festival.

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Peter Wells, photo courtesy and copyright Auckland Writers Festival

Such a path has not been without challenges.

‘New Zealand has a really abrasive culture. It’s not particularly supportive for those in the arts,’ Wells commented (to nods around the audience). Expounding on his literary and artistic influence, he went on to comment that ‘probably the most important thing in my life in relation to my writing was my keeping a diary. I kept a diary from childhood onwards – religiously through my morbid teenage years and episodically through my adult years.’

Segueing from discussion of using his phone and Facebook to write what became the ongoing cancer diaries, Herkt asked Wells about the 140-characters or less, Twitter-esque version. ‘Well, I’m not so sure about Twitter,’ Wells hedged. ‘But it’s the history of Pākehā New Zealand told through one family.’

The title Dear Oliver is taken from the fact that the book is addressed to Oliver­ – ‘a young boy growing up in San Francisco with two gay mothers… with the hope that he would understand some of his New Zealand past.’

So it dove deeper into his family history, in Napier, positioning the book as part of a pseudo-trilogy of sorts about Napier (following on from The Hungry Heart (his book on William Colenso) and Journey to a Hanging (a portrait of Kereopa Te Rau). But this title was intensely personal and close to home, as he described some of the influences feeding into its writing and its tone.

‘[Moving to New Zealand] was quite a dystopian experience for most Pākehā migrants… they left everything behind,’ he commented, making specific reference to the economic positioning and according history of his own British tīpuna. ‘Because middle class families wrote so many letters, you tend to get a history of the middle class. But this family was sort of lower-middle class, so we ended up with a story that isn’t told as much.’

But now it is. And if the discussion around it – and the readings from it – are anything to go by, it’s a story very well told. This blogger definitely needs to put it on her to-read list!

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Peter Wells, photo courtesy of and copyright of Auckland Writers Festival

There was also some briefer discussion of ‘Hello Darkness’, the title Wells has given to his cancer diaries. Wells commented that Hello Darkness has many of the same characteristics as Dear Oliver – the same highly personal tone, for one. In introducing how it came about, Wells self-aware-ly said that ‘on November 12th last year, I found myself in hospital with a “very bad case of cancer”, which sounds ridiculous’ – but was, ultimately the truth of it. ‘I had prostate cancer, and it had gotten into my bones without me being aware of it.’

Understandably, such a diagnosis provoked an emotional response. ‘I began questioning my own mortality and mortality in general.’ The Facebook posts started simply as a way of making sense of his situation, and sharing his goings on with his friends – and obviously grew significantly in audience and appreciation from there.

The overall tone of the event was upbeat, a sense of banter between friends despite the ‘Big C’ looming over things. Herkt had plenty curveballs to send Wells’ way. ‘In some ways, it’s a writer’s duty to blab, is that what you’re saying?’

‘To be truthful, yes,’ Wells replied – an almost agreement, and a suitable summary of his art of the non-fiction craft.

 

 

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Dear Oliver
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994147363

Book Review: A Way with Words – A Memoir of Writing & Publishing in New Zealand, by Chris MacLean

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_way_with_wordsChris MacLean is the author of some of our most successful non-fiction books. His foray into publishing came about in a roundabout way, though his family business was books – his mother being from the well-known Whitcombe family (of Whitcombe and Tombs fame).

In the 1950’s and 60’s New Zealand’s main publishers were A.H & A.A Reed and Whitcombe & Tombs. Improvements in technology changed how books were written – by hand to using typewriters, then computers. It was often a long and laborious process.  As technology progressed even further reproducing photos, drawings and paintings via scanning, made the process even easier.

Chris MacLean began his career as a writer in 1980 when as a designer of stained glass windows, he published a book in collaboration with his friend, historian Jock Phillips, called Stained Glass Windows in New Zealand Houses. This began a long publishing career.

I hadn’t realised until reading this book how many of Chris MacLean’s books that he went on to write and publish that I was familiar with – an interesting discovery.

A Way with Words lets the reader in on the extensive research and work that goes into writing and producing his wonderful non-fiction works.  From the biography of the climber and outdoor adventurer John Pascoe (I share the same family name) to the wonderful story  Tararau – The Story of a Mountain Range to Classic Tramping (I grew up tramping from an early age) and many more others.

For anybody interested in books, publishing or any of the subject matters Chris MacLean has written about, this book is a gem.  I loved it from the first chapter to the last.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

A Way with Words – A Memoir of Writing & Publishing in New Zealand
by Chris MacLean
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503604
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Book Review: Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa, edited by Athol McCredie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

ten_x_ten_cvr_loresThis is a beautiful book covering the broad and diverse range of art at Te Papa as they prepare to renew their gallery space. 

 

In this book, ten of Te Papa’s art curators have each picked ten pieces from Te Papa’s collection of over 16,500 works and explain why they are drawn to them and why they believe they matter. The collection is truly diverse, balancing international and New Zealand art, and with pieces dated from circa 1300 to 2015. Each curator gives a short commentary on the painting, drawing, photograph, applied art object or sculpture. 

 

Curators responses vary from historic influences to emotional connections, with the tone very casual and conversational. These commentaries translate well creating a more informal, casual approach to art that I think most readers will enjoy. It’s enough to guide the viewer to certain elements or aspects in an informed approach but still allows the viewer to draw their own response. I recognised quite a few artworks featured but knew very little else and it was nice to learn more. 

 

The passion and delight of several curators shines through as they share the piece with the viewer. I found Rebecca Rice’s commentaries particularly compelling and I enjoyed pausing between paragraphs to look at the opposite art, consider what she had highlighted or identified before absorbing more.

 

I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the wonderful introduction by editor, Athol McCredie, who gives an overview of how Te Papa’s collection developed, how it acquires art and how it grew the diverse collection to what it is presently. This was surprisingly comprehensive and interesting, with a great insight from McCredie. ‘Art with depth and strength may speak to people in different ways, but speak it does’. 

 

This book is great start for anyone even just a little curious about art or planning to visit Te Papa’s renewed gallery space.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa
by Athol McCredie
Published by Te Papa Publishers
ISBN: 9780994136251

 

Book Review: A Strange Beautiful Excitement, by Redmer Yska

Available now from bookshops nationwide. 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

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

Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

Book Review: Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep

Is there a man living who knows what he looks like and what he does when he is asleep? … Some men sleep intelligently, others like clowns. (Balzac, quoted in Snooze)

cv_snoozeSnooze is the sort of book that a wise and thoughtful uncle might write, perhaps reflecting McGirr’s early adult life working as a Jesuit priest. Intriguing facts and wry observations are interspersed with gentle and perceptive descriptions of parenthood, and philosophical issues to contemplate. McGirr’s fascination with sleep stems from his own struggles with sleep apnoea and the exhaustion he experienced during his sleep-deprived years co-parenting twins and their close-in-age sibling.

McGirr makes it clear that Snooze is not a guide-book for people searching for techniques to ensure a good night’s slumber. Instead it is part-biography, part-history, part-enquiry into what is known and what still remains to be known about the complexities and functions of sleep.

McGirr brings history to life by sharing sleep-related stories about well-known historical and fictional characters, including light sleepers and insomniacs such as Thatcher and Dickens (who, apparently, would only sleep in a bed where his head could point north). He looks at how sleep is depicted by writers such as Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, by philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and within Homer’s Odyssey. He describes how Robinson Crusoe slept safely and comfortably in a ‘thick bushy tree’ and how Gulliver preferred to sleep next to his horses rather than his family. McGirr also explores the role of sleep in war, in the bible, in fairy-tales, and amongst the homeless. He reflects on the gap between those who have their own beds and those who do not, acknowledging the skills that people who sleep rough must develop to seek shelter.

Short of conversation-starters? Snooze provides plenty. Did you know that horses’ joints have tendons and ligaments that lock to allow them to sleep standing up, or that neuroscientists are considering the possibility that babies dream before they are born? And have you heard about the Italian who has invented a bed that makes itself? (There’s a YouTube clip about this, if the book piques your interest.)

McGirr points out the incongruities between how sleep-related products are marketed – the crisp white sheets, the fluffy pillows – and the contrasting realities of human sleep as we toss and turn, shedding hair and skin flakes, perhaps dribbling, scratching, and sweating. (Or worse.)

Coffee, of course, gets a mention – alongside other caffeinated drinks and drugs that hinder rather than help. McGirr remarks on the contradiction of the café ritual: ‘it’s a curious culture that allows you to relax as long as you spend the time loading up on stimulants’.

I often like books that can be dipped into – a few pages here and there as time allows. Although I read Snooze from start to finish, most chapters would stand alone well. You could open the book at random and read a chapter or two at a time. There’s a brief reading list for each chapter at the back of the book if you’d like to learn more.

Perhaps my favourite story is of McGirr’s four-year-old son appearing at his parents’ bedside at 2:06 a.m. When asked why he couldn’t go back to his own bed he earnestly declared that this would not be possible, as he had already made it. Parents may also empathise with (and perhaps even admire) the now nomadic family whose children were such terrible sleepers that their parents resorted to driving them around because they would only sleep in the car. The family journeys became longer and longer – until ten years and thousands of miles later they were still on the road, albeit now by choice.

McGirr describes the process of surrendering to sleep as ‘an act of faith in the existence of tomorrow’. Is sleep, he ponders (quoting Aristotle), an activity of the body, or the soul, or both? Something to think about when you nod off tonight.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498585