Blog Archives

Just like on tv, Annabel Cresswell

The Dwarf Who Moved and Other Remarkable Tales from a Life in the Law
Peter Williams
HarperCollins, $50.00,
ISBN 9781775540472

Criminal lawyers love war stories. War stories are great yarns about epic legal disputes, great victories and shocking defeats, where the battlefield is the courtroom.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review

No country for old men, Megan Dunn 

Grahame Sydney Paintings 1974-2014
Grahame Sydney (essay by Vincent O’Sullivan)
Craig Potton, $100.00,
ISBN 9781927213254

Myself, Looking Back is Grahame Sydney’s extensive memoir of his childhood and formative artistic years up until his sell-out solo exhibition in 1975. Early on in this detailed and reflective piece, Sydney’s boyhood self asks: “Weren’t all lives like ours?” This question is rhetorical and it hits the right elegiac note, but ultimately the answer is no.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review

The fungibility of human longevity, Charlotte Paul

The Healthy Country?: A History of Life and Death in New Zealand
Alistair Woodward and Tony Blakely
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408138

Non-Māori New Zealanders lived longer than any other peoples on earth between 1876 and 1940. Figuring out why is the starting point for this fascinating and scholarly study. Of course, even this statement begs a question. These figures apply to only a segment, not the total population of New Zealand, yet the comparisons are generally with total populations of other countries. Nevertheless, the non-Māori life expectancy was far ahead, and this was the only data available until 1913 (when Māori deaths were first collected). Moreover, epidemiologists Woodward and Blakely are properly even-handed and comprehensive in investigating both Māori and non-Māori life expectancy from pre-contact until 2011.

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Posted in Health, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology

Lessons from history, Bronwyn Labrum

Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th Century New Zealand
Margaret Sparrow
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739360

Someone I follow on Twitter reported that a friend of hers had no idea that abortion is yet to be decriminalised in New Zealand. This was tweeted in the context of the debates about the 2014 general election, when issues about abortion were barely raised. Increasingly liberal practice since the late 1970s has made abortion services more widely accessible, and extremely safe. But those who were part of that social media conversation, as well as a much wider audience, deserve to read this second, much needed book from the redoubtable Margaret Sparrow, well-known for her long career in reproductive and general health and publicly recognised for her services to medicine and to the community.

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Posted in Gender, Health, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology

Where’s Rewi? Mary Roberts 

White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790–1959
Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng
Otago University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9781877578656

Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Zeng Dazheng have, in some respects, written the book that I’ve been waiting for. This is a thorough, readable and comprehensive survey of relations between China and New Zealand in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It also provides a balanced and enlightening account of the growth of the “traditional” Chinese community in New Zealand: that is, the largely Cantonese community that New Zealanders of my generation (born in the 1950s) and older knew as the New Zealand Chinese. The New Zealand Chinese community is now made up of people whose origins are from all over the Sinophone world, but for many decades its members were largely from three small areas of Guangdong (Canton) province.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Sociology

Hipster pulp, Dougal McNeill

New Hokkaido
James McNaughton
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 978 086473 9766

James McNaughton’s New Hokkaido is not the “adventure that thrills and disquiets at every turn” promised in its blurb, but it does qualify as a page-turner: I read on, eager to finish and be done with this novel. Artistic failures work according to quite different rules to the failures the rest of us experience in life, however, and this immediate readerly frustration and boredom needs unpacking. Some bad works serve good ends, after all, operating as a kind of aesthetic compost: without M K Joseph’s novel A Soldier’s Tale, no Curnow poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit”. But what kind of a bad book is this?

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review

Sources of discomfort, W K Hastings

Murder That Wasn’t: The Case of George Gwaze
Felicity Goodyear-Smith
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877578991

Part of me wishes this book had not been written. It makes for uncomfortable reading. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for an author to induce a sense of discomfort amongst her readers. Some of my discomfort, however, lies in the rather long bow the author invites us to draw from the facts of this deeply sad and, in the words of the author, extraordinary case, that will almost certainly never be repeated. Singular cases do not often form the basis of general inferences, and this case is no exception. But first to the legitimate sources of discomfort.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review

Culinary design and display, Peta Mathias

Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century
Helen Leach
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781877578373

Professor Helen Leach, the author of Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century, is simply a national treasure, along with her sisters Mary Browne and Nancy Tichborne – talk about a heavenly power trio. If we didn’t have Leach’s scholarly, meticulously researched, riveting books on culinary history, we would have had to invent her. Shame about the uninspiring cover, though – maybe it’s an Otago University Press thing: mustn’t be too bright or shiny.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology

For us there is only the trying, Paul Morris 

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-Fiction 2015
Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (eds)
Auckland University Press, $30.00
ISBN 9781869408244

Greatest Hits: A Quarter Century of Journalistic Encounters and Notes from Lost Cities
David Cohen
Mākaro Press, $35.00
ISBN 9780994106544

In their introduction, editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew ask why “doesn’t New Zealand have its own equivalent of the Best American Essays or Best Australian Essays series?” Their selection of 29 “essays” is expressly designed to address this very real lacuna. As one who has long lamented the priority given to the New Zealand short story, the short poem, and the long novel over the essay, I had high expectations for this collection. What was it that I was anticipating? If not the wisdom of Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, James, Hunter S Thompson, Hughes, Baldwin, Epstein, Ozick, E B White or, more recently, Daum, Jamison, D’Ambrosio and Zadie Smith, then at least reflective first-person narratives about experience that deeply engage the reader, not as moral fable or advice, but as dialogue, a conversation that suggestively and subtly indicates some shared and significant experience and understanding. They should, of course, also be superbly written and entertaining.

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Posted in Essays, Media, Non-fiction and Review

Happy birthday Gecko Press

Publisher Julia Marshall reflects on a decade of readers and reading.

Gecko Press is turning 10 this year. It is banal to say that in these 10 years there has been a lot of change (though of course it is true). But 10 years is not long to gain much in the way of perspective. I can’t imagine what it was like to be publishing books back when booky people at least were reading every novel published by a New Zealand writer, for example. Or, when no books were being published by New Zealanders, or the period of the long lunch. (We are pretty hard pressed to get lunch at all these days.)

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