Blog Archives

A singular genius, Andrew Wood

Colours of a Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid
Anna Cahill
Mary Egan Publishing, $80.00,
ISBN 9780473423834

Over the decades, New Zealand has lost a tragic amount of cultural talent overseas for many reasons: the old bashing machine drives them away, cultural cringe makes the appeal of Europe and North America irresistible, or politics, or unconventional sexuality. Some have gone on to become very famous indeed – Frances Hodgkins and Katherine Mansfield, for example. The phenomenon is even responsible for an entire genre of New Zealand literature, resulting in several novels and biographies and biographical sketches by James McNeish, and Martin Edmond’s excellent The Expatriates. Anna Cahill’s Colours of Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid is a wonderful addition to that body of work.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction

Unpleasant truths, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins

Theo Schoon: A Biography
Damian Skinner
Massey University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780995100176

Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love
Joanne Drayton
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781988531267

There has long been an uneasiness on the part of local biographers when it comes to homosexual subjects. In literary terms, this can be traced to Michael King’s Frank Sargeson: A Life (1995), the first major biography of this type. King, then not yet a literary biographer, but a consummate researcher of Māori subject matter, demonstrated the standard Kiwi male’s distaste for homosexuality. The result was a tepid and unsatisfying work that has done Sargeson’s cultural longevity no favours. Without any active influential queer voice to argue the contrary, Sargeson entered the canon of modern biography, and King was lauded as the nation’s literary biographer.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

Making it and making it up, C K Stead

Life as a Novel – A Biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume I, 1932-1973
Philip Temple
David Ling, $45.00,
ISBN 9781927305447

Recently, I have been writing an autobiography and consequently hunting out old letters. One I found, written to Kay from London in 1984, told her about getting started on a new novel, the one that would be called The Death of the Body: 

4½ pages written. I’m away – a start. Probably now I won’t run into trouble for 40 or 50 or with a bit of luck 60 pages. We’ll see. What a strange and dangerous business it is, writing fiction. So much investment of self in a leaking ship. No wonder Shadbolt goes around the bend with the effort. I ought to have been kinder to him. I have been a merciless sibling rival (even if it’s true he’s not much of a writer).

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Private life and public record, Kate Hannah

The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell
Diana Brown
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531304

Perhaps some are surprised that a scientist whose impact on New Zealand’s health, particularly the health of women and children, could have been, up until now, overlooked – but even this well-written, timely biography reveals much about how women’s lives and careers in the past are hidden from view.

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Posted in Biography, Health, Non-fiction, Review

Consecrating Curnow, Simon During

Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction
Terry Sturm (Linda Cassells (ed))
Auckland University Press, $70.00,
ISBN 9781869408527,

Allen Curnow’s first book, Valley of Decision, appeared as a “Phoenix Miscellany” under the Auckland University College Students’ Association Press imprint when he was very young, just 22. But Curnow’s abiding concerns were already in place.

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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review

Radiant living: a hero rediscovered, Julia Millen

Edmund Hillary: A Biography
Michael Gill
Potton and Burton, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947503383

 

1953: Edmund Hillary, Everest conqueror (with Tenzing Norgay), is knighted by newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II. From the time he climbed his first peak in the Southern Alps, it had taken 13 years of steep uphill slog to become a world hero.

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Streets, waters, winds, Kirsty Gunn

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888 – 1903
Redmer Yska
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947522544

“There is a handful of writers” begins Vincent O’Sullivan’s introduction to a rare and illuminating account of the city in which Katherine Mansfield was born and grew up,

who at times seem to hold their admirers almost as much by the enigma of personality, or the curious weave of their lives, as they do by their first and sustained impact as writers … Each time we go back to a favourite story … there is that teasing urge to know what came before

In a few elegant sentences we have outlined for us a literary study of riveting depth and focus that, in drawing together history, biography, lyrical essay and reportage gives us back, in deeper colours, the life and work of one of those whose story we continue to be drawn towards, who takes her place amongst the world’s key modernists, a leading practitioner of the short story form, and here, too, a young New Zealand girl.

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“Loneliness was his condition”, Owen Marshall

Notes From the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper
Pat White
Frontiers Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473380663

A journey is a kind of endless forgetting. The boys lived only in the present, seeking a river crossing, probing a thorny thicket for the easiest passage, cooking a meal, hearing the night bird in the silence of the hills.

A Song in the Forest

The South Island’s West Coast features prominently in New Zealand literature, its swashbuckling history and impressive natural environment providing many advantages of setting. Charlotte Randall, Eleanor Catton, Jenny Pattrick and Amy Head are among those who have produced quality fiction associated with the region. Its perceived society and culture, however, are not those that would seem to foster a literary disposition among people who live there, yet Keri Hulme, Mervyn Thompson, Bill Pearson, Toss Woollaston and Philip May represent those with such ties. None has been more closely associated with the Coast than Peter Hooper (1919–1991), the subject of this biography.

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Nosing out the story, Lawrence Patchett

Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives
James McNeish
HarperCollins, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775540908

Partway through Breaking Ranks: Three Interrupted Lives, James McNeish stops his narrative to admit his own bias. “At this point,” he writes, “I had better come clean and declare my own interest.” His declaration relates to his account of Peter Mahon, the judge who led the inquiry into the 1979 Erebus disaster. Yet it applies to his approach to the other figures of Breaking Ranks, too: the psychiatrist John Saxby and the decorated soldier Reginald Miles.

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The long and the short of it, Jock Phillips

A Peculiar Gentleman: George Rusden – A Life 
John O’Leary
Australian Scholarly, $50.00,
ISBN 9781925333404

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: The Life and Opinions of Samuel Marsden in England and the Antipodes, 1765-1838
Andrew Sharp
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869408121

There are many similarities between these two books. Both are biographies, both are well-written, intelligent works, and both treat subjects with unusual ideas about race relations. More significantly, both books concern men, Samuel Marsden, missionary, and George Rusden, historian, who were English-born, but spent much of their lives near Sydney (before Rusden moved to Melbourne), and then achieved their greatest fame and influence through an involvement with New Zealand.

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