Blog Archives

“A most entertaining little man”, Chris Szekely

Hocken: Prince of Collectors Donald Jackson Kerr Otago University Press, $60.00, ISBN 9781877578 663 Dry bread and milk for breakfast. Dry bread and milk for supper. Not much chop for a boy of eight at Woodhouse Grove in 1844, but that

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review

Telling our stories to ourselves, Chris Else

Jerome Kaino: My Story Jerome Kaino Penguin, $40.00, ISBN 9780143573562 Wildboy Brando Yelavich Penguin, $35.00, ISBN 9780143573159 The Good Doctor Lance O’Sullivan Penguin, $38.00, ISBN 9780143572510 How Bizarre Simon Grigg Awa Press, $38.00, ISBN 9781927249222 Lydia Bradey: Going Up is

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review

The colony’s resident expert of choice, Simon Upton

James Hector: Explorer, Scientist, Leader
Simon Nathan
Geoscience Society of New Zealand, $45.00
ISBN 9781877480461

Simon Nathan’s biography of Sir James Hector fills a major gap in the nation’s historical bibliography. The reasons why the gap remained unfilled for over a century following Hector’s death are worth pondering. A cursory glance through Nathan’s bibliography reveals full length biographies of several of Hector’s scientific contemporaries, McKay, Haast, Buller, Davis and Murchison among them. But Hector’s life, despite his towering public stature in the development of 19th-century New Zealand, remained confined to an MA thesis in 1936 and a more recent doctoral thesis devoted to his early life.

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Posted in Biography, History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review, Science

Moss, C K Stead

Maurice Gee: Life and Work
Rachel Barrowman
Victoria University Press, $60.00
ISBN 9780864739926

When I was young, New Zealand fiction had three Maurices. Duggan (“Maurice”) was the maestro, Gee (“Moss”) the dependable tradesman, and Shadbolt (“Morrie”) the showman. The maestro wrote mostly very slowly and with difficulty; the tradesman was more fluent and produced new work with what appeared to be near regularity; the showman was always ahead of the pack, prolific and catching the public eye, but was felt by some to be a bit of a sham. All three were in varying degrees neurotic – to be a writer in the 1950s, you had to be.

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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review

Necromancy and piety, John O’Leary

A Blighted Fame: George S Evans 1802-1868, A Life
Helen Riddiford
Victoria University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780864738967

For Gallant Service Rendered: The Life & Times of Samuel Austin
Barbara Mabbett
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877577710

Biography is a strange genre, despite our familiarity with it. There’s something uncanny about it, in that it’s a kind of necromancy – a raising of the dead, so to speak. It can also be an act of piety, a way of honouring those who have passed on – an assertion, in the face of oblivion, that an individual’s life had meaning and significance. Piety of this kind lies behind the two books reviewed here, which describe the lives of two colonial New Zealanders who have slipped into the historical twilight.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

Exploring the biographers, Tom Brooking

Frank Worsley: Shackleton’s Fearless Captain
John Thomson
Craig Potton, $50.00
ISBN 9781927213124

Dumont d’Urville: Explorer and Polymath
Edward Duyker
Otago University Press, $70.00
ISBN 9781877578700

Here we have two very different approaches to writing about the history of European exploration: one concentrating on heroism and adventure and the other adopting a more nuanced and academic approach. Both books succeed as excellent examples of almost completely different genres and will appeal to a broad readership, especially to anyone interested in the history of exploration of the Pacific and Antarctica. Both come highly recommended as ideal autumn reading.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review

Just perk up your ears, Barbara Else

The Life and Art of Lynley Dodd
Finlay Macdonald
Penguin, $50.00,
ISBN 9780143567967

A tousle on spindly legs has conquered the world. How did it happen? Finlay Macdonald’s biography of Lynley Dodd describes her journey from childhood in the Kaingaroa Forest in the middle of the North Island to her creation of the tousle, Hairy Maclary (from Donaldson’s dairy, as if you needed to be reminded) and on to the sale of many millions of picture books.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

A veritable Pooh-Bah, Edmund Bohan

Dear Tyrant; An Extraordinary Colonial Life
Barrie Allom
Wairarapa Archive/Fraser Books, $39.50,
ISBN 9780992247522

Albert James Allom (1825-1909) always described himself in his numerous and usually self-justifying writings as “Gentleman”, a title that frequently in his latter years brought down on his unbowed head some derision. Not that derision ever seems to have bothered this most resolute self-publicist and controversialist. He was certainly a colourful character, and Barrie Allom, his great-great grandson, strives hard to bring his story to life through copious quotations from Albert’s numerous autobiographical writings. Yet the author cannot quite avoid the conclusion that, although one must admire Albert for his sheer determination, industry and courage in battling adversity, he was not the most likeable of our 19th-century colonial personalities. Nevertheless, his story is worth telling.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

Larger than life, Simon Upton

Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own – The Life and Times of New Zealand’s Longest-serving Prime Minister
Tom Brooking
Penguin, $65.00
ISBN 9780143569671

I grew up in a very complacent country which didn’t really take its history seriously. New Zealand was the way it was (and it was the best of all worlds) and momentous history happened abroad. I recall the librarian at my secondary school pronouncing with lapidary finality that “New Zealand history is all out of date current affairs”. In the 1960s and 1970s, the evolution of the Cold War was much more exciting and, for the purposes of history teaching, the first two decades of the 20th century were devoted to the causes of WWI. New Zealand was a footnote.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

The effort at reasonableness, Miranda Johnson

Paikea: The Life of I L G Sutherland
Oliver Sutherland
University of Canterbury Press
ISBN 9781927145432

The critical theme of Oliver Sutherland’s biography of his father, Ivan Sutherland, is the rational pursuit of an understanding of others. The theme is developed in several ways: through a description of Sutherland senior’s own intellectual development in New Zealand and Britain; via an extensive examination of his engagement with and writing about Māori in the 1930s and 1940s; and in Oliver Sutherland’s own attempt to make sense of his father’s life, cut short by his suicide in 1952 when Oliver was eight years old.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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