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“New Zealand’s leading public historian”, Tom Brooking

Making History: A New Zealand Story
Jock Phillips
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869408992

Jock Phillips has written an engaging memoir of his challenge to his father’s Anglophile and Eurocentric view of history, and transition from an academic to a public historian. This crisply written account is of particular interest to someone whose career has overlapped with Phillips’s, but should appeal to anyone concerned about how New Zealand history can be made available to a wide audience in stimulating ways. Whoever reads about this journey will also quickly learn that New Zealand history is anything but dull.

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Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review

Express lane, John Horrocks

Lynn Jenner
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531694

Lynn Jenner lives on the Kāpiti Coast, not far from the new expressway between Mackays Crossing and Peka Peka. She writes in Peat that thinking about the construction of the road meant that she needed “the close company of a writer as a bulwark against its enacted power and concrete”. Charles Brasch, whose work she hardly knew before she started her project, was the chosen author. The resulting book is a marvellous and unexpected combination of the two topics.

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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction, Review

Lies and damned lies, Gyles Beckford

Stephen Davis
Exisle Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9781925335897

“Aren’t we all investigative journalists?” my colleague asked, as we lamented the quality of the coffee at an early hour in the newsroom kitchen.
“We’d all like to think so,” I replied. “But some of us are more investigative than others, perhaps.”

It was one of those innocent, non-committal exchanges prompted by the question, “What are you up to?”

At the base of my colleague’s question, of course, was the presumption that all journalists ask questions, investigate, probe, take nothing for granted, look for the spin, the obfuscation, the smokescreens … the bullshit.

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Posted in Media, Non-fiction, Review

Searching for the whole truth, Bill Hastings 

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life
Sarah Gaitanos
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776562176

In Wellington, it is difficult to find a lawyer, judge, or even a member of the Mongrel Mob of a certain age, who does not have a Shirley Smith story. The stories are good and bad. Many are insignificant, but they offer insight into her character. I was told about her understandable hostility to a junior lawyer, who was sent to the Smith house in Brooklyn to retrieve and organise some of her husband Bill Sutch’s papers. Smith stuck to her like lichen each day for a fortnight while she did her job and never offered her a cup of tea. I was told that Smith struck up conversations with people she did not know, who had come to visit their own relatives at the rest home in which she lived at the end of her life. One of these people told me about her delight at meeting a friendly, highly intelligent old lady, who said she studied the classics at Oxford University. Those who attended her funeral at St Andrew’s still talk about the powerful haka that echoed up and down the Terrace.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

Diplomat, translator, academic … Ken Ross

From Cairo To Cassino: A Memoir Of Paddy Costello
Dan Davin
Cold Hub Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473474485    

Paddy Costello’s forte was Russian scholarship. Dan Davin’s was academic publishing. Each acquired other formidable reputations by which they are better known to New Zealanders: Davin as a fiction writer, though his masterly tome Crete (1953) is a war history, and Costello as a Soviet spy, which he was not.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review

Watching the watchers, Ian F Grant

Dead Letters: Censorship And Subversion In New Zealand 1914–1920
Jared Davidson
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531526

Dead Letters contains intriguing detail about a random cast of now-forgotten people who were considered likely subversives in New Zealand during WWI. For their stories to be told at all, we have to thank both the pedantically plodding public-servant compilers of long-buried files and author Jared Davidson, an archivist by trade, for his skill in researching and giving human faces to the consequences of a government obsessively prying into private lives at times of perceived national crisis.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War

Is work what makes us human? Alex Beattie

How To Be Human In The Digital Economy
Nicholas Agar
MIT Press, $27.00,
ISBN 9780262038744

Take a minute to consider the speed with which technology is changing our everyday lives. The opening hours of local banks have reduced due to most of our neighbours doing their banking online. The pop-phrase “just Google it”, has retired the Oxford English Dictionary to the bookshelf to collect dust. Even self-service kiosks – once a visual oddity in New World supermarkets or McDonalds restaurants – now appear part of the commercial furniture. Such breathless technology-led change begs the existential question: what value will humans have in the future?

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Posted in Non-fiction, Psychology, Review, Sociology

Hurting in different ways, Veronica Maughan

Life On Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays
Janet McAllister (ed)
Beatnik Publishing, $25.00,
ISBN 9780994138392

Life On Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays first and foremost intimidated me. I am 19, a second-year university student. I work part-time in a café, as a waitress. I do stupid and dangerous things whenever I want to, because I can. I am cloaked in my youth: look, how beautifully the nascent cloth shimmers! The freedom, the naivety: it glitters like gold. And it marks me, as well. A dunce cap. It is far too easy to pick out in a crowd. I have not learned to put on the black coats favoured by the real writers. They are simply too big.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review

The Hutt Valley takes Manhattan … Murray Bramwell

Book Of Cohen 
David Cohen
Steele Roberts, $30.00,
ISBN 9780947493882

Book Of Cohen is a singular volume with multiple objectives: “This was always going to be a work by one Cohen (that would be me) on another Cohen (that would be Leonard)”. “I’ve always been Cohen-mad,” the author confides, “but there was another Cohen lurking in the picture as well.”

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Posted in Essays, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review

Here be gods, monsters and mortals, David Eggleton

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers
Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (eds)
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143772965

In Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers, the retelling of mythic stories is a communal activity, with one storyteller picking up where another leaves off, but then transmogrifying the story and often taking it in a completely new direction. Pū rākau means “tree roots”, and so these stories are an affirmation of the polytheistic animism running through the cosmology of the Māori world – Te Ao Māori – with story branching from story, and all interconnected to the main trunk of the mythology as part of a holistic continuum. Here be gods, monsters and mortals in tales of star-crossed lovers, of defiance and derring-do, of transgressive behaviour and comeuppance. These myths retold bend and blend genres, from the supernatural and fantasy to science fiction, ghost stories and magical realism – all this, the reclaiming and the repurposing, a far cry from the bowdlerised, even infantalised, interpretations found in the versions of A W Reed, Antony Alpers and other 20th-century Pākehā anthologists.

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Posted in Literature, Māori, Review
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