Blog Archives

Going high, Julia Millen

To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing
Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781988531205

Since the arrival of Pacific peoples, New Zealand’s mountains have enthralled and enchanted. Māori revered the craggy peaks from afar while they forged ways through the hinterland. The first European explorer, Abel Tasman, sailing to the Southern Ocean in 1642, recorded the sighting of “a large land, uplifted high”. Captain Cook’s crew were bent on “conquest” in more ways than one. This collection features the 1998 re-enactment by 13 climbers of the 1773 ascent of Mt Sparrman in Fiordland, made by a party from Cook’s second voyage on the Resolution.

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Posted in History, Literature, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

A critical lamp in a dark world, Helen Watson White

Charles Brasch: Journals 1958-1973
Charles Brasch, selected by Peter Simpson
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781988531144 

“How many existences one leads at once,” wrote Dunedin poet, critic, patron and Landfall editor Charles Brasch in 1958: 

I am here with LF work & household chores … I am haunted by the state of the world – the Near East, nuclear tests, the fear of war; I live through Dr Zhivago & its world; Rodney’s & Douglas’s worlds & those of other friends, & Emily [Forsyth]’s, & the de Beers at Raasay now; & Andrew who has gone to Adelaide is with me constantly; & as I prepare to go to Chch tomorrow Pearl draws near, & Harry & Margaret (whose house at Clifton, 31 Tuawera Terrace, has at last been sold, to their immense relief, although it doesn’t pay off all their debts; & J[ames Bertram] will be in Chch at the weekend; Kate, Tim, Penny [Thompson]; & I must see Ruth France … the list goes on & on. And my own life winds through all these in its own way. 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review

Listening for the voice, Janet Hughes

Coming to it: Selected Poems
Sam Hunt
Potton and Burton, $30.00,
ISBN 9780947503802

Poeta: Selected and New Poems
Cilla McQueen
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988531281

Watching for the Wingbeat: New and Selected Poems
Pat White
Cold Hub Press, $40.00,
ISBN 97804734444204

A “Selected Poems” doesn’t confer quite the accolade of a collected, with its connotations of canonisation. But the poet is more likely to have a hand in shaping it, and to be around to enjoy it; it is more likely to privilege reading pleasure; and it’s simply more likely to happen. Back when publishers were powerful arbiters and gatekeepers, a selected poems affirmed a career and a reputation. Now that there are more gates and fewer keepers, the fact of a selected probably carries less freight.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review

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

Whose history? Simon Hay

The Expatriate Myth: New Zealand Writers and the Colonial World 
Helen Bones
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531175

The Expatriates 
Martin Edmond
Bridget Williams Books, $50.00,
ISBN 9781988533179

Helen Bones aims to dismantle the “myth” that New Zealand writers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had to leave New Zealand to pursue careers as writers. She argues that this myth is wrong in at least two directions: first, that many New Zealand writers stayed and wrote and published, in New Zealand – that New Zealand was at this time not the cultural wasteland that it was made out to be by the generation of scholars she calls the “cultural nationalists”; and, second, that writers who did leave had neither an easier nor a harder time of it than those who stayed. Her book is a quantitative study, insofar as it can be: not interested in the “content” of books, but in “comprehensive data collection”, “literary empirical techniques”, and “a dataset of publications”. Her goal is to “quantify the significance of literary expatriatism”.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

Grudging nationalist, Mark Williams

Charles Brasch: Journals 1945-1957
Peter Simpson (ed)
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781927322284

I approached this book rather in the spirit of someone visiting a civic monument to a figure august and admired, but obscurely known. In the late 1980s, as one of the many editors of Landfall in that period, I spent time in the Caxton Press checking proofs, following a tradition of care established by Charles Brasch 40 years earlier. But the strong ghosts I recall in a building filled with reminders of eminence were those of Janet Frame, whose visits and material remnants still held occult power, and Robin Dudding, veiled in a scandalous story that I gathered had more than one way of telling. Brasch’s presence was fainter somehow, less detectable in the busy workings of the printing house that had hosted him and sacked his heir, Dudding.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

A swarm of poets, Airini Beautrais 

Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems
Philip Temple and Emma Neale (eds)
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947522469

 

New Zealand poetry in English has a long and complex tradition of politically-charged work: from colonial balladeers, through 20th-century heavyweights like Allen Curnow (as himself and as Whim Wham) and James K Baxter, to more recent poets including Bill Sewell, Robert Sullivan, Dinah Hawken and Hinemoana Baker. Despite this tradition, and perhaps in line with a neo-liberal mood-shift towards individualism and consumerism, an attitude has existed in recent years that there isn’t much political content in our poetry, or that it doesn’t belong there. Sullivan, in his 2010 sequence Cassino: City of Martyrs, bluntly calls such an attitude out in the lines “New Zealand / and its official status quo disdain / for political verse as if it was anything but.” Appearing against this historical and contemporary backdrop, Philip Temple’s and Emma Neale’s Manifesto anthology is a timely and welcome project.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review

The wisdom of things, Anna Smaill

The Yield
Sue Wootton
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780947522483

The Internet of Things
Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776561063

There is beauty to be had in yielding, Sue Wootton’s collection suggests, both to the natural world and to language. The collection’s title comes from its final poem, a quiet ode to an apple tree. Resurrected from its first life as a “dehydrated sapling”, the tree has thrived against the odds. Evidence of its battle remains in its posture; the sapling has developed

a lean, the whole tree on an angle,
as if surrendering in deference
to persistent pressure, as if leaned
upon,
giving in or giving up to what
prevails

 

The poem ultimately suggests that, rather than resignation, the tree’s lean is a mode of enabling sacrifice: it “let[s] go” in order to “put out arms, become a fruitful crux”. In conserving its energy the tree enables a different kind of yield – the crop of “yellow apples, blushed, /…Tart and crisp, delicious.”

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review

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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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review

Brave writing, Charlotte Simmonds

The Walking Stick Tree
Trish Harris
Escalator Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780994118646

A Small Blue Thing
Julie Hanify
Submarine, $35.00,
ISBN 9780994123770

The Case of the Missing Body
Jenny Powell
Otago University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781877578311

What Does the Sea Sound Like?
Evie Mahoney
Mary Egan Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9780473367718

My friend Uther once called a play A Show About Superheroes, partly as a ploy to get non-theatre people into theatres, under the logic that there are people who will go to anything if it is about superheroes. Similarly, there are people who will read any book on certain topics.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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