Articles about New Zealand

My homeland.

Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women — Fiona Farrell

This book starts out as a day in the life of a group of six schoolgirls. This is a world that is unfamiliar to me, so it seemed exotic and yet still quite believable. After establishing the characters and putting them through some ups and downs, we fast-forward several years: we get to see the girls as adults, see how they’ve changed but how they mostly haven’t, and see how they deal with the directions their lives have taken. It’s a nice ensemble piece. The women are more or less relatable but they are all interesting, and their stories are full of nicely-rendered moments. And there are some very satisfying resolutions too.

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The Beat of the Pendulum — Catherine Chidgey

This experimental “found novel” is great. Once I got into it, it was like a beautifully edited minimalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary in print.

Every day for a year, Catherine Chidgey recorded or wrote down a conversation, email, overheard snippet, advertisement or some other piece of text. That’s what this book is. Initially it’s pretty disorienting as there’s only speech — no introductions, descriptions or even “he said” or “she said”. It takes a while to figure out who the characters are and what their relationships are. Even by the end of the book I was still losing track of who was talking during long conversations.

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Elizabeth Smither — The Mathematics of Jane Austen

It was probably the title that enticed me to buy this collection of understated short stories. The title story is about a woman trying to write a thesis on the use of mathematical concepts in the writings of Jane Austen. It’s clever, amusing and likeable. I enjoyed reading the stories, which made a relaxing contrast to the harrowing writing of Lucia Berlin or Miranda July.

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Zeustian Logic — Sabrina Malcolm

This story is more fun than you would think, given that it is about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s death. Astronomy and mythology are two of Tuttle’s boyish hobbies; they run like threads through the stories he tells his younger brother and the conversations he has with his friend, and also play a big part in the novel’s resolution. His father, a famous mountaineer, disappeared in controversial circumstances which made his loss even harder for his family to deal with. The repercussions continue even a year later, when the novel is set. Apart from dealing with his father’s death, he also has to deal with his mother and brother, who are struggling in their own way to manage. And of course he also has to negotiate the usual teenage issues; mostly school, and also the juvenile delinquent petrolhead who lives next door (along with his cute half-sister — it’s not all bad). Continue reading
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Owls Do Cry — Janet Frame

This is deservedly one of the classic New Zealand novels. When I returned it to the library, the librarian eagerly asked me how it was. I said it was really good — a novel version of Frame’s short stories. The shifting viewpoints give a broad understanding of the characters and events, and the impressionistic first-person narrative really made me feel what it must be like for the main character, living a life very different to mine. Bad things happen to her, but there are also many marvellous moments of beauty:
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He’ll Be OK — Celia Lashlie

This book is about about raising boys, especially teenagers. It’s heartfelt and compelling, and it has a lot of good things to think about and remember if you have or are planning to have a teenaged son.

Celia Lashlie spent a lot of time at boys’ schools talking with the boys and their teachers, and describes what it’s like to be a student in a boys’ school. She describes the experience really thoroughly — as I read, I really felt I knew what their world was like. But there are many different ways for boys to experience their school life, and I thought she focused on one without really acknowledging others.

The view in the book is undoubtedly true for many boys — the importance of sports, mates, school spirit — but experiences are different for everyone. I went to a boys’ high school myself, and I do recognise some of the aspects of schoolboy life that Lashlie describes. But overall my own experience was generally more middle-of-the-road than that described in the book. Of course some of my fellow students were much more extreme than me, but some were more boring and conventional — I don’t think my experience was that unusual. Lashlie does occasionally nod towards alternatives, but overall the world she describes does seem traditional and stereotyped. Perhaps that’s the most obvious view to an outsider, but I do feel Lashlie romanticises things a bit.

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Can You Tolerate This? — Ashleigh Young

This is like one of those great, wide-ranging conversations where you talk about everything, from what you did last weekend to the meaning of life, and everything in between. Each essay is on its own topic and they are apparently unrelated, but as I got into the second half of the book I found that they started to go together and give a coherent picture.

I first heard of this book when I read Ashleigh Young’s essay in Tell You What 2016, in which she describes the process of creating its distinctive cover illustration. Later, the book became big news when it won a huge literary prize. I remembered that I also enjoyed her essay in the earlier Tell You What book, and I also realised that one of the blogs I read, Eyelash Roaming, is written by Young. It appears that I am a fan of Ashleigh Young’s writing! So naturally, I bought the book.

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Mansfield and Me — Sarah Laing

This biography/autobiography/graphic novel is idiosyncratic, interesting and fun. It has sent me off to read and re-read both Katherine Mansfield and Sarah Laing, different writers from different centuries who still seem to have a lot in common.

Sarah Laing’s life so far has been conventional for an inquisitive Kiwi — growing up in the suburbs, university, OE working in London, returning to NZ to bring up a family, with lots of personal experimentation and discovery along the way. Presented here as a graphic novel, it’s readable and fun. It’s like a long-form expanded version of her comic strip Let Me Be Frank.

But Laing has been influenced a lot by Katherine Mansfield, perhaps more in life than in writing. So Laing’s life story here is interpolated with Mansfield’s, bringing out the parallels and contrasts in their stories. Mansfield’s explicit influence is expressed by her appearing as a character in Laing’s life, popping up here and there to offer wry commentary on the brash colonial.

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Billy Bird — Emma Neale

This is a wonderful story of a quirky boy and his family as they go through some funny, tragic, interesting times. The premise is that Billy turns into a bird, or believes he does. But there is a lot more happening around that, and it all makes sense in the end.

Neale is a poet — I bought this book (and others) after hearing her read some of her poetry at the Going West Books and Writers Festival last year. So the book is beautifully written and Neale is really able to get into Billy’s head and make him really convincing. There’s a lot of familiar feelings and wisdom for parents of young boys (like me — I mean, I’m a parent, not a young boy, though I was once and still remember a bit about that too). The whole book made me think of Kate de Goldi’s excellent The 10PM Question, another fine story along similar lines.

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Wellbeing Economics — Dalziel & Saunders

wp-1463690996770.jpegThis short but thought-provoking book describes a way that New Zealand’s economy could be reorganised to focus on the wellbeing of all its citizens, defined as

The ability to lead the kinds of lives that they value and have reason to value.

There’s a lot of NZ-specific information, but the ideas are universally applicable. The approach is a bit different from the ideas put forth by the usual suspects across the political spectrum. Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders believe a market economy is essential, but recognise that it must be managed to allow the markets to deliver their maximum benefit. Even the most free markets are still heavily regulated, most obviously by contract and property law, and this helps us see that regulation is not antithetical to free markets — it is essential.

As for the Big Government versus Small Government debate, Dalziel and Saunders argue that government should be big enough. Government’s job is to do the things that citizens cannot do individually or collectively, and to help them add value to the things they choose to do. But the onus is on citizens to initiate this process and to use this support for their own individual and communal wellbeing. This is a shift from the old welfare state to what Dalziel and Saunders call the wellbeing state.

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