Week in Review

Xmas: the 10 best non-fiction books of 2019

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve provides a guide to the 10 best New Zealand non-fiction books of the year.

The two best non-fiction books of the year - as in most artful, and most beautifully written - were both memoirs, both exercises at looking inwards. Songwriting genius Shayne Carter knuckled down in Aramoana to produce the exquisite, frank and funny Dead People I Have Known, and Wellington writer Linda Burgess built on her explosive series of essays that she wrote for me when I worked at another site in 2018 to produce Somebody's Wife. Shayne's book was very male ("Girls girls girls", as Emily Perkins described it), Linda's book was very female (her essays on being a 1970s WAG of her All Black husband Robert Burgess was a kind of brief history of New Zealand feminism). Both books were outstanding and the chances are they'll compete in the non-fiction shortlist at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand national book awards.

But where were the outstanding looking-outwards books? There wasn't anything as monumental as last year's great study of the Waikato wars by Vincent O'Malley, although Monty Soutar's history of Māori in WWI was meticulous and dramatic. In general it was a year of bits-and-pieces. Dr Libby made a comeback with her latest self-helper; Potton & Burton published a kind of sequel to Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics, as Margie Thomson banged the final nail into the Whale Oil blog; the art book of the year was Peter Simpson's first of two volumes on Colin McCahon. The two most attractive books to look at (lots of pictures, big pages) were both published by HarperCollins, and both would make particularly good Christmas presents for the right sort of person  - Naomi Arnold's guide to astronomy in New Zealand, and Robert Vennell's guide to staying alive in the bush by eating awful roots and things.

All these titles feature in the inaugural ReadingRoom best 10 non-fiction books of the year list (ordered alphabetically under author). By all means go and buy for Christmas or as a summer read, they're all safe bets.

Southern Nights: The story of New Zealand’s night sky by Naomi Arnold (HarperCollins, $65)

From my review at ReadingRoom: Come for the pictures, and stay for the luminous prose. Nelson journalist Naomi Arnold has long established a reputation as one of the best prose stylists in New Zealand; she’s also smart as hell, and Southern Nights is a wonderful example of science writing made not just easy to read but beautiful to read. Her lavishly illustrated book on astronomy in New Zealand provides a guide to stars, planets, comets, asteroids and that sort of thing. On the Southern Cross: “It’s our flag; it never leaves our skies; it’s home.”

As for the photos – God almighty. They are awe-inspiring, wonderful. Loads of double-page spreads are given over to colour photos of night skies, and they look as big as the cosmos itself. As the author writes, “Our bodies evolved with regular patterns of sunlight and darkness, and to subsume yourself back into the night is a kind of meditation in itself.”

Somebody’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $37)

Siobhan Harvey, from her review which was scheduled to appear in New Zealand Books before the distinguished journal was forced to close down: Reading Linda Burgess’s wonderful book reinforces the invention and inventiveness of contemporary creative non-fiction. Her collection is chronologically ordered, with early entries about childhood. Later essays navigate the author’s years of motherhood and employment, while final compositions transport the once youthful creator through her experiences of being a grandmother.

The heart-wrenching “Toby” is a story about motherhood which isn’t about motherhood at all. Burgess’ recollection of birthing and raising her titular son to his 11th week leads us into an evocation of the longer-lasting sense of loss and sympathy engendered by Toby’s sudden death in his cot. Ultimately, readers of the essay are left with the realisation of how bereavement is part of the parental journey, all children leaving to go elsewhere.

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $38)

From my review at ReadingRoom: The first 100 or so pages are the best writing in rock star Shayne Carter’s memoir and stack up with the best writing of New Zealand childhood ever published. He grew up in Brockville, in Dunedin, to parents who both drank too much and filled the household with love, misery, grief. “Brockville smelt of stew”, he writes. “It was the first to get the snow. Its park offered a slide that didn’t slide and a creaking roundabout. Young men with half-moustaches fixed cars that sat like broken shells on front lawns.”

It’s a confessional, of sorts, but more so it’s a confrontation: he faces up to himself and his life, his music, his relationships, his failings, his drinking, his lost years, his strange, defiant, fragile, brooding, comical, loyal, determined character.

Whiitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E!: Māori in the First World War by Monty Soutar (David Bateman, $69.99)

From an extract at ReadingRoom, by the author of his closely researched, dramatic history of Māori in WWI: The men from the Māori Contingent and the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment cleaned their rifles, sharpened bayonets and checked field dressings…. They ate an early dinner—the usual bully beef and hard biscuits—before they were assembled at 5pm for final instructions. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Herbert, commander of the Māori Contingent, wished the men luck and told them that the next day he would meet them on top of “that hill”. He pointed towards Hill 971, the highest Allied objective.

Silence came over the gathering as the men knelt in prayer. Māori and Pākehā heads were bowed as the chaplain consecrated the ope taua (war party).

As they moved off, the platoons cheered each other with the war-cry, “Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora.” Private Kohi Hemana of Kaipara said later, “We all felt and thought of our great-grandfathers’ times when they prepared to go into battle. The fellows felt savage.”

Easter Morning by Colin McCahon. Image taken from Peter Simpson's monumental study of the great artist.

Colin McCahon: There is only one direction, Vol 1 1919-1959 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75)

Christchurch journalist and author Philip Mathews, from his review at ReadingRoom: Professor Simpson’s book is not quite a biography, but an account of the work, painting by painting, show by show. McCahon marries and children appear, but that’s as far into the personal life as we go. Shifts of location – Dunedin, Nelson, Christchurch, Auckland – are convenient ways of organising chapters and allow us a glimpse of ordinary life, the often difficult living conditions of the 1940s and 50s and the struggle to find time to paint while working by day in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens or the Auckland Art Gallery.

Simpson is more a historian than an art critic, and his writing on the paintings relies on description and the intention of the artist rather than interpretation or speculation. Of course, the writer who produced Bloomsbury South has a fine understanding of cultural nationalism and McCahon’s relationship to it.

Grow Younger with Great Food by Dr Catherine Stone and Jessica Giljam-Brown (Aotearoa Books, $39.99)

Auckland food researcher and genius George Henderson, from his review at ReadingRoom: The authors provide over 90 recipes which are so relatively low in the more addictive carbs that you’ll be less likely to over-eat them; so yummy that you’ll be at lower risk of under-eating them; and so nutritious, with most of the ingredients being whole or minimally processed, that it won’t matter so much if you do.

Their discussion of dietary fats is spot-on, and in line with recent research showing that higher intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are associated with skin cancer. Particularly welcome, despite the trendy plant-based focus and bewildering profusion of seeds, nuts, and pseudo-grains (this is a gluten-free cookbook), is the inclusion of red meat in some recipes and the recommendation to eat organ meats occasionally.

Whale Oil: One man’s fight to save his reputation, then his life by Margie Thomson (Potton & Burton, $39.99)

Auckland writer Finlay Macdonald, from his review at ReadingRoom: Reading Margie Thomson’s deft account of one man’s seven-year defamation battle with blogger Cameron Slater, I kept returning to an old adage about choosing your battles carefully. It has various formulations, but my all-time favourite came from an American businessman describing his experiences dealing with now-dead Australian tycoon Alan Bond: “Doing business with Bond is like wrestling a pig in shit,” he said. “You both get covered in shit, but the pig loves it.”

Substitute the odd word and name, and you have an excellent working definition of what it was like for Matt Blomfield as he attempted to wrestle his reputation back from Slater. Many readers will feel like a shower after a session with this book, and Thomson is to be applauded for her willingness to go where only trolls and the spiritually misshapen could feel at home.

The Meaning of Trees: The history and use of New Zealand’s native plants by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins, $55)

Auckland broadcaster Graeme Hill, from his review at ReadingRoom: Vennell’s book  is a lovely leafy avenue winding elegantly through botany, evolution, craft, history, music, medicine, mythology, and food, lots of food. It carries a slightly oldee worldee feeling with its liberal use of 19th century botanical drawings with 21st century photography. It’s lyrical. There are no maps. There are no graphs, but it doesn’t skimp on science.

There are many deep and broad stories behind this selection of plants both ordinary and spectacular and if you remember a quarter of what’s in this thing you’ll get so much more from any excursion into the bush or even your yard or local park.

The Political Years by Marilyn Waring (Bridget Williams Books, $40)

Wellington writer Leah McFall, from her review at ReadingRoom: It took nine hard-fought years for Robert Muldoon’s political regime to grind Waring down and in this memoir she has us re-live them. This is how it was inside the machine, she wants us to know, as only the 15th woman to make it into Parliament. Waring describes a vanished New Zealand, of cream teas, kipper ties and carnation buttonholes which was tightly controlled, male-dominated and restless for change.

There are occasional bursts of raw emotion in the book. She describes her state of mind in 1983 in an unexpectedly lyrical passage: “Running in all weathers. Running to the place of work. Running to despair. Running through the bottom door of the old building directly to the bathroom to be sick.” There are also moments of fun. There’s a nice cameo of Muldoon telling Princess Anne, “This is Marilyn Waring, and she’s interested in women’s issues” – and HRH crisply replying, “Really, Prime Minister, all issues are women’s issues.”

The Invisible Load: A guide to overcoming stress by Dr Libby Weaver (Little Green Frog Publishing, $39.95)

From my review at ReadingRoom: Dr Libby! She gets straight down to it in her latest self-helper, with chapters investigating irritable bowel syndrome and the hypochondriac’s favourite organ, the thyroid. Dr Libby is a therapist of the everyday – she doesn’t want to know about trauma, grief, or specific awfulnesses, she wants to look at your everyday life with its aches and pains and fears and shames.

Her book offers help and hope, though it doesn’t get a hell of a lot more complex than her tips to not litter, try diaphragmatic breathing, and trial a week or so without fruit. But the book’s beautiful production – the pastel colours, the still life compositions of dried flowers – is calming in itself.


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