Scoop Review of Books

Archive for September, 2017

Near Death

Book Review
I am, I am, I am: Seventeen brushes with death,
by Maggie O’Farrell (Penguin, $40, Hachette)
Reviewed by Wendy Montrose

i-am_coverI am, I am, I am is a memoir with a difference. Subtitled Seventeen Brushes With Death, it tells the story of Maggie O’Farrell’s life in a series of near-death encounters at different ages: ‘Snatches of a life, a string of moments.’  From a childhood illness O’Farrell wasn’t expected to survive to a life-saving dash with her own dangerously ill child, I am, I am, I am is a collage of some of the experiences that made her who she is.

O’Farrell writes each event as though she is living it now and imbues them with all the feeling she must have relived with every word. How she articulates her pain after a miscarriage, her terror in the face of danger, her teenage dissatisfaction, her maternal distress is so real, so sincere that you feel each event, and recognise them.

‘In moments like these, your thinking shrinks, sharpens, narrows. The world shutters up and you are reduced to a crystalline pinpoint, to a single purpose:’

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Trying to Disconnect

Book Review
Solitude: In pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world, by Michael Harris (Penguin, $40, paper)
Reviewed by Alex Beattie

solitude_covernuiIn one of the most revealing studies of the last decade, a team of University of Virginia psychologists set out to see how good undergraduates were at entertaining themselves.  They left students alone in a room and asked them to ponder whatever was on their mind for fifteen minutes. But – and here’s the crux – if students felt starved of stimulation, they could shock themselves. And zap themselves they did, with over half of the students choosing electricity over solitude.

Reading this for the first time, I couldn’t help but smirk a little smugly at these easily bored Millennials. I would never succumb to such desperation! But once my silent gloating settled, I realised I had been on my smartphone for the last hour or so. And apart from the occasional run, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been separated from my digital companion. Was I just as bad as these students? Had I become afraid of being alone with my thoughts?

We all have, according to author Michael Harris, whose book Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World seeks to find out why. And it’s something every introvert should be interested in.

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Stealing Secrets

Book Review
The Lost Taonga, by Edmund Bohan (Lucano, $35)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

taonga_front_finalThere’s actually not a whole lot of Inspector Patrick O’Rorke in Edmund Bohan’s sixth and latest Inspector O’Rorke novel The Lost Taonga. There’s not a lot of New Zealand in it either, despite its very New Zealand subject matter. Set in the late 1800s, the books tackles a painful issue that’s still very much with us — the theft and expatriation of Māori artefacts and treasures — the taonga of Bohan’s title.

In an historical note, Bohan offers the real-life example of the theft in the early 1880s of mummified tūpāpaku (dead bodies) from Tainui’s burial caves by the Austrian collector Andreas Reischek, who sold them to Vienna’s Imperial Natural History Museum. (Bohan writes that the bodies are still in the museum, though according to media reports, they’ve been progressively repatratiated.) It was this story that gave him the idea for a previous novel A Present for the Czar. “Now,” Bohan writes, “The Lost Taonga describes the background of that theft and follows the subsequent journeyings of both taonga and the characters drawn into its orbit.”

It’s a great idea for an historical crime novel and Bohan’s fictional version is well-written and plotted. Real-life historical figure Julius von Haast features as an unwitting dupe of the crafty and beautiful Polish Countess Margarita Szechnyi and her partner in crime, “Boyland the Collector”. Haast helps guide the thieves to the scene of the crime — “secret burial caves containing rare treasures, situated in the valley of the Wairau River in a region called Murihiku” — but insists nothing be removed from the caves. Margarita and Boyland have other plans, however, and sneak back later for a raid.

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