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Family of Fiction

Book Review
The Mirror Book
by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2021. 316 pp. $38)
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton


Grimshaw_CoverCharlotte Grimshaw’s fascinating and relentless family memoir is not only a revelation about life with her famous father C.K. Stead, it’s also a constructively challenging and confronting consideration of the contradictory realities of family life.

She fearsomely and movingly compares the differences between her family’s public face — “the lovely childhood … a house full of books” — and her private experience.

“The family story was, in some ways, mysterious,” she writes. “I believed everything she [her mother] said until I was in my thirties, when I started to get a sense of smoke and mirrors.” At first Grimshaw decided not to question it.  But when she entered the third stage of her life she realised she was not two selves. “I was one, and I would be stronger when I bought my selves together.”  As she got older, she “puzzled her way to a conclusion: all was not as it seemed.”

Grimshaw had read and admired her father’s novels and especially loved his poetry. In his novels she recognised “echoes of experience denied in real life, sublimated, turned into an acceptable form — into art.” When she began writing her own stories, her father was warm and encouraging.  He told her: “It’s material … Go and write a story about it.”  And then she realised that she was telling true stories about “a whole life lived in fiction.”

She describes how she challenged her father for using aspects of her life in his novels. Then, when she published a short story using aspects of her own family life, she was filled with guilt and sadness.

“I couldn’t reconcile the urge to translate these family difficulties into fiction with my place in the family. All my questioning, exploring what it was about the family that was so strangely rigid, so enamelled over with denial, had made me the black sheep … So much had been passed over in silence for so long.”

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A Doctor of Vision

Book Review
A Scientific Welsh Eye Surgeon: the short life of Llewellyn Powell MD (1843-79)
by Geoffrey W Rice (Hawthorne Press & Cotter Medical History Trust, 2020. 144 pp. $30)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Powell cover-001Llewellyn Powell was a bright young Welshman who studied medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, emigrated to Canterbury in 1865 and started a medical practice in Christchurch. Dr Geoffrey Rice, the author of this short biography, explains that it is the first publication of a larger project to document the activities of medical men in Christchurch during the late 19th century. Although Powell died young, aged only 36, he had an interesting career, intertwined with different facets of early Christchurch.
Powell left behind almost no personal papers or medical records. Dr Rice has been able to put together this readable biography using the National Library’s Papers Past website to search the digitized issues of the Lyttelton Times and the Press. This novel approach works effectively because Powell was a public figure whose activities were regularly reported in the newspapers. He also wrote letters to the papers on issues that concerned him, so the author is able to convey some insight into his personal opinions.
Although Powell worked across several different medical fields, he specialized as an eye surgeon, and was described by one of his contemporaries as “the best oculist in New Zealand”. However Powell’s medical career was partly overshadowed by his wide-ranging scientific interests. He was a skilled microscopist, and one of the first local exponents of forensic pathology. He was an expert in New Zealand spiders, describing new species in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and was an early member of the Canterbury Philosophical Society, serving for a period as president.

Two drawings of New Zealand spiders by Powell in a paper published in volume 3 of the Transactions of the NZ Institute (1870)

Two drawings of New Zealand spiders by Powell in a paper published in volume 3 of the Transactions of the NZ Institute (1870)

He gave public lectures on scientific topics to the high school and fledgling university college. Although his health was poor as he suffered from chronic tuberculosis, he was clearly a man of energy who actively participated in everything that interested him.
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Good Policy

Book Review
Love you: public policy for intergenerational wellbeing
by Girol Karacaoglu (Tuwhiri, 2020 $27)
Reviewed by George Ritchie
girol_with book

Girol Karacaoglu

We are in the middle of a systemic environmental, social and economic crisis.

So says Girol Karacaoglu, a former Chief Economist at the NZ Treasury who these days heads up the School of Government at Victoria University.  

And he’s not alone – Girol stresses to me over Zoom that this is a view shared by “the most orthodox institutions you can think of” referring to the Treasury in its evidence for the 2019 Budget and the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurria, in a 2019 speech.

His new book is intended primarily as a challenge to young people: change the way that New Zealand debates and creates public policy. Help us get out of this crisis. 

Thirty years ago, NZ was something of a fashion-setter in terms of giving its central bank statutory operational independence and responsibility to maintain consumer price stability. It was also ahead of the game in terms of the degree of its statutory fiscal management transparency.

The urgent predicament these days is how best to institutionalise greater transparency, inclusivity, and clearer accountabilities for advancing the wellbeing of current and future generations. You might be excused for thinking, well, why get so animated as to release a book about this? Didn’t the Government release a Wellbeing Budget in 2019 and 2020? Doesn’t the Public Finances Act now require the Treasury to produce a long-term report on wellbeing every four years?
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Questions of Identity

Book Review
This Pākehā Life: an unsettled memoir
by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books, 2020) $39.99
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

This-Pakeha-Life-HRI have been recommending this book to everyone. And those who have accepted my recommendation are now recommending it to others. Its story may at first seem to be a modestly low-key one, but it quickly proves to have a powerful impact, with resonances that will be personal for every reader.

As Alison Jones writes: “Most Pākehā people seemed to know nothing about Māori history, and they did not know what they did not even know. In my experience, Pākehā people like my father who denigrated Māori things knew nothing about Māori. On the other hand, I too knew next to nothing about Māori though my ignorance was tempered by curiosity and attraction rather than rejection and fear.”

The author, a professor in Te Puna Wānanga at the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland, tells a moving personal story that begins with her birth in Cornwall Park Hospital in 1953 — “with no relatives here, my parents and I were alone in New Zealand.” Her parents were immigrants from England, who had arrived the previous year.

From her hospital bed, her mother looked out at One Tree Hill, without knowing that the “volcanic cone, rising high amongst all the other remnant volcanoes in the Auckland area, has another name, another history, and another identity.”

And now, “it officially has a doubled name, joined by a slash. It is Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill. The slash marks an ongoing tension: the mountain’s identity remains unsettled.” And she tells us: “The stories of Maungakiekie and One Tree Hill, the histories that call those places into being, are quite different.”

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Tree of Strangers

Book Review
Tree of Strangers
by Barbara Sumner(Massey University Press, 199 pp.) $35
Reviewed by Gregor Thompson

Tree of StrangersI bumped into a childhood friend recently in a bar in Auckland. Ordinarily, I live in Wellington but I was on my way to Paris to start a new life. The recent surge in Covid-19 cases in continental Europe has necessarily put that plan on the backburner. Lily told me that her mother had written a book and that I ‘ought to read it. Not knowing what to expect, I came out the other side with an internal obligation to share what I had read.

Having previously worked as a journalist, amongst other things Barbara Sumner is an award-winning documentary producer. Sumner is a multi-disciplinary creative and seems to have a habit of perennially popping up. 11 years after her Oscar short-listed 2009 film This Way of Life, Tree of Strangers is Barbara Sumner’s first literary work. Her newly published autobiography is consistent with her previous work in the sense that it is exceptional.

Displayed on the front cover is an image of the author playing alone on a lawn, presumably the backyard of one of her numerous childhood homes. The photo was taken by her adopted father when she was three years old, it conveys an impression of resolute loneliness. Perhaps the perfect portrayal of Sumner’s fascinating life.

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