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Many Worlds

Book Review
The Great Outdoors, and other stories
by John Carstensen (Austin Macauley, London, 2019) 172 pp. £8.99
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

great-outdoors-coverJohn Carstensen is a Danish-Canadian Kiwi author, based in Waikato. This is his first collection of short stories, twenty-four in all.

They cover not only a range of topoi, but also a range of global locales from Kalimantan to PR China to WWII Netherlands, given that, I find his more hard-boiled quasi-Crump Aotearoan tales the most riveting and rewarding. The lead-off The Phantom, for example, is excellent, not only because of its sustained nail-on-the-head tone, but also because it nails so well young teenage sexuality and selectivity. When Carstensen writes this well – which he also does in several other Kiwiana stories such as one of his earliest pieces, Rocks, and the titular tale, too – ka nui te pai! To his credit also, the author attempts to broach substantial themes ki te ao Māori, as well as to provide a workable glossary as pertaining.

There is a rather curious dichotomy at times in the overall literary ambience in this collection: a sort of crisscross of the puritanical and the prurient, sometimes in the same piece.  I think the back cover blurb sums up this aspect better than I can, as here –

   Carstensen is a Christian writer, though not so much a writer of Christian stories, as his stories tend to be more worldly, carnal and gritty than would sit comfortably with many Christian readers. However, his writing does explore some challenging Christian themes.

The earthiness, then, meets the ethereal. Occasionally preachy, yet more often understated, ironic and even ambiguous in tone, with a penchant for daubing the dichotomies of human nature, rather than a fully blown paint-by-numbers portrayal. Sometimes funny too; Bluto for example is laugh-out-loud precise with its recognizable veteran schoolteacher who has been incarcerated far too long.

I have little more to add. For me, one or two stories read more as slice-of-life scenarios without an obvious denouement or resolution. More, maybe the pieces would have benefitted by being compiled into sections whereby there is commonality of place, for there is some mental realignment required when we travel from New Zealand bush to piratical Asian seas, if we read sequentially. But these are my own idiosyncratic minor points. This collection is no curate’s egg; rather a tasty repast.

Carstensen has conjured up a very good book of tricks. Congratulations. Kia mau tonu ngā mahi pai.


Pulse of being

Book Review
the everrumble
by Michelle Elvy (AdHoc Fiction, U.K., 2019)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

the-everrumble-front-coverI like this rather slim (113 pages) selection of episodic short prose pieces, which have been organized into a more integrated non-lineal novel. Indeed, I enjoyed it, as I appreciated its generally positive vibe and innovatory approach.

The book is well-crafted, original, thought-provoking. Clever, in fact.

What, then, is it ‘all about’? This is Zettie’s tale from her birth date in 1965 through to her ‘passing’ at the age of 105. Yet, Zettie’s tale is our own tale, as humans still all-too-often hell-bent on destroying our environment and therefore our fellow creatures – and thus – symbiotically and inevitably – ourselves.

Zettie makes a deliberate decision not to talk or to utter sounds from a very young age – seven. She turns to listening to the manifold noises which she can hear from well beyond the ‘normal’ human range, while at the same time turning to an array of over twenty books and making copious notes from them. These escapades are all interwoven into the two sections of this tome; more adhesively during the second. More, while her biographical potpourri is written in the third person, Zettie’s notes about her myriad significant books, are transcribed in the first person.

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This Beautiful Land

Book Review
Flying High: The Photography of Lloyd Homer
by Simon Nathan. (Published by Geoscience Society of NZ, distributed by David Bateman Ltd, $45.)
Reviewed by Bob Brockie

front-cover_sFor 35 years, Lloyd Homer took over 100,000 photos for the New Zealand Geological Survey (now known as GNS), his cameras taking him to many of the most spectacular and remote corners of New Zealand. Author of this book, Simon Nathan, admits that with such a vast collection of photos to choose from, he was challenged to select the best 150 to publish here.

Lloyd specialised in aerial photography of geological features from a plane — a hazardous undertaking in earlier days as it involved photographing sideways through the open doors of Cessna planes often flying at steep angles.

Lloyd Homer in action, taking photos out of the open door of a Cessna. Photo: Alan Knowles

Lloyd Homer in action, taking photos out of the open door of a Cessna. Photo: Alan Knowles

He later used special cameras and gear for photographing directly downwards with GPS accuracy.  In the course of his work, Lloyd was lucky to survive several plane crashes.

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Woman. Rocks. Science.

Book Review
Rocks, radio and radar: the extraordinary scientific, social and military life of Elizabeth Alexander
 by Mary Harris (World Scientific Press, 595 pages. $148, or e-book $29.95)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

alexander1Elizabeth Alexander (1908-58) was a pioneering scientist who undertook research on widely different topics in England, Singapore, New Zealand and Nigeria, but sadly died before her 50th birthday. Her extraordinary story has been documented by her daughter, Mary Harris. While my initial interest in this book was for its New Zealand content, it is an intriguing case-study of a capable woman scientist who fitted her life around family commitments, urgent wartime research, and the career choices of her husband.

Born in 1908 to parents who were university graduates, Elizabeth Caldwell spent her early years in India, where her father was Principal of Patna Science College. She became a ‘colonial orphan’ when she and her siblings were sent back to England for their education. Elizabeth was clearly an outstanding student, winning a scholarship to study natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. Originally interested in physics, she subsequently decided to specialize in geology, and graduated with a PhD on the Aymestry Limestone. In Cambridge she met Norman Alexander, an Auckland scientist studying for his PhD in the Cavendish Laboratory. They were married in 1935, and almost immediately set off for Singapore where Norman had been appointed Professor of Physics at Raffles College.

While raising her three children, Elizabeth continued her geological work with a study of rock weathering under tropical conditions, including burying samples to assess the speed of rock decay. The outbreak of war in Europe led to a move to the Naval Intelligence Service where she worked on radio direction finding at the Singapore naval base. At the time the term ‘radio direction finding’ was also being used as the cover name for the different and very secret technologies of radar.

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Securing the Past

Book Review
Making History: a New Zealand story
 by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, 384 Pages. $45)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

jp-cover-001Over the last half century there has been a growing interest in New Zealand history. Books on all aspects of history are popular, supplemented by films, TV, the internet and exhibitions in museums and galleries around the country. Jock Phillips is a pioneering public historian who has sought new ways to communicate history to a wide audience. His autobiographical memoir is a fascinating account of how perceptions of history have changed through his career.

At the outset, I must make it clear that this is not a fully objective review. I worked under Jock at Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and have a high regard for his dedication and management skills. In reading this book, I was keen to find out more about his background and motivation.

As the son of two history graduates who studied together at university, it was almost inevitable that Jock would become an academic. He won a scholarship to Harvard, immersed himself in US politics in the Nixon era, and returned to Victoria University to teach American history. At that stage he had never studied New Zealand history – in those days a poor relation in the academic world – but he gradually came to be fascinated by the social history of his own country. His understanding grew as he worked on two books – the first on domestic stained-glass windows with friend and collaborator Chris Maclean, and the second on Kiwi male stereotypes which eventually became his best-seller, A Man’s Country.

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