What New Zealand reads

by Guy Somerset / 19 December, 2013
Eleanor Catton, Rod Drury and a host of other prominent Kiwis tell us about the books they enjoyed most in 2013.

Eleanor Catton 

Writer, who this year released her second novel, The Luminaries, and promptly became the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Eleanor Catton. Photo/David White

My discovery of the year was Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: in style, very like Benjy’s sections in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury but the broken ellipses never feel like a gimmick or a game. I was utterly devastated by Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth, which tells the story of a couple who adopt a chimpanzee, and utterly delighted by Elizabeth Knox’s sly and ingenious Mortal Fire.

A book to look out for in April next year is Leslie Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams. Leslie and I knew one another at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She had a job as a medical pretender – somebody who acts sick in order to test medical students – and The Empathy Exams draws upon those experiences to ask (among many other questions) what the nature of empathy really is. Other novels I read and loved this year were: Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, John McGahern’s Amongst Women, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black and Javier Marias’s A Heart So White.

Hekia Parata

Minister of Education.

Hekia Parata. Photo/David White

When I take a break from reading education reports and research (which I actually enjoy, sad to say), I sample change books such as Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness; Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. I get uplift from Pacific poets Hone Tuwhare, Sam Hunt and Karlo Mila and their US cousins Walt Whitman and Robert Frost; am awed by the spare and powerful Cormac McCarthy and the lambent laments of Toni Morrison; and lose myself in Kiwi fiction masters such as Albert Wendt, Patricia Grace and Lloyd Jones.

But my reading mainstay is biography. This year, I have been inspired by a collection by or about American women – Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, Barbara Walters and Jane Fonda – along with the Steve Jobs biography and an all-time favourite, reread again in 2013 – André Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography. Kiwi women have also featured – Catherine Stewart on remote living, Lisa Tamati on remote long-distance running and Christine Fernyhough on remote high country farming. For a change of pace, I have Paul Henry’s latest book, Outraged, ready for summer reading. Love him or not, Henry is never becalmed in safe waters, and he will make a witty, annoying, fun beach companion for me, together with a fair smattering of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2013. As a matter of loyalty, since I ploughed through our first Booker winner, Keri Hulme’s the bone people, I plan to get to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries before Parliament beckons again in the New Year.

John Clarke

Writer, comedian and satirist.

John Clarke. Photo/Simon Schluter

I’ve been rereading the children’s stories of Oscar Wilde, my favourites on the Children’s Requests programme on the radio in the 1950s. On my bedside table at all times is Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996. Seamus was a great poet and a marvellous man. From the particularity of his remembered rural childhood in south Derry come ways of understanding very big things. It’s a good idea to listen to his voice if you’re reading his poems. Try YouTube. As in good talk, the tone is often a road to the treasure. I once heard him being asked how he would define religious poetry. “Religious poetry,” he replied, “is that poetry in which the exclamatory particle ‘oh’ figures considerably.”

I’ve also enjoyed The Gorse Blooms Pale: Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, accompanied by Keith Ovenden’s A Fighting Withdrawal: The Life of Dan Davin – Writer, Soldier, Publisher. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is Clare Wright’s history of women in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. The miners’ rebellion at Ballarat was the “no taxation without representation” moment in Australian political history and many of those involved subsequently went to New Zealand when gold was discovered in Otago. Among them were people who helped establish New Zealand’s early political character. It would have been difficult to sell their assets from under them.

Siouxsie Wiles

Microbiologist at the University of Auckland, blogger and podcaster, who won this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

Siouxsie Wiles. Photo/David White

With everyone raving about the Game of Thrones TV adaptation, I decided to dip my toes into George RR Martin’s epic tomes and found myself transfixed. I’m generally not a fan of fantasy but couldn’t put this dense, dark series down. I even had a mild panic attack when I got to the end to find Martin hasn’t finished the next volume yet. Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients lays bare just how the pharmaceutical industry hoodwinks the medical profession, regulators and the public. This book is a must-read, especially here in New Zealand, which is the only country apart from the US to allow direct-to-consumer advertising of medicines.

This year, I’ve also revisited the back catalogue of my favourite author, “tartan noir” novelist Christopher Brookmyre, whose books are a heady mix of comedy, violence and satire. Pandemonium pits a rabble of Scottish teenagers against the forces of Hell, inadvertently unleashed in a top-secret military experiment. Finally, Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-Century Bestiary, shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, is a superb alphabet of creatures you thought you knew, and others you won’t believe exist. I shall never look at a dolphin the same way again.

Wallace Chapman

Host of Back Benches on Prime Television and Sunday Mornings with Wallace Chapman on Radio Live, who this year released his first book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Manifesto for Living the Slow Life.

Wallace Chapman. Photo/David White

I came to Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas late, and realised my version of Cook via school history was a completely whitewashed, sanitised 2D version. In this book, I discovered a complex guy, capable of real kindness and true brutality, and an adventurer unlike any I’ve read about. It was with much reluctance I picked up André Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography. I’d never cared about Agassi (I thought he was a dick) and usually run a mile from sports biographies. But I couldn’t put this book down from the second paragraph. In fact, it was so good I had to ration myself a daily page allowance. By page 11, I’m thinking, “Who wrote this?” It turns out to have been Pulitzer Prize-winning features writer JR Moehringer. But that’s not taking anything away from Agassi. The guy is a star and his story is unbelievable.

Photographer Ans Westra’s Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future has words by Hone Tuwhare, David Lange, Brian Turner and others. I’m a big photography fan and Westra has for decades documented our lives. Here she turns her lens on the degradation of nature. The images are confronting, giving us the underside of the 100% Pure New Zealand. Brilliant.

Neil Cross

TV and film screenwriter, who had two scripts for Doctor Who shown this year as well as the final season of his crime drama Luther.

Neil Cross. Photo/David White

This year saw my belated discovery of Dan Chaon, primarily a short-story writer, whose concerns, tenderness and luminous precision echo Raymond Carver. But in the collection Stay Awake he explores quotidian topographies through an eye adapted to the presence of the uncanny. The results are, well, uncanny: the perfect bastard amalgam of Carver and top-of-his-game Stephen King. Stay Awake is precisely what I did, thrilled and scared and exhilarated, until I’d finished the book.

As the literary novel continues its unedifying decline into cultural irrelevance, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde demonstrates the feats the contemporary novel remains capable of. Here is the true inheritor of the great Victorian tradition: rumbustious, full of event and coincidence and an underlying sense of morality that, at times, looks suspiciously like Dickensian providence. Reamde also tells us more about the world in which we live than any shelf of state-of-the nation novels or pained political dissertations. A thousand pages zipped by. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a gorgeously illuminating detective narrative, concerning the composition, near loss and chance 15th-century rediscovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and the part it went on to play in helping to kick off the Renaissance. I learnt a great deal from it but not as much as I learnt from the Horrible Histories series’ Blood-Curdling Box of books. If that’s not history as it should be taught, then boil me in oil and stick my head on a spike at the city gates.

Kirsty Gunn

Writer, whose The Big Music won the fiction category and Book of the Year award at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Kirsty Gunn. Photo/Getty Images

Hallelujah to the skies for Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, a novel like no other (which is what all novels should be) – brave, compelling, violent, tender, funny and desperate all at once – and syntactically off the Richter scale. McBride’s prose is made up of broken-up and broken-down bits of sentences and fragmented paragraphs that coalesce into a moving, thoroughly thought-through human drama – about the love of a sister for a brother who has been diagnosed from infancy with a life-threatening tumour. Utterly compelling, this novel enlarges our understanding of what literature and our lives are all about.

Julie Thomas

Writer, whose self-published first novel, The Keeper of Secrets, was an e-book best-seller before being released this year by HarperCollins.

Julie Thomas. Photo/Christine Cornege/NZH

My reading in 2013 has been for a mixture of pleasure and research. The latter has ranged from books on World War II Italy and immigration to New Zealand to the fascination of wine-making. Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto is a look at the American wine culture; I particularly loved the section on beautiful rare wine. A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd is a Bess Crawford mystery set in 1916. It revolves around the dying request of a lieutenant on a hospital ship and the reaction of his family back in England. It’s evocative and haunting and leaves you thinking about the characters and the cost of war.

Two New Zealand novels have been high on my list this year. Ripple by Tui Allen is a story that comes straight out of ancient dolphin history. If you love these intelligent and beguiling creatures and enjoy a book that takes you to another world, I heartily recommend it. A to J: The Wandering Jew by Peter Dornauf is the tale of a New York architect who takes a European coach tour and finds himself caught in a culture clash between a Jew and an Arab doctor.

Emily Perkins

Writer, whose novel The Forrests was a fiction finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Emily Perkins. Photo/Helen Bankers/NZWW

What an amazing year for New Zealand fiction. Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate, Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building, Elizabeth Knox’s Wake and, of course, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – just a few of the brilliant novels I’ve loved or look forward to over summer. These, as well as titles for 2014 and beyond, confirm our literature is on a winning streak that shows no sign of abating.

I adored the NYRB reissue of Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Pulsing with feeling beneath its ironic surface, this was my book of the year, that year being 1976. Adler, a journalist and fiction writer, describes various 70s scenes through the eyes of alter ego Jen Fain: anecdotes, observations and mini-narratives add up to a smart and prescient world view. Every page takes you somewhere – it’s the kind of book you don’t even need to finish (I mean this in a good way – I love those writers who wipe you out in increments) but there’s a real power in the end.

Another invigorating experience was Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, translated by Geoffrey Wall. At the risk of sounding like a crackpot Amazon reviewer, this classic was Not What I Was Expecting. Where was the empathy for its tragic heroine, where were the interminable rustic passages – not here! Instead, there was derision, rage, deep humour, romance and cynicism, all threading through a plot like an ever-tightening noose. “The street, the only one, about a gunshot in length …” I read it with my mouth open in wonder.

Rod Drury

Founder and chief executive of Xero, who was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year for 2013.

Rod Drury.

I devour books on my Kindle Paperwhite. I like to read a whole series – so the characters develop – typically downing a book every few days when in the zone.

I’d rather read a few chapters when travelling than flick on the TV before bed, and I find I like reading on planes more than watching movies.

Last year, I powered down all the Swedish crime dramas I could find. I finished with Camilla Läckberg. This year has definitely been all man-fiction, with the best three heroes I’ve enjoyed being Mitch Rapp (from Vince Flynn, who sadly died this year), John Corey (from Nelson DeMille) and the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike LA detective series by Robert Crais. My favourite book of the year was DeMille’s John Corey treatment of TWA flight 800 in Night Fall.

Oscar Kightley

Actor and comedian, who was acclaimed for his title role this year in TV3’s Harry.

Oscar Kightley. Photo/Glenn Jeffrey/NZH

I’m tempted to lie and write that this year I’ve read really cool books like The Luminaries, Mister Pip, anything by Proust, Chekhov, Shakespeare and that book One Hundred Years of Solitude. And although I will read all that cool stuff, when I get a month off to sleep and read, until then the truth is I will keep reading really random stuff books on how the brain works and interesting things that grab me at airport book shops. The last book I finished was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I now understand how the brain forms habits and what powerful forces they are in our lives. But I still haven’t been able to change any of my bad habits.

The airport book I’m wading through is A Field Guide to Melancholy by Jacky Bowring. It’s about how being melancholy is a critical part of being human and yet so much self-help is about eliminating those kind of feelings. With summer unfolding, I’m looking forward to clearing some of my “booklog”, especially The Cloudspotters’s Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinny and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes.

Christopher Finlayson

Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations.

Christopher Finlayson. Photo/NZH

Charles Moore’s magnificent biography of the late Baroness Thatcher is a fitting testament to the life and career of the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century. Tuhoe: Portrait of a Nation by Kennedy Warne, with photographs by Peter James Quinn, is a well-written introduction to the Tuhoe people – “the people of the mist” – and their troubled history with the New Zealand government and the new relationship arising out of the Treaty settlement signed between the iwi and the Crown. Signing this deed with Tuhoe, alongside the Prime Minister, was the highlight of my professional life. This book explores contemporary life in Te Urewera – but the main attraction is the extraordinary images captured by Quinn of the remote, misty land and its people.

New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919 by Damien Fenton may not appeal as summer reading but next year marks the beginning of centenary commemorations of that war, which had such a profound impact on all New Zealanders, at home and abroad. It is a beautifully presented and innovative single-volume history, particularly good for younger readers, and packaged with reproductions of primary historical sources such as letters, diaries and official forms.

Rachael King

Writer, this year appointed literary director of the Christchurch Writers’ Festival.

Rachael King. Photo/Sharon Blance/NZH

I am currently reading Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died by Rebecca Macfie, a real eye-opener and a gripping read. I chose Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life for its premise – a life lived over and over – and stayed with it for its brilliant characters and its evocation of life during the Blitz. Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox was beautifully written, luminous and puzzling. I need to go back and read it again to fully understand it. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – himself a highlight of the year at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival – saw me sitting in bed on a sunny morning sobbing my guts out, and I finished listening to an audio book of the same writer’s The Knife of Never Letting Go lying still on a mat at the gym with my hands over my face. It was enthralling but so devastating I’m not sure when I’ll be able to read the next book in the series.

Sarah Laing’s The Fall of Light was a delight. A compelling, clever story set in my old hometown, Auckland, strewn with familiar characters and places, and complemented by gorgeous illustrations that carry their own story. On that note, I also enjoyed Kiki de Montparnasse, a graphic novel by José-Louis Bocquet, about the famous artists’ model in 1920s Paris, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I was lucky enough to have an advance peek at Bianca Zander’s superb second novel, The Predictions. Finally, I was sucked in to Wake by Elizabeth Knox from page one. An amazing achievement of character, plotting, imagination and feeling. This book deserves to be an international smash hit. Knox is my author of the year.

I’m a slow reader these days. My bedside table is groaning with potential “best-of” reads: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black and Adrian Kinnaird’s From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, to name but a few. Hello, holidays.

Louisa Wall

Labour MP for Manurewa, whose Marriage Amendment Act this year made same-sex marriage in New Zealand a reality.

Louisa Wall. Photo/NZH

I’ve had an incredibly busy year in my role as an elected representative and finding the time to enjoy books has been a challenge. So being able to mix business with pleasure was a welcome reality as I read Desmond Tutu’s God Is Not a Christian: Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis. Tutu’s ability to provide clarity in his observance of his faith and commitment to his god is powerful and worthy of full inquiry. I appreciate most his dogged focus on a commitment to being the actor in the application of Christian theories; a purist humanist. And I concur with Kofi Annan that Tutu’s efforts bridge the gulf between white and black, oppressor and victim – and not only have helped heal a nation but can contribute to unifying our global community.

My second book, read first over last summer and into the new year, was Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The quote “it is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home” highlighted for me the reality of children, in particular, coping within the context of war. It is a layered, deep and emotional read that left me with an understanding of how and why people need to sometimes escape from themselves, who they are and where they come from, which is their only salvation in contemplating and forging a new life.

Geoff Robinson

Co-host of Morning Report on Radio New Zealand National, who last month announced he will retire in April after more than 35 years on the programme.

Geoff Robinson. Photo/Mark Mitchell/NZH

I don’t know why, but I keep a list of the books I read. Among 2013’s were Angelina: From Stromboli to D’Urville Island – A Family’s Story, Gerard Hindmarsh’s tale of his grandmother; The Roar of the Butterflies, Reginald Hill’s last book featuring his black private eye Joe Sixsmith; and Diaries 1984-1997 by James Lees-Milne, edited by Michael Bloch.

There was also Alan Bollard’s memoir, Crisis: One Central Bank Governor & the Global Financial Crash; Madeleine Albright’s Prague in Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, in which she describes growing up in the German- and later Russian-occupied Czech capital; Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, a Chinese detective tale by Qiu Xiaolong; Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Thomas Cromwell (to get another perspective on the central character of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies); and Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, which led to reading two other of her novels featuring Commissaire Adamsberg of the French police.

Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Andrew Linklater, taught me more about surveying than I probably needed to know, but it was an easy read. Lloyd Geering’s From the Big Bang to God led to The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom by Brian Cathcart.

Best of all was The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, the continuation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s remembrance of his walking trip across Europe in the 1930s.

John Psathas

Composer, whose collaboration with Strike Percussion, Between Zero and One, was one of the classical music highlights of the year.

John Psathas. Photo/Mark Mitchell/NZH

Reading this year has run parallel with my exploration of non-mainstream cinema. Initially circling from a degree of separation – Vincent LoBrutto’s Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound, David Sonnenschein’s Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema and various interview books (the Coen Brothers, Laurent Tirard’s Moviemakers’ Master Class: Private Lessons from the World’s Foremost Directors) – I quickly jumped rails to experience the essence: writer/director autobiographies.

These writer/directors occupy a unique place, often dark and troubled but always reaching for some kind of light. They exist among us – often only peripherally perceived – as observing presences. The top four books so far have been Jean Renoir’s My Life and My Films, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Kieslowski on Kieslowski, Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography and, top of the list (for a brutal, cathartic, existential dark alleyway metaphysical beating), Elia Kazan’s A Life.

Life teaching abounds in these books, especially for artists. This from Kieslowksi: “I tell colleagues to examine their own lives. Not for the purposes of a book or script but for themselves. I say, ‘Try to think of what happened to you which was important and led to you sitting here in this chair, on this very day, among these people. What happened? What really brought you here? If you don’t understand the story of your own life you can’t understand the lives of other people.’”

Michelle Langstone

Actor, who was most recently in TV show The Almighty Johnsons and appears in the forthcoming science-fiction film Realiti.

Michelle Langstone. Photo/Janna Dixon/HoS

Anne Kennedy’s The Last Days of the National Costume was a favourite. As Auckland was plunged into the blackouts of the 90s, I plunged into the dark self of the narrator and was delighted by her candour and self-awareness. Eyrie by Tim Winton moved me more than I can express. You’d never mistake Winton’s voice for any other. I felt like I was water poured into a salty bucket and sloshed round in his words, emerging briny and worn.

Robert Goolrick transported me to 1950s Virginia and a small-town tragedy in Heading Out to Wonderful and I loved every moment of it, doomed love and all. And then I read the reissued Stoner by John Williams and just about perished from heartache. What a beautiful, melancholy piece of writing. I ached for it, for the quiet life of a gentle man laid out in astonishing detail.

I reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited on holiday and loved it more than I ever had before, and was heartbroken anew at the end. I reread The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth and was struck again by the emotional violence in Edith Wharton’s writing, and by her exceptional women.

Paul Cleave

Crime writer, who this year released Joe Victim, reprising Joe “the Christchurch Carver” Middleton from his 2006 debut.

Paul Cleave. Photo/Martin Hunter/HoS

Sequels are tough. They have to be different enough, otherwise you’re replicating the first story, and they have to be similar enough to be faithful to the original. I’ve been waiting for Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep since I heard about it last year and, hell, isn’t that a brilliant name for a novel? Okay, so it’s a sequel to The Shining and has a brilliant name … is it good? It’s more than good, it’s downright brilliant.

Doctor Sleep is set in modern-day America, little Danny Torrence from The Shining is all grown up, and the monsters from the Overlook Hotel have grown up with him. He’s learnt how to lock them into storage boxes in his mind, and he’s learnt how to drink – Danny and the bottle are BFFs. The novel deals with addiction, and fighting it, and Danny needs to fight it if he’s to help Abra, a small girl who also has “the shining”. The shining is also known as “the Steam” to a group of vampire-like people who feed from it so they stay younger and live hundreds of years.

Called “the True Knot”, these folk travel America searching out young children with the shining gift. The more they torture these poor kids, the more steam is produced; and the more they can feed, the longer they can stay looking young – and the True Knot are coming for Abra. There can be no doubt when it comes to King, and he’s proved it here once again – nobody does it better and nobody ever will.

Susie Ferguson

Radio New Zealand National presenter, who fills in on Checkpoint and Morning Report and is co-host of this year’s Summer Report.

Susie Ferguson.

I’m late to the party on e-readers but having one this year has meant being able to sneak in a few pages in places I’d otherwise not have lugged the tome of the moment. So I’m a hair’s breadth away from finishing Iain Banks’ The Quarry. There’s poignancy to Banks creating a central character dying of cancer, only to die of it himself before the novel hit the shelves. I can’t help feeling slightly deflated he doesn’t bow out with brilliance but it’s the last shot from an accomplished storyteller. Another such writer, Paul Cleave, impressed with Blood Men – a sharp, modern noir thriller. Flinchingly bloody in places, morally questioning and cleverly written, it pushes sympathy for the devil – it’s a cracking read.

But the most influential books for me this year are Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. Moran made me laugh uncontrollably out loud on the bus with her fabulous, witty feminism and Sandberg’s astute look at women in the workplace is thought provoking. The vitriol aimed at both authors for sticking their necks out, especially from women, is illuminating.

Click here for part two of What New Zealand reads, including the selections of Kate Camp, Helen Heath, Rose McIver, and many more.

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