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North & South's best holiday reading

Our pick of fab new food, home, culture, nature, guides & stocking stuffers, and children’s books for the festive season.

Cooking

The Jewish Cookbook

Leah Koenig (Phaidon, $80)

A beautiful volume in every sense – as rich as Ottolenghi’s Yemeni Oxtail soup, as generous and sweet as the Mexican Chocolate Babka recipe from Mexico city’s Jewish community, as inventive as New Orleans chef Alon Shaya’s Schmalzy Corn Bread with Aleppo Pepper. This magisterial work deserves its “The”, leaving no matzo ball unturned. There are New York-style bagels, Montreal-style bagels and Jerusalem bagels; Jewish food traditions; dumplings, noodles, kugels, condiments, drinks, fritters, cookies, puddings, mains, breakfasts, spreads and breads, vegetables and grains. You could spend a lifetime working your way through these 400 recipes, from a far-flung diaspora, and die fat and extremely happy. (Although heart disease might be fended off with the vegetarian Groundnut Stew from the Abayudaya, a Jewish community from Uganda.) “Jewish food is as varied as Jewish culture,” writes the author, New Yorker Leah Koenig, who has created a kitchen classic. ZB

Buy now

WeekLight

Donna Hay (Fourth Estate, $50)                                                                                       

Slice a small raw beetroot with a mandolin! Press a hunk of salmon into black chia seeds! Dip those schnitzels in quinoa! Vwah-la! Great big gorgeous photographs/matte paper/loosey goosey styling/super simple, imaginative lunch and dinner recipes... we must be in a Donna Hay book. The themes are health and speed (plus a chapter called “there’s always room for sweets”), with vege-o-centric recipes great for the gluten intolerant, the vegetarian or the vegan – or anyone looking for fresh ideas. There are a few pictures of Donsky gambolling on Australian beaches, but we’ll forgive her those for recipes like the choc-fudge popsicle recipe (coconut cream, dark chocolate, vanilla extract, fresh dates). Yumbo. JN

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From the Oven to the Table

Diana Henry (Hachette, $45)                                                                                      

“If you’re a bung-it-in-the-oven kind of cook, whether by necessity or desire, then this book is for you.” Diana Henry’s words, not mine. And she’s one of the UK’s best-loved food writers with a string of awards to her name. But it is satisfying to throw ingredients into a dish or roasting pan, slide them into the oven, and let heat do the work. Every recipe has a Henry touch of magic, of course, from Japanesey chicken thighs with miso, sweet potatoes and spring onions to baked nectarines with pistachios and rose water. VL

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Veg

Jamie Oliver (Penguin Random House, $60)

The kind of family-friendly stuff you might expect from a guy with five kids – only vegetarian (and often vegan). In the “Scruffy Aubergine Lasagne” recipe, you simply tear in the pasta sheets and mix it all up – it tastes delicious, even without the fiddly layering that suddenly seems so unnecessary. Oliver has a certain madcap genius for process and flavour, not to mention presentation – and he’s inspired by a foodhall’s worth of international cuisines. We also like his nutritional assessment at the foot of each recipe – an Oliver trademark that lets you see how much protein, carbs and fat you are eating. Pragmatic but inventive curries and stews, pies, bakes, soups, sarnies, rice, noodles, pasta, salads, burgers, fritters and “one-pan wonders” – and not too many ingredients. A cracking gift for any vegetarian. ZB

Buy now

Culture

Artists’ Letters

Michael Bird (Allen & Unwin, $45)

“My dear Vincent, you would have plenty to amuse you, seeing all these painters here, pickled in their mediocrity like gherkins in vinegar... Yours, Paul Gauguin.” Today Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are worth millions, but in 1888 he was sad and broke – and needed cheering up. “God’s truth! My scribblings must annoy you, but although they may be rough, just put them next to yours and compare them and you will find that mine win easily...” Here is Goya, known today for some of the darkest war images ever painted, gleefully ribbing his old friend. “I got the marzolini, that is to say, the 12 cheeses. They are excellent... but as I’ve told you on other occasions, do not send me anything else unless I ask for it, particularly not things that cost you money.” If this sounds like an uncle fondly admonishing his nephew, it is – dateline 1550. The uncle is Michelangelo, whose beautifully penned missive is reproduced in this trove of artists’ letters, ranging in date from 1482 (Leonardo da Vinci) to 1995 (Cindy Sherman). Their chatty domesticity bring us face to face with some of the greatest masters  – and eccentrics – of Western art. JN

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Scientifica Historica

Brian Clegg (Allen & Unwin, $45)

From the eighth-century Arabic work that gave us the words “algebra” and “algorithim” to a book published in 2018 about smallpox, Clegg, a prolific English science writer, describes in friendly prose the most influential science books ever published – in his opinion, anyway. But the illustrations steal the show; this is science at its most artful. Check out the oddly cheery woodblocked pages of Renaissance medical texts, or the book that inspired generations of floral wallpapers: Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1789). But my favourite is Robert Hooke’s wonderful Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. This smacked unsuspecting 17th-century readers in the chops with their first view of hyper-enlarged “minute bodies” – lovingly engraved flies’ faces, the skin of seaweed, an ant’s hairy body. For bibliophiles, art and science geeks. JN

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Briefs: In Stoned (Hachette, $50), the Rolling Stones’ herculean ability to act the goat while on tour was faithfully recorded by Ron Wood’s former wife Jo: amateur photographer, mother, party animal. Her images might not always be sharp, but they paint a fond portrait of “the boys” – and her account of her “Stones adventure” makes for a refreshingly womanly perspective. Buy now

Elton John (Hachette, $60), by English photographer and friend-of-Elton Terry O’Neill, also reveals hitherto “unseen images.” Although these ones are professionally shot, they are all in the best possible taste, and so are less revealing. Part of the tidal wave of Elton-abilia following the release of Rocketman, this is a fabulous archive – of a performer who grows visibly in confidence (along with his platform shoe height) in front of O’Neill’s lens, from his first photo shoot in 1970. Buy now

For fans suffering GOT withdrawal, Game of Thrones: A Guide to Westeros and Beyond (Penguin Random House, $55) offers relief, with serious-minded but pithy explainers on topics like “Weapons of Westeros and Essos”, “John Snow’s True Parentage” and “The Dragons”. Written by American academic Myles McNutt, it has photos, illustrations, timelines and infographics, and will help you remember who set dogs/dragons on who, who stabbed who, and who incinerated who. Buy now 

Architecture/Design

Our Spaces

Alana Broadhead (Penguin Random House, $70)

If your taste runs to the luxuriously minimal, this tour of pared-back New Zealand homes might just be the cool breeze your fevered home decorating project needs. “You don’t need four teapots clattering around in a cupboard – just have one teapot that you adore,” instructs the author sensibly. This makes as good a motto as any for a clean decorating style pursued with iron consistency for 287 pages. While the whole thing has more than a whiff of eau-de-St Mary’s Bay, with “budget” ideas like the feature wall of hats bought in Bali, the use of colour and texture is masterly, even if one doesn’t quite run to original art in the kids’ rooms that isn’t theirs. The captions do a reasonable job of identifying unusual features, like the wallpaper from US/UK store Anthropologie – although a design directory of local suppliers would have been handy. JN

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Nomad

Emma Reddington (Workman Publishing, $70)

“There is no guidebook for alternative living. In speaking with vanlifers, live-aboards, Airstreamers, RVers and tiny house dwellers, I heard that it takes work to establish a home like this, and as much work to stay in one.” While much of Reddington’s book consists of interviews with doughty adventurers in their wonderfully photographed, tiny, mobile interiors, the detailed list of ideas and resources for living off-grid make this more than just a hip coffee table book. The writer’s ability to ask the tough questions (i.e “What’s that shovel for?”) shows not only a respect for transient lifestyles, but a genuine desire to find out how they actually work. There is much to admire in ingenious and well-designed setups like the storage strategies of the American family of five living in a bus, or the Canadian who lives in a tugboat. For armchair escapists everywhere. JN

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Big Ideas for Small Houses

Catherine Foster (Penguin, $50)

Some landowners are tackling New Zealand’s home affordability crisis by building midget-sized and (relatively) midget-priced bolt-holes. (The exquisite 34mB house on the cover, excluding land, cost $180,000 to build.) The text is clear and the photos striking – and floorplans and costs are there to be mulled over. We liked the designer and builder directories, and there is even a bibliography. Although the smallest house would fit on the back of a trailer, these are not Tiny Houses, Foster explains, but tiny houses. Have capitals, will travel. Tiny houses (lower case) are built on legally owned land, pay rates, and are a better investment than the Tiny Houses (upper case) of the Tiny House Craze manifested in a kazillion Pinterest posts. These cost as much as a (lower case) tiny house but “will depreciate in much the same way as a second-hand car”. JN

Buy now

Suzanne Turley: Private Gardens of Aotearoa

Edited by Thomas Cannings (Thames & Hudson, $90) 

Landscape designer Suzanne Turley has spent years alongside big-cheese New Zealand architects like Andrew Patterson and Lawrence Sumich (who both contributed reverent forewords). In these large private gardens, expense appears to be no object; notwithstanding that, Turley is revealed as a garden designer of skill and flair. Anyone who has ever nursed a geranium in a pot will pore over these photographs, carefully captioned with plant species. On the basis of these 12 gardens, all beautifully different, her name should be as well known as Patterson’s, but what is missing is Turley herself – more quotes from her would have been welcome. An observation by Patterson is as close as we get to much of a sense of the designer (apart from seeing her work): “Suzanne’s reputation as the ‘Garden Dragon’ is a nickname that aptly describes her verve for plants and the respect she commands when it comes to her craft.” JN

Buy now

Briefs: For that extra-special mid-century modern nut in your life… if you’re feeling rich, that is (it’s $250!): Phaidon’s Atlas of Mid-Century Modern Houses (Hachette) is a beautifully photographed and researched collection of more than 400 homes designed by the gods of modernism – Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer – plus little-known masterpieces from Australia, Africa and Asia. A heady addition to the Noguchi coffee table.

The Great Outdoors

Singing the Trail: The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand

John McCrystal (Allen & Unwin, $60)

Don’t for a moment imagine this is a book for orienteers and map geeks. Wellington author John McCrystal’s examination of maps of or about New Zealand is actually a brilliant retelling of this country’s history. Using the drawings of explorers and settlers, he illustrates crucial passages in our cultural, social and political history. From Tupaia’s map of the Pacific, to the early efforts to trace our coastline by Tasman, Cook and others, this is a first draft of physical New Zealand by a range of discoverers. There are also town plans, shipwreck charts, tourist maps, maps showing mineral deposits, and those of places overseas that are dear to New Zealanders, such as Gallipoli. Beautifully written and illustrated, this is a wonderful book for those wanting to find their way through our country’s history and hinterland. MW

Buy now

Southern Nights: The Story of New Zealand’s Night Sky

Naomi Arnold (HarperCollins, $65) 

It bears remembering that New Zealand is founded on stargazing. All early explorers, Polynesian and European, arrived here by studying and following the night sky. Journalist Naomi Arnold’s fantastic book describes these arrivals and just what it was that guided these discoverers. It’s part of a wonderful demystifying of the skies, with Arnold providing fabulous examples and analogies that help get your head around the extraordinary scale of space, and what we see when we look up. Aided by some mind-bogglingly great photography, the book is comprehensive but utterly accessible, with everything from asteroids to aurorae explained. Full of surprises (who knew the Southern Cross once belonged to the northern hemisphere?) and great stories that will enrich our understanding of the world above and around us. MW

Buy now

The Great Unknown: Mountain Journeys in the Southern Alps

Geoff Spearpoint (Potton & Burton, $60)

One of New Zealand’s most experienced trampers and climbers, Geoff Spearpoint has written a love letter to the mountains in which he’s spent so much time. Spearpoint will be known to many as a co-author of two wonderful books about New Zealand’s tramping huts, but this story is more personal. Here are more than 50 trips that he’s completed along the South Island’s spine, in more than 50 years exploring the Southern Alps. Concentrating on lesser known, more remote routes, this is a welcome glimpse of rarely seen or trodden areas, which is as much an individual’s reflection as a guide for the adventurous. But above all, it’s a reminder of the duty of care we have to the mountains and national parks that offer us all so much.  MW

Buy now

Des Townson: A Sailing Legacy

Brian Peet (Mary Egan Publishing/destownson.co.nz, $80)

As a shy, introspective man, Des Townson made yacht design and building his vocation. He was dedicated to simple elegance, a hallmark in the thousands of Townson yachts sailing today. The family of author Brian Peet was close to Townson for more than 60 years and sailed extensively on his yachts. At more than 100,000 words and 400 images, Peet’s book is perhaps the most comprehensive work on any New Zealand designer. It sails a well-structured course through Townson’s early setbacks, lessons learned and the emergence of definitive designs: sailing dinghies such as the Zephyr, Starling and Dart, to keelboats such as Serene, Moonlight and Starlight that allowed his elegant lines full flight. In later life, Townson developed the remote-controlled, model yacht Electron, commissioned by some of the world’s most famous sailors. At times his prolific output exhausted him, but its legacy on many facets of New Zealand sailing endures, as this book diligently records. RH

Briefs: Who knew that the tūī has a specially placed voicebox, enabling it to duet with itself, sometimes producing sounds too high-frequency for humans to hear? Or that the morepork (ruru) can turn its head 270 degrees? Skye Wishart’s The Brilliance of Birds (Penguin Random House, $55) is fact-packed and entertaining, with pictures by seabird scientist and award-winning photographer Edin Whitehead. Buy now

Brilliant Maps (Allen & Unwin, $45): what this book of colourful maps lacks in detail, it makes up for in the sort of OMG factor that has made London author Ian Wright’s website and social-media presence (98k followers on Twitter) so successful. Sample map heading: “Chile is a ridiculously long country”, “Heavy metal bands per 100,000 people”, “Place-names with more than 20 letters”, “Average male height worldwide”. Not very educational, which is why it is fun. Buy now

Aotearoa (New Holland, $50): photographer Stuart Macdonald has shot some golden postcard landscapes from the Emerald Lakes to the Cambrians. What sets his glossy book apart are his images of small towns, and buildings like the proudly cuboid toilets at Benmore, or a dairy in Featherston – not beautiful, but quirky, and Kiwi as. Buy now

An illustration by Sharon Murdoch for Mike White's book, How to Walk a Dog.

Guides & Stocking Stuffers

Let’s fudgel (pretend to work without actually doing anything), then skip off for doundrins (afternoon drinks) and a prandicle (small meal). Joe Gillard’s The Little Book with Lost Words (Allen & Unwin, $23) is a treasure trove of forgotten words itching to be brought back into modern use (case in point, shivviness, the itchy feeling that comes from wearing new underwear). The little hardback is charmingly illustrated, too. Buy now

Mike White’s How to Walk a Dog (Allen & Unwin, $35) is another neatly packaged gift book for dog lovers who also appreciate fine writing. “… charming and funny and sincere – dog lit at its best,” lauds fellow journalist and author Steve Braunias. Illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Sharon Murdoch, White’s tales of life in and around a Wellington dog park is woofingly good. Buy now

Read more: The joys and heartbreak of owning a dog

Shaun Barnett has revised and updated his indispensable Day Walks in New Zealand (Potton & Burton, $50). It’s been in print since 2007 because Barnett’s boots have done the walking; every one of his chosen 100 short tracks comes with just the description and information you need, beautiful photography and quality maps from Geographx. The 2019 edition boasts a handsome, larger format. Buy now

Volcanoes of Auckland by Bruce W. Hayward (Auckland University Press, $50) is a fairly serious field guide to Tāmaki Makaurau’s 53 volcanoes, but it packs in everything you need to know about the city’s cones, craters and lava caves – from their history and topography to eruption potential. Buy now

Auckland-based travel writer and photographer Liz Light has produced a delightfully navigable and information-packed guide, The 50 Best Birdwatching Sites in New Zealand (Bateman Books, $40). Designed to be user-friendly for locals and visitors, the guide belongs in the backpack or glovebox of anyone keen to commune with New Zealand’s native birdlife. Buy now

Don and Marilyn Jessen’s RV There Yet? (Bateman Books, $40) is the perfect – and practical – gift for friends or rellies considering hitting the road in a recreational vehicle. It covers everything you need to know about RV building, buying, kitting out, maintenance and campsites, plus takes a peek inside the rigs of Kiwi motorhome owners. VL 

Children's Books

Reviewed by Stacey Anyan

Picture Books

  • A Joy Cowley anthology? Yes please! The Gobbledegook Book (Gecko Press, $40) rounds up her favourite poems, stories and nonsense rhymes. Stonkingly wordilicious. 
  • Striking pictures and deceptively simple text charmingly reveal why Mr Kiwi has an Important Job, by Heather Hunt (Potton & Burton, $30HB). Buy now
  • The Talented Mr Bixley – Donovan, that is – brings his distinctive style, sense of humour and Kiwi slang to the traditional tale of How Māui Slowed the Sun (Upstart Press, $20). 
  • Inquisitive minds – and grateful adults – will love Abigail and the Birth of the Sun by Matthew Cunningham and Sarah Wilkins (Picture Puffin, $20). It’s astrophysics explained, with glorious illustrations to boot. Buy now
  • A moving tribute to the healing power of cats, Cleo & Rob, written by Helen Brown and illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Allen & Unwin, $23), tells how a kitten called Cleo helped six-year-old Rob after the death of his big brother. Cat convert Brown based the book on true events first told in her bestselling book for adults, Cleo. Buy now
  • From overseas: one-upmanship is hilariously exploited by Class 2L in Rob Biddulph’s lyrical, colour-saturated Show & Tell (HarperCollins, $25HB). Buy now
  • Search-and-find books are always popular and this year’s eye-popping standout is Hidden in the Jungle by Peggy Nille (Hachette, $30HB). Buy now
  • The delightful Llamaste and Friends (Hachette, $19) – in which a llama teaches her friends to regulate their emotions through yoga – will hopefully go some way to stabilising the Christmas-stocking sugar high. Buy now
  • Can Oliver Jeffers do no wrong? The stunningly original illustrator/author returns with The Fate of Fausto (HarperCollins, $35HB), in which our eponymous antihero declares he owns everything he sees – then nature reminds him who’s in charge. Buy now
  • Explore The House of Madame M (Gecko Press, $38HB) by lifting the flaps to reveal what’s lurking in her spooky dwelling… Buy now

Non-Fiction

  • Gift books don’t get much better than Gavin Bishop’s Wildlife of Aotearoa (Penguin Random House, $40HB), a companion to his award-winning Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story. The large format, the double-page spreads to pore over, the copious facts that the kids in your life will regurgitate and make them seem to have a better memory than you… Buy it. Buy now
  • A 2018 visit by a southern right whale to Wellington Harbour – where 200 years ago they were so plentiful the early European settlers complained of being kept awake at night by the whales’ blowing – inspired Ned Barraud to write and illustrate Tohorā (Potton & Burton, $30HB). 
  • Barraud’s artistic flair is also on show in Rock Pools: A Guide for Kiwi Kids (Potton & Burton, $30HB), which is sure to inspire and inform rock-pool recces throughout summer. Buy now
  • As a child, Joan Wiffen used to wonder why she found rocks with shells in them so far from the sea. In her 40s, she sated her curiosity about fossils – and, in doing so, dispelled the belief that there were no dinosaurs in New Zealand. Dinosaur Hunter (Picture Puffin, $25HB) is the latest in the popular series about famous Kiwis by David Hill and Phoebe Morris. 
  • With euphonious prose (Courtney Sina Meredith) and bold graphic illustration (Mat Tait), The Adventures of Tupaia (Allen & Unwin, $35HB) charts the life of the Tahitian priest navigator who accompanied Cook on his first voyage to Aotearoa – and hopefully paves the way for more historical Pasifika heroes to be showcased in such a sumptuous fashion. Buy now
  • The innovative efforts of vets at Massey’s Wildbase Hospital are vividly recounted in Three Kiwi Tales by Janet Hunt (Massey University Press, $25), a follow-up to the well-received How to Mend a Kea. Buy now
  • Learn te reo alongside your tamariki with My First Words in Māori by Stacey Morrison (Penguin Random House, $20). Ka mau te wehi! (Awesome.) Buy now

Reviewers:  Zoe Baker, Rebecca Hayter, Virginia Larson, Jenny Nicholls, Mike White and Stacey Anyan.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.

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