List #3: BIOGRAPHY
2017 has produced a number of compelling books concerning the lives of people who warrant attention for one reason or another.
Mr Lear: A life of art and nonsense by Jenny Uglow $55
A man of deep ambivalences, contradictions and vulnerabilities, Edward Lear was unable to act on his deepest feelings but produced some of the oddest poetry of his time, as well as a body of art both serious and comic. Jenny Uglow, who could almost be said to specialise in biographies of odd characters who both exemplify and stand apart from their times, is Lear's perfect biographer, forensic yet sensitive to the most hidden corners of his psyche, his playfulness and his melancholy.
"Jenny Uglow has written a great life about an artist with half a life, a biography that might break your heart." - Robert McCrum, Guardian
Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia, illustrated by Katy Horan $42
A magical survey of 30 writers who are also women, giving insight into their verbal superpowers, biographies and principle works. Powerfully illustrated. Includes Janet Frame, 'Hermit of Hospitals, Belonging and Lost Souls'.
>> Peek at a few witches here.
Tuai: A traveller in two worlds by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins $40
One of the first Maori travellers to Europe, Tuai, a young Ngare Raumati chief from the Bay of Islands, took the opportunity in 1817 to visit England and elsewhere, observing Pakeha culture and technology in its own place. He returned in 1819, planning to integrate new European knowledge and relationships into his Ngare Raumati community, but the situation at home had changed in his absence.
Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: Allen Curnow, A biography by Terry Sturm $70
"Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world." Curnow's 70-year career in the vanguard of New Zealand poetry involved the defining and redefining of poetic sensibilities, moving from an antipodean to an autochthonic focus.
Uniform with Curnow's Collected Poems (and available as a slipcased pair).
Threads: The delicate life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn $48
John Craske, a Norfolk fisherman, was born in 1881, and in 1917 he fell seriously ill. For the rest of his life he kept moving in and out of what was described as 'a stuporous state'. In 1923 he started making paintings of the sea and boats and the coastline seen from the sea, and later, when he was too ill to stand and paint, he turned to embroidery, which he could do lying in bed. Julia Blackburn's account of his life is a quest which takes her in many strange directions - to fishermen's cottages in Sheringham, a grand hotel fallen on hard times in Great Yarmouth and to the isolated Watch House far out in the Blakeney estuary; to Cromer and the bizarre story of Einstein's stay there, guarded by dashing young women in jodhpurs with shotguns. Threads is a book about life and death and the strange country between the two.
"Oh, what a miraculous book this is: parochial, weird and inconclusive in a way that few books dare to be these days, and illustrated so generously, with something beautiful or interesting on every other page. Buy it, and let it take you out to sea, no sou'wester required." - Rachel Cooke, Observer
"Wonderful. I lay down her book without knowing the cause of the 'mental stupors' that defined Craske's life, or understanding his relationship to his complicated family, but feeling I had inhaled the cold salt of the East Anglian coastline from which he sailed when he was well, and run my fingers across the bright wool of the embroideries he made when he was not." - Telegraph
Strangers arrive: Émigrés and the arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980by Leonard Bell $75
From the 1930s to the 1950s, forced migrants - refugees from Nazism, displaced people after World War II and escapees from Communist countries - arrived in New Zealand from Europe. Among them were extraordinary artists and writers, photographers, designers and architects whose European Modernism radically reshaped the arts in this country. How were migrants received by New Zealanders? How did displacement and settlement in New Zealand transform their work? How did the arrival of European Modernists intersect with the burgeoning nationalist movement in the arts in New Zealand? This book introduces us to a group of `aliens' who were critical catalysts for change in New Zealand culture. An outstanding piece of social and artistic history, beautifully illustrated.
This is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson $28
What do you report when you become uncertain of the facts, of the notion of truth and of the purpose of writing? What can you understand of yourself when you are uncertain how or if your memories can be correlated with known 'facts'? Is your idea of yourself anything other than the sum of your memories? Lara Pawson was for some years a journalist for the BBC and other media during the civil wars in Angola, and on the Ivory Coast. In this book, her experiences of societies in trauma, and her idealism for making the 'truth' known, are fragmented (as memory is always fragmented) and mixed with memory fragments of her childhood and of her relationships with the various people she encountered before, during and after the period of heightened awareness provided by war. It is this intermeshing of shared and personal perspectives, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes contradicting each other, always crossing over and back over the rift that separates the individual and her world, that makes this book such a fascinating description of a life. By constantly looking outwards, Pawson has conjured a portrait of the person who looks outwards, and a remarkable depiction of the act of looking outwards. Every word contributes to this pointillist self-portrait, and the reader hangs therefore on every word.
Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father by Diana Wichtel $45
When Diana Wichtel moved to New Zealand as a child with her mother and siblings, her father, a Polish Jew who had jumped off the train to the Treblinka extermination camp in World War II and who had hidden from the Nazis for the rest of the war, failed to follow them as planned. In adulthood, Wichtel began to wonder what had become of him, both before and after his brief presence in her life. Her search for answers led towards the Warsaw ghetto and to consider the ongoing consequences of trauma. Very well written.
>> Wichtel talks to Kim Hill.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O'Farrell $35
Death could come to us at any time, and in a range of guises. O'Farrell builds the memoir around the times in her life when death was nearer than at other times: childhood illness, teenage misadventure, mismanaged labour. Does the proximity of death make us act differently?
"O'Farrell is a breathtakingly good writer, and brings all her elegance and poise as a novelist to the story of her own life." - Guardian
The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray $40
Victoria's appetite for life was expressed in her appetite for food: the queen consistently over-ate all her life. Her appetites presided over a revolution in English cuisine.
"Had me at the first sentence." - Nigel Slater
"Zingy, fresh, and unexpected: Annie Gray, the queen of food historians, finds her perfect subject." - Lucy Worsley
>> Gray on the importance of dinner to the British Empire.
Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas $30
When the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016, many wondered whether he even qualified for the award. Thomas makes the case for his inclusion in the literary canon.
The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein $43
1922, the year that Modernism was born.
Drawn Out: A seriously funny memoir by Tom Scott $45
Scott is one of New Zealand's favourite and longest-serving political cartoonists, columnists and satirists. Find out about the many unsuspected facets of his life.
Edmund Hillary, A biography by Michael Gill $60
Exhaustive and magisterial, this biography benefits from its author's first-hand knowledge and from his access to Hillary's personal papers. It reveals dimensions of Hillary's life not hitherto examined.
The Man Who Climbs Trees: A memoir by James Aldred $35
Nature writing from a professional tree-climber whose work has taken him into the upper strata of forests around the world. Beautifully written.
What happens when angry young rebels become wary older women, ageing in a leaner, meaner time: a time which exalts only the 'new', in a ruling orthodoxy daily disparaging all it portrays as the 'old'? Delving into her own life and those of others who left their mark on it, Segal tracks through time to consider her generation of female dreamers, what formed them, how they left their mark on the world, where they are now in times when pessimism seems never far from what remains of public life.
Marx, Freud, Einstein: Heroes of the mind by Corinne Maier and Ann Simon $33
Excellent and amusing graphic biographies.
Joan: The remarkable life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick $55
A photographer and independent woman in the London bohemian circles in the 1930s, Joan Eyres Monsell met Patrick Leigh Fermor when she was on assignment in Egypt during the Second World War. At last we have a biography of this interesting free-thinking woman, whose photographic work supported Patrick in his writing.
"Engrossing." - Guardian
The Expatriates by Martin Edmond $50
"The connection between a colony and its founder, centre and margin, is always paradoxical. Where once Britain sent colonists out into the world, now the descendants of those colonists return to interrogate the centre." This book rediscovers four men, born in New Zealand, who achieved fame in Europe as they were forgotten at home: Harold Williams, journalist, linguist, Foreign Editor of The Times; Ronald Syme, spy, libertarian, historian of ancient Rome; John Platt-Mills, radical lawyer and political activist; and Joseph Burney Trapp, librarian, scholar and protector of culture. Edmond, as always, writes thoughtfully and with insight.
What You Did Not Tell: A Russian past and the journey home by Mark Mazower $55
It was a family that fate drove into the siege of Stalingrad, the Vilna ghetto, occupied Paris, and even into the ranks of the Wehrmacht. Mazower's British father was the lucky one, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants who settled in London after escaping the civil war and revolution. Max, the grandfather, had started out as a socialist and manned the barricades against tsarist troops, but never spoke of it. His wife, Frouma, came from a family ravaged by the Great Terror yet somehow making their way in Soviet society. How did the confluence of these histories form the person Mark Mazower is?
Last Inhabitant of Shackleton's Hut by Oliver Sutherland $25
In 1962, as a young zoologist, Sutherland lived for 3 months alone in Shackleton's hut in Antarctica's McMurdo Sound, alone, that is, apart from visitors (up to 40 a day) who came to see him living alone in the famous explorer's hut. One of the visitors, Graham Billing, wrote a novel, Foxbrush and the Penguins, based on Sutherland, and this was subsequently made into a film starring John Hurt as Sutherland. Sutherland's own account of his stay is now available for the first time.
200 Women by Geoff Blackwell $75
What really matters to you? What would you change in the world if you could? What brings you happiness? What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? What single word do you most identify with? Two hundred women from around the world, both famous and nonfamous, answer these same five questions. What would your answers be? This monumental book includes photographic portraits of all 200 interviewees.
The Militant Muse: Love, war and the women of Surrealism by Whitney Chadwick $55
How Surrealism, female friendship, and the experiences of war, loss, and trauma shaped individual women's transitions from someone else's muse to mature artists in their own right. Includes Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe, Lee Miller and Valentine Penrose, Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo and Jacqueline Lamba.
Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough $38
In 1954, a young television presenter was offered the opportunity to travel the world finding rare and elusive animals for London Zoo's collection, and to film the expeditions for the BBC. His name was David Attenborough, and the programme, Zoo Quest, not only heralded the start of a remarkable career in broadcasting, but changed the way we viewed the natural world forever.
These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy $21
Jaeggy, whose brief fictions, such as those in I am the Brother of XX, remain as pleasant burrs in the mind long after the short time spent reading them, has here written three brief biographies, of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob, each as brief and effective as a lightning strike and as memorable. Jaeggy is interested in discovering what it was about these figures that made them them and not someone else. By assembling details, quotes, sketches of situations, pin-sharp portraits of contemporaries, some of which, in a few words, will change the way you remember them, Jaeggy takes us close to the membrane, so to call it, that surrounds the known, the membrane that these writers were intent on stretching, or constitutionally unable not to stretch, beyond which lay and lies madness and death, the constant themes of all Jaeggy’s attentions, and, for Jaeggy, the backdrop to, if not the object of, all creative striving. >> Read Thomas's review.
Nick Cave: Mercy on Me by Reinhard Kleist $33
"Reinhard Kleist, master graphic novelist and myth-maker has - yet again - blown apart the conventions of the graphic novel by concocting a terrifying conflation of Cave songs, biographical half-truths and complete fabulations and creating a complex, chilling and completely bizarre journey into Cave World. Closer to the truth than any biography, that's for sure! But for the record, I never killed Elisa Day." - Nick Cave
>> Live Mercy.