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Book review: Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau

Kiwi history and art, with a detour through British science and American politics.

Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau

Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau

By Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Penguin, 2010) $40 Buy@Fishpond

This is an extraordinary book three times over. First, author Jeffrey Paparoa Holman lived and worked in the South Island as a shearer, social worker and bookseller, then mid-life gained a PhD in Maori Studies.

Second, we have Elsdon Best. He was brought up semi-wild in the freshly settled small holdings of Porirua Pa in the 1850s, joined the militia in Taranaki, and participated in the storming of Parihaka. But he went on to live among the Tuhoe people, was one of the first contributors to the Polynesian Society Journal, begun in 1892, and became a lifelong ethnologist and botanist.

Through his writings—for example, the two-volume Tuhoe: The Children of the Mist in 1925—he’s become one of the seminal figures of early New Zealand history. That this history is now under radical revision goes without saying, not least courtesy of the new sources of oral and other tribal histories that define modern Maori scholarship.

Which neatly brings us to the third leg of this tale—the role of Tuhoe chief Tutakangahau, and how he picked Best as the vehicle to export the Tuhoe agenda into the world of the pakeha.

Holman’s treatment of this material is a wonderful balance of scholarship and empathy, not just to his characters but to the historical intellectual frameworks that dominated late 19th-century New Zealand.

These frameworks include the now discredited ideologues of social Darwinism and the parallel track of evangelical anthropology. The first adamant that Maori were a dwindling race whose life and times needed preserving before they died away, and the latter keen to explore how local iwi were indeed part of the long arc of migration by the sons of Noah.

Interspersed with this, Holman weaves the historical facts surrounding the settler ascendency and how Maori coped and eventually survived to regroup.

This is a stunning piece of work. Others will speak to its eventual place as a key text in New Zealand studies. For the moment, it’s as fresh and vibrant as a bush-clad mountain.

Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society

Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society

Edited by Bill Bryson (Harper Collins, 2010) $63 Buy@Fishpond

From the UK Royal Society, Seeing Further is a collection of essays marking the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.

Edited by Bill Bryson, who writes the introduction but didn’t chose the topics or the writers, it’s a mixed bag—some of the essays are splendid, others a little pedantic, and others still struggling to fit an editorial mould that seems to want to reverse-engineer the Reithian principles of educate, inform and entertain.

Curiously it’s the fiction writers who come of worse. For example, in the entertainment end of the spectrum, Margaret Atwood’s piece Of the Madness of Mad Scientists is almost trivial in its treatment of popular 19th-century fiction titles like Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde.

That said, Neal Stephenson’s account of the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz is just splendid, especially in its use of the personal and vindictive to take us into the heart of the debate on empiricism and metaphysics.

I also loved the contributions from Richard Holmes on Joseph Banks, and the last word from Martin Lord Rees, current Royal Society president and Astronomer Royal, firmly redirects the historical and scientific history into a discussion of our current responsibilities and obligations around the big issues of global warming.

In short, despite some reservations, it’s well worth your attention.

Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House

Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House

By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (Penguin, 2010) $38 Buy@Fishpond

The symbiotic relationship between the US media and the political beltway of Washington is always interesting, but never more so than about a year after a marathon US Presidential campaign. That’s when the journos with the totally exclusive press passes start publishing their accounts of who did what to whom over the lifetime of the campaign.

John Heilemann, of New York Magazine and ex-New Yorker, Economist and Wired, and Mark Halperin, of Time Magazine and ABC news, have joined forces to produce this brilliant example of the genre.

Covering both the intricacies and accidents of the internecine competition between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and then shifting to the mercurial idiosyncrasies of maverick Republican John McCain and his surprising sidekick Sarah Palin, they offer a pitch-perfect account of the campaign and the candidates, and a treasure trove of detail on the staffers who managed the messages, packed the bags and eventually either won or lost the war. A must for political junkies, and still mandatory reading on how Obama reacts to pressure and conflict.

Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon

Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon

By Gordon H Brown (Auckland University Press, 2010) $80 Buy@Fishpond

I have lived and worked in New Zealand for 20 years, and I guess it’s taken almost all that time to ‘get’ McCahon. Art critic Hamish Keith speaks of a conversation, which began when he was 12. Others, especially McCahon’s fellow artists, acknowledge both his art and personal bravery as a major influence on their own practice.

Gordon Brown, friend, artist, author and librarian to the Alexander Turnbull, Auckland, Waikato, and Sarjeant Galleries, has spent a lifetime looking at and commenting on McCahon’s work.

This volume offers 17 discrete essays describing his journey in and around McCahon. Many are classic pieces that began life as contributions to exhibition catalogues, essays for art magazines and journals. All have been revised and re-imagined for inclusion in this volume.

Brown is a lovely writer—slightly old-fashioned in style and syntax for some audiences, and you do need to slow down and settle to the voice, but believe me it is worth it.