ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias selects the 10 best non-fiction books of 2021
Even in an annus mirabilis for New Zealand non-fiction – there were outstanding biographies, memoirs, essays, and with all due immodesty I think my book Missing Persons wasn’t entirely terrible – the best book of the year was the best book of the year by a long, long stretch. The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw was nonpareil, an event, an artistic enterprise, a riveting and intensely thoughtful study of family dynamics. And the writing, the sentences, was just so damned good. Her approach was almost aggressive, in hot pursuit of nothing less than THE TRUTH!, and sparks flew off every page. One of its fascinating sub-texts or themes was what was real and what was fiction, in a family shaped by the fictions created by her father, CK Stead. Well, I wondered what was real and what was fiction in The Mirror Book, which is to say I never entirely accepted the author’s version of events, or her interpretations and psychological assessments. It gave the memoir the depth and intrigue and mystery of a novel told by a possibly unreliable narrator.
The lives of others were told in more straightforward and also compelling ways, in Rebecca Macfie’s biography of Helen Kelly, and the second volume of Philip Temple’s biography of Maurice Shadbolt. I was particularly fascinated by the Shadbolt book, no doubt partly because I fit the demographic – old white males are attracted to portraits of old white males, either dead (as with Shadbolt, and poor old long-suffering James Courage, whose fascinating diaries were the best surprise of the year) or alive (as with CK Stead, who wrote the third, entertaining volume of his memoir this year). Wendyl Nissen and Megan Dunn were on hand to present stories of women’s lives (their own, and their mothers) and one of the best pieces in the classy collection of essays by John Summers was about his grandmother, a remarkable woman.
Many of the year’s best books were art, or at least artful. No such case could in all honesty be made on behalf of National Identity by Simon Bridges. The prose lacked grace and cadence. But his essays on Very Important Things had something else – a sincerity, an honesty, a decency. God knows how he’s survived politics.
The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $38)
The very best book of non-fiction of 2021 was also the very best book of any kind in 2021. It was the year of Charlotte. Charlotte, on the cover of the Listener; Charlotte, forcing a change of venue to allow a bigger audience to see her at the Auckland Writers Festival; Charlotte, the talk of the literary community for her dazzling memoir which in large part examined the family dynamic of her relationship with her parents, Karl and Kay Stead. The writing – the prose, the sentences – was on fire. The thinking – the depth and intensity of it – set another blaze. From a review by Philip Matthews at ReadingRoom: “There will be readers who will enjoy it all as gossip, just as there will also be some who have waited decades to see Stead get his comeuppance, given that he has dished it out a few times himself. This is The Mirror Book you are hearing a lot about: the explosive story of how the daughter denounced the father, Sylvia Plath-style. But that’s only part of it. There is a less sensational memoir woven through it that is a story of a lonely and neglected adolescence…The quiet and unmoored teenager that Grimshaw describes comes to seem damaged in ways that may still not be as obvious to the writer as they are to the reader. She descends further, roaming the city at night with a friend who is killed in a hit and run. She lives with a charming but abusive older man and ends up alone in a flat on the roof of an abandoned Queen St office block…It’s sad and eerie, this sense of being stranded and lost in a vast city.”
Helen Kelly: Her life by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, $50)
Macfie’s previous book on Pike River established her as an author of considerable authority and passion, qualities well known to readers of her work at the Listener magazine. Her biography of Helen Kelly is a more personal study but politics, rightly, is a constant. It meant everything to the great trade unionist and Macfie tells her story with a clear understanding of what was at stake. From a review by Finlay Macdonald at ReadingRoom: “In Rebecca Macfie’s terrific retelling of an all-too-brief life, the paths of Kelly and John Key first cross in 2010. He has made his millions and is now prime minister, she has paid her dues and is now president of the Council of Trade Unions. There is trouble in Middle Earth over director Peter Jackson’s rejection of an actors’ union demand for a collective agreement. … It is a thoroughly dispiriting spectacle, a classic mash-up of cultural cringe and craven politics, and a low point for Kelly. Macfie expertly sets out the manoeuvring and manipulation that eventually saw the country rewrite employment law to suit the film industry, but there’s a moment that stands out even in the context of the generally lamentable media coverage at the time. Always up for a debate, Kelly agreed to a TV interview with celebrity pretend journalist Paul Holmes, only to be shouted down by the apoplectic host. On top of the hate mail she’d been receiving, and the wider defeat for the union movement, it was bruising and humiliating. More than that, it was a reminder that taking on the establishment in New Zealand will put you at odds with squares and lackeys just as much as with power and wealth.”
My mother and other secrets by Wendyl Nissen (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)
It’s always the mother, isn’t it? I loved this portrait of Nissen’s mum as a complicated villain, who once said of Wendyl, in public, actually on a cruise ship, loudly and pointedly: “Look at my daughter, the big slut.” Christ almighty. Who would say such a thing? Nissen looks for answers in this double psychological look at her mum as well as her dad, Cedric, who by contrast has led a life of constant decency and generosity of spirit. From my review at ReadingRoom: “Nissen writes, ‘Sometimes she would forget to take any meat out of the freezer before work so she would bash away at a slab of frozen mince in a pot on the stove until it succumbed and allowed itself to be cooked for a minute before a can of baked beans was added. Chilli con carne.’ God almighty. There’s something universal about that desperate little meal. It evokes generations of mothers and parents, slaving at stoves, beating whatever’s at hand into edible submission, doing their level best and not always getting it right. My mother and other secrets investigates the world we all live in – the domestic world – and brings back a wise, well-told, sympathetic, and highly readable report.”
Things I Learned at Art School by Megan Dunn (Penguin, $35)
A few years ago I awarded Megan Dunn the most prized writers residency in New Zealand letters – a week at the Surrey Hotel, in Grey Lynn – where she worked on a book about mermaids. She finished it but the publisher hated it, except for the parts that she wrote as memoir; and so she kept those chapters, and developed them into the full-blown memoir Things I Learned at Art School. It’s very, very funny, sharp as a pin, and it has heart, too. From a review by Philip Matthews at ReadingRoom: “The best part of Things I Learned at Art School, which is a sort of comic memoir about her childhood, her time at art school and the years she spent in the art world, is the section that starts with a chapter titled ‘Nine Months in a Massage Parlour Called Belle De Jour.’ We are in Auckland in the 1990s. Dunn is in her twenties and is ostensibly a video artist, but she has taken a night job as a receptionist at the Belle De Jour. It appeals to her sense of kitsch or irony, a point of view that was pretty common in the art world at the time…. Dunn also thought a tacky place like this might offer some good material. It could have camp appeal. But the reader becomes aware that something unexpected is happening. Art work, we learn, is much more trivial than sex work. The characters you meet at the Belle De Jour are more well-rounded, more honest, even if they probably aren’t using their real names. They are more fully described; they have depth.”
Missing Persons by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, $35)
My book! Fancy that. Well what’s the point of being a books editor if you can’t abuse the privilege by including your own book in the year’s top 10. It’s a collection of 12 true-crime stories, including the so-called Pamper Party Murder (when Anna Browne killed Carly Stewart with a knife at an afternoon party in 47 School Rd, Te Atatu South) and the trial that finally banged up Malcolm Rewa for the killing of Susan Burdettt; but the heart of the book are four sad and harrowing stories of people who went missing, who disappeared, who got lost. From a review by Angelique Kasmara at the Academy of New Zealand Literature: “The book begins and ends with coverage of the trial of Grace Millane’s killer. It’s harrowing on a few levels, delving as it does into bleak detail of what the courtroom demands of its witnesses, and of Grace herself, in order to conduct a fair trial. And of course, reading about Jesse Kempson’s actions, ‘rightly described as depraved’ — from Justice Simon Moore’s summary. For some part of the narrative, there’s no moving past Kempson until, finally, we’re done. Braunias particularly excels at the exit, closing each chapter with sharp, spare and devastating prose.”
Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume Two 1973-2004 by Philip Temple (David Ling, $44.99)
Maurice Shadbolt! Mad rooter, writer of too much dreck, the pipe-smoking tohunga of Titirangi bohemia, his handprints pressed into the concrete of the Waitakere City Walkway of Fame outside the council chambers in Henderson – I saw it the other day, the inscription along the lines that he won every prize worth winning in New Zealand literature. And now, already, 17 years after his death, he’s largely forgotten. The second volume of Temple’s close and magnificent biography brings it all back: the hard work, the prizes and the glory, the mad rooting. From my review at ReadingRoom: “Constant, anxious, drunken and faithless sex travels through the 300 pages of a life lived in Titirangi, where Shadbolt went about everything busily, always busily – busily moving in new partners, busily freezing old ones out, busily fishing for mullet, busily smoking mullet, busily smoking his pipe, busily hitting up publishers and editors for money, busily avoiding his ex-wife for child maintenance, busily writing good books, busily writing bad books, busily feeling depressed and reaching for his meds. It’s exhausting to read; what the hell was it like to live?”
What You Made Of It: 1987-2020 by CK Stead (Auckland University Press, $49.99)
Volume three of the great literary chieftain’s memoirs was a return to form. I adore Volume One, which traces his life up until he sails out of Auckland harbour in 1956, but thought Volume Two read a bit like homework – the quoting of letters, the checking of facts, the naming of parts. Volume Three is less a research project than a fluent remembrance of things recently past. It covers the years when he was cast, or cast himself, on the wrong side of the moral divide, and seen as boorish and conservative. Karl is neither of those things but it’s easy to see, even in this one-sided telling, why his opinions riled up so many and so enduringly. But it’s a fascinating read. From a review by Philip Matthews at ReadingRoom: “It’s as though Stead is somehow an expat who lives in Auckland. Civilisation is elsewhere. But this dual life has had some unintended consequences. Stead is a distinguished and important New Zealand writer who isn’t really appreciated at home and when we do think about him, we probably think about his knack for controversy before we think about his fiction or poetry…The relaxed travel stories of a globetrotting intellectual are intimate and quite touching, and while Stead, now 88, wrote this final book to beat the inevitable deadline, it doesn’t read as though he rushed it.”
The Commercial Hotel by John Summers (Victoria University Press, $35)
I had just about had a lifelong gutsful of that simpering, endless genre, the personal essay, with its humourless moan about some old woe or grievance, its long-form Twitter expressions of an opinion that might please the masses, its plain bad writing, until the publication of The Commercial Hotel interrupted my loathings and reminded me what can be achieved by a writer of rare and special talent. John Summers is exactly that kind of writer and his collection is a thing of joy. From my review at ReadingRoom: “The sales pitch for The Commercial Hotel – that is, the blurbological rumination on the inside jacket, and the yammering endorsements on the back cover – place the book as a kind of quizzical series of snapshots of provincial or small-town New Zealand life, and quite rightly so. There are chapters on freezing works, on tramping in the bush, on taking rubbish to the tip. It’s a New Zealand everyone will recognise in their bones and the chapters cast a warm glow on our way of life. But this is just the surface appeal. There is something else going on which gives his book a special quality, a real and enduring depth. It’s all in the discreet little sentences. There is no other writer in New Zealand who can write so quietly; so much of The Commercial Hotel exists in the soft light of dawn, or twilight, due to the prose style and the tone it achieves.”
National Identity: confessions of an outsider by Simon Bridges (HarperCollins, $35)
Simon got in touch last summer and said could we meet at the Te Atatu RSA for a beer, his shout, he had something he wanted to discuss. He had me at shout. Over a beer he said that he’d been working on a book of essays on race, class, culture and other New Zealand issues, and wondered if they were okay or, in his words, “utter shit”. I went away and read them. They were more than okay – they were honest, bracing, personal, strange, charming. I advised him to go to HarperCollins and here we are. From a review by Finlay Macdonald at ReadingRoom: “Perhaps taking a leaf from Robert Muldoon’s first book, The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk, the member for Tauranga uses anecdote and memory to frame and filter his world view. Pleasingly, after early, anodyne professions of love for his country, Bridges settles into an easy, reflective style that only occasionally feels like being assailed by a conservative uncle at the family barbecue…The first chapters on race, nationality and class are possibly the best. Bridges manages to address his own ambivalent feelings about having both Māori and European whakapapa, without playing footsie with any binary iwi-Kiwi crassness.”
James Courage Diaries edited by Chris Brickell (Otago University Press, $45)
I was so taken with these diaries by an author who I’d never read and had only vaguely heard of that I devoted a week-long coverage at ReadingRoom to it. I commissioned CK Stead to write a review. He hated it. Oh well! I loved it. Courage (1903-1963) wrote of his childhood in North Canterbury, the happiness of moving to England and becoming a published author, the torment of love affairs with a series of men who never told him they loved him, and then, with an honesty that took my breath away, his years of psychoanalysis, when he transcribed his dialogue with his analyst including their almost constant talk about sex and the problem of “father’s cock”. From my review at ReadingRoom: “James Courage Diaries is a long, slow, immersion into the life and mind of a New Zealand writer who felt New Zealand as a deep presence even though he took the first opportunity to get the hell away from it and spent most of his life in preferred exile….It’s a moving, elegantly composed portrait of the suffering artist.”