ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias selects the year’s 10 best works of non-fiction
All hail, once more, to the art and power of the most popular literary genre of the past few years: the memoir. A typically excellent feature by Stuff writer Philip Matthews in March identified “a new, exciting strand of personal writing”, and offered this insight: “It’s partly the impact of the ‘me too’ movement, when personal truths were no longer sidelined or suppressed, and women re-assessed earlier events in light of new knowledge. It also reflects that the majority of New Zealand readers are women and have been for some time, only publishing took a little while to catch up.” He was referring to “first-person narratives by women”. A few weeks after his story appeared, Penguin published Grand by Noelle McCarthy, very much so a first-person narrative by a woman, and which I hereby declare not just the best book of nonfiction of 2022 but the very best book of any kind. It really is that good.
There are four other memoirs in this year’s nonfiction top 10. Political writing is represented by two books here, both about National, the most interesting party in New Zealand with its crazies and its thwarted ambitions and its ratfucking. I have a theory that the massive appeal of true-crime stories – Netflix would be nothing without its vampiric bloodsucking of the things Dahmer and other true-fiends did – is partly due to a renewed passion for horror. Blue Blood by Andrea Vance is the closest thing we have to it in New Zealand literature; it’s politics as horror show. It’s very much recommended reading – and buying – this Xmas, alongside the other selections in this year’s top 10. Get thee to a bookstore.
Grand by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Random House, $35)
The best book of non-fiction of 2022. It was the most intimate, the most artful, the most original, as the Irish-born broadcaster wrote about her complicated relationship with her mother and her less complicated but more damaging relationship with alcohol. From the year’s best book review, by Rachael King: “At the heart of this book is a revelation about lines of women in families, and trauma, and how it has the potential to repeat. In fiction, in myth, we’d say we are doomed to repeat it…. You’d never wish material this good for a memoir on anyone. It’s complex, thrilling and raw. It even has a perfect beginning, middle and end. It’s the opposite of comfort reading. And yet the ending is so tender, peaceful.”
Straight Up by Ruby Tui (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)
Very nearly the best book of non-fiction of 2022. As-told-to New Zealand sports memoirs are generally junk – all the awful rugby books, all the awful cricket books – but Tui does everything differently, more fresh and alive, doesn’t she? Full credit, too, to Margie Thomson, who Tui told her story to, and then crafted a memoir as fascinating as her Stan Walker book a few years ago. Tui is a national hero. Her book reveals what she went through to get there.
The Boy from Gorge River by Chris Long (HarperCollins, $39.99)
This was on the bestseller chart for months; the story of a family who went as off-grid as you can possibly get in New Zealand has a strong resonance with everyone familiar with the bush, with surviving, with going your own way. Long is the son of the only patriarch in history who went by the name of Beansprout. Yes, that Beansprout, the guy who set himself up in a remote spot on the West Coast, got married, and raised a family in the wilderness. The Boy from Gorge River provides a child’s perspective.
Raiment by Jan Kemp (Massey University Press, $35)
Another memoir, small but perfectly formed, of the 1960s and 70s, as lived and observed by a poet at the centre of things. From a review by Cathie Dunsford: “It’s a memoir cut with tales of the damp dark days of university flatting, trials with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll… The New Zealand that Kemp describes in Raiment is vividly brought to life in all its blandness, sameness, sense of security, but biting at the edges is the beginning of a change in attitudes, a new sense of a sexual revolution. The second wave of feminism was still in its infancy but starting to be heard. It was radical for a female poet to be touring with male poets and for her to claim her place on the stage as an equal. Kemp admits she was no feminist warrior. But she was also determined to act on the same stage as the male poets and be respected as a writer. That helped pave the way for many others to follow.”
A Month At the Back of My Brain: A Third Memoir by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $40)
One more memoir! The essence of the author is his charm, his sense of wonder, his good humour; all are evident in this original approach to looking back. From a review by CK Stead: “Kevin’s method for this book has been each morning to make his mind go blank and then see what crowds in to fill the space, and allow it to insist on itself, crowding out all else. So he has shifted about in time, as people of our advanced years are likely to do… A near 90-year old’s brain is neither entirely orderly nor consistently lucid, but while it holds itself together, as Kevin’s does, it is endlessly interesting.”
Blue Blood: The inside story of the National Party in crisis by Andrea Vance (HarperCollins, $36.99)
Old news, but what thrilling old news, as political reporter Vance tells the story of how English got rolled by Bridges who got rolled by Muller who rolled himself under the bus of mental health and made way for Collins who did much the same as Muller, really. From my review: “So this is what the Wellington political beltway feels like on the inside, and it’s pretty much exactly what you always suspected: a chamber of horrors, one of the worst places in the civilised world, a sealed room marked NO ONE GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE. Blue Blood is a descent into a circle of Hell where lost souls function to create, maintain and nourish a crisis. Here, then, is the swamp; and Vance has fun draining it.”
Yes, Minister by Christopher Finlayson (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)
More politics from the crazy gang. From a review by Matthew Hooton: “Finlayson’s memoir is an easy-to-read sketch, but it’s full of the magnificence of his intellect, wisdom…and venom. Inevitably, I took most delight in Finlayson’s takes on the National Party, since I agree with almost everything he says about both the party’s personalities and practice. It turns out we despise the same National people, despair of the same party tendencies and celebrate the same elements of social and economic progress National has delivered over the last three decades.”
Becoming Pākehā by John Bluck (HarperCollins, $39.99)
New Zealanders love that genre of who-are-we-really, of where’s-our-national-identity-at-these-days-bro, of let-us-look-the-race-wars-in-the-face. Alan Duff wrote a good book on it a few years ago and Bluck’s analysis is a kind of sequel. He tries to make sense of New Zealand as a white man wanting to understand his role and responsibilities alongside the tangata whenua.
Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control by Anke Richter (HarperCollins, $37.99)
Centrepoint was a cult. Is Gloriavale a cult, or a community? Richter, an investigative journalist, wonders about these distinctions, and reports on much else in this compelling book about belief systems and alternative ways of living. From my review: “Richter’s work is thorough and compassionate. In her Acknowledgements, she thanks the great names of New Zealand investigate journalism for their help – Nicky Hager, Lynley Hood, Jared Savage, David Fisher. She puts herself in the story for the best reason: she belongs in the story. She describes herself as a ‘semi-professional sex cult tourist’ and she’s wary of farming survivors for their stories. Cult Trip is a brittle, sensitive book.”
So far, for now: On journeys, widowhood and stories that are never over by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $36)
The best book of essays of 2022. From my review: “Kidman is someone who cares about other people, and there are occasions when she cares very deeply. There is a powerful chapter that backgrounds her interest in Albert Black, hanged in 1956 for murder, and the subject of her sympathetic novel This Mortal Boy. There is an equally strongly felt chapter on Pike River. Much of So far is a book of ghosts. Albert Black and the man he killed, the 29 men who never came out of the Pike River mine…The very strongest chapter is the very first, about the death of her husband Ian. Those with hearts of stone will weep. It is a beautifully measured account of what happened and what it was like.”
ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the best books of 2023. Tomorrow: the 10 or 11 best illustrated books.