Friday, 18 December 2009

Holiday reading

We've been putting up a few books online recently that make great holiday reading, and it turns out that there's a bit of a shipwreck adventure theme going on, all with a New Zealand focus of course.

First up is François Raynal's Wrecked on a Reef, which recounts the almost two-year stint of Raynal and his shipmates on the Auckland Islands after their ship, the Grafton, is wrecked. Amazingly, the Grafton crew survived their ordeal in relative health and comfort, while unbeknowen to them another group of survivors, who were wrecked later and rescued earlier, almost all died.

This sucess at surviving in an environment where it rains for 30 days a month and there is little to eat except molly mawks and an occasional seal was largely down to Raynal's remarkable talents for improving their conditions in spite of few resources, and they managed to make soap, tan leather, build a comfortable lodge, and make a forge and iron tools.

It's a fantastic read, and ended up being an influence on Jules Verne when he wrote The Mysterious Island. The edition we have online contains fascinating commentaries from Christiane Mortelier, which she has kindly allowed us to republish online.

The Auckland Islands feature again in The Castaways of Disappointment Island, an account of the wreck of the Dundonald, and another great read.

The Auckland Islands were responsible for a significant number of the shipwrecks occuring in New Zealand waters, of which probably the most famous was the wreck of the General Grant. In the days of sailing ships, the quickest route across the Pacific was typically via the latitudes of the Roaring 40s, to the south of New Zealand; however, with the Auckland Islands smack in the middle of the route a number of ships came to grief, and survivors typically had to endure for many months before there was a chance of rescue.

A book covering the fascinating history and geography of the Auckland Islands is Allen Eden's Islands of Despair. He goes into detail about a number of the wrecks, including the General Grant, the Grafton, the Dundonald, the Derry Castle, the Invercauld and others, but also covers the story of the Erlangen, a German steamer which used the Auckland Islands as a base during a successful effort to escape New Zealand waters at the beginning of the Second World War. The Erlangen managed to escape from Otago harbour and reach South America without detection, though even with stopping at the Auckland Islands to cut a large quantity of wood for fuel, the Captain was forced into using many of the wooden fittings on board in order to reach the destination.

A more modern tale of shipwreck disaster is The Wahine Disaster, by Max Lambert and Jim Hartley. The authors, both journalists, do a great job of weaving together the different stories of the survivors and evoking the atmosphere of that tragic day. The result is a book that is highly readable but also quite sobering, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the disaster.

Another book well worth reading that we've had available online for a while now is Elsie K. Morton's Crusoes of Sunday Island, an account of the life of the Bell family on Sunday Island (now known as Raoul Island) in the Kermadecs. What seems at times an ideal, if at times difficult life, is put into contrast by the events at the end of the book which force the family to flee the island.

If shipwreck adventure is not your cup of tea, then you could try some of our more literary additions:

Katherine Mansfield's Novels and Novelists, a collection of reviews Mansfield wrote on leading authors of the day originally published in the Athenæum between April 1919 and December 1920. This work contains 150 reviews of 127 books by authors including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and many others.

Pageant, a 1933 (our edition from 1935) New Zealand novel from the pen of Edith Lyttleton (writing as G.B. Lancaster) which sold more than 50,000 copies in the United States alone during the first two years of its release. As Terry Sturm notes in his comprehensive article on Lyttleton's publishing career and her entanglements with publishers and literary agents, "It was by far the most widely read novel ever written by a New Zealander, up to that time." We also have two of Lyttleton's other novels available online: Promenade and The World is Yours.

Jane Mander's The Passionate Puritan, according to the New Zealand Book Council, "is a rather cheerful account of kauri milling, apparently written with an eye on the cinema (‘a mistake’, Mander claimed, she ‘ever afterwards regretted’)". Mander is probably best known for her novel The Story of a New Zealand River, which was adapted for the screen by Jane Campion as The Piano, and which Mansfield rather critically reviews in Novels and Novelists.

Margaret Bullocks's Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge. Part of the Nineteenth Century New Zealand Novels collection, this edition of Utu has been extensively footnoted and prepared with an introduction to the work of Margaret Bullock by Vicki Hughes, a student from the University of Victoria Department of English postgraduate programme. As Vicki notes, "Deceit, revenge, murder, incest, cannibalism and false identities, Margaret Bullock’s Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge has it all."

If we're talking favourites, then mine would have to be Raynal's Wrecked on a Reef, which is truly stranger than fiction, and an amazing tale of resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

For Stuart, his choice is Archibald Baxter's We Will Not Cease, an account of the author's horrific treatment during the First World War as a conscientious objector including imprisonment, beating, the infamous "Number 1 Field Punishment" (essentially day-long cruxifiction), and being left for dead on the battlefields of France. It's a truly remarkable book, and one for which the matter-of-fact tone is amazing, given the tribulations that the author experienced.

These books described above are all available as ePub eBooks (and occasionally PDF), downloadable for reading on your mobile device such as the iPhone / iPod Touch, or electronic ink devices such as the ecoReader which VicBooks here at Victoria University is now stocking. While we don't expect too many New Zealanders to be reading ePubs such as those mentioned above this holiday season, if the pace of developments in 2010 is anything like it has been this year, then we think that in twelve months time we'll see quite a few more people downloading ePubs from the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre website.

For us, the rapid acceptance of eBooks has been the biggest surprise of the year, and we're glad that we can help to ensure that New Zealand's historical cultural texts can be represented in this brave new world. We look forward to making many more titles of interest to the New Zealand public freely available online during 2010.

Wishing everyone a relaxing and enjoyable time over the holiday season,


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Katherine Mansfield as reviewer

Like most people that have passed through a New Zealand university, I've been exposed to a strong dose of writing by Katherine Mansfield, who even today ranks as New Zealand's pre-eminent writer. I've marvelled at the technique in her short stories, and enjoyed the candidness of her writing in the diaries and letters, and even enjoyed a number of books about her, including Antony Alper's biography and Margaret Scott's enjoyable reminiscenses about following the Mansfield trail.

However, I'd never really realised the strength and wit of Mansfield's writing as a reviewer, as illustrated in her reviews written for The Athenæum, the literary magazine edited by her husband, John Middleton Murry.

Spanning a period of only 21 months, Mansfield produced reviews covering more than 150 works of 127 authors, totalling more than 100,000 words, before becoming too ill and disinterested to write more. These reviews exemplify the wit, charm, and caustic exactness of Mansfield's writing, and should be regarded as an essential resource for those studying her work and technique.

She recognises the talent of her contemporaries, extolling with pleasure on Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens:
Mrs. Virginia Woolf's story belongs to another age. It is so far removed from the note-book literature of our day, so exquisite an example of love at second sight. She begins where the others leave off, entering Kew Gardens, as it were, alone and at her leisure when their little first screams of excitement have died away and they have rushed afield to some new brilliant joy
She is no less taken by Woolf's Night and Day:
The strangeness lies in her aloofness, her air of quiet perfection, her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage—the absence of any scars [...] It is impossible to refrain from comparing ‘Night and Day’ with the novels of Miss Austen. There are moments, indeed, when one is almost tempted to cry it Miss Austen up-to-date. It is extremely cultivated, distinguished and brilliant, but above all—deliberate.
However, she is also not reluctant to unlease her acerbicness for those works that fail to impress her. For instance, in her review of Jerome K. Jerome's All Roads Lead to Calvary:
‘All Roads Lead to Calvary’ is another novel. It is not more; it is one of that enormous pile of novels…. ‘Are they fresh?’ ‘Yes, baked to-day, Madame.’ But they are just the same as those that were baked yesterday and the day before—and the day before that. So much flour, a sprinkle of currants, a smear of sugar on the top. Melancholy, melancholy thought of all those people steadily munching, asking for another, and carrying perhaps a third one home with them in case they should wake up in the night and feel—not hungry, exactly—but ‘just a little empty.’
Her easy manner and facility with language emerge strongly from her reviews, and make them a pleasure to read, whether or not we are familiar with the work being critiqued:
Public Opinion, garrulous, lying old nurse that she is, cries: ‘Yes! Great books, immortal books are being born every minute, each one more lusty than the last. Let him who is without sin among you cast the first criticism.’ It would be a superb, thrilling world if this were true! Or if even a very moderate number of them were anything but little puppets, little make-believes, playthings on strings with the same stare and the same sawdust filling, just unlike enough to keep the attention distracted, but all like enough to do nothing more profound. After all, in these lean years of plenty how could it be otherwise? Not even the most hardened reader, at the rate books are written and read nowadays, could stand up against so many attacks upon his mind and heart, if it were. Reading, for the great majority—for the reading public—is not a passion but a pastime, and writing, for the vast number of modern authors, is a pastime and not a passion.
For those studying Mansfield and her influences, there is plenty to focus upon, whether it be references to the writers that deeply influenced her, such as Jane Austen, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, or allusions to childhood and her New Zealand past:
Perhaps one of the rarest and most delicious is meeting with an old play-fellow who is just come from the country of our childhood, and having an endless talk with him about what is changed and what is the same—whether the Aliens still live in the same house, what has become of the huge Molesworth family, and was the mystery of old Anderson ever solved?
We shall never see these people again; we shall share nothing more with them. We shall never push open their garden gates and smell our way past the flower bushes to the white verandahs where they sit gossiping in the velvet moonlight. Why should we feel then this passionate interest? Is it because, prisoners as we are, we love to feel we have inhabited other lives—lived more lives than one—or we are reluctant to withdraw wholly because of that whispered word ‘Finis’ which locks the doors against us, one by one, for ever?
But in case we ever think she is becoming sentimental in her critique, there are plenty of occasions where she is brusque and to the point, as with her review of Jane Mander's Story of a New Zealand River:
Miss Jane Mander is immensely hampered in her writing by her adherence to the old unnecessary technical devices—they are no more—with which she imagines it necessary to support her story. If one has the patience to persevere with her novel, there is, under all the false wrappings, the root of something very fresh and sturdy. She lacks confidence and the courage of her opinions; like the wavering, fearful heroine, she leans too hard on England. There are moments when we catch a bewilderingly vivid glimpse of what she really felt and knew about the small settlement of people in the lumber-camp, but we suspect that these are moments when she is off her guard.
Although many of the novels Mansfield covers in these reviews are now lost to the collective memory, there are also many writers whose works have stood the test, including Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Jack London, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton.
Reading through the reviews, I can't help but have my attention caught again and again by some turn of phrase or description which is very tangible and sharply-defined in the way that few writers are able to produce even today.

These reviews are a joy to read, and we're pleased to be able to make these reviews available for everyone's edification / mortification. They can be found at:
, which also includes an index of the writers reviewed.