Recent necrology, August 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Kofi Annan, 1938-2018
    Ghanaian diplomat, UN Secretary-General
  • Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018
    Legendary American singer and songwriter, the Queen of Soul

Interventions Shatterday Respect Pasture Plants and Pastures of New Zealand

  • Baden Norris, 1927-2018
    Author who was the driving force behind the Lyttelton Museum
  • Neil Simon, 1927-2018
    American playwright, screenwriter and author

A House for Mr Biswas United to Protect The Other Side The Neil Simon Collection

Recent necrology, July 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Franz Beyer, 1922-2018
    German musicologist who provided a satisfactory conclusion to Mozart’s unfinished Requiem
  • Bernard Hepton, 1925-2018
    English actor and director of stage, film and television
  • Tab Hunter, 1931-2018
    American film star and recording artist

The Country Wife Stig of the Dump Encounters with British Composers Harry M Miller

  • Harry Miller, 1934-2018
    New Zealand manager, promoter and publicist
  • Colin Quincey, 1945-2018
    First person to row from New Zealand to Australia

Recent necrology, June 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018
    American celebrity chef, author and television personality
  • Tony Vercoe, 1919-2018
    Musician and historian, in charge of Kiwi Pacific Records for 30 years

Kitchen Confidential The Nasty Bits The Protecting Veil The Kiwi Pacific Records Story

Recent necrology, May 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Beth Chatto, 1923-2018
    English garden designer, plantswoman and writer
  • Bernard Lewis, 1916-2018
    Foremost Western historian of Islam in the post-war era
  • John Moorfield, 1943-2018
    Highly regarded Māori language academic, affectionately known as Te Murumāra

Beth Chatto's Shade Garden Sins of the Father Faith and Power Te Aka

  • Clive Sinclair, 1948-2018
    English author who published several award-winning novels and collections of short stories
  • Graeme Stanley, 1938-2018
    Christchurch ‘walktologist’ and former city councillor
  • Tom Wolfe, 1931-2018
    American author and pioneer of New Journalism

Portnoy's Complaint Nemesis Meet the Wife The Bonfire of the Vanities

Remembering Tom Wolfe – a personal view

It is, of course, with much sadness that I heard about the recent death of Tom Wolfe, who was without doubt a towering figure in literary circles for most of the second half of 20th century. Along with people like Hunter S. Thompson, and several other (mostly male) American writers of his generation, he turned journalism into literature, to be read for pleasure, inventing in the process a new kind of non-fiction and influencing generations of authors whose work I have been enjoying ever since. But for me, Tom Wolfe’s legacy is a decidedly mixed one.

CoverIn my youth, I loved the vivid, day-glo prose of his psychedelic classic, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. As a window onto a world I knew very little about it was one of those books that broadened my horizons and helped me become aware that there are many more ways to live a life than my rather conventional upbringing had prepared me for. Another favourite was The Right Stuff, about the Mercury Seven astronauts, arguably the real pioneers of manned spaceflight (at least in the Western hemisphere), among the very first to venture off-planet, and lone-travellers in their single-seat capsules. It wasn’t just the incredible tales of the astronauts themselves that I enjoyed, but also the stories of those around them, their girlfriends, wives, and families, and the ground crew that supported them, which made the space race feel, to me at least, like a crazy mad adventure that (unlike the trips of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters described in “…Acid Test”) everyone could buy into – at least that’s how I felt at the time – and it helped to fuel my life-long interest in science and technology.

CoverWhen I was a bit older I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s searing critique of the worst excesses of modernist architecture. It was bitingly funny and satirical, but actually, I gradually realised, I quite liked a lot of the buildings Wolfe was ridiculing. Although I was with him in his disdain for the cynical manipulation of public taste by those in power, which he so expertly took down, was I simultaneously allowing myself to be manipulated perhaps? Nevertheless, I thought I saw a conservatism coming through in his writing that I hadn’t noticed before and it didn’t sit well with me, which might be why I stopped reading his books after that. It wasn’t a deliberate, or even conscious, turning away, it was just that there were always other things I wanted to read more. So, I never read any of his fiction, which came later in his career, or the books he is now perhaps most lauded for, such as Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s right-wing credentials were confirmed when he came out as a supporter of George W. Bush, but I think his politics were more complicated and nuanced than this might suggest, and the claim that he was a racist because of derogatory remarks he made about the Black Panther Party in his book Radical Chic, in which he mocked all manner of left-wing intellectuals, are, I think, overstated; above all it seems he was a contrarian who delighted in taking an opposing view to whatever appeared to be the zeitgeist at the time.

CoverAs someone who has spent much of my adult life as an academic working in the field of evolutionary biology, for me, the last straw came with his book The Kingdom of Speech, which was strongly critical of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, the cornerstone of modern biology. I haven’t read this book, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment on it, but I remember the furore it caused at the time of its publication for its anti-Darwinian stance. Some biologists saw value in Wolfe’s critique, not I think of Darwin as biologist, but of the way his ideas have sometimes been applied outside biology, but for most I think the feeling was something like ‘How dare this hack, without any formal training in biology, take on one of our most treasured icons?’. But of course, daring iconoclasm was what Tom Wolfe was all about, and he was well-versed in evolutionary theory, although for me at the time this felt like a step too far.

For these, and other reasons (like his affected style in later life of wearing white suits and carrying elaborately carved wooden canes – a harmless eccentricity perhaps, but one I found off-putting), I have been ambivalent about re-reading Wolfe’s books, or filling in the gaps, but his death has led me to reconsider. The other day I pulled “…Acid Test” off the shelf, and the first few pages immediately brought back the excitement I felt reading it for the first time all those years ago, so I think I will finish it. I’m not a big re-reader of books, but I think there are things in it that I will see quite differently this time. For example, in the opening scene, one of the hippies in the back of the van hurtling through the streets of San Francisco to meet Ken Kesey after his release from prison is none other than the environmentalist Stewart Brand. I wouldn’t have known who he was when I first read the book, but since then I have read some of Brand’s own books, and followed his more recent enthusiasm for de-extinction (another controversial topic, which I will perhaps re-visit in another blog). I think there’s a good argument to be made that “…Acid Test” is a modern classic that should be widely read. I’m not so sure about “The Right Stuff”, which I don’t intend to read again. I don’t think Wolfe’s glorification of the test pilots, turned early astronauts, and their male-dominated world would seem so appealing to me this time round, and in any case, since then I’ve read lots of other books on the subject that I would far rather read again (again, a subject for another blog). I’m not sure about re-reading “Our House to Bauhaus”, and it’s not a field I’ve continued to follow or read many other books about, but for satirical bite I think I might try The Painted Word, which I haven’t read before, but is on a similar topic and of a similar vintage. As for the fiction, I think I might leave that for my retirement.

In the end, my remembered fondness for Wolfe’s early books must trump my reservations about his later work. Despite his flaws, I think my reading life has been significantly enriched by my encounters with Wolfe’s writing and those he influenced, and for that I am very grateful.

Farewell Tom, and thank you!

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Find Tom Wolfe’s works in our collection.

Recent necrology, April 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently:

  • Abbas, 1944-2018
    Iranian photographer known for his photojournalism
  • Milos Forman, 1932-2018
    Czech American film director, screenwriter and actor
  • Ivan Mauger, 1939-2018
    New Zealand motorcycle racer who won six world speedway titles

Ivan Mauger Fergie The Pilot's Wife As Green as Grass

  • Emma Smith, 1923-2018
    English novelist who also wrote for children
  • Cecil Taylor, 1929-2018
    Jazz pianist whose playing defined the term ‘free jazz’
  • Huguette Tourangeau, 1938-2018
    French-Canadian mezzo-soprano particularly associated with French and Italian repertoire

 

Recent necrology, March 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Roger Bannister, 1929-2018
    British doctor, academic and middle-distance athlete who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in the 1952 Olympics

 Twin Tracks The Wedding Promise Greeks Bearing Gifts Bad Debts

Vale, Peter Temple (& Jack Irish)

It’s always a sad day when you hear of the death of someone whose work you have appreciated over the years. For me, this time, it’s Peter Temple; Australian crime author who died from cancer at his home in Ballarat on the 8th of March, 2018 at the age of 71.

Peter Temple was born in South Africa but immigrated in 1977 due to his anti-apartheid political stance. He moved to Germany at first and then two years later he arrived in Australia and began on his journey to becoming one of Australia’s great writers – and it was lucky for Australia!

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He’s most famous for his books featuring Jack Irish; the loveable, roguish lawyer/drinker/debt-collector who likes a flutter on the nags and to prop up the bar at his local Fitzroy watering hole. The character of Jack Irish and the excellent use of language to convey the very matter-of-fact communications of the Australian working class male made these books a tremendous success and highly influential in the Australian crime writing genre. The books are entwined with plot twists and intrigue, corruption and politics, are very well paced, and perfectly capture the social nuances of Australian life. As do the television series that they have been turned into, featuring a who’s who of Australian acting and Guy Pearce as the main man Jack Irish. The producers really nailed the casting, the style, feel, and sense of place and the books really were celebrated in this particular telly treatment!

There are four books in the Jack Irish series, all worth reading but begin with Bad Debts. The tv series is available on DVD and to stream on Lightbox.

Peter Temple’s other books also saw critical acclaim. In 2010 he landed Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award, for his novel Truth – sequel to The Broken Shore. For a crime writer to win the Miles Franklin was quite a coup and his acceptance speech was trademark self-deprecation and wry humour, inviting the judging panel to “…take the flack for giving the Miles Franklin to a crime writer”. His third book in this new series has not been presented to his editor as yet, but perhaps sometime on the future another Australian literary great will take the final steps and finish the story and we will see the results. Possibly a posthumous award to go with his Miles Franklin, his five Ned Kelly Awards, and his Duncan Lawrie Dagger!?

For now I suggest we kick back, appreciate the fact that our region has produced another great writer, and for fans I suggest a nostalgic re-read.

Or if you’ve never tried his books before, get stuck in, mate!

Vale, Peter Temple.

Recent necrology, February 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Billy Graham, 1918-2018
    American evangelist known internationally

The Vicar of Dibley Just As I Am  A Question of Trust

Recent necrology, January 2018

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • John Barton, 1928-2018
    Co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Pat Booth, 1929-2018
    Crusading New Zealand newspaperman

Unsung Heroes Tales from Earthsea Provence A-Z Flowering Plants in New Zealand

  • Ursula Le Guin, 1929-2018
    American novelist best known for her children’s fantasy and science fiction stories
  • Peter Mayle, 1939-2018
    British author noted for his memoirs of life in Provence