JANUARY READING - Cause of Death; Colour; The Hare With Amber Eyes; Remember Me; Caleb's Crossing

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

It has taken some days to come up with a review of this book; I still really haven't figured it out! I live in a country, that like the east coast of America was colonised by English missionaries. The arrival of more and more settlers led inevitably to conflicts over land use and accessibility, resulting in the indigenous population becoming increasingly marginalised and deprived. In fact reading this book is a timely reminder, here on our national day as I write this, that the early history of this part of America was very similar to the early colonial history of New Zealand. Uncomfortably so actually.

This story of early English/Indian relations is based on a real person and an actual sequence of events. In 1636, the institution that came to be known as Harvard University was founded. A few years later, a group of Puritans left the main settlement of Massachusetts Bay for the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, where a number of Indian groups also lived. Interaction was inevitable. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was a young Indian boy, who along with four other young Indian scholars, went to a grammar school in Cambridge, next to Harvard, with two of them being admitted to Harvard around 1661 when Caleb would have been around 15 or 16 years old. He was the first Indian to graduate from Harvard and was one of only 465 graduates of the college before 1700.

Caleb features heavily in this story, but the novel is actually more about a young Puritan girl, Bethia, who is the daughter of the minister who has made it his life's mission to convert the Indians on the island. Bethia is a girl of intelligence, with an inquiring mind who does not want to be merely a subservient wife and mother with all life knocked out of her. When she is about 12, she and Caleb meet quite by chance and immediately strike up a friendship based on curiosity about each other's lives. Caleb's intelligence quickly shows itself, and before long he comes under the wing of Bethia's father and eventually in Cambridge. Through all this Bethia, by virtue of her sex, always knows that she is not destined for the academic life, and yet manages to get herself to Cambridge too where she works as a servant in the house that the students live in. By this means she continues her 'studies' by observation and eavesdropping on the Latin, Greek, religious instruction and philosophy that ensure her happiness and continued contentment.

Being a spirited and intelligent girl, she does not fit the prescribed model of young Puritan womanhood. She continually finds herself in trouble with her elders ie the men in her world, for her opinions and general non-submissiveness. She is however a most admirable young lady, trying to please those around her, and yet also retaining her sense of self and independent thought. To have that strength of character in such a society takes some beating.

The beauty of this book however, lies in the style of writing. It is as if the author has travelled back in time and taken dictation of the language spoken, the phraseology used, the very proper turns of phrase. If you have read 'Year of Wonders' you will know what I mean. Like that story, this also is narrated in the first person. As a result we get a very keen insight into the mind and heart of Bethia.

I wouldn't say this is my favourite Geraldine Brooks novel, 'People of the Book' takes that position. But for an insight into a little known part of history, it really is quite fascinating. As an aside the most interesting fact I took from this book was the brief mention of a woman who lived in these times, Anne Hutchinson. She was a woman of fierce religious conviction and got herself into all sorts of trouble with the religious authorities. She died in a massacre by Indians, along with a number of her children - she had 14 of them. According to Wikipedia she is descended from Edward I of England and in turn his parents Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her descendants through her children that did not die in the massacre, incredibly include past presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and the two George Bushs, plus current Repbulican Party candidate Mitt Romney, two US Supreme Court judges and various other key figures. What a legacy. Now that would be a story worth reading about.

REMEMBER ME by Derek Hansen

A child's world is an extraordinary place. At once small and insular with defined physical boundaries, and yet the possibilities of the imagination create whole new worlds and ways of looking at the same world we adults live in.

In 1956, New Zealand is indeed a very small and insular place. Ultra conservative and British to its core, the population is still dealing with the fall out of World War II. In the search for normality and stability, conforming is the key. Those with 'war issues' are expected to keep them close to the chest and deal with them in their own way - alcohol, religion, denial, violence. You get the picture. Yet as we know, the issues that these behaviours cover are never far from the surface.

But we live in an ever-changing world, and children of course have no knowledge or experience of war, hunger, deprivation, losing limbs, POW camps, battle and so
on. They take what they see going on around them and interpret it in a way that may not quite meet with the universal approval of those around them.

The narrator in this gem of a book is a twelve year old boy, nameless as it so happens although I didn't realise this until quite some time after I finished. Like many twelve year old boys, he has a sense of adventure, an inquiring mind, and best of all an extraordinary gift for writing. He lives with his Mum and Dad and two older brothers in an ordinary suburban street in Auckland. He goes to school, has good friends, knows almost everybody in his local community, loves fishing, rides a bike and totally loves his life. His teacher Mr Grainger, regularly sets the class essay topics which our young hero embraces with huge energy, seriousness and diligence. The story he writes to the topic "The Burden of Responsibility" is a great story our young man bases on a man in the community. Any twelve year old boy would fall over themselves to know such a story, but it has the potential to rip apart this little suburban community, and turn upside down their preconceptions and prejudices.

But not only is this a jolly good yarn. It so brilliantly captures the tone and character of what 1950s post war New Zealand society would have been like, packed with the details and nuances of daily life. The author grew up in a place in New Zealand just like this in the 1950s. It is almost as if he has found his own diary from boyhood and built his story around it. He is also a very astute observer of behaviour and how people interact with each other. I really enjoyed this story, and think it would be great reading too for younger readers.


Edmund De Waal is a very well-known and highly regarded English potter and ceramicist. In keeping with many great artists his passion and dedication to his art was apparent from a very young age and once he earned his first class honours from Cambridge University he turned his energies and focus to his art. His specific interest appears to have laid in Japanese porcelain and to this end he studied in Japan, where coincidentally his great uncle, Ignace Ephrussi had lived for many years. Uncle Iggie fled Austria in the late 1930s for America and ended up in Japan after the war helping with the reconstruction process. He never left. What also remained with him till his death when they were inherited by Edmund, was a collection of 264 tiny hand carved wood and ivory carvings - netsuke - small enough to fit in the palm of a hand or a trouser pocket. And more importantly small enough to be moved around and kept safe.

Edmund is a direct descendant of the extremely wealthy and very upwardly mobile Russian-Jewish Ephrussi family whose fortune was made from humble origins as grain merchants in Odessa. By the 1860s the family had become the greatest grain exporters in the world, extremely wealthy and influential. The family had branched out into finance with their own banks and extensive business interests through Europe. In the 1870s the two sons were sent respectively to Paris and Vienna to further develop and cement the family's interests in Europe. Despite being incredibly rich and influential in many areas of high society the family was nevertheless Jewish and subject to many of the prejudices and antisemitism that were so prevalent at the time. It all came to a a head of course in the 1930s with the family in Vienna in particular losing literally everything they had ever possessed including their own identities. But miraculously, for the most part, they survived. Edmund's Uncle Iggie was one of the survivors. As was the collection of netsuke which had made its way to the Paris of the 1870s when they were first purchased by man about town/art collector/writer and critic Charles Ephrussi to Vienna to Japan and finally to Edmund in England. And that is all I will say about the story of the netsuke because this is story you need to read for yourself.

This is such a great read because of the way it is told. Edmund, as the custodian of the netsuke including his favourite the hare with amber eyes, feels enormous responsibility for the collection he has inherited. He is captivated by the collection's history and how it is integral to the history of his own family. And so he finds the story taking over his own life as he travels to Odessa, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo uncovering the lives of his family in these places. It would be easy to turn this story into a strict narrative with family anecdotes, and the horrors of war and antisemitism that we are so familiar with. But no, the author loves these family members of his, he wants to get beyond what they do, gets under their skins, becomes incredibly intimate with them. His artist's eye, with its intensity and impeccable eye for detail has given us a portrayal of a family and its history, surrounded by limitless wealth and beautiful things that nevertheless never really finds full acceptance into the society it wants to be accepted in. And the only constant is the netsuke collection that becomes the one remaining link between Edmund and his own young family, and the Ephrussis who left Russia with such huge hopes in the 1870s.

As a book of writing it is not perfect. Edmund is a tad indulgent of some of his predecessors, especially Charles in late 19th century Paris. In fact a lot of this was lost on me - I have never read Proust, and some of the artists I have never heard of, but Google has been working over time since filling me in.

This is a book club book so it is not mine, but I will be finding my own copy. It is the type of book, when you want a few moments to be reminded of beauty in the world, you can pick this up, open any chapter and be swept back into a time and history we have lost, with love and strength of family at its core. For me the one line review on the back cover by A.S Byatt sums it all up - 'Weird, strange and gripping'.


I remember when I was a child getting a box of paints in small tubes. I was fascinated by the names of the colours, words I had never heard of before - vermillion, magenta, aquamarine, cochineal, carmine. They might have been only shades of orange, purple, blue and red, but those exotic names gave those paints just a little more magic. Didn't do much for my art work, but never mind.

Victoria Finlay would appear to have had a similar early interest in colour when her father took her to Chartres Cathedral. She noticed the beauty of the stained glass window crafted some 800 years ago, only to be gob smacked when her father told her that no one actually knows how to make that beautiful blue in the window anymore. And so began her interest in discovering where colours come from and ultimately this book.

Part travelogue, part science text, part art history, part general history, the author has brought together a huge number and variety of facts and experiences and people into this rather large book of 440 pages, not including bibliography, notes and index which together run to another 60 pages! It could be very easy to have complete confusion in amalgamating all this material into a readable book. Probably the only way to do it with a subject such is colour is to organise it by colour. So she starts at the beginning with the colour of the earth - ochre - the first colour used for art and decoration. She goes to Australia, to an Aborigine community where ochre has been used continuously for 40,000 years. Imagine.

She then moves onto black and brown made from soot, coal, fish excretions, graphite rock, wasps, as well as giving us snippets about mummification and the history of printing. The next chapter, white, is mostly about lead which was used to make white paint, and especially make-up resulting in the early and painful deaths of many fashionable ladies. Following the colours of the rainbow, the next seven chapters take us all over the world. From cochineal bugs on cactus plants in Chile (red), to Stradivarius violins in Cremona (orange), to urine gathering in India and wars over saffron (yellow), to exploring caves in China (green), visiting the Bamiyan Buddhas not long before they were blown up (blue), harvesting indigo plants in India and Mexico (indigo) and going to Lebanon to search for the source of the power of purple in ancient Rome and Egypt (violet). And these are only a few of the stories that the author crams into her book.

If there is any criticism of the book it is perhaps that there is too much information, too many stories and adventures, making it hard to catagorise exactly what type of book it is. I would say, quite simply, it is a personal journey of a subject close to her heart that she wants to share with as many people as possible. It is an absolute treasure trove of action and inquiry and I learnt so much about all sorts of stuff! So glad I picked this book up from the shelf of a second hand book shop!

CAUSE OF DEATH by Patricia Cornwell

So here I am - summer holidays, in a rented bach by the sea, and it is raining. No sun, swimming, walking or feeling the warm air. What to do but raid the owners' holiday book collection, always so different from what is in one's own collection or pile to read. Not much there actually. So time to take the plunge and pull one off the shelf, a well known and by all accounts highly regarded author not yet read...Patricia Cornwell! Nothing like a bit of murder, body count, forensics and blood to take one away from the rain.

Published in 1996, I understand this is her 7th novel featuring that wonder woman Dr Kay Scarpetta - Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia and consultant to the FBI. One New Year's Eve she receives a strange phone call concerning a body found on an anchor rope attached to a decommissioned navy vessel. What follows is a barely credible escapade into poisonings, brutal murders, a group of neo-fascist lunatics, computer wizardry and robotics and of course Dr Scarpetta intimately involved in saving the day and apprehending the perpetrators. All very fantastic and superb escapist holiday reading.

But the book is not only murder and mayhem. Never having read anything about Dr Scarpetta before, I did manage to learn an awful lot about her and her life. I guess she is in her forties, lives alone, but with a complicated personal life that returns to haunt her in this story; she has a brilliant young computer science niece who coincidentally works for the FBI and is still coming to terms with her lesbianism. Plus there are what I gather are some old hands from previous books such as Marino, who is probably the most real person in this story. As I read in one review of this book, he is so well drawn that you can almost smell the spilt egg from breakfast on his tie. And he has the best lines too!

I gather from reading about this book on Amazon that it is not Ms Cornwell's best Kay Scarpetta. Compared to her others it would appear to lack depth, have little character development, in fact almost stereotypical characters, and most importantly missing that 'extraordinary, can't-go-to-bed-til-you're-finished suspense' (Publishers' Weekly) of the previous six Scarpetta novels.

Nevertheless for a first read of this author I enjoyed it very much. Going in eyes wide open I had nothing to compare her to, or really any knowledge of the author and her character at all. If the other books in the series are better I look forward very much to reading some more in the future. I read that Angelina Jolie has been signed to play Scarpetta in a series of films - look forward to seeing those in due course. Great wet day holiday reading.