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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

It has been a bad year for church historians, so far.

First, the dean of Australian Catholic historians, Patrick O'Farrell went - on Christmas Day 2003, to be sure, but the best obituary, Gerard Windsor's in the Financial Review, did not appear until four weeks later. O'Farrell left a dozen books behind. These not only gave generations of catholics a grip on their own history (a critical achievement, since history is central to Catholic identity); his books also argued that case that the Irish were prime makers of Australia's national persona.

Then, a fortnight after O'Farrell, Tony Cahill, putative biographer of Cardinal Moran and Archbishop Vaughan, died. A historian's historian, he did highly prized work as an editor and contributor to scholarly collections. It's a sadness, to be robbed of the great Moran biography.

O'Farrell and Cahill were both seventy years old. A few weeks ago, however, came news of the sudden death of a younger man, New Zealander Michael King, aged 58. Stricken by a mysterious and inoperable cancer, he was ready for death. "For almost thirty years," he had said, "I have been able to get up in the morning and go to my desk and do things that excite me." An extremely fortunate life, he allowed, one he would leave with few regrets. He did not die in a cancer ward, however, but in a car crash on the way to a holiday with his wife, who died with him.

Michael King wrote a short history of NZ Catholics, God's Farthest Outpost , a bishop-heavy book somewhat relieved by lots of pictures of the laity and their prayers and holy cards. It opens with a savoury memoir of growing up Catholic. King was best known for his literary biographies that won major awards. His final book, The Penguin History of New Zealand , (A$26.95) has just turned up in Australia. A penetrating exploration of NZ's twin cultures (Maori and Pakeha), it is a must-read for anyone who may wonder why New Zealanders are different from us.

Book from penguin books nz

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