Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725

Book Review: Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anaesthesia.jpgAnaesthesia focuses on the brain, requiring the brain to focus on Anaesthesia. This makes for a challenging, fascinating, disquieting read, in no small part due to the underlying theme of uncertainty. There are still many unanswered questions about how anaesthetics work, how an individual brain will react, and what an adequate level of anaesthetic actually is. A line from page 126 sums up the experience of some patients very well: It was all, says author Kate Cole-Adams, very Lewis Carroll.

You don’t have to be a medical professional to read this book, only someone who – like Cole-Adams – is ready to be captivated by the mysteries of anaesthesia. She’s a writer and journalist who spent years carrying out research for this book, drawing on both personal and professional networks. She talked with anaesthetists around the world, observed operations, and attended conferences. She read widely, at times bewildered and frustrated by medical jargon. She entered the realms of psychiatrists, psychologists, hypnotists, neuroscientists and others skilled at studying and influencing how our minds and brains react. She also spoke with people willing and keen to share their personal (and sometimes dreadful) experiences with anaesthesia.

Cole-Adams suggests that the lines between anaesthesia, dreams and reality are indistinct and permeable. Consciousness, she suggests, is a small boat on an immense sea. She explores in detail how and what we are aware of, and under what conditions. She’s open about her own involvement with, and attitudes towards, anaesthesia. She also reflects on some of her past relationships and life choices, analyses recurrent dreams, and describes living with both physical and emotional unease including her anxiety about being put under.

There are numerous philosophical challenges for readers to engage with, particularly around the ‘interruption of self’ that occurs during anaesthesia. Cole-Adams encourages us to consider (and then reconsider) what consciousness is. Be prepared to confront your existing beliefs about what happens when you are anaesthetised, and the critical role that memory – or the absence of memory – plays. And yet despite the knowledge of what can and does go wrong, who among us will not choose to be comforted by the confidence and relative reassurance of the anaesthetist who visits our bedside before surgery?

There are lessons for medical staff too, with confirmation that hearing is likely to be the last sense to switch off under anaesthesia. Although some anaesthetics apparently suppress sound well, others are less effective. There is no easy way to tell how unconscious an individual patient may be, especially during the time that they are going into or emerging from an anaesthetic.

Cole-Adams is a keen observer of personalities, clothing, sights and sounds. She describes a no-nonsense professor of psychiatry who ate party pies doused with sauce as he strode along interrogating her about the purpose and funding of her book. She tells us about the tins of oatmeal cookies perched on the desk in the den of a world-famous anaesthetist, whose interview outfit included a tie decorated with colourful butterflies. And she – a sun-loving Australian – writes about her underwhelming visit to a bleak and gloomy corner of far-off Hull to attend yet another medical conference.

Questions of ethics abound. It’s alarming to learn about some of the experiments carried out on anaesthetised patients – and the dubious rationales for conducting some of the experiments. The terms that Cole-Adams uses to refer to patients are often sobering: deflated, panicked, wilted, overwhelmed, even crucified.  Perhaps it was inevitable that the word vulnerable would appear so frequently throughout the book.

Section and chapter headings hint at the strange and beautiful world we enter under anaesthesia: Denial, Moonless nights, Regression, Blood and blushing among them. Woven around the compelling and often disturbing stories, Cole-Adams offers anecdotal evidence, arguments and counter-arguments, new terms coined by scientists for states of anaesthesia, theories and hypotheses. She includes suggestions for further research – so much still remains unknown.

I’d be cautious about reading this book before a planned anaesthetic. Chances are nothing will go wrong, but the ‘what ifs’ may linger long after you read the final page.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925498202

Book Review: Pieces of You, by Eileen Merriman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_pieces-of_youA first novel by an Auckland based award-winning short story writer, this is clearly aimed at the Young Adult demographic. I have two daughters who are only recently out of the teenage years, both quite different girls who had quite different experiences of those years. So my review is very clearly tempered and coloured by my own long distant teenage memories, and also the more recent experiences of my daughters.

Aside from the first three years of life which fortunately we don’t retain memory of, I would say the most traumatic time for most people is those teenage years. I have strong memories of hating myself, hating those around me, struggling with friendships, horrible girls, floundering, huge self doubt, complete lack of self-esteem, wishing and hoping I was adopted. Being tall, skinny, with glasses and braces was never going to be a good start to young adulthood, but somehow I made it out of all that.

On the plus side my teenage years weren’t burdened with social media, phones, texting or sexting, easy access to alcohol and drugs. For my girls the teenage experience has been everything as it was for me, plus all those things. I am not at all surprised there are so many unhappy, confused, bewildered teenagers and young people, with spiraling rates of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, compared to 40 years ago.

The relevance of this novel, therefore, to teenagers is undeniable, particularly those of school age. The recent high level media coverage over mental health in young people and the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country makes this novel doubly relevant. Good on the author for tackling such a huge subject as teenage mental and emotional health. This novel tells the story of 15 year old Rebecca who has moved with her parents from Dunedin to North Shore, Auckland. She is not happy, uprooted from her close friend group and everything familiar. So far no surprises. She starts school, finds making new friends difficult and is trying very hard to fit in. She goes to a party one night with a girl from school, only to be lured away by a boy at the party and indecently assaulted.

She is, understandably, quite traumatised by what has taken place. To cope, she begins to cut herself in secret, the bleeding helping her deal with the mental and emotional pain of what has occured. She then meets her next door neighbour, a boy from her school called Cory. Things improve greatly for Rebecca, she makes friends, she settles into school, and her and Cory become very close, sharing a love of reading and writing. Rebecca’s narration is full of the drama and intensity of first love, and very well done too by the writer. So much angst! Intimacy between the two of them however becomes very problematic due to Rebecca’s panic and shame at what happened at the party earlier in the year. At the same time, Cory appears to be having some health issues himself, taking regular sick days, and not being fully engaged with Rebecca. The cutting continues.

Much of this plot line is very relatable for anyone who has ever been a teenager, myself included. Some shocking things happen, but again this is not unusual in the teenage world. And there is certainly plenty in this novel to provoke discussion between teen and their meaningful adult, or for the young person to think on while and after reading this. My younger daughter has not read this, but she and I have talked about it, the issues and outcomes. I always value her opinion, experiences and observations. Am I a lucky parent having such an open relationship with my daughter? I don’t know, but I do know, as with Rebecca and Cory, that teenagers are incredibly secretive, and can fully understand how parents say they didn’t see coming whatever danger or awful situation their child has got themselves into. As happens in this novel.

However, I seriously wonder how true to the average kiwi teenager these two are, how relateable they are. We have two middle-class kids, living with both parents still married to each other, and siblings, in a relatively affluent part of Auckland, and of above average intelligence. They want for nothing. There is one Asian teen, and while Cory is Māori, there are no Pasifika or LBGT teens. I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers in this country whose lives, families, and class rooms bear very little resemblance to the lives of Rebecca and Cory, who probably wish they only had the problems these two have. I find Rebecca’s naivety at fifteen going on sixteen not truly realistic, which makes me wonder if the author’s target audience is the younger teen, rather than the more knowing mid-high school and older teen.

But what I really could not get my head around was how these kids talk to each other. For a start, any parent reading this review will know how the word ‘like’ peppers every single sentence, so much you want to scream. In this novel – none of that. I was expecting more swearing, more rawness in the exchanges these kids have with each other, more real. It was all very sanitised. I remember watching the UK series Skins a few years ago. Now, we don’t want our own teens to be like that, but it was riveting, realistic, not afraid to show what life for many young people is like. My girls, in their sanitised middle-class world, loved it. We ended up buying the whole series. It was frightening, confronting but excellent, and I just don’t feel that there was enough of that in this novel.

Still the fact that this review is so long, shows that the book has got under my skin and that has to be a good thing. If you are a parent of teens or young teens, then this would certainly be a worthwhile book to leave lying around for someone to hopefully pick up, as it covers a lot of very relevant issues to the lives and well being of our young ones. Although how successful it as at resolving problems and issues facing teenagers is debatable, despite the list at the back of support services to contact.

One thing I did really like about this book is the chapter headings. They are all classic book titles, many of which would be studied at school or university, such as Catch 22, The Outsiders, Atonement and many other great novels and authors. Each title had some sort of relevance to what was happening in the chapter – very clever.

I would love for a teen to read and review this book, several teens if possible, just to let us older and out of touch adults know if this novel accurately reflects the average teen life.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Pieces of You
by Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143770473

 

Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

Book Review: Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings, by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feel_a_little_NZSharing our feelings is not only important for adults. The benefits of emotional literacy can be seen in children of all ages. This book is a collaboration by two people who addressed the need for this. It began as an online project where an emotion was featured each week. The poem for each emotion combines catchy rhymes with beautifully vibrant illustrations. There are 14 emotions in the book, a rainbow of expressions and images, that use colour to reinforce ideas. Following the success of the venture, the poems were gathered into this hard cover book which is best suited for 7-11 year olds.

While the poems are quite long and complex, they would make a useful starter as an educational focus. I could see myself in teaching, using a poem each week and basing activities on these. Movement, music and art would flow naturally from discussions about, “When I feel Sad”. In the home, the book might be read over a number of weeks allowing for family discussions about times when we have felt that emotion. I would struggle to read the whole book in a sitting, but do not feel this was the intended purpose of the authors.

Feel a Little is an exciting collaboration because it addresses the emotional needs of children in words and images. By choosing to publish these poems they will access a wider audience and be useful in many situations. My copy has already gone to my Grandaughter’s preschool who intend to use it in their programmes. That must be a sure sign of a successful book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings
by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp
Published by Little Love
ISBN 9780473384456

Book Review: Grandma Forgets, by Paul Russell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_grandma_forgets.jpgDementia is a very real issue for many families these days and younger members of any family would find it a very difficult thing to cope with. Grandma Forgets tells the story of a young girl, who has a outlook and wisdom that belie her years, dealing with her Grandma’s dementia. Instead of focusing on the negatives of the situation, the book is built on memories of earlier times, shared experiences and strategies cleverly inserted into the story that would benefit any family dealing with this issue.

Particularly appealing about this book is it’s attitude of kindness and gratitude for what once was and how much value is placed on a Grandma who can’t remember their names, love for Grandma is weaved like a thread throughout the story.

The story is illustrated with a fine hand, one that was able to match the words, feelings and unspoken thoughts in a way that brought a poignancy to the story, soft pastels, dark greys, everything fitted beautifully. This book needs to be in every library and on every bookshelf, it is so relevant in this day and age where so many struggle to guide their families through this issue, it is a enjoyable read and a great resource.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Grandma Forgets
by Paul Russell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335477