Book Review: Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy

This book will be available from 19 September.

cv_the_moth_hourThis evocative volume is less a collection of Anne Kennedy’s poetic work and more a set of pieces built around a well defined theme. No spoilers here: her brother died. In 1973 she was a teenager and he was in his early twenties when he fell to his death in an accident. Moth Hour is about a life cut short, it’s about potential, loss and a particular time in Wellington’s history.

Each of the poems riff off one poem that Kennedy found in her brother’s manuscripts and published at the start of the book. It’s sweet and beautiful poem and she carries his imagery and spirit throughout. Moth Hour has the potential to be morose, dirge-like or overly nostalgic and sentimental. I was heartened to find that it is none of these things.

Kennedy honours her brother without turning him into a saint and explores her grief without fingering the wounds too thoroughly. Some of the poems appear to be about a deep missing

I hope to attend one of your parties
before I die
your death has already
been established

from ’20’.

Others seem to speak from her brother’s perspective, songs he may have sung, old rhymes and many voices. It became clear that  Kennedy is adept at shrugging on different coats, Moth Hour is not just about a sister left behind.

At times I felt I wasn’t the target audience for this work. I may have gotten more out of the book if I had lived through the 70’s, or maybe, if I had experienced decades with a hole in my family. I still got a lot from the exploration regardless, I felt like the ‘little sister’ again.

Moth Hour made me remember family holidays with my older siblings and particularly the elastic nature of time when you’re young. Time stretches as you mull over your loved ones, how you fit in their worlds. All those hours we’ve spent lying under the plum tree, organising mum’s button collection or in Anne Kennedy’s case, studying the Persian rug in the sitting room.

Reviewed by Lucy Black

Moth Hour
by Anne Kennedy
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408947

 

Book Review: The First Breath, by Olivia Gordon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_first_breath.jpgHow difficult is it to carry out life-saving surgery on tiny patients with ‘veins as thin as spider webs’? The First Breath focuses on astounding advances in fetal/prenatal surgery, particularly complex surgeries carried out in utero well before a baby is born.

Gordon is a British journalist and the mother of a disabled child who spent his first five months in hospital. She carried out thorough research while writing The First Breath. She interviewed leading pediatricians, surgeons, neonatologists and other doctors, as well as midwives, nurses and allied health professionals. She received permission to observe consultations and surgeries. She also traveled outside the United Kingdom to learn about similar procedures carried out in countries such as Sweden.

Gordon challenges readers to consider the ethical issues involved in decisions about termination, the health and rights of the fetus, and the role and purpose of genetic testing. She urges consideration of how terminology influences our attitude and perspective: ‘What we still call ‘abnormalities’ or ‘anomalies’ in the fetus are what we speak of more sensitively after birth as ‘disabilities’ and ‘diversity’.’

Gordon draws on her own and others’ stories when describing the feelings of inadequacy parents can experience. She’s upfront about the book’s focus on mothers, although acknowledges that fathers’ experiences are ‘just as important’. There are in fact many references to fathers throughout the book, including acknowledgement of the help and information provided by her own father, himself a doctor.

Although considerable resources are directed at unwell infants and children, Gordon suggests that the support needs of their parents are not always recognized or acknowledged. She presents a convincing case for more attention to be focused on parents’ mental health and wellbeing. She says that it is not uncommon for the parents of infants with unexpected medical issues, or a diagnosis before or after birth, to feel considerable stress. They may go on to live with antenatal or postnatal depression, OCD, anxiety, panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘Mothers of healthy babies can work out their own mothering in the privacy of their own home. In the neonatal unit, you’re learning and making mistakes in public.’

Gordon writes frankly about the challenges she and her partner faced during their son’s preparation for, and recovery from, surgery and other interventions. They had to learn the nursing skills required to care for him, such as how to tube-feed and to administer multiple medications. Their life, she says, was never really ‘normal’.

Many parents whose babies have spent time in neonatal units return for visits because ‘it’s a form of catharsis’, says Gordon. Writing this book also appears to have been a form of catharsis for Gordon. I found The First Breath’s mix of first-person and objective, scientific content jarring in some chapters. I wondered whether Gordon had considered writing two books – one a memoir focused on her difficult pregnancy, son’s birth and subsequent unexpected diagnosis with Noonan syndrome; the other focused specifically on the medical and surgical interventions that can save young lives.

Gordon was originally a features writer for British magazines. This perhaps explains her tendency to use melodramatic language to describe some of the situations she observed while carrying out research for her book. Some sections of The First Breath were originally published in mainstream media such as The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post and Red magazine. Maybe Gordon believes that readers of these publications have an appetite for sensationalism. Some of what she heard and saw she calls ‘terrible’ and ‘barbaric’. Parents are ‘aghast’, and ‘terrified and shaking’; pregnancies go ‘haywire’. Her son, en route to an operation, is ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’.

I found her over-zealous use of adjectives to describe children and adults (particularly medical professionals) irritating. Some people sound like characters from a Milly-Molly-Mandy story: ‘the sweetly bustling young district nurse’ and the ‘sensible, friendly-looking midwife with straight brown hair and glasses’. The ‘cool blonde businesslike Australian’ surgeon Kate and the ‘glamorous and charming Colombian neonatal consultant’ are descriptions better-suited to a Danielle Steele novel. Her seeming obsession with people’s appearance (particularly their looks and weight) is especially unfair when directed at children: Gordon compares her son’s ‘stick-like’ legs with the ‘bonny little thighs’ of a baby girl. I wonder how the Director and Clinical Lead for Fetal Medicine services in a leading London hospital feels about Gordon’s description of him as ‘a slim, smiley man [who Gordon] imagined playing carefree games of tennis or yachting in his spare time’, a ‘mysterious heroic figure’, and ‘an upbeat force of nature’. For one doctor, Gordon confesses, she had ‘admiration bordering on a crush’.

The back cover says that The First Breath ‘tells of fear, bravery and love’. This is an accurate summary of the central themes of the book. Fear, bravery and love are shown not only by parents but also by the medical professionals who demonstrate strength, skill and compassion while also sharing their fears and vulnerabilities. Gordon describes the tension for doctors, many of whom are also parents, between becoming emotionally involved and remaining professionally detached.

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of how modern-day medicine and surgery can save vulnerable infants. I’m in awe of what is possible. The First Breath is centred on healthcare available in the United Kingdom, so it’s not clear to me how many of the surgeries and other techniques described are currently carried out in New Zealand. Gordon provides a list of sources (websites, journal articles, books and so on) that can provide further information about the topics addressed.

I’m not sure whether parents facing the prospect of in utero or neonatal surgery would find Gordon’s book helpful, or instead overwhelming. Only a parent who has lived through a similar experience could make this call. The somewhat voyeuristic tone of Gordon’s writing will not appeal to everyone. And not all stories had a positive outcome.

The First Breath may be a good resource for students of medicine, nursing, social work or similar professions, and health practitioners who are supporting families who face the situations that Gordon describes. It may also be a book that organisations such as Rare Disorders New Zealand , Skylight or IHC could consider stocking in the libraries they maintain for parents and professionals.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

The First Breath
by Olivia Gordon
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781509871186

Book Review: Allegra in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_allegra_in_three_partsAllegra is 11 years old, living in suburban Sydney in the 1970s with her dad Rick and grandmother Mathilde at number 23, and grandmother Joy at number 25. Her mother died when she was very small, and her memory of her is very hazy. Narrated by Allegra, she has little understanding of why this situation is so, only knowing that she constantly feels herself torn into two between her loving but vastly different grandmothers, and the emotionally distant figure of her father.

Allegra is a smart wee girl, extraordinarily sensitive to those around her, in the process navigating the classroom ghastliness of 11 year old girls and keeping her grandmothers happy. Not easy when they can’t stand each other. And yet Allegra does not know why this is. Her growing friendship of fellow outsider young Aborigine girl Patricia further sets her apart from the rest of her class, but not from her teacher Sister Josepha.

1970s Australia is not an easy place for women, and the growing awareness Allegra is finding of the world around her puts her and those she loves on a collision course.

This book could leave you with a tear in your eye. This novel is marketed as teen/YA fiction/coming of age fiction. But is equally enjoyable and meaningful for everyone else. I loved this – all about what it means to belong to a family and to be loved.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Allegra in Three Parts
by Suzanne Daniel
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781760781712

Book Review: The World of Greek Mythology, by Ben Spies

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_world_of_greek_mythology.jpgThis is an excellent introduction for anyone curious about Greek mythology. Here on the other side of the world, and eons away from their place of origin, many of the legends are still part of our collective cultural narrative. The stories of the Trojan war will be familiar to many in a sketchy, delivered-by-Hollywood way.

The difference between Spies’ book and other recent books on Greek mythology, such as Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller’s Circe, is that Spies is writing specifically for children and young adults. This makes his retelling engaging and easy to understand (it’s a very complicated pantheon) without being dumbed-down, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The World of Greek Mythology to adults either.

Spies writes in a lively, fast-paced style, with lots of jokes and asides to his readers. He know his audience well, having written the book aged 11. He covers the Titans, some of the Olympians, the Trojan War, and the Odyssey in 228 action-packed pages. I enjoyed Spies’ frankness – he tells his readers in places how complicated some of the myths are, and that he doesn’t always understand the myths either. I wish I’d had this book as an intro when I studies Classics at high school, I might have found it a bit easier to follow!

There is the promise of another book on the subject to come, covering the other Olympians who couldn’t fit in this first volume. I’m really looking forward to it and am hoping that maybe Spies could put in a pronunciations guide for some of the trickier names and places. A map would also be great for readers who like to visualise where things are happening.

This book will appeal to readers from about 8 years up who enjoy action, fantasy and don’t mind a bit of blood and gore. It would be a great read-to book from about 8, depending on the reader’s own capabilities. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The World of Greek Mythology
by Ben Spies
Published by Spies Publishing
ISBN 9780473455866

Book Review: A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_communist_in_the_family.jpgRewi Alley was thirty-two years old when he decided ‘to go and have a look at China’, leaving family in New Zealand. It was 1927, he had always dreamed of a life in the army, but after returning from World War 1 he found little for him in New Zealand and after a stint at farming in the North Island left to check out the Chinese revolution.

Arriving in Shanghai, Rewi was soon employed as a fire inspector for the Municipal Council in the British International Settlement, before being promoted to a factory inspector. But he found this to be a ‘miserable experience’ with many of the workers ‘not more than eight or nine years old’ being beaten by the foreman ‘with a piece Of Number Eight gauge wire as a whip’. Ultimately it is the plight of the children as factory slaves as well as orphans of war and famine which give him the courage to leave his job and follow the dream of Gung Ho.

In 2017 Elspeth Sandys, a cousin of Rewi Alley, travelled to China with other family members to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in Shanghai. In her book A Communist in the Family she follows that journey as well as including much of Rewi Alley’s life. A great deal of this comes from Alley’s own writing, letters home, poems, memoirs and other books he has written .

A Communist in the family: Searching for Rewi Alley is written with a great deal of detail and the reader feels part of the journey as the family travels from Beijing to the remote Shandan province on the border of Inner Mongolia, visiting many sites which were significant in Rewi’s life .There was also time for temples and marvelling at 18metre high gold Buddha before their guide would be calling them ‘Alley whanau! Attention please. Follow my flag. This way’…

Sandys has included photographs of Rewi and many of the people who were important in his life, as well as some wonderful photographs captured during the family trip in 2017. The page of Māori words and New Zealand slang at the rear of the book will be helpful for readers from other countries, and the End Notes provide excellent information for people wanting to do more research.

I found this a fascinating read, as Sandys’ beautiful descriptive writing had me feeling part of the journey through modern China, while Alley’s poems reminded me of the harsh history China has endured. It is a solid read but I found it particularly interesting. As New Zealand now has close links with China for trade, it will be of interest to many people.

Elspeth Sandys has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. She has written extensively for the BBC and for RNZ as well as for TV and film. Elspeth lived for many years in the UK but has been back in her home country of New Zealand since 1990.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531601

 

Book Review: Living among the Northland Māori – the diary of Father Antoine Garin, edited by Peter Tremewan and Giselle Larcombe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_living_among_the_northland MaoriLiving among the Northland Māori reproduces Father Antoine Garin’s diaries between 1844 and 1846. Garin (1810-1889) was a French missionary priest in northern New Zealand (including in the upper Kaipara, the setting of these diaries), before settling in Nelson where he played a key role in ensuring provision was made for catholic education there and beyond, a legacy that has continued into the present.

However, these diaries are his insight into life in Northland when it was still very much a Māori land, when British government in New Zealand was confined to a few settlements. The rivers of this area were its highways, figs of tobacco were its currency, and tapu and tikanga Māori were its law and lore.

The threat of warfare over breaches of tapu was a fact of life, and figures like Hone Heke loomed large in Māori and Pākehā minds. The book includes a speech by Garin on the Northern Wars, and his diaries illustrate how Māori and Pākehā had observed these storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Garin’s diaries describe a corner of New Zealand not heavily populated today, but whose rivers were once densely populated by Māori pā and kāinga, a short paddle and hike from key colonial centres. And because this book takes place in an area that retains a certain mystery, Garin’s descriptions of its people and places sweep readers away, as most will have no preconception of them.

Garin paints a truly vivid picture of life in frontier Northland – its food, weather, the Māori routes Pākehā were beginning to tread. We trudge with Garin through swamps and impenetrable forests, we settle into makeshift accommodation on overnight trips and dig into impromptu hangi, and on the way home we hear the songs Garin diligently notes down as he glides along rivers that are mostly smooth but sometimes wild enough to interrupt his jottings.

But just as Garin lulls us into this missionary idyll, we are awoken by the gunshots that once echoed through the north to mark deaths, celebrations, or coming war parties, or by the torrential rain pounding on our precarious shack, while we await a more permanent home – a lengthy process that seems unbelievable in the shadow of seemingly endless kauri forests.

The diaries are full of humour, affection, and sometimes tension. We chuckle as Garin battles his protestant counterpart on points of scripture and worry with him about the diplomatic implications of missteps in translation between French, English and te reo.

Garin’s love for his new flock is evident and noted by his Māori neighbours. Unlike many other protestant and catholic missionaries, Garin spends (and records) nights and days in local kāinga, administering medicine (when tapu allowed it), acting as a trade intermediary, and teaching and learning too. Garin was fluent in the Māori language and its customs, enabling him to convince both impressionable youths and powerful rangatira to join his flock.

As Garin relates each day’s events, we follow the peaks and troughs of local dramas and intrigues. But his diary also immerses us in a deeper contemplation of the changes underway as he wrote, challenging our preconceptions of early encounters between Māori and Pākehā.

As well as his own inner thoughts, Garin also faithfully reproduces conversations with Māori, often in te reo, providing a valuable glimpse into how Māori of the time saw their changing surroundings.

Surprisingly for a Catholic priest, and demonstrating Garin’s open-mindedness and curiosity, there are detailed discussions of the workings of Māori beliefs, of the now unimaginably intricate system of tapu and its governance of the Māori world. Ironically, the diaries may offer a more accurate glimpse into traditional Māori beliefs than a cool academic study ever could.

Another fascinating titbit is Garin’s tracing of non-verbal forms of Māori communication, the codes and symbols that would guide travellers in the forest or keep track of who was winning in an argument, a form of written language few Pākehā might suspect Māori ever had.

Garin’s diaries are never dry (either in climate or in mood) and are an engrossing read I will frequently return to. This is a taonga of a book, and its few but stunning paintings and images highlight rather than saturate Garin’s written portrayal of his life in the Kaipara. It is a remarkable doorway into early New Zealand that will leave the reader feeling that these eloquently told (and excellently translated) experiences have become their own.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Living among the Northland Māori – the diary of Father Antoine Garin 1844-1846
edited by Peter Tremewan and Giselle Larcombe
Published by Canterbury University Press
ISBN 9781988503028

Book Review: Beyond the Stethoscope, by Lucy Mayes

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_beyond_the_stethoscope.jpgBeyond the Stethoscope features 25 doctors’ stories, including one by author Lucy Mayes’ husband. It is an unusual book, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and it’s hard to know how to describe it.

The stories are from both male and female doctors predominantly from New Zealand and Australia (there are two overseas doctors also), and the stories are in some instances extremely personal. Some are beautifully written and a joy to read, but others are quite hard to follow and their narrative is not clear.

The book reads like a series of academic papers – each written by a doctor with a different viewpoint on an issue, even if there are some overarching themes that attempt to tie them all together. As each voice is different, it’s hard to get a cohesive whole and this is evident as you move from one story – and one style of care – to the next.

Several names are familiar (in fact one doctor was at my local practice a year or so back) and many stories are incredibly moving and enlightening. Medicine has changed so much in the past 50 years and it’s obvious it’s not just patients getting frustrated with waiting weeks for appointments and then having their concerns packaged into 10-minute slots. It’s quite confronting reading that the doctors don’t enjoy this style of care either, that they want to know more about their patients and assist their journey to wellness, not just treat the illnesses they present with.

As someone who has had great doctors and not so great doctors (and who is currently changing practices after being assigned her fifth doctor in seven months), it is heartening to hear that some doctors are fighting back and embracing other ways of treating patients. I hope their efforts catch on and the idea of wellness over illness becomes the norm – although sadly I don’t think the Chinese system where a doctor is paid to keep a patient well and not paid when they are ill will ever catch on here!

One of the most moving stories is actually by Mayes’ husband, Dr Richard Mayes. His caring nature is evident, and the demands placed on doctors quite horrifying. He’s very open about the pressures he faced and how he dealt with them and I hope his story inspires others to say ‘enough is enough, something must change’. I want to see a doctor who cares about my wellness and who tells me what I need to be doing to keep well. I don’t want to be dosed with pills when a recommendation to get more exercise and eat and drink healthily may be all that’s required to ‘cure’ my ills.

I finished this book after being discharged from a couple of days in hospital that resulted from being overprescribed antibiotics, so I’m keen to hear stories from doctors who care and want the system to be changed for the better. I hope if nothing else, this book will mean other voices will join them in calling out for change.

The fact some stories are very well written and others are not makes me wonder if Mayes interviewed each doctor and then typed up their notes or whether the stories were supplied ready to go. Either way, some judicious editing would have avoided instances where homophones mean the wrong words have been used and where words are missing from sentences.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Beyond the Stethoscope – Doctors’ stories of reclaiming hope, heart and healing in medicine
by Lucy Mayes
Published by Heart Works Press
ISBN 9780648182726