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: Finding Frances Hodgkins, by Mary Kisler

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_finding_frances_hodgkins.jpgThis year marks 150 years since the birth of artist, Frances Hodgkins. Mary Kisler, Senior Curator, Mackelvie Collection, International Art at Auckland Art Gallery has written a remarkable book on the life and works of Frances Hodgkins. Her decision to travel to Europe and visit as many of the places where Hodgkins painted has resulted in a travelogue of Hodgkins’ work and the landscapes that inspired her. Kisler also uses Hodgkins’ diary to give us an understanding of the people and events which were so important in the paintings.

Arriving in 1901, Hodgkins was to spend most of her life in Europe with only two brief visits home to New Zealand. During these years she moved on average six times each year, only pausing during the wars when she could not visit her favourite places in France, North Africa, Holland and Spain. She enjoyed the company of others on her travels and accepted offers from friends and acquaintances to stay in new places. Kisler makes wonderful use of Hodgkins’ diaries to describe not only the landscapes, but also the social events that influence her life. Armed with photographs of Hodgkins’ paintings and her diaries and letters, it was a mammoth task to try to match each work to a specific place. While sometimes, this is achieved, a growing awareness of Hodgkins’ clever manipulation of form and space, helps Kisler to understand the way works are often composed of various elements rearranged by the artist.

I was impressed by the gentle patience of Kisler, who also chose companions for her travels. Language, lack of signage and the ravages of time, made her task daunting. The colour plates that sit alongside the text help the reader to follow the development of Hodgkins’ art. Her fascination with shapes and light, and the way she reduces a scene to blocks of colour, helped me better appreciate her work.

Here is a tribute to a truly great New Zealand artist. By melding her diaries, artworks and the actual landscape together, we arrive in awe of the output and quality of work that Frances Hodgkins produced. This was her life, and she worked hard at her craft, which was not always easy. My hope is that the touring exhibition of her work allows us a chance to truly stand in wonder at her works.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Finding Frances Hodgkins
by Mary Kisler
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995102972

Book Review: Roar, by Cecelia Ahern

Available in bookshops nationwide.

roar.jpgWe have probably all had moments of feeling overwhelmed and just wanting to stand and roar, frustrated with a task in hand or a more complex issue affecting many women in the world.

Cecelia Ahern has recognized this and written a stimulating collection of short stories which focus on many of the issues the modern woman lives with today.

The quotation by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton at the beginning of the book ‘I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers to big to ignore’, sets the theme for the book.

Each of the thirty stories in Roar concentrates on a woman at a different stage of her life, and facing a situation challenging to them at that particular time.

The author has chosen not to give these women names instead she refers to them as ‘the woman’. Each chapter is given a title such as ‘The woman who was kept on the shelf’, or ‘The Woman who forgot her Name’ which gives you an idea about the storyline. There is an element of fantasy in many of the cleverly written tales some of which I could relate to. By exaggerating the situations ‘the woman’ finds herself in, Ahern highlights and celebrates the strength and resilience of women and all their differences. Her punchy writing style accentuates the ideas she is trying to convey, ‘She starts by slowing down, taking timeout so she can read a book…

She goes away for a night with Paul.

She has a weekend away with friends.

She starts jogging….

She blows the feather off until everything is clear again, and she emerges from her fog.’

I enjoy a book of short stories, but I was quite overwhelmed with some of the messages in this collection so did not read more than one at a time, to give me time to absorb and reflect on the writing. It is a very worthwhile read and will appeal to a wide age group especially those who enjoy a quirky fairytale, which is sometimes sad but at times is also a witty exploration of what it is to be a woman in today’s world.

Cecelia Ahern is an Irish novelist whose first work was published in 2004, and since then she has won a number of book awards. Her books are now published in over forty countries and two of her books have been adapted as films.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Roar
by Cecelia Ahern
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008283537

Book Review: Curiosities and Splendour: An Anthology of Classic Travel Literature

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_curiosities_and_splendourHave you ever sat down to enjoy a real life tale of adventure from another place, and another time?  Sit down with the newly released travel anthology Curiosities and Splendour and you’ll find inspiration, amazement and a dose of reality from times past – all of which will make for many hours’ entertainment.

What a treat to be able to read of the explorations and ventures that people have taken throughout history, into foreign lands and exotic cultures. My imagination soars when I think of the sights, smells and sounds they must have encountered on their travels and consider the choices they had to make, and the awe-inspiring moments in history they were a part of.

Curiosities and Splendour is a collection of 30 short extracts from an excellent selection of travel literature. It’s a great book to take with you on holiday, you can read an excerpt in one go and enjoy its flavour before reading another tale in the book, or heading off on an adventure of your own. It can sometimes be difficult to move between stories in one go, as the style of early authors can take some concentration to read. However, it’s worth giving the book some time and energy to extract each tale’s full flavour.

The first story is close to home, telling of the impact of the great snowstorm of 1867 to one sheep farm in Canterbury. Early settler and farmer Mary Anne Barker’s written account of the storm became an important social document in part because other retellings of the storm were passed on as oral history. The snow began in July and lasted for a week, with Barker telling of sinking into the snow up to her shoulders. The devastating loss of over half their stock including 90% of the lambs is as meaningful to us today as it was then.

My favourite adventure book of all time, and also top of the National Geographic’s list of 100 Greatest Adventure Books is featured in the collection: The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.  This is still one of the most awe-inspiring books I have ever read, about the absolute perils and hardship suffered by the English explorers and scientists accompanying Robert Falcon Scott in the Terra Nova Expedition in Antarctica 1910-1913. Having read The Worst Journey in the World in entirety, I can vouch that the extract is a faithful sample of the narrative as a whole, sharing insight into the people, the hardship, and the heart of that incredible exploration.

There are a great selection of authors and experiences featured in Curiosities and Splendour. See the words of literary luminaries come to life in the travel writings of Charles Dickens (American Notes), DH Lawrence (Sea and Sardinia), and Mark Twain (Life of the Mississippi). Historical personalities share their adventures throughout the ages including explorers David Livingstone, Marco Polo, and James Cook. Isabella Bird’s tales of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains share the rare and valuable female view of adventuring in the 1870’s.

Travel writing is a wonderful source of insight into our history and the lives and travails of the people that lived in those times.  Many great works are readily accessible for anyone to read, harking back to those written back through the ages such as Homer’s Odyssey, or even the Bible – they all contain rich and marvellous insight into times past. Although the further back in time you go, the less sure you can be of the accuracy. There are still glimpses of history to be had that will stoke the imagination about times past and a different world than the one we live in today.

It’s great to see Lonely Planet assemble these into a sample platter of some of the best in Curiosities and Splendour.

by Amie Lightbourne

Curiosities and Splendour: An anthology of classic travel literature
by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781788683029

Book Review: Hiking & Tramping in New Zealand, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tramping_and_hiking_in_nzLonely Planet’s Hiking & Tramping in New Zealand may look like a travel guide, but it won’t just be tourists buying this book. With colour maps and photos, the book will also make the locals want to lace up their tramping boots and head out into the wilderness.

The book features some of New Zealand’s great walks familiar to most, such as the Heaphy and Kepler tracks, but there are also many lesser-known but equally interesting ones. A quick guide at the front, ‘If you like…’ goes on to list tramps for those with a yearning for volcanoes, mountain passes, rivers, beaches, wildlife, etc, and there are also basic itineraries for those with plenty of time on their hands to explore more than a couple of the tramps.

As an enthusiastic walker, the part that caught my eye was the section on choosing your tramp, because it lists them by duration, difficulty, and the best time to go. I may not be up to a five-day hike just yet, but there are some that only take a few hours that I am keen to try, especially the ones they class as easy-moderate!

The separate chapters on each region list the different tramps and all the information you need to know before tackling them. Distance is given in kilometres and miles, so it won’t send non-metric tourists astray. Whether you’re an experienced tramper or a novice, the book outlines what you need to know, including when to tramp and what to bring, where you can get maps, transport, and what accommodation options are available.

The highlights for each tramp are listed too, such as side tracks that lead to points of interest, or what views you can expect at different points along the way. For some there are also supermarkets and eateries listed near the start or at nightly stopping points on tramps of more than a day.

There is a pull-out touring map, a packing guide and a bird spotter’s guide, and a chapter at the back devoted to bring those from overseas up to speed on our country.

As can be expected with a Lonely Planet guide, the book is comprehensive and would be a useful addition for anyone wanting to get out of the towns and cities when they travel. Even if you’re not into tramping, it makes a great read for all the historical information it contains about New Zealand and our landscape.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Hiking & Tramping in New Zealand
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781786572691

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

lonely_planets_best_ever_travel_tipsFor such a small volume, there’s an abundance of useful information packed in here!

Whatever your particular question about travelling well, safely, economically and with minimal fuss, you’ll most likely find the answers in this pocket sized travel companion. From how to survive a small-group tour, to which plug is for which country, to considering ‘old-school’ technology to help you through small crises – there are a lot of ‘oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that before?’ moments.

It will be very helpful, I think, for less experienced, and also solo, travellers.

There are suggestions for eco-travelling (up to a point, of course) and how to give back to local communities through supporting local initiatives while you are visiting. This includes eating local! It’s one of the simplest ways both to support and learn about the place you are in.

Hate the cramped feeling you get on long flights? There is a list of exercises you can do pretty well anywhere to help with that.

Love your food, but have an allergy or intolerance to particular things? Take diet cards (if you are coeliac, for example) and snacks for emergencies. It’s worth it.

Always take more clothes than you need? Remember there are shops where you are going – this is not a Lonely Planet tip, but my own advice – and if you spend a bit of time planning to take things which mix and match, your problems are halved.

Got scammed on your last trip? Relax, it happens to everyone but you do need to be alert, and there are tips for what to watch out for. The mantra ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true’ definitely holds when travelling.

Highly recommended, and only one proofreading error that I picked up – one of the headings is STAY SAVE AND HEALTHY – doesn’t work, however you parse it!

But regardless of how often, or where, you travel, I think you’ll find this a very handy little book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips
Published by Lonely Planet Global
9781787017641

Book Review: Around the World in 80 Food Trucks, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_around_the_world_in_80_food_trucksHands up if you remember pie carts? Oh, how times have changed! Food trucks are in vogue now and this book not only shares 80 different recipes from around the world but also tells us about the hard-working people behind the scenes, as well as the history of their business and their ‘truck’. Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, North and South America are all represented. The common formula is simple – fresh food, locally sourced and prepared by hand – although the vehicles and their owners are a truly diverse bunch.

Who can run a food truck? According to the New York city-based Caitlyn Napolitano, ‘Anyone with passion, gumption and a love of cooking’.

The rise of the gourmet food truck has apparently occurred in the last 10 years or so, coinciding with the growth of festivals and pop-up ventures. As most of the vehicles are mobile their owners are able to move from location to location according to the season or demand. A handful have expanded and now operate permanent restaurants as well.

The vehicles include an old fishing boat now on wheels, a truck covered in Astroturf, and a re-purposed dentist wagon (whatever that may be). One vendor operates from a vintage bicycle and ‘Little Bonnie Dot’ is an enchanting 1930s teardrop caravan. She rolls around the Australian countryside enticing people to her mobile tea parties.

Photos show the people running the trucks exuding happiness and enthusiasm. If there’s a downside to operating a food truck, it’s mentioned only in passing or not at all. Many of them say that the food they offer was inspired by visiting or living in other countries. Some saw a gap in the market they knew they could fill. While some operators have a lot of items on their menu, others have chosen to do one thing and do it well. The recipes have been invented, transformed, and sometimes passed down through generations. Many chefs are self-taught, although a few have undertaken formal study at places such as the Culinary Institute of New York and Ireland’s Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Although many of the featured recipes appear to be quick and easy to prepare, some require more forward planning, such as ingredients that need to simmer for a while and the pickle that must rest for at least 24 hours before use. Most recipes are for main dishes, although desserts are covered too – including pineapple-ginger ice pops, lemon waffles, and a superb caramel flan. There are lots of delicious-looking sauces, onion jams and marinades too. The index is organised by location as well as by the type of dish.

Two of the food trucks are based here in Aotearoa. Although the recipes include ingredients from around the world, most would be easy to find in your local supermarket; if not, there are suggested equivalents. (No mollete available? Use a soft bread roll instead.) The recipes are well-written and easy to follow. There’s a note about how many people each recipe will serve: typically 2 to 4, although the octopus serves 16 – and Banjo’s Blue Cheese slaw supposedly ‘feeds a crowd’.

There are Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter links for most trucks if you’d like to learn more about them. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

Belgian waffles in New York City

Earlsfield Sourdough Pizza

Hong Kong’s ‘Princess Kitchen’

Australian Greek Street Food

I’m always attracted to recipes with interesting names, so the Chakalaka Relish (hot and spicy, packed with vegetables, baked beans, and chopped chilies) is first on my list of things to try. I’m also intrigued by Curry Up’s Chana Masala recipe which includes chickpeas steeped in tea.

Sometimes you have to take a leap to be happy.’

  • Wes, an ex-advertising executive whose food truck offers more than 30 different types of waffles

The featured food truckers include former engineers, dental technicians, bankers and fashion designers – so if you’ve fantasised about throwing in your routine 9-to-5 job this book might inspire you to launch a new career. It will also appeal to those interested in recreating dishes from a favourite food truck, and anyone planning a trip abroad who would enjoy fresh food prepared in a novel setting. If you have limited space you’ll appreciate the book’s compact size – and as it covers a whole range of topics (including recipes, travel, people’s stories, and the history of the food truck scene) it would be equally at home on a bookshelf in a living room or a kitchen.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Around the World in 80 Food Trucks
by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781788681315