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: Death Expands Us: An Honest Account of Grief and How to Rise Above it, by Stephanie Harris

cv_death_expands_usAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

On 6 April 2009 Stephanie Harris’ life was turned upside down when her thirty-three-year-old brother Brendon suddenly and mysteriously died. The first Stephanie knew he was ill was when her mother rang to tell her that he had been hospitalised during a business trip to Buenos Aires. The next morning she got phone call from her older sister Teresa to say he was dead.

The sudden death of a much-loved family member or friend brings all sorts of emotions to the surface – emotions that seem at times illogical and at times frightening with the intensity of these feelings.

I have read a number of self-help books the years where a close family member has died – sometimes expected and other times suddenly. I thought this book was well laid out with the grief process explained. Every person reacts differently to death and grief. No way is the right or wrong way. One book I read a number of years ago sprung to mind, Elizabeth Kulber-Ross’ On Death and Dying. The message is more or less the same but from a different perspective – of someone actually going through it. It bought all sorts of emotions back for me as I was reading it. I was able to rationalise how I had grieved at particular times through the sudden death of a much-loved family member.

I recommend this book as a tool in the grieving process. What I really liked about it was that even though Stephanie is a Grief Coach, she still sought help with her grieving. None of us like to think that perhaps there are times in which professional help is necessary.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Death Expands Us: An Honest Account of Grief and How to Rise Above it
by Stephanie Harris
Published by Lioncrest Publishing
ISBN 9780473388171

Book Review: Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep

Is there a man living who knows what he looks like and what he does when he is asleep? … Some men sleep intelligently, others like clowns. (Balzac, quoted in Snooze)

cv_snoozeSnooze is the sort of book that a wise and thoughtful uncle might write, perhaps reflecting McGirr’s early adult life working as a Jesuit priest. Intriguing facts and wry observations are interspersed with gentle and perceptive descriptions of parenthood, and philosophical issues to contemplate. McGirr’s fascination with sleep stems from his own struggles with sleep apnoea and the exhaustion he experienced during his sleep-deprived years co-parenting twins and their close-in-age sibling.

McGirr makes it clear that Snooze is not a guide-book for people searching for techniques to ensure a good night’s slumber. Instead it is part-biography, part-history, part-enquiry into what is known and what still remains to be known about the complexities and functions of sleep.

McGirr brings history to life by sharing sleep-related stories about well-known historical and fictional characters, including light sleepers and insomniacs such as Thatcher and Dickens (who, apparently, would only sleep in a bed where his head could point north). He looks at how sleep is depicted by writers such as Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, by philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and within Homer’s Odyssey. He describes how Robinson Crusoe slept safely and comfortably in a ‘thick bushy tree’ and how Gulliver preferred to sleep next to his horses rather than his family. McGirr also explores the role of sleep in war, in the bible, in fairy-tales, and amongst the homeless. He reflects on the gap between those who have their own beds and those who do not, acknowledging the skills that people who sleep rough must develop to seek shelter.

Short of conversation-starters? Snooze provides plenty. Did you know that horses’ joints have tendons and ligaments that lock to allow them to sleep standing up, or that neuroscientists are considering the possibility that babies dream before they are born? And have you heard about the Italian who has invented a bed that makes itself? (There’s a YouTube clip about this, if the book piques your interest.)

McGirr points out the incongruities between how sleep-related products are marketed – the crisp white sheets, the fluffy pillows – and the contrasting realities of human sleep as we toss and turn, shedding hair and skin flakes, perhaps dribbling, scratching, and sweating. (Or worse.)

Coffee, of course, gets a mention – alongside other caffeinated drinks and drugs that hinder rather than help. McGirr remarks on the contradiction of the café ritual: ‘it’s a curious culture that allows you to relax as long as you spend the time loading up on stimulants’.

I often like books that can be dipped into – a few pages here and there as time allows. Although I read Snooze from start to finish, most chapters would stand alone well. You could open the book at random and read a chapter or two at a time. There’s a brief reading list for each chapter at the back of the book if you’d like to learn more.

Perhaps my favourite story is of McGirr’s four-year-old son appearing at his parents’ bedside at 2:06 a.m. When asked why he couldn’t go back to his own bed he earnestly declared that this would not be possible, as he had already made it. Parents may also empathise with (and perhaps even admire) the now nomadic family whose children were such terrible sleepers that their parents resorted to driving them around because they would only sleep in the car. The family journeys became longer and longer – until ten years and thousands of miles later they were still on the road, albeit now by choice.

McGirr describes the process of surrendering to sleep as ‘an act of faith in the existence of tomorrow’. Is sleep, he ponders (quoting Aristotle), an activity of the body, or the soul, or both? Something to think about when you nod off tonight.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498585

Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, by Lily Collins

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_unfilteredLily Collins is a popular actress and Instagram star who has just released her autobiography. Her book, Unfiltered, is a series of essays about her life. There is a particular emphasis on relationships, being true to yourself and her early years.

As I was unfamiliar with her work this was a completely fresh introduction to Lily Collins and I found her writing very easy to read. Lily has written one essay about her father (the musician Phil Collins) and her relationship with her mother, who mostly raised her, flows through the other essays. Most interesting is her determination – she decided teen magazines needed actual teen input and through a lot of work talked her way into a regular column in ELLE Girl magazine. This lead to other freelance work (while still in her teens) for Teen Vogue and other publications. This lead to TV journalism work – and from there to acting. It is a really interesting story.

Like many essay collections, it suffers from a lack of cohesion. It felt like many subjects were not discussed in depth, or conflicted with information previously discussed. One chapter discussed an abusive relationship – but the vagueness of detail lessened the impact – it was mentioned obliquely, then she moved on.

As a structure for an autobiography it made for somewhat disjointed reading. It is a shame, as there were some interesting events and experiences that might have made more sense in a more traditional chronological format.

Her main point in the book is to be yourself. This fits with her main charity focus – peer support and bullying prevention. Lily was involved in peer support programmes as a student and has been involved in youth advocacy for counselling centres. It is always nice to hear people’s accounts of what they remembered (and used) from High School days. She is also involved in ‘We day’ – a children’s advocacy charity.

At the end of the book there are links to resources to deal with issues raised in the book. I note this because the book deals with eating disorders and relationship violence. For this reason I would recommend the book for older teenagers.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me
by Lily Collins
Published by Ebury Press
ISBN 9781785034107

Book Review: Peak. Reinventing Middle Age, by Patricia and Don Edgar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Peak_reinventing_middle_age.jpgHaving recently turned 60, I have been interested in the changing perceptions of what middle age is. My father retired at 60 and has been an active member of a rural community for 30 years. While he still farms, his community involvement has finally ebbed away, but he just turned 91.

So do we need to change the categories of middle and old age? According this book, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

Patricia and Don Edgar are in their late 80s. This Australian couple explore the key aspects of aging in the first part of the book. This includes perceptions of middle age, family, work, housing, learning and alternative work. I was impressed by their research and the evidence they provided both on the current situation and on what the future looks like. As the Baby Boomers reach their mature years there are implications across all aspects of society.

I know that my own community has wonderful examples of older people making valuable contributions in the paid and voluntary workforces. Likewise, education, travel and recreation are firmly on the agenda for those wishing to pursue life after retirement.

The call made by the Edgars is for government to start planning alternatives to the traditional views of old age, such as encouraging employers to continue a different work model, where the experience of older workers is matched with reduced hours and mentoring programmes. Continuing to work contributes to taxes and engagement in work allows a longer more productive old age.

The second part of the book is a collection of life stories. These were superb little vignettes. Each story explores the possibilities for living a rich and varied life into and beyond middle age. These people are not heroes. They are tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

My copy of Peak is about to have its own long and varied life. I have friends and family lined up and we will make an action plan to follow.

Watch this space..

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Peak. Reinventing Middle Age
By Patricia and Don Edgar
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355963

Book Review: I Don’t Have Time, by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_I_don't_have_time.jpgIt took quite a long time to read this book, rather ironically, because it contains material that needs to be well thought over. It is written, according to Audrey and Emma, the authors, for ‘women of a certain age, splashing dramatically in a sea of self-inflicted over-commitment’ who need to realise that they do have time to do the things that will add satisfaction to their lives. The sub title of the book is “15 -minute ways to Shape A Life You Love”.

A quick flick through it offers some quick-flick ideas common to self-help literature, and this book fits into that genre. But a deeper reading reveals that Audrey and Emma have lived much of what they write about. It has an honesty about it which appeals and which prevents the material from being slick or glib. As some other reviewers noted, this is ‘a time management book for real people by real people.’

It’s a book that not only encourages us to look for ways to engage in activities that we enjoy, but gives us the motivation and energy to do so by recounting the success of others, detailing their efforts and their thoughts. It covers areas of life that matter most to us, exploring the excuses we make to keep us from achieving happiness and satisfaction. I enjoyed it even though I felt older than the intended readers (it is primarily, but not exclusively, written for the younger woman overwhelmed by the pressures and self-inflicted commitments of career building, child-rearing and home-making), because it enabled me to see how I’d managed my life through that time, and feel a little smug that I’d come through it reasonably well-adjusted.

Having said that, I enjoyed it also because of its approach. It appeals to the person we are, to the humanity we share and to the burdens and problems we suffer under, and it offers solutions that we can see will work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

I Don’t Have Time
by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593218

Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396