Book Review: Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939, by Margaret Sparrow

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_risking_their_livesDame Margaret Sparrow, since qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, has played a significant role in promoting the availability of reproductive health services in New Zealand. She openly states that it was thanks to her own ability to access contraceptives, and on one occasion a mail-order abortion drug, that she finished medical school at all. A prominent member of groups including Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, she still makes appearances at pro-choice protests. Recently named Public Health Association champion for 2017, Dame Margaret has been speaking at various events recently, continuing to promote her causes and occasionally startling younger women with frank discussions about masturbation.

She has lent her collection of historical contraceptive devices to be exhibited at Te Papa. She displays a golden speculum-shaped trophy in her living room. In short, Dame Margaret Sparrow is a bloody legend.

Risking their Lives is the third in a series recording abortion history in New Zealand. The earlier books covered the periods 1940 to 1980, and the 1800s. Compiled from coroner’s reports, newspaper reports and some biographical information about key figures who instigated change, the book intersperses historical context with the sad stories of many women whose circumstances led to their deaths from abortion-related causes. This book covers the section of time in between the previous two, during which increasing awareness of deaths from septic abortions led to changing political priorities about women’s health. Eventually.

As shown in the book, women who were pregnant and did not want to be were really between a rock and a hard place: strong social disapproval of childbearing out of wedlock led people to desperate remedies that could kill them. Married couples also feature in these stories; some women who died from abortions already had young children and felt they could not afford another.

Unsurprisingly, this is pretty grim reading. Margaret Sparrow acknowledged as much at the book launch, thanking Victoria University Press for committing to publishing her work despite knowing that abortion death is hardly bestseller material. As she read out one of the narratives, in which a woman on her deathbed was being quizzed by police about which drugs she and her friend might have procured, I suddenly remembered the words on a painting about illegal abortion from 1978: This woman died, I care. This, I thought, must be part of the purpose: to tell the stories of these 90-odd women, who didn’t need to die like that. To show, however belatedly, that someone cares.

After a setting out of historical context, the book divides its stories by the themes of medical causes of death, contraception, the law, then the professions of people most commonly caught up in abortion-related trials and scandals (doctors, nurses, chemists and others). I eventually found this layout slightly confusing, as with each new chapter the stories would start back in the early 1900s and progress on to the late 1930s. Given the evolution of social and medical perspectives being shown throughout the book, I might have found it easier to follow a more strictly chronological arrangement.

The chapter on contraception provided a surprise highlight. Following discussions of contraceptives in the media of the day (disapproving editorials on the one hand, euphemistic newspaper advertisements for “remedies” on the other) the chapter goes on to describe and contrast three pioneering women in the field of birth control: Marie Stopes in the UK, Margaret Sanger in the USA and Ettie Rout in New Zealand. They come across as fascinating characters: they knew each other and had at various times collaborated then strongly disagreed. They all seemed, in their own way, to be rather eccentric. But given the strength of conviction needed to keep pushing their work through, against prevailing social norms, a touch of unconventionality might have been helpful.

The most obvious audience for this book might be students of social and medical history. The book is however a stark reminder to any reader about how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. It certainly made me grateful to be living with a female reproductive system now rather than 100 years ago. Abortion back then was dangerous, certainly, but naturally-occurring miscarriages could also kill women, and childbirth carried far more risks before modern medicine cut down the rates of fatal infections.

Reading these women’s stories may be an act of bearing witness: This woman died, I care. But we are also reminded that for any progress to be made, people like Margaret Sparrow needed to care. As she notes in her epilogue, we still have abortion in the crimes act, and while so much has improved for women’s health, there are still barriers. The connections between these kinds of stories and the present day need to be heard, because people need to keep on caring enough to keep pushing for change.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
by Margaret Sparrow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561636


Book Review: Casting Off – A Memoir, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_casting_off_a_memoirCasting Off begins on the eve of Elspeth Sandys’ first marriage in Dunedin in the 1960s where she says, ‘Presbyterianism is in the air you breathe in this town. It is also, and always will be, in my bloodstream’.

This is the second volume of her memoir, the first What Lies Beneath, explained her interesting and challenging background and childhood.

I checked the the difference between an autobiography and memoir before I could write the review, and I learned the autobiography is a chronological recording of the person’s experience while the memoir relies more on the author’s memory, feelings and emotions
Sandys herself says, ‘I will try to stick to the facts, avoiding invention but guided, as I cannot help be, as I have always been, by imagination’.

I have not read the first volume but found this an interesting read and was able to pick up the facts of Sandys early life as the book progressed.

After her marriage the couple left New Zealand to live in England where they enjoy the arts and theatre scene. However, work is intermittent, and by 1968 she is divorced and back in New Zealand with a daughter.

The book is supported with photographs supporting many of the significant events in the author’s life. Many of the earlier photos are black and white but there are also a number of more recent coloured snaps, including The Long House, a home she lived in London during her next marriage.

I enjoyed the inclusion of poems appropriately slotted throughout the book which shows the versatility of Sandys writing.

She has published nine novels, and two collections of short stories as well as numerous original plays and adaptions for the BBC and RNZ, as well as scripts for film and television. She now lives in Wellington, has two children and six grandchildren.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Casting Off – A Memoir
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522551




Book Review: Saving the Snowy Brumbies, by Kelly Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv-saving_the_snowy_brumbiesEvery year, thousands of Australia’s wild brumbies are aerially culled or captured and sold for slaughter to manage the world’s largest population of wild horses.

Saving the Snowy Brumbies highlights the desperate plight of the Snowy Mountain Brumbies, as Kelly, Vicki and Amanda Wilson head over from New Zealand to take part in the 2016 Australian Brumby Challenge and learn more about the plans for these iconic horses.

The sisters rescue horses from the Brumby cull, and patiently tame them sufficiently for them to be brought back to New Zealand.

The book outlines the activities the girls do with the ponies, which have never been handled before, but with perseverance they can become lovely family pets and even perform well as show jumpers.

Based in Northland, Kelly Wilson has written three adult books as well as the children’s picture book Ranger the Kaimanawa Stallion. She and her sisters also starred in a Television series, Keeping up with the Kaimanawas, which followed their work taming New Zealand wild Kaimanawas.  The Wilson sisters are leading figures on the equestrian scene, and as well as their rescue work, they run the hugely popular Showtym Camps for young riders.

She said, ‘It seems fitting that our work with the wild horses first began because of our showjumpers, when, back in 2012, the Kaimanawa ‘Watch Me Move’ won Pony of the year.’

I loved this book from its stunning front cover, interesting chapter titles, and wonderful photographs throughout, as well as the engaging text. The glossary at the end is helpful, especially to anyone who is not so familiar with horse terminology.

It will be enjoyed by anyone who loves animals, and positive stories about hard working young people .

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Saving the Snowy Brumbies
by Kelly Wilson
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143770572




Book Review: Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook, by Delia McCabe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feed_your_brainIn Feed your Brain: The Cookbook, Delia McCabe applies her Masters in Psychology and over 20 years of research into the connection between nutrition and brain health to deliver over 100 plant-based recipes covering breakfast, mains, soups, dessert and more.

The book is well laid out and begins with an brief summary of the seven steps to improving your mental well-being, which was the subject of her first book Feed Your Brain, published in 2016. It also includes insightful FAQs such as the best sweeteners to use and meal prep suggestions.

Moving onto the recipes, they are easy to follow and McCabe covers a good variety of dishes such as stir-fry’s, burgers and salads. Most dishes have also been gorgeously photographed and styled. I made the bean soup, which was very easy to throw together. It wasn’t the most exciting soup but it’s a simple, healthy and cheap recipe to go to when you’re feeling lazy. I also made the lentil apricot salad (below). This was surprisingly tasty with the dressing and apricots bursting with flavour to create the most exciting lentil dish I’ve ever eaten.

Overall, this cookbook packs a lot more than just recipes and would be a good source for those ready to move towards a more plant-based diet.

One aspect I did find annoying were the spotlights on ingredients (usually vegetables or nuts) scattered throughout the book. These weren’t particular interesting and, due to the theme of the cookbook, could’ve had stronger links to benefits for the brain or body. While I am slowly shifting my diet towards more healthier and nutritious food, I think I would only flick through this cookbook occasionally or as a go to if I needed to find a make a dish that could cater for a vegan or gluten-free friend.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook
by Delia McCabe
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781925335613

Book Review: Edmund Hillary – A Biography, by Michael Gill

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_edmind_hillary_a_biography.jpgAuthor Michael Gill was a long-time friend of Sir Edmund Hillary’s. He accompanied him for over 50 years on many expedition, and was heavily involved in the Himalayan Trust, building schools and hospitals. The Hillary family gave Gill access to private papers and photos and others that had been donated by the family to the Auckland Museum, which enabled Gill to write probably the most in-depth book ever written about one of our national heroes.

This book looks at Sir Ed’s early life and how he became interested in climbing, telling the stories of his numerous attempts at Everest. Excerpts from letters that Sir Ed wrote have been included in this book, tying in the events surrounding them.

I have long been a fan of Sir Ed and have read every book he ever wrote and watched every television and film documentary made about his exploits over many years. He was my hero right through childhood and into adulthood. His feats to me were astounding.  As somebody who is experienced in outdoor adventures, one of the things that stood out to me was the equipment they carried on the early expeditions, and how far outdoor clothing and equipment has come over the years.

Edmund Hillary was not only a climber of Everest, he was an adventurer, a close friend of many, a son, a brother, a husband and a father to his 3 children. The tragedy of his wife Louise and his youngest daughter Belinda dying in a light air craft accident was an event that shocked the nation and the world. His wife Louise had been his rock and the love of his life for 22 years. The shock of her death sent Sir Ed spiralling into deep depression from which he eventually emerges, some years later marrying Peter Mulgrew’s widow, June. Peter Mulgrew was on the Erebus flight alongside others on that ill-fated flight.  Ed and Louise and Peter and June had been lifetime friends.

I was in my happy place reading this book. It is a fabulous book with many wonderful photos and stories never before published,of expeditions Sir Ed was involved in.  He had a very rich and exciting life that only some of us can dream about .

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Edmund Hillary – A Biography
by Michael Gill
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN  9780947503383


Book Review: Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century, edited by David Hall

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_fair_bordersMigration has been a consistent practice across the plains of time. We were a nomadic species for the majority of our existence, before eventually settling in areas of abundant resources, and then supporting permanent settlements through agricultural innovations and the domestication of animals. Relatively recently – in terms of human history – the Westphalian concept of the nation state emerged, and with it a new system of borders.

We live in a time that has witnessed the biggest movement of people to Europe since World War II and the return of fervent nationalism (Brexit and Trump). The latter has been emboldened by facile rhetoric where concurrent events are mistaken for causation –  immigration is painted as the cause for job losses and a host of other ills. Borders, migrations and how these are treated in the public sphere deserve critical attention.

With our geographical isolation, in our nation that is removed from the continuity of continents, this might all seem very far away. Yet even with our natural boundaries, our history has been imbued with arrivals. We are a nation of immigrants. And migration continues to grab headlines on these shores.

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, a welcome and topical BWB text edited by David Hall, petitions us to consider our own policies and attitudes to migration in Aotearoa. So, what do we talk about when we talk about immigration in Aotearoa and how is this reflected in policy? Surely a confident culture is one that is open to self-critique. David posits a simple yet essential question: are our policies and attitudes fair to recent arrivals and to those who arrived a long time ago?

As Hall states in his introduction, a border is not simply ‘the end of one thing’, but is also the crossing over into another. And who gets to cross involves an interplay between access and control. There are many administrative boundaries one must navigate – first the flurry of passports and visas, and then those deeper, hidden borders that ring fence access to welfare, health services and labour rights. We have ‘come to expect that different people deserve different rights’.

‘Fairness isn’t just about how we manage our borders. It is about how we talk about our borders and the impacts they have.’ To date public discourse has been dominated by numbers and statistics (which are open to interpretation), and confusion about impacts – notably an oversimplification of a myriad of factors that have developed over many years.

The contributors respond to this concept of fairness, ‘New Zealand’s characteristic political virtue’, from a variety of disciplines, giving the topic much-needed expansion – complex issues demand a range of views as no one person is ever the definitive expert. Here we hear from those with backgrounds in politics, development studies, geography, policy and advocacy. Collectively the authors contribute critical discussion and respect the human stories involved in these movements, whether they are of those arriving or of the communities into which they settle.

There is a wider colonial context we need to be aware of in New Zealand when we begin to talk about migration. In their important piece, Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata examine the dominant Pākehā model that migrants are crossing into: ‘the substance of citizenship is wholly geared towards one Treaty partner’. They suggest a system based on manaakitanga –  one that respects mana whenua and recognises the need to improve how we look after those who arrive. They also point to the opportunity for Māori and newer migrants ‘to work together to create constitutional arrangements that are better suited to our diverse citizenry’.

Another striking contribution, by Francis Collins, looks at New Zealand’s reliance on temporary workers and examines the implications of this growth. Those who are charged with ‘Milking cows, cooking dinners, providing health care, waiting tables, building houses’ do not have the rights of residence, and cannot vote or access ‘social resources’. We have effectively created an underclass. The processes of immigration are not only riddled with uncertainties, but remain ‘fundamentally exclusionary’. The means of exclusion has shifted from ethnicity to economics, where those who earn more have a greater chance at residency. Collins suggest several measures, including a time-based accrual system, to redress policies at such remove from an equitable New Zealand.

In addition to contributions that show how lines run through identity and communities too, the book also considers forced migration. Nina Hall challenges the concept of climate refugees, because we end up invariably drawing another line by using the term. Instead she calls for us to do more to help all of those forced to move, and to be wary of the discourse of threat – security, identity and otherwise – that so often follows conversations about refugees.

National borders and the nation state will be here for some time. Fair Borders? offers critical reflection and encourages conversation about this ‘perpetual interplay between division and union’, ‘both beyond and inside a nation’.  The accident of birth defines so many of our rights, and there are many migrations to come. If we are to remain fair, we need to examine our policies and improve public discourse, so that our nation can see our borders not as bare and exposed to the sea, but open to arrivals.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century
edited by David Hall
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518851

Book Review: Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father, by Diana Wichtel

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_driving_to_treblinkaImagine saying goodbye to your father in Canada, expecting him to soon follow your family to New Zealand, and never seeing him again. That is what happened to Diana Wichtel and it’s something that had a profound effect on her life.

Wichtel grew up in Vancouver, Canada, with her brother and sister. Her mother was a Catholic New Zealander, her father a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. When Wichtel is 13, her mother returns to New Zealand and she is told her father will follow them later.

Her father never arrives and the family eventually moves on without him, but Wichtel often thinks of him. The years pass and finally she decides she has to know what happened to him.

Driving to Treblinka is the story of her search for her father, but it is so much more than that. It is a story of courage, hope and survival in the face of cruelty and terror. It is the story of a family torn apart by war and the actions of the Nazis, and what survivors had to do to stay alive.

Part historical memoir, part search for anything that could shed light on her much-loved father, Driving to Treblinka is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Most of us take life for granted, but those who lived through the Holocaust had to fight for everything, expecting it to be snatched from them at any moment.

This book will make you smile as you read the stories about family life that are so familiar and heart-warming, but it will also make you cry – and possibly make you angry – reading about the millions who needlessly lost their lives during the Holocaust.

Wichtel’s father may have been seen as lucky because he survived, but often surviving is harder because it means living with the past every day of your life.

The search for her father is all consuming for Wichtel, but with the support of her extended family she learns more about his life and what happened to him after the family moved away from Canada.

I have always enjoyed Wichtel’s writing and this book is all the better for her sensitive handling of it. It is funny and sad, and it’s hard to accept what Benjamin Wichtel had to endure and what his daughter went through in order to find him and tell the story of his life.

Driving to Treblinka is an excellent book that deserves to be read and talked about.  In the weeks since I finished it, I have often found myself stopping and thinking about Benjamin and his family and the love that bound them all together.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father
by Diana Wichtel
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249406