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: The Plimmer Legacy, by Bee Dawson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_plimmer_legacyMost people who know Wellington will have come across the Plimmer name. It’s immortalised in locations such as Plimmer Steps, Plimmer House and the seaside village of Plimmerton, north of Wellington city. Many residents and visitors will have paused to look at the statue of the ‘energetic and entrepreneurial’ top-hatted John Plimmer and his ever-leaping little dog Fritz. The pair are found at the base of the steps between Boulcott St and Lambton Quay, a route that Plimmer often took. Bee Dawson’s book recounts the story of the Shropshire-born Plimmer and many of his descendants from the 1800s through to the present day.

Dawson is a social historian who has carried out extensive research not only on the Plimmer family but also on the growth of early Wellington. Her book also provides a comprehensive record of farming history in the Rangitikei area, where many of Plimmer’s descendants established farms.

The Plimmer family and other settlers faced many challenges. Earthquakes, infant deaths, rheumatic fever and other illnesses took their toll. Fires were common, sometimes destroying entire streets, and there were constant threats of work-related injuries and deaths. However, life was not all doom and gloom. The Plimmer family was fortunate to experience first-class trans-Tasman steamer trips, enjoying the plush couches, tempting menus, and solid marble baths on offer during the journey. Their social life included balls, fancy dinners and moonlight river excursions.

Dawson has drawn on accounts in newspapers, letters, journals and other records. Where there are gaps in these accounts, she suggests what was likely to have happened. Photos and maps supplement the text. There are plenty of diverse topics covered, some in more detail than others. They include Māori history and lore, transportation (with a hair-raising tale of brake failure), duck-shooting traditions, pest control, mourning rituals, and corporate ‘wheeling and dealing’. Dawson even offers a couple of the Plimmer family’s favourite recipes.

Dawson grew up on a Canterbury farm and her love of farming and knowledge of farming practices is evident throughout the book. As a townie I knew nothing about the complexity of land exchanges or the farm ballot systems that Dawson describes. I was intrigued to learn about the old Rabbit Board houses, and how farming families cope in remote areas during floods and electricity outages.

The tight-knit nature of rural communities is well-depicted, and Dawson also emphasises the strong family ties and business nous that have kept Plimmer’s legacy alive.
Succession planning has been critical to the Plimmer family’s ongoing success. Generations of Plimmer descendants have continued to work the farms, often during university holidays. This work often involved what they call the ‘d’ jobs: ‘drafting, dagging, docking, drenching and dipping’. Such hands-on jobs provided a solid introduction to farming life, although some descendants later pursued careers in the corporate world.

I suspect that this is the only book I’ll ever read where the appendix includes a list of paddock names. Some are named after family members, others after farm workers including shepherds, fencers and tractor drivers – there’s even one named after an accountant. Several names reflect the territory, purpose, or characteristics of the area, such as Flax Gully, Airstrip and Dam Flat. Dawson provides a thorough index and a short bibliography for readers keen to learn more, drawing primarily on New Zealand material. The family tree at the front of the book helped me to keep track of the main characters.

The closing notes include a descendant’s observation that the Plimmer family has now come full circle – from Wellington city to the Rangitikei district and back to the city again. The area where John Plimmer first established his business ventures is now ‘just a stone’s throw away’ from the family’s current office on Queen’s Wharf. That office is also not far from the statue of Plimmer and Fritz. If the statue could talk, Dawson’s book hints at the fascinating stories those two could tell.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

The Plimmer Legacy
by Bee Dawson
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143773559

Book Review: Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tatau‘The history of tatau has…been one of both continuity and disruption, with social, cultural and technological change coming from within Sāmoan society as much from the outside world.’ (p.298)

If you know nothing at all about tattoos or fa‘asamoa (Sāmoan culture, values and traditions) this excellent book will lead you into a whole new world. It focuses on Sāmoan tatau – the lines and motifs that form Sāmoan tattoo designs – and the ceremonies and rituals that accompany the process of receiving a tatau, often considered as a rite of passage for young people. Authors Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot are joined by other contributors, including poets, academics and historians, to describe the complex history and symbolism of tatau over the past 3000 years. Collectively they explore and explain the multiple influences on tatau practices, which include politics, geography, sexuality, genealogy, gender roles, art, literature, health and safety, religion, science and (latterly) social media.

Mallon, a writer and Te Papa curator, is of Sāmoan and Irish descent. His deep interest in the topic was sparked by an ‘early and vague’ memory of his grandfather’s tatau. Galliot is a French anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on traditional tatau and lived in Sāmoa while completing his PhD. Both authors have developed complementary and in-depth knowledge of tatau history and contemporary practices.

‘What [surprised] me, and continues to intrigue me, is … that a set of symbols from a seemingly remote group of islands in the South Pacific could circulate in many forms across a range of contexts and on the bodies of people from all walks of life and across the world.’  (p. 11)

Mallon and Galliot describe how symbols (including logos) from other cultures have been incorporated into tatau designs alongside indigenous symbols over time. The designs and the location of tatau on the body continue to change and evolve, although there is still a strong demand for traditional methods and patterns. Tatau designs are no longer limited to the body and are now evident in art (such as Michel Tuffery’s woodcuts and Fatu Feu’u’s paintings), and other objects as diverse as postage stamps, stationery and tee-shirts. The knowledge I’ve gained from this book has helped me to recognise – and encouraged me to search out – tatau patterns and references in unexpected places. The book includes Flanagan’s remarkable graphic depiction of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt poem, centred on the poem’s intense and evocative descriptions of tatau.

The distinctive characteristics of tatau are the ‘location of the markings on the body, their extent and density, and the tools used in the tattooing process (p.14)’.  Although many tufuga (tatau artists) now use masini (machines) with steel needles and black ink, others continue to use traditional tools to make marks on the body by vigorously tapping the skin with sharp ‘teeth’ to perforate it so that pigment can be introduced. I found the chapter focusing on the iconography of tatau particularly informative, as it includes a selection of common patterns and explains what each represents. This chapter also has photos identifying the many different tatau zones (each with a group of motifs) on both male and female bodies. (These zones, and the names used to refer to the tattoo, differ for men, who wear tatau or pe’a, and for women, who wear malu.) Each zone has its own term. Fusi, for example, is the name given to a belt, strap or band of motifs located at the top of the thigh.

The book draws on many different sources, including journals, poetry, photographs, exhibition catalogues and oral histories.

I found the rich descriptions of the rituals, protocol and ceremonies associated with tatau practices of great interest. These customarily included preparing and sharing food, providing sports and other entertainment, and bestowing gifts such as fine mats, canoes, weapons and instruments. The photos and illustrations throughout the book are stunning, in particular the highly detailed drawings of tatau – many of these are hand-drawn and date back to the 1800s. Photos of the tools are stark – the sharp teeth of the combs clearly visible and reinforcing a theme echoed throughout the book: that pain is inevitable, and indeed ‘you cannot find yourself without pain and suffering’ (p.26).

The photos of people with tatau allowed me to look at length at the designs and appreciate the intricacy of the patterns, as well as to consider the time and skills needed to create the tatau. In real life such prolonged gazing would be disrespectful. I’m grateful to the men and women who gave permission for their images to be included in the book. Mallon and Galliot report that a full tatau is rarely seen, instead we may see only a glimpse with the rest concealed beneath clothing. They note that it is not uncommon for social media users to criticise how and where others reveal their tatau.

I see some parallels between Tatau and the earlier Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (Te Awekotuku and Nikora, 2007) such as the descriptions of the shared influence of the Lapita people who are believed to have practiced both face and body tattooing. The Lapita are considered to be the ancestors of multiple Pacific Island peoples; as seafarers they migrated far and wide across Oceania. Tatau briefly discusses the positive relationships established between certain tufuga and Māori tā moko practitioners, which has included gifting traditional tools to strengthen cultural connections. Both Tatau and Mau Moko refer to the extensive contributions of Sulu’ape Paulo II, a renowned and active tufuga who also supported and mentored Māori artists.

A glossary explains terms used throughout the book and there is a comprehensive bibliography, as well as brief biographies of all contributors.

The hard cover and spine are striking and embossed with symbols that spell ‘tatau’. The cover is partially enclosed by an eye-catching dust-jacket featuring the lower abdomen and thighs of a male body with tatau. The print varies in size throughout the book and some readers may find the smallest print a challenge. In several chapters the orange text on dark pages is also hard to read, especially in low light.

Although Mallon and Galliot have written a meticulous and comprehensive history, in the closing chapter they comment that ‘…this book is far from the last word on Sāmoan tatau. There are other histories to be written and other stories to be told…’ (p. 299). Their book will be a superb reference for future authors who are likewise privileged and trusted to bring these stories to life.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN: 9780994136244

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

 

Book Review: Still Counting – Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making, by Marilyn Waring

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_still_countingNew Zealand’s Labour Government will continue to measure economic growth. The government is now also committed to improving inter-generational wellbeing. This will require different ways to measure ‘success’ beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the official measure of economic growth).

Waring is a feminist economist, former National MP and current Professor of Public Policy at AUT. Still Counting, she says, includes ‘a lifetime of thinking about wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making’.

Waring describes her despair and frustration that high-level policy discussions still focus on ‘capitals, resources, assets and incomes’. Wellbeing has – until now – frequently been overlooked. Measurements of a nation’s economy have traditionally excluded all unpaid work, much of which is carried out by women. Here’s a short (2 ½ minute) video Radio NZ recently produced that explains why this exclusion is unfair: Why ‘women’s work’ doesn’t count. If the video – which includes references to Waring’s work – piques your interest then Still Counting will fill in the gaps and challenge you to consider what could underpin a wellbeing approach to public policy.

Waring observes that ‘reality is far more complex than tidy models’. She presents many examples to back up her assertion. She is critical of at least one New Zealand framework that purports to provide a robust evidence base and outlines her reasons why – including that key data are deliberately left out.

This is a short, punchy book. Waring’s own voice comes through strongly and she shares both personal and professional experiences. It made me think about how and where I spend my time – particularly the amount of unpaid service work most of us now carry out.  Like her, many of us are now our own ‘banker, checkout operator, petrol pump attendant and travel agent’, consuming our own services. Her perspectives on Uber, Airbnb and Wikipedia made me reconsider the impact of their operating models on our lives and communities.

Waring is critical of the accuracy of current GDP measurement data, given the ‘revenue-shifting habits’ (e.g. tax havens) practised by multinationals. She observes that the blurring of ‘work’ and ‘home’ life also weakens the data, as it is possible for both paid work and domestic activities to be undertaken in the same place and often at the same time.

Waring criticises not only data-gathering methods but also terms that she considers to have been misappropriated and misunderstood within the ‘wondrous world of economics’. For example, she dislikes the term ‘capital’ being applied to non-economic or non-financial constructs such as social relationships.

Waring is frank about which – and whose – arguments she considers ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’. She draws upon a Monty Python quote to express her frustration with the OECD’s reliance on ‘monocultural, Western and very Eurocentric characteristics of wellbeing’. She’s particularly scathing about the report of the Global Happiness Council – and what she calls (tongue in cheek) its ‘startling insights’, for reasons she explains.

Waring expresses exasperation that Te Kupenga (a statistical framework developed by Māori to capture data on Māori social, cultural, and economic wellbeing) is not better known and more widely used. She sees great value in Te Kupenga’s focus on quality of life and its ability to gather data at a collective rather than solely individual level.

Waring urges different questions to be asked, ‘not just those dictated by consistency and comparability’ – particularly to capture data on women’s lived experience. She notes that a ‘wider spread of experts [beyond a limited pool of economists] would be better able to compile the sufficiently large variety of data sets needed to make judgements on behalf of current and future generations’. She praises Canadian and Australian approaches to gathering information about wellbeing: their measures ask people what contributes to their wellbeing, rather than relying on pre-determined indicators. Pause quietly, she suggests to us, to respond to a question Bhutan has asked its people: ‘…what are the most important things (sources) that will make you lead a truly happy life?’ This question lingers in my mind.

In the closing chapter, Waring outlines priorities for action. These include environmental issues, embedding Te Kupenga principles in wellbeing decision-making, and undertaking rigorous and regular time-use surveys. Again she urges significant changes to the ways in which data are prioritised, collected and reported, so that ‘inadequate proxies and abstractions’ are avoided.

This book will be of interest to readers familiar with the language of indicators, data sets, frameworks and variables. And if you’re not, there’s a list of key acronyms in the appendix, together with a bibliography and detailed endnotes for each chapter.

It’s a thought-provoking read, challenging us to examine what New Zealanders (and especially government policy-makers) value, as well as to reconsider the most appropriate sources of evidence to inform policy-making. It’s an excellent introduction to not only the wellbeing and policy landscape but also to Waring’s writing. It has encouraged me to seek out more of her books, articles and podcasts.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making
by Marilyn Waring
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9781988545530

 

 

Book Review: Experience USA, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_experience_USAThis Lonely Planet book sets out to entice visitors to the USA, a country surely in need of someone to look at it through a happy lens to counteract the doom and gloom we hear about it daily. The introduction portrays the USA as a land of ‘hope, potential and opportunity’ where most everyone has a job, loves small talk, watches sports, and spends their leisure time going on fishing trips or attending school reunions. Conversely the authors also note that life in modern-day America is’hard and not always fair’, although the book provides little explanation as to why this may be. Granted, a travel guide is rarely the place to provide deep insight into social, cultural or political change.

This book offers interesting information and observations, many eye-catching images and detailed maps of some areas – although you may have to wade through extraneous material to find them. It piqued my interest in travelling to some of the states I’ve not yet seen, as well as to attractions I didn’t know existed.

The authors’ patriotism shines through loud and clear: ‘We,’ they trumpet, ‘have always
been a nation focused on betterment…[striving] to be better, bigger, bolder.’ You’ll also have to tolerate some cutesy wording: ‘Tornadoes can go wherever they darn well please…’ and some mind-bogglingly odd questions: ‘Are we a melting pot of cultures…a mosaic…or a tossed salad?’ You may also have to take some of the advice with caution, such as the suggestion to use pepper spray to deter a charging bear.

I found the book somewhat hard to navigate. Page 21 has a map depicting all 50 states, paired with a list of key experiences region by region. Yet the book is primarily structured not by regions, but according to the ‘behind the scenes workings of US culture’. The sections are titled – rather vaguely – as Big & Bold, Americanarama, Melting Pot, Innovation & Creation, and Surprising Experiences. Although the large subheadings within each section indicate what is covered, you’ll need to consult the index if you want to zoom in quickly on key areas of interest.

There are suggestions for journeys by plane, rail, and car – and also by riverboat, cycle and cable-car, and on foot. More adventurous travellers will find information about mountain trails, caves, caverns, tunnels and white-water rafting. The suggested itineraries cover not only main routes but also lesser-known detours. Festivals, conventions, competitions, rituals and celebrations are also described. As some sights or events take place during particular months or seasons (for example, whale watching, Coachella, bat swarms) the book recommends the best time of year to show up.

If you like quirky attractions the book will help you to locate unusual places to visit, such as the American Museum of the House Cat (North Carolina), the Lunchbox Museum (Georgia), or California’s International Banana Museum. There are directions to the world’s largest chainsaw in Michigan, and the two-ton, 20 foot long, beady-eyed killer bee modelled on the bees that terrorised Texas in 1990. Lost your luggage en route, or fascinated by what others have mislaid? The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, sells items that travelers have left behind.

Historical events are covered too, such as the Salem Witch Trials and the associated museums and memorials. It’s disappointing that the index does not consistently include reference to people or places of significance, even if they are referred to in the text. For example, there is no entry for Martin Luther King Jr, although he is briefly mentioned in the book. Nor does the index point to popular tourist destinations such as the White House or Times Square.

Cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles are of course featured, however if you are planning to visit them a smaller, more tightly focused guide book will likely offer better value and more detailed information. Curiously, Los Angeles is described as having a ‘gregarious personality’ (although there’s little evidence of this when you’re being interrogated at LAX…).

Unexpected extras include a few recipes – Mint Julep, and Tortilla Soup – as well as an ‘armchair reading’ list for California’s John Muir Trail, and a list of classic films and books set in and around the USA. (Delighted that the fabulous Thelma and Louise gets a mention.)

The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading, suggesting that it will provide ‘inspiration, ideas and itineraries for lovers of classic cars, barbecue and rock and roll’. Why limit the target audience and turn potential readers away? Although most New Zealanders enjoy a good barbecue, how many of us would see a barbecue as a sufficient attraction to base our holiday around? If that does sound like you, there are a couple of pages devoted to preparing and eating Texas barbecue, described by the authors as a ‘manly meal’ (!). There are even suggestions about what not to wear while eating it, and whether to eat with your hands or a fork.

If you’re organising a trip to the USA, Experience USA will offer you an extensive range of suggestions for what to see and do. Yet the weight and shape of this book make it too big and heavy for most people to take on a trip: it has 316 pages and is almost the size of an A4 sheet of paper. It would be most useful during the planning phase – or after a trip when reminiscing.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Experience USA
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787013322

Book Review: Headlands – New Stories of Anxiety, ed. by Naomi Arnold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_headlands‘Anxiety sucks,’ says author Kirsten McDougall in her Headlands essay. Although this neatly sums up what it’s like to live with anxiety – and is echoed by other contributors – Kirsten and many others also write about hope and acceptance, gratitude and understanding. This excellent book makes it clear that many people with anxiety learn to live well.

Headlands is a powerful and comprehensive contribution to the New Zealand literature on mental health and wellbeing. Contributors write bravely and brilliantly about what it’s like to live with anxiety. Perhaps they are your friend or colleague, your parent or partner, your doctor, bus friend or the person you nod at on your morning dog-walk.

There may or may not be any outward sign that they experience anxiety. As the stories in Headlands show, there are many different ways that people learn to cope or cover it up.
Editor Naomi Arnold reveals that last year one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. If you are one of the estimated thousands who have ‘stayed silent’, Headlands may encourage you to talk things over with someone who can help. Arnold has succeeded in her mission to draw together voices that offer ‘reassurance and validation’ to individuals and whānau affected by anxiety.

‘Bringing this collection together was a delicate task,’ Arnold explains, because ‘there’s still a stigma in talking about mental health.’ In total 31 contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds share their experiences. Most are living with anxiety themselves, although Headlands also includes chapters by a physiotherapist, a suicide prevention officer, and a couple of clinical psychologists who are exploring the use of micronutrients to alleviate anxiety.

Although the contributors use many of the same words to describe how anxiety feels – often referring to an overwhelming sense of panic, dread, or fear – there are lots of different ways that their anxiety is manifested. Some write about eating disorders, insomnia and nail-biting, others mention anger, self-harm, indecision and paralysis. Singer, songwriter and poet Hinemoana Baker has what she describes as ‘somatised anxiety’ where anxiety is expressed though physical symptoms that cause pain.
Donna McLeod (Taranaki born and now living in Motueka) offers her community’s voice in a strong and poignant poetic narrative describing the anxiety shared among wāhine Māori.

Some contributors can trace the probable cause of their anxiety, with several referring to childhood abuse. Others see a genetic link, recognising symptoms of anxiety across generations of relatives. Arnold observes that some people may not be aware that they have anxiety and consequently will not seek help. Yet a diagnosis is not the be-all and end-all. As Bonnie Etherington notes ‘…there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not’. Eamonn Marra explains that when he learned to use mindfulness to acknowledge anxious feelings as they surfaced rather than ignoring them, this was ‘the biggest step towards being able to manage [the anxiety]’.
Several contributors mention experiencing anxiety when they were children, although at the time they did not have the word to identify the feeling, nor yet the self-awareness to recognise what it was. Over time there may be a gradual realisation and awareness of what helps and what hinders. Holly Walker writes of an ongoing cycle of learning about what she calls her ‘limitations’: ‘It’s a strange thing, having to revise your ideas about yourself’.

What helps varies from person to person. Contributors have tried a range of methods – including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Some have been admitted for psychiatric care. Others describe the benefits of meditation, yoga, running and other forms of exercise. For writer and actor Michelle Langstone, caring for sick and injured birds was central to her own journey towards wellbeing. Medication works well for some, although several contributors write about their reluctance to consider it.

I attended a panel discussion during Wellington’s recent LitCrawl event where four of the people who contributed to Headlands talked about their experiences. Editor Naomi Arnold chaired the sold-out session. Reiterating themes from the book several speakers mentioned the benefits of meditation and exercise, and one recommended having a conversation with a doctor about what’s right for you. ‘Medication’ said one panelist, ‘complements good life decisions’. Headlands makes it clear that there may be some trial and error involved to work out what will suit someone requiring support to manage their anxiety – and that what works best may change over time.

If the cover of this book was audible it would perhaps be a buzzing static or a low off-key bass hum. In particular, the cover art is a striking expression of Holly Walker’s ‘jangling world’ and its ‘cacophony of sound’.

If you are living with anxiety – or questioning whether you are – or if someone you know or care about has an anxiety-related disorder and you want to know how you might support and help them, Headlands offers ideas, insights and hope.

‘I wonder how many people live without anxiety? It can’t be that many!’ says musician Riki Gooch. Even if you are one of these people, this book is for you too. As Arnold reminds us, all New Zealanders – including whānau, communities, colleagues, and health workers – have a shared responsibility to learn, to listen and to accept, and to make it easier for people affected by anxiety to access appropriate help and support.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
Edited by Naomi Arnold
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561896