Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: Apartment Living New Zealand, by Catherine Foster

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_apartment_living_new_zealand.jpgEvery weekend about now – when weeds are unfurling and the grass is clearly in need of a trim – my partner and I look at each other and sigh. ‘We’re really apartment people,’ we say wistfully. Having spent time in apartments in Auckland, Wellington, London, Paris, Rome, New York, San Francisco and Melbourne, the lure of the apartment lifestyle is strong.

Author Catherine Foster begins with a brief description of the history of apartments in New Zealand and the changing cultural norms and attitudes towards apartment living. She notes that a lack of affordable land has seen rapid growth in the attraction of apartment ownership, which offers both convenience and quality of life. Significant increases in property prices, geographical restrictions and post-quake upheaval have all contributed to this growth.

Phoebe Gibbons lives with her partner in an inner-city Auckland apartment. She sums up the appeal of apartment living, sentiments that are shared by other apartment owners: ‘We have the city on our doorstep, a park across the road, and our jobs within walking distance. We can’t imagine a different lifestyle.’

Proximity to a city means that many owners walk from A to B, although almost all apartments covered in this book have their own parking space. In fact, one apartment includes parking for up to eight cars.

Foster and a team of photographers cover 20 diverse apartments, grouped by style: classic, contemporary and converted (typically from commercial to residential use). Some were constructed recently, others have been inhabited for close to a century. Auckland apartments feature prominently: 14 of the 20 apartments covered are in Auckland. Three are in Wellington, with one each in Lyttleton, Dunedin and Tauranga. I would have been interested to know Foster’s criteria for selecting the featured apartments and I’m grateful to the owners for sharing their homes.

Beautiful photographs of each apartment are counter-balanced with plenty of white space and interesting text. Each entry includes brief information about the apartment’s owner/s and their motivation for apartment living, followed by the property’s history and key design features. Architectural sketches offer a bird’s-eye view of floor plans, alongside information about the size (in square metres), the stud height, and the year constructed or renovated. Stud heights range from the traditional to a soaring 7m high cathedral ceiling.

Foster outlines the challenges architects face working with the demands of the Building Code, zoning restrictions and resource constraints, especially when renovating a heritage building. Patience is key during what some describe as ‘combative’ and ‘onerous’ processes. During renovations there’s a need to balance respect for the integrity of an original historic building with practical requirements for modern-day fixtures and plentiful storage. In some cases original fittings are still in use, such as the stunning bronze and glass lights in Wellington’s former Dental Clinic building.


Panorama of Wellington at dawn, from Wikimedia Commons. 

There are many clever and sometimes surprising features, including a firefighter’s pole offering a quick descent as an alternative to an adjacent staircase, and self-contained pod bedrooms that can be easily reconfigured by future owners for commercial rather than residential use. In a Parnell apartment, enormously tall laser-cut aluminium screens double as folding shutters, providing both privacy and light control. And I’ve never seen anything else quite like the invisibly supported table suspended blade-like from one apartment’s kitchen wall.

Foster explains how both light and colour are used to best advantage, such as the bands of coloured glass brightening an exterior wall. Paint is also used to good effect: pastel shades to maximize space, blackboard paint on a kitchen wall to increase visual depth, and the 26 different shades of white in an apartment that serves as both home and office.

I appreciated the additional details Foster provides about artworks and other objects on display, such as sculptures and hand-blown glass vessels. An apartment owned by major patrons of the arts was constructed to showcase an extensive and eclectic collection that includes works by Warhol, Walters, McCahon, Upritchard, Killeen and others.

The combination of forward-thinking architects and open-minded clients results in clever design elements, such as the digital clock-tower in a Wellington apartment complex. Floor-to-ceiling cupboards offer not only spacious storage, but also help to reduce noise levels. In one apartment there’s a television hidden behind a mirror. In another, a mirrored splashback makes a small kitchen space appear deeper and reflects a bowl of juicy citrus fruit.

The apartments have diverse outlooks, including urban environments, ports and oceans, cityscapes, the Waitakere Ranges, and even the outer oval in the grounds of Eden Park.

There’s beauty in the writing too – ‘light washing down [that] creates a pattern of intersecting shadows; ‘the delicacy of a glazed atrium’; ‘bedrooms…quiet in both mood and decoration’; the ‘views of the Waitemata Harbour across the tumbling roofs of nearby houses’.

The final chapter outlines a pragmatic list for potential apartment owners to consider – safety, for example, as well as the need to look carefully at body corporate records. (Are there disputes between neighbours? What is the maintenance schedule? What are the annual fees?) The emotional implications are also teased out – for example, are pets allowed? Are occupiers allowed to make their own mark by changing the internal layout? A checklist and design prompts help to ensure that prospective purchasers know what to look for (including the direction of sunlight and prevailing winds), and what to avoid. A glossary lists real estate, architectural and legal terms as currently used and understood in New Zealand. A design directory lists most – but not all – of the architects and designers whose work appears in the book. Additional references include books, articles and websites dedicated to apartment living.

As an inveterate open-homer, I savoured every page of this elegant book. It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite apartment – given a choice, I would spend a month in each. Until then I shall tackle the weeds and mow the lawn and dream of one day waking up in an apartment of my very own.

by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Apartment Living New Zealand
by Catherine Foster
Publisher: Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770510

Book Review: Write to the Centre, by Helen Lehndorf

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_write_to_the_centreWriter and teacher Helen Lehndorf started her first journal (a diary) aged 13 and has kept going – with the occasional pause – ever since. She’s captured the many changes in her life through these journals: good times and bad, wise decisions and regrets, relationships, parenthood, and the ‘quiet and chaos’ that most of us have probably experienced. This book includes many of her handwritten entries, nestled amongst postcards, cuttings, notes, sketches and other ephemera that she has pasted into her journals with the gluestick mentioned in the subtitle.

The many and varied benefits that come from keeping a journal are described. Lehndorf encourages everyone to give it a go, in whatever way works best. Don’t be put off if you are time-poor. Scrawl or glue into your journal a few minutes at a time, she suggests, because the entries are an excellent way to discover who you are and (later) who you were: ‘…these notes captured in a journal are like messages in a bottle from all my earlier selves’.

There are twelve chapters. The early chapters provide plenty of inspiration for getting started, with suggestions for learning how to be a curious, alert and slightly detached observer of what’s going on in your own life. Thoughts will lead to words (jot them down quickly, before you forget), and these notes may in turn lead to relief or clarity – though Lehndorf reassures us that there’s wisdom to be gleaned from experiencing and writing about resistance and confusion too. Later chapters could almost be read in any order. The fabulously descriptive chapter headings make it very clear what each chapter covers – such as ‘Full-throttle melodrama: allowing the ugly’ (Chapter 6!).

shameless_journal_1Lehndorf gently encourages us to write about anything that comes to mind – whether this be events, friendships, places, plans or even lists…spontaneity is key. Lehndorf is confident that eventually everyone’s own style and voice will emerge. It’s OK, she says, to write about things that don’t go well, the rough or tough times, the stumbles as well as the dreams. Choose how and when to write, and write about whatever makes sense to you. Write at length, a line, or just a word. If words won’t come, she advises adding a doodle or simply gluing in something that appeals or may later bring back memories. Allow your journal to reflect the complexity of your life, use it as a way to work though hurt feelings, remorse and disappointment, as well as a way to remember happy times, joys and triumphs.

Each chapter concludes with a Give it a Whirl section, jam-packed with ideas to kick-start journal entries, even if you’re a reluctant or self-conscious writer. ‘Cultivate your curiosity’, Lehndorf suggests, because there are a never-ending number of things to write about, and if you run out of ideas of your own it’s quite OK to jot down other people’s insights too. Themed journals are also a possibility – for example, journals that focus mainly on gardening, music, wish-lists, or trips.

I liked the New Zealand flavour woven throughout her journal entries, such as the nods to Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, references to beach and bush walks, river swims and op shops – and Ngaio and Nikau appearing on the long list of ‘possible cat names if we do get a cat’.


It takes a certain amount of bravery to share innermost thoughts so publicly, and I admire Lehndorf for her willingness to let us read a broad and somewhat random selection of entries from her own journals. It’s reassuring to see the words crossed out, the scrawls and scribbles, the shortcuts and abbreviations, notes spread hurriedly down and across pages, the self-doubt amidst the celebrations. Perfection is not the goal. It’s all about the process, not the product, she explains. And if you’d prefer to destroy your journals rather than let anyone find them, there’s a wee section outlining interesting ways to do so.

This is a relatively large book, A4 size. I wonder if the size, combined with the somewhat ambiguous title and busy cover imagery might deter or confuse some of the likely target audience. I’m not sure that I would have picked up this book if I had seen it in a bookshop, possibly mistaking it for a textbook or handcrafting manual (given the prominence of the ‘gluestick’ in the subtitle). This would have been my loss, given the wealth of practical suggestions, creative triggers, motivation and encouragement Lehndorf offers within this book.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Write to the Centre: navigating life with gluestick and words
by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Haunui Press
ISBN 9780473367770

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

Book Review: Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art, by Dierdre and Craig Hassed

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_illuminating_wisdomPartners Craig and Deirdre Hassed have collaborated to share wisdom from Eastern, Western, indigenous, ancient and contemporary sources in the form of spiritual and philosophical quotes, mantras, proverbs and blessings. Craig, who wrote the text, is an academic and coordinator of mindfulness programmes at Monash University. Deirdre is a skilled calligrapher with a deep interest in philosophy. Themes covered in their book include love, beauty, truth, justice, service, compassion, virtue, unity, peace and wonder.

The title plays on various meanings of illumination – including the lustrous gilding added to some artworks to reflect light, as well the association with understanding and insight.

Although there are plenty of inspirational and aspirational quotes circulating on Facebook (and sold on cheap canvas ‘art’) few are attributed to individuals and there is typically no contextual information. Illuminating Wisdom is very different: the comprehensive background story for each quote both educates and informs – at times gently challenging readers to consider life from a different perspective.

The book includes Apache and Celtic blessings and the brief ‘indigenous and folk traditions’ section includes a whakatauki (Māori proverb). This section also acknowledges the role of symbolic stories, songs, dances and proverbs and the interwoven connections between land, ancestors and other living creatures (with particular reference to the teachings of the original inhabitants of Australia).

Many of the people quoted are familiar, such as scientists Curie, Newton and Einstein, leaders and politicians Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Michelangelo. Others are less well-known. The historical notes and accompanying stories are engaging and several inspired me to turn to other sources to find out more. I learned, for example, about the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the head of a religious community as well as an outspoken philosopher, mystic, author, composer, healer and scientist. Her writing and music are still popular – her Gregorian chants have been updated with electronic effects and modern instrumentation; I was soon listening to her soothing compositions on YouTube.

Craig includes a brief history and outline of diverse spiritual and religious traditions and practices. He explains that spiritual traditions often have dual paths – a religious pathway for people drawn to faith, and a mystical or philosophical pathway for those drawn to reflection.

I was at first confused by the ‘see text’ note accompanying most illustrations, expecting to find a typewritten transcript of the relevant calligraphised quote. This would have been helpful, as some of the more ornate and intricate lettering is a challenge to read. Instead, the referenced text describes the source and context of the quote, and explores its key message and likely intent.

In an ‘artist’s notes’ section at the back of the book, Deirdre summarises the technique used for each calligraphy work, including linocuts, sandblasting, collage, and letterpress prints. She uses inks, hand-stamping, gouache, gold leaf and gold powder, acrylic paint, foil and coloured pencils to inscribe her designs on surfaces such as hand-made, hand-dyed and hand-marbled papers, canvas and papyrus. An index assists readers searching for a particular quote, author, religion, spiritual teaching or tradition.

My favourite? A quote from the Sufi poet Rumi: ‘Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.’ Craig interprets this as a reminder ‘to be open to the grace and good fortune surrounding us’, drawing parallels between this quote and the focus on gratitude in current positive psychology circles. (Food for thought: it was apparently Socrates, rather than Marie Kondo, who first challenged us to consider: “How much can I do without?”)

This is a book to be dipped into and savoured over time. For me its value lies in the history, analysis and wisdom shared alongside each quotation, as well as the beauty of the calligraphy – not only the intricate lettering but also the materials and mediums used to create it.

Illuminating Wisdom would be a good place to turn for inspiration next time you write to comfort, congratulate or console someone you hold close to your heart.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art
by Deirdre Hassed and Craig Hassed
Published by Exile Publishing
ISBN 9781925335354

Book Review: 101 Ways to Live Well, by Victoria Joy and Karla Zimmerman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_101_ways_to_live_wellDoes the world need another little self-care book? I’m not entirely convinced, although if you’d like something positive to dip into during somewhat turbulent times (Quakes! Deadlines! Trump!) this book might appeal.

The authors suggest that these bite-size tips are perfect for commute time, a lunch break, or even the checkout queue. There’s a tiny wee clock on each page indicating how long each activity is likely to take. Times range from 30 seconds – to take a deep mindful breath and refocus – to 2 hours to ‘watch a mindful movie’. Mix it up a bit: take 1 minute (to wash your hands and ‘win the germ war’!), 20 minutes, for a Sun Salutation yoga practice to ‘get the blood flowing…and awaken the whole body’, or a leisurely 30 minutes to listen to music to ‘improve your mood and confidence’. Most activities take around 5 minutes: realistic and manageable. My favourite tip? How to ease a headache by a gentle hair-pulling technique that reduces tension.

The page layout takes you straight to the point – a snappy title at the top of each page, followed by a summary of the activity or tip, within a circle. Below, a single paragraph telling you everything else you need to know. If you’d like to learn more about a particular topic, some pages have web links. Simple line drawings provide additional information about activities such as the yoga poses. (I wasn’t quite supple enough to master the Camel…)

There are several simple recipes (eg for smoothies, fruit and herb infusions, and ‘low-cal’ hot chocolate), as well as affirmations, encouragement, and acupressure advice. There are suggestions for improving posture, easing neck pain and even feigning self-confidence – and many other topics too.

However, although the pages are numbered, there is no index. This may frustrate readers looking for a particular exercise or activity. And the Table of Contents is sparse – offering only a choice of Home, Work, Play, Relationships and Travel.

My impression is that the book is primarily aimed at office-based women in paid work. But not all readers will sit at desks all day, or need alternatives to ‘weekly office cupcake runs’. (Nor will everyone need tips claiming to ease menstrual pain and reduce PMS symptoms – or want to engage in a tickle battle.)

The cover is a tranquil aqua colour. It has folds at either side that could be used for bookmarking favourite pages.

The book would, perhaps, be a useful gift for a colleague, a recuperating friend, or a new parent – someone who’s time-poor but motivated to make small incremental changes to set them on a path to improved wellbeing.

Reviewed  by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

101 Ways to Live Well: Mindfulness, Yoga and nutrition tips for busy people
by Victoria Joy and Karla Zimmerman
Published by Lonely Planet, 2016
ISBN 9781786572127

Book Review: Spain From the Source, by Sally Davies

cv_spain_from_the_sourceAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

I’m a cookbook addict – over 180 at last count – so there’s a lot of competition for shelf space. Whether new or vintage (oh, the strange and wonderful cookbooks to be found at school galas and church fairs!) a cookbook must meet certain criteria to earn a permanent spot in my kitchen. Lonely Planet Food’s Spain: From the Source passes the test. It’s well-written and laid-out, with stunning photos and interesting narratives accompanying each recipe. Recipes range from ‘good honest peasant food’ based on whatever’s in the larder to advanced restaurant-level fare, with most appearing manageable as well as authentic.

Traditional Spanish dishes have been reinvented with new ideas and flavours, and almost all ingredients will be easy to find in New Zealand. Preparation and cooking times are included for most recipes, there’s a decent index (although with English titles only), and measurements are both imperial and metric. The pages lie more or less flat when the book is open, and a red ribbon offers an elegant alternative to marking a favourite recipe with a sticky note.

Part cookbook, part travel guide, with intriguing social, cultural and gastronomical history, I think you’ll enjoy reading this book even if you never get around to attempting a recipe. Author Sally Davies is a long-time Barcelona resident who writes about Spain and its restaurants for guidebooks, newspapers and magazines. Davies’ writing and photographer Margaret Stepien’s images conjure up the sights, sounds and aromas of Spanish kitchens: olive oil glistening on a chef’s hands as he tears smoky, chargrilled vegetables; the sizzle of duck browning in a pan seasoned with garlic, onion and bay leaves; clouds of icing sugar drifting over fresh pastries; and the lace-striped pinny (and fierce concentration) of the woman who has been making her signature dish for nearly 50 years.

Recipes have both English and Spanish titles. How much more enticing bikini de tartufo and lonchejas de cerdo iberico y calamar sound than their translated counterparts: a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, and strips of pig’s ear with squid.

There’s a strong focus on healthy, simple food. Many chefs share restaurateur Carlos Zamora’s philosophy of creating ‘slow food, locally sourced, with an emphasis on organic and free-range produce’. Here you should be able to find most ingredients at a supermarket, butcher or farmers’ market. Others can possibly be bought at specialist food stores or ordered online. Some, but not all, ingredients with Spanish names are translated. Substitutions are suggested for some of the less common ingredients. No tramezzino in your pantry? Apparently crustless slices of white bread will work just as well.

The recipes are clustered by region, covering north-east, north-west, central and southern Spain. Dishes reflect the climate, culture, produce and rituals associated with each region, as well as seasonal influences. In addition to the main index at the back of the book, there’s a separate map and an index for each of the four regions. Websites and contact details for all restaurants whose recipes feature in the book are included on one page (should you be tempted to visit a particular restaurant, or to email a chef for advice).

Spain offers tapas and mains, of course, as well as both unusual and traditional desserts. Duck, chicken, pork, fish and other seafood feature prominently. There are a handful of recipes that are meat-free, such as the chilled cashew soup. Desserts include churros, marzipan balls with pine nuts, and candied egg yolks. Legend has it that the latter were created to commemorate Saint Teresa, founder of the order of Carmelite nuns. The sugar-dusted spiral Ensaimada pastries come with their own folk stories – some say they are shaped like the turbans worn on the island of Mallorca in days gone by. Consider ditching the trifle this Christmas for crema de arroz con leche requemada (scorched rice pudding) – the photo next to this recipe so enticing that you can almost hear the spoon cracking the crunchy caramel surface to reveal the sweet and creamy rice underneath.

Even if you’ve not got enough time or courage to try the more complex recipes, many of the side dishes appear quick and easy. Blend a roasted red onion and roasted beetroot, sprinkle with salt and pepper – and you’ve created red onion cream. Or turn to the ‘basic recipes’ section for the nut- and garlic-based picada – a traditional Catalan sauce.

I loved the history as well as the recipes – the story of the master pastry chef who is the fourth generation of a baking and chocolate dynasty; the monastery-based restaurant high on a hill in the Sierra de Villuercas; the restaurant within a 17th century building that was once a hospital for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago trail; and the 9th century basement turned wine cellar that holds 32,000 bottles.

There were a few things that puzzled me: the type is surprisingly small, given the amount of white space on most pages. And although any one of the photos on the cover would have made an excellent cover image on its own, the combination of photos with the gilt-lettered and multi-fonted title text looks somewhat thrown-together. Several recipes don’t specify exact times, instead suggesting ‘bake…until the base is golden’ or ‘stir every few minutes until golden brown’. Perhaps this is a reminder that cooking requires both patience and persistence. Overall, however, Spain is an excellent source of ideas whether you’re planning a feast for friends or a night with your feet up and comfort food for one.

If you’re not tempted to buy this book as a To Myself: From Myself gift, it would make a great present for that friend who’s walked the Camino de Santiago, your foodie colleague, your armchair travelling aunt or uncle, or the new graduate with their first real job who will finally be able to afford to cook good food. Spain will inspire them all.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Spain: From the source
by Sally Davies
Published by Lonely Planet Global Ltd
ISBN 9781760340766

Book Review: Fat Science, by Robyn Toomath

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fat_science“Can I borrow that book when you’re done with it?” asked a friend who saw Fat Science on my reading pile. Well, yes, of course. Although this is a book I’d prefer to keep on hand to dip in and out of so that I can continue to think about the issues that Toomath raises.

The title and sub-title get right to the point – diets and exercise don’t work. The book itself explains why not – and what alternatives there may be.

Toomath has helped me to understand what’s going on that makes it so hard for many New Zealanders to get healthy food and enough exercise. Most weight loss diets lead to only short-term success for people living with excess weight, who Toomath describes as being unreasonably optimistic. Our bodies are complicated. There are multiple factors that interact to determine whether and how we lose, maintain, or put on weight. These include genes, hormones, the effects of sedentary work and sleep deprivation, time-pressured cooks, urban design, food pricing strategies, rising inequality, trade and economic policies . . . the list is long. Toomath thoroughly and systematically explores key questions – eg Can drugs or surgery make us thin? Is fatness inherited? – and related topics. She draws on credible and well-referenced local and international research to back up her observations and recommendations. She emphasizes that most of us cannot change our body size – and that efforts to change the amount of exercise that we do are notoriously difficult to sustain.

We likely all know that there’s no simple or single solution to the obesity epidemic – especially given how, where and when fast foods are marketed. Toomath raises our awareness of marketing ploys and urges consideration of how the “cute shapes and attractive colours” of many processed foods, with their combinations of fat, salt and sweetness tweaked to perfection, are peddled relentlessly by an industry with large advertising budgets. No longer restricted to traditional media, ads for fast foods, processed foods and other unhealthy foods are hurled at us (and our children) day and night, with subtle and not so subtle internet marketing on the rise.

The weight loss industry is flourishing, with numerous plans, programmes, shakes, pills and supplements on offer. Governments in New Zealand and other countries have tried a raft of initiatives to help people adopt healthier lifestyles and to support people to lose weight and keep it off. Although the evidence from many trials is discouraging (with poor long-term outcomes reported) there are schemes that work and proposals that are worth pursuing. As a starting point, Toomath points to ideas put forward by an international food policy advisor and her team. Their suggestions include providing an environment that encourages young children to learn to prefer healthy food, overcoming barriers to cost, and encouraging people to think more critically about their choices when they are purchasing food. Toomath explains how these ideas can be actioned – for example, by providing healthy food in schools, reducing sugar content in food intended for children, subsidising healthy food for low-income families, and restricting access to unhealthy food retailers in areas where children gather. One point on which Toomath is very clear: exercise is good for us, but exercise on its own is rarely the only answer.

This is a thought-provoking book, packed with facts and figures and personal insights. Toomath challenges us to consider why there is such a gap between evidence and policy – when governments know what is likely to work, for whom, and under what circumstances, what is preventing the appropriate actions being taken? “Demand an environment”, she urges, “where it is easy to eat and exercise in a way that keeps everyone healthy”. She also makes it clear that policymakers and politicians must invest time to understand which interventions will be acceptable and which will likely meet resistance and fail.

Fat Science has helped me to look more critically and carefully at how individual and collective responses can influence how New Zealanders source, prepare, market and consume healthy food. I’m going to consider which of Toomath’s key messages I should pass on to others, and how. As a start, I will soon lend her book to my friend.

Reviewed by  Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Fat Science: Why diets and exercise don’t work – and what does
by Robyn Toomath
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408534

Book Review: Anxiety for Beginners, by Eleanor Morgan

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anxiety_for_beginnersIf the fluorescent cover doesn’t catch your eye, the title will. In Anxiety for Beginners, Eleanor Morgan tells us what it’s like to live with anxiety and why it’s so important to identify and learn to manage it. She leads off with a raw account of her own experiences, then explores what anxiety is, why it happens and what can be done about it.

Morgan reassures us that feeling anxious need not be a life-sentence – that it is possible to get on top of it and that we can learn to deal with the intrusive chorus of ‘What ifs?’ that roll through our minds. She reminds us that some anxiety is okay, even essential – especially in situations that are in some way threatening, where anxiety prepares us to act. It’s when anxiety takes over and our response is disproportionate to the threat that it causes distress. That is the point that we should seek help – or support someone else to seek help if we see that anxiety is dominating their life.

I share her belief that spreading knowledge about what anxiety is – and the different forms it may take – is beneficial not only for people living with anxiety, but also for their partners, families and friends. She’s quite frank that anxiety can ‘creep or crash’ into anyone’s life without warning. This means that even if we are not living with anxiety ourselves, there’s a good chance that someone we know is: someone we live with, someone we study or work with, a friend, neighbour or colleague.

Morgan tackles a serious topic with empathy and humor – and a generous smattering of f-words. Her first experience with anxiety was at age 17. She describes feeling that she was about to detonate or crack down the middle like an egg – her legs hollow, her breathing ragged, her guts fizzing. She’s open about the challenges she continues to face – although she has, over time, learned how to manage her anxiety on an ongoing basis. Even so, she admits that – like many of us – she’s still searching for that elusive ‘sweet spot between allowing [herself] to relax and pushing [herself] to do more’.

Morgan does a good job of helping us to understand what’s going on inside the brain and body, the physiological basis of anxiety. In exploring the causes, symptoms and consequences of anxiety, she’s spoken with psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral neuroscientists and academics, as well as others, including several well-known people, who live with anxiety disorders. Morgan is based in East London and so draws primarily on material from the United Kingdom, although there’s a sprinkling of information from other countries too. She’s written a well-researched book with information and resources drawn from diverse sources, although none of it from Aotearoa/New Zealand. There are plenty of references throughout most chapters, as well as a bibliography and a detailed index. It’s a book you can go back to if you want to learn more or point a friend towards resources.

Morgan makes it clear that although there are common symptoms, there can be tremendous variation in how each individual experiences anxiety. She’s a firm believer that people should be offered a choice about how to manage their symptoms, although cautions that it’s easy to get swamped by information during the search for relief. Despite knowing the importance of finding good, informed care and support, some of her own experiences with helping professionals have been of variable quality.

There’s a surprisingly brief chapter on how to help someone else with anxiety. It points to a range of websites, as well as reminding us to be patient and non-judgemental.

Morgan tells it like it is. She wants readers to understand that although there’s no perfect antidote for anxiety, there are a number of things that are likely to help over time. For her, cognitive behavioural therapy has made a world of difference. For some people living with anxiety medication will be effective, for others it may be therapy, exercise, meditation or mindfulness – or a combination of different approaches. (Dogs may have a role to play too: the single photo in the book is of Morgan’s re-homed schnauzer-cocker spaniel cross, Pamela – a Hairy Maclary lookalike bringing ‘joy, routine and purpose’ into Morgan’s life.)

I appreciated Morgan’s honesty, humour and optimism. She’s encouraged by society’s gradual shift towards considering mental health problems as less of a stigma and more a part of what it means to be a human being: ‘a bump in the road, rather than the end of it’. She stresses the importance of improving public education and awareness of anxiety and other mental health problems, so that all of us know what is available and what might help. Her book is an excellent place to start.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Anxiety for Beginners
by Eleanor Morgan
Publisher: Bluebird (a Pan Macmillan imprint)
ISBN 9781509813261