Book Review: The Heart of Jesus Valentino, by Emma Gilkison

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_heart_of_jesus_valentinoNew Zealand writer Emma Gilkison and her Peruvian partner Roy Costilla were thrilled with the prospect of becoming parents and looked forward to the twelve week scan. However it revealed their baby had ectopia cordis, when the baby’s heart was growing outside the chest, a condition found in only eight babies in a million births.

A referral to Auckland hospital and another scan at eighteen weeks revealed further heartache for the couple when they were told surgery to enclose the heart would not be possible as the baby’s heart had other defects. A weekend break for them to focus on whether to terminate the pregnancy was relaxing’ and as ‘an orange crescent moon was slowly sinking towards the inky black sea’ Roy said ‘Maybe we just have to wait for our son to go in his own time like the moon. Maybe we should bear with him’.

So began the remarkable journey which Emma has recorded in her memoir, The Heart of Jesus Valentino, a week by week account sharing their thoughts and doubts in a beautifully written heartfelt book.

It was Valentines Day 2014 when Emma first realized she was pregnant with the baby she had longed for a number of years so she felt it appropriate to have Valentino in the baby’s name, while Roy wanted Jesus –pronounced Heyzeus – a common name in Spanish speaking countries, and as the pregnancy progressed Emma accepted ‘maybe our son with his extraordinary heart deserved an extraordinary name.’

The couple were aware if they continued with the pregnancy the baby’s life would be very short and the chapters share their anguish and sadness, but through the weeks the reader feels the powerful message of love for the little one as it continues to grow and move in the womb.

Family and community support were essential to the couple and they found themselves reaching for help from the Buddhist and Catholic faiths, as well as New Age Healers. As this was such a rare condition little is in place in New Zealand of where to go for help before and after birthing baby’s with life threatening illness, and Emma hopes her book will be of value to those in the medical fields as well as ‘families going through similar journeys’.

I found this a powerful read, at times I agonized with the couple as they wrestled with their decisions. But the time after their baby arrived was a magical time for them, and the sixteen days gave them a wonderful sense of peace and fullfilment.

Emma Gilkison has been a columnist for The Sunday Star Times and The Dominion. She now lives in Brisbane with her partner Roy Costilla and their son Amaru.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Heart Of Jesus Valentino – A Mother’s story
by Emma Gilkison
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249581

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

 

Book Review: Goneville: A Memoir by Nick Bollinger

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_goneville_a_memoirAuthor Beth Kephart urges anyone reviewing a memoir to consider whether the writer has made their story matter not just to themselves, but also to the reader – and how well their life has been swept up into words. Nick Bollinger’s Goneville succeeds brilliantly on both counts. When I reached the final pages I felt as though a visit with an old and interesting friend had just ended: the kind of friend who drops in only once in a blue moon but with such good tales to tell and insights to share that by the time they leave you’re already hanging out for their next visit. In this review I refer to him as Nick; ‘Bollinger’ somehow seems way too formal for someone who has revealed so much about himself.

Nick’s memoir focuses on the 70s, although he writes briefly about his experiences before and after that time. He describes a carefree childhood swinging on vines and building forts in Wellington’s Town Belt, but also riding on his father’s shoulders on Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches. His parents saw their children as equals, encouraging them to ask questions and share their points of view. His grandparents, German Jewish refugees who immigrated to New Zealand in 1939, befriended poets, actors, painters and composers: including Glover, Baxter, McCahon and Lilburn. His mother grew up in an environment in which the arts were central. His father, too, was raised in a family immersed in history and literature. Perhaps it’s no surprise that music and language have also played significant roles throughout Nick’s life.

Both inside and outside school hours at Onslow College, Nick and his best mates shared albums and singles, discussed songs, hung out in the ‘listening rooms’ of record stores to sample popular music, and test drove guitars. They were entranced by the up and coming bands seen on New Zealand’s sole television channel, never mind that the images were transmitted in black and white.

In an era where no one asked for ID, a 13-year-old Nick slipped stealthily into a gig at Victoria University’s Student Union Hall behind a friend dressed in a second-hand greatcoat bought in Cuba Street. The hall became a regular destination: Nick’s ‘place of worship’. Soon he was playing in school bands, then graduating to professional gigs with a range of musicians (including a stylish saxophonist in pink velvet trou). Nick mastered essential skills such as making two cups of percolated coffee last for three sets in cafés that had live bands.

Nick’s growing obsession with music lead to night after night of attending gigs large and small – Bruno Lawrence, Blerta, Billy Te Kahika (Billy TK), Dragon, Split Enz and the Windy City Strugglers amongst many others. Some musicians became famous, some evolved from one band to another, most disappeared into the ether. A handful became Nick’s friends and mentors. His ‘vague dream’ of making a living playing the music he loved for a while came true. Life on the road with Rough Justice involved lurching through New Zealand in a rumpty overheating bus; days and nights filled with rehearsals and performances, ham steaks with pineapple, poster-pasting expeditions, grumpy publicans, and ‘post-gig post-mortems’. Drugs, of course, get a mention. The band’s final gig was played in July 1979. Postie life beckoned.

Nick’s writing brings the sights, sounds and smells of the era alive: the Mammal drummer who ‘hammered his tom-toms with the concentration of a blacksmith at a forge; a twanging riff that concludes with a long scrape down the E-string, aimed at driving interlopers out the door; the scent of damp burning and the glowing end of something that was being discreetly passed among a small group…’

This is not only a personal history but also a window into the changing technological, social, political and cultural landscape of New Zealand at that time. Lion Breweries had a dedicated national entertainment manager who arranged to host covers acts, showbands and aging entertainers; his influence extended to renaming a band ‘Pilsener’ to promote Lion’s latest lager. Meanwhile original bands gave it their all in small-town halls, unlicensed clubs, festivals and street parties. Folk music was still popular. Blues greats B.B. King, Chuck Berry and others performed in New Zealand. Muldoon ruled the country, marijuana sales were lucrative (and buds available at certain dairies if you knew the password).

It’s a well-researched book, with an excellent index and plenty of references for readers who want to learn more. (I did wish that captions appeared beneath each photo, rather than within a separate appendix.) Chapter headings hint at the stories about to unfold: ‘You can’t dress like that in the Hutt’, ‘Rebels and refugees’, and ‘Pig’s head and pipi bolognese’ among them. A detailed discography identifies Nick’s favourite records by New Zealand artists, with a brief overview of each individual’s or band’s career as well as a heap of other information. He notes that many of the tracks can now be found on Spotify or YouTube. I love the look and feel of the cover – take a second to run your fingers over the raised print of the title and author’s name. The cover image sums Nick’s story up: the flares! The haircuts! The rock’n’roll bus!

Given the small-town nature of Wellington (of New Zealand, too) – and the realization that Nick and I had a family friend in common – I wondered whether our paths might have crossed all those years ago.  I suspect, however, that the young Nick led a more adventurous early life than I did. It’s clear that he has many more stories to tell; I’m looking forward to them already.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Goneville: A Memoir
by Nick Bollinger
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249543

Book Review: The Unburnt Egg, by Brian Gill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

theunburnteggbookBrian Gill was curator of birds and other land vertebrates at Auckland Museum for over thirty years. He has written many books on natural history and has written for New Zealand Geographic and Forest and Bird. He studied zoology at Massey and Canterbury Universities in New Zealand and held a research fellowship at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Auckland Museum is an imposing sight sitting on top of a rise, gleaming white in the sunlight; a large magnificent stone building fronted by monumental columns. It sits proud on the Auckland skyline.

When Brian Gill sat down for his interview for a position on the staff of Auckland Museum he was asked what he would say to a farmer ringing to complain about magpies. The question threw him but rather liking magpies and wishing them no harm, he gave an answer that obviously satisfied them, as he was successful with his application.  Three decades of a vocation that was enjoyable and very satisfying followed. Brian managed a public collection of 20,000 natural history specimens. The collection had been built up during more than a century. It included items of intense historical interest as well as scientific importance.  He was able to research his fields of interest, especially on the life history of New Zealand cuckoos and songbirds and on the palaeontology of extinct New Zealand birds.

Brian Gill has put together a fascinating collection of stories about collections he has had the privilege to be involved with. When labels on lost items were lost, his job was to try and unravel the story behind these collections and find out as much as he could about the particular specimen. He was often called upon to identify mysterious objects, using methods that he had devised over his long association with the museum.

One such story is the unburnt egg. In New Plymouth in February 1961, a house caught fire and its occupant was killed – a woman of eighty named Blanche Halcombe. This tragedy had a connection to the land vertebrate’s collection at the Auckland Museum. In the 1980’s, Brian became aware of a large fossil egg in the collection that was partly encased in fine-grained sediment. It was about 208 millimetres long, and the shell was ivory-coloured. There was no label with the egg, nor any other information recorded elsewhere.  What followed is an amazing story, linking the egg to a certain bird once common on the East Coast of the South Island.  Blanche had been passionate about natural history and spent a lot of time in the New Zealand bush, and had built up a large collection of natural history specimens, some passed down from her grandfather, William Swainson.

This book is incredible – so many stories behind many of the collections that Brian Gill was involved with over his career.  As a frequent visitor to Auckland Museum over a lot of years – now days with small grandchildren and often attending special exhibitions ourselves, I found this book a great read.  This book has allowed me more knowledge about the background of some of my favourite exhibits.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Unburnt Egg – more stories of a museum curator
by Brian Gill
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249291

 

 

Book Review: Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science, by Rebecca Priestley

Available in bookshops nationwide, this book is being discussed as part of NZ Writer’s Week. Rebecca Priestley’s event Ice Science is at 5pm on Saturday 12 March, and she will talk with fellow Antarcticans Rebecca Priestley, Tim Naish and Rhian Salmon, chaired by Te Radar.

Icv_dispatches_from_continent_seven was pretty excited about this book, having enjoyed Rebecca Priestley’s previous science anthology work, and I was not disappointed. Antarctica is a fascinating place that most of us will never set foot on, and this anthology gives a great sense of what travelling and working there would be like.

The book is arranged into roughly chronological sections covering the first voyages attempting to “discover” Antarctica, early accounts of scientists and explorers who made it onto the continent, the growth of scientific endeavours from the 1950’s onwards, and finally a collection of recent writing on what study in Antarctica can tell us about climate change and our possible future. Rebecca Priestley has selected, edited and introduced each piece of writing to show us who each writer is, where they are and what’s going on at the time that their narrative takes place.

Although “edited” is an obvious description of Priestley’s part in the book, I kept thinking during the earlier historical sections that “curated” would be a more accurate term. As I read, I felt like I was being shown through an exhibition about the history of Antarctic exploration – each piece following on from the next but from a different perspective, well-contextualised and interspersed with pictures and occasional poems. The inclusion of modern poetry is an interesting choice, one that I appreciate in part because it allows small insertions of female perspectives into the inevitably male exploration narratives. I found the poem that starts the book off, ‘The frozen pages’ by Gregory O’Brien, particularly engaging: it gets the book off to a philosophical start, setting the scene for readers to consider the importance of the stories that follow.

The early efforts to reach Antarctica – so distant, so mysterious, so very, very cold – took place in the age of European colonial voyages. James Cook and his crew circumnavigated the area while making scientific observations. French lieutenant Jospeh Dubouzet mused about whether “taking possession” by planting a flag in a new place was ridiculous, before asserting that in this case it wasn’t, and describing the excellent Bordeaux wine used to toast their conquest. James Clark Ross delighted in going around naming things after his colleagues and benefactors. The major difference was that there were no people already living on Antarctica. Therefore the efforts to claim and conquer parts of this last continent did not involve any direct human conflict. There are, however, numerous instances of penguins having a bad time in these early encounters! Just before their otherwise peaceful act of flag-planting conquest, Dubouzet and company had cleared the area by hurling away all the resident penguins, who were “much astonished”. No doubt.

The writers give beautiful descriptions of the unusual and wonderful things they are seeing, while also conveying the discomfort and visceral struggle for survival. I had no idea that the aviator Richard Byrd had worked on Antarctica, but his story about nearly locking himself out while doing a solo meteorological measurement was brilliantly told and quite nerve-wracking. As things took a turn for the worse in Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 diary excerpt (presented as a story about collecting geological samples) I suddenly realised “ohh, we must be approaching the part with ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’”. Actually that exact quote from Captain Oates was not included, but I am sure I will not be the only reader who anticipates it, and realises in the process that the story of Scott’s fatal final expedition has become iconic.

I was somewhat less gripped by some of the more modern excerpts about doing science in Antarctica – not due to any fault of the authors, for each piece is a good example of science writing and explains a particular aspect of physics, biology or cool technical gear very well. I think this is a personal preference: as a social researcher, I found the stories in which the scientist described their personal experience more immersive, while the technical explanations were interesting but easier to skim over. I particularly enjoyed the rather chipper-sounding physicist Colin Bull describing his team’s experiences in the 1950s (struggling across a windy valley while laden with gear, he finds himself repeating a quote from a colleague: “Only another ten thousand feet of this excruciating garbage”), and atmospheric chemist Rhian Salmon’s chatty blog from the early 2000s about a typical day while wintering over. My interest picked up further for the final section relating to climate change: scary and very important.

I will be passing this book on to the earth scientist in my household, who is certain to find different aspects of the stories more interesting. This is therefore an endorsement: people will take different things out of this anthology, and that’s great. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science
by Rebecca Priestley
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249055

Book Review: Ocean Notorious: Journeys to Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South, by Matt Vance

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ocean_notoriousThe Southern Ocean officially doesn’t exist anymore: the hydrological authorities redefined it out of existence. But sailors still know the body of water south of New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and stretching as far as Antarctica, as the Southern Ocean. And a fearsome place it sounds. The ‘roaring forties’ sounds bad enough, but the ‘screaming sixties’ is something else again. I know that it is supposedly the wind that is screaming, but I’m pretty sure that if I was there, the wind would have competition.

Matt Vance is a sailor who is much more at home in the deep south than most people. He is an expedition guide, and has ferried tourists, bird-watchers, artists and writers to many of the lonely places in this remote area. This book collects the stories he has heard, and the experiences he has enjoyed, and at times endured. Most recently he has guided participants in the Artists to Antarctica programme.

Just the names summon up awe: the Bounty Islands, South Georgia, Auckland Island, and Campbell Island – the list goes on. People will only have heard of most of these places from weather forecasts, disaster reports and reading about the explorers of the ‘heroic age’, like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Cold, barren, wind-swept, dangerous places are challenged by sailors, ornithologists, geologists, climate scientists, artists and writers. Starting on a Russian icebreaker running Southern Ocean expeditions, Vance has spent a great deal of time on the sub-Antarctic islands, and on the ice.

The author gives his own account of this region, and also introduces us to many of the other characters who have made their mark on, and been marked by, this remote and frightening part of the world. Explorers are there of course. So are sailors in small boats, and large ones. The story of the coast watchers during the Second World War (total sighting in 12 months: 2 ships, both ours), and their contributions not only to defence but to science, cast an interesting light on NZ’s attitudes during the war.
Solo sailors feature, as do bird watchers and conservators. What drives a person to spend many months alone, at sea in the worst conditions on earth, in constant danger? Vance tells their story and guides the reader to some understanding of the passions and obsessions that drive these sailors, and graphically describes some of their adventures.

As well as the sub-Antarctic islands Vance has taken expeditions to Antarctica itself, and he tells the stories of the well-known explorers of a hundred or more years ago as if he was there. In doing so he casts new light on them, their motives, and the challenges that they faced. He is able to write as one who has faced similar challenges – albeit with better equipment and much more back-up – and the empathy he has with them shows in the writing.

There are some nice photos to accompany the text, although their reproduction is sometimes a little murky. There are maps too: thank goodness. Vance tells these stories concisely and vividly, and paints a fine word picture of this world that few of us will ever experience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249260

Book Review: Open Looks: My Life in Basketball, by John Saker

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_open_looksJohn Saker will be familiar to booksellers and readers for his wine writing. However, he first made his name playing basketball. In Open Looks: My Life in Basketball, he expertly condenses a lifetime playing and following the game into a compact yet passionate ode to a sport that has often struggled to wrest the spotlight away from rugby in this country.

The balance of power may well be shifting. The NZ Breakers consistently find success in the Australian league, Steven Adams threatens to become NZ’s highest ever paid sportsman in the NBA and more basketball jerseys can be spotted on the streets than rugby ones. Basketball is no longer this nation’s “palace fringe dweller” to rugby’s “sun king”, as Saker compares the two during his playing days.

The timing then, is perfect for this book. Both Saker and Awa Press deserve praise for recognising and addressing the lack of quality basketball writing on NZ bookshelves. Rather than opting for a conventional sporting autobiography, they utilise Saker’s gift with language to craft a collection that acts as both a series of short vignettes about the game and a chronological memoir.

Saker tells of gravitating furtively away from rugby, and his early, awkward courtship of basketball’s famed hooked shot. He pauses to appreciate the game’s lexicon, of “teardrops”, “daggers”, “swishes” and “gymrats”. Metaphor, he puts it, “bursts from the game like fruit from a tree”. As well as the joy he finds in its language, there is a zen-like serenity he finds in practising and playing that helps him overcome personal tragedy and find inner peace. These are the most moving passages of the book.

There are some amusing anecdotes as Saker moves through his playing days. Shadowy, lo-fi national trials in the ‘70s; fish out of water antics in college-scholarship Montana; chasing paychecks with slumming-it black American professionals in Europe – throughout it all, Saker emerges as a wide-eyed Kiwi boy who can’t quite believe his place in a game about to explode in global popularity.

What is missing then is a sense of the era of this explosion. Saker played throughout the 1980’s, as the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan became household names. The excitement they generated saw the game’s appeal take off in our own national league. Yet we really only get treated to a brief encounter with the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

We get a blow-by-blow account of his first tournament in national colours, yet almost nothing of the dozen or so years he then spent playing for New Zealand. There’s an interesting piece on Steven Adams, but what about the Saints dynasties of both the 1980’s and recent years? And what are his thoughts on the Breakers’ incredible success? Hopefully, more pieces will follow in the near future.

For now, Saker obviously recognises the value of quality over quantity. This is fine writing, enjoyable as both an introduction to the game (a-la Awa’s How to Watch essay series), and for those already entranced by its striking lexicon and eye-opening athleticism.

The book’s pint-sized format perhaps lends itself best as a great gift for the literate basketball lover. As a sample of Saker’s basketball writing talent: like a good wine, more please!

Reviewed by Gary Forster

Open Looks: My Life in Basketball
by John Saker
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249185

John Saker was interviewed on 16 March on Nine to Noon.