Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

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Book Review: The Flying Doctor by Dave Baldwin

9781775538929Available in bookshops nationwide.

Dave Baldwin is a medical doctor, and he’s also very good at telling stories in the style of the late Barry Crump.

Like Crump before him, Baldwin is a keen hunter and his tales of ‘glassing’ and then shooting deer and goats make you feel you’re there with him. Despite not being at all interested in hunting, this book was so entertaining and written in such an easy to read style, I finished it in days.

I’ve not read Healthy Bastards, Baldwin’s earlier book aimed at improving men’s health, but The Flying Doctor is what I’d describe as a bloody good read.

Baldwin tells of his life from the early days, struggling at school with dyslexia, and the bliss he felt going hunting with his beloved Granny Olive. The story of his life features some great lessons, particularly about not giving up, and working hard to achieve your dreams. It’s very much one of those ‘if I can do it, what’s your excuse for not trying?’ books, and it’s inspiring for those who don’t find things easy.

Baldwin talks about his medical training, and the sacrifices he and his wife, Sandi, made to forge a better life for their growing family. Early in his career, meeting a GP who seemed to have it all steered Baldwin down the path to his dream job – one that gave him time and space to follow his twin passions of hunting and flying. His descriptions of life as the base medical officer at Ohakea are worth the price of the book alone!

After buying a medical practice in Bulls, Baldwin established the Not-So-Royal Bulls Flying Doctor Service and began setting up satellite surgical rooms around the country at airstrips so he could perform aviation medicals for pilots. This also allowed him to hunt as often as possible, together with his son Marc, to whom this book is a touching tribute. He also wants it to be a reminder for people to keep an eye on their mental as well as physical health.

Baldwin knows the importance of building good relationships in his personal and working life and there are numerous mentions of the people whose help he has appreciated in his life.

I initially thought this book would appeal more to men than women, but now I’ve finished it, I honestly think it would appeal to anyone who enjoys a good read written by a ‘good bastard’, which is what Baldwin undoubtedly is.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Flying Doctor
by Dave Baldwin
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775538929

Book Review: Double-Edged Sword – The Simonne Butler Story, with Andra Jenkin

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_double-edged_swordIn 2003, Simonne Butler’s violent partner, Antoine Dixon, high on methamphetamine, cut off both her hands with a samurai sword. Her hands were reattached in a ground-breaking marathon surgery and she spent the next decade healing her mind, body and spirit.

I started this book with mixed feelings as like many New Zealanders I had followed this story through the media and asked myself why had Simonne got herself into this situation, and why didn’t she leave the violent relationship? But after reading her story, I now understand how life circumstances shape our lives and how people can cling to the hope they can change others with love and support and hopefully the next day will be better.

This is a powerful book and Simonne shares her background growing up in a challenging household where a cycle of abuse was prevalent. Fed up with supporting her alcoholic mother, Simonne moved out of the family home and into a flat when she was twenty-one, and during that time met Tony, who was her friend Shasta’s boy-friend.

Tony began stalking Simonne, and their friendship grew as she explains, “Tony was so funny, determined and resourceful. He was so into me it was hard not to get caught up in it all. He was exciting and what seemed like a little dangerous.”

As the story unfolds, the reader is drawn into the life of the couple who are soon living together and Simonne learns that Tony is still married and concerned his wife will take their children to Australia. Life with Tony is erratic and at times dangerous, and while Simonne does attempt to leave him, he draws her back until she is too exhausted to be able to get away.

Simonne has not spared the reader in her description of the attack, its graphic detail is harrowing and you feel you have to read on. She has shared her life in pictures as well, wonderful snapshots of a girl growing up in New Zealand, photos of the surgery and then life post-surgery.

Simonne Butler is to be congratulated for being able to share her story in Double-Edged Sword. It is a must-read book for young adults upwards, as Simonne has vividly described many of the oppressive traits that abusers can exhibit.

It is also an inspiring read, as this brave woman overcame extreme stress and trauma to rebuild her life, taking it in new directions after graduating with a Diploma of Naturopathy from Wellpark College of Natural Therapies. In February 2013, she began a formal shamanic apprenticeship at the Medicine Woman Centre for Shamanic Studies after studying with a master shaman since 2006.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Double-Edged Sword – The Simonne Butler Story
by Simonne Butler, with Andra Jenkin
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN  9780473364359

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