Book Review: Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anaesthesia.jpgAnaesthesia focuses on the brain, requiring the brain to focus on Anaesthesia. This makes for a challenging, fascinating, disquieting read, in no small part due to the underlying theme of uncertainty. There are still many unanswered questions about how anaesthetics work, how an individual brain will react, and what an adequate level of anaesthetic actually is. A line from page 126 sums up the experience of some patients very well: It was all, says author Kate Cole-Adams, very Lewis Carroll.

You don’t have to be a medical professional to read this book, only someone who – like Cole-Adams – is ready to be captivated by the mysteries of anaesthesia. She’s a writer and journalist who spent years carrying out research for this book, drawing on both personal and professional networks. She talked with anaesthetists around the world, observed operations, and attended conferences. She read widely, at times bewildered and frustrated by medical jargon. She entered the realms of psychiatrists, psychologists, hypnotists, neuroscientists and others skilled at studying and influencing how our minds and brains react. She also spoke with people willing and keen to share their personal (and sometimes dreadful) experiences with anaesthesia.

Cole-Adams suggests that the lines between anaesthesia, dreams and reality are indistinct and permeable. Consciousness, she suggests, is a small boat on an immense sea. She explores in detail how and what we are aware of, and under what conditions. She’s open about her own involvement with, and attitudes towards, anaesthesia. She also reflects on some of her past relationships and life choices, analyses recurrent dreams, and describes living with both physical and emotional unease including her anxiety about being put under.

There are numerous philosophical challenges for readers to engage with, particularly around the ‘interruption of self’ that occurs during anaesthesia. Cole-Adams encourages us to consider (and then reconsider) what consciousness is. Be prepared to confront your existing beliefs about what happens when you are anaesthetised, and the critical role that memory – or the absence of memory – plays. And yet despite the knowledge of what can and does go wrong, who among us will not choose to be comforted by the confidence and relative reassurance of the anaesthetist who visits our bedside before surgery?

There are lessons for medical staff too, with confirmation that hearing is likely to be the last sense to switch off under anaesthesia. Although some anaesthetics apparently suppress sound well, others are less effective. There is no easy way to tell how unconscious an individual patient may be, especially during the time that they are going into or emerging from an anaesthetic.

Cole-Adams is a keen observer of personalities, clothing, sights and sounds. She describes a no-nonsense professor of psychiatry who ate party pies doused with sauce as he strode along interrogating her about the purpose and funding of her book. She tells us about the tins of oatmeal cookies perched on the desk in the den of a world-famous anaesthetist, whose interview outfit included a tie decorated with colourful butterflies. And she – a sun-loving Australian – writes about her underwhelming visit to a bleak and gloomy corner of far-off Hull to attend yet another medical conference.

Questions of ethics abound. It’s alarming to learn about some of the experiments carried out on anaesthetised patients – and the dubious rationales for conducting some of the experiments. The terms that Cole-Adams uses to refer to patients are often sobering: deflated, panicked, wilted, overwhelmed, even crucified.  Perhaps it was inevitable that the word vulnerable would appear so frequently throughout the book.

Section and chapter headings hint at the strange and beautiful world we enter under anaesthesia: Denial, Moonless nights, Regression, Blood and blushing among them. Woven around the compelling and often disturbing stories, Cole-Adams offers anecdotal evidence, arguments and counter-arguments, new terms coined by scientists for states of anaesthesia, theories and hypotheses. She includes suggestions for further research – so much still remains unknown.

I’d be cautious about reading this book before a planned anaesthetic. Chances are nothing will go wrong, but the ‘what ifs’ may linger long after you read the final page.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925498202

Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

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: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396

Book Review: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme Simsion

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_best_of_Adam_sharpThis book is really good chick lit – so good,  I would have assumed the book had a female author, had I not read the front cover.

The book starts with an email Adam Sharp receives from Angelina Brown, an Australian actress who was briefly the love of his life more than 20 years ago. He was a British IT contractor on an assignment in Melbourne and they met in a club where he occasionally played the piano and sang in exchange for a few beers. That night he was trying to impress a woman he was on a date with, but all thoughts of her were forgotten when Angelina walked up to his piano and asked if he knew a particular song.

Although Angelina was married to Richard, the pair had a short but intense fling before Adam had to leave to fulfil the next part of his contract. Despite their best intentions, life got in the way and they ended up going their separate ways. Adam had a long relationship with his partner Claire and never gave Angelina another thought – until he received an email from her, with just the word ‘hi’.

The pair start an online conversation that Adam keeps from Claire. She is stressed as it is, as she is in the process of selling her software company. If the sale goes ahead she will end up in the US, and Adam has made it clear he isn’t prepared to go with her. The emails lead to Angelina inviting Adam to join her and her second husband Charlie on holiday in France. Adam doesn’t know why she invited him, but he knows things aren’t going anywhere with Claire so he ends their relationship and heads to France.

As soon as they are reunited, it’s obvious there is still an attraction between them. But Angelina is married with three children… and Adam doesn’t know what he wants, other than to go back to the time they first met. I don’t want to give away anything by going into detail about what happens in France, but it will shock and surprise readers!

The ending had a few surprises in store as well, and just when you think you know what life has in store for Adam, Angelina, Charlie – and Claire – Simsion throws another curve ball into the mix.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, made all the more interesting by the playlist of songs that accompanies it. I’d guess the author is about my age as I knew all but a few of the songs listed, and could summon the lyrics as I read the book.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Best of Adam Sharp
by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355376

Books I’ll be giving this Christmas, by Nicole Phillipson

Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.

Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153

cv_man_v_natureThis short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.

Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691

cv_mansfield_and_meThe first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364

cv_commonwealthAnn Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183

cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakesIn How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029

cv_coming_rainComing Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.

by Nicole Phillipson

christmas-top-indiebound_v2

Book Review: The Dyehouse, by Mena Calthorpe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dyehouseWritten in 1961, The Dyehouse has been republished by Text Classics, who are in the business of reintroducing readers to books that could be considered classics but have faded from the collective consciousness. The Dyehouse has themes that are as true today as they were at the time of writing.

If you’re looking for a light read, some fluff, then this book is not for you. The interwoven storylines, set in a fabric dyeing factory in 1950s Australia, highlight issues of worker exploitation, the plight of the working poor and some rage-inducing sexism (in this reader, at any rate). It’s beautifully written, but definitely not light.

At the heart of the story lurks thoroughly unlikeable Renshaw, the factory boss. In his world, workers are dispensable, regardless of expertise or length of service; and women are there for his entertainment, but only if he considers them worthy. We meet the workers: pretty and naïve Patty, talented and dedicated Hughie, efficient Miss Merton, cock-of-the-walk Oliver, and late-in-life dad Barney. Their interactions with Renshaw and each other are flesh of the story, built upon the bones of the underlying themes.

The opening sentence shows Calthorpe’s ability to add richness to her words without becoming flowery. “Miss Merton came to the Dyehouse one windy afternoon when smoke from the railway-yards drifted darkly over Macdonaltdtown.” You get drawn in, you can almost smell the factory, and the depth of her writing helps you to keep reading despite the cycle of drudgery that the protagonists are seemingly trapped in.

The other thing that kept me reading was a strong desire to see Renshaw get his. He’s just so casually villainous he made my blood boil. Other readers may find redeeming features in him, but I couldn’t. What was particularly frustrating was that Renshaw’s world view still exists in some people, more than 50 years after he was created. And just like real life now, and probably then, there are no Hollywood endings.

The Dyehouse is a pretty gritty read, and tough going at times because of its themes. It’s totally worth it, though, and deserves the wider audience that Text Classics will be hoping for. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Dyehouse
by Mena Calthorpe
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355758