Monthly Archives: Jan 2020

How to rebuild your life, one straw bale at a time

Review: Vivien Horler
A Way Home, by Jillian Sullivan (Potton & Burton)
In an odd little general dealer-cum-coffee shop in a village in New Zealand’s south island I spotted this book and thought it looked interesting.
Newly divorced and 50-something writer Jillian Sullivan decides to fulfil a dream to build a straw bale house. She doesn’t know much about building, but her son-in-law Sam does, and she signs on as his apprentice. “This is a beautifully told and inspiring story, a book for anyone who needs to start again, or has a project bigger than they think possible.”
I didn’t buy the book, but a couple of days later spotted it in the home of friends near Dunedin. In half an hour or so I’d read enough to know I wanted to read it all. It turns out the little general store in Oturehua in Central Otago was down the road from the house Sullivan built, and we happened to be passing back through in a couple of days. So I bought their only copy. Continue reading

Wanted: bodies for our current needs

Review: Vivien Horler
The Body – A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)
Sometimes it may be better not to dwell on the inner workings of our bodies.
I mean, do you really want to know this: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous …”
But Bill Bryson follows his statement with the good news: “… and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week … you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you.”
As you might expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, this book is packed with facts, most of them interesting. There is, for example, the story of Vitamin D. It is vital to health, helping to build strong bones and teeth, boost the immune system, fight cancer and nourish the heart.
We get it two ways: through sunlight or our diet. But too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. Diet is also problematic: Bryson says to meet Vitamin D needs from food alone, we’d have to eat 15 eggs or about 3kg of cheese a day.
Skin colour helps with the safe absorbtion of sunlight, but the slow evolution of different skin tones only really worked when people stayed put. “Nowadays increased mobility means that lots of people end up in places where sun levels and skin tones don’t get along at all.”
All of this means that around 50% of people around the world are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient for at least part of the year, while in the northern hemisphere it might be up to 90%.
Bryson takes us through our bodies from the outside – skin and hair – to our microbes, the brain, the head, the heart and blood, our body chemistry, bones, walking upright and exercise, immunity, breathing, food and the gut, sleep, sex and procreation, disease and death.
Much of the information is based on trends in Europe and North America, presumably the people who will be buying the book. As a result he says of TB: “It is another disease that we have mostly forgotten…”, which is hardly true for us down at the southern tip of Africa.
But he reminds readers that in fact, with the conquest of smallpox, TB is now the deadliest disease on earth. Around one in three people on the planet carries the bacterium, and some boroughs of London have rates of infection “that nearly match” those of Nigeria or Brazil. And Bryson says with the increase of MDR and XDR strains, “it is entirely possible that we could one day … be facing an epidemic of TB that medicine cannot treat”.
Our bodies are miracles, but not without their problems. Bryson points out that we are the product of three billion years of evolution. “We would all be a lot better off if we could just start afresh and give ourselves bodies built for our … needs – to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that.”
This is not one of Bryson’s funny books, and he does go in for quite a few meaningless comparisons, such as: if ocean viruses alone were laid end to end, they would stretch for 10million light years. Huh?
But it is written with his customary light touch and is full of interesting information that just calls out for a friend who will listen patiently as you read snippets out loud.

A memoir of children, lions and trauma

Review: Myrna Robins
Under the Camelthorn Tree – Raising a family among lions, by Kate Nicholls (Jonathan Ball)
Kate Nicholls says this is not an “and I was born” memoir, but rather a series of snapshots of events between 1994 and 2016. Her tale is not assigned to chronological chapters, but moves from Africa to the UK, jumping a decade or more and back again.
It all adds up to an extraordinary stretch of Nicholls’ life, a momentous 22 years during which she brings up her five children in a lion conservation camp in Botswana, is attacked by three men, descends into a mental hellhole fuelled by whisky, and pulls herself out of it slowly, healing helped by her work of home-schooling Russian children in London. Continue reading

Getting a good night’s sleep – or not

Review: Vivien Horler
Why We Sleep – the new science of sleep and dreams, by Matthew Walker (Penguin Books)
How do you know if you’re routinely getting enough sleep? There are two simple questions, says neuroscientist Matthew Walker: are you sleepy around 11am, and can you function before noon without a cup of coffee?
If you answer yes, and no, Walker says the chances are you’re not, along with most people in the Western world. Left to ourselves, without outside pressures such as starting school or work early, and staying up late for a myriad reasons, the average person would be awake for about 16 hours and sleep for eight in every 24-hour period. Continue reading