new worlds…

Did some interesting reading this weekend, it was really wet so it felt like the right and correct thing to do (instead of gardening and other chores), exploring worlds other than my own…

First up was a book that has been on the To Read pile for a little bit: Dunedin based author Maxine Alterio’s new book Lives We leave Behind, published by Penguin Books. I am a huge fan of her first book Ribbons of Grace, the story of a young Chinese woman disguised as a man, working in the Otago goldfields in the 1800s- apparently something that very occasionally happened as it was illegal for women to leave China at that time. I was not particularly interested in the historical context  of Lives We leave Behind so was waiting till I had finished other books…oh my, it is really good, I enjoyed it as much as her first novel. I had no idea about this bit of NZ’s history and these brave women…

The tale is set during WWI, and revolves around the nurses who left NZ and travelled to work in the hospitals in the Mediterannean theatre of war and then in France – some of the nurses are real, the main characters are invented. It covers the sinking of the Marquette a troop ship carrying patients and medical personel but not marked with a red cross, which was torpedoed in the Aegean on the 23rd of October 1915,  the horror & resulting wounds of trench warfare in France, including the use of mustard gas and the arrival on the battlefields of the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed, in the end, between 20 and 50 million people.

In amongst all this war-historical verisimilitude (and some of the medical details are very real) is the story of Addie and Meg, two very different women from Southland assigned to the same cabin on the Maheno. Quiet and cautious, Addie is taken aback by her impetuous, fun-loving roommate.  But as they care for injured and dying soldiers in Egypt and France, they discover that deep connections can develop under unusual circumstances. I like how you get to know them, adapting to the language and behaviour of their times, you get sort of absorbed into their world: they may be going to war and to work but they are still regarded as ‘ladies’ and face a number of constraints – their clothes (long skirts and many layers) alone, especially in the heat of Egypt, are ridiculous and must have added so much to the workloads of the nurses, they cannot move around without escorts and their friendships with various male colleagues are carefully monitored.

The contrast between how they would be able to live and work now and how their world was socially and culturally then, despite the desperate circumstances and close battlefields, is striking. Makes me wonder what our lives would be like now in all sorts of ways if this cataclysmic war hadn’t happened. This is a really interesting, cleverly researched, thought provoking and beautifully written book – my favourite turn of phrase? I particularly enjoyed the idea of the nurses going off ‘sphinxing’ in Egypt.

I also read Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr, published by Bloomsbury. It is  a remarkable investigation into the world of Bikram Yoga, sometimes shocking, but also hilarious and enlightening. I have friends who both like and loath (often at the same time) this form of yoga. Lorr took it up to lose some weight and feel a bit fitter and within a year was training to compete at the National Championships. He looks at the science behind the controversial practice of super-heating the yoga studio, the commercialisation that is lauded and derrided in equal measure, the  somewhat personality cultish aspects of it. Lorr doesn’t seem to be pushing any particular attitude and he is really honest about his own transcendental experiences and his gripes. One of those excellent books that admits you to another, fascinating, world for a while….I had to keep closing the book to look at that pose on the cover – there are some eye-popping photos inside too…

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