November 17th was World Premature Birth Day and I missed it…

Cover of Just A Moment Too SoonThank goodness though I can scrape into World Prematurity Awareness Week, well, I could if I lived in Australia. My awareness is only due to my thoughtful library colleagues alerting me. You see, they have lived vicariously through the birth of my little grandson at 24 weeks and 5 days gestation. Also through the trials and tribulations he and his loving parents are still experiencing, so you understand why I am writing this blog late rather than never.

The Empire State Building was lit purple for World Prematurity Day. I think that gives you an idea of how big an issue “early birth” is and how the numbers are increasing worldwide. 15 million babies are born early every year. Some very early; some just a few weeks early.

The stress for them and their families is unimaginable. They are so very tiny and apart from the fight for survival they could potentially suffer brain bleeds, necrotising enterocolitis, heart malformations, bowel malformations, visual and hearing impairment, lung disease or learning disabilities. They also grow considerably more slowly outside the uterus and frequently take some years to achieve the growth rate of their peers.

Cover of Coming Home from the NICUMy grandson Ari, classed as “just viable”, was born weighing 700gms which is one and a half pounds of butter to those who struggle with baby weights in metric as I do. He was also born in the U.K. and we live in Christchurch, New Zealand, adding to our stress time and again over the following tense months. Waiting for communications from our daughter’s partner; trying to find out how he was… What happens now apart from the obvious breathing tube down his throat, wires attached to him all over (there wasn’t a lot of all over to attach them to either), incubator, etc?

For the mother there is also the sense of loss of pregnancy. She may grieve for what should have been a time of blooming and pleasure. No more sickness, just a blossoming baby. When the due date of baby arrives it is frequently a day of tears.

Cover of Ready for AirFortunately for all of us Ari is a wee fighter which is as well as he has chronic lung disease. This means he is still on oxygen and still in hospital at 5 months old – his actual age – but if you consider he was due in mid-September and it’s now mid-November, he is 2 months old.

The library was a good source of information, both in terms of what to expect and of the biographical aspects of premature birth.  It was good to be able to read heart warming stories of babies who survive their traumatic starts, grow into stroppy teens and healthy adults.

Were you a premmy?  I have met so many adults who were born early, but you would never have guessed it.  Have you been down this road within your family?

Around the Book Groups: October

The All Girl Filling Stations Last ReunionIf September was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reading month, October veered more towards Little Red Riding Hood. The Innocent Reader and the lurking Big Bad Wolf both played their part this month.

It all started innocently enough with Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Set in Alabama, Southern Belle Sookie (and her equally weirdly named daughters), seems set for a peaceful retirement. Then, out of the blue, she is hit by a life crisis of epic proportions. It’s not scary, more Sookie skipping through the forest with a basket of sweet nothings while WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) planes pirouette overhead. If you are after a happy-ending holiday read, this may be the tickety-boo (as Sookie might say).

Black Rabbit HallBlack Rabbit Hall, on the other hand, is all about the setting. Not a forest in this case, but a building. The story starts ominously and just ratchets the tension up from there on in. Could a building possess a more dysfunctional presence is the big question? And why would anyone want to get married there? But Lorna does. And she wasn’t the only one to be lured in by this brooding ruin. Tragedy, ghosts, hidden secrets and an ominous atmosphere ticked all the boxes for one of my book groups this month.

Colorless Tsukuru TazakiBut my best book group read of the month – in fact now one of my best books of the year – is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. If you have so far run screaming through the woods away from  Murakami, this book (along with his novel Norwegian Wood) makes for a very accessible starting point. Imagine this – your four best friends suddenly dump you with no explanation when you are in your early twenties. Eventually, in order to save your sanity,  you decide to track them down to find out why this happened. It is a subtly tense read – absolutely gripping.

It was a month in which false identities “What big eyes you have grandma”, dark foreboding surroundings and lurking unease made up a terrific trio of book group reads. Whatever will November bring?

Geraldine Brooks and the Pulitzer Surprise!

The Secret ChordWhen Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel March in 2006, she had no idea that her book was even up for consideration. At home with her eight year old son, painting figurines, she did not even believe the first caller. Her little boy answered the door when a florist delivery came and said: “Mummy can’t come now, she is having a Pulitzer Surprise!”

And last night in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch event, The People of the Book were out in full force to hear Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks chat about writing and her most recent novel The Secret Chord. There – in Rangi Ruru’s beautiful new theatre – sat a petite, young Geraldine Brooks and her interviewer, Morrin Rout (wearing it must be said, distractingly eye-catching brick pattern tights). Let the excitement begin!

MarchGeraldine was originally a journalist who worked in the Australasian Bureau of The Wall Street Journal – a job which taught her that you can’t write around what you don’t know. She admitted to a New Zealand connection for her front page story on our research into Climate Change and Methane Gases – with its catchy title: The Farting Sheep Story.

When she talks about writing, Brooks several times made mention of finding the void in a theme and filling it:

Historical fiction works best when you have some blanks to fill. The trick is to let the story tell you what you need to know.

people of the BookThe viewpoints of different women is often the way for Brooks to get a fresh view on an old story that we think we know. It is still so true that you can get to powerful men through the women in their lives and she ranks an afternoon tea with Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife Khadijeh as one of the most remarkable afternoons of her life.

On her latest book The Secret Chord, she said her interest became piqued when her son asked for classical harp lessons (she’d been hoping for the recorder) and that David appealed to her as a character because every single thing that life can fling at you seemed to happen to him. She was particularly interested in how women affected David and how they wielded power in subtle ways.

Best of all Geraldine Brooks would slot right into any one of my book groups, her reading tastes are so similar. She is currently enjoying The Chimes by Anna Smaill (2015 Man Booker Prize longlist); thinks that the best book she has ever read is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (who won the Pulitzer Prize the year before her in 2005); is a big admirer of Hilary Mantel and can’t wait for her next book and (Geraldine was born in Sydney) she admires Tim Winton‘s writing as well.

I’d had an evening of minor mishaps prior to this event: a near miss at the restaurant where I was to meet my colleague (we sat waiting for one another in different parts of the venue). Then we held up the signing queue trying to get my photograph taken with this wonderful author – in the end the photo was out of focus. In the confusion, Geraldine misheard and signed the wrong name in the book. It took time for her to draw flowers over the mistake and insert the correct name (that copy is now valuable!). Finally I lost my car keys and had what felt like the entire theatre in an upheaval helping me look for them. You’d be forgiven for thinking “I wish I’d also gone to hear Geraldine Brooks – just not with them!”

But, I drove home on a high – so happy to be in the car, moving through my mundane surroundings to my precious home, and all the time thinking: I have met a Pulitzer Prize winner. I am so fortunate.

We have Geraldine Brooks’ works in book, eBook, and eAudiobook format.

You can also listen to Geraldine talk about The Secret Chord on RadioNZ.

You are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

You are in front! Behind you are all the women in the world and all the children! Keep moving forward. Do not stop to blame those who are behind. Remember that they are weighted with what remains of all the shackles of all the women of the past; they cannot step forth free. But you are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] Mrs McCombs became New Zealand's first woman MP, for the Lyttelton electorate in 1933.
Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0028
Mrs McCombs became New Zealand’s first woman MP, for the Lyttelton electorate in 1933.
Stirring words written in July 1914 by Elizabeth McCombs: her article “Women in politics” still has relevance today.

So who was New Zealand’s first woman Member of Parliament?

  • Elizabeth (Bessie) Reid Henderson was born at Kaiapoi on 19 November 1873. She was the eighth of nine children, and despite the death of her father when she was 13, she stayed at school until aged 16.
  • In 1899 she became a committee member of the Progressive Liberal Association, a group that had as one of its aims the removal of barriers to women’s participation in civil and political life.
  •  A prohibitionist, she was the first president of the Young People’s No License League (1902-1905) and was a prominent figure in the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union
  • In 1903 Elizabeth married draper James McCombs. They had two children, Terence and Alison. They also raised two orphans.
  • When the second NZ Labour Party was formed in 1916, Elizabeth was elected onto the executive and her husband was elected President. He had been elected the M.P for Lyttelton in 1913, and held the seat until his death in 1933
  • She served on the Christchurch City Council from 1921-1934, where she was very active on committees – being appointed to the electricity committee in 1925 and chaired the Electricity Committee in 1929, and 1931-1935. She fought to win ratepayers the lowest domestic electricity rates in the country.
  • From 1925-1934 Elizabeth was also a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board, and served on the Board’s Benevolent Committee. She worked to improved the quality of meals for nurses and patients, nurses’ working conditions, and the situation of the unemployed – remembering that the Great Depression started in 1929.
  • In 1926 Elizabeth’s name was included in the first group of women to be made Justices of the Peace in New Zealand.
  • 1927  first woman representative on the Christchurch Tramway Board, and in 1933 was elected to the committee managing the mayor’s Relief of Distress Fund
  • Following the death of her husband in 1993, Elizabeth won the Lyttelton by-election with a huge majority – over 50% of the 10,347 votes cast were for her, recognition of her work over the previous ten years.
  • In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal

During her two year tenure as M.P. , Elizabeth proved herself a skilled and effective orator, advocating for women’s rights – attacking a government unemployment policy that gave little assistance to unemployed women, not even including them in statistics, yet working women paid unemployment tax. She advocated for women police officers, and equal pay for women, as well as for unemployed youth and the need for New Zealand industries to be established so as to reduce unemployment

The huge workload took its toll, and Elizabeth’s health suffered as a result. She died in Christchurch on 7 June 1935.  Her son Terence succeeded to her parliamentary seat. The McCombs Memorial Garden in Woolston Park commemorates the lives of Elizabeth and James McCombs.

  Cover of My Dear Girl: A Biography of Elizabeth McCombs Cover of Marching on  Cover of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan  Cover of The Book of New Zealand Women = Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa

Further reading