Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks (2010)

“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.

 

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks

Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.

When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”

The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.

Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.

My rating:

With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.

 

Wellcome Book Prize 2010

Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks

Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling

  

 


The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.

Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.

 

See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.

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Classic of the Month: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

This was my neighborhood book club’s selection for January – a good excuse to also use it for relaunching my Classic of the Month feature. It was 22 months ago (how?!) that I featured Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my monthly classic; ever since, I’ve meant to read Anne’s only other novel, Agnes Grey (1847). I’ve now read all the Brontë sisters’ works apart from Shirley, an obscure one by Charlotte. I’d recommend Agnes Grey as a short, accessible classic that echoes Jane Austen with its realistic picture of money/class and romance in nineteenth-century England.

The first-person narrative tells the highly autobiographical tale of a young woman who becomes a governess to support her impoverished family. Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman who makes a poor investment and loses everything, then falls ill. Her sister Mary can make money from her paintings, but with no particular skills and no other choice Agnes sets out to be a governess, first for the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House. The master is exacting and difficult to please, and her four charges are all unruly and obstinate. Worst of all is Tom, who seems almost autistic – he goes into rages and has to be held to calm him down. But the way Agnes writes about these children, it’s as if she thinks they’re not just naughty, but evil. Tom’s wanton cruelty to animals is wielded as a surefire sign of his badness.

It was originally published under a male pseudonym and tacked onto Wuthering Heights. TC Newby, 1847 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a very moral book in general. Some book club folk even called it “Puritanical” for the way it dwells on goodness versus selfishness. When Agnes imagines how her pupils might describe her in the future, she concludes (speaking of herself), “she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion.” Unlike Jane Eyre, though, Agnes does little to stand up for herself in situations of injustice. For instance, when the Bloomfields put their children’s misbehavior down to Agnes’s lack of fitness for the role and dismiss her before a year has passed, she simply tries again, and soon finds a new governess position with the Murrays of Horton Lodge.

Here her main charge is the vain, supercilious teenager Rosalie, who, once she realizes Agnes admires the curate, Edward Weston, sets about sidelining Agnes and making him fall for her instead. Agnes is up front with the reader about her feelings for Weston, as in the chapter entitled “Confessions,” and she understands what’s going on with Rosalie’s scheming, but does nothing to combat it, just meekly steps back and lets things play out. Only internally does she allow herself to cry out at the unfairness of it all: “I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet: is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?” The Brontës all led fairly sad and small lives. Without giving specific spoilers, I’ll say that Agnes Grey gives Anne the happy ending she didn’t get in life.

Anne Brontë c. 1834, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (restored version).
The whole book club enjoyed this one. We talked a lot about the choices the middle class would have had in those days, and how difficult life was for women who weren’t of the servant class yet didn’t have the family money to ensure their comfort. We found the first-person voice immediately engaging, especially with the occasional confiding asides to the reader, and the style is easier than what you get from a lot of the Victorian classics.

My rating:

 

Next month: Doing double duty as my classic and doorstopper will be East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I’m doing as a buddy read with my mother – we’ll exchange thoughts via e-mail.

My Most Anticipated 2019 Releases, Part I

The past two years I’ve done biannual roundups of the 30 or so new releases I’m most interested in reading in that half of the year. I’m a bit behind on this year’s preview, so in the interest of not missing my moment I’m giving it in pictorial format, and cheating a bit by not including in the 30 these books that I already own in print.

The 2019 (UK) releases I already own in print and will be looking forward to reading.
Plus a few ARCs I brought back from America. The Leung stories came out in Canada last year.

For a complete list of my 30 most anticipated titles, from which you can access full publication details by clicking on any cover image or title, see my dedicated Goodreads shelf.

Not pictured below but well worth mentioning are new novels from Elizabeth McCracken and Ian McEwan. THE book I’m most looking forward to, after so loving The Invisible Bridge over the summer, is Julie Orringer’s Flight Portfolio, another doorstopper that brings Holocaust history to life (coming from Knopf on May 7th).

Some of my most anticipated titles.

Beyond these, I have another nearly 100 titles on my radar for the first half of 2019!

Plus some additional 2019 releases that are worth looking into simply for the terrific covers!

 

Other lists of enticing 2019 releases that might give you some ideas:

A Little Blog of Books (UK)

Book Riot (general) & Book Riot (mostly nonfiction, through February)

Guardian (UK, nonfiction and fiction)

Lit Hub

The Millions

 

Which 2019 books are you looking forward to? Do any of my choices interest you?

American Book Acquisitions and 2019 Reading Goals

We arrived in the UK on January 1, after an overnight flight from Baltimore. There was no midnight announcement, no complimentary champagne; nothing. Clearly I had my hopes too high. So we’re feeling a bit cheated out of our New Year’s Eve experience and will be doing a recreated countdown and toast when we have houseguests over for this Epiphany weekend.

It was a low-key, relaxing couple of weeks back in the States, the majority of it spent seeing family and friends. We also made it into D.C. to see the new Obama portraits. Mostly I enjoyed doing not a lick of work. And I acquired books, of course: a secondhand and remainder stack that, after my trade-in of some cast-off books, cost just $4; and a few ARCs I’m excited about.

 

2019 Goals

I’m feeling restless in my career, like if someone gave me permission to quit all my gigs I would do it tomorrow. But, of course, only a fool would do so with no plan to replace them with other remunerative work. The year is likely to involve a lot of rethinking for me as I evaluate which of my proofreading and writing jobs feel worthwhile, and what’s taking me in the direction I want to go (not that I currently know what that is).

Life is awfully hard to plan out. Reading is much easier! So here are my fairly modest reading goals for the year, some of them overlapping:

  • I plan to reinstate the Classic and Doorstopper of the month features I ran in 2017, since otherwise I hardly ever read them. I’m starting with Annabel’s readalong of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which is just over 500 pages but also conveniently falls into one of the below categories.
The doorstoppers I have around to choose from.
  • I’ll make a second attempt at getting through some of the travel books and biographies I own, though I won’t hold myself to any particular target. At least five of each would be nice.
  • I’m determined to up my literature in translation ratio. These are all the books I own that were originally published in other languages – pitiful! – but I will get hold of more through the library and publishers.

  • Re-reading is something I undertake very reluctantly. I have friends who swear by it, but to me it can feel like a waste of time. Last year I re-read just four books: Little Women, Give Me Everything You Have, Crossing the Moon, and Diary of a Bookseller. In each case, on the second reading I rated the book a star lower. That suggests that, far from appreciating books more on a second reading, I have less patience with them and find more flaws! All the same, I’ve chosen four books to re-read in 2019. The Collins is a longtime favorite about moving to Hay-on-Wye; the Thomas is one of the books that first got me into reading memoirs. I’ve been let down by Lamott’s latest three books so wanted to go back to one of her spiritual classics; I’ve gotten into L’Engle’s writing for adults and want to revisit her most famous children’s book (which I don’t think I comprehended at age nine or whatever I was).

  • I have a bad habit of racing through self-help and theology books rather than taking my time mulling over them and fully exploring how I might apply them in my life. This was especially true of The Artist’s Way, one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions. I started out with the aim of completing the daily “morning pages” of free writing (though for me they were ‘evening pages’; I’m not a morning person) and each chapter’s self-knowledge exercises. But soon I’d given up on the writing and contemplation and begun just reading the book straight through, which is not the point of it at all. So this year I mean to go back through the Cameron and Rubin books more mindfully, and use the McLaren devotional as it is intended, reading the recommended Bible passages alongside the weekly reflections.

What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2019?

Final 2018 Statistics and Where My Books Came From

My most prolific year yet! (I’m sure I said the same last year, but really, this is a number I will most likely never top and shouldn’t attempt to.) People sometimes joke to me, “why not shoot for a book a day?!” but that’s not how I do things. Instead of reading one book from start to finish, I almost always have 10 to 20 books on the go at a time, and I tend to start and finish books in batches – I’m addicted to starting new books, but also to finishing them.

 

The breakdown:

 

Fiction: 44.9%

Nonfiction: 45.8%

Poetry: 9.3%

(I think this is the first time nonfiction has surpassed fiction! They’re awfully close, though. I read a bit less poetry this year than last.)

 

Male author: 38.1%

Female author: 61.9%

(Roughly the same thing has happened the last two years, which I find interesting because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)

 

E-books: 15.7%

Print books: 84.3%

(In 2016 I read one-third e-books; in 2017 it was one-quarter. For some reason I seem to find e-books less and less appealing. They are awfully useful for traveling. However, I’ve been cutting back on the reviewing gigs that rely on me reading only e-books.)

 

Works in translation: 4.8%

(Ouch – my reading in translation almost halved compared to last year. I’m going to have to make a point of reading more translated work next year.)

 

Where my books came from for the whole year:

  • Free print or e-copy from publisher: 28.7%
  • Public library: 20.8%
  • Secondhand purchase: 20.6%
  • Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 14.9%
  • Gifts: 5%
  • Free (giveaways, GET Free Bookshop, Book Thing of Baltimore, etc.): 3.8%
  • University library: 3.2%
  • New purchase (usually at a bargain): 1.5%
  • Kindle purchase: 0.9%
  • Borrowed: 0.6%

 

Some interesting additional statistics courtesy of Goodreads:

 

How did 2018 turn out for you reading-wise?

Happy New Year!

Library Checkout: December 2018

A lighter month since I was trying to finish up review books I got from the publisher and get all my end-of-year posts together. My local library closed for refurbishment for the entire length of my Christmas trip to America – how convenient! – so my loans from earlier in the month aren’t due until the first week of January. When I say “currently” below it’s sort of a fib; I’ve set all these books aside temporarily and will get back into them once I’m back in the UK. (As usual, I’ve added in star ratings and links to Goodreads reviews where I haven’t already featured the books on the blog in some way.)

 

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED

  • Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts by Brené Brown 
  • In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World by Simon Garfield 
  • The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner 

CURRENTLY READING

  • A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes
  • Us by Zaffar Kunial [poetry]
  • The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • Rewild Yourself: 23 Spellbinding Ways To Make Nature More Visible by Simon Barnes
  • Under the Knife: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations by Arnold van de Laar

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by John Dunn
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  • Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
  • From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
  • Soho by Richard Scott [poetry]
  • Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith
  • The Mary Westmacott Collection, Vol. 1 [the alias of Agatha Christie – I only plan to read the third book in the volume, Absent in the Spring]

TO SKIM ONLY

  • The Brief Life of Flowers by Fiona Stafford

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Selected Poems by Edmund Blunden
  • Daphne by Will Boast
  • Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen
  • The Binding by Bridget Collins
  • Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
  • The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley
  • Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden
  • Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds
  • Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox
  • Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell
  • Assurances by J.O. Morgan [poetry]
  • The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal how to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin
  • The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor

RETURNED UNFINISHED


What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

I don’t have an official link-up system, so please just pop a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout this month. (Feel free to use the image in your post.)

Other 2018 Superlatives and Some Early 2019 Recommendations

 

My Best Discoveries of the Year: Neil Ansell, James Baldwin, Janet Frame, Rohinton Mistry, Blake Morrison, Dani Shapiro, Sarah Vowell; Roald Dahl’s work for adults

 

The Author I Read the Most By: Anne Tyler (four novels)

 

My Proudest Reading Achievement: Getting through a whole Rachel Cusk book (it was my third attempt to read her).

 

The 2018 Books Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Melmoth by Sarah Perry and Normal People by Sally Rooney

 

The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

 

The Funniest Books I Read This Year: Fox 8 by George Saunders and Calypso by David Sedaris

 

Books that Made Me CryLeaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke

 

The Downright Strangest Books I Read This Year: The Bus on Thursday by Sheila Barrett, The Pisces by Melissa Broder and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

 

The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward To: Julie Buntin, Lisa Ko and R.O. Kwon

 

The Best First Line of the Year: “Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels.” (from The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey)

 

 

Some Early 2019 Recommendations

(in release date order)

Book Love by Debbie Tung: Bookworms will get a real kick out of these cartoons, which capture everyday moments in the life of a book-obsessed young woman (perpetually in hoodie and ponytail). She reads anything, anytime, anywhere. Even though she has piles of books staring her in the face everywhere she looks, she can never resist a trip to the bookstore or library. The very idea of culling her books or finding herself short of reading material makes her panic, and she makes a friend sign a written agreement before he can borrow one of her books. Her partner and friends think she’s batty, but she doesn’t care. I found the content a little bit repetitive and the drawing style not particularly distinguished, but Tung gets the bibliophile’s psyche just right. (Out January 1.)

 

 

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich: In this debut memoir a surgeon surveys the history of organ transplantation, recalling his own medical education and the special patients he’s met along the way. In the 1940s and 1950s patient after patient was lost to rejection of the transplanted organ, post-surgery infection, or hemorrhaging. Mezrich marvels at how few decades passed between transplantation seeming like something out of a science-fiction future and becoming a commonplace procedure. His aim is to never lose his sense of wonder at the life-saving possibilities of organ donation, and he conveys that awe to readers through his descriptions of a typical procedure. One day I will likely need a donated kidney to save my life. How grateful I am to live at a time when this is a possibility. (Out January 15.)

 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: Shapiro was used to strangers’ comments about her blond hair and blue eyes. How could it be that she was an Orthodox Jew? people wondered. It never occurred to her that there was any truth to these hurtful jokes. On a whim, in her fifties, she joined her husband in sending off a DNA test kit. It came back with alarming results. Within 36 hours of starting research into her origins, Shapiro had found her biological father, a sperm donor whom she calls Dr. Ben Walden, and in the year that followed, their families carefully built up a relationship. The whole experience was memoirist’s gold, for sure. This is a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future. (Out January 15.)

 

From the author’s Twitter account.

Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson: Perfect for fans of I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, this is a set of trenchant autobiographical essays about being in a female body, especially one wracked by pain. As a child Gleeson had arthritis that weakened her hip bones, and eventually she had to have a total hip replacement. She ranges from the seemingly trivial to life-and-death matters as she writes about hairstyles, blood types, pregnancy, the abortion debate in Ireland and having a rare type of leukemia. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo and Susan Sontag, Gleeson turns pain into art, particularly in a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index. The book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. (Out April 4.)

 

The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief by Nora McInerny: In June 2016 I read It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), McInerny’s memoir about losing her father and her husband to cancer and her second child to a miscarriage – all within a few weeks – when she was 31. In this short book, an expansion of her TED talk, she argues that we are all incompetent when it comes to grief. There’s no rule book for how to do it well or how to help other people who are experiencing a bereavement, and comparing one loss to another doesn’t help anyone. I especially appreciated her rundown of the difference between pity and true empathy. “Pity keeps our hearts closed up, locked away. Empathy opens our heart up to the possibility that the pain of others could one day be our own pain.” (Out April 30.)

 

Coming tomorrow: Library Checkout & Final statistics for the year

 

Have you read any 2019 releases you can recommend?