Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel & Two Longlist Reviews

I’m delighted to announce the other book bloggers on my Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shadow panel: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall. Once the shortlist is announced on Tuesday the 20th, we’ll be reading through the six nominees and sharing our thoughts. Before the official winner is announced at the end of April we will choose our own shadow winner.

I’ve been working my way through some of the longlisted titles I was able to access via the public library and NetGalley. Here’s my latest two (both ):

Plot 29: A Memoir by Allan Jenkins

This is an unusual hybrid memoir: it’s a meditative tour through the gardening year, on a plot in London and at his second home in his wife’s native Denmark. But it’s also the story of how Jenkins, editor of the Observer Food Monthly, investigated his early life. Handed over to a Barnardo’s home at a few months of age, he was passed between various family members and a stepfather (with some degree of neglect: his notes show scabies, rickets and TB) and then raised by strict foster parents in Devon with his beloved older half-brother, Christopher. It’s interesting to read that initially Jenkins intended to write a simple gardening diary, with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. But as he got further into the project, it started to morph.

This cover image is so sweet. It’s a photograph from Summer 1959 of Christopher and Allan (on the right, aged five), just after they were taken in by their foster parents in Devon.

The book has a complicated chronology: though arranged by month, within chapters its fragments jump around in time, a year or a date at the start helping the reader to orient herself between flashbacks and the contemporary story line. Sections are often just a paragraph long; sometimes up to a page or two. I suspect some will find the structure difficult and distancing. It certainly made me read the book slowly, which I think was the right way. You take your time adjusting to the gradual personal unveiling just as you do to the slow turn of the seasons. When major things do happen – meeting his mother in his 30s; learning who his father was in his 60s – they’re almost anticlimactic, perhaps because of the rather flat style. It’s the process that has mattered, and gardening has granted solace along the way.

I’m grateful to the longlist for making me aware of a book I otherwise might never have heard about. I don’t think the book’s mental health theme is strong enough for it to make the shortlist, but I enjoyed reading it and I’ll also take a look at Jenkins’s upcoming book, Morning, about the joys of being an early riser. (Ironic after my recent revelations about my own sleep patterns!)


Favorite lines:

“Solitude plus community, the constant I search for, the same as the allotment”

“The last element to be released from Pandora’s box, they say, was hope. So I will mourn the children we once were and I will sow chicory for bitterness. I will plant spring beans and alliums. I’ll look after them.”

“As a journalist, I have learned the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why. They are all needed to tell a story, we are taught, but too many are missing in my tale.”


With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix

This is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death. It’s based around relatable stories of the patients Mannix met in her decades working in the fields of cancer treatment and hospice care. She has a particular interest in combining CBT with palliative care to help the dying approach their remaining time with realism rather than pessimism. In many cases this involves talking patients and their loved ones through the steps of dying and explaining the patterns – decreased energy, increased time spent asleep, a change in breathing just before the end – as well as being clear about how suffering can be eased.

I read the first 20% on my Kindle and then skimmed the rest in a library copy. This was not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it was a two-week loan and I was conscious of needing to move on to other longlist books. It may also be because I have read quite a number of books with similar themes and scope – including Caitlin Doughty’s two books on death, Caring for the Dying by Henry Fersko-Weiss, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. Really this is the kind of book I would like to own a copy of and read steadily, just a chapter a week. Mannix’s introductions to each section and chapter, and the Pause for Thought pages at the end of each chapter, mean the book lends itself to being read as a handbook, perhaps in tandem with an ill relative.

The book is unique in giving a doctor’s perspective but telling the stories of patients and their families, so we see a whole range of emotions and attitudes: denial, anger, regret, fear and so on. Tears were never far from my eyes as I read about a head teacher with motor neurone disease; a pair of women with metastatic breast cancer who broke their hips and ended up as hospice roommates; a beautiful young woman who didn’t want to stop wearing her skinny jeans even though they were exacerbating her nerve pain, as then she’d feel like she’d given up; and a husband and wife who each thought the other didn’t know she was dying of cancer.

Mannix believes there’s something special about people who are approaching the end of their life. There’s wisdom, dignity, even holiness surrounding them. It’s clear she feels she’s been honored to work with the dying, and she’s helped to propagate a healthy approach to death. As her children told her when they visited her dying godmother, “you and Dad [a pathologist] have spent a lifetime preparing us for this. No one else at school ever talked about death. It was just a Thing in our house. And now look – it’s OK. We know what to expect. We don’t feel frightened. We can do it. This is what you wanted for us, not to be afraid.”

I would be happy to see this advance to the shortlist.


Favorite lines:

“‘So, how long has she got?’ I hate this question. It’s almost impossible to answer, yet people ask as though it’s a calculation of change from a pound. It’s not a number – it’s a direction of travel, a movement over time, a tiptoe journey towards a tipping point. I give my most honest, most direct answer: I don’t know exactly. But I can tell you how I estimate, and then we can guesstimate together.”

“we are privileged to accompany people through moments of enormous meaning and power; moments to be remembered and retold as family legends and, if we get the care right, to reassure and encourage future generations as they face these great events themselves.”


Longlist strategy:

Currently reading: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris: a history of early surgery and the fight against hospital infection, with a focus on the life and work of Joseph Lister.

Up next: I’ve requested review copies of The White Book by Han Kang and Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, but if they don’t make it to the shortlist they’ll slip down the list of priorities.


15 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel & Two Longlist Reviews

  1. I felt very similarly about Plot 29 – quietly and deeply moving, but I don’t think it’s really a book about mental health and would be surprised to see it shortlisted.

    I’m afraid I didn’t get on with With the End in Mind at all. I’m going to try and write up a proper review shortly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot of the judges’ selections seem only tangentially related to health this year. It may just reflect their personal taste. It was interesting that Nigel Slater wrote the foreword to Plot 29; his book Toast is very similar in some ways.

      I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on Mannix’s book and why it didn’t work for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Plot 29 sounds an excellent read and i’m glad it made the longlist in order to come to our attention, though I can see why you think it won’t progress. I will enjoy seeing everyone’s thoughts on these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The cover emphasizes the personal story, while the title and endpapers (a photograph of a garden in full bloom) emphasize the gardening aspect. I think the book balances the two very well, but anyone who comes to it mostly for the gardening may be disappointed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, Plot 29 does sound intriguing. I’m really interested how someone born the same year that I was could possibly develop TB and rickets. I suspect it will tell me a lot about the differences between life in post-war Britain and in ‘the colonies’ – that is, post-war Canada.

    I’m also attracted to the Mannix. I get so frustrated at times by how death – at least, the process of dying – is forbidden in everyday conversation and something that we are not prepared for. I may check into this book.

    As always, thanks for the excellent reviews and recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s all a matter of the neglectful situation in which he was raised: his mother had seven children by seven different fathers, starting as a teenager, and seemed incapable of caring for any of them. I expected a bit more of a solving-the-mystery aspect to his early life, but the orphanage records only tell him so much.

      The Mannix book should be very helpful at starting conversations.


  4. I thought With the End in Mind was very powerful and it’s interesting that it could be a book which divides the shadow panel. I requested it on NetGalley – not sure if it’s still available but worth checking if you need a copy. I finished the Jebelli this morning which is very good overall although I would have preferred more focus on the patients’ stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a NetGalley download as well. It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about myself: although theoretically I’m happy to read either print or e-books, I’m much more likely to actually sit down and read something if I have a print copy in front of me. I’ll still have it on my Kindle in case I need to revisit it for the shortlist, though.


  5. I agree with the consensus here: Plot 29 sounds a worthwhile and moving read. I think that photo speaks volumes: the title would never have had me picking up the book but the photo would without a doubt. I’m intrigued by the Mannix book. Some years ago – much to the puzzlement and consternation of those who knew – I took an Open University course called Death and Dying. What I took away from that is the medicalisation of death in our culture; the manner in which it is hidden and the imbalance of power. I think this book would certainly add to my knowledge in this area.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s