Category: Literary Prizes

The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony

Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!

The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.

It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.

About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.

Chair of judges Val McDermid in center; fellow judge and BBC Radio books editor Di Spiers to her left.

Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?

Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).

Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.

I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.

(See also Ruby’s write-up of last night.)

And the Winner Is…

I’m just back from London, where I saw the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 announced in the course of an awards ceremony held at the Wellcome Collection. It was an enjoyable evening; I needn’t have been so nervous. And it was lovely to meet two fellow bloggers.

I’ll post a full write-up tomorrow, but for now I will just convey the news, to those who may not have heard yet, that the winner of this year’s Wellcome Book Prize is Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. This was quite a shock to many of us in attendance. I hope it won’t sound ungracious if I say it was the collective least favorite of the shadow panel. But keep in mind that that’s relative: it was a strong set of six very different books, each worth reading.

Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel Decision

It’s been a whirlwind five weeks as we on the shadow panel have made our way through the six books shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017. The list is strong and varied: an account of the AIDS crisis, a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon, a thorough history of genetics, an introduction to the microbial world, and novels about a donor heart and an ordinary family’s encounter with unexpected illness. All have been well worth engaging with, but when it came to decision time we had a pretty clear winner: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (With Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone a fairly close second.)

“I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.” ~Paul Kalanithi

I first read this book a year and a half ago; when I picked it back up on Friday, I thought I’d give it just a quick skim to remind myself why I loved it. Before I knew it I’d read 50 pages, and I finished it last night in the car on the way back from a family party, clutching my dinky phone as a flashlight, awash in tears once again. (To put this in perspective: I almost never reread books. My last rereading was of several Dickens novels for my master’s in 2005–6.)

What struck me most on my second reading is how Kalanithi, even in his brief life, saw both sides of the medical experience (as the U.K. book cover portrays so well). He was the harried neurosurgery resident making life and death decisions and marveling at the workings of the brain; in a trice he was the patient with terminal lung cancer wondering how to make the most of his remaining time with his family.

Yet in both roles his question was always “What makes human life meaningful?” – a quest that kept him shuttling between science, literature and religion. In eloquent prose and with frequent scriptural allusions, this short, technically unfinished book narrates Kalanithi’s past (his growing-up years and medical training), present (undergoing cancer treatment but ultimately facing death) and future (the legacy he leaves behind, including his daughter).

Looking back once again at the guidelines for the Wellcome Book Prize (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human”), When Breath Becomes Air stands out as a perfect exemplar. In her blog review, Ruby writes, “This book looks death right in the eye and doesn’t seek to rationalise it, explain it, avoid it. It deals with it head on.” In his Nudge review Paul calls the book “equally heart breaking and full of love … a painfully honest account of a short, but intense life.”

My thanks, once again, to the other members of the shadow panel: Paul Cheney, GrrlScientist, Ruby Jhita and Amy Pirt.


Tomorrow evening the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Wellcome Collection in London. As thanks for my participation in the blog tour, I’ve been invited to attend. Small talk and networking are very much outside of my comfort zone, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and hope to at the very least meet one or two fellow bloggers. I’ll post very quickly when I get home from the ceremony tomorrow night to announce the winner, and promise a longer write-up of the event sometime on Tuesday.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes

Ed Yong is a London-based science writer for The Atlantic and is part of National Geographic’s blogging network. I had trouble believing that I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life is his first book; it’s so fluent and engaging that it immediately draws you into the microbial world and keeps you marveling at its strange yet fascinating workings. Yong writes like a journalist rather than a scientist, and that’s a good thing: with an eye to the average reader, he uses a variety of examples and metaphors, intersperses personal anecdotes of visiting researchers at their labs or in the field, and is careful to recap important facts in a lucid way.

The book opens with a visit to San Diego Zoo (see the exclusive extract following my review), where we meet Baba the pangolin. But “Baba is not just a pangolin. He is also a teeming mass of microbes,” Yong explains. “Some of them live inside him, mostly in his gut. Others live on the surface of his face, belly, paws, claws, and scales.” Believe it or not, but we are roughly half and half human cells and microbial cells, making each of us – like all creatures – more of an ecosystem (another term is “holobiont”) than a single entity.

Microbes vary between species but also within species, so each individual’s microbiome in some ways reflects a unique mixture of genes and experiences. This is why people’s underarms smell subtly different, and how hyenas use their scent glands to convey messages. The microbiome may well be tailored to different creatures’ functions, so researchers at San Diego Zoo are testing swabs from their animals to see if there could be discernible signatures for burrowing or flying activities, or for disease. I was struck by the breadth of species considered here: not just mammals, but also invertebrates like beetles, cicadas, and squid – my entomologist husband would surely be proud. The “Us” in the subtitle is thus used very inclusively to speak of the way that microbes live in symbiosis with all living things.

I love the textured dust jacket too.

If I were to boil down Yong’s book to one message, it’s that microbes are not simply “bad” or “good” but have different roles depending on the context and the host. You can hardly dismiss all bacteria as germs that must be eradicated when there are thousands of benign species in your gut (versus fewer than 100 kinds that cause infectious diseases). If it weren’t for the microbes passed on to us at birth, we wouldn’t be able to digest the complex sugars in our mothers’ milk. Other creatures rely on bacteria to help them develop to adulthood, like the tube worms that thrive on Navy ship hulls at Pearl Harbor.

Yet Yong feels too little attention is given to beneficial microbes, and in many cases we continue the campaign to rid ourselves of them through overuse of antibiotics and taking cleanliness to unhelpful extremes. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that’s hostile to the ones we need,” he asserts.

The book is full of lines like that one that combine a nice turn of phrase and a clever literary allusion. In the title alone, after all, you have references to Walt Whitman (“I contain multitudes” is from his “Song of Myself”) and Charles Darwin (“there is grandeur in this view of life” is part of the closing sentence in his On the Origin of Species). Yong also sets up helpful analogies, comparing the immune system to a thermostat and antibiotics to “shock-and-awe weapons … like nuking a city to deal with a rat.”

History and future are also brought together very effectively, with the narrative looking backwards to Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope work and Pasteur and Koch’s germ theory, but also forwards to the prospects that current research into microbes might enable: eliminating elephantiasis, protecting frogs from deadly fungi via probiotics in the soil, fecal microbiota transplants to cure C. diff infections, and so on.

The possibilities seem endless, and this is a book that will keep you shaking your head in amazement. I’d liken Yong’s style to David Quammen’s or Rebecca Skloot’s. His clear and intriguing science writing succeeds in inspiring wonder at the natural world and at the bodies that carry us through it.

With thanks to Joe Pickering at The Bodley Head for the review copy.

My rating:


 

An exclusive extract from “PROLOGUE: A TRIP TO THE ZOO”

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

(The Bodley Head)

All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome.1 They live on our surface, inside our bodies, and sometimes inside our very cells. The vast majority of them are bacteria, but there are also other tiny organisms including fungi (such as yeasts) and archaea, a mysterious group that we will meet again later. There are viruses too, in unfathomable numbers – a virome that infects all the other microbes and occasionally the host’s cells. We can’t see any of these minuscule specks. But if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps be detectable as a ghostly microbial shimmer, outlining a now-vanished animal core.2

In some cases, the missing cells would barely be noticeable. Sponges are among the simplest of animals, with static bodies never more than a few cells thick, and they are also home to a thriving microbiome.3 Sometimes, if you look at a sponge under a microscope, you will barely be able to see the animal for the microbes that cover it. The even simpler placozoans are little more than oozing mats of cells; they look like amoebae but they are animals like us, and they also have microbial partners. Ants live in colonies that can number in their millions, but every single ant is a colony unto itself. A polar bear, trundling solo through the Arctic, with nothing but ice in all directions, is completely surrounded. Bar-headed geese carry microbes over the Himalayas, while elephant seals take them into the deepest oceans. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, they were also taking giant steps for microbe-kind.

When Orson Welles said ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right’– a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

 

Footnotes

  1. In this book, I use the terms ‘microbiota’ and ‘microbiome’ interchangeably. Some scientists will argue that microbiota means the organisms themselves, while microbiome refers to their collective genes. But one of the very first uses of microbiome, back in 1988, used the term to talk about a group of microbes living in a given place. That definition persists today – it emphasises the ‘biome’ bit, which refers to a community, rather than the ‘ome’ best, which refers to the world of genomes.
  2. This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
  3. Sponges: Thacker and Freeman, 2012; placozoans: personal communication from Nicole Dubilier and Margaret McFall-Ngai.

 

My gut feeling: This book is a fine example of popular science writing, and has much to teach us about the everyday workings of our bodies. It’s one of my three favorites from the shortlist.

See also: Paul’s review at Nudge

Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.

 


I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

And if you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 3: The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, where his lab specializes in stem cells and blood cancers. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is among my most memorable reads of the past decade. Along with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was one of the first books to turn me on to health-themed reading.

So it was a disappointment to find that I could never really engage with his second full-length work, The Gene: An Intimate History. There’s no denying this book’s impressive scope: it’s a comprehensive survey of the past 150 years of genetics research, but it also stretches back to antiquity to see the different ways people have imagined that heredity works. It’s a no-holds-barred science and social history text, both chronological and thematic in approach, and it also surprises with its breadth of literary reference (as in the epigraphs from 1Q84 and The Importance of Being Earnest). However, my favorite snippets were those that constitute a mini family memoir of the schizophrenia that runs through the author’s India-based family.

Part of the problem was that a lot of the early material concerning Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin is very familiar to me. High school genetics material has stayed fresh in my mind even though so many other subjects have faded, and I’ve done a lot of reading on Darwin for my Victorian Literature MA and on my own time. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, then provides a segue into the dark side of genetics: eugenics. A lot of space is given to Nazism, but Mukherjee also hits closer to home with the case of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” woman whose enforced sterilization the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1927.

Other important figures in the history of genetics include Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, Hermann Muller, Oswald Avery, Linus Pauling, and the famous English team that discovered the structure of DNA, Watson, Crick & Franklin. Parts Three and Four, which chronicle the advances in genetics that fell between the 1970s and early 2000s, struck me as particularly dull, whereas Part Five held my interest much more strongly in that it brings things up to date with the developments of the last 15 years, including epigenetics, genetic testing for breast cancer and schizophrenia, stem cell therapy and the search for a “gay gene.”

The book did leave me with a strong sense that our knowledge of genes – the least divisible unit of information about life – affects our understanding of the human identity and future:

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, we are learning to speak yet another language of cause and effect, and constructing a new epidemiology of self: we are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences—and, ultimately, fate and choice—in terms of genes and genomes. This is not to make the absurd claim that genes are the only lenses through which fundamental aspects of our nature and destiny can be viewed. But it is to propose and to give serious consideration to one of the most provocative ideas about our history and future: that the influence of genes on our lives and beings is richer, deeper, and more unnerving than we had imagined. This idea becomes even more provocative and destabilizing as we learn to interpret, alter, and manipulate the genome intentionally, thereby acquiring the ability to alter future fates and choices.

However, at nearly 500 very dense, small-print pages, this book will, I fear, struggle to find a broad readership. Is it for science majors and graduate students? They’re likely to have their own university-approved textbooks. Is it an introduction for the general layman? Without a keen interest in science and a determination to learn the last word about genetics, readers are unlikely to persist with such a tome. I have a greater than average interest in genetic diseases, yet couldn’t manage more than a desultory skim. Unlike The Emperor of All Maladies, I can’t see this becoming a modern classic of popular science writing. For me it’s this year’s Citizen Kane: an achievement I can objectively admire but not personally warm to.

My rating:


My gut feeling: This was also shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize. I think it was better suited to that prize’s aims than to the Wellcome Prize’s. Keeping in mind that “the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics [birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity],” I unfortunately can’t see Mukherjee having the necessary universal appeal.

More reviews:

Paul’s at Nudge; he’s also on the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour for this title on Wednesday.


Shortlist strategy: I’m reviewing Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes for the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour on Friday. The last hurdle is David France’s How to Survive a Plague, another doorstopper I’m having to skim to get through. I plan to review it here on Saturday and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 2: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

This is Sarah Moss’s third consecutive appearance on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, after Bodies of Light in 2015 and Signs for Lost Children in 2016, a pair of linked novels about a female doctor in the nineteenth century. The Tidal Zone, on the other hand, is a contemporary story of how a sudden, strange illness shakes up one middle-class family.


It’s a clichéd image from television and films: new parents tiptoe into their baby’s room every night to make sure he or she is still breathing. But 15 years later, narrator Adam Goldschmidt starts doing the same thing for his teenage daughter, Miriam, after she collapses on her school’s sports field and stops breathing for a few minutes. Thanks to a teacher’s quick thinking, CPR and paramedics soon see her stable again, but for Adam and his wife Emma, herself a GP, this is like a biblical loss of innocence: for the first time they realize that something calamitous could happen to Miriam or their eight-year-old, Rose, at any moment. Adam feels himself part of a global web of suffering parents, including those whose children are bombed in the Middle East or shot by police in America. All he sees are potential Pietàs.

It comforts me to think that most parents in most of time and most of the world have lived with this fear as a matter of course. It comforts me to think that while I have little fellowship in my fear with the parents at the school gate, the massed ghosts of England and the majority of parents living in the world now are with me. Although it turns out, of course, once people have a reason to tell you, that more of the school-gate parents than you used to imagine live in the overlap between ordinary life and tragedy.

Miriam is a delightfully sarcastic kid, lefty and socially engaged. I love her banter with the rest of the family. She was never going to be a meek angel in a hospital bed. Still, she’s ready to resume regular life long before Adam and Emma are ready to let her out of their sight for more than an hour or two. Meanwhile, Adam has to keep things ticking over at home. A stay-at-home dad in Coventry, he teaches the occasional art history class at the local university and is slowly writing a book about Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed to destruction during World War II and later rebuilt. Occasional chapters about the cathedral’s history make the narrative arc even clearer: this is all about catastrophe and reconstruction. How does a family, or a city, bounce back from what looked like the end?

Eventually a diagnosis and suggested treatment arrive, but the mystery remains of what caused Miriam’s cardiac arrest in the first place. What combination of factors – what she’d eaten, how much she’d exercised, what was in the air – could account for a failure to keep breathing? And could there be a genetic aspect to this condition that could link back to Adam’s mother’s unexpected death when he was nine?

It’s from Adam’s early memories of his mother that the title comes: when he was a boy they explored the tidal zone at the Cornwall coast, looking for creatures in the rock pools. Just as tidal pools mark the boundary between the land and the sea, this novel probes the liminal space between survival and death. But it also recognizes that even in that crucial gap, daily activities continue: hanging up the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, fielding pleas for a cat, and carping about NHS and university bureaucracy. Moss writes so well about normal life – something I also noticed in Night Waking, the other novel of hers that I’ve read, which is narrated by a mother of young children (and a character who’s briefly mentioned here, as Adam’s friend) – she lends correct weight to the everyday without overlooking epiphanies and moments of timelessness.

I love this striking cover: Eliza (2015) by Michael Gaskell. It’s an acrylic portrait on board of his niece and won second prize in that year’s BP Portrait Awards – but it’s so amazingly crisp I would have sworn it was a photograph!

I admired many things about the novel, particularly how easily Moss writes from a male viewpoint and the ways in which she reflects on the storytelling impulse. The extraordinary first chapter opens with “Once upon a time” and narrates the quotidian miracles of conception, pregnancy, birth and child development before making this personal, proceeding from “the girl” to “you” and finally to “I” in the second chapter. On several (perhaps one too many) occasions Moss repeats that fairytale opener to tell about Miriam’s medical journey or explain how Adam’s mother and American-born father met at a commune. This emphasizes the way we construct narratives around everything from our origins to our health.

A plan is a story about the future … a diagnosis is a story, brings a story’s promise of safe conduct through time and place to an anticipated ending.

I felt a bit too much time was spent on Adam’s father, and in the back of my mind was the niggling thought that this First World family is never facing true disaster because they have all kinds of safety nets in place; Moss’s is a very middle-class vision. I also think some readers could struggle with the slight aimlessness of the plot, though by the end you do get the sense that the characters are looking to the future in simple ways.

However, I don’t think those small complaints detract from the novel’s power. It’s a sobering but ultimately reassuring story with a simple message: we are all fragile, and we must appreciate life and health while we can.

You can’t go round not loving things because they’ll die.

May we forget. It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greetings cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love—May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.

My rating:


My gut feeling: Moss’s fiction shows true commitment to probing issues of health and medicine, and she’s an underrated author in general. Glancing back at the description of the books the Wellcome Prize panel is looking for (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. … The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity”), I think this novel is a very strong contender indeed.

More reviews:

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

Eric’s at Lonesome Reader


Shortlist strategy:

Currently reading: I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s (surprisingly?) enjoyable book about microbial life – I’m nearly halfway through and have taken it with me on our mini-holiday. Also The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a daunting 500+-page history of genetics, but I’ve loved this author’s work before (The Emperor of All Maladies).


I’m away in Hay-on-Wye through Thursday the 6th but will be back and responding to comments on Friday the 7th.

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Part 1: de Kerangal and Kalanithi

I’m delighted to announce the final members of our Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shadow panel:

Ruby blogs at My Booking Great Blog.

GrrlScientist is an ornithologist and science journalist who was on the judging panel for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Along with Paul and Amy, this brings us up to five people – the same number as the official judging panel.


Luckily, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted titles, one quite recently and one nearly a year and a half ago. Here are the reviews I published on Goodreads at the time. I’ll be getting both books back out of the library soon to have another look before we choose our winner.


Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

(translated from the French by Jessica Moore; published in the USA as The Heart)

[This is the French author’s second novel to be translated into English. It has been made into a film and won the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. It was also recently shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, an American readers’ choice award for contemporary French fiction. If you’re based in the States, feel free to vote by April 30th!]


Nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends, and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. Again and again de Kerangal makes a distinction between the physical reality of organs and what they represent: “Simon’s eyes are not just his nervous retina, his taffeta iris, his pupil of pure black in front of the crystalline – they are also his gaze; his skin isn’t just the threaded mesh of his epidermis, his porous cavities – it’s his light and his touch, the living sensors of his body.”

The novel spends time with Simon’s family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse, and so on. I was reminded of ER as well as the French TV show The Returned – this would work really well on screen, and would be a way of avoiding the more off-putting aspects of the author’s style. She writes long, run-on sentences: sometimes half a page, sometimes even stretching to two pages, and stuffs her prose with abstruse vocabulary (or at least that’s how the translator has rendered it), a lot of it medical but some of it simply inaccessible: “emollient conjugality” plus at least a dozen English words I’d never encountered (e.g. abulic, tumid, atony, claudicant, auscultation, precellence, torticollis, naevi, scialytic).

The worst example of the unnecessary opacity is “the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal, the corpulence of an ex-obese man calibrating him in thickness, in fullness, but without visible excrescence” – in plain English, the guy is stocky.


Read in November 2016.

My rating:

My gut feeling: The novel gives a vivid sense of the fragility of life and imbues parts of the body with metaphorical meaning. However, I think the style makes it too inaccessible and I can’t see its appeal ever being more than niche.


More reviews:

Annabel’s at Shiny New Books

Carolyn’s at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

[The first posthumous nominee for the Wellcome Book Prize. I’ll be interested to see what I make of this one when I revisit it.]


Paul Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment. It came as a complete surprise to this non-smoker, and set his life on a new course. He and his coterie of doctors managed his symptoms so he could operate for as long as possible, but when the time came he knew he wanted to devote his last year to writing this memoir. In addition, he would get a brief, sweet taste of fatherhood: he and his wife Lucy, also in the medical field, decided to have a child, a daughter named Cady.

Kalanithi grew up the son of Indian immigrants in Arizona. “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?” he recalls. Degrees in English literature and human biology were disparate attempts to find an answer. Like Henry Marsh (Do No Harm), he has a surgeon’s knowledge of the anatomy of reasoning, but realizes that does not provide the full picture. He recognizes the responsibility of holding others’ lives in the balance, and regrets occasional failures of empathy.

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

It’s intriguing to see religious language in that statement – indeed, Kalanithi saw his work as a calling, and one with moral connotations. Christian imagery shows up repeatedly:

Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.

Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.

When’s the last time you encountered the word “narthex”?! The vocabulary is striking throughout, as in another favorite passage: “A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest.”

Kalanithi died in March 2015. In addition to the foreword by Abraham Verghese, there’s a lovely epilogue from his widow, who’s more than competent to carry on his legacy.

I appreciate stories lived on the knife edge of life and death, but I would recommend this to those who don’t normally choose to read illness narratives, simply for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the wholehearted picture of a life cut short.


Read in October 2015 (Random House were looking for early readers via NetGalley).

My rating:

My gut feeling: I suspect this is by far the most popular and best-selling title on this year’s shortlist. So many people have taken it to their hearts. It will take a truly special book to knock it from the top spot.


More reviews:

Shadow panelist Paul’s at Nudge

Shadow panelist Ruby’s at My Booking Great Blog

Susan’s at A life in books


Shortlist strategy:

Currently reading: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss – about halfway through.

Up next: Whichever of the remaining nonfiction titles turns up to the library for me first!

I’ve also sent off an emergency e-mail to Bodley Head asking for a copy of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes; it’s on loan through my library system until April 19th, which gives me no time to read it even if it comes back on time.