Category: Reviews

Failing at Classics of the Month

I’ve attempted two Dickens novels in the last five years, and left both unfinished. I at least got about 200 pages into Dombey and Son in 2012 before I gave up, but my recent attempts to get past the first couple of chapters in Our Mutual Friend have been utterly unsuccessful. I finally gave myself permission to set it aside at page 41 – and I didn’t even read all of that; I’d started skimming in a last-ditch attempt to get myself hooked by the story. Have I lost my Dickens mojo? Do I not have sufficient patience to read Victorian triple-deckers anymore? I truly hope this is just a phase and I’ll be able to get back into Dickens someday. I certainly intend to read his whole oeuvre eventually, even the obscure ones.

So I don’t have a classic for April, nor a true doorstopper (I’ve classified David France’s How to Survive a Plague as such – a bit of a cheat since I only skimmed it). Instead what I have to offer are a modern classic and a graphic adaptation of another Dickens novel.


On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, which I mostly read during our trip to Hay-on-Wye earlier in the month, is worthy of being called a modern classic. It has echoes of D.H. Lawrence and especially Thomas Hardy, and it’s a pleasantly offbeat look at the developments of the twentieth century as seen through the lives of Welsh identical twins Benjamin and Lewis Jones. Opening in the 1980s, when the brothers are eccentric old gents sleeping side by side in their late parents’ bed, the book then retreats to the beginning: at the turn of the last century ornery Amos Jones fell for an educated rector’s daughter and their volatile relationship played out at The Vision farm. One son was caught up in the First World War, one had love affairs; neither “ever strayed further than Hereford.” Through sickness, community scandal, and the rise and fall of fortunes, they remain wedded to Welsh village life.

“The Vision” farm is in the background to the right.

I especially loved Chatwin’s descriptions of the natural world (he’d visited Radnorshire as a boy and considered it a kind of spiritual home), and the glimpses he gives into the twins’ preternatural closeness:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit-droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every now and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid. They liked to pretend they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms’ fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. … They lay on their backs and gazed on the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky … they would press their foreheads together, each twin losing himself in the other’s grey eye.

(Clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. )

 

The David Copperfield graphic novel by Jacqueline Morley (illustrated by Penko Gelev) is part of the Graffex series of graphic novel literary retellings issued by Salariya Book Company. It’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’s original, with just a bit of condensing in terms of the plot and a few secondary characters cut out or greatly reduced in importance. Although this is no substitute for reading David Copperfield itself (my favorite book), I could see it being useful for high school or college students who need a quick recap of what happens when preparing for a quiz or essay. The three main young females are amusingly similar and idealized, but all the other characters’ looks are true to the novel’s descriptions (and previous adaptations). The end matter – a brief biography of Dickens, commentary on the novel, a timeline of stage and screen versions – is particularly helpful, though in the chronology of Dickens’s works they forgot Dombey and Son!

(Remainder copy from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye. )


Next month: I’ve pulled out a couple of short (~210 pages each) classics from the shelf. I recently read a graphic novel about Gauguin that I’ll be reviewing on Monday, so I fancy following it up with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which is said to be based on Gauguin’s life. It’ll be only my second Maugham after Of Human Bondage, which I loved in 2015. Anna of the Five Towns will be my first taste of Arnold Bennett’s fiction (though I’ve read his Literary Taste).

Four Recommended May Releases

Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are memoirs, the third is an audacious poetry book by an author new to me, and the last is the sophomore novel from an author I’ve loved before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love by Marissa Moss

(Coming from Conari Press on May 1st [USA]; June 8th in UK)

“You’re not aware of last things,” Moss, a children’s book author/illustrator, writes in this wrenching memoir of losing her husband to ALS. We look forward to and celebrate all of life’s firsts, but we never know until afterwards when we’ve experienced a last. The author’s husband, Harvey Stahl, was a medieval art historian working on a book about Louis IX’s prayer book. ALS is always a devastating diagnosis, but Harvey had the particularly severe bulbar variety, and his lungs were quick to succumb. His battery-powered ventilator led to many scares – one time Moss had to plug him into the wall at a gas station and rush home for a spare battery – and he also underwent an emergency tracheotomy surgery.

This is an emotionally draining read. It’s distressing to see how, instead of drawing closer and relying on each other, Marisa and Harvey drifted apart. Harvey pushed everyone away and focused on finishing his book and returning to his academic duties. He refused to accept his limitations and resisted necessary medical interventions. Meanwhile, Moss struggled with the unwanted role of caregiver while trying not to neglect her children and her own career.

I’ve read several nonfiction books about ALS now. Compared to the other two, Moss gets the tone just right. She’s a reliable witness to a medical and bureaucratic nightmare. At the distance of years, though, she writes about the experience without bitterness. I can see this graphic novel being especially helpful to older teens with a terminally ill parent.

My rating:

 

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

(Coming from Henry Holt on May 2nd [USA]; June 13th in UK)

I hold books about books to high standards and won’t stand for the slightest hint of plot summary, filler or spoilers. It’s all too easy for an author to concentrate on certain, often obscure books that mean a lot to him/her, dissecting the plots without conveying a sense of the wider appeal. The trick is to find the universal in the particular, and vice versa.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, does this absolutely perfectly. In 1988, as a high school junior, she started keeping track of her reading in a simple notebook she dubbed “Bob,” her Book of Books. In this memoir she delves into Bob to explain how her reading both reflected and shaped her character. The focus is unfailingly on books’ interplay with her life, such that each one mentioned more than earns its place.

A page from my 2007 reading diary. Lots of mid-faith-crisis religion titles there. Starting in 2009, I think, I’ve kept this information in an annual computer file instead.

So whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul always looks beyond the books themselves to interrogate what they say about herself.

This is the sort of book I wish I had written. If you have even the slightest fondness for books about books, you won’t want to miss this one. I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir, and an early entry on the Best of 2017 list.

My rating:

 

Nature Poem by Tommy Pico

(Coming on May 9th from Tin House Books)

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is a Native American from the Kumeyaay nation and grew up on the Viejas Indian reservation. This funny, sexy, politically aware multi-part poem was written as a collective rebuttal to the kind of line he often gets in gay bars, something along the lines of ‘oh, you’re an Indian poet, so you must write about nature?’ Au contraire: Pico’s comfort zone is the urban, the pop cultural, and the technologically up-to-date – his poems are full of textspeak (“yr,” “bc” for because, “rn” for right now, “NDN” for Indian), an affectation that would ordinarily bother me but that I tolerated here because of Pico’s irrepressible sass: “I wd give a wedgie to a sacred mountain and gladly piss on the grass of / the park of poetic form / while no one’s lookin.”

Some more favorite lines:

“How do statues become more galvanizing than refugees / is not something I wd include in a nature poem.”

“Knowing the moon is inescapable tonight / and the tuft of yr chest against my shoulder blades— / This is a kind of nature I would write a poem about.”

“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure”

“It’s hard to unhook the heavy marble Nature from the chain around yr neck / when history is stolen like water. // Reclamation suggests social / capital”

My rating:

 

The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal

(Coming on May 4th from Chatto & Windus [UK] and May 16th from Riverhead Books [USA])

I adored Segal’s first novel, The Innocents, a sophisticated remake of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence set in a contemporary Jewish community in London. I wasn’t as fond of this second book, but in her study of an unusual blended family the characterization is nearly as strong as in her debut. Julia Alden lost her husband to cancer five years ago. A second chance at happiness came when James Fuller, a divorced American obstetrician, came to her for piano lessons. He soon moved into Julia and sixteen-year-old Gwen’s northwest London home, and his seventeen-year-old son, Nathan, away at boarding school, came on weekends.

Julia is as ill at ease with Nathan as James is with Gwen, and the kids seem to hate each other. That is until, on a trip to Boston for Thanksgiving with James’s ex, Gwen and Nathan fall for each other. Awkward is one way of putting it. They’re not technically step-siblings as James and Julia aren’t married, but it doesn’t sit right with the adults, and it will have unexpected consequences.

The first third or so of the book was my favorite, comparable to Jonathan Safran Foer or Jonathan Franzen. Before long the romantic comedy atmosphere tips into YA melodrama, but for me the book was saved by a few things: a balance of generations, with Gwen’s grandparents a delightful background presence; the eye to the past, whether it be Gwen’s late father or the occasional Jewish ritual; the Anglo-American element; and a realistic ending.

My rating:


Have you read any May releases that you would recommend? Which of these do you fancy?

Polishing off the Wellcome Prize Shortlist: How to Survive a Plague

Spanning from the summer of 1981, when the New York Times first broke the story about a rare cancer observed in homosexuals, to 1996, when protease inhibitors came onto the market and offered HIV sufferers a new lease on life, How to Survive a Plague is a comprehensive history of the AIDS crisis. Especially in its early chapters, it reads like a fascinating medical mystery – though we already know the answers, the book skillfully captures the ignorance and terror that reigned for so many years as people sought to understand what Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID, the original name for AIDS) was and how it was transmitted.

As a journalist and a gay man, David France was right in the thick of the crisis when he moved to Manhattan in 1981. He lost friends and lovers to AIDS, and had his own health scares, too – once, on assignment in war-torn Central America, he developed what he thought was a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion but turned out to be a sign of amoebic infection.

Throughout the 1980s the number of HIV cases roughly doubled each year; media coverage was intense but often alarmist. Undertakers refused to deal with AIDS victims, and Jerry Falwell and his ilk spoke of a gay conspiracy taking over America. Far too slowly, research advanced to cope with the crisis. France gives details of the medical trials and presidential commissions that kept AIDS at the forefront of the national conscience, generally thanks to patient advocacy groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and PWA (People with AIDS – more proactive terminology than victims or patients).

The book reminds me most of Sheri Fink’s Five Days in Memorial, another social history with a vast scope and a large cast of characters; here there are about 25 doctors, researchers and activists, many of them based in New York City, who keep recurring. For instance, there’s Joe Sonnabend, an infectious diseases expert who specialized in treating gay men for venereal diseases; Larry Kramer, who wrote an angry novel about fellow homosexuals yet tried to lead the response; and Richard Berkowitz, a former sex worker who co-wrote How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, a safe sex guide that encouraged a surge in condom use.

I rather underestimated the reading load the Wellcome shortlist would create for me; I ended up getting bogged down in this 500+-page book’s level of detail and only succeeded in skimming it. I think that for someone without a personal stake in the story of AIDS, watching the 2012 documentary film of the same title that spawned the book would be an easier way to absorb copious information and keep track of all the individuals and organizations involved.

Nonetheless, I can certainly affirm the importance of a landmark book like this one. When I surveyed critical opinion on it for Bookmarks magazine, I noticed many comparisons to Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, but while that book was written in medias res and deliberately vilified a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaëtan Dugas who was linked with multiple AIDS cases in North America, How to Survive a Plague benefits from two decades of hindsight and reflects a mixture of journalistic objectivity and personal grief.

It’s sobering to remember the scale of the AIDS epidemic: 100,000 Americans had died of it by 1991. As one HIV-positive ACT UP activist cried out to Bill Clinton, then a Democratic candidate, at a campaign event, “Bill, we’re dying of neglect!” France’s book really brings home how traumatic these years were for a whole country, but especially for homosexuals. He describes the relief of knowing that effective medical treatment was finally in the pipeline, but also the lingering effects of shame, bitterness, and fear.

Nobody left those years uncorrupted by what they’d witnessed, not only the mass deaths—100,000 lost in New York City alone, snatched from tightly drawn social circles—but also the foul truths that a microscopic virus had revealed about American culture: politicians who welcomed the plague as proof of God’s will, doctors who refused the victims medical care, clergymen and often even parents themselves who withheld all but a shiver of grief. Such betrayal would be impossible to forget in the subsequent years.

My rating:


My gut feeling: France has written a definitive history of the AIDS crisis in the United States. It’s a cautionary tale that must not be forgotten. While not among my personal favorites from the shortlist, it would be a worthy winner.

More reviews:

Paul’s at Nudge

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books


Stay tuned for our shadow panel winner, which I will announce here tomorrow morning!

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.

Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow by Peg Alford Pursell

Northern California’s Peg Alford Pursell is the founder of Why There Are Words, a Bay Area series of public literary readings, and the independent publishing house WTAW Press. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award.

The lovely cover image is from White Dove and Roses by David Kroll.

Her debut work, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow, is a collection of flash fictions, ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, many of which have been previously published in literary journals or anthologies. They often read like poems, with the alliteration, colors and imagery lending more resonance to the prose than you usually find in short stories. First and last lines are especially incisive, like the phrase that opens “Petal, Feather, Particle,” about a single mother on her way to a hotel to calm her daughter down: “Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart.”

Plot is incidental and largely secondary to language and emotion here, but many of the pieces share a topic of shaky relationships, and the bonds that last in life versus the ones that fade away. Young female first-person narrators frequently alternate with third-person stories about older women, but a recurring theme throughout is how others view you versus how you see yourself. Especially in the context of long-term relationships, these characters have to keep life from going stagnant by staying in motion and living mindfully:

Just as in marriage. He didn’t believe in stopping, resting, or pausing. Drive was everything. Look at the fat bumblebee busy on the flower stalk: the creature anything but in repose, gathering nectar for all it’s worth before moving on to the next. That was how to be in the world. (from “At the Flower”)

Likewise, “This is what familiarity demands: that I examine every detail again as if new clues will present themselves,” a woman thinks while looking at photographs of her daughter (in “The Girl in the Picture”).

A few of my favorite stories were “Day of the Dead,” which mixes Mexican traditions with the narrator’s own bereavements; “Girl on a Hobby Horse,” in which a woman meditates with her Buddhist daughter after her own 14-year relationship breaks down; and “A Weak Light Shining through the High Small Window,” about a woman visiting her brain-injured husband in the hospital and imagining their future together.

The final piece, “Inscription of Time,” reminded me most of Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises with its picture of a woman who has lost many family members and friends yet gains a necessary sense of closure when a former lover, a race car driver who once had an accident that left him in a temporary coma, invites her to his apartment to say a proper goodbye. “It was as if he’d understood what she hadn’t known until that moment. That she needed an ending.”

It may be only 70 pages long, but this book packs a poetic punch. Its images and lines linger, and it deserves to be read slowly and mulled over. I’d recommend it to readers of Tessa Hadley and Desiree Cooper, and fans of flash fiction in general.


Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow was released by ELJ Editions on March 31st. My thanks to the author for sending a PDF copy for review.

My rating:

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.

Three Theology Books for Easter

 If you’ve been celebrating Passover or gearing up for Easter this past week, you might be interested in picking up one of these three recent (or forthcoming) theology titles I’ve encountered. (See also the more extensive Easter reading list I compiled two years ago.)


Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor, Jason J. Stellman

Stellman is a former pastor who runs a podcast called “Drunk Ex-Pastors” with his best friend and agnostic cohost, Christian Kingery. His book suffers a bit, I think, from an unclear aim: it started off as an apologia for his conversion to Catholicism after an unchurched upbringing and fervently Evangelical teen years. What it turned into is more of a theological ramble about how to see God and the world anew. For instance, God is Father, but also flesh, so we don’t need to condemn the secular: “embracing a Christianity that reflects the Incarnation by validating the physical world rather than vilifying it.”

With (dated, geeky) pop culture references, Stellman encourages a rejection of xenophobia and an embrace of narrative and ritual, which Roman Catholicism perhaps makes more space for than your average Protestant tradition. The last few lines of the book are a wonderful plea for openness, hearkening back to the very definition of ‘catholic’ – broad and inclusive:

Is misfit faith about love or suffering? Feasting or fasting? Divinity or humanity? Heaven or earth? The answer is yes, to all of it. And yeah, I want it all: the now and the later, the spirit and the flesh, the head, the heart, and the stations of the cross. I would rather embrace way too much than way too little, because something tells me that as wide as I can open my arms and heart, God’s are always open wider.

I’d recommend this to readers of David Dark and Rob Bell.

My rating:

I received this e-book from Blogging for Books (via Edelweiss) for this review.

 

What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything, Rob Bell

Speaking of Rob Bell…this is one of his stronger books. Not as fresh and vibrant as Velvet Elvis, but it will have a big impact on teens and twentysomethings starting to question the narrow interpretations of the Bible they’ve grown up with in conservative churches. Bell stresses the importance of reading the Bible literately rather than literally: always looking deeper than surface facts to see what’s really going on here; striving to understand the background of Jewish practice and Roman occupation at the time of Jesus.

Bell emphasizes that the Bible is a disparate set of books written by fallible people who were defined by their own historical context, yet if you ask why they wrote down these stories of their interactions with the divine in this way – why they mattered to them then – you might get a glimpse of why they might still matter to us now. The “haphazard humanity” of the Bible, then is for him stronger evidence of its reliability than some rigid perfection would be.

He chooses a number of the more unusual incidents in the Bible to illuminate with a closer reading, such as Jesus writing in the dust, Ehud assassinating tubby King Eglon, and the Book of Revelation. Part 4 is usefully structured around FAQs (e.g. “So how would you define the word of God? The creative action of God speaking in and through the world, bringing new creation and new life into being”). This is like listening to a really good sermon series. (Releases May 16th.)

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My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, Abigail Pogrebin

One thing Bell stresses is that Jesus was Jewish, so you can’t understand the stories about him apart from their Jewish context. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.

Like many an American Jew, Pogrebin marked a limited set of holidays: Hanukkah, the Passover seder, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat. She circumcised her son, and hosted bar/bat mitzvahs for him and her daughter. Yet she had a nagging feeling that she had never genuinely locked into her own religion, and longed to go beyond the beginner stage.

So from September 2014 to September 2015, she celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, seeking to move beyond clichés and simplistic interpretations; interviewing rabbis and scholars of every stripe and reading Torah commentaries to discover meanings she’d missed before. Yom Kippur isn’t just a day of atonement; it’s for pondering the fact of your own death, taking stock of your life and asking what must change. Hanukkah, uncomfortably, is not just about persecution but about Jew-on-Jew violence.

There are opposite strands running through the Jewish ritual year: gratitude for survival (Purim) versus sorrow at tragedies (Holocaust Remembrance Day); feasting versus fasting. I was consistently impressed by how Pogrebin draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.

Favorite lines:

“[I]t’s a quintessential Jewish act: seeking, grappling. If you’re reaching, it’s because you believe there’s something to grab hold of.”

“I’m beginning to think that Judaism is obsessed with brevity and instability. But rather than finding the message depressing, it’s clarifying.”

“Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.”

“Judaism reminds us not to run from transitions, but to consecrate them.”

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