Category: Nonfiction Reviews

Two Memoirs: Border Control and Breast Cancer

The Line Becomes a River

Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey. Once captured, the would-be immigrants were detained, processed and deported. Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs, cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions. Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job, he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses. Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a more stressful career than he ever realized. Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?

Impressionistic rather than journalistic, the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks, so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection, memories and stories. Cantú inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. He was often called upon to translate for those in custody. I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic, it was good to have someone compassionate in his job.

The final third of the book represents a change of gears: Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker, José Martínez from Oaxaca. When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate, he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers. Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be, helped his wife to gather character witness letters, and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial. There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himself.

I love these endpapers.

It is as if, for the first time, Cantú could see the human scale of U.S. immigration policy, what his mother, a former national park ranger, had described as “an institution with little regard for people.” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are. It was also, he recognized, an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent. “All these years,” he said to his mother, “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.” As he quotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does. In giving faces to an abstract struggle, it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.

My rating:


The Line Becomes a River was published in the UK by Bodley Head on March 1st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions

It was hard to resist such a great title, especially with my penchant for cancer memoirs. In nine chapters that are almost like linked essays, Kate Figes reflects on the changes that a diagnosis of triple-negative, metastasized breast cancer has wrought in her life. However, like Vesna Goldsworthy’s Chernobyl Strawberries, the book sets the cancer experience within a wider life story of trauma and displacement. In the first essay, as Figes, a freelance nonfiction writer, approached age 60, she delighted in Zeus, their miniature wire-haired dachshund puppy, but also resented the sense of obligation. Cancer quickly changed her perspective.

I appreciated the lack of bitterness; the book’s focus is generally on resilience and on the liberation of knowing that little is now expected of her: “when there is no need to rush just to be able to get through everything I had to achieve each day, there is a glorious sense of freedom, of empty space.” Two chapters go in-depth into Figes’s “arsenal” of cancer-fighting tools, everything from hyperbaric oxygen treatments to yoga. She gave up sugar and swears by cannabis oil, filtered water, supplements and fresh juices. Her embrace of complementary medicine and discussion of her limitations – it takes her an hour and a half to get dressed and have breakfast – will probably mean the most to others with a chronic illness.

As to the other essays, “Tennis” is an ode to a favorite hobby she had to give up; “Mediation” is about training as a family mediator. The psychological understanding she gained through this and through researching her books helped her work through childhood hurt over her parents’ divorce. “The Beach Hut” remembers recent ‘escapes’ to the seaside and contrasts them with her Jewish mother’s* escape from 1930s Germany. “Home,” my favorite essay, is about clearing out her mother’s flat and the memories and comfort a home retains, even decades later. “That’s the power I will leave behind too, the essence of having been really known. It will pervade every piece of crockery I have eaten off, … every chair I have sat on.”

Unfortunately, Figes frequently uses clichéd language – “Cancer can feel isolating” and “battle is the right word” – and seems to give credence to the damaging idea that unresolved emotional trauma caused her cancer. What with the typos and the slight repetition across the essays, this feels like a book that was put together in a hurry. A bit more time and editing could have made it more cohesive and fresh. But perhaps Figes does not have that time. Fellow cancer patients may well appreciate her dispatches from what she calls “Planet Cancer,” but it’s not a book that will particularly stand out for me in this crowded genre.

*Her mother was Eva Figes, an author in her own right.

My rating:


On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions was published by Virago on February 28th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

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Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.

Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.

  • This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.

Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.

  • That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.

Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.

  • O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.

The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.

  • To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.

O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.

You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.

It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.

The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.

Favorite lines:

“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”

My rating:

 

See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:

Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”

Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”

Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”

Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”

 

My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.

 

Shortlist strategy:

  • I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
  • I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.

Just Okay for Me, Dawg

This was one of the catchphrases of long-time judge Randy Jackson on the reality TV show American Idol, which was my guilty pleasure viewing for a decade or more. The three recent books for which I provide short-ish reviews below have nothing much in common apart from the fact that I requested or accepted them from publishers and ended up feeling disappointed but like I still owed a review. You can consider them all .

 

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver

(Duckworth, March 22nd)

We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, so friends are more important than ever. That’s the impetus for Kate Leaver’s jaunty, somewhat insubstantial book about modern friendship. She observes teen girls on the Tube and reflects on how we as primates still engage in social grooming – though language has replaced much of this more primitive bond-forming behavior. We experience a spike in our number of friends through adolescence and early adulthood, but friendships can fall by the wayside during our thirties as we enter long-term relationships and turn our attention to children and other responsibilities. Leaver argues that female friendships can amplify women’s voices and encourage us to embrace imperfection. She also surveys the bromance, mostly in its TV and film manifestations. There are plenty of pop culture references in the book; while I enjoy a Scrubs or Parks and Recreation scene or quotation as much as the next fan, the reliance on pop culture made the book feel lightweight.

Perhaps the most useful chapter was the one on online friendships (hi, book blogger friends!). We so often hear that these can’t replace IRL friendships, but Leaver sticks up for social media: it allows us to meet like-minded people, and is good for introverted and private people. Anything is better than isolation. The biggest problem I had with the book was the tone: Leaver is going for a Caitlin Moran vibe, and peppers in hip references to Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan and the like. But then she sometimes tries for more of a Mary Beard approach, yet doesn’t trust herself to competently talk about science, so renders it in matey, anti-intellectual language like “Robin [Dunbar, of Oxford University] did some fancy maths” (um, I think you mean “Dr. Dunbar”!) or “Let me hit you with a bit of research.”

Favorite lines:

“on some days, somewhere in our souls, we still count the number of social media connections as a measure of who we are”

“When you successfully recruit a new person into your friendship circle, you’re essentially confirming that you are a likable human being, worthy of someone’s time and emotional investment.”

You might choose to read instead: Kory Floyd’s The Loneliness Cure; Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; Anna Quindlen’s essay “Girlfriends” from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

 

Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge

(Harvill Secker, January 11th)

David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade. His first memoir, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935–1975 (see my Nudge review), is a good standalone read, even for non-fans, for its insight into the social changes of post-war Britain. However, this volume makes the mistake of covering much less ground, in much more detail – thanks to better record-keeping at the peak of his career – and the result is really rather tedious. The book opens with the publication of How Far Can You Go? and carries through to the reception of Paradise News, with a warning that he cannot promise a third volume; he is now 83. Conferences, lecture tours, and travels are described in exhaustive detail. There’s also a slightly bitter edge to Lodge’s attempts to figure out why ventures flopped or novels got negative reviews (Small World, though Booker-shortlisted, was better received in America), though he concludes that his career was characterized by more good luck than bad.

I liked the account of meeting Muriel Spark in Italy, and valued the behind-the-scenes look at the contentious task of judging the 1989 Booker Prize, which went to Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Days. Especially enjoyable is a passage about getting hooked on saunas via trips to Finland and to Center Parcs, a chain of all-inclusive holiday activity camps in England. Oh how I laughed at his description of nude sauna-going in midlife (whether I was supposed to or not, I’m not sure): “The difference in pleasure between swimming wearing a costume of any kind and the sensation of swimming without one, the water coursing unimpeded round your loins as you move through it, cannot be exaggerated, and I first discovered it in Center Parcs.” I also cringed at the Lodges placing “our Down’s son” Christopher in a residential care home – I do hope thinking about disability has moved on since the mid-1980s.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Lodge has had an interesting enough life to warrant a several-volume project. He’s an almost reassuringly dull chap; “The fact is that I am constitutionally monogamous,” he admits at one point. Although it was fun for me to see the genesis of novels like Paradise News, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for reading any more about why Lodge thinks his star faded starting in the 1990s. However, I’ll keep this on the shelf to go back to for some context when I finally get around to rereading Small World and Nice Work.

Favorite lines:

“there has been a downside to the Prize Culture which the Booker engendered. It has warped the evaluation of new fiction by measuring success as if it were a competitive sport.”

You might choose to read instead: Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to Be Born or John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – overall the better autobiography of a working-class, bookish lad.

 

 

The Parentations by Kate Mayfield

(Point Blank [Oneworld], March 29th)

Sisters Constance and Verity Fitzgerald have been alive for over 200 years. A green pool in Iceland, first discovered in 1783, gives them “extended mortality” so long as they take the occasional two-week nap and only swallow two drops of the liquid at a time. In London in 2015, they eat a hearty stew by candlelight and wait for their boy to come. Then they try the churchyard: dead or alive, they are desperate to have him back. Meanwhile, Clovis Fowler is concealing extra phials of the elixir from her husband, their son and the maid. What’s going on here? We go back to Iceland in 1783 to see how the magic pool was first found, and then hop across to 1783 London to meet the sisters as children.

I read the first 67 pages, continued skimming to page 260, and then gave up. At well past the one-third point, the novel still hasn’t established basic connections. A book of nearly 500 pages has to hook the reader in sooner and more securely, not lull them with wordiness (case in point: on the first page of the first chapter, the adjective “macilent” – I looked it up and it means thin or lean, either of which would have been a far preferable word to use).

I could see faint echoes here of so many great books – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Discovery of Witches, Slade House, The Essex Serpent; works by Hannah Kent and Diane Setterfield, maybe even Matt Haig? I liked Mayfield’s memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter and had hoped for improvement with this debut novel. As it is, The Parentations has an interesting premise and lineage, but doesn’t deliver.

Favorite lines:

“His rage foments a decision. He will either take his place in the mounds of the dead, or he will find a good reason to stay alive.”

“Francis and Averil Lawless have impressed upon their daughters the concept of the consequences of a single moment, and there is no better teacher than the river’s majesty and its demand for respect for its waters, which can easily bring violence and ruin as well as wealth and peace.”

You might choose to read instead: Any of the literary fantasy novels listed above.

 


What books have disappointed or defeated you lately?

Dubiously Thematic Easter Reading

In 2015 and 2017 I came up with some appropriately theological reading recommendations for Easter. This year I’m going for a more tongue-in-cheek approach, as befits the unfortunate conjunction of Easter with April Fools’ Day.

 

Currently reading or reviewing:

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

I bought this on a whim from a local charity shop, based on the title, cover and blurb. I’m about one-third of the way through so far. MacDonald and her husband started a chicken farm in a mountainous area of the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is rather hilarious. My only hesitation is about her terrible snobbishness towards rednecks and “Indians.”

 

 

A representative passage: “Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Co-operation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-head look in her eye.”

 

The Sheep Stell by Janet White

I’m reviewing this reissued memoir for the TLS. It’s a delightful story of finding contentment in the countryside, whether on her own or with family. White, now in her eighties, has been a shepherd for six decades in the British Isles and in New Zealand. While there’s some darker material here about being stalked by a spurned suitor, the tone is mostly lighthearted. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed books by Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Doreen Tovey.

Representative passages: “Shepherding is a strange mixture of tremendous physical work alternating with periods of calm, quiet indolence.” & “A dare, a dream and a challenge. I could have hunted the whole world over and never in a lifetime found anywhere so right: warm, high, pastoral and severed by the sea.”

 

Read recently:

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Mrs. Creasy disappears one Monday in June 1976, and ten-year-old Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly are determined to figure out what happened. I have a weakness for precocious child detectives (from Harriet the Spy to Flavia de Luce), so I enjoyed Grace’s first-person sections, but it always feels like cheating to me when an author realizes they can’t reveal everything from a child’s perspective so add in third-person narration and flashbacks. These fill in the various neighbors’ sad stories and tell of a rather shocking act of vigilante justice they together undertook nine years ago.

Sheep are a metaphor here for herd behavior and a sense of belonging, but also for good versus evil. Grace and Tilly become obsessed with a Bible passage the vicar reads about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. But how can he, or they, know who’s truly righteous? As Grace says, “I think that’s the trouble, it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.” It’s a simplistic message about acknowledging the complexity of other lives and situations rather than being judgmental, and matches the undemanding prose.

Reminiscent of Rachel Joyce, but not as good.

My rating:

 

Vita Nova by Louise Glück

My first collection from the prolific Pulitzer winner. Some of the poems are built around self-interrogation, with a question and answer format; several reflect on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first and last poems are both entitled “Vita Nova,” while another in the middle is called “The New Life.” I enjoyed the language of spring in the first “Vita Nova” and in “The Nest,” but I was unconvinced by much of what Glück writes about love and self-knowledge, some of it very clichéd indeed, e.g. “I found the years of the climb upward / difficult, filled with anxiety” (from “Descent to the Valley”) and “My life took me many places, / many of them very dark” (from “The Mystery”).

Best lines about spring:

“The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats. / Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.” (from “Vita Nova”)

“Spring / descended. Or should one say / rose? … yellow-green of forsythia, the Commons / planted with new grass— // the new / protected always” (from “Ellsworth Avenue”)

My rating:

 

Plucked off the shelf for their dubious thematic significance!

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

 


Happy Easter to all those who mark it, and have a good week. I have a few review-based posts scheduled for while we’re in Wigtown, a trip I hope to report on next Monday, when I will also attempt to catch up on blogs and comments.

Reading Ireland Month 2018: Seamus Deane and Edna O’Brien

It’s my first time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging. I enjoyed scouring my shelves for Irish reads – though in the end I only had time for two.

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996)

I don’t recall how I first heard about this book, but its title was familiar to me when I picked it up for a matter of pence at a charity shop last year. When I saw it on Cathy’s recent list of her top five Irish books of all time, I knew I was in for something special. These vivid vignettes of childhood and young adulthood are so convincing that I could have been fooled into believing I was reading a memoir. Indeed, this debut novel has generally been interpreted as heavily autobiographical, with the anonymous narrator, the third of seven children born to Catholic parents in Derry, Northern Ireland, taken to be a stand-in for Deane.

Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The narrator also learns a family secret from his dying maternal grandfather that at first thrills him – he knows something his father doesn’t! – but later serves to drive him away from his parents. The short chapters take place between 1945 and 1971: starting when the boy is five years old and encountering a household ghost on the stairs and ending as, in his early thirties, he lays his father to rest in the midst of the Troubles.

The Irish have such a knack for holding humor and tragedy up side by side – think John Boyne, James Joyce and Frank McCourt. The one force doesn’t negate the other, but the juxtaposition reminds you that life isn’t all gloom or laughs. There are some terrifically funny incidents in Reading in the Dark, like the individual sex ed. chat with Father Nugent (“And semen is the Latin for seed. Do you have to know Latin to do this?”) and going to investigate the rumor of a brothel by the football ground. But there is also perhaps the best ghost story I’ve ever read, an eerie tale of shape-shifting children he hears from his aunt.

This book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind. If I have one small, strange complaint, it’s that there’s too much plot – most of the chapters function perfectly well as stand-alone short stories, so, particularly in the last third, the growing obsession with the family secret feels like an unnecessary attempt to tie everything together. That plus the slight irrelevance of the title are the only reasons this misses out on 5 stars from me.

Still, I’d agree with Cathy: this is probably one of my favorite Irish reads, along with Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s no wonder Deane won so many prizes for this: the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Irish Literature Prize; he was also shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.

Favorite lines:

“Child, she’d tell me, I think sometimes you’re possessed. Can’t you just let the past be the past?”

“He looked up at me, smiling, to say: ah well, it was all blood under the bridge now”

“Politics destroyed people’s lives in this place, he said. People were better not knowing some things”

My rating:

 

Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien (1976)

This slim volume combines travel writing, history and memoir, with plentiful black and white photographs (by Fergus Bourke) along the way. Often, even where O’Brien is clearly drawing on autobiographical material, she resists saying “I”, instead opting for “one,” “you,” or “we.” I think she was aiming at the universalities of the Irish experience, but instead it ends up coming off as generic. That and a long opening chapter on Ireland’s history set me to skimming. (Also, the book is maddeningly underpunctuated, and the photos in particular seem very dated.) By far my favorite of the seven essays was the last, “Escape to England.” In just three pages, she explains what it’s like to start a new life in another country and how the experience allowed her to appreciate home all the more. Should I try O’Brien’s fiction?

Favorite lines:

“Irish people do not like to be contradicted. Foiled again and again[,] they have in them a rage that comes at you unawares like a briar jutting out of a hedge.”

“You are Irish[,] you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”

My rating:

 

No time for these this year – maybe next year, if not sooner?

One More Wellcome Longlist Review & Shortlist Predictions

Tomorrow the six titles on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve managed to read one more from the longlist since my last batch.

 

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

Surgery was a gory business with a notably high fatality rate well into the nineteenth century. Surgeons had the fastest hands in the West, but their victims were still guaranteed at least a few minutes of utter agony as they had a limb amputated or a tumor removed, and the danger wasn’t over after they were sewn up either: most patients soon died from hospital infections. The development of anesthetics and antiseptic techniques helped to change all that.

Fitzharris opens with the vivid and rather gruesome scene of a mid-thigh amputation performed by Robert Liston at University College Hospital in London in 1846. This surgery was different, though: it only took 28 seconds, but the patient felt nothing thanks to the ether he had been administered. He woke up a few minutes later asking when the procedure would begin. In the audience that day was Joseph Lister, who would become one of Britain’s most admired surgeons.

Lister came from a Quaker family and, after being educated at University College London, started his career in Edinburgh. Different to many medical professionals of the time, he was fascinated by microscopy and determined to find out what caused deadly infections. Carbolic acid and catgut ligatures were two of Lister’s main innovations that helped to fight infection. In fact, whether we realize it or not, his legacy is forever associated with antiseptics: Listerine mouthwash (invented in 1879) is named after him, and the Johnson brothers of Johnson & Johnson fame started their business mass-producing sterile surgical dressings after attending one of Lister’s lectures.

My interest tailed off a bit after the first third, as the book starts going into more depth about Lister’s work and personal life: he married his boss’s daughter and moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then back to London. However, the best is yet to come: the accounts of the surgeries he performed on his sister (a mastectomy that bought her three more years of life) and Queen Victoria (removing an orange-sized abscess from under her arm) are terrific. The chapter on treating the queen in secret at Balmoral Castle in 1871 was my overall favorite.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to start this book over my lunch one day!

I was that kid who loved going to Civil War battlefields and medical museums and looking at all the different surgical saws and bullet fragments in museum cases, so I reveled in the gory details here but was not as interested in the biographical material. Do be sure you have a strong stomach before you try reading the prologue over a meal. This is a comparable read to The Remedy, about the search for a cure to tuberculosis.

My rating:

 


Shortlist Predictions

Now, I’ve still only read half of the longlisted titles so far, so it’s hard to make any solid guesses. However, the below fall somewhere between wishes and informed predictions:

  1. In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli: A definitive treatment of an epidemic of our time, Alzheimer’s disease. The neuroscientist author achieves the right balance between history and research on the one hand and personal stories readers can relate to on the other.
  2. The White Book by Han Kang: The only fiction title from the longlist that I haven’t read at least part of. This is also on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist and has been well received. From what I can tell, the health theme seems stronger than that of Stay with Me or Midwinter Break, and it would also be nice for one title in translation to make the shortlist.
  3. With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix: As I said in my review last week, this is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death, based around touching patient stories plus the author’s experience in palliative care and CBT. Practical, compassionate and helpful.
  4. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: For me, this book stands out as the one that most clearly illuminates the effects of illness, medical treatment, and other threats to life and limb in the course of an ordinary existence. I’d be very happy to see it win the whole thing.
  5. EITHER The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris OR The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman: I reckon one history of science title deserves to be on there; I think Wadman might have the slight edge.
  6. EITHER To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell OR Behave by Robert Sapolsky: The Wellcome Prize loves big books investigating human tendencies and possibilities. I find the thought of either of these daunting, but I know they would also be illuminating. I’d prefer to read the O’Connell, but I’d give the edge to Sapolsky.

Any predictions of your own to make?

Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought by Lily Bailey

“For as long as I could remember, I wasn’t me, I was we.” Lily Bailey, a British writer and model, had a sort of imaginary friend while she was growing up, but instead of a comforting presence it was a critical voice pushing her to be ultra-conscious of how her behavior appeared to others. She couldn’t stop thinking about how she might be perceived – everything from body odor to inadvertently acting snobby or selfish. Every imagined transgression was tallied up and given a letter abbreviation to remember it by. It got to the point that after any length of time spent around other people she’d have to retreat to write down and mull over her inventory of errors.

This went on for years at boarding school until Bailey was finally diagnosed with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As she explained to her mother, “I make lists in my head of everything I’ve done that might be wrong. Then I repeat them over and over again and analyse them. I have to be perfect. I feel like if I do this enough, then one day I will be.” But diagnosis was not the end to the struggle; far from it. Despite Prozac and CBT, Bailey later landed in a psychiatric unit. She captures her inpatient stay at Chesbury Hospital with great verve, recalling the chorus of the other patients’ voices and the different nurses’ strategies.

Because We Are Bad tracks Bailey’s life up until age 20, by which time she had moved past the worst of her mental health crisis and was making encouraging strides in her personal and professional life. There’s a bit of a pat ending; I thought the book would probably benefit from more hindsight – it had a small release in 2016, when Bailey was 24, and is now being given a full-blown re-release. However, like Elizabeth Wurtzel and Zack McDermott, Bailey gives a vivid sense of what it’s like to feel your mind working against you. Her recreation of childhood and the first-person plural sections are especially strong. I can recommend this to anyone who’s interested in learning more about OCD and mental health issues in general.

My rating:


Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought is published by Canbury Press today, March 15th. It will be published by Harper Collins US in April. My thanks to publicist Emma Finnigan for the review copy.