Category: Nonfiction Reviews

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?

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.

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.)

My rating:

 

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.”

My rating:

Blog Tour: My Mourning Year by Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

Andrew G. Marshall is the author of 18 self-help books about relationships. He has written for newspapers, appeared on television and radio programs, and worked as a marriage therapist. However, he has shared little about his own experience of relationships until now. Twenty years have passed since the death of his long-term partner, Thomas Hartwig. Sharing this diary of Thom’s death with several friends and family members who’d suffered recent bereavements seemed to help, so he’s hoping that in book form it can be of wider benefit to those who are in the midst of grief.

Marshall met Thom, then the headmaster of a German language school, on a holiday to Spain in September 1989. They alternated between Germany and England every other weekend for years, and in 1995 Thom finally relocated to join Marshall near Brighton. Thom had plans to start an interior design business, but fell ill just six months later. By early 1997, he had a diagnosis of liver failure and was given weeks to live. They traveled to Germany to get Thom a second opinion and, despite his resolution to die back in England, he breathed his last at the German hospital on March 9th, aged 43.


The above constitutes a brief Part One, while the rest of the book recounts the first full year after Thom’s death. Marshall tracks the changes in several areas of his life:

 

Family Life: “People become counselors to make sense of their difficult families, and of course I am no exception,” Marshall notes. He grew up in a conservative middle-class family in Bedford and didn’t come out until he was nearly 30. Hugely disappointed that his parents and sister didn’t make it to Thom’s memorial service, Marshall moves from not talking to his family at all to making tentative overtures of reconciliation. There’s a particularly touching scene where he confronts his parents about the way they repressed emotion while he was growing up and hears the words “I love you” from his father for the first time.

 

Career: For part of his mourning year, Marshall worked on the Agony television program as an “agony uncle.” He took a break from Relate counseling, but continued to write freelance articles, many of them touching on illness and death, and contributed a “Revelations” celebrity profile column to the Independent, in which he interviewed authors and pop stars about life’s turning points. Two of my favorite moments in the book arise from this: Jim Crace (promoting Quarantine) tells how he realized the emptiness of atheism when burying his father; and Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party provides Marshall’s gateway into literary fiction, which he’d never attempted before.

 

Home Life: “There is something terribly sad about the clutter we accumulate,” Marshall sighs. “I was loved and I did love, but now all I had was this debris.” Thom moved to England with 87 packing cases; even at the hospital in Germany there were two bags of stuff to look through. Back in England, though Marshall tries to navigate around “Thom-shaped holes” in his life, especially near holidays, he realizes this relationship hasn’t ended: he kisses his lover’s ashes goodnight, and heeds Thom’s late advice to replace the vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile he goes on short vacations, sees friends, dogsits, and even tries counseling – but finds it’s “like watching a conjurer saw a lady in half, but knowing how he does it.”

 

Spirituality: Marshall has several experiences he has trouble explaining. For instance, at certain points he smells vanilla all around him and chooses to take it as a sign of Thom’s enduring presence – a trace of the vanilla candle that burned beside his deathbed. He also has some psychic messages conveyed, by both friends and strangers, and attends a spiritualist service. But it is an interview with forensics expert Kathy Reichs that helps him to once and for all detach the idea of Thom’s dead body from that of his spirit.

 

Self-Expression: Writing the “Revelations” column and this diary proved better therapy for Marshall than traditional counseling sessions. Towards the end of this book he also takes an introduction to playwriting course, and in the intervening years several of the plays he has written have been performed around the UK.

 

Love: After Thom’s death, Marshall was desperate for physical comfort, and temporarily found it with Peter, whom he met at a gay sauna. I admired Marshall’s honesty about this fling; it must have been tempting to excise it from the record to make himself look better. But their relationship never went beyond a few dates. This sad story has a happy coda, though: In 2001 Marshall met Ignacio, who became his civil partner in 2008 and his husband in 2015.


I’ve read many bereavement memoirs, but the diary format makes this one a unique blend of momentous occasions – Princess Diana’s funeral and the preparations for a catered dinner party on the anniversary of Thom’s death – and the challenges of everyday life. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has experienced or is currently enduring bereavement; it will be reassuring to read about the flux in Marshall’s emotions and see an example of how to rebuild after loss.

Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss but reassemble the daily minutiae into a new life. At the beginning it feels like a box of flat-pack furniture with the instructions in Swedish, but finally you discover that tab A can slide into slot B. Eventually you own something quite functional – even though there are always a few screws left over and it never looks as good as it does in the catalogue.

Whether the clairvoyants are correct and Thom has become my guardian spirit is not important[;] he is always with me. I have integrated his personality into mine and in that way he lives on through me.


(For more on the author, and Thom, see the book’s website.)

My Mourning Year will be released by RedDoor Publishing on Thursday, April 20th. Thanks to Anna Burtt for the review copy.

My rating:


I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for My Mourning Year. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.

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.

Blog Tour: Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones

Cold, delicately as the dark snow

A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;

[…]

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,

Brilliantly, concentratedly,

Coming about its own business

~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)

Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.

The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”

Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.

The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.

I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt this book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.

At the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. Photo by Chris Foster.

This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it will likely be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.

Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

My rating:


To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:

& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).


I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for the paperback release of Foxes Unearthed. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.