Three Recent Review Books: Holmes, Tokarczuk & Whitaker
Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes (2018)
A gem of a poetry collection. Gaia Holmes is a creative writing tutor in Halifax, Yorkshire. This is her third volume of poetry. A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. It felt like she could never get anything right and kept angering him, as she recounts in “Feckless.” Even after his death, she continued to see him. I especially loved the food metaphors in “Kummerspeck” (a German term for emotional overeating; literally, “grief bacon”), where sweets, meat and salt cannot sate the cravings of ravenous grief.
Other themes include pre-smartphone life (“Before All This” – not everything needed to be documented, you could live where you were and not rely on others’ constant approval), the lengths women will go to impress men (“The Audition”), being the only childless person in a room (“Ballast”) and a marriage falling apart (“Your Orange Raincoat”). Also notable are a multi-part tribute to the Chilean miners trapped in 2010 and an imagined outbreak of violence between runners and ramblers. Holmes channels Anne Sexton in “Angel of the Checkout,” with its wonderful repeated line “do you know the price of love?”, and Mary Oliver in the first stanza of “Wild Pigeons.”
There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery. I would highly recommend this to poetry lovers and newbies alike.
A favorite passage:
I have no manual
so I do what I think
you’re supposed to do
in this situation.
I light the stub
of last night’s candle,
utter something holy
at your bedside
with the unfamiliar taste
of the Lord’s Prayer
clinging to my lips.
(from “The Lord’s Prayer”)
My thanks to Comma Press for the free copy for review.
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009; English translation, 2018)
[Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones]
What a bizarre novel! Janina Dusezjko is a delightfully twisted Miss Marple type who lives in a remote forest cabin in Poland, near the Czech border. She’s determined to learn the truth of what happened to her two beloved dogs, whom she calls her Little Girls. When four different men who were involved in local hunting – her unpleasant neighbor, a deer poacher whom she nicknamed Big Foot; a police commandant; a fox farm owner; and the president of the mushroom pickers’ association – are all found murdered, her theorizing runs wild. She believes the animals are taking revenge, and intends to use her astrology skills to glean more information about these untimely deaths. The police, meanwhile, dismiss her as a hysterical old crone.
The title comes from William Blake, whose writing is an undercurrent to the book: Dizzy, Janina’s former English pupil, is reading and translating Blake, and I reckon Janina’s nutty philosophy and capitalization of random words, especially abstractions, may be an homage to Blake. I probably missed some of the more intricate allusions, and my attention wandered for a while during the middle of the book, but this was an offbeat and mostly enjoyable read. I struggled with Flights, but I’m glad I tried Tokarczuk again.
A representative passage:
“We have this body of ours, a troublesome piece of luggage, we don’t really know anything about it and we need all sorts of Tools to find out about its most natural processes.”
My thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
Chicken Unga Fever: Stories from the Medical Frontline by Dr. Phil Whitaker (2018)
This is a selection of Whitaker’s “Health Matters” columns from the New Statesman magazine. In his time as a GP he’s seen his fair share of common and unusual illnesses, and has so honed his diagnosing skills that he can start to figure out what’s wrong based on how someone stands up and walks towards his office from the waiting room. That’s why he’s a “meeter” (calling names in person and escorting patients down the hallway) rather than a “buzzer” (waiting for them to come to him, having being called via a digital screen).
In digestible essays of 2.5 pages each, Whitaker discusses mental health sectioning, home visiting, the rise of technology and antibiotic resistance, the culture of complaint, zealous overscreening and overtreatment (he’d have an ally there in Barbara Ehrenreich: see her Natural Causes) and the tricky issue of getting consent from teenagers. He also recreates individual cases that have left an impression on him. When it comes to diagnoses, he recognizes that sometimes it’s a matter of luck – like when he landed on Cushing’s disease based on a rare combination of common symptoms – and that sometimes you have to admit you don’t know and turn to the Internet. That’s where the title comes from – an out-of-hours caller’s approximation of suspected chikungunya fever.
This is an enjoyable book for medically minded laymen to read a few pieces at a time, though I suspect its take on various issues could soon be outdated.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize: Shadow Panel and Wish List
On Tuesday the longlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. For the third year in a row I’m running a shadow panel, and it’s composed of the same four wonderful book bloggers who joined me last year: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall.
This year we’re going to do things slightly differently: we plan to split up the longlist, taking two to three titles each, so that between us we will have read them all and can announce our own preferred shortlist before the official shortlist is announced in March. At that point we’ll catch up by (re)reading the six shortlisted books, each reviewing the ones we haven’t already. Essentially, I’m adding an extra stage of shadow panel judging, simply because I can. I hope it will be fun – and also less onerous, in that we should get a leg-up on the shortlist and not have to read all six books in March‒April, which has proved to be a challenge in the past.
My Wellcome Prize hopefuls are all the fiction or nonfiction titles I’ve read on a medical theme that were published in the UK in calendar year 2018. I have put asterisks beside the 12 books in this post that I predict for the longlist. (The combination of wishful thinking and likelihood means that these are not exclusively my personal favorites.)
Below is a list of the books I’ve already featured on the blog in some way, with links to my coverage and a few-word summary of their relevance.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Female body woes
*Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body: Essays on organs
*All that Remains by Sue Black: Forensic anthropology
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler: Living with advanced cancer
Heal Me by Julia Buckley: Tackling chronic pain
*The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Adjusting to life with MS
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty: Funerary rites around the world
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A genetic disease in the family
Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich: Questioning the wellness culture
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes: Pondering breast cancer
Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: Instances of bodily change
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman: Healing from an eating disorder
Nine Pints by Rose George: The story of blood
Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death
*Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: Heart disease and treatments
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Chronic Lyme disease
Human Errors by Nathan Lents: Flawed bodies; evolutionary adaptations
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee: Memoir of F2M transformation
*Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Tales of facial surgery
*Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell: A firsthand account of early Alzheimer’s
*That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Mental illness from the inside
*The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson: Nursing as a vocation
Little by Edward Carey: Anatomical models in wax (thanks to Clare for the reminder!)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: Non-epileptic seizures
*The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason: Neurology, surgery during WWI
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry: Medicine in 1840s Edinburgh
Other eligible books that I have read but not happened to mention on the blog:
In Shock by Rana Awdish: The doctor became the patient when Awdish, seven months pregnant, was rushed into emergency surgery with excruciating pain due to severe hemorrhaging into the space around her liver, later explained by a ruptured tumor. Having experienced brusque, cursory treatment, even from colleagues at her Detroit-area hospital, she was convinced that doctors needed to do better. This memoir is a gripping story of her own medical journey and a fervent plea for compassion from medical professionals.
Doctor by Andrew Bomback: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, this is a wide-ranging look at what it’s like to be a doctor. Bomback is a kidney specialist; his wife is also a doctor, and his father, fast approaching retirement, is the kind of old-fashioned, reassuring pediatrician who knows everything. Even the author’s young daughter likes playing with a stethoscope and deciding what’s wrong with her dolls. In a sense, then, Bomback uses fragments of family memoir to compare the past, present and likely future of medicine.
A Moment of Grace by Patrick Dillon [skimmed]: A touching short memoir of the last year of his wife Nicola Thorold’s life, in which she battled acute myeloid leukemia. Dillon doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties, but is also able to summon up some gratitude.
Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden: British journalist Nick Duerden had severe post-viral fatigue after a run-in with possible avian flu in 2009 and was falsely diagnosed with ME / CFS. He spent a year wholeheartedly investigating alternative therapies, including yoga, massage, mindfulness and meditation, visualization, talk therapy and more. He never comes across as bitter or sorry for himself. Instead, he considered fatigue a fact of his new life and asked what he could do about it. So this ends up being quite a pleasant amble through the options, some of them more bizarre than others.
*Sight by Jessie Greengrass [skimmed]: I wanted to enjoy this, but ended up frustrated. As a set of themes (losing a parent, choosing motherhood, the ways in which medical science has learned to look into human bodies and minds), it’s appealing; as a novel, it’s off-putting. Had this been presented as a set of autobiographical essays, perhaps I would have loved it. But instead it’s in the coy autofiction mold where you know the author has pulled some observations straight from life, gussied up others, and then, in this case, thrown in a bunch of irrelevant medical material dredged up during research at the Wellcome Library.
*Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan: Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and 50 million worldwide, so it’s an important condition to know about. It is fascinating to see the range of behaviors seizures can be associated with. The guesswork is in determining precisely what is going wrong in the brain, and where, as well as how medicines or surgery could address the fault. “There are still far more unknowns than knowns where the brain is concerned,” O’Sullivan writes; “The brain has a mind of its own,” she wryly adds later on. (O’Sullivan won the Prize in 2016 for It’s All in Your Head.)
I’m also currently reading and enjoying two witty medical books, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris, and Chicken Unga Fever by Phil Whitaker, his collected New Statesman columns on being a GP.
Four additional books I have not read but think might have a chance of making the longlist:
Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid
The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences by Daniel M. Davis
Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist by Edward M. Hallowell
*She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
Look out for the announcement of the longlist on Tuesday afternoon! I’ll report back, perhaps on Wednesday, with some reactions and the shadow panel’s reviewing strategy.
Have you read, or are you interested in, any of these books?
Can you think of other 2018 releases that might be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize?
Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich & Human Errors by Nathan Lents
Two recent books about our flawed bodies and the ultimate pointlessness of trying to control them…
Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich
A decade ago, Barbara Ehrenreich discovered a startling paradox through a Scientific American article: the immune system assists the growth and spread of tumors, including in breast cancer, which she had in 2000. It was an epiphany for her, confirming that no matter how hard we try with diet, exercise and early diagnosis, there’s only so much we can do to preserve our health; “not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds.” I love Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (alternate title: Bright-Sided), which is what I call an anti-self-help book refuting the supposed health benefits of positive thinking. In that book I felt like her skeptical approach was fully warranted, and I could sympathize with her frustration – nay, outrage – when people tried to suggest she’d attracted her cancer and limited her chances of survival through her pessimism.
However, Natural Causes is so relentlessly negative and so selective in the evidence it provides that, even though it’s sure to be considered for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist, I would be unlikely to recommend it. In the first chapter, “Midlife Revolt,” which has been excerpted at Literary Hub and is worth reading, Ehrenreich writes of her decision to give up routine medical screening after a false positive mammogram caused undue stress. She decided once she passed 70 she was old enough to die without accepting a “medicalized life.” Moreover, she believes there’s an epidemic of “overdiagnosis,” especially in the USA, where there can be a profit motive behind testing. (This is certainly not the case in the UK, where the NHS doesn’t pester me about getting cervical smear tests to line any pockets; no, it’s about saving taxpayers money by catching cancer early and thus minimizing treatment costs.)
Ehrenreich goes on to argue that many medical procedures are simply rituals to establish patient trust, that cancer screening is invasive and ineffective, that there is little evidence that meditation does any good, and that fitness has become a collective obsession that probably doesn’t help us live any longer. It’s uncomfortable to hear her dismiss early detection techniques as worthless; no one whose doctor found cancer in the early stages would agree. The author also seems unwilling to confront her own personal prejudices (e.g. against yoga).
Although she uses plenty of statistics to back up her points, these usually come from newspapers and websites rather than peer-reviewed journals; only in two chapters about how macrophages ‘betray’ the body by abetting cancer does she consult the scientific literature, in keeping with her PhD in cellular immunology. Her most bizarre example of how our bodies aren’t evolutionarily fit for purpose is copious menstruation. Overall, the book is a strange mixture of hard science, social science, and, in later chapters, philosophy, as Ehrenreich asks about the nature of the self and the soul and what survives of us after death. As usual, her work is very readable, but this doesn’t match up to many other mind/body books I’ve read.
“The only cure for bad science is more science, which has to include both statistical analysis and some recognition that the patient is not ‘just a statistic,’ but a conscious, intelligent agent, just as the doctor is.”
“The objection raised over and over to any proposed expansion of health insurance was, in so many words: Why should I contribute to the care of those degenerates who choose to smoke and eat cheeseburgers? … we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”
Natural Causes was published in the UK by Granta on April 12th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
Lents is a biology professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, and in this, his second book, he explores the ways in which the human body is flawed. These errors come in three categories: adaptations to the way the world was for early humans (to take advantage of once-scarce nutrients, we gain weight quickly – but lose it only with difficulty); incomplete adaptations (our knees are still not fit for upright walking); and the basic limitations of our evolution (inefficient systems such as the throat handling both breath and food, and the recurrent laryngeal nerve being three times longer than necessary because it loops around the aorta). Consider that myopia rates are 30% or higher, the retina faces backward, sinuses drain upwards, there are 100+ autoimmune diseases, we have redundant bones in our wrist and ankle, and we can’t produce most of the vitamins we need. Put simply, we’re not a designer’s ideal. And yet this all makes a lot of sense for an evolved species.
My favorite chapter was on the inefficiencies of human reproduction compared to that of other mammals. Infertility and miscarriage rates are notably high, and gestation is shorter than it really needs to be: because otherwise their heads would get too big to pass through the birth canal, all babies are effectively born premature, so are helpless for much longer than other newborn mammals. I also especially liked the short section on cancer, which would eventually get us all if we only lived long enough. As it is, “evolution has struck an uneasy balance with cancer. Mutations cause cancer, which kills individuals, but it also brings diversity and innovation, which is good for the population.”
Lents writes in a good conversational style and usually avoids oversimplifying the science. In places his book reminded me of Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine. It’s a wry and gentle treatment of human weakness; the content never turns depressing or bitter. Recommended for all curious readers of popular science.
“While lithopedions [“stone babies”] and abdominal pregnancies are quite rare, they are also 100 percent the result of poor design. Any reasonable plumber would have attached the fallopian tube to the ovary, thereby preventing tragic and often fatal mishaps like these.”
“to call our immune system perfectly designed would be equally inaccurate. There are millions of people who once happily walked this planet only to meet their demise because their bodies simply self-sabotaged. When bodies fight themselves, there can be no winner.”
Human Errors was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently
Novels about Patricia Highsmith and a prison production of The Tempest; a true-life account of opening a secondhand bookstore; a faux memoir setting ancestors’ memories in the context of twentieth-century history; and an exposé of the happiness movement in America: these five very different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Crime Writer
By Jill Dawson
Patricia Highsmith hated the term “crime writer”; she preferred to speak of her work as “suspense novels,” animated by the threat of danger. Dawson’s terrific pastiche is set in the early 1960s, when the nomadic Highsmith was living in a remote cottage in Suffolk, England. Beyond the barest biographical facts, though, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. In a combination of third- and first-person narration, she shows “Pat” succumbing to alcoholism and paranoia as she carries on affairs with Sam, a married woman, and Ginny, a young journalist who’s obsessed with her. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination; I’m sure that’s deliberate. This counts as one of the most gripping, compulsive books I’ve encountered this year.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap
By Wendy Welch
Everyone told Wendy Welch and her husband that they were crazy when they decided to open a used bookstore in a small Appalachian Coalfields town in the middle of a recession. They lived above the shop and initially stocked it with their own library plus books picked up cheap at yard sales – though Welch later learned to be much more choosy about what they added to their inventory and to tailor their selections to the tastes of country readers. Essentially, they were making it all up as they went along, but eight years later they’re still a community fixture in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. (I’d love to visit someday.) For the most part that’s because they branched out to fill other roles: hosting cultural events, murder mystery evenings, a writing group, a crafting circle, and regular Quaker meetings. I appreciated the details about the nitty-gritty of running a bookstore (like a chapter on pricing) more than the customer interactions. A warm and fuzzy book-lover’s delight.
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold
By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways. It’s fun to see the disgraced Felix’s second act as a director of inmate plays at Fletcher Correctional – “I don’t care why you’re in here or what they say you’ve done: for this course the past is prologue.” Part V gets a little tedious/didactic as the cast hash out the characters’ afterlives, and at times (mainly the raps) you’re painfully aware that this is an old white lady trying to approximate how seasoned criminals might speak, but in general I thoroughly enjoyed this. Even though you see behind the scenes (e.g. my favorite chapter was about Felix wandering the streets of Toronto to buy props and costumes), you still get caught up in the magic. (See also Carolyn’s wonderful review at Rosemary and Reading Glasses.)
The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop?
By Ruth Whippman
I call this niche genre anti-self-help. (Two other great examples are Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich and Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.) Whippman has a particularly interesting perspective as a British Jew who moved to California for her husband’s work. With sharp humor and natural British cynicism, she investigates various manifestations of the American obsession with happiness, including the cult-like Landmark Forum, Zappos shoes HQ, Facebook’s encouragement of shallow social interaction, and the positive psychology movement. I especially liked her visit to Mormons in Salt Lake City (the nation’s happiest group, it seems, but also the most highly medicated against depression), but the funniest chapter is on happiness-focused parenting. The basic message is that the happiness movement went wrong by making it a matter of personal responsibility, of mental and spiritual triumph over circumstances. It gives no easy answers, but it’s a very enjoyable book.
By Michael Chabon
Chabon’s seventh novel was inspired by his maternal grandfather’s deathbed confessions in 1989—or was it? A tongue-in-cheek author’s note refers to this as a “memoir,” and it’s narrated by “Mike Chabon,” but he and “Grandfather” (never named) are characters here in the same way that Jonathan Safran Foer and his ancestors are in Everything Is Illuminated. Space travel and explosives are Grandfather’s lifelong obsessions, but the chronology moves back and forth seemingly haphazardly, as if we are hearing this story exactly as it emerged. Chabon offers a rich meditation on how Jewishness and family secrets influence the creation of identity. With a seam of dark humor that brings to mind Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man…, Moonglow inventively fuses family history and fiction but leaves cracks for happiness and meaning to shine through. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)