This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!
(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)
I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.
The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.
I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.
It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.
Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.
Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.
Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.
Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.
Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.
Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th
Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?
The Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. This is my second entry for the week after Monday’s post on postpartum depression, as well as the second installment in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself.
It will be no surprise to regular readers that both of my ‘expert’ posts have been on a health theme: I have an amateur’s love of medical memoirs and works of medical history, and I’ve followed the Wellcome Book Prize closely for a number of years – participating in official blog tours, creating a shadow panel, and running this past year’s Not the Wellcome Prize.
The three books below are linked by the word “Care” in the title or subtitle; all reflect, in the wake of COVID-19, on the ongoing crisis in UK healthcare and the vital role of nurses.
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
Bunting’s previous nonfiction work could hardly be more different: Love of Country was a travel memoir about the Scottish Hebrides. It was the first book I finished reading in 2017, and there could have been no better start to a year’s reading. With a background in history, journalism and politics, the author is well placed to comment on current events. Labours of Love arose from five years of travel to healthcare settings across the UK: care homes for the elderly and disabled, hospitals, local doctors’ surgeries, and palliative care units. Forget the Thursday-night clapping and rainbows in the windows: the NHS is perennially underfunded and its staff undervalued, by conservative governments as well as by people who rely on it.
We first experience bodily care as infants, Bunting notes, and many of the questions that run through her book originated in her early days of motherhood. Despite all the advances of feminism, parental duties follow the female-dominated pattern evident in the caring careers:
By the age of fifty-nine, women will have a fifty-fifty chance of being, or having been, a carer for a sick or elderly person. At the same time, many are still raising their teenage children and almost half of those over fifty-five are providing regular care for grandchildren.
Women dominate caring professions such as nursing (89 per cent), social work (75 per cent) and childcare (98 per cent). They now form the majority of GPs (54 per cent) and three out of four teachers are female. And they provide the vast bulk of the army of healthcare workers in the NHS (80 per cent) and social-care workers (82 per cent) for the long-term sick, disabled and frail elderly.
These are things we know intuitively, but seeing the numbers laid out so plainly is shocking. I most valued the general information in Bunting’s introduction and in between her interviews, while I found that the bulk of the book alternated between dry statistics and page after page of interview transcripts. However, I did love hearing more from Marion Coutts, the author of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize winner, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from brain cancer. (Labours of Love was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2020.)
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Duty of Care: One NHS Doctor’s Story of Courage and Compassion on the COVID-19 Frontline by Dr Dominic Pimenta
We’re going to see a flood of such books; I’m most looking forward to Dr Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking (coming in January). Given how long it takes to get a book from manuscript to published product, I was impressed to find this on my library’s Bestsellers shelf in October. Pimenta’s was an early voice warning of the scale of the crisis and the government’s lack of preparation. He focuses on a narrow window of time, from February – when he encountered his first apparent case of coronavirus – to May, when, in protest at a government official flouting lockdown (readers outside the UK might not be familiar with the Cummings affair), he resigned his cardiology job at a London hospital to focus on his new charity, HEROES, which supports healthcare workers via PPE, childcare grants, mental health help and so on.
It felt uncanny to be watching events from earlier in the year unfold again: so clearly on a trajectory to disaster, but still gripping in the telling. Pimenta’s recreated dialogue and scenes are excellent. He gives a real sense of the challenges in his personal and professional lives. But I think I’d like a little more distance before I read this in entirety. Just from my skim, I know that it’s a very fluid book that reads almost like a thriller, and it ends with a sober but sensible statement of the situation we face. (All royalties from the book go to HEROES.)
The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion by Christie Watson
I worried this would be a dull work of polemic; perhaps the title, though stirring, is inapt, as the book is actually a straightforward sequel to Watson’s 2018 memoir about being a nurse, The Language of Kindness. Although, like Bunting, Watson traveled widely to research the state of care in the country, she mostly relies on her own experience of various nursing settings over two decades: a pediatric intensive care unit, home healthcare for the elderly, a children’s oncology day center, a residential home for those with severe physical and learning disabilities, a community mental-health visiting team, and the emergency room. She also shadows military nurses and prison doctors.
With a novelist’s talent for scene-setting and characterization, Watson weaves each patient and incident into a vibrant story. Another strand is about parenthood: giving birth to her daughter and the process of adopting her son – both are now teenagers she raises as a single mother. She affirms the value of everyday care delivered by parents and nurses alike. I was especially struck by the account of a teenage girl who contracted measles (then pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis) and was left blind and profoundly disabled, all because her parents were antivaxxers. In general, I’ve wearied of doctors’ memoirs composed of obviously anonymized case studies, but I’ll always make an exception for Clarke and Watson because of their gorgeous writing.
Note: Watson had left nursing to write full-time, but explains in an afterword that she returned to critical care in a London hospital during COVID-19.
What I learned:
Empathy is a key term for all three authors. They emphasize that the skills of compassion and listening are just as important as the ability to perform the required medical procedures.
A chilling specific fact I learned: 43,000 people died in the Blitz* in the UK. Pimenta cited that figure and warned that COVID-19 could be worse. And indeed, as of now, over 63,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the UK. The American death toll is even more alarming.
Here are some passages that stood out for me from each book:
Bunting: “Good care is as much an art as a skill, as much competence as tact. … Care is where we make profound collective decisions about the worth of an individual life. … There is no tradition of ageing wisely in the West, unlike in many Asian and African cultures where age has prestige, status and is associated with wisdom … We need to speak about care in a different language, instead of the relentless macho repetition of words such as ‘efficiency’, ‘quality’, ‘driving’, ‘choice’, ‘delivery’ and productivity.’”
Pimenta: “this will be akin to the Blitz*, and … we need to start thinking of it like that. A marathon, not a sprint. … The challenges to come – a second or even third wave, a global recession, climate change, mass misinformation … and political and societal upheaval … – will all require more from all of us if we hope to meet them. The challenge of our generation is not behind us, it is only just beginning. I plan to continue doing something about it, and perhaps now you do as well. So stay informed, stay safe and be kind.”
Watson: “So much of nursing, I think to myself, seems obvious, and yet seeing that need in the first place is difficult and takes experience, training and something extra. … The mundanity of human existence is where I find the most beauty … It takes my breath away: how fragile, extraordinary and vulnerable, how full of hatred and love and obsession and complexity we all are – every single one of us.”
*I highly recommend all of folk artist Kris Drever’s latest album, Where the World Is Thin, but especially the song “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit,” which has become my lockdown anthem.
If you read just one, though… Make it The Courage to Care by Christie Watson.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
September is always a big month in the publishing world, but even more so this year because of all the titles delayed from the spring and summer – apparently 600 books were published in the first week of September in the UK alone.
Still, I only ended up with my usual, manageable five new releases (with a few more on the way from the library). I read a beautiful novel about addiction and religion in contemporary America, speculative fiction about communication with wildlife in mid-pandemic (!) Australia, everything you ever wanted to know about fungi, historical fiction about outsiders in England and Borneo, and a study of our broken relationship with other animals.
Two of these are from my most anticipated list for the second half of 2020. Four of the five can be linked by the tenet that humans are only one species among many others necessary to life on this Earth, and not in some way above and beyond.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This follow-up to Gyasi’s dazzling, centuries-spanning linked story collection, Homegoing, won’t be out in the UK until March 2021, but I couldn’t resist reading an e-copy of the American edition (Knopf) from Edelweiss. It’s altogether a more subdued and subtle book, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching pleasure and reward circuits in the mouse brain. She gets mice hooked on a sugary drink and then performs experiments to see if she can turn off their compulsion to keep pressing a lever for more. Sometimes when they press the lever they get an electric shock. Certain mice give up; others never will. Why?
People who know Gifty well assume she chose her field because of a personal tragedy. When she was 10, her 16-year-old brother, Nana, a high school basketball star in this Ghanaian-American family’s Alabama town, died of an opiate overdose. He’d gotten addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury. At one level, Gifty acknowledges she is trying to atone for her brother’s death, but she won’t see it in those terms. An intensely private person, she shoulders almost impossible burdens of grief and responsibility for her mother, who has plunged into depression and, when she comes to live with Gifty, spends all her time in bed.
The most compelling aspect of the novel for me was Gifty’s attitude towards the religion of her childhood. Though they were the only black family at their Pentecostal church, she was a model believer, writing prayers in her journal, memorizing scriptures, and never doubting that everything happens for a reason. Nana’s death shattered it all. Though she now looks to science for answers, she misses the certainty she once had: that she was saved, that humans are special, that someone was looking out for her and her family, that it all mattered. I highlighted dozens of passages, but it’s possible the book won’t mean quite as much to readers for whom there’s no personal resonance. The complex mother–daughter relationship is an asset, and musings on love and risk are tenderly expressed. I wanted a more climactic conclusion to take this into 5-star territory, but I’ve still added it to my Best of 2020 shelf.
the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, [is] the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say.
At times, my life now feels so at odds with the religious teachings of my childhood that I wonder what the little girl I once was would think of the woman I’ve become … I am looking for new names for old feelings. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.
the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse.
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies and serves as an animal expert and presenter on Australia’s ABC radio show Animal Sound Safari. Pair her academic background with the fact that this shares a title with a Margaret Atwood poetry collection and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: mysterious but mostly believable speculative fiction that hinges on human communication with animals.
Jean Bennett isn’t your average grandma: a wise-cracking alcoholic, she drives the tourist train through the Australian wildlife park her daughter-in-law manages but wishes she could be a fully fledged ranger. Her ex-husband, Graham, left her and went down south, and eventually their only son Lee did the same. Now all Jean has left is Kim, her six-year-old granddaughter. Jean entertains Kim by imagining voices for the park’s animals. This no longer seems like a game, though, when news filters through of the “zooflu,” which has hit epidemic levels and has as a main symptom the ability to understand what animals say.
When Kim is kidnapped, Jean steals a camper van and takes Sue the dingo along to help her find her granddaughter. “There’s a new normal now,” a bus driver tells her. “And around here, not wearing a mask means you’ve gone animal. I’d put on my protective if I was you. Put that mutt in a cage.” It was uncanny reading this in the midst of a pandemic, but the specifics of McKay’s novel are hard to grasp. The animal language isn’t audible, necessarily, but a combination of smells, noises and body language. For a long time, they seem like pure nonsense, but gradually they resemble a sort of rough poetry. Here’s one example from Sue:
My front end
takes the food
for the Queen
(Sue usually calls Jean “Queen” or “Mother,” showing that she respects her authority, and “Yesterday” is frequently used to suggest a primitive sense of the past or of an older person.)
As entertaining a protagonist as Jean is, I lost interest in her road trip. If you focus on the journey into the wilderness and don’t mind a sudden ending, you may find this a worthwhile heir to Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I read a proof copy for a Nudge review, but it’s never shown up on their website.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
I first heard about Sheldrake through Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He struck me as a mad genius – an impression that was only strengthened by reading his detailed, enthusiastic book about fungi. Sheldrake researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus), observes lichens off the coast of British Columbia, and attends a conference in Oregon on Radical Mycology. But more than a travel memoir, this is a work of science – there are over 100 pages devoted to notes, bibliography and index.
Basic information you’ll soon learn: mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi; under the ground is the material bulk, the mycelium, a sprawling network of hyphae. In what’s sometimes called the “Wood Wide Web,” fungal networks link the trees in a forest, and join up with plants, such as in lichens. “I feel a … sense of vertigo when I think about the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships – kilometers of entangled life – jostling beneath my feet,” Sheldrake confesses. He gives examples of fungi navigating and solving problems – what of our concept of intelligence if a creature without a brain can do such things?
Fungi are very adaptable to extreme conditions. Research is underway to grow edible mushrooms on some of our most troublesome waste, such as used diapers (nappies) and cigarette butts. And, of course, for millennia we’ve relied on certain fungi – yeasts – to create products like bread and beer. Sheldrake is a very hands-on writer: When he wants to know something, he does it, whether that’s scrumping Isaac Newton’s apples in Cambridge and fermenting the juice into cider at home or growing mushrooms on a copy of this very book.
During the month I was reading this, I felt like I kept coming across references to fungi. (I even had a patch of ringworm!)
It’s a perspective-altering text, but one that requires solid concentration. I’ll confess that at times it went over my head and I wished for a glossary and diagrams. A greater than average interest in biology and/or botany would thus be a boon to a potential reader. But if you can keep up, the book will elicit many a cry of “wow!” and “what?!” I kept launching “did you know?” questions at my husband, especially about the zombie fungi that parasitize insects. What a strange and wonderful world.
Favorite lines: “Paying more attention to animals than plants contributes to humans’ plant-blindness. Paying more attention to plants than fungi makes us fungus-blind.”
My thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
I read this back in June to prepare for writing a profile of Tremain for a forthcoming issue of Bookmarks magazine. Here’s the summary I wrote: “In Bath, England in 1865, 24-year-old nurse Jane Adeane is nicknamed ‘The Angel of the Baths’ for her healing touch. If she marries Dr. Valentine Ross, a colleague of her surgeon father, she can earn respectability – but will have to hide her love for Julietta, a married woman. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross’s brother, Edmund, a naturalist following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, has journeyed to Borneo. Ill with malaria, he is taken in by British eccentric Sir Ralph Savage, a lover of native men and benevolent local rajah who funds infrastructure projects like a paved road and a hospital. Exiled or inwardly tortured for loving the wrong people, Tremain’s characters search for moments of wonder and comfort – whether those come in a primitive hut in the Malay Archipelago or in a cozy tearoom in Bath.”
It’s a slightly odd title, but tells you a lot about what Tremain is doing in this 14th novel. Often at the mercy of forces internal and external, her outcast characters look for places where they can find rest and refuge after a time of suffering. Will they, in turn, extend mercy? The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was reminded of The Doll Factory and The Essex Serpent. I especially liked Jane’s painter aunt, Emmeline, and Clorinda, the Irish woman whose opening of a tearoom sets the plot going. The settings are surprising and vivid, and if Tremain doesn’t quite bring them and their story lines together seamlessly, she is still to be applauded for her ambition. This is probably my joint favorite of her novels that I’ve read so far, with The Road Home.
We must be unconventional in our joys and find them wherever we can.
life, so often so cruel in the way it thrust the human soul into prisons from which there seemed to be no escape, could sometimes place it athwart an open door.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson
If you’ve read Woolfson’s Corvus, you’ve already met Chicken, an orphaned rook she raised. For over 31 years, Chicken was a constant presence in her home. The recently departed bird is the dedicatee of her new book, feted as “Colleague, companion, friend.” (No mere pet.) Relationships with these creatures with whom she shared her life led her to think differently about how we as humans conceive of the animal world in general. “If I had ever believed humans to be the only ones to live profound and interconnected lives, I couldn’t any more. … If we’re the gods now, shouldn’t we be better than we are?” From her introduction, it’s clear that her sympathy toward the more-than-human world extends even to spiders, and her language throughout – using words like “who” and “his” in reference to animals, rather than “that” or “its” – reinforces the view that all species are equally valuable.
Or, at least, should be. But our attitudes are fundamentally distorted, Woolfson believes, and have been since the days of Aristotle (whose Ladder of Nature is an origin of the ideas that nature is there for man to use) and the Old Testament writers (one of the two creation accounts in Genesis established the idea of “dominion”). From cave paintings to animal sacrifice, intensive farming to fur coats, taxidermy to whaling, she surveys what others have thought and said about how animals are, or should be, perceived. There was more of an academic tone to this book than I expected, and in early chapters I found too much overlap with other works I’ve read about deep time (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland again!).
I most appreciated the fragments of nature writing and memoir and would have liked more in the way of personal reflection. Woolfson’s perspective – as a Jewish woman in Scotland – is quite interesting. She is clearly troubled by how humans exploit animals, but mostly recounts others’ reasoning rather than coming to conclusions of her own. (Though there is a brilliant takedown of the gender politics of Watership Down.) It’s a book that demands more time and attention than I was able to give just now. As I only skimmed it, I’m going to refrain from assigning a rating and will pass this on to my husband and return to it one day. [I do wish the title, on its own (subtitle aside), was more indicative of the contents.]
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Which of those 600+ September releases can you recommend?
Finishing off my summer reading project with a stellar biography-cum-travel book about Italian cuisine and a family memoir about missionary work in Haiti in the 1980s.
Heat by Bill Buford (2006)
(20 Books of Summer, #19) The long subtitle gives you an outline of the contents: “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” If Buford’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the founding editor of Granta magazine and publisher at Granta Books, but by the time he wrote this he was a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Mario Batali is the book’s presiding imp. In 2002–3, Buford was an unpaid intern in the kitchen of Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo, which serves fancy versions of authentic Italian dishes. It took 18 months for him to get so much as a thank-you. Buford’s strategy was “be invisible, be useful, and eventually you’ll be given a chance to do more.”
In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic or dull sessions of food prep (“after you’ve made a couple thousand or so of these little ears [orecchiette pasta], your mind wanders. You think about anything, everything, whatever, nothing”), Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London, where Batali learned from the first modern celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White, and gives pen portraits of the rest of the kitchen staff. At first only trusted with chopping herbs, the author develops his skills enough that he’s allowed to work the pasta and grill stations, and to make polenta for 200 for a benefit dinner in Nashville.
Later, Buford spends stretches of several months in Italy as an apprentice to a pasta-maker and a Tuscan butcher. His obsession with Italian cuisine is such that he has to know precisely when egg started to replace water in pasta dough in historical cookbooks, and is distressed when the workers at the pasta museum in Rome can’t give him a definitive answer. All the same, the author never takes himself too seriously: he knows it’s ridiculous for a clumsy, unfit man in his mid-forties to be entertaining dreams of working in a restaurant for real, and he gives self-deprecating accounts of his mishaps in the various kitchens he toils in:
to stir the polenta, I was beginning to feel I had to be in the polenta. Would I finish cooking it before I was enveloped by it and became the darkly sauced meaty thing it was served with?
Compared to Kitchen Confidential, I found this less brash and more polished. You still get the sense of macho posturing from a lot of the figures profiled, but of course this author is not going to be in a position to interrogate food culture’s overweening masculinity. However, he does take a stand in support of small-scale food production:
Small food: by hand and therefore precious, hard to find. Big food: from a factory and therefore cheap, abundant. Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved learning how to use my own hands differently. … Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go.
This is exactly what I want from food writing: interesting nuggets of trivia and insight, a quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions. If the restaurant world lures you at all, you must read this one.
- Nice connections with my other summer reading: there are mentions of both Eric Asimov and Ruth Reichl visiting Babbo in their capacity as food critics for the New York Times.
- This also induced a weird case of reverse déjà vu: a book I reviewed last summer for BookBrowse, Hungry by Jeff Gordinier, is so similar that it must have been patterned on Heat: the punchy one-word title; a New York journalist follows an internationally known chef (in that case, René Redzepi) and surveys culinary trends.
I was delighted to learn that this year Buford released a sequel of sorts, this one about French cuisine: Dirt. It’s on my wish list.
Source: From my dad
The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving (2018)
(20 Books of Summer, #20) Irving’s parents were volunteer missionaries to Haiti between 1982 and 1991, when she was aged six to 15. Her father, Jon, was trained as an agronomist, and his passion was for planting trees to combat the negative effects of deforestation on the island (erosion and worsened flooding). But in a country blighted by political unrest, AIDS and poverty, people can’t think long-term; they need charcoal to light their stoves, so they cut down trees.
Along with an agricultural center, the American Baptist missionaries were closely associated with a hospital, Hôpital le Bon Samaritain, run by amateur archaeologist Dr. Hodges and his family. Although Apricot and her two younger sisters were young enough to adapt easily to life in a developing country, they were disoriented each time the family returned to California in between assignments. Their bonds were shaky due to her father’s temper, her parents’ rocky relationship, and the jealousy provoked over almost adopting a Haitian baby girl.
Irving drew on letters and cassette tape recordings, newsletters, and journals (her parents’ and her own) to recreate the decade in Haiti and the years since. This debut book was many years in the making – she started the project in 2001. “I inherited my father’s anger and his perfectionism. Haiti was a wound, an unhealed scab that I was afraid to pick open. But I knew that unless I faced that broken history, my own buried grief, like my father’s, would explode ways I couldn’t predict.”
She and her parents returned to the country after the 2010 earthquake: they were volunteers with a relief organization, while she reported for the This American Life radio program. I loved the ambivalent portrait of Haiti and, especially, of Jon, but couldn’t muster up much interest in secondary characters, hoped for more discussion of (loss of) faith, and thought the book about 80 pages too long. Irving writes wonderfully, though, especially when musing on Haiti’s pre-Columbian history; I’d gladly read a nature book about her life in Oregon, or a novel – in tone this reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible.
Some favorite lines:
If, like my father, you suffer from a savior complex, Haiti is a bleak assignment, but if you are able to enter it unguarded, shielded only by curiosity, you will find the sorrows entangled with a defiant joy.
My family had moved to Haiti to try to help, but instead, we learned our limitations. Failure can be a wise friend. We felt crushed at times; found it difficult to breathe; and yet the experience carved into each of us an understanding of loss, the weight of compassion. We learned how small we were when measured against the world’s great sorrow.
Source: Bargain book from Amazon last year
And a DNF:
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (oats!)
I gave up after 38 pages. I’ve long meant to try Oates, but her oeuvre is daunting. An Oprah’s Book Club selection seemed like a safe bet. I found the quirky all-American family saga approach somewhat similar to John Irving or Richard Russo, but Judd’s narration is annoyingly perky, and already I was impatient to find out what happened to his sister Marianne on Valentine’s Day 1976. I’ll give it a few years and try again. In the meantime, maybe I’ll try Oates in a different genre.
Looking back, Heat was the clear highlight of my 20 Books, closely followed by My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. I also really enjoyed the foodoirs by Anthony Bourdain, Nina Mingya Powles and Luisa Weiss. It’s funny how much I love foodie lit given that I don’t cook. As Alice Steinbach puts it, “while we all like to eat, we like it more when someone else does the cooking.”
Of course, not all of my selections were explicitly food-related; others simply had food words in their titles (or, as above, in the author’s name). Of these, my favorite was a reread, Ella Minnow Pea. Ideally, I would not have had to include my two skims and one partial read in the total, but I ran out of time in August to substitute in three more books. I’m happy enough with my showing this year, but next time I plan to build in more flexibility – or cheating, whichever you wish to call it – to ensure that I manage 20 solid reads.
I already have a color theme planned for 20 Books of Summer 2021! Here are 15 books that I own, mostly fiction, that would fit the bill:
As wildcard selections and/or substitutes, I will also allow:
- Books with “light”, “dark”, or “bright” in the title
- Kindle or library books, though I’d like the focus to remain on print books I own.
- If I’m really stuck, book covers/jackets in a rainbow of colors. I’ll skip orange because Penguin paperbacks are too plentiful in my book collection, but I have some nice red, yellow, green, blue, purple and pink covers to choose from.
Much as I’d like to review books in advance of their release dates, that doesn’t seem to be how things are going this year. I hope readers will find it useful to learn about recent releases they might have missed. This month I’m featuring a post-plane crash scenario, a reflection on modern anxieties, an essay about the human–birds relationship, and a meditation on graveyards.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
(Published by Penguin/Viking on the 20th; came out in USA from Dial Press last month)
June 2013: a plane leaves Newark Airport for Los Angeles, carrying 192 passengers. Five hours after takeoff, it crashes in the flatlands of northern Colorado, a victim to stormy weather and pilot error. Only 12-year-old Edward Adler is found alive in the wreckage. In alternating storylines, Napolitano follows a select set of passengers (the relocating Adler family, an ailing tycoon, a Wall Street playboy, an Afghanistan veteran, a Filipina clairvoyant, a pregnant woman visiting her boyfriend) in their final hours, probing their backstories to give their soon-to-end lives context (and meaning?), and traces the first six years of the crash’s aftermath for Edward.
While this is an expansive and compassionate novel that takes seriously the effects of trauma and the difficulty of accepting random suffering, I found that I dreaded returning to the plane every other chapter – I have to take regular long-haul flights to see my family, and while I don’t fear flying, I also don’t need anything that elicits catastrophist thinking. I would read something else by Napolitano (she’s written a novel about Flannery O’Connor, for instance), but I can’t imagine ever wanting to open this up again.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Weather by Jenny Offill
(Published by Knopf [USA] on the 11th and Granta [UK] on the 13th)
Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? A blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is written in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation but has a more substantial story to tell. Lizzie Benson is married with a young son and works in a New York City university library. She takes on an informal second job as PA to Sylvia, her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues and travels to speaking engagements.
Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers (like Lizzie’s mother) to those who aren’t sure they’ll even make it past tomorrow (like her brother, a highly unstable ex-addict who’s having a baby with his girlfriend). It’s a wonder it doesn’t end up feeling depressing. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness, cringing fear and desperate hope. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.
“Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”
“Once sadness was considered one of the deadly sins, but this was later changed to sloth. (Two strikes then.)”
“My husband is reading the Stoics before breakfast. That can’t be good, can it?”
I read an e-ARC via Edelweiss.
An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth
(Published by Uniformbooks on the 14th)
Birds have witnessed the whole of human history, sometimes profiting from our behavior – our waste products provide them with food, our buildings can be handy nesting and hunting platforms, and our unintentional wastelands and demilitarized zones turn into nature reserves – but more often suffering incidental damage. That’s not even considering our misguided species introductions and the extinctions we’ve precipitated. Eighty percent of bird species are now endangered. For as minimal as the human fossil record will be, we have a lot to answer for.
From past to future, archaeology to reintroduction and de-extinction projects, this is a wide-ranging essay that still comes in at under 100 pages. It’s a valuable shift in perspective from human-centric to bird’s-eye view. The prose is not at all what I’ve come to expect from nature writing (earnest, deliberately lyrical); it’s more rhetorical and inventive, a bit arch but still passionate – David Foster Wallace meets Virginia Woolf? The last six paragraphs, especially, soar into sublimity. A niche book, but definitely recommended for bird-lovers.
“They must see us, watch us, from the same calculating perspective as they did two million years ago. We’re still galumphing heavy-footed through the edgelands, causing havoc, small life scattering wherever we tread.”
“Wild things lease these places from a capricious landlord. They’re yours, we say, until we need them back.”
I pre-ordered my copy directly from the publisher.
These Silent Mansions: A life in graveyards by Jean Sprackland
(Published by Jonathan Cape on the 6th)
I’m a big fan of Sprackland’s beachcombing memoir, Strands, and have also read some of her poetry. Familiarity with her previous work plus a love for graveyards induced me to request a copy of her new book. In it she returns to the towns and cities she has known, wanders through their graveyards, and researches and imagines her way into the stories of the dead. For instance, she finds the secret burial place of persecuted Catholics in Lancashire, learns about a wrecked slave ship in a Devon cove, and laments two dead children whose bodies were sold for dissections in 1890s Oxford. She also remarks on the shifts in her own life, including the fact that she now attends more funerals than weddings, and the displacement involved in cremation – there is no site she can visit to commune with her late mother.
I most enjoyed the book’s general observations: granite is the most prized headstone material, most graves go unvisited after 15 years, and a third of Britons believe in angels despite the country’s overall decline in religious belief. I also liked Sprackland’s list of graveyard charms she has seen. While I applaud any book that aims to get people thinking and talking about death, I got rather lost in the historical particulars of this one.
“This is the paradox at the heart of our human efforts to remember and memorialise: the wish to last forever, and the knowledge that we are doomed to fail.”
“Life, under such a conscious effort of remembering, sometimes resembles a series of clumsy jump-cuts rather than one continuous narrative.”
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
People end up not having children for any number of reasons: medical issues, bereavement, a lack of finances, not having a partner at the right time, or the simple decision not to become a parent. The subtitle of Lorna Gibb’s Childless Voices acknowledges these various routes: “Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice.”
For Gibb, a university lecturer, biographer and novelist, the childless state was involuntary, a result of severe endometriosis that led to infertility and early menopause. Although this has been a source of sadness for her and her husband, she knows that she has it easy compared to women in other parts of the world. Through her research and Skype interviews, she hears horrific stories about infertile women who meet with domestic violence and social ostracism and are sometimes driven to suicide. In Ghana childless women can be branded as witches and exiled. Meanwhile, some are never given the chance to have the children they might long for: Gibb cites China’s one-child policy, female genital mutilation, and enforced sterilization programs like those of the Roma in Yugoslavia and the Quechua in Peru.
Gibb is admirably comprehensive here, considering every possible aspect of childlessness. Particularly interesting are the different cultural adaptations childless women make. Certain countries allow polygamy, giving a second wife a chance to bear children on behalf of an infertile one; Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa recognize ‘marriages’ between childless women so they can create a family and support system. In Albania being a “sworn virgin” is an old and venerable custom. And, of course, there are any number of support groups and online communities. The situation of those who were once parents but are no longer is especially wrenching. Stillbirth only started to be talked about in the 1980s, Gibb notes, but even today is seen as a lesser loss than that of a child who dies later in life.
The author believes there is societal injustice in terms of who has access to fertility treatment and how the state deals with childless people. In the UK, she characterizes IVF as a “postcode lottery”: where you live often determines how many free cycles you’re entitled to on the NHS. In the USA, meanwhile, fertility treatment is so expensive that only those with a certain level of wealth can consider it. The childless may also feel ‘punished’ by tax breaks that favor parents and workplaces that expect non-parents to work unsociable hours. In a sense, then, the childless contribute more but benefit less.
Chosen childlessness is perhaps given short shrift at just 32 pages out of 239. However, it’s still a very thorough treatment of the reasons why couples decide not to become parents, including cultural norms, career goals, self-knowledge and environmental concerns. No surprise that this was the chapter that resonated with me the most. I also especially enjoyed the personal interludes (all titled “A Short Note on…”) in which Gibb celebrates her feminist, childless heroes like Frida Kahlo and Anaïs Nin and writes about how much becoming a godmother meant to her but also of the sadness of seeing a good friend’s teenage son die of a brain tumor.
By coincidence, I’ve recently read another book on the same topic: Do You Have Kids? Life when the Answer Is No, by Kate Kaufmann (coming out in America next month). Gibb primarily traces the many different reasons for childlessness; Kaufmann mostly addresses the question of “now what?” – how women without children approach careers, wider family life, housing options, spirituality and the notion of leaving a legacy. Gibb’s approach is international and comparative, while Kaufmann’s is largely specific to the USA. Though the two authors are childless due to endometriosis and infertility, they feel sisterhood with women who never became mothers for whatever reason. I’d say these two books are complementary rather than rivals, and reveal valuable perspectives that can sometimes be overlooked.
Childless Voices was published by Granta on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
“What a joy it is to dance and sing!”
Through a Granta giveaway on Twitter I won two tickets to see Wise Children at London’s Old Vic theatre on October 18th. Clare of A Little Blog of Books joined me for an excellent evening at the theatre, and we both followed it up by reading the novel – Angela Carter’s final book, published in 1991. (Clare’s write-up of the book and play is here.) It has one of the best openers I’ve come across recently:
Twins Nora and Dora Chance turn 75 today; their father, Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, who has never publicly acknowledged them because they were born out of wedlock to a servant girl who died in childbirth, turns 100. At the last minute an invitation to his birthday party arrives, and between this point and the party Dora fills us in on the sisters’ knotty family history. Their father is also a twin (though fraternal); his brother Peregrine was more of a father to them than Melchior, with “Grandma” Chance, the owner of the boarding house where they were born, the closest thing they had to a mother growing up. By the time they’re teenagers, the girls are on stage at music halls. After a jaunt to Hollywood to appear in Melchior’s filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re back in time for wartime deprivation and tragedy in South London, and decades of shabby nostalgia follow.
It’s a big, bawdy story that has, amazingly, been compressed into just 230 pages. There are five sets of twins in total, with multiple cases of doubling, incest and mistaken identity that would make Shakespeare proud. The novel is composed of five long chapters, like the acts in a play, with a Dramatis Personae on the last two pages (though it might have proven more helpful at the start), and the sisters even live at 49 Bard Road. Dora’s voice is slang-filled and gossipy, and she dutifully presents the sisters’ past as the tragicomedy that it was.
Indeed, Wise Children seems perfect for the stage, and Emma Rice’s production recreates everything that’s best about the book, including Dora’s delightful narration. At the start, resplendent in kimonos and turbans, she and Nora greet us from their Brixton home – represented by a kitschy caravan, which with minor redecoration between scenes serves for all the play’s interiors. The 75-year-olds remain on stage for virtually the entire performance, watching along with the audience from the wings and adding in fragments of commentary, often drawn directly from the text, as scenes from their past unfold (including plenty of simulated sex – I wouldn’t recommend taking along any under-15s).
Androgynous extras cycle into various roles as the action proceeds, with the twins represented first by puppets, then by three sets of actors of various races and genders – the teenage/young adult Nora is played by a Black man, while 75-year-old Dora is a man perhaps of South Asian extraction. This adds extra irony to the humor of one of Nora’s lines: “It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” Grandma Chance, with her beehive, cat-eye glasses and nude bodysuit, steals the show, with seaside comedian Gorgeous George coming a close second as the most entertaining character.
The play has cut out most of the 1980s layer of characters and made the story line stronger in doing so. The only other scene I wish could have been included is a farcical multiple wedding ceremony in Hollywood. The glitzy costumes, recurring butterflies, and John Waters-esque tacky-chic of the set all felt true to the atmosphere of the book, and the songs mentioned in the text (such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”) are supplemented by a couple of numbers that evoke the 1980s setting: “Electric Avenue” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
This was my fifth book by Carter, and now a joint favorite with The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – but I liked the play that little bit better. If you get a chance to see it in London or on tour further afield, don’t pass it up. It’s a pure joy.
My rating: Book; Play
The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely
I come from a certain American state: Maryland. Before I first came to England 15 years ago, I’d never lived anywhere else. It’s the ninth-smallest state but has a little bit of everything – mountains, lakes and farmland; coast and bayfront; rough cities and pleasant towns; plus proximity to the nation’s capital – which is why it’s nicknamed “America in Miniature.” Brits say Merry-Land (it’s more like the name Marilyn, with a faint D on the end) and more than once when asked where I’m from I’ve heard in reply,“like the cookies?” No, not like the cookies!
Anyway, the characters in Catherine Lacey’s short story collection move through various states – Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Montana – but the focus is more on their emotional states. Ten of the 12 stories are in the first person, giving readers a deep dive into the psyches of damaged or bereaved people. I particularly liked “ur heck box,” in which the narrator, troubled by the death of her brother and wary of her mother joining her in New York City, starts getting garbled messages from a deaf man. Whether a result of predictive text errors or mental illness, these notes on his phone echo her confusion at what’s become of her life.
Two other favorites were “Touching People,” in which a sixty-something woman takes a honeymooning couple to see her ex-husband’s grave, and “Small Differences,” about a woman who’s cat-sitting for her on-and-off boyfriend and remembers the place faith used to have in her life. Both dramatize the divide between youth and age; in the latter the cat is named Echo, a reminder that the past still resonates. Another standout is “Learning,” about a painting teacher with a crumbling house and marriage whose deadbeat college friend has become a parenting guru. (This one reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife.”)
Many of the stories question the possibility of ‘getting over’ what’s happened and posit, instead of total healing, a stoic determination to just keep going. In the title story, the narrator goes to see her godfather, Leonard, on his deathbed. She still doesn’t like him much; the trip isn’t about achieving closure but doing the right thing when you can. The same is true in “Family Physics”: Bridget had an explosive falling-out with her family when they came to see her accept her college Physics Award. Now that she’s back in touch with them everything isn’t perfect, but she sees how family life is always a mixture of entropy and rebuilding.
There isn’t as much variety to the narration as I often like from a set of stories, but Lacey uses a range of storytelling techniques (or gimmicks, if one was being unkind) to keep things interesting. The first story, “Violations,” about a man whose ex-wife has published a story drawing on their life together, features run-on sentences that go over the page; “ur heck box” nests parentheses inside parentheses, up to three layers; “Because You Have To,” about a woman who’s counting her blessings even though she’s newly single and surrounded by feral pets, is in short sections separated by asterisks; and “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables,” narrated by a woman who’s sleeping with a Buddhist monk, is in list form. Lacey also uses no speech marks, setting out dialogue in italics instead.
It can be tough to assess a story collection as a whole because the parts can range from hard-hitting to instantly forgettable. I didn’t always feel that each of the parts was necessary here; perhaps I would have been better off just sampling a few of the best stories? The problem, of course, is that you never know which those would be for you before you open up the book. There were quite a number of lines that rang true for me in Lacey’s work, but no more than a few stories that I can imagine myself recalling or ever going back to in the future. The book feels very much of the moment, though. If you’ve enjoyed recent work by Julie Buntin, R. O. Kwon, Sally Rooney or Sittenfeld, you might want to spend time in Certain American States.
“I don’t know what to do now, a state I am so familiar with it feels like my only true home.” (from “Because You Have To”)
“Anyone can visit a graveyard, no matter what they think, and every graveyard has been seen so many times there is nothing left in them for anyone to see and that is why we all must go and look, to see again what’s been seen again” (from “Touching People”)
“I no longer understand the state I was in back then (heartsick over the idea of Jesus the way that other girls were heartsick over the idea of River Phoenix)” (from “Small Differences”)
Certain American States was published in the UK by Granta on September 6th; it came out in the USA on August 7th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
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.
Hey, we got it right! Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, our shadow panel’s pick, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 last night. Of the three shadow panels I’ve participated in and the many others I’ve observed, this is the only time I remember the shadow winner matching the official one. Clare, Paul and I were there in person for the announcement at the Wellcome Collection in London. When we briefly spoke to the judges’ chair, Edmund de Waal, later in the evening, he said he was “relieved” that their decision matched ours – but I think it was definitely the other way around!
Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Trust, said that each year more and more books are being considered for the prize. De Waal revealed that the judges read 169 books over nine months in what was for him his most frightening book club ever. “To bring the worlds of medicine and health into urgent conversation” requires a “lyrical and disciplined choreography,” he said, and “how we shape stories of science … is crucial.” He characterized the judges’ discussions as both “personal and passionate.” The Wellcome-shortlisted books make a space for public debate, he insisted.
The judges brought each of the five authors present onto the stage one at a time for recognition. De Waal praised Ayobami Adebayo’s “narrative of hope and fear and anxiety” and Meredith Wadman’s “beautifully researched and paced thriller.” Dr Hannah Critchlow of Magdalene College, Cambridge called Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art “gruesome yet fascinating.” Oxford English professor Sophie Ratcliffe applauded Kathryn Mannix’s book and its mission. New Scientist editor-in-chief Sumit Paul-Choudhury said Mark O’Connell’s book is about the future “just as much as what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.” Journalist and mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon thanked Sigrid Rausing for her “great honesty and stunning prose.”
But there can only be one winner, and it was Mark O’Connell, who couldn’t be there as his wife is/was giving birth to their second child imminently. The general feeling in the room was that he’d made the right call by deciding to stay with his family. He must be feeling like the luckiest man on earth right now, to have a baby plus £30,000! Max Porter, O’Connell’s editor at Granta and the author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, received the award on his behalf and read out the extremely witty speech he’d written in advance.
Afterwards we spoke to three of the shortlisted authors. Kathryn Mannix said she’d so enjoyed following our shadow panel reviews and that it was for the best that O’Connell won, as any other outcome might have spoiled the lovely girls’ club the others had going on during the weekend’s events. I got two signatures and we nabbed a quick photo with Lindsey Fitzharris. It was also great to meet Simon Savidge, the king of U.K. book blogging, and author and vlogger Jen Campbell. Other ‘celebrities’ spotted: Sarah Bakewell and Ben Goldacre.
This time I stayed long enough for pudding canapés to come around – raspberry cake pops and mini meringues with strawberries. What a great idea! On the way out I again acquired a Wellcome goody bag: this year’s tote with a copy of The Butchering Art, which I only had on Kindle before. I’d also treated myself to this brainy necklace from the Wellcome shop and wore it to the ceremony. An all-round great evening. I’m looking forward to next year’s prize season already!