I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.
Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.
Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)
Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.
Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.
The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.
Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.
To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.
It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.
Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)
Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)
In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.
Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)
Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.
I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)
Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely.
Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat.
Shiny New Books
Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here.
Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood.
Times Literary Supplement
Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.
On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest.
After all that Wellcome Book Prize reading, I’ve given myself a break from the medical reads, right? No way! I’m already eagerly looking out for hopefuls for next year’s prize – I’ve amassed quite a nice little pile – and this is a particularly strong candidate, based on the 20 years that Watson spent as a nurse in England’s health system before leaving to write full-time. (Her debut, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2011; she followed it up with Where Women Are Kings in 2013.) It taps into the widespread feeling that medicine is in desperate need of a good dose of compassion, and will ring true for anyone who spends time in hospitals, whether as a patient or a carer.
Watson presents her book as a roughly chronological tour through the stages of nursing – from pediatrics through to elderly care and the tending to dead bodies – but also through her own career, as she grows from a seventeen-year-old trainee who’s squeamish about blood to a broadly experienced nurse who can hardly be fazed by anything. The first chapter is set up like a tour of the hospital, describing everything she sees and hears as she makes her way up to her office, and the final chapter takes place on her very last day as a nurse, when, faced with a laboring mother in a taxi, she has to deliver the baby right there in the carpark.
In between we hear a series of vivid stories that veer between heartwarming and desperately sad. Watson sees children given a second shot at life. Aaron gets a heart–lung transplant to treat his cystic fibrosis and two-year-old Charlotte bounces back from sepsis – though with prosthetic limbs. But she also sees the ones who won’t get better: Tia, a little girl with a brain tumor; Mahesh, who has muscular dystrophy and relies on a breathing tube; and Jasmin, who is brought to the hospital after a house fire but doesn’t survive for long. She dies in the nurses’ arms as they’re washing the smoke smell out of her hair.
Although Watson specialized in children’s intensive care nursing, she trained in all branches of nursing, so we follow her into the delivery room, mental health ward, and operating theatre. As in Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, we learn about her links to hospitals over the years, starting with her memories of being nursed as a child. She met her former partner, a consultant, at the hospital; they had a child together and adopted another before splitting 12 years later. And as her father was dying of lung cancer, she developed a new appreciation for what nurses do as she observed the dedicated care he received from his hospice nurse. She characterizes nursing as a career that requires great energy, skill and emotional intelligence, “that demands a chunk of your soul on a daily basis,” yet is all too often undervalued.
For me the weakest sections of Watson’s book are the snippets of history about hospitals and the development of the theory and philosophy of nursing. These insertions feel a little awkward and break up the flow of personal disclosure. The same applies to the occasional parenthetical phrase that seems to talk down to the reader, such as “women now receive medical help (IVF) to have their babies” and “obstetricians (doctors) run the show.” Footnotes or endnotes connected to a short glossary might have been a less obtrusive way of adding such explanatory information.
I would particularly recommend this memoir to readers of Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind and Henry Marsh’s Admissions. But with its message of empathy for suffering and vulnerable humanity, it’s a book that anyone and everyone should read. I have it on good authority that there has recently been a copy on the desk of Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary of the UK, which seems like an awfully good start.
A few favorite passages:
“I wanted to live many lives, to experience different ways of living. I didn’t know then that I would find exactly what I searched for: that both nursing and writing are about stepping into other shoes all the time.”
“What I thought nursing involved when I started: chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology and anatomy. And what I now know to be the truth of nursing: philosophy, psychology, art, ethics and politics.”
“You get used to all sorts of smells, as a nurse. [An amazingly graphic passage!] But for all that I’ve seen and touched and smelled, and as difficult as it is at the time, there is a patient at the centre of it, afraid and embarrassed. … The horror of our bodies – our humanity, our flesh and blood – is something nurses must bear, lest the patient think too deeply, remember the lack of dignity that makes us all vulnerable. It is our vulnerability that unites us. Promoting dignity in the face of illness is one of the best gifts a nurse can give.”
The Language of Kindness was published in the UK on May 3rd by Chatto & Windus. My thanks to the publisher for the free review copy. It is released today, May 8th, by Doubleday Canada and Tim Duggan Books in the States.
The 2018 Wellcome Book Prize longlist is here! From the prize’s website, you can click on any of these 12 books’ covers, titles or authors to get more information about them.
Some initial thoughts:
I correctly predicted three of the entries (or 25%) in yesterday’s post: In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli, With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix, and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m pretty shocked to not see Fragile Lives or Admissions on the list.
Of the remainder, I’ve already read one (Midwinter Break) and DNFed another (Stay with Me). Midwinter Break didn’t immediately suggest itself to me for this prize because its themes of ageing and alcoholism are the background to a story about the disintegration of a long marriage. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely book that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves – it was on my runners-up list from last year – so I’m delighted to see it nominated. Stay with Me was also on the Women’s Prize shortlist; it appears here for its infertility theme, but I wouldn’t attempt it again unless it made the Wellcome shortlist.
As to the rest:
- I’m annoyed with myself for not remembering The Butchering Art, which I have on my Kindle. Sometimes I assume that books I’ve gotten from NetGalley are USA-only and don’t check for a UK publisher. I plan to read this and With the End in Mind (also on my Kindle) soon.
- I already knew about and was interested in Mayhem and The White Book.
- Of the ones I didn’t know about, Plot 29 appeals to me the most. I’m off to get it from the library this very afternoon, in fact. Its health theme seems quite subtle: it’s about a devoted gardener ‘digging’ into his past in an abusive family and foster care. The Guardian review describes it thus: “Like Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, this is a profoundly moving account of mental trauma told through the author’s encounters with nature. Jenkins sees his garden as a place where a person can try to escape from, and atone for, the darkness of human existence.” This is the great thing about prize lists: they can introduce you to fascinating books you might never have heard of otherwise. Even if it’s just one book that takes your fancy, who knows? It might end up being a favorite.
- While I’m not immediately drawn to the books on the history of vaccines, the evolution of human behavior, and transhumanism, I will certainly be glad to read them if they make the shortlist.
Some statistics on this year’s longlist, courtesy of the press release I was sent by e-mail:
- Three novels, three memoirs, and six nonfiction titles
- Five debut authors
- Three titles from independent publishers (Canongate and Granta/Portobello Books)
- The authors are from the UK, Ireland, USA, Nigeria, Canada, and – making their first appearance – Sweden (Sigrid Rausing) and South Korea (Han Kang)
Chair of judges Edmund de Waal writes: “The Wellcome Book Prize is unique in its reach across genres, and so the range of books that we have considered has been exhilarating in its extent and ambition. This is a remarkable time for readers, with a great flourishing of writing on ideas around science, medicine and health, lives and deaths, histories and futures. After passionate discussions we have arrived at our longlist for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 and are proud to be part of this process of bringing to a wider public these 12 tremendous books that have moved, intrigued and inspired us. All of them bring something new to our understanding of what it is to be human.”
The shortlist is announced on Tuesday, March 20th, and the winner will be revealed on Monday, April 30th.
Are there any books on here that you’d like to read?
Tomorrow the longlist for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. This year’s judging panel is chaired by Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I hope to once again shadow the shortlist along with a few fellow book bloggers. I don’t feel like I’ve read all that many books that are eligible (i.e., released in the UK in 2017, and on a medical theme), but here are some that I would love to see make the list. I link to all those I’ve already featured here, and give review extracts for the books I haven’t already mentioned.
- I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice
- In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
- In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
- Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
- I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell captures fragments of her life through essays on life-threatening illnesses and other narrow escapes she’s experienced. The pieces aren’t in chronological order and aren’t intended to be comprehensive. Instead, they crystallize the fear and pain of particular moments in time, and are rendered with the detail you’d expect from her novels. She’s been mugged at machete point, nearly drowned several times, had a risky first labor, and was almost the victim of a serial killer. (My life feels awfully uneventful by comparison!) But the best section of the book is its final quarter: an essay about her childhood encephalitis and its lasting effects, followed by another about her daughter’s extreme allergies.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain: A Journey into the Sense of Smell by Barney Shaw
- Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table by Stephen Westaby
It’s also possible that we could see these make the longlist:
- History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund: Fridlund’s Minnesota-set debut novel is haunted by a dead child. From the second page readers know four-year-old Paul is dead; a trial is also mentioned early on, but not until halfway does Madeline Furston divulge how her charge died. This becomes a familiar narrative pattern: careful withholding followed by tossed-off revelations that muddy the question of complicity. The novel’s simplicity is deceptive; it’s not merely a slow-building coming-of-age story with Paul’s untimely death at its climax. For after a first part entitled “Science”, there’s still half the book to go – a second section of equal length, somewhat ironically labeled “Health”. (Reviewed for the TLS.)
- Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
- Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich: A learned but engaging book that intersperses science, history, medicine and personal stories. The first half is about death as a medical reality, while the second focuses on social aspects of death: religious beliefs, the burden on families and other caregivers, the debate over euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and the pros and cons of using social media to share one’s journey towards death. (See my full Nudge review.)
Of 2017’s medical titles that I haven’t read, I would have especially liked to have gotten to:
- Sound: A Story of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst
- This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
- With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix [I have this one on my Kindle from NetGalley]
- Into the Grey Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border between Life and Death by Adrian Owen
- Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight by Vanessa Potter
We are also likely to see a repeat appearance from the winner of the 2017 Royal Society Science Book Prize, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine.
Other relevant books I read last year that have not (yet?) been released in the UK:
- The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson
- The Family Gene: A Mission to Turn My Deadly Inheritance into a Hopeful Future by Joselin Linder
- Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love by Marissa Moss
- Love and Laughter in the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi
- No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine by Rachel Pearson: Pearson describes her Texas upbringing and the many different hands-on stages involved in her training: a prison hospital, gynecology, general surgery, rural family medicine, neurology, dermatology. Each comes with memorable stories, but it’s her experience at St. Vincent’s Student-Run Free Clinic on Galveston Island that stands out most. Pearson speaks out boldly about the divide between rich and poor Americans (often mirrored by the racial gap) in terms of what medical care they can get. A clear-eyed insider’s glimpse into American health care.
- The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
- The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty by Elizabeth L. Silver: At the age of six weeks, Silver’s daughter suffered a massive brain bleed for no reason that doctors could ever determine. Thanks to the brain’s plasticity, especially in infants, the bleed was reabsorbed and Abby has developed normally, although the worry never goes away. Alongside the narrative of Abby’s baffling medical crisis, Silver tells of other health experiences in her family. An interesting exploration of the things we can’t control and how we get beyond notions of guilt and blame to accept that time may be the only healer.
Do you follow the Wellcome Book Prize? Have you read any books that might be eligible?
It’s never too early to start thinking about which books might make it onto next year’s Wellcome Book Prize nominees list, open to any medical-themed books published in the UK in calendar year 2017. I’ve already read some cracking contenders, including these two memoirs from British surgeons.
Brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s first book, Do No Harm, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. In short, enthrallingly detailed chapters named after conditions he had treated or observed, he reflected on life as a surgeon, expressing sorrow over botched operations and marveling at the God-like power he wields over people’s quality of life. That first memoir saw him approaching retirement age and nearing the end of his tether with NHS bureaucracy.
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery serves as a sort of sequel, recording Marsh’s last few weeks at his London hospital and the projects that have driven him during his first years of retirement: woodworking, renovating a derelict lock-keeper’s cottage by the canal in Oxford, and yet more neurosurgery on medical missions to Nepal and the Ukraine. But he also ranges widely over his past, recalling cases from his early years in medicine as well as from recent memory, and describing his schooling and his parents. If I were being unkind, I might say that this feels like a collection of leftover incidents from the previous book project.
However, the life of a brain surgeon is so undeniably exciting that, even if these stories are the scraps, they are delicious ones. The title has a double meaning, of course, referring not only to the patients who are admitted to the hospital but also to a surgeon’s confessions. And there are certainly many cases Marsh regrets, including operating on the wrong side in a trapped nerve patient, failing to spot that a patient was on the verge of a diabetic coma before surgery, and a young woman going blind after an operation in the Ukraine. Often there is no clear right decision, though; operating or not operating could lead to equal damage.
Once again I was struck by Marsh’s trenchant humor: he recognizes the absurdities as well as the injustices of life. In Houston he taught on a neurosurgery workshop in which students created and then treated aneurysms in live pigs. When asked “Professor, can you give us some surgical pearls?” he “thought a little apologetically of the swine in the nearby bay undergoing surgery.” A year or so later, discussing the case of a twenty-two-year-old with a fractured spine, he bitterly says, “Christopher Reeve was a millionaire and lived in America and he eventually died from complications, so what chance a poor peasant in Nepal?”
Although some slightly odd structural decisions have gone into this book – the narrative keeps jumping back to Nepal and the Ukraine, and a late chapter called “Memory” is particularly scattered in focus – I still thoroughly enjoyed reading more of Marsh’s anecdotes. The final chapter is suitably melancholy, with its sense of winding down capturing not just the somewhat slower pace of his retired life but also his awareness of the inevitable approach of death. Recalling two particularly hideous deaths he observed in his first years as a doctor, he lends theoretical approval for euthanasia as a way of maintaining dignity until the end.
What I most admire about Marsh’s writing is how he blends realism and wonder. “When my brain dies, ‘I’ will die. ‘I’ am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information,” he recognizes. But that doesn’t deter him from producing lyrical passages like this one: “The white corpus callosum came into view at the floor of the chasm, like a white beach between two cliffs. Running along it, like two rivers, were the anterior cerebral arteries, one on other side, bright red, pulsing gently with the heartbeat.” I highly recommend his work to readers of Atul Gawande and Paul Kalanithi.
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Thomas Dunne Books on October 3rd.
What Marsh does for brain surgery in his pair of memoirs, Professor Stephen Westaby does for heart surgery in Fragile Lives, a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from his long career. A working class lad from Scunthorpe who watched his grandfather die of heart failure, he made his way up from hospital porter to world-leading surgeon after training at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.
Each of these case studies, from a young African mother and her sick child whom he met while working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to a university student who collapses not far from his hospital in Oxford, is told in impressive depth. Although the surgery details are not for the squeamish, I found them riveting. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
Like Marsh, he tries not to get emotionally attached to his patients, but often fails in this respect. “Surgeons are meant to be objective, not human,” he shrugs. But, also like Marsh, at his retirement he feels that NHS bureaucracy has tied his hands, denying necessary funds and equipment. Both authors come across as mavericks who don’t play by the rules, but save lives anyway. This is a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys books on a medical theme.
A few favorite lines:
“We stop life and start it again, making things better, taking calculated risks.”
“We were adrenaline junkies living on a continuous high, craving action. From bleeding patients to cardiac arrests. From theatre to intensive care. From pub to party.”
Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table was published in the UK by HarperCollins on February 9th. I read a public library copy. It will be published in the USA, by Basic Books, under the title Open Heart on June 20th.
I’m delighted to announce the final members of our Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shadow panel:
Ruby blogs at My Booking Great Blog.
GrrlScientist is an ornithologist and science journalist who was on the judging panel for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.
Luckily, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted titles, one quite recently and one nearly a year and a half ago. Here are the reviews I published on Goodreads at the time. I’ll be getting both books back out of the library soon to have another look before we choose our winner.
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
(translated from the French by Jessica Moore; published in the USA as The Heart)
[This is the French author’s second novel to be translated into English. It has been made into a film and won the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. It was also recently shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, an American readers’ choice award for contemporary French fiction. If you’re based in the States, feel free to vote by April 30th!]
Nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends, and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. Again and again de Kerangal makes a distinction between the physical reality of organs and what they represent: “Simon’s eyes are not just his nervous retina, his taffeta iris, his pupil of pure black in front of the crystalline – they are also his gaze; his skin isn’t just the threaded mesh of his epidermis, his porous cavities – it’s his light and his touch, the living sensors of his body.”
The novel spends time with Simon’s family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse, and so on. I was reminded of ER as well as the French TV show The Returned – this would work really well on screen, and would be a way of avoiding the more off-putting aspects of the author’s style. She writes long, run-on sentences: sometimes half a page, sometimes even stretching to two pages, and stuffs her prose with abstruse vocabulary (or at least that’s how the translator has rendered it), a lot of it medical but some of it simply inaccessible: “emollient conjugality” plus at least a dozen English words I’d never encountered (e.g. abulic, tumid, atony, claudicant, auscultation, precellence, torticollis, naevi, scialytic).
The worst example of the unnecessary opacity is “the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal, the corpulence of an ex-obese man calibrating him in thickness, in fullness, but without visible excrescence” – in plain English, the guy is stocky.
Read in November 2016.
My gut feeling: The novel gives a vivid sense of the fragility of life and imbues parts of the body with metaphorical meaning. However, I think the style makes it too inaccessible and I can’t see its appeal ever being more than niche.
Annabel’s at Shiny New Books
Carolyn’s at Rosemary and Reading Glasses
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
[The first posthumous nominee for the Wellcome Book Prize. I’ll be interested to see what I make of this one when I revisit it.]
Paul Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment. It came as a complete surprise to this non-smoker, and set his life on a new course. He and his coterie of doctors managed his symptoms so he could operate for as long as possible, but when the time came he knew he wanted to devote his last year to writing this memoir. In addition, he would get a brief, sweet taste of fatherhood: he and his wife Lucy, also in the medical field, decided to have a child, a daughter named Cady.
Kalanithi grew up the son of Indian immigrants in Arizona. “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?” he recalls. Degrees in English literature and human biology were disparate attempts to find an answer. Like Henry Marsh (Do No Harm), he has a surgeon’s knowledge of the anatomy of reasoning, but realizes that does not provide the full picture. He recognizes the responsibility of holding others’ lives in the balance, and regrets occasional failures of empathy.
Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
It’s intriguing to see religious language in that statement – indeed, Kalanithi saw his work as a calling, and one with moral connotations. Christian imagery shows up repeatedly:
Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.
Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
When’s the last time you encountered the word “narthex”?! The vocabulary is striking throughout, as in another favorite passage: “A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest.”
Kalanithi died in March 2015. In addition to the foreword by Abraham Verghese, there’s a lovely epilogue from his widow, who’s more than competent to carry on his legacy.
I appreciate stories lived on the knife edge of life and death, but I would recommend this to those who don’t normally choose to read illness narratives, simply for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
Read in October 2015 (Random House were looking for early readers via NetGalley).
My gut feeling: I suspect this is by far the most popular and best-selling title on this year’s shortlist. So many people have taken it to their hearts. It will take a truly special book to knock it from the top spot.
Shadow panelist Paul’s at Nudge
Shadow panelist Ruby’s at My Booking Great Blog
Susan’s at A life in books
Currently reading: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss – about halfway through.
Up next: Whichever of the remaining nonfiction titles turns up to the library for me first!
I’ve also sent off an emergency e-mail to Bodley Head asking for a copy of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes; it’s on loan through my library system until April 19th, which gives me no time to read it even if it comes back on time.
Without further ado, I present to you my 15 favorite non-fiction books read in 2015. I’m a memoir junkie so many of these fit under that broad heading, but I’ve dipped into other areas too. I give two favorites for each category, then count down my top 7 memoirs read this year.
Note: Only four of these were actually published in 2015; for the rest I’ve given the publication year. Many of them I’ve already previewed through the year, so – like I did yesterday for fiction – I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read this book. (Links given to full reviews.)
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (2009): Wizenberg reflects on the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her food blog, and meeting her husband through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with memories.
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl (2001): Reichl traces the rise of American foodie culture in the 1970s–80s (Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck) through her time as a food critic for the Los Angeles Times, also weaving in personal history – from a Berkeley co-op with her first husband to a home in the California hills with her second after affairs and a sticky divorce. Throughout she describes meals in mouth-watering detail, like this Thai dish: “The hot-pink soup was dotted with lacy green leaves of cilantro, like little bursts of breeze behind the heat. … I took another spoonful of soup and tasted citrus, as if lemons had once gone gliding through and left their ghosts behind.”
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (2014): Lewis-Stempel is a proper third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. Magical moments and lovely prose, as in “The dew, trapped in the webs of countless money spiders, has skeined the entire field in tiny silken pocket squares, gnomes’ handkerchiefs dropped in the sward.”
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane: This new classic of nature writing zeroes in on the language we use to talk about our environment, both individual words – which Macfarlane celebrates in nine mini-glossaries alternating with the prose chapters – and the narratives we build around places, via discussions of the work of nature writers he admires. Whether poetic (“heavengravel,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for hailstones), local and folksy (“wonty-tump,” a Herefordshire word for a molehill), or onomatopoeic (on Exmoor, “zwer” is the sound of partridges taking off), his vocabulary words are a treasure trove.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (1998): In few-page essays, Norris gives theological words and phrases a rich, jargon-free backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (2013): Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (2013): Although Penelope Fitzgerald always guarded literary ambitions, she was not able to pursue her writing wholeheartedly until she had reared three children and nursed her hapless husband through his last illness. This is a thorough and sympathetic appreciation of an underrated author, and another marvellously detailed biography from Lee.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014): A surgeon’s essential guide to decision-making about end-of-life care, but also a more philosophical treatment of the question of what makes life worth living: When should we extend life, and when should we concentrate more on the quality of our remaining days than their quantity? The title condition applies to all, so this is a book everyone should read.
- The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful memoir about motherhood in all its variations and complexities; the magic realism (Cohen’s dead mother keeps showing up) is an added delight. I recommend this no matter what sort of relationship, past or present, you have with your mother, especially if you’re also a fan of Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas.
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: There is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Karr has been teaching (and writing) memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work, and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity.
- A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1971): In this account of a summer spent at her family’s Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides. If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation.
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014): “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” – luckily for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. In my favorite passages, Marsh reflects on the mind-blowing fact that the few pounds of tissue stored in our heads could be the site of our consciousness, our creativity, our personhood – everything we traditionally count as the soul.
- I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman (2013): Norman has quickly become one of my favorite writers. You wouldn’t think these disparate autobiographical essays would fit together as a whole, given that they range in subject from Inuit folktales and birdwatching to a murder–suicide committed in Norman’s Washington, D.C. home and a girlfriend’s death in a plane crash, but somehow they do; after all, “A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrow, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime.”
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010): Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. He achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.
And my overall favorite nonfiction book of the year:
1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander: In short vignettes, beginning afresh with every chapter, Alexander conjures up the life she lived with – and after the sudden death of – her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean chef and painter. This book is the most wonderful love letter you could imagine, and no less beautiful for its bittersweet nature.
What were some of your best nonfiction reads of the year?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown: Brown, a qualitative researcher in the field of social work, encourages readers to embrace vulnerability and transform failure and shame through a simple process of re-evaluating the stories we tell ourselves. The gimmicky terminology and frequent self-referencing grated on me a bit, but I appreciated how the book made me reconsider events from my own life. It’s the ideas that carry Rising Strong, so as long as you come to it expecting a useful tool rather than a literary experience you shouldn’t be disappointed. Genuinely helpful self-help.
Life After You by Lucie Brownlee: With honesty and humor, Brownlee reconstructs the two years following her husband’s sudden death. My sister is still a new widow, so I read this expecting it to resonate with her situation, and it certainly does. I had an issue with the title and marketing, though. When originally published last year, the book had the title Me After You. That’s been changed to sound a little less like a Jojo Moyes novel, but the cover is more chick lit than ever, which doesn’t really match the contents of the book.
The Glass Girl by Sandy Hogarth (& interview): Moving between Australia and England and spanning several decades of Ruth Bishop’s life, this debut novel explores the psychological effects of sexual trauma and betrayal. The middle of the book feels a little meandering, and the chronology is sometimes over-complicated. However, Ruth’s is a warm first-person voice, and the ending hints at welcome resolution to unanswered questions. My favorite aspect of the novel, though, is the frequent observations of the natural world.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: With multilingual slang and several Sikh characters, Sahota’s second novel illuminates aspects of the South Asian experience that might be unfamiliar. Daily life is a struggle for Tochi, Randeep and Avtar: they work multiple jobs to make ends meet, serving at Crunchy Fried Chicken, cleaning sewers, or building a luxury hotel in Leeds. The fourth protagonist is Randeep’s visa-wife, Narinder. Through flashbacks we discover each one’s past. It’s a harrowing read, but you can’t help but sympathize with the four runaways as they make and dissolve connections over the year.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: This contemporary ‘cover version’ of The Winter’s Tale links a London financier, a Parisian singer, and a blended family in New Orleans. Winterson creates clear counterparts for each Shakespeare characters, often tweaking names so they are recognizable but more modern. Inventive and true to the themes and imagery (time, adoption; angels, bears, statues) of the original, but ultimately adds little to one’s experience of Shakespeare. I’ll hope for better things from the rest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Still to come: Margaret Atwood on The Tempest, Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler on The Taming of the Shrew, among others.)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week of October 20th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Ostlund’s debut novel explores trauma and loneliness through the past and present of the protagonist, an ESL teacher who has just left his long-term partner, as well as the stories of those he meets. Although set over a six-month period, the novel is so full of flashbacks that it feels dense with the weight of the past. At times this can seem more like a set of short stories, only loosely connected through Aaron. Still, the overarching theme is strong and resonant: “after the parade,” after everything has changed irrevocably, you must keep going, pushing past the sadness to build a new life.
The Best Small Fictions 2015, ed. by Tara L. Masih and Robert Olen Butler: In this very strong anthology of flash fiction, stories range from Tweet length to a few pages, but are always under 1,000 words. Titles and first lines carry a lot of weight. One of the best openers is “I didn’t recognize her without her head” (“Before She Was a Memory,” Emma Bolden). In genre the stories run the gamut from historical fiction to whimsical fantasy. You’ll be introduced to a wealth of fresh and existing talent. There are literally dozens of stand-outs here, but if I had to choose a top 3, they’d be “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley, “The Lunar Deep” by David Mellerick Lynch, and (overall favorite) “Something Overheard” by Yennie Cheung.
For Books’ Sake
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Short, verbless sentences pile up to create exquisite descriptions, as in “Sunset. House on the dunes like a sun-tossed conch. Pelicans thumb-tacked in the wind.” However, I was less sure about the necessity of the bracketed phrases, which seem to represent a Greek chorus giving omniscient commentary, and the use of slang and nicknames can grate. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel.
When All Goes Quiet by Augustinus F. Lodewyks: This religious memoir should interest those who are curious about how spiritual experience can infiltrate everyday life. “When all goes quiet, I know that Heaven is trying to show me its glory,” Lodewyks writes. In autobiographical vignettes, he vividly expresses his mystical visions, particularly those featuring Jesus, the Virgin Mary and angels, who tend to appear in times of crisis and during events of ritual significance like weddings, funerals and religious pilgrimages. Some will still object to the overt proselytizing, especially in the book’s last quarter.
The Blessing of Movement by Deborah Konrad: Konrad’s story is an inspirational memoir about life with disability and caring for dying relatives. Her sister Sandra became a quadriplegic in her twenties. Throughout the book, Konrad investigates the secret strength that underlay “the sunny disposition of the pretty paralyzed woman.” She concludes that it was all about thankfulness, as proven by Sandra’s gratitude journal. Konrad’s own life undeniably gets sidelined, though; more self-reflection would provide a good match for her insights into her sister’s character.
DNA of Mathematics by Mehran Basti: Drawing on his academic specialty in mathematics, Basti explores how scientific theories have been used and misused through history. The book lacks focus due to frequent unrelated asides. It may be difficult to grant credibility to a scientist who dismisses the big bang because it was theorized through “semi-broken scientific methods” and seems to have a personal vendetta against Stephen Hawking. Most importantly, the mathematics that forms the book’s basis is never fully explained.
From Hell to Heaven, One Man’s Journey by Gustav Daffy: This book was inspired by an acrimonious divorce and other family troubles; although Christian faith helped Gustav adjust his thinking, many of the poems still feel like the angry outpourings of a man with an ax to grind. Moreover, formulaic rhyming and poor spelling and grammar mar this overlong collection. It would take a professional copyeditor to hone this into a concise set of linguistically and stylistically acute poems. However, the author’s in-the-moment reactions are easy to relate to.
Shiny New Books
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter: It may seem perverse to twist Emily Dickinson’s words about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Porter’s exceptional debut does just that: tweak poetic forebears – chiefly Poe’s “The Raven” and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create a hybrid response to loss. The novella is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys and Crow (the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic, often macabre). Dad and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem.
We Love This Book
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan: The Irish author of the novels The Spinning Heart (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2013) and The Thing About December, returns with 20 jolting, voice-driven short stories suffused with loneliness and anger. Nineteen of the 20 are in the first person, echoing the chorus of voices that made The Spinning Heart so effective. Many of the narrators speak in thick dialect and run-on sentences, which helps to immerse you in the rhythms of Irish speech. In a book full of lonely people, it is the moments of connection – however fleeting – that matter. For example, in “Long Puck,” one of the best stories, a Catholic priest posted to Syria initiates interfaith hurling matches that temporarily lift everyone’s spirits.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
The River by Helen Humphreys: Humphreys has lived along Ontario’s Napanee River for over a decade. I was expecting a blend of personal reflection and natural observations, but instead the book is mostly composed of brief fictional passages illuminating a handful of species. I liked the passages about the heron best – Humphreys successfully imagines the life of a plume hunter and contrasts it with the excitement of two women involved in the foundation of a bird conservation charity. However, much of the book felt like unconnected vignettes, not building to any kind of grander picture of a location.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger: The novel opens and closes with a hit-and-run, but in between those momentous peaks it’s a quieter tale of a single father trying to guide his son and daughter into young adulthood in the wilds of Canada’s west and islands. Tom Berry’s work is not cutting trees down but planting them – an interesting adaptation of a traditional woodsman’s activity to a new eco age. I found the story a little sleepy but loved Leipciger’s writing, especially her account of the daily drudgery of manual labor and her descriptions of wilderness scenery.
Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura Clarke: Bizarre, in-your-face poetry from a 30-year-old Canadian: business jargon, YouTube videos, fast food…and, yes, animals. Many of the poems feature mules and lions, including weird dialogues between a mule and its supervisor / domestic partner / psychiatrist. With plays on words and sexualized vocabulary, Clarke considers inter-species altruism and the inevitable slide towards extinction. Two favorite lines: “You forget you live parallel to violence” (from “Carnivora”); “The Tasmanian tiger live-tweets its extinction from the Hobart zoo in 1933” (from “Extirpation”).
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh: “Terrible job, neurosurgery. Don’t do it.” Lucky for us, Henry Marsh reports back from the frontlines of brain surgery so we don’t have to. He’s nearing retirement age after a career divided between a London hospital and medical missions to Ukraine. The punchy chapters are named after conditions he has treated or observed. Marsh comes across as having a hot temper, exhibiting extreme frustration with NHS bureaucracy. At the same time, he gets very emotional over his patients declining and dying, and experiences profound guilt over operations that go wrong or were ultimately unnecessary.
In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan: My favorite poems in O’Riordan’s debut collection were about Victorian Manchester, 1910s suffragettes and the Wordsworths, this last based on the author’s year in residence at their Lake District cottage. I also liked “The Corpse Garden” – about the outdoor forensic lab in Knoxville, Tennessee – and a couple of multi-part poems that seem to enliven family history. It’s the vocabulary and alliteration that make these poems; there are only a handful of rhyming couplets.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle: If, like me, you only knew L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time children’s series, this journal should come as a revelation. I didn’t know she wrote any nonfiction for adults. The Crosswicks books cannot be called simple memoirs, however; there’s so much more going on. In this journal (published 1972) of a summer spent at their Connecticut farmhouse, L’Engle muses on theology, purpose, children’s education, the writing life, the difference between creating stories for children and adults, neighbors and fitting into a community, and much besides.
A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor: My third Taylor – not as good as Mrs. Palfrey, but better than Angel. It’s about the everyday family and romantic entanglements of a small English harbor village in the 1940s. Beth is a preoccupied writer who doesn’t notice that her husband, the local doctor, is carrying on an affair with her best friend, the divorcée Tory, who is also their next-door neighbor. As always, Taylor has great insight into the human psyche and unlikely relationships. The plot is low on thrills for sure, but it’s pleasant reading, especially if you’re on holiday at the seaside (I started reading it on the coast near Dublin).
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris: This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all. Norris spent 20 years away from the faith but gradually made her way back, via the simple Presbyterianism of her Dakota relatives but also through becoming an oblate at a Benedictine monastery – two completely different expressions of the same faith. In few-page essays, she gives each word or phrase a rich backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy, ensuring that it’s not just religious jargon anymore.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt: What The Sisters Brothers did for the Western, this does for the Gothic fairytale. It’s not quite as fun or successful as the previous book, but has a nicely campy Dracula or Jane Eyre feel. Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a compulsive liar, sets out to find adventure and romance as undermajordomo of a castle in the quaint German countryside. Here he meets pickpockets, a periodically insane baron, a randy maiden, and a strapping rival who’s a soldier in the absurdist local conflict. DeWitt’s understated humor is not as clearly on display here; there’s also, strangely, quite a bit of sex.
Sentenced to Life by Clive James: James, an Australian critic and all-round man of letters, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. After a setback in 2013, he’s rallied, but these poems are certainly infused with a sense of imminent mortality. The incessant ABAB rhyming in the early poems set up a jaunty rhythm I didn’t find appropriate to the subject matter; I much prefer the later unrhymed poems. “Plot Points” is my favorite, artfully linking disparate historical moments.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California. Now, only a desperate remnant remains in this waterless wasteland. Luz and Ray squat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion and live off of Luz’s modeling money – she was once the environmental movement’s poster child, “Baby Dunn.” When they take charge of a baby called Ig, however, their priorities change. They set off for the strangely beautiful sea of dunes, the Amargosa, leaving behind the ‘frying pan’ of exposure to the elements for the ‘fire’ of a desert cult. There is some absolutely beautiful prose. This is the book that California (Edan Lepucki) wanted to be.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: U. is a corporate anthropologist in London, coming off the success of the Koob–Sassen contract and facing the blank page of the Great Report he’s tasked with writing. Not much happens here; the book is more about his anthropological observations and the things he fixates on, like oil spills, a sabotaged parachutist, and Satin Island – a place he encounters in a dream and then, by word association, likens to Staten Island, a destination he doesn’t quite make it to. For me the most interesting parts were about narrative. I found this too clever for its own good; not Booker Prize material.