Review copies have started to feel like an obligation I don’t want. Almost as soon as one comes through the door, I regret having asked for or accepted it. (Now I have to read the danged thing, and follow through with a review!) So I’m going to cut back severely this year. The idea is to wait until late in 2020 to figure out which are the really worthwhile releases, and then only read those instead of wading through a lot of mediocre stuff.
“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’ while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to’. … The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews … to the few that seem to matter.” (from “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” in Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell)
These are the January to May 2020 releases I own so far, with perhaps a few more on the way. I acquired a lot of these in September through November, before I made the decision to cut down on review copies.
I’m also looking forward to new books by Sebastian Barry, Susanna Clarke, Stephanie Danler, Anne Enright, Yaa Gyasi, John Irving, Daisy Johnson, Daniel Kehlmann, Sue Monk Kidd, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, Maya Shanbhag Lang, Helen Macdonald, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Sarah Moss, Mark O’Connell, Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler, Abraham Verghese, Raynor Winn and Molly Wizenberg.
I can still access new/pre-release books via my public library and NetGalley/Edelweiss, especially fiction to review for BookBrowse and nonfiction for Kirkus and the TLS.
This resolution is not about denying or punishing myself, as bloggers’ book-buying bans sometimes seem to be, so if an unmissable book (e.g. HAMNET) is offered on Twitter or via my blog, I won’t consider it cheating to say yes. FOMO will likely be a chronic condition for me this year, but ultimately I hope to do myself a favor.
With the reading time I’m saving, I plan to make major inroads into those 440 print books I own and haven’t read yet, and to do a lot of re-reading (I only managed one and a bit rereads in 2019). I might well blog less often and only feature those books that have been exceptional for me. I’ve set aside this shelf of mostly fiction that I think deserves re-reading soon:
“I do not think we go back to the exciting books,—they do not usually leave a good taste in the mouth; neither to the dull books, which leave no taste at all in the mouth; but to the quiet, mildly tonic and stimulating books,—books that have the virtues of sanity and good nature, and that keep faith with us.” (from “On the Re-Reading of Books” in Literary Values by John Burroughs)
I hope (as always) to read more classics, literature in translation and doorstoppers. Travel and biography are consistently neglected categories for me. Though I won’t set specific goals for these genres, I will aim to see measurable progress. I will also take advantage of the Wellcome Book Prize being on hiatus this year to catch up on some of the previous winners and shortlisted books that I’ve never managed to read.
Mostly, I want to avoid any situations that make me feel guilty or mean (so no more books received direct from the author, and any review books that disappoint will be quietly dropped), follow my whims, and enjoy my reading.
What are some of your goals (reading-related or otherwise) for 2020?
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
- I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
- I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
- I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
- I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
- Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
- Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
- Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
- Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)
Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?
“This is the death of one viewpoint, and its rebirth, like land rising above the waves, or sea foam running off a crowded deck: the odd totality of persons each of whom says ‘me’.”
When I first tried reading Murmur, I enjoyed the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017) but got stuck on “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” and ended up just giving the rest of the book a brief skim. I’m glad that the book’s shortlisting prompted me to return to it and give it proper consideration because, although it was a challenge to read, it was well worth it.
Eaves’s protagonist, Alec Pryor, sometimes just “the scientist,” is clearly a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs heading most chapters. Turing was a code-breaker and early researcher in artificial intelligence at around the time of the Second World War, but was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. Perhaps due to his distress at his fall from grace and the bodily changes that his ‘treatment’ entailed, he committed suicide at age 41 – although there are theories that it was an accident or an assassination. If you’ve read about the manner of his death, you’ll find eerie hints in Murmur.
Every other week, Alec meets with Dr Anthony Stallbrook, a psychoanalyst who encourages him to record his dreams and feelings. This gives rise to the book’s long central section. As is common in dreams, people and settings whirl in and out in unpredictable ways, so we get these kinds of flashes: sneaking out from the boathouse at night with his schoolboy friend, Chris Molyneux, who died young; anti-war protests at Cambridge; having sex with men; going to a fun fair; confrontations with his mother and brother; and so on. Alec and his interlocutors discuss the nature of time, logic, morality, and the threat of war.
There are repeated metaphors of mirrors, gold and machines, and the novel’s language is full of riddles and advanced vocabulary (volutes, manumitted, pseudopodium) that sometimes require as much deciphering as Turing’s codes. The point of view keeps switching, too, as in the quote I opened with: most of the time the “I” is Alec, but sometimes it’s another voice/self observing from the outside, as in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. There are also fragments of second- and third-person narration, as well as imagined letters to and from June Wilson, Alec’s former Bletchley Park colleague and fiancée. All of these modes of expression are ways of coming to terms with the past and present.
I am usually allergic to any book that could be described as “experimental,” but I found Murmur’s mosaic of narrative forms an effective and affecting way of reflecting its protagonist’s identity crisis. There were certainly moments where I wished this book came with footnotes, or at least an Author’s Note that would explain the basics of Turing’s situation. (Is Eaves assuming too much about readers’ prior knowledge?) For more background I recommend The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing.
To my surprise, given my initial failure to engage with Murmur, it is now my favorite to win the Wellcome Book Prize. For one thing, it’s a perfect follow-on from last year’s winner, To Be a Machine. (“It is my fate to make machines that think,” Alec writes.) For another, it connects the main themes of this year’s long- and shortlists: mental health and sexuality. In particular, Alec’s fear that in developing breasts he’s becoming a sexual hybrid echoes the three books from the longlist that feature trans issues. Almost all of the longlisted books could be said to explore the mutability of identity to some extent, but Murmur is the very best articulation of that. A playful, intricate account of being in a compromised mind and body, it’s written in arresting prose. Going purely on literary merit, this is my winner by a mile.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Will Eaves is an associate professor in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick and a former arts editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Murmur, his fourth novel, was also shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize and was the joint winner of the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. He has also published poetry and a hybrid memoir.
Opinions on this book vary within our shadow panel; our final votes aren’t in yet, so it remains to be seen who we will announce as our winner on the 29th.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to the “5×15” shortlist event being held next Tuesday evening the 30th.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The Wellcome Book Prize longlist was announced at midnight yesterday morning. From the prize’s website, you can click on any of the six books’ covers, titles or authors for more information. See also Laura’s reactions post.
Our shadow panel successfully predicted four of these six, with the remaining two (Fanning and Moshfegh) coming as something of a surprise. It’s a shame This Really Isn’t About You didn’t make it through, as it was a collective favorite of the panel’s, but I’m relieved I now don’t have to read Astroturf and Polio. I’m hoping that the rest of the shadow panel will enjoy Mind on Fire more than I did, and will be willing to give My Year of Rest and Relaxation a go even though it’s one of those Marmite books.
There are four nonfiction books and two novels on the shortlist. Given that novelist Elif Shafak is the chair of judges in this 10th anniversary year, it could make sense for there to be a fiction winner this year; this would also cement an alternating pattern of fiction / nonfiction / fiction, following on from Mend the Living and To Be a Machine. If that’s the case, since Moshfegh’s novel, though a hugely enjoyable satire on modern disconnection and emotional numbness, doesn’t have the strongest health theme, perhaps we will indeed see Murmur take the prize, as Annabel predicted in her review. Alternatively, Amateur feels like a timely take on gender configurations, so maybe, as Laura guesses, it will win. I don’t think I could see the other four winning. (Then again, my panel’s predictions were wildly off base in 2017!)
In a press release Shafak commented on behalf of the judging panel: “The judging panel is very excited and proud to present this astonishing collection of titles, ranging from the darkly comic to the searingly honest. While the books selected are strikingly unique in their subject matter and style, the rich variety of writing also shares much in common: each is raw and brave and inspirational, deepening our understanding of what it truly means to be human through the transformative power of storytelling.”
Murmur is the only one of the six that I haven’t already read; I only read Part I and gave the rest a quick skim. So I resumed it yesterday at Part II. I might not get a chance to revisit the other shortlisted books, but I will be eager to see what the rest of the shadow panel make of the books they haven’t read yet. We will all be taking part in an official Wellcome Book Prize blog tour put on by Midas PR. I’ll also look into whether we can arrange Q&As with the shortlisted authors to run on our blogs in the coming weeks.
The Wellcome Book Prize winner will be revealed at an evening ceremony at the Wellcome Collection on Wednesday, May 1st.
Which book from the shortlist would you most like to read?
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.
Five of the six shortlisted authors (barring Dublin-based Mark O’Connell) were at the Wellcome Collection in London yesterday to share more about their books in mini-interviews with Lisa O’Kelly, the associate editor of the Observer. She called each author up onto the stage in turn for a five-minute chat about her work, and then brought them all up for a general conversation and audience questions. Clare and I found it a very interesting afternoon. Here’s some context that I gleaned about the five books and their writers.
Ayobami Adebayo says sickle cell anemia is a massive public health problem in Nigeria, as brought home to her when some friends died of complications of sickle cell. She herself was tested for the gene and learned that she is a carrier, so her children would have a 25% chance of having the disease if her partner was also a carrier. Although life expectancy with the disease has improved to 45–50, a cure is still out of reach for most Nigerians because bone marrow/stem cell transplantation and anti-rejection drugs are so expensive. Compared to the 1980s, when her book opens, she believes polygamy is becoming less fashionable in Nigeria and people are becoming more open to other means of becoming parents, whether IVF or adoption. It’s a way of acknowledging, she says, that parenthood is “not just about biology.”
Sigrid Rausing started writing her book soon after her sister-in-law Eva’s body was found: just random paragraphs to make sense of what had happened. From there it became an investigation, a quest to find the nature of addiction. She thinks that as a society we still don’t quite understand what addiction is, and the medical research and public perception are very separate. In addition to nature and nurture, she thinks we should consider the influence of culture – as an anthropologist by training, she’s very interested in drug culture and how that drew in her brother, Hans. Although there have been many memoirs by ex-addicts, she can’t think of another one by a family member. Perhaps, she suggested, this is because the addict is seen as the ultimate victim. She referred to her book as a “collage,” a very apt description.
Kathryn Mannix spoke of how her grandmother, born in 1900, saw so much more death than we do nowadays: siblings, a child, and so on. Today, though, Mannix has encountered people in their sixties who are facing, with their parents, their very first deaths. Death is fairly “gentle” and “dull” if you’re not directly involved, she insists; she blames Hollywood and Eastenders for showing unusually dramatic deaths. She said once you understand what exactly people are afraid of about dying (e.g. hell, oblivion, pain, leaving their families behind) you can address their specific concerns and thereby “beat out the demon of terror and fear.” Mannix never intended to write a book, but someone heard her on the radio and invited her to do so. Luckily, from her medical school days onward, she’d been writing an A4 page about each of her most mind-boggling cases to get them out of her head and move on. That’s why, as O’Kelly put it, the characters in her 30 stories “leap off the page.”
Lindsey Fitzharris called The Butchering Art “a love story between science and medicine” – it was the first time that the former (antisepsis) was applied to the latter. She initially thought Robert Liston was her man – he was so colorful, larger than life – but eventually found that the real story was with Joseph Lister, the quiet, persistent Quaker. (However, the book does open with Liston performing the first surgery under ether.) Fitzharris is also involved in the Order of the Good Death, author Caitlin Doughty’s initiative, and affirmed Mannix’s efforts to remove the taboo from talking about death. I think I heard correctly that she said there is a film of The Butchering Art in the works?! I’ll need to look into that some more.
Meredith Wadman started with a brief explanation of how immunization works and why the 1960s were ripe for vaccine research. This segment went really science-y, which I thought was a little unfortunate as it may have made listeners tune out and be less interested in her work than the others’. It was perhaps inevitable given her subject matter, but also a matter of the questions O’Kelly asked – with the others she focused more on stories and themes than on scientific facts. It was interesting to hear what Wadman has been working on recently: for the past 6–8 months, she’s been reporting for Science on sexual harassment in science. For her next book, though, she’s pondering the conflict between a congressman and a Centers for Disease Control scientist over funding into research that might lead to gun control.
The question time brought up the issues of medical misinformation online, the distrust people with chronic illnesses have of medical professionals, and euthanasia – Mannix rather dodged that one, stating that her book is about the natural dying process so that’s not really her area. (Though it does come up in a chapter of her book.) We also heard a bit about the projects up next for each author. Rausing’s next book will be a travel memoir about the Capetown drought, taking in apartheid and her husband’s family’s immigration. Adebayo is at work on a very nebulous novel “about people,” and possibly how privilege affects access to healthcare.
Addiction, death, infertility, surgery, transhumanism and vaccines: It’s been quite the varied reading list for the five of us this spring! Lots of science, lots of medicine, but also a lot of stories and imagination.
After some conferring and voting, we have arrived at our shadow panel winner for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell.
Rarely have I been so surprised to love a book. It’s a delight to read, and no matter what your background or beliefs are, it will give you plenty to think about. It goes deep down, beneath our health and ultimately our mortality, to ask what the essence of being human is.
Here’s what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about our pick:
Annabel: “O’Connell, as a journalist and outsider in the surprisingly diverse field of transhumanism, treats everyone with respect: asking the questions, but not judging, to get to the heart of the transhumanists’ beliefs. For a subject based in technology, To Be a Machine is a profoundly human story.”
Clare: “The concept of transhumanism may not be widely known or understood yet, but O’Connell’s engaging and fascinating book explains the significance of the movement and its possible implications both in the distant future and how we live now.”
Laura: “My brain feels like it’s been wired slightly differently since reading To Be a Machine. It’s not just about weird science and weird scientists, but how we come to terms with the fact that even the luckiest of us live lives that are so brief.”
Paul: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
On Monday we’ll find out which book the official judges have chosen. I could see three or four of these as potential winners, so it’s very hard to say who will take home the £30,000.
Who are you rooting for?
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
“Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.”
On balance, I’m glad that the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reading forced me to go back and give Stay with Me another try. Last year I read the first 15% of this debut novel for a potential BookBrowse review but got bored with the voice and the story, rather unfairly dismissing it as a rip-off of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also doubted that the health theme was strong enough for it to make the Wellcome shortlist, but that’s because I hadn’t read far enough to realize just how many medical conditions come up for consideration: it’s not just infertility, but also false pregnancy, cot death (or SIDS), sickle cell disease, and impotence.
This time around I found Yejide a more sympathetic character. The words that open this review are cruel ones spoken by her mother-in-law. Her desperation to become and stay a mother drives her to extreme measures that also give a window onto indigenous religion in Nigeria: ‘breastfeeding’ a goat on the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, and allowing an act of ritual scarification to prevent the return of an abiku, or spirit child (I’ve heard that one narrates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road).
Polygamy is another Nigerian custom addressed in the novel. Yejide’s husband, Akinyele Ajayi, allows himself to be talked into taking another wife, Funmilayo, when Yejide hasn’t produced a child after four years. There’s irony in the fact that polygyny is considered a valid route to pregnancy while polyandry is not, and traditional versus Western values are contrasted in the different generations’ reactions to polygamy: does it equate to adultery?
There are some welcome flashes of humor in the novel, such as when Yejide deliberately serves a soup made with three-day-old beans and Funmi gets explosive diarrhea. I also enjoyed the ladies’ gossip at Yejide’s hair salon. However, the story line tends towards the soap operatic, and well before halfway it starts to feel like just one thing after another: A lot happens, but to no apparent purpose. I was unconvinced by the choices the author made in terms of narration (split between Yejide and Akin, both in first person but with some second person address to each other) and structure (divided between 2008 and the main action starting in the 1980s). We see certain scenes from both spouses’ perspective, but that doubling doesn’t add anything to the overall picture. The writing is by turns maudlin (“each minute pregnant with hope, each second tremulous with tragedy”) and uncolloquial (“afraid that my touch might … careen him into the unknown”).
Things that at first seemed insignificant to me – the 1993 election results, what happens to Funmi, the one major scene set in 2008 – do eventually take on more meaning, and there is a nice twist partway through as well as a lovely surprise at the end. I did feel the ache of the title phrase as it applies to this couple’s children and marriage, so threatened by “all the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.” It all makes for truly effortless reading that I gobbled up in chunks of 50 or 100 pages – which indicates authorial skill, of course – yet this seems to me a novel more interesting for the issues it addresses than for its story and writing.
My gut feeling: I would be very surprised if a novel won two years in a row. While the medical situations examined here are fairly wrenching, Stay with Me isn’t strong enough to win. Its appearance on the shortlist (for the Women’s Prize, too) is honor enough, I think.
- I’m one-third through The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman but have started skimming because it’s dense and not quite as laymen-friendly as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies, the two books its subject matter is most reminiscent of for me.
- On Friday I started To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which I’m also one-third through and have taken away on our mini-holiday. This is the shortlisted book whose topic appealed to me the least, so I’m pleasantly surprised to be enjoying it so much. It helps that O’Connell comes at the science as an outsider – he’s a freelance writer with a literature background, and he’s interested in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises.
- I’m awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.