Tag Archives: Paul Kalanithi

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.

20 Books of Summer 2018

This is my first year joining in with the 20 Books of Summer challenge run by Cathy of 746 Books. I’ve decided to put two twists on it. One: I’ve only included books that I own in print, to work on tackling my mountain of unread books (300+ in the house at last count). As I was pulling out the books that I was most excited to read soon, I noticed that most of them happened to be by women. So for my second twist, all 20 books are by women. Why not? I’ve picked roughly half fiction and half life writing, so over the next 12 weeks I just need to pick one or two from the below list per week, perhaps alternating fiction and non-. I’m going to focus more on the reading than the reviewing, but I might do a few mini roundup posts.

I’m doing abysmally with the goal I set myself at the start of the year to read lots of travel classics and biographies, so I’ve chosen one of each for this summer, but in general my criteria were simply that I was keen to read a book soon, and that it mustn’t feel like hard work. (So, alas, that ruled out novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Ursula K. LeGuin and Virginia Woolf.) I don’t insist on “beach reads” – the last two books I read on a beach were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin, after all – but I do hope that all the books I’ve chosen will be compelling and satisfying reads.

 

  1. To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine – I picked up a copy from the Faber Spring Party, having no idea who Albertine was (guitarist of the all-female punk band The Slits). Everyone I know who has read this memoir has raved about it.
  2. Lit by Mary Karr – I’ve read Karr’s book about memoir, but not any of her three acclaimed memoirs. This, her second, is about alcoholism and motherhood.
  3. Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms – I bought a bargain copy at the Wigtown Festival shop earlier in the year. Timms is a Scottish journalist who now lives in India. This should be a fun combination of foodie memoir and travel book.
  4. Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (a woman, honest!) – Indulging my love of medical memoirs here. I bought a copy at Oxfam Books earlier this year.

5. May Sarton by Margot Peters – I’ve been on a big May Sarton kick in recent years, so have been eager to read this 1997 biography, which apparently is not particularly favorable.

6. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy – I bought this 1960s hardback from a charity shop in Cambridge a couple of years ago. It will at least be a start on that travel classics challenge.

 

7. Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys, and Other Initiations by Vendela Vida – This was Vida’s first book. It’s about coming-of-age rituals for young women in America.

8. Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern – Should fall somewhere between science and nature writing, with a travel element.

 

9. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle – L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but she wrote tons for adults, too: fiction, memoirs and theology. I read the stellar first volume of the Crosswicks Journal, A Circle of Quiet, in September 2015 and have meant to continue the series ever since.

10. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley – You know how I love reading with the seasons when I can. This slim 2007 volume of stories is sure to be a winner. Seven of the 10 originally appeared in the New Yorker or Granta.

 

11. Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore – I’ve only ever read Dunmore’s poetry. It’s long past time to try her fiction. This one comes highly recommended by Susan of A life in books.

12. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates is intimidatingly prolific, but I’m finally going to jump in and give her a try.

13. Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto – A token lit in translation selection. “This is the story of [a] remarkable expedition through grief, dreams, and shadows to a place of transformation.” (Is it unimaginative to say that sounds like Murakami?)

 

14. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – How have I not read any of her fiction yet?! This has been sitting on my shelf for years. I only vaguely remember the story line from the film, so it should be fairly fresh for me.

15. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – An Oprah’s Book Club selection from 1999. I reckon this would make a good beach or road trip read.

16. Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz – Another Oprah’s Book Club favorite from 2000. Set in Wisconsin in the years after World War I.

 

  1. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler – Tyler novels are a tonic. I have six unread on the shelf; the blurb on this one appealed to me the most. This summer actually brings two Tylers as Clock Dance comes out on July 12th – I’ll either substitute that one in, or read both!

 

18. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – I’ve only read Gay’s memoir, Hunger. She’s an important cultural figure; it feels essential to read all her books. I expect this to be rough.

19. Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – This has been on my radar for such a long time. After loving my first Hay novel (A Student of Weather) last year, what am I waiting for?

20. Fludd by Hilary Mantel – I haven’t read any Mantel in years, not since Bring Up the Bodies first came out. While we all await the third Cromwell book, I reckon this short novel about a curate arriving in a fictional town in the 1950s should hit the spot.

 


I’ll still be keeping up with my review books (paid and unpaid), blog tours, advance reads and library books over the summer. The aim of this challenge, though, is to make inroads into the physical TBR. Hopefully the habit will stick and I’ll keep on plucking reads from my shelves during the rest of the year.

Where shall I start? If I was going to sensibly move from darkest to lightest, I’d probably start with An Untamed State and/or Lit. Or I might try to lure in the summer weather by reading the two summery ones…


Which of these books have you read? Which ones appeal?

Two Memoirs of Women’s Freedom: Lara Feigel and Rebecca Loncraine

I have read some truly phenomenal memoirs this year, most of them by women. These two have rather different starting points – frustration with the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and breast cancer treatment – but I’ve paired them because both are journeys of self-discovery in which the author commits to determining how to live a free and true life.

 

Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel

It started with a spate of weddings one summer. Lara Feigel, a literature lecturer at King’s College London, found herself strangely irked at all this capitulation to marital convention, even though she herself had married in her twenties and had a young son. What did her mild outrage signify? At the same time, she was rereading the works of Doris Lessing, whom she found simultaneously admirable and vexing: Lessing lived by her ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways but not in others, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; and ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free.

Throughout, Feigel holds up her own experiences of marriage and motherhood in parallel to Lessing’s. She maintains a delicate balance between biographical and autobiographical information and brings in references to other writers – everyone from Rachel Cusk to D.H. Lawrence – to explore various opinions on maternal ambivalence and sexual fulfillment. I could relate to the bookworm’s impulse to turn to literature for comfort and direction – “the most enduring novelists … illuminate our lives,” and “we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel insists. Lessing seemed to her the perfect “writer to discover in your thirties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

And yet a familiarity with or fondness of the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. I’ve only ever read The Golden Notebook (1962) and Alfred and Emily (2008), a fictionalized biography of Lessing’s parents, both during my mid-twenties. The former I almost certainly read before I could fully appreciate it. It’s about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well. Feigel often looks for clues in Lessing’s heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels, which I’d like to read, and also travels to California to meet one of Lessing’s lovers and to Zimbabwe to see the farm where Lessing grew up.

Like Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, this is a richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. I would also recommend it to readers of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Feigel’s is a particularly brave and forthright book. I feel proud of her in an oddly personal way: during my years as a library assistant at King’s, I saw her chair countless literature and life writing events. She seemed impossibly young for a professor type, and wore her navy blue shift dress and string of pearls like it was her grown-up’s uniform. I can tell that the years since, including the difficult experiences she recounts here, have both softened and toughened her, sandpapering away what she calls her “diffident angularity” and replacing it with womanly wisdom.

My rating:


Free Woman was published by Bloomsbury UK on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine

In 2016 it was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; in 2017 it was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. And now Skybound. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing a death from cancer with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky.

She was a freelance writer based on her parents’ farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, an area that’s familiar to me from trips to Hay-on-Wye and from my reading of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. The history and geography of the region, as revealed from the air, weave through the book, as do childhood memories and recollections of chemotherapy. Loncraine discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: the red kites in Wales, and later vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. She learned from a British Airways pilot that 500,000 people are airborne at any one moment! We take for granted what should still be acknowledged as a miraculous feat.

“There’s no road in the sky. Each individual glider pilot finds a new pathless way through the air, a unique scribble. We locate a bit of ridge lift, here; fly out to a thermal, there; we wind and manoeuvre over the curving land. We never take the same route twice, so flight offers me a new perspective each time I fly.”

“Influenced by the ancient seam of human thought that associates the sky with the imagination, weaving and circling in the sky begins to feel like sailing through the realm of the subconscious itself.”

This hobby-turned-obsession was not without its inconveniences and dangers. Even when it’s warm at ground level it’s frigid at 13,000 feet, so you have to bundle up. Meanwhile, the strength of the sun means you keep guzzling water and have to wear either a urine-collecting device or adult diapers. The earliest attempts at unpowered flight were generally fatal, and when Loncraine went to New Zealand for a bonus season of flying to replace the Welsh winter, one of her fellow flyers died in a crash. Her instructor told her she’d become fearless, even reckless. But when she met one of the pioneers of gliding, then in his nineties, in New Zealand he spoke an aphorism that perfectly captures the role flying played for Loncraine: “The antidote to fear is fascination.”

There’s a brief afterword by Loncraine’s mother, Trisha. Her daughter had virtually finished this manuscript when the cancer returned, and underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016. This is a simply wonderful book; what a shame that we won’t get another.

My rating:


Skybound was published by Picador on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.

The Best Books from the First Half of 2017

Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.

 

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.

 

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

 

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.

 

My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.

 

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

 

Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. 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.

 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.

 


And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Four Recommended June Releases

Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read in advance. The first is the sophomore novel from an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before, the second is a highly anticipated memoir from an author new to me, and the third and fourth – both among my favorite books of 2017 so far – strike me as 2018 Wellcome Book Prize hopefuls: one is a highly autobiographical novel about bereavement, and the other is a courageous memoir about facing terminal cancer. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

(Coming from St. Martin’s Press on June 6th)

It’s the summer of 1992 and a plague of gypsy moth caterpillars has hit Avalon Island, a community built around Grudder Aviation. The creatures are just one of many threats to this would-be fairy tale world. For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, it’s no simple Sweet Sixteen time of testing out drugs and sex at parties. Her grandfather, Grudder’s president, is back in town with her grandmother, Veronica, and they’re eager to hide the fact that he’s losing his marbles. Also recently returned is Leslie Day Marshall, daughter of the previous Grudder president; she’s inherited “The Castle” and shocked everyone with the family she brought back: Jules, an African-American landscape architect, and their two mixed-race children.

Depending on when you were born, you might not think of the 1990s as “history,” but this novel does what the best historical fiction does: expertly evoke a time period. Moving between the perspectives of six major characters, the novel captures all the promise and peril of life, especially for those who love the ‘wrong’ people. I especially loved small meetings of worlds, like Maddie and Veronica getting together for tea and Oprah.

My main criticism would be that there is a lot going on here – racism, domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, cancer, teen sex (a whole lotta sex in general) – and that can make things feel melodramatic. But in general I loved the atmosphere: a sultry summer of Gatsby-esque glittering parties and garden mazes, a time dripping with secrets, sex and caterpillar poop.

[It felt like I kept seeing references to gypsy moths in the run-up to reading this book, like a passage from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and a random secondhand book I spotted in Hay-on-Wye (though in that case it’s actually the name of a ship and is a record of a sea voyage).]

Read-alike: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

My rating:

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

(Coming from HarperCollins on June 13th [USA] and from Corsair on August 3rd [UK])

I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay before, but somehow already knew the basics of her story: the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the American Midwest, she was gang raped at age 12, and to some extent everything she’s done and become since then has been influenced by that one horrific experience. Not least her compulsive overeating: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,”she writes. At her heaviest Gay was super morbidly obese according to her BMI, a term that “frames fat people like we are the walking dead.”

Though presented as a memoir, this is more like a collection of short autobiographical essays (88 of them, in six sections). The portions that could together be dubbed her life story take up about a third of the book, and the rest is riffs around a cluster of related topics: weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact (e.g. “My body is a cage of my own making”), which means she never comes across as self-pitying. I appreciate how she holds opposing notions in tension: she doesn’t know how she developed such an “unruly” body; she knows exactly how it happened.

The structure of the book made it a little repetitive for me, but I think what Gay has written will be of tremendous value, not just to rape victims or those whose BMI is classed as obese, but to anyone who has struggled with body image – so pretty much everyone, especially women.

Read-alike: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

My rating:

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist

(Coming on from Sceptre on June 1st [UK] and from Melville House on February 6, 2018 [USA])

In this autobiographical novel from a Swedish poet, Tom faces the loss of his partner and his father in quick succession. The novel opens in medias res at Söder hospital, where Tom’s long-time girlfriend, Karin, has been rushed for breathing problems. Doctors initially suspect pneumonia or a blood clot, but a huge increase in her white blood cells confirms leukemia. This might seem manageable if it weren’t for Karin, 33, being pregnant with their first child. The next morning she’s transferred to another hospital for a Cesarean section and, before he can catch his breath, Tom is effectively a single parent to Livia, delivered six weeks early.

Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting Tom’s bewilderment. He records word for word what busy doctors and jobsworth nurses have to say, but because there are no speech marks their monologues merge with Tom’s thoughts, conversations and descriptions of the disorienting hospital atmosphere to produce a seamless narrative of frightened confusion. There is an especially effective contrast set up between Karin’s frantic emergency room treatment and the peaceful neonatal ward where Livia is being cared for.

While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one.With its frank look at medical crises, this is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

Read-alike: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

My rating:

 

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

(Coming on June 6th from Simon & Schuster [USA] and from Text Publishing on August 3rd [UK])

You’re going to hear a lot about this one. It’s been likened to When Breath Becomes Air, an apt comparison given the beauty of the prose and the literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. It’s a wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

It started with a tiny spot of cancer in the breast. “No one dies from one small spot,” Nina Riggs and her husband told themselves. Until it wasn’t just a spot but a larger tumor that required a mastectomy. And then there was the severe back pain that alerted them to metastases in her spine, and later in her lungs. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective.

Riggs started out as a poet, and you can tell. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. Usually these moments are experienced with family: her tough mother, who died after nine years with multiple myeloma, providing her with a kind of “morbid test drive” for her own death; and her husband and their two precocious sons. Whether she’s choosing an expensive couch, bringing home a puppy, or surprising her sons with a trip to Universal Studios, she’s always engaged in life. You never get a sense of resignation or despair.

Some of my favorite lines:

“inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band”

“my pubic hair all falls out at once in the shower and shows up like a drowned muskrat in the drain.”

“My wig smells toxic and makes me feel like a bank robber. But maybe it is just a cloak for riding out into suspicious country.”

“‘Merry Christmas,’ says a nurse who is measuring my urine into a jug in the bathroom. ‘Do you want some pain meds? Do you want another stool softener?’”

(Nina Riggs died at age 39 on February 23, 2017.)

Read-alike: A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth Williams

 My rating:


What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Brain vs. Heart Surgery: Admissions and Fragile Lives

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.

My rating:

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.”

My rating:


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.

The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony

Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!

The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.

It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.

About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.

Chair of judges Val McDermid in center; fellow judge and BBC Radio books editor Di Spiers to her left.

Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?

Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).

 

Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.

I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.

Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel Decision

It’s been a whirlwind five weeks as we on the shadow panel have made our way through the six books shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017. The list is strong and varied: an account of the AIDS crisis, a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon, a thorough history of genetics, an introduction to the microbial world, and novels about a donor heart and an ordinary family’s encounter with unexpected illness. All have been well worth engaging with, but when it came to decision time we had a pretty clear winner: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (With Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone a fairly close second.)

“I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.” ~Paul Kalanithi

I first read this book a year and a half ago; when I picked it back up on Friday, I thought I’d give it just a quick skim to remind myself why I loved it. Before I knew it I’d read 50 pages, and I finished it last night in the car on the way back from a family party, clutching my dinky phone as a flashlight, awash in tears once again. (To put this in perspective: I almost never reread books. My last rereading was of several Dickens novels for my master’s in 2005–6.)

What struck me most on my second reading is how Kalanithi, even in his brief life, saw both sides of the medical experience (as the U.K. book cover portrays so well). He was the harried neurosurgery resident making life and death decisions and marveling at the workings of the brain; in a trice he was the patient with terminal lung cancer wondering how to make the most of his remaining time with his family.

Yet in both roles his question was always “What makes human life meaningful?” – a quest that kept him shuttling between science, literature and religion. In eloquent prose and with frequent scriptural allusions, this short, technically unfinished book narrates Kalanithi’s past (his growing-up years and medical training), present (undergoing cancer treatment but ultimately facing death) and future (the legacy he leaves behind, including his daughter).

Looking back once again at the guidelines for the Wellcome Book Prize (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human”), When Breath Becomes Air stands out as a perfect exemplar. In her blog review, Ruby writes, “This book looks death right in the eye and doesn’t seek to rationalise it, explain it, avoid it. It deals with it head on.” In his Nudge review Paul calls the book “equally heart breaking and full of love … a painfully honest account of a short, but intense life.”

My thanks, once again, to the other members of the shadow panel: Paul Cheney, GrrlScientist, Ruby Jhita and Amy Pirt.


Tomorrow evening the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Wellcome Collection in London. As thanks for my participation in the blog tour, I’ve been invited to attend. Small talk and networking are very much outside of my comfort zone, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and hope to at the very least meet one or two fellow bloggers. I’ll post very quickly when I get home from the ceremony tomorrow night to announce the winner, and promise a longer write-up of the event sometime on Tuesday.

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Part 1: de Kerangal and Kalanithi

I’m delighted to announce the final members of our Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shadow panel:

Ruby blogs at My Booking Great Blog.

GrrlScientist is an ornithologist and science journalist who was on the judging panel for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Along with Paul and Amy, this brings us up to five people – the same number as the official judging panel.


Luckily, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted titles, one quite recently and one nearly a year and a half ago. Here are the reviews I published on Goodreads at the time. I’ll be getting both books back out of the library soon to have another look before we choose our winner.


Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

(translated from the French by Jessica Moore; published in the USA as The Heart)

[This is the French author’s second novel to be translated into English. It has been made into a film and won the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. It was also recently shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, an American readers’ choice award for contemporary French fiction. If you’re based in the States, feel free to vote by April 30th!]


Nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends, and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. Again and again de Kerangal makes a distinction between the physical reality of organs and what they represent: “Simon’s eyes are not just his nervous retina, his taffeta iris, his pupil of pure black in front of the crystalline – they are also his gaze; his skin isn’t just the threaded mesh of his epidermis, his porous cavities – it’s his light and his touch, the living sensors of his body.”

The novel spends time with Simon’s family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse, and so on. I was reminded of ER as well as the French TV show The Returned – this would work really well on screen, and would be a way of avoiding the more off-putting aspects of the author’s style. She writes long, run-on sentences: sometimes half a page, sometimes even stretching to two pages, and stuffs her prose with abstruse vocabulary (or at least that’s how the translator has rendered it), a lot of it medical but some of it simply inaccessible: “emollient conjugality” plus at least a dozen English words I’d never encountered (e.g. abulic, tumid, atony, claudicant, auscultation, precellence, torticollis, naevi, scialytic).

The worst example of the unnecessary opacity is “the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal, the corpulence of an ex-obese man calibrating him in thickness, in fullness, but without visible excrescence” – in plain English, the guy is stocky.


Read in November 2016.

My rating:

My gut feeling: The novel gives a vivid sense of the fragility of life and imbues parts of the body with metaphorical meaning. However, I think the style makes it too inaccessible and I can’t see its appeal ever being more than niche.


More reviews:

Annabel’s at Shiny New Books

Carolyn’s at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

[The first posthumous nominee for the Wellcome Book Prize. I’ll be interested to see what I make of this one when I revisit it.]


Paul Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment. It came as a complete surprise to this non-smoker, and set his life on a new course. He and his coterie of doctors managed his symptoms so he could operate for as long as possible, but when the time came he knew he wanted to devote his last year to writing this memoir. In addition, he would get a brief, sweet taste of fatherhood: he and his wife Lucy, also in the medical field, decided to have a child, a daughter named Cady.

Kalanithi grew up the son of Indian immigrants in Arizona. “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?” he recalls. Degrees in English literature and human biology were disparate attempts to find an answer. Like Henry Marsh (Do No Harm), he has a surgeon’s knowledge of the anatomy of reasoning, but realizes that does not provide the full picture. He recognizes the responsibility of holding others’ lives in the balance, and regrets occasional failures of empathy.

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

It’s intriguing to see religious language in that statement – indeed, Kalanithi saw his work as a calling, and one with moral connotations. Christian imagery shows up repeatedly:

Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.

Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.

When’s the last time you encountered the word “narthex”?! The vocabulary is striking throughout, as in another favorite passage: “A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest.”

Kalanithi died in March 2015. In addition to the foreword by Abraham Verghese, there’s a lovely epilogue from his widow, who’s more than competent to carry on his legacy.

I appreciate stories lived on the knife edge of life and death, but I would recommend this to those who don’t normally choose to read illness narratives, simply for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the wholehearted picture of a life cut short.


Read in October 2015 (Random House were looking for early readers via NetGalley).

My rating:

My gut feeling: I suspect this is by far the most popular and best-selling title on this year’s shortlist. So many people have taken it to their hearts. It will take a truly special book to knock it from the top spot.


More reviews:

Shadow panelist Paul’s at Nudge

Shadow panelist Ruby’s at My Booking Great Blog

Susan’s at A life in books


Shortlist strategy:

Currently reading: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss – about halfway through.

Up next: Whichever of the remaining nonfiction titles turns up to the library for me first!

I’ve also sent off an emergency e-mail to Bodley Head asking for a copy of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes; it’s on loan through my library system until April 19th, which gives me no time to read it even if it comes back on time.

Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Shadow Panel

Newsflash! I’ve started a shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six medical-themed titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and deliberate to choose our own winner before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. I hope to get the panel up to five – I’ve been in contact with a couple of science journalists via Twitter – but for now we are three, including:

Paul Cheney: blogs at Halfman, Halfbook and writes for Nudge’s Book Life section.

Amy Pirt: blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams and writes for Mookychick and g3 magazine.


The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation founded by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and dedicated to improving health. The current incarnation of the prize has been running since 2009 and the winner gets a whopping £30,000. Books are nominated by their publishers, and for the 2017 award cycle they must have been issued in the UK between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.

One thing that’s unique about the Wellcome Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible. Here’s how the website describes the aim of the prize:

To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

So as we’re reading (or looking back at) the six shortlisted books, those are the criteria we’ll be keeping in mind.


Here’s the full 2017 shortlist:

  • How to Survive a Plague by David France: a history of the AIDS crisis.
  • When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanithi: a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon.
  • Mend the Living* by Maylis de Kerangal (trans. Jessica Moore): a novel about a donor heart [published in the USA as The Heart].
  • The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: a novel about a child who suddenly falls ill.
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee: a thorough history of genetics.
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong: a survey of the human body’s microbes.

 

* = the two I’ve already read and reviewed on Goodreads. I’ll get these reviews together for my first shortlist post on Thursday. Next up for me is The Tidal Zone, which I plan to start today. I have the three other nonfiction titles on request from the public library and hope they’ll come in soon – each one is well over 300 pages, so I’ll need plenty of time with them!

For more on this year’s nominees and the official judging panel, see this Guardian article.


What interests you from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Are there some titles you’ve already read? If you’ve reviewed any of these, let me know and I’d be happy to link to your reviews when I post mine.

Also, if you’d like to read any of the shortlisted books along with us over the next five weeks, I’d love to know that you’re taking part and will help share your reviews, so do get in touch!

(A huge thanks to Naomi of The Writes of Woman for advice on running a shadow panel.)