Tag Archives: popular science

The Best Books of 2020: Some Runners-Up

I’ve chosen 25 more cracking reads that were first released in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s reading.

 

Novels:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African-American twins’ paths divide in 1950s Louisiana. Perceptive and beautifully written, this has characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: To start with, Piranesi traverses his watery labyrinth like he’s an eighteenth-century adventurer, his resulting notebooks reading rather like Alexander von Humboldt’s writing. I admired how the novel moved from the fantastical and abstract into the real and gritty. Read it even if you say you don’t like fantasy.

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens and almost accidentally embarks on affairs with an English guy and a Chinese girl. Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners.

 

*A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: Issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance in a perfect-seeming North Carolina community. This is narrated in a first-person plural voice, like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved An American Marriage, it should be next on your list. I’m puzzled by how overlooked it’s been this year.

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A more subdued and subtle book than Homegoing, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism, and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching reward circuits in the mouse brain. There’s also a complex mother–daughter relationship and musings on love and risk. [To be published in the UK in March]

 

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A rich, natural exploration of a place and time period – full of detail but wearing its research lightly. Inspired by a real-life storm that struck on Christmas Eve 1617 and wiped out the male population of the Norwegian island of Vardø, it intimately portrays the lives of the women left behind. Tender, surprising, and harrowing.

 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing as to why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.

 

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Although this retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality. An engrossing story of women’s intuition and yearning.

 

*The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson: Intense and convincing, this balances historical realism and magical elements. In mid-1850s Scotland, there is a move to ensure clean water. The Glasgow waterworks’ physician’s wife meets a strange minister who died in 1692. A rollicking read with medical elements and a novel look into Victorian women’s lives.

 

*The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting: In this first book of a magic-fueled historical trilogy, progress, religion, and superstition are forces fighting for the soul of a late-nineteenth-century Norwegian village. Mytting constructs the novel around compelling dichotomies. Astrid, a feminist ahead of her time, vows to protect the ancestral church bells.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: art consumed and people encountered become part of her own story; curiosity about other lives fuels empathy. A quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings.

 

Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, written in an aphoristic style. Set either side of Trump’s election in 2016, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are dead right. This felt like a perfect book for 2020 and its worries.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward: An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. I was particularly taken by the chapter narrated by the ant. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 

*The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Against a backdrop of flooding and bush fires, a series of personal catastrophes play out. A timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.

 

 

Short Stories:

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: These 10 stories from the last 18 years are melancholy and complex, often featuring several layers of Jewish family history. Europe, Israel, and film are frequent points of reference. “Future Emergencies,” though set just after 9/11, ended up feeling the most contemporary because it involves gas masks and other disaster preparations.

 

*Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld: A bonus second UK release from Sittenfeld in 2020 after Rodham. Just three stories, but not leftovers; a strong follow-up to You Think It, I’ll Say It. They share the theme of figuring out who you really are versus what others think of you. “White Women LOL,” especially, compares favorably to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

 

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: In this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for losses, and leave a legacy. These 10 quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture.

 

 

Poetry:

*Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, and I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness, and irony – yet a flame of faith remains. There is really interesting phrasing and vocabulary in this volume.

 

 

Nonfiction:

Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho: Cho experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She alternates between her time in the mental hospital and her life before the breakdown, weaving in family history and Korean sayings and legends. It’s a painstakingly vivid account.

 

*The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: DNA tests can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.

 

*Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor by Stephen Fabes: Fabes is an emergency room doctor in London and spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents. This warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of his travels achieves a perfect balance between world events, everyday discomforts, and humanitarian volunteering.

 

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: Nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, but Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming in lots of information yet never losing sight of the big picture.

 

*Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb: Jewish grandmothers are renowned for their fiercely protective love, but also for nagging. Both sides of the stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny, heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother. A real delight.

 

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is a leader in the UK’s youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year and the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.

 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: Trethewey grew up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, then moved with her mother to Atlanta. Her stepfather was abusive; her mother’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to their Memorial Drive apartment after 30 years had passed. A striking memoir, delicate and painful.

 

(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)

 

Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.

A Look Back at 2020’s Reading Projects, Including Rereads

Major bookish initiatives:

  • Coordinated a Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour to celebrate 2019’s health-themed books – in case you missed it, the winner was Sinéad Gleeson for Constellations.
  • Co-hosted Novellas in November with Cathy (746 Books).
  • Hosted Library Checkout each month.

Reading challenges joined:

  • 12 blog tours
  • Six Degrees of Separation: I started participating in February and did nine posts this year
  • Paul Auster Reading Week
  • Reading Ireland month
  • Japanese Literature Challenge
  • 1920 Club
  • 20 Books of Summer
  • Women in Translation Month
  • Robertson Davies Weekend
  • Women’s Prize winners (#ReadingWomen)
  • 1956 Club
  • R.I.P.
  • Nonfiction November
  • Margaret Atwood Reading Month

This works out to one blog tour, one reading project, and one regular meme per month – manageable. I’ll probably cut back on blog tours next year, though; unless for a new release I’m really very excited about, they’re often not worth it.

Buddy reads:

  • Crossing to Safety with Laila (Big Reading Life)
  • 6 Carol Shields novels plus The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, Deerbrook, and How to Be Both with Marcie (Buried in Print)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Idea of Perfection with Laura T.
  • Mother’s Milk with Annabel
  • 666 Charing Cross Road with Liz

Self-set reading challenges:

  • Seasonal reading
  • Classic of the Month (14 in total; it’s only thanks to Novellas in November that I averaged more than one a month)
  • Doorstopper of the Month (just 3; I’d like to try to get closer to monthly in 2021)
  • Wainwright Prize longlist reading
  • Bellwether Prize winners (read 2, DNFed 1)
  • Short stories in September (8 collections)
  • Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist reading
  • Thematic roundups – I’m now calling these “Three on a Theme” and have done 2 so far
  • Journey through the Day with Books (3 new reviews this year):
    • Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
    • Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
    • [Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth – DNF]
    • [Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer – DNF]
    • Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – existing review
    • The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński – read part of
    • Eventide by Kent Haruf
    • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – existing review
    • Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg – existing review
    • When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
    • Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
    • Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
    • Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – existing review
    • Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
    • The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
    • Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch – read but not reviewed
    • Silence by Shūsaku Endō
    • Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – read part of
  • The Four in a Row Challenge – I failed miserably with this one. I started an M set but got bogged down in Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (also a bibliotherapy self-prescription for Loneliness from The Novel Cure), which I had as a bedside book for much of the year, so only managed 1.5 out of 4; I also started an H quartet but set both Tinkers and Plainsong aside. Meanwhile, Debbie joined in and completed her own 4 in a Row. Well done! I like how simple this challenge is, so I’m going to use it next year as an excuse to read more from my shelves – but I’ll be more flexible and allow lots of substitutions in case I stall with one of the four books.

Rereading

At the end of 2019, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’d been meaning to reread. I kept adding options over the year, so although I managed a respectable 16 rereads in 2020, the shelf is still overflowing!

Many of my rereads have featured on the blog over the year, but here are two more I didn’t review at the time. Both were book club selections inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. (We held a rally and silent protest in a park in the town centre in June.)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Remember when there was a U.S. president who thought deeply, searched his soul, and wrote eloquently? I first read this memoir in 2006, when Obama was an up-and-coming Democratic politician who’d given a rousing convention speech. I remembered no details, just the general sweep of Hawaii to Chicago to Kenya. On this reread I engaged most with the first third, in which he remembers a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives pen portraits of his white mother and absentee Kenyan father, and works out what it means to be black and Christian in America. By age 12, he’d stopped advertising his mother’s race, not wanting to ingratiate himself with white people. By contrast, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” The long middle section on community organizing in Chicago nearly did me in; I had to skim past it to get to his trip to Kenya to meet his paternal relatives – “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land”. then/ now

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This Wellcome Book Prize winner about the use of a poor African-American woman’s cells in medical research was one of the first books to turn me onto health-themed reads. I devoured it in a few days in 2010. Once again, I was impressed at the balance between popular science and social history. Skloot conveys the basics of cell biology in a way accessible to laypeople, and uses recreated scenes and dialogue very effectively. I had forgotten the sobering details of the Lacks family experience, including incest, abuse, and STDs. Henrietta had a rural Virginia upbringing and had a child by her first cousin at age 14. At 31 she would be dead of cervical cancer, but the tissue taken from her at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital became an immortal cell line. HeLa is still commonly used in medical experimentation. Consent was a major talking point at our book club Zoom meeting. Cells, once outside a body, cannot be owned, but it looks like exploitation that Henrietta’s descendants are so limited by their race and poverty. I had forgotten how Skloot’s relationship and travels with Henrietta’s unstable daughter, Deborah, takes over the book (as in the film). While I felt a little uncomfortable with how various family members are portrayed as unhinged, I still thought this was a great read. then / now


I had some surprising rereading DNFs. These were once favorites of mine, but for some reason I wasn’t able to recapture the magic: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I attempted a second read of John Fowles’s postmodern Victorian pastiche, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, on a mini-break in Lyme Regis, happily reading the first third on location, but I couldn’t make myself finish once we were back home. And A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was very disappointing a second time; it hasn’t aged well. Lastly, I’ve been stalled in Watership Down for a long time, but do intend to finish my reread.

In general, voice- and style-heavy fiction did not work so well for me on rereading. Autobiographical essays by Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas worked best, but I also succeeded at rereading some straightforward novels and short stories. Next year, I’d like to aim for a similar number of rereads, with a mixture of memoirs and fiction, including at least one novel by David Lodge. I’d also be interested in rereading earlier books by Ned Beauman and Curtis Sittenfeld if I can find them cheap secondhand.

What reading projects did you participate in this year?

Done much rereading lately?

My Year in Nonfiction (Thus Far)

If your household is anything like mine, stressful days and nights of lost sleep are ceding to relief after the U.S. election result was finally announced. We celebrated with whoopie pies (a Pennsylvania specialty) and Prosecco.

And look: I happened to pass 270 yesterday as well!

I’d taken part in the Six Degrees of Separation meme every month since February, but this time I had no inspiration. I was going to start with these two apple covers…

…but that’s as far as I got. Never mind! I’ll be back next month, when we all start with the YA classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.


Instead, I’m catching up with this past week’s Nonfiction November prompt: Your Year in Nonfiction. It was hosted by Leann of Shelf Aware.

What topics have been prominent in your year’s nonfiction reading?

I’ve read a lot of nature and popular science, probably more than in an average year. Greenery by Tim Dee has been an overall highlight. I managed to read 12 books from the Wainwright Prize longlists, and I’m currently reading four books of nature-themed essays or journals. Thoughtful as well as consoling.

The popular science material has focused on environmentalism and current events, which has inevitably involved politics and long-term planning (Annabel called this category “The State We’re In”): e.g. Losing Eden, Footprints, The Good Ancestor, and Notes from an Apocalypse.

Thanks to the food and drink theme I set for my 20 Books of Summer, I read a number of foodie memoirs. The best one was Heat by Bill Buford, but I also really enjoyed Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.

Since the Wellcome Book Prize didn’t run this year, I’ve read fewer health-related books, although I did specially read Not the Wellcome Prize shortlistee The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman, and Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, has been one of my overall best nonfiction reads of the year.

Not very well represented in my nonfiction reading this year were biographies and travel books. I can struggle with the depth and dryness of some books from these genres, but I’d like to find some readable options to get stuck into next year.

 

What are your favorite nonfiction books you’ve read so far?

I’m a huge memoir junkie. Some of the most memorable ones this year have been Winter Journal by Paul Auster, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott (a reread), and A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (another reread).

An incidental theme in the life writing I’ve read in 2020 is childhood (Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively, Period Piece by Gwen Raverat); I hope to continue reading around this topic next year.

 

What books have you recommended the most to others?

I’ve mentioned the Clarke (above) in any discussions of books about illness and death.

I recommended the memoir Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain more than once following Reading Ireland Month.

Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake’s enthusiastic book about fungi, is one I can imagine suggesting to readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction.

And Signs of Life by Dr. Stephen Fabes has generated a fair bit of interest among my Goodreads friends.


Besides Annabel, Kate and Liz also wrote about their 2020 nonfiction reading habits.

How has your nonfiction reading been going this year?

Wellcome Book Prize: Shortlist Recap

Tomorrow morning we will announce our Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shadow panel winner. Beforehand I wanted to do a quick recap of my reviews, especially for the two books that I read before the shortlist announcement. My full reviews are here:

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo 

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell 

Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing  

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman 

 

I give some extra thoughts on and favorite quotes from the other two below:

 

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

This is a great blend of medical history and popular science that should draw in readers who wouldn’t normally gravitate to either topic – provided they aren’t too squeamish. Fitzharris has recently returned to Oxford as a visiting academic, and this has also been nominated for the Wolfson History Prize. Follow her on Instagram (@drlindseyfitzharris) for a steady stream of gruesomely fascinating photos (I wish The Butchering Art had been illustrated!). Her next book will be much of a muchness, it seems, documenting the early years of plastic surgery after World War I through the story of pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies. 


In the days before Joseph Lister…

“Operating theaters were gateways to death. It was safer to have an operation at  home than in a hospital, where mortality rates were three to five times higher than they were in domestic settings.”

“The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual labourer who used his hands to make his living, much like a key cutter or plumber today.”

See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:

Annabel’s review: “[A]n extremely readable account of a ground-breaking career which led to real advances in hospital medicine. I enjoyed the whole, but particularly the grisly bits!”

Laura’s review: “It’s easy for me to feel a bit impatient with popular histories of periods or subjects that I know well, but Fitzharris strikes exactly the right note, writing clearly and accessibly with no dumbing down.”

Paul’s review: “It is one of the better books that I have read on medical history[;] Fitzharris writes in an engaging way on a subject that is not going to appeal to everyone, but in amongst all the blood is the fascinating story of Joseph Lister.”

 

With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix

“It’s time to talk about dying. This is my way of promoting the conversation,” Mannix writes in her introduction to this accessible and reassuring book about death. She believes we are afraid of death because of our misconception that it is inevitably painful and undignified. In her decades of working in hospice care, this has rarely been the case. (Thank goodness that, compared to the earlier nineteenth-century situation Fitzharris surveys, we have reliable pain control options.) Mannix sees the role of the hospice worker as being like a midwife for the dying, a helpful idea I first encountered in Henry Fersko-Weiss’s Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death


Many of the stories in this book are of peaceful deaths the patient and family had time to prepare for. Others are sad stories of denial. One, though, is quite gruesome, yet magnificently described. Alex, a young man with testicular teratoma, has a massive GI bleed:

“Alex’s head is thrown back, almost as though it is a voluntary movement. A huge, dark-red python slithers rapidly out of his mouth, pushing his head backwards as it coils itself onto the pillow beside him; the python is wet and gleaming and begins to stain the pillowcase and sheets with its red essence as Alex takes one snoring breath, and then stops breathing. His mother screams as he realises that the python is Alex’s blood. Probably all of his blood.”

See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:

Annabel’s review: “[I]t is helping patients, and their families and loved ones, to understand the process of dying, and dispelling the taboos around it that make this book such a valuable and compelling read. I wish I’d read something like this book before my mum died.”

Clare’s review: “For me, this enlightening book is a strong potential winner for the Wellcome Book Prize and I hope it brings comfort and guidance for those who need it.”

Laura’s review: “[The book is] written from her own experiences as a specialist in palliative care, and this proved, for me, both its strength and its downfall. … Mannix writes particularly well on the characteristic patterns of somebody who is entering a gradual decline.”

Paul’s review: “Can highly recommend this moving book and I think it should be essential reading for anyone who has any concerns about death.”

 


I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see either of these win the Wellcome Book Prize on Monday. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s shadow panel winner announcement, and Sunday’s write-up of a shortlist event I’m attending in London.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes

Ed Yong is a London-based science writer for The Atlantic and is part of National Geographic’s blogging network. I had trouble believing that I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life is his first book; it’s so fluent and engaging that it immediately draws you into the microbial world and keeps you marveling at its strange yet fascinating workings. Yong writes like a journalist rather than a scientist, and that’s a good thing: with an eye to the average reader, he uses a variety of examples and metaphors, intersperses personal anecdotes of visiting researchers at their labs or in the field, and is careful to recap important facts in a lucid way.

The book opens with a visit to San Diego Zoo (see the exclusive extract following my review), where we meet Baba the pangolin. But “Baba is not just a pangolin. He is also a teeming mass of microbes,” Yong explains. “Some of them live inside him, mostly in his gut. Others live on the surface of his face, belly, paws, claws, and scales.” Believe it or not, but we are roughly half and half human cells and microbial cells, making each of us – like all creatures – more of an ecosystem (another term is “holobiont”) than a single entity.

Microbes vary between species but also within species, so each individual’s microbiome in some ways reflects a unique mixture of genes and experiences. This is why people’s underarms smell subtly different, and how hyenas use their scent glands to convey messages. The microbiome may well be tailored to different creatures’ functions, so researchers at San Diego Zoo are testing swabs from their animals to see if there could be discernible signatures for burrowing or flying activities, or for disease. I was struck by the breadth of species considered here: not just mammals, but also invertebrates like beetles, cicadas, and squid – my entomologist husband would surely be proud. The “Us” in the subtitle is thus used very inclusively to speak of the way that microbes live in symbiosis with all living things.

I love the textured dust jacket too.

If I were to boil down Yong’s book to one message, it’s that microbes are not simply “bad” or “good” but have different roles depending on the context and the host. You can hardly dismiss all bacteria as germs that must be eradicated when there are thousands of benign species in your gut (versus fewer than 100 kinds that cause infectious diseases). If it weren’t for the microbes passed on to us at birth, we wouldn’t be able to digest the complex sugars in our mothers’ milk. Other creatures rely on bacteria to help them develop to adulthood, like the tube worms that thrive on Navy ship hulls at Pearl Harbor.

Yet Yong feels too little attention is given to beneficial microbes, and in many cases we continue the campaign to rid ourselves of them through overuse of antibiotics and taking cleanliness to unhelpful extremes. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that’s hostile to the ones we need,” he asserts.

The book is full of lines like that one that combine a nice turn of phrase and a clever literary allusion. In the title alone, after all, you have references to Walt Whitman (“I contain multitudes” is from his “Song of Myself”) and Charles Darwin (“there is grandeur in this view of life” is part of the closing sentence in his On the Origin of Species). Yong also sets up helpful analogies, comparing the immune system to a thermostat and antibiotics to “shock-and-awe weapons … like nuking a city to deal with a rat.”

History and future are also brought together very effectively, with the narrative looking backwards to Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope work and Pasteur and Koch’s germ theory, but also forwards to the prospects that current research into microbes might enable: eliminating elephantiasis, protecting frogs from deadly fungi via probiotics in the soil, fecal microbiota transplants to cure C. diff infections, and so on.

The possibilities seem endless, and this is a book that will keep you shaking your head in amazement. I’d liken Yong’s style to David Quammen’s or Rebecca Skloot’s. His clear and intriguing science writing succeeds in inspiring wonder at the natural world and at the bodies that carry us through it.

With thanks to Joe Pickering at The Bodley Head for the review copy.

My rating:


 

An exclusive extract from “PROLOGUE: A TRIP TO THE ZOO”

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

(The Bodley Head)

All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome.1 They live on our surface, inside our bodies, and sometimes inside our very cells. The vast majority of them are bacteria, but there are also other tiny organisms including fungi (such as yeasts) and archaea, a mysterious group that we will meet again later. There are viruses too, in unfathomable numbers – a virome that infects all the other microbes and occasionally the host’s cells. We can’t see any of these minuscule specks. But if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps be detectable as a ghostly microbial shimmer, outlining a now-vanished animal core.2

In some cases, the missing cells would barely be noticeable. Sponges are among the simplest of animals, with static bodies never more than a few cells thick, and they are also home to a thriving microbiome.3 Sometimes, if you look at a sponge under a microscope, you will barely be able to see the animal for the microbes that cover it. The even simpler placozoans are little more than oozing mats of cells; they look like amoebae but they are animals like us, and they also have microbial partners. Ants live in colonies that can number in their millions, but every single ant is a colony unto itself. A polar bear, trundling solo through the Arctic, with nothing but ice in all directions, is completely surrounded. Bar-headed geese carry microbes over the Himalayas, while elephant seals take them into the deepest oceans. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, they were also taking giant steps for microbe-kind.

When Orson Welles said ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right’– a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

 

Footnotes

  1. In this book, I use the terms ‘microbiota’ and ‘microbiome’ interchangeably. Some scientists will argue that microbiota means the organisms themselves, while microbiome refers to their collective genes. But one of the very first uses of microbiome, back in 1988, used the term to talk about a group of microbes living in a given place. That definition persists today – it emphasises the ‘biome’ bit, which refers to a community, rather than the ‘ome’ best, which refers to the world of genomes.
  2. This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
  3. Sponges: Thacker and Freeman, 2012; placozoans: personal communication from Nicole Dubilier and Margaret McFall-Ngai.

 

My gut feeling: This book is a fine example of popular science writing, and has much to teach us about the everyday workings of our bodies. It’s one of my three favorites from the shortlist.

See also: Paul’s review at Nudge

Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.

 


I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

And if you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.