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
- 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.
- 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.
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”.
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 10 Favorite Books from the Past Decade
I make no claims to objectivity here. These are simply 10 books that stand out to me from the past decade. I narrowed the list down from about 25 titles, trying not to agonize over it for too long. I’m pleased that it happens to be half female, with two POC and one work in translation. (Could be more diverse, but not too bad.)
You can see the seeds of my interest in memoirs and medical books, and the variety of fiction I love, from absurdist comedy (Auslander) to Greek-level tragedy (Vann).
In alphabetical order by author surname:
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (English translation, 2010)
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
Want Not by Jonathan Miles (2013)
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Caribou Island by David Vann (2010)
These selections skew early in the decade; 2010‒13 happened to be particularly memorable reading years for me. All of these are books I would like to reread, sooner rather than later.
(Five of these are repeated from the list of favorite books I drew up for my 35th birthday.)
Do we overlap on any favorites?
Which books of the 2010s were standouts for you?
Choose the Year Book Tag: 2010
Thanks to a couple of Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that has also been going around on BookTube. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try?
Goodreads lists the 200 most popular books of any given year. Skim through and see how many you’ve read from the list and discuss whichever ones you like. (I chose not to answer the last two questions of this prompt but have included them at the bottom of the post.)
- Choose a year and say why.
I browsed a few of the years and found that 2010 contained 12 books that I’ve read, including some that stood out to me for various reasons. For instance, two of them marked the start of my interest in medical-themed reading. I also think of 2010 as when my reading went into ‘mega’ mode, i.e. approaching 200 books per year. (Now it’s more like 320 a year.)
- Which books published in that year have you read [or if none, heard of]?
Because the list is based on the number of times a book has been added to users’ shelves (though not necessarily read and rated) on Goodreads, there is a LOT of YA and series fiction, e.g. Mockingjay at #1. Other notable inclusions: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo and Orange Is the New Black before that really took off.
Read at the time:
Gimmicky child narrator, but thoroughly readable: Room by Emma Donoghue (#4)
Medical masterpieces: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (#6) and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (#45)
Postmodern, angsty pop culture-filled delights: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (#31) and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (#37). I wonder if they’ve stood the test of time?
Vintage Bryson in curiosity-indulging mode: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (#69)
Not his usual sort of thing, but my introduction to him and a damn fine work of historical fiction: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (#112)
Not my usual sort of thing (sappiness + magic realism), but I read it at a festival and it passed the time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (#116)
Part of my progressive Christian education, but not a great example; not memorable in the least: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt (#138)
A joy of a linked short story collection set among expat journalists in Rome; this author hasn’t disappointed me since: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (#156)
Who knew typesetting could be so fascinating?! Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield (#178)
Read later on:
A brilliant WWII novel, truly among the best of the best: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (#93)
A DNF: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (#73) was way too involved for my level of interest.
- Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting, and would you read them now?
On the TBR:
#50 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
#75 The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
#124 Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
#152 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
None of these are priorities, but I’d still read them if a copy came my way.
[4. Most obscure-sounding book
5. Strangest book cover]
Do you remember any of these 2010 releases with fondness? Which other ones from the list should I read?
Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks (2010)
“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.
Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.
When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”
The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.
Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Wellcome Book Prize 2010
Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks
Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.
Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.
See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.
Final Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist Review: The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman
I had hoped this would be a comparable read to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, which are two of my absolute favorite books and were also among the first to turn me on to medical-themed literature. Instead, I found myself skimming through the book’s dense scientific and historical information: like Mukherjee’s other book, The Gene, which made last year’s Wellcome shortlist, The Vaccine Race is overstuffed with a mixture of the familiar (for me, at least – genetics), the seemingly irrelevant (cell culture techniques and scientific nomenclature), and the truly interesting (questions of medical ethics).
The unlikely protagonist of this story is Leonard Hayflick, a single-minded and resourceful researcher who is still alive in his late eighties and assented to dozens of interviews and many more e-mails as Wadman put this book together. While in high school Hayflick made a chemistry lab in his basement, and in college he built his father a dental lab: that tells you how driven he was. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at the Wistar Institute on its campus. He chiefly investigated whether viruses cause cancer and whether a cell line will be immortal or subject to the normal rules of aging – the Hayflick limit, named after him, is the number of cell divisions possible before a cell line dies out.
Hayflick experimented on his third child’s placenta, but also on aborted fetuses from the university hospital. Replacement fetal cell lines sourced from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden were used to produce the polio, rubella and rabies vaccines. In particular, he relied on the WI-38 line he developed from fetal cells taken from the Swedish “Mrs. X,” who – like Henrietta Lacks’s family – was never compensated; she did not want to be interviewed for or mentioned by name in this book. In the 1970s, with Roe v. Wade in the pipeline, the controversy over using aborted fetal tissue in research heated up*, and Hayflick was somewhat disgraced in the course of a 1976 lawsuit about his right to profit from WI-38.
But that’s not the only dubious ethical situation associated with the development of the twentieth century’s major vaccines: Hayflick’s bosses and associates had also tested early vaccines on intellectually disabled child “volunteers,” while a celebrated cancer researcher had injected cells into dying hospital patients and healthy prisoners in the name of science. Wadman writes, “by the mid-1960s, ordinary people were becoming less willing to give scientists carte blanche to tinker with human beings on a ‘Trust me, I know what’s best for you’ basis.” The question is whether these morally suspect strategies were worth it, given the alternative: rubella in pregnancy causes severe birth defects including blindness, while polio can be crippling and untreated rabies can lead to a slow and painful death.
These ethical questions are certainly worth thinking about, though the abortion history in particular is probably of much more interest to American readers. Here in Europe, abortion is a non-issue, so I don’t expect anyone to get fired up about the history of fetal tissue research. Wadman is certainly a thorough researcher and capable storyteller who doesn’t talk down when explaining science. That said, she might have scaled back on the science a bit to ensure that her work holds broader appeal for lay readers of popular science and medical history.
*More recently, Debi Vinnedge’s Children of God for Life nonprofit has opposed stem cell research despite a Vatican ruling that vaccines developed from fetal tissue are acceptable to use as long as there is no alternative.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s blog tour review: “The thrillerish feel to big pharma’s politics, and Hayflick’s continual battles for recognition and against anyone who wanted to take his cells away from him made for fascinating reading and added the much-needed human aspect.”
Clare’s review: “The Vaccine Race is a very dense read and some of the lengthier descriptions of things like the finer points of the biotechnology industry went a bit over my head in places. … However, the ethical debates are fascinating and clearly presented.”
Laura’s review: “Wadman writes clearly and compellingly, and given how much material she’s handling, managing to structure the book sensibly is a feat in itself. But I felt that The Vaccine Race was often not one thing or the other.”
Paul’s review: “It is a very important story that Wadman is telling … especially given that we may well be on the dawn of a new era in medicine with the rise of immunity against antibiotics.”
(Also, be sure to stop by Paul’s site today for an exclusive extract from The Vaccine Race as part of the ongoing blog tour.)
My gut feeling: This is the most science-y of the six books on the shortlist. For me that actually works against the broadness and public-facing nature of the prize, as expressed in its brief: “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.”
- Tomorrow I’ll quickly recap my thoughts about the two shortlisted books I read before the shortlist announcement, With the End in Mind and The Butchering Art.
- On Saturday morning I’ll announce our shadow panel winner. That day Clare and I are attending an event featuring five of the shortlisted authors in conversation at the Wellcome Collection in London. I’ll report back about it on Sunday.
- Monday is the awards ceremony, which I’ll be attending for the second year in a row. Expect my write-up of the experience on Tuesday. (In between you get a break from Wellcome Prize stuff with Library Checkout plus some recommendations for May!)
Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
“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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
- 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.
Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 3: The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, where his lab specializes in stem cells and blood cancers. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is among my most memorable reads of the past decade. Along with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was one of the first books to turn me on to health-themed reading.
So it was a disappointment to find that I could never really engage with his second full-length work, The Gene: An Intimate History. There’s no denying this book’s impressive scope: it’s a comprehensive survey of the past 150 years of genetics research, but it also stretches back to antiquity to see the different ways people have imagined that heredity works. It’s a no-holds-barred science and social history text, both chronological and thematic in approach, and it also surprises with its breadth of literary reference (as in the epigraphs from 1Q84 and The Importance of Being Earnest). However, my favorite snippets were those that constitute a mini family memoir of the schizophrenia that runs through the author’s India-based family.
Part of the problem was that a lot of the early material concerning Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin is very familiar to me. High school genetics material has stayed fresh in my mind even though so many other subjects have faded, and I’ve done a lot of reading on Darwin for my Victorian Literature MA and on my own time. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, then provides a segue into the dark side of genetics: eugenics. A lot of space is given to Nazism, but Mukherjee also hits closer to home with the case of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” woman whose enforced sterilization the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1927.
Other important figures in the history of genetics include Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, Hermann Muller, Oswald Avery, Linus Pauling, and the famous English team that discovered the structure of DNA, Watson, Crick & Franklin. Parts Three and Four, which chronicle the advances in genetics that fell between the 1970s and early 2000s, struck me as particularly dull, whereas Part Five held my interest much more strongly in that it brings things up to date with the developments of the last 15 years, including epigenetics, genetic testing for breast cancer and schizophrenia, stem cell therapy and the search for a “gay gene.”
The book did leave me with a strong sense that our knowledge of genes – the least divisible unit of information about life – affects our understanding of the human identity and future:
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, we are learning to speak yet another language of cause and effect, and constructing a new epidemiology of self: we are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences—and, ultimately, fate and choice—in terms of genes and genomes. This is not to make the absurd claim that genes are the only lenses through which fundamental aspects of our nature and destiny can be viewed. But it is to propose and to give serious consideration to one of the most provocative ideas about our history and future: that the influence of genes on our lives and beings is richer, deeper, and more unnerving than we had imagined. This idea becomes even more provocative and destabilizing as we learn to interpret, alter, and manipulate the genome intentionally, thereby acquiring the ability to alter future fates and choices.
However, at nearly 500 very dense, small-print pages, this book will, I fear, struggle to find a broad readership. Is it for science majors and graduate students? They’re likely to have their own university-approved textbooks. Is it an introduction for the general layman? Without a keen interest in science and a determination to learn the last word about genetics, readers are unlikely to persist with such a tome. I have a greater than average interest in genetic diseases, yet couldn’t manage more than a desultory skim. Unlike The Emperor of All Maladies, I can’t see this becoming a modern classic of popular science writing. For me it’s this year’s Citizen Kane: an achievement I can objectively admire but not personally warm to.
My gut feeling: This was also shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize. I think it was better suited to that prize’s aims than to the Wellcome Prize’s. Keeping in mind that “the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics [birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity],” I unfortunately can’t see Mukherjee having the necessary universal appeal.
Paul’s at Nudge; he’s also on the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour for this title on Wednesday.
Shortlist strategy: I’m reviewing Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes for the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour on Friday. The last hurdle is David France’s How to Survive a Plague, another doorstopper I’m having to skim to get through. I plan to review it here on Saturday and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.
More Books about Cats
Back in April I reviewed five books about cats, several of which proved to be a mite disappointing. I’m happy to report that in the meantime I have searched high and low and found some great books about cats that I would not hesitate to recommend to readers with even the slightest interest in our feline friends. I’ve got a book of trivia, a set of heart-warming autobiographical anecdotes, two books of poems, a sweet memoir, and – best of all – a wide-ranging new book that combines the science and cultural history of the domestic cat.
Fifty Nifty Cat Facts by J.M. Chapman and S.M. Davis
This one’s geared towards children, but I enjoyed the format: each page pairs a cute cat photo with a piece of trivia you might or might not have known. I learned a few neat things:
- a cat’s internal temperature is higher than ours (more like 101.5° F)
- cats have no sweet taste buds and have a dominant paw
- all calicos are female (orange spots being an X-linked genetic trait)
- cats could actually drink seawater – their kidneys are effective enough to process the salt
- people who say they are allergic to cat fur are actually allergic to a protein in the saliva they use to wash themselves!
Cat Stories by James Herriot
When I was a child my mother and I loved Herriot’s memoirs of life as a primarily large-animal veterinarian in Yorkshire. One story from this volume – the final, Christmas-themed one – is familiar from a picture book we brought out around the holidays. The rest are all drawn from the memoirs, though, so the fact that I don’t remember them must be a function of time; it could be as many as 22 years since I last picked up a Herriot book! In any case, these are charming tales about gentle medical mysteries and even the most aloof of stray cats becoming devoted pets. I especially liked “Alfred: The Sweet-Shop Cat” and “Oscar: The Socialite Cat,” about two endearing creatures known around the village. I also appreciated Herriot’s observation that “cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” With cute watercolor illustrations, this little book would make a great gift for any cat lover.
I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano
Cat owners must own a copy for the coffee table. That’s just not negotiable. You will recognize so many of the behaviors and attitudes mentioned here. This is a humor book rather than a poetry collection, so the quality of the poems (all from the point-of-view of a cat) is kind of neither here nor there. Even so, Chapter 1 is a lot better than the other three and contains most of the purely hilarious verses, like “I Lick Your Nose” and “Closed Door.” Favorite lines included “I trip you when you walk down the stairs / So you know I’m always near” and “I said I could sit on your lap forever / Don’t you even think of trying to get up / Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand”. “Sushi” is a perfect haiku with a kicker of a last line: “Did you really think / That you could hide fish in rice? / Oh, the green paste burns!”
Well-Versed Cats by Lance Percival
A cute set of poems, most of them describing different breeds of domestic cats and a few of the big cats. There are a lot of puns and jokes along with the end rhymes, making these akin to limericks in tone if not in form. My favorite was “Skimpy the Stray?” – about a wily cat who wanders the neighborhood eliciting sympathetic snacks from various cat lovers. “The routine still goes on, so I mustn’t be too catty, / But she ought to change her name from ‘Skimpy’ into ‘Fatty’.” Our cat had a habit of stealing neighbor kitties’ food and a history of “going visiting,” as the shelter we adopted him from put it, so this particular poem rang all too true. The illustrations (by Lalla Ward, wife of Richard Dawkins) are also great fun.
Raining Cats and Donkeys by Doreen Tovey
Originally from 1967, this lighthearted memoir tells of Tovey’s life in a Somerset village with her husband Charles, two demanding Siamese cats named Solomon and Sheba, and Annabel the donkey. “Nobody misses anything in our village,” Tovey remarks, and along with her charming anecdotes about her pets there are plenty of amusing encounters with the human locals too. In my favorite chapter, Annabel is taken off to mate with a Shetland pony and Solomon has a tussle with a hare. I can recommend this to fans of animal books by Gerald Durrell and Jon Katz. Tovey wrote a whole series of books about her various Siamese cats and life in a 250-year-old cottage. I found a copy of Cats in the Belfry on my visit to Cambridge and will probably read it over Christmas for a cozy treat.
The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker
Now this is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for! It’s a fascinating interdisciplinary look at how the domestic cat has taken over the world – both literally and figuratively. A writer for Smithsonian magazine, Tucker writes engaging, accessible popular science. The closest comparison I can make, style-wise, is to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even though that has much heavier subject matter.
The book traces domestic cat evolution from the big cats of the La Brea tar pits to the modern day, explaining why cats are only built to eat flesh and retain the hunting instinct even though they rarely have to look further than their designated bowls for food nowadays. Alongside the science, though, is plenty of cultural history. You’ll learn about how cats have been an invasive species in many sensitive environments, and about the bizarre, Halloween-scary story of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. You’ll meet the tender hearts who volunteer for trap, neuter and release campaigns to cut down on the euthanizing of strays at shelters; the enthusiasts who breed unusual varieties of cats and groom them for shows; and the oddballs who buy into the $58 billion pet industry’s novelty accessories.
From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker – a cat lady herself, as frequent mentions of her ginger tom Cheeto attest – marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. A must for cat lovers for sure, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this all-embracing book pretty enthralling.
Up next: The Church Cat, an anthology from a recent charity shop haul; The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory, Cat Sense by John Bradshaw, and Talk to the Tail by Tom Cox from the public library.
Whether you consider yourself a cat lover or not, do any of these books appeal?
Review: The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig
The development of the birth control pill: this seems like an odd topic for my first book review on the new blog, but I’ll go with it. I have a special love for nonfiction that incorporates many different genres: history, biography, popular science, sociology, and so on. (See my next-to-last paragraph for some other examples of books that do this well.)
This is an epic adventure starring four unlikely heroes: two middle-aged doctors, Gregory Pincus, fired by Harvard, and John Rock, a Catholic; and two older ladies, Margaret Sanger, who left her first husband and family and grew increasingly addicted to alcohol and prescription pills, and Katharine McCormick, whose mentally ill husband died and left her with a huge fortune she dug into the birth control movement.
From testing progesterone on rabbits to the desperate hunt for human test subjects in Puerto Rico and in a Massachusetts mental hospital, it is a tale full of surprises. When first presented to American doctors and the FDA, the contraceptive pill – then known as Enovid – was billed as an infertility drug: It regulated periods to make it more likely that women would then get pregnant after going off it. Pincus et al. conveniently failed to mention that it also prevented ovulation. I never would have expected a Trojan horse story.
Margaret Sanger was given a hero’s welcome on every trip to Japan, but she also had an unfortunate association with the eugenics movement – an inevitable offshoot of concerns about overpopulation? She once said that parents should have to apply for the right to have children just like immigrants have to apply for visas. The best random piece of trivia I came across here was that Prescott S. Bush, father of George and grandfather of Dubya, was the treasurer for Planned Parenthood’s first nationwide fundraising campaign in 1947. You can bet the Bush family has tried to cover that one up!
“Religion is a very poor scientist,” John Rock was known to say. The fight to have the Catholic Church change its position on birth control is an important background narrative in this book. The sexual revolution and the personal decision to contravene Catholic doctrine regarding contraception is also a major component of Quite a Good Time to Be Born, David Lodge’s recent memoir. It’s always fun when similar ideas come up in multiple books at the same time.
Jonathan Eig was previously known for his sports biographies, and there’s plenty of action and narrative here. Like the best science writers (Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, David Quammen in Spillover, Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, or Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Emperor of All Maladies), he tells a story rich with three-dimensional characters.
We have a family legend about a Swiss ancestor who admitted herself to a mental asylum (then euphemistically called a sanatorium) in upstate New York in 1922 rather than have more children. She already had nine kids (one more died in infancy); she was tired and overworked. If this was what it took to keep her husband from making her pregnant again, so be it. She and thousands of housewives like her never could have guessed that one day (in 1960, to be precise) a simple pill could limit their family size. This is what this book is all about: the quest to give women control over their lives.