Plants mirror minds,
Healing, harming powers
Growing green thoughts.
(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)
Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.
The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”
This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)
Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ve reviewed it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)
It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.
This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.
To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)
Today I have a book of poems about the Filipinx experience in the UK, a collection of short stories reflecting on racial injustice, a monograph on a bird that spells summer for many of us, and a biographical investigation into a little-understood medical condition.
Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante
I was drawn to this debut collection by the terrific title and cover, but also by the accolades it received: it was on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Jhalak Prize shortlist. I hope we’ll see it on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, too. Ante grew up in the Philippines but at age 16 joined her mother in the UK, where she had moved years before to work as a nurse in the NHS. She has since followed in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse – indeed, overseas Filipinx workers (Jamaicans, too) are a mainstay of the NHS.
Ante remembers the years when her mother was absent but promised to send for the rest of the family soon: “You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, / you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, / my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.” The medical profession as a family legacy and noble calling is a strong element of these poems, especially in “Invisible Women,” an ode to the “goddesses of caring and tending” who walk the halls of any hospital. Hard work is a matter of survival, and family – whether physically present or not – bolsters weary souls. A series of short, untitled poems are presented as tape recordings made for her mother.
Food is inextricably entwined with memory (reminding me of Nina Mingya Powles’s approach in Tiny Moons) and provides some of the standout metaphors, especially in “Patis” and “Ode to a Pot Noodle.” Ante uses a lot of alliteration and adapts various forms. I especially liked “Tagay!”, a traditional drinking song, and “Mateo,” printed in the shape of a pound sign. The nuanced look at the immigrant experience reminded me of Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Movement entails losses as well as benefits. The focus on the Filipinx experience also made me think of America Is Not the Heart. My favourite single poem was “The Making of a Smuggler,” which opens “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us – // our rice terraces are folded garments, / we have pillars of trees, a rainforest // on a hairbrush.”
“Gone are the nights he steals / the moon with a mango picker / and swaps it for her pocket mirror”
“The yellow admission papers in my hands escaped / flustering at my face into a flight of orioles.”
“I am halved in order to be whole – / I rebuild by leaving / everything I love.”
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
To boil these six stories and a novella down to the topic of race in America risks painting them as solemn or strident – more concerned with meaning than with art – when the truth is that they are playful and propulsive even though they keep cycling back to bereavement and injustice. Several of the protagonists are young Black women coming to terms with a loss.
In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop of a Titanic replica and is cast as an extra in a pop star’s music video. Mythical sea monsters are contrasted with the real dangers of her life, like cancer and racism. “Anything Could Disappear” was a favourite of mine, though it begins with that unlikely scenario of a single woman acquiring a baby as if by magic. What starts off as a burden becomes a bond she can’t bear to let go. A family is determined to clear the name of their falsely imprisoned ancestor in “Alcatraz.” In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” (a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow), photojournalist Rena is wary about attending the wedding of a friend she met when their plane was detained in Africa some years ago. The only wedding she’s been in is her sister’s, which ended badly.
Mistakes and deceit seem to follow these characters. In the title novella that closes the book, Cassie and her colleagues combat fake news, going around putting correction labels on plaques that whitewash history. When she and her former colleague meet up in Wisconsin to find the truth behind a complex correction case, a clash with a white supremacist group quickly turns pedantry into a matter of life and death. The story I’d heard the most about beforehand was “Boys Go to Jupiter,” about a college girl who dons a Confederate flag bikini, not caring what message it sends to others in her dorm. It turns out she has history with a Black family, but has chosen to airbrush this experience out of her life.
There was only one story I didn’t care for, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” about a celebrity who turns apologizing into performance art. Overall, this is a very strong collection I would recommend to readers of Brit Bennett and Raven Leilani, with some stories also reminding me of recent work by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary South. I’ll be sure to seek out Evans’s previous book (also short stories), too.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
The other week I was volunteering at our local community garden and looked up to see a dozen common swifts wheeling over the Kennet & Avon canal and picking off insects among the treetops. I hope this fellow Foster (for whom my husband was once confused on a nature conference attendee list) would be proud of me for pausing to gaze at the birds for a while. My impression of the author is as a misanthropic eccentric. A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, he’s obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves swifts and so many other creatures no place to live.
The obsession began when he was eight years old and someone brought him a dead swift fledgling for his taxidermy hobby. Ever since, he’s dated the summer by their arrival. “It is always summer for them,” though, as his opening line has it. This monograph is structured chronologically. Much like Tim Dee does in Greenery, Foster follows the birds for a year: from their winter territory in Africa to the edges of Europe in spring and then to his very own Oxford street in high summer. When they leave, he’s bereft and ready to book a flight back to Africa.
Along the way, Foster delivers heaps of information: the fossil evidence of swifts, how they know where to migrate (we have various theories but don’t really know), their nesting habits and lifespan, and the typical fates of those individuals that don’t survive. But, thumbing his nose at his “ex-friend” (a closed-minded biologist he repeatedly, and delightfully, rails against), he refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. Acknowledging the risks of anthropomorphizing, he speaks of swifts as symbols of aspiration, of life lived with intensity. He believes that we can understand animal emotions analogously through our own, so that, inappropriate as such words might seem, we can talk about what birds hope and plan for. He scorns reductive ecosystem services lingo that defines creatures by what we get out of them.
Also like Dee, Foster quotes frequently from poetry. His prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and moments of whimsy and made me eager to try more of his work (I know the most about but have not yet read Being a Beast).
Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25, the piping of hornbills better than the Nunc Dimittis of parish Evensong … Are memories of our eaves spiralling high above the Gulf of Guinea? … They don’t seem to prevaricate. One moment they’re there, the next they’re off, diving straight into the journey. It’s the way we should run into cold water.
As I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most casual of readers. Towards the close I was also reminded of Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds: “When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.” It’s comforting to think of natural cycles continuing after we’re gone … but let’s start making the space for them now. Jonathan Pomroy’s black-and-white illustrations of swift behaviour only add to this short book’s charms.
With thanks to Little Toller Books for the free copy for review.
Waiting for Superman: One Family’s Struggle to Survive – and Cure – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Tracie White
Like Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books (most recently, The Sleeping Beauties), this is presented as an investigation into a medical mystery. White, a Stanford Medicine journalist, focuses on one family that has been indelibly changed by chronic fatigue syndrome – now linked with myalgic encephalomyelitis and termed ME/CFS for short. Whitney Dafoe was a world traveller and promising photographer before, in 2010, a diagnosis of ME/CFS explained his exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems. By the time White first met the family in 2016, the thirtysomething was bedbound in his parents’ home with a feeding tube, only able to communicate via gestures and rearranging Scrabble tiles. He couldn’t bear loud noises, or to be touched. At times he was nearly comatose.
Whitney’s father, Ron Davis, is a Stanford geneticist whose research has contributed to the Human Genome Project. He has devoted himself to studying ME/CFS, which affects 20 million people worldwide yet receives little research funding; he calls it “the last major disease we know nothing about.” Testing his son’s blood, he found a problem with the citric acid cycle that produces ATP, essential fuel for the body’s cells – proof that there was a physiological reason for Whitney’s condition. Frustratingly, though, a Stanford colleague who examined Whitney prescribed a psychological intervention. This is in line with the current standard of care for ME/CFS: a graded exercise regime (nigh on impossible for someone who can’t get out of bed) and cognitive behavioural therapy.
White delves into Whitney’s past, looking for clues to what could have triggered his illness (having mono in high school? a parasite he picked up in India?). She also goes back to the mid-1980s to consider the Lake Tahoe outbreak of ME/CFS, whose victims “looked too healthy to be sick and were repeatedly disbelieved.” The media called it “yuppie flu,” downplaying the extreme fatigue involved. White also meets Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who suffers from ME/CFS and managed to write her bestselling books from bed. Like Whitney, she only has a certain allotment of energy and mustn’t use it up too fast.
- A neat connection: Stephanie Land, author of Maid, was Whitney’s ex-girlfriend when he was 19 and living in Alaska; she wrote a Longreads article about their relationship.
- The title is from a Flaming Lips lyric and expresses Whitney’s trust in his dad’s ability to cure him; the U.S. title is The Puzzle Solver and the working title was The Invisible Patient.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.
The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell
After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.
Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.
But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.
Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.
The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”
In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.
This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.
Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
The winner of the 10th anniversary Wellcome Book Prize is Murmur, Will Eaves’s experimental novel about Alan Turing’s state of mind and body after being subjected to chemical castration for homosexuality. It is the third novel to win the Prize. Although it fell in the middle of the pack in our shadow panel voting because of drastically differing opinions, it was a personal favorite for Annabel and myself – though we won’t gloat (much) for predicting it as the winner!
Clare, Laura and I were there for the announcement at the Wellcome Collection in London. It was also lovely to meet Chloe Metzger, another book blogger who was on the blog tour, and to see UK book v/blogging legends Eric Karl Anderson and Simon Savidge again.
The judges’ chair, novelist Elif Shafak, said, “This prize is very special. It opens up new and vital conversations and creates bridges across disciplines.” At a time when we “are pushed into monolithic tribes and artificial categories, these interdisciplinary conversations can take us out of our comfort zones, encouraging cognitive flexibility.” She praised the six shortlisted books for their energy and the wide range of styles and subjects. “Each book, each author, from the beginning, has been treated with the utmost respect,” she reassured the audience, and the judges approached their task with “an open mind and an open heart,” arriving at an “inspiring, thought-provoking, but we believe also accessible, shortlist.”
The judges brought each of the five authors present (all but Thomas Page McBee) onto the stage one at a time for recognition. Shafak admired how Sandeep Jauhar weaves together his professional expertise with stories in Heart, and called Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner a “strangely life-affirming and uplifting book about a remarkable woman. … It’s about transitions.”
Doctor and writer Kevin Fong championed Amateur, his answer to the question “which of these books, if I gave it to someone, would make them better.” McBee’s Canongate editor received the recognition/flowers on the author’s behalf.
Writer and broadcaster Rick Edwards chose Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire for its “pressability factor” – the book about which he kept saying to friends and family, “you must read this.” It’s an “uncomfortably honest” memoir, he remarked, “a vivid and unflinching window, and for me it was revelatory.”
Writer, critic and academic Jon Day spoke up for Murmur, “a novel of great power and astonishing achievement,” about “what it means to know another person.”
Lastly, writer, comedian and presenter Viv Groskop spoke about Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which she described as “Jane Eyre meets Prozac Nation.” The judges “had a lot of fun” with this novel, she noted; it’s “caustic, feminist … original, playful, [and] strangely profound.”
But only one book could win the £30,000 10th anniversary prize, and it was one that Shafak predicted will be “a future classic,” Murmur. Will Eaves thanked Charles Boyle of CB Editions for taking a chance on his work. He also acknowledged Alan Turing, who, like him, attended King’s College, Cambridge. As he read Turing’s papers, Eaves reported, he was gripped by the quality of the writing – “there’s a voice there.” Finally, in a clearly emotional moment, he thanked his mother, who died several years ago and grew up in relative poverty. She was a passionate believer in education, and Eaves encouraged the audience to bear in mind the value of a state education when going to the polls.
After the announcement we found Sarah Krasnostein, our shadow panel winner, and got a photo and a signature. She gave us the scoop on her work-in-progress, which examines six case studies, three from Australia and three from the USA, of people with extreme religious or superstitious beliefs, such as a widow who believes her husband was abducted by aliens. She’s exploring the “cognitive dissonance” that goes on in these situations, she said. Can’t wait for the new book!
I also congratulated Will Eaves, whose book I’d covered for the blog tour, and got a signature. Other ‘celebrities’ spotted: Suzanne O’Sullivan, Ruth Padel and Robin Robertson. (Also a couple of familiar faces from Twitter that I couldn’t place, one of whom I later identified as Katya Taylor.)
I again acquired a Wellcome goody bag: this year’s limited-edition David Shrigley tote (I now have two so will pass one on to Annabel, who couldn’t be there) with an extra copy of The Trauma Cleaner to give to my sister.
Another great year of Wellcome festivities! Thanks to Midas PR, the Wellcome Book Prize and my shadow panel. Looking forward to next year already – I have a growing list of 2020 hopefuls I’ve read or intend to read.
See also: Laura’s post on the ceremony and the 5×15 event that took place the night before.
On Tuesday the longlist for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. For the third year in a row I’m running a shadow panel, and it’s composed of the same four wonderful book bloggers who joined me last year: Paul Cheney of Halfman, Halfbook, Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel, Clare Rowland of A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall.
This year we’re going to do things slightly differently: we plan to split up the longlist, taking two to three titles each, so that between us we will have read them all and can announce our own preferred shortlist before the official shortlist is announced in March. At that point we’ll catch up by (re)reading the six shortlisted books, each reviewing the ones we haven’t already. Essentially, I’m adding an extra stage of shadow panel judging, simply because I can. I hope it will be fun – and also less onerous, in that we should get a leg-up on the shortlist and not have to read all six books in March‒April, which has proved to be a challenge in the past.
My Wellcome Prize hopefuls are all the fiction or nonfiction titles I’ve read on a medical theme that were published in the UK in calendar year 2018. I have put asterisks beside the 12 books in this post that I predict for the longlist. (The combination of wishful thinking and likelihood means that these are not exclusively my personal favorites.)
Below is a list of the books I’ve already featured on the blog in some way, with links to my coverage and a few-word summary of their relevance.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Female body woes
*Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body: Essays on organs
*All that Remains by Sue Black: Forensic anthropology
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler: Living with advanced cancer
Heal Me by Julia Buckley: Tackling chronic pain
*The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Adjusting to life with MS
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty: Funerary rites around the world
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein: A genetic disease in the family
Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich: Questioning the wellness culture
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes: Pondering breast cancer
Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: Instances of bodily change
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman: Healing from an eating disorder
Nine Pints by Rose George: The story of blood
Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death
*Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: Heart disease and treatments
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Chronic Lyme disease
Human Errors by Nathan Lents: Flawed bodies; evolutionary adaptations
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Breast cancer; flying lessons
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee: Memoir of F2M transformation
*Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Tales of facial surgery
*Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell: A firsthand account of early Alzheimer’s
*That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Mental illness from the inside
*The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson: Nursing as a vocation
Little by Edward Carey: Anatomical models in wax (thanks to Clare for the reminder!)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: Non-epileptic seizures
*The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason: Neurology, surgery during WWI
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry: Medicine in 1840s Edinburgh
Other eligible books that I have read but not happened to mention on the blog:
In Shock by Rana Awdish: The doctor became the patient when Awdish, seven months pregnant, was rushed into emergency surgery with excruciating pain due to severe hemorrhaging into the space around her liver, later explained by a ruptured tumor. Having experienced brusque, cursory treatment, even from colleagues at her Detroit-area hospital, she was convinced that doctors needed to do better. This memoir is a gripping story of her own medical journey and a fervent plea for compassion from medical professionals.
Doctor by Andrew Bomback: Part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, this is a wide-ranging look at what it’s like to be a doctor. Bomback is a kidney specialist; his wife is also a doctor, and his father, fast approaching retirement, is the kind of old-fashioned, reassuring pediatrician who knows everything. Even the author’s young daughter likes playing with a stethoscope and deciding what’s wrong with her dolls. In a sense, then, Bomback uses fragments of family memoir to compare the past, present and likely future of medicine.
A Moment of Grace by Patrick Dillon [skimmed]: A touching short memoir of the last year of his wife Nicola Thorold’s life, in which she battled acute myeloid leukemia. Dillon doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties, but is also able to summon up some gratitude.
Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden: British journalist Nick Duerden had severe post-viral fatigue after a run-in with possible avian flu in 2009 and was falsely diagnosed with ME / CFS. He spent a year wholeheartedly investigating alternative therapies, including yoga, massage, mindfulness and meditation, visualization, talk therapy and more. He never comes across as bitter or sorry for himself. Instead, he considered fatigue a fact of his new life and asked what he could do about it. So this ends up being quite a pleasant amble through the options, some of them more bizarre than others.
*Sight by Jessie Greengrass [skimmed]: I wanted to enjoy this, but ended up frustrated. As a set of themes (losing a parent, choosing motherhood, the ways in which medical science has learned to look into human bodies and minds), it’s appealing; as a novel, it’s off-putting. Had this been presented as a set of autobiographical essays, perhaps I would have loved it. But instead it’s in the coy autofiction mold where you know the author has pulled some observations straight from life, gussied up others, and then, in this case, thrown in a bunch of irrelevant medical material dredged up during research at the Wellcome Library.
*Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan: Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and 50 million worldwide, so it’s an important condition to know about. It is fascinating to see the range of behaviors seizures can be associated with. The guesswork is in determining precisely what is going wrong in the brain, and where, as well as how medicines or surgery could address the fault. “There are still far more unknowns than knowns where the brain is concerned,” O’Sullivan writes; “The brain has a mind of its own,” she wryly adds later on. (O’Sullivan won the Prize in 2016 for It’s All in Your Head.)
I’m also currently reading and enjoying two witty medical books, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris, and Chicken Unga Fever by Phil Whitaker, his collected New Statesman columns on being a GP.
Four additional books I have not read but think might have a chance of making the longlist:
Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid
The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences by Daniel M. Davis
Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist by Edward M. Hallowell
*She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
Look out for the announcement of the longlist on Tuesday afternoon! I’ll report back, perhaps on Wednesday, with some reactions and the shadow panel’s reviewing strategy.
Have you read, or are you interested in, any of these books?
Can you think of other 2018 releases that might be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize?
Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
- A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)
- Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)
- Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.
- Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
- References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)
- The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
- Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night … and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This
- Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
- Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
- Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
- Two novels featuring drug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)
- The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
- Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.
Gael Foess, the antiheroine of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut novel, is a trickster. When we first meet her in Dublin in 2002, the 11-year-old is promptly kicked out of school for trying to sell other girls “virginity pills.” As the years pass we see her con her way into a London Business School interview, self-assuredly teach a literature class when her professor doesn’t show up, pretend to be a journalist to get an exclusive interview, and use deception to try to boost the careers of both her mother, Sive (a conductor), and her younger brother, Guthrie (a painter and single dad). In the title metaphor, which refers to an orchid species that lures pollinating wasps, Gael is the seductive flower that gets what it wants. We’re also invited to think of her, with that typically Gael-ic name, as an incarnation of mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn.
The novel spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. The financial crisis temporarily jolts Gael and Guthrie’s father, Jarleth, a high-flying Barclays banker who leaves the family in 2008. The biblical parable of the talents, which he recounted to Gael when she was a little girl, comes back to resonate: It’s a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life. When Gael gets to New York in 2011, she plans to redress the balance in two paradoxical ways: living in the Occupy camp and taking part in protests; and secretly earning her brother a fortune on his modern art. For even while decrying her father’s privilege, she indulges her own love of fine things; even if ironically, she says that she aspires to be in the 1%, too.
With all her contradictions, Gael is an unforgettable character. I also found Guthrie fascinating. It was serendipitous that I read this novel alongside Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm. Guthrie was a mystically religious child and suffered from seizures, which doctors determined weren’t due to epilepsy but to somatic delusions – psychological rather than physiological. The seizures, ironically, became a boon because they inspire his art: “they’re hallowed and each aura is an absolution – a benison – and not just a synaptic blip.”
Hughes is wonderfully adept at voices, bringing secondary characters to life largely through how they speak. I especially warmed to Art, Sive’s boyfriend, who’s a Yorkshireman; and Harper, Gael’s OCD-plagued flatmate from Las Vegas. Even a brief run-in with American officialdom gets the perfect deadpan rendering: “United States Customs has no interest in surprises. Matter of fact, we hate surprises.” The novel often has a frenetic pace – an energy that’s well matched by the virtuosic use of language, with wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from art, music and nature. An orchestra is compared to a flock of starlings; a despondent Sive “began to resemble a bass clef.” The Irish are like radishes: “Pink on the outside, white underneath. Speck of mud on their cheeks.” Harper’s entire upbringing is pithily reduced to an “only-childhood of sprinkler weather, window glare and doughnut glazing.” I also loved this tiny poem of a phrase: “sobbing hampers syntax.”
My only real misgiving about the novel is the ending: After Gael comes back from New York, things sort of fizzle out. I even wondered if the story line could have stopped a chapter earlier. But in a way it makes sense to get no tidy closure for our protagonist. Gael is still only 20 years old at the book’s end, so it’s no surprise that she remains a restless wanderer. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing about her further adventures in a sequel. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut, and this is sure to be one of my novels of the year. It’s a perfect follow-on read from Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, and I’d also recommend it highly to fans of Sweetbitter, The Art of Fielding, The Nix, and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Watch out for it in two weeks’ time.
Orchid & the Wasp will be published by Oneworld in the UK on June 7th. It’s not out in the USA until July 10th (Hogarth). My thanks to Margot Weale for a proof copy for review.
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.
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.
Two of my library reads from this month were about different aspects of mind–body medicine. I expected them to overlap more than they did, actually, and hoped that the second might serve as a sort of well-written rebuttal to the first, but in the end they stayed in different camps: the first is about psychosomatic illness and psychiatric treatment, while the second is about the placebo effect and how alternative and holistic treatment strategies might be complementary to orthodox medical approaches. Both gave me a lot to think about.
It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness
By Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a UK-based neurology consultant. I picked this up on a whim because I knew it had won the Wellcome Book Prize, as well as the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. The conditions she writes about go by many names: psychosomatic illnesses, conversion disorders, or functional conditions. In every case the patients have normal neurological test results – they do not have epilepsy or nerve damage, for instance – but still suffer from seizures or lose the use of limb(s). Their symptoms have an emotional origin instead. Many of her patients are outraged by referral to a psychiatrist, as if they’re being told they’re making it all up, but it’s actually a holistic approach: acknowledging the influence the mind has on how we feel.
Along with cases from her own career, the author writes about early doctors who developed the science of conversion disorders, including Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. I read the book very quickly, almost compulsively; these are fascinating stories for anyone who’s interested in medical mysteries. That’s in spite of the fact that O’Sullivan does not strike me as a natural storyteller: her accounts of patients’ cases are often no more than just one thing after another, and in reports of her own conversations with patients she comes across as robotic and not always very compassionate. Ultimately I believe she does empathize with those with psychosomatic illnesses – otherwise she wouldn’t have written a whole book to illuminate their plight – but it would have taken the writing skill of someone like Atul Gawande for this to be a better book. I’m somewhat surprised it won a major prize.
Note: Chapter 7 tackles CFS/ME/fibromyalgia. These are controversial fatigue disorders, and O’Sullivan is aware that even mentioning them in a book about psychosomatic illnesses is “foolhardy to say the least.” I don’t think what she actually has to say about these conditions is offensive, though (and I say that as someone whose mother struggled with fibromyalgia for years). She allows that there may be physical triggers, but that emotional wellbeing and traumatic experiences or regular stress cannot be overlooked.
Chew on this: “More than seventy per cent of patients with dissociative seizures and chronic fatigue syndrome are women.” The author’s best guess as to why this is? “On the face of it, women turn their distress inward and men turn it outward.”
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body
By Jo Marchant
In this absorbing and well-written work of popular science, Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. On the other hand, she shows how stress and trauma in early life can set (usually poor) people up for ill health in later years. She also travels everywhere from Boston to Lourdes to meet patients and medical practitioners, and even occasionally proffers herself as a guinea pig.
A relentless scientist, Marchant is skeptical of any claims for which there is no hard evidence, so when she acknowledges that there’s something to these unusual treatments, you know you can believe her. As Jeremy Howick of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford puts it, “I think it’s more important to know that something works, than how it works.” I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine. The problem, though, is that most medical trials are funded by big pharmaceutical companies, which won’t be supportive of non-traditional methods or holistic approaches.