I have a big backlog of review books piled beside my composition station (a corner of the lounge by the front window; an ancient PC inherited from my mother-in-law and not connected to the Internet; a wooden chair with leather seat that had been left behind in a previous rental house’s garage). Nonfiction November is the excuse I need to finally get around to writing about lots of them; at least one more catch-up will be coming later this month. My apologies to the publishers for the brief reviews.
Today I have a therapist’s take on classic literature, an optimist’s research on data use, a journalist’s response to her sister’s and father’s deaths, a professor’s search for the remnants of Charles Darwin at his family home, and a bibliophile’s tales of book-collecting exploits.
How to Live. What to Do.: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen
“Literature and psychoanalysis are both efforts to make sense of the world through stories, to discover the recurring problems and patterns and themes of life. Read and listen enough, and we soon come to notice how insistently the same struggles, anxieties and hopes repeat themselves down the ages and across the world.”
This is the premise for Cohen’s work life, and for this book. Moving through the human experience from youth to old age, he examines anonymous case studies and works of literature that speak to the sorts of situations encountered in that stage. For instance, he recommends Alice in Wonderland as a tonic for the feeling of being stuck – Lewis Carroll’s “let’s pretend” attitude can help someone return to the playfulness and openness of childhood. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, set during the Spanish flu, takes on new significance for Cohen in the days of Covid as his appointments all move online; he also takes from it the importance of a mother for providing emotional security. A bibliotherapy theme would normally be catnip for me, but I often found the examples too obvious and the discussion too detailed (and thus involving spoilers). Not a patch on The Novel Cure.
(Ebury Press, February 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future by Sam Gilbert
Gilbert worked for Experian before going back to university to study politics; he is now a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. At a time of much anxiety about “surveillance capitalism,” he seeks to provide reassurance. He explains that Facebook and the like, with their ad-based business models, use profile data and behavioural data to make inferences about you. This is not the same as “listening in,” he is careful to assert. Gilbert contrasts broad targeting and micro-targeting, and runs through trends in search data. He highlights instances where social media and data mining have been beneficial, such as in creating jobs, increasing knowledge, or aiding communication during democratic protests. I have to confess that a lot of this went over my head; I’d overestimated my interest in a full book on technology, having reviewed Born Digital earlier in the year.
(Welbeck, April 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Consequences of Love by Gavanndra Hodge (2020)
In 1989, Hodge’s younger sister Candy died on a family holiday in Tunisia when a rare virus brought on rapid organ failure. The rest of the family exhibited three very different responses to grief: her father retreated into existing addictions, her mother found religion, and she went numb and forgot her sister as much as possible – despite having a photographic memory in general. After her father’s death, Hodge finally found the courage to look back to her early life and the effect of Candy’s death. Hers was no ordinary upbringing; her father was a drug dealer who constantly disappointed her and from her teens on roped her into his substance abuse evenings. Often she was the closest thing to a sober and rational adult in the drug den their home had become. This is a very fluidly written bereavement memoir and a powerful exploration of memory and trauma. It was unfortunate that it felt that little bit too similar to a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years: When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and especially Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.
(Paperback: Penguin, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse
When Piesse’s academic career took her back to her home county of Shropshire, she became fascinated by the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury, The Mount. A Victorian specialist, she threw herself into research on the family and particularly on the traces of the garden. Her thesis is that here, and on long walks through the surrounding countryside, Darwin developed the field methods and careful attention that would serve him well as the naturalist on board the Beagle. Piesse believes the habit of looking closely was shared by Darwin and his mother, Susannah. The author contrasts Susannah’s experience of childrearing with her own – she has two young daughters when she returns to Shropshire, and has to work out a balance between work and motherhood. I noted that Darwin lost his mother early – early parent loss is considered a predictor of high achievement (it links one-third of U.S. presidents, for instance).
I think what Piesse was attempting here was something like Rebecca Mead’s wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, but the links just aren’t strong enough: There aren’t that many remnants of the garden or the Darwins here (all the family artefacts are at Down House in Kent), and Piesse doesn’t even step foot into The Mount itself until page 217. I enjoyed her writing about her domestic life and her desire to create a green space, however small, for her daughters, but this doesn’t connect to the Darwin material. Despite my fondness for Victoriana, I was left asking myself what the point of this project was.
(Scribe, May 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle
From the 1970s to 1990s, Picador released over 1,000 paperback volumes with the same clean white-spined design. Royle has acquired most of them – no matter the author, genre or topic; no worries if he has duplicate copies. To build this impressive collection, he has spent years haunting charity shops and secondhand bookshops in between his teaching and writing commitments. He knows where you can get a good bargain, but he’s also willing to pay a little more for a rarer find. In this meandering memoir-of-sorts, he ponders the art of cover design, delights in ephemera and inscriptions found in his purchases (he groups these together as “inclusions”), investigates some previous owners and the provenance of his signed copies, interviews Picador staff and authors, and muses on the few most ubiquitous titles to be found in charity shops (Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, anything by Kathy Lette, and Last Orders by Graham Swift). And he does actually read some of what he buys, though of course not all, and finds some hidden gems.
In 2013 I read Royle’s First Novel, which also features Picador spines on its cover and a protagonist obsessed with them. I’d read enthusiastic reviews by fellow bibliophiles – Paul, Simon, Susan – so couldn’t resist requesting White Spines. While I enjoyed the conversational writing, ultimately I thought it quite an indulgent undertaking (especially the records of his dreams!), not dissimilar to a series of book haul posts. The details of shopping trips aren’t of much interest because he’s solely focused on his own quest, not on giving any insight into the wider offerings of a shop or town, e.g., Hay-on-Wye and Barter Books. But if you’re a fan of Shaun Bythell’s books you may well want to read this too. It’s also a window into the collector’s mindset: You know Royle is an extremist when you read that he once collected bread labels!
(Salt Publishing, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Are you interested in reading one or more of these?
It can’t happen here. Or can it? That’s a question Rosamund Lupton asks with her novel about a siege at a progressive school in rural England. When out in public with my copy of the book, I was asked a few times what I was reading. I would explain that it was about a school shooting in Somerset, and the reply was always “In the UK?!” Guns are difficult to come by in this country thanks to firearms legislation that was passed following a couple of high-profile massacres in the 1980s and 90s. So, to an extent, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief about the perpetrators getting access to automatic weapons and bombs. And you should, because the story that unfolds is suspenseful and timely.
Cliff Heights School is in the midst of a surprise November blizzard. It’s also under attack. At 9:16 the headmaster, Matthew Marr, is shot twice. Students bundle him into the library, barricade the doors and tend to his head and foot injuries as best they can. He recognized the shooter, but the damage to his brain means he’s incapable of telling anyone who it was.
At 8:15 Rafi Bukhari, a Syrian refugee pupil, had seen an IED explode on the school grounds and alerted Marr, who promptly evacuated the junior school. But the institution is based across several buildings, with some students in the theatre for a dress rehearsal, more in the pottery hut for art class – and now a few trapped in the library.
Lupton toggles between these different locations, focusing on a handful of staff and students and the relationships between them. Hannah, who’s doing her best to help Mr. Marr, is Rafi’s girlfriend. Rafi is concerned for his little brother, Basi, who’s still traumatized after their escape from Syria. Mr. Marr sponsored the boys’ move to England. Could it be that anti-Muslim sentiment has made the Bukhari boys – and thus the school they attend – a target?
We also spend time behind the scenes with police investigators as they pursue leads and worried parents as they await news of their children. I found the book most gripping when the situation was still a complete unknown; as the options narrow down and it becomes clear who’s responsible, things feel a bit more predictable. However, there are still unexpected turns to come.
A few elements that stood out for me were the use of technology (FaceTime, WhatsApp and drones weren’t available at the time of Columbine), the Syrian boys’ history, and the student production of Macbeth, whose violence ironically comments on the school’s crisis. While not my usual fare, I found this well worth reading and will look into Lupton’s back catalogue, too.
Three Hours will be published by Penguin Viking on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
My pal Annabel has also reviewed the book today.
I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)
I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.
Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.
The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.
A few of the many wonderful quotes:
“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”
“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”
“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)
When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:
“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”
“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”
All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.
The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.
The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
By Diane Ackerman
A perfect tonic to books like The Sixth Extinction, this is an intriguing and inspiring look at how some of the world’s brightest minds are working to mitigate the negative impacts we have had on the environment and improve human life through technology. As in David R. Boyd’s The Optimistic Environmentalist, Ackerman highlights some innovative programs that are working to improve the environment. Part 1 is the weakest – most of us are already all too aware of how we’ve trashed nature – but the book gets stronger as it goes on. My favorite chapters were the last five, about 3D printing, bionic body parts and human–animal hybrids created for medical use, and how epigenetics and the microbial life we all harbor might influence our personality and behavior more than we think.
By Joanna Connors
Connors was a young reporter running late for an assignment for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer when she was raped in an empty theatre on the Case Western campus. Using present-tense narration, she makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday. It wasn’t until 2005 that Connors, about to send her daughter off to college, felt the urge to go public about her experience. “I will find you,” her rapist had warned her as he released her from the theatre, but she turned the words back on him, locating his family and learning everything she could about what made him a repeat criminal. She never uses this to explain away what he did, but it gives her the necessary compassion to visit the man’s grave. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
By Åsne Seierstad
An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). Over half of this hefty tome is prologue: Breivik’s life story, plus occasional chapters giving engaging portraits of his teenage victims. The massacre itself, along with initial interrogations and identification of the dead, takes up two long chapters totaling about 100 pages – best devoured in one big gulp when you’re feeling strong. It’s hard to read, but brilliantly rendered. Anyone with an interest in psychology or criminology will find the insights into Breivik’s personality fascinating. This is a book about love and empathy: what they can achieve; what happens when they are absent. It shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, but also how deep individual motivation goes. All wrapped up in a gripping true crime narrative. Doubtless one of the best books I will read this year.
By Bill Streever
“Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.” In 12 chapters spanning one year, Streever covers every topic related to the cold that you could imagine: polar exploration, temperature scales, extreme weather events (especially the School Children’s Blizzard of 1888 and the “Year without Summer,” 1815), ice ages, cryogenics technology, and on and on. There’s also a travel element, with Streever regularly recording where he is and what the temperature is, starting in his home turf of Anchorage, Alaska. My favorite chapters were February and March, about the development of refrigeration and air conditioning and cold-weather apparel, respectively.
By Mary Elizabeth Williams
“SPOILER: I lived,” the Salon journalist begins her bittersweet memoir of having Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. In August 2010 she had a several-millimeter scab on her head surgically removed. When the cancer came back a year and a half later, this time in her lungs as well as on her back, she had the extreme good luck of qualifying for an immunotherapy trial that straight up cured her. It’s an encouraging story you don’t often hear in a cancer memoir. On the other hand, her father-in-law’s esophageal cancer and her best friend Debbie’s ovarian cancer simply went from bad to worse. As the title suggests, Williams’s tone vacillates between despair and hope, but her writing is always wry and conversational.
(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)