“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.
In January I had the tremendous opportunity to have a free personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life in London. I’ve since read three of her prescriptions plus parts of a few others, but I still have several more awaiting me in the early days of 2019, and will plan to report back at some point on what I got out of all of them.
In March to April I ran a Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel for the second time. This year it was much more successful; I plan to do it again next year, too. (I actually proffered myself as an official judge for next year’s prize and got a very kind but entirely noncommittal e-mail back from the chairwoman, which I will have to take as victory enough.)
Early April saw us visiting Wigtown, Scotland’s book town, for the first time. It was a terrific trip, but thus far I have not been all that successful at reading the 13 books that I bought! (Just two and a quarter so far.)
I reviewed three novels for Liz Dexter’s Iris Murdoch Readalong project: A Severed Head in March, The Italian Girl in June, and The Nice and the Good in September. In February I’ll pop back in with one more paperback that I own, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. November was Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, and provided me with a good excuse to read her first two novels.
I did some “buddy reads” for the first time: Andrea Levy’s Small Island with Canadian blogger friends, including Marcie and Naomi; and West With the Night with Laila of Big Reading Life and Late Nights on Air with Naomi as well as Penny of Literary Hoarders during 20 Books of Summer, which I took part in for the first time. In May my mother and I read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and shared reading notes via e-mail. (A planned buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness with Annabel and Laura was, alas, a fail.)
Besides the official Wellcome Book Prize blog tour in April, I participated in another 11 blog tours, averaging out at one a month. I’m going to scale back on these next year because I have too often found, after I accepted, that the book was a dud and I had to just run an extract because I could see I wasn’t going to get through it and write a review.
I joined my neighborhood book club in September and have attended every month since then. Our first four selections were Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, Noonday by Pat Barker, and Number 11 by Jonathan Coe. I’d already read the Logan and Coe years ago and didn’t fancy rereading them, so wasn’t able to participate as much in those months, but was still glad to go along for the socializing. My husband even read the Coe and came to December’s meeting (was it just for the mince pies and mulled wine?!). We’ve set our first four reads for 2019 – the three below, in order from left to right, plus Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, which I’ll borrow from the university library.
In October I won tickets to see a production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at the Old Vic in London. Just a few weeks later I won tickets to see Barbara Kingsolver in conversation about Unsheltered at the Southbank Centre. I don’t often make it into London, so it was a treat to have bookish reasons to go and blogging friends to meet up with (Clare of A Little Blog of Books joined me for both, and Laura T. was also at the Kingsolver event).
November was mostly devoted to novellas, for the third year in a row. Although I didn’t officially participate in Nonfiction November, I still enjoyed coming up with some fiction/nonfiction pairings and an “expert’s” list of women’s religious memoirs.
My husband wrote pretty much his entire PhD thesis this year and on Friday the 14th had his graduation ceremony. I was the moral support / proofreader / preparer of simple meals during the months when he was in the throes of writing up, so I will consider myself as sharing in the accomplishment. Congratulations, Dr. Foster!
This month and into January I’ll be reading the last few nominees for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
When the list of finalists was released, I was relieved to see I’d already read four out of seven (and three of those were ones I’d nominated); the other three – the Adjei-Brenyah and Brinkley stories and There There – were books I was keen to read but hadn’t managed to get hold of. About 80 of us NBCC members are reading the shortlist and voting for the best first book of the year by January 8th. Plus I’m technically up for an NBCC prize myself, in that I nominated myself (that’s how it works) for the 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and sent in an application with five of my best reviews from the year.
The Ones that Got Away
Two posts I planned but never got around to putting together would have commemorated the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death (I own several of his books but am most interested in reading The Seven-Storey Mountain, which celebrated its 70th birthday in October) and the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Snow Leopard by the late Peter Matthiessen. Perhaps I’ll try these authors for the first time next year instead.
Final Book Serendipity Incidents
In the second half of the year I started keeping track of all my weird reading coincidences, posting about them on Twitter or Instagram before collecting them into a blog post a couple months ago. Here are a few that popped up since then or recalled earlier reads from the year:
Two protagonists named Willa: Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered
Two novels featuring bog people: Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall
Two dogs named Flash: Ben Crane’s Blood Ties and Andrew Marshall’s The Power of Dog
Multiple sclerosis is an element in Christian Donlan’s The Unmapped Mind: A Memoir of Neurology, Incurable Disease and Learning How to Live, Jennifer Richardson’s Americashire and Michelle Obama’s Becoming (her father had it)
The ideas of Freud are mentioned in a 1910s setting in Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, Annabel Abbs’s Frieda and Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier
Mermaids (or ‘mermaids’)and/or mermen appear in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier, and a series of poems in Miriam Darlington’s Windfall
Bohemian writer dies young of tuberculosis (or similar) in novels about their wives: Annabel Abbs’s Frieda (D.H. Lawrence) and Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Two books that mention the Indonesian practice of keeping dead relatives as mummies and bringing them out on occasion for ritual celebrations: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny
Two books that include a trip to Lourdes for healing: Heal Me by Julia Buckley and Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
Two books that mention the irony of some of the most well-loved modern Christmas songs being written by Jews: In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik and Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
Surprise Themes from My Year’s Reading
A few of these make sense – cults fit with my interest in narratives of religious experience, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that my relationship with my father has been an ongoing issue in recent years (I wonder how the numbers would compare for books about mothers?) – but most are completely random.
I decided a theme had to show up at least three times to make the list. Some topics I enjoyed so much I’ll keep reading about them next year. Within a category the books are in rough chronological order of my reading, and I include skims, DNFs and books in progress.
Fathers (absent/difficult) + fatherhood in general: Educated by Tara Westover, And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & March by Geraldine Brooks, The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan, Never Mind and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, How to Build a Boat by Jonathan Gornall, Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart, Normal People by Sally Rooney, Rosie by Rose Tremain, My Father and Myself by J.R. Ackerley, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Blood Ties by Ben Crane, To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Addiction: The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain, Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror by Afarin Majidi, Marlena by Julie Buntin, Ninety Days by Bill Clegg, Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Greenland: A Wilder Time by William E. Glassley, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, On Balance by Sinéad Morrissey (the poem “Whitelessness”), Cold Earth by Sarah Moss, Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
Cults: Educated by Tara Westover, Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst, In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel
Trees: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan, The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, The Wood and The Secret Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel
Flying: Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Going Solo by Roald Dahl, Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker
The Anglo experience in Africa: Free Woman: Life, Love and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel, Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Going Solo by Roald Dahl
Korean-American women: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens, Digging to America by Anne Tyler
New Zealand: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, To the Is-Land by Janet Frame, Dunedin by Shena Mackay
Life in the White House: Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton, All the Presidents’ Pastries by Roland Mesnier, Becoming by Michelle Obama
Lighthouses: Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (about Robert Louis Stevenson, whose family built lighthouses)
Butterflies: Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern, Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle, Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit
What were some of the highlights of your bookish year?
What odd coincidences and recurring themes have you spotted in your year’s reading?
Nancy Tucker’s first book, The Time in Between (2015), was a wrenching and utterly absorbing eating disorder memoir told in an original blend of forms: cinematic scenes of dialogue and stage directions, schedules, tongue-in-cheek dos and don’ts, imagined interrogations, and so on. She’s recreated that experimental/hybrid style here to capture the experiences of young women with mental health challenges.
At a time when she was still struggling with anorexia and suicidal thoughts, bouncing between her uni room and a psychiatric ward, Tucker felt the need to get beyond her own pain by engaging with others’ problems. She interviewed 70 women aged 16 to 25 for a total of more than 100 hours and chose to anonymize their stories by creating seven composite characters who represent various mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and borderline personality disorder.
Each chapter follows a similar format, focusing on a first-person narrative from the invented character but also interspersing other documents like e-mails, instant messages, conversations with a therapist, a video interview transcript or a self-interrogation. A different font then sets out a few-page section that, in a sardonic tone, suggests the problem really isn’t that serious and is easily solved with a handful of simple tips. After this point Tucker steps out of character to give statistics and commentary on the particular mental illness, as she heard it described by her interviewees. She returns to the character’s voice to close with a “What I wish I could tell you about my [depression, etc.]” section, a heartfelt plea for sympathy.
These stories overlap with each other – anxiety and depression commonly co-occur with other mental illness, for instance. Yasmine’s bipolar means that sometimes she feels like she could run a marathon or write a novel in a few days, while other times she’s plunged into the depths of depression. Neither Abby (depression) nor Freya (anxiety) can face going to work; Maya (BPD, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder) exhibits many of the symptoms from other chapters, including self-harm and feelings of emptiness.
Tucker is keen to emphasize how complex these disorders are: it’s never just a matter of being sad, having mood swings or seeking attention. She is sensitive to the way that certain ones might be belittled, such as binge eating disorder, which, because it isn’t as clinically recognized as anorexia or bulimia, can be equated with poor self-control. Also, mental health conditions exist on a continuum, so it’s hard to definitively announce a cure. In any case, “A binary perception of mental illness benefits no one,” Tucker explains: “the ‘insane’ may find themselves held at arms’ length, but the ‘sane’ may be denied rapid treatment, or accused of melodrama.”
The details of these narratives can be painful to read, like Georgia and friends browsing Tumblr for ideas of how to cut themselves with razors and take not-quite-overdoses of paracetamol, and Holly’s post-traumatic stress after not-quite-consensual sex with her boyfriend. But the voices are so intimately rendered, and the chapters so perfectly balanced between the general and the fictionalized particulars, that they illuminate mental health crises in a uniquely powerful way.
Reading this has helped me to understand friends’ and acquaintances’ behavior. I’ll keep it on the shelf as an invaluable reference book in the years to come. Based on what I’ve read thus far, this is my frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize, which “aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around [medical] topics.” That Was When People Started to Worry seems to me to be just what the prize is looking for, as “Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human.”
That Was When People Started to Worry: Windows into Unwell Minds was published by Icon Books in May. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
I’d never participated in Nonfiction November before because I tend to read at least 40% nonfiction anyway, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to put together some fiction and nonfiction pairings based on books I’ve read this year and last. (This week of the month-long challenge is posted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, a blog I love for its no-nonsense recommendations of what to read – and what not to read – from the recent U.S. releases.)
My primary example is two books that reveal what it’s really like to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell’s, in particular, is a book that deserves more attention. When it came out earlier this year, it was billed as the first-ever “dementia memoir” (is that an oxymoron?) – except, actually, there had been one the previous year (whoops!): Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders, which I have on my Kindle and still intend to read. [See also Kate W.’s picks, which include a pair of books with a dementia theme.]
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
Genova’s writing, Jodi Picoult-like, keeps you turning the pages; I read 225+ pages in an afternoon. There’s true plotting skill to how Genova uses a close third-person perspective to track the mental decline of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language,” yet her grasp of language becomes ever more slippery even as her thought life remains largely intact. I also particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Cambridge and its weather, and family meals and rituals. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required – Would the disease really progress this quickly? Would Alice really be able to miss certain abilities and experiences once they were gone? – and ultimately I preferred the 2014 movie version, but this would be a great book to thrust at any caregiver or family member who’s had to cope with dementia in someone close to them.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton (2018)
A remarkable insider’s look at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mitchell took several falls while running near her Yorkshire home, but it wasn’t until she had a minor stroke in 2012 that she and her doctors started taking her health problems seriously. In July 2014 she got the dementia diagnosis that finally explained her recurring brain fog. She was 58 years old, a single mother with two grown daughters and a 20-year career in NHS administration. Having prided herself on her good memory and her efficiency at everything from work scheduling to DIY, she was distressed that she couldn’t cope with a new computer system and was unlikely to recognize the faces or voices of colleagues she’d worked with for years. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she took early retirement – a decision that she feels was forced on her by a system that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for her.
The book, put together with the help of ghostwriter Anna Wharton, gives a clear sense of progression, of past versus present, and of the workarounds Mitchell uses to outwit her disease. The details and incidents are well chosen to present the everyday challenges of dementia. For instance, baking used to be one of Mitchell’s favorite hobbies, but in an early scene she’s making a cake for a homeless shelter and forgets she’s already added sugar; she weighs in the sugar twice, and the result is inedible. By the time the book ends, not only can she not prepare herself a meal; she can’t remember to eat unless she sets an alarm and barricades herself into the room so she won’t wander off partway through.
In occasional italicized passages Mitchell addresses her past self, running through bittersweet memories of all that she used to be able to do: “It amazes me now how you did it, because you didn’t have anyone to help you. You were Mum, Dad, taxi, chef, counsellor, gardener and housekeeper, all rolled into one.” Yet it’s also amazing how much she still manages to do as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. She crisscrosses the country to give speeches, attend conferences, and advise universities; she writes a blog and has appeared on radio to promote this book. Like many retired people, she’s found she’s busier than ever, and her engagements help her to feel purposeful and like she’s giving a positive impression of early-stage dementia. No matter that she has to rely on dozens of reminders to self in the form of Post-It notes, iPad alarms and a wall of photographs.
The story lines of this and Still Alice are very similar in places – the incidents while running, the inability to keep baking, and so on. And in fact, Mitchell reviewed the film and attended its London premiere, where she met Julianne Moore. Her book is a quick and enjoyable read, and will be so valuable to people looking to understand the experience of dementia. She is such an inspiring woman. I thank her for her efforts, and wish her well. This is one of my personal favorites for the shortlist of next year’s Wellcome Book Prize for medical reads.
Glimpses into the high-class world of fine dining – and fine wine.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence is chock-full of recommendations and reading pairs. The Novel Cure is also good for this sort of thing, though it is (no surprise) overwhelmingly composed of fiction suggestions.
There could hardly be an author better qualified to deliver this thorough history of the heart and the treatment of its problems. Sandeep Jauhar is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Medical Center. His family history – both grandfathers died of sudden cardiac events in India, one after being bitten by a snake – prompted an obsession with the heart, and he and his brother both became cardiologists. As the book opens, Jauhar was shocked to learn he had up to a 50% blockage of his own coronary vessels. Things had really gotten personal.
Cardiovascular disease has been the #1 killer in the West since 1910 and, thanks to steady smoking rates and a continuing rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, will still affect 60% of Americans. However, the key is that fewer people will now die of heart disease thanks to the developments of the last six decades in particular. These include the heart–lung machine, cardiac catheterization, heart transplantation, and artificial hearts.
Along the timeline, Jauhar peppers in bits of his own professional and academic experience, like experimenting on frogs during high school in California and meeting his first cadaver at medical school. My favorite chapter was the twelfth, “Vulnerable Heart,” which is about how trauma can cause heart arrhythmias; it opens with an account of the author’s days cataloguing body parts in a makeshift morgue as a 9/11 first responder. I also particularly liked his account of being called out of bed to perform an echocardiogram, which required catching a taxi at 3 a.m. and avoiding New York City’s rats.
Maybe I’ve read too much surgical history this year (The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris and Face to Face by Jim McCaul), though, because I found myself growing fairly impatient with the medical details in the long Part II, which centers on the heart as a machine, and was drawn more to the autobiographical material in the first and final sections. Perhaps I would prefer Jauhar’s first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation.
In terms of readalikes, I’d mention Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, in which the personal story also takes something of a backseat to the science, and Gavin Francis’s Shapeshifters, which exhibits a similar interest in the metaphors applied to the body. While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as two other heart-themed memoirs I’ve read, The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson and Echoes of Heartsounds by Martha Weinman Lear, I still think it’s a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize (the judging panel is announced tomorrow!).
Some favorite lines:
“it is increasingly clear that the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
“Who but the owner can say what lies inside a human heart?”
“As a heart-failure specialist, I’d experienced enough death to fill up a lifetime. At one time, it was difficult to witness the grief of loved ones. But my heart had been hardened, and this was no longer that time.”
Heart is published in the UK today, September 27th, by Oneworld. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary,by Jan Morris
I’ve been an admirer of Jan Morris’s autobiographical and travel writing for 15 years or more. In this diary covering 2017 into early 2018, parts of which were originally published in the Financial Times and the Welsh-language literary newspaper O’r Pedwar Gwynt, we get a glimpse into her life in her early nineties. It was a momentous time in the world at large but a fairly quiet and reflective span for her personally. Though each day’s headlines seem to herald chaos and despair, she’s a blithe spirit – good-natured about the ravages of old age and taking delight in the routines of daily one-mile walks down the lane and errands in local Welsh towns with her beloved partner Elizabeth, who’s in the early stages of dementia.
There are thrilling little moments, though, when a placid domestic life (a different kind of marmalade with breakfast each day of the week!) collides with exotic past experiences, and suddenly we’re plunged into memories of travels in Swaziland and India. Back when she was still James, Morris served in World War II, was the Times journalist reporting from the first ascent of Everest, and wrote a monolithic three-volume history of the British Empire. She took her first airplane flight 70 years ago, and is nostalgic for the small-town America she first encountered in the 1950s. Hold all that up against her current languid existence among the books and treasures of Trefan Morys and it seems she’s lived enough for many lifetimes.
There’s a good variety of topics here, ranging from current events to Morris’s love of cats; I particularly liked the fragments of doggerel. However, as is often the case with diaries, read too many entries in one go and you may start to find the sequence of (non-)events tedious. Each piece is only a page or two, so I tried never to read many more than 10 pages at a time. Even so, I noticed that the plight of zoo animals, clearly a hobby-horse, gets mentioned several times. It seemed to me a strange issue to get worked up about, especially as enthusiastic meat-eating and killing mice with traps suggest that she’s not applying a compassionate outlook consistently.
In the end, though, kindness is Morris’s cardinal virtue, and despite minor illness, telephone scams and a country that looks to be headed to the dogs, she’s encouraged by the small acts of kindness she meets with from friends and strangers alike. Like Diana Athill (whose Alive, Alive Oh! this resembles), I think of Morris as a national treasure, and I was pleased to spend some time seeing things from her perspective.
Some favorite lines:
“If I set out in the morning for my statutory thousand daily paces up the lane, … I enjoy the fun of me, the harmless conceit, the guileless complexity and the merriment. When I go walking in the evening, on the other hand, … I shall recognize what I don’t like about myself – selfishness, self-satisfaction, foolish self-deceit and irritability. Morning pride, then, and evening shame.” (from Day 99)
“Good or bad, virile or senile, there’s no life like the writer’s life.” (from Day 153)
In My Mind’s Eye was published by Faber & Faber on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:
That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.
Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.
The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.
The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.
“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”
“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”
The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongatefor sending a free copy for review.
I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic
That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.
Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.
Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”
If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.
Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.
In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.
Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.
This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”
I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.
So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.
I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.
What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?