Review: Stranger, Baby – Emily Berry

027 - Stranger Baby

Rating – 3*

One of my many bookish resolutions this year was to read more poetry – having seen glowing reviews of Emily Berry’s newest collection, I felt like maybe Stranger, Baby was a good way to go. I will tell you now this will be a shorter review, simply because poetry analysis never was (and never will be) my forte!

While I can appreciate that this book was probably incredible from a technical standpoint, for me I felt I wasn’t able to grasp the content of the collection in full. Some of them I did find myself connecting to more than others, which is only natural in a poetry or even a short story collection. For me, I think a lot of this went over my head which is a shame because I think the themes I did pick up on were things I really, really wanted to get more out of them than I did.

Most of the poems in this collection focus on the death of Emily’s mother – they’re intimate, personal, and in a way when reading it it did feel like I was invading her grieving process. Some of the places she went in this collection, those that I did connect with, I connected with quite deeply. Having had loss in my family which is still impacting me, having suffered with depression – parts of some of the poems really hit me but I lost that connection as quickly as it came.

For me, I think this is maybe a book for someone more “experienced” reading poetry. While a lot of this was raw, expressive, and beautiful I found myself disconnecting quite a lot from this collection (and it was quite a sporadic thing, some poems really had me at the start and lost me, others didn’t have me then got me!). As someone inexperienced with the nuances of poetry and being a very emotional reader, I did find myself getting a little frustrated that I wasn’t able to fully engage or connect with the content.

As I have said previously, poetry is a very personal thing and something that no two people will ever have the same reaction to. There are some poems in here I will definitely want to be revisiting, and I think honestly I will revisit the whole collection in the future – probably not this year, maybe not even next year, but definitely in my reading future I will pick this up again.

Discussion: Wellcome Book Prize 2017

I had intended for this to be a post before the winner was announced – however, that plan got put on the backburner and here I am now, 45 minutes after the winner was announced, a little in shock. It’s the most wonderful kind of shock because I am so, so happy with which book has been named the winner.

To warn you, this is a 500 word ramble.

In case you haven’t seen who won – I’m about to spoil it for you. It was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. This has made Wellcome Prize history as it’s the first book to have been translated and won, which is incredible – and honestly a testament to the translation skill. In a prize shortlist which was so diverse, fiction and non fiction, men and women, the possibility of a posthumous award, the outcome of a translated book winning – honestly it’s boggling how wonderfully diverse the shortlist was and I really, really love that this book won.

Mend the Living didn’t shout like some books do, it was more quiet in what it was putting across. It’s one that the more I’ve thought about since I finished it 2 weeks ago, the more I’ve loved it – to the point that I actually changed my rating on goodreads and bumped this up to a 5* book. It was quiet in both the way it was written, and also the media surrounding it – a lot of focus was on When Breath Becomes Air and The Tidal Zone. The hard science in The Gene and I Contain Multitudes was overwhelming and impressive, and I enjoyed both those books.

For me, the two it came down to were How to Survive a Plague and Mend the Living – out of the two the better book won in my opinion. They were both a lot less publicised, somewhat pushed to the back of the tables in my local bookshops, they were definitely not talked about enough. I actually had a conversation with a few of the booksellers in my local Waterstones, and told them that out of the entire shortlist Mend the Living was the one I would say ‘read’ – and a couple of them did.

I’m quite sad I didn’t put a prediction post up – because I would so love to have been right before the event (it’s all very well and good saying I TOLD YOU SO, but when there’s no evidence to back it up it’s not nearly as impressive!)

Seriously folks, read this book. It’s incredible and it really won’t disappoint. It’s a very, very worthy winner and I will be thrusting it in to several people’s hands in the near future. I hope that several more of her books are translated in to English because I would so, so love to see what else this woman can write.

If you can’t tell, I’m very happy.

Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

026 - Wives and Daughters

Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

025 - Mend the Living

Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

024 - Moll Flanders

Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

023 - How to Survive a Plague

Rating – 4*

There is no denying that this book is hard hitting, and one which has left a lasting imprint on me. It isn’t a book I would have picked up had it not been for the Wellcome Prize shortlisting of it. This book is a very personal insight in to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

It is by no means an easy read, both in content and style. The writing is quite dense, and it is long and incredibly detailed. I persevered with it, in spite of it being quite difficult to work through at times because I knew what I was reading was important. It was a voice I hadn’t heard before. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where AIDS and HIV is part of everyday understanding, we’re taught about it in school; sexual health is taught year in, year out and we get letters posted to us from our doctors surgery urging us to get tested for STIs (my school even had chlamydia tests in toilets, and numbers and addresses for the sexual health/family planning clinics in the area) I can’t even imagine the horrors and the fear that people felt in a world where there wasn’t an answer. Where there wasn’t that understanding, even on a small scale. This book barely scrapes the surface of that fear I can only imagine feeling.

However, as I said, this book is quite dense. There are so many individual stories in here, stories of so many people and every one of them is important, but the book felt cramped and crowded. Every voice is important, but for me there were just too many to be able to focus in on what this book is ultimately about – the discovery of the HIV virus. For me, this wasn’t a book about popular science, so going in to it I had a slightly warped perception of what lay before me. The science when it showed up was interesting, but the in depth analysis of clinical trials did have me skimming through after a while.

For me, as someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this is a very important book to read. Reading this made me realise just how damn lucky I am. Reading this brought me to tears, it devastated me in parts.

I wish there were an abridged version, or that the book was in two parts maybe – the scientific side, and the more personal side which tells the stories of the people in this book – I understand they overlapped significantly, but for me this was a bit disjointed in parts because of the juxtaposition of the two factors.

This is a very, very important book to read. There is no denying that. I’m glad to have read it, and I know a couple of people I will recommend this to. But it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the word, it’s intense in both the content and the sheer denseness of the writing and I can’t quite bring myself to give this 5* because I didn’t love it like I did some of the others in the shortlist.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

022 - When Breath Becomes Air

Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

Review: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

021 - I Contain Multitudes

Rating – 3*

This is the 3rd book from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist that I have read, and if I’m honest it’s so far my least favourite.

Now, the content of this is really interesting and something I didn’t know much about (I am by no means a microbiologist, and what little I do know about microbes comes from New Scientist articles!) The microbiome is fascinating and this book makes it something that is very approachable and easy to understand. There are numerous good examples in this book, relating what is ultimately an enormous subject to things that anyone can understand. For me, it was also quite a fast paced book which is a rarity in non fiction.

Microbes are something which are all around us; inside of us, our homes, our environments. Everywhere. Science is now understanding the unique relationship that animals, plants, and the environment have with microbes. Studies in to the relationship between humans and our microbial tenants are hoping to understand how our overall health relates to the happiness of our microbiome. There is a lot of research in to illness and our microbiome, and how it can directly and indirectly affect our overall health. With society obsessed with sterilisation and cleanliness we are now at the point where we are doing more ham than good, and while there is no doubt that sterilisation has lead to significant improvements in healthcare there is strong evidence to suggest that things like air conditioning, and obsessively cleaning, causing more harm to society as a whole.

However, while I enjoyed this on the whole, there were a number of things which I found borderline irritating throughout. I found bits of it quite repetitive, while I appreciate that things do have to be repeated sometimes, I found there were a lot of instances of the same thing being said throughout the book quite needlessly. I know it’s probably a small thing, but for me it really affected my overall enjoyment.

I have absolutely no doubt that the future of Ed Yong’s writing is something I am looking forward to. I just feel that this book could have been so much more with a better organisation and maybe a bit of editing. I have no doubt that his articles and shorter work would be great, they’d be more fine tuned and less waffle-y! I also found that the barrage of Latin names for bacteria and microbes borderline annoying, it made it read more like a research paper than a book and with the otherwise relaxed tone of the book it made it feel a bit disjointed.

On the whole, I learnt quite a bit from this book, and it has changed the way I’ll be looking at things in the future and I did enjoy it. There were just minor things for me which didn’t make this as enjoyable as some other non-fiction books I’ve read lately (especially The Gene, another shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize which I absolutely adored and reviewed a few days ago!) and while I’m aware you shouldn’t compare, it’s hard not to when they’re shortlisted for the same prize.

If you’re interested in learning more about microbes and your microbiome, this is a pretty good read, and quite an easy one to follow too.

Review: The Gene – Siddhartha Mukherjee

020 - The Gene

Rating – 5*

This book is one that had been on my radar for quite some time before I decided to pick it up. I’d been umming and ahhing over it for a while, but it being shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize meant I finally got that kick up the backside and picked it up. How I wish I had picked this up when it was first released!

This may be a stretch, but this is up there at one of my favourite non-fiction books now, definitely top of the ‘popular science’ category! To put it in to perspective as to how much I loved this, I read it as the Kindle edition, also purchased the audiobook (also good, highly recommend) and on my lunch break Thursday – two days after I finished it – I bought the paperback. I just can’t get enough of this book. Seriously.

I love reading about genetics, the history and the future. While this book is a monster (I read the Kindle version which is over 700 pages) it was so engaging, I just whizzed through it. As I said, I love reading about genetics, and as a result I have read a huge number of popular science books on the subject (along with behemoth textbooks) – some are good, some are absolutely mindnumbingly boring. This though, this is possibly the most readable, most approachable, and most engaging one of the lot; not only that it is so in depth – I didn’t feel like anything was missed out from a scientific standpoint. So yes, this book is a non-fiction masterpiece in my eyes.

For a start, I loved the format of this. I don’t know how he did it, but it felt more ‘intimate’ than many other books which focus on the same subject. I think that this came primarily from the brief biographies that were given in the text of the scientist at the centre of particular discoveries; there were histories of Darwin, Mendel, and my personal favourite, Rosalind Franklin.

Going off on a tangent for a moment, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. Not only does it recognise the achievements and contribution (and subsequent overlooking) of female scientists in the history of genetics. It also looks in to the genetics behind sexuality and gender identity. I was on edge when the words “gay gene” were mentioned – but it was handled quite sensitively and I was pleasantly surprised at how open minded the handling of this topic was. Also included, and handled with immense sensitivity, was the subject of eugenics, forced sterilisation, Nazi studies in to genetics – some of that was hard reading!

Back to the book as a whole, I found that the chronology of this really layered up information piece-by-piece. It was so skillfully done, and I really think I would have benefited from reading this book when I was doing my A Levels, and my degree as a supplementary text to refresh the history of the subject, and because the science is there but the ‘popular science’ style of writing makes it more digestible and much less intimidating than a 1000 page textbook on the subject!

Ultimately, this is an incredible book (can you tell I think that?) and I absolutely loved it. I’m glad that the prize actually made me pick it up because I honestly think I’d have missed out on something important had I not read this. I’d urge anyone looking for a good non-fiction book to give this a whirl, yes it’s big, but it’s the best book on the subject I’ve read.