Review: The Gendered Brain – Gina Rippon

018 - The Gendered Brain

018 - The Gendered Brain

★★★★★

I’m not going to lie, this book was pretty much a cover buy – just look at how beautiful this cover is – but the content is just as fantastic. If I could give this book 6 stars I would, because honestly it’s one of the most comprehensive looks at the differences, and similarities in human brains on the basis of Sex (assigned at birth).

One thing I am going to applaud is how brilliantly the author distinguishes between sex and gender, and elaborates on how one is a biological entity (sex) and the other is more of a fluid thing which can differ from what biology tells us. So often books focus on the binary but Rippon doesn’t shy away from the non-binary. I will say in this review I do use male/female in reference to biological sex.

So, on to the actual content of the book. There have been a hideous amount of scientific studies to show that there are significant differences between the biology of male and female brains. However, studies have only been published if it has shown “significant” advantage to the males of our species. Primarily because studies have been carried out by men, for men, to prove women can’t do X, Y or Z. Infuriating and completely unfounded – a significant result statistically is dependent entirely on the type of analysis done, and while I won’t make myself relive the horror of my final year at university, I know that statistics can be skewed in favour of a particular result by using different analysis methods.

But these studies have impacted lives. They’ve perpetuated stereotypes and gender myths. Brains aren’t a one size fits each biological sex deal. What we’re now learning via neuroscience is that brains are more like play doh and completely shaped by the environment around us in our childhood. Children have experiences, and are surrounded by messages – gendered stereotypes – and that’s what shapes our brains. In telling a girl early on that she’s less likely to be good at science and maths it makes her less interested in it (in turn reducing their ability, completely “proving” the stereotype).

Biological sex is just one of the many variables which influence our brains; society has a far more pivotal role in influencing a brain of a child than anyone believed. Allowing a child to play with whatever toy they want, praising them and encouraging them to excel in whichever subjects they wish to lead to more varied brains – and more rounded individuals. Those encouraged to do what makes them happy are less likely to have mental health issues.

I found this book absolutely fascinating, and I think it’s going to be a book I refer to regularly and push in to hands of anyone not intimidated by such a big ole book! I listened to part of this on audio and loved that too. But anyway, I loved this book and I do imagine it’ll be a bit of a reality check for a lot of people who read it. I loved the detail, I loved how Rippon reviewed past research and also looked to the future. The future after this book is something I’m really excited to see because this, for me, is going to really open up discussion on this subject.

So yes, I absolutely loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone, seriously, even people not interested in the subject could benefit from reading this. And it’s definitely one to take slowly and appreciate, because it’s fact heavy but so important. So give it a go. If you only read one non-fiction book this year – or in your life – make it this?

Review: Spring – Ali Smith

019 - Spring

019 - Spring

★★★★★

Hello lovely readers, it’s been quite some time since my last review, and what a book to come back on. Spring by Ali Smith is quite the book, and quite the masterpiece and going to be quite the challenge to review because it is so good. I think it goes without saying, if you’ve stuck around here for a while, you know I love Ali Smith and this book is, possibly, my favourite of the Seasonal books so far.  But as with all of Ali Smith’s books it’s hard to actually explain what it is about because it’s so real. 

Before I start, I would also like to say thank you to Sarah Withers Blogs for running a competition in which I won this book – thank you lovely!

Spring follows two main strands, which cross over around half way through. As with all Smith books, this is done perfectly, and a little bit oddly (but equally, absolutely believably).  First we have Richard, a TV and film producer, who in late 2018 after the death of his best friend decides he wants to escape. Then we have Brit, who works for an immigration centre where detainees are, quite unreasonably, treated like prisoners. Finally we have the person who links these two stories – Florence, a young girl with unknown roots. All three of these characters end up at Kingussie station, which is the point at which their stories converge.

As with all of Smith’s characters they’re believable, even if on the extreme end of it. I’m feeling more now that these characters are all intrinsically interwoven in other books in this series – ever so slightly. For me, this series is becoming more and more genius and each book I enjoy more than the last because of the little nods to previous books.

This quartet, so far, has been very political – albeit sometimes more subtle than others. In this book there’s a focus on immigration, and people who are considered ‘other’. Brit works in an immigration centre, and unfortunately those places exist – people are treated like that. She’s our ‘voice on the inside’ – trying to justify what she does, making it as impersonal as possible by resorting everything to acronyms.

There was one paragraph in Spring which solidified this as a 5* book very early on for me, and even now reading it over again I’ve got goosebumps. So I’m going to leave you with this quote.

No, see, I’m not going to tell you what I voted. I’m not going to let you think you can decide something about me either way. All I’ll say is, I was younger then, and still thought politics mattered. But all this. This endless. It’s eating the, the, you know. Soul. Doesn’t matter what I voted or you voted or anyone voted. Because what’s the point, if nobody in the end is going to listen to or care about what other people think unless they think and believe the same thing as them. And you people. Asking us what we think all the time like it matters. You don’t care what we think. You just want a fight. You want us to fill your air. Tell you what it’s making us meaningless, and the people in power, doing it all for us for democracy, yeah, right, pull the other one. They’re doing it for their pay-off. They make us more meaningless every day.

Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

013 - My Year of Rest and Relaxation

013 - My Year of Rest and Relaxation

So far the Wellcome Prize list has been nothing but a pile of disappointment. But there’ll be more of that in a separate post because this is a review (of sorts) of a book that I really didn’t enjoy and isn’t the time and place for that discussion.

Oh where to start with this book? The fact of the matter is I have nothing good to say about it. I didn’t finish it. The book infuriated me to no end and I only got to page 50 or so. I found it completely intolerable.

The premise is a semi-good one which did pique my interest but the execution was abysmal. The blurb says that it’s a “hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation”. There was nothing hilarious about this book. There was nothing tender about this book.  The protagonist is a self absorbed, highly strung, super rich type who swans about in her New York mansion, only working because she’s bored, and woe her life gets a little bit difficult so she decides to go to a really, really awful psychiatrist who just sends her away with a cocktail of drugs and almost advocates that she sleep for a year.

It’s truly a piss poor representation of depression – as much as most of us would love to just go to sleep for a year we just get the hell on with it because going to sleep for a year isn’t an option. It’s also a poor and irresponsible representation of medical professionals too.

It really concerns me that this was longlisted because the representation of mental health and medicine in this book is not okay. This book is really not okay. So many people have raved about it, saying it’s wonderful, but as someone who has been in a place that dark where all you want to do is hibernate (or worse) this book is so damaging. To say it’s a hilarious novel is so dangerous.

On top of all the really awful medical/health related stuff there’s the subplot of the fact it’s 2001 in New York City and her friend (who she treats awfully) works at the World Trade Centre and you know where it’s going. But that feels contrived, it feels like it’s there for the sake of being there. And call me a bit touchy but I don’t think September 11th should be used as a plot point in a book for the sake of drama when it otherwise has no reason to be there.

There was also the fact that this book had a lot of racial signposting and stereotyping which made me feel really uncomfortable. I don’t care where in the world your masseuse comes from, or your pool boy, or whatever other employee who is undoubtedly being underpaid and overworked because you’re an overprivileged 1%-er. But making a big deal about their ethnic origin, or their race, or their religion for that matter, isn’t representation it’s stereotyping and that’s not cool.

I read 15% of this book. Less than a quarter and I am this angry. My anger towards the judging for the Wellcome Prize is an entirely separate discussion but this book is not good. I truly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they want to read a book and really not enjoy the experience whatsoever. Because this book is, quite frankly, utter trash.

Review: Sight – Jessie Greengrass

014 - Sight

014 - Sight

★★

I read this a few weeks ago, shortly after the Wellcome longlist was announced, and if I’m entirely honest I don’t remember much about this book. I wish I could say wonderful things but ultimately if I had to pick one word for this book it would be forgettable.

From what I remember this book follows a rather self-absorbed, 20-something woman who is pregnant with her second child. That didn’t interest me in the slightest unfortunately. I have no desire to procreate, so pregnant narrators are something that are very hit and miss with me anyway. I will say that the idea of a grieving daughter and a soon to be mother assessing her relationships with the females in her life is a good one, however if it had been left at that I think I would have enjoyed this book marginally more than I did.

However, it wasn’t just left at that (of course it wasn’t!) instead we had random sections about figures from history thrown in – something I really didn’t enjoy. I found the dichotomy between the present day story and historical figures jarring. Just when I felt I may be getting in to the present story I was pulled out of it by a tangent about Freud or the man who discovered the x-ray, and while I think this could have been a good tool if applied correctly, I don’t think it was applied correctly.

As I said, I don’t really have a lot to say about this book unfortunately as 2 weeks have passed since I read it and I actually forgot I had read it until I checked my list of books to review. I can understand that this might work for some people, but for me it was a massive miss unfortunately.

Review: This Really Isn’t About You – Jean Hannah Edelstein

012 - This Really Isn't About You

012 - This Really Isn't About You

★★★

This was my first foray in to the Wellcome Book Prize Longlist for 2019 and, what can I say, this is an okay book.

This Really Isn’t About You is the authors experience with finding out she had a gene which increases her risk of specific types of cancer, and ultimately is the gene that killed her father. For me though there wasn’t nearly enough about this aspect of it – it was more a memoir on grief, sexual harassment and dating in a 21st century world than it was about the medicine and Lynch syndrome. That’s fine, but I was expecting a lot more from it I think.

It’s a very readable account, and the title is correct, it really isn’t about you it’s very much written by the author for the author. It reads like a therapy exercise, and while that does make it very easy to get through I did get to the end of the book and wonder what the point of it was. I would have loved a book which was more about her father – her father who was partly responsible for building the worlds first MRI scanner, a man who has had his part in the history of medicine. Her father was an incredible man and I’d have loved more about him, instead I found parts of this book to be really self absorbed.

But as I said, finishing this book I wondered what actually was the purpose of it. I don’t feel any more educated on Lynch Syndrome and, honestly, I read this book nearly a week ago and don’t feel I can recall much of it at all. I’d not have picked this up if it wasn’t for the Wellcome Prize, and honestly unless you’re really in to memoirs I’d not recommend it to anyone either.

Review: And the Wind Sees All – Guðmundur Andri Thorsson

011 - And the Wind Sees All

011 - And the Wind Sees All

★★★★

One of my many mini-challenges to myself in 2019 is to read more translated fiction, and a good place to start with any translated fiction is publishers which specialise in it. As I always seem to go for the same few publishers for translated fiction I decided to do a bit of research and branch out this time around which is how I discovered Peirene. I had previously heard of them, but just never picked anything up from them (so they disappeared from my memory, bad Ashleigh.) Anyway, I decided to go over to their website to see what they had on offer and was happy to find a number of books from countries I’ve never read before. Including this little gem from Iceland.

The blurb says that this book all takes place in 2 minutes, and that is sort of the case. What I thought it was and what it became were very different things in that I thought it was from one persons perspective, but it wasn’t. The book is a series of vignettes, from a series of individuals who all have one thing in common – the village in which they live. The main thread of the book is that the narrative takes place over a two minute bike journey which Kata – the choir conductor – takes through the village to the concert that evening. Each vignette from there is a snapshot in to the life of different villagers – some she encounters herself, others who observe her from their homes – sometimes we’re in the present but often we’re in the past.

With chapter exploring a different person it becomes more interesting the further in to it you get. I love seeing how characters from one persons past fit in to another past, or hearing a story from the other side of the fence. It really does bring the village alive, everyone is involved in everyone elses lives in one way or another. People have secrets, people have pasts, some people left the village and inevitably find themselves coming back, others have come to the village with no previous ties to it to escape from the city.

The writing in this book, and therefore also the translation, were beautiful. Parts of this were so, so poetic. I loved the more atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and whatnot, I’m a sucker for beautifully described nature and this was spot on for me. If this is the quality of all books published by Peirene I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on my next one from them (and bonus, some of the eBooks are 99p on the Kindle store at the moment, which cannot be snuffed at).

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

005 - her body and other parties

005 - her body and other parties

★★★★

Something I want to do in 2019 is get back in to Short Story Collections. I love a short story collection and they were woefully absent from my reading last year. So when I tasked my sister to pick a few books for me and she picked this up I was very excited. Not only because yes, the cover is that green, but because the content sounded right up my street.

The stories in this collection are fantastic. They’re fabulist, magical, feminist and queer. There’s not a lot to dislike if I’m honest. There was one story that didn’t really engage me, and it seems to be a common theme among readers of this collection, and it’s the one which is an episode-by-episode account of Law and Order. As someone who isn’t a Law and Order fan that was a miss for me. But the rest of this collection? Amazing.

There are so many unreliable, but interesting narrators in here with stories which just err on the side of the fantastic but are grounded in reality. We have a woman who is documenting her survival in a devastating epidemic by her sexual encounters, in another story we join a woman who works in a clothes shop in a world where women are fading out of existence. There’s one story, Mothers, which is so out there it’s hard to follow and very open to interpretation; it’s the best example in the whole collection of the unreliable narrator in that our protagonist is handed a baby by her female ex-lover and it’s hard to follow what’s real and what isn’t after that event.

All of the stories in this collection are raw, gritty and at times difficult to read. But it’s fantastic and genuinely one of the most well put together collections I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me why I love short stories so much. It was the perfect blend of reality and magical, it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s sexy. It’s a lot of things. I wouldn’t say this is the easiest collection to read, not when there’s elements of abuse and sexual violence interspersed throughout but it’s definitely a great book and one I’d recommend to people in the future.

Review: The Winter of the Witch – Katherine Arden

008 - the winter of the witch

008 - the winter of the witch

★★★★

It is absolutely no secret that I love this series, and this book has been at the top of my most anticipated releases since I finished book 2 in the Winternight series. I will start with saying that the series as a whole from me would get 5 stars but this book didn’t satisfy me in a way I had hoped it would.

It’s hard to review sequels – especially in a trilogy as far spanning as this one – without giving any spoilers away. This book picks up right in the action where the second book ended, and it definitely started as a 5* read. It was fast paced, exciting, starting to tie up loose ends and I loved it but I feel that some of it was unnecessary and ruined the plot for me. There is a lot going on in this book and at times, the action felt drawn out. Other times, I wanted it to move a little faster.

I love how Arden has blended medieval Russia and her fantasy world so seamlessly, I love how history, mythology, folklore and fairy tales have all been blended together. I found the afterword and the historical context to the series genuinely really interesting – not something I can often say about an afterword. I just feel there was something missing here, or maybe it was that there was too much to cram in to one final book, which left it feeling unresolved.

Vasya continues to be a fantastic character in this book; all the things I’ve loved about her in previous books come to a head and I felt in this book she became herself. She embraced all of her powers, and she owned them. She made decisions and stood by them. Everything she did she did of her own volition. Yet throughout the book her family is her main driving force, and I love that. I will say that there are a couple of scenes in which characters die – and those were intense, Vasya’s reactions were intense and believable and I felt emotionally invested in her.

Overall I felt this wasn’t the perfect ending at least for me. I will say it was a fantastic read, and I read it in the space of an afternoon. I just think it could have done with a bit of editing down, or a fourth book to properly develop some ideas. As with all the books in this series I listened to this as an audiobook and followed along with a print version and would very highly recommend this series on audio because it, somehow, makes it feel cosier. Perfect winter afternoon read in my eyes and I can’t wait to reread the series over the space of a weekend next winter!

Review: Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

007 - washington black

007 - washington black

★★★

Washington Black is a book that seemed to be everywhere last year – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and has won numerous accolades. Needless to say it was a book I approached with some trepidation as it had such high praise from so many different areas, including reviews from people I trust.

I will start with saying that the writing in this book is beautiful, and I will definitely be reading more of Edugyan’s work. I can completely understand why this book had so much praise heaped on it however I can’t ignore the fact there are a lot of issues here that just made this book unbelievable. One of the biggest issues for me was that the plot drove the characters, not the other way around. For a first person narrative it feels quite passive, and while I understand the book is written as someone (Wash) looking back on his life I didn’t feel there as if I were seeing things through his eyes and living it with him – it was very much this happened, then this happened, then this happened. All tell, no show. Then there’s the whole globetrotting element which is just absurd, it doesn’t seem to matter where in the world someone is they find exactly who they are looking for just around a corner – Canada, Barbados or the Arctic it doesn’t matter.

The book starts off really strong, with a particularly interesting take on slavery in the West Indies, I was interested in the direction I thought this book was going to take but then it just became both meh and far fetched beyond belief. Some bits of it were fascinating, and fantastic, and when it was good it was really good. Come the end though I was slogging through it just to say I’d finished.

Also, I listened to the audiobook for the most part and while it was for the most part fantastic narration, there’s a bit in it which really ground my gears. There’s a brief interaction with a Scottish character and I don’t know what accent the narrator was doing but it sure as hell was not Scottish. It was awful. Just putting that out there.

I gave this 3 stars in the end, the first third of the book was good, the writing as a whole was beautiful, but the actual plot – the absurd twists and the dull characters just made this so, so difficult to enjoy.

Review: Gene Machine – Venki Ramakrishnan

006 - gene machine

006 - gene machine

★★★★★

At heart I’m a scientist and one of my favourite places in my local bookshops is the Popular Science section. I love browsing the shelves, trying to find new areas of science to read for pleasure, or just going back to my favourite area of science which is molecular biology and genetics. This book was one of the latter and sounded right up my street – especially the front cover which just made me nostalgic for my final year project at university in which I spent hours on hours making protein models like the one on the cover of this. While you may think this book is heavy science, don’t let the cover fool you, it’s actually a very approachable and easy to read book.

For the most part this book a memoir and we follow Ramakrishnan from his relatively humble beginnings in India, through his entire academic career which reached it’s peak in 2009 when he (along with two others) won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their research in to ribosomes. Ribosomes are a fascinating piece of molecular machinery and are responsible for the generation of proteins yet they themselves are constructed of protein subunits – they’re a chicken/egg situation on a microscopic scale. While we get quite a lot of his research in here, there is a lot of science, it’s approachable from a non-specialist perspective in my opinion. There were a lot of things in here I didn’t know in spite of my “specialist” area of study being in protein biophysics!

But Ramakrishnan as a person was fascinating too. His story resonated with me in a lot of ways, he started as a physicist but slowly became involved in answering one of the most complex biological conundrums since the DNA double helix. It was refreshing to see someone who has achieved so much greatness admitting that it’s okay to change direction and do something else, however far down a path you may seem to be. His personal life is interesting too, and while he doesn’t touch on much of his marriage or family, he constantly acknowledged how supportive his family had been through his career. What I enjoyed was him putting in to words his rivalries and friendships with other scientists, especially those he did go on to jointly win the Nobel with. He seems to be a very humble man, who is able to admit that at some points he let the potential go to his head.

I’ve followed the Wellcome Prize now for 2 years and will most certainly be doing it again this year, so when I find a book as fantastic as this before a longlist I’m giving myself a pat on the back. If this isn’t longlisted for the Wellcome Prize next month I’ll eat my bobble hat because this book was amazing. I’d even go as far as to say that I already want this on the shortlist without knowing whats on the longlist. This man has had an incredible life, and an incredible career. What he discovered was groundbreaking, and reading the journey to his Nobel was immersive. I felt his highs and his lows, I felt it when the pace picked up and the race to get the final structure was on. Ultimately, this is how you do science books and I for one cannot wait to see what it’s up against in the Wellcome (if it isn’t longlisted, I’ll be baffled).