Review: Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

038 - Jerusalem

Rating – 3*

Jerusalem is, for me, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. While I have never been there, it is probably one of those cities on my very short travel list because it is so historically rich. I’m going to say that this book will definitely not be for everyone and I respect that. For me, it’s just a fascinating topic that I wanted to learn more about (not being at uni has done wonders for my general knowledge!)

This book is a biography of the city of Jerusalem. Montefiore takes us on a journey from 2000 BC to the present day. Starting with the birth of Judaism, moving in to Christianity and Islam, this book avoids religious bias admirably; I think all three of these sections were handled really well. While it is natural that there is more Jewish history in Jerusalem, I think fair amounts of information were given to both Christianity and Islam without any bias in spite of the authors own family connections with Jerusalem and coming from a Jewish background. I find the origins of religion fascinating, and I think that is partly why I was so drawn to this book, as I find the basis of the three Abrahamic religions really interesting. Jerusalem is considered to be the birth place of all three, or at least in some peoples eyes, it is most certainly still a Holy city for all three religions. The city itself went back and forth under Jewish, Christian, and Muslim control many times over the years, and for me that’s something that is really very interesting to learn about as it’s not something that I’ve ever been taught.

This book also covers so much more than religion. There is sections of it dedicated to the Ottoman empire, the world wars, how conflict and xenophobia has had a role in the shaping of the city. Interestingly, there was a chapter on the six day war which is, shamefully, a conflict I have only recently become aware of due to my reading of Salt Houses. I’ve always dismissed modern history, I’ve always been more interested in ancient history – but if I’m entirely honest this era of history is something which I’m very glad that I’ve read about, and been able to research and understand. Education is so sheltered and whitewashed, for me I love to see it from different perspectives and learn about things that aren’t taught on the national curriculum.

Montefiore’s writing is fantastic – a lot of this read more like fiction because he tends to focus on one person in history and tell a snippet of the history of the city from their perspective (not first person, but you get my drift). Key figures map out the history and for me, that really made this book more palatable than some history books.

My only issue with this book is that it was heavy going. There was a lot of information – it covered over 3000 years of history – that in itself is not an issue, what my issue was with is the footnotes. SO MANY FOOTNOTES. The fact is that for me many of them could have been included in the bulk of the text, or put to the back of the book wherein supplementary information could be looked at if you wanted to. Instead they sometimes take up half a page and it’s just really frustrating for me as a reader! I also feel that there could have been a disclaimer that part of this book is his own family history – while that became pretty obvious while reading it, I felt a bit annoyed that it wasn’t something that was outright mentioned in the introduction – call me a bit silly if you like!

I’m really looking forward to picking up the other non-fiction book I have by Montefiore (The Romanovs) – but I think I’ll be reading that in quite a while because this is a book I feel I need to fully digest! His writing is great, and very engaging, and I feel like I’ve achieved something from reading this book. It’s a solid 3* and I’ll be picking up more books by Montefiore, and on Jerusalem!

Review: Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine

031 - Testosterone Rex

Rating – 3*

After the horror show that was the representation of women in my previous read, I decided to clear my mind and read a book on gender theory/feminism. I needed to cleanse my soul with something just like this. I actually bought this book because 1) the title made me laugh and 2) the cover is gorgeous. I did briefly read the blurb and picked it up because it sounded right up my alley.

I’ve never read any of Fine’s work before, though after reading this I have since purchased Delusions of Gender, which I am already looking forward to reading as I feel it would give this book a little more meaning.

Testosterone Rex is a relatively short book which aims to debunk the gender myth, or more particularly the “boys will be boys” stance and the universal blame of testosterone for all male behaviours. It’s a good book, for the most part, and it conveys some really important information. For me though, and this is just an opinion, it could have been put across in a much more approachable manner. What could have been pretty straight forward, with real world examples was often over complicated for someone who doesn’t have a background in social sciences or gender studies. Often I found myself scanning through the information in front of me and not fully understanding what was going on until the end of a section.

There were some really, really good bits in this book which I really enjoyed, other bits not so much. The book itself is split in to three main sections – past, present, and future. I found the first 70 or so pages on the past really engaging; honestly those set the book up as a 5* read for me. I also really enjoyed the future section, albeit it was only one chapter but I found the look in on gendering of childrens toys interesting and actually something I’d have liked elaborated on further. For me, what let this book down, was the middle – the present – and it was just that it was so dense.

This is by far the most academic book I’ve read on feminism, and I’m glad it wasn’t my first as it would have put me off the genre of ‘feminist non fiction’ (if there is such a genre!) for life – it would have scared me away because it’s very in depth, and often I couldn’t make out the wood from the trees. The best way to describe this would be a dissertation on gender studies, but without a clear conclusion, rather an overarching sentiment throughout for you to draw your own conclusion.

It’s most certainly not a book for people new to feminist non-fiction, but I would say it’s a good book to pick up if you’re new to – or even wanting to try picking up for the first time – more academic non-fiction and essay collections, because it is most definitely an academic text opposed to a ‘popular non-fiction’ book.

As I said, I’m looking forward to reading Delusions of Gender because if Goodreads is to be believed, that book is a LOT more popular than this!

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: 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.

Wellcome Prize 2017

Over the weekend I made what I would call a slightly bonkers decision – on flicking through the internet, trying to find what books to read next – I was looking at prize lists and finding no inspiration. Then I found a blog post somewhere which reminded me of the existence of the Wellcome Prize.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual prize. Eligible books are those which have central themes of medicine, health, illness, or biosciences. Because of this broad criteria the lists of books nominated are from a number of genres – both fiction and non-fiction, but can span across any sub-genres of those.

The Wellcome website says this:

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

Wellcome 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist 2017

The shortlist this year is a combination of books I have had on my radar, books I have already read, and books that having read the blurb I can’t wait to read. Needless to say I’m excited.

The winner will be announced on April 24th 2017 and I’m hoping to get through the 5 I haven’t read in that time. My review of The Tidal Zone – which I read last year but didn’t get around to reviewing – will be coming later this week.

If anyone has read any of the shortlist and wants to push me towards a particular book, I’m always open to suggestions, and I’m always happy to talk about books – and I really think these will all generate some discussion!

Review: In Order to Live – Yeonmi Park

018 - In Order to LiveThis review is going to be short. I don’t think I can be coherent about this book in the slightest, and I definitely don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to express everything I felt while reading this book.

The subtitle of this book – A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom – sums it up.

Yeonmi is my age. 8 weeks older than me in fact. And her life, it’s not something I could even imagine. I’m by no means sheltered, I’m aware of the atrocities in this world, but the extremes that this woman has been through in her short life are just beyond my comprehension. My knowledge of North Korea is very limited, as is most peoples knowledge to be honest, but this insight has definitely made me want to research it further.

There aren’t really any words, as I said. This book had me in tears. It’s by no means an easy read, but it’s probably one that has changed my life in a way. I honestly believe this is a book that needs to be on the school curriculum. It’s not a difficult read in the literary sense, but the material in it is often quite difficult to comprehend and process.

I chose not to rate this book. Not because I was undecided, because it’s an incredible book. But to me, this book isn’t about stars/ratings – it’s about something so much bigger than that, and to rate it would be to trivialise what this book represents.

Read it. Listen to it. Tell other people to do the same. This is such an important book, and I can’t believe all what Yeonmi has been through in the same length of time on Earth as me. She’s an incredible young woman and one more people should know the name of.

Review: Junk DNA – Nessa Carey

016 - Junk DNA

Rating – 3*

I was missing science – having finished lectures nearly a year ago now I was hankering to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Genetics is something I didn’t study in depth during the course of my degree (I favoured more protein based science which did require basic knowledge of genetics but nothing which really complex) but it is something that I have always loved learning about. I previously read Nessa Carey’s Epigentics Revolution way back in 2012 before I even started my degree and when I saw she had another book out I had to get in there because I remember loving the way she explained things and learning a lot from what I was reading.

This book explains things well too. She uses analogies (which I am very appreciative of) and it makes the book much more approachable for the keen ‘amateur’ scientist – someone who has a GCSE in the subject and a keen interest. For me, it was a great refresher on some of the basics and a more focused look on the complexities and I really enjoyed it.

Ultimately, Junk DNA is nothing of the sort – about 98% of human DNA doesn’t code for proteins, and is therefore considered ‘not-necessary’, or junk. However, as research has progressed it’s become pretty clear that the non-coding, or junk, regions of DNA are actually crucial to the healthy function of cells. Alterations in these non-coding regions result in significant disabilities and can prove fatal.

There is a link back to her previous book on epigenetics also. Epigenetics is the modification of DNA which does not change the sequence of the genetic code – this is most commonly done by adding groups on to that well known structure of a double helix without changing any of the functionality of the DNA. In this book Carey links the importance of ‘junk’ DNA and epigenetics in linking the malfunctions and human diseases.

As someone who has a background in science, I enjoyed this but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I think having really enjoyed her first book I had high hopes for this one, and while I did learn from it I found bits of it quite difficult to get through and, as such, it took me a month to read this end to end. Which, I do realise isn’t bad by any standards but it didn’t have me as gripped as Epigenetics Revolution did in the past.

If you have an interest in genetics, this is definitely worth considering as a book to pick up! If you don’t, then I’d advise you avoid this book.