Review: Mayhem – Sigrid Rausing

016 - Mayhem

016 - Mayhem

Rating – 2*

Another day, another review for the Wellcome Prize longlist. Today I’m talking about Mayhem – which is a memoir about addiction and the impact it has on a family. While it was interesting, and intimate in parts, I didn’t find myself blown away by it, in fact I don’t feel there is much to say about it.

Rausing is the granddaughter of the man who found Tetra Pak, and her brother Hans is who this book is ultimately about. In 2012, after being arrested for possession of class A drugs, his London home was searched by the police where Eva – his then wife – was found dead. She had been dead for 2 months when the police found her. At the crux of it all was drugs – and this book (told from his sister Sigrid’s perspective) is essentially his side of the story, how he came to be addicted, how he and Eva tried to conquer their demons and ultimately the disease which is addiction.

I found the sections which focus on the science of addiction, the whole is it nature or is it nurture debate, really interesting and compelling. I can see why, based on these sections alone, it was longlisted but for me it lacked something. It was a personal story, but I felt constantly detached from the narrative. While I can tell that this is an emotional book for the author to write, it can’t have been easy reliving what was an absolutely awful period of history for her family, it came across to me as a bit narcissistic.

For me, personally, I don’t understand why this book is on the Wellcome longlist. It’s okay, it’s a memoir, but it doesn’t have that impact that things like When Breath Becomes Air or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks did – and they’re comparable having both been shortlisted (and winning) the prize in the past. On the whole, a bit of a miss for me.

Review: The Butchering Art – Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

014 - The Butchering Art

014 - The Butchering Art

Rating – 4*

This is the first of many reviews for books on the Wellcome Prize 2018 Longlist. It definitely isn’t for the squeamish reader as it is the very gruesome biography of Joseph Lister – the father of modern antiseptics.

Often the Victorian era is idealised, romanticised, the reality is that you were going to die, very young, of something that was most certainly preventable. It says something when surgery in your dining room was less likely to kill you than surgery in a hospital. In a hospital surgeons would wear the same clothes between patients, use instruments covered in blood, guts and gore from the previous surgery, they didn’t even think twice about using instruments they’d just used on an autopsy on a (still) living patient. Cross contamination and sepsis were significant causes of death – and leeches couldn’t fix everything. Surgery in the 1800s was a matter of speed – there wasn’t anaesthetic and things had to be done quickly to avoid excess blood loss and trauma, and of those who survived the majority then died because of post-operative infection.

Lister, as a young surgeon, saw a problem and decided he wanted to do something to try and fix it. His antiseptic theories were groundbreaking, and most certainly unpopular. He spent is career building the argument, and in the end even with evidence people were still against him. The backlash he faced seems ridiculous now – in a society which is so germ averse, with antibacterial hand wash on every wall in a hospital and most of us carrying it in a bag! But just 150 years ago it was reality, and he saved so many lives because he persevered.

Medical history isn’t something I can honestly say I’ve read about, obviously I know it’s there, and I knew of Joseph Lister and his importance but actually picking a book up about it is not something I would have done without the Wellcome Prize longlist. Ultimately I’m really glad I read this – Joseph Lister was an incredible man on a mission, and has changed all of our lives because of it.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a compelling story teller, that much is sure. This could have been a very, very dry book but it wasn’t and I think it’s because it was quite a personable account – rather than reading like a textbook it just reads like a biography but at the same time I feel I learnt a lot from it. I’ll definitely be recommending this to my stronger-stomached friends!

Review: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists – George Eliot

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

Rating – 3*

I have wanted to read this little essay collection by George Eliot for a very long time, and I thought that now was as good of a time as any. It’s a punchy little book in the Penguin Great Ideas series and contains half a dozen essays alongside the titular one.

Silly Novels is a 35 page essay in which Eliot criticises less able female authors of the period in which she is writing. She writes on how many writers perpetuated negative stereotypes of women which only enhanced the subjugation of women in history. She essentially summarises most novels of the time in one sweeping statement which covers pretty much all romantic novels written by women: a beautiful main character who falls in love with a member of nobility under exceptional circumstances. She argues that all these ‘silly novels’ give a bad name to the female novelist in general, which in turn makes it impossible for the actually talented authors to get recognition for their work. Hence why Eliot herself wrote under a male pseudonym, as did all three of the Bronte sisters.

The titular essay had me laughing, because what she outlines as the issue with many female novelists is still largely something I can relate to, especially when reading books from the same period in which she wrote.

However, while I loved the first essay – the first essay was marvellous – the remaining 4 or 5 didn’t quite hit the mark for me. They were a lot more specific reviews and essays which were more period specific and, from my perspective, not as easy related to. I found them quite hard to enjoy when I hadn’t read any of the source material which inspired them. As a result, I did find myself skimming a lot of the other essays as they just weren’t keeping my interest.

The tile essay though is a perfect look at 19th Century feminism, and a really good step up from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women which was published around 50 years prior at the turn of the century. There is an essay in which Mary Wollstonecraft is referenced, which is quite a nice step between the two!

I’d say this is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in essay collections, early feminism, or George Eliot in general. I’d also say that if you’ve read A Room of Ones Own or A Vindication of the Rights of Women this is definitely a good essay collection to pick up as it bridges the gap between the two. Woolf cites Eliot as one of her favourite novelists, and one of the only ‘grown up’ writers – and reading this I really get where she is coming from.

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Longlist Discussion

WBP Longlist

Happy Saturday my lovely readers, and welcome to a bonus post this week in which I am going to discuss my most anticipated bookish event of 2018 so far – the announcement of the Wellcome Book Prize longlist.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Wellcome Prize , to summarise it is an an annual prize and 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. And I love it.

Last year I managed to read the shortlist, this year I want to read the entirety of the longlist. As I write this I have already read 2 of the books – one is Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ which I read last Summer, and the second is The Butchering Art as when I was reading through the descriptions of each book that one was one I wanted to read asap. So I did.

So, without further ado, the books:-

 

Wellcome Longlist

image courtesy of WellcomeBookPrize.org

 

As you can see from the picture there is an enormous amount of variety – and something I am very happy about is the amount of books that I hadn’t even heard of on this list. I can say that there are 3 books here that I knew existed and the rest have me very, very excited (so excited that I have bought a huge number of them already!)

I’d be interested to hear if any of you reading this have seen any of these books (the ones I am familiar with are Stay With Me, The White Book and I Am, I Am, I Am – the rest I know nothing about!) and if you have read any too. If you have, are there any you think I ought to get to sooner rather than later?

The shortlist is announced on March 20th – thankfully a Tuesday (I don’t work Tuesdays) – and I’m hoping to have got through the bulk of this longlist by then. Needless to say I have a few very, very exciting reading weeks ahead of me and I for one cannot wait!

As I said above, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Wellcome Prize. For me it’s one of the most varied, vibrant literary prizes out there because it focuses across such a wide breadth of genres. I also think it’s a very accessible prize – those of you not as confident or comfortable reading science based non fiction can definitely still enjoy this prize as there’s a decent amount of variety and, for me at least, even the non-fiction is easy to read and get your teeth in to.

So, in the next few weeks you can expect to see all 12 (well, 11 because I don’t think I’ll be re-reading Stay With Me) of these books reviewed. Hopefully before March 20th! Wish me luck.

 

Review: Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World – Laura James

010 - Odd Girl Out

010 - Odd Girl Out

Rating – 4*

Odd Girl Out is a startlingly honest account of what it is to be on the autistic spectrum – and more importantly it’s an account from a female perspective. I wasn’t expecting this book to be as much of a memoir as it was, but that is by no means a bad thing as it added a dimension to the book I wasn’t expecting. Laura got her diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in her mid-forties, and the book follows her life from her diagnosis in August 2015 to December 2016 as she navigates life with the official “label” of ASD.

What I was expecting from this book I did get – an insight in to ASD in females. In females ASD is not picked up as readily because of how society views young girls and women, and because it has been found that females are mimetic of neurotypical behaviours and don’t ‘arise suspicion’ as easily as young boys and males with ASD. The science behind it is frankly incredible, and is something I find really interesting.

But, it was the personal experiences, the bit I wasn’t expecting, that I enjoyed more. The science is amazing but it’s that personal touch, her raw, honest experiences they were what got me most. I knew it was going to be a powerful book, but once I started reading I had to stop in places because I was nodding in agreement, or crying because I related. I related so much to so many of her experiences. While I’ve not been married, nor have I got children, a lot of the simple day-to-day examples of her life are things I understand. Sensory issues, struggling with daily tasks; she says how she often needs notes reminding her to do things that neurotypical people may find second nature such as getting dressed, eating, brushing their hair and cleaning their teeth. She goes on about how socialising is hard, as is understanding feelings and emotions. And I related so much more than I expected to, I underlined so much of this book because I saw myself in a lot of the pages.

On finishing this book I’m still undecided as to whether I want to go down the path of getting a diagnosis – is having another label going to be powerful? I don’t know. But I do know it is now something I am seriously considering because of this book. I would highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in behaviour, psychology; to anyone who has someone in their lives who has autism, and generally anyone who wants to read some non-fiction because it’s an amazing book with an incredibly important topic at the centre.

Rating: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie – Kathryn Harkup

009 - A Is for Arsenic

009 - A is for Arsenic

Rating – 3*

I am going to preface this review with a rather profound statement – I have never read any of Agatha Christie’s books. Not one. It’s not that I don’t own them, I have a fair collection of them in fact, it’s just I’m not a big reader of crime fiction. However, when I saw this book I was intrigued because (as many of you who have been here a long time will know) I’m actually a scientist and this seemed like a rather perfect crossover for someone who loves both books and science.

While the book is written primarily for those who have read Christie’s work, I don’t feel I lost much by having not read any of her novels. Each chapter focuses on one branch of poison featured in a book, and how it is highlighted within the said book, but there are also real life stories about the poisons, their history, the science of how they work and where relevant there is also information on antidote and how the situation could have been avoided. On the whole it’s a really well rounded book, and actually has me a little excited to pick up some Christie at some point soon!

There is a lot of science in this book, it’s quite high level, and you don’t need a degree to understand it, but it really made it more interesting for me. Christie would have had to understand a lot of this information in order to make the stories work, and what surprised me most is that she was an apothecary assistant/dispenser before she was published – she had the most incredible breadth of knowledge of chemistry and pharmacology which only benefited her writing.

I absolutely would have loved to have read this during my degree – it would have been the foundation of a pretty amazing essay during my 3rd year had I have done! So, if you have a morbid curiosity for poisons, or love Agatha Christie, or just fancy picking up some interesting non-fiction, I’d highly recommend this book.

 

Review: Parsnips, Buttered – Joe Lycett

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

Rating – 4*

To start 2018 I have been on a bit of a comedian book binge. One of my friends read this and gave it 4* on goodreads, as such I wanted to read it because the few times I’ve seen Joe Lycett on my tellybox he’s had me crying with laughter. This book really didn’t disappoint – especially in audio format – and I was laughing throughout. I bought a physical copy on top of the audiobook because I knew I had to give it to my mum to read – and she’s already finished it. She’s not a reader by any stretch of the word, so it’s definitely a good one!

It’s hard to categorise this book, because it’s not much of anything. It’s not really a memoir, but equally it isn’t a self-help book. It is instead a collection of anecdotes and letters/emails that Joe has sent to various bodies/organisations – including a whole section on how he got out of his parking fine, how to annoy scammers, and generally how to wind up people you just don’t like very much. Joe is someone who is just full of energy and mischief, and definitely someone we could all take a bit of inspiration from.

The book itself is absolutely bonkers, but in between all the crazy there are moments where he raises important issues like homophobia, and also terrorism. He has no issue with calling a spade a spade, and manages to make very intense subjects lighthearted and something that, as a reader, I was able to laugh at. While they were funny, it wasn’t that he wasn’t taking them seriously, it was just dealt with in a way which made it entertaining.

I’d highly recommend this book if you like a good laugh, or you just want to learn how to challenge a parking fine. As I said, I listened to it as an audiobook but the physical book is also a beautiful thing with illustrations and the like throughout and I’d recommend both equally!

Review: How to be Champion – Sarah Millican

048 - How to be Champion

Rating – 3*

I love Sarah Millican. She’s one of the few comics I’ve seen live, and is funnier every time I watch the DVD. I can’t wait to see her again in March, because she makes me laugh so much I ache for a couple of days. She is one of the most genuine, lovely people I’ve ever had a like from on Twitter (she’s up there with Clare Balding folks) and everything she stands for I feel passionately about. That’s why it hurts me to say that I only liked this book – I didn’t love it and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, comedians writing books I love, and this is no exception to the fact. I listened to this as an audiobook, and that in itself was a joy. I think maybe if I had paired it with a physical copy of the book I would have enjoyed it far more. Sometimes an audiobook works, sometimes it doesn’t – in this case I think a combination of the two would have made this book a 4 or 5 star read for me. Mainly because Sarah likes lists (I like lists, who doesn’t like lists?!) and they’re most certainly things better read than listened to. On the whole though, I would recommend the audiobook because nothing beats the book being read how the author intended it to be!

The book is a series of anecdotes from Sarah’s life – from her childhood in the North East, with miners strikes and weekend jobs at WHSmith, right the way up to the present day. It covers all of her life quite concisely with a smattering of advice and I really liked that. I love a memoir/biography that throws in some life lessons and I think one of the biggest messages I took from it is love yourself. At the end of each chapter she gives a tip on ‘how to be a champion’ and I looked forward to each of them!

I gave this book 3 stars, and I feel awful about it. 3 stars on goodreads is a solid “I liked it” – and I did, I really did. I really hope she does more writing in the future because I find her so relatable and easy to read. The book did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (which was difficult to keep down when I was listening to it, trying to sleep, at 2am). I love what she has to say about body image, mental health and self-esteem. I just found a lot of it repetitive and not entirely my cup of tea, which makes me very, very sad.

Sarah is fantastic, and this book is definitely a read for anyone who – like me – loves the woman. She’s witty, sarcastic, and so many other wonderful things – this book really does show all of that. The book is champion, it really is, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea.

I’d recommend anyone who is a fan of her check out the Standard Issue podcast – the magazine was fantastic; the podcast is just a step up from it and I for one love it. It’s a podcast with women, by women, for anyone. It’s a lovely podcast of female empowerment and women standing up for other women, seriously recommend it.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

046 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rating – 5*

Putting my feelings for this book in to coherent sentences is going to be hard. This is a book I’ve been aware of long before I started my degree, and I really wish I had read it prior to university because it would have given me a different aproach to my day to day lab work. I knew her name, which is more than many scientists did, but when dealing with cell cultures it’s sometimes difficult to remember that every cell came from somewhere, and in many cases came from someone. More importantly, the immortal cell line – HeLa – which came from her tumor has changed the lives of everyone alive today. Yet, she was unknown until 20 years after the biopsy was taken, and she doesn’t get thanks for that.

This book was so much more than a book about cells – I’ve read many of books about cells and this wasn’t comparable to any of them. This is the biography of a woman science – the world – needs to remember the name of. Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of 5 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and unknown to her or her family the doctor took two biopsies that day. One would diagnose her with cancer, the other would go on to be the most prolific cell line in history. HeLa cells have gone on to change the world – they were instrumental in the development of medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, they’ve been in to space, they’ve changed the face of science and medicine to what we now know it. But this is a book about the woman behind that immortal cell line; the mother, sister, wife, cousin, and friend. It’s a book full of compassion and it made me cry because I know just how instrumental this woman has been in my life.

The story in these pages is not an easy read. It covers race, religion, discrimination of many kinds, the American medical system (which to this day horrifies me), medical ethics, rights to our bodies and tissues – what it covers seems to be endless. There is also a brief touch on mental health in the book, due to one of Henrietta’s children – Elsie – suffering from epilepsy and being institutionalised at a very young age. While we never know the exact details of how the poor girl was treated while in the ‘care’ home, the general opinion on what was likely to have occurred sent a shiver down my spine. But for me, the thing which gave me most hope, was that education is power. Deborah, one of Henrietta’s children, armed with a dictionary and google, was determined to learn as much about her mother and what her cells have done for the world as possible.

Rebecca Skloot is a fantastic journalist who became fascinated by the story of the woman behind the cells when she was in college. She knew from a reasonably early point in her career that this was the book she wanted to write because the more she understood, the more she wanted to know about Henrietta. She handles this book with extreme grace and compassion, with very much overdue respect and gratitude to the family in every page of this book.

Honestly, this book is one that will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s not your typical, stodgy non-fiction as it’s more about the woman, not the science. It’s approachable and informative, and a very much deserved winner of the Wellcome Prize in 2010. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I leave you on this note:- HeLa cells, which were taken from the tumour on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix – were found to contain human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18). HPV-18 is one of the strains of HPV which can cause cervical cancer, and in 2006 the cell line from Henrietta was used to develop a vaccine which is now given to all female school children in the UK (and many countries worldwide) which has, on estimate, cut cervical cancer cases by two thirds in 10 years. It’s by no means a cure, but it reduces the risk. That, for me, is something I feel both Henrietta (and her family) should be very proud of.

Review: Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

043 - Other Minds

Rating – 4*

I was drawn in to this book by the cover – it wasn’t something I had planned on picking up or reading, yet the octopus on the front drew me in and I read it cover to cover in two sittings.

I have a bit of a history with the octopus – back in my first year of university I wrote an essay about them, and in researching them I became fascinated by the whole family of cephalopods. They are such interesting, inteligent creatures and this book explores the evolution of them compared to us. I was also quite keen on evolutionary biology when at university (although, let’s not talk about that exam) and it’s one of those subjects that I just love reading about for pleasure. This book brought together two aspects of my degree that I loved, and as such I really enjoyed this book.

One of the most incredible sections of this book – one that I read more than once – was the section about how cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish and squid are able to change colours. Now that in itself isn’t surprising, most people know that they’re able to change colour, what actually made me quite sad was the revalation in this book that they are all likely colourblind so can’t see the beauty themselves. I also found the section on the aging of the animals an interesting read because I was niavely under the impression that they could live for many years but that’s a misconception and they’re lucky if they live past one breeding season (in the case of females).

The author explores the development of the cephalopod brain and compares it to our own. He highlights how the development of mammalian and avian brains differs to that of cephalopods, and how differently we process information. What is established in this book is that cephalopods look at the word in a very different way to us (in spite of the fact that eyes and vision in general is quite similar, though evolved completely independently from each other). The stark differences between mammalian and cephalopod brains and cognition is likely the closest we’ll ever get to exploring the concept of alien intelligence because neural pathways and the brain in cephalopods evolved separately to those same traits in the mammalian world.

Putting it in to perspective, biologically an octopus is more closely related to a snail than humans, yet psychologically and on an intellectual level an octopus is very close to humans.

My only wish is that there was more science in it. I found that there was often tangents and side-notes, and it erred into the realms of philosophy opposed to science which is fine in moderation but I felt it happened all too often. I’d have loved for this book to have been a few pages longer and just rounded off less abruptly. But on the whole, I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to someone looking for something a little different to read – it’s a very approachable book and the audiobook is absolutely fantastic (but you’ll miss out on the pictures of octopuses and cuttlefish).