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).

Blog:- Hello 2019| General Update & Bookish Goals

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Hello and welcome to a new look on Ashleigh’s Bookshelf. After a rather long hiatus, I decided the best way to get back to blogging, and excited about it, was to give the blog itself a bit of a facelift. So, here we have it. It’s purple and inspired by my tattoos in that it’s watercolour-y in theme and I hope you like it! It’s still in progress, and if you have any suggestions or feedback just drop me a message.

The reason there weren’t any posts for the last 3 or 4 months of 2018 is simple – I wasn’t reading. After a few really good months over the Summer my reading motivation just slumped, my reading consisted of Harry Potter fan fiction and I’m not ashamed in the slightest. I bought a PS4 and have rediscovered a love of gaming (Tomb Raider mainly). I’ve been watching movies, drinking wine and making memories with friends. For me, the last few months of 2018 were some of the happiest I’ve had, and before I knew it it’d been 3 months and I hadn’t picked up a book.

Looking back on my reading in 2018 one of the things which I found most rewarding was reading the Wellcome prize longlist – something I hope to do again this year. The longlist is released next month and I actually can’t wait! I’m going to be more about balance this year, as I feel that it’s something I almost conquered towards the end of 2018 and that I want to carry forward. I’ve decided to be less about quantity of books and more about quality and the value they add to my life, so my goals for this year are:-

  • Read one book a week
  • Read more non-fiction
  • If you don’t like it, DNF it.

And reading is going to naturally take a backseat when I’m focusing my time on other things too. For a long while all of my free time was used reading, but I’m enjoying having that variety in my free time and it means I’m enjoying and appreciating things more!

As for the blog – reviews will happen when books are read, I may also do monthly updates again- games I’m playing and movies I’ve watched as well as books.

But for now, I will say goodbye and we shall speak soon!

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Review: Behave – Robert Sapolsky

028 - Behave

028 - Behave

Rating – 3*

This was another book on the Wellcome longlist, and one that as soon as I read about I knew I wanted to read. It was possibly one of the more difficult books to read – it came in at around 800 pages with footnotes and appendices – and while not easy to read, it certainly was an enlightening one.

The first 100 pages are essentially a neuroscience and behaviour primer. To understand the rest of the book, it’s essential to grasp the basics. I appreciated this as I have not done any neuroscience, or behavioural science, ever. The book spans history, and how our brains have influenced behaviour – and how we’ve learnt from history too.

There are sections on many controversial topics, and while I don’t agree with his politics or his view points on many of them, he does at least attempt to give both sides of an argument. I found the chapter on crime and punishment fascinating, how we deal with criminals, and criminal behaviour and how that links in to their own biochemistry. Also, a rather controversial topic is youth offenders – can we really punish them as adults when the prefrontal cortex of their brain hasn’t fully developed until early to mid-twenties? The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain which deals with reasoning and logic. It doesn’t skirt around difficult topics, that much is sure.

Where his passions really shone through is in the area he is famous for – primate behaviour. I know nothing about this area, but one of my friends is an anthropologist and when she found out I had this book was itching to get her hands on it (so she’s borrowing it!) as his research on primate behaviour is internationally renowned. Having had her explain things to me, and then reading this book, I think I understand why she likes him so much as an author because the bit of the book on that subject was possibly one of the more readable sections!

Of all the books I’ve read for the prize (and I succeeded in all but one of the longlist), this was certainly the most academic of them. In parts it read a bit too much like a textbook, which is why I found myself drifting in and out of focus while reading it, and why I ultimately gave it only 3 stars. It isn’t that it is bad, it’s that it’s dense – it’s a very, very vast topic and it’s dealt with incredibly well. It’s just dense. I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge this book on my reading experience – the content was incredible, the writing was good, but my attention span waned and that’s my reasoning for 3 stars.

I think if this book were to be released as an audiobook, I’d jump on it because I do think I’d be able to take a hell of a lot more in that way! Come the 200 page mark I was itching for an audio version of this book – and unfortunately it doesn’t exist on Audible UK!

Needless to say, I had my issues with this book. It wasn’t bad, it was just clunky! Definitely one which will be better on audio, and definitely one to be read slowly. Even over 10 days I think I may have read it too fast!

Review: Plot 29 – Allan Jenkins

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027 - Plot 29

Rating – 2*

I am getting so close to finishing the longlist of the Wellcome prize now (as I write this it is the 15th of March and I have 5 days before the shortlist is announced and 2 books to finish!).

Plot 29 is a book which I found quite confusing. I think as a memoir around fostering, childhood neglect, and the struggle of finding a biological family it would be good, and as a book about keeping an allotment it would be good, however the combination of the two I found rather bizarre if I am entirely honest and something that as I reader I didn’t enjoy all that much. As with another memoir on the list I really struggled to find how this is relevant to bioscience or health – the link is just too tenuous for me (especially as I believe it was put on the list because of the mental health aspect of the piece, which I didn’t even pick up on!) So, for me this wasn’t really something I would have continued reading if it wasn’t for me wanting to read the entire longlist cover to cover!

The book essentially revolves around a year on an allotment in London – Plot 29 – which Jenkins is caring for. The book is based around this plot, and the year in a life of it. But that’s where the logic to the chronology ends. Within chapters there is so much jumping about, one moment we’re in 2016/17 and the next we’re in another decade – even the flashbacks and fragments of the past aren’t in any sort of order. This for me made even the major personal events in the book really anticlimactic and dull. And they shouldn’t have been, as I said initially if this book focused solely on his experience as a foster child, finding biological relatives, and also followed a logical chronology I think it could have been a really powerful piece of writing.

Unfortunately this book wasn’t for me – I feel a bit like it was mis-sold if I’m entirely honest. I appreciate this is someone’s life, and I am not in any way saying that it wasn’t moving but I found that as a book the way it was positioned felt a bit cramped. I find it interesting that it was originally to be a book about gardening and a year in an allotment with a little bit of personal stuff thrown in, but over time it grew in to what it became. I know a lot of people who have loved this book, and will love this book if they read it – but if we all liked the same things it’d be a dull old world!

Review: To Be a Machine – Mark O’Connell

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025 - To be a Machine

Rating – 2*

Another day, another book on the Wellcome prize long list! Today it’s To Be a Machine – a book which is essentially about how technology may one day help us avoid death. I don’t really know how to describe this book as, well, I didn’t really enjoy it!

Transhumanism is at its core the art of extending life using technology to do so – ideas like uploading our consciousness on to data chips, and cryogenic freezing are just the tip of the iceberg (if you’ll pardon the poor taste pun there!) of what this subject encompasses. If I’m entirely honest, I’m not all that interested in what this book was talking about which is maybe why I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

I feel that this book could have been an essay outlining the key points – I found the interviews with people who are very much in to the transhumanism movement a bit eye roll worthy, and I found the writing often crude and jarring. I’ve no issue with swearing or anything of the sort in context, but in this book I just didn’t feel it suited the tone. It was just over 250 pages and, honestly, it could have been something a lot more profound if it were half the length.

For me this just wasn’t something I enjoyed reading. I know a lot of people have really loved this book based on the goodreads reviews, but it just didn’t quite hit the right mark for me. I also feel that as I get further through the Wellcome longlist it’s becoming harder to not compare books to each other – and compared to some of those I have read recently this is a little short of the mark.

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Shortlist Predictions

WBP Shortlist Predictions

On Tuesday the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced – as I have read 10 of the books, am part way through the 11th and may or may not get to the 12th I wanted to take some time out of a snowy Saturday afternoon to discuss my feelings on all of the books longlisted, and make a prediction of what Tuesday might hold.

I for one love these types of posts, I love reading them, I love watching people on YouTube make similar content, and I’ve never read enough of a prize longlist to partake in the discussion. This is going to be a long one, but I’m not even going to say sorry.

Reading this years longlist has been an absolute joy and a pleasure and something I will definitely be doing in the future years. I absolutely can’t wait to see what decision the judges make this year because whatever they pick as the winner, it won’t have been picked easily. Books focusing around biosciences and health are becoming increasingly popular and in this ever growing genre I think that it’s going to become harder and harder to narrow it down to 12 books, never mind to pick just one book from that pile to “crown”.

The 12 books on the longlist this year were all amazing in their own way, even if I didn’t enjoy them myself. However, for me the shortlist is quite clear – but I’d be happy if I managed to get even 2 right. I’m going to list the books on my dream shortlist by author surname:-

  • Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • The Butchering Art – Lindsey Fitzharris
  • In Persuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli
  • With The End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix
  • Behave – Robert Sapolsky
  • The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

I think a few of them are likely to be wrong – for me this year the fiction wasn’t as strong as in previous years – and often a lot of the links were tenuous. I also didn’t particularly enjoy any of the memoirs on the list which was a bit disheartening for me as someone who usually enjoys a memoir! It wasn’t that they weren’t interesting, it was that in more than one case I found that I was confused as to why they were on the longlist and they felt out of place.

For me though, the 6 books I have listed above stand above the rest. Stay With Me was one of those books that  I wasn’t expecting to love as much as I did, I and it’s stuck with me in the 9 months since I read it. I think it looks at both culture and infertility in interesting ways, and I feel that of all the fiction this one ‘fitted the brief’ best. It’s been a long time since I read it, and I made the decision to not reread it – maybe if it is shortlisted I will reread it.

The Butchering Art and also The Vaccine Race are very similar books with very different topics – and of the two I did prefer The Buthering Art. The former is about the history of surgery and how one man – Joseph Lister – changed medicine from something that was almost medieval and pretty certain to get you killed to something more like what we know today. He ‘discovered’ hospital hygiene, implemented things like sterilising and life expectancy soared because of it. The later is about the history of the immunisation, and the race to formulate one before more people died. While it missed the mark on the most part for me, it was nonetheless an approachable book which dealt with difficult topics in a good way. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad.

In Pursuit of Memory is the story of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – it’s both personal and scientific, for me it was a really powerful and informative read. I really enjoyed the way the book was put across, and I think it was a really good grounding for something that affects so many of us.

Behave is the book I’m currently only 15% through but already I can tell it’s a good one. Maybe not the best book I’ve ever read, but definitely good. However, the reason I’m hesitant to add it to the list (and it was the one I debated over most) is that it is dense, it is more academic (in spite of the dust jacket saying it was a really good book for non-specialists) and I’m not sure I particularly enjoy everything that is being said. However, I think it is an incredible feat of science and with time and patience I’m working my way through it slowly!

Finally, finally, I want to talk about With the End in Mind which is by far and away the best book on this list in my opinion. My review for that book has done crazy things, but with every share of it I feel a sense of pride because people are reading my review and taking the time to share it with people, people who don’t normally read, people who are scared of death and what it means and that’s what I wanted when I read this book. The traffic I’ve been getting is incredible – and all because of one review about a topic that is so taboo. When I read the book I knew all I wanted to do is tell people about it. I wanted to share it because it felt so, so very special when I read it. It has helped me, and I want it to help others. The fact that people have been taking time to read my review and then share it – to the point a UK based palliative care charity acknowledged it – is incredible and something very, very special because I had no idea it would do that. For a book about death it certainly uplifted me – and also made me shed a tear. For me this is the winner. I don’t care what the judges say, this book needs to be in hospitals, it needs to be given to relatives who are approaching a difficult junction in their lives. I could talk about this book for hours, in fact I probably have already and I only finished it 10 days ago.

But, now I’ve made my views known I’d love for you to share your opinions on the books on the longlist and what ones you think ought to be picked for the shortlist.

All I will say is I’m glad I don’t work Tuesdays because I absolutely cannot wait to see the special 6 announced on the 20th!

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend

Review: In Pursuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli

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024 - In Pursuit of Memory

Rating – 4*

Happy Friday folks, and today I am treating you to another Wellcome Prize longlisted book review. This time it is In Pursuit of Memory – the biography of a disease which affects far too many of us in one way or another – Alzheimer’s.

This book is both a personal account, the authors own motivations and reasoning to the research in to this subject and also a definitive overview of where research is now and what life looks like with Alzheimer’s disease. His own motivations into researching this subject is his beloved grandfather who was showing the early symptoms when the author was just 12. It is this what motivated him to become who he is today, one of the most respected Alzheimer’s disease experts

For me this contained just the right amount of history, science, and personal opinion. There was a good balance of all three and I never found myself bored. I also found that while there was quite a bit of science in here it wasn’t overwhelming so someone who just has a personal interest in the topic would be able to follow this and learn from it quite easily. The personal stories, not just of the authors family but of other families he has spoken to in the making of this book, touched me. Everyone has a very different story with this disease, and it makes me very sad that we still don’t know very much about it.

What I did find fascinating was the more population based genetics behind Alzheimer’s – for example people in Iceland don’t seem to develop it due to a mutation in their DNA. The close knit community which descends from a very small gene pool have pretty much eradicated the heritable genetic factor which is known to cause the disease. Whereas there’s communities in India and Columbia where the inverse is true, the small gene pool has resulted in nearly everyone in the family or the community as a whole having the mutation which increases likelihood of succumbing to Alzheimer’s. I find things like that absolutely incredible!

I think it’s the balance of the emotional and personal side and the scientific side which makes this book so special. I think had I read it a little bit after With the End in Mind I may have rated it 5* – because it is a fantastic book, but that was still weighing heavily on my thoughts and probably impacted how I felt about this book.

Definitely worth a read if you have any interest in Alzheimer’s, memory, or general science non-fiction!

 

Review: With the End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix

023 - With the End in Mind

023 - With the End in Mind

Rating – 5*

Hands down this book is one of the best I have read this year – possibly ever. It was by no means an easy read, but it was incredible and trying to put in to words the profound affect this book has already had on me is difficult.

Dr Kathryn Mannix is a palliative care consultant – she has seen a lot of people dying and, in this book, is trying to relieve the stigma that modern society has around death and the process of dying. It is something as natural as birth and waits for us all but it’s something we don’t really talk about, least of all with those people in our lives who it really matters to talk about it with!

She explores the pattern of dying – what most people experience at any rate. But rather than doing it in medical jargon she tells stories – the patients who lives (and deaths) touched her in some way. The care she and her teams over the years have for patients in their final minutes is the care we all wish we could experience, but fear among loved ones means that often that gentle, understanding death doesn’t happen. She takes time to explain to loved ones the patterns, what they can expect and honestly, it is the frank and honest conversation that so many more people should have when keeping vigils at someones bedside. I know I’d have benefited from this woman – or even this book – 3 and a half years ago when I said goodbye to my grandmother.

This book had me sobbing. Fat, ugly tears. Each chapter is someones story, their life, their death, and what she as a clinician learnt from them. She does justice to each one of the lives she tells in this book, she handles them all with grace and dignity. Equally, parts of this book had me laughing. That is something I was definitely not expecting in a book about death! At some points I was somehow doing both simultaneously.

Mannix does also tell some personal stories – how sitting on the other side of the fence (so to speak) with her own grandmother was something which only made her a better doctor, it was something she learnt from. And also how she had the conversation with her son when their cat had been injured and wasn’t going to survive. I’m not going to lie, I cried when the cat died too.

I cannot praise this book enough. So far it’s a head and shoulders above the rest on the long list and, honestly, if this doesn’t get short listed I may well kick off! As I said at the start, it is by no means an easy read but I think it’s a necessary read for so many people. Death shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it and this book is absolutely hammering this point home.

I put on twitter that I’d like this to be on prescription – and I really thing it ought to be. Maybe not prescription, but it should definitely be handed out to people facing an imminent death of a loved one.

My only criticism is that in parts it was repetitive, but honestly every time I felt that it affected me just as much. It was an absolutely beautiful book, and so far it’s my front runner.

I would also like to say that I listened to this as an audiobook in parts, I found that a really good way to take it in. Elizabeth Carling was a fantastic narrator for this, her tone was just right and it really had a positive impact on my overall feelings about this book. If you’re a little unsure about it, definitely give the audiobook a go because it was marvellous.

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

In the last week I’ve somehow managed to get through 4 of the Wellcome Book Prize long listed books. This was the first of them, and actually one of my more anticipated books on the longlist as it’s by an author who I’ve heard of! This will be a relatively short review as the book itself was only 130 pages or so long!

The White Book by Han Kang is a rather short and sparse book, and one that having read I’m confused as to why it appears on the longlist. It’s a ‘concept’ book in my eyes, the writing is short and punchy, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, it’s vague and focuses very heavily on imagery.

The story behind this book is the loss her parents experienced when her oldest sister was born two months premature in a harsh winter and there was no way that she’d survive. It is heavily biographical, and I think the experimental nature of the writing comes from it being a cathartic piece that was meant for her more than anyone else. There is a lot of blank space – white space if you will – and some of it reads like poetry, some of it like prose. Some of it is vague and out there other parts are clear as a bell. There’s a disparity to this book and, for some reason, it just didn’t settle with me.

It was a powerful book in parts, the parts directly dealing with loss, grief, premature birth and the things which this book was nominated for the Wellcome Prize for were great but, as far as the prose goes I felt it was a bit too far out there for me! I’m not going to say it was a bad book, because a lot of it was great, some of the imagery was great but reading it in line with a book prize about biosciences and medicine, and also comparing it to her previous books translated in to English it did fall short of the mark for me unfortunately.

Review: The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

019 - The Vaccine Race

019 - The Vaccine Race

Rating – 3*

Vaccines are an incredibly interesting topic – and interestingly enough one that I only know the bare bones about. This book was one on the Wellcome Prize longlist that I probably would have eventually picked up because the topic is one that I would gravitate towards in the non-fiction section of a bookshop.

The Vaccine Race spans the history of the vaccination – the science, the people behind them, politics, competition and ethics. At the core, it’s a very rounded and thought out book but I felt that it was too little of everything and it was trying too hard to be a more intimate and personal book and it sort of let some of the science fall to the side in places, which was a little disappointing.

I will say I enjoyed the science in this book, and I did like that as I was reading it felt like a race against time to get the vaccinations figured out before any more damage can be caused. I do enjoy reading about scientific and medical ethics, and I’m glad it was covered in pretty much every part of this book. Wadman in no way approves of the methods by which Hayflick tested his creations, but she explains that by the culture of the period he was working in that it was acceptable. Thankfully, science and ethics have moved on from going straight in to human trials on non-consenting participants!

I’ve seen this book compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and while I feel that it was written in the same tone in parts, what made that book incredible made this one only mediocre. Which makes me sad because I really wanted to love this book.

Unfortunately for me this missed the mark. I found the first 100 pages or so really interesting, the first chapter I was absolutely hooked on it, but from there it became a really hard read. It became a chore. Where I read 11 books before I started this one, it took the entirety of the second half of February for me to finish this. The start really lured me in to a sense that this was going to be an amazing book, and yeah, it just didn’t continue in the same way.