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.

Wellcome Book Prize 2019|| Longlist Discussion

WBP - 001 - Introduction

Well it’s that time of year again, Wellcome Book Prize season. This year the Wellcome Prize is celebrating it’s 10th year, so it’s quite a special one. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wellcome Prize, all books nominated feature central themes of medicine, health, illness or biosciences and can be from either fiction or non-fiction shelves in your bookshop – they just have to represent the key points in a new and innovative way.

This year the longlist has surprised me. Books I expected to see there (including The Gene Machine) were not longlisted, and there are a few books I hadn’t even thought eligible which have been put there. So interesting to say the least and I will confess to being quite underwhelmed when I first saw it. The more I’ve looked in to the books I didn’t know about, the more positive I’m feeling about the longlist – the key themes this year appear to be mental health and gender and I am all for that – but compared to last year I don’t feel there are any immediate stand outs at this stage.

I’m also really happy to see that it’s pretty much 50/50 fiction and non-fiction – this excites me because it means that biosciences and medical representation are becoming more prevalent and better discussed in fiction. What I am sad about though is the lack of hard science – I understand the prize wants to be inclusive and get more people reading science based books but as a scientist I can’t help but be disappointed just a little bit that there’s not a more “sciencey” popular science book (The Gene Machine). But that’s just me being difficult.

WBP - 2019 Longlist

Wellcome Book Prize longlist 2019

 

The more I look at these books, and read about them, the more enthusiastic I find myself. The books this year are very different to the ‘traditional’ shortlist of denser popular science books and while I dislike change, I can only look at it objectively and say that it’s a good thing. In spite of my reservations with less “hard science” the Wellcome Prize remains one of the most varied literary prizes out there and this is definitely an accessible reading list with a good balance of fiction and non-fiction. A lot of the time prizes can get stagnant, but this one surprises me every year as it always seems to evolve in to something new.

A few of the books have been on my radar for a while (The Trauma Cleaner, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Sight and Heart) and only two I was actually going to pick up so this is just the motivation I needed to read the rest. The others I know very little about, I know there’s a fictionalised account of Alan Turing’s final year of life in Murmur, Amateur is the authors biography of becoming the first transgender man to box at Maddison Square Gardens. In fact there seems to be a lot of biography this year, which is all the better as I’ve really been enjoying a good biography/memoir as of late.

The shortlist is announced on March 19th – 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!

Are there any books here that you’ve read? That you want to read? I’d love to hear from you!

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

Blog 001

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

027 - Plot 29

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

025 - To Be a Machine

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