Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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

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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.

Review: Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

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Rating – 4*

I was lucky enough to get sent a copy of this for review all the way back before it was published last September. And I read it last September but failed to actually get around to writing the review for it due to one thing and another. So, in an effort to catch up and write reviews for the books I read in my blog/reading slump I decided to start with this one.

Much like it’s predecessor, Sapiens, this book was engaging from the outset. Harari’s writing is incredible, and makes even the most complex thoughts and issues accessible and approachable. As a book it also poses some really heavy information to digest which I think about now, a few months after I finished it especially when flicking through the pages of New Scientist magazine and advances in technology make the future posed in this book even more plausible than it did the week before.

In this book Harari looks at how human nature – and humanity – could be transformed due to developments in bio-technology, bio-engineering, and the like. Results of combinations of genetic engineering and bio-tech could result in very different humans to what we currently know, it could be a catalyst in to the next stage of human evolution. Science is progressing exponentially, day by day, and along with it humans are progressing – evolving – too.

While what he paints in these pages is very much a dystopian future it is also scarily plausible. Every argument in this book is logical, rational and well thought out and even now, some months on from reading it, I occasionally find myself thinking about it (as I said above, most commonly when flicking through the most recent issue of New Scientist).

It is a book which the non-scientist, non-anthropologist can digest, but I strongly recommend reading Sapiens first even though this could stand alone quite easily. As someone who is more interested in bio-tech and bio-engineering I actually preferred this book to Sapiens but I know that isn’t a general consensus among most readers. Both this and Sapiens are definitely worth the read, and they appear bulky but they are so, so easy to read.

Review: No Cunning Plan – Tony Robinson

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Rating – 3*

This is by no means the best autobiography that I have read, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. As with many autobiographies, I actually listened to this as an audiobook as Tony Robinson narrates it himself – and I really, really love an audiobook narrated by the author as it gives it a little more depth for me.

No Cunning Plan is his story, as indicated by the subtitle, going in to this I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s not a book which contains soul searching and is instead the story of his life and career as told with wit, charm and a bit of self-deprecation. It is, on the whole, about his career – starting from when he was a young boy in a theatre production of Oliver right up to the present day. There are high and low points, and he’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes and the debauchery he got up to!

One thing surprised me about this and it’s how much Tony Robinson has done. Most people know him from Blackadder and Time Team (both of which I adore to this day, Time Team was my favourite Sunday night viewing as a kid) but I had no idea about how instrumental he was in kids TV, I had no idea about how involved in the theatre he was, nor did I have much clue about how politically active he was – and still is!

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting from this, but it was a perfect weekend listen for me. I plugged myself in and played solitaire and it made me smile. It was easy going and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Ultimately though, I felt it fell a little flat and I think while it was interesting, I came out of it wanting so much more than what it gave. For that I give it 3* but a hearty recommendation to anyone who want’s something easy to read/listen to!

Review: The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

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Rating – 4*

This book has been one that has caught my eye since I first saw it in bookshops but it wasn’t one I picked up. It didn’t really appeal to me, if I’m honest. But then I had a few credits on Audible, and decided to pick it up as an audiobook because the soft Scottish burr of Amy herself reading it appealed to me. I’ve not been having the easiest of times lately, and just listening to a clip of this relaxed me and I knew I had to have it in my life, if only to calm me down.

It’s one of those books which came in to my life at exactly the right moment. I don’t have the experience with addiction which Amy struggles with in this brutally honest account of her decent in to alcoholism and subsequent recovery. But, a lot of the feelings I could relate to and I found myself connecting with this book. Because of that, throughout it I had a full spectrum of emotions – it had me laughing and moved to tears, and maybe that’s just because of the headspace I’m in right now.

I loved how this book just blurred together so many things. It is a recovery memoir but it is also so much more. There’s so much about wildlife and nature, which I absolutely adored. The writing is beautiful and it read so much more like fiction in parts. One thing I’ve come out of this book with is an urge to visit the Scottish islands and completely lose myself in them, this book was so immersive and Orkney itself became such a big part of it. I found the islands themselves  the biggest draw of this book and losing myself in them was an absolute pleasure.

I gave this 4* because I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much had I have had a physical copy over an audiobook (which I would highly recommend and I listened to the entirety of this in 2 sittings). The experience of an audiobook is something very immersive, and in the case of this book really was a good choice to make – but I don’t think I would have found myself as caught up in the book had it not been on audio.

Ultimately though, I’d recommend this book – I’m not sure who to, but read the description and see if it floats your kayak.

Review: Animal – Sara Pascoe

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Rating – 5*

I picked this up because it was the July book for my book club. I went in to it relatively blind, I didn’t know what it was about and I’m not really a massive fan of Sara’s comedy. so it wouldn’t have been a book I picked up if it wasn’t for that push. I chose to listen to this as an audiobook as I had some credits floating on Audible and I would highly recommend that!

So, the thing that surprised me most about this book is I liked it more than How to Be a Woman by Catlin Moran. Going in to it I had no idea that it would be even comparable to that book, but I would say that anyone who enjoyed that book would definitely enjoy this. It is both brutally honest and very funny, I loved that combination. It is also a very light book, in spite of quite dense evolutionary theory in it, it is very easy to get through and because of that I would say it would be a fantastic place for anyone to start with feminist literature (and it is definitely suitable for younger teenagers, something How to Be a Woman definitely isn’t in my opinion).

There are little nuggets of observation, or autobiographical points, which are seamlessly interwoven with facts about the female body and the evolution of it. And, while a little dubious, the evolutionary psychology studies she has used in this book are very, very interesting. It’s not a subject I was even aware of prior to reading this, and while there are significant flaws in some of the studies and most of them are matters of opinion, they are so bloody interesting! I didn’t always agree with the pseudo-science that some of them appeared to be, but they were nonetheless interesting points.

After reading this I have a new love for Sara. I found this book laugh out loud funny in parts. I really wish I could go back in time and give this to my 14 or 15 year old self because I, undoubtedly, would have found it so eye opening and affirming when I was going through a period of significant self confidence issues and I really do think this would have been a bible when put in my hands.

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