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.

Review: In Pursuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli

024 - In Pursuit of Memory

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 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.

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

017 - I Am I Am I Am

017 - I Am, I Am, I Am

Rating – 3*

This book has been receiving incredible reviews, and I was very excited to finally get to it because it sounded interesting. As with a lot of the Wellcome Prize longlist, they’re not books I would ordinarily pick up and that was certainly the case with this.

Firstly, I will say, the cover is gorgeous, I love it (and if anyone is interested, the header for this post is an electron microscope image of heart cells, to pay homage to the beauty of it).

The premise of the book is the author telling stories from her life from the near-death experiences she’s had. It is a really interesting concept, and one I was quite morbidly fascinated by. Although it’s billed as quite a sensational book, with the byline of “seventeen brushes with death” it’s a lot more reflective and intimate than it may be sold as. Also, the final chapter is about her daughter (which actually, for me, was the most poignant chapter) and a couple of the ‘brushes with death’ are tenuous at best. Not to make light of her life, but not all of it felt entirely relevant to the premise.

I’ve never read O’Farrell’s fiction, and while the writing in this book was beautiful on the whole I’m not entirely sure her writing is for me. Some of the meandering thoughts were just too much for me, and sometimes her writing I found a bit grating. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good, it was, I just felt that maybe an editor could have taken a bit more time and care to make it flow a lot better. Another thing about this book which was a bit baffling is the timeline. It’s all over the place. Maybe it was done to keep you reading, I don’t know, but generally speaking I like a memoir to move chronologically and this was backing and forthing.

There are so many positive reviews for this book, people raving about it, saying how much they connected to it. I just didn’t. I didn’t connect, I didn’t like the meandering prose, I didn’t enjoy the timeline being all over the place. And, writing this review a week on, it hasn’t been a book that stuck with me. In a way I understand how people might connect with this book, but for me it just wasn’t that five star read everyone has been raving about.

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.

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.