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.

 

Review: How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

002 - How Not to be a Boy

002 - How Not to be a Boy

Rating – 4*

I’ve wanted to read this book since it was released. I saw Robert Webb interviewed, talking about it, and I knew that it was going to be an amazing read but when I then saw several people on goodreads give it 4 or 5 stars, I knew it was something special. This memoir is by no means a rose tinted look at the world, or Robert as a person, but it’s honest, poignant, sad and funny all at once – and I loved it.

Robert is the youngest of 4 children, his eldest brother passing away just 10 months before he was born. As such, he grew up a little pampered by his mother and a lot of this book is about his relationship with her – but also the troublesome relationship with his father, who abused alcohol and was abusive to his mother. The crux of this book is his development from boyhood to manhood, and the realisation as an adult (and a father) that societies pressures and programming wasn’t only wrong but harmful.

The book is split in to two sections – “Boys” and “Men” – the former section ending with the death of his mother when he was 17. The overarching themes are what boys are ‘taught’ to be by society, and what men are ‘supposed’ to be in the eyes of society. He touches on his relationships with his family, friends and teachers and how each of them shaped him in to who he is today.

It is sad, but at times it’s laugh out loud funny too. One of my favourite chapters was one in which he was talking about a play he was in which Stephen Fry came to see with his partner, and the late, great Carrie Fisher. The antics which ensued after said play had me giggling for a little while.

‘I want the same thing for boys, men, girls, women and anyone who grew up feeling that none of these worlds held any meaning for them. I want them all to have the freedom to express their individual and contradictory selves with confidence and humility.’ 

This book should be read by a lot of people – young boys and men especially. The overwhelming majority of suicide globally is young men, because they’re taught to suppress their feelings and they shouldn’t – something I think is expertly conveyed in this book with his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This book would start discussion and I think that is the most important thing of all.

Once again, I listened to the audio version of this (narrated by Robert) which has a little extra bit at the end of him reading his ‘wanky’ teenage poetry without editing it, or himself, so there was lots of laughter from both him and me while listening. I’d recommend this book to anyone in any format, because I think it’s important and everyone should read it.

Review: Parsnips, Buttered – Joe Lycett

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

046 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rating – 5*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

043 - Other Minds

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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

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

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