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: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

026 - Doctor Zhivago

026 - Doctor Zhivago

Rating – 3*

I decided to pick this book up at long last after I saw that Ange (Beyond the Pages on YouTube) was hosting a really informal readalong of it – informal in that it was “read at your own pace in the month of March”. That suited me perfectly and gave me just the kick up the backside I needed to finally pick it up. Unfortunately, I think it was a case of it wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, as I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

The book itself is incredible and it’s often said that this is one of the greatest love stories ever told (if you believe love to be tragic, I guess you could agree). It is essentially a story about a man who is considered a tragic hero who has been separated from the woman he loves due to civil war. I had no time for the love story, Zhivago as a character was not one I enjoyed reading – which is a bit pants given this is a book pretty much dedicated to his tragic life. Throughout the book we’re told that Zhivago loves both his wife and Lara, but he runs between the two. I never felt that he loved either of them from words or actions (until the final section which I will discuss later).

I found so much of this book improbable, most notably the series of increasingly unlikely coincidences where characters just seemed to bump in to each other in a country the size of Russia like it’s a village the size of a postage stamp. I don’t bump in to my neighbours as regularly as all these characters happened upon each other! If there were more explanation, maybe I’d accept it, but it just seemed to be a case of Pasternak needing a particular character in a particular place without any thought of how they got there! The first few times it’s acceptable, but then it becomes a bit absurd!

What makes this book so good for me though is the prose – the pages on pages of description of the surroundings. When the characters start talking it becomes stilted and frustrating again, but if this was just a meandering book about Russian mountains and snow, I’d have probably enjoyed it more. And whenever I stumbled upon a passage describing the surroundings I found myself falling a little bit more in love with the book and forgetting all the issues I had with it just a page before.

I think it’s also worth saying that in the edition I read there is a further part at the end which contained the poetry that Zhivago wrote – this was a much needed reprieve after the heft of the book, and was a more condensed version of what I enjoyed in this book. Pasternak’s prose (and kudos to the translators for doing such a beautiful job) is wonderful, it was just the main character and the plot that I didn’t enjoy. The poetry at the end was what lifted this book back up to 3* for me – and maybe it’s the poetry which makes me even slightly agree with the sentiment of this being one of the greatest love stories ever told.

So yes, unfortunately this book didn’t quite hit me how I hoped it would. It wasn’t bad, and I can understand why so many people love it, but for me the clunky dialogue and a series of unlikely coincidences detracted from the enjoyable bits. Still, I’m glad I read it.

 

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

Review: The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

019 - The Vaccine Race

019 - The Vaccine Race

Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.

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: The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

006 - The Impossible Fairytale

 

006 - The Impossible Fairytale

Rating – 3*

The Impossible Fairytale is a rather unsettling but interesting book and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. While it was beautifully written and very well translated, I found myself feeling rather at odds with it at times and I did struggle to get through it.

The book, primarily, follows the story of The Child – an unnamed 12 year old – who we learn has suffered abuse at the hands of her mother. She’s learned that everything is minimised if she can go through a day unnoticed, meaning she lives life on the fringe and noone really knows who she is. She blends in to the background, living a near silent life. But she’s a rather twisted young girl who it is quite hard to get my head around – but I think that was the entire point. Another character in the book is Mia, a girl in the same class who is thoroughly spoilt by her parents, and somehow she gets brought in to The Child’s life which leads to devastating consequences.

The second part of the book becomes very meta, and where I rather lost my pace with the book. I struggled it, and wondered in parts if maybe I just wasn’t clever enough to enjoy it like many others have!

My congratulations have to go to the translator, Janet Hong, who has done a stunning job here. Reading the translators note was actually fascinating as this book relies so heavily on wordplay, and that had to translate – which is difficult with the nature of the Korean language and a lot of the wordplay also being visual.

Needless to say I did enjoy parts of this book. I’m not sure who I would recommend it to – someone with a strong stomach, appreciation for word play, and maybe a bit more literally minded than me to pick up on the nuances of the second part of the book.

What I will say is I can’t wait to read more from Tilted Axis Press, what they do seems to be really up my alley and this was, all in all, a great first foray in to their catalogue.

Review: The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

005 - The End We Start From

005 - The End We Start From

Rating – 3*

The End We Start From was a book I just happened to stumble upon. I was looking for short books, novellas, anything of the sort to fill a couple of hours on my day off and found this – a 160 page dystopian novella – which ticked a lot of the right boxes for what I was in the mood for.

For an impulse purchase I had no information about prior to picking up, I really enjoyed this book. The writing was absolutely gorgeous and sucked me right in to the book – on further research in to the author I found that she’s a poet and when I think about it, that isn’t all that surprising when I think about the writing. A lot of people have said in reviews that this book reads like a prose poem, and I really get that.

The plot itself spans around a year in the life of our narrator and starts in the last weeks of her pregnancy. During those weeks, a flood occurs in London nearly destroying it and she and her husband have to evacuate for their own safety. They move several times over the course of the novella, and through all the devastation and heartache we get an insight in to motherhood through the eyes of our narrator which is actually beautiful.

It’s by no means a fleshed out book, the writing is sparse, there are a lot of gaps left for the reader to imagine what happens, no characters have full names and are referred to by only their initial; but I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the relationship with water in the book, but at times I found myself thinking about The Waves by Virginia Woolf – not that this book is similar whatsoever, really, but the prose washed over me in a similar way (excuse the pun).

Megan Hunter is going to be an author I look out for, I enjoyed this book a fair bit for an impulse purchase. If you want a quick read which gets you thinking, I’d recommend this highly!

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

2017 - oranges are not the only fruit

059 - oranges

Rating – 3*

I have been looking forward to reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a very, very long time. It’s a cornerstone of LGBTQ+ fiction, and it is a book that I’ve had on my shelf for a good 3 or 4 years and just never been in the mood to pick up. I have held it on such a pedestal that on reading it, I’ve been a little let down.

As always with Winterson’s prose, it’s beautiful. But I’m glad this wasn’t my first foray in to her writing. While I found the semi-autobiographical nature of it interesting, and I enjoyed the main crux of the plot surrounding the coming-of-age of Jeanette, I did find it disjointing on the whole. There are several side stories within the book, which while beautifully written, distracted me from the main plot. They probably had purpose, in literary circles they’re probably genius 5 page long metaphors but to the average reader (me, hi) they were a bit off putting.

One thing I will say is I listened to this as an audiobook which Jeanette Winterson read – and it was glorious. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, authors reading their own works is a pleasure and something that should be done more often. I attribute a lot of my enjoyment of this book to the audiobook as I think were I reading a physical copy alone I may have actually put the book down.

On the whole, this was okay. I will definitely continue to read Winterson’s work, but so far this has been a low point for me. I’m glad I read it, of course I am, and I can understand on reading it how it has impacted so heavily on society. It just didn’t meet the expectations I had for it unfortunately.