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!

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Longlist Discussion

WBP Longlist

Happy Saturday my lovely readers, and welcome to a bonus post this week in which I am going to discuss my most anticipated bookish event of 2018 so far – the announcement of the Wellcome Book Prize longlist.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Wellcome Prize , to summarise it is an an annual prize and eligible books are those which have central themes of medicine, health, illness, or biosciences. Because of this broad criteria the lists of books nominated are from a number of genres – both fiction and non-fiction, but can span across any sub-genres of those. And I love it.

Last year I managed to read the shortlist, this year I want to read the entirety of the longlist. As I write this I have already read 2 of the books – one is Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ which I read last Summer, and the second is The Butchering Art as when I was reading through the descriptions of each book that one was one I wanted to read asap. So I did.

So, without further ado, the books:-

 

Wellcome Longlist

image courtesy of WellcomeBookPrize.org

 

As you can see from the picture there is an enormous amount of variety – and something I am very happy about is the amount of books that I hadn’t even heard of on this list. I can say that there are 3 books here that I knew existed and the rest have me very, very excited (so excited that I have bought a huge number of them already!)

I’d be interested to hear if any of you reading this have seen any of these books (the ones I am familiar with are Stay With Me, The White Book and I Am, I Am, I Am – the rest I know nothing about!) and if you have read any too. If you have, are there any you think I ought to get to sooner rather than later?

The shortlist is announced on March 20th – thankfully a Tuesday (I don’t work Tuesdays) – and I’m hoping to have got through the bulk of this longlist by then. Needless to say I have a few very, very exciting reading weeks ahead of me and I for one cannot wait!

As I said above, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Wellcome Prize. For me it’s one of the most varied, vibrant literary prizes out there because it focuses across such a wide breadth of genres. I also think it’s a very accessible prize – those of you not as confident or comfortable reading science based non fiction can definitely still enjoy this prize as there’s a decent amount of variety and, for me at least, even the non-fiction is easy to read and get your teeth in to.

So, in the next few weeks you can expect to see all 12 (well, 11 because I don’t think I’ll be re-reading Stay With Me) of these books reviewed. Hopefully before March 20th! Wish me luck.

 

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: Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

041 - Stay With Me

Rating – 5*

I read this book in June – it was one of the few books I read while also reading War and Peace – and it’s been one of the hardest books to review in a long time. There was just so much to it. I went in to it, as with most hyped books, quite sceptical, but I came out the other side very much happy I gave in to peer pressure. I actually read this book in one sitting while on holiday, once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down. It was very much a ‘just one more chapter’ book – and then it was gone. All of it.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It is, at it’s crux, a book about motherhood. I’m not a mother, I don’t have any intention to become a mother, so I wasn’t convinced that I would find myself empathising with the main character, but I did. Yejide is one of the most complex, interesting characters I’ve ever walked in the shoes of – and Adébáyò is a magnificent writer because her character is made of so many layers and we see all of them as readers, I felt I understood her and her motivations.

As much as this book is about motherhood, it’s about family and parenthood in general, and also the cultural idea of a family as well. With all of the struggles to conceive, her husband Akin is pressured by his own family to introduce a second wife to their marriage – a common practice in Nigeria. In seeing Yejide’s childhood you understand her anger at this situation, and why she becomes so obsessed with conceiving their child – she would go to any lengths to be a mother and, in many ways, it was heartbreaking to read.

Every review I’ve read or watched about this book says that it takes you for a ride. There are so many twists and turns, and that just when you think you know what’s going to happen, something else does and proves you wrong. I am always dubious of reviews like that, but for once I really agree with them. This book went in so many directions it was an absolute roller-coaster, especially for my emotions.

I gave this book 5 stars. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, I didn’t think it would be for me at all, yet I still found I could empathise because the writing is just so damn good. I read it nearly 2 months ago now and it has stuck with me, to the point I often think about it. The characters were just so vibrant I can’t help but think about them regularly. So seriously, give it a go if you haven’t yet! 

 

Discussion: Wellcome Book Prize 2017

I had intended for this to be a post before the winner was announced – however, that plan got put on the backburner and here I am now, 45 minutes after the winner was announced, a little in shock. It’s the most wonderful kind of shock because I am so, so happy with which book has been named the winner.

To warn you, this is a 500 word ramble.

In case you haven’t seen who won – I’m about to spoil it for you. It was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. This has made Wellcome Prize history as it’s the first book to have been translated and won, which is incredible – and honestly a testament to the translation skill. In a prize shortlist which was so diverse, fiction and non fiction, men and women, the possibility of a posthumous award, the outcome of a translated book winning – honestly it’s boggling how wonderfully diverse the shortlist was and I really, really love that this book won.

Mend the Living didn’t shout like some books do, it was more quiet in what it was putting across. It’s one that the more I’ve thought about since I finished it 2 weeks ago, the more I’ve loved it – to the point that I actually changed my rating on goodreads and bumped this up to a 5* book. It was quiet in both the way it was written, and also the media surrounding it – a lot of focus was on When Breath Becomes Air and The Tidal Zone. The hard science in The Gene and I Contain Multitudes was overwhelming and impressive, and I enjoyed both those books.

For me, the two it came down to were How to Survive a Plague and Mend the Living – out of the two the better book won in my opinion. They were both a lot less publicised, somewhat pushed to the back of the tables in my local bookshops, they were definitely not talked about enough. I actually had a conversation with a few of the booksellers in my local Waterstones, and told them that out of the entire shortlist Mend the Living was the one I would say ‘read’ – and a couple of them did.

I’m quite sad I didn’t put a prediction post up – because I would so love to have been right before the event (it’s all very well and good saying I TOLD YOU SO, but when there’s no evidence to back it up it’s not nearly as impressive!)

Seriously folks, read this book. It’s incredible and it really won’t disappoint. It’s a very, very worthy winner and I will be thrusting it in to several people’s hands in the near future. I hope that several more of her books are translated in to English because I would so, so love to see what else this woman can write.

If you can’t tell, I’m very happy.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

025 - Mend the Living

Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

023 - How to Survive a Plague

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.