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

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Rating – 4*

There is no denying that this book is hard hitting, and one which has left a lasting imprint on me. It isn’t a book I would have picked up had it not been for the Wellcome Prize shortlisting of it. This book is a very personal insight in to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

It is by no means an easy read, both in content and style. The writing is quite dense, and it is long and incredibly detailed. I persevered with it, in spite of it being quite difficult to work through at times because I knew what I was reading was important. It was a voice I hadn’t heard before. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where AIDS and HIV is part of everyday understanding, we’re taught about it in school; sexual health is taught year in, year out and we get letters posted to us from our doctors surgery urging us to get tested for STIs (my school even had chlamydia tests in toilets, and numbers and addresses for the sexual health/family planning clinics in the area) I can’t even imagine the horrors and the fear that people felt in a world where there wasn’t an answer. Where there wasn’t that understanding, even on a small scale. This book barely scrapes the surface of that fear I can only imagine feeling.

However, as I said, this book is quite dense. There are so many individual stories in here, stories of so many people and every one of them is important, but the book felt cramped and crowded. Every voice is important, but for me there were just too many to be able to focus in on what this book is ultimately about – the discovery of the HIV virus. For me, this wasn’t a book about popular science, so going in to it I had a slightly warped perception of what lay before me. The science when it showed up was interesting, but the in depth analysis of clinical trials did have me skimming through after a while.

For me, as someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this is a very important book to read. Reading this made me realise just how damn lucky I am. Reading this brought me to tears, it devastated me in parts.

I wish there were an abridged version, or that the book was in two parts maybe – the scientific side, and the more personal side which tells the stories of the people in this book – I understand they overlapped significantly, but for me this was a bit disjointed in parts because of the juxtaposition of the two factors.

This is a very, very important book to read. There is no denying that. I’m glad to have read it, and I know a couple of people I will recommend this to. But it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the word, it’s intense in both the content and the sheer denseness of the writing and I can’t quite bring myself to give this 5* because I didn’t love it like I did some of the others in the shortlist.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

Review: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

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Rating – 3*

This is the 3rd book from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist that I have read, and if I’m honest it’s so far my least favourite.

Now, the content of this is really interesting and something I didn’t know much about (I am by no means a microbiologist, and what little I do know about microbes comes from New Scientist articles!) The microbiome is fascinating and this book makes it something that is very approachable and easy to understand. There are numerous good examples in this book, relating what is ultimately an enormous subject to things that anyone can understand. For me, it was also quite a fast paced book which is a rarity in non fiction.

Microbes are something which are all around us; inside of us, our homes, our environments. Everywhere. Science is now understanding the unique relationship that animals, plants, and the environment have with microbes. Studies in to the relationship between humans and our microbial tenants are hoping to understand how our overall health relates to the happiness of our microbiome. There is a lot of research in to illness and our microbiome, and how it can directly and indirectly affect our overall health. With society obsessed with sterilisation and cleanliness we are now at the point where we are doing more ham than good, and while there is no doubt that sterilisation has lead to significant improvements in healthcare there is strong evidence to suggest that things like air conditioning, and obsessively cleaning, causing more harm to society as a whole.

However, while I enjoyed this on the whole, there were a number of things which I found borderline irritating throughout. I found bits of it quite repetitive, while I appreciate that things do have to be repeated sometimes, I found there were a lot of instances of the same thing being said throughout the book quite needlessly. I know it’s probably a small thing, but for me it really affected my overall enjoyment.

I have absolutely no doubt that the future of Ed Yong’s writing is something I am looking forward to. I just feel that this book could have been so much more with a better organisation and maybe a bit of editing. I have no doubt that his articles and shorter work would be great, they’d be more fine tuned and less waffle-y! I also found that the barrage of Latin names for bacteria and microbes borderline annoying, it made it read more like a research paper than a book and with the otherwise relaxed tone of the book it made it feel a bit disjointed.

On the whole, I learnt quite a bit from this book, and it has changed the way I’ll be looking at things in the future and I did enjoy it. There were just minor things for me which didn’t make this as enjoyable as some other non-fiction books I’ve read lately (especially The Gene, another shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize which I absolutely adored and reviewed a few days ago!) and while I’m aware you shouldn’t compare, it’s hard not to when they’re shortlisted for the same prize.

If you’re interested in learning more about microbes and your microbiome, this is a pretty good read, and quite an easy one to follow too.