Womb: The Inside Story of Where We All Began by Leah Hazard
Back in 2019, I reviewed Hard Pushed, Leah Hazard’s memoir of being a midwife in a busy Glasgow hospital. Here she widens the view to create a wide-ranging and accessible study of the uterus. As magisterial in its field as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies was for cancer, it might have shared that book’s ‘A Biography’ subtitle and casts a feminist eye over history and future alike. Blending medical knowledge and cultural commentary, it cannot fail to have both personal and political significance for readers of any gender.
The thematic structure of the chapters also functions as a roughly chronological tour of how life with a uterus might proceed: menstruation, conception, pregnancy, labour, caesarean section, ongoing health issues, menopause. With much of Hazard’s research taking place at the height of the pandemic, she had to conduct many of her interviews online. She consults mostly female experts and patients, meeting people with surprisingly different opinions. For instance, she encounters opposing views on menstruation from American professors: one who believes it is now optional, a handicap – for teenagers, especially – and that the body was never meant to endure 350–400 periods compared to the historical average of 100 (based on shorter lifespan plus more frequent pregnancy and breastfeeding); versus another who is concerned about the cognitive effects of constant hormonal intervention.
The book forcefully conveys how gynaecological wellness is threatened by a lack of knowledge, sexist stereotypes, and devaluation of certain wombs. Even today, little is known about the placenta, she reports, so research involves creating organoids from stem cells that act like it would. The use of emotionally damaging language like “irritable/hostile uterus,” “incompetent cervix” and “too posh to push” is a major problem. The sobering chapter on “Reprocide” elaborates on enduring threats to reproductive freedom, such as non-consensual sterilization of women in detention centres and the revoking of abortion rights. And even routine problems like endometriosis and fibroids disproportionately affect women of colour.
Hazard has taken pains to adopt an inclusive perspective, referring to “menstruators” or “people with a uterus” as often as to women and mentioning health concerns specific to transgender people. She is also careful to depict the sheer variety of experience: age at first menses, subjective reactions to labour or hysterectomy, severity of menopause symptoms, and so on. Where events have potentially traumatic effects, she presents alternatives, such as a “gentle” or “natural” Caesarean, which is less clinical and more empowering. The prose is pitched at a good level for laypeople: conversational, and never bombarding with information. That I have not had children myself was no obstruction to my enjoyment of the book. It is full of fascinating content that is relevant to all (as in the Harry and Chris solidarity-themed song “Womb with a View,” which has the repeated line “we’ve all been in a womb”).
Here are just some of the mind-blowing facts I learned:
- Infant girls bleed in what as known as pseudomenses.
- Research is underway to regularly test menstrual effluent for endometriosis, etc. and the uterine microbiome for signs of cancer.
- The cervix can store sperm and release it later for optimal fertilization.
- Caesarean section and induction with oxytocin now occur in one-third of pregnancies, despite the WHO recommendation of no more than 10% for the former and the danger of postpartum haemorrhage with the latter.
- After childbirth, a discharge called lochia continues for 4–6 weeks.
- There have been successful uterine transplants from living donors and cadavers.
- Artificial wombs (“biobags”) have been used for other mammals and are in development; Hazard cautions about possible misogynistic exploitation.
With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
My 10 Favorite Books from the Past Decade
I make no claims to objectivity here. These are simply 10 books that stand out to me from the past decade. I narrowed the list down from about 25 titles, trying not to agonize over it for too long. I’m pleased that it happens to be half female, with two POC and one work in translation. (Could be more diverse, but not too bad.)
You can see the seeds of my interest in memoirs and medical books, and the variety of fiction I love, from absurdist comedy (Auslander) to Greek-level tragedy (Vann).
In alphabetical order by author surname:
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (English translation, 2010)
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
Want Not by Jonathan Miles (2013)
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Caribou Island by David Vann (2010)
These selections skew early in the decade; 2010‒13 happened to be particularly memorable reading years for me. All of these are books I would like to reread, sooner rather than later.
(Five of these are repeated from the list of favorite books I drew up for my 35th birthday.)
Do we overlap on any favorites?
Which books of the 2010s were standouts for you?
Choose the Year Book Tag: 2010
Thanks to a couple of Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that has also been going around on BookTube. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try?
Goodreads lists the 200 most popular books of any given year. Skim through and see how many you’ve read from the list and discuss whichever ones you like. (I chose not to answer the last two questions of this prompt but have included them at the bottom of the post.)
- Choose a year and say why.
I browsed a few of the years and found that 2010 contained 12 books that I’ve read, including some that stood out to me for various reasons. For instance, two of them marked the start of my interest in medical-themed reading. I also think of 2010 as when my reading went into ‘mega’ mode, i.e. approaching 200 books per year. (Now it’s more like 320 a year.)
- Which books published in that year have you read [or if none, heard of]?
Because the list is based on the number of times a book has been added to users’ shelves (though not necessarily read and rated) on Goodreads, there is a LOT of YA and series fiction, e.g. Mockingjay at #1. Other notable inclusions: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo and Orange Is the New Black before that really took off.
Read at the time:
Gimmicky child narrator, but thoroughly readable: Room by Emma Donoghue (#4)
Medical masterpieces: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (#6) and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (#45)
Postmodern, angsty pop culture-filled delights: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (#31) and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (#37). I wonder if they’ve stood the test of time?
Vintage Bryson in curiosity-indulging mode: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (#69)
Not his usual sort of thing, but my introduction to him and a damn fine work of historical fiction: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (#112)
Not my usual sort of thing (sappiness + magic realism), but I read it at a festival and it passed the time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (#116)
Part of my progressive Christian education, but not a great example; not memorable in the least: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt (#138)
A joy of a linked short story collection set among expat journalists in Rome; this author hasn’t disappointed me since: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (#156)
Who knew typesetting could be so fascinating?! Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield (#178)
Read later on:
A brilliant WWII novel, truly among the best of the best: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (#93)
A DNF: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (#73) was way too involved for my level of interest.
- Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting, and would you read them now?
On the TBR:
#50 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
#75 The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
#124 Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
#152 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
None of these are priorities, but I’d still read them if a copy came my way.
[4. Most obscure-sounding book
5. Strangest book cover]
Do you remember any of these 2010 releases with fondness? Which other ones from the list should I read?
Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks (2010)
“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.
Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.
When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”
The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.
Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Wellcome Book Prize 2010
Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks
Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.
Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.
See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.
35 Years, 35 Favorite Books
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
Heart and Mind: New Nonfiction by Sandeep Jauhar and Jan Morris
Heart: A History, by Sandeep Jauhar
There could hardly be an author better qualified to deliver this thorough history of the heart and the treatment of its problems. Sandeep Jauhar is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Medical Center. His family history – both grandfathers died of sudden cardiac events in India, one after being bitten by a snake – prompted an obsession with the heart, and he and his brother both became cardiologists. As the book opens, Jauhar was shocked to learn he had up to a 50% blockage of his own coronary vessels. Things had really gotten personal.
Cardiovascular disease has been the #1 killer in the West since 1910 and, thanks to steady smoking rates and a continuing rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, will still affect 60% of Americans. However, the key is that fewer people will now die of heart disease thanks to the developments of the last six decades in particular. These include the heart–lung machine, cardiac catheterization, heart transplantation, and artificial hearts.
Along the timeline, Jauhar peppers in bits of his own professional and academic experience, like experimenting on frogs during high school in California and meeting his first cadaver at medical school. My favorite chapter was the twelfth, “Vulnerable Heart,” which is about how trauma can cause heart arrhythmias; it opens with an account of the author’s days cataloguing body parts in a makeshift morgue as a 9/11 first responder. I also particularly liked his account of being called out of bed to perform an echocardiogram, which required catching a taxi at 3 a.m. and avoiding New York City’s rats.
Maybe I’ve read too much surgical history this year (The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris and Face to Face by Jim McCaul), though, because I found myself growing fairly impatient with the medical details in the long Part II, which centers on the heart as a machine, and was drawn more to the autobiographical material in the first and final sections. Perhaps I would prefer Jauhar’s first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation.
In terms of readalikes, I’d mention Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, in which the personal story also takes something of a backseat to the science, and Gavin Francis’s Shapeshifters, which exhibits a similar interest in the metaphors applied to the body. While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as two other heart-themed memoirs I’ve read, The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson and Echoes of Heartsounds by Martha Weinman Lear, I still think it’s a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize (the judging panel is announced tomorrow!).
Some favorite lines:
“it is increasingly clear that the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
“Who but the owner can say what lies inside a human heart?”
“As a heart-failure specialist, I’d experienced enough death to fill up a lifetime. At one time, it was difficult to witness the grief of loved ones. But my heart had been hardened, and this was no longer that time.”
Heart is published in the UK today, September 27th, by Oneworld. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, by Jan Morris
I’ve been an admirer of Jan Morris’s autobiographical and travel writing for 15 years or more. In this diary covering 2017 into early 2018, parts of which were originally published in the Financial Times and the Welsh-language literary newspaper O’r Pedwar Gwynt, we get a glimpse into her life in her early nineties. It was a momentous time in the world at large but a fairly quiet and reflective span for her personally. Though each day’s headlines seem to herald chaos and despair, she’s a blithe spirit – good-natured about the ravages of old age and taking delight in the routines of daily one-mile walks down the lane and errands in local Welsh towns with her beloved partner Elizabeth, who’s in the early stages of dementia.
There are thrilling little moments, though, when a placid domestic life (a different kind of marmalade with breakfast each day of the week!) collides with exotic past experiences, and suddenly we’re plunged into memories of travels in Swaziland and India. Back when she was still James, Morris served in World War II, was the Times journalist reporting from the first ascent of Everest, and wrote a monolithic three-volume history of the British Empire. She took her first airplane flight 70 years ago, and is nostalgic for the small-town America she first encountered in the 1950s. Hold all that up against her current languid existence among the books and treasures of Trefan Morys and it seems she’s lived enough for many lifetimes.
There’s a good variety of topics here, ranging from current events to Morris’s love of cats; I particularly liked the fragments of doggerel. However, as is often the case with diaries, read too many entries in one go and you may start to find the sequence of (non-)events tedious. Each piece is only a page or two, so I tried never to read many more than 10 pages at a time. Even so, I noticed that the plight of zoo animals, clearly a hobby-horse, gets mentioned several times. It seemed to me a strange issue to get worked up about, especially as enthusiastic meat-eating and killing mice with traps suggest that she’s not applying a compassionate outlook consistently.
In the end, though, kindness is Morris’s cardinal virtue, and despite minor illness, telephone scams and a country that looks to be headed to the dogs, she’s encouraged by the small acts of kindness she meets with from friends and strangers alike. Like Diana Athill (whose Alive, Alive Oh! this resembles), I think of Morris as a national treasure, and I was pleased to spend some time seeing things from her perspective.
Some favorite lines:
“If I set out in the morning for my statutory thousand daily paces up the lane, … I enjoy the fun of me, the harmless conceit, the guileless complexity and the merriment. When I go walking in the evening, on the other hand, … I shall recognize what I don’t like about myself – selfishness, self-satisfaction, foolish self-deceit and irritability. Morning pride, then, and evening shame.” (from Day 99)
“Good or bad, virile or senile, there’s no life like the writer’s life.” (from Day 153)
In My Mind’s Eye was published by Faber & Faber on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Final Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist Review: The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman
I had hoped this would be a comparable read to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, which are two of my absolute favorite books and were also among the first to turn me on to medical-themed literature. Instead, I found myself skimming through the book’s dense scientific and historical information: like Mukherjee’s other book, The Gene, which made last year’s Wellcome shortlist, The Vaccine Race is overstuffed with a mixture of the familiar (for me, at least – genetics), the seemingly irrelevant (cell culture techniques and scientific nomenclature), and the truly interesting (questions of medical ethics).
The unlikely protagonist of this story is Leonard Hayflick, a single-minded and resourceful researcher who is still alive in his late eighties and assented to dozens of interviews and many more e-mails as Wadman put this book together. While in high school Hayflick made a chemistry lab in his basement, and in college he built his father a dental lab: that tells you how driven he was. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at the Wistar Institute on its campus. He chiefly investigated whether viruses cause cancer and whether a cell line will be immortal or subject to the normal rules of aging – the Hayflick limit, named after him, is the number of cell divisions possible before a cell line dies out.
Hayflick experimented on his third child’s placenta, but also on aborted fetuses from the university hospital. Replacement fetal cell lines sourced from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden were used to produce the polio, rubella and rabies vaccines. In particular, he relied on the WI-38 line he developed from fetal cells taken from the Swedish “Mrs. X,” who – like Henrietta Lacks’s family – was never compensated; she did not want to be interviewed for or mentioned by name in this book. In the 1970s, with Roe v. Wade in the pipeline, the controversy over using aborted fetal tissue in research heated up*, and Hayflick was somewhat disgraced in the course of a 1976 lawsuit about his right to profit from WI-38.
But that’s not the only dubious ethical situation associated with the development of the twentieth century’s major vaccines: Hayflick’s bosses and associates had also tested early vaccines on intellectually disabled child “volunteers,” while a celebrated cancer researcher had injected cells into dying hospital patients and healthy prisoners in the name of science. Wadman writes, “by the mid-1960s, ordinary people were becoming less willing to give scientists carte blanche to tinker with human beings on a ‘Trust me, I know what’s best for you’ basis.” The question is whether these morally suspect strategies were worth it, given the alternative: rubella in pregnancy causes severe birth defects including blindness, while polio can be crippling and untreated rabies can lead to a slow and painful death.
These ethical questions are certainly worth thinking about, though the abortion history in particular is probably of much more interest to American readers. Here in Europe, abortion is a non-issue, so I don’t expect anyone to get fired up about the history of fetal tissue research. Wadman is certainly a thorough researcher and capable storyteller who doesn’t talk down when explaining science. That said, she might have scaled back on the science a bit to ensure that her work holds broader appeal for lay readers of popular science and medical history.
*More recently, Debi Vinnedge’s Children of God for Life nonprofit has opposed stem cell research despite a Vatican ruling that vaccines developed from fetal tissue are acceptable to use as long as there is no alternative.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s blog tour review: “The thrillerish feel to big pharma’s politics, and Hayflick’s continual battles for recognition and against anyone who wanted to take his cells away from him made for fascinating reading and added the much-needed human aspect.”
Clare’s review: “The Vaccine Race is a very dense read and some of the lengthier descriptions of things like the finer points of the biotechnology industry went a bit over my head in places. … However, the ethical debates are fascinating and clearly presented.”
Laura’s review: “Wadman writes clearly and compellingly, and given how much material she’s handling, managing to structure the book sensibly is a feat in itself. But I felt that The Vaccine Race was often not one thing or the other.”
Paul’s review: “It is a very important story that Wadman is telling … especially given that we may well be on the dawn of a new era in medicine with the rise of immunity against antibiotics.”
(Also, be sure to stop by Paul’s site today for an exclusive extract from The Vaccine Race as part of the ongoing blog tour.)
My gut feeling: This is the most science-y of the six books on the shortlist. For me that actually works against the broadness and public-facing nature of the prize, as expressed in its brief: “At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”
- Tomorrow I’ll quickly recap my thoughts about the two shortlisted books I read before the shortlist announcement, With the End in Mind and The Butchering Art.
- On Saturday morning I’ll announce our shadow panel winner. That day Clare and I are attending an event featuring five of the shortlisted authors in conversation at the Wellcome Collection in London. I’ll report back about it on Sunday.
- Monday is the awards ceremony, which I’ll be attending for the second year in a row. Expect my write-up of the experience on Tuesday. (In between you get a break from Wellcome Prize stuff with Library Checkout plus some recommendations for May!)
Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
“Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.”
On balance, I’m glad that the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reading forced me to go back and give Stay with Me another try. Last year I read the first 15% of this debut novel for a potential BookBrowse review but got bored with the voice and the story, rather unfairly dismissing it as a rip-off of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also doubted that the health theme was strong enough for it to make the Wellcome shortlist, but that’s because I hadn’t read far enough to realize just how many medical conditions come up for consideration: it’s not just infertility, but also false pregnancy, cot death (or SIDS), sickle cell disease, and impotence.
This time around I found Yejide a more sympathetic character. The words that open this review are cruel ones spoken by her mother-in-law. Her desperation to become and stay a mother drives her to extreme measures that also give a window onto indigenous religion in Nigeria: ‘breastfeeding’ a goat on the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, and allowing an act of ritual scarification to prevent the return of an abiku, or spirit child (I’ve heard that one narrates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road).
Polygamy is another Nigerian custom addressed in the novel. Yejide’s husband, Akinyele Ajayi, allows himself to be talked into taking another wife, Funmilayo, when Yejide hasn’t produced a child after four years. There’s irony in the fact that polygyny is considered a valid route to pregnancy while polyandry is not, and traditional versus Western values are contrasted in the different generations’ reactions to polygamy: does it equate to adultery?
There are some welcome flashes of humor in the novel, such as when Yejide deliberately serves a soup made with three-day-old beans and Funmi gets explosive diarrhea. I also enjoyed the ladies’ gossip at Yejide’s hair salon. However, the story line tends towards the soap operatic, and well before halfway it starts to feel like just one thing after another: A lot happens, but to no apparent purpose. I was unconvinced by the choices the author made in terms of narration (split between Yejide and Akin, both in first person but with some second person address to each other) and structure (divided between 2008 and the main action starting in the 1980s). We see certain scenes from both spouses’ perspective, but that doubling doesn’t add anything to the overall picture. The writing is by turns maudlin (“each minute pregnant with hope, each second tremulous with tragedy”) and uncolloquial (“afraid that my touch might … careen him into the unknown”).
Things that at first seemed insignificant to me – the 1993 election results, what happens to Funmi, the one major scene set in 2008 – do eventually take on more meaning, and there is a nice twist partway through as well as a lovely surprise at the end. I did feel the ache of the title phrase as it applies to this couple’s children and marriage, so threatened by “all the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.” It all makes for truly effortless reading that I gobbled up in chunks of 50 or 100 pages – which indicates authorial skill, of course – yet this seems to me a novel more interesting for the issues it addresses than for its story and writing.
My gut feeling: I would be very surprised if a novel won two years in a row. While the medical situations examined here are fairly wrenching, Stay with Me isn’t strong enough to win. Its appearance on the shortlist (for the Women’s Prize, too) is honor enough, I think.
- I’m one-third through The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman but have started skimming because it’s dense and not quite as laymen-friendly as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies, the two books its subject matter is most reminiscent of for me.
- On Friday I started To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which I’m also one-third through and have taken away on our mini-holiday. This is the shortlisted book whose topic appealed to me the least, so I’m pleasantly surprised to be enjoying it so much. It helps that O’Connell comes at the science as an outsider – he’s a freelance writer with a literature background, and he’s interested in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises.
- I’m awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 3: The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, where his lab specializes in stem cells and blood cancers. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is among my most memorable reads of the past decade. Along with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was one of the first books to turn me on to health-themed reading.
So it was a disappointment to find that I could never really engage with his second full-length work, The Gene: An Intimate History. There’s no denying this book’s impressive scope: it’s a comprehensive survey of the past 150 years of genetics research, but it also stretches back to antiquity to see the different ways people have imagined that heredity works. It’s a no-holds-barred science and social history text, both chronological and thematic in approach, and it also surprises with its breadth of literary reference (as in the epigraphs from 1Q84 and The Importance of Being Earnest). However, my favorite snippets were those that constitute a mini family memoir of the schizophrenia that runs through the author’s India-based family.
Part of the problem was that a lot of the early material concerning Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin is very familiar to me. High school genetics material has stayed fresh in my mind even though so many other subjects have faded, and I’ve done a lot of reading on Darwin for my Victorian Literature MA and on my own time. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, then provides a segue into the dark side of genetics: eugenics. A lot of space is given to Nazism, but Mukherjee also hits closer to home with the case of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” woman whose enforced sterilization the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1927.
Other important figures in the history of genetics include Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, Hermann Muller, Oswald Avery, Linus Pauling, and the famous English team that discovered the structure of DNA, Watson, Crick & Franklin. Parts Three and Four, which chronicle the advances in genetics that fell between the 1970s and early 2000s, struck me as particularly dull, whereas Part Five held my interest much more strongly in that it brings things up to date with the developments of the last 15 years, including epigenetics, genetic testing for breast cancer and schizophrenia, stem cell therapy and the search for a “gay gene.”
The book did leave me with a strong sense that our knowledge of genes – the least divisible unit of information about life – affects our understanding of the human identity and future:
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, we are learning to speak yet another language of cause and effect, and constructing a new epidemiology of self: we are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences—and, ultimately, fate and choice—in terms of genes and genomes. This is not to make the absurd claim that genes are the only lenses through which fundamental aspects of our nature and destiny can be viewed. But it is to propose and to give serious consideration to one of the most provocative ideas about our history and future: that the influence of genes on our lives and beings is richer, deeper, and more unnerving than we had imagined. This idea becomes even more provocative and destabilizing as we learn to interpret, alter, and manipulate the genome intentionally, thereby acquiring the ability to alter future fates and choices.
However, at nearly 500 very dense, small-print pages, this book will, I fear, struggle to find a broad readership. Is it for science majors and graduate students? They’re likely to have their own university-approved textbooks. Is it an introduction for the general layman? Without a keen interest in science and a determination to learn the last word about genetics, readers are unlikely to persist with such a tome. I have a greater than average interest in genetic diseases, yet couldn’t manage more than a desultory skim. Unlike The Emperor of All Maladies, I can’t see this becoming a modern classic of popular science writing. For me it’s this year’s Citizen Kane: an achievement I can objectively admire but not personally warm to.
My gut feeling: This was also shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize. I think it was better suited to that prize’s aims than to the Wellcome Prize’s. Keeping in mind that “the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics [birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity],” I unfortunately can’t see Mukherjee having the necessary universal appeal.
Paul’s at Nudge; he’s also on the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour for this title on Wednesday.
Shortlist strategy: I’m reviewing Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes for the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour on Friday. The last hurdle is David France’s How to Survive a Plague, another doorstopper I’m having to skim to get through. I plan to review it here on Saturday and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.
Making Plans for April & a Return to Hay-on-Wye
In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.
As to other planned posts for the month…
- I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
- I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
- I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
- I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
- If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.
Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.
This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.
So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.
Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.
Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic The Rebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of The Airbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.
But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:
Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.
I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).
See also: My review of Hay local interest book Under the Tump by Oliver Balch.
Enjoy my Sarah Moss review while I’m away, and I’ll see you back here on Friday!