I am championing Ashleigh Young’s collection of essays ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize blog tour today. The eight books on this year’s shortlist include four novels, a novella, two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry whittled down from a list of 80 works published in the UK in 2018 chosen by members of the Folio Academy.
‘Can You Tolerate This?’ is Young’s non-fiction debut (she is also a poet) and tackles a diverse range of subjects, mostly leaning towards her own personal experiences of growing up in Te Kuiti in New Zealand as well as a smattering of historical portraits and other topics too. The 20 essays in this collection include her experience of working as the manager at Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace (‘Katherine Would Approve’), Japanese recluses known as hikikomori (‘Sea of Trees’), 19th century French postal worker Ferdinand Cheval (‘Postie’) and her resentment towards a childhood pet (‘Black Dog Book’). However, the main recurring theme in her work is the body, from the short opening essay about a patient with two skeletons (‘Bones’) to musings on her own body hair (‘Wolf Man’) poor eyesight (‘Absolutely Flying’) and yoga and her eating disorder treatment (‘Bikram’s Knee’). Continue reading
The opening paragraph of ‘XX’ by Angela Chadwick is as good as any to sum up the premise of her debut novel published last year: “After years of controversial research, scientists at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Reproductive Medicine have this morning announced plans to create IVF babies from two women. They’re pushing for a change to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that will make it legal to fertilise an egg with genetic material from a second female.” Lesbian couple Rosie and Jules are quick to take up the opportunity to have a baby of their own through the means of a groundbreaking clinical trial, but a backlash from right-wing movements inevitably creates problems along the way. Continue reading
I am taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour today with a review of ‘Heart: A History’ by Sandeep Jauhar which is the final book I will be shadowing from this year’s shortlist. Jauhar is a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and his third book combines memoir, case studies and the history of cardiology. In the opening pages, he recounts his family history (both of his grandfathers died as a result of sudden cardiac events) and how his own CT angiogram revealed signs of early coronary artery disease. Jauhar’s obsession with this vital and remarkable organ is therefore a very personal one. Continue reading
I am approaching the end of shadowing this year’s Wellcome Book Prize, and I have followed two books which explore gender as the central theme (The Trauma Cleaner and Amateur) with two books primarily concerned with mental health. ‘Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery’ by Arnold Thomas Fanning is a memoir which outlines his experience of bipolar disorder in the late 1990s. Having first suffered from depression at the age of 20 following the death of his mother, he had a breakdown in his late twenties while living in Dublin after quitting his job to concentrate on writing in 1997. He was hospitalised several times and also spent time homeless in London amid periods of mania. The narrative has been pieced together from his own fragmented memories, medical records and interviews with those who were involved at the time. The opening section is a frank stream of consciousness told in the second person while the rest of the narrative is told primarily in the present tense. Continue reading
With Parliament still in the grip of deadlock over Brexit, a book with the title ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’ might sound particularly timely. However, even Isabel Hardman admits that the provocative title is slightly misleading. Rather than a populist takedown of lazy and self-serving MPs, her examination of the political class is more sympathetic, as she shows that it tends to be the structural flaws in the system which have caused so much political dysfunction in recent years. Continue reading
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is already one of the bestselling memoirs of all time selling nearly 10 million copies just four months after it was first published towards the end of 2018. Rebecca, Laura and I optimistically attempted to get tickets for the former First Lady’s sell-out talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in December along with a mere 44,000 other people. We were, of course, unsuccessful, but I eventually got hold of a library copy of the much talked-about memoir which is split into three parts. “Becoming Me” covers her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, college years at Princeton and Harvard and early legal career. “Becoming Us” begins with her meeting Barack Obama in the late 1980s through to the 2008 presidential election and “Becoming More” which covers the two terms spent at the White House. Continue reading
Gender is a notable theme on this year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist and two of the books shortlisted this year (by the official judges and by the shadow panel) look at the lives and experiences of transgender individuals. ‘Amateur’ by Thomas Page McBee was also shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year and is an exploration of modern masculinity told through McBee’s training as the first trans man to fight in a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden. From a childhood dominated by male violence in which he was abused by his stepfather from the age of four, McBee untangles the tricky relationship between masculinity and violence, questioning if aggression is an exclusively “toxic” male trait. Continue reading