I’m back from a month-long blogging break after moving house this month. Thankfully, everything has gone smoothly and I managed to fit in some reading (albeit at a much slower pace than normal) with non-fiction being the order of the day in the run up to Christmas.
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth won this year’s Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award earlier this month and documents Weymouth’s 2,000 mile journey by canoe along the Yukon river through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea in a highly original and ecologically aware travel memoir. The remotest areas of the world tend to be where the effects of climate change, globalisation and industrial fishing are felt most keenly and the far north-west of North America is no exception. Local communities relying on King salmon (also known as chinook) for their livelihoods now face huge uncertainty with rapidly dwindling numbers of fish now spawning there. Fishing quotas might not sound like the most fascinating topic but the lyrical descriptions of the landscape alongside tales of the people he meets along the way, help put the worrying statistics into context. I doubt I would have come across ‘Kings of the Yukon if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award and I hope that the extra exposure from winning the prize will see Weymouth’s audience expand much further. Continue reading
Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell makes a convincing case against the widely held perception of the Middle Ages as a bloodthirsty and violent period of history where beliefs about medicine were guided primarily by superstition. Instead, the reality is shown to be very different in Hartnell’s examination of how medieval people experienced their physical selves. Each chapter of this lavishly illustrated book focuses on a different part of the body and explores their cultural significance and how medieval attitudes towards them were shaped by a range of influences.
Drawing on art, medicine, literature, science, politics, history, philosophy and much more, I think Hartnell sometimes tries to tackle too much here. The geographical range of sources spanning across Europe and the Middle East is impressive but the scope is so wide that it is a lot to grasp for non-expert readers, whereas I think those who are more knowledgeable about this period of history may find the analysis too thin in some areas. However, Hartnell’s evident passion for his subject is infectious and I think ‘Medieval Bodies’ could be a possible contender for the next Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Continue reading
‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ is the follow-up to the hugely successful ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari which I read last year. Having examined the development of humans in his first book through the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions, Harari turns to the challenges of the future in which humans will seek to “upgrade” from Homo Sapiens to gods (or “Homo Deus”), re-engineering our physical and mental capabilities to prevent ageing, escape death and increase happiness. The impact of famine, war and plague has been significantly reduced in recent decades, to the point where we now face the opposite challenges in the form of an obesity crisis, caring for an ageing population with people living longer than ever and a world where more people commit suicide than are killed by terrorists, criminals and conflicts. Continue reading
If you had to choose between saving two people you didn’t know or one of your close relatives from drowning, what would you do? What if there were ten strangers who needed to be rescued? Or one thousand? Would you help a starving child standing right in front of you? How about three million living on the other side of the world? Where do you draw the line? These are some of the questions posed by journalist Larissa MacFarquhar in her 2015 book ‘Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity’ in which she profiles the true stories of extreme “do-gooders” or those who devote their lives to help strangers rather than people they are close to through a sense of duty. These include a couple who adopt 20 children, a founder of a leper colony, a radical vegan activist, a nurse who set up a women’s health clinic in a warzone and others who live on the bare minimum so that they can donate the vast majority of their salary to charity. Continue reading
Medical memoirs such as This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay have vividly illustrated the highs and lows of working in the National Health Service and the importance of funding it properly. The Secret Barrister, an anonymous junior barrister practicing in London, now lifts the lid on the realities of the English and Welsh criminal justice system in ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’. Continue reading
I enjoyed reading It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan a couple of years ago, a collection of case studies about patients with psychosomatic illness in which medically unexplained physical symptoms are found to be caused by emotional stress. O’Sullivan is a consultant neurologist and her latest book ‘Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology’ focuses on the vast array of symptoms and types of seizures which can present in patients suspected of having epilepsy. Rather than the fits that many associate with the condition, some seizures manifest themselves in unexpected and dangerous ways which are not easy to explain to strangers. For example, August is a bright young woman who bolts and runs when she has a seizure with no awareness of her surroundings, often into the path of traffic. Others experience them in the form of bizarre auras, such as Donal, a school janitor who learns that he might be at risk of losing his job due to cuts, starts experiencing hallucinations of cartoon dwarves. Continue reading
I have been reading more non-fiction than ever recently, moving away from the science and medical themed books I covered for the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist to memoirs about all things literary, specifically writing, libraries and children’s literature. Here are three titles I recommend to bookworms everywhere:
Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens is an account of her attempt to write a novel by living in the Falkland Islands for three months using funding from her Global Fellowship at the end of her creative writing course at Boston University. After arriving in Stanley where many of the 2,500 residents are based, she lived in self-imposed isolation on the uninhabited Bleaker Island for several weeks, believing that a total lack of distraction would be beneficial for her levels of creativity and productivity. For her stint on Bleaker Island, she had to pack all of her food supplies, restricting herself to just over 1,000 calories a day living mostly on instant porridge and Ferrero Rocher with just a copy of the film ‘Eat Pray Love’ on her laptop for company. Despite the unusual setting, Stevens’ experience of writing procrastination will resonate with anyone who has ever had an essay deadline to meet, even if her expectations and lack of preparation for some aspects of her trip are a tad infuriating in places. Extracts of her fiction are interspersed throughout and while these chapters are variable in quality and pad out what would otherwise be a very slim book, I think they are worth reading to get a sense of her creative output at the time. Overall, this is an interesting and often very funny account of a unique travel experience which proved to be inspiring for Stevens in the end, even if it wasn’t quite in the way she had initially bargained for. Continue reading