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Marion Coutts Wins 2015 Wellcome Book Prize

I guess this means I should have gone with my heart when predicting the winner!!

The Iceberg: A Memoir 

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts has just won the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize. It is a worthy winner as it contains some of the most powerful writing I’ve ever read. If you have the emotional strength to become immersed in the lives of a family dealing with a terminal illness then I highly recommend this book – but be prepared to experience grief and emotional turmoil. 

 

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Who Will Win the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize?

The Wellcome Prize celebrates the best new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Last year the prize was awarded to Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read. This year I decided to try the entire shortlist and I’ve been rewarded with a diverse range of titles; dealing with subjects as different as brain surgery and evolution.

The shortlist:

My Age of Anxiety

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

Five words from the blurb: fear, stress, mental, health, research

This book contained a wealth of knowledge on anxiety. Scott Stossel battles with crippling anxiety and in an effort to understand his condition he compiled medical research and historical information about a wide range of sufferers. The overall structure wasn’t quite right, but I think this will be an important reference book for many years to come.

 

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh 

Five words from the blurb: brain, operate, pressures, dilemma, lives

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon and this book explains what life is like for a man performing dangerous operations on a daily basis.  It vividly explains the pressures faced by a surgeon; beautifully describing both the guilt felt when procedures go wrong and the pride when lives are saved. I found it slightly too technical in places, but I appreciated the insight into this fascinating subject.

 

Bodies of Light

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Five words from the blurb: approval, mother, student, medicine,  suffrage

Bodies of Light is set 19th century Manchester and follows Ally, one of the first female students to study medicine at London university. It contains a wealth of historical information and shows the shocking way women in society were treated back then. Unfortunately I found it lacked the emotional engagement of her earlier novels, but it is a must-read for anyone interested in the development of women’s rights.

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The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us by Alice Roberts

Five words from the blurb: evolution, humans, embryo, extraordinary, development

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being is a very readable account of our development from an embryo into a fully-functioning adult. Much of the information was familiar to me, but there were enough engaging side-stories to keep me entertained. This book doesn’t contain anything ground-breaking, but is a useful introduction to human biology.

 

The Iceberg: A Memoir 

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

Five words from the blurb: tumor, husband, grief, support, family

The Iceberg contains some of the most powerful descriptions of grief I’ve ever read. Marion Coutts explains what life was like in the 18 months between her husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and his untimely death. The writing was outstanding, but it was so vivid I felt I was reliving her pain. I found it traumatising to read, but I admired the honesty and emotional power of the writing.

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All My Puny Sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Five words from the blurb: sisters, different, depressed, happy, lives

All My Puny Sorrows is a very well written book, as proved by its inclusion on the Folio shortlist. It beautifully describes a family trying to cope with depression and suicide; showing how strong the bonds of love within a family can be. It was too melancholy for me, but I can see why many admire the sensitive way this difficult subject was handled.

Who Will Win the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize?

I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see any of the shortlist win, as they all have something special about them. All My Puny Sorrows contains the most accomplished writing; whilst My Age of Anxiety will probably be the most useful of the books in years to come. But for me the winner is a difficult choice between two books: The Iceberg and Do No Harm.

The Iceberg has an emotional power I haven’t come across before. Books like The Son by Michel Rostain have come close, but I don’t think I’ve ever found a book too difficult to read because of the volume of tears in my eyes! I couldn’t even finish the book as I was grieving for a man I’d never even met. If you want a masterclass in emotional writing then this has to be top of your list!

Do No Harm was the most interesting book on the list. It made me think about the brain in a different way and gave me a new-found respect for these ground-breaking surgeons. Parts of it went over my head and it occasionally felt a bit repetitive, but I think this is just a reflection of a surgeon’s life and should be forgiven.

So, head or heart?!!

In the end I have to let the head win. Do No Harm is an impressive book. The skill and emotional strength of neurosurgeons should be celebrated and I hope Henry Marsh picks up the Wellcome Book Prize tomorrow.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Who do you think should win the Wellcome Book Prize?

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2014 Recommended books

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara

The People in the Trees

Five words from the blurb: anthropologist, tribe, discovery, miraculous, terrible

I bought a copy of this book when Steph, one of my favourite bloggers, raved about it. It’s been sat on my shelf for ages, but I finally got around to reading it and found it was well worth the wait. The People in the Trees is the perfect blend of science, moral dilemma and mystery – all wrapped up in a clever structure.

The book begins with Norton, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, being arrested for paedophillia. The rest of the book travels back in time, explaining what happened prior to his arrest. It shows how Norton came to fame studying a tribe from a remote Micronesian island. These people claimed to become immortal after eating a rare turtle and as Norton researched their society he made a break-through discovery. The subsequent media frenzy is heartbreaking to read and perfectly captures many of the problems with our society today.

Norton was a fantastic character. He was deeply flawed, but I found myself empathising with him – and this was troubling on many occasions. The book managed to hold my attention throughout, despite the fact that the majority of the plot was revealed within the first few pages. I also loved the way it questioned our way of life, making me re-think several of my own beliefs.

All ethics and morals are culturally relative. And Esme’s reaction taught me that while cultural relativism is an easy concept to process intellectually, it is not, for many, an easy one to remember.

The People of the Trees is an anthropological adventure and it felt completely plausible – an impressive feat for such an unlikely story. Much of the book reminded me of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, as they blend science and fiction in a similarly compelling way. The writing styles shared so many aspects that I wouldn’t have been surprised if you told me both books were written by the same author. I’m sure that anyone who enjoyed one would appreciate the other.

The disturbing themes mean that this book isn’t suitable for everyone, but if you’re intrigued by the darker side of human nature The People of the Trees is a must-read.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

This is one of those rare books that truly defies any attempt to classify it. Jenny Blenk

So my beef with The People in the Trees isn’t with the disgusting revelations per se but that they seemed so disjointed with the rest of the book; therefore, seeming to have no place in it. 1776 Books

I found the book and Perina fascinating and disturbing. Tia’s Book Musings

 

 

 

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2014 Memoirs Non Fiction Other Prizes

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

My Age of Anxiety Shortlisted for 2015 Wellcome Prize

Five words from the blurb: fear, stress, mental, health, research

Scott Stossel has spent his entire life battling crippling anxiety. In an effort to understand his condition he has compiled medical research and historical information about a wide range of sufferers; showing how generations of people have dealt with their problems. He includes details about many famous people, showing that the affliction does not prevent people from achieving great things.

I was pleased to discover this book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist as I thought I suffered from anxiety, but I quickly realised that I don’t. The nervousness I feel when approaching a stressful situation isn’t in the same league as the anguish of those within these pages. I was surprised to discover how serious the condition can be and how prevalent it is within our society; especially given the fact it didn’t exist as a diagnostic category 35 years ago.

One argument for why twenty-first-century life produces so much anxiety is that social and political roles are no longer understood to have been ordained by God or by nature – we have to choose our roles. Such choices, research shows, are stressful. As sodden with fear and darkness and death as the Middle Ages were, Fromm and others argue, they were likely freer of anxiety than our own time is.

The book contains a vast amount of information about medical research into the condition. It was all well referenced, but contains enough light-hearted side-notes to ensure the reader doesn’t become bogged down in technical detail.

I’d assumed that this book might contain strategies to help deal with anxiety, but this isn’t a self-help book. Despite years of therapy, Scott Stossel hasn’t been cured of his anxiety and, although it contains information about different techniques tried through the ages, this book doesn’t contain any direct guidance on how to deal with anxiety. Instead it gives a brutally honest insight into the condition, explaining what life is like for those trapped by phobias and catastrophizing thought. I now have a greater empathy for those who are suffering, and that is more than enough for one book to provide. 

The only real problem was that the structure wasn’t quite right. There were a few sections that repeated information given earlier in the book and in places it didn’t flow as well as it could. These minor problems can be overlooked as it is such an important resource for those with anxiety.

Overall, this was an impressive compilation of information on anxiety and I recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the condition.

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2009 Non Fiction

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Five words from the blurb: doctor, Haiti, difference, global, disease

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book that demands discussion. It is a perfect book club choice, especially for those looking to branch into non-fiction for the first time. The book is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has done an incredible amount to reduce rates of infection, particularly tuberculosis, around the world. The only problem is that Paul Farmer is a controversial man and this book forces us to question our concept of right and wrong. 

As a teenager Farmer fell in love with the people of Haiti. After qualifying as a doctor he set up a clinic there and dedicated his life to improving the health of local people. The only problem is that he stole thousands of dollars of medicine and equipment from US hospitals in order to do so. Much of his illegal behaviour is glossed over and this book concentrates on the immense body of good work he has done. Many reviews have criticised Kidder for “hero worshiping” Farmer, but I think this element only adds to its discussability.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is an engaging account of Farmer’s life. The sections in which Kidder recounts the time he spent with him were particularly vivid and his admiration for Farmer’s work shines through.

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow his example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

Haiti was also beautifully described. The poverty of the people was often distressing to read, but the Haitians were treated with respect throughout. I admired the way individuals were highlighted – allowing their terrible problems to be humanised, instead of just being a statistic. The political situation was also explained well and I discovered that this country has one of the most interesting pasts I’ve come across. It has made me keen to seek out more books based in this Caribbean country. 

The second half of the book, in which Farmer becomes a global authority on infection, was less interesting to me. The book became more about statistics and, although what he achieved was impressive, it didn’t have the emotional impact of the first half. 

Overall this was an important book. It raised many questions about global healthcare and left me feeling strangely guilty about my privileged place in the world.

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Mini Reviews: Everything I Never Told You, The House We Grew Up In and The Iceberg

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Five words from the blurb: murder, child, parents, mystery, relationships

I decided to read Everything I Never Told You because it was Amazon.com’s book of 2014 and praise for it seems to be everywhere. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else. It was very readable and contained a few interesting insights into the problems of inter-racial marriage, but the murder-mystery aspect was underwhelming and I felt the entire book lacked that magical spark. I’ve heard the same story many times before and, although this was better written than similar books, it didn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking. You should probably ignore this review though – everyone else seems to love it!

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The House We Grew Up In 

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

Five words from the blurb: hoarding, family, dysfunctional, relationships, secrets

This was chosen by my book club and the majority of the group enjoyed it. I had my reservations, but it did produce one of the most interesting discussions we’ve had so far. It contained some good observations on hoarding, but then meandered off on too many unrealistic tangents. Members of my group compared it to a soap opera and this think this is a good analogy. If you enjoy the non-stop, but shallow, actions of dysfunctional families then you’ll love this, but I prefer to read more realistic books.

 

The Iceberg: A Memoir Shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Prize

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

Five words from the blurb: tumor, husband, grief, support, family

The Iceberg contains some of the most powerful descriptions of grief I’ve ever read. Marion Coutts explains what life was like in the 18 months between her husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and his untimely death.  It showed his gradual decline and the way this affected his friends and family. The writing was outstanding, but it was so vivid I felt I was reliving her pain. I’m afraid I wasn’t strong enough to continue reading and so abandoned this important book before the end.

Have you read any of these books?

Did you enjoy them more than I did?