People who follow me on here (thank you all) know that I read a lot of non-fiction. I have a particular interest in travel, natural history and science. The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction with a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci-fi and history. By highlighting the best books with these themes that will affect us in some way throughout our lives, the Wellcome Trust aims to spark debate and interest around the variety of topics.
The longlist was announced on the 8th February and had the following 12 titles on it, two of which I had read. My predictions as to what was going to be on the shortlist are in bold (which is seven I know!):
To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death by Mark O’Connell
Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial by Kathryn Mannix
Mayhem: A memoir by Sigrid Rausing
The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses by Meredith Wadman
In Pursuit of Memory: The fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli
Plot 29: A memoir by Allan Jenkins
The White Book by Han Kang
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell
Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst by Robert Sapolsky
Yesterday the shortlist was announced and the following six had made it to the next stage:
Stay With Me By Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear.
Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is a story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the power of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about the desperate attempts we make to save ourselves, and those we love, from heartbreak.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (30, Nigeria) stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ebedi Hills, Ox-Bow School of Arts and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2017 ‘Stay With Me’, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine By Lindsey Fitzharris
Allen Lane, Penguin Press
The story of a visionary British surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world – the safest time to be alive in human history
Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’, Lindsey Fitzharris reminds us, since half of those who underwent surgery didn’t survive the experience. This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, when surgeons often lacked university degrees, and were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers. While the discovery of anaesthesia somewhat lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to more deaths, as surgeons took greater risks. In squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high.
At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection – and could be treated with antiseptics – he changed the history of medicine forever.
With a novelist’s eye for detail, Fitzharris brilliantly conjures up the grisly world of Victorian surgery, revealing how one of Britain’s greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end.
Lindsey Fitzharris (34, USA) received her doctorate in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the University of Oxford and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wellcome Institute. She is the creator of the popular website The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and she writes and presents the YouTube series Under the Knife. She has written for the ‘Guardian’, the Lance’, New Scientist, Penthouse and the Huffington Post, and has appeared on PBS, Channel 4, BBC and National Geographic.
With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial By Kathryn Mannix
William Collins, HarperCollins UK
Told through a series of beautifully crafted stories taken from nearly four decades of clinical practice, her book answers the most intimate questions about the process of dying with touching honesty and humanity. She makes a compelling case for the therapeutic power of approaching death not with trepidation but with openness, clarity and understanding.
With the End in Mind is a book for us all: the grieving and bereaved, ill and healthy. Open these pages and you will find stories about people who are like you, and like people you know and love. You will meet Holly, who danced her last day away; Eric, the retired head teacher who, even with Motor Neurone Disease, gets things done; loving, tender-hearted Nelly and Joe, each living a lonely lie to save their beloved from distress; and Sylvie, 19, dying of leukaemia, sewing a cushion for her mum to hug by the fire after she has died.
These are just four of the book’s thirty-odd stories of normal humans, dying normal human deaths. They show how the dying embrace living not because they are unusual or brave, but because that’s what humans do. By turns touching, tragic, at times funny and always wise, they offer us illumination, models for action, and hope. Read this book and you’ll be better prepared for life as well as death.
To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death By Mark O’Connell
What is transhumanism? Simply put, it is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are. It’s a philosophy that, depending on how you look at it, can seem hopeful, or terrifying, or absurd. In To Be a Machine, Mark O’Connell presents us with the first full-length exploration of transhumanism: its philosophical and scientific roots, its key players and possible futures. From charismatic techies seeking to enhance the body to immortalists who believe in the possibility of ‘solving’ death; from computer programmers quietly re-designing the world to vast competitive robotics conventions; To Be a Machine is an Adventure in Wonderland for our time. To Be a Machine paints a vivid portrait of an international movement driven by strange and frequently disturbing ideas and practices, but whose obsession with transcending human limitations can be seen as a kind of cultural microcosm, a radical intensification of our broader faith in the power of technology as an engine of human progress. It is a character study of human eccentricity, and a meditation on the immemorial desire to transcend the basic facts of our animal existence – a desire as primal as the oldest religions, a story as old as the earliest literary texts.A stunning new non-fiction voice tackles an urgent question… what next for mankind?
Mark O’Connell (38, Ireland) is a journalist, essayist and literary critic from Dublin. He is a books columnist for Slate, a staff writer at The Millions, and a regular contributor to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and the Dublin Review; his work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and the Observer.
Mayhem: A memoir by Sigrid Rausing
Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books
A searingly powerful memoir about the impact of addiction on a family
In the summer of 2012 a woman named Eva was found dead in the London townhouse she shared with her husband, Hans K. Rausing. The couple had struggled with drug addiction for years, often under the glare of tabloid headlines. Now, writing with singular clarity and restraint the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing, tries to make sense of what happened to her brother and his wife.
In Mayhem, she asks the difficult questions those close to the world of addiction must face. ‘Who can help the addict, consumed by a shaming hunger, a need beyond control? There is no medicine: the drugs are the medicine. And who can help their families, so implicated in the self-destruction of the addict? Who can help when the very notion of ‘help’ becomes synonymous with an exercise of power; a familial police state; an end to freedom, in the addict’s mind?’
Sigrid Rausing (56, Sweden/UK) is the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books. She is the author of two previous books: ‘History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia’ and ‘Everything is Wonderful’, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and of St Antony’s College, Oxford. She lives in London.
The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses By Meredith Wadman
Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from Sweden, produced safe, clean cells that allowed the creation of vaccines against rubella and other common childhood diseases. Two years later, in the midst of a devastating German measles epidemic, his colleague developed the vaccine that would one day wipe out homegrown rubella. The rubella vaccine and others made with those fetal cells have protected more than 150 million people in the United States, the vast majority of them preschoolers. The new cells and the method of making them also led to vaccines that have protected billions of people around the world from polio, rabies, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A, shingles and adenovirus.
Meredith Wadman’s masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who “owns” research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.
With another frightening virus imperiling pregnant women on the rise today, no medical story could have more human drama, impact, or urgency today than The Vaccine Race.
Meredith Wadman MD (57, USA/Canada) has a long profile as a medical reporter and has covered biomedical research politics from Washington, DC, for 20 years. She has written for Nature, Fortune, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Stanford University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she began medical school at the University of British Columbia and completed medical school as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. She is an Editorial Fellow at New America, a DC think-tank.
It is really good to see so many female authors on the long and shortlists, but which is going to win though? Not sure yet, as I haven’t read them all, but I am on the shadow panel for this with Annabel Gaskell, Clare Rowland and Dr. Laura Tisdall which is being hosted by Rebecca Foster. We are all going to be reading them all and will reveal our choice nearer the time. Tell me what you have read and liked in the comments below.