Library staff recommend: Science and Medicine bestsellers (part 2)

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This summer, we’re highlighting parts of our collection that you might not have come across before: popular science titles that you’ll find peppered throughout the library shelves. Over the past few weeks, Library and LTS staff have been reading and reviewing a selection of books: many of which are now on display by the helpdesk for you to borrow. You can also browse our handpicked selection here: http://wke.lt/w/s/q3KeB

Take a look at some of our recommended reads below. You can find part one of our staff book reviews here.

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

For another insight in to the world of neurosurgery you may also like ‘Do no harm’, neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir of his life and work at St George’s.

‘When breath becomes air’ is the autobiography of Paul Kalanithi – neurosurgeon-neuroscientist and writer. The book charts his journey to medicine via English Literature and Human Biology, through the gruelling training in neurosurgery, to his experiences on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship following his diagnosis with stage 4 lung cancer just as he was approaching the end of his neurosurgical residency:

“Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.”

The different phases of the book are woven together by Kalanithi’s thoughtful and tender exploration of the question, what gives life meaning? Navigated variously through literature and philosophy, through the visceral experience of practising medicine, and with deep personal insight as he comes to terms with his own diagnosis and prognosis. I believe that what you’ll take from this book is as deeply personal as the story itself, but that overall the book is profoundly life affirming and speaks of the importance of hope in the most difficult of circumstances.

Verity Allison
Journals and e-Resources Librarian

 

Bodies by Jed Mercurio

An unforgiving and at times confronting read, Bodies is one of those rare books that sticks in the mind long after the last page.

Bodies is a disturbing, fascinating and truly compelling fictional account from the front line of hospital life in the late twentieth century.

This first novel by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor turned drama writer whose recent works include the award-winning TV series Line of Duty, was later adapted by the BBC. It charts the day-to-day experiences of the book’s unnamed narrator, who as the story begins has arrived at the hospital for his first day as a newly qualified houseman.

From the start the reader is immersed in the gritty reality of life as a junior doctor: the gruelling hours, lack of sleep, urgent references to the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine and the life and death decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. Mistakes are inevitably made, and the reader shares the narrator’s distress as he struggles with how a simple misjudgment can lead to the most severe of consequences.

The narrator doesn’t flinch as he reveals the reality of the battlefield of hospital life, seamlessly blending stomach-turning episodes on the wards with his own personal life.The reality of his work impacts his faith and also his relationships, which are graphically recounted alongside his work.

As the story progresses, the idealism that a new young doctor brings is tested. He is presented with moral dilemmas and decisions of conscience which force the reader to wonder what path they would take when faced with the reality we have seen through his eyes. An unforgiving and at times confronting read, Bodies is one of those rare books that sticks in the mind long after the last page.

Emily Daniel
Information Assistant

 

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book will capture the imagination of all and take you down the rabbit hole into the wonderland of the human brain.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is comprised of a series of case histories of Oliver Sacks’ patients. Sacks, a neurologist, writes about some of the more unique and baffling cases he has come across throughout his career. His patients have different neurological disorders that lead them to navigate the world and their own sense of self in mysterious, startling and sometimes heart-breaking ways. Written over thirty years ago, our knowledge of the nervous system has since developed and some of the terminology is outdated. What makes this book still current is that Sacks does not claim to have all the answers – the brain was then, as it remains now, largely an enigma.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help but ask, how do we make sense of the world, and of our place in it, when perception, memory and cognitive function has gone? For many of us it’s our worst nightmare; we suppose that to lose our past and our sense of the familiar, would be to lose our humanity. The patients in Sacks’ book show a remarkable ability to strive for meaning and identity.

The namesake of the book, Dr P, is a man who has lost his ability to understand what he can see in front of him. In one occurrence, Dr P stares at a glove, pondering over what this strange object with its “five outpouchings” could be. Upon placing his hand within the object he makes sense of its function. It is only then that he declares that it is a glove! He has lost the ability to recognise faces, hence mistaking his wife for a hat. He can perceive features, but not the whole. As a talented musician, he instead ‘sees’ through music: “He had no body-image, he had body-music: this is why he could move and act as fluently as he did”.

Sacks reveals these stories in a frank and humorous light. Sacks aims with this book to “restore the human subject at the centre” of medical case studies. Disease and the individual are not separate entities. Sacks argues that much of the behaviours of his patients are not manifestations of disease. They are an “organised chaos”, responsive to the absolute confusion of disease, through sheer will or desire to live. It encourages the medical profession to positively focus on faculties that remain, or that flourish, under pervading diseases. For those of us without a scientific background, it encourages us to wonder at the marvel of what the human brain is capable of and question what we perceive as ‘lesser’ or ‘deficient’.

Catriona Robertson
FHSCE Liaison Support Librarian

 

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – David Adam

“I can’t think of a single positive thing about OCD. And I’ve thought about OCD a lot.”

Writer David Adam is fairly unequivocal on the question of whether OCD might have an upside; but he also understands how the largely hidden nature of the suffering it causes might lead to such misperceptions – to the ‘little bit OCD’ of popular imagination. A science journalist who has himself had OCD for over twenty years, Adam realised he might be well-placed to shine a clearer light on the condition; “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” is the result.

He takes as his starting point the intrusive thoughts and doubts that lie at the heart of OCD – and finds they are actually surprisingly common to us all. So what is it that happens differently in the small number of people who can’t let go of these thoughts – who go on to develop OCD? In the search for answers, Adam takes us on a journey through genetics, childhood experience and misfiring brain circuits among other things. And while he admits there is much still to be understood, he finds some intriguing possibilities.

But it’s perhaps in recounting his own experiences that Adam is able to shine the brightest light – describing with unswerving honesty how it feels to live in the grip of obsessive doubt; or the long journey to find the treatment that keeps that keeps those thoughts – mostly – under control today. His book manages to give both a readable introduction to the evidence, and a voice to personal experiences that have sometimes been overlooked.

Hilary Garrett
Information Assistant

 

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Library staff recommend: Science and Medicine bestsellers (part 1)

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This summer, we’re highlighting parts of our collection that you might not have come across before: popular science titles that you’ll find peppered throughout the library shelves. Over the past few weeks, Library and LTS staff have been reading and reviewing a selection of books: many of which are now on display by the helpdesk for you to borrow. You can also browse our hand-picked selection here: http://wke.lt/w/s/q3KeB

Take a look at some of our recommended reads below. You can view part 2 of our book reviews here.

 

Why we sleep : the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker

There will be something to astonish you almost every time you pick it up… I’d recommend this book to everyone.

This brilliant book is packed with incredible facts about the benefits of a good night’s sleep and the consequences of not getting enough good-quality sleep. Matthew Walker, a sleep specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, shows how sleep can improve everything from memory to the efficacy of the flu jab, not to mention productivity at work, mood and even blood sugar levels. He also explains that driving while sleep-deprived can be more dangerous than driving drunk, and that (unfortunately) a weekend lie-in can’t completely compensate for a lack of sleep during the week.  The book is written in a very accessible way that is neither too technical nor overly simplified, which makes it an easy read despite it being absolutely full of information. There will be something to astonish you almost every time you pick it up, and you’ll want to start improving your sleep straight away – handily, the book also includes a few tips on how to do just that. I’d recommend this book to everyone. In Matthew Walker’s words, “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day”, and that is something we can all benefit from.

Georgina Coles
Information Assistant

 

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

Recommended for medical historians or anyone interested in the history of medicine.

First published 40 years ago, Sontag examines the euphemisms, myths and metaphors that surround diseases such as TB, cancer and AIDS. In obituaries, the expression ‘she died after a long illness’ is often a euphemism for ‘she died of breast cancer’. This is because cancer attacks parts of the body that can, to this day, be embarrassing to acknowledge (e.g. breast, colon, testicles). A particular strength of the book is its debunking of the psychological aspects of disease. This relates to the myth that TB, cancer or AIDS sufferers are somehow to blame for contracting their disease. Sontag tracks a line from the ancient Greeks through to the Victorians where disease is perceived as a judgement on the behaviour or morality of the sufferer. And before we gloat about how much more civilised and reasoned we are today, one only has to recall that is was just over 30 years ago (at the height of the AIDS crisis) that singer Donna Summer allegedly remarked that AIDS was God’s punishment to gay men.

Lawrence Jones
Content & Digital Infrastructure Manager

 

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

A great read for anyone who has an interest in debunking medical nonsense. This book will equip you with the skills to see through the ‘Bad Science’ filling our world whilst still managing to be both funny and entertaining.

Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor, academic, campaigner and bestselling author; his first book Bad Science encompasses all of these by picking apart the ‘Bad Science’ that is filling our lives, whether it comes from the media, advertising or the pharmaceutical industry.

Bad Science is split into two sections: the first focusses on how research is carried out and reported before walking through some notable cases of misleading science including an interesting review of the placebo effect and the smearing of the MMR vaccine all the way to a personal experiment with an ‘Aqua Detox’ and a Barbie doll.

The aim is to explain how not only media and marketing mislead us but also how pharmaceutical companies skew clinical findings. Full of facts and humour in equal measure, Bad Science will not only equip you with the skills to spot the questionable scientific claims filling the world but will also probably make you laugh along the way.

Kerry Dixon
Learning Technologist

 

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

If you are a fan of true crime or are in any way interested in the complexities of human behaviour, this is very much worth a read.

Ronson’s book begins with a mystery: someone has been sending peculiar packages to academics across the world containing a book crammed with cryptic messages. With the mystery seemingly unsolvable, Ronson is brought on board to help crack the case and his pursuit of the book’s origins leads him on a funny – but often troubling – journey that unravels what it means to be ‘mad’.

Underpinning most of the book is Ronson’s exploration of the Psychopathy Checklist; which he uses when interviewing a number of individuals who arguably exhibit psychopathic traits: from the head of a Haitian death squad to the CEO of an American manufacturing company. The most intriguing character for me is ‘Tony’, an offender who’s plan to ‘fake madness’ to get out of a prison sentence backfired when he found himself locked up in Broadmoor indefinitely. Interspersed amongst these stories are examples of Ronson’s own battles with anxiety, which offer welcome relief to some of the quite grisly content.

While the book is clearly well-researched, some aspects of the storytelling do feel unbalanced and over reliant on the more sensational case studies in the field. It’s also occasionally guilty of offering a superficial look at some aspects of psychopathy, so I’d advise casting a critical eye over any conclusions you draw from the material explored. Nevertheless, it is a fun and entertaining read and if it’s sparked your interest in the field (as it has for me), you may find yourself looking into more authoritative texts to satisfy your curiosity.

Beth Jackson
Liaison Support Librarian (Medicine and Biomedical Sciences)

EDIT:
(9th August 2018) One of our Twitter followers highlighted a response to Ronson’s book by Robert D. Hare, who’s work (and checklist) are featured heavily in the text. For balance, we’d certainly recommend reading his reflections on the book here. We’d like to share another thank you to the follower who brought it to our attention, it made for an entertaining read and echoed many of the concerns we couldn’t include in our word count!

Book Review: The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil

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A review of The Brilliant and Forever, written by Catriona Robertson, FHSCE Liaison Support Librarian

MacNeil is a wordsmith and the novel delights with beautifully written passages and moments of unexpected humour which bring to light the human condition.

After having read and loved another one of Kevin MacNeil’s books, The Stornoway Way, I was really excited to see that his new book, The Brilliant and Forever, was shortlisted for the KU Big Read and jumped at the chance to read it. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

The Brilliant and Forever is set on a nameless island where humans and alpacas live unharmoniously side by side. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the island and the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where MacNeil grew up. Anyone from a small town can surely empathise with some of the idiosyncrasies of island life.

The novel centres around an annual book festival held on the island called The Brilliant and Forever. The festival draws an eclectic crowd of locals and literary types from further afield, who hope to make a name for themselves in this remote and strange place. We see events unfold from the perspective of our nameless protagonist, who is best friends with Macy and Archie the alpaca. Our protagonist is a contemplative man who experiences moments of clarity and calm, particularly whilst cycling around the island. As the reader, you can’t help but share his love and endearment for his companions. Macy defies conventions and is full of kooky ideas and witticisms and the funny but anxious Archie is nobly leading a fight for alpaca rights. All three are aspiring writers taking part in the literary festival.

Within the book is a series of short stories which are all individual entries for the festival. Each of these stories are unique, fantastic, humorous and heart-breaking. Even in these individual tales, MacNeil’s voice comes through. There is an unbroken thread weaving the festival stories together with themes of empathy, identity, and loneliness emerging. MacNeil also brings together folklore traditions of storytelling and the modern world.

The island can be seen as a microcosm of our society. There are many divides on the island, from the rich whitehousers to the poorer blackhousers. Black houses are traditional houses from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which were sometimes viewed as crude and inferior structures to the newer white houses. In the book, these houses represent the privileged and less privileged echelons of society. There is also divide between humans and alpacas. There are elements of segregation on the island, and alpacas are treated as second class citizens. Archie’s entry to the B&F festival is all the more remarkable as none of the judges are alpacas, and the publishers who hold power are all human. The privileged whitehousers have a veneer of respectability and civility but they struggle with perpetual unhappiness due to their materialistic culture. There are strong undercurrents of violence and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality amongst the whitehousers.

As I read the book I found myself at times despairing and at times full of rage for the injustices Archie and others face in the novel. Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the examples of unlikely friendships and the vision of a fair and shared community for all. I’d definitely recommend this book. If you don’t enjoy it, in the words of Archie, “it’s a jazz thing you don’t get”.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Brilliant & Forever, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

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A review of The Penguin Lessons, written by Eduardo R. Garcia, Midwifery student

A foreign country in turmoil. An adventure. An unforgettable friendship.

The Penguin Lessons is a narrative told in first person by the author, Tom Michell, whose family members were distributed all over the world and inspired him with tales and stories about their discoveries, filling his imagination and making him familiar with these places. However, while this encouraged his adventurous spirit to take off, he was also moved by the desire to explore an unknown territory where his relatives had not been before, and hence why South America came as a perfect destination for his cause. Years later, during the 70s, an advertisement looking for staff in a Boarding School in Argentina would become his passage to his longed for adventure, fearless of the economic and political situation that whipped the country in the meantime.

What makes this personal journey especial is not only the wealth of insight into Argentina, its people and the description of a period that is long gone. The real core of the story is the friendship between Michell and Juan Salvador, or Juan Salvado: a penguin that our leading man rescued out of the jaws of death.

Michell’s action could have stayed as an anecdote in an otherwise more formal and serious narrative, however he decided to take the penguin under his arm and continue his travels, bringing Juan Salvado with him into the Boarding School, and making this the story of a lifetime. The bird, or the way that he is presented to us by Michell, makes us think of him as a character with his own personality and decision-making; he is a little fighter that serves as a main narrative thread, providing emotive and funny moments as this peculiar and almost fantastical relationship between bird and human develops.

Perfectly written, and unfolding wit and charm, Michell imagines the replies that Juan Salvado gives him through his eyes or actions, humanizing the character and making the readers understand his desire to protect the animal and why everyone around loves him, breaking the barriers that one could imagine as impregnable between a penguin and the human world. Because, at the end of the day, could a penguin belong with humans?

With the sensitivity of someone who has observed the damage that human actions could perpetrate in nature, the author inspires us to be considerate with the environment. Also, in reference to the title of the novel, Michell learns and demystifies knowledge and ideas about penguins, teaching us some tips in case, one day, we find ourselves in a similar situation and need to parent one of them.

Similar reads: Big Fish, Water for Elephants.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Penguin Lessons, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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A review of The Power, written by Beth Jackson, FMBS Liaison Support Librarian

This powerful, provocative tale of how power corrupts will leave you questioning not only the dystopian world of Roxy, Allie, Margot and Tunde but our own society too. ‘Shockingly’ good.

How different would our world be if women were the dominant gender, wielding physical power over men? This is the central theme running through The Power, which examines how society changes after teenage girls suddenly develop the ability to discharge electricity through their hands. They soon learn they are able to awaken the power in older women too, and before long the entire female population are able to control, hurt and kill their oppressors – in this case, men.

How the global chaos unfolds is told through the stories of four central characters. Roxy, the daughter of a gangster, is caught in a criminal underworld and desperate to avenge her mother’s murder. Margot, a low-level American politician who once bestowed the power exploits it for political gain. Allie, a runaway who escapes her abusive foster father and becomes the leader of the new revolution, amassing followers who believe in the supremacy of women. Finally Tunde, a Nigerian journalist whose viral video of a teenager discharging her power on a male harasser kick-starts what becomes known as the ‘Day of the Girls’.

We see how their stories converge over the years as the power mechanics shift and belief systems change. Alderman does not present a matriarchal utopia by any means and graphically depicts the cruelty women are capable of. This can make for tough reading at times, but what’s most unsettling is that many of the displays of violence she posits are gender-flipped examples of the brutality inflicted on women in the real world. Considering the difficult and complex topics in the novel, the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous and serves a broader purpose of highlighting stereotypes about gender and illustrates how power can corrupt anyone.

It might not be the gentlest read among KU Big Read shortlist, but it is certainly packed with action, suspense and plenty of provocative scenes which will keep you ruminating long after you’ve finished the book.

Notable mention: If you are a fan of Margaret Atwood (particularly The Handmaid’s Tale) you might be interested to know she mentored Alderman back in 2012 (they co-wrote a zombie serialisation together!). Her influence can be felt in the storytelling and the dystopian themes underpinning the novel.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Power, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

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A review of Radio Sunrise, written by Dr Julia Wood, Senior Researcher

Ifiok, our narrator, is a journalist at Radio Sunrise in Lagos. In his world, the “brown envelop” is the driving force – it contains the bribes that decide which topics will be covered and how favourably. Sadly, he often lacks the money he needs to stuff his own envelops to procure the favours he needs to sweeten his life.

His assignments include some bizarre stories such as the missing penis case and the goat arrested for armed robbery. There are strange beliefs held by those around Ifiok. The devout Christian studio manager calls some airlines “diabolical transporters” who engineer crashes to suck the victims’ blood whilst his girlfriend considers his favourite restaurateur to be an evil being who sprinkles magical herbs by the door to increase the number of customers. Although Ifiok does not believe these stories he is concerned that a young woman may have put a love potion in his food.

Ifiok often feels sad about the bad things that happen in his country. The penis snatcher has petrol poured on him and is only saved from burning by an out of control truck scattering the crowd of vigilantes. He refers to a country of thieves: he steals stories from CNN, the radio station accountant steals his pen, and politicians steal votes while the rich steal from the poor. There is a policy to support local drama but prime time TV mostly shows dated Mexican soaps and his own radio drama has been cut.

Disappointments feature strongly in Ifiok’s story but Isong’s writing makes it colourful and humorous. The book is engaging and made me care deeply about what would happen to the narrator. It provided a window in to a world that is so different to anything I know from my life in London that the term ‘small world’ should be scrubbed out. I highly recommend it, enjoy!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of Radio Sunrise, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

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A review of My Name is Leon, written by Joanne Powell, Senior Lecturer in General Practice Nursing

I so enjoyed reading and reviewing this beautifully and sensitively written book for The Big Read. The story starts with the birth of Jake and the reader soon realises that his mother, Carol, can’t cope.  Leon is nine years old and his baby brother, Jake, has just been born. The book describes a particularly difficult period during Leon’s childhood.

The book opens with his mother leaving Jake to go and have a cigarette leaving Leon and Jake together on their own.  Carol is also on her own as a single parent – both brothers have different and absent fathers and while Carol and Jake are white, Leon is mixed race. His father, Byron, is in prison, while Jake’s father, Tony, is in another relationship and has rejected Carol and Jake.

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Illustration and blurb extract

Carol has problems coping on her own and spirals into a desperate decline relying on Leon and often leaving him and Jake alone or with her neighbour, Tina. Tina raises the alarm when Leon, desperately hungry, asks Tina for money for food.   Jake and Leon go to live with Maureen, an emergency foster carer with “fuzzy red hair like a halo and a belly like Father Christmas”. Jake is soon adopted – he’s white and a baby and therefore in demand. But no one will adopt Leon who has a black father and is already too old.

This book is set during the 1980s in Birmingham during a troubled time characterized by racial tension – Irish republicanism and police brutality against black people that spark the riots of 1981. After a birthday present of a bike, Leon develops a sense of freedom and discovers the Rookery Road allotments. Here we are introduced to pivotal characters Tufty and Mr Devlin. They both introduce Leon to the concept of nurture through the planting and cultivating vegetables from seeds. However, the allotment is a political hotbed and racial tensions spark between Tufty, a West Indian political activist who Leon admires and Mr. Devlin, an aging member of the IRA. Leon, who listens too much at doorways and keyholes, is focused on being reunited with Jake and plots to find him.

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80s Boombox illustration from the book

This book is a page turner as you seek to find out how it works out for Leon. It provides an important and sometimes uncomfortable commentary on attitudes to parenting, race and adoption during the 1980’s. For me, being a child of the 1980’s, I found the descriptions of the racial tension and riots uncomfortable to read and it provoked distant memories. The novel is full of quietly shocking moments which also reveals how much child protection has moved on from 30 years ago.


If this brilliant review hasn’t already convinced you to read My Name is Leon, here’s another reason – it’s  now the winner of KU Big Read. Congratulations Kit De Waal!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of My Name is Leon, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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