Weekly Reading List #1 – Brain Surgery, Demons, And Poems

Previously I’ve been mini-reviewing books in the reading list section at the end of my weekly round-ups, but they’ve been getting a bit long and unwieldy of late so I thought I’d move them to their own separate post.

Sometimes a book will merit a post all of its own, or I’ll be given a book by a publisher in exchange for a full review, in which case they’ll be reviewed separately. But I do like to keep track of the books I’ve read and what I liked / disliked about them, and I read so much that I don’t have time to write full reviews of everything. So here we go: the first of the weekly book review lists.

Fizz by Zvi Schreiber

This one has its own full review here, because it was interesting enough to warrant it.

How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco

Predictably, this was excellent. I mean, of course it was. Umberto Eco wrote it. I don’t even need to review it really, do I?

It’s a great little book that talks you through some of the most important points if you’re about to write a thesis. It will also be useful for people who are just interested in doing research; people who aren’t confident in their use of English grammar; and people who want to use their local libraries more efficiently.

100% recommended.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

This was tentatively recommended to me by a friend when I asked for things to read while I’m ill. She was tentative about it because she wasn’t sure if I was going for brain surgery (I’m not).

Do No Harm is the autobiographical memoir of one of the UK’s most experienced neurosurgeons. It was brilliant. It read like a thriller: each chapter a page-turner in itself. Marsh is humble and open about his mistakes, which is quite refreshing even if we’d all like to believe that doctors are superhuman. It also provided an interesting perspective on how things have changed for doctors under the NHS reforms of the past decade or so.

Marsh’s wealth of experience and gripping writing style will have you hooked. Unless you’re at all squeamish, in which case you might want to give this one a miss.

He is also open about his own reactions. It’s much easier to paint oneself as a paragon of virtue than it is to admit that sometimes we all have thoughts that aren’t very nice. But examining the not so nice bits is one of the best ways to philosophise. One of my favourite passages in the book sprung from Marsh’s admission of a thought that popped into his head at the supermarket after one of his shifts:

‘And what did you do today?’ I felt like asking them, annoyed that an important neurosurgeon like myself should be kept waiting after such a triumphant day’s work. But I then thought of how the value of my work as a doctor is measured solely in the value of other people’s lives, and that included the people in front of me at the check-out queue.

I also greatly appreciated the way he dealt with different versions of pain. Especially coming from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, this was a welcome take:

I learned a long time ago… to make no distinction – as some condescending doctors still do – between ‘real’ or ‘psychological’ pain. All pain is produced in the brain, and the only way pain can vary, other than in its intensity, is how it is best treated.

The only gripe I have with the book is that I felt it could have done with a better editor. Throughout the memoir, Marsh alternates between present and past tense. There are several instances of redundant word repetition, and sometimes the syntax is clumsy enough to be distracting. If the book were re-edited and re-released, I would be very happy. But I’d recommend it despite the occasionally clunky wording, because it’s just that good.

Catullus’ Poems, and Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore

These get a joint review because one is based on the other. It had been years since I’d read Catullus’ poems, so when a friend recommended Counting the Stars, which is based on them, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to get my hands on a newish translation and refamiliarise myself with them.

So, firstly: the poems. For one thing, I’d forgotten just how caustic Catullus can be.

I quite liked the translation, which is by Guy Lee and came out in 1998, but it’s not my favourite. I like my poetry a little more flosculous, although perhaps the linguistic style is well suited to Catullus’ particularly acerbic verse.

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore is a novel that takes Catullus’ poetry and expands upon it, weaving in storylines and making it a bit more accessible for a modern reader. I quite liked it, and it was an interesting exercise to read it directly after reading the poems themselves. I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction, and Dunmore’s novel highlights many of the reasons why (which mainly have to do with writing style), but within its genre it’s a good novel, and if historical fiction is your thing, I think you’ll probably enjoy it.

Oracles and Demons of Tibet by René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz

I’ve been saving this one for ages. I found it at an antiquarian book fair a few months ago – a first edition in good condition! – and it’s been sitting patiently in my bedroom ever since, waiting to be read.

It’s a very thorough academic work that looks at Tibet’s various divinities. I found it interesting because I hardly ever read a book about deities and demons that I previously knew nothing about. My own research centres around Western traditions, but there’s a lot of overlap with several Eastern religions, and yet somehow I hadn’t ever looked at Tibetan oracles in any detail. They’re particularly gruesome and present quite fun reading. I’d be interested to read a comparative study that dealt with their origins, but probably not interested enough to add it to my own research plans, which are already more than extensive enough.

If you think you might be interested in researching this area, Oracles and Demons of Tibet is a good place to start. It assumes a basic knowledge of the language, which you’d probably have if you were studying the subject but which I found a little difficult as it’s one of the languages I don’t understand at all. Overall, good if you’re in the specific research area.

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I read About Grace a week or so ago and didn’t like it because I hated the protagonist. I didn’t have high hopes for All the Light we Cannot See because it’s set in WWII, and books set in either of the world wars are generally my least favourites. But it was good.

It follows the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who has fled Paris with her father to live in the countryside; and Werner, a German boy who joins the Hitler Youth. They move through their lives unaware of each other’s presence, and yet from time to time their threads touch, even if they don’t know it.

I can see why it won a Pulitzer: it’s well written and the characters (even the Nazis) are much more likeable than the protagonist of About Grace. There’s a subtle third storyline woven in, concerning a diamond of great worth which Marie-Laure’s father is tasked with hiding from the Nazis, and I thought this third strand was particularly well put together. It would be easy for something like this to take over the story, or to too obviously symbolically mirror the stories of the young protagonists, but Doerr walks the line precisely and it’s simply one strand among many.

Honestly, it’s not going down as one of my favourite books ever, but considering that it was a war novel I liked it much more than I would have expected, and I think most people will probably like it much more than I did.


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