Heart – A History by Sandeep Jauhar
This book is the single traditional medical history/memoir to make the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist this year. Jauhar is a practising cardiologist in the USA, and he combines personal memoir of his doctor’s career and family medical notes with explaining how the heart works, patients’ stories and a history of all the major developments in cardiac surgery. He’s doubly qualified to talk about the heart: firstly as Director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Centre, and secondly, as both his grandfathers died of cardiac causes in India, and Jauhar discovered he had plaques in his own coronary vessels when he had a scan.
It’s a slightly uneven read – I would have liked more personal memoir and family stories – his brother also became a cardiologist – and more patient stories balanced against the modern technological advances that saved them (or not), and less of the history. I did enjoy reading about the development of the heart-lung machine, but in comparison, Jauhar almost skims over the subject of heart transplants.
Jauhar comes over as a thoroughly nice person and a sensitive and capable doctor, but maybe because I’ve read too many medical memoirs in recent years, (see my reviews of Marsh, Westaby Kalanithi and Black) I skimmed over his initial encounters with cadavers as a medical student, which didn’t add anything to his choice of cardiology as a specialism – I would have liked more about his cardiac training, but he is too self-effacing to make himself the star of his book.
While his writing may lack the eloquence of Marsh or Kalanithi, Jauhar’s unfussy prose made for a very readable book, from which I continued to learn more about the wonders of the human body and the human condition. (7/10)
Sandeep Jauhar, Heart: A History (Oneworld, 2018) Hardback, 288 pages incl indexes etc.
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein
Before I started my Wellcome Book Prize longlist reading this year, of those books I hadn’t already read, this was the title that most appealed to me. Our Shadow Panel voted it our favourite from the longlist – but sadly, this book didn’t make it onto the shortlist – for whatever reason – possibly because the judges were largely concentrating on books that explored other themes this year; there have been memoirs of grief and cancer shortlisted in other years.
It’s a shame, because Edelstein’s memoir reads like no other similar one that I’ve read. It’s her style – bright, breezy, self-deprecating, witty and largely unsentimental that made this book a delight. The book begins as Edelstein, aged 32, is relocating back to the USA from Berlin when her father breaks the new that he has lung cancer (despite never having smoked). Her parents live in Baltimore, but Edelstein’s job will be based in NYC, so she moves to Brooklyn, and catches the train at weekends to visit her folks. It turns out that her father has an inherited genetic condition called ‘Lynch syndrome’ that predisposes one to some cancers, particularly colon cancer (which her grandmother had died of at 42). There’s a 50% chance that Jean has inherited the gene too, but she puts off being tested.
The book is written in three sections – Between, Before and After. Between is essentially bookended by her father’s diagnosis and funeral. Before takes us back to meet the Edelstein family.
Jean’s father was American, her mother Scottish; they met when he worked as a nuclear physicist on developing MRI scanners in Aberdeen, before moving back to the USA to have a family. Jean, whose mother preserved her dual nationality for her, at twenty-two, follows a boy across the Atlantic. She met Paul in Paris, and followed him to London, via Dublin – she wouldn’t return to the USA for ten years, seeing off more relationships, and moving to Berlin.
In the ten years that I spent living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from my parents, my mother never asked me to come back to America, or even suggested it. Not even after I called that summer from Berlin and said: I’m thinking about coming home. My mother said, That would be nice, but she did not say, I would like that to happen, or We need you. She did not say the things that parents say in movies. Not telling her adult children how to live their lives is something that my mother has often told me she takes seriously. I appreciate it.
There are some hilarious stories – including her stint working at a London publisher as an assistant to a literary agent who hated all her secretaries. She starts to write, and gets a job for a business magazine writing about conference venues – that have to be seen – meaning trips to Mauritius and the like. But, an unpleasant groping incident at her chauvinist London workplace (she got him fired!) makes her fall out of love with the city, so when offered a job in Berlin, she went.
After takes us to Jean getting to grips with her life after her father’s death, her visits to her mother, and finally after taking the decision to be tested for the Lynch syndrome gene and having got the results, what to do next medically – a prophylactic hysterectomy was recommended – and personally; Jean got a dog, a Schnauzer mix stray.
Edelstein’s writing is compelling in the wry yet frank way she describes her life to us. This is one of those books of which you can truly say, ‘I laughed, I cried,’ without it being over the top (I did). Not yet forty, she comes across as a woman who is not resigned to live a ‘what if’ life. That’s not the way her family ever did things, the future may be scary and unpredictable, but Jean Hannah Edelstein is unlikely to let it pin her down. I read this book in one sitting, utterly engrossed – it’s my favourite of all the books nominated this year, I wish it had been shortlisted. (9.5/10)
Jean Hannah Edelstein, This Really Isn’t About You (Picador, 2018) Hardback, 272 pages.