On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

“A story lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from May 7, 2019 to May 8, 2019.

Confession; This is my first read by Ian McEwan and I think that this novel was a great introduction to his writing. I look forward to adding a few more of his books to my TBR pile.

This is a deeply emotional novel of the marriage of a young couple in the early 1960s. Florence comes from a well-to-do family and is a brilliant violinist who hopes of pursuing a musician as a career. She is recently married to Edward, a historian, of whom she met by chance at university. The two of them maintain this image of a perfect relationship and are looking forward to the next step in their lives after marriage. The novel opens with the two of them on their honeymoon right after their wedding. While the world is slowly starting to emerge into the swinging sixties, Florence and Edward, are still generally conservative, meaning that they have yet to become sexually intimate. Edward is beyond excited to consummate their marriage but is extremely worried about his performance and is wracked with anxiety. Florence, on the other hand, is terrified. She has no desire to be intimate with anyone and has been frigid throughout their whole relationship. However, Florence’s behaviour is not created out of modesty or disgust as Florence has a secret trauma she cannot bring herself to deal with. The story is a slow burner with the climax (no pun intended) during the moment the two of them attempt to consummate their marriage. The couple’s lack of communication and utter embarrassment about the whole ordeal leads to tragic consequences for both of them.

As a reader, you want desperately to shake Florence and Edward and get them to actually discuss their feelings instead of hiding behind this facade that each of them has created. Florence and Edward’s story addresses human vulnerabilities and the extremes that we go to in order to maintain an appearance and not show our deepest selves and secrets, especially when it comes to sex. As a reader, you connect deeply with this newlywed couple as many of us have experienced similar issues with vulnerability and communication and you really want the best for them. Both Florence and Edward had an idea of what they thought might make them happy but their inability to communicate their fears resulted in their demise and their whole lives changed within an instant. You can almost feel the deep regret oozing from the pages by the end of the novel.

This is a moving novel on a difficult topic that the author masterfully executed. I would recommend this novel for anyone interested in literary fiction or stories about intimate relationships.

Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

“A large percentage of what we think of when we talk about stress-related diseases are disorders of excessive stress-responses.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback,560 pages.
Read from March 27, 2019 to April 24, 2019.

When this book was recommended to me I thought it was a self-help book for whatever reason. It’s not. Not really. And for that, I’m grateful as it’s one the most clever, accessible, and engaging science reads I’ve come across.

Sapolsky is a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences and based on his candid writing style, is exactly the kind of prof you would go out of your way to take a class with. He writes about the science he is passionate about and includes funny personal anecdotes and relevant studies to his work. If you don’t read the footnotes in this book you’re really going to miss out as it was one of my favourite aspects of this book. Seriously, hilarious.

Sapolsky’s book opens with some biology basics that is a nice refresher on high school content. It may feel technical at first, but as Sapolsky points out, he uses the lingo so much through the book and explains it in such simple terms that it’s easy to progress through the chapters. He takes you through how stress affects every single aspect of our body. It’s actually deeply unnerving to read and, dare I say it, stressful! The funny footnotes and candid comments that Sapolsky makes throughout the book are necessary to counterbalance the anxiety-inducing facts he is laying on you about prolonged stress and disease. Sapolsky also discusses why our stress response is different than that of all the other species in the worlds and how our modern world doesn’t do our stress responses any favours. The also talks about why our stress response is essential, despite some of its faults.

In a way, what Sapolsky is stating isn’t anything we didn’t really already know it’s just nice (scary) to have the science behind it. He also explores the social and political aspects of stress as well and how it plays in with the science of stress. For example, being poor gives you a higher chance of having stress-related diseases. Of course, this makes sense when you have trouble meeting your basic needs which are the number one cause of major stress in any species. Additionally, he also explores how relationships and religion can play a part in easing or exasperating stress and stress-related diseases.

“Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”

The book concludes with a short chapter on what you can do to help combat prolonged stress to reduce your chances of getting a stress-related disease. I was actually hoping there would be more in this chapter after all the anxiety-inducing stress facts Sapolsky loads you with, especially considering some major stress factors are from uncontrollable circumstances. I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and I think it would be a good read for anyone interested in an engaging science read on our modern lifestyles. However, this book may not be the best book for excessive worriers or hypochondriacs, probably best to stick to self-help books on stress if you consider yourself one of these types.