All That Remains: Sue Black

★★★★

A Life in Death

Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.

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This Is Going To Hurt: Adam Kay

★★★★

Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

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As Nature Made Him: John Colapinto

★★★★

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl

Following on from Geniethis book explores another case which featured prominently in my A level Psychology textbook. It’s one of the most famous stories in the canon, a case which has been used on both sides of the nature-nurture debate, and one which does more than any other to prompt outrage at the medical establishment. It tells the tale of twin baby boys, born in Winnipeg in 1967 and admitted at eight months old for circumcision. When error, either mechanical or human, caused catastrophic burns to the penis of the elder twin, doctors advised that the only option was to castrate the child and raise him as a girl. His distraught parents followed this advice. This is the story of David Reimer: a story of dizzying medical hubris and humbling resilience, made deeply poignant by a tragic coda which postdated the publication of this study.

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The Kingdom of Women: Choo WaiHong

★★★

Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains

Some time ago, I heard about a book called Leaving Mother Lake, which told the story of a young woman raised in a remarkable tribe in western China near the Tibetan border, and her journey into mainstream Chinese life. I haven’t yet got round to reading that, but it meant that I immediately jumped on this forthcoming book about the same Mosuo tribe, this time told by someone entering, rather than leaving, the community. The Mosuo are remarkable as (apparently) the only remaining matriarchal and matrilineal society in the world, and this book tells the tale of a successful Singaporean lawyer who takes early retirement and finds a spiritual home in this unique community.

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Genie: A Scientific Tragedy: Russ Rymer

★★★★

When choosing A levels, I was advised to demonstrate some scientific aptitude alongside my arts-dominated curriculum. I chose Psychology which, despite some erratic teaching, opened my eyes to a whole world of incredible case studies. Three in particular have stayed with me: Philip Zimbardo’s Stamford Prison Experiment; Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority; and the story of Genie, a child discovered in November 1970, who spent her first thirteen years in enforced isolation from virtually all human contact. I had no idea, though, that her life had been discussed at any length outside academic textbooks and conferences. When I stumbled across this book the other day, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with the details of this distressing case, which has haunted me ever since I first read about it in my schoolbooks.

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