As in past years, beloved patrons, we are celebrating awards that bring us diverse reading materials, authors, and funds that celebrate the written word. Today, we are delighted to bring you the shortlist for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, which was announced this morning in London.
The Wellcome Institute was originally funded by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (pictured at right), a fascinating entrepreneur, born in Wisconsin in 1853, whose first business was peddling invisible ink (it was lemon juice). He later went into pharmaceuticals, where he revolutionized medicine by developing medicine in tablet form, though he called them ‘Tabloids’. Upon his death, Wellcome vested the entire share capital of his company in individual trustees, who were charged with spending the income to further human and animal health, and even left specifics in his will as to the building in which the collections were to be housed. Today, the Wellcome Trust, which funds all this gloriousness, is now one of the world’s largest private biomedical charities.
I cannot recommend exploring the Wellcome Collection online to you enough. Because of their dedication to education and engagement, a surprisingly vast amount of their exhibits have online components, and a good deal of their archives and library are digitized, making it possible to access their treasure trove of educational riches from the comfort of your living room (or local Library!). Their exhibits range from the emotional and contemporary, such as videos and talks on military medicine, to the sublimely bizarre, like this gallery on curatives and quack medicine. Throughout their work is a very firm dedication not only to education, but to sparking a love of learning in their visitors, and that work pays huge dividends.
And, as part of their outreach efforts, and in the hope of encouraging more quality and creative writing in the sciences, the Wellcome Trust also funds one of the largest book prizes around, providing 30,000 GBP (right now, about $37,500) to it chosen author. As described on the Wellcome Book Prize site, all the books that are nominated have “a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness.” While this dedication to science is wonderful, the Wellcome Prize also recognizes art, standing by its core principles by recognizing that such books “can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci-fi and history.” Thus, their list includes both non-fiction and fiction, in order to celebrate those works that “add new meaning to what it means to be human.”
The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced at an evening ceremony on Wednesday 1 May at the Wellcome Collection headquarters in London, and it will be our pleasure to bring you the headlines as soon as they are printed! Until then, let’s take a look at the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist Honorees:
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Our narrator should be happy, shouldn’t she? It’s the year 2000, and she lives in a city full of potential, wealth, and glamor. She’s young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a dark and vacuous hole in her heart, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. So what could be so terribly wrong? Through the story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs designed to heal our heroine from her alienation from this world, Moshfegh shows us how reasonable, even necessary, alienation can be. Both tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate, it is a showcase for the gifts of one of our major writers working at the height of her powers.
Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas McBee: In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in society, and its effects on the smallest details of our lives, McBee’s tale is ultimately a story of hope, tracing a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.
Murmur by Will Eaves: Please note, this title will be released April 9, 2019. In this intense, hallucinatory story, Will Eaves, a celebrated poet, brings us into the brilliant mind of Alec Pryor, a character inspired by Alan Turing. Turing, father of artificial intelligence and pioneer of radical new techniques to break the Nazi Enigma cipher during World War II, was later persecuted by the British state for “gross indecency with another male” and forced to undergo chemical castration. This novel unfolds in the weeks leading up to Turning/Pryor’s suicide, and offers a glimpse into not only the life of one remarkable human being, but into the very nature of consciousness, as well as an unflinching look at the systems of prejudice and privilege that seek to limit human expression in all its forms.
Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar: For centuries, the human heart seemed beyond our understanding: an inscrutable shuddering mass that was somehow the driver of emotion and the seat of the soul. But as cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar shows, it was only recently that we demolished age-old taboos and devised the transformative procedures that have changed the way we live. Deftly alternating between key historical episodes and his own work, Jauhar tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ. He introduces us to Daniel Hale Williams, the African American doctor who performed the world’s first open heart surgery in Gilded Age Chicago. We meet C. Walton Lillehei, who connected a patient’s circulatory system to a healthy donor’s, paving the way for the heart-lung machine. And we encounter Wilson Greatbatch, who saved millions by inventing the pacemaker―by accident. Jauhar deftly braids these tales of discovery, hubris, and sorrow with moving accounts of his family’s history of heart ailments and the patients he’s treated over many years. He also confronts the limits of medical technology, arguing that future progress will depend more on how we choose to live than on the devices we invent.
The Trauma Cleaner : One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: Homicides and suicides, fires and floods, hoarders and addicts. When properties are damaged or neglected, it falls to Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. to sift through the ashes or sweep up the mess of a person’s life or death. Her clients include law enforcement, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates, and charitable organizations representing victimized, mentally ill, elderly, and physically disabled people. In houses and buildings that have fallen into disrepair, Sandra airs out residents’ smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. The remnants and mementoes of these people’s lives resonate with Sandra. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. In each role she played, all Sandra wanted to do was belong. Sarah Krasnostein brings Sandra’s life of light in all its complexity, and, in so doing, forces us to reckon with the experiences that set us apart, and those we all share in common.
Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning: Please note, this title will be released on October 1, 2019. Arnold Thomas Fanning had his first experience of depression during adolescence, following the death of his mother. Some 10 years later, an up-and-coming playwright, he was overcome by mania and delusions. Thus began a terrible period in which he was often suicidal, increasingly disconnected from family and friends, sometimes in trouble with the law, and homeless in London. Drawing on his own memories, the recollections of people who knew him when he was at his worst, and medical and police records, he has produced a beautifully written, devastatingly intense account of madness—and recovery, to the point where he has not had any serious illness for over a decade and has become an acclaimed playwright. Fanning conveys the consciousness of a person living with mania, psychosis and severe depression with a startling precision and intimacy, providing insight that has the potential to change our thinking about these conditions, both medically and socially.