The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations

Thomas Morris (2017)

A book that I very much enjoyed, but that simultaneously made me quite anxious: if I had a heart condition it would have been unreadable, I suspect.

The operations chosen are all milestones, ranging from the very first surgeries up to heart transplants, stents, and other modern semi-miracles. The most interesting thing to me was the degree to which a lot of the action was performed in very small communities of doctors, often with very varying degrees of commitment and risk appetite: the same surgeons often re-appear in later innovations.

The part that was most anxiety-inducing was that the translation from idea to successful implementation (or from science to engineering) was frequently log, drawn-out, and filled with dashed hopes and dead patients. I don’t think it could be any other way given the complexities of the procedures being honed, but the names of the early subjects deserve to be at least as well-known as those of the surgeons, for their willingness to take a risk with their own lives in the interests of saving themselves, but also of eventually saving others eben if their own surgery failed.

4/5. Finished Friday 28 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

Malcolm Gaskill

A very enjoyable biography-cum-social history of how witchcraft and witch trials crossed from England and Europe to the young America.

It’s in some ways easier to understand the hold that a fear of witches had in America than in the Old World of the same period. The settlers found themselves in a dangerous position, both in respect of the Native Americans whose lands they were encroaching on and of the lands themselves, which remained largely unknown and untamed. The instability this gave rise to made life less predictable, and so people looked for explanations through which to make sense of it – and preferred supernatural malignity to natural indifference.

It’s also fascinating to see how complex and semi-feudal the interactions were between people in the newly-settled villages, but also between the townships that vied for control and influence. The fact that “witches” often went unconvicted and unpunished (if they moved away) suggests that the motives involved in their pursuit were neither purely religious nor especially prioritised.

3/5. Finished Thursday 27 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Peripheral (Jackpot #1)

William Gibson (2014)

Definitely a book in the recognisible style of Neuromancer, based on a complicated premise of multiple worlds and semi-shared histories. It’s possible for the inhabitants of one world (which may or may not be the “original”) to visit the parallel versions at different points in their histories, and vice versa, but not in such a way as to affect their own history: a neat way to avoid paradoxes.

I came to this book after watching the TV adaptation – which I have to say I think is better, although it strips-away some of the philosophical explanations in pursuit of a more rapid plot.

3/5. Finished Friday 14 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Islands of Abandonment

Cal Flyn (2021)

A book one perhaps shouldn’t enjoy as much as I did, but as an exploration of what happens when humans leave a landscape – whether one they’ve polluted or simply one they’ve abandoned – it’s actually quite reassuring even in the midst of it’s being shocking.

There is alost nowhere that’s so polluted that life of some kind can’t regain a hold, given enough time. That (as Flyn herself is at pains to point out) is not an excuse or a invitation to more spoliation, or to not prosecuting polluters; but it is a reminder that we avoid pollution and climate change for ourselves, not because the natural world will be irretrievably damaged if we don’t: the climate emergency is about saving ourselves, not about saving the planet.

4/5. Finished Saturday 1 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Plot Against America

Philip Roth (2004)

A carefully-constructed counterfactual of a fictional Lindbergh presidency and of America’s descent into fascism – before being saved from itself by the entreaties of a revered and bereaved widow. It’s clever and evocatively written from the perspective of a 9-year-old surrogate of Roth himself, and so convincing that the author feels the need to include a summary of the real historical figures he mentions as an appendix.

Reading this book in 2023 brings out some echoes that perhaps wouldn’t have been apparent on an earlier reading. There’s a lot of consideration of fake news, of misinformation and questionable government initiatives, and even of a “Big Lie” that populists and fabulists can lock onto. And it’s shocking that some the anti-Semitism that existed before and during the war still exists today, in an increasingly-less-camouflaged form.

3/5. Finished Saturday 1 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)