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‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson *****

Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work.  I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did.  I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.

Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples.  The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though.  It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon.  It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being. 43582376

The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body.  These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’.  These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way.  He moves seamlessly from one topic to another.  With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.

Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones.  He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery.  Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.

Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot.  This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.

As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible.  He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject.  He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’  One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour.  Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.

The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from.  I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout.  Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover.  The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.

I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA.  You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.  Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.  You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’

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‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren ***

My interest in Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love piqued when I seemed to see it everywhere at the start of the year.  I am currently on a huge non-fiction kick, and am really getting into nature writing of late too, more reasons which pushed me to borrow Hope Jahren’s memoir from my local library.  Lab Girl, states its blurb, is ‘a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.’  It is described as a memoir at once ‘visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny’.

9780349006208Lab Girl has been split into three separate sections – ‘Roots and Leaves’, ‘Wood and Knots’, and ‘Flowers and Fruit’ – which are sandwiched by a prologue and epilogue.  In the rather brief prologue, Jahren asserts: ‘Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protest forests of the Western United States.  The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred.  As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them.  Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.’

In ‘Roots and Leaves’, Jahren begins her discussion proper by letting her readers know that she grew up in her father’s physics laboratory, ‘nestled within a community college in rural Minnesota’, where he taught for over forty years.  She then goes on to set out a concise family history, which she admits she knows little about.  Her great-grandparents travelled to Minnesota from Norway, as part of a mass-immigration that began in the 1880s: ‘The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.  Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves?  Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer?’

As the youngest of four children, she barely noticed when her three considerably older brothers moved away, as they often went days without speaking to one another.  As a child, Jahren recognised an absence in her life, but cannot quite articulate what it is, or why it exists: ‘Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either.  We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it.  Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’

When she moved away to University, Jahren chose to study science, ‘because it gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.’  She talks with love about the numerous labs which she has personally created over the years, and discusses at length the ways in which she prefers them to be run: ‘In my lab, whatever I need is greatly outbalanced by what I have.  The drawers are packed full with items that might come in handy.  Every object in my lab – no matter how small or misshapen – exists for a reason, even if its purpose has not yet been found.’  She also notes the challenges which have befallen her during her career: the struggles for applying for a government grant to enable her to hire staff, buy equipment, and go on research trips, and the lack of money which the US assigns to ‘curiosity-driven research’.

Chapters which focus on her personal memories, and what her life as a scientist entails, are interspersed with shorter chapters regarding trees, seeds, and facts about the natural world.  I found these pieces on the musings of the power of nature lovely in their approach, and came to prefer them far more to Jahren’s personal story.  I must admit that I did find some of the conclusions which she drew between nature and her own life a little preachy, and too sentimental, however; for instance, when she writes: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’  I tended to find certain parts of her writing a little jarring, and others patronising in their tone.  It is as though, at times, Jahren forgets her target audience, and starts writing to young children about what their lives could hold if they just take care of themselves.  In this manner, and in others, Lab Girl was not quite what I was expecting.

Lab Girl seemed to be randomly pieced together in places.  There were also elements which were not fully explained.  In a couple of instances, Jahren would mention a particular field trip which she took students on following the completion of her PhD, in which she assumed that the reader already had knowledge of the participants when they had not previously even been referred to.  I found this lack of explanation a little confusing, and it could have been so easily remedied.  The narrative arc is also only loosely chronological at times, so I had the sense that the book jumps around too much.

Whilst I feel as though I have learnt a lot with regard to the scientific data and facts which make up the interim chapters, I found that Jahren’s narrative voice became rather grating quite quickly.  Whilst it is well written, there were certainly repetitions which I felt could have been cut to benefit the book, and there were other points at which it felt as though Jahren was trying too hard to write flowing, poetic prose.  I did not personally find this a humorous read; whilst quips and asides have been inserted, Jahren and myself clearly have a very different sense of humour.

There was not the consistency within Lab Girl which I would have liked, and with regard to the reviews which I have seen of the book, I expected to like it far more than I did.  I gave Lab Girl a three-star rating because I so enjoyed the pieces about nature.  Had this been a straightforward memoir which omitted the natural world, however, I doubt I would have been so generous.

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