The Wellcome Book Prize has revealed the 12 books on its 2019 longlist. Now in its 10th year, the award has been given to brilliant writers changing the way we think about health, medicine and illness, and this year’s selection is another excellent example of the best science books of our time.
The shortlist will be announced on 19 March, and we’ll share with you interviews, features and extracts from the list, before the winner of the WBP2019 is revealed on Wednesday 1 May.
Check out the full WBP2019 shortlist below:
Amateur: A true story about what makes a man
by Thomas Page McBee (USA), Non-fiction (Canongate Books)
An exploration of modern masculinity by the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden.
In this ground-breaking new book, Thomas Page McBee, 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 of 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 our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a way forward: a new masculinity, inside the ring and out of it.
“Amateur is as much a reconciliation as an emancipation… punchy, thought-provoking stuff” – Sunday Times
Thomas Page McBee (37, American) was masculinity expert for Vice and the first trans man ever to box at Madison Square Garden. His essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, Glamour and Salon.
by Matthew Sperling (UK), Fiction (riverrun, Quercus)
A brilliantly funny and touching story about masculinity, identity, sock-puppets and steroids from an extremely promising new talent.
Good things can happen when you do bad things. At 30, Ned is in a rut. His girlfriend has dumped him, his job is boring and he lives in a dismal bedsit. While others around him climb the property ladder and get ahead, he seems destined to remain one of life’s plodders. Encouraged by a friend to try using steroids to bulk up his frame, Ned is pleased to discover a new vitality within himself. Physical changes are only the beginning: his mental state is clearer, he feels more confident and, most thrillingly of all, friends and lovers alike seem compelled by this new improved Ned. Using his knowledge of the murky yet surprising online world of steroids, Ned begins to build a business and discovers that his talents can take him further than he ever thought possible. But when his new life is threatened, he finds himself doing things he never would have dared to do before. And it all seems to be going fine…
“I loved Matthew Sperling’s sly, subversive novel, a wickedly funny tale of how to come out on top in a fake news world” – Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City
Matthew Sperling (36, British) is a lecturer in English literature at UCL. His fiction and poetry have been published in, among others, New Statesman, 3:AM, the Junket and Best British Short Stories 2015, edited by Nicholas Royle.
by Tara Westover (USA), Non-fiction (Windmill Books/Cornerstone)
This incredible and moving memoir, which has garnered huge international attention and plaudits, is about the power of education – and the determination of one young woman to fight for her right to be ‘educated’.
Tara Westover and her family grew up preparing for the End of Days but, according to the government, she didn’t exist. She hadn’t been registered for a birth certificate. She had no school records because she’d never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records because her father didn’t believe in hospitals. As she grew older, her father became more radical and her brother more violent. At 16, Tara knew she had to leave home. In doing so she discovered both the transformative power of education and the price she had to pay for it.
“An amazing story, and truly inspiring. The kind of book everyone will enjoy. IT’S EVEN BETTER THAN YOU’VE HEARD.’ – Bill Gates
Tara Westover (32, American) was born in rural Idaho. She studied history at Brigham Young University and upon graduation was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She received an MPhil in intellectual history from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2009, and a PhD in the same subject in 2014.
Read more from the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist:
by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria), Fiction (Faber & Faber)
Freshwater is about a young woman, Ada, who is ọgbanje: peopled with spirits, trapped in her body, Ada is torn between the physical and spiritual world. As Ada grows up, the spirits that people her develop distinct and varied selves within her, and Ada must learn how to survive with them…
Ada was born with one foot on the other side. Having prayed her into existence, her parents, Saul and Saachi, struggle to deal with the volatile and contradictory spirits peopling their troubled girl. When Ada comes of age and heads to college, the entities within her grow in power and agency. An assault leads to a crystallisation of her selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves – now protective, now hedonistic – seize control of Ada, her life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction. Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and being. Feeling explodes through the language of this scalding novel, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.
Akwaeke Emezi (31, Nigerian/American) is an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. They are a recipient of the US National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award for 2018, selected by Carmen Maria Machado. Born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria, Emezi holds two degrees, including an MPA from New York University. In 2017, Emezi was awarded a Global Arts Fund grant and a Sozopol Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction. They won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, and their writing has been published by Dazed magazine, the Cut, BuzzFeed, Granta Online, Vogue.com and Commonwealth Writers, among others. Freshwater is their debut novel. Emezi identifies as non-binary transgender.
Heart: A history
by Sandeep Jauhar (India/USA), Non-fiction (Oneworld)
Sandeep Jauhar – cardiologist, bestselling author and New York Times columnist – beautifully weaves his own experiences with the defining discoveries of the past to tell the story of our most vital organ.
Jauhar looks at some of the pioneers who risked their careers and their patients’ lives to better understand the heart. People like Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the world’s first documented heart surgery, and Wilson Greatbach, who accidentally invented the pacemaker. Amid gripping scenes from the operating theatre, Jauhar tells stories about the patients he has treated. And he relates the moving tale of his family’s own history of heart problems, from his grandfather’s sudden death in India – an event that sparked his lifelong obsession with the heart – to the first ominous signs of his own mortality. He also confronts the limits of medical technology and argues that future progress will be determined more by how we choose to live than by any device we invent.
“In this absorbing book about the vital organ that keeps us alive, Jauhar, a cardiologist, reveals why the heart can be damaged by emotional stress.” – Mail on Sunday (Book of the Year 2019)
Sandeep Jauhar (Indian/American) is director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. A first responder on 9/11, he is the New York Times bestselling author of two medical memoirs, Doctored: The disillusionment of an American physician and Intern: A doctor’s initiation. He is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He lives on Long Island with his wife and their son and daughter. This is his first book to be published in the UK.
Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery
by Arnold Thomas Fanning (Ireland), Non-fiction (Penguin Ireland)
A searing, immersive account of profound mental illness – and recovery.
Arnold Thomas Fanning had his first experience of depression during adolescence, following the death of his mother. In his 20s, 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 for a winter in London. Drawing on his own memories, the recollections of people who knew him when he was at his worst, and medical records, Fanning 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. Very few people have gone through what Fanning went through and emerged alive, well, and capable of telling the tale with such skill and insight. Mind on Fire is the gripping, sometimes harrowing and ultimately uplifting testament of a person who has visited hellish regions of the mind and survived. It is a book for anyone who has experienced mental illness, who is close to someone mentally ill, or who wishes to understand the workings of the disordered mind.
“[A] painfully intense, courageous and gripping account of [Fanning’s] journey to the underworld of madness and back. This is a brave and instructive book.” – Irish Times
Arnold Thomas Fanning (49, Irish) was born in London and raised in Dublin. His stage plays include the acclaimed McKenna’s Fort. Mind on Fire is his first book.
Read more from the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist:
Taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.
Convicted of gross indecency with another male in 1952, Turing was sentenced to a regimen of punitive hormonal injection. He grew breasts, survived the year-long ordeal, but died in 1954. Verdict: suicide. Alec Pryor – the book’s avatar for Turing – is caught between fascination and horror as he becomes a new version of himself. The novel asks: what does great bodily change (torture) do to a person’s mind? The bulk of the book is a sequence of dreams and letters; these are bookended by extracts from a fictional journal that show a brilliant intellect struggling to come to terms with the effects of that change. It further asks: how does a mathematician, so used to removing personal bias from analysis – the sine qua non of scientific method – fit the personal experience of pain/joy/love back into a neutral explanatory scheme?
“The book is a disorientating and hallucinatory exploration of a mind warped by the oestrogen medication stilboestrol, the treatment forced on Turing. An extraordinary exploration of dreams, consciousness, science and the future.” – Rowan Hooper, New Scientist Books of the Year
Will Eaves (51, British) is the author of four novels and two collections of poetry. He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011, and now teaches at the University of Warwick.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh (USA), Fiction (Jonathan Cape)
A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature.
Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate. She lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong? This story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs, designed to heal us from our alienation from this world, shows us how reasonable, even necessary, that alienation sometimes is. Blackly funny, both merciless and compassionate – dangling its legs over the ledge of 9/11 – this novel is a showcase for the gifts of one of America’s major young writers working at the height of her powers.
“The book that everybody’s talking about… I read it and was entranced.” – Times
Ottessa Moshfegh (37, American) is a fiction writer from Boston. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her stories in the Paris Review and was granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her first book, the novella McGlue, was recently published by Vintage. Her novel Eileen was awarded the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, was published in 2017.
Polio: The odyssey of eradication
by Thomas Abraham (UK), Non-fiction (Hurst Publishers)
Looks at how global and local forces thwarted the eradication of polio, one of the world’s most important and ambitious health campaigns.
In 1988, the World Health Organization launched a 12-year campaign to wipe out polio. Thirty years and several billion dollars over budget later, the campaign grinds on, vaccinating millions of children and hoping that each new year might see an end to the disease. But success remains elusive, against a surprisingly resilient virus, an unexpectedly weak vaccine and the vagaries of global politics, meeting with indifference from governments and populations alike. How did a campaign to achieve something so obviously good – ridding the world of a crippling disease – become a hostage of geopolitics? Why do parents refuse to vaccinate their children against polio? And why have poorly paid door-to-door health workers been assassinated? Thomas Abraham reports on the ground in search of answers.
“Science journalist Thomas Abraham travelled from slum to boardroom to research the GPEI’s premise and practice, as well as the broader trajectory of the disease and the efforts to tackle it. The result is a trenchant, well-argued analysis.” — Nature
Thomas Abraham (62, American) is associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong, where he teaches health and science journalism. He has worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva and is the author of Twenty-First-Century Plague: The story of SARS.
Read more from the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist:
by Jessie Greengrass (UK), Fiction (John Murray Press)
The extraordinary first novel from the author of the prize-winning An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It.
In Jessie Greengrass’s superb debut novel, our unnamed narrator recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother ten years before, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; and the origins of modern surgery and the anatomy of pregnant bodies. Sight is a novel about being a parent and a child: what it is like to bring a person in to the world, and what it is to let one go. Exquisitely written and fiercely intelligent, it is an incisive exploration of how we see others, and how we might know ourselves.
“A meditation on parenthood, grief and the awareness that knowledge can be both wondrous and terrifying, Sight is an exceptionally accomplished debut” – Observer
Jessie Greengrass (36, British) was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Sight is her first novel and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster
by Sarah Krasnostein (Australia/USA), Non-fiction (The Text Publishing Company)
The author charts the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bringing order and care to the living and the dead, in her role as a trauma cleaner. A compelling story of a fascinating life, and an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.
Sandra Pankhurst started life as an abused adopted son in a working-class family. Following marriage, fatherhood and divorce, she made the transition to living as a woman. Now, as a trauma cleaner she helps those at life’s dark extremes. In telling Sandra’s extraordinary story, Sarah Krasnostein shines a light on the complex and lasting legacies of trauma.
“Krasnostein’s writing is warm and curious. And, carefully, it draws a portrait of Pankhurst you’ll remember long after you’ve finished reading – a woman who is quietly, wonderfully triumphant while standing at the middle and centre of despair.” – The Pool
Sarah Krasnostein (39, Australian/American) is a writer and a legal researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She was born in America, studied in Melbourne, Australia, and has lived and worked in both countries. Her first book, The Trauma Cleaner, won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction in the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards as well as the Australian Book Industry Award for General Non-Fiction. She lives in Melbourne and spends part of the year working in New York City.
This Really Isn’t About You
by Jean Hannah Edelstein (UK/USA), Non-fiction (Picador)
A disarmingly tender, funny and honest memoir of grief, illness and finding your way in life.
In 2014 Jean Hannah Edelstein moved back to the United States after living abroad for fourteen years, her whole adult life, because her father was dying from cancer. Six weeks after she arrived in New York City, her father died. Six months after that she learned that she had inherited the gene that would cause her cancer too.
When Edelstein’s world overturned she was forced to confront some of the big questions in life: how do we cope with grief? How does living change when we realise we’re not invincible? Does knowing our likely fate make it harder or easier to face the future? How do you motivate yourself to go on your OkCupid date when you’re struggling with your own mortality? Written in her inimitable, wry and insightful voice, Edelstein’s memoir is by turns heart-breaking, hopeful and also disarmingly funny. This Really Isn’t About You is a book about finding your way in life. Which is to say, it’s a book about discovering you are not really in control of that at all.
“Never sentimental, this memoir is by turns extremely funny and extremely sad; Edelstein is a wonderful writer, and this is a stunning book.” – Stylist
Jean Hannah Edelstein (37, British/American) is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She writes regularly for outlets including the Guardian and the Pool alongside a weekly newsletter, which Vogue said “pops up in your inbox like lucid dreaming”. She also writes marketing emails for tech companies, so you’ve probably deleted her work.
Read more from the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist: