For Esme – with love and squalor

This was a bit of a different one – a collection of short stories by J.D Salinger of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ fame. 

In general, I liked it. I would highlight three of the stories, the rest being perhaps a bit odd, a bit rubbish, or a bit over my head maybe. 

The three of note were, For Esme – with Love and Squalor, (the ‘title track’ and genuinely quite moving), The Laughing Man, (a whacky story within a story that also has a poingent twist at the end) and Teddy (about a child genius who gets all philosophical while on a boat.)

You could polish it off in an afternoon if you wanted to check it out. 

Musings in Quarantine

With such nice weather, I hope you’re all staying inside! Quarantine is a funny old thing and through something like this we get to see both the best and worst of humanity. (It’s just unfortunate that, in a situation such as this, we are only as good as the worst of us). It’s gearing up to be a rocky few weeks with the day job so it’s nice to catch up with this sort of stuff in the downtime. 

So, while the covidiots rush out to their barbecues, the sensible people stay indoors and the Americans head out to buy loads of guns, I thought I’d update on the book. 

A couple of rejections thus far but most agents I have carefully selected have not yet got back. It’s worth saying that, having researched exactly what getting an agent represents to a fairly extensive degree, I have been selective in who I have gone for. It’s a given that I am looking for agents who have interests in books such as mine, but I am also going for those with non-fiction interests as well, not least because I have ambition to write in both arenas. Of course, when someone is recommended to you, that’s even better.

But here’s the thing. I don’t know if anyone else does the same (and even if they don’t admit it, I suspect they do) but I have been placing a significant emphasis on selecting those with whom I think I would work best based on how they look in their photographs. Where I can find interviews with them, even better. Call me superficial but I feel like I am a fairly good judge of character and so can usually gain a good idea of whether I would click with someone based on their appearance alone. 

They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but I’ve never heard anyone say that about agents so I’m going with it. I only hope they will adopt a similar approach when assessing my material. The whole process feels a bit like online dating and if history has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not very good at online dating. Time will tell. 

 

 

 

 

The Deep

This was written by one of the scientific advisers on the TV series Blue Planet. Alex Rogers is an esteemed marine biologist and, although he’s not the best writer out there, this is an engaging and interesting book. If I’m honest, some of the descriptive passages of the underwater reefs in extreme detail did get a little bit tedious, but when he starts talking about the environmental aspects, he really hits home. This is an important book and towards the end, he gets into the real nitty gritty. 

The impact we are having on the oceans is shocking, something only surpassed with our complicit lack of action. The conclusion is sensible and important and gives the reader a list of things they can do to help change things. Ultimately only time will tell if this is enough. 

Middle England

This was another that I bought on a whim. The first third reads a bit like a cheesey Radio 4 afternoon play (not that I listen to those but it’s how I imagine them to be). 

However, as it goes on, it actually becomes a genuinely thought provoking and therapeutic piece of writing. It is nothing we haven’t already heard but putting brexit and its build-up into the context of people’s lives gives the whole sorry state of affairs a bit of flesh. 

It doesn’t hold any answers necessarily but it is certainly an interesting read. Like many similar documentations however, the people that really need to read this sort of thing probably won’t. 

Early Riser

I had bought this book a while ago on a whim and it had been gathering dust on my shelf as I was concerned that, from its zany blurb, I would not like it. It was the sort of book I thought I would just get out of the way and move on. 

Turns out, it is actually one of my favourite books of the last few years. Seriously, it’s awesome. The plot is tight and keeps you guessing all the way through. Yes it’s zany and mad but that doesn’t matter because the alternate world is so imaginative and Fforde seems to have painted it just right somehow.

For me, it’s as if it all just aligned perfectly. A bit like a more sophisticated, adult oriented Roald Dahl book. Funny. Clever. Cool. 

I’m Travelling Alone

I have a huge to read list at the moment. Every time I walk into Waterstones, there is very real danger of further purchases. Despite that, and having just read another Scandinavian thriller, I had a taste for it and didn’t feel like launching into anything I would have to think about too much.

This one got the nod. My verdict… average. It did the job and bridged that gap. The story was ok, the characters alright. I almost certainly will not be reading any more of the series though. There are far better books out there.

Red Snow

I really enjoyed the previous one in this series and so sought this one out to read again. The snowy setting meant I targeted it for the festive season. I liked this book but didn’t love it. Didn’t quite match the first one for me. The setting was a bit dreary and the actual story was quite limited and shallow when looking back on it. 

Still, a decent read and I certainly didn’t hate it. I’ll read the next one. 

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

This is one of those epics that stick with you. I had been told about this on the grapevine repeatedly by different people so I knew I’d end up reading it. It could stop a few doors such is its page count so it took a while but not once did it feel like it was dragging. A deeply philosophical piece or work that just keeps going and is the sort of book that could only be written by someone with some years behind them (although I think he may have been reasonably young when he wrote it?)

Either way, one of the real classics. Thoroughly recommend. 

Shadow of the Wind

This seemed to be highly rated so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s  not exactly a page turner and the story moves quite slowly. However, it is only as it wraps up towards the end that it goes from being just another rehash of a Shakespearan tragedy that I will forget quite quickly to something that genuinely moved me a little. Not the best novel I’ve ever read but not the worst either. 

The Pancreas

While the pancreas may not be one of the A-listers or showstoppers of the organ world (if there is such a thing), it is as important as any other cog in the system. For a long time, perhaps owing to its position behind the stomach, its true function was completely unknown. It is curious in appearance, shaped a bit like a leaf and rubbery in texture (apparently). This gave rise to a certain vagueness in its naming – it means ‘all flesh’ in Greek. Until the late nineteenth century, many thought its only function was as a shock absorber in the upper abdomen just below the ribs and the sternum.

 

 

The discovery of a sneaky duct that connects it with the first part of the small intestine was the first clue that it might have a deeper role. It was then discovered that the pancreas secretes a rich cocktail of juice and enzymes through this duct and into the intestine in order to help with our digestion. Specifically it helps in breaking down fats (with an enzyme called lipase), starches (with amylase) and proteins (with various different proteases). Basically, anything with ‘ase’ at the end generally means it is an enzyme of some form or other.

This is important because, without the ability to break these dietary components into smaller building blocks, we would not be able to absorb them from the intestines into our bloodstream. In addition, the pancreas produces lots of bicarbonate (an alkali) to neutralise all of the acids secreted in the stomach so that once your food gets into your intestine, it is at optimal pH for absorption.

That role alone is extremely useful you might say, but the pancreas is not finished there. While its function in digestion relates to what is known as the exocrine system (essentially ‘exo’ means outside and the digestive system is classed as ‘outside’ because it begins and ends outside!) the pancreas has a vital endocrine role. Endocrine relates to the travels of hormones throughout the closed circulatory system, i.e. the blood.

In those years where scientists considered the pancreas to be nothing more than a glorified cushion, hormones controlling the body’s sugar levels were thought to be pumped into the circulation from the brain. This idea persisted until a chap called Langerhans identified in 1869 an area of tissues in the pancreas different from the rest. When these areas were (rather cruelly) removed under anaesthetic from dogs, the animals went on to develop features of diabetes.

Through various means subsequent to this, it was proved that these ‘islets of Langerhans’ (useful to know for pub quizzes) secreted hormones, the first of which discovered was named insulin after the Latin term for ‘islands’. We now know that the pancreas also produces a second hormone called glucagon as well. As part of the endocrine system, these hormones are secreted from the pancreas into the bloodstream and it is here that they perform their vital work.

Insulin helps the cells around the body to take up sugar from the blood stream to use as fuel and also helps to store it in the liver. Glucagon performs the opposite role, mobilising energy stores in the liver and fatty tissue for those days when we’ve not had time for lunch or have decided to run a marathon.

In this way, to use a rather crude comparison, the pancreas is a bit like the national grid. When it receives certain signals that more energy than usual might be required, like going for a long run (just as TV coverage of a royal wedding, for example, might cause a surge in electricity uptake, to keep the national grid analogy alive), it prepares by secreting more glucagon to draw from the reserve of energy we keep stored in our livers and fatty tissue. If, on the other hand, we are providing more energy than we need by eating lots of sugar, the body switches to insulin to use up the sugar being eaten and store any spare energy left over. 

So evidently the pancreas when it is working well is extremely important. When it is not, diabetes can result. But what else might go wrong?

Sometimes, the pancreas can become inflamed and this is known as pancreatitis. Every medical student will most likely know (or at least have heard of) the pneumonic GET SMASHED. Each letter represents a potential cause for pancreatitis, the two most common being Gallstones and ETOH or Excessive Alcohol. ‘S’ stands for Scorpion venom and, as there are not many scorpions running around Henley, I’ll not dwell on that too much.

Pancreatitis can range from the mild to the severe and can even be life threatening. Symptoms include severe upper abdominal pain going through to the back, nausea and vomiting. You may also sometimes get a fever and also diarrhoea. It often results in a stay in hospital where you can receive pain relief, fluids and oxygen if needed.

The other main condition affecting the pancreas is cancer. Pancreatic cancer is the UK’s 11th most common cancer and tends to affect those in older age groups more. Around 9,600 people in the UK develop pancreatic cancer each year.

The big issue with pancreatic cancer that gives it a high mortality rate is the difficulty in its detection. This means that it is often picked up only at later stages. Researchers are always looking for effective tests that might be used as a good screening tool, but as yet none has been found. The symptoms are often very vague but include…

-Weight loss

-Dull, boring pain or fullness in the upper abdomen which can go through to the back as well

-Jaundice, often without pain or any other symptoms (this occurs because of the pancreas’s proximity to the bile duct which, if pressed on, causes a back-up of the pigment bilirubin in the blood.)

One in ten cases may have a genetic element so, if a family member has had pancreatic cancer younger members may sometimes be screened.

If you are at all concerned about this, it is of course always worth coming to see your GP for a check.

As always, there is always more to learn. Even now, research is being done into other hormones produced by the pancreas which may perform roles as yet unknown, thereby, in the future, potentially opening up different possibilities for the treatment and understanding of various diseases, including diabetes. For that reason alone, I think the pancreas deserves a little more time in the limelight.