The art of re-reading – “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

I’m not a big re-reader; I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of books that I still desire to read so the thought of going back to something I’ve already ticked off the list can feel like a waste of time! I still haven’t quite accepted that I probably don’t have enough years left in my life to get through all the books I will want to read (perhaps not even the books in my TBR pile!). The joy of reading, though, is not about who can read the most, who has the most impressive library or can quote most extensively from their bookish knowledge. It is about the individual and the solitary pleasure of getting lost in a story. And you can do that in the same book many times over, if it’s good enough and if you love it enough. Re-reading gives a pleasure all of its own.

To The Lighthouse imgI had that very experience recently with my book club when we decided to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some of us had read it before (though years earlier) others had not read it at all. But even those of us who had read it before could not remember very much about it! I read it when I was studying for my English degree 30 years ago; I would probably have got through most of Virginia Woolf’s books in a very short space of time, because that was what my degree entailed – reading lots and lots of books very quickly! I always remembered that To The Lighthouse was my favourite, but I could not honestly have told you what happens in it, except that the journey to the eponymous lighthouse was about something desired more than something fulfilled.

Coming to it again, therefore, was a perfect pleasure and I am so glad we chose it. I read it of course, through totally different eyes. I was in my early twenties when I read it first and now I am…somewhat older! I am a mother of three children and so I saw aspects of the novel that I simply could not have understood fully before. By happy coincidence, the current lockdown gave me the opportunity to read it in three long sittings, which this book definitely deserves. I became totally absorbed in the life of the Ramsay household, the inner world of the characters thrown uneasily together in the Skye summer house and the quest for something unattainable.

The other difference was that when I read it all those years ago, I was the student and the reading would have been for a different purpose – to write an essay, spot the references or the autobiographical aspects. This time I read it just for itself.

Re-reading is definitely something I would like to do more of. One of the opportunities this period of lockdown offers is a suspension of all normal routines, time proceeds differently and I feel less boxed-in to my usual routines. I feel we have stepped off the treadmill. We will be desperate to get back on it soon enough, no doubt, especially as the economy teeters, but until then my next re-read is going to be Ulysses. I first read it on a lazy week’s holiday in Spain about twenty years ago (pre-children!) – I think it deserves my time again now!

Are you a re-reader or do you tend mainly to read new titles, like me?

 

Book review – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.

Henrietta LacksThis may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.

 

Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.

Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.

This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.

I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!

Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.

Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?

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My lockdown plans

 

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Lockdown means more reading time! (Image by FotoReith from Pixabay)

What strange times we live in! When I last posted, about two weeks ago, life was going on as normal, I’d just returned from a short trip to France and I was making plans for the coming weeks, including booking train tickets for work trips to London. Sure, there was talk of the Coronavirus in China, a few cases in Italy, but it didn’t seem like it was going to affect me, it was happening somewhere else. How long ago that now seems!

I didn’t post last week mainly because I was in shock. My elder daughter was due to be taking her GCSEs this summer, indeed, I was also going to invigilate at a local school. When the announcement came that exams had been cancelled, I think it hit me then how serious this was going to be. Suddenly, I feared for elderly relatives and neighbours and spent the week calling them, offering (please!) to help. I was comforting my daughter who seemed to be going through all the stages of a bereavement and, having worked so hard for the last two years, suddenly had no clue what she was meant to be doing with her life now. Plus, I could hardly tear myself away from the rolling news and the numbers dying in Spain and Italy increasing by the hundreds. We had to make rapid plans to get my son home from university (I’d only been to see him the weekend before!) and he was finding his local shops were empty by the time he got there – dinner for him one night was a pack of hot cross buns! I found it difficult to focus on anything.

This week is different – the high anxiety of last week has been replaced by a strange calm. We are all now under one roof, school, activities, hobbies, gym, everything now, has been cancelled, even the occasional Flat White at my coffee shop of choice. Unlike some, I’m not too worried about how I’ll cope with the ‘isolation’ – on the contrary, as an introvert who spends most of her days alone, it may be challenging for me to have everyone else around all the time! I think I will actually enjoy the opportunity to take a guilt-free foot off the gas. I will be giving help and support where I can in my community, but I will also be observing closely the need to keep others outside my household at (double) arms-length.

Whilst I don’t want to start creating lists of jobs for myself, I am better when I’ve got some goals, so here’s what I plan to do with all the found time:

  1. Top of the list is reading, of course. I have been wondering how I was ever going to get to The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy….!
  2.  Re-read Ulysses – I am not a big re-reader, but I read this when I was much younger so I want to read it again through more mature eyes. This was one of my aims for 2020.
  3. Appreciate my garden, especially if this wonderful spring weather continues.
  4. Breathe – I’ll miss my yoga classes most of all but can practise at home.
  5. Take a virtual museum tour – perhaps the Guggenheim in Bilbao, somewhere I’ve long wanted to visit.
  6. Write – I have been finding it very difficult to get back into the re-writing stage of my book since my mother died, but perhaps this is the impetus I need.
  7. Keep in touch with my relatives.
  8. Make some photobooks – we don’t really print photos any more do we? I’ve made a few family photobooks over the years, but there are a few years missing.
  9. Clear out our files – paperwork, paperwork! My husband and I are terrible hoarders and keep everything, but do we really still need all those invoices from 10+ years ago?!
  10. Pay attention – we can still go out, once a day, for the moment at least, so whilst we still can I will enjoy my neighbourhood, with all its wonderful trees, and enjoy the lack of vehicle and aircraft noise!

I would love to hear what your plans are for ‘lockdown’ – above all, follow all the advice and stay well and safe.

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Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Facebook Reading Challenge – March choice

Has another 1st of the month come and gone already? It certainly has! Meteorological spring has sprung, though I’m struggling to believe it here in my very damp corner of north west England. It must be time for a new book in my Facebook Reading Challenge 2020. Last month’s choice was a non-fiction title, and I chose Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, a short book for a short month (though we had Leap Day of course), but one which I read slowly and deliberately, such was the importance and impact of the subject matter. I’ll be posting my review of this very powerful little book next week, so look out for that.

This year, I am scanning the globe with my reading themes, conscious that my reading is generally quite western and written in English, so this month’s choice is “Something from Asia”. In truth, it’s hard to quite know what that means these days – must the author live in Asia? Should the book be first published in an Asian language? Asia is also pretty big and covers a vast range of cultures and languages, so it is, I admit, a massive generalisation. However, choices must be made.

Please Look After MotherI was tempted to go for Haruki Murakami – after reading Norwegian Wood a couple of years ago, I am really keen to discover more of his work – but that would be a but too easy. So, I have put a pin in the haystack also known as the internet and come up with Please Look After Mother by Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin. This book won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Its central character is So-nyo, an ageing matriarch who has lived a life of nurturing and self-sacrifice, caring for her husband and children. She becomes separated from her husband on a train journey. So-nyo’s family undertake a desperate search for her and as they do so, they recall the influence she has had on them all. It is said to be about family, about mothering in particular, and about what it means to love.

This book has been an international bestseller, though I’m ashamed to say I had not heard of it, or its author.

Please feel free to join me on my reading challenge this month.

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Book review – “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin

I am a huge admirer of authors who can come up with clever, original, twisty plots. As a writer myself, this is, I feel, not one of my strengths, so I am in awe of those for whom it clearly is. Chloe Benjamin, in this novel at least, is definitely one of those authors. The following review contains one or two spoilers.

The Immortalists imgThe novel begins in 1969 with the four children of the Gold family – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visiting a fortune-teller in her grimy downtown New York apartment, who is said to be able to predict the date of a person’s death. The mystic consults each child privately about their fate. Their reactions vary; Daniel, the second oldest, for example, says he thinks it is all rubbish. The younger children seem more vulnerable and more preoccupied, particularly Simon, who at this point is only seven years old, and who is told that he will die young.

The novel jumps forward ten years when the children’s father, Saul, dies. This leaves their needy mother, Gertie, distraught. It was expected that Simon would continue the family tailoring business, but this is very far from his intention. With the fortune teller’s prediction preying on his mind, he is easily persuaded by Klara to leave New York and make a new life for himself in San Francisco, where, free of family expectations, he can lead a more fulfilling life. Simon is gay, something Klara recognises clearly, but they both know that this truth would be devastating to their traditional Jewish mother. Simon could never follow in his father’s footsteps.

Simon not only moves to the other side of the country, but he breaks away from the family completely, much to the consternation of Daniel, who sees Simon’s behaviour as wilful and selfish. It also means that someone else will have to care for their mother, a role that Daniel expected Simon would take on. We watch with trepidation the hedonistic lifestyle that Simon leads. It is the early ‘80s and there is talk of a terrible new ‘gay disease’. Simon’s behaviour has a kind of death-wish about it.

Spoiler alert!

Simon dies – but that might not really be a spoiler, because you know it had to happen! Once Simon’s death becomes inevitable, the narrative of the book becomes clear. The author teases us by inviting us to consider whether Simon’s death was an accurate prediction by the fortune-teller, or whether being given a date of death drives us towards fulfilling that prediction. To what extent is our destiny within our control, and to what extent mapped out for us? Did Simon in fact escape one kind of destiny (the one his mother determined, life as a tailor in the family business) for another (dying from a horrible incurable disease)?

Next, we are told Klara’s story. Klara is the most bohemian and perhaps the most fragile of the four Gold children. She meets and falls in love with Raj. They have a daughter and after some lean years on the road, they eventually develop a highly successful magic act with a residency in Las Vegas. They call themselves The Immortalists, after their seemingly death-defying tricks. Success is a burden for Klara, however, and this, coupled with her unresolved grief over Simon’s death, leads her into a life of alcoholism. Klara is fascinated by the life story of her grandmother, also a travelling magician, and replicating some of her tricks becomes part of the magic act. Whilst trying to emulate a particularly dangerous one, she hangs herself in a hotel room – deliberately? Was she trying to cheat the prediction?

Daniel was the most sceptical of the children. He is convinced that Klara and Simon’s deaths were caused by the fortune teller’s predictions and, with the aid of a police officer who once met Klara, he hunts down the elderly fortune-teller hoping to bring her to justice. The hunt becomes an obsession for him. I won’t reveal the rest of Daniel’s story.

Finally, there is Varya, who was told by the fortune teller she would live to 88. She is working as a senior biologist conducting experiments into longevity using monkeys. Varya, like all her siblings, has some considerable mental health difficulties. She has severe anxiety and OCD, restricting her calorific intake to prolong her life (as she does with her monkey research subjects) and shunning meaningful human relationships – has Varya become dangerously obsessed with fulfilling the fortune-teller’s prediction? Her world is turned upside down when her favourite monkey becomes gravely ill in the experiment and Varya breaks with protocol in a way that threatens the costly research project, an act which damages her professionally. She also she meets a young journalist, who claims to be interested in her work but who is not in fact who he says he is. Varya’s ordered, controlled life unravels and she must face her demons, not just for her own sake, but on behalf of her troubled siblings too.

The story has a brilliant ending with Ruby (Klara’s daughter), and Gertie, the Gold children’s mother, coming together at the end. I listened to this on audiobook and was totally hooked. It’s a long but extremely satisfying book, so many threads, brilliantly woven together. Some reviewers have said it has too many clichés, others found aspects of the plot contrived, but I absolutely loved it.

Highly recommended.

If you have read The Immortalists I would be interested to know what you thought of it.

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Books to look forward to in 2020

You would have to have been under a literary rock this last week or two to have missed the fact that the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be published on 5 March. An edited extract of the first chapter was published in The Guardian on Saturday – just savour these opening lines:

“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”

The Mirror and the Light imgI think we can believe the hype – this is surely a writer at the top of her game! A few lucky critics who have had a preview have already tipped it for this year’s Booker Prize (parts one and two both won in 2009 and 2012). I am a huge fan of Mantel, ever since I read “A Place of Greater Safety”, a novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was the book that really got me back into reading after I’d finished my English degree – I was all ‘read-out’ by the time I graduated, so this book saved me!

I am looking forward to reading The Mirror and the Light although at a stonking 912 pages, don’t expect a review any time soon!

2020-02-24 14.54.26There are many other books to get excited about this year. Isabel Allende’s latest book A Long Petal of the Sea was published in English last month. It is a story about escapees from the Spanish Civil War arriving in Chile in 1939, their evacuation having been organised by the great national poet Pablo Neruda. I was lucky enough to attend a talk Isabel Allende gave in Manchester (with Jeanette Winterson!) a couple of weeks ago and she was every bit as impressive and inspiring as I expected her to be. AND I got a signed copy of the book!

Sebastian Barry’s sequel to the wonderful Days Without End, will be published next month. Called A Thousand Moons it follows the story of Winona, the native American girl adopted by the narrator Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole. Later in the spring look out for Simon Armitage’s first collection of poetry to be published since he became poet laureate, Magnetic Field. Also, new novels from Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, winner of last year’s Women’s Prize, called Silver Sparrow, and Ottessa Moshfegh, whose thriller Eileen was one of the highlights of the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Her new novel is called Death in Her Hands and promises to be another novel of drama and suspense when a woman comes across a mysterious note in the woods. I am also looking forward to the next Marwood and Lovett novel from Andrew Taylor – I loved The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and am about to start The King’s Evil. This is a really interesting series of books.

Highlights of the summer for me will be a new novel from the wonderful Elena Ferrante called The Lying Life of Adults, about adolescent shame, set, like her Neapolitan novels, in Naples. Also, the final part of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Summer; I read Autumn in 2017 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and recently reviewed Winter. Better get on and finish Spring! Another book that will be hotly anticipated this summer will be the new one from Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife, a book I loved. The new one is said to be about Hillary Clinton and is as yet untitled.

Information on what we can expect in the second half of the year is naturally a bit more sketchy, although I believe there are new novels from Caitlin Moran, Nick Hornby, comedian and Pointless presenter Richard Osman, and William Boyd. On the non-fiction front, I am excited by the prospect of memoirs from Manchester’s punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke, and from trans US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

So, it looks like my TBR list for 2020 has well and truly written itself!

There will be plenty more releases announced as the year goes on, and I like to post every few months on what’s coming up, so watch this space.

What new releases are you looking forward to this year?

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