Autumn is officially here

As I write this, the sun is setting for the day and the moon (a waning one now, since it was also a full one just two days ago) will soon be visible. We are at the precise mid-point between the summer and winter solstices when the sun is positioned directly above the equator, giving equal time to darkness and light. In the northern hemisphere, our nights will now start to grow longer, while in the southern hemisphere it is the day that is lengthening as the spring turns into summer.

Not the view from my window! Rather, beautiful photography from Ingo Jakubke on Pixabay

It is an important time of the year in the literary world too; as we begin to spend more time on home-based pursuits we inevitably read more. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced last week and a number of literary festivals traditionally take place in the autumn – I am looking forward to the Manchester Literary Festival in October. And like it or not, some of us will be starting to think about Christmas shopping and publishers are competing to attract our attention in the hope that one of their new releases will make it into your shopping basket as the perfect gift. So, it’s a bumper time of year for new books to be published. I posted on here last week about the furore surrounding the publication of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You? It is surely one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year.

But the noise surrounding that book has obscured somewhat the many other big publications of the season. Here are some of those that have caught my eye and which I very much hope to add to my TBR list over the coming weeks.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers maintains his Booker-nominated streak with his new novel. The Overstory was shortlisted in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years. Bewilderment is a good deal shorter but continues with similar themes of the environmental damage wrought by humanity. The main characters are a widowed father and his troubled 9 year-old son seeking connection in the face of global, national and personal tragedy. I can’t wait to read this.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Another author whose last work was one of my absolute favourites of recent years (All the Light We Cannot See, 2015). Doerr’s latest novel is a complex interweaving of five characters and three parallel storylines set in the past (the 15th century siege of Constantinople), the present (during an attack on a public library in Idaho) and the future (a community under threat). They might all be separated by centuries, but the author explores the things that connect them.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

Lost for 75 years, this novel was not published in de Beauvoir’s lifetime as its themes were not considered appropriate. It concerns the friendship between two young girls and how it unravels as they grow up. It is based on a friendship de Beauvoir herself had. The novel’s discovery has caused a frenzy and you can read an extract from The Guardian here.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I am always wishing I’d read more Toibin, but I never seem to manage it and have only read Brooklyn (after I’d seen the film!). So, I’m determined to read this one as its subject is the great German author Thomas Mann, a favourite from my German A level days.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I watched a discussion between Burkeman and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams a couple of weeks ago about this book. I have enjoyed Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine for some years and like his take on life. This is not a traditional book about producitivity, apparently, despite what the title might suggest, it sounds more like an ‘anti-producitivity’ book, encouraging the reader to focus on what is really meaningful in life.

Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker

I make it my business to read plenty of children’s literature. It helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading that I felt as a child. I loved Pax, Pennypacker’s first novel, and this is a follow-up. I am keen to find out what happened to the young fox and his human companion Peter.

And yet more…

There are a number of other books out which readers might like to note: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is the second in his Thursday Murder Club series, and looks to be an equally big success. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out – will it continue her run of best sellers, following Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers? I expect so! And in a similar vein, Paula Hawkins’s A Slow Fire Burning looks set to bring the author more success. I probably would not pick up this kind of novel, but I loved The Girl on the Train so I might give it a go. Michaela Coel is everywhere at the moment, deservedly so after the phenomenal success of her television series I May Destroy You. She is an incredible role model and continues to campaign on the issues the series raised. She has now written Misfits: A pesonal manifesto which promises to be a powerful read. Finally, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, the follow-up to her 2019 success The Silence of the Girls. I found that book difficult to get into, but it was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for The Women’s Prize.

So, plenty to get my teeth into there. Not sure how many of these I’ll actually manage, given that my present TBR pile is toppling, but I am ever the optimist!

What are you reading this autumn? Do enjoy this beautiful time of the year, before the winter kicks in.

Reading challenge – September

September is may favourite time of the year. I just cannot escape that ‘back to school’ feeling and I am always filled with hope and optimism, that something is beginning. I am writing this in my garden and the weather is particularly lovely today, the kind of day that gives you both joy and energy. I have had a very energetic day in fact, having this morning completed my very first official 10k run – Yay! I completed it in almost exactly one hour, which is a very good time for me and I did it without any walking so I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

My daughters are back to school tomorrow and I will miss them being around the house. We normally take our holidays in August, but this year we went in July, so the last month has been spent mainly at home, which has been very grounding. Tomorrow also means a return to some semblance of work – I work part-time for a charity – and also trying to get back to a writing habit. I’m starting work on a new book (while also trying to get my first one submitted!) I also need to get back into a regular reading habit as that has fallen a bit by the wayside.

It is just as well that my Facebook reading challenge choice for last month was a fairly easy one (theme: a book to rest with) and lent itself to being read in small bits of time snatched here and there. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim is a collection of thoughts and wisdom from the international best-selling Korean Buddhist monk. It provides guidance on how to focus more on the important things in life, the things that give our existence substance, such as love, friendship, spirituality and commitment. It is divided into eight chapters, which begin with a short discourse, and then a couple of sub-chapters with several short paragraphs of wisdom. It was an easy read and one I can see myself keeping at my bedside and going back to time and again. Definitely one for slow absorption.

This month’s theme for my reading challenge is a YA novel. I love the YA genre and always wish I read more! The book I have chosen has the intriguing title Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It was first published in 2013 and has been described by Time magazine as the best YA book of all time – quite a recommendation! The audiobook is read by Lin Manuel Miranda, which is very tempting indeed, but I have been listening to a lot of audio recently (while training for the 10k) and I long to have a paperback novel in my hands again!

Many awards won…

Aristotle and Dante are two loners who meet at a swimming pool and seem to have very little in common. Aristotle is described as an ‘angry teen’ whose brother is in prison; Dante is a ‘know it all’. They seem unlikely companions but find they have some shared interests and develop a firm bond as they discover important truths about themselves and about life.

So, if that sounds like something you could get your teeth into, I would love for you to join me this month in the reading challenge.

I hope your September is fruitful, happy and fulfilling.

Book review: “Wild: A journey from lost to found” by Cheryl Strayed

When we first meet Cheryl, the author and narrator, she is lost. At the tender age of 26 she finds herself in a dark place, at the bottom of a downward spiral that began when she lost her 46 year-old mother to cancer four years earlier. Cheryl is one of three siblings, brought up mostly in a single parent family, the mother having left the children’s violent alcoholic father when they were still very young. The mother later married Eddie, a calm and steady influence, and they lived a humble, fairly rural and, most importantly, stable existence. With her mother’s death, however, Cheryl’s life begins to collapse in on her. She and her siblings seem unable to bond in their grief, Eddie drifts away and soon finds another partner and step-children who quickly take over the family home, and Cheryl sets off on a path of toxic behaviour (infidelity, drug-taking and serial unemployment) that will drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Thus the scene is set. When she has reached rock-bottom, Cheryl decides that they only thing she can possibly do is set out on a 1,100 mile solo hike on one of the toughest trails in north America. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border in the south, to the Canadian border in the north, through California, Oregon and Washington. The trail is, over 2,600 miles in total so the author covers only part of it, in a trip that will take her around three months. That’s enough! The terrain is inhospitable, the landscapes change from desert to snowy mountain top, which means that, since she carries almost all of what she needs with her, she requires clothing and equipment for a wide range of climatic conditions. The year that she chooses to travel happens to be one of the worst for snowfall in the mountains. The journey is treacherous enough so Cheryl decides, like all but the most intrepid of hikers, to bypass the worst affected part of the trail and rejoin lower down.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl’s constant companion on her hike is ‘Monster’, the name she gives her enormous backpack. It is monstrously heavy and carrying it gives her constant pain, from the agonies of bearing the weight, to the blisters and open wounds it wears on her hips. Her other source of pain is her boots, bought in good faith, but which turn out to be too small for a hike of this type and which lead to various foot problems, including blackened and lost toenails. But these burdens, the pains, the wounds, are a metaphor for the emotional pain that she is enduring, and as she grows fitter and stronger, and as she learns to beat her immense discomfort, so she learns to live with her grief and to make peace with her suffering. This journey is a meditation on pain. It is therapy.

The book would not be as interesting if it were a trail diary alone. Rather, it is part memoir, as the author gives us the background to her life, to the decline and fall that brought her to the momentous decision to undertake such an enormous mental and physical challenge. It is also a lesson in how sometimes the toughest things can be the most important. The author meets people on the trail with whom she develops lasting bonds and learns that she has depths of resourcefulness that she did not know she had. There are also moments of peril – when her pre-packed supply box does not arrive at the ranger station on time, when she loses a boot over the side of a mountain and has to hike for several days in her camp sandals, attached to her feet by duck tape, when she meets two suspicious characters, ostensibly out to hike and fish, but who seem to take an unnatural interest in the fact she is alone, and then ruin her water purifier to boot.

This is a fascinating story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was on holiday when I read it and began fantasising about long-distance walking trails! Perhaps just the Trans-Pennine for me though – I don’t think I need anything on this scale!

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – July choice

Last month’s reading challenge book, Murder in Midsummer, a collection of short stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ruth Rendell, was the perfect bit of light-hearted escapism for me. Nothing too challenging, great entertainment. Look out for my review next week.

This month is going to be completely different! The theme is “a book to travel with”. Since travel as we know it, is pretty much off the agenda at the moment (the UK government’s new list of green and amber countries was announced last week, and, guess what, most of us are going nowhere!) we are all having to think a little laterally at the moment. Perhaps you booked your caravan in Torquay months ago, in which case congratulations, but those less organised among us, waited. I thought we were being organised by booking the ferry to Ireland back in March, assuming we would be out of this pandemic by the summer, but alas, it does not look as if Ireland will have us and our potential Delta variant, not for the moment at least, without stringent quarantine restrictions that make the trip impractical. So, it’s back to the drawing board for us and yet more months before we see family again. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat.

What does it mean to ‘travel’ anyway? Many of us will have at least a few far-flung destinations on our bucket lists, but if we look back, the trips that mean most to us are usually the ones which involved some sort of mental or emotional journey, or spiritual transformation too. So, rather than choose a book about A N Other’s fantastic trip to Paradise, that makes me too jealous to read, I’ve chosen a book which is about travel as catharsis or recovery. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published in 2012 by American writer Cheryl Strayed and was the first choice of Oprah’s book club when it was launched the same year.

Strayed wrote this memoir during a particularly difficult time in her life; her mother had died prematurely, when Cheryl was only 22, she and her husband divorced and she became a drug user. She undertook the punishing 1100 mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington as a form of therapy.

Okay, so it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, maybe even triggering for some, but I think it is possibly a journey worth taking. And I get the sense that it is ultimately uplifting.

So, I would love for you to join me in the challenge in July. Hop on over to the Facebook group and join if you would like.

Happy reading everyone, however and wherever you will be travelling this month.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.

What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.

I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!

I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.

Happy reading!

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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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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Why I’m giving up negative thinking for Lent

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Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

Sitting down with the family for our traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake feast yesterday evening, we got into the usual conversation about what each of us was giving up for Lent. We are not at all a religious family; I would describe myself as agnostic, and my children have inherited their parents’ religious scepticism. But we are interested in the bigger picture, and do not demur from Christmas gifts and Easter eggs!

In the past I have given up things like biscuits, or sweets. Scratching around for ideas this year, I suggested I might give up cake, but then remembered that I’m going away for a weekend with a couple of girlfriends shortly so that seemed a bit daft! We talked mainly about food items that might be given up, so what else was there – coffee, alcohol? Well, I don’t really consume a lot of either, but my morning coffee and a glass or two of wine now and then are small but important pleasures, so giving up those seems like reckless self-denial. I questioned my elder daughter about what the point of Lent might be for someone like me (she will be sitting her RE GCSE in a few short weeks and so is very hot on these questions at the moment). She said that for religious people the act of self-denial becomes about that person’s relationship with their god, but for the agnostics amongst us, she could see little benefit beyond it being another opportunity to make some sort of resolution, but which does not last a whole year.

I am very content with my relationship with food, and consider my diet good, on the whole. I don’t have many bad habits (I gave up Newsnight already, which was a terrible wrench, but it was a major cause of too many late nights!) and I don’t smoke, but I’m really not perfect. So, I stopped thinking about my body and started thinking about my mental habits. One of my resolutions for 2020 is to address finally my chronic self-esteem problem. I have been working through a book I discovered in my local library (one from the excellent ‘books on prescription’ selection) called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell. I have ended up buying my own copy because I realise it is one I will want to hang onto for a long time, which seems unfair to other library users, and I find myself scribbling on copious post-it notes throughout.

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem imgThe book incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy techniques into exercises for addressing, for example tendencies to be self-critical. Low self-esteem can lead to debilitating inhibition, irrational fears, in both social and professional situations, and, I believe, can truly limit one’s life experience, achievement, enjoyment in life and personal relationships. I have found it really tough working through this book, particularly the chapters which focus on understanding the causes of poor self-esteem. Thinking about my relationship with my parents, in the aftermath of my mother’s death just a few months ago has not been easy.

 

What has become clear to me already (and with this book I feel I have started on a journey that will last many months) is my tendency to think negatively, mainly although not exclusively about myself, and this has been a source of pain and of conflict at various times in my life. So, I am going to try to give up negative thinking. Even being aware of when it is happening, will probably be a revelation.

I’ll let you know at Easter how I’ve got on, although I hope I won’t then want to go on a negative thinking binge!

Will you be giving up anything for Lent?

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Book review – “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s funny how things happen sometimes; in the last week there has been a political controversy in the UK (yes, I know, another one!) about an adviser recruited to the Prime Minister’s office who got into trouble over eugenicist views he had expressed online. The individual concerned seemed a bit cross that he had been held accountable for things he said in his “past”, which he presumably he thinks should be discounted as youthful ramblings, but given that he is only 27 years old, “the past” is a pretty relative concept. I have a new insight into views about eugenics thanks to having listened last week to an excellent serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme of Dr Adam Rutherford’s new book How to Argue with a Racist. If you haven’t come across this yet, I would definitely recommend it. Adam Rutherford is a broadcaster, scientist and genetics expert and in this book he sets about exploding some of the myths around concepts of genetic inheritance. Listening to this book has actually saved me money, as I am no longer tempted to do one of those DNA testing kits! I am not a scientist but in other aspects of my professional life I am required to understand what constitutes good research and it is clear, even to a lay person, that there is no place for the broad generalisations about race, class and IQ (itself a deeply flawed concept) in social policy.

Henrietta LacksBy the strangest of coincidences, I have also just read two books which also explore issues of race and class. Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Skloot’s book is a detailed and complex account of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer. The cancer cells from her body were special and unique because they were the first ever cells that were able to not only survive outside their host, but were able to continue to thrive and reproduce, at a rapid rate. This perhaps accounts for the very aggressive nature of Henrietta’s disease. Scientists used these cells, known universally as HeLa cells, to create trillions and trillions more of them, which have been used ever since, worldwide and have been directly responsible for the development of life-saving drugs and treatments, for example for polio. The key to the story, however, is that Henrietta died without ever having been advised about or consenting to the use of her cells in this way, neither did her family, and none of her surviving relatives have been given any financial compensation. What makes the story all the more shocking, however, is that Henrietta died at a time of segregation, and almost certainly did not receive the same level of care and respect as a white woman would have done. I will write more about this book in a future post because it is a fascinating story.

The Water Dancer imgThe other book I have been reading, The Water Dancer, concerns the story of Hiram, a black slave also in Virginia in the mid-1800s. His mother was also a slave, but his father was a slave-owner, who allowed his son some elementary education after his mother’s death and then, when he was in his teens, gave him the special status of being the personal servant to his white half-brother, Maynard, the heir to their father’s estate. Hiram is also the grandchild of legendary slave Santi-Bess, one of the original transported Africans who is said to have had magical powers (Conduction), although it does not become entirely clear what these are until towards the end of the book. The first significant glimpse of this is when, whilst chaperoning Maynard on a drunken night out, the two young men somehow end up in the river. Maynard drowns but Hiram somehow emerges alive. The events which follow Maynard’s death eventually afford Hiram the opportunity to escape slavery via the Underground and he soon becomes an agent of that cause. It is not a straightforward choice for him, though, as he is forced to confront traumatic memories of his mother, who died when he was very young, and to face the many complex facets of slavery, its consequences, its victims and what it means to be free.

The book is unlike other treatments of slavery I have read (for example Washington Black, The Last Runaway) as it uses magical realism techniques as a way of differentiating between the enslaved and everyone else; Hiram, and some of the others involved in the Underground, still carry within them the songs and the stories of their ancestors, giving them access to a higher power, something which the others (the whites) have lost due to their self-brutalisation. The novel also takes a more nuanced view of the segregated society than I have seen before – within the enslaved group, there are some who are more courageous, more committed, more able and more educated than others, plus there are the ‘tasked’ (slaves) and those who have secured freedom. Within the, let’s call them the ‘whites’ group, there are the ‘quality’ (slave owners) and the ‘low’, the ‘hounds’ (slave hunters) and there are also a number of non-African-Americans involved in the movement to free the slaves. This is a more complex study of American society at the time and a more satisfying one.

The novel builds to a nail-biting denouement. It is at times brutally realistic, neither does it spare the reader’s emotions on the journey it takes us through. There are a range of good and bad endings here and that feels right. There is also a sense of no ending, the struggle to defeat racism goes on. Given the events at Downing Street this week, it is clear this is the case.

I recommend The Water Dancer. I also recommend every other book mentioned in the above review.

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Care to join me this month on my Reading Challenge?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an annual Facebook Reading Challenge, a little group where I try to push my reading boundaries. Each month I have a different theme; last month, in the spirit of the new decade, the theme was one of the biggest books from the last decade. I chose Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – I’ll be posting about THAT in the next couple of days. Phew! What a page-turner!

This month the theme is non-fiction and I was planning to take up a suggestion from a fellow Group member, when I happened to be in the bookshop and this title jumped off the shelf at me – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. It is described on the blurb as one of the classics to emerge from the Holocaust, a tribute to the triumph of hope. If, like me, you were deeply moved by the speeches delivered by Holocaust survivors at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, this does seem like a fitting time to read such a book. 2020-02-06 12.42.07

And at the moment I feel I need some encouragement that hope triumphs, given the problems we are all facing. I’m afraid the departure of the UK from the European Union, and in particular the division it has wrought upon this nation, troubles me. There does not seem to be anyone on the planet at the moment capable of leading the world out of the climate crisis, except Sir David Attenborough, and he is 93 years old. As for politics, well across the world the post-truth era seems to have well and truly embedded itself.

So, I’m hoping that Dr Frankl will help me to see the bigger picture and give me some hope back!

It’s a fairly short book, for a fairly short month, so if you’d care to join me, you would be very welcome!

 

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