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!

 

Parents and children in literature

We learned last week of the death of  Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Although he was a renowned Oxford scholar of Old and Middle English, the obituaries that I read, and the tributes I heard on the radio, tended to focus on his rather more famous father, JRR Tolkien. Not unreasonable; he was, after all, chief custodian, curator and champion of his father’s literary archive after his death in 1973 and from all accounts he was pretty well-adjusted, not seeming to have suffered any lack of self-confidence or self-esteem as a result of his eminent parent.

Christopher Tolkien
Image CNN.com

The same cannot be said of other children of famous or high-achieving parents: the two children of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes seem to have experienced great unhappiness – Nicholas hanged himself in 2009 and their daughter, Frieda, a poet and painter, moved far from her UK birthplace to become an Australian citizen and is three times divorced. I reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a couple of weeks ago and learned that Muriel and her only son became estranged, her having left her husband and child not long after she married in 1937, and Doris Lessing also left her husband and two young children to pursue her literary career. In Lessing’s case, I am not aware of what impact the separation had on the children longer term, and, I hasten to add, I make no judgement. It cannot be easy, though, growing up in the shadow of a famous, high-achieving literary parent.

It got me thinking about parent-child relationships explored in literature and I decided to write a list! Here are my top picks (in no particular order):

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  1. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – based on the author’s own difficult northern childhood
  2. Educated by Tara Westover – a memoir from the child of religious zealots
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – harrowing novel shows us how a lack of nurturing in childhood leaves its main protagonist deeply damaged
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – an awful meddling mother and impotent father cause chaos in their daughters’ lives
  5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – most of Dickens’ novels focus on family relationships but this for me is one of the darkest
  6. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – an unhealthy relationship between mother and son blights a young man’s future
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a woman suffering in the shadow of a toxic parent
  8. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy – a brilliant study of a young woman trying to escape the straitjacket of life with a domineering and emotionally manipulative parent
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – among his many other misdemeanours, Heathcliff would surely be found guilty of child cruelty today!

I’ll no doubt think of a few more in the coming days!

What are your favourites?

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Books to give as gifts this Christmas (the grown-ups!)

Last week I posted my suggestions for some fantastic books to buy for kids this Christmas. Now it’s time for adults – see how I resisted writing “adult books to give this Christmas” as a title even though it might get me many more clicks!

I love giving books to friends and family at Christmas, though it can be tricky. Sometimes it can come across as a bit patronising; if you give something highbrow to someone it’s like you are suggesting they need to raise their reading game. Secondhand books are, in my view, definitely okay to give, especially if you and the friend are on the same wavelength about recycling and reusing. Even though it’s tempting to give a book that you might like, my advice is always to try and think of what the other person would enjoy, that shows real thought. Non-fiction books, television or film adaptations are always good ideas too.

There is no shortage of books on the market at this time of year, strongly orientated towards the gift market, but here are some that have caught my eye, which you probably won’t find on the supermarket 3-for-2 shelves.

xmas 19 1Fleabag: The Scriptures by Phoebe Waller-Bridge £20.00

I would be very happy indeed to find this under my Christmas tree! Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer, comedian, all-round brilliant person, so clever, so funny and Fleabag is truly exceptional. Here are the TV show scripts with directions, plus some additional material. A bargain at twenty quid, I think.

 

 

xmas 19 2Who Am I Again? by Lenny Henry £20.00

There are very many autobiographies around at this time of the year. This one is the most worth reading, for my money. Absolute national treasure, Sir Lenny, a man worth listening to, and I doubt this is ghost-written.

 

 

xmas 19 3Wilding by Isabella Tree £9.99

Nature writing at its finest, this book was highly commended by the jury of the Wainwright Prize. This is a memoir about the author and her partner’s journey in attempting to return a farm in Sussex to nature, using free-grazing livestock to create new habitats for wildlife. This has had fantastic reviews and is just the sort of story of hope we need in these bleak times.

 

 

xmas 19 4Ness by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood £14.99

Another book I’d be very happy to see under my Christmas tree! This is a beautiful book that defies description. Part poetry, part prose, stunning illustrations, it is a modern myth that defies description. Macfarlane is one of the most original and imaginative writers today and Donwood, long-time artistic collaborator with Radiohead, has provided the artwork.

 

 

xmas 19 5Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay £9.99

From the author of the bittersweet bestselling This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay gives us another fascinating insight into the life of a hospital doctor in the NHS. At once hilarious and poignant, this book is a tribute to the NHS staff who will be working flat out over the holidays to look after the sick and injured among us.

 

 

xmas 19 6The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig £35.00

Cookery books are often a favourite to give at Christmas and this one would make a very stylish gift. It’s pricey, but it’s packed full of interesting recipes, gorgeous photos and is bound to elicit an “oooh” from anyone lucky enough to receive it.

 

 

xmas 19 7Mother: A Human Love Story by Matt Hopwood £9.99

A collection of true accounts spanning the whole gamut of what it means to mother in our world today. In these difficult and divisive times these stories remind us of the deep feminine nurturing spirit that unites us all.

 

 

 

xmas 19 8Poems to Fix a F**ked Up World by Various £9.99

And talking of difficult times this little anthology would make a perfect gift for anyone struggling with the events of 2019 and recent years more generally. The skill of the poet is to capture a moment in a succinct and accessible way, and the works in this book certainly do that.

 

 

xmas 19 9Fucking Good Manners by Simon Griffin £9.99

I hope you will forgive all the fruity language in today’s post, but I had to include this as it had me laughing out loud in the bookshop. Written with a clever wit and irony that is a delight and surely something to lift the spirits…though maybe not one for your Grandpa!

 

 

 

I would love any/all of these for Christmas, should Santa be reading this!

What books of 2019 will you be buying for loved ones this Christmas?